Notes: This story is, unfortunately, rather sympathetic to Tom Riddle, Sr. I say "unfortunately" because I don't really like him, and I'm a rather big fan of the "idea" of Merope Gaunt (as she's not exactly a developed character). I do concede that what she did to Tom was wrong, but at the same time, given Tom's behavior in that brief glimpse we get of him in HBP, I can't help thinking that if Merope had been beautiful, he wouldn't have rejected her so vehemently and wouldn't have been so traumatized by the experience (as the book implies he becomes quite a hermit afterward). Tom, to me, is a victim of both Merope's witchcraft and his own vanity.
What I wanted to do with this story was to explore something going on the 1940s, during the period in which Tom Riddle, Jr. is becoming his dark little self at Hogwarts, that the books seem to ignore—World War II. We're given the whole suggestion of the war with Grindelwald, but Rowling doesn't include the fact that, at the same time, the Muggle world would have been in great upheaval. England was under attack, and while the wizarding society in England would be dealing with Grindelwald's campaign, the rest of the country was under the direct threat and assault of Hitler. By the time of this fic, the Luftwaffe isn't bombarding the crap out of London, but they were still something to worry about. Basically, I wanted to write a Tom/Merope fic with the same oppressive, threatening atmosphere that the last books boast.
Little Hangleton, 1943
"It's a lovely day out."
Tom glanced up from his book. "It is." It was true, he supposed. The sky was bright and cloudless and it wasn't as hot as the past few days had been. His father had been able to work outside without a jacket.
His mother stared at him, playing nervously with the tie of her apron. Her gray hair seemed to glow in the sunlight. "The air would do you some good."
He forced a weak smile. "I'm fine."
She stood in the doorway a moment longer, then turned and went out into the yard. Even now, almost eighteen years after his disappearance, his parents still tried to avoid leaving him alone in the house.
They were more nervous than usual lately. The war hadn't come to their village but the fear of it gripped the entire country. In the evening after dinner they listened to the news on London, expecting to hear the city had been attacked again and was no longer standing, that a great hole had been left in its place and the Germans were marching across the Isle.
He felt guilty that he wasn't as worried about the war. It seemed faraway somehow, unreal. He was barely aware of the names that were on the nation's lips—Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt—he knew their stations and what the radio said, but he was unable to truly care. A couple of boys from the village, fresh out of school, had gone off to fight at the start of summer and his parents prayed for them over the dining room table each night.
If the war spread from London, he wouldn't leave. There was already some talk around the village of moving north. They said children from the cities were already being sent there. His parents would go, he would make them, and he would take care of their land as best he could until either the bombs or the men with guns came for him.
It was Cecilia who would put up the biggest fight. She'd want to stay with him, he knew, she'd find it morbidly romantic to stay behind and face the invading armies at his side.
Cecilia was a widow now. She'd come back to the village when her husband died. He was pleased to see the years had kept her lovely despite a dullness in her hair and skin; she was pleased to see the slight wrinkles at his eyes and mouth had only enhanced his face. These days she came round for Sunday dinner or to sit with him of an afternoon on the porch. He no longer went riding through the village. His horses had been sold. Sometimes Cecilia asked him to walk with her but he still refused; he wouldn't go off his family's property, nor had he for going on seventeen years. At first there had been the fear of seeing the girl again, that she would be waiting for him just off the road with that stick in her hand. Then the letter came—St. Mary's…regret to inform you…your wife…Merope Riddle…your wife…your wife…when the letter came his fear of her grew worse. She was a witch, a real and true witch, and released from her body God only knew what she was capable of.
The letter requested he come to make arrangements for his wife's body and to collect his newborn child, a son, he was told, slightly underweight but otherwise healthy. He wrote a terse response: Ms. Cole, I have never heard of a woman called Merope Riddle. There is no such woman. I have no wife and therefore have no son. He had anticipated a greater battle, some legal action, perhaps, but there had been none, not even a letter of apology.
Cecilia never brought up the girl, save once when made a remark about their shared widowhood. He half-suspected she didn't quite believe his story. She wasn't a stupid woman, she knew he hadn't willingly married her, but he knew the rumor that had circulated around the village when he'd first returned—he'd gone to her bed and got her with child and she'd somehow blackmailed him into marrying her. Close to the truth, but he couldn't abide the thought that so many people would believe he'd ever consented to laying with the girl. No desire for power or sex could have ever made him want her.
It was the snake that had done it. The Gaunt property was inhabited by snakes, though no other home in the village seemed to have them. Why the old man never had them eradicated he didn't now, and his father had been considering serving them some kind of notice. The snakes seemed to be pets of the boy—several times Tom had seen him in the family's dead and desiccated excuse for a garden with his hands held out to whatever poisonous worm would come to him, hissing at them delightedly. And several times he had been further unsettled when the snakes seemed to hiss in response.
The day of his formal introduction to Merope Gaunt he'd been out riding alone, free of Cecilia's affectionate embraces and the fear that the Gaunt boy might be out as well. A month before a group of oddly dressed men—foreigners, they looked like, back when the idea of foreigners coming into the village didn't immediately inspire an image of a discrete German invasion—had come to the Gaunt house and taken the boy and the old man away in shackles. Neither Tom nor his parents were informed of their crime or under what jurisdiction they had been arrested, but there was nonetheless a general relief throughout the village that they were gone. Tom had certainly not forgotten how sick he'd sometimes become after he'd met the boy on the road, how the boy would hiss to himself and several minutes afterward Tom would be forced to return home, quickly as his horse could carry him, where he would vomit for the next hour, or how once, shortly before the boy's arrest, Tom had been stricken with a terrible skin rash that had burned and bled so much that his mother feared a permanent deformity.
But the girl was harmless. She was rarely seen outside save for in the very early morning, when the old man sent her to gather what vegetables or herbs could be salvaged from the failed garden or to catch one of their diseased chickens. The old man had no friends among the villagers but they all knew of his shame in the girl and the reason, and often in Tom's house he'd heard discussions of why the family hadn't sent her away to an institution, where at least she wouldn't be living in filth. To say she was a simpleton was a grave understatement—the truth of her mental deficiency could be seen in her graceless, underdeveloped body and her awful eyes.
The day he met her Tom had begun to suspect she'd been taken away with her brother and father—or was he her grandfather? Her uncle? An elderly half-brother? The Gaunts' tradition of close interbreeding had horrified the village for years. Perhaps, he'd thought, if she hadn't been whisked off to an institution, she had simply died without them, had starved to death or had suffered some terrible accident in the house and had been unable to call for help. As he rode past their property he began considering what he might suggest his father do with it now that it was vacated. The mare saw the snake before he did. She came to an abrupt halt, snorting and startling Tom so badly he dropped the reins. He toppled over the back of the horse. The world blurred and went dark; he heard the mare whinny, he felt her hooves thunder by him. His jaw clamped shut and he tasted blood.
If he fainted it was only for a moment. When his vision cleared he found that he had fallen on a sharp rock jutting out of the dirt. Already he felt a knot forming on the side of his head.
He heard a faint rustle beside him. The snake hissed again. He looked up to see it only a few feet away from him, poised to strike. Everything his father had told him regarding what to do when confronted with a snake left him—he wanted to get up and run, to scream, but dared not, and yet if he did not move, it would have him.
He bit into his lip, struggling against the desire to run. The snake moved closer, mocking him. He realized the boy must have left it there for him, that it must be a trap, it must be, and he was going to die here on this land that wasn't worth one of his shoes—
"Stop it." A voice behind him, high and on the verge of laughter. "You know better than to hurt Mr. Riddle."
The girl emerged from the brambles, pushing away the thorny branches even as they snagged her dirty dress and cut into her bare legs. Her face was smudged with old dust. She had tied her hair back, perhaps to hide the filthy tangles, but her eyes were bright in the sun, two over-large, sickly brown circles so deformed by inbreeding that their pupils moved in opposite directions. Her ugly pale mouth was curled in a smile. In her hand she carried a small dark bottle.
The snake raised its head to her, and she knelt in front of it. With that same grotesque smile she began hissing at it, her voice rising and falling in sibilants. Like her brother's had. The snake's mouth eventually closed and, bobbing obediently, it turned away, disappearing into the brush.
He had almost fainted again, was too disoriented to fend her off or even insult her. She came to him still smiling, quivering. A litany of his name—"Are you all right, Mr. Riddle?", "There's nothing to fear, Mr. Riddle," "Please be calm, Mr. Riddle," "Too hot for riding, Mr. Riddle," "Drink this, Mr. Riddle." The bottle was at his lips before he could refuse. And the truth, he later realized, was that he wouldn't have refused. He was shaken, he was terrified, and the girl was right and it was hot, it was so hot, and the water she offered smelled so sweet and cold…
It hadn't tasted like water at all. There was a strange herbal taste—completely unfamiliar but pleasant. More than pleasant. Refreshing. Bordering on delicious. The juice that leaked out of his mouth was red. She told him it was a tea, her own recipe, and he drank until the bottle was empty and even then thirsted for more. When she offered to brew it for him again he realized he didn't mind looking at her so much as long as he had it.
The memory of what he had done with her by nightfall now nauseated him. How her face had become easier to look at, then almost pretty, then indescribably beautiful. How he'd wanted to touch her. How he'd begged her to let him sleep in her bed with her, and then his hands had wanted her, and then his lips. How only a few days later he'd used his father's accounts to buy her a ring and had given her his name. How happy he'd been when she told him about her new illness, when her belly had started to swell. And throughout it all there had been that taste in his mouth, no matter what he ate or drank. It found its way into his wine, his morning coffee, the simple potatoes she fried for his dinner when their funds were low. He tasted it on her lips, in the water with which he rinsed his teeth in the mornings.
Merope confessed everything to him. The wand that had been a source of wonder became a sword against him, emasculating him. She wept and offered him the wand to take, claiming she would give up the life of a witch if he would just stay with her. For the baby's sake, she said. And as the potion became diluted with his blood he felt the first true horror of what she was—witch, heretic, sinner, rapist. It was a rape, though he could never bring himself to accuse her of it, not even in his final words to her. What she had done to him was something of which only men were capable, something for which families had been divided and fathers had shot lovers, something that occasionally sent a man into the courtroom and a woman into a convent.
It was the village church for him as soon as he returned, there to pray for forgiveness, for his own soul, for cleansing. It seemed to him that her fingertips had left scars up and down his body, marking him as the Devil's own. At first he attempted explanations and the house was full of visitors, but then the visitors stopped coming and he began hearing his parents whispering in the other room and he knew—no one believed him. They thought he was crazy. And he fell silent. He wouldn't allow them to put him into an institution, to be trapped there by pills and injections and electric shocks and whatever concoctions they could mix, a prisoner as he had been in the Gaunts' house. He fell silent and never spoke of it again.
Tom closed the book, sliding a scrap of paper between its pages to keep his place, and folded his hands. His eyes closed. A nap would be nice, he thought. Ever since he'd come home and never left he'd taken a liking to afternoon naps, curling up on the sofa in the sunlight that rolled in through the windows, illuminating all the dust in the room. At night there was the danger of her eyes finding him again as he slept, of dreaming of her horrible face and hands and her high, childish giggle whenever she entertained him with her wand. But in the afternoon she was dead, she had never existed, and he could dream of a life ignorant of her—the thundering of his horse under him, the cool of the brook he used to visit, Celia's face, laughing and flushed in the sun. In the afternoon there was no war, no German planes flying over the cities, no rumors of mass disappearances in the East. There was only the threat of happiness.
He slept, and for a short while, was innocent again.
His mother woke him. The living room was almost dark; a filmy blue dusk crept in through the windows, past the white curtains. There was a pleasant smell in the air, a warm smell—bread baking, boiled potatoes, braised meat. His mother bent over him, stroking his face. He shied away from her, startled. Being touched frightened him, even when the hands were his mother's. It was a grief to her and Celia.
"Wake up, darling," she breathed softly, attempting to smile for him. "Supper's ready."
He rose slowly from the sofa. He had slept in an odd position and his back was sore. He was only thirty-five, but already he felt like an old man.
Dinner was relatively pleasant. There was very little talking. They rarely ever spoke to him in the evenings, especially if he had been sleeping. He had never told them that it was only when slept that he was happy but they seemed to know it. Parental instinct, perhaps. And the sooner they spoke, the sooner they brought about a conversation rooted outside his dreams, the sooner he would be returned to his living hell. They commented on the food, on the evening weather, and occasionally on their son's pallor, but nothing more.
It was after dinner, when they had gathered in the living room, his father dozing next to the radio that he wouldn't turn on until after Tom had gone to bed, his mother curled tightly on the sofa with her knitting, while Tom stared at his book, reading another word every few minutes, that the knock came, a firm sound at the front door. His mother jumped. His father let out a startled snore. No one needed say what they all thought. No one ever visited their home this late in the evening for a social visit save for Celia, and she always used the side door through the garden. If someone were at the front door now it must be an emergency, an accident, a telegram about a son sent to fight Hitler.
The knock again, oddly patient and resounding. His father didn't wake.
"Would you, Tom?" his mother asked, looking ready to set aside her knitting if he refused.
He nodded and rose from his chair. He adjusted his shirt collar as he went to the door, not wanting a neighbor to see him disheveled and to further infer lunacy from it. Just as he touched the doorknob it seemed as if the lock were turning itself, and the door opened in his grasp.
"May I help y—" His voice caught in his throat. He stepped away from the door, his hand fluttering limply to side like burnt paper.
"Mr. Riddle? Mr. Tom Riddle?"
Tom looked through the doorway at himself. There in the shadow of the evening stood his very mirror, his exact replica. But not himself, not truly. The figure beyond the doorway as Tom Riddle many years younger—tall, rigid, handsome. There was the arrogant smile, there were the bright, intelligent eyes, there was the dark hair without a strand of gray. The younger Riddle held something in his hand, something that at once looked familiar and then disappeared into his coat. On his hand he wore a large, dark ring.
"Are you Mr. Tom Riddle?" the boy persisted. His smile widened.
"May I come in?"
[Notes: So we all know how this incident turns out. I thought it would be more ominous to end it there instead of showing the actual murders, so one can imagine them as being as quick or as brutal as they see fit. The ring, of course, is about to become a Horcrux.