Warnings: Incest, Mild Femmeslash, an awful lot of dubious content, questionable sex, manipulation, and general creepiness. You've been warned.
Title and scene break lines are from "The Beginning is the End is the Beginning" by Smashing Pumpkins.

of recoil and grace

is it bright where you are?

Somewhere, a bell is ringing.

She is young, and thinks that she ought to feel invincible, like all teenagers do because all teenagers are supposed to think that they will be young forever. She does not feel invincible. She feels a lot of things right now - fear, worry, anger, hope - but mostly, she just feels alone. Father says that she is not to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, because they let Mudbloods in. She doesn't mind very much because the boys at school ignored her and the girls refused to be associated with her.

Morfin tells her that they are jealous, but what does Morfin know of humanity? All Morfin believes in are snakes and monsters, and himself, but the distinction between the three is blurred in her mind.

She hates snakes, slithering and lithe and venomous, deadly. Father says they're beautiful, Morfin says they're fantastic. Mother even loved the creatures, but then Mother was just as bad as the rest of them, just as ugly as Merope and cruel as Father and crazy as Morfin. Mother was a Gaunt, through and through.

People talk about motherly love, but Merope doesn't understand love. Hate, she recognizes, even condones. Insanity she is intimate with, desire she has experienced, fury, terror, agony - these she knows well. But love escapes her.

She is a romantic at heart, she thinks. If she could only believe in romance.

have the people changed?

There is a church not far up the street. A big, beautiful, Muggle place with cold stone and warm light and the smell of incense and piety. She sneaks into it one dark, cloudy morning, while Father thinks she is out buying food, one of the rare occasions she is allowed out of the house - the ugly, the disgusting, the filthy Merope, the only one so stupid and low enough to deal with Muggles.

She sneaks into the church with the bells tolling seven o'clock, and it is empty except for a woman in dark clothes who is cleaning an altar. She glances up and then quickly away, a reaction Merope is familiar with, used to, understands. Merope is ugly, and unclean, and knows well what people see when they look at her.

From somewhere above her, a man is chanting in some foreign language. She sits beneath a towering stained-glass window and closes her eyes. This is not a place for a girl like her, a monster that dragged itself out of the bushes to taste the beauty others take for granted. She understands monsters, she thinks. The growling, hissing, spitting monsters that haunt the nightmares of children - they growl and hiss and spit and haunt because that's all they are capable of doing, because that's how they were born.

They don't do it because they want to, they do it because they don't know anything else. They are stupid and foul, and when you're born stupid and foul, there are only so many things you can do in life. You can be the monster who stalks people in the night, or you can be miserable, on the farthest fringes of a society that won't ever accept you. You can be evil and have people hate you, or you can be good and have people hate you for that, too.

At least when you choose to be evil, you can convince yourself that you had a choice at all, and that this is for the best. When you try to be good, all you get is pain.

Merope understands monsters, she thinks, even though she isn't one of them, not really. She is the one on the fringe, trying to help and failing. She wishes with everything that she is that she could simply turn away and be like her brother, but there is something so repulsive about Morfin that she can't bear to look at him. The idea of choosing to be like him kills her, so she tries to be different, as far removed from him as possible, but that isn't very far for a girl like her.

The problem is, in this light, she doesn't feel evil. The feeble sunlight through the window is staining her hair blues and reds and purples, and she is almost alone in this big, beautiful, old place, and for the first time in her life, she really feels like she is capable of anything. She thinks about running away from home, about leaving Morfin and Father behind, maybe changing her name, going to someone better with magic than she, and having her appearance changed. She thinks about being beautiful.

And then she picks up her bags and runs out of the church, as fast as she can, because thinking like that will only hurt her, later.

does it make you happy you're so strange?

Her face has never really bothered her, not that much. She got used to it a long time ago and set about finding other things to be good at, like cooking and sewing and brewing potions. They weren't incredibly useful skills, but they were better than nothing, and they were good enough to warrant a place at the table and a bed to sleep in. As a child, she had vague ideas of opening up a bed and breakfast and welcoming people of all sorts - witch, hag, muggle, vampire - to come and share her rooms and her food and her hospitality.

She would show all of them what a fantastic host she could be. People would come from miles away just to taste her soup and buy her embroidery and sample her potions. And she would make all sorts of things for them - lovely robes in bright, beautiful colors, potions for dreamless sleep and for beauty and for love, foods that would make even the best of chefs weep. And she would be so good at her job that people would look past her face and maybe a handsome, misunderstood, lonely man would wander in and eat her food and wear her clothes and fall madly in love with the beauty behind the mask.

But every time she lets this fantasy take over, it gets stripped away again, because then she turns and Morfin is grinning at her with another dead snake and Father is yelling at her, words she pretends she doesn't understand because it's so much easier to play the fool.

She understands fear, and hate, and nothing else.

and in your darkest hour

She was thirteen and seven months when she - technically, according to all of the books and manuscripts and oral tradition - became a woman. Now, she is seventeen and Father has decided that she is unfit to marry anyone - after all, who would want to marry ugly Merope Gaunt, the freak in the woods? - but still, the line must continue. Father decides a lot of things that would seem repulsive and horrifying to an outsider, but she is so desensitized to his ramblings by now that even this barely registers in her mind.

She loses her virginity to her brother, and thinks that she ought to feel terribly disgusted. But it's easy to superimpose handsome Tom Riddle's face over her grinning maniac of a brother, and sleeping with Tom Riddle would be wonderful, right? She turns her head and shudders and pretends that she is not here, or that this is not happening.

Father says the line must continue. As far as she is concerned, the Gaunts can die out for good, and the world would be a better place. Morfin either doesn't know or doesn't care that this is his sister, and Father approves of keeping the Gaunt line fantastically clean, just the way it should be, and all Merope can think is that Tom Riddle surely won't want her now.

Technically, Father's plan works, and she misses her next period. What Father hadn't prepared for was Merope's proficiency with potions, which gets rid of the problem quickly and cleanly. It's worth it, she decides, to have to endure the shame all over again, because at least only she knows what goes on behind closed doors. If she turns up pregnant, others will put the pieces together and then -

Then everyone will know. Would they pity her, she wonders, or simply ostracize her more?

They see a monster. She looks in the mirror and agrees.

i hold secrets flame

"Hello," a bright, happy voice says from behind her. "You must be the Gaunt girl, Marie, is it? I've heard about you."

It's Cecilia. Cecilia, Cecilia, Cecilia. The girl who has everything. What does she want?

"It's Merope," she replies softly. "Merope, like the star."

"Meh-row-pee," Cecilia repeats, trying the name out, "It's very pretty. Greek, yes?" Merope nods. "Hmm. Well, you'll never catch anyone's eye in that dress, you know. Why don't you come with me and I'll get you some pretty clothes, hmm?"

She starts, and feels gratified and accepted, but then suspicious. Things are changing in the Gaunt household. She's taken her potion three times so far in the past two years, and Father is getting frustrated. Morfin has come under suspicion for attacking Muggles, and it took all of her willpower not to throw herself on the mercy of the Ministry man and beg him to take her away from this place.

She had it all planned out. She would go with him and work as a housekeeper in his home, or a friends' home, or, or anywhere, just to get by, to make it out of this place where her brother slathers over her breasts and her father throws her around. And now Cecilia, beautiful, perfect Cecilia, is offering to buy her pretty clothes.

"Why?" she whispers, frightened to look up, afraid of seeing disgust, or worse, pity, in the other woman's eyes.

"You look awfully sad, you know that? I just... I thought you might like a new dress or something, to cheer you up." She sounds unsure, like this may have been a mistake, and Merope is just about to say yes of course I'd love to go shopping with you when Tom shows up and takes Cecilia by the hand and asks her what she's doing with this creature. And then Cecilia vanishes with Tom Riddle in a flurry of apologies and promises to see her again sometime. And all of Merope's hope is gone, and she hates Cecilia again.

Father slaps her when she comes home, and tells her never to leave the house again.

That night, in the sticky heat of her room, she looks up a love potion.

we can watch the world devoured in its pain

She sneaks away from home three nights later, pale pink potion cupped in her palm. She has no concrete plan, but anything that takes her out of the house is intrinsically good, so she goes. The potion is not particularly strong, but should suffice, for now. It smells of pomade and cologne, and a faint whiff of a flowery, expensive perfume.

Cecilia claims to be delighted to see her, but her smile doesn't reach her eyes. Merope is not bothered.

Later, she slips the empty vial into her pocket as Cecilia kisses her, claiming that she is lovely, really beautiful underneath the dirt and bruises and misery. Merope, she says, rolling the name off her tongue, Merope the beautiful, Merope the star. She wants to believe it, really honestly does, even though she knows that it's a liquid love, as fake as Cecilia's smile when she greeted her at this inn. But it sounds so wonderful, so perfect.

A stronger potion than this, she thinks, tugging at the strings of the other girl's dress, a stronger potion than this and maybe even perfect Thomas William Riddle will fall for her. She is drunk on success and wine and the scent of Cecilia's perfume. Expensive and exotic, and she can taste her own love potion on her tongue.

She loves herself, and Cecilia, tonight. The other girl is as lovely as Merope is ugly, and for the first time in her life, she truly doesn't notice her own inadequacy. The candlelight is low, the inn is empty, and the wine is sweet. There is nothing wrong, not to Merope, with the way her fingers slide over and into Cecilia, nor with the blank look in her eyes. After Morfin, after Father, after drinking three potions and hiding silent for nineteen years, nothing seems wrong to Merope, nothing damning in this caress.

It is only Cecilia who will suffer if she is found out. Merope has nothing to lose.

She walks home in a light mist, past the old church bells tolling two in the morning, and laughs. Maybe Tom will never find out. Maybe he won't have the chance to.

is it bright -

Merope hears the rumors and shrugs them off, cooking a much stronger love potion in the secluded bathroom. She considers trying this one out on the poor girl, but then that was simply an experiment - Tom Riddle is the prize. Rumors fly, but all people concerned deny seeing anything (Merope has a strong suspicion that someone paid off the bartender, because she knows he saw them).

Her father doesn't get the chance to question her, before the Ministry man returns and takes them off to Azkaban. She stands at the doorway and watches them go for a moment, just to make sure they are really gone for good, and then she goes back to her cauldron. Two days later, Tom Riddle appears at her door, nervous, and asks her if she knows anything about these rumors going around about her and Cecilia.

"Don't tell me you believe them," she says softly, handing him a cup of tea, "They're only rumors, Mr. Riddle."

In an hour, they are in the same bed she shared with Morfin, and he is saying the same things Cecilia did - Merope, beautiful Merope, and she really does believe them this time. His voice is husky with desire, his fingers are rough, and he tastes of tea and lies. She leans close and whispers in his ear, "Run away with me, Tom."

Leave beautiful, broken Cecilia behind. After all, she hisses, you don't want to tarnish your good name with a girl like that, do you?

She is evil, she realizes, and she is free.

in your darkest hour

She is gratified the next time she slips into Little Hangleton and hears all the people talking about that bewitching Merope Gaunt.

"The girl was hideous," a woman in a red shawl says loudly from the bar, "I can't understand why everyone just fell all over her."

The bartender recognizes her from the far corner, where she is apparently admiring a painting, but he only looks away and doesn't mention anything. She wonders how much his silence cost. Quite a pretty penny, she imagines. The painting is an old one, the sort of Renaissance-style Muggle religious piece that wouldn't be out of place in a church, with angels and a fantastically beautiful woman holding a fat baby, the white robe sliding off of her shoulder but somehow managing to hide her breast.

It's a cheap imitation of something famous, but lovely all the same.

Tom is waiting at home for her.

The church bells toll noon. She shudders, remembering the young girl who sat underneath the stained-glass window and felt beautiful.

She leaves the past behind and goes back to Tom's arms. He still tastes of lies.

we can watch the world

She cannot remove the image of Morfin's grinning, maniacal face from her mind. It appears over Tom's when he's on top of her, haunts her nightmares like a monster from her childhood. Her brother, her insane, disgusting, horrifying brother is everywhere, holding dead snakes and shoving his fingers inside of her and kissing her neck tenderly.

She sees his face in the cauldron full of Amortentia, and she shrieks and throws it out like she's been burned. Tom puts his arms around her and asks her what's wrong and she can't explain to him that it's everything, it's Morfin, it's a love potion, it's, it's -

It's that her period is late. She knows by heart how to end this now and keep her happy life with Tom Riddle, but Morfin's face is everywhere, taunting her with the monster she's become - she's like him now, and she remembers thinking that being like Morfin was the worst curse she could possibly suffer and it's true, it's absolutely true because she's like him now, she's -

Merope understands monsters. They do what they have to do, because they were born to it, because the world doesn't accept people like them, because they can't do anything else. She had no choice, she thinks, letting Tom's hands slide over her body for what she's quite sure will be the last time. She did what she had to do, because the world was never going to like her on her own merit, so all she had were lies and cruelty and wine laced with love.

He kisses her and hisses in her ear like Morfin and it takes all of her willpower not to run from him, too.

She hates her family, still torturing her, even now that they were gone. She hates Father for his talk of blood purity and Morfin for his obsessions and her mother for even breeding in the first place, and herself for being such a coward -

She doesn't understand love. Hatred, anger, worry, fear, insanity - but not love. She is a romantic, deep down, thinking that somewhere in his heart, Tom must love her, but she doesn't believe in romance, not really. She believes in herself, and in potions. She believes that she would have made an excellent housekeeper for the Ministry man. She believes that the three babies her brother could have had are much better off dead.

But she doesn't believe Tom when he tells her she's beautiful. And so her manufactured love is worthless, in the end.

does it make you happy?

He runs, as she knew he would. Runs back home to his parents, to the news that lovely Cecilia ran off to be a nun in some convent in France, to the rumors still flying about that curious Merope Gaunt. He will never be able to escape her influence, and there is some comfort in that.

She did not tell him that she is pregnant. She had the opportunity, and she is sure that he would have stayed with her had he known, simply because Tom is respectable and that's what respectable gentlemen do, but he doesn't love her and if he can't lie and think she's lovely then maybe she doesn't love him after all.

She was always in love with a fantasy of him, with the idea of a happy family and an adoring husband who loves her cooking and misses her when she's gone, but that was never Tom Riddle. At least she can be satisfied that no one will want him now that he's sullied himself with her.

It isn't until she realizes just how little money she has that she begins to panic. She decides to move to London, in the vague hope that she will be able to find a job somewhere there, and wonders why she doesn't get rid of this problem the way she did the past three. The train she takes is cold and empty, an early morning train bound for the city. She sits by the window and thinks that maybe she is a romantic, after all.

The baby - she doesn't care for babies. She's seen them a few times in passing, and they disgust her. They are ugly and fat and disgusting. She doesn't believe in love, cannot understand this rush of motherly affection she's supposed to feel when she sees them. But at the same time, she intends to raise this one.

She lays a hand over her abdomen, almost protectively. There isn't any outward indication of pregnancy yet, but she feels fragile, and strangely, not alone. There's a faint comfort in knowing that there is something inside of her other than herself.

The train rattles on the track and shakes her out of her reverie. She will love this baby, she thinks. And it will love her back, without the aid of potions and secrets. She will have a child who will think the world of her and she'll tell him that his father went off to war and never came back and that's why he's gone, and this baby, this baby will change everything.

She doesn't realize she's crying until the conductor asks her what's wrong.

"Nothing," she whispers, "Only, my husband was killed in the war."

The conductor gives her sympathy and tells her that he won't charge her for the train ride. Just as well, she thinks, because she didn't have the money anyway.

- secrets flame

The apartment is ratty and old and disgusting, even worse than the miserable Gaunt house, but blessedly empty. It costs an awful lot per month to rent, but she sold all of her potions ingredients and her cauldron and her scales, and the money should last her at least a few months, until she can settle into a job and start working for herself.

But winter is coming, and no one wants to hire a 20-year-old woman with no skills and a baby on the way. She burns newspapers for heat and eats whatever she can get her hands on, wondering when, if ever, this will end.

Slowly, she realizes that this baby will not love her. Merope is an unlovable creature, and she's known this her entire life. It bothers her now, more than it should, more than it ever has before, because she let herself believe in the baby. Like Cecilia's perfume and Tom's kisses, she desperately believed that it could be true, even though she knew from the very beginning that it couldn't, ever. She wishes now that she'd taken the potion. She wishes now that she hadn't thrown out the cauldron of Amortentia.

She wishes a lot of things, but mostly she hopes that the baby is stillborn, or else that it kills her. She's bitter, but she'd rather die than face her own failures again. She's tired of losing. Tired of being ugly Merope, tired of lying, tired of heaving around seven pounds of child.

She recalls the texture of Cecilia's skin and Tom's hair. They were beautiful, much too beautiful to be allowed, much too perfect to go through life so untarnished, so untainted. She was necessary, she thinks, in their lives, and then she's tired of necessity, too. Her life has been one long string of necessities.

She throws her locket - the only thing she took with her from the Gaunt house, except for the dress on her back - out the window of the grimy apartment. It leaves a neat hole, small and round, with tiny cracks surrounding it, like some kind of snowflake. And all of a sudden, Merope must leave this place. She can't explain why, only it's as confining as the home she grew up in and she hasn't the money to pay for it and what does it matter anyway if she has a place to live in or not? She isn't going to make it out of this pregnancy alive, and if she does, she'll simply end it herself.

There are plenty of orphanages around London.

It sounds awfully tragic, even to her own ears, but she cannot bring herself to care. Eight months pregnant, she shuffles out of the apartment and into the biting late November wind, clutching an inadequate coat around her shoulders. She scoops the locket out of the snow and heads for Knockturn Alley.

is it bright where you are?

She sells the Great Salazar Slytherin's Locket for the first price the man throws out, desperate to be rid of it and desperate for money, and goes on to find a doorstep to sleep on or an inn at which she can buy food. She wanders into a shoddy-looking pub and orders a full meal, using up all ten of the galleons she got for the locket. She regrets nothing.

What she doesn't eat now, she carefully wraps in napkins and keeps for later, then walks purposefully out of the pub and finds a comfortably lonely stretch of pavement, and she sits, watching the sun sink behind the buildings and go out. It feels like the very end, she thinks, of everything. It feels as though the sun will never rise again and, for right now, she doesn't want it to. The darkness is safe.

Others are worried about imps and demons hiding in the corners and dark places of the city, but she knows all of them personally, and they can't hurt her anymore than they already have. Let them come, Merope thinks, let all the monsters come for me. And she lays back and stares up at the ink-black expanse of the night, cloudy and shadowed, and she dreams. All of the ogres and trolls and goblins wear Morfin's face and the knight in shining armor looks like Thomas Riddle, come back to save the damsel in distress, who he secretly loved from the beginning. She plants a kiss on the lips of the nearest imp and sends the knight back to his own princess.

Damnation is beautiful, so heart-wrenchingly lovely that it makes her ache.

In the darkness, surrounded by demons and monsters and memories, Merope smiles.