A/N: Really struggled with a title for this one, so you'll have to excuse it. This is my own personal canon and Tom Riddle Jr grew up to be a lovely young man.
Merope ducked, and the plate hit the wall, shattering. Pieces of clay ricocheted off of the stone wall, one particularly sharp piece leaving a large gash on her forehead. She shrieked, her face crumpling as tears began to well in her eyes. She pressed her sleeve to the cut, trying to stem the blood flow, and her father raised his wand again.
Fleeing from the house, she tripped over the rocky path that ran between the hedgerows. Merope fell, cutting her knee and ripping her flimsy grey dress in the process. She scrambled to her feet, and set off again, hands brushing against the hedges, ready to grab on in case she fell again.
Eventually she reached the main track that led down to the village, and could no longer hear her father's shouting. She was probably safe here until he calmed down, she decided. He would have to have a very good reason to do magic in front of the muggles, and after Morfin's latest visit from the Ministry he was a little more cautious about where he waved his wand.
Sitting down on the trunk of a fallen tree, she buried her head in her arms and sobbed, the sleeve of her dress growing steadily redder as the blood seeped out from the wound on her head.
Merope didn't look up when she heard the sound of trotting hooves on the track, nor did she pay any attention when the noise suddenly stopped.
"Are you all right?"
She looked up, just in case the owner of the voice was talking to her.
"Good Lord, what's happened to you?" he jumped down from his white horse and approached.
Merope instinctively recoiled, getting to her feet and stumbling backwards towards the hedgerows.
"It's all right," the man said, "I won't hurt you. Come along, I'll take you to the doctor."
Merope sidled along the edge of the hedge, looking furtively around in case her father saw her with a muggle. She didn't know what a doctor was, but she was sure she'd be in trouble if she went with him.
"Who did this to you?" he asked, stopping a few feet away from her, realising she was scared. "It's all right, you can tell me."
Merope reached the gap in the hedgerow, and disappeared, leaving the stranger behind.
It was the first time any act of kindness had ever been bestowed on Merope Gaunt, and so she fell in love.
Merope pulled aside a few leaves, reaching her bony hand into the bush to relieve it of four of its nicest looking blackberries. She placed them in her basket, wiping her stained hands on her dress, leaving patches of purple on the grey fabric.
She continued further along the lane, pausing for a moment to untangle her ratty dark hair from one of the branches.
"They look nice – are you going to make a pie with them?"
Merope gasped and turned around, dropping the berries that were in her hand. They splatted on the floor.
"I'm sorry," the man said, "I didn't mean to scare you. I just saw you and wanted to check that you were all right, after what happened last week."
Merope glanced back to the house, though it seemed they were sufficiently shielded by the tall hedgerows. She turned back to the man and it was the first time she had managed to get a good look at him; their previous encounter had been blurred by tears and panic.
He was tall and handsome, with dark hair that was neatly combed to one side. There was a slight sheen of sweat on his brow, brought on by the afternoon sun, burning high in the sky. He was well dressed, though casual – the pale blue sleeves of his shirt were rolled up to his elbows, the top few buttons undone revealing a triangle of pale chest.
His hands were shoved deep in the pockets of his cream coloured trousers, his blue eyes gazing at her apologetically.
"Your head seems to have healed up at any rate," he said, extracting a hand from his pocket and gently running his thumb across the perfectly smooth, if a little grubby, patch of skin that had last week been split and bleeding.
Merope leaned away from the touch instinctively, though relished the feeling of human contact that did not leave her in pain. He dropped his hand, and she missed the touch already.
"That's a pretty necklace," he said, nodding towards the fat golden locket that hung around her throat.
Merope reached up to clasp it in her hands, worried that he was going to steal it. Her father would kill both of them if the locket ever left her neck.
"I...this might sound rude," he started, and Merope stepped back, not wanting to hear him be rude. He was perfect, and she didn't want that to be spoiled. "Are you –" he stammered, "are you able to talk? It's just, I haven't heard you utter a word and I wondered whether you weren't replying because you can't, rather than just not wanting to."
Merope looked at him, her mouth sealed, grey eyes bulging from their sockets. She wanted to talk to him. She wanted to run away with him and talk for hours and hours and hours, but she knew he would not have her. He just felt sorry for her, and she was quite aware that that didn't mean he actually liked her.
She dropped her basket, whirling round to see her father lurching down the lane, wand in his hand, blackened teeth bared.
"You! You foul piece of filth! Get away from her! Don't you –"
"Run," Merope whispered, her legs frozen as her father neared.
"No, not if he's going to –"
He followed instructions, sprinting down the track towards the village.
Marvolo grabbed Merope by her hair and dragged her back to the house, though she wasn't worried. The man – she didn't even know his name – was out of harm's way, and she was more than happy to take all of her father's frustrations in his place.
She leaned out of the window, inhaling the balmy night air into her lungs. Her work was done for the day – no more cooking or cleaning, only resting. Her father was downstairs while Morfin skulked in the garden, looking for snakes to harass.
Merope hoped that one day one of them would bite him, though instantly retracted the thought – it was an awful thing to consider, and she should never wish any harm upon her brother.
She pulled a brush through her hair, though it didn't make too much of a difference; several of the bristles were missing. Still, it was better than leaving her hair to become more and more tangled until it became an untameable mess. Though her brother and father took no care in their appearance, Merope wished to make the best of what she had.
She was not a pretty girl, she had accepted that long ago when the other girls at Hogwarts had bullied her. Her dark hair was always a little tangled and a little greasy, and her sallow skin emitted no healthy glow. She was skinny – not slim, slim girls looked pretty, skinny girls just looked ill, and her features were all a little too big for her face. Her eyes were a dull grey colour, just like her brother and father's, not a pretty twinkling blue, vivid green or a warm and luscious brown.
She often wished she had blue eyes. She wished she had something that was colourful about her appearance. Even her clothes were always grey – they had once been white but no matter how many cleaning charms she placed upon them, they never quite got back to their former glory.
Merope sat down on the little stool by the window, resting her arms and chin on the sill, staring out blankly across the valley, wondering what all the people in their little cottages with warm yellow lights glowing in the windows were up to.
Whatever they were doing, she hoped they were happier than she was. She didn't like the idea of anyone being as unhappy as her. It was an awful way to be.
She heard the faint clip clopping of hooves and sat up straight, craning her neck so she could see who was coming down the track at this hour. She hoped it was him.
Merope got her wish. Just visible above the hedges she could see his head, bobbing up and down as his horse trotted past. She sighed, memorising the way the moonlight caught his face, lighting up his high cheekbones and perfectly straight nose.
"What are you looking at?" Morfin hissed.
Merope disappeared from the window, and a few minutes later she heard a yell. She rushed over, leaning far out of the window so she could see where the noise had come from, but all she saw was Morfin lumbering back into the front garden, a wide toothless grin on his face as he fiddled with the end of his wand.
"You won't like the way he looks now. Uglier than a grindylow now. Even uglier than you."
Tears welled in her eyes and she dropped to the floor as they began to trickle down her cheeks. She pulled her blanket close to her and wrapped it around her body tightly. Leaning her head against her knees, Merope cried silently, not wanting to disturb her father or let Morfin know how upset she was.
He had hurt him.
She hoped Morfin got hurt, and now she did not feel awful for thinking that at all.
"Here you are sweetheart," Tom, the innkeeper, brushed a small pile of sickles off of the bar and into his hand, passing them to Merope. Her eyes lit up and she emptied them into her money bag before she stowed it in her robes. "Don't spend it all at once, will you?"
Merope smiled and shook her head.
"I'll see you in the morning," he smiled warmly at her and she headed over to the back door of the Leaky Cauldron, exiting out onto Diagon Alley.
She went straight into Madame Malkin's, her fingers trembling in excitement as her eys took in the piles upon piles of new robes.
"What can I do for you my love?" a kind looking, middle aged woman approached.
Merope opened her mouth, not sure what to say. Finally a suitable sentence formed in her head and she managed to say it in a timid voice. "I'd like a dress."
"What sort?" the woman asked, taking her gently by the arm and leading her over to the other side of the shop, where rows upon rows of dresses were hanging neatly.
"A colourful one," Merope said, after careful consideration.
Madame Malkin nodded. "All right my love, we'll get you sorted."
"I don't have much money," Merope told her, not wanting to be shown a dress that was perfect on all counts, except for the price. "I've got four sickles, is that enough for anything?"
"We've got a second hand range, depending what you're after, but we've also got some simple styles that are brand new."
Merope shrugged. "I don't mind, I just want to look pretty."
"I think we can manage that," Madame Malkin replied, winking at her.
Merope decided she liked Madame Malkin, and after an hour, Merope had not one but two dresses. After she had found out that Merope was a maid in the Leaky Cauldron, Madame Malkin had offered her the second in exchange for Merope coming in each Sunday for the next three weeks to give the shop a good clean, and if she came each Sunday after that, she would be paid three knuts an hour.
Merope had, of course jumped at the chance and left the shop with a wide smile on her face.
She arrived home and immediately ran upstairs to try on her favourite of the two dresses – a pretty blue one just like the colour of his eyes. She twirled in front of the mirror, watching excitedly as the hem swirled around her legs.
She took it off, replacing it with her black maid's dress. She would save her new dresses for best, for when he was around, and she certainly did not want to dirty them up whilst she made dinner.
Arriving in the kitchen, she waved her wand and a couple of potatoes began to peel themselves, the skins landing in the bin neatly. Merope smiled contentedly as she looked around at the empty, spotless house. It had been two weeks since the Ministry had taken her father and brother away and she was already happier than she could ever remember.
Still, she wished he was sitting at the little wooden table, reading a newspaper, smiling at her, talking to her, telling her he loved her.
Merope hadn't seen him since the night Morfin had hexed him, and even though the Ministry had wiped his memory, she wondered whether he was avoiding the house because of what had happened. Perhaps instinct made him take the long way into the village, or perhaps he simply hadn't had reason to pass her home.
She was happy though, and safe, and she had a job and was earning her own money and she could look at whoever she pleased. It was greedy to want anything more than that.
It didn't stop her however, and every night when she climbed into bed (she had cleaned up her father's and claimed it as her own) she would dream of him until she fell into a contented sleep.
She sung softly to herself, as she walked back up to the house, a loaf of bread and a slice of lemon cake in her basket (it was her money she was spending, and if she wanted to buy cake then that was up to her). She twirled on her tip toes, like a ballerina, giggling as her dress fanned out around her.
Merope smiled as she saw a white horse in the distance. It was his horse, and he was sitting on it. She slowed her walk, fearing that she would reach the gap in the hedges too soon and wouldn't get a chance to talk to him – yes, she was going to talk this time. Morfin and her father were far away, locked in Azkaban.
They couldn't hurt him, and so she could talk to him.
When he saw her he stopped, and got down from his horse, a smile on his face. "You look happier."
"I am," Merope said.
"Good," he said, "I've seen you so many times and I still don't know what your name is."
"Merope," she answered, very pleased with her brain for managing to make words, and even more pleased with her mouth for managing to speak them in a clear voice.
"That's...different," he said.
"You mean it's ugly," she said, her face falling. "I know it is, but I can't help it."
"No!" he said quickly, his cheeks tinged pink with embarrassment. "I just meant that it's unusual, and it is, but that doesn't stop it from being pretty. I rather like it, actually."
Merope didn't believe him, but smiled nonetheless. "What's your name?"
"Tom," he answered. "Rather ordinary compared to yours, isn't it?"
"I like it," she said.
Tom. She repeated the name in her head. Of course it was Tom. No other name would have suited him. Tom was a name for handsome men, and he was certainly one of those.
"The man I work for is named Tom," she said, though she had no idea why he'd be interested.
"Really?" he sounded interested; Merope couldn't imagine for the life of her why. "Where do you work?"
"At a pub. I clean the rooms and do some cooking as well."
"Do you like it?" Tom asked.
Merope nodded. "Tom's very nice." She wondered if everybody named Tom was nice.
"I'm glad. Where's your father?" he asked, peering through the gap in the hedges, clearly worried he was going to be chased once more. Apparently the Ministry men hadn't wiped his mind of that.
"In prison," Merope said brightly, "with my brother."
"And you're happy now?" he asked.
"Yes," she said, then frowned. "No, that's an awful thing to say...I'm not happy, no."
"But you're safe?"
"Good. I've spent lots of time worrying about you, in that house," he cast another look towards the path that led to her home.
"I'm all right," Merope told him. "I'm always all right."
He looked at her sadly and touched her on the chin briefly, a half smile curving his lips a little. "That's a pretty dress," he said, forcing the conversation onwards.
"Thank you," Merope said with a smile. "I bought it with my first week's wages, and I've bought a few more since but I'm going to stop now so I can save my money and move out before father gets out of prison."
Tom nodded, "that sounds like a good idea."
Merope smiled. Frankly, she found herself unable to do anything else when he was around.
"If it doesn't go according to plan or he gets back sooner than you think, my house is the big one, over on the hill. You're welcome at any time."
"Really?" she asked, her eyes prickling with tears.
"Of course," he said, straightening his back, tilting his chin up a little. "I won't have you left alone with him, not after what I've seen."
"Merlin, you're so kind..." Merope whispered.
"Merlin?" he asked, all seriousness dissolving as an amused smile appeared on his face.
"I..." Merope didn't know what to say. She had already said to much. "I need to go."
She disappeared through the gap in the hedges, hurrying along the rocky path.
If Tom ever found out that she was a witch, he'd never speak to her ever again.
Merope didn't want that, she didn't want that at all.
"Don't stop there!" Merope pleaded, her grey eyes wide.
Tom smiled and set the book down on the grass. "The sun's setting, I'll read you some more next weekend."
Merope's face fell and she wondered whether there was a charm that could make the sun go back up in the sky again. Even if there was, it was probably beyond her capabilities.
"Besides," Tom said, "that daisy chain of yours is about half a mile long, there'll be no flowers left if I carry on."
Merope looked down at the daisy chain in her hands. It was rather long, but she thought half a mile was a bit of an exaggeration. She spread her fingers, frowning at the green stains on the tips. She would have to concentrate extra hard when she was walking home, she didn't want to touch her dress and mess it up.
She was wearing her lilac one today, and Tom had told her she looked lovely.
"Here," he said noticing her discontent with the state of her hands. He pulled a gleaming white handkerchief out of the pocket of his trousers and handed it to her.
Merope took it with a smile and wiped her fingers. "Thank you," she said shyly.
He smiled, taking the handkerchief when she held it out to him. He got to his feet and held out a hand, helping Merope up as well. She picked up the tartan blanket they had been sitting on and folded it swiftly and neatly.
Tom smiled and took it from her, bending down to pick the book up and tucking it under his arm with the blanket. He took Merope's hand in his own and they began to walk down the hillside together.
Merope's heart began to flutter like a Billywig. He was holding her hand. She had to work hard to keep herself from skipping alongside him.
"Do they get married?" she asked, trying to distract herself from her racing pulse. "Even though he's rich and she's poor?"
"She's not that poor," Tom told her. "They're fairly well off, but they're just not living in luxury. Besides, marriage isn't about money, it's about love."
"Will he marry her though?" Merope pressed.
"I wouldn't want to spoil the ending for you," Tom said, smiling.
Merope sighed. "When will you read me some more?" she asked. "I feel like I can't wait another second."
"Perhaps one more chapter once we're back at your house, then we'll have to leave it until next weekend - I suppose you're working all week?"
Merope nodded, resenting her job just a little. It wasn't so bad though; she had already filled an entire jar with shiny silver sickles. She wasn't very good at maths, but she was quite sure she had a few galleons saved up. Perhaps she could open a bank account at Gringotts and have her own vault. She could keep her locket safe in there – that way it wouldn't be banging around her neck all the time.
Tom had said it was pretty though, so she supposed she ought to wear it.
They arrived at the house after a short while, and Tom sat down on one of the rickety wooden chairs at the kitchen table.
"Are you hungry?" Merope asked, "I can make you something to eat if you like."
Tom smiled and shook his head. "No, don't trouble yourself."
"It's not any trouble," she said earnestly. She wasn't lying either. She'd gladly cook for him whenever he wished, and if he stayed for dinner, that meant that he stayed longer.
"Come and sit down," he said, "you do enough cooking when you're at work, there's no need to cook for me now. I'll read you the next chapter."
"Okay," she said. "I'll just put the lamps on."
Merope turned her back to him, and managed to slide her wand out of her pocket. She walked over to each lamp in turn, lighting it with a very quiet 'Incendio!'.
Tom smiled when she sat down and opened the book.
"Do they get married in this chapter?"
Tom laughed. "There are still about ten chapters to go! What on Earth would be the point of reading on for ten chapters after they get married?"
"To see how happy they are," Merope replied, twirling her hair around her fingers. "They are happy in the end, aren't they?"
"Of course they are," Tom relented, after a moment. "Now, where did we get up to?" He scanned his eyes down the contents page and after a moment flicked to the page he was searching for. He held the book up to the flickering light of the wall lamps so he could see and glanced over at Merope, who was waiting anxiously for him to continue with the novel.
"Mr. Bennet had very often wished before this period of his life that, instead of spending his whole income, he had laid by an annual sum for the better provision of his children, and of his wife, if she survived him..."
Although he had promised only one chapter to Merope, Tom read right through to the end.
They did get married.
"When will your father be returning?" Tom asked her one day as they sat on the hillside drinking pumpkin juice.
Merope had thought, that if she introduced him to magic gradually, he might decide that it wasn't so bad after all. He seemed to like the pumpkin juice at least.
"Next month," Merope said, her mouth drooping at the corners.
"And have you found somewhere to live?" he asked, setting his glass down on the flattest patch of grass he could find.
Merope shook her head. "Tom said, the man I work for, not you –"
Tom smiled and let out a chuckle.
"- well he said I could get room for cheap if I like, because I'm so good at my work and I'm never late and I leave everything all neat and tidy, so I think I might take that."
Tom nodded, his brow creased slightly in concern. "Where is this pub? Is it a safe area?"
"Oh yes," Merope told him, nodding enthusiastically, "and Tom's very nice as well, he won't let anything happen to me. It's always full of lots of people, and my father never bothers to go there so it's perfect really."
"And how long will it be after that, until you can afford to get your own place?"
"I don't know," she replied. "I'm not very good at counting and I don't know how much houses cost. I'll probably have to work for fifty years before I can afford anything."
"I'm sure you could rent somewhere, couldn't you? How far away is this pub where you work?"
Merope opened her mouth but didn't say anything.
"Is it in Great Hangleton?"
Merope shook her head. "I think I'll just take the room that Tom's offered," she said at last.
"That sounds like a good idea for now," Tom replied, turning to look out over the village.
Merope fiddled with the hem of her dress, a small frown drawing her eyebrows together.
"Is there something wrong?" Tom asked, noticing her restlessness.
Merope's frown deepened, and she took her time answering him. "If I told you something about me that was bad...would you hate me?"
Tom smiled, his perfectly straight teeth glinting in the sunshine. "I don't believe for a second that there's anything bad about you. You'd certainly have to do something really terrible for me to even consider disliking you. What's on your mind?"
Merope continued to fiddle with her dress, and Tom's hand covered her own, stopping her.
"You'll pick a hole in it," he warned.
Immediately she began to smooth it out, inspecting it to see if she'd done any damage.
"I'm a witch," she said at last, her eyes prickling as she awaited his reaction.
He chuckled. "Really?"
"Don't laugh!" she said hotly, and the smile vanished from his face. Merope found that even though she was wrapped in her dilemma, she missed it instantly.
"I'm sorry," he said, taking her hand and giving it a small squeeze. He paused before asking, "Are you being serious?"
"Of course I am," Merope replied. "I wouldn't lie, Tom. Certainly not to you."
"Can you show me?" he asked, and Merope could tell that he was expecting nothing whatsoever to happen.
She withdrew her wand and he immediately raised his eyebrows. She pointed it at the apple tree which stood a good distance from them.
"Accio apple!" she flicked her wand and a shiny red apple came zooming towards them, landing neatly in Merope's outstretched hand.
Tom said nothing.
"It's not funny now, is it?" she asked. "I wish it was funny. Please don't hate me."
Tom broke out of his train of thought and blinked. "Hate you? Of course I don't hate you!"
"But it's not right," she said. "It's wrong, and magic can do bad things and muggles aren't supposed to know about it! You can't tell anyone, okay? Promise me?"
"I promise," he said, his blue eyes fixed on her grey ones.
Merope knew he was telling the truth. Tom would never lie.
"You won't leave me then?" she asked, blinking away tears that threatened to fall.
Tom took her hand, linking their fingers together and squeezing it firmly.