The very first time he meets her, he has been sent as head of his noble house in Stymphalos.
He is not drenched in sweat like all the other nobles and leaders of Arcadia, as he climbs the winding path to the temple high atop Mount Cyllene, for unlike his fellow worshipers, he can manipulate the very air around him to suit his purposes. He would not dare allow his talent to become public knowledge—he has seen one too many heretics consumed on a pyre for his taste—and so he practices only at night, when the evening shadows are long and hide his power from those with prying eyes. The public already treads a wary path around him, sensing that he is most unusual. Unlike the many inhabitants of the land, with their golden skin and dark hair, he is ashen as moonlight—hair, eyes, flesh, all pale as the snow that rarely visits the region. Rumours of unholy pacts with the god of the Underworld are whispered when they think he cannot hear them gossip. It would be foolish indeed, if he were to court danger and expose his… talents.
His sacrifice is of the highest order: two prized oxen, well-fed; three spring lambs, unshorn; three bushels each of barley, lentils, olives and figs; and one jar of the purest honey—all gifts worthy of the god Hermes.
When he arrives at the entrance to the temple, he is greeted by a young priestess, garbed in an Ionic chiton of the most virtuous white. Her hair is plaited, twisted and arranged so artfully he swears by all his powers that every strand has been touched by the gods. Upon her delicate feet are sandals crafted by skilful shoemakers of the highest calibre. When she turns, and the shift of her dress reveals her tanned leg, he spies an ornament of gold wrapped around her ankle as close as any lover’s embrace. A diaphanous veil covers most of her face, but he can tell she is a comely woman, and a desire stirs in his loins he has not felt in ages.
As if aware of the affect she had upon him, her eyes stay his advance, their dark depths conveying intensity akin to a conquering emperor on a foreign people. Fear, lust, obsession, envy and hate all course through his limbs, making his very skin vibrate with the need to possess her. She sees this and her eyes grow cold with disdain.
Without a movement or a beckoning call, a temple guard approaches and bends his ear to hear her wish. She murmurs low, nearly brushing her lips against the guard’s cheek, and he is consumed with rage that this lowly servant should experience her caress while he must wait to be admitted to the temple. With one last look, she turns away from him and disappears into the shadows from whence she came.
He is brutally thrust from the steps by the oaf of a guard. He is told that his offerings are not worthy. He is told that he is fortunate that his scrotum was not severed from his body in punishment for his lascivious thoughts regarding a holy priestess of Hermes. He knows the guard is nothing more than a eunuch himself, and briefly considers the possibility of allowing himself to be similarly mutilated just so that he may be free to touch, to speak, to be near the woman who has seized his fevered brain.
He has a duty to produce progeny, however, so that his legacy may continue, and thus fervently begs the gods’ forgiveness for his transgressions as he backs away. He hopes it is enough to ensure his family’s prosperity that he leaves his offering at the temple.
He will marry, have children, grow old and die.
But he will always remember her.
The next time he encounters her he is Lucius Septimius Bassianus, the eldest son of the Roman emperor Septimius Severus. He still has the peculiar colouring not inherent in those in the region—hair as white as an octogenarian, even though he is quite young; eyes a queer mixture of grey and blue; skin nearly pallid, with a rosy blush if he stays too long in the sun. His father is quite the opposite, with a sallow tint to his skin and hair and eyes black as pitch, yet no one questions his parentage. He has younger brothers that look more like his father, so perhaps he is an aberration in more than one respect.
They are attending a game at the coliseum when the crowd is provided with the novel diversion of female gladiators. There is one that is introduced by the praecone, however, that seizes his interest immediately: the diminutive, bronze-skinned, bare-breasted Mevia.
Her wild, honey-brown hair floats about her head, untameable like her nature, Lucius suspects. She holds a spear in her right hand as she taunts a boar with a mad smile on her face. He feels his mouth curl in delicious anticipation.
“Twenty denarii says she will meet her end at the wheels of the essedarii,” Severus mutters in his ear, his scorn apparent. Of course he has taken notice of his son’s fascination with the venatrix.
Lucius knows his father hates these spectacles; Septimius Severus is a practical man and considers the games a waste of time and resources. That his father has laid a wager at his feet is no small testament to how much his face reveals his captivation.
“One hundred denarii says that not only will she arise the victor, but she will win the crowd as well,” Lucius counters.
Septimius Severus leans back and studies his son carefully. “You wish her for your bed.”
“Among other things,” Lucius says, seeing no reason to deny his desires. He intends to use his powers to ensure that Mevia is successful in the tournament, but his father undermines this strategy.
“I will agree on one condition: no magework. She must do this of her own skill and determination.”
Lucius clenches his teeth in frustration. Severus is not above scheming and manipulation to achieve his goals, but rarely does he apply such tactics on a personal level. Manoeuvres such as this imply that Lucius should proceed with great caution and tread lightly. The repercussions would be disastrous should he cross his father, and Lucius is on the verge of ceding the wager when he looks out at the arena and his eyes are drawn again to the very woman with which he is infatuated.
She catches his eye, knows it and seizes it as her own. A knowing smirk unfurls upon her lips, and it is full of promise. With a slight nod of her head, whether in tribute to him as the emperor’s son or in acknowledgement of his desire, Lucius knows not. He cares not. She is with him there, in this moment, and they are in accord.
“Done,” he says firmly.
He does not see his father’s calculating smile.
Her body is defined by toned muscles that flex when she pivots, by the way her back ripples when she shrugs her shoulder in what seems like boredom. Her hair is still wild, like the bramble bushes that line the hillsides just outside the city. Streaks of blood and gore are entangled in some of the strands, and though it should be off-putting he can only gaze in rapt fascination at her movements. The bronze of her skin catches golden accents from the lamplight, the play of shadows enthralling him even more. Her breasts remain unrestrained, as they had throughout the gruelling battle, and the slightly dusky tips of her nipples gleam from the sheen of sweat born from her exertions.
In unflattering terms, she is a filthy, low-born, undignified mess. But oh, what a glorious mess she is to his eyes. Perhaps he makes a noise at that point, for she stills her steps and quickly searches the depths of the surrounding darkness for him. When she finds him, for he makes no effort to hide from her, she takes a few halting steps closer.
He steps out of the shadows, closes the remaining distance and looks down at her with a frown. She is familiar to him. Why is she familiar?
Her expression matches his own. “I know you,” she whispers. “From before.”
He cannot think where he has encountered her earlier in his life, but the ease with which they know each other is apparent, nonetheless. “I think not,” he says, knowing that he lies, but not how or why.
“Fool yourself if you wish.” She turns away from him, as if disgusted.
“Go clean yourself,” he bites out, irritated at her rebuff.
She stops and slowly looks over her shoulder. “Provide me with incentive.”
He sneers at her audacity. “Keeping your head atop your shoulders should be enticement enough.”
Her laugh is high as her eyes roam his body, finally lingering at his groin. “I was hoping for something... lower.”
Lucius has had his fair share of women, in his youth and even into adulthood—all biddable creatures that were enamoured of him because of his lineage. This woman in front of him, though, is something quite different. Perhaps that is why he’s drawn to her, to her spirit and strength. And though he should cut her tongue from her mouth for such a lewd statement, he finds himself feeling quite the opposite, indulgent even.
As if sensing his capitulation, she comes forward and presses her dirty cheek against his clean one. “Give yourself to me,” she murmurs in his ear.
“You’re here at my pleasure. I can take you,” he responds, hating how his voice trembles.
She pulls back and pins him with the heat in her eyes. “But you will not.” Her head tilts. “You do not want some soft, mewling thing in your bed this night. You want the fire in my blood to light the ember in yours.”
His eyes close involuntarily as he stifles a whimper deep in his throat. She is so close he can hear her breathing, and each breath she takes strikes down his barriers. He swallows heavily when she begins stroking his face with hers, her nose running along his jawline, her grime-filled hair brushing against his chin. He doesn’t care; all of that is immaterial next to the feeling of her warm skin upon his. When her lips start to play across his neck, he gives in completely and turns his head. He buries his nose in the tendrils of hair at her temple, nuzzling his way down her cheek, until he reaches her mouth and seizes it in a kiss. Her lips are dry and chafed, bitter with the tang of sweat and grit, and she tastes magnificent.
His hands grasp her hips and pull her closer, and they stagger towards his bed chamber. The wall brings them to an abrupt halt where he quickly deals with the scrap of cloth that shields her womanhood. He manages only a brief glimpse before her hand is reaching for him, grabbing the fibula on his left shoulder—a silver serpent—and tugging it loose, releasing the folds of his toga. She gives a low, throaty laugh as the fabric falls to the ground, leaving him nearly as bare as she is, save for his tunic. Her fists—the strong, capable hands of a fighter—bunch in the material and pull, rending it down the middle. The show of strength instantly sends a shiver up his spine and heats his blood like nothing has before.
He wraps his fingers around her wrists and jerks her forward into a kiss so brutal he can taste blood on his tongue. She responds in kind, and they growl and whimper, pushing each other back and forth against the marble wall. He knows they will never make it to his bed for their first coupling. And so it proves when he feels her leg straddle his in a bid to be closer. He helps by slipping his hand past her hip and cupping her taut backside, lifting her until both slim legs wrap around his waist. Her guttural moan nearly unmans him as it vibrates through his body, making his staff harden all the more. The idle thought crosses his mind that perhaps, against all logic, she is yet untouched, innocent of man. But his cock feels how slick she already is and the way she moves her body feels practiced, purposeful, and the idea dies before he can voice the question.
“Too slow,” she whimpers and wraps her arms around his neck. “Touch me.”
“I will do more than touch you,” he growls, positioning his cock at the entrance to her warm depths. “I own you. Completely.”
He buries himself in her wet core, and congratulates himself that he was right about her background; there was no barrier to breach. She grunts with his first forceful thrust and tightens her thighs around him, the cinch of their bodies nearly seamless.
Their coupling is fierce, passionate and swift. He thrusts his hips, mad with desire, and as he sinks his shaft deep inside she rakes her nails across his shoulders. The sting of the bloody welts on his back propels his need into a dark oblivion, and he drives into her more furiously than he would have thought possible. The twitching of her inner muscles around his cock registers seconds before she screams loud and long, her cries echoing in the chamber. He soon joins her, shouting his climax as he spends his seed. They pant heavily for a long moment, their chests heaving and foreheads pressed together until they are both calm enough to untangle their limbs.
“Now, go clean yourself,” he manages, and points in the direction of his private bathing chamber. He spies the slick sheen of his seed as it trickles down her inner thigh and adds coldly, “Make sure you rinse yourself thoroughly.”
He sees the scorn in her face before he hears it in her words. “Do not worry, cūlus aēnī. There will be no spurius from me,” she says, and disappears before he can thrash her for calling him a bronze arse.
He realises that he would not care if a child was born of their union, but if Septimius Severus did not accept and recognise the child as part of the royal family, it could be exposed or brought up as a slave. Knowing his father’s dislike of this venatrix—which he has never fully understood—it is a foregone conclusion that children will not even be discussed.
He chastises himself that he did not think to use his magework to prevent such an occurrence, and after he dresses himself in his toga, he goes in search of Mevia, to place a charm upon her to prevent any mishaps should she not cleanse herself to the fullest extent. But when he searches his bathing chamber, she is not there. Worry crawls up his spine as he moves through the other rooms, investigates the entire wing of the Collis Palatinus, and does not find any sign of her. When he questions the guards they say they know nothing, have seen nothing, but the tone of their voices is odd, distorted. He could give them the truth serum his father taught him how to make, but he has none readily available and the process to brew it is lengthy and laborious.
He hunts the rest of the palace and the surrounding grounds until dawn is breaking over the horizon, and still no glimpse of Mevia. It is as he is contemplating searching the Patrician domī that his father finds him.
“Our presence is required in the coliseum this morning,” Septimius Severus drawls.
“I cannot,” Lucius mutters, distracted. He paces, ruminating over various scenarios concerning Mevia, some alarming, some intoxicating, others infuriating.
His father halts him with a firm grip on his arm. “It is not a request. The crowd calls for Caracalla.” Severus glances at the hooded tunic that earned Lucius the nickname.
Lucius knows if he does not at least make an appearance, the public will assume there is something grievously wrong with the emperor’s son. He is popular where his father is not—his father is not unaware of this—and his absence could incite panic where there need be none.
“Very well,” he says. “But I will stay only until the sun is at its apex.” His search for Mevia can continue once he is quit of the games.
“You need not stay that long,” Septimius Severus assures him enigmatically.
The reason for his father’s insistence on his presence becomes horribly clear an hour into the games. The praecone announces that the supreme victor of the previous day’s events shall have the honour of being the first in battle today. Lucius turns to his father, who is watching the new combatants enter the arena with an unholy delight, and suddenly he cannot stand the sight of the old man. He knows what Severus has done; the proof is even now brandishing a spear in the middle of the arena against a lion—a massive, tawny beast with a thick black-tipped mane nearly as wild as her own.
Other gladiators are fighting and dying around her, but Lucius has eyes only for her. He wants to beg his father to stop this, but he knows it would only give the emperor the satisfaction of knowing he has guessed correctly. Only by remaining silent, feigning indifference, has he a hope of saving her. He watches, helpless to prevent the unfolding of events, as Mevia circles the hungry feline, stabbing at it when it lunges.
As if sensing his son’s distress, Septimius Severus nods to the praecone, whose blast on his horn directs the keepers to add a new menace to the arena. Lucius clenches his fists until his knuckles turn white as he watches slaves carry wicker baskets onto the field; they tip them onto the sand and a multitude of serpents are unleashed.
“Asps and cobras,” Severus says offhandedly. “A slow and painful demise. Will they take the lion first, or the woman, do you think?”
Lucius tries to use his magework to protect Mevia, but it is as if he is being blocked and every charm fails before it leaves his lips—he cannot stop the disaster he both foresees and dreads. His father, leaning eagerly forward in anticipation of a death, is forgotten; all Lucius’ attention is given to the slender figure dodging, swerving, fighting for her life on the sands below. He cannot cry out when, leaping backwards to avoid a lethal swipe of the lion’s claws, Mevia steps on the tail of a hooded cobra, causing the serpent to strike just behind her knee. She goes down immediately but keeps her spear raised as the lion pounces, and the giant beast impales itself, snapping its jaws at her even as it dies.
He wants to scream, wants to consume Septimius Severus in dark magework until his eyes burst from their sockets, but Lucius is bound to his chair, immobile and can only observe his father’s cruel idea of humour. The cobra releases Mevia from its fangs but the damage has already been done, and it slithers away to inflict its venom upon another gladiator. As if in defiance of her fate, Mevia struggles to her feet and stands, swaying, with aid of her spear. She limps forward to stand below the amphitheatre box where Lucius and Septimius Severus are sitting. Lucius can see she is having difficulty breathing, and tears well in his eyes as he watches her fierce pride keep her upright.
She halts in front of them, raises her spear to Lucius, and shouts, “Death, when it stands near us, gives even to inexperienced men the courage to face the inevitable without fear. So the gladiator, no matter how faint-hearted they have been throughout the fight, when at last they know they are defeated, offers their throat to their opponent and directs the wavering blade to the vital spot, for a quick death and a brave one.” She sways and when she continues, her voice is much softer. “I, Mevia of Eboracum, did not choose this life of a gladiatrix, but when it was thrust upon me, I vowed to endure to be burned, to be bound, to be beaten, and at the last to be killed by the sword. But today doom has killed me, not the coward before me.” She swings her spear and points it directly at Septimius Severus. “No longer let him boast that I am as insignificant as an insect.” Barely maintaining her balance, Mevia returns her attention to Lucius. “Let it be my legacy that I never asked for mercy. Let my virtus be remembered in perpetuity.”
She drops to her knees, and Lucius screams inside his head, but no sound emerges from his mouth. His father has silenced him. He cannot even show that he mourns Mevia’s passing when she collapses to the blood-soaked ground and moves no more. To his eternal disgust, the crowd roars with approval and applause, declaring their opinion that the dramatic scene is the best yet presented.
In that moment, he ceases to be Lucius Septimius Bassianus and fully embraces the agnomen Caracalla, promising revenge upon all who have wronged him. He will bide his time, but the moment of vengeance will come.
Months later he is forced to marry a distant cousin, approved by his father, of course—she is thin and pale, as unlike a certain woman as anyone could possibly be. The marriage produces a daughter whom he never bothers to name. He hates the sight of them both. In the fall of the following year, learning that Septimius Severus is going on campaign in northern Britain, Caracalla arranges for his father’s assassination. It is a particularly delicious irony that Septimius Severus falls ill while he is encamped near the town that Mevia hailed from. The emperor dies on a bitter February morning, writhing in pain from the slow-acting poison administered weeks earlier by Caracalla’s agent. The son is content in the knowledge that his father died a most gruesome death, more ignoble than Mevia’s own.
But something in him is broken, some deep unassuaged grief, and his thirst for vengeance is not quenched. He is proclaimed emperor and ends all military activity, but then executes his wife and child, her family, and even his younger brother Geta. When the city of Alexandria mocks his actions, Caracalla savagely slaughters a delegation of their leading citizens and unleashes his army for days of looting and plunder.
Caracalla is twenty-nine when he is relieved of the miserable burden his heart has become. He pays no attention to the personal bodyguard standing watch as he pisses in the woods, which is why the sudden protrusion of a blade from his chest comes as a shock, but it lasts only an instant before his soul departs the lifeless husk that is now his rapidly cooling body.
There are some periods where he lives and she does not. He hates those times—and they are many, hundreds perhaps. In those eras he passes quickly, violently even, relieved not to have to remain when she is not there. He wonders if it is the same for her.
He is the third Duke of Suffolk when he next encounters her. The youngest brother, his unusual colouring is no cause for concern this time, for most of his family has the same pallor. And while in preceding incarnations very few others had exhibited powers beyond a mere human’s capability, this time his whole family possesses ‘gifts’. They keep their powers well-concealed, however, for many are still persecuted for heathen or unrighteous ways. Being of the peerage of England makes this concealment absolutely imperative, to protect their line, to allow them to move within the social sphere of their age. He is unaware of others in the world that are like them, that alter the very fabric of existence with such ease, that have power flowing through their veins. Most of his life has been sheltered in one fashion or another, so when he meets another of his kind, he is surprised.
He is sitting on the bank of the Thames when she finds him and begins begging for attention. He touches her face and she smiles. She kisses him and he falls in love instantly. She may be furry, short, orange and purr like the rumbling of thunder, but he knows that she is content to curl up and cuddle in his arms. He names her Granger, for she likes to roam the wheat fields near the family estate. He knows that there is something different about this feline, that to be separated from her would be tantamount to torture. When he speaks, she understands. When, in secrecy, he tries to astound her with his ‘gift’, she is clearly delighted. When she wrinkles her nose and twitches her whiskers, it causes a fish to leap out of the water, or cream to appear in the saucer that the family has designated as hers. He keeps her close to him always.
When his brother comes down with a fever and cough in the late summer of 1485, Granger is frantic. He tries to console her and shush her plaintive meows, telling her that his brother is merely sick, that he will be cured by Father’s potions. But this is not the case. Hours later he himself becomes ill with fever, and no amount of other-worldly power or unctions from his family’s store of remedies changes the course of the disease. Lying in his bed, drenched in sweat, it is a constant effort just to move his chest and breathe. Granger paces the bedcovers, licking his hand, nuzzling into his cheek, yowling softly to keep him awake. But he is so very tired.
The last thing he feels, before he shuts his eyes, are the gentle swipes of her tongue upon his chin.
It is upon the scaffold erected next to the White Tower where he finds her next.
His name is Jean Rombaud, and he is the Headsman of Calais, an expert swordsman from Saint-Omer in France. His blade is world-renowned for its lethal accuracy—imbued with the mystic powers inherited from his ancestors, though of course he does not talk of that. As before, his looks are as cutting as his sword, and his hand is always steady.
Her name is Anne, and as she steps forward, surrounded by all her ladies-in-waiting, his heart catches in his throat. When their eyes meet, they both inhale sharply at the recognition. He mouths the word, “Non,” anguish suffocating the voice right out of him. Her gaze softens in shared misery. He wants to reach out and cradle her to his chest, never to part. That he is to be the means of her end this spring morn is a terrible, unimaginable thing to suffer. His arms tremble with suppressed emotions until, taking pity on him, she places her small hand upon his forearm.
“I have heard tell that you are very good with your sword, sir,” she whispers.
He closes his eyes and nods, fighting not to give voice to the mournful sound that is trying to claw its way from his throat.
Her hand cups his cheek and brushes cool fingers across his skin. “Be sure your blow is precise, for I have a little neck.”
He cannot contain the desolate whimper that escapes his mouth. “Je ne peux pas espère faire ceci, Madame.”
“But you must do this. No one is as capable as you,” she insists. “I trust you to see it done properly.”
He opens his eyes, wet and tortured, asking without words how she can demand this of him. He does not want to do this, to be the perpetrator of her death.
Her thumb strays over his bottom lip before she drops her hand to her side. “It is well that you are here with me, at the end. Unfetter my soul, so that I may journey ahead.”
She steps away from him before he can respond and turns to face the raucous crowd. There is iron in her spine as she gives an impassioned speech, forgiving the man who was their sovereign and subtly daring any that meddle in her cause to tread lightly. She kneels and her ladies remove her headdress, turn down the neckline of her sombre dress. As they tie a blindfold over her eyes, Rombaud is so shaken by her quiet grace and strength, he fears he will prove unworthy of her faith in his aim.
He lays the edge of his blade across the back of her neck, trying to focus, but to no avail; his hands are shaking too badly to even think about swinging his weapon. He knows she senses how difficult this is for him, that she can feel the hesitation in his stance.
She tilts her head in his direction. “I forgive you,” she murmurs.
Grief-stricken, he can do no less than give her the honour she deserves. A single stroke, and he has ceased to breathe, even as she falls.
She may have forgiven him, but he will never forgive himself.
He dislikes the times when they are unbalanced.
In this life, he is covered in white fur, his nose pink, his body long and agile. He hates that his vision is skewed, that he eats unmentionable things and his odour is rather repugnant. The self-loathing he carried for so many years in France has taken outward form, has fashioned this current unpleasant existence that he dislikes so intensely.
When she finds him, bedraggled and malnourished, he thinks this time she will surely feed him to the wolves. Literally, perhaps, given that they are in a forest.
In this life, her age is advanced, and after his body is mended, he becomes her grandchildren’s pet. It’s ignominious, being the plaything of her progeny. This time is unsettling, disquieting; their ages and even species are too disproportionate. He soon becomes sickly and his health fails, no matter the care and attention he receives from her.
This time, he quietly departs five years before she will draw her last breath, glad to be leaving this odd form of fur. He has hated this time.
Things are quite different when they meet each other again.
Not only does his power have a name—magic—but it now flows through the veins of a select few all over the world. They band together, these witches and wizards, and form a society—one that sets itself apart from those they consider beneath them.
It is 1672, and his name is Brutus Malfoi. And although he is most decidedly anti-Muggle—a term coined by his pure-blood brethren for the lesser humans—even going so far as to advocate that witches and wizards who associate with said individuals lack magical talent themselves, he also has a keen eye for talent, regardless of its bearer. Interacting with the Muggle world, while not enjoyable, is necessary to ensure their continued influence over governments and countries, and he impresses this pragmatic viewpoint on those in his circle.
It is a double-edged sword, however, because although their power is recognised, it is also feared, and fear of the unknown or the strange brings hatred. Witch-hunts grow fiercer with each passing year, so his dealings with Muggles are tempered with extreme caution. There is a long-standing tradition that fraternisation with Muggles takes place only under certain conditions and in certain ways, and there is already a movement—of which Brutus is a strong proponent—to codify this tradition into a formal Statute of Secrecy.
But today he is not thinking about laws or secrecy. Today he begins sitting for his portrait—his very Muggle portrait—commissioned for posterity’s sake. His family have chosen burgeoning artist Élisabeth-Sophie Chéron, who is not only talented in painting but a gifted poet, musician and academicienne as well. It is said, in Muggle and wizarding circles alike, that nothing save the grace of her brush could equal the excellencies of her pen—an artist worthy to capture a Malfoi.
He is wearing his finest attire—the deepest blue to enhance the pale grey of his eyes and the nearly colourless shade of his hair; silver chains denoting his family’s station in the Muggle court; soft ermine draped across his shoulders gives him the appearance of royalty.
She is laying out pots of colours and choosing brushes of varying bristle widths and lengths, glancing every so often at him as if evaluating some unseen element of his person. Her long, wavy tresses sway to and fro as she moves about the room.
When her preparations are complete, she approaches him and studies his face. He watches as she tilts her head, as her lips purse in annoyance, as her pert nose wrinkles as she shakes her head in frustration and moves away, out of his line of sight. He hears a window open and sunlight floods the studio. She returns and her mouth slowly breaks into a genuine smile as her gaze flits over his face.
The moment her dark eyes capture his, he cannot breathe for the constriction in his chest. He knows this woman. He is aware of the countless lifetimes contained within her and it triggers an emotional response too profound and compelling for words. There is only a deep, melancholic longing that pours itself into the niches of his soul that have been left by her each time she is severed from him. He gasps, and it is only after she is touching him with slender fingers that he realises his cheeks are damp with tears.
Her touch drifts to his lips, glancing over the hills and valleys that define his mouth. She draws ever closer until her breath becomes his. Just as she presses her lips against his, a sound in the outer studio stills her movements. She grimaces, causing the smattering of freckles across her nose to shift, and abruptly pulls away, a mask falling upon her features. It takes every bit of willpower he has not to reach out and pull her back to him but somehow he masters himself—fortuitously, since the door opens just as she moves behind a screen to don a painting smock.
Élisabeth’s father enters the chamber, assesses the situation and scolds his precocious daughter for the absence of a chaperon. Brutus can see the lines of tension radiating throughout her frame, the anger she cannot express lest she receive a slap for daring to contradict the patriarch, but he has already turned from her to greet their wealthy client with oily words of compliment. In the short discussion that follows, Brutus learns that the man is a rigid Calvinist; had he any awareness of what the Malfoi family truly was, the next pyre set alight would be Brutus’ own. Ignoring the flow of talk, he whispers a multitude of hexes upon Monsieur Chéron under his breath, including one that will make the aging man impotent. A look of pain creases the man’s brow and he blindly grasps his thigh then, with a farewell so brief as to be almost discourteous, hobbles towards the door.
Élisabeth watches her father leave, concern and vexation warring in her expression. “Obvious,” she says with a sigh. “You would do well to hide your power better, Monsieur Malfoi.”
He is so startled by her statement that he barely manages to speak. “How—”
His voice dies the moment she turns, holding a peculiar-looking paintbrush aloft. She gives him a small smile and points the brush towards the windows lining one side of the room. With a great clatter, all the sashes fly open letting the autumn breeze into the studio.
Anguish floods him as he comprehends the tableau before him. His family were wise in seeking out this particular artist, for Élisabeth-Sophie Chéron is talented in a way no Muggle could ever hope to achieve: she is a witch, hiding in the deepest of shadows, obscuring her powers to preserve her safety. With a sick horror, he envisions what her religious father would do if he became cognisant of the heretic living amongst them.
Élisabeth lets her hand drop in resignation, then hastily stows the ‘brush’ in one of the pockets on her smock as a hag of a woman enters the room and takes a seat in the corner. The crone’s eyes narrow as a malicious smirk unfurls upon her thin lips. Élisabeth gives him a sorrowful look and turns to sort out the colours she will use to capture his essence on canvas.
Over the course of the next several weeks, a masterpiece takes shape amidst the emotional throes of yearning. He watches as she grows thin and pale, barely eating or resting during the whole of their time together. Her hand trembles when she touches him to position his arm or hand just so on the pillar, and he longs to capture those frail-looking fingers and keep them pressed against his chest. He once hears her whisper, “Ya’aburnee,” as she brushes an unruly lock of his hair behind his ear. He doesn’t know the word, but vows to learn quickly, for it must mean something if she is willing to risk telling him. They are constantly scrutinised by one of Monsieur Chéron’s minions, never alone during their hours together.
They contemplate each other over a gulf too wide to ever be bridged; he calls it, la douleur exquise—the exquisite pain of wanting what they know they can never have. Before he returns for his final sitting, he finds the word she spoke to him: Ya’aburnee— ‘you bury me’; a declaration of one’s hope that they’ll die before the other draws their last breath, knowing how difficult it would be to live without them. It is the perfect expression of all that has come before, and all that will be.
When the Malfoi family is presented with Brutus’ portrait, he feels little more than the dull ache that has hollowed out the space where his heart once resided. He cares nothing for the painting, cares only that his soul must now, once again, be separated from its mate. And although she is clearly proud of the work she has produced, the look upon her face echoes his sentiment.
Before the Chérons take their leave, Brutus grasps Élisabeth’s paint-stained hand and bends low over it. “Ya’aburnee,” he whispers, his breath hot on her skin, before pressing his lips to her knuckles. If he must live in this wretched existence without her, he prays to the gods of his ancestors that the passage of time be mercifully swift.
Élisabeth closes her eyes. “Ya’aburnee.”
The only thing left to them is au revoir—until they see each other again.
It isn’t until she punches him in their third year that he grasps what has happened.
The crack of fist against skin—the first time they have touched, he realises—is electric, igniting the soft embers that dwell within him to a roaring surge that takes him by surprise. From her sharp intake of breath and a new awareness in her eyes, he sees that she feels it too, this fire between them that demands a response. He cannot speak, but he can certainly move, and he turns to flee, unable to cope with the overwhelming emotions and visions of their shared past that inundate his psyche. As he does so, he hears quick footsteps fading in the opposite direction.
A single thought runs though all his days now, and undercurrent to all his words and actions: not here… not now… not again. He cannot share her thoughts, cannot even ask if she feels the same way, but the occasional encounter when he has a chance to look into her eyes tells him that she does. If the gulf between them seemed insurmountable last time, it’s nigh impossible to scale the wall that divides them in this life—she is Hermione, a Muggle-born witch, and he is Draco, the son of a Death Eater, with feet firmly on the path of following his father; never the twain shall meet.
Something about this lifetime is altered already, he knows. He refuses to consider that this certainty may be nothing more than hope born of desperation. No matter his name or hers, no matter what forms they take or what identities they bear, they are destined to meet, and they have done so over and over, coming close, so very close, to becoming one. Perhaps, he thinks, the Fates are done playing with their battered souls and have decided now is the time for their lives, finally, to intersect.
For the present, the fact that they’re in the midst of a burgeoning war and can ill-afford the time—or the risk—to contemplate one another, allows him the leeway to ignore her. But Fate, once it has determined its course, has a way of insinuating itself into the miniscule cracks of life and acting as a catalyst, thwarting even the most stubborn human nature.
By sixth year, though no one has ever caught a glimpse as proof of their culpability, Draco and Hermione often share a look across a crowded classroom. Each glance is pregnant with possibilities, and he wishes one of them would initiate something that they obviously both desire. His resolve to remain separate is crumbling more and more every day.
Until one day there is only an imaginary line, laid down in chalk dust, which is easily smudged.
The nausea builds, fed by the oily power of the gems, and his stomach clenches in an effort to avoid becoming violently ill. Twenty minutes pass and the trio are still inside the tavern, so Draco makes his way across the road and slips inside the warm and welcoming pub. He halts abruptly when he spies Granger and Potter deep in conversation, but then gathers his senses and slips through the crowd and hides behind a support column close enough that he can hear their conversation.
“Excuse me,” Granger says to Potter and Weasley. He hears her chair scrape across the floor.
“Where’re you going?” Weasley asks.
“To the loo, do I need your permission?” she snaps.
“Uh, no… just wondering,” Weasley grouses.
He can tell she’s shifted her weight, her voice hard. “Would you like to help me wash my hands afterwards?”
That must’ve been directed at Potter, and Draco’s feelings vacillate wildly between amusement and raging jealousy. If anyone is to help Hermione wash, it will be him and him only...
“Go clean yourself,” he manages, and points in the direction of his private bathing chamber. He spies the slick sheen of his seed as it trickles down her inner thigh, and adds, “Make sure you rinse yourself thoroughly.”
Draco closes his eyes and breathes slowly as the memory rolls over him; the vision and emotions assailing his already weary soul are too much right now. He lurches out from behind the column, hoping he makes it to the side door in time before he embarrasses himself. He doesn’t stop, even when he hears Potter talking about him.
Outside, the snow is lightly falling, buffeting the air so that it’s thick and silent. He leans against the wall that comprises the back of the Three Broomsticks and tries to figure out an alternative plan to the one he can’t possibly pull off with Potter watching his every move. He has no time to contemplate it further, however, because Granger is bounding through the door, cheeks aflame and eyes snapping.
He names her Granger, for she likes to roam the wheat fields near the family estate.
The weighted slam of the door galvanises him; he doesn’t think, simply acts on instinct born of a hundred lifetimes, as he darts out his hand to clamp around her mouth and pulls her against his body.
He holds her tightly, her back to his chest. That she doesn’t struggle is telling in and of itself, though she is breathing in short, angry bursts through her nose. The hand not muffling her mouth drifts to rest on her waist, his fingers flexing when he feels the heat emanating from her body. He can feel her swallow, feel every brush of her shoulder blades against his chest, feel the slight tremble in her hand as it covers his own where he grips the shirt beneath her jumper. He drops his head until his cheek rests against her hair and sighs heavily. Her presence is both a comfort and a curse, and words crowd his throat as she holds herself very still within his embrace, waiting.
He slowly removes his hand from her mouth, his fingertips grazing her lips in the process. Her soft gasp at the touch sends him into something close to madness, and he doesn’t care if he ends up in St. Mungo’s if it means he can continually hear her voice in his weary mind. Carefully, his fingers follow the line of her neck, gliding to her nape to rest there for a moment before he turns his hand over and brushes his knuckles over her flesh.
She relaxes into him with a soft whimper. He clutches her to him even more tightly, unable to believe he is at last here with her. When she angles her head forward, he nuzzles her hairline, eyes closed in ecstasy as her scent permeates his senses. She moves to turn in his arms, but he keeps her facing outwards, his grip intensifying.
“Draco.” Her voice is rough and shaky, but dear Zeus, it sounds as luscious as warm honey waiting to be licked from her lips.
“I want to taste you,” he whispers, burying his nose against her heated skin.
Her head drops back to rest on his shoulder. “Yes,” she breathes, lifting her arm behind her and winding her fingers into his short hair, pressing a kiss to his jaw.
As he bites down lightly on the corded muscle of her neck, he wonders if she remembers their past as he does. Wonders if she recalls the joy and sorrow, love and loss of all the years they were granted before, as well as those that were denied them. When his left hand slides beneath her jumper to touch the warmth of her stomach, he receives his answer.
“I’ve missed you, Draco.”