The word “headache” does not even begin to describe what is happening to Ya Zhou right now.
She closes the door to her study firmly. Out of sight of onlookers, she slumps against the door, feeling exhaustion straight through to her bones. “Why, oh why, are people so stupid,” she murmurs.
In her nearly ten years as Chairwoman, Ya Zhou has seen a lot. She’s faced down crisis after crisis without flinching and come out the other side with a stronger nation and an ever more secure position in the Party. This is testing even her patience.
The Muggle Soviets of Russia and Kuomintang of China have been fighting since July over the administration of the Chinese Eastern Railway. This should not have been Ya’s problem, should not have been any wizard’s problem, but the Russians are justifiably on edge. One misstep, and they face the most disastrous revelation to Muggles faced by wizardkind in history. Because they are allies, it’s been Ya’s task to work to control use of magic on the Chinese side of the conflict. It’s the middle of September, and the fighting shows no signs of de-escalation. However, between the Magburo and the Party, it seems that the magical community will be spared the worst outcomes.
As ever, though, the Americans have become an issue. Although the situation is well under control, MACUSA has begun to wave its wand. The new administration, under President Rovius Grimsditch, is making its position on the Statute of Secrecy known. Loudly. Ya Zhou has just spent two hours arguing in circles with the American ambassador, who is insistent that China should accept American aid to evacuate the magical community along the northern frontier—where the worst of the fighting is taking place—and also to allow American Aurors into the country to help “lock down” the situation. Of course Ya Zhou refused, but the ambassador is a…persistent man.
She sighs and pinches the bridge of her nose as she crosses the room to sink down behind her desk. “I miss the days when the Americans were reasonable,” Ya says aloud. They had been, up until January when this new administration came in. Seraphina Picquery lost the election in 1928, and that had been the death knell.
The greatest tie in the magical community, that thing which prevents any open conflict between magical states, is the International Statute of Secrecy. For years, it has served as the tenuous tie that keeps open warfare from breaking out, that reminds wizards everywhere of a shared heritage that supposedly goes above and beyond their national pride. At the end of the day, the Magburo and the Party are allies though the Soviets and the KMT go to war, because they are nations of wizards.
Of course the Americans have some good reason to be concerned. Much like the Russians, they face significant consequences if revealed. Unlike Russia, they are on the front lines of the fight against Grindelwald, as many of his supporters appear to be emerging there. Although MACUSA is working to suppress information that might make it look weak, the stories are…evocative. Even so, Ya must make do with scraps of information, scraps that are not nearly enough with Grimsditch breathing down her neck.
Ya misses the days when she might have spoken to Seraphina personally on the matter and actually received an answer.
She’s glad that she forewent any major formal dress today as she rests her head on her desk, cheek against the smooth wood. There’s no crown or elaborate style of hair to worry about. She can simply relax. It’s exhausting. They ought to be on the same side, all of them, and still they fight. Even Ya can agree that, while the Statute has many flaws, in the modern age the revelation of wizards would do more harm than good to almost everyone. As much as she and Seraphina had argued—
“Stop lying to yourself,” Ya says to the papers stacked beside her head. “You don’t miss the days when the Americans were reasonable, you miss Seraphina Picquery.”
This is the truth, and somehow saying it aloud both cleanses a pain she hadn’t known she was carrying and forms a new ache under her breastbone. Ya misses Seraphina. Badly.
They met shortly after Seraphina’s election in 1920. Ya had been Chairwoman since 1919 and was a terrified girl of twenty-five with no real idea of how to handle the power that had been dropped so suddenly upon her shoulders. Reform had come quickly and violently to the magical community of China, as quickly as it had come to the Muggles. It seemed that almost overnight Ya had been handed leadership—not because she was intended to be a good leader, but because a beautiful figurehead was important for the success of the reforms. Her signature was on documents that she was not given the chance to read, and her orders—while obeyed—were frequently made at the suggestion of others. She was still a nobody.
Ya remembers the first time that she met Seraphina. There was some security conference of the ICW, one of those meetings where heads of state came together to discuss the events of the Muggle world and talk about what, if any, role the magical community should play. On the first day, Ya had been conferring with one of the Party officials and noticed when the room dropped to absolutely dead silence. She looked up, of course, and instantly met the eyes of the most powerful woman in the room.
Her heart may have briefly stopped.
Seraphina wasn’t as tall as many people in the room, despite her heeled boots; still, she carried herself as though she looked down at all of them. Her clothes were plain and black, if well-made, a tailored suit that fit in with her Aurors. Rather than doing what Ya did, and wearing clothes meant to make her stand out, it seemed only that Seraphina wanted to blend in, to present herself as a part of a unified group. Her hair was hidden beneath a black turban with the exception of a few loose blonde curls, and there were rings on her left hand. Her skin was smooth, darker than any of her Aurors’. And her eyes, large and dark, were striking.
The whole room waited with bated breath to see what she would do. Ya felt as though she should make the first move, but hesitated, suddenly afraid. She could see it in the way that the President carried herself: this woman had been an Auror first, a trained and seasoned combatant. She was every bit as capable in a fight as the man standing at her left hand, a man Ya recognized as America’s newest Director of Magical Security.
And Seraphina clearly recognized Ya. She swept across the room, apparently unconscious of the fact that all eyes were on her, and offered her hand. “Chairwoman,” she said, in a beautiful voice. “I’m President Seraphina Picquery, of MACUSA. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”
Ya had shaken her hand and said something that she can’t remember now, dizzy with nerves. And Seraphina had stayed beside her, talking pleasantly about mundane matters, and for the first time since her appointment Ya felt as though she really was the leader of China. Even if they weren’t of the same state, she felt safer, with Seraphina standing by her side.
The conference had gone well, Ya does remember that. There had been talk of the remaining consequences of the Muggles’ Great War, of a backlash toward Communism that had America on edge at the time as the Muggles investigated political dissidents, of the new League of Nations, of the independence of Syria and the fighting in Ireland. Inevitably no one had resolved to take direct action, but at least they were all aware.
But what she truly recalls is the final evening of the conference, a fairly typical feast, a chance for everyone to “let their hair down”. Ya did not appreciate this, strained as she was with the simple task of keeping her head upright. She worked so hard to be refined and poised that anything less felt like a terrible, terrible task.
“You look stressed,” Seraphina said, coming to sit by Ya. The dancing after dinner was in full swing, though Ya was glad to notice that more than a few attendees were choosing not to participate.
“I’m fine,” Ya said stiffly.
“You are not,” Seraphina said. For half a second, her hand rested atop Ya’s, and then was gone. “I know what ‘fine’ looks like, and you are not that.”
Ya eyed Seraphina. Her cheeks were just slightly pink—the woman was well-known for enjoying her alcohol, and it seemed that tonight’s event was no exception. “Is this appropriate conversation for people like us?”
“People like what?” Seraphina scoffed. “We’re people among many other people. Witches among witches. It’s all right for us to talk.”
For a moment, Ya was silent. Seraphina was too, perhaps out of consideration. “I don’t know what to say,” Ya said. She watched as a handsome Greek wizard spun a lovely Russian Auror around the floor. “I did not come to make friends.”
“You should have,” Seraphina said seriously. “Chairwoman, that’s what politics is about. Making friends, finding out who shares your interest and cultivating that. Government is about people.”
“That is not government,” Ya said, surprised.
Seraphina smiled. “Oh?”
“‘To govern means to rectify. If you lead on the people with correctness, who will dare not to be correct?’” Ya knew, of course, that Seraphina would not catch the quotation, but she didn’t care.
“Correctness is a little bit beyond me,” Seraphina said. “But I don’t think it’s beyond you.”
“Thank you,” Ya said, confused.
The President rose to her feet. “We’ll be gone tomorrow, so I suspect it will be a while before you and I see each other,” she said. “Until then—keep your head up. I’m rooting for you.”
Ya watched Seraphina go with her mouth slightly open, feeling despite the brevity of the conversation as though she’d just survived the onslaught of a typhoon or a wildfire. Somehow, though she had been in power longer than Seraphina, she felt so much less experienced. As if Seraphina were the only one who knew what to do. Ya determined at that moment to rectify the situation, to be able to compete with the American however she must.
Now, if she wants, Ya can remember eight years of conferences, of meetings, of trips and feasts and late-night, exhausted, angry Floo trips made to commiserate and argue. Somewhere in all of this, they’d transitioned from fellow heads of state to colleagues to friends to…something else. A something that neither of them had ever discussed.
She remembers the last time they’d seen each other before Seraphina had begun her reelection campaign in 1928. They were in Canton, walking together in one of the gardens, ostensibly arguing again over the situation in Russia with Graves and the Obscurial. It was a common topic, in those last days.
But that wasn’t what they were discussing.
“You know this campaign is futile,” Ya said. She slanted a look at Seraphina. “Why run again?”
“Symbolic,” Seraphina said. Her mouth twisted. “A representation of opposition.”
“An opening for a future campaign, you mean.”
Seraphina laughed at that. “No, if I lose, I’m done,” she said. “I’m only forty-five and I feel like I’ve spent my whole life in politics. I graduated from Ilvermorny and went straight for the Auror Office, youngest Director of Magical Security in history, President by thirty-six…I’ve done enough.”
Ya smiled. “You’ve done more than most.”
“Thanks,” Seraphina said. She folded her hands behind her back. “Here’s hoping the history books remember me like you do.”
They walked in silence for a while. There was no one else in sight or earshot, and no chance of magical listening. In this secluded place, they were as alone as they were ever likely to be. Ya was out of her impossibly formal robes and had her hair only loosely pinned up; Seraphina was likewise wearing her jacket unbuttoned and the top buttons of her shirt were open to show her neck. It was as close to relaxed as they ever truly were.
“I’m going to miss you,” Seraphina said suddenly as they came to the apex of a bridge over a small pond. “I like you more than I ever really expected, you being…you.”
“Am I so unappealing?” Ya asked, raising her eyebrows archly.
Seraphina leaned against the railing. “You know what I mean.”
Ya did. “I will miss you,” she said sincerely. “You know…when we met, I thought you were unattainably perfect.”
“I’m just a woman,” Seraphina said.
“You are,” Ya said. Courage, courage that she didn’t know she needed, burst up inside her. “I like you better now that I know.”
The look she got in return for her comment was inscrutable. “When I first met you, I didn’t come to make friends.”
Remembering, Ya replied, “You should have. President, that’s what politics is about. Making friends. Isn’t that what you told me?”
“You took my advice,” Seraphina said. “Looks like my legacy is assured.”
“I learned from you,” Ya said. She didn’t look at Seraphina, but out at the water of the pond. It was easier to speak without her eyes sending messages she couldn’t afford, even now. “I am indebted to you, Seraphina.”
“Consider the debt forgiven,” Seraphina said. “It’s been good, having someone I trust working with me these last few years.”
At the word ‘trust’, Ya’s heart may have briefly stopped.
That was not a word to throw around lightly, in their circles. It was a word fraught with tension, with weight too great for the slender threads on which hung the fates of nations. To trust in someone was to believe that they would not let you fall when there was a conflict, and all too often affairs of state required that someone take a fall, as Seraphina had for her country. To trust in someone was to affirm a commitment higher than the bond between friends, siblings, or spouses. Ya had seen such relationships thrown over a hundred times in the name of the well-being of the state, and all those relationships were born from love.
Trust was something more than that.
“It’s been good for me as well,” Ya said, managing only through years of practice to keep her head up. She looked at Seraphina then, willing her eyes to say things that she still couldn’t afford to say aloud. “Trust is hard to come by.”
Seraphina smiled. For half a second, her hand rested atop Ya’s, and then was gone. “I’m happy to have known you,” she said.
“We will see each other again,” Ya said. She did not mean now, at this particular moment, or at any crisis before Seraphina left office. She meant in the true future, after it all, in the nebulous time when they might, perhaps, be able to explore the meaning of the word ‘trust’.
“I hope so,” Seraphina said.
They walked together across the bridge. Their talk turned to matters of state, and there were no more hidden messages in gazes or brushes of fingertips. All was as it should be.
And they have not seen each other since.
With the weight of memories on her shoulders, Ya rises to her feet. She tries to shake off the past, but it’s not so easy to do. She misses Seraphina, her weighty and serene presence, the way she transformed every polite match of words into a verbal duel, her beautiful eyes and her elegant hands. It’s a longing that Ya doesn’t know how to put into words. She’s never been one for romances; they’ve always somehow rung hollow.
‘Love’ as it’s written in books doesn’t make sense to her.
Even now, when she hasn’t seen the woman for more than a year, Ya trusts Seraphina.
And Ya considers, as she thinks of Seraphina, that perhaps trust is its own special form of love.
Ya stands by the window and looks out. “I suspect it will be a while before you and I see each other,” she says, thinking of Seraphina, wherever she might be. Is she successful in her endeavors? Is she happy? Ya doesn’t know. “Until then—keep your head up. I’m rooting for you.”