There is a belief that everyone who is born is connected to another intimately through a red string tied around their ankles. This cord can stretch forever and never break but sometimes it can get so tangled, so caught up in the riptides of destiny that it takes countless lifetimes to unravel.
Park Hae-Joo was the lordling of a noble house. The youngest of four sons, he was resigned to a life of shadow behind his elder brothers. His father though, a man of Confucian ideals, refused to allow his youngest to coast through life without purpose. Thus, a Mandarin tutor was sent for and a betrothal to a childhood sweetheart was set.
Hae-Joo would be an ambassador for Korea, serving in the imperial Chinese court. There was honour in that. Pride, too. Even if it took his son far away from his home, it would have still been a good life.
His father was a good and devoted family and country man who had planned meticulous futures for each of his children. For all his careful strategizing though, he could not have possibly imagined the capacity in which his son would end up serving as in court.
Park Hae-Joo, now Han Shi — given name, improper name — paid his dues as Royal Eunuch, valued advisor to the Dowager Empress and appointed attendant to the Emperor's favoured concubine, Lee Min-a of Joseon.
It was never what his father intended, but nothing was considered too severe a punishment for the son of a traitor.
As Park Hae-Joo, politics was beyond him. When his house fell, it had seemed a surreal nightmare straight out of fables and folktales mothers used to scare their children into behaving. He didn't — couldn't — understand the accusations of treason pinned on him and his family. Even as his father was slaughtered, his mother disgraced, and his brothers enslaved and shipped off to households, it hadn't felt real.
But when Ming demanded tributes, he began to finally comprehend the awful truth that had befallen the Park family.
Branded, beaten and unmade, he was packed into the convoy as an insignificant attaché to the main tribute, his only saving grace being his fluency in the language spoken in the foreign lands. In that long, arduous journey, he listened and learned. Servants had a tendency to whisper after all and no one willingly paid much attention to the Nobi that did the occasional translation.
Lee Min-a's father was an ambitious man. Neither did he share his own father's penchant for Confucian teachings. Even this farce of a gift was nothing more than a calculated measure to elevate his status in the courts of Joseon.
Hae-Joo would have felt sympathy for the poor girl caught up in her father's dealings, but who Hae-Joo had been had little bearing on who Hae-Joo became.
Where the Joseon courts were merely convoluted, the Ming court was downright deadly. That Hae-Joo had always been a fast learner was a blessing. Whether or not being forcefully bereft of his manhood could be said to be the same, he soon found out that there was immense power to be had in the eunuch hierarchy.
It may not have been what his father wanted, but his lessons had aided Han Shi more than he could ever anticipate. The imperial court played their games and he learned to master it.
There was pleasure to be had in quiet moments like this. He ran the comb again through the long, silky tresses underneath his fingertips. She hummed softly as he worked — a familiar lullaby known to all children of Korea.
In here, in the safety of her chambers, they were both granted reprieve, fleeting as it were, from the scheming of court life.
"Shi," she started, for that was what she called him in private. It had started as a dirty little secret that she initiated in order to make sense of it all, hoping perhaps that he would dissuade her from being so bold with him but when no admonishment came, she had clung on to it like a lifeline.
"Yes, Concubine Lee?" He asked. She hated that he insisted on calling her by her formal title, but it was an unfortunate eccentricity that she had yet been able to break off him.
"I want to be Empress."
Just like that, their pretence at normalcy was shattered though he did not slow in his ministrations. Silence reigned for a long moment between them.
"The Dowager Empress will never allow it," he finally said. He didn't need to see her to know the indignant look that crossed her expression then. Cutting her off before she could start on one of her tirades, he continued. "I will not allow it."
Whatever she had planned on saying was immediately stolen from her as she sat there in shock. He would have been content to let the matter slip by but she had whipped her head back to look directly at him, eyes narrowed and flashing with defiance. He quelled the inevitable sigh that would follow.
"You should know that this appointment is as much an insult to you as it is to me!" She exclaimed.
"I have the ear of the Dowager and you are favoured by the Emperor," he said, turning her head back towards the mirror. "In no world is that an insult."
He started to comb her hair again but she had stubbornly twisted back in her seat to face him again — the better to stare him down. He gazed calmly back.
"They are too good for me and you are too lowly for them," she insisted. "I am not blind to the way they distance themselves whenever you or I approach. You may not see it, but I do. Even your beloved Dowager does it."
Putting his hands on her shoulders, Han Shi gently, but firmly, guided her to face the front once more.
"If you wish to see insult in every innocuous gesture, then be my guest, Concubine Lee," said Shi calmly, returning the comb to her long hair.
"Such impudence!" She gasped mockingly. "Do you also speak in such a manner to the Dowager Empress, Lord Han?"
He did not dignify that with a response. That she had forgone her usual informality was testament to her current state of irrationality. She glared at him through the mirror, the corner of her lips lifting into a malicious curl.
"Or should I say... Nobi?" She cringed visibly even as she said it. He stilled, lowering his arms stiffly to his side, the comb now tight in his fist.
It was pride perhaps, or hurt, that fuelled her now, eating away at the steel back that she normally presented, but she ploughed on, stumbling further into deeper waters.
"It's fitting, since you're exactly what they say you are now," she said, starting to ramble, as she was wont to do the more nervous she got. "A Chinese dog, a traitor, a Nob-"
"Enough, Min-a!" The comb had snapped in half in his hand; he stared at it, fascinated. It was improper for him to yell like a commoner, let alone to use her given name, but it was too late to take it back.
Her regret and guilt was palpable, rolling off her in waves even as she sat ramrod straight. Though long healed, the brand on his left shoulder sung, reminding him, as clearly as that word did, of his place in the world.
"You've made your point quite clearly, Concubine Lee," he said. She flinched, almost imperceptibly — though he could tell, he always could — at his tone. He took a step back and bowed deeply.
"I find I have other pressing duties to attend to, Concubine Lee," he said, voice slightly muffled by the awkward angle of his position.
"I will send in a maid to finish," he said, straightening up. She was halfway out her seat, her outstretched arm hovering between them. He stared blankly ahead, high above her head level, fixated on the opulent fixtures of her chambers.
"Excuse me," he said and bowed once more before turning and leaving. She wouldn't cry now, not at this moment, but silent tears would fall later, when she's sure she's alone. He'd never see it, but he'd know, he'd always know.
"I didn't know," she said, before he got a chance to speak, before he even moved out of his customary bow. "I didn't know what father did. Not until it was too late."
Ever so deliberately, he straightened, afraid that he'd startle her, afraid that she'd continue, afraid that she'd stop.
"It was supposed to be my sister," she continued. On the table was a lone cup of tea that she stared at unflinchingly. He itched to move it away, but he dared not move.
"But when I found out you were being sent here, I begged him to send me instead," she said. He closed his eyes. "He was delighted, naturally, that his daughter was showing such gumption. It didn't take much to persuade him."
"This wasn't how it's supposed to be," she said. He would have scoffed at that, but such displays were unbecoming and he doubted she'd appreciate it.
"When we were betrothed, I had thought... hoped..." She smiled, almost wistfully.
"Did I ever tell you? When we were children, my father brought in a fortune teller. She had such wonderful tales to spin for my elder brother and sister. I was so eager then. I wanted to know too, of my future, of what lies at the end of my red string. But for me..." She trailed off. For the longest time, she kept silent, staring emotionlessly at that wretched cup and he waited.
"For me, she said that my red string is wounded around my neck. Slowly, it will tighten and eventually, it will strangle me." She reached out and slowly curled her hand protectively around the tea cup on the table. "My father punished her for that. Made her into a Nobi. Just for the crime of predicting a bad future for his daughter."
"Your tea has gone cold, Min-a," he said as he stepped forward, making to change out her stone cold tea for a hot one.
She lifted the tea cup anyway, out of his reach, like he hadn't spoken, and tipped the entire cup, her head tilting back as she swallowed it in its entirety.
"It is warm enough," she said. In a moment, he was right next to her, catching the hand holding the cup before it hit the table. He gently pried the object away from her tight grip. He moved to set it on a side table, as far away from her as he could get it without leaving the room.
"Leave me, Lord Han," she said, turning away from him.
"As you wish, Concubine Lee," he replied. Han Shi walked swiftly towards the doors, acknowledging the dismissal, but instead of bowing briefly and leaving as he would do; he paused and turned around so he faced her, even if she looked steadfastly away. Hae-Joo held his hands up, placing them one over the other and performed the sebae; for all the things that had past and for all the things that would come.
The night would see Concubine Lee spitting blood in bed. By dawn break, she would have passed on. The Emperor would mourn her for a few weeks before selecting the Chinese concubine that had borne him a male heir as the new Empress of Ming.
The second the offending word left his lips, it felt like a curse more potent than any other known. He hadn't given the word much thought before, repeating only what he had heard in his household, especially from his father, in relation to those of a more delicate heritage than his own.
In that startling flash of clarity though, it had carried a completely different meaning. It would be an occurrence that he would try to replicate as he repeated the word to her over the years, saying it like a prayer, but he would never quite regain the same effect.
But right in that instant, on the green grass of the Quidditch pitch, he'd heard her sharp intake of breath as her eyes widened and he had a brief hysteria that she too had the same experience as he did. They'd stared at each other as chaos erupted around them and he found himself glancing too long at the red Gryffindor scarf, tightly looped around her neck to protect against the chilly autumn air.
Their moment ended abruptly however when stupid Weasley and his pathetic attempt at spell-casting had backfired, causing him to vomit slugs all over himself. Granger had rushed immediately to his side, of course, that mothering swot. He wasn't surprised if she was the one who laced Weasel's and Potty's shoes every morning to ensure the two imbeciles didn't trip over themselves and inconvenience everyone else.
He laughed loudly alongside his fellow Slytherins, as the trio rushed away, cataloguing the flaring resentment he felt towards Weasley as part of his natural Malfoy animosity towards all bumbling red-headed fools.
Salome was a mystery to most of Athens. They only knew of her as a hetaira and naught much else. She claimed no origin, had no family to speak of and even her name was rumoured to be a self-appointed one. Yet she had emerged out of nowhere one day and in a short period of time, had Athens eating out of her palms. By all accounts, her inexplicable influence in Athens was an anomaly. Detractors, perplexed by her seemingly unexplained popularity attempted to reduce her status, but always she would rise above the tide and these same detractors would be slyly converted into staunch supporters.
Wild speculations about her, this unknown, formidable, lovely being, spread far and wide. Some swore that she was blessed by the gods; others were adamant that she possessed some divine power herself, though those were less vocal out of fear of being accused of heresy.
Each subsequent tale made her all the more alluring, each fabrication added to her mystery. The simple truth, however, was that when Salome danced, the world stopped to watch.
She had a talent for movement not seen before in any of the Grecian lands. She moved with deceptive ease, full hips swaying with hypnotic grace as she weaved wordless stories through her undulating motions. Hardened men of battle were said to weep uncontrollably while watching her. All manner of creatures were purported to stop in their tracks whenever she started. That she was famed for her great wit as well only added to the beauty and charm she already possessed.
All this served to make her the most sought after hetaira in all the known territories.
Men and women alike came from afar to seek audience with her, most left disappointed. She wanted for nothing and could afford to discern her patrons. Often times, she would disregard the aristocracy and performed instead for the common rabble. Occasionally, she was known to cavort in private with select few of the former and the latter. To be granted a personal reception with her was a privilege few enjoyed. Those that did found their standing greatly increased after the fact.
It was inevitable then, that she'd eventually attract the attentions of the puissant and unsavoury.
Diocles was a man who was not accustomed to being denied. A member of the senate and esteemed speaker of the symposium; he was used to privilege and priority unavailable to even many of his peers. Even generals of great armies afforded him a certain level reverence, unwilling to be the subject of his vexation.
Diocles lived on the belief that it was his innate integrity, honour and nobility that garnered him the respect and adoration of so many others. Others did nothing to dissuade him of the notion, many having seen, first-hand, the consequence of such a fool's errand. Out of earshot, they called him Drakon, the serpent, as oily as the beast in reference.
When Salome casually turned away Diocles' petition, it was the biggest affront anyone had ever directed towards him.
Initially, he had taken it as a challenge. Every denied petition saw a new one returned, accompanied by increasingly lavish gifts, of which she freely gave away. To an outsider, it seemed like the playful push pull of courtship, but to Diocles the increasing stacks of refusal saw his contempt grew.
Gradually, the petitions started to sound less like appeals and more like commands. The usual stream of gifts trickled to nothing and commands turned to ugly threats. Hetaira made their own decisions and she would not be cowed. Altogether, she stopped the polite responses and barred his messengers' entry into her domain.
Salome was secure in her assurance that she was untouchable, but she had underestimated the lengths that Diocles would go to retaliate to perceived insults.
When the invitation for her to join a session in the symposium came, she thought nothing of it. Hetaira opinions were highly valued by the men who graced said forum and she was no stranger to public discourse. It was only when she arrived and noticed she was the only one in attendance that she grew apprehensive.
When Diocles stepped out from the shadows and the doors closed shut behind her that apprehension became dread.
He was leaving Athens, and he had a final gift to give to her, for old times' sake. A doulos came forward bearing a silver tray carrying something covered by blood red silk and presented it to her.
She bit down hard enough on her lip to bleed when the silk fell away; anything to stop her from crying out loud.
There was a soldier she favoured, one she made a point to greet privately whenever he returned from marches. He was unknown, almost inconsequential compared to the usual company she kept. She was fond of him.
Pyrrhus, as red as the cloth that covered him.
Her hands trembled as she reached out for him. The laceration on his neck was jagged and uneven. She closed her eyes before Diocles could see the tears fall.
She thanked him, gracious as could be, for the thoughtful benefaction. In return, she would offer him a dance. Diocles clapped, delighted, and she clutched the severed head to her bosom, holding it tight to her as she swayed and moved to a tune hummed quietly under her breath.
Salome disappeared from Athens soon after, as quietly as she had arrived, leaving no trace of her presence behind.
It took two years of stolen glances and constant analysing for Hermione to conclude that the second year incident wasn't just isolated to her. She was usually brighter than that but she had to be sure that it wasn't just an odd side effect of growing up as a magical person. After all, she knew not the first thing about life as a magical child as Malfoy liked to remind her.
Viktor Krum stood on the bottom of the steps, looking handsome and every bit the heartbreaker Lavender had claimed him to be. She gave him a timid smile as he held his hand out to her. Though it was Viktor Krum's hand that she accepted, it was someone else's unflinching gaze that occupied her thoughts.
It was unfair that Draco Malfoy, the evil little git, should appear so dashing while a simpering Pansy Parkinson hung off his arm like a limpet.
Parkinson was wearing some garish pink thing with tassels and bows, paired with a red shawl. It made her look quite like an overstuffed wedding cake, in Hermione's opinion. There was a tiny stab of guilt at that unvoiced, if vindictive, thought but contrary to popular belief, Hermione Granger was perfectly capable of not playing nice.
Hermione turned away from the couple and focused her attentions instead on her date; she had no intentions of upsetting herself and vomiting her dinner onto the dance floor.
She was laughing and breathless by the time Viktor led her away from the dance to the tables. With all the drama that Ron had been causing lately, she hadn't felt this free in a long while; though strangely enough, dancing had always had an inexplicable calming effect on her.
Viktor barely managed to hand her a drink before he got pulled away by some of his Durmstrang boys. She gave him a reassuring wave as he was manhandled away, smiling back at her apologetically.
Hermione hadn't wanted to look but Pansy was laughing rather obnoxiously and it was proving difficult to ignore that shrill noise. When she saw Pansy had draped her red shawl over Malfoy's head playfully, lightly wrestling to keep it on him, she had nearly dropped her drink. The rather amusing sight of him flailing to get it off did nothing to assuage the rolling dread that pooled at the pit of her stomach.
Suddenly, she wasn't feeling so cheery anymore and as she spied Ron approaching her, fuming, his face an alarming shade of red that clashed horridly with his hair, she had the sinking hunch that her night of fun had just ended.
Some lifetimes they did not ever cross paths. In those, they lived long, content but unfulfilled lives. Those lifetimes were knots that didn't get undone, tangles that didn't get unravelled — wasted.
There was a time when the band lay heavy on Dr Alexander Hertz's arm. It was curious how quickly a curse could become a blessing under different circumstances.
The truth was, despite outward appearances, Dr Alexander Hertz was not a brave man. He had simply run from one pending war only to land in another. Leaving again, however, wasn't an option any longer. Not when Zhu Yi was there.
Before this, before Zhu Yi and Nanjing, Alexander had been in Berlin. Germany was destitute and the Nationalist Socialist Party was the only ones that made promises that reignited the dying fires of the German people.
They had lost; if only that were enough to deter them. Machtergreifung was only the start of it.
The Nuremberg Laws had been the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. Alexander may not have agreed with what the government spouted, but he wasn't a nest stirrer. He touted the Nazi armbands, hailed the Fuhrer and generally kept his head down. His good friend and colleague, David Henkamp, however, was not the type to sit quietly by when he saw what he deemed as injustice taking place all around him.
Things came to a head when David mysteriously disappeared from his flat one night. Nobody spoke about the incident, but it was obvious what had transpired. It hadn't mattered that David's father was as Aryan as they came, David was mischling. Worse, he was a mischling that spoke out in defence of the Jews.
Alexander made a valiant attempt after that to move on but when his workplace, the Fredrich Wilheims University, allowed their books to be taken out into the square and burnt, Alexander applied for the National Central University in Nanjing, China, and left Germany behind.
He met Zhu Yi when she brought in a student, bleeding heavily, to see him. He tried, in his rather broken Mandarin, to explain to her that he wasn't a medical doctor and that she really should take the student to a professional medic. She gave him a rather pointed look then asked, in perfect German, what the bloody hell was he doing then, sitting in the university's nurse's office.
Relieved that he didn't need to stumble through with his dismal language skills anymore, he unhelpfully pointed out that the student was starting to look rather pale and that it couldn't be healthy for him to be losing that much blood. She glared at him and stalked out of the office, dragging the poor student behind her. Not completely incompetent in first aid, Alexander hastily gave chase, carrying a tourniquet with him.
Zhu Yi, as it turned out, was a final year student studying engineering. She was learning German because the Sino-German cooperation had proved to her that the Germans were the best at technology and innovation — if she could communicate then she could trade ideas. It was a disappointment to her that Alexander was not in fact a doctor in engineering either but she continued to seek him out to practice her German and occasionally, to just converse.
For a few years, Alexander knew peace. Zhu Yi graduated and found employment locally, working alongside German mechanics and engineers. She still returned to visit him and he looked forward to these meetings.
But then the Imperial Japanese Army came and suddenly Alexander's horrors were renewed.
He could have fled like so many others. He almost did, but Zhu Yi kept him anchored. As a German and as a member of the Nazi Party, he could afford her protection that she could not get otherwise. He brushed off the dust of his old armband — he didn't even know why he kept it or brought it with him — put it on and helped the few who stayed set up the Nanjing Safety Zone and ventured out, to bring Zhu Yi in.
In people like David and Zhu Yi was where true courage lied. She stayed out as long as she could, rounding up as many civilians as she could find to lead them to safety. She would have stayed longer, maybe even face the Japanese army head on if she had to, but on his insistence, she relented, if only to smooth the concern between his brows.
He felt incredibly selfish, but if it kept her safe, the entire world could go hang for all he cared.
The International Committee tried their best, but they were few against many and none of them were soldiers or fighters. Despite the tentative agreement, Japanese soldiers would enter the zone from time to time, carrying off a few hundred men and women; the former to be executed, the latter to be forced into being comfort women.
The soldiers reminded Alexander of the Krampus, except it wasn't just naughty children who were being carried off and these monsters were actually real.
Each report of a trespass would see Alexander running through the camps, searching frantically for Zhu Yi. Only the sight of her with her fringe pushed back from her face, helping or conversing with another refugee, hair tied up with her usual red ribbon, could calm the massive thundering in his chest.
There had been no report that day.
He'd found her ribbon caught on a branch. He knew it was hers because she had written her name on it, a particular idiosyncrasy of hers. She'd shown him how to write her name in Mandarin once and he never forgot it. Immediately, he'd set off sprinting.
He'd found her. He didn't know how he did, but he found her. She wasn't alone. He hadn't hesitated in punching the Japanese soldier.
He could feel the bones in his hand breaking as a sickening crack came from the man's face. It hurt, but compared to what he was doing to her, he would have punched the man again and again until his knuckles split and wept with blood.
He didn't notice the other soldiers coming up behind him. Hardly felt them pulling him off their comrade, lying on the ground. He barely registered them kicking him as he crumpled from the fist to his stomach, so intent was he on reaching her. She was close, so close.
They took turns holding him down, forcing his eyes open, laughing and speaking in that garbled language of theirs. She was passed between them like a rag doll. They took her again and again and again. Eventually, she stopped screaming. That didn't mean that they stopped.
When it was over — finally, finally, over — they stabbed then shot her.
He crawled forwards, towards her, vision blurring; finally reaching her, touching her, holding her as close to him as he could. Her red ribbon loosened from his grip and flapped away with the light breeze.
Alexander Hertz would later go on to help save thousands of lives with his work in the Committee, though none of it could make up for the one he could not.
The key thing to remember was that Draco Malfoy was not a brave man.
He'd lived more than a year with a psychopath under his roof with crazy Aunt Bella constantly dogging his steps. He'd watch his once formidable father wilt, drinking more and more to cope, his mother faring not much better. He didn't have any more reserved courage in him.
And yet when Potter appeared on his doorstep, stupid enough to get caught by snatchers, face bloated like he'd been stung a million times, Draco had denied identifying him. He had hoped they'd move on from that but when his parents started questioning him about Weasley and Granger he had made some non-committal noises, turning his back to them.
Things might have gone better, at least, if dear Aunt Bella hadn't chosen at that moment to make an appearance. He could have lived without witnessing what came next.
Granger kept screaming denials as Bellatrix screamed curses. The Crucios were persistent and Draco feared she'd end up like the Longbottoms, that is if Bella didn't kill her off first.
Fear, for her, for himself, rooted him and he couldn't look away even if he wanted to. He should reach out, stop this atrocity, tackle Bella to the ground and beat her face bloody. He should, but he didn't. Coward; always was one, always would be. He nearly sobbed when Bella took out one of her cursed daggers.
Granger — Hermione — locked eyes with him then. He didn't avert his gaze and neither did she, not even when Bella started carving her skin up. He nearly choked when he glanced away for a moment to see red ribbons of exposed flesh on her left forearm, the slur barely visible under all that blood.
The relief he felt when Potter came up from the dungeons and disarmed him while Dobby appeared to spirit them away was a cool balm against the wild racing of his heart. But the image of her, lying on the drawing room floor of his ancestral home, fragile body racking with tremors, would continue to haunt him. Later, he'd vomit till all he could taste was bile and still that wouldn't have been enough.
Katerina would soon be dead to the world. She was poslushnik and the time had come for her to be ryasofor. The abbess had deemed her ready a few short days before. The formal service would have been today. Except that she had fled, leaving behind the isorassa and her apostolnik. Though, on hindsight, she should have brought the scarf with her, it would have helped a little when the rain started to fall.
And fall it did as it grew heavier and heavier. Her shoulders started to ache from the extra weight of her soaked clothes and her steps were beginning to falter as the ground became increasingly slicker.
It really was a matter of time before she slipped in the mud and fell. It was just unfortunate that the stone had been positioned right where her head would drop. The last thing she thought before darkness consumed her was that she didn't expect the death to be quite so literal.
If there was one thing she was sure about when she woke up it was that she was definitely not in heaven. It wasn't because she had just fled from a lifetime of service to the Orthodoxy either.
It's just that she was sure heaven wasn't quite this... impoverished.
The room was mostly bare saved for a lone chair, the bed she lay on and a table overflowing with all sorts of plants, herbs and bottles of various shapes and sizes. Some of the bottles were filled and stoppered; others were empty but contained liquid residue. There were bookshelves too that lined the walls. Those were stacked to the brim with books and papers, spilling out even to the floor, a sharp contrast to the rest of the room.
Her saviour was a well-read person then, and judging from the tinctures and book titles she'd managed to glean from her position, he or she was also well versed in home remedies. A folk healer, perhaps?
On that thought, the door opened, drawing her attention to a figure walking in.
He, and there was no mistaking it was a he, was busy poring over some parchment giving no indication that he had noticed that she was awake. She watched him quietly for as long as he paced the room, going from bookshelves to table and back.
"Do you always stare like that?" He asked finally.
"Well, I don't always wake up in a stranger's bed either," she answered. He chuckled; it came out as a deep, rumbling sound, soothing to her nerves.
"Here," he said, picking up a vial from the table and came forward, offering it to her.
She narrowed her eyes and stared at the vial warily.
"It is not poison, if that's what you fear," he supplied. When she continued to do nothing but stare at the object like it had offended her and her mother, he sighed. "Vassily."
Katerina looked up at him incredulously.
"Vassily. That's me. My name," he explained. "Now we're not strangers, not really. I still don't know what to call you, but you are sleeping in my bed and it's the only one I have. So you do have me at a bit of a disadvantage."
"Vasya," she said. He grinned. She gave him a wry smile and took the vial from his outstretched palm. Taking a deep breath, she uncorked it and tipped back the contents of the vial. It tasted foul and she coughed violently.
She noticed, out of the corner of her eye, a hand coming tentatively forwards while she was doubled up coughing. Vassily started to pat her on the back, when she didn't swat his hand away; the pats grew more frequent and surer though they still remained gentle.
"You got quite a nasty bump to the head, the potion will help with the headache," he said. She nodded, throat feeling too hoarse to give him a proper reply. He wordlessly passed her a mug filled with cold water which she accepted gratefully.
"Katerina," she said. A corner of his mouth crinkled at that; she thought it looked quite endearing.
"So, Katya. It's not every day that I meet women, knocked out cold, lying in ditches," he said, a hint of curiosity lacing his tone.
"I... " She trailed off, wringing her fists into the threadbare sheets. A large hand came over hers, patting softly and slowly easing her fists loose.
"I had some things I needed to figure out," she said. "Before I make a decision."
He said nothing but made no move to remove his hand. She turned her palm into his and threaded her fingers through his.
"I have doubts," she confessed.
"Most people do," Vassily pointed out, not unkindly.
She smiled. "I suppose so."
For a while, they lapsed into comfortable silence. In that time, she perused the parchment he had been browsing earlier. The more she read, the stonier her face became.
Katerina sighed, shaking her hand out of his grasp and tapped the piece of paper.
"Keep your head down, Vasya," she said. He smiled but said nothing. Katerina sighed again.
In a few days, Vassily pronounced her healthy enough and she returned to the monastery. She would not meet Vassily again till years later.
There were many words for people like him. Ved'ma, znakhar, vorozhei, koldun... It depended on who you asked. In the end though, what term they used hardly mattered.
She'd heard enough news from the west to know that they often associated those like him with satanic connotations, claiming demonic servitude and possession. The Orthodoxy and the Muscovite courts weren't so vulgar as to subscribe to that belief, but a literate peasant without pre-approved sanction from the Church or State who held no respect for the hierarchy? Now that was dangerous.
Before the trial, there was still hope that this charade would end only in a fine but when Vassily had to be almost dragged out, half black from the visible bruises and God knows what else, she had to consciously stop herself from hunching over and burying her face like a scared child. It was unfortunate that in this barbaric practice, they still shared similarities with their western counterparts. Her robes itched and she had to struggle not to fidget.
The only consolation she got was that the trial ended quickly. The judge, in accordance with the wishes of the people and judgment of the courts, sentenced him to be burned at the stake at sundown.
"Katya," he said, a tiny smile curling the corner of his mouth. "I see you've rid yourself of your doubts." He nodded slightly, wincing in pain at the movement, indicating her exorassa and epanokamelavkion. She smiled back.
"It is Mariya now," she said. "The doubts are still there. They're just quieter."
"Masha," he conceded. "I think I like Katya better." He leaned back, placing the back of his head against the wall, and closed his eyes.
"You should have listened to me, Vasya," she said, searching his face. Searching for what, she wasn't sure. Regret, maybe. He cracked one eye open and peered at her.
"I've never been very good at listening to others," he shrugged.
"No, I suppose not," she said. For the longest time, all she did was study him while he avoided her gaze.
"When will this end, Vasya?" She asked. At last, he faced her and now it was his turn to look.
"At sundown," he said. "If we're lucky."
"Are we?" She asked. He seemed to consider this but finally shook his head.
"No," he answered. "Not yet." She cast her eyes down and bit her lip. Fingers brushed lightly against hers and she looked up to that crinkle at the corner of his mouth.
"Pray for me, Masha," he said.
"I cannot give you absolution, Vasya," she frowned, twitching slightly in her increasingly uncomfortable robes.
"I think we're far passed that," he said, smiling sadly. He held a palm out towards her. "You'll stay, won't you?"
She slipped her hand into his and squeezed gently.
The flames crackled red around him as he looked up into the sky.
She didn't leave until long after the embers have cooled.
There was only one word to describe the Room of Hidden Things in that instant and that was 'hell'.
Hermione had searched and searched for white blond hair but the flames made it difficult to see. When she'd heard the thin, piteous scream coming from below, she had whipped her head towards it so fast she thought she could hear her neck crack. Ron, who had control of their broom, was yelling at Harry that it was too dangerous but Harry, dear, sweet Harry with his saving people thing had gone back for them.
Ron cursed under his breath but ultimately followed Harry's lead and wheeled around to help. He grunted as he and Hermione lifted the dead weight that was Goyle onto their broom. The broom rolled and pitched with the extra weight and for a minute she feared that this time, she'd be the one to perish in the fire but Ron had managed to straighten out the broom and the anxiety passed.
When they got to the door and Harry wasn't behind them, panic rose in her chest. Then Harry came careening into the corridor wall and she released a breath she didn't realise she was holding.
Draco stumbled off the broom behind Harry, landing facedown, gasping, coughing, retching, but very much alive. Crabbe wasn't, but this was war and she had ceased being a stranger to Death a long time ago.
There was no time for rest and the three of them left the seventh floor corridor, leaving the two Slytherins still slumped on the floor.
Maybe luck was on their side this time.
The only thing William of Hastings knew to do was fight. Give him a sword, point him in the right direction and he'd cut through a swathe of your enemies. So when the call came to take the cross, he hadn't thought much about it. William wasn't a particularly religious man; neither did he believe the promises of glory and honour that they spun. Only fools believed that glory could be found in battlefields drenched with blood, but England held no appeal to him and he longed for distant lands.
It was in Jerusalem that he first saw her likeness. William was pacing through the bazaar on patrol duty with another Templar, when he spied a portrait being sold on display. The effect on him was immediate and unexpected. He'd found himself rooted to the spot, eyes unable to tear away from her lovely form. It was just oil on canvas, but it was almost like she was right there in front of him, in the flesh.
He didn't know how long he stood there, staring slack-jawed till Malfoi's worried face appeared in front of him, asking, in his French-accented English if something was wrong. He'd had to shake himself off and pull himself away before his fellow Templar could see what had bind his attention so. It wasn't that he was afraid that he'd be reported by Malfoi — the man had secrets of his own — but he had an annoying penchant for teasing and William wasn't keen on the inevitable smarminess that only Malfoi could affect if he found out about his infatuation.
The next few days were spent in feverish dreams as he fought to move on from the painting, fought to keep away from this budding obsession. He'd even went as far as to subtly switch patrol duties around so he wouldn't be assigned to the bazaar, but she had already laid her mark and he was weak, powerless to resist.
He'd succumbed and asked around about the subject of the painting. It turned out it was the famed Shahrazad, wife of the sultan, beloved figure of the people. He'd heard how she single-handedly broke a siege using only peaceful means. Her deeds since then had only multiplied. William felt his heart sank. The gulf between them seemed insurmountable.
The days following that were spent in a depressive gloom. The reality of his circumstance weighed heavily on him and to add insult to injury, he was too poor to afford a painting of his own. Thus, he couldn't have been more surprised to find one, stashed discreetly amongst his precious few belongings.
If Malfoi noticed the healthier pallor on his friend's complexion, he'd kept his opinions to himself. If William noticed the slight knowing look Malfoi got whenever they shared a glance, he'd declined to speculate.
Nevertheless, William was grateful. He'd taken out the painting from its frame, carefully folded it and kept it on him, always.
It hadn't surprised William when they started squabbling. What did was that it took them so long. The nobility often behaved remarkably like children, he'd observed. He found himself wondering, not for the first time, if it was being noble that made people that way or if it was just an inherent trait from all that inbreeding.
He'd walked out, disgusted, when the Baron began yelling, his face getting more and more purple by the minute. While the Muslim forces were dismantling the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the men who were supposed to lead and defend them were here, wasting their time, arguing amongst themselves. William had had enough; he didn't have to deal with this. Let the Grand Master do all the talking, William was content to keep his battles to the field.
He was sharpening his sword when the scout came running through the camp with the single determination of a man bearing grave news. William stopped him before the man could fling himself into the main tent, where the bickering was still going strong. Intercepting the missive, he sent the harried scout on his way to find food and rest.
His eyes grew dark as he read the message. The Muslim army had laid siege to Tiberias. And worryingly enough, they had somehow gained the alliance of the Druze community.
William grimaced and rubbed his temples, anticipating an incoming migraine. If he thought the yelling was bad now, it would undoubtedly be worse once he relayed this message to the Grand Master. This time, he wouldn't be able to escape so easily either.
A foreboding sense of dread was brewing in him. It had started when they'd begun their march from Sephoria and had only gotten worse when they left Tur'an behind. They had been nine miles away from Tiberias and with only half a day left, William had tried to persuade the Grand Master to stay in Tur'an where water flowed freely. His pleas had fallen on deaf ears and he'd kicked sand around in a rage till Malfoi told him to stop before he got it in everyone's eyes.
His worries were confirmed when the Muslim army attacked. It was made worse when the scouts reported that the enemy had captured Tur'an.
Now grounded to a halt with nowhere to go, the situation was as dire as could be. They were forced to make camp while surrounded by their enemy who taunted them by singing and praying through the night.
Dawn break brought no relief. Any attempts at advance or retreat were blocked. Exhausted and demoralized, many deserted, escaping to Hattin. William stayed and fought, but it was to no avail. When the True Cross fell to the hands of the Muslim, he knew that all was lost.
After their defeat, the nobles were separated from the rabble and taken elsewhere, along with the Grand Master. William didn't know where they were taken to, neither did he care. He himself was stuffed into a holding with Malfoi, and was left to contemplate their fate. Or at least he was. Malfoi left soon after, though not before bidding him farewell.
There was a strange, still quiet to the place that was unnerving. He almost wished that Malfoi was still there, if only for the comfort of another living being. Alone in the dark, he wasn't sure how long he sat, shivering, thoughts drifting off on delirious tangents. The thirst and exhaustion was finally catching up to him.
William only stirred from his haze when a hand thrust a muslin cloth at him. It was a deep, rich red and of fine make. He'd never seen cloth of such quality before. Though cold and he suspected, slightly feverish, he hesitated in taking the proffered item, feeling oddly like he'd contaminate it with his filth.
"It is chilly here," a voice spoke, unmistakably female. His heart skipped a beat. "You're shivering. Take it." This time she pushed it right into his hands, brokering no argument. He unfurled his clenched fists and took it, feeling the softness beneath his callous tips.
He didn't need to see her to know who it was that stood before him.
"I do believe you weren't alone," Shahrazad said. "Where is your friend?"
"Malfoi..." he paused, "Émeric," he relented. Émeric had chided him about it long enough. That he only gave in after he had gone, well, William would just have to find another way to make it up to the man who stood by him like a brother and gave him so much.
"He left. Said he overstayed his welcome. I'm sure you understand," he said, gesturing dismissively at the empty air around him.
"He would abandon his brother in arms?" Shahrazad asked.
"He offered," William shrugged. And that was the truth. "Insisted, really. I chose to stay."
"He has family he'd like to visit, in England. He's never been, but they write letters to him when he was still in France. He kept them. Let me read some," he supplied further. "Me? My place is not there."
"And it's here?" she questioned, incredulous. William hummed but offered no more explanation.
Shahrazad crouched to peer at him, though she kept a respectful distance between them, which was just as well, since he wasn't sure he would have been able to keep his hands to himself.
"I have asked my husband for clemency. He will at least ensure that it will be quick and painless."
"You're too kind, mi'lady." He sounded bitterer than he had intended but he didn't think he could be blamed for that. He wasn't surprised that this was how it would be for him. He was after all, just one of many pawns.
"Do not mock me. He is not a bloodthirsty man, but he has to do this," she said, looking away, as if ashamed. Good, he hoped she was. "You know that."
"Mayhaps I do," he sneered. A pinprick of guilt needled at his chest when he saw her eyes harden. He wasn't being fair, he was aware of that, but he thought he was being rather gracious, considering.
Still, it wouldn't do to push her away now.
"Does he know this as yours?" He asked, caressing the cloth like it was his lover. She stared at his fingers, mesmerized.
"No," she whispered.
"Then I shall wear it as my favour," he said.
"Do as you will, Sir William," she said. He chuckled, low and amused.
"I'm no sir," he said. "I'm nothing but a fisherman's son from Hastings."
She looked at him then, long and hard, her gaze calculating before it turned slightly thoughtful. What a sight he must be to her. Days old stubble covering his chin, body covered still with the evidence of battle. There was a cut on his forehead that he hadn't given much thought to during battle that was now starting to sting in the dry air. He fought the urge to rub against it.
"There is much that I do not know," she said at last.
"There is," he agreed. Unspoken words hung heavy between them.
"Keep it safe," she said, standing up and starting to walk away.
A grimy hand shot out and caught hers in it. She flinched slightly but allowed it, though she resolutely kept her back towards him. William pressed his lips carefully, tenderly, over the back of her hand.
"On my life." She was far too polite to comment when she felt the wetness on the back of her hand and he was far too gone to notice the slight trembling of her shoulders.
In the whisper of a second, she'd departed, leaving him in that eerie silence once more.
Potter had done it. Somehow, the scarhead had managed to achieve the improbable and fulfilled his prophecy. Draco hadn't been in the final battle and his family had slipped away quietly before the end of it so he didn't know the specifics, but of the Dark Lord's defeat, that he was sure. He could see it in his mother's posture, like a great burden had been lifted from her. And he could see it in the slump of his father's shoulders. The man himself seemed broken and untethered, like a lost child, leaning on his mother even as they walked the familiar pathway of his home.
Draco didn't know if this was really home to him anymore, but for now, it would suffice. And if he were forced to stay here, he'd make it feel like, if not his home then a home, once more.
He'd remove the portrait of Grand Uncle Émeric from the attic, banished there for 'corrupting the young' and restored him to his rightful place in the ancestral portrait hall.
He aired out the rooms and with the help of the house elves, gradually erased the existence of the Dark Lord and his merry band of followers from the manor. The drawing room, he avoided altogether, opting to let his mother deal with it. It gave her something to do and he'd quietly delighted in the return of her vigour.
He often wondered how Hermione was — if she thought of him as often as he did her. There were times when the temptation to write her had been great, but he'd clutch at his shirt until the urge passed while Émeric looked on disapprovingly.
For a short while, he found peace in the simplicity of established routine, but he couldn't hide forever. They'd come for him eventually, and he was so tired of running.
When the Aurors arrived on his doorstep to take him and his family, he'd submitted readily without protest.
"I half expected you to be gone," an amused voice came from somewhere beyond the bars that kept him from freedom, jolting him from his reverie.
Draco let out a surprised bark of laughter that turned boisterous the longer it went on. He turned to seek the source of the voice and saw Hermione's amused mien grinning at him as he clutched helplessly at his sides.
Hermione rolled her eyes at him while he gasped and wheezed, but there was fondness in her gaze as she watched the usually sullen blond get caught up in the throes of mirth. Eventually, he petered out into giggles and the occasional un-Malfoy-like snort. It hadn't been that funny but he hadn't laughed like that in so long and he needed it. So did she.
"The Ayubbids were a little neglectful with their anti-apparition wards," Draco conceded. "Can't say the same for the newly minted Ministry."
"They are more thorough, yes," she said, honey-brown eyes twinkling while they shared in their little private joke. He could do this with her forever, if only he were allowed to.
"Where's Saint Potter and the Weasel?" he asked, more out of habit than actual curiosity. "I'm surprised they let you out of their sight. Aren't they afraid I'd murder you, big bad Death Eater that I am? Never mind that I'm wandless at the moment."
"They aren't my keepers, Malfoy," she sniped, bushy hair huffing as it was wont to do whenever she was annoyed. He smirked, inordinately pleased that he could still get a rise out of her.
"Draco," she said and he went so still she thought he'd stopped breathing. Then he'd let out a shuddering breath and it was ridiculous — or maybe not — how great her relief was.
"Why are you here?" He demanded. "What could a war heroine want with a worthless Death Eater like me? What could I possibly offer you now?" He'd stood, sometime in the middle of his tirade, yelling into her face, only just stopping short of banging his fists against the bars.
She remained unfazed in the presence of his misplaced anger. It irritated him.
"You're not worthless," she started. He scoffed disbelievingly, and she continued like he hadn't made a sound. "I'm here because of your trial - "
"Clemency, mi'lady?" He interrupted, still bristling.
A slow smile spread across her face and it was like the sun had risen from behind the clouds. Draco sighed longingly, an unconscious gesture. He'd bask in it for as long as she let him. Slowly, she shook her head.
"An end," she declared. His eyes widened and he jerked his head back so he could see her clearly. His eyes roved her face, searching for the hint of a lie; anything for it not to be what it seemed like — a cruel taunt.
Hermione placed a hand through the bars, wordlessly asking for his. He gave it to her without second thought. Her hands moved, like she was tying something on him. Draco didn't bother to look, keeping his gaze only on her face; she could do whatever she wanted to him if it meant that what she had said was the truth.
Draco keenly missed her warmth when she returned his hand to him. She tilted her head at him, directing a pointed gaze downwards. He followed her line of sight and finally saw what she had done. She had wound a piece of red string around his finger like a ring, marking him, as if he wasn't already hers to begin with.
"What is it?" He asked, fascinated by the way it stood out so starkly against his paleness. Slowly, she reached out, cupping his chin and drawing his gaze up to her. Her thumb traced the contours of his cheekbone and he leaned in, ever so slightly, yielding to her touch.
"A promise," she whispered.