Cursed Be this Soul (that Ties Us Together)
Summary: "Invisible threads are the strongest ties" - Friedrich Nietzsche. Across universes, Hermione meets her soulmate throughout time and space. The ties that bind them together could be the very thing two lonely individuals need or it could destroy them both.
Note: the rare-pair soulmate AU x-over that no one asked for.
Not everyone had soulmate marks.
It was a cultural phenomenon that occurred in every one in five, the not having a mark, and theoretically, there was nothing wrong with that.
At least, that's what her mum told her, often and constantly, especially when Hermione would come home from nursery crying that all the other children had symbols and names all over their bodies - on shoulders, wrists, hips, chests - and that she was going to grow old and die without ever meeting that one.
Until the day Hermione woke up and found her soulmark.
It was a weekend, the start of summer term, and her father had promised to take her to the British Museum because they had a new exhibit about medieval agriculture - or horticulture - or maybe it was something, but "culture" was definitely implied, and Hermione, who absorbed all kinds of knowledge, needed to go.
That morning, she brushed her teeth (one minute, each side, inside and outside, like her dentist mother taught her), and as she looked at her reflection on the step stool, from behind incredibly bushy hair and bleary eyes, she saw something strange on the inside of her right wrist.
She spat out the mint toothpaste, blinking and rubbing at her eye with her left hand to rub the sleep from it, and stared at the bruise-like mark.
But it's not a bruise, she thought, fascination growing within as she carefully set her toothbrush down - still frothy with paste - to run her left fingers over the howling wolf within a shield, a stack of books with a baton beneath the wolf. It was her soulmark, the merging of her with her other half, the symbols that represented them.
Giddy, she returned to brushing her teeth, but it was hard from behind a wide, beaming smile.
And later, when she whipped through the medieval section at the museum, she examined each and every shield she could find, to see if any matched the same design on her wrist; to see if there were any famous wolves.
She wouldn't stop searching for several years to come.
Ned was nine the first time he ever saw - and officially met - his soulmate.
Brandon, at eleven, had just left after his Name Day to foster with House Ryswell, and his two younger siblings, Lyanna and Benjen, were barely six and five. They were hardly of an age to play with him!
Sulking, Ned hid in the Broken Tower, at its base, kicking at the dirt with his feet. He was hiding there before returning to the Eyrie, where he was fostering. He had only come back to see Brandon for his Name Day, but the meeting had been short, now that he was gone, too.
A soft sound of surprise had his head dart up.
"Who're you?" he asked, eyeing the girl with very bushy brown hair in strange boy's clothes.
She eyed him just as strangely. "Who're you?" she retorted, bossily. She placed her hands on her hips and stuck out her lower chin. "Where am I? How did I get here?"
Beyond her strange clothes, she also sounded strange - not Northern at all, and her two front teeth were very large, almost giving her a slight lisp. She was so demanding though! Like Lyanna when she wanted to get her way and expected it, but Ned had never seen her before.
"You're in Winterfell," he answered carefully. "What House are you from? I've never seen you before. Did you come with your Lord Father?"
"My what?" she gapped at him. "House? Um… I suppose Granger. That's my last name. You are asking for my last name, aren't you?"
Ned nodded slowly. "Aye, my Lady."
She laughed. "I'm not a lady! I'm Hermione. How do you do?"
She stuck out her hand and he looked down at it, and then her, and then stepped forward quickly and grabbed it, kissing the back. She snatched her hand back and held it to her chest.
"What was that for?" she snapped.
"You offered it!" he replied hotly.
"Not for a kiss! Don't you know anything?" she asked, her ire turning to exasperation. She shook her head and her hair flowed everywhere.
That was rather fascinating, thought Ned, but then he realized what she said and scowled. "I'm not stupid! You take that back!"
"I didn't say you were stupid," the girl - Lady Hermione - practically gasped. "I wouldn't!"
The two scowled and eyed each other in the Broken Tower, glowering and Ned was unable to think of a retort. If Brandon were here, he thought instead, he'd know exactly what to say. Even Lyanna would have a response!
"What's your name?" Hermione finally asked, inching a bit closer across the dirt floor.
He shuffled a bit, and toed the dirt, making a sweeping line. "Ned." He cleared his throat and spoke louder. "Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell, son of Rickard and Lyarra."
The girl smiled, almost shyly, a complete difference to their initial words. "It's nice to meet you, Eddard."
Something compelled him to say, "Ned - ah. I'm… call me Ned."
Her two large front teeth gleamed brightly white in the dimness of the Tower. "Ned."
The two grinned at one another. Then:
"NED? WHERE ARE YOU?"
Lyanna's voice broke the companionable silence between the two, and Ned whirled to see Lyanna barge through the door at the base of the Tower, her braided hair flowing behind her and red on her cheeks.
"There you are! Old Nan is looking for you," she said, breathlessly.
"Oh!" replied Ned, turning to her. "I'm sorry -" he turned back to Hermione to apologize and offer her his arm, but the Tower was empty except for him and Lyanna, and the dirt undisturbed where she was standing.
"Ned? Is something wrong?"
Slowly, Ned shook his head, his eyes moving from the last spot he saw Hermione - "No, nothing, Lyanna. Sorry."
There's nothing there, he told himself, walking out of the Tower. He had imagined it all.
The toilets weren't her first choice to hide, but she had been coming there for the last few weeks as Halloween crept closer and closer.
"Stupid, stupid, Hermione," she chided herself, pulling her bony legs up and hugging them to her chest as she sat on the lid to the toilet. "Of course they don't want your help! Bossy know-it-all!"
Her eyes were puffy and her nose ran, and Hermione didn't need to see her reflection in the mirrors to know that she looked like the nightmare that Ron Weasley called her.
A scuffle and a bang caught her attention, but the muffled curse made her tentatively call, "Hello? Who's there?"
"... Lady Hermione?"
Blinking in shock, Hermione threw open the bathroom stall door and stared hard at the gangly-looking boy in front of her, looking in awe around the bathroom. He was taller than when she last saw him; his hair was straight, a dark, muddy brown, but his clothes - his clothes! What a strange combination of hand spun wool tunics and tanned trousers, as well as leather boots… something more out of a medieval tapestry than London.
"Ned! You're here!" she blurted.
His grey eye widened, and he looked her up and down, from her Gryffindor jumper to her skirt - his eyes widened more - and her gold-and-scarlet striped knee socks.
"Lady Hermione!" he gasped. "What are you wearing?"
He shucked off his - Hermione's eyes narrowed. Cloak? - and draped it over her, covering the front of her knobby knees. He was blushing a furious red and quickly looked away.
Finally, he said, "Where are we?"
"I thought that was my line," she replied with a small smile, but then answered, "The first-floor girls' toilet."
"We're in a…" a green hue appeared on his face, "A privy?"
Privy? She mouthed. "Yes." She paused. "In Hogwarts."
"Where is that? Somewhere in the South?" asked Ned, turning to face her again. "By the way, where did you go? I asked everyone, Maester Orwen, and Father, about House Granger. No one knew anything."
"... we're in Scotland," said Hermione slowly. "That's north."
Ned narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "But I'm from the North!"
The two stared at each other for a moment or two longer. Then, Ned asked, looking slightly uncomfortable, "Are you alright? Were you… um…" he gestured vaguely in her face.
Hermione blinked for a moment, and then her eyes widened and she brought both hands to her mouth. "Oh!"
She rushed to a nearby sink and stared at her reflection in dismay. Her eyes were puffy and red-rimmed, and her cheeks and nose were distinctly red. It was obvious she had been crying. Muttering under her breath, Hermione twisted the faucet and ran the cold water, just as Ned sidled up to her to look in fascination.
"It's a tap, Ned," she said, almost fondly. "Don't you have these in Winterfell?"
He looked from the tap to her, grinning. "You remembered!"
"Of course I did." She blushed and looked down at her hands, which she ran under the water and then reached up to pat her closed eyes.
Ned reached out a finger and ran it under the water, with delight on his face at how cold it was. "I wasn't sure you were real. But… I can feel this."
Hermione met his eyes - a light, warm brown and stormy grey - in the reflection of the mirror. "I thought I was hallucinating. One second I was talking to you, and then I was back in my room, at home."
"There were no marks on the dirt," agreed Ned. "But… you're real. I know it. How?"
Any answer Hermione could have given was aborted by the smashing in of the bathroom door. Wind splintered everywhere, a chunk catching Hermione's cheek and raising blood. She screamed.
A roar answered her back, and both Hermione and Ned looked up to see a large, lumbering green humanoid in leather raise its club above its head. It roared again and snuffled, taking a thundering step forward.
Hermione screamed again, but it stopped the moment Ned grabbed her hand and yanked her back, towards the stalls and behind him.
"You'll have to get through me, first, beast!" he shouted. Hermione watched as he drew a short, small dagger from his belt, holding it at waist height as he bent his knees for balance.
"Troll!" stuttered Hermione. "It's not a beast, it's a troll!"
She tugged on the back of his tunic and together and backed up until Hermione was pressed against a closed stall door. "What do we do? Oh, God, what do we do?"
"Troll, beast, it makes no difference!" replied back Ned, both watching as the troll moved closer. "Just stay behind me, Lady Hermione!"
"Stay behind you!" she shrieked. "You're not a knight in shining armour, Ned! That's a troll! It's a Class-4 beast! It would take an Auror out!"
Ned turned a bit to stare at Hermione. "A what?"
Just as the troll brought the club down, Ned pushed Hermione out of the way, forcing her to huddle under the sinks, while he went in the opposite direction towards the stalls, ahead of where they were pressed. Hermione kept her eyes on the gangly boy, who rolled and came up in a crouch. As he did so, the sleeve of his tunic slipped up, and there, on his right wrist, was a dirty smudge that could be mistaken for a bruise.
The troll turned, picking Ned as his target.
It raised the club again, readying its next swing when a shout had it turn in surprise. "Oy, ugly!"
Hermione's mouth dropped open as Harry Potter and Ron Weasley brandished their wands and decided to pick a fight with the bigger creature in the room, Harry lobbing a bit of wood at its head.
Good idea! She thought, turning back to tell Ned to grab something - but the stall space was empty. He was gone.
The Eyrie wasn't so bad, and in all honesty, Ned had gotten used to it over the past few years. He had barely returned home to Winterfell, bonding with his foster-brother, Robert Baratheon, a robust young teen the same age as him; but where Ned as taciturn, Robert was gregarious, and where Ned was studious, Robert was active.
And usually, they complimented each other well, even with their differences. But sometimes, Ned just needed a bit of peace and quiet, and when they happened, he retreated to his rooms, taking a moment of reflection to stare out his bedroom window over the views of plunging cliffs and far-off forests behind the soaring peaks of the Eyrie.
"This is quite nice."
Ned almost knew to expect it and turned.
Hermione had grown, since he last saw her, just as he started to shoot up in height and put on stockier mass. Her hair was still bushy, but it was less bush and more wave, but still a honey-brown. She too had grown and was a bit more willowy than all knees and elbows, but she was still dressed as provocatively as the last.
He sighed. "Don't you hear anything that covers your knees?"
"That's not the fashion where I'm from," she said, tilting her head a bit to the side. "I did some more research, you know. In the library, that is, at Hogwarts."
"Oh?" he asked, warily.
She nodded, biting her lip. There was a moment of hesitance, and then she strode forward. Ned panicked and backed up.
"Whoa - wait - what -"
He kept retreating until his back was pressed against his desk, the edge of his pressing painfully into the small of his back as he leaned away until Hermione was standing toe-to-toe, peering up at him in amusement.
"Arm," she instructed.
"I beg your pardon?" he replied, his voice raising an octave and cracking. His eyes kept darting from hers to her lips and then to her chest, which was nearly flushed with his, and then back up to her eyes. He blushed a furious red.
"Your right arm, Ned," she huffed, reaching out for it and tugging it towards her.
Sparks shot up his arm as her bare fingers grazed his flesh and he held his breath. Does she feel it, too? He wondered, eyes searching her face, but she was intently pushing his sleeve up. Suddenly, he knew what she was looking for.
"No - no, Hermione, no!" he scrambled to yank the sleeve back down with his free hand. Panic and shame welled up from his stomach and the two grappled over his sleeve, Hermione also reaching for his arm with her free hand until their limbs were tangled and she was flush against him.
They both froze.
"Please, Ned," she whispered, staring up at him, as he had several inches on her. "I just want to see - to know - your soulmark -"
"Soulmark?" he gapped. "Is that what you call it? It's a curse. Nothing more."
Her thin brows furrowed. "A curse? What…"
Confusion flitted across Hermione's face and she eased back from him until there were several feet between them. When Ned said nothing, Hermione rolled up the sleeve to her red jumper - which Ned noted with some distaste was in pure Lannister colour, mayhaps she was a Lannister? - baring her curse mark.
"Where I'm from," she began softly, watching him, "It's called a soulmark. Some people are born without them. Most are born with them. It's a physical marking of the other half of your soul - someone who balances out all your positive and negative traits to create the perfect combination."
Ned's eyes greedily traced the shape - the familiar, family sigil of the direwolf in the shield - and then the odd additions of the books and baton, which had confused him for so long. It matched the one on his right wrist, exactly.
"Why is yours a curse mark?"
"Because almost everyone who has one never finds their other half," answered Ned, just as quietly as her. "And those that do find their other half are doomed. Their lives end painfully, and often violently. That's why we've done politically alliances for thousands of years instead of love matches - to stop the destruction of paired cursemarks."
Hermione looked thoughtfully at her soulmark. "I suppose you're right…"
"My lady?" Ned's head snapped up. "What do you mean?"
"Well," she sighed, moving to sit on his bed, which made him flush. "According to my research… well, it seems that although you are my soulmate, Ned - um… well, there's no real easy way to say this - that is, I believe that - oh, bother -"
"Hermione," he said gently, stepping forward. "What?"
"I think we exist in different universes, at different times, and it's only through our mark that we have these…" she fumbled over the word, "meetings."
"Oh," said Ned, his knees a bit shaky. Then, "oh."
Hermione looked at him from beneath her lashes. "Yeah. Oh."
Slowly, Ned wandered over and then sat next to her on the bed. "So. We - uh - we won't actually - that is - be -"
"Together?" finished Hermione dryly. "No. I don't think so. Not unless one of us somehow ends up permanently in each other's world." She looked around. "Speaking of - where am I?"
Ned cleared his throat. "Westeros."
"Westeros," said Hermione, testing out the name.
"And... um, and you?" asked Ned, glancing shyly at Hermione from the corner of his eyes.
"Oh. Yes. Um, Britain. Er - that is, I'm currently at Hogwarts, my school," she stumbled over her words. "That is, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. That's in Scotland. But I grew up in London, and that's in England, but technically both are Britain, which is another name for the United Kingdom."
"United Kingdom?" interrupted Ned, looking wide-eyed with her information dump. "How can kingdoms be united? Do they not fight if there are different kings?"
Hermione blinked. "Well, we don't have a king - we have a Queen - and she's more a figurehead than a ruler…" She sighed. "This makes no sense to you, does it?"
"No," grinned Ned. "Your world sounds so strange."
"I bet if you tried explaining yours, it would sound weird to me, too!" She ended up nudging his shoulder, he nudged hers back, and then they were both giggling and laughing.
There was a boom on his closed bedroom door, and then a loud voice, asking, "Ned? By the Gods Ned, is that a girl I hear? Are you with a girl?"
Ned winced, standing up from the bed and launching himself halfway across to avoid any embarrassment of being caught with a girl in his room. "Uh - just a moment, Robert!"
"Ned?! C'mon Ned!"
He turned to apologize to Hermione, but the bed was empty. He paused a moment and said, softly, "Goodbye, Hermione," but no one answered him.
"You haven't been sleeping."
Hermione sighed and dropped her quill onto the library table. It made a clattering noise, but it was late at night, the library was nearly empty, and she was in a far corner, oft forgotten about by all but Madam Pince, likely.
Instead, she turned in her seat and eyed the teenager who leaned against the thick wooden shelf, his arms crossed as he frowned at her from beneath his dark brown hair, which fell into his grey eyes.
"Hello to you, too," she grumbled, turning back to her table, ignoring him. She kept her eyes forward and on the thick book in front of her, pretending to read the page, but she was merely squinting at the swirling text.
"What's this you're reading?" Ned asked, his breath warm on her cheek as he leaned over her shoulder. Hermione sat still, her heartbeat suddenly racing. "By the Gods, Hermione - what kind of text is this?"
"It's a law text," she said, snippily. "And if you excuse me, I have a lot of notes I need to take to help a friend. We're building a case, you see, against the Ministry. An odious, loathsome beast of a boy is trying to get a hippogriff executed for being itself."
Ned drew back. "A hippogriff? What kind of world is this, Hermione? I know you mentioned something about… witchcraft… last time, but really?"
Sighing, Hermione swung her legs out from under the desk, hitting her knees with Ned's shins, and drew her wand from her robe pocket. "Leviosa redire," she intoned. The open books around her slammed shut and began to float back to their homes on the shelves, some near and other further away.
Ned's eyes were wide and his mouth open as he watched the books bob gently as they floated along, disappearing down the stacks.
"Gods above," he breathed, turning his eyes to her.
Hermione frowned, suddenly very afraid. Was he going to hate her? Fear her?
"That was amazing," he continued, his voice low. It was no longer cracking, but verging on a deepening. His eyes turned to her. "Hermione, what else can you do? Is that what you're here for? Are you being trained?"
Hermione nodded slowly. "Yes - I'm a third year, but I… I read ahead."
"And - these creatures…" Ned frowned. "A hippogriff. Half eagle, half horse. My friend, the Groundskeeper here, Hagrid - well, he was teaching us about them and they're proud creatures, you see? And this boy - Draco Malfoy -"
Hermione grinned. "Oh, I know - anyway, he wasn't listening to the instruction, and because of it, he insulted Buckbeak, and of course Buckbeak attacked him, but he's completely fine and just playing up his injury. He's got his father - he's a very important man in the Ministry, that is - to sign off on Buckbeak's death if I can't come up with ways to help Hagrid get him off on the charge. And of course, Hagrid is devastated -"
"Hermione," said Ned gently.
Hermione flushed a bright pink. "I - oh - sorry."
Ned grinned down at her, and two dimples appeared in his cheeks. Hermione's blush deepened. He nudged her knees with his shins, urging her to go back beneath the desk. Once she did so, he slid into the empty seat beside her and tugged her notes towards him, picking up her abandoned quill, expertly handling it.
"Now," he said, "I've had quite a few lessons from my father and Maester, as well as Lord Arryn. I think between the two of us, we can figure something out to help this Buckbeak…"
It was strange returning to Winterfell; he had lived there for eight years before being fostered in the Vale, but even though he had been with Jon Arryn for almost half his life, the Eyrie felt more like home now than the familiar walls of his birth.
Although, thought Ned darkly, he probably only felt that way because he had been summoned back for Lyanna's Name Day feast and Brandon was trying to get him to dance with Barbrey Ryswell.
"Oh, c'mon Ned," cajoled his older brother, a wicked glint in his grey eyes. He had a single arm thrown around Ned's shoulders, almost hooking around his neck as he drew his brother close. "Barbrey's great fun. And she really knows how to dance."
Ned grimaced. How do I tell my brother I have no interest in dancing with any of these girls, least of all Barbrey Ryswell? "I'd really rather not, Brandon."
"What?" Brandon gasped, drawing back to eye him. He had a goblet of wine in his other hand and it sloshed a bit over the rim. "Eddy… What's wrong?"
The grimace deepened at the childhood nickname. He much preferred 'Ned.' "I just… I'm not interested in dancing."
Brandon eyed him from beneath his wild hair, messy and long. He had sideburns growing into the stubble of his beard. Ned thought he was trying to grow a mustache, too. "You're… you are interested in women, aren't you, brother?"
"Aye," grit out Ned, easing out from under Brandon's suddenly loose arm. "I just don't… I don't want to dance with Barbrey, Brandon." His mouth turned down. "Like you said, you know she… dances well. And I don't want to be a second-place prize."
Brandon's mouth thinned as he realized what Ned implied. "I see little brother." He sighed. "But if you're going to just sit here and mope, do it elsewhere would you? Our darling little sister sent me here to find out why you're so grumpy. So be grumpy out of the Hall, will you? At least until this mood of yours passes. And then come back and be prepared to spoil Lya."
Ned winced at the idea of his sister catching him in a mood. She'd be relentless in discovering why - and how could he tell her that it was because he hadn't seen his soulmate in just over a years' turn now? He rubbed his thumb over the mark and nodded once to his brother before strolling out of the Hall, weaving between drunken household guards or lesser houses, until he reached the fresh air of the dark, inner courtyard.
Torches stuck in the ground and every dozen or so feet off the walls of the castle barely lit the area. Behind, laughs and cheers, as well as the riotous sounds of the strings and instruments playing floated gently out into the cool night.
Ned took a few steps forward on the flat flagstone, ready to skip down the few steps and head left for a stroll towards the Godswood, when a swath of blue caught his attention in the dim moonlight.
Gentle sobs reached his ears, and his steps slowed. He frowned at the figure, trying to think if he was introduced to one of the Lord's daughters in such a silky blue that was far too thin for the North.
"My lady?" he called, reaching out to touch her shoulder.
Just then, she spun around and onto her feet, a wand pointed at his throat. Both blinked at one another.
"Hermione," he breathed, just as she launched herself at him, hugging him tight around the middle, and clutching at the back of his jerkin, pulling on it. He wrapped his arms around her too, tightly gathering her to his chest.
In between her snuffles, he heard a few words: "stupid - Ron - ruined - ball!"
He sighed and let her cry herself out a bit more, rocking them back and forth a bit on the steps. Eventually, she came to a shuddering stop, and he drew back a bit to look down at her. Her eyes were puffy and red, and something in his chest ached. "What happened, Hermione?"
Her face nearly crumpled as tears welled in her eyes.
Ned panicked. "No - please don't - Gods, don't cry, Hermione - please - I'll fix it, somehow."
She gave a shuddery laugh and stepped back from his embrace to wipe at her eyes. Ned felt the loss keenly.
"Sorry," she said wetly. She sniffled a bit and Ned got his first full look at her as the flickering light from the torch landed on her. He sucked in a breath and his eyes went wide. Her dress was floaty, a silky blue that left her shoulders, and arms bare and hugged her curves. Her hair was up - one of the first times he had ever seen it that way - in some unique, complicated hair-do that he had never seen by any Northron or Southron woman, a portion tumbling behind her and down her back in sleek, shiny waves.
Ned swallowed thickly and forced the words to come past a numb tongue. "Hermione… you look… you look beautiful."
She ducked her head shyly and tucked a piece of hair behind her ear - something caught the light and Ned could see she had her ears pierced - how did I not know that? He thought furiously, wondering what else he had missed of her in the years they had known each other, in those brief snatches of time.
"Thanks," she mumbled her reply.
"Why are you dressed up?" he asked, thinking it was a sage question.
Hermione sighed. "It's the school's Yule Ball. They're hosting a sporting competition, and there are two other schools visiting. The… Durmstrang champion, Viktor, he asked me to be his date for the dance."
Something settled strangely in Ned's stomach, almost like he had eaten raw or bad food - but the Winterfell cooks were some of the best… "Oh. I see. Did he…" Ned clenched his fist closed at his sides, his jaw tightening. "Did he hurt you?"
His eyes glanced all over her face, from a smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose, the kohl and other makeup additions she had around her eyes and on her lips, and down to her collarbone and then the shadowy dip where the top of her dress presented a glimpse of the swell of her breasts. His eyes snapped away, landing instead on her soulmark. Without realizing, he had reached out and begun to rub his thumb over their matching mark.
"No, no, Viktor didn't hurt me," she mumbled, a flush on her face as she looked down at his much larger hand encircling her wrist. His thumb was making sparks shoot up her arm and she felt warm. "Ron -"
Ned rolled his eyes. Oh yes, he knew about Ron. "What did he do now?"
He tugged Hermione a bit closer.
"Said I was 'fraternizing with the enemy,' by being Viktor's date, just because somehow, as usual, Harry also was picked as Champion, despite being too young," she sighed. She moved so she could share some of Ned's warmth. It was definitely cold in the North - colder than Scotland in winter.
"Berk," muttered Ned. "Did he interrupt your dance, then?"
"Not so much, as afterward, when Viktor was saying goodnight."
Ned's hands fisted again. "Oh?" There was definitely a tinge of jealousy to his tone.
Hermione glanced up at him. "It's not like that. He's a friend. But it would've been nice… I mean… a dance? A ball where everyone was looking at me like I'm not some bossy know-it-all… a midnight kiss…"
Ned frowned, glancing back to the entrance of the Hall, where the music still played. "You can still have that."
Ned gently took her in his arms and positioned them in a Southron style dance, one that was becoming popular in the North due to the close proximity its partners were in. Most Northron dances were reels, often meant for switching partners and lines, but this one was far more intimate.
"Dance with me?" he offered, and Hermione smiled up at him.
Together, they moved with the instruments, along the flagstone of the landing in the inner courtyard of Winterfell, their steps light and soft against the stone and their forms flickering out between light and shadow.
Hermione's skirts brushed Ned's legs, and he clasped her hand close to his chest while the other moved her a bit closer by pushing gently on the small of her back. She, in return, nestled against him, tucking her head under his chin. Her eyes closed, and Ned's fluttered shut.
Please don't leave this time, the thought burst into his mind, and his eyes flew open as he realized he wanted to spend more time with her, that maybe he was beginning to feel more than just friendship for his odd soulmate from another world.
Swallowing, he cleared his throat just as the music changed to a reel, and without realizing it, he spun her out - those dance lessons from mother was paying off. Hermione let out a startled laugh but followed as best as she could as he began teaching her a Northron dance.
They spun, linked arms, and tighter and tighter they went around, Hermione's laugh bouncing off the silent courtyard, all that much louder in the quiet night as they spun from the light of the torches to the far end of the landing into shadow.
Ned turned, his arms empty, and stepped forward, once, twice, until he and Brandon could look at each other properly.
"Ned? Who was that?"
Ned's eyes widened. "You saw?"
In all their time together, no one had ever seen the other, even if there was the chance of someone walking in to their conversations… until now. Ned wondered at the marvel of it, and if the Gods had heard his prayer.
"That woman in blue? Aye? Where did she go?" Brandon tilted his head around his brother and squinted into the dark. "Hello!? My lady?!"
Ned wheezed a bit of a laugh. "She's gone now, Brandon. She won't be coming back."
His brother looked back at him, something different and new in his eyes. "Is this why you didn't want to dance with Barbrey? You have someone else caught in your mind?"
Ned scratched the back of his head sheepishly. "I suppose so."
Brandon laughed, reaching forward and clapping his younger brother on his back, drawing him close to give him a one-armed hug. "Ned! I didn't know. You wolf."
They grinned at each other.
"Will you tell me about her?"
"Aye," said Ned, and together, they entered the Hall.
Ned learned two things after that meeting with Hermione: one, he regretted not being able to give her the midnight kiss she wanted, and two, from that day on, he had an irrational hate for any men who crossed his path with the names Ron or Viktor.
The Infirmary was quiet, but it was the kind of silence Hermione hated because it was suffocating. She and Ron were the only ones remaining in the hospital wing following the battle - although, in all honesty, it was more a pathetic skirmish on their part - at the Department of Mysteries. The cost wasn't worth it.
Sirius was dead.
Ron was still in a magically induced coma while the Healers figured out what the brains did to him, and Hermione, well, she was on a strict potions regime to heal the failed Dark curse that Dolohov sent at her. She could barely move her chest; breathing hurt. Everything hurt.
She kept fighting the drowsiness that came from the lingering effects of Dreamless Sleep, but Madam Pomfrey couldn't prescribe her anymore without it interfering with the other potions, so she was stuck feeling the agony of her chest split open alongside the desire to sleep. Her eyelids drooped, and she felt the oncoming effects of a light doze when a scuffle caught her attention.
Her eyes flew open and they darted around the darkened wing. "Hello?" she whispered, straining her neck a bit to look up. "Harry?"
A throat cleared, and a shape emerged from the white dividing sheet between her bed and the rest of the wing, as she was tucked nicely and quietly away from the others, by a window. She instantly relaxed at the sight of her soulmate. But something was wrong.
His eyes were red with black marks under them, and his hair - now almost as black as Harry's - was disheveled, as though he ran it hands through it many times. He had stubble all over his cheeks and jaw, and his gangly awkward form had shot up and firmed up into that of a young man's body, one that handled weaponry on a daily basis to give him muscles the boys at Hogwarts would never have.
"Ned," she struggled to sit up, gasping. "What happened?"
He gingerly sat on the edge of her bed, reaching immediately for her right hand. He touched their soulmark and he let out a shuddering breath.
"I was summoned back to Winterfell," he began, haltingly. "A few moons ago."
Hermione struggled to sit up, hissing at the pain, but Ned didn't seem to notice. He continued to speak.
"Mother was ill - dreadfully so," he was speaking quietly, lost in his own thoughts. "Father wanted us all back. So Brandon came from where he was with friends, by House Ryswell, and Lyanna and Benjen were at home, and I had to come up from the Eyrie."
Hermione watched him, silent.
His grip tightened on her hand, almost painfully so. His speech began to deteriorate, his breaths shuddering as he struggled to control his breathing. "Mother - she passed to the Old Gods a few nights ago, Hermione."
Somehow, Hermione was able to sit up, propped against her flat pillow and the cold, metal headboard of her bed, and wrapped her arms around her soulmate. His hot tears soaked her shoulder as he tucked his head against the spot between her neck and shoulder. His shoulders shuddered, but he kept quiet.
They call me the quiet wolf, he once told her. She understood.
She tilted her head back, blinking back her own tears of empathy, and recent loss. Sirius - she had barely known him - but he was important to Harry and some of her friend's last connections to his parents. He protected her, teased her, argued with her, but ultimately, died for Harry.
Ned remained in her arms for hours. The two, safely hidden behind the divided, were kept out of sight from Madam Pomfrey's nightly patrols, and being tucked in the corner meant no one visited Hermione. Eventually, Ned drifted off to an uneasy sleep, the two of them sharing Hermione's small hospital bed.
Although she was uncomfortable with the position, Ned pressed to her shoulder, near where her scar from Dolohov began, she has no desire or wish to move and interrupt her friend. There was a sharp intake of air, as predawn light began to filter into the infirmary, and Hermione carefully glanced at Ned to see if he was awake. However, he just shifted a bit and nosed her shoulder, still asleep.
"You'll need to go soon," she whispered at him, fondness in her expression as she played a bit with his hair, smoothing it down.
"Not yet," he muttered back.
Soon, she thought with a sigh. Sometimes she wished he never had to go.
(Years later, at some fancy Ministry-sponsored ball, Harry will stop talking mid-sentence and turn to Hermione with a curious look in his eyes.
She's looking gorgeous, hair slicked back, long down her back and contrasting sharply against a silver dress - she only wears silver or grey or some shade of it anymore - and brandy-coloured eyes. Hermione will look at him and ask, "Harry?"
"That boy, the one who visited you in the hospital wing," Harry will begin tentatively, seeing recognition in Hermione's eyes, "Who was he? What did he want?"
"He was a friend," she will reply after a moment or two, lost in memories. "His mother just died. Sirius had just died. We shared mutual grief."
Harry will go quiet and then say, "When Ron left, and we were just in the tent alone, me and you - sometimes, at night, you'd cry out a name: Ned. That was him?"
Hermione's bittersweet smile will be all the confirmation Harry needs. He will ask again, pushing silent, unknown boundaries: "What happened to him?"
"We don't talk anymore," Hermione will answer, that brittle smile on her face still.
Harry will never bring the conversation or topic of Ned up again.
And, somehow he knows, and will never speak of soulmates in Hermione's hearing, especially when he looks at his mark in the mirror and knows it does not match his fiery wife's.
He understands not being able to speak to soulmates.)
Robert laughed as he swung his war hammer through the air just above where Ned's head was, ducking under the heavy weapon quickly to avoid getting his brains smashed out.
Ned raised his sword in retaliation, smacking it against the war hammer, making the two weapons ring out. Vibrations ran down Ned's arm and he grit his teeth, stepping back and to the side to avoid Robert's return swing. Someone cheered to the side of the training yard, where the two had gained a following of servants, lesser houses, and their foster-father, Lord Arryn himself.
Lord Whent had just announced a grand tournament to be held the following year at Harrenhal, with several large gold prizes up for many of the competitors. Robert spoke of nothing else for days after the raven was received, wanting to participate in the melee and immediately engaging Ned as his sparring partner.
"Are you - huff - sure - huff - you're not going to - huff - participate, Ned?" asked Robert, darting forward and panting with exertion as he swung his massive hammer to and fro, back and forth quickly with both his hands and swinging his weight along with it. With each pass, Ned took a step back, or to the side, or made a turn, each time avoiding the swing of the steel and iron.
"I only gamble with my life, Robert," replied Ned wryly, ducking and then ramming his shoulder into his friend's gut, making the much larger and wider teen expel his air loudly. "On the battlefield and not in tourneys. Why show your future enemies what you are capable of?"
Despite being shoved backward by the shoulder, Robert laughed loudly. "The quiet wolf, eh?!"
Ned grinned. "Damn right."
As he back stepped, gaining some space between himself and his foster-brother, Ned surveyed those watching them fight. Lord Arryn was watching with a very keen eye, having employed two separate Masters of Arms to teach him and Robert two different fighting styles; both were exemplary students. There was a serving wench Ned knew that Robert had slept with, as she was cradling her new babe to her chest: the young Mya Stone, Robert's daughter.
Ned sighed. Robert was jokingly calling out to a Hardyng - the two amping up the crowd and taking a few bets, so while he was distracted, Ned went to grab a drink, only for his heart to stop.
Far behind the crowd, there was a familiar head of brown hair and brown eyes. The met and Ned felt his heart quicken at the sight of his match. She smiled.
His lips involuntarily twitched up - a strange look to many around him who knew him only as generously 'solemn' - and he glanced up towards the towers in the Eyrie, where his room was located. As she seemed to, Hermione understood his message and quickly disappeared.
Time to finish this, thought Ned, and immediately swung around with his sword, crying out and catching Robert completely unawares by the sudden and much unexpected move from the taciturn young man.
Mouth open, Robert scrambled for his war hammer, placed off the side of the yard, and was quickly forced to dodge Ned's downward stroke, abandoning his hammer in the process.
"By the Gods, Ned!" shouted Robert, eyes wide, although there was a sparkle in them and his mouth was grinning. "What's gotten into you?!"
"Just thought to take advantage of your surprise, friend!" he called back.
"I'll say!" rejoined Robert, laughing, and dodging another swipe. For all the good Ned was as a swordsman, Robert had height and build superior to Ned's and eventually was able to swing his fist against Ned's cheek, smashing it and stunning him enough that he dropped his sword.
With a war cry, Robert bowed over and rammed himself into Ned, hard enough that the two went sprawling to the dirt. Ned's back slammed into the hard earth, stunned. However, both were groaning as Robert rolled off his friend.
"Match, Baratheon!" someone called amongst cheers and boos, as gold exchange hands.
"Alright, Ned?" asked Robert in concern, turning to look at his foster-brother.
Ned merely scrunched his eyes up and nodded. "Winded," he wheezed. "Gonna - take - bath."
"Good idea," said Robert, getting to his feet and then helping his friend up with a sharp yank on his arm. "I'll see you later at the feast Lord Arryn will no doubt have prepared."
Ned waved him off and meandered his way slowly through the crowd, taking the well-wishers claps on his back with grace and humility, as well as the praise from others. Eventually, he made his way past them, as people left the training yard and went their separate ways. He took his time, but eventually reached his room, high above the yard. As soon as he shut his door, he leaned against it with a deep sigh.
"That looked hard," said Hermione, from his desk, where she was reading a book he borrowed from Lord Arryn's library. It was the one on the history of the Andals.
"It can be," he remarked, pushing away from the door, stripping off his jerkin. It left him in his sweaty white tunic underneath. "But I've been training since I was eight when I came here. I know what I'm doing."
"I'll bet," she said, watching him.
His body suddenly felt flushed in a way that wasn't from battle. His cheeks burned and he cleared his throat, playing with the strings on his tunic, wondering if he should change, or at least take it off and wet his heated flesh from the bowl of cold water next to his bed.
"What brings you by, my lady?" he asked instead, busying himself by turning and pulling his tunic off. If I keep my eyes off her, I can pretend it's Lyanna in the room with me instead.
"Harry is being… ugh," she finished.
Ned kept himself from turning to face her but smirked. "What's he done now?"
"He thinks Malfoy is up to something and has taken to following him in the middle of the night under his invisibility cloak," replied Hermione. He heard her shift the chair so she was facing him more fully.
Ned paused in reaching for the cloth left just over the rim of the bowl. "Following him? Really?"
"Yes, really," sighed Hermione. "And - Ned - and he's cheating at his school work!"
Ned's frown deepened and this time he did turn. "Cheating? He would dishonour the hard work he should put into learning a subject by finding a shortcut instead?"
Hermione nodded vigorously. "There's this book - there's all these handwritten cheats and spells written in the margins and Harry's just been following them, not even knowing what they are, or do, or who this 'Half-Blood Prince' is!"
Ned made a face. "Half-Blood Prince? That certainly doesn't sound good."
"Tell me about it," she sighed, resting her cheek against a hand that was propped up on his desk. Her eyes lazily drifted down from his face to his chest, which gleamed with drying sweat.
"Hermione!" he yipped, turning around and blushing as he grabbed the washcloth and dipped it into the cold water. He then began to rub it against his chest and neck while she laughed.
"My two best friends are boys," she said with a teasing tone to her voice, "You don't have anything I haven't already seen, Ned. Besides, all the Weasley boys like to go without shirts during the summer."
Ned frowned, glancing at her from over his shoulder. "Just how many naked men have you seen, Hermione?"
The answering glint in her eyes was wicked. "They're hardly naked, Ned. Now, if you want to remove your trousers, then we could say I've seen at least one…"
Flustered by her teasing, he tossed the wet cloth at her. She shrieked and held her hands up to ward off the offending fabric, leaping from the seat and dashing around to the other side of the room, near the fireplace.
Grumbling a bit to himself, Ned fought against his jealousy of Ron and the Weasleys to grab a spare shirt from his trunks, slipping it on. He turned back around and crossed his arms, glowering at her, but Hermione just smiled and held out a hand entreatingly.
"Come on," she said instead, "I don't know how much time I have here - the boys are at a Quidditch practice - so let's catch up."
Ned sighed, falling for her easy smile, and joined her, sitting on his bed. She was cross-legged, facing him, and he sat stiffly in response, but definitely at ease with her company. She opened the conversation. "What were you fighting over?"
"Robert and I?" at Hermione's nod, Ned laughed. "We weren't fighting over anything! Robert wants to participate in a tourney Lord Whent announced. He's practicing his skills for the melee since that's his favourite part. It'll be held at Harrenhal next year."
"A year away!" Hermione's mouth dropped open. "And you're already practicing? What will you participate in?"
"None," replied Ned easily, relaxing enough to recline sideways on his bed to face Hermione, propped up on his elbow. "I prefer to not show off any of my skills for fun. I learn to use a weapon because it is meant as a defense - not for fun."
"Sensible," she murmured.
Ned's cheeks reddened at the praise.
"I'm also sure Robert is practicing so hard because my sister will be there. She'll be fifteen, and they've been betrothed for the last year," further explained Ned, hoping that Hermione would be suitably distracted from him and talking about his skills.
"Betrothed at fifteen?" there was a flash if indignation. "That's barbaric!"
Ned shrugged. "That's how things are done here. You know that."
Hermione's mouth twisted in disgust. "Your poor sister. Does she at least like Robert? Tell me she does."
Ned glanced away. "Erm…"
"Ned," warned Hermione, her voice low.
"She doesn't like… particular aspects of his personality," hedged Ned slowly, looking everywhere by his friend as he spoke.
Ned winced. "Like… the fact that he has a child?"
He hazarded a glance at Hermione, who looked back, gobsmacked. "Robert's the same age as you, Ned! Eighteen! And he has a child already?"
"Mya's about a year or so now?" continued Ned, his voice rising a bit in panic. "But he does dote on her, Hermione! I've seen him with her, he treats the babe well."
Hermione frowned. "Does his soulmark match Lyanna's? I guess if he fooled around before, and you don't exactly have contraceptives the same way my world does…"
Ned shook his head. "I've seen Robert's mark - it's a winding, thorny rose with two antlers on either side of it - but Lyanna's doesn't look like that." His frown deepened. "Actually… I don't think I've ever seen my sister's. But I know it's not Robert's."
"That's right," sighed Hermione, "Cursemarks. You don't marry anyone with the same mark to prevent tragedy."
"Historically speaking, it's a strong statistic," replied Ned, a slight tease in his voice as he quoted back the documentation of their world and soulmarks. "But - and I must admit here - for however wild my sister can be, full of the wolfsblood, I think she's a bit of a hopeless romantic."
"How so?" asked a curious Hermione.
Ned grinned. "Her favourite story growing up was Jenny's song, from Old Nan. About the Crown Prince Duncan abdicating from the throne to marry the peasant woman of his dreams - his soulmark match."
Hermione smiled. "Then how is that a tragedy?"
"They both burned to death in Summerhall," replied Ned promptly.
Hermione snapped her mouth shut with an audible sound. "Oh." Then: "How long ago did this take place?"
"Less than twenty-five years, my lady," answered Ned with a smirk. "Not all cited sources of the tragedy of those soulmarked is from a long time ago."
"Blimey," replied Hermione quietly, eyes wide.
Ned reached forward and took Hermione's hands in his, exposing her soulmark and his in the process. They looked at them together.
"Lyanna wants love with her match," said Ned quietly, and as he looked up to meet Hermione's eyes, he raised her right wrist to his lips and kissed her mark. "Nor can I say that I blame her."
"Ned…" whispered Hermione, her hand in his beginning to tremble.
And then there was someone shouting Ned's name through his closed door - and Hermione was yanked away, back to her realm, just as Robert burst through, already speaking of Lord Arryn's discussion with him for the Harrenhal tourney and what Robert should do to improve to crown Lyanna his Queen of Love and Beauty.
But Ned's hand still tingled from where Hermione's rested in his, and his lips were on fire.
If Lyanna thought she was fooling anyone with that Laughing Knight nonsense! groused Ned, scowling deeply as he stalked through the halls of Harrenhal from the Stark rooms Lord Whent had given them for the stay during the Tourney. She has another thing coming!
His steps slapped hard on the stone. He was seeking out Brandon, as the eldest and representative of the Starks, to talk some sense into their wild little sister. Such a stunt, if discovered by King Aerys, could have her killed! What was she thinking!
Ned grumbled under his breath. Brandon was nowhere to be found, and the evening feast would begin shortly. The final events - the joust and the crowning of the Queen - would take place tomorrow and Ned had to ensure that Lyanna didn't do anything stupid in the meantime.
Deciding to return to their chambers, and hoping that someone would be there that he could rant to, Ned turned on his heel and began making his way back, retracing his steps. As he turned one corner, he nearly bumped into a couple taking advantage of the large, maze-like fortress, half hidden in a shadowy recess.
The man's hands were under the woman's skirts, his face buried in her neck as she giggled. The man also laughed softly against her neck, and Ned rolled his eyes in disgust as he realized who it was.
"By the Gods, Brandon, really?" he muttered, but loud enough his brother heard. "Now? Here?"
Was he stupid? thought Ned waspishly. Here he was - Ned struggled to find a word until one Hermione taught him popped into his mind - canoodling - with -
"With Ashara Dayne?!"
Brandon lazily removed himself from the Sword of the Morning's sister, letting her skirt fall as he deftly readdressed his own disheveled state and partially undone trousers. "Brother. Have you met the lovely Lady Ashara?"
Ned glanced at her, at her breasts nearly spilling out of her tight top, and glanced away quickly. No blush covered his cheeks as it would have, given he was preoccupied. "Yes, very nice to meet you, my Lady. Now, Brandon, can we please talk?"
Brandon sighed, turning back to his latest conquest and drew a finger down her cheek, making her giggle and bat her eyelashes at him. The purple colour of her eyes was stunning, Ned could admit, and he could see the exotic beauty in her that captured Brandon's constantly roving attention.
"Later, pet," he murmured, and turned back to his brother. "Honestly, Ned, couldn't this have waited?"
Ned stared at him and waited until Ashara had left to hiss, "Brandon. Do you have a death wish? Ser Arthur is the deadliest swordsman in the Kingdom, and you stink of sex you just had with his beloved sister! And Lyanna is being Lyanna! Talk some sense into her, if you have any left!"
Brandon frowned, ready to refute some of Ned's claims, but then he sighed, running a hand through his long, dark brown hair. "Aye, you're right. My apologies, brother. Come - I'll have a quick wash and speak to Lya. What's she done now?"
"What's she done now?" echoed Ned, incredulously. "Did you not realize? She is the Laughing Knight!"
Brandon stopped walking and turned to stare at his brother. "What?"
Ned nodded empathically.
Brandon groaned. "Come on, then. Let's find our wayward little sister. Mayhaps she is with Benjen?"
Lyanna was not; their chambers were empty. Perturbed, Brandon took a quick wash to mask the scent of his earlier activities. Running short on time, Ned gathered Benjen. At their table - luckily not too close to the King's royal dais - Ned waited anxiously until, at the last moment, Lyanna, wearing a shimmery Stark grey dress with her hair pulled back on one side of her head in braids, slipped into the seat beside him.
"Am I late? Did I miss anything?" she whispered.
Ned gripped his fork tighter and tried to remember that he loved his sister best and didn't want to actually engage in a wrestling match like they would have when younger when they fought.
"Where. Were. You?" he hissed at her.
Lyanna frowned at him. "Hiding from Robert. I was in the stables."
Ned wanted to bash his head against something. Lyanna and Robert's betrothal was another hot mess - another phrase stolen from Hermione - mainly because she couldn't stand him, and he worshipped her.
"Don't do anything else stupid," muttered Ned instead, from the corner of his mouth, very aware that anyone could be listening. "You stick by my side all of tomorrow, understand?"
Brandon apparently heard, because he swiveled his head around to glare at Lyanna as well, and in the face of her two older brothers staring at her, hard, she nodded. "Promise."
Brandon narrowed his eyes at her, but turned back to his company on his other side, continuing their discussion and ensuring she heard nothing.
Despite the conversation Brandon had with the man on his other side, it was clear to Ned that Brandon would have much rather preferred to be across the room, giving the way his eyes kept flitting over to the Dayne table, much closer to the King given Arthur Dayne's position on the kingsguard. Ashara, of course, was the target of his wandering eyes, looking resplendently beautiful in a purple dress that matched her Targaryen eyes.
Lyanna behaved for the most part for the rest of the evening, with Ned's keen eyes watching her. He was surprised that she was so moved by the sad melody that the Crown Prince sang as he played his harp, though. She never struck him as musically inclined or a music lover, before.
Benjen leaned around her to tease her. "Tears for the Prince, Lya? Where's the mighty She-Wolf now?"
Enraged, Lyanna turned and reached for the pitcher of wine in front of them and dumped it on Benjen's still laughing head, until he gasped in shock at the red dripping all over him. Brandon, instead, laughed loudly and Ned shook his head.
He failed to notice Lynna turning, caressing the back of her neck, under her hair as she sat back down. Across the hall, as the Prince finished his song and he took a bow to the applause of the court, masking the Stark interplay, he too reached modestly behind his neck.
The following day, the Stark males could only watch in confusion and then mounting horror as Rhaegar, on the back of his horse, took the crown of winter roses from his father's hands and cantered past his wife, sitting next to the man in the royal box, winding his way down the stands.
Mutters and cries began to raise the volume of the audience as he stopped in front of the Starks, and presented Lyanna with the crown, naming her the Queen of Love and Beauty.
No! thought Ned, his empty hands clenching and reaching for something - someone - who wasn't there.
The uproar following the act was muted between the roaring in Ned's ears as he watched Lyanna shyly accept the gift and the steamy look the twenty-two-year-old gave his little sister. The Crown Prince then trotted back down the churned earth, towards the stables.
Immediately, Brandon leapt to his feet and began ushering Benjen away, grabbing Lyanna by the arm and yanking her around as they stumbled down from the stands, hoping to avoid the crowds and make it to the safety of their bannermen. They had to leave. Immediately. Now.
Brandon all but threw Lyanna into her chambers, packing for her. Ned, in the room adjacent, could hear every screamed accusation she was lobbying at Brandon, who was equally thundering back as his temper rose.
"That doesn't sound too good."
Ned let out a relieved breath. "Hermione."
She stood in her jeans and jumper, although both hung loosely off her, and her collarbones poked out obviously from beneath the top. Ned eyed her, the hollow look to her cheeks and the dark marks under her eyes. Even her honey-brown eyes were dull, her hair a bit lank.
"Hermione?" he strode towards her. "What's wrong?"
She then seemed to flicker out of existence - just for a moment - and his panic, which had been muted by her arrival - slammed to the forefront of his brain.
Her smile was strained. "Nothing. Don't worry about me. What's going on there? Is that Brandon and Lyanna?"
"Aye…" said Ned slowly, watching her. "The Prince just crowned her the Queen of Love and Beauty."
Hermione frowned. "That's… bad?" she guessed.
Ned nodded. "Very. He's married with two children, Hermione."
"Oh," she replied, and then fell silent. She flickered again. "Strange."
"Strange?" echoed Ned, taking a step towards her. "Hermione - is everything well? You usually are more expressive than this. What ails you?"
"Honestly, Ned, I'm fine," she tried to smile, but it turned more into a grimace. "So. Crown Prince shows favour to your sister, over his wife. Is divorce a thing in Westeros? I'd imagine this might cause problems with… what's his name? Robert."
Oh, Gods, thought Ned, swaying slightly. Robert!
He hadn't even thought of his best friend, who was also in the stands and probably saw it all as well. He could be storming his way with his bannermen right this moment!
Ned shot a panicked look at the barred door. He was only eighteen, Godsdamit! The drama of Jaime Lannister, Tywin Lannister's eldest son becoming the newest white cloak, the Laughing Knight, and then Lyanna, was clearly too much for him.
Hermione flickered again as he looked at her. "Hermione - what is going on? You've never been like this before…"
She glanced down, biting her lip, and then sighed. "I'm sorry, Ned. I'm a bit… preoccupied at the moment."
She nodded and then he was no longer in his chambers at Harrenhal, packing, but rather a large, brightly-lit circular room. Large windows filled with expensive glass allowed the moonlight to trickle in, but Ned's eyes were focused on Hermione, who lay sprawled on the golden tiles, covered in sweat. Her eyes were glassy as they held his.
Above her, a woman dressed all in black with wild black hair streaked with grey snarled and brandished her wand at Hermione. She snarled, "Where is it, Mudblood? Where is the sword? Tell me!" and when Hermione said nothing, she snapped out, "crucio!"
It was unlike anything Ned had ever heard before, the sound coming from his soulmate's mouth as her body strained and bowed, her back rising off the floor as she twisted and turned, trying to get away from whatever effects the spell was having on her.
The woman did not let up, keeping her wand pointed at Hermione. Tears leaked down the side of Hermione's eyes, trailing down her cheeks and temple and into her hair. Ned collapsed to his knees next to Hermione, hands hovering awkwardly.
"Hermione!" he cried, feeling his heart torn.
Prowling behind the crazy woman was a rather dangerous looking man, with sharpened nails and pointed teeth. His eyes flashed yellow and he was covered in grime and tattered clothes.
"Let me at 'er, Bella," he pled, his voice hoarse and low. "I want a taste. Gimme a taste of her flesh."
Horror made Ned recoil.
"Not yet, Greyback," the woman, Bella drawled, letting the spell go. Hermione collapsed onto the tile, panting heavily. "You can keep your paws off her until I'm done with the Mudblood. I want to know about the sword!"
She roared the last word and cast the spell again. Hermione screamed.
"Gods above, Hermione!" Ned scrambled towards her on his knees and caught her thrashing head, holding it between his two, framing her face as he bent down at pressed his forehead to her.
His heart was hammering in his chest, but it seemed that no one could see him - it was always so strange when someone could or couldn't - and instead, he spent his time focused on his soulmate. He muttered, "Be strong, Hermione, I'm here, I'm here," close to her ear as tears welled in his own eyes in response.
His own worries and fears of Aerys faded into the background; what use was his living if his soulmate was dead?
"Whatever she wants to know, Hermione, don't tell her," begged Ned. "She doesn't deserve it, you're strong, you can get through this."
Distantly, he could hear two male voices screaming from far away - the same words over and over again: Hermione! Leave her alone! No! Stop!
It seemed his match was not alone in her prison; Ned recognized the voices enough to know it was Harry and Ron.
"You're not alone, my love," he muttered into her hair, eyes shut tight as she twisted and gasped. "I'm here. Your friends are here. We're going to survive this."
The spell eased and Bella was muttering something to Greyback, and the other blonde-haired people in the room; one was ashen, a young man their age and the other two in bright-coloured robes must have been his parents.
Hermione's head lolled to the side and Ned cradled it with his hand. "I'll kill her," he vowed, his voice low with rage as he stared up at the woman.
"No, stop," she whispered.
Bella turned, twitching. "Stop, Mudblood? Begging already? That's all your kind is good for anyway." She cackled.
Somehow, Hermione managed to twist enough that she could stretch her arm and touched Ned's wrist, on their mark. Their eyes met, briefly, and then Greyback tossed her onto her back roughly, a knee pinning her down on her stomach. Hermione cried out.
There was something in Greyback's eyes that made Ned's blood boil, and he lunged at the man, only to phase right through him. Cursing, Ned tried swinging for him again, but his hand went through the man as though he wasn't there.
No! His mind screamed, recognizing the look in the man's eyes as lust as he roughly helped Bella to stretch Hermione's left arm out.
"Let's try this again, Muddy," the woman said, crouching over his soulmate. "Tell me. About. The. Sword!"
When Hermione didn't answer, the woman sighed and withdrew a knife from her side, where it was hanging on her belt. She slammed her hand on Hermione's wrist and Greyback put his hands on her shoulders.
"No, no, don't!" Hermione tried to squirm out from under them, and Ned turned back around to her head.
"I'm right here, I'm here," he murmured helplessly, winding his arm under Greyback although the man didn't notice him, and clutched at Hermione's right hand with his own, bringing their marks together to touch.
Then he watched as Hermione screamed, and the woman drew the blade across her flesh, cutting deeply into it as she began to write.
"Gods, Hermione," cried Ned with her, wishing he could take her pain, "Lie! Lie to her! I'm here, I'm here. I'm right here."
"Please! Don't!" Hermione sobbed. "It's a fake, I swear! It's a fake!"
The woman finished, and withdrew, forcing the man to do the same as they stood and surveyed their handiwork.
The woman spat down on Hermione, the ball of spit landing on her already dirty clothes. Ned's entire being trembled with suppressed rage as he glared hotly at the retreating figures.
They ignored Hermione, giving Ned enough time to slide to the floor and lay beside her, still clutching her hand tightly. Her eyes, which had been tightly closed, fluttered open and met his. A tiny smile appeared on her chapped lips.
"Ned," she breathed.
"I'm here, Hermione, I'm right here," he said, repeating himself but he didn't know what else to say.
"If... If I don't make it out of this-"
"You will," interrupted Ned fiercely, squeezing her hand tightly. "You will. I'm here. Harry and Ron are here, too."
Her eyes shut. "Ned…"
"Promise me you'll survive, Hermione," he cried, wanting to reach out and shake her. "Promise me! You're my soulmate! My other half, remember? You taught me that these are not cursemarks, but soulmarks. I believe in us. I believe in you. Please. Stay with me. Come back to me - I want a future with you. Survive."
She exhaled, softly, and her eyes opened. "I promise."
Clean up began almost immediately at Hogwarts, with anyone attempting to avoid thinking about their loss or the pain, they experienced throwing themselves into manual labour. Those who volunteered to help shift rubble and look for buried bodies used very little magic, and there was very little help coming from the Ministry, as a state of emergency had been called and Kingsley was forced to leave to attend.
McGonagall, Slughorn, Flitwick and the other professors all picked parts of the castle and began from their offices, spiraling out, while Hermione found herself with Luna, Neville, Seamus, and Michael Corner, strangely enough, forming a line and walking through the courtyard.
Luna was the closest to her, at the end of the line, and after several painfully quiet minutes, Luna began talking about the lack of Wrackspurts surrounding people in the castle. Hermione let her melodic voice wash over her, barely paying attention to anything Luna said, except for the fact that she was alive, she was here, and that Luna hadn't been too affected by her time in the dungeons at Malfoy Manor that she was fundamentally changed from her experience (except, she was; they all were).
At one point, Hermione shoved her sleeves up her arm, absently, as she bent to pick up a large piece of stone and to move it to the sidewall when she realized Luna had stopped speaking.
The blonde's grey eyes were focused on Hermione's arms, and it took Hermione a moment to realize why - the scar Bellatrix gave her was displayed, the wound scabbed over but still as vibrant and fresh as it was weeks past when she was tortured.
Hermione self-consciously began tugging the sleeve down. "I know it's ugly, Luna -"
The touch of her hand stalled Hermione and she glanced up to see that Luna wasn't actually looking at the scar, but at her other arm, her right, and the soulmark.
"You never said," the Ravenclaw said softly, not touching but reaching out enough to let her fingers hover over it. "All this time, everyone thought you didn't have one, or you and Ron were already matched. But…"
"It doesn't match his," said Hermione quietly. "I know who my match is. I've known since I was nine."
Luna glanced up at her. "Then you should go to him, especially now that the war is over."
Hermione glanced away. "It's a bit more complicated than that, Luna."
Hermione snorted and moved away from her friend to gather some smaller rocks. She stood and tossed them away, letting them bounce off a partially crumbled wall.
"Did he know?" Hermione looked at her and Luna expanded, "About the war? Is he a Muggle? He's not a wizard, or else you'd have said his name, or you'd already have been together. And he didn't die - you'd be devastated as all soulmarked would be."
Hermione nodded slowly, turning away and crouching as she moved some more rocks, letting her hair shield her as she spoke. "Yes, he knows. Yes, he's a Muggle - um, of a sort I guess. But we can't really be together."
"Why not?" Luna sounded frustrated. "If anyone deserves happiness, it's you, Hermione."
She shot to her feet and glared at the blonde. "Well, what about you Luna? Where's your soulmark and match?"
She received a wry, bitter smile in response. "He picked someone else."
Startled, Hermione took a step back before her shoulders slumped. "I'm sorry, Luna."
"It's okay," she replied airily, although Hermione didn't believe her. "He's just not ready for me. Not yet, anyway."
Hermione hummed noncommittally, and the two returned to shifting rocks and rubble together, moving slowly along the courtyard wall. Seamus, Neville, and Michael had taken to working together to move the much larger pieces but were having some trouble with one very large boulder that a giant had dislodged from a part of the clock tower.
Finally, Hermione sighed. "After my… time at Malfoy Manor, I promised I'd see him again."
Luna looked up in surprise, her already wide eyes growing wider, and then a smile spread across her face. "There, see! He's waiting for you."
"A promise made during torture isn't a promise sincerely meant," scoffed Hermione. "I thought I was dying, and he kept me sane through it. Everything was charged and… he has his own worries and life. And where he's from, they're not called soulmarks, Luna. They are called cursemarks."
"Cursemarks," murmured Luna thoughtfully in response. Her eyes turned inward as she processed what Hermione said. "How strange. But that doesn't change anything. A promise said is a promise meant, no matter what circumstance you found yourself in."
"I think," answered Hermione quietly, "That I'd rather he found love without me in a world where people hate their marks. We're friends, Luna, and I'd be happy to leave it at that."
Luna stared at her for a few more moments, and Hermione felt her cheeks flushed under the heavy stare but she refused to look at her friend. Finally, Luna sighed, very quietly, and they went back to their work.
As the clouds began to clear above them, beams of sunlight punctured through the cover and the late afternoon sun began to marginally warm the chilled May air. Hermione tilted her face back and closed her eyes, basking in the weak sunlight.
It was a new wizarding world that she had entered, and she had no time for soulmarks.
Ned stared in awe at his nephew as he was placed in his arms. He concentrated all his thoughts and senses on the small, wriggling babe to block out the dry Dorne air, and the sickeningly cloying musty air of dried winter roses slowly rotting and the coppery scent of blood.
So much blood.
He shifted the babe in his arms as Lyanna watched with a weak but proud smile on her face. "Isn't he perfect?"
"He is, Lyanna, he is," agreed Ned, quietly.
Everyone important in that room was splattered in blood: he, in the blood of Arthur Dayne and the others who had been protecting Lyanna in the Tower of Joy; she, from the hard labour; and his unnamed nephew, still covered in some birthing blood and fluid, despite wrapped in a small blanket.
Lyanna's face was a sickly grey, her breathing laboured hours after her other labour. There was a raspy quality to her breath that Ned didn't like, and he shifted his grey eyes from the dark-haired babe in his arms to his sister.
"Ned," she interrupted with a weak smile. "Ser… Arthur told me… some news. He said… that you… married Catelyn Tully…?"
Ned glanced away, almost ashamed. "We needed Hoster Tully's men. It was… it was Lord Arryn's idea. He wed Lysa."
Lyanna sighed. "But…"
Ned glanced at her. "But?"
Weakly, taking a monumental amount of effort, Lyanna's arm rose from the bedcover tucked alongside her body and brushed so softly against the back of Ned's hand. Shifting the babe in his arms, Ned transferred him to one crook and allowed Lyanna to turn his hand and then slip her finger underneath the hem of his tunic, partially revealing a smudge mark on his right wrist.
His grey eyes met her dull ones. "You gave up love."
Painfully aware that he might never see Hermione again - but then again, they lived in separate universes, what future did they have anyway? - He failed to answer his sister.
Lyanna let her hand drop. "I had so… hoped… that you would… find love like… like I did… with Rhaegar."
Ned shook his head. "I don't think that kind of love is for me. And look what it did to you both. Love - it pulled this country apart, Lyanna!"
"I know," she sighed, her voice a bare whisper on a soft breeze. "I know. But… it was worth… those moments… with it. Over… over Robert."
Ned squeezed his eyes shut as tears threatened to fall. "Lyanna…"
"Ned, promise me."
His eyes popped open and they met his sisters as he leaned forward.
"Promise me... that if you… get the chance… with your match… you will take it."
"Promise me, Ned. Promise me."
Ned's breath hitched and he pressed his forehead to his sister's, and he muttered as tears spilled, "I promise. I promise, Lyanna. I'll take care of your son like he was my own, and if I ever see Hermione again, I'll take a chance. I will."
He drew back slightly and saw Lyanna smile as her eyes closed. The smile remained on her face, even as she passed.
And Ned closed his eyes, clutched his nephew to his chest, the last remaining bit of Stark family he had outside Benjen, and wept.
Edit [June 17]: I will be continuing this story, but only after it is planned out in its entirety. I have many ideas, and I really want to explore Ned's honour a lot more, and what kind of damage a thirty-something-year-old Hermione can do in Westeros. Leaning towards far less morbid and depressing, given the main characters I'm planning for - so a mix between adventure, action, humour, romance and some depressing angst because all good stories need that tearjerker moment.
Original Notes: I have other WIPs that I am working on (like winter witch and yesterday is tomorrow), so this story will be marked as "complete" for now.
However, when I do continue, I will be following book ages for the adults and show ages for the kids (so aged up). As such the adults' ages will correspond accordingly: if Ned is 32 when everything started in ASoIaF, but the eldest kids are aged up from 14 to 16/17 then he would be 34/35 instead. I will subscribe to the idea that he was 19 when Robert's Rebellion occurred.
My Ned here is essentially a mix between Boromir!Sean Bean and Sharpe!Sean Bean.