A rope dangles before her, thick and writhing and descending through smoke. It twists and turns like a live python, and she feels like if she could only take hold, it would never let her fall. She could be safe.
She reaches out, and watches her fingers turn to mist, insubstantial. She tries to step closer, and stumbles; she looks down to see chains about her feet, iron cuffs biting into her ankles.
She tries to assess the situation, but all she sees are burning grey fumes. Charcoal stains the white expanse that surrounds her, but the patterns shift whenever she turns her head, and she can’t keep her bearings.
She closes her eyes, and takes a deep breath.
She’s alone. Alone, in a suffocating room, with a single lifeline taunting her, hanging just beyond her reach.
No one is coming for her, but that’s ok. She knows her way out of this room. She can save herself, if she can just
She rises to her toes, and leans forward, whole body straining with effort. Her hand reaches out to brush the rope once more, but instead of passing through the twisted twine, she pauses, nebulous fingers stilled, as she wills her hand to retake solid form.
She can just start to feel rough fibre beneath her fingertips, and smiles. She starts to curl her hand
And clenches her fist around nothing, as the rope is yanked from her grasp.
And suddenly the world is tumbling into colour. She can hear shouts, and screams, and Nicolo Morelli’s voice, calling to her.
His hand reaches out from the nothing, brandishing the rope at her, more like a weapon than an aid.
“Take it,” he says, desperation in his voice, but her feet are still chained and the end of the rope keeps falling short and he is always, always holding too much of it back.
And then it doesn’t matter, because she’s choking, that thick rope snaked around her neck, a python once again. Her hands come up to her throat, to pull at the noose dragging her backwards, but once again her fingers turn to mist.
And the rope pulls tighter, and tighter, and
Naomi wakes up gasping.
The room is dark, and cramped. The air reeks of damp hay and her own sweat, together with something faint and uniquely foul, emanating from the corner furthest from her. They do empty the chamber pot periodically, though the smell still lingers. Some might tell her to be grateful.
Naomi is not grateful.
She doesn’t know where she is. They’d taken her from the market, but she’d been knocked out for the better part of the journey, and she doesn’t know how many hours passed before she woke up.
She doesn’t know how long she’s been here, either. There are no windows to track the days, or clocks to track the hours, and the only light is weak and watery, filtered through the narrow gap between floor and bolted door barely sufficient to let her navigate her way across the room and back.
Not that she would need to see, to be able to find her worn mat, tucked away in the corner furthest from the door. A small metal ring juts out of the stone wall there, as cold to the touch as the cuff around her ankle - if she ever did lose all her other senses, she could follow the chain links connecting the two.
She’s done it before, a few times. Or at least tried something similar. She measures the dimensions of her cell by counting out links of chain, and then tries to retrace her footsteps with her eyes closed. She loses if she hits a wall, or falls. It’s a game of sorts, that she’d invented at some point during her second kidnapping.
Because this is the third time she’s been abducted in the past twelve months, the seventh total since she’d first met Nicolo three years ago.
So no. She isn’t thankful that her situation isn’t worse, that her jailors aren’t as bad as they could be. She isn’t happy, that she’s being kept here, alone but unharmed. She isn’t ‘grateful’.
She’s tired and bored and hungry and unafraid, and completely and utterly pissed. She doesn’t even know who’s kidnapped her, because they haven’t had the damned courtesy to introduce herself once in the entire time she’s been here.
She knows why, she’s here, of course. She always knows why, no matter the whos, whats, wheres and hows. She always knows, because it’s always the same reason: Nico.
Nicolo Morelli. The Chosen. The Great. Hero of the Age.
She loves Nico. She does. They’ve known each other three years, and they’ve grown close, trading letters whilst he travels, and spending time together whenever he comes back to Tynsden, and she truly cares about him.
Cares for him. She does both. Cares for the person he is, and cares about all he represents. His vision of hope. His destiny, as prophecies foretold.
He loves her. She knows that’s true. And she loves him too, even if, maybe, she’s more reserved, or less intense, or less, sure. In some manner or another, romantic or otherwise, she loves him.
It’s hard to remember that, sometimes, when she’s locked in a cell for the third time that year because of him. And it’s hard to remember that, sometimes, when she gets like this, when she knows so many people look at her and he is all they see. It’s hard to remember that when feels sometimes that the only way to love and be loved by him, is to erase herself.
It’s hard to remember you love someone when you have to spend so long convincing yourself that you do.
It’s even harder to convince yourself you love someone when you’re constantly having to remind yourself.
She knows, if she’s being honest with herself, that she wouldn’t be courting Nico, if he hadn’t come and found her that night, under a sky full of falling stars. And she knows, that if he hadn’t come and found her, she wouldn’t be any the less happier for it.
That night is etched into her mind. It was a sweet moment, tender and open and honest. And she remembers how nervous Nico had been, remembers thinking it cute. How determined, he was, not to leave without talking to her.
Being together hadn’t been easy for him, either, and so it’s not a part of herself that she’s proud of, but…
It’s hard not to resent his love for her. It’s not hard to resent that he ever said anything at all.
And maybe that’s not fair, but it isn’t fair that from then on she has only ever been seen as a means to an end. It isn’t fair that she’s only ever leverage, it isn’t fair that she’s bored because no one deems her worthy of even probing for information, and it isn’t fair that when she does inevitably get rescued she’ll just have to swallow her feelings because yelling at the person risking life and limb to help you? Talk about ungrateful.
She never expected to be the hero growing up, but it isn’t fair that she no longer gets that choice. Naomi Yousef doesn’t get to save the world. At most, she might help to damn it.
There was an old fairy tale she used to know, growing up. A handsome prince defeats a great many enemies as he fights to save his love and his throne. The two wed, and she is at his side on the day of his coronation, where is struck by an arrow to her heart by the last remaining traitor in the land, seeking vengeance on the now king. The king is distraught, and punishes the archer, before vowing to bring wealth and prosperity to his people, that his kingdom may become the realm his wife had always dreamed of. And the nation flourished, and they lived happily ever after.
It was never intended to be a cautionary tale. Occasionally it may be told with some comment about how romantically tragic it is that the King continued to live to the ideals that his wife died for.
But of course, she didn’t die for anything. She wasn’t allowed to. She couldn’t make a stand and fall on a sword, she couldn’t choose which hill to die on. Her death was not her own.
Naomi knows that if she dies here, her death will not be her own either. It grates at her inside.
Nothing is her own anymore. Her causes are Nico’s, her ideals are Nico’s, her friends are Nico’s and so are her enemies. And her misfortunes fall to him as well, and so would her death, and no one lets themselves see her independently of him anymore.
The love was almost, the reward, for fighting the monsters, in the fairy tales. No one ever questioned why the hero’s reward should be the person that they endangered, through their own feelings and associations.
No one ever treated the fairy tales as cautionary tales, but her cousin Leda, well-read and intellectual, always used to finish the story with a warning: ‘never fall for the hero.’
She would ask her why, and Leda would talk for hours, talking her through the myths. She’d explain how heroes either begin or end their stories in tragedy, and so the people they love can never be safe. She’d talk about how the hero must always be their lover’s priority, but by nature they could not return the favour, for their stakes were always higher. She’d claim that a hero’s lover could only ever be that and nothing more, and she’d say that partnerships could sometimes be very unequal things.
Leda was right, more so than she could have known, and Naomi had long ago taken those words to heart. But for all her extensive studies, Leda had never taught her how to keep a hero for falling for her.
Years from now, when the adventures of Nicolo are immortalised in legend, they will talk of his unfailing sense of duty; Ceri’s unfaltering loyalty; Laila’s unerring aim. Naomi, they will call kind. Caring, perhaps. Beautiful, or fair, for certain, though with her thick dark hair that’s far from true. If she’s lucky she’ll still be alive.
But she will be a footnote in the next generations of fairy tale, and sometimes she thinks that will be worse than to be forgotten altogether.
Battle rages around the base of a tall tower. Nicolo sees his opening and runs, Ceri at his back, Laila providing cover fire. They fight with skill and righteous determination, and they will break these defences soon.
Naomi is unaware of this. But still, alone in her cell, she sits and waits, because there is nothing else that she can do.