Disclaimer: Most characters are not mine, which is probably a good thing for them. Not that Square(-Enix) was any kinder to them.
Warnings: Contains Rosencrantz, who should always come with a warning label. No explicit male/male sex, but several mentions of it, and plenty of foreplay/aftermath. Sadism/masochism, angst, violence, and general unpleasantness. Also, zombies! ...But not in the context of sex scenes, thank goodness.
Notes: Inspired by Vienna Teng's song "Between",
which pretty well made my brain boil over until I couldn't not
write this story, as much as I honestly did not want to. Lyrics are
used in the first and last bit.
Takes place a few months pre-game, in the same headcanon as my previous fanfic Burning Bridges, refers to several PWPs that I cannot post at this site, and reuses several minor OCs, but... I wish I could convince myself that this was only an AU, and did not happen at all.
...This is a lengthy beast, so chapters (I believe there will be eleven) will be appearing over time.
I have a prophecy, threatening to spill into words
This crawling certainty of 'over'...
Hardin bled, and then he was gone.
His temple pressed against the mattress - he did not know where the pillow had gone; if he had, he'd have used it to muffle his shouts, though he knew the brethren must have become accustomed to them by now - Hardin felt the burning gashes in his back and shoulders cool and heal with Sydney's tired, mumbled words. His eyes closed in relief, and just a touch of regret, as Sydney's warmth and slight weight eased and withdrew from his body.
It was hardly unexpected this time, but vexing nonetheless, when Hardin shifted to roll onto his back - and found him already gone.
Even the faintest traces of his presence had been camouflaged or erased, Hardin confirmed, pushing himself upright to sit on the edge of the bed. He was still disoriented - and how could he not be? Though the wounds Sydney's hands had inflicted were now healed, the spell had been cast while his body still struggled through climax; he had yet to catch his breath. Yet disoriented as he was, he should have been able to See Sydney - here within the city of the Lady, where the Dark bent and twitched to their mutual perversion of the acts of life and death, just as he had. He could feel it swirl about him, pleased to do his bidding since he had given it what it desired.
It could not locate its Keeper, however, no matter how it tried. Or perhaps it would not; Hardin had been the sacrifice, but Sydney had been the one to offer it. If Sydney did not want to be found, he would not be found, and Hardin chose not to expend any more of his strength trying.
Besides, his vanishing was a mere symptom of something larger and more troubling than the disappearance itself, Hardin admitted, resting his head in his hands to brood. Sydney had always assumed a cool demeanor around his followers, more so nowadays; he had to present a calm, determined persona, lest the people belittle his prophesies as the raving of a madman. It was only when the two of them were alone together that Sydney ever let that facade crumble. It had taken some months before he could manage that much, and he had never managed to discard it completely in the years they'd been together. Even so, Hardin had borne witness to warm smiles, dark depressions, the occasional hysteria... frustration, confession, and exultation. Not the least important, he had witnessed those moments of sincere shock in Sydney's eyes when the fated prophet forgot himself enough to show unguarded affection to the man he refused to call his lover - and then remembered.
The only sincere emotion Sydney had deigned to show him during the past season had been violent rage. He'd always been sardonic, casually turning foolish words back upon the one who spoke them, and uttering heresy with a smirk. It only drew his followers closer when he entertained them. Now, however, he spoke to his followers only of what they must do, and when, and why. Sometimes, there was no why involved.
There was little difference when he was speaking to Hardin alone - except that when he gave orders, he expected Hardin to follow without question, and would grow irritable if the questions came regardless. He would speak of trust, of faith, and Hardin could not deny Sydney these things.
And then, sometimes, Sydney would come to the bed they had shared. Only sometimes. When he did not, Hardin often found him with the Sight, reading texts in the library or kneeling in prayer, or perhaps pacing restlessly. When he did, mostly it was to fall into exhausted sleep, but sometimes...
It had always been rare for Sydney to show tenderness, but for Hardin, he had managed. Now there was none, before or after. Though Hardin had long ago offered his body for Sydney's use or abuse, the touch of his clawed hands had once been the touch of a lover, even if they brought pain rather than pleasure. Now, he used them - and Hardin himself - as a release, pushing Hardin down so that he could hardly react as Sydney clutched at him, raging at him and atop him and inside him. When he was finished, sometimes even before Hardin had reached his own climax, he would cast a spell of healing and disappear.
The first time it had happened, Hardin had had to admit with some shame that it had been exciting. When it happened time and time again, however, and his own attempts at initiating something less turbulent were ignored, it had begun to lose a great deal of its appeal. Hardin had even begun to avoid Sydney - not that Sydney couldn't find him easily if he wanted to, but he felt uncomfortable being around him, as he had not since the first days after they'd met. Sydney had once been the voice of the gods, then he had become a man. Now he had become... something else, though Hardin could not say what. He could say only that it was something unsettling.
It was not as though Sydney didn't have his own troubles, however. The days he had foreseen were drawing nearer, he said, and Hardin knew it must be more frightening for him than for anyone else, for anyone else had not seen the things that he had seen. He spent far more time than he used to in rapport with the gods, which left him exhausted. The cardinal's knights continued to track them relentlessly, to the point that they could hardly leave the city without being attacked. The women and children and elderly had been hidden far from Leá Monde, with a detachment of fighters and mages to protect them. Sydney said nothing of them, which likely meant they remained safe, but Hardin knew Sydney, and he knew that the strain must be difficult. Sydney ate very little nowadays, and was beginning to look frail rather than slight - but he would not say a word when Hardin expressed his concern.
...He was growing very tired of worrying for Sydney, when Sydney did not seem to spare much time to think about how his behavior was affecting Hardin. But then, Hardin supposed he had other things to occupy his thoughts.
...He was growing very tired altogether, Hardin admitted to himself. Allowing himself to lie back down on the bed despite the mess he and Sydney had made of it, he curled into himself slightly. Yes, he was very tired of a great many things.
Once he would have sought Sydney out when he felt so troubled and alone - no, Sydney would have sought him out as he stifled it. Sydney had become the one person he would admit weakness to. There may have been others once, but time had changed that. Some had been killed, some were in hiding, some now were to think of him as the head of their very small army. He was the superior officer for all of them... except for Sydney, who was the only equal remaining.
If he could not speak to Sydney, he would not speak to anyone. Instead, he would sleep.
Sydney, on the other hand, was not sleeping. Not yet. It was, perhaps, counter-productive to vent himself on Hardin in such an exhausting way when the result was that he didn't dare fall asleep for some time afterwards.
Instead, he was sitting beside the river that wound through Leá Monde, on a low-lying ledge that few could have reached by any ordinary means. Indeed, with the broken street jutting out above, few knew that his isolated alcove existed. Hardin might have Seen him there, at some time, but Sydney would not allow him to tonight. He'd cleaned himself as well as he could manage - there were no traces of blood on his hands - but he suspected that he looked unpresentable in other ways. Or perhaps too presentable, which might be worse. Hardin knew him too well, and recognized that when Sydney's face fell into perfect serenity, that was when he was most troubled.
This was all counter-productive when he thought about it logically, Sydney admitted to himself. What had he hoped would happen? He would not forget the things he had foreseen - on the contrary, it seemed to make some of his visions far more vivid. And as for Hardin's reaction, even if Sydney had been specifically trying to push him away, Hardin would not leave. He had sworn an oath, and though his faith lacked towards everything but Sydney himself, he was an honorable man. Even if he lost faith in Sydney, he would remain to serve until death.
He knew so little, Sydney thought. None of those who had sworn their oaths could know how little time they had remaining. Even if he were to tell them, they still would not comprehend. Most men, he had found, believed themselves immortal until they saw the arrow fly, or the sword loosed. Even if others were slaughtered, they still remained. Perhaps it did not help, Sydney mused cynically, that for all that they'd seen their brethren die, they had seen him not die so many times of late.
Hardin, whether due to his lack of faith or his personal feelings and history with death, had never quite believed it. When the weapon of a knight pierced his chest, Sydney heard his name shouted in alarm, and would always wake to find Hardin regarding him with anxiety. No matter that Sydney always did wake, in the end. Better than most, Hardin understood that death comes for all, and there was no telling when.
Yes, Hardin understood death more than most in their company. He had once been a soldier; he had put himself in mortal danger many times before he had ever met Sydney. One difference this time was that he fought not merely for much-needed coin, but for a cause he believed in. His anger with those he faced was personal, as was his desire for victory. Most would say that this was a better, more satisfying way for a man to fight.
The other difference this time, however... was that he was going to die.
Sydney had not been given the precise date - he never was - but he could recognize the signs. In his dreams, more and more often, he had seen a man with a sword - the same sword his Lady had once danced with, by which he would recognize his successor. Meanwhile, the cardinal's men continued to press them harder, and news had come from the Greylands only a few days past, informing him of Duke Bardorba's failing health. Their final move must be made soon, within a year, if not less.
Hardin was not the only one who would perish, of course. Many would lay down their lives before victory was won, and Sydney knew he would not last much longer once he had met his successor. Looking out over his followers, he saw dozens who had been thus marked, and he had known for years. Some he had lain with, as with Hardin. Not precisely as with Hardin, he supposed...
There was no room for emotional distraction, however. When it came to the gods' designs, John Hardin was no different than many other men who had pledged their service. They were all tools that desired a use, and the gods would grant them that favor. The only way in which he differed from any other was that Sydney was somehow unable to reconcile it when it came to Hardin, no matter how he tried to make himself believe that this man was as inconsequential as the next in the interest of the greater good. And gods, how he had tried - using Hardin for release and for pleasure, hardly speaking to him otherwise except to discuss the next phase of their strategies.
And still, the vision haunted him. Hardin's grim and determined face, pale and slick with sweat in the flickering torchlight, blood trickling from the corner of his mouth. His hands, pressed to the wound in his abdomen as he slumped against a crumbling wall, hiding from the rising light of dawn.
Hardin bled, and then he was gone.