Disclaimer: Characters/settings/etc. belong to Square-Enix, not myself - I'm merely a fantwit whose obsession rushed right back upon another trip to Ivalice.

Notes: Blame this one on FFXII. Particularly the Solidor brothers.

Four Years

The knock on the door was what awakened John, but the commotion and loud, cheerful conversation in the hall outside told him at once why he'd been awakened despite it being a day off. He'd heard the talk for the past few days, of what was coming and how soon.

He hardly spared a moment for a yawn as he climbed out of bed and went to open the door with a look that was almost too reserved for a boy of twelve when he was so excited. "It's happened?" he asked the beaming maidservant who stood outside.

"Yes - your brother has come! Your mother's resting now, but she's doing well."

John tried to keep his expression to one fitting for a young lord, but he couldn't contain a grin. "Can I see him, Anna?"

"Of course, but you'll need to keep your voice low," she cautioned him. "He too has been through quite an ordeal, and he sleeps as well."

"I would think so..." John wasn't unfamiliar with the process of birth - they kept horses, they had hunting dogs, there were cats in the stable - and he couldn't imagine it being pleasant for anyone.

"Come along, then, come along," Anna told him, nearly shooing him out of his bedchambers, but he shook his head.

"I should dress. It's my first meeting with my brother, and I should look presentable."

She laughed. "I promise he won't remember."

"But I will."

John was resolute, and Anna gave in. "Very well - I shall wait for you here. I suppose you can decide for yourself what is suitable..."

They thought him silly, John thought as he picked out one of his finer shirts and a pair of trousers, and began combing his hair. Just because he took his duty seriously as the only son of the Hardin household, and cared about things like protocol. Even though he was no longer the only son as of now, he was still heir, and he was not going to act in any way that would reflect poorly on his household.

"You look marvelous, young master John," Anna told him when he emerged. "I'm sure your brother will think so too. He'll think to himself 'What a dignified big brother I have! I shall become just like him when I grow.' And you will be a good example for him, won't you?"

John blushed slightly at the thought of someone looking up to him. "I shall try my best. We should both be fitting heirs, lest something happen to me."

Anna's mirth was quieted. "Young master John, that's an unpleasant thought for such a day."

"But he is security for my father, is he not? He won't have to worry about me so much, now that there is another son."

They had come to the door of the nursery, but Anna paused there to face him. "I assure you, your father cares no less for you than he ever did. Even if you will have to share his estate..."

"I know, Anna." John shifted restlessly, hoping he wasn't going to get a lecture. He understood the changes that this would bring. "Can I see my brother now?"

"...Yes, yes." She seemed not to know what to make of his pragmatism. "Remember, keep your voice low." John nodded, and together they entered the nursery.

There was the cradle, made by a woodworker who lived nearby, blankets woven by the local guild. Not so pristine as it had been right up until the time John had gone to bed last night - now the blankets were slightly rumpled, puffed up over a tiny shape. John stepped past the attendant nurses to come up beside it, wondering at the very small boy who lay inside. He'd seen infants before, but not so soon after their birth, and never when he could relate them to himself. "...Was I so small once, Anna?"

"Not quite so small - you were a bit larger, but not by much."

"He's so red, also..."

"That will pass. It's a sign of a healthy newborn."

"That is good." His brother had very little hair as of yet; what was there was wispy and straight. John couldn't resist the urge to reach into the cradle, to carefully touch it, to see if it was as soft as it looked. He smoothed it back from the child's forehead.

"Oh, careful," Anna warned him in a whisper as the child stirred, making a soft fussing noise. "You've woken him..."

"...He seems not to mind." The fussing ended quickly, though one small hand freed itself from the blankets. John marvelled at how small the fingers were, and reached out to touch them. He smiled as they curled around his own, much larger finger. "What is his name to be?"

"His name will be Philip."

"Philip... Hello, Philip," John murmured. "I'm your brother John. We're both sons of Lord Hardin of Denegis."

Anna watched the two boys thoughtfully. "Do you truly not mind, young master John, that your parents' attention and estate is now to be split between you?"

John shook his head. "'Tis better this way. As I said before, Father will not have to worry about what will become of his land should something happen to me. It will relieve everyone of some worry. And should we both live to grow and marry, we will know for certain that it will stay in our family's hands for some time."

"You don't mind sharing?"

"Not especially. Besides, I'm the eldest. He'll have to do as I say."

Anna burst out laughing quietly. "Young master John, that is a cruel way to think."

"I don't think so - as the eldest, it is also my duty to protect my younger brother, so I could hardly take advantage of it." He looked back at the very small hand that held his. "...This I vow, Philip. I'll protect you with my life."

It was perhaps a solemn oath for one so young, but John understood what he was saying, and he meant it wholeheartedly.

"...Is this indeed necessary?"

Sydney was not the least bit surprised by the question. "'Tis a better fate than leaving him in that place."

"Even so..." Hardin did not like the idea at all. "...He's four years old, the only son the man shall ever have. Even I know how he dotes on the boy."

Sydney gave him a serious, searching look. "You have no qualms about troubling the duke. It is the boy himself that concerns you."

Philip had grown tremendously in four years - but then, so had John. He was already as tall as their father, and likely not finished growing at age sixteen. Their mother bore witness that John had been no larger than Philip at age four, though she joked that the years between left her feeling that Philip seemed heavier.

They would be an imposing sight when they were older, the Hardin boys, John thought idly. He fully expected they would be seen in tandem often, for Philip had found an idol in his older brother, and John steadfastly refused to think that he could ever let Philip down.

At the moment, he was facing Philip with rattan sword in hand, the younger boy having grown tired of only watching the older go over his forms. John was more than adequate enough for self-defense already, and was willing to indulge, though the practice weapon Philip lifted in giggling challenge was so large that the boy could barely balance it even with both hands.

John made himself frown as if in concentration, as he made a quick lunge at the boy and missed, letting Philip clumsily knock swords with him. The laughter ceased as they made a few more passes, returning each time John purposely let Philip connect. He need not learn true swordfighting just yet, John thought; they could afford to behave with such foolishness. Philip was still very young - and he had an elder brother, after all.

With a considerable amount of effort, Philip levelled the sword before him. John, guessing what he wanted to do, left himself wide open during the next strike. Sure enough, the rattan met him square in the chest, and he groaned dramatically as he dropped his own weapon and fell to the ground.

Immediately, Philip was climbing atop him, giggling once again. "Got you!"

"You did," John admitted, grinning as he mounted a counter-offense that involved relentless tickling. "Fool boy - if you kill me, how am I to protect you?"

Not surprising that Sydney knew. Even Hardin himself could see how predictable his concern was. "It is. Whether or not the duke is a traitor, his young son is an innocent. He has nothing to do with the matter."

"If he stays, he will die," Sydney told him, softly and firmly. "Have you forgotten already our plan, should we fail to find the Key?"

Hardin bowed his head slightly. "The boy does not deserve to burn, yes. But to become kidnappers, Sydney...!"

"Better he should be taken captive, or even burn, than to stay in that house once the duke has perished." His voice was so firm that Hardin looked up again, to see his mouth set in a tight, white line. "You've met the duchess and her household livery."

"...I have." But it was still the boy's family, the only family he'd ever known...

Philip was only eight years old, but his breath rasped in his throat as if he were a man of eighty.

Lying beside him in the large bed that had once belonged to their parents, John listened carefully to the rhythm of the crackle and hiss, lest it stop again. The medicines usually eased the symptoms for a night's sleep, but there was always the chance that they might not. As the two of them were the last of the Hardins, John cared not to take such chances.

And so he lay away, listening and thinking. He'd wondered for a time what whims of the gods had spared him from the plague that had taken their parents, many of the servants, and a fair amount of people in the surrounding towns. There were several children like Philip as well, who no longer suffered the worst effects or were capable of passing it to others, but whose growing bodies had been permanently broken.

He was beginning to see, though. If there were indeed gods, they had allowed him to live so that he might fulfill his oath to protect Philip.

Or at the very least, John would try, but he was beginning to lose faith. His work with the Peaceguard caused him to travel - and although it paid more than enough to cover a few servants' pay, it was not enough for the doctors and medicines as well, and his family's former wealth was beginning to run low, not that they had ever been truly wealthy during John's twenty years.

Another job, less demanding, would not pay as much, and he could hardly take up another steady job when he was frequently sent elsewhere in Valendia for a week or more. Already he was away too often, given Philip's precarious condition.

But then, Nordram had commented during their last conveyance of assorted weaponry that even one of the score of swords they were ferrying could more than double his daily income. Hardin had wondered at the time at the phrasing of what seemed to be an offhand remark.

Philip's breath seized in his throat for a moment, but as John was reaching over to take his hand, it evened again.

"He will become an enemy to us if he remains there, even should we spare him. We can reclaim him, for the task the Bardorba house has long served in the Dark. He can use the Key, with our guidance."

It was all for the good of the kingdom, the good of the powers they served. Hardin knew this in his heart, but even so... "I still do not like it."

"He will come to no harm," Sydney told him, rising from where he sat to approach Hardin. He placed one hand upon Hardin's head, and Hardin could feel the pinprick of Sydney's fingertips upon his scalp, teasing and tantalizing. Sydney's tone was not - only calm. "How do I know, dear Hardin, with absolute certainty? Because you will be responsible for him. There is none who would care for him better within that household, and few in Valendia who would handle this charge with such diligence."

Because of the memories, the guilt and the longing. Hardin was quite aware that he was being manipulated - but it was Sydney, who seemingly had the best of intentions. He was getting what he wanted, yes, but in a sense, he was trying to give Hardin the one thing he'd wanted that Sydney was unable to give him.

Sydney was behind him, steel arms wrapping around his torso, prickling through the light fabric of his shirt. "I think that the boy will not object, besides," he murmured against Hardin's back. "The old blood runs in his veins - he will know his true family without being told."

It was likely the first place they would look for him, and Hardin was aware of this. He had made no secret of his motivations, of what had driven him to fraud. He wondered bitterly if perhaps his former friends, those who had been jailed after his testimony, might think to win their freedom by selling him out as he had them.

Though exhausted and chilled from the hurried travel in the poor weather and prison rags, his steps quickened as he followed the familiar road towards its eventual end. From the breath he'd drawn as he prepared to attack the incautious guard, there had been a rush in his heart that drove him onward, and it grew stronger still as he approached his family home.

It seemed to be much further than he recalled, at first, for even drawing closer, he could not see the smoke that always rose from the chimneys in winter. Then the gates came into sight, and his heart froze, for he could see that there was no smoke at all.

A quick search of the estate, with sword in hand in case the king's men had arrived before he had. The front room of the primary cottage was tidy, but covered with a thin layer of dust, and there was no evidence of even the few servants who had remained. The same was true of the servants' chambers. The same was true of Philip's room.

Hardin tore out the side door, leaving it wide open. At the back of their property was the family graveyard, where dozens of ancestors had been laid to rest. He ignored them for the time being; the granite spires that marked his parents were off a path to the right, as he knew well, and now there was a small pillar next to them that he did not know at all.

Dropping to his knees, he brushed off a thin snowfall to read the letters engraved in the stone, and...

Some time later, he heard footsteps on the frozen grass behind him, slow and stifled. A part of him had already decided that it would be for the best to let them do as they would, as there was little point in going on now.

It was a different part of him which turned to face the guardsmen, the closest of whom shied back at the look in his eye - and afterwards seven corpses lay around him in the snow. White blossoms were the customary offering, he thought to himself as he turned to leave, but red over white would do.

He would have been thirteen in spring. He could have had a man's ornament upon his grave, rather than a child's.

Blatant manipulation. It was easy to ignore this, however, when the arguments were stated openly, and rang true besides. Even so, it was not in his nature to let it pass without comment. "...Sydney... We both know that even you cannot bring my brother back."

"Nor am I likely to give you a son." Sydney was teasing now.

Hardin said nothing. Neither did Sydney; he only waited.