A/N: Warning for body horror and suggestive content (…but not at the same time)
Roman woke from vivid dreams, more vivid than he could remember ever having. In them, he saw his parents’ cottage in Troas. He saw writhing ribbons of some strange black substance obscure the pale sky. He saw the light leave his mother’s eyes. And this time, it had all been so crisp, not some hazy of an event from centuries past.
When he woke, it was with tears streaking down his face. He wiped them away before standing and escaping his small tent and rotting memories. Once outside, he followed the light of a faintly flickering lantern to where he knew one of the Enforcers kept watch over the camp.
He found Evelyne sitting upright and alert on a fallen log, looking like a dog awaiting orders. She looked up as he approached, and her expression darkened into a scowl when she recognized him.
“What are you doing?” she asked, her voice a harsh whisper so the others wouldn’t wake. A surprised look crossed her face as Roman settled within the circle o fthe lantern’s light, revealing red-rimmed eyes and a somber expression.
“Joining you. Is that a problem? Two on watch is better than one, yeah?”
Evelyne shrugged and eyed Roman warily. After a pause that stretched from awkward to almost comfortable, Roman added, “You can go get some rest. I don’t mind keeping watch. I don’t think I’ll be sleeping again tonight, anyway.”
Evelyne rolled her eyes at his dramatics and stood. “Fine. But if you fall asleep out here, I’ll kill you.”
Roman just waved her off, tempted to point out that she’d tried in the past and it hadn’t worked.
He sat alone until morning, watching as pale sunslight crested upon treetops and set the dewy droplets on the grass around him glistening. He was hyper-aware of every movement and sound, reality somehow even crisper than his strange dreams had been. He imagined he could see each ray of sunslight that blessed this small clearing, could hear the gnawing on a nut by a squirrel several yards away.
The team began to stir not long after the squirrel scurried into the brush, some packing their things right away while the slow-to-rise members of their team — namely, Ivor — shuffled over to light a fire and start boiling water for a gritty cup of campfire coffee. The rich, smoky smell of it reached Roman from all the way across the camp, so strong it made his head pound.
He tried helping the team pack, but when all of the stimulation led to a pinching, throbbing headache that made its home just behind his eyes, he had to stand back. Due to his recent injuries, Leandros gave him Trin’s old horse, but before long, the gentle rocking of the ride made him nauseous. He spent the final stretch to Illyon focusing on his breathing and trying not to fall off his horse.
By mid afternoon, they finally reached the great industrial city of Illyon, its sparkling walls and smoking chimneys towering above the team, even Cathwright. But Roman couldn’t appreciate any of it. With each breath he took, he felt grit and haze in his mouth, polluting his body the same way it polluted the sky above. He watched the team out of them corner of his eye, but none of them seemed bothered by it.
Evelyne and Leandros shared the same pensive expression as the team passed through bleak Illyon streets, Leandros glancing up at the still-charred tower of Uppstad Hall whenever it appeared between buildings. The others were in high spirits, at least. Thea was excitedly declaring to Eresh how different the east coast was from the west, where she’d grown up.
When they reached Uppstad Hall, Illyon officials came out to the courtyard to meet them. Roman couldn’t focus on the pleasantries, only catching, “Thank you for coming” and “We weren’t expecting you until next week!” He kept his gaze fixed instead of the lone tree at the center of the courtyard, which clung stubbornly to a handful of leaves. Even as he watched, one fell, spiraling down to land on dusty cobblestone.
They were eventually led up to their rooms. Roman followed blankly, jumping at a sudden touch to his arm. Gareth withdrew his hand quickly, holding it up in apology. “You don’t look good, son,” he said, stating what Roman felt must have been obvious. “Get some rest before dinner, won’t you?”
Despite his exhaustion and the pounding in his head, Roman mustered a smile. “I will. Thank you, Gareth.”
The smile dropped the moment Gareth looked away. Roman shut himself away in his room, locking the door behind him, dropping his bag where he stood, and promptly collapsing into the feathery four-poster bed. With warm blankets and soft pillows surrounding him, it took mere minutes for him to drift back into sleep.
When he woke again, he felt more like a person and less like an empty husk. His migraine had receded to a dull ache, and the unnatural clarity that haunted him all day had dimmed. He took in the guest room for the first time: it was garish in a way only the wealthy of Alfheim could (or would ever wish to) obtain, all gilded fixtures and superfluous embellishments. Aside from the bed, in the room were two graceful armchairs, a full-length mirror, and a shining armoire large enough to hold Roman’s entire wardrobe three times over.
He rolled out of bed, suppressing a groan at the sore-muscled ache that blazed through him, and haltingly made his way onto the balcony.
“Oh,” he breathed.
A golden-red sunsset painted a bright canvas across the sky. Below Roman sprawled a dusk-soaked city, sloping gently toward a range of dark mountains that cut jagged strokes into the horizon. Nestled among these mountains, across the valley, sat a crystalline city three times the size of this one. Orean.
Across that valley waited Roman’s death.
The fear he’d been suppressing since Ellaes’ visit gripped his chest and squeezed. The stirrings of panic and shortness of breath that followed were familiar to him, but this time, pain came along with them. He stumbled back into the room and fell to his hands and knees as a fresh wave of it coursed through him. He watched with horror as veins of glowing white spread across the backs of his hands. The change had never happened this easily in the past.
His heartbeat took on a frantic pace, the veins spreading faster, up his arms and across his chest. Roman looked up, into the grand mirror that seemed only to mock him now, and watched his pupils expand until they overtook the whites of his eyes. He saw his fingers, gripping uselessly at the marble floor, elongate into claws more bone and joint than flesh. With every exhale, smoke that twisted and writhed with a life of its own poured from his mouth like bile, flowing down his arms and over his hands. It spread over the marble like a shadow, taking the form of a creature far larger than Roman.
Terror seized Roman, then; the creature he saw in the mirror was no human. Distantly, he heard the door open behind him, but he couldn’t tear his eyes away. He was caught in his own gaze, the fathomless black drawing him in, tearing him out of his own body.
A moment longer, and he knew he would be forever lost to this darkness.
But then someone crouched in front of him, blocking his view of himself in the mirror and snapping him out of whatever daze he’d fallen into. All he could see now was Leandros’ worried expression, and some faraway, human part of him felt guilty at causing his friend such distress.
“Roman! Roman, look at me!” Leandros urged, eyes wide and fearful, voice cracking in his distress. He took Roman’s face in his hands; Roman noticed how they shook. “Please, don’t give in to this. Don’t leave me again. I — I can’t lose you, Roman. Whatever this is, fight it, because I need you here with me.”
Roman laughed, the sound grating and inhuman. Of course Leandros thought it was as easy as just willing it away. Roman wasn’t like him. He couldn’t just will this world into a shape that pleased him.
“Leave me alone,” he snarled.
“No. Not now, not ever,” Leandros said, his hands cool against Roman’s overheating cheeks. Slowly, flowing out from the point of contact, Roman became aware of his body again, until he was no longer a mind held in place by smoke and shadow.
“Roman, listen to me,” Leandros urged, his voice a command. Shadows stopped pouring out of Roman. “We’re going to figure out what this is and we’re going to fix it, remember? Together. I’m going to help you, but you have to hold on.”
Roman groaned and pressed his forehead to the floor. The marble felt cold against his skin, and the pressure behind his eyes lifted.
“Come on,” Leandros continued. “Orean needs you. So do I.”
Roman sobbed, the darkness slipping away with a final surge of burning pain. With shaky arms, he pushed himself up from the ground and threw his arms around Leandros, who froze, surprised. Carefully, almost shyly, he wrapped his arms around Roman in return.
“I thought I wouldn’t come back from that one,” Roman confessed.
“Atiuh’s word, Roman,” Leandros breathed. “Is it always like that?”
“No,” Roman said, the word muffled in Leandros’ shoulder. “It’s never so intense. Just a bit of pain, usually. I can think past it. But this time—,” He shuddered. “It was Ellaes. Whatever she did, she changed it. Nothing’s felt right since I woke up.”
Roman started to pull away, but Leandros tightened his arms around Roman. “Just a minute more,” he whispered, his voice vulnerable in a way Roman didn’t think he’d ever heard.
He let Leandros hold on, and when the alfar finally pulled away, looked away to give Leandros a moment to collect himself. Finally, Leandros cleared his throat. “Roman, what exactly did Ellaes do?”
“I don’t know.”
Leandros’ brow furrowed. “What did she say to you the other night?”
Roman looked away again, out the still-open balcony door and to the colorful sky beyond. He told Leandros what Devikra had said, skipping some details. He told Leandros about Orean on fire, about Wilhara’s visions acting up and why it was happening.
He didn’t tell Leandros about Wilhara seeing him dead.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Roman finished. “And for once, I don’t think Ellaes does, either.”
Leandros took a deep, steadying breath. “That’s good, isn’t it?” he asked. “For once, we have a chance of shaping our own paths.”
Roman nodded. “I guess.”
“Come on,” Leandros said, taking Roman’s hand and pulling him to his feet. “It might help you to get some air — and something to eat. You slept through dinner, but you and I could go to one of the restaurants down in the city. How does that sound?”
Roman smiled at him, grasping this bit of normalcy and holding tight. “It sounds good.”
Together, they snuck out of Uppstad Hall. With all its twisting vine and glittering brick, it felt like a dream. Roman felt more grounded in the dusty streets, among normal people with simple desires and casual conversations. To Roman’s surprise, Leandros steered them out of the wealthy quarter and into the common market, where they stopped at a simple food stall.
Roman ordered a penny pie at one stall while Leandros bought several brandy balls for them to split at another. Then, together, they started a slow, circuitous route back to Uppstad Hall.
“Did I miss anything important at dinner?” Roman asked, mouth full of food.
Leandros snorted and shook his head. “We’re in the Alfheim province now; if the governor has anything important to say, it’ll take days of pleasantries to get him to spit it out.”
“We’re not staying here for days, though, are we?” Roman asked. Part of him hoped that they would — he didn’t want to go to Orean. He feared what awaited him there.
“Of course not,” Leandros said, giving Roman a sidelong look. “I told the team to be ready to leave tomorrow. The sooner we can get this over with, the better.”
“Right.” Roman tried not to visibly deflate at the news.
“One other thing did come up after dinner,” Leandros started conversationally.
“Gareth figured out who you are,” Leandros said. “He pestered me for stories about you. Did you know he’s apparently a renowned Egil scholar?”
Roman snorted. “I know — not that I understand why he’d want to be. I’ll talk to him in the morning.”
Leandros stepped closer to avoid the crowd, their hands brushing for the briefest of moments. Even as Roman longed for more of the contact, Leandros pulled his hand quickly away, clearing his throat and awkwardly offering Roman the crumpled bag containing the brandy balls.
Awkwardness aside, Roman felt better than he had this entire trip. It almost felt like he and Leandros were on their own again, out on some adventure together. At times, Roman longed to return to that time of his life — there was so much he’d do differently, so much he’d appreciate that he hadn’t, then.
Nothing had been the same since the events in Histrios.
He watched Leandros out of the corner of his eye — Leandros, more than anything, had changed since their adventuring days. He no longer stood back, letting Roman take the lead and going along with whatever Roman suggested. He was confident and certain, at least outwardly, and Roman trusted him enough to be the one to give up control and follow.
Roman found he loved it. He only wished he had more time to spend with this new Leandros.
But all too soon, they reached Uppstad. Leandros led Roman up a flight of stairs and along the open stone walkways overlooking the main courtyard, wordlessly taking a longer route than the one they’d used on their way down. Rather than continue deeper inside, Leandros slowed to a stop and leaned against the edge of the balcony, his back to the courtyard. Roman stood beside him, staring down at the barren tree from before.
It looked different at night, lonelier.
“You know,” Leandros began thoughtfully, lowering his voice unnecessarily. It made this scene too intimate, Roman thought. He shivered, and it didn’t escape Leandros’ notice. “Are you cold?”
“No,” Roman said quickly. “What do I know?”
“Oh, I was just thinking…it makes sense, I suppose. That Dev’s Ellaes. At least, it doesn’t surprise me the way it should.”
“I know what you mean,” Roman said, not looking at Leandros. “I feel like…this is strange, but I feel like I’ve always none, in some way.”
“That, I can’t relate to. I never believed the Guardians existed. I barely believe Atiuh exists,” Leandros said, then hummed thoughtfully. “Does this mean he does, then? Tellaos and Atuos, too? Where are they?”
“I don’t know,” Roman said, simply.
“More questions to ask Devikra, when we find her,” Leandros said. He turned, his pinky finger brushing against Roman’s on the stone railing, and pointed out the balcony to the charred tower above them. Unlike the rest of the castle’s windows, which emitted the flickering glow of firelight, this tower’s windows were dark, the glass all blown out. “That’s where it happened. If that awning wasn’t there, I’d be dead.
“You should have seen this girl, Roman,” Leandros continued. “Fire swirled around her fingertips like it was hers to command. She moved like I’ve never seen. There was something dead in her eyes. Those creatures the other night…and Ellaes’ magic. They reminded me of her.”
Roman finally looked at him. “You think Ellaes was behind your Uncle’s abduction?”
“No. But I think there are other Guardians, and they all have the same magic.”
A strange thrill went through Roman, something urgent tugging at his mind. A memory, or maybe a dream…it hurt to prod at, but something told him that he must.
Leandros misinterpreted Roman’s silence. “I could be wrong,” he said. “I suppose it’s rash to make such jumps. I’m here to find my Uncle, not concoct theories.”
“I don’t think it’s rash,” Roman murmured. “Nothing is impossible anymore, is it?”
Leandros chuckled. “No, but some theories are more likely than others. I’d rather believe Orean really does have some sort of weaponized magic — though I shudder to think of what Unity would do if they got their hands on it.”
“We can’t let them,” Roman said, certain of himself for the first time since this conversation started. “Atiuh’s Guardians or weaponized magic, we have to get to the bottom of this before the Enforcers do. They’ve been playing friendly so far, but you know that the minute we reach Orean, they’re going to go their own way. Unity wants that magic more than they want Amos’ safe return.”
“What do you suggest?”
Roman turned to Leandros and managed a grin. “Permission to split off from the rest of the group, Captain?”
Leandros’ lips twitched up into a smile. “Granted, so long as you explain your plan.”
“I’m thinking that while you all acquaint yourself with the orinian king, I’ll get a headstart scouring Orean for signs of your uncle or the magic. Hopefully, I’ll beat our lovely security team to both.”
Leandros nodded. “If anyone could succeed, it’s you. But Roman, after what Ellaes did—,”
“It’ll be fine,” Roman lied. “I’ll be fine. Just tell the rest of the team I’m still too ill to join you on the final leg of the trip, then I’ll sneak into the city on my own tomorrow.”
The final sun set as they talked, going over the plan, reviewing what little they knew. Roman didn’t want to sleep, but he felt exhaustion tug at him, the kind that always followed his strange transformations. He hadn’t even noticed, though, how much easier the after-effects had been on his body than usual — no dizziness, no sudden illness. He closed his eyes and sighed.
When he opened them again, he found Leandros staring at him, blue eyes piercing even in the growing darkness.
“You should rest,” Leandros said softly.
Leandros pushed himself off the wall. “Come along,” he said, herding Roman despite Roman’s muttered protest. They made their way back to Roman’s room. Roman turned to say goodnight and found Leandros hesitating.
From the worry in his friend’s expression, Roman guessed he must be thinking about what he’d walked in on earlier, afraid it might happen again if he left. Roman wasn’t sure it wouldn’t.
“I should go,” Leandros said, rocking back on his heels. “We both have long days ahead of us.”
Roman only watched him, struck by the fierce realization that he didn’t want to say goodnight. Even more, he didn’t want to say goodbye. He didn’t know how much time together they had left, or when Wilhara’s vision would come to pass, but he couldn’t say goodbye.
So instead, he pressed forward and kissed Leandros.
Leandros made a surprised sound but was kissing back in an instant, wrapping an arm around Roman’s waist and pulling him close. Roman gasped and clung to Leandros’ shoulders, the alfar’s warmth keeping him tethered to the earth, grounding him and sending all thoughts of Orean and visions flying from his mind.
Leandros’ arms were secure around Roman, and for a moment, Roman wasn’t afraid of anything.
“Leandros,” Roman breathed against Leandros’ lips, his nails digging into Leandros’ shoulders, pulling him closer.
Leandros pressed forward, Roman falling back automatically until his back hit cold stone. Leandros trailed his kisses lower, breathing Roman’s name fervently against his jawline. Roman squirmed against Leandros, uncomfortable with the awe in Leandros’ voice. He didn’t deserve it.
But then Leandros kissed him again, and all Roman could do was melt into it, Leandros’ weight pressing him against the wall making his head spin.
Roman tangled a hand in Leandros’ hair, pulling a low moan from the alfar.
“Roman,” Leandros gasped between kisses, “You have no idea how long I’ve wanted this.”
The words were like a bucket of cold water dumped over Roman’s head. He pushed Leandros away, hard enough that Leandros fell back several steps.
“I—,” Roman started, stopping when Leandros flinched like he’d been struck. But there was too much he wanted to say, and he didn’t know where to begin. He just knew he shouldn’t have done that, not with Wilhara’s vision putting a strict deadline on…whatever this was. It wasn’t fair to Leandros.
But when Leandros started to draw back, Roman caught his hand in his own. “Wait. I didn’t mean — would you stay with me tonight? Please?”
Leandros smiled, the expression sad. He took Roman’s hand in both of his and kissed it. “Roman, as much as I wish this was real, you’ve had a long day and you’re not in your right mind. Go get some rest. We’ll talk again in the morning.”
Roman pouted and watched Leandros walk away. Leandros was right, they’d have to talk in the morning — hopefully, by then, Roman would have gathered the courage to say goodbye.