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Sleeping Beauty AU for a kink meme prompt.

[This might be the darkest thing I've ever written. The song in Talia's spell is called Green Grow the Rushes, O, and I'm putting it at the beginning for anyone not familiar with it. It is sung call and response, much in the format of the Twelve Days of Christmas, and is pretty and haunting.]

I'll sing you twelve, O
Green grow the rushes, Ho
What are your twelve, Ho?
Twelve for the twelve Apostles
Eleven for the eleven who went to heaven,
Ten for the ten commandments,
Nine for the nine bright shiners,
Eight for the April Rainers,
Seven for the seven stars in the sky,
Six for the six proud walkers,
Five for the symbols at your door,
Four for the Gospel makers,
Three, three, the rivals,
Two, two, the lily-white boys,
Clothèd all in green, O
And one is one and all alone
And evermore shall be so.

Twelve for the twelve Apostles.

The first task is bloody and cruel, meant to scare the faint of heart away at the outset, to kill those foolish enough not to know their unworthiness. An afternoon of combat, one champion and the next, stretches on with the sun hot and high in the sky. Sweat drips down the young knight’s face, stings his eyes.

Bane knows he will not triumph, none do.

And yet, the first key turns, the spell begins to unwind. Twelve bodies, in all, lie slaughtered around him on the ground. His armour is stained in blood. The laughing Crane, devoted Barsad; even Bane feels a pang in a heart he’d thought long turned to metal along with the parts of his and his mouth and the pain.

No matter, there are eleven keys left to turn, and none have come further than five.

Eleven for the eleven who went to heaven

The champion must be not only a strong man, but a good one. Bane sends him to the top of a high hill, to bring back the Chalice. The cup glistens prettily but is tin, meaningless, one of a thousand.

The knight has meager rations for the day. On the hill there is a starving child, begging for scraps with a failing voice.

The knight comes home ravenous and weak from a quest without food, and Bane thinks that if he makes it to six, perhaps he will learn this one’s name.

Ten for the ten commandments

This step is trickier. The enchantment doesn’t demand that the knight be pure, merely that he be true and open about his sins, that he knows them and repents.

This knight doesn’t repent, precisely, each man felled with his blade. He regrets the broken hearts, the lives he’s failed, the human moments of greed, and that the violence was necessary. Bane isn’t sure that’s good enough until the man’s voice is hoarse from the truth-telling, eyes bright with tears for the grief of the children of his enemies.

All right, a Good Man, then.

Not many have come this far.

Nine for the nine bright shiners

Even those who beat the armies fall to the fire. But the knight walks into them boldly, burns and screams and makes it out the other side, choking on soot and pain, stripping off the armour and scalding his hands and falling to the ground.

But he lives.

Eight for the April Rainers

He stands the night in the storm without complaint, rain beating down around him, feverish from the infection plaguing his burns, made sicker by the driving sleet of the rain.

Bane sits in the tower with his forehead pressed against the glass. He doesn’t technically need to see, but the skinny, tired slope of the knight’s shoulders seems so unfair, somehow, out in the cold. The shudders wrack him so badly Bane sees it from here.

If the knight can suffer the rain, Bane can suffer to watch.
Seven for the seven stars in the sky

It is a few days before his knight is well enough to stand again, but the day the fever breaks, he opens his bright eyes and Bane feels something in himself unfurl in relief.

The sorceress will not be pleased, but perhaps he won’t mention to her just yet that someone is getting close. Because the knight, at the height of the fever, had babbled wildly about the prince (Bruce, his name) as he had seen him, from the eyes of an orphaned child. When he wakes, his eyes are suspicious, but he caves to Bane’s demands and answers the questions about himself, rising from rags to knighthood, swearing to save the man who had first pulled him from the bitter cold of the streets.

While he recovers, drinking the water Bane brings him, he names each and every constellation in the nighttime sky, words Bane has never heard, words that capture his imagination, come with stories far more beautiful than the ones Talia tells about her cruel conquests and petty victories. Cepheus, Aquarius and Andromeda, Sagittarius, Scutum, Vulpecula.

He twists that key in silence for him, for the gift, and when John (his name is John) sees he is kind enough not to say a word.
Six for the six proud walkers

Bane doesn’t know what to do with John, so he sends him away. Or rather, he sends him to walk, to the top of a hill that he knows will take many days and nights to reach.

They’re getting close, now, closer than anyone has come in ten years, since the fearsome Rachel reached three and died a bloody death. John looks at him peculiarly and walks away, and Bane fears never seeing him again and hopes he does not return.
Five for the symbols at your door
He returns.

Bane hates him a little for that, and has him draw runes about the whole tower in his own blood from one of the dark books, twisting the air and poisoning the earth and staining the place with such black magic that the air chokes those who try to walk too near, and the sorceress turns her eye to them through one of her many mirrors.

Ah, she thinks, another knight. Bane will destroy him.

It certainly seems that way. John weeps as he draws the last rune, the voices of the dead screaming in his ears. As long as he lives, he will remember these horrors.

To Bane, it feels like home.
Four for the Gospel makers,

When John presents Bane with the book written on the skin of the dead who had stirred that night, inked in their bloody secrets, a tome of hell, he thinks that at last he has won. John will go. He thumbs the first page open and reads the text there, and from behind them there comes a sound.

A deep, slow breath.

Bruce is stirring. For the first time in so long, the stone prince has drawn air into his frigid lungs, and Bane knows that come what may, now John will never give up. Now he has hope.

He has to try.
Three, three, the rivals

Combat with Cerberus is nothing like fighting the rounds and rounds of men at the twelfth key. Bane calls in every favour he has in the pit to get him out, because Cerberus is a monster who likes to grasp and play and shake his food once he’s beat it, so Bane will stand a chance snatching John’s insensate form out of his mouth when he is conequered. He’d have picked a hydra but they tend to swallow whole, and the harpies mutiliate. Cerberus might puncture something but it probably won’t be vital, and Bane has enough magic crackling through his skin, thanks to John’s work, that he could heal anything short of stab to the heart.

John decapitates one head, then two, then three, and Bane grits his teeth. He’s going to owe a few favours, for that.

It’s almost worth it, to see John ferocious and bloody, standing over the ruined body, morning sunlight catching the blood and sweat on his skin, looking at Bane with the defiance of the truly righteous.

Bruce’s skin flushes pink in the heat of the morning sun, and Bane is almost out of ideas.
Two, two, the lily-white boys, clothèd all in green, O.

He has leeway, to an extent, to devise what tasks he may. On all but the last key. Oh, he wishes he could turn the last key for anything as simple as all the rest. But really, this last glimmering bit of gold is all that stands between them and the end, and Bane does not know what he will do. He hates himself, and all that he has become.

It is easy, then, to know what must come next. John must be asked to press near something so horrendous he will not be able to help but turn away.

Bane offers up himself, the worst monster of them all. Well, rather, Bane demands John be offered up. If neither one being sacrificed in the act is precisely willing, it is better John does not know it.

Why? John snarls, horrified and perfect, and Bane answers truthfully, though the sneer he puts in his voice is lie. I think you are beautiful.

Oh John. His knight pulls off his tunic and trousers angrily, standing before him with red staining his cheeks and hatred in his eyes, and Bane looks at him expectantly. It is time for him to go. Leave here. Go.

John sees the expectation, only, and instead draws near.

No one has touched Bane’s skin in more than fifty years. Even before Talia sent him to the tower, before she saved his life by twisting his skin into metal, replacing his failing lungs with whirring gears, Bane was hardly the sort of man who many people touched. John Blake devastates him, with calloused hands running down his rough throat, then sliding up again to cup his cheeks, either side of the mask.

His mouth moves. Bane looks up into his eyes, half blind, and John frowns and repeats the question. Does he have anything slick?

Just the ointment from the burns. Bane lifts John gently off his lap like he is the most fragile thing in the world, and pads away to go find it. When he turns back to look at him, John is frowning at him, with bright confusion and annoyance, the way he looks at stains that won’t come out, or the place in the corner where someone laid the cobblestone wrong, where they jut against one another uncomfortably.

He holds out a hand to him, and Bane comes back to his side, takes John's face in both hands and almost forgets there can be no kiss to free Bane from this spell.  He has no mouth.

John pushes him down gently, climbs astride him, and asks in a low voice if he’s all right. Bane nods, tightly, and then after a few scarce seconds of preparation (hasty, beautiful, reckless John) he feels him sink impatiently down, then is seated inside the smaller body. John presses kisses that feel tender along his throat, and he feels helplessly, hopelessly, perfectly human.

One is one and all alone
And evermore shall be so.

Bane stands with one hand on the last key, the other holding the knife, and John stares between his eyes and the blade, trying to tell if he’s serious. He must not be. He can’t be.

Bruce is slumbering gently, rosy and soft, like he could stir at any moment, and the knife is still in Bane’s hand. He looks John in the eye, waiting for him to choose, and for the first time in weeks he is not afraid. He knows what the answer will be before John ever speaks.

I choose the sacrifice.

The magic runs deep, and this key he cannot control. It can only be turned by blood, willingly given, to save another. This key demands a life. The monster is a part of the spell, a tool of it, and may not be able to change the task, but he can make a choice of his own.

A life is a life.

Bane has a split second to see John’s eyes go wide as he raises the knife to his own throat, and plunges.

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April 2013


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