Every council member of the Arye Alliance is a damned fool.
Allura rubs her temple for the umpteenth time. Around her, seated within the wooden chairs, sat the other princes and princesses that made up their council. Each member ready to verbally tear each other apart. The meeting hadn’t even started yet, but she could already feel the pounding headache brewing.
This was going to be a long day.
Coran, her most trusted adviser and constant companion in the dangers that were the council meetings, pulled out a chair for her. She took her seat at the head of the table, as befitted the leader of the alliance. She folded her hands, eyes flickering over each and every person in the room, from the seated leaders of the principalities to their guards. She coughed in her hand to call their attention, an unnecessary move, as the councilmen were on the edge of their seats, eager to pounce, but a habit she’d developed from previous, less tense, meetings.
“Now that we have all gathered...” she spoke, already dreading what came next. “Let us begin.”
“I call for an arrest!” Prince Lubo of Olkari shouted, his hands slamming against the table, his usual goblet of wine missing, there hadn’t been time to prepare refreshments beforehand. “Every member of that entire troop and their leaders should be thrown into the dungeon for extreme neglect.”
“That solution is what’s extreme.” Ser Kolivan spoke, one of the few here not in charge of a principality, but very important to the situation and thus present. “We cannot arrest an entire troop.”
“It would be more prudent to arrest the supervising Generals.” Lucia of Nalquod spoke, folding her hands, “Perhaps even the whole chain of command. The Commander, the Captains in charge, anyone whose duty it was to notice such things.”
“If we do something like that we may very well end up arresting everyone.” Rax of the Balmerans argued. He was still new to the council, only taking his grandmother’s place this year. He glared angrily at the center of the table, arms crossed, grip dangerously tight on his forearms. Out of all of them, he was easily the angriest. Allura couldn’t blame him, as he had a personal reason to be this way. Ever since his Empathic younger sister had been kidnapped in a surprise attack by the Unilu allying themselves with the Galra Empire, he had become more protective.. The attack had devastated the Balmeran people in a way not seen since the Empire slaughtered High Priestess Merla and the Drule. Princess Shay, a mere child at the time, had not been seen since.
It was said Prince Rax was left severely traumatized by the attack, and out of the entire alliance, he was the one that was the most fervently protective of Empaths. Allura had never seen evidence of the rumor until now, but from the way he acted now, it looked to be true.
“We cannot arrest that many people.” Allura tries to reason, throwing herself into the fire. From here on it will be a dangerous game, because she, as the current leader of the alliance, will be eventually be brought into question as well. She’s anticipated this ever since she received the news, and she’s prepared to defend herself as need be.
The attack doesn’t come right away. Instead the council continues to throw around solutions.
“We should arrest the General at the very least.” Lubo comments, staring longingly at where his cup of wine would normally be, “We must be seen doing something . Put on a show before the peasants rebel, let them know we don’t think this is acceptable.”
“We could cripple ourselves if we arrest the general.” Luxia reminded him gently. It was rather brave of her, considering the general in question wasn’t the head of her own division. “Besides, a general cannot be expected to know every single member of their army. It’d be more practical to arrest the captain of his squad.”
Princess Colleen of Terra, who had thus far stayed silent throughout the whole situation, finally spoke. “The captain in question is Takashi Shirogane.”
The room sucked in a collective breath, the sound sharp and hissing through their teeth. Even Allura felt a twinge of dread at the knowledge. Captain Shirogane was a hero of the people, and there was no doubt in her mind that news that he’d been harboring an Empath in his company would cause shock and outrage.
“Oh dear.” Luxia hid her mouth behind her hand, “What an awkward situation.”
“If he’s guilty of neglect than he deserves what he gets.” Rax argued, huffing as he leaned forward, “We cannot make an exception, or it sends a message that this is acceptable behavior under certain circumstances.”
Colleen looked distinctly uncomfortable as she spoke again, “We’re not saying it is acceptable, but perhaps we shouldn’t act hastily. General Sanda has informed me that a full investigation has already been launched-”
“And we can, of course, trust you to be completely honest with your reports.” Lubo challenged, slamming his fist against the table. “Covering up your own neglect no doubt! I can assure you that such a thing would never happen in Olkarian.”
“How dare you.” Colleen hissed, glaring as she stood, chair tipping backwards to the floor with a loud smack. Her hand clenched over her chest, using the other for support while she leaned over the table to send a heated glare at the man, “My own husband, the father of my children , is an Empath in the temple, and if you think for one moment that I would neglect any Empath in my care then you have nothing but my contempt.”
“Then how was this allowed to happen in the first place?” Rax joined the argument, turning his own glare on the woman. “It was your army, and your principality. You are the one responsible for everything they do, and every neglect. Maybe you too, should take responsibility for this.”
“Are you suggesting I be arrested?” Colleen glared at the young man.
“Exactly.” Rax challenged. “If your army is engaging in such neglect then we can only assume that it is due to poor or corrupt leadership. During war we require neither. I motion that we arrest Princess Colleen of Terra and place one of her children as regent until we investigate the entire situation.”
“That’s enough.” Allura snapped, silencing the room. She rubbed her temple, the headache forming already. She had expected that the council would use this to attack her, challenge her position as leader of the alliance and vote her out, but it seems that they were taking advantage to play a much slower game, replacing a Princess with the hope of having someone more pliable take her place. It made her tired just thinking about it. “We are at war, and we cannot afford to turn on each other now. The army in question just survived a massacre.”
“A massacre the Empath in question was present for.” Rax spat, looking outraged by the very words spilling from him. They silenced the room, leaving the air sick around them.
Ser Kolivan, who had remained silent and observing since he last spoke, broke through the tense air with more information, “We have secured the Empath, a boy by the name Keith Kogane, and placed him within the temple.”
“That’s good at least.” Luxia hummed, “And how is he adjusting?”
“He isn’t.” Kolivan stated bluntly, “He is volatile, traumatized, and uncooperative. He has thus far lashed out against all attempts to help him. He is angry, wounded, and insists that he is not, in fact, an Empath. He is, at the same time, unconsciously using his abilities to attack others with the fear, rage, and confusion brought about by the situation.”
“Good lord.” Coran couldn’t help but speak.
“Is he refusing help?” Luxia frowned.
“He is.” Kolivan nodded. “We have set Elders to the task, but he refuses to see them, and he projects too much pain and anger when they try to use their abilities to ease him. He refuses any food given by Empaths, and instead only accepts from knights, and he constantly demands to be released.”
“We can’t release him like that.” Rax looked outraged by the very idea, “He could destroy his own mind!”
“We’re very aware.” Colleen spoke, sinking back to her seat, hands clenched, “But what can we do?”
“We’ll simply have to trust the Elders will find a way.” Luxia spoke evenly. “He cannot remain uncooperative forever. We’ll let time become his healer. In the meantime, we will do what we must.”
“And what would that be, exactly?” Lubo rubbed his temples, finally becoming fed up with the meeting.
“I think it’s rather unavoidable that arrests must be made.” Luxia folded her hands, scales shining beneath the light as she suddenly took command of everyone’s attention, though her own eyes found Allura’s, “It seems to me that it is more a matter of who to arrest, so I have a proposal, if the council leader doesn’t mind.”
“You may present it.” Allura waved off, hoping that she, at least, made a sensible suggestion. Luxia was, perhaps, the only of the council that was unbiased right now, and thus Allura’s only other hope that something would be done.
“I suggest a series of investigative arrests.” Luxia proposed, “Not permanent arrest, but temporary ones until investigations by Ser Kolivan’s unbiased men have been completed. This way we’re seen to be doing something by the public, and if we have some more...high profile arrests...then we can keep them under the mild punishment of house arrest until we’ve determined guilt.”
All was silent for a moment, before Colleen spoke once again, “Luxia, are you...are you agreeing with Rax’s proposal?”
“I am.” Luxia nodded, turning to stare into Colleen’s brown eyes, “But only temporary, and much less strict than the dungeons. Meanwhile, those that should have been responsible can also be held in temporary custody until we can determine how this happened. Everyone from the General, to the Commander, to the Captain, all the way down the apothecarist responsible for his health. This way we look unbiased and can simply release any important parties later.”
Luxia turned to stare Allura in the eyes as she spoke, expectant. The suggestion left a sour taste in Allura’s mouth, especially with the betrayed look Colleen shot her fellow Princess. Allura wished, she desperately wished, that the suggestion didn’t make so much sense, but it did. It was the only option that would leave the rest of the council happy, and the people satisfied. It was unbiased, left room for pardon, and didn’t guarantee that important pieces of their army were permanently taken out of the situation. It even left them with room to think of replacement generals and such if some of them happened to be found guilty.
It wasn’t ideal, and Colleen wouldn’t be happy, but Allura didn’t see a more sensible choice. She nodded her approval, “You proposal makes sense, I approve and put it to a vote among the council, all in favor?
“Princess Allura!” Colleen gasped, the betrayal painted across her face, “You cannot be serious!”
“I second the motion.” Rax glared at the woman.
“Third.” Lubo announced, waving off the glare Colleen sent him, “It’s only temporary, you’re getting off easy.”
“Fourth.” Luxia nodded solemnly, looking not at all pleased with her idea coming into fruition.
“Then the majority has decided.” Allura announced just as solemnly, folding her hands, “I move for the investigative arrests of Princess Colleen of Terra, sentenced to be confined to her home, General Sanda of Terra, sentenced to be confined to her home, Commander Iverson of Terra, sentenced to the dungeons, Captain Shirogane of Terra, sentenced to the dungeon, and all potential associated parties until such a time as the investigations against them has been completed and guilt has been determined.”
“You cannot be serious.” Colleen hissed.
“It’s only temporary.” Allura folded her hands, “Guards, if you would.”
The guards moved to escort Princess Colleen out. For her part, the older woman didn’t fight them, she glared at them, unhappy, but she didn’t resist, so there was no need to shackle her. She left the room without another word, though the unhappiness was clear on her face, and Allura knew very well she’d lost an ally in the long run. But such were the sacrifices of rulers.
“Ser Kolivan.” Allura spoke, “I give you leave to investigate. If there is no other matters to discuss, then I declare this meeting adjourned.
No one spoke. Rax unhappily pushed his chair back and left the room, his guards flanking him as he went, not another word spoken. Lubo left next, grumbling about the lack of food in the meeting, rubbing his stomach as he slithered out the door.
Only Luxia remind behind, staring down at her scaled hands, “Did we do the right thing?”
“It’s hard to say.” Allura commented as she stood, Coran stepping into place behind her, “We can only do what we can.”
She left the room, leaving Luxia to stare at her hands, hoping that they’d done the best.
Noise in the Common Room was normal. It was something of a lounge area for the Empaths, a place for them to gather with each other and socialize casually. There were other places that tended to have groups hanging around them, of course, but the Common Room was the place specifically meant for it. Normally, Lance would be in the middle of the crowd, grinning, trying to wheedle the latest gossip, or flirt with the pretty girls, generally just being the life of the party. Or so he liked to think anyway.
Today though, Lance wasn’t really in the mood.
Tanned fingers tapped at the wooden table rhythmically. It helped to get rid of a bit of anxiety, but it wasn’t enough. He could feel it rolling in his belly, reaching up his throat to strangle and take hold of him.
“Dude, you need to stop.” Hunk nervously tapped his glass, the wine inside swirling. The larger boy bit his lip, brown eyes staring down at him, “Your anxiety is making everyone nervous.”
“I can’t calm down, Hunk.” Lance snapped, quietly, because people were already throwing him looks and he didn’t want to give them an excuse to fully look at him right now. Not today. He wasn’t in the mood for attention, not after this morning. “I don’t know how you can be after that.”
Hunk clicked his tongue, gently placing his cup down before reaching his hands up to rub his temples. The exhaustion rolled off his friend in waves, no matter how much the larger boy tried to fold it back behind layers of calm. Normally, food was all it took for him to calm down. Baking and cooking and all matter of such activity served as a sort of meditative anchor for the noirette, but even that wasn’t enough. It was probably unfair for Lance to bask in his own anxiety when Hunk was trying so hard to find that delicate sweet sanity, but the brunette couldn’t find the strength to stop today.
“I’m not calm.” Hunk breathed, “No one is. And I don’t think anyone is going to be for a while after that lash out, but we have to try to find a way to cope. Sitting here and stewing in anxiety isn’t going to help, it’s just making everyone else even more nervous.”
Lance grits his teeth, trying to keep the bitter resentment down, a useless task in a room full of Empaths that could feel it. Hunk frowned at it, but only let his own waves of soothing calm roll off him, trying to brush away that poison emotion. Lance let it happen, let the compassion wash away the bitterness, leaning his head against his friend’s shoulder as it was swept away. “I can’t get over it. I keep...I keep seeing him. His face. The betrayal he felt... the fear , the pain . I can’t...I can’t stop thinking about it.”
He breathed, trying to bathe in Hunk’s soothing comfort, but it was nothing in the face of even just the memory of the Empath, the soldier , from the massacre. Empaths weren’t measured by strength, their abilities were never stronger than another’s, it just didn’t work like that, emotions didn’t work like that. But that soldier, Keith , he overpowered them all. Lance can remember it, that choking pain, lashing out knife sharp and strong as whips. And none of them, not a whole crowd of Empaths reaching out in compassion and soothing comfort, could stop it. He was too overpowering, too hurt , and it swept away everything that reached for it.
Lance had been there, had followed them back to the temple when they took Keith. He couldn’t help himself, it was entrancing, like a siren call of agony. He was hypnotized by pain, enthralled by it. And, if he was being honest with himself, he kinda felt responsible for that sad little soldier with the wounded shoulder. He’d been the one that found him, he’d been the one to notice that pain, he’d been the one to call attention to it. And, worst of all, he’d been the one responsible for the look on the soldier's face when they took him away.
A spike of guilt shot through him. He felt Hunk shift next to him, that smooth calm brushing over the spike, rubbing it away with soft words, “Lance, you couldn’t have left him there. He would have died.”
Blue eyes shut as Lance pinches his brow. He knows that. Gods, does he know that. There was no way, no way , an Empath could possibly survive out there like that. He can remember what it was like to live out there, when he was young and no one knew the difference between someone like him and a regular crying child. He can remember his brothers and sisters, and that time they took him to catch frogs for the first time, and when they got back an old lady in the next house over had died. Lance hadn’t even been there, but everyone had hurt so much that even sweet milk and his mother’s lullabies couldn’t stop his tears and they’d had to take him to the Temple.
He hadn’t even been in the same house as that lady. Just the grief her death caused her loved ones had been enough to overwhelm him. His too little body and his too immature emotions were so hurt he couldn’t breathe, and he didn’t understand what was going on, or why he was so sad, and it felt like he was trapped beneath cold river water and he’d never escape, but at the same time he was so thirsty his throat itched. All he knew was that it was too much and too fast and it would never be better again.
And he’d been one of the lucky ones. He hadn’t felt anyone, not that young. He’d felt hurt dogs, and tired horses, and scared frogs, but he hadn’t felt anything die . He was too little; too young to fish like his brothers, too small to fight with the older kids, too new to have a relative die yet. And when he’d been taken to the Temple, Death didn’t come to him until later, much later, when he was older and knew what was happening, old enough to go to help the soldiers, and he was a little too close to the apothecary tents. He felt it, the wounded soldiers, their pain, and one was slipping away…
The Knights had grabbed him up and taken him away, ever the protective guards. But it had been too late by then, and he had been drowning in pain and loss. The wounded hurt the most, and a group of them was too much. He shouldn’t have gone that close, and to this day the bone deep pain haunted him. It crushed him, like a stone laying on his chest, slowly collapsing his lungs.
He can’t even begin to imagine what the battlefield felt like.
How had Keith survived that?
“That’s the thing, Hunk, I think he did.” The tanned boy mutters, closing his eyes and leaning into his friend. He meant those words. Obviously Keith died somewhere in between the start of the war and the battle. The boy, the soldier, died and his body just kept going on and on and on, because it didn’t know how to stop anymore. And Keith’s soul must have flown far, far, away, somewhere no one could reach him. Somewhere in the clouds, away from all the pain and the sting of sword sharp metal. And what Lance found was a corpse, a walking, talking, corpse that echoed long forgotten pain it’s soul could no longer feel.
Hunk’s anxiety spiked beside him, quick and sharp, like a nail breaching the skin over his chest, one quick blow sinking the whole thing in. “Come on, don’t say things like that. I know he’s bad off, but he’ll get better. We’ll help him get better. All of us, together, that’s what we do. ”
The larger boy really believed those words, Lance could feel it. Hope sank into them, like honey into a warm cup of tea, sweetening the comfort. It sank all the way to the belly, soft and sweet. It made his eyes haze, dropping as the warm washed over him.
“Normally I’d believe that.” Lance blinked away the warmth, nudging it back just enough from lulling him into a nap. “But I don’t think he wants help.”
Everyone had already tried to help, to reach for that hurt and soothe it into something manageable, but that only turned his pain into rage . Keith’s rage burned like a forest fire, consuming everything in its wake. It came well after despair, washing away the icy cold from his suffering and leaving biting blisters behind. The whiplash alone would have knocked the wind from his chest, but the burn left him choking on itching, scratching at his neck with blunted fingernails.
Hunk frowned, thick smile falling, “Well...maybe not now , he’s scared, but after he’s calmed down a bit he’ll have to realize that…”
The taller boy trailed off, realizing that he didn’t know what Keith would realize, much less whether or not he’d actually realize it. That the Empaths around him wanted to help was always pretty obvious, but it didn’t mean he would want it. And neither boy knew what to do if the former soldier insisted on lashing out, because they couldn’t handle that rage, and they couldn’t just let him go like that. Empaths...there was a reason they were kept in the Temple, and it was for more than just their own safety. It was the biggest reason, yeah, because Emapths were sacred and gifts from the gods and whatnot, but the unspoken other reason was that an unstable Empath was dangerous to everyone around them.
It’s just another reason that everyone is so confused about how Keith had slipped by everyone’s notice. It should have been impossible. An Empath in pain is something everyone felt. Their emotions were like a storm...no...not a storm, a hurricane. They dragged everyone in and there was no escape. It wasn’t something they did on purpose, it was just a part of them, like breathing. So there should have been no way they missed one on the battlefield. How could anyone miss that much pain and rage when…
Because it was a battlefield. Because it was already filled with so much despair and hate that it didn’t matter what, and it didn’t matter where it came from. It wasn’t an excuse for why no one noticed before, when he was training or when he was conscripted, but it at least made sense for why he was lost in the killing fields. His presence there would have only added to the pressure, not have been the only source of it. Thinking about it, it would be much easier to spot a suffering Empath in the market than in a war. Still, him actually being there didn’t help, and probably only massively contributed to how horrific the latest battle had been.
Lance doesn’t want to say it out loud...but Keith was probably half the reason the Red Slaughter, as the others started calling it, turned out to be as devastating as it had. What had already been a terrifying and haunting experience would have only been amplified by Keith’s experiences of dying and redying.
If Keith refused to accept help, well, Lance really couldn’t think of anything they could do for him other than keeping him locked up in the Quiet Chambers.
The thought made him sick.
“Hey.” Hunk nudged him, a shaky smile stitching across his lips. “It’s going to be okay, the Seniors are all going to help him. They’ve been doing this longer than we’ve been alive . He’ll get better, he will . It’ll...it’ll probably just take a bit of time. These kinds of things aren’t just fixed in a day you know.”
Hunk said that, but the doubt was heavy in his soul, and weighed down the words. The whole room felt that way, and it was starting to grate on Lance’s nerves. It’s not like he wanted to have this anxiety. He huffs, forcing himself to his feet and letting sourness take place of worry, glaring down at the stone floor as he moved, “No offense buddy, but I think I wanna go back to my room. It’s starting to get stuffy in here.”
“Yeah…” Brown eyes flickered over the area. His friend tried, but he couldn’t hide the sudden spike of concern. The tanned boy frowned, huffing and placed his hands on his hips. It’s not really uncalled for, Lance was a social butterfly, so yeah, he gets why Hunk is worried that he’s not putting on his game face and sweet talking the ladies. But he likes to think that the situation is extreme enough to give him a pass today.
“Don’t worry about me buddy.” Lance shook his head, stepping away from their seat, “I’m...I just want to get over this. I just can’t today, You get it, right?”
“Yeah.” Hunk exhaled, nodding tiredly. He’s exhausted, and he doesn’t want to be here any more than Lance does right now. His friend doesn’t fight him as he leaves, too caught up in his own exhaustion, standing up to follow Lance’s example and get out of there to find his own way to settle down. If he knew the big guy half as well as he thinks he does, then he would guess he was heading for the kitchen to indulge in his favorite stress relief hobby.
Leather boots scuffed the stone floor as Lance entered one of the many winding hallways. The temple was large and circular, so it was so, so, soooo easy to get lost in the long halls. He’s lived here for years, though, and he knows his way around.
So there’s really no excuse for him to not immediately head for his room.
But...he couldn’t. He started out heading that way, but he couldn’t let go. So, yeah, he had every intention of going straight to his room and calming down. But being alone in the halls, with everyone else gathered into groups and trying to lick the wounds their new guest had given them, left him to stew in his own thoughts. And it was when Lance was alone that he was most impulsive.
See, the issue was, Lance knew where Keith was right now.
Everyone knows where the Quiet Chambers are, because that’s where they send the Empaths that are having especially low days when they just couldn’t get a handle on themselves. Learning where these rooms are is one of the first things they learned after coming to live here. The thing is, though, that knowing where they were, and knowing that’s where Keith was, made it very tempting to just...conveniently get lost in the halls. And if Lance just so happened to find himself heading towards the Quiet Chambers...well, that was his business.
Okay, he was definitely not lost and heading there on purpose, but could you blame him? He couldn’t just sit around and do nothing when Keith was right there .
The brunette knelt down, trying to blend into the walls, as if that would even work when his dark robes stuck out like a sore thumb against the stark white stone walls. Still, it made Lance feel less paranoid, and the less he felt like someone was going to spot him, the more likely it was that no one would notice him when he got close to the chambers. So he crept along, hand pressed firmly against the stone as he inched closer and closer towards Keith.
The closer he got, the more he realized he may be making a mistake.
Quiet Chambers were named that way for a reason. The halls with those rooms were made of a special luminescent stone that dampened the impact of an Empath’s abilities somewhat. It wasn’t a solution that really worked outside of constructing a room, as wearing the stone as a ring or amulet did nothing to stop the spread of their emotions, but if they were enclosed into a room made of the material then it muted the emotions outside, and made it harder for the emotions inside to break out and affect others. It wasn’t a perfect solution; the Empath inside was still bound to their own distress, and the stone itself was so rare that they were almost exclusive to Temples, which had very limited rooms themselves. Before, those had seemed like the only drawback, major drawbacks, but the only ones.
Now Lance was also learning that “dampening” emotional reach wasn’t the same as “preventing”.
Blue eyes settled on the furthest most door in the hall, tucked away into the back corner, and leaking the smallest bit of disgust and resentment. It wasn’t strong, no more than something he’d feel from a particularly posh noble lady looking at an insect, or an artist looking at a color they didn’t like. But the fact he felt it at all was...a bad sign.
Tan fingers clutched over his chest, wrinkling the material of the robe. His heart thudded against his chest as he inched closer, steps almost soundless with how slow moving he was. He took a calming breath.
Taking a step closer, Lance leaned fully against the wall, practically pressing his cheek against it as he moved nearer to the door. Keith was so close now, Lance could practically taste the bitterness leaking beneath the stone door. He stopped just outside the archway, tanned fingers reaching for the knob shakily. The stone was cold beneath his fingers, pulsing the slightest bit at contact. He swallowed the lump in his throat, trying to work up the courage to open it.
With a last break, Lance cracked it open just the smallest bit.
“-told you I don’t want anything if I can’t go home.” Keith’s smooth voice leaked through the smallest of cracks. Lance’s tongue felt like he swallowed a whole mouthful of bad cider. The words were so sour he had to wrinkle his nose and stop breathing for a moment just to get rid of the taste. For a moment, Lance thinks someone else must be in there with him, but he realizes he doesn't feel anyone else in the room. He wondered if Keith’s emotions were just so strong that they just drowned out whoever else was there. It wouldn’t have been the first time they did that, because he’d been hurt enough to overpower even all the other soldiers when they found him. But no one answers Keith’s comment.
“Well, are you coming in or not?” The boy spits, all white hot venom and resentment burning like acid over the skin. “Don’t stand at the door like a creep.”
Lance tsked, feeling a bit of irritation swell in him. He’s not sure if it’s Keith or his, and he doesn’t care right now either. Keith challenged him, and he’s not going to back down from that attitude. Lance McClain was anything but a creep!
Throwing open the door, Lance was swept by a fresh onslaught of resentment. He grits his teeth, hissing as blue eyes studied the room.
Keith had his back to the door, arms crossed over his chest as he faced the back wall. His armor was long stripped away, leaving nothing but a few yards of bandages covering his otherwise bare back. The soldier sat, shoulders slightly hunched and head bowed, one bare foot hanging off the edge of the designated bed. He looked...vulnerable.
Swallowing the lump in his throat, Lance took a step into the room, pulling the door closed behind him as he slipped inside. He took a moment to study the room, taking in both the familiar details and the slight changes. What little Keith had on him before was pushed to the corner, although the weapons were gone. It was actually a pretty sad sight. Even he had been able to bring more to the Temple his first day, and he’d been a child. Now he had his own room filled to the brim with possessions and personal nicknacks.
He’ll have time, Lance reminds himself. Keith will get his own room later, when he’s not so...dangerous to be around.
Blue eyes landed back on the former soldier, studying him more closely now. He really did look terrible, not as terrible as he felt, but terrible. The bandages didn’t do much to stop the sharp pain in his shoulder, a fresh throbbing sword wound beneath the skin. Lance let himself try to feel for the other’s emotions, ready to take in that rage and despair and do what he could to make it better.
But there was nothing.
“Wha-” Lance’s brow furrowed. His hand reached out, almost on its own, automatically taking a confused step towards the other boy. He tried to feel for him again, reach out and tug at the hurt he knew was there, but all he found was a wall.
“Nice try.” Keith spoke, his voice stone cold. And for a moment that wall cracked, the hurt and resentment leaking through again, but then it was like a door was slammed shut, cutting Lance off from all of them and leaving him to face that wall again. “But I’m not letting you into my head.”
Lance honestly didn’t know what to say. So, of course, he let his mouth run away from him, “That’s a neat trick.”
The walls wavered a bit, ready to crumble. Keith didn’t turn to face him, or move, but he felt the slightest slip of recognition from him, something deep and sour tasting there and gone in a moment. Lance clicked his tongue, wondering how Keith was doing this. It was really, really, really, impressive. Not healthy at all, and definitely not stable. He doubted that Keith could keep this up for too long before those walls tumbled down, but having them at all was...wow. People like them, people who feel the way they do, normally couldn’t do that. They took in too much and gave too much for walls to be built.
It only struck Lance how horrifying it was that Keith could build those walls after he realized that he shouldn’t have been able to.
“Keeps you bastards from getting into my head.” Keith snorted, those walls shaky and the amusement untrue. “I’ve had enough of that today.”
“We’re not in your head .” Lance scoffs at the blatant ignorance. “We’re Empaths , we feel emotions and pain. We don’t, like, read your thoughts or anything stupid like that. We’re not blood mages.”
“I don’t see much of a difference.” Keith shrugged. Lance winced at the razor sharp pain that shot through him, but it didn’t even look like Keith twitched. “Anyone who’s smart enough can just see how someone feels about an issue and put two and two together on what their thoughts are.”
That was...okay. Lance honestly hadn’t thought of that before. He’s always been good at picking up what people were probably thinking based on their emotions, but he never thought of it as borderline mind reading. It made sense, he guessed, kinda. It wasn’t accurate, but he could see where the other boy was coming from.
“That’s not how it works.” Lance tried again, taking a brave step forward in his opinion. He reached out, wanting to touch the other boy’s shoulder and ease the pain. “We just...y’know...try to help.”
“Yeah, I know.” Keith hissed, the walls cracking as a sea of bitter hatred leaked through. Lance flinched back, hissing himself as the pain spread. The soldier finally turned to face him, turning his head to look over that wounded shoulder, training wary eyes on the tan boy. “It’s all I’ve heard all day.”
It stuck Lance that those eyes were violet .
Lance had never seen anyone with eyes that color before. He swallowed, staring at them. Had he noticed the color before? He doesn’t think so, he had been pretty distracted before. His clenched his fists against the too loose fabric of his robe, trying to find words again.
Those eyes narrowed suspiciously, “Stop staring at me and tell me what you want.”
“I want to help you.” Lance snapped back into reality, risking another step forward. He straightens himself out, squaring his shoulders as he puts on his serious game face. “It’s what I do.”
“You want to help me.” Keith snorts again as he rolls those violet eyes, venom dripping from his lips, “And the knights want to help me, and the old guys want to help me, and everyone everywhere wants to help me.”
Lance frowned, “Well...yeah.”
“You and every empath in the building want to help me.” The pure contempt in Keith’s words felt like a real slap. He stood up slowly, rising like a dangerous animal ready to pounce, and Lance felt very, very, small when he did.
Backed into a corner, Lance fell back to his default defense, getting angry, “No shit . Have you seen yourself? Do you even realize how bad this situation is? You need help.”
“I don’t need anything from you, least of all your help.” Keith snapped back, those walls finally crumbling down, a tidewave of fresh, hot, anger rolling like magma over Lance. It burned, boiling the very blood in his veins. “And I don’t want it.”
Lance squared himself, “Well then, what do you want?”
“I’ve told you what I want!” Keith snaps, slamming his fist against the wall. His shoulder flared in agony, easily overpowering the pain in his knuckles, “Every last one of you wants to help, but none of you want to listen to me.”
The brunette closed his eyes, sucking in a breath. Okay, okay, this...wasn’t good. But he came here knowing that things wouldn’t be easy, and he couldn’t back out now just because he was getting what he expected. Gritting his teeth, Lance cracked open his eyes, turning them to meet Keith, who was still sized up like a lion ready to tear him apart. White knuckled fists curled inward, ready to strike if he said the wrong thing.
Right, okay, he could do this. Not everyone who needed help welcomed it at first, this was fine.
Except he’s used to reaching out with calm and compassion to try and ease their frazzled nerves first, calming them down with his natural abilities. He never ran into someone that outright didn’t want to be helped on some level. Those types normally quit the field long before Empaths made their way to the barracks, and anyone actively visiting the temple were outright seeking it. He wasn’t overly experienced in difficult cases, people like madmen or knights that were forced to seek help by orders, that was for the seniors. Lance honestly didn’t know what he was supposed to do here if he couldn’t reach out and soothe the pain.
“Alright.” Lance licked his lips. He had to do this with just what he knew already, without prying where Keith didn’t want him. Right, okay, calm down and breathe in, he could do this. Even with his heart thudding against his chest like a hammer and Keith’s white hot anger burning against him, “Alright, you want someone to listen, then I’ll listen.”
“Really?” Keith gave a bitter laugh, “So now you’re going to listen? After you already dragged me here against my will and locked me up?”
“We had to, Keith.” Lanced tried gently, blue eyes trained on violet, “You’re...really, really, bad off. The worst off I can imagine...and an Empat-”
“I’m not an empath!” Keith snaps again, frustration breaking something in him. He’s near hysterical with it, his pale hands reaching up to tug at long strands of inky black hair, shoulder flaring again as pinpricks tugged at the skull. Lance wanted to reach out, to make him stop , to make it all stop.
“Keith!” Lance hissed, barely stopping himself from grabbing the other’s wrist, “Stop!”
“Let me go .” The hysteria finally broke through the pale boy’s voice, “I want to go home .”
“I know! I know!” Lance couldn’t stop himself anymore, grabbing the other’s hands and trying to force them away from his head. Keith flinched at the sudden movement, a real stab of terror shooting through him, causing him to instinctively swing his fist back and let it fly. It met the brunette’s cheek with an explosion of fresh pain and sound like a piece of wood smacking a tree.
Lance landed on the stone floor with an oof, hand flying up to cradle his throbbing cheek. He wasn’t weak by any means, spending a lot of his free time swimming in the pools or running in the gardens, but that hurt . If there was any doubt Keith was a soldier before then it was gone now.
“Oh gods.” Lance glanced up-words to meet Keith’s newly horrified face, a single, shaking, fist still raised. Violet eyes were blown wide as Keith stared down at him, pale and numb. Then a deep, overwhelming guilt spread through his stomach. The soldier dropped his hands, the only part of him he could even move anymore, letting the numbness spread. Self disgust was thick in his blood, but no part of Keith moved to help.
Time felt frozen between them, Keith towering above him, empty eyes trained on the newly bruised cheek, tanned fingers playing at the edge of the blooming darkness. They could've been trapped in that moment forever, for all the outside world mattered right then.
It was Keith who broke first, turning away as he finally let the shame overtake him, “I’m...sorry. I shouldn’t have…” The noirette couldn’t finish his sentence, trailing off as he looked away, guilt eating away at him from the inside. Keith swallowed down a lump in his throat, refusing to look up.
Lance felt white hot anger burn up his throat, an anger all his own, muted by the power of Keith’s overwhelming guilt, but still there. He stood up hastily, hand still cradling his cheek ready to tear into the pale soldier. Keith flinched back, instinctively tensing at the anger, a spike of fear shooting through him. Because of course Keith could feel it, he was an Empath, after-all, no matter how much he wanted to deny it.
The brunette opened his mouth, ready to tear into the other boy. Fate must have been working against him today, because the distinct sound of the stone door sliding open sounded through the room. Lance tensed, anger freezing as someone entered the room, “I got you some-”
Ser Thace’s voice trailed off right along with his feelings of success and satisfaction, replaced by confusion, and then worry. “What are you doing here?”
Lance gulped, turning to face the knight. Thace stood in the open doorway, a tray of food in hand, a goblet balanced on the edge. The man scratched at his beard, eyes trained on the tanned Empath, suspicion building, “I don’t recall hearing that they were sending someone again.”
He didn’t know Ser Thace very well, sure, he kinda recognized the guy, but he wasn’t confident the older man would let it slide if Lance told the truth. It was the knight’s job to protect Empaths, all of them, and this wasn’t exactly what someone would call a safe adventure.
“You must have missed the message.” Lance grinned, swallowing down his nervousness and hoping the knight didn’t notice. Thank the gods he wasn’t a fellow Empath, because there was no way he was getting out of this without getting into some kind of trouble. What had he been thinking coming here? He’d put himself in danger, real danger, and hadn’t even managed anything useful.
“Really?” Thace quirked an eyebrow, “Where’s your guard then?”
“...guard?” Lance barely held back a nervous chuckle. He risked feeling for Thace’s mood, only to find that the man was definitely not amused. His fingers dug into his robes, overly long sleeves not doing anything to hide them like he hoped, “Are they not still out there?”
Thace didn’t even crack a smile, “Young Ser, forgive my boldness, but this Empath is delicate and volatile. This is an extremely dangerous situation and I cannot in good conscious allow either of you to continue this interaction.”
There was a sudden snap in his head, sharp and skull splitting, and not his own at all. Then a rage like a storm paralyzed him as Keith charged past, throwing his wounded body at Thace. The knight let out a startled gasp, body flying backwards and food flying from his hands as the pale soldier threw his entire weight against the older man. They landed with a loud clang on the stone floor, metal scraping loudly. Keith’s shoulder flared in agony, but the boy barely winced before he was on his feet and running, bare feet slapping the floor as he bolted down the hallway.
“Wait! Stop!” Thace winced, a single hand clutching his head. He scrambled to his feet, the metal armor clanking loudly as he chased down the wayward Empath. Maybe if Keith wasn’t so heavily wounded, so terrified , he might have gotten away. He was fast enough, and nimble enough from the looks of it, but he was throbbing with pain and blind with a strange mix of panic and anger. So Thace, who was healthy, if a bit slowed down by Keith’s accidental mental assault, caught the smaller boy soon enough. The younger soldier wasn’t done fighting though, beating his fists against Thace’s side and kicking wildly. He’s feral, out of control, all screaming pain and burning rage and cold fear all at one.
It’s too much to take in at once, so Lance bails. He slips away while Thace is distracted, making his own run for it. The knight is too busy fighting Keith to notice him slip by, trying to summon other guards to help, and Lance gets away without even a glance shot in his direction.
He doesn’t stop running until long after the screaming has stopped, brushing off calls of concern as he passes by his fellow Empaths, ignoring their calm outreaches and startled gazes. He just speeds past it all, skipping past the kitchens and through the gardens, not slowing for even a second. He doesn’t stop until he’s in the privacy of his room, too far away from Keith to feel the overwhelming range of emotions. He slams the door closed, leaning his back against it, finally able to breathe a sigh of relief once he’s alone at last.
Sliding to the floor, he leans his head back again the wooden door, gulping in a breath of air. Finally, he can process his own emotions without others reaching out and influencing him with theirs. Then he lets out a laugh, first one of disbelief, because there was no way his luck was that good and he’d gotten away. Then, viciously, one of satisfaction once he remembers how angry and wild Keith had been, because damn well right Keith should have been scared. How dare that bastard punch him when all Lance had been trying to do was help. Serves him right, he should be scared. If he doesn’t want help then, fine, he doesn’t deserve it anyway. Asshole.
It doesn’t even take a minute for the thought to pass before guilt eats at Lance. Maybe if he were still with Keith, he could stay angry longer, lay into him, because Keith would be right there to be mad at and the brunette could really tear him down. But Keith isn’t here, and Lance can only berate the memory, going over what he would have said in head, rehearsing for the next time they were alone together.
...Except it’s hard to stay angry when he replays it all over and over again, when he remembers how downright terrified Keith had been when Lance grabbed him, how thoughtless the action had been. Every part of Keith had been scared, deep and bone chilling. And then the jerk had the balls to feel guilty and remorseful and...and... apologized. Where did he get off doing that? Lance didn’t want to forgive him, not when he was going to have a bruise on his face all week, but it was hard to stay mad when he looks back at how vulnerable Keith had really been.
Lance goes over the whole encounter in his head two, three, four, a dozen times. Every word that was said and every emotion that he felt radiating off the pale boy. The tanned boy may not have accomplished what he’d wanted going there, but looking back, he doesn’t think it was the huge failure he thought it was either. It definitely wasn’t a good encounter, but if he stops and thinks about it for a moment, he learned a lot more about the situation than he’d known before.
Before Keith had been an unknown, a mythical figure. All Lance had known was that rage and pain, that he’d somehow survived war and...and killing, that he’d somehow kept from losing his mind in the sea of slaughter. Now Lance has more details, things to fill in the gaps between knowledge, things that took this half formed sketch in his mind and started painting in a full picture.
Keith was scared.
That’s when it all clicks into place for Lance.
Yeah, Keith is scared. He’s been scared for a long, long, time. He’s scared, and broken, and trying to pretend he’s not. All that anger was just to cover it so no one, not even himself, would notice. He’s scared, and he just wants to go home because that’s where people go when they’re scared, they go home, where they’re safe and their walls are up. Home is like his mama’s warm hugs, or rain leaving puddles in the cobblestones. It’s where you’re safe, and that’s what Keith needs right now, to be safe. But he isn’t, or, well, he doesn’t feel like he’s safe. Maybe he hasn’t been safe for a long time.
Lance swallows a lump of guilt that formed in his throat, heart twisting at the thought. Keith had been scared the whole time he’d been in the room, and it was pure fear that motivated that punch. That pale boy with black hair and violet eyes had been scared of him , had flinched instinctively when he reached to grab him.
He flinched when Lance tried to grab him.
That’s why Lance got punched , he’d tried to grab him.
It feels like he’s so close to the answers, but Lance just can’t reach it. Did Keith not like being grabbed? Was there a reason? Did he hate being touched in general or was it something trained in him from his time on the field? Was he so used to being punched and kicked on the training grounds that he just reacted that way? Did he ever feel it when he fought back, his defense hurting him as they traded blows? Or was his the result of endless battles? When men cut him with their sharp panic and sharper swords. Did he think Lance was going to attack him the same way? The more he thinks about it, the angrier he becomes. This was why Keith should have never been allowed near the field. They ruined him.
He never should have gotten to this point. Fighting back shouldn’t ever be something so instinctively part of an Empath that it becomes their first instinct against panic. He should've never been this scared, he should never...never…
Lance buries his face in his knees and lets out a muffled scream of frustration. He hates them, he hates all of them, the army, the soldiers, the commander, everyone that didn’t notice Keith was suffering. How didn’t they notice? Where they all idiots or did they just not care? It’s so obvious, so fucking obvious, that Keith was an Empath. He felt too much and reacted too intensely to be anything else. Even without the instinctual connection that Empaths shared with each other it should have been very obvious that Keith was one of them. There was no excuse for this, no reason they shouldn’t have noticed. It was neglect, pure and simple, neglect that destroyed him.
And what could Lance do about it right now? Nothing. There was nothing he could do right now but hate them. And he does, he hates them all, every single one, with a bitterness that surprises him. Before, it had been a general blame, not personal, but just an obvious reaction to knowing someone had been so terribly treated. Now he feels it in his soul, deep and personal. Keith would have never been in this position if not for them, and he would’ve been safe to grow up here, in the temple, safe from the war. As far as he’s concerned, they may as well have been the ones to punch him, and that’s the least of a long list of sins.
Blunt nails dig into the overflowing fabric of his robe, tugging at the silken strands until they were pulled taunt against his skin. He thinks over everyone he saw with Keith in that courtyard, everyone who should have known.
Takashi Shirogane, Champion and Hero of the Kerberos Disaster, someone he had looked up to, someone he had wanted to be . He’d been right there, with Keith, heads bowed and whispering while Keith stewed in his new trauma. They knew each other, Shiro was his Captain , there was no way, no way the man hadn’t noticed.
The truth leaves a bitter taste in his mouth.
Captain Shirogane was legendary for being able to keep himself together even during the worst missions. His heroics were responsible for saving dozens of troops, earning him the fame and respect someone like that deserved. He was even put together enough to have never been in need of an Empath afterwords, despite some of those missions being infamously bloody.
It wasn’t like he was any less a hero, because he really did amazing things, but they were soured by the fact that he was only able to do those things because there was an Empath in his troop. The captain had been taking advantage of a vulnerable Empath, put him and everyone else in danger, and for what? Fame? The mission? It was disgusting either way.
He gnaws at his bottom lip, bitter disappointment spreading through his belly. It’s not fun realizing his hero was such a bastard, that’s for sure. He clenches his fists until his knuckles are white and his robes are in danger of ripping.
Once it’s safe, and he’s sure things have quieted down with Keith, he’ll visit the soldier again, try again at easing him. This time he won’t let it devolve like it had before. Hopefully he and his fellow Empath can find some common ground and get on better than they had this time.
But first...he needed to have words with Takashi Shirogane.