Broken Wings: IV
Date: August 7th, 10039 A.F Location: Arusian Consulate, 1532 Kissinger St Kulala City, Alliance Island New Earth, Priman quadrant. Time: 0750 STG
It had taken a long time to control his trembling, although somewhere along the line Keith had realized that it had been cold that made his limbs shake and not some grand emotional turmoil. Of course, once that realization had been made, the solution had been simple enough; pick up Lances discarded jacket and put it on. But that had just set off another wave of shaking limbs as Keith fought with aShteru over the wearing of Alliance clothes--of Lances clothes. Even when he had won and the jacket--still warm from Lances body despite the rooms cold--embraced him in aromatic warmth of leather and Lance all rolled into one, he still wasnt safe from the trembling. This time, though it really was from emotional turmoil and Keith could feel vaguely justified in the timorous nature of his limbs.
Mishak son'ryou. He had never thought that he would hear those words. Not with the history that he had, not with those strong premonitions of the end that broadsided him. After all, he would never return to Nemai, and any Ki'ir-ar he met now wouldn't have been able to speak those words to him, even if they had wanted to.
He had never hoped to hear that oath. Certainly never from Lance.
Mishak son'ryou, Lance? No, not quite. Not quite.
Keith smiled in the darkness. Lance had no idea what he had just tried to swear, Keith was sure of it. If he had, he would never have attempted it. To swear Mishak son'ryou was to give up your soul, trade it for another's. It was to commit everything of yourself, give everything of yourself, to another person. It was to relinquish your heart and pray that no harm would come to it.
Neither of them were ready for that. Neither of them were capable of it. They were both too selfish for this oath.
But it would have been nice. It would have been nice to have felt the warmth of another's soul. It would have been nice to experience that love that the stories were all about, to have that happy comfort that's supposed to come with this oath. Kami knows I need some comfort now. Keith looked down at his hands, at the cruel talons that could cause so much pain, his smile fading.
He sighed and pulled his feet up onto the chair, rested his head on the bony platform of his knees. He felt so young for some reason.
It's because we are young.
Keith frowned at the reminder that his thoughts were no longer his own anymore, shared instead with this unwelcome intruder of his brain. No we're not. We're almost middle aged.
a'Shteru laughed, silently, mockingly. You know better, Keith. You know that we haven't even seen a tenth of our life. You know that we are still a Fledgling. We are the child-killer, the baby with the gun, the monster fed on blood.
Shut up. I'm not a monster. I'm not like you.
Really? Your past says otherwise, Keith. You are just as foul as I am. Face it, no matter what culture we may be in, we are monsters. I for worshiping Anai, you for destroying without even that small comfort. a'Shteru grew quiet and Keith was glad. His other self drew blood with every word, played on the deep insecurities that weakened the foundation of his self.
He was right, though. Keith was worse than a'Shteru, for a'Shteru had had a cause to fight and kill for. All Keith had were orders from a shadowy government, a command to slaughter. a'Shteru hadn't had a choice; Keith had. And he had chosen wrong.
You should have let me kill him. a'Shteru's voice held a tinge of petulant whine, a remnant of a childhood cut far too short. Lance poses a threat.
No he doesn't. Keith glared into the darkness of the room. He poses no threat to us whatsoever.
Yes he does. He makes you weak. He causes you pain. Therefore, he must be destroyed. That which causes pain must be eliminated so that there will no longer be pain. a'Shteru grinned deep in the back of Keith's mind. You should have let me rip out his heart. Then he would have been a real bleeding heart.
I'll kill us before I let you harm him again.
a'Shteru snorted. Why are you protecting him? You aren't even lovers anymore. Even you admit that you don't have Mishak son'ryou. So what tie does he still hold on you?
He is a friend, a'Shteru. There are certain things you don't do to a friend. Killing them is one of those things. You don't kill friends. You especially don't kill lovers.
a'Shteru rolled his eyes. Then why did you kill Kes?
That was different. Kes had to die. He wouldn't have lived much longer anyway. It was better to get it over with quickly. A mercy kill.
You could say that about Lance too. In the grand scheme of things, Lance has a very short lifespan. Wouldn't it be better if we killed him now too?
No. Lance will live, a'Shteru. Or, at least, he won't die by our hand.
a'Shteru lapsed into silence again and Keith breathed a sigh of relief. He ran a hand over his slick, shaved head, grimacing at the smoothness. His hair was part of what he was; part of who he was.
Lance had loved his hair.
Well, what about Getraut? a'Shteru's question startled Keith, and he felt a pang of guilt at the name that he couldn't identify. Why should he feel guilty? The name meant nothing to him, a memory of another time, of another self, another life.
What about him?
We killed Getraut and he was as close to a brother as we have ever had. No, he was closer. He was a close to us as our soul, trusted in everything.
Why did we kill him then? If he was so special, than why did we kill him? I don't remember Getraut or his death at all.
a'Shteru smirked. We killed him because he betrayed us, Keith. We killed him because he caused us pain, and for that he deserved to die.
I'm sure he did then. Keith shrugged, dismissing the name. Why bring him up now?
Why? Because we loved him, Keith. a'Shteru was mad. That was not a good sign. Strange how the anger of a child could hold so much power over Keith, make him so afraid. We loved him with an emotion purer than that with which you love Lance. And we killed him, despite this better love, this greater love. Just because they are our friends, because they are our Agapiso, does not mean that they are safe from death at our hands. You should remember that Keith. You should remember Getraut. You will remember Getraut.
Keith swallowed hard as the memories came flooding back, forced past the block that he had imposed to keep this past life at bay, forced onto his unwilling psyche by a'Shteru. He relived them all over again, relived all the pain once more, relived the betrayal. There were tears on his cheeks when a'Shteru was done with him and he swiped angrily at the betraying drops, disgusted with himself, hating himself.
He deserved to die. Keith shook his head stubbornly, trying to regain some of his equilibrium. He tried to kill us. He betrayed us to Bjornson, to the Alliance.
He was ordered to kill us. It was his duty, and you know that. The Marak-lai ordered his betrayal.
So? He could have ignored the Marak-lai. We did.
He was not like us, Keith. He still had hope. He still had duty. He belonged to the Aeries, to the Ki'ir-ar in a way that we have never been able to. He could no more ignore that order than we could ignore our vow. a'Shteru sighed. Why do you keep me out, Keith? You miss so much this way. There are memories here that you should feel, you should experience. There are things that make up you even if you don't realize it.
I don't care. I want no part of you, a'Shteru. I want no part of your vow, no part of your killing. I want no part of your bloodthirsty quest.
a'Shteru shrugged. All right. You won't have to participate. All you'll have to do is relinquish your hold on this body, take my place in the corner of your mind, and I will wreck my vengeance upon the Alliance. It's that simple, Keith. You can stay pure. You can be yourself again. You won't have to worry about me anymore, won't have those disturbing dreams. All you have to do is step aside.
No. I won't let you do that. I would rather put up with you than let you run loose.
A good plan. Do you want to know what I would do if you ever loosen your hold? The first thing I would do is kill Lance. Do you think his death should be slow? I think it should. I think that his flesh should be stripped from his bones in thin slices, agonizing sheets of pain. And then, maybe I'll pluck out his eyes. Or rip out his--
Stop it! Stop it! Sharp, white clouds streamed from Keith's panting mouth, body shaking with disgust and fear. I won't let you harm him! I'll kill us first.
a'Shteru laughed, cold and mocking. Oh poor deluded Keith. If you ever paid any attention to the rest of your life, you would know that Anai would never let that happen. We're still too useful to her to die yet--why do you think we've lived so long, anyway? Why do you think you didn't die when you electrocuted yourself? Why do you think we survived the Redcaps, and the wars and the torture? Because Anai isn't finished, our vow isn't fulfilled. So, you'll just have to listen to my plans. I have great plans, did you know that? I'm orchestrating your end. I'm leading you into insanity. Isn't that fun? I'm having fun. Are you having fun, Keith? I get to tell you everything I would do. And I get to watch you squirm. Ooh, this is enjoyable. Even as you try to fight me back, you grow weaker, ever weaker. And you try so hard. But you're energy is going to run out, Keith, and you'll weaken enough for me to take over this body completely. You won't be able to fight me anymore. Then you'll get to watch as I destroy your life, destroy the Alliance. It'll be like a great big movie, won't it?
Keith shook his head stubbornly. No. No way. So what if we don't die the first time? I'll keep trying. I'll keep killing myself until I get it right. Do you hear me? I'm going to get it right, damn it. I'm going to stop you.
a'Shteru's mad laughter echoed in his mind. I'd like to see you try. You think too much like a Ki'ir-ar, Keith. You won't commit suicide. It isn't honorable. You are too bound by Honor, Keith. You can't kill us.
"Oh yeah? To save Lance I would." Angry, Keith brought one of his sharp talons up to his wrist. He sliced down, hard and fast, cutting the vein neatly open to expose the raw flesh, let the blood loose onto the table. "Let's see you kill anyone now, a'Shteru."
Foolish boy. You're only causing yourself more pain. a'Shteru sighed, and then with a sickening wrench, Keith was suddenly pushed aside. He watched in helpless rage as a'Shteru calmly gazed at the wound, raised a hand over the bleeding gash. The pale blue light of healing engulfed them, a painful, tingling light of a thousand shocks.
Then pain. So much pain as wounds were forced to heal. It was pain compounded on pain, pain fed on pain, as flesh was grown back, cells stimulated into an early healing, blood forced out of marrow to replace the missing carriers, hair regrown to adorn a pale skull. It was pain, it was agony, it was torture as each black strand forced from an unprepared follicle was felt, each rip, each tear, through sealed skin sending a separate and distinct burst of pain as the black locks emerged stained with blood. It was the ache of flesh resealing, instantly aged so that not even a scar remained, sucking Keith's very life force as food for its regrowth. Days, months, years were shaved from life as the essence of life was used up, never to be replenished again. Pain as the slight aches of age were thrust upon a weakened body all at once, the slow march to chaos sped up and the slow decay of years felt in a second. It was worse than the pain felt by Lance's healing, as the agony chased itself around in a vicious circle, seeking to ease the pain even as it created more. There was no escape, only an ever growing spiral of self destruction.
And then it was done, and Keith was once more in control, but so very weak. He couldn't move, could barely think. It hurt so much, and he felt so old. He wanted to die just to make the pain stop, but knew that if he did a'Shteru would only heal them again.
Do you see, Keith? You can't die. Not yet. Anai has plans for us, plans that you can't disrupt no matter how hard you try. Do you see, Keith? Do you see?
Keith nodded and slumped forward, broken by himself.
Location: Council of United Planets, 1535 Kissinger St.> Kulala City, Alliance Island New Earth, Priman quadrant. Time: 0930 STG.
Allura growled under her breath, each passing minute making her more and more irritable. Of course it would be the New Earth representative who would be late. And of course he would waltz into the Council Chambers with nary an apology. And of course she would have to grit her teeth and bear this unimagined slight because her position was still too weak to berate him.
So she smiled prettily at the pompous, aging bastard, paid lip service to his unspoken power, and silently thanked the Goddess for the wisdom in leaving Keith back at the consulate. Given the glowers on the four men sitting high before her, she dreaded to think what would happen if Keith had actually appeared, looking like a criminal with his shaved head and the loose warriors pants that was the traditional Kreiger garb. She didn't think either of them could handle that.
"Case number 5567, Ki'ir-ar V. Alliance." The New Earth representative looked at the case file over his neat, expensive looking half-glasses. Allura pegged him immediately as a vain man, one who probably dyed his hair and went to the gym five times a week in a futile effort to stem the march of time. "Princess Allura Arai of Arus is representing the plaintiff, William B. Swift is the solicitor general for the Alliance." The man paused, glared down at Allura. "Tell me, Counsel, where is your client?"
"He...is not fit to appear before the court at this time. I would think that given what he has gone through that it isn't necessary for him to be here for the preliminary hearings." Allura smiled, dared any to challenge Keith's right to an emotional reprieve.
"I see." The man wrote something down on the paper before him. "Now that that's settled, the first order of business is to appoint a fifth judge. I nominate Lotor j'Irai newly appointed Emperor of Doom as a candidate. Any objections?" The three other heads shook in almost unison, an negation made of fear for this man's power. The old eyes turned on Allura. "Any protest, Counselor?"
"No, your Honor," Allura replied as sullenly as she could. Inside, though she was crowing from joy. Bless your biased hearts, you old bastards. You think that he's going to vote against me, based on our recent conflict and his own slaves. Too bad you didn't do your homework properly. A niggling doubt wormed its way into her soul, a fear that maybe they had read up on Lotor, knew about their fight this morning, knew about Lotor's pro-slavery sentiments. But Allura brushed that fear aside. How could they know about this contention between them? Besides, they were bound by the Oath Unbreakable, and that had to mean something, didn't it?
"Good. Bring him in." The door opened and Lotor walked in to take his place at the raised dais, looking slightly confused. Allura felt her anger burn hot but controlled, at the sheer arrogance of the Council of Five. Even she had protested, Lotor would have still sat on the panel. The New Earth representative, blatantly the one in charge waited for Lotor to sit down before he continued. "We may proceed. Counselor?"
"Thank you, your Honor." Allura stood, composed herself. "I believe that the enslavement of the Ki'ir-ar goes against the very code of the Alliance. The enslavement of Sentient Beings in anathema to the core of the Articles of the Alliance, and the continued enslavement of the Ki'ir-ar belies everything that we believe in."
"And how do you intend to prove this, Counselor?" The Renstat representative was the one who spoke, in his low, gravelly voice. "The Ki'ir-ar have been deemed non-Sentient since the start of the Alliance. How will you disprove ten thousand year?"
"By showing you that the Ki'ir-ar do, in fact, possess more sentience than you would give them credit for. The man I represent, Keith S. Tsumetai, is a Ki'ir-ar whom you have appointed to the position of Captain."
"Objection." Swift stood. "Captain Tsumetai's actions are not relevant to this case."
"Of course they're relevant!"
"I'm sorry, but I have to rule in the defense's favor." The New Earth representative leaned forward. "Captain Tsumetai was operating with Terran genes. He was granted sentience by the nature of his purloined genetics."
"I see. So genes do sentience make?"
"And who decided this?"
The New Earth representative--Allura made a promise to herself to find out their names--leaned back smugly. "It stands to reason, doesn't it? It is our genetic code that separates us from the animals. Our scientists have even isolated the geneom that enables sentience."
"I see." Allura almost growled out the words. The bastards. The damn bastards! I knew they were going to pull something like this. "May I present a holo that I prepared, then?"
"Of course. Go right ahead. Would you like the lights out?" Allura nodded and turned away. She could feel the condescending smiles of the men behind her and it hurt her pride.
They think I'm just a child playing at a game. A brief smile graced her lips. Just wait until they see what I can really be.
The room plunged into a dusky darkness and Allura wondered how many of the old men sitting on the dais would fall asleep at this extinguishing of light. The holo-projector whirred as she turned it on, projecting the three dimensional image into the air, a blue light that waited to be filled. Allura clicked the buttons Pidge had shown her, sent the first image into the empty space. The CGI chromosome strand gently rotated, waiting patiently to fulfill its purpose.
"This," Allura began in her most commanding voice, "is a human chromosome." She clicked another button and the view zoomed in to center itself around one small area. A specific strand of DNA was highlighted. "And this is the Sentience gene." Another click. "This is a Ki'ir-ar chromosome." And again. "And here's the sentience gene. Now I know that you're going to protest that this is all hearsay, but just watch." Another click, and this time the machine made a different noise, a higher pitched whirring sound. "Now, you're going to have to wait a few seconds for the result, but this machine is comparing the code for the two DNA strands. The positive matches will be displayed in yellow."
The machine whirred in soft calculations, before a tiny 'bing' announced that the task was finished. The two genetic strands shot into the air, twirled in the empty space, both a brilliant yellow. An uncomfortable silence descended as the representatives regarded the gently rotating strands. Finally, the Nemaian representative spoke, gravely voice low and harsh.
"That proves nothing." He shifted his bulky form, leaned forward with a dark glower. "Just because, through random chance, they have a gene similar to ours doesn't mean that they're Sentient. Besides, that sample was probably tampered with."
"Well perhaps it was. However, I have the capabilities for performing a similar test if I'm provided a blood sample from a humanoid sentient and a Ki'ir-ar. The only thing I ask is that it be a pure sample; no drugs or genetic alterations, if you please. Well? Who will donate?" The five men looked down at the table, or at the walls or flags of the planets in the Alliance; anywhere but Allura. "No? Then I suggest that you take my word that this test was in no way tampered with."
"So what? What does this prove?"
"That the Ki'ir-ar posses the capacity for Sentience. And that's all that matters. Don't you agree?" The five men nodded grudgingly, Lotor shooting her a brief, proud smile as he did. Allura tried hard not to smile back, to expose this hidden weapon that she possessed.
"So now we must determine what, exactly, is sentience. Having done my homework, I've come prepared to answer that question." Allura drew a sheet from the folder on her table. "Going to the premier dictionary, The Oxford Dictionary, I found 'sentient' defined as follows: '1. That feels or is capable of feeling; having the power or function of sensation or of perception of the senses. b. Conscious or percipient of something. 2. Phys. Of organs or tissues: Responsive to sensory stimuli. 3. Characterized by the exercise of the senses. B. a. absol. That which has sensation or feeling. b. sb. One who or something which has sensation.'
"I also found 'sentience' defined as 'The condition or quality of being sentient, consciousness, susceptibility to sensation.'" Allura smiled winsomely at the men and lowered the sheet. "Since I, unfortunately, wasn't able to fully complete my education, I'm afraid that these definitions don't fully explain what 'sentience' is, exactly. I'm still very shake on the proper definition. Do you think that you learned gentlemen could help me out?"
"It's simple, really." The Harmonai hissed out the words, forked tongue flickering along his thin, scaly mouth. "To be a Sentient is to be able to make rational thoughts and to articulate these thoughts in a fashion that can be understood by others. Cogito Ergo Sum and all that. Or, if you prefer the existentialist's view, 'I say NO, therefore I exist'. If you can formulate these thoughts, question your existence, you are sentient."
"But that's not all. What my learned colleague," the dEkk-mnzvar representative bowed his head in deference to the Harmonai, "forgets is that a Sentient being posses a culture that can be understood by other Sentient beings as well. They have a language, some sort of art, a social structure--family, leaders, economy, tools and so forth--and social laws that must be obeyed."
"They are also capable of feeling such higher emotions as Love." Lotor's voice was soft compared to the deep, pompous booming of the other four. "They must have values and virtues; ideals such as Honor, Courage, Good and Evil. A Sentient race is a race that can curtail and control the more bestial aspect of the soul--or rather, meld those darker parts with the higher aspects of life, with Reason and Logic and Thought."
"Hah! Yes! That's very good." The New Earth representative laughed in gleeful appreciation, paunch jiggling with each chortle. "Yes, very good indeed. A Sentient race possess all of these things."
"All right." Allura looked down at her notes and then back up at the Council. "So, in order to be Sentient, you must be able to think logical, posses 'higher emotions' such as Love and Courage and Honor or the equivalent thereof, be able to either control the bestial aspect of the soul, or have the higher cognitive powers work in conjunction with this animal side, as well as posses a culture--as well as the dictionary definition?"
"Yes." The dEkk-mnzvar nodded emphatically. "But the most important thing is to be able to think rationally."
Allura gave a low whistle. "Well. That certainly is a tall order to fill."
The New Earth representative gave her a malicious smile. "Is it too big for you? Would you like to withdraw your plea?"
"No. I am prepared to defend my client."
"But I'm not." Swift suddenly spoke and Allura started, having forgotten the other lawyer. "I would like a month to prepare a proper defense."
"All right. Shall we reconvene on the first of September, then?" The New Earth representative looked up and down at the other council members, before turning to Allura. "Is that agreeable, Counsel?"
"Yes. One month will be just fine."
"Good. The Council is adjourned." The New Earth representative stood and left the chamber, followed quickly by the other four black robed men. Allura watched them go, trying to keep her hatred down. The first stone was cast. There was no turning back now.
Do you think that, when it comes to guarding, there is any difference between the nature of a pedigree young dog and that of a well-born youth?
What do you mean?
Well, each needs keen senses, speed to catch what it sees, and strength in case it has to fight it out with what it captures.
They both need all these things.
And each must be courageous if indeed he's to fight well.
And will a horse, a dog, or any other animal be courageous, if he isn't spirited? Or haven't you noticed just how invincible and unbeatable spirit is, so that its presence makes the whole soul fearless and unconquerable?
I have notice that.
The physical qualities of the guardians are clear, then.
And as far as their souls are concerned, they must be spirited.
But if they have natures like that, Glaucon, won't they be savage to each other and to the rest of the citizens?
By god, it will be hard for them to be anything else.
Yet surely they must be gentle to their own people and harsh to their enemy. If they aren't they won't wait around for others to destroy the city but will do it themselves first.
What are we to, then? Where are we to find a character that is both gentle and high-spirited at the same time? After all, a gentle natures it he opposite of a spirited one.
If someone lacks either gentleness or spirit, he can't be a good guardian. Yet is seems impossible to combine them. It follows that a good guardian cannot exist...[yet] We overlooked the fact that there are natures of the sort we thought impossible, natures in which these opposites are indeed combined.
You can see them in other animals, too, but especially in the one to which we compared the guardian, for you know, of course, that a pedigree dog naturally has a character of this sort--he is gentle as can be to those he's used to and knows, but the opposite to those he doesn't know.
I do know that.
So the combination we want is possible after all, and our search for the good guardian is not contrary to nature.
Then do you think that our future guardian, besides being spirited, must also be by nature philosophical?
How do you mean? I don't understand.
It's something else you see in dogs, and it makes you wonder at the animal.
When a dog sees someone it doesn't know, it gets angry before anything bad happens to it. But when it knows someone, it welcomes him, even if it has never received anything good from him. Haven't you ever wondered at that?
I've never paid any attention to it, but obviously that is the way a dog behaves.
Surely this is a refined quality in its nature and one that is truly philosophical.
In what way philosophical?
Because it judges anything it sees to be either a friend or an enemy, on no other basis than that it knows the one and doesn't know the other. And how could it be anything besides the lover of learning, if it defines what is its own and what is alien to it in terms of knowledge and ignorance?
But surely the love of learning is the same thing as philosophy or the love of wisdom?
Then, may we confidently assume in the case of a human being, too, that if he is to be gentle toward his own and those he knows, he must be a lover of learning and wisdom?
Philosophy, spirit, speed, and strength must all, then, be combined in the nature of anyone who is to be a fine and good guardian of our city...
Date: August 7th, 10039 A.F Location: Arusian Consulate, 1532 Kissinger St Kulala City, Alliance Island New Earth, Priman quadrant. Time: 1000 STG
Keith sat down on the couch somewhere between the third exploding mech and the hero's homicidal rampage, so quiet and unobtrusive that Pidge hadn't noticed the other boy until he made a small noise--perhaps a derisive snort as to the actions of the gun-totting hero--and the curly haired genius whipped his head about quickly enough to give himself whiplash. Keith smiled, slow and weary, a strange aura of defeat about him. He looked so small in Lance's jacket and those loose brown pants Allura had given him, curled up in the corner of the couch, mind a thousand miles away. Pidge looked at him, really looked at for the first time since he had been taken away, and suddenly he realized that the man sitting there wasn't Keith. Something had been taken from him, something had changed him and that change hadn't been wrought solely by a'Shteru. It took more than that to explain the extent of the changes, to explain the dark bruises under Keith's eyes and the way his skin stretched so tautly over his bones. There was more to his madness than just a'Shteru, more to his weary air than this straining battle for his own mind.
Even his voice sounded bone tired, and Pidge wondered where his hero had gone. Where his friend had gone.
"Hey. You're--Keith, why do you have hair? I thought--" Pidge blinked rapidly, unsure if the black locks had always been there or had just appeared. A short silence and one headache later, he sighed and shrugged slightly in defeat. "Okay. I'm confused."
"It's okay. I, well, 'healed' myself." Keith laughed quietly at something. "Yes, I suppose that explains it adequately enough. Suffice to say, my hair is back."
"Right. I can see that." Pidge looked briefly at the screen, suddenly uncomfortable and cursing himself for forgetting to carry his gun--and then at even thinking that he needed the gun around Keith in the first place. He watched Keith's sad reflection in the screen for a moment, wondering at this sudden...normalcy in his friend. True, Keith looked tired, but the light of madness was lacking in his eyes, and there was no distant strain tensing his face. Keith's eyes stared back at him from the reflected screen, and Pidge sucked on his bottom lip as he tried to formulate a means of addressing the sudden shift in Keith's personality. Finally deciding that neither of them would appreciate any subtle maneuvering of words, Pidge decided that his best course of action would be to just spit the words out.
"So." The word just sort of escaped, turning into a vaguely questioning hiss towards the end of its utterance. Keith's reflection smiled slightly.
"What, uh, where's your 'guest'?" Pidge's lips twitched in a sort of apology as he tapped his head.
"a'Shteru?" Keith shrugged as Pidge nodded. "I don't know, really. Why?"
"Oh, I, uh, heard you screaming something about killing yourself earlier and just, y'know, wondered. Yeah." Pidge edged away from Keith slightly, just on the basic principle of the matter.
Keith shrugged again, that same defeated smile on his face. "Who knows? He broke me and then left. It's understandable, really, given what type of fighter he was. Y'know, guerrilla warfare and all. Quick, debilitating strikes to throw the enemy into a state of confusion, and then you back off and let their own paranoia do the rest of the work for you; no one can be strong when they're looking over their shoulder every five minutes and sleeping so lightly that the slightest breeze stirs them to watchful awareness. Besides, it breaks the spirit faster if hope is beaten down methodically. Continuous defeats are more painful and psychologically damaging than a single defeat, for one, two, three defeats can all be chocked up to flukes. But fifteen, twenty--there can be no excuse for that many failures."
Pidge blinked. "Okay. I guess. So, what, he's just gone and left you all alone in your head?"
"Yes, basically. It--well, it is a little complicated, but basically that's all it boils down to. I don't know where he is, I don't know how long I have, and frankly I don't care. All that I know is that I'm going to make the most of it." Keith reached into his jacket, his eyes regaining some of that same mad glint as before, and Pidge stiffened in fear; his fear only increased when Keith's hand emerged with a gun. The older pilot smiled slightly, bitterly, at his friend's reaction. "Don't worry, Pidge. I'm not going to kill you."
"Y-you're not? Than what, uh, what's the gun for?"
"Well," Keith turned the weapon over before extending it handle first toward Pidge. "You, are going to use it to kill me. After you restrain me, of course."
"It's really the only way here, Pidge. I can't kill myself, a'Shteru will see to that. But you," Keith laughed suddenly, "you my friend--my dear, dear friend--can kill me. Now we're going to have to hurry, so you take the gun and I'm going to find some handcuffs." Keith thrust the gun at Pidge impatiently. "If you could, though, do you think that you that you could make it quick? If you don't kill me with the first shot, a'Shteru can still heal me."
Pidge shook his head. "No."
"No. No way, Keith. I am not going to kill you!"
"But you have to, Pidge. It's the only way."
Keith sounded so sincere, and that, perhaps, was the most frightening thing. Never--never--in the nine years that Pidge had known Keith had the older boy contemplated suicide. Even when they were at their lowest point and there truly was no hope for them, Keith never gave up, never sounded, acted, looked as defeated as he did now. When Keith gave up, than there truly was nothing to be done. Maybe it would be better to kill Keith now, end the troubles of the displaced pilot rather than let it be drawn out and prolonged in cruel torture.
But to give up now would to be acknowledge that the Alliance was right, to admit that there was no help for Keith, no help for the Ki'ir-ar. To kill Keith would be to condemn the Ki'ir-ar to slavery forever.
"Keith, I can't--"
"Damn it, Pidge, I know that you can. All you have to do is pull the trigger. Kill me and it all ends now. Everything ends now. Don't you realize just how hopeless this crusade of Allura's is? Don't you realize that nothing I say--nothing anyone says--is going to make the Alliance stop the slavery of the Ki'ir-ar?" Keith slammed his hand against the arm of the couch, sharp teeth gleaming and pulled back in a feral growl. Anger had given him a new strength, a new vitality. He glowed, bright and alive as he once had been; but it was the glow of a flame flaring before it died. "This is the only logical course of action. Better to be rid of me, the source of all this trouble, than to go through with this stupid trial and potentially throw the entire Alliance into turmoil."
"No buts. Now take the fucking gun and kill me!"
"No." Pidge shook his head and turned away, praying that there was enough of Keith left in this twisted shell to protect him. Surely almost a decade of friendship couldn't be thrown away so very quickly.
He didn't know how wrong he was until Keith's claws dug into his shoulder and he was spun around to stare into those feral eyes. Pidge swallowed and went limp, breath coming in short and desperate, mind spinning down a thousand different paths, a thousand different types of pains but only one, final death.
"Now listen here, Pidge." His breath hit Pidge's face in a hot, wet wave, dark and damp, words more a rumbling than any true sound. "I don't want to hurt you, really I don't. But if you don't kill me than I'm going to. And maybe if I hurt you enough you'll kill me in self-defense. But you're going to kill me, and you're going to kill me now before--" Keith stopped suddenly, eyes going distant, a low whimper rising from his throat. He let go of Pidge, and stumbled away, clutching his head so tight that he bled, body trembling as some internal battle was fought. Pidge swallowed hard and edged away, seeking blindly for the gun. He breathed a little easier--not much, but a little--when the familiar weight was in his hand.
Keith collapsed to his knees, breath labored, eyes staring but not seeing. Pidge trained the gun sights at the other boys head, arm shaking and dancing in a nervous jig. Long moments passed, the room not silent but filled with the harsh sounds from the still playing vid-screen, explosions and cheesy dialogue drowning out the harsh pants that rasped from Keith's mouth, dampening even Pidge's own trembling breaths. Long moments of aching tension, of trembling, thrilling adrenaline that spiked the blood and caused the heart to pound in a new beat, a beat of fear and death and shock so great that there was nothing else in the world but the sight of that dread danger and the swift, thrumming, hammering heart. Long moments passed in this tense, anxious way and when they were finally broken by Keith rising to his feet, Pidge wished for them to come back again.
To see Keith bowed but fighting that which sought to beat him was by far better than to see Keith stand in utter defeat.
The gun fell to the thick carpet with a muffled thud, dropped from a hand suddenly too tired to hold it anymore. Pidge followed quickly, collapsing in a graceful fold until he sat cross legged on the soft material, hazel eyes deep with sad understanding even as his face molded itself in shock. Keith's body shook in a shuddering sigh as he shuffled his way to Pidge's side, unconsciously wiping his hands on his pants and leaving rusty streaks on the soft cloth. Brighter blood, a brilliant crimson as it hit the air, trickled down from the small cuts hidden by his hair. They stained the collar of Lance's jacket a darker brown, sticky spots of near-black. The older boy crouched, one hand gently touching Pidge's shoulder, not surprised when the small boy twitched away.
"I'm sorry," Keith whispered, voice tinged with sad understanding. Pidge made no reply and Keith gently moved away, leaden legs carrying him back to the couch where he curled up once more, eyes closed and face lined as the wearying battle for sanity began again. Pidge slowly followed, but when he sat he would not look at the man who once had been his friend.
Location: Arusian Consulate, 1532 Kissinger St
Pidge's eyes were beginning to hurt from surreptitiously staring at Keith for so long. It was two hours and counting now, and the only movement that could be remotely considered threatening was when Keith scratched his head. And while Pidge was indeed grateful that there wasn't going to be another psychotic episode like this morning, Keith's inertia was making him irrationally angry. But perhaps not so irrationally, as there was much to be angry about; the attack, the defeat, the destruction of a hero...
Pidge frowned, rubbing his fingers nervously. He felt like an abuse victim, telling himself that it hadn't happen--that it wouldn't happen again. But it did, and it might, and it was horrible to see Keith sitting there, so calm, so collected; it was like the attack hadn't even happened! How could he act like it had never happened?
God, but it was all so confusing. On one hand, it was Keith. Keith! Keith, who had never been anything but a friend, who had never done anything to hurt him, to threaten him in anyone. Keith, who was tied closer to his heart than even his brother, whose ties were stronger than that of blood.
Keith, who had just attacked him.
He was beginning to hate the silent boy, beginning to loathe him for this betrayal. It was tearing Pidge in two, the harsh reality of this morning too discordant with his memories of the old Keith; the sane Keith; the Keith who had been his friend. But how could he be the same Keith? How could he be the Keith that had fought by his side?
But every time he tried to separate them, every time he managed to pretend that it hadn't been Keith, that whatever it was that had changed Keith was the one responsible for the attack, he looked over and...every illusion was destroyed. His silent calm was too much like the old Keith, the Keith that had existed before the insanity, existed back on idyllic Arus. And it struck a wrong chord in Pidge, to know that there could be something so dangerous and so deadly existing in the same mind as his friend.
A strand of hair fell into his face and Pidge blew it out of the way, glowering at his silent companion. How can he sit there, so calm, so...normal. He...God, it's like he hasn't changed. It's like...Christ, this is just way to surreal. He's Keith again. But he's not. He's something else. He's something different. He's someone I don't even know anymore.
But...but he's still Keith. Somewhere in there is Keith. Behind the psychopathic veneer anyway.
So where does that leave me? I want nothing to do with the psychopath, but Keith is my friend, and I can't abandon him. But can I help defend that...thing that's living in Keith? More, can I defend Keith? Can I help someone who tried to kill me?
Help Keith, and a'Shteru is helped as well.
Don't help Keith, and a'Shteru is thwarted. But Keith dies.
...Maybe it would be easier just to let Keith die. A convenient solution to a messy problem, at the very least.
But if I was going to let Keith die, than I would have pulled the trigger. The problem hasn't changed even though Keith has. If Keith dies, disappears, than the Ki'ir-ar are screwed. They need him there, need him to testify, to make the Alliance actually look at what's going on, what evils they're promoting.
Besides, I swore I would help him. No matter what happens, I should honor that vow. And Keith is still my friend, and I should help my friend.
...He is my friend. Nothing can change that. Nothing can make me forget what he has done for me, how many times he has helped me, treated me as an equal even though he didn't have to. He was there when I needed him.
And now he needs me.
"--won't Allura-thegn." The lilting, musical voice preceded the speakers by a dozen paces, alerting the room's inhabitants long before the door slid open and allowed the pair entrance. Two pair of eyes watched them enter in silence, listened to the lilting voice of the winged man who argued with Allura.
"But Jaron--" Allura faltered slightly as she entered, choking on her words as the silent tension that filled the room hit her. Her companion ignored the beginnings of her protest and continued on with his rant.
"I'm sorry, but if we testify on your friend's behalf, than any of my people who aren't on Arus will be enslaved." The winged man shook his head, golden hair neatly bound in a pony tail, piercing blue eyes dark beneath an angry brow. "I will not sacrifice our tentative freedom for one man."
"But he is one of your people!" Joran's face darkened and Allura sighed and rubbed her forehead, trying to smooth the lines stress and worry had etched into her skin. "Fine. Never mind. Forget I asked."
Pidge raised a curious eyebrow, inclined his head at the still angry man with the ruffled, dusky wings and cleared his throat. "Who's your guest, Allura?"
"This is Joran al'Toma. He's an Arusian Ki'ir-ar."
"Allura-thegn, please!" The man swung about, shock and dismay etched on his face. "Do not call me that!"
"Oh right. Sorry." Allura grimaced slightly. "He's a Breshav'i."
"Ah." Pidge eyed Joran's wings for a moment than turned back to Allura. "What's the difference?"
"The Breshav'i are considered Sentient. Beyond that, there is none." Joran glared at Allura and the princess sighed again and amended her statement. "Well, the wings of the Breshav'i have blue bands and a sort of peachy under color. The Alliance says that they are less violent and more intelligent than that Ki'ir-ar, but that's a crock of shit and everybody knows it. Still, it was the only way to get those Ki'ir-ar on Arus to be considered Sentient by the entire Alliance."
"Allura-thegn, those few marks are all that keep my people from being snatched off the streets and sold into slavery." Joran surveyed the room, eyes lighting on Keith's silent form. "I assume that the young man over there is the one you wish for me to heal?"
The winged man nodded and strode over to the quiet boy. He regarded Keith carefully for a moment before extending his hands until they rested on Keith's unresponsive head. The young boy glanced up briefly, black eyes blank and empty of everything but the vaguest curiosity. Joran tensed slightly, wings ruffling with his unease, but continued on, closing his eyes and summoning up the blue light of healing. His hands glowed, twin moons in the silent room, then the light transferred itself to Keith, played about his head for but an eternal second. And when that briefly long moment passed, Joran pulled his hands back with a strangled shout, staring down at the smoking blackened skin in shock, then looked up again, sharp face open in surprise. Keith calmly smiled at him, lips twisting in sardonic mocking. Joran snarled and turned to face Allura, eyes ablaze.
"I cannot heal him. His defenses are far too strong. Look at what they did to me!" The blackened hands came up to emphasize his point, piercing eyes already tearing up in anguish.
"Sorry, Joran," Allura apologized, not sounding sorry at all, "but I had to try. There's nothing you can do?"
"Allura-thegn, this man is not a man. His mind is fractured, split into two. Had you brought me in when the duality first started, there might have been some hope of reconnecting these disparate parts. As it is now, they drift farther and farther apart, grow more distinct and fight harder against each other. If this war continues, one will eventually be destroyed, and your young friend will be completely insane, for there will only be a part of what there should be." Joran shook his head sadly. "There is nothing to be done."
"Great." Allura frowned and glanced over at the still smiling Keith. "So, tell me Keith, what happens if a'Shteru wins?"
"Oh, I would expect that there will be quite the blood bath. His plan, from what he tells me at least, is to destroy all who have caused injury to him. Of course, his list of those who have hurt him is basically the entire Alliance." Keith cast a hooded glance at Joran. "You should probably talk to your Akush'ai after you have that healed. Who knows what taint I may have put upon your soul."
"Why does he speak so, Allura-thegn?" The Zhiyu wouldn't look at Keith. "What does he mean?"
Keith laughed, a silent shaking of his shoulders. A quick wave of his hand cut Allura off, and he slowly stood, stalking forward until he was face to face with Joran, smiling cruelly at the other's pale features. "You are right to be afraid, banded-one, for I am the Keith'an-skai. I am Vengeance in Her purest form. I am tainted, fouled, poisoned beyond hope and healing. I am a disease, for I spread my taint to those around me, darken their souls and twist the goodness within their lives. You should be afraid, Zhiyu, for you have seen into my mind."
Joran paled further, breath growing labored as he backed away, face a mask of pure terror. "Monster." The word was hissed out, a feeble defense against his fear. He turned quickly, eyes accusing daggers. "Allura-thegn, why have you brought this foul thing here? Why do you not destroy it?"
"He is my friend, Joran, and perhaps the only hope the enslaved Ki'ir-ar have."
Joran shook his head. "You are wrong, Allura-thegn. The Keith'an-skai has no friends; only enemies. And if he is the only hope that our enslaved brethren have, I pity them. For the Keith'an-skai is the killer of hope." He backed away, almost running for the door. "You have done a great wrong, Allura-thegn, in allowing something like him to live. Know that I shall tell all the Breshav'i in the Alliance of this; and order them to kill the monster on sight."
The door closed with a soft shick, a gentle scrape of metal against metal and a soft breath of air; a disappointing end to a disappointing meeting. Keith stared at the door, still smiling though he now began to sway. Just as he began to topple, Allura rushed forward, catching him, bracing him, carrying him back to the couch. She glared at Pidge, but the younger boy just shrugged and backed away, taking a seat in an armchair that almost swallowed his small frame. His eyes were shadowed in thought, closed off from his companions, though they were the ones who sparked this foray into his mind.
"Are you sure you should be touching me, Allura? I might taint your soul too." Keith smiled wanly, winced slightly and put a hand up to his head. "I don't think I should have done that."
"Done what?" Allura asked softly.
"That..." Keith gestured vaguely, "little display. I shouldn't have let him get to me like that. I definitely shouldn't have allowed a'Shteru to share some of his memories of life as a Ki'ir-ar. Kami knows it's going to be harder to resist him now." Keith sighed and chuckled softly. "Still, it was rather fun to see that pompous ass so afraid."
Allura smiled as well. "Yes, it was. About time Joran got a good scare too. He's grown far too...inflated with himself of late. Not at all like I remembered him. I'm sorry I brought him here, but I had to try to make you whole, Keith. You understand that, right?"
Keith nodded, then winced again. "I understand. So, what's the new battle plan? I hear that you're making quite a fuss about me."
"You could say that." Allura closed her eyes for a moment, organized her thoughts. "Well, the basic attack plan is to try and prove that the Ki'ir-ar are genetically Sentient. Now this shouldn't be hard, since Pidge's genetic tests show that the Ki'ir-ar do, in fact, posses the 'Sentient gene'. Of course we had to use the blood of one of the Arusian Ki'ir-ar, but we don't need to tell them that just yet. Besides, we can run some more tests using 'real' Ki'ir-ar blood; I'm sure that we can get some from one of the Training Facilities. Right Pidge?"
"What?" Pidge looked up, blinked then nodded vaguely. "Yeah. Sure."
Allura rolled her eyes. "Pay attention, Pidge."
The young boy shrugged. "Sorry, Allura, my mind was on something else." He surreptitiously glanced at Keith, unnoticed by Allura before turning his attention to the topic at hand.
"Anyway, using genetics seems to be the best course of action at the moment, but I'm still a little wary because those idiots on the Council aren't the most open minded people. So, what I think we need to do is to make it clear that there is no real difference between the ability of the Ki'ir-ar to think rationally and that of the rest of the Alliance. Which is where you come in Keith. I need you to talk to a court reporter about the Ki'ir-ar culture, show them that there actually is a Ki'ir-ar culture. That's going to be the groundwork for your testimony. Beyond that, we're just going to have to compare your actions--and more importantly, the reasons behind those actions--as a 'Sentient' and your actions before your, uh, transformation. Do you understand that?"
"I think so." Keith sighed. "Do we have a chance?"
"Honestly? I think we do. I think that once we get you up on the stand and just hit them with the reality of the Ki'ir-ar's situation, they'll rule in our favor with very little hesitation." Allura laughed, suddenly. "Well, they would if this was the perfect little world."
"Allura, if that was the case, than all we would have to do would be to take the Council down to any of the Training Facilities, get them to see what the Alliance does to the Ki'ir-ar they capture." Pidge snorted. "The Ki'ir-ar are treated worse than animals. At least animals have some rights."
"Wait, I don't think I understand completely." Keith's brow furrowed, lines of concentration etching his face. "How are we going to establish my Sentience completely when all you have are witnesses from my years during and after the Academy? The team I worked with for my first five years as a Terran are all dead; I know, I saw their bodies. I would think that that period would be an integral part of our case, since I had just...changed over during those years. I did some pretty vicious things back then, and since it's my word against Alliance, they're going to use my actions as an example of how hard it is for a Ki'ir-ar to become accustomed to thinking rationally."
Allura frowned. "I hadn't thought of that..." She paused, then shook her head. "No, I don't think that it'll be as disastrous as you think. There'll be records, debriefings that we can pull up and use to support your reasons for your actions."
"Still, all we can do is establish my character as it is now. That has no bearing on how I acted before I was captured. Anyway, my actions under the direction of the Alliance can't possibly help, since I had no memory of my life before; I would have been operating completely as a Terran, what with the programming and all."
"Yes, but they're not going to dispute that a Terran is a Sentient. Therefore, if we can prove that you act the same no matter what your genetic code is, we can prove that the Ki'ir-ar are Sentient because your reasons for your actions would be the same whether you were a Ki'ir-ar or a Terran. As it is, you have no Terran genes in you right now, right?" Keith nodded. "Perfect. Since you are, in essence, a full Ki'ir-ar, the very fact that you can argue when you testify will be proof of your ability to think rationally."
Keith shrugged. "It sounds nice, Allura, but it's not going to happen. How can that possibly hold up in court? How can you prove that something thinks rationally?" He laughed, mocking and hard. "Trying to prove that the Ki'ir-ar are sentient to one who isn't on our side is going to be like comparing a man to a dog. You know, inherently, that they are different, that the man is superior because he has a superior brain, he thinks with greater power than the dog. But you can't prove it, not concretely. Who knows what the dog is thinking; their minds are a mystery to us. They could be capable of creating something as beautiful as Shakespeare, but we'll never know that, because we can't understand them. And that's just how the Alliance views the Ki'ir-ar: as dogs." Keith paused. "No. The Ki'ir-ar are less than dogs. Dogs have protection. Dogs have laws written in their favor. The Ki'ir-ar have nothing."
"Then we'll make them understand. Goddess, Keith, I thought you wanted to help the Ki'ir-ar. I thought that their slavery was the whole reason that you staged your rebellion."
Keith shook his head. "No, Allura, all I've ever wanted--all I desire now--is revenge. You should get the whole story before you assume anything."
The two locked eyes, stubborn souls straining for dominance, but it was Allura who broke first, looking away, shuddering slightly at something she had seen deep within Keith's eyes. "You're right. I should have asked if you would join me in this fight to free the Ki'ir-ar slaves. Will you, Keith?"
Keith nodded slowly, a slow, almost secretive smile on his face. "Yes, Allura, I'll help you." He winced and clutched at his head. "Kami but I have a headache."
"That's probably not a good sign. Come with me. I think I have something for the pain." Allura stood, pulled Keith up with her, but stopped before she did anything more, smiling softly. "Thank you, Keith." Keith shrugged and Allura ushered him towards the far door. The sheet of metal slid closed, leaving Pidge alone. He stared for a moment, wondering if he should get up and join them, forgive and forget Keith's attack so easily.
He was saved from that decision when the door leading to the hallway opened and Lance entered. At first, the young genius was relived, for he by far preferred to deal with Lance than with Keith at anytime; even when the latter wasn't suffering from psychotic episodes and suicidal urges. Lance was more...open, his mobile face readable, a map to his emotions. It was easier to slip back into his old role as the little friend, the child thrust into a man's world, fragile and vulnerable. It was easier to let the familiar persona of youth slip over his deeper, darker self. And perhaps if he did so, he would be able to forget--if only for a little while--his conflict over Keith.
Still, when Pidge saw how agitated and nervous his older friend was, he almost wished that he had gone with Allura and Keith. He just wasn't any good with overly emotional people, and if the face twisted in anguish and the nervous, jerky movement were any indication, Lance was feeling very emotional indeed.
Lance kicked a chair. A second passed before he grabbed his foot and began to hop about, cursing. Pidge winced as Lance fell into a standing lamp, sending the it--and himself--crashing to the floor.
Yes, Lance was feeling very emotional indeed.
Sighing quietly and promising himself several hours of disassembling his computer as compensation for having to do this, Pidge turned to the nervously twitching Lance. He smiled gently, and, putting on his most innocent face--though remembering what that face looked like was getting harder and harder these days--he gestured for Lance to sit down beside him. The older boy resisted for a moment before succumbing to the false youth and resting on the sofa. Pidge waited for his friend to get settled in before beginning.
"What's wrong, Lance?"
Sure. And my name really is Pidge.
Lance glanced over at the smaller boy, sensing the other's doubt, his brow furrowing slightly as he stressed his words. "Really, it's nothing."
"Okay." And Pidge was going to drop the subject there. He was, really. But then the guilt hit, the overpowering guilt that left a sour taste in his mouth and hit so suddenly that he was left dumb by it. The guilt filled him with a sense of panic so deep that all he could think about was that if he let Lance go now, he was betraying his hero--and betraying Lance. And, even though he knew that it was the shock that was finally hitting, the shock that Keith, Keith, had been the one who attacked him in the safest place in the world, even though he knew that in five minutes he would be filled with hate for Keith, he still had to do it. He still had to help his friend because the idea that he would let Keith fight this battle without the one person who might possibly be able to bring him back from the madness into which he had descended was so incomprehensible that Pidge's mind couldn't even begin to wrap around it.
And that was why he said it. That was why he kept going, why he resigned himself to hurting Lance, reopening old wounds and sacrificing him to a madman that he used to love. Pidge was sorry, he was, but it was the only chance they had of getting Keith back.
"Are you going to testify on Keith's behalf."
Lance barked out a laugh. "Me? Testify? Not likely, Pidge."
"What could I say? How could I help?" Lance sighed. "I'm worthless."
"No you're not," Pidge shot back emphatically. "You aren't worthless. Lance, you probably know Keith the better than any living person in the universe. You spent five years together in every sense of the word. How can you say you're worthless? Your testimony could prove that Keith is a Sentient. You know him so well; all you have to do is talk about him, praise him." Pidge suddenly chuckled. "I know you can do that."
Lance shook his head. "No Pidge. I don't know him. I don't know him at all." He sighed and tilted his head back to rest on the edge of the sofa. "Gods, Pidge, do you know what that's like? I mean, I thought I knew him. I thought that I knew who he was, what he was. Turns out I was completely wrong."
"How can you be wrong? You love him. Surely that says something. If you didn't know him, you wouldn't love him. What happened to that love?"
"It died." Lance sat back up, eyes cold as he gazed into Pidge's face. "I hate to disillusion you, Pidge, but love conquers nothing. Nothing."
"How can you say that? How can you, of all people, say that?"
"Because it's the truth."
"No it's not. What about Allura and Lotor? What about them, huh? How can you say that love conquers nothing when they're together?"
Lance shrugged. "Okay. I'll give you that; they've got that unsinkable love where you put the other before yourself. But they're an entirely different case. They have a one in a million type of love. What they have almost never happens; it's a fairy tale. A myth. And they are damn lucky to have it. But us," here Lance straightened, voice filled with conviction as he gestured between the two of them, "us mere mortals, we can't ever hope for that. It's too much to be expected. Our selfish little souls can't handle that sort of love, can't handle giving up our own well being for that of another."
"So what? Why should that matter? So you don't have that one-in-a-million love; but you still have love, don't you?" Pidge shook his head. It was strange, but he was actually believing what he said, believing his words. "Hell, Lance, what happened to you? You used to be Love's standard bearer. You used to be Love's champion. You used to believe in love. What happened to that?"
"Keith killed it. I killed it. Hells, I don't know. I was stupid. I was foolish. I thought that love really was all we needed." Lance barked out a sharp laugh. "Gods was I such a fool. How could I have ever believed in our love? How could I have ever believed I was in love? It was lust. Pure and simple."
Pidge slapped him. Hard. He stood, glared at Lance with cold eyes, somehow looming despite his small frame. The young pilot was trembling with his rage, voice low and threatening when he spoke. "Don't you dare say that, Lance. Don't you ever say that around me again. If you do I swear I will hurt you so hard--" Pidge stilled himself, struggled to get his voice under control. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, steadied himself so that when he looked at Lance again, he was calm; an unearthly calm, but a calm none the less. "Lance, do you know how much I admired you--admired Keith--for that love you claim you killed? Do you know how much I looked up to you, longed to have that sort of strength, that same ability to commit myself to a single person? You two--God, you two were fucking perfect. Everybody wished that they could have what you two had. Everybody. Do you understand that Lance? Do you understand what I'm saying? We--all of us--looked to you two as our role models, as an example of what true love really is. And to hear you say that it was all just one big fucking lie...No. I don't believe it. You can't fake what you had. You can't. So stop wallowing in your own fucking self-pity and shape up!"
Lance rubbed his cheek and glared back at Pidge, a defensive ire rising, twisting his spirit and making his blood run hot. He stood, paced back and forth, too angry to sit and stare at Pidge's small, hurt face anymore. "Well you'll just have to, got that? Because that--that wasn't love. Or at least it wasn't enough love. What Keith and I had--well, maybe it was love. Maybe it was. But look at what happened to us. If we were supposed to have 'true love' than we should still be together, right? If we really loved each other, than we would have worked it out, found out the truth. But we didn't. And now...now it's a little too late. There's too much time between us, too many old wounds that are just starting to heal. Why open them again?"
"And you're fine with that? You're just going to let it be?"
"Fine? No. Not at all Pidge." Lance laughed, a hollow, chilling sound. "Not at all. And you know why? Because I still love him. Twisted, isn't it? After all the crap, after I left him I still love him. But I can't love him now."
"Can't? Or won't?" Pidge shook his head, disgusted with his friend. "Christ, Lance, I know you're a selfish bastard but try to think of someone other than yourself right now! So you don't love Keith as much as you want to. So what? You love him, right? And maybe it isn't as much as you think you should love him. But maybe it's enough."
Lance shook his head. "No. He deserves more than I can give him."
"So, what? You're just going to cast him aside because you have some self-esteem issues?" Pidge growled out. "Because if you are, then I swear that I am going to beat some fucking sense into you. Because I'm not going to let you do that to him. I'm not going to let you throw away five years and my friend's heart. He needs you, you blind bastard. He loves you and he needs you and you--you who claim to love him--are hurting him so goddamned much." Pidge swiped at his eyes, brushing away the angry, betraying tears. "You aren't the only person who has feelings, you know."
"I know that! You think that this is easy for me? You think that I like having to look at Keith and want to kiss him and not be able to? You think I enjoy not being able to tell him I love him?" Lance shook his head. "It's twisted, it really is. All that hate--I knew that love and hate were close, but I never realized I could hate him so much one day and the next day love him just as much as I hated him. But I can't tell him that, I can't love him right now because I won't let him hurt me again. And that's how this will end: in pain. No, it's better to break it off now, stop it before it can start. It's better for both of us because I'm too selfish to see him through this, to think about his pain when I'm hurting. I can't love him enough to not hate him if he dies on me. But I do love him, Pidge. Don't doubt that. Don't ever doubt that." Lance looked down at his hands, voice quite and reflective. "I love him."
Pidge could never tell later what, exactly, it was that caused them both to turn around and face the door Keith and Allura had disappeared into. Perhaps it was just the faintest intake of breath, the barest whisper of cloth on plush carpet, the soft clink of metal against metal that caught their attention. Or perhaps it was just Fate tugging on the strings of Destiny, grinning a mad, toothy grin as she strove to complicate life even further.
Whatever it was, the two boys turned, attention caught and dragged to the doorway and Keith's pale from framed against the cold steel. He stood there, mouth opened in shock, eyes filled for the briefest of moments with a thousand complex emotions before shutting down once more, soul hiding behind the black curtain of his eyes. Lance swallowed hard, freezing once more in fear of his former lover. Pidge looked down at his feet, not wanting to be part of this tense room and wishing desperately that he was some place else; anyplace so long as it wasn't here.
"How much did you hear?" Lance's voice was low and soft, breaking slightly as he forced the words out.
"Enough," Keith replied, equally as quiet. Lance nodded slowly, swallowed hard once more.
"I see. If you'll just excuse me, I'm going to go now." Lance gave the assembled company a weak, sickly grin. He took a step back, ready to flee the room. Keith held out his hand.
"No, stop. Lance--"
"Please, Keith. You know how I feel. Let me go with at least a little of my self-control in tact." Lance smiled again, took another step back, than another, shakily edging his way to the door. "I...Good bye."
And then he was gone.
Pidge risked a glance up at Keith, not knowing that he wasn't breathing until his chest tightened and his pulse sped up. The other boy's face was unreadable, an empty, inscrutable blankness that left Pidge wondering if Keith was shocked or just merely...accepting of Lance's flight. He opened his mouth--though what could he say now?--and rocked forward on his heels. Keith cut him off with a look, and a sharp shake of his head. He took a long step forward, angry and determined. He growled low in his throat, a harsh, primal sound, one that sent shivers down Pidge's spine and made him wonder if he should be calling for backup security or hand Keith some condoms and lube and let him go on his merry way. But he had to do something and, deciding that it was better to err on the side of caution and perhaps prevent what could be a rather nasty 'accident', he put himself in Keith's path, one hand raised up to stop the other boy.
"Don't. Keith, don't."
"Out of the way Pidge."
"No." Pidge shook his head emphatically, trying not to think about his odds of survival against a mentally unstable Keith. "Not until you tell me what you're going to do."
"First I'm going to find Lance. Then, we'll see." Keith looked down at Pidge, eyes dark with some emotion. "Now move. Or I will hurt you."
When Pidge recounted these events to Allura, much later when they were both had some time to spare, he supposed that he could have elaborated Keith's exit a little. He could have made it more dramatic, had Keith leave in a swirl of emotion and turmoil and melodramatic angst. But that wasn't what happened, and he wasn't about to embroider a story so close to himself unless there was a rather hefty reward attached.
But that was later, and at the moment Pidge wasn't even thinking about telling Allura what she had missed while gone on some unknown errand. He wasn't even thinking about moving for awhile, too busy contemplating the possible danger he had just unleashed on the tortured Lance. All he could do was stand where Keith had left him, staring out the door and debating with himself if he stood any chance at stopping Keith before he did something that everyone would regret horribly later. That was how Allura found him moments later, rubbing her hands dry and a confused expression on her face.
"I, uh, um. Hm. I don't really--" Pidge sighed and shrugged and smiled vaguely.
"Real articulate." Allura looked about. "Where's Lance? And Keith?" Pidge shrugged again. Allura sighed and frowned. "I go the bathroom for five minutes and everybody disappears."
"Hey, I'm still here."
A knock on the doorframe and a slight cough drew their attention, saved them from the awkward silence. They turned, relief hidden behind surprise at the sight of Hunk standing there, a contrite expression twisting his face and his nervous hands twisting a felt cap. He straightened almost imperceptibly when the two turned their attention on him, and smiled slightly, sweat beading on his forehead.
"Hey guys." Hunk swallowed nervously. "I want to testify on Keith's behalf."
Keith managed to make it out into the hallway before a'Shteru took control and froze his legs. Lance's lithe form disappeared around the corner and had Keith been able to whimper he would have. He strained against himself, limbs caught and trembling as he tried to make them move.
Let me go! Let me go! I have to catch him, work this out.
a'Shteru's grip upon their shared body strengthened, his thoughts harsh and demanding. They flashed through his head, almost too fast for him to process. No. He makes you weak. You don't need him. Let him go.
Yes I do! Release me! Keith struggled harder, took one painful step forward. I will fight you. I won't let you keep me from him. Not now. Not ever.
Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. a'Shteru said placatingly. Let's make a deal.
Keith stopped his struggles. A deal?
Yes. A deal. Now we both know that you will lose this war. I am stronger than you are, and I'm getting stronger. You, on the other hand, are getting ever weaker. Now obviously Lance means quite a bit to you, if our battles are any indication. He features quite often as well in your rather incoherent thoughts. a'Shteru grinned. You are a naughty one, aren't you Keith.
Keith blushed. Stay out of there. Get out of my head.
Keith, Keith, Keith. I can no more stay out of your head than grow my wings again and fly. We are one, even if you don't like to admit it. Which leads me to my deal.
What's your deal? What do you want from me? I won't kill anyone. I won't hurt my friends; and I won't let you do it either.
That's fine. I wasn't going to ask you to do that for me. All I want is for you to remember, to hear my life, our life before. I want us to be...whole once more.
And in return?
In return? Well, I let you go. And I will not fight you on Lance. Not now, not again, not ever. Though it pains me to see a part of me be this weak, I will not fight you, I will not try to stop you. Are we agreed?
A long second stretched out, endless eternity bound by so short a span. He was wary, yes, but could he afford to lose this opportunity, lose this golden chance? What harm could there be in remembering this long forgotten part of his life? It was a small trade if it meant that he could be with Lance, could actually try to rebuild what they had once had without fear of a'Shteru.
All right. I will remember. But not now. Now I must deal with Lance. But I will remember.
And suddenly, Keith could move once more, could run once more and he shot off down the hall, sprinting after the elusive Lance. But even as he focused everything on Lance, on this precious moment, this opportunity that would not--could not--be wasted, he heard a'Shteru laugh. And a chill caught his chest and would not leave.
"Lance! Lance, wait!" Keith's pleading voice echoed down the hall. Lance sped up, praying desperately that he would be able to dodge the other boy, that Keith would give up or Sirao would intervene or something so that he wouldn't have to deal with all this shit right now. Not right now. Not when he was so unsure himself, so afraid himself. But he knew that he prayed in vain.
Somehow, Keith had caught up with Lance, grabbed him by the shirt and stopped him, spun the slimmer boy about until they were face to anguished face and eye to eye and Lance couldn't hide anymore. His breath was shallow, an empty, rushed fulfillment of biological need, only a hairbreadth away from hyperventilation. He trembled in Keith's strong grip, filled with some nameless fear, some unutterable desire, and even as he cowered, flushed with shame, he couldn't help but think at how beautiful Keith was then, how delectable and wonderful. He ducked his head before the other boy could notice the lust in his eyes and he embarrassed himself further.
"Look at me, please."
Keith's voice was so soft, a caress in itself. A soft hand reached up to rest on his face, a tender touch that turned his head up, drew him into those dark pools that were Keith's eyes; dark pools that finally gleamed like they used to, finally seemed to belong to Keith and not that...thing that lived inside his friend's head. Keith smiled gently, and Lance smiled too, swallowing a quiet whimper as the hand left his cheek.
"Lance, why did you run from me?"
He tried to look down, but Keith wouldn't let him, and Lance sighed softly before responding. "Because." Keith frowned slightly at his response and Lance swallowed. "Because I had to. Because I hurt you once and I'm not going to do it again. Because I'm afraid of you." He tore his face from Keith's grip, turned away from those wide, gentle eyes. "Because...because I love you and it's not enough. It's not as much as I need to love you. Because I don't want to be hurt by you again, don't want to hate you again and it's easier to just pretend that nothing has happened and just...just break it off now before anything does happen and we get in too deep. Because I'm afraid of you and I'm afraid of a'Shteru and I don't want to be afraid that the next time you touch me, it's to rip out my throat or heart and you really will kill me this time."
"Lance, that's not going to happen. I promise that it won't. Besides, this isn't about a'Shteru or Allura's crusade or slavery or anything else. This is about you and me. This is--" Keith sighed and closed his eyes face lined with weary frustration. "I...I don't know, maybe this is just about how much I love you, and how much I missed you. I don't understand how you can just end this. I don't understand how you can't let us have another chance. I love you and you love me. That should be enough."
"But it's not!" Lance turned back to face the other, eyes suddenly bright with tears, voice breaking as he tried to express the depth of himself. "It's not enough, not for this. How can we survive this? How can I help you through this? I can't. No one can. Not on this...weak love that we share."
"How can you call it weak? Lance...Kami, I don't know if I have the strength that you do. I don't know if I could have made all your sacrifices. And for what? Someone who betrayed you, who broke your heart." He smiled, reached out to touch Lance's hand, draw the other into his eyes once more. "What we have...I don't think I could ever call it weak."
Lance laughed, bitter and mocking. "But it's just not enough. Gods, Keith, don't you think that I want to stay here, to be with you? Don't you think that, if I had this opportunity in any other situation, I wouldn't hesitate for even a second in getting you back? But I don't know if I can love you now. You...You frighten me. You scare me so much sometimes. And not just when it's not you, when a'Shteru takes over and I get hurt. Its when I look at you and I can't breathe because I can't help but think that this is going to be the last time I'm going to see you. That sometime in the night, someone's going to come and kill you. And all I can think of is 'Gods don't let me love him anymore because it's going to hurt so goddamned much when he's gone.' How can you call that love?"
"Because it is. Because if you didn't love me then it wouldn't hurt so much if I died. And if I didn't love you, I wouldn't be here. I wouldn't be asking you to...to stay. To be here. With me. To just...to just be there for me. And it's unfair, I know. It's horribly, horribly unfair, but Kami, Lance, I need you. I need you so fucking much right now it's scary. I've never needed anyone as much as I need you." Keith reached out and touched Lance's hair, brushed it from his eyes, turned his body until Lance was trapped against the walls, pinned in place by Keith's steady, soulful gaze. "I need you and I'm frightened by that because I don't think I've ever needed anyone before. And, in some twisted and perverted way, I think it means that I love you."
"But it's not...it's not Mishak son'ryou. It's not that perfect love. And how can any other love survive?" Lance swallowed as Keith leaned in, coming ever closer until his breath could be felt softly against Lance's skin.
"Maybe...maybe I don't need that perfect love. Maybe all I need is you." Keith's voice was low, little more than a breathy, throaty whisper, so close to Lance's lips that the words were felt more than heard. And then even that little gap was gone, and suddenly Lance was back in the Academy, back in their bathroom back at the start of this whole mess that was them, except this time he was the prey and Keith was the predator, and Gods but did he taste good, and how could he have been so stupid as to even think about giving this up?
Then Keith's lips were gone, and both their breaths came hard and fast and Keith was staring at him with eyes full of fear and anticipation, and all Lance could think about was not letting this go again, letting whatever it was that made his soul burn so bright leave him ever again. He felt so alive again, skin tingling and senses open to everything in such wonderful awareness, but mostly open to Keith. Gods, he wanted to be kissed again.
"I love you, Lance," Keith whispered soft and gentle, his face buried against Lance's shoulder, words spoken into the soft skin of Lance's trembling neck. "I love you so much. Please, don't leave me. Not again. Never again."
...until one night, during the fifth month of the year of the Flying-horse, the stars began to fall. They left their set place in the heavens, streaking from the firmament to land upon our lush land in balls of fire that destroyed hundreds in their wake...Those of our brethren who nested in the Seeklippen Aerie left their strongholds to see why the stars had fallen...they encountered a strange craft which glowed as bright as the sun with a white heat. They could hear movement inside these white crafts, the sounds of life...Fearing the worse, a few of their Kreiger were sent to fetch water to cool the craft, the Zhiyu and Akush'ai of the Aerie staying behind to prepare to help those who were trapped inside...When those Kreiger who had been sent to fetch the water returned, their Aerie-mates were dead. Standing over them were strangers who, though upright and shaped the same as us, lacked our wings and seemed far shorter in stature when compared to us. They brandished strange weapons and called to each other in a guttural tone, prodding the bodies of the dead with callous ease, lacking the honor to even ask the Gods for the most cursory forgiveness for their foul deed. Enraged, those few Kreiger left of the Seeklippen Aerie landed and approached these strangers, demanding an explanation for this action. The strange beings shouted something in their harsh tongue, than the alien weapons in their hands shot out a beam of pure light. The weapon sheared through skin and bone with ease, and it took some a long time to die for these strangers, seeing that our helpless brethren could not defend themselves, took great joy in hearing their death cries and prolonged their honorable end for a long time. All save one was killed, and even that one suffered great damage, one light-beam shearing through her wing as she flew to safety. She managed to reach the Rein-aerie and told her tale, despite the great pain. She died as the dawn touched the sky. These are her words, the words of Kalai'an:
"...Large holes were torn in flesh, the edges bleeding only slightly, the grievous wounds some how sealed. The weapons they carried shot beams of a strange, white light that burned with the heat of a thousand fires...None of the dead had been armed, none had threatened in anyway, but those strangers who came from the fallen stars did not care. They killed without mercy. They killed without warning. My friends, my Celai, died before my eyes and I could do nothing to stop them..."
The wise han'Ilipai, Akush'ai of the Greatest Order and possessor of Great Sight, prophesied this after hearing the words of the fallen Kalai'an: "And so it comes to pass. The stars fall from the sky and the guardians of the sea are slaughtered. Our time on this planet comes to a close, our chapter in the universe reaches its end. Thus do the Ki'ir-ar die, hunted in their home, exiles in their own land, never to be free again until the day when Vengeance walks the mortal plane and weeps tears of blood."
Date: September 29th, 10039 A.F, Day 12 of trial Location: Outside the Chamber of the Council of Five New Earth, Priman quadrant. Time: 0930 STG.
"Please, Hunk, do yew really have to do this? They are our friends--"
"Were our friends." Hunk's grip on Sven's wrist tightened almost imperceptibly, just enough to encourage the Swede to walk a little faster. "You have to remember that, Sven. They were our friends; they aren't anymore. Now they're nothing more than common traitors. Anarchists. Destroyers. They want to tear down the Alliance, Sven. Do you realize that? They want to make everything that my father and your father fought and died for. Do you want that to happen?"
"Would you be friends with anyone who tried to do something like that?"
"So therefore they aren't our friends anymore."
"We're here." Hunk stopped before the large oak doors, the slightest frown turning his lips downward. He turned toward Sven, eyes hard. "Sven, I can't tell you to hate them; Hells, I don't hate them. But you have to ask yourself, 'which is more important? My friends or my people.' Because that's what it all boils down to. If you side with Allura, decide that the Ki'ir-ar should be free, than you side with those that would destroy us. It may not seem fair--it's not fair--but sometimes you have to sacrifice yourself for the greater good." Hunk reached down, pulled Sven's face up until the two were looking eye to eye. "Are you able to do that, Sven?"
Sven swallowed, tried to turn away from Hunk's piercing eyes. The mechanic's grip tightened and Sven's eyes tightened from the pain. His mouth was suddenly dry--when had this change come over Hunk? When had his smiling, open hearted friend become this Alliance fanatic, this hard and callous person?
"Ja. I am on yer side." Sven could barely get the words out, his throat suddenly tight. "I vill not be a part of something that vill collapse the Alliance."
"Good." Hunk moved closer, near enough to kiss, gripping hand turning into something more like a caress. Sven shied away and Hunk sighed, vaguely hurt though he knew that every action he made was premeditated, ordained by those who had made him what he was. "Thank you for coming with me today."
Sven shrugged. "Yew are the only one I have left. Vhy would I not come?"
"Right." Hunk straightened his suit, running his finger along the collar to loosen it. "Listen, I want you to know that there's going to be some things said in there that may shock you. Actually, I know that there's going to be some things said in there that will shock you. But I want you to know that no matter what happens, no matter what's said in there, I'm still the same person. I'm still Hunk, your friend. Please, remember that."
"I vill. I don't understand vhat yew mean, but I vill. Yew are Hunk. There is nothing that could change that." Sven's frowned deepened. "Yet, I still don't understand vhy yew must do this! Vhy must yew hurt them? Surely yew aren't required to do this."
"I'm sorry, Sven. I have my orders. 'Ours is not to question why,' right?" Hunk smiled, squeezed Sven's shoulder. "You don't have to be here, though. You don't have to watch if you don't want to."
"No. I vill stay. Yew asked me to be here, and I vill be." Sven frowned. "I don't like it, though."
"Thank you. I mean that, Sven. Thank you." Hunk pushed the great doors open and ushered Sven in. "You'll be sitting near the back, if that makes you feel better. I'll come and sit with you after I testify."
"All right." Sven swallowed, torn between his desire to see his friends one last time before they truly did become enemies and his common sense. Better to sit in the shadows, unobserved, during the chaos he knew would come. Better to hold the memories of his friends pure in his mind than to see them now, watch their accusing eyes drill into his soul at his betrayal.
The young Swede stiffened, looked up at approaching man with a mixed fear. All his horrors seemed to coalesce, though he was by no means close to the man that now came forward. Rather, it was as though this man was suddenly all his friends--was Keith and Lance, Pidge and Allura--all of those he had ever wronged in any way.
"What are you doing here, Sven?"
"The trial. To watch. Here. I am--" Sven looked down, red embarrassment staining his cheeks. His eloquence had fled in the face of his panic, abandoning him when he needed it most, and leaving him grasping at this alien tongue. He took a deep breath, forced his mind to calm and let the words form themselves clearly. "Sorry. I am a little nervous."
The man smiled kindly, patted Sven's shoulder consolingly. "I understand; this is a very important day. We are witnessing the birth of history--there is a certain thrill in that which never goes away."
Sven smiled shakily. "Ja. I suppose yew are right."
"If you ever need to talk, I'm here." A card was slipped into his pocket. "I'm on your side, Sven. If you ever need anything--anything at all--I'll be here." The hand squeezed his shoulder, a heavy weight that seemed to speak something more than friendly concern. Sven tensed, and then the hand was gone and the man was walking away, heavy, familiar tread fading quickly in the noisy room. Sven plucked the card from his pocket, eyes widening slightly in surprise. A frown slowly wrinkled his smooth skin, darkening his already shadowed brows.
Why would he be staying at GG headquarters?
"Hey." Lance placed a quick kiss on Keith's cheek, a lingering promise of something more, before sliding into the neighboring chair. Keith tensed slightly, then relaxed, a slight frown on his face. "How's everything?"
"Well, Allura's hornier than a goat in heat because she hasn't had access to Lotor for a month, and thus I doubt she has much of her mind on the case, Pidge still doesn't want to be alone in the same room with me, and I'm about two seconds away from a nervous breakdown. Other than that, everything's just peachy." Keith put his head down with a sigh, worried eyes watching Allura pace back and forth before the table, lips moving as she went through the questions she would ask in redirect of her last expert witness. There were dark circles under Keith's eyes, a haggard, sleepless look about him that belied his flippant words. Lance reached out, gently stroked Keith's hair, eyes turned down in worry.
Keith looked up. "Really? Where?"
"In the back." Lance tried unsuccessfully to keep the bitter tinge from his voice. "The bastard is too cowardly to come up here and face us. He's talking with Coran right now."
"Don't be so hard on him, Lance. He's your oldest friend. It's not his fault--"
"Not his fault? He's the one who's staying away. He's the one who--" Lance stopped and took a deep breath. "Never mind." He put his head down as well, turning to look at Keith with worry in his eyes. He felt so helpless, so powerless in the face of the Alliance. What good could he do just sitting? What help, what relief, could he give Keith now when Keith needed it the most?
"Hey, do you think we can appeal and have you tried as a minor?" Allura leaned down the table, voice soft and speculative.
"Allura." Keith frowned. "We've gone over this before. The answer is still no."
"Right, right, you were Confirmed. It was just a thought." Allura stood up again, brows creasing slightly. She was trying so hard to do this right, to prove to the world that she was more than a damsel in distress; she probably had more riding on the outcome of this trial than even Keith did.
"What was she talking about?" Lance reached out to stroke Keith's cheek, long fingers delicate and questing. Keith flinched slightly at the contact and Lance pulled away, hurt all to evident in his malleable face.
"I'll tell you later." Keith's eyes were full of words that he could never say, begging for patience. Lance sat up and looked away, callous in his prideful hurt. Keith closed his eyes. "I promise I'll explain, Lance."
Lance shrugged, but already he regretted his hasty actions. Time was too short to be wasted playing foolish, pride filled games. He turned, mouth open to apologize, to offer hollow comfort and empty promises, but Keith had closed his eyes, tired mind begging for but one moment more of rest. Lance closed his mouth and just stared, burning the image into his suddenly fearful heart. There was a chill to the air, a certain sense of dread that settled on him as heavy as a funeral shroud. The dead air of the grave swept through his soul, and suddenly Keith seemed to flicker before his eyes, fading in and out of blackness like the guttering flame of a candle. Lance reached out, touched Keith's shoulder, stroked Keith's hair, reassured himself that his lover was still there. And there he was, still exhausted at the wooden table, still black around the eyes and thinner than before, as painfully tangible as he had been before.
But comforting though the feel of Keith was, Lance was still filled with fear, and try as hard as he might, nothing could rid him of the sensation that they were running quickly out of time.
"The plaintiff would like to call Lt. Henry St. Cloud to the stand."
Allura smiled slightly at her witness, ruining the almost perfect effect of the cold, distant lawyer she had tried to project. Hunk smiled back at her, steps slow and measured, feigned nervousness lending him a vaguely guilty look. He took the stand, breathed deeply for a moment, stalling for a moment to orient himself. He spotted Sven easily, black hair shiny under the light, head bowed in a vain attempt to blend in with the rest of the observers. Poor Sven, already regretting his hasty anger. It was too bad that the web had already begun to tighten, that there was no exit left for either of them. His eyes shifted past the bowed head, an inexplicable guilt churning his stomach, and quickly took in the rest of the assembled audience; press for the most part, with a few spectators crouching like tourists around a Point of Interest. Then he saw HIM and suddenly no nervousness needed to be feigned.
What in the nine hells is HE doing here?! Hunk swallowed hard, mouth dry and painful. Do they trust me so little that it's necessary to have HIM watching my every move? It's not like I wasn't going to live up to my end of the bargain. Sure, I thought about it, but I probably have more invested in this then they do. A shaky sigh slipped past his lips and Allura looked up, concern painfully evident in her eyes; and Hunk suddenly felt a little less sure about going through with this.
"It'll be all right, Hunk," Allura whispered as she walked past the witness box. "Just tell the truth. That's all I--we--want."
No it's not. Trust me Allura, the truth is the last thing you want. Hunk smiled back, trying not to feel bad about his betrayal. He almost wished that he could actually say no, refuse just this once. But he had given up that ability a long, long time ago. 'Mine is not to question why. I'm just here to do or die.'
The bailiff approached, cleared her throat. This was it. The last chance to turn back--infinitesimal though it might have been--was gone.
"Raise your right hand. Do you swear that the testimony you are about to give is truth? Do you swear that you will not knowingly perjure yourself before the Law?"
"Please state your full name for the court and spell your last name."
"Henry St. Cloud. S-t period C-l-o-u-d with a capital 'S' and a capital 'C.'" The bailiff glanced at the dais where the five councilmen sat and then nodded imperceptibly at Allura. The Arusian princess approached slowly, smiled as gently as she could, believing wholeheartedly in Hunk's show of nerves.
"Could you state your rank and current assignment for the court?"
"I'm a Lieutenant in the Space division of the Galaxy Garrison. I'm currently assigned to Arus as the mechanical expert for the Voltron Force."
"Thank you. And who is your C.O?"
"Captain Keith Tsumetai." Lotor was the only one who didn't frown.
"Could you point to him, please?"
"Sure." Hunk smiled, the false cheer echoing hollowly in him. He seemed apart from this all, like one of his machines, nothing more than a puppet with no emotions to get in his way. It was so easy to act his part when he didn't have to be a part of it. "He's right there. Hi Keith." One of the judges on the dais above him coughed disapprovingly.
Keith waved back, smiled weakly. Hunk supposed that he should feel sorry now, but it was so hard to remember what being sorry felt like.
"And how long have you served under Keith?"
"Um...Three years now, I think." Hunk squinted, pretended to think, though he knew the answer down to the very second. "Yes. Three years."
"So is it safe to say that you know Keith fairly well?"
"Yes, I think so."
"How would you describe Keith as a leader, Hunk? Sorry, Henry."
Hunk smiled easily, projecting the same, falsely friendly aura that had enveloped him since the day he learned how to lie. "Oh he's a great Captain. He takes very good care of us; every time we're about to do something stupid, he stops us. It's almost like having my mother around again. Actually, it is exactly like having my mother around." Hunk laughed softly. "He definitely has that maternal instinct--he's the only guy under thirty that I know that has one of those. He keeps us in check, prevents us from letting our emotions rule us. I don't think I've ever had the privilege to serve under someone as calm and collected as Keith; I actually feel sorry for him sometimes, you know? I mean, if he wasn't from a military family, I don't think he would've ever joined the Garrison. He should've been a Civilian--as good a soldier he is, he gets too caught up in the whole thing. Too involved. He just, well, cares too much."
"And what did Keith do while he was posted on Arus?"
"He killed. He was good at it too. Probably why he's a Captain instead of a Lieutenant like the rest of us. As much as he cares, he's damn vicious too. I bet he's got the best confirmed kill record out of all of us. Christ, you should see what he can do with the Black Lion--sometimes there's not even enough of the enemy left to be called slag."
Allura coughed nervously, glaring at Hunk. "Thank you. Did you know Keith before you served under him?"
"Yes, I met him back when I was at the Academy. We were both there for a year together."
Allura nodded slowly, looked down at the legal pad she held in her hand. "Would you say that Keith is the same person now as he was then?"
Hunk sneaked a glance at Swift, eyes darting at him for only a second before snapping back to face Allura. The Alliance lawyer was obviously frustrated, mouth tightly clenched to prevent himself from calling out an objection to the obviously leading question; but restrain himself he did and had Hunk not been on the stand he would have smiled. Good. Swift was sticking to his part. The man was a good political animal--which was probably the reason why HE had chosen the young lawyer in the first place.
"If I had to hazard a guess, I think so. Lance could probably answer this question better; I wasn't particularly close to Keith back then. Still, he was always the responsible one among us. He has what you would call 'leadership ability'; I mean, he always knows what's going on, what needs to be done, who's pissed at who, who's fuc--" Hunk bit his tongue and quickly rephrased, "uh, intimate with who. The whole shebang."
"And in your time together, have you ever had the impression that Keith was unable to differentiate between right and wrong? Has he ever questioned his existence? Has he ever exhibited any of the 'higher' emotions such as Love or Courage?"
"Objection!" Swift was on his feet before his mind could catch up to his body. "These questions are irrelevant. The sentience of the plaintiff is not in question during the time that the witness was in contact with him. It has already been agreed that the plaintiff exhibited Sentience while infused with Terran genes."
"Your Honors, I must make sure that there is no doubt that Keith was Sentient during his time on Arus. Besides, the evidence that will be brought up now will be important later on in this trial."
"I overrule the objection." The dEkk-mnzvar, Ha'asaashi leaned forward, black-flecked eyes bright with curiosity. "I, for one, would find it most enlightening to hear about the actions undertaken by the plaintiff while Sentient."
"I second that decision." Larisan, the Harmoni representative, flicked his tongue out, eyes narrowed slightly.
"I do as well." Lotor's voice was almost lost in the vast room.
"The majority rules to overrule the objection. The witness may continue." Ha'asaashi smiled slightly at Allura. "You may proceed, Counselor."
"Thank you. Now, Lt. St. Cloud, could you answer those questions?"
"Sure, but I don't know how helpful I'll be. I mean, I've never seen Keith in any sort of angst ridden debate over the meaning of life. Far as I know, he was a soldier through and through--he followed his orders and didn't question whether what he was doing was right or wrong. I mean, that's what made him so good; he could receive orders just as well as he could take them. He never really strayed from the book, y'know? I mean, he never did anything that would overtly disobey Alliance policy. The Alliance is right--the good guys--and whoever opposes the Alliance is wrong--the bad guys. He's never questioned whether what he was doing was right--he's always just accepted it. That's not to say he doesn't know the difference. I mean, he hasn't ever done anything like, I don't know, massacre entire villages."
A soft chorus of laughter came from three of the judges and Allura smiled. "Thank you. No further questions."
"Mr. Swift, would you like to cross examine this witness?" Justice Giroux, the New Earth appointee, looked down from his high seat at the center of the dais. He had a sweet voice, cultured and pleasant, one that seemed at odds with his heavy-set appearance.
"Thank you, Your Honor." Swift stood and approached the witness stand slowly, belying his name. He caught Hunk's eye, brow raised slightly.
Are you ready?
Hunk nodded slightly, just the barest dip of his chin. Yes. He was ready.
"Good afternoon, Lt. St. Cloud."
"Please, call me Hunk. Everybody else does."
"Very well, Hunk." Swift paused, mutable face suddenly affecting an expression of enlightenment, as if some great truth had appeared before him. Hunk managed not to smile; it looked very convincing. "Hunk. That's an interesting nickname. Is that the only other name that you have?"
"Really? What else are you called?"
"Well, I haven't been called this in years--not since I legally changed my name," his eyes strayed to Keith, noted that the Ki'ir-ar had tensed slightly, perhaps picking up on the tension that Hunk felt, "but I used to be known as Dorian Agipo."
"Liar!" Keith was up on his feet, pale and trembling, one taloned finger pointing accusingly at Hunk. "You lie! Dorian Agipo is dead!"
Hunk smiled inwardly, ignoring the feigned shock on Swift's face and the slowly building rumble of the confused crowd. Keith was reacting just as he had hoped. "No Keith. I'm very much alive."
"But--but how? I saw you die! I saw all of you die!"
"How? You want to know how I'm alive?" He was getting angry, though he had promised HIM that he could distance himself from his rage. He wanted to hurt Keith, hurt him so badly that his old captain would never recover; he wanted Keith to feel his pain. And so he stood, suddenly, violently, grabbed the edge of his shirt and pulled up, ripping the soft cloth as he did. His fingers found the hidden latch on his otherwise smooth stomach, released it and let the broad expanse of his chest iris open to expose the quiet machinery that made up his body; the clear tubes that sent his blood cycling through what few organic parts he still had left; the internal respirator that kept his lungs working; half-organic, half-cybernetic heart that created the illusion of life; and worst of all, the empty, sterile, hollowness of a shell where once the work of chaos had been turned back. "This is how. I'm alive because the Alliance found me at the bottom of a Sinistrian Hell-pit three long, painful months after they found you. I'm alive because instead of being kind and letting me die, the Alliance put me back together. I'm alive because I let them turn me into a machine, a cyborg. I'm alive because I'm not."
"No," Keith was shaking his head. "You died. You aren't Dorian. Dorian died. I killed him. I killed him! I killed all of them!" The court erupted into chaos at this pronouncement, buzzing and humming. Justice Giroux shouted for order, words punctuated by the pounding of his gavel even as Keith lunged across the table, hands outstretched and aching to wrap around Hunk's neck, his action sending the noise even higher. "You aren't Dorian! You're not!"
"But I am! You left me to die, Keith! You left me to rot, left me to become...this...this monstrosity, this affront to life! You left me to die! How many of the others were still alive, huh? How many of the others did you sacrifice to save your own flesh?"
"None! They died! They all died! I heard them die, heard them scream. I led them to their deaths and they all died!" Keith struggled against the restraining arms of Allura and Lance, eyes wild and voice harsh. "They died because of me! Don't you dare say that they didn't! The screaming stopped on the second day--they must have died! They had to have died! I knew that they were going to die! I knew that!"
"Order! Order! Bailiff, take the Lieutenant away. I will have order restored in this court, do you hear me? I will have order!" The gavel's noise was lost among the roar of the crowd. Two of the guards posted at the Council room's doors came forward to take Hunk off of the stand, lead him out of the room in a forced double time. But even as he was hustled away from the chaos, Hunk locked eyes for one long moment with Keith, read the betrayal and anger that went straight to the soul.
Why? Keith's lips barely moved, question expressed more through those painful black eyes than from any sound.
"You stole my humanity, Keith. I'm just returning the favor." Hunk smiled, knew that Keith got the message as clearly as if he had shouted it.
The smaller door that he was pushed through slid silently closed. It was done. There was no way that Keith could get out of this; he was as good as dead now. The final outburst was the cyncher--they couldn't have planned it any better. Even the dEkk-mnzvar would be forced to consider the flip-side of Allura's claim: If Sentience was conveyed by genes, who could say that it was Sentience that would emerge dominant? Who could say that it wasn't the beast that won in the end?
Hunk should have felt revenged. But there was only a hollow emptiness inside.
Date: September 30th, 10039 A.F Location: GG Headquarters, 1534 Kissinger St 6th floor. Suite 6003. Time: 2425
Lord, what have I done?
Bile rose in the back of Hunk's throat and he swallowed hard, biting back the bitter taste. He felt dirty. Dirty and empty, and horribly let down. How could he have done it? How could he have let Sven do this to himself, let Sven become so...unclean?
Sven had come to him that night, upholding his promise to always be there no matter what the day before had revealed. Sven had come and offered himself and it had been...wonderful. Wonderful because for one aching moment Hunk had been able to forget. Forget everything; the war, the pain, the empty hollowness inside that confronting Keith had brought out all over again.
But then it ended and instead of feeling better, Hunk felt worse. It was insane. Completely insane. For nine long, bitter, angry years Hunk had nursed his rage, kept it hidden from everyone behind his happy veneer. He should have been ecstatic that it was finally released. He should have been overjoyed that it was finally over, that all the shit he'd kept hidden was out in the open. He should have been able to go on with his life, let all the crap go and be happy and just...live.
Instead there was nothing. Absolutely nothing. No joy, no anger, nothing; just a hollowness deep within that couldn't be filled because somewhere along the line the bitterness had left him. Somewhere between the explosion and this night revenge had left him, leaving nothing except for...guilt.
He felt guilty. He felt guilty because he had just sold whatever was left of his soul for a fleeting moment of happiness; but even that joy was sour and empty, because even as he let loose at Keith, he remembered all the times he owed his life to Keith. He remembered every kind deed, every comforting moment, every time that Keith had been his friend, unconditionally and unhesitatingly. He remembered the way that Keith's face would crumple in pain because something he did got someone on the team hurt; or how much the killing sickened him, left him vomiting and shaking out of sight of the others. And those memories hurt more than the ghost pain of all of his old wounds.
It's not fucking fair! He couldn't even cry anymore, not properly, not since the accident. They took everything else. Why couldn't they have taken the guilt too? Why'd they have to leave me all these fucking emotions? I don't want them! I don't need them! Why couldn't they have let me die? His throat clenched around a scream, forcing the primal cry into a choked whimper.
Sven murmured at the noise and turned over, hunching closer to Hunk's body, and his sleeping body was suddenly bathed in stripes of moonlight, so beautiful that the lump in Hunk's throat tightened. This. This was life. This was pure and good and what right did he have to corrupt Sven, lead him down into the unpleasant darkness in which Hunk lived? His presence was profanity against the purity of life. He needed to leave, before Sven could be dragged too far down.
Hunk slid slowly away from Sven, one hand feeling the floor for his boxers. But as he slipped away from the warm ball of Sven's body, one arm snaked out, draped itself across his chest. Sven's mouth turned down in a soft moue of displeasure, lines of worry suddenly marring his peaceful face; a soft sound of need slipped out and the arm tightened. Hunk froze, afraid to break Sven's rest and destroy the beauty that sleep created--and if he left that's what would happen.
He couldn't let that purity be destroyed completely. He couldn't. Not when Sven was the only thing left that he could truly feel for, could truly believe in. And he couldn't leave Sven, not so long as Sven was the last good, honest thing left in his life. Everything else was a lie--but not Sven. Never Sven.
It was better that they both descend into the darkness, taking the easy, almost painless road, than force their way back into the harsh purity of light. And maybe if they went together they could pretend for a little while that it was better this way. Besides, Sven would never know the whole truth; he would live in happy ignorance of the true depth of Hunk's betrayal. To Sven, Keith would always be the enemy. He, at least, would never have to sacrifice friendship for loyalty.
Hunk slipped back into bed, biting his tongue until the blood slid down out of the corner of his mouth and the empty hollow in his soul could almost be forgotten from the pain. It was too late for him.
It was too late for them both.
Q: I know that you have a male lover and I was wondering if that's normal for Ki'ir-ar?
K: Not at all. There are very, very few homosexual Ki'ir-ar. Or at least that's the way it is on Nemai.
K: Well, homosexuality is highly disproved of--if not actively discouraged--for a variety of reasons. The main one, though, is that homosexual Ki'ir-ars don't reproduce.
Q: You're saying that homosexuality isn't accepted at all on Nemai?
K: No, that's not quite it. Once a Ki'ir-ar has successfully reproduced, they can have a homosexual lover if they want. It's just that once a Ki'ir-ar reaches maturity, it's expected that they continue their line and continue the population.
Q: Why is it so important that you reproduce? In most cultures, homosexuality is accepted for that very reason; it's a passive form of population control.
K: And I'm sure that if the Ki'ir-ar had a population problem, then homosexuality would be okay. I'm sure that this isn't making any sense to you, because you come from a culture where you have a population problem. But that's not the case. In fact, it's almost the opposite. The Ki'ir-ar need offspring desperately for the population is so low that extinction is a real possibility. More than the overwhelming need to pass on the bloodline, more than the honor of winning a good mate, or the weight of a good pedigree, Ki'ir-ar reproduce just to reproduce. When I was last on Nemai, there were less than a million Ki'ir-ar on the entire planet. Even at it's high peak, the Ki'ir-ar population never topped more than half a billion. Between the Alliance, nature and the Tsa-Eitog, you're looking at the death of a species.
Q: What do you mean, exactly?
K: Well, Ki'ir-ars are naturally unsuited to large populations. Due to our long lives--the average span during peace-times used to be three hundred Nemian years which would be fifteen hundred standard years--if we expanded at the rate that most populations did, there wouldn't be enough room on the planet for all of us. Nor would there be enough food or water or shelter. Besides, Ki'ir-ar can be a little territorial. Therefore, it's necessary to have natural checks, such as having both males and females have a their own fertile periods, which actually isn't so bad because there's at least four times in a year when those periods coincide. However, there's still a one-in-ten chance of conception. Even then, the rate of miscarriages are high, because there's always the chance that the female will be stabbed or struck in the abdomen during a battle.
Q: Female Ki'ir-ar fight while pregnant?
K: Oh yes. They're even more vicious when pregnant than when they're not. Trust me, you don't want to get on the bad side of a female when she's expecting.
Anyway, every brood contains three to five chicks. I know, it seems like a lot but it's considered a minor miracle if more than one makes it past their second year. The average Ki'ir-ar line only has about three chicks--and this is out of ten or twelve broods--survive into what you would consider maturity. Even then, the life of a Ki'ir-ar is very uncertain. After all, beyond disease, and the Alliance, there's the Tsa-Eitog to consider.
Q: What are those?
K: The natural enemy of the Ki'ir-ar. Unlike most races, the Ki'ir-ar aren't on the top of the food chain. The Tsa-Eitog are these cat-like creatures that are almost scarily intelligent. They're black, like the panthers of New Earth, but they're much longer, and sort of low to the ground, and they're extraordinarily flexible--they're sort of what you'd imagine you'd get if you spliced a cat with a snake. They prey on our children, sneaking in during the night or grabbing the chicks from the underbrush. They kill our children because they can; not for food, or out of territorial instincts, but because they hate the Ki'ir-ar almost as much as the Alliance does. They travel in groups of three or more and these packs can take down a fully trained Akush'ai.
Still, their presence is necessary. Up until the Renstat landed, they were the greatest contributors to the Ki'ir-ar population control. We existed in a natural harmony with them; they kept us from over-breeding, and we did the same for them. But once the Renstat and the Alliance arrived, and the Ki'ir-ar population began to drop dramatically, that balance was destroyed. Mark my words, there's going to be a serious problem with the Tsa-Eitog on Nemai very soon.
Q: Did you have a, uh, mate back on Nemai?
K: No. I may have been judged an adult, but I definitely didn't have enough growth on me to reproduce.
Q: What? But...how can you be an adult and not be able to reproduce?
K: Well, to the Ki'ir-ar, age has nothing to do with adult status. Being an adult merely means that you're mentally prepared to deal with the world. Besides, Ki'ir-ar children grow quickly; they can walk, fly, and wield a weapon when they're only a year old. The only real difference between a young Ki'ir-ar and an old Ki'ir-ar is that the older Ki'ir-ar is bigger and a little more developed. So, because physical difference can't really be used as criterion for adulthood, per se, we have a different means to determine whether you're an adult. What happens is that your Aerie leader nominates you for adult status. You're then reviewed by the Flock of that region and if you pass, then you get nominated by the Flock leader and are sent to the Ren-Aerie to be reviewed by the Flock leaders and the Marak-lai. After that, if they deem you to be an adult, you're recognized as an adult by all the Aeires. You can fight and you can die; you can do anything that an adult does, even if you've only been alive for a few years.
Date: September 29th, 10039 A.F Location: Arusian Consulate, 1532 Kissinger St Kulala City, Alliance Island New Earth, Priman quadrant. Time: 1825 STG
"I'm going to kill him. I'm going to rip those tubes out of his chest and laugh when he dies." Allura was a vision of a woman scorned, blue eyes brilliant with anger, voice raw from passion, hands waving violently in the air as she paced back and forth. And maybe if Keith hadn't been listening to her rant for the past two hours it would have had more of an impact on him. As it was, he found himself growing a little more bored with each passing second.
"Allura, calm down." Lance was rubbing his temples as he spoke, lines of worry deeply etched into his brow. "You're not doing anything productive. We have to find a way to counter Hunk's testimony, now. Not rant about the injustice of it all."
"You're right." Allura sat down for a moment, then popped back up and began pacing again. "Still, don't you think it'd be a nice diversion of we ripped Hunk's lying tongue out?"
"Leave him alone, Allura. His anger is justified." Keith's golden talons traced strange patterns in the metal of the table top. "You don't know the whole story. So lets just drop it and move on, all right?"
"I don't know the story? What the fuck don't I know? There was an accident, Hunk got left behind by accident, and now he blames you for what he let happen."
"No. That isn't the whole story." Keith looked up, black eyes filled with a cold fire as he peered through his hair. "But it doesn't matter right now. So. What's the next attack?"
Allura paused, stared at the seated Ki'ir-ar, and Lance could see the wheels turn as she wondered how hard to push this point. A tense moment later, she turned away. "Ask Pidge. I just speak. He's the brains of this whole operation."
The silent form in the corner looked up, blinked eyes that were magnified by his glasses. "Yeah?"
"What happens next?"
Pidge shrugged. "I guess we have Lance testify now."
"No." Keith was shaking his head before Pidge finished speaking. "Bad idea."
"Why? Don't you trust me?" Lance reached out, touched Keith's shoulder. Keith turned, and Lance suddenly shivered as the full force of those black eyes was directed to him.
"No. I don't." Keith held up a hand, forestalling Lance's angry reaction. "They're going to bring up Kes, Lance. And you're going to tell them what happened. Even if you don't want to, they'll get it out of you." Lance looked away, and Keith smiled, almost kindly. "You still don't like what I did, do you?"
"It...well, it just shocked me, Keith." Lance looked away, face troubled. "I just don't see why it was necessary."
"It was. No," Keith focused his dark eyes on Allura, "I think that the only thing left now is for me to testify. We should have just done this from the beginning, just forced them to hear me, hear what I have to say." Keith's eyes had taken on a strange light, sparkling in excitement, and when he smiled there was something almost playful about him. "A direct attack. That's the only way."
"Are you sure, Keith? Are you sure that we should do this?" Allura's eyes were turned down in concern. "Are you sure you can handle it?"
Keith nodded slowly. "But I want the room to be clear of everyone who isn't essential. I only want the judges, you and Swift. That's it. I don't want the innocent to suffer more than they have to." Keith looked down at his hands, and then up at the three who sat before him. His eyes were glowing with some strange, inner light and it took Lance a moment to realize that it was blood lust that made Keith look so alive. "I will show them what it means to be a Ki'ir-ar. I will make them see what it is to be a slave."
Date: September 30th, 10039 A.F Location: GG Headquarters, 1534 Kissinger St 3rd floor. Suite 3116. Time: 1015
The world returned slowly.
First there was the smell, that ever present bouquet of sweat and blood and unwashed clothes. Rank, but familiar. Then there was the sting of pain from abused knuckles. The grainy sight of the bloodied punching bag and the sand that spilled to the floor and the phantom ache of wounds never forgotten and limbs that had long been dust.
And, finally, there was Sven.
Beautiful Sven with velvet eyes so like Keith's and worry lines etched into his brow and for one breathless, painful, heart-stopping moment Hunk had the two confused and thought that he had never betrayed his oldest friend after all.
Then the moment passed and reality set in and it was all Hunk could do to stop himself from turning around and hitting the punching bag once more. He wanted to hit the bag again and again and again, until his hands were nothing more than bloody lumps and the pain invaded him, just so that he would have something to think about other than his guilt.
It was all his fault. Everything was his fault.
"Go away Sven." Hunk looked away from those dark, confused eyes, feigning interest in the cuts that dotted his knuckles and stained his hands with red.
"No." Sven's long fingers closed over his own, clasped his hands in a gentle embrace. "Hunk, stop this. Yew're going to hurt yerself."
"Good." Hunk tore his hands free and turned back to the punching bag, growling low in his throat as he began abusing his hands again. "I should hurt myself."
He heard Sven sigh, the noise already distant as he once more began to slip into the narrow world of the punching bag and himself. He welcomed the descent, for it would mean an escape from the too complicated world.
"Hunk. Hunk look at me!" A firm hand gripped his chin and forcefully pulled him away from the tunnel. "Hunk, I don't understand vhy yew're so angry? Yew've done nothing wrong! It's like yew said, ve have a responsibility to protect the Alliance from terrorists. I must admit, finding out that yew sent a message to the authorities about Keith back on Arus did strike me as a little harsh at first, but--"
"What?" Hunk swallowed, looked at Sven--really looked at him, not just staring over his shoulder--for the first time since the Swede walked into the gym. "What did you say?"
"I vas just saying that after I got over the shock of finding out, yer message to the Alliance MPs--"
"But I--Where did you find this out?" He was falling, black making his vision blur. His hands came up to grip Sven's shoulders, hoping that the tall youth would be able to support him.
"I got a piece of paper and--ow! Hunk, stop, yew're hurting me!" Sven whimpered as Hunk's grip tightened and he felt the bones in his shoulders grating painfully together. He hadn't realized Hunk was this strong--didn't know that those hands that had always brought such pleasure could bring such pain as well.
"I didn't send--I was--no--" Hunk pulled away, lurched to a wall where he leaned like a drunk. His whole world was spinning away. He couldn't have alerted the Alliance, brought the MPs to take Keith away. Hell, he hadn't know that Keith was a Ki'ir-ar until the MPs had shown up. He certainly didn't remember making any such call, and that thought sent him down an entirely new branch of thought, one that horrorfied him so thoroughly that he thought he would be sick.
What if...What if he had sent that message? What if they, his masters, his creators, had turned him off, sent his body out to do his bidding with his mind still asleep? But surely they couldn't do that, because there was enough organic material in him yet that he couldn't be controlled so thoroughly like a puppet on string. Surely he still had control over his body, over his mind, over himself. Surely everything about him wasn't a lie. It couldn't be, but the only thing that could prove that was when. When was the message sent? When did Keith's world come crashing down? He had to know.
"When was the message sent, Sven."
Sven pulled a crumpled piece of paper out of his pocket, smoothed it out and handed it over. "0200 hours on the 10th of July."
Hunk nodded and accepted the paper and suddenly the vertigo that captured him melted away. It couldn't have been him, because that was the night that he spent in the mechanics bay with Pidge, putting Red back together again after Lance got in the way of one of Allura's water blast during practice and shorted out Red's engine and plunged to the ground and scared everybody to death, but mostly Keith. So it couldn't have been him, because even HE didn't have the power to create a memory that specific. HE couldn't conjure up the sound of Pidge cursing at a stubborn transistor, or the smell of oil and fuel and sweat and the heavy spices that had flavored that night's dinner.
He sighed and sagged against the wall and looked up at Sven with eyes so full of wonder and love that it was hard to remember how he could have been so angry at the Swede before. "It wasn't me."
"But the code used to send the message is yers."
"I didn't send it." Hunk looked down at the paper in his hand, a brief text message, sent from his personal account and suddenly something clicked. There was only one person who had the time to send that message, and who had the codes. And who knew who Hunk was, what Hunk was.
And suddenly, everything made sense, and Hunk was so mad that he slammed a fist into the wall, creating a dent and causing a thousand cracks to radiate outwards from the hole.
"That fucking bastard!"
"Vat? Hunk, yer hand--" Sven tried to catch Hunk's arm, calm him down so he could look at the mechanic's hand, take care of the only friend he had left. But Hunk wouldn't let him.
"That bastard! I can't believe he's doing this! I can't believe that he'd do that to Keith!"
"Hunk, vat are yew talking about?"
"I'm going to rip him a new asshole, that bastard!" Hunk grabbed Sven's hand and pulled him toward the door, a murderous rage flushing his skin. "That double-crossing, dirty, lying, manipulative, bastard!"
"Hunk, vhere are ve going? Hunk, slow down! Hunk!"
Hunk whirled suddenly, eyes pinning Sven. "We're going to go see the real traitor."
"Think about it, Sven! Who's the only person who could send a message from my account? Who's the only person with access to all of our files, all of our histories? Who was the person who ordered us to Arus in the first place?"
Slowly realization dawned on Sven and his face transformed from confusion to anger. "Yew mean--That bastard!"
Hunk nodded. "Come on. We've got to teach him a lesson. You don't fuck with the Alliance and get away with it."
Hunk smiled as he strode off on his crusade. At last, he had something to focus on other than Keith. At last he had something else to be anger at than himself.
Date: September 30th, 10039 A.F, Day 13 of trial Location: Outside the Chamber of the Council of Five New Earth, Priman quadrant. Time: 1020 STG.
Keith tried not to look at Allura as she approached the witness stand, hoping that by not looking at her, he wouldn't feel guilty about what he was going to do to her. If he could have kept her out of this room, he would have, but he knew that that was impossible. And she needed to know. If there was ever to be closure to his life, she needed to know what he had done.
"Captain Tsumetai," they had agreed to address him as a sentient, but Keith wondered about the intelligence of that, now, in the courtroom with the glares of three powerful men burning into him, "could you please tell us a little bit about yourself?"
"What would you like to know?"
"Just general information. Your birthplace, your family, any background information that you can provide."
"Very well. I was born on the first day of Janvier, 10000 A.D. Janvier is the Nemian equivalent of January. My Aerie is--was--mn'Ael-a-ben'shteof, which is better known as the Bloody Crags. My family...well, my family is dead, so I don't think that they matter very much right now."
"If you could, could you tell us about them?"
"I was the youngest of three in my parent's third clutch, and the third surviving son in my family. My father was a Jao'xai, my mother a Kreiger. My father was something of an idealist, I must admit. He would tell stories of what life would be like when the hunting ended, and we could all live in peace again. My mother didn't like that much. They had an argument about that the day they died. The day my Aerie died. The day that I died for the first time."
"How did they die?"
"They were killed in an Alliance raid when I was just a little under a year old. They were killed--as was the rest of my Aerie--because the Alliance soldier attacked during one of my people's festivals." Keith stopped and looked down, tears glittering in his eyes but refusing to fall. His voice grew soft, and even in the empty courtroom it was hard to hear him. "They came to my village, death in their hands. They attacked from the sky and from the ground. They surrounded us, trapped us. My father killed my mother to save her. They beheaded him and raped her corpse anyway. They took the children away in chains. They took the adults away on carts. There was blood everywhere, and crying and screaming. My eldest sister--one from my parent's first brood--covered me with some of the dead bodies to protect me, but she couldn't keep me from seeing and hearing my people die, seeing her rape and her death. Everything was destroyed after they passed through. And they laughed. They laughed at our pain."
Justice Giroux snorted, breaking Keith's spell. "I refuse to sit here and listen to this...thing lie! Counselor, you are already toeing the line by asking us to let this slave testify. By the Hells, you're toeing the line by forcing this absurd case to trial. Now, my colleagues and I have given you enough leniency already, but I will not sit here a watch our judicial system be mocked even further by allowing this beast's blatant lies be admitted as testimony. The brave men and women who fight for the Alliance would not commit so obviously foul deeds, and I will not sit quietly by why this thing slanders their reputation!"
"Are these the same men and women who let children fight their battles, Your Honor?" Keith shot back. "Are these men and women the same ones who destroy entire villages without warning the inhabitants just to justify a war? I was one of those soldiers, Your Honor, for thirteen years. What those soldiers did to my village is nothing compared to what I have seen. What I have done. And every action was sanctioned by this Alliance!"
"Counselor! You will curb your witness or I will declare you in contempt!"
"No! The truth must come out! This silence has lasted too long. Can't you hear the dead screaming for justice?"
"Counselor, please! Control your witness! Our search for the truth can't continue if your witness refuses to control himself, continues to spout blatant falsehoods."
"Shut up! All of you shut up!" Keith was panting, body trembling, and Allura had a sinking feeling deep in her stomach. His skin was wavering, undulating, beating in time with his heart. "You want the truth? I'll show you the truth. I will force the truth on you!"
The trembling increased until it seemed as if Keith was shimmering in and out of reality, and suddenly Allura realized that Keith had planned this, that this was what Keith had wanted from the beginning.
"Keith, don't! No--" Allura reached out hoping to stop what she knew was coming.
The air around Keith began to shimmer now, and blue-white sparks danced across his skin.
"Anai, help me!" Keith's scream was ripped straight from his heart, a shrill cry that cut through the senses. The shimmering became more pronounced, like heat waves rising from the concrete on a hot summer day. "You. Will. See!"
And the world imploded.
K: Oh yes. In fact, a child isn't given a name until after its first birthday--because until that child can fly they aren't considered...real, I suppose. They are like the dream of a child, not tangible enough to invest trainning in yet, but a potential for trainning. The naming day is a very important day in the life of every Ki'ir-ar.
Q: A lot of thought must go into naming a child.
K: Yes. Quite often the name they are given describes them, describes their destiny, sort of. This is particularly true of their True Name.
Q: What's a 'True Name?'
K: It's the, um, secret name of a thing, I suppose. It's the name of the...soul of the thing. Yes, I suppose that's the closest approximation. Anyway, the thing that makes True Names so important is that knowing the True Name of anything gives you power of it. This is how the Akush'ai control the elements--their Gods tell them the True Names of the spirits that make up the elements. See, there are True Names and then there are just any old name; to know the Name of someone is entirely different than knowing what they are called. For example, if I knew your Name, I could make you do anything I want, because by knowing your Name I could control your soul. It's sort of like...some of your religions, I suppose. Or superstitions. It's like how you never say the name of the evil one of whatever religon you practice because to say his or her or its name is to invite the attention of him or her or it. Or how in the old legends, the only way to banish a summoned demon would be to say its proper name because that was the only name that had power over it; to call it by any other name would just attract its attention. Which actually leads into an explanation of how we do magic; you were asking about that earlier, I beleive.
K: The power of the Akush'ai all has to do with Names. An Akush'ai knows the Name of the Sun and the Sky, of Fire, Ice, Lightening, Wind--everything except the living. Only the truly talented Akush'ai know something like the Names of the trees and the plants that grow on the earth--and even these special Akush'ai don't know the Names of those things that have hearts that beat and blood that runs beneath warm flesh.
Well, that's not entirely true. There have been stories of those who know the secrets of every living thing; trees, animals, Ki'ir-ar, Tsa-Eitog. My people are not without their legends, not without their classical villains. There is a whole saga of an Akush'ai who could bend the wills of anyone and anything. She was quite the hero, for awhile. But, as with all who have absolute power, she became corrupt and abused her gift. She became so prideful that she even tried to control the Gods. The legends say that her death screams could be heard echoing through the mountains for generations.
Q: That's...actually kind of disturbing.
K: Well, that's what happens when you challenge the Gods. I must tell you, the idea of an eternally merciful God is a strange one for me. Our Gods are as strong and honorable as we are--mercy is for those who merit it. We'd all be slain in our nests if we didn't punish those who cannot be redeemed.
Q: I see. Do Ki'ir-ar have True Names?
K: Of course! Everything has a True Name. Mine is Augentrost.
Q: Augen--wait. Why are you telling me this?
K: Because that name holds no power over me anymore. My soul has been given to Anai--and she has given me a new Name, one that only She knows, so only She can control me. After I told my Celai the other one She gave me during a brief fit of sanity, She decided that it was best that only She knew what my soul was called. She doesn't trust me--and for very good reasons. So you see, it doesn't really matter who knows the name that my soul used to be called.
Q: Oh. If you don't mind my asking, does it mean anything?
K: Yes. It means "by the threes." It's...prophetic in a way. But True Names usually are.
Q: In what way prophetic?
K: Well, it means that everything in my life will be done in threes. And that's very true. I have had three True Names, three regular names, three loves, three lives, broken the Three Commandments, learned the three disciplines of war. The only things that I have not done yet in three is die--an oversight that will be quickly rectified since I've technically died twice--and swear all three of the Unbreakable oaths.
Q: Can I ask you what your regular names were?
K: Of course. My first name was Dinew, which was given to me on my first birthday--as is customary in my culture--by my first love. It means 'nameless'. a'Sheteru, the name that the Alliance knows me by, was given to me by my second love. Keith was given to me by Onaa and Kyoko Tusmetai.
Q: Your first and second loves? Who were they?
K: I...would rather not talk about them. Please, change the subject.
Q: All right. You mention the Three Commandments and the three oaths. Is there some significance in the number three?
K: Yes, but not as much as there is in the number five. Still, three is a very important number to the Ki'ir-ar. Like you picked up on, some of our most sacred...traditions? well, that's as good a word as any, are based on the number three.
Q: And what would those be?
K: Well, there are three Unbreakable oaths, for one, which are as follow: Mishak son'ryou, the oath of love, Dilschaut ir'sange, the oath of blood, and ker-Anaiski, the oath of vengeance. All three oaths are extraordinarily rare--the oath of vengeance more than the others, but none of them are particularly common. Mishak son'ryou is an oath taken by those who seek to bind their souls together forever. It's like a...marriage vow, except a permanent one. Once you've sworn Mishak son'ryou, you can never love another person--in any sexual or passionate fashion I mean--again. It's not an oath taken lightly, but it certainly isn't an oath that can be refused if it's real. The oath of blood is similar to the oath of love. It's taken by those on the battlefield, who find themselves so in tune with each other that it's almost like they are the same person. It's a means by which fighters can share energy, share fear and thoughts and actions. Those who have sworn the oath of blood have a loyalty to each other so deep that it is...immeasurable. To betray your oath-mate is to...to...to betray life itself, to betray your very soul. As for the oath of vengeance--well, that's fairly self-explanatory.
Another thing that goes by threes is the Three Commandments. These are the only real 'laws' that apply to all the Aeries. They are as follow: Do not Destroy without reason, Do not knowingly lead your celai to their deaths but leave them in ignorance of the mortal threat, and Do not kill on of the Marak-lai's line. The punishment for breaking these Three Commandments is death by beheading--and these three laws are the only laws that carry such a punishment.