Pre-game, Drace and Gabranth.
Drace keeps on parts of her armor even when they kiss.
He can't complain; he does too.
He's not sure what they do together, or what it even should be called. The armor that exists between them both prevents any sort of physical comfort reliant on skin-to-skin contact. Theirs is the language of Judges: of stance, of voice, of posture, a lexicon for those whose faces remain covered save for rare moments of leisure or emphasis.
Gabranth prefers to remain masked whenever possible. His armor is made of leather and steel sheathing, latched with buckles to mate the two materials together. It is a sleeker look than many Judges; along with Ghis, he is one of the least armored, and it is a relatively simple matter to peel off his outer defenses. Drace's gear is heavier. She wears layers in the traditional fashion, huge metal shells interlocking over black-ribbed cloth, which in turn conceal the chainmail skin underneath. Her armor is meant to deflect weapons, to dilute their force by letting them skitter off curves of metal. She is bulkier than he is, heavier on her feet, but he has seen her take an entire behemoth's charge off her flank without even stumbling, and knows better than to underestimate her nerve.
But they cannot and do not bother to do more than occasionally touch, because any gesture would be largely symbolic. Drace's hands are covered entirely by metal. Gabranth's hands are wrapped in tanned hide and plate. Inches of metal and studded filigree protect them from each other, and neither one of them will entirely give up what they are to bridge the gap.
They were not always so close. In fact, when Gabranth first arrived to Archades, fumbling with his new rank and new name and new life, he had done his best to keep out of the way of the senior Judges, particularly the other Magistrates. The last thing he wanted was to have everything taken away again; unfortunately, no one had seen fit to provide him with a primer on the inner workings of Archadia, or even a decent guide map.
He'd wandered into one of the antechambers while looking for the Senate's offices, looping around and around for hours in the maze of halls and cringing at the thought of asking a sentry for directions. It had been Drace's voice that lured him in. She had been arguing with Ghis again: a long line of political debates between them, as he was eventually to discover, forever unresolved.
"How can honor be considered so transient in definition?" Her helm was off; both hers and Ghis's were, and they were glaring at one another from across the room like hackled cats. "Honor serves the law, which serves the people. It is not one or the other, Ghis."
"And yet people are not creatures of honor themselves, Drace." Sounding deliberately bored, the other Judge reached for the brandy snifter beside him and rocked the liquid within gently back and forth. "Should you place power in their hands, they would simply use it for their own selfish ends, seeing no greater good than their own. The law is what we must strive to maintain. It is what shapes our nation, and thereby guides those who would follow it."
Drace had leaned back against the wall with her arms crossed; unlike Ghis, she had chosen to remain standing, and the crystal-light fixtures left soft blushes of fire along the metal basing wrapped along her thighs. "Your Honor has a fine wit, for a man who uses its portions so sparingly."
"Don't play the jilted harridan with me, Drace -- "
"Your Honors," Gabranth interrupted, regretting his act immediately when they both turned their attentions upon him. "I would say that Judge Ghis has the right of it."
"Hah!" Ghis had laughed, tapping a smug, staccato rhythm on his knee with one gauntleted hand. "It seems that Lord Vayne's new pet has a fine tongue on him, wouldn't you say, Drace?"
Drace only regarded Gabranth with the same pleasant malice as a mongoose that had just discovered a viper nest.
"Be that as it may," the newer Judge persisted, wondering how swiftly he might have made a mortal enemy, "the law is not a living being, and its integrity cannot be diminished."
Ghis smirked as he collected his helm, tossing back the last of his liquor with a satisfied smack of his lips. "And there is my point and prize, Drace, so I shall be off to busy myself with work."
"We will finish this later," she swore aloud, and he laughed again, his boots clicking down the hall in a dwindling metal beat.
Only when Ghis was fully gone did Drace let her full ire show. "In experience and service both, you are a neophyte to Archadia," she stated acidly, turning upon Gabranth with her eyes narrowed. "If you think to instruct me on matters of my own nation, then you'll earn a drumming not soon to be forgotten."
"Your Honor," he managed, unable to say what he really thought, really felt about the concept of loyalty. He pulled off his own helmet, tucking it under one arm as he reached out with the other hand. The bulge of both their breastplates kept him from leaning close enough; instead, he was forced to settle with curling his hand along the side of her neck, awkward past the thick gorget that flared close to her chin. His fingertips nestled just barely on the back of her neck. Underneath the leather, he could feel one of the tendons near her spine, tight as a bundled cable.
He could not bear to look at her directly, so instead he settled with staring at her temple. Her hair was disheveled and sweaty.
"Judge Drace. I know."
She pulled away from him after a moment, but surprised him by placing her own fingers on his mouth very briefly, cool metal depressing his lips.
That was the start of it, of arguments that she expected him to fight avidly through, and he had simply yielded instead. His passiveness surprised her; his acceptance of rank and file disgusted her, but he gave her nothing else to protest, nothing save a weary tolerance that he chose not to explain. She, in turn, did not ask. If she gleaned her answers from his records or from the Emperor, Gabranth did not know, but the mercy was a welcome one, and he drank it down like wine.
The first time that they bed together was largely by accident. She had ended up in his quarters asking to borrow a gambit book he had recently purchased; then she had ended up sitting in his chair as he removed her helmet for her, reading over her shoulder as she flipped through the pages.
After a few minutes, he realized that he had not taken his hands away, but by then she had already put down the book.
Their gestures had all been small, subdued; they were both practiced at not moving too swiftly while encased in metal, lest they hurt someone else. Their heads bumped against each other as they tried to arrange their weights properly, tangling knees and elbows and hands and muted, half-hearted apologies. It was a clumsy way to couple, and they both lost energy along the way before the act was complete, lustful hands slowing down to simply wandering along the other in a sort of distracted torpor. She faced the pillow, while he stared up at the paintwork on the ceiling. Neither of them spoke.
He kept on his leather jerkin. She jingled with her chain.
After a while, she rolled over and kissed him, and touched him until he arched helplessly into her hand.
When he tried to say something in the morning, unsure of what might have changed between them or what esoteric Archadian laws they had just violated, Drace only shrugged. "Later," she answered, crisp and precise. "If you've second thoughts, then have them later -- unless you plan to be late to your fleet briefing, with an explanation ready for why you were tumbling in the bedsheets instead of arranging their deployment orders."
It's a terrible idea, Gabranth believes, for two Judges to become intimate. There are many, many reasons why it should not happen, and the only basis why there isn't a stricter law against it is because -- or so he strongly suspects -- the Emperor would rather the Magisters keep their own urges within the department, rather than causing havoc among the guards.
Normal Judges can marry and hold relationships with little effort. Judge Magisters are a different kind of beast altogether.
So he ends up with Drace more often than not and they both have the same, detached, awful expression whenever they lean too close to each other with their helmets off: the expression that says, this is the worst idea ever and you know it and I know it too.
There's only so much they can do with each other, really. He can't offer to take on her case loads, mixing her trials with his in an easy dissolving of work boundaries; he can't even see some of her cases because of judicial impartiality, and he can't schedule his fleet to always be in the same neighborhood as hers, and he can't make plans about what they'll do in their off-hours, because there are no off-hours, and nowhere they'd go, anyway. He can't talk about the future because they both know better than to plan ahead in a country perpetually touched by war. He can't.
There are so many things they can't share as people, because honestly, they're not. Not Drace, who has been a Judge so long that she has surrendered the rest of her life to it, any plans of a normal life with a normal family, and possibly a normal motherhood. And not for him either. He's watched his history burn, has destroyed it himself as the very first token of his loyalty to Vayne. They're both cleft from being humes, turned into walking suits of metal instead, and Gabranth cannot find a single reason why he should not prefer life this way.
They rarely hold each other as normal couples would. Instead, any contact comes in brief brushes of hands against shoulders, neither of them coming too close, separated by the hollow inches of their armor. They can't have a family, wouldn't think or want or dream of it anyway, but that's fine because Larsa is their child instead. Technically, the youngest Solidor is everyone's child, everyone who's a Judge. And so is Vayne, though Ghis and Bergan favor the older boy more. Zargabaath stands as an estranged uncle who only shows up to disapprove politely of the children's schooling, and give puzzled, mournful looks on occasion in Drace's direction.
Work usually is what brings him and Drace together, and it's their line of security, like a rope they both can grasp. Drace snarls like a desert wolf when she's in the right frame of mind, irate from the Senate or from some other aspect of the government. Gabranth is more accepting; he lets her rage, lets her spit out her tirades in safe, private rooms where no one else will hear, and then he usually lets her sit beside him while they both unwind after work, two suits of armor clanking against each other on the couch. Usually, one of them ends up napping. Sometimes, both.
Arguments about politics make up more than half of their conversations. If they weren't Judges, he thinks to himself, they would have nothing to talk about at all.
They don't speak about fighting because neither of them likes war, which is perhaps one of the many things they might have in common, if the luxury existed. They don't speak to each other about love, because they're both too jaded for that -- and neither of them needs to be told something that may or may not be true.
He helps her get in her armor in the mornings, the parts that she bothers to take off. Even though she'll pull out the cotton batting and unlatch the plate, Drace likes to sleep in the chainmail lining. Her cotton undershirts turn grey and grimed within a day; her skin smells like metal all the time, metal and sweat, just like he reeks of leather and steel. Sometimes she doesn't bother to take off the breastplate, sleeping while half-sitting to keep the scalloped edge from pinching under her arms.
She leaves his sheets dirty, tinged with the smell and feel of her chainmail, and he doesn't really mind.
The one night he manages to convince her to take off everything -- it had been a long campaign in the field, and it wasn't lust that fueled his demand, but simple curiosity, framed under the bribe of a muscle ointment to help with the bruises dotting her ribs -- she looks so much smaller on his bed, as if he had peeled her out of a giant shell to leave only pale fish-flesh behind. She seems smaller, and wrong, and like any other hume on the street; as if one layer too many has been removed, and he is now seeing her bones instead of her skin.
He undoes her hair with his hands, and she winces when a few strands are caught in the metal of his gauntlets.
"Careful, there." Her laughter is dry and fades quickly. "I only have so many left to lose."
He smirks a little, pulling off his gloves one by one after disentangling them from her scalp. "You speak as if you're a withered crone."
"Raising Lord Larsa would make me so." She rolls over onto her back with a grimace, prodding gingerly at the livid marks along her side. "His brother ages me even faster. I fear the Senate will play the one against the other, should they be given the opportunity."
"Lord Vayne will need no urging for such ploys," he reminds her softly. "So long as Lord Larsa follows him with the devotion of a pup."
He walks in on her discussing this same topic the next day again with Ghis; Ghis has that stern, flat-lipped expression that shows he is not really listening to her. "I would rather," he is saying, "have an Emperor's heir whose mind is not swayed like a willow come the winds. Lord Larsa is too susceptible to being influenced. He worships his brother like a god."
"His brother is his only weakness, and that is a fair one," Drace shoots back. Her helmet is off, and in the chandelier lights, the tight braids coiled at the base of her skull look like snakes in waiting. "He graces Lord Vayne with a mantle of perfection, but the elder son sees no one save himself as worth regency."
Ghis considers this for all of one second before he shakes his head, his drawl bordering just shy of patronizing. "Be as that may, Drace," he replies, "an Emperor whose mind will not be swayed by charm is an Emperor I would prefer. Lord Vayne will carry the legacy of the Solidor with stronger arms than an impressionable youth who swears his heroes can make no misstep."
Drace straightens her shoulders as sharply as if a hot poker has been applied to her spine. "And better to take a hero who will do wrong, rather than one who believes in them?"
"Lord Vayne," Ghis states, stressing the name, "remains the heir who holds my backing. Bergan feels as I do. Gabranth," he continues, glancing now towards the doorway, his eyes dark and laden with expectation, "also sees the wisdom of supporting the elder son, I am certain."
In Drace's face is a hateful promise that he will hear no end of this tonight, should he agree with Ghis; still, Gabranth only lowers his head, breaking eye contact with Ghis and studying the floor instead. "I live to serve."
"Then take the measure of the future from Zargabaath," she spits, without malice, but with unflagging frustration. "He holds neither of the boys sacred, so long as the skeleton of the Empire remains intact. Let us all bend our knees to withered ghosts when the time comes, and call it pride in justice."
Gabranth reaches out, grabbing her by the elbow, willing her to caution through osmosis alone. "Lord Vayne is still the elder. So long as he remains fit, then all we do now is quarrel needlessly."
Ghis watches them both, one black eyebrow lifted. "You see? Gabranth knows the way better than you do, Drace -- and he is not even Archadian-born. You would do well to take a note from his book."
And join my conquerors without guilt? he thinks she hisses as she pulls away, but he knows better than to expect such words from her. Drace does not aim for his weak spots without reason, and even she knows better than to prod at ancient wounds.
That is another way that they are different, and yet the contrast is not an ill one. Drace has more moral outrage than he; she has more capacity for it these days than he does. Being around her is convenient, because it's like having someone there who can do all the feeling for him while he sits back and nods along in bland agreement. Drace is not a firestarter. She will not stimulate dissent, but she feels strongly for her chosen government -- stronger than Gabranth ever did, and he thought that his level of dedication could not be surpassed when he first joined with Archadia. But his is a bloodless device. Drace loves the Emperor, loves long generations of Emperors who can care for their people with a sympathetic hand rather than a militant one, and she hates whatever could threaten that lineage. She would hate him, if he ever turned rebel; but Gabranth is tired and weary and exhausted from following orders, and in the end, it's simpler to let Drace handle conviction for the both of them.
Months go by. They touch and do not touch.
There is less passion in their relationship than comfort. Less comfort than reliability, because they both dislike growing soft, and comfort would imply an indulgence. But the more he thinks about it, the more he realizes they are doing more than simply passing time: they are growing old together, and maybe, just maybe when all is said and done, that's all either of them can expect.
Maybe, he thinks, it's all anyone can really hope for in the end.
The idea keeps him awake all night. Drace's fleet has just returned to the capital; she limps into his chambers complaining of a misaligned brace on her left ankle, and is borrowing a temporary, non-descript pair of boots from her armorer until her own are fixed. When she starts to pull off her helm, she halts the motion with a hiss. One of her braids has come loose and hooked itself into the metal lacing, messily enough that neither she nor Gabranth can free it -- badly enough that she eventually tears it free with a growl and a wince, leaving a clump of hairs behind and a red patch on her scalp.
In her post-combat irritation, she sends a servant to fetch the nearest pair of shears, and spends the next half-hour hacking off the battered locks. Her head looks like a dandelion when she is done, all short-tufted strands and bitter practicality. When she lays down the scissors upon his desk, she vows that she will never grow braids again.
One less thing to worry about, she scowls, and rubs at her scalp with a palm.
She rolls into bed before he does, shedding a light fluff of hairs on the pillows. He joins her after a reluctant moment, moving to his side of the mattress automatically; as his weight depresses the springs, she lifts a sleepy hand in his direction. He takes it, knowing that she will not want it held past the initial contact for acknowledgement. They have worked together for less than a lifetime, have referenced each other without formal titles for barely half of that, but sometimes it feels like forever.
The realization makes it impossible to sleep. He thinks about forever; then he thinks about the future, and the past, and wars years gone. He thinks about what it means, if he's finally allowed himself to relax enough to be content with such little things in his life: knowing the origin of the scar on Drace's right breast, or how she hums off-key while washing in the shower. How she hiccups after eating foods that are too spicy, and always tries to hold her breath to stop it through willpower alone. How she holds one hand against her chin when she sleeps. How they might both die tomorrow, or age together, retiring as paired gentry by the time Larsa takes the throne.
Finally he gets up, pulling the covers back and disentangling his foot from a sheet.
The motion wakes Drace. She makes a soft, wordless noise at first, and then finds her voice. "Gabranth," she mumbles inquisitively, forcing herself to wakefulness despite the hour.
"Sleep, Drace," he tells her, gentling down the remains of her hair with a brush of his hand. "Sleep. There will be more than enough time for everything tomorrow."