The armor of a Judge Magister. The metal and leather structuring meant to protect, to bulk up what was a mere hume and give them weight and authority. To intimidate. The men - for there was a female Judge no longer, with Drace's corpse cold and buried - who bore that armor were meant to be symbols as well as people, embodiments of the law of House Solidor.
They were to be the enforcers of order, the swords of the law, and the shields of the Solidors, forever more.
It was weighty, that armor, both in a physical and mental sense. Every piece held some sort of memory, most of them tainted with blood. Judge Magisters were not a peaceful people. Order, and the enforcement of the law, did not necessarily translate to peace. Their jobs were to keep the Solidors safe, from having to spill blood with their own hands.
Or rather, that was the specific task of Judge Magister Gabranth - to protect Larsa Ferrinas Solidor. The late Emperor Gramis had spilled too much blood to be kept from it, and Vayne had too great a thirst for it to allow his judges to protect him. Larsa was the only one who had not killed, who had no desire for power to do so. And so it fell to Gabranth, with Drace lying dead beneath the earth, to act as the shield for the final hope of House Solidor, of Archadia, of Ivalice.
He was not sure how he felt about being a shield.
But if it had to be for anyone, than it would be for Larsa.
Yet the armor served not only as a shield to protect the young Solidor. It shielded Gabranth from the boy's scrutiny, for those pale eyes missed nothing. It shielded the Judge Magister from having to face the sadness in Larsa's face every time something else went wrong, the drawn lines that should never have appeared on one so young. It shielded him from having to acknowledge what he felt for the boy less than half his age, something so wrong that the Judge could not shake.
It shielded him, yes, but it also trapped him.
The Solidor name itself was a shield. The Judges and Judge Magisters served beyond that, as closer ranks of protection. Larsa knew the truth of the matter, that he was being shielded from the world beyond the borders of Archadia because he was supposedly too young, too fragile, to protect himself. He could not rely on his own sword and the Solidor name, as his brother Vayne did.
At times, he wished he could.
He did not resent his protectors. Drace had been closer to a mother figure than he ever recalled having, and her death had grieved him greatly. And Gabranth...
Well, Larsa could not ever afford to admit how he felt about Gabranth.
The Judge Magister was not necessarily a friendly man. None of them were, separated from the rest of the world by their bulking armor and weight of authority on their shoulders. But he was a superb guardian, protecting Larsa to what it seemed would be his last breath. The young Solidor appreciated that, even when at times it seemed the pressing regard of his armored shadow would stifle him.
Gabranth watched him so carefully, at times, that even through the bulk of that helm, Larsa could feel his gaze.
Gabranth was hidden behind his Judge's armor; Larsa was hidden behind fine garb and the manners of an Archadian noble. He was as impossible to read as the man behind the helmet, with enough training at hiding his emotions that Gabranth could never comprehend what those tiny, bland smiles were saying. He is too young to hide so well, the Judge Magister often thought. Too young by half to be all that he is.
The boy was seated behind his desk, chin resting on one gloved fist. As if knowing by instinct, catching some small cue that the Judge was watching him, he glanced up at Gabranth and smiled, that empty, childish smile.
Beneath his helm, the Judge frowned, and wished that for once, one of those smiles could be real.
They sat outside on a rainy day, because Larsa was too stubborn to return to the interior of the palace, and because Gabranth would not allow the boy out of his sight. Pale green eyes focused on the gloved and gauntleted hand resting on the stone rim beside him, and the young Solidor frowned slightly, a crease forming between furrowed brows.
His silk-gloved hand reached out, resting atop the metal and leather.
"How can you feel, locked behind all of that?"
The rain made tinny impacts on the metal plates of the armor. Gabranth would have to clean it all carefully, to make certain there was no hint of wear or rust from continuing to sit out in the storm, like a fool. The leather of his gloves and of the joinings of each piece was durable enough that he needn't worry.
So without knowing why, he slowly removed the gauntlet of his left hand, and peeled off the sodden glove. The bare skin looked odd to him, as he reached out to gently touch Larsa's cheek.
That was the first glimpse the young Solidor ever had of the Judge without armor, beyond just the removal of that heavy helm. He found it infinitely preferable to the cold, unfeeling shield that Gabranth tried to be.
It was just the touch of a hand, but it made Larsa see the other as more human than he had ever believed.
The Solidor prince was never eloquent when he was first awakened, something Gabranth doubted anyone who had ever met the self-possessed, composed child would every realize. He had fallen asleep at his desk, staying up too late looking over business that he shouldn't have been fretting about, as he was wont to do.
A very faint smile curved the Judge Magister's lips as the boy shifted, only half-waking at his guardian's query. Instead of speaking further, Gabranth just moved, lifting the delicate male from his chair. Larsa's nose wrinkled in discomfort at being pressed against hard, cold armor, but he did not wake.
He carried the youth to his bed and settled him there, but lingered even after Larsa had curled into his pillow, solidly asleep as ever.
He looked so young.
He never did when he was awake.
Judges were trained to be ever vigilant, so the rap of knuckles on Gabranth's door, no matter how soft it was, always woke the man. He looked bleary from sleep when he opened the door, but Larsa could not help but stare for a moment. Stripped of his armor, clad in light pants and exposing more skin than the young Solidor had ever seen of any of the Judges, he was...
The boy flushed, and stammered, and felt like a child for the first time in years.
"I - the storm, it brought back nightmares, and..."
Gabranth's expression softened, and he opened the door further to admit Larsa. The youth had lived through too many terrors to sleep sweetly and soundly at night. Hesitantly, the brunet perched on the edge of the low mattress, eyes darting around the bare room that the Judge occupied. Spare, spartan, and inhuman - but there was Gabranth, the most real he had ever looked, not hidden behind armor.
Larsa worried his lower lip between his teeth. "... may I stay here this night?" Formal manners of speaking, as always.
The Judge hesitated in closing the door, his spine stiffening. He turned to regard the young Solidor, so delicately innocent in his nightclothes, gazing up at Gabranth with those eyes.
"It would be my honor."
Larsa had seen him falter, had seen what had passed over his face in that moment. The boy said nothing further, but smiled an honest smile. When the Judge returned to his bed, he curled himself against the man's chest and fell swiftly back into sleep, this time dreamless, and content in the knowledge that someone who cared for him was near.
It seemed to become almost a habit; whenever storms clouded the skies above Archadia, or whenever dark dreams threatened, Larsa found his way to Gabranth's room. The Judge Magister would have disapproved, but he could not find himself able to deny the young Solidor anything. Particularly not when he spoke, one night, curled up against the elder man's side as thunder battered at the palace of Archades, as lightning sent spikes of light through the sky.
"You seem to be my talisman against nightmares."
His expressions always seemed less empty in the shadows, and his voice as usual rang sincere. Gabranth said nothing, simply watched over the boy until he had fallen into the safety of sleep once again. Larsa had not been expecting an answer of the less-than-talkative judge, and he slumbered as peacefully as ever, seeming almost too delicate, too sweet, in the sudden illumination of the lightning.
The man could not help himself, a hand moving of its own accord to touch the other's cheek. Then lips were ghosting over Larsa's, the youth not so much as twitching at the touch, merely letting out a gentle sigh.
Pulling back as if stricken, Gabranth felt himself burn with shame, and he turned away from his charge for the first time in his knowledge, shifting as far from the youngest Solidor as he could manage without running away completely.
"What is wrong?"
The boy had always been perceptive, and his Judge could no longer hide behind his armor. Not now that Larsa had seen him bare-faced, had slept by his side for many a night. He frowned, and reached out to touch the elder's hand - Gabranth drew away, as he never had before. Not like this, not when they were out in the open air and no one was watching.
"I do not think I can protect you anymore, Lord Larsa. I have been... too distracted in my duties."
Sadness creased the young noble's brow as it so seldom did, but Larsa had always been stubborn. Like his father and his brothers, he never gave up anything without a fight. That was the legacy of the Solidors, moving through his veins. Never before had he displayed so much similarity to Vayne, and Gramis before him.
"It is your task, your charge. You have no choice." He hesitated then, voice tentative on the edges, not as strong nor as commanding as the words should have been. He was not his father, and he was not his brother. He was something they never could have been.
"... don't run from me."
Such a soft, imploring tone that it turned Gabranth around. He knelt to wrap metal-shrouded arms around the boy, and Larsa had his Judge once more. Small hands moved with surety, another common Solidor trait, and removed the heavy helm, so he could see that face. Worry and vigilance and the constant air of protection that Gabranth cast off, all written in his features, as Larsa saw it.
Lips met lips in a warm caress, and though Archadia was ever at war and Vayne mad with power, Larsa felt as though all was right, all was at peace.
The nights were sweeter still when Larsa came to his bed, the Judge Magister found, although they had to take great care. Vayne was nothing if not overzealous when it came to his younger brother, and Gabranth was careful that he showed nothing but a hound's proper dues to his master when in the presence of the elder Solidor.
He had his Larsa on nights when the storms came, though, and that was almost enough.
At first he was worried, tentative. For all intents and purposes, the boy was still a child, no matter what his mental maturity might have been. Gabranth was overcareful, something he knew drove Larsa practically to madness. A few chaste kisses, bodies curled together in the peace of night, and that was all. No matter how much tension lingered between them, he would not succumb to the desires of the flesh.
Larsa was young, but not yet so young that he did not understand. It was not so complex a situation, and the youth was, as in all else, extraordinarily precocious. He knew the fires that burned beneath his skin, that drew him to the Judge Magister in a fit of almost-need. And yet Gabranth refused.
It sent the young Solidor utterly crazy. He hungered for the touch of warm flesh, the taste of the other's lips. He was not a child in such matters, not within the confines of his own mind. He knew the textbook descriptions of all things having to do with lust, knew all that could be found within the pages of any volume.
Still... he feared, as well.
But not enough to keep from pursuing his own desires.
Gabranth would never know what possessed Larsa to traipse about in the rain, though night-borne storms drove him to the Judge's chamber. All he knew was that when the boy appeared to him one late evening, dripping and drenched and altogether too enticing, he could restrain himself no longer.
Kisses grew in heat, and though the boy before him shivered from the cold, the Judge Magister's arms warmed him. Damp garments were stripped away with gentle hands, citing a need to keep the young lord from catching ill. All that exposed skin, porcelain and pristine, sent Gabranth's mind spiraling away. He could have wrapped the youth up in a blanket, could have kept himself separate from Larsa... but how would that have been possible, when the noble turned those eyes on him?
And there were eager hands tugging at the fabric of his clothing, kiss-swollen lips tracing so delicately along the line of his jaw. Gabranth could not be expected to maintain his composure.
He would have taken things slowly, but Larsa unaccountably fought him. The young lord bucked and thrashed like a wild thing, as he found, twisting and writhing in utmost pleasure. Gabranth, too, was taken in by the tautness of the body beneath him, how unbelievably wonderful the boy felt. They rose together, and then descended into free-fall, twisting, turning, lost in the abyss of each other.
It was beautiful.
Protection had become affection, affection had become infatuation, and then they were in love. Larsa spoke the words first, so tentative and honest that Gabranth grinned, an expression not native to the Judge's face. The youth had withdrawn, thinking he had done wrong, but the elder man had whispered those words back, and the world became perfect again.
It was harder to hide from the watchful eyes of his court. Those who saw fault with Vayne looked to him as the last hope for Archadia, and those who supported his brother thought of Larsa as a threat. Wherever he went, people were watching, people were talking. Gabranth was his silent shadow, his shield, and it took a great deal of strength for the boy to keep from hiding in his arms when things became difficult.
War escalated. The world around him moved into chaos. Larsa knew not what he could do to save it.
And Vayne went mad.
He had no choice in the matter. When Vayne struck out at Larsa, Gabranth was there, interposing himself between the Solidor brothers. He had always thought that he would die in the line of duty, but he had never thought it would be a Solidor who killed him. He fell, fell and bled, and it was a different sort of free-fall.
This time, it was agony.
Basch was there, the brother he had betrayed, had destroyed. Noah fon Ronsenburg's last request was for his brother to guard Larsa, to protect him. To be his shield, forever more.
Larsa's was the last face he saw. The boy clung to his hand and Gabranth told him not to weep. "You must live on," he said, voice struggling and strained. He knew guilt for all the deaths he had caused, all those he had delivered. For Drace. And he knew pain for abandoning Larsa. "I love you, and Archadia needs you."
The Judge Magister was a shield no longer, but a man who shuddered and died in the arms of his young love.
Basch took up the Judge's name, his armor. He was Gabranth, to all eyes but Larsa's. Those eyes were always watching him with a weighty sadness. The child Emperor knew too much of heaviness, too much of grief.
He was so young.
At his brother's behest, Basch became the last shield of the Solidors. And once, in the rain, he saw Larsa smile at him, as though he were someone else. Someone whose death had shaken the world, without altering it at all. He lived on in his brother, and lived on in the young Emperor's heart.
Larsa knew he would always shield him from harm.