GOODNESS THIS TOOK A WHILE. I'm sorry everyone! Final papers got in the way but school's done now, though, so things should be smooth sailing with the updates for now! My goal is to finish The Only Truth by the time school starts back up again. I don't know how realistic that is, but I'm gonna give it a shot. Thanks as always for your patience, support, critiques, and readership!
Coalesce: Part One
"Sir, I can't let you go in there, not like that," the white-robed nurse stated, giving Garen a once-over with a wrinkled nose.
After a long walk back to the Institute of War, Garen proceeded directly to the south wing's infirmary, and found that Katarina had just been moved to the room from surgery, a nearly two hour ordeal that occurred during his absence. And now that he was so close to seeing her...
The Demacian wanted to argue, but upon seeing the state of his blood-stained clothes and catching a trace of the foul smell emanating from them, he grunted in reluctant understanding. Through the window of the door just beyond the nurse's shoulder, he could see Talon pacing in and out of his view as he presumably waited outside Katarina's room; Katarina... so close and still they were forced to wait. Giving the door a look of longing, the Demacian turned begrudgingly to leave the infirmary.
The halls were empty now that it was well into the middle of the night, but the service desks were always manned and Garen wearily filed the paperwork that would allow him a temporary room in the residence hall; the finer points of changing his status and obtaining permanent housing were the least of his concerns.
"Are you gonna need something else to wear, too?" the summoner who'd given him the room asked.
Garen cursed inwardly, tapping his room key impatiently against the counter. "Is there anything I can borrow?"
The summoner hopped from his chair with a scoff. "You Champions are lucky this place keeps all this **** around for you to use," he huffed as he disappeared into the nearby office. The Demacian leaned heavily on the desk, burying his face in his arms which rested on the counter, until the summoner returned nearly five minutes later holding a white cloth shirt and a pair of black pants. "Looks like it's your lucky day, big guy."
The Demacian laughed, a bitter, strangled thing, and took the clothes from the summoner with a muttered, "Thanks," before trudging to his room. He might be exiled from home with nothing to his name and the woman he cared about near death, but he possessed just enough luck for a change of clothes.
Piece by piece, layers of grimy clothes were peeled away and dropped unceremoniously into the laundry chute until everything he owned was out of sight, and the hot water carried away the dirt and blood, reminders of his exile and the murder committed. Even after a battle, a shower had never felt as relieving as it did then. But Garen had a purpose and did not linger, throwing on the tight shirt and loose pants along with his boots and sword.
And now that he was finally ready, he hesitated.
It was barely over a week since he saw Katarina last, and in such a short time, he hardly recognized the person in the mirror, subtle though the changes were: A harsher glint in his eyes, a tightly coiled tension in his muscles, a piercing skepticism where once was a naïve sincerity, and, most frightening of all, the raw, all-consuming anger which had come on him so quickly he'd snapped. Following on the heels of his exile, the Demacian felt like he was losing control; maybe it would be best for Katarina if he didn't stick around.
But even with his misgivings trying their damnedest to pull him back, the Demacian flung open the door and strode purposefully toward the hospital. Selfish though it may have been, Garen wasn't going to let her go so easily. If she wanted him to leave, she would have to tell him herself.
Entering the white double doors to the infirmary, the soldier marched to the nurses' station straight ahead, where the same tired healer from before sat filing paperwork. "I'm back to see Katarina DuCouteau," he stated.
With a heavy sigh, the woman closed the file on which she worked and leaned over the counter to inspect him. Seeing that his state was much improved, she gave an approving nod, but replied, "Her last visitors left a little while ago, but it's far too late right now. She needs to sleep."
"I won't wake her up," he begged. "Please."
Taking in the pleading expression on his face, the nurse scrunched her face in consideration, threw a glance at the darkened window, then deflated with a sigh. "Fine, but if I think you're disturbing her at all, you're not getting back in here, understood? And you have to leave your weapons at the front!" The Demacian shook his head in the affirmative and hastily pulled off the belt which held his sword and sheath and left it a top the counter.
Heaving another sigh, she rose from her desk and shuffled to the door behind her desk where she pressed her palm against a glowing panel like the one he'd seen in the library. It beeped once in response and there was a click as it released the lock, and the nurse motioned Garen to pass.
It opened into a long hallway lined with separate rooms and dimly lit from above, the floor and walls a harsh white that sent a chill down the soldier's spine. After she ensured the door was shut securely behind them, the nurse approached the first door on the left and eased it open without a sound.
He didn't realize he was holding his breath until, when he passed the threshold, it rushed out in a quiet whimper as finally, finally, he saw her. The nurse shook her head and the door clicked shut behind her, but the Demacian was too absorbed to notice while he closed the distance between himself and Katarina, who slept soundly, her face tilted toward him and lips parted slightly; the ache to kiss her was almost unbearable.
Instead, he stooped over to ghost a trembling hand across her cheek, his touch lingering for a moment before it withdrew as he collapsed in on himself, fingers pressed tightly against his eyes in an effort to keep the threatening sting in them from spilling. Slowly, he sank into the chair next to her bedside and laid his head on his crossed arms that rested in the space next to her body, causing her to stir though she did not wake. It wasn't comfortable, but he never wanted to leave her side again.
He couldn't recall falling asleep, but at the sound of her voice floating through the fog of his sleep Garen jerked awake in surprise. The faintest hints of the sunrise were creeping in through the cracks of the window shades, illuminating Katarina's sleepy green eyes which were peering into his. The confused expression on her face melted away into a slight smile as he startled into wakefulness.
"Katarina?" he breathed. Dreaming... was he dreaming? Breathless, the soldier stretched a tentative hand to caress her cheek, and bit back a cry when she did not disappear under his touch. Her smile widened but as she opened her mouth to speak, Garen stopped her with a kiss that mirrored their very first, reckless and desperate, full of longing and fear and excitement.
Katarina held loosely onto the front of his shirt as he kissed her forehead and cheeks, her nose and neck, her name falling like a mantra from his lips all the while; finally she pushed weakly against his chest, chuckling, "Quit... you're making me blush."
Garen pulled back just enough to look into her eyes and gushed, "I... I'm so sorry. For everything, Katarina, I'm so sor-"
"No, please, I-I, this is all my fault," he continued, dropping his gaze to the floor. "Urgot... he only did this to get back at me. I never thought-"
"Stop," she interrupted, tugging on the cloth entwined in her fingers to instigate another kiss, which he obliged. "Apology accepted. It's been a pretty... rough week, though," she admitted, then added with a grin, "but... this helps."
Garen choked out a laugh and couldn't help briefly pressing his lips to hers again. "If I'd just come sooner, you wouldn't be in here."
Katarina shook her head. "You don't think I knew the risks... of being with you? I can take care of myself. I just... shouldn't have been caught off guard. But, I'll be ok. Urgot was a fool not to kill me... because if the League doesn't get to him first..." she trailed off, her threat clear, but earned a grimace from the soldier.
"Urgot's been... taken care of already," he muttered, dropping back into the chair.
A quizzical look passed her sleepy face, quickly replaced by one of surprise, then satisfaction. "You got rid of him?"
The Noxian's lips twitched in amusement, but only for a moment before she regarded him seriously. "Why'd you do it? It's... not like you," she commented, worry coloring her words.
His brow furrowed in an incredulous stare, the soldier retorted, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, "I did it because I had to."
After a failed attempt at stifling a yawn, Katarina innocently murmured, "But why?"
And as he considered it, suddenly, Garen felt his knees go weak, and his heart began to beat erratically against his chest. There were a number of specific reasons he could give as to why he was compelled to kill Urgot. After all, she'd nearly been killed, and it was somewhat justifiable; maybe because he thought she'd have done the same, and because he'd do anything for her. But he knew, and maybe she did too, that all these things could be tied to one simple truth.
Katarina raised an eyebrow; he licked his lips and tried again.
Her eyes were piercing now, but he couldn't hold her gaze.
"...I just had to."
For a fleeting moment, she looked disappointed, but the assassin shrugged it away nonchalantly. "Ok. Will you tell them to tone down the medication for me?" she yawned. "I wanna be able to... stay awake longer. It's not helping the pain much anyway. So... I guess you can leave if you want to..." she added.
With a sigh, Garen took her hand in his own and rose to press a soft kiss against her lips. "I'm not going anywhere unless you make me."
She gave him a sly smile before closing her eyes and mumbling, "I knew you'd say that."
Only a few minutes passed before she was asleep once again, leaving the Demacian to sit with his thoughts. Being on the Fields of Justice gave many Champions the impression that they were invincible. After all, death only lasted for a minute at the most. Even after fighting for Demacia outside of the League and killing hundreds of Noxian soldiers who would never rise again, death never seemed like a possibility; it was never so real to him as it was now.
Just as he'd taken Urgot's life, Katarina had nearly been permanently taken from him. How he would've reacted then, he couldn't fathom, but he would've never taken the chance to tell her how he truly felt. If his tongue-tied reaction was any indication, maybe he never would.
How could it possibly be so hard to utter such a short little phrase?
Garen let out a yawn of his own, but instead of laying back down, he shambled to the locked ward door and knocked. There were quick footsteps and the sound of the door releasing before it swung open.
"Is everything alright?" the nurse, a different one from before, questioned. She was a sullen looking woman, older than the last with her fading blonde hair pulled back into an austere bun common for Demacian women.
"Oh, yeah, she's fine," the Champion assured. "She wanted the medication turned down though. Can you do that?"
The healer frowned. "Miss DuCouteau right? She'd be in more pain if we do, but if she really wants it, I'll make a note in her file to ask her next time we go in to change her wraps."
"About that, can you tell me the extent of her injuries?" Garen asked.
Indicating Garen to follow her to the front desk, the nurse picked out Katarina's file from a stack and scanned it briefly. "Right, she suffered a stab wound to the lower abdomen, but it was a pretty clean cut and they were able to heal most of the internal damage from that in surgery. She does have third degree chemical burns around her right thigh and the back of her left knee, though."
With a sinking heart, the Demacian probed, "And... how long is it going to take her to get better?"
"Well, I have to say, she's lucky she's a League Champion," the nurse commented. "The Institute possesses the most advanced healers and medical techmaturgy in Valoran, and after the Ionia-Noxus conflict two years ago, we've a much better handle on treating chemical burns."
"So," she finished, "she should be up and running in a few weeks. Maybe less if she's particularly tenacious."
A smile of relief eased the soldier's face. "She's definitely that," he grinned.
"Cute," the nurse replied dryly, shelving Katarina's file. "Is she your wife or something?"
"Wha-no!" he stammered, taking a few steps back toward the ward.
The healer rolled her eyes and placed her hand on the door's unlocking panel. "They'll be going in there to change her bandages in a couple of hours. You'll have to leave then."
Garen merely nodded in understanding as he rushed back into Katarina's room and away from the irritable nurse. Sighing, he slumped back into the chair and stretched out uncomfortably, considering the surprisingly good news the nurse had given him. A month wasn't so long, and if he knew Katarina at all, she'd accept that deadline as a challenge to be beaten.
For a few minutes, he watched the rise and fall of her chest, his mind feeling more at peace than it had in days, and it wasn't long until he too fell into darkness.
"Thank you for making time to see me on such short notice High Councilor Kolminye," Jarvan IV confirmed as he seated himself on the other side of her desk.
LeBlanc resisted the urge to reach for her staff and permanently wipe the smug smile from the Prince's face; instead, she steeled her features and replied, "Certainly. You mentioned you had something urgent you wished to discuss?"
Adjusting the satchel he wore over his shoulder, Demacia's crown prince leaned forward and revealed his reason for coming. "I want to negotiate the induction of myself, Shyvana the Half-Dragon, and Luxanna the Lady of Luminosity back into the League of Legends."
With a frown that was not at all faked, she countered, "I'm sorry, but I was informed by the king that you and the others were to be suspended until he indicated otherwise. Is this all you wanted to talk about?"
"No! I thought that might be the case so I was going to offer a trade-"
"Sorry," she interrupted with a sneer, "I do not meddle in the affairs of affiliated city-states."
At that, Jarvan plunged his hand into his satchel and thrust a familiar leather-bound notebook across the desk into her hands. "Not even when the future of Valoran is at stake?"
It took every ounce of willpower LeBlanc had in her ancient mind to show confusion instead of the surprise that passed through her. "What is this?" she intoned, though she'd known instantly, having penned it herself.
"It's the journal of the Black Rose's leader, the Champion LeBlanc," he stated. "I know you told my father that the Institute thinks she's dead since she hasn't shown for matches, but I think if you read this, you'd see that she's far too clever and powerful. I think... I think she is making play for power from within the Institute of War."
Thoughts racing, LeBlanc hastily calculated the numerous possibilities that could arise from this unexpected occurrence; most would likely end in her being revealed. But there were a few paths that just might work...
She flipped open the journal and pretended to scan it while Jarvan continued, "I want what's best for Valoran, not just Demacia. Right now Noxus has far more League presence than any other city-state; if Swain wanted to, Noxus could rise against the Institute and start another Rune War."
"And why would you think Jericho Swain would do something like that?" she probed. "Such a thing would be punishable by death."
"He's a part of the Black Rose!" Jarvan exclaimed. "It's written in that journal."
LeBlanc raised an eyebrow. "Is this even reliable?"
Growing more disgruntled, the Prince frowned, "It was... recovered from her personal estate. It's definitely hers."
"I see," she mused, setting it aside with a small thump. "I believe it was very noble of you to bring this to my attention, especially since you went against your father to do so." Jarvan straightened ever so slightly and she suppressed a grin. "I will certainly consult with High Councilor Kiersta about this and we will make the appropriate decisions to ensure the safety of the Valoran."
"And will we be able to rejoin the League?" he pressed.
She put on a thoughtful face. "Well I would love nothing more than to bring you three back in for such a service. I do believe loyalty should be rewarded, but I must respect your father's decision as the King of Demacia." After a pause, she sympathetically added, "His judgment is the only thing keeping me from letting you in as representatives right now."
A spark flared in the Prince's eyes and she knew she'd struck a chord.
"I would do what I could to protect the Institute of War if Noxus were to invade," Jarvan swore. "Champion or not. But I will convince him. Is there any way you could speak to him as well?" Jarvan assumed his most diplomatic smile; he'd convinced her thus far, just a little more.
"I'm glad I can count on you to do what's right, Jarvan," she acknowledged. "You seem to have a good vision of justice. But yes, I could speak to your father and see if he will reconsider."
Both Champions gave each other a nod of understanding to repress the urge to shout in triumph at how everything seemed to fall right into place.