IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII like it. Mushiness AND plot. Seriously, you're spoiling me.
Hi everypony! Sorry this chapter was so much slower in coming out than the last! October=school getting busier, as I'm sure many can relate. Thanks again to everyone's encouragement! Seriously, y'all have no idea how happy it makes me to get emails saying I have a new review! When I read them on my phone at school, I can't help but grin like a freaking idiot! Thank you so much
Where the Dust Settles
"Hey, get up."
A soft kick in the shin startled Garen into wakefulness and he opened a bleary eye to see Katarina standing over him. Creases from the pillow and sheets had left pink marks crisscrossing her face and stomach, a sight which elicited a grin from the Demacian.
Her eyes narrowed as if she knew the reason for his smile. "Don't start. You were drooling." Sheepishly, he rubbed his chin and looked around. Light was already streaming through the window and he was surprised it hadn't woken him earlier.
"It's pretty late," she muttered. "Put on some clothes so we can get going."
He stood and as the sheet fell from his upright form, he noticed Katarina attempt a sneaky second-glance. Maybe it was simply wishful thinking but as he pulled on his undershirt, he could almost swear he felt the weight of her eyes on his back; his ego swelled and the commander stretched and finished dressing with an extra spring in his step.
Even hurrying it took Garen the better part of twenty minutes to put on the full Vanguard regalia, in which time Katarina, realizing how long it was going to take, was dozing again by the time he was completely ready. Awkwardly, he shook her leg, saying in a low voice, "I'm ready when you are."
"Finally," the assassin yawned as she sat up, moving to the window as if she intended to climb out.
Before she could, Garen grabbed her arm and pulled her to the door instead. "I think at this point in the day it would be more discreet to leave out the front door," he grinned. "Did you bring a cloak?" She shook her head in the negative.
"Wait a second. I've got an idea," The Demacian stated as he crossed the room to the closet and rummaged through it. He finally found the hooded jacket he wore when in civilian clothes and tossed it to her. "Just put this on and it'll be fine."
She complied and his resolve nearly crumbled at the sight of her wearing his jacket which swallowed her tiny frame. A light blush covered his cheeks as he tore his eyes away, stating shakily, "Let's go."
With the hood covering her face, he opened the door and motioned her to follow closely behind him. Lilia was sure to be gone to her job in the Demacian legislature by this point in the morning, but there was no harm in being careful; if his mother appeared he could probably push Katarina into one of the many rooms in the manor.
Despite his luck during the night, she was indeed gone and, in fact, a note on the door addressed to him indicated that she would be gone to Freljord for the next two weeks and could he kindly not bring prostitutes into the house and ruin their family name while she was gone? His temper flared and he ripped the note in half, tossing it on the floor; apparently of all the ideas she had gathered, she'd gone with the most ridiculous.
He pushed Katarina out the door before she could pick up the note and read it herself and the pair slipped into the back streets.
"So, where are we going anyway?" Garen asked briskly. "Tell me about the code."
"Right, just head for the castle. I'll be honest, Talon figured most of it out. The paper we found in the Ivory Ward was a rubric for decoding something, right? So I figured what we would be decoding was the letter Father left with Cassiopeia since that was the only thing he left us."
Her mouth turned in a frown and she continued, "But between League matches and my duties as a representative it was hard to even find the time. I didn't ask Talon for help until just a month ago, but it turns out he's pretty clever with puzzles.
"It was incredibly complex; Talon said it was encoded twice, and combination of switched words and numbers and I don't even know what else. Whatever, he figured it out." Reaching under the borrowed jacket into her pocket, she pulled out a folded paper and handed it to him. In what Garen assumed was Talon's handwriting, masculine and nearly illegible, was written:
[CENTER]Since the disappearance of the Demacian cargo ship the DSS Excursion I have tracked the seemingly unrelated trends which have followed. I have hidden the bulk of my findings in a secret location within the Demacian prison. The information should be enough to elicit co-operation between Demacia and Noxus to take down the real threat.
"A secret room in the Demacian prison?" Garen questioned incredulously. "I've never heard of or seen any secrets in the prison."
She took back the paper with a sigh and stuffed it in the jacket pocket. "I thought so. Maybe Jarvan will know and we could look around and see if we find anything."
Garen contemplated the message in silence as they continued walking toward the castle. He had been in the prison numerous times; it was often part of his job as the commander of the guard. But he couldn't recall ever seeing anything that was out of the ordinary, although he supposed he had never explored it thoroughly. What exactly would they be looking for?
Once again the commander led them through the barracks, pausing once to ask about Jarvan's whereabouts and ignoring all questioning glances directed at the hooded female figure behind him. The prince, he learned, was in a meeting with his father and Garen was presented with a dilemma: should he announce the development in their investigation to both or be guarded? Jarvan, he realized, had not told him whether or not he had kept the King informed.
Opting for discretion, he wrote a note to be delivered to Jarvan that simply stated, "Progress made. We will wait in the study." Let him tell the King what he wanted.
The pair only waited for a moment outside the conference room in which the Demacian royals were meeting before the messenger returned from inside, handing Garen the key to Jarvan's private study. In silence, they paced down the many halls of the castle until they were behind the heavy door of the study, where Katarina locked the door and threw back her hood with a huff.
"I hate coming here, it's nerve-wracking. Good thing no one questions why you're walking around some random hooded figure." She smirked, "Demacians, you're all brainwashed."
Lux's words came to mind. "Not all of us. I'm three-dimensional," he muttered defensively, crossing his arms.
"I don't see you denying the brainwashing," Katarina jabbed.
"Noxus is no better!" he exclaimed. "Demacians may be unapologetically indoctrinated to follow the King and the Measured Tread, but at least they can live their lives in safety. Noxus claims to have laws but it's really just ordered chaos; people kill each other and nobody thinks twice." The commander raised his chin defiantly. "Is that really better?"
The Noxian said nothing, appraising the commander with a deadpan face, but finally a soft grin broke her stare, completely changing the mood and sending Garen's heart racing. "You're always making me think of things differently." She took a step toward him. "What did you call that? Three dimensional?"
The Demacian couldn't help but respond in kind, magnetically moving closer to her. "Yeah, my sister coined it. She knew right away that you had made me..." he advanced another step, "different." His jacket obscured much of her form but he could see her shiver almost imperceptibly.
"Different? Is that so?" she breathed; only a foot of space separated them.
"Absolutely," he whispered back and bent to press his lips against hers. He wasn't sure how things had shifted from argument to arousal and briefly considered that they were intertwined somehow, but he did know that kissing the Noxian in the private study of the Demacian prince was probably not the wisest of decisions. However, by the time the assassin seized the cloth around his neck and pulled him deeper into the kiss, Garen decided that he didn't care; the door was locked in any case.
Katarina leaned into his chest, forcing him back a few steps until he was caught against the front of Jarvan's desk. Heart thudding in his ears, he let out a heady moan as one of her hands drifted down his torso to brush against his growing erection.
Her eyes shone playfully when he broke the kiss to grab her hand and plead, "Don't...Jarvan might..."
It was a losing battle though, and Katarina pressed forward her attack, pulling another quiet groan from him as her tongue slid against his own and her hand resumed its teasing. He gave up, reaching inside the jacket to cup the round curve of her breast in one hand and her backside with the other.
Footsteps down the hall tore them apart and Garen looked helplessly from Katarina to the tent that had formed at his crotch. Biting back a grin, the Noxian motioned for him to sit down in the chair and he gratefully sank into the furniture, rubbing his red face. The assassin stood poised near the door, taking several deep breaths while smoothing stray strands of her red hair.
Less than ten seconds had passed but Katarina had already composed her face into an expression of boredom by the time Jarvan tried the handle of the locked door, which he followed with an irritable sounding, "Let me in."
She unlocked the door and Jarvan stormed in, slamming the door behind him.
"What's got you all bent out of shape?" she smirked.
"Just...stuff," he huffed vaguely, dismissing it with a wave. Noticing Garen slightly hunched over in the chair he asked, "You alright over there?"
"Of course, sir!" the commander replied as he snapped to attention.
Jarvan raised a suspicious eyebrow at his flushed face and opened his mouth like he was going to ask why, but Katarina quickly interjected, "Talon and I decoded the letter left by my father. I think you'll find it interesting."
His suspicions turned toward the Noxian as she reached in a familiar looking jacket pocket to hand him the paper with the decoded message. "Is that your jacket, Garen?"
His pulse quickened but he answered with a straight face, "Er, yes. Yes, she needed a hood. To walk through the castle. She didn't have one when she entered the city." Nothing strange about that, right? Jarvan didn't necessarily need to know that she had spent the night in his bed prior to receiving the jacket.
The prince nodded slowly and finally turned his attention to the paper Katarina had thrust in his hands. Garen locked eyes with the assassin and grinned as she bit her lip in an attempt to contain her laughter.
"A secret room in the prison?" Jarvan puzzled aloud. "I don't think I've ever heard of anything like that. Are you sure you decoded it right?"
Katarina sighed. "Yeah, Talon checked it a hundred different ways and this is what made sense. Is there any way I can search it myself?"
The prince considered her request, rubbing his chin. "There are some people in it," he said slowly, "but I could probably work out a rotation so we can go through each cell block uninterrupted." With narrowed eyes, he added, "I'll help search."
The Noxian rolled her eyes. "Two egotistical Demacians at once. I'm so lucky."
"Oh, shut up. I don't want to hear it right now," Jarvan scowled.
Garen's interest was piqued; Jarvan was usually good-natured, rarely showing his irritation. Whatever was discussed with his father had really gotten under his skin.
"Should we start tomorrow, sir?" Garen asked quietly.
The Demacian prince rubbed his temples then rested his forehead against his desk. "Tomorrow would be good," came his muffled reply. "I'll get the prison cleared out. Garen, can I talk to you alone for a second? Katarina you can wait outside, it won't take long."
With a haughty smirk on her face, the assassin turned sharply, flipping the hood back over her face before stepping outside. "Yes, sir."
Garen turned toward his friend, who lifted his head wearily and propped it up on his hand. Before he could open his mouth, Jarvan asked, "Is there anything else I need to know about?"
His response came automatically. "No every-"
"I'm not blind, Garen," the prince interrupted hotly. "I shouldn't have to remind you, of all people, that there are some mistakes that even I can't cover up." Seeing the commander's ashen face, he added In a softer tone, "Don't do anything stupid. You're my only friend."
Garen stood blankly for what seemed like hours before he finally nodded and mumbled, "Yes sir." Jarvan was shaking his head looking disappointed as the commander turned to leave the study.
"What was that all about?" Katarina asked curiously, but he took off at a brisk walk down the hall without looking at her.
His replay was a curt, "Nothing," and he could see the assassin's mouth harden into a thin line. She did not press the issue.
They walked in a tense silence until finally on the street, when Garen inquired in a business-like tone, "Where will you be staying?"
Katarina shrugged. "Same place as last time."
"Will you require an escort?"
He could feel the withering sneer she shot him even with most of her face concealed.
"**** you." She did not bother saying anything else but simply walked away, leaving the Demacian with what felt like a knife in his chest.
He knew it was terrible, the tone he had used and the way he had acted, but it couldn't be helped; Jarvan's words sat heavy in his gut and he recognize the underlying truth in his words. Playing with fire was going to get him burned and, in his case, the stakes were high. He could literally lose everything he had worked so hard for throughout his life: military position, respect, even his League champion and representative status.
Ignoring the pang in his chest, Garen went back into the castle, wishing for the first time in a very long time that he did not have to see her again.
The next day, Garen, Jarvan, and Katarina met outside the barracks and it was quickly evident that none of them were anywhere close to being in a good mood. In a black cloud they quietly shuffled over to the prison.
The outer wall was located roughly one-hundred yards away from the barracks and was rectangular in shape; the main portion of the prison itself, however, resembled an 'X'. An octagonal tower rose from the center and four long corridors, each its own single-story cell block, radiated from it.
Everything was quiet and Jarvan indicated that all prisoners had been moved to one cell block so that they could search through each block and rotate the prisoners to a new block if or when they finished with the others.
"No body here has ever seen anything remotely out of the ordinary though..." Jarvan added.
"So how should we tackle this?" Garen asked crossly.
"Why don't we go through each block together so we don't miss anything?" Katarina proposed in an equally agitated tone. "Since we don't even know what to look for in the first place."
Jarvan crossed his arms and retorted, "If you don't want to help us then you can just leave."
"Oh **** you!" she hissed. "I'm only doing this for myself anyway!"
"Maybe we should each take a separate block," Garen interrupted. "We can cover a lot of ground and avoid killing each other at the same time."
The other two grumbled their assent, refusing to look at each other. There were a total of twenty cells per block, and they agreed that in order to ensure a thorough search for anything out of the ordinary, they would search ten cells a day for eight hours, and when they finished, they would search the last block together before moving on to the tower itself.
Garen's irritation only held out for the first few hours and was replaced with an incredible mental fatigue. It was fitting that he was in a prison cell because he felt that there could be nothing more torturous than looking at nearly identical walls for eight hours in almost complete silence.
One of the worst parts of the first two days was that the first two days yielded nothing from any of the three. But the worst part, Garen decided, was having all that time to think about Katarina. He tried reminding himself repeatedly that distancing himself through any means was necessary for both of them. It was obvious he lacked the control to keep from being physical with her and there was no way either of their city-states would be understanding if their...whatever it was, came to light.
That brought up another issue for the Demacian: what exactly had they been? It didn't qualify as a relationship, he decided, since that implied things like romance and dates and ...hand holding, or something. So far, their interactions had consisted of trying to kill each other, arguments, sarcasm, and serious sexual tension. What did that even come out to equal?
By day two he had come up with a list of reasons why it could have been considered a relationship. Sometimes, they talked about personal things, like family and their opinions on things like weapons or food. He certainly felt relaxed around her and enjoyed her company, even when she was angry. That had to count for something right?
When the third day arrived, her continuing coolness toward him as they mapped out the sections of the last cell block that they would search, reminded him with painful clarity that it didn't matter what label he wanted to put on them because it could never happen.
The last cell block proved fruitless as well and, despite initially feeling comforted by the simple presence of other humans, Garen, Jarvan, and Katarina were all discouraged when they reconvened.
"There could still be something in the tower," Garen suggested desperately although his expression mirrored the despondence on his friends' faces.
The prince, rubbed his eyes forcefully. "I feel like I'm going to go insane."
Katarina nodded, rolling her shoulders. "I know we've only been here for a few hours today but I wouldn't mind leaving already."
"Then tomorrow?" Garen asked. "We can finish tomorrow for sure, whether we find anything or not."
Jarvan gave a non-committal grunt and Katarina waved a hand vaguely in response before trudging past him. With a sigh, he followed them, praying to whoever was listening that the next day would give them something.
There were only three rooms and a techmaturgical elevator on each of the tower's four floors, so Garen was boosted by the prospect of finishing the search quickly.
After Jarvan convinced the guards to vacate, the three each picked a room on the ground floor and got to work searching and prodding every inch of their respective rooms.
It was quiet save for the sounds of moving furniture for nearly an hour before, finally, Jarvan let out a confused, "Huh?"
Katarina and Garen dashed out of their rooms, hurdling furniture to see what Jarvan had found.
What he had found, it turned out, was a small keyhole that had been hidden underneath a bookshelf for so long, the wooden floor it was in looked brand new in comparison.
"It doesn't even look like there's anything here," Garen mused, feeling around the ground for any cracks. He rapped near the hole and there was a collective intake of breath at the hollow sound.
Eagerly, Katarina shrugged of Garen's jacket, pulled out a lock pick and wrench from her boot, and poked around, whispering excitedly, "It seems like just a regular lock!"
The two men stepped back to allow the Noxian to work and exchanged energized grins before turning their gazes back on Katarina.
As he admired the smooth skin of her back and the cascade of her red hair pooling on the floor, the commander wondered with sudden suspicion what was going through Jarvan's head. He shot a sneaky glance toward the prince and was in utter disbelief at his friend's unabashed look of appreciation.
Garen stared at Jarvan until he finally looked up, and the commander narrowed his eyes as if to say, "Really?" The prince cleared his throat and looked at the ceiling in response. The Vanguard commander crossed his arms and kept his eyes moving from the assassin to Jarvan, daring him to try and stare again.
A loud click drew their attention back to the floor and Katarina exhaled heavily, sticking a small knife into the hole for the leverage to lift up enough to reveal an expertly hidden trapdoor.
Together they propped it open and looked inside to see a wooden ladder leading down into the darkness. The hole itself looked big enough to accommodate someone Garen's size, although barely.
"I'll go get a light!" Jarvan exclaimed, running out of the room.
Garen looked to Katarina and couldn't help but grin and whisper, "Are you excited? You're getting closer to your father!"
His heart soared when Katarina smiled back, saying, "Yes! And...thanks for your help in getting here."
"Hey, I helped a bunch too," Jarvan interjected as he kneeled beside them, three flashlights in hand.
"Surprisingly," she teased before adding seriously, "So, who wants to go down the creepy ladder first?" Both she and Jarvan looked at Garen.
"What...oh, fine," he grumbled, snatching a flashlight from the prince's hand. He slid into to hole in the floor, holding himself up by his arms and letting his feet dangle near the fourth rung of the ladder. After testing to see if it would hold his weight, he gently positioned himself on it entirely and began descending.
It was only about ten feet to the floor and he turned on the light to reveal a large room which was covered in a heavy layer of dust. A long table sat directly in the center and surrounded by chairs, and maps of Runeterra were plastered over the walls. There were several bookshelves about the room covered both in books and files, and on the opposite end was a small door.
"Come on down, everything looks fine," he called up to the two waiting above, who quickly joined him in the secret room.
Cautiously they each walked around the room, kicking up small clouds of dust where they stepped. After a moment, Jarvan began opening files at a bookshelf while Katarina began going through a thick folder that had been sitting on the table with a significantly smaller amount of dirt on its surface.
Garen was, instead, drawn to the maps on the wall. While there were maps of all Runeterra, the large map detailing the Valoran continent and its closest islands was the most intriguing; strings were pinned across the surface, leaving no major area of the land untouched. It was after a few minutes of tracing the points that Garen began to notice an interesting trend...
"Oh, my god," Katarina cried in a hushed tone.
Garen and Jarvan rushed to her side and she pointed at specific documents to skim. There were several Journal of Justice articles, the office League publication, with General DuCouteau's handwritten notes in the margins detailing hidden messages within the posts; naval logs with a list of fake names and the cargoes they had shipped, including arcano-seismic charges and Nyzer poisons; and a record tracing the origins of the aliases to a single location.
Finally, Jarvan whispered grimly, "The Institute of War..."
The three champions stood in a shocked silence, reading and re-reading the papers spread out before them, each trying and failing to deny the evidence that was stacking up against the most powerful organization in Valoran.
As they rummaged through the rest of the file, it became evident that Marcus DuCouteau had done an incredible amount of research; there was nothing to suggest that any of the allegations against the Institute and were false. Institute High Councilor Heywan Relivash and the Journal of Justice's senior editor Ralston Farnsley were two of the most powerful men in Valoran, albeit in different ways, and here were their names, linked to what would be the greatest scandal the continent had ever seen.
As they neared the end of the stack of documents, an envelope closed with the House DuCouteau seal surfaced, which Katarina quickly pried open. The three huddled together, Garen and Jarvan directing their lights onto the letter which Katarina held in her two trembling hands.
[CENTER]6 September, 21 CLE
If you are reading this letter, then you know the evidence that I have compiled against the Institute of War, and I beseech you to bring this information to light as soon as possible. Heywan Relivash, one of the three High Councilors of the Institute, seeks to gain absolute power in Valoran, the first step of which he made a reality by inciting a war between Noxus and Demacia. After the League's display in Kalamanda and subsequent takeover of the city, it was evident to the whole of Valoran the power they held and the lengths to which they are willing go. Relivash sought the power of the Nexuses in Kalamanda for his own.
As disturbing as that information is, there is more.
Relivash, as is evident, developed a string of contacts, one of whom was Farnsley, who could pass hidden messages in the open through the news publications. But Relivash also had the backing of the Black Rose, a group you have no doubt encountered as the rubric for decoding the letter I left with my daughter was taken from me by their leader, a woman named LeBlanc. She is a League champion who excels in the art of deception, able to take the form of anyone she chooses.
LeBlanc is possibly more of a threat than even Relivash and the Institute. After confronting her, I learned that she is personally responsible for the death of General Boram Darkwill, the rise of Jericho Swain to power, and for carrying out many of the events in Kalamanda. I tried to stop her myself but her magic is powerful beyond comprehension and I was forced into hiding. I do not know what she plans for Noxus, but the plays for power in the vacuum of Darkwill's death are growing and I fear there will be civil unrest. Relivash, Farnsley, and LeBlanc must be stopped, no matter what the cost.
-Marcus DuCouteau, General of Noxus
Post Script: If the reader of this letter is not one of my children, I humbly request that you inform them that, as of this date, I am alive.[/CENTER]
A heartrending sob tore out of Katarina's throat as she threw aside the letter and leaned against the table. Jarvan gripped her shoulder briefly, giving Garen a slight nod before turning to reorganize the documents strewn about the table. Hesitantly, the commander placed a hand on her back.
She looked over at him, tears muddying her chin as they worked through the dirt on her cheeks, and gave him the biggest, most sincere smile he had ever seen on the assassin's face.
"He might still be alive...!"
Garen offered her a small smile of his own, taking his hand from her as she straightened, rubbing her face. Katarina chuckled quietly to herself, gradually breaking into a loud laugh and a maniacal grin.
"Swain...LeBlanc...everyone is going to PAY!"
Garen and Jarvan exchanged a glance and the latter shrugged, refocusing on the documents. The commander turned away from the Noxian, who had picked up her father's letter to read its contents again, and suddenly remembered the door he had seen when he first entered the room.
Trying the handle, he found that it was unlocked, and opened into a dark but well crafted tunnel, and he wondered silently where it exited. Perhaps another day. At least that explained how the Noxian general was able to hide the documents underneath the Demacian prison, although he was curious as to how DuCouteau knew of the room's existence and why it was never exploited for Noxus's gain.
He looked once more to Katarina and considered that, maybe, he was right about the DuCouteau's, and Demacia was dead wrong; he was willing to take the chance.