This is a prequel to Nikerym 'Ksherea's story, Crystalline Flaws. If you haven't read it, you should go over to her page and read it. As of today (4/20/06) she has up to Chapter 9 up. This story is based on hers, and all characters are used with her permission. It takes place five years before Crystalline Flaws.
If you have me on your author alerts because of Still Life, I promise I am still working on it, but updates will be slower now than they were in the fall when I was under two weeks for every update. I am participating in Amaretto and Rykaine's lottery ficathon, which is due on July 1st and is therefore a higher priority... but I will do everything I can to keep updating Still Life in the meantime. Until then, please enjoy this story and don't forget to tell me what you think!
Keir was hunched over a cutting board, finely chopping a number of herbs and spices into powder. Estan peered over his shoulder, making a sound of approval in the back of his throat. "How is the potion coming?" he asked his teenaged apprentice quietly.
Shrugging his shoulders, Keir turned to look up at Estan. "Why do I have to cut them so small if I'm just going to be boiling them?" he asked.
"Well, why do you cut tea leaves small?" Estan asked in the voice he used when he wanted Keir to figure something out for himself.
Keir sighed, trying to think of a good reason. He didn't suppose "you don't always have to cut tea leaves" was the answer his mentor was looking for.
Thankfully, he was saved from answering when Bhrien's head appeared in the doorway of the kitchen. "One of the guards is hurt." He glanced at Keir briefly before turning his attention back on Estan. "Do you want him? It looks like a sprain. Keir should be able to handle it."
"Great!" Estan exclaimed, ignoring the odd looks Bhrien and Keir gave him for his enthusiasm. "Will you set him up at one of the examination tables? Keir and I will be right there after we clean up."
"Does this mean I have to start over when we get back?" Keir asked with a sigh as Bhrien left, surveying his small mountain of chopped herbs.
"No, just wrap it up," Estan said quickly, putting things away in a whirlwind motion.
Catching his mentor's enthusiasm now that he was sure he wouldn't have to return to his tedious work once they were through, Keir quickly wrapped up his chopped herbs and wiped off the cutting board. It was so rare that they actually let him practice on a real human! He'd been training to be a healer for a year, but the first year was spent studying from books, working on animals, and practicing basic control of his magic. They'd only recently let him start healing minor injuries, but injuries minor enough for them to let Keir help were few and far between.
Keir could hear their patient before they could see him. "I don't need healing!" a familiar voice was insisting.
"Jain!" Keir exclaimed, quickening his pace and bursting out into the wide exam area ahead of his mentor.
"Your ankle is swelling," a guard member Keir didn't recognize was pointing out. "You can't fight on that."
Jain was sitting on one of the tall exam tables, waiting for his healer. The carved screens that separated each table from one another were pulled back, giving Keir a clear view of his tall, handsome older brother. Suddenly, Jain turned his head, his red eyes meeting Keir's. He didn't smile, but Keir knew Jain was just as pleasantly surprised to see his healer as Keir was to see his patient. Jogging the last few steps to the exam table, Keir offered his brother a quick smile before turning his attention to the affected ankle, which was throbbing with bright red pain and swelling. "What happened to your ankle?"
"Calen cheated," Jain grumbled. "I was winning and he tripped me."
The older guard crossed his arms. "There's no such thing as cheating in fighting, Jain. Do you think in a life or death battle the enemy would think twice about tripping you if that's what it takes to win?"
Jain shrugged, glowering deeper. "I guess not," he admitted grudgingly after a moment.
Satisfied, Calen nodded and turned his attention to Keir. "So is this your brother?" he asked Jain.
Keir smiled to himself. "Most people don't have to ask," he remarked, glancing up to meet Jain's eyes.
"How does it look?" Estan asked, coming up behind Keir and looking over his apprentice's shoulder.
"Hi, Estan," Jain greeted the healer.
"Hi, Jain," Estan replied. "This is a pretty bad sprain isn't it?"
"It hurts a lot," Keir agreed, oblivious to the amused smiles he received at his wording. "I think I can heal it though," he added, glancing up at Estan for permission.
Estan nodded once. "Go ahead," he agreed.
Closing his eyes, Keir fed magic into the red spot of pain on his brother's ankle. When Keir was finished, Estan nodded in approval. "Nice job," he commented. Keir opened his eyes and studied the ankle, which looked normal. He glanced up at Jain. "How do you feel?"
Jain rolled his ankle back and forth in Keir's light grip and shrugged. "It feels fine," he admitted reluctantly.
"Do you have a boot for this foot?" Keir asked. "You can't go outside with nothing on your foot. You'll get frostbite."
"They had to cut it off," Jain said. "I'll be fine. I'll have Calen take me home before we get back to the salle. I still have an old pair I can use." He smirked slightly. "Besides, if I get frostbite, you can just heal me again."
"Maybe I won't," Keir argued. "Not if you get it for not listening to me."
"Yes, you will," Jain replied, unfazed.
Keir sighed, gently letting go of Jain's foot and turning around to hurry out of the large room. He came back a few moments later with a small fur blanket, wrapping it around Jain's foot and securing it. "Don't let it drop in the snow," he instructed Jain briskly before turning to Calen. "Make sure he goes home and gets his other boots before he goes anywhere else."
Calen looked amused, even as he nodded gravely. "Yes, sir." He said, helping Jain off of the examination table.
Estan put a hand on Keir's shoulder as they watched the two leave. "What do you say we get back to that potion?"
Keir sighed heavily. "Do I have to do more chopping?"
"I think we're about done with that part, don't you?" Estan asked, steering his apprentice in the direction of the kitchen.
"Yes!" Keir exclaimed, relieved.
"And after I show you how to finish it, I'll show you what it does to make the fevers go down," Estan continued, smiling to himself as they headed back to work. He was happy to have such a talented, enthusiastic apprentice.
Keir shook the snow off of his boots and his heavy clothing as he entered their house. "I'm home!" he called out, shedding a few layers right there in the entryway.
"Hey," Jain replied easily, looking up from stirring something in a pot on the fireplace across the room.
"You're home early," Keir remarked, surprised.
Jain shrugged. "They made me take the rest of the day off after I got back from the healing."
"Oh. How does it feel now?" Keir inquired carefully.
"Fine," Jain answered. "Thanks for that, by the way. It feels like I never hurt it at all. I didn't need to take the day off."
"Are Mom and Dad home yet?" Keir asked, crossing over to Jain and peering in the pot.
Jain shook his head. "Not yet," he replied. "But there's a storm coming in tonight. Maybe they couldn't make it back."
"I hope they have somewhere warm to stay," Keir murmured.
"They have a shelter on the mountains for the gatherers," Jain assured him. "As long as they haven't left yet, they'll be fine. Now, have a bowl of stew and don't worry about it."
"You're probably right," Keir agreed, accepting a bowl from his brother and holding it while Jain filled it. "I just wish it was summer."
Jain put the ladle back in the pot and reached around to hug Keir around the shoulders. "I know. Me, too."
Keir hesitated. "Jain? You know, you shouldn't worry either."
"I'm not," Jain argued, frowning. "I don't know where you get that." He dropped his arm, getting a bowl for himself.
Keir turned to go sit down, unconvinced and wondering why he was so sure his brother was worried. Jain wasn't in a habit of showing his emotions. Taking a large bite of stew, he decided that he probably just knew Jain better than most people.
"So what's on your mind?" Jain asked, sitting down next to Keir and immediately eating a steaming bite of stew.
"Not much," Keir said with a shrug, blowing on a spoonful before eating it. "This is pretty good, Jain. I think you're a better cook than me."
"Well, that's not hard," Jain teased, nudging Keir gently with his elbow. "Although you've been getting plenty of practice with those potions, haven't you? I heard you're quite the expert at chopping herbs."
Keir scowled at his stew. "Where did you hear that?"
"Estan," Jain replied around a mouthful of food. "You don't think his reports about you are about what a wonderful student you are, do you?"
"Well, I hoped they are," Keir grumbled.
"Well, maybe some of them are," Jain relented.
Keir took a few bites in silence before dropping his spoon into the bowl with a quiet clank. "Jain, what are we going to do if Mom and Dad don't come back tomorrow?"
"I guess it will be your night to make dinner," Jain answered without hesitation.
"That's not what I meant," Keir sighed.
Jain reached over and clasped Keir's shoulder briefly. "It will be okay," he promised. "Are you done?"
Keir nodded, holding out his hand for Jain's bowl. "Yeah. I'll do the dishes. Can you find some more furs for the bed?" he added hesitantly.
Slowly, Jain nodded, handing his bowl to Keir. "I think… I can already hear the wind picking up outside. Mom and Dad won't be coming home tonight. I'll borrow a couple from their bed." He stood up, going past the screens that led to their parents' room. He stared for a moment at the furs piled on the low-slung bed, hoping that wherever they were, their Mom and Dad had somewhere warm to sleep and wait out the storm.
Finally, he pulled the two heaviest fur blankets off the bed, folding them over his arm and stepping out of their parents' room toward his own. Keir had already finished washing the bowls. The kitchen was dark, the only light in the house coming from the room Jain and Keir shared. Keir was a dark silhouette in their room, his back facing the door as he changed out of his clothes and into pajamas. Jain paused just outside of the doorway, studying in a detached way the glowing outline the fire cast around Keir's gangly teenage form.
After only a moment, Keir sensed Jain in the doorway, turning to look at him. "What's wrong?" he asked.
Jain shook his head. "Nothing," he answered, taking a couple of steps forward. "Just thinking."
Keir turned the rest of the way to face his brother, closing the distance between them and taking the furs with a soft brush of arms. "You should get changed for bed," he advised, turning to lay the furs on top of the others that covered their own shared bed.
"I was just going to wear this," Jain said, looking down at the clothing he'd changed into when he'd gotten home earlier that day.
Keir hid a small smile as he climbed under the pile of furs, making himself comfortable. "Then come to bed. You have to be tired from the healing. You didn't sleep when you got home, did you?"
"Naps are for babies and old people," Jain replied, but he also had a small smile tugging at the corners of his mouth as he crawled into bed next to his brother. "Move over."
"Good," Keir remarked, doing as he was told. "Now you can keep me warm."
"Yes," Jain agreed with a long-suffering sigh. "Because if fifty fur blankets can't keep you warm, I surely can."
Keir waited until his brother was settled before snuggling close to him. "Mmm, but I like you better," he replied. This was his favorite time of day—right before bed, because that was the only time he could get away with hanging all over Jain and chalking it up to comfort, or warmth.
To his satisfaction, Jain slung an arm around Keir under the blankets, running a hand fondly over his younger brother's silver hair before pulling him close. "Go to sleep," he ordered.
"Goodnight, Jain," Keir murmured, his breath already evening out as sleep overtook him.
"Goodnight, Keir," Jain whispered softly into the dark.
Keir came awake as he felt the bed shift next to him. "Jain?" he murmured sleepily.
"Go back to sleep," Jain whispered.
"Where are you going so early?" Keir asked, opening bleary eyes and noticing how dark it was.
"They just got a message from the gatherer outpost," Jain replied. "They said Mom and Dad left three days ago, just before that big storm."
Keir sat up in their bed, more awake now. "But then they should have been back by now!"
Jain nodded. "That's why I'm leaving now. We want to get the search party out at dawn, so we have to meet early to get our supplies and our team assignments."
Keir's brow furrowed. "You're on the search party?" He started to scramble out of the blankets. "I want to go, too."
"No." Jain reached over and out a hand on Keir's shoulder, keeping him from standing up. "First of all, they're not going to let a skinny little healer trainee out on a dangerous search party. Second, I say no and I'm your brother."
"But… what if you get lost, too?" Keir protested.
Jain's expression softened as he moved his hand from Keir's shoulder to caress his hair and the side of his face. "I'm not going to get lost," he assured his brother.
Dropping his gaze, Keir nodded reluctantly. "Be careful," he said softly.
"I'll be back tonight," Jain promised before turning to leave.
As he listened to Jain's footsteps descend, he curled up in the warm spot in the bed vacated by his brother. He closed his eyes, trying to breathe in Jain's scent and imagine that he wasn't as alone as he felt.
"How are those bandages coming?" Estan asked, poking his head around a screen to check on his apprentice. Keir was up to his elbows in water, washing bandages by the fireplace. A large hamper of soiled ones sat next to him, and many more were laid out, set to dry by the fire.
Bringing up his arm to wipe the moisture from his brow, Keir looked up at Estan and shrugged. "They're fine," he said, sounding exhausted. Estan tried to ignore that the usual spark of enthusiasm was absent from Keir's jewel-toned eyes today. He'd anticipated a lack of concentration, which was why he had set Keir to the task of washing bandages, but worrying over his parents and the search party seemed to be taking a bigger toll on his apprentice than Estan had expected. It was making the healer worry a bit, as well.
Estan was debating ordering Keir to go home and take a nap when Bhrien appeared from behind one of the screens, crossing to Estan and whispering in the older healer's ear. Estan glanced over at Keir, hesitating. Finally he said, "Keir, you should go ahead and start cleaning up. The search party found your parents. They're about five minutes away."
Keir frowned at him. "Is something wrong?"
When Estan didn't answer immediately, Keir stood up, leaving the last of his clean bandages near the fire and taking the pot of water out of the room to put away. Estan watched him leave with a sigh. "He's a very intuitive boy," he murmured to Bhrien.
"Hi," Jain said, poking his head inside the building. "Where's Keir?"
Estan smiled from where he sat, a large book in his lap. "So the party is back? Were you successful?"
Jain grunted. "Yes," he said at last.
"Do you have a healer?" Estan asked, marking his page and setting his book aside.
"Don't need one," Jain answered gruffly. He turned to go back out. "I need to find Keir."
"Oh," Estan said to himself. He raised his head. "Keir's on the side of the building washing a pot," he called. "Do you want me to show you to him?"
"I can find him," Jain called back, disappearing outside and around the side of the building.
Keir was squatting in the snow exactly where Estan had said he would be, sloshing water around in a large cast-iron pot with a washcloth. His head was bowed, silver hair obscuring his face as he worked, and his breath came out in short, visible puffs of air.
Jain took a few steps toward him, the snow crunching under his feet. "Keir."
The pot spilled from Keir's hands as his head snapped up to meet Jain's expression. "Jain! You're back already?" He rose to his feet, rushing to close the space between the two and grabbing his brother's hands. "What happened? Where are Mom and Dad? Are they okay?"
In the split second that Jain hesitated, understanding dawned on Keir's face and his expression crumpled. "No," he whispered, his hands slipping from Jain's as he sunk to his knees in the snow. Hot tears ran down his face just before he brought his hands up to obscure his face, sobs wracking through his body.
Jain dropped to the ground next to him, gathering his brother into a tight hug. "Keir…. Keir, it's going to be okay," he said in what he hoped was a soothing way.
"It's not going to be okay," Keir sobbed into Jain's shirt. "Our parents are dead."
A bewildered expression crossed Jain's face. "How did you guess? I didn't tell you."
"I don't know," Keir mumbled. "I … just know you really well. I could tell by your face or something." He raised his tear-streaked face to meet Jain's eyes. "H-how did they die?"
Jain looked away. "They … froze to death," he said softly. "I…We…" He trailed off, unable to continue.
"Did you find them?" Keir asked, shocked. "Oh, Jain…." He laid a hand on the side of Jain's face. "God, Jain. That must have been so horrible." He reached up, wrapping an arm around the back of Jain's neck and pulling him forward, cradling his brother's head against his chest. After a moment, Jain relaxed into his Keir's embrace, wrapping his arms loosely around Keir's waist.
"Ira and I… we found them in their tent," Jain told him huskily. "They were together, holding each other. They couldn't make it back to the camp before the blizzard hit so they did what they could… but it wasn't enough…."
"At least… At least they had each other." Tears once again ran down Keir's cheeks and into Jain's hair. "What are we going to do now?" he sobbed. "We're all alone."
Jain stiffened, raising his head from Keir's chest to meet his brother's eyes. "I am not alone," he hissed forcefully. "I have you. And you have me. We'll never be all alone."
Keir stared at Jain a moment before his face crumpled and he started crying once again, wrapping his arms around his brother in a desperate hug.
With a small sigh, Jain held Keir, stroking his hair softly. "Let's go home," he said. "Come on, it's freezing out here. You'll get sick."
Keir let Jain pull him to his feet, but he clung to his brother as they made their way back to the front of the building. "Is it okay to leave early?" Keir asked Jain, sounding much younger than his fifteen years.
"I think Estan will understand," Jain assured him.
"Do you have to do honor guard tonight for Mom and Dad?" Keir asked softly.
Jain shook his head. "No, they exempted me from that. A few of the other guys are going to take turns on guard duty." He rubbed Keir's arm. "They asked if I wanted to, but I didn't want you to be alone tonight."
"Thank you," Keir said softly. "I didn't want to be alone tonight."
"Jain?" Keir asked quietly in the dark. "Do you remember when I was a little kid?"
"Of course," Jain replied, reaching over to brush the hair off of Keir's forehead. "You were cute."
"When I got scared at night, you used to rub my stomach," Keir continued hesitantly.
Jain smirked at the memory. "Yes. Dad used to say I didn't need a pet because I had you." He glanced over at Keir. "Are you scared now?"
"A little," Keir admitted hesitantly.
Jain placed his hand on Keir's stomach, moving it in slow, comforting circles. "You don't need to be scared. I'll take care of you."
"That's not why I'm scared," Keir sighed.
"Then why?" Jain asked.
Keir hesitated, then shook his head. "No reason. Just… promise me you won't be scared either."
Jain frowned at his brother. "Tell me."
"It… sounds stupid," Keir said. "But … sometimes I think I know what people are feeling. Especially you."
"You have known me a long time," Jain pointed out doubtfully. "And maybe you're just perceptive."
"That's probably true," Keir admitted. He yawned suddenly, looking up at his brother's face when he was done. "Jain… I love you."
"I love you, too, Keir," Jain said automatically.
"I know." Keir grinned.
Jain looked at his brother's face thoughtfully. "Do you?" he asked softly, mostly to himself.
In the moment that passed between them, Keir's heart sped up and he could have sworn Jain wanted to kiss him. But as soon as the moment had come, it passed and Jain got up.
"Where are you going?" Keir called after him.
"I'm… making sure everything's shut tight," Jain answered.
Keir rolled over and closed his eyes, but it was a while before he felt Jain get back into bed next to him, and even longer before he finally fell asleep.
"Thank you all for coming," Jain was saying at the front, his voice easily carrying with the acoustics of the meeting hall.
Keir shifted uncomfortably in his best clothes. He couldn't help but want Jain back where he belonged, next to Keir. The funeral had barely begun, but Keir could feel the emotions of everyone in the settlement crammed into the same building, and it made him feel sick. Sadness, fear, concern, even anger swirled around him in such high amounts that he could no longer distinguish what was what. And Jain—he was a steadying presence. No less sad or worried than anyone else, but under it all, Keir could feel Jain's love and concern for him and he held on to it.
At least Keir knew that Jain was a man of few words, and before long, he was concluding, "And we all will miss them."
Keir cracked a small smile, applauding with the rest as Jain made his way back to Keir's side, resolving firmly to himself that he wouldn't worry Jain with how he was feeling. He could ask Estan about it tomorrow.
"Next we will hear from the head of the Gatherers," the council chief was saying. Keir reached over and inconspicuously linked hands with Jain. His brother's eyes shot over to him briefly, but he didn't say anything. Finally, Keir could feel Jain's hand tighten around his.
Inwardly, Keir breathed a sigh of relief. I can make it through this, he told himself again.
It's almost over, Keir was telling himself as the room spun. It's almost over…
"Are you gonna come in to work tomorrow?" a semi-familiar enforcer was asking Jain. "When you don't come in, I can't do anything either."
"I only missed half the day yesterday," Jain replied, irritated.
"Well, that's all I wanted to know," the enforcer shrugged. "Are you babysitting your brother tomorrow, or are you actually going to show up?"
"If I don't show up, you're going to deal with it," Jain answered coolly.
"Don't be such a jerk, Ira," a younger enforcer said crossly. "You were with him yesterday when you found his parents dead. No one else is selfish enough to think your boredom is his top priority."
Ira rolled his eyes. "Don't butt into conversations, kid. How long have you been an enforcer? A month?"
"Three months," the younger man replied. "But I guess your vast experience didn't teach you much about compassion."
"Ira," Jain broke in. "If you don't get away from me in five seconds, I'll show you how it feels to have every bone in your arm broken in five places. Got it?"
Ira shot a scowl to Keir before turning and stomping off.
The younger enforcer offered an apologetic look to Jain before turning to follow Ira. "I'm sorry you have him for a partner," he said. "Nobody should have to deal with him today."
"Who's that?" Keir asked curiously, watching the unfamiliar man's back disappear into the crowd.
Jain shrugged. "He's an energy mage or something." He scowled. "I have such an annoying partner that even people I don't know feel sorry for me." He shook his head and wrapped an arm around Keir's shoulders. "Come on, we're almost done here today. We have to go get in the receiving line now."
Keir nodded weakly, leaning against Jain more than he thought he should be.
"Are you okay?" Jain was asking with a frown.
"I will be," Keir promised, noticing the edges of his vision were a bit dark. "Let's… just get this over with."
Hesitating, Jain finally nodded and began to push through the crowd to where the receiving line was forming up on the other side of the room.
Annoyance. Sadness. Anger. Fear. Keir couldn't even feel the floor beneath his feet anymore. All he could feel was the increasing pain in his chest and Jain's arm around him, steadying him. There were too many people. It occurred to Keir that it might be nice to go outside away from everyone when he suddenly pitched forward. He didn't even notice when he'd started clutching his chest, when he'd curled in on himself. A pair of strong arms caught him before he hit the ground and he closed his eyes as the blessed darkness overtook his vision.
"What's wrong?" Jain asked.
"He's an empath," Estan answered in a quiet voice. They were alone in the Healers' building, the funeral ending without Jain and Keir. "His healing magic came on a year ago, so I wasn't expecting him to get anything else. Normally healing and empathy come on at the same time." He glanced at Jain's drawn, worried expression and risked putting a hand on the young man's shoulder. "He'll be okay. I have a shield on him, and now that he's away from everyone, he'll have a chance to recover. Keir picks things up very quickly. I have every faith that he'll be a natural at using his empathy."
"Doesn't he know how to shield already?" Jain asked gruffly.
Estan shook his head. "No. Healing magic is different from most other magic. It's keyed to the individual, so it can't be stolen and it doesn't need to be shielded." He glanced at Keir's sleeping face, shaking his head lightly. "Empathy needs to be shielded."
"I should have noticed," Jain said quietly, almost too quietly for Estan to hear.
"He's not in any danger, Jain," Estan assured him. "It hasn't been there that long. Magic can manifest itself in a matter of days. And this is an unusual situation as it is. Who knows? Maybe being around all those people with such strong emotions made his empathy come out sooner than it would have." He paused thoughtfully. "It's possible even he didn't notice right away because the only people he's spent any time around lately are you and me, and your emotions don't seem to bother him."
"What about you?" Jain asked.
"I'm shielded," Estan answered, and then added, "I think he's starting to wake up."
Sure enough, Keir seemed to be stirring. Finally, he opened his eyes slowly, focusing them blearily on Jain and then Estan. "What happened?"
"You collapsed in the middle of the hall during the funeral," Estan supplied.
Keir frowned. "Oh." He moved to sit up a little. "I think I feel better. My chest doesn't hurt anymore."
"I have you shielded," Estan replied. "Do you know what's going on?"
"Shielded," Keir repeated. "So it's true, then. I am an empath?" He rubbed his eyes groggily. "I didn't think that was possible."
"Why wouldn't it be?" Jain demanded.
"Empathy is really rare, Jain," Keir explained. "And usually when you have more than one kind of magic, it still all comes out at the same time. I've had my healing magic for a year now."
"Do you want to learn how to shield now?" Estan asked Keir. "The sooner you learn to shield, the sooner you can work on regaining your energy."
Keir groaned at the last. "Is this going to make me tired?"
"Only until you get used to it," Estan answered. "Before you know it, your shields will feel like second nature. Can you feel your magic center?"
"I think it's my heart, since that's what hurt when I collapsed," Keir replied with a wry grin.
"Right," Estan said approvingly. "Now, since you're an empath, you'll need to use an emotion to make your shield."
"An emotion?" Keir asked, wrinkling his nose. "Will that work?"
"Yes, if you choose the emotion right," Estan told him. "If you use happiness, for example, your shields will go down whenever you're sad. So pick something constant and stable, but strong. Do you have any emotions like that?"
Keir glanced at Jain before nodding. "Yes," he answered without hesitation.
Estan's eyes flicked briefly to Jain, but he nodded back in approval. "Alright, then. Imagine wrapping that emotion in a layer around your heart. Don't leave any holes. Can you imagine that?"
"Yes," Keir answered, his eyes closed as he did as directed. "How's that?" he asked a few moments later.
"That's very good," Estan replied, sounding impressed. "Very strong for a beginner."
"Jain," Estan whispered, pulling the young man aside once they'd gotten Keir settled at home.
Jain frowned at the older healer, but didn't say anything, waiting for Estan to explain why he'd pulled Jain aside.
After waiting a moment for Jain to say something, Estan nodded once and began to speak. "Keir is very talented, but in order for him to strengthen his shields to where they need to be, it would be best for him to be away from people for a while."
Jain frowned; he didn't like the sound of that. "Where do you want to take him?" he asked.
Estan shook his head. "No, I am not going to take him anywhere. I have duties here that I cannot leave, and being around me would not do Keir any good. I want you to take him."
This took Jain aback, but the surprise was only visible in the slight way his eyebrow ticked upward. "You said he needs to be away from people."
"Yes," Estan agreed. "But…" he hesitated a moment, "I can't tell what it is exactly, but Keir's shields seem to have something to do with you. A few days alone with you and outside direct contact with anyone else should do him good. Strong shields are essential for an empath as powerful as Keir is going to be."
After a brief moment of contemplation, Jain nodded once. "Where do we go?"
"There's a shelter half a day's walk from here," Estan said. "I understand that the two of you might have reservations about going out very far, given recent circumstances." He paused, waiting for Jain to argue, but the sullen guard said nothing. What Jain had seen during the search for their parents was not something he would forget any time soon.
Satisfied, Estan went on, "But this should be far enough, considering Keir's lack of training. Stay until he can no longer hear any of the emotions from the settlement. There should be plenty of firewood and emergency provisions to last you, and if the weather gets bad, don't worry about restocking the shelter. You can talk to Keir about when you want to leave, but it should be as soon as possible."
"We will leave tomorrow after the burning," Jain said stiffly.
"What are we going to do there?" Keir asked, squinting through the white landscape for evidence of the shelter.
"Probably not very much," Jain replied with a shrug. "I'll probably have to hunt. You just have to work on strengthening your shields."
Keir sighed with a visible puff of air above his scarf. "That sounds kind of boring."
"Do you want me to teach you how to do leatherwork?" Jain offered.
"No," Keir answered, then smiled suddenly. "I'll teach you how to chop herbs!"
"Thanks, but I'm pretty sure I already know how to chop things," Jain said, hiding a small smile of his own.
Keir glanced sideways at his older brother, his gaze drawn immediately to the way Jain's strong hands gripped the pack resting over his right shoulder. He wondered briefly what it would be like to be touched by those hands.
"What are you thinking about?" Jain asked, looking faintly amused.
Keir started. "Nothing," he replied quickly, frowning thoughtfully. For a moment, he thought he'd gotten a feeling from Jain… but he shook it off. It had to have been an echo of Keir's own thoughts. They both couldn't be thinking something so wrong.
Guiltily, he focused on the road ahead of him, grateful when he saw something to take his mind off his thoughts. "Is that the shelter?"
"I think so," Jain agreed, squinting against the bright sun reflected against the snow. He looked over at Keir. "How do you feel? Is this far enough from the settlement?"
"Well, I can still feel the emotions, but none of them are very strong," Keir answered.
"Good," Jain said firmly. "Estan said we have to stay here until you can't feel them anymore at all. So work on that, okay?"
"Okay," Keir agreed distractedly as they reached the door of the shelter.
"Are you sure you feel alright?" Jain asked as he ushered his little brother inside.
"I think I'm just feeling a little tired," Keir replied.
"Maybe you should take a nap," Jain suggested, setting his pack down on the floor next to the door and surveying their surroundings. "I'll fix you somewhere to sleep."
"Thanks, Jain," Keir said. "And… would you mind laying down with me while I fall asleep?"
"Not at all." Jain squatted next to the fireplace, preparing the firewood to warm up the cold shelter before he started on Keir's bed.
"You're a good big brother," Keir remarked softly.
Jain nodded to himself. "I know."
Groggily, Jain opened his eyes. He hadn't expected to fall asleep, but other than getting up a few times to tend the fire, there wasn't much else to do with Keir sleeping—and Jain knew Keir would notice if he was gone for too long. It was dark now, other than the warm glow of the fire, and Keir was still fast asleep.
Jain watched the shadows from the fire dance over Keir's face. Nothing could make him feel more peaceful than watching his brother sleep in his arms. It was only in these moments that Jain could admit to himself how much he loved Keir. It used to make him feel guilty, but he had long since decided to let those feelings run over him like water… after all, there was no harm in letting himself feel this way, as long as he never acted on it.
He brushed the hair away from Keir's face, frowning a bit when Keir's brow furrowed in his sleep. Jain caressed Keir's cheek, hesitating as he fought the urge to kiss his brother.
Well, maybe a small one won't hurt, he thought, leaning in and brushing his lips against Keir's cheek.
Keir shifted in his sleep, his eyelids fluttering open. "Jain?" he murmured.
Jain's heart sped up as he pulled back. Did Keir notice anything?
Keir was silent a moment, blinking groggily and looking a bit confused. Finally he asked, "Do you love me?"
"Of course," Jain whispered with a small frown.
"I don't think you know what I mean," Keir said softly, closing his eyes and settling back against the furs, "but I love you, too."
Keir sighed heavily, resting his forehead against his hands. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't seem to concentrate on shielding. His shield made him think of Jain, and thinking of Jain invariably led to wondering about the night before.
It could have been a dream, he rationalized to himself, but he hadn't gotten emotions in dreams the way he got them in real life. And he no longer could believe he was just feeling his own emotions. They were too strong. The only conclusion he could come to was that Jain loved him, the same way he loved Jain. But then why wouldn't he do anything about it? Jain didn't sit around waiting for other people to get what he wanted. So then maybe Keir was wrong...?
And this wasn't getting him anywhere.
"I don't remember Estan looking like that when he builds shields," Jain remarked as he entered the shelter, shaking the snow off of his clothes.
Keir didn't lift his head from his hands. "Did you find anything?" he mumbled.
"Rabbits," Jain answered, holding up two white animals by the feet. Keir turned his head to see what Jain had, finally lifting his head from his hands and wrapping his arms around his knees instead.
"What's wrong with you today?" Jain asked, tossing the rabbits to the floor and removing some of the heavy outer layers of clothing.
"I don't like this," Keir complained. "I don't want to be an empath. I was happy just being a healer." He sighed heavily. "I have a hard enough time handling my own emotions without having to deal with other people's-"
"If you want to eat, come over here and clean a rabbit," Jain interrupted.
Keir sighed, but stood up and trudged over to the kitchen area, where Jain handed him a knife and a rabbit.
"You can continue if you want to," Jain added, slicing the blade of his knife under the skin of his own rabbit.
Keir scowled at his knife. "Could you not be so amused when you're pretending to care about my problems?" he grumbled.
"I can't help it," Jain answered with a shrug. "You're acting like a teenager."
"I am a teenager," Keir reminded him. "And so are you."
"Jain-" Keir stopped carving his rabbit and looked at his brother. "How would you feel if suddenly you knew what everyone around you is feeling?"
Jain thought about it a moment before shrugging. "It doesn't matter. I'd do what I have to do."
"That's easy for you to say," Keir argued. "You don't know what it's like!"
"Keir. It doesn't matter. You have to suck it up and deal with it because that's what life is about," Jain said firmly.
"You wouldn't be able to," Keir shot back. "You don't deal with your own emotions, so how could you deal with anyone else's?"
Jain stopped working on his rabbit and glared at Keir. "What are you talking about? I deal with my emotions."
"Then why won't you kiss me when I'm awake?"
A deafening silence suddenly reigned as Keir met Jain's wide-eyed shock with a similar expression of his own. He hadn't planned on saying that; it just slipped out. He hoped Jain wouldn't be angry with him and waited tensely for Jain to say anything.
Suddenly, Jain set his rabbit and the knife on the table and reached for the pot of water and cloth he had set out for washing up, avoiding Keir's eyes. "It wasn't like that."
"Don't tell me what it wasn't like," Keir interrupted. "I feel your emotions more strongly than anyone else's. Especially… when they're the same as mine."
Jain glanced over at him, wordlessly passing the washcloth along so Keir could wash up, too.
"I know you love me the same way I love you," Keir said finally as he washed the last of the blood off his hands and put the washcloth back in the pot of water. He looked up at Jain, trying to read his brother's characteristically blank expression.
"We're brothers," Jain said matter-of-factly.
"Why does that matter?" Keir protested. "No one else has to know. We're all we have."
"It doesn't have to always be that way," Jain attempted.
"But… I don't want it to be any other way," Keir replied softly. "And you don't either."
"Jain!" Keir frowned.
"You're too young to understand," Jain told him at last, turning to go sit on their makeshift bed.
"What?" Keir gasped, following him but stopping suddenly as he encountered an emotion he wasn't expecting. He closed the rest of the distance between them, standing next to where Jain sat and hesitantly resting a hand on his brother's shoulder. "What are you afraid of?" he asked more softly.
"I'm not afraid," Jain deflected.
"Jain," Keir admonished sternly. Jain looked up at him and sighed.
"Hurting you," Jain admitted at last. "You growing up and changing your mind."
Keir did his best to try not to grin. "You're afraid I'll outgrow you?"
Jain leveled a glare at his brother, who moved his hand from Jain's shoulder to stroke his hair.
"Do you remember when I was four?" Keir asked thoughtfully. "I don't remember it, but Mom said that when I was four there was a wedding in town and we all went. And at the reception, I said 'When I grow up, I'm gonna marry Jain!'".
Jain cracked a smile. "I had just turned eight," he remembered. "It was embarrassing. Everyone laughed at you. And then Mom said-"
"'You can't marry Jain, he's your brother,'" Keir finished for him.
"And you cried," Jain added.
"That was eleven years ago," Keir pointed out. "Don't you think I should have grown up by now?"
"Probably," Jain agreed.
Keir dropped his hand from Jain's head to his shoulder and moved around to stand in front of Jain, setting his free hand on Jain's cheek. "I promise not to outgrow you," he said softly. "Now will you kiss me?"
He bent his head to press his lips against Jain's, bracing himself to be pushed away. He barely had time to register the weight of Jain's hands settling around his waist before their lips met, and Jain was kissing him back. Keir closed his eyes. Once again, Keir couldn't tell which emotions were his and which where Jain's. For the first time, it wasn't confusing at all.
It was perfect.
This is wrong, Jain thought, looking down at his sleeping brother. The gray light of early morning shone dimly through the windows of the shelter. It was early, but Jain was accustomed to getting up early.
Keir stirred next to him. "Stop feeling guilty and go back to sleep," he mumbled.
"I don't feel guilty," Jain protested, but it was halfhearted. There wasn't a point in denying his feelings when Keir could feel them, too.
"We didn't even do anything other than kiss," Keir reminded him. "And we won't until you feel comfortable. It's okay."
"Until I feel comfortable?" Jain repeated with a scowl. "Who's the older brother here?"
"You are," Keir replied, his voice muffled by his pillow. "Now please go back to sleep? I'm still tired."
"I should go hunting now," Jain answered, shaking his head. "More animals are out at dawn." He tried to get out of bed, but was halted by a hand tugging on the waistband of his pants.
"Come back earlier today?" Keir asked, his eyes open for the first time and focused blearily on Jain. "I think… I could concentrate on my shields better if you're here with me."
Jain paused to study Keir for a moment. "How do you make your shields?"
"I'll tell you when you come back," Keir promised.
After a beat, Jain nodded. "I'll try to be back before you wake up."
"I think I got it!" Keir exclaimed.
"Got what?" Jain asked, distracted as he worked on a leather dog harness.
"The shield!" Keir answered, hands on his hips. "Why are we even out here?"
That got Jain's attention. He lowered the harness, looking at Keir. "Really?"
"Yes!" Keir sat next to Jain, leaning forward in his excitement. "I can feel it now! I can feel how thick it is! I can feel if there are any holes!"
"Can you?" Jain asked skeptically.
"Yes!" Keir answered impatiently. "And the best part is I can't feel anyone in the settlement!"
"That's great," Jain said honestly. He was getting bored out of his mind out in the middle of nowhere. This was the fifth day they'd been at the shelter, and other than hunting, Jain was going stir crazy. "So you feel ready to go home?"
"Yes," Keir agreed. "But it's too late today, isn't it?"
Jain sighed. "Yeah, we wouldn't make it back before dark. We'll leave in the morning."
"Good," Keir said. "So what do you want to do for our last night alone together in the wilderness?"
Jain looked over at him to see that Keir was smiling and rolled his eyes, setting the harness aside. "You have something in mind?"
Keir moved so that he was straddling in Jain's lap, wrapping his arms around the other's neck and pressing their lips together. Jain's hands came up around Keir, holding him close as Keir clumsily deepened the kiss, pressing himself against Jain.
"Keir," Jain said, pulling away from Keir, his voice a bit husky. "Wait."
"It's been three days and all we've done is kiss," Keir complained, pouting.
Jain snorted. "We are going to take this slow, Keir."
"You mean you want to give me a chance to change my mind," Keir corrected.
Jain sighed. "Look, Keir. Your birthday is in two months, right? Give me until then and I promise we can go at… whatever pace you want to with this."
"I'm not going to change my mind, Jain," Keir pointed out.
"I wasn't thinking you will," Jain answered, pressing a kiss to Keir's lips. "Now, let's have dinner and pack everything up so we can get an early start in the morning."
"And then go to bed?" Keir asked with an impish grin.
"Are you that tired?" Jain smirked.
Keir's grin vanished. "You're mean."
"You're a brat," Jain replied, ruffling Keir's hair. "Now get off me and help me with dinner."
"Do you think we'll have to go to work when we get back?" Keir asked as they walked back toward the settlement the next morning.
"It should be early afternoon," Jain answered thoughtfully. "Do you want to, or are you trying to get out of it?"
Keir shrugged. "It's been a while, so we probably should…"
"But you want to get out of it, don't you?" Jain asked.
Keir nodded sheepishly. "Kind of."
"Well, we probably could today," Jain replied. "We can unpack and get settled and things. Eravan will understand if you can't go back right away."
Suddenly, Jain felt Keir stumble next to him. He stopped, reaching out to catch Keir before he could fall into the snow. "Are you okay?" he asked with a frown.
"Yeah, I-" Keir broke off, flinching again. It was brief, but Jain caught it.
"What's wrong?" he demanded.
"Fear," Keir answered. "It's really strong." He reached over to clutch at Jain's sleeve. "We have to help her!"
"Help who?" Jain asked, frowning in confusion.
"I don't know!" Keir exclaimed. "But she's scared and cold. We can't leave her there."
Jain's frown grew deeper. "Keir…"
"Please?" Keir begged, turning his eyes on his brother. "I don't think she's very far away. And we got a head start this morning, so we have plenty of time."
"Fine," Jain agreed with a sigh. "Which way do we go?"
"Northeast," Keir said after a moment of thought, before hurrying in that direction.
"Keir, it's going to get dark soon," Jain reported, scowling. "We need to turn around now or we won't make it home."
"It's just a little farther," Keir told him. "I can't go home without her, Jain…. She's like a beacon. It keeps getting brighter and brighter."
"You've been saying that for hours," Jain argued, "and none of us are getting home if it gets dark and we don't have shelter."
That gave Keir pause and finally he nodded. "Ten more minutes," he promised. "If we don't find her, then we can go home."
Jain sighed, but nodded once in agreement.
Suddenly, the earth trembled beneath their feet. Keir frowned over at Jain, who was frowning at the ground. "Did you feel that?" he asked just above a whisper.
"The ground just moved," Jain agreed with a note of awe in his gruff voice. "Keir… this is dangerous." He reached for his sword, knowing that it would be useless against an enemy large enough to make the ground shake.
Keir nodded, his own eyes shining with more than just a hint of fear. "Maybe we sh-" he started to say, stopping when something caught his eye. Wordlessly, he hurried forward.
"Keir!" Jain called, frustrated as he hurried after his reckless little brother.
Keir stopped suddenly, and Jain almost ran into him, opening his mouth to demand that Keir tell him what was going on when his brother pointed. Jain's eyes followed Keir's finger to the shape of a little girl kneeling in the snow, shivering. "That's her," Keir whispered.
"Why are you whispering?" Jain asked in a whisper.
"I don't want to scare her," Keir explained. "You wait here and I'll go get her and bring her back."
"No," Jain refused. "You are not going anywhere alone. Especially when there is something dangerous around."
Keir seemed to consider that a moment before letting his breath out in a sigh. "Okay," he agreed. "But follow a few steps behind me."
"Fine," Jain replied, and waited as Keir started toward the little girl.
"Hey," Keir called softly as they got closer, not wanting to startle the girl by sneaking up on her. "Are you okay?"
The girl's head shot up as she saw them and she screamed. The earth trembled beneath them and Keir could hear Jain shout, "Look out!" behind him before the ground rolled up, knocking him backwards off his feet and into Jain.
"Oof," Jain grunted, pushing Keir's elbow out of his stomach before checking his brother for injuries. But Keir's eyes were wide and focused far away.
"She's a geokinetic," he whispered in awe.
"What's that?" Jain asked, looking at the sun on the horizon and estimating how much time they had to get back before it got too cold.
"She can move the earth," Keir explained, crawling out of his lap.
"You're not going back over to her after what she just did," Jain said in disbelief.
"I think she's scared of her powers," Keir told him. "I think I can help her. Or at least shield her until we can get her back to someone who can help her."
Jain reached forward, putting his hand on Keir's boot to hold him back. "You are not going to drain your energy shielding her when we just spent five days in the middle of nowhere working on your shields."
Keir hesitated. "Jain…"
"No," Jain said firmly. "Promise me you won't weaken your shields."
"…I promise," Keir relented at last.
"Good." Jain let go of Keir's foot, allowing him to crawl forward.
Keir kept low, crawling through the snow on his belly as he approached the girl for the second time. "I won't hurt you," he called as he moved forward. "Don't be afraid of your powers. If you let me get close, I can help."
"You're too young," she sobbed. "And I'm lost."
"My big brother is here," Keir tried to assure her, still crawling slowly toward her. "He knows right where we are. And I'm young but I'm magic, too. I know how you're feeling."
He was almost close enough to reach out and touch her, but he forced his muscles to keep moving slowly as he crawled. The ground trembled beneath him, the air seemingly vibrating with fear above him. "Don't be afraid," he pleaded with her in a whisper. "Don't be afraid. I can help."
"Don't get too close to me!" she shouted suddenly, covering her face with her arms. Rocks flew around her, and Keir froze, waiting her out. Fear battered at his newly-made shields—from the girl in front of him and Jain behind him, and he tried to quell his own fear rising up from deep inside.
"Why can't I come closer?" he asked.
"I don't want to hurt you," the girl cried softly.
"You won't," Keir assured her. "And if you do, it's okay. I am a healer."
The rocks lowered and dropped into the snow in a circle around her. "Can you heal me?"
Keir lifted his head, rising slowly to his knees as he studied her. She had small cuts in her forehead and peppering her arms. Up close, she was older than he had first suspected, but still younger than he had been when he'd gotten his first magic.
"Yes," he promised, walking on his knees to close the distance between them.
She fell against him, sobbing into his coat, and Keir brought his arms up to wrap around her. "It's okay," he murmured stroking her hair.
"I don't want to hurt anyone else," she sobbed. "I ran away because I was mad and I made the ground shake."
"They understand," Keir promised her. "Most of the enforcers remember what it was like to get their magic. They can help you fix yours." He gently pushed her upright. "Let me heal you and then we can take you home." He pulled his right hand out of the glove and laid it against the side of her face. "What's your name?" he asked suddenly as the cuts closed up.
"Marit," she said with her eyes closed against the healing.
"I'm Keir," Keir told her, moving to heal the cuts on her arms. He inspected them first, pulling a rock shard out of one of them before closing them up.
"How old are you?" Marit asked.
"Fifteen," Keir answered, looking at her with amusement. "Do you feel better?"
"My arms and my face don't sting anymore," she sighed, "but I still think I might hurt someone if I go back."
"I can tell you how to shield," Keir suggested. "It won't be perfect, but it can probably work until one of the enforcers helps you."
"Okay," Marit replied, waiting for him to continue.
"First of all, can you feel where your magic center is?" Keir asked. "Concentrate on trying to feel your magic and you should be able to tell where it is. It feels kind of warm."
Marit nodded, closing her eyes. "My hands," she said at last.
Keir nodded. "Now try to imagine… rocks or something covering your hands."
"Like rock gloves?" Marit asked, a smile turning up the corners of her mouth.
"Sure," Keir agreed.
Marit's brow furrowed as she held her hands out in front of her, palms facing the ground.
Keir watched her carefully. "Marit," he said suddenly. "Marit."
Marit opened her eyes. "What? Is it working?"
"Not really." Keir pointed to her hands. A small pile of pebbles rested on the backs of her hands.
"Oh!" Marit brushed the pebbles off of her hands, watching them fall and make tiny holes in the snow below.
Keir smiled gently, taking one of her hands. "Imaginary rocks," he instructed her. "Invisible ones. They aren't real to anyone but you."
Marit nodded, and tried again, this time watching her hands as she did so. Finally she looked up, moving her fingers. "Did it work? I… I think I can feel it."
Keir nodded back, satisfied. "I think you got it, Marit. Now are you ready to go back?"
"Yes," Marit agreed, hugging Keir tightly. "Thank you for helping me, Keir."
"You're welcome," Keir replied, hugging her back. He looked up as a dark shadow settled over him, and for the first time he noticed twilight had set around them while he was teaching Marit.
"Is everything okay?" Jain asked.
"Yes," Keir agreed, standing up and pulling Marit to her feet next to him. "We're both fine now."
"Good," Jain said, taking off his coat and putting it over Marit's shoulders. "Because we have to go now." He squatted down, his back to Marit. "Get on," he instructed her.
Marit looked at Keir doubtfully before climbing onto Jain's back and letting him carry her piggyback.
Jain looked down at Keir. "We have to hurry and we cannot stop. It is going to get cold fast and if we stop, we'll die." He didn't add just like Mom and Dad, but he knew they were both thinking it.
Keir nodded. "Let's go, then."
"Are you still doing okay back there?" Jain called back to Marit.
"Yeah," Marit replied, her teeth chattering audibly.
"It's n-not much farther, right?" Keir asked. "I th-think I s-s-see the lights."
"That should be the settlement," Jain agreed. "It's not much farther. Keep moving."
"Has she come back yet?" a townswoman asked. The council was in session in the town hall building, and the enforcers and guards were setting up a search party.
"Not yet," the council head replied. "But there is a team waiting outside the walls in case she comes back."
"We can't send a search party out until morning," the guard council member added. "It would be suicide."
"But she'll die!" the townswoman protested, tears running in streams down her cheeks.
"Hey!" called a voice from outside. "Corra and Wrent see something!"
"Is it Marit?" asked the woman.
"No, it looks like…. It's Jain and Keir!"
"They know better than to come back so late," Estan observed, going outside. The doors stayed open as people filed out behind him, stopping at the entrance to the town.
"Jain isn't wearing a coat," one of the guards observed. "Is he crazy?"
"Ira, Corra and Wrent, go out and help bring them back in," the guard council member ordered. The three guard members hurried out to follow his directions.
"Hey!" Wrent called back as they reached the brothers. "They have Marit!"
"Of course it takes a baby to find another baby," Ira groused.
"Leave him alone, Ira," Corra sighed.
"I s-swear, Ira… if you d-don't sh-shut up, I will beat you into th-the ground," Jain managed through blue lips, glaring daggers at his partner.
Keir blinked dazedly as the guard members took control, pulling Marit off of Jain's back and leading the three of them the rest of the way to the settlement. His legs felt numb and he almost didn't notice where they were going until he recognized the entrance of the healing hall. His escort set him on one of the exam tables before being chased out by one of the healers. He looked around, noticing Jain being pushed on the one next to him.
"How do you feel?" someone asked him. Keir turned his head to see that it was Estan.
"Cold," Keir replied, wrapping his arms around himself.
"Drink this," Estan said, placing a steaming mug into one of Keir's hands.
Keir winced. "It burns," he complained.
"At least it feels like something," Estan pointed out. "It means you don't have frostbite."
Keir nodded, raising the mug to his lips and taking a careful sip.
"Estan!" called one of the older enforcers from where Marit sat. "Marit has shields!"
"Does she?" Estan asked, raising an eyebrow. "How did that happen?"
"She says Keir taught her how to do them," the enforcer replied in a low voice, looking suspiciously at Keir.
Estan regarded his pupil in surprise. "Keir… did you really?"
Keir shrugged. "I had to do something," he replied, feeling warmer already. "Jain wouldn't let me shield her."
Estan's face broke into a smile. "I am so proud of you, Keir."
"Does this mean we can do something other than making potions?" Keir asked hopefully.
"It means we can make harder potions with more ingredients," Estan corrected.
Keir groaned to himself, but Estan's pride in him felt nicer than almost anything he could imagine.
As he took another sip, he glanced over to see how his brother was doing.
"That was amazing," a pretty female healer was saying to Jain. "You are a hero." She glanced down demurely before continuing, "I've noticed you before. You're the best fighter we have." She reached in the pocket of her apron and pulled out a tiny woven box. "I'd… like to give this to you, if you don't mind."
Jain looked at it and then shook his head. "I'm sorry, I can't accept that."
The girl looked disappointed, but set it on the exam table next to him. "Keep it anyway," she said. "Maybe someday you'll find someone you want to give it to." She turned away. "I will go get a tub of water for your feet."
Jain glanced over at Keir helplessly and shrugged as the girl ran off. Keir hid a smile. Nothing even came close to that.
"Hi," Keir greeted as he opened the door to someone vaguely familiar—the teenage mage from the funeral. "Ah… Jain isn't here."
"That's okay," the mage replied, handing Keir a basket. "This is for both of you. It was going to give it to you sooner but you guys left."
"Jain thought it would be best for us to have some time away from the settlement to mourn in private," Keir explained. It was what Jain and Estan had told him to say, and it wasn't a complete lie.
"It's okay," the mage assured him. "It was just to express our condolences… but now I guess it's also a thank-you for saving Marit. That was really amazing."
"Oh," Keir said, blushing a bit. "We mostly ran across her on accident. But thank you for the thought."
"This isn't from me," the mage told Keir a bit sheepishly. "This is from all of the enforcers. I just got nominated to deliver it, since I'm the newest."
"I know how that is," Keir assured him with a friendly smile. "I'm still the newest Healer trainee, so I get stuck doing all of the boring jobs all the time." Shifting the basket, he held out a hand to the young enforcer. "I'm Keir, by the way."
"Nice to meet you, Keir," the other teen said, taking the offered hand and shaking it firmly. "I'm Shalei."
A figure stood out in the snow, digging below it into the frozen dirt.
Keir stopped, frowning. "JAIN!" he called.
The man stopped and looked in Keir's direction, glancing around to see if anyone was watching him before picking up his shovel and jogging over to his brother. "Hi," he said.
"What are you doing?" Keir asked. He wrinkled his nose as Jain got closer. "Ew, you smell."
Jain looked a bit sheepish. "I'm, uh… burying feces."
"Are you in trouble?" Keir questioned sternly.
"I punched out Ira," Jain admitted.
"Your partner?" Keir gasped
Jain scowled. "He deserved it."
Keir put a hand over his mouth to hide his laughter. "Jain!"
"So… I might be late for dinner," Jain continued, glancing away.
"As long as you wash up before you come home," Keir snickered.
"You don't want to come help?" Jain asked, offering Keir his shovel. "You can use this."
"No," Keir declined, looking disgusted. "I have to get back before Estan notices I'm gone."
"Okay," Jain agreed, resting the shovel against his shoulder. "See you tonight."
"Bathe first or you're sleeping outside!" Keir answered cheerfully.
Jain snickered. "Maybe."
"Hey, is Jain smiling?" came a voice from somewhere behind Keir.
"No, it's probably just gas," a second voice answered. "Jain doesn't smile."
"But I'm pretty sure he was just now!"
Keir turned to see two vaguely familiar guard members pointing to where he and Jain were standing. A glance back at his brother showed that Jain was no longer smiling, but lucky for the other guards, he didn't look mad either.
"I've got a shovel!" he threatened, brandishing the tool. The two guard members made rude hand gestures and ran away laughing. Jain rolled his eyes and stuck the shovel back in the mud.
"I don't think they looked too impressed," Keir observed, hiding a grin.
"Just wait until sparring practice tomorrow," Jain muttered, looking in the direction the guards had been.
"I better go," Keir said, turning back toward the town. "Estan is going to wonder where I've been."
"Tell him you fell in," Jain suggested, pretending to reach for his brother and pull him into the pike of muck.
Keir jumped away. "Jain! That's gross."
"Fine," Jain relented. "But if Estan keeps you late, it's still your night to make dinner."
"I don't want you making my dinner like that," Keir assured him. "See you tonight," he said and then mouthed, "I love you."
"I love you, too," Jain mouthed in agreement and then went back to his mud.
Keir grinned to himself before hurrying back to the healer's hall, already planning in his head what he could make for dinner.