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Perihelion

Chapter Text

The ships were definitely Galran. Of that, Lance could be sure.

Despite how patiently the two ships waited outside Altea’s shield barrier, external lights switched from their usual red to pure white in the universal sign for ceasefire, they still retained the same sharp silhouettes the rest of the Galran fleet carried. Those spiked tips atop and below the main body were unmistakable. As were the quadruple-layered wings that were thrown into even sharper relief than usual by their bright, white glow. The only thing missing was the intimidating support of an entire fleet behind them. And, in a way, the complete absence of a fleet behind these two ships was just as intimidating as if the entire Galran army was present, if not more so.

At least, with an army, the Galrans were predictable.

This, however, was not. And it set Lance on edge.

“It could be a trap,” Allura said from across the room. She crossed her arms and glared up at the image of the two fighter jets on the control tower’s large screen, clearly unhappy with the entire situation. “You know how the Galrans are. It’s win or die trying for them. They would never request a truce without an ulterior motive.”

She wasn’t entirely wrong. They had been at war with the Galra Empire for centuries— since before Lance, or Allura, or any of the current members of the royal family were born— but never had the Galran army retreated from battle or asked for a ceasefire. Not even when the battle had clearly turned against them. And yet now there were two Galran fighter jets, not even a month after Galra’s latest victory, bearing the color of peace. It was no wonder his cousin was so suspicious.

Lance shared her misgivings. “It is out of character,” he agreed, cocking his head to the side. Very out of character. Which didn’t exactly inspire confidence in the intentions of this temporary truce. He pursed his lips and narrowed his eyes at the screen, fingers fiddling with one of his silver earrings as he considered their options.

There weren’t many, and all of them carried an element of danger Lance didn’t like dealing with. He knew accepting the ships into their realm without question was risky and would make them appear weak in Galra’s eyes. But turning the ships away without explanation would possibly be worse, and would only extend the conflict. If this was genuine, if this really was a request for peace, they couldn’t just turn it away.

“We should be cautious,” he said. “Maybe we should hail the ships and find out why they’re here before we send them away.”

“I can set up a communication channel for you, if you’d like, Princess,” Pidge, their resident technology expert, offered. “We can keep the barrier up and everything, so the risk factor would be low.”

Allura took a moment to think that over. She walked across the room to the control panel, where Pidge was sitting, and stared at the image on screen. Lance could tell she was wary. Beneath her long, blue cape, she kept her arms wrapped around her like some sort of shield, while her shoulders remained tense and her expression became pinched, brows furrowed together and mouth pressed into a thin line as she observed the Galran fighters.

Lance was glad at least to see she was weighing her options. He knew his cousin well, knew how much she hated the Galrans and how tempted she’d be to just tell the fighters to leave without giving them a chance to explain. Usually King Alfor would be able to curb that impulse and remind her how much depended on her decisions, how much power her words and choices held as heir to the Altean throne, but his uncle was off reviewing their troops on the other side of the planet today and so was unavailable for advice. This decision was entirely in Allura’s hands.

She drummed her fingers against her arms, considering it all. Lance watched her with more than a little nervousness. He’d follow Allura’s directions, no matter what she chose, but he hoped she’d settle on an option that gave them at least some hope for peace. Some chance to negotiate a ceasefire long enough for their planet to rest and recover, at the very least.

“Let’s hail them, as Lance suggested,” she finally said. “If nothing else, we’ll gain insight into their motives.”

Pidge nodded and turned back to the controls. Curious, Lance crossed the room to stand beside Allura, glancing over Pidge’s shoulder as she flipped a few switches and sent a signal to the two ships beyond their barrier. Their frequency appeared as a blue wave on the control panel, rising and falling in steady rhythm as it waited for the Galran ships to latch onto and synchronize with it. That is if the Galran ships accepted their signal at all.

Lance watched the screen in silent anticipation, stomach roiling and rolling just like the waves of their frequency. What if the Galrans didn’t answer their hail? What if they weren’t as open to the idea of peace as Lance and Allura? What if this really was just a trap?

There was a soft beep as the Galran ships picked up their signal, and Lance’s head snapped up to look at the control tower’s screen. A large, fuzzy square overlapped the image of the two Galran fighters, which slowly cleared to show the dark inside of one of the ships— the black seat, the low-level lighting, and then a familiar face smiling at all of them. One Lance hadn’t expected to see ever again.

“Matthias,” Allura quietly gasped at the same time that Lance and Pidge yelled, “Matt!”

Matt smiled at all of them— a small, tired smile that matched his wane and haggard appearance— and bowed his head a little in greeting. “Princess Allura,” he said in a scratchy voice, “Prince Lance, Pidge. It’s so good to see you all again.”

“Matt, what are you doing in a Galran ship? Did you steal it? Is that how you escaped? Is there another prisoner in the other ship?” Pidge asked in a rush, standing up from her seat and leaning closer to the screen with every question.

She was babbling. Her words ran together in a blur Lance barely understood, and her entire body seemed to be shaking from some sort of repressed energy. Probably excitement. After all, this was the first time she’d gotten to see her brother since the Galra captured him almost two years ago. Lance still remembered the wreck she had been when word came back that Matt had been taken prisoner during one of his diplomatic missions on the outskirts of their territory. How torn up and angry and alone she’d been. He couldn’t blame her now for being so worked up.

Matt smiled indulgently at her, as if thinking the same thing, but then he shook his head. “I didn’t escape,” he said. He looked back at Allura as he added, “I’m being released, under the condition that you allow their ambassador into Altea territory as well. He has a… proposal to present to you, Princess.”

“What sort of proposal?” Allura asked, eyes narrowing in suspicion once more. Matt shook his head again.

“It will be better to hear it from him, I’m afraid. I don’t know all of the details.”

Allura didn’t say anything in response for a moment. She looked over at Lance and tilted her head to the side, silently asking for his opinion on the issue. Lance was hesitant to give it. He knew which he hoped for and would stand behind, but he couldn’t confidently say it was the best choice. Not with how much they still didn’t know. On one hand, they still didn’t know enough about the situation to trust the Galrans, and there was no evidence that Matt wasn’t being forced or tricked into this in order to gain their trust. But on the other hand, and this was the option Lance really hoped to be true, Matt’s presence could be a show of good faith by the Galrans, and the proposal their ambassador carried could be a chance— their only chance— for some sort of peace between their nations.

He didn’t entirely trust the Galrans or their intentions, but Lance was too eager to put a stop to all the fighting to not take the risk. He nodded in answer to Allura’s question, and then looked back at the screen.

“We will allow it,” he said to Matt. “We’ll send soldiers to escort you and the ambassador to the Castle.”

Silently, he thanked the stars above that the Galran ships had arrived while they were still at the Castle and could receive them here, rather than at the Royal Palace. At least here they could protect Altea’s secrets and defend themselves against any surprise attacks, should the whole thing turn out to be a trap. The Royal Palace was not built for war.

Matt understood the caution in that choice, and so didn’t question it. He simply nodded and ended the transmission, returning the control tower’s screen to the image of the two Galran fighter jets, as it had been before. Pidge slumped back in her seat. She took off her glasses and rubbed at her eyes, but remained silent— probably overwhelmed by the events. Lance placed a hand on her shoulder and gave it a brief, bracing squeeze.

“Lance,” Allura murmured, brushing light fingers over his upper arm to get his attention. He glanced at her, and then, seeing her nod toward the doorway behind them, followed her from the control tower into the Castle hallway, leaving Pidge to gather her thoughts in solitude.

They walked down the hallway in silence, with only the tapping of their own footsteps against the metal floors to fill the air around them. Lance didn’t normally like the silence, and on any other day he wouldn’t have hesitated to fill it with his own voice, but today the atmosphere was too thick. Too serious. He could practically hear the buzz of all the thoughts and worries that were no doubt racing through Allura’s mind. And he understood. He was worried about this too.

‘Peace’ was a word Lance had learned long ago, and had dreamt of ever since. It was a word their planet, and all of their allies, had not known for centuries, too caught up in the cycle of bloodshed and vengeance that the war with Galra created to make any room for peace. Lance and Allura had grown up surrounded by that violence. Had grown up knowing death and loss and pain, and seeing the affect it had on their people. And when Lance had grown old enough, he saw that violence first hand, watching his friends and comrades get shot down on the battlefield by Galran blasters. Knowing he couldn’t do anything to stop it.

He had lived through twenty-three years of endless war. And there would be many more years to come unless a solution was found. Lance would give all he had in order to stop all the violence, even so far as sacrificing his own life if it meant the war would cease, and so he sincerely hoped this offer would be their answer. But he couldn’t help but feel this meeting with the Galran ambassador was going to end in some sort of disaster. Like they were about to jump into something they couldn’t control.

They stepped into the lift at the end of the hall, and Lance pressed himself against back wall, leaning against the cool surface with his arms crossed over his chest. Allura pressed the button for the ground floor of the Castle, where they would prepare to receive their Galran guest under the protection of several royal guards. Then she stepped back to stand beside Lance, and waited for the door to close.

“Do you think they’re being genuine?” she asked once the lift began its descent. When it was just the two of them without any chance of being overheard.

Lance shrugged. “They might be,” he said. “Matt seemed to think they were.”

“They might also have been forcing Matthias to speak well of them.” Allura glared at the floor. Her hands were clasped in front of her, squeezed in a white-knuckled grip. “I do not trust them, Lance. I am wary to let them in here. Especially without my father present.”

“Coran is still here,” Lance pointed out. “And Uncle Alfor trusts his advice on matters like this.”

More than that, King Alfor actively sought out Coran’s advice and opinions on important issues of state. Coran had been well-educated at the Royal Academy as a young man, and had proven himself time and time again as an invaluable source of insight and perspective. Lance trusted him implicitly in this situation. Which was good, because Allura would definitely need advice on this, and Lance couldn’t trust himself to speak wisely in this. He didn’t have enough experience. He knew how to charm a ballroom, and how to command an army, but negotiating with an enemy’s ambassador… that was a whole different matter. One Coran was far better suited for.

Allura sighed. “I suppose you’re right. Even if I still don’t like it,” she said as the lift slowed and gradually came to a stop. The doors slid open, and Lance grinned at her, all bravado and charm.

“Come now,” he said, facing her as he walked backwards out of the lift, “where is the gracious princess I know and love so well? Is it not the Altean way to seek peace first?”

He leaned towards her, poking at her shoulder until Allura finally pushed him away. But there was a tiny lift at the corners of her lips as she said, “I do believe it’s a little too late for that, Lance.”

“Well, that shouldn’t keep us from trying anyways,” he retorted with a shrug. He spun on his heel to walk normally down the entry hall’s main staircase, though still bouncing a little from step to step while adding, “Just remember, this is our territory. You hold the power here. You need not agree to anything the ambassador proposes without first thinking it over.”

And that was the real crux of the situation here. The Galrans may have come to them first, may have their own reasons for negotiating a truce, may hold all the cards when it came to situational insight, but they were in Altean territory now. Whatever they offered or demanded, the Galran ambassador had to play by Altean rules now, which were, essentially, whatever Allura decided they were. She could do whatever it took to get the outcome they desired. They had the upper hand here.

“Try not to worry so much, Allura,” Lance said to her, placing a supportive hand on her back. “You know Matt would rather die than cooperate with a Galran plot. All will be well. And if it is not—” Lance’s grin turned feral, eyes narrowing and hand dropping to touch his belt, where his bayard typically sat when he wore his armor, “—then I will shoot them all down myself.”

Chapter Text

The Castle was situated in the mountain regions of Altea, surrounded by rolling fields of grass and juniberries and far from any of the major cities or space ports, including the one that controlled the shield barrier and all the traffic passing in and out. It would take the Galran ships nearly a full hour to fly first through the shield barrier and the Altean atmosphere, and then to find where the Castle was hidden in one of the valleys. That left Lance and Allura plenty of time to prepare.

Lance changed into his paladin armor during the wait, preferring the security of having his bayard close by if things turned sour. He’d made sure to locate Coran and a few guards to accompany him and Allura for the meeting, and he knew with their presence no harm could actually be done to either of them. But there was just something about holding his own weapon in hand that made him feel safer. More in control of the situation. So he strapped on the blue and white armor over his black bodysuit, donned the long, blue cloak with the golden shoulder pin that he saved specifically for meetings like this, and held his bayard in one gloved hand, just in case.

Allura had changed as well. Upon Coran’s suggestion, she had decided on an outfit more suited to the meeting at hand— one designed to both impress and intimidate. She now stood draped in all white, from her floor-length gown to the cape that fell over her shoulders and bare arms to fan out on the floor around her feet. Her hair was twisted high atop her head and held in place by the golden circlet that marked her status as a princess of Altea, while jewels glittered from her ears and throat. She looked every inch the queen she would one day be. Lance only hoped it would be enough to earn the Galran ambassador’s acknowledgment, if not his respect.

Having that would make negotiations so much easier, in all honesty. If peaceful negotiations really were what the Galrans were coming for.

“They’re not far now, Princess,” Pidge said, gaze locked on the small, handheld tablet that was currently tracking the progress of the Galran ships through Altean land. “I’d say five, maybe ten minutes until they arrive.”

She descended the steps of the Castle’s great hall, which would serve as the greeting point for the Galran ambassador as the Castle, unlike the Royal Palace, lacked an official throne room, to join Allura and Lance on the main floor. Her dark green cloak fluttered a little with each step. Pidge, too, had donned her paladin armor during the wait, mostly at Lance’s insistence. He knew how intimidating the two of them together would be. Even the Galran ambassador would have to admit to the fearsome power of the two Voltron paladins on the battlefield, and having the both of them standing behind Allura, dressed in full armor and with bayards at the ready, would only add more power to Allura’s words.

“The sooner they come, the sooner they can leave,” Allura replied. “I still do not like this. Allowing those ships to come here goes against everything my father taught me. I feel like this was all just a giant mistake.”

“Maybe so,” Lance said, “but the damage has already been done. We can’t just send the ships back without good reason.”

“The war we’ve been fighting for the past couple of centuries seems like a pretty good reason to me,” Pidge said beside him. Lance huffed unhappily and crossed his arms.

“They have your brother still,” he said. “You should be the one wanting this meeting the most.”

Pidge glared up at him. “You don’t need to remind me, Lance. I know exactly who is in that Galran ship. But I also know that the chances of this all being a ruse with my brother used as bait is somewhere around seventy-five percent. Maybe higher. It’s not like they haven’t done this before.”

Lance snapped his mouth shut and looked away, feeling a wave of guilt rising in his stomach. He knew what Pidge was referring to, recalled how Matt’s life had constantly been threatened whenever Pidge was on the battlefield, how it had forced her not to fight back for fear of causing Matt’s death. There was a reason why Pidge had mostly stepped away from the battlefield to work as their strategist instead. And Lance had just ignored all of that, implying that she didn’t care enough.

Of course Pidge wanted to bring Matt home. But she wanted to make sure they brought him home alive, and that meant caution. Lance felt terrible for forgetting that in his desperation for peace.

“Be that as it may,” Allura said when Lance remained silent, “I’m afraid that Lance is right about this. We made our decision. We cannot back out of it now.” She put a hand on Pidge’s shoulder and gave her a reassuring smile. “I will make sure your brother comes to no harm, Pidge. You have my word.”

Pidge nodded her head. “Thank you, Princess.”

Lance didn’t say anything, but he intended to make sure Matt came to no harm as well. He placed his hand on Pidge’s other shoulder and felt her relax a bit beneath the pressure, shoulders slumping forward and curving in toward herself. It was a surrender, he knew. An acceptance, placing her brother’s fate in their hands, trusting them to navigate this meeting well enough to keep him from any danger.

There was a knock at the door of the great hall. The three of them turned toward it, watching as the door creaked open just enough for Coran to peek his head in and announce, “The ambassador has arrived, Princess. He requests a meeting with you.”

“Of course,” Allura said. She let out a long breath, as if blowing all her worries and hesitations into the wind, then squared her shoulders and lifted her chin. Her expression turned hard as stone and cold as ice, and she was no longer just Allura, but instead the Crown Princess Allura of Altea— the future Queen and commander of Altea’s army. Lance watched her draw her position and power around her like a shield and felt nothing but relief as her steady, imperious voice commanded, “Send them in.”

Coran disappeared behind the door once more, off to fetch the ambassador and his entourage from wherever Coran had left them, and Lance took the opportunity as they all shifted into place to lean toward Allura. “Remember,” he murmured in a low voice, so that only she could hear, “you hold the power. You make the demands.”

Allura nodded, but otherwise didn’t react. She couldn’t. Not with the doors of the great hall swinging open for Coran and the Galran visitors to walk through.

Coran came first, leading the group across the hall to the foot of the stairs, where Allura, Lance, and Pidge stood waiting. He stopped a few feet short of Allura and fell into a full court bow, completely bent over from the waist with both arms extended out beside him. “Your Royal Highness,” he greeted, using Allura’s full honorific for once, as he rarely did. “The Galran ambassador, as you requested.”

“Yes. Thank you,” she answered with a solemn nod. Coran straightened from his bow and walked over to stand beside Pidge, on Allura’s left side. And then they were left to greet their visitors.

The Galran ambassador looked every bit as fearsome as Lance thought he would. He was tall, as all true-born Galrans were, and had lean, sharp features that, with his purple skin and yellow eyes, made him look more like a feral animal than a peaceful envoy. His black armor with the bright, red insignia splashed across his chest didn’t help him seem less threatening either. Lance was fairly certain it wasn’t meant to.

“Princess Allura,” the ambassador said. He did not bow to her, as would have been proper, but dipped his head in a shallow nod that made Lance bristle with irritation and tighten his grip around his bayard. When he lifted his head, he glanced around the hall and sneered in contempt. “King Alfor is not here? I was expecting to be greeted by him.”

The expression on Allura’s face grew even colder at his blatant dismissal. “My father is currently unavailable. Unfortunate timing, I’m afraid. But I am his heir, and I speak in his place.”

“Very well,” the ambassador sighed. “I will negotiate with you then, Princess. For the honor of the Galran Empire.”

“You will first return your prisoner to us before begin negotiating. I will not speak of peace while you hold our diplomat in chains.”

The ambassador stared at Allura, as if weighing her resolve on this issue. She held the stare, refusing to back down or show weakness, even as the ambassador’s unnerving yellow eyes bored into her. Lance felt uneasy about the acute attention of the ambassador, and he shifted his cloak just enough to let his bayard, still clasped tightly in his hand, be visible to the rest of the room as a silent threat. He was ready and willing to fight if that’s what it came down to. He rather hoped the ambassador had enough sense to not refuse Allura’s request though.

It was difficult to tell with the Galran’s flat, yellow eyes, but it seemed for a second that the ambassador’s gaze shifted from Allura to Lance, and then to the bayard in Lance’s hand. It occurred to Lance in that moment that neither the ambassador, nor the Galran guard he had brought with him, were armed with any sort of weapon, as they would have surrendered their swords and blasters to Coran and the Royal Guard before being allowed into the great hall. All the better. Without weapons to defend themselves, Lance’s threat would be more potent. And more persuasive as well.

The ambassador clicked his tongue, then turned around and gestured at his guard. The soldier left his post by the door to approach them, and for the first time Lance noticed the other figure in the room— the one being dragged along behind the guard.

“Your diplomat,” the ambassador practically spat as the guard pushed Matt across the room with enough force to make Matt stumble and fall onto the metal floor at Allura’s feet.

Pidge and Lance both rushed forward to help Matt to his feet. He was so weak he could barely keep himself upright, leaning almost all of his weight against Pidge as they lifted him from the floor. And no wonder. When he stood upright, the unnatural thinness of his body became more pronounced. His joints stuck out like sharp points, and his limbs seemed so slender Lance was afraid they might break at any second. His skin was pallid as well, save for the dark bags beneath his eyes and the few, multicolored bruises splashed across his hands and collarbone.

Looking at him made Lance feel ill. Seeing him onscreen hadn’t prepared Lance for actually seeing him in person, without any details spared. It was such a stark change from the man he’d been before, who, despite possessing a soft heart and predisposition for peace, was just as strong as anyone else in their kingdom. Stronger even than some of the soldiers Lance was charged with. This Matt was a far cry from the one Lance had known. This Matt was fragile and malnourished, and in desperate need of a good night’s sleep.

Lance and Pidge both slung one of Matt’s arms around their shoulders and carried him step by step up the great hall’s stairs and through the double doors into the hallway beyond. They stopped just outside the doors, however, and Lance stepped away from Matt’s side so he could return to the great hall. He couldn’t leave Allura alone with the Galran ambassador, after all, and Pidge could handle carrying her brother by herself now that the stairs were out of the way.

“I’ll take him to the cryo-replenishers,” Pidge said, settling Matt’s weight against her side. “Think you can handle this until I return?”

Lance quirked a small grin. “Who said you needed to return? Just focus on your brother. Allura and I have got this covered.”

“Gods be good. We’re all going to die.”

Lance laughed and ruffled Pidge’s hair. She scowled at him, patting down the mussed strands with her free hand, then turned away and started leading Matt down the hallway toward the cryo room, where she’d probably stay for the rest of the night, no matter what she said. Lance wasn’t expecting her to reappear again until she was certain Matt was alright and recovering. And even then, she probably wouldn’t let Matt out of her sights for a while.

In truth, Lance wanted Pidge to return to the great hall with him. He felt better having her presence, and the respect her position as a paladin afforded her, alongside his own. But the Galran ambassador had at least seen that the both of them were present in the castle, and he’d already revealed his preference for avoiding violence, if his earlier reaction to Lance’s bayard was anything to go by, so it wasn’t like Pidge’s presence was a necessity at this point. And Lance wouldn’t begrudge her the opportunity to be with her brother after so long for something that wasn’t actually necessary.

Instead, he returned to the great hall alone and reclaimed his spot at Allura’s side. The ambassador and Allura had begun the intricate, verbal dance of negotiations while he and Pidge had been with Matt, but it appeared Lance had returned in good time. The Galran ambassador had only just returned to the topic of peace by the time Lance reached Coran and Allura.

“An end to this long war. A truce between our realms,” the ambassador said, not even sparing Lance a quick glance as he came up beside Allura. The ambassador looked only at Allura, only at the princess he was left to deal with, as if everything else was beneath his notice. Lance didn’t like it.

“Why now?” he asked. “We have offered Galra peace many times in the past, after all, and have always been refused. Why would Galra ask it of us now?” Why should we trust it?

The ambassador bristled. “Your terms were never a truce, but our surrender. Galra never surrenders.” He sneered at Lance, baring a row of long, sharp teeth, then turned back to Allura as if Lance wasn’t even there. “Our Emperor asks for a truce, with equal respect and power on both sides. We will lay down our weapons if you will do the same. That is all we ask.”

“Forgive me for not trusting that statement. This war has been very long, and very costly to my people. I cannot agree to lay down our arms without some sort of assurance Galra won’t attack as soon as we do,” Allura answered with a frown.

“My Emperor offers one,” the ambassador said. “An alliance. A joining of the royal families.”

A marriage alliance, Lance realized in surprise. They were offering to marry one of their two princes to an Altean, even though their culture valued bloodlines above all else.

Lance looked at Allura in a panic. He didn’t trust this offer. There was something else going on here. Some sort of reason or plan that would only work if the two royal families were tied together, otherwise the Galrans never would have suggested sullying their royal line with Altean blood. There were other ways to make peace. Lance knew that. Coran knew that. Allura knew that.

She couldn’t agree to this. She couldn’t. And yet she had her head tilted to the side and brows furrowed in thought, as if actually considering what the Galran ambassador proposed.

“The idea has some merit,” she finally answered, to both Lance’s and Coran’s shock.

Seeming just as unsettled by the idea as Lance, Coran stepped forward and placed his hand lightly on Allura’s upper arm. He’d been silent since the Galrans had entered the great hall, but now he spoke out with a soft, “Princess! You can’t!”

Allura silenced his protests with a wave of her hand, never even looking away from the Galran ambassador. “I cannot agree to it without first discussing terms, but I am not entirely opposed,” she said to him. “Would your Emperor be willing to discuss this further before coming to an agreement?”

“I believe he would. On a neutral planet, of course.”

She offered him a wry smile. “Of course. Olkarion, I believe, would be willing to host us. And if we are meeting on equal terms, I believe we should meet with equal numbers. Perhaps six, including those being betrothed?”

“Very well. I will relay your request to the Emperor. We will require time to organize our people and travel.”

“Then we shall meet on Olkarion in two weeks. That should be sufficient time.”

The Galran ambassador’s flat nose scrunched up in displeasure at the rush, but he nodded in agreement all the same. The heart of the Galra Empire— where the imperial family kept their seat of power— was several days from Altea and Olkarion both. If the ambassador left now and made haste, they would have just enough time to gather their group, but not enough time to organize any surprise attacks or secret plans. Though they would be fools to try anything while hosted by Olkarion in the first place. Olkarion was neutral, and had been so throughout this entire war, but it would not remain so if either Altea or Galra spilled innocent blood in their halls. And any alliance with the Olkari would mean certain victory for those they supported.

Lance still didn’t like it, however. As eager as he was for peace, he didn’t trust Galra’s intentions with this, and he wasn’t willing to let Allura sacrifice herself for this, as he knew she was planning. Especially since he knew the Galrans wanted that.

The ambassador hadn’t named any names, of course, but he hadn’t really needed to. Lance’s siblings were all too young to be offered in marriage, leaving only Allura and Lance himself as options. And considering how quick the ambassador had been to dismiss his presence, it wasn’t hard to tell which of them the Galrans preferred. They wanted to make this alliance with Allura, the heir to the Altean throne. That spelled danger on so many different levels.

“You can’t really be considering this,” Lance protested as soon as the Galran ambassador and his guard had left the great hall. “You can’t really think that allowing one of their princes to marry the heir to the Altean throne is a good idea.”

“I have to agree with your cousin, Princess. It’s too dangerous,” Coran said. He came up beside Lance and placed a hand on his shoulder. Allura frowned at the both of them.

“This is our chance to end the war. I don’t trust them either, but we cannot pass this chance over.”

Lance shook his head. “There has to be another way. You’re too close to the throne. Your position would give them too much power. Marry one of them and they’ll have our court. Our military. Our throne. Everything they need for a swift and total takeover.”

“They would absorb Altea into their Empire using your marriage as an excuse,” Coran agreed.

“We need peace,” Allura said. She rubbed her forehead and began pacing in quick, little lines before the stairwell. “We’re losing more and more people to this war each year, and even the common folk here on Altea are feeling the effects of the war in our dwindling markets and resources. It needs to be fixed. And you said it yourself earlier, Lance— Alteans seek peace. This is what we need.”

Lance couldn’t argue with that. It was the whole reason he had pushed for this meeting with the Galran ambassador when Allura had been so hesitant. After all these years of war, their people needed a solution, either through victory or peace. And with victory so uncertain, peace was the only path to take, even if it had to be bought by marriage. But did Allura really have to be the one to pay the price?

Coran continued debating the decision with Allura as Lance thought it over. The Galran ambassador had never stated outright that the alliance needed to be with Allura, after all. Only with the royal family. And that could be interpreted to mean that any of the eligible members of their family could suffice. His siblings were all too young, of course, and Allura too important, but there was still one more option. The only option, really, even if the thought of it made Lance’s stomach twist into painful knots.

“I will do it,” he stated, interrupting the conversation between Allura and Coran. They both looked his way, confused, and he clarified, “If marriage is the price we must pay for peace, then I will be the one to pay it.”

Allura inhaled sharply. “Lance, no,” she said, reaching out to place a hand on his shoulder. “You don’t have to do this. It isn’t your burden to bear.”

“It is, though,” Lance disagreed. “I’m a prince and a paladin, second in line to the throne after you. I have a duty to Altea and her people. If you were unavailable for marriage—”

“But I’m not.”

“If you were,” he repeated with enough force to convey his intent on making that possibility a reality, “then I would clearly be the next best choice.”

Coran sighed. “I hate to say this, Princess, but he is right. It’s a much safer option,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck. He clearly wasn’t pleased at the idea, but seemed to be resigned to it anyways. Or, at the very least, accepting of it as a better solution than letting Allura marry the Galran prince.

Allura was less agreeable. Her nose wrinkled in distaste as she sourly muttered, “So I must sacrifice my own cousin to our enemy.”

“I’m volunteering, Allura,” he told her. “And I’d much rather it was me than you.” Her took her hands and held them tightly. They were so much smaller than his own, softer and more slender, but still so strong. Strong enough to command an army and lead a kingdom, and not meant to be chained down by the shackles of a questionable, political marriage. He leaned toward her, sighing, and softly said, “It’s the only option that makes sense.”

Allura closed her eyes, then let out a long breath. Her shoulders slumped forward, all strength seeming to seep right out of them, and Lance knew she had resigned herself to the truth of what he’d said. That this was the only way they could have both peace and protection, and to keep the Galrans far from their throne.

Lance tried to resign himself to it as well. Maybe if he was lucky, the Galrans would change their minds during negotiations and agree to a truce that didn’t involve marriage. But he knew, deep in his heart, that such a hope was futile, and that this was now his fate.

 

 

Chapter Text

Of all the views in Altea, Lance thought he might miss the one from his bedroom’s balcony the most.

He sat at the edge, one leg tucked into himself while the other hung over the edge between the white, stone pillars, and leaned forward to rest against the top of the low balustrade that bordered the balcony. He folded his arms over the handrail, and then pressed his cheek to them, looking out over the arboretum and the small river that separated it from the Royal Palace.

This was Lance’s favorite spot. Where he came to relax and meditate, away from all the noise and bustle of the Altean court. It was so unlike the rest of the planet, where the trees were carefully cultivated alongside streets and regularly trimmed to keep their neat, streamlined appearances. Here the trees were left to grow wild. They towered over him and filled the sky with thick clusters of green leaves, so numerous they seemed to create a wall of green that stretched from the water below to the clouds above, leaving the Palace in shadows. In some places, however, the sun still managed to peek through and cast little flecks of golden light to dance along the marble walls. Lance stretched out a hand to catch one of those beams. The light and shadows covered his dark skin like lacework, which flickered slightly as a cool breeze swept through the trees and ruffled Lance’s hair.

He stared absently at the swaying shadows. Flexed his fingers, then curled them into a fist, watching as the movement affected the pattern on his skin just as much as the wind seemed to. Beneath him, the river crawled by and tumbled down its small waterfall in a soft hush. The leaves rustled in the breeze, and the sweet scent of juniberries and sun blossoms wafted from the flower pots at the back corners of his balcony to where he was sitting.

It was all so comforting. So familiar. And yet it also filled Lance with dread, because it reminded him of what he was about to lose. What he had chosen to give up to live in the heart of the Galran Empire.

Would there be trees like this there? Waterfalls? Sweet wildflowers that bloomed almost year-round?

Lance didn’t know. And, in a way, he didn’t care. Even if the Galran Empire did possess all those things, they would never compare to this. They would never match this arboretum, with its river and natural disarray. They would never compare to Lance’s home.

Sighing, he dropped his hand and closed his eyes. A door opened behind him, on the other side of his bedroom. He heard the soft tap of feet against the marble floor, growing louder as they approached him, and then felt the gentle, warm weight of a hand on top his head.

“I thought I might find you here,” his mother said fondly.

Lance forced a smile and looked up at her. “I just wanted one last look before we left,” he told her. “I want to remember it.”

“Oh, Lance.”

She sighed and sat down beside him, wrapping her arm around his shoulders. He fell into her embrace gratefully, relaxing into her side. This was another thing he would miss when he went to Galra, these moments when he could just lean against his mother and absorb her strength. He didn’t know when he would be able to see her again. Or if he would see her again at all. If things went south, and this alliance didn’t work out, there was a large chance that Lance would be killed. And if things went well, if the marriage worked and the alliance was stable, there was still a large chance he wouldn’t be able to visit Altea just due to whatever political duties he might have on Galra. They would still be able to communicate with one another through messages and video calls, of course, but it wasn’t the same as actually being here and getting to feel the security of his mother’s arms around him.

“It’s not too late to change your mind, you know,” his mother murmured against the dark brown hair he’d inherited from her. “You could stay. Marry someone you love.”

Lance smiled, leaning his head against her shoulder. This wasn’t the first time his mother had tried talking him out of his decision. She was even more against the idea of his political marriage with one of the Galran princes than Allura was, and Allura was very against it. But as much as Allura hated it, she recognized its necessity, and had to agree to it for the good of their people. His mother, on the other hand, had more luxury to ignore how essential the marriage was and to look on the situation with a mother’s eye. And she didn’t like what she saw.

It warmed Lance, knowing his mother was still looking out for him after all this time. That she was on his side, that she wanted the best for him, that she’d rather see him happy even at the cost of peace. It gave him the strength he needed to do what he knew needed to be done.

“I have to go. You know I do,” he said.

His mother sighed again. “I know.” She ran her fingers through Lance’s hair, pushing it back to make the circlet he wore more visible— the one he’d inherited, along with the title of ‘Prince,’ from his father before he had died. Lance’s mother traced a finger along the gold line across his forehead and smiled. “You’ve been so brave, Lance. He’d be proud of you.” She cupped his cheek. “I’m proud of you too.”

Lance held her hand against his face and swallowed thickly. “Thank you.”

She kissed his forehead, hugging him close like she would when he was younger. Tears pricked at his eyes, and he shut them tightly, fighting back the aching emotions that were threatening to overwhelm him. He listened to the steady beat of his mother’s heart and to the rush of the river below, and tried not to think beyond that. Lance wanted to just stay here, in this moment, before he was called to the shuttle that would take them to Olkarion for negotiations. Before his future was sealed.

All too soon, however, he felt his mother squeeze his shoulder and start to pull back. Lance parted from her reluctantly. He turned his head away, not wanting to see the tired resignation that he knew her expression would show, but let her smooth back his hair and tuck a few wayward strands behind his ear.

“We should be going,” she said. “The rest of them will be waiting for us.”

Lance nodded, but was slow to stand. He knew what would be waiting for him— the shuttle out on the landing pad, the other four members of their delegation, the very last moments before his life changed forever. He wasn’t ready for that. He wasn’t ready to say goodbye to Altea and everything he loved about it, and so he tried to prolong the time as much as he could.

Once he was standing, however, there wasn’t much he could do to delay, and he soon found himself leaving his bedroom for the last time and walking down the hallway to the Royal Palace’s landing pad with his mother at his side.

As his mother predicted, the others were already waiting for them on the launch pad, standing just outside the space shuttle. Lance nodded at Allura, Matt, and Pidge, but didn’t say anything to them as he climbed the shuttle’s ramp and found a seat with a window looking out on the Palace. He knew any conversation he had right now would just want to focus on what was happening, on him leaving Altea and marrying a Galran and becoming a part of their court, and Lance wasn’t ready to talk about that. Not with them. Not yet.

The others followed him onto the shuttle and found their own seats, thankfully leaving him to sit by himself in the back corner. He curled up in his seat and leaned against the shuttle wall, staring out the window at the place he’d always called home. He barely noticed as the shuttle started up and cycled through the launch procedures. At least, he didn’t notice until the shuttle lifted from the ground and began its upward climb, the Royal Palace growing smaller and smaller in his window the higher they flew.

As the ground dropped away, Lance took in his last views of the planet he loved so much. He took in the ring of trees and rivers that surrounded the Palace, and the rolling plains of grass, and the distant mountains that covered the northern hemisphere of Altea. He took in the cities that dotted the plains, and the strictly structured arboretums and orchards that surrounded the cities, and the low-flying shuttles that carried civilians from city to city. He took in all that he could, engraving the images into his mind, until they passed out of the atmosphere and all Lance could see of his planet was its shape. Until they were far enough away for Altea to look like a blue and green marble hanging in the blackness of space.

And then, when he couldn’t see anymore, Lance closed his eyes and slept, dreaming of the planet he could no longer call home.

When he awoke next, several hours had already passed— more than what he’d been expecting. The trip from Altea to Olkarion was shorter than that from Galra, taking only about half a day when traveling at a fast pace compared to the Galran’s two-day voyage. On an average trip, they would have already been passing through Olkarion’s outer shield by this point. But Lance knew Coran would take his time in flying. None of them were eager to reach Olkarion and deal with the Galrans, after all. Least of all Lance, whose entire future was going to be decided by this meeting.

He glanced out the window for a moment to try to gauge where they were, but saw only black. He guessed they were just outside of Olkarion’s star system, just judging by how long they’d already spent traveling. It was hard to tell without some sort of planet or star to confirm his thoughts, though. And Lance wasn’t used to flying without both a radar and star map in front of him anymore.

He wished he’d been able to pilot Blue to Olkarion instead of taking this passenger shuttle. The journey would have been much more interesting. Or it would have at least occupied his mind enough to keep him from thinking about the upcoming negotiations. But Lance had left Blue back at the Castle with the other lions, along with both his armor and his bayard.

Truthfully, he felt a little vulnerable without the familiar weight of his bayard in hand, but it just wasn’t safe to bring Blue to Galra with him, and he’d have no need of the paladin armor and weapon if he was no longer going to be acting as one of Altea’s paladins. Allura had argued with him about that for a few days, uncomfortable with the idea of sending Lance into the heart of enemy territory without some way to defend himself, but Lance had won in the end. They just couldn’t allow the Galrans to have access to any of the lions in case this marriage alliance failed. And if it succeeded… well, then it wouldn’t matter anyways. Altea wouldn’t need him as a paladin if they were all at peace.

Still, he missed Blue already. He would have welcomed her soothing presence at the back of his mind. Instead, his head felt oddly empty and alone, despite all the thoughts he was trying to ignore. He didn’t know what to do without her there to distract him or filter his thoughts.

“Coran says we’re about an hour away,” Pidge said as she slid into the seat across from Lance. He glanced at her, meeting her observant gaze, then looked out the window again.

Pidge had worn her paladin armor and cape once more in anticipation of their first meeting with the Galran delegation. Lance had wanted her and Matt to stay on Altea, away from all this mess, but Matt had protested. “I know more about the Galrans than any of you now,” he’d argued, and neither Allura nor Lance could disagree. They needed his insight for this meeting, needed to know what they would be dealing with and how to respond to Galran demands, and so Matt had come along. And wherever Matt went now, Pidge was not far behind.

“You’ll need me there anyways,” she’d said to Lance. “There should be a paladin present, and with you getting married that just leaves me.”

Lance hated that he hadn’t been able to argue against that either. He knew he couldn’t. For as long as he’d been able to fight, it had just been him and Pidge acting as paladins. They had been the only ones of their generation to be chosen by lions, while the other three remained locked in their hangars, waiting to find the paladins they were meant for. It had been centuries since all five lions had chosen paladins at a single time. Usually only two or three would be found in each generation of paladins. And now, there would only be one— Pidge.

Sighing, Lance stared out at the black expanse of space and tried not think about that. He’d chosen this path, after all. He couldn’t allow himself to regret his choice when his path had only just begun. He had to believe this would be worth it in the end.

In the window’s reflection, he saw Pidge lean forward to rest her elbows on her knees, fingers laced together between them. She didn’t look away from Lance, but rather seemed to be observing him, her eyes narrowed behind her glasses and glued to his face. “Are you alright?” she asked, which made Lance huff out a sardonic laugh.

“’Alright’ isn’t exactly how I’d put it,” Lance told her. He touched a finger to the cold window, right where the debris cloud that surrounded Olkarion’s star system was coming into view. “I’m not sure anyone could be alright in my position.”

“You mean about to get married to your enemy and spend the rest of your life in the Empire that’s been fighting us for centuries?”

“Yes, Pidge,” Lance said dryly. “Thank you for clarifying.”

Pidge grinned. “Anytime.”

Lance rolled his eyes, but smiled all the same, feeling his mood lift just a bit with Pidge’s frank manner. He slouched back in his chair and fiddled with his fingers, anxiously twisting the thin, golden rings he wore round and round and round. He stared at his hands— at his fourth finger, where a new sort of ring would soon sit for all the days of his life. He wondered what it would look like. What metal, what stones. What sort of beauty would his prison shackle hold?

“Have you ever felt like you were standing at the edge of a precipice?” he asked, holding his hand out and trying to imagine a Galran ring there, and failing spectacularly. “Like you’re about to fall into an abyss and there’s nothing you can do about it?”

Pidge shrugged. “I don’t think there’s nothing you can do about it. You have a choice.”

“Not much of a choice. If I don’t marry him, Altea will remain at war. Or Allura will force herself to marry him. I’m not sure which option is worse.”

“I didn’t mean like that,” Pidge said. She took his wrist and pulled his hand down, away from his gaze. “You might need to marry him, but you have a choice in how it turns out. You aren’t completely helpless, Lance. You have your own weapons.”

“Do I?”

“Please.” Pidge rolled her eyes. “Let’s not pretend you didn’t somehow manipulate that Taujeeran delegation from last month into providing more scaultrite for our ships than they had originally agreed to. I know you better than that.”

Lance laughed. “I didn’t manipulate them. I simply convinced them to see my point of view.”

“By charming them halfway to being in love with you.”

“Well, not everyone can be as naturally enchanting as I am.”

“Or as self-assured,” Pidge teased, leaning forward to gently punch Lance’s thigh. Lance laughed again and swatted Pidge’s hand away, but privately he wondered if what Pidge was hinting at was right. If maybe he held more power in this situation than he’d thought. After all, the Galran court was still just a court, and Lance had been navigating those since before he could remember.

He pondered that awhile as the shuttle passed through the star system and Olkarion’s border shield. If he was going to survive the Galran court, he was going to need allies— influential members of the nobility who would be able to speak in his favor and make sure his voice was heard. Lance, for all his boasting and empty claims, didn’t consider himself to be the master manipulator Pidge said he was, but he did know a thing or two about people. Particularly those who were rich and spoiled and ambitious. There were ways he could make this work to his advantage. Things he could say or offer to win them over.

He wished he was more certain about winning over his future husband’s favor though. He had no delusions about this being anything other than a political match; he had no expectations for love or affection from whichever of the two princes he might end up marrying. But he hoped, at least, for them to be civil with each other. Maybe even to help each other in their goals, and to act as mutual sources of support. Lance didn’t want to keep fighting his husband day after day if he could help it. And if friendship was the most he could hope for, then Lance would happily settle for it.

A slight shudder as the shuttle passed into Olkarion’s atmosphere shook Lance from his thoughts. Pidge was already pressed up against the window, though all they could for a few minutes was Olkarion’s mountainous ring and a thick layer of clouds. Then they broke through the clouds, and Pidge was entranced.

“Look at that,” she whispered. Her gloved hand was pressed completely flat against the shuttle’s window, as if trying to reach right through the glass to touch the tops of the buildings coming into view. Lance grinned at the way her eyes were sparkling. He’d known she would like Olkarion, and he was pretty sure she’d like it even more before it was time for them to leave.

Lance also shifted to glance out the bit of window Pidge left clear. He’d only been to Olkarion once before, when he was very little and his parents had brought him along to some sort of diplomatic banquet, but the planet was just how he remembered it. The carpet of green and red made from the treetops of the sprawling forests, and the small mountains surrounding the cities, and the clean lines of their architecture: it was all as he recalled. Right down to the vast, flat airfield outside the King’s Spire, where their shuttle landed.

It slowly settled to a rest on the airfield, kicking up just a bit of dust with the force of its thrusters. Outside, Lance could see a small number of Olkari officials waiting to greet their arrival. He recognized a few of the faces from various intergalactic functions, though many of them were much older than he recalled them being. Still, the little bit of familiarity helped set him a bit at ease. Which was good because it seemed both his chest and his stomach were intent on constricting themselves to the point of failure. Breathing was already becoming difficult.

Suddenly, Lance wanted nothing more than to hijack the shuttle and fly them all back to Altea, away from all this madness.

“We should get going,” he said instead. “No point in delaying the inevitable.”

He stood before he could change his mind and walked to the front of the shuttle to wait for the door to open. Pidge followed after him. She placed her hand on his shoulder, but Lance didn’t turn around. He kept his eyes forward, fixed on the door, because he was afraid that if he turned away now he would never make it out of this shuttle. Not until he was back on Altean soil.

It’s for your people, he reminded himself. For Allura, and Mother, and Pidge. And for everyone else on Altea.

Reminding himself of that couldn’t keep his heart from nearly beating right out of his chest, though. It was painful against ribcage. Like he’d been hit by a training staff ten too many times. And he felt the ache of it all the way down to the tips of his fingers and toes. It was like all of the panic and fear he’d been refusing to feel since making his decision two weeks ago was now crashing over him in one, overwhelming wave as he stood waiting.

I have to do this. I must.

When the shuttle door opened, it was something of a relief. A cool burst of air brushed over his heated skin and helped clear his mind just enough to get him through the door and onto landing pad. He found it hard to walk any further, but thankfully his role at the moment was to remain in the background as formal greetings and introductions were made. Allura would handle that part, and she quickly strode past him to meet with the Olkari Prime Minister at the foot of the King’s Spire.

“Princess Allura,” the Prime Minister, Ryner, greeted, holding out a hand. “Welcome! We are so pleased to have you here!”

Allura smiled and took Ryner’s hand in both of her own. “Prime Minister. Thank you for agreeing to host this meeting. I know it was very sudden.”

“We were happy to receive your message. Peace is so important. Any help we can offer is our pleasure.”

“Thank you.” She released Ryner’s hand and gestured to her right, where Lance and his mother stood. “You remember the Duchess, I believe. And her son, Prince Lance of Altea.”

“Yes, of course,” Ryner said with a bright smile. She bowed her head towards them as she added, “I’m so happy to see you both again.”

“Thank you,” Lance answered. He was glad at least his voice was steady, that it didn’t crack or shake. He’d been afraid that it might with how anxious he felt inside, and he really didn’t want to give that away through his voice. His mother brushed her fingertips against his wrist. The brief touch gave him a bit of comfort. Reminded him he wasn’t alone, and gave him the courage to ask, “Has the Galra delegation arrived yet?”

Ryner nodded. “Yes. Just before you did. They’re waiting in the Spire, if you’re ready to meet them.”

Lance looked at Allura and his mother. They looked back at him, clearly leaving this decision in his hands. He didn’t know whether to be grateful for that or not, simply because he himself wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do. He appreciated that they were taking him into consideration, but it would have been so much easier to have someone else telling him what to do. Not having to make this decision himself.

He was of two minds about it. On one hand, he really just wanted to delay this first meeting for as long as possible. To pretend this was a normal trip and not the end of life as he knew it. But would his determination last that long if they waited? It was already so fragile, so likely to shatter into a million pieces and send him running for the hills. Wouldn’t it be better then for him to meet this prince he was going to be tied to and learn what to expect from the whole arrangement?

He twisted the ring on his index finger for a moment as he thought, then finally nodded. “We’d be happy to see them now, Prime Minister. If you would kindly show us the way?”

“Of course.”

Ryner dismissed most of the Olkari officials and led their group from the airfield into the King’s Spire. Lance forced himself to follow behind Allura and his mother, but to stay ahead of Pidge, Matt, and Coran. Stuck in the middle as he was, he couldn’t turn around and bolt without the others realizing it, but he was also allowed some breathing room and some time to process how the short hallway opened up into a large, enclosed courtyard with a single tree in the center. Gave him some time to process the sight of the Galrans on the other side of the room.

There were six of them gathered, just as Allura had requested, all of them dressed in almost identical sets of armor, with only the red insignias on each of their chests showing any signs of difference. And even then, the differences were so small they hardly mattered. Not to Lance, who had no idea how to tell one symbol from the other. They all looked the same to him, including the prince’s, whichever of the six he was. Lance really couldn’t tell.

He could, however, confidently say which one of their number was not the prince, as one of their delegation was not actually Galran. Not species-wise, at least. In fact, he looked almost Altean, save for the lack of pointed ears and the facial tattoos every Altean received when they came of age. Perhaps he was human? Lance had heard rumors about Earth— the Galra Empire’s latest conquest— but he’d never had a chance to interact with one of its species.

The man was pale, with dark hair and an angry, red scar across his cheeks and the bridge of his nose. He wore the armor of a Galran soldier, but it looked out of place on him. Like he was meant for a different type of role, or even just a different type of armor, though he still held himself with all the confidence and pride of a seasoned warrior. If Lance had to hazard a guess, he was there as either an adviser or a personal guard. The latter option seemed a bit silly though. All the rest of the delegation, save for one, held at least a foot in height on the human, and could easily protect themselves when it came down to it.

Of course, he looked less out of place than the Galran he was standing next to, who was far shorter and skinnier than Lance had ever known any Galran to be. The top of his head just barely reached the height of the human’s chin, and Lance realized with a bit of surprise that the Galran might actually be shorter than Lance himself. How odd.

The short Galran turned as their group walked into the courtyard. He scanned them all with his yellow eyes, staring for just a beat too long first at Allura, and then at Lance. Probably trying to figure out why two marriage-eligible members of the Altean royal family had come when they were only expecting Allura. His furrowed brows— which Lance noticed were just as black as the slicked-back mop of hair atop his head— told Lance just how right his assumptions had been two weeks ago, when he’d guessed about Allura being the target for this marriage.

Well, they were going to be in for a shock.

“Your Imperial Highness,” Ryner called out, though to Lance’s disappointment, none of the Galrans reacted. There was no way of telling which was the prince from that alone. “May I present the Altean delegation, led by Her Royal Highness, Crown Princess Allura of Altea.”

“And my cousin,” Allura added with a smile, “who has agreed to act as the Altean representative for this marriage.”

That statement earned some unhappy murmurs from the Galran delegation, though the small Galran, he noticed, didn’t say anything at all. He simply tilted his head to the side, confusion smoothing out into a blank mask across his fine, pointed features.

Lance frowned, but stepped forward and swept down into a full, court bow, using every bit of grace he had ever learned to give off a favorable impression. They needed the Galrans not to protest his appointment as the marriage candidate. They needed the Galrans to agree to him instead of Allura, or else this alliance was a lost cause.

“I am Prince Lance of Altea,” he introduced himself. “I hope our negotiations might find success and bring us both peace.”

When he straightened, he found the small Galran had walked closer and was now standing as the head of his delegation. He dipped into a bow to answer Lance— not a full one by Altean standards, but low enough to give Lance the acknowledgment and respect his position demanded. The movement seemed odd from the Galran, as if he wasn’t used to bowing or courtly manners. Which struck Lance as odd, as he knew the Galran court was far more strict in its adherence to rituals and respect than the Altean one. Any member of their court— prince, aristocrat, or guard— would be well-trained and practiced in these sort of things. But this Galran was not.

“Your Royal Highness,” the Galran quietly greeted. The timbre of his voice was just slightly lower than Lance’s own, and a little bit warmer. Lance was surprised to hear such a soft voice come from someone with such an intense gaze. “I am Kyran, second prince of Galra. And, if all is successful, your future husband as well.”

Chapter Text

“Prince Kyran,” the Altean prince repeated with a radiant smile that was obviously forced. “Of course. It is an honor. I’ve heard much about you.”

Keith highly doubted that, but had enough grace not to say so. “I’ve heard much about you as well,” he said instead.

It technically wasn’t a lie, though much of what he’d heard wasn’t exactly positive. Unlike Keith, Lance was a visible presence both on and off the battlefield, using his dual positions as a prince and a paladin to make the most of every situation. And as one of the key players in both the Altean army and its government, Lance was a key target for Galran frustrations. Keith had heard all the stories of Lance’s cruelty, of his vanity, his stupidity, his disregard for others’ lives. Had heard so many stories told in so many different ways, that Keith could no longer tell what was real or not regarding the prince now standing in front of him.

Except that maybe the rumors of Lance’s vanity held some truth after all. Keith had never seen a supposed soldier wear so much jewelry and silk, even for occasions like this. Lance stood proudly across from him, shoulders back and head held high, dressed in all his finery. His dark hair was immaculate beneath his golden circlet, much shorter than Keith’s own hair but still carefully combed back and out of his face. Twin, sapphire jewels dangled from his ears to match the deep blue of his shirt and the white of his cape, and when he crossed his arms, Keith noticed the thin, gold rings that sat on each of Lance’s fingers.

Clearly, he’d taken much care in regards to his own appearance. Just looking at him made Keith feel disheveled and plain in comparison, and Keith wondered if that was a deliberate choice on Lance’s part, or if he really was just that vain like all the Galran soldiers claimed. Keith privately hoped it was the former.

Lance tilted his head to the side, earrings swinging to follow the movement, and considered Keith with the impossibly blue eyes that were the trademark of the Altean royal family. His gaze slid down, then back up, as cold and distant as the vast ice fields of Galra, despite the warm smile still plastered across Lance’s face. Keith had the distinct feeling he’d just been examined, judged, and found sorely wanting.

He didn’t really know how to respond to that.

“I suppose we should begin discussing the terms of our marriage,” Lance said after a moment. His voice was mellow and upbeat. Keith had to commend him for keeping whatever negative emotions he must have been feeling out of his voice. That, at least, would serve him well at the Galran court, if this marriage actually went through. Though he’d have to work on keeping those emotions off his face as well. He was far too expressive.

“If you’re ready to,” Keith replied. “Though perhaps you’d like to rest and refresh first. You look like you need it.”

This, also, technically wasn’t a lie. As immaculate as Lance appeared, there was also a sort of tiredness in the lines of his face that came from the stress of traveling. The Altean delegation had come to greet them straight after landing, after all. As had Keith’s own party, and they hadn’t gotten much rest over the past two days of flying either.

In truth, Keith would have liked to take a day to recuperate after being stuck in the small shuttle Keith’s father had sent him in, but he knew admitting to such would show weakness in the eyes of his fellow Galrans, and he didn’t want word of such getting back to his father or half-brother and ruining all of this. He’d come too far, achieved too much, to let either of them unravel his plans. Even if it meant playing by their rules for now.

Though the journey from Altea to Olkarion was far shorter than the one he’d taken, Keith assumed Lance would feel just as tired and be grateful for the chance to close his eyes for a bit. To wash off the grime of traveling. To actually process this first meeting of theirs.

Lance, however, narrowed his eyes. “No. I’m fine. We Alteans are not so fragile as you seem to think, and these negotiations are too important to put off until tomorrow.” He looked over at where the Olkari officials were standing and offered a terse nod. “Prime Minister Ryner, if you would be so kind. I’m sure there is somewhere more suitable for these discussions than this beautiful courtyard.”

“Yes, of course,” Ryner answered. “We have a room prepared just a bit further inside. I can take you there.”

“Please,” Lance said. Ryner nodded and led the way to a hallway on the other side of the courtyard, Lance following after her with such brisk and purposeful steps that it left Keith wondering just where he’d given offense.

All he’d done was offer a chance for the Altean delegation to rest. Was that really so rude to them? Was there some sort of Altean tradition he was unaware of perhaps?

“Typical Alteans,” one of his guards spat, just quiet enough that the Altean delegation wouldn’t hear as they crossed the room. “Always so full of themselves. And we have to suffer an alliance with them. An alliance! As if they understand the word.”

The other two guards muttered their assent. “This alliance will not last,” one of them said. “I swear by all the gods, we’ll be killed in our beds by those foul creatures. We’d be better off wiping them out rather than making peace.”

If Galra could wipe Altea out, it would have already been done, Keith thought with a scowl. Centuries of fighting, back and forth without any true victory or given ground, made it clear that only a truce would end the fighting. Galra just didn’t have the resources or strength to force a surrender from Altea, and they only grew weaker with each year the war dragged on.

Of course, Keith couldn’t expect the guards his father had sent with him to think in such a way. They were mere pawns in this power play, sent only to intimidate the Alteans into agreeing on better terms for Galra in their eventual treaty. And to keep Keith in line. Keith, too, was a pawn in all of this, after all. He was simply a far more educated one than the guards that surrounded him.

“It was my father’s wish this alliance take place, whatever the cost,” he told them sternly. He turned and glared at them, trying to emulate the bone-chilling imperiousness of his father and half-brother. “If you plan to disobey the emperor in this,” he snapped, “I will make sure it’s the last thing you do. Otherwise, hold your tongues.” They quieted at once, though Keith could tell they weren’t happy about it. That they were downright furious.

They probably hate having to listen to a dirty half-breed, he thought bitterly. Prince or not, I’m still impure in their eyes.

This marriage alliance wasn’t likely to make that any better. There was a reason he was the one being given away to an Altean and not his half-brother, Lotor, even if his father never said it aloud. But Keith knew. He understood, just as he’d understood why Zarkon hadn’t seen fit to acknowledge Keith as his son until he’d found some sort of use for him, when Keith had just entered his fifteenth year of life. As he understood why the Galran court largely ignored him. Why they reviled and rejected him even eight years after he’d come to court.

Bloodlines were important to the Galrans. Strong lineage and pure Galran blood were things fiercely coveted and protected by the upper class, who used such things as a mark of social rank in the court. Lotor was of the purest line, born and bred by the Emperor and his late, Galran Empress to be the paragon of Galran ideals. A marriage to an Altean, even one as royal as Prince Lance or Princess Allura, would only sully that perfect bloodline of his. But not Keith’s. Not the half-blooded bastard born of a human concubine.

Well, at least his impure bloodline taught him a few things these Galra soldiers would never learn. Independence, for one thing. The ability to think for himself. To recognize an opportunity and to use his lot in life to take hold of it.

Lance was already proving to be confusing and temperamental and prideful, and probably more than Keith was able to handle. But he was a prince of Altea. He was the key to this peace treaty, and that alone would give Keith a voice in his father’s court, where he currently had none. Even if his father wasn’t so adamant about this marriage succeeding, Keith would have found a way to make it work anyways.

Now he just needed to make sure Lance wouldn’t reject this alliance in the end— a task that would be a lot easier said than done, if the way this first meeting was going was any indication.

Sighing, he followed the Altean delegation from the courtyard to the room the Olkari had prepared for negotiations. The rest of his party was slower to do the same, save for Shiro, head of Keith’s personal guard, who silently followed Keith at a respectful distance.

It felt odd to have Shiro walking behind him instead of at his side. They’d dispensed with formalities years ago, back when Shiro had been sent to teach Keith how to fight, long before Keith was summoned to court and made into a prince of Galra. Keith had been more human then. More like his mother, more informal and brash, and completely in awe of Shiro’s skill with a sword.

Shiro, he’d later learned, had been part of the first wave of soldiers Earth had sent against the Galran army— a fighter so fierce that even the Galrans had to acknowledge his formidable skills. Of course, as a captive of war, he couldn’t be used in the Galran army, or even trusted to serve in the Imperial Guard. So instead Shiro had been wasted on the emperor’s bastard, in the hope that he’d either kill Keith or shape him into fighter that could be of some use in the future. Keith was just lucky Shiro had been more inclined to educate than to take revenge through bloodshed.

Keith wished he could speak more openly with Shiro right now. He’d always appreciated Shiro’s insight and advice into situations, and would have welcomed any thoughts he might have had about Keith’s future husband. But with his father’s men walking behind them, watching their every move like hawks, it just wasn’t possible. He and Shiro had to follow the formalities his father demanded. And Keith would have to navigate this on his own.

That didn’t really make him feel more confident as he entered the room Ryner had led them to. Nor did the glare Lance leveled against him as he sat across from Lance at the table.

“Now,” Allura said once all of them had settled around the table, “let us begin negotiations. We have much to discuss and decide.”

“Indeed,” their ambassador replied, and then he laid out all of Galra’s requests.

Keith let the ambassador take charge of the discussions with a small sense of relief. Though he’d been told all of his father’s terms and could repeat them to the Alteans upon request, he couldn’t honestly say he understood why all of them were necessary. The request for money made sense, for this marriage and all the necessities of helping Lance settle into the Imperial Palace would otherwise cost Galra a small fortune that could be spent on rebuilding their towns instead. And the mutual agreement to lay down arms and pull back their armies was obvious, given that their entire goal here was to negotiate peace. But why his father wanted several Altean hostages to ensure compliance when they would already have Lance at their court was beyond Keith. As well as why his father was so insistent on being granted access to information on Altean technology and weapons.

That request didn’t sit well with Keith. It seemed to him that if they were truly serious about ending this war, then there would be no need to know such information. Much less to demand it as part of a peace treaty.

“No,” Allura answered to that last request, just as Keith knew she would. “That information is for Alteans, and Alteans alone. Not even our staunchest allies are allowed access.”

“Why would you want it anyways?” one of the other Alteans asked. He leaned his elbows on top of the table and folded his hands in front of his face. “All of our weapons are coded to Altean quintessence. They would be useless to you. And in any case,” he added, quirking a smug and familiar grin at the Galran ambassador, “if we are to be at peace, then such information shouldn’t be necessary. For either of us.”

He had a point. His argument was strong. And, taking a second look at the Altean, Keith understood why.

The speaker was Matthias, the Altean diplomat they had released only two weeks before to secure these negotiations. Two weeks on Altea had done a world of good for him, adding back color to his once pale skin and rounding out his formerly emaciated form with a healthy amount of weight. Keith had barely recognized him at first glance, though he remembered Matt well from the time he spent as Galra’s hostage. Remembered too how shrewd and calculating Matt actually was beneath his gentle exterior.

He was not one to be taken lightly. Though it seemed their ambassador was not aware of that fact, as he impatiently argued, “This request is simply one of insurance, to make sure your weapons cannot be used against us if you prove false. Our emperor does not plan to use them.”

“I cannot say that I believe that,” Matt replied. “In fact, it seems to me that Galra’s terms are all about making sure Altea cannot attack Galra. But tell me, what assurances and concessions does your emperor offer to ensure Galra does not attack Altea?”

The ambassador scowled. “This is a meeting of peace,” he reminded Matt sharply. “I am simply relaying my emperor’s requests. If Altea did not think to make similar demands, then that is not Galra’s fault.”

“We did not mean to offend you,” Allura interjected before Matt could debate the matter further. “We are all here for the same reason, after all. I’m sure we can come to an agreement that will suit both of our nations,” she said, though the ambassador still looked unimpressed by it all.

“My emperor is simply seeking reassurance that the attacks on his subjects will stop,” he repeated haughtily. “If you will not allow access for that reason, then consider allowing it for the sake of your prince’s lion. Our mechanics will not know how to care for it otherwise.”

“That is no issue,” Lance said, speaking up for the first time since his and Keith’s conversation in the courtyard. All eyes turned to him in surprise. Or well, all Galran eyes turned to him in surprise. The Alteans seemed more resigned than anything else. “Blue will be staying on Altea with the other lions. I am not bringing her with me.”

The statement shocked Keith, just as it clearly shocked the rest of his party. The ambassador spluttered. “Surely, there’s no need for that. Galra is fully capable of maintaining and protecting your lion,” he assured, looking from Lance, to Allura, then back again as he tried to make sense of this revelation. But Lance didn’t budge.

“You misunderstand, ambassador,” the Altean prince said, giving a sardonic smile. His eyes were narrowed, sharp and piercing, and where there’d been nothing but coldness earlier, there was now sheer determination and fire. As if daring the Galrans to continue arguing against him. “I might be the pilot of the blue lion, but she does not belong to me. She is not mine to give away. And she is definitely not yours to demand.”

The ambassador drew back, hand pressed to his chest and a sour look on his face. Keith had to bite back a smile at his displeasure. He had little love or respect for the Galran ambassador— more than he had for the soldiers, but still very little. Seeing him be silenced by Lance so neatly was somehow strangely amusing. Though Lance’s outspokenness certainly wouldn’t endear him to the ambassador, whom he would have to deal with on a regular basis if this marriage went through. And that could become a problem.

Nevertheless, Keith was a bit relieved by Lance’s determination to leave the lion on Altea. He’d originally assumed, when he’d learned the Alteans were offering him Lance instead of Allura, that the renowned paladin would demand to bring his equally-renowned lion to Galra, and had started mentally shifting his plans to include its protection. After all, a ship as powerful as the blue lion in the hands of either his father or half-brother would mean nothing but trouble. It was a relief to know he wouldn’t need to worry about that now, as Lance had already taken care of it for him.

That realization made Keith reassess Lance, who was still staring down the ambassador with barely concealed irritation. Lance leaned back in his chair. His fingers tapped a steady rhythm against the table, gold rings flashing beneath the room’s lights as he continued to glare, until the Galran ambassador attempted once more to to argue their terms and Lance silenced him with a single, raised hand.

“I’ve heard enough for today, ambassador,” Lance said. “Your terms are unacceptable. What you ask is equal to our surrender, not an alliance. If you truly want this peace treaty, then I suggest you rethink your demands, because I will never agree with what they are now.”

“Lance,” Allura hissed in warning, but the Altean prince didn’t listen.

Instead, he stood from his chair, glaring at each of them in turn with his impossibly blue eyes, and then swept out of the room with his cape billowing regally behind him. Allura made a hasty apology to the Galran delegation before she, too, stood and chased after her cousin. And, after several long minutes of sitting in silence, it then became clear to both parties that neither Lance nor Allura were returning to the room. Not any time that day, at least.

Keith huffed and slumped back in his chair. The rest of the Alteans wasted no time in following after their royal leaders once they all agreed to end negotiations for the rest of the day. They filed quietly out of the room, far more reserved than any of Keith’s guards, who complained loudly about Altean arrogance and selfishness as soon as the Altean delegation passed through the door.

Keith couldn’t agree with them. It wasn’t as if the Alteans were asking for anything unreasonable. In fact, if they hadn’t argued with his father’s terms then Keith would have been far more concerned. In any case, their demands for this alliance weren’t Keith’s current concern. He was far more interested in the Altean prince making the demands than in the demands themselves.

While the ambassador and his guards were distracted by their complaints, Keith leaned closer to his personal guard. “What do you think, Shiro?” he asked as softly as he could.

Shiro hummed for a moment and looked at the door. “He has no lack of courage, I’ll give him that.”

“Perhaps. He shows his emotions too freely, though. Seems a little reckless to me.”

“As if you have any room to talk about being reckless,” Shiro teased. He turned serious soon after, however, and absentmindedly tapped one of his metal fingers against his cheek as he thought. “He’s not a bad choice,” Shiro finally said. “He seems intelligent, and clearly knows how to influence a social situation to an outcome he wants. You could do far worse.”

And Keith supposed there was truth enough in that. He didn’t know much about Lance yet, but he did know the Altean prince was fiercely independent, stubborn, and at least a little bit more sensible than the average Galran courtier. It wasn’t much, but it was enough for Keith for the moment.

He really could do worse than Prince Lance of Altea. So now he needed to make sure this worked out somehow. No matter what that meant.

Chapter Text

If Lance had any hopes of their negotiations continuing more smoothly after that first, disastrous day, they were soon crushed by the equally-disastrous days that followed.

“It has to be some sort of joke,” Lance said, pacing up and down the length of his and Allura’s room with quick, angry strides. His boots clacked against the tile floors with each step, and the sound only drove him further into his aggravation, prodding at that feeling of restlessness that had been thrumming through his veins all week. “It has to be a test, or trial, or… something.”

That was the only thing that could explain why the Galrans kept making such impossible demands, day after day, session after session. Different demands each day, of course, keeping in line with Lance’s constant requests for them to revise their terms, but most of them were still just as impossible as the ones from the day before. Money, Altea could agree to provide, but there was just no way they could allow Galra to hold some of their people hostage, as first suggested. Or to permit young Galrans entry into Altea’s learning institutes, as the Galran delegation counter-suggested the next day. And any knowledge of Altean technology or weapons was completely off-limits, no matter how many different ways the Galrans worded their request.

For a peace treaty, the Galrans were demanding far too much, and also giving far too little in return. They knew it too. Lance could see it in the thin curl of the ambassador’s lips whenever he presented their new terms. That smug look that conveyed just how confident he was in getting his way in the end, despite Altea’s resistance. Yes, Lance was certain the Galrans knew they were asking for the impossible. That they were being stubborn and unreasonable, and pushing the Altean delegation’s patience to its limits. No doubt that was why they kept asking in the first place.

He huffed and sat down heavily on his bed, right beside Matt, who was already dressed in the diplomatic uniform he only wore for special occasions— white cape and golden, ambassadorial awards and all. Lance stubbornly ignored Matt’s uniform and the reason why he was wearing it to instead focus on his irritation with the Galrans. Crossing his arms, he asked, “Is this really how Galrans negotiate with others? How long do we have to put up with this?”

“As long as it takes,” Allura answered from where she sat at the room’s vanity. She looked back at Lance through the mirror’s reflection as she clipped an earring into place and added, “They cannot keep up these demands forever. Either they will come to a reasonable agreement soon, or they will call off the treaty altogether. And I would rather wait for that decision than have them call it off because we pushed them too hard.”

“The Galrans are just testing our boundaries, Lance. Seeing where they can push, and what we’re willing to be flexible on. They’ll tone down their demands in time,” Matt said. Allura nodded in agreement.

“Regardless, we have to remain reasonable.”

“Why?” Lance asked with a scowl. “If they’re just going to keep demanding the impossible to test us, why shouldn’t we do the same? Why can’t we play their game?”

“That’s not our way, Lance.”

“So what? Does it really matter at this point?”

He didn’t see the purpose in remaining so passive while the Galrans made demand after demand. It seemed to him that if the Galrans were going to push boundaries, then the Alteans could do the same. They could ask for the impossible and see how the Galrans liked it. Maybe they could even find a bit of leverage to use against the Galrans in the future, instead of sticking to the reasonable and unaggressive terms they’d given the Galrans and gaining barely anything.

At the very least, it would feel like they were actually doing something and actively participating in negotiations. Hearing the Galrans demand so much day after day while his own delegation just answered in the way they had at every other meeting was quickly wearing away at Lance’s nerves, making him feel restless. Useless, even. And Lance hated feeling like that more than anything else.

Allura pinned back the last of her long, white hair, and then turned around to face Lance. She looked troubled, a frown across her lips and tiny folds of skin between her furrowed brows. “Calm yourself, Lance. We came here to create peace, not start another war,” she said, and Lance had to look away in shame, knowing she was right. Knowing that fighting back as he desired could quite easily end the peace talks and send them back into war. And that was the last thing Lance wanted to do, even while knowing that succeeding in these peace talks meant he’d have to marry the Galran prince and leave Altea behind forever.

That was his duty, after all. This alliance was far too important for the good of their people to let negotiations fail, no matter what that meant for Lance in the end.

There was a rustle of silk and soft footsteps, and then Allura was standing before him and placing a gentle hand on Lance’s head. “I know it’s difficult,” she said, “but we must remain patient. Perhaps this delay is a good thing. It will give you time to learn more about the Galran court, after all. And about your future husband.”

“By talking to him at tonight’s banquet, you mean,” Lance muttered.

“Exactly.” Allura ruffled his hair a bit. When Lance glanced back up at her, she smiled gently back and lightly tapped his nose. “Don’t take too long to get ready. The Olkari arranged this banquet for us. It would be rude to make them wait.”

“Of course,” Lance sighed. He kissed her knuckles and added, “You may go ahead without me, cousin. I will be down shortly,” before standing and walking over to the vanity. Allura seemed to hesitate for a moment, as if wanting to say more, but then Lance heard the soft swish of her silk skirt as she walked away and the light thud of the door closing behind her, and he collapsed down onto the vanity’s stool with another, long sigh.

He’d nearly forgotten about the banquet in his frustration over the Galra delegation’s actions. Now that he remembered, he was dreading the very thought of it. A whole night where he would be forced to make nice with the Galrans— to share food, and conversation, and possibly even to dance with them. With Prince Kyran. Did Galrans even dance? Did humans? Lance might not mind dancing with the prince’s human companion too much. He had a kind face and a comforting smile, which he always flashed at Lance during negotiations whenever the other Galrans weren’t paying attention.

But the prince. Kyran. Well, Lance didn’t know what to make of him. Aside from their first meeting in the Spire courtyard, Kyran hadn’t said a single word to any of them, either in or out of the negotiation room. He just stared at all of them with those sharp, yellow eyes, judging them and their words in complete silence. Judging Lance most of all. The weight of Kyran’s gaze always left Lance feeling unsettled and annoyed, like he was being assessed and found lacking, though he couldn’t quite figure out why.

What was it that made him so displeasing to the Galran prince? Was it his opinions? His appearance? The simple fact that he was Altean? Because clearly there was something, and Lance wasn’t sure he could last through a whole night of that piercing gaze without demanding to know what that something was. He wasn’t even sure he could last a single hour without demanding to know, or saying something equally as rude.

He slumped forward against the vanity and looked at himself in the mirror. He ran a finger over the skin of his cheek, right between his eye and his blue tattoo. Kyran had snidely commented on his tired appearance on that first day. Lance hoped he didn’t look so haggard now. He really didn’t want to deal with anymore insinuations about how weak or easily worn out Alteans were in comparison to Galrans. He was a prince of Altea, and he had to look his absolute best.

His gaze flickered up to the reflection of Matt, who was still sitting on Lance’s bed, completely at ease. “You seem oddly calm for this whole situation,” Lance commented. “I was expecting you to be more upset about this marriage alliance, considering events of the past two years.”

“And if your intended had been Prince Lotor instead of Prince Kyran, you would have been right,” Matt answered with a shrug. His tone was casual, as if the entire thing was inconsequential, but his words caught Lance’s attention. A thousand questions popped into his mind, along with the recollection of an off-hand comment Matt had made two weeks before about interacting with the Galran court while in their possession. Lance sat up straight and spun around to face Matt, suddenly very focused.

“What do you know about Prince Kyran?” he asked. His fingers curled into fists in his lap, and he leaned towards Matt with interest. “There must be some reason you seem to favor him over his brother. And of everyone who knows him, I trust your opinion most.”

Or at least trusted that Matt wouldn’t try to sugarcoat his opinions of Lance’s future husband the way any of the Galrans probably would if Lance even dared to ask. He wanted the truth about Kyran. Wanted to know what he was getting into. Wanted to know if enduring and succeeding in these negotiations would even be worth it.

Matt considered that in silence for a moment. He had his legs crossed, one foot swinging idly over the edge of the bed and brushing against the dark, green bedsheets in a steady rhythm of swoosh, swoosh, swoosh as he thought. His head tilted to the side.

“Prince Kyran is… different,” he finally said, speaking slowly, as if weighing each word as he said them. “He never treated me with the contempt the other Galrans showed. I’m not saying he was kind, but he was respectful of my position, and he never mocked or hurt me like the others.”

“You make him sound so appealing,” Lance said dryly, which made Matt laugh.

“Well, I admit he’s not my first choice for you, but as far as Galrans go, you could do worse.”

“Like Lotor?”

Matt nodded. “Prince Lotor is cruel, and he’s ambitious. You would have been a problem to all his plans if you had married him. And you know how Galrans tend to deal with their problems.”

Lance looked down at the floor, biting his lip. He knew exactly what Matt was talking about. He knew just how easily— how likely, even— it would have been for Lotor to have him killed while making it look like an accident. How likely it still was, even if Kyran turned out to be as tolerant as Matt was making him out to be. Lance had no delusions about what his position at the Galra court would be. He knew just how hated he would be by everyone. How much he would need someone’s support in that world.

He just didn’t know if Kyran was someone he could trust for that.

“What makes Kyran so different from Lotor?” Lance asked. Feeling anxiety curling in his stomach, he quickly glanced up at Matt, and then back down at the floor, unable to look at Matt without thinking of what his own future could be. He twisted the one ring he’d decided to wear that night around his finger, rubbing the smooth, gold metal and the jagged bump of its inlaid sapphire with his thumb. “I mean, they’re brothers. How can they be so different from one another?”

How can I trust that Kyran won’t kill me in cold blood like Lotor would?

Matt hummed. “I think it might have to do with Kyran’s upbringing,” he said.

“His upbringing?”

“Yes.” Matt stood and walked toward Lance. “From what I gathered during my time there, Kyran is only Lotor’s half-brother, and was mostly raised away from the court. I think that’s why he’s not as cruel as the others. He certainly didn’t seem to be very popular among most of the nobility.”

Lance groaned. “So I’m marrying an outcast.”

“You would be an outcast at the court regardless,” Matt reminded him. He opened Lance’s jewelry case and riffled through its contents as he added, “The fact that Kyran’s so disregarded at court might actually be to your advantage. You won’t be required to make as many public appearances as his spouse, and that will give you time to actually settle in and find a footing in the court. If you can quietly make a few allies, you should be safe. And Kyran’s own position should protect you until then.”

“But how do you even know I can trust Kyran?”

That was his whole issue with this arrangement, after all. Lance wanted to believe what Matt was saying, wanted to hope that this marriage he was agreeing to would work out for the better and keep him safe, but he was conflicted. He couldn’t be certain. And it was one thing to trust Kyran’s good intentions for this whole arrangement, but quite another to trust Kyran with his life. Lance just didn’t know. He didn’t know.

He groaned again, and ran a hand through his hair in aggravation. He hated how uncertain all of this was. Hated having to question everything the Galrans said or did, unsure of their intentions or sincerity. At least during the war it was simple. The Galrans were their enemies, they wanted to destroy Altea’s way of life, and all Lance had to do was defend his planet against their attacks. There was none of this doubt, or this hesitation.

Matt looked down at him and smiled. He lifted a circlet from Lance’s jewelry case— a delicate thing of thin, golden wires woven into a web of loops and scrolls with a small, sapphire teardrop dangling from its center point— and held it up for inspection. Lance touched a finger to the sapphire and let out a slow breath.

He’d completely forgotten he’d even packed that circlet. It was special to him. Something he’d only ever worn once, when he’d been presented to Altea as the official paladin of the Blue Lion. It was still just as beautiful as it was back then, and still inspired within him that feeling of fierce pride and confidence that he’d felt all those years ago, when he stood beside his lion and took the paladin’s oath— a feeling he needed now more than ever, and Matt knew it.

“I don’t know for sure that you can trust him,” Matt admitted, “but I trust in your ability to make the right decision, and to make the best of any situation. And I hope, in time, Kyran will prove to be as worthy husband for you as he’s been an ally to me. After all, Kyran’s the one that convinced Zarkon to let me go. If it wasn’t for him, I probably wouldn’t be here. And these peace talks might never have occurred.”

Carefully, Matt settled the circlet on Lance’s head, adjusting it until it sat perfectly over his ears and across his forehead, sapphire teardrop resting against the skin right between Lance’s eyebrows. Matt hummed in satisfaction.

“There,” he said. “Now you look perfect.”

He smiled again and placed his hand on top of Lance’s head, much like Allura had earlier. The gentle pressure and warmth of his hand seeped into Lance, radiating comfort and assurance in the way that only Matt, whom Lance had always seen as an older brother of sorts, was able to do. Then Matt patted his head and withdrew, turning instead to walk out of the room.

And Lance was left to ponder his words in silence.

 

Chapter Text

Lance stood outside the double doors of the Spire’s banquet room trying to find the courage to go in. He heard the chatter of guests and soft laughter and the woody timbre of traditional Olkari flutes, and he knew he needed to head inside to join them, but he somehow couldn’t find the will to. He was frozen. Paralyzed by confusion and the anxiety of what he might find just through those doors. Or rather, whom he might find.

It had taken Lance longer than he had planned to come out of his room after Matt left. He’d spent the better part of an hour just sitting at his bedroom’s vanity, trying to process everything Matt had told him. None of it made sense. Just the fact that Kyran wasn’t like the other Galrans, that he might actually be genuine and trustworthy, that he had saved Matt… it didn’t make sense at all.

Surely there was some sort of evil plan at work here. There had to be. No Galran, no matter how pure their bloodline, would be so willing to help a captive enemy escape. Not without some other motive, at least. And if Lance was going to marry this guy, he needed to know what that motive was. He had to know what he was getting himself involved with.

However, Lance couldn’t convince himself to walk through those doors. He knew he needed confront Kyran and figure out his plans, but then Lance thought of Kyran’s sharp, yellow eyes and stony silence, and Lance felt afraid.

He closed his eyes and breathed in slowly. This was just silly of him. As silly as a child’s fear of the dark, or their fear of a summer storm. There was nothing to fear here. Nothing would harm him. Not so long as he was under Olkari protection, with Pidge and her bayard watching his back. And Lance might not have his own bayard with him, but he still knew how to fight and defend himself. This fear was unbecoming of an experienced soldier like him. Even more of a paladin of Voltron.

His hand lifted to touch his circlet. The thin, gold wires were warm beneath his fingers, heated by the skin it rested against. Allura had commissioned the circlet for the ceremony that had confirmed him as a paladin of Voltron— as Blue’s paladin. He’d felt so proud to wear it back then. So self-assured and eager to face the battles ahead of him. So confident in his own abilities to fight and win.

Where was all that confidence now?

Oh, how Blue would laugh at him if she could see him now. Her fearless paladin, paralyzed by the mere thought of facing a single Galran. Lance could just imagine the teasing she would poke at him. The amusement she’d feel at how unreasonably nervous he now felt. More scared of a little banquet than an actual battle, she’d tease. My silly, little paladin.

Lance smiled at that thought, though his chest still ached over he absence. He wished, now more than ever, to have Blue there with him, supporting him. But her place was on Altea, in the security of the Castle of Lions, far from Galra’s reach. And his place was here, keeping her and Altea safe.

He needed to be brave for Blue’s sake. For his people’s sake. For them, he needed to somehow follow through with this marriage. To trust in the promise of Olkarion’s protection and walk through those doors.

“There is nothing to fear,” he whispered to himself. “Enemy he may be, but there is nothing he can do to me here.” And Lance intended to keep that security in the future. The more he learned now, the more he could prevent, and the safer he would be. But first he needed to walk through those doors.

He took a deep breath. Drawing on every drop of courage he could call forth, he opened his eyes and pressed his hands against the smooth metal of the double doors. They slowly swung open beneath his force. The bright light of the banquet hall flooded the hallway where he stood inch by inch, and Lance lifted his gaze to look upon the banquet gathering as it was revealed to him.

It was not as ornate as Lance was used to. It did not glitter like the extravagant balls of Altea. But its simplicity was refreshing, a kind of beauty in itself. The banquet hall was bedecked only in the banners of the three nations that were gathered; the gold lion over a field of white of Altea, the double yellow waves on orange of Olkarion, and the purple, upside down trident on dark grey of the Galra Empire. Lance stared for a moment at the Galran banner hanging at the other end of the hall. That emblem had always been a symbol of the enemy. Soon, Lance would be taking that symbol as his own, trading his lion for its sharp points.

That was the one thing all of them could agree on, after all— that Lance would give up his home on Altea and join Kyran on Galra. It only made sense. Kyran, as the emperor’s second son, held a stronger claim to Galra’s throne than Lance held to Altea’s. And, in any case, keeping Kyran out was in Altea’s best interests. It would make sure Galra held no influence or or advantage over Altea and its armies. But Lance wondered why Galra was so willing to accept Lance into its imperial family. Were they just that confident in their own power that they felt Lance was no threat? Or was Matt right about Kyran’s position at court? Did Kyran’s lack of influence mean the Galrans were unconcerned by Lance’s possible power?

Lance looked down from the banner to the Galran delegation sitting beneath it. The six, all dressed in formal military uniform instead of their normal armor, sat in a row at the banquet table with Kyran in the middle, flanked by the ambassador on one side and his human guard on the other. Empty chairs filled the rest of the long table, with an ornate throne at one head where the Olkari king would sit, though it seemed he had not yet arrived.

At least Lance wasn’t the last to the banquet. That would have been terribly bad form. However, guests still lingered together in small groups on the expansive floor Lance assumed would at some point serve as a dance floor, all waiting for the Olkari king to arrive and start the festivities. Lance spotted Allura standing with Coran and Ryner near the edge of the room and made his way over.

“Cousin,” he greeted with a bow, and then bowed again to Ryner. “Prime Minister.”

Ryner bowed in return. “Your Highness, I am so pleased to see you again. I do hope you will enjoy the banquet.”

“I’m sure I will. It looks marvelous."

Allura nodded and smiled. “We are so grateful to you for arranging it,” she said. “We do hope it will encourage more goodwill between Altea and the Galra Empire.”

“Yes, that would be most desirable,” Ryner answered. She smiled serenely, glancing over at the Galrans, who were keeping to themselves while everyone else mingled. Lance followed her gaze and found Kyran watching them closely. He snapped his gaze away, feeling discomfort twisting in his gut, and heard Ryner quietly laugh. “Well, at least he’s curious.”

Lance wasn’t entirely sure that was a good thing.

Even turned away, Lance could feel Kyran’s eyes boring into his back— weighing, evaluating, judging him. The attention made him uneasy, especially because he knew he would have to confront Kyran at some point during the night. It was as if the universe was telling him to get on with the matter. To just go up to him and sort it all out. The pressure he felt was so great that Lance actually almost followed through, damn the consequences.

However, before Lance could do anything, the fanfare of Olkari flutes filled the banquet hall, announcing the arrival of the Olkari king. Lance turned with the rest of the guests to face the double doors, which swung open to reveal a squat, round figure dressed in deep reds and oranges. All of the Olkari gathered bowed to the figure, and Lance followed suit with the rest of his party not long after, but he couldn’t help feeling a bit… underwhelmed.

This was King Lubos? The ruler of the great Olkari kingdom?

King Lubos waved lazily at all those gathered and waddled into the banquet hall. It was strange to see him surrounded by the rest of his people, who were all tall and slender and graceful. The Olkari officials all carried themselves with a sort of poise their king seemed to lack, though Lance would admit that had less to do with his physique than it did his awareness. King Lubos seemed to care little for where he was or who he was surrounded by. His attention was focused solely on the banquet table, which he hurried to without even acknowledging the guests bowing to him as he passed.

It was a very different attitude than Lance was used to seeing from a monarch. He was suddenly very grateful that Ryner was overseeing the peace talks between Altea and Galra and not this king that kept himself so detached.

“The feast will be starting soon,” Ryner said as King Lubos sat in the throne at the head of the table. She smiled and gestured toward the empty chairs as she added, “Please feel free to help yourselves to anything at our table. Our home is your home.” Then she bowed her head and left to take her spot at Lubos’s side.

Lance sighed, warily eyeing the empty chairs across from the Galrans that he knew his delegation would be expected to fill. And he had a pretty good idea of where he would be placed among them.

Sure enough, when he and Allura made their way over to the table, he found his name card placed at the chair directly across from Kyran’s, just as he’d feared. But what could he do about it? Ryner and the other officials had specifically created this seating arrangement, and as this banquet was meant to celebrate the future peace and unity between Altea and Galra, it only made sense to have the two princes that would soon be married sitting across from one another. If Lance tried to change his seat, it would be seen as an insult, both to Olkari hospitality and to the dignity of the Galran prince, which Lance simply couldn’t afford.

He just had to endure. Getting through a meal shouldn’t be too bad, after all. As long as he continued to eat, he wouldn’t have to make conversation or meet Kyran’s unnerving gaze. It wasn’t as if they could talk about what Lance really wanted to discuss anyways. There were too many people around for that sort of conversation. He could put it off for just a bit longer.

With that silent reassurance, Lance took a deep breath and sank down into his seat, steadfastly ignoring the sharp gaze he already felt upon him. He was glad at least to have Allura and his mother on either side of him, flanking him with their support. It made him feel a bit more secure. A bit more sure of himself and what he needed to do. He reached over beneath the table to take his mother’s hand for a brief moment, drawing strength and comfort from the security of her touch, and then he waited silently with the rest of the guests for the feast to begin.

Platters of food were brought out at King Lubos’s command as everyone settled into their seats. The tantalizing smell of roasted meat and fresh-baked bread filled the hall. Lance sat up straighter at the scent and looked toward the soldiers, wondering what delicacies the officials had planned for them. He was surprised to see, when the servers reached his end of the table, platters filled both with traditional Altean food and dishes Lance had never seen before in his life. He assumed those dishes were Galran in nature, and probably what Lance had to look forward to in the very near future.

He bit back a grimace as he looked over the Galran food. Many of the dishes appeared meat-based in nature, which Lance could appreciate, though how they were cooked left the meat looking charred all over and practically drowned in deep red or green stew. It was heavy and thick. So different from Altea’s light and leafy cuisine. Lance wasn’t even sure he’d be able to stomach it. But would he find anything else once he was in Galra?

Perhaps he should try it. See what he needed to get accustomed to, though he was loathe to give up this last chance to enjoy Altean delicacies.

“Vremuriac,” a deep voice said. Lance looked up sharply, first at Kyran, who had a pinched expression across his face, and then to his side, where Lance found the human guard smiling back at him. “The dish is called vremuriac. Did you want some?”

“Oh!” Lance exclaimed, finally realizing how strange he must have looked just staring at the food. “No, thank you. I was just curious.”

“I see.” The guard’s gaze darted between the dish, Kyran, and Lance for a moment, and then a small, sly smile stretched across his lips. “It’s actually not that bad, you know. Prince Kyran is rather fond of it.”

“How nice,” Lance replied, not sure what else to say. He looked back at Kyran, as if looking for confirmation, but only saw his mouth pressed into a thin line, yellow eyes glaring down at the plate in front of him.

They weren’t as flat as Lance had first assumed, actually. Not like the rest of the Galran’s eyes. He’d never been close enough to notice it before, but now that they were sitting across from each other, knees almost touching beneath the table, Lance could see the subtle ring of dark gold in the center of his otherwise yellow eyes, right where a colored iris would be for an Altean. And for humans as well, if the guard was anything to go by.

As a matter of fact, now that Lance was paying attention, he saw several differences between Kyran and the rest of the Galrans aside from just his eyes and his height, which Lance had already noticed back when they’d first met. He still shared the same purple skin, the same large ears, and the same pointed teeth, but his facial features were sharper than the average Galran. More defined, more delicate. He was all angles and sharp points where the rest of the Galrans in his entourage showed flatness and square lines. Even his ears, which at first glance seemed to be the same as all the rest, angled up to a small, thin point that barely came past the top of his head. The others all had larger, more curved ears that were also covered in far more fur. Kyran still had some, but it was sleeker, smoother, and less overwhelming. The most abundant amount of hair Kyran showed took form in the black strands he kept slicked back and tied up.

That wasn’t something normal for Galrans. Not as far as Lance knew, at least. And combined with all the rest of it, Lance had to wonder at his parentage. Matt had mentioned something about Kyran being only Lotor’s half-brother, and that he’d spent most of his life away from court. So perhaps Kyran wasn’t the pure-blooded Galran prince they all assumed he was after all. Perhaps he had some Altean blood running through his veins. Or maybe even human.

The thought was like a revelation to Lance. All the things he’d been questioning about Kyran and their marriage started making sense. Why Kyran was so despised at court, and why his personal guard was a human, and why the Galrans were so willing to offer him in marriage to an Altean despite the importance they placed on bloodlines.

Of course they’d be willing to sacrifice Kyran if he wasn’t actually pure Galran. He was already tainted in their eyes.

Lance glowered down at his plate and viciously skewered a piece of meat on his fork. He was irritated. Not at Kyran in particular, but at the fact that his heritage was the reason he was being offered as Lance’s intended in the first place. The Galrans were essentially insulting Altea by offering up their unwanted prince. It didn’t matter that Kyran was quite possibly the better, more trustworthy option, or that his bloodline didn’t even really matter to Lance; Galra was still disrespecting the honor of Altea, and of the treaty they were there to create. And they didn’t even have the decency to be truthful about it.

What else were the Galrans hiding? What plan did they hold? What were they trying to achieve?

And why did Kyran, who surely knew all of this from the very beginning, even agree to be a pawn in this game when the only thing he’d get from it was more scorn?

There was something more going on here than a simple peace agreement, of that Lance was now sure. If not for Galra, then at least for Kyran. There was no way he would have agreed to this marriage unless he was getting something out of it. Moreover, he wouldn’t have tried so hard to get Matt released and sent back to Altea with the ambassador without some ulterior motive. The risk was too great for someone in his position to take unless there was an even greater reward.

But what was it? What did Kyran want?

Lance stewed over that question for the rest of the feast, barely paying attention to what was happening around him. Eventually the entrees were taken away and replaced with desserts, but it all seemed to taste the same to Lance, sitting like dirt on his tongue as he grew more and more frustrated over his own lack of answers.

He just didn’t know enough about the situation, or about Kyran himself, to guess what kind of angle the Galran prince was aiming for. It was entirely possible Kyran didn’t want peace at all, but rather a link into Altea, where he could gather all the information Galra would need to launch a final attack. Then again, it was also possible that Kyran was just as sincere and eager to end this war as Lance was. Perhaps he was doing it for his people. Or perhaps their marriage wasn’t as disadvantageous for Kyran as Lance believed. Perhaps it would afford Kyran a stronger voice within his father’s court.

Lance shook his head while the sound of flutes and strings and chairs scraping back from the table filled the banquet hall. Lost in thought, he followed Allura mechanically as she stood and glided across the hall to the dance floor. He took the spot by her side, but he didn’t see the banquet hall or the dance floor or the many Olkari couples that filled it. Instead, he saw the twisted knots of possibilities that were tying him to Kyran, trying to untangle them enough to see just what might have led them to this.

At least, he was until he felt a sharp jab in his side that brought him back to reality.

Exhaling, Lance clasped a hand over his side, right where the elbow had hit. He glared at Allura, but his cousin didn’t seem to care. She met his glare without shame. There was an expectant gleam in her eyes that made Lance uneasy. Even more so when she subtly gestured at the dance floor with a tilt of her head.

“Do I have to?” Lance asked, knowing exactly what Allura wanted from him. What she was expecting. Allura didn’t answer him verbally, but sent a pointed glance back at the table where the Galrans were still sitting— one that allowed for no argument. Lance sighed.

He should have seen this coming, really. He knew all the customs and traditions Alteans placed on their banquets. Knew what it meant to be a guest of honor at any celebration. And if he was anything here on Olkarion, he was certainly a guest of honor— one half of a pair whose marriage agreement here would end a centuries-long war.

Lance strode back towards the table, trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible. He didn’t want any more attention for this than necessary, particularly not before he had Kyran’s agreement. It would be too humiliating to be turned down with everyone else’s eyes fixed on them.

At least if Kyran said no, Lance would have a legitimate excuse to go back to his corner and return to his thoughts.

On the other hand, if Kyran said yes, Lance would have the perfect opportunity to get Kyran away from his guards and demand some answers. They could finally talk, and Lance could try to scope out what Kyran’s motivations were, what his plans and desires and ambitions for this marriage would be. As awkward and tense as that conversation was sure to be, it was something Lance needed, if only to soothe some of the questions that had racing through his mind all night.

Lance wasn’t sure which outcome he hoped for more.

The Galrans didn’t look up or acknowledge him as he passed behind them, not until he stopped beside Kyran’s and dipped into a bow, one hand extended before him. “Prince Kyran,” he said in a low voice, “might I have the pleasure of a dance?”

“A dance,” Kyran repeated. Then, after a beat of silence, “Why?”

Lance grimaced. “I’m afraid it’s Altean custom. The guests of honor are always expected to lead at least one dance. I’m still bound to these customs, and I would be honored to share this dance with you.”

Kyran said nothing for a moment. Lance waited in the silence, still bent over in his bow, for some sort of comment or answer. He closed his eyes and tried to calm the anxious churning in his stomach. It was up to Kyran now whether this dance would occur or not. Lance had made the offer, and now he could do more. He could only wait.

Finally, he felt the feather-light touch of another hand against his own. When he looked up, he saw a resigned, but determined expression across Kyran’s face.

“One dance,” he agreed, then leaned closer to add, “Don’t blame me when you regret this,” whispering the words into Lance’s ear so the rest of the Galran’s wouldn’t hear. Lance smirked and closed his hand firmly over Kyran’s.

“I’ll take my chances.”

He straightened up and pulled Kyran to his feet. The Galran prince sighed, but followed Lance’s lead without complaint, which was about as much as Lance could realistically hope for. This wasn’t something they were doing for the pleasure of it, but rather for the social obligations Lance’s kingdom demanded.

The whispering started the moment they stepped onto the dance floor together, just as Lance knew it would. He tried not to hear it, and to ignore the way every head in the banquet hall turned their way, but felt their gazes burning into his back, all filled with hope and expectation. Kyran, now stiff beside him, appeared even more uncomfortable by all the attention. It was almost enough for Lance to take pity on him and let him return to his seat. Almost.

Still holding Kyran’s hand, Lance turned and placed his free hand lightly against the small of Kyran’s back, pulling him closer so Kyran was forced to place his hand on Lance’s shoulder in return. The musicians took the cue, to Lance’s relief. They struck up a new song— something light and upbeat and thankfully easy for Lance to get lost in. He stepped forward into the dance, sweeping Kyran along with him, and almost immediately forgot about everything else except for the movement of his feet and the partner in his arms.

If there was one thing Lance was confident about, it was his skill at dancing. He’d grown up under the strict tutelage of his mother, who had once been one of Altea’s most renowned beauties, in part because of her grace and skill on the dance floor. He’d had the importance of a straight back and a smooth gait drilled into him from a very young age. By now, it was all second nature to him. Where to step, when to step, how to step: all of it.

The same, it seemed, couldn’t be said for Kyran. Though he kept up with Lance’s steps well enough, he did so with a little bit of fumbling and more than a few frustrated huffs. He was tense beneath Lance’s hand, movements stiff and awkward.

Lance swept the two of them across the dance floor, following the sumptuous, three-metre beat with ease. Kyran let himself be whirled along without comment, except to softly hiss and curse when he tripped over his own two feet on a particularly quick turn. Lance grimaced in sympathy.

“Dancing doesn’t appear to be your strong suit, Your Highness,” he commented.

“It’s not.” They turned again, this time without any trouble for Kyran, but his mouth was still set in a scowl despite the success. “This isn’t something I do often,” he explained gruffly. “Galrans don’t dance.”

Lance blinked, the furrowed his brows together in confusion. “But then what do Galrans do at celebrations if not dance?”

“Eat, mainly. Talk. Hold debates.”

“That’s strange,” Lance said, feeling a little bit disappointed. He always loved Altean balls— all the nobles dressed in their best, glittering beneath the palace’s crystal chandeliers with every twirl and dip. And, present dance aside, he’d always enjoyed charming their guests on the dance floor, leaving them breathless with laughter and joy.

Of course he’d known the Galran court would be different, would have other traditions and expectations, but he’d hoped at least to find something similar in their banquets and balls. From how Kyran spoke however, it didn’t seem like that would be the case.

Unsurprisingly, Kyran didn’t seem as upset by the situation as Lance. He scoffed at Lance’s comment and answered, “What’s strange is having a custom dictate who is supposed to dance when.”

“Well you didn’t have to accept my request,” Lance huffed. “You could have said no.”

“With so many people watching?” Kyran asked. His gold eyes met Lance’s, one brow raised in silent challenge. Like he was just daring Lance to contradict him. “I’d rather suffer through this weird custom than accidentally offend everyone else in this room, wouldn’t you? Isn’t that why you bothered to ask in the first place?”

Lance couldn’t deny it. He knew full well that the only reason he’d agreed to this was in order to satisfy Allura and the Altean tradition. He didn’t want to face his cousin’s wrath later for not following through. And he certainly didn’t want any of the Olkari to think he didn’t appreciated their constant hospitality because he’d stubbornly refused to dance with his intended. Such callousness just wasn’t in his nature.

He was surprised that Kyran was of a similar mind, however. That he was perceptive enough to realize what his refusal might imply to the rest of the guests, and, even more surprising, that Kyran was also considerate enough to avoid giving offense despite his low opinion of and even worse skills at dancing.

His attitude didn’t match the Galran prince Lance had imagined at all. It didn’t fit Lance’s image of the cruel, manipulative prince that had only agreed to this marriage to learn more about Altea before destroying it without remorse. Nor did it match with the ambitious prince that was only using their marriage to get more influence at court. This was a kinder prince than Lance had imagined, and one he didn’t really know what to do with. One he wasn’t sure he could trust.

He narrowed his eyes at Kyran, as if by doing so he could see straight into Kyran’s head and discover his true motives. Such thoughtfulness was too good to be true. There had to be something more here. Something Lance wasn’t seeing.

“Tell me, Kyran,” he said, taking advantage of their relative privacy to probe further into that mystery, “why exactly did you agree to this marriage?”

“Perhaps for the same reason you did,” Kyran countered. He stared at Lance for a few moments, seeming to search for something as they glided across the dance floor, then looked off to the side as he added in a softer voice, “This war has taken a toll on us. Millions have died fighting this war, and those we don’t lose to the front lines we lose to famine or sickness that we can’t afford to fix. Peace is necessary, no matter the cost.” He paused. His hand tightened its grip on Lance’s. Then, “Aren’t you the same? I have it on good authority your kingdom is suffering as much as ours.”

“Matt,” Lance muttered. “You mean Matt, don’t you?” Kyran’s gaze snapped back to Lance, wide with surprise, and much more alert than before. Taking that as confirmation, Lance continued, “Why did you help him? You had nothing to gain. Allying yourself with such a high-priority prisoner as Matt would only harm your standing at the Galran court. And from what I hear, that’s not something you can afford.” They swept into a final turn, then came to an almost complete standstill, standing toe to toe, hands clasped and eyes burning into each other. “So why did you help him, Kyran? What is your agenda here?”

Kyran didn’t answer for a long moment. Long enough for the musicians to reach the end of their song, and for all those gathered to break into applause over the final, wavering notes. Lance turned reluctantly away from Kyran to clap politely with all the rest of the guests. When he finally turned back, he found Kyran watching him closely, observing him with some new glint in his eyes that sent a shiver down Lance’s spine.

“Perhaps you are not as stupid as you seem,” Kyran said, almost in thought, but still loud enough for Lance to hear. The comment struck a nerve.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he demanded, practically puffing up with indignation.

But Kyran didn’t answer. Not verbally at least. He bowed to Lance, then took his leave, disappearing into the crowd before Lance had a chance to protest. And for the second time that night, Lance was left alone to stew in his own thoughts and irritation, feeling even more confused than ever.

Chapter Text

Lance didn’t stay at the banquet for much longer after Kyran left. Not after it became clear that Kyran had retired entirely for the night. For a while, Lance assumed Kyran had simply vanished into the crowd, choosing to hide among the various Olkari guests, probably waylaid by some official or another wanting to offer their best wishes for his impending marriage. Lance had his fair share of comments and congratulations as well, and was kept quite occupied for the first hour that followed his dance with Kyran.

Eventually, however, Lance managed to extract himself and retreat into a corner to catch his breath. It was exhausting keeping up a smile for guest after guest. But Lance couldn’t let them see how much this engagement— one that wasn’t even official yet— was getting to him. Especially after that confusing, infuriating comment Kyran had made at the end of their dance. Lance had half a mind to hunt Kyran down and demand an answer from him, which he nearly listened to until he realized that Kyran was no longer in the banquet hall. Nor was his human guard, who was the only other member of the Galran delegation Lance might have been willing to speak to.

Well, without either them there, and having lost any interest in either dancing or gossiping, Lance saw no point in remaining at the celebration. He’d satisfied his requirements, fulfilled every social expectation, and now all Lance wanted was to curl up in bed and enjoy his solitude in peace. What little peace he had left before he was forced to marry a Galran prince that seemed to think so poorly of him.

Not as stupid as you seem, Lance’s thoughts repeated in Kyran’s soft drawl as he stepped into his bedroom. Scoffing, Lance unpinned his cape and threw it onto his bed, then collapsed onto the stool before the vanity. What did Kyran’s comment even mean? Was that how the Galrans viewed Alteans? Did they think all Alteans were stupid? Or was it just how they viewed him in particular?

He yanked off his ring and threw it into his jewelry box, irritation bubbling in the pit of his stomach. He supposed it didn’t matter in the end, because either way it meant Lance was being seen as an idiot, and Lance hated that. He hated being seen as inadequate, as somehow… less than everyone around him. It reminded him too much of when he was younger, before he’d found his place with Blue and developed into the prince he now was.

Lance was proud of who he’d become. Proud of all his accomplishments and skills. He hated how a single sentence from Kyran was somehow able to cut right through all that to the little seed of insecurity he thought he’d discarded long ago.

No. Lance couldn’t think like this. Maybe the Galrans thought of Alteans as stupid, but that was only natural, considering they’d been enemies for so long. Surely there were things Lance assumed about Galrans that weren’t true either. And perhaps… perhaps Kyran actually commenting on it meant that he was seeing beyond the prejudice and coming to respect Lance. Or perhaps it was just Kyran being a jerk. Lance wouldn’t put it past him.

Lance took off his circlet and unclipped the various earrings he wore on both ears. He packed them all away carefully, not anticipating needing them anymore tonight, and then turned to go to his closet and prepare for bed. But before he had taken more than two steps, he was stopped by a loud, unexpected knock on his door, and he looked towards the noise in confusion.

Who was seeking him out so late at night, with the banquet still carrying on a few floors below? It wasn’t Allura, obviously, or else she would have just walked right through the door. And none of the others had such a sharp rap.

The knock came again— faster this time, more impatient— and Lance made his way across the room. Whoever it was, they apparently had something important to say. Perhaps his cousin had sent an Olkari to deliver a message or something. Lance couldn’t just ignore that. He turned the handle and opened the door, but what he found on the other side wasn’t an Olkari. It was the Galran prince.

Kyran stood alone in the hallway. He was still dressed in his formal uniform, though his black jacket was now unbuttoned and casually hanging open, revealing the plain, grey shirt he wore underneath. His hair was hanging loose too. Instead of being pinned back like it usually was, the black locks now tumbled down about his face in long waves, tips just brushing his shoulders. He looked completely different from how he always appeared. Not as stiff or polished. And he was completely alone, without even his human guard in sight.

Not a formal meeting then, and certainly not one approved by either Allura or Ryner. So what did Kyran want? And how had he gotten past all the Olkari guards between this wing of the Spire and the wing housing the Galra delegation?

“Why are you here?” Lance hissed, shifting to stand just behind the door, as if using it as a shield. He glanced down both ends of the hallway, but saw no one else. No guard, or official, or even a shadow to call out to if Kyran was here for some sinister reason.

Not that he looked like a threat, unkempt as he was and lacking any sort of visible weaponry. But Lance knew firsthand how dangerous an angry Galran could be, even without weapons, and Kyran did have a rather intense air about him that set Lance on edge. That made his heartbeat jump and pound painfully within his chest. Kyran’s yellow eyes were sharp and bright and focused on Lance in the doorway, and his voice was soft, but very serious and direct as he answered, “We need to talk.”

Lance narrowed his eyes. “Oh, really? See, I thought you’d made your opinions on talking very clear earlier, when you left in the middle of our conversation.”

“There were too many people there.”

“None of whom would have heard us over the music. Let alone while we were constantly moving,” Lance argued. “Even your apparently superb Galran hearing would have had difficulty. So I really don’t know what you have to say to me that couldn’t have been said there.”

“This matter is too important to risk being overheard,” Keith hissed, stepping towards Lance, who stepped back in response. But that just seemed to frustrate Kyran further. He crossed his arms, scowling at Lance, and said, “Really? If I wanted to hurt you, you’d be dead already, not hiding behind that door like a coward.”

Lance glowered back at him. “Well excuse me for not trusting the prince of an empire that killed so many of my people.”

“Your kingdom has killed just as many as mine. And you, the infamous blue paladin, have had a hand in that. You are no less a threat to me than I am to you.”

Well, Lance couldn’t argue against that. He’d been on the front lines of almost every major battle, cutting down ships full of Galrans with the startling efficiency that being Blue’s pilot, with all the strength of their connected minds and advanced weaponry, afforded him. And when he wasn’t in battle, he was usually helping to command it from the palace’s war room, with Pidge and Allura at his side. He was still ordering the deaths of Kyran’s kinsmen even if he wasn’t the one doing the actual killing. Still as responsible.

Lance bit his lip and looked away. The silence stretched on between them, growing heavier with each second that passed. Lance couldn’t bring himself to break it. Not when he couldn’t even make sense of his own thoughts and judgments any longer. Not when he was suddenly so conflicted by both his distrust of Kyran and his hope that Kyran was actually being sincere with his requests.

Lance was accustomed to speaking freely, but he knew when to keep his silence.

Sighing, Kyran looked up at the ceiling and ran a hand through his hair. “I just want to talk,” he said again. Softer, this time. With less of an edge. “There are things you must know if this marriage is to take place.”

Lance hesitated. He was still torn between his fear and his hope. Torn even more because it would mean speaking to Kyran alone, without any guards or weapons nearby. But if Kyran actually meant what he said, then maybe… maybe…

“Fine,” he finally answered, “but not here.” He couldn’t have Kyran in his room. He couldn’t speak reasonably with Kyran there, where anyone might find them and escalate the situation beyond his control. He glanced over his shoulder at the vanity, and at the small escritoire connected to it, then back at Kyran. “Just… wait here a tick.”

At Kyran’s nod, Lance stepped back and closed the door. It shut with a soft thud that echoed around the empty room. Lance looked back at the escritoire, then hurried across the room to riffle through its small drawers.

He didn’t know if it would hold what he was looking for. Olkarion relied heavily on its technology and advanced simplicity for everything, even for writing. But Lance hoped, knowing the close ties between Olkarion and Altea, they would think to include some of the luxuries Alteans regularly used. And, yes! They had!

Lance pulled out a sheet of paper and a simple pen and quickly drafted a short note for Allura, one that would keep her from seeking him out with a squadron of guards. She’d never allow for him to speak with Kyran alone before a settlement had been reached. For good reason, he had to admit, in an effort to keep both him and their peace treaty safe. However, Lance had confidence in his own ability to keep himself safe, even if this turned out to be a trap of some sort, and he was willing to risk it for the slim chance that he and Kyran could reach some accord, some sort of agreement that would keep both their kingdoms safe from further war. He was not willing to risk his cousin ruining that chance, no matter how good the reasons.

A few moments to scrawl a note about needing to meditate in one of the Spire gardens, and then one more, after an internal debate, to grab a dagger to hide beneath his floor-length over robe, and then he returned to the door. He took a deep breath. Then he pushed open the door.

Kyran still waited outside, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed. He looked up at the sound of the door opening and, seeing Lance ready to go, jerked his head to the side in a silent order to follow before walking down the hall. Lance walked after him just as silently. It would do no good to draw attention to themselves. And if Kyran was so determined to speak in private, then Lance knew he wouldn’t answer any questions as they walked.

No. Lance kept to himself as they walked through the hallways and up a flight of steps, up to the next floor, where Kyran led him to a large room that opened onto a balcony. His human guard stood by the doorway. Kyran nodded and murmured, “Shiro,” as they passed. The guard— presumably named Shiro, from Kyran’s greeting— nodded back, and then slipped past them into the hall they just came from. Lance watched him leave with bemusement, but assumed he was leaving to keep watch over the wing Lance and Kyran had commandeered. Kyran wanted this conversation to be private, after all. If he was telling the truth about that, he would hardly want anyone, even his own delegation, to interrupt.

Kyran didn’t even react to Shiro’s departure. He walked forward confidently, striding past the couches and potted plants that lined the walls to the balcony. Lance followed at a more sedate pace. He glanced warily around the room, suddenly aware of how very alone they were. How, for the first time, it was just the two of them, without any expectant or judgmental eyes upon them. Not even that of Kyran’s guard. They could say anything here and it would go no further than this room, no further than their own ears. It made Lance wonder what exactly the Galran prince wanted to speak about that demanded such privacy. And that, in turn, made him nervous.

He turned his head and found Kyran watching him from the balcony, waiting with his arms crossed over his chest like before. Lance’s heartbeat accelerated, until the sound of it was a near buzz in his ears, while his hands suddenly felt very weak and shaky. He laced them together and took a step forward. He couldn’t let his anxiety show.

“So,” he started, stepping out onto the balcony. A breeze ruffled his hair and robe. It was gentle, but noisy, easily carrying his voice away, and Lance instantly saw why Kyran preferred to speak out here rather than in the room itself. He raised his voice slightly, “So tell me, Kyran—”

“Keith,” the Galran prince interrupted. He met Lance’s eyes for a moment, then looked away as he added, “Away from my father’s court, I am Keith.”

“Keith then,” Lance said, testing the weight and feel of it on his tongue. It suited him, Lance decided. Suited his not-quite-galran appearance. “Tell me, Keith, what is it you wanted to speak about? You brought me all the way out here; I can only assume it’s something important.” Kyr— Keith didn’t answer. Impatient, Lance tried again. “Does this have to do with Matt? About why you let him go? What your agenda here is?”

This time, Keith looked back at him. His yellow eyes seemed to assess Lance, as if trying to decide something, and then he asked, “How much do you know about my position at court?”

“Not much,” he admitted. “Matt said you were mostly raised away from court. And that you’re not very popular there, which I’m assuming has to do with your parentage. You don’t look like the other Galrans in your party. Not completely. And I know bloodlines are important for your court, so it only makes sense that the reason you’re so disliked is because your heritage isn’t pure. But I’m only guessing on that. It’s not as if that’s common knowledge in Altea. We barely knew anything about you before Matt— what?” he asked, suddenly noticing Keith’s glower.

“Do you always talk this much?”

“I’m used to speaking my mind,” Lance answered, which only made Keith frown more.

“You’ll need to learn not to.”

Lance scowled. “Excuse me?” he demanded, feeling his mental hackles rise. He didn’t like the tone Keith was taking. Liked even less that Keith somehow seemed to think Lance would just agree because Keith said so. “You have no right to dictate me, future husband or not.”

“I wasn’t—” Keith growled, then pushed away from the balcony’s railing to pace back and forth over the gray tile floor. “Look,” he said, “the Galran court isn’t a kind place, especially for you. Your Altean heritage isn’t going to win you any friends there. They’ll tolerate you, if only because they have to, but if you start sticking your nose into things and ‘speaking your mind,’ that tolerance will completely disappear. And I won’t be able to protect you.”

“I don’t need your protecting,” Lance protested. “I’m not walking into this blind, Keith. I know what the risks are. I know I won’t be welcomed in your court.”

“Do you? Because I really don’t think you understand the severity of this whole situation.”

Lance furrowed his brows. “What do you mean?” he asked, confused and slightly worried by the agitation in Keith’s tone. The hint of desperation. What did it say about Galra that Keith, its prince, was so worked up about this? That, when he turned towards Lance again, his eyes were narrowed in worry, not anger.

“What I mean is that these peace talks should never have happened in the first place,” Keith said. “The common people are the ones that want peace, not the nobles. They hate this entire idea. As does my father. The only reason this is happening is because I somehow convinced my brother it was a good idea.”

“Well that’s good, isn’t it? That he supports this?” Didn’t that mean Lance would have an ally in the Galran court other than Keith himself? That they might find some support for this peace treaty?

Keith shook his head. “You don’t know Lotor. You don’t know what he’s like. My father might listen to me if he was in a good mood, but my brother never would. Not unless there was something in it for him.” He turned to the side and leaned forward with his hands braced atop the railing. He bowed his head. Lance could barely hear his low voice as he admitted, “The problem is, I don’t know what he’s getting out of this. It doesn’t benefit him at all.”

Lance closed his eyes and let out a slow breath. “So he has an agenda,” he said. Just great. Lance knew he’d have to fight for his place at the court, but now it was going to be so much more difficult with Prince Lotor’s hypothetical plans thrown into the mix. Plans didn’t worry Lance, so long as he knew what the plans were and could manipulate them to his liking. But it didn’t bode well that not even Keith could figure out what his half-brother was thinking.

Lance didn’t understand any of this anymore. What did Galra want from them? Why was this marriage even going forward? Especially if, as Keith said, so many of the court didn’t support it. What was Lotor aiming for? And why was Keith even telling him any of this, when he could have just as well kept quiet and let Lotor’s plans go forward?

There was discord among the Galran court, he realized. Discord much larger than Lance had ever assumed. That was why Keith insisted on speaking in private, away from even his own guards, whom Lance now recognized had been sent to not only protect Keith, but to also spy on him and keep him in line. It was no wonder Keith hadn’t spoken until tonight. He was being treated as a pawn by the Galrans. He couldn’t even use his own name, let alone do any negotiating.

Until now, of course.

“And what of you?” Lance quietly asked, glancing up at Keith. “What is your agenda?” For surely he had one. If he was in such conflict with his brother and father, then Keith had to have some sort of plan or desire that went against theirs. But whether it would match Altea’s desires and best interests, Lance couldn’t say for sure. And he needed to know before he could agree to anything. He needed that assurance.

This game they were speaking of playing was becoming too dangerous for anything less.

Keith was silent for a moment. Then, “Peace,” he answered. “A stop to this war we can’t even remember the reason for, no matter the cost.” His words echoed Lance’s thoughts and sent a shiver down his spine. And when Keith looked back at Lance, it was with something akin to hope burning in his bright eyes. “This marriage might be purely political, but for the sake of peace I want it to last. I need your help for that.”

Lance hesitated. He too wanted this alliance to work, to bring peace to Altea, which so desperately needed it. But how could he say yes when he knew what dangers awaited him at the Galran court? When he wasn’t even sure he could trust Keith to watch his back?

How could he say no when doing so meant the alliance would fall apart and war would resume?

“I’ll help you,” he finally said. “If only to keep Altea safe.”

Keith flashed him a quick grin, almost too boyish for his normally serious face, and then took Lance’s hand. He pressed something cool into Lance’s palm. When Lance looked down, he saw a simple, black signet ring set with a deep red stone.

“The Imperial ring,” Keith explained. “As my future spouse, it now belongs to you. If you will accept it.”

Lance nodded silently. He slipped the ring onto his first finger. It fit him perfectly, as if it was always meant to be there. But for some reason, as he looked at the ring and felt it weighing down his finger, he couldn’t help but think he just walked himself into a trap. And now there was no escape.

Chapter Text

Lance sat quietly on his bed as his mother fluttered about the room, Pidge trailing along like a shadow at her heels. Various articles of clothing sat in piles all around him: warm weather suits on one side, cold weather suits on the other, and cloaks, and capes, and a myriad of regal uniforms filling the rest of the space on the wide, double bed Lance wasn’t occupying. All the clothes he’d brought with him from Altea in preparation for this event. For his marriage.

He stared down at his hand, where the ring Keith had given him sparkled on his first finger. He’d kept it hidden in the days immediately following the banquet and their secret conversation. That he had the ring at all was a sign of trust, as Keith had impressed upon him that night. A symbol of their mutual agreement to work together and make this peace treaty last.

It made sense, of course, since Lance’s agreement meant their marriage was all but confirmed, lacking only the legal documentation that made it binding. But it had only been a matter of time before that, too, followed and made it all official. Sooner or later, Lance would have received the ring. Keith had simply decided it would be sooner. Probably to prove his dedication to their cause.

Still, Lance had kept it carefully hidden during the following days of negotiations. He hadn’t wanted Allura or Pidge or his mother— or, stars forbid, the other Galrans— noticing the ring and asking too many questions. Questions he really didn’t have the answer to, even now that the documents were signed. Even now that he could officially wear the Galran imperial ring on his first finger.

Lance rubbed his thumb over the small ruby of the ring. Married, he thought, testing out the word. He was married now, husband to a Galran prince. He’d signed the documents only that morning after several days of fierce negotiating and hard-pressed compromises.

It was strange how much power a single stroke of a pen held over his life. Just one, quick signature and then he was legally recognized as Keith’s spouse by all Altean laws. All that was missing were the traditional matching ears cuffs of Altean spouses. The symbol of mutual possession that every Altean recognized. Lance had always dreamt of the day when he would slip the small cuff over his partner’s upper ear, gold and carved with the emblems of his family and his lion. He’d trace the curve of his ear with his finger and imagine it year after year, wondering whom he would one day share that connection with. There’d even been a moment, after he’d agreed to this union, when he’d actually considered sharing that tradition with his Galran spouse. But the Galrans used rings instead of ear cuffs. They wouldn’t recognize the ear cuff for what it truly was, and, really, what was the point if it held meaning only to himself?

Lance had the ring, after all. He had the Galran’s cultural symbol of marriage and all the influence that came with it. He would simply have to make do with that instead.

“Lance, dear,” his mother called, and Lance tore his gaze from the ring to look up at her. “Which cloak would you rather take, the blue or the white?”

“Both,” Lance answered without hesitation, just as he’d been answering her questions all night. His mother laughed, though it sounded tight and strained. Not her usual bubbly peal.

“Both?” She handed the cloaks over to Pidge, who dutifully held them up for his mother’s inspection. “Darling, you can’t take both cloaks and still have room for all the other things you wish to bring. And we still haven’t gone through your summer clothes, though I’m not sure you need them. Does Galra get warm at all?”

No. It was a cold planet almost year round, or so Keith had said. But that didn’t stop Lance from wanting to bring all the sleeveless tops and lightweight bodysuits he was so accustomed to wearing. Or any of the other clothes he’d brought along that now needed to be cut down to fit the Galran delegation’s two-trunk stipulation.

“I want to take them both,” Lance said stubbornly. “I need them both.”

“You do not need them both. One will suffice. And anyways,” his mother continued, “you can replace everything you left once you get there. I’m sure they have a seamstress, or at least a shop they patronize. Anything you lack, you can easily get, and in a proper Galran style too.” She surveyed the cloaks once more, then nodded. “Blue, I think. It’s dark enough to not stand out at the Galran court.”

Lance looked down at his hands again, and clasped them together tightly. He didn’t bother arguing with his mother about it any further. Anything he said wouldn’t be enough to convince her, anyways. Especially since the entire reason he wanted to bring so much was simply for the memories they carried. For the comfort of having at least some part of Altea and his family there with him in the Galra court.

His mother was right though. He knew she was. As loathe as he was to admit to it, he’d need to replace a large portion of his current wardrobe once he settled on Galra. Mostly because of how cold the planet was and how little Lance owned that could combat the chill, but also, in part, because of the different styles. His bright blues and whites and pinks would not blend with the Galran nobles. Nor would his thin, translucent fabrics. Or his penchant for draping himself in jewels. From what he knew of Galran fashion, the typical dress for nobility included dark colors and heavy fabrics and lots of gold and bronze jewelry, but very few actual jewels. Even the ruby set in the black signet ring he now wore was smaller than many of the rings he wore to official Altean events. It was no bigger than the nail on his pinkie, and so far was the only jewel he’d seen adorn any of the Galran delegation, just a tiny sparkle on Keith’s own first finger. If even the imperial family forewent jewels, Lance didn’t think the nobles would be any different.

That he could work with, at least. He had plenty of simple, gold chains and medallions to replace the precious stones he usually wore around his neck and wrists. He could limit his jewels to a few earrings and simple rings— hardly ostentatious enough to cause any whispers among the court. And he would still wear his circlets, of course, but those were a piece of his culture, a symbol of his place in the Altean royal family, and Lance would never agree to give those up, regardless of the court’s view on jewelry. He doubted Keith would demand it of him anyways.

His actual clothes, though. Those he didn’t want to give up.

Maybe it was silly of him, this stubborn attachment. He certainly felt silly. It wasn’t as if any of the shirts or capes or shoes were truly unique in any particular way— nothing he couldn’t get replicated, even in the Galra Empire. But these shirts and capes and shoes were the ones he’d lived in for the past few years. There was the deep blue cape he always wore with his paladin armor. And on the other side of the bed, the suit he’d worn for Allura’s birthday feast earlier that year. And there, in the pile by his thigh, the sleeveless tunic he’d donned for his sister’s coming-of-age ceremony just the year before.

He brushed his hand over the fabric, feeling the silk slip easily beneath his fingertips, and recalled how thrilled his sister had been that night. How she had glowed with all the soft beauty of Altea’s two moons as Lance escorted her down the palace steps and presented her with her very first circlet. How giddy she’d been when she received the pink cheek tattoos that marked her entrance into adulthood. How she’d hugged him tightly at the end of the night, whispering her thanks for all of his support in a soft, shaky voice.

That tunic held so many good memories for Lance now. All his clothes did. They were all tied to various stories and experiences Lance held close to his heart. He didn’t want to separate with them, as if letting go of even one shirt would make him forget everything he’d ever gone through while wearing it. Like he’d be losing a part of his past. Of his heart. Of his very identity.

He sighed. “I wish I didn’t have to choose.” He’d rather take it all with him, impractical though most of it was for the climate he’d be living in, and wrap himself in the comfort of familiarity. So much was changing for him with this marriage; he wanted at least something to remain the same, even if it was just his clothes. “Why would they even place such a strict limit on what I could bring? Isn’t that a little odd?”

“My guess is they lack space in those small shuttles of theirs,” his mother said, packing his blue cloak into one of the two trunks he was allowed to bring with him. “And you know how prideful the Galrans are. They would never appeal to the Olkarions for an extra cargo shuttle.”

“That, or they’re afraid of you sneaking weapons of mass destruction onto their planet with your belongings,” Pidge added with a grin.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if you were right about that,” Lance sighed. “I’ll probably be kept under guard the entire way there. Maybe even longer.”

After all, while their delegations had reached an accord and signed a treaty, that didn’t mean they trusted one another just yet. It would take many years of peace before the idea of trust was even a possibility. Lance supposed he shouldn’t judge the Galrans too harshly for their caution. He would have done the same if their positions were reversed. Their paranoia was only to be expected.

His mother, on the other hand, frowned. “Let’s at least try to believe the best in the Galrans. I’d rather not think of you being kept as a prisoner by your new husband.”

Lance grimaced and looked away. He didn’t like that thought either.

Truthfully, though, he didn’t know what to expect once he settled on Galra. He liked to believe that Keith was sincere about working together and making their marriage last, but believing that Keith would treat him fairly and knowing that were two very different things. And Lance just didn’t know. He couldn’t yet say with one hundred percent certainty that Keith would take care of him.

He was less worried about Keith than about the rest of the Galrans, however. “They won’t trust me,” he said. “Not for a very long time. We’ve been enemies for so long, I’m not even sure we know how to trust one another.”

“Then perhaps we should aim for just getting along. Proving we’re not a threat.” His mother looked over the bed, at all the clothes they still had left to sort through, and then at the two, nearly-full trunks on the floor. She sighed. “Oh, this isn’t going anywhere. Maybe we should sort through your jewelry instead.”

Pidge laughed. “That’ll be even worse. You know how Lance loves to sparkle,” she teased. Lance slapped a hand over his heart, as if wounded by her words.

“That hurts, Pidge. Just because you don’t appreciate the finer things in life doesn’t mean that I can’t,” he said. “Besides, I’m sending most of it back to Altea with you guys.”

“What? Really?”

Lance shrugged and looked away. “Galrans don’t wear jewels.” And, truth be told, there were a lot of pieces he didn’t want falling into Galran possession. Necklaces and bracelets and brooches that all belonged to his family. Pieces that belonged on Altea, in Altean hands.

He swept a hand through his hair, brushing back his bangs and sliding over the small band of his circlet. He’d put it on that morning with a vague sense of resignation, knowing it was the last time he could wear it as an Altean prince. The last time he could wear it as his father’s heir. He was now a part of the Galran imperial family. That was where his future was. And this circlet just couldn’t follow him there.

Taking a deep breath, he gingerly lifted the circlet from his head. The sudden lack of its weight was strange. The heavy press in chest as he held the circlet out to his mother was even stranger.

“Lance,” his mother began, but he shook his head in answer.

“I can’t,” he said as he stood from the bed. He’d take every other circlet with him— every other pieces he’d earned or been gifted over the years— just not this one. Not his father’s circlet. “It belongs on Altea. It belongs with our family.”

“It belongs to you,” his mother protested. Her voice was weak though, and when Lance pressed the circlet into her hands, she accepted it without another word.

“You and I both know I can’t keep it. I’ll never have children to pass it down to. Not Altean ones, in any case. And this circlet… it belongs with an Altean.” Forcing a smile, he looked down at his father’s circlet one last time, brushing his fingers over its golden band, then pulled his hands away. “It belongs to my sister now. Let her and her children wear it. Let them continue our line.”

His mother bowed her head and stared down at the circlet for several long moments. She didn’t say a word. Couldn’t, most likely. She was too choked up, bottom lip trembling and eyes quickly filling with tears. She didn’t need to say anything though. Lance understood. And when his mother finally rushed out of the room, circlet clutched close to her chest, he only sighed, because that too he understood. He hadn’t expected anything else.

Silently, Lance sat back down and rubbed at his eyes. There was a dip in the mattress beside him, and then the press of a small hand against his back.

“She still hasn’t accepted the fact that you’re leaving tomorrow,” Pidge said beside him.

“I know,” Lance answered. He sighed again and added, “I haven’t really accepted it either.”

He’d been trying to wrap his head around it all day, the fact that he’d be leaving with the Galran delegation the very next morning. It was a jarring revelation— too immediate and too permanent for Lance to accept just yet. He’d signed the papers that morning, and he’d spent all afternoon trying to gather his belongings for the journey, but it was still just too… too strange to come to terms with.

He was married now. And tomorrow he would leave, and he would probably never see Altea again. It felt like some sort of bad dream.

Groaning, Lance dropped his head into his hands. Pidge rubbed his back, warm and steady at his side.

“Are you ok?” she asked.

“I don’t know.” He raked both his hands through his hair, then looked up, frowning at the mess all around him. His trunks still sat open on the floor across the room, waiting to be filled and packed away. The only two trunks he’d be taking with him to Galra. His new home. Where he’d constantly be surrounded by enemies. Lance shook his head. “It’s not exactly what I wanted.”

How could it be when all Lance had ever dreamed about was experiencing the same love and bliss he’d always seen between his parents? He’d wanted to follow their example, and to marry the person he loved. To have kids, or adopt some, and pass down the circlet to his child just as his father had passed it down to him. He’d wanted a home of his own on Altea, somewhere out near the mountains. He’d wanted the wedding ceremony, with all of its extravagance and traditions, and the wedding he knew he’d have to endure on Galra wasn’t going to make up for that.

Most of all, he’d wanted the intimacy. The easy domesticity. The security of being in love, and knowing his love was returned in equal measure.

That, he now knew, he would never get.

He closed his eyes, absently twisting the signet ring on his finger as he murmured, “I’m a little bit afraid, to be honest. I don’t know what to expect, and I’ll be all alone there. No friends, no allies.” Just Keith, whom he wasn’t quite sure he trusted just yet. Not very reassuring.

“I could come along, you know. If you wanted,” Pidge offered. “You don’t need to go there alone.”

“One of us has to stay on Altea, Pidge.”

“Who says?”

Lance laughed at that. He could already imagine how the others would react. The shocked frenzy of Coran and Allura at the loss of their last paladin. The confusion, and probably even protests, of the Galran delegation at their unexpected passenger. Matt would probably want to come along too, unwilling to separate from his sister again now that they were reunited. The whole thing would be such a disaster, and the worst part was that Lance knew she’d go through with it anyways if Lance really wanted her to.

She’d always been there for him, watching his back, trusting his decisions, as close to him as any of his own family members. She was his partner. His friend. And that’s exactly why he couldn’t ask her to come with him.

“Please stay on Altea,” he said to her instead. “They need at least one of their paladins to stick around. And I need you to look after Blue and my family instead. I can take care of myself.”

Pidge smiled. “I know you can,” she said, gently punching his arm. “It’s like I said before, you have your own talents. If anyone can make friends with the Galrans, it’s you.”

Lance pulled her into a hug. “Thank you,” he murmured into her hair, arms wrapped tightly around her shoulders. He could feel them shake as she softly laughed, which would have inspired some sort of sarcastic comment from Lance if he hadn’t been so emotional, but as it was he said nothing about it. Pidge wrapped her arms around him and patted his back.

“You’ll be fine, Lance. You’ll see,” she said. And, for once, Lance actually believed her.

Chapter Text

“They seem close,” Shiro said, coming up beside him. Keith glanced over at him for a second, then back across the landing pad, to where Lance stood, wrapped tightly in the embrace of one of the Alteans. The rest of his delegation stood all around them, as they had all morning, but Lance’s attention was focused solely on the smaller, older woman in his arms. Shiro hummed softly. “Is she—”

“The Dowager Duchess,” Keith finished for him. “Lance’s mother.”

The only parent Lance had left. He’d quietly pointed her out to Keith a few days earlier, while their delegations had been locked in deep discussion over the agreement of their marriage. But even if he hadn’t, Keith was certain he would have been able to tell anyways. There was no mistaking the resemblance between them. They had the same, sharp features and long limbs, and it was obvious Lance had also inherited her thick, brown hair instead of the signature white most of the royal family shared.

As Keith watched, she pulled away from her son’s embrace to instead cup his cheeks, giving Lance a watery smile. Her mouth moved as she spoke. Keith was too far away to hear anything, but even at this distance he could tell the words were tender and encouraging, Lance nodding along every other second as if trying to convince himself that what his mother said was right. The dowager duchess paused for a moment, then said something that made Lance laugh, the sound echoing across the pad to where Keith and Shiro stood. But as Lance threw his head back to laugh, Keith noticed the tiny glitter in the corner of his eyes that came with unshed tears.

Keith looked away, turning back to the shuttle they’d be taking back to Galra. It didn’t feel right, watching Lance say goodbye. Like he was intruding on something he had no right to witness. And it reminded him too much of the last time he’d seen his own mother, back when he’d first been called to court. She’d spoken to him the same way Lance’s mother was speaking now. Had brushed back his hair, and playfully flicked his ears, and held him so tightly it seemed she would never let him go again.

He shook his head, and placed a hand against the metal hull of the shuttle.

“Are you alright?” Shiro asked. He clasped Keith’s shoulder, hand heavy and supportive, and so familiar that it helped ground Keith’s thoughts in the present, where he needed them to be. Closing his eyes, Keith took a deep breath, then let it all out in a steady stream, along with all the intruding memories.

“Just tired,” he finally told Shiro, which was true enough. He was tired. Exhausted, really. He’d been up late every night since the banquet, trying to convince the ambassador to adjust their demands and push the treaty through. It took a while to get him to agree, but Keith had eventually worn him down. He’d just lost a lot of sleep himself in the process.

At least he wouldn’t have to deal with the ambassador again for the next few days. They’d taken two shuttles to Olkarion originally, with the ambassador and guards in one, and Keith and Shiro in the other. They kept the arrangements the same for the return trip, with the addition of Lance to Keith’s shuttle being the only change. And Keith was grateful he wouldn’t have to listen to the ambassador’s snide comments all the way back, even if it meant dealing with Lance in the meantime.

Keith looked back over at Lance, who was now being hugged by both Allura and the green paladin, and then around the landing pad. The Olkari officials had all gathered to see them off, standing politely to the side as Lance made his farewells. There was no sign of the rest of Keith’s delegation however. Not of the other shuttle, or the ambassador, or any of the guards.

“Did the others already leave?” Keith asked.

Shiro nodded. “Last night,” he answered. “The ambassador apparently wanted to inform the Emperor of the new terms before you and Lance arrived. You can be sure there will be a crowd awaiting your return.”

“Wonderful,” Keith groaned. Exactly what he didn’t need.

Keith hated crowds. Hated all the parades and public appearances his position required him to go through. Hated that all of the common people would look up at and cheer for him, relying on him, their prince, to work in their best interests. It always made him feel like such a sham, because the truth of it was that Keith held very little power in their lives. He couldn’t change their policies or support reforms. Not even the ones he knew the people desperately needed. The most he’d ever been able to do for them since receiving his title was to bring peace through his marriage, and he couldn’t even guarantee that yet. The alliance was still too unstable.

But what was even worse than facing the crowds of commoners was facing the crowds of nobles and peers that Keith knew would be gathered in the palace hall for his return. They’d all stand there and sneer at him, and they’d sneer at Lance, and Keith wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. Not for himself. Not for Lance. Not without the risk of swift and brutal retaliation.

In the face of their contempt, Keith was completely powerless. And Keith absolutely loathed that feeling.

Groaning, he turned around and leaned back against the shuttle, tipping his head back to rest against the sun-warmed metal. “What do you think?” he asked Shiro. “If I keep completely silent this time, will my father let me skip all that court nonsense.”

Shiro shrugged. “Perhaps. But I think not. You aren’t the only one who will be on display, after all.” He nodded towards the Alteans— towards Lance in particular. Keith sighed, knowing Shiro was right. There was no way his father and brother would pass up the chance to size up Keith’s new husband. To scrutinize and judge and goad. “And then there is the matter of the treaty itself,” Shiro continued. “You know you weren’t meant to return to Galra. And your brother will not thank you for that.”

“My father was the one that sent me here,” Keith said, crossing his arms. “He told me to arrange an alliance, whatever that meant. And the Alteans were very clear about not allowing me on their planet. Lotor cannot fault me for that.”

“No,” Shiro agreed. “But he will be suspicious. Don’t pretend these marriage terms don’t fall right in line with your plans.”

“He can prove nothing.”

“Since when has he needed proof to make your life difficult?”

Keith frowned and turned his head away. He couldn’t deny what Shiro said. His half-brother wasn’t one to just let Keith go about his business in peace. He never had been, even when they were kids and hardly saw one another. And it would be even worse now, with Keith returning to Galra in spite of Lotor’s plans for forcing Keith on the Alteans. While their father wouldn’t much care so long as the alliance was made, Lotor was an entirely different matter. He’d be furious at the change in plans, and, as Shiro pointed out, skeptical of the treaty’s terms. After all, Lotor alone knew that the alliance with Altea was originally Keith’s suggestion. He wouldn’t easily believe that Keith didn’t have ulterior motives.

Normally, Keith could have handled that without any trouble. He was used to enduring his half-brother’s taunting, and even more used to keeping his scheming away from Lotor’s prying eyes. If nothing else, living among the Galran court for the past several years had taught Keith how to hide his true thoughts and feelings deep inside himself, where no one— not even his father, the Emperor— would be able to find them. But Keith wasn’t alone now. He wasn’t the only one who’d be on the receiving end of his family’s scrutiny. And, knowing what he did of the Altean court, of their openness and expressiveness and willingness to speak out, Keith wasn’t sure Lance was prepared for the environment he was walking into, or for the need to stay silent and invisible within the court itself.

“You’ll have to be careful from now on,” Shiro cautioned. “Take your time. Don’t rush anything.”

“I know, I know,” Keith answered. “Patience yields focus, right?”

“Exactly.”

Keith sighed. It was one of the many phrases Shiro had drilled into him during his time as Keith’s combat instructor, though the actual application of it was something that still eluded him. He wasn’t very good at being patient, he knew that. He was driven by instincts, acting off his gut feelings more often than not. It had kept him alive, thus far. Kept him useful enough to remain in his father’s good graces. But Keith knew Shiro was right this time.

Keith needed to be patient, and he needed to be cautious. There was too much at stake now. Too much to lose. One wrong move— a single step out of line, or detail left unfinished— would send his plans crashing to the ground all around him. And then all of this would have been for nothing.

Before they could say anymore, however, they were interrupted by one of the Olkari workers, who informed them that the shuttle had been refueled and was ready to depart at their leisure. Keith nodded his thanks and sent the worker on her way. Then he turned to Shiro.

“Time to go,” he sighed, feeling reluctance creeping through his veins at the thought of returning to Galra. His home.

Shiro shot him an assessing glance. “We could wait a bit longer,” he offered with a sympathetic smile. He knew how much Keith dreaded going back to the frigid environment of Galra, both inside and outside the court. “The rest of the delegation has gone ahead already. No one would know we delayed on purpose.”

The offer was tempting. It really was. But Keith finally shook his head. “It’ll be better not to keep my father and brother waiting. And the sooner we get there, the sooner we can get all of this over with.” The sooner Keith could get back to his plans. And that would be better for all of them. Even Lance.

The Altean prince was still standing with his peers, wrapped in the green paladin’s arms and looking unwilling to to leave. Lance had his face pressed into her hair, while she clutched tightly to the back of the dark blue cloak he was wearing, both seeming almost desperate in their embrace. He wondered at the relationship between them. From what he’d witnessed that week, they didn’t seem to be lovers, but there was an intimacy between them that went deeper than just friendship. An understanding that didn’t require any words.

Keith didn’t really know what to make of it. He’d never been that close with anyone in his life. There was his mother, of course, but Keith hadn’t seen her in years. And Shiro had to double as a mentor as well as friend, keeping himself at a slight distance while within the Galra court to avoid rousing suspicion— that didn’t leave much room for the type of relationship Lance and the green paladin seemed to share. That deep, but easy connection that had colored their every interaction during their time on Olkarion. The kind of connection that spoke of years of trust.

Watching how they clung to each other, Keith envied that connection a little. How much easier life would be if he had someone to share his burdens with like that. Someone that would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Keith and face down every obstacle at his side. Not at his back like Shiro, or on the sidelines like his mother, but at his side, as his equal, as his partner. Keith knew if he found that, he’d do everything in his power to never let it go.

Yet Lance was giving all that up willingly. He was sacrificing that precious connection in order to join Keith on Galra, a planet that would despise and ignore Lance simply due to his heritage. He would have no one there, save for Keith. No friends, no family. Nothing to tie him to his home.

Knowing that made Keith’s stomach twist up uncomfortably, tying itself in guilty, little knots.

“Should I go get him?” Shiro asked, following the focus of Keith’s gaze to the group of Alteans. Keith shook his head.

“I’ll do it,” he said. He was the one tearing Lance away from his home, after all. He needed to be the one to now inform Lance it was time to say goodbye.

Keith pushed away from the ship and slowly walked across the landing pad, dragging his feet with every step to draw out the time they had left on Olkarion. Lance, distracted by his family and friends, didn’t notice Keith’s approach, and part of Keith really didn’t want to alert him. Didn’t want to interrupt something that was clearly very emotional, something that was so personal for Lance.

Thankfully, Keith didn’t have to. Though Lance was too distracted to see him walking over, one of the other Alteans— an older man with orange hair and a mustache— did. The man placed a hand on Lance’s shoulder and leaned forward to speak in his ear. Lance looked up almost immediately. He pulled away from the green paladin’s embrace and spun around, locking his gaze onto Keith within seconds. To Keith’s surprise, Lance’s cheeks were dry. He’d almost expected to see tears trailing down Lance’s dark skin, considering how emotional the whole situation had to be for him. At least, he was surprised until he noticed how unnaturally bright the blue of his irises was, standing out like pools of clear water against the red of his eyes from the way he’d been holding back tears.

The knots in Keith’s stomach twisted tighter. In the face of Lance’s pain, Keith couldn’t bring himself to say anything. What words could he give to Lance? What could he say to make this situation any better than it was? He just couldn’t. He knew how painful it was to be torn from his family for the sake of duty. Any words from him would only make it worse, and Keith really didn’t want to begin their alliance with disagreements. So instead, he silently jerked his head back toward the shuttle they’d be taking, hoping Lance would get the message so Keith wouldn’t need to speak.

Furrowing his brows, Lance’s gaze flickered up just a bit, enough to look past Keith to what he had gestured toward and figure out what was happening. “Oh,” he breathed, so quiet the Keith almost didn’t hear. That tiny exhalation took a lot out of Lance however. His shoulders dropped and rolled forward into a small hunch, and he ducked his head uncertainly, which made him look even smaller. He was drawing back into himself, Keith realized. Pulling a shield around him to help him face what was coming. Keith couldn’t blame him.

Lance looked back at his mother and Allura. He hesitated for a moment longer, clearly reluctant to leave, then he took a deep breath, faced forward, and strode past Keith without another word, the rest of the Alteans trailing in his wake. All except for one.

Unexpectedly, the green paladin stopped beside Keith while the rest of her delegation continued past. She stood there in silence for a few moments, not looking at Keith or making any sort of movement to interact with Keith, but he could still feel the intent rolling off her. The little waves of assessment she was somehow sending out, all concentrated on Keith despite how her focus remained tied to Lance.

Keith didn’t say a word either. She obviously wanted something, though what Keith couldn’t begin to guess. So he stayed silent, wondering what she would have to say to him, and waited her out. Finally, she looked away from Lance and turned her sharp focus on Keith instead.

“You know who I am, right?” she asked, voice surprisingly forceful for someone of her small stature. Keith nodded, because there was no way he could misidentify the paladin armor she wore or the bayard at her hip or the forest green cloak held in place by a gold, lion pin. He didn’t think anyone could. A smug smile tugged at the corners of her lips. “Good,” she said. “Then you know what I can do to anyone that hurts him.”

Again, Keith nodded. He was certain every Galran alive knew exactly what she could do with her bayard and lion. The paladins were well-known among the Galrans, and to say the rumors about her skills and efficiency weren’t intimidating was a flat out lie. Keith didn’t want to be on the other end of her weapon. He was one of the best fighters in the entire Galran army, and he was still rather unsettled by the other-worldly talents the two paladins possessed.

Keith warily glanced down at the bayard at her hip, then turned his head to look at Lance, who seemed to be introducing himself and his family to Shiro with an unnecessary amount of gusto. Perhaps trying to hide that reluctance Keith saw earlier behind his enthusiasm. Lance threw an arm around his mother’s shoulders and pulled her close as he spoke to Shiro. Playfully, she swatted at his chest. He laughed and looked down at her with so much fondness that Keith had to look away, feeling as though he were intruding, while in the back of his mind he recalled a gentle pinch at the tips of his ears and equally gentle laughter.

Keith rubbed a hand over his face. Now wasn’t the time to be thinking about such things. He must’ve been more tired than he’d thought.

Sighing, he swept his hand through his hair, then rubbed the back of his neck. He looked to the side and found the green paladin still watching him, leveling him with a narrowed and inquisitive gaze. She stared him down a few moments more, like she was trying to get his measure. Finally, she nodded.

“He’s a bit of an idiot, but he’s got a good heart,” she said. “So don’t hurt him, Kyran.”

Keith lifted his brows. He said nothing, though it wasn’t as if he had any plans to hurt Lance in the first place. Not intentionally, at least. But the green paladin didn’t seem to need a response. She only gave him one more glare, hand hovering over her bayard to emphasize her point, then she sniffed and walked away.

Keith’s gaze followed her as she crossed the landing pad to rejoin Lance, who turned to greet her with an overly-bright smile. That didn’t fool her, anymore than it fooled Keith. She slapped his back and tugged him away from his mother, starting to herd him towards the shuttle, maybe knowing that he wouldn’t get in it without someone forcing him. Indeed, though Lance appeared to protest, he allowed her to force him toward the ramp anyways, twisting over his shoulder enough to continue talking with the other Alteans as he was pushed forward. He also held onto his mother’s hand for as long as possible, until his arm couldn’t stretch anymore and he had to let go.

His smile faltered a little as her hand dropped away. The change was so quick that it was barely noticeable, but Keith was watching closely enough to see a shadow pass over his features, the dimming of his eyes and the tiniest downturn at the corners of his lips, before he recovered himself and laughed.

Now that Keith was standing close enough to hear, the outburst of laughter sounded forced, even to him. Keith didn’t know what Lance’s normal laughter sounded like, but surely it wasn’t the tight, high-pitched cackle that now came from him. It just wasn’t a natural noise. It grated on Keith’s ears and made him feel uncomfortable.

But, well. That wasn’t something Keith should be worrying about. If Lance wanted to hide his sadness behind false cheer, that was his prerogative, and none of Keith’s concern. They were in this together for duty, for their people, and for nothing else. As long as their arrangement worked out and peace was kept, Lance was free to do as he wished.

Sighing, Keith returned to the shuttle, walking up beside Shiro on the outskirts of the Altean delegation. Shiro gave him an encouraging smile. He clasped Keith’s shoulder in a bracing squeeze, a show of solidarity that somehow only made Keith feel worse. Maybe because he knew it meant they’d be returning to Galra soon after. Or because it made him feel like Lance’s sacrifice was largely his fault. Then again, perhaps it was just the exhaustion messing with his head more than usual. Keith really needed some sleep.

He and Shiro moved toward the shuttle together. Lance lingered in the doorway for a while as they stepped onto the ramp, staring out at all the Alteans as if trying to memorize their faces, but he disappeared into the shuttle before they’d taken more than a few steps. In a way, that was almost a relief. It meant Keith wouldn’t have to face him right away, or try to convince him to settle down so they could leave. Keith wasn’t sure he could face Lance right now. Or that he even wanted to, with all the negativity that was surely plaguing him.

Keith did, however, pause at the top of the ramp to look over his shoulder. The Alteans had all backed away from the shuttle in preparation for its launch. All except for Lance’s mother, who still stood near the foot of the ramp. She caught Keith’s eyes as he turned and held his gaze, giving him a hesitant, watery smile. Keith dipped his head into a small bow in return. Then he slipped into the shuttle.

“I’m going to sleep,” he said to Shiro as the door shut and sealed behind them. He glanced towards the front of the shuttle, where Lance had already made himself comfortable in one of the window seats, and then looked at Shiro again. “Could you take care of things? And wake me when we’re near Galra?”

Shiro smiled. “I’ll look after him, don’t worry,” he answered. “Just get some rest.”

Keith sighed in relief and nodded. What Shiro said reassured him, and helped him to fully relax once he’d shut himself in the back cabin and collapsed on its bed. He sank into the sheets and curled up on his side, finally allowing the exhaustion from the past few days to crash over him, drawing him towards the abyss of sleep. Outside the room, he heard the soft rumble of the shuttle’s engines and the murmur of voices. Probably Shiro explaining the sleeping habits of Galrans, or something like that. Keith was too tired to care.

He shut his eyes and nestled his face into the pillow. Slowly, his limbs grew warm and heavy and lax as sleep overcame him. The last thing he recalled thinking was of his mother, short and pale, with long, black hair and laughing, violet eyes, and of the warmth they’d shared in Keith’s childhood home. Then, he drifted off into the black oblivion of unconsciousness.

 

Chapter Text

The journey from Olkarion to Galra took a little over two days, which was just about as long as Lance had expected. Not that he minded. He wasn’t all that eager to settle into his new home and deal with all the problems that came with it, so the longer it took, the better, in his opinion. He simply wished the journey would have taken even longer.

“There it is,” Shiro said, directing the shuttle through the last of the asteroid field that surrounded Galra’s solar system. He straightened out the shuttle, then nodded towards the large planet coming into sight. “That’s Galra.”

“Galra,” Lance repeated with a sigh. His new home.

Lance studied the planet, trying to reconcile that thought with what he saw before him and finding it nearly impossible. His definition of home was far too dissimilar from what he saw. To him, home meant vast, blue oceans and rolling fields of green. It meant bright sunlight and cloudless skies and the gentle glow of Altea’s two moons in the dead of night. It meant the white sands along the coast. The imposing rise of mountains in the north. The twisted rings of space ports criss-crossing in a white web all across the sky.

Lance saw none of that here. There was nothing about Galra that reminded him of home. Nothing to help ease the knot of anxiety slowly growing in his chest.

He curled his hands into fists atop the shuttle’s control panel, nails biting into the soft flesh of his palms, and fought back a pained grimace. Galra was just so different from what he was used to— dark and red and deformed. There was no visible sign of vegetation that Lance could make out. Or at least not the vegetation that he knew. Most of the terrain was just made up of miles and miles of red rock, piled up in mountains, in canyons, in deserts, in so many different formations that the planet itself looked like it had been molded by a young child with only the vaguest grasp of what shapes should look like. In fact, the planet wasn’t even round, like most planets Lance had come across. Instead, it tapered off into a series of spikes made of rock and and sheets of ice. He’d never before seen anything like it.

“Kazik,” Shiro answered when Lance asked. “The overhang. It’s the same all around the planet.”

“Is it natural?”

“I believe so.” He flipped a switch, then looked at Lance with a smile. “From what I’ve heard, the Galra we see is the result of two planets colliding and merging into one. Kazik is what’s left of the larger planet. It froze like that while the rest all melted together. You can see some of the smaller planet too,” Shiro added, pointing at the spikes. “There, between the gaps. Where it’s more purple than red.”

Lance looked closer and found what he was talking about. Beneath the outcrops of rock, there was a distinct crescent of land— dark purple, as Shiro described, and sloped in such a way that suggested the normal, spherical shape that planets usually had. “Is that where we’re headed?” he asked. Shiro nodded.

“The capital is at the center, where it’s best protected by the overhang.”

Of course it was. Lance didn’t know why he expected anything else. The capital, he’d heard, was a small city made up almost entirely of Galra’s aristocracy, of the old lineages and new money and all the lavish expenses that came with that. So it made perfect sense for such a city to situate itself where it now was, surrounded by a ring of safety and far from an enemy’s reach. In fact, he was willing to bet that most of the communities on the inner planet were populated by the rich and influential members of the Galra Empire. Only they would be able to afford the privilege of protection the overhang granted them. He was certain it cost a fortune to even just pass through to the inner planet.

Sighing, Lance slumped back in his seat. It was just one more reason for him to miss Altea. He wasn’t naive enough to believe wealth and nobility didn’t have any sort of influence on Altean society, but somehow that divide had always seemed less present among their people. Less important. He’d wandered the streets of the Altean markets many times, never feeling out of place or distant from any of the people there. Noble and commoner alike, they’d all spoken to him as an equal, teasing and arguing and haggling with him just as they would anyone else. Formalities and rank were things of foreign diplomacy, not for interacting with his people.

Galra, he knew, wouldn’t be the same. They were stricter in their traditions, in their social hierarchy and the formalities that came with it. They judged each other by the pureness of their Galran blood, for goodness’ sake, there was no way they wouldn’t keep strict boundaries between their social classes. He’d probably have to deal with the arrogance of the nobility for the rest of his life without any chance of reprieve. No sneaking down to the markets for genuine conversation or participating in any of the local festivals. Just haughty airs and empty flattery. Nothing at all like home.

Suddenly, all the feelings Lance had been holding back since leaving Olkarion crashed over him in a wave.

Shiro seemed to notice his change in mood. “You seem worried,” he commented, tone light though the expression in his eyes was clearly concerned.

“No,” Lance mumbled. “Not particularly.”

Shiro raised a brow at his answer. Lance just looked away.

Technically, it wasn’t a lie. He wasn’t worried, as Shiro thought; he was terrified. He was scared to death of what awaited him down there, and already sick with longing for the green fields and gentle rivers of Altea, knowing he would almost certainly never see them again. All he had now were the barren rocks and sharp ice fields of Galra. The moment his feet touched the ground, he would be trapped. And it was highly unlikely he would ever be allowed to leave again.

Seeing Galra slowly grow larger in their field of vision made that feeling of anxiety even worse. It was only a matter of time before they were down on the planet’s surface— just an hour or two away from landing and having to face the Galran populace with only Shiro and Keith at his side. And then Lance would have to meet the imperial court as well. Shiro had already told him what would be required with their arrival, all of the duties and expectations that would be placed on him as a member of the imperial family, which included having to meet the emperor and greet the court before he was allowed to retreat to his new living quarters.

Lance really wasn’t looking forward to that meeting. Wasn’t looking forward to facing the emperor— the leader of Altea’s greatest enemy— and having to smile like the war had never happened. To have to pretend he was glad to be there, despite all their planet had done to his, and all the blood that had been spilt because of Galra’s ambitions. Not to mention how the rest of the court would react to the presence of an Altean prince. Lance could already imagine it. Could hear all the whispers and insults that would buzz all around him. Could see all the sneers and derision they would throw his way.

The dread of it turned his stomach and made him want to flee to Altea and never look back, damn the consequences.

Beside him, Shiro shook his head. “It’s ok to be scared, you know. Neither of us would blame you,” he said. Lance shrugged.

“You might not, but the rest of the Galran court will.”

“And you don’t want to appear weak,” Shiro finished for him. Lance ducked his head, heat crawling up the back of his neck.

Was he really so easy to read? He knew he was expressive. He always had been, carrying his emotions in his posture and face like a second skin, but he thought he had more control than that. It was galling to be called out so plainly, and by someone who was a near-stranger as well.

Lance was thankful it was only Shiro, at least, who had been encouraging and trustworthy from the very start. But if Shiro could figure him out so quickly, then what would the Galrans think of him? Surely they’d be able to see right through him too, right to the tiny core of anxiety and anger and hesitation that sat so heavily inside his chest. Right to the weaknesses he struggled so hard to hide.

It made Lance cringe just thinking about it. “There are some faces you never want your enemy to see,” he muttered. Fear was one of them. Weakness another.

If the Galrans saw either of those things in Lance, he’d lose any bit of respect they might have had for him, and any chance of gaining influence within their ranks along with it. The treaty would still hold, of course, but Lance would be little more than a puppet. If even that. Puppets at least had a use. Being dismissed by the Galrans wouldn’t even guarantee that. If the Galrans decided he wasn’t worth their time, he would be utterly useless, like a shadow against the wall.

Shiro didn’t say anything for a few moments. Maybe because he didn’t know what to say. Or maybe be he knew all too well what Lance was trying to get at. He was human, after all. At one point Galra had been his enemy. Had terrorized and conquered and taken all Shiro had loved away from him. And when Lance looked his way, he saw a sad sort of kindness in Shiro’s eyes. A gentleness and quiet sorrow that made Lance think maybe Shiro understood exactly what he was going through.

Shiro place a hand on Lance’s shoulder and gave it a bracing squeeze. “You have every right to be here,” he said, “and more reason than any of them to be proud. Just keep your head held high. You’re meeting them as a royal prince, after all, and as a member of their Imperial family. Not as a prisoner.”

Yes, Lance thought, but are they really so different?

In a way, Lance actually was a Galran prisoner— taken from his home and shoved onto the very planet he’d always been told to avoid. He had no friends, no family, no allies. Nothing familiar to lean on as he attempted to navigate Galran society. Nothing to ease his way. He couldn’t even speak his mind in this court, let alone move freely about it. All he could do was force a smile and bear their jeers, hemmed in by the Galrans at every turn. The lone Altean surrounded by all his enemies, without any hope of escape or retreat. No matter which way he turned, he was trapped— trapped with all the comforts of wealth and position, yes, but trapped just the same.

Honestly, Lance almost preferred being a prisoner, if only for the freedom to say what he wanted without possibly jeopardizing their alliance. So he wouldn’t have to hide all his thoughts behind the fake smiles he was so unaccustomed to showing.

There was nothing he could do now, though. He’d already signed the papers and made the agreements. He’d gone beyond the point of no return back on Olkarion, and no matter how terrified or homesick he already was, he had to see it through. If not for his own sake, then at least for Altea’s. For the peace he and Keith had spoken of on that night on Olkarion.

Lance looked down at his hand, splaying his fingers wide and examining the black band that circled his first finger— the very ring that now shackled him to a Galran prince. It was still strange seeing it, black cutting across his brown skin, red gem flashing as he shifted his hand beneath the light.

He and Keith hadn’t spoken since the night of the Olkari banquet. Everything had been such a rush, with the agreements being drawn up and plans for travel being made, that they’d never had the chance to really discuss what Lance’s role on Galra would actually be. He hadn’t worried then, thinking their two days of travel would offer ample opportunity to speak further, but then Keith had disappeared into the ship’s sleeping quarters before the shuttle had even left Olkarion and he hadn’t emerged since.

Shiro assured him it was normal. That while Keith typically operated on the same sleep-wake cycle as both Alteans and humans, his Galran heritage meant he would sometimes sleep through two or three days at a time, just like the rest of his kind. Particularly after a stretch of days where he’d gotten no sleep at all. That information surprised Lance, though in retrospect it made sense. They weren’t of the same species, so of course there would be a few biological differences between them. It was just slightly inconvenient that those differences had to appear now, when Lance most wanted to talk.

It didn’t sit well with him, not knowing what he would be doing at court. What role he should play, what tasks to focus on, what relationships to cultivate. It felt like he was flying blindly into battle, and he really didn’t like it.

He clenched his hand into a fist and rubbed his thumb over the smooth metal, then turned his gaze back to Shiro, who had already begun the shuttle’s landing procedures during Lance’s silence.

Lance tilted his head to the side and considered Shiro— the broad set of his shoulders beneath his black jacket, and his metal arm, and the serene expression that covered his face. There was a strength to him that Lance admired. Physically, of course, but also mentally. No doubt the Galrans had put him through a lot since they’d conquered Earth, and yet he could still face the planet calmly. He didn’t let the past affect him. Lance wanted more than anything to do the same.

There was also just something really comforting about Shiro. Maybe it was because Lance knew he understood what Lance was going through. Or maybe it was because Shiro’s human appearance was so similar to an Altean’s. Except for the ears and the lack of facial tattoos, Shiro could have easily passed for an Altean. He was certainly the closest thing Lance had to a familiar face on this new planet, so it was little wonder Lance felt so at ease around him. He’d be like a breath of fresh air after being surrounded by so many Galrans. Something of a relief. Lance was just glad Shiro worked so closely with Keith, if only because it meant he wouldn’t have to feel so lonely and out of place in this foreign court.

He’d trust Shiro over any of the Galran politicians anyways. If nothing else, the long trip from Olkarion had solidified that impression and shown Lance that Shiro was someone worth trusting and confiding in. And that he was someone who knew how to navigate the court, which Lance definitely needed help with. And, after all, Matt had once advised him to quietly seek out allies and consolidate his support. Perhaps Shiro could be the first of those.

The man in question hummed softly as he fiddled with the controls and locked their shuttle onto course. “We’ll be arriving soon,” he said. He turned in his chair and smiled at Lance, but his eyes were still filled with concern. Like he was asking Lance for permission to land, or trying to say he could delay their arrival if Lance wanted. The intention touched him, even if he couldn’t accept it.

Instead, he silently nodded his assent and faced the planet, trying not to think too much about what was awaiting him on the surface. He felt Shiro’s gaze on him, weighing his words, judging his countenance. But finally, Shiro let out a breath and stood from his chair. “Can I trust you to keep us on track while I wake Keith up?”

“Of course,” Lance answered, because he knew his duty. He knew how important it was for him to reach Galra, even if all he wanted was to turn this ship around and fly in the opposite direction.

Shiro seemed to accept that answer without hesitation. He didn’t ask any other questions, or even give Lance a look. He just patted Lance once more on the shoulder, and then left the cockpit, presumably heading towards the sleeping quarters at the back of the shuttle. And Lance was left with the control screens and the gentle humming of the shuttle’s engine.

All alone, Lance let out a long breath and slumped back in his seat. The shuttle was already locked onto their destination, so there was very little for Lance to do except sit there and watch the planet grow larger and larger, becoming clearer and more detailed with every second, until its rocky landscape was all the Lance could see.

“Galra,” he sighed again, staring at the red that filled the shuttle’s windshield. His new home.

Chapter Text

“I see you’re finally awake,” Lance said, coming toward the shuttle door. Keith glanced over and scowled at his sunny disposition, scowl growing even deeper as Lance chuckled. “Not entirely awake though, it seems. Not a morning person?”

“No,” he replied. Especially not when he wasn’t fully rested.

He could have easily slept for another day. Maybe two. The trip from Olkarion hadn’t nearly been long enough to replenish all the sleep he’d lost trying to make a treaty they all could agree on, and it was only made worse by how restless his sleep had been. He was pretty sure he’d woken up every time Shiro or Lance came into the cabin for their own rest. And then there was the anxiety roiling in his gut that kept him tossing and turning and trying to find the peaceful oblivion of sleep he so desperately wanted. There were moments— a few hours here and there— when he managed to succeed, but it was not enough. Exhaustion still clung to his bones like a second skin, leaving him feeling slow and irritable.

More sleep would have to wait, however. As much as he wanted to crawl back into bed and curl into the warmth of his sheets, he still had duties to attend to and traditions to observe before he could be free to rest again. Mainly, his duty to introduce Lance to the court, which he hoped would go more smoothly than he thought it probably would. The Galran court wasn’t known to be very accepting, after all. Least of all to Alteans.

There was a small jolt as the shuttle touched down on the landing pad, not enough to throw Keith off-balance, but Lance stumbled a bit beside him. Keith caught his elbow briefly to help steady him, then blinked in surprise when Lance jerked his elbow away. Had Keith done something wrong? Was grasping someone’s elbow rude for Alteans or something?

Lance gave him a weak smile and shuffled a bit further away. “I’m fine,” he said. “I can handle myself.”

Keith raised a brow, but turned back toward the door and let the matter lie. Lance didn’t seem to be angry or scandalized or anything, so maybe he just didn’t want to accept Keith’s help. And if that was the case, Keith didn’t have the energy or desire to try and argue otherwise. It wasn’t worth it, and they both had bigger matters to be worrying about.

Slowly, the hum of the engine wound down, becoming softer and softer as the shuttle settled on the pad. Then the hiss of the door unsealing cut through the growing silence. It slid open, and Keith was hit with a burst of cold air that shocked him into full awareness. Even through the thickness of his cloak, he could feel the icy air. It seeped past his clothes to raise bumps across his skin, settling within him like the frozen seas of Kazik, familiar and dreadful in the way only home could be.

Keith took a deep breath, letting the crisp, cold air fill his lungs, then stepped down onto the landing pad. He was immediately surrounded by the cheers of the citizens gathered just outside the gate that surrounded the Imperial Palace and its attached airfield. It seemed Shiro had been right in predicting the waiting crowd, though Keith wasn’t too surprised. The common people had waited so long for peace, Keith’s return with Lance was ample reason for them to be celebrating.

As expected, the crowd’s cheers escalated in noise the moment Lance stepped down from the shuttle and became visible. The Altean prince appeared taken aback by the greeting. There was a moment where surprise showed clearly in his expression— in his wide eyes and slack jaw and pinched brows— and then it was gone, hidden beneath the smooth, easy smile that Keith was beginning to recognize as Lance’s diplomatic mask. The smile he wore whenever he needed to hide any emotion he was feeling.

Lance came up beside Keith and waved to the crowds. “I wasn’t expecting such a warm welcome,” he murmured, so quietly that Keith wasn’t entirely sure whether Lance was saying it to Keith or to himself. Keith shrugged and crossed his arms.

“I did tell you the common people wanted peace. You won’t get any cheering inside the palace.”

“That much, I knew.” Lance sighed, turning away from the crowd. His hand dropped. Then he wrapped his arms around himself and asked, “Can we please go inside and get this over with?”

Keith narrowed his eyes. He hadn’t expected Lance to be so eager to face the Galran court. If anything, he’d thought Lance would drag his feet and put the meeting off for as long as possible. To hold onto what little bit of freedom he still had left. The closer Keith looked, however, the more he realized Lance’s eagerness had very little to do with the meeting ahead of them and a lot more to do with the building that meeting was in. Or, to be more precise, with the shelter of that building, away from the wintry climate.

“You just want to get out of the cold,” Keith said, taking in Lance’s laughably-thin cloak and the equally-useless clothes he wore underneath. He’d clearly attempted to dress for the cold, wearing long sleeves and gloves and more layers than Keith had seen any of the other Alteans wear while on Olkarion, but it wasn’t nearly enough. The cold was too strong. They’d only been in the cold for a few minutes, and already Lance was shivering, huddled into himself in an attempt to ward off the chill.

He’d warned Lance of how cold Galra was before they left Olkarion. Tried to tell him what to expect, what to prepare for. Obviously, Lance hadn’t listened to him.

“Why didn’t you wear something warmer?” he asked, glaring at the thin, blue cloak. Lance huffed and pulled it more tightly around himself.

“Not all of us grew up on frigid planets, Your Highness,” Lance snapped. “This is all I have.”

If that was truly all Lance had, he would freeze to death before the month was out. Galra was a planet of ice and snow. It was a planet of only two seasons, divided only by which one was cold, and which one was even colder. Fresh snow lined the landing pad and walkways, which meant the coldest season of the year would soon begin. Lance would need more than a thin cloak before that happened. He’d probably need a whole new wardrobe, now that Keith actually thought about it. With warmer materials and darker colors and thick linings to make up for his species’ lack of cold resistance.

Keith made a mental note to contact the palace’s seamstress as soon as he was able, but that didn’t really solve Lance’s current issue. They had a long walk ahead of them before they reached the shelter of the palace, and Keith wasn’t really sure Lance would be able to hold out for that long. The last thing Keith needed on his hands was a weak, half-frozen Altean prince. He at least needed Lance to be conscious when they met the court, and he himself was far better equipped to deal with the cold than Lance was. With that in mind, he reached up to unclasp his own cloak and opened his mouth—

“Here, Your Highness,” Shiro said. “Use my cloak.”

Keith’s mouth snapped shut. He spun around to see Shiro approaching, cloak already in hand. Without it, Shiro was dressed only in his black, military uniform, which Keith knew from personal experience wouldn’t be enough to keep Shiro warm. And with Shiro’s fully-human heritage, it would be even worse. Almost as bad as it would be for Lance. Humans and Alteans were remarkably similar, in a biological sense. Neither of them should go without a good, thick cloak in this weather, though Shiro was far too gallant to take that into account.

He held out the cloak to Lance, who shook his head and took a tiny step back. “I couldn’t,” Lance protested. “You need it more than I do.”

“Your shivering says otherwise.” Shiro smiled and pressed the cloak into Lance’s hands. “Please take it, Your Highness. I am more accustomed to the chill than you are. And we can’t have the great Prince of Altea appear before the court all blue from cold.”

Keith wanted to snort. As if a frozen, human guard would be any better.

Lance, however, smiled at Shiro— not one of his bright, diplomatic smiles, but a softer, more genuine upturn at the corners of his lips, eyes warm and almost bashfully downcast. “Thank you,” he murmured as he pulled the cloak around him. It was a bit too long, and would surely drag across the ground as they walked, but otherwise Keith had to admit it suited Lance. Probably better than even Keith’s cloak would have.

There was a part of him, deep down inside, that bristled at that thought.

“If that’s settled, we should get going,” he snapped. “We still have a court to meet.”

Shiro gave him a stern look, probably trying to berate Keith for his hostile tone, but Keith ignored it. He turned on his heel and marched off towards the palace, not even bothering to wait for the other two. They would follow regardless of whether he waited or not. They had nowhere else to go.

Irritation made Keith’s footsteps quick and heavy, snow crunching beneath his boots with every step. There was a slight wind that bit sharply at his skin, and Keith tried to focus on that instead of the hot, angry knot forming in his chest, coiling and tugging until every limb was tight and tense. Tried to focus on the white snow and stone pathway and great, grey palace before him instead of on his aggravation. Or on why he was feeling irritated in the first place.

It was probably just the pressure getting to him, setting him on edge. That, and the lingering exhaustion. His lack of sleep meant he had much shorter patience than usual, and that would only exacerbate the wariness he felt at facing the court. It was little wonder he was so tense. Surely, that had to be the reason why.

Regardless, it wasn’t the sort of mindset he wanted to be in while dealing with his brother, so he pushed it to the back of his mind, ignoring the tightness of his nerves as much as he possibly could. By the time they reached the palace doors, he was calm once more. Or as calm as he could expect, knowing just what waited on the other side.

He took a deep breath. “Lance,” he said as the Altean prince came up beside him. Keith glanced over, just to be sure he was paying attention, then continued, “when we go in there, try to keep quiet. Don’t say anything unless you’re spoken to directly.”

That was Keith’s biggest worry about this whole thing, especially if Lotor was acting as regent today, as Keith was almost certain he was. Lance was outspoken and prone to say whatever was on his mind. He’d said as much to Keith when they’d first spoken on the balcony the night of the Olkari banquet, and everything Keith had observed since that night only confirmed what Lance said. And while Keith himself didn’t mind it, he knew the rest of the court would. It was safer for Lance to say nothing at all, to keep from arousing any anger. Or, even worse, arousing interest.

Lance looked shocked by Keith’s request, then angry. His eyes narrowed and he turned his whole body to face Keith, taking a deep breath. He was ready to argue, Keith saw, and that they did not have time for. The doors to the palace and its great hall were already opening. They could not let the court see them at odds.

Keith grabbed a handful of Lance’s cloak and pulled him close. “You can yell at me later,” he hissed in Lance’s ear. “Just listen to me now.”

The doors were halfway open by this point. Lance scowled and shook Keith off, forcefully pulling the cloak from Keith’s hand and stepping away. He didn’t answer, however. Neither positively, nor negatively. He just glared at Keith in silence until the doors swung open fully, and then any trace of his aggravation vanished behind that smiling mask of his again, where Keith couldn’t even begin to guess whether Lance would listen to him or not. Keith could only hope Lance would be sensible and realize Keith was trying to make this easier on them both. That he was trying to keep them from disaster.

The doors made a heavy thud as came to a stop against the walls, wide open and just waiting for them to pass through. And waiting, no doubt, to slam shut behind them once they did, trapping them inside. The sight of it made the anxiety in his chest grow tighter, until it almost hurt to breathe. Home, he thought bitterly, staring into the antechamber and to the great hall beyond. It didn’t feel much like a homecoming though.

Already, he could hear the murmurings of the gathered nobles. Not loud enough for him to make out any words, but still clearly present, and almost certainly centered around him and his new husband. Keith’s unexpected return would give them much to talk about. His Altean husband even more. There would be no shortage of gossip or speculation among the nobles today, and all of them were just waiting there for more. Waiting to see what he and Lance would do.

There was no way around it, though. Experience had taught him that much. No way to avoid the whispers or the jeers. All he could do was endure.

Keith took a deep breath, then took a step forward. Then another. And another, forcing himself to walk through the tall, metal doors, Lance and Shiro following behind him. They crossed the antechamber and passed through the archway. The room opened up, growing wider and longer, with vaulted ceilings and large, dark-tinted windows spaced evenly down the length of the hall. Red crystal chandeliers dangled from the ceiling, their light shining off the black, marble floors and illuminating the huge, red and black banners hanging at the end of the hall, right above dais where the Galra thrones sat. The very platform they were headed toward.

A hush fell over the room when Keith and Lance entered. Heads turned their way, and voices all faded away into nothing, and the silence was only broken by the sharp taps of theirs footsteps as Keith, Lance, and Shiro walked through the hall. It was eerie, especially with so many people gathered. Looking around, Keith noticed that representatives from every major noble family on Galra had come to see the results of their treaty. Most had also brought members of their branch families with them— all the lessor lords and ladies that managed various parts of the planet. Even some of the off-planet nobles from all around the Empire managed to make it. They stood behind the rest, not quite as respected as the nobles of Galra, but still able to blend in with all the armor and silk and fur. It was the most crowded Keith had ever seen the great hall be. Every bit of space, minus the dais at the front and the center aisle leading to it, was filled with people, all craning to get a good look.

He supposed it made sense. The treaty was important, and affected all parts of the Empire. Moreover, it meant that an Altean— the prince of one of their greatest enemies— would now be living and walking among them. Of course the nobles would want to see. But knowing that didn’t stop Keith from tensing up in apprehension, hating all the eyes now focused on him. Judging him. Scorning him. Their gazes full of distrust and hate.

Lance must have felt it too, because his long, steady gait soon sped up, closing the large distance between him and Keith. He hovered at Keith’s back, close enough for Keith to feel his body heat without Lance actually crowding against him. It was enough to show just how unsettled he was, however. How out of his element he was here in the Galran court.

Well, good. Perhaps now he’d see why Keith made the demand he did. Perhaps the intimidation of the court would make Lance understand, and manage to keep him silent. They hadn’t even faced the worst of the court yet, after all. That particular pleasure sat up on the dais, lounging in a thick, fur-trimmed cape on their father’s throne.

Keith dropped to a knee when he reached the edge of the dais, and bowed his head. Behind him, Lance and Shiro did the same. He crossed his arm over his chest and murmured, “Vrepit sa,” then waited in the silence to see how his half-brother would react. What he would say.

Keith didn’t have to wait for long.

“Little Brother,” Lotor greeted with a smile. He pushed himself up from the throne to stand before Keith, arms outstretched. “You’ve finally returned.”

Keith bit back a scowl. He stood and let Lotor embrace him, watching him warily all the while.

It was odd, seeing Lotor act this way. Seeing him pretend to be the doting big brother instead of yelling or creating violence, as Keith had been anticipating. And Lotor was pretending. His brother was not known to be kind. And he almost never saw fit to embrace anyone, least of all Keith, his dreadful, bastard brother. He’d sooner put a knife into Keith’s side than actually treat him well. Keith almost expected a dagger to appear from nowhere as they hugged. But Lotor let him go after only a few moments and returned to the dais, and Keith was left surprisingly unharmed. Without a single scratch, or even a whispered threat.

That wasn’t like Lotor, and it made no sense to Keith. What was going on here? Was there something Lotor wanted? Something he was playing nice to get? What was his angle here?

Up on the dais, Lotor settled back down on the throne, stretching back against the expanse of iron and crossing one leg over the other, completely at ease. He leaned his head against his hand and considered Keith. Though he was smiling, there was no warmth in his eyes. “Father will be so pleased to know you’re home.”

But not you, Keith thought. He knew better than to say it out loud, however, and so instead asked, “How is Father?”

“Better, so the healers say. But still too ill to handle court affairs,” Lotor answered. “You must be careful with him, Kyran. He nearly died when he heard you were bringing your Altean spouse here.”

As you were probably hoping, Keith thought. If I couldn’t stay in Altea, I might as well be useful and finish Father off. How annoying for you. I’ve disappointed you twice now.

Knowing that made him almost smug. That Keith’s luck had caused so much trouble for Lotor. Not that he thought it would stop Lotor’s plans— whatever they were— completely, but Keith would take whatever he could get. The more setbacks his brother experienced, the longer Keith would have to build up his base and set his own plans into motion. The more chance he would have to get ahead of his brother in this silent war of theirs. And Keith knew he needed every spare moment he could get.

He wasn’t stupid. He knew he had little support among the court. Far, far less than what his brother commanded, which was pretty much everyone. All eyes in the room followed Lotor’s every movement, waiting on his command, watching as he lifted his free hand and lazily waved at Keith and Lance. “So, is this your Altean?” he asked. “I’d been assuming you would bring back a princess, dear Brother. Not a prince.”

Muffled laughter rippled through the great hall. Several of the nobles had to turn away or hide their mouths behind their hands to disguise their amusement, though many others didn’t bother to. Whatever amused Lotor, amused them, even if it was at Keith’s expense. Especially if it was at Keith’s expense.

Lotor wasn’t amused, however. His words and demeanor might say so, but Keith knew his half-brother well enough to see beyond that. To recognize the sharp gaze and the tight stretch of his smile. To see the tension in his limbs, and to know it meant trouble for him. Big trouble. Because Keith was supposed to have married Allura and fallen in line with Lotor’s plans, but he hadn’t.

Yet another disappointment for him. Another bit of time bought, though Keith could now see it would cost him dearly if he wasn’t careful enough. Lotor was threatening him through this court gathering, he realized. Masking his cruelty in kindness, but definitely laying out his threats for all to hear. Bringing up all of Keith’s failures as a warning to him not to step another toe out of line, or else risk the wrath of not only Lotor, but of all the nobles that supported him as well.

Keith needed to be cautious now. He walked a fine line, balancing his secrets with his safety. One false word could cause them both to collapse, and then where would he be? Dead, most likely. If his brother was feeling merciful.

Thinking of that made words stick in his throat. The court’s laughter grew all the more obvious the longer Keith stayed silent, but he couldn’t think of anything to say that didn’t make it seem like Keith was plotting something. Lotor would twist his words however he wanted. It was better for Keith to just not speak at all. So Keith fell back on his best defense for situations like this. He held his tongue and stared at the ground and hoped that his silence would bore Lotor and bring an end to this whole encounter.

Just a few minutes more, he figured. Only a few minutes of enduring the court’s scorn, and then they could be away from this gathering. Just a few minutes, and Lotor might even dismiss them as threats, leaving him free to move about the court without garnering Lotor’s suspicion. Just a few minutes—

“Your Imperial Highness,” a voice said behind him, and Keith’s heart leapt. He closed his eyes for a moment, blew out a deep breath, then looked behind him at Lance, hoping beyond hope that he’d heard wrong. He hadn’t. “You must forgive us,” Lance continued with a blinding smile. “It is against Altean custom for the heir to the throne to marry outside our own planet. We hoped I would be an acceptable substitute.” He lowered his gaze, smile falling a bit as if he were dejected. “If you are dissatisfied with me, though, I can return to Altea and break this whole arrangement off.”

Return them to war, was what Lance was trying to say. He was using their treaty to threaten Lotor, like a total fool. He didn’t even realize whom he was dealing with.

Keith glanced back at his half-brother, almost fearful of what he would see there. Would he tolerate such impudence from an Altean prince? Would he threaten Lance right back? Would he do even worse and launch them all back into war with Lance’s blood on his hands?

It was difficult to tell which way Lotor was leaning. His expression was unreadable as he stared at Lance, blank smile pasted across his face. His gaze was sharp, but that could have meant anything— judgment, hatred, interest; any of them were possible. Keith could only wait on bated breath until Lotor decided what he wanted. His gaze raked down Lance, then back up, then his mouth quirked up a bit into a smirk.

Dread settled deep into Keith’s stomach.

“No, forgive me. That is not what I meant,” Lotor answered. “Of course you are welcome here, Prince…?”

“Lance.”

“Prince Lance,” Lotor echoed slowly, as if savoring the name. It didn’t sound right coming from Lotor’s mouth though, and the sheer wrongness made Keith cringe, his stomach churning as the dread he felt earlier expanded and multiplied. He knew the game Lotor was thinking of playing, and he didn’t like it. He didn’t like it at all.

Lance, of course, was oblivious to what he’d just caused. He bowed his head respectfully and said, “I am very grateful for your welcome.”

Lotor’s smile grew, interest now glinting in his eyes, and it made Keith want to throw something off a cliff. Preferably, Lotor. Or even Lance, who didn’t even recognize the danger he was singlehandedly walking himself into. Only one day on Galra, and already Lance was becoming a thorn in Keith’s side. He’d hoped he and Lance could form some sort of partnership out of this whole ordeal, but now it seemed Lance was more trouble than he was worth, simply because he’d somehow failed to develop the necessary survival instincts alongside all his social graces. Could Keith really entrust any of his plans to someone like that?

Finally, Lotor dismissed the court. Keith wasted no time in grabbing Lance’s wrist and dragging him from the great hall, with Shiro following at a respectful and silent distance. He didn’t care how undignified it looked, or how angry Lance would be about the manhandling, he just wanted to put as much distance between Lance and Lotor as he possibly could. He wanted to make sure Lance couldn’t do anything else accidentally stupid that would catch his brother’s attention.

After all, Lotor’s interest was a very dangerous thing.

He didn’t speak as he pulled Lance further into the palace, down twisting hallways and up grand staircases, away from any of the public rooms. Didn’t speak until they were out of the court’s hearing, near the apartment of rooms he’d moved into years ago and now would be sharing with Lance. He stopped abruptly before the door and then spun around.

“What were you thinking?” he hissed at Lance, whose expression had become pinched with confusion and irritation.

“I was just trying to help—”

I was trying to help you,” Keith interrupted. “I told you not to say anything! You don’t even realize what you’ve done!”

Lance jerked back as if he’d just been struck, but it only served to make Keith more frustrated. Too frustrated to speak, or to attempt explaining just where Lance went wrong. How could he even begin to explain the web of court intrigue Lance had just allowed himself to be caught in, after all? Or the whirlwind of scorn and manipulation that would be headed his way, now that he’d garnered the attention of the nobles? How could he explain the darkness and cruelty hidden beneath Lotor’s kind facade? Or the danger in his interest? Or why Keith was so set against him? How could Keith explain any of that without also revealing the plans he’d been weaving ever since being called to court?

He couldn’t. And so he didn’t try.

Keith stepped back. “Watch him,” he said to Shiro, knowing the guard would understand the implications of what occurred earlier. Trusting him to keep Lance out of any more trouble.

Then, without another word, he spun on his heel and stormed off into the palace, leaving Lance baffled in his wake.

 

 

Chapter Text

Lance was lost. He would admit to that much.

The hallway he walked down, with its marble floors and its dark, grey walls, looked just the same as the last one. And the hallway before that. And the one before that. There was no difference between them that Lance could discern, save for maybe the direction each hall faced. But there was really no way for him to tell, since all the halls lacked windows, and so gave Lance nothing to orient himself by. He could have been walking in circles, for all he knew, traveling down the same four hallways all this time. He wouldn’t know. They were all identical to him, right down to the red banners on the walls and the small chandelier hanging in the middle of the passage.

Yes, Lance was definitely lost, and it frustrated him to know it was his own fault. He was supposed to be meeting with the Galran Master of Ceremonies to learn what was expected of him at the wedding the next day, and Shiro had told him the night before to wait in his room until Shiro came to get him, but Lance had always been bad at waiting. He hated the feeling of being cooped up, and he’d been taken to the banquet hall enough times in the past week that he thought he knew where to go. Clearly, he was wrong.

He turned left at the end of the hall and groaned when he once again saw the familiar layout. How did anyone manage to navigate this palace? At least the Altean palace’s halls used different decorations, and most had large, curved windows looking out onto the palace grounds, enough so that Lance could always tell which side of the palace he was in no matter which hallway he took.

Perhaps Galrans were born with some sort of innate sense of direction that Alteans lacked. Or perhaps they all carried portable maps with them in case they ever got lost, like Lance was. He couldn’t think of any other way they’d be able to navigate these hallways.

Lance started to wonder if maybe he really was just going in circles. He remembered taking several left turns when he’d previously gone to the banquet hall, and so he’d gone left at most of the intersections. He’d taken a few rights as well, but maybe those didn’t have any effect on his path. Maybe they’d just changed his circle into a figure eight, and he was still retracing his own footsteps in hall after hall.

Why did this palace have to be so confusing? Why did everything Galran have to be so confusing?

He’d been on the planet for several days already, and he was still trying to get a foothold in its social sphere. Still trying to understand the strange dichotomy between the court and the common people. The obvious disconnect between their interests. The welcome Lance had received from both had been as different as night and day. He’d expected the cool indifference of the nobles. Expected the sneers and the disdain. The enthusiastic welcome of the common populace, however, he hadn’t. At least not to that extent. Unlike the nobles, they seemed genuinely excited to see him, and eager to welcome the peace his arrival brought. And it made him question how an empire that was so clearly divided in opinions between the social classes could even function.

If the court wasn’t working towards the desires and interests of the Galran people, then what were they working towards? What kind of policies were they creating? What sort of goals did they have for their empire?

Lance wanted to know, but he had no way of figuring it out. After that first day, he hadn’t been invited to attend court or any sort of social event, apparently due to the fact that he wasn’t yet legally married to Keith by Galra law, and so not legally a Galran citizen. All court functions were restricted to those with Galran citizenship, or so the Master of Ceremonies told him when he asked about it. Lance thought that was just a pretty excuse. After all, the dignitaries of other planets and kingdoms were permitted to attend. He’d seen them wandering the palace hallways, speaking easily with the Galran nobles as they headed to and from the great hall, where court was held each day. Their lack of citizenship in the Galra Empire did nothing to stop them from attending.

No, Lance was almost certain his lack of invitations was due solely to the fact that he was Altean, and no one in the Galran court wanted an Altean anywhere near them. Especially not one who wasn’t a prisoner, and who could easily relate all they had discussed to the Altean Council back home. And that, at least, Lance could understand. He wouldn’t want a Galran getting involved in Altean politics either.

Still, it didn’t make Lance’s attempts to understand this new court any easier. He couldn’t get a grip on what they valued or prioritized without being allowed to actually participate and interact with any of the nobles. And Keith was no real help either. Lance hadn’t even seen him since the day they arrived. He never returned to their rooms, and whenever Lance asked Shiro about him, he always seemed to be busy with some council meeting or training or some other official duty that Lance figured was just a convenient excuse to avoid him.

Lance huffed and turned down a flight of stairs. His feet fell heavily against the marble steps, not quite stomping, but forceful enough for the thud of his boots to echo down the empty stairwell. Growing even more forceful as he stepped into yet another identical hallway and his frustration mounted.

Of all the things Lance was trying to understand about Galra, Keith was the most confusing. Stupid Keith with his sharp words and his brusque manner and his mood swings. Lance just couldn’t figure him out. He thought he’d understood Keith once. They’d spoken of peace that night on Olkarion, of working together and making sure this treaty lasted. He’d been ready to work with Keith as partners, at the very least. To share the burden of keeping peace. But then as soon as Lance tried to help, Keith lashed out at him. And Lance couldn’t figure out why.

What was it Lance had done? What had made Keith so mad? He tried to recall anything that might have set Keith off and kept coming back to the moment Lance had addressed Lotor. But Lance had done that to try and help Keith. He’d seen the way the court had looked at Keith. How Lotor had reprimanded him and how the court had laughed. How cowed it left him, shoulders tense and head bowed and utterly silent. Pressured by the court into submission. Lance had never been able to tolerate such intimidation, and so when Keith wasn’t able to say anything, Lance chose to take up that role instead.

Was that really something worth getting upset over? Just because Lance hadn’t kept quiet in the face of the court’s mockery? As far as he was concerned, Keith should have been thanking him, not yelling at him. And definitely not avoiding him now.

So caught up was Lance in his thoughts, he didn’t notice when he walked into a much wider hallway with a large, ornate door at the end. Nor did he notice the slowly growing noise coming from that door. He glared down at his feet and kept moving forward, all while mentally cursing Keith for being such a stubborn, frustrating, pigheaded—

“Oof!” he grunted, running into something and stumbling back. There was a series of metallic clangs. A silver tray and several small, copper bowls crashed to the floor, scattering across the marble all around Lance’s feet.

“I am so sorry!” a voice exclaimed. Lance looked up at the figure before him, who swiftly dropped into a deep bow when he saw Lance’s circlet and gold-embroidered clothing. “Please forgive me. I wasn’t looking where I was going. I should have been more careful.”

Lance shook his head. “It’s alright. I wasn’t paying attention either.” He stooped down to pick up the tray lying on the floor between them. Then he held it out to the bowing man with a smile. “Accidents happen, right? No harm done.”

The human glanced up at him quickly, the dropped his gaze again and hesitantly took the tray. At least, Lance assumed he was a human. He had a similar build to Shiro, as far as Lance could tell, though much sturdier and slightly taller. His skin was darker too, even darker than Lance’s own deeply-tanned skin, but Lance figured that was more of a diversity thing than a different species thing, just like how he and Pidge had vastly different skin tones. Or how he and Allura, despite being cousins, had completely different hair colors. The human’s hair, at least, was just as black as Shiro’s, though it was definitely longer, and it hid his face as he kept his head bowed.

“I’m sorry,” he repeated, tone soft and shaky. Almost fearful, though Lance had no idea why he would be so afraid. He was though, Lance realized. He was terrified. Lance could see it in the careful distance he kept. In his fidgeting fingers and averted gaze. Lance wanted to say something to set him at ease, but couldn’t think of what.

Muffled laughter from beyond the closed door made them both jump. The human gasped and cringed away from the door. He scrambled to pick up all the bowls he’d dropped, almost tripping over himself in his haste, then hurried away down the hall once he’d grabbed them all without even a backwards glance.

“Wait!” Lance called after him, but it was too late. The human turned the corner before the word was even out of Lance’s mouth and disappeared.

Lance sighed. He stared at the hallway’s empty corner for a few moments, perplexed by what had just occurred, then shook his head and turned away. It was just his luck that even the palace workers would be confusing. He didn’t understand any of what happened, why the human had been so afraid of Lance despite his attempt set the human at ease. Perhaps he’d been expecting Lance to yell at him. To blame him for what had clearly been an accident.

Was it the Galran way to treat their servants so harshly? Surely not. Surely even they wouldn’t be that callous. Would they?

Lance didn’t dare consider it. The thought of it alone made him sick in both heart and stomach.

Frowning, he raked a hand through his hair and let out a slow breath, trying to clear his mind. This wasn’t the time to be thinking about such things. Not now, while he was still trying to find his own way. No use when he understood so little of Galran culture or practices. He didn’t even know if what his mind was assuming was true. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe the human was having a bad day, and Lance was just overreacting. Or maybe not. He could only wait and see, just like with everything else.

Just as he should have waited for Shiro earlier like he was told to. Now, he was even more lost. He looked around and saw nothing familiar to him. The red banners on the walls had been replaced by those of all different colors, each bearing its own symbol or pattern. Probably the heraldic sigils of Galra’s noble houses, or something along those lines. He recognized the silver lunel pattern from something one of the nobles had worn the other day, when Lance had greeted the court. There were others he remembered too, now that he thought about it. The red pike, the three black swords, the golden comet. They hung all around the wide hall with pride, circling from one side of the ornate door to the other. And above the door, larger than all the rest, was the dark grey banner with the purple trident insignia that belonged to the Galran Empire. And to its imperial family.

Laughter echoed around the hallway again. Closer this time, a little less muffled, and accompanied by the sound of several other voices. It came from right behind the door, and Lance barely had the time to register that before that door swung open and a group of Galran nobles, all dressed in the black and silver of Galra’s formal military attire, filed out.

Lance retreated to the wall. He walked backwards until he felt the cold stone press against his shoulders and back, putting as much space between himself and the Galrans as possible, and hoping to be overlooked as they passed by. He didn’t want to have to deal with their whispers and stares right now. Not while he was alone and practically defenseless. He was still an Altean, after all. And he had no doubt that many of these nobles would love nothing more than to see him dead, treaty or no treaty.

Oh, he really should have waited for Shiro earlier. Or at least thought to take a weapon with him when he left. He was deeply regretting that now.

Unfortunately, though the hallway was wider than most of the ones Lance had walked through, it still wasn’t wide enough to keep him out of the Galrans’ sights. He knew the moment he had been spotted by the sudden hush that fell over them, all conversation and laughter giving way to heavy silence. They stopped just outside the door and stared at him. Lance, seeing no other option, lifted his head and stared right back.

There were five of them gathered, only two of whom he recognized from his brief experience with the court. The other three, he assumed, were lessor nobles or military officers from less prestigious families. Not the sort of representatives Prince Lotor would have chosen to greet their enemy’s prince. Though, honestly, Lance wouldn’t have noticed much of a difference. They glared at him just as much as the true nobles, golden eyes boring into him, searching out his flaws just like all the others. Lance clenched his jaw and lifted his chin. He refused to show them any weakness.

His apparent determination made several of the Galrans scowl even more. One of them— a tall, stout figure with a mechanical arm and cybernetic eye that Lance recognized from the other day— openly sneered at him. “You,” he growled. “You shouldn’t be here. This is the Council Chamber. It’s no place for an Altean.”

Lance bristled at the Galran’s tone. At the pure hatred and arrogance that bled through his words. He was a rude one, and clearly not too happy about having an Altean marry into the imperial family. But what else could Lance expect? Centuries of war and hatred and bloodshed could not be wiped away in such a short amount of time. Acceptance would take a long time to grow. Trust would take even longer.

Still, it took everything in his power to keep from snapping back at the Galran. He had just as much cause to hate the Galrans as they had to hate him, but at least he was trying to put the past aside. The least they could do was treat him civilly.

No. He needed to be calm. He could not afford to start a fight here, nor give them any more reason to consider him an enemy.

Pushing down his anger, he forced a smile onto his face. “As you say,” he replied, “I am an Altean and don’t know my way around just yet. You must forgive me. I didn’t realize where I was.”

“If you think I’ll believe that, you filthy—”

“Peace, Sendak,” another voice interrupted. The Galran— Sendak— swallowed whatever else he was about to say and turned to the door, dropping to one knee. As did all the other Galrans around him. With the five of them kneeling, Lance was able to see past them to the door, where Lotor stood with his arms crossed, observing the scene. He had a smile on his face, but there didn’t seem to be any warmth. “You should mind what you say,” he continued, walking towards the group. “We don’t want to start another war, do we?”

Lotor looked directly up at Lance as he asked that, and a shiver raced down his spine. He fought not to let it show, but there was something very uncomfortable about the way he was looking at Lance, all sharp-eyed and intimidating. Like a beast looking at its prey. Lance quickly bowed his head, murmuring a respectful greeting, and when he looked up, that almost-hungry expression of Lotor’s was gone. Only a pleasant smile remained.

Had Lance just imagined it all?

Lotor turned his gaze away from Lance and down to the five kneeling before him. “You are lucky I’m feeling so generous,” he told them. “I will ignore your impudence.”

Sendak gaped up at him. “Your Highness—”

“You are all dismissed.”

“But Sir—”

“Leave.”

He said it with such coldness that even Lance was tempted to flee. The five kneeling on the floor had enough sense not to argue any longer. They stood and hurried down the hallway, Sendak lingering just long enough to throw Lance one last glare before following the rest. Then it was just him and Lotor and the heavy silence that came in the wake of the Galrans’ departure.

Lance eyed Lotor warily. He looked much the same as he had the other day, dressed in a long, high-necked, grey tunic with red and purple accents. His white hair hung loose down to his mid-back, free of any pins or ornamentations. Not even a silver clip, like the one Keith used to pull back his hair. His appearance was simple, even by Galran standards, yet it did nothing to detract from the power he wore like a second skin. If anything, his simple attire helped emphasize his presence. That he didn’t need any jewels or armor to look intimidating said a lot about him. A lot that Lance wasn’t sure he liked or trusted.

Letting out a breath, Lotor placed his hands on his hips. “I must apologize for them,” he said. “They don’t know how to control themselves. And you are quite…”

“Unwelcome?” Lance offered. Lotor’s lips curled into a sly smile.

“Exotic.”

What a pretty way of saying I don’t belong, Lance thought wryly. But no matter how nice the words, they still sent the same message— he was an outsider, and he had no place here. Only the place Zarkon and Lotor and Keith allowed him to have.

Feeling vulnerable, he wrapped his arms around himself like a shield. Then wrapped them even tighter when he noticed Lotor watching him. He didn’t like the way the Galran prince looked at him. He couldn’t explain why, only that it made the back of his neck prickle to have Lotor staring at him so intently with that tiny smirk on his face, as if he could see right through Lance.

Why was Lotor staring at him that way? What was it he wanted?

Lance shuffled uncomfortably in place. “I’m sorry for bothering you this way,” he said, averting his eyes so as not to meet Lotor’s gaze. “I’m afraid I got a little turned around on my way to the banquet hall. I didn’t mean to intrude.”

“No matter. Our business was finished,” Lotor answered. He moved forward, stepping right into Lance’s personal space, looming over him, and lowered his voice to a deep murmur as he added, “Best be careful in the future though, little prince. Another mistake could cost more than your pride.”

Like my life, he realized. He swallowed thickly. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

What else could he do when Lotor was going out of his way to warn him. Or was he threatening him? It was difficult to tell past Lotor’s sly smile. Even more difficult than it had been the other day, when he’d been talking with Keith, speaking pleasant words with such a cold tone. And even then, Lance couldn’t tell how much of what he’d said was due to his disappointed expectations and how much was due to genuine hostility.

It was the same now. Lotor’s words were kind, yet behind them there was something sharp. An edge that made Lance want to cringe back, away from the danger. He just couldn’t tell where most of the danger resided— in the other Galrans, or in Lotor himself?

The Galran prince’s grin grew at Lance’s quiet reply. He moved back, finally giving Lance some room to breathe, and clapped his hands together. “You were heading to the banquet hall, correct?” he asked, to which Lance, thrown off by the sudden change in topic and demeanor, nodded. Lotor hummed. “That is quite far from here. On the opposite end of the palace.” He considered Lance, looking him up and down, and then smirked. “Perhaps I should escort you there. We wouldn’t want you getting lost again.”

“Oh no. Really. I couldn’t trouble you to,” Lance replied, but Lotor wouldn’t accept that.

He extended his arm out to Lance like an invitation. “I insist.”

Lance hesitated. Conflicted, he stared down at the offered arm— at the grey sleeve and its red chevron and the unnerving purple skin of Lotor’s hand— and weighed his options. On one hand, going with Lotor guaranteed that he wouldn’t get lost, and also that he wouldn't somehow offend the prince by refusing his help. But on the other hand, Lance didn’t want to go with Lotor. The churning in his stomach didn’t trust Lotor’s intentions. His instincts were telling him to run far away, out of reach of Lotor and his confusing ways, where he could know for sure he wasn’t being tricked.

He wavered, unsure of what to do and frozen to the spot by Lotor’s piercing gaze. Slowly, he reached out, letting his hand hover over Lotor’s arm.

“Prince Lance!” a voice called out. Lance pulled his arm back and turned at the sound, seeing Shiro run down the hall towards them. Lotor turned too, and the smile on his face dropped into a cold, flat line. “I’ve been searching for you everywhere,” Shiro said as he reached them. He knelt down before Lotor and bowed his head. “Your Imperial Highness, please excuse my interruption. His Royal Highness is supposed to be at the banquet hall to prepare for tomorrow’s wedding.”

“Indeed,” Lotor drawled. “So then why is he down here, at the doors of the council chamber?” He tilted his head and regarded Shiro with narrowed eyes. Dangerous eyes that made even Lance want to hide. “Tsk, tsk, Captain,” Lotor continued, walking around Shiro in a slow circle. “It seems you’ve been remiss in your duties. Are you always so careless?”

“No, Sir. Please forgive me,” Shiro murmured, softer and more hesitant than Lance had ever heard him be in their short time of knowing one another. It hit Lance right in the gut, filling him with guilt. It wasn’t Shiro’s fault that Lance had ended up here. He’d made that choice himself, wandering off when he really should have waited, turning down hallways even when he didn’t know where they would lead. And now Shiro was paying for it. Taking the blame in Lance’s place.

Lance couldn’t just stand by and watch. He took a step forward, intending to interfere, but froze at the sharp look and quick shake of head that Shiro sent his way. It lasted only a moment, just long enough to make Lance pause, and then Lotor’s hand was on Shiro’s head, shoving it back down.

“Should I forgive you?” Lotor mused. There was a strange glint in his eyes as he stared down at Shiro— one that Lance couldn’t place, but still knew he didn’t want to be on the receiving end of— and his lips curled into a cruel smile as he said, “Perhaps I should remind you of your position instead, since you seem to have forgotten.”

Shiro screwed his eyes shut. The hand that was on the floor clenched tightly, knuckles white and muscles straining. Probably from the effort it took not to just pull away from Lotor. Lance stared at that hand, but in his mind he heard Matt’s warnings about Lotor being cruel, and saw the servant he’d run into earlier. Saw his constant fidgeting. His wary eyes. How scared he’d been. How Lance had wondered why.

“No,” he suddenly exclaimed, taking another step forward. Lotor’s attention snapped to him. His stare burned into Lance, even more intense than he’d been prepared for. Lance had never been the type to back down from a challenge, but this… this frightened him. This made him waver. He averted his eyes and drew back into himself. “Please. Don’t punish him for something he had no control over. I told him I would wait for him, but I didn’t. The fault here is mine.”

Lotor let go of Shiro, stepping around the human to approach Lance instead. Lance tried not to let his worry show as he came closer. He kept his eyes down and his expression blank, even though his heart was racing, pounding painfully against his ribs, urging him to run while he still could. Images of pain raced through his mind, and every second of silence was just another second of Lance asking himself, what would Lotor do? What did he want? What would be punishment enough?

Lotor stopped in front of him, so close that Lance could feel the uncomfortable amount of body heat that all Galrans seemed to radiate. He stood there in silence for a few moments, staring at Lance, then looked over his shoulder at Shiro. “Since Prince Lance has interceded for you, I’ll forgive your mistake. Don’t let it happen again.”

“Yes, Your Highness,” Shiro was quick to reply, voice filled with relief. “Thank you.”

Lotor waved a dismissive hand at him, then turned back to Lance. “I’ll leave you in his care, then. Try not to get lost again”

“Yes, Your Highness.”

“Lotor,” he corrected. “We will be family tomorrow. It’s only right we use each other’s names, don’t you agree, Lance?”

Lance shivered, feeling as though something cold and slimy had just slipped down his back and into his stomach. It was already making him nauseous. “Yes, of course, Lotor,” he forced himself to say despite that, and it took all he had to keep his voice from wavering. He didn’t like how the name felt in his mouth, rolling off his tongue. Like some sort of disease, or food goo that was several months too old. It just felt wrong.

At least it seemed to satisfy Lotor, though. The Galran prince grinned at the sound, sharp teeth flashing in the light of the hallway. There was another glint in his eyes, but it was different from what he saw before. More akin to interest than anything else. Even so, it made Lance uncomfortable. And that discomfort only grew when he felt Lotor’s warm skin brush over his cheek.

“I will take my leave, then,” he said in a low voice, fingertips ghosting over the curve of Lance’s jaw. Then down, down to catch Lance’s chin between his fingers and tilt it up so Lance was forced to meet his gaze. Lotor hummed deep in his throat. “We shall meet again, little prince.”

The words sounded like a promise. One Lance wasn’t eager to reciprocate. He stayed silent, refusing to give Lotor an answer, but it didn’t matter in the end anyways. Lotor trailed his fingers of Lance’s skin one more time, then turned and strode down the hall, the long tail of his shirt fluttering behind him.

Lance and Shiro waited in silence until Lotor turned down another hall and disappeared from sight. As soon as they were sure Lotor was out of hearing, they looked at each other, and Shiro asked “Are you alright? Did he hurt you at all?”

“I’m fine,” Lance answered honestly. He hadn’t been injured at all during their encounter, only scared. And Lance could get past a little fright easily enough, especially now that the source of it was gone. “What about you?” he asked instead. “Are you alright?”

Shiro shook his head. “Don’t worry about me. I’ve dealt with much worse.” Frowning, he looked off down the hallway, where Lotor had vanished only a few minutes before, and let out a long sigh. “Thank God I found you when I did. Lotor isn’t someone you want to get involved with, Lance. He has his own goals, and he has no qualms about using other people to reach them. Don’t ever trust him.”

Lance nodded in silent agreement. He followed Shiro’s gaze to the end of the hall and recalled again that night on the balcony, and what Keith had said. The warning he had given about Lotor having his own agenda.

My father might listen to me if he was in a good mood, but my brother never would,” he’d said. “Not unless there was something in it for him.”

If that was true, then what was it Lotor was getting out of this? What benefit did he reap from going against the opinions of all the nobles to create this treaty? From ending the war and accepting an Altean prince into his family?

Most importantly: what did he expect to gain from treating Lance so kindly? What was his goal? Because, treaty or not, there was definitely no reason for Lotor to have let Lance off so lightly when he'd been more than ready to harm Shiro earlier. Not unless there was something to gain from it. So then what was it? What was his reason?

What exactly did Lotor want from him?

 

Chapter Text

Finding Keith turned out to be rather easy, not that that really surprised Shiro. He knew Keith well. Had been with Keith long enough to know all his favorite haunts and hiding spots. There were only a few places Keith would think to go if he was avoiding Lance, and even fewer places if he was trying to avoid Lotor as well. But with how frustrated Keith had been on top of everything else, there was really only one place he’d turn to. That was where Shiro looked first.

He followed the sound of clanging metal down the small, back hallway of the palace’s barracks. It echoed through the hall, each new clash bouncing off the stone walls and mixing with the steady thuds of Shiro’s footsteps. As he drew nearer, the sounds of grunting and muffled exclamations joined the cacophony. Sounds he recognized very well. He sighed as he turned the corner into the training room and found just what he was expecting— Keith facing off against a group of training bots, luxite sword in hand.

He really was so predictable sometimes.

Shiro quietly slipped into the room and settled back against the wall. Keith was so focused on the fight at hand he didn’t notice his new observer. He was too distracted by the bots before. Too caught up in the action, in the need to swing his sword, just as Shiro had always warned him against. Patience yields focus. But Keith wasn’t being patient at all.

His golden eyes were fixed in a fierce glare on the five bots before him, gleaming wildly behind the wayward strands of his black hair. He lunged at one of the training bots. It became an easy target to the sharp metal of his blade, skewered and left to drop to the floor within a matter of seconds. The second training bot soon followed, though Keith kept it on his blade long enough to fling it into the third bot as it charged at him. The two bots crashed together and dropped to the floor with a loud thud.

Shiro raised a brow. Keith was being more aggressive than usual, and that was saying a lot. It was as if each of the training bots had personally offended him in some way. Shiro was willing to bet he was imagining a certain someone’s face on each of them, but whether that someone was Zarkon, Lotor, or possibly even Lance, Shiro couldn’t say.

The final two training bots rushed at Keith together, forcing him to fend them both off at once. He ducked beneath the swipe of the first training bot’s staff and shoved the bot with his elbow. It stumbled back, giving Keith some extra room to move just as the other bot began its attack. It swung its staff down towards Keith’s head. Keith blocked it easily, but couldn’t hold his defense when the first bot tried to take advantage of his distraction. He dodged to the side, and the bots followed him, the three of them trading attacks for several minutes like some sort of dance.

Finally, Keith managed to slip through the first bot’s defense and slice across its torso. The bot froze and Keith kicked it in the gut, sending it crashing across the floor. That should have been the end of it. That should have been the moment Keith overpowered the final bot and put an end to the training exercise, if only Keith hadn’t been so impatient in his fighting as Shiro had warned him.

As Keith turned to finish off the last bot, Shiro noticed one of the others— the one Keith had knocked aside by tossing another training bot right into it— get back on its feet and rush at Keith’s back. It swung its staff right into Keith’s side, and, with a cry of surprise, Keith went flying across the room, where he landed among the wreckage of the other bots. His sword popped out of his hand and slid even further across the floor.

Keith rolled onto his back and groaned in pain. “Training session end,” he wheezed out. The two bots still standing powered down and fell onto the floor. Then all of them, including the ones Keith had taken down earlier, disintegrated into pixels of light.

Shiro sighed. “You could have had that,” he said as he walked over to Keith, stopping just beside him and leaning over to look him in the face. Keith opened his eyes to look up at him, then groaned again.

“Should’ve known you would find me.”

He stretched out a hand towards Shiro, who took it and pulled Keith to his feet. The galran prince winced a little as he stood, but otherwise appeared unharmed. Still, he looked a wreck up close. Sweat beaded at his hairline, and there were deep purple shadows beneath his eyes. Shiro hadn’t seen him so tired since he was fifteen years old and had been summoned to court. He’d spent the week leading up to his departure locked in the room they’d set aside for his training, working himself to exhaustion, never stopping to eat or sleep.

“If I stopped, I would have panicked,” Keith had told him later, when Shiro had berated him for being so reckless. He supposed he’d understood, just as he understood now why Keith had holed himself up here. Some habits would never change.

“Have you been here this entire time?” he asked, though he already knew the answer.

“No.” It was a lie, and Keith clearly knew that Shiro could tell. He averted his eyes and looked about the room instead. Looked everywhere except at the man standing before him.

Shiro sighed. He hated when Keith got like this. When he drew back into himself and let all his negative emotions fester inside. “You can’t stay in here forever,” he told Keith. “You’re going to have to face the issue soon enough. You have duties to attend to.”

“So do you,” Keith countered petulantly. “I told you to keep an eye on Lance, so where is he?”

“In his room.” And unlikely to leave again anytime soon. At least not without Shiro or Keith beside him. He’d been shaken by his encounter with Lotor that morning, and had stuck close to Shiro through the rest of the day, until Shiro returned him to his rooms. He wasn’t about to go looking for anymore trouble after that, and Shiro really couldn’t blame him. Lotor was a force to be reckoned with even for the most prepared, and Lance hadn’t been prepared at all. Not the way he should have been. “He’s resting right now. We had an eventful day.”

Keith snorted. “More likely that our dear Master of Ceremonies put him to sleep. I’m sure listening to all the tedious wedding details was very eventful.”

“Keith,” Shiro said, tone reproachful, but Keith ignored him. He turned away and walked over to where his sword was instead, leaving Shiro to stare after him with a scowl.

This was why Lance had been so willing to explore the palace on his own, and so unprepared to face Lotor and his cronies. This willful ignorance and naive assumption that Lance would just know what to do and who to avoid. As if Lance was just used to this sort of intrigue. As if Lance had grown up in a court similar to their own.

He hadn’t, Shiro knew. His upbringing had been the complete opposite of Keith’s. And Keith would know that too if he’d just talked to Lance instead of locking himself up here.

“You should have been there with him,” Shiro said. “You know exactly what he’s walking into. You should be helping him right now.”

Keith scoffed as he bent down to pick up his sword. “I tried helping him. I told him to keep quiet. He didn’t listen to me.”

That’s because you never told him why. Lance would have listened if Keith had just explained. Even in the short time they’d spent with one another, Shiro had seen that plain as day. Lance was impulsive and outspoken, but not without sense. He’d listened to Shiro’s warnings well enough that afternoon once he’d seen the cause of it, after all. It seemed as long as there was a good enough reason, Lance would do as he was asked with little complaint.

Oh, Keith, he thought sadly as Keith continued grumbling about Lance’s stubbornness and lack of self-preservation. You still have so much to learn.

“So what?” Shiro said, interrupting Keith’s stream of complaints. “You’re just going to ignore him for the rest of your lives? Just let him fend for himself? Leave him at Lotor’s mercy?”

At that, Keith deflated a little, shoulders hunching forward and gaze dropping to the floor. His hand tightened around the hilt of his sword until his knuckles turned a pale lilac. “Lotor won’t bother with him if he sees I don’t care about him. You, of all people, know what he’s like about the people I show any interest in.”

He glanced at Shiro’s right arm for a moment, then looked back down at the floor, scowling this time. His expression was dark, pained, and Shiro knew exactly where his mind had taken him. Remembered still the fear and the pain of that day, all those years ago. Remembered the cheering crowds, and the fierce bite of the sword, and the deep red of his own blood covering the arena sand.

He took a deep breath, then blew it out slowly. “It wasn’t your fault,” he said, placing a hand on Keith’s shoulder. It was Shiro’s own fault for letting his guard down so much. For letting Lotor get so close, giving him the chance to make such a brutal blow. He had never once blamed Keith for any of that.

Keith shook his head. “He went after you because of me. I should have been more careful. And now with Lance…”

“It’s different,” Shiro insisted. “Lotor was never interested in me beyond what I meant to you. But you saw how he looked at Lance the other day. You saw how intrigued he was. That’s not something he’ll easily set aside, regardless of what you do.”

Keith bit his bottom lip, but he couldn’t deny what Shiro said. They’d both seen in the great hall that dangerous glimmer of interest in Lotor’s eyes when he looked at Lance and found him standing tall and proud and defiant. They both knew it was completely different from how he looked at Shiro— with cool indifference on the best of days, and pure, venomous hatred on the worst.

It reminded Shiro of the way a coyote stared at a rabbit. He’d witnessed that once, when he was younger and still a cadet at the Galaxy Garrison. Had gone out into the nearby desert to clear his mind and seen a coyote lurking, movements slow and silent, gaze focused on its prey. The rabbit hadn’t even realized. Or perhaps it had, but only became aware of it when it was already too late to stop it.

And that would be Lance, if they left him to deal with Lotor. He’d get caught in Lotor’s games, completely unaware of what was happening until it all came crashing down on him. After all, Lance didn’t know Lotor the way they did. Didn’t know the tricks and manipulations so rampant in the galran court. It’d be an easy thing to lure him into a trap, to steer him wherever it was Lotor wanted him. And once he was, there’d be no way out. Not from Lotor. Not until he decided Lance was no longer of any use.

“You have to stop hiding away,” Shiro continued, more forceful than before. “Lotor’s already set his eyes on Lance. Distancing yourself from him isn’t going to change that. It’ll only leave Lance more vulnerable.”

“You don’t know that.”

“He’s already made the first move, Keith.” The first of hundreds, knowing how Lotor worked. “He nearly cornered Lance earlier. It was pure luck I found him when I did.”

There was a loud clatter as Keith’s sword fell to the floor, now forgotten. Keith reached out and grasped Shiro’s arms tightly. Frantic. “Are you—”

“I’m fine,” Shiro assured him, already knowing what Keith was about to ask. “Lance is fine too. But I can’t promise that’ll be the case the next time Lotor tries anything. There’s only so much I can do to stop him without being imprisoned.”

Or losing his life. It was a heavy crime to harm any member of the imperial family, regardless of of circumstances or reason. A crime that was always punishable by death. And he knew Lotor wouldn’t hesitate to sentence him with it if he even laid so much as a scratch on Lotor’s smooth skin. If it came down to using force, Shiro wouldn’t be able to protect Lance the way he needed to. But Keith could.

With his status as an imperial prince, Keith could do far more for Lance than Shiro could. He was in the best position to help, to keep Lotor from doing anything worse. Keith just needed to accept that fact.

“This is a brand new world for Lance,” Shiro reminded him. “He’s not used to this sort of environment. He needs your help.”

“He doesn’t want my help, Shiro. He made that very clear.”

“I disagree, but it doesn’t really matter. He needs your protection right now. You’re the only one that can stop Lotor.”

Keith laughed, short and sharp. “I can’t even stop Lotor from antagonizing me every chance he gets. I’m a poor choice for protection against someone like him.”

Shiro placed a hand on his shoulder.

“Perhaps,” he allowed, though he privately thought Keith wasn’t giving himself enough credit. He didn’t see that the reason Lotor antagonized him so much was because Keith presented such a large threat to him. An even larger one now, with the creation of the peace treaty. Which was why he needed to be by Lance’s side. Why he needed to stop hiding and fight. “If you can’t stop him though, no one can. And right now,” he continued, staring into Keith’s conflicted, golden eyes, “right now, you’re all he has.”

 

Chapter Text

Lance looked in the mirror and felt as though he was looking at a stranger.

There was very little in his reflection that looked familiar. His cheek tattoos, perhaps. And maybe the color of his skin and hair. But even those were cast in a foreign light by the dark grey of his shirt, making him appear almost pale and sickly. Or maybe that was just the nerves.

Sighing, he leaned closer to the mirror, pressing a finger to the small shadows beneath his eyes. He hadn’t been able to sleep at all last night due to nerves. He’d been restless, tossing and turning and trying to forget the fact that this was his wedding day. That he’d soon be saying vows before a crowd of enemies, binding himself to their prince completely, so that no law, altean or galran, could separate them.

This was the day that made it all official. The day that sealed the alliance. The final nail in the coffin, so to speak, though Lance really hoped that figurative coffin wouldn’t end up becoming literal. That this wedding wouldn’t end up leading him to his death.

He brushed his hair back with a hand and frowned at his reflection. He’d yet to don his circlet, and without it his forehead appeared wide and empty, but wearing it with this outfit just felt wrong. Like a violation of all he was. He’d been dressed in the galran fashion, with thick, warm fabrics cut into sharp angles. The shirt he wore was heavier than anything he’d owned on Altea and covered more skin than he was used to, high-necked and long sleeved with silver buttons trailing down the right side of his chest to his waist, where it tapered down to two sharp points. The rest of his ensemble was black— black pants, black boots, black gloves. There was even a black cloak trimmed in grey and black speckled fur that he’d left lying on the bed for later.

He’d never worn such dark colors before. Black, in his culture, was reserved for those revered for their wisdom and leadership. It wasn’t seen often in Altea. And even then, only in small doses. Blues and whites were the shades his people preferred. Or, at times, a pale grey, mostly for armor or undersuits. Even in mourning, alteans favored lighter colors, dressing in shades of pink to celebrate the lives of their fallen, and their return to the life force that sustained Altea.

Lance longed to be wearing those colors now. Longed to be back in the lightweight bodysuits and tunics of his people. Longed to be back on Altea.

There was a knock at his door, then the soft creak of it opening. Lance glanced over his shoulder and saw Shiro slipping inside. “It’s time,” he said to Lance. His expression was about as solemn as Lance felt. “I’m to escort you to the Ceremony Hall once you’re ready.”

Lance nodded. He turned back to the mirror, looking over the stranger that was his reflection one last time, then let out a long sigh. He couldn’t put it off forever, he supposed. Better to just get it over with.

He turned away and grabbed the cloak from his bed, pulling it over his shoulders and clasping it together with a silver chain. It was heavier than he’d been expecting. Even heavier than the cloak Shiro was letting him borrow while his own set of galran clothes were made, and far more suffocating. The weight of it seemed filled with expectation and dread. It hung like a rock over his shoulders. Like some sort anchor to this cold world.

He ignored that thought and reached for his circlet. Then hesitated. His hand hovered over the golden ring, undecided.

It’s just metal, he told himself, staring at the circlet. He traced the familiar curves with his eyes, around the loops and scrolls, down to the sapphire teardrop that hung from its point. Just a symbol. It doesn’t mean anything.

But it did. It meant a lot.

That circlet had been made specifically for him, commissioned by Allura to celebrate his role as a paladin of Altea. To celebrate everything about him that made him worthy of such an honor. Wearing it now, with these galran clothes, far from the planet he’d sworn to protect from this empire, felt almost like a betrayal. Like he was replacing that part of himself. Overwriting his past with his future. Who he was with who he must now become. And Lance wasn’t sure he was ready for that.

What choice did he have though? The wedding would happen regardless of whether he wore it or not. He would still be trading his old life for the new. There would be no waiting for him to be ready, and at least by wearing the circlet he’d be carrying a piece of home with him to give him courage.

It’s just metal. Just a symbol. Not wearing it won’t change anything.

He picked up the circlet and slipped it over his forehead. The familiar press of cool metal against his skin was comforting, and Lance touched a finger to the small sapphire that dangled from its point before lifting his head, drawing strength from its deep blue color. The deep blue of Altea’s oceans. Of its clear night skies. Of the lion he’d left behind.

I swore that I’d protect them, he thought. Marrying Keith will keep Altea safe. It’s my duty as a paladin, and as their prince.

Remembering that he was doing this for his people helped him calm down some. He took a deep breath and turned back around to face the doorway. Shiro was still waiting against the wall, watching Lance with soft, understanding eyes. Seeing him there helped Lance feel a bit better too. Calmer. Steadier. More willing to step out into that hallway and face the music.

“I’m ready,” he said, and Shiro smiled. He held open the door for Lance to step through, then led the way through the palace to the Hall of Ceremonies, where the wedding would take place.

The hallways they traveled down were completely empty. Unsurprising, considering what they were heading towards. All of the galran nobles, and many of the top military personnel and political advisors, had been invited to witness Lance and Keith’s union. Many more than had been present for their arrival on galra just a few days before, and all of them probably waiting in the Hall of Ceremonies for him to arrive.

All those golden eyes just waiting to glare at him. Hoping to see him fail. Lance felt queasy just thinking about it.

Would he have felt so nauseous on his wedding day if he had remained on Altea and was marrying someone he loved? Probably not. And he doubted he’d feel alone as he now did either.

He couldn’t help but think of the way this part of his life could have been done if he hadn’t been forced into this marriage. How he wished it could have been done, back on Altea, surrounded by all his friends and family.

They would have been the ones escorting him to the Temple of Souls at the heart of their capital city, surrounding him with laughter and joy, all of them dressed in the traditional white and gold. His mother and Allura would have been the ones to hold his hands as they walked through the city. His sister would have held his flower-covered veil. And Lance himself would have been so covered in gold bangles and bells that every step he took would have been accompanied by their jingling.

In general, an altean wedding would not have been nearly as silent as the galran palace was now. The streets of Altea would have been full of people, all eager to wish him well. There would have been cheering. And banners waving from rooftops. And flower petals strewn across the street, thrown by all those watching from their windows. The whole of Altea— noble and common alike— would have been involved.

Lance didn’t like how quiet the hallways were here. The silence only set his nerves on edge. And it only got worse as they rounded the corner and the doors to the Hall of Ceremonies came into sight. Those great, metal doors behind which the whole galran court was waiting.

Lance’s steps slowed. He bit down on his bottom lip as he stared at the doors and brought his hands together to anxiously twist the ring around his index finger. Except it wasn’t there. He wasn’t wearing it because it had been returned to Keith the night before in preparation for the wedding ceremony. And he wasn’t wearing any other rings because of his thick gloves. That left him quite unsure of what to do with his hands, but he needed to do something or else he would go crazy. The longer he stared at those doors, and the closer they got, the more Lance just wanted to turn and run. Already, his hands were shaking.

He laced his fingers together and pressed them against his stomach to hide the tremors. He didn’t want anyone to see how anxious he was. Not even Shiro. But especially not anyone beyond those doors. Not the nobles that would judge him by his fear and treat it as a weakness.

Lance refused to be seen as weak.

He and Shiro stopped right outside the doors, close enough to see the subtle, pointed symbols carved into the otherwise smooth surface. Lance stared up at them, tracing the ancient symbols, trying to gather the courage to pass under them and into the Hall of Ceremonies as he waited for Shiro to open the door. But Shiro didn’t move, or even reach out. Instead, he looked at Lance and frowned.

“Are you alright?” he asked. He looked Lance up and down, brows furrowed together, concern evident on his face. Lance kept his eyes fixed on the door and slowly nodded.

“I’m fine,” he answered in a soft, scratchy voice. Then cleared his throat and repeated more loudly, “I’m fine.” It didn’t seem to convince Shiro, whose pinched and worried expression remained just the same, but he didn’t try to argue or push Lance further. Instead, Shiro sighed. He took a step back.

“This is where I must leave you,” he said. “I’m not allowed beyond those doors.”

Something heavy dropped straight through Lance. Something that aggravated the dread already lurking inside him. It twisted and churned and knotted itself uncomfortably in his chest. He felt it with every breath he took, with every beat of his heart, growing more painful with every passing second as he realized that once Shiro left, he would be alone. He would be all alone, just as he’d been in that hallway the other day. Alone, and an easy target.

“Wait,” he choked out, grabbing hold of the hem of Shiro’s sleeve just like a child. There was a flicker of shame in his chest, but it was quickly smothered by the panic growing inside him. The thought of facing all those galran nobles alone, of their sharp eyes watching his every move, of Lotor’s eyes watching him, was too much to bear.

“Shiro,” he tried again, but the rest of the words got caught in his throat. He opened his mouth, then closed it again and swallowed thickly, past the words and the fear clawing at his throat. Don’t leave, he wanted to say. Please don’t leave me alone.

Shiro gave him a sad smile, as if understanding what Lance couldn’t bring himself to voice. He took Lance’s hand in his own and gently squeezed it. “Keith’s just inside. He’ll be with you for the rest. You won’t be alone.”

Yes, but was that really any better? Keith seemed to hate his guts, the last time Lance checked. It wouldn’t surprise him if Keith chose to ignore him through the entire ceremony, forcing him to deal with the situation all on his own.

Lance frowned, but kept that thought to himself. After all, it wasn’t Shiro’s fault that he was barred from the ceremony, and it wasn’t as if either of them could do anything about it. Facts were facts. The situation couldn’t be changed, so Lance would just have to trust that Keith would uphold his half of the ordeal. Though he’d probably be better off relying on himself instead, considering how angry Keith was the last time they spoke, and how staunchly he’d avoided Lance since that day. Keith was probably dreading this wedding even more than Lance was.

Lance sighed. This all would have been so much easier if Shiro was the one Lance was marrying. At least he actually got along with Shiro, and could rely on him to be there when things got dicey. Lance trusted him, and admired him, and could easily imagine a happy, stable future together if the situation were different. Perhaps not as passionate or love-filled as Lance might have hoped, but safe. Long-lasting.

Instead he had Keith. Confusing, stubborn, irritating Keith. Whom Lance now had to rely on if he had any hope of getting through the day without making a complete fool of himself.

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He felt Shiro squeeze his hand once more. “You can do this,” Shiro said. For once, though, the words weren’t very reassuring.

Could he do this? Could he go in there and say those galran vows, knowing that once he did he would no longer be a prince of Altea, his home? Instead he would become a prince of Galra. A part of the imperial family he’d always despised and feared. Why did he even agree to this?

It was all so wrong. He should be on Altea with his mother and siblings, not getting married to an enemy’s prince. He should be there taking care of them. Should be there to watch his sister begin accepting suitors, should be there to assess and intimidate and threaten like any older sibling would. Should be there to watch his younger brother, who looked so much like Lance with his brown hair and blue eyes and cheeky smile, finally celebrate his coming of age. Should be there to support his mother. To listen to her nagging, and ask for her advice.

He so needed her advice right now.

He hadn’t felt so lost or helpless since the day he learned his father had died. He remembered weeping on his bed and asking his mother why. Why had his father gone out there? Why, when he knew the battle was already over, and the outer planets already lost? Why had he gone to fight, knowing he’d almost certainly be killed?

“He’s a prince,” his mother said to him. Her cheeks had been damp, and her eyes had been red and puffy, but she’d spoken with so much confidence that Lance hadn’t been able to argue against her when she repeated what his father had always said. “It’s a prince’s duty to be of use to his kingdom and his people. Whatever the cost.”

I am a prince, Lance now thought. I am a prince, just like my father. And I will see this through.

He pulled his hand away from Shiro and took a step back, toward the Hall of Ceremonies. His hand still shook as he pressed it against the metal door, but Lance did his best to ignore it. To push his fears aside long enough to at least get through the wedding. He could worry about all the rest later, away from the eyes of the galran court. He just had to get through the day. Somehow.

Well, it could be worse, he thought as pushed open the door. At least my husband’s not evil. An antisocial jerk, perhaps, but not evil. And, considering where he was, and whom he might have been engaged to, that truly was something to be thankful for. It was enough to get him through the doorway.

Lance stepped into the antechamber, letting the door swing shut behind him. It closed with a soft thud, and left Lance alone in the darkness. Or at least he thought it did.

The antechamber was much darker than the hallway outside, lit only by a few small candles in the corners of the room. It took a few moments for Lance to adjust. He blinked quickly and rubbed at his eyes until he was able to make out the details of the room. The rough, uneven stone walls. The wrought iron candle stands in the corners. And the galran prince leaning against the opposite wall with his arms crossed, waiting for Lance. Just as Shiro said he’d be.

Lance felt a flicker of surprise. He really shouldn’t have, since he knew the wedding ceremony itself required they enter the actual Hall together, but part of him hadn’t actually believed Keith would be waiting. The galran prince had avoided him the entire time he’d been here. Somehow, he’d expected the same from this.

Keith was staring at the floor, his golden eyes narrowed into a glare. He didn’t look up when Lance walked in. His ears twitched a bit at the thud of the door closing, but otherwise Keith made no acknowledgment of Lance’s presence until Lance was standing beside him, facing the thick, black curtain that separated the antechamber from the actual Hall of Ceremonies. Then Keith lifted his head to meet Lance’s gaze with a serious expression of his own.

Serious looked good on him, Lance decided. It brought out the sharpness of his features and the strength in his stance. Made him appear more regal, especially in the all-black ensemble he was wearing. He’d slicked back his hair again, pinning the longer strands up with a silver clip that caught the candlelight when he pushed away from the wall to stand beside Lance. It was his usual style, but, for a second, Lance wanted to pull that clip out and let Keith’s hair tumble down freely, the way it had been when they’d spoken on Olkarion. When they’d been open and honest with each other. When Lance hadn’t yet given up his family for the sake of peace.

Keith held out his arm in the traditional escort posture. Lance hesitated for a moment before looping his arm through Keith’s, which didn’t escape Keith’s notice.

“Having second thoughts?” he asked in a low voice, brows raised. Lance shook his head quickly.

“Me? Never.” He forced a smile on his face, but it didn’t feel right. It felt too stiff and thin and weak, and soon Lance gave up on smiling at all. Probably for the best though. None of the galrans would be smiling anyways.

Keith stared at him for a moment longer, then looked back at the curtain. Lance looked at it too, waiting for the Master of Ceremonies to draw it aside for them with mounting panic. Soon he’d be facing the court. Soon he’d be saying the vows. Soon he’d no longer truly be an altean. He’d be a member of the galran court, with everything that implied.

“Deep breath,” Keith murmured beside him, pulling Lance out of his thoughts. He placed his free hand on top of Lance’s for a second— not holding, or squeezing, but just there, a warm weight on top of Lance’s shaking limb. Lance hadn’t even realized he’d started shaking again until that moment. “Breathe in and hold your chin up. Don’t let them see how they affect you.”

“They don’t affect me,” Lance whispered back. Keith’s lips quirked up just a bit.

“No. Of course not.”

The sound of music from beyond the curtain cut off any further conversation. Lance straightened, rolling his shoulders back and lifting his chin, just in time for the curtain to be pulled aside. A quick glimpse through the archway showed the Hall of Ceremonies filled with galrans, just as Lance had expected. They stood on either side of the Hall with an aisle down the center, and all of them turned to face the archway.

Lance tensed. He glanced at Keith, quickly reminding himself he wasn’t alone, then returned his gaze to the front of the Hall. He took a deep breath. Then he and Keith walked forward.

The Hall of Ceremonies was dark, lit only by candles and the little bit of sunlight that filtered through the red and black stained glass windows. It was also quiet. Aside from the mournful notes of a flute and harp, the only sound in the Hall was that of his and Keith’s footsteps, which echoed off the stone walls and up to the vaulted ceiling. The nobles around them made no sounds— no whispers or laughter or anything to clue Lance in to how they were reacting. Not that Lance really wanted to know.

He kept his gaze forward, locked on the raised platform at the end of the Hall where several cloaked figures stood. Druids, he seemed to remember them being called. The keepers of Galra’s old faiths and rituals. The ones that would perform the marriage rites and bind him and Keith together.

One of the cloaked figures stepped off the platform to meet Lance and Keith at the front of the Hall. They held a length of red silk, which they wrapped seven times around his and Keith’s clasped hands. Seven times for the seven oaths they would swear before the gods of old.

Lance swallowed dryly, seeing their hands bound in such a way. He tore his gaze away to look instead at Keith, right into Keith’s golden eyes.

“Lance,” Keith began, voice low and steady, “to you, I promise my life. Where you go, I will go. Where you rest, I will rest. With my sword, I will defend you. With my shield, I will protect you. With my hands, I will build a home for you. You shall never be in want.” He took the black imperial ring from his pocket— the one Lance had returned to him for this very occasion— and slipped it back over Lance’s index finger as he murmured, “This, I so swear.”

Then, it was Lance’s turn. He sucked in a sharp, shaky breath, trying not to tremble under the weight of so many eyes. He could feel them all staring at him, waiting for him to speak, to mess this up and prove himself a fool. The pressure choked him and made the words stick in his throat. He couldn’t do this. He couldn’t. He couldn’t

Keith tightened his grip on Lance’s hand beneath the red silk that bound them, and suddenly Lance could breathe again. He blew out a stream of air, focusing on the weight and warmth of Keith’s hand in his own, then breathed in deep.

“Kyran,” he said. His voice soft, but thankfully it didn’t shake as Lance feared it might, and he continued, “to you, I promise my life. Where you go, I will go. Where you rest, I will rest. With my sword, I will defend you. With my shield, I will protect you. With my hands, I will build a home for you. You shall never be in want. This, I so swear.”

Keith nodded in approval when Lance finished— subtly, but definitely still there. It sent a tendril of warmth through Lance, easing some of the anxiety that still twisted and churned inside his chest. At least he’d done this part right.

The druid had held the silk placed their hands over Keith and Lance’s. “Those here present, bear witness to these oaths,” the druid said. “May what’s been joined never be parted, and what’s been promised never be broken. By the power of the gods, old and new, for all the days to come.”

And so, they were married.

 

Chapter Text

“A toast!” Lotor said, standing from his seat at the head of the table and lifting his glass. “To my little brother and his charming new husband. Who knew he could be so lucky?”

All around him, the wedding guests laughed and joined the toast. “To Prince Kyran and Prince Lance,” they chorused.

Keith smiled wryly and raised his own cup to toast with the rest of the nobles in the banquet hall. Across from him, Lance did the same, but with even less enthusiasm. Just a small nod and a quick lift of his glass, and then he was back to sitting so still and silent he might as well not have been there at all. The same way he’d been all night, ever since the end of the wedding ceremony.

Keith took a small sip of his wine. He would have liked to drink more, to drown himself in alcohol and forget this whole event, but there had already been so many toasts, and there would probably be several more before the night was out, and Keith needed to keep a clear head. Just because it was his wedding night didn’t mean things were safe. He knew his half-brother well, and he really didn’t like the amused gleam in Lotor’s eyes.

“Thank you,” Keith said to him as Lotor took his seat. He was careful to keep his tone neutral, to not reveal just how wary he was of Lotor’s well-wishes, even as he continued, “I’m grateful for your kind words.”

“But of course,” Lotor replied. He grinned and leaned back in his seat, idly swirling the wine in his hand. “It’s not everyday my only brother gets married. And to another prince! An Altean one, of course, but still quite a catch.” Lotor sighed loudly. “And to think he might have been my husband. If I had known how charming he was, I would have reconsidered.”

No, you wouldn’t have. You would never marry someone that would jeopardize your claim to the throne. And for all your claims of kinship and welcome, I know what Lance is to you: a threat.

In a way, Keith was glad for Lotor’s reluctance. Glad that he’d been the one to get engaged through this treaty instead of his brother. Not because Keith truly wanted to marry Lance, but because even Keith would never leave Lance at Lotor’s mercy. That was too cruel a prospect, and nothing Lance deserved.

Keith glanced again at Lance, who’d been unusually quiet since leaving the Hall of Ceremonies. His posture was stiff and straight and obviously uncomfortable in the curved-back chairs of the banquet table. He looked poised to flee at any second. Ready to dart right out of his seat at the first sign of danger. Not that Keith could blame him. It was the first time Lance had been surrounded by so many Galrans for such a long period of time, far from his home and anyone that would support him. It was little wonder he was so wary. Keith would have been the same had their positions been reversed. He actually had been the same when he first came to court— quiet, cautious, and desperate not to make any mistakes.

Grimacing, he looked down at his plate and picked at his food. The wedding feast was magnificent, as expected, filled with every delicacy and traditional dish their cooks could provide. But Keith didn’t have much of an appetite after the events from earlier, and seeing Lance so uncomfortable only made it worse. Made him feel like a pile of rocks had just been dumped into his stomach. Made him feel heavy with guilt.

“You know exactly what he’s walking into,” Shiro had told him the other day. “You should be helping him right now.” But how was he supposed to help when Lance wouldn’t even listen?

He’d tried to warn Lance about the court, back on that balcony on Olkarion. Tried again when they arrived on Galra and still had a chance of avoiding Lotor’s interest. But Lance hadn’t listened. Hadn’t even considered that maybe Keith had a reason for asking him to be quiet. And then when Shiro had warned Lance not to wander the palace alone, and to stay in his room until Shiro could join him, Lance hadn’t listened to that either. He’d been too impatient, too headstrong, and much too eager to walk right into danger.

How was Keith supposed to counteract that when Lance seemed so determined to go his own way, damn the consequences? What was Keith supposed to say to him? What was he supposed to do?

Keith’s scowl deepened. He glared silently at his plate as laughter and unintelligible strands of conversation drifted toward him from up and down the long banquet table. Laughter and conversation directed at him, most likely. That’s all the court liked to do whenever Keith was at the center of something. To gossip about their little half-breed prince, whose only true value came from this marriage alliance. Little Prince Kyran, the butt of everyone’s jokes.

Keith really hated it here, at these events. Hated the banquets and the celebrations and the crowds of courtiers with their simpering smiles and mocking eyes. He wanted nothing more than to just disappear. And to take Lance with him, back to their rooms, far away from this poisonous court.

He didn’t let himself linger too long on that last thought. It was simply his duty as Lance’s husband to keep him safe. Even more so because he knew what Shiro said the other day was right; that right now, Keith was all Lance had.

Holding back a sigh, he set his fork down and pushed his plate away. It was still heaped in food, but there was no way Keith would be able to eat any of it in this state. Not when he was so tense and set on edge. The nobles sitting around him didn’t notice, or perhaps they didn’t care. It wasn’t the first time Keith had refused to eat at a banquet, after all. The blatant animosity they typically showed him often took away his appetite. Made him too queasy to even consider eating. Him pushing his plate away was nothing new for the court, and so it didn’t garner any interest from them. They ignored it just as they ignored almost everything else he did.

The movement seemed to catch Lance’s attention, however. His gaze flickered to the plate, then lifted to focus on Keith, and, not for the first time, Keith was struck by just how impossibly blue his eyes were. How clear and bright and deep they seemed, even in his fear. As blue as Keith had always imagined the ocean to be. Lance flashed him a tiny, hesitant smile. Then he pushed his own plate away.

“Finished already, Prince Lance?” one of the nobles remarked. Keith looked to Lance’s right, at the female that had called Lance’s— and the rest of the banquet table’s— attention, and tried not to scowl at the feigned concern on her face. “Why, you’ve barely eaten anything!”

“Oh. Well, I—” he paused, seeming to realize how the focus of every noble in the immediate vicinity had turned to him. He glanced back at Keith, then ducked his head for a moment. When he looked back up, he had an empty smile plastered across his face. “I’m not very used to the richness of Galran dishes. I’m quite full.”

The female returned his empty smile. “I see. I’m glad for that. We were all worried our dishes wouldn’t be to your taste.”

“No, they were delicious. I simply can’t eat another bite.”

There was a short laugh from further down the table. “He’s probably too nervous to eat,” the soldier said. He grinned viciously, sharp teeth gleaming, not even trying to hide his amusement. “He still has the wedding night to get through, after all.”

Across from Keith, Lance paled. He seemed to draw back into himself, pulling his hands back from the table to instead place them in his lap, closing himself off with his tense, slightly hunched shoulders and carefully neutral expression. An expression that didn’t completely reach his eyes, which were wide and downcast and clearly trying to avoid looking at Keith, especially as the rest of the nobles around them picked up the conversation.

“Will it truly be a wedding night though?” one asked. “Do Alteans mate the same way we do?”

“I’ve heard they don’t mate at all,” one said.

Another answered, “Don’t be ridiculous. I once bedded an Altean. They’re not so different from humans.”

A hum of understanding passed through the involved nobles. Several nodded in agreement, sly grins across their faces, not caring just how insulting their insinuations were. Not caring how the Alteans and humans they were speaking of were almost certainly prisoners, in no position to fight back or defend themselves. Or how Lance, an Altean prince, would feel to know all of that.

Keith felt a spark of irritation at their callous comments. He kept his mouth shut though, choosing not to say a word. He knew better than to cause any trouble. Knew he and Lance just needed to endure until the nobles grew bored and moved on to another topic.

They made it difficult for him to remain unaffected, however. Their comments grew bolder and more pointed as Keith clung desperately to his calm facade, all of them doing their level best to bait him into a reaction, as usual.

“I think the real question here is whether Kyran will be able to perform or not,” one of the females a few seats away from Keith said. She leaned forward as she said it, as if confiding a secret to the others, but her voice was still loud enough for Keith and Lance and all those around them to hear. “He is a half-breed, you know, and I’ve heard half-breeds tend to be sterile.”

One of the nobles sitting beside her frowned. “Sterile doesn’t always equal impotence,” he argued, his narrow face pinched with what seemed to be exasperation. The female brushed off his comments easily.

“Well we can’t say that for sure, Ulaz,” she said. “It’s not like Kyran’s had any lovers before this.”

“It’s unlikely he’ll have any lovers after this either,” the male beside her remarked snidely, which made the others around them laugh.

Keith felt nothing but anger and shame, and he dug his fingers painfully into his thighs to keep himself from lashing out. He couldn’t start a fight here. Couldn’t start any trouble. Not with Lotor sitting so close and watching it all unfold.

His half-brother had kept silent through the entire conversation, but he wore a small smirk across his lips to match the mirth sparkling in his eyes. It was clear he was enjoying this situation, seeing Keith be disparaged by the courtiers and not able to say a word in his own defense. But then mocking Keith had always been one of Lotor’s favorite pastimes. There was little reason for that to change now that Keith was married.

In fact, Keith predicted with a sick, sinking feeling in his stomach, Lotor’s mocking and cruel games would probably only get worse.

“Enough,” Lotor finally said, quelling any further discussions about Keith’s abilities in bed with a single, upraised hand. His expression was openly amused, however, and Keith knew the nobles would take it as silent approval for all their teasing. As silent permission to tease even more. “I’m sure Kyran will perform just fine. He’ll be entirely satisfactory, don’t you agree, Lance?” He smiled at Lance, who tensed even more and leaned further back into his chair, as if trying to hide or escape. His obvious discomfort didn’t deter Lotor, though. It only made him smile even wider as he added, “Though if he isn’t, you can always find me. I’ll make sure you’re satisfied.”

Lotor’s words were met with knowing grins and hoots of laughter, as if it was all just a giant joke. As if he’d only said it to get under Keith’s skin.

Keith knew better. He knew how this game was played. What sort of rules Lotor followed, and what sort of plans he made. He’d seen Lotor lure unsuspecting victim after unsuspecting victim straight into the palm of his hand. Had watched him toy with and torment and toss aside each one without a single care, like they were all mere playthings, existing only to amuse him. There was a pattern to it all. A routine. And it was beginning to show in the way he treated Lance. Maybe the others hadn’t noticed yet, but Keith did, and seeing it made him feel almost ill.

It appeared Shiro had been right. This was a different sort of interest from what Keith had hoped it would be. An altogether more dangerous kind of interest. The kind that wasn’t linked in any way to Keith, as many of Lotor’s amusements were. The kind that would leave Lance broken and return them all to war if Lotor wasn’t stopped.

He looked at Lance, imagining the aftermath he knew was coming. Seeing the scars and the bruises littered across his skin. Seeing the lifeless shell he would be left as. The flat expression. The empty, blue eye. Completely broken, as if Lotor had sucked all the life out of him. Keith imagined it and felt bursts of nausea and anger swirling together in his chest. And it didn’t matter how different he and Lance were, or how poorly they got along, because Keith knew no one deserved that fate. Especially not some like Lance, who’d already sacrificed so much.

Keith stood from his seat. “I believe it’s time we turn in,” he said in the sudden hush of the nobles. “Might Prince Lance and I be excused?”

Lotor turned his smile on Keith, but it was already much colder and harder than it had been a few moments before, when he was looking at Lance. “So soon?” he asked, voice sweet, but also somehow sharp as a knife. “We haven’t even had dessert.”

We haven’t even gotten to the best part.

Keith narrowed his eyes. “We have no appetite for it.”

Whatever Lotor had in mind, Keith wanted no part of. He wanted to get as far away from the court as possible with all haste. He wanted to get Lance as far away from the court as he could, before Lotor had a chance to advance his game somehow.

Keith and Lotor stared each other down for a few, tense moments, silently testing each other’s wills. Keith held his ground for once. He didn’t give in or try to avoid causing conflict, but instead held Lotor’s glare with a glower of his own. Until Lotor finally relented with a dismissive wave of his hand. “You may go. We’ll speak in the morning.”

Keith let out a breath and relaxed. There would be trouble for him in the morning, he knew, but for now he was safe. And he and Lance could make their retreat.

Silently, he looked at Lance and nodded towards the door of the banquet hall. The Altean prince didn’t need anymore than that before he was up out of his chair and at Keith’s side, leaving the hall without a single glance back.

Lance walked quickly, and then walked even quicker once they were away from the banquet hall and he no longer had to hide just how desperate he was to get away. Keith walked at a more even pace. He wasn’t as frantic or worried as Lance seemed to be, but then he was also more accustomed to his half-brother’s ways. He knew Lotor’s dismissal meant they would have peace for the rest of the night. Or at least as much peace as sharing a room would allow.

Keith wrinkled his nose at that thought.

It was customary, of course, for newly married couples to at least spend their wedding night in the same room. What happened during the night was left to the couple’s discretion, just so long as they stayed in that one room. Lance and Keith would be expected to do the same, to honor the traditions of Galra if nothing else. There’d be no way around it. Keith was willing to bet Lotor would station guards near their door just to make sure they went through with it, despite how uncomfortable it would be. And with the way Keith and Lance had gotten along thus far, it was sure to be very uncomfortable.

On any other day, Keith would have volunteered to stay awake the whole night just to spare them both the awkwardness of sharing a bed, but after two weeks of getting barely any rest and all the stress of their wedding, all Keith wanted to do was sleep. To finally curl up in the warmth of an actual bed and slip into blissful oblivion.

That was the only thing on his mind when they finally reached Keith’s apartment of rooms and walked into the large sitting room. He was so focused on finally getting some rest, he didn’t notice the way Lance’s footsteps slowed, or the way he glanced longingly toward the smaller guest bedroom he’d been staying in for the past week. Didn’t notice at least until he turned around and found Lance hesitating in the doorway, looking for all the world like he might just bolt.

“Lance?” he called out. Then again, more loudly, when he didn’t respond. “Lance!”

Lance’s head jerked up. He looked pale again, and he was blinking rapidly, as if coming out of a daze. It took him a few seconds to focus on Keith, then he exhaled and softly murmured, “Sorry.”

Keith frowned. He followed the line of Lance’s gaze across the room, then turned back to Lance and frowned even more. “It’s just a bed,” he said. “It’s not going to bite you.” Lance nodded, but didn’t say anything. He looked down at the floor and fiddled with his fingers in silence. Sighing, Keith turned away and started getting ready for bed, tugging off his gloves first, then pulling out his hair pin and removing his cloak. “You might as well get comfortable,” he said to the still silent Lance. “I think Shiro put some of your things in here earlier.”

“Ok,” Lance answered softly. Too soft, really. Almost timid, which didn’t fit the Lance he knew at all. Keith heard Lance shift behind him, then shift again. Glancing over his shoulder, he found Lance staring at the bed again, his feet fidgeting against the marble floor and his face drained of color. It didn’t take a genius to figure out where his thoughts had turned.

Keith closed his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Lance, you need to calm down,” he said. “I’m not going to do anything. Nothing needs to happen tonight.”

“But what about—”

“They won’t check,” he interrupted. “This is just a formality. No one actually cares what we do.” And if they did, it wouldn’t be for long. Their interest wouldn’t even last a week before being distracted by some other thread of gossip. That, at least, he was thankful for. He let out a sigh and ran a hand through his hair, feeling the exhaustion of the past two weeks catching up to him. He was too tired to worry about all this stuff, particularly when there was nothing to worry about. Not tonight. “It’s been a long day. Let’s just go to sleep, alright?”

Lance made a sort of choked sound. “Together?” he demanded. Keith gave him a flat look, which only made Lance huff and stick up his nose. “Well sorry if I don’t quite trust you yet. I wasn’t expecting to share a bed with someone that was my enemy just a week ago.”

“Gods above,” Keith groaned, way too tired to be dealing with this now. “I don’t care what you do, but I’m going to sleep. You can join me, or you can stay up all night worrying over nothing. It makes no difference to me.”

With that, Keith turned his back to Lance and began peeling off his stuffy, formal clothes, starting with his jacket. He heard Lance make a little squeak of protest, but didn’t let it bother him. Why should it when Keith was just stripping down to his underclothes? It wasn’t as if he was being immodest. He was still wearing more than he usually wore to sleep, so if Lance had an issue with it, he would just have to deal with it.

Leaving his clothes in a pile on the floor, Keith collapsed onto his bed and sighed happily into the nest of pillows and blankets. It had been too long since he’d gotten to sleep in his own bed. To really sleep, and not just catch an hour or so of rest as he’d been doing for the past week. It was a relief to finally relax into the softness, to let all of his tension out and melt into the lush comfort.

He wrapped his arms around one of the many pillows strewn across his bed, pressing his face into the soft silk, and sighed again. His eyes were shut, and the pillow blocked out the rest of the light, but he could still hear the soft rustled and footsteps of Lance as he moved around the room doing… something. Keith didn’t bother finding out what. It wasn’t his business, and he was too tired to really care. Already, he was starting to drift away, thoughts growing hazy and distant.

A gentle dip in the bed behind him woke him up a bit again. Keith opened one eye to glance over his shoulder, then, seeing it was only Lance turning off the light and laying down beside him, rolled back over and settled more comfortably where he was. Waiting for sleep to wash over him.

Lance shifted, shaking the bed.

Then he shifted again.

And again.

Keith bit back a soft growl. “Can you just calm down and be still for like ten minutes?” he snapped, rolling over to glare at Lance.

“Sorry,” Lance mumbled, slightly muffled by the pillow he’d buried his face in. Even in the darkness, he was clearly visible, as clear to Keith as if they were in a lighted room, all thanks to his Galran genes. He saw the way Lance had tried to cocoon himself in blankets and pillows. Saw too the mess his pillows had already made of Lance’s brown hair, and the tight tension stretched across his broad shoulders. Lance pushed himself up on one elbow and rubbed a hand over his face, at least having the decency to look a bit ashamed at disturbing Keith’s rest. Though clearly not ashamed enough to calm down and let Keith actually sleep. “This is just really weird. Don’t you think it’s weird?”

“What, sharing a bed?”

“Well, yeah, but I meant more that it’s weird that we’re sharing a bed,” he tried to explain, gesturing between them with his hand. “You and me. Both of us. Just… us in general. It’s weird.”

Keith snorted. “It’s an arranged marriage. Of course it’s weird,” he answered. “Now can we please go to sleep?”

Lance frowned. “How are you so composed about this?”

“Years of practice,” he answered. Which was true enough.

After so long in the Galran court, Keith had learned how to bottle up his emotions, to hide them away behind a cool, collected mask, where no one could use them against him. This was just another one of those moments, and it wasn’t nearly as bad as some of the things he’d gone through. It was easy to keep calm away from the court and all its dangers. He’d take this situation and its awkwardness over facing Lotor and the nobles any day.

Lance fell quiet after that comment. He fell back against the bed with a quiet huff and stared up at the ceiling, as if lost in thought. Keith took that as a sign that their conversation was finished, and so turned back onto his other side and nestled down into the thick pile of blankets. With any luck, he’d be able to fall asleep before Lance grew restless again. As long as he was asleep it wouldn’t matter how much Lance tossed and turned. He just needed to drift away before Lance started shifting around again.

However, luck appeared to be completely absent that night.

The bed shook a bit as Lance turned, sheets hushing against him as he moved. “Hey, Keith?” he asked into the darkness. “How old are you?”

“Twenty-four,” Keith mumbled into his pillow. He refused to turn over, though, or otherwise acknowledge their conversation in any other way, hoping that his brusque answer would put an end to it before it even began. But again, no luck.

“How old were you when you came to court?”

Keith groaned. He rolled onto his back and glared at Lance. “You’re just not going to go to sleep, are you?” Lance gave him a sheepish smile, but didn’t deny it. Keith glowered at him for a few moments longer, then sighed and rolled all the way onto his side to face lance directly.

If they were going to have this heart-to-heart, they might as well do it face-to-face.

“I was sixteen when my father summoned me,” Keith told him. “I was introduced to the court about a month later.”

Lance’s eyes grew wide. “Sixteen?” he asked in a whisper, as if he couldn’t believe it. Keith nodded. “But that’s eight years.” Keith nodded again, and somehow Lance’s eyes grew even wider. “They’ve treated you this way for eight years?”

“It’s not as bad as it used to be.”

He still had the scars from that first year at court, when he couldn’t seem to do anything right. Most of them were courtesy of his brother, but there were a few his father had given while in the throes of anger, whenever Keith did or said anything he really didn’t like. That year had taught him a lot about staying quiet and keeping his thoughts to himself. Had taught him what a mistake it was to trust in anyone but himself.

Not that Lance needed to know that.

Keith kept that information to himself and didn’t say anything more on the matter, though he could tell Lance wanted to know. He saw it in the furrow between Lance’s brows and the way he worried his bottom lip. Saw it in the tense silence that filled the room, despite Lance’s penchant for noise. Saw it in the way Lance started to reach out to him, then drew his hand back and tucked it against his chest, out of Keith’s reach.

They stayed there in silence for a few moments, not really knowing what to say, or how to dispel the heavy atmosphere that now surrounded them. Keith wondered if maybe that meant that their conversation was over. That it was time for them both to settle down and go to sleep, as he’d wanted to do earlier. But now Keith was reluctant to. He wasn’t sure he could sleep with so much still hanging over them, even though he didn’t know what to do instead.

Lance shifted again, seeming as uncertain as Keith was. After a few moments, he sighed. Then he ducked his head into the blankets, so that only his eyes were showing. Eyes that now refused to meet Keith’s gaze at all.

“I’m sorry,” he said softly. “About the other day, in the Great Hall. I should have listened to your warnings. I didn’t realize how bad things were here. It’s not at all like Altea.”

Keith blinked in surprise. That wasn’t what he’d been expecting at all, and he wasn’t really sure how to respond.

There wasn’t any reason for Lance to be apologizing. What happened that day wasn’t entirely Lance’s fault, as Shiro had pointed out. He wasn’t the only one to blame, or the only one that needed some work. Keith accepted that fact now. Knew that some of the blame rested on him too. Knew things needed to change if their situation was ever going to get better.

“I suppose I could’ve been clearer about things,” he admitted, thinking on what Shiro had said the other day. Lance laughed softly and nodded, and it eased some of the tension from the room. Made it easier for Keith to then add, “I’ll try to do better, in the future.”

Lanced smiled then, soft and genuine— the first truly genuine smile he’d ever sent Keith’s way. “Alright,” he murmured through that smile. “I suppose I’ll try to be better about listening then, too.”

Keith chuckled softly, but nodded all the same. “Alright.”

It wasn't much, but at least it was a start.

Chapter Text

Keith had an actual window in his room— one with a window seat and an amazing view of the ice gardens just beyond the palace’s walls. Lance hadn’t been able to truly appreciate that fact the night before, given the darkness of the room and the overall distraction of the situation they’d been in, but now he found himself drawn to it. Drawn to the promise of nature and light. To the illusion of wide, open space.

An illusion he sorely needed right now.

Still dressed in the loose pants and tunic he’d slept in, and bundled up in a blanket he’d stolen from Keith’s bed, Lance curled up in the small alcove of the window seat and watched the Galran sun begin to break over the horizon. It rose steadily over the Kazik silhouette, outlining the distant overhang first in red, then gold, then finally the pale lilac of Galra’s daytime sky as it creeped overhead. Bands of light stretched across the land— over the surrounding city, and the snow-covered grounds of the palace, right into the ice gardens, where it glittered off the frozen trees and the intricately carved ice sculptures.

Lance pressed a hand to the window’s glass, cold seeping into his skin. A small shiver passed through him, and then he was pressing more against the window, leaning his shoulder and his forehead against the glass, longing to pass right through. Right into the cold and quiet air.

It just seemed so peaceful outside, beyond the palace walls. New snow had fallen overnight, and it covered the grounds in a fresh blanket of pure white. It was pristine. Untouched. Completely unmarred by the rest of this world. Not even by the assiduous Galran court.

He grimaced, thinking of the court. Last night had been something of an eye-opener for him, revealing aspects of the nobles he didn’t quite know how to handle. He never realized just how bad the court actually was. How vicious. How cruel. Oh, he knew they’d be unwelcoming, that they’d hate him to the core and refuse to place any trust in him, but he hadn’t been prepared for the open mockery. For the snide comments and callous jokes and the way they talked around him like he wasn’t even there. And he really hadn’t expected to see that same treatment extend to Keith either.

Maybe he should have. Matt had warned him that Keith was unpopular at court, and Keith had confirmed it without hesitation on that balcony on Olkarion. Even Shiro had mentioned how lowly the nobles regarded Keith. But even so, Lance had still expected the court would treat Keith with the esteem his position deserved.

He was a prince, after all. The son of their emperor. Surely that awarded him some respect.

But apparently not, by Galran standards. They made no secret their low opinion of him. Had no qualms about letting it be seen. It made Lance inwardly cringe to remember all they had said to Keith. All they had said about Keith. The mocking and the laughter and the dismissive tones, all aimed right at him. And Keith had suffered that sort of hatred for eight years. Worse even, if what he’d said last night was true.

Eight years. Lance blew out a long breath, trying to remember what he’d been doing eight years ago. He would have been fifteen at the time, nearly sixteen, and just coming into his adulthood. Preparing for his coming of age ceremony, and for his paladin confirmation after that. Eager to step into his new roles. To prove himself. To take the universe by storm.

How naive he’d been back then. And how lucky. He’d never had to deal with the sort of scorn Keith was forced to live with. It was no wonder Keith was so reserved, so wary of letting Lance in. It was no wonder he’d been so upset when Lance had all but invited the court’s ire the day they first arrived.

Lance really should have listened to Keith that day. He recognized that now, and knew he needed to do better. There were things Keith had experienced that Lance couldn’t even begin to comprehend. Rules and situations Lance would be completely ignorant to, and would need Keith’s guidance on, even if asking for his help was the last thing Lance wanted to do.

This was a matter of survival, though. Of navigating this treacherous court and staying alive. His pride could take a few hits in light of that. And at least Keith was on his side.

Sighing, Lance turned away from the window to look at the very thing he’d been trying to ignore all morning, gaze falling on the unconscious lump across the room.

Keith was exactly where Lance had left him earlier, curled up beneath all the blankets and pillows that covered the bed, with only the dark tufts of his hair and ears still visible. It was the same sight Lance had woken up to hours before, the only change being that Keith’s back was now turned to him instead of Keith’s face. All Lance could see now was the back of his head.

Perhaps that was for the best right now, though. Lance had nearly had a heart attack when he woke up and found himself face-to-face with Keith, only the slightest of inches still left between them. He hadn’t been prepared for that. For the proximity, or the warmth, or the softness of Keith’s face. In sleep, his expression was completely relaxed, unlined and unmarred by the nearly imperceptible scowl he always seemed to wear. With it, he seemed younger, less troubled, less Galran. As if, by relaxing, his more human side was finally allowed to come out, sharp edges giving way to soft curves and small, sleepy snuffles.

His unguarded expression made Lance’s breath catch. Made his heart beat a bit faster and made his fingers curl into the sheets. Made him want to bolt out of bed and turn away, where he couldn’t observe the side of Keith he wasn’t sure he was meant to see. At the same time, however, it made him want to stay. To memorize that untroubled expression, and to grow accustomed to Keith’s presence by his side. And that was the scariest part.

It’s just because we’ve shared a bed, he told himself. Just because we’ve shared a bed, and because we’re married.

That had to be the reason why. After all, he’d shared beds with plenty of people over the years. With his siblings, and his cousin, and with Pidge, and even once, after too many cups of nunvill at Altea’s yearly feast, with Coran. But there was a difference between sharing a bed with someone he considered family, and sharing a bed with someone that was his husband. That he was now married to, for all the days of his life.

Waking up to Keith’s face, only inches from his own, had hammered that point home. It felt almost intimate, being so close to him. Hugely, terrifyingly so. So much so that he’d promptly retreated as far away as possible, all the way to the window on the other side of the room, and that still didn’t feel far enough.

He tried to keep his panic smothered at that thought, mindlessly chewing on one of his fingernails as he stared at Keith and considered all the implications of his reaction. All the questions and pitfalls and troubles.

How was he supposed to survive this marriage when just sharing a bed nearly gave him a heart attack? Moreover, what was he supposed to do if this was going to be a regular event? Was he going to be expected to keep sharing Keith’s bed? Would he be allowed to return to his own? And which option would be better in the end? Which would give him and Keith more respect in the court’s eyes?

Because that was the real issue, he knew. Earning the court’s respect. Earning enough of their regard to have some sort of voice, some sort of influence on official matters. And, as jarring as it had been to wake up to Keith’s face that morning, Lance was still willing to keep doing it if that’s what it took to earn that respect. Not just for himself, but for Keith as well, so that, maybe, together, they could make a difference in Galra’s currently-toxic culture. Maybe they could make things better.

A soft knock interrupted Lance’s thoughts. He looked up, away from Keith, toward the door opposite the bed. It cracked open only a moment later so Shiro could poke his head into the room. He saw Lance first, and flashed him a small smile. Then he looked at the bed, where Keith was still sleeping, and let out an audible sigh.

Lance watched, bemused, as Shiro crossed the room to stand beside the bed, then pulled the blankets right off Keith’s curled-up form. “Rise and shine,” he declared loudly. “Time to face the day.”

Keith just groaned and curled into a tighter ball, pulling a pillow over his head. “Go away,” he said, voice muffled by the pillow, his tone so petulant and childish it made Lance grin. Shiro, on the other hand, shook his head.

“I’m afraid I can’t. Lotor’s called a meeting.”

Keith groaned again. “Now?”

“Yes.” He tugged the pillow from over Keith’s head and threw it across the room. Then, seeing Keith wasn’t about to get up despite that, he walked over to the room’s dresser, pulled out a black, military jacket, and tossed it onto the bed. “Come on, get up. You know what Lotor’s like when you’re late.”

Keith grimaced, then shifted to bury his head under the pillow he still had left. “Fuck him,” he mumbled. “He can wait.”

Lance pressed a hand against his mouth, fighting back a laugh. He hadn’t expected Keith to be so grouchy in the mornings. Of course, he’d seen a hint of it when they first arrived on Galra and he’d found Keith scowling at the world despite having just woken up, but he’d figured it was just due to him not getting enough sleep. Finding out his grumpiness was something more regular was rather amusing. Even more, it was somewhat endearing.

Shiro, however, didn’t seem to see it in the same light. He rolled his eyes at Keith’s dramatics, clearly unimpressed. “You have ten minutes to get up and get ready,” he declared. “Don’t make me drag you out of bed in front of your husband.”

Lance actually did laugh at that— a soft exhalation that mixed together with the much louder huff that came from the bed. “Ten minutes is plenty of time,” Keith grumbled. He squished his pillow even tighter over his head, then waved a lazy, dismissive hand at Shiro. “Now go away.”

Looking exasperated, Shiro retreated back towards the door, no doubt already counting down the seconds until he’d have to force Keith from his bed to whatever meeting it was that Lotor had apparently called. The thin press of his lips and his furrowed brows gave Lance the impression it wouldn’t be the first time Shiro had been made to do so, and Lance couldn’t help but ask once Shiro got closer, “Is he always like this?”

Shiro heaved out a long-suffering sigh. “Whenever he finally decides to get some sleep, yes.” He looked over his shoulder to the bed, then back at Lance, and gave him an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry to have disturbed your morning. Normally, Lotor’s meetings don’t happen so early.”

“I was already awake anyways,” Lance assured him. He pulled his blanket tighter around himself, then looked over Shiro more carefully, noting how disheveled he appeared compared to usual. Like he had rushed to Keith’s room as soon as he’d heard Lotor’s summons. Which, considering how immediate the meeting seemed to be, was fairly likely. Shiro probably hadn’t gotten much of a chance to compose himself before heading over here, and it showed in his slightly messy hair and his not quite fully buttoned jacket.

Lance pursed his lips for a moment, then smiled up at Shiro. “Why don’t you go catch your breath outside?” he suggested. “I’ll make sure Keith gets up in time.”

It was the least Lance could do to give Shiro a hand. He deserved a moment to rest and compose himself after his rush to get here. And, after all, Lance was Keith’s husband now. As unusual as their situation was, they were still married, and so Keith was now partially Lance’s responsibility.

Shiro hesitated, biting his bottom lip. He glanced over his shoulder again and combed a hand through his hair, making the white and black strands stick out even more erratically than they’d been before. “You sure?” he asked softly. Lance nodded.

“I had to wake my siblings up all the time back home. It’s no problem.” Granted, his siblings were all younger, smaller, and easier to lift out of bed, but this couldn’t be that much different. He just needed to find the right way to coax Keith from his nest of blankets and pillows. Preferably without Keith getting mad at him. A task easier said than done.

Finally though, Shiro nodded. “Ten minutes,” he reminded Lance, who answered him by slanting a hand into what Shiro had told him was a human salute. Shiro’s eyes widened for a second, and a brilliant smile broke across his face. Chuckling, he returned Lance’s salute, then walked out the door, leaving a fond warmth in Lance’s chest in the wake of his departure.

As the door shut, Lance dropped his hand, and then let his smile drop a bit as well. He sank further into the blanket still wrapped around him, drawing on its warmth and security before turning his attention back towards Keith. Before considering the best way to handle the challenge in front of him.

There were several ways he could go about this. Keith hadn’t moved since dismissing Shiro, still curled up in a tight ball with his pillow over his head, looking completely dead to the world. The only clue he hadn’t yet fallen back asleep was in the tiny rise and fall of his chest— the short, quick breaths that came with that nebulous state between being asleep and awake. That state where any sort of disturbance could shatter any hope of further rest.

If Lance had been back home and dealing with one of his siblings, he would have already launched himself onto their bed, jumping up and down and all around until his victim finally gave in and got out of bed. Or perhaps he would have just scooped them up, right out of the warmth of their bed and into the morning air, where they couldn’t avoid being shocked awake.

He couldn’t do that here, though. At least not if he wanted to maintain that fragile link of understanding they’d begun building the night before, which Lance definitely did. He didn’t want to ruin what bit of progress they’d made by making Keith stupidly mad at him again. And he was pretty sure Keith would probably kill him before ever tolerating Lance jumping on his bed. Nevermind any of the other equally-disruptive methods Lance used back home.

But perhaps, now that he thought about it, Lance didn’t need to resort to such measures. It wasn’t as if Keith was actually asleep, after all. Not fully. There was still a part of him that would be able to hear and process Lance’s voice, particularly with his enhanced Galran hearing. And, if Keith’s irritated reaction to Lance’s chatter the night before was anything to judge by, Keith didn’t seem to be the type of person able to completely ignore sounds and continue sleeping. Given enough mindless prattle, even Keith would be willing to get up and get on with his day.

“Hey, Keith,” Lance called, deciding to test out his theory. Keith grumbled a bit in response and rolled onto his stomach. His hands reached up to press the pillow even tighter around his head, right over where his ears were. Lance bit back a smug grin and tried again, “Keith, are you awake?”

“No,” Keith nearly growled this time, though the sound of it was muffled by his pillow. Lance laughed softly.

“That’s not very convincing,” he replied. “You should get up, you know. You still have to get ready for that meeting Shiro mentioned. I’m not sure what it’s about, but it seems important. And it’s rude to keep people waiting.”

Keith whined and reached out blindly to his side. Possibly searching for another pillow, or a blanket, or anything to help him drown out the noise, and whining even louder when his search came up empty. Not that it would help him much, anyways. If there was one thing Lance was good at, it was politely talking someone’s ear off. Or, in this case, talking a reluctant Galran prince into waking up.

He raised the volume of his voice just a bit and continued, “Actually, since you’re awake now, I wanted to run some things by you. I’ve been thinking about what you said last night, about how the court treats you and all that, and I was wondering what we might be able to do to reduce that. Even just a little.” He smiled as Keith loudly exhaled, and then shrugged. “I mean, I haven’t been here for very long, and I don’t know all that much about the court yet, but it does seem to me we might earn some respect by exceeding their expectations. For example, our living arrangements,” he said, figuring he might as well air some of the questions he’d been pondering all morning as long as he was going to keep talking. “If they expect us to return to separate rooms after this, then wouldn’t it send a stronger message if we didn’t? Show them a united front or something? But on the other hand—”

“Are you going to be like this every morning?” Keith asked, finally lifting his head to scowl at Lance, who just smiled innocently back at him.

“Is that a yes to sharing a room, then?”

Keith huffed and flopped back down on the bed, this time with his head on top of the pillow, turned to face Lance. His hair flopped wildly across the pillow and over his face, curled into disarray by sleep. He blew at a few strands over his nose, then, when that didn’t work, resorted to pushing them back with his hand, which only made them stick straight up above his head, like some sort of mane.

“United front might work,” he said through a yawn, not noticing Lance’s small, amused smile through his squinted eyes. Especially as he brought his hand down to rub the rest of his sleep from them. “I’m fine with it. It’s just sharing a bed, right?”

The panic attack he’d nearly had that morning, with all it’s surprise and doubts and confusion, flashed through Lance’s mind for a brief second before Lance firmly pushed it away.

“Right,” he said instead. “Just sharing a bed.”

Just like he had with his siblings, he reminded himself. And with Allura, and Pidge. This didn’t need to be any different. Sure, Keith was technically his husband, but that was just in name. There was nothing more to it. He was sure the title was what kept freaking him out, and Lance would just have to get used to it. To let it become something normal. It didn’t have to mean anything, he told himself. It clearly didn’t mean anything to Keith, who was so calm and unaffected by the entire thing.

Lance pressed his lips together and turned away, looking out the window once more. “You really should get up,” he said. “This meeting sounded important.”

Keith sighed. “I suppose.”

There was a beat of silence, the the loud shush of shifting fabric. Probably Keith sitting up. Maybe even getting out of bed, like he was supposed to. Lance didn’t look. He kept his eyes averted, watching the first small figures, all cloaked in fur and dark colors, bob their way into the ice gardens far below. The first signs of a waking court, ready to greet the day.

There was more shuffling behind him as Keith moved around, but otherwise they were silent. Lance didn’t like it. The silence somehow made the room feel smaller, drawing in the walls and filling every nook and cranny. Even sitting by the window, looking out into the wide, clear sky, Lance felt oppressed by it. By its heavy weight, and the awkward, hesitant edge beneath it.

He cleared his throat. “So what sort of meeting is this?” he asked, just in an attempt to cut through the quiet.

“Just a council meeting,” Keith replied. “Lotor holds them regularly, and always expects me to be there.” He paused then, growing completely silent, even in movement. Lance glanced sideways at him, at his unruly hair and furrowed brow and half-shrugged-on military jacket. He stared at the ground, as if silently mulling over something, and slowly pulled his jacket into place. “There’s going to be a lot to discuss. I’ll… probably be busy for a while.”

Lance nodded. “Can I come along?” he asked. Council meetings were nothing new to him, after all. He’d sat through more Altean councils than he cared to count, listening to various officials drone on and on about infrastructure and trade conditions. So even if the Galran council functioned somewhat differently, Lance wouldn’t be completely lost. If nothing else, it would be a good learning experience for him. A chance to figure out just how Galra operated.

Keith, however, looked horrified at the very thought.

“No. Absolutely not,” he exclaimed, so quickly and with so much conviction it made Lance bristle.

“Excuse me?” he demanded, voice sharp. He didn’t appreciate the way Keith seemed to dismiss him without even thinking about it. Like Lance wasn’t even worth considering. Which stung, particularly after their late night conversation.

At his tone, Keith drew back. “That came out wrong,” he said, lifting his hands in a placating gesture. He took a second, mouth opening, then closing, then pinching together as he thought before he finally explained, “It’s just… better, for you not to be there right now. Safer. None of the council wanted peace.”

“Oh,” Lance breathed, deflating a bit. “Oh, right.”

He’d honestly forgotten about that. About how the council would view him. How his interference would be interpreted. How they might react.

In his worry over their harsh words, he’d completely overlooked how capable they still were in creating violence. How willing, even, though he really should have expected that after his experience with Sendak and the others in the hallway the other day. They hadn’t been too far from a fight then, when there were only four of them. And the council chamber would probably hold many more Galrans that would gladly stick a dagger right in Lance’s back.

Sighing, he slumped back in his seat, disappointed, but resigned. Keith frowned at him from across the room.

“Lance…”

“It’s fine,” Lance interrupted. “You’re right about this. Even I can see that.” He closed his eyes, taking a few deep breaths, then plastered on a smile and added, “I’ll find some other way to pass my time.”

Keith’s expression grew tight as he observed Lance, his brows furrowing together and mouth flattening into a thin line. For a second, it seemed like he was about to argue. Or to say something important. Then the moment passed, and he just shook his head.

“Wait here for Shiro to return,” he advised softly. “Don’t go wandering off alone.”

As if he needed to tell Lance that. After his last misadventure, he wasn’t about to go exploring without at least knowing where he was headed. But Lance didn’t say that. Instead, he scoffed, and then threw Keith a cocky smirk, trying to lighten the atmosphere. To return some sort of normalcy to their interactions in place of the somber mood they’d somehow gotten to.

There was enough sadness in Lance’s life already. He didn’t need it from Keith as well. Not right now.

“Worried about me, Keith?” he teased, which caused Keith to roll his eyes.

“More worried about the trouble you’ll make.”

“Please. I’ve never caused trouble a day in my life.”

Keith gave him a flat look.

Before either them could say anything more, however, there was another knock at their door. They both looked towards the sound, Keith with far more reluctance than Lance, already knowing who was the other side. Sure enough, the door soon swung open wide enough for Shiro to glance inside. The grin that then broke across his face at seeing Keith out of bed was so delighted it nearly made Lance laugh.

“Ready?” he asked, still beaming.

Keith huffed, though by the stiff set of his shoulders, he was apparently readying himself to face the crowd of nobles. Not that he said as much to Shiro. He didn’t really need to. Instead, he finished buttoning up his jacket and turned to grab the silver clip from the bedside table to pin back the hair that was still sticking wildly all over the place. As he did so, he caught Lance’s eye. They held each other’s gaze for a few moments in silence. Then Lance smiled.

“I guess I’ll see you later, then,” he said. Most likely not until later that night. Though part of him hoped it wouldn’t take that long, if only so he wouldn’t have to be alone all day.

Keith nodded and took a step towards the door. “Until later,” was all he said, mumbled so softly Lance nearly didn’t hear him, and then he was out the door and dragging Shiro along with him. Shiro barely even managed to give Lance a small wave before they disappeared from view. And then Lance all alone in the sudden silence of the room.

Sighing, he slumped back in his seat and pulled his knees toward his chest.

That wasn’t exactly how he’d wanted their morning to end, but least this time, when Keith left, it wasn’t in anger. It wasn’t him storming off after a fight Lance barely understood. Or him slipping away just to avoid interacting with Lance.

No, this time the two of them had managed to hold a civil conversation. One that was actually productive, and, surprisingly, enjoyable. For the most part, anyways.

Lance leaned his head back against the wall and glanced at the empty doorway, a tiny smile hovering on his lips as he recalled Keith’s wild bed head, and the soft expression he held while he slept. As he remembered Keith’s petulance, and his laziness, and then his willingness to correct himself when he recognized Lance’s irritation, which was so much more than he’d expected from Keith. Even after the understanding they’d come to the night before.

It was enough to make him think that maybe this arrangement between them would actually work. That Lance would be able to settle into this new role. That all his worries would be for nothing.

It wasn’t much, he knew, but at least it was a start.

Chapter Text

Despite what Lance had been expecting, ‘later’ turned out not to be until much, much later that night, after he’d already settled into the large bed he now shared with Keith and was drifting off to sleep. He heard the bedroom door creak open, and felt the dip of the mattress behind him, and when he glanced over his shoulder, he found Keith burrowing into the sheets and pillows behind him, seeming completely exhausted.

Lance stared blearily at him for a moment, then rolled back over and closed his eyes.

It’d clearly been a long day for Keith. Lance didn’t need to make it longer by forcing some sort of conversation on him. Whatever they might have had to say to each other could wait until the next day. They had time.

Except when Lance woke up the next day, he was all alone. No sign of Keith in the room or the bathroom. Not even the sound of shuffling or low voices in the rooms beyond the bedroom door, where he knew Keith and Shiro typically congregated in the mornings.

Lance frowned at that, and lifted his head just enough to look out the window, where the sun was just barely beginning to rise over the horizon. It was early. Almost as early as when Lance had woken up the day before. Too early for anyone to be up and about just yet. Especially half-Galrans that were particularly grouchy in the morning, even if he biologically didn’t need as much sleep as Lance did.

Frown growing deeper, he pushed himself up a bit more and looked towards the bedroom door. But there was no light coming from its cracks. No sign of life to prove that Keith was somewhere in the near vicinity. And when Lance stretched out his hand to pat the area Keith had slept in, he found the sheets cold to the touch. No lingering warmth from Keith’s presence. Even with how much higher body temperature was compared to Lance.

Clearly he’d left long before Lance even awoke. Long before he should have been awake, given how late he’d fallen asleep the night before. It seemed odd to Lance. And a little concerning.

Was Keith trying to avoid Lance again? Was this him running away?

But that didn’t make sense to Lance. If Keith had wanted to run away, he wouldn’t have agreed to let Lance share his room. Not when there was still a perfectly good and empty bedroom that Lance had been using up until that point. If Keith had wanted to avoid him, he would have told Lance to keep using that room. And even then, he wouldn’t have returned to their set of rooms at all. He would have kept his distance and locked himself away in some other part of the palace, the same way he had the last time he’d been avoiding Lance.

Whatever it was, then, that had gotten Keith out of bed so early had no relation to Lance or Lance’s presence. So it must have been something related to the court. And it must have been something important, or else he probably would have ignored it.

Sighing, Lance flopped back on the bed, pressing the palms of his hands against his sleep-heavy eyes. Might as well go back to sleep, he thought, resigning himself to the emptiness of the room. There was no point in worrying over the situation, after all. Not when he couldn’t do anything about it. And if Keith had been dragged away for court business, then it was almost certain Lance couldn’t do anything about it. He couldn’t get involved in that sphere just yet.

Keith could probably handle himself anyways. He didn’t need Lance to deal with the nobles. He’d handled them for years before Lance had come along, and knew them far better than Lance did. Which meant Lance could just relax and do… something. Figure things out. Like moving his stuff into Keith’s room, now that they had agreed on sharing. And learning the layout and customs of the palace. If he was going to live here for the rest of his life, then learning that would be absolutely essential. Or would at least help pass the time.

He set himself to that task as soon as he managed to get out of bed, just and hour or so after he’d first woken up. He moved his clothes and rearranged his things and settled himself into the room he now shared with Keith. It took a while to get it all right, to somehow fit all his possessions into this room without intruding on Keith’s space. Without having their things overlap so much that there was no longer any separation between the two. Not because Keith already owned so much that Lance couldn’t fit his stuff in, but because there was… well, nothing in this room.

Lance hadn’t realized just how stark Keith’s bedroom was until he started moving in. There were no decorations— no paintings or banners on the walls, no vases, no trinkets, no evidence of any personal touch. Even in his dresser, there was very little. A few sets of clothing, some cloaks, some shoes, and all of them in a much simpler style than what he’d seen the Galran nobles wearing. Lance’s wardrobe, despite it only being a small fraction of what he could have brought from Altea, was still twice what Keith owned. It filled at least half the dresser, and made Keith’s wardrobe look almost nonexistent.

I’ll have to get more too, he realized. Pieces cut in the Galran style to impress the nobles and show he was no threat. To show he wasn’t about run away. That he was committed to this alliance. Not that dressing in their fashions would suddenly solve everything, he knew, but it certainly would help. No one would respect him if he showed up to official functions in his Altean robes, after all. Not here. Not on this planet that despised Altea so much.

He really did need their support if this treaty was going to las though. Or, at the very least, their acceptance. Somehow, Lance had to get them on his side. And if his appearance was his only tool in achieving that, then Lance was going to use it without hesitation.

“How long will it take to make up a new wardrobe?” he asked Shiro later that day, after Shiro escorted him down to the kitchen for a private lunch, and then took Lance right back to his room once he was finished. Shiro glanced at him in confusion, and Lance elaborated, “I know I won’t have to worry about this for a while longer, but I’ll need something proper to wear for when I finally start attending official functions. Will I have the time to get that sorted out?”

Shiro stared at him for a moment. “Oh, I think so, Your Highness,” he answered slowly. “Plenty of time.” Then he bowed his head and left the room. Presumably returning to Keith’s side, as usual.

Lance frowned, a bit confused, but didn’t think much more on it. There was probably more on Shiro’s mind than Lance’s clothing options, after all, so Lance couldn’t really blame him. He would just have to bring up with issue with Keith later that night. Try to set up a time to see the palace seamstresses. They still had his measurements from the wedding ensemble, so it wouldn’t take too much time to plan a new wardrobe. Just some discussions over color, maybe some debates over styles, but no actual measurements or fittings, which were the truly time-consuming tasks.

He figured it would take only an hour to get things settled. Maybe two. Surely, Lance could be given that much time for something so important. He couldn’t imagine Keith refusing.

However, when Keith finally returned to their rooms, hours after Lance had run out of things to do, it was in a flurry. He didn’t even stop to acknowledge Lance, but rushed around, moving with so much purpose Lance didn’t dare distract him with silly questions about his own wardrobe. Instead, he sat silent in his chair and watched Keith change his jacket for something more formal and then slipped a red sash over one shoulder, the various gold and silver medals pinned across it glittering in the lamp light.

It was more regal than anything else Lance had seen Keith wear thus far. The militaristic style of the jacket, with its metallic, silver accents and the slew of medals marking his skill in battle, gave him a more severe image. Added a dangerous edge to the poise he carried that impressed Lance. That made him look less like an outcast prince and more like a future emperor.

“Is there something important happening tonight?” Lance asked.

“Military dinner. I’m required to attend,” Keith answered. Lance perked up a bit, wondering if this at least was something he could get involved with. Something he could use to step into Keith’s world and start carving out a place of his own. Before he could ask, though, Keith glanced over at him and grimaced apologetically. “It’d probably be best for you to stay here tonight. The military still isn’t sure about this treaty.”

“Oh,” Lance sighed, slumping back into his seat. “Of course.”

He should have expected that, really. They’d fought against each other for so long; of course the military would need time to adjust to not viewing Lance as a threat. Maybe even more time than the regular politicians and nobles would need. And while Lance wanted to get involved, he wasn’t keen on being attacked or targeted. Giving them some time was in all of their best interests.

Eventually, he told himself as Keith finished getting ready and rushed back out without another word. He stared longingly at the door for a moment— at the dark wood and the promise of excitement— then turned away with a soft sigh. It can’t be this way forever. Give it a few more weeks.

Still, he’d never been one to hide away, or to miss out on what was happening around him. On Altea, he’d always been involved in some way, whether in sitting through council meetings or strategizing with their military officers or even just helping his mother choose decorations for their next big banquet. He’d always had a hand in what was happening. Always had a role to play. A way to make his mark. A way to just interact.

It rankled something deep inside him to now have to hide away in his room like a bird in a cage, far from anything important. Especially as the days passed in much the same manner as that very first day, with Keith sporadically rushing in and out and Lance left with nothing to do.

Eventually, he reminded himself each morning, when he woke up to an empty bed and an even emptier day. Eventually he would be allowed to find some role to play in this new home of his. He just needed to be patient, and to wait for the right timing. But as the days turned into weeks, and as Keith continued to keep Lance at a distance, patience grew harder and harder to find. And while Lance understood why Keith was acting the way he was, that didn’t make it any easier to bear.

“He could at least let me join the court feasts,” Lance muttered to himself as he stalked down the hallways. “I’m not so weak I can’t handle a few nasty comments.”

Sure, the callousness had shocked him when he first experienced it, but now that he knew what to expect, he was more prepared to handle whatever they had in store. Could let their words roll off him with no more than the briefest acknowledgment. It was a small price to pay for the chance to actually get out of his room. He’d been left to himself for so long, he’d take any sort of interaction. Even the court’s hostile remarks.

He sighed and turned a stairwell, hopping lightly down the steps that led toward the kitchen.

The one good thing about his current isolation was that it meant he’d had time to learn more of the palace’s layout. He’d asked Shiro to give him a tour the other week, and had learned enough of its hallways to feel confident in where he was going. There were only a few rooms he dared go to without Shiro acting as his guard, after all. The same rooms he’d been to so often in the past weeks that he had their paths memorized. The kitchen was one of those rooms, and probably Lance’s favorite.

He stepped inside and drew in a deep breath. The kitchen was a miasma of of mouth-watering aromas— roasted meat and simmering broth and the subtle tang of spices hanging heavy in the air. One of the cooks raced by with a tray of fresh rolls, and Lance followed the scent with his nose until it disappeared behind all the rest. Across the room, another cook dropped some meat into a pan, adding to the haze of scents as the pan hissed and steamed. And all around, the rest of the cooks— most of whom were human or members of another Galra-conquered race— attended to their own creations, their own parts of the miasma, with an urgency that only accompanied a large banquet.

Lance stood in the doorway and soaked it all in, a blissful smile tugging at his lips. It was so comforting to know that, even on another planet, the smell of good food and the bustle of the kitchen would always be the same. If he just closed his eyes and ignored everything else, he could almost imagine that he was back home, back in the airy kitchens of the Altean palace as the cooks rushed to finish their feast.

It was almost enough to ease the bitter ache inside his chest. Almost, but not quite.

Quietly, he slipped across the room, walking along the far wall to keep out of everyone’s way. The head chef nodded as he passed. He’d been here often enough in the past weeks that she was no longer surprised at his presence, and just continued about her business as normal. The rest of the cooks did the same, though many cast wary glances.

Lance tried not to pay attention. Though he came to the kitchen for every meal, the cooks still didn’t know him that well yet. Didn’t know what to expect. Whether he was there to keep an eye on them, or was trying to hide. And with the court they served, he couldn’t blame them for being suspicious. He would have been too in their place.

He finally came to the long table tucked away in the corner of the room, far from the main action of the kitchen, where he took his meal each day. There was a small, clay oven beside it— one that was always lit, but hardly ever used. At least when Lance was around. He took one of the wooden chairs and set it close to the oven, then sat down to wait.

It was a nice change to settle in a chair that wasn’t overstuffed or luxurious. It was even nicer to be sitting next to a consistent source of heat. The oven’s warmth washed over him like a gentle wave, drawing the cold from his limbs and replacing it with the sweet caress of heat. Like stepping out into the sun. Or immersing himself in one of Altea’s hot springs. It was the perfect remedy for this wintry planet, and for the chill that seemed to pervade wherever he went, no matter how many layers he wore.

He closed his eyes and leaned against the side of the oven. The clay walls were thick enough to keep the outside from growing too hot, but there was enough warmth to seep through seep through his clothes and into his skin. Across the room, the cooks continued to murmur at one another, too low for Lance to understand, but still loud enough to remain a pleasant, background hum. The constant noise of it all was soothing. After so many hours in silence, he relished the chance to be surrounded by sound and life and warmth. Wanted to stay for as long as he could, if only to avoid the silence of his own room.

He sighed inwardly when he heard the patter of footsteps headed his way. Usually they weren’t so quick to deliver his food. They’d learned he was willing to be patient and wait, so they typically tried to finish the feast for the rest of the palace first, leaving Lance to bask in the atmosphere of the kitchen. It seemed today was an exception. Maybe they just had too much to make and needed Lance out of their hair? Or maybe they were already close to finished, and so were ready to serve Lance his portion?

Whatever it was, Lance resigned himself to having this interlude cut short. He already caused the cooks enough trouble as it was; he didn’t want to cause anymore. He would just eat his food, and then he would leave without complaint. Perhaps tomorrow he could stay longer.

However, when straightened up and turned towards the footsteps, he didn’t find the head cook, as he’d been expecting. Instead, he faced a tall human with a tray of uncooked pastries in his hands who looked just as surprised to see Lance as Lance felt himself.

“Your Highness,” the cook squeaked out. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you there. I can use a different oven. Please forgive me—”

“It’s fine,” Lance quickly interrupted, wanting to reassure him. Lance wasn’t mad, after all. How could he be? The cook had just wanted to use an available oven, and it wasn’t like he was truly bothering Lance. Though by the petrified expression across his face, one would think he’d just committed some terrible crime.

There was something vaguely familiar about him, however. Something about his dark skin and hair, and the way he shrank back towards himself, as if by doing so he could hide his large, sturdy form behind the tray in his hands. Lance looked closer at him, eyes squinting a little, taking in the square face and wide nose and the dark bangs that stopped just above his brown eyes. The eyes that were glued to Lance in clear and familiar terror.

“You’re the one I ran into the other week!” he exclaimed as the memory came back to him. “Outside the council chambers!” The servant with the metal bowls who had been too afraid of Lance to even try speaking with him.

Or had he been afraid of the council members that came out after him? Had he been afraid of both?

Both was probably the correct answer, he thought as the human shied away even more. Holding his tray out in front of him, he bent over into a deep bow, quietly pleading, “Forgive me. Please, forgive me. I’ll do anything.” His shoulders were tense, and his head carefully ducked, as if just waiting to be hit across his back. It made Lance frown, his heart aching for this person he barely even knew. For everything he must have gone through.

“Please stop,” Lance told him. “I wasn’t accusing you. You aren’t in trouble.” That stopped the human’s mumbling just as quickly as it had began. He lifted his head a bit— just enough for his eyes to meet Lance’s, fearful and hesitant, but also still hopeful. Lance gave him a small smile. “You ran away so quickly last time, I never got your name.”

The human straightened up completely and tilted his head to the side. He seemed to be contemplating. Weighing Lance’s words with caution. “Hunk,” he finally answered, then bowed his head and tacked on a quiet, “Your Highness.”

Lance’s smile grew wider. “Hunk,” he repeated. “A unique name.” And one that suited him, Lance decided. It matched the strong muscles of his arms and back, but was also soft enough to match his friendly temperament. He was the only one to have even attempted speaking to Lance thus far. Lance hoped that friendliness might last a bit longer.

Hunk still held a tray of unbaked pastries in his hands, though, and now that he’d been assured that Lance wasn’t upset with him, Lance could see him practically bouncing on his feet, anxious to get back to work. Probably to rush off to a different oven, unless Lance said something. He glanced at the oven by his side, then back at Hunk, and asked, “Did you need to use this oven?” He didn’t wait for Hunk’s response before continuing, “Go ahead. I really don’t mind.”

Hunk hesitated. He glanced back and forth between Lance and the oven, seeming unsure. But finally he made a decision and took a step forward, then slipped his tray into the oven.

“Thank you,” he said quietly once the tray was settled and his timer was set. His tone was soft, and a little shaky, and Lance had a feeling his words were meant for more than just letting him use the oven.

“I would never blame someone for something that was clearly an accident,” he told Hunk in an equally soft tone. “Maybe that’s what they do here on Galra, but that wasn’t how I was raised. You’re safe with me.” Hunk stared at him for a moment, then nodded. A tiny smile appeared at the corner of his lips. Feeling his own mouth curving up in response, Lance relaxed back in his chair and lightly joked, “In any case, it’s not like anyone would listen to me.”

“No one?” Hunk joked back. “Not even your husband?” Lance’s smile fell just a bit at that. Seeing Lance’s reaction, Hunk seemed to realize just what he’d said and quickly backtracked. “Sorry. Forget I said anything. You probably don’t want to talk to me.”

“No,” Lance answered, shaking his head, “it’s fine. It’s nice, actually.” He forced a smile and looked away, twisting his black signet ring round and round his index finger. “Kei— Kyran might listen to me, if he was ever around. He’s too busy at the moment to really pay attention. And I know Shiro would listen to me if I really needed him, except he’s busy too.”

“Sounds lonely.”

Lance shrugged, but otherwise didn’t answer. He knew that Hunk was right— that he was lonely, and that was why he cherished these moments in the kitchen, when he could be completely surrounded by people and sound, so much— but Lance didn’t want to talk about it. He was doing what he needed to do. Biding his time until the Galrans could come to accept him, at least enough to let him join their official events. This loneliness— this impatience and ache— was the price he had to pay to earn that.

Lance let out a slow breath. “So,” he said, “what’s it like working in the kitchen? I’ve always wondered.”

It was a weak change of subject, an obviously desperate attempt to avoid revealing more than he wanted, but thankfully Hunk didn’t pry. He didn’t even complain.

“It’s busy,” he answered.

“Busy?”

Hunk nodded. “And warm. There’s always something to make, so the ovens are always on. Turns this place into a sauna around lunch.” Staring into the darkness of the oven, he smiled, and added more softly, “Reminds me of home.”

Lance’s thoughts wandered to Altea’s summers, and the hot springs of the northern mountains, and to the afternoons spent lounging in the sunlight with all his friends and family around him, and he sighed. “I understand.”

They both glanced at each other then, eyes finally meeting, and Lance felt a shared understanding pass between them. A connection born of being displaced and alone and longing for home.

However, before either of them could say anything more, the timer Hunk set began to beep. They both jumped at the noise. Hunk quickly shut it off, then grabbed two thick towels and used them to pull the tray from the oven. A small cloud of steam puffed out of the pastries as the hit the cool air, but when it floated away, Lance could see the rows of perfect, golden sitting right where pale lumps of dough used to be.

“Wow,” he breathed. “Did you make these all yourself?” When Hunk nodded, he let out a low whistle of appreciation. “They look incredible. I might just have to steal one.”

Hunk laughed a bit shyly and held out the tray. “It’s the least I can do,” he said, which Lance took as permission to try one of the pastries right then and there.

He took a bite and it practically melted in his mouth. It was so light and warm, and filled in the middle with some sort of sweet cream— a completely different taste from anything else he’d had since landing on Galra. It was almost similar to the sweet puff desserts his mother always made for their birthdays. So similar that it almost made him want to cry.

He complimented Hunk profusely on his creations, simultaneously praising the food and begging Hunk for more until Hunk flushed bright red in pleasure. He laughed and gave Lance another, but saved the rest for all those feasting in the dining hall, as they’d originally been intended for. As he laughed, he spun on his heel to return to work, but then paused. Lance paused in his eating as well.

“Your Highness,” Hunk said, looking back over his shoulder. “If you ever need someone, I’ll listen to you. Just so you know.”

Lance swallowed thickly, not knowing what to say. The offer meant so much, he couldn’t find the words to express it. Finally, he settled on a quiet, but heartfelt, “Thank you,” and hoped those two words would get his message across.

Hunk beamed at him then, bright and open and full of simple joy, and it was enough for Lance to forget about his empty rooms and the lonely ache in his chest. Enough to let him hope. To fill his chest with warmth and the giddy bubbles of happiness.

It was enough to make Lance feel a little more at home in this dismal place. And, for Lance, that meant everything.

 

 

Chapter Text

“Ah, Kyran,” Lotor drawled when he noticed Keith enter the council chambers, interrupting the debate the council members were having. The rest of the room was already full despite the early hour— every chair filled by the heads of every noble family and the top-ranking generals, save for the one at the foot of the table that was always reserved for him, right where Lotor could see him best. Lotor laced his fingers together and leaned back in his chair to stare at Keith with cold, sharp eyes. “So good of you to join us. We were growing concerned.”

Keith fought back a grimace and dutifully sank down into his chair. “I apologize for being late,” he answered. “I’m afraid I accidentally overslept.”

Which wasn’t exactly true. It was more that he’d been misinformed about the time of this meeting, and had only been saved by a convenient comment Shiro had overheard while grabbing breakfast, but he knew better than to mention any of that. He had little doubt the lack of communication had been deliberate on Lotor’s part. An attempt to make Keith miss this council meeting altogether. To make sure Keith wouldn’t be present to protest any of their decisions. Or, at the very least, to give Lotor a valid reason to get Keith in trouble. And if any of that was true— as he heavily suspected it was— then Keith didn’t want to draw attention to how close Lotor had been to succeeding. It would only encourage him to continue trying.

Lotor smiled at Keith as he sat down, but it wasn’t in any way friendly or welcoming. There was a coldness to his face. And a calculating glint in his eyes that Keith really didn’t trust. He tilted his head to the side, observing Keith, and tapped his index fingers together. “No doubt you’re worn out from all your late nights,” he said, smile turning cruel. “Did Prince Lance share your bed again? He’s very demanding of you. It must be exhausting.”

Keith bristled at the implication those words carried. From all around the room, he felt the too-curious gazes of the nobles and military officials turn his way, just as Lotor probably wanted, all of them waiting to hear Keith deny it. To hear him admit this marriage wasn’t working out the way it was meant to. That they all would have been better off without it.

Keith curled his hands into fists beneath the table and kept his eyes fixed firmly on Lotor. “That is my own business,” he answered shortly, skirting around the implications as much as possible, and barely managing to keep his anger in check. Even so, his tone turned icy as he added, “With peace relying so heavily on my marriage, however, I think it’s better to just indulge him when I get the chance. Don’t you agree?”

Lotor hummed. “I suppose. Though I’m afraid I’ve also kept you quite busy these days, haven’t I?” he asked, as if he didn’t already know the answer. As if he hadn’t been deliberately filling Keith’s days with meetings and appointments Keith knew he didn’t need to be at. Lotor sighed— long, and heavy, and almost certainly fake. “Your poor husband. He must be so lonely, sitting in your room all day. You must invite him along to our next meeting. His opinion would be most… refreshing.”

You mean infuriating, Keith thought, knowing exactly how Lotor and all the nobles would react to any of Lance’s suggestions. His ideas were too foreign for the nobles. Too Altean, too naive. Lotor would never listen to him. If he even bothered to listen at all.

It was strange, though, that Lotor would be so willing to accept Lance into their midst. At least in regards to the council chamber. Feasts and parties were one matter— their social spheres far removed from anything political. Anything that would give him influence. But to invite Lance here, into the very heart of their government, was quite another.

“I’m surprised you would be so open about that,” Keith admitted, narrowing his eyes at his half-brother. “Altean policies are very different from our own, after all.”

And, in many ways, better. At least in Keith’s opinion. Policies he hoped would make their way into Galra’s government at some point, though he didn’t expect any of the others to agree with him on that point. And, as predicted, a wave of soft grumbling rose up from the gathered nobles— none of them seeming pleased by the thought of an outsider, particularly an Altean outsider, being allowed into the council chamber, or even to give his opinion on their laws and issues.

Lotor quelled the noise with a single raised hand. Despite the uneasy atmosphere, he remained completely unruffled by the grumbling, expression just as calm and inscrutable as ever. Far too calm for Keith to get any sort of read on him, even as Keith continued to stare him down.

What is your angle? he wondered. What is it you’re getting out of this? What do you want?

“I’m merely curious,” Lotor told the room at large, which Keith didn’t believe at all. Not with how much he was risking by inviting Lance into their midst. The others were more convinced by Lotor’s words, however, and once the unease had settled some, he turned back to Keith and added, “Your husband is intriguing, Kyran. Not at all what I was expecting. There is much I’d like to ask him.”

All of which he probably should never answer. Especially not to you. “Perhaps in the future,” Keith told him instead. “Lance still hasn’t settled into his life here. He needs more time to adjust.”

As much time as Keith could manage. Months of time. Years, ideally. Though he already knew that would be impossible. Lotor was too impatient to let this matter go for so long. And, unfortunately, so was Lance.

The Altean prince was beginning to grow restless after so long with nothing to do. He tried to hide it, tried not to complain, but the impatience he felt was as clear as day. Keith could see it in the way Lance paced around their rooms each night, around the furniture and trinkets that now got rearranged every few days whenever Lance was feeling particularly bored. He could see it in the tension of Lance’s shoulders on the rare occasions they got to talk, and in the tight lines of his face. Could see it in the way Lance woke with him each morning. In how he hopefully asked to tag along whenever Keith had to leave, even though Keith’s answer was always a firm ‘no.’

The disappointment on Lance’s face whenever that happened felt like a stab in his side. Like he was somehow betraying Lance, or being unreasonable. But what else could he do? His answer had to be no. Keith couldn’t say anything else. There was still too much distrust within the court for Lance to get involved. And even if there wasn’t, Keith still wouldn’t want him getting anywhere near Lotor. Not with how blatant his half-brother’s interest had been. And how that interest seemed to keep growing with each passing day.

There was only so much Keith could do to protect Lance against that. And Shiro could do even less. The only true shield against Lotor’s interest was distance. Staying out of reach, out of sight. So the further away Lance was from Lotor, the better. And the easier it was for Keith to focus on what was really important, instead of having to watch both their backs.

Lance could get involved in this stuff later, once things had settled down more. Once Keith’s plans were in motion and Lotor stood as less of a threat. Keith couldn’t allow Lance into the political sphere before that. He’d just have to hold on until then.

“We should return to the issues at hand,” Keith said before Lotor could make anymore comments, trying to direct the conversation to something safer. Something he could currently control. “I’m sure the matter’s important, considering how early we’re meeting.”

A flash of annoyance crossed Lotor’s expression, dangerous and deadly and too quick for anyone except Keith, whose gaze was still glued to Lotor, to notice. And then it was gone, hidden behind Lotor’s friendly mask once more. “Yes, you’re right,” he said. “We have much to discuss. Commander Sendak, if you would?”

Sendak nodded and stood. “Of course. As I’d been saying before Prince Kyran joined us,” he began, shooting Keith a small glare, “the Vexhal system troops have been reporting minor disturbances from the conquered planets. Seems they’re protesting the new taxes.”

Keith leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms, tuning Sendak out. It was the same sort of drivel as always. Planets protesting against some new tax or law leveled against them. The troops in that system complaining over the trouble caused and asking for more troops to help put down the unrest. And the council, unsurprisingly, choosing to side with the troops over the conquered planets, just as they always did, even when the citizens’ complaints were well-founded.

Looking at the notes about it, Keith thought their complaints were very well-founded. The Vexhal system sat along the very edge of the Galra Empire, and often had to rely on its own planets for the imports and income each planet needed to survive. Keith had never visited the system, but he assumed the situation was rough. And it would only get worse with the newly-proposed trade routes, which cut the Vexhal system out of the official Galran trade routes entirely. Took away any chance of merchants or tourists visiting its planets as much as they had before, which meant the income of those planets would drop significantly. And they were already struggling to pay for imported food and infrastructure as it was.

Not that Keith could say any of that, however. He knew from past experiences that anything he said now would only be ignored. The council would send their soldiers no matter what he did. And they’d probably send even more if Keith did try to speak out. And so Keith kept his mouth shut and let the council push through their troop assignment, though the outcome left him feeling somewhat disquieted.

Sendak, he could tell, was thoroughly pleased by the result. He sank down into his chair, having gotten what he wanted, with a self-satisfied grin that nearly shattered Keith’s resolve. It irked him to see Sendak so smug, knowing the sort of violence and disruption he’d be causing the Vexhal system with those extra soldiers, and he had to physically bite down on his tongue to keep from lashing out.

Patience, he told himself, bitter even in his thoughts. There’s still work to be done.

He closed his eyes for a moment to center himself, focusing on the sharp sting of his tongue until the pinpricks of irritation inside him faded away into nothing. He couldn’t let this get to him. Couldn’t let himself get caught up in the decisions he knew he couldn’t change. There would come a day when he could perhaps try, but not now. He didn’t hold enough power yet. He had to save what power he had for the truly important issues.

And there’s surely something important to discuss today, since Lotor didn’t want me here. I have to focus on that.

Whatever the matter was, though, Keith couldn’t begin to guess. He hadn’t heard anything of particular importance through the court’s gossip. And what he had heard was simply more of the usual issues they dealt with day to day. Community projects that needed council approval. Funding requests for construction plans from city officials all across the empire. Petitions over laws and living conditions and other such complaints. Issues he had heard before, and would almost certainly hear again in the near future.

He spared little attention to these matters as Thace, the current council leader, presented them. He knew, like earlier, that his opinion wasn’t wanted for these. And, like earlier, the council responded to each request exactly as Keith expected— giving priority to the requests of the upper classes, and all but ignoring the rest of them. Hour after hour, Keith listened to their conceit and prejudice rule their decisions until his own patience was stretched thin. He felt himself at a breaking point, ready to snap, held back only by the bite of his fingernails digging into his thighs, and the memory of what could happen if he forced himself too far into their game.

Memories of watching Shiro walk into that arena. Of seeing Shiro’s blood on the sand, and the pain on Shiro’s face, and knowing that it was his fault. All his fault. No matter what Shiro said, it was his fault, because he was the one that had pushed too hard. That tried to get involved in issues that he shouldn’t have. That made Lotor decide he needed to be taught a lesson.

Keith took a deep breath, chest expanding outward, filling his lungs to the point of pain. Then, slowly, he let it all back out.

Patience, he thought again. I must have patience.

But patience was hard to hold onto when he was surrounded by so much arrogance.

He glanced around the table, at every noble and military officer that filled the room. Sendak sat at the right side of Lotor, with Haxis, his pointy-faced second-in-command, sitting on the other side, nodding along to every comment Sendak made. There was Prorok in the middle, taking up enough space for two, with his twin, lower teeth poking out as usual. And across from him, Kolivan— the white-haired, stony-faced commander of the 206th battalion, and esteemed member of the military council.

Kolivan never said much during these council meetings unless the issue directly affected his troops. He was a brilliant military commander, having led more successful missions than any other military official in the room, save Sendak. But despite that, he tended to keep to himself and speak only when absolutely necessary. Much like their current Minister of Internal Affairs, Ulaz, who sat a few seats down from Kolivan and was watching the whole debate in complete silence.

Finally, he looked at Thace, who was doing his level best to keep the conversation on track. The council leader appeared calm and collected, even as the meeting stretched well into the afternoon and everyone’s energy began to flag. He took note of their decisions before pressing on to the next matter, unrelenting in his focus.

“For our next topic,” he began in a level voice, and it was all Keith could do not to groan. The other members of the council looked ready to do the same, but Thace pressed on. “We’re receiving complaints from factories across the Empire regarding the new restrictions being placed on them by the treaty with Altea.” Keith blinked, then sat up straighter, suddenly far more interested. “So far, we’ve received formal complaints from the Ro-Bak factory, the Konkaet factory, the Xobi factory, and the Semik factory.”

Keith frowned. He knew those factories. They were all part of the military web, if he remembered correctly, though all of them had dabbled in industries outside of weapon making as well. It had only been in recent years that the bulk of their products had been created specifically for the Galran troops. Products Galra no longer needed on such a large scale. Products that would have been affected by peace with Altea anyways, regardless of what the treaty said.

And Keith knew the treaty wasn’t as harsh on their weapons production as it could have been. He knew because he’d been the one to fight for it. To find a middle ground they all could be content with.

“What are they complaining about?” he asked, tone sharper than he’d been intending. Lotor narrowed his eyes on him suspiciously and Keith shrank back, momentarily abashed.

Further down the table, Thace shuffled through his files. “Apparently,” he began as he read through the information, “the treaty limits their yearly outputs in weaponry, so they won’t be able to make a profit. Or even payoff the cost of materials.”

There was unhappy grumbling from all around the room at that explanation.

“Absolutely shameful,” Sendak spat. A fierce scowl pulled at his expression, sharpening his features into something almost malicious. “The Alteans can’t truly expect us to uphold these ridiculous terms.”

Keith bristled at his tone. “And why shouldn’t they?” he demanded. He leaned forward, glaring at Sendak with all his might, and continued, “The treaty doesn’t prohibit weapon making entirely. It just restricts it. Which shouldn’t be a problem, since we aren’t at war anymore.” Since they logically wouldn’t need all those weapons without a war to use them in, though Sendak looked ready to refute that. He was always ready to refute anything Keith said. “None of these factories are strictly military. There are other things they can make. Machinery. Tools. Things our Empire actually needs.”

“Limiting our weapon manufacturing would be leaving ourselves vulnerable,” Sendak argued, most of the military officials voicing their agreement soon after. Keith wanted to knock some sense into all of them.

“Vulnerable against who?” he asked instead. “We aren’t at war with anyone now. And, in case it’s escaped your notice, the Alteans have limitations too. Harsher ones, in fact, since their weaponry is more advanced. They pose no threat to us.”

Sendak snarled, dark and ugly and mocking. “Maybe that’s just what your Altean husband wants you to believe.”

“Prince Lance has nothing to do with this,” Keith growled. But Sendak wasn’t listening.

“I can see his hands all over this,” he continued, as if Keith had never even spoken, growing more and more heated over every word. “I knew this marriage was a bad idea. Alteans can’t be trusted! And now there’s one inside our walls, learning our ways, influencing our prince! You were never much to begin with, Kyran, but now you’re even worse. And—”

“Sendak,” Lotor interrupted, voice quiet, but stern. Sendak fell silent immediately. His mouth snapped shut, and he slumped back in his chair in surrender, though he never stopped glaring at Keith, even when Lotor added, “Prince Lance is now a member of the Imperial family. Remember that before you start speaking ill of him.”

A chill seemed to settle over the council chamber with those words, sharper and more pervasive than even the wintry winds outside the palace walls. No one knew how to respond. Even Thace, who’d done so well at keeping the council in line and moving the conversation forward, was speechless in the face of Lotor’s statement. And Keith…

Keith was suspicious. Deeply so. No amount of interest on Lotor’s part should have warranted such a strong reaction from him. That, combined with his comments earlier about Lance attending council with Keith, set off loud alarms in Keith’s mind. There was something off here. Something Keith couldn’t put his finger on, but made his stomach curl up in dread all the same.

He only grew more suspicious as Lotor said, “As it so happens, I agree with Kyran. We must honor the terms of the treaty.” Lacing his fingers together, Lotor leaned forward to rest his elbows against the table and gazed at all of them over the arch of his fingers. “These factories can be put to good use. They simply must be told how. Kyran,” Lotor addressed, turning his sharp eyes upon Keith, who stiffened at his half-brother’s attention. “Since you are so passionate about this, I believe it would be best for you to go.”

Keith blinked. Then blinked again.

“What?” he asked, hardly believing what Lotor had just said.

It had to have been a mistake. Lotor never trusted Keith with tasks like this. Never trusted him outside the palace walls. Never let Keith out of his sight. These trips to the factories would each take several days. Longer, in the case of the Xobi and Semik factories, which sat at the edge of the planet’s inner ring, right below the Kazik. Far enough away that Lotor wouldn’t be able to keep a constant watch on Keith. OR even keep in constant contact. And with Keith gone, Lance would…

Oh. Oh no.

Keith fought not to let his horror show in his expression. By the amusement that glittered in Lotor’s eyes, he wasn’t sure he succeeded.

“This matter is of the utmost importance,” Lotor said. “We must get our factories back on track. And so you will need to leave as soon as can be arranged. To Konkaet first, I think. Tomorrow morning.”

Keith opened his mouth to argue, but no sound came out. He couldn’t even find the words. There were no words, because what Lotor commanded had to be done. Particularly in this case, where Lotor’s command had aligned with Keith’s own arguments. If he backed out now, there would be no getting past it. The nobles and officials would never take his words seriously ever again. They would never trust what he said. And worse, he would be seen as a coward, which, for Galrans, was unforgivable.

He was trapped in this. Had fallen straight into Lotor’s plans without even realizing it. And, judging by the smug smile on Lotor’s face, Keith was now right where Lotor wanted him. Right where Lotor had wanted him the entire time.

“If we are agreed,” Lotor said, proud and poised, “then I believe there is nothing left to discuss. Council is dismissed.”

And Keith could do nothing to stop it at all.