Actions

Work Header

Black Flag

Chapter Text

The tavern is loud. It smells like beer, rum, and unwashed skin. Keith scrunches his nose as he enters through the swinging door, taking in the dim firelight and boisterous chatter. Drunken men, outlaws of the worst variety, sit at barstools and around tables of aged wood, beers sloshing about the place as they shout and laugh. Some argue, probably over gold or women, Keith is sure. He strides in, an air of confidence only newly arisen as he feels the weight of his stolen medallion resting in the pocket of his dark cotton pants. His boots are scuffed and rest easily on his calves, the laces tightened to keep his pants within them.

The men in the bar pay him no mind as he makes his way to the man sliding drinks before him. A cigar rests in the corner of his mouth, lit but just barely. Smoke billows into Keith’s face as he finds an open spot, careful not to accidentally bump into anyone. The bartender eyes him like one would a lost child.

“Water.” Keith says, ignoring the look. He meets the man’s eyes, steel against old copper.

The bartender nods once before pouring the drink into a large stein, one Keith is sure is usually filled with alcohol. He gulps down the water as he pulls three coins from his pocket, the silver metal hitting the counter with rings in his ears. He closes his eyes for just a moment, willing the sticky heat on his skin to fade. There are fans on the ceiling, old rickety things, that push small amounts of air toward him. As he finishes the water and nods for a refill, he pulls his long hair back and ties it with a ribbon from his wrist, letting the air hit the nape of his neck.

“Where ya’ traveling?” The bartender asks, watching as Keith begins to drink just as ravenously as before.

With a swipe of the back of his hand against his mouth, Keith answers, “Nowhere.”

“Nowhere can be a lot of places.” The bartender says, pouring a new drink for another man, the amber liquid foaming against the rim of the glass.

Keith shrugs, finally letting his shoulders sag, allowing the ache in his legs to resonate throughout his entire body. He needs sleep and lots of it. For five weeks he’s been walking, stopping by bars and inns, hitching rides with those who had the mercy of allowing him a spare horse. Five weeks and he isn’t any closer to his destination than he thought he would be.

The bartender doesn’t ask again, instead choosing to pour him a beer. Keith watches the bubbles rise to the top, watches the condensation slide to the bottom. He quickly chugs it all, thanking the man with a nod, before letting his head fall against his folded arms.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

“Drink up, boys!” A voice calls out, making Keith open his stinging eyes against the now brighter lights of the tavern.

It must be well into the night, he thinks.

He doesn’t raise his head even as he feels a new presence beside him. Dark hands slide coins to the bartender in his peripheral vision and the voice from before speaks again. “Rum, would ya’?”

The bartender grunts, eyes wary, and instantly Keith feels his own body tense. It’s rare, he knows, for a bartender to take caution.

The man beside him is dangerous.

Slowly, Keith lifts his head and straightens his back, keeping his eyes forward as if he were checking out the assorted barrels lining the wall, minding his own business. It doesn’t work.

“You look like you need a drink or two more.” The voice says, obviously directing his observation at Keith.

Keith hesitates, wondering if perhaps he should pretend he can’t hear, wondering if perhaps he should feign a stomach virus and make his leave. Instead, he decides to glance at the man. He expects hideousness, a person full of blemishes from opium, a gouged eye or the smell of rats. Instead, much to his surprise, the man looks as if he had just arisen from the ocean. A siren among them, with dark caramel skin and brown hair, eyes matching the waves of the Caribbean. A lone tattoo runs along the side of the man’s neck, an intricate pattern that reminds Keith of something ancient, something important.

Keith quickly looks away and clears his throat. “I uh-“ He starts, “I’ve drunk my fill.”

The man taps his fingers against the counter as his own drink rests in front of him, untouched. Keith eyes it.

“You say that.” The man says, “But your eyes give you away.”

Keith scoffs before he can stop himself, “You wouldn’t know.”

The man chuckles, a sound lighter than Keith would expect, and finally picks up his drink. It’s quiet between them for a moment, long enough for Keith to turn his head once more. He watches the liquid slowly disappear from the stein, the bobbing of the man’s throat. He takes in the dark leathered jacket and shirt beneath, not daring to look lower.

The man slams his stein down, letting out a holler and receiving plenty back. Keith turns to see a new group of men filling the cavern, all dressed in leathers and boots, some with beards and metal appendages, as if part machine. When he looks back at the man, he feels his muscles clench. The man is much closer and is watching him, close flame reflecting in dark blue irises. Keith leans back, debating if he should shove the man away.

“I’m Lance.” The man says, deciding to lean away himself. He grabs another glass and takes a few hearty chugs before offering the rest to Keith.

Keith doesn’t reply, instead deciding to stand and make his way to the exit. He’s had enough. But before he can make it out, after shoving through the horde of increasingly drunk men and sparse women, the man speaks again. He must have followed Keith, something that doesn’t sit very well with him.

“If you’re looking to get lost somewhere,” Lance says, “There’s a ship leaving port in three hours.”

Keith stops in his tracks, picturing the ache in his legs leaving, the dryness of his throat disappearing for days. A way out of this new city.

When he turns around, Lance is already walking away, his form being swallowed by the crowd.

Keith doesn’t see the large patch covering the back of his jacket or the way the bones cross to make an X, as if Keith’s destination rested on the mysterious man himself.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The nights aren’t cold but they aren’t warm, instead it rests on Keith like a strange blanket. He’s never cared much for the cold but growing up in the year-round heat has probably swayed his comfort levels by a large scale. He waits on the outcroppings of the harbor, behind large boulders above the sea. He’s been here for an hour already, after walking aimlessly along the shore for two hours prior, and has seen the ships of the sea take port. He wonders which one Lance expects him to find. There is a large crew spread out on the dock, loud voices drifting up to Keith’s perch. He tries to catch a name, to cheat having to explore the crowd on his own.

No luck.

With a sigh, Keith makes his way down and around the rocks, one hand on his knife and the other on the strap of his bag. Salty air plays against his nose but with it there is a new scent. A strange feeling running along his skin and against his body, as if the water had manifested itself to wrap around his veins.

He recognizes the feeling.

Keith knows magic exists. He’s seen it himself, in the strange people who make seasonal journeys through his town. The simple way they wield it, as if it were a part of them. And, he supposes, it is. But Keith has never been outside of the city of Branlin, with its raising slopes of sand and grand buildings of stone. The buildings disappear altogether in a sand storms, made for shelter and camouflage against those unwelcome. Other than the blacksmith shop Keith found work in at the age of seven, he has never done another trade. He only knows his blades and the sun, the feeling of sand hitting his flesh like pricks of metal.

And who would have known, he thinks, that the ocean was so close all along.

He’s getting closer to the docks and can hear the tide hitting the planks of wood, as if fighting to be heard over the loud sailor’s voices. They don’t pay him too much attention, as always, their hard gazes directed at the women and men waving and winking closer to the tavern up the hill. He searches for the man, Lance, among the crowd. Trickles of the crew are walking toward the end of the dock, the part least lit by the tall lamps on either side. The flickering of the flames make shadows dance as Keith slowly follows them, recognizing the heavy leather resting on their bodies. Some of the men have beards, long and thick, while many look almost younger than Keith. He spots women, too, with heads tilted high.

He wonders if he should turn back. Risk his chances on the road again with only rumors leading him north.

However, before he can even begin to turn around, the pounding of footsteps racing toward him make the dock shake like a minuscule earthquake. Keith quickly pulls out his dagger, knowing how foolish he must look, how dumb he feels. He should have known it was a trap. The man must have seen his bundle of coins, maybe even somehow spotted the medallion in his pocket. Men in taverns like that surely know how to look for riches. He waits for the hands to grab him, punch him, pull knives against him. Instead, they pass him as if he were a ghost. They whoop and holler like beasts on the hunt, running toward the pitch black end of the dock. Keith inches forward, trying to catch the expressions on their faces as they pass.

A loud sound assaults Keith’s ears, as if a machine were grinding against another and lights as blue and bright as starlight shine before him like a monstrous beacon.

“Get your asses up here!” He hears a shout, all too familiar, all too excited. “Let’s go, boys!”

Keith runs the rest of the way forward, hand lifted to shield his eyes from the harshest light, before a figure blocks enough of it for him to stare straight ahead. Lance is holding onto the rope of a sail, jacket flapping in the night wind, eyes shining a dimmer blue than that of the ship’s lights. The crew has begun to loosen the sails, to pull in the ropes and anchor. Keith is so surmised in the scene, he almost overlooks what should have been most shocking from the start.

The ship has engines of spinning red and orange light, heat waves coming out from where they protrude on the bottom.

And the ship is rising, like a beast with wings into the air.

“Are you coming?” Lance calls out, a wicked grin lining his face. Keith is frozen, watching his glowing eyes, studying the now outstretched hand. “I won’t offer this again!” He says, glancing toward the edge of the dock. Keith follows his gaze. The ramp leading to the boat is being drawn in.

Keith is taking too long.

“Suit yourself!” Lance says, lowering his hand. He takes a long look at Keith before turning back to his crew, his orders being strewn with ease.

And as a huge flag raises above the ship, a large white skull and crossbones beating against the stars, Keith decides.

With a huff and a shoving of his knife back into it’s sheath, he races toward the ramp. His feet hit it with a loud thud and he reaches for something to hold onto, fearing the new waves created by the enormous engines. A hand reaches out and grasps his own and as he meets Lance’s glowing eyes, he feels something akin to electricity race along his bones.

Chapter Text

Keith has heard of pirates.

Nomads of the sea, invading port cities and towns to ransack gold and other riches. Ferocious sea battles and the sound of clashing metal, the booms of canons echoing across the ocean. Somewhere, in the back of his mind, he understood the significance behind the huge black flag before he even jumped for the ship. But if one thing is for certain, he’s never been one to think things through very well. He remembers his brother lecturing him about it as they grew up, his voice laced with humor and worry.

Keith clears his throat and takes his hand away from Lance’s, feeling the lurch of the ship move beneath him like a shift of tectonic plate. He stumbles forward as Lance straightens, the once shining light of his eyes growing dimmer by the second. He nods to Keith once before turning to stride to the higher point on the ship, his heavy boots hitting the steps two at a time. Men and women rush around him, carrying on the hollering and chatter with excitement, some going out of their way to avoid Keith’s frozen form while others have no problem letting their shoulders slam into his. He begins to move, walking toward the bow of the ship. He reaches the very end and turns, taking in the site with wide eyes.

Lance has taken control of the large helm, the shape of a giant wheel made out of metal. Keith notices that most of the ship is metal and quite cold against his skin, with tendrils of light running along it. The blue and yellow lights remind him of lightening contained, or the roots of a great tree laid flat. The sails are as black as the flag that flaps wildly in the wind, bigger than any cloth Keith has ever seen. As they rise away from the port, the air grows cooler, the stars seeming to come closer. Keith turns again to face the open air before him.

The sight leaves him breathless.

The ocean is as dark as the sky, the only point of light being the rays from the moon hitting the cresting waves. Keith leans against the rail and looks down as far as he can, past the large mermaid statue; hand raised to point forward, tail curled against the ship. The engines still shine against the water as they rise, huge bursts of energy and heat creating crater-like dents in the liquid. Sprays shoot into the air, coating Keith’s face in a cool mist. For a moment he allows his eyes to shut, as if he were not on board a pirate ship headed to an unknown destination.

It only lasts so long.

“New boy!” Someone calls out, the tilt of her voice alerting him that she is from a different land. He turns to face the woman, her pale hair contrasting beautifully with her dark skin. She has tattoos, two upon her forehead. He tries to see them but she snaps her fingers, breaking his stare. “I’m Allura, first mate. I’ve gotten orders from the captain that you’re to go below deck to meet with Hunk.” She says, throwing a thumb over her shoulder to indicate the entryway leading below.

“Why?” Keith asks, raising an eyebrow.

The woman furrows her eyebrows, “It’s an order.”

“Where’s the captain?” Keith asks, looking for someone who resembles the title. The crew has settled for the moment although some still pull at the sail’s ropes.

The woman, Allura, looks at Keith like she’s never heard a dumber question. “You’ve met him already.”

“What?”

She rolls her eyes and grabs his sleeve, turning to pull him along with her. “You’re quite dense, aren’t you? Just go to Hunk and see what you’re to do. I’m sure you’ll see the captain again soon enough.” She looks at him for a moment longer, as if she were going to continue. When she doesn’t, Keith turns away first and shuffles below deck, listening to the hum of the engines. The sound is distant, no doubt lessened in volume because of the thick metal floors and walls of the ship. He wanders around, shuffling this way and that, looking for someone; anyone.

“Hey!” He hears, and turns toward the voice. “I’ve never seen you before, did the captain send you down here?”

“Yes.” Keith says, keeping his distance from the man fiddling with a blinking and whirring contraption. The man is large with hair hanging in his face, oils coating his hands as he places down a tool.

His voice is gentle in a way that makes Keith loosen his shoulders but he stays alert, not knowing what to expect. “I’m Hunk.” The man says, standing from his seat. Behind him, bunks sway suspended in the air. He supposes this is the sleeping quarters.

Hunk makes his way toward Keith, “I’m supposed to take you to the kitchen.” He says, walking past Keith with a brush of his shoulder. He shoves his hands in his pockets and doesn’t turn to check if Keith follows. They take another staircase down. Keith marvels at the expanse of the ship, at just how much fits. Barrels and crates line the walls, crevices opened to display flickering blue flame. Hunk sees Keith staring and smirks.

“Magic.” He says.

Keith glances at him, “Magic light?”

“We don’t care for open flame below deck.” Hunk says, shrugging. “Match my invention with some magic borrowed from a friend and you get the safest lighting system in the land. No spare fumes, no big kabooms!” He laughs, a sound slightly contagious. "Same with the engines spinning beneath us. Leave them running too long and we'll all be blown to dust." 

They finally arrive at an entryway and Keith is assaulted with the smells of clove, garlic, rum, and spices. Hunk breathes in deep and outstretches his arms as if to show off his home. “Welcome to my pride and joy!” He laughs and struts to the other side of the room before turning a nob on the wall. Water sprays down onto his hands, washing away the dark color of oil and grease from metal. After he turns of the water, he makes his way over to a wall lined with boxes and humming metal objects. He opens the lid of one, letting cool air brush past his skin and drift toward Keith. He pulls out cheeses and bread, a brown package of meat and vegetables.

“Am I making food?” Keith asks, feeling a small amount of annoyance spike in him. He’s not here to cook.

“Course not.” Hunks says, laying out the ingredients on the counter top. He unwraps the meat and lays out bread, quickly going about his business. Keith slowly takes a seat at one of the three stools on the other side of the counter; cautious. The sandwich is large and makes Keith’s stomach grumble, hopefully not loud enough for the other man to hear it. Hunk places the sandwich in front of Keith.

“For me?” Keith asks, voice higher than he would like. When is the last time he’s eaten a sandwich this large? This well-made? And on a pirate ship, no less. He wonders if he’s hallucinating.

Hunk nods, pulling out a large vase of water. “Captain’s orders.” He says, pouring the drink into a mug and sliding it toward Keith. He picks up the sandwich, feeling the surprising softness of the bread and warmth of the meat as if it had been placed inside of an oven. He eyes it for just a moment longer before opening his mouth wide, almost moaning at the tastes hitting his tongue. Hunk grins and makes a sandwich for himself with skilled proficiency. They eat in silence for a moment, Keith shoving the food down his throat like a dying man.

“Thanks.” He says around his full mouth.

Hunk nods, “Don’t expect private sandwiches whenever you want. After tonight, you’ll be eating when the rest of us eat.”

Keith nods, not worried about it. Not as long as he’s focused on the food before him right now.

“Hunk!” Someone calls distantly, making the man roll his eyes.

“I’ll see you later.” Hunk says, finishing off his sandwich and rushing out of the room, shouting back a threat.

The kitchen is quiet now, voices distant and footsteps seeming to echo around him. Without a second thought he chugs down his drink and stands, eager to explore on his own.

———————---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

He inspects the rest of the kitchen and the crates outside of it, marveling at the amount of food and packaged goods they have, at the fresh water that seems never ending. He studies the blue flames, getting as close as he can, wondering if they’re as hot as actual fire. He lets his fingers get close and indeed feels heat, but it seems contained, as if the flame itself would only be as warm as sand heated from the sun. He runs his hands along the metal walls, feeling vibrations from the engines and enjoying the cool touch against his skin. He goes a floor lower, taking each stair one at a time. His boots make the stairs creak in a strange way, as if they were old. Maybe they were.

The room is alight in the same blue flame as before, only dimmer. He stops at the bottom, eyes widened, incredulous. Piles and piles of gold, metals, gems, statues, and riches layer the floor. He could wade in it if he wanted to. He could swim in it. The light reflects off of the coins and jewelry and shines on his own skin, like patches of starlight.

Pirates, he reminds himself. I’m on a ship full of pirates.

“Have you taken anything?”

Keith spins and looks up the stairs, recognizing the slender form. Lance has a hand on his hip, blue eyes no longer glowing, wild grin gone.

“No.” Keith says, glancing at the treasure behind him. “I didn’t touch anything.”

“Hmmm…” Lance contemplates and begins to walk down the stairs, eyes on Keith’s own, leather jacket replaced with a longer cloak. Keith doesn’t back away and doesn’t try to push past him as he approaches. He isn’t afraid, really. Lance is closer now and Keith can smell the night air on him, the open sky and toiling sea.

“Are you the captain?” Keith asks, feeling his stomach tighten in a way it never has before. Lance smirks, letting his eyes roam about Keith’s dirty face.

“I am.” He says, walking forward again, making Keith take a few steps back, wondering if Lance’s intention was to push him into the sea of gold. Keith feels the same electricity as before, like his hairs should be standing on end, like they would during a rare storm in the desert.

Lance stops to pick up stray coins, running them between his fingers. “I’m Captain Mcclain, in charge of this ship.” He says, the ever present playful tone surfacing once more. “And you’re not a pirate.”

“Obviously.” Keith says, crossing his arms.

“What were you doing in a pirate’s tavern, then?” He asks, flipping a coin into the air.

“I’m traveling.”

“Oh?” He asks, “Where to?”

“Nowhere.” Keith says, tightening his mouth. He wants to reach for the Medallion in his pocket, to make sure it’s still there. He glances down for a moment and Lance follows his gaze, raising an eyebrow.

He doesn’t ask.

“Well,” He says, instead, “You’re welcome to journey with us but until you get off of my ship, you’re a part of the crew.” Lance steps forward again and lifts his hand to brush a piece of hair away from his eyes. “I have to warn you though.”

“About what?”

Lance drops his hand and smiles again, a sight as astounding as the flying ship itself. Keith wills his skin to stay cool, to keep from flushing an embarrassing red.

“I don’t pick up stragglers often,” Lance says, “But when I do, they always seem to have a habit of becoming attached to this ship.”

Keith scoffs, “I doubt I will.”

Lance turns to walk back up the stairs, glancing back to study Keith. “I certainly hope you’re wrong, Keith.” He smirks again,”Go find the showers, you need one.”

Only after the captain has disappeared does Keith let out a breath he wasn’t aware he was holding.

And only after his long shower does he reflect on how the captain came about knowing his name when Keith hadn’t mentioned it even once.

Chapter Text

Keith is awake at dawn after four hours of restless sleep. The hammock he claimed still swings from his departure through the snoring and shifting crew mates. He makes his way up to the deck, listening as the air pushes against the sails in a manner that settles his nerves, like the billowing of hung sheets and clothes outside of his home. He’s always been an early riser. In the desert it’s coolest before dawn, when a swift breeze gently blows the sand across his feet. Now, the wind is much cooler, making him shiver in his clean clothes. Hunk gave him sets that Keith imagines must have seen better days, but they’re clothes nonetheless. He should have remembered to grab the new leather jacket before he slid out of his bed. Rubbing his arms, he walks to the bow of the ship, the morning light just breaking across the horizon. He leans over the rail again, watching the passing ocean below as it ripples in tones of dark gray.

As the sun slowly makes its appearance in a palette of orange and pink and blue he notices flocks of sea birds drifting beside the ship, white feathers flapping against the air currents. They’re close as he turns to survey the deck, his footsteps light without his heavy boots. The steps leading to the helm loom in front of him and before he can think twice, he’s making his way up.

The wheel is larger now that he’s closer, the metal cold to his touch. He rests his hands on it, letting them move this way and that as it shifts as if controlled by ghostly hands. It makes him want to take it apart, to learn its deepest functions before reconstructing it.

A door opens underneath the helm and closes in quick succession. Keith freezes, not expecting anyone else to be awake this early.

Suddenly, Lance strides up the stairs, eyebrows furrowed as if in deep concentration. At the sight of Keith he relaxes, if only by letting his shoulders sag a little more than they were.

“Oh.” He says.

Keith tries not to look at his clothes, the thin silver satin shirt open on his chest. “Sorry.” He says, taking his hands off of the wheel.

“If it were anyone else waking me up this early they’d already be taking a dive off the plank.” Lance says, and Keith can’t tell if he’s joking or not. He reminds himself that the man is dangerous regardless of his humor.

“How did you know I was here?” He asks, pulling the collar of his shirt higher on his shoulder from where it had fallen. Lance’s eyes follow the movement and he steps closer, letting his own hands rest on one of the protruding parts; the parts that make it easier for someone to turn the wheel in rough winds and stormy waters.

One side of Lance’s mouth rises for a moment, like a smirk come too early. Keith assumes he must watch the helm with some sort of magic, holding a territorial claim to it as captain.

“I heard your footsteps.” Lance says, “I usually don’t let anyone up here.”

“Why?”

“I set the course of my wheel and if someone changes it, it messes up my plans.”

Keith puts one of his hands back on the wheel, letting it move beneath his palm. “What plans?”

Lance slides his hand down but doesn’t touch Keith. “What kind of captain would I be if I spoiled all the fun?” He asks, beginning to back away toward the stairs. “One thing you’ll have to learn while in my company is that I love surprises.”

Keith tilts his head, “What-“

But Lance is already heading down the steps, a wink thrown back like a promise.

—————------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

By midday the ship is alive once more, the engines put to full use, the crew full of energy. Keith walks with a bucket to the deck. It’s full of sudsy water, the smell of lemons tickling his nose as he tries not to spill any on himself. He knew being part of a crew would come with actual work but he didn’t imagine himself wiping away dirt and grime from the boards they walk on. He thinks he may have liked to work in the kitchen with Hunk after all. At least then he could ask him about his inventions.

Instead, he sloshes some of the soapy water onto the deck and pulls the stringy mop into his hands with a small grimace. Allura flutters around the crew like a bird of prey, her sharp eyes keeping track of the changing sails and tangled ropes, her longs legs striding to and fro on a mission of some sort. She looks toward Keith and he pulls his eyes away quickly, letting them scan the helm instead, watching Lance as he steers and talks to a man holding out a cubicle device. Lance glances up, as if knowing Keith was watching and Keith flushes with heat.

“Where are you from?” Allura asks, suddenly appearing before Keith. He stops himself from jumping, instead trying to finally get a better look at her tattoos. They rest on either temple. One is a crescent, like a moon in shadow, the lines thin and dark. The other is a figure Keith can closely relate to the sun, its spikes vicious and strong. He likes them. Allura raises a light eyebrow, mouth turning up in a small smile.

“My family studied the stars.” She says, answering the question Keith didn’t have time to ask. But she doesn’t go into detail and Keith doesn’t like to pry.

“I’m from Branlin.” He says, moving the mop in lazy formations. “It’s a city further south.”

She nods and leans against the railing beside him. Her hands are covered in rings, lights in the stones swirling like smoke. Keith has never seen anything like it. Then again, he’s never seen anything like any of this.

“I’ve heard that the sandstorms are quite atrocious.” She says, “I’ve heard they can kill people.”

Keith nods, dipping the mop back into the water and pushing stray hair out of his eyes. “They’re no different than hurricanes sometimes, other than the water being replaced by sand.”

“How peculiar.” She says, seeming genuinely intrigued.

It’s quiet for a time between them, the only sounds being the sloshing of water and the call of the crew. “You know,” Allura says, pushing away from the railing. “Lance won’t tell me why you're now aboard the Black Flag.” She glances toward the helm and bites her lip, as if thinking.

“What do you mean?” Keith asks, letting the mop rest for a moment as he watches her. “It’s not like I asked.”

“I know.” She says, “That’s why I’m curious.” She straightens suddenly and looks directly at Keith once again.

“I’m not sure why I even showed up that night, you know.” Keith says, shrugging his shoulders.

She nods, “Only time will tell.”

————------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The days pass the same with Keith cleaning and helping pull the sails inward or loosening them to catch the wind. The sky is almost always clear, save for the few clouds that still roam above them every once in a while. Lance seems busy, his efforts focused on staying on some course unknown to the rest of them. Occasionally their eyes will meet or a word or two will be spoken but they haven’t had another full conversation.

Keith shouldn’t be bothered by it. And he isn’t, really. He just has too many questions.

Hunk has shown him some of his inventions, like the compartments that shoot out pleasant odors while they sleep. “Meant to keep us relaxed.” He says, “Some of the crew don’t find showers necessary.” He’s also talked about past adventures, relaying the details like facts of science instead of the daring and exciting stories they are. Keith isn’t complaining but he wonders if he’ll experience any of it soon. Part of him hopes not. Hunk won’t talk much about the captain, other than confirming that they are indeed headed North, much to Keith’s relief.

Two months later, however, Keith finally gets a taste of the adventure Hunk likes to occasionally bring up.

It arrives with a boom.

He shoots up from his bed with a shout, feeling the ship shake and groan. People jump out of bed and slide on boots, jackets, swords, and guns. Keith looks around for a weapon, anything, but is met only with chaos. He jumps from his bed and slides on his boots as another boom makes his ears ring, the ship swaying as if it were teetering on a line. Hunk grips his shoulder as he comes into view and shoves a sword into his hands, the blade covered by a black sheath. He yells over the commotion, “If you can’t fight, hide away from the cannons!” And without another word of advice, he pushes past the remaining crew to the deck above.

Keith can fight.

He’s had to fight his entire life; against other kids, desert beasts, adults with no moral compass. He’s fought just as his brother trained him, just as the cruel desert has expected of him. By the time he was eleven he had killed two men, one with the help of his brother. He knows the world is a darker place than many like to believe.

The sword is bigger and heavier than his usual knives, but he doesn’t mind. In fact, as he slides it out of the sheath and sees the hilt glimmer with red stones, he feels a new sense of balance.

As he runs up the stairs, he has to keep a hand on the wall in fear of falling backwards with each harsh sway of the ship. The night is as cool as ever but there is a new feverish feel to the air, an electrical charge taking over them all. Adrenaline pours into his bones as he sees the huge pirate ship beside them, the enemy crew waiting for the chance to swing onto their deck. Their flag isn't very large, with a single triangular shape in the middle.

“Get below!” Lance shouts, showing up like a phantom in his dark clothing, eyes beginning to grow with light. He grabs at Keith’s jacket, pushing him back toward the stairs.

“I can fight!” Keith yells back, feeling the ship jolt with its own blasting cannons, the sound deafening in his ears. Two hit the other ship, sending metal and wood flying in all directions. “I know how to fight!”

Lance stares at him for a moment, his face contorting in an emotion Keith doesn’t quite understand before he lets his hand rise to rest momentarily on the side of Keith’s neck. His hand is freezing against Keith’s skin and he nods before letting go, his cloak billowing behind him as he walks out among his crew. Keith doesn’t have time to think as the first enemy lands on their deck, slashing away with his sword. He rounds on Keith, a wicked grin pulling at his mouth to show his missing teeth. He brings his sword around but it clashes with Keith’s own, the sound louder than Keith expected. More and more enemies pour onto the deck and guns begin to fire, smoke rising from each pulled trigger. People fall and Keith wishes he could see just who’s crew they belong to.

“Die now, boy!” The pirate in front of him shouts as he raises his sword but Keith is quicker, letting his blade slide into the man’s chest. He pushes hard, feeling it breach bone and muscle, a grunt rising on his lips as he slides it back out. The man falls and another takes his place, his beard braided and long. He’s quicker than the last, his blade thinner.

Keith ducks as the sword flies just above his head, close enough for him to feel the wind ruffle his hair. All of a sudden, another sword protrudes from his chest, blade already slick with blood. Allura is grinning as the man falls, a wild emotion showing on her face. She laughs and winks at Keith before diving back in, hacking away with impressive skill. The wind is picking up as if a storm is rising but Keith sees no clouds in the night sky. The cannon’s continue to blast away at the enemy, much faster now, no doubt energized by whatever magic seems to coat this ship. Three large holes have been blown into its side,enough to impact its ability to fly. It begins to pull back as Keith moves to the bow, as far away from the fight as he can get for the time being.

In the middle of the chaos Lance stands at the helm. His eyes are alight with the same bright blue Keith has only seen once before. He turns the helm with all of his might, sending it reeling straight toward the retreating enemy ship. He shifts a lever after the helm straightens its course and it stays focused on the path ahead. Suddenly, Lance is climbing onto the ladder that leads to the perch upon the sails. Keith knows he isn’t going up just to get a better view. As he leaps onto the perch his hands begin to glow along with his eyes, the veins beneath his skin coming alight like star-fire. Keith feels his body quiver at the sheer power that so evidently rests inside of the man. The growing wind lifts Lance’s cloak, making it billow around him as he raises his arms, his hair rising as if he were beneath water. He doesn’t speak, he doesn’t even move as Keith hears a new sound just as deafening as the cannons. He turns quickly, hands gripping the railing as the wave rises in front of them. He can just catch the enemy crew backing away on their own ship, eyes wide in shock and disbelief.

The crest is feet into the air now, blocking Keith's view of the other ship completely, the rushing sound seeming to encompass everything; the size of it making even him swallow in fear. The wave suddenly lurches forward as if pushed from behind and it breaks over the enemy ship, sending it plummeting to the ocean under the full weight of the water. He doesn’t even hear them scream.

Instead, Keith feels a spray of blood on his face as someone falls beside him. He turns, dazed.

“It ain’t over yet!” Someone from his crew shouts, “We don’t stop ‘till they’re all beneath us!” The man holds up a gun.

Finally moving his eyes away, he catches the gun thrown to him and raises it, sword gripped tight in his other hand. He aims at a woman running toward him with her own gun, her finger moving to curl on the trigger. He pulls first, the force of it pushing him back, making his shoulder sting. When he can finally look toward Lance again he’s back at the helm, steering forward with fierce determination.

Chapter Text

Hours after the final sword has fallen, the moon having risen higher in the sky, and the bodies have been thrown overboard Keith decides to try to wash the blood from his face. He scrubs but doesn’t have time to get all of it off before a woman is pushing him out of the way. She dips her head beneath the water of the washroom letting the water turn pink as it falls into a small drain.

Does it lead into the ocean, falling beneath the ship? He wonders.

He doesn’t bother drying his own hair as he makes his way back up, limbs aching. There is a fire lit in a large pit that levitates in the air. He doesn’t see any suspension of rope keeping it floating and it spins slowly but he can’t find the energy to wonder how it works. The light creates shadows as people gather around, recognizing that one of their crew-mates has died.

“We celebrate.” Lance says, appearing beside Keith. His own skin is cleaned, no sheen of blood or grime present. His eyes don’t glow and his hands are cleared.

Keith notices that they’re close enough for their arms to touch.

“Someone died.”

Lance nods, “And so we celebrate.” He grins at Keith, the playful boyish smirk returning as if it had never been replaced by a face of cruel power. “Pirates don’t mourn their dead, Keith. You live by the sword, you die by the sword or so they say.”

Drums are dragged out, large bulky things that make the floor vibrate beneath Keith as they are hit. “I didn’t know pirates were musicians too.”

The laugh that escapes Lance is loud. Keith crosses his arms but lets a tiny smirk play on his mouth at the sound, wondering how the man can change his emotions as easily as the tide. He leans down, just barely, to whisper against Keith’s ear. He tries not to shiver.

“Pirates are capable of many things.” His breath makes the hair on Keith’s neck shift. He turns his head but Lance doesn’t look away, instead letting the dare in his eyes shine almost as brightly as the strange magic they hold.

Drinks are thrust into their space, making Keith put distance between the two as Hunk begins to talk about the fight and the repairs being done to the ship. Keith takes a drink, almost immediately spitting it out. It’s harsh and strong but he tries again, not going to let whatever rum this is make him scrunch his nose. He looks to Lance, watching as he tastes his own drink, his eyes meeting Keith’s above the rim of the glass. The drums are growing louder and faster as more people join the celebration, shoes kept below deck, their bare feet hitting the floor as they dance and move about.

Keith feels himself loosen up as he takes more sips and finds himself smiling at Allura as she pulls him to her to dance. He tries to stop her, knowing he’s never been one to have rhythm.

“It’s easy!” She says, trying to get him to move his shoulders. At his attempt she lets out a loud laugh and bends to hold her stomach. Keith blushes furiously even as he feels his own laughter bubbling inside of him. Her dance lessons go on for a long time, which allows the drink to move out of his body until his vision is clearer and his mind is calmer. Not one who tends to enjoy being drunk, he is happy to have all of his senses slowly returned.

Allura tries to get a man beside her to dance with him. “Maybe you need another man to get your hips moving!” She says, the alcohol making her spirits higher and humor looser.

The boy grins and wiggles his eyebrows. Keith blushes all the same, declining the offer as quickly as he can. He opts to move to the outskirts of the party, feeling a strange wildness threading along his veins. The music feels old, like a beat beyond the years. As he leans over the railing, letting his fingers move in the air to the sounds, he notices the sky is no longer beneath them. Instead, the open ocean sprays water onto the side of the boat, the moon once again creating diamond-like lights on the waves. He stands straight, knowing he has to find Hunk to ask why they’ve begun to sail on the water.

But when he turns around he doesn’t see the raging party or Hunk’s large form swaying to the music. Instead, he sees only Lance.

The captain has taken off his cloak, letting his white shirt lay loose. Keith sees the dark skin of his chest again as he walks forward, steps sure and strong. He’s smiling and Keith supposes he should just get used to it. However, he makes a note to ask Lance what kind of image he’s trying to pass as a deadly pirate all the while smiling like a child.

“Why are we on the ocean?” Keith asks instead, leaning back against the rail, hands on either side of him to keep his balance. The metal is cool beneath his sweaty palms.

Lance stops in front of him, “We aren’t confined to the sky.” He says, “The air is just faster.”

Keith pushes off of the rail and walks away from the firelight and past Lance toward the stairs leading to the helm. Lance follows as he makes his way up. Keith leans against the wheel, back facing the party. It’s slightly quieter here.

Lance stands in front of him again, his smirk playing on his lips.

“I like the sky.” Keith says, “I’ve been on the ground too long.”

“In the desert?”

“Yeah.” He glances up toward the sky. “I thought I’d never leave.”

“Why?” Lance asks, stepping closer.

Keith shrugs, “I just thought that’s all there was. Me, my brother, and the sand.” He shakes his head.

“Where is your brother?”

He swallows, “I’m not sure.” His voice is tighter than he intends; guarded. Lance doesn’t push.

“One day we’ll be above the air.” Lance says, clearing his throat. He’s even closer now and Keith looks anywhere but his face.

“That’s impossible.”

Lance lets out a chuckle, his hand reaching to touch a strand of Keith’s dark hair. “It’ll happen.” He says, “And those stars will be closer than ever.”

He shivers as a brisk wind hits his heated face, as Lance presses closer, his body barely touching Keith’s. The tightening of Keith’s stomach returns, a burning sensation rising in him like heat lightening.

But then Lance is moving away, letting his hair drift between his fingers.

“Try to sleep after the sun has risen. I’m tired of waking up so damn early.” He says. Keith furrows his eyebrows, confused but not dumb enough to stick around. He leaves the helm with brisk steps, the heat lingering inside of him long after he has splashed cold water onto his face and his head has hit his feathered pillow.

——————---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

“Three days to port!” Hunk calls out one afternoon, his voice excited.

“Port?” Keith asks from his spot on the kitchen counter, legs swinging with the sound of sizzling meat. It’s rare that Hunk gets to use fire but Keith has come to appreciate it when he can.

“Port, my friend!” Hunk says, stirring a huge pot full of something or another. Keith doesn’t bother asking, knowing it’ll taste good either way. He fiddles with a telescope, put to the task by Lance to make it shine light from the tip. He isn’t quite sure why Lance would require such a thing, but once again, he doesn’t ask. “Are we going to plunder?”

Hunk places the large spoon down and lets out a choked laugh, “Plunder?” He asks, spinning to face Keith. “That isn’t really the word we use and no, we aren’t going to plunder.” 

“Where did you all get the riches from then? In the room below us?”

Hunk raises an eyebrow for a moment, making Keith glance up at the silence. “We only take what we want from other pirates or the occasional Empire ship.” He turns back to his food, muttering. 

“So you’re telling me you can sink entire ships and kill their crew without a second thought, but you don't invade ports and cities?” Keith asks, not entirely believing it.

“We take what we want here and there.” Hunk says, “But we don’t care to terrorize the people on the land. Not usually, anyway.”

Keith rolls his eyes and jumps down from the counter, placing the telescope gently onto it. He tries to sneak by Hunk to the sizzling meat.

“Oh no you don’t!” Hunk shouts, taking the soup spoon to swipe at Keith’s greedy hands. With a laugh, Keith manages to steal a piece anyway before he gathers up the telescope and runs out of the room.

Hunk’s annoyed shouts follow him out of the door.

———————----------------------------------------------------------------------------

They reach the city in two days, at dawn. The lights inside of buildings already light up the horizon, shimmering like stars on the land. Lance and Allura bark orders to ease the sails, to ready the anchor. He helps pull in ropes, his arms taut as the ship slows its descent.

As the bow reaches the dock, Lance shrugs on his leather jacket and strides to Keith, surprising him by taking his hand.

“I have things to show you.” He says, pulling him toward the ramp being slowly extended.

Keith doesn’t try to pull away as Lance grips his hand tighter, the coolness of his skin quickly settling with ease. Keith follows without question, watching the skull and bones on his jacket shift as they walk onto the dock and toward the bustling city.

Chapter Text

Keith has traveled trough two cities and none have been as large or as busy as this one. Though the sun has only been up for a short while, already people are making their way through the streets. Breads are beginning to bake, the shop windows are opening, stands are being set up as far as Keith can see along the rising cobble streets. He still holds Lance’s hand as he leads him deeper. People eye them and keep a distance, no doubt recognizing a pirate when they see one. However, Lance either doesn’t seem to notice or he just doesn't care. They cut through alleyways and around houses. All of the buildings are different than what Keith is used to, most of them being made of wood instead of stone. His eyes rake the land curiously, catching each flutter of movement, smelling each scent whether good or bad.

Occasionally, when they walk along a particularly high street, Keith can see a large estate in the distance, its walls gleaming in the sun.

He’s just about to ask Lance where he’s leading him when they come to a stop outside of a smaller building, its door heavy and seemingly bolted.

Lance lets go of Keith’s hand to reach above the door as if searching for something.

He lets out a huff, “They knew I would be showing up eventually.” He mutters, as if to himself.

He glances back at Keith before pounding on the door, the sound out of place on the quiet street. They wait in silence and Keith hears shuffling on the other side, like someone was already there and had simply been woken up.

“C’mon!” Lance calls, kicking the door with his foot, “Wake up and let me in!”

They hear the deadbolts unlock one by one and Keith tenses, wondering just what kind of person finds the need to guard themselves so fully. The door swings open, creaking on it’s hinges and Keith has to lower his gaze to see the homeowner.

“You know i’m always awake.” The person says, short brown hair wild atop their head, glasses crooked on their nose. They have swirling vine-like markings running along their arms, some peaking out of the collar of their thin shirt. They seem to change in the sunlight, the once dark hue become a lighter green. “Who’s this?” They ask, looking Keith up and down.

“If you let us in, Pidge, you’ll find out.” Lance says, pushing past and striding into the dark house as if he owns the place. Pidge moves aside for Keith to enter, mouth pursed like they aren't sure if they want to say something to him.

“Uh, excuse me.” Keith says, brushing by.

Lance is already seated in a large chair, the brown leather dipping under his weight. Keith looks around, noting the mountains of papers and gadgets, the dim green hue of some unseen light making the room appear as if it were deep within a forest. The house is cool and smells like rich soil and chemicals, a variety of strange plants littering the floor; some running along the walls and hanging from the ceiling. He goes to stand by Lance, unsure.

Pidge shuts the door and locks it again, though only one. “What did you want again? You were here not that long ago.”

“First, I’d like some water.” Lance says, sighing.

Pidge scoffs and throws a book at him and it would have hit true if Lance wouldn’t have moved his head at the last moment. He laughs and stands, disappearing around a corner. Pidge looks at Keith again, studying. Keith returns the gaze, noticing light freckles on their cheeks. It’s awkwardly quiet, the only sound being Lance banging around somewhere no doubt in search of a drink.

Pidge suddenly walks forward and holds out their hand, waiting for Keith to shake it.

“I’m Pidge.” They say, letting a smile grace their lips. “Sorry if i’m freaking you out. I was trying to remember if I knew you or not.”

Keith shakes her hand, noting their strong grip. “No, we haven’t met.”

“Yeah, I know that now.” They say.

Lance suddenly returns and they drop hands, ignoring his raised eyebrow. He notices Keith eyeing his cup and instantly hands it to him. Keith tries not to grab it too quickly but he can’t deny how thirsty he is, not having drank anything since hours earlier.

“So,” Pidge says, “why are you here and not destroying some poor bastards ship?”

Lance glances at Keith, who’s still drinking his water, before leading Pidge out of the room. Keith waits, resisting the urge to follow close behind or to peek around the corner. He places the cup on a nearby table and decides to wander around the room, knowing Lance planned to be here long before he let Keith board his ship. He circles a huge contraption on the floor, eyeing the strange cords coming out like snakes. It hums like it’s on, but Keith can’t find a power source. He squats, letting his elbows rest on his knees so he can get a closer look.

He narrows his eyes as he sees something move within the cube, like the flow of grass in the wind.

“Keith!” Lance calls, making him jump. He stands quickly and hurries toward his voice, walking down a winding hallway and up some stairs, letting his eyes take in just how many rooms are in the house. All of the doors are shut.

He arrives at the top of the stairs and sees only one door open. Pidge walks out and smiles at him, making him pause.

“What?” He asks, but they say nothing, instead heading back down the stairs. He shakes his head and walks into the room.

The walls are covered in black cloth, the floor in dark wood. There isn’t a single light source; no windows, no flames, and no bulbs. The room is bare save for Lance who stands in the middle, holding an object in his hand. Keith recognizes it as the same object from all those weeks ago, when Lance had been his busiest at the helm.

“What is that?” Keith asks, eyeing it.

“It’s one of the reasons I came to this city.” He says, motioning for Keith to shut the door. The moment he does, the room is thrust into darkness. “Come closer.” Lance says, voice hushed.

Keith gets as close as he can without running into him, his outstretched hands brushing on the sleeve of his jacket.

He waits, feeling Lance fiddle with the object in his hands. Suddenly, lights arise in the air and hover, moving slow like the wading of an object on water. Keith sucks in a breath, eyes growing wide at the thousands of new lights and spinning orbs, at the vibrant blues and greens.

“What is this?” He asks, breathless.

He lets go of Lance and reaches out his hand, letting the strange lights brush past his fingers. He doesn’t feel them, but as he touches one it zooms in to display a slow spinning motion; a star in formation.

Lance watches the lights too, voice calmer than Keith has ever heard it. “It’s the air above the sky.”

Keith shakes his head and spins slowly, not quite believing it. “Impossible. How did you even get this?”

“It was created in a land far away, the place Allura is from.” Lance says, “Pidge has been trying to figure it out for years. When I come here I always have them check it to make sure it’s still up to par.”

“Does Allura know how to use it?”

“Yes. Better than any of us, honestly, but even she doesn’t fully understand it.”

Keith turns to Lance, “Then how do you know it’s true?” He asks, “How do you know this is actually what’s up there?”

Lance shrugs, “The constellations match.” He points, “The Northern Star always shines. I’ve been following it for years and it never leads me astray.” He sets the object on the ground so that he can shrug off his jacket before letting it rest by his feet.

The lights spin and zoom, as if traveling across the expanse of the universe. Keith wants to believe it.

He watches Lance and the way the lights shine upon his dark skin, how they reflect in his eyes.

And suddenly he’s moving.

He recalls his brother again, his lectures against rash behavior, but as always it doesn’t slow him down. He stands in front of Lance and reaches out to touch one of the lights reflected on his arm. Lance freezes when he feels the touch, eyes shooting down to watch. Keith notices the temperature difference between them, the way his hands seem to cool when they meet Lance’s own skin.

“I’ve been in your crew for months now,” He says, quiet as the stars spin around them. “and I’m not sure why.”

Lance turns his arm, letting his palm face the ceiling as Keith continues to trace the random patterns. “Because you wanted out of that city.”

Keith shakes his head and lets his hand fall back to his side.

He looks at Lance, “That’s not what I mean.” He lets out a small laugh, feeling the damn blush rising along his neck and cheeks. He sees Lance’s veins begin to glow a dull blue, a shade darker than the points floating around them.

He shifts closer, a small part of himself reveling in the fact that he’s even here at all. He’s seen Lance slaughter an entire ship full of people with his strange magic, with no thought to those on board. Yet the hands that shine with that magic now aren’t raised in fury and he hasn’t left Keith standing alone as he’s done so many times before. Instead, Keith feels his warm breath brush against his own lips, making his stomach flip and clench. Their bodies are close, shirts brushing together as Keith brings his hand to travel against Lance’s upper arm. Lance snakes an arm around his waist, gentle as he brings their hips together.

But then Keith is pulling away, seeing a flash of memory play in his mind’s eye like a zap of lightening. He curses at the momentary scene of his brother turning to walk away, the crest of the Empire resting on his strange uniform.

What am I doing? He thinks.

Lance doesn’t move for a moment and Keith can’t bring himself to look for his expression.

“I’m sorry.” He says, “But I have to get North. I won’t be distracted.” He walks toward the door and opens it, making the thousands of lights vanish.

He doesn’t wait for Lance to follow, instead choosing to find Pidge downstairs as they work on the large cube he studied earlier. They don’t speak until Lance decides to finally join them, a large smile on his face as if nothing had happened.

Keith pretends the sight doesn’t sting.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

Pidge doesn’t accompany them as they leave.

“We’ll see each other again soon, i’m sure.” They say, smiling at Keith. “And if i’m done by then i’ll let you be the first one to test it out.”

They nod at the large strange cube still sitting in the corner, the movement inside of it wilder than we he first arrived. He wasn’t able to get any details about it’s function out of them for the last two hours and they seemed to enjoy his pleading.

Lance ruffles their hair, earning himself a swipe at the shoulder before he’s striding away, a whistling tune leaving his mouth. Keith waves at Pidge in goodbye, not staying to watch as they shut the door.

“Are you hungry?” Lance calls back, barely turning his head to regard Keith.

“Sure.” He says, quickening his pace to keep up with him.

When they arrive at a tavern, Keith can’t say he’s surprised.

The sun is higher in the sky and the air has warmed enough for the tavern’s fans to be spinning on the tall wooden ceilings. Sailors line the bar, gulping down their fill of rum and beer, their clothes smelling of salt and sea and fish. Everyone regards Lance like one would a rabid dog; guarded and suspicious, ready to act in defense at a moment’s notice.

Keith knows they wouldn’t get very far.

“Does anyone in this city actually like you?” Keith asks as they take a seat.

Lance rests a hand on his leg, next to the sheath that keeps his sword in place.

“Sure they do!” He says, sounding offended. “They’re just pouting about something or another, probably dealing with riches lost when waged against me.”

Keith tries not to roll his eyes but believes him nonetheless. The bartender slides them drinks and food, and Keith takes no time tasting it, too hungry to wonder about what it’s made of.

Any awkwardness from earlier has vanished, if only for the time being. Other pirates are scattered throughout the room, easy to tell apart from the normal sailor. Most wear big hats with chains or coins hanging off this and that, their skin weathered by the sea and sky, tattoos sitting in bulk on their faces. He recalls the metallic arms and legs of some of the pirates on Lance’s crew and decides to ask him about it.

“They all needed a spare.” Lance says, leaning his head on his hand as he watches Keith. “Hunk and Pidge can put them together like it's the easiest thing in the world.”

Keith avoids his gaze, noticing how close he is yet again. “Are they strong? The metallic limbs?”

“Of course.”

For the rest of the day they jump from tavern to tavern, running into people Lance seems to be on slightly decent terms with, avoiding others like the plague.

Keith decides to go back to the ship a few hours into the night, his chest heavy.

When he lays in his bed he welcomes sleep to him like an old friend.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------

They’ve been in the city for three days and Keith admits he’s had some fun. Allura has shown him around the shops, her smile dangerous as she plucks breads and sweets, only bothering to pay if the seller looks her in the eye as she takes it.

“It’s a little game.” She says, tossing Keith a chocolate.

When they’re finally back in the sky, the cool air brushing against Keith’s heated skin once more, Lance finds him again. He leads him to the helm as most of the crew rests or talks in hushed tones, some sharpening their swords.

“I understand.” Lance says, walking Keith backward until his back rests against the large wall behind the wheel.

“Understand what?” He asks, placing a hand on Lance’s chest, feeling the cool skin beneath his thin shirt.

Lance looks almost feverish, his own skin flushed, eyes hooded.

“You’re going to make it North and you’re going to leave my ship.” He says, leaning closer. “But that doesn’t mean you have to start acting distant now. I didn’t invite you to my crew out of a simple kindness. I’m a criminal, an enemy of the Empire. You are now, too, aren’t you? You’re a pirate.”

Keith narrows his eyes, hearing a warning in his mind, “I’m not an enemy of the Empire.”

Lance laughs, a sound as wild as the toiling ocean below.

Keith shivers, eyes moving to watch his lips. “You are.” Lance continues, “At least for now.”

Keith lets him move closer, once again feeling his warm breath on his lips, his cool fingers running along his neck to tangle in his hair. His hands grip Lance’s belt to pull his hips forward. He closes his eyes as he hears Lance gasp, a quiet sound; a dangerous sound.

Thunder rumbles far away, the electricity of a thunderstorm building slowly against them. Keith moves the last bit of distance forward to meet Lance’s lips. The air is sucked out of Keith’s lungs as his arms wrap around Lance’s neck, pulling him even closer. They move in a dance only growing in its tempo until Lance finally breaks away to trail his lips along Keith’s neck, his tongue darting out to taste at his skin.

Keith tilts his head to look at the night sky, breath coming in pants, body alight from a fire building in his core.

Finally, he thinks.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------


The storm gathers quickly as if the god of the sea were livid.

“Can’t you stop it?” Keith asks above the howling wind, wondering if they should be in the air or on the water.

Lance has awoken the crew, his heavy steps leading him to one of the bundles of rope tied to the rail. He begins to unwind it himself, his eyes on the sky. “I can persuade the ocean,” He says, “But never a storm.” He motions for Keith to grab a rope, to help pull the sails to favor the wind.

The crew is alive with the new danger and Keith picks up on the energy, pulling with all of his might to angle the sails. He glances at Lance, noticing his concentration and the way his own muscles move with strength.

Focus, he thinks.

Hunk is pushing barrels into the lower levels as lightening begins to shoot past their ship, thunder booming around them like ghostly cannons. Keith times his tugs on the rope with those in front of him and beside him, watching to make sure his doesn’t tangle. His hands are rougher than they’ve ever been from the past weeks and he’s gotten used to acting quickly to help maneuver the sails but it’s different when the wind seems to fight back. Lightening flashes in quick succession as the rain begins to fall, hitting him with a sting like sand.

“Hold!” Lance yells above the thunder and Keith leans back as much as he can, pulling the rope taut.

The wind rushing against the sails makes his boots slide and he curses, wishing they could move faster. Allura runs to Lance and speaks quickly, pointing toward the helm. Keith looks and feels his body freeze as he sees it turning widely, making the ship suddenly tilt. His body hits the rail closest to him and he shouts, seeing a glimpse of the toiling ocean below.

“Keith!” Allura calls, pulling him by his jacket to hear her. “Get to the helm!” She grabs the rope from his hands and yanks, doing a much better job at it than he was.

“What?!” He shouts, looking toward Lance.

His own concentration is on the crew around him as he barks orders to hold and release, to pull quickly one way or another.

“Get to the helm and get control of that wheel!” She yells, using her foot to push him away. He doesn’t have time to argue as the ship tilts again, this time to the left.

People scream as they slide and Keith looses his footing for a moment, true fear bursting through him before he can get back to his feet. He runs for the stairs and tries to take them two at a time, holding onto the rails with all of his might as the ship groans like a great beast. Rain slashes against his face, making it hard to see as he reaches forward, hands slippery when he grips the pegs. He lets out a grunt as he leans all of his weight onto it, pushing as much as he can to straighten it out. His boots slip in small increments as the wheel turns.

“Come on!” He yells, taking a big gulp of air before pushing once more.

Keith wonders if they’ve entered a hurricane.

He looks to the lever and toward the bow of the ship, trying to decide what to do. Lance and Allura are still shouting orders, urging the crew to hold on and Keith makes a split second decision, one he hopes won’t cost anyone their lives. He lets go of the wheel and feels the ship tilt again, this time dangerously close to flipping. People scream as he ducks, hands grasping onto the lever, feeling it dig into his skin. He pulls with all of his might, willing the dammed thing to click back into place. It takes longer than he intends but it finally gives and latches onto the hold, it’s clamp locking and turning with the wheel. Keith quickly rises, not sure if it will work, but he tries nonetheless.

He pushes the wheel again, ignoring the pain of his hands, the aching of his arms and shoulders. The ship straightens slowly but surely and Keith cries out in relief as the lever locks completely shut. He ducks again to make sure it won’t release any time soon, wanting to cheer as he stands, looking to Lance as they finally get control of the sails. The storm still rages, it’s power frightening as Keith begins to make his way back toward the stairs.

He doesn’t get far.

A bolt of lightening, as bright as a newborn sun, runs along the helm and into his body. It knocks him off of his feet, the loud crack seeming to echo around the ship as if it were being ripped apart at the seam.

Chapter Text

When Keith was five years old there was a war.

Or, to be more accurate, a war that was on the brink of ending. A war that had started six years prior and would eventually shape the world and establish the final Empire; a tyrannical reign by a mad king. Keith was in a forest the day his parents were taken away. A forest much too dense, the likes of which he can only remember when he dreams. The foliage had overgrown throughout the floor, thick vines making the trek much rougher than it should have been. His brothers hand was his only leverage to stay upright, the voices of his parents lost to him in the fray. They were fleeing like so many other people from so many other cities. All kinds of people, ranging in color and abilities, in the very essence that made them special.

He remembers the sounds of war in small increments; the screams, the clashing of metal upon metal, upon skin. Sometimes he thinks he can catch a whiff of the smell. The day his parents were stolen from them he smelled only smoke and the unmistakable stench of death.

The next time he wakes up he’s on a cot in the desert.

The city he would grow up in was large, the buildings made of stone and full of windows. When the wind did blow clear his brother would shove them open to let it flow through their room, makeshift curtains fluttering like solidified mist. Keith supposes the desert is like the sea; wild and dangerous but inherently beautiful. He has never seen a purer sunrise.

Survival was engrained into him until every day seemed like a test, until his heart was hardened with it. Guns were not needed in the desert; only knives, curved swords, and the ability to take a man down with your wit and fists. There was never a night where Keith didn't return with knuckles bloody and raw. The city had no ruler, which was common in the southern part of the world. They say the Empire found no need to keep track of the desert with its never ending mounds of sand and forsaken people.

His brother had always reminded him that they were luckier than everyone else.

“If the war were to begin again,” He would mutter around a fire some nights, the embers rising like pixies toward a clear sky, “we would be invaded last.”

His brother despised the Empire, remembering more of the war than Keith ever could. But he never let Keith speak about it with anyone else.

“It’s still dangerous.” He would warn, “Remember, you are an ally to the Empire. Always keep your opinions to yourself and never leave the desert.”

Keith had promised.

That is until his brother turned away from him, choosing to follow the convoy of those headed to serve the very people he swore to hate. For months Keith waited for his return.

The day the witch found him, the name of a strange city written on parchment resting between her slender fingers, Keith broke his promise. She whispered only one name to him; a person with whom he could talk to. She swore the man had promising news about his brother.

She pushed the paper into his hand, “Find him and then head North.”

Keith found the man the same night he found the medallion glinting dangerously before him, a flame etched onto its golden surface like a beacon. He looked at it closely, a sense of strange familiarity making him pause as he glanced back at the beaded doorway behind him. He swiped it from the man’s shop as he left, not thinking twice about it as he attached it to a string and placed it in his pocket.

He never should have taken the damned thing.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------

“He’s alive!” Someone yells.

Keith hears the pounding of boots as someone runs to him, their breath leaving them in shaky huffs.

Alive.

But something is wrong.

“Hot-“ He tries to say, voice cracking on the word. He feels a strong gust of wind and knows he’s still on the deck of the ship, the storm still raging around them. Someone holds him now, their chest pressed against his back. He tries to listen, to feel the cool rain, but he is consumed. He feels as if his body were placed in flames; his skin has to be peeling away, his bones must be smoldering. With each burst of heat he can feel his body arch, can hear his own screams echoing in his ears. The only relief he receives is the occasional brush of a hand against his cheek, his arm, his neck.

The rest is hellfire.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------

“I can’t explain it.” A gentle feminine voice says in his ear. He sucks in air, feeling it run through his nose, imagining it filling up his lungs. He’s no longer sprawled on the deck, instead he feels a brand new softness. He smells night air and spice on the sheets.

His eyes open slowly, hazily, and sees Allura standing beside him. Her eyes are running along his body, brows furrowed, tongue sticking out in concentration.

“What-“ He tries to ask, wincing at how dry his throat is. She startles and quickly kneels beside him, face alight with relief.

“Here.” She says, bringing a cold mug of water to his lips. He drinks it eagerly, eyes shutting again at the feeling of the cool liquid coating his throat. She only stays long enough for him to finish the water before running a gentle hand on his hair, nodding as if to say well done.

When she’s gone he looks to the other side of the room and meets Lance’s gaze, his blue eyes wide in an emotion Keith can’t place. Keith tries to sit up, the sheet sliding down his chest as he feels heat continue to run along his body. Only this time it isn’t enough to make him contort in pain. It reminds him of the desert at dusk, the warm rays resting upon his skin like a blanket. But the feeling is slowly fading.

“You should be burnt to a crisp." Lance says, "You should be dead."

Keith tilts his head in question, hands gripping the sheets.

“You say that like you’d rather I be.” He says, grimacing. Lance shakes his head, letting out a breathy laugh before making his way toward the bed. He sits and rests his elbows on his knees, head dropping into his hands.

“I’ve never been so scared.” He says, voice slightly muffled. Keith shifts closer, unsure of where he should put his hands; how he should angle his body. “One second you were grinning and walking to me and the next you were gone.”

Keith hesitates, mouth parting but no words can seem to find their way out. Lance lifts his head and turns toward Keith, sliding his hand to rest on the back of his neck. Keith gasps, a ghost of pain striking in his chest, before he closes his eyes. The kiss is gentle, light, almost cautious. He feels it like the flutter of moth wings as he brings his fingers run along Lance’s face, against the silk of his shirt.

It’s over too soon.

“You need rest.” Lance says, “Once the storm passes I’m expecting an attack in a matter of days.”

“What?” Keith asks, blinking away the calm he just experienced; the peace.

“After huge storms there’s always someone looking for a battered ship to invade.” He says, brushing the back of his hand on Keith’s cheek before standing. He picks up his coat from where it lays on a chair and slides it on, ready to face the storm once more. “I won’t be drowning the poor bastard who tries. We’ll be taking from them instead.”

Keith nods, catching the flash of something feral in Lance’s eyes before he opens the door, wind howling outside. He lays back on the bed with a huff, trying to take everything in at once.

I really should be dead. He thinks. I should be dead and cast into the sea.

Instead, he feels a burst of heat run against his arm strong enough to make him hiss in pain.

The sight that greets him when he looks down makes his blood run cold. Red light pulses along his veins, the movement slow like molten rock.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------

Later, Keith isn't sure whether it’s now day or the following night, Lance returns. The red light that had shined inside of him faded until nothing remained, making Keith wonder if he had imagined it. He pretends to be asleep when Lance opens the door, the rain turned into a soft patter, the wind frigid as it hits Keith’s legs. He faces away from the door, his arms pulled close. Lance moves around the room and Keith can hear the slide of cloth against skin, the thud of shoes being taken off and the smell of some strange sweet spice fill the air. The new smell makes him sneeze and he freezes, instantly wondering if Lance will make him leave.

The bed dips under Lance’s weight but he doesn’t touch Keith, choosing instead to lay with his arms above his head. Keith rolls over slowly, eyes drifting along Lance’s bare chest.

“You smell like a girl.” He mutters, body moving closer. His skin is too hot, too feverish.

Lance snorts, looking to where Keith has settled. “And what’s wrong with that?” He asks in a voice not really interested in an answer. Keith rolls his eyes, deciding maybe it would be better to face the wall anyway. He’s barely moved before Lance tugs him closer and Keith automatically throws his arm over his waist, sighing in a way that seems slightly too intimate.

“Now you’ll smell like me.” Lance says, face smug. “I might even spray lavender on you as you sleep.”

“Shut up.” Keith says, exhaustion lacing his voice. He expects Lance to retort with equal, if not more, attitude. But after a moment of silence Keith glances up, feeling an instant flush spreading across his cheeks. Lance is asleep.

He glances at his arms one more time as his own eyes grow heavy.

He tries to remember the man’s words from all those nights ago, his shop dimly lit against the backdrop of his dark city.

It will come. His ghostly voice whispers. And you can not run from it.

Chapter Text

“The water is dark.” Keith says, voice catching on the breeze. Gray clouds block the sun as they push through the waves, sprays of water hitting the side of the ship. The sails flap through the growing fog, ghostly apparitions flying high above them.

Hunk is leaning over the rail, his dark hair brushing against his eyelashes. “We never go this way.” He says, voice more serious than Keith is used to. “It’s dangerous.”

“Why are we then?” Keith asks, glancing behind him at the helm where Lance is quietly steering, his own eyes scanning through the fog. Allura has her arms crossed as she paces across the deck, scanning the water and sky.

Hunk whistles and they all hear it bounce off of the huge cliffs rising around them, as if the earth were sprouting them like flowers. "There's all kinds of stories but I don't know which are true...if any." He says.

Keith sighs and feels the misty air fill his lungs, a slight burning sensation building momentarily in his chest. It’s been four months since his brush with death and his body is still recovering and, having kept it a secret; changing. There are nights that Keith is sure he is burning alive. On those nights he stays on the deck, not daring to lay with Lance or his own hammock in fear that he would shout. Or shine.

He leaves Hunk to stare at the water, chills rising along his skin as the frigid breeze travels between them all. Lance glances at him as he makes his way up to the helm and smiles. Keith takes the wheel, ignoring the glimmer of defiance in his expression and keeps the ship on a steady course. He's found himself here more often than not these days.

“What are you looking for?” Keith asks.

“I’m risking a lot going this way.” Lance says, sighing before he lets his arms drop from their folded position. He leans against the rail to watch Keith steer. “We’re trying to find a cove and then we’re continuing our journey North.”

“Why a cove?”

“I owe someone something.” Lance grimaces, bringing his hand to rub at the back of his neck, mouth turning upward in a sly smirk. “Well, I owed it to him a year ago, actually.”

“Why are you only getting it for him now?”

Well,” Lance starts, slightly defensive. “it really wasn’t my fault. There was a storm and a few bottles of rum and a trader who had really, really nice satin slippers. The kind that would make you feel like your stepping on the clouds.”

Keith nods slowly, eyebrow raised. “A few bottles?”

Lance scoffs, moving a strand of hair off of his forehead with a flick of his wrist, “Let me finish.” He waits a moment, eyeing Keith. “So, he shows me these slippers and promises me that they’re genuine phoenix feathers. Of course I start to bargain with him, like any civilized person would do. I couldn't just slit his throat when the man was being so cordial. It's rare that I trade, you know. But little did I know that when I’m handing him a few ruby goblets he has one of his goonies working behind my back. Two days later and the owner of this precious item is stomping up to me after we port demanding I give it to him, knowing I took it from our last raid. I don't even know what it does.” He shrugs as if Keith could piece together the rest.

“So…” He says, “It was your fault.”

“Details, details.” Lance mumbles, waving his hand in front of him. “The only thing that matters is I finally found out where the guy stashed it and it’s time for me to get it back. It’s just a matter of getting there without any complications.”

Keith smirks and rolls his eyes, letting the conversation fall to a comfortable silence. Lance moves closer and brings his fingers to play with the hair resting on the side of Keith’s neck. Keith feels more bumps rise on his skin, but they aren’t from the cold.

“Are you hungry?” Lance asks, letting his hand fall.

“I’ll go.” Keith says, sighing. “I’ll make sure Hunk won’t know he’s missing a few things.” He can’t help the smile that forms on his face at Lance’s pleased expression.

Below deck Keith makes his way through the sleeping quarters and toward the kitchen, the pleasant aroma hitting him before he even enters the room. A huge pot of something boils on the stove and he hesitates, head tilting in curiosity at its ability to stay so steady.

He eyes the pot for a moment longer, wondering if some magic alarm would go off if he stuck a finger in to taste. He lifts the lid and smells the food, watching as it bubbles. Too hot. Instead he finds the breads and meat, adding a few pieces of cheese and Hunk’s special sauce. He tries to arrange everything neatly, having memorized the exact positions of each and every condiment. He places the food on a tin tray and makes his way to the door, only to be shoved to the side. Food flies around him as he falls, hands breaking the impact. The ship groans and shakes, each tremor making Keith’s teeth clench. He’s up before he can think, running to the stairs that lead to the deck. Feeling the weight of his sword on his hip, his fingers find the hilt with ease in preparation of a fight.

The deck is silent as he ascends, each of his steps sounding louder than cannons. He freezes, eyes widening as he sees each member of the crew frozen, like glaciers in a calm tide. Their eyes are shut, heads tilted, and Keith tries to listen for whatever they seem to hear. He turns immediately to Lance.

The captain is kneeling. Only his eyes are open, unlike the rest of them, and the blue of his iris’s are vibrant. “Lance?” Keith calls out, taking a few steps forward, eyebrows furrowing. Then he hears it.

The voices wrap around Keith, sliding against his legs and arms, like warm water and cloth. Goddesses, he thinks. And Gods, singing for them. He relaxes, feeling his eyelids droop. The pleasantness only lasts for a moment and then he sees his mother, her dark hair laying limp beside her in the dirt. Red. All he can see is red before he jolts away, his mind returning to him like a snap of the fingers.

He shakes his head as the voices turn sour, bitter; vicious. He covers his ears with his palms and looks with watery eyes toward the cliffs around them. There is movement, shadowed bodies holding spears, more of them jumping into the water.

Keith knows what they are. He bolts away from the deck and down the stairs, blinking away the heaviness of his eyelids and the nausea rising in his stomach. “Cotton.” He mutters, “cotton, cotton, cotton.”

He rips apart hammocks, goes through chests, opens pillow cases and sacks of belongings. He stumbles, feeling a weight press onto his shoulders. Shaking his head, he turns toward his own bed and flings his sheets away. Sweat beads on his forehead as his muscles strain. He swipes up his medallion and ties it around his neck before taking a knife from beneath his pillow to rip open the bedding. He grabs the cotton and quickly rolls it between his palms until it’s small enough to shove into his ears, successfully muffling the strange magic trying to get inside of him. His body sags with relief as he adds more before grabbing handfuls to bring to the deck. He takes the steps two at a time but skids to a stop when he surfaces, eyes widening at the clawed hands reaching over the railings of the ship. They scratch at the metal and dent it, pulling a lithe body up. His face is lean and covered in dark green scales, the white and yellow barnacles ranging in size. His eyes are hollow, teeth sharp and long as they snap in the air. Keith drops all of the cotton and unsheathes his sword as the merman boards the ship, his long silver hair sliding against his slick skin.

He immediately takes notice of Keith’s ears and hisses, “You’re smarter than the rest.” His voice is not like the singing from before. It sounds like it hasn’t spoken above the waves in decades, each world tilting in strange ways. Keith tightens his hold on his sword.

“What do you want?” He asks, eyes sliding quickly to and away from Lance. The merman follows his gaze slowly, neck turning like the hand of a clock.

“We’re hungry.” He says, snapping his teeth together, before looking at Keith once again. “A ship hasn’t passed through our home in months.”

Keith takes a step forward but hesitates as more of them pull themselves up, large eyes taking in the crew. They look to the man, waiting for some indication to drag all of Keith's friends to the bottom of the ocean. He notices that some can't leave the water, instead choosing to sit on the lowest levels of the cliff, their huge tails wrapping around spears that they have poised to throw.

“I won’t allow it.” Keith says.

The merman hisses again, “Enough talk.” He says, “We have thousands. You have less.”

Before the merman can make another move Keith is on him, sword swinging in an arc to cut through bone. The merman screams and Keith winces, watching as a deep cut lines his belly. A stench quickly fills the air and they crouch to attack, sharp translucent fins rising on their forearms. A woman runs at Keith and then another, each moving with swift agility; but Keith is faster. He swipes and jabs and slices until his muscles are weak, until his eyes burn from the sweat pouring into them and his ears ring from the cotton rubbing his eardrums. Dark black blood covers his face as he stumbles back, a clawed hand digging into his chest to rip open the front of his white shirt. He grunts as his back hits the rail and he fears for a moment that he’ll lose his balance; topple into the sea and be taken under to those waiting below. His medallion swings free of the shirt before he can grab it. He holds out his sword; a last attempt at victory. The crew has been left untouched, the merpeople no doubt wanting to take them away at the same time. They want a feast.

The merman who first spoke to Keith suddenly shouts in a language Keith has never heard, a language that is purely not human and higher pitched than should be possible. He limps forward, wound stuffed and covered with dark green, slimy seaweed and a sliver powder. Pushing others out of the way, he eyes Keith’s chest.

“Where did you get that?” He says, nails clicking together at his sides. Keith knows the man could easily slice his neck open or take off his hand, his own body too tired to carry on much longer. He points his sword quickly toward movement on his right before bringing it back around, lip curling.

The merman studies Keith’s face, eyes sweeping across his body before snapping toward Lance. Keith feels panic rise in him swift as a storm and he straightens, watching as the merman runs his long tongue against his teeth. “Tell me.” He whispers, the word dragging out like a snake in the sand.

“What will it take to make you leave?” Keith counters, fingers growing numb from holding his sword so tightly.

The merman brings his focus back to Keith and sneers, “You fought well.” He says, “But I won’t bargain with you.” He clicks his tongue against his teeth and suddenly Keith is pulled away from the rail, a clawed hand grasping his hair as his legs are kicked out from beneath him. His knees hit the deck with a loud plunk, sword falling somewhere behind him. His head is yanked back as the man moves to snatch the medallion from his neck. The cord burns as it is pulled away and Keith feels it like a blade slicing his skin.

“That’s mine.” He growls, struggling against the strong hold on him. The merpeople laugh like metal grinding against metal. He watches in horror as the merman ties it around his own neck, ignoring Keith as he motions for the others to part. Keith can see them sitting on the rails in ease now, as if they own the Black Flag. But he doesn’t care.

All he can focus on is the silent, gentle footfalls of the merman as he reaches the steps to the helm, his silver hair now dried in the wind as it blows behind him. It shines like the ocean in moonlight.

“I told you I was hungry!” He calls out, taunting. “And what better meal than a captain?” He makes his way toward Lance slowly, as if playing a game. The merperson holding him hostage forces him to stand and walk forward, closer to the helm but too far away. Much too far. Keith feels a boiling inside of him as panic rises. He isn’t above begging.

“Please, stop!” He yells, “You can have the medallion!”

The merman turns his head, “I already have it.” He kneels in front of Lance, running a long claw against his jaw. “Do you know what he sees?”

Keith can’t respond, his throat feels like it’s burning, his skin tightens in a familiar way. He can’t even look away from Lance to check.

“He’s seeing his past.” Someone hisses beside him, delight lacing their words. “He’s reliving it over and over.”

The merman pulls Lance’s head back now. “Maybe we should feast above the water.” He says, glancing at his people. “For the first time in centuries!” They roar around Keith, moving without hesitation to grab at different crew members and Keith wishes he could move. Where is Hunk? Where is Allura?

His vision grows fuzzy as his body stings. It’s too hot. He wants to scream at the sensation but he can’t blink, not even as someone pushes him away with a loud hiss.

“He isn’t yours.” Keith mutters, his body growing hotter still as the merman rises, sunken eyes widening. “None of them are.”

The merman backs away to move behind lance, his claws resting on his throat. “I will cut him to pieces.” He says.

“Then all of your people will burn!” Keith yells, words leaving him before he can think. The merman hesitates and that’s all the time Keith needs before he is up the stairs and grabbing the man’s throat. Skin sizzles and pops beneath his palm as the merman screams, claws falling away from Lance to try to pry Keith’s hands away. The claws melt before they reach Keith’s skin. It takes only a moment for the heat to sear through him completely. Keith lets him fall before he turns to the deck, mind going completely blank as his veins glow brighter than the sun.

The merpeople scream as they start to jump overboard. Keith lifts a hand, aiming for them but flame or liquid heat or scorching mist never leaves him. They are all gone. He blinks and stumbles forward, sucking in a huge breath of misty air as his body settles. As if released from a spell Keith can once again hear his own thoughts.

He doesn’t focus on it. He can’t try to understand it now.

He takes huge gulps of air as he turns to Lance, eyes momentarily skipping over the cliffs for signs of movement but there is none. He drops to his knees and looks at his hands, flipping them this way and that in fear that they still scorch. He places them against the deck but sees no melting of metal. Reaching hesitantly for Lance he lets a fingertip rest against his sleeve. Relief spreads through him as the sleeve remains intact.

“Lance.” He says, voice hoarse and throat sore. He lifts his hands to rest upon Lance’s cheeks, watching as he blinks slowly. Lance's eyes fill with water and his breath begins to leave him in harsh pants. “Lance!” Keith says again, louder.

His eyes won’t focus, instead seeing something Keith can never see, reliving a nightmare that he will never personally have. “It’s alright.” He says, moving closer as he brushes his hands against Lance’s cheeks, feeling his hair fall between his fingers.

“You’re here.” Keith says, trying to remember how his brother used to calm him down so many nights ago. “The air is cool and the metal beneath us is colder still. My hands are against your cheeks and you are safe. You’re here, with me.”

Lance blinks again and again, irises meeting Keith’s before quickly flitting away. “I’m-“ His voice breaks as he takes in the ship, the sails, the sky.

“You’re here.” Keith says, thumbs running against the bone of Lance’s cheeks. Lance shudders and falls forward, head heavy against Keith’s shoulder. He doesn’t seem to notice the stench or drying black blood coated on Keith’s skin as he lays his forehead against the side of his neck.

“They’re gone.” Lance whispers, fingers gripping tight to Keith’s tattered shirt. Keith doesn’t say anything, instead choosing to help Lance up and into his arms. He ignores the aching of his muscles and the shaking of his knees as he opens Lance’s cabin door, thankful that the room is untouched.

He lays him gently on the bed, “I’ll be right back.” He says, waiting for Lance to agree before he’s racing back to the helm. He winces at the sight of the merman, avoiding his face as he quickly snatches the medallion away from the burnt necklace. He heaves the merman along the floor until he reaches the rail, shoving him over with all of his strength. He hits the water with a loud splash. Around him the crew is slowly waking with no signs of panic or pain. They take in the bodies around them, calmer than Keith would have expected.

“They’re all dead.” Keith calls out, pushing through the crew to the stairs that lead below. He finds his sword and holds it tight. “Throw them over. They belong to the sea.”

He ignores the questions, even managing to pull his eyes away from Allura’s confused gaze so that he can wash off as quickly as possible. Hunk finds him just as he begins to dress, a clean shirt falling over his wounded body.

“That needs to be cleaned properly.” He says, watching as Keith slides his sword onto his bed, pulling the sheets over it to hide the destroyed fabrics. He picks up his medallion and shoves it into his pocket, feeling the weight settle.

“I know.” He says, trying to smile but he can’t find the energy. Hunk opens his mouth as if he wants to say something but decides against it, moving aside to let Keith pass. He makes his way back to Lance, calling out orders as he goes. “Keep straight ahead.” He tells them to find cotton to plug their ears at the first hint of a strange sensation; of voices that are too pleasant to be true.

And then he is back inside of the cabin, lighting one of the last incense, the musky smell floating into the air before he climbs into the bed. Lance rolls over and presses close, his dark skin flushed. His eyes find Keith’s, the blue of the sea during a storm, as if each drop were slowly filling them up to spill over once again. They stay like that for a long time, their shared breaths growing more even as the time passes until they’ve both fallen into a deep sleep.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

Keith wakes to cold pressure on his chest. He stirs and tries to push the prodding sensation away, earning a quiet chuckle. The cold spreads, swiping along his skin until Keith understands what it actually is. The growing sting is that of a wound being cleaned.

Lance hums quietly and brings his mouth to Keith’s stomach, finally making him open his eyes. The room is cast in shadows, the flickering of a normal flame distant on Lance's large desk. He tries to sit up but Lance quickly straddles him, putting a stop to it. Keith falls back against the pillows, the satin sheets cool against his skin. Lance moves his hands up Keith’s stomach.

“I’m trying to thank you.” He says, hips shifting enough to make Keith gasp. He finally notices the increasingly blue glow of Lance’s eyes and is relieved at the absence of tears. He wants to ask if he's truly alright but the nip of frosted fingertips against his ribs has him distracted; no doubt Lance's plan from the start. 

He wonders briefly at the strangeness of time. Was it really not so long ago that Keith hesitated to even press his lips against his?

“Is the sun even up?” Keith asks instead, hands reaching for Lance’s hips. His palms settle like a piece of a puzzle and he takes joy in seeing him shiver. Leaning forward, Lance lets his chest rest against Keith's. His lips stir the hair near his ear as he bites softly, moving his tongue slowly to trace down and down and down. Keith shuts his eyes to keep them from rolling back, noticing that Lance hasn’t answered his question but finding he really doesn't mind.

 

Afterwords, Lance lays atop him breathless, his dark skin glimmering golden with perspiration against the dim light.

“There’s no need for thanks.” Keith says after his breathing has returned to normal, "We protect each other."

 

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

Far across the land, beneath a great heap of boiling earth and steam, there is a stirring. And the creature who felt the newborn heat many hours ago finally opens its eyes.

Chapter Text

The cove is larger than they expected as they emerge from between two cliffs. Keith can’t decide whether he should look at the cliffs themselves or the looming mass of rock opening up before them. The tallest sand dune has nothing on these. The deck has been scrubbed clean, leaving no trace of blood or gore behind. Necklaces and other jewelry were confiscated from the bodies of the merpeople before they were thrown overboard but Keith had no true desire to keep any of the riches for himself. Instead, he finds himself running his fingers along the ridge of his medallion whenever he gets the chance, reminding himself that he didn’t let it fall over the side of the ship too.

“Anchor!” Allura yells, voice bouncing and echoing like there were twenty of her surrounding them. Hunk starts to lower the gigantic metallic anchor, it’s hooked sides glinting in what little light is able to shine through the dense clouds.

“How do we even know it’s still there?” Keith wonders aloud, arms folded in quiet disdain. He tries to measure the distance from the ship to the pebbled shore, the murky water moving only because the ship makes it so.

Allura bumps into him gently, shoulder to shoulder. “It’ll be fun!” She says, voice rising to reach the others as well. “Think of the other treasures waiting for us in there. That old fart probably has a stolen collection bigger than our own!”

Keith smirks, letting his arms fall as the large boat meant to take them to shore rises out of the corner of his eye. “Couldn’t we just fly there?”

“No.” Hunk sighs, no doubt wishing more than Keith that they could. “Our ship would hit the rocks before we could blink.” He motions to the huge boulders surrounding the edge of the cove and the raised rock above it.

Sighing in resignation, Keith wanders to the boat and grabs onto the rope before swinging himself inside. Lance bounces out of his cabin, a large leather bag strung over his shoulder. He spots Keith already in the boat and smiles, a lone dimple making its appearance. Keith hopes his face doesn’t flush at the sight.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

“Which way?” Hunk whispers, and even with hushed tones their voices somehow carry. Water trickles around them, most falling to hit their heads, making Keith’s hair damp and cold. Their torches shine with blue light, casting shadows to dance along the walls and towering ceiling. Allura bites her lip and wipes a drop of water away from her cheek.

“We just have to keep going forward.” She says, nodding. Whether to herself or them, Keith isn’t too sure. He sighs and continues to follow her, his boots crunching on old shells and pebbles. This place must flood when the tide is high.

Lance is behind him and he’s almost too conscious of it, of the way he takes big gulps of air the further inside they travel. Keith turns to glance at him, eyebrow raised in question.

“I don’t like small spaces.” Lance explains, shrugging.

Keith supposes he wouldn’t like his home in the desert, then.

“The desert has to be the most open place in the world.” Lance says, “How could I not like it?”

Keith shakes his head, “Not the desert.” He says, “My house. We only had one room, really.”

Lance nods his head and Keith continues. “Every house in my city was connected, stacked one on top of the other. If you lived further out you could get away with an actual house but then you had to worry about the nomads and the sand storms all by yourself. They could be brutal. Don’t make it inside fast enough and that’s it, you’re gone.”

“Did living in the city help lessen the sand during a storm?” Lance asks, genuine interest lacing his tone as he moves to walk beside Keith. Hunk grunts in agreement, wondering the same.

“Mostly.” Keith says, letting a nostalgic smile rise. “We could help one another when we saw a storm building. Close windows, bring in the animals and stragglers, slip a few pieces of food from stands left in the open if you were lucky. The city had a huge bell and when it rang you’d have to drop everything you were doing and get somewhere safe. It was either a raid from a nomadic tribe or the sand. I thought it was fun when I was a kid because everyone would be focused on the same thing. No fighting, or stealing, or killing. Just surviving.”

It’s quiet for a moment as they turn a corner, lost in their thoughts. Hunk opens his mouth to ask another question but then Allura is stopping, her long hair swishing behind her. Hunk lets out a yelp, an inch away from running into her back.

“I think-“

“Found it!” Lance says, excitement ringing from his voice. He strides forward, dark blue eyes wide.

Keith shuffles around them. The cove opens into a huge cavern with a large body of open water resting between them and the other shore. He’s never seen a lake but he’s sure this is what one must look like, the same pebbles from outside resting in abundance around the shore. The water is very still, not even a ripple moving; no sign of life. He spots a strange bridge to their right, some of the planks missing but looking sturdy nonetheless. In the middle of the lake, resting on a large rock surrounded by other objects and crates, rests an enclosed item. It’s rectangular and silver, looking to Keith as if it were molding but somehow retaining importance. That has to be it.

“Woah, woah, woah.” Lance says, grabbing Keith’s arm. “Where are you going?”

Keith glances at his hand and then back to the bridge, “To get what we came for.” He says slowly, as if it were obvious.

Lance shakes his head, “I’m getting it.”

“Why does it matter?” Keith asks, trying to pull his arm away. Lance lets go but blocks his path, holding up his hands.

“I lost it.” He says, “So, I should be the one to go get it.”

Keith rolls his eyes, “I’ll be quick, it’s not-“

“Uh, guys? I think you’re both too late.” Hunk speaks up, making both of them turn around. He points to the bridge with a sheepish grin.

Allura is running, her steps quick and sure as they hit the old wood. She jumps over missing planks but finds her balance again, her laugh echoing back to them. The bridge sways behind her, creaking and swooshing.

Great.” Lance says, folding his arms.

When she reaches the rock she takes a moment find the correct places to grip with her hands and boots before climbing, strong limbs pulling her swiftly up. She reaches for the object first and the case comes off with a twist, making them all freeze, as if waiting for something to pop out at them; as if the ground would simply open up beneath their feet. Hunk lets out a strange noise, running his hand through his hair anxiously.

“Too easy.” He mumbles, as Allura turns and holds the item up in the air victoriously, a grin making her face shine brighter than the sun.

“What?” Keith asks, turning to look at the nervous Hunk.

He glances around them, up the walls, at the water. “There’s always a trap.” He says, “You find the treasure, you pick it up, and boom! The walls cave in or the place floods.”

Lance laughs, “Don’t worry. She’s already half way back.”

Keith almost allows himself to feel relief.

There is a ripple in the water, huge bubbles rising to pop on the surface closest to the bridge. And then it is breaking apart in flying pieces, a waterfall of water spraying them, raining down as if invisible clouds had erupted from above. Keith covers his ears as a loud growl makes the walls shake, bits and pieces of rock breaking free from loose patches.

I told you!” Hunk shouts above the growl but Keith doesn’t dare look away. Allura has fallen but holds the item close to her chest, her silver hair stuck to her cheeks as she stares up in horror at the giant serpent. She slowly gets to her feet on the part of the bridge that remains intact but she is unsteady, having nothing to hold onto. The serpent is bigger and taller than any creature Keith encountered in the desert, its long neck weaving like a snake as it shakes water from sharp dark green fins on its head. Scales shift as it opens it’s mouth, revealing two long fangs and row after row of razor sharp teeth. It roars, pushing Allura back from the force of it.

“Shit!” Keith whispers, instantly moving from his frozen position. He sprints forward, hearing Hunk and Lance follow close behind, their voices rising in determination.

“Over here!” Keith screams, glancing away from Allura. He feels momentary joy as Allura manages to shuffle back, waiting until the monster has turned its head and shifts closer to them, before getting to her feet to dart forward. She slides on her boots, quickly judging the distance between the open water and the shore. Keith nods when she glances at him and he snatches the torch from Hunk.

“We have to make it follow us!” He shouts and wastes no time grabbing Lance’s hand, pulling him close behind. Hunk somehow ends up in front of them, his boots kicking up pebbles as he takes off the way they came.

Lance tightens his grip on Keith’s hand and he only has to glance back once to know that they are indeed being followed. The serpent slides slowly out of the water, two eyelids blinking to reveal blue and green opal colored irises.

“Faster!” Lance says and Keith tugs him closer, their breath leaving them in harsh pants as they pick up speed. Keith wills himself not to slip on the slick floor; to not loosen his grip on Lance's palm. Hunk urges them forward with distant calls but Keith can no longer see him.

“To the left!” Lance yells. The serpent howls, it’s scales brushing against the stone as it’s huge body twists to follow.

They take another right and Keith throws the torch behind him, letting the flame hit the beast in the face. Sparks fly.

“If it wasn’t angry before-“ Lance huffs out, “It is now!”

They run up an incline but come face to face with a dead end and Keith feels his blood run cold.

“I thought this was the way out!” He shouts, trying to push Lance behind him. He holds his arms out, listening as the beast glides closer. Without the torch, the cove has become dark as night itself, and Keith doesn't like his inability to see. Lance pulls at him until they’re both struggling to stand in front of the other, almost comical if not for the dire situation.

Lance’s skin begins to pulse with blue light and Keith wishes he could control his own. He wishes he could call upon it now, as swiftly as he did when faced by the merfolk.

“Just stay back.” Lance says, pushing at Keith. “I have an idea.”

“What?”

Lance doesn’t answer, instead opting to keep a hand on Keith’s abdomen, trying his best to keep him behind him. Keith has no time to fight against it as the beast rounds the corner. He realizes now that it has legs and claws but it’s giant body stays very close to the ground, no doubt ideal for powerful strokes beneath the waves.

“Lance.” Keith whispers urgently.

He hushes him and moves his hand slowly to the sheath on his hip, fingers deftly pulling at the hilt of his long sword. Keith hears it begin to slide free with a click. It’s the longest blade he’s ever seen, the edges seemingly coated with frost and hard diamond, the hilt wrapped with leather and sterling silver. A skull and crossbones is etched into the blade, deep and rough. 

The serpent lets out a hiss eerily similar to the merman and Keith shivers, eyes trying to find Lance’s form as they slowly shift to see through the darkness.

Lance!” Keith whispers again as the man takes a step forward, making Keith’s chest lurch violently. “What are you doing?”

Lance lets go of Kieth’s shirt when the serpent is close enough to swipe at them and he bursts forward, sword swinging free from it’s resting place with a sharp ring. The beast roars and leans its long neck down, huge jaws opening to rip Lance from the ground. But it never has the chance. It’s entire form begins to shudder and Keith wants to cover his ears as it lets out a shattering noise that can only be described as a scream. Lance’s sword pierces the flesh of it’s neck and travels downward, his boots sliding against the wet, and now slimy, ground. The slick surface allows him to fly beneath the beast, ripping scales and flesh away with the sharp edge of his sword until the serpent is trying to back away in earnest, it’s fins twitching spastically. Lance lets out a loud yell as he reaches it’s belly and Keith is hit with a horrible stench but he doesn’t care. He tries to spot Lance, to find a way to pull him back to him.

Instead, another voice reaches his ears. A high scream and the pounding of boots and then there is Allura, her hair shining like starlight from the torch she slings aside. Her aim is strong as two blades are thrown into the beasts side, allowing her to grab hold and swing herself up onto it’s large head. Keith runs for the torch. Allura catches Lance’s thrown sword like it's been done hundreds of times and before Keith can take another breath she is slamming it into the beasts head, using the full weight of her body to push it down. She avoids the sharp fins as the serpent shakes its head rapidly, rearing back. But she doesn’t let go and with one final push the blade finds the target and the beast’s body is falling to the earth, making the ground shake and rumble beneath them. The torch flickers from the impact.

Dust and sand have settled slowly when Keith finally spots Lance kneeling by the serpents head. Allura has climbed down and is trying to pull the knives free from it's hide with no luck.

“Are you okay?” Keith asks them, bringing the light forward. Lance has placed a bloody hand on the serpents head.

Allura walks up to them, wiping thick blood on the material of her pants.

“He hates killing creatures.” She says, watching Lance as he runs his fingers over the serpents large scales. He hunted all the time in the desert, never thinking much about it. But as he watches Lance take one more look at the sea serpent he can’t help but wish he had. He moves to place his hand on Lance’s lower back as he stands, ignoring the grime and stench that follows.

“Time to go.” Lance says, turning away from the serpent. He reaches back to grasp Keith’s hand, leading them away from the grisly scene.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Hunk has rounded up a group, his frantic voice reaching them as they shuffle out of the mouth of the cove. More sunlight has begun to shine through the clouds, enough to warm them as Keith takes in the clearer air. He laughs as Hunk lets out a relieved yelp and runs toward them. Keith finds comfort in his strong arms as he grabs him up, beginning to swing him to and fro.

“You have no idea how worried I was!” Hunk says, squeezing Keith against him. “I was going to get you all out! I thought you were right behind me and I turned around and you were gone! I thought-“

“Hunk, buddy-“ Keith starts.

“Oh.” Hunk says, letting him go with a huff. “Sorry.”

Keith takes in a huge gulp of air, smirking as Hunk moves on to Allura. He shakes his head and leaves him behind to check her over for injuries, their voices rising and falling as he approaches the boats rocking against the tide. He wonders how Hunk managed to get the crews attention to bring another one to shore so fast.

Lance is standing by the water, his hands placed behind his head, face turned toward the sky. “Once we’re away from this cove and heading to port,” He says, letting out a breath, “we’re going back to the sky.”

Keith chuckles and agrees, gaze catching on the item resting by his feet. He thinks back to the serpent they had to leave behind and he sighs, hoping they can return the dammed thing as quickly as possible.

Chapter Text

Keith has never seen snow before. The deck of the ship is now being swabbed constantly to keep it ice-free and Keith is grateful, having slipped one too many times already. Between cleaning weapons and steering the ship, he finds himself standing at the bow to watch the gentle swirl of ice leaving the clouds. Hunk gave him thick wool gloves to keep his hands and fingers dry but he can’t help taking them off to feel the little stings of flakes as they hit his warm skin. The chilled wind makes his cheeks redden and tingle and he enjoys lifting his face to meet it. The gray clouds drift lazily above them as they draw closer to their destination and a sinking feeling enters Keith’s gut.

He knows this is his last stop.

“Three days.” Lance says as he joins him, his own blue cloak thick around his body. He rests his hand on Keith’s cheek and Keith lets him bring their lips together for a gentle peck.

Keith marvels at the soft touch.

They break away and Lance uses his hands to lean against the rail, dark blue eyes searching for the horizon.

I’ll never forget his ocean eyes. Keith thinks, leaning his own elbows on the rail so that he can cup his face. I’ll never forget his warmth, like the sun is bottled up inside of him.

“This is the farthest North I’ll go.” Lance says quietly, a fog of breath escaping his lips as the heat meets the air. Keith feels his throat tighten and looks down, his mood darkening with each passing second.

He sees Lance glance at him from the corner of his eye but he can’t bring himself to meet his gaze. “Have you ever been to the capitol of the Empire?”

Lance scoffs, turning and lowering himself to sit. His back rests against the wall as he watches crew members come and go. Keith glances down at him, seeing his fingers twirl a ring around and around.

“I’ve never needed to.” He says, reaching to tug at Keith’s leg.

“Would you, though?” Keith asks before he takes his place beside him, watching as he brings his hand higher on his thigh. Keith lets it rest there.

Lance is quiet for a moment and Keith worries he’s caught on to the goal of his questions. He worries Lance is trying to end whatever this is between them, that adventure is where his heart will always rest.

Not with me. He thinks.

“I love the sea.” Lance finally says, “It’s the only home I’ve had in a very long time.”

Keith nods, cursing the tears that threaten to build. Cursing the ache in his chest.

“But-“ Lance says, bringing his eyes to study Keith’s hand as it plays anxiously with his fingers. “Sometimes home isn’t really a place.”

Before Keith can even think of a reply Hunk is bounding up the stairs, his voice carrying loudly across the deck. “Who’s hungry? It’s finally cold enough for some cocoa, don’t you all think?” He laughs, folding his arms as everyone scurries to pass him. He meets Keith’s eyes and motions to him, a big grin on his face.

Keith is the one to stand first, glancing behind him as he starts to walk away. Lance has turned back toward the open air, his hands pushed deep into his cloak pockets.

“Are you coming?” Keith calls, reaching out a hand.

Lance takes a moment but eventually turns away from the clouds with a smirk on his face, “Of course.”

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

This city, Dorandall, is the biggest yet and covered in inches of snow as the sun begins to set. Keith sheathes his sword and double checks that his medallion is still inside of his pocket as he makes his way to the dock, his steps feeling heavy and slow. Almost everyone has left the ship already, eager to find a warm place to drink or rest. He pictures a fluffy bed, wondering if he could even find one more comfortable than Lance’s.

He tries to smother the thought before it can escalate.

“Will you come with me?” Lance suddenly asks, his gloved hand finding its place in Keith’s. He nods, spotting the satchel bag resting on Lance's shoulder. “Rollo’s an alright guy, I just don’t trust him.” He says.

“So i’m your backup?” Keith asks, sidestepping people as they work to keep the snow from building up along the walkways. Many of the buildings they pass look warm but they don’t continue toward the heart of the city where the baked goods and shops are. Instead they cut through alleys and Keith smiles as he fondly remembers their trip to Pidge’s bungalow. Only the way they’re going now grows harsher, the streets have become less crowded. Some buildings crumble and some look vacant altogether, their windows hollow and dark. The people they do see look gruff and guarded, many watching with interest as they pass.

Lance doesn’t seem too worried, instead focusing on the path ahead. He leads them to one of the few buildings with constant activity. Keith can see people leaning against their open windows, smoke and ember leaving the long tobacco pipes in their hands. Lance pushes through the front door and Keith is surprised to see the bar and tables, one heater blasting the hottest air it can. He wants to scoop it up and hold it close, until his frozen face finds its color.

They walk around the bar with a nod from Lance to the man pouring drinks and Keith tries not to look too long at the hole where his eye should be. He wonders how the man lost it. The hallway they find themselves walking down is dimly lit with candles planted to the walls, the dark wax having made mountains on the red carpeted floor. Various smells of tobacco and incense assault Keith’s nose, making him want to sneeze as they stop in front of a large door, the golden knocker shaped like an octopus. Keith stares at it while Lance knocks, letting go of his hand to pull the satchel closer to his body. They hear footsteps inside and the sliding of metal.

Keith freezes, eyes narrowing. He places his own hand on the hilt of his sword but Lance shakes his head, stopping him in his tracks.

The door swings open and Keith's eyes trail up long legs, the flash of a knife strapped to a slender thigh escaping from a dark grey dress. It reminds him of gunpowder.

“Hello, Lance.” The woman says.

“Nyma.” Lance slurs, leaning against the doorway. He smirks in a way that sets Keith’s nerves on edge.

Nama rolls her eyes and glances at Keith, raising an eyebrow in question.

“I’m here to see Rollo.” Lance sighs, gesturing into the dimly lit room, dropping all acts of pleasantries. Nyma hesitates, tilting her head as if she can hear something they can’t.

“Fine.” She hums, “But he has to stay out here.” She nods to Keith.

“No way.” Keith grumbles, fingers itching to find his sword again. He shuffles closer to Lance and Nyma gets a knowing look on her pretty face, glancing between the two.

Lance walks forward, “It’ll be fine.” He says to Keith, waving at him to stay behind. Keith clenches his fists as he sees movement deeper inside of the room.

A man, Rollo he’s guessing, leans against a large wooden desk. His eyes are hooded by the hood of a large cloak, the tint to his skin strange in the flickering candle light. Nyma steps back and allows Lance to enter but shakes her head at Keith with an apologetic smile. The door slams before he can move and he wants to kick it in, to stand at his place beside Lance. Instead, he leans against the door, fingers making patterns as he listens to the muffled voices inside. He closes his eyes and leans closer, hearing the scrape of a chair. His thoughts drift, but only by a fraction.

Suddenly there is a loud clammer and yelling, two voices rising in quick succession. Keith jumps away from the door and steadies his stance, “Lance!” He shouts but there is no answer, instead only a deafening silence. Panic shoots through him and he doesn’t think twice as he brings his foot up, using all of his strength to kick the door in. It splinters and he backs away, making sure his shoulder is ready for the impact he plans to put it through. He runs and closes his eyes but feels no wood, instead finding himself falling through the air at an alarming speed. He lands on his back, hands planted behind him to stop his head from smashing against the floor. He gasps as the sharp point of a sword is pressed against his throat.

No!” Lance screams but Keith can’t move to see if he’s alright, “He’s mine, he’s with me!”

The man, Rollo, makes a click with his tongue and leaves the sword a moment longer. When he finally lets it fall away, Keith stands and instantly turns the way Lance’s voice came from. Relief floods him when he sees him behind the desk, the large metallic case resting in his hands. Papers a strewn across the room and the chairs have been tipped over, looking like a storm had ripped through. A huge fireplace is lit on the other side of the room, its flames shooting up into a thin chimney.

“You will be paying for this.” Rollo says, slamming the door shut again. Nyma is snickering as she lifts a dark liquor to her lips. She eyes Keith but makes no move to intervene.

Lance sighs, “I think this is payment enough.” He lifts the case a little higher.

“It’s only worth something if you get it open.” Rollo counters, pushing Keith out of the way as he strides to the desk. He glances at Keith, “If you speak of this, I’ll kill you.”

Keith sneers as Lance sets the object down harder than he probably should have. “You’ll find yourself beneath the waves if you so much as touch a hair on his head.” Keith stares at Lance, his expression stoic and serious. Rollo grunts and motions back to the case, brushing off the threat with a wave of his hand.

Lance lets his face relax, motioning for Keith to come forward. “We’ve tried everything. If we can’t get it open, I don’t get paid…or forgiven.” He purses his lips at Rollo and Keith can see why he would want to be out of the man’s way.

His skin is scarred beneath the sleeves of his thick red cloak and Keith can see multiple guns strapped to his hips, the barrels large and long. He tries to peer closer at the man’s face but only gets a good view as he turns toward the fire.

Pirate. Keith confirms, seeing the scarred flesh of his cheek. A skull and crossbones is seared like a patch.

Keith finally looks away and takes the case into hands, seeing it up close for the first time. “Something is inside of it.” He says, leaning it to the right. Nyma puts down her drink and moves to Keith’s side, bringing a waft of alcohol and something floral in her wake. She runs a long finger down the side, clicking her nail against it.

“We haven’t tried everything.” She says, her voice tilting up playfully. Rollo folds his arms, his white hair brushing the bridge of his nose. She plucks the item up from Keith’s hands, tossing it between her slim fingers as she saunters to the large fireplace against the wall. Her thigh escapes the slit in her dress again, making the metal of her dagger flash. Keith wonders just how dangerous she is, noting to try to stay on her good side.

“What-“ Rollo starts but his sentence ends abruptly in a panicked shout as she throws the case into the flames. Lance comes out from behind the desk and watches as Rollo hurries to the fire, reaching out as if he could pull it into his hands. Nyma grabs his wrist, keeping him in place.

“Just wait.” She says, large eyes never leaving the fire. Keith follows her gaze and steps closer, drawn to the heat like a moth to a flame. The case glows a brilliant orange and cracks appear on the glass but Keith doesn’t back away in fear of it bursting. They wait, watching as inch by inch the case falls away. He wonders if it’s been coated in some strange magic. Embers fly upward as pieces fall and the wood crackles.

Another layer begins to fall away like paper, until something golden begins to take it’s place. The object is oval in shape, reminding Keith of an egg. He lets out a breath as the flames illuminate it, as Rollo lets out a victorious shout.

“What is it?” Keith wonders aloud.

Lance shakes his head, wonder filling his voice, “I didn’t think it was true.” He says, “They were all destroyed generations ago.”

Keith furrows his brows and shuffles closer, until he’s almost kneeling in front of the fire. “It is an egg.” He says, “But what creature rests inside?”

Nyma places a hand against the mantle of the fireplace, “It’s the egg of a dragon.”

“Dragons are extinct.” Keith says, feeling a strange sensation run along his spine.

“Don't worry, this dragon won’t hatch.” Rollo says, “But it will sell for a very lovely price.”

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

Keith has been pondering their visit to the other Pirate Captain for the last fifteen minutes, watching from a tavern window as a large bonfire is built in the center of the city. Flags wave in the air from atop buildings and children wear their warmest clothes as they trample through the snow, excited to hear the beating of drums, quick string instruments and whistling flutes of the winter festival. Lance left him a while ago to find food and drinks in the crowded building but Keith lost sight of him as he was swallowed by eager customers. His stomach grumbles as he watches sellers push their carts along the street, following the huge stream of people.

Men and women carry torches to light their paths, the light from the buildings not enough to help them until the giant bonfire is lit. He catches sight of those tasked with stacking the wood and those waiting with the flames to place against it. He feels the weight of his medallion resting on his chest, the newly bought chain sturdy and tough.

“Will you dance with me tonight?” A voice says in his ear loud enough to be heard over the voices surrounding them. Keith turns to Lance, a small smile brought to his lips as he takes the warm mug offered to him. He sips, wanting to close his eyes against the warmth.

Lance waits until he’s done drinking to hand him the food, a simple meat and bread meal. “You know I don’t like to dance.” Keith says, taking a large bite. Lance steps closer but doesn’t push him, instead settling to watch as he takes another gulp of his drink.

“What?” Keith asks, feeling a burst of heat rise along his neck.

Lance shakes his head and laughs, looking away to watch the scene outside. Light snow has begun to fall once again and Keith feels a pang of homesickness for the burning sand beneath his feet. He finishes his meal and drink quickly, waiting for Lance. He tries to keep his thoughts away from the end of the night. With the rising sun he knows he’ll be well on his way, far out of the reach of the pirate.

“Do you want to see the fire up close?” Lance asks and Keith spots the beginning of the flames as they climb higher and higher. He nods and they push their way out of the loud tavern, being met instead with the loud sound of the deep hollow drums. Lance grabs his hand, pulling him along and Keith feels his own eyes widen the closer they draw to the bonfire. He feels taken over by the size, having to crane his neck up to see the top. He glances at the edges of the buildings and hanging roofs, knowing they’ve done this before but feeling a tug of worry nonetheless.

The warmth hits them quickly and Keith lets out a laugh, taking off his gloves to feel the heat against his palms. The music is in full swing now as people begin to dance and shout, their voices rising in excitement. In a city this big Keith wonders if they come together like this often.

The music is different than Keith is used to, somehow heavier against the night air. Lance takes his gloves off and pulls Keith’s to his, lacing their fingers together as Keith drags his eyes away from the brilliant flames. They reflect in Lance’s eyes, a strange combination but Keith still finds himself pinned in place beneath the gaze. Lance pulls him closer, until his arms are wrapped around Keith’s waist and his lips are at his ear.

“Are you leaving me tonight?”

Keith loses his breath for a moment, shutting his eyes tight against the question. As if he could open them and be miles and miles back on their journey, until he could feel the warm air once against brush against his skin.

“I have to.” He says, clutching Lance’s cloak tight in his fingers. To anyone else they simply look like two lovers embracing, joyous at the celebration. But Keith feels no more joy as Lance starts to pull away.

He searches his face and knows his is far too open, relaying all of his emotions at once. He knows he’ll never open up to another person like this again, not for as long as he lives.

“I’m sorry.” He whispers, knowing Lance can’t hear him. But the man is staring at his lips and then they are connected, Lance’s hands gripping onto Keith’s hips in a vice. Keith brings his hands to the back of Lance’s neck, pulling slightly at the soft hair there, wishing he could run his fingers through it forever. Their lips tangle and Lance's soft moan at Keith's bite makes his own lips tingle. Lance breaks away first and pulls Keith with him, around the fire and away from those dancing. He strides past the drums and the men selling their steamed meat. Keith doesn’t question him, knowing from his months spent aboard the Black Flag that questioning him is always pointless. The man is as sure of himself as the tide is eternal.

They break free of the buildings after a while, their breaths leaving them in harsh pants, their fingers freezing from the loss of the gloves pushed deep into their pockets. Rolling hills surround the city and Keith can finally see the distant mountains, gigantic landforms that would take his breath away if Lance wasn’t in the process of doing it himself.

He turns to Keith as they arrive at the top of a hill, the wind so cold Keith feels as if it were slicing the skin on his face to pieces. His eyes water as Lance turns to him, “I know it’s a little cold.”

“A little?” Keith asks incredulously, hearing his own voice shake. The snow has stopped falling but the ground beneath their boots is giving way to their weight and Keith prays he won’t fall.

Lance chuckles, reaching into Keith’s pocket to snatch his gloves up. He grabs Keith’s hands and slides them on with care, “There’s no place to be alone in a city during a festival. You think you can take a moment in some dark building? There will be someone trying to barge in before you know it.” He pulls his own gloves out now, quickly sliding them on before finding Keith's again to rub them together.

“We could have went to your ship!” Keith says, shaking his head.

Lance lets out a huff, stepping closer. “Don’t tell me things I should have thought of myself.” He chuckles, resting his forehead against Keith’s own. They’re quiet as the wind whips around them, the light of the city barely reaching them from atop their frozen little haven. Lance slides his hands into Keith’s cloak and Keith can feel the chill through his shirt, “You’re so warm.”

“What?” Keith asks. He feels like he could turn into the snow itself at this point. That won’t stop him from staying here, though. As long as Lance wants him here on this hill, he plans to keep his feet planted.

Lance presses their hips together, “You feel feverish against me.”

Keith opens his mouth to argue but instead feels another pulse shoot along his spine, the force of it making him gasp. He wavers on his feet and Lance holds onto him, concern in his voice as he asks Keith if he’s okay.

The wind has gone silent in his ears as he tries to take in large gulps of air, hearing Lance as if he were yards away and not standing flush against him. Lance brings his hands to Keith’s face, trying to meet his eyes. But Keith can’t see anything, save for a flicker of light behind his eyelids like a star beginning it’s implosion.

And then he is thrust back, everything coming to life in an instant. Lance is holding him close, his voice halting before Keith can make out what he’s saying. Keith turns slowly toward the city and the music but his eyes are instantly drawn to the huge masses entering the sky like phantoms.

“What is that?” He whispers, trying to stand straighter to push Lance away. He looks at the flying beasts and back toward the city; to the hundreds gathered in the center.

No.” He hears Lance whisper and it’s the first time he’s heard the man sound lost. “This can’t be right.”

Keith feels his chest burn as the shadows gain ground and then he is running down the hill, skidding against the snow and ice. He can hear Lance shout behind him but he can’t see if he’s following, his focus trained solely between the people and the monsters. But he’s too late as the first stream of fire finds the buildings on the outskirts of the city, one beast flying ahead at an alarming rate. Lance finally catches up to Keith, slamming into him until they’re both trying to catch their footing as they slip.

“I thought they were all dead!” Keith shouts, leading the way back into the city. He thinks of Hunk and Allura, of the crew and the children.

Lance doesn’t answer, his shock making him strangely quiet.

They make it to the center of the city at record speed, pushing through the chaos that has erupted. Lance is trying to shout at the crowd, telling them to run to the hills and the dense forests beyond. People begin to shout to others, the message spreading until they are stampeding past Keith. He tries to keep his eyes on Lance, watching as the man shouts orders at those who stop to listen. Keith recognizes a few of them. And then he is being pushed and tugged at, until his back finds the ground of an alley. He curses as he hurries to his feet but he is trapped. He can't push through the horde of the crowd until the rush of them have passed.

Lance!” He shouts, wishing his voice could carry against the wind.

He has to wait longer than he hoped. The last few stragglers stumble past and he finally bursts free, anger boiling inside of him at his own foolishness. Lance is gone with the crowd, no doubt searching for Keith. But he has been left behind once again, the flames of the bonfire still burning bright in front of him. He turns to run, his stomach fighting against the nausea building as a piercing roar fills the night sky. It’s much different than the sea serpent as he covers his ears, the deep sound making his bones ache. But against the sound of the beast is another, higher pitched noise. He glances to his left and immediately jumps to action, pulling the small child away from a turned over cart. Her dress is ripped but Keith can’t find any injuries as he brings her to him, trying to hush her sobbing.

“It will be okay.” Keith says, trying to stop the shaking of his own fingers. “I won’t let anything happen to you but you have to be brave.”

The little girl clutches onto his shoulders, her thin hair brushing against his cheek as he whispers urgently. He hears screams from the outskirts of the city where the fire rages on, its light turning the sky a strange burnt orange.

“You have to run behind me until you reach the really big hills. You can’t stop until you see your people!” He tries to pry her away, panic making his voice harsher than he wishes. “Can you do that?”

She shakes her head but has trouble letting go, her cries growing at the loss of Keith’s arms. He turns her to the dark street behind them, “I’ll go with you but if something happens to me you can’t stop, okay?” He picks her up and cradles her close, trying to break into a run.

The deafening roar rises again, only this time Keith hears it right against his back. The flames of the bonfire flicker against the force of it. Keith pries the girl away and pushes her forward, “You have to run!” He shouts, knowing he can’t follow. Not when the beast could easily kill them both. The girl takes off, her tiny feet making her faster than Keith would have been if he held her.

He hears a grumbling behind him, like the growl of a desert cat only deeper and much louder. He moves slowly, his fingers finding the hilt of his sword with ease. The rubies glow against the remaining firelight as he slides it free. He turns slowly, seeing the buildings now destroyed beneath the feet and huge wings of the monster. He holds his sword low, until the tip is resting against the ground, feeling another pulse inside of his chest like a weight trying to break free. His veins begin to shine as he shifts his feet, trying to find a calm amongst the fear in his heart.

The beast starts to walk forward, each step making the ground shake and Keith’s knees weak. It crushes the bonfire beneath it’s claws, the red of it’s scales thicker and larger than the serpent’s, the horns sharper from where they rest. It’s head hangs low, yellow reptilian eyes cast in shadow as steam escapes its large nostrils. Keith grips his sword tighter in his hand, knowing that in just a few moments he’ll be burnt to a crisp.

He wills himself not to mourn his own passing.

Instead, he focuses on the flash of brilliant blue eyes and the warmth of a gentle touch. And with a sneer he raises his sword.

Chapter Text

When Keith was ten years old he found a desert hawk with a broken wing.

The animal was of the deadliest species. They prowled the skies and stalked the land in time with the huge desert cats, their predatory nature making people despise them without a second thought.

The bird he found was silver and fragile as it lay on a thorny bush. A spike protruded from it’s shining wing and deep red had been slowly staining the ground beneath it. Keith was frozen, his eyes wide at the sight. He knew to stay very still, to listen for the wings of its mother or the crunch of rock and sand around him as it stalked toward him. But even at such a young age, and despite how hard his eyes had become while living in such a place, his heart had always remained quite soft. He moved slowly, his small feet bare against the stinging sand since he had been in the process of using his shoes as objects to throw into the sky out of boredom. The creature squawked and squirmed, it’s light beady eyes watching with a strange sort of intelligence.

When he finally freed the animal and held it close he thought then that he would never want it to leave him. He imagined it as his pet, his friend to have during the sandstorms and a companion to help scare away those that wanted to push him to the ground for no reason other than the fact that they could.

He named it Lemon because of its small yellow irises. They reminded him of the rare fruit his brother would bring back every few months from the vendor by the cities water well.

The bird only stayed long enough to be able to fly again. One day Keith left to collect fresh cloth from the clothes line and when he returned Lemon was gone. He checked the floor and the window ledge but not even a velvety feather was left behind.

He supposes that was his first lesson in letting go.

The same knowing look he found in the bird seems to be reflected in the eyes of the huge beast now sending a blaze of heat toward his hidden body. He can feel each second as sweat drips from his hair and beneath his clothes. Grunting, he feels the foundation of the building start to give way with a huge puff of ember and smoke. Soot leaves dark streaks on his face and it stings his eyes.

“Is that all you got?!” He screams as the stream of fire dies down and then he is rolling out of his hiding spot, remembering the rules of survival in the desert.

Keep your body moving when there is no other way out. Try to wear your opponent out first but be careful to keep your steps light; don’t make unnecessary assaults.

The dragon makes a deep rumbling sound from within its throat and Keith now knows he has only a few minutes until the beast is ready to release another wave of fire.

He speeds to the right of the dragon, eyeing a large fallen cart for his landing. He catches his balance quickly and then he is jumping and rolling once again. His sword scrapes the ground as the dragon opens its mouth, a layer of steam building against a steady growing pulse of light. Keith’s own light is blazing, making each wooden surface he touches catch with flame. He makes his way beside the dragon, hoping the tight space will keep it at bay and not end up squishing him against broken wood and fallen beams.

He wants to shout as he finally finds himself near the tail, hoping his shoes are not too slick with melted snow and mud so that he can find purchase on the shining scales. He’s almost there, only a breath away, when the other dragon makes it’s dreaded appearance. It roars and begins its descent, the hulking mass of midnight scales casting bursts of light against the city burning around them. He glances up, watching as the wings cover the stars and the moon, and notices another dark figure sitting just atop the beginning of the the beasts neck.

And then he is being thrown back, the tail he so desperately wished to clamber upon tearing into him with enough force to make him shout. He is whipped around, feeling bits of wood hit his back until he is once again in front of the dragon. He slams onto the ground and his sword flies away from him but he can’t try to get it back. He can only focus on his loss of breath and the sudden frigid cold that washes over his body. The snow no longer melts beneath him and he feels no comforting heat running along his arms.

He almost doesn’t notice the other dragon as it lands, as the air grows strong with the smell of iron and the shadowed figure finds its way to the ground. He tries to blink away the spots of white shooting behind his eyelids.

Move! He thinks, urging his lungs to open so that he can breathe.

Metal is suddenly pressed to his throat and he focuses on the sword, letting his eyes travel along the dark obsidian blade until he can see the face beneath the hood.

His lungs slowly open as the seconds pass and he wonders why he isn’t dead yet. The sword rests just on the base of his throat, creating a sharp dent but never truly breaking the skin.

“What-“ He rasps, feeling his fingers twitch. “What do you want?” He gulps against the amount of effort it took for the words to form.

The hooded figure doesn’t answer. They tilt their head just enough to let Keith know that he is being studied. He sees the leather of the man’s gloves and the spikes that line the knuckles, similar to the giant ones lining the dragons behind him. Keith sneers and tries to lift his head, feeling the tip of the sword press deeper. Then it is moving, hovering over his collarbones before traveling to his heart and he wonders if it will hurt.

But the only thing he feels is the swinging of his medallion as the blade lifts his chain.

“Where did you get this?” The person asks, voice vicious and laced with something akin to shock. It is a man. Keith pauses, wishing the shadow of his hood would lift so he could put a face to the horrors surrounding them.

Like hell he’s going tell this guy anything.

He opens his mouth to tell him so but the man is suddenly gone, his body pushed back toward the two beasts that suddenly rear up from the attack. The melted snow that had not evaporated and had not yet refrozen had turned to water and mush. A short but incredibly powerful stream pushes against the man and it’s just enough time for Keith to pick himself up from the ground. He sucks in huge gulps of air as he rises, wavering only for a moment.

His sword is closer than he thought and he wastes no time picking it up to charge at the hooded man, all thoughts of small talk and questions thrown away. The dragons are riled but make no move to burn or destroy, instead following the instruction of the man’s outstretched arm. He huffs and tightens his grip on the dark sword in his other hand, “You don’t want to fight me.”

Keith wipes ash out of his eyes and shakes his head, “You don’t know me.”

Then the man sprints, bringing his sword around to make what could be a first and final blow.

“Keith!”

Their swords collide and his arms sting instantly. He strains as the obsidian blade creates a deep chip in his own but he doesn’t let up, even as his feet are pushed back an inch by the force of it. They break away at the same time and Keith takes a few steps back, watching as the man rolls his neck, loosening it up.

Keith!” This time he actually hears the panicked shout but he doesn’t risk taking his eyes off of the dragon rider. Any wrong move and he’ll be taken down in an instant. He should have known Lance would make his way back here but he doesn’t wait for him to get closer, instead he finds himself flying forward to keep the man’s attention solely on himself.

Only the man doesn’t charge back. In an instant he is beside Keith, the hint of a a jawline illuminated for only a moment and then he is surging past him with inhumane speed. Keith turns in horror, watching as the man hurtles toward Lance.

“No!” Keith screams but Lance is quick and he jumps to safety just as the man would have crashed into him. The overturned barrel wobbles beneath his weight but Lance finds his balance with the flash of a smirk. Keith recognizes it; the way it looks excited and bloodthirsty all at once.

“We’ve been looking for you, pirate.” The man growls.

“Are you trying to make me feel special?” Lance mocks, his voice pitched in a way that would have made Keith chuckle if he weren't shaking in anger and fear.

The man straightens, “The Emperor requires your retrieval.”

Lance laughs and Keith knows he’s suddenly nervous. But the man doesn’t know that. He studies Lance in the same manner he studied Keith, the only movement being the bottom of his cloak brushing against the ground.

“You can't kill me. I know he wants me alive.” Lance says, fingers playing with the hilt of his own sword still sheathed on his hip. He glances at the dragons but Keith doesn’t take his eyes off of him, looking for any opening to get the man’s attention back. He shuffles closer.

“You are lucky.” The man scoffs, “You won’t meet the Emperor today. I believe I’ve found something much more…precious to him.” The man says but before either of them can reply he is grabbing at Keith’s neck, fingers tearing to grasp his chain. He almost finds purchase and Keith’s chest constricts as the weight of the medallion momentarily lifts from his throat.

But it soon falls back to its resting place as the rider becomes distracted by the sudden whirring and humming echoing around them. Keith moves quickly, running to Lance’s side to pull him away from the barrel and the open alley at his back.

“I don’t know who you are!” Hunk shouts, his strong burly arms holding up something akin to the pistols used by most pirates. Only this one is much, much larger. “But you have no idea who you’re messing with!” The man glances around, his shrouded gaze falling on each of them before he starts to back away.

Hunk shakes his head and lifts the weapon higher, “Oh no you don’t!”

The dragons rear up and spread their massive wings but don’t let loose their fire; not while their rider is still on the ground. Hunk flinches at the roars that pierce the air but doesn’t hesitate to pull the trigger. Keith lifts his arm to shield his eyes as a vibrant blue light grows inside of the barrel. It releases with a boom and the sizzling stream slams into the man, making him fly backward toward his beasts. He hits the ground and Lance immediately pushes Keith back toward their friend.

It takes less time than Keith thought it would for the man to recover. His cloak has fallen from his face as he slowly stands, a huge chunk of his armor scourged away to reveal a metallic arm. Keith flinches at the familiar face, at the slant of his eyes and the way his sneer mocks the ghost of his smile. He rips away from Lance, his disbelief muting all other noise and movement around him. Blood trickles from where the metallic arm meets his mortal body, slowly staining the ground red.

But it’s when the eyes that are so similar to his own shoot to him that he finally notices the yellow tint that has taken over almost every inch.

Hunk is recharging his gun, the sound loud against the wind. Shiro tears his gaze away from Keith and stumbles back to the midnight beast, heaving his wounded body up and up, until he can settle on the saddle latched around its meaty neck. Deep purple electricity runs inside the dragon’s horns and spikes, making Shiro’s face illuminate and cover in shadow all at once.

“Wait!” Keith calls, not caring that the other beast has already taken off, that it could easily strike him down with hellfire at any moment. Lance and Hunk are screaming and he feels a sharp tug on his arm, “No!”

Shiro watches only for a moment longer and then they are rising, the wind pushing Keith back into Lance who is also struggling to stay upright.

Hunk releases another stream of energy and it twists and slides through the air, clipping the dragon’s leg. The beast screeches into the sky and Shiro whistles as they hover. But Keith recognizes the steam now protruding from the nostrils, the tendrils leaking from its opening mouth.

“Find cover!” Keith screams, slamming into Lance until they’re sprawled behind a crumbling brick wall. He clutches onto Lance and rolls them to press against the building as the fire erupts, much brighter and hotter than before. There is a piercing crackle of noise that lights the area in purple and white, popping at buildings and carts and the ground. He winces as he feels the heat and electricity surround them. Wood starts to fall, bits of ledges and stairs giving way to turn to ash. It seems to last forever until Hunk is pushing his weapon away and running to them, his strong arms pulling them up. Smoke burns at their eyes but the danger has passed and Keith yanks himself away. He runs toward the open courtyard.

“We have to go!” Lance shouts.

Keith screams then, a sound that rips from him in desperation broken enough to mimic the shattering in his chest. “Shiro!” His voice breaks but it doesn’t carry, the great beating of wings drowning out any hope he has of getting his brother to return to him.

When they’re long gone, after their forms have disappeared back over the mountains and the fire raging through the city has claimed even more land, Lance breaks the silence that has settled over them.

“We have to go.” He repeats, soft voice brushing into Keith’s shock. He helps Keith sheath his sword and tries to meet his eyes, but he can’t focus on anything other than the crunch of the snow as they follow Hunk to the hills and the dark forest beyond.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The survivors of the attack huddle in a huge mass between the spacious tree trunks, their hands and lips shivering from the cold. Keith moves mindlessly through them, ignoring their thanks and praise for making the creatures retreat. He shrugs away from Lance and brushes off Allura’s worried fluttering hands. Finding a lone trunk takes time and when he deems it far enough away he sits, feeling a swell of disbelief and such deep sadness sweep over him that he fears he will fall here and never rise again.

That wasn’t his brother.

How long has it been since he saw him last? How was he to know that his search would lead straight to him only to rip him away again?

Fires are lit throughout the forest, the townspeople somehow finding wood dry enough to burn. Keith lets his gaze fall on one of the flames, listening numbly as people talk and cry, as someone tries to play a whistling silver instrument to comfort the children. The music travels between the fires and through the trees until most people are quiet enough to listen, their shock lessening just enough to be lulled into a clearer mind and even sleep. Keith feels the tips of his fingers beginning to burn from the cold and brings them to his mouth, letting his breath warm them. He finds himself searching for Lance amongst the crowd, letting his gaze pass over the tear stained faces and the waving of the low hung branches that try to resist the wind.

Lance finds him first. He takes a seat beside Keith, wincing as the cold seeps through his clothes. “We’re going to get sick.” He says.

Keith grunts but leans into Lance all the same. “I can’t feel it.”

“You’re in shock.” Lance says as he gathers his coat tighter around him, “We all are.”

They don’t talk much as the night wears on and Lance doesn’t pry or ask questions. Keith is thankful. He uses the sleeve of his coat to wipe at the ash and soot on Keith's cheeks, under his eyes, along his nose.

Groups of people make their way to and from the city in groups, bringing back what blankets and thick wools they could find before dispersing them through the crowd. Keith looks up to the swaying branches of the tall trees, noticing the way the sky has become a tainted orange color and the steady growing billows of smoke. The city will continue to burn and smolder. Lance brings them three large furry blankets and wood, not worrying Keith to help or to move closer to the others.

He breathes a sigh of relief when the fire lights, the warmth flowing into him as he moves to huddle beside Lance, their blankets warmer than he thought possible.

“Won’t these get wet too?” Keith asks, placing two more pieces of wood into the flames. It flares and he breathes it in, trying to erase the smells of iron and flesh. Lance lays back and watches the sky, lifting the thick dark blanket. Keith feels the aches and pains in his body as he joins him. He breathes deeply and closes his eyes, the flutter of his eyelashes brushing against Lance's throat .

“As long as the blanket with the leather is facing the ground we’ll be okay.” Lance says.

And they are.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Keith wakes just before the rise of the bright winter sun. He sees streaks of dark blue and hints of orange breaking through the treetops, their spindly arms reaching forever toward the sky. Smoke still rises from the city, mingling with the clouds. He raises his hand and lets the branches fall between his fingers, watching as his breath travels to meet them. The camp is mostly silent as he sits up and looks around at those sleeping. He spots Allura and Hunk close by, their breaths even and slow.

Lance turns in his sleep and Keith almost wakes him; for what exactly, he isn’t sure.

To run?

To return to the ocean?

He grimaces and stands, letting the blankets fall gently onto Lance before he starts stalking through the snow. He shoves his hands into the deep pockets of his coat and winds his way through the trees, noticing just how large they really are. Stopping, he rests a hand on one of the trunks and watches as the bark pulses with a deep umber glow. He lets out a breath and runs his hand along the smooth wood, watching in fascination as the glow follows the trail of his fingers like the brush of paint on parchment. The higher he goes, the lighter the color becomes. He turns to quickly find his way back to the camp, to grab Lance's hand to place against the trees, but he stops in his tracks.

There were never such strange creatures in the desert. He thinks, reaching out to try to touch the hovering luminescent blue insect suddenly before him. The wings are small but bright, and flickering like the beating heart of starlight. More begin to fly around him, their soft flutters sometimes brushing by his ears as he turns to watch their gentle rise and fall. For just a moment he isn’t thinking of the burning city or the ache in his chest or the harsh lines of Shiro’s sneers.

Keith lets the insects land and fly away as they please for what must be hours, until the sounds of newly awoken voices carry to him on the wind and the sun begins to cast glittering diamonds onto the snow.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Keith had never seen a wolf aside from fading illustrations. He always assumed they were similar to the wild hounds in the desert, their teeth sharp and their shoulders hunched from weeks without food. He could see them clearly in his mind as they heard distant howls, the echoing calls seeming to surround them on all sides. He brushed it off.

 

But as the howls grew closer, he found he simply couldn’t ignore them for much longer. They arrived later that evening with men and women riding atop them adorned in leathers of dark green and brown. Only, after a confirmation from Allura, Keith realized they really weren’t wolves at all.

 

The large animals are covered in thick fur ranging from white as pure as the snow to the same murky green color of the material making up the strangers’ armor. As Lance and Keith push through the crowd, their swords already unsheathed, he realizes the animals have other strange attributes as well. Silky feathers align their faces and neck before disappearing into the thick fur. Silver and golden chains, loosely placed but sturdy enough to hold weapons of varying sizes, fall from the saddles and wrap around their bodies in intricate swirls. Some glitter from the filtered setting sun, making pinpoints of light shift and bounce against the trunks of the trees.

 

“Who are you?” Lance asks, shifting easily from the man making the children laugh with his antics to the fearless pirate that Keith knew could wrestle hurricanes. He tenses, eyeing the rider that shifts forward, her creatures’ feathers riling up.

 

The rider studies them and the skin visible along her throat seems to change with a dark green swirl. “I am Acantha. We ride from the mountain range.”

 

People shift and gasp around them and Keith raises an eyebrow, watching as Lance tightens the sword in his grip. “What do you want?”

 

“We’ve been sent to help as is custom to our alliance.” She says, her long black hair picking up from the tough leather of her chest as a strong gust of wind flows between them. Her eyes are almond shaped and dark, with swipes of green coal marks on the lids, “We saw the smoke and heard the screams.”

 

“Who sent you?” Keith asks, stepping forward. Her eyes snap to him. She clicks her tongue and the animal lowers slightly, letting her jump from her perch. She lifts a hand to ruffle the fur at the creatures neck. It follows closely behind, large wolfish eyes curious but cautious.

 

She steps up to Keith and holds out a piece of paper, “If you were from this region you would already know who we are.” He takes the paper and opens it quickly, glancing at the sigil of a great tree, the trunk seemingly carved into a sharp point; like a shaped stone.

 

“Well we aren’t from here.” He says, letting the paper roll closed. She studies him again before taking it back, suspicion rising on her sharp face. Closer now, Keith can see just how large the bow on her back really is, the curve of the arch and the dangerously sharp silver tips rising high above her head.

 

“They saved us!” Someone shouts. Others chime in, agreeing, waves of voices rising against their backs.

 

Acantha looks to Lance, her own sharp eyebrow rising. “Pirates?” She shuffles closer, eyes catching sight of his sword and the tattoo on his neck. “And the captain of the Black Flag, no less.”

 

“How do you know who I am?” Lance asks.

 

She shrugs, the corner of her lips forming a deep frown before she hops back onto her creature. "Even here we know your kind." She pulls at the reigns to make it shuffle a few steps back and the rest of the riders follow suit.

 

“We are to lead you to our home!” She calls out, now addressing the entire crowd. “You will find shelter and food!”

 

People surge around them, no questions asked as they begin to pack up what few belongings they have. Acantha glances at Lance as if she were weighing her options, distrust flashing across her sharp features.

 

“You are welcome too. We may need the extra protection.” And with that she pulls sharp on the reigns, turning her creature around. The flick of its long feathered tail brushes against the snow.

 

The crowd begins to move, following Acantha as the rest of the riders spread out, some running forward to scout. Keith is silent, looking back as if he could see through the trees and the city- all the way to the mountains. To his brother. Lance walks to his side, the crunch of the snow beneath his boots making Keith snap out of his urge to take off. He notices the crew of the Black Flag close by, watching as the towering wolf-like beasts lead the people away. Hunk and Allura are putting out fires, glancing every so often to Lance for direction.

 

Keith feels his chest rip wide open once again, realization plowing into him like an avalanche. “Where will you go now?”

 

Lance makes a confused noise, “What do you mean?”

 

“I mean-“ He tries to soften his tone, “where will you go once you’re back on the ship?”

 

It’s quiet as Lance glances at his crew and the few stragglers hurrying to catch up to the strange sentries. “The water will always be there.”

 

Keith’s head snaps up, “What?”

 

Little flakes of snow begin to fall from the clouds as Lance lets out a laugh, throwing his arm around Keith’s shoulders as they turn to face the retreating crowd. “I can always return to the ocean, Keith.” He says, “But I can’t know if you will return to me.”

 

Keith lets out a breath and hears the crew shuffle behind them.

 

Lance shifts to grab at Keith’s coat, waiting for an indication that it’s okay, before pulling him against his lips. It’s as refreshing as rain and he lets it wash through his body, from his chapped lips to each scorched feeling inside. It’s renewal and promise and Keith grasps onto it like hope.

 

Lance pulls away from Keith’s hands as his cloak rushes up in the wind, billowing behind him. “Besides, I won’t let you take all of the glory!”

 

Then he is turning back to his crew, instructing those who wish to leave to return and port in a southern city to wait for word from them.

 

Keith rolls his eyes but allows himself to smile for the first time in hours, a secret little thing that he hides inside the collar of his coat.

 

—————————————————————————————————

 

 

Keith knows the riders had been watching them for a few hours before trying to make their presence known. Part of him bristles at the thought; at their willingness to watch them sit around in the freezing forest with no food or drink. He’s wondering just how much longer they’ll have to trek, the night having already closed in on them, when the trees begin to thin. They follow close behind Acantha as the path becomes steeper and their first sighting of the great wall slowly comes to focus. Keith, along with everyone else, lets his neck crane to see the towering statues that are embedded into the stone. They’re tall enough to be partially shrouded by clouds, their flowing cloaks covered in green and black moss. There is one every few feet, the same amor that covers Acantha and her riders peaking from beneath the cloaks. Many of them, those that Keith can actually see from his position, hold spears.

 

Acantha whistles and the creatures start to howl, low haunting sounds that bounce off of the wall and back again. There is a deep groaning noise, one that reminds Keith of the Black Flag during a storm, and then the stone begins to shift. It rises slowly and a burst of air hits them, making the children shout. Regardless, when Acantha enters the tunnel, they obediently follow, listening to the shuffling of their feet as green stones let off gentle illumination to guide their path. 

 

The range opens slowly before them, the area impossibly large; as if an entire country were expanded within the walls. Keith smells actual flowers and grass, the scents of summertime further south. “How?” He asks, breathing it in.

 

Acantha lifts a finger to point past the huge field of wheat they now stalk through and further to the hundreds of stone houses that litter the plain. Four larger buildings rest in a circle closer to the center of the city, towering masses made from the same stone as the wall protecting them. In the far distance, closer to the actual mountain tops that loom outside, rests the swell of a mighty forest. A strange structure stands before it, tall even from this grand distance. The trees contrast against pulsing green and blue crystals that sprout from the ground around them. Some cluster together, while larger pieces stick out of the ground independently, the sharp tips pointing toward the sky. They cast the houses and fields in a soft glow, moving like the underside of a wave. But what catches Keith’s attention, and that of Lance as well, is the tree that rises from the middle of the forest. It’s taller than the rest, but much slimmer, with bright leaves the color of spring fruits; honeydew and apricots and strawberries.

 

From a distance it can be spotted quickly by the pale silver trunk, the colors flowing inside of it similar to the insects that had visited Keith that morning. Every so often there would be a release of light like the quick rise of embers before they fall gently to meld into the treetops. It reminds him of the dolphins in the ocean and the bioluminescence that made their slippery bodies shine as they rose and spun from the water, creating a glow that could rival the moon. Winter doesn’t seem to touch this place, as if a barrier has been set up to seal it off.

 

“I need you to follow me.” Acantha says, motioning to Lance and Keith. Hunk is busy studying one of the smaller crystals and he tugs Allura closer, urging her to touch it. “Come.” She says, leading them away from the rest of the crowd.

 

They travel down the sloping hills toward the city, finding purchase on hidden stone steps. The soft trickling of a stream blooms the further they get and Keith finds it to follow with his eyes. The water slides over smooth stone toward the center of the city before rising to join a large twirling orb of water hovering above a deep grated well. The flow is endless and Hunk, who has finally caught up, tries to pry answers from Acantha. Much to the dismay of Allura. She tries to hush him, looking at the attention their arrival brings from the people littering the streets. Keith notices their looks of interest and that almost all of them are barefoot.

 

“You will find answers.” Acantha says, finally hopping down from her wolf. She hands the reigns off to a young boy and he smiles as she ruffles his long hair, “Take her to the stables.”

 

Lance tugs at Keith’s sleeve and touches their fingers briefly together, eyeing the beast as it stalks away. He watches it like a kid eyeing candy.

 

They continue toward the forest and somewhere along the way Acantha takes off her own riding boots, letting her bare feet touch stone and earth and grass. There is another large slope of land they must climb before they can finally see the tree line and the large stone temple resting just before it. Up close, the structure lets off little light from its shuddered windows. Acantha waits, watching as a flicker of movement catches from inside. “It will take a moment.”

 

Impatience flows through Keith quickly whether he likes it or not.

 

“Lance?”

 

A small form bounds toward them from behind the temple, their skin glowing faintly with vine-like markings beneath the moon and against the crystal light. Pidge smiles and Hunk runs to grab them into a hug, making their face scrunch and their feet lift into the air.

 

This is where you’re from?” Hunk gushes, turning his body this way and that to swing them around. “How could you keep this a secret from us?” Pidge tries to scramble away but Keith notices the smile never leaves their face, regardless of the slight annoyance he also finds there.

 

When Pidge is finally free they shake out their short hair, glancing at their feet and back to Hunk. “It never really came up.”

 

Lance opens his mouth to say something, no doubt to pick at them, before the door to the temple swings open and illuminates them in candlelight. 

 

—————————————————————————————————

 

 

“We have never trusted pirates.” The woman, Great Leader, rasps. She is short but strong, her arms sinewy with muscle. Keith watches her, puzzled as to whether or not she is twenty years old or one hundred. He shifts by the door, leaning on his other foot with his arms folded against his chest. “Then again, your kind have never journeyed this far inland. Much less this far North.”

 

Lance glances at Keith and goes to fiddle with the empty sheath on his hip, his sword having been left outside along with Keiths. Pidge followed close behind, letting Acantha know she could leave. Now they stood in front of them both, the vines on their arms moving in languid slithers. The Great Leader has similar markings but they’re much larger, covering most of her lower arms and hands, the color brighter against her dark skin. The temple itself is large, rooms diverging into more rooms, with open ceilings spread throughout. Stones stand with inscribed markings, the surfaces never seeming to become fully dry regardless of the crackling fires lit behind almost every pillar, their flames contained by bundles of rock.

 

“I’ve worked with the Captain for a long time.” Pidge says, voice steady and sure. “He can be trusted.”

 

Great Leader hums, walking with her flowing skirt and long braided hair toward Lance, letting her fingers poke at several large scars peaking out from beneath the collar of his shirt. Keith shifts again, uncomfortable. Her sight is suddenly drawn to him and she narrows her eyes, moving past Lance to push through the strange vines hanging from her ceiling. They hold vials and crystals, feathers and paper and stone. He stands taller as she approaches and reaches out a hand to brush away a vine as it falls against his cheek.

 

“I’ve seen your face.” She says. She sniffs and lifts his arm, pushing back his sleeve with haste. “Yes, I surely have. I know your blood.”

 

Keith raises an eyebrow and glances at Pidge, who only shrugs. It’s tense as the woman stands back, guarded eyes glancing between the two of them, but she says nothing more about it. With a huff she takes a seat in a large intricately carved wooden chair, “Tell me more of the winged beasts.”

 

And they do, in such length that the Great Leader stands and paces, making the markings pulse and writhe on her skin. Keith only speaks when prompted, not wanting to return to the scene in his mind so soon; wishing instead to forget about his brother if only for the night. Lance says nothing of Keith’s actions or the name he shouted, instead skirting around the details as he describes the dragon rider.

 

“I had wished the rumors weren’t true.” Great Leader says, voice sullen and serious.

 

“What does it mean?” Pidge asks, fiddling with an object in their hands. “I don’t think even we could survive an attack like that.”

 

“You won’t have to.” Keith speaks up, pushing away from his spot against the wall. He walks forward, meeting the Great Leader’s stare. “I intend to stop them before they can harm anyone else.”

 

Lance furrows his eyebrows, “What?”

 

Great Leader watches Keith, as if concentrating, but she doesn’t let him elaborate. “Let me think.” Her words are rough and short. She waves her hand as if to shoo them away. “You are welcome here if what you tell me is true. Go find rest.”

 

“Wait-“ Keith starts, confused, anxious to have his questions answered. 

 

Pidge bumps into him as they walk to the door, motioning for him to follow but he hesitates by the door.

 

Great Leader watches them leave, her hands planted amidst the papers and bowls resting on the large wooden table in the center of the room. He feels questions burning on the tip of his tongue and he wants nothing more than to stay planted inside to pry the answers out of the strange woman himself. But Pidge pulling insistently at his sleeve and he knows he can't ask anything; at least not now. But she meets Keith’s eyes all the same, deep orbs as dark as the forest behind her temple, as he finally lets the door shut.

 

—————————————————————————————————

 

 

Pidge speeds them through the city, pointing out places of rest for travelers and small taverns for food and drink, their hands waving spastically in excitement. Keith asks about their invention from the bungalow, eager to finally see what rests inside but Pidge says they forgot about it.

 

“I do that sometimes.” They says, shrugging and ignoring Keith’s pout. “Ask me again in a few years.”

 

They wind up near the center of the city, surrounding a particularly large crystal. “They’re basically the life of this place. Well, of every place really.” Pidge explains, kneeling beside one of the larger ones. “The Emperor harvested almost all of them, as you all know, but Great Leader used ours to protect us.”

 

“But I've seen magic. We all have.” Keith muses, glancing at Lance, before squatting to touch the smooth grass. “He didn’t take it all away. There were witches in the desert and there’s Lance’s ship and Hunk’s inventions…there’s Lance.

 

Technically it’s in all of us.” Pidge tries to explain, their teeth worrying their bottom lip in thought. “The crystals used to span over the whole world, you know, before the war. They helped us and kept the magic balanced. It just comes easier to some people, almost like it’s been passed down in a purer form generation to generation. But almost all of them have been hunted down now. Whole cities are left without even a hint of crystal and it’s spreading like a sickness. The Emperor hasn’t been able to fully destroy and contain it but he’s close. Too close.”

 

“Why hasn’t he targeted this place yet?” Keith asks.

 

“Oh, he’s had his sights on us for years.” Pidge leans back on their hands, “And we’ve dealt with our own battles. But now that Lance is here I suspect he’ll actually put whatever plans he has into action.”

 

“How do you know that?” Allura speaks up, defensive and protective. “Surely one person couldn’t make the man go absolutely mad.”

 

“He’s already mad.” Hunk mumbles, poking at the crystal to watch the light inside deflect at his touch.

 

Lance clears his throat and glances away, “He won’t do anything. It’s nothing to worry about.”

 

Keith furrows his brows, watching as Pidge looks back to the crystal, an apologetic frown forming on their lips. Keith steps closer to grab Lance’s hand. It’s warm and calloused against his palm and Lance looks to him then with eyes overflowing; a flooding of the ocean reflected in the iris.

 

Lance’s smile is dim as he pulls his hand away. “Which way to the tavern, Pidge?” He asks, any excitement or wonder for their temporary home replaced with solemn exhaust.

 

They watch him walk away, still as statues, until his flowing cloak has disappeared around the corner.

Chapter Text

 

 

The forest is alive.

 

More lush than any habitat he’s been in, the ground itself seems to breathe. Whenever Keith steps closer to a stream, with just the trickling of water to accompany his beating heart, the green moss always begins to shine a faint blue beneath his toes. Two weeks they’ve been here and he’s yet to fully explain it.

 

Magic, he thinks, wondering at the extent to which it makes this place thrive. Not like the teeming cities and the desert, with sparks of it here and there. He can only imagine what the world must have been like before all the fighting- all the death. 

 

But he knows it’s still there, simply because he’s witnessed it as it overcomes the man he loves. The color that reflects in his eyes as they glow, his veins as they hum, his fingertips as they travel. And even now, as he tries to sneak up on Lance, he can see the shimmer of the ancient power flowing around him. It spills from his skin like ink, until it stains and soaks into the soft moss against his back. His eyes are closed, the long lashes creating soft shadows against his cheeks. Keith wants to brush his lips against them.

 

Instead, he is stepping carefully and slowly toward him, his bare chest feeling the first hints of morning mist. Pidge has been teaching them, with the occasional help of Acantha, to replicate the survival and lifestyle of their people. Hunters, as they’re called.

 

Hunk has taken to calling them treefolk.

 

“The forest is tranquil. Solitude. Silence.” He whispers to himself, letting his fingers brush against the soft bark of a giant tree. Lance turns his face away from Keith’s view and Keith lunges, sprinting lightly on the moss to win their little game.

 

“Your whispering gave you away.” Lance says, making Keith falter. He looses his balance for a moment, an annoyed grimace taking place of his triumphant smirk. He’s close enough to touch Lance but instead he resigns to kicking little pieces of moss onto his body. Lance’s hand shoots out and grasps Keith’s bare ankle, pulling at it with intentions to make him fall. And he does. He lands on the moss with a spin of his arms, his cheeks reddening from anger to embarrassment in record time. Lance is above him in a blink, his legs straddling Keith’s hips gently.

 

Keith sighs into the kiss, any ill feelings of defeat swallowed up by the curve of Lance’s lips. His back is cool against soft cushion of the moss and he feels the condensation rest on Lance’s own as he brings his hands to run along his spine. Keith closes his eyes as Lance trails the kiss from his lips to his jaw, nipping at the skin before resting against his neck.

 

“So warm.” Lance murmers, letting the tip of his tongue taste. “Even after you’ve lost. Again.”

 

Keith’s eyes snap open and the annoyance returns full swing, enough to make him push against Lance’s bare shoulder. “You haven’t won either.” He reminds him, motioning for him to get off. Lance complies, letting his bragging smirk spread into a full grin. Keith tries to keep his own away, to lock it up somewhere deep, but he feels it betray him anyway.

 

Birds, little things with tiny wings and tiny feet chirp around them as the morning sun slowly begins to rise in the east. The light doesn’t reach them yet from their haven in the forest. Keith stands and runs his fingers through Lance’s hair as he passes, walking toward the flowing stream and the large slab of stone that rests right beside it. He climbs, his feet finding purchase against the smooth rock, before he stands upright. This has become their small ritual, to wake up before the other and find a resting rock. To sneak and plan and pounce. Once or twice it has gone too far, with neither of them talking for half a day, until Allura has reminded them that they are not children and instead men supposed to be training in the fields with Pidge.

 

They reunite back to back, sweating as Hunters on their wolves throw spears and let loose arrows toward their shields, sometimes attacking from the air as they jump from the backs of their beasts.

 

“What are you looking at?” Keith questions, watching as Lance rests his forearms on his lifted knees. He smiles and stands before walking to a small leather bag beside the water, reaching inside to gather something. Keith waits, suspicious from his perch.

 

“Come here.” He says, motioning for Keith to sit and hang his legs off of the stone’s ledge. He complies, leaning back on his hands.

 

Lance brings his hands up to brush against Keith’s left calf, his fingers light as butterfly wings. “I thought this would look nice.” He says, and Keith sits up, watching as red spreads beneath Lance’s cheeks.

 

A dainty golden chain is placed around Keith’s ankle, the color catching in the clear morning air as patches of sunlight spread against the ground. Lance latches the bracelet together and leans down, pressing his lips to Keith’s skin just above the faint glimmer of the small blue crystals embedded into the sides. There is a tug in Keith’s chest, a feeling of otherworldliness that he’s here, so far from where he began.

 

He slides from the rock, his body brushing against Lances until his feet find the ground. He takes Lance’s lips quickly, needing no map or sign to lead him there. His fingers curl into the hair at the nape of his neck as they break away, breathing ragged and true.

 

“Thank you.” He whispers, letting their foreheads brush and their fingers lace at their sides.

 

Lance pecks his lips again before pulling him away from the stream and toward the fresh sunlight.

 

—————————————————————————————————

 

 

“If you aren’t quiet in the next two seconds,” Allura whispers harshly, “I will gut you.”

 

The Hunter closest to Keith that had been whistling jumps, eyes widening at the threat. Keith doesn’t blame him, knowing full well that she’ll keep to her word.

 

There have been a few people within the young hunting party over the weeks that have spoken against Keith and the others training with them.

 

Pirates. They would whisper, their fear no doubt stemming from dark rumors. Some of it true, Keith admits, especially about the Black Flag. But the first time a Hunter spat the word at him he was surprised, having never fully taken notice of the label. But he supposes he is now.

 

A pirate.

 

He expects they can see it in the way his eyes follow Lance, the confident captain who gives orders, and their battle-worn swords. The sun darkened skin and scars. The cloak and boots he wore when they first arrived, made for weathering against the ocean sun and monster storms.

 

Now they wear only what is given to them and train with new weapons. Keith holds a bow in his hands, arrow ready but slack against the string as they wait behind a cluster of crystal deep within the forest. Allura grips her spear, strong fingers drumming against the stone in time with some private beat the rest of them cannot hear. Lifting his head slightly, he tries to peak over the top of the crystals to the trees beyond, wondering when they will catch sight of accidental movement. It’s a waiting game, one that Keith knows is supposed to teach him patience and concentration.

 

He hates it.

 

Three more young Hunters wait with them, the markings on their skin slow and steady even as they catch Keith’s eyes. They’ve grown used to him now, no longer fearing that he’ll somehow tie them up or kill them to take their riches. He glances at his ankle, missing the reassuring pressure of the crystals against his skin.

 

“Ready.” Allura whispers, raising into a crouch. Keith perks up, the leather on his knuckles creaking slightly as he pulls the arrow back an inch. “Now!”

 

He jumps up, bringing the bow shoulder level and the arrow back against his cheek. Movement charges through the trees and he lines his sights on a careless runner, following their quick sprint. The arrow releases with a whir, brushing strands of dark hair away from his brow as he watches it finds its mark in the thickly woven armored chest of the boy. He shouts and falls, alerting the rest of Keith’s team to speed ahead, swift feet carrying them to grasp at the orb of light hanging from the boy’s neck.

 

The first time Keith was told to let his arrow pierce another person, he faltered. They told him it wouldn’t kill them, that they made their armor resilient to their own weapons.

 

What they didn’t tell him, however, is that the armor certainly doesn’t lessen the pain. Lance was furious, the look raw on his face as he skidded to kneel beside Keith’s breathless form. He wheezed after his surprised shout, fingers clawing at his chest, feeling the spear sink deeper and deeper. Lance pulled it away and tore the amor off, hands cool against his heated skin but finding no blood. The pain passed, of course, but he was sore for days afterword.

 

He hadn’t been speared since.

 

Now he runs, almost as quickly as the Hunters, between the trees. His feet find purchase easily, no longer slipping and sliding against the moss or hidden smooth rocks beneath. Allura laughs behind him, jumping over a fallen stump as she raises her spear. Keith feels it whip past his head as it hurtles into its target with a thunk, making Keith skid to a stop when the hidden Hunter yelps before him. The glowing green orb on his neck pulses and Keith swipes it up, completing the set of four he already wears against his own. The Hunter on the ground gasps and lets her head fall back, eyes wide with pain. Keith yanks the spear out of her amor, relieving the pressure.

 

“Not fair!” He hears a distant call and turns in time to see Lance striding up with his own spear. The orb that was supposed to be on his neck is gone and his hair is a mess from falling into the depths of a deep water pocket. Hunk and Pidge follow close behind, their own skin dirty and necks missing their orbs.

 

“Oh, let it go.” Allura chuckles, reaching up to pull a thick cord from her hair. It falls like a waterfall, the silver strands glittering against the patch of light she stands beneath. “You’re the one who refuses to play by the rules.”

 

“What pirate plays by the rules?” He asks, throwing his spear to the ground.

 

Pidge sighs and rolls their eyes, “You’re not supposed to be a pirate while training.”

 

Keith sees it during times like this, the way he misses the ocean, as if the waves were pulling at him each second. But he also sees the way he watches Keith, like an anchor come alive, keeping him grounded by his side.

 

—————————————————————————————————

 

 

There are berries, so light in color they’re almost transparent, that taste like fresh dew. Lance has become addicted to them, leaving the city frequently to pick them from the bushes in the fields above.

 

“They taste like air.” Keith says, plucking one up in his finger to squeeze. It’s firm and round but he knows it will crunch between his teeth and release a refreshing stream of juice. Lance picks another to place between his lips.

 

“They taste like the heavens.” He argues, bending to pluck another from its stem. “They taste fresh.”

 

“Everything here tastes fresh.” Keith mumbles, eyes sweeping their surroundings once again.

 

They stop at midday, when the sun is at its highest. Clouds have been building through the morning as they pass over the high walls surrounding them. Keith breathes in the scent of the brewing storm. “Will you tell me the truth if I were to ask?”

 

Lance opens his eyes and sits up, his back covered in bits of dirt and flattened grass. “What do you mean?”

 

“Would you tell me the truth?”

 

He’s quiet, studying Keith’s face.

 

Keith blushes and moves closer, rolling a berry between his fingers. “I’m just curious. There are things I’ve been meaning to ask.”

 

“Like?”

 

He sighs, feeling the splash of a raindrop hit his shoulder. “You’ve mentioned your family but you never tell me where they are.”

 

Lance tenses and wraps his arms around his risen knees. “What do you want to know, Keith?”

 

“The truth.” He says, “If you can.”

 

Thunder rumbles in the distance as another gust of cool wind flows through the stalks of wheat further behind them. It sounds like rain before the true patter even begins, the clouds not ready to let it go just yet.

 

“As far as I know-“ Lance says, letting his shoulders relax just an inch, “they’re gone.” His voice changes, lessening from its usual confidence to a sound so broken it makes the air around Keith harder to breathe.

 

He waits, watching Lance’s brown hair flow with the wind. Strands push against his neck and cheek but he doesn’t move to brush them away.

 

“The Emperor took them. Gathered them up when I was very young and took them far away.”

 

“Why?” Keith whispers, Shiro’s face surfacing forcefully in his mind. The burning forest as they ran away from a war they had no part of. The absence of his own parents.

 

Lance hesitates, “They were like us.” He says, finally lifting his head to find Keith’s gaze.

 

“I’m not like you.” Keith says and he wishes that he could be. He wishes desperately to feel the grace of Lance’s magic in his own veins but all he can feel is the fire. All he can see is red.

 

Lance shakes his head, “He keeps it locked away for himself and destroys anyone who could possess it themselves. When his forces came my parents hid me on a ship and cast it to sea, trusting only the waves to lead me back. I built it up as I grew, found a crew and Hunk and Allura not long after. I should have known it would reach his ears eventually. I was supposed to be hiding and here I was instead, bringing his attention back like a vise. I never planned to turn out this way, you know.”

 

Keith raises an eyebrow, wondering just how Lance pictures himself to be.

 

“Something warped in me, Keith.” He says, pulling at a strand of grass. “I love the sea and the wind but I also love the power and the treasure. I love striking down my enemies and ignoring the rest of the world. I’m good at running away.”

 

“You aren’t warped.” Keith says immediately, pulling at Lance’s hands. He trails his fingertips up his arms and neck, until he’s kneeling and brushing Lance’s hair through his fingers and away from his forehead. He lifts Lance’s face toward the sky and waits until his eyes open to meet his own. “Do you love me?”

 

He wishes his voice didn’t shake.

 

“I do.” Lance says at once, no fear or regret or waver present in the words. “I love you every second.”

 

Keith lets go and brings his hands to his own neck, unlatching the chain. He lets the medallion swing in the air for a second, before leaning close to place it around Lance’s neck. The silver chain lays against his dark skin like the golden chain rests against Keith’s ankle.

 

“I’ll try to be your ocean.” Keith says, sitting back and avoiding Lance’s gaze like a plague. “Until you can return to it.”

 

Lance touches the medallion, his blue eyes wide as he holds it between his fingers gently, as one would a withered flower. And then he is tackling Keith, his strong arms pushing him into the grass as rain begins to fall in earnest. Their lips don’t touch right away as the medallion presses against both of their chests.

 

“Thank you.” Lance whispers, a bright smile lighting his face before he swoops down, pressing Keith’s waiting lips to his own.

 

—————————————————————————————————

 

 

The wolves aren’t the only animals they keep hidden within the walls. The visits started slowly, with Lance and Keith only watching from a distance, their weapons lowered and placed firmly on the ground.

 

They may have never spotted the creature if Lance had not stopped Keith from trampling a small patch of bright blue and purple flowers beneath his foot one night. The flowers were a path they followed, created by something unseen that eventually led them to the very tree that looms so far above in the huge forest. Keith was amazed by the floating trunk so thin at the top but so wide beneath, where the biggest crystal he had ever seen sprouted from it like a root. Thousands of sparkling ember-like bits shoot from the ground beneath their feet and rise toward the sky. Their slow descent lands on their skin like powder, glimmering before fading away. He wanted to find a vial to fill and bring to Hunk.

 

But Lance tugged him back, until they were crouching behind a large bush. Keith started to whisper in question but the crunch of hooves against the earth made him freeze. The creature was large and strangely fragile, the long white legs that held up it’s body riddled with spots of gold and brown. Towering antlers rose from behind it’s long ears, the tips reaching almost halfway up the branchlike sprouts, and the same crystals that litter the land were embedded into them like shards of glass.

 

It walks slowly, the dark hooves digging at the moss with each little step. “It’s definitely not a deer.” Lance whispers, making the creature perk it’s ears at the noise. An opal in crystalline shape rests on it’s furred forehead between the arch of the antlers.

 

They never got to touch it and when they tell Pidge so, they can hardly believe it.

 

“It’s supposed to be good luck.” They say around a fire one night, licking warmed sweets from their fingers quickly. Hunk makes a noise in question, raising on an elbow from his sprawled position on the ground.

 

“I’ve definitely never seen it but apparently it only approaches those it chooses. Once you see it,” Pidge snaps their fingers, “that’s good luck.”

 

—————————————————————————————————

 

 

Keith should have known to never rely on luck.

 

A few months into their stay a lone sentry returns from scouting the land around the range. He is alone, no wolf companion by his side, and covered in thick red; dark as oxblood. They don’t hear or see him at first. The day is playing out as smoothly as ever and Keith is just about to follow Allura and his team for practice in the forest when his scream finally reaches the city.

 

Attack!” He shouts, voice carrying over the hustle of the city with surprising force.

 

Keith turns quickly, hand immediately reaching for his absent sword. The reality of it all slams into him; his brother and the dragons and the emperor.

 

And then the Great Leader is there, her presence blowing into the center of the city like a reaper. She looks around, sharp eyes passing over the crowd before finally locking onto Keith.

 

She glides forward and grabs his arm in a steel grip. “Follow me, princeling.

Chapter Text

 

 

The city is in chaos. Groups of Hunters lead as many people as they can toward the forest, their shouts loud and sharp even from within the walls of the temple. Keith is backed into a corner as the Great Leader leans on her desk, the markings on her skin writhing. 

 

“I won’t.” Keith shakes his head again, glancing toward the door.

 

“You must!” She slams her hands on the table, rattling jars full of plants and miscellaneous objects as her patience wears thin. “If you are captured, all will be lost!”

 

“I thought he wanted Lance.” Keith bristles, hating the words coming out of his own mouth. “And I won’t leave him. I won’t run like a coward.”

 

“The emperor knows your here.” She sighs, letting the temper that flares just as easily as Keith’s simmer. “He’ll want you first. You're now the bigger threat. You can take his throne away from him.”

 

“I-“

 

“You will run into the forest.” She starts again, slowly walking around the table. A large bow rests on her back, the string thick. “You will go far and your Lance will be safer with you gone. But first, I must settle your blood. The emperor could sense you from a mile away.”

 

“I can’t even control my magic.” He stands straighter as she approaches, wondering if he could take her. “Not like Lance. Not like you.”

 

“Which is just what he wants. He will either try to control you himself or he will destroy you.”

 

“I won’t let him!”

 

“Then we will all die!” She grabs his arm, pushing his sleeve up. “This is what must be done.”

 

Keith wishes Lance would burst through the door. He wishes he could push the woman away and run, far from her threats and bad omens, until he is holding his sword and feeling Lance’s back against his own. He listens for the beating of wings or the great roars from the sky, wondering if his brother was the one leading the attack.

 

Instead he hears only his own heart and the way it beats rabid against his ribs.

 

“I can’t leave him.”

 

“Then you will kill him.” Great Leader sighs, bringing a worn hand to his cheek as if she can feel the blood flowing beneath. It’s a gentle touch and completely unexpected; so much so that Keith feels his shoulders sag in a strange sense of comfort. And her eyes, pools of wisdom aged like the trunks of the trees, show only understanding. 

 

Reluctantly, he nods. “What do we have to do?”

 

“It will hurt.” She drops her hand and leads him toward the center of the room, urging him to keep his sleeve pushed to his elbow. “But it will keep it sealed within you long enough for you to get away and find the nation of Altea. Ask for direction along the way. The druids there can explain everything. They can help you better than I ever could.”

 

“And this will keep him safe?” He gulps, watching as Great Leader holds up a blade and stalks forward, the edges coated in something gold.

 

She doesn’t reply as she brings the tip of the blade down to pierce his wrist. He has no time to react before her hand is placed on top, creating a seal that singes like ember into his flesh. A burst of light shoots toward the ceiling and Keith is thrown back, slamming into the wall. Great Leader falls into the table but he can't do much, not when he feels the pain of his wrist traveling up and up, until it pours into each chamber of his heart.

 

—————————————————————————————————

 

Branches rip at his skin, every prick sinking deeper into another, like warnings to turn back.

 

He doesn’t care.

 

The forest inside of the walls had stretched further than he thought and he knows he wasted time. It’s still too quiet where he runs, too dark and still, but the sounds of swords and shouting reach his ears all the same. The distance seems to stretch forever, like an illusion keeping him on the same forsaken path. His body feels strange without the constant heat beneath his skin, like whatever magic had been building inside of him was easily put out like rain on a camp fire or breath on a candle. His vision wavers and his hands shake but he doesn’t stop, using the knowledge he’s gained from the Hunters to lead him through the forest like a spirit. His boots find solid ground and don’t slip, even as twigs and branches break behind him.

 

He doesn’t hear it.

 

He thinks only of Lance, knowing the boy must be trying to find him. If he wasn’t fighting himself.

 

And knowing Lance, he’s fighting with all he's got.

 

Keith both admires and condemns him for it.

 

The shouts have grown louder now and all warnings by the Great Leader have been pushed out of his mind. He’s close and he knows it; he can feel it.

 

But the figure behind him is closer. Like a crashing of rock into his body, he is tumbling into the brush. He lands on his back and searches for his fire, but it is dormant, and he is alone.

 

—————————————————————————————————

 

For the first time in a long time, Keith dreams of his parents.

  

A breeze flows through the field, sweet and cool against his heated skin. And just before him, higher on the hill, he sees the figures atop their horses. Deep red cloaks fall from their shoulders and he longs to see their faces but they are shrouded in shadow, as if a dark cloud had arisen and rested just above their heads. Keith looks down and sees his hands, smaller and covered in dirt, but rough just the same from days adventuring. He starts for them, looking at the outstretched hand of his mother. He wants desperately to grab it, to hold it close to make sure she never leaves, but she does so anyway.

 

And then the field is in flames, a great wall of fire as tall as a tidal wave raising higher and higher each second.

 

And behind it, just on the horizon, is a looming fortress of stone and light.

 

Keith wakes with a start, gasping as if he had gone days without oxygen. He reaches for his throat and panics at the loss of his medallion; at the weight that should be resting there.

 

But he doesn’t have time to dwell on it.

 

The walls surrounding him drip and shimmer against a lone torch perched on the far wall, the flame not close enough to warm him. He takes notice of his clothes, damp and torn as they are, but also his hands. They’ve been shackled and he tries to pull at them, but the metal rubs against his skin enough to sting.

 

“You’ve been unconscious for three days.”

 

Keith lifts his head, spotting the lone figure in the corner almost immediately.

 

“Where am I?” His voice is raspy and dry.

 

Shiro doesn’t answer, instead choosing to take his time as he pulls the torch from the wall. The flame dances in front of his face, illuminating the scar across the bridge of his nose and the sharp planes of his cheeks. But more than that, Keith sees the flash of his eyes and he freezes. Even as Shiro whistles for two burly guards to enter the cell, even as they haul him up and push him forward before gathering the chains. Shiro steps close behind and Keith feels his presence like a knife to the spine. Just as before, he wants to turn and wrap his arms around him, to remind himself that it really is his brother.

 

But as Shiro pushes him forward, Keith knows there will be no hugs here.

 

And that the man behind him is not his brother. 

 

They pass rows upon rows of cells, each holding groups of prisoners huddled in corners. Keith looks straight ahead, gathering his strength and his wits as much as he can, knowing that if he were to strike out now he would drop dead in seconds. Eventually they reach steps, steep and drafty, leading toward a large bolted door. It opens before the guards can open it themselves and the light almost blinds Keith, making him flinch. But as they enter the long corridor, he realizes the light isn’t bright at all. It’s flickering and dim, every few feet holding a bolted flame to the wall.

 

Each corridor looks the same, with only guards to cause disruption. But even so, they only glance at Keith before giving a nod to Shiro.

 

When they reach a final entrance Keith tries to see the etchings carved into the grand doors. But with such little light, he can only make out the flowing of lines, unable to put them together in time.

 

The room that he's pushed into is huge, with towering walls of intricate iron and wide windows draped in heavy dark cloth. For just a moment, he gets a whiff of salt- like that of the sea. The tiles are clean but bare, no form of art or pattern placed as decoration, and Keith can practically see the ceiling reflected within. A painting on the ceiling is shrouded by swooping ribbon and thick chandeliers, the pulsing of deep purple light creating even deeper shadows.

 

But none of this matters to Keith. Not when just across the room, seated in a throne as intricate as the walls themselves, is the subject of his abhorrence.

 

The guards drag him forward before forcing him to his knees, wasting no time in grabbing his hair. They yank his head back and his eyes fall upon the Emperor whether he wants them to or not. But he does not look away and he revels in the distaste that arises on the Emperors face. His scalp hurts but he dares not move, instead choosing to let his eyes meet Zarkon’s own, until the room is tense enough to slice clean through.

 

Zarkon lifts a ringed finger and the guards let Keith go.

 

“So you return at last.” Zarkon sneers, leaning forward.

 

“I wouldn’t call it that.” Keith says, resisting the urge to cough at the scratch in his throat.

 

Shiro walks around Keith, his boots echoing on the floor, and Keith shivers as his dark cloak brushes against his arm. He watches in barely contained horror as his brother takes his place beside Zarkon, his hand resting on the hilt of his obsidian sword. A threat, he’s sure.

 

“Don’t you know who you are?” Zarkon asks, feigning good humor. He tilts his head, “The lost prince. The forgotten prince.”

 

“I’m no one.”

 

Zarkon stands and begins to walk down the steps, his armor and cloak matching that of the lights above their heads. Keith tries to stand but a guard grabs his hair again, making him hiss in pain. Zarkon studies him, as if waiting. Expecting.

 

And Keith knows if he could, he would urge whatever power is inside of him to strike Zarkon down from where he stands. But the dull pain in his wrist reminds him of what he’s done, so in turn, he does nothing.

 

“So the rumors were false?” Zarkon scoffs, “You hold no power. I can’t feel even a spark of it.”

 

Shiro shifts behind him and Keith tries to look, to catch his eye, but Zarkon blocks his efforts. The guards let go of Keith’s hair once more, shuffling back as Zarkon squats in front of him.

 

“Where is it?”

 

Keith flicks his gaze to Zarkon, looking into his eyes like one would an abyss. He sees no light; not even a crevice.

 

“The Medallion, boy. Your brother-” He sneers the word and Keith feels it like knuckles to the face, "reported that your wore it about your neck."

 

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

 

"I will let you live." Zarkon says, tone a mockery of mercy. "Hand it to me and I will even return your brother to you."

 

Keith's eyes widen and he feels a deep tug within his chest at the thought. A temptation, a false promise. But for all Keith knows, he could be promising to turn Keith into another weapon. Just as Great Leader warned. 

 

"I have no idea what you-" 

 

Zarkon lets out a noise from deep within his throat and stands quickly, using his boot to push violently at Keith’s chest. He reels back and feels the cuffs on his wrists sink into his skin as he tries to break the fall.

 

“Then you are useless!” He motions for the guards to haul him up. "I will find it with or without you, boy. And when I do, my reign will truly begin."

 

He tsks, "What a waste you are."

 

“As if I need your praise.” Keith spits. 

 

Zarkon doesn’t speak as he ascends his throne once more. And it’s only when Keith is almost to the doors that he feels his blood run cold.

 

“Do you know? Has anyone told you?" Zarkon laughs, a deep sound, rough with disuse. "That the entire forest is burnt to ash.”

 

Keith stops, more or less forced by the guards.

 

“Your people are burnt to crisps.”

 

His voice wavers but he turns his head anyway, ears pricking. “I don’t believe you.”

 

“And the one that you love-“ Zarkon sighs, “that pirate? He was burned alive.”

 

And finally Keith does snap, the words flying from his lips like the roar of the beasts he knows rest somewhere around these walls. “You’re lying!

 

He yanks and is able to get one arm free, the chain swinging away from the guard's grip. He reaches, but it isn’t like the gentle yearning of his mother’s hand. It’s vicious and strong, and he knows that if he could make it there, he would rip out Zarkon’s throat with his bare hands.

 

But the guard grabs hold of him again, cursing as he forces him back. And as the door shuts in his face, Keith finds he can’t even look at his brother. He can only see the Emperor’s grin, the tilt of his head, and the words leaving his mouth.

 

“You should rest, Prince. For tomorrow you will meet the same fate.”

Chapter Text

 

 

If Keith could cry, he’s sure he would.

 

But all too quickly he is thrown back into the cell, left alone like some rabid animal left to fume. He took only one gulp of the warm mug of water they shoved into his hands before throwing it at the wall, watching as it exploded in wet shards. His mind is raging, tossing and ripping like a blazing desert storm or the waves at sea. The encounter replays in his mind for what seems like hours, until a new set of footsteps descend into the cellar. The guard standing outside his cell leaves before another replaces him, the swish of their cloak soft against the metal bars of his cell. But Keith doesn’t really notice; not until he has to.

 

“You were a fool.”

 

Shiro watches him, his hood settled on his shoulders. He sports what Keith assumes must be his riding gear. The sight gives him chills.

 

“What do you want?” Keith hisses, walking as close as he can to the bars.

 

“He would have spared you if you had made a deal.”

 

“Is that what he did?” Keith can hear the edge in his voice, “Did he spare you?”

 

Shiro purses his lips, “I wanted this.”

 

“You would have never wanted this! And if you can get us out of here, I can bring you to someone who can help you! Who can help us both!” He thinks of Great Leader and the druids she spoke of; the chance of answers and control. 

 

“There is nothing to be done.”

 

“Don’t you remember anything?” Keith pulls at his chains, wincing at the waver in his voice. “You left the desert, spouting shit about sending money, about making everything better. And all this time I’ve searched for you! To bring you home!

 

Keith waits, his eyes locked onto those of his brother; begging for a spark of remembrance. A spark of care or emotion, anything to alert him that whatever the Emperor has done is not final. That it can be undone. As the silence grows, so does his fear. His breaths leave him in rapid pants.

 

But Shiro remains stoic; a vacant shell.

 

“Time changes every living creature.” He says, eyes flashing. “But your incompetence has costed you everything. And now your time is up.”

 

And with that he is gone, until his swinging cloak is consumed by the dark.

 

 

———————---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

Not long after, when Keith has settled only because his aching legs make it so, he spots another figure. 

 

What he had assumed was playing shadows suddenly moved, flowing toward him like smoke and ash. The figure passes each cell slowly, the clicking of rings or nails hitting each bar the closer they get. Keith tries to stand, wondering if he could use his chains to wrap around their throat if they were to open his cell. He pulls at them, judging the distance he would need. 

 

"I see you've taken my advice."

 

Keith hesitates, the chain wrapped in his palm loosening. "Who-"

 

"You're a long way from the desert. And you've found your brother. But it seems you failed anyway."

 

Keith shuffles forward, watching as the woman lifts her face against the flickering flame on the wall. 

 

"The witch."

 

The woman doesn't smile, nor does she nod in agreement. But he recognizes her anyway. Not so different from their first encounter in the desert, her long silver hair peaks out from beneath her dark hood. Her fingers are slim and long, with several rings resting against the pale skin.

 

"So you remember."

 

"What are you doing here?" The flame flares, illuminating her face. He stumbles back, recognizing the yellow hue covering her irises. "I thought you wanted to help me."

 

"Did I not? Have you not found your brother?" She shifts, as if she could slip through the bars. "Now you have a choice." 

 

He loathes her hissing voice, the way it crawls up his spine. "You tricked me. You led me right to Zarkon."

 

"And now you can thrive." She tilts her head, "You have a choice. Give the Emperor what he wants or you die."

 

Keith shakes his head, "Then I die."

 

The witch sneers, a wicked thing that could rival Zarkon's own disgust. 

 

He doesn't watch her leave.

 

———————---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

Keith has more time to think than he’s had in months.

 

He spends hours upon hours pacing, staring at the bars of his cell, digging his fingers into the rough stone beneath his legs until they bleed. And he can only blame himself.

 

I should have listened. He thinks, running a shaky hand through his damp hair. If I had listened-

 

He squeezes his palms into his eyelids, shaking his head at the thought. Picking himself up, he moves to another corner, trying and failing to escape the falling drops of water leaking from the cracked ceiling. He has no window to tell where he is or when the sun will rise and he definitely has no plan- something that wouldn’t bother quite as much if he were in anywhere else. He tries to think like the Hunters but he can find no weapons; no loosened stone or rusted bar. He even tries to talk to the guard, to barter, all the while knowing it would make no difference.

 

And now that he’s tried everything, all he can do is think.

 

About the ache in his wrist and the absence of warmth in his lungs. Of Great Leader and her words, her accusations that he’s anything more than what he is now.

 

Prince. He scoffs, hearing the Emperors words overlapping hers. A forgotten prince.

 

He reaches for his neck but knows he won’t find his medallion. And there’s a small comfort in it now. He left it with Lance and there it will stay, out of Zarkon’s hands forever. His chest clenches but he keeps any more thought of the boy far away- as if he could sling every feeling to the other side of the cell. He wishes to shatter his thoughts like the mug of water, until the spillings have dried and gone.

 

Sleep never comes, even as his eyelids droop and the exhaustion of the past two days tries desperately to catch up to him.

 

———————---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

 

The morning is bright and taunting when Keith is finally summoned to be dragged through the courtyard. A shock of warm air hits his chilled skin the second he sees sunlight, a harsh reminder that he is indeed far from the forest. The salt tinged air reaches his nose like it did the day before in the throne room and he has to stop himself from falling to his knees; the scent of the sea closer to home than any other land he’s stepped foot on. He feels it gnawing at his bones, stronger than his longing for the desert could ever truly be. Gray and white sea birds caw above, accompanied by the occasional crow; no doubt grown used to executions and the mess thereafter. But Keith can only think of the day as one wasted; a good day for catching the wind on sails.

 

He avoids the gazes of the crowd, their dirty faces both eager and confused as to who he is.

 

He’s maneuvered through them like a dog, pulled by Shiro’s own hand. He doesn’t look for the Emperor, knowing he’s perched somewhere high enough to watch the show. He walks until his feet catch on the steps of the block and the guard behind him steadies his arm. The sun, hotter than it’s been in weeks, glints off of the bows and muskets pointed at him from most directions. A large man, covered head to toe in black, stalks up the steps with an unlit torch. Shiro moves to tie Keith’s hands above his head and judging by the crowd, this is the first time an execution will involve flames. Dry planks of wood are slowly stacked at his feet, the guards nestling them close to his bare ankles.

 

But Keith doesn’t take notice.

 

He closes his eyes and sucks in a huge gulp of air, even if it is tinged with filth the closer the crowd gets. He knows death favors no man. And it will come for all of them eventually. But as the executioner gets closer, Keith can’t help but regret that each of them will be lost to time.  And somehow, worse than the magic leaving the planet or the stars falling to die billions of years from now, this is what sends the most sorrow to his heart.

 

“By the order of the Emperor-“ The executioner begins, startling Keith from his thoughts, “the offender is guilty of the following crimes: treason, thievery, murder, and piracy!  Decreed by the Emperor, on this seventh day of May, is execution by fire!”

 

The crowd erupts, surprisingly loud against the humid air, but Keith refuses to watch. He hears the sound of the torch being lit, a whoosh hot enough to reach his face before it is even thrown.

 

A whiz passes by his ear, a hairbreadth away from cutting the flesh but enough of a shock to make Keith startle. His arms fall like stones as the rope binding them snaps clean, until he's almost toppling over the pile of wood, shock making him clumsy. He looks to the executioner just as another arrow flies, sinking into the large man’s chest with a sickening squelch. The man falls in a heap, the arrow striking quick and true, just as his hand lets loose the fire. And then Keith is rushing forward to yank the dull sword from his hip before jumping from the pyre. The crowd bursts into a frenzy, the noises rising into a deafening crescendo as the fire catches, igniting every inch of the execution block. Keith is disoriented, the rush of bodies too hot and fast around him. He keeps the sword pointed to the ground as he tries to look for the source of his rescue.

 

He swivels his head, eyes catching on each face he can, before latching onto just one. Shiro stares from across the courtyard, even as bodies bump into him, and Keith freezes. If anyone could move quick enough to take him down, it will be his own brother. But Shiro only stares for a moment longer and then he is turning away, pushing through the crowd to shout orders at other guards, his metallic arm rising against the hot sun. Keith pulls his attention away as an old woman pushes into him, her wrinkled skin grabbing at his arm to use him as a means to push herself forward. He stumbles and tries to make his way toward the towering walls, knowing that each minute passing is another minute the guards can use to find him. Someone pulls at his shoulder and he turns, vicious intentions to use his sword rising before he can stop it.

 

But then he sees him, with his hood pulled high and his dark skin covered by a cloak and the green armor of the forest. A swipe of gold covers his eyes, painted hastily. A bow hangs low in his hand, deceivingly slender and fragile in appearance, but strong enough to pierce through cloth and skin and bone.  Keith sprints, pushing past people with less regard than he should, until he is gathered in Lance’s arms. Their embrace is short lived but Keith feels it like it lasts for a thousand years, each of his fingers grasping onto Lance’s back like a vise.

 

“We have to run!” He shouts, pushing Keith away to grab at his hand. He tugs and they surge forward, ducking and blending into the crowd, keeping their faces low from the guards on the tower. Shots ring out, hitting those who Keith knows did nothing wrong. But there’s nothing they can do as they reach the edge of the courtyard. Keith spots Allura and Hunk as they finish a killing blow to two guards, their heads slamming together in unison beneath their strong hands. Behind them, packs of Hunters counter the guards spilling from the top of the large walls, their feet hitting the ground one after another.

 

They run toward the fight and Lance pulls at his own sword, ditching the arrows just before a guard swings upon him. But Keith is quick, his rage and relief mixing into a whirlwind. He strikes the guard down with a slash at the neck, sliding between his armor in time for Lance to throw his sword into the chest of another.

 

“We don’t have long!” Allura shouts, glancing at the sky as she skids to a stop beside them. Hunk is close behind, his hands now holding a stolen short handled musket. Lance nods and yanks his sword out of the guards chest, blood splattering across his face.

 

Hunters clear a path the best they can, their wolves aiding with the help of huge snapping jaws and sharp teeth. The ground is quickly covered in blood as they run, making their way to the sprawling buildings and homes of those unfortunate enough to live within the city. They take each sharp turn with huffed breaths, silent save for the thudding of their boots and Keith’s hisses of pain as his bare feet catch on rock and broken wood. The city, while worn down and crumbling, is large. But eventually they slow enough for Lance to kick at a makeshift wooden wall from within an alley, until they’re able to burst through to the other side. Keith is relieved at the sight of Pidge waiting, their short hair pulled way from their face with a large cloth.

 

“The trees here will provide us only enough cover to disappear. If there's any chance we can survive this, we'll have to get to the harbor.” They explain as Keith arrives. They sport golden war paint similar to that of Lance and the others. It is swiped across their eyes and cheeks, flowing lines of color against ash ridden skin and dulled green swirls.

 

“I thought it was destroyed!” Keith says, running to catch up with Pidge’s quickly retreating form.

 

They’re quiet for a moment before they turn to look at him, “It is.”

 

And Keith wishes he hadn’t said anything, the scorched forest arriving much quicker than he thought it would. It’s vast and desolate as they pass, spanning days worth of miles, with only smoldering trunks sticking up like gravestones. Lance glances behind them, his hand having never left Keith’s own, but they have no time for any true reunion yet.

 

He feels the ash like soft feathers against the soles of his feet and with a sickness growing in his gut, he wonders just how much is from the trees and how much is that of scorched human life.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Keith welcomes the rough texture of sand.

 

And he welcomes the breeze of the sea as they approach the coastal town, so different from their months spent deep within the northern forests. He marvels at how far they are and how much time has passed while in the walls of Pidge’s home; enough for winter to thaw and disappear. Part of him imagines sailing south instead of north, the thought of more ice and snow sounding whole-heartedly unappealing.

 

But then he thinks of Great Leader and Pidge’s tense shoulders, of the forest and his brother, and knows he can’t disappear just yet.

 

It’s a sobering thought, the reality of their situation falling back upon his shoulders with crushing weight.

 

Keith’s feet are warm as they approach the city, his eyes burning against the harsh midday sun.

 

“We can’t stay for long.” Allura sighs, exhausted. Her eyes spot a tavern, “But we can eat.”

 

“What if-“

 

“It’ll be okay, Hunk. Just for a few minutes.”

 

Pidge agrees, their stomach grumbling. The five of them shuffle to the tavern, earning no lingering looks from those arriving and leaving, their own haggard appearances equal to the ash and blood trailing behind them. The harbor city is rough, perfect for them to blend into.

 

The tavern is just as hot as the air outside but saved by three rickety ceiling fans, the quiet spinning enough to keep Keith’s split nerves tame for the time being. The food isn’t much better but none of them complain, their stomachs full for the first time in days thanks to the gold coins tossed onto the counter by Allura. Where she had kept them, or gotten them from, Keith doesn’t know. But the clinking sound is a blessing to their ears, signaling the ease in which they can now rest. They sit at the bar much longer than they should, their aching feet and burning shoulders wilting with each gulp of water and drafty beer.

 

Afterwords, as the sun hangs low and red in the sky, they split up to snag whatever they can from various shops. Keith is on the lookout for new boots; a pair not chewed by rats or obviously stolen from a ship importing rather unique tastes. 

 

“Keith.” Lance says, stopping underneath the awning of a shack.

 

Keith glances at him, noticing the sheen of Lance’s eyes almost immediately. He ventures back, until his dirty fingers are intermingling with Lances, latching tight. Emotion swells in his chest, so sudden he feels his breathing become ragged.

 

“He told me you were dead.”

 

“Never.” Lance shakes his head, pulling Keith closer, ignoring the ongoing bustle of the city behind them. He chuckles, “What kind of pirate would I be if I fell to the land?”

 

Keith doesn’t laugh, “It was the worst feeling I’ve ever had. Thinking that you left this place. That I would have to continue on in the world without you by my side.”

 

“I don’t think Zarkon was going to let that happen, judging by the fantastic party he had set up for you.”

 

And now Keith does laugh, leaning his forehead on Lance’s chest.

 

“How did you know where I was?”

 

Lance sighs, letting a hand push Keith’s thick hair away from the nape of his neck. “The Hunters went wild when the forest started to burn. We couldn’t save everyone but they charged ahead anyway and we just had to follow. I had no idea if you were alive but I’d like to think if you left, if you were truly gone, I would be able to tell. I would feel it.”

 

They’re quiet, the decimation of the forest a brutal blow. A scar on the land and themselves, seared deep into the bone.

 

“Great Leader,” Keith winces, thinking of the woman, “said I have to go further North. To a place called Altea.”

 

“We’ll be found on foot.”

 

“Then we don’t walk.” Keith says, taking a step back toward the dock, letting Lance’s arms fall. “Why don’t we do what we do best?”

 

“And what is that?” Lance asks.

 

Keith looks toward the bay, at the dark water and rows of huge wooden ships, their sails fluttering against the breeze. Lance follows his gaze, blue eyes flashing. He watches his smile spread, energized and renewed with each small cresting wave.

 

Keith grabs his hand, “We sail.”

 

—————————————————————————————————

 

Finding a crew is something Keith had never tried to do, Lance’s own always so loyal and close behind. But he should have known there was no way the five of them could sail out of the bay on their own and so here they are, well past sundown, promising riches and treasure to those brave enough to join them.

 

“You have a ship?” An old man asks, his beard dirty and gray. His skin is sun weathered and leathery, exuding experience on the water.

 

“Sure.” Lance smirks, crossing his arms. “Biggest in the port.”

 

The man raises an eyebrow and sucks at his teeth, glancing at Keith and Allura. The tavern is boisterous now, assaulting their ears with each shout and clinking of glass. Smoke from pipes float about the room, the only ventilation being the opening and closing of the tavern’s doors. They had snagged and traded enough clothes to replace their heavy armor and thick coats, until each of them were sporting thinner shirts and Keith a new pair of boots. Similar to his old pair, the brown leather rests just beneath his knees, keeping his legs safe from rock and salt and sun. There’s been no sign of the Emperor’s soldiers, which should have put them all at ease. But as the moon rises higher in the sky, all they can feel is the calm before the storm. And if they’re going to weather a storm, they want to do it as far from here as possible. 

 

Taking only another moment to decide, the man finally nods in agreement.

 

“That’s twenty.” Allura says, wiping at a drop of sweat on her brow. The grime and gore had washed off of them the best it could from a quick dip in the ocean, the lingering scent of salt and fish surprisingly pleasant compared to how they had smelled before.

 

Keith pushes up the sleeves of his shirt, great for keeping the harsh rays of the sun from scorching his skin, but a confined hell in small places like this.

 

“That was the easy part.” Lance sighs, watching his new crew. “Now we just have to get the ship.”

 

“And how do you plan-“

 

Lance laughs, interrupting Keith. “Just get everyone on board and start for the mouth of the bay.”

 

—————————————————————————————————

 

It’s been two hours and Keith hasn’t seen even a hint of Lance’s whereabouts. The new crew has crept up the dock one by one, careful to look like any other wandering drunk. Keith decided to go last, his anxious gaze flickering about the docks. The crew, after taking orders from Allura, are but vague shadows heading below deck.

 

“Shit.” Keith whispers as he finally shuffles forward, trying to relax his shoulders. “Shit, shit, shit.”

 

The sails on the ship, the wood a sturdy dark oak, loosen and fall in heavy swoops. He speeds up, wishing his boots weren’t so loud against the planks of the dock.

 

“Get on with it!” Allura hisses, grabbing his arm to pull him aboard the moment he’s made it up.

 

Hunk raises the anchor out of the water with large tugs, careful to keep it from hitting the side of the ship. The whole process is slow, enough to set them all on edge.

 

“Zarkon’s beasts are probably already half-way here by now. And this ship definitely  belongs to someone important, if we’re seen-“ Hunks starts, thick eyebrows drawing close.

 

“Then we fight.” Keith says, touching the hilt of his stolen sword. He remembers how dull it is and scowls.

 

“Lance has a plan.” Allura says, “We won’t get caught.”

 

“But-“

 

Pidge is cut off, their eyes widening at the burst of light on the edge of the city. Keith turns just in time to see shadowed fragments of broken wood flying against the distant explosion, the flare of golden light illuminating the roof of each shack between them. Keith straightens quickly following a delayed boom, watching as dark billowing smoke rises into the air. 

 

“We have to go!” Allura jumps into action, calling to the crew to ready the sails to catch the wind. “We have to go now!

 

“What about Lance?” Keith shouts, striding to the steps leading to the helm. "I won't leave-"

 

“If these people have any sense, they’ll figure out it’s a distraction sooner rather than later. We’re leaving!”

 

Keith grimaces but nods, remembering Lance’s orders, before pushing past her to take control of the wheel. He grips the pegs, the wood a strange feeling beneath his hands. It’s been months since he’s been behind a wheel, and never has he tried to steer a ship like this. One bound to the water. But the wind catches just the same as he starts to turn, listening to the water slosh against the side with their gaining speed. The mouth of the bay approaches quickly, the two ledges of rock towering above them creating a passageway from sea to land. Keith can hear shouts but whether they’re from the explosion or the dock, he isn’t sure.

 

The crew pulls at the sails, keeping them on par with the breeze, but Keith can’t focus on it. He can barely focus on anything, his worry building up to it’s own explosion; the need for Lance's confirmed safety sizzling like a lit match.

 

Hunk bounds up the helm, tightening the cloth wrapped around his head. “Can you make it?” He looks panicked, his large hands holding onto the rail of the steps.

 

“I can make it.” Keith says, tightening his grip on the wheel.

 

Allura watches from below, her light hair whipping around her face. “Keith! It’s a tight fit, are you-“

 

“I can make it!” He repeats, knowing that if someone got the ship in, he could get it out.

 

I have to, he thinks.

 

And he does, sliding past the outcrop of the rock by mere inches. The crew shouts, letting the ropes go so that the wind can catch the sails and thrusts them forward.

 

Keith feels his breath leave him, a gasp breaking free before he can stop it at the sight of the open ocean. It’s choppy, and darker than that of the water further south but dammit, it’s the ocean.

 

He motions for Hunk to take the wheel, if only for a while, before leaping down the steps. Allura ruffles his hair and smiles, relief dancing in her eyes. But Keith can’t feel relief, not yet. And seconds later, she realizes it.

 

“He has a plan.”

 

“You said that already.” Keith pulls at a loose piece of fabric tied to the railing of the ship and lifts his hair, until it rests off of his shoulders. The sea breeze is cool against his exposed neck, “But he never told us his plan. How do we know he succeeded? How could you tell-“

 

There’s a splash behind them, like water hitting wood, and when Keith turns he can confirm that’s exactly what it is. But more than that, there’s Lance, dripping wet but fully alive. Keith throws himself forward, knocking into him with little care of the dampness now seeping into his own clothes.

 

“I won’t worry about you questioning my planning skills,” Lance says, “but only because we’ll have much bigger problems flying toward us sooner rather than later.”

 

Keith wilts, even as Lance holds him close, “There’s always something.”

 

“I expect nothing less.”

 

And then he is pulling away, letting his fingers trail against the skin peeking from Keith’s risen shirt, before facing his new crew.

 

“Feeling like old times yet?” Allura whispers to Keith, watching Lance as he saunters around the crew, eyeing them each in turn.

 

“There’s no way we can out-sail dragons.” Keith mutters.

 

Allura shrugs, “There’s always a first time for everything.”

 

Keith folds his arms, noticing Pidge sitting across the deck, their feet dangling from their perch on the rail.

 

“Everyone wants treasure.” Lance says, continuing a speech that Keith had missed the beginning of. “But there’s no better treasure than that fought for. Than that won.”

 

The crew grunts and nods, a mismatched group of weathered seamen and daring women, eager to answer the call of the sea.

 

“Then we’ll fight! Because if we don’t, those beasts will try to claim our water.” Lance smirks,“And water can never burn.”

Chapter Text

 

 

Keith wakes with the rising sun, just as it peaks on the horizon. Shuffling away from Lance’s bed, having taken great care to place a gentle peck on his forehead, he quickly makes his way to the deck. The wooden planks creak beneath his boots, certain pieces older and more worn than others. The sunrise is slow, the edges of light creating soft beams across the lightening sky. Keith had missed it, more than he thought he could.

 

He glances back at the cabin door, content settling in his body from the previous hours.

 

They hadn’t wasted much time after Lance gave the the crew orders before retreating into the captain’s quarters beneath the helm.

 

Lance breathes it in, “It’s not the Flag. But it’ll do.”

 

They went through the clothes quickly and separated the riches equally, finding places to hide them. There were several lanterns placed around the room, all unlit, but Keith knows they’ll be melted to the quick before too long. Lance was already lighting one, sniffing at the deep red wax.

 

“We have to talk.” Keith says, laying back onto the bed. He sinks in, closing his eyes at just how soft it really is. When is the last time he’s felt clean sheets?

 

“About?”

 

“Everything.”

 

Keith trails his hands beside him, feeling the fluff of the sheets and quilt beneath, knowing it’s made of rich material. Lance moves to another candle, waiting for Keith to elaborate.

 

And he does, taking his time to test the truths out loud.

 

Druids.

 

Zarkon.

 

Prince.

 

“He’s lying.” Keith turns, letting his head rest on his arm. “He was trying to get under my skin. To confuse me. Trick me.”

 

“And if he’s not?”

 

Keith sits up, a fast current of indignation striking into his limbs. “He is.”

 

“Keith-“

 

“He is!” He huffs, gripping the sheets tight.

 

Lance stares at him for a moment, waiting until Keith has released his hold on the bed, before moving on to the next candle.

 

Keith puts his hands in his lap and picks at his nails, urging his embarrassment to fade. 

 

“Are you taking this long on purpose?” He finally asks, quiet, wondering how he could possibly lash out when he just got Lance back. But he doesn’t think about it long, not when Lance is turning to him with a face so open Keith swears he could read each emotion the second it passes.

 

“Come here?” He asks, motioning for Keith to stand.

 

Keith raises an eyebrow but agrees, taking the few steps he needs to grab Lance’s outstretched hand. They’re both rough, calluses from pulling rope and wielding swords littering their skin like freckles. But they latch tight, until their fingers have no space between them, and Keith lets himself be guided close. Lance rests his forehead on Keith’s before wrapping his arms around his waist.

 

“Are we about to dance?” Keith asks, confused as to why Lance would choose to stay standing over the soft bed.

 

“I just need you here. Prince or no prince, I just need you close.” He says, sounding serious. He releases a deep breath, as if he had been holding it in and could only now feel comfortable enough to let it out. Keith glances down, finally noticing the chain resting against Lance’s chest. He knows his medallion hangs at the end. But for once, he’s not desperate to touch it; to make sure it’s truly there.

 

Instead he is closing his eyes and letting out a hum as he runs his fingers up Lance’s shoulders, until they’re traveling into the hair at the nape of his neck. He brushes the pads of his fingertips through, feeling each strand as if for the first time. He supposes this is what they needed; no rush, no pull or tug. Just rest, like the brush of water on the beach, each inch of foam finding it’s permanent place on the sand.

 

And for just a moment, there is peace.

 

They aren’t running or fighting and there’s no threat outside their door. The fearsome pirate captain has been replaced by someone exhausted and so full of love Keith fears he’ll be consumed by it.

 

Then again, he thinks, I wouldn’t mind that.

 

—————————————————————————————————

 

 

The sunrise is slow, beams of gentle light shooting into the air from the horizon like strokes from a brush. His eyes are tired and he thinks that maybe he should return to the bed and sleep some more, until his body is sluggish from over sleeping. But the air is cool against his warm skin, the salty tinge resting against his hair and shirt to mingle with the scent of spices and blown out candle flames. He sighs and leans his elbows on the railing of the ship, listening to the crash of waves.

 

“You’re awake early.”

 

He turns to see Allura sauntering close, her braided hair falling over one shoulder as she places a gun holster on the side of her hip.

 

“I missed the sunrise.”

 

She nods, looking at the horizon herself, “Have you talked to him?” She asks, “About what happened after you were taken?”

 

He furrows his brows but nods, “We talked for hours.”

 

“Good.” She sighs.

 

“Do you know?” He suddenly asks, watching the way her lip twitches. As if she were hiding a secret; as if she knew his secrets.

 

“Maybe.” She shrugs, “But it’s not my place to assume.”

 

“The rider-“ He starts, looking away, “he’s my brother. Or he was. I don’t really understand what’s happened to him.”

 

She’s quiet for a moment, the tips of her fingers drumming against the rail. “I figured as much.”

 

“What?”

 

“Hunk and I had our suspicions.” She plays with the end of her braid, “I mean, you screamed his name like someone broken. The first time we encountered him, you had already known him.”

 

“There’s a lot I still don’t know.” He grimaces.

 

She looks to him and although he had talked to Lance about everything, he found it just as easy to repeat it to her now. And like Lance, she took it all in stride until he was finished.

 

“Now we have to go North.”

 

Allura groans, “Of course we do.”

 

He smirks, “Great Leader said I have to find the druids of Altea. She said they would help me…figure all of this out.”

 

“Altea?” Allura asks, voice higher than he’s ever heard it. As if in shock; as if she were offended.

 

Keith nods, “That’s-“

 

“Then we’re going the wrong way.”

 

“What?”

 

“We’re going the wrong way.” She pulls at his arm, as if she could sling him up to the wheel so that he could turn the ship around.

 

“How do you know?”

 

“Because-“ She shakes her head, grip tightening. “Altea is my home.”

 

Keith is taken aback, suddenly wishing he had taken the time to ask her about her past before relaying all of his. “Are you sure?”

 

“Of course I’m sure!” She growls, “Great Leader was given false information. Altea rests within the southern cliff ranges, hidden away. But I can get us there.”

 

He nods quickly, “Then we have to move.”

 

Turning, Keith intends to pull Lance from his sleep and the crew from their own, eager to have Allura lead them the right direction. Better than any compass or map; she could blaze a path quicker and safer than anything else, the threats of trouble decreasing with the help of her outstretched hand pointing the way.

 

Of course, Keith should have expected trouble anyway.

 

Noises like distant thunder, loud but clipped, reach his ears before he can take even one step forward.

 

“No.” Allura shakes her head, for once sounding just as panicked as Keith suddenly felt.

 

“Go!” He shouts, pushing at her shoulder to get below deck. “Wake everyone!”

 

He starts for Lance’s door, reaching for the handle in record time.

 

But the captain is already awake and he is vicious, the spitting image of a god of the sea disrupted.

 

He brushes by Keith, letting the tips of his fingers brush against his own, before he makes his way to the helm.

 

—————————————————————————————————

 

 

The crew moves quickly, gathering weapons and hauling gunpowder to the cannons that reside below deck. Keith helps, pushing a few barrels with Hunk and Pidge.

 

Lance has turned the ship, ever so fearless, to face Shiro head on. The two dragons fly high and Keith fears he’ll simply strike them down from that height, not even giving them a chance at retaliation. They are just as large as he remembers, the expanse of their leathery wings casting dark shadows across the waves, as if storm clouds resided beneath them. He can spot Shiro and the flickering purple within his dragon’s scales, like electricity building; growing and charging and waiting for release.

 

They don’t stand a chance.

 

He clenches his hands, never taking his eyes off of his brother- who in turn continues to stare back.

 

“Load the cannons!” Lance shouts, his eyes building their own glow, as if to rival that of dragon fire.

 

“Load!” Hunk repeats, shouting down the stairs and into the ship.

 

Shiro rears back and his dragon climbs higher, the pulse of its wings pushing weight onto their heads and shoulders. But Keith won’t fall, he refuses to, even as the second dragon obeys the wave of Shiro’s gloved hand. It swoops lower, until the massive claws on the tips of its wings brush against the ocean. It’s level with the ship, hovering, as if sizing them up. It’s reptilian eye flickers about, glancing over Keith, the yellow orb surrounding a cat-like crescent in the middle. 

 

“Keith!” Lance shouts, panicked.

 

But Keith can’t move, his limbs frozen in place as he hears the grumbling from deep within the dragon’s throat. Similar to a growl but deeper, moving from the depths of it’s stomach and upward, to nestle in the base of it’s throat. He knows what’s coming but he’s tired of running and he’s tired of hoping his brother will snap out of it; that he will call the beast off or turn them on the Emperor himself. Instead, he stays high, away from the toiling waves and wall of fire threatening to release any moment.

 

Lance leaves the wheel to Allura and pushes Pidge to stay close to her before flying down the steps, his cloak whipping as loud as the sails. He grabs at Keith’s arm and pulls out his own sword, as if he could slice the dragon to pieces.

 

“Lance.” Pidge yanks on Lance's sleeve, having followed him to Keith. “There’s something in the water!”

 

“What?” Lance is trying to pull both of them back but his eyes flick to the open ocean anyway, the glow behind his irises slowly dimming with worry. He’s too distracted to focus on building any kind of power.

 

“There’s something in the water!  Pidge shouts, pointing just past the dragon.

 

But they don’t have to search long, because in the next instant the water explodes. Shiro’s dragon screeches, piercing their eardrums like knives to the flesh. Keith holds his palms to his temples, breath leaving him in shallow pants as the huge jaws of the sea serpent sinks into the wing of the dragon, ripping and tearing in wicked determination, the cracking of bone sharp against the air. The dragon roars, pushing them back from the force of it, but it’s already begun to submerge. The serpent’s tail, reminiscent of the beast from the cove, wraps around the dragon’s body like a coiling snake. Their struggle rocks the ship and Pidge falls, their shout of surprise lost to the noise of the fight. Fire finally erupts from the dragon’s throat but it is faulty from panic, hitting the top of the water before quickly singeing away.

 

Lance sheathes his sword before shouting to the crew to release the cannons, to aim at Shiro from his perch beneath the sun. He realizes it too late and the blast of the first cannon booms, a whistle of air and smoke leading the way to impact. It clips the dragon’s leg and Keith watches as blood spurts, dark and vibrant into the air. They continue in earnest, firing at will, until Shiro is retreating in timed paces. He leers at the dragon in the water, at it’s slowing attempts of escape, until it is pulled beneath the waves like a loose anchor. Keith runs to the rail and leans over, watching the rising of bubbles and pooling blood.

 

When he turns, Shiro is gone.

 

Everyone is shocked, one by one gathering against the side of the ship to try to spot the drowned beast and it’s slimy counterpart. But just as Shiro, they have disappeared. Keith pushes away from the ledge and is met with the sight of Pidge sprawled on the deck, their arms and legs spread as if they could melt into the boards.

 

“That-“ Pidge deadpans, their face emotionless save for the wideness of their eyes, “was some good fuckin’ luck.”

Chapter Text

 

 

Allura flattens the edges of a large map they found within the captain’s desk, making sure the tips stay down with the help of heavy paperweights. She runs her fingers over red and black quill markings, brushing past the northern forests and distant coastlines, until her sights rest on open ocean.

 

“There.”

 

“Um-“ Pidge raises an eyebrow, “I thought you said Altea rested in cliffs”.

 

Allura nods, tapping the spot on the map for Hunk to draw a circle. “It does. But I also said it’s hidden.

 

“How long will it take?” Keith asks, leaning over the desk.

 

Lance slams down a tiny figure of a ship before using his own finger to push it against the paper, as if it were sailing. Keith watches, listening to the scratch against the metal, before it finally stops.

 

“Weeks.”

 

“Do we have weeks?” Hunk asks, fiddling with a crystalline compass. It’s made for decoration but he’s found it easy to hold, sleek enough to rest in his palms, to run his nervous fingers over.

 

Lance hums, “Probably not.”

 

“There could be another way.” Allura rests her hands on her hips. “A quicker way.”

 

“You don’t sound too sure about that.” Keith glances up at her.

 

She sighs, shaking her head. “I’m not sure. All I can go on are my memories but,” She raises a shoulder, “it’s worth a shot.”

 

“Will it be dangerous?” Pidge asks.

 

“Dangerous?” Lance plucks the metal ship up in his fingers, as if debating. He tosses it and Keith is drawn in, watching the way it spins before landing in Lance’s palm. “I hope so.”

 

—————————————————————————————————

 

“Allura doesn’t talk about her home much.” Lance says, his head resting on Keith’s stomach.

 

His hair is soft, warm, and full of sunshine. Keith likes to run his hands through it, to feel it slip against the crevices of his fingers, before falling against the dark skin of Lance’s neck. He runs the pads of his fingers over scars and the faded tattoo, tracing the edge of it like it were a fragile petal. He'd seen it many times before, beneath the glaring sun and against the backdrop of the forest; rippling with muscle as he swung sword and gun and spear. Now it simply sits, resting against the candlelight and his fingers. When he finally saw the expanse of it trailing down his back so long ago, he had immediately tried to get closer. The nautical compass was large, with the spike and letter for North peaking just above his shoulder.

 

“Where did you find her?” Keith asks, tearing his eyes away from the tattoo. 

 

“Well,” Lance smirks, “It’s more like she found me.”

 

Keith waits, watching the flickering lights play against Lance’s lashes. They’re long and tend to rest against his cheeks, always looking feather soft whether in a forest, or a fight, or a bedroom. He smiles, thinking Lance resembles more of a doe than any fierce creature.

 

He wouldn’t tell him that, of course.

 

Lance shifts, turning onto his side to prop his head upon his palm. “I was in trouble, actually.”

 

“I’m not surprised.”

 

He narrows his eyes, “Good.”

 

“Keep going.” Keith brushes past the chance to banter, instead choosing to lean his head against the wall. The ship rocks as if the ocean were trying to lull them to sleep. It weighs on his eyelids, a quiet beckoning, but he doesn’t give in.

 

“I was in a port, trying to gather supplies. But there was a tavern-“ He chuckles, a low sound, “and there was rum-“

 

“There’s always rum.”

 

“Of course there’s always rum, Keith.” He flicks his nose, laughing when it scrunches. “So eventually there’s trouble and eventually I’m in trouble. But who comes to my rescue? Pistols blazing and hair swinging about, Allura swooped in like a wraith. I'd never seen anyone fight like that, not even my own crew.”

 

“Did you get the supplies?”

 

“‘Course we got the supplies,” He scoffs, dropping his hand so that he can rest his head against Keith’s stomach again, “I nearly had a noose around my neck, but we took what we could and left before they could blink.”

 

“You’ve been with each other a long time.” He sinks lower in the bed, “Hunk, too. And Pidge.”

 

“We’ve all been through what we’ve had to go through.” Lance agrees, “But everyone deserves their secrets. And it’s up to us whether or not we tell them.”

 

“Is that a hint?”

 

Lance shrugs, his blinks slowing; eyelids drooping, “If you want it to be.”

 

Keith huffs and pushes Lance’s head away so that he can roll over, until he's staring at the wall. “You’re always talking like a puzzle.”

 

Lance laughs and throws an arm around his waist, settling in close. He brings the scent of the breeze and the sea, until it wraps around them and settles like a new layer of blanket; soft and warm and secure.

 

 

—————————————————————————————————

 

“When we said dangerous,” Pidge huffs, holding onto Keith’s arm for support, “I didn’t think it meant this!”

 

“This isn’t-“ Keith grunts, wrapping the rope around his wrist before pulling tight, “even that bad!”

 

He laughs, feeling the whip of the storm slash against his cheeks like leather. It stings but he doesn’t care; not when it’s the first real storm of the season. Pidge coughs, no doubt having swallowed a copious amount of seawater, before letting out a scream of frustration. They pull themselves past Keith, pushing against the wind, before grabbing onto another crew member.

 

Keith wonders if Lance only gave Pidge the orders to check the knots on the ropes just to see them curse and shout.

 

The sea is dark as the sun rises, streaks of red overtaking any hint of orange or blue or violet.

 

Red sky at night, Lance had whispered, sailors delight.

 

Red sky in morning, sailors warning.

 

He’d been right.

 

Waves crest higher than Keith remembered they could, rocking the huge ship as if they were on a string; balancing on bare feet. They had awoken to the crashing of water onto the deck and Keith whipped the door open only to received a great splash to the face.

 

He could still hear Lance’s laughter, only now it’s further up, and just as loud. Allura stands close by, her hair flat against her head and face, no doubt the cause of Lance’s boisterous chortling. But as the morning wears on, the waves only get higher, and Keith knows they have to be careful.

 

Hold!” Lance shouts, gaze sweeping along the deck until they rest on Keith.

 

Their eyes catch and Keith pulls the rope taut, leaning his body in time with the wind. The ship tilts and Keith’s fingers slip, enough to allow the sail to fault and make him slip. He looks away from Lance and tries to focus, brows drawing close together against the rain.

 

Pidge finds their way back to him, until their smaller hands are gripping and pulling, trying to be of more use.

 

“Not to dampen the mood,” They huff, “but I think we’re gonna capsize.”

 

Keith scoffs, leaning forward as the ship crests another wave; as if it were going to nosedive to the bottom of the ocean.

 

“You don’t believe me?” Pidge shouts, grabbing Keith’s wrist, “Then believe that!”

 

He doesn’t have to look far, nor hard, because whether Pidge had pointed it out or not he would have seen it eventually. They all would.

 

“Lance!” He tries to shout, but as it has been in almost every storm, he isn’t heard.

 

Pidge takes the rope, “I can handle this!”

 

He doesn’t doubt them, not for a second, but he does know the power of the wind. The power of the rain and waves and overall frailty of the human body. But Pidge isn’t looking at him as their legs swing to brace against the side of a bolted crate, giving them enough leverage to hold the rope steady. So Keith is nodding, his hair falling about his face like a curtain, before he’s sprinting up the stairs.

 

“Lance!” He calls again, watching as the crest climbs higher and higher into the sky.

 

Allura rushes past him but doesn’t say anything, her boots taking the stairs two at a time until she’s flying toward Pidge to help. Keith looks back to Lance, wondering if he was simply ignoring the swelling wave and hoping the ship was made well enough to handle it. The oak is sturdy, compact, with sails tailored by hands skilled from years of craft.

 

But to beat this?

 

Keith doesn’t think they're so lucky.

 

He strides to Lance, planning to take the wheel, to do something.  But he doesn’t have to take it, instead finding it easy to replace Lance’s own hands as he nods to Keith. It’s quick but he can already see the glow building, like the dawn of a sunnier day, full of so much blue and celestial starshine that Keith isn’t sure how he can actually handle it all. He doesn’t have time to ponder, to even ask for confirmation that Lance is alright, before he’s using the ropes to climb and pull himself up to the railing far above the wheel; far above Keith and the cabin and the toiling waves. He holds on, the slick of his boots sliding every few seconds, giving up inches to the rain.

 

Keith can only glance, the push and pull of the wheel fighting to lose control, to toss him aside and snatch the ship to the depths.

 

If Keith weren’t here, if he wasn’t seeing it himself, he would call the wave a trick. A false image to sun-dazed men and women who have had too much rum and not enough water. But even he feels the sprinkles of the wave, so different to the patter of the rain, against his cheeks. It’s as if someone else were rising it, as if Lance were working against them and his raised arms were bringing it forward and not back. A flash of lightening snaps overhead, close enough to set Keith’s veins ablaze; for his mind to trick him into thinking he’s once again been struck.

 

And then he hears it, deeper and fuller than the explosion at the docks; and louder than any burst of thunder could be. Light flares behind him and he turns, watching as the wave shutters and splits, like a giant were making its way through. It rises higher still, cresting over them like a mountain, but never crashing down. Keith raises his eyes, watching as it flows on each side of them, as slow as a drifting cloud. For a moment the rain is shielded away and the only water that touches them is that of the wave, misty and light against their hair.

 

Then it is crashing down; moved from one side of the ship to the other.

 

Keith turns back to Lance, eager to catch another glimpse of the blue light before it is gone.

 

But Lance isn’t shining, and he isn’t grinning.

 

Instead he is looking at Keith, if only for a moment, before he is slipping. He falls back, off of the railing and into the air, before his crash is blending into the waves hitting the side of the ship.

Chapter Text

 

It’s one thing to fight in the air, another to fight on land, and another to fight on the sea.

 

But to actually fight the sea, to feel the waves push and pull and dunk you beneath them is something Keith wishes he could have prepared for. The water is cold and seeping into his body like traveling vine, threatening to twist him up until he sinks like an anchor. But he pushes forward, eyes stinging against the salt as he dives deeper, stretching his hand to grab at whatever piece of Lance he can.

 

At least in the desert, you could have solid ground beneath your feet.

 

Now he kicks, thinking only for a moment that it was a good call to rip off his heavy boots before diving off of the rail after him. Only once he’s lower, the tossing and turning of the waves well above his head, does he finally see Lance. His cloak billows around him as if it wants to wrap him up and keep him warm. The glint of Keith's medallion floats just above his neck, the red flash hitting Keith's eyes like a beacon leading him to shore. He feels his lungs begin to burn but he doesn’t stop, not until his fingers are closing around Lance’s arm; not until he can gather him and fight his way back up.

 

The crew is screaming as Keith resurfaces, coughing and swallowing even more water, until he's sure his body is sloshing full of it. A rope is thrown, a circular object attached to the end, and he grabs on before it can slip away. Hunk and a few others start to pull, bringing them closer before Allura can grab at Lance, lifting him up the towering side of the ship and onto the deck. Keith follows, the shivering of his body making his bones ache, but he doesn’t try to warm them up.

 

He shoves others away until he can see Allura holding her ear to Lance's chest.

 

“Allura?” He coughs, wincing at the burn in his nose and throat.

 

She orders the crew to get back to the sails, cursing as the ship tilts further than it should, before looking to Keith. As if she were in shock, her eyes widen until he can see the panic swimming underneath.  “I have to get to the wheel.”

 

Keith falters, something sharp hitting the hollow of his chest, before he's pushing her aside none to gently.

 

He lowers his own head, listening for himself, before feeling the shake of his fingers as they twine to put pressure on Lance's chest. He moves the medallion to the side before he starts to push, over and over and over, moments before bringing his mouth to meet Lance's. He blows air, willing his own life to flow into his body; for him to wake up.

 

C’mon.” He whispers, trying ceaselessly, until he fears he's doing more harm than good.

 

But then there is a sputtering and Keith is rolling him to his side, relief making his stomach lurch. He fears he’ll throw up as well, that all of his desperation and fear will pour out of him onto the deck. But Lance is breathing, and Keith can only run his shaky hands over his body in hopes to find no rips or tears or punctures.

 

Lance breathes heavily, sucking in as much air as possible, before laying on his back. He stares at the sky, blinking away rain and wind, before looking at Keith.

 

“That was close.” He whispers, voice catching against the rough walls of his throat, agitated by salt water.

 

Keith lets out a deep breath, shaking his head at Lance’s ability to take whatever is thrown at them in stride; to act as if their constant battles and hardships were nothing.

 

“Do I look as old as I feel?” He asks, lifting his head to see Allura beaming from the helm.

 

"Lance-" Keith pulls him up by the front of his shirt, "Shut up."

 

He yanks him close, shoving his face into the side of his neck, as if the captain could warm every crevice of his shivering body. Lance wraps his arms around him slowly, chest heaving against the effort it takes to hold himself upright. But they don't let go and Keith allows himself to sink into Lance, until there are no more waves or rain or thunder. Until it's just them, reminding each other that once again- they made it. 

 

—————————————————————————————————

 

Three weeks later Keith is leaning his elbows on the rail of the helm, listening to the gentle slap of water as they approach a city of swinging bridges and buildings carved into stone. It’s dusk and the sun is hidden behind the cliffs on either side of them, only dim fragments of light shining against large purple, blue and red lanterns. The cliffs give way to smaller hills, where row upon row of temples and houses sit to watch over the open sea and every vessel that passes in between.

 

Altea.

 

For some reason, Keith had expected it to look different.

 

He expected gleaming walls and open sky, a fortress or giant manor to accompany it. Instead, it is shrouded in as much danger and shadow as the rest of the world. It’s cool and damp, haunted in the middle of the ocean. But even he has to admit, it has it’s own beauty.

 

“We can only sail to the docks.” Allura says behind him, standing with arms crossed beside Lance. “We’ll have to walk the rest of the way there.”

 

For someone who’s seeing their home for the first time in years, Keith thought she would look a little happier. She glances at him, eyes flashing and brows furrowed, before looking back to the water.

 

The city is slightly louder beside them as people rush to the ledges of the cliffs to look down at them; to study them before they themselves can be studied. Keith marvels at the speed in which they were able to arrive, cutting weeks upon weeks of travel into three. As if the ocean had been testing them, as if they were led by a guiding hand, they made the rest of the journey with no wicked storms to cause delay. He looks back at Lance, running his eyes over his broad shoulders and the buttons opened near the collar of his shirt. The sea almost took him away, somewhere Keith could never follow, and he had promised himself within minutes of Lance returning that he wouldn’t let it happen again.

 

Even if he had to let the whole world burn.

 

“Will they let us speak?” Lance asks, oblivious to the selfishness of Keith’s own thoughts.

 

“I don’t know.” Allura is quiet, glancing at the shadows playing on the rock.

 

Keith glances up, watching the swaying of a wooden bridge as young children run along it, trying to keep up with their ship.

 

Lance sighs and joins Keith, giving the wheel to Allura, before running a hand through his hair.

 

“What should we expect?” He calls back to Allura, watching his crew as they point and whisper to the purple sparks of light fluttering high above them.

 

Like bugs, they fly and disappear, only to reappear moments later in a different spot.

 

“It’s been years, Lance.” Allura says, “We just have to be careful. They could deny us just as easily as they could welcome us.”

 

Keith helps Hunk tie off the rope on the dock, keeping the ship steady as the others depart. Lance orders the crew to remain on the ship, to wait for word.

 

“Do you think it’s a long walk?” Pidge asks, stepping up beside Keith.

 

He looks toward the path ahead, grimacing at the stretch of steep cobble and rock, “I’d say yes.”

 

And it is, making their legs burn even after months spent running and fighting and sailing. They climb with only sparse torches standing tall to light their path, past streets filled with smoke from boiling stews and teas, past bridges shrouded in mist and fog.

 

“Stop.” Allura says, holding out a hand.

 

She holds no dagger or sword, not even one of her trusted guns rest against her hip.

 

The temple they stop before is larger than any building in the city, with walls steeped and carved by rough tools. As though hundreds of years were spent chipping away at the rock, the edges look as though they could cut. Allura clears her throat and steps forward, placing a dark hand against darker stone, watching as the door sits like a great slumbering beast.

 

“Should you knock?” Lance whispers, “Maybe you just need to knock.”

 

Allura rolls her eyes but keeps her hand still other than the spreading of her fingers.

 

And then the door is opening, a groan filling the cliffs that echo and bounce similar to the wolves in the forest. Keith raises a brow, looking at the man holding a heavy book, before he lets it slip from his fingers to drop into the dirt.

 

Allura lets out a breath, as if relieved, before striding forward to wrap her arms around him.

 

“I had hoped you would answer,” She laughs, “it’s been much too long, Coran.”

Chapter Text

The temple is dark, each winding corridor leading further and further inside of the cliff as they follow behind Coran. Allura is quiet, her demeanor as rigid as when they first breached Altea’s waters. Keith stays close to Lance, letting their fingers brush against one another every so often in reassurance. In hopes that the Altean leadership will welcome them, regardless of their relationship to Allura.

 

Coran chatters, his voice boisterous but strangely welcome against the damp glistening walls of stone. Keith spots fragments of crystal, shining just enough to let off molten silver light against their clothes and skin. He wants to reach out and touch one, to feel whatever ounce of magic he can flow into his fingers- but one look from Allura has him pulling back.

 

“It’s not that easy, you know!” Coran says, copper mustache twitching in a smile. “The Mynea are good spirited, but they’ll just as easily pull your sails and sink you for fun!"

 

Keith raises a brow, trying to picture the creatures Coran seemed so passionate about.

 

“Pull?” Hunk asks, “How could they reach them?”

 

“They jump, of course!” Coran laughs, turning just enough to illuminate the side of his face with his torch, “Ah, here we are. I have to warn you, Alfor is a fair ruler but a ruler just the same. He can strike as easily as any pirate. And it's his decision alone that decides if you stay or not.”

 

He places the flame in a silver notch on the wall before fiddling with the keys on his belt, shuffling through them quicker than Keith can keep up with, before shoving one into a seemingly solid piece of stone. It sparks and clicks, as if placed inside of a lock.

 

The room is glowing as they enter, like the stars spread out so long ago in Pidge’s bungalow, each crevice of the stone pulses with barely contained luster. The floor reflects the ceiling, black marble capturing the night sky beneath their very feet, as if they were walking atop the cosmos. Patches of gemstone, opal, flow like water trapped beneath ice. Shifting hues of purple and blue and red similar to the lanterns outside move as if alive. He doesn’t know where to look, even when Lance places a gentle hand on his lower back, his excitement radiating into Keith. But what catches Keith’s attention above anything else, is the man seated just behind a grand table. It’s the same material as the floor, the surface smooth beneath the elbows of regal white cloth.

 

Keith had only been in the presence of one Emperor and to say it had a lasting impression would be an understatement. Zarkon was cruel by the curl of his lip, by the shadows running along his jaw and the flowing cape resting upon his bulging shoulders. Keith feels unease spill into his gut, remembering the grit of the ruler’s voice and the pleasure in taking away whatever life he saw fit.

 

But where Zarkon was a ruler of dark, of everything decaying and wrong, Alfor was just the opposite.

 

He was shrouded in light.

 

“Allura.” He breathes, the tilt of his voice catching in a show of raw emotion; of hindered love between a parent and child. “You’ve come home.”

 

Keith looks between the two of them, realization seeping in like tree sap. He notices the way Allura carries herself, as if reflecting both her time at sea and her time beside Alfor; regal. He wonders if this is what Lance meant about secrets.

 

Alfor's hair rests against his shoulders, the same color of pure starlight that falls upon Allura’s own head. He wears no crown and bears no flag, but Keith supposes he doesn’t need to; not when he stands as if lighter than air.

 

“Not of my own accord.” Allura says, large eyes glancing between Coran and her father, as if the other could jump in and steer every bit of attention away from herself.

 

Alfor winces, feeling the words like the edge of a sharp blade. He only looks at her for a moment longer, as if giving her a chance to say something more, before turning to the rest of them. 

 

“What brings you here?” He tilts his head, fragments of opal glistening behind him.

 

Keith waits, wondering if Allura would spare them from explaining. But she doesn’t move, save for the flickering of her eyes.

 

“I need your help.” Keith says, stepping forward. He clears his throat, “I was told the druids could help.”

 

Alfor hesitates before leaving the table, walking until he can lean in close; until Keith can see the crescent tattoo just beneath his eye like one would the bits of sand on a seashell. He tries not to back away, to let the man gauge him without pulling free any weapon. Alfor hums before standing tall, eyes catching on the medallion latched around Lance’s throat.

 

“Who sent you?”

 

“A woman-“ Keith glances at Pidge, “Great Leader. From the refuge in the Northern Forests.”

 

“And where is this Great Leader?” He asks, turning to make his way back to his chair. “Why should I listen to your plea?”

 

Pidge makes a pained sound, like the breath in their lungs was being squeezed from between their ribs, “Great Leader stayed with the flames. That sacrifice should be a big enough plea.”

 

Alfor looks to Coran, for conformation or question, Keith can’t tell.

 

“The forest was burnt to the ground.” Keith explains, “I was captured and sent to execution by the Emperor.”

 

The chair groans as Alfor sits, his expression darkening in an instant. Keith sees it then; the way he could transition from something akin to peace to something powerful enough to bring peace to it’s knees. As if he has known enough of executions and the Emperor and forests decimated at the hands of a mad king.

 

He nods, the tilt of his lip a shadow to Zarkon’s, as if one side of the same coin. “I’m listening.”

 

—————————————————————————————————

 

“You will stay here.” Coran says, leading them to the cliffside. The city has settled, if only for the night, the only light to guide their path being that of the moon.

 

The Inn is small but vacant, the shutters chipped from weathered nights and hot days, but providing shelter all the same. Coran waits outside, watching as they shuffle in after having retrieved the rest of the crew. Keith leans against the wall, watching as Allura turns to speak to him, her voice low. It's a short conversation, but Keith can see the stiffness in her shoulders falter a fraction as if in comfort. After she slips inside, Coran turns to return to the temple, his cloak brushing against the back of his calves.

 

Keith runs to catch up to him, grabbing at his his arm, “When will I begin?”

 

Coran’s expression darkens as he turns, a strange shift on an otherwise joyous face, “It’s best if you have patience.”

 

“I am-“

 

“Patience.” He nods, pulling his arm free.

 

Keith watches him go, waiting until he feels an arm wrap around his waist.

 

“We should sleep.” Lance says, the usual blue of his eyes shadowed in dark indigo.

 

Keith sighs and turns in his arms, until he can close the short distance between them. Their lips meet in unison, something soft; something Keith needs to feel compared to the whirlwind threatening each gutter of his mind. Lance traces his fingertips against Keith’s cheek, like the fluttering of a breeze, before settling his hand against the back of Keith’s neck. He smirks, feeling Keith shuffle ever closer.

 

“I can think-“ Keith breathes, tugging against Lance’s coat, “of something better to do than sleep.

 

Lance smiles, glancing at the entrance to Inn, “I’ll beat you there.”

 

He takes off, leaving Keith slightly taken aback, before he shakes his head and bursts through the door seconds after.

 

—————————————————————————————————

 

 “I’ve sent for the Flag.” Lance says, holding a stein to his lips.

 

The tavern is as shadowed as the city, carved and chipped like a crafted piece of art. Keith runs his hands over the wall, watching the faded pulse of light beneath his fingers; too dim, but there all the same. 

 

“Don’t like the Inn?” Keith asks, turning to sit next to him at the bar.

 

People litter the room, draped in dusky cloaks and hoods, in clothes Keith would feel stifled in himself. None of them speak louder than hushed voices, as if their words could carry against the cool draft flowing from within the stone. Keith regards them carefully but even he can’t deny the grace in which they lounge. As if the same stars from above had floated down, taken root, and sprouted a people hidden from the rest of the world. 

 

“I’ve missed my bed.” Lance shrugs, sliding a drink closer to Keith, “And I’ve missed my ship.”

 

“Me too.” Keith admits, “And we’ll need it if we’re going to fight.”

 

Lance watches Keith take a gulp of the beer, “Do you think it will be on the sea?”

 

“Maybe.”

 

“Then we’ll have the advantage.” Lance laughs, tearing his eyes away. “We might even have our serpent friend following close behind.”

 

“I think it’d drown us just as fast, Lance.”

 

Lance smirks, as if confident in the beast and it’s animalistic judgement. “I don’t think so.”

 

—————————————————————————————————

 

“We have to do it!”

 

“Pidge-“ Allura rubs at her temples, “It’s not easy. And we’ve just arrived-“

 

“Who cares about easy?” Pidge scoffs, pulling at the cut pants hanging against their calves.

 

Keith has found himself in similar apparel, the material loose against his skin. His shirt is just as free, the beige cloth falling about his shoulders like it could slip off by a mere brush of wind. But it never does, even as one side would slide lower than the other.

 

“Agreed.” Lance folds his arms, “It’ll be days before the Flag returns, and who knows when anyone will be ready to speak to Keith.”

 

Keith purses his lips, watching Lance roll up his pants until they rest just beneath his knees. The city, while cool and misty at night, warms beneath the sun just as every land does. He can feel a bead of sweat slide down his back, the tickle making him pull at the front of his shirt to let in a quick breath of air. Lance glances at him, raising a brow.

 

“What?” Keith asks, eyeing the strip of fabric tied around Lance’s wrist.

 

“You’ll come, won’t you?”

 

Keith stands and reaches for the fabric, watching as it slides free of Lance’s wrist with ease. He gathers his dark hair and pulls it up, smirking when Lance follows the motion, his gaze resting on the damp skin at his chest. Keith nods, sighing as the open air hits the back of his neck.

 

Allura glares, defeat quickly overtaking her hope as Hunk shrugs, a sheepish smile lighting his face at the thought of the adventure awaiting just moments away.

 

But Keith can’t spot any ounce of disinterest or discontent on her face an hour later when the sprinkling of waves hit her bare feet and splashes against the thin piece of carved wood gliding atop the water like a bird amongst the clouds. A silver sail, cut similar to that of a fan, catches the wind to propel them forward. Keith races beside Lance, watching as his hair whips about his face and his shirt rides up, showing off sun-kissed skin and littered scars.

 

“Watch out for the-!” Coran shouts, cresting a wave. He flies into the air, arms flailing, before hitting the water with a harsh smack.

 

Allura shouts from ahead, her silver hair pulled free from the braid that had been resting on her back. Keith can’t catch what she says before he spots the dark form racing beneath the waves, it’s tail pushing it just as fast as their boards. He wants to warn her, but the creature is already leaping into the air, it’s white fur glistening against the sun.

 

It twirls, large eyes catching sight of the rest of them, before it arcs high above Allura’s head. She watches it, but then another rises, leading a path for the others. Keith watches Allura pull at the sail, her strong arms forcing it away from the threat of the long horns protruding from the front of their heads. They remind Keith of pups, only sporting flippers instead of paws, and a horn instead of floppy ears. He remembers Coran’s warning, but if these are the Mynea he spoke of, he thinks he must have been mistaken.

 

That is, before one speeds out of the water beside him. He has no time to maneuver away before it’s jaws are opening and it is pulling at his sail, tearing it almost completely in two. Keith shouts as the board tilts, causing the soles of his feet to slip. He hits the water hard, feeling the burn in his nose like dry sand, before he resurfaces in sputters. Lance is laughing, his head thrown back toward the sky.

 

Keith considers flipping him over himself, saving the Mynea the trouble, but it seems he doesn't need to.

 

Lance’s arms spin as he falls backwards, the silver sail flying in tatters into the wind.

 

—————————————————————————————————

 

That night, when the city is again shrouded in mist, Coran finds Keith laying upon an outcropping of rock. It sprouts from the side of a cliff like a ledge, big enough for his arms to rest beneath his head as a cushion. He had been staring above, at the clouds as they shadow the moon, letting only thin beams of light through to the water below. Lance, the last time he had checked, was busy exploring the city with Hunk and Pidge.

 

It may seem like a city of ghosts. He had laughed, gazing at the swinging bridges, But every city has a spark for trouble.

 

“Keith.” Coran holds out his hand, offering him an easy way up, “I think it’d be best if you come with me.”

 

“Where?”

 

“Alfor would like to speak with you.“ He reaches further, urging him to stand, “Aren’t you ready for some answers?”

Chapter Text

The hall echoes.

 

Keith tries to stop the tapping of his foot, each little pat drifting to the formless figures standing against the walls, but he can’t seem to keep still. Coran sits close by, the scraping of a quill against parchment pricking against his ears enough to make them itch.

 

“Flame.”

 

Keith looks away from the floor and meets Alfor’s eyes, confused. “I-“

 

“Where is your flame?”

 

“I can’t-“ Keith clears his throat, “I don’t know. It was sealed.”

 

“Sealed?” Alfor glances at the hooded figures beside him, “We’ll unseal it, then.”

 

“That easily?” Keith feels a flash of excitement at the thought of feeling the heat again, at feeling it boil and churn inside of him.

 

“Easy?” Alfor chuckles, “Of course not.”

 

“It will be quite painful, actually.” Coran speaks up, setting the parchment against his knee. “It may not work.”

 

Keith shakes his head, “It has to.”

 

“It will.” Alfor nods, “We’ll make sure of it. But first, it’s important that you realize why it is you have this gift.”

 

The druids remain still, their hoods shadowing any expression, but Keith feels them all the same. Like the buzzing of energy, they watch as if contained; as if they were already working to open Keith’s veins. He glances at them, wondering if they could do more- if they could hear what it is he’s thinking.

 

“A wondrous gift!” Coran smiles, “But it can be disastrous. If used by the wrong hand, it could do much more harm than good.”

 

“And very rare.” Alfor adds, finally moving to stand. He walks slowly, letting a large hand drift against the table beside him. “It was good that your parents sent you so far away. They hid you to keep Zarkon from corrupting you just as he has your brother. The same dark magic that he keeps within his walls now travels through his veins."

 

“My parents?” Keith straightens, “You knew them?”

 

“No.”

 

“Then-“

 

Everyone knew them.” He shakes his head, as if lost in thought, “You may not want to believe Zarkon, but he is right about one thing.”

 

Keith stands, strands of his dark hair falling loose against his face from the cloth tied at his neck, “No.

 

“Your family was the last on the throne. We were allied but even we couldn't stop what was to come.” Alfor glances at Keith’s hands, watching as they begin to shake. “Zarkon betrayed us and turned what was once a prosperous land into an Empire. It's as corrupted as the harvested crystals locked within his great chambers.”

 

"We have to help my brother." Keith glances at the druids, "You can get it out right? It's just like poison, so it should be easy to get out."

 

"Only if he's brought here." Alfor says, shaking his head, "And that is very unlikely."

 

"We have to try!" Keith shouts, "You couldn't save my parents, right? But you have the chance now. To save my brother- their son!"

 

Coran sighs, “Your parents sacrificed themselves to save you, Keith. And by saving you, they have saved us all.”

 

The druids shift closer as Alfor leans against the table, folding his burly arms against his chest, “This magic is ancient. It’s powerful. But it can be controlled just as others have done before you."

 

“Lance-“ Keith starts.

 

“Has done it by himself. But it is tempestuous. He has had only the waves and the tides and the hurricanes to guide him and it reflects in his power. Even we have heard stories of the Black Flag and it's captain. Wild as the sea, isn't he?”

 

“And yours,” Coran sets aside the parchment, “was awakened by lightening, yes?”

 

“I was struck.” Keith hesitates, remembering the state in which his body had resided after the bolt had traveled through him. “I shouldn’t have survived.”

 

“And yet you did.” Alfor smirks, “You also have the medallion.”

 

“I do.”

 

“If restored, it can complete a set of four. One for each form of energy that keeps our planet alive and balanced. Connected. All you have to do is replace Zarkon’s own. To destroy it. If successful, that alone can save your brother.”

 

“And this is how I’m supposed to defeat him?” Doubt rises in Keith, lashing against the warring urge to stride forward; to continue heedlessly into battle. The situation seems almost too easy, too simple. “I don’t want the throne.”

 

“You can’t turn away now.” Alfor glances at the druids, motioning with a flick of his wrist for them to step forward. “And you will not be fighting alone. Along with the captain of the Black Flag, we finally have a chance. And I will not let it go to waste.”

 

Several druids glide forward, as if suspended on air, until their hands are grasping Keith’s wrist. He tries to back away, to put some distance between himself and their frigid grips, but they latch on like tightening rope. They part slightly, to allow another through. And finally Keith catches a glimpse of who resides beneath, her hair resting against her shoulders in brilliant white waves. Allura lifts her eyes and raises a hand, ignoring Keith’s confusion, to press her cool fingertips against his forehead.

 

As his eyes roll and his body thrusts backwards, all he can see is light.

 

—————————————————————————————————

 

When Coran said it would be painful, Keith never thought it could feel like this.

 

As if a plug had been pulled, every cell in his body has come alive like lightening popping from the ground. The seal on his wrist shines bright, wave after wave of red hues wrapping and writhing against his skin like snakes before pushing deep into the flesh.

 

It will come. The man had said, his shop resurfacing from the shadow of Keith’s memories, And you cannot run from it.

 

But Keith, for once, wants desperately to run. He wishes to pour ice into his throat, to run head first into the coldest waves, to return to the sea and sail far away. Because Keith is no prince. Alfor is wrong, Great Leader was mistaken and Keith is nothing more than what he has always known himself to be.

 

But more than the pain lashing inside of him, more than the arch of his back against the ground or the breath halting against his throat, is the pain of his past that hits him the hardest. It surges forward like a tsunami, wrecking every inch of him until all he can see is the parents that were stolen from him; until all he can feel is the hand of his brother latched tight against his. Dragonfire, as hot as the sun, had scorched the planet then just as it continues to do now. Like the forest, every home and tree had been turned to ash behind them. The crystals Zarkon had harvested were as corrupt as everyone says, the dark magic shrouding the entire land like clouds blocking the sun. And in the end his parents, while doing what they could to keep them all together, had perished with their people. 

 

And that alone is what makes him fear that he will never return from where the druids have sent him. As if in distraction, the memories toss and turn inside of his mind, until they have conjoined and become a hulking mass of noise and light and movement. 

 

Yet, in the end, the heat brings him back anyway. He is ripped from his thoughts as if a hand had reached inside of him and pulled, until all he knows is the echo of his own screams in the temple.

 

It continues on for what seems like days, until his last breath finally feels like his first. Cool air flows into him, replacing the sting and cut of heat against his guts, until it begins to settle within the depths of his lungs. Gasping and choking against the air, he sits up fast enough to make the druids stumble away. He reaches out to grasp at Allura’s sleeve, watching as the tattoo’s on her cheeks lessen in their own glow. Her shoulders sag, as if she were exhausted.

 

“This is why I left.” She whispers, meeting Keith’s wild eyes before pushing a damp strand of hair away from the sweat on her face. “I didn’t want to become trapped. I didn’t want to become one of them, stuck in this temple for the rest of my days.”

 

Keith glances at the druids, their faces as shrouded as ever, and the way they have remained silent. As if they could not talk, nor wanted to. He nods, breath leaving in harsh pants. He glances at his arms, watching as the familiar pulse beneath his skin travels as if pumped by the muscles of his heart.

 

“Is it-“ He winces, hearing the shake in his voice, “Is it finished?”

 

“For now.” Alfor steps forward, the silver lining of his cloak similar to the glow of the small crystals above his head. "But first you must gauge how the power feels inside of you."

 

"And how am I supposed to do that?" Keith asks, trying to keep the sneer from his face. The clearness of his memories have left him shaken, the snippets he had always seen suddenly coming together almost too much for him to handle. 

 

"Lift your hands." Allura says softly, stepping in front of Keith to replace the image of her father. 

 

Keith obeys, hesitantly, before she rests her palms atop his. 

 

"I don't believe it's flame." She says quietly, meeting Keith's eyes. "While it's hot, it's almost too electric."

 

Coran shuffles closer, "Does it feel the same? When he was first struck, you said you were there to tend to him."

 

Allura nods, ignoring Keith's questioning gaze, "I was. But this is different. I know it is."

 

Keith tries to stand, pushing Allura’s helping hands to the side. 

 

“You need to rest-”

 

“I won’t take the throne.” Keith interrupts, watching the frown on Alfor’s face grow. “I won’t. But I’ll help you get it, if that’s what it takes.”

 

Alfor regards him cooly, “Just rest. I’ll send for you.”

 

He turns away, the flush of his cloak feather light against the marbled floor. The druids follow close behind, wading past Keith and Allura like spirits, until the heavy door shuts behind them.

 

—————————————————————————————————

 

Keith strides from the temple and away from Coran and Allura, ignoring their pleas for him to slow. He knows he can’t rest, not when a full day has passed; not when the energy inside of him is refreshed and buzzing enough to make his legs shake. He finds his way to the tavern, pushing the doors open with a grunt, until the sounds inside reach his ears faster than the smell of rum and beer. He looks around, noticing the way voices bounce against each other; the way smoke rises and hovers in the air. As if a new tavern entirely, the atmosphere has evolved into something dangerous and lively.

 

He spots Lance almost immediately, watching as the medallion hangs against the dark skin of his chest. His shirt is unbuttoned and his hair is wild, as if he had just come from the sea. Keith catches his eye as he approaches.

 

“I was wondering when you’d come find me.” Lance stands, glancing at the faded hue of Keith’s skin, “I have something to show you.”

 

“I have to talk to you.” Keith says, grabbing at the stein in his hand. He takes a gulp, feeling the rum sting against the back of his throat before settling in his stomach.

 

“Well, which would you like to do first?” Lance laughs, watching as Keith slams the stein back onto the table.

 

He sees the way Lance’s eyes flicker, glancing over Keith’s face in both barely contained worry and drunken cheer.

 

“Show me.” Keith decides, suddenly wishing to keep away the confirmation of his fears and the painful hours before, if only for the next night.

 

Lance nods and starts to push his way through the crowd, somehow holding tight to both Keith’s hand and a half-filled bottle, before they return to the city street.

 

“We’re going down?” Keith questions, looking over Lance’s shoulder at the steep stone steps.

 

“Of course we are.” Lance chuckles, throwing his head back to take another large drink. He holds the bottle out to Keith, waiting until he’s finished, before starting down the path.

 

The night is quiet the further they get from the cliffside, until the soft splash of waves against rock replaces any hint of harsh laughter or voices- until Keith is pulled to a final swinging bridge. The planks creak beneath their boots and Keith glances over the side, watching as the water between the cliffs crest and break. Lance leads him to the docks, surprisingly vacant, before stopping.

 

Keith feels the breath catch in his throat as the hulking mass of the Black Flag stands tall and sturdy against the moon. The sails, dark as ever, wave against the gentle breeze as if in greeting. Keith runs forward, listening as Lance follows close behind, before traveling across the ramp and onto the deck. It’s just as he remembers, down to the dents on the rails and the scrapes against the metal, from fights and weathered storms, from the scorched spot on the helm where Keith once stood.

 

He takes the wheel, feeling the hard metal settle in the heat of his palm, “She’s back.”

 

Chapter Text

“It’s a channel.” Coran lifts Keith’s arms higher, until his palms are splayed against the air as if he could lean upon it. “Imagine it soaring through you and into your palm.”

 

“We’ve been trying for days.” Keith says, patience wearing thin. He glances at Lance, who’s legs are resting atop a large rock. Leaning back, he watches Keith with sleep-ridden eyes; his promise to stay awake wearing on him quicker than it does Keith.

 

“I say let loose.” Lance yawns, “That’s what I do.”

 

“We don’t know what will actually happen,” Allura reminds him, her fingers playing with the hilt of a pistol, “If he messes up, it could destroy more than we’re prepared for.”

 

Keith lowers his arms with a huff, feeling the heat of the sun press against his back enough to burn. The peaks of the cliffs are flat, as if someone had rolled a great ball across them, “The seal must be resisting.”

 

“The seal is off.” Alfor grunts, walking from his own spot on the cliff, “You’re the one resisting.”

 

“I’m trying!” Keith whips around, until the others can only stare at his back. The sea is sprawling before him, the deep blue stretching far on the horizon in every direction, “Zarkon could find us any moment. And I’ve accomplished nothing.”

 

“No one said it would be easy-“

 

“No one said it would take this long!”

 

“We need rest.” Coran sighs, turning to follow the others back toward the city.

 

Keith shakes his head, not waiting to watch them go. If it were up to him, they would be invading the Emperor’s land as early as they can, and he would take Lance’s advice in a heartbeat. Seeing as it has never stopped him before, he’s almost certain he just needs the right motivation.

 

“Are you coming?” Lance asks, waiting for Keith to turn to him. Gulls fly overhead, their shrill calls echoing through the paths within the cliffs behind them.

 

“I’m not tired.”

 

“Then we won’t sleep.”

 

Pushing his sleeves up, Keith raises a brow, “The tavern?”

 

“No.” Lance laughs, glancing toward the other side of the cliffs. “We’ll go to the sky.”

 

—————————————————————————————————

 

Lance sails the Black Flag high, until even the tops of the cliffs are once again shrouded in thick mist and the setting sun has begun to shine bright upon them. Keith stands at the bow, rope held tight in one hand as he lets the air drift between the fingers of the other. The great engines beneath them hum and dissipate the edges of the clouds, until they rise higher still, the atmosphere looking much like the waves on the ocean. He remembers Lance’s dreamlike words, that they could soar into the stars. And being here now, with the captain sailing at his back, he feels as though it could be possible.

 

Beams of light hit the tops of the clouds, reflecting like diamond or crystal, and glitter so bright Keith has to look away in fear that his eyes will burn.

 

“You look as if you could fly.” Lance says, leaning against the large metal post leading to the mast and sails.

 

Keith turns, feeling his hair slip from it’s confinement to float and drift about is face. He looks over Lance, at the coat adorning his shoulders and the sword attached at his hip, the boots resting against his calves and the scars running like constellations on his skin. Jumping from his post, Keith strides to pull Lance close to him, until their lips brush against each other. As if they were somehow closer this way they let their breaths mingle, until the sun vanishes behind them.

 

The ship remains on a steady course, slowing from it’s earlier ascent to a calmer pace, leading them further and further away from Altea.

 

Lance hums, bringing Keith closer still, until his hands can rest against Keith’s waist. “You’d be the first pirate to become a king.”

 

“I told him no.” Keith rests his head against Lance’s shoulder, smirking when their fingers lace at his side.

 

“Of course you did.”

 

“If we make it out of this, I would never set foot in that place again.” Keith admits, remembering the throne room like one would a frigid layer of the underworld. As if he were casted in the depths, the Emperor’s cold gaze had destroyed any hopes of Keith finding a home within it’s walls.

 

“You’d be remembered.” Lance sighs, watching as Keith lifts his head.

 

“Would you?” Keith asks, trying to keep his voice from wavering. The thought of Lance leaving him, the image of him sailing away without him, is almost too much to bear. “Would being remembered mean that much to you?”

 

Lance hesitates, “I think it would have.” He travels his hand from Keith’s waist, passing over the thin material of his shirt, until his fingers can pull gently at the hair resting against the base of his neck. “But things have changed.”

 

Keith closes his eyes, feeling the tug of his fingers and the brush of his hair; the gentle wind grazing across his back.

 

“And do we remember every cresting wave?” Lance adds.

 

Keith looks at him, furrowing his brows, “But the Flag will be remembered. You will be, whether you're a king or not.”

 

“No.” Lance shakes his head, “In the end I’m just a boy lost to the sea. I'm just a boy who loved it too much.”

 

—————————————————————————————————

 

The stars are bright as they make their way back, fatigue catching up to them from hours lost to the clifftops. Keith feels his arms ache, each nerve stretched too thin from hours practicing something that has begun to seem rather hopeless. He debates forgoing it all, to just stick to the sword.

 

He turns to Lance from his perch on the rail of the helm, “Lance-“

 

“Wait.” Lance interrupts, blue eyes narrowing against the parting clouds as they lower the ship. “Do you see that?”

 

Keith jumps from the rail, his boots hitting the deck with a bang before he makes his way forward. They’re still a few miles from Altea but he spots them easily, each ship a speck in the distance. But they’re approaching all the same, a whole line of them, sailing with purpose.

 

“We have to warn them.” Keith says, breathless, judging the distance they’ll have to sail, “We have to hurry."

 

Lance grunts in response, already turning the wheel to catch a quick gust of wind. They lower themselves to the water, hitting it with a powerful splash, enough to send streams flying onto the deck. Keith wipes it from his face, keeping his eyes alert for the telltale sign of a shadows sprouting from the water. He jumps off at the nearest risen ledge when they breach the cliffs, boots hitting slick stone, before he’s pulling himself up the stairs toward the temple. People curse as he pushes past them, their eyes catching on the dark sails of the Black Flag before continuing on their way.

 

“Hunk!” Keith shouts, spotting the boy a few meters away.

 

He turns, surprised, before meeting Keith with a helping hand. Keith leans against Hunk, waiting for his breath to slow, “Where is Allura?”

 

“The tavern.” Hunk says slowly, as if he were seeing Keith with two heads instead of one. “Is something happening? What’s going on?”

 

“Just follow me!” Keith says, pulling at Hunk’s arm.

 

They reach the tavern moments before Allura walks out, her guns once against strapped to her sides. She startles, pushing Keith reflexively, “What the fu-“

 

“You have to warn your father.” Keith pants, pointing toward the entrance to the cliffs, “There’s a fleet, miles off, but headed this way.”

 

Her eyes widen, as if the mere idea of someone finding the cliffs was unthinkable, before she’s nodding. “Where’s Lance?”

 

“With the Flag.”

 

She nods, “Join him and wait for word.”

 

And then she is gone, bounding away and up the steps, before disappearing into the mist completely.

 

“Is it Zarkon?” Hunk questions as they run, pulling Keith behind them a few moments later, “Did you see the dragon?”

 

“We couldn’t tell.” Keith huffs, hearing the bridge creak and swing beneath their feet as they cross.

 

Lance is ordering the crew to the sails when they arrive, his own pistol strapped to his thigh, before turning to meet them at the dock. Others crowd around, civilians who seem more in tune with the solemn druids than the pirates cursing against the wind, and Keith wishes they would leave. But, looking around, he isn’t really sure where they could go.

 

“We’ll meet them at sea.” Lance nods, fingers pulling at the hilt of his sword, as if he had read Keith's mind.

 

“One against a dozen?”

 

“Why not?” Lance chuckles, leading Keith to the deck.

 

Keith smirks, watching as Lance takes to the helm, his hands wrapping around the pegs of the wheel as if they had never left. He turns to help Pidge loosen the sails further, until they’re billowing wide and casting shadow. The crowd around them parts, each person bowing their heads in respect as Alfor approaches the ship.

 

“Is it true?” He asks, glancing at Allura when she passes, as if he could pull her back.

 

“Yes.” Keith nods, “We spotted them approaching from the Northern waters.”

 

Alfor doesn’t hesitate before he’s turning to Coran, ordering the man to enter the coves beneath the temples. Keith raises a brow at the patch resting over Coran’s right eye, as if he had read of pirates and hasn’t been amongst them for days, but doesn’t waste any time asking.

 

“We have to move.” Keith says, “Or they’ll be upon the cliffs in under an hour.”

 

“I know.” Alfor nods, white hair falling around his face, “Do what you must.”

 

He doesn’t say anything else before he’s turning away, ordering the crowd to dissipate. Lance shouts to the crew and Keith pulls away from the rail, waiting for the lurch of the ship and the snapping of the sails. They breach open water in no time and Keith wishes the mist would disappear sooner, wishing each push of distance between them would break apart the particles to let moon beams shine.

 

Keith wonders if they’ve miscalculated, if they’ve risen a false alarm and the ships were simply carrying trade. But then they spot them, closer now that they’ve lessened the distance between them. They float like a wall, bulking masts holding sails painted in the crest of the Emperor, with open cannons to match. Lance smiles, the wicked tilt of his lips sparking shouts amongst the crew; excitement and madness racing against the metal floor of the ship like water to a stream.

 

“I don’t hear wings.” Pidge says beside Keith, their hair pushed away from their face just as it was weeks ago after his rescue. “I don’t even hear voices.”

 

Keith looks back to the fleet, eyes drifting like they’re mere pieces on a game board. 

 

He hears the opening of cannon ports, the pull of the metal screeching against the air, before his eyes finally rest on a final ship. He rushes forward, until his hands are pressed against the railing of the bow, chest pounding in time to the splashing of waves. Shiro stands tall from his spot across the water, hood gone and replaced by material made for surviving the sea. Even from this distance, Keith recognizes the way he holds his shoulders; the way his eyes seem trained upon him alone.

 

But for once, there really isn't a dragon. Shiro cannot escape to the air and he can’t use the flame against them. Keith knows that whether he likes it or not, he is no longer the one with the advantage. Because Keith isn’t the boy from the desert anymore. He isn’t just a younger brother nor is he a prince. He’s a pirate, with saltwater running through his veins hotter than any ancient magic.

 

And that alone is what he needs to win.

Chapter Text

 “I can end this!” Lance shouts, eyes blazing against the crash of metal upon metal.

 

Keith grunts as he kicks a tall man away, sword streaked red, “My brother is still on that ship!”

 

The ship is similar to the Black Flag in the sense that it is large and capable of withstanding both blasts from heavy cannons and the tossing of waves. Pushed by forced current, the water licks the sides of the ships and threatens to spill over, until they tilt and teeter dangerously. Keith wonders if their ships could collide, if their sails would mash and the final damage done would be on equal footing.

 

Lance huffs as they meet back to back, swords raised against the invading soldiers swinging from ropes and flexible poles, “Then we have to lure him here.”

 

Glancing at the adjacent ship, Keith spots his brother bringing his obsidian sword down upon someone’s head, “I can do it.”

 

“No!” Lance shouts, grabbing his pistol from the holster on his waist. He raises it high and aims true, the ring of the bullet flying fast before cutting through a woman foolish enough to swing above. Her body falls in front of Keith but he has no time to look, his own sword having taken root in another’s shoulder.

 

He grimaces and pulls it free, the gash spurting blood against his face. Smoke from the cannons fill the air between the two ships, until the sky is hazy with it, allowing Shiro enough coverage to slip out of Keith’s sights.

 

“I have to!” He turns, swinging his sword just as Lance ducks to stab through someone’s ribs. Keith’s blade cuts clean, “There’s no other way!”

 

He spots Pidge and motions for them to grab a rope, to have it ready.

 

The cannon’s boom around them, each ball splintering what little wood they can find and bits of metal, until pieces are flying onto both decks. Allura shouts close by, her voice shrill and so alive Keith swears he can feel it himself. Shaking his head, Lance shoots three bullets, each one finding it’s target in quick succession, allowing them a small second of reprieve.

 

“You’ll come back.” Lance says, turning to grab the hair at the base of Keith’s neck, voice loud against the violent clashes surrounding them, “Promise me!”

 

Keith nods, pulling at the lapels of Lance’s coat, “I promise.”

 

Their lips crash together like the crests on the coastline, fast and fleeting, before Lance is turning to pull the trigger on his pistol once again. Keith is ripped away, his arm held tight by Pidge. They yell something but he can’t decipher it, not before the rope swings in front of him like vine. He takes hold, fingers gripping tight.

 

Flying through the smoke stings his eyes, like slashes of a thin blade, before he falls to the deck below. It’s spattered in red and he avoids the chunks of miscellaneous objects as best as he can, the chance of finding Shiro more important than any squelch beneath his boots. He holds the hilt of his sword close, trying desperately to see through the smoke, to tell apart the thrashing forms around him. It’s as if the mist from the cliffs had traveled here, eager to shroud them all and keep them away from it’s ledges. But Keith doesn’t stop looking, eyes wild, until the bulky form in his peripheral steps through the dense smoke.

 

Shiro is damp, from ocean water and blood, the latter trailing down his face like drops of rain. It trails over the bridge of his nose, dissecting the scar. He spots Keith and halts, as if he didn’t expect to see him; as if he didn’t know he was there at all. It lasts only a moment, and then he is upon Keith like a storm, a flurry of metal and sparks falling against his eyes in burst of color. Keith holds fast, each slide of the steel in his sword reverberating to the joints in his wrists and further up, to the bones inside of his chest. He thinks of years past, as if they were suddenly there, and imagines they’re sparring. As if the scorching desert sun was their only companion.

 

In the desert, there were a handful of times Keith fought his brother. Most times, he knew they would stop before he actually got hurt. Other times, he knew Shiro would let him win. And Keith would detest him for it, as much as one could detest a sibling during a disagreement. But Shiro would always up the ante, holding out just a bit longer, hitting just a bit harder. Until one day, Keith didn’t beat him. He had received a good wack to the face, strong enough to send his mind reeling and his body sprawling, until all he could see was the cloudless sky.

 

It had hurt. He’ll admit that he felt it deep, much closer to the breaking of bone than any other hit he’d received from anyone else.

 

And now it seems the past was keen to repeat itself. Only this time, Keith knows Shiro isn't helping him. He isn't giving him instructions or praise. He aims to kill. His dark blade passes by Keith’s head within an inch, close enough to slice at strands of his hair. Ducking, Keith swipes at Shiro’s legs, remembering that the larger man tends to focus on upper body attacks more-so than defense. His ankle hits Shiro’s leg like a brick against a stone wall, but he prides himself as Shiro stumbles, taken back by the speed in which Keith falls upon him again. He tries to knock the sword out of his hand, to push him against the rails of the exploding ship, to do anything but pierce his flesh.

 

Shiro rounds on Keith during his moment of consideration, catching him off guard. The fist that connects with Keith’s jaw feels like a flash of death itself, the pain of both breaking skin and flowing heartache crashing through him simultaneously.

 

He tumbles, the force of the hit powerful enough to send him to his knees, where he retches against the pooling blood in his mouth. Shiro walks to him slowly, as if weighing his options, before Keith raises his head. The obsidian blade is inches from his eye, the dark metal covered in grime and gore. Keith looks to Shiro, meeting his gaze in one last desperate hope that he’ll suddenly snap out of it. It’s a foolish thought, like most are when facing death. He’d seen it many times before, reflected in the eyes of those in the desert and at the end of his own sword. But more than that, Keith is foolish. Foolish to think he could bring his brother back to him, that he could return to Lance; that he could keep any sort of promise.

 

“What are you waiting for?” Keith sneers, tasting the metallic tinge of blood against his teeth.

 

Shiro doesn’t answer, even as the carnage flying behind him comes dangerously close to impact; even when Keith’s own fingers twitch toward his fallen sword. And Keith, for every ounce of foolishness in him, sees it. As if Shiro was fighting something deep in him, as if he could almost see past the cloud of the poison, he wavers. But it isn’t enough, and Keith can only watch as the sword moves to aim toward his heart.

 

And then Shiro is falling, the white of his eyes flashing just moments before his body crumples to the deck at Keith’s knees.

 

“Do you know how hard it is-“ Pidge huffs, holding the butt of their gun in sweat soaked fingers, “to reach high enough to knock someone out like that?”

 

Keith stares at the back of Shiro’s head, at Pidge, at Hunk striding toward them with intent.

 

Pidge leans down to Keith and snaps their fingers in his face, “C’mon, man!”

 

He shakes his head and stands, shakily, before reaching for his own sword. Hunk only looks at him for a moment before he’s gathering Shiro up, none to gently, to bring him to the Black Flag. His arms can’t hold any weapon and this is what springs Keith into action, the thought of his friend being struck alerting enough to send his sword flying through the air beside Shiro’s limp form. It pierces into a man’s forehead and he falls fast, giving Keith enough to time to run forward and retrieve it.

 

He doesn’t watch to see how Hunk manages to get back to the ship. All he knows is the pounding of his boots on the deck and the shouting of Lance, who has just spotted his return. His eyes are alight and his smile is fierce against the red splashed across his face, but they have no time to reunite. Lance notices Hunk and Pidge behind him, with Shiro in tow, before he sprints to the helm. He turns to kick at someone’s chest, someone idiotic enough to try to follow him up, before he makes it to the wheel. The sails are already catching the wind as he lets the lever beneath the wheel click from place, allowing them to lurch forward, alarmingly close to the rest of the fleet. Keith wonders why they’ve yet to attack but he supposes it has something to do with Shiro, with his lack of orders for them to do so.

 

They pick up speed, as if they could burst through the remaining ships victorious, before Lance is using all of his strength to slam the wheel to the side. It spins quicker than Keith has ever seen it, the pegs blurring together, as the ship tilts to the left. The crew uses it to their advantage, the momentum helping them throw stragglers overboard. Keith follows suit, the blunt of his sword slamming against a man’s temple, before he’s forced over the railing. He turns, to make his way to Lance, but someone else has already found their way there. The woman wields two swords, the blades curved against the air, as she meets Lance’s blows. Keith starts forward, looking about the deck for a fallen pistol, before he hears Lance’s pained shout. Keith starts to run, gun forgotten, before spotting the billowing of red against his arm almost instantly. Lance grimaces as he brings his own sword back with his uninjured arm, the gems resting against the hilt seeming to glow within his palm, before it whirs to connect to flesh. The woman falls like a weight as Keith makes it up the stairs in time to catch Lance against his chest.

 

“I can’t do it.” Lance motions toward the raised bit of ship behind them, “You have to bring that fleet down.”

 

“What?” Keith glances behind them, at the crew shouting in victory; at Allura watching over Shiro’s hunched form with detest. “I can’t-“

 

“Keith.” Lance holds his hand to his arm, letting the blood run between his fingers, “Just let go.”

 

He falters for only a moment, the thought of the ship sinking playing at the edges of his mind like a nightmare, before he nods. The climb is fairly simple, even as his boots slide and the ship wavers. Up so high, he can see the expanse of the fleet falling in behind them like sharks. Like sea serpents coiling through the water, the sails span with agility akin to fins. But Keith isn’t afraid, even as he feels the heat building from days of training, he feels not even an a prickling of doubt.

 

Because Lance is behind him, bleeding but alive, and shouting something against the torrent of wind in Keith’s ears.

 

“-loose!”

 

Keith glances back, focusing on the heat concentrating within the pit of his stomach and the hollows of his chest.

 

Lance shakes his head, a small smile forming at Keith’s raised brows, before cupping his hands against his mouth, “Let loose!”

 

And Keith does, as if the words were the trigger he needed to pull, until the light is exploding from his hand. It's as bright as the sun itself, each stream of light cascading in colors of red and yellow and white . A jet of buzzing heat flies forward, almost too quiet in its descent, before a boom loud enough to push against the waves echoes throughout the sky. The stream of light crackles the further it gets, bits of electricity flying into the air, before the first of it slams into the first ship. He can hear the explosions like music, like a symphony of otherworldly wreckage, moments before streams of light catch on the other sails. As if traveling against the air current fires bloom to life, metal and wood fly feet into the air, smoke rises from fierce electrocution.

 

But Keith doesn’t really see it. Even as his eyes glow, as bright as the blue in Lance’s own, he can't focus on anything.

 

But he can feel it.  And only when his hands lower, as the ships rest behind them like a graveyard upturned, does Keith come back to himself. He falls, hands gripping whatever solidity they can, as his breath leaves him in heaves. His throat feels parched and his hair falls limp around his face, but judging from the hoots and hollers behind him, he knows he did it.

 

—————————————————————————————————

 

Altea doesn’t welcome them back. Not that Keith would blame them, considering the black smoke from the sea has already begun to drift within the cliffs. Keith controls the wheel for Lance, the blood having stopped but the pain still running rampant enough to leave him panting against it. Alfor is waiting with Coran at the docks, his expression cloudy with distrust when Hunk folds Shiro over his shoulder.

 

“You said you could help him.” Keith says, pushing past Hunk as the crew goes about tying down the ship, “If I brought him here, you said you could help him.”

 

Lance grimaces as Allura tightens the cloth on his arm, “And would you look at that?” He lets out a breathy chuckle, “We've practically delivered him to your doorstep.”

 

Alfor glances at Coran, who only shrugs, before sighing in defeat.

 

He motions for Hunk to follow him, the winding steps to the temple seeming much too far for Keith. He wants to get it started right away, to let the druids pull the magic out of him until his veins run red instead of black. But Alfor has different plans, his eyes turning to fall on Keith like that of a displeased god.

 

“You’ll have to wait.”

 

“What?” Keith asks, feeling panic rise in him as Hunk carries Shiro farther and farther away. “He’s my-“

 

“I know.” Alfor nods, “But you will only dislike what has to be done and the druids cannot be disrupted. You have to be patient. Wait for him to wake.”

 

Anger flares in Keith, strong enough that his hands twitch with the force of it, before Lance is resting a hand on his waist. Alfor doesn’t say anything more before turning to retreat up the steps, nodding at Coran to lead the way.

 

“He’ll be alright.” Lance says, “And you’ll be alright, too.”

 

Keith sighs but doesn’t try to chase after them; not when Lance is beside him like an anchor. Like the upturned pieces of his mind can be soothed with just a touch, he leans into Lance’s side in both comfort and exhaustion. The sun is only an hour from rising and he wants nothing more than to sleep.

 

“Lance.” Allura says, walking up beside them. Her hair is a mess, wild and loose about her shoulders, “You need to be stitched up.”

 

She holds a pouch against her hip, no doubt full of fresh cloth, stolen from one shop or another.

 

Keith remembers Lance’s injury like a shock, his expression falling as he turns to study it. The cloth is soaked through, until even the tips are stained with deep red. He tightens the knot, ignoring Lance’s hissed curse, before grabbing hold of his hand.

 

“Come on.” Allura sighs, making her way toward the tavern.

 

—————————————————————————————————

 

“Hold him!” Allura shouts, shooting a look of indignation toward Keith, “If you let his arm go, I’ll-“

 

“I got it!” Keith sneers, wrapping his fingers tight against Lance’s elbow.

 

Lance can’t help the pull of his arm, relying on only the rum within his stein to numb even a bit of his pain, as Allura brings the molten metal against his skin.

 

“You fuckin’ liar!” He shouts, downing the rest of his drink, “You call this stitches?!”

 

Allura presses the metal down, wincing as the skin sizzles, “The cut would never have been able to hold stitches!”

 

Keith has only a second to pass her the new sterilized cloth, watching as it soaks into the skin like snow on stone. She wraps it, going about the width of his arm a few times, before tying it off. He glances at Lance’s face, watching as it screws up in pain, before he can finally let go. His arm flies away and he goes to hold it, looking as if they had both betrayed him.

 

“You-“

 

“You’ve had worse.” Allura interrupts, rolling her eyes.

 

“And enough scars to prove it.” Keith adds, grabbing a newly filled stein to slide his way.

 

Lance gulps it down before leaning against the bar, head falling back, “I need a swim.”

 

“Your wound is too fresh.” Allura stands, “You’re just going to get it infected.”

 

“It’s up high.” He argues, “It’ll be fine.”

 

She only shakes her head before heading off, no doubt to wash away her own grime the best she can. Keith waits for Lance to stand, the shaking of his hand only pausing for a moment as they intertwine their fingers.

 

The walk to the lowest ledge is slow, their boots trudging against the stone like paper weights. Journeying to the far-side of the cliff is work, each tilt of land almost treacherous without years spent treading on it. But the water is a reward in itself, the cool water hitting their calves moments before the first few rays of the sun breach the horizon. They walked far enough to hear no morning bustle, only the hush of the waves loud enough to reach their ears. Keith watches Lance’s arm, making sure he truly does keep it above the water, before he submerges himself. He lets the current brush against his hair and sighs when Lance trails his own fingers through it, as if he were washing it.

 

“We forgot the soap.” Keith groans, “Why do we always forget the soap?”

 

Lance hums, lowering himself further into the water until it brushes against his bare chest. Their clothes rest against the ledge behind them, set to warm and dry as the sun rises. Keith looks forward the putting them on, to feeling the cloth against his chilled skin like a warm blanket. They wade together, arms wrapped close, for what seems like hours. And then they waste hours more, sunbathing against the rock like a pair of desert lizards. Or, Keith supposes, merpeople. He humors himself with the thought, remembering the viciousness of the folk and the depth of their hunger. He even manages to fall into a light sleep with Lance pressed to his side, trailing fingers over the expanse of his skin. It feels like a breeze or a trickling of water; simple but refreshing.

 

The sun rises slowly in the eastern sky and blazes by the time they make their way back, Keith’s skin a hint redder than it’s been in days. They make their way toward the Black Flag, the thought of falling into the bed as the deck gets washed clean more tantalizing than the food they could find to fill their empty stomachs.

 

But they never make it that far, their path interrupted by Hunk’s sudden appearance.

 

“Keith.” He breathes, holding his hands to his knees as if he had been running, “It’s your brother.”

 

Keith pulls away from Lance, worry spiking into him like a thorn, “What?”

 

Hunk takes a moment, urging his body to catch it’s breath, before meeting his eyes. “Your brother. He’s awake.”

Chapter Text

 

 

 

The temple is quiet, save for the crisp crackling of a large fire glowing in brilliant hues of gold and blue behind Alfor. Druids stand in a condensed circle in the middle of the room, blocking Keith and Lance from any chance at seeing Shiro. Their cloaks are pushed high upon their shoulders, swallowing their bodies until they appear as one mass of cloth and shadow. Keith can practically feel the hours of work seeping into the pores on his skin, thick and heavy and stifling.

 

Alfor holds a glass to his lips, though Keith can’t see his throat work in any gulps.

 

“Keith.” Coran steps forward, orange hair fallen from its usual tail on his head, the strands laying against the sweat of his cheekbones, “You’re just in time.”

 

Keith feels a coil tighten in his stomach immediately, the only stable point being Lance’s hand on his back, holding him steady enough to keep from falling to the floor.

 

“Is he-“ Lance glances ahead, raising a brow, “you know?”

 

Coran smirks and brings a hand to wipe at his forehead, “You can see for yourself.”

 

The druids part one after another, until only the elegant cape falling from Allura’s own shoulders blocks their gaze. She turns slowly, her loose silver braid falling against the metallic clasps that keep her cape against her shoulders. The tilt of her mouth is both gentle and cautious as she nods, her dark skin seeming to glisten as she passes, once again embodying the depths of the cosmos. She glides past them just as Keith finally spots Shiro on the floor, his hands braced in front of him as if he could just as easily fall to his face.

 

A pool of dark dried liquid surrounds him, soaking into the cracks within the tile, like the spilling of oil or his own blood. Lance lets Keith walk ahead, yet remains close enough, his own hand resting atop the hilt of his sword.

 

Shiro breathes deep, ragged drags of oxygen into what sounds like parched lungs, as if the air were new to his body. As if he had been on an entirely different planet all this time, his insides accustomed to something darker; something decayed. Keith steps close enough to place his hand upon his head if he wanted to, to pull him up by his shoulders or flick his forehead as if he needed the prodding to look up. But Shiro doesn’t need anything other than the strength of his own neck to propel his eyes upward.

 

And then Keith is falling to his knees like he had tried so hard not to do earlier, the sight of Shiro’s dark eyes welcoming against the flickering light of the room. No hint of glowing yellow remains; not even a shade of it is left within his iris. He seems hesitant to hold Keith close even as the younger man wraps his arms about his neck like he used to do when he was a child. As if they were reuniting after scavenging the dunes in the desert, Keith feels the return of the hot wind with each wheeze of Shiro’s broad chest.

 

“Keith?” Shiro’s voice cracks.

 

“It’s me.” Keith grabs at Shiro’s torn shirt, holding the fabric tight beneath his fingers, “I’m here.”

 

“Why aren’t-“ He leans back, bringing his large hand to rest upon Keith’s shoulders, “Why aren’t you home?”

 

Lance laughs, an abrupt sound in the face of the otherwise silent room, and Shiro looks up sharp as a whip. He tenses, as if he could leap up and attack with a simple flick of his arm. But Keith is fast, breaking away from Shiro to stand in front of Lance; as if he even needed the protection.

 

Keith gathers himself, glancing at Alfor’s calm demeanor, before holding out a quivering hand to his brother, “You’ve been gone a long time, Shiro. Things have changed.”

 

 

—————————————————————————————————

 

Keith’s head remains low as he talks to his brother, their hanging feet swinging off the side of the cliff in tandem to the evening mist. He watches the way Shiro’s fingers twitch, one comprised of flesh and the other thick metal, as if the solid rock beneath them could shift at any moment and give way. He picks at it as if he could fall into the depths; away from Keith and the truth of his words. He debates it just as Keith has before, as if the expanse of the sea or the desert could shroud him from any more shortcomings and hardships.

 

Lance stands close by with crossed arms, hood pulled high atop his head in shadow, but Keith can’t be too sure whether he sleeps or listens. His arm stays wrapped tight, the cloth cleaned once more by Allura, and just as infection-free as he had promised. He doesn’t trust Shiro and though Keith can’t blame him, he also can’t bring himself to leave his brother’s side either. Alfor hadn’t said a word to them before they shuffled out of the temple but Keith still feels his gaze like a hawk, no doubt waiting for the opportune moment to swoop in and begin new plans. But Lance had promised Keith that he’d keep the man at bay, at least for the next few hours.

 

And Keith couldn’t have been more grateful.

 

“I can feel the heat.” Shiro continues, having listened to the cusp of Keith’s tales before relaying his own. “Like the great beast is still beside me. Like it’s claws are still scraping the rock from the planet.”

 

“Shiro, it’s not-“

 

“It’s my fault.” He shakes his head, the grinding of his teeth making the muscle within his jaw shift, “It will always be my fault. I never should have left.”

 

“You can’t change anything about the past.” Keith says, glancing at Lance. “But there’s always the future.”

 

Wind whips around them, through their hair and across their cooled skin, until it continues down the side of the cliff.

 

“The future isn’t a given.”

 

“It’s not.” Keith agrees, “But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. A year ago, I would have never imagined this.” He swipes his hand around, past the cliffs and toward the docks and beyond that, to the open ocean.

 

Shiro notices the way Keith’s eyes catch on Lance again, as if he couldn’t look away for more than a few minutes, before finding himself drawn back. Keith doesn’t care if Shiro sees, even if his cheeks burn and his pulse pricks. He supposes his brother had already caught on to the situation back in the temple, when Keith had grabbed hold of Lance’s hand and held tight.

 

“Pirates.” Shiro shakes his head, changing the subject in stride, “And you trust them?”

 

Keith shifts, watching Shiro glance at Lance in his peripheral.

 

“I trust him.”

 

“Are you-“

 

“He’s brave.” Keith interrupts, remembering the way Lance’s eyes shone with little magic and many tears on the hill in the forest; remembering his willingness show vulnerability to Keith in stride,  “He’s smart. And he saved my life- I trust him.”

 

Shiro flinches, as if the reminder that he had almost played a part in Keith’s death had suddenly struck him in the chest, “And you consider yourself one of them?”

 

“Yes.” He doesn’t hesitate, “From the moment I grabbed his hand and felt the ship beneath my feet.”

 

“He’s a powerful ally to Alfor.”

 

“So are you.”

 

“There’s nothing I can do.” Shiro starts to pick at the stone again, “Zarkon would have been expecting either my return or news of my death. And if I return now-“

 

“You will be returning.” Keith nudges Shiro’s shoulder with his own, “But so will we.”

 

Sighing, Shiro drapes his arm around Keith’s shoulders, “When did you get so wise?”

 

“I’m not.” Keith smirks, feeling the weight of his arm as if he were in a dream. As if his brother was just a mirage; a reminder of what could be if he wasn’t locked within the Emperor’s grasp. But as he hears shuffles behind them and feels the heat of Shiro’s arm against his own, he knows his mind is no longer playing any cruel trick.

 

Lance scoffs, taking his time to push away from the steep slab of stone at his back, “Don’t be so humble.”

 

The brush of his cloak reaches Keith’s cheek before he actually plops down beside him, eyeing Shiro for only a moment, before searching Keith’s face. 

 

It’s quiet, the two having only spoken less than two words to each other within the past few hours. Keith doesn’t mind and instead finds comfort in their silent presence, as if power was flowing between the two of them and soaking into his own skin.

 

But his comfort only lasts another moment before Shiro stands, the shadow of his eyebrows drawing close against the scar on his nose, “I take it Alfor is expecting me.”

 

He brushes a hand through Keith’s hair, a habit that continues to stick, before nodding at them both.

 

Keith watches him leave, the gait in his step and the sway of his shoulders a mirror to his departure from so long ago. But instead of him vanishing into the wind-tossed dunes he simply treks down the hill, the metal of his arm glinting in short bursts of light.  Keith reminds himself that he isn’t leaving for good, that the next time Keith sees him he won’t be brandishing a sword against him.

 

Lance follows Keith’s gaze before leaning into him, bringing a subtle scent of spice to the air, "He's taking it better than I expected."

 

"He always has." Keith nods, resting his head on Lance's broad shoulder, "No matter the situation, he's composed. He doesn't know anything else."

 

"Alfor is probably expecting us too." 

 

"He can wait." Keith sighs, falling to his back. He grabs hold of Lance's hand and pulls him close, watching as his hair splays about his head. 

 

Lance laughs, "I love it when you-"

 

"Shut up." Keith smirks, rolling to place a quick kiss to his lips.

 

They linger together and Keith watches as Lance shuts his eyes, his dark lashes falling like feathers, before he shuts his own. He wishes to freeze time, knowing that the moment is fleeting in the grand scheme of things. His brother has returned to him and Lance has never left him and if it were up to him- this is where they would remain. 

 

 

—————————————————————————————————

 

"You leave at sunrise." 

 

Allura purses her lips, glancing at a scowling Pidge. If anyone could attest to their readiness to leave, it would be them. But Alfor has made up his mind and by the looks of it, so has Shiro. 

 

Keith wonders at his brothers ability to adapt, to push aside all of the worrisome thoughts from earlier and stand so tall beside them. 

 

"This plan," Hunk starts, eyebrows raised as if searching for the right words, "It-"

 

"Won't work." Pidge grunts, "Not with just us. Even if we have the Flag and magic, chances of victory are slim to none."

 

"It's worth a shot." Lance shrugs, playing with the cord of Keith's medallion. "We won before, didn't we?"

 

Keith watches the medallion move against his chest, knowing the battle will be the least of their worries. Actually getting the medallion to the others, actually placing it in its rightful spot, will be the true test. He wonders how he'll be able to get it from Lance, knowing he'll try to do it himself. The thought of Lance facing Zarkon alone sends a chill down his spine.

 

"This may be our only chance." Coran sighs, "The emperor is down a dragon and a rider. His fleet is destroyed. We shouldn't give him time to recuperate."

 

The room goes quiet, tension thick in the air. But Keith knows the others will follow Lance, just as he would follow them, into whatever battle may come. So when he nods and stands tall, eager to release the sails and catch the wind, it's no surprise the others gather themselves as well.

 

Alfor catches Keith's arm before he can leave, the strength of it holding him in place. 

 

"You'll want to protect him." Alfor says, voice low with warning.

 

"What?"

 

"You'll wish to protect all of them. But you can't, Keith."

 

Anger flares in Keith quick as lightening, "I can." He says, "And I will."

 

"The Emperor will be after you and the medallion. Once he sees the power you posses, he'll stop at nothing to crush it." He hesitates, glancing at the dark entryway, "And he'll be after Lance as well. Your only priority is the medallion. Get it to the others."

 

"My priority?" He yanks at his arm, knowing Alfor doesn't say this from cruelty. He regards Keith as one would an ally, the business of war looming in only victory or death. "Wouldn't you put your daughter above all else?" 

 

Alfor looks taken aback, a crack in his tough facade forming at the thought of Allura in danger.

 

He hides it quickly, asking his question regardless of his own feelings, "Your friends are more important than the fate of our world?"

 

"If those we love perish because of us, this wouldn't be a world worth living in." Keith shakes his head, glancing at the ring on Alfor's finger. He thinks of its missing match. "And my priority will always be him."

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Keith can't rest. He tries and tries but still sleep evades until his tired eyes fall to the plains of Lance’s face and decide to linger. The rocking of the ship lulls him into a heavy state, each creak of metal and wood reminding him that the dark night is stormy and alive. He wonders lazily if the serpent that took the dragon from the sky is lurking just beneath the waves, waiting for another meal larger than their own ship to pass.

 

“Lance?” He whispers, inching closer to the warmth his body provides, “Are you awake?”

 

The waves outside have a simple rhythm, like whispers trailing along the side of the ship.

 

“Lan-“

 

“I’m awake now.” Lance groans, voice groggy and deep.

 

Keith links his leg over Lance's to settle some of his weight before turning to his side. He props his head on his palm, waiting for Lance’s closed eyes to give way to blue. They open slowly, no doubt expecting the sun instead of the low burning lanterns littered about. He breathes deeply before rolling his head to meet Keith’s gaze, eyebrows furrowing.

 

“What’s wrong?” He asks, lifting a hand to tug at a strand of Keith’s dark hair, the length of it brushing against the side of his cheek.

 

“My mind won’t settle.”

 

Lance hums, turning to brush Keith’s bangs back, “We have a plan.”

 

“I’d rather go in alone.” Keith admits, “In and out.”

 

“Not going to happen. We go in together.”

 

“This plan-“

 

“Will work.” Lance nods, dipping his head to place his warm lips against Keith’s neck. It’s gentle but suggestive, making heat bloom in Keith’s stomach. "Alfor said he'll be backing us as soon as he can."

 

Keith sighs and sinks lower in the bed, letting Lance lean above him in swaths of dark sheets and shadowed skin.

 

“Besides-“ Lance smirks, “If anyone’s gonna be mentioned decades from now for defeating Zarkon, it’s going to be me.”

 

Keith rolls his eyes and pushes against Lance, urging him to lay against the sheets. Lance huffs, grabbing onto Keith’s thigh to hold him still just long enough to try to turn them. Their heads collide and Keith retaliates without thought until they’re both laughing and cursing in tandem. 

 

 

—————————————————————————————————

 

"Can you tell?”

 

“Quiet.” Allura murmurs, twisting the nob of the spyglass to focus the lens at the end.

 

The waters are calm. Keith wouldn’t think much of it if it wasn’t noon and sunny, perfect weather for strong wind and smooth sailing. But the Black Flag is still, as if dead in the water, and a hush has fallen over the crew. Keith doesn’t like it.

 

“What do you see?” He asks again, wanting to snatch the spyglass from Allura.

 

“One ship,” She says, “maybe more against the horizon.”

 

“Hostile?” Pidge asks, twirling a strange object between their fingers. They glance at Hunk and hand it over, nodding at his thanks.

 

Allura sighs, "I can't tell."

 

"No need to worry!" Lance shouts, striding across the deck to climb and take hold of a thick rope, "They're friends. I wanted to keep this a surprise."

 

"Friends?" Keith scoffs, "Then they'll definitely try to kill us."

 

The ship gains speed, finally allowing a cooler breeze to pass through the thick of Keith's hair. Lance keeps a hand steady on the rope, eyes alight as he waits for the ships to close the distance. 

 

"They'll be friends long enough to help us-" 

 

"Wait." Keith raises a brow, "They're meeting us here?" 

 

Lance glances down at him, "Of course. What better way to talk of rebellion if not in my own watery kingdom?" 

 

"Just as I suspected." Allura lowers the spyglass, finally allowing Keith to take it, "There's more ships following close behind."

 

"Well, of course there's more. We can't beat Zarkon's own fleet with just two ships." Lance shrugs, jumping from his spot on the bow. He grabs at Keith's hand, urging him to pass the spyglass on to Pidge, before leading him to the helm. 

 

"We're only a few days away from breaching Zarkon's waters." Keith says, stepping to take hold of the wheel. 

 

Lance nods, "And now we have enough support to do it, don't you think?" 

 

—————————————————————————————————

 

If Keith had expected to see anyone, it definitely wasn't who boarded their ship in a sweeping cape of grey and silver. It hangs long, with large buckles to hold it close at the hip before falling along the thighs.  

 

"Keith." Nyma purrs, taking hold of the railing to pull herself up. She looks just as lethal as he remembers, like a black widow waiting to bite, "It's been too long."

 

"Did you come alone?" He asks, watching as she takes a longer peek at Allura, almost ignoring Keith completely. 

 

"If only I could." She laughs, watching as Lance glides from the helm to meet her. "And you!" 

 

He stutters to a halt, eyes wide at her quick change of expression. "Yes?"

 

Nyma closes the distance fast, ignoring the haughty looks cast her way by the crew. She gets close but doesn't raise a fist, instead choosing to smile bright and blinding, "About time you got the team back together, yeah?"

 

"Team?" A gruff voice speaks up, "Over my rotting body."

 

Lance glances behind Nyma, watching as Rolo boards with a less than graceful step. Without the shadow of the inn, his face looks younger than Keith remembers. But, just like Lance, he holds himself tall beneath the width of his hat. His hair is longer and lighter in color, similar to Allura's but not even close to its magic. 

 

"Call it whatever you like." Lance waves his hand, feigning disinterest,  "It's time for us to put our differences aside and worry about one thing. And that's taking down what lies ahead. That's what our focus should be on, how does that sound?"

 

Rolo rolls his eyes at Lance's little speech and sucks at his teeth. Keith catches the way Lance's eyes shoot to the left, a sly smile creeping at the corners of his mouth. 

 

"Well that," Lance continues, "And the rum waiting below deck."

 

—————————————————————————————————

 

Shiro doesn't drink with the rest of them. His mood is shaded even as he talks with Rolo, recalling his days beneath the weight of dark magic. Keith downs another small swig of rum, feeling the sharp burn within the depths of his stomach in seconds. But his eyes never really leave his brother, even when Lance drapes himself across him in dramatic fashion, sparing only a second before returning to a heated discussion on one thing or another. 

 

Keith leaves his spot against the rail to inch closer to their conversation, hoping Shiro will spare him from being caught. 

 

"You'll do it, won't you?" Rolo is asking, his large back to Keith. His voice is slurred, the effects of the rum settling into his body like a slosh of mud. 

 

"If I have to."

 

"Impressive."

 

"No." Shiro shakes his head, "Just necessary. It was mine and if anyone has to slay it, it'll be me. I'll know how to do it."

 

Rolo chuckles, "Great dragon rider you may have been," He tosses his emptied bottle into the sea, "But now you have to ask yourself just one question."

 

Shiro waits, tense. 

 

"Will you be great enough now?"

 

Keith doesn't wait to hear the answer before yanking himself away, fingers shaky as he glances at his brothers face. He sees a flash of determination, a strong wall between the emotions surely ripping into his mind. But as their eyes meet, he spots something else- something strong enough to reflect a certain type of drowning.  

 

Heartache. 

 

—————————————————————————————————

 

Keith can practically feel the water change from something free and alive to something caged and decayed. It lays heavy on their skin, as if it could stab and seep inside to corrupt them. The harbor rests a few miles away, surrounded by a wall of ships. Keith glances at their own, trying to count over the rush of the crew. 

 

"Charge up your fire, baby." Lance chuckles, walking up to Keith while rubbing his own hands together as if they could produce a sonic boom of electricity, "But remember to only use it as a last resort. Can't have you collapsing on me."

 

"I know." Keith nods, lowering the sword in his hand. 

 

Lance has guns strapped to his waist, more than he usually does, and only one sword on the hip. The blue gems seem dull when not resting beneath his hand. He suddenly pulls Keith close, his palms warm against his neck. He's grown serious, having pushed down the blood thirst and excitement long enough to remind Keith of their latest agreement.

 

"You'll make it off of this ship." 

 

"We'll reach land." 

 

"And then," Lance grins, pressing close enough to leave Keith breathless, "we'll be overthrowing that son of a bitch." 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rolo knew how to shoot.

 

The looks Keith caught him sending Lance from his own ship are that of rivalry, of competition, and just as pointed as he surely intended them to be. Lance had taken to balancing on the rails of the bow, shooting each and every invading Galra soldier within vicinity. Smoke toiled in the air, masking him every few seconds, but Keith could hear between breaches of sound.

 

After a few hours into the battle, a fleet of silver had arrived behind them. It appeared so suddenly Keith wasn’t sure it was even there at all. But even through his wet lashes and sharp stinging breaths, he knew that what he was seeing wasn’t a mirage.

 

Allura had shouted in triumph, spotting the Altean crest long before anyone else did. And before they knew it, their fleet of a few dozen men had turned into a few hundred.

 

Shiro had found himself sticking close to Keith, always quick to send a final blow to those who happened to slip through the dense congestion of mixing crews.

 

But if the soldiers recognized their former leader, they did nothing about it.

 

Keith faults as a cannon ball slams into the side of the Flag but he finds his footing in stride, turning to send the tip of his sword through a man’s chest. Blood falls in thick splatters, littering the deck and every inch in between until it’s streaked across Keith’s face like mud. He grimaces and yanks his sword free, taking only a moment to pull his flintlock pistol from his hip. He turns it on a woman sprinting toward a sweat-drenched Allura, firing two shots to make the kill. The woman drops and Allura spins to collide two swords together, severing through the tough muscle of someone’s neck.

 

“C’mon, Keith!” Nyma shouts, throwing him a newly loaded pistol, “You’re taking down even less than my worst men!”

 

He laughs, a brief moment of relief from the harsh stench of copper and metal. Hunk has taken to lifting people in the air, careful to aim at the side of the ship where cannon fire rings fiercest, before dropping them to the wreckage below.  

 

The ship flanking them on the left brings in their cannons and angles the ship for invasion. But Keith catches Lance’s pointed look immediately and he hurries to the helm, listening as shots ring about his ears; Pidge covering him from their spot high above in the nets. They hold onto the rope with tight fingers, using their other arm for rapid fire.

 

Keith pushes the crew member guarding the helm out of the way so that he can unlatch the lever keeping the wheel steady. It loosens and spins with the push of the wind but he grabs hold with strong, blood-slicked fingers. He pushes down on the risen floorboard beneath his boot, waiting for the tell-tale click to pulse through his leg. It takes a moment but when it finally locks in, the engines beneath the ship fire up in unison. Huge ripples travel along the top of the water as the Flag rises, making the ships closest to them tilt dangerously.

 

Keith can hear panicked shouts before a rush of wind overtakes him, pushing and ripping his hair from the thick cord keeping it back. The sails flair, catching the wind to allow them a head start toward land. Hunk leads a group below deck, more than happy to take over the heavy fire from beneath the ship.

 

“Speed ahead!” Lance shouts, pushing past Galran soldiers pleading for mercy, “Full fire below!”

 

The engines beneath them release heavy damage, slamming into the decks of ships as they soar above. Keith can hear deafening cracks and explosions the moment they find their targets.

 

“Keith!” Shiro shouts, voice loud over the wind, “Ahead!”

 

He looks away from Shiro just in time to see the dark rising sails of another ship, the Galran crest tossing about in the wind like some kind of damning omen. He curses and spins the wheel fast to avoid collision, listening as the pegs click and the ship lurches to the right. Lance turns with a sweep of his coat, shocked at the commander steering from the opposite helm. Shiro curses and sprints forward, meeting Keith’s gaze before grabbing hold of Lance’s arm. He yanks, shoving them both to the side before an arrow finds its home within his chest.

 

Pidge drops to the deck, brows furrowed, before yanking the arrow out of the metal.

 

But Keith doesn’t need Pidge to tell him where the arrow originates. He recognizes the intricate pattern carved onto the luminescent tip. It looks as if it had just been taken, had just been stolen, from someone in the forest.

 

Pidge grips it tight before raising their gun, aiming blindly at the Galran ship, before letting loose all of the bullets left within the chamber. Lance pulls away from Shiro and yanks Pidge back, urging Allura to take them away. .

 

“Did they always have a ship that could do that?”

 

Keith glances at Nyma, shocked that he didn’t notice her take a spot beside him. Her sweat soaked face is serious and morose, summing up the turn of events by a simple twist of her mouth.

 

“No.” Keith says, fingers tightening on the pegs.

 

Other than the occasional ship they encountered at sea, with weak abilities of flight, there had never been another strong enough to match the Flag in the air.

 

But now?

 

“We keep ahead.” Lance says, striding up the stairs with Shiro in tow, “We make it to land.”

 

Nyma shifts, “How-“

 

“Zarkon has been transforming the crystals into energy.” Shiro explains, his face dark with regret, “It wasn’t supposed to be finished for another year.”

 

Keith keeps the wheel steady, “Why haven’t they attacked?”

 

“Do you really want to find out?” Nyma asks, “I say we blow them to bits.”

 

“We’re ready.” Pidge grunts, yanking free of Allura, “I’m ready.”

 

Lance nods and lifts his eyes, “If they want the skies, we should give them the grand tour. Before reacquainting them with the ground.”

 

The ship groans as Keith pushes against the floor, urging more power to the engines. They rise swiftly but the Galran ship meets them for stride, never letting them take full cover within the clouds. Keith keeps the ship on the defense, where the cannons can face them with ease.

 

“Ready the cannons!” Lance shouts at the remaining crew.

 

There is something raw in his voice, something ferocious that Keith hasn’t heard in a very long time.

 

He finds himself welcoming it, like a thunderstorm after a drought. 

 

Lance turns to Keith and takes the wheel wordlessly, using only a moment to send him a simple touch. Keith brushes past Nyma and Pidge, taking the stairs two at a time to follow after his brother.

 

Shiro heads below deck, allowing himself to be swallowed up by the dark. Hunk is readying the cannons for another stream of assault, making sure each has indefinite supply of power.

 

“Hey!” Keith reaches for Shiro’s arm, pulling at the material of his shit.

 

“I-“

 

Shiro is cut off, the blast of the first cannon loud enough to leave Keith’s ears ringing. He has no time to do anything other than help load another round, the heavy cast iron connected by a thick chain. Keith turns from the lighting of the wick and covers his ears, waiting for the explosion. If they hit true, the metal will wrap around any pole or person it can before twisting and tearing the target into oblivion.

 

“Go!” Shiro pushes at Keith’s shoulder, urging him back up, “You’ll be needed if they board!”

 

Keith scoffs and grabs another match, waiting for the chance to light the fire, “So will you!”

 

Keith can feel the thick tension between them, even as he hears a stream of cheers from above. Hunk springs down the stairs, urging them to fire. The flame catches quickly and Hunk waits for the boom to dissipate before grabbing at Keith’s arm.

 

He yanks him up, away from his brother, “If we’re gonna get to land, we have to get rid of this ship. Got any of that fire left?”

 

Keith furrows his brows but nods, giving his brother one last look before shoving his way up the stairs. Lance is shouting orders between laughs, having fun even when death seems to loom above them. He can see it now, the way the end could overtake them all. It will come in droves, with row after row of soldiers overtaken by yellowed eyes and bloodied hands.

 

If his brother had remained, would he be opposite them now?

 

Would he be waiting to strike them down like a hand of the gods?

 

Keith hurries to the ropes and begins to climb, glancing at the distance between their ship and the Galra’s. He can feel the heating of his core, like a warm drink settling in his stomach and chest. The burn makes him climb faster, until he’s at the very post he’d first seen Lance use to release his own power.

 

He holds his ground, listening as the battle rages around them; a deafening blanket of bloodshed and salt water. The only way to hit the ship is to aim just right, so that the depth of his attack can strike them down. He glances at the water below, at the mixing of ships, and hopes he can avoid the damage of their allies.

 

But he knows that to win is to take risks.

 

So he listens to the voice of his training, urges the flame to climb through his veins, and raises his arms.

 

 

—————————————————————————————————

 

The boom sends a burst of hot wind through the sails. The Flag lurches, as if pushed by invisible hands, toward the clouds. But the sound that really signifies the win is the electrical crack of the light slamming into the base of the ship.

 

Wood and metal splinters into the air, rising above the height of the clouds, before raining down after the ship. It falls in a heap, split in two, as screams and explosions burst throughout the sky.

 

He sinks to his knees seconds after, feeling energy drain from him in heavy currents. It’ll take a while for it to return but hopefully, with the help of Allura, he’ll be ready to fight again soon.

 

Keith watches from his spot on the crow’s nest as other ships break the fall, until it’s such a conjoined mess that he can’t tell where one ship ends and another begins.

 

—————————————————————————————————

 

Flying the Flag above the treetops feels like a betrayel to the sea.

 

Lance keeps his face steady, giving away no emotion or thought as they see the trees begin to thin. The decimated forest is just as barren as it was when they escaped it, all signs of life wiped clean. The Flag hums as he steers, keeping a careful eye on the swaying of the sails.

 

The calm is eerie; almost wrong considering the carnage they just went through. But as they travel further and further from the ocean, Keith finds himself growing jittery. They can only bring the Flag so close, before the dark tendrils of tainted magic finds its way into their own ship.

 

Keith walks up the steps and lays a gentle hand on Lance’s waist, leaning up to press his lips against his dirty neck.

 

“You’ll keep the promise, won’t you?” Lance asks, voice quiet against the wind, "That we'll find each other again."

 

“Of course.” Keith watches the side of his face, at the dark skin littered with blood and gunpowder, “To the end.”

 

Lance smirks and pulls at the lever, making the ship slow as they spot Zarkon's main borders.

 

"Right." He says, “To the end.”

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

Leaving the ship behind to rest amongst the deserted land makes Keith feel lost. He glances back occasionally, catching sight of the dark flag hanging limp on the tallest post; at the empty deck and ghostly mermaid pointing from the tip of the bow.  

 

He hopes he’ll see it again, pushing against the waves like a beast come alive. With sails light as feathers and engines as hot as pulsing blood, he has to believe that he'll feel it beneath his feet once more.

 

But more than that, he hopes he’ll be there with Lance.

 

The captain is trekking ahead, leading the crew to the outermost reaches of the kingdom, the tip of his sword pointed toward the ground. The blue gems glint occasionally, catching Keith’s eye. He runs his gaze along the sharp edge, up toward the dark hand holding it, and further. Until he can study the side of Lance’s face as he turns, speaking quietly to Allura. The dimple on his cheek makes a quick appearance; something fearless on the surface. But Keith can see the flicker of his blue eyes, the way they glance further away- back toward the Flag.

 

If it’s hard for Keith to leave, he can only imagine how hard it must be for Lance.

 

But as they cross the final stretch, he knows they can’t think about it for long.

 

Because the kingdom is in ruins, each building crumbling and butchered by fire. The smoldering embers linger and the ash catches on the breeze, floating like flakes of snow toward their dirty faces. It’s deathly quiet, like the calm before a huge storm.

 

“What happened?” Hunk asks, bending to touch the ash covered ground.

 

“I don’t know.” Lance says, taking hesitant steps forward.

 

His boots kick up ash and dirt, sending a puff of it toward the sky.

 

“What’s our plan?” Someone asks, her voice laced with uncertainty.

 

“We stick to the alleys-“ Lance glances around, “Or what’s left of them. Make your way toward the courtyard, take down any soldiers you see. We go in together. As a crew.”

 

“This could be a trick.” Keith speaks up, stalking toward Lance, “He knows we’d come after him.”

 

Lance’s jaw clenches, “We’ll take the risk.”

 

And Keith knows they’ll have to.

 

There’s no other way.

 

------------------------------------

 

 

Keith’s breaths seem loud.

 

As if he's disrupting the peace of the place, each huff of air pushes through his lips like harsh wind. He wishes Lance had stayed beside him, at least until they absolutely had to separate.

 

Stick to the plan, he thinks.

 

He rounds another corner, glancing inside the decimated house to his right. There are no survivors or bodies- at least none that he can spot easily. But the smell is rancid, tickling the back of his nose and throat.

 

Every minute he spends treading through the ruins, he expects to hear the beating of wings. Even if his brother no longer rides upon the beast's back, he fears it'll rise above the towers of the castle just the same, the dark wings spread like the coming of night.

 

Isn't that what happened here?

 

Keith can only assume that the Emperor released the dragon onto his own people; whether in the name of some kind of plan or on the whim of a mad king, Keith doesn't know. But the entire town is leveled, burnt to crisp and bone. If there's any kind of sense in it, Keith doesn't see it. 

 

He hears the shift of a board, as if someone were trying to slide it away. Spinning, he unsheathes his sword and holds it steady, aiming the tip toward each direction he faces. If someone were to run at him, he would have to be quick-

 

“So you’ve returned.”

 

Keith spins again, lip rising in a sneer.

 

The witch almost doesn’t seem real. The dark swaths of her cloak brush against the gray ash like a dark cloud, something serpentine trailing toward Keith in lethal slithers.

 

“So I have.” He hisses, taking a step back, countering her advance.

 

She hums and clicks her nails together, the noise small but precise enough to leave Keith’s spine tingling.

 

“Before we begin, I must know. Do you believe in fate, young prince?”

 

Keith tightens his grip on the sword, “No.”

 

“Oh?” The witch cackles, “How odd.”

 

“Either charge at me or I’ll charge you. I’m going to strike you dead.”

 

“Hush now. Don’t you know patience is a virtue?”

 

“You-“

 

The witch tsks, “I'm not finished!

 

She licks her lips and glances toward the sky, but Keith stops himself from following. If he looks away for even a moment, he knows she could take him down.

 

“I must admit, it’s rather brave of you. To risk so much for something so...small.”

 

“I’d hardly call any of this small.”

 

“Maybe you’re right,” She waves a hand, as if shooing away some pesky bug, “this kingdom isn’t small, of course not. The Emperor has built an empire, stretching as far as your little hole in the sands. Not much for him there, however. At least, not without some digging.”

 

“What are you-“

 

“It was your brother who told us where you were hiding.” She grows serious, all humor wiped from the plains of her shadowed face, “He gave you up with no problem. And do you know what he got in return?”

 

Keith takes a hesitant step forward, wishing he could shove the blade through her heart before he has to hear more.

 

But something dark grows between her fingers, like silk or satin. And it twines and rises, as if waiting to strike.

 

“He got power.” The witch tilts her head, “And what will you get now? Now that you’ve thrown any chance of power away. And for what? For a man with no true riches-“

 

“Shut up.” Keith growls, raising his sword.

 

“A man destined to die. So all you will get, in the end, is anguish. Anguish and pain and heartache. Just like your beloved parents.”

 

Keith freezes, feeling more than seeing the shift in the situation. The dark shadows in her palm shoot out, stopping mere inches from his face. It buzzes and molds against the air, like the electricity in his own veins; only darker.

 

Tainted. Vicious. Decayed.

 

He lets out a shaky breath, “No.”

 

To duck beneath the writhing dark is to risk touching the dark itself, but he barely feels the pain on his cheek. He pushes himself away and raises the sword just in time to feel it clash with the tainted magic, sparks of gold and black shooting before his eyes. He grunts but holds strong, listening as the buzzing grows until he can feel the vibration of it on his skin.

 

The witch pulls back with quick precision, the ghost of a chuckle brushing past his ears. He turns, watching as she appears in front of him again- like smoke.

 

“Your parents were weak.” She sneers, “Easy to strike down. And your father, oh how he wept. For you and your brother. But most of all? For your mother. If he had screamed any louder, I'm sure he would have blown away the entire forest. I wonder...can you still hear him scream?”

 

She pushes the dark toward him again, laughing as it slides beside his head. He shoves his sword against it, listening as it rings in the quiet air. The boiling beneath his skin is beginning to rise, waiting for the release.

 

But if he does it now, he’ll be useless later.

 

And the witch isn’t his priority.

 

Taking her off guard, he sprints forward. The sword swings through the air, nicking the flesh of her shoulder. But she vanishes just in time, leaving the air clouded. He blinks away the sting of his eyes, trying desperately to see through the smoke.

 

It takes too long to clear, it’s too thick to see through, it-

 

The smoke thins as if a hand had waved through it, aiding him in his desperate hope of renewed vision. He looks around, keeping his sword raised in defense, ready to take the old hag head on. He calms his lungs, feeling the burn as he turns in slow circles, searching the barren walls of gutted houses.

 

He searches and searches, wondering if she had vanished completely.

 

Only for his breath to be snatched away, taken so violently that he feels it had never really belonged there in the first place.

 

Because, through the short distance of between them, Lance is cornered. The sharpened edge of the dark is splayed from the witch's fingers and pointed straight toward his chest, just above his heart. 

 

“Tell me, boy.” The witch smiles at Keith, her gangly teeth dripping with something akin to venom, “Do you believe in fate now?

 

---------------------------------

 

 

The first time Keith saw Lance, he knew some part of him was already gone.

 

He thinks that maybe that piece of him had always been with the other boy, through the stormy seas and blood soaked fights and hot toiling days. In nights of lonely whistling and mornings spent laying about in spiced sheets. He had been with Lance from the beginning, across the great distances between them, even if he hadn't really known it then. So when they found each other in that bar, it must have been predetermined that they would never leave each other.

 

And it was so easy.

 

So easy to stay by his side.

 

As easy as the shoreline meets the water.

 

So, maybe in a way, Keith does believe in fate.

 

And now that it’s all threatened, now that the beating heart of the sea is held at the end of dark magic, Keith fears that he’ll succumb to fate like one would a sickly plague.

 

But Lance doesn’t look afraid.

 

He watches Keith with steadfast eyes; with eyes tougher than any of the storms they’ve weathered.

 

So deep and blue that Keith could see them in the rain; in the tossing blue of the deepest waters. And they shine with just enough light to remind him that there’s always a way.

 

Isn’t there?

 

Wait!” Keith shouts, feeling the hitch of his panicked breath, “Wait!”

 

The witch doesn't look away from Keith, doesn't even blink in his direction, before plunging the shadow into Lance’s chest.

 

----------------------------------

 

 

The scream that is ripped from Keith’s throat could rival a battle of the gods. It tears through him like a hurricane, slicing into the air as if it was the last sound he could ever make. Pain shoots through him, as if he could feel the torn muscles and bone of Lance’s own chest, until he’s clutching at it on the ground. He doesn’t realize he’s fallen until he looks up, the blurred gray of his eyes watching as the witch lets Lance’s body fall to the ground in a heavy heap.

 

He feels the pain, the ripping of his soul from his body, and then?

 

There is nothing.

 

The breath that was stolen from his lungs remains severed but he feels his body move regardless. The sword is heavy as he takes it in his hands, solid and real and grounding. And then he is running, taking to the witch like a wraith before knocking her over with a slam of his own body.

 

Keith!

 

Maybe later, he’ll realize that Shiro had been calling for him for a long while.

 

Maybe later, he’ll remember that Allura had been sent to her knees by her own shock, the white flow of her hair falling about her face in dirty, red-soaked waves.

 

But now, Keith can only see the witch struggling beneath his sword.

 

The tip pushes against her throat and a bead of blackened blood rises, taking to the skin like spilled ink.

 

“You speak of fate.” Keith hisses, eyes wild beneath the loose strands of his dark hair, “Now tell me. Do you see yours?”

 

He raises the sword quicker than he ever has, barely noticing the rise of dark shadow from the palms of her hands desperate to push him back.

 

But the sword enters her chest with a sickening crunch before she can ever release her magic.

 

And though the gray ash falls, all he can focus on is red.

 

A pool of it, building.

 

Climbing.

 

Pouring.

 

 ------------------------------

 

 

Lance’s body is heavy in his arms.

 

He’s heavy and so slick with blood, Keith doesn’t know where the wound truly begins. Black lines, like spiderwebs filled with sludge, have begun to travel the length of his veins. They travel up his neck, down his chest, into his arms. Keith’s hands are shaking, so rapidly that it makes it almost impossible to wipe the hair away from Lance’s dazed eyes.

 

So blue.

 

So blue and clear, the likes of which are now fading.

 

“You promised.” Keith says, his voice coming out in a pant, “You-“

 

“Finish this.” Lance’s voice is quiet, “For the both of us.”

 

No.” Keith gathers him closer, glaring at Shiro as he tries to kneel beside them, “No, no, no-“

 

“Listen to me!” Lance tries to strengthen his voice but it’s fleeting, “I’ll be fine. I’m always fine, right?”

 

He grabs onto Keith’s hand, bloodied and dirty and bruised, “You’re gonna finish this. And we’re gonna sail away from here. On and on, until the end.”

 

It's all happening so fast, Keith could swear it's just a bad dream. One that he'll wake up from eventually, just as he always has. And he'll be within the rocking of the Black Flag, with dim candles flickering against the walls- with a chest pressed against his back. 

 

He'll wake and this will be over- or maybe it won't have happened at all. 

 

But he never wakes. 

 

Keith doesn’t know when his hand fell.

 

All he knows is that it did.

 

And once he’s taken the medallion from Lance’s neck with gentle fingers, once he’s placed a shuddering kiss to his forehead, only then does he rise.

 

He steps over the witch’s body and doesn’t look back; not to Shiro and the shout of his name.

 

Not to Allura as she sprints toward Lance’s body, desperate to heal and sway the decisions of the universe. 

 

Keith just walks, the medallion gripped tight between his aching fingers. He keeps his eyes ahead, waiting for the rising of the courtyard walls. 

 

And beyond that, the Emperor. 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

When Keith finally makes it to the courtyard, he finds a field of death.

 

Crows and vultures have begun to gather, their beady eyes watching Keith’s silent descent. He hears the caws of the dark birds as they hover above, but they seem far away.

 

In another time.

 

Another place.

 

Tunnel vision has overcome him, warding off the stench of decay and the feel of the ground beneath his feet. If he were to look, he would see the mix-matched bodies; those fallen in peasant clothes and guard uniforms alike.

 

But he isn’t looking down.

 

His eyes are trained on the looming fortress, where once the banners of his family flew. He can’t imagine it, even if he tried. Because the great flags that toss about now, in all their glinting purple and silver glamor, remind him of his part in all of this.

 

And even if it’s the last thing he does, he will do it.

 

He’ll kill them all.

 

-------------------------------

 

The guards inside of the fortress seem unprepared. He thinks it must be from their hours spent outside; from the massacre left to greet him.

 

Keith slashes through them with a pirate’s fury, the strength of the ocean behind every curve and strike. His hands have begun to heat, leaving the metal scalding against the flesh of his enemies. He listens as they sizzle and scream, the noises heard as if beneath water.

 

They come one after another, like ants from within a hill. But he meets them in turn, as if some other being had taken over his body.

 

But beyond the chaos, up the grand stairs within the middle of the huge foyer, rests a solitary figure. Huge and dark, like death personified, he stands.

 

He waits.

 

Keith glances at him from time to time, urging the stinging of his lungs to lessen.

 

Zarkon doesn’t expect him to make it out alive.

 

But Keith doesn’t care about dying. Not anymore.

 

All he cares about is finishing what’s been started.

 

Between the time he spends fighting the soldiers and the speed in which they fall, the Emperor disappears.

 

It makes Keith frantic, as if a spark had been lit beneath his feet. Keith wastes no more time as he brings the rest of the soldiers down and takes to the stairs, pushing his body up and up and up.

 

If it weren’t for the months spent fighting and running, he’d be winded.

 

But he reaches the final tower just as Zarkon slams the huge door shut, as if the wood could keep Keith out. He plunges his sword into it, watching as a spark of flame combusts the wood. It takes little effort to push the door open, the hinges whining against the abrupt intrusion.

 

Keith spots Zarkon easily, even though the tower sprawls like that of the throne room. It’s dark, cobwebbed and shadowed; a place of tainted life. But Zarkon isn’t shying away and instead Keith sees him smile, a twisted rising of his thin lips.

 

His eyes glow a deep yellow, a mocking color compared to that of Lance’s.

 

Keith swipes the thought from his mind, knowing that if he thinks about him too much, he’ll be lost.

 

“So you’ve survived.” Zarkon shakes out his fingers, “And what of your lover, may I ask?”

 

Keith grips his sword tight, the deep red blade shimmering as if flame lay dormant beneath.

 

“I see.” Zarkon lets out a sigh, as if he were sympathetic, “How…sad.

 

Keith steps forward, eager to get this finished. But Zarkon slips away, as if he could blend into the shadows just as easily as the witch.

 

“Not going to say anything?”

 

Keith spins, looking for him.

 

But it’s alarmingly dark, like a great curtain has fallen on them. The only window in the room is open, resting just behind a heavy drape. But the tower is so high up, Keith knows he couldn’t have left.

 

“It’s a shame, really.” Zarkon says, voice a whisper against Keith’s ear, “That pirate could have been a great asset. Did he ever tell you what happened to his family?”

 

“Show yourself.” Keith growls, “Face me!”

 

“They were just as powerful as he was. So full of life, must be the call to the sea, don’t you think? Your parents were similar in that regard- broody, sure. But they enjoyed their time alive, even I could see that. But the captain’s family? They knew how to live.”

 

The mention of Lance slams into Keith, like a poisoned arrow to his chest.

 

Zarkon continues, “The possibilities were endless. They could be here and you could have remained in your hellish desert. And maybe I never would have found you, if I hadn't pried your location from the bloody lips of your brother.”

 

“Your words aren’t going to save you.” Keith says, spinning.

 

He brings his sword down, feeling a brush of air as it sails toward the Emperor's neck.

 

But Zarkon's fist is gloved in thick metal and chain, fitting well against Keith’s blade. He can see the heat of it taint the glove, turning it black and rusted. Zarkon doesn’t let it go any further and before Keith knows it, he’s sprawled on the ground.

 

Blood pools in his mouth, thick and fast, leaving him to spit and choke. A kick is thrown into his side, sending him traveling across the floor. He coughs, trying desperately to catch his breath.

 

“You think you’re going to win this?” Zarkon’s voice is booming, “I have the power of the depths in my veins now! The crystals from the forest fortress were more powerful than I'd ever imagined!”

 

A huge crash sounds from outside, like someone breaking through the expanse of the walls.

 

“Just like your mother.” Zarkon sneers, “Distracted. Hopeless. A fool.”

 

Keith rolls just as Zarkon brings down a heavy sword, the weapon appearing in his palm as if it had been conjured. The blade is dark, similar to the onyx that Shiro’s once was; but ultimately more powerful.

 

It leaves a crevice in the floor, right where Keith’s head had been.

 

Keith stands as steadily as he can and spits, trying to rid his mouth of the thick copper taste. He charges but is slammed back against the wall, the breath knocked out of him so hard he fears he'll vomit his lungs. He gasps, wheezes; tries to suck in as much air as possible before he has to move again.

 

But Zarkon is already on him, grabbing at his throat with the cold metal. It pushes, making the depth of Keith's chest burn.

 

“You’re just a desert rat.” Zarkon hisses, “Not even worthy to die by sword.”

 

Keith struggles and drops his own sword, wishing he was strong enough to wrench Zarkon’s hand away. If he could just pry his fingers off, if he could slam his own head forward, he could-

 

His hazy eyes look away, toward the hand struggling to rise.

 

It glows, deep and red and true, against the dark room.

 

With little time to spare, he brings it up and slams it into the side of Zarkon’s head, listening as it cracks against his skin. Zarkon screams and falls back, giving Keith the chance to gasp like a fish out of water. He takes his sword in hand and crawls forward, urging his legs to work- for his head to clear.

 

Only, when he finally rises, Zarkon has backed away.

 

The distance between them is wide, much too big for Keith to bring the sword upon him. The window behind Zarkon is open, the drape torn away, giving visage to the crows and the sky; to air as tainted as the land it’s been watching over for so long.

 

Blood and puss falls from Zarkon’s face, from the open wound gaping against the side of his head. Burnt skin smolders in the filtered light, falling away from him like the ash outside. But that isn’t what makes Keith pause.

 

What makes Keith fault, what makes his blood run cold, is the way Zarkon steps toward the window. His cape is thrown to the side, as if it has become a hindrance.

 

It stumps Keith, leaves his brows furrowed- before the panic sets it.

 

Because Zarkon is fast, almost as quick as his witch, to get away. He jumps, bringing only the sword to accompany him.

 

And Keith, through all of his pain and aches and confusion, can only do one thing.

 

He runs.

 

And after that, he leaps.

 

 -------------------------

 

Like time slowed, Keith leaves the tower with a powerful kick of his legs. The wind pushes against his face as if he was stuck in a water spout, or a sand storm; strong enough to make breathing almost impossible. 

 

But the fall, regardless of how Keith perceives it, is short-lived.

 

He lands on his stomach, clutching the beast with his stained fingers. The wolf is just as large as he remembers, and the fur just as course, the bits of feather just as soft.

 

But the wings?

 

That’s definitely new.

 

Acantha hollers in his ear as she pulls him up by the lapel of his jacket, urging him to sit up straight. Keith tries to turn to her, the surprise of seeing her alive making him hopeful. If the rider is alive, could the Great Leader be as well? Could the Hunters? Could the innocent people within the trees?

 

I can get you close!” She shouts, “But the rest is up to you!

 

Keith holds tight to the reigns and looks up, eyes widening at the dragon flying in front of them. Its great dark wings beat against the wind, making it harder for the wolf to keep up. But Acantha pushes them forward, urging the animal to fly faster.

 

Keith judges the distance between them and the dragon, between himself and Zarkon, between the sky and the ground. He reaches for his sword- only to realize it’s long gone.

 

Acantha grunts but Keith can’t turn to check, because there’s new weight on his back. He can feel the sudden length of the sheath, of the blade and handle.

 

“Fly!” Acantha shouts, directing her wolf toward the clouds.

 

The beast flies fast, much faster than the dragon. It’s lithe and small enough to disappear into the cloudy mist. Keith feels the condensation on his skin, cooling it, reviving it. He closes his eyes as if the water wasn't really water at all. He imagines it to be gentle fingertips against his cheeks, the brush of it traveling from temple to neck. 

 

But then Keith is snapping out of it, alerted by the change in the wind. The wolf drops, angling its body against the flow of the clouds, only to surface just above the huge beast. 

 

Keith has only a second to take in the sheer size of it.

 

Because before he knows it, he is falling; pushed by the fearless warrior behind him. 

 

-------------------------- 

 

Landing on the dragon proves to be a challenge. He slides against the large scales, feeling heat not unlike his own boiling beneath the leathery skin. He uses his foot to find enough purchase to settle himself near the tail. The wind pushes against him, as if trying to keep him from rising.

 

But it doesn’t stop him, can't stop him. Not when he’s so close.

 

He pulls himself up, watching as Zarkon turns to face him. Balancing on the beast seems almost impossible. His feet slip and the spikes lining the spine are so huge, there's no way Keith would be able to move around them without hanging onto them.

 

But he doesn't have enough time to think because Zarkon doesn't hesitate to stalk forward, his sword hanging low in his hand; his eyes narrow and lethal.

 

Keith rushes forward and grabs hold of a spike, feeling the bone-like texture scratch against the palms of his hands. If he can get over this one, he can stand between two. The thought of stability leaves him desperate. 

 

Desperate enough to risk slipping. 

 

Desperate to keep going.

 

Desperate to fight.

 

The dragon soars higher, climbing the sky far enough to enter thinning air. A popping noise comes to Keith's ears, something that had only occurred a few times while aboard the Flag. He ignores it the best he can and swings himself around, bracing against another spike before holding the sword high.

 

Zarkon brings his own blade down, barely missing the top of Keith’s head. Keith strains, feeling his arms shake against the brunt of the attack. The sliding metal rings in his ears, making them irritated; making his skin prickle.

 

They break away in equal time but return just as fast, feeling the shift of the dragon as it soars. It turns, as if it could only go so far from the kingdom. Keith slips, grabbing hold of a spike at the last minute. The open air beneath them rises in smoke, the drifting breeze carrying it so far from the sea.

 

“Get up!” Zarkon screams, voice rabid, “You will die by nothing but my own hand! Get up!

 

Keith hisses as a pain in his arm surfaces when he forces himself up, his other hand holding tight to the sword. Zarkon waits, the tilt of his head inhuman in its nature. His eyes glow against the backdrop of great wings.

 

And then he is charging.

 

Keith ducks, listening as the sword strikes the spike.

 

The dragon roars, as if it felt the dark essence of the blade cut into its body. It dives, causing Zarkon to lose his footing. He falls back against a spike, grunting when his sword almost slips from his hand.

 

Keith takes a chance and strikes, watching as his blade barely brushes Zarkon’s face. But if Keith were to let go now, he’d surely fall. There’s a difference in balance between the sea and the sky. Where the water waits beneath; here there is only free-fall.

 

The dragon continues its plunge, soaring down in great strides. Zarkon struggles against the wind, the grit of his sharp teeth glinting as he raises his sword.

 

If he were to lunge now, Keith will be skewered. Stuck to the spike; impaled like some statue.

 

But Zarkon never gets the chance.

 

A huge boom resounds throughout the sky, vibrating against the atmosphere. It slams into the dragon, knocking away scale and skin and muscle. The beast shrieks, letting loose a heavy stream of wild fire. Zarkon stops his attack and looks toward the open sky.

 

Toward the sails rising in the wind.

 

Toward the Flag, soaring within the clouds like something just as alive as the dragon Keith stands on.

 

Keith and Zarkon look to each other at the same time, both sizing up their options.

 

But, as it turns out, they’ll never get the chance to act.

 

At least not while another cannon fires.

 

Not while it slams into a wing, crunching bone and impairing flight.

 

Where once Keith fell alone, now they all fall together.

 

------------------------------ 

 

Waking to fire is darker than Keith would expect.

 

Smoke rises to great towering heights, the dark swirls changing in form each time Keith blinks. His entire body hurts, as if something had fallen upon it and seeped inside. It takes him a long while to remember where he is- what he’s doing and why.

 

And when he does remember, he finds that he still can’t move.

 

The dragon rests close by, skewered through its stomach by a fallen bit of tower. If it’s breathing, Keith can’t tell. He can only try to blink away the sting of his eyes.

 

Footsteps crunch toward him, walking over bone and debris and shattered glass. It’s silent, except for those footsteps; the heavy pace of a hurt man.

 

But the man is eager all the same, seeing his chance to finally keep Keith down.

 

To win.

 

The dark blade moves to rest against Keith’s chest, the sharp prick of the tip slicing through his clothes with ease. Keith raises his eyes, feels water fall down the length of his cheeks- listens as his own breathing slows.

 

Zarkon’s face is covered in shadow as he studies Keith.

 

“Giving up so easily?” Zarkon rasps, “I thought you were stronger than this.”

 

He pushes harder and Keith gasps, feeling a warm trickle of blood break free from the confines of his chest.

 

Is this what Lance felt?

 

Was it painful?

 

Did he know it was the end?

 

Zarkon tsks and raises his sword, eager to slam it into Keith’s ribs. Through the bone and muscle, to the weak heart beneath.

 

“Keith!”

 

He furrows his brows as Zarkon falters, the burnt side of his face catching the light of the fire as he turns toward the voice.

 

“Keith, get up!” Pidge screams, jumping from the ladder on the Flag.

 

It looms beside them, landing amongst the ruin.

 

Keith thinks it must be a dream.

 

But then Shiro is running forward too, his eyes wild when he spots Keith on the ground.

 

“Keith!” Shiro yells, slamming back into the ground as Zarkon raises a hand.

 

It knocks him down as if some kind of barrier was barring them off. But Shiro recovers quickly and then he’s screaming again, voice scratching and slicing against the air.

 

“Keith, he’s alive!

 

 ----------------------------

 

The shock crashes into Keith like a current. He takes a moment to stare at his brother, relieved that he’s okay. And then he takes another moment to look back at Zarkon, watching the distortion of his face change to that of rage.

 

And then Keith is twisting, using his boots to grab the hilt of the sword. He knocks it from Zarkon’s grip and follows after it, not bothering to check if the emperor chases.

 

He knows he does.

 

The hilt of the sword is heavy in his palm but it fits perfectly within the creases. He turns quickly, watching as Zarkon gathers two broken blades, the likes of which no doubt belonged to a fallen soldier. The edges are jagged and could tear through Keith ferociously.

 

Zarkon wields them with skill, hitting Keith’s sword with flashes and clangs. But Keith can feel a shift beneath his palms, as if every inch of his power was being sucked through his skin and into the sword. It grows brighter by the second, making both of them pause.

 

But when Zarkon realizes what’s happening, he lunges again.

 

Keith matches his attack, stopping the blades from slicing at his neck.

 

“It seems the rumors were true.” He grunts, pushing against Keith’s blade, “The sword knows its flame. It was your mothers, after all.”

 

“What-“

 

“But don’t worry.” Zarkon’s eyes are large and wild, like a desert cat gone mad, “Even if you wield it, I will not fail. I’ve had a long time to figure out its weaknesses.”

 

His eyes flicker toward Keith’s chest, at the medallion still resting against his heart.

 

Keith kicks out just as Zarkon lowers his blades, his aged hands reaching desperately for the chain. Keith hears a satisfying crunch as his boot finds the bone in his leg and snaps it clean.  

 

Zarkon falls to his knee, screaming at the pain.

 

Keith drops the sword and flies forward, catching his mangled jaw in a punch. The months spent at sea resurface in swaths, taking over him until he’s bloodying his hands anew. He slams his knuckles into Zarkon like someone deranged, listening as things crack; feeling as blood splatters. All of the ache inside of his chest blooms into his fists; the heat flowing through them like something urging him to punch his knuckles raw. 

 

He only stops when he hears a faint call, the voice inching its way into his mind.

 

The voice of his brother urging him back.

 

Gasping for breath, Keith stands and backs away. He takes the sword again and watches as the rest of the dark obsidian falls away like chips of dried paint. The blade beneath is clean and sharp, the edge thin enough to cut through the toughest material. Glowing red streams move beneath, like the fire that settles in his own veins.

 

Only this time, Keith won’t need to release it himself.

 

He looks back to Zarkon through the dark strands of his hair. The Emperor is trying to get to his feet, struggling against the breakage of his jaw and the sweltering wound on his head.

 

Keith thinks of his parents.

 

He wishes he could remember them. He wishes he knew more about them than what Shiro had mentioned around campfires.

 

He wishes he could hear them now.

 

But in a way, he feels a guidance. As if it is the last thing he has to do, the last thing that he will ever have to do.

 

He stops in front of Zarkon, watching as the fallen king raises his head.

 

Keith wants to say something.

 

Anything.

 

But the words are stuck, left within his mind and the back of his throat.

 

All he can do is hold onto Shiro’s scream; onto the hope of survival.

 

All he can do is swing.

Chapter Text

 

 

Panting in the dusk, Keith feels something akin to loneliness wash over him. His knees rest amongst the trailing blood of the king and settle into the damaged planet like the roots of a tree. His arms, aching and shuddering, let the sword fall beside him.

 

He wavers, the edges of his vision pulsing in shadow.

 

For someone victorious, he doesn’t feel like he won.

 

In the distance he can hear shouts; from his brother and Pidge, maybe even Acantha. However, all he can do is sag, the weight on his shoulders lifting momentarily only to press harder than before. He wonders if his wounds have caught up to him; if his drop from the sky had damaged more than he thought it did. Yet, as he falls to the side and lands on the hilt of his own sword, he knows he isn’t dying.

 

But ceasing to exist at the moment, no matter how illogical it seems, doesn’t seem like such a bad idea either.

 

He hears a deep hum, as if some vibration has finally reached its peak, before it shatters completely. Loud as stone through glass, it pierces Keith's eardrums in sharp bursts. And then, just as his eyelids begin to close, he hears footsteps.

 

“Keith!” Shiro slides to a stop and kneels beside him, quick to pull him into his arms.

 

“Tired-“ Keith mumbles, eyes squeezing shut.

 

“There’s no time for that.” Pidge says, urging them to stand, “We still have to get your Medallion inside.”

 

Keith lets out a huff of breath, wishing his body would move on its own. Everything seems foggy, like he’s in a great dream. He isn’t sure what just happened, nor does he fully remember the extent of the battle. As if the last lingering magic Zarkon used to rule his soldiers had pushed into Keith’s mind, he feels trapped in solitude.

 

Shiro stands and pulls him up before placing two hands on his shoulders, “Keith. We aren’t finished yet.”

 

He tries to open his eyes.

 

“Shake it off.” Pidge rips a cloth from their clothes and uses it to wipe at Keith’s cheeks.

 

He lets out a chuckle at their attempt and finds the strength to take the cloth to finish the job. A stinging pain he wasn’t aware of slowly disperses, soaking into the rag in deep swaths. Dark blood, no doubt Zarkon’s, had splashed onto his face. The more that comes off, the more Keith can see through clearing eyes. 

 

“Keith, you have to-“

 

“I understand.” Keith nods, cutting Shiro off, “But it can’t be me.”

 

“What?” Pidge lets out a frustrated hiss, “Alfor said-“

 

“I’m not the only prince, you know.” Keith throws the cloth to the ground, feeling a bit of strength return to him, “I’m not the only one capable of doing this.”

 

“But the Medallion,” Shiro furrows his brows, “It’s what you’ve come here to do.”

 

“No.” Keith shakes his head, “I came here to find you. To bring you home. But things change, remember?”

 

“What are you saying?”

 

“The witch spoke to me about fate. As if it were some curse, as if it ran like poison in my blood. Fate doesn’t have to be a bad thing, I know that. And my fate can be chosen.  But this-” Keith thrusts his arm out, at the expanse of the destroyed kingdom, “this isn’t mine.”

 

Pidge glances around, at the miles and miles of smoke.

 

Keith yanks the cord from his neck and holds the medallion between them, urging Shiro to take it, “I was never meant to rule anything.”

 

“Are you sure?” Shiro asks, quiet.

 

The shock of responsibility thrust upon him must feel the same as it did to Keith. Like the pressure of the universe settling upon his shoulders.

 

But Shiro is made for this, Keith is sure of it.

 

As sure as dunes rise in the desert; as sure as the promise of a warm sun in the morning.

 

“It’s yours.” Keith pushes the medallion into his hand, “If you want it.”

 

Shiro takes it and wraps his fingers around the cold surface, watching as a flash of light shines through. It’s there for a moment, as if it had found it’s true owner, and then it is gone.

 

“Well.” Pidge sighs and rubs a hand down their face, “I would say that settles it, then.”

 

-------------------------------

 

Keith doesn’t watch them run ahead.

 

With the clearing of his mind, and the sight of the fallen Emperor at his feet, he knows his time here is done. The further he gets from the speared dragon and the dark castle, the closer he gets to the Flag. It sits with sails raised high, like a beckoning call to the depths of himself. His feet pick up their pace, hurried and tripping over corpses and debris, until he’s come to a full sprint. The burning of his lungs is ignored as he nears the ship, the thought of seeing Lance leaving him gasping for breath.

 

He remembers Shiro’s scream now, the way his voice cut through to Keith at the very moment he had decided to give up.

 

Alive.

 

He’s alive.

 

Members of the crew shout and holler when they spot him, their faces covered in blood and dirt and gunpowder.Their eyes are alight, full of victory at the sighting of Keith. But he doesn’t stop to accept the cheers, nor does he wait for the ramp to lower. He’s up the side of the ship in mere minutes and pulling himself over with a harsh grunt.

 

Hunk is leaning against the rail across the deck, large arms covered in sweat-slicked muscle.

 

Keith hurries behind him toward the captain’s quarters, desperation making him slam the door open with more force than necessary.

 

But the room is empty.

 

He feels anguish overcome him, panic twisting in his chest at the sight of the bare bed. There’s no healing taking place, no sign that anything had even been moved or touched.

 

“Keith.”

 

Hunk places a hand on his shoulder, urging him to turn around.

 

But if Keith looks away now, he fears he’ll fall.

 

“Listen, Keith-“

 

“Shiro said he was alive.” Keith whispers, hand shooting out to steady himself on the frame of the door, “He said-“

 

“They had to get him back to the coast as quickly as possible.” Hunk turns him, using his strength to keep Keith upright, “They detected a heartbeat but there wasn’t much Allura could do without the druids. A few accompanied Alfor but there’s a limited chance they even survived the battle.”

 

“How far are they?” Keith grabs hold of Hunk’s arm, “Can we catch up to them?”

 

“No.” Hunk shakes his head, “But we’re only a day behind, if we leave now.”

 

Keith nods and tries to side-step Hunk, only to be held still.

 

“You need to rest.” Hunk says, noticing the glint of defiance in Keith’s coiled muscles, “Or at least treat your injuries. You look like you’re on the brink of death.”

 

“It can wait.” Keith pushes past him and strides toward the helm, “Gather the crew.”

 

“What about your brother? And Pidge?”

 

Keith glances toward the castle, and just on the outskirts, the gathering of Hunters.

 

More survived than Keith thought.

 

“My brother can handle it. They’ll both find us, if they choose to.”

 

Hunk stares at him for a moment, as if debating if he should listen. But Keith has already grabbed hold of the pegs; has already set his sights toward the south.

 

-------------------------------

 

They arrive at the sea just as the sun begins to stretch across the horizon.

 

The waves carry a graveyard of ships, the purple of the Empire meshing together with that of Altea. In the far distance, just beyond Keith’s sights, he thinks he spots the flag of Rolo’s vessel. The sunrise shines bright against the shadow, masking any clear identification. 

 

But it’s too far and he’s too anxious to really study it. His bandages, courtesy of Hunk, have become dirty and soaked with blood.Yet he isn’t worried about excess bleeding or infection, not when he spots the druids surrounding a makeshift tent. As he lands on the sand, he glances at Allura. She looks worn, the white of her hair covered in soot and the sins of battle. But he doesn’t stop to talk to her, not even when she shouts for him to come back.

 

Instead, he’s shoving through the flaps of the tent like someone deranged.

 

And on the bed, breathing shallow against the glow of a hand, is Lance.

 

The black rivulets beneath his skin remain a testament to the witch’s’s attack, a reminder of the tainted magic now flowing in his veins. But Keith can only watch as the druid lets the light fade before turning to him, the shadow of his face covered by a heavy hood.

 

“He’s weak.” The druid rasps, “He may not wake.”

 

“When will he?” Keith asks, “If not now, when?”

 

The druid glides past him like a spirit, “Maybe never.”

 

-------------------------------

 

If Shiro and Pidge have restored the Medallion, Keith can’t tell. He feels no shift in the air, no inkling of purified magic returning to the planet.

 

Nothing to signal true victory.

 

But as the night gives way to the second day, Keith finds that he doesn’t really care at all. All that matters is the warmth of Lance’s hand in his own, the way their fingers intertwine; even if Lance’s is rather limp.

 

This was not the reunion Keith had been expecting.

 

Like the storybooks he’d found stashed away in the makeshift library in the desert, he imagined colliding with Lance like two fabled constellations. Like some heroic embrace; full and light and alive.

 

He supposes nothing really turns out like they do in books.

 

He tells Lance so, wondering if he could even hear him.

 

Leaning forward, Keith lets his eyes shut.

 

The skin of Lance’s arm is as warm as a waning fire, strange compared to the constant current usually running beneath his skin. Even as he looks so still, as if he were trapped in a frozen sleep, he’s warm to the touch. Keith worries, momentarily, that he’s begun to project his own heat into the captain. But with a glance to his veins, he knows that’s not true.

 

Lance simply has a fever.

 

 

He sighs before lifting his head, taking care not to jostle the cot. The brown of Lance’s hair seems almost dull, as if the life is leaving that bit of him too. Keith pushes the thoughts away and leans over, making sure his touch is gentle as he pushes loose strands away from his face.

 

“You have to come back.” Keith whispers, throat closing against the words, “You have to return to the sea, don’t you?”

 

He waits, wondering if the twitch of Lance’s eyes could be blamed on a figment of his desperate imagination.

 

When it doesn’t happen again, he guesses it was.

 

He lets out a hopeless chuckle, “You have to return to me, too. If not for the ocean, at least come back to me.”

 

The flaps on the tent rise as Allura enters, her face hopeful.

 

Keith turns away from Lance to shake his head, watching as the hope falls. A darkness spreads across her features, pulling at the corners of her mouth; resting against the dark circles beneath her eyes.

 

“If he doesn’t wake-“

 

“He will.” Keith interrupts, “He’s strong.”

 

“Of course he is.” Allura bristles, “But we must plan for the worst.”

 

“What is there to plan?” Keith tries to dispel the venom in his voice.

 

He knows she’s just as worried.

 

The pair are like siblings, two mismatched wanderers; two people turned fierce with the tide.

 

If Keith thinks about it too long, he knows the thought of Hunk will bother him even worse.

 

Everyone is worried.

 

“Who will fly the Flag.” Allura answers him, glancing at the ground, “Who will release him to the wind.”

 

“That won’t happen.”

 

It grows quiet as they retreat back to their respective thoughts.

 

The silence isn’t comfortable, not when Lance’s breathing is so slow.

 

But after a while, Allura turns to go.

 

She sighs, “I hope you’re right, Keith.”

 

-------------------------------

 

 

The battle fields are a reminder that they’ve just finished a war; that they've just ended a time of decay and darkness and suffering.

 

They should be happy.

 

They should be celebrating.

 

But Keith is restless in his sleep, his dreams jumping erratically. Certain bits catch at his mind; of red cloaks and a mother’s warm embrace.

 

Of the crickets in the desert.

 

Of the sea at sunrise.

 

Hands dark against his neck and chest.

 

The dreams shift like a flow of water, changing from soft memories to the reliving of the past few days- of the dark enveloping him.

 

But just as he gives way to bone-deep nausea, he feels something different shift. It’s subtle at first, like a push on the spine. He sits up, finally waking from his fitful rest, to feel it pour through him like some passing of invisible life. He gasps and clutches at his chest, hearing more than feeling the rush of heat pour inside of his body. It beats with his heart and glides against his skin, hot enough to feel cold.

 

He stands quickly, wondering if the wounds Allura treated had reopened somehow. If they had missed some piece of infection.

 

But as he shuffles to the flaps of the tent, he hears a quick draw of breath. Something ragged and guttural, like breathing against water-filled lungs.

 

When Keith makes it to Lance’s side, his eyes are wide open. The blue iris's swim, like swirls of ice and river and ocean. But more than that, the ink colored lines are fading along his face. Like the wiping of a hand across sand, bits drift into the air and float up, before dissipating completely.

 

And then Lance is so full of light, Keith isn’t sure if he can bare to look at it.

 

-------------------------------

 

“When I can stand, it’ll be like the storybooks.” Lance smirks, voice weak against the night.

 

Keith flushes, remembering his own confessions, “Just rest.”

 

Lance had definitely heard him. And though it's only been a few hours, Keith knows he could carry on about it for even more. 

 

“I am.” Lance shifts, grimacing at the itch of the makeshift blankets, “But I think it’s about time I tried to get up, don’t you think?”

 

“No.” Keith pulls the blankets higher on Lance’s chest, ignoring his look of disdain, “I don’t.”

 

“I’ve just come back from the dead and you’re already bossing me around?”

 

Keith flinches, “You weren’t dead.”

 

“Close to it.”

 

“You weren’t.” Keith urges, giving up on the blankets.

 

He pulls the edges back and shuffles in, taking his time to feel the length of Lance’s body against his own.

 

He’s thankful for the quick wash Lance got hours ago, with the help of Hunk. He doesn’t smell as good as he used to, but it’s better than he did.

 

Keith sighs into his neck before breathing deep, inching his leg over Lance’s as if in question.

 

It’s soft, the way they find each other in the dark.

 

“I’m sorry.” Lance whispers, letting his head fall back against the cot.

 

It’s small but neither of them mind.

 

“For what?”

 

“Almost dying.”

 

Keith groans and pushes closer, using his free hand to inch up the length of Lance’s face. He places his fingers over his eyes, feeling the brush of his thick lashes.

 

Lance furrows his brows, “What the hell are you-“

 

“Just be quiet.” Keith smirks, “I’m tired.”

 

“Tired?” Lance scoffs, gearing up for another lengthy ramble.

 

But Keith doesn’t listen to the rest because within seconds, he's already fast asleep.

 

-------------------------------

 

It takes longer than Lance would like for his body to heal.

 

He doesn’t listen to Allura as she tries to keep him settled, nor does he allow Hunk to convince him to stay within the tent.

 

He’s drawn to the Flag like a moth to flame.

 

And although he hisses through the pain, he’s determined to reach the deck.

 

Keith watches as he trails his hands along the rail, taking his time to rise. The magic that’s been released by the replacement of the Medallion keeps him centered; like the balancing of a feather on string. Keith himself finds it strange, the way the magic flows through his own core in softer tones. It isn’t as harsh nor as hot.

 

But it’s still there, settled into him with a deeper source; with a stronger connection.

 

As Lance nears the top, Keith reaches out his hand.

 

Like so long ago, when Lance offered his own palm to Keith like a lifeline. Lance smirks at it, no doubt remembering the same, before sliding his hand into Keith’s grasp. He pulls him up and close, until their chests are pressed close together.

 

They have no reason to rush. Not anymore. 

 

The night is dark and quiet, with only the sound of the waves on the sand. 

 

If they were to look out at the expanse of the ocean, Keith knows they’d be reminded of the sunken ships.

 

But they don’t want to be reminded.

 

They just want to be.

 

And it’s at this moment that Keith realizes they don’t need a storybook reunion. There doesn’t need to be desperate tugs at one another or the spinning of one into the air.

 

There only needs to be this; the gentle breeze on the horizon, their fingers laced together, the soft sounds of their boots on the deck.

 

The start of the engine, now controlled by the snap of Lance's fingers.

 

The blossoming of the sky, with stars blinking as if in congratulations.

 

“You know,” Lance pulls Keith into a dance, an easy movement with no need for a tune, “you could be a king now.”

 

Keith scoffs, “No.”

 

“It’s in your blood, isn’t it?”

 

“Maybe.” Keith shrugs, “But I don't choose it.”

 

"I'm glad."

 

Keith looks to Lance, watching the way grown hair brushes against his cheek. He shifts himself up, just a tad, to touch his lips to the base of his throat. 

 

Lance hums and twirls Keith, listening to the brush of the sails against the wind.

 

-------------------------------

 

The coming days bring planning.

 

Shiro returned only to leave quickly after, taking with him select members of Alfor’s company. They spoke briefly of the dragon, and the golden egg that had rested inside. If Shiro could handle it, he plans to keep it.

 

But his goodbyes to Keith were still very brief. Part of Keith wanted to beg him to stay, to forget all about the burdens left behind by their parents. But Shiro had remained regal against the backdrop of the ruins, head shaking before Keith had even begun to ask.

 

Their goodbyes were short, but full of love- with the promises of Keith returning every now and then to see the progress of the kingdom.

 

"Visits?" Lance had laughed, head thrown back against the sunshine, "More like raids. If your kingdom is as rich as promised, I'm sure you'll be seeing much more of us."

 

Whether he was joking or not, neither Shiro or Keith could tell.  

 

Pidge, while wishing to stay with the Flag, knew they had bigger things to deal with.

 

The reviving of the forest will be rough.

 

But Keith could tell they were desperate to get to work. Their mind had already been far away when Keith finally caught up to them and though he debated asking them to join the crew officially, he knew it would be futile. 

 

"We'll be seeing each other again." Pidge had mumbled, fiddling with some strange contraption. 

 

Keith didn't question it. 

 

And though the magic didn’t return like a blast of otherworldly energy, and there were no immediate results other than those internally, Keith could spot small inklings of new life.

 

The sprouting of a bud in the grass.

 

The glint of something crystalline in the sky.

 

“Are you ready?”

 

Keith turns to Lance, watching as his coat flows behind him the wind.

 

The Flag is high in the sky, having just lifted from the surface of the water. His brother's new kingdom rests far behind them now. He watches as Lance passes him, taking the steps to the helm two at a time.

 

He turns in a grand sweep, a burst of blue shooting from his fingertips.

 

Allura shouts to the crew, urging Hunk to roll barrels below deck and the sails to turn to favor the wind. And through the rush of it all, with people pushing past Keith and the call of gulls against the clouds, he turns to the horizon as well.

 

He knows that there will be others, less powerful than Zarkon, but brutal just the same. They'll see the Flag in the distance and choose to challenge them; to risk their lives for the sake of bounty and riches. The wind picks up Keith's hair and whips it about his face, bringing with it the taste of salt and hot sun. It fills him up and travels the length of the ship, like some returning friend; like some dangerous companion.

 

He smiles, something powerful; a mirror to Lance's own smirk from the helm behind him.

 

Because though they don’t know where they’re headed, he knows it’ll be an adventure.

 

So for now, all they have to do is sail.