Lance cried in his sleep.
Keith used to crash into bed and immediately fall unconscious, but this planet had him on edge, had him gripping his newly purchased dagger tightly beneath his pillow, falling asleep in fits and starts.
And so he was awake enough to hear the whimpering from the other side of their tiny room. To see Lance shiver and curl into himself, hiding his face as his shoulders shook violently.
After the first night in Yathir’s inn, after Jorlack came and pushed a debt down onto them, to be paid under pain of death, Lance’s nights became restless, sobs tearing out of his throat.
Keith had no idea if Lance was aware of this or not.
For the last several mornings, Lance had woken up with a smile, bemoaning his puffy face whenever he got a look at himself. He would spend way, way too long in the communal bathroom, singing to himself as he got ready, firing off cheerful insults at Keith whenever he was told to hurry the hell up.
Keith took the coward’s way out, which meant never asking Lance about it. Each night, he stared at the dark shape of his Paladin partner, shaking in grief, and forced himself to wait until Lance settled into a quieter, more restful sleep.
“Okay, so we’re like, almost a quarter of the way to paying Jorlack already,” Lance told Yathir happily on the morning of their seventh day at the inn. (Ten days total on this planet, if Keith included the first three out in the desert when Lance almost … Stop counting, Keith told himself.)
Lance shoved a few slices of fruit into his mouth, chewing obnoxiously loud. “I mean, it would go faster if people would quit being jerks about paying us what we’re due. Like, the last guy promised ten gems, and he gave us five plus a drink at the bar, but, you know, win some, lose some.”
“You did get us lost on the way to the meeting place,” Keith said tiredly as Yathir poured him some hot tea. “So no more shortcuts.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Lance waved off Keith’s words. “Man, did you see me put a cap in that idiot’s leg? Yathir, check this out.”
Lance babbled excitedly, the innkeeper chuckling as the Blue Paladin told the story of their last job, wherein somebody thought they could steal their client’s goods, but Lance had quickly and accurately lodged a laser shot right in this blue alien’s knee, bringing him down in seconds. The pistols he had were pretty low quality, but Lance, Keith had to admit, was a good enough marksman that it hardly mattered.
That, and Yathir had let them set up a shooting range out back, so Lance was getting plenty of practise with his new weapons between jobs.
“We have a meeting with that Caspor guy later, but first, sparring,” Keith said firmly. He insisted on maintaining their hand-to-hand combat skills every day.
Lance sagged in his seat. “Keith, you’re killing me here.”
“No, killing is what happens if you don’t practise with me.” Keith levelled him with a hard stare. “Move it.”
Maybe one day he would let up, but he didn’t foresee that happening any time soon.
He tossed Lance into the ground several times. Keith taught Lance the kind of moves most useful when survival was on the line and rules of engagement ceased to matter. Lance’s complaining and joking ended then, his attention sharpening.
Keith hated that.
The pride he felt the first time Lance cut him off at the knees, sending him smashing face first into the dirt … it was tinged with bitter sadness. Gritting his teeth, he pushed through the sick feeling in his stomach, focused on the moment, and brought Lance down — but the Blue Paladin had learned, and he rolled quickly, pinning Keith to the ground.
Lance smirked, leaning forward with his forearm braced lightly against Keith’s neck while he clutched both of Keith’s wrists in one hand, keeping them held down in the dirt above Keith’s head.
“I. Am. The. Champion.” Lance’s smirk was far, far too close.
“One out of five, Lance,” Keith shot back. “But sure, one fifth of the time, you rule.”
“I’ll take it!” Lance chirped. He let go of his wrists, sitting up and back on Keith’s thighs. “So does this mean we’re done for now?” He arched his back in a stretch, massaging his sore neck and shoulders.
Keith … suddenly lost the thread. Lance shamelessly straddling his lap was not conducive to forming coherent thoughts — and Lance knew it. Keith swallowed hard, choking when Lance braced two hands on his chest, adjusting his position as he slid further up.
“Or we could go for another few rounds,” Lance suggested in a low voice. “Best out of ten?”
At the end of that question, Lance rolled his hips just the slightest bit. Keith sat up immediately, shoving hard enough to dislodge him and jumping to his feet. Lance raised an eyebrow knowingly up at him, surrendering without saying a word. The burning in Keith’s face refused to go down, and there was no hiding it, so he just sighed, sweeping his messy hair away from his eyes.
“Right, that’s it for today,” Keith said, rubbing at his neck.
“He says when I’m finally kicking ass.” Lance smiled easily at Keith, those blue eyes bright as ever. “I’m gonna get in some target practise too, if that’s cool.”
The flush from Lance’s proximity faded as he glanced towards the targets, full of laser bolts — shots aimed precisely at joints, at tender spots on hands and feet.
Noticeably, very few shots aimed at hearts. At heads.
“Yeah, yeah, go for it. I’m just going to get cleaned up.” He patted Lance on the shoulder, a silent good job, and then went inside.
He took a burning hot shower, watching the grime swirl its way down the drain, but that itching sensation beneath his skin … No matter how much he turned up the heat, how hard he scrubbed, that kind of grit didn’t wash off.
Yathir had told them, “Caspor is slimy, so keep your wits sharp — he’ll try to bargain you down. Don’t let him.”
What Yathir hadn’t told them was that Caspor’s slimy nature also tended towards the perverted.
Keith’s hands prickled. They gripped the hilts of his short swords, watching as the greasy Caspor approached them from the other side of Jorlack’s bar, swanning out from the private gambling room as if his name were above the door of the establishment. But it wasn’t his arrogance that pissed Keith off immediately.
It was the way he looked at Lance.
When Caspor leaned against the bar, his eyes roving up and down Lance’s form, Keith felt Lance tense up, even as he smiled at the alien, trying to appear indifferent.
“Gunthra said you might have a job for us,” Lance said, his voice remarkably even.
“I might, since my usual errand boys are busy with another task,” Caspor replied, his greenish-brown skin flushing a darker green along his cheekbones and around his eyes. He licked at his wide mouth with a narrow, reptilian tongue. “It’s a simple transport job — getting my ID plates over to Ithorla to their buyer, bringing back the gems. Payment upon completion.”
“Bullshit.” Keith did not draw his blades, but every leer from this asshole was testing his patience. “We did the same kind of work for Gunthra, and she gave us half upfront.” And then given them less than half upon finishing the job, but she’d had six goons at her back while she wielded a very impressive scimitar. Lance and Keith had let that one go with no complaints.
“Ah, but I’m not as nice as she is,” Caspor responded, his hand dropping a memory stick with the time and location of the drop … Followed by those fingers inching closer to Lance’s on the bar counter. “And I don’t need the gems as badly as you two do, rumour has it.”
Keith’s jaw clenched, his feet sliding forward — Lance shifted in front of him abruptly, blocking the bastard from Keith’s sight.
“Fine, Caspor, we have a deal. You better not cross us.”
Lance’s whole body stiffened, and Keith realized (too late) that Caspor’s hand had disappeared from the bar counter; he didn’t see where it had landed, but Lance had jerked back into Keith, his arms out in front of him toward the piece of crap asshole off.
“I look forward to seeing you once this job is done,” the alien said, his grin smug and hungry.
The hilt of the sword felt good in his hands; Keith nearly drew it, but Lance wrapped his own hand around the pommel, shoving the blade back in its sheath. Keith glared up at him through his black strands of hair. Lance shook his head sharply. That grim expression, the quiet acceptance, had Keith envisioning his sword slicing neatly through Caspor’s smirk … But he let his hand uncurl from the blade, giving Lance a reluctant nod.
A moment later, Lance turned around, facing his assaulter with a sharp glare. “We’ll do the job. Next time offer me dinner or something, you uncultured swine.”
Caspor laughed as he walked away. “If you say so, pretty one. Seems like I can get a free taste whenever. See you in two days.”
Lance snatched up the memory stick, and then he grabbed Keith by his collar as he tried to reach for Caspor’s neck — forget stabbing him, slow strangulation seemed more fitting. Lance wasn’t having it, though. “All right, Red, chill. Let’s just get a drink. Okay? Breathe.”
“Where did that son of a—”
“Doesn’t matter,” Lance dismissed, and his smile looked real. He steered Keith over to a table, forcing him down into a chair. “We have paying work. And Yathir tossed me a couple of gems for helping him wash the windows yesterday.”
“We should save those—”
“Keith. If we don’t get a little R and R every once in a while, we’re not going to be able to function. Your body needs food and sleep, and your mind needs rest from constantly doing whatever angsty, broody thing it is you do, which looks exhausting.”
He snorted at this, his anger settling to a low simmer. Lance’s smile brightened.
“Hello, what can I get you two?”
Keith looked up, a blue skinned waitress, with dark purple hair, smiling down at them. Her face was open, friendly — even more so than Yathir, who hid secrets behind his eyes. Her silver gaze seemed to hold fascination, but she said nothing else, waiting patiently.
“Just a couple grethi juices with bubbles, please?” Lance requested. He winked at her. “And don’t worry, beautiful ladies automatically get big tips — so no hurry.”
She laughed openly, one of her hands coming up to cover her mouth. Keith noted the two missing fingers, and then politely averted his eyes. She left and returned fairly quickly, and Lance gave her a couple of small gems. She took them with a wink back, and then hesitated. “I … I’m sorry if I’m overstepping, but I heard … and saw … your meeting with Caspor?”
Keith flinched, and Lance shrugged. “Yeah? He that creepy with everyone or am I just lucky?”
The waitress grimaced. “He has a type you fall into. I wanted to … maybe offer some advice? Or help? There’s a way to avoid people like him. There are a few jobs that no one dares interfere with — and if you do them, no one touches you. Unless you want them to, of course,” Brisha added, and here she shot Keith a teasing grin. He sighed heavily as Lance chuckled at his expense.
“Sounds too good to be true,” Keith pointed out, but not unkindly.
She nodded. “That’s fair. My brother could explain it to you, if you like?”
“Sure,” Lance said, cutting Keith off before he could object. “We’ll hear him out, at least.”
Keith let his breath out in an irritated huff, but allowed Lance to win this one. “Okay. Thanks for the offer, um … ?”
“Oh, my name is Brisha,” she said. “And my brother, Czanliu, he’ll be by soon.”
Lance nodded and turned to Keith, shrugging. “Worth a shot. Any work that pays, right?”
Maybe, but there’s work that takes more than it pays, Keith thought with a scowl, his mind jumping back to Caspor and the groping hand Keith wanted to chop off.
Brisha’s brother resembled her in skin tone and hair colour, but he was dressed in neat, well-made clothes, faint glimmers of make-up along his features. He walked over to their table after a brief conversation with his sister, and when he sat down, he eyed them both with an evaluating stare.
“Brisha told me about your run-in with Caspor — he’s a piece of trash, but if you’re firm with him, he’ll back off. Unfortunately, there are others around here that aren’t quite so … simple.” He breathed out slowly, and then offered up a smile that was more guarded than his sister’s. “I’m Czanliu, and I’m a First Lieutenant.”
“What?” Lance blinked. “Um, we were told there’s no law here? Like, no police, military, nothing like that?”
“There isn’t, it’s just what Denna likes to call us — the ones she’s put in charge of various parts of her business. And Denna is the most respected boss here. Mostly because everyone buys what she sells, and she provides the highest quality. It’s in everybody’s best interest to let her do what she wants, so they can all get what they want.”
Czanliu tilted his head in Lance’s direction. “You would fit in well. In fact, you could work your way up to lieutenant in no time at all. Be earning a hundred gems a week.”
Lance leaned forward eagerly, but Keith suddenly remembered Yathir mentioning Denna’s their first morning at the inn, and his hand reached over, yanking hard on Lance’s shirt. “You work at Denna’s Pleasure Lair.”
Keith expected Lance to sag in his grip, let out a resigned laugh or offer up a sheepish grin, the same fumbling rejection he’d given Yathir when the innkeeper had brought it up in the first place.
What happened instead was that Lance bent a little in his seat, laying both hands flat on the table. “Okay, I’m not … inclined to say yes to this, but, hypothetically, how much would I make at first?”
“Lance,” Keith started, and then faltered when Lance shot him a serious look of shut the hell up.
“Not all that much,” Czanliu admitted honestly. “You’ve got to gain a reputation, build up a steady list of regulars. But, trust me … You have what it takes.”
He didn’t leer at Lance, or make a pass at him, his words plain and simple. And Lance was actually listening, even considering …
“How much control over those clients? Over what I … do?” Lance asked haltingly.
Czanliu smiled. “All of the control. Denna doesn’t want anybody there who isn’t there willingly. It’s what separates her place from others … We’re good at what we do, and we want to be doing it. The only thing that’s pre-determined is how much you charge for services, and how much of a cut Denna gets. But she provides you with a place to stay, food, and medical services, all included in that cut she takes. There’s a minimum quota you’ve got to meet, but it’s easy.”
Easy. Keith held in a bitter laugh. Nothing about this place was easy.
Lance nodded, leaning back at last. “Okay. Thanks for the info, but I think I’ll pass.”
Czanliu cocked his head to one side, frowning a little. “You sure? It’s the safest work on this rock. Nobody brings weapons to Denna’s, and we’re all good at guarding each other’s backs. Maybe you should think about —”
Keith bristled, his eyes snapping to Czanliu’s as he growled out, “He said no.”
The alien held up a hand. “And I heard him. But in case he changes his mind … Just come to Denna’s, mention me by name at the door. Or ask Brisha to find me.” He stood up, and he had the gall to smile at them both and say, “Hope to see you soon, Lance.”
Once he was out of earshot, Keith whipped around to hiss, “What the hell was that?”
“That was me trying to figure out if there’s a better, faster way to pay Jorlack off so we can get started on actually leaving this hellhole,” Lance snapped at him. “And I said no, so you can chill out — not that you get to decide what kind of work I do. Jackass.”
Keith inhaled deeply, shoving down all the harsh things he wanted to say, things from before he and Lance had learned to get along, before he had … grown to like Lance more than he should. But the Blue Paladin could still push his buttons, smash all of them at once, in fact.
He let loose a long exhale, most of his anger released with the air. “You’re right. Just … the only way we’re going to survive this is if we stick together. We can’t go it alone.”
“I know, dude.” Lance’s voice grew soft, affectionate. “And I wouldn’t want to anyway. Even when I feel the overpowering urge to smother you with your own mullet.”
Keith managed a small smile at that, and reached over with a hand, just brushing Lance’s fingers with his own. “We’re going to fight some more. We’re not going to agree on the best ways to do stuff. And we’re going to be stupid about other things that don’t matter — like how damn long you take in the shower.”
“We’ve already established that such beauty requires maintenance,” Lance said loftily, waving at his entire person with the hand that wasn’t resting alongside Keith’s. “And as you are an avid appreciator of said beauty, I would think you would be in favour.”
He ignored that dig at his feelings, and shifted in closer to Lance, staring directly into those blue eyes. “You have to promise — we have to swear that no matter how much we argue or disagree, we are never going to abandon each other.”
“I’m sort of insulted that you need a solemn oath from me over something that I figured was obvious,” Lance murmured lightly, but his eyes were dark and staid. “I couldn’t leave you behind even if you begged me to. You’re stuck with me, Keith.”
Keith’s hand finally bridged that infinitesimal gap. The Blue Paladin intertwined their fingers, squeezing just this side of painfully tight. Keith returned the favour, his heart beating a steady yearning throughout his body.
“Good,” Keith whispered, his face so close to Lance’s that he could easily count each of those long eyelashes. “Wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“Lance! DUCK!” Keith ran, launching himself off the wrecked hull of a speeder, landing on the gang member who had been about to throw a sword into Lance’s back. The sword still went flying, but Lance slid underneath it, bringing up his pistols, firing into the alien’s arm, and then swirling around to land two shots in the leg of another thug.
Caspor’s ID drop had been compromised by his anonymous buyer’s enemies. The rival gang, decked out in matching coats of dark green, had descended upon them from the rooftops like a bunch of monkeys. Armed monkeys.
Someone lost a finger as they reached for Keith’s throat; he sliced upwards with his blades, leaning back far enough to avoid the clawed hand, seeing the finger fly as he dropped down and kicked the now screaming assailant in the knees, sending them head-first into the dirt.
Keith and Lance were winning, but just barely.
Lance screamed, an incoherent noise that might have been Keith’s name — he was running towards Keith, sprinting at full speed.
Keith felt the Blue Paladin hit his side just as a burning hot pain sliced across his temple, a blow that blurred his vision, deafened his ears. He might have lost consciousness, which would explain why he was suddenly on the ground with no memory of getting there. Lance fired wildly at the departing goons — the few who weren’t knocked out cold.
In the back of the getaway-hovercar, one of the aliens had a thick wad of bandages around his knee. He grinned with sharp fangs, one of his red eyes winking as he waved a jaunty good-bye at them, his gun still pointed at Keith.
Oh. Keith realized. I just got shot. In the head. Huh.
Eerie silence fell around them as the hovercar disappeared.
Lance dropped down next to Keith, his voice thick with tears. “Keith, oh god, Keith …”
He turned his head with difficulty, grateful that his vision was no longer blurry so he could look Lance in the face as he coughed out, “I’m fine. It’s okay, I’m fine.”
Trembling fingers reached over, carefully lifting Keith’s hair away from his forehead. He felt a cool breeze wash over his wound, and he winced at the sting.
Lance smiled through his sobs. “Okay, okay, he just grazed you, it’s not that bad — maybe won’t even scar if we …” And then he gave up, his head dropping down to Keith’s chest. Every part of him shook while he wrapped his arms around Keith as best he could from their sprawled positions.
Keith lifted one hand with difficulty, resting it on the back of Lance’s head. “It’s okay,” he repeated, dizzy even without moving. “But we gotta get out of here … let Caspor know that the drop went south.”
“I got the money,” Lance’s muffled voice said. “So, not that south. But we’re not telling him that tonight. He can sweat it out. We’re going back to Yathir’s so he can look at you. Or tell us where to find a doctor. Fuck, that was … too close …”
He wanted to reassure Lance more, wanted to stay awake and keep him company on the ride back to Dagos, but instead he dropped off again, in an instant it seemed. As soon as Lance got him in the speeder, his eyes closed.
When he opened them again, he was in his bed at the inn, Lance seated by his hip, facing away as he talked to somebody on the other side of the room.
“… So if they’re all criminals, then this place is like a prison?”
“More or less,” Yathir said quietly. Keith’s eyelids fluttered, but he couldn’t open them just yet — he listened as he drifted closer to consciousness. “After the wars, the acts committed by some soldiers and generals were so heinous that neither side wished to lay claim to them. And so they were banished here. Later on, it was decided that banishment was a more civilized punishment than execution for those who committed similar acts, albeit on much smaller scales.”
“Except that people die here all the time,” Lance interrupted, his tone judgemental, cracking along the words. As Keith became more aware, he felt warmth emanating from … a hand resting on Keith’s chest, right over his heart. “There’s a mass grave out in the desert, Yathir. I’ve seen shoot-outs and stabbings …”
“It’s a punishment,” Yathir said again. “But I concede your point, particularly since it escalated further. Those given life sentences were offered this as an alternative. Other planets allied with Jacomir asked permission to send their convicted criminals here as well, and now … I believe there are ten worlds, at least, that use this place as a repository for their worst offenders. Jacomir charges them taxes as they maintain the shields and other security measures …”
“We had a place like this, back on our home planet,” Lance muttered. “Called Australia. Eventually, it became its own country.”
“That won’t happen here. No one claims sovereignty — their only interest is surviving to see another day … Ah, Keith, you’re awake.”
The hand on Keith’s chest jerked a little, pressing down and then lifting up. There were fingers stroking against his cheek as his eyelids struggled to open again. Those fingers disappeared once he was finally able to see Lance’s face, and he didn’t know how to ask Lance to keep going, to stay close … His brain blinked into full awareness a second later, and he remembered that he couldn’t ask. He ignored the dull pain from that realization and worked at saying something that wouldn’t hurt.
“You took a laser bolt to the head,” Lance answered the unfinished question, his gaze focused low, avoiding Keith’s eyes. “And I know the guy that did it … from the last ambush we, I …” Lance shook himself a bit, squaring his shoulders; his smile appeared from out of nowhere. “Doctor came by, gave you some stitches. Those will dissolve in a few days, and you probably won’t even have a sexy scar to show for it.”
Keith lifted a hand to his forehead, feeling the bandage on his temple.
Lance hopped off the bed, reaching over to the nightstand for a glass of water. “Here, drink some of this.”
“I’ll head back down,” Yathir said, standing up with a few creaks to his limbs. He gave Keith a small smile as he walked out. “Bring you both dinner in a half hour.”
When he was gone, Lance kneeled by the bed, helping Keith sit up partially. Aside from the world spinning, he felt fine. A bit sweaty from being under the covers, but in one piece and ready to work.
“Did you get a message to Caspor?” Keith asked as Lance shoved the water in his face. He took a few solid gulps while Lance sat back on his heels, shaking his head.
“Keith, I was worried about your brains spilling out of your skull, okay?” He scrubbed at his face, that strange smile faltering slightly. “But tomorrow, we’ll go meet with the slimy pervert at Jorlack’s again. For now, just rest.”
“Heard your talk with Yathir.” Keith handed Lance the empty glass, moving to sit up further in his bed. “Australia, right?”
“A whole planet acting as a prison, with no guards and no cells. Anything beyond the five towns is desert as far as the eye can see … Few folks have tried to find somewhere else to settle … No one’s ever heard from them again. Yathir says he’s found bodies now and again. Dehydration gets them all in the end.” Lance pointed to the world beyond their window. “So this place? Can go to hell. Or is hell. Or something — we need to blaze on outta here, is what I’m saying.”
Keith nodded. “That was the plan right from the start, Lance.”
“Yeah, well, it deserves to be emphasized how badly we need to go.” Lance stood up, unbuttoning his shirt. “I’m going to get all the blood off me, eat Yathir’s delicious wares, and then it’s bedtime. Especially for cowboys who don’t know how to duck.”
“I didn’t even see the gun!” Keith protested, but Lance just flapped his hand about, making silly hushing noises. Keith found himself smiling, the aches in his head and heart receding.
They had dinner together, Lance cracking jokes about the gang that couldn’t pin down only two amateur mercenaries. Keith rolled his eyes in the right places, even laughed a few times, surprising himself …
Not long after that, they were both in their beds, Lance nothing but a faint outline across from him … A vague shape that shivered and cried out in agony, trying to muffle his pain into the pillow.
Lance was awake for this, Keith could tell. But he couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t make things worse — and even knowing that they would eventually find their way off this thrice-damned world didn’t ease the angry fear in him.
They were serving an unjust sentence with no chance at parole.
Unless they acted as their own arbiters of justice.
Lance quieted eventually, the sobs tapering off into whimpers, and then finally the deep breaths of sleep.
Keith’s guilt at being so incompetent, so terrible a friend, kept him awake for a long time after.
In the end, exhaustion pulled him under, but his sleep was of the restless sort; his mind dwelled on the irony that their prison time involved committing the kinds of crimes that, had they been citizens of Jacomir, probably would’ve gotten them one-way tickets to this hellish planet.
He was going to stab Caspor in the face. It was inevitable. Lance wouldn’t be able to stop him — Keith still beat him in sparring more often than not.
“We were two days late, not a week,” Lance insisted, his hand clenched into a fist on his thigh, hidden from the slimy pervert’s sight by the table between them. “So pay us what we’re owed! We beat off a dozen assholes to protect your precious pay-out. If we knew you were going to be this stingy, we would’ve just kept the damn gems ourselves.”
“Except that’s not a good strategy for building up a reputation that gets you more contracts,” Caspor pointed out with unfortunately sound logic, standing up and tossing the paltry handful of gems at them — a third of what they were promised. “You did good work. I’ll probably hire you again. Spread the word to a few others. Be grateful, boys.”
He walked around the table, and before Keith could turn to snap his damn arm in two, Lance gripped Keith’s wrists tightly; Caspor’s fingers had brushed against the back of Lance’s neck, stroked through his hair. The fucker laughed as Lance flinched, clapping a hand over the spot, gritting his teeth.
“Heard people talking about you and Zan. If you ever consider working for Denna’s … Well, I’d pay five times the going rate.” Caspor finally walked away, chuckling in a self-satisfied manner.
“Fuck that bastard,” Keith said with a violence that begged to be unleashed. He could picture the asshole going down so easily.
“Keith, I’m gonna need you to be calm right now because I don’t think I could actually stop you from going ham,” Lance spoke tonelessly, disturbing enough that it forced Keith to do as requested. He switched his gaze from glaring malevolently at Caspor’s back to staring with concern at Lance.
The Blue Paladin looked pale, with dark circles under his eyes. Suddenly, without his usual enthusiasm for cowboy life, without his constant jokes and innuendos, Keith could see how tired he was — those nights spent in mourning taking a visible toll.
And once again, Keith had no idea what to do. He sat in silence, feeling worse than ever, helpless and furious at himself.
Lance sucked in a deep, rattling breath and offered up a half-smile. “Hey. Shut up with the angsting. It’s coming off of you in waves. Waves of emo-ness. I’m sure Pidge could build a machine that tracked that … even set off alarms, like, now entering broody mode.”
The ramble was almost believable as Lance, back to normal. Except that his eyes …
But Keith lacked the right words to gently investigate. He sighed in annoyance with himself, and then just bluntly asked, “Do you want to get out of here? I would rather have drinks at Yathir’s. Safer.”
“Yeah, Brisha’s not working tonight, and that’s pretty much the only thing that would keep me here.” Lance pushed back his chair, his smile widening just a little. “I think I smelled some pie baking in the oven before we left. I wonder if it’s as good as Earth pie. Yathir’s a pretty badass cook, so maybe …” He led Keith out the door, walking towards the speeder with a lighter step than when they’d come in …
Until some drunken jerk stumbled into his path, knocking Lance to the ground.
Keith had his blades out, ready for action, but Lance leapt to his feet instantly, one hand on his pistol grip, the other out in front of him. “Hey dude, watch your …”
He froze, and his eyes dipped down. Keith followed his gaze … to the bandages around the big alien’s knee. The gang member with red eyes, bulging blue muscles, and the blown out kneecap. The alien grinned wolfishly at their shocked stares.
“Hello there, fresh meat. Survived your first week or two? Don’t get excited.” He laughed boldly, and the moonlight caught on a shimmer — a dagger in his hands. He didn’t do anything other than toss it casually, catching it one-handed, but Keith didn’t take his eyes off it, his fingers squeezing the hilts of his blades, priming for action.
The hired goon aimed the dagger at Keith, more specifically at the healing cut on his forehead. “Missed that headshot by an ikuril hair. Better luck next time. C’mon back down to Ithorla real soon so I can test that luck.”
Lance unholstered his gun. Keith couldn’t see his face, but the night dropped several degrees in temperature as the Blue Paladin spoke, “You’re going to want to walk away now. Fast. I’m a good shot.”
“My knee knows it. And a couple of my buddies’ hands have new holes. Oh, and one of my girlfriends, you got her good in the shoulder,” the alien counted off with each light lob of his dagger. “What were you sent here for? Nothing real I’ll bet. Some rich kid that paid people to do his dirty work, never got his hands down in the muck himself?” He snorted, his blue skin flushing purple as he laughed.
Lance took one step closer. “I said leave.”
Keith shifted over closer to Lance — he took his eyes off the dagger just long enough to catch the tight, blank look on Lance’s face.
“Or what, pretty boy?” He glanced over his shoulder. “My speeder got trashed on my last gig. Think I might take this one. It’s garbage, but garbage is better than nothing.”
Lance fired his pistol, catching the gang member in the foot — he howled loudly, hopping up and throwing the dagger. Keith deflected it deftly with one sword, and rushed towards the speeder, past the injured alien who was now collapsed on the ground, nursing his new injury.
Keith was about to jump into their vehicle, but Lance wasn’t right at his side as expected — he whirled around to yell at him to get a move on …
Lance strolled up to the alien, staring down at him with an expression Keith had never seen before.
The criminal spat at the Blue Paladin, grimacing as he growled. “Go on, leave, coward. I know your faces.” He looked towards Keith, pulling a crooked, bloodthirsty grin out between winces of pain, and then he turned back to Lance, barking out more laughter. “I know what you care about, boy. You make it too easy, and you don’t finish what you start—”
The shot wasn’t loud … but for Keith, that pistol blast split the night.
Lance holstered his gun — it took him two tries, his hand was shaking so badly. But he walked without stumbling towards the speeder, his face colourless, his eyes focused on nothing. He climbed into the passenger side in silence.
Keith got in and drove off immediately. His brain blanked. He only knew where they were going and nothing else.
He nearly crashed into a cactus when Lance said, “Keith … Keith, stop, now.”
And he did, jerking to an abrupt halt.
Lance fell out, walking a few metres into the desert, his feet catching on a few stones. He crashed to his knees and heaved. Keith climbed out from the hoverspeeder, crouching down next to Lance, putting a hesitant hand on his back as he threw up what seemed like everything he’d eaten that day.
Lance spat once he was done, his hair soaked through with sweat. Sporadic shudders shot through his body — Keith resisted the urge to pick him up and carry him back into their vehicle. Eventually, Lance slowly, achingly pushed himself to his feet.
Keith stayed close, murmuring a near silent question, “You okay?”
Unsurprisingly, Lance said nothing. The entire ride back was brutally quiet.
Yathir looked up from his cleaning as they came in, a ready smile on his face that faded quickly.
“Are you hurt?” he asked, his eyes taking them in from top to bottom. “Or did Caspor go back on his word?” He put down his rag and strode out from behind the bar.
“No and yes,” Keith replied, his eyes on Lance. “And … some stupid jerk tried to start a fight, steal the speeder … But he … he’s been dealt with.”
Lance didn’t flinch at these words, only kept walking, right up the stairs and turning towards the bathroom. Keith heard the rush of water in the old pipes just moments later.
“I … I think we’re heading to sleep now,” Keith said, and looked towards Yathir, waiting for something. He had no idea what, but he sent a pleading stare to the older alien ….
A hand came down on his shoulder, squeezing. Yathir’s eyes were opaque as he said, “Any day that you and Lance are breathing? Take that as a good day. And then move on to the next. And the next. Until you’re home.”
Keith blinked back tears; he hadn’t even noticed his vision was blurring as Yathir spoke to him. The innkeeper was right about pushing through this, taking each day one at a … How many days … Keith realized he’d lost track since the night he’d been shot. Thirteen? Fourteen? And he stopped himself there. It didn’t matter. What mattered was making it to the end of each one, alive.
“Right. You’re right. I’m … “ He gestured pointlessly up the stairs. Yathir let him go with one last press to his shoulder.
He sat on his bed, waiting, and when Lance emerged from the shower, dripping onto the floor, Keith ventured to speak, for once, about this unspoken agony on his shoulders. “Do you … do you want to talk to me? I’m here, Lance, I’ll listen to anything.”
“I know,” Lance answered in a whisper. He dropped the towel and stepped into his shorts, barely taking the time to dry his hair. “But I don’t want to right now.”
And that was that.
Lance reached over to the holsters that were resting on the chest at the end of his bed — he pulled out one of the pistols, shoving it under his pillow. Then he was curling up into a ball with the blankets tucked up to his nose. Keith watched as he closed his eyes tightly, taking deliberate deep breaths.
Keith stayed awake for a while, scanning through his pocket computer, adding up numbers as he tried to calculate how much they had to make per contract to meet Jorlack’s deadline, fighting to force his mind away from what had happened. Eventually his impromptu accounting became too depressing, and so he shut off the light on their rickety nightstand, and echoed Lance’s position … with his hand wrapped around the hilt of the dagger beneath his own pillow.
He stared as Lance slept — not a whimper or cry to be heard. For the first time in two weeks, Lance was sleeping soundly.
The Red Paladin stayed awake until dawn, his heart too twisted up to let him rest.
Keith stumbled down the stairs, ready to find Lance eating breakfast and waiting up on him, hoping to try again, to do better this time at getting him to talk …
But no one was there other than Yathir. The old alien gestured at a barstool, observing Keith with keen grey eyes as he fell into the seat, still half-asleep, having jumped out of bed after too short a time. He might have panicked a little, seeing Lance’s empty bed, and immediately went off to search for him.
“Lance left early,” Yathir informed him as he laid out Keith’s breakfast. “He went to Denna’s.”
Keith jerked upwards, a fresh wave of panic forcing him even further into the land of the wide-awake. “I’ve got to—”
“He left a message for you, which I’ll paraphrase — do not worry, do not panic, he’s just going to ask more questions. There shall be no loss of virginity today.”
That sent Keith into another tailspin, the blood rushing to his face so quickly that it made him slightly light-headed.
He gaped at Yathir, who only smiled merrily back at him as he poured Keith some juice. “You’re probably still going to go after him. Eat your food first.”
His skin uncomfortably warm, his mind whirring too fast for so little sleep, Keith did as he was told; then he rushed upstairs to shower and brush his teeth at a lightning pace. By the time he was dressed and out the door, he felt the smallest bit calmer.
The sun was partially hidden behind a rare burst of clouds, making his drive easy and comfortable. After parking his vehicle in the familiar alley by Jorlack’s, Keith walked at a steady speed towards Denna’s Pleasure Lair, the largest building in Hutton. It vaguely reminded Keith of the Colosseum back on Earth, except made of wood and … not for gladiators.
He stopped in front of the ornate double doors, ignoring the tastefully suggestive reliefs carved all over them as he steeled himself and then knocked. One door swung open to reveal a large, burly guard with a laidback smile and a sharp blade.
“Oh, it’s you. Zan and his new friend said you might come. Pass me your swords and you’re more than welcome.”
Keith handed over his weapons with some trepidation, but the guard was absurdly kind. A few moments later, Keith was inside … And it was not what he was expecting at all.
For one thing, it was very clean. For another, the inside now strongly reminded Keith of the few depictions he’d seen of the Globe Theatre back in his English classes. The second and third stories curved all along the circular building, their balconies overlooking the main floor Keith was on, those upper floors lined with doors that probably led to the bedrooms.
There was a stage front and centre, a young pair of female aliens singing sweetly, fully clothed and very talented. The tables before the performance area were full of patrons eating and drinking, speaking in fairly level tones, no drunken caterwauling or shouting. What’s more, there were children running about — all species, all ages, some of the older ones working as servers or clutching memory sticks, maybe acting as messengers.
It just occurred to Keith why they’d never seen any children in Hutton or Dagos … They were all here. Which made sense — this was the safest place to keep them. They seemed happy and well fed. No one paid them any mind except their parents … But that didn’t mean … His stomach twisted, and maybe his face showed something of his inner turmoil because the guard frowned at him.
“Whatever it is you’re thinking, forget it. Anybody touches those kids, they die. Slowly. We all take turns ripping them to shreds. By the end, there ain’t even enough for the desert dead-feeders to pick at.”
Keith relaxed somewhat, flashing the guard a vicious smile, his agreement with those sentiments clear. The guard nodded and then resumed his casual lean against the front doors.
Along the curved wall to Keith’s left was a bar, and it seemed to serve more than just drinks; there was a schedule, of sorts, with lists of names, of activities they were willing to perform. And not all of those activities were sexual. Singing, hugging, talking …
And speaking of talking … Lance sat on a barstool, holding a mug of something warm while chatting with Czanliu, who appeared quite amused with whatever was being said.
Lance seemed to sense his presence — he paused and looked towards Keith, his mouth forming a resigned sort of smile.
“You’re later than I expected,” Lance informed him as he approached.
He grabbed Keith around the waist when he was close enough, pulling him flush against his side. The move was so smooth that Keith just … let it happen. He tried not to glare at Czanliu as he settled in with Lance — the alien man arched a dark purple eyebrow at Keith, appearing to be highly entertained, so Keith had to assume that he’d succeeded in keeping most of the ferocity from his expression.
“Good morning,” Czanliu said cheerfully. “If you haven’t had breakfast, there’s some great—”
“No, I’m fine, thank you,” Keith said curtly, his fingers curling around Lance’s hip through no conscious thought of his own. He needed something to do with his hand since he couldn’t seek out swords that were no longer at his belt … And maybe he was indulging himself after the absolutely shit week they’d had.
“In that case, I’ll just let you take Lance on back with you.” Czanliu put a hand out, and after putting his mug down, Lance readily shared a handshake with him. “I wish we could hire you on just for the prattling alone — you’re so good at putting people at ease …”
“Yeah, but the other stuff …” Lance said, sounding like he was repeating himself. “I … I need to keep that between me and … someone I care about.”
“Which is completely fine,” Czanliu was quick to say. “Lance, everyone’s comfort levels lie in different areas. If you’re not certain that this job would benefit you more than harm you, then I would rather you not take it.”
The arm around Keith’s waist tugged, guiding him as if they weren’t close enough already. Keith could tell that Lance wasn’t using him purely as an excuse or a shield — he’d obviously explained his personal feelings to Czanliu. Keith was … Keith was the person Lance cared about. They both knew this. Lance spoke nothing but the truth.
“Thanks. But, that being said …”
Keith’s stomach dropped.
“I might …” Lance’s grip around Keith tightened. “I don’t know, Zan. It’s been a crappy few days.”
“My door is always open,” Czanliu said with genuine kindness. “Free of charge for friends. And this job offer doesn’t go away, either. If you ever rethink your decision … or even if you just want to try it on a part-time basis, no contract, the option is here.”
Lance nodded, and gave the alien a wave as Czanliu got up and left them alone. Keith didn’t want to pull out of Lance’s sideways embrace, but he was growing far too comfortable with it — he let go of Lance’s hip, took a deliberate step away. Lance didn’t even comment, just stood up as well, taking one last sip of the mug he’d left abandoned on the counter.
“Let’s … let’s get back to Yathir’s. I need to … tell you some things.”
Keith swallowed dryly, allowing Lance to lead him out of Denna’s, pausing only to retrieve their weapons from the guard. Lance knew without asking where the speeder was parked, and he got into the driver’s seat. Keith let him without his usual teasing protests.
They made it back to Dagos as the noonday sun hit its peak, still powerful through the grey clouds.
Yathir said nothing when they entered together, his assessing gaze on them as they waved and proceeded up the stairs to their shared room.
Lance kicked off his boots once he walked in, and then sat on his bed, facing Keith’s, scooting backwards until he was almost against the wall. His legs were so long (and the bed so narrow) that his feet still touched the ground from that position.
Keith mimicked him, and when they were both sitting, mirror images of one another, Lance began to talk.
“I was seriously thinking about going over to Denna’s, telling Czanliu I’d take the job,” he started.
Every muscle in Keith’s body tensed, but he kept his mouth shut, his jaw clenched tightly to avoid any sounds escaping. Lance pressed a hand against his own neck, his fingers trailing back and forth as he tried to find his words.
“I started by talking to Zan, and he … There’s a minimum amount you have to make each week, and the priciest things on the menu are obviously the sex related acts …” Lance let out a breath through pursed lips. “I asked Czanliu what his easiest, best day was like … Even that seemed like too much for me.”
“Okay,” Keith said slowly, attempting to keep his voice level. “But you went there with a yes on your mind. Why?”
Lance snorted derisively. “Why do you think? I can’t … I’m not cut out for this crap. I’m so scared. I feel sick every time we leave for a job because I never know how it’s going to go, if I’ll have to finally cross a line … But then you almost died. And I realized that was way more terrifying than the thought of compromising my morals.”
A dead body in the street, a clean shot straight through the skull.
Keith swallowed hard. “I get that. I wish …” I wish you didn’t have to do this. I wish I could take the brunt of it for you. He’d felt the nausea, the fear Lance was talking about, but he’d operated on survival mode since being kicked out of the Garrison (maybe even further back than that … since he’d lost his father). It was all too easy to fall back into do what it takes to live, let it take over when things became too painful. Lance didn’t have that. But he might get there.
The possibility terrified Keith. Perhaps more than Lance working at Denna’s would. “I wish things were different. I know you said no to Czanliu again, but … if things get worse … Do you think you could do it?”
“I don’t know, Keith, maybe?” Lance leaned back against the wall, his gaze falling down to his lap. “I … know that what we’re doing now, it hurts. And it hurts more when it doesn’t — like when I killed that bastard who nearly killed you. Would working at Denna’s be any worse for me?”
Keith felt his mouth go dry again at how serious Lance sounded — the prospect of Lance, Blue Paladin of Voltron, working at a brothel, truly hit him then … Lance, the person he cared about more than he should, his loyal battle companion, the annoying cargo pilot … might actually end up as a member of Denna’s Pleasure Lair.
“I … I can't answer that for you. Would it be worse?”
Lance was quiet for a long while … “Possibly. It would feel like giving up parts of me, over and over. I don’t want to do that. I’m not the kind of person who … And for money … Czanliu seems happy, healthy. But I wouldn’t be, I know that. I would be trading one pain for another, basically.”
“Variations of the same theme,” Keith murmured. “So which one is worse to you? Based on what you’re telling me, either way you’re losing yourself.” He couldn’t think of another way to say it, even though the words hurt to get out.
“At least this way, I have you right here with me,” Lance said with finality, his eyes lifting up to meet his gaze. His mouth twisted in a rueful smile. “Whenever it tears at me — I just look over at you and I remember that I’m not alone. And that you’ve got my back. And suddenly, it sucks a little less. I can even laugh a bit, like when you got your knife stuck in that guy’s hovercar, trying to be all big and bad, and then he drove off and you went flying into the corral's crap pile—”
“Shut up, it wasn’t that funny,” Keith complained, but he felt lighter when Lance’s grin brightened up his face, lit up the whole room.
“You obviously need someone to watch your back, as your ability to fall face first into danger is freaking uncanny, dude.” Lance snorted when Keith stuck his tongue out at him.
After a few comfortable moments, Keith took a chance. “I was thinking it might help you if we … actually said out loud the kinds of things we won’t do.” He gestured at their weapons. “There’s some stuff that might be unavoidable, but as … as far as we can …”
“I don’t want to kill unless we absolutely have to,” Lance said immediately. He winced, running a hand across his jaw. “Sorry, I know … I’m not trying to make you sound …”
“Lance, it’s fine.” He knew Lance didn’t think less of him, wasn’t afraid of him, and that was enough for Keith. “And yeah, I’m with you. This … isn’t like fighting Galra on a battlefield. If we don’t have to, we won’t.”
“We don’t go after anybody unless they come at us first,” Lance added, smiling a little after Keith’s reassurances. “Don’t need to start making enemies … I’m pretty sure we’re gonna get some anyway, but at least we’ll know it’s not our fault.”
Keith was one hundred percent on board with that. “And maybe it goes without saying, but we don’t go after people’s families or friends.” Even as he said the words, they tasted false to him — if Lance’s life were ever on the line … But he said it regardless, hoping it to be true.
Lance nodded. “Yeah, of course. Okay. Right. That does help, Keith. Thanks.” He pushed himself forward and then up, bouncing a little as he stood. “Damn, I’m hungry. Didn’t have breakfast. And if Yathir’s making more pie, then that’s my lunch. We … we’re good now, right?”
Keith smiled, moving to stand next to him. “Yeah. We have our rules, we know what we’re after and how to do it. So if you’re good, then I’m good.”
There was the line.
Lance’s fear and tension faded; he was looking confident in his own skin again, as if they’d just put that line in concrete, immovable. But Keith knew better. It was a drawing in the sand, nothing more. Easily erased by the tide, by the breeze — and easily redrawn, further down. And further. And even further. Maybe they would forget to draw it altogether at some point.
But he let Lance have this small, much-needed victory.
“Fantastic, now that the emotionally draining part of the day is over with — and so early, too — we can get with the pie and the sparring. Best out of ten for sure.” Lance flashed Keith a flirty little grin. “And no running away to shower until I’ve beaten you.”
Keith raised his eyebrows. “All right, as long as you’re cool with getting well-acquainted with the ground.”
Lance ignored him with a dismissive wave, cooing over the pie they could now both smell. Keith let his own fears take a backseat for the moment. There would be plenty of time for those again tomorrow.
The sound of pistol fire woke Keith up. He was out of bed and in his boots before realizing that the gun fired steadily, with no answering shots. His eyes burned in the early morning sun, staring out the small window to the back of the inn — where Lance was getting in some more target practise.
Keith went through his morning routine, taking his own sweet time in the shower because he could, (the good part of living on a desert world — the water was always warm), and then he gave Yathir a quick “G’morning” before heading out towards Lance.
He emerged into the open backyard of the inn, standing in the shade of the building as Lance lined up his shots, nailing them one after another.
All of them straight to the head.
Keith’s hands clenched into fists at his sides; he let himself feel the full measure of sharp pain as his nails dug into his palms. Then he released.
He crept up on Lance, swift and silent, using his practised sticky fingers to lift the second pistol from its holster. When Lance corrected his stance to fire again, Keith darted in, his arm over Lance’s shoulder as he shot first, hitting the humanoid wooden target in the upper chest. Not bad.
“Geez!” Lance leapt, fumbling his gun. He turned in a quick circle, punching Keith in the arm as he did so. “You ass. Holy crap, I think my heart is … Why are you such a jerk?”
Keith shrugged. “To keep you humble.” Lance punched him again. Keith grinned and pointed with the gun he still held. “How about I humble you a little more? Seems like you need it.”
Lance glared, though a smile played at the corners of his stern mouth. “Uh huh. How, exactly, shall you bring me so low?”
“By hitting that target way back there, the one you’re just slightly off centre on with your shots, as far as I can see.” Keith had to squint, but it did look like Lance’s laser bolts weren’t hitting dead-on in the middle of the head-shape — they seemed to lean right.
“Um, no, you are not going to be one-upping me at this thing I am good at!” Lance stuck a finger in Keith’s face, making noises of nuh-uh and hm. Then he appeared to have come up with an idea, a fierce grin emerging from his severe look, and that was going to be bad news for Keith …
“Tell you what …” Lance leaned in, murmuring his next words right into Keith’s ear. “You manage to nail this next headshot better than me, and I’ll do all our laundry for a week.”
Keith didn’t shiver, but it was a near thing. “Fine.” He could do this. Not having to deal with all the bodily fluids that ended up on their threadbare clothes? That would be a nice break.
Lance moved to his left side, standing there with his arms crossed and his eyes alight with some unknowable mischievousness. Keith tried to put this out of his mind as he lined up the shot, narrowing his focus to the gun in his hands and the target a long distance away.
Just as he was pulling the trigger, Lance took a sudden step closer, his arms wrapped around Keith’s waist, the faintest of kisses pressed to Keith’s jaw near his ear.
The shot went wild into the side of the mountain.
Keith spun around, ready to tackle Lance, but he had already darted beyond reach, laughing and taking off at a run. Keith tucked the gun into his belt and launched himself after him.
The chase lasted for a solid twenty minutes, traversing all over Dagos; by the end of it, they were soaking from an accidental spill into the ikuril corral’s troughs, hay sticking to their drenched clothes and skin, dust coating everything else as they’d wrestled in the dirt. Keith had pinned Lance, but Lance snuck in a grope that left Keith spluttering and red-faced, so they were both content to call it a draw.
Until Lance had shoved Keith to the ground, shouting, “Race ya back!”
Yathir gave them both significant looks when they rushed into the inn, still laughing and pushing each other playfully.
Lance’s blue eyes were sparkling in the daylight, and Keith felt his breath catch for the millionth time at the sight.
“C’mon, Keith, I’ll let you have first shower — I’m magnanimous in my victory,” Lance said sunnily. “Of course … there’s probably room for … ah, I’ll stop. Magnanimous, like I said.” He gave Keith one of those highly exaggerated winks, and then bowed as he gestured at him to go up the stairs ahead of him.
Keith hesitated for a split second.
Lance’s ability to brighten everything he touched left Keith speechless. And grateful. His heart pounded in his chest, desperate and longing. He let it, couldn’t stop it, but he refused to surrender any words that would change things between them.
“A humble cheater is still a cheater, jerk,” he said, and he smacked Lance’s bowed head lightly, ducking an answering slap and shooting a teasing grin over his shoulder as he walked up the stairs. Keith laughed when Lance gave him a rude gesture before he settled on a stool, ready to chatter away at Yathir.
Keith rounded the corner, heading towards the bathroom, and felt his good mood roll back …
He knew that this couldn’t last. That the line they had drawn would be crossed at some point, many points, until it ceased to matter. Lance had him wanting to believe that perhaps they didn’t have to lose every recognizable piece of their Paladin selves …
But Keith felt his soul fracturing, bit by bit … He was at a loss when it came to these fragments; he wondered where to place them in his mind so he could stay sane.
Without Lance, Keith knew, he would’ve snapped inside of a week — Lance allowed him to hope. He clung to that desperately, even though he knew, one day, he’d have to let it go. He wanted Lance to be all he needed, if only to keep one small portion of himself safe from the encroaching darkness. So he could be there to keep Lance from shattering in the same horrific way.
Because this place would break him apart. It was only a matter of time. He just hoped something, anything good could be salvaged from all the pieces.
Times that you took in stride
They're back in demand
I was the one who's washing
Blood off your hands
I thought I could live in your world
As years all went by
With all the voices I've heard
Something has died
And when you're in need of someone
My heart won't deny you
So many seem so lonely
With no one left to cry to, baby
And don't you cry tonight
There's a heaven above you, baby
And don't you cry
Don't you ever cry
Don't you cry tonight
Baby, maybe someday.
— Don’t Cry (Alternate Version), Guns ‘N Roses