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i fall, i fall, i falter

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Keith thought he could say, with a certain degree of justification, that the problems started— as they usually did for him— with Lance’s flirting.

Purple shadows had long since consumed the ground by the time they disembarked. An armed escort awaited them at the edge of the clearing— mostly ceremony, they’d been told, but it paid to be careful, as the Tiviro had already found out.

“We have already met the Galra you speak of.” The Mane, leader of the jungle-dwelling Tiviro and their dwarf planet Renad, was a large, vaguely leonine figure who stooped under the weight of his magnificent mane. Hundreds of tiny bells interwoven through his braids jingled with each step, giving him the appearance of a fuzzy, ambulatory Christmas tree. Four guards surrounded him and the ambassador Ra’zaym, an otter-furred Tiviran who had overseen the proceedings for Voltron’s landing. “Fortunately, the encounter was brief— we believe it was our unique climate that fended them off.”

It wasn’t often that Voltron came across an unconquered planet. It was the situational equivalent of finding a diamond-studded tiara in a pig trough; this was only the second time they’d encountered an advanced civilization untainted by Galra presence. Allura, in Keith’s opinion, reacted with a disturbing amount of unholy glee both times— but to be fair he couldn’t actually blame her. Any break from the endless cycle of find Galra, fight Galra, defeat Galra; rinse, repeat was a cause for celebration.

Renad was a dwarf planet, orbiting its star on the inner edge of the system’s habitable zone. It had two moons almost as big as the planet itself, but what it lacked in size, it more than made up for in blistering heat. The sun had set almost an hour ago— bringing the temperature down from frying in your own armor like an egg to a gratuitous midsummer afternoon in west Texas.

Keith wasn’t the only one feeling the heat. Allura’s voice was politely strained as she replied, keeping slow pace with the Mane’s awkward gait. “It does seem a little warm.”

The Mane made a strange croaking noise that Keith belatedly identified as a laugh. “The Galra were most discomforted,” he agreed. “Our sun protected us from inevitable ruin.”

“It is most thankful that our planet avoided invasion.” Ra’zaym’s pale yellow eyes shifted, reflecting the light from Renad’s moons. Maybe it was Keith’s imagination, but she looked slightly uncomfortable as she fingered the heavy golden amulet that proclaimed her status as ambassador.

“This one finds himself curious,” The Mane said, changing the subject, “perhaps you might tell us more about Voltron. One confesses, we are so isolated that we have not heard more than rumors of it—”

Keith, trailing along behind them, tuned the rest of their conversation out so he could concentrate on more pressing things: like where he was putting his feet. So far, Hunk was their reigning champion of unexpected faceplants, but they’d all taken turns stumbling over hidden tree roots and semi-sentient vines. Since Keith had the advantage of Galra-enhanced night vision, he’d been delegated to the front half of the party to guide the rest of them. It was a mundane job, but Keith bore it courageously— mostly because it gave him an excuse not to interact with Lance.

“If it’s any consolation, I don’t think she’s interested.” Pidge’s voice carried softly over the croaks and groans of alien wildlife as she fell into step beside him. Her fingers tangled into the soft fabric of his sleeve, using his arm as a brace while they navigated the treacherous jungle path.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Keith said shortly. And promptly invalidated his words as he risked a rapid glance back, and felt his face fold into a scowl. Lance had been talking to— or, more accurately, at— one of the Mane’s guards for about three-quarters of an hour now (or a varga, or whatever the natives called it). Her stony silence didn’t seem to deter Lance from paying her a whirlwind of extravagant compliments. “I’m fine.”

They’d fallen far enough behind Allura, Coran, and Shiro’s half of the party that they were safely out of earshot, giving Pidge free reign to snort gracelessly. “Uh-huh. Then why are you moping?”

“I’m not moping,” Keith snapped. “I just think its annoying that Lance can’t keep it in his pants for five ticks when we’re trying to make a good impression, okay?”

The look Pidge sent him could have shriveled steel. “Oh, so that’s why you keep looking back there like Lance personally killed your puppy.”

“I am not,” Keith insisted, knowing full well he probably did, and willfully resisted the urge to sacrifice Pidge to the carnivorous vines.

Looking back, he’d never been able to pinpoint exactly when he’d fallen in love with Lance. Maybe it began with an explosion and Lance’s warm hand in his, a sharp, bloody grin and a rough voice rasping in his ear; in the end, the exact time stamp for when he’d woken up with a proverbial heart-shaped arrow buried firmly in his ass wasn’t important.

The problem was that he’d fallen in love with Lance at all.

Because the world hated him, it’d been Pidge who found out. She’d laughed for a solid thirty seconds at his stilted explanation on just why, exactly, he’d stormed out of practice with Lance one morning— probably because romance for her still involved cooties.

They’d talked about it after she was done making fun of him, of course, because Pidge wasn’t completely heartless. She’d systematically attacked his concerns about ruining team dynamic, presenting exploitable weakness to the Galra, and potential liabilities in battle with the same ruthless efficiency she usually reserved for hacking security systems. Keith hadn’t necessarily been reassured, but his sense of impending doom had receded slightly.

Until Pidge suggested— quite reasonably— that he actually tell Lance.

“No.”

Pidge adjusted her glasses to a more comfortable position, looking incredulous. “You just made me hash out your entire love life for two hours, and now you aren’t even going to tell him?”

“I didn’t make you do anything.” Keith shifted, picking listlessly at the blanket covering his lap. They’d made a tactical retreat to Pidge’s room (which happened to be the one farthest from Lance’s) after Pidge had calmed down long enough to suggest it. “He doesn’t like me back. I’m not gonna sit there and, and— tell him that I’m,” Keith’s voice lowered to a hiss, as if somebody other than Pidge was lurking in her room ready to pop up and yell GOTCHA, “in love with him, when he spends all his time flirting with aliens.”

“Did you suddenly forget that you’re an alien, too?” Pidge was unimpressed. Pidge, Keith thought, was generally always unimpressed with him. “If that’s what you’re so hung up about, just— I don’t know, go Galra or something.”

“... Go Galra.” Keith repeated flatly.

Pidge had shrugged. “Look, if you want to be a sad, pining mess and not tell Lance, that’s your business. Just don’t expect me to listen to you complain when he flirts with somebody else because he doesn’t know you’re making goo-goo eyes at his back.”

Despite her warning— and her claimed allergy to feelings— Pidge had continued to offer her unconventional support. While it involved less let’s eat ice cream while you cry and gush and more if you don’t deal with this I will punch you, as someone who also went into anaphylactic shock when confronting his emotions, Keith probably should’ve felt grateful.

Instead, he wished she’d just drop it. It sucked enough that he was stuck watching Lance flirt his way through literal galaxies— he didn’t need any extra reminders.

When he’d first realized it, he’d figured if he’d just ignored it for long enough—

Well, if wishes were Voltrons.

Keith maneuvered them around a broken tree stump, flashing a quick signal to his teammates to shift to the right. If anything, ignoring his feelings had made them stronger, a starved animal clawing at the bars of its cage. And Lance had been giving him these looks, lately, when he thought they wouldn’t be noticed, like he was trying to observe Keith from under a microscope.

Whether this was a good or bad thing, Keith couldn’t say. It was hard to tell sometimes with Lance. And whenever Keith got his hopes up, something like this would happen, take his hopes behind the barn, and methodically shoot them dead.

Pidge made a sound somewhere between a scoff and a sigh. “You’re being ridiculous. Y’know, if you’d just tell him—”

“I think we’re here,” Keith interrupted hastily, pushing her forward.

Rising up like a mesa from the jungle floor, the stone structure in front of them could only be described as massive. Carved vines swooped down its sides, hiding faint carvings that Keith could just make out as they approached. The thick trees lining their path had abruptly fell away to create a courtyard, filled with statues of fantastic figures that leapt and twirled; dancers beating out an impossible rhythm. They were so detailed that Keith could make out individual strands of fur. Someone breathed sharply as they walked past the statues toward a pair of wooden double doors.

“These are amazing.” A chin hooked over his shoulder— Lance appeared to have given up pursuing the guard in favor of making Keith jump out of his own skin. Lance’s eyes, washed silver with moonlight, were wide as he stared around them. “Who do you think they are?”

“They are the Gods and Goddesses of our myths, paladin.” The Mane had paused, waiting as two of his guards pulled the doors open, and was watching with open amusement. “This one is gratified at your appreciation of our culture.”

“Wow,” Lance breathed. “Do you guys have, like, a museum or something?”

“We possess a collection of chronicles and artifacts from long ago. Perhaps this one might have the chance to show you.”

An itchy flush was steadily spreading across Keith’s cheeks. He forced himself to shove Lance off, ignoring Lance’s aggrieved huff so that he could follow the others inside. If Lance wanted to cozy up to somebody, he could go and cuddle Hunk, who wasn’t hopelessly pining after him.

Cool air slapped their faces as they entered a long hallway. No torches or lamps lined the walls—Tivirans, with their superior night vision, had no need of them. Instead, bowls of glowing blue sand stood at each corner, casting just enough light to see. More intricate carvings marked each panel, showing different scenes from Tiviran mythology.

Hunk passed his hand over one of the bowls, craning his neck to watch its shadow. “Whoa, this is super cool. What’s making it glow?”

“We call it kha’jay var, or moon sugar.” Ra’zaym looked bemused as Hunk added his other hand, putting them together to project a wolf onto the ceiling. “Tiny organisms in the sand respond to certain chemicals by glowing. We change out the sand every other vopom.”

“What’s a vopom?” Pidge whispered to Keith.

“How am I supposed to know?”

“I never knew you could make shadow puppets,” Lance was saying. He sounded impressed.

Hunk shifted his fingers to make a rabbit, a bear, and an elephant in quick succession. “My little sisters hated going to bed because they were scared of the dark, so I learned how to make shadow puppets to help them go to sleep. I guess once they saw how many nice shapes shadows could make, they got less scary.” He moved his hands one more time to make an eagle before letting them fall to his sides. “Sorry. Got carried away there.”

“Most fascinating,” the Mane said with surprising sincerity, whiskers twitching. “You must tell this one more about these ‘shadow puppets’ when we have time.”

They wound their way through a rabbit’s warren of branching hallways before stopping at another, smaller pair of doors. A guard peered through a hole in one of them before nodding wordlessly to the Mane.

The Mane turned to Allura and Shiro. “Many of this one’s people wait outside, Princess. They do not know who or what you are, or what your mission is: only that they have been asked to gather here tonight. There may be some hostilities, and suspicion, after our latest encounter with aliens,” he warned.

“I expected as much, so I took the liberty of preparing a speech,” Allura replied warmly.

“Good, because I didn’t,” Shiro said.

The Mane rumbled his odd laugh. “Then you are most fortunate to have a princess as your leader. Let us open the doors, so that you may greet this one’s people.”

Their initial interactions with the Tiviro had been, out of necessity, brief and impersonal— mostly to check that Voltron wasn’t also out to conquer their polite backwater system. Conversation had been restricted to staticky video calls with the Mane, Ra’zaym, and a select few members of the Mane’s guard while the paladins waited for sunset. No other Tivirans had been waiting for them besides their escort when they left the castle, and the Mane had taken great pains to keep them concealed while they walked.

So it went without saying that the sheer number of Tivirans waiting outside came as a bit of a shock.

More of an inner courtyard than an actual room, the area they entered was left open to the elements. Vertical cliffs cradled it— it took Keith a moment to realize that the floor had been steadily sinking into the ground, until they had, at some undetermined point, passed underneath it. There were more statues scattered around the area, some cleverly designed to hold bowls of moon sugar, all breathtaking in their detail.

At least a hundred leonine figures were milling between them, patting each other’s backs and sipping out of cups filled with pale, silvery liquid. Their fur formed a mosaic of color— browns, greys, yellows, russets, and even a few blacks blended together to form one undulating beast.

Keith took an involuntary step back. Socializing had never been his strong suit— that was Lance’s strength— but this took the concept of social anxiety to whole new, dizzying heights. How was he supposed to talk to all these people?

A hand materialized against his lower back with reassuring pressure; when Keith looked up, Lance was watching him with concern.

“Deep breaths,” Lance said. “It’s not like they’re gonna eat you.”

Very helpful,” Keith rasped once he could talk around the blockage in his throat.

Lance’s hand pressed more firmly. “Seriously, dude. You’ll be fine, I’m not gonna let anyone hurt you.”

Keith’s breath caught.

It was that look again. Lance’s eyes held the type of promise only seen in B-rated romance movies— and yet it didn’t look cheesy on him. If anything, Lance looked intense— like he was so focused on Keith that he wouldn’t even notice if the world burned down around them.

Keith opened his mouth— to say what, he wasn’t sure, because his throat had gone distressingly dry— when movement out the corner of his eye caught his attention.

The Tivirans closest to the doors had seen them. Realization rippled through the crowd; an excited susurrus broke out. Several furry necks craned to see what the fuss was about before turning rapidly to their neighbors, confirming the presence of the strange, furless creatures standing by their leader. Some Tivirans watched Keith and his team with tight whiskers and drawn back lips. Others, dumbfounded, latched unblinking eyes on their alien guests.

The Mane stepped forward, his guard drawn around him. In a gesture that could only be smoothed with centuries of refinement, the Tivirans knelt as one, shaking the bells in their manes in a sign of deepest respect. After a moment, the Mane gestured for them to rise.

“Jobal kha'jay an ja'fith khaja ma'a di Azurah,” the Mane said. “Ahzirr raba karana jajopal—”

This far from their Lions, it took a moment before Keith heard the words in English. “— for this one brings great allies from the stars. These are the warriors of Voltron, a keeper of peace, a protector of the universe.”

His speech was succinct; for all their wandering diction, Tivirans could pack a lot of information in just one sentence. It mostly rehashed everything Allura, Coran, and Shiro had told the Mane during their trek— most Tivirans appeared to know about the attempted invasion, which was only mentioned in passing. After a few minutes, the Mane motioned for Allura to join him.

Allura stepped up, head held regally high, posture open and strong. “Children of Azurah,” she began in a ringing voice, “it is with great honor that we stand before you today, under the light of your sacred moons—”

“We?” Keith said. “The only one standing up there is her.”

“Royal ‘we,’” Hunk leaned over to reply. “She’s speaking for all of us here.”

“Voltron protects the universe,” Allura was saying. Keith stifled a laugh; not even a natural disaster could’ve torn the Tivirans’ attention from the woman addressing them. “You have seen the destructive capabilities of the Galra— they have enslaved whole planets, torn apart families—” her voice caught artfully on the last note— “including mine, and destroyed whole star systems in their hunt for quintessence.”

An angry murmur rose through the crowd, spreading like brush fire in the middle of a Californian drought.

Allura held up a hand. “This is what Voltron stands against,” she said earnestly, once her audience had returned to expectant silence. “We fight for the freedom of those the Galra have oppressed. We fight to protect our families— all families. We fight for the preservation, the respect for quintessence, and the restoration of order that has fallen into chaos under the Galran Empire. We fight,” Allura said, dashing glimmering tears from her eyes, “for you.”

“Is she actually crying,” Lance whispered to Coran, “or is she just a really good actor?”

Coran, unabashedly sobbing into a handkerchief, simply nodded.

Allura’s tears dried almost faster than they’d fallen. Her posture straightened. “Voltron will protect you as our dearest friends. I ask you this, therefore, as a friend: will you stand with us, Children of Azurah, as we battle for justice? Will you, too, fight against oppression and slavery? Will you help us in our endless battles between stars?”

The answering roar of assent was so loud it probably shook trees five miles away.

“Well-spoken, Princess Allura,” the Mane murmured underneath the thunderous applause.

“Thank you, Mane,” Allura said, beaming. Her smile turned impish. “It wasn’t what I originally intended to say, but I think it turned out alright.”

Shiro waited to speak until the applause dropped to a manageable level. “Alright, guys, let’s try to make a good impression. We want them to like us, so don’t do anything stupid.”

Keith got the feeling that most Tivirans couldn’t quite believe Voltron was real; there were dozens of cautious pats to their backs and shoulders as the paladins moved within the crowd, like their hosts were worried they were a clever illusion. Keith plastered on a pleasant expression as he was buffeted through the courtyard like a particularly colorful leaf, and tried to focus on actually being social for once.

“What did Lance say?” Pidge whispered to him as they mingled. Dwarfed by even the shortest Tiviran, she’d opted to hide behind whichever paladin was closest. She wasn’t quite clinging to his leg, but it was a near thing. “You looked like you were two seconds away falling into a swoon.”

“Nothing. Shut up, or I’ll let them trample you,” Keith replied, smiling through clenched teeth.

“It sure didn’t look like nothing. And you wouldn’t.”

“Wanna bet?” Countless sessions in the simulator made Keith’s turn sharp and precise; he darted through an opening between furry elbows, leaving Pidge exposed to dozens of curious eyes. Pidge floundered, trying to scramble after him.

“Keith!”

“Long live the king!” Keith called back to her as the Tivirans closed in, and shoved his way through the crowd until he reached a recess in the wall that was relatively secluded.

Tension took its time draining from his shoulders. This was just too much— the crowd, his feelings about Lance— everything. When had things gotten so complicated? When had every conversation with Lance turned into an archaeological dig for potential reciprocation? He missed the back-and-forth of their old conversations, before Keith had removed his head from his ass and realized some deeply unsettling truths.

A few tufts of moon-bleached grass had grown up between cracks in the pavement. Keith leaned down to let his fingers run over them— they were soft as silk, and the repetitive motion soothed his frazzled nerves.

His fingers brushed over something between the blades— a closer inspection revealed a patch of overturned dirt, like somebody had ripped out a weed and patted the ground down again. A single, faintly glowing leaf— almost resembling that of an aloe vera plant— lay near the disturbed patch. Curious, Keith reached out to touch it.

“You seem discontent, Red Paladin.” Keith turned around sharply, relaxing when Ra’zaym stepped into his line of sight. She was holding a squat wooden cup, an unreadable look on her face. “Does the party not agree with you?”

Keith grimaced automatically, then hastily schooled his expression into something less offensive. “No, it’s great, it’s just—” I’m a little preoccupied with feelings for a teammate who probably doesn’t like me back— “I’m not… great with them. Or people.”

Ra’zaym nodded solemnly. “Many of our warriors find it uncomfortable to interact with others outside of battle,” she agreed. “It is comforting to know that our peoples can share these traits.”

“Yeah,” Keith said, “that’s great. Uh, so what’s up?”

Ra’zaym blinked. “This one does not understand the question.”

“Sorry, human idiom— why are you talking to me?”

Keith could’ve kicked himself. If he caused a diplomatic incident right after Allura had charmed her way into an alliance, he’d never hear the end of it. Foot, meet mouth— wonderful to make your acquaintance yet again.

Ra’zaym, luckily, seemed unperturbed by Keith’s bluntness. Her lips pulled back in a grotesque attempt at a human smile. Keith politely repressed his shudder.

“Your Blue Paladin is very popular,” she said, apropos of nothing.

Keith nearly choked on air. “He’s— he’s not mine—”

Ra’zaym looked amused. “Of course,” she demurred. “This one was only referring to the swarm of young suitors he has attracted.”

This time, Keith did choke. “He— what?”

Ra’zaym tilted her head at a point halfway across the clearing; following her gaze, Keith tracked past a cluster of Tiviran aristocats until his eyes landed on the familiar blue silhouette that Keith would never, even on pain of death, admit to memorizing.

Lance was leaning against one of the statues holding moon sugar, its pale glow throwing his features in sharp relief. Hands waving and eyes alight, he looked like he was in the middle of telling what was, in all probability, a severely exaggerated story. About a dozen Tivirans had formed a ring of calico colors around him, listening avidly. One of the braver ones inched closer, whiskers quivering as she asked a question.

Lance, apparently feeling the burn of Keith’s gaze from across the courtyard, looked up. Their eyes locked; Lance raised his hand in a wave before wrapping his arm around the girl’s shoulders and winking, one side of his mouth turning up in a roguish grin.

Keith’s stomach took an abrupt, Wile E. Coyote-inspired cliff dive down into freezing water.

“—this one’s associates has a daughter much too shy for such forwardness,” Ra’zaym was saying, unconcerned with Keith’s inner turmoil. “This one was therefore tasked to deliver a drink on her behalf; as ambassador for the Mané, however, this one’s skills are vital during such a momentous occasion. This one humbly asks if you would consider giving the Blue Paladin the drink in this one’s stead.”

“Yeah,” Keith said numbly; Lance had already turned back to his audience, no longer looking his way. “Sure.”

He took the cup Ra’zaym offered him with hands that didn’t quite feel like his own. Rough grains slid against his palms, catching on calluses he’d spent months building up.

“One is most thankful, paladin,” Ra’zaym said with a hint of relief, and vanished as quickly as she’d come.

Keith looked down at the contents of the cup in his hands. It smelled sweet, like frozen lemonade on a cloudless Sunday morning. Keith liked lemonade, but he always made it with too much lemon and not enough sugar.

If that wasn’t a goddamn metaphor for his entire life.

“God, you are the worst big brother—” Pidge had finally broken free of the throng long enough to join him. Her brows were drawn down in a scowl so fierce that under normal circumstances, Keith would’ve made a joke about them getting stuck that way. Pidge’s ominous expression faltered as she neared him, confusion taking its place. “Where’d you get the cup?”

“Ra’zaym gave it to me.” Keith’s voice came flatter than he’d intended. “She said some girl sent it for Lance.”

“For Lan— oh.” The implications clicked; Pidge eyed him with a look more appropriate for someone fumbling an atomic bomb. “Oh, crap, um— wait, why’d she give it to you?”

“Said she didn’t have time to bring it to him.” Keith’s soul was steadily sinking into the deepest circles of hell. There was a special kind of irony here, that out of everyone, he’d gotten saddled with Lance’s secret admirer’s drink.

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“She’s an ambassador, Pidge.” Keith’s hands tightened until they were white-knuckled around the cup. “She’s got better things to do than give Lance a drink.”

Pidge’s eyes held thinly veiled worried. “Are you— look, I can take it to him, you don’t have to—”

“Take what to who?” Lance asked from right behind him.

“Fuc—” Keith yelped automatically, then decided tipping Lance’s drink down his throat was the better part of valor; Pidge had impressional ears, after all. He nearly spat it right back out; the silvery liquid was far more cloying than its smell had let on, with a bitter aftertaste that left him spluttering. When he resurfaced, Lance’s eyebrows were threatening to merge with his hairline and Pidge was staring at him like he’d grown a second head.

“Nothing,” Pidge answered Lance slowly, shooting Keith a look that he (accurately) interpreted as what the hell is wrong with you, we are definitely talking about this later. “Keith was just trying the... punch.”

“That’s a good word for it,” Keith agreed weakly.

“Dude, are you okay?” Lance asked. And again— that intent focus that pinned Keith like a butterfly to a board. How could Lance stand there and look at him like that, after blatantly showing off all the aliens breathing in his words like gospel?

It just wasn’t fair. An irrational surge of anger flared outward from Keith’s chest to fingertips, hot and bright. “I’m fine,” he snapped. He was done playing this game, whatever the hell it was. Lance needed to pick a side to stand on. “Why don’t you stop pretending to care and go back to your new friends over there?”

Pidge’s mouth dropped open.

Lance looked startled. “I— what?”

“You heard me.” All the jealousy and frustration that had been building up for the past few hours was finally spilling over; Keith’s head spun with it. Out the corner of his eye, he saw Pidge beat a hasty retreat, eyes round. “Stop pretending like you actually give a shit if all you want to do is show off how many people admire you, okay?”

“What the hell did they put in that drink, Keith? I was just trying to check up on you— where is this even coming from?” Lance’s face warred between bewilderment and hurt. “Of course I care about you, Jesus—”

“Maybe if you weren’t so busy trying to flirt your way through an entire civilization, I’d actually buy that.”

“What does that have to do with anything? And why do you even care?” Lance’s voice was rising perilously close to a shout— a few Tivirans closest to them paused, looking over curiously. “Did you just need to be an asshole right now, ‘cause you’re really killin’ it, buddy! Doing a great job, please feel free to keep going!”

Keith felt an angry flush spreading across his cheeks— his skin felt feverish and tight, like he’d been stretched too thin over his bones. “I’m not the dick that deliberately flirts with some girl in front of his teammates, Lance!”

Lance’s eyes narrowed. “So what, you’re jealous? Well, I’m sorry you’re so fucking insecure about yourself that you have to attack me for getting more action than you do— but maybe that has something to do with how much of a dick you are to people. I wanted to make sure you were okay, but I guess I shouldn’t’ve bothered.” Lance’s voice was as bitter as the drink Keith had swallowed moments before. “Thanks for clearing that up. I won’t do it again.”

Lance turned to stalk away, shoulders quivering with suppressed emotion; Keith, stunned into silence, watched him go wordlessly. The searing rage from earlier vanished as quickly as it had come, leaving behind an arctic landscape of desolate emptiness.

Keith sucked in a sharp breath— then another. Everything was tilting around him, turning the courtyard into a dizzying kaleidoscope of color. He couldn’t breathe.

He had to get out of here.

Most of the courtyard didn’t lead anywhere, but there was a closed door a few feet to his right, half-hidden by purple, fluttering vines. Intricate carvings that blurred in the odd ambiance danced their way around the frame.

It didn’t matter where the door led to, only that it led away from the here. Keith stumbled forward, almost punch-drunk, to where it mingled between the shadows and Renad’s moonlight.

A misstep nearly sent him sprawling to the floor when he opened it; Keith slammed his hand against the frame, feeling rough stone catch his palm. An empty hallway greeted him inside, filled only by the dim light cast by bowls of moon sugar.

Controlling his legs proved difficult; they were wobbling like somebody had replaced them with pool noodles. Keith braced his hand against the wall, feeling his way forward. He’d need the support; every inch of him was shaking.

It occurred to him that he’d lost Ra’zaym’s— Lance’s— his?— cup at some point; both his hands were empty. He should look for it, to give it back to Ra’zaym— or Lance, he’d been supposed to give it to Lance—

Lance. Keith’s heart was hammering against his sternum. They’d fought—

What the hell—

What had Lance said—

—t the hell did they—

Keith’s knees hit the floor with a resounding crack, with the rest of his body following in quick succession. A dull ache shot through his cheek as it bounced against the ground with a painful smack. Keith huffed, feebly attempting to lever himself up, but his arms could’ve been made of limp noodles for all the strength they had.

Something was wrong. Keith was cognizant enough to know that much, even past the fog clouding his brain. You didn’t just fall to the floor for no reason.

Smears of blue, grey, and black crowded his vision.

What the hell did they put in that drink, Keith?

The cup.

Shit. He’d been—

Darkness tugged him under before he could finish the thought.