Somewhere in the background, a glass shatters on the floor. The tinkling spray of the shards against dirty hardwood clinks dully in Lance’s ears, muffled by the harsh pounding of his heartbeat. He can feel it punching the back of his ribcage like a kick drum, a constant reminder of how much is riding on his shoulders at this very moment.
A cacophony of sounds beg for his attention: the laughter of the two escorts at the bar near the door, seeking their next customer; the roaring jeers of the men at his back, who are no doubt praying with everything they have that he isn’t as good as he says he is; the quiet whimper of his best friend, Hunk, to his left, wringing his hands as he stares unblinkingly at Lance and waits for him to decide their fate.
Lance closes his eyes. Blocks the world out with the sheet of black covering his sight. Five seconds. He gives himself five seconds to breathe through the fear, through the anxiety and the pressure building high in his throat, threatening to choke him. He takes that breath in through his nose—one, two—blows it out—three, four, five—and his eyes snap open.
All Lance feels now is calm, despite the chaos raging around him. His gaze narrows on the round board ten feet in front of him, hanging nearly lopsided on the wall, taunting him with its broken rings of red and green. The pressure in the room is monumental, but somehow, Lance is able to completely brush it away. It’s as though he’s staring straight down a tunnel and the light at the end is that tiny red circle sitting in the center of that board. With one smooth motion, Lance draws his arm back and smiles.
For a moment, everything stands still. Time stops as Lance blinks, and blinks again, unable to register what just happened. Because straight ahead, the dart he threw is sitting dead center, its feathered tail surrounded by the bullseye it’s buried in.
In an instant, the world erupts around him.
Hunk is screaming, and suddenly, Lance is being lifted up by the waist before Hunk spins them both in a dizzying circle, hooting and shouting the entire time as the men behind them swear and kick the nearest table over with an enormous clatter. Insults are being thrown back and forth in harsh languages Lance doesn’t understand, but he can barely hear it over the pounding of his heart and the laughter escaping his throat.
He did it. He won.
The world is sideways by the time Hunk finally puts Lance back on his own two feet, but Lance couldn’t care less. He stumbles forward and snatches the two innocent-looking pieces of paper off of the betting pot. It’s hard to believe that in his hands lies the future. Inscribed in black ink and elegantly curled letters is his way out, his way back to his family, back to the life he left in hopes of eventually making something of himself.
Lance lets out a slow, shaky breath. In his hands are two tickets, the top of each one reading WHITE STAR LINE just above a picture of the ship that will be the very reason he sees his little sisters again. After all this time, after all of the pain and the nights where his stomach seemed to be caving in on itself out of hunger, out of all of the hardship he’s faced in these past two years, finally, Lance has won.
Grinning hard, Lance sidesteps a bar stool being thrown past him and slaps the second ticket into his best friend’s waiting hands. Hooking his arm over Hunk’s shoulders, Lance pulls him into his side and yells over the racket, “Whaddya say, Hunk? You ready to go home?”
Before Hunk has a chance to reply, the shrill whistle of the very same ship they just won tickets to board pierces through the din of the bar. All heads turn to look out the window at the harbor in unison, and that’s when the adrenaline flushes through Lance’s entire body. Whooping, both Hunk and Lance grab their jackets from their bar stools, shoving their way through the crowd that had gathered during their game of chance.
They’re almost out the door when Lance’s coat gets yanked harshly backwards, making him stumble into the broad chest of one of the Frenchman who had bargained his and his comrade’s tickets on a game of darts.
“Those are our tickets,” the man hisses through rotting teeth, his snarl curling high enough on his scarred face that any other man might buckle out of fear.
Good thing Lance isn’t like any other man. Throwing him the widest smile Lance can manage, Lance twists out of the man’s grasp in a series of steps too complicated to follow before darting to the door. Raising his hand to his forehead, Lance gives the poor sucker a firm salute that somehow mysteriously transforms into him flipping the guy the bird right before Hunk grabs the collar of his shirt and hauls him out the front door. A frustrated shriek of rage follows on their heels, and Lance and Hunk share a look before breaking into a run.
Jubilant laughter bursts from Lance’s mouth as they both tear through the harbor, their tattered boots slapping cobblestones as they jump, duck, and dodge their way through the overflowing streets, cheering as they go. Because, after nearly two years away from everything Lance is living for, he’s going to see them again. Fixing his eyes on the nearest gangway and smiling bigger than the moon, Lance pushes his body faster, faster, and lets himself run straight towards his saving grace.
This is it, he thinks, joy pulsing through his veins with every beat of his heart. I’m going home. I’m finally going home.
I’ll never be free.
The thought crushes Keith’s mind between clawed fingertips, causing a throb of pain to pulse through his right temple. Closing his eyes, Keith slightly turns his body towards the door of the window and prays for the fresh air to ease his headache. He feels confined enough as it is in the close quarters of the carriage that is currently taking himself, his fiancée, and his soon to be father-in-law to their destination. All he wants is relief.
“Darling? Are you feeling alright?”
A tentative touch of a delicate palm against his coat sleeve. He can feel her fingers, thin and slight, tightening around his arm in concern.
And just like every other time she touches him, Keith prays. He prays that he will feel something. He prays that, maybe this time, his heart will stir and lighten. That he will feel something other than dread twisting his stomach into knots that even the most veteran sailor could never untie.
And just like every other time Keith prays, nothing changes.
“Mr. Kogane?” Lord Alfor’s deep baritone pushes through the pain currently wracking his skull, and Keith feels the cold pool of fear start to rise inside of his chest.
Sucking in a deep breath through his nose, Keith forces his eyes open and feels his mouth curl the corners of his lips up into a placid smile as he turns to look at Allura. Her near-turquoise eyes beseech him for an answer as her grip tightens slightly more, and everything inside of Keith locks up.
Any man would be lucky to have Allura Altea as their betrothed. She is perfect in every way a woman can be: beautiful, almost ethereal, polite but more than able to hold her own, educated, well-off, and daughter to an earl with unimaginable power.
And yet, seeing her hand on his arm makes Keith’s throat close. And his lungs tighten. And all doesn’t feel right in the world anymore, because all doesn’t feel right within himself.
“Fine, Allura.” His weak smile grows wider. Faker. “I’m quite alright.”
Allura breathes out a small sigh of relief and smiles, patting his arm. It almost hurts to see the concern softening in her gaze. “I’m glad. It would be a fright for you to be feeling unwell before our voyage.” Turning to the window next to her, she lifts the curtain aside and peeks out, the sun catching on the excitement radiating from her face. “It is such an enormous vessel,” she says, almost to herself, then drops the curtain, the sun disappearing from her cheeks. “How is it afloat, Father?”
Alfor’s chuckle resonates in the small space, a deep baritone. “Hard work, my dear. Very hard work.” He winks at his daughter as he straightens his waistcoat and settles deeper into his seat. “And a lot of calculations, I daresay.”
“And money,” Keith mutters under his breath, scowling as he lifts the cloth covering his own window. From his side, all he can see is the swarms of people moving back and forth, their faces aglow with awe as they stand on tiptoes to get a glimpse of the ship that Keith is about to step onto. How simple it must be for them, he thinks, squinting to better see the delight so evident in their expressions. Trying to ignore the creeping green of envy inside his heart, Keith lets the curtain fall back into place, hands falling to his lap as he fiddles with the ring on his left hand, twisting it around absentmindedly. There’s no point in wishing for something he will never obtain.
“What was that, Mr. Kogane?” Alfor’s unimpressed query reaches Keith’s ears and it takes everything in him not to snap.
“Nothing, sir,” Keith replies, meeting the man’s steely gaze with his own. His voice is as flat as the look in his eyes. “Just agreeing that it must have been quite a feat to create something this substantial. They call her unsinkable, do they not?”
Alfor pauses, his mouth tightening into an unforgiving line. Keith can see the distaste in his eyes, in the way that Alfor looks Keith’s less-than-proper form up and down, lingering on the ear piercings in both his ears, the delicate chain around his throat, and his hair that would be brushing his shoulders if it wasn’t pulled back into a ponytail with a leather tie.
Keith is an embodiment of rebellion, of everything that Alfor detests, and yet is destined to be his daughter’s husband in less than a week. It doesn’t get any more ironic than that.
“That they do,” Alfor finally replies, looking away from Keith and out the window. “She is a true testament of the advancements of our time.”
Keith just barely refrains from rolling his eyes. It’s no secret that the Altea family fortune was one of the biggest contributors to the RMS Titanic’s construction, mainly because Lord Alfor is not exactly subtle about announcing to anyone within earshot that he is part of the reason that the vessel is on the water today. He never mentions the money of course, as it would be unseemly to boast in that sort of manner, but somehow, Lord Alfor still manages to make it crystal clear.
Of course, the amount that he poured into this project, along with probably a hundred other ventures that turned into money pits with no profit, is part of why his family is now in such extreme debt.
Lord Alfor has never been shy about spending his money and taking on investments, but it seems like the only one that actually has something in the way of a positive outcome is the vessel floating in the harbor twenty feet away. There were many pitches that Lord Alfor took under his wing, convinced that it would make him thousands in return for his sponsorship, but nearly every single one turned out for the worse. His wife left him long ago, no longer able to deal with her husband’s failures and the money that he allowed to slip between his fingers like sand, but Allura stood by him out of loyalty. All of their possessions that they were bringing with them on this voyage today are what they have left; a portrayal of what little remains to the name of the once-great Altea bloodline.
From some of his earliest memories, Keith remembers his father condemning such frivolous spending, finally sitting Keith down when he was of proper age to teach him how to keep the books, where to put their savings, and how to protect their investments and their profits from the family company.
All the more reason why it came as such a shock to Keith to discover that the arrangement of his and Allura’s marriage was struck up by his father and Alfor not even a week before the car accident that left Keith an orphan at twenty. It doesn’t take a genius to know that this engagement is the only reason Alfor tolerates Keith at all.
Out of the corner of his eye, Keith can see Allura looking between him and her father, her brow furrowing as she picks up on the unspoken tension in the carriage. Just as she’s opening her mouth, their ride jolts to a halt, rocking them back and forth before the wheels settle and the door next to Allura opens with a flourish.
“My lords and lady, we have arrived!” Takashi Shirogane, Keith’s right hand man—and, undoubtedly, one of his only friends—reaches into the carriage to offer his hand to Allura for her to step out of the coach.
Alfor’s manservant, Sendak, a broad-chested tree of a man, stands silently to the side, the one eye that isn’t covered with a black eyepatch staring straight at Keith. It’s a strange feeling, knowing that one is being watched, but Keith has never been one to back down from a challenge. Letting his expression fall flat, nearly bored, Keith fixes his gaze on Sendak and stares unashamedly back.
This isn’t the first time that Sendak has looked at Keith like he is an insect to be squashed beneath his boot.
To Keith’s left, he hears a small noise of excitement that draws his attention to Allura taking Shiro’s palm as she gathers her dress and steps down from the carriage. Shielding her eyes from the sun with her hand despite the broad rim of her hat, she gazes up at the dark steel hull of the ship that is docked not twenty feet away, the fresh white paint reading T I T A N I C bold and loud across her side.
“Incredible,” she whispers, spinning around with a smile bright enough to blind. “She is incredible, Father!”
Alfor descends from the coach next, a laugh rumbling low in his chest. “Yes, my dear. But just wait until she takes us out to sea.”
Allura clasps her gloved hands together in delight and begins asking Alfor all kinds of questions, proving once more that she is more than just a pretty face. Her inquisitive nature is part of what Keith admires about her. She seeks to gain knowledge and to understand the inner workings of thing she doesn’t understand instead of humming and feigning interest like other ladies of her stature. This arrangement would be far more difficult if Keith was stuck with a woman who has nothing but air in her head.
Sighing, Keith follows, stepping down to the cobblestone and steadied by Shiro’s hand on his shoulder. Ignoring what he knows from the hairs rising on the back of his neck is the lingering stare of Alfor’s henchman, Keith turns his gaze up to the mammoth vessel before him. His jaw clenches as he feels the steel arms of his cage tighten around him even further. He can hardly breathe now, icicles pushing their freezing tips straight into his lungs, and he wonders how he can be standing on solid ground and still feel like he’s drowning.
“Are you alright, sir?” Shiro murmurs in his ear, his hand lingering. There’s worry in the words Shiro speaks, concern and apprehension and a wish to help. Keith notes it enough to know that he’s being too obvious again and silently berates himself for letting his emotions play out on his face. Feelings are internal for a reason. He cannot allow himself to show the fear that is consuming him.
Rolling his shoulders back until his spine is straight and his chin is aloft, Keith arches his brows and throws a crooked smirk at his friend. “Of course, Shiro.” The words leave him easily, breezing past his lips with the haughtiness that rivals that of even Lord Alfor’s tone. “I think I’m quite ready for an adventure.” Keith tilts his head towards the gangway that leads from Southampton’s harbor up and into the Titanic. “Shall we?”
Shiro doesn’t believe him. It’s plain as day on his face as he trails after Keith to join Allura and Alfor in beginning the walk towards the line of other first class passengers waiting to board the ship. The thing is, Keith can’t find it in himself to care. He’s doing what he has to do to survive.
He’s certain that, one day, he will fall in love with Allura. Surely, he will.
There will come a day that the ache to touch a chest that is hard and flat instead of one that is soft and rounded will fade away. When repulsion will be replaced with desire. When he will feel the way that everyone else seems to feel about the women in their presence, and his eyes will linger on their softer forms instead of dart away. When he will cease having fleeting thoughts of how it might feel to have a man’s mouth pressed against his own.
Surely, that day will come.
Keith’s inner turmoil get momentarily sidelined by the overwhelming feat of moving through the stifling mass of people to get to the boarding ramp. Eyeing the crowd, Keith stays by Allura, offering his arm for her to take and partially using himself as a shield against the bodies pushing forward to get a better view of the ship. Meanwhile, Lord Alfor forges a path ahead of them, Sendak hovering never more than a few feet behind him. Occasionally, Alfor will turn around and encourage them with sharp barks, “Let’s go, let’s go!”, and Keith and Allura’s footsteps quicken to try and keep pace. Shiro taps Keith’s arm briefly, pointing towards the carriage they just left behind to indicate where he’s going before breaking away from their group. It’s clear he’s telling the other servants where to take all of the luggage to ensure it gets onboard, and all Keith feels is relief. At least there’s some sense of order amongst this chaos.
Allura’s arm squeezing his own draws his eyes back to the scene before him. There are swarms of silk top hats and lacey umbrellas clouding Keith’s vision as he moves forward, but it’s the common people’s drab clothing and looks of awe that draws his attention once more. Not because of the fact that they are less fortunate than himself and the company around him, but because of the purity emanating from their smiles and cheers, from the way they wave so enthusiastically at those already onboard even though they likely do not know anyone on deck. It is such a genuine exchange, an untainted moment of sharing excitement for those lucky enough to have a chance to experience such an extraordinary journey, that he can feel himself smile genuinely for the first time in what feels like forever.
“Keith!” Allura’s lilting voice reaches his ears and turns his attention to her, her face still alight with excitement. Her body language adjusts, showing her hope to make this a conversation between just the two of them as she leans closer to him, mouth nearly brushing his cheek. Keith finds himself terrifyingly aware of her breath against his skin and barely resists turning his face away. “Please tell me you’re as thrilled as I am for this voyage. I’d feel quite foolish if only I were making such a fuss.”
Christ, he needs to keep it together.
“There’s no need for that, Allura,” Keith replies in what he hopes is a reassuring tone, patting her hand where it rests on his forearm. His gaze trails over to watch Lord Alfor pass the attendants their tickets then gesture to himself, Keith, and Allura as he speaks to them in an authoritative boom. “This is certainly something to be marvel at.”
“Oh, good,” Allura says, a bit quieter than before, and Keith glances at her out of the corner of his eye. It’s hard to tell because of the shade covering her face from the brim of her hat and the dark complexion of her skin, but it almost looks like she’s blushing. Her grip on his arm tightens a fraction more, and Keith focuses on breathing.
Ahead, Alfor is waving them on as he begins up the gangway, Sendak ever-present at his side, so Keith puts one foot in front of the other and leads Allura to the small set of stairs leading onto the ramp. He extends his hand to allow her to take it and step onto the ramp ahead of him before trailing after her with a nod to the attendant standing beside him.
The boards creak beneath his feet as he starts to make his way up the gangway, and he can’t help but cast a nervous glance behind him at Shiro, who has dutifully reappeared at his back. Shiro has both of his hands trailing along the wooden rail on either side of the ramp, as if reassuring himself that they will be enough to catch him if he slips, and his eyes keep darting nervously to either side of him at the water below. Biting back a small smile, Keith turns back and watches his steps carefully as he continues on, a bit more comforted by the fact that even Shiro feels the same apprehension as himself, even if it does seem a bit silly.
They’re about halfway up the ramp when it begins shaking like an earthquake beneath their feet. It all happens in a matter of seconds, but somehow, it feels like everything happens in slow motion.
Allura letting out a gasp, stumbling. Keith lunging forward, hand outstretched, trying to make sure that she doesn’t fall. His boot catching the lip of the boards. Tripping. Tilting. Shiro’s cry of alarm. A body rushing past him, slamming into Keith’s shoulder, knocking him sideways. Terror flooding his veins, stomach plummeting as he twists, reaching out, grasping at air. Feeling the edge of the wooden railing biting into his back as he begins to tilt towards the water fifty feet below.
Suddenly, all he sees is blue.
The next thing Keith knows, he’s no longer falling. His right arm and shoulder are aching from the forceful pull that saved him from plummeting into the harbor, and for a moment, he’s sure that it was Shiro who caught him. He knows that he’s standing upright with a warm palm gripping his own and an arm around his back, steadying him. His face is being crushed against someone’s throat, and that’s when Keith’s brain starts to lag, struggling to understand what just happened and who caught him before he fell, because this isn’t Shiro. He becomes hyperaware of the way the person’s pulse is pounding against his cheek, a hummingbird thrum of a quickened heartbeat.
Keith starts to burn.
Because the chest he’s been pulled against is like the ones that refuse to stop infiltrating his dreams, and the breathy chuckle that has just brushed his ear isn’t in the pitch of a woman’s tone.
Keith shoves away hard, nearly falling over once again in his haste to put some distance between himself and the man who caught him. His breath is coming out in harsh pants, unable to draw enough oxygen into the lungs that have shriveled inside his chest, and that’s when he sees the blue again. Captivating irises the color of the ocean below them, set upon an evenly stunning face that is flushed in surprise. Or Keith assumes it’s surprise, but he doesn’t really have another moment to think about it when the man opens his mouth and ruins it all.
“That’s how you thank the guy that just saved your life?”
The man’s eyebrows arch high on his forehead, as if judging Keith for nearly falling into the harbor. Keith’s nostrils flare, irritation broiling under his skin at the audacity of this commoner, who is so clearly not first class in his ratty coat, worn leather boots, and stained shirt.
“You mean after being the one to endanger it?” Keith snaps back, his fingers finding the hem of his waistcoat to yank it down in an attempt to look less rumpled. He can feel Shiro hovering at his back, ready to intervene, but waves him off. “I thought commoners such as yourself had a separate gangway to board the ship so they couldn’t be a disturbance, like you so clearly are.”
The man’s head snaps back as though Keith had slapped him. Immediately, a cold look descends on the once playful expression he bore. “Well. If I’d known you’d be this ungrateful, I would’ve let you fall in.”
“Ungrateful? ” Keith shouts, taking a step forward. He doesn’t know what he was planning to do; perhaps strangle the insolence out of the man, perhaps pull him closer. It terrifies him that he’s even considering the second option, but thankfully, one of the ship’s attendants intervenes at just the right moment.
“Sir, this is the walkway for first class passengers only,” the attendant explains, pushing the stranger’s fallen bag into his hands before ushering him back down the plank towards his large but terrified looking comrade waiting at the bottom. “You must board further on down!”
“Alright, alright!” The guy whines, brushing the attendant off before hiking his pack over his shoulder. He makes it back down to the cobblestones and says something to his friend, casting a glance back up the ramp to where Shiro is now fluttering around Keith in distress, checking to make sure he’s okay. Keith isn’t paying attention. He can’t when those eyes have caught Keith’s stare once again, holding him hostage.
The entire world just… stops.
Allura’s voice shatters the moment, reality washing over Keith like ice water down his back. She’s at his side, fussing over him and straightening his collar and running her hands down his shirt, thanking God that he’s not hurt. He tries to ignore the tightness in his chest at her worry and nods when she asks if he’s alright, allowing her and Shiro to get it out of their system.
But the hair on the back of his neck is rising, a tingle that he can’t ignore. Unable to stop himself, Keith glances over his shoulder to where the man and his friend are being pointed further down the harbor to where they were meant to board in the first place. They’re not paying attention to Keith anymore, but he still can’t turn away, can’t pull his eyes from the back of the man’s head, the sweep of his shoulders. He’s waiting for something, has no idea what or why, but he’s frozen where he stands.
Don’t look back. The thought comes unbidden to the forefront of his mind. Don’t be thinking of me too. Don’t look back.
Because it’ll be so much worse if he looks back.
He watches the man shrug at his big friend and say something with a smile while looking only slightly chagrined. It seems as though he’s completely forgotten about the commotion he made, ready and willing to continue on to where he's meant to be and leave Keith and the rest of them in his wake without a second thought.
But then, he looks back.
“Mr. Kogane,” Lord Alfor booms from the top of the gangway, his words slipping down Keith’s skin like poison with the distaste in his tone. “We shouldn’t continue to hold up the other passengers. Allura. Come.”
It physically pains Keith to drop his gaze to his feet, already feeling something hollow out inside of his chest from the loss of eye contact with the man that both put his life in danger then saved it. And isn’t it strange, that he should want the man’s attention at all?
Keith feels Shiro’s presence beside him once again and shakes himself out of his thoughts, turning back to his fiancée. Allura is looking between her father and Keith, worry turning down the corners of her mouth, hesitating. Shaking his head kindly, Keith gestures for her to walk ahead of him, just wanting her to forget the commotion, to forget about him. He’s desperate to get everyone’s eyes off him. He can feel their stares crawling on him like spiders, and it’s making his hands tremble.
What if they know?
“Come on, sir. You’ll be alright,” Shiro murmurs at Keith’s side, nudging him forward gently. Nodding briskly, Keith runs a hand through his bangs with a sharp breath and forces himself to begin to walk once more.
He does everything in his power to stop thinking about blue.
“I told you it was the wrong ramp, Lance!” Hunk moans pitifully for the third time in the last minute, yanking the brim of his hat lower over his eyes in shame. “I can’t believe you just did that!”
Lance isn’t listening. His attention is caught on the guy he nearly killed, but then oh-so-classily saved. He had just turned to look over his shoulder, curiosity and something else—something warm and red inside of him that was whispering for him to see the man one more time—and found that he was already staring right at Lance. Lance’s heart has plummeted into the deepest pit in his stomach, lost somewhere around his feet. Their gazes hold, and the feeling is so intense that it almost hurts to breathe.
Everything around him fades into the background, the clattering and shouts of the crowd milling around turning to smoke and dust, and all Lance can see is him. All he can feel is the phantom outline of how the man’s body had fit against his, and the way those fingers were gripping his own, and how he wanted it to last.
He doesn’t know why he wanted it to last.
Later, he would wonder what the air smelled like, or where exactly he was standing on the cobblestones. All of his senses just seem to stop working, overwhelmed by the connection he’s caught in, snared like a fly in a web. And, despite the distance between them, Lance thinks he can see the color of the man’s eyes. A shade of indigo that edges into violet when the sunlight catches the side of his face. Lance’s heart feels too big for his chest, the edges building and pushing at his ribs with impatient hands to make room for itself. It’s then he belatedly realizes that, for the first time in his life, he has been struck dumb.
The moment is shattered when the incredible eyes that are holding him captive look down and away. With the connection is severed, Lance feels like a marionette whose strings have been cut, an odd sort of emptiness filling his chest as he watches the man be ushered up the ramp and away from the filth of the Southampton streets.
Away from Lance.
“Honestly!” Hunk is still going, apparently, remaining endearingly oblivious to Lance’s internal crisis. At least it draws Lance out of the undecipherable chaos in his head, dragging his focus back to the conversation at hand with a quick shake of his head to snap out of it. “What were you thinking?!”
Clearing his throat, Lance shifts his bag higher on his back and forces himself to begin to fight his way into the crowd towards the ramp they were meant to be boarding in the first place. Better to focus on what’s right in front of him instead of something he could never have.
“Okay, so I accidentally went up the first class walkway instead of the third class one,” he calls over his shoulder at Hunk, trying to keep his tone light as he’s jostled back and forth in the near-suffocating masses around him. “Definitely not one of my finer moments. But at least we met some new friends, am I right?”
“No, no, you are very not right, Lance. You are very wrong.” Hunk whines back, gnawing on his thumbnail as he uses his berth to forge a path ahead of Lance, the crowd parting easily to give him room and leaving Lance in the dust with how quickly he’s moving. “Those people were probably royalty or something and you nearly knocked one into the harbor because we’re late and you think they’re now our friends?”
“I’m messing with you, Hunk.” Lengthening his strides to keep pace, Lance claps a hand on his friend’s shoulder with a grin. “You’re so uptight, man! It’s fine. They’ll forget about me the moment they sit their silk-suited butts down and have a spot of brandy.”
Hunk lets out another moan of dismay, setting Lance off in a fit of laughter as they fall into the line for steerage boarding. People keep bumping into them, rushing around either to get a better view of the ship or to find their own place in line, but somehow, Lance doesn’t mind. He feels like he’s in a bit of a daze now, just moving forward on autopilot when the line shuffles him and Hunk into the path of the health inspectors who immediately shove his hat into his chest before pulling his head down to run a comb none-too-gently through his hair. Despite being manhandled and patted down and generally treated like cattle before being pushed to the ticket line, Lance doesn't mind, a strange smile on his face the entire time.
The day has barely started, and Lance already knows that this voyage will change him.
He can feel it in his heart, in the very meat of his soul. His entire life, he’s searched for the extraordinary. Travelling so far from home pursuing a dream that was so daunting to all the other men in his hometown that they choose simpler paths, he had always thought that at the end of this road would be his reason. Reason for being, reason for breathing, reason he’s here at all.
Maybe this was the answer. Maybe it was all leading to this, to a game of pure luck that turned into a gamble Lance didn’t know he could win. But he did. He did win. And he’s here now, tilting his head back and inhaling the smoke that is pouring from the four smokestacks running the length of the largest floating vessel on the seas of this earth. If this isn’t fate, he doesn’t know what else it could possibly be.
Hunk is now waving vigorously in front of Lance’s face, forcing him back to reality once more because apparently it’s their turn to hand over their tickets, if the expectant hand the attendant is snapping at Lance is any indicator. He fumbles the paper out of his vest pocket, sweat making his fingers sticky as he hands it over. Fear spikes his pulse in his throat and suddenly Lance is terrified that they’ll be turned away, the tickets false, and his dreams will be shattered all over again. He’s so sure that this luck won’t last that he’s stunned when the attendant punches his ticket and shoves back into his hands, mouth hanging open in shock. Hunk physically drags Lance up the proper gangway this time, continuing his rant about Lance’s idiocy the entire time until they both step into the belly of the Titanic.
They are instantly swept into a current of other steerage passengers, all pouring down staircase after staircase into the lower levels of the ship. It’s pure chaos, with families clinging to each other and squinting at the signs nailed to the walls, handbooks of English in their hands, with shouts of comrades running into one another around corners, with an electricity of exhilaration underlying every inch of the confusion. Hunk and Lance stay together best they can, getting pushed around numerous twists and turns that end up making them quite lost before Hunk lets out a strangled hoot of excitement and points at a sign just down the hall that turns into their saving grace.
It takes them twenty minutes to actually find their room, and another five to settle an arm-wrestling contest on who gets top bunk. Lance still thinks Hunk cheated and plans to hold a lifelong grudge about this.
After they spread their things out on their respective bunks and introduce themselves to the two very confused Frenchmen who are sharing their cabin, Lance pushes Hunk out into the hall and challenges him to take the stairs three at a time just to see if he can. They make it up onto the deck in respectable time, considering the amount of traffic milling through the halls, and burst onto the brand new decking with enough enthusiasm to startle a nearby gaggle of women. Throwing them hurried apologies, the two friends dash over to the nearest empty spot by the railings and lean over to get a view of the crowd on the harbor below.
“Bye!” Hunk bellows, waving both arms at the people lining the streets below. “I’ll miss you!”
Laughing, Lance holds onto Hunk’s shoulder to help himself up onto the first bar of the railing, then wraps his other arm around the post to his right. He joins in, waving overhead at everyone not as lucky as them to board a ship as spectacular as this.
“Poor bastards, eh?” Lance calls down to Hunk over the cheers and calls filling the air. Hunk’s returning grin makes Lance’s heart soar. Closing his eyes, Lance slowly spreads his arms wide, opening his chest to the wind whipping at his clothes. They haven’t even left shore yet and he already feels like he’s flying.
Not a heartbeat later, the Titanic’s horn lets out a deafening blow, signalling the beginning of their voyage across the Atlantic. Letting out an enormous whoop, Lance jumps backwards and lands on the deck with a thump. He’s practically vibrating out of his skin and his cheeks hurt from smiling so hard, but he can’t help it.
He’s going home.
“So whaddya say, Hunk?” Lance elbows his friend and tilts his head at the staircase they just came barreling up. “Think you can take four on the way down?”
Up on the first class deck, Keith is watching the water break against the sides of the ship. The enormous spray of white foam, the spattering of droplets, the wake the ship is leaving behind, and the strong chugging of the engines propelling them out of the Southampton harbor and into the yawning horizon before them all should be humbling. Keith thinks so, thinks it just as much as he is certain that he is supposed to be fawning over the monstrosity of the thing that is taking him towards certain death.
Inner death, anyway, one that will cause his soul to wither and his heart to harden. Living a lie. Pretending that he is everything that the people around him believes he is and should be. Acting as if there isn’t some sickness brewing inside of him, festering his thoughts and twisting his emotions in ways he was always told were so very wrong.
But how can something that wrong feel so a part of him?
Sucking in a sharp breath, Keith whirls around, knuckles white on the railing behind him. It’s just Shiro, his hand paused mid-air as if he was about to touch Keith’s shoulder. They both stand there, frozen, and Keith knows Shiro is waiting for his next move to either allow him to stay by Keith’s side or to dismiss him. Keith gives Shiro a short nod of consent and turns back to the afternoon sun and the painter’s palette of the water, hoping to avoid the conversation he knows is coming.
“Are you alright, sir?” Shiro asks tentatively, approaching the railing to Keith’s left. Keith knows he means well, that he is only vested in looking after Keith and being a shoulder for him to lean on, but there are just some things Keith knows he will never be able to burden his friend with.
“More than alright, Shiro,” Keith replies, filling his voice with the pompous air he was born to have in his lungs. It is who he was born to be, after all. “I’m just admiring the beginning of our journey. It’s quite a sight, don’t you think?” Keith glances over at his comrade, waiting for his approval and praying that Shiro will let the subject drop.
He does. “I’ve never been a fan of sailing myself, sir,” Shiro admits, sparing a glance at the water before fixing his gaze firmly on Keith. “It’s much too vast for me. However, this ship seems ready to take on anything these waters can throw at her, so my nerves are not as great as I expected them to be.”
“You should have stayed behind if you so fear the ocean, Shiro.” Keith crosses his arms and leans forward onto the railing, watching his friend’s face. “I never would have asked you to come if I had known.”
Shiro’s answering scoff makes Keith’s eyebrows raise. Others look down on Keith for using the term ‘friend’ instead of ‘manservant’. While it is technically what Shiro is, Keith has never seen him as anything other than a companion and confidant. That would be the result of the two of them growing up together with Shiro’s parents being in the service of Keith’s mother and father, and him following in their footsteps. In truth, Shiro’s presence has been one of the only constants in Keith’s life, and every day, he is thankful for always having Shiro to ground him.
“All due respect, Mr. Kogane,” Shiro grins, teeth catching like pearls in the sunlight. “You wouldn’t be able to pry me from your side with a crowbar.”
Even Keith can’t fight the smile creeping across his face at that. “As it should be." He then frowns slightly, giving Shiro one of his looks. "And I told you not to call me that. It makes me sound like my father.”
Shiro just laughs and joins him at the railing as the harbor behind them continues to fade into a blur in the distance. Keith wants to stay out longer, finding the monotonous sound of the water and the unbroken horizon calming, but Shiro comments on the chill of the wind and how they should be getting back inside soon. With a heavy heart, Keith pushes away from the railing with numb fingertips and cheeks, allowing Shiro to guide him back below deck and into one of the lavish dining rooms where many upper class men and women are sitting for their tea and lunches.
If not for the rumble of the ship’s engines and the water slipping by outside the windows, the room could have been one of Southampton’s downtown parlors. The rich wood that covers the floors and is carved into tables and chairs is a deep, shining brown. The chandeliers tinkling overhead catch the light of the afternoon sun, making the cutlery on every napkin sparkle, never having touched the palm of a person’s hand before now, and the clock ticking on the mantlepiece to Keith’s right is showing its face to the ship’s inhabitants for the first time. Everything is new, brand new, made just for this moment.
Keith is about to suggest that they sit down for a cup of tea when a familiar laugh draws his attention to the far side of the room. His eyes dance from table to table until he sees Allura sitting at a round table, giggling behind her glove with two other ladies around her age. She doesn’t see him, thankfully, is too caught up in whatever the blonde girl is saying to her. It must be riveting because Allura leans in to hear better, her mouth parting in surprise before whispering something in return with a mischievous smile of her own. Of course she’s fitting in naturally, charming everyone around her like moths to her flame. That pit in Keith’s stomach returns, carving itself open with dirty, curved nails, and he has to turn away.
“I’m feeling a bit weary, Shiro. I think I’m going to retire until dinner.”
“Let me show you to your room, sir.” Shiro steps back and sweeps his arm towards the door on the far side of the room. “This way.”
“Thank you,” Keith says softly, his voice falling flat as he brushes past Shiro. The path to the exit suddenly seems to stretch on for miles, forcing him to pass by what feels like an infinite amount of tables on his way out. More than anything, Keith just wants to drop his head, tuck himself into his coat and blend into the background. But here, now, he is known. Keith Kogane—son, heir, orphan—and betrothed to Allura Altea.
There is no place to disappear when everyone knows your face.
So he walks with his head high, chin up, and his eyes fixed dead ahead, not meeting a single curious glance nor lingering stare.
Pretend, pretend, pretend. Pretend like he wants the money in his bank account that was put there due to a pair of faulty brakes and a bridge on a rainy night. Pretend like he wants the daughter of the earl who watches Keith’s every breath like a hawk. Pretend like he is looking forward to the light of the next day when all he wants is to be swallowed by the night.
It takes an eternity to cross the room, and the suffocating tightness in Keith’s chest doesn’t go away once the door shuts behind them. It’s still there once they reach Keith’s quarters, and he barely manages to get out his wish to be alone. Bidding his friend a short goodbye with the request of being woken for dinner, Keith shuts the door with a forced smile that he drops the moment Shiro can't see him anymore. He takes a moment to lay his forehead on the ornately carved wood, trying to measure his breaths as a throbbing ache in his temple grows in intensity, matching the sound of Shiro’s footsteps walking away.
Once he’s sure that he’s alone, Keith stumbles back from the door and grasps the edge of a dresser to help his balance as he toes off his boots. Grasping the side of his head, Keith takes two steps closer to the bed and lets himself fall face-first into one of the six feathered pillows standing against the headboard. He knows he should disrobe, knows that his clothes will be in a stay of irreparable disarray by the time he wakes, but he feels utterly drained and the pain in his head is enough to convince him not to move again. Burying his face into the pillow beneath him, Keith closes his eyes. The darkness quickly envelops him like a mother's embrace, like the one he misses so desperately, and mercifully, everything fades away.
Keith dreams of flying.
He dreams of soaring past a kaleidoscope of colors above rising waves, of wings of his own sprouting from his back and carrying him high into the clouds. He’s spinning, spinning up towards the sun, towards the moon and the stars that are all in the sky at the same time, blinding him. And then he’s falling, his wings turning to tatters like wet paper in the wind, and he’s screaming wordlessly as he plummets back towards the sea, the stars turning into a dizzying spiral above him.
Right before he hits the water, all he sees is blue.