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Violet

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After the Great War, all AI systems were shut down and obliterated. In accordance with the Treaty of Intelligence, AI beings were to never walk the face of the Earth again. Too much destruction had they caused, too many lives had they extinguished. They were, and always will be the enemy. AI’s exist solely to kill and cause chaos. No human is to harbor an AI; no human is to aide an AI. Since their creation, all the AI has wanted was supreme world domination and would stop at nothing to spill human blood…

 

Lance stops writing with a sigh, letting the pencil fall from his fingers. His chin finds his hand, and he pauses to look around the humid classroom. Everyone has their heads down, eagerly writing their essays with acute concentration. The scratches of lead on paper dance across the room. Lance finds himself sighing again.

Within just sixty minutes, he’s supposed to come up with at least five hundred words about why humans were justified in wiping out all the AI’s. Classic opinion research paper. He’d had days of advanced notice about the essay; days to prepare and come up with a thesis and three body paragraphs, all wrapped up with a nice conclusion. Yeah, well, there are better ways to spend your time than outlining essays.

He glances next to him, then does a double-take. It’s only been a mere five minutes into the “brainstorm” period, and his neighbor Pidge already has a whole page and a half written. Her pencil continues to drill out word after word with insane efficiency, rapidly etching her small letters onto the paper. In the time he’s watched her, she’s added another half page, and is reaching for another piece of paper.

Another sigh escapes him. Lance couldn’t be bothered to pour his opinions onto a page as fervently as Pidge. Pidge knows almost everything there is to know about the AI’s anyway, and has plenty to write about. Lance, on the other hand, may or may not have slacked off throughout the AI unit in history class… He gets the basic stuff - AI’s are bad, humans are good. AI’s should be destroyed, humans should triumph, blah blah blah.

It’s an opinion paper, but you’re only really supposed to have one opinion: AI’s are evil. You’re encouraged to give your own thoughts, but the graders mark you down if you’re not in accordance with the general consensus. Then you’ll get a talking to after class, detention, a call to home… Lance gets it. He’s just simply sick of vomiting the exact same words onto a piece of paper for the millionth time. He can’t even remember how many times he’s been forced to spew facts about the AI war into an essay. It’s… boring. Maybe if they gave the a different topic -- something before the War… Why can’t they write essays on World War I? The War on Drugs? He’d much rather write about ancient history than this modern bullcrap.

Lance glances around the classroom again, eyes landing on the clock. It’s been fifteen minutes now, and he still has to suffer through another forty-five. At least it’s the last class of the day, and it’s a Friday. Mrs. Ruíz catches Lance’s eye from where she sits behind her podium, and gives him a stern glare. ‘Your essay’ she mouths at him while gesturing towards his blank paper. Lance can’t help his lazy eye roll, but he picks his pencil back up anyway.

“Just focus,” he whispers to himself, scrawling down a few more words. He finishes his first paragraph, and moves onto the next. Suddenly, Mrs. Ruíz calls out for the ten-minutes-left mark, and Lance realizes he doesn’t have nearly enough time to write another three paragraphs. Still, he tries, scribbling some nonsensical words to at least reach the minimum word count. He gets nearly halfway through when Mrs. Ruíz slaps a yard stick onto her podium, shocking Lance back to reality.

“Okay class, that’s the end of the writing period,” she croons in her high pitched voice. “Please pass your papers up and I’ll grade them and get them back to you on Monday. Otherwise, have a nice weekend.” The room is immediately filled with the rustling of papers and the chatter of students as they pack up to leave. Lance notices Pidge getting up to staple a total of six pages together and he glances down at his own paper. It's not finished, and he knows he’ll get a C at best on it, and then have to explain to Mama why he did so bad… Maybe he could just throw the essay out and pretend Mrs. Ruíz lost it or something…

“Hey Lance, how do you think you did?” Pidge asks, suddenly beside him, leaning against his desk. “Do you think you passed?”

“I didn’t even finish,” he admits, and slings his backpack over his shoulder. “You probably did good though; how many words do you think you wrote?”

“Oh, exactly one thousand two hundred and sixty-seven. I counted.” She adjusts her glasses and grins at Lance who gives her a playful nudge back.

“You’re a real nerd, you know that? A complete and utter nerd.”

Pidge shoves him back.

“Counting words in my essay to make sure I achieved minimum word count does not make me a nerd.”

“Pretty sure you hit minimum word count, Pidge.”

“Hey now, at least I’m not a goofball like you, Lance,” she laughs and laces her fingers around the straps of her backpack.

“Ooh, your insults hurt, Pidge,” Lance retorts and grins back at her. He drops his paper off at the podium before they exit the classroom. Mrs. Ruiz shouts at them to have a good weekend but they’re already out in the hallway making their way through the sea of students. "You know, I really don't get why we have to write that crap every single year.”

"It's to test our skill: part of the curriculum," Pidge answers without missing a beat, but Lance shakes his head.

"No, I mean the whole AI shit. The war and everything."

Pidge frowns at his choice of language but shrugs. "Well, it was an important part of history; it's what made the world what it is today."

"So did the Industrial Revolution," Lance retorts, flicking hair from his eyes.

"Oh, come on, that was six hundred years ago. We go over a unit all about it in world history, Mr. Whiny.”

"Okay, firstly, I take offense to 'Mr. Whiny.'" He gives the shorter girl a sidelong glance, huffing silently. "Secondly, when was the last time you saw a play about the Industrial Revolution? And when was the last time you saw a reenactment of the AI war?"

Pidge makes a show of stepping past the cracks in the floor, jumping from square to square. She turns and flashes a wide grin at Lance, giving him jazz hands.

"It's a conspiracy, dude. The government's pulling a fast one on all of us and trying to erase the Industrial Revolution from history. Tell everyone, they don't want us to know how the steam engine was made!"

That makes Lance laugh: Pidge is usually the one spewing conspiracy theories, instead of being the one shooting them down. She giggles and turns around, returning to jumping from square to square. "Anyway, it's Friday and I'm so ready to go home and veg out for the next three days,” Pidge calls out behind her, and Lance has to agree. Suddenly, Pidge halts at an intersection in the hallway and then throws an excited arm up. “Hey Hunk!”

The aforementioned Hunk is making his own way down the perpendicular hallway to meet up with the other two, a bright grin on his face. He’s already undone his uniform’s tie and his backpack hangs haphazardly off his shoulder.

“What’s up you, guys? You two sure look happy!” He falls into step with the two as they work their way to the entrance.

“It’s Friday, man,” Lance exclaims, and holds his fist up. He doesn’t need to look to know Hunk will return the gesture, knocking their knuckles together. “You guys got any plans?”

“Well, Matt and I were going to cinema to watch that new horror flick that’s out,” answers Pidge, opening her mouth in a wide yawn that causes her to falter in her steps a bit. Hunk manages to steady her and she gives a worldless thanks. “Honestly though, I’m so tired that I kinda just want to sleep.”

“That’s my plan!” Hunk chimes in, letting out a loud chuckle. “I fell asleep today in physics  and you guys know how much I love that class.”

“Ah yeah, I forgot. Both of ya’ll are nerds,” Lance jives, smirking at his two friends who return the look with more unamused one. “Hey, it’s true! Physics is for nerds.”

Pidge rolls her eyes and grunts something of acknowledgment as she turns to shove her way through the school’s entrance. Hunk and Lance follow, only to immediately be struck by the wave of heat, nearly knocking them off their feet.

“Oh my god,” Pidge groans as she throws an arm up to shield her face from the sun. “It’s nearly two thousand degrees out here.”

“Actually, it’s only 106 degrees,” Hunk says matter-of-factly, fiddling with his watch. “Humidity is 89 percent, though.”

“Same difference,” Lance grumbles and works to undo his uniform’s tie. “It’s hotter than hell out here.”

“Welcome to Sarasota,” Pidge sighs and unclips her tie as well. “The miserable armpit of this broken continent.”

“It’s not that bad you guys,” Hunk tries to say, but Pidge glares at him. “...I mean, at least we live by the beach?”

“The water’s hotter than the air I bet,” Lance responds as he lumbers down the concrete steps of the school. “Thank you but no thank you; I don’t wanna swim in a soup pot.”

“The heat is only supposed to last through the weekend,” Hunk continues, pressing a button on his watch. “It’s supposed to get down to eighty-seven by Monday!”

Pidge gives him a weak smile. “Yay… Eighty-seven…!” She gives him her unenthusiastic jazz hands before she bends over to unlock her bike from its place on the rack. "We can all be slightly less sweaty."

“Better than nothing,” Hunk says as he clasps his helmet onto his head. “The cinema is air-conditioned though.”

“So you’re down for the movies?” Pidge asks as she shoves her own helmet onto her mess of brown hair.

“Sure, why not.” Lance chimes in. “I’ve been wanting to see that movie too.”

“I gotta go home and clean up first,” she says, hopping onto her bike. “But let’s meet at the theatre at six then; that sound okay to you guys?”

Hunk and Lance agree, and they finalize and get their plans in order. Lance mounts his own bike and bids the other two goodbye before they turn and pedal off down the street together. Lance watches them go, then snaps the buckle to his helmet together. He turns his bike onto the opposite side of the road and begins pedaling, the hot breeze whipping through his hair.

Pidge and Hunk live on the far east side of the city, near the Capitol building. They take the main road to get there and they arrive home fairly quickly. Lance, however, lives on the far west side of town, near the college. There’s two ways to get there; the legal and the illegal way. Of course, the illegal way is much quicker than the other route. You take a shortcut path through the Space, which is strictly forbidden from non-personnel entry. Something about radioactivity, vagrants, or whatever… Lance has taken this way home a million times, and uses it to get to school almost every morning. As far as he’s been out there, he’s been able to get through in one piece. Union workers are supposed to litter the outreaches of the City, patrolling the vicinity to make sure no one wanders too far past the boundary.

However, their numbers have dwindled in the past few years as workers became lazy and saw no point in standing watch like border patrol. Still, if you’re passing through, your full attention should stay on your surroundings; if a Uni were to find you out there, well, Lance doesn’t really know the consequences. No one actually does, but it’s rumored to be awful punishment. Still, as the road begins to diverge into two separate paths, one marked Broad Street and the other DO NOT PASS, Lance pedals down the latter of the two.

It’s not as though the Space just immediately starts. There is no clear distinction between City and Space, it’s just a gradual shift. The buildings slowly begin to degrade, plant life begins to take over the road and sidewalks. The sounds of the city begin to fade until all Lance can hear is the far off sound of waves crashing on the shore. Once he’s traveled far enough on the main road, the asphalt begins to break apart. Huge chunks of it sit in disheveled heaps thrown to the side, and the path turns to dirt. Once you reach this point, you know you’re in the Space.

Lance hops off his bike and makes a sharp left onto a badly beaten path through the trees and shrubs that he’s cleared himself. The sounds of the birds and other wildlife grow stronger, the bushes teeming with the rustling of squirrels and rabbits. Lance smiles absentmindedly as he wanders down the path, losing himself in the noises of the overgrown jungle.

Then comes the reason why barricades were put up. Nature suddenly stops. Trees begin to wither out, their roots erupting from the ground once they meet pavement. The sounds of the background change abruptly into near silence. All across the outlet, artifacts left over from before the AI war litter the ground. Smashed buildings trim the edges of the outlet, windowpanes smashed, and roofs caved in. Lance has spent enough of his time scourging through these ruins; it’s mostly just irreparable equipment that’s become corroded or too damaged to identify. The heat increases, and Lance finds himself rolling his sleeves up, as his grip on his bike handles tighten. This place always gives Lance an uneasy feeling. The ruined buildings continue as far as the eye can see. Degraded and rusting cars litter the streets. Ruined skyscrapers peak in the distance, and the smell of hot tar and asphalt fills Lance’s nose. This was once part of the City, back before the AI war. People walked these roads, business flourished. All that is gone now as the levels of radioactivity are deemed too high for day to day living. No plants grow here, no sign of life exists for miles within the Space. Just concrete and dead machines.

Lance swings his leg over his bike and pedals swiftly down toward the main road, eager to get to the other side of the gorge where the forest begins again. Maybe he’s just too lost in his thoughts, too focused on making it to the other side, too focused on getting out of the aching quiet that is the Space. Or maybe it’s exactly that -- it’s so damn quiet that any noise hardly registers because it’s just too foreign.  Yet, the noise is suddenly on top of him, and so is the blow to the face that sends him hurtling over the handlebars of his bike and onto the concrete. An exclamation of confusion and anger erupts from his mouth as his hands strike the ground, blood immediately pooling around them.

“What the fu…?” Lance manages to murmur, trying to get a hold of his bearings, completely shaken up. Suddenly, he’s thrust back to the ground, arms pinned to his side, and then there’s a glistening knife held to his throat. He freezes. What the hell? He can’t really get his thoughts straight because it’s all happening too fast and the wind was knocked from him -- he blinks against the rays of the sun, peering to his assailant above him.

Cloaked, the person scowls angrily. Lance is almost taken aback by the sheer rage their face harbors. Then he notices the eyes. The deepest shade of violet he’s ever seen - so rich it almost looks fake. The cloaked boy’s features are slight, and Lance realizes he must not be much older than he is. Then he really comes to his senses. The guy has a knife to his throat, and by the expression on his face, he may very well use it. Lance’s fight or flight response kicks in and he starts wailing out, thrashing his body back and forth in an attempt to throw the boy from him. Lance manages to pull one of his hands out from the boy’s knees, and uses it to strike his assailant in the face.

“Get the hell away from me!” Lance manages to shout out, and pulls his other hand from the boy’s grasp. He grabs the stranger's shirt, using its momentum to throw him to the side. The boy is quick though. He manages to get a grip full of Lance’s hair and yanks it with him, causing Lance to slide across the pavement in a mess of arms and legs. Lance’s just recovering from that when a current of electricity suddenly surges through his left shoulder, causing the muscles to spasm. He gasps out in pain. His whole arm becomes numb and falls limp to his side. In terms of battling, Lance still has a lot of energy to fight back, but the loss of his left arm completely knocks him off guard. He immediately curves his body to protect it. This gives the boy enough time to regain his position on top of him, pinning Lance’s arms behind his back. The knife threatens him again, this time pressed deep into his cheek, centimeters from drawing blood.

“Are you Union?! Are you Union?” The boy is nearly shouting in his face, pushing the knife deeper and deeper. Lance is gasping for air, dizzy and out of breath, and god, what the fuck is he saying? Is he Union?

“No! No, no, no, no!” Lance shouts. “I’m not! I’m just a student! I’m not -- I’m not Union, I swear.”

The boy’s eyes narrow, and he releases some of the tension from the knife. Lance huffs, trying to regain control of his breathing.

“Did any Union workers follow you out here?”

“What? No, I just said I’m a student… I’m walking home from school. I don’t mean any harm to you… I was just on my way home.”

The boy pulls his knife away, and slowly backs off of Lance. Lance immediately shoots up, and scrambles meters away from the boy who’s sitting hunched in a squat. He reaches for his school bag, still in a heap by his bike and pulls his steel water bottle from it. It’s… not the best weapon, but he holds it in front of him anyway. “What the hell is your problem?” he shouts, glaring under the hot blaze of the sun at the stranger. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing, attacking random people out of nowhere?!”

“I thought you may have been a Union worker,” the boy replies, completely disinterested, as he sheathes his knife. Lance gapes at him, and that’s when he notices something he probably should have noticed before - but, under the circumstances, paid no attention to. The boy is missing his right arm. His shirt sleeve falls completely slack, revealing bits of metal stuck into the socket of his shoulder. Lance lowers his bottle.

“Woah… What happened to your arm?”

The boy looks up and frowns. He shifts uncomfortably and turns so his shoulder is hidden from view. Lance watches him steadily, taking in all the details he hadn’t noticed before. The boy is in extreme shape, and he looks just like any boy he’d meet at school. This is, however, juxtaposed by the clothes he wears. They’re tattered and covered in dirt, and he looks like he hasn’t washed his hair in… a while, to say the least. Lance’s eyes drift to the boy’s bottom half -- to his legs specifically. Lance’s mouth falls open in abject horror at the sight of the smooth and gleaming metal entwining with the boy’s light flesh to create a mosaic of colour. Lance stumbles backwards, raising his water bottle again. “Y-you’re… You’re -- ” He knows what he sees before him, but he can’t quite seem to put it into words. He can’t comprehend it. He’s… this boy is supposed to be dead. He shouldn’t exist .

...AI systems were shut down and obliterated…

A lump forms in the back of Lance’s throat and his gut drops. The hairs on his neck immediately stand up, his blood pulsing in his ears. His legs lock up, ready to sprint at any second.

....All the AI has wanted was supreme world domination and will stop at nothing to spill human blood...

The boy stands and drops the hood from his head. He scowls at Lance. “What? Something wrong with you?”

Finally, thoughts turn coherent and Lance gulps.

“I... I mean. You’re just... You’re a cyborg?”

The boy cocks his head, then sticks a leg out so it’s parallel to the ground. The metal glints harshly in the sun, blinding Lance. The boy twists his ankle back and forth.

“Wow, would you look at that. I guess I am.”

Chapter Text

……

“I... I mean. You’re... You’re a cyborg?”

The stranger cocks his head, then sticks a leg out so it’s parallel to the ground. The metal glints harshly in the sun, blinding Lance. The boy twists his ankle back and forth.

“Wow. Would you look at that. I guess I am.”

Lance can feel the breath in his lungs, like burning rings of cigarette smoke. His heart throbs painfully in his ears, pounding to the beat of his numb arm. Perhaps, in another life, Lance could find some words to speak. Maybe, even, he’d have the courage to get up and run away.

But the stranger’s eyes are locked on his own - holding him hostage in their fierce glare. And Lance is still acutely aware that just beneath the folds of the boy’s clothes hides a knife and some type of taser - which could easily be pulled on him once again. So, Lance stays frozen in his spot on the sandy ground without so much as a breath escaping his mouth.

It’s the cyborg that speaks first, anyway.

“What’re you going to do? Hit me with that?”

The boy motions towards the water bottle Lance still wields in a shaky, outstretched arm. Awkwardly, Lance goes to lower his arm and places the bottle next to his side. Swallowing, his eyes flit away from the strangers as heat brushes the lower part of his neck. The water bottle was, perhaps, quite naive.

“At any rate, it doesn’t matter,” the boy continues, brushing his clothes off as he climbs to his feet. He holds his hand down at Lance, palm outstretched as if he expects Lance to take hold of it. Lance can only stare, unsure if he should take the stranger’s gesture or continue to sit in a dumb heap with his mouth wide open. “Come on,” the stranger adds, moving his hand closer. “I promise I won’t hit you again.”

There’s a sort of genuine confidence in the boy’s eyes, and it’s enough to allow Lance to finally take a deep breath of well-needed oxygen. Calm down. Just… calm down… He lets the boy’s hand entwine with his own as he helps him to his feet.

Once eye level with the stranger, Lance finds himself worrying his bottom lip. He can see now a more proper view of the stranger’s empty arm socket and has to force himself not to visibly wince. The skin around the area flushed a deep shade of crimson and violet. The metal bits that peek through the skin appear sharp as if you’d prick a finger if you tried to touch it. It looks horribly painful, and Lance can’t help the flare of sympathy that courses through his gut.

As if sensing Lance’s eyes, the boy turns away with a haughty scowl.

“Didn’t anyone teach you it’s impolite to stare?”

The boy’s words stir enough conception back into Lance’s mind, enough to finally speak.

“What… what happened to your arm?”

It wasn’t meant to be an invasive question, but it’s enough to make the stranger recoil slightly, his grimace growing wider as he glowers at Lance.

“Why do you care?” he spits, and his fleshed arm rises to meet the socket to cover it from Lance’s curious gaze. “It’s unlike your... type to care about trivial things like this.”

“Trivial?” Lance echoes, a brow cocking up on his forehead. “You’re missing an arm .”

“Which shouldn’t matter to a human,” the boy replies evenly. His eyes squint at Lance with austere enmity. “It surely didn’t matter a hundred years ago in the War; you’d take any chance you’d get to rip more than just an arm off of me.”

His lip is back in between his teeth as Lance runs over the boy’s words. It’s… true. That much Lance knew from history class. The treatment of the AI was quite reprehensible, from torture to gain information, to the simple joy some soldiers got in breaking apart the “enemy.”

Still, none of it really mattered to Lance. The AI were… machines. Torture and pain couldn’t possibly be comprehended by nothing more than a computer. He’d never put much thought into it - the AI weren’t human. They couldn’t understand pain, and the torture they suffered was justifiable, especially after what they did to humankind themselves.

But this boy - standing in front of Lance, looking nothing  like what the slideshows and documentaries prepared Lance for…  Lance can see it in the boy’s eyes.

There is emotion there. Human emotion, too.

The boy is mute for a moment longer. Lance uses the silence to further inspect the stranger. He hadn’t noticed it before since it had been mostly concealed by the tatters of the boy’s coat, but now it stands out against the boy’s pale skin; it’s a series of numbers and letters, printed in near perfect font just above his elbow.

004-KOGANE-7867-CTU-9

“...Hey, what’s that?” Lance asks idly, reaching forward to touch the black scrawl. “Ko - gane ? Is that, like, your name?”

The boy jerks suddenly from Lance’s touch with a dirty look. “Hey. Don’t get touchy. Keep your hands off of me.”

“Oh, you’re one to talk,” Lance replies dryly, not even bothering to look at the boy. “Did you forget you were the one with the knife to my throat?”

“Still, don’t touch it,” spits the boy.

Lance holds his hands up defensively, clicking the tongue to the roof of his mouth. “Alright alright; cool your jets Mr. Grumpy-Pants, I just wanted to look at it.” He exhales, pouting his lips to the side. “No need to get all hung-out on me now.”

Another awkward silence engulfs the two, and Lance bobs on the heels of his feet. He sure is angry, he thinks quietly. If nothing else, at least Lance knows cyborgs can feel anger.

“...Keith.”

Lance stops at the sudden words and looks to the boy. “What?”

“My name - it’s Keith,” the boy says with a shrug. “Kogane is just part of my model number, but everyone calls me Keith.”

And Lance smiles. He doesn’t know why, but he just beams at the other. “Keith,” he repeats, running the name over for a second. “Well, I’m Lance. Just Lance. I don’t have a model number or anything.”

Keith doesn’t seem to register the joke and just looks at him with a blank stare. Lance’s smile falls from his face awkwardly and he lets out a stiff chuckle. “So… mind if I take a look at it?” He gestures towards the boy’s arm socket. “I can maybe help a little?”

Keith’s eyes widen, probably not expecting Lance’s offer, and he shifts uncomfortably.

“...Why? Isn’t it against your human rules to aid an AI?” Keith’s pointed look is almost as steely as the metal that enmeshes his legs. “You’d be breaking your own laws.”

“Well, you’re hurt,” Lance says simply, shrugging off the glare. “At least let me examine it a little.”

Keith looks ready to argue, but Lance reaches to the ground to scoop up his backpack. By now the numbness in his shocked arm has subsided, and he can move his fingers around again. He quickly fishes around in it a little before pulling out a small case. He returns to his position besides Keith and shows him what’s in his hands.

“I’m training to be a doctor,” Lance explains brightly as he unzips the small bag. “I’m only in high school right now, but I plan to take over my father’s work as a surgeon when I’m older. I’m not especially qualified at the moment, but I can at least check for infection.”

The cyborg listens to Lance as he speaks, biting the inside of his cheek. He gives Lance a quick once-over, peering at the bag which contains several different tools a doctor might use in practice. He sighs and lets go of his shoulder.

“Only for a minute,” Keith instructs hotly. “Then, I should leave. It’s not particularly safe here.”

Lance glances up to meet the boy's gaze.

“...Are you running from someone?”

It was an honest guess, and from the way Keith’s eyes widen when he says it, Lance knows he’s correct.

“It’s okay, you don’t have to tell me,” Lance continues and brings a small scalpel to Keith’s shoulder. “It’s not really any of my business.”

A tiny gasp falls from the other when Lance lays the cool scalpel against his skin. Lance doesn’t plan on operating or anything, and simply uses the scalpel’s flat side to gently prod at the skin around the bits of metal. Thankfully, it doesn’t seem to be infected. It does, however, look extremely swollen and irritated judging by the way the skin bulges in uncomfortable lumps. Lance frowns.

“How long have you had this?” he asks, lowering his scalpel. Keith shrugs, looking away from Lance.

“Since forever, I guess. Usually, though, there’s an arm attached to it. But that was… taken a few days ago.” His voice falters for a second before he scowls at Lance again. “Besides, what does it matter to you? You don’t want to help me; I’m a cyborg , remember?”

Lance’s eyebrows knit together. Keith isn’t necessarily wrong… Lance is still extremely aware that this person is, in fact, an AI- something he should, in theory, be terrified of. But Lance can’t bring himself to just leave Keith here. Even after he was tased by the guy. Lance can’t really put his finger on it but for some reason… it just feels wrong .

“I don’t know,” Lance admits with a casual shrug. “Without your knife, you’re not really all that intimidating, even for a cyborg.” Keith bristles as Lance lets out a small laugh. “I’m kidding ,” he adds, grinning at the other. “Besides, I know someone who could probably fix your arm up if you wanted.”

Keith suddenly perks up at that. He leans forward, eyeing Lance with mild skepticism. “...You do?”

“Yup, she’s really into auto-mechanics,” Lance nods, dropping his scalpel back into his bag. “She’ll have a new arm built for you in less than a day, I bet.”

For the first time, something other than hostility fills Keith’s features. It almost looks like relief, from what Lance can tell by the way his lips turn up ever so slightly. And - God, Keith really does look human, that it’s almost scary.

But as fast as the emotion came, it’s gone from the cyborg’s face. He scowls again, pulling in on himself as he frowns at Lance.

“You’re not secretly a Union worker, are you?” he asks gruffly, eyes narrowing in suspicion.

Lance laughs, running a hand through his hair. “I already told you I’m not. I’m just a student.”

“Then why are you being… nice to me?” The word sounds foreign on Keith’s tongue, and Lance bites his lip again.

“...You’re different than what I thought you’d be,” he explains slowly. He looks over the stranger again, at his dirty hair and messy clothes. The way Keith’s nose turns up ever so slightly at the tip, and the freckles under his violet eyes. Lance shrugs. “You’re not what they made you sound like.”

“Oh?” Keith raises a thin eyebrow. “And what would that be?”

“I dunno …” Lance pauses.  “Human ?”

That clearly takes Keith by surprise. His eyes slope wide, lips hanging slightly open. He’s silent for a second, letting the sticky hot air consume any words he might have said. And really, Lance thinks it’s kind of funny that an AI - which allegedly is supposed to have unlimited and broad knowledge - can’t think of any response to that.

The calm doesn’t last very long, however. Across the gorge, a building suddenly splits into tall, violent flames with a noise so loud it sends vibrations through the ground. It’s enough to knock both Keith and Lance off their feet so that they lay in an entangled mess besides a rusting car.

Everything’s cloudy for a few moments as Lance tries to get a hold of his bearings. The wind’s been knocked from his lungs, that he can tell. His ears are also throbbing with the beat of his pulse, which is almost comforting as he lays on the ground trying to breathe again. Then there’s another noise, somewhere to Lance’s left, and he feels a cold hand grab hold of him.

“...You hear me? Can you…? ...Me...?”

Lance has to blink a few times until Keith’s face comes into focus. Numbly, he realizes his ears have been blown out from the explosion and only a high-pitched ringing remains.

“What… what just happened?” Lance’s words are slurred as he tries to push himself onto an elbow. Keith is by his side, frantically looking over his shoulder every few seconds, a hand hovering over Lance’s chest.

“Try not to move,” Keith instructs, pushing Lance back to the ground. “You’re hurt.”

Lance tries to understand what Keith is saying, but more explosions deter his thoughts. These explosions are smaller than the first, and sound somewhat distant. Like raindrops on a tin can, hollow and pointed. Lance immediately feels the blood in his veins turn to ice.

Gunshots. Those are gunshots. Lance is one-hundred percent sure, and the thought sends him shooting up even against Keith’s protests.

Union soldiers. It has to be; only Union members are allowed to carry guns. Especially machine guns of that size and strength. And suddenly his stupid essay is in his mind all over again. And Keith’s words, “You’d be breaking your own laws.”

Lance cranes his neck around the side of the car to peer across the gorge. On the other side of the Space stand several people, all clad in pristine white uniforms. Lance recognizes them almost immediately as part of the special forces section of the Union. His breath hitches in his throat.

“Did you hear me?!”

Lance turns back to Keith who’s shouted the question. He gives his head a daft shake, bringing a hand up to rub the side of his face. He realizes it’s bloody, and Lance isn’t quite sure which part of him is actually bleeding; his hands or his head.

“Where’s your bike?” Keith’s besides Lance again, crouched down on his haunches. The question makes little sense to Lance, but he raises a finger and points to the side.

“It’s still… somewhere over there…” he manages to utter before collapsing back onto the car. He watches through foggy eyes as Keith pushes up and away from Lance towards the direction of the bike.

And then suddenly it makes sense. Keith wants his bike. He wants the bike so he can peddle to safety and leave Lance here, bleeding beside a broken-down Toyota as Union soldiers blow him to pieces.

He should have fucking guessed it. Lance wasn’t stupid - but for some reason he let the cyborg get the better of him. Trick him into stealing his bike, abandoning him and leaving him for dead.  Human looking, maybe, but Lance should have known better. He should have gotten up and ran away when the cyborg first reached that hand down to help him up.  

I’m going to die, Lance thinks to himself as he watches Keith pick up the bike and throw a leg over the seat. The stabbing pain in his chest peaks and his vision darts in and out to the noise of more gunfire. I’m literally going to die right now.

The last thing Lance sees before he blacks out are the tendrils of smoke snaking through the blue sky from the burning rubble around him.

 

.

.

.

 

“It’s just a stupid bunny. Get over it.”

“It’s not stupid!”

“You’re acting like a baby, Lance.”

Lance looks up at his older brother with tear-stained eyes. Diego has his arms crossed as he makes a face at the young boy. “Seriously, leave it be. It’s going to die anyway.”

The rabbit is huddled in a small lump beneath Lance’s protection, bleeding from its neck. Their dog had gotten to it, Diego had said. Played with it for awhile before getting bored and leaving it to die in mama’s flower bed.

And Lance knew the rabbit was going to pass - the wound on its neck wasn’t one that could be healed, even by his papa who saved people’s lives for a living. But that didn’t make Lance any less inclined to stay by its side until it crossed over the barrier of the living to the land of the dead.

Diego had called him stupid. But Diego didn’t understand; how sad would it be to lay dying without anyone - anyone - there by your side to watch your final moments? Yeah, it was a rabbit, but that didn’t matter. Lance couldn’t let it die alone.

“Whatever,” Diego mumbles and walks away from where Lance crouches near the animal. Lance watches him go without another word, and turns back to the rabbit.

“You’re going to be okay,” he whispers, adjusting the rabbit’s head so it lays gently on a mound of soft dirt. “You’ll be okay… You’ll be okay…”

Lance watches as the life leaves the creature. Its shallow breathing falls to a standstill, and it’s small eyes glaze over. And Lance expected it - but he can’t contain his sobs as he mourns the loss of the rabbit.

His mother finds him a few minutes later, cramped up underneath the rosebush with the rabbit next to him. Gently, she pulls her boy out and scoops him up into her warm arms.

“Ya no llores, mijito,” she coos with a soft sway of her arms. Her hand soothes the back of Lance’s head, hushing his sobs into small hiccups. “Take deep breaths, Lance.”

Lance tries to do what mama says, blinking more tears from his eyes. He grips her hair in his small fingers, burying his face in her shoulder. “Mama, Diego thinks I’m a llorón.”

“Ai, don’t let Diego tell you that,” she instructs, pulling back to look into Lance’s eyes. Her’s are full of unspeakable warmth, and it melts the sadness in Lance’s heart. “You are my brave boy. Tears don’t make you a crybaby; you care a lot about those around you, mijito. That’s not a bad thing.”

She strokes his hair again, cradling him against her chest. He eases into her touch, and lets his cries absolve into the afternoon air.

Together, they find a shovel and work to bury the rabbit. Mama suggests underneath the willow tree, and Lance agrees. She digs the hole, and Lance carefully lays the rabbit to rest inside of it.

Mama speaks a small prayer over the grave once it’s covered. Lance repeats her words, holding onto her hand as he places a rock over the soil. “Descanse en paz.”

Neither says anything else. They stand quietly beneath the ringlets of the willow tree as the sun climbs higher in the sky.

“Descanse en paz.”

 

.

.

.

 

The dream lingers in Lance’s mind as he pushes his eyes open from a deep sleep. He can still almost smell the soil and the grass as he blinks a few times, trying to adjust to the light filtering in from a nearby window.

He’s in a room, not his own he realizes, and he feels apprehension build in his gut at the unfamiliarity. The walls are streaked off-white with a bad paint job, and Lance notes the scrawls of brightly colored graffiti decorating the plaster. He stares in confusion at it before he notices his shirt’s been removed, replaced with spirals of white gauze across his chest. A hand finds the bridge of his nose.

That’s right.

The door on the opposite wall opens then, and someone Lance never expected to see again steps through. His mauve eyes are just as uptight as before, even though he wears a relieved smile.

“You’re awake,” he says and approaches Lance’s side. Lance just stares at Keith, trying to piece back the events of earlier. He remembers the explosions, and the soldiers, and then the ache in his chest which was enough to knock him out.

“Where am I?”

Keith steps closer, setting himself down in the chair beside Lance’s bed. “An abandoned apartment complex,” he answers. “It was the only place I could think of.”

Lance nods, settling back onto the mattress. His ears still ring with the impact of the explosion.

“I tried to patch you up with what you had in your bag,” Keith explains, motioning towards Lance’s bandaged chest. “A small rod lodged itself into your abdomen - from the initial explosion I assume.”

One of Lance’s hands makes its way to his chest, fingering around to feel the damage. The area aches in response and Lance lets his hand drop.

“...How long has it been?”

“Only a few hours,” Keith answers, nodding towards the window. Outside, the sky is streaked a deep orange, on the cusp of sunset. Lance closes his eyes.

Maybe this is just a dream, he thinks. Everything that’s happened today - it’s all so outlandish Lance can’t help but imagine what kind of fever dream this is. First a cyborg, then Union soldiers trying to blow them up - and now laying injured in who-knows-where with a migraine that puts the ache in his chest to shame.

“Why didn’t you just leave me there?” Lance asks suddenly, looking back to Keith. Keith’s eyebrow rises slightly.

“I couldn’t just leave you there. They would have killed you.”

“That shouldn’t matter to you,” Lance says, and how ironic the situation is, really. Just a few hours before with the roles reversed… A grin erupts across Lance’s lips. “...You have a crush on me, don’t you.”

Keith’s jaw falls open, anger flashing across his face. “ What ?”

“Well, it only makes sense,” Lance continues with a childish smile. “It would have been easier for you to just leave me back there and let me die. Admit it - you’re deeply in love with me.”

Keith looks as though he’s come face to face with a skunk with a raised tail. “I think you’re still a little confused from the accident,” he says. Lance can’t tell if the blush across his cheeks is out of frustration or embarrassment. “You’re in a lot of shock from your injury.”

And maybe Keith’s right - maybe Lance still is. But the antic lessens the tension in the air by a little bit, and Lance sighs.

“So… why were those guys after you, anyway?” He chooses his words carefully, looking up to Keith to see how much the cyborg will reveal. As Lance had expected, it turns out to not be very much.

“I’m a cyborg,” the other states simply, playing with the zipper on his coat. “It’s just what Union soldiers do.”

“Yeah, normal soldiers,” Lance retorts. “Those guys were Special Forces. There’s no special reason a Special Forces team was deployed?”

Keith shoots a chilly glare at Lance. “Even if there was, it’s none of your business.”

Finding a reserve of strength, Lance pushes himself up onto his elbows, shifting so he’s looking at Keith face-to-face. His chest is twinging in soreness, but he pushes it away to focus on the cyborg.

“Listen,” he begins, jabbing a finger into Keith’s side. “You ambushed me. You tased me. You held a knife to me. You got me nearly blown up .” He stops to let the words hang in the air before continuing. “So like it or not, Keith, this is my business now, too.”

The two survey each other for a moment, neither one refusing to look away first. Keith hesitates, chewing his lip. Somewhere far away, Lance hears a flurry of seagulls call out to one another as he waits for the other to crack. Finally, the cyborg gives in.

Alright ,” he says, and Lance’s smile grows. “But you cannot hold me accountable for what happens from now on. You’re putting yourself in this mess. It’d be easier to just walk away.”

“That didn’t stop you,” Lance remarks and satisfies in the way Keith’s eyes narrow. “You could have left me behind, but you didn’t. You brought me here and saved my life.”

“This is entirely different,” Keith says with a breathy huff. “Don’t try to compare the two; it’s not the same.”

“Well, whatever you say, Grumpy Pants,” Lance chuckles and falls back onto the bed. He stares at the ceiling, wondering what God, or force of nature decided this was how his weekend was going to go. It’s definitely no night at the movies with Hunk and Pidge. Lance shoots up at the sudden thought. “Hey, you still want your arm fixed?”

Keith gives him a blank look. “...Uh, yeah? Of course I do.”

“Then it’s a deal: your arm for some answers.” Lance holds an arm out to Keith. It’s the third time today he’s done that, but this time is different. This time it’s in confidence, and Keith takes it willingly.

“Deal.”