Whatever Lance had been expecting, it really, really hadn’t been this.
He’d followed Keith eagerly, despite his confusion as they wound downwards into an area of the Castle he’d never traversed much. They hurried past the cryopods and the medical bay, finally slowing in a hall that wasn’t much higher than the lion bays. They reached a door, and Keith paused, seeming to hesitate for the first time since they’d started moving.
“Listen, I.. I need you to understand something, Lance.” He shifted on his feet again, fingers running together. “This isn’t easy for me to trust someone else with, okay?” Lance nodded, watching Keith as he continued to fidget. “So. Please, just.. don’t freak out.”
“Okay?” Lance answered, trying to ignore the sudden clench of nerves in his stomach. The Blade gave him a little smile, squeezing his hand, before letting go to touch the door panel. It beeped quietly, opening to low light as Keith raised a finger to his lips. Be quiet.
The room was different from any of the others Lance had seen. Everything had a softer feeling to it, from the give of the floor to the rounded edges of the counters and low table. Blankets were strewn about the room, over the backs of chairs and across the squishy-looking cushions, ending in a massive pile across a large bed in the right corner. A projector of some sort shaped stars across the ceiling, the occasional streak of color flashing through it as a lion made its way across the pretend galaxy. Lance’s eyes followed Blue as her image flew by, skating through the stars before hovering above the bed. It was then, as the tiny Blue purred and circled again, that he saw it.
It wasn’t just blankets on the bed.
Curled up in the center, snuggled between layers of plush fabrics, was a small, lavender shape. Lance could just make out the fluff-tipped ears that poked out, the edge of a little jawline, and what felt like the tiniest clawed hand gripping the covers. It was tiny - they were tiny. They couldn’t be any bigger than a 4 or 5 year old back home, and Lance’s heart stuttered as he wondered just how young a Galra must be to be that small - because there was no way this was anything else.
It all fell into place. The questions Keith had been asking. The supplements from Ulaz. His absence from training, why he was never in his room anymore. The way he’d frantically darted away from the bridge the second the alarms went off.
The bundle that Regris had carried from the ship.
“You have a freakin’ KID?!” He somehow managed, despite how short his breath felt.
Hssshhh! Keith hissed at him, eyes wide. He reached a hand over Lance’s mouth, trying to quiet him down, but the damage had been done. The little form twitched, head raising as a pair of sleepy golden eyes blinked into view.
“Kee..?” The voice was tiny too, barely more than a whisper as the kid rubbed at their eyes. They blinked again, eyes finally seeming to focus as they woke. Their tired gaze fell on him, and their body went stiff.
They stared at him, and he stared right back. This. Holy shit. This was a nursery. That was a little Galra. Keith was keeping a baby Galra in the castle, and no one knew about it!
Enthralled by the sheer ridiculousness of this discovery, Lance found himself stepping forward before he could think. Like a switch flipping, the kit’s entire demeanor crumbled inwards. Their clawed hands pulled the blankets tighter around them, ears drawn back against their head as they seemed to shrink. They pressed down, flat against the mattress with fur bristling, and a quiet, high-pitched keen echoed in the room. Lance froze, steps halting as he realized what emotion he recognized in those wide, gold eyes.
The poor thing was absolutely terrified.
“Hey, little birdie.” It took Lance a moment to register that it had been Keith, speaking those words. His voice was so startlingly different, soft and slow, and nothing like the brash young man he was used to. He watched, filled with some form of awe as Keith moved past him, approaching the little Galra with one hand outstretched. “It’s okay. He’s with me. I promise.” His fingers traced the edge of their ear, curling in to run through the white fluff around their jaw. The transformation was instant - their entire frame seemed to melt as they turned their head into his palm, eyes fluttering closed as they nuzzled into his palm. He ran a thumb across their cheek, smiling as it ruffled the velvet fur there.
“Good girl,” Keith murmured, so low it was almost unheard. It was a quiet moment, and though Lance knew it was not for him, he felt his heart ache as he looked at them. He thought of his own mother, and wondered if they had looked so soft when she’d comforted him long ago.
“Sorry to startle you,” he continued, hand moving down to rest on her small shoulder. “I wanted you to meet someone.” Her ears twitched, gaze drifting past Keith to settle on Lance again. She still looked nervous, eyes narrowing slightly at the unfamiliar face, but she was no longer trying to become one with the mattress, so Lance counted it as a win.
“This is Lance.” To Lance’s surprise, she seemed to perk up at his name. She sat up, slowly, blanket still tucked around her shoulders as she tilted her head at him. Something about the way her eyes glimmered up at him, curiosity beginning to stir in them, immediately ensnared him.
“Blue one,” she said, voice barely above a whisper. Keith chuckled, eyes flicking in Lance’s direction just long enough to catch the surprise across his face.
“Yeah, that’s right.” Keith shifted out of his crouch beside her, moving to sit on the bed and wrap an arm around her. As she snuggled into his side, he looked up, free hand raising to motion him over. Lance carefully approached, movements slow as she watched his every move. He kneeled down where Keith had been, and though the little cub still leaned back at his approach, there was still a hint of excitement to her.
“Lance… this is Jaybird.”
“Hi, Jaybird,” Lance said softly. He extended one hand, knuckles first, as if meeting a stray dog. It seemed the appropriate move, however, as Jay leaned forward to examine the limb. She gave it a delicate sniff, hesitating, before placing her own tiny, soft hand in his. He smiled gently back at her.
“Lance does really well with kits. I’m sure you’ll like him a lot.” She gave a tiny nod in response.
Lance slowly moved onto the bed, watching Jay closely to make sure she was okay with him. She pressed a bit closer to Keith, but otherwise stayed where she was. She.. wow, she really was little. Being next to Keith and still looking so small only accentuated the fact.
“How are you?” He finally settled on. This was, apparently, not the right thing say. She lowered her head, ears tucking back against her skull as she looked away. “Oh, okay, it’s fine. Here, uh-” He wiggled himself back up against the wall, leaving a few feet between himself and the others. Keith winced, looking at Lance apologetically as Jay stayed curled up, but he just shook his head. He’d dealt with shy kids before. He could do this. “Why don’t we just sit and be quiet, for a little while? Yeah.”
So they sat there, quietly, for longer than a little while. Keith kept murmuring words of encouragement to Jay, and she kept peeking up at Lance, ducking back down whenever he looked back. Lance kept quiet, offering the occasional smile when he noticed her looking - and if she was slowly peeling herself away from Keith, creeping in his direction? He pretended not to notice. It was only once she set a hand gently on his leg, touch hesitant but there, that he spoke again.
“Hi,” he said, still smiling as he looked down at her. She stared back up at him, this time, and he swore the stars glittering in her eyes were more than just a reflection.
“...hi,” she whispered. They held for a moment, just staring at each other, before Jay’s courage waned, and she tucked her face into his side.
All at once, he felt the familiar, roaring fire of Red rise in his chest. Her growl resonated in his ears, rumbling all through his being as he felt her looking through his eyes at this little thing. Mine too, she seemed to say. Small, but strong. Important. Protect her. Lance couldn’t agree more.
_ _ _
When all was said and done, Lance had managed to coax Jay completely out of the nest, and into his lap. She was curled half on, half beside him, having lost her fight against sleep as she lay there. He ran his fingers through her mane, admiring its softness. It didn’t seem like it was quite as thick as it should be, but Lance found himself admiring it anyway. He smiled down at her.
“Soooo,” he said, keeping his voice quiet enough to let Jay sleep. “You. Have a kid.” Keith said nothing for a moment, eyes ghosting over the pair beside him. He nodded.
“Yeah,” he replied, voice just as soft. “I guess I do.” Lance exhaled sharply.
“What the fuck, man. That’s-” He held up his hands at Keith’s immediate shift in expression. “I mean she’s great, I love her, but-” He glanced down, rubbing the velvet edge of Jay’s ear as he spoke. “That’s a lot. For anyone.” That got a dry chuckle, Keith reaching up to run fingers through his hair.
“Believe me, I know. She’s a handful even on her good days.” Lance thought about that. Thought about days since Keith’s return where the Blade had been constantly out of sorts, eyes always drifting to doorways, vanishing the second he had a chance only to reappear far later. He could only guess what the bad days for someone like Jaybird entailed - he couldn’t imagine that would be easy to handle. Especially alone.
“So why didn’t you say anything?” He asked, unable to hold the question in any longer. Keith sighed, leaning back against the wall and staring up at the star projection that still shone above them.
“I wanted to,” he admitted, eyes not leaving the twisting shape of Red above him. “But this whole thing is really new. I just wanted some time to figure it out. Besides.. you’ve met her now.” Keith glanced down at her, entire demeanor softening with just that action. “She’s.. she has special needs. She gets so scared so easily, and there’s just, a whole list of shit that could set her off.” He looked back at Lance, pausing, before his eyes returned to the stars. “I can’t just throw her into life on the ship and expect her to do okay. The others mean well, and yeah, they’d want to help, but that’s the problem. They’d want to help all the time. We don’t - she doesn’t need that. She needs quiet, and time.”
Time. Lance remembered the soft rumble of Ulaz’s voice in their overheard conversation, a comfort meant for more than just Keith. So much of that made sense now, and he found himself agreeing with Keith’s decision more easily than he’d expected.
“I understand,” he said, nodding slowly to himself. “So, I guess.. thank you, for trusting me with her.” Keith’s smile was soft, eyes shining with relief, and he nodded in return.
With her still curled against his lap, Lance took a moment to really look Jaybird over. She was a familiar lavender color, probably not many shades off from Ulaz, and one of the fluffier Galra he’d seen. Longer, white fur wrapped around her face, settling down across her neck and shoulders like a tiny mane, but it was oddly patchy. Her ears, comically oversized, were darker, leading down to two pointed stripes across her forehead, and there was a circle of pale color around her nose and mouth. What really caught his interest, however, were the long, red marks leading down from each eye. The one on her left cheek stretched from eye to jaw unbroken - the one on her right, though, was broken in half by a thin strip of purple.
He'd only ever seen one other Galra with markings like that.
“She looks like Kolivan,” Lance commented, tilting his head to get a better look at the markings. Keith raised an eyebrow.
“What?” He scoffed, staring at Lance like he’d just grown a second head. “She looks nothing like him.” Well, okay, he had a point. Kolivan had little fur outside the ears and he definitely wasn’t as soft-faced or feline as Jay.
“I meant the marks,” he clarified. “I’ve never seen another Galra that has the red like that.” Keith stilled, expression shifting into something sour.
“Oh. Uh, yeah. They're not… very common.”
“They’re called mevhak.” Keith seemed to stumble over the pronunciation. “Omen marks. They’re meant to be a fortune of sorts.” He lifted a hand, moving it across his face as if tracing out familiar markings. “Ones like Kolivan’s are a blessing, said to bring the bearer strength or luck. But, marks like Jay’s..” He paused, hand hovering over his right cheek. “Broken marks are the worst of omens.” His hand dropped away, other fisted in the blankets. “It’s said that those with broken marks will always be followed by misfortune and misery.”
Lance knew plenty about superstition. Every earth culture was rampant with them, after all, even his own, but he’d always taken things with a grain of salt. Sure, ghosts were one thing, but ladders and black cats? If every superstition were true, you’d never be able to take a step in any direction without bringing ruin to your family’s life.
“Yeah, but folks aren’t really stupid enough to believe that shit, right?” He asked, looking at Keith doubtfully. Keith was silent. His fist tightened in the blankets, jaw tightening as he seemed to fight with himself, and Lance immediately went cold.
“Some believe it enough to sell off their own kit.” His voice was stiff, full of anger and laced with grief. Lance’s chest felt like ice, freezing over him and dripping down his spine.
“Sell off??” Keith hushed him again, reaching a hand forward to stroke across Jay’s forehead as she stirred. She gave a quiet whimper, nuzzling into his hand, and Keith only spoke again once she had quieted.
“We think. It’s… hard to know for sure, how she ended up.. where she was.” The ice settling across him felt like it was hardening into slivers, cutting in and making it hard to breathe. He’d been so distracted over Jay being here, he hadn’t thought about learning where she’d been before. Now he wasn't sure he ever wanted to.
“Well,” he said, trying not to let the shake in his voice show. Like hell was he letting that sit. “It’s obviously bullshit. If you ask me, she’s one of the luckiest Galra in the universe right now.” Keith looked back at Lance, brow furrowing as he cocked his head. “She’s got you now, right?” Keith’s surprise was obvious across his face. Lance grinned back, ice melting and warmth bubbling up inside him as Keith looked fondly at Jaybird. The former paladin smiled too.