They are winning, and Lance is in a row. Shooting down Galra fighters is more satisfying than usual this day, and he will have to admit later that he got a little cocky. Now, though, Shiro is giving him orders in a scolding tone from the Black Lion.
“Lance, don’t get too far. Let Lotor’s fleet handle Darek. Stay in formation.”
Maybe because the dude they are chasing has given them so much trouble with his strategy, forcing them to disarm Voltron and scatter, maybe because he is nervous and hasn’t been sleeping well for days, or maybe because he just isn’t up to hear Shiro ordering him around this particular day… A lot of maybes could help explain why, instead of reluctantly obey as he would normally do, Lance decides to rebel at that moment, marking the beginning of the craziest day of his life.
Blissfully ignorant of what’s to come, holding Red’s controls with fiery passion, he smirks while turning away and putting his Lion’s renowned speed to good use.
“C’mon, he’s right there, I can just tail him for a while and he’ll be trapped!” he says.
“Lance, come back immediately, you are reaching the border of the system and we talked about this, that’s where--” Allura grunts, interrupted by an attack, forgetting the rest of her scolding. “They surrounded me! Lotor, they brought reinforcements. Darek is retreating, he’s reaching the border. Tell your people to mind their attacks, we can’t damage any structure there.”
“Understood, Princess. They will catch him outside Sakh’iru,” answers the Emperor’s voice.
One of the many Galra commanders who were trying to revolt against Lotor, Darek, had apparently decided that he wanted to put his claws on shoc’tor technology, and had been reckless enough to invade their system, Sakh’iru, knowing fully well that it was in the very heart of the Coalition and they were one of Allura’s oldest allies. Normally, Lotor would deal with him by himself, but given the circumstances, and to avoid scaring the people living there with imperial Galra cruisers crossing their skies, Team Voltron had agreed to help chase the enemy out. They had to be especially careful because, contrary to most systems, almost every planet and satellite on this one hosted rich and prosperous shoc’tor colonies. They had been instructed to avoid causing any damage to their people, buildings and, most importantly, to their sacred places.
Breaking the planned formation, Lance is reaching the border, near the orbit of the last planet of the system and, in his adrenaline rush, he vaguely thinks of how much he would like to show Keith what he can do with Red. They are flying better than ever, and he is chasing the commander at full speed when he detects that more reinforcements are right behind him. He could dodge them easily, but then he notices that the leader ship isn’t aiming at him: it’s aiming at the planet below. A classic, dirty Galra distraction.
“Well, here goes nothing,” mutters Lance, remembering the orders to avoid any damage to the shoc’tor colonies. He brakes, violently turning back and accelerating to take down the ship before the cannon finishes charging, but instinct tells him it is too late. The cannon is bursting with energy before his eyes, and during those few seconds he stops to decide what to do, only one word crosses his mind. Sacrifice.
There’s something eerily familiar in this situation, but he doesn’t know why. However, his body recognizes it as the right answer and, acting rather than thinking, he just sets full speed to intercept the attack with Red itself, a howl escaping from his chest as he puts all his strength into piloting the Lion forward, hearing the rest of the paladins yell in his ear questions he can’t understand, and then the impact just numbs him.
Red is pushed by the force of the cannon and is falling right towards the planet’s only moon. Trying to take control of his body and his Lion again, Lance picks the levers but it’s useless: Red is precipitating to the satellite, and Lance can’t do anything but try to maneuver him to his best abilities to placate the impact as he falls, shrieking. They crash loudly on the surface.
The collision is so violent that Lance is out cold for at least a pair of minutes. Then, dizzy, he cracks his eyes open and checks if he can move again. His neck and head hurt, but he tries to focus his gaze to look forward. There is dust dissipating around the windshield and he tries to move his pained neck to see where he has crashed. Squinting, he only distinguishes white grass covering the ground, from where tall and thin trees grow everywhere. He may have destroyed a good amount of them in his landing but, to his relief, he apparently hadn’t destroyed any construction.
The comm is beeping obnoxiously in his ear, and he presses it.
“Lance! What the hell happened?!” asks Pidge’s voice, worried.
“I… fell in some kind of moon. The Galra were going to shoot the planet and I—”
“WHAT?! You fell on the moon?!” Allura is yelling and Lance winces. His head is starting to hurt really bad.
“Oh no. Lance, don’t try to take off yet, keep calm and listen to me…” Coran sounds suddenly scared.
The recommendation comes a little too late because Lance is already trying to launch Red and go back to the battlefield, but even though the controls are responding, Red seems to be glued to the ground. He can feel his Lion’s uneasiness.
“Not like I can leave, something got us stuck to the ground, what is this?” asks Lance.
“No, don’t try it. Listen, Lance, descend from Red unarmed and slowly. Put your hands joined in front of you and don’t raise your head when they approach you,” instructs him Coran, and Lance’s eyes are now wide open.
“What? You make it sound like someone is going to take me prisoner, aren’t the shoc’tor our allies? I just saved their planet, for quiznak’s sake!”
“You crashed into their sacred place, Lance! I told you to get away from the border!” nags Allura, and noise from the fierce battle can be heard even through the comm.
“WHAT?! You never explained that! But, whatever, the Galra were going to shoot the place! Did anyone take care of that?”
“I’m on it, Lance,” replies Shiro, and his voice sounds more severe than usual.
They are making Lance feel dumb and it’s so unfair. He had thrown himself to save an entire colony from harm, and the shoc’tor were supposed to be pacific, super technological geniuses of some sort. Wouldn’t they understand such a simple thing? And even if they didn’t, shouldn’t at least the team have his back? It wasn’t like he did it to be praised, but would it kill them to say “thanks”? He may have disobeyed, but it was this kind of attitude that actually made him act a bit erratically lately. Falling into his new dark mood, he can’t help but remember their stranded member. Somehow, Keith’s name is always linked to the word sacrifice… What would he say, if he was here? Would he scold him too?
His broody ruminations are interrupted by sudden movement outside and he flinches so hard he almost falls from his seat. In front of his windshield and standing over Red’s nose and paws are a group of humanoid creatures, wearing creepy white masks and covered in long, bright clothes. He didn’t even see them approach. Breathing raggedly, Lance stutters into his comm:
“G-guys… some creepy dudes are surrounding me…”
“They must be the priests of Sakh’ir… do as I told you, quickly. The longer you take, the more you will disrespect them,” Coran presses him, and Lance swallows.
“Oh man, be careful out there,” says Hunk, scared. The red paladin sighs, exasperated. His head is throbbing and a bunch of psychos await him outside.
“Worst day ever,” he mumbles as the hatch opens. Shivering a little, he does as Coran instructed: hands joined, he lets them rest in front of his body and slowly walks around Red, feeling the ground crunching below his feet. He frowns, realizing that the grass is more like a tangle of dense yellowish herbs that are so pale they look white from afar and so weak that they break under his weight like thin crystal ornaments. Just great, more things to ruin on the way to meet the weirdos with the masks, Lance thinks.
Not daring to raise his gaze, he stops when he sees the fringe of a robe in front of his feet. He swallows again and waits for something to happen.
“Gaisu, Paladin of Voltron. Please tell us your first gift, to address you by it,” says a sweet, gurgling voice. That doesn’t make it any less intimidating, thinks Lance, trying to understand what he has to do.
“D-do you mean like, my name?” he asks, shy.
“…Yes,” confirms the voice.
“Lance. Lance McClain. I’m the Red paladin of Voltron, as you can uh… probably notice,” says Lance, furrowing his eyebrows in fear of having messed up.
“Yes. We can tell. The Red Lion has honored us with a… sudden visit,” says another gurgling voice, deeper than the first one. That one is pissed and Lance swallows hard, for the third time.
“I’m sorry about this. I was trying to defend the planet and they shot me… I-I didn’t mean to…”
“We know. Please raise your face. We wish to see you,” says the first voice, and Lance fearfully raises his eyes until he can see the creatures up close.
They are humanoids, around his same height, but it's impossible to say anything else about their bodies. They are fully dressed in long, pale robes and many colorful scarves and fabrics, covering their heads and what had to be their shoulders and waists. Their white masks look like porcelain, only the silhouette of two big eyes carved in the middle of them and firmly attached to their faces, the rest of their features impossible to distinguish. They look like they’re fresh out of a horror film and Lance has to resist the impulse to step back.
“Well done, Lance. Now obey whatever they tell you to do. I’ll try to contact them later, as soon as I can,” whispers Coran in his comm and Lance hears him hang up. The paladin just stands there, tense. He is completely alone, and that realization is scary.
“Welcome, paladin Lance. We are the priests of Sakh’ir, the eternal cycle,” greets him the first creature, “we are the ones among our people who have been chosen to take care of this sacred land. We do not seek to harm you…”
“I-I know, thanks. I apologize again…” begins to say Lance, but he is interrupted.
“… but we cannot allow you to leave, either.”
“WHAT?! I mean… what?” Lance lowers his tone, ashamed.
“We do not take offense in your landing, but this is a sacred place and visitors only come here for one specific reason: to celebrate the aure.”
“The aure?” repeats Lance, confused. All creatures are quiet for a few seconds and, for some weird reason, he feels like they are smirking under their masks. He had to be imagining it.
“The aure is a ceremony of our people, and can only be celebrated here.” The alien priest raises one hand, inviting him to follow them. Lance obeys and he can finally take a good look at his surroundings, realizing that it actually screams ‘sacred place’. Under a cloudy, pale sky, the horizon only shows a road framed by trees that, in closer inspection, are just many slim vines intertwined, and they look as if they were made of condensed matter: too solid to be liquid, too liquid to be solid, but they just grow from the crunchy ground as if they were an extension of it, colored in gradients from pale on the base to warm oranges, yellows and reds on the top. A soft wind moves their big, round leaves, that hang like shiny bells everywhere, producing a continuous crystal sound that soothes Lance and is making him feel more relaxed. It’s like a post-modern painting of a surreal forest in autumn, and the boy vaguely thinks that it was worth falling there just to appreciate the view.
The priests walk around him, and the one who had spoken first continues their explanation. Lance makes an effort to pay attention, distracted by the scenery.
“Every member of our society has been blessed with the gift of an unbreakable bond to be found during their lifetime. Even before being born, we are destined to find our aure over and over, as long as the eternal cycle continues.”
“You mean like… soulmates, or something?” asks Lance. One of the priests makes an irritated sound and the paladin fears to have offended them.
“We do not know about such denomination. It is just aure: the parties and the ceremony are named like that because they are a whole,” explains the priest.
“I see, sorry,” mutters Lance, wondering what does that have to do with him being forbidden to leave. As if reading his mind, the priest says:
“This is the only place where the aure nexus can be forged through a ceremony that makes it indissoluble. That is why, even if this is a shoc’tor tradition, our sacred place has one absolute rule: anyone who steps in here cannot leave without his aure.”
“I’m sorry?” Lance asks, wondering if his brain is malfunctioning because what he’s understanding from this explanation is that he can’t leave without getting alien-married to an alien-soulmate or something like that, and that would be preposterous.
“It is an unbreakable rule, paladin Lance. You cannot leave this sacred place without performing the rite. Do you know who could your aure be?” asks the priest, and Lance feels his blood descending to his feet. What the hell…?
“I’m sorry, uhm, priest? But if I fell here by accident, wouldn’t that mean I didn’t come here to get ma—I mean, aured?” stammers Lance, trying to be reasonable. They couldn’t force him to accept such a ridiculous condition, right?
“But you initiated the rite yourself, paladin Lance,” says the priest, a patient tone in their gurgling voice.
“Wha—No?” denies Lance.
“Yes. When you touched the ma’kiya, you shared with this sacred land your own life force, as an offering to begin the ritual. We did not expect that,” answers the alien. Horrified, Lance asks:
“W-what’s the ma’kiya?”
The priest stops, tilting their head to one side, and points to Lance’s feet. He looks down, to the crunchy crystal herbs he had been casually stepping on. He notices that just around his feet, it projects a soft blue aura now, and his breathing starts to feel uneven.
“If you try to leave, without the shared cycling energy of both you and your aure, you will not survive the detachment. So, paladin Lance, we assume you have a partner to perform the ceremony, correct? Unless you mean to offer your life to the study of Sakh’ir. Unusual, but we could never refuse,” declares the priest, and Lance’s brain starts working at full speed.
If he didn’t perform the rite, he only had two choices: stay there forever to become a monk for an alien religious thingy, or go kamikaze trying to escape and be drained of vital force like a raisin until he was dead.
Hell. No. To both options.
Clenching his jaw and praying that they didn’t have the ability to detect lies, he answers:
“O-of course I have a partner. Yeah, I do, I’ll call them at once.”
“You knew you were too close to the border.”
“We told you to come back.”
“Yep, that you did.”
“And none of us can go get you now.”
“What?! What do you mean?” asks Lance.
“I mean exactly that,” says Allura, angry. “We can’t go get you now. I’ll see what I can do, but we have our hands full here right now!”
“Darek brought too many reinforcements,” explains Shiro. “We barely managed to get them away from your location and we’re currently fighting him on the other side of the system. We can’t go right now.”
“You gotta be kiddin’ me! What if we need to form Voltron? You can’t just leave me here!” says Lance, desperate.
“We are still fighting, we can’t go play house with you!” grumbles Pidge, sounding a bit strained. The mission was supposed to be easy and instead, it was a mess. And Lance isn’t in the mood to admit he may have some guilt in that, not with so much on his plate.
“Guys, you don’t get it, if my whatever-it’s-called, fated partner doesn’t come here, I can’t go! They said I’m gonna die if I try to leave, and I can only stay here to be a monk!” Lance is sure they aren’t really understanding the seriousness of his situation, especially after hearing at least three unidentified snorts in the line. That had to mean that even Shiro could be mocking him. At this point, he’s already fuming.
“I will contact the shoc’tor personally, to see if we can arrive at an agreement,” now Coran’s voice is in his comm, “but you will have to wait, young man. Use that time to meditate on the risks of trying to show off your maneuvers in the middle of a crucial battle.”
“Wha— but I had no choice! Besides, this is all YOUR fault, Coran!” Lance yells and then looks around to see if the priests are near.
“How is it my fault?” asks the Altean, scandalized.
“You told me to step outside! If I hadn’t listened to your awful instructions I would be out of here already! Touching the… quiznaking grass of this moon is what initiates the rite!” barks the paladin, raged.
“Oh. Oh, my… I see. I guess our references on shoc’tor culture are a little outdated.” Coran sounds guilty and Lance hears him clear his throat. “Well, since you already lied to them, we just need someone to go and perform the rite with you, yes? I assume anyone will suffice?”
The Altean sounds very concerned now, and the red paladin rolls his eyes. Finally.
“I don’t care who, send Allura or even Hunk! I don’t think they mind who I consider my soulmate!” whispers Lance, angrily.
“Woah, dude!” exclaims Hunk.
“Me?” Allura sounds scared.
“C’mon, we just gotta fake it! What’s wrong with you?!” mumbles Lance, pissed off before the lack of enthusiasm of his teammates. He wasn’t such a bad catch for them to react like that, anyway.
“Do not fret, we will send someone as soon as possible, but you will have to wait for a while, we can’t do much right now. Well, then, be patient and don’t offend the priests. Goodbye!”
“Wha—Coran?!” Lance hears the ‘click’ that cuts all communication with the team. He’s sure they will have the greatest time shooting Galra fighters while laughing at him for having to get married to not die. They won’t let him live that one down, ever.
Defeated, Lance sighs and looks around the place where the priests accommodated him. He is sitting on the edge of a curved white terrace in front of a beautiful view. The place faintly reminds him of Japanese traditional houses: the terrace is more like a low, open corridor surrounding a garden that has a spring in the center, and the building only has one floor, sliding doors and minimalistic decoration. Similarities end here, though, because the building is inside a dome and everything is white, made of asymmetric metallic panels apparently glued together by the same unidentified substance of the trees outside, that flows all over the walls in scattered thin ducts, giving them the appearance of transparent vines crawling everywhere. All doors are automatic and light seems to come from the walls themselves. The place consists of just one big hall with little furniture and two doors on each side, one of them the one from where he came in. In the center of the hall, there is a white well with geometrical carvings, filled to the brim with clear water.
The structure is beautiful, but Lance feels like a caged animal. The dome provides clean air and after taking off his helmet, he notices a sweet scent everywhere. But no matter how calming is the aroma nor the sound of the leaves in the garden, he can’t find peace. He should be fighting with his team, not waiting to be rescued by a soulmate that probably doesn’t even exist.
The thought makes his stomach clench. He just has to fake a relationship with any of his friends and get linked to them on this strange, alien ceremony that shouldn’t mean anything at all, but… it’s so weird.
He is not in a good place currently, and maybe that’s why he just can’t laugh off this ridiculous situation. He is sad, he is resentful and it isn’t a good moment to risk being tied forever to one of his teammates. Yeah, the idea of being “destined” to someone is kinda cute, but what if those aliens and their strange traditions really bonded him forever to one of his pals? Not only that, but what if his destined partner really exists and he ruins their meeting forever? He doesn’t know what consequences could bring them this charade, and now he starts to fear them. Sure, being married to Allura, for example, doesn’t sound so bad. He has been crushing on her and a few others for a while and he thinks he should be taking it easy, but instead, the idea is upsetting his stomach, as if his whole body rejected that result.
Why? Why can’t he think about his team without feeling sick? It’s like he can’t focus on anyone, but an empty space on his body is growing, like a missing puzzle piece, making him feel cold from his feet and up. Lances hunches a little, putting a hand on his belly.
He's feeling a bit dizzy, maybe after so much action and the hit on his head, that still hurts. Even though inside the dome there’s no wind, the scent of the trees intensifies and he feels his mind momentarily blank. Uh, what was he thinking about before? He tries to remember but it’s hard, because suddenly, there’s something bouncing into his thoughts, erasing the rest. He can’t tell what it is, more a feeling than an image, but he can visualize something black waving, messing his ideas, leaving in him a familiar mix of sensations he can’t label. Lance blinks twice and he can see the garden again, the vision quickly vanishing just like it appeared. Frowning, he lies down on the corridor, crossing one leg over the other, sighing. He's just so tired and mortified.
Drowsiness is overcoming him, and his last thought before dozing off is that he would have to convince the team to not tell this to anyone. If his shameful episode reached Matt Holt’s ears, the entire rebel force would know and he would be the laughing stock (again). It could even reach Keith and the Blades…
And if it reached Keith he would be so ashamed… so embarrassed… so…
His eyelids are heavy, and he just closes his eyes, feeling suddenly better. The pain vanishes and he feels light and comfortable enough to fall soundly asleep.
“Paladin Lance. Please wake up. Your partner has arrived.”
Lance opens his eyes and sits up, startled. He finds the priest that had explained the situation and who presented themselves as Yaneya in front of him, waking him up.
“My what?” asks Lance, disoriented. He's sure he was dreaming something nice, but can’t remember exactly what. Yaneya tilts their head again.
“Your partner. Your aure.”
“Oh. OH, RIGHT, I mean, of course!” Lance stands up, remembering why he is there in the first place. He wishes he could see Yaneya’s expression, fearing to blow his own lie, but the priest just handles him a bunch of clothes.
“Please, change into the ceremonial robes. You must cover your body completely until the end of the rite.”
“I see. And, uhm… What about my partner?”
“You will meet here once you both change.”
“Alright, then… can I speak to them before? Like, to explain...” Lance needs a moment alone with whoever came to get him, to know who is he marrying and ask how much he’d be owing them. If it was Allura, it could be a life supply of milkshakes. If it was Hunk or Pidge, he’d probably be blackmailed into folding laundry and carrying stuff until his last breath.
“You will have plenty of time to speak once the ceremony begins. It is a crucial part of it,” explains Yaneya, and Lance feels again the strange certainty that they are smirking under the mask.
Trying really hard to not look horrified, Lance nods and the priest leaves the place through the door on the left of the hall. As soon as they cross it and it shuts in a silent slide, Lance tramples to reach his helmet and turns on his comm.
“Hello, Coran? Guys?” he whispers into it, in vain. The comm is completely dead. Could it be part of the rite to block any communication to the exterior? Lance lets out a panicked sigh. He doesn’t even know how much time he has slept, if the battle is over, anything at all. The sky above the dome looks the same as before: pale and cloudy as if covered by a high mist. He hopes this isn’t one of those places where days last years. He hates those.
Looking at the robes, Lance decides to stop prolonging the inevitable. He enters the round hall, the sliding doors of the garden closing behind him, and he gets rid of his paladin suit. He immediately notices two things: one, his body is feeling remarkably better, and two, that the place is very cold: he tries to get dressed as quick as his trembling hands allow him, deciphering the correct way to wear his new attire. The texture is weird and Lance realizes that at least the inner robe is made of the same watery material that connects the walls and the trees outside. Whatever it is, it gives him a scare: as soon as he slides the robes over his head, it glues to his figure like a latex suit on the inside from his neck to his feet, including his hands, letting long pieces of the cloth fall on the outside, from his arms, chest and back, giving the fake appearance of a loose, fresh garment.
“Liquid, squishy, autonomous clothes. Great… just great…” grumbles Lance as he takes the blue and gold scarves. Even angry, he can’t deny the beauty of these ornaments: the vibrant blue of the fabric is decorated in complex embroidery patterns, all golden. Shrugging, he tries to imitate the way the priests put the colorful fabrics around their heads, shoulders and waists. Fortunately, those aren’t alive and stay where he puts them. He has no mirror to check himself but trusts that he did a good job.
There’s only one more thing: a circular piece of metal he suspects is a mask. Apprehensively, he takes it in his hands and tries to figure out how to put it on: it doesn’t have any way to attach it to his skin or hair. Frowning, he tries to fit the circle in front of his nose, and then he suffers another surprise attack: the white circle just glues to his skin and Lance feels as if he sank his head in cold water. Blinking, he touches his own face and notices that he can’t feel his features, as if they were plain, just like the shoc’tor priests, but it doesn’t hinder his vision at all. It’s like having his face permanently wet, and that’s all.
“Okay. Okay, liquid clothes, liquid face… what’s next?” mumbles Lance, pacing around the place, nervous. He's done, and his heart is beating like crazy. He shouldn’t be so nervous about this stunt, but he is. He feels like the protagonist of a movie where the bride is being forced to marry someone she doesn’t love. But this is the part where her true love should come rescue her… right?
Just when he is grabbing the scarf over his head to howl in utter desperation, he hears the door on the right slide, and his heart stops. He turns around and sees Yaneya entering the hall, followed by a figure dressed in the same robes and mask, wearing orange scarves. Every step the person gives ignites the lines of condensed material around their feet in reddish pulses that scatter and vanish all over the place.
They stop in front of Lance, and no one says anything for several seconds. Looking from one to the other, Lance realizes that Yaneya is probably waiting for them to greet each other, and he has to play his part. Convincingly.
“Uhm… hi honey,” says Lance tentatively, wondering who the hell is behind that mask and just how much will he wish to be dead after this.
But then the person speaks and his whole world turns upside down.
“…Hi.” A male voice. And an unmistakable one too, even though he hasn’t heard that voice in a while.
“You…” Lance says, but he stops his own mouth from ruining everything.
Holy quiznak, that’s Keith, the very Keith Kogane and Lance’s jaw almost drops to the floor under the creepy mask. Yaneya seems to still be waiting for something else, but his mind is blank… what the hell did these aliens expect from them? Public displays of affection?
Maybe that's it. Gulping and forcing his feet to move forward, he walks the two steps that separate them, noticing on the corner of his eye that the floor shines blue under his feet now. Right in front of Keith, he peeks at Yaneya, who is peacefully observing them and then, holding his breath, he hugs his fellow paladin. Even under their robes, Lance can feel the body of the boy tensing under the touch. The fact that the fabric of their robes seems to warm up as soon as they touch each other doesn’t help at all, either. Lance lets go immediately, looking at his arms. The warm sensation vanishes as soon as they break contact.
“We will leave for now, until the moment comes to initiate the ceremony,” says Yaneya.
“What?” asks Keith.
“When?” asks Lance, at the same time.
“Soon, we must get ready. For now, please share a moment alone to polish your bond in preparation.”
The alien leaves the room, being followed by Lance and Keith’s eyes, and the door closes.
Not a single sound is heard during what feels like an eternity, and Lance is painfully aware of the thumps in his chest, while he tries to understand what this new development makes him feel and do something about it. However, it’s Keith’s voice that finally breaks the silence, saying in a soft, rasping voice:
“What the fuck, Lance?”
Yeah, that’s a wonderful summary of this whole mess and for some reason sounds like the funniest thing Lance has ever heard, making him burst into laughter. Keith spreads his arms as if he can’t believe it.
“You’re laughing?! Seriously, what-the-fuck?!” asks Keith, pissed off, and his hands try to take off the mask. Lance is wheezing, holding his stomach, but even so, he extends one hand to grab Keith’s wrist and stop him from pulling the mask. The warmth is there again as long as they touch.
“N-no man, you could ruin it, don’t take it off,” he stutters, wishing he could wipe the tears on the corner of his eyes. Instead, they seem to melt into the mask.
“Not like I can, this thing doesn’t come off,” grumbles Keith, giving one last pull before letting his arms fall in defeat. He sits on the floor and crosses legs and arms.
“I want an explanation NOW,” he demands.
Lance hiccups one last time before he sits in front of Keith too. He doesn’t know what is making this situation so funny, after all, he is about to marry no other than his rival, but something about it is making Lance all jittery. It’s as if his dread melted and relief is the cause of his current smile. Maybe seeing someone so serious and grumpy stuck in the same shitty situation just makes it better…? Yeah, it had to be that.
“I don’t know where to start, pal. What did the guys tell you? They sent you, right?” he asks.
“They said you were in trouble and they couldn’t reach you. Something about being forced to marry in an alien ceremony and to please come get you,” mumbles Keith.
“Aww and you agreed? My savior!” jokes Lance, but Keith doesn’t answer anything. Is he sulking? Lance clears his throat, feeling nervous.
“Well… they weren’t wrong, I guess. But they omitted the best part,” he declares. His stomach feels tight and his hands tremble. “The only one who can rescue me is my fated partner and we uh, kinda… gotta get married to leave this place.”
Keith is frozen on his spot, and Lance makes and apologetical face, until he remembers the other won’t see it. He wishes he could know what kind of expression is Keith making under his mask, but then the Blade snaps out of his horrified pause and yells:
“WHAT THE FUCK, LANCE!”
“Shhh, they may hear you! Also, language?” whispers Lance. “I had to convince them that I have a partner to do this alien marriage thing!”
“But why me?!” asks Keith, in an enraged whisper too.
“I didn’t know it would be you! I thought it would be someone else from the team!” retorts the red paladin.
“Oh really, someone else from the team? Is that why you agreed to marry? Are you that desperate?”
“DUDE. You don’t get it at all.”
Lance swallows his offended pride and proceeds to explain Keith all he knows about the situation. He swears he can see the man frown under his mask.
“… And that means that I’m trapped too? I can’t leave without marrying you now?” he asks, after Lance finishes explaining.
“Yeah, pretty much. So, be kind to me darling, we are going to leave here directly to our honeymoon.”
Growling, Keith stands up and kicks the air, leaving Lance perplexed.
“Hey, it’s just a joke! You know this doesn’t mean anything, don’t you?”
“How do you know?” grumbles Keith.
“Well… they can’t force us to become soulmates, no matter how fancy their ceremony is. Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll find yours sooner or later if that’s your problem, just don’t come get married here…”
“Shut up,” snaps Keith, and he steps outside, to the garden. Lance watches him walk until he reaches the spring and stands there, hands on his waist and looking as if he is trying to take deep breaths.
Alright, he wasn’t expecting Keith to be happy about this, but watching him have an entire crisis over it hurts a bit. Was it really that awful to be linked to him?
… Well, yeah, of course it was. It was a forced alien marriage with unknown consequences. Anyone would be mad. Maybe the right question is why is HE feeling so relaxed about it. Before, when he was getting dressed, fear was crippling him. Now, he just wants to get over with it. Why…?
Following his partner, he steps outside too and stands by his side. Keith doesn’t move at all, watching the clear water in silence. Lance sighs, choosing his words carefully.
“Dude, I’m sorry. I never thought this could end like this, and never intended to get you involved,” he apologizes.
“It’s not… I’m not mad at you,” answers Keith. His voice sounds almost normal now.
“Then why are you so… uhm…” pissed, is the word Lance wants to use, but he is afraid to trigger another episode of rage. The Blade exhales a prolonged sigh.
“Forget it, Lance. Let’s just finish this, quick,” says Keith, now facing him.
“Okay… well, that’s the spirit, I guess,” mumbles Lance, lowering his gaze. For some reason, it’s hard to look at that cold mask. “We have to wait until they come back, though. So… how about catching up for now?”
“Yeah, like… how have you been, buddy? We haven’t heard a thing about you for a while. What you up to?” asks Lance, sitting on the border of the spring and forcing a casual and friendly tone. Because casual and friendly is what they both should be until all of this is over.
Keith relaxes his shoulders and imitates Lance, sitting on the ground too. The herbs crunch under their weight and Lance notices the colored auras under them. They shine in blue and red, just like inside the building, and where both touch they mix in a purple shade. He is about to comment on it, but Keith is already talking, a bit awkwardly at first, but then his words are flowing more easily and they get caught in an animated chat that extends for a good while.
At some point, Keith suddenly confesses that he has found his mother, and the conversation takes another turn, a more serious one. There is no sign of Yaneya yet, but Lance is getting comfortable, enjoying the great view under the dome and the sound of Keith’s voice. When he suddenly laughs at something Lance comments to lighten the mood, he feels a pinch near his navel that makes him touch his abdomen.
“You ok?” asks Keith, noticing the sudden gesture.
“Y-yeah, it’s nothing. Well, uhm... that’s a lot to digest in such a short time. Kudos to you for finding your mom, though, that’s awesome!”
“Yeah, I guess.” Keith sounds a bit insecure and Lance decides he won’t pressure him into that matter, even if he is really curious about it. He seems to be currently struggling with the issue, so he just changes the topic in a cheerful voice.
“Well, you're living full ninja style, and we thought that being a Paladin was cool enough… really impressive upgrade, Mullet,” says Lance, and he is sure Keith is smiling under his mask. That idea makes him irrationally happy.
“Yeah... Guess I’m living the dream,” Keith jokes back, to his surprise. Lance feels like his gaze could be fond, and that makes him blush. He is, for once, grateful for the damn mask.
“What about you?” asks Keith.
“Yeah, you and the guys. How is everyone doing at the Castle?” asks Keith, and then elbows him softly, noticing that Lance is taking a while to answer. “Are you ok?”
“Ah, yeah, sorry. Things are the same as always, I guess. It’s just… uhm…”
“Gaisu. Are you ready to begin the ceremony?”
They almost fall into the pond. Yaneya is kneeling right behind them and they didn’t even hear them come that close.
“Holy… I mean, yeah, we are,” stutters Lance, trying to keep a clean language in this sacred place. Yaneya is doing their classic questioning gesture.
“If you need more time…”
“No, no, we are ready, right Keith?” asks Lance, patting his robe in case anything is sticking to it.
“Y-yeah,” confirms Keith, standing up, tense again.
Yaneya seems to be scanning them with their covered eyes, and both boys stand there way too stiff, until the priest nods and gestures them to follow.
They enter the hall again, and the floor keeps doing the same thing, lightening up with every step they take. Lance notices that it doesn’t light under Yaneya’s feet. The priest stops in front of the well, and with their hands command the boys to stand on opposite sides of it.
“Aure, you are about to start the rite and renew your promised bond, as Sakh’ir, the eternal cycle, the first and last, has deemed for you.”
Lance swallows. It really is a wedding, it feels like one. He is really marrying Keith… he looks at his partner and feels his eyes on him too. What face is he making? Is he blushing and sweating like he is under the mask? Is he shivering too?
“You have offered a piece of your own life to feed this sacred land, and in return, Sakh’ir grants you the certainty that you will find each other again, this life and every life, to help each other transcend. May the cycle never break.”
Yaneya makes a pause and then seems to remember that these grooms aren’t shoc’tor and have no idea of what follows. In a whisper, they instruct them:
“Now you must put your hands in the water and repeat ‘may the cycle never break’.”
“Oh. Ok,” Lance sinks both hands in the cold water of the well, feeling it as if they weren’t covered. Keith does the same.
“Uhm, may the cycle never break,” he says.
“May the cycle never break,” repeats Keith, and Lance feels butterflies in his stomach. He faintly thinks of his family, and how his mom would cry watching this. With a knot in his throat, he shakes his head softly, trying to expel these ridiculous thoughts. That wasn’t… he wasn’t really getting married.
“Now you must drink and wait until you are ready for the consummation,” says Yaneya, and Lance stirs the waters with his sudden turn.
“Excuse me?! ‘Consummation’?!?” he asks, his face burning. Yaneya seems surprised.
“Yes, it is the final step. The most important, dare I say,” they confirm.
“B-but… we can’t!” stutters Lance, trying not to look at Keith, who is still gazing at him.
“You… can’t?” Yaneya asks, and Lance swallows. Oh no, he is blowing their cover…
“I-I mean, humans don’t… uhm, not in front of strangers, you know?” Lance tries to explain, and then seeks for Keith’s approval. “Right, honey?”
Keith is mute, his hands still on the water. Seeing that, Lance quickly puts them back in the well too, hoping to not ruin the ceremony.
“I see. But you will be alone, it is a private moment. After drinking from the well, you will spend a while sharing your partner’s rai, and sooner or later will feel compelled to bare everything you have to them.”
“Aaaaaaaaagh, c’mon!” croaks Lance, looking at the ceiling in utter horror.
“What do you mean by ‘bare everything’?” asks Keith. He is awfully calm about this ‘consummation’ stuff for someone who had a crisis over the mere ceremony before.
“I mean you will not have any secrets left between both of you. You will see everything and then…”
Yaneya makes a dramatic pause.
“You will be able to see each other's faces.”
Lance and Keith are speechless for a few seconds, and then Lance can’t help bursting into laughter again.
“Oh man. Then, that’s it? We take the masks off to finish the ritual?”
“Yes,” confirms Yaneya, and Lance laughs even harder. “We shoc’tor live our lives covered, and only show our faces to our aure. It is an important moment, and a sacred tradition, even if you are humans.”
“Oh, I understand. I’m sorry,” apologizes Lance, not intending to disrespect their culture, but Yaneya nods, comprehensive.
“Just take some water between your hands and wet your face. Then take water again, and drink it,” they instruct.
“Okay, then.” Lance sinks his hands on the water and rubs it over his face. Then he lowers his hands into the well again but notices that Keith isn’t moving at all.
“I… I don’t think I can do it…”
Lance feels his soul leaving his mortal, suffering body.
“C’mon bro… I-I mean, honey. We are this close…” he begs. Why would Keith get cold feet now? He wasn’t that impressed during the misunderstanding. Unless…
“Are you afraid of me knowing all your secrets?”
Keith lowers his face and Lance gasps. Then he snickers.
“Hey, c’mon, I bet there’s nothing there that could scare me that much. Let’s just do this, ok?”
Keith is doubting and Lance just realizes he shouldn’t be so happy about it when it goes both ways. Keith will see everything he hides in his head too…
Resisting the sudden urge to take his hands out of the water, he looks helplessly at Yaneya, judging his chances. It was that or die trying to leave. His eyes go back to Keith, who is still fidgeting. If Keith tried to leave and died, he would never forgive himself.
Letting out a fearful exhalation and deciding to set the example, he fills his hands with water and puts them to his lips, forgetting his mask, but to his surprise, the liquid passes through it and he swallows. It has no taste at all. Touching the border of the well, he smiles.
“Done. Your turn, Keith.” He knows he can’t see his reassuring smile, so he spreads his hands. “Don’t worry. Nothing that happens here will change a thing. I promise.”
He doesn’t know why he chose those words, but they work. Keith doubts just a moment before he proceeds to carefully wet his face, and then drinks too.
As soon as he swallows the dome darkens, light fading all around, and the place enters night mode.
“May the cycle never break. Rest assured in Sakh’ir promise,” proclaims the priest.
The hall is suddenly illuminated by the vibrant vine-like tubes that come to life everywhere, the walls, floor, even the ceiling, and bright in a golden hue now.
“It is done. You may wait and rest now. You will know when you are ready,” says Yaneya.
None of the aure dare to ask when will that happen, and the priest swiftly leaves the room. They just stand there around the well for a while. As always, is Lance who breaks the silence.
“Well… that was awkward.”
Keith sighs, shaking his head.
“That’s an understatement.”
Lance laughs and surrounds the well to stand beside Keith and nudge his arm.
“Soooo… about those juicy secrets…”
“Shut up,” says Keith, looking the other way, evidently embarrassed and surprisingly cute, Lance realizes. He can almost visualize his blushing cheeks and black hair covering his eyes. His pulse accelerates at that image, and then the same feeling as before falling sleep overwhelms him. The black veil waving in the wind crosses his mind again, confusing itself with the vision of Keith by his side, all covered in the ceremonial shoc’tor clothes.
Keith peeks at him, probably surprised by his silence. He nudges him too, and the red paladin doesn’t react at all.
“Are you sure you're okay? You're acting weird.”
“Am I?” asks Lance, worried, waking up from that weird state. He can’t seem to dominate his thoughts and that’s starting to scare him. Trying to chase away his visions, he adds: “Geez, I don’t know, I feel like I was forced to dress in a wet rag and marry a dude in some alien ceremony. How has your day been?”
“Pretty much the same. Meaning, terrible,” grunts Keith, walking to sit on the border of the terrace, in front of the garden. Lance follows him, sitting by his side. The Blade doesn’t protest.
“I’m sorry. Thank you for coming here and doing this for me,” mutters Lance.
“Yeah. It’s fine,” answers Keith.
Silence again, though is less and less awkward to just be quiet there, especially before such a sight. The dome creates the illusion of night, and the pale crunchy ground glitters, looking like a layer of bright snow. The trees also shine all around, producing a warm light that surrounds them like a misty mantle. It’s honestly breathtaking and, once again, Lance can say it’s almost worth falling there if only to witness it.
Smirking, he takes Keith’s hand to joke about what they should say to the team as soon as they leave, but when he is about to speak, he can’t remember what he was intending to say. Blinking twice, he just looks at Keith, lost.
“What…?” asks the Blade, surprised, as their hands warm through the robes properties.
“I— wanted to say something, and can’t remember what,” confesses Lance. But from where they touch, waves of heat go to his head and fill it with new ideas. More important ideas.
“You almost died in Naxzela”, suddenly blabbers Lance, out of nowhere. The word sacrifice is ringing in his ears, his mind, everywhere. Team leads to sacrifice, and sacrifice leads to Keith.
“Hah? Why now?” asks Keith, dumbfounded. His voice sounds cautious.
“I just— I just know. I was thinking about the team, I believe. I was thinking something I can’t remember, and then recalled how I fell here. I didn’t tell you how I crashed here…” Lance is having trouble keeping his ideas in one track, his thoughts scattered all over the place.
“What happened?” asks Keith, in a soft voice that sends chills all over Lance’s body. He breathes as if he was running.
“I wanted to chase the Galra dude outside the system. They told me to stay in formation, and I disobeyed. But it was good, because the reinforcements intended to shoot the planet,” Lance points to the sky where a part of the planet this moon orbits is seen. “I tried to stop them, but it was too late. Then I just… I darted in front of the cannon and they shot me. I fell here.”
Keith is listening in respectful silent, and Lance is bitterly laughing.
“And you know what? The guys mocked me and scolded me for leaving my position. But I did it because it felt like it was the right thing to do. So, now I get it.” Lance opens his eyes and looks at Keith’s mask, feeling understanding running all over his mind. “I get it. Sacrifice. It’s not rational. You did it. You always do and no one says shit about it. You never expect anything from it. You are amazing, dude.”
Keith pulls his hand away from Lance’s grip and stands up.
“I’m feeling tired. I want to sleep for a while,” he declares, and steps inside. Lance sees how he rounds the well and sits on the other side. He is hiding. Lance knows why he is hiding.
He feels like he has a persistent thread hanging from his head, and it’s connecting him directly to Keith. The words he spoke aren’t only his: in some place of Keith’s mind or heart, they were waiting to be dug and exposed, and he had done it without asking for permission. It had to be the water, the trees, the place. Just like when he arrived and the tree’s aroma made him see things, now before completing the ritual they were bound to have a very, very creepy night. Inhaling and exhaling to relax his tense chest, Lance braces himself for what may come and decides to give his partner some space while he tries to concentrate in decipher the riddle of the waving black thing in his visions. It’s the only thing currently upsetting him.
Lance is strolling in the garden. Time has passed, though he isn’t sure if it’s been just minutes or hours already. He has been too occupied discovering things inside his own head, and marveling at the pretty flora around the pond of the garden, in absolute peace, though he still can’t solve the black thing mystery. Little by little, he has been forgetting other things he has deemed insignificant, and it’s wonderful, the way everything falls into place and how rushing, resenting, suddenly makes no sense. It is just what he needed, he realizes. Like mental vacations.
But he is out of his element, never an intellectual person, and getting philosophical by himself isn’t fun, so throwing one quick look towards the hall, he closes his eyes and concentrates. He’s sure he can do this, repressing a mischievous smile.
“One would believe the shoc’tor, being all tech advanced and stuff, wouldn’t be such religious fanatics, don’t ya think?”
Silence. The foot he can distinguish in the distance behind the well isn’t moving at all. He tries again.
“I knooow you aren’t sleeping honeeeeey, don’t ignore meeeee~”
This time he receives an answer. An irritated one.
“Stop it. Get out of my head.”
“Hah, I knew it! Stop hiding, Keith.”
The foot disappears and Lance laughs. This time he says out loud:
“C’mon, come here, Keith! It’s prettier outside and I’m bored!”
Again, no answer. Sighing, Lance decides to stomp into the hall and approach the well. He can feel Keith’s uneasiness. Trying to make things easier for both of them, he sits on the opposite side, supporting his back on the carved material of the well.
“They said we would know when we’re ready, but I guess we gotta do something about it too, no matter how creepy it is,” says Lance.
“Like what?” asks Keith, “I don’t want you trying to mess with my head.”
“Hey, I don’t want that either. But it’s not like I can see everything, right? It’s just what you allow. So… let’s try to bare everything, one thing at a time,” proposes Lance, and he feels in his belly a tension that’s not his. He hears Keith shifting, nervous, on the other side. Since he doesn’t say a thing, Lance decides to start.
“Okay, first. Do you believe in fate? This whole shoc’tor thing is making me all philosophical.”
A pause. Nothing but their breathing resounds in the golden hall.
“No,” says Keith, finally.
“Why not?” asks Lance, but even though Keith doesn’t answer aloud, he can hear his voice.
“It’s scary. Having your life written by someone else is too scary.”
Lance is shocked and finds that… surprisingly cute, but Keith is standing up and trying to leave the hall now.
“No, no, no! Listen, buddy, we can’t escape this. It will be just for a while, okay? Let’s just be honest with each other and take it just like, you know, a bonding moment.”
“So you can forget it later, again?”
YIKES. Lance dug his own grave with that choice of words and is taken aback. Keith has stopped walking, his back turned towards him in front of the sliding doors. Watching his silhouette contrasting the lights from outside, Lance is breathless and memories flow against his will.
That time. In Keith’s arms. His heart is raging, and he can’t even swallow. Nice, unexpected. Then Keith confronts him, and he denies it. Because if he denies it, it didn’t happen. If it didn’t happen, he never felt that pressure in his chest and doesn’t have to think about it. Life can continue in peace.
Keith turns around to look at him. His white mask looks more intimidating than ever, and Lance is belatedly measuring the real danger of their situation. Ashamed, he covers his face. Keith steps towards him and kneels right in front. Their masks are at the same height.
“You remember that…?” he mutters. Lance gulps.
“Y-yeah. Sorry,” he admits. No point in hiding it. Keith inhales deeply, raising his face as if summoning all his patience.
“Then why deny it?” he asks, grumpy.
“You already saw,” answers Lance, pouting, but it wasn’t enough.
“Do you really hate me that much?”
“No!” this time Lance’s heart is leaping and he answers with honesty, but he can feel how, at the same time, more thoughts are reaching Keith.
“I’ve never hated you. I’m just jealous because you are all I’ve ever wanted to be. I’m mean because I don’t know how to approach you. And I want to."
Random images are leaking through their connection and Lance can’t stop them. Moments at the Garrison, the Castle, in battle… Even he is surprised by how many memories of Keith he clearly holds. He has spent an awful amount of time watching him, for a supposed ‘rival’…
Absolutely embarrassed, Lance now is falling to the side and curling into a ball, trying to physically defend himself from his own memories and thoughts. He cuts the flow with effort, because there are more things hidden there, so deep not even he knew they existed. But a new emotion is burning in his chest now.
“You don’t hate me.”
It’s Keith. Keith is happy and Lance opens one eye to see him still kneeling in front of his curled body. He must be smiling under that mask, and that makes his chest flutter.
“Why are you so happy? I always thought you hated me, in fact,” mumbles Lance.
“I don’t,” answers Keith.
“I’ve never hated you. You are everything I wish I could be too.”
This time, Lance is seeing before his eyes colored images and moments where he is always in the center. It’s so weird, he never noticed Keith’s gaze following him like this, feeling warm and fuzzy all over, because the images are dusted in unexpected fondness. For some reason, Keith Kogane admired his stupid, childish behavior enough to store their moments in his heart.
But Keith is even quicker to close the connection than him, pushing Lance away from his mind, hiding again.
“I… don’t want to do this anymore…” confesses Keith, trying to stand up, but Lance is sitting again and catches his robe.
“Wait, no. This… this is good. See? We are clearing some misunderstandings. It’s good!”
Keith is trembling, maybe because the room is cold, but Lance feels his hands warmer by that mere touch of their clothes. How warm would it be if they touched each other? He lets go, following the fabric until he finds Keith’s hand and grabs it instead.
Just like before, heat rises from where they are touching and spreads through their bodies, reaching their minds and amplifying the effects of the aure ceremony. In that mess of thoughts, he wonders what would have happened if someone else was there with him. What if it wasn’t Keith who came to rescue him? Would he feel the same heat, the same chills all over?
Keith can feel it too.
“You wanted someone else to come,” he says. Lance doesn’t even have to think that much his answer. His whole body is whispering it.
“No,” he replies, and discovers he is fully in sync with his own mind this time, “I was panicking, I didn’t want anyone else to come. I didn’t even know then, but…”
“Not even Allura?”
Lance looks at Keith’s mask, feeling a burning uneasiness in his stomach. Is that… Is that jealousy? Keith can’t control it, and Lance is seeing it, bare and pure before him.
“Not even Allura,” he confirms aloud, remembering how miserable he was feeling while putting on his robes. He remembers how scared he was until he knew who was under the garments, the relief he felt hearing that manly, familiar voice. He remembers even further back, when he was about to fall asleep, feeling sick and nauseous, until...
Lance gasps. He had the black veil vision then, and before falling asleep, his last thought that allowed him to relax had been…
Open mouthed, he lets the cryptic image pass one more time. With their amplified nexus making their hearts and minds throb, Lance can see the image clear enough to distinguish what it is.
It’s not a veil waving. It’s hair. Black hair, falling just behind a wide back, in a red paladin armor. A memory drawing itself before them. That day they saw a sunset, a rare occurrence, and they were near a cliff. Lance remembers that day. The whole team was there, but he could only think, mesmerized, how even that obnoxious mullet could have its moments too, casually dancing in the wind.
He tries to let go of Keith’s hand, but the Blade catches him and intertwines their fingers, firmly.
“What’s this?” he asks. Lance just gulps, watching their hands joined.
“I… think I knew you were coming,” he says, doubtfully. He closes his eyes. “This damn moon and its creepy voodoo…”
“How?” asks Keith.
“I don’t know man, I just knew, as soon as I set foot here, this weird image… Y-you know what? It doesn’t matter. Maybe it really is fate, or something,” blurts Lance. His heartbeat is loud and feels honestly dangerous. He hadn’t signed up for this.
“I don’t believe in fate,” declares Keith.
“Well, maybe fate doesn’t believe in you either, Mullet,” scoffs Lance.
“No, I came because I wanted to come,” insists Keith, and now he’s taking the red paladin’s other hand. As soon as he grips it, the golden vines on the floor begin pulsing around them.
“Y-yeah? And why is that?” asks Lance, but the answer is all over the place already, he’d be a fool if he didn't understand.
“They said you were being forced to marry someone. I wasn’t going to allow it.”
Lance finds enough strength to chuckle, but the air is thin and breathing is hard.
“My hero,” he claims, in a teasing tone.
“Don’t mock me,” growls Keith.
“I’d never mock you, Keith. Not for this, at least. But if you don’t say what you’re thinking, I’ll never understand, because I guess you already know, but… I’m kinda dumb,” mutters Lance.
He’s not that dumb. He sees it. He sees, but much like their bonding moment, he doesn’t feel prepared to handle it alone. He needs to hear it from the man himself, to see it in his eyes…
“I can’t say it.”
Keith is struggling to keep things under control and the connection gets diffuse. His heart is darkened by one overwhelming emotion: fear.
“Why are you so scared?” asks Lance, and Keith lowers his face.
“You don’t even want to hear it...”
“I haven’t said anything yet…”
“… And everyone leaves, anyway.”
Images with no name, no time and no description cross their minds. Lance sees through a little kid’s eyes, a lonely kid watching a man’s back. Father. Gone. He sees a blade in his hands, he throws and catches the blade in dangerous movements, sitting on the roof of a house in the desert. The stars shine and he is all alone, the violet light from the blade his only company. Mother. Gone. A smiling officer in the Garrison, ruffling his hair, smiling and saying goodbye. Shiro. Gone too. Iverson shouts at him, wearing a bloody patch in one eye, he is expelled. No place, but no regrets. The Castle, the bridge, everyone is there. Everyone laughs, except him. Not good enough. Lance comes by his door and is thinking of leaving. No, not him. Anyone but him. It’s his time, he knew it would come. His friends are waving goodbye and no one stops him. They know they can’t. Naxzela. He is going to die. He closes his eyes, and his last regret is that he should have said something. He should have confessed that…
Lance suddenly clenches his wrists as if Keith was about to fall over a cliff.
“Keith!” he says, breathless.
“Stop… stop looking,” begs Keith, trying to hide his face, but Lance takes it with both hands, raising it, holding it firm. He feels something is stuck in his throat and his eyes sting. So much loneliness, so much pain to take, alone… all by himself. He, Lance, wasn’t worthy enough to receive the feelings that Keith stored for him. He hadn’t helped at all, too occupied pitying himself, and the burn of guilt and something else feels hot in his chest. Keith must be listening, but that doesn’t matter anymore.
“I won’t say anything. Just forget—” says Keith, but Lance shakes his head and puts their foreheads together. The contact is cold, but Lance feels his whole body on fire. His mind is running at a relentless speed.
The Garrison. Keith is smiling to his idol, Shiro. Could he ever approach? They are on another level. Keith is gone, humiliation and regret flood. Keith is there and his heart leaps, he could recognize that mullet anywhere. The pool. They are stuck, that back is giving him chills all over, he can’t forget, why can't he forget… Out of the pod. He sees Keith and smiles. Then he fakes it. Fakes he doesn’t remember the way Keith cradled him in his arms. His pained face is making his stomach hurt. Leave the maths to Pidge. Then why are you leaving? Don’t leave… Shiro is shouting at him. He wouldn’t mind, but Keith never did. Keith was better. He misses Keith so much… so much, sleeping is hard. He disobeys. He wishes Keith could see him pilot Red. He falls. Keith is marrying him.
… He is so relieved. He is so happy.
Their foreheads are still glued, and Lance’s fingers tremble on Keith’s face, who isn’t even breathing.
“D-do you see, Keith?” Lance is surprised by his own mind. He wasn’t even aware… gosh, he really feels dumb. “This time I’m not lying, I’m not forgetting. And I'm not going anywhere. Now I know and I’m so, so sorry… I have to tell you too…”
They weren’t paying any attention to their surroundings, ignoring the way in which the golden liquid of the vines was traveling from all over the room to the point where they were kneeling, as if it was being absorbed by them, but then the floor shines brightly and they finally notice the stir below their legs. They gasp when their masks suddenly peel off their faces from the point they are touching, melting into one liquid blob that falls heavily to the floor. Both boys look down at the puddle and then look up again, seeing each other flushed faces, wide-open eyes illuminated in strong golden light for one eternal, magical moment… then all the lights of the room turn off. The golden vines are now empty and black, and the only source of illumination is the soft shine of the trees and ground outside. It’s not enough to clearly distinguish each other’s features, and Lance can’t help but laugh.
“What the hell? The shoc’tor wait all their lives to see each other’s faces and when they take off their masks… they turn off the lights?” He can’t stop laughing and he sees in the silhouette of Keith how his shoulders are twitching. He’s laughing too, the sound so endearing that Lance feels dizzy.
With his heart beating fast, noticing that he can’t hear Keith’s thoughts anymore, he asks himself what does he intend to do. It doesn't take more than a few seconds: there's only one thing he wants now, convinced that he is going to regret it if he doesn’t dare. With his right hand, he carefully touches Keith’s bangs and moves them to the side, caressing his skin until he reaches his cheek. With his thumb, he feels the corner of his mouth and he can notice how the boy is barely breathing.
Too cute not to kiss, thinks Lance, and he takes Keith by surprise by grabbing the scarf that covers his head with both hands, pulling him softly, joining their semi-parted lips and hearing a soft gasp cross them when Keith flinches at the soft contact, a wet drag over them. He seems frozen at first, but then his hands twitch and rest on Lance’s shoulders and the red paladin smiles over his mouth, deepening the kiss, feeling that everything was correct on the universe, every piece falling in its rightful place, and every experience they have lived, every decision and every action was worth it, because it had led them to this final, fantastic moment.
And damn, this explained so much. All this time, so lost and lonely, he was just missing his better half, apparently. It was so simple, but he was so stupid… Lance buries his face on the crook of Keith’s neck and surrounds him with his arms. He should have done it before. Just like he suspected, their whole bodies are heated by the fabric of their robes, still reacting to each other, and a sigh escapes them at the same time. The sensation is so nice, Lance vaguely wonders how good would it be to sleep like this for hours in each other's arms, immediately regretting the lost time, but he has things to say now. Or hear.
“No cheating this time,” he says, closing his eyes, “No more alien voodoo. This is real, dude. What were you thinking there, in Naxzela?”
Lance can feel Keith’s heartbeat against his chest. Surreal and better than anything he could have expected, he can’t believe how happy he is.
“What were you about to say before?” asks Keith, in turn. His voice sounds surprisingly playful. Lance frowns.
“I said no cheating.”
“Then you first.”
Lance raises his head and looks at Keith, but the light is too dim to clearly see his face. Shaking his head, he stands up and offers the other boy his hand. He takes it, and they walk outside, to the garden.
They stop in front of the spring, again. Facing each other, they can finally see their expressions, and Lance is momentarily breathless. Keith is quite the vision under the soft lights of the trees: his black hair, disheveled as always, escaped the orange scarf that covered it, and Lance is proud to be the culprit of that. His pale skin is flushed and his eyes are the same as always, pretty and sharp. But their expression is new: soft, bright… scared. Lance’s heart feels heavy.
“Still scared?” he asks, putting one hand on his cheek again.
“I’m not sure what comes next,” Keith confesses.
“Yeah, me neither. But hey, we’ll be ok. ‘Fate’, remember?” Lance says. Keith raises an eyebrow.
“I thought we were just faking it.”
“Do you mean all of this was a lie?!” Lance gasps and presses his chest dramatically. Keith rolls his eyes, but then laughs heartily.
“I sure hope it is. Or else… We just got uh… married,” mutters Keith, and Lance remembers this fact. Does… did he really stop being a bachelor before even dating?
“Not only that. If this is true, you’ll be stuck with me next life too,” comments Lance, remembering their vows, and both shudder. But then they look at each other and smile. The smile transforms into a chuckle, and then the chuckle becomes pure laughter. Because the universe was infinite and they were mere specks on it, but it was kind of reassuring knowing that at least they would have each other in every turn… Lance opens his eyes and sees Keith’s new, bright smile. He feels compelled to kiss that face again. He is about to, in fact, but…
“Congratulations. You have successfully finished the ritual,” says Yaneya’s gurgling voice behind them, and this time Lance, startled, steps to the side and sinks his right leg on the spring. No one says anything at first, but then Keith and Yaneya laugh at him.
Outraged, he pulls his leg from the pond and moves it to shake the water, like a dog. At least the clothes don’t get wet. He looks around, and a bunch of priests are entering the garden too, snickering.
“I am sorry, paladin Lance. That was very funny,” says Yaneya, and Lance notices they have dropped the mystical tone they maintained from the beginning.
“Yeah, I’m a funny guy, that’s what everyone says...” grumbles Lance.
“Yeah… no,” says Keith, rolling his eyes again.
“Hey, honey? Aren’t you supposed to have my back here?” Lance says, enjoying the way in which Keith’s cheeks light up.
Yaneya is applauding.
“Wonderful. It is always so good to see non-shoc’tor aure…” They sound really enthusiastic, and Lance raises an eyebrow. Remembering he is supposed to be fighting an intergalactic war, he says:
“Thanks. Uh… no offense, but does that mean that we can leave without dying already?”
The priests look at each other’s masks.
“Well… yes. To be honest, this moon could never kill you. That is not the way of Sakh’ir. The energy offering is small. At most, you would feel very tired for a while,” confesses Yaneya.
“WHAT?!” yell Keith and Lance at the same time, making the priests flinch. Yaneya is fidgeting.
“We apologize. This is what we say whenever a non-shoc’tor creature comes here. We also turn on the magnetic shield to keep them from leaving.”
“Why?!” croaks Lance.
“The gift is for our people, but for some reason, Sakh’ir seems to bless individuals from other species who inevitably land here from time to time, brought by their fates, and every time that happens, their aure will come to get them, sooner or later. That is why, in order to protect the ritual, we must… retain them. It is a unique opportunity, we cannot let it pass.”
“Wha— You— That—!” Lance can’t even talk.
“What does that even mean? Sooner or later?” asks Keith, confused.
“Well… it may take a while. A few deca-phoebs, even…”
“WHAT?!” yell the boys again.
“But this is a record! Your aure came the same movement! That is why we had so much fun preparing the rite. In fact, you were lucky…”
“Lucky… how exactly…” growls Lance, and Yaneya shudders. Another priest answers.
“Because the entire system was in red alert, no ceremonies were going to be held today. We are usually fully booked. You did not have to wait!”
“Booked…” mutter Keith and Lance, in unison.
“But we did not expect a paladin of Voltron to fall! We were worried because we cannot break our rules, but we did not want to die if the Galra attacked us…” says another priest, with a childish voice.
“In the end, it worked well. Sakh’ir always finds the way,” says Yaneya.
“May the cycle never break,” the priests chant like a choir.
Lance tries to control his eyes from rolling. It’s really, really hard.
“Quite inconvenient, this Sakh’ir dude ways,” he says, and Keith elbows him. But the priests laugh.
“Sakh’ir is not a 'dude', it is a fact. It is the inevitable, and the chain of events that lead to what we call fate. It never ends,” explains Yaneya.
“Okay…” Lance has had enough of philosophy for his entire life. This one, at least. Remembering the team, he asks, “did you talk to Coran or Princess Allura?”
“Yes, they asked if we could let you leave. We explained that someone had to come and get you, in hopes that the aure would manifest. As we said, a success,” replies the priest, and the others nod.
“And what if one of them came instead? How do you know you weren’t… auring me to the wrong person?”
The priests laugh again and Lance is a bit over it already.
“Apologies, paladin Lance. The aure is sacred, but it is not about the ritual. The aure starts when you are born. The reason it can only be celebrated here is that this place, the blessing of Sakh’ir, guarantees that the choice is always correct. The ma’kiya only reacts to those who have been granted the blessing,” says Yaneya, and Lance remembers the way the ground and floor of the hall would light up under them, but not under the priest. “Our society is prosperous because we never lose time searching and trampling over each other, looking for a partner. This place is sacred because it guarantees peace and happiness in the foreseen union… almost always.”
The other priests protest and Yaneya shrugs, but Lance is looking at Keith, whose furrowed eyebrows show the same question. So… they really were soulmates or something like that? Could that be? Unlike his partner, he isn’t sure if he believes in fate or not, but… well. He couldn’t say it wasn’t worth it. If he hadn’t fallen there, they would probably be missing each other for their entire lives, running in circles.
“Look, it's not like I wouldn’t like to know more about it, but I really have to leave. The team is waiting for me,” says Lance, taking Keith’s hand. He feels his fingers pressing his palm and smiles.
“Of course.” Yaneya takes something from their robes. Lance recognizes two thin wristbands, made of the golden substance of the vines. “Even though the union is irrevocable and does not need any physical manifestation, please take these as a memento.”
“Not sure about not needing the physical manifestation…” mutters Lance, and Keith steps on his foot, making him blink quick, and let out a chocked “Thanks.”
They are fully dressed in their respective armors, and about to leave the dome. Keith’s ship is near, the Lion is farther. But they have to say goodbye, and none of them knows what to say. Keith sighs.
“Well… this is awkward,” he says.
“That’s an understatement,” answers Lance, and they smile in complicity. The shadow of the past hours is still heavy over them.
“So, you’ll go back to the Blades, I go back to the Castle,” says Lance. Keith nods slowly, looking to one side. “Well, I wanted to say something before we… separate.”
“I’m listening,” says Keith, and Lance swallows. In his Blade armor, he looks very different to his fragile, soft self from the ritual. But he knows everything inside is the same, so he gathers courage.
“I know I’m… kinda slow. What you knew from way before, I just realized last night,” says Lance, and Keith tenses. He is still afraid. “I know you must think we don’t feel the same, and you know, maybe that’s true. You’re way ahead of me, and I lost a lot of time. We have a very different uh… approach too.”
Keith nods again, but his face is darkening more and more with every word. Lance can’t keep the corners of his mouth from twitching. His husband is such a pessimist.
“But I can promise you something, honey. From now on, I’m gonna be waiting for your return, and when you’re back, I’ll be a better man. I’ll sort everything out and I’ll be ready. So… can you promise me that you’ll be back? The sooner, the better, to be honest.”
Keith raises his eyes and meets his gaze. He looks like he didn’t understand a word, and Lance laughs again, hugging him.
“I’m sorry, but you are doomed, I’m not letting you go after this. You are stuck with me until we die. And you can’t go dying on me anytime soon, we are newlyweds! Remember? Pending consummation? Bracelets?”
Lance raises his arm. Under his flight suit, he is wearing his wristband, and he knows that Keith is wearing his too. But the Blade isn’t saying anything (not even about the consummation comment), and that is starting to scare Lance.
“Uhm, Keith? Hello…?”
“You are so… damn it.” Keith separates from him, and plants another kiss on his lips. Lance almost drops the helmet he holds with his other arm, but concentrates on registering this gift with all his heart. Damn, it feels good and it's making it even harder to let go... but they must. They break apart slowly.
“Is that a yes or what?” asks Lance, dopey.
“It's an ‘I’ll try’. I… still got things to do,” mumbles Keith. Lance feels his chest tighten, but tries his best to smile.
“I’ll have to settle with that for now, then.” But then he remembers another detail. “Oh… Oh my god, wait. Are you gonna tell your mom about this?”
“WHAT? Are you serious?” Lance is panicking, but Keith laughs.
“Good luck dealing with the team,” he says.
“Forget it, dude. I’m not giving them any details until you come back. They won’t let me live this one down anyway. I’m gonna need back up, you fall with me,” grunts Lance.
“Doubt it, they'll squeeze all details from you in one hour. But… at least try to hold a bit, honey.”
Lance is breathless. That’s a first, and Keith is smiling mischievously. How could he take so long to understand he was in love with him?
His brand-new husband walks away, leaving him sad and with a new need to fulfill in his chest. Knowing he has just seen a glimpse of what there is to their new bond is going to be extra tough. When are they meeting again? He didn't even dare to ask, but hopes it's soon enough. He walks until he reaches the place where poor Red crashed.
“My dude, I know you must be pissed, but you won’t believe everything that has happened since yesterday. Consider yourself my godfather,” says Lance, caressing the controls as the Lion comes back to life. It feels in a good mood. They both like Keith, after all.
Lance departs, and he can’t keep delaying the moment. He reluctantly turns on the communications panel. It takes them just two beeps to answer.
“LANCE! How did it go? Did they let you leave?” asks Coran, and Lance can hear cheers and screams in the background.
“Affirmative, and NO thanks to you, guys,” grumbles the paladin.
“C’mon, tell us already! Are you really married to Keith?!” asks Hunk, and he can hear Allura giggling by his side.
“… Who knows,” says Lance.
“MAAAAN! You really are married! Oh my god! And I wasn't there!” Hunk is losing it and Pidge is whistling. Allura lets out a strange shriek.
“Is Keith coming back with you?” asks Shiro. Lance raises an eyebrow.
“No. My husband is a very busy person.”
He knows he is killing Hunk and Allura by their screeches, and he can’t help but smile.
“Well, isn’t that sad. You will be away for who knows how long,” states Coran, in a playful tone.
“Stop it guys, okay? I don’t want any of you bothering him with this nonsense. You owe him for rescuing me, and that's it,” warns them Lance, but they only scream even louder.
He sighs, but then he looks at his wrist, and the smile isn’t leaving his face any time soon. The universe is so mysterious and maybe he is more open now to the idea of ‘fate’, no matter what it really is. Be it many events that lead to a result, a written decree or whatever, he is more inclined to believe in it now. As long as someone can promise him that he and Keith are destined to reunite soon, he’s willing to fake he is a follower of Sakh’ir. They faked their fate once already, after all... with amazingly successful results.