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Summer, Autumn, War

Chapter Text

I. The Bath House

 

This was a mistake.

This was a terrible mistake.

The opulence alone was already far too overwhelming. The glassy white marble of the building slashed with natural flecks of grey and black, and thankfully covered to a degree with mosaics and frescos, were still a blinding reminder of how out of place Keith felt. His senses were overloaded by richly decorated surroundings of immaculately carved Corinthian pillars, perfectly intricate statues of deities and demi-gods. His lungs were filled with the thick mixtures of natural minerals from the flowing spring waters and the countless flavors of oils and soaps that wafted throughout each hall and chamber. He could hear the constant trickling of water as it dripped, flowed, and poured. It mingled with the low clamor of chatter and human interaction. It was that, in particular, Keith had trouble dismissing. The bathhouse was so much more active and attended than he had anticipated it to be.

Shiro had convinced him to make the visit. It’s a good experience. The building alone is beautiful enough to warrant a look. But the baths are incredibly relaxing and so refreshing. Keith scoffed to himself. This was way more interaction than he had hoped to deal with. Funny how Shiro managed to leave that particular detail out. Much to Keith’s dismay, he was already there, so he would at least attempt to make the best of it. If he kept his head low and stayed mostly to himself, perhaps it could actually be a decently pleasant excursion.

After spending a little while to gather his bearings and figure out the basic inner workings of the place, Keith managed to spend a lengthy soak all to himself in the caldarium. The hot waters helped to sooth the aches in his muscles and wash away the soreness left in him after his day of training. He nestled himself in a corner of the pool and was left largely undisturbed. Though, he did catch a whisper or two, along with several glances in his direction. He was at least accustomed to ignoring those by now.

He soaked fairly in peace, feeling every bit of tension melt away in the steaming waters. He shifted, careful of the solitary strip of cloth wrapped around his waist, easing lower into the pool. He felt his upper back and shoulders lax as he breathed a deep sigh. That was what he sought there. Swinging his sword again after months of nothing but recovery and healing wrenched at the tendons and joints that had forgotten what ‘work’ felt like. It was a recollection he was happy to do without, even as he knew it would be a familiar visitor until he was back into his peak performance again. Thanks to the caldarium, however, today, they would soon become but a simple memory once again.

After what was actually a lengthy bit of time, Keith removed himself from the mineral-colored waters. True, his skin was starting to prune and feel a bit over steeped, but his departure mostly stemmed from his growing discomfort to the rising number of on-lookers and whispers that began to fill the area around him. All he wished was a simple moment’s peace to tend to his weary bones. It was probably best he moved on from his spot.

Tradition would see it that his following step would be to the tepidarium to slowly bring his body temperature down from the cooked heat it trapped throughout his stewing. However, Keith felt that he had spent enough time in water and would simply allow the warmth to dissipate on it’s own. All he had to do was find a himself a new nook to nest in until he was ready to dress himself and leave.

There were countless options of rooms and chambers to choose from. However, he found them all rather raucous for his current mood. Though, he did help himself to a handful of green grapes that sat invitingly in a decorated bowl in a room he passed by. It was part of a rather lush feast spread in the center of the room. Perhaps it was a bit audacious of him to invite himself to the tables, but no one would miss a small handful of grapes. The gathered throng seemed more occupied with their celebration to truly care about his unsolicited presence at any rate.

Finally, he found a room that he deemed acceptable to his cool down. It was not lacking in occupants, but the crowd was well spread in the large chamber. The chatter seemed minimal and contained to hushed tones. The most enticing element was where his eyes fell. There was a perfectly empty nook before a large floor-to-ceiling window toward the center of a side wall. Perfect. It was a place to sit and rest as he reacclimated and the sun against his back would help continue to ease the aches. He tightened the wrapped cloth around his waist and silently made for his perch to finish the light snack in his hand.

 

 -

 

“Oh, but you must sit with me for a while.”

Handsomely thin lips slid into a light smile at the insistence.

“How rare an occasion it is I am given the chance to see you, let alone a moment to actually speak with you.”

Lashes flittered in a blink as sapphire eyes looked anywhere but the present company.

“Come, Lance, would you truly deny a friend of your company and the chance to share the beauty of your mind?”

Lance’s smile brightened. Oh, if only my mind was what you truly wished to partake of.

“Kind Pericles, I would never deny you what is deserved.” Lance bowed his head kindly, finally turning to the man that had a gentle hold of his arm. “But, I apologize, I am otherwise engaged.”

“You have been alone for some time now.” Pericles tutted, “If you’re waiting for others, wait in my company. I promise to relinquish you upon their arrival.”

Lance could no longer find an excuse to break away from the elder man – though only by a small handful of years. His escapes had been closed off and his excuses were exhausted, all the best ones he had he already used in prior encounters with Pericles.

“Now Pericles,” Lance spoke in a playfully scolding tone, “One should not make promises without the absolute intention of keeping them.”

“When have I not kept any promise to you, my lovely boy?”

Lance grit his teeth in a feigned smile as he was led on. He should have stayed home today, he thought. He should have gone, perhaps, to the forum instead, or the markets to browse new trades. No, the bathhouse sounded pleasant. The bathhouse would be a nice catharsis for the day. When you know where the wolves hunt, it’s an errant fool that plays at their door. He sighed as he scolded himself mentally, taking a seat on a granite chaise next to Pericles after he patted the space at his side.

"How shall we philosophize today, gentle man?” Lance asked, rather generally, keeping his arms and hands close to himself as he crossed a leg tightly, “I’ve heard you have been expressing interest in out-trading.”

Lance’s attire was simple. He wore a delicately woven cotton fabric, edges embellished in a subtle color with intricate Grecian patterns. It was simply draped over his left shoulder. The ends of the cloth brushed just at the middle of his soft caramel thigh, and he had it loosely secured closed with a thin corded sash. His accessories were minimal since it was usually a hassle to remove them all when he would decide to slip into the pools. He only donned his bracers and a single hair-thin chain around his neck. The array of earrings hardly ever changed. Though, he had decided to throw on a gold anklet just for fun that particular day.

Pericles shifted closer, and Lance could feel his leg press up against his hip. The man slipped his hand around Lance’s waist and pulled at the knot in his sash.

“True. There is always opportunity for new trades and new trades are good for business.” Pericles answered, his less busied hand leading it’s fingers down Lance’s bare arm. “But I don’t wish to bore you with business philosophies, angelic youth.” Lance felt the sash fall onto his lap and the cloth he wore slacked, further exposing his chest, stomach, and thigh; skin simply bare and glistening in the steam that filled the room. Lance smirked, turning his head away as Pericles began to brush his lips against his ear, “I would rather this be a much more enjoyable visit between us.”

Lance’s bored eyes wandered up from the floor and then suddenly lit up. He turned to face Pericles and ran a lithe finger down the side of his face that elicited a rather pleased smile from his aggressive suitor.

“While you present me with a rather enticing offer, Pericles,” Lance tapped his nose lightly, “A promise is a promise, and my previous engagement has just arrived.”

Lance moved to stand, gravity taking hold of the ends of his cloth, draping it perfectly over the front of him, but leaving his entire left side bare. He smirked to himself feeling Pericles’ eyes all over him as he left him to his own on the stone chaise.

 

-

 

Keith was starting to think he might be able to try working a visit to the bathhouse into his weekly routine. Once he figured out how to work the crowd and avoid them entirely, it, honestly, wasn’t all that bad. The spot he managed to find in respite was actually pretty peaceful. He picked up a foot to rest on his perch and leaned his back against one side of his alcove. He sighed away the tensions that were left and popped a grape into his mouth.

As he chewed, he let his eye drift toward the room only to immediately fall on a figure as it stood. The movement alone only idly grasped his attention. When he realized he knew the face, it held. It was only when sharp sapphire locked onto his vigilant violet did he feel his pulse quicken. His eyes widened when he soon figured out that he was heading directly to him. Keith swallowed the grape clumsily and nearly choked on the remaining sugary juice in his mouth. He had to sit up and cough to clear his windpipe. He beat his chest with a light fist to help it and when he finally looked up, he lost any chance of escape.

He was trapped, physically and mentally. The subject of his anxiety was a mere few feet away. He had Keith captive, this creature that even Narcissus, himself, would lift his gaze to see. There was a small group of steps between the two of them and Keith watched him ascend with such grace, it could make even the great Hera weep. Keith couldn’t help but notice the sway of cloth so arbitrarily draped over his shoulder, doing so little in covering, yet still making a world of difference. Bodies were in no short supply in the whole of the country, whether in the arena or in this blasted bathhouse. But his was simply living art. Aphrodite must have had endless amounts of pride in this masterpiece. Keith was certain he was hardly the only one to wonder why the goddess had let this one leave her side. Instead, this walking sculpture, this Galatea of men, stood hardly a foot away from him, the weight of his body shifted to one side as his hand rested on a slim and naked hip.

Keith swallowed a wet breath, his lips wordlessly parted as his eyes crawled up to the face of his visitor. Caramel skin glistened flawlessly still – if not more so in the hazy atmosphere. His slender frame was filled out with lissome, but easily defined muscle. His long, graceful neck was decorated by that single gold chain that complimented the darkness of his flesh. His face was perfectly framed and held delicate features that somehow balanced the masculine confidence he was known for throughout the city-state as well as greater parts of Greece itself. The focus of those gems of sapphire and starlight on Keith caused him to swallow again.

“…Can I… help you?” He praised the whole of Olympus the question came out somewhat dignified. He could only hope that it read the same way on his face.

“Funny you should ask!” Lance answered smoothly. Suddenly there was a pleading smile on his slender lips.

Shit… What living creature could resist that?

“I need you to do me a massive favor and just play along.” His voice had lowered to a tone that only the two of them shared. “I need a hand in shaking a little unsolicited attention…”

“O…kay. Sure.” Keith had no time to change his mind or even regret his agreement.

Before he could ask what he would need to do, Lance leaned in, grabbed him by either side of his face, and planted his lips right over Keith’s. He froze. Lance pulled back and pouted slightly.

“Come on. You have to be convincing.

“What in fucking Hades are you doing?!” Keith whispered hoarsely, still tense, his eyes focused tersely on Lance’s face – acutely wary of his every move.

Lance shifted his hands away from Keith’s face and rested them on either side of his seat, leaning in further to whisper.

“The one on the bench that I walked away from…” he described, “With the blonde hair.”

Keith glanced over Lance’s soft shoulder slyly, every bit aware of its silky touch on his lips while Lance feigned kisses on his neck. Sometimes. Other moments were genuine brushes and presses and Keith fought to keep his attention straight.

“The guy that hasn’t stopped glaring this way or probably even blinked yet?”

“If I don’t seem to have a legitimate reason to walk away from him, I won’t get a second chance…” Lance nuzzled and brushed his lips at Keith’s ear pleadingly.

Keith studied the man who sat, fixated on their interaction. He looked the type to not let go of something he deeply desired – which would naturally spell bad news for someone that didn’t want to be had.

This was such a terrible mistake.

“…Fine.” Keith conceded, “What do I have to do?”

“Thanks, Hero.” Lance kissed his cheek, “Only a few small kisses. Nothing salacious.”

Lance looked at him with a curious pause.

“Unless you want to…”

“No!” Keith retorted immediately, face beginning to flush red, “And are you crazy? Here?”

Lance gave him an incredulous blink, “Where do you think you are? This is kind of where ‘salacious’ happens.”

Keith felt his heart lodge into his throat and his eyes began to pan slowly across the broad room. He was greeted by visions of people in intimate corners, quiet conversations, and countless carnal activities. Men and women alike seemed to have paired off to engage one another in pleasures of the flesh and Keith suddenly realized why this particular chamber had been far less occupied than the rest. This was a room of Eros. This was a room Keith would be avoiding for the rest of his mortal days.

His eyes shut tight and he groaned, scarred by visions he wished he never saw. “Oh, Great Zeus…”

He heard Lance laugh softly and looked at him with a slight scowl. “Your indignant innocence is precious.”

“Keep it up.” Keith growled lowly, “I just might let him have you.”

Lance smiled brightly, and Keith knew he never would.

“Put your arm around me.” Lance instructed as he shifted to take a seat next to him. “Never mind everyone else.”

As Lance took his place, Keith did as told, slipping his arm around his waist, his fingers and thumb brushing over the bare silk of Lance's hip. He felt the weight of Lance against him and he was uncomfortable. He watched Lance's calm expression as he slid in close, afraid to look anywhere else and see everything he felt. Lance draped an arm around his shoulders and reached for the last grape in Keith's hand, crossing a leg over the other.

Lance gave a pointed look to Pericles, still sitting alone on the cold stone seat where he left him, and bit half the fruit, smiling lightly as he ate. Keith couldn't help but look over to Pericles, watching as his brows knitted tightly, until Lance grabbed his attention by his chin and fed him the other half. He was toying with the man. Keith furrowed his brows.

“If you're trying to start a fight, I'm done with your game.” He warned between chewing.

Lance sighed reaching for Keith's face as he held his close, “I promise, I'm not. Pericles is harmless, but he deserves to know that his grasping control only extends so far.”

Keith grimaced. Rumors and hearsay spoke of Lance being of a type to dance at cliff edges. It was enlightening to experience that personality first hand, and yet, he was hardly surprised as well.

Lance smiled again at the face he made before pressing his lips against Keith's again. This time, Keith was prepared. He pressed back slightly, softly. Chaste.

Lance pulled away again, amused. “Never kissed anyone before?”

Keith flushed with a scowl, “You want an out or what?”

Lance smirked, letting Keith play it off. “Fine. Convince me then.”

“I thought he was the one we were convincing.” He motioned toward Pericles with a subtle tilt of his head.

“If I'm convinced, he will be.”

Keith sighed deeply, attempting to squash his nerves before Lance could pick at that too. He reached for Lance's face gently and kissed him with parted lips. Lance answered as just as coyly before edging in encouragement toward much more fervent kisses. Keith worked diligently to oblige, matching the openness and pressures of Lance's lips. He must have been doing well enough to earn what sounded like a pleased hum from his partner.

It was motivating to Keith and he found himself feeling rather please with his intimate success. Bolstered by it enough he hardly flinched at the feel of Lance slipping his tongue into his mouth. (Though, at that point, he was lost at how to respond.) Lance took the lead, leaning in and gradually heightening the pace. Keith could feel his skin begin to tingle and grow warmer, falling dangerously into the quiet whispers of Eros. He felt the delicate glide of Lance's hand move between his knees and up the inside of his leg. There, he broke away.

“Nothing salacious.” He reminded.

Lance gave a breathy apology, “Turns out, you're pretty persuasive.”

Keith smirked with a light shake of his head. “Time to go.”

Lance blinked, his wits gathering as Keith took his hand and stood. He followed suit, waving idly at Pericles as Keith led him out, fingers woven together.

Pericles sighed heavily as he watched the pair exit. He motioned for a servant. “Fetch my consort. She has work to do.”

The servant nodded curtly and immediately left to carry out his command.

 

-

 

They dressed in silence. Keith made sure to never let his eyes wander away from his shelf of belongings as he did. Lance, however, did himself no such favors. But he was at least kind enough to make them very subtle and discreet glances. When they were through, they exited together. Lance stretched his arms upward as they stood outside the doors with a giant breath.

“Well, that was a nice, refreshing visit. Don't you think so?” He grinned as he rested his hands on his hips in a strong stance. “Same time tomorrow?”

“Not a chance.” Keith shook his head, arms crossed tightly over his chest and plain chiton, “I'm never coming back to this place again.”

Lance chuckled. “Thanks for the rescue. I would expect no less from the Red Lion.”

Keith scoffed. “Try and keep yourself out of trouble. You got lucky I was there this time.”

Keith started down the steps on his own after that without a word more or even a backward glance. Lance watched him as he left with a curious look before smiling to himself.

“Don't worry…” he mumbled softly, “I don’t think I’ve run out of that luck just yet.”

 

Chapter Text

II. Battle Scars

 

Shoulders back.

Spine straight.

Chest outward.

Chin up.

Long strides.

Confident steps.

 

Keith walked with purpose. He marched with intention. He was every bit the trained soldier he had been groomed to be. Even without armor. Even without a helmet. Even without a sword at his side, it was hardly a challenge to see the discipline that he had nurtured and refined into his very being. Some could see such confident body language as intimidating. True. It was a very Spartan way of thinking, intimidation. Much in the art of war was posturing. Be bigger. Be stronger. Be scarier. What better way to be convincing as a monstrous killing machine to your enemies than to grow soldiers that acted that way naturally? Breed it as second nature and everything else simply falls into place.

Volta was leagues away from Sparta, but their mentality was very similar. They were a proud people of strength and skill, power and prestige, mind and mettle. It was a city state the bristled with the keenest minds of philosophy. The Athenian schools of thought easily trickled in with the clever merchants and diplomatic envoys. The science and study that resulted only seemed to bolster the city as much as the massive pillars and columns did their intricately decorated buildings and temples. But where Volta made its foundation was on their admiration and adaptation of the Spartan art of battle.

This was where Keith was to shine. Long had he been a fixture within the fighting arena. The Marmoran Colosseum was his home away from home. His brother, Shiro, and he practically grew up within the walls and tunnels. Fans of the arena and the fights knew all about the Lion Cub; the young boy that had moved his way to the top of the tiers from the very lion pits themselves. Now, however, even eyes that had never seen the inner structure of Marmora fell onto him.

 

-

 

It was not surprising that they were among conscripted to the Voltan army when word of Galra forces pushing south threatened their home and safety. It was a duty and privilege to bear arms for their home and their people. With their natural skill and tact, many gladiators held rank among the soldiers. Shiro and Keith, Syntagmatarkhis and Tagmatarkhis respectively. Recounts told of the march toward Altea as it felt the heavy hand of Zarkon and fell under attack.

The northern city state was among the brilliance of Athens in their endeavors. Alchemy was heavily practiced within the borders of Altea and their populace thrived because of it. But where their opulence and intellect flourished, their combat and defense suffered. The city was devastated. The number of lives lost brought the civilization to its very knees.

Volta rushed to meet the battle in full force on the very edge of the Altean border. The Galra were brutal and nearly barbaric in their assault; the momentum of their victory spurring their cries of 'Vrepit Sa’ in droves. But the Voltans hardly faltered and the clash of steel and scorn rang loud. Shiro’s regimen flanked the left side of the battlefield and Keith's battalion was part of the leading assault. Sword ground against shield and both sides gave everything they had.

After numbers on both sides were cut by nearly a third, the Galra decided it was time to utilize the spoils of their Altean conquest. The first to feel the burn of the attack was the very center of the field. There was no discernment for one side or the other, and that made for a very dangerous enemy. It was no new strategy to use catapults and trebuchets, even lighting the projectiles afire was a common tactic. What caused panic and fear among all foot soldiers was the fact that the substance that rained on them was viscous. The fires were impossible to put out. Anyone cognizant enough to find water soon found out that it only helped to spread whatever gelatinous fuel covered anyone and anything.

Panic spread through the ranks, indiscriminate about which side was fought for. Volta warriors had no idea what or how to deal with whatever it was raining over them. The Galra began to fall into hysterics because they did know, and they were well aware of the futility of attempting to put out the fires. Luckily, Shiro's mind turned quick and he was able to muster his regimen quick enough to stifle the rippling alarm, battalion leaders like Keith helping to wrangle their charges.

Unknown to those outside the walls, Alteans still fought to their bitter ends. Within the city a small group of them had made their way to the stores of fuel the Galeans launched into the battle. Vats and stores were kicked and tipped and spread thoroughly over each siege weapon before setting them all ablaze. The reprise was welcomed by everyone in the clash, but not before the field was left asunder. The scene was utter destruction, and yet the fighting went on. Numbers dwindled on either side, carnage drenched in blood and the air reeked of cooking flesh. Still the fighting went on. Muscles ached, cuts bled, bones cracked.

Keith and his men pressed forward. The Galra had lost their order under the rain of fire and, though they outnumbered Volta forces by two to one, they were useless tactically. It became easy to push through then, even with only a handful left. As Keith and the other battalions picked up moment, the boost in morale was short-lived.

Shiro held the rear of the regimen until a Galra lieutenant slipped up from behind, catching him off guard. Unfortunately for him, Shiro never recovered and his opponent overwhelmed him. He struck Shiro’s sword from his hand and beat away his shield. As Shiro hit the ground, the lieutenant kicked the edge of his shield and twisted his arm. Shiro struggled to scramble away, but the Galran stomped on his right arm, bones popping out of place and cracking before his sinking the end of his gladius into the meat of his shoulder. Shiro cried out in pain and it echoed for miles.  

Keith heard his brother's voice wrenched in anguish and stopped to search him out. In only moments, he found him laid out on the ground, steel into his arm, and a Galra soldier with a hard right hook knocking him out cold.

“Shiro!” Keith called as he hurried to his brother's aid.

His sword easily became an extension of his arm, every move barely a thought. The moment Keith made it to Shiro’s side, the lieutenant hit the ground as blood pooled out from the gash in his chest. As their leader fell, his Galra soldiers flocked to avenge his death. Keith met each of them with zealous rage, cutting them down with ease and not a single care to any strike against him. He felt no sword, no shield, or drop of blood. Keith was filled only with the drive to protect his fallen brother and fought until the last man fell.

Eventually, the Voltans won the battlefield, though the city of Altea was lost to the Empire. As they gathered their remaining warriors, Shiro's regimen found Keith stood before leader, heaving labored breaths, his gladius tightly gripped in a ready stance and covered in blood, his own merely speckles amongst what was left of his enemies. They looked on him in awe and knew the Lion was no longer a cub.

That was the day Volta knew the Red Lion.

 

-

 

Every day after, Volta knew his name. Volta knew his face. Volta knew of his deeds at the aid to Altea, the love for his brother. They knew the strength of his mettle and the steel of his heart. They learned of the fires in his soul that embodied the essence of Sparta, and Volta, itself.

There was hardly a time on the city streets he could walk without hearing the whispers of his name and the hushed, reverent tones pointing out the Red Lion passing by. Were he set to return to the arena, he was sure the gathering mass would be overwhelming.

Keith hated it.

He had no time to himself. He had no notion of privacy. He could barely lift his eyes without meeting throngs of others in his direction. When strangers walked up to him and greeted him, he did his best to put forth a respectable response while trying to keep it brisk and move on his way. However, there were times when people didn't quite understand his want to keep distant and he soured very quickly those days. It was quite easy for Shiro to tell what sort of day it had been for Keith.

Today, in particular, had him highly up at arms.

“How was the bathhouse?” He asked as Keith stormed into their home.

It wasn't what one would call opulent, but it was far from a hovel. It was a comfortable, single story Villa of modest size that was tucked snugly in a nondescript corner of the city. It wasn't too much of a trek to the Marmoran Colosseum and that made it perfect.

Keith trudged into the small square atrium before stopping to turn to his brother.

“Huge. Mistake.” Keith grimaced.

“Really?” Shiro gave him a curious look, adjusting the sling on his shoulder. “You didn't think it was relaxing?”

Keith put everything he had into fighting off the flush in his cheeks. “Shiro, ‘relaxing’ is the last thing it was!”

Shiro watched in confusion as Keith stormed off to his room in a huff.

Keith found minimal sleep that night. His mind had been occupied with the recollection of particular pair of soft lips and haunted by someone’s delicate touches on his skin.

 

-

 

The next morning, Keith was excited and energetic despite his lack of restful sleep. Today was the day he would visit Katherine.

Call her ‘Katherine’, however, and you would find yourself on the experimental end of whatever project she was working on at the time. Katherine was a privilege that very few mortals were granted in her presence. Even without it, friends were certain she had a sixth sense about who used her given name. It was best to simply accept her name was Pidge.

Daughter to the well-known astronomer, Samuel, and sister to another budding astronomer, Matthew, she was born into a family of true, natural intellect. Pidge was more the tinkerer and held a deeper preference to 'hands-on’ sciences over the more 'philosophical’ and 'theoretical’ sort. She was an engineer, a mathematician, an alchemist, a blacksmith, and… maybe a little bit astronomer.

She and Keith had become friends over the years due to his constant need for custom armor and weapons in the arena. It was nice for the two of them seeing as how they had both been rather anomalous. Being so young in years considering their particular fields of practice tended to ostracize them to a degree. They had a solace in each other, being somewhat similar in age and experience, and they quickly found they could confide in one another about anything and everything. Pidge would provide Keith with his necessities for the arena and Keith hardly ever minded helping Pidge with a project or two. It was a rather perfect symbiotic relationship.

Today, Keith was going to see if Pidge could mend a piece of steel for him. He was eager to begin proper training with it again. He was quick to dress and headed to the table to grab a quick bite of food before heading out.

“Morning, Shiro.” Keith greeted as he sat at the table and reached for a bit of flat bread.

“Good morning.” Shiro smiled his usually kind smile as he reached for two cups with his good arm.

“How's it feeling?” Keith chewed as he nodded his head toward Shiro's slinged arm.

“It's better.” He set the cups on the table and poured water for the both of them, “Yesterday, I got some good movement out of my elbow and today is the same with slightly less pain.”

Keith sighed and watched as Shiro took his seat and reached for his own bit of bread.

“It's been months, Shiro. I would have thought that you would have healed better by now.” Keith frowned.

“Yeah, but the pain had been pretty intense, so I hadn't been able to move as much as I would have liked to.” his brother sighed, “I feel like I've lost a little muscle because of that and so now that the pain is less, it's still difficult to move.”

Keith sat quiet for a moment, eating his breakfast. Shiro's arm was having difficulty healing since they came home from Altea. The damage was such that his shoulder was dislocated, his nerves were partially sliced so he had no feeling in his last two fingers, and the colors of his skin were several different shades of black and blue. His radius was cracked, and he had to be in a splint for several weeks. Now, he was stuck in a linen sling to keep his arm as still as possible while it healed. But it had been long enough, however, that Keith started to worry if Shiro would ever be able to enter the Marmoran arena again.

“Be sure to give Pidge and the family my regards.” Shiro reminded Keith before taking a drink.

“I will.” Keith shoved the rest of his breakfast into his mouth and waved behind him as he made for Pidge’s place.


-

“Who dares to enter the Labyrinth of Holt?!”

“I’ve come to claim the head of the Gorgon that lives within!” Keith answered as he burst through the door, sword aloft.

“Try, if you dare, Soldier of Hades! But there are magicks at work within you cannot dream of fighting!” The voice recounted.

Suddenly Keith was pelted with small rocks and he turned his back to save his face.

“Ouch! Pidge!” He cried after a second volley, “These are rocks! And their sharper!”

“Sorry.” She ceased her attack, unloading the third arsenal of rocks from her miniature catapults. “I ran out of walnuts.”

“My fault!” It was a voice Keith didn't know and soon he saw the face it belonged to. “That's… I did that. Sorry. I didn't know they were defensive nuts.”

Keith stepped up to the work bench Pidge and her comrade were fortified behind. The domain was its usual disarray of charts, schematics, models, and other sorts of experimental science carnage.

“Hi. I'm Hunk.” He offered a hand.

Keith took it and could appreciate the hardiness of the handshake. “Keith.”

“Wow.” Hunk smiled widely, “The Red Lion. It's an honor to meet you.”

Keith shook his head, “It's really not that big a deal.”

“Yeah. He's just like everyone else who goes ape-shit with a sword when his friends and family get hurt in the middle of battle during a war.” Pidge added while tweaking a catapult.

“Thanks, Pidge.” Keith eyed her with a stern look. “Speaking of ‘sword’, I need you to fix my gladius. It's cracked about halfway down the blade.”

“Really, Keith?” Pidge sat up and took the weapon from him and looked the damage over. “Wow. I feel sorry for the guy that caused that. I don't know if I can fix this.”

“You have to.” Keith whined, “It's my favorite sword. Kolivan gave it to me.”

“I know, I made it.”

“Pidge, please!”

Pidge turned it over one more time before setting it aside on the workbench.

“Alright, I'll see what I can do.”

“Thank you!”

No sooner had Pidge made her promise, they heard a thud at the door at the back of the shop from the attached home. As they all looked over they saw a walking box approach them and rest atop the workbench. Matthew's head poked over the top of it.

“Oh, hi Keith!” He beamed.

“Hi Matt.” Keith nodded toward the box. “What's that?”

“Material samples.” Matthew turned it around and swung it open, so they could see its contents.

The box had several tiny drawers and settings with small vials, all filled with a plethora of materials; liquid, solid, and everything in between. All of them labeled and neatly organized.

“Whoa!” Hunk’s eyes lit up with pure excitement at the display, “You color coded everything?”

“Of course, we color coded.” Pidge answered before glancing sidelong at her brother. Both of them chimed in together, “Because what are we, animals?”

They smirked proudly to one another and Keith gave Hunk’s curious look a clueless shrug.

“So, what's all this for?” Keith asked curiously.

“Shiro asked us to try and figure out what the Galra were using to fire into the battlefield.” Matt explained, picking through the selection for particular samples, “So we are about to start the process of deconstructing it.”

“That's where Hunk comes in!” Pidge added happily, and Keith looked over to him. “He's one of Volta’s most prominent alchemists. We hope to put our heads together to figure this out.”

“It will be difficult because of the samples we have all being burned through already.” Hunk mused, a finger tapping his chin thoughtfully. “The fire’s heat will not only have charred a lot of the samples we have, but it also changes the properties of the actual fuel, so it will be hard to figure out what it started as.”

“Thankfully, though, Shiro gave us some pretty good descriptions of the attack, from what it looked like and how it smelled.” Pidge was clearly getting antsy to begin working out this puzzle.

“Speaking of Shiro,” Matt's tone sobered, “How is he doing?”

Keith took a deep breath, considering how to phrase his answer. 

“He’s… He’s getting better?” his expression shifted to reticence. 

“Ok…” Pidge waved a hand to incite more of an explanation from him.

“He says the pain is less, but his muscles feel weak. It’s hard for him to really do much with it. It’s been hanging in that sling so long, I’m thinking that his muscles are going to atrophy enough he’ll never be able to use it properly again.”

“Wow.” It seemed to be Hunk’s word of the day, “That’s a scary thought. A day that could come where the Great Shiro of Volta couldn’t pick up a sword…”

Silence filled the room for a moment, the sadness building over the possible reality of that day coming to fruition. Before anyone could speak of something to change the subject they heard another slam of a door where Keith had entered.

“Hunk!” they heard someone call. 

“Lance?” Hunk seemed as surprised as the rest of them at the sudden intrusion.

“Hunk!” Soon, Lance made his own way over to the group gathered at the table, tripping and bumping into nearly everything in the path between as he hurried over, clearly distraught, “Hunk!”

He leaned over the bench and reached for the front of Hunk’s toga, desperation in his eyes and utterly ignoring the somewhat unkind stare from Pidge for his interloping and lack of introductory greeting.

“Tell me you got the message yesterday!” Lance asked, breathless. 

“I definitely got the message yesterday.” Hunk answered confidently. Then it waned. “…Message about what?”


The siblings looked at each other, lost in the interaction and included Keith in their turn of glances. Again, he gave a clueless shrug. Afterward, he felt himself swallow thickly at the sight of Lance again. The sight of the one that haunted his dreams the night before. The sight of the one that he had tasted the lips of, felt the touch of. The one that had made his skin crawl in ways no one had before. He could feel his pulse quicken and he was glad for the fact that someone else was the focus of his attention. Hopefully, he didn’t even notice Keith standing there in the midst of whatever crisis was going on in his life this time.

“Hey.” Keith nudged at Pidge quietly, “Thanks for working on the sword. I’m… gunna head out. I’ll see you later.”

Pidge and Matt subtly waved him off. But as Keith turned to leave, Lance immediately grabbed him by his upper arm. Keith’s heart skipped and he looked back over his shoulder with wide, bewildered eyes. Lance hadn't even looked at him.

“I wanted you to make baklava for the dinner!” Lance whined at Hunk.

“Oh, that message.” Hunk eased with the realization that the scenario wasn’t as dire as Lance was making it out to be. “Yes. I got that message.”

“You do realize I need nearly fifty thousand pounds of it, right?”

“I got it all under control, Lance.” Hunk raised his hands and motioned them forward, as though the signal would calm Lance’s dramatic aura. “It’ll all be ready for the feast. I promise.”

“You’re sure?” Lance raised a skeptical brow.

“Yes.”

“And you’ll be there?”

“Of course.”

“You’ll all be there.” Lance looked at Matt and Pidge. Then he looked at Keith.

“I don’t do feasts.” Keith answered flatly, though, honest.

“You have to be there!” Lance tugged at his elbow with a grimace, “It’s in your honor!”

“You’re throwing a feast in Keith’s honor?” Pidge asked, oddly curious.

“It’s for the men that lead the attack on the Galra at Altea.” Matt explained, apparently up on events. “Now that the soldiers we lost have all been returned for proper burial, we can celebrate the victory.”

“It’s also for Princess Allura and Coran’s welcome to Volta, proper.” Lance added, but then looked back at Keith firmly, “So you’ll be there.

“No.”

Lance let out a frustrated growl and looked at Pidge, “Talk some sense into him.”

“Why? I’m not going.”

Lance's expression melted into horror at that and he looked at Matt, “Talk some sense into both of them!” He looked about the room at everyone. “You’re going! Hunk! Baklava!”

Lance pulled Keith’s arm and had him nose-to-nose, gave him a pointedly adamant look, brows furrowed tightly in his resolve to get Keith to go. Keith blinked, feeling blood begin to rush at suddenly being so close to Lance’s face. Lance huffed before letting Keith go and headed for the door.

“I will see you all at the feast!”

He was gone just as abruptly as he had come.

The room sat in another bit of silence.

“It would be kind of odd to have a dinner in honor of the heroes of Altea and not have the Red Lion there.” Matt pointed out.

Keith scowled in his direction. Matthew averted his eyes diffidently.

Pidge glanced over at Hunk, “You make baklava?”

“I mean, well… You know,” Hunk suddenly had a rather proud air about him, “I’m not really one to brag – too much – but I am an alchemist. And really, what’s cooking but another form of alchemy, right? Yes. Yes, I do make baklava – among other things - and it’s pretty darn good, if I do say so myself.”

“Hm.” Was her response.

Chapter Text

III. Amphora

 

All things considered, the gathering was rather impressive. It stood nothing short to a fine tribute to Dionysus, himself. The wine never ceased to flow and the music was loud and endless. The cacophony of merriment was only rivaled by the gatherings outside of the palace, for that was practically where Lance lived. Keith had no concern for studying hierarchy but only knew that Lance's father was a highly regarded something-or-other to do with politics. Or trade. Perhaps it was law. He wasn't sure. But their family was undoubtedly well off. And they did well to flourish it.

While the feast was a near royal engagement in regards to those that attended, it was a contagious idea to celebrate the peaceful laying of their fallen brethren and to officially cheer for the victory that was hard earned. There were countless gatherings throughout the city of Volta, some raucous enough to rival their own, others shrouded in silent prayer for lost family members and support for heavy spirits. The mood overall was joyous and somber all at once, but it was an evening to mark the turn of a chapter for Volta in the war against the Galra Empire.

As sour as he wished he could be, Keith enjoyed his time there despite himself. The food was remarkably good and that was mostly credited to Hunk and his penchant for experimenting with every angle of flavor and its harmonies. He didn't cook all of the food, but he certainly had a heavy hand in the kitchen. Keith could have eaten every bit of it laid out on the long tables, but his stomach was far too engorged already after his meager plate of seconds.

Keith was currently well known for his courageous act to save his brother and standing steadfast against every challenger that sought him. He never hesitated to meet a foe, regardless of his size or skill, and he bested them without batting an eye. Here, however, he didn't dare brave the open floors alone. He was chained to Shiro's side, and Shiro was kind enough to never abandon his brother in his obvious time of need. Even as Shiro was sought out for praise and conversation, Keith was the name on everyone's lips. Many officers that shared the rank of battalion leader with Shiro had come to give their accolades to Keith for his tenacity, as well as his natural leadership to his regimen.

But, he was not the sole cynosure of the party. The Altean princess and her attendant were also rather engaged for the evening. Many attendants had made it a point to welcome them into their city and provide what offerings they could, much in a grand gesture in order to gain favor with the Alteans. It was not unusual to see both Allura and Coran swarmed with admirers and schmoozers. Though, that didn't stop them from singing their praises to Keith and Shiro as well.

On the battlefield, the rain of fire had ceased because of the efforts of Altean saboteurs. Allura’s doing. She, Coran, and a small handful of soldiers had been on their way to escape the city on her father's order. Though she was resistant to obey, she did so - but not before leaving her own dent in the Galra effort. Her soldiers were glad to sacrifice their lives for her and their King. They volunteered before she could even argue. Because of them, she and Coran easily slipped beyond the wall, and, because of them, Volta suffered no further losses from the catapults.

Afterward, it was Shiro, barely conscious as he was being lifted from the heap he was in, that saw the wave of arms and the distant calls for aid. From there, Keith, tired and bloodied as he was, peeled his regimen away to escort the runaways to safety once he was assured Shiro was in capable hands. Again, he pushed the very limits of what any expected from him as a simple regimen leader. Each soldier that followed him did so with a newly sparked tenacity and respect for their commander after seeing the fire capable within him.

“If it wasn’t for you and your brother, Keith, I'm certain Coran and I would not have made it out alive.” Allura reached for Keith's hand and he obliged with a soft smile.

“I only did what anyone else would have if they had been the ones to see you escaping the city.”

Allura smiled regally and leaned in to place a chaste kiss on Keith's cheek. Coran had offered his gratitude as well, clasping arms with Shiro and giving a solid brotherly pat on his good shoulder.

“I'm sorry we couldn't do more to help save Altea.” Shiro lamented softly.

“I'm afraid that Altea may had already been lost before the battle even began.” Coran assured, though saddened by the hindsight. “There were things at work far too advanced in their machinations to have been able to stop.”

They had all agreed, then, that there would be other chances to discuss such heavy subjects. Now was a time for merriment and to enjoy the promise of better days ahead. Coran spotted a servant with a tray of food that piqued his interest and Shiro and Allura had begun to speak of acquaintances she had made in the interim - none of which Keith took any interest in. He scouted the floor for Pidge's familiar face and found her, a tray full of baklava in her hand, in a gathering of minds, he was certain, as Matthew and her father were included. He knew in an instant that was not a place he would try to venture. Hunk was not to be found as the night had grown old. He had spent much of his time helping with the preparations and only stayed long enough to make certain he left Lance comfortable with the ongoings before taking his leave for the evening a short time earlier. (As well as several servings of food, of course.)

Eventually, Keith fell into habit and found a solitary corner of the room to stand and watch until he had his fill. It was particularly worthy to note a certain figure that held much of his attentions. The entire night, not once did Lance bother to greet him. There wasn't a single moment Lance vyed for Keith's attention. He was so adamant to have him come to this ridiculous feast and yet hadn't even acknowledged his presence. He started to wonder for a moment if he was just the centerpiece to the cornucopia of gathered soldiers; the standing equivalent to “look who came to my party.” Keith's eyes easily picked out Lance in the throng of people. He was difficult to miss with the way he commanded the room. His laughter was contagious and never filled the air alone - but Keith heard it, clear as day, every time. His smile glistened more than the marble columns that surrounded them. His moves were inspiration to the Muses when he danced to the beckoning music, in the arms of man or woman alike. Keith was baffled by him, but beguiled by him. As it was, he was fine with it… at a distance.

He was even amused, at times, by his unpredictability. By his outlandishness. There was a moment when the entire feast had all but stopped completely as Allura received a cup of wine from a servant. From across the room he called out.

“Princess Allura!” He cried, a finger outstretched in her direction, and all eyes followed the voice to his indignant face.

Lance made his way to her and Coran, both wearing nothing short of surprise and confusion on their faces at their host's outburst.

“What swill is this you are drinking in my house?” He demanded, taking the cup and taking a large drink.

He shook his head emphatically, grabbed Corans's cup as well and tossed them both back, leaving them to clatter and spill all over the floor behind him.

“It’s soured and wretched! I will not stand for it!” Lance turned to a servant several paces away, “Cassius! Fetch my personal amphora of Pramnian wine from Lesvos! Our Altean guests deserve nothing less but the best we have to offer." Lance leaned closer to Cassius with a loud whisper, “Everyone else is fine to drink what they have though.”

“Lance.” Allura said with a relieved sigh, “Truly, that is not necessary.”

“Please, Princess.” Lance tutted, taking Allura’s hand and bringing it to his lips. His eyes glittered brilliance bespeaking a playfully seductive aura, “It is my pleasure to serve you.”

Allura was at a loss for words and how to respond to such thickly laid… charm. She was eager to retrieve her hand with the cup of new wine.

Keith smiled to himself, finding the triviality of it all somewhat winsome. Afterward, there was little else all too disruptive. Keith even noticed Lance had found a much more mellow state of being. Though, he found it slightly out of character for the man to turn in so early not long after his outburst. Guests were still having their fill of the festivities and, suddenly, Lance was nowhere to be found.

Before Keith could decide to follow suit and be on his way, he felt a light hand in his shoulder.

“Excuse me, Red Lion.”

It was the servant Cassius.

“The young master of the house is requesting your presence in his personal quarters.”

Keith looked at the boy with knitted brows, unsure how to feel about the request. Before he could give an answer, Cassius bade him to follow and his decision was made for him

 

-

 

“Is it your normal praxis to find the most desolate corner of a room in order to solicit questionable rendezvous's with young, vulnerable figures?”

“What?! No! I don't -” Keith stammered at the accusation, “I mean I'm not- I don't intend-”

Lance laughed, shifting on his bed to lean on a hand as he sat at it's edge. The cream-colored bed, far larger than one person would ever need, rested against a wide wall in the spacious room. Keith figured it was at least thrice the size of his own humble quarters. Of course, Lance would have his bed extravagantly decorated with sheer drapes embellished in blue embroidered trim that flowed from carved wood fittings on the wall. They were set to be drawn around the bed, but Lance left them open, though the luxury was not lost.

“Relax, Lion. I’m honestly tempting Atropos by taking time teasing you at the moment anyway.” Lance sighed and Keith took note of how labored it seemed to be. “I have to confess, I am in need of another favor.”

Keith thought to quip, but something about Lance's countenance and the mention of Atropos said it was a wiser decision to listen a bit more seriously.

“I need you to go to Hunk and ask for the antidote for a sour, fairly pungent poison that burns a little on the way down.”

Keith's brows knitted tightly at the odd request.

“Forgive me for asking, but I have to stress the urgency in it as well.”

“What are you talking about, Lance?” He could feel his pulse begin to race.

“I'm dying, Keith.” Lance smiled, unphased. “But if you do this for me, I would be happy to elaborate further afterward.”

“Why me?”

Lance shifted again, sitting upright, and his face sobered as he looked at Keith with every facet of sincerity conceived.

“Because I trust you.”

Keith studied Lance carefully and it was easy to see how his face had dulled. His eyes no longer had that spark he always carried in them. His forehead was sprinkled in beads of sweat, though the evenings were caressed by cooler night breezes. Keith could see that Lance was very much in dire straights and made no further attempt to question Lance's intentions.

“How long?”

“Still some time, I think.” Lance gave another heavy breath, “But I would rather not push the limits.”

Keith nodded and left Lance alone in his room.

He made his way down the dimly lit hall back toward the party, the only way he knew to exit. Each step he took subconsciously quickened his pace as he pictured Lance laying in his bed, slowly succumbing to whatever was eating away at him from the inside. Soon he was jogging, down the steps to the main floor, skirting the edge of the crowd unaware. His slips passed packed bodies became rougher and more forced than polite. As he made his way out the doors of the party, he bound down the steps, hitting only two out of the twelve, and hit a full sprint on his way to Hunk's home.

It was fortunate that Keith had walked with Hunk home after their visit at Pidge's shop, an opportunity to familiarize with a new friend for the both of them. He was lucky enough to know exactly where to run, exactly which door he sought, and he flew to it. In only a few minutes, he skidded to a stop before it - though, to Keith, it felt entirely too long.

“Hunk!” He beat the door with his fist, not caring who it would wake, “Hunk!”

His incessant pounding went on for several seconds before the door finally opened.

“Keith? What's going on?” He yawned.

“Lance needs an antidote!” Keith huffed, not intending to be as loud as he was.

“Again?” Hunk replied, much more awake.

“He said it was sour, pungent…” Keith stopped for a second racking his brain to remember the last bit, “and it burned while he swallowed!”

“Oooh, that's different!” Hunk was suddenly filled with urgency as he headed back into the house. Keith followed close behind.

Hunk led him to a wide table littered with all manner of cups, bowls, pestles, and herbs of every kind hanging overhead. Immediately, he broke open cupboards and drawers, searching frantically for the ingredients he needed.

“Come on, come on, come on.” Hunk muttered to himself, “I need to start color coding too.. Keith! Light a fire in that metal bowl and fill the one on top halfway with water.”

Keith did as he was asked, making certain that the small flame had enough tinder to last as he moved to a small cistern near the table to scoop a bit of water. As he placed it on a hold over the fire, Hunk had begun to grind something in a small mortar.

“It sounds like Daibazaal venom.” Hunk offered, much to Keith's relief, “it's really sour and is known to burn when you swallow it. Luckily, the best way to counteract it is with Balmera root.”

“How long does he have?” Keith asked, his concern lacing each word.

“It's a thick poison, so normally at least a day.” Hunk reached for an herb to add to his mortar. “But it was most likely dissolved in a cup of wine because it's easier to hide that way. Nasty looking syrup would not have made it into my food without me noticing!”

The wine! Keith’s eyes widened as he recalled the drama Lance had caused because of the wine Allura and Coran were about to drink. He took one drink and threw them to the ground so no one else could have any. He knew. Lance knew they were laced. But why would he drink it? Why put himself at risk?

But it was dissolved in wine?” Keith wanted to reign in Hunk's tangent.

“It was dissolved in liquid so it's effects would take less time.” Hunk shifted over and dropped his mixture into the bowl of now-boiling water, stirring delicately.

“So…” Keith dreaded to ask a second time, “How long?”

“How long ago did he ingest it?”

“An hour and a half?” Keith estimated, “Maybe two?”

Hunk's brows furrowed deeply but he sighed softly. “Then he will have near as long.”

Keith could begin to smell the odor of the Balmera root and it tingled in his nose. As the fragrance started to build, Hunk grabbed a large vial and scooped the pulp into it, adding enough of the liquid to fill it.

“I added some mint to help the taste, but he won't be happy.” Hunk offered with the vial, “Make sure he drinks all of it.”

Keith nodded as he took the warm vial and headed back to the door, Hunk in toe.

All of it, Keith!” Hunk yelled after him as he exited.

Again, the Red Lion made a dead run for Lance. As fast as he was, it took little time in navigate the streets. As he leapt up the steps, a shadow caught the corner of his eye. He paid it no more mind than that and continued on his way. He stepped into the grand hall and called for room. The yell was such that attendees shifted immediately, clamoring about the odd rush the Red Lion was in to break through the party in such a way.

Cassius had enough mind to make for Lance's room and open the door for Keith, allowing him little need to slow down. Keith hurried to Lance and offered him the vial.

“You really are quite something, aren't you?” Lance smiled, laid comfortably, as Keith walked up to the bedside, huffing to catch his breath.

Keith ignored the comment. “Hunk says you have to drink it all.”

Lance glanced at the browning liquid and scrunched his face, displeased at the notion. He sighed heavily and worked to sit up. He popped open the vial and took a sip.

“Uch! It's so bitter !” Lance gagged.

“You’re short on time. You know that.” Keith reminded.

“Even the chunky pulp bits?”

All . Of. It.” Keith scowled.

Lance grumbled and took a deep breath before downing the entirety of the vial. He choked and gagged afterward, reaching toward a small table just off to the side of his bed.

“Wine! Wine, wine, wine, wine!” He winced and Keith reached for the cup that sat there, handing it to Lance's demanding hand. Lance emptied that too.

As Lance was taking his medicine, his father, Ambrose, a man who had seen many years that left him balding, what he had left was a pale white on his head, lived through enough days the sun had left his olive skin darkened and nearly leathery, walked through enough lives that his bones had grown weary and slow, made his way to Lance's door.

“What is the meaning of this outburst in my home during my feast?” He demanded, though the only one to hear was Cassius. “What nonsense has a man tearing through my halls and barreling into my son's room with such candor?!”

“Your son was poisoned this evening, ere.” The servant answered candidly.

“Pois- what? What is the meaning of this?”

“Someone had poisoned the Altean Princess’s wine and the young master had drank it by mistake.” Cassius explained as the master of the house’s face paled, “the Red Lion has just returned from the alchemist with the antidote.”

“...I see.” The man watched as his son returned his cup and laid himself back on the bed, likely to rest as he let the antidote work. “There shall be things to address in the morning. For now, let him rest.”

Cassius nodded and closed the door behind him as he followed his master out.

As Lance laid his head back down, Keith moved to take his leave. When he turned, he felt a pull on his wrist.

“Stay.” Lance said softly, looking up at him with heavy lidded eyes. “Please.”

Keith said nothing, only watching Lance for a long moment before shifting to take a seat on the floor next to the bed.

It wasn't exactly what Lance had in mind as he watched Keith settle. He had to laugh to himself, feeling that it was a very Keith sort of thing to do. He sighed lightly, turning onto his side and curled into his pillow, resisting the urge to run his fingers through that dark mop of hair just within reach. Slowly his eyes drifted shut.

 

 

When he woke in the morning, he saw that the spot Keith had occupied was empty. He sat up, propped on his hands and scanned his room to find no one. His shoulders sunk just a bit. That also seemed like a very Keith thing to do. Before Lance could convince himself that he hardly should have been surprised, the door opened.

“You're up.” Keith stepped into the room.

“You're here.” Lance was delightfully surprised as Keith offered the cup of water he brought with him.

“You asked me to stay, didn't you?” Keith crossed his arms, watching to make sure Lance drank it all, “...Why? You knew it was poisoned. Why drink it?”

“Mnh.” The noise was muffled in the cup as Lance tilted it back all the way. It emptied and he returned it to Keith, “I had a suspicion . Drinking it was the only way to be certain.”

“How did you know?”

“I know everyone in this house.” Lance stated, “I know them by name, their families, their pets. I didn't know the servant that gave the Alteans that wine.”

Keith had to admit, he was impressed. Lance seemed to have an incredible eye for detail. He was also quite bold to take such a risk, and to have the confidence that Keith would even ordain to help him. Before he could say anything further, there was a knock at Lance's door and Cassius poked his head in.

“Forgive me, but…” he opened the door and stepped aside to allow Allura, Coran, Shiro, and his father into the room.

“Cassius, have you brought the festivities to me?” Lance beamed, “You are so sweet!”

“Lance, we came to see how you were.” Allura moved to the bedside, hands clasped worriedly at her chest. “I can't believe someone would do such a thing. And you nearly died because of us.”

“I wasn't worried.” Lance waved off the concern. “I had someone I could count on to save me.”

Shiro smiled and placed a hand on his brothers shoulder. Keith looked away from everyone with a roll of his eyes. Pointed accolades were still not something Keith bathed in easily.

“Glad to know you had a solid plan for such risky actions.” Coran praised.

Lance took Allura's hand in both of his, holding it tenderly as he looked up at her with serious eyes.

“I would be happy to drink any poison for you, Princess.”

Allura gave a nervous laugh, unsettled by the move, but unsure how to rebuke it since Lance had already done just that. Much to her relief, Lance's father spoke up and she took advantage and stepped back.

“I believe that's quite enough drinking of poisons.” He rasped. “And seeing as how there seems to be some sort of plot against either us or our Altean guests, I believe we need to be on a level of great caution.”

He turned to Allura and Coran. “I hope you would stay in my home until this whole thing is solved. Even though the incident took place within our walls, it is unfortunately difficult to keep eyes on everything when all doors are open to everyone. Now that the feast has passed, you will be much safer here.”

“Please, we couldn't dare intrude as to be refugees in your lovely home.”

“Nonsense.” He raised his hand to hush her arguments, “Until Altea is returned, you are Voltan residents and my personal guests.”

“Thank you, generous Ambrose.”

“As for you,” Lance's father eyed Keith directly, “Thank you for saving my son.”

“I was only a messenger. I didn't do anything.”

“You were astute enough to know that my son's health was amiss and remedied his ailment.” Before Keith could argue that it was all Lance, he was sentenced. “So you are now under my employ to watch this reckless charge and guard him from whatever trouble would come his way until we know who is the cause of all this.”


“I'm what?

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

IV. Agora

 

Every chance he had to enjoy his last day of freedom, Keith squandered. He spent all his time trying to figure out just how he was suddenly contracted by one of Volta’s supreme politicians by doing almost nothing but stand in the wrong place at the right time. He sulked for most of the day after Lance had woken. It was decided that Lance would remain in bed for the day to allow what poisons were left in his belly to become absorbed by the Balmera root. He would sleep for most of it and so would be under the watchful eye of his household. Keith, in the meantime, would be grumbling over Shiro’s positive spin on it all.

 

You need to get out more. You can’t just train in the Colosseum your whole life. This will be good for you.

 

Keith scoffed to himself as he recalled the sentiments the next morning. How was following around an egocentric self-proclaimed prince supposed to be ‘good for him’? His tight shoulders laxed slightly as his folded arms eased with the thought. Ok, maybe Lance didn’t technically proclaim himself such a thing. Maybe it was just the confident air that came off him. Maybe it was just more how Lance carried himself with a sort of regal refinement Keith wasn’t used to seeing in the dirt and grit of a fighting arena. Maybe it was simply the fact that he looked like a prince; he dressed well, was always clean, smelled of expensive oils, wore pricey jewelry, things that Keith would expect from royalty - not that he had met any, aside from the recent Altean heiress apparent. Alright, maybe not a prince. But how exactly would Keith describe Lance then? His brows furrowed a little tighter as he attempted to figure it out in his head.

 

“What’s with the face?”

 

Keith looked up before nearly bumping into Lance who had stopped walking ahead of him and had turned to face him completely. There was a cocky look drawn across his face. Keith’s own expression faded from the light surprise of being tugged from his thoughts back into soured irritation.

 

“I’m still trying to figure out how I got swindled into babysitting you.”

 

“Well, anything would cause a face like that when you talk about in with that kind of mentality.” Lance shook his head.

 

“That is my mentality.”

 

“Then there’s your first problem!” Lance raised a finger at the ‘discovery’. “Your mindset needs to change. You weren’t ‘swindled’ but ‘handed an opportunity’ !”

 

“Handed an opportunity?” Keith echoed, “For what, exactly?”

 

“To open your eyes to a new perspective!” Lance opened his arms in a grand gesture at the notion, “To see how a different side of Volta lives! To meet your brothers of the battlefield, the people who adore you in all your recent glory. To learn how your life may soon be - what with your new status and all.”

 

“I like my life the way it’s been, thanks.” Keith grumbled. He wasn’t much enthused about the possibility of his way of living changing in any respect. He was quite comfortable with the way it had been so far.

 

Lance rolled his eyes as they stopped in the middle of the grand hall of his home. It looked so much bigger without the throng of party guests. The echos were so much more hollow without the lively music filling the air and the world within the villa seemed so much more sterile and empty. So it would have been, if not for the essence that Lance filled it with. Even after a private brush with his end, Lance still seemed as animated and vibrant had Keith had learned him to be. His skin was back to the supple dark olive that he worked so diligently to nurture. His hair was expertly combed back and tamed from the ratty influences of his death pillow. His eyes boasted that known sapphire glimmer no one could escape once more.

 

Cassius offered the tray in his hand to his young master of the house. It held a single cup of wine and Lance was glad to take it.

 

“Do you really think you should be so quick to start with wine again?” Keith’s eyes narrowed as Lance took the glass, “Shouldn’t you be much more selective about what you put in your mouth? At least for the next few days.”

 

Lance pursed his lips defiantly at the taller man by his side.

 

“You’re my bodyguard, not my nanny.”

 

Before he could bring the wine to his lips, however, Keith reached out and took it from him. Lance glowered, though made no effort to argue any more than that. Perhaps it was best not to test just how broken down his insides were for a few more days. He recalled attempting a bit of wine the day before, simply for the fact that he tired of all the water he drank. It wasn’t much longer afterward that he found himself tasting the same wine the other direction with a sickening tang of his own personal bile to it. Lance would be quite alright with not having to experience that taste again any time soon.

 

Cassius took the wine from Keith with a bow, silently grateful that someone was able to drill a little bit of sense into Lance about his health. He left them for the kitchen and the pair headed out.

 

“You think she's finished it by now?” Lance asked as they trotted down the front steps.

 

“I hope so.”

 

Lance's laughed softly, “Do you really feel that naked without a deadly weapon strapped to your side?”

 

“You have no idea how uncomfortable I am right now.” Keith groaned.

 

Keith was anxious to get his sword back from Pidge. It was like he was missing an arm or a leg and he felt lost without it within reach. When he had gone to see Lance that morning, he had mentioned off-handedly that it was on his list of errands at some point and Lance was excited to tag along. Keith was actually a little surprised by the interest, but if it allowed him to reunite with his missing extension, he would be more than happy to allow Lance to come with him.

 

Lance had known the way to Pidge’s laboratory, learning it in his impromptu search for Hunk prior to his soiree. But since Lance knew where their destination lie, it was impossible for Keith to try and talk his way out of taking their route through the agora. His dislike of social situations only amplified in the hustle and bustle of the agora. It was crowded. It was loud. There was no shortage of merchants and customers arguing their barters and criers that capped the noise. Pickpockets were a constant threat alongside the kapeloi who never ceased in attempting to overprice anything one would wish to purchase. But Lance was firmly insistent. Keith reluctantly acquiesced and braced himself for a full afternoon of invasion of his personal space and a lot of unsolicited attention.

 

The agora was as swarming as ever, the forum of merchants and traders filled with numerous bodies shifting here and there in a sort of chaotic wave, like a hypnotic dance by a thin swarm of ants leisurely scouting potential. There was a gentle drum of interaction that mingled in the air with the listing aromatics wafting from countless stalls and wares. The agora was an experience all it's own. And still, it was one Keith could have done just as well without. With a sigh, he fell in line behind his ward and they stepped out of the boundaries of his comfort zone.

 

“Lance!” A stall keeper called, “Lance, you have to try the fresh currants we have today! They're incredibly sweet! So very delicious!”

 

Lance wandered over to the stand and offered his good morning with a smile that rivaled the very burden Apollo bared. Keith let them chat idly, paying no mind to their conversation. Instinctively, his arms crossed, making it seem as though he was clocked in impatience. Lance notice the body language, but paid it no mind.

 

“Just remember, I'm expecting those artichokes tomorrow!” Lance said pointedly through a grin.

 

“Of course, of course!” The keeper laughed, hands in the air compliantly.

 

Lance turned to leave and Keith followed close behind.

 

“Here.” Lance offered out his hand.

 

Keith blinked curiously and held out his own, watching as Lance dropped a small handful of currants in it. He looked at Lance.

 

“Would you prefer that I feed you again?” Lance smirked teasingly and held one out.

 

Keith grimaced, unamused, and popped on of his own into his mouth, his eyes never straying from Lance's smug face. Lance grinned and went on his way, chewing his snack as he browsed further. Keith's brows piqued. The currants were delicious. The deep sweetness balanced the nice tang of tartness they had. He would have to remember these.

 

Keith fell back a few steps, gingerly munching through his allotment of fruit, and watched Lance work his charisma. It was like he knew every single merchant and two thirds of the consumer throng. Keith studied his face and candor with each conversation he had. There was never a look of anger, there was never a line drawn across his features in annoyance or disgust at the numerous people vying for his attention. The man seemed to have the patience that could rival a god. Like the very Atlas himself that stood strong an poised to hold the world on his shoulders so still and steady, without a single faltering muscle. Keith could see the same in Lance just then, a single figure that seemed to hold all of Volta on his hands. They called and came to him and Keith could barely understand how he stomached the attention. But he bore it well, even beautifully. He was happy to see them. He was happy to hear his name on their lips. He relished in the attention. And there was nothing that would remind Keith that was where they differed quite greatly than when he suddenly heard calls of his own name.

 

“Lion! Red Lion!”

 

His nickname, anyway.

 

Keith turned at the call, his nerves firing slightly already. He saw no one that looked as though they called for him. Until he felt a tug at his chiton.

 

“Red Lion! Where is your sword?” it was a young boy. His age possibly no more than ten years passed.

 

“Have you killed someone with it?” Another asked.

 

“You don't look as scary as everyone says...” Again, a new voice.

 

Keith suddenly found himself surrounded by inquisitive children. They clamored about him and pawed innocently in want of his attentions. They asked questions by the hundreds and never once allowed him an opportunity to answer. He wasn't sure what to answer first, or even how to tell them to slow down, or take turns, or even stop. It wasn't that he disliked children, they were just so overwhelming in such giant numbers.

 

“Begone, Spawn of Typhon.” Lance had slinked back to Keith's side to shoo away the miniature horde.

 

“We're not monsters!” A little girl protested.

“Yeah. You're a Spawn of Typhon!!” Another retorted, possibly related to the girl, having very similar features.

 

“True!” Lance answered quickly before taking his own chin by thumb and index finger to display his face rather confidently, “But I am the most handsome one.”

 

The children laughed, highly amused.

 

“The Red Lion is much more handsome!” The little girl giggled.

 

Lance balked and Keith's eyes widened slightly in complete surprise at the statement. What? His eyes then shifted to Lance, curious about his reaction. He swore he saw an irked twitch on his face.

 

“Regardless of your youthful ignorance, harpy,” Lance sneered pointedly. “Keith is with me as my personal soldier of malice so begone before I have him chop off your little heads for me and my monster brethren to snack on!”

 

The tiny mass of children all screamed and ran away in playful laughter to resume what games they had left. Lance dusted his hands off in a smug job-well-done gesture before crossing his arms stiffly.

 

“...I'm a little more handsome than you.” He finally said after some silence, sure the young ones were out of earshot. Keith looked at him, wanting to be surprised that Lance had seemed to take the nonsense to heart. He wasn't. “It wouldn't be fair for you to be better looking than me when you don't even try.”

 

“Is…” Keith's lips slowly curved into a gradually amused smirk, “is that jealousy, I'm hearing?”

 

Lance gave him a sidelong look that Keith could read as little else before turning up his nose to the conversation and moving on his way. Keith chuckled to himself. Really. How stupid was the idea of Keith being remotely as comely as Lance? He shook his head and followed behind Lance once more, a small entertained smile still playing at the corner of his lips.

 

Lance rooted through a few stalls, answering greetings and having brisk chats as he did. Keith was never left out, though, as Lance would constantly ask his opinion of certain things now and again. He had picked up a handful of material, looking at the intricate pattern of the purple embroidery and feeling the softness of it. He had Keith do much the same before asking if he thought it would make for a decent toga. Keith answered yes, and thought to himself that Lance would probably be able to make straw and tar look just as good. When Lance held it up before Keith and said it would be better suited for him, he had to force the flush in his cheeks away.

 

“Please.” Keith bemoaned, taking the material from him and setting it back on the stall table, “I wouldn't wear anything like that.”

 

“Wouldn't you?” Lance asked innocently.

 

“If I can't fight in it, I don't need it.”

 

Lance smirked and left it at that. Though, Keith noticed he seemed very pleased with himself as he did. Lance began to point out things like better leathers for belts and straps at certain stalls. He mentioned the names of several artisans that could do well to work some decent light armor. He commented on where to find the best cobbler. Keith had been to a particular cobbler on occasion, and did alright with his sandals. But he was a bit curious, with the way that Lance talked about fit and traction on the ground. Maybe it was a good time to look into new sandals.

 

As Keith looked over the stall that had been pointed out, trying to remember it for a later visit, Lance hurried over to one that looked to be selling jewelry.

 

“You have new wares, Eustachys.”

 

“I do!” The man behind the table answered. He was tall and a bit rotund. But he had a kind face and the numerous lines that grew from the corners of his eyes spoke of a man pleased with his lot in life. “I've had some time to work some new designs for a few arm cuffs. There are also some imported trades from the Summer's travel.”

 

Lance picked up a cuff he was unfamiliar with and looked it over closely.

 

“I get most of my jewelry from Eustachys.” He showed the piece to Keith, who took it and looked it over himself. “His engraving detail is really quiet extraordinary.”

 

The artisan smiled at the compliment, the lines around his eyes deepening. The minute lines and tiny consideration in the designs were truly impressive. To work so much into a small space was an art few could do so perfectly by hand.

 

“These are very good.” Keith said, handing the piece back to Lance, though he directed his eyes to Eustachys. “You have incredible skill with your hands.”

 

“Thank you, Red Lion.” The artisan bowed humbly, “it's an honor to hear such praise from you.”

 

“Hey! Look here!” Lance reached for a small earring in gold.

 

It was a wide band curved in a simple 'J’ shape. Wider where it curled below than where it began at the top. It was nothing as intricate as many of Eustachys’ other pieces, but it did well in its own simple beauty. Keith watched as Lance looked over to him and then to his left ear. There, lived a simple accessory of his own. An earring, much like the one Lance then had between his fingers. It was slightly more crude than the golden one, Keith's set in silver. The size was more consistent than tapered at the edges, and the top and bottom were straight rather than delicately rounded; a simple band rather than a designed piece.

 

“This would look good on you, don't you think?” As Lance asked he reached for the worn jewelry to swap out.

 

His hand brushed the side of Keith’s face and before anyone could breath, Keith moved, his reflexes lightening quick. Lance froze solid at the tight grip around his wrist and his eyes went wide. The look on Keith's face he knew, but he only ever saw it while he fought in the Colosseum, staring down his opponent. Lance swallowed, admittedly nervous at the unexpected reaction. After what felt like a thousand seconds to Lance, Keith softened completely.

 

“I'm… sorry.” His grip loosened to a gentle touch, taking Lance’s hand in his, and he attempted a soft, apologetic smile. (Which worked enough to ease Lance's nerves.) His tone of voice seemed to match his endeavor to amend his response. “But, that stays.”

 

Lance smiled genuinely in return, accepting Keith's dance around an apology, and brought his hand away. He left the matter at that, figuring there was a sentiment behind the earring Lance didn't know about and bid his favorite jeweler farewell before leading the way forward once again. Keith followed, very much aware of how he had unintentionally soured the mood a bit. He regretted how the whole thing came off, but was unsure to really express his contrition. He idly ran a hand through his black strands of hair and rubbed his head as he thought on it. But Lance suddenly raised an hand to stop him in his tracks.

 

“Do you smell that?” Lance lifted his nose for a few sniffs, smiled and breathed deep.

 

Keith watched the behavior curiously before taking a sniff of his own, not sure what he was attempting to notice. Lance then moved to round a corner and Keith shadowed behind him to a stall painted with the bright colors of countless flora. They burst with explosions of every hue under the brilliant sun and the scent that they gave off mingle into one another before wafting outward and enticing eager buyers.

 

“These smell amazing!” Lance sang with another deep sigh. “They have water hyacinth! I know they do! I can smell them!”

 

Keith had to admit, now that they were standing in them, they were rather potent. In a pleasant way. He observed, silently patient still, as Lance stuck his nose in several bouquets of flowers and breathed in each unique and delicate scent. The man certainly seemed to know how to enjoy the little things. And Keith seemed to hardly mind watching as he did so. The canopy of the stall was speckled with holes, to allow some sunlight through the partial shade, giving the flowers the bit of light they needed. But Keith noted the streams of light playing on Lance’s olive skin and watched as it accentuated the features of his face in contrast to the vibrant colors of petal and leaf.

 

“How can you smell one flower in the mess of them all?” Keith chuckled softly.

 

Lance stood to answer, but before he could, there was a voice.

 

“Because they’re his absolute favorite.” A saccharine giggle followed as Lance was suddenly crowned with a ring of delicately lavender flowers. Lance ducked in surprise at first, but then grinned brightly at his favorite flower framing his head.

 

“Korinna!” Lance greeted happily as a small, buxom frame danced around to stand between them.

 

“How are you, my sweet prince?” Keith watched as Korinna slipped her arms around Lance's shoulders and pressed her lips to the very corner of his.

 

Keith noted the nickname after the argument he had with himself earlier. Ah, I knew it!

 

“Very well, thank you.” Lance took her hands from around him into his own and brought them both, clasped, to his lips. “To what do we owe the pleasure?”

 

Keith was slightly curious as well. But then, her name sounded familiar. It took a swift moment, but it was a name that was whispered, only quite often. Korinna, the courtesan. There were many times he recalled a flash of her smile and a bat of her eye at  Marmora. Many times, she was hung on the arms of a different man. As Lance's reputation was, Keith was no longer lost to the visit. The playboy's playmates would certainly want some attention as they happened to pass by.

 

“More than likely, much the same as you.” she sang in answer, “A few of us were simply in the market for a few pretty new things.”

 

Keith felt a touch on his arm.

 

“Speaking of pretty new things, who do we have here?” Suddenly Keith felt swarmed all over again, much like the children. Only this time things were much less… innocent.

 

“My beloved mischievous nymphs,” Lance postured proudly, hands on his hips just before Korinna snaked her arms around one of his. “This is Keith, the Red Lion himself.”

 

There was an audible group gasp and others came to sneak a peak. There were only about six or seven courtesans in toe, but it was enough for Keith to start to feel rather invaded as they giggled and gossiped.

 

“Not at all what many of the rumors have claimed.” Korinna mused through a smile, resting her head on Lance's shoulder.

 

“Hmn… Yes and no.” Lance chuckled softly at the scene, Keith really beginning to look frayed by the attention.

 

“I'm beginning to see that. He almost looks harmless, the poor thing.” She sighed and clapped her hands to get everyone's attention. The girls stopped, “You realize he may get smart enough to start charging you ladies, if you don't let up!”

 

Korinna scattered the girls back out to the road and pulled Keith in to press a kiss to his cheek.

 

“Look me up some time soon.” She purred in his ear, though Lance could hear every word. She gave Lance a sidelong look, “I wouldn't mind if you even came… together.”

 

Keith immediately flashed Lance a look of embarrassed shock. Together?! With a courtesan? Who on Earth did she think he was?! Korinna proceeded to rejoin her flock and left the two men back to their own shopping. Lance had to admit he quite enjoyed the encounter, much to the chagrin of his bodyguard.

 

“Don't they charge for interaction like that?” Keith huffed as he turned to watch them go.

 

“Currants, my friend.” Lance said as he clapped a hand on his shoulder. “You sell more if you give out samples.”

 

Keith looked back at Lance with a thoughtful face. He had a valid point. It was exactly like the currants they had snacked on earlier. Though, Keith was completely certain that his coin would surely remain in his purse regardless.

 

Lance sighed lightly, giving Keith a sturdy pat on the back between his shoulders. He shifted back to the flowers, pondering over them for a moment. Keith turned as he felt him ebb.

 

“Do you have a favorite flower, Keith?” Lance’s eyes danced in the rays of light that kissed his cheeks and Keith had almost completely forgotten about what happened not a minute ago, “I’m betting you’re…” His eyes narrowed, then studied Keith carefully while holding his chin in thought. “You’re a daffodil man! Because they look like little lion manes!”

 

Lance was obviously rather proud of his deductive skills. His winning moment was short-lived, however, as Keith produced the correct answer.

 

“Lilies.”

 

“What?” Lance looked at him in honest surprise. He didn’t think Keith actually had a favorite flower, let alone that one.

 

“I like lilies. Sword lilies, if you want to be specific.”

 

Lance’s expression soured deeply at the confirmation of what he had heard the first time. His brows knitted as he folded his arms and looked away in a tiff.

 

“I hate lilies...” Lance huffed, “Of any kind.”

 

Clearly, his suddenly-found moment of happiness was quelled by the mention of what was apparently his greatest plant nemesis. It was enough to drive him from the stall entirely and as he left Keith’s side, Keith couldn’t help but flash a sliver of teeth in amusement at the reaction he had garnered. After giving Lance a moment or so of stomping off, he fell back in line behind him.

 

As they neared the open end of the agora - what was made to be the true entrance - they approached a grand fountain, the centerpiece of an open square. Lounging at an edge was a group of vibrant youths that settled near the same years as both Lance and Keith. As they approached, one of the men called to them.

 

“And speaking of such,” he announced aloud, “here strolls the very embodiment itself.”

 

“Indeed. A disciple of Pothos, himself.” Another added.

 

Lance smirked, only guessing at what it was they were debating that day by their hints.

 

“And what is to say that I am not the very Pothos you speak of, walking the Earth amongst you malleable-minded gentles.”

 

“And so!” The first answered dramatically with a wave of his arms, balanced along the fountain wall. “For how, truly, could one captivate so well so many with hardly a thought? A simple flash of your gaze and your victim would fall prey to you in no such effort. We have all felt the draw of your beauty. There are none who could deny, you would hold the very definition of captivation .”

 

“Hmn.” Lance thought a moment.

 

Keith listened, having known of how young men tended to spend their days in lectures and brainstorms, attempting to unravel the mysteries of Life, itself, amongst one another. They played at the philosophies of Plato, the science of Archimedes, and the whimsy of Olympus itself. Keith had never been near enough to ever hear their discourse before. He was curious at what they had to say.

 

“If it's captivation you seek...” Lance offered. “Then there are a few skills one must learn beforehand. There is a magic to the world that the sirens have learned and only the great Odysseus knows the melody. And perhaps I may know a bar or two.”

 

“I'm certain you know more than a few bars, Lance!” The group laughed.

 

“Sing to us, Beauty, that we may all be slaves to your gifts and guile. Any man here would gladly fall prey to your siren spell, as many already have.”  There was another round of raucous laughing, Lance's ringing loudest in Keith's ears.

 

“And what of you, Red Lion?” The first philosopher spoke up again, the apparent ringleader of discussion, “What say you on captivating the poor man's heart? Do you hold the same skills of haunting magic as your companion?”

 

Keith's nerves prickled in surprise at the address. He hardly expected to be included in the debate. He looked over to Lance, a hand resting idly on his hip and a curious purse on his lips. He nudged his head toward the group encouraging Keith to answer on his own. Keith looked back to the fountain and took a moment to find his words.

 

“If you're looking for what captures a man, you needn't look any further than within.” Brows piqued and all poised to hear what Keith had to say. “No man can be captured unless he desires to be so. Captivation is only to be consumed, heart and soul, by what is wanted.”

 

“Interesting theory.” The debate master mused.

 

Lance listened just as eagerly as the others. As Keith presented his view, little by little, Lance's lips pulled into a satisfied smirk. He was becoming exceedingly proud of the company he kept more and more by the minute. His eyes flickered with it's own captivated spark as he watched Keith elaborate his point.

 

“Captivation stems from desire.” Keith went on, “A man can only be tempted by that and captivated to the point of obsession then.”

 

“And what of a man that has everything, but is yet tempted?” A third voice played the devil's advocate.

 

“What of King Midas?” He retorted. “All he could want, his very heart's desire, and he still wanted more. A man can have the world and still dream of more. A man can have nothing and want for nothing still. It lies within the man, himself, how much he can by captured by the whimsy of another. How many stories of the Gods  themselves becoming so captivated by nothing but mere mortals? The very stars could be at the tips of your fingers, but if you are unhappy, you will always be found unsatisfied.”

 

There was a still moment around them all as they considered. The silence was only broken by the slow clap of the debate leader as a smile grew across his face.

 

“Well, well..” he chortled softly, a dimpled smile stretched across his face. “It seems that the Red Lion not only carries a sharp sword, but a wit to match! We bless the Great Athena and Ares, both, to have Lance and Keith on our side of the walls. Olympus help us all if they were to bring it upon themselves to conquer the world.”

 

The rest of the group began to clap, each just as impressed as the first. Keith felt just a bit sheepish, honestly unaware that he had that in him. But, his answer was absolutely his truth. He just never took the time to actually consider such things and put them to words. He was rather surprised to learn such a thing if himself.

 

“Tell me, dearest friends,” the second scholar began, “what is the word to describe the immediate realization that perhaps I have some hidden desires and wants just this very moment.”

 

“The word you seek is 'epiphany’ , sir.” Lance answered, “And while you all have come to find a new, deeper love for Keith, I'm afraid we have an appointment to keep.”

 

Keith felt Lance grasp him familiarly by the shoulder, keeping close, and lead him on their way to their intended destination. They left behind young laughter and jubilant calls for the both of them to soon return. He had to silently admit to himself that the agora was not as bad a trip as he had dreadingly anticipated.

Chapter Text

V. Recovery

 

 

She wasn’t at all sure what to make of the floral crown.


The giant jester’s grin plastered across his face was a normal sight.


The flowers were new.


She was even less amused by the fact that that he stood with the sun to his back, making it difficult for her poor mole-like retinas to see his features at all. Even through the slight crack of her door pulled ajar to answer the knocking beckons, she had to squint against the light that cut a line down her shadowed exposure to the outside world. After a lengthy moment of awkward silence between them, he finally spoke.


“Can I come in?”


Her eyes narrowed for an entirely different reason that time.


She recalled the last time he had barged into her sanctuary. He practically left everything in his wake in shambles. She had to rebuild the Argo model he tipped over almost entirely. Though, he seemed less panicked than he had been the first time he stormed through.


“State your business.”


His jovial expression shifted into curious confusion.


“I have –“


Lance’s reply was cut short when he felt a hand on his shoulder and turned for both of them to find Keith joining their company.


“Hey Pidge.” He greeted.


“Send your adoring fans on their way, did you?” Lance smirked in his direction.


“They were soldiers in the regimen, thank you.” Keith retorted with a fold of his arms. “I can spare at least a moment for them.”


Pidge sighed, the decision made, and she opened the door fully to let them both into her shop. Keith followed her in and Lance was right on his heels. As they wandered into the belly of her lair, Lance actually took the time to look around and was overwhelmed with the number of trinkets, tools, models, drawings, specimens, and, really, just how much of a mess the place was. It was no wonder he had practically fell on his face the first time he visited just getting through the door. Still, he was rather interested in much of the curiosities he wandered by. There was far more to see than when he would visit Hunk’s home.


“Pidge, I came to see if you finished my gladius.”


She winced, “I was kind of afraid you were.”


“Why is that?”


Keith’s head cocked to onside curiously before waving at Hunk, seated at the workbench in the middle of the room. Hunk returned the gesture to the both of them before getting back to tinkering with whatever it was he had in his hands.


“I… haven’t finished it.” Pidge confessed, “I, actually, haven’t even started working on it yet.”


“What?!” Keith’s shoulders slumped, “Why not? I need my sword, Pidge!”


“We-“ Hunk started, only hesitating due to his momentary strain to tighten a turn on something, “We kind of got a little… side-tracked with a project.”


“What project?” Lance moved over to the table to see what Hunk was messing with.


“Well, when you left last time, Pidge and I started talking about how it would be amazing for Shiro to be able to recover the use of his arm.”


Keith’s interest was piqued and he also moved closer to the bench.


“So Hunk and I decided we would try and work something out in order for him to, not only use his arm, but also help it recover better!”


Pidge took the pile of workings in Hunk’s hands and displayed it. To the unlearned eye, it was simply a jumble of leather straps and metal bits mangled together. Both boys were curious as to how that would be anything to help Shiro with his arm.


“It’s only just a prototype. We’re still trying to figure out how it’s going to actually fit together.” Pidge moved to stand beside Hunk and used his arm to help model it. “The basic idea is to have it fit on Shiro’s arm and articulate in the proper points. It’s going to support his arm while giving him the opportunity of movement instead of just leaving it to sit in a sling, immobile.”


“While he's wearing it, he will also be rebuilding his own muscle strength.” Hunk moved his own arm to demonstrate, “The problem we’re facing at the moment, though, is how to engineer a method of allowing his full range of motion while still assisting a weak limb.”


“We thought about using a small system of lines and tiny pulleys, but that only made for a giant tangle waiting to happen.” Pidge sighed.


“It also doesn’t seem to be something practical for Shiro to use if he wanted to swing a sword again. Anything remotely edged would leave his arm entirely useless.”


Pidge’s head lifted in Lance’s direction at the observation. She was honestly pleasantly surprised at the astuteness she assumed was lacking.


“Also valid.”


“Mnh. We just can’t seem to figure an alternative that would provide the strong support as well as take a beating…” Hunk had tapped his chin as he pursed his lips in thought.


Keith was truly upset that he was still going to be without his Marmoran blade, but he couldn’t argue the necessity of their current endeavor. He would be overjoyed to have Shiro fully functioning again. He missed training with his brother in the arena. Hell, he missed just seeing him there.


“But Keith, I promise I will weld your blade.” Pidge offered, truly apologetic for not having it done already.


“When you can, Pidge.” His sword could wait a little while longer if it promised him his brother.


“Hey! What’s that?”


Everyone turned at Lance’s excited question as he made for something large and canvased toward the back of the room.


“No! Don’t touch that!” Pidge bolted after him, “In fact, don’t touch anything!!”


“But what is it? Whoa! It moves!”


“It’s not supposed to go that way!”


Hunk felt slightly for Pidge. But only slightly. He long knew of the starry-eyed curiosity Lance would get overcome with when something interesting caught his attentions. He, too, had experienced the raging wave of exploration and snooping about in his drawers, cupboards, and stores. It was only because Lance had rummaged through everything years ago that he was as docile as he was now when during visits. There in Pidge’s workshop? It would be some time before he would have gone through enough to satisfy his wondrous nature.


“Hunk…” Keith let Pidge sort Lance out herself, “When I asked you for the antidote that night – for Lance – you said ‘again’.” Keith paused. “How often does that happen?”


“Mnh.” Hunk hummed as he looked over the apparatus still on his arm, “Often enough that Lance has his own stash of countermeasures he takes with him when he needs.”


“What?” Keith was displeased with that answer. It was enough to be concerned for his well-being now as a hired protector, but why would there be so many attempts to slip something into his drink?


“Let’s not pretend we don’t know who Lance is.” Hunk looked at Keith matter-of-factly, “Lance is a desirable person. There are enough people – of all sorts – that look to take advantage of him and it’s been countless times he’s had a sip of something intended to persuade him to be more ‘agreeable’ to certain things.”


“…” Keith thought a moment and his memory recalled a soured look on Pericles’ face at the bathhouse a several days before. “That, I can see.”


“I had assumed it was something like that, he had ingested.” Hunk’s demeanor quickly grew much more serious, “But when it turned out to be the venom…”


Hunk sat a moment, brows furrowed tightly as he silently imagined what would have happened if anything else had been amiss that night.


“Keith, you saved his life. He would be dead today if it wasn’t for you.”


“I only brought him the antidote that you made.”


Hunk shook his head. “No. It’s more than that, trust me. He was lucky that you were there – even if he was the idiot that did it to himself. That, in itself, should say something to you.”


Keith offered a slight smile. It was a rough fact to swallow that Lance was a target for such things, but Keith was, quite honestly, glad it was not as lethal as he initially guessed. Still, he would certainly keep sharp eyes on anything that could be tampered with around Lance from there on. No one would be getting their hands on Lance by such means.


“Will you put that back down!” Pidge could be heard in a distant corner of the room still chasing down the intrepid explorer to her realm.


She had an arm full of gizmos and samples, charts and what’s-its, all pulled from Lance’s grubby hands before he could break anything. Unfortunately, she had reached her full carrying capacity. The next thing he picked up was what looked to be a replica of a bird. Lance remembered seeing images of such a bird before, an ibis, if he was right. From Egypt. It was a beautifully detailed replica, about the size of his forearm, with opened wings.


“This is amazing, Pidge!” it was made mostly of several pieces of wood, but there were particular sections that seemed fashioned from thin bits of metal to help keep the integrity of the more delicate parts. “Did you make this yourself?”


He turned the model in his hand and suddenly wondered, with the way it looked, if the wings actually flapped – just like that giant canvased thingy from earlier. He pressed gently, but firm to see if it would give at all.


“Yes, but if you do that it’s going to-!” Pidge was much too late to tell him it was not a ‘working’ model and before she could get the words out, the structural support just beneath the wing bent far enough it broke loose and the stress of the metal sent the small hair-thin piece flying.


Something in Pidge clicked and everything in her hands suddenly fell to the floor as she stared at the small bit that landed on the floor. She slowly reached to lift it and stared at it between her fingers.


“Pidge! Pidge, I’m so sorry!” Lance attempted to hold up the limp wing, looking for something else to keep it in place, frantic to fix his mistake, “Show me how, tell me what to do, I’ll fix it. I promise. I’m so sorry!”


By then, the other two had wandered their way over in curiosity, glancing at the now-busted piece and then to Pidge who still had yet to say anything. Her face difficult to discern one way or another.


“Pidge, please,” Lance pleaded, beginning to honestly worry about his health.


“Sweet blessings of Athena,” she finally said softly before her face lit up with fresh excitement, “Lance, you’re a genius!”


Quickly, she rushed to the work bench, grabbing sketch paper and her bits of charcoal and started to frantically scratch down ideas. Lance, meanwhile, had carefully replaced the model (gimpy winged and all) back on the shelf and joined the other two watching her work in an inspired haze.


“Of course, I’m a genius.” Lance's hands moved to rest on his hips and his chest puffed out proudly. After a moment, he discreetly leaned over to Keith, “Why am I a genius?”


Keith shrugged, “Honestly, after these many years, I’ve learned not to try and make sense of anything she does or says.”

“Probably a wise decision.” Hunk agreed as he and Lance nodded.

 

-

 

“Sorry that didn’t turn out as yielding a visit as you had hoped.”


Keith shrugged as they walked back toward the agora.


“I didn’t get my sword back like I hoped, but I’m actually happier to know that they are working on something to try and help with Shiro’s arm.” Keith sighed heavily, “I’d gladly give up my sword if it would get Shiro’s arm back.”


Lance eyed Keith’s face closely as he said that and he smiled softly.


“You care for him a lot, don’t you?”


“He’s all the family I have. Even if he isn’t blood.”


Lance’s head lifted, “He’s not?”


Keith smiled for a split second, then shook his head.


“All this time, I thought…” Lance considered before saying anything else. “I don’t mean to bring anything up that bothers you.”


By the time they had left Pidge’s place, the day had aged quite a bit and the bustle of the city had died down. The entrance to the agora was more of a dull roar and the fountain was no longer the boisterous meeting place of philosophers and playful children. The late afternoon had sent most of the locals home to their families for home cooked meals. Samuel and his beloved wife, Colleen, refused to let any of the boys to leave their home without enjoying a meal at their table. None refused the offer. Hunk even offered a lending hand in the cooking. That did not bode well for their stomachs as they all ended up eating to excess. As a result, Keith and Lance took their return trip at a very leisurely pace.


“No, it doesn’t bother me.” Keith answered as Lance stopped to take a seat on the low wall of the fountain. “I was young enough that much of my memory is only pieces; hazy flashes. It’s been long enough that I’ve worked passed it.”


Lance frowned, leaning back on his hands. “It must have been difficult for you.”


“It was for a while. But I had some help.” Keith’s arms unconsciously folded over his chest as he shrugged, “I think I miss my sword more than I miss my past.”


Lance hummed thoughtfully at the statement, sighing heavily and still feeling satiated from their afternoon meal. A gentle breeze wound its way through the city walkways and around the agora as he lounged. He felt the soft sprinkle of water on his skin that the breeze carried by from the fountain and Lance smiled to himself.


“I miss the sea.” He mused, picturing it behind closed lids as he continued to feel the spray against him.


“Do you?” Keith asked, standing before the man on the wall and watching him, genuinely interested.


“Yeah.” Lance sat still for a moment more before opening his eyes, though he looked out into the distance, “When I was much younger, there was a villa we would go to every year for a political meeting, or other, my father was a part of. I loved that villa. It had the perfect view of the cape just down the slope– and when the breeze hit just right, you could smell the crisp salt air.”


A warm smile drew across his lips as he remembered, and Keith was entranced by it. He wanted to fall into the reverie that Lance worked to paint of this perfect place he longed for. He wanted to know just what made Lance look so fondly for. Keith took a seat next to him and attempted to follow his gaze, as if the maneuver would help him to see what Lance saw in the clouds.


“That light wind could carry the delicate crash of waves on the soft sandy beaches all the way up to the balcony and it was like you were there standing on the edge of the water.” He sighed, dreamily, “I used to just stand out there for hours listening to the surf and breathing in the aura of tranquility.”

Keith shifted his elbows to rest on his legs as he leaned forward, lost on even finding any notion of what Lance was trying to share. Though, he was happy to hear of it.


“Sounds serene… I’ve never seen it.”


“What?!”


Lance immediately shot up from his lounge and looked at Keith with utter discredit.


“Keith, we live on a peninsula. All of Greece is a stick of land in a pool of water. You have three out of four directions to run and, literally, drown in it!”


“Haven’t been.” Keith simply stated.


“…Get up. We’re leaving.”


“What?”


“Move. Let’s go.”


Lance grabbed Keith by his wrist and yanked him down the street, his sandals loudly plopping his determination against the cobblestone and packed dirt. Keith followed, confusion sketched across his features as they trudged back toward Lance’s villa. Each time Keith tried to ask or say anything to Lance, he was hushed and given the stipulation he was not to talk or speak a word to Lance until they were standing on a beach.


In hardly any time at all, they were with saddled horses and riding hard to the east. Keith was sure that Lance had plenty of free time to hone his ability as a rider. But there was little in Keith’s training routine at the colosseum that had him on the back of an animal. He had little worry, however, as he was keen on working with animals in the arena and had a knack for quick learning. It took a small amount of time for him to keep pace with Lance. Once he was sure he had a handle on his reigns, he rode up alongside his lead and smirked, ultimately his own little glint of pride. Lance’s brow piqued, impressed with the improvement considering how rough Keith started out trying to get the horse to even point in the proper direction. His eyes darkened, however, in a quick moment just before he whipped his reigns and yelled a ‘hah’ or two to get his stallion to break loose.


Keith’s eyes widened in surprise with how fast Lance took off with his horse. It left him galloping through the cloud of dirt that was kicked up. Gradually, a grin pulled at the corners of his mouth and he rose from his saddle and began to giddy-up his own steed. Now that was more like it. It was a game of cat and mouse once Keith caught up to Lance’s tail again. From time to time the lead changed. Horses leapt and ran, taking quick turns, making cut offs and showy shortcuts wherever they could be found. The journey quickly turned into a game between two boys simply out in each other’s company punctuated by laughs and excited yells, wind rushing through their hair, the sun on their backs, and the freedom of open plains and rolling hills laid out before them.


By the time they reached an empty beach, the skies, long saturated in the burning orange and reds of sunset, were slowly becoming overtaken by the deep blue creeping in from the horizon. Lance was first to dismount. His horse wandered off to a nearby hillside in search of rest and a grassy meal. Immediately, he move to Keith’s side, yanking him off his horse by the ankle and then wrist.


“Come on!” he yanked, “Come on, come on, come on!”


“Gods, Lance!” Keith couldn’t stop a chuckle as he practically tumbled off his horse into the soft sands below, “I’m coming!”

Once Keith was finally scrambled onto his feet, Lance let him loose and ran down the soft decline to the soft brushing of the brine below. His arms flew open as he felt that angelic caress of ocean air on his skin and through his hair and he took in a deep, long breath. He thought of his mother and slowly let the air seep out of his lungs. His eyes opened to the calm undulation of waves and the light whisper of them breaking on the sands. He thought of how much he wished she was there with him every day. He held on to just how he missed her that much more standing on the cool sands without her hand in his. My sweet Lance. My ocean of love. A broken laugh escaped him, quiet enough no other could hear.


He turned to Keith, watching him trudge the sand rather inexpertly. Boy, could he watch that walking mess all day.


“Lose your sandals!”


“My- what?”


“Makes it easier!” Lance demanded as he reached to yank off his simple pair.


Keith had to seat himself down at the dry side of the sand and start untying leather straps around his calves. He did so with a grunt and sigh. As he worked, he saw Lance as he slowly walked into the water. His hands stopped entirely when he noticed just how immersed in each step Lance was, eyes closed and steps slow and careful. He was like some ethereal nymph finally coming home to his element, calling to The Mighty Poseidon to welcome him back into his arms. Keith felt a smile on his lips imagining the Magnificent Aphrodite, herself, rising again from the foam at Lance’s ankles where he had stopped to claim her most prized cherub and whisk him back to whatever godly plane he came from.

He finished removing his sandals and let his toes find the wet sand. It was an odd sensation. Like mud, but not. After a few minutes of kicking around and deciding he could get used to such a place, he leaned back on his elbows, the sand dry just behind him, and stretched out his legs, one crossed over the other, feeling the chilled turf against them. The sand was so fine the dry grains were almost like satin ran through his fingers. As he played, picking up another handful and letting it run from the bottom of his fist, he felt Lance drop onto the ground next to him. He seated himself next to Keith’s legs on the edge of dry and wet sand, his body turned to the north as he looked over his shoulder to the sea with a sigh, drawing up his own slender legs to his torso and hugging them.


Keith shifted, propped again on both elbows.


Both sat quiet, simply listening to the sounds of the beach that blanketed them. Keith was sad for the fact that he had never experienced it before. But at the same time, he was glad for it, getting to learn the wonder of it all through Lance’s adoration. The open horizon seemed to go on forever. The spotting of islets and skerries down the way shown just how far forever seemed to go. A few leagues away they could see the gentle drifting of white sails decorated with a bright yellow streaks as a trio of ships slowly skimmed their way across the glassy waters.


“Sorry the view isn’t better.” Lance apologized airily, “We just missed sunset. The colors on the water are just amazing. Now, it just looks like giant blob of nothing, really.”


“View’s just fine from where I am.”


It wasn’t until Lance shot a look of surprise at Keith that he realized that he had spoken aloud. Lance piqued a highly amused brow. His eyes sapphire eyes glowed against the black backdrop of evening. Keith’s cheeks instantly flushed.


“Is that right?” Lance prodded.


Had he meant it? Surely. He just had every intention of keeping the thought to himself. Keith had no idea how to recover from his vocal incontinence. But he suddenly found himself more concerned over the fact that Lance had shifted closer. No, over him. Lance hovered closer to him as he propped himself on a hand on the other side of Keith’s body. Keith swallowed thickly as he felt Lance’s other hand on his chest, felt the warmth of his soft touch on his skin as fingers slipped beneath folds and edges of his chiton.

Keith wanted to speak up. He knew keeping his distance was the best course of action in this particular relationship. So why couldn’t he? Why was he unable to deny Lance? Why couldn’t he bring himself to bar Lance and his whims, his touches… or his lips? It was so easy to see how so many could fall into his spell. Zeus, himself, would fall to ruin under the gaze of this man. Olympus would be lost if not for the bat of an eye. The last thing Keith wanted was to simply be another conquest on Lance’s list. That was better suited to those that lived such a life of luxury and vice.

But was Keith willing to try? If it was Lance, would he allow himself that indulgence?


The answers to his questions where near in coming as he could felt the soft spill of Lance’s breath on his lips as he leaned closer. Slowly, his eyes drifted shut. Maybe he was willing. Before they could find one another in a kiss, both boys suddenly scrambled apart with surprised gasps as a rogue wave drew a new line in the dry sand far beyond where they had lain. Lance managed to avoid much of the water as he quickly stood to his feet. Keith did so less gracefully, scuttling away backward on all fours.


“Zeus, that’s cold!”


Lance laughed as he brushed the sand from his legs.


“Only at first. It’s actually pretty refreshing once you get used to it.” He dusted the rest of the sand from his hands and offered one, “Here. Let me help.”


Keith clasped his hand around Lance’s wrist and Lance grinned. He grabbed Keith’s wrist with both hands and pulled with everything he had. Keith was lifted from his seat and flung into the sea with a resounding splash. Lance couldn’t stop a laugh at the picture of Keith tripping over his own feet and the look of utter surprise when he hit the water.

“You should have seen your face, Keith!” He hooted. “I should have that carved into a bust!”

Silence. Not a ripple of response.


“Keith?”


Lance recalled the fact that Keith had never seen the ocean. Did that mean he didn’t know how to swim? He was immediately struck with concern over drowning his own bodyguard. He rushed into the water searching for signs of where Keith could be.


“Keith!” he cried as he dug fruitlessly into the small waves, “Keith, where are you?!”


Why couldn’t he see better in the dark? He cupped his hands around his mouth and took a breath to call for Keith one last time. Before he could, he felt something snatch his ankles and pull his legs out from under him. Lance fell into the water with his own loud splash.


Lance broke the surface with a gasp and wiped his face dry. He looked over to find a soaked Keith smirking at him with a rather triumphant look in his eyes.


“You rotten son of a-“


Lance was cut short by the water that Keith spat in his face. He paused, gathering his wits before wiping the water away one more time and glowered at that same smirk still etched on his bodyguard’s face. With a giant grin of his own, Lance pounced Keith and shoved him back under the water. They wrestled and dunked one another until they both tired and were waterlogged enough to drag themselves back to the beach. They dropped down into the sand, coughing up bits of water between laughs and chuckles.


“Man, I haven’t had that much fun in years.” Lance sighed deeply, completely exhausted.


Keith chortled, feeling much the same but remained quiet, still catching his breath. Actually, Keith couldn’t remember the last time he had that sort of fun. If he ever did. Most of what he recalled was training in the arena. He supposed that was some form of his own fun. He wouldn’t do it as much if it wasn’t something he enjoyed to an extent, right? But fun like this? Nothing came to mind. Shame really. It was nice. He sighed deeply and looked out to the dark skies above them, watching the twinkle of starlight as he rested, Lance beside him.


“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” he heard Lance ask in a breath.


“Mnh.” Keith answered, “It’s actually interesting – at times – to listen to Samuel and Matthew talk about the skies.”


“Really?” Lance was both skeptical yet curious about listening to the two of them. Much of what he heard at the feast was a lot to do with mathematics and formulae. It wasn’t anything that seemed would keep his attention.


“Yeah, when they start to talk about stars, moons, and celestial bodies,” Keith leaned his head closer as he lifted a hand to point out to the skies, “You can’t help but wonder just how much is really out there- what it is the Gods really have out there all to themselves.”


“Funny…” Keith felt Lance’s head rest against his own as he started to speak, “I always wondered what the world looked like from Apollo’s chariot as he rode across the skies; what it would feel like to be able to touch the stars.”

“Please. Apollo would throw you off the moment you asked to drive.” Keith snorted.

Lance laughed breathily. He couldn't deny the fact that he would absolutely do that. Slowly, still nudged against Keith, Lance's eyes drifted shut. After several minutes, Keith heard Lance's breath even out softly and knew he had drifted into sleep. he allowed his own eyes to close, but simply listened to the breaking waves, take in the sea-laced air, and feel Lance beside him. Maybe this whole body guard thing isn't so terrible.

Before the night grew too much older, Keith decided it was time they started their way back. It would be a much longer ride back, tired as they had made themselves. But the night's rest would be fruitful. He gently nudged Lance, calling him quietly. Lance stirred with a light displeased groan.

“We should head back before it gets too late.” He said as he watched Lance sit up, rubbing an eye.

He took a moment to look around and, remembering where they we're, Lance smiled.

“Yeah…”

 

After a brisk respite, the both of them had seemed to catch a second wind of energy. Enough that, once mounted, they rode hard back toward Volta. It wasn't as fast or playful as their ride out, but they made quite a bit if good time. By the position of the moon, they we're home within the city walls before midnight. The horses were tended to, led to their stables by servants. Lance stretched his arms upward as they climbed the stairs to his villa.

“God's, I still have beach in my sandals.” Keith picked up a foot at the top of the steps and brushed off the side of his foot.

“And you will be finding sand for the next three months.” Lance said, clearly proud to be the cause behind that fact, "And in the strangest of places."

Keith rolled his eyes with a shake of his head. “Can't wait.”

“Thank you, Keith.”

The words pulled at Keith particularly due to the sincerity behind them. Sincerity that he heard from Lance only once before.

“I'm really glad we did this.” Keith could have sworn he saw a red tinge to Lance's cheeks then. He found it endearing to watch Lance reach and rub coyly behind his head, “It… really meant a lot.”

“Me too.” Keith shifted into his normal stance, arms folding over his chest in confidence, “It was nice to see the ocean. We should go again some time.”

Lance's face lit up ever so slightly, swelling as Keith admitted his own enjoyment. Moreso as he suggested another visit. There was a moment that allowed an awkward silence between them and it was enough for Lance to find his normal footing.

“It's still a walk home for you.” His hands rested at his hips as he offered, “You sure you don't want to stay?”

“It’s not all that far.” Keith declined, “I'm sure.”

“What if I'm attacked in the middle of the night?” Lance feigned a gasp.

“First of all, it's the middle of the night now.” Keith retorted with a cynical look. “And secondly, by whom? Ambrose has guards posted all over the grounds,” He motioned to a sentry as he walked by, “I don't need to be here.”

“What if…” Lance tapped his chin thinking of another possibility, “What if they're already inside?”

“You said yourself, the house would know by now.”

Lance pouted.

“What?” Keith eyed him suspiciously and crossed his arms, “Do you want me to check for monsters under your bed?”

“You can check for them in my bed.” He pique a brow nudgingly.

“Goodnight, Lance.” Keith shook his head with a smirk.

“That's it?” Lance waved a hand expectantly, “No goodnight kiss?”

Keith chuckled as he turned and trotted down the steps.

“I'm a bodyguard, Lance. Not your nanny.”

Well, turn about was fair play. Lance couldn't help but smile brightly as he watched Keith start on his way home.

 

Chapter Text

VI. Arm of Haphaestus

 

“So…” Shiro offered gently, setting down his cup of water on the table, “How are things as a bodyguard?”

Keith glanced up from his porridge at the question and shrugged before grabbing a date from the plate between them.

“It’s fine.” He stuffed the fruit in his mouth and spoke between chews, “It’s been almost two weeks and there hasn’t been any sign of, well, anything really.”

Shiro piqued a brow. He knew his brother nearly inside and out. Since starting his ‘contract’ with Ambrose to guard his one and only son, Keith had been somewhat rare in company. It saddened Shiro a bit, especially when having only half his arms meant his usual time-killing activities were put to a halt and his only company at home was out ‘on duty’. But it was also acutely noted that Keith’s demeanor had shifted slightly. He stood taller, moved with more purpose, and Shiro’s eyes narrowed as he picked up on the glint of excitement to leave home each day. It was like watching his sibling fill with drive and well with eagerness, the very same shifts of anticipation he read on his brother well before a match – in training or for an event. But what Shiro took particular joy in was the fact that it wasn’t just reserved for the Colosseum any longer.

Keith’s demeanor seemed lightened the entire day, whether he stayed in or ventured out. Shiro was damn sure it had everything to do with the new company that was being kept, Keith’s choice or not. He had never known his brother to have a friend. Keith had Shiro, of course, but family was a whole different beast. The Blades of Marmora were both friend and family and, yet, all the same, neither at all. They were teachers, mentors, comrades, brothers-in-arms. Pidge was a friend, surely. But she and Keith were cut from the same cloth, he figured. Both had their niche figured at an early age and strove for it to the point of isolation. There, they found their kinship and there it thrived. It did them both well to know someone in a similar situation to grow with. But they were still very separated from one another; Keith in the arena and Pidge in her shop.

Lance, however, was not at all that way.

Sure, he was showy and confident to a fault. His reputation always preceded him, and he made sure to treat it as though it were his personal red carpet each time. The pompous first impression was one both Shiro and Keith shared. However, Shiro was far more forgiving over it than Keith seemed to have been. He had decided long ago that he liked Lance. He may have been a little over the top, but he had a good heart. And that was something even a blind seer could note without clairvoyance. And Shiro liked him even more now that Keith was benefiting from the time they spent together. They balanced. He would never say so, of course. The moment Shiro would deign to make any comment of it would put Keith on edge and deliberately work to disprove such being the case.

“He hasn't even seen the guy from the feast around town at all.” Keith explained over his spoon of porridge, “Allura and Coran haven't seemed to notice anything out of the ordinary either. I don't think I will be a bodyguard for all that much longer.”

Shiro noted how Keith stopped after saying that, clearly working out a matter in his head that he was sure he could guess the nature of. But he said nothing. Instead, he took a spoonful of his own porridge.

“Speaking of Allura and Coran,” Keith started again after clearing his throat, “Anything new?”

While Shiro may have had less time in the sparring ring at Marmora, and less time with his brother at home, he was at least lucky enough to be busied with trying to help the Alteans find ways to reclaim their home. He had many meetings with the both of them in discussing their city and what they had possibly learned of the Galra during their invasion. Shiro spent much time as a mediary between the Alteans and Volta’s military forces.

“As of yet,” Shiro sighed and shook his head, “Nothing. We've sent a few men out to try and find a way in. But every entrance Allura and Coran could think of is barred or guarded. It's like Zarkon knows the city in and out.”

“But how?” Keith questioned, “Is that even possible?”

“Apparently so.” Shiro thought for a moment, “We need to try and find a way to possibly contact the Alteans within the walls. Maybe, once we have a line of communication, we can get in to try and find a way to force the Galra out.”

Keith idly spooned his porridge, stirring and turning it as he tried to think of ways to circumvent their blockades. It was unusual for Zarkon to keep hold of a city, even one as advanced and grand as Altea. His terms of war were ‘crush and conquer’. Keith, and countless others, had heard of what happened at the legendary city of Olkari. They had been decimated. Every corner of the city was left to ruin and Zarkon paid it no more mind than that of a bug on the bottom of his sandal. As it was, Altea had a limited number of days before they would surely meet the same fate.

As the brothers steeped themselves in the pensive atmosphere between them, there was a rapping at their front door.

“I'll get it.” Keith offered as he shoveled a spoonful of breakfast in his mouth before getting up from the table.

Shiro started more heartily at his own meal. He would let the troubles of battling with the Galra come at him again in due time. For now, he would take the opportunity to enjoy his limited mornings with his brother.

“Shiro.” Keith said as he returned through the doorway, “It's for you.”

Dark eyes looked on curiously as Pidge and Hunk rounded the corner to greet him.

“This is a surprise.” Shiro offered his well-known gentle smile, “To what do I owe the honor of this visit?”

“Science, my good man!” Pidge answered excitedly.

“We’ve had a breakthrough!” Hunk added, just as enthused.

“That’s great!” Shiro stood from his seat, “Have you guys figured out what the Galra are using?”

“Nope!” Keith had to stifle a chuckle at the grinning declination Pidge just gave. It had left Shiro with a slightly confused expression on his face.

“Sit, sit, sit!” Hunk insisted at Shiro as he hurried around the breakfast table and gently began to examine his debilitated arm.

Keith had sauntered up to the opposite side of his brother, his own arms crossed as he watched Hunk paw around at his patient. Pidge, meanwhile, rifled through the bag she carried in and fished out a familiar looking pile of leathers and metal.

“Does anyone want to fill me in?” Shiro asked, feeling somewhat like some kind of oddity to be poked and pondered over.

“They have been working on a little side project for you, Shiro.” Keith smirked softly.

Pidge managed to untangle the mess of straps and moved to Shiro’s side.

“The length measurements are perfect.” she beamed.

“The muscle mass in your arm is a little bit more atrophied than we expected, but not by all that much.” Hunk shifted out of the way so Pidge could begin affixing the apparatus to Shiro’s arm, pulling the belts snug, but not too tight to the form of his arm.

“What is it?” Shiro asked as he watched Pidge work.

“It’s going to help get your arm moving again.” She smiled at him; the rare, sweet, delicate smile few were privileged to see on Katherine’s face. “Keith, would you mind?”

She held out the longest set of straps across Shiro’s chest and back. Keith moved to reach for them and help the process of fitting his brother with his new equipment. The strap that ran behind Shiro had a fitting that slipped around his good shoulder and a buckle for the strap in the front. Once Keith attached it all proper he rested a hand on Shiro’s shoulder.

“How does it feel so far?”

“A little odd.” Shiro glanced at what he donned thus far as he considered, rolling his good shoulder, “But nothing’s pinching or poking at the moment.”

“Now, for the finishing touches!” Hunk fished out two bits of metal and a pair of pliers from the back Pidge house the apparatus in and Pidge stepped aside. “These are what make the whole thing work - theoretically.”

The metal pieces he had produced were no longer than a finger and wound tightly into a slender coil just as long as one. The coils were no wider than Pidge’s slender digits, made out of thin metal dowels that were about an eighth that size. Each coil ended with a curved hook at either end where Hunk affixed on to the top of the apparatus on the outside of Shiro’s bicep. He took the pliers to the opposite hook and, with some effort, pulled it down to hook to a similar point nearer to Shiro’s elbow. He repeated the process with the second piece and stepped back once he was finished.

“Ok, Shiro.” Pidge started, Hunk visibly held his breath, “Try curling your arm.”

Shiro could feel a gentle tension pulling his arm upward, but gravity was enough to keep his arm at his side. He took a breath and slowly started to engage the muscles in his arm. It was a feeling he had missed in quite a number of months and he was internally questioning whether or not he even remembered how to move his arm. He felt the muscles tighten and pull and with a bit more effort, his hand lifted. He let out a quiet breath of surprise as it came all the way up. He could hear the sliding of metal slats as he moved, he could feel them in the soft leather. But he could also tell where the arm was taking the extra help. Once he did a full curl, he carefully let his muscles relax and watched as his arm eased back to his side.

“It works! Oh my Gods, it works!” Hunk cheered as he raised his arms to the ceiling. Pidge did the same in her own celebratory howl.

“This- this is amazing you two.” Shiro almost couldn’t stop, feeling his own excitement build at being able to move his arm again. “I - I don’t know how to thank you enough.”

“Oh, Great Athena!” Pidge was too excited to catch herself before she flung her arms around Shiro’s shoulders, “I’m so glad it works!” She stepped back, “But this is only the start, Shiro! We have to work on your shoulder movement too; not just your elbow. Now that we know it works - and that it fits - we can continue on improving design and adding more dexterity.”

“Any thoughts, Shiro?” Hunk asked, curious about Shiro’s perspective being the one to wear and use it.

“I feel like it could use a little bit more padding around the shoulder.” Shiro offered timidly, “I can already feel where it might start to rub skin raw. And if it’s possible, could there be more support for the movement? I can feel the assist when I lift my arm, but it still takes a lot of effort.”

“We can definitely try a thicker bit of metal for the coil.”

“Yeah.” Pidge agreed with Hunk’s theory, “We can also experiment with the tightness of the coils to see if that has any effect on the resistance.”

Keith smiled as he helped Shiro slip out of his straps. There seemed to still be quite a bit of work to be done, but the pair we're nothing less than excited to get right to it. Seeing Shiro actually be able to move and lift his arm made Keith’s heart swell. This was a grand step in moving his brother’s recovery forward even more.

“I really don’t know how to thank you both.” Shiro beamed as he slipped his arm back into his normal sling. “But, I’m really low on the list of priorities. How are things really going with the ballistic research?”

“AH!” Hunk clapped his hands in excitement, “We might actually have some sort of lead on that.”

Both Shiro and Keith’s eyes widened in surprise at the answer. This was an pivotal step to figuring out how to beat back the Galran forces and reclaim the city of Altea. If they could find out how to utilize or even simply defend against whatever they were using, then they would be able to get a foothold and push forward.

“I have a friend that travels extensively.” Pidge explained, “For years now, he’s been supplying me with unusual and new materials that he comes acr-”

“You should see her collection!” Hunk interrupted, enthused on the subject, “It’s amazing. She has things I’ve never even heard of. There’s this one liquid that if you pour into some water will-”

Pidge cleared her throat to halt Hunk’s ramble and he coiled into himself sheepishly, allowing her to continue.

“The point is, yesterday, Rolo dropped over a small box of mineral samples.” Pidge grinned, pleased with elucidating their discovery, “One of them seems to have very similar properties to what the Galra used in their recipe.”

“That’s great, you two.” Shiro noticeably swelled as sat straighter.

“While I was working with the mineral’s properties - which smells pretty rancid, by the way - Pidge did massive amounts of research and found out that this mineral is pretty heavily embedded with Altean history.”

Altean history?” Keith echoed curiously.

“Yes. We were wondering, Shiro, if you could ask Princess Allura and Coran to come by my place to see if they have any information on it.”

“Sounds like a plan.” Shiro stood from his seat and took up his plate to clear the table, “I’ll head over to see them right now. The sooner we can work this out, the better it will be for everyone.”

“Great work, guys.”

Both scientists beamed at the compliment Keith paid them. Pidge was especially aware of the sincerity in his accolade, their success that morning being of particularly personal importance to the Red Lion. They gathered their things and headed on their way back to Pidge’s shop to get things in order should the Atleans make their way over to consult their discovery. Keith and Shiro ended their breakfast with cheerful discussions on how promising it looked to be that Shiro’s arm would finally be able to fully function once again. Keith couldn’t remember a time he had seen his elder brother as happy and optimistic. It wasn’t too much longer until the pair of brothers were on their way as well.

-

Cassius greeted them with a bit of light surprise on his face as they came up the steps to the villa. It wasn’t unusual to see Keith or Shiro; rather contrary, it was common for him to greet them nearly each day. What was novel was the pair of them visiting together. In the weeks they had been known to pay their visits to those in residence, it had never been that either would cross paths, coming or going. Both greeted Cassius as warmly as they always had and he returned their salutations before leading them into the main hall. Shiro’s sought company was already within, engaged in their own conversation with other guests, it seemed.

“Princess Allura and Master Coran,” Cassius called as they approached the small group, “Shiro has come to seek his audience with you.”

Conversation halted at the announcement and attentions floated to the two that entered. Princess Allura smiled alongside her guardian. Standing next to him was a new face. A regal looking face that neither Keith nor Shiro had seen before. By the look of him, he was somewhat… exotic. A far contrast to the companion at his side. As weathered as he appeared, he still had a look of Volta about him.

“If you will excuse me a moment, I shall announce you to Lance.” Cassius bowed deeply before turning to head away.

“Not necessary, Cassius!” Lance chimed from the back end of the grand hall. “I’m here to greet them all already.”

As boisterous an entrance for an audience as always. The mental note pulled a smirk onto the corner of Keith’s lips. Lance was draped a little more elegantly that morning. His chiton was hemmed in intricate trim and fell below his knees, unlike the usual shorter attire that was more akin to Keith’s choice of dress. It was partially covered by just as elegant a chlamys, blanketing him in a matching off-white fabric that boasted a bold indigo blue stripe. The glimmer of his accessories were difficult to miss as the sliver of his necklace, earrings, arm bands and bracers glinted in each bit of light they caught as he walked. The most notable accessory, however, was that hooked onto his arm.

She was dressed just as extravagantly. Her light skin, a stark contrast to Lance’s gentle caramel complexion, practically glowed in the whiteness of her own ankle-long chiton. Her golden hair was cleanly tied up and fell in a perfect set of wide ringlets, a pair on either side of her head and rested against her delicate, pale shoulders. Shoulders that held up an opulent necklace that circled her neck, matched only by her golden hoop earrings, arm bands, and numerous bangles around her wrists. It was a complete shift from the much more muted comeliness Keith had been introduced to in the agora. Korinna was dressed for work.

“Greetings, good friends!” Lance said with a slight nod of his head as he joined them with Korinna at his side. “Allow me to introduce my very dearly beloved companion, Korinna.”

He looked to Korinna a moment before motioning his further introductions.

“Korinna, this is Her Most Beautiful and Wonderful Atlean Highness, Princess Allura.”

Allura smiled regally, looking radiant in her ankle length peplos. The color of it, along with her silvery waves of hair, popped further against her dark skin and the depth of violet in the epiblema that covered it.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Korinna.”

“Likewise, Your Grace.” Korinna dipped elegantly in respect, “If there is ever a given opportunity, Princess Allura, I would love to get to know one another in the near future.”

Her last few words were punctuated with a pointedly smoldering gaze that caught the princess very off guard. She swallowed thickly and was severely lacking in a response. Her only cover was the diplomatic smile expertly trained on her lips. Allura noticed Lance pique an interested brow and she cleared her throat lightly.

“Yes, speaking of getting to know each other, this is Coran, my attendant and guardian.” Allura stepped aside and offered a hand in his direction. Coran bowed in greeting and, again, Korinna curtsied.

“And this gentleman-” Lance started, motioning to the two new faces in his house, “Is… unfamiliar to me.”

“Forgive my intrusion to your home, Lance.” the stranger bowed deeply at the waist.

His long silver hair cascaded off his darkly toned shoulders. His slim frame was elegant and athletic, but much was hidden beneath a knee-long chiton draped in a toga. Lance watched him closely as he stood upright again, taking him in. The man's dark eyes focused on Lance and he smiled gently.

“My name is Lotor.” He turned to the more ragged looking man at his side, “This is the captain of a merchant ship that has kindly led me over many waters and to your doorstep. I have come in search of Princess Allura after having learned of what has taken place at Altea.” Lotor's expression shifted to a shade of regret, “It saddens me to know such a great city has fallen to the Galra forces. As one with Altean heritage myself, I had hoped to seek out anyone who managed to escape the city and offer what help I could.”

“That is very noble of you, Lotor.” Lance produced.

“I am elated to know that there are already hopes to fight the Galra out of the city - with Volta's help. I haven't much to offer, but I do have a military background. If you, perhaps, need any thoughts on how the city may be approached or any of the kind, I would be glad to offer my insights.”

“Thank you, Lotor.” Allura smiled, her hands clasped graciously over her heart, “We truly appreciate your kind offer.”

Lotor turned his eyes to Keith and Shiro and presented a smile that had an air of pride about it.

“And am I to assume that I stand before the renowned Shiro of Volta and the one they call the Red Lion?”

“You do, sir.” Shiro answered offering a hand. Lotor took a grasp his wrist, as Shiro did likewise, and they shared a firm shake, “It's good to meet you, Lotor.”

“Are both gladiators known so far out already?” Allura asked, honestly curious. Word was always quick to travel, but from considering the supposed distance Lotor had come, she was surprised to think news had spread so.

Lotor was about to provide an answer, but all heard Korinna speak first.

“Only Keith is a gladiator.” She provided genially, “Shiro is a military soul. Trained from the very start and worked to his status of Syntagmatarkhis.”

Korinna explained their situations to the newcomer and Keith felt uneasy under the large pair of maroon eyes trained on him specifically.

“While Shiro has long been regarded highly by our military forces and Volta as a whole - a building legend in his own right, Keith is much more the talk about town.” Korinna took a moment to place a kiss on Lance's cheeks as she left his side and proceeded to move before Keith. “No offense to you, Shiro, but I am of the personal opinion to have Keith as a favorite subject on my lips.”

Korinna reached to place a sultry kiss goodbye on the very edge of his lips. Keith caught a glimpse of Lance from the corner of his eye and noticed a very jealous looking set of angered eyes in his direction. Lance's arms crossed in a huff to confirm all suspicions of his subtle ire. How could Lance be upset at him ? He hadn’t even done anything to instigate such attention.

Keith heard a soft chuckle ring in his ear before she pulled back.

“Don't worry, Lance, I can see myself out.” Korinna waved without a glance back. “I will see you around, Captain Rolo.”

As she left their company, Lotor’s companion waved her off. Keith caught a glance from Shiro that erred on the side of impressed. Keith's response was nothing less than a sharp glower.

“I would be more than glad to offer you a place to stay, but our guest rooms have already been promised.” Lance's voice called back everyone's attention.

“You are much too kind.” Lotor gave a simple nod to Lance's regret, “But I have already made arrangements for my lodging. With your permission, of course, I would like to call on Princess Allura and Coran tomorrow to further discuss how I may be of service.”

“Of course.” Lance answered, “My halls are opened to you. Cassius will call on them, if need be, when you return.”

“Thank you, most kindly.”

With another respectful nod of his head, Lotor and his merchant captain went on their way. The five of them watched their figures recede from the doorway and down the steps of the villa. Keith and Shiro exchanged a brief glance at one another, silently asking the other if they had noted the same thing. Lance meanwhile kept his eyes on the door, his own judgements turning alone in his mind.

“Well, certainly a lot of fresh faces coming through your door today it seems, Lance.” Allura sighed, clearly relieved it was all over and done with.

“The home of a politician and his son is certainly never dull, is it Princess?” Lance’s demeanor renewed to his usual debonair countenance.

“Certainly true.” she smiled as she recalled the great hall of the throne room having much of the same activity.

“Princess,” Shiro cleared this throat softly, “I need the help and you and Coran. The ones I have working on the Galran ballistics have managed to stumble into something that find interesting and possibly helpful to their research.”

“You need our help?”

“We're hoping your Altean knowledge will be able to help elucidate a possible answer to our questions.”

“Of course!” Coran's chest seemed to puff out just slightly, “We would be absolutely delighted to assist you. This is, after all, for the good of our people!”

“Galran ballistics?” Lance asked Keith softly.

He nodded, “Pidge and Hunk are the ones trying to figure out what the Galra were throwing at us over the city walls.”

“And they might have something?”

“We hope so.”

Chapter Text

VII. Lion's Den

 

 

Shiro and Coran led the way to Pidge's place. The Altean had become incredibly interested in how this fancy apparatus for Shiro's lame arm was to work and allow him, not only movement, but projected full recovery. Shiro was more than excited to oblige, describing in vivid detail all aspects he could recall. Naturally, it was much to Coran’s delight.

Lance had offered his strong and courteous arm to the lovely Allura, leaving Keith to trail behind. That was all well and good as he stewed slightly to himself, figuring the fact that Lance hardly glanced his way was because of Korinna's excessively fond farewell. Not only was it not a result of his own solicitation, but it seemed a rather petty sort of thing to ignore Keith over. After a second thought, though, it did seem like something Lance would latch onto. The gladiator sighed to himself, a few footfalls behind, and rubbed his forehead between his brows. He had other things to consider than whether or not Lance wanted to talk to him today. The day had brought forth some enlightening tidbits to Keith’s attention and he was eager to see where these little dots fit into the grand scheme of things. And it had only just begun.

“So how long have you known Lotor, Princess?” Lance queried lightly.

“He had only introduced himself this morning.” She answered obligingly, “I hadn’t known Lotor before now.”

This caused Lance's brows to raise in interest. “I see. Well, he certainly seemed rather interested in helping with the fight for Altea.”

“I'm pleased to know that the plight of our kingdom is stirring distant relatives of Altea. It helps me to feel like our spirit to fight for home still burns brightly and there is hope for those still within the city.”

Lance offered a soft smile and placed a light hand over the one on his arm.

“Volta will not rest as long there is a chance to help you and your people, Princess.” he gave her hand a gentle squeeze, “And there is always a chance.”

She returned the smile, sincerity swelling in her heart with gratitude. “Thank you, Dearest Lance. We would truly be lost without you all.”

“Once Altea is returned to its people, both cities will be bathed in celebration the likes all of Greece has never seen. Dionysus, himself, shall attend as our wedding will mark the pinnacle it all!”

Allura responded with a very nervous laugh at the idea and cleared her throat with a slightly worried expression to herself. Still, even as Lance came on rather strong, she harbored little regret in her present company. Lance, and in turn, his father, Ambrose, were nothing less than the perfect hosts to Coran and herself. It was hardly any trouble for her to entertain Lance’s… imagination. Even as one as vivid enough to already have the names of their three future children picked out. Sweet Hera… Allura chuckled mentally.


-

 

Hunk greeted them all with his bright cherub smile, pleased to see all of his friends, and led them into bowels of Pidge's shop. Lance was prudent enough to keep his appendages close this time around, lest his misguided enthusiasm cause anymore destruction that he hadn't any way to fix. Allura and Coran we're quite taken with the wonderland of otherworldly objects, plans, and specimens. It was almost overwhelming for Coran to be reminded of days long ago when he was a much younger lad. Days much yearned for in his heart that recalled his precocious youth always in toe of the brilliance of his father and grandfather. He could recall so vividly the acrid smell of brimstone that often filled the air of his memories and he had to wipe away a tear from the corner of his eye.

“Excellent!” Pidge welcomed as they gathered about her workbench. “I’m glad that you all were able to come.”

Atop the bench were several alchemic tools; mortars, pestles, countless small dishes and bowls, scales, weights, vessels propped over small, contained flames. Strewn between it all were countless bits of flora, liquids, and minerals. It was easily apparent to everyone just how much experimenting the two scientists had gone through. Pages of notes and alchemical equations peppered the area, spilling around the floor as well.

“This is quite the laboratory you have here, Young Pidge.” Coran praised as he stroked his mustache, “I'm rather impressed and delighted to experience your scientific prowess firsthand.”

“Then let's get started, shall we?” She held out her hand and Hunk obligingly passed her a bowl of powdered elements which she placed over a small fire before her.

“So, Hunk and I have worked out most of the elements from the old samples and what we come up with is nearly the same end result.”

“What is missing, however, is the fuel that keeps the concoction burning.” Hunk added as all watched the dark bowl and its contents. “We figure this new element is also what allows the fuel to become gelatinous as it burns. So far, it's all simply melted.”

“But…” Pidge supplied as she produced a mortar with crushed material, ground to the consistency of coarse sand, “with this we get the results we are looking for.”

Pidge carefully added the small grounds to her bowl and gently turned all of the contents with a stone pestle. As it came to heat, it began to gel into a dark gray concoction. It balled into a mass that was half the size of an open palm and Pidge removed the heat. Its pseudo liquid state remained, coarse and still slightly lumpy.

The others had shifted around the table to get a glimpse of the experiment. Hunk stepped aside, well familiar with the science and allowed for Allura to tuck in between Coran and Shiro on one side of Pidge while Lance and Keith leaned in on the other. It was when Pidge had brought a small flame to touch the mixture that Keith and Shiro exchanged glances.

“Shiro…” Keith said softly, “That smell..”

“Yeah.” Shiro answered, brows knitted tightly.

The aroma of the burning fuel triggered deeply seeded visions of that battlefield. The vivid recollection of carnage and destruction flooded both of their thoughts. The acrid stench of cooking human flesh mingling with the spice of brimstone and this particular aroma choked the back of their throats and singed at their nostrils. It was not a happy memory, but the fact that it stirred such ghosts in their minds meant that they were close.

There was a small crackle in the bowl and suddenly a sputter. The lump of fuel popped and spat bits of itself and fire. Everyone gasped and attempted to duck away. Keith yanked Lance back, covering him with his own body as he turned away. Pidge ducked beneath her workbench and Hunk jumped back further. Shiro and Coran both attempted to shield the princess as she instinctively raised her hands before her head, turning her face away.

As the sputtering calmed, both Hunk and Pidge reached for sand, dirt, and anything to smother the flames. By the time that had finished, the fire was out, and the mortar was overflowing with earth.

“Is everyone okay?” Hunk asked as he glanced around the room.

Pidge patted a tiny smolder on the front of her chiton but nodded. Lance peeked around Keith's shoulder, still in his arms as Keith turned back. Both signed yes. Princess Allura hissed softly as she looked down at her arms. There was a spot on her bracers that felt hot.

“Princess!” Coran quickly grabbed the nearest bit of cloth and wiped away the smattering of fuel that settled onto the metal.

“Sweet Athena! Princess!” Pidge exclaimed with worry as she tried to see around Coran's commotion, “Are you hurt? Did you get burned? I'm so sorry!”

“No.” Shiro said in quiet surprise, “She's… fine”

Everyone looked on as her bracers wiped clean. There was no sign of damage or even discolor by the flame on her accessories.

“But how?” Keith asked, “When the shields and swords came into contact with the stuff, it was only minutes before they warped or melted. It ate everything.”

“It's still entirety possible that our formula is wrong.” Pidge pondered aloud, now certain that Allura was uninjured. “The mixture was barely heated before it became unstable. I may still need to adjust the amount of Quintite we add.”

“Quintite?” Coran piqued.

“It's the element Rolo brought that we wanted to ask you and Princess Allura about.” Hunk explained.

“Indeed.” Coran's tone shifted into thoughtful interest.

“Quintite is indeed woven with Altean history.” Allura added. “It's a valuable mineral that was mined throughout our kingdom. My bracers are a Quintite alloy.”

“It was believed that the veins of Quintite had long been depleted. Eventually, it had become such a rare commodity that only the royal family would bear anything that contained Quintite. My grandfather was an expert metallurgist and worked with Quintite as often as possible.”

“Do you know his research?” Pidge asked urgently, more interested in her own knowledge than truly considering their task at hand.

“I may be able to recall a bit.” Coran answer with a pensive stroke of his mustache.

“Allura,” Shiro said softly amidst the discussion, “Are you sure you're not hurt?”

“I am, Shiro. Thank you.” She answered, “I would very much like to stay for the discussion of Quintite, if that's alright.”

“Of course.”

The discourse took a dive into scientific exploration that Lance was instantly lost on. It was clear to anyone who took the time to note that, though Lance tried to keep up, it was an unmanageable task.

“If it's all well with you guys, I think Lance and I should be on our way.”

“But you just got here.” Hunk said in a pitifully sad voice, eyeing his longtime friend.

Lance looked at Keith, unsure of how to respond.

“Yeah, sorry.” Keith provided rather smoothly, “We've got somewhere to be. Allura and Coran are better help here than we could be.”

“We'll catch you guys up later.” Shiro added as Keith ushered Lance out of the building.

 

They stepped outside and winced at the bright sunlight. Pidge's workshop was lit well enough inside, both by natural light and oil lamps. But the unnoticed adjusting to the dimness set for a harsh reminder to just how much darker it was compared to the mid-morning sun. Lance rubbed at his eyes a bit while Keith shut the door behind them.

“You think they're really close with this… Quintite?

“Yeah, I really think so.” Keith answered as he shifted to lead them off, “The smell that thing gave off when it burned… I don't think I'll ever be able to forget it.”

Lance saw how clouded Keith's eyes grew as he spoke about it and he felt his shoulders slump a bit, slightly regretting asking the question and stirring up dark thoughts. Though, he instantly perked back up again.

“So where exactly do we have to be all of the sudden?”

“Uh..” Right. Keith had forgotten his fabricated excuse to weasel them out of a science lesson. “Well, there's no hurry to be there, per say.”

Lance's brows piqued, suspiciously curious.

“Ok. So… where are we leisurely going?”

“It's… uh..” Keith wasn't entirely sure why he didn't just admit he had made it all up, but he found himself floundering for a way to dodge the question. “Surprise.”

Lance's brows raised entirely at that.

“A surprise?” Lance suddenly beamed, “For me?” He reached to hug Keith's arm, “You shouldn't have!”

Keith wriggled out of his grasp and rolled his eyes, attempting to fight back the light flush on his cheeks, or at least hide it.

“Yeah, yeah…” Keith brushed off, “Still time to change my mind, you know.”

Lance ignored the idle threat, clearly too excited to find out what the surprise was to be jilted by Keith's snark; a fact that only made Keith sweat all the more. He had hoped the title if 'surprise’ would allow him some freedom to come up with a plan as he unintentionally led them along the streets of Volta. How wrong he had been. He was laden by a barrage of questions as Lance attempted to guess at what would be awaiting him at the end of their stroll. Keith's only assurance was the fact that Lance would never be able to guess what it was - seeing as he, himself, had no bloody idea.

“Is it wearable?” Lance asked, “I love things I can wear - Oh! Is it that new pair of cuffs we saw at Eustachys’ stall?”

“No.” Keith said flatly.

“So, not the cuffs… but wearable?”

Keith was near the end of his mental rope, ready to lay out the fact that he didn't have one. He had no chance of coming up with anything and less so with Lance playing twenty questions the entire way. A way, as one would recall, he wasn't sure he knew. Before he could dash his ward's spirit, however, he looked up from his feet. His footfalls had carried him to an unintended destination. They walked into memory and were led by the force of habit. He found them both standing before the Marmoran Colosseum.

“It's in there?”

Solace. Keith felt a smile in his heart. The Colosseum always had a way of seeing him through tried times.

“It is here.” He answered.

Lance gave him a curious look before letting his gaze climb the tall walls of the bowl. There was a lapsing moment where Lance felt a sense of familiarity as he looked up at the structure before him. One not of repeated visits, but almost nostalgic with the company at his side.

“This is my ocean, Lance.” He offered, much softer and a little coyly.

Lance wasn't sure what it was about the Colosseum that could be exciting, outside of an event - which none were to take place any time soon. He had been there countless times and seen the goings on since he was just a lad. However, when Keith described the arena as his ocean, he swore his heart skipped a beat.

“... Show me.” He requested with a soft tone to match the gentle smile on his lips. “I want to see it all.”

Keith returned the subtle smile and motioned for Lance to step through the archway that lead them into the Colosseum. Lance let his eyes wander the familiar halls and corridors. There was nothing terribly surprising or novel, but he attempted to look over things with a different perspective. Keith's perspective.

“Follow me.” Keith nudged as he took a turn toward some steps.

They ascended them all. They climbed until they reached the very top seats of the Colosseum. Lance could honestly admit he had never gone that far before. Being of a wealthier Senate caste, his views were much closer to the action that happened on the arena floor. Looking down now, he wasn't sure just how anyone could even make sense of what would be happening.

“How can people watch anything from so high up?” Lance mumbled to himself.

Keith chuckled softly as Lance surveyed the view. As he did, Keith allowed himself to take a seat on a wall that stood just above waist high inside a deep arch. He took a deep breath as he surveyed his own view.

“Whoa.” Lance breathed, leaning out on the other end of the archway from his bodyguard. “This view is incredible!”

“This is where I come to clear my head.” Keith offered softly, “I can breathe here. Take a moment to myself and think. It's also the best view of the sunset over the city.”

“I'm sure it is…” Lance mused, trying to picture one, a little sad that they were too early to view one now. “Hey! My house is just over there!”

He pointed excitedly and Keith couldn't hold in a smile at his excitement. They stayed for a short while, people watching at the streets down below. The way to the seaport was too far off to the side from their view and too far off in the distance to see from the height of the Colosseum. But Keith realized that he could pick up faint hints of salt air as the breeze grew.

“I can see why you would like it here. I bet I could stay here and watch the heavens forever at night.”

“It's true. I've done it countless times.” Keith shifted off his seat, “But if you did that now, the lions would never get fed, would they?”

“... Lions?” Lance's stood straight and looked at Keith over his shoulder.


-


“You can stop gripping so hard,” Keith smirked, “They're in cages. You're safe.”

Lance eyed Keith carefully from behind before slowly letting go of his arm and the back of his chiton. One couldn't possibly ignore the acrid smell of urine and animal musk, but to be so close to such incredible beasts. He was glad that Keith suggested he leave his chlamys behind. He was certain he would never be able to get the smell out of it. Gods, even at Lance's usual seats they didn't look this large. Their roars and growls were booming and echoed sharply off the stone walls. Lance could feel them thumping against his chest.

“Do you promise?”

“Yes, Lance. I promise.” Keith smirked.

They had stopped a young boy in the midst of carrying a tray of raw meat on the way to the den, obviously tasked with the chore that day. Keith offered to take over and, clearly familiar with the gladiator, the young boy obliged happily. They took the tray down the well of stairs and Lance suddenly realized just what he was getting into.

“Look.” Keith yanked at the door to one of the cages and the lock rattled but didn't give. It put Lance just a little bit more at ease.

Lance stood back near the wall as he watched Keith feed and coo at the lions in their cages. Keith could feel Lance watch his every move and wondered what went through his mind. Was he still too frightened to be there? Did he possibly want to leave? He looked over his shoulder and saw Lance looking at him with a soft expression. It calmed his heart, only now noticing just how much it had been racing, and he held a hand out for Lance.

Keith saw that apprehension return in Lance features, but he slowly moved to meet him.

“Trust me.”

Lance breathed slowly before replying.

“Keith,” he clearly forced himself to relax, “I've told you I do.”

Keith flushed at that turning to the cage door before swallowing over the deafening beat of his heart in his ears. He took a breath before opening the cage door and stepping in.

Lance watched in complete awe as Keith stepped further into what anyone else could be sure was certain death. He saw what everyone had long believed firsthand. He saw the Marmoran Lion in person.

Keith clicked his tongue softly and they heard the low growl of a beast within. He hushed it gently and it lunged from the shadows, making Lance jump. To his surprise, though, the lion placed its large laws on Keith's shoulders and nuzzled at him. Keith laughed as he scratched at its mane, trying to stay upright all the while. The giant cat clearly could have stood two heads above Keith's own height and the muscles on it could rend him to shreds without effort. Yet, there it stood like a giant house cat welcoming home a dear friend.

It dropped back to all fours and circled Keith once before he pushed it off, nothing more than a suggestion to the beast. As it walked back toward the corner it came from, Keith took a step back toward the door.

“Get that last bit of meat…” he said to Lance, never turning his body away.

Lance complied and reached to hold it out for Keith. To his slight terror, Keith grabbed his wrist instead, urging him nearer. Lance complied, sidling up next to Keith apprehensively close. Keith began to kneel, and Lance followed in his arms. Keith place a hand on Lance's shoulder reassuringly while he helped Lance hold out the other.

They both knelt very still as the cat paced once. Keith clicked his tongue lightly again and cooed at it. It began to walk toward them, and he felt Lance tense immediately. He gave his shoulder a squeeze and held him close. Lance involuntarily gasped when the lion took the food from his hand and he recoiled into Keith's broad chest.

Keith chuckled as he shifted into a seated position while the lion settled back in his corner to eat.

“This is Antok.” He introduced as Lance settled as well, coping with his disbelief to having just fed a full-grown lion. “He was thrown in with a few lions we got years back. He was just a cub then. They didn't want him because he was a runt. You'd never guess with how big he's gotten.”

“He's gigantic.” Lance paid note of the animal’s gnashing teeth as it ate.

“He was never much of a fighter though.” Keith sighed, a slight disappointment slumping his shoulders a bit, “We basically grew up together. He never had it in him to be as vicious as the other lions…”

“Isn't that good, tho-” Lance stopped short when Antok stood. He had finished his lunch and seemed keen to explore.

His immediate target was Keith, but as he approached, his eyes fixated on the one next to him. Lance sat straight up, and Keith felt him stiffen again. His hand returned to rest on Lance's back.

“Don't forget to breathe.” He reminded softly.

But Lance wasn't going to move. Antok was right in his face and so were those massively sharp teeth. Antok looked him over and took his time taking in the new scent. Keith stayed ready to act if anything went away between the two of them. His muscles we're ready to yank Lance back by his chiton and shove himself between them. When the beast had his fill of investigating, he snorted and proceeded to nuzzle between them both. Lance let out a small 'oof’ at the sudden weight against him and gave Keith a wide-eyed look of amazement. There was a massive lion in his arms.

Keith smiled at the reaction, ruffling its mane in relief.

“He's so coarse!” Lance tittered as Antok nuzzled further.

Keith watched over as Antok managed to get Lance flattened to the ground and lay on him. Clearly, he enjoyed the way this new human scratched at his ears in the perfect way. In all honesty, Keith was surprised with how welcoming he was with Lance. He expected maybe a quick chance to pet him, if that much. But Antok accepted him wholly, already licking Lance's head and hair. He purred the entire time.

“His tongue is so rough!” His words were labored as his lungs were burdened by the weight of a few tons of giant cat.

Keith laughed and shoved at the beast. “Alright, alright. That's enough, Antok. Get off.”

The cat complied and stood up, though clearly begrudged. He wandered back into his corner and settled, licking his paw and starting to clean himself. Keith helped Lance to his feet and led him out, shutting the cage behind him and locking it properly.

“Great Gods, that was amazing!” Lance heaved a deep breath. “My heart is still racing! You really are the Red Lion.”

Lance flung his arms around Keith's shoulders and hugged him tightly. Keith could feel it. His heart beat. It was racing. It made Keith's work a little quicker too. He cleared his throat and eased Lance back.

“Thanks for not getting eaten.” Keith teased through a blush, “I was wondering if he started to think you tasted good.”

Lance laughed. His skin still prickled with adrenaline. Keith led them out of the den. There was one more place he wanted Lance to see.


-

 

Keith watched as Lance slowly stepped through the threshold. He could see the breadth of it all wash over him as Lance was imagining the stands of the colosseum filled with Volta spectators. Keith could remember the first time he stepped out into the ring during his initial public event. He was the youngest fighter to take up a sword and the crowds were quite overwhelming.

“Can you imagine it?” Lance said with a breathy sigh, “The masses looking down on you, chanting your name, cheering you on to victory…”

Keith chuckled, “I don’t really have to imagine most of the time.”

Lance glanced back at him over his shoulder with a beaming smile.

“Does it fill you with pride when you hear it? Do you swell with the power of the people around you while you fight? With Volta at your back, are you invincible here?”

Lance’s arms raised over his head as he relished in the phantom voices in his head, spilling over the high walls of the stands and pooling around him. Keith could see him swelling in the love of his city and of its people, as he did every day. It made sense to him that Lance would think that the people would be strength, their faith in the fighters and their skill being the driving force behind every victory. Keith’s was slightly different, though.

“Honestly,” he smirked, folding his arms over his chest as he walked up next to Lance and looked out to the stands, “I tend to just ignore the noise.”

Lance gave him a slightly soured look, but clearly wasn’t all that surprised by the response. In just a quick a moment, however, his eyes lit up again as they caught sight of something beyond Keith.

“Are those real?” he asked stepping passed Keith and toward the arena wall.

He had spotted the weapon racks and excited made a quick pace over. Once there, Lance peered over the selection with starry interest before selecting a gladius from its slot. He lifted it with more effort than he anticipated and soon gripped it with both hands. He swung it left and right a few times, getting a feel of the weapon, cutting at the air and thrusting in moderately adequate form.

“It’s heavier than I expected.” he mused, holding it upright at arm’s length.

Keith had stepped up beside him and watched him go through the movements. He smiled before walking over to the rack and picking up a second gladius.

“This one is a little lighter, but not by very much.” Keith offered it and Lance gladly traded it.

“Well, I can at least hold it up with just one hand.” he beamed as he repeated a few strokes with just one arm.

“How about it then?” Keith expertly spun the first sword in his hand and fell into a stance. “Care to give it a try?”

Lance stared at him in awe for a moment before letting his lips pull into a wide smile. His feet shifted wide and he eased his hips lower, both hands wrapped around the gladius once more. Keith’s brows furrowed slightly as he smirked, waiting for a move. Lance took it, stepping forward with a high swing to Keith’s head. Keith easily deflected it. He was pleasantly surprised to notice Lance using the momentum to curve the blade low and back toward Keith in a fluid step. The move caused his teeth to flash as he stepped back to dodge. He followed through in his movement and spun around completely, bringing his sword arm forward and bringing the blade to cut at Lance horizontally. There was a loud iron ring as Lance parried.

Again, Lance brought the blade up and made a crosscut down Keith’s front. Had he been there, it would have ended him. But Keith was well out of the way with a jump backward. Before he even skidded to a stop, he charged, the point of his sword leading the way. Lance deflected it to the left and circled his gladius around his body to make a slice at Keith as he made his way passed. But again, Keith was not within reach of the arch. He had dropped to the ground to miss the path. As he hit the floor, he rolled onto his back and wrapped his legs around Lance’s waist. With a twist of his hips, Lance lost his center of gravity and hit the dirt, losing his grip on his weapon and staring down the end of Keith’s.

“Not bad.” Keith praised with an unchecked smile. “Not bad at all.”

Lance huffed a bit, his breathing a little taxed during the workout. But his grin was endless. Keith let him go and moved to his feet. Once he stood, he offered a hand to Lance that was quickly accepted. As Lance dusted himself off, Keith picked up the swords and went to replace them back on the racks.

“Remind me never to make you upset when you get your own sword back.” Lance commented as he followed, still dusting off the bottom of his chiton.

“Mnh. A wise bit of caution.” Keith mused, “You could match me if you trained, though. I'm sure of it.”

“Ah, I think you’re several years ahead of me. Catching up to you is more of a fool’s… errand..”

Keith turned back to him as he noticed the drift in his words. He caught Lance eyeing a bow nestled against the sword rack, hidden from sight earlier. Lance really was easily distracted by new toys. He chuckled to himself mentally as he reached for it and offered it to his companion. Lance gave him the same doe-eyed look before taking it in his hands. Keith picked up the quiver of arrows and held it out, allowing Lance to pick out the three that he liked.

“Targets are there.” Keith pointed just down the way, just beyond the halfway mark of the arena.

Near the wall there stood three wooden targets equally spaced out. The distance, guessing, would easily sit over two hundred paces. Lance stepped up a few feet and aligned with the one in the center. Keith took his place behind him and slightly over to the side as not to crowd him - or perhaps become accidental collateral. He crossed his arms and watched, allowing Lance to feel through as he liked.

Lance gripped the bow with his left hand and pulled at the drawstring with the tips of his right three fingers. He played and tested it getting a feel for the draw. Keith’s chaperone demeanor shifted, however, when he noticed the way the arrows rested between Lance’s fingers as he worked. His cocky arms unfolded and dropped to his sides as he started to take more notice of Lance’s movements. Lance, meanwhile, twirled his first arrow between his fingers before knocking it. He lifted the bow and pulled as he let everything settle to eye level. Keith watched as he looked down the shaft and with a slow drawn breath, released. The Red Lion stared wide-eyed as the arrow imbedded into the target just left of the bullseye. His eyes darted back to Lance who had already knocked his second. He let it fly. It skinned the side of the first arrow, but still just left of the target. Lance’s brows furrowed, but he repeated the process. He took one final slow breath and let the final arrow loose. This one hit the target dead on.

“Hm.” Lance let the bow fall to his side. “The fletching is off.”

“... Do tell.” Keith mumbled sulkily.

Lance clearly took notice of it and smirked as he moved to replace the bow with the rest of the weapons. But he decided to stop and gloat in his bodyguard’s face.

“You know, it’s terribly adorable how defenseless you think I am.”

Keith scoffed, “The rest of the world may be stupid enough to believe that you’re any sort of - “

Keith’s eyes drifted just passed Lance only for a moment as he caught a twitch of movement. In just as quick a flash, he grabbed Lance by the shoulders and shoved him hard to the side.  Lance hit the dirt before he could even react. Keith lunged the opposite direction.

Once Lance managed to turn off his stomach, he saw why Keith had suddenly flung him back. It was a narrow miss by the lion on both of their counts. If it wasn’t for Keith’s quick reaction, Lance’s head would have been crunched by massive feline jaws. Keith was briefly relieved that once Lance was out of the way, the lion was acutely focused on him. Or he thought he had been. Keith managed to tuck and roll out of the way and that put him back on his feet rather quickly. Once he was up and facing him down again the lion roared and swiped. Keith kept his distance and every muscle was taught, ready to spring into whatever action necessary. Keith made himself seem threatening enough that it turned his attention away from him and found Lance still on the ground.

Keith panicked as it turned and paced toward Lance. Lance who scrambled backward and attempted to get back onto his feet. Keith bolted and ran after the lion, grabbing his tail and yanking as hard as he could. It was enough. The lion spun back around to him and swiped again. He stayed just out of its reaches until it lunged, and he rolled to the right again. From the corner of his eye he saw Lance on his feet and running back toward the arsenal wall.

Think, Keith! Think! He screamed mentally. He was caught completely off-guard by the rampant lion and having to worry about Lance’s safety had his mind running in circles and second guessing his instincts. It wasn’t enough that this was such erratic behavior. Keith managed enough distance again to turn around and be certain to keep the beast’s attention away from Lance.

“Antok!” He called, “Antok, stop! It’s me!”

The lion growled and roared threateningly. Keith had nothing. The lion was between him and any sort of defense worthwhile. But it at least meant that Lance was behind Antok and safe. Antok wasn’t even remotely listening to a word Keith said. His eyes were sharp, and it was clear every intention was fatal. Keith’s mind raced with ‘how’s and ‘why’s mangled with how to deal with it.

“Keith!” he heard Lance call just before he saw him toss a staff his direction. It hit the ground just behind Antok and Antok took notice. As he looked behind him at the noise, Keith made a break for the staff. Antok saw as he passed and swiped for his leg. Luckily, Keith managed to evade the giant paw. But in doing so, lost much of his balance. He fell forward into a roll, fortunately able to grab hold of the staff on the way over it.

He brought it up and forward in time to catch Antok by the jaws. Having a stick shoved into his mouth was clearly upsetting to the beast and he thrashed his head back and forth. His teeth gnashed as he tried to work free of it and get to Keith at the same time. Keith poured every ounce of strength he had holding him back while also trying to steer clear of clawed feet. One swipe he was unable to avoid.

Antok caught his right shoulder and Keith felt two razor sharp claws rip open his flesh. In a cry of pain, he found enough strength in him to kick the lion off with everything he had. Once he was free of the lion, he felt much of his strength lost from holding several tons of beast off and seeping out of him along with the blood spilling from his wounded shoulder. He rolled to his side and attempted to get to his feet, but his speed wasn’t nearly as quick as he wanted. Antok only faltered for a second before immediately turning around again to lunge back onto Keith.

“Keith!!” Lance screamed from a distance.

He looked back and just as Antok’s shadow loomed over him, a blur crashed into the lion’s side and shoved him off a distance. Keith hesitated for only a moment before getting up to his feet.

“Ulaz!”

The Marmoran fighter clamored to his feet quickly. Antok was dazed as he rolled over and shook off the confusion. He stood and roared angrily. They all heard it reverberate off nearly every surface of the colosseum. Ulaz pulled his sword from its scabbard and stood ready between Antok and Keith. Antok charged again.

“Ulaz, no!” Keith pleaded, “Something’s wrong! Don’t hurt him!”

Ulaz grimaced at the demand and fell back as Antok lunged again. The warrior pressed the flat of his blade and caught the lion’s massive paws to stop them from finding his frame. His back hit the ground and he rolled with the motion, kicking his feet into the lion’s abdomen and, with unearthly strength, kicking the lion up and over him a good distance. Much to the shock of all three, Antok manage to keep himself mostly upright. Only his hind legs slipped his landing, though his hips did hit the ground rather hard. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to slow him down.

Antok caught sight of Lance in the middle of the arena and figured, perhaps, he would prove to be less of an annoyance as the others. Both gladiators broke into a dead run. Ulaz dove for Lance much in the same fashion he had knocked Antok off course. They hit the ground hard and skidded several feet out of the way. Despite the gash in his shoulder and the blood dripping down his arm and torso, Keith found enough speed and strength to clutch a fist full of Antok’s mane and clamor onto his back. He yanked the tuft of hair as well as an ear, halting the lion immediately. Antok bucked and shook his head violently, reaching with his paws to dislodge the unwelcome rider.  In his motions, he blindly started shifting back toward the side of the arena. He reared up tall enough that when he landed with a whip of his head, Keith flew off and into the rack of spears and staves. The shelf shattered and left Keith buried in the mess.

“Keith!”

The wind had been knocked out of him and his shoulder was truly beginning to ache and sting. He was down. Lance caught the blurred motion of Ulaz making for Antok, grabbing rocks on his way and pelting them at the rabid beast. Eventually, he had thrown one large enough to anger Antok and he roared. Ulaz had circled close enough that he followed, taking the bait and leaving Keith be. The moment there was enough distance between the lion and Keith, Lance made the run.

“Keith!” Lance called in a panic, “Keith, are you ok?!”

He reached for his good shoulder and helped him up to his feet, wooden handles and shelving tumbling off of him.

“I’m-” Keith winced with a heaving breath, “I’m fine… Lance, you’re - ngh - you’re bleeding.”

Lance forced a laugh. The last dive Ulaz had made for him ended with a rough landing. The skid had scraped his arm and elbow raw and Lance had managed to find gravel sharp enough to slash his legs a bit. Yes, he was a bit battered, but…

“Not as much as you.” he quipped.

The commotion climaxed and their attention was pulled back toward Ulaz and Antok. Whatever they had missed was a pivotal moment that left Ulaz on his back beneath Antok, bloodied heavily by several new gashes at his ribs, and the lion was showing no signs of mercy.

“Ulaz!” Keith’s voice broke.

Lance quickly looked around for anything that would help and found the quiver of arrows strewn on the ground. With the bow still in his hand, he ran to grab one. Just as he knocked the arrow and took in a breath, the arena echoed hollow with Keith’s voice.

“No!”

They saw as both bodies clashed in a motion toward each other. One successfully sank teeth into a shoulder and the other buried a Marmoran fang between ribs. The silence that overcame them was deafening. Lance let the air out of his lungs in a shuddering breath and the bow and arrow in his hands clattered to the ground. Keith, broken and exhausted, ran to the heap and shoved the lion with all he had left.

“Ulaz!” he cried, “Ulaz!!”

Antok fell to his side, exposing the gladiator and every facet of his injuries. His left shoulder had been dislocated, that was plain to see. His lungs had been punctured where his skin was torn open. The gashes were wide, and Keith was sure he saw the white flash of bone. Ulaz was covered in his own blood, much of it spilling from the open wound where Antok’s teeth had found his trapezius muscle. Keith knelt closely beside him, at a loss in how to help him. He almost reached for his head to lift it, but quickly thought better of moving him at all.

“Ulaz…” Keith whispered breathily, “Ulaz, hold on. We’re going to get you help.”

Lance had made his way over much slower, clearly burdened with the guilt of not being fast enough at the draw. If he had been, perhaps Ulaz would have been spared. As he approached the two, he heard calls in the distance. Others had gotten word of what was going on but made their way to help far too late. There were faces Lance had seen before during events and other faces he had never laid eyes on before. But he could tell that they were all of the same gladiatorial make. They were all Marmoran. Just like Ulaz. Just like Keith. All of them gathered around their fallen brother and worked diligently to save him. Others came with a crude stretcher and they all clustered around to lay Ulaz upon it. Lance made sure to keep out of the way, taking a step off to the side.

Keith also made certain to allow those capable the room to work. With his own injuries, he was of little use in any helpful task. He held his breath as they moved the now-unconscious Ulaz to to the stretcher and swiftly attempt to stem the bleeding as best they could. His eyes flashed over to Antok and he saw Lance standing over him, quiet and sullen. Keith watched as Lance bit down on his lip as he knelt to the great beast, resting a hand only inches away where Ulaz’s sword was impaled. It was not lost on Lance, the moment they shared earlier, and he mourned. Keith went to join him in it. He placed a light hand on Lance’s shoulder and felt it sink, though Lance never turned back to look at him. Instead, he turned away.

“What’s this?” he murmured.

Keith’s brows furrowed tightly as Lance reached to pull a dart from Antok’s hip. It was no thicker than a seamstress’s needle, but twice as long. The blood aside, it was darkly colored. As though it had been steeped in something and stained. Both Keith and Lance looked out to the stands, certain that it was not something Antok had simply rolled onto in his cage. Neither seemed to have caught sight of anything out of the ordinary, but both were still quite wary.

Eventually, Ulaz was moved inside and Keith was urged to follow in order to tend to his injuries. Lance was not far behind to be cleaned up as well. As Kolivan had returned to the colosseum long after the altercation, Keith explained everything as he was being stitched back up.

“You should stay and mend, Keith.” Kolivan advised sternly.

“No.” he argued, pulling his chiton back up over his shoulder, still wet and bloodied. “It isn’t safe for Lance. I need to take him home.” He sat quiet a moment before taking a long breath, “And I need to let Shiro know about Ulaz…”

“Very well.” Kolivan finally conceded, “Have Thace go with you. If there is still someone around looking to finish what they started, you won’t be much defense in your current condition.”

Keith nodded and stood, with effort, to leave. With the lack of adrenaline in him, his entire body was much more aware of the beating it had taken from Antok. Lance was quick to take his arm around his neck and help him.

“Lance-”

“Don’t argue.” he snipped, “Let’s just go.”

Keith had to admit it was easier to walk with Lance’s help. They left the small room and headed down the hall. Ulaz was taken to the sanitarium proper in order to be best treated. For the time being, he was a live. But everyone knew Hades was not going to be waiting for long.

“Lance…” Keith started, unsure of how to make the day right.

He was surprised when Lance suddenly broke into panicked whispers.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. If I had only been quicker with the arrow - if I had only thought of it sooner. I had it in my hand the whole time. Keith, I could have - Ulaz wouldn’t -”

“Hey.” Keith turned to Lance and reached for his face, forcing him to look up into his eyes, “Hey, hey, hey.”

Lance’s breath caught in his throat and he choked out a sob. Lance reached for Keith and wrapped his arms around him tightly. The gladiator was taken aback for a moment, but soon wrapped his own arms around Lance’s shoulders.

“It’s not your fault. None of this is your fault.” he soothed. “There’s never a guarantee anyone steps out of that arena alive. Ulaz knew that. We all do.”

Keith pulled him back and had him meet his gaze once more.

“Always be thankful for what was given, never sorry that it was ever offered.”

Lance swallowed thickly before taking a breathing deeply. He moved to hug Keith tightly once more.

“I’m so glad you’re ok.”

“Me too.” Keith squeezed back, “I’m glad you aren’t hurt any worse than you are.”

They stayed a moment, simply taking in their luck, before Keith released his arms and let go of Lance.

“We should get going.”

Chapter Text

 

VIII. Healing Touch

 

 

Keith was accustomed to pain. He spent years bolstering a threshold that dammed the waves of fatigue and ache from his body. But even that only held back so much from serious damage. The flowing support system of adrenaline and cognitive prioritizing that led to stemming of battle wear was ebbing and Keith could feel his nerves starting to fire.

Even though they had been cleaned up and treated in the colosseum, it was a rather quick glance over as Ulaz was much more the priority. It was only a rinse and a fast stitch to close the gashes in his right shoulder. Lance was only splashed with a bit of water and once he was seen as completely unconcerning, any medical prowess in their midst rushed to their brother's aid down the hall.

Now he was feeling it. Now it was washing over him. Muscles ached and his legs were tired. His shoulder was searing hot and burned its anger from every sliced nerve ending. There was a familiar throb in his ribs that was no kinder than his shoulder. He planted his foot, his body shifted in a way that caused a pang harsh enough to catch his breath. Keith winced and reached for his left side with a shaky step.

"Keith?" Lance stopped when his bodyguard was no longer at his side.

"I'm fine." He heaved slowly, "Fight's just catching up to me."

"And that's all." Lance shook his head and made his way to Keith's side.

"Of course." Keith shrugged, still holding his side, "Nothing concerning."

Lance smirked a bit wryly and gentle reached for Keith's left arm. He eased it around his shoulders and moved his own arm around his hip.

"Don't even bother arguing because I won't be listening to you. The quicker we move the sooner I'm home."

Keith indeed stayed silent as they continued their way to Lance's villa, both looking as ragged as they felt. Finally, Keith managed to spit out a few words.

"Lance…" he said softly, "I'm sorry. The last thing I ever intended to do was put you in danger. But I see bringing you to Marmora was nothing but that."

"Keith.." the look he gave Keith made him feel all the more worse. How could he look so surprised at the apology when it was so blatantly on him that Lance was hurt? "No. I'm not sorry at all. I regret that anyone had to get hurt. I regret losing Antok… but nothing beyond that."

Keith wished he had something to say. Thank you, perhaps, for simply not being angry with him. But he couldn't find his voice. He only looked at Lance as they walked, studying the sincerity in his eyes as he looked down the road they walked.

Lance smiled.

"Besides, it was worth it to see the look on your face after I made that bullseye."

"Yeah, about that." Keith remembered his unfinished thought in the arena and grimaced, "Why didn't you tell me?"

"Because." Lance snorted, "Your reaction was priceless. I just told you that."

"Mnh." Keith let a dubious look slip over his face, "And you were just keeping that aside until just such an occasion…"

"A lucky person is someone who plants pebbles and harvests potatoes." Lance practically sang.

Keith smirked at the proverb.

"So, how long have you been training in archery?"

Lance sighed deeply, his expression becoming slightly distant. "Several years. It was something I insisted on when I was young. I wanted to learn - actually, right after a match at the Colosseum, come to think of it!"

Keith smiled just slightly when he saw a grin spread over Lance's lips. He could picture a smaller-framed Lance begging his father for a bow and arrow as they ebbed from their box and flowed out with the crowds. He wondered if he had seen that very same match.

"Never in combat though. Of course, I'm sure you've figured that…" Keith felt Lance's shoulder sink a bit. "I've only ever aimed at a still target. But I would bet you anything I could put Odysseus, himself, to shame! Ithaca would have been mine before Penelope could even beg for my hand!"

Keith chuckled. Then immediately regretted it once his ribs bit back. "I have no doubt.." his voice strained through the pain.

Lance frowned.

"Are you ok?"

"Yeah. I'll be alright."

Lance sighed but acquiesced to his stubborn bravado.

"Almost there.."

There was a short span of silence between them before Keith spoke up once again.

"Not once."

"Hm?"

"I never thought of you as defenseless for even a moment." He confessed, "If I'm honest with you, I actually think you're pretty dangerous in your own right."

"Do you?" Lance perked up, his ego swelling just a little bit more.

"Who, in their right mind, would fuck with a guy that willingly drinks poison at his own feast?"

Lance laughed heartily at that.

"Are you scared of me, Keith?" He leered with a grin. 

"Don't get too ahead of yourself." Keith smirked.

 

But yes. Yes, I am.

 

-

 

As they reached the villa, they stepped into the grand hall where Lance’s house guests played host to some familiar faces. As attentive as always, Cassius noted their entrance but quickly panicked at the sight of them.

“Young master!” He cried, setting the amphora of wine for the group and rushing to meet the two.

The others started at the outburst and watched him hurry across the room. When they all realized it was Lance and Keith, as well as their ragged condition, they all followed his urgency.

“Great Zeus, are you both alright?!” Shiro asked as he moved to Keith’s open side, gently attempting to help him to a nearby bench to sit.

“Dear Athena, what on Earth happened?” Allura asked as she looked them both over.

“Small… altercation with an angry cat.” Lance answered obscurely as he and Shiro eased Keith onto the bench.

“Angry cat?” Shiro’s eyes widened and he shot a look directly at his younger brother.

Keith looked away sheepishly before giving a heavy sigh, feeling the anticipation of everyone present as they waited for his answer.

“Antok is gone…” he finally provided, albeit very quietly.

“Keith..” Shiro’s shoulders drooped. He was well aware of the bind his brother and that beast had shared for so many years. He knew what Keith had just lost.

“Antok?” Coran inquired.

“One of the lions at the colosseum.” Shiro answered, eyes still locked onto Keith whose eyes were still avoiding him. “Keith, how?”

“Never mind that!” Allura demanded, “These wounds are horrible, and the dressing is appalling! He needs proper care!”

Allura all but shoved everyone aside, much to their collective surprise, and grabbed Keith by the chin as a mother would looking over an injured child, turning and tilting his head this way and that. Keith was taken aback but allowed it. He obliged each movement she demanded with her hands and didn’t say a word.

“Cassius.” He stood at attention. “Get me a bowl of warm water, cloth, and fresh dressings.”

Cassius wasted no time.

“Coran, please fetch my things.”

“At once, Princess.” He nodded curtly and left.

“What things?” Lance finally asked, unbearably curious about her intentions.

“My tools.” She answered peering over Keith’s shoulder now. “I’m not just a princess, Lance. I’m a healer. An Asclepian healer.”

“I’ve heard of the Asclepieions.” Lotor had stepped up as Cassius and Coran left to fulfill their requests. “I had intended to visit the one in Kos during my travels. Unfortunately, I never got the chance. You have studied at one?”

“I have.” Allura nodded. Cassius had returned with the items and she already began a much more thorough cleanse of Keith’s shoulder. “I studied in Epidaurus for three years and still continue now.”

“Princess Allura, I must say, you never cease to amaze.”

Lance’s jaw tightened and his stomach turned as Lotor spoke, but he kept silent. There was something about the man Lance could only distrust entirely. 

“What happened, exactly, if you don’t mind my asking?” The question Lotor asked was directed at Lance. As if Lotor knew he was deliberately playing at Lance’s nerves.

“Well, we were sparring on the arena grounds when one of the lions somehow got out.” Lance rubbed the back of his head, “Must have been lunchtime because he was rather upset. Suppose he was denied a second helping…”

“Lance!” Allura scolded. “Is it really something to make light of? You both could have been killed!”

Lance thought to quip with another witty response but stopped himself when he remembered Ulaz and his sacrifice that day. Perhaps she had a point.

It was then Coran returned with a fair-sized chest, careful as it jingled and clattered. He set it on the floor near the princess and she wasted no time pulling from it a mortar and pestle and picking through vials and herbs.

“Wow.” Lance mused. “It’s like a smaller version of Hunk’s collection.”

“Hunk’s collection puts mine deeply into shame.” Allura bemoaned as she started dropping things into her mortar, “He has things I have only dreamed of procuring for my needs. Most of what you see here is thanks to Hunk. I only made it out of Altea with a small satchel of things. I’m only now just rebuilding what I once had. His means of getting the elements I require have been a wonder.”

“Truly!” Lotor interjected softly, “Are those Kerberos berries?”

“They are.” Allura answered, somewhat proud of the fact they were in her possession, “I’ve tried for years to find Kerberos berries and Hunk just handed them to me.”

“Said to be guarded by the very beast, itself… By Zeus.” Lotor whistled lowly. “Quite the prize to have in one’s pocket, to be able to find anything.

“Pff.” Lance waved a hand dismissively, “He’s not that good. Do you know how long I’ve been asking him to find me a drop of Bibline wine?”

“Indeed.” Lotor smirked.

“Master Lotor.” Cassius’ gentle voice wedged into conversation, “Forgive me, but your attendant has need of you.”

All looked to the entrance to see a figure waiting patiently for his master.

“I beg forgiveness of you all. Seems I am being summoned for another matter.” Lotor nodded his head to them and went on his way.

“I don’t trust him.” Keith finally said as Lotor disappeared from sight.

They all looked at him, Allura most curiously.

“Why not?”

“Forgive me, Princess, but something about him makes my skin crawl.” He looked to her as she ground her pestle through her poultice. “Why does he come to see you?”

“He’s Altean. He wishes to share and celebrate our culture, our people.” She looked down into her mortar with a forlorn expression, “He wants to save our kingdom. He’s offered his help to us and you refuse to allow him to do so.”

“I am sorry, Princess.” Shiro expressed softly, “But the military has rather strict rules to their council. The only reason you, yourself, are as involved as you are is because of your crown.”

“How much does he know?” Keith asked curtly, “About … Quintite.”

Lance’s eyes darted from Keith to Allura.

“I have told him nothing…” Allura quieted, “Though.. I had intended to.”

“Princess, please.” Keith pleaded kindly, “I know it’s not very much to go with, but… Let’s keep the news of Quintite to just those that know now. I may be wrong about Lotor – beg Great Zeus that I am. But for now, I feel it’s safest to keep it less known.”

“I’m afraid I side with Keith.” Lance spoke up this time. “Even if it wasn’t Lotor, the simple danger of letting anyone know how Quintite can be used would be a detriment to us. The rarity of the mineral is already an issue both sides will have to scuffle over. Adding anymore seekers would just destroy what advantage we have now.”

“A very valid point, Good Lance.” Coran said as he stroked his mustache.

“Very well. We’re agreed then.” Shiro concurred, “Discussion of Quintite will no longer leave Pidge’s shop.”

As the decision was made unanimous, Allura proceeded to cut Keith’s stitching and dress the wound. She was incredibly skilled with her surgical tools. Keith was most relieved over the fact she had a salve that dulled the pain immensely and all he felt was mostly pressure as she cut ripped skin away. She applied an ointment to the open wound before stitching him back up much more efficiently. She slathered her poultice over his shoulder once she cut her final thread, certain to be quite liberal with it, and dressed over it with the fresh bandaging.

“Thank you, Princess Allura.” Keith said sincerely. There was a quiet wonder in his mind if Ulaz could have been saved should Allura have been there with her box and skills.

After examining Keith’s bruised ribs and making sure they were only that and not broken, coating them thoroughly with their own layer of poultice and wrapping, she tended to Lance’s lesser injuries. Keith finally stopped chewing his lip and looked to his brother.

“Shiro…” as much as he would rather it hadn’t, Keith’s voice came out broken and meek. Everyone took note. “There’s something I have to tell you.”

“Cassius.” Lance called lowly, “Come help Coran take the Princess’s things back to her room. And I believe the Lady Allura and I are in need of some wine.”

Lance offered and arm and they all departed, leaving the two brothers to their sorrow.

 

-

It had been several days.

The brothers devoted a day to grieve with their fellow gladiators over the loss of their brother Ulaz. They mourned him and gave him an honorable cremation. His urn and sword were housed in a place of honor among other fallen warriors of their ilk. Shiro had taken the loss hard, having trained with Ulaz throughout his youth and now, still. They had become close friends and Shiro would feel the lack of his presence heavily.

Keith was put on a bit of bed rest per the insistence of Healer Allura; if for nothing else but to at least let the medicines work. It was a difficult time for Keith as he was not one to sit still for long during any injury. Shiro managed to keep him resting for as long as he possibly could, but eventually had to concede ending his confinement. It was all a familiar process, though, this time he was particularly anxious.

The top thing on Keith’s mind to do was taking the dart Lance had found on Antok to Hunk and Pidge. If anyone could identify the poison, it was them.

"Here." Hunk delicately handed the dart to Pidge. She turned it several times, studying it closely. "Do you smell that?"

Lance leaned over to Pidge, rather closely she noted, and sniffed audibly.

"It smells… rotten." He straightened. "Like rotten meat left out in the sun on a humid day.” After describing the rancid odor, he placed his piece of baklava back on the plate that sat on the workbench and pushed it as far away as possible. “So much for that.”

Keith smirked to himself with a subtle head shake.

“It’s scaultrite, isn’t it?” Pidge deduced.

“Has to be.” Hunk nodded.

“What makes you so sure?” Lance asked, dusting his hands of phyllo crumbs.

“Scaultrite is a poison made from the stomach lining of a weblum.” Pidge headed to root through some scrolls and papers off in a corner. As she found what she sought, she returned and unfurled it. They all looked over the sketches of the giant beast and the many passages of information pertaining to the creature. “When it’s harvested it’s then dried and forms a rather hard substance. Afterward it’s then ground into powder and mixed with a few other ingredients to make a poison. But because it’s made from parts of the sea animal, it has that rather distinct rotten smell to it.”

“There aren’t many people around who know how to make the poison properly.” Hunk added, “It’s actually quite rare, even near Crete where it’s the only place you can see a weblum - if you're lucky enough that they even surface.”

“It’s interesting that we seem to be having a steep increase of poisons all of a sudden.” Keith mused pointedly as he crossed his arms.

“I was thinking the same thing.” Pidge nodded, rolling up her scrolls. “Whomever is after you,” She looked over to Lance and Keith, “Or the Alteans… They mean to be rid of completely. Please make sure that you're careful."

"I could say the same for the both of you." Lance cautioned.

"What? Why?!" Hunk started, "Someone's coming for me?"

"Obviously someone has their eyes on us." Keith sighed heavily, "With how quick they were getting to Antok when we left - I'd say they have a close eye on us. I’m sure they've seen us - and no doubt the Alteans - coming in and out of here."

Lance nodded, "As far as anyone is aware, we are all just very interested in your project for Shiro. It’s actually been quite the talk of the city. So, don't start acting reserved.” He and Pidge exchanged looks for a moment, “At least… more than usual. It would give away we know someone is watching. But very guarded."

“Sweet Soteria watch over me…” Hunk whined nervously.

“Keep the Quintite close to heart as well.” Keith warned lowly as he turned to leave, “Make sure you tell Rolo to keep his mouth shut about it too. I have a feeling that if word spreads about what we know of Quintite, our problems will be ten fold in half the time.”

“Keith.” Pidge called to him as she produced something for him, “Here.”

“My…” Keith smiled as he reached to take it, “My gladius. You mended it.”

“Well, we were smithing some pieces for Shiro’s brace so…” she shrugged sheepishly, “I figured I should get to it.”

“Thanks, Pidge.”   

 

-

 

"I realize you've told me you love your sword," Lance mentioned pointedly as they left Pidge's shop, "But it really must be something special to make you smile like that."

Keith looked away coyly as he cleared his throat. "Y-yeah… it's pretty much a part of me. It's something I've earned. Every Mamoran gladiator is given a sword. I'd worked hard for it since I was a kid. When I felt like I didn't have a place… or a purpose. This became all of that."

Keith lifted the blade in his hand and as he turned it, the steel glinted in the sunlight. Lance watched it shine and saw that it was most like a Mainz gladius in size and shape. The difference was the fact that the blade had a fuller and the curves of the blade were slightly more dramatic. He noticed that in the fuller it was etched in intricate detail. It reminded him of his jewelry. He knew how much patience and skill it took to make such engravings so Lance knew what care would have gone into such a weapon. 

"Pidge made it for you, right?" 

"Well, yes. She forged the blade to my specific weight and balance." He offered it to Lance, "but everything else was made and honed by a Marmoran smithy. If it weren't for the fact that I was younger than most Marmoran gladiators and had everything made by Pidge, he would have made the whole thing."

Lance held it stiffly by the hilt giving it a small wave. "It feels so much lighter than the other sword in the arena."

"But twice as strong." Keith sheathed it when Lance handed it back.

"Does Shiro have one?"

"No." He shook his head, "He never went through the trials."

Lance looked at him curiously.

"They have certain rites you have to go through in order to become Marmora. It took me years of training to be able to pass them all."

"Why didn't Shiro ever do them? He was there long before you, wasn't he?"

"I don't really know…" Keith answered, is own curiosity rekindled after years of forgetting.

As they passed through the agora, a small group of children too taken by their game if chase flew passed Lance. He was caught by enough surprise that he tripped on his own feet and lost his balance. Keith manage to save him from any real tumble, though he paid the price for it.

"Watch it!" Keith yelled out as the children flew off in the distance.

He winced and let out a deeply labored breath as he grabbed his aching ribs.

"Keith, are you ok?" Lance asked, upright and concerned, "Is it still really painful?"

He hissed softly and took another slow breath, "Bruised ribs are… testy at times. Manageable for some time but one wrong slip can knock the wind out of you."

"You know what might help? A massage! Those always make me feel amazing if I'm sore!" Lance grabbed Keith's wrist to lead him off. "The bathhouse is just down the street! There's a woman there that does an amazing job - I think she's actually Egyptian."

Keith stopped Lance in his tracks, not budging a foot. He looked back curiously and found the deepest glower on his bodyguard’s face.

"I've already told you I was never going back there, Lance. I'm still dealing with the last problem that that resulted from the bathhouse.”

“Problem?” Lance feigned offense, “Sir, I believe you mean ‘the last adventure that walked you out’.

“Mnh.” Keith leered, “I find enough adventure on my own, thank you. And I’m pretty I was the one that walked you out.”

“Nuance.” Lance shrugged, “Anyway, we have a fairly decent mineral bath at the villa. We can go there, if you prefer privacy.”

Keith attempted several arguments the rest of the way to the villa, but Lance had an answer for them all. And, though he wouldn't admit it to Lance, he did remember how good it felt to soak in the hot water. He wouldn't argue too much more against that. Certainly, if there was a place to do it with as few people as possible.

Lance had Cassius fetch his oils once they arrived. Led Keith to the back of the villa and to the bath. It rivaled the size of his own room and while the pool wasn't nearly the size as any of the three in the bathhouse, the place was just as lavish. A granite counter stood wide just inside the doorway and a line of columns framed the sides of the modest pool that looked at least three to four feet deep. The floors were speckled with small, but quality frescos. Between the counter and bath was a granite bench just longer than the counter itself. There was no apodyterium for such a small bath, but Lance had pointed him to a corner where there were shelves of linens and places to store his clothes and items. 

Keith headed over to undress as Cassius brought Lance's oils to the counter. As they sorted through them Keith wrapped his bare waist with a small linen and seated himself on the bench. He started to unravel the swathe over his chest and shoulder.

"Do you need to change your bandaging, Keith?" Lance asked before excusing Cassius.

"No. I changed them this morning. I don't have any for my ribs anymore. Allura said I only needed to apply the poultice for three days and it's been a week." 

Cassius nodded and took anything extra with him when he left. Lance, meanwhile, was committing all sorts of clatter as he started to work a mixture of oils.

"Playing alchemist, are you?"

He set the long strip of cloth on the counter opposite of Lance, leaving only the single covering over his shoulder. The medication that was applied earlier was enough to hold it in place.

"There is a balance that must be met, I will have you know. Olive oil with the perfect amount of clove for easing muscle pain and just a bit of lavender for relaxation."

"Alright, alright." Keith beckoned with a hand, "Just hand it over already?"

"What? No!" Lance recoiled, “I said a massage would help. You can’t just slap the oil on! How is that supposed to ease anything? Now shut up and lay on your stomach!”

Keith stood and stared at him for a long while with scowling defiance. Lance gave no quarter and fanned at him an ushering motion with his hand as he finished blending his oils. Keith rolled his eyes and moved onto his stomach on the bench, though, begrudgingly so. Lance seemed to be in the mood to push for anything he wanted, and Keith was in no mindset to push back. He had far too much on his mind and the rest of his motivations were drowned out by pain. Keith folded his arms forward and rested his head on them and closed his eyes as he allowed himself to get comfortable. If Lance really wanted to try and help Keith feel a little bit better, what was the harm in humoring him for an afternoon?

“Let me know if it gets too painful, will you?”

“Mnh.” 

He felt the trickle of oil on his back. After a moment he felt the pressure of Lance’s hands. They glided easily over his skin thanks to the silky oil and Keith couldn’t help but think about how wide they were. And surprisingly strong. The weight was more than he anticipated it would be. He had figured it would start off as light and timid, but he was glad Lance was a heavier touch. It hurt just enough to feel good. He felt pinpoint thumbs slide up either side of his spine and up his neck. Instinctively he craned his head down and he felt the pressure ebb to either side of the base of his skull. He let out a deep breath. It felt really good. Lance’s hands slid back down the sides of his neck, over his shoulders - careful of his bandage - and over his trapezius. Lance found a knot or two that he worked through, a grimace or hiss not withholding. But afterward it felt much better. Fingers followed the curve of his shoulder blades and over his latissimus dorsi and a sharp pain.

“Ah!” Keith shifted away sharply.

“Sorry!” Lance pulled back quickly, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to!” 

“I know.” Keith sighed heavily. The injury still seemed just a bit too sensitive. “Look, I appreciate you wanting to help and don't get me wrong, it felt great.” Keith moved to roll onto his side and look back at Lance. “But maybe we should hold off -”

As he looked back over his shoulder, he found Lance straddling the bench and, of course, him. Immediately, he flipped over completely, propped up with his hands on the bench behind him. 

“L-Lance, what are you doing?!”

“... Giving you a massage.” he answered flatly, clearly unaware of the issue.

“Is this really necessary?!” Keith was more flustered by the fact the situation didn’t bother him.

“Standing this way is easier to get the best angle and pressure. Straight down.” Lance rested his oiled hands on Keith’s shoulders and urged him backward, “So if you lay back down, I can do your chest. I promise, I won’t go near your ribs this time.”

“N-no.” Keith resisted, “I think I’m done.”

“Come on.” Lance pressed again, “I swear, I’ll be more careful!”

“No!” Keith refused to budge, grabbing a hold of Lance’s wrist.

Then they both froze.

“Keith.” 

“...” He held his breath, refusing to meet Lance’s eyes.

“Are… Are you-?”

Keith’s face flushed completely red and he turned his head away, ducking under his long curtain of hair. What did Lance expect? Keith was nearly naked. Lance’s hands had been all over him. When he found out that he was- The entire time. And - What did he expect?! He could curse Aphrodite. At least if he angered her, she could smite him and put an end to this embarrassment. It would be better than having Lance tease him for having such a lewd response. He was honestly surprised Lance hadn't laughed yet.

"Can I just leave?" 

"Please don’t go."

The response was quiet, and it supplicated to him in a way that Keith never expected to hear from Lance. Cautiously, he looked up at him. He looked up at him and his heart was immediately surrendered. Lance’s vibrant blue eyes pleaded to him and Lance leaned forward, every motion and breath from him casting a spell over Keith.

“Lance.” Keith swallowed thickly, “… We can’t do this.”

“Why not?” The simple question brushed lips over his own and Keith could feel the delicate gliding of Lance’s fingers over his shoulders and to his jaw. He gave no answer. He felt those lips press softly against his own. He felt them a second time. Then a third. 

“We shouldn’t do this.” Keith attempted to be the voice of reason between each kiss, but it was a failure before he even spoke as he returned each one given.  

“Are you so sure?” Lance stopped to ask, looking at him with that ineffable gaze. Keith didn’t know anymore. He had every reason, every justification to keep Lance at a distance. Now, he couldn't recall any of them. If he did, they seemed less valid than he remembered them being. Before he could try answering, Lance claimed his victory and kissed him, lips parting and no longer forbearing any of his wanton motives.

Keith made a promise. He made a promise to himself that he wouldn't allow his duties to be clouded. He swore that he wouldn't allow his memories to be tainted. Promised that he wouldn't mar everything for something that was only skin deep. What they had established until now was more than enough. 

But no. 

He had betrayed no other soul but his own. He stood before the lie he told his heart. He didn't want this. But every fiber in his body knew that he did. His mind swirled trying to make sense of it all as he reached for Lance, hands nervously brushing over his outer thighs. The whole city wanted Lance. He was no different. He couldn’t hide it from Lance anymore, so why keep trying to deny to himself? 

Keith gave in completely and took Lance by the waist, pulling him closer. He craned his neck upward and pressed into his kisses instead of merely accepting them. He began practically taking them. He heard Lance moan softly and felt him settle onto his lap. He was excited too. Keith could feel it. His hand moved over Lance's backside and pulled. Lance broke away for a heated breath as he felt the pressure and huffed heavily against Keith’s mouth.

Keith did it again, wanting to see if it would elicit another response. Lance’s lips pursed a moment and he groaned softly. Keith wasn’t the one urging the motions any longer. The weight of Lance on him felt good. His movements were amazing. And his lips tasted just as honeyed as he remembered the very first time Lance kissed him. He felt him. He held him. He caressed him. Keith could wrap his arms around him as tight as he could and never let go, if he wanted to. But he didn’t want Lance to stop. 

When he did, it was only to drag a hand slowly down the Keith’s front. The slick oils still on his hand left a glistening trail as he reached farther and farther down. The cloth around his waist slip and he felt himself covered by something else entirely. Keith’s eyes drifted shut at the warm touch and his head drifted back slightly, relishing in the sensations. His hands caressed all over Lance’s legs and waist encouragingly, gently grasping and squeezing periodically. He felt a nip at his exposed neck and the kisses that followed it only encouraged Keith to allow more. Lance had found his collar bone and traced up this throat with burning kisses. He felt lips led by a warm, wet tongue follow the line of his jaw. When he felt them brush against the jewelry in his ear, he turned his head back and sought them out himself. 

“Keith…” Lance whispered raggedly as he shifted his hips. 

The gladiator had no fight left in him. He was... captivated. He was a prisoner to desire and he fell deeper into the pool that was Lance. He was at every mercy of his ward and so he helped guide him without hesitation. Keith drew a hissing breath as Lance settled, but he was reeling over how amazing it felt. It was hot. Burning hot. He only wanted more of it. The walls around him were tight and he could feel the subtle movements every time. It was slow at first and Lance clutched him as he moved carefully. Keith let Lance be the driving force between them and he simply allowed his body to be taken away by the pleasure and passion. Soft calls and pleading punctuated their heated breaths and moans as they worked on each other. Lance had guided Keith’s hand in the right personal caresses while Keith spent much of his time covering Lance in as many oral caresses as possible. 

Kisses became hungrier and breaths more frantic. Keith could feel Lance’s fingers digging into his oil and sweat slicked skin. His own hands were beginning to find an anchor as he felt what built between them rise to their threshold. Lance clutched at Keith’s shoulder and the hair at the back of his head as Keith buried his face in the curve of Lance’s neck. He focused as much as he could on stroking Lance until he broke and, as he did, Keith found his own release. 

They sat still for a moment, working to catch their breath, until finally Lance let go. He reached for Keith’s face and pulled him up for a kiss. Gladiatorial arms slipped around his frame and pulled him close as Keith answered it and every one after. Lance pressed a final kiss on his lips before lifting himself off his lap. He hooked a few fingers with Keith’s and walked them over to the edge of the pool. In a smooth motion, he pulled the sash from his waist and undressed before taking a seat in the warm water. 

“Come sit with me.”

Keith did so, taking a place at Lance’s side. As he settled, leaning back against the wall of the pool, Lance slid up against him and rested his head on Keith’s shoulder. He shifted, moving his arm to accommodate Lance, and draped it across his shoulders. 

“Are you sore?” The question was timid, but genuinely concerned as Lance lightly ran his fingers over Keith’s side.

“Yes.” Keith answered, after a beat, “But it was more than worth it.”

Lance smiled softly. “It was incredible.”

Keith kissed him deeply. His mind was hazy, and he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to think after all that had just happened. Had he really made a terrible mistake? Was everything now meaningless between them? Keith hated to think that he had just committed the one cardinal sin against himself for what had turned out to be the most amazing experience in his life. Honestly, he didn’t want to think about it anymore. He and Lance had just shared their bodies with one another and now he had him in his arms. There was no taking it back now, he figured he may as well relish every moment he could.

Chapter Text

 

 

IX. By The Sword

 

 

 

 

 

Soft lips brushed against sun kissed skin. He could feel the fingers in his hair and the dragging nails across the back of his shoulder. It all sent a shiver down his spine. He could feel the air fall against his skin from a sensual moan and it made his skin prickle.  

"Keith." 

He felt his ear go red hot at the low call of his name. 

"Keith." 

He swallowed and felt it hit his chest with a hard thump. 

"Keith!" 

His dark eyes focused, and he looked up over to Shiro with a lost expression. 

"Hey, are you ok?" Shiro asked in a worried elder brother tone. "I've been talking to you for five minutes and I don't think you picked up a single word." 

"Uuh." Keith cleared his throat with a small fidget, "Yeah, I'm alright. Just -uh, few things on my mind…"

"I understand." His brother sighed softly in relief, "A lot has happened in not much time. But… you know I'm here if you ever want to talk."

"I know, Shiro. I know." He smiled, though the guilty little demon in his mind promised to never share these thoughts with his sibling. "So what were you saying?"

"Just commenting on the obvious, I guess." Shiro's shoulders slumped a bit. "This stalemate is making the princess pretty anxious. But we can at least be glad that Zarkon doesn't seem to be too concerned with anything outside of Altea for now."

"It's odd, isn't it?" Keith pondered a moment. "He stormed Altea with such a massive force. He took the city in three days. He never let up. Even when we made it out there to quash what forces we could, it was a hard fight. It's not like Altea just handed itself over and he still had enough momentum to hold us back. He wanted it. Pretty badly." 

"That's true." Shiro crossed his arms as he considered, "I wonder if Altea is key to anything in particular."

"Conquest-wise?"

"We will have to take a much bigger step back to see. Maybe the others might have some insight." Shiro stood from the breakfast table. "We'll discuss it further later on with Allura and Coran. In the meantime, we should get going. Don't want to keep everyone waiting." 

"Yeah." Keith hesitated a moment, "Go ahead. I'll clean up the rest of breakfast."

"Thanks, Keith." The elder brother took a moment, looking over his sibling, Keith gave him a curious glance, "I'm really proud of you. You're really growing into your own. Even if it's just a job, spending all this time with Lance has really gotten you to open up more. He's definitely had an influence on you, Keith." 

You haven't the slightest idea. Keith's thoughts drifted back to familiar visions. 

"Thanks, Shiro." He cleared his throat softly, "I'll catch up with you there. I've got, uh, one more thing to take care of before leaving." 

It was obvious Shiro was anxious to get to the arena and start the physical therapy Pidge and Hunk has planned for him. He had spent a good amount of time with the arm brace, getting used to the feel of it on and acclimating to its weight on his frame. It fit comfortably enough, no longer pinching and poking in places as he moved. So now was the time to really test it's ability. Pidge and Hunk were just as excited to see Shiro's improves truly kickstart with their little invention so asked to meet him at the Marmoran Colosseum to do basic movement drills and to note the range of motions he needed when using weapons to possibly make further improvements.

Keith was now recovered enough himself to get back to his own training. The wound on his shoulder was healed and scarring healthy enough. He was glad to know that muscles were healed and any pivotal sinew in the area has been missed. Now, he could get to rebuilding his strength in that shoulder. His rib was not completely recovered, there were still painful jabs to remind him to ease off at times. But he knew at what point of healing he could return to training. And it felt right about there.

He heard Shiro shut the front door behind him and he cleared the rest of the table, now free to stand at the risk of exposing what kind of distractions held him in the middle of Shiro's conversation. Had he done so before Shiro had left, thankfully, there would have been no evidence of it. But Keith would rather not have taken the risk. He splashed his face with water from the kitchen’s clay cistern. 

It was becoming easier for Keith's mind to wander toward such fantasies lately. Keith was no stranger to daydreams and Lance was not an uncommon sight in them. In the days after he and Keith had experienced one another, however, it had filled the gaps in Keith's mind. He knew the real smell of his skin. Keith knew the real taste of his tongue. He knew how perfectly Lance fit around him, touched him, clutched him. He knew the honest plead of his own name from his lips and every thought filled him with every aching desire he had for Lance, now tenfold. Lance was a sea he could no longer tread. He was drowning and now he had to force himself to learn how to stay afloat. 

"Shit."

Until then, though, he would just have to work with the periodic desperate gasp of air between flailing.

 

After he took care of his personal matters, Keith met up with the group at the colosseum not too far behind Shiro's arrival. The Pidge and Hunk had stopped to pick up Lance on their way over and chatted as they awaited the brothers. Once they had all gathered, they quickly made their way to the arena grounds. 

The two scientists took to going through their regimen for Shiro on final time as the other three gathered their gear. All of them eager to begin. Shiro and Keith changed into their gladiatorial gear. Both brothers had been schooled in several styles of gladiatorial combat. But seeing as how Shiro was only beginning again he opted for his cestus wrappings over the heavy armor of hoplomachi. 

Keith, in order to attempt to even out the strength in his shoulders, opted to go with the dimachaerus style of fighting. Fighting with two swords would allow him the ability to gauge how much dexterity he would have to regain and where he needed to focus first. His trappings were much more robust than Shiro's simple wrappings. Solid greaves for his shins, arm guards, his loincloth decorated with leather panels, and his helmet were donned and once his sandals were properly strapped, he was ready to spar once again. 

Lance was less heavily adorned, wearing little more than an arm and shoulder guard out. He had spent the last couple days accompanying Shiro and Keith to the arena - upon Keith's suggestion - to train further in his archery. Lance was elated and took up the offer in a mere second. 

Thace was happily obliging to train Lance. 

"A still target is easy to focus on. You have only to see and shoot - barring any interference, of course." He elucidated on the first day as Lance ate up every word, "A moving target presents several more obstacles to take into consideration; direction, speed, and mostly time." 

Thace nodded and three clay plates were launched into the air. With impressive speed, he let just as many arrows fly and the targets shattered midflight with a satisfying clatter. Lance didn't bother to hide the stars in his eyes as he was filled with excitement over the prospect of soon being able to do the same. Keith hid a smile catching sight of them as he listened in on the lesson.

It had been a week and Lance, though not near as quickly as Thace, at least managed to break the targets almost every time. Thace was pleased with Lance's pace, never mind highly impressed by his already natural skill. 

They all spent the better part of the morning sharpening skills and rebuilding strength and confidence. Much the same as other gladiators that spread about the arena grounds. There were eyes and whispers most in Shiro's direction, many admiring the warrior's return and his determination to return to his former physical glory. Keith could hear the occasional cheer and lauding from the small audience Shiro had gathered around him and he smiled amid his own workout. 

His swords clanged as he crossed them over his head to block a swing from his sparring partner.

"And what have you got to smile about?" Kolivan asked as he drew back for another attack.

"It's good to see Shiro back in the colosseum." Keith answered as he took a step back and leaned to dodge another swing. He advanced again and thrust a blade forward.

"It is." Kolivan deflected with his response, "It's impressive to see you back so quickly as well."

"You know how antsy I get if I'm gone too long, Kolivan."

"Indeed."  

It was Kolivan's turn to smirk before swinging low at Keith. The smaller gladiator easily made a twisting leap over him and cut a blade downward as he approached the end of his arch. Kolivan turn his wrist supine on his back swing, spinning around completely as he deflected once again. As Keith's sword flew back, the sword in his other hand rushed forward. Kolivan pulled his own up, cross blocking and leaving the fight momentarily locked in a corps-a-corps. Both fighters pushed off, each with a playful challenge painted over their faces. Keith rolled his wrist, swinging a sword in a moulinet, and charged.  

They fought for some time more until Keith could no longer ignore the growing irritation of his shoulder and ribs. Kolivan rested a heavy hand on Keith's good shoulder and smiled. He followed as Keith returned his borrowed weapons to the weapon rack and picked up his own Marmoran blade.

"You have your gladius back." Kolivan commented as they headed off the arena dirt.

"Pidge finished the mend a week ago." Keith pulled it from its sheathing. "I tried using it yesterday, but that's when I realized I needed to even out my shoulders first." 

Kolivan held his hand out and Keith gave him the sword. The Marmoran studied it carefully. The crack was nigh undetectable. 

"It's always surprising to see such impressive work from someone not normally commissioned for such a craft. I will have the edge honed by the Marmora Smith." Kolivan replaced the sheathing, "It will be done tonight. Come back then to pick it up."

Keith nodded. He looked at Keith for a moment and the young man could tell that his mentor had something more to say. 

"I ask you to come alone tonight." He stated flatly. "There is something you and I must discuss. It is Marmoran business, so I'm afraid that Shiro cannot be a part of it... for now."

This piqued Keith's interest and he was tempted to ask why they couldn't just allow Shiro to go through the trials and perform the rites to become a Marmoran gladiator as well. But something in Kolivan's tone and countenance told him it was not the time. He nodded again in understanding. Satisfied with Keith's answer Kolivan took leave of him down the hall and through a door. As Keith watched him leave, he wondered what sort of 'business' they needed to discuss. They never asked for him to attend any secret meetings before. How much of it had to do with what happened with Antok? Or was it to do with Ulaz and his death? Was he in trouble? Did they blame him for it all? He found it odd; if that was the case, why wait so long afterward to bring it up?

As his mind toiled over several avenues of speculation, he turned to head back toward the arena floor. He hadn't taken more than ten steps when he suddenly felt something grip the back of his belt and yank him through a doorway. Immediately, Keith reached for a sword that was not at his side and he cursed under his breath as he heard the door slam behind him. He turned to face his assailant, ready to fight. 

"Sweet fucking pantheon, Lance! I could have killed you!" His tension faded from his body in relief to see the familiar face. 

Lance smirked, pleased with himself. It pricked at a nerve in Keith.

"I still might just for pulling a stunt like that." He bit, irritated. 

"Mnh." This time Lance pulled at a leather strap across Keith's chest and moved back against the wall. "I'd rather you did something else." 

Lance tugged him hard enough, it threw off Keith's balance. He had to use the wall to catch himself, his hands landing on either side of Lance. He felt Lance's own hands slip over and around his shoulders. His heart began to race, and his cheeks flushed. Lance always managed to make his blood rush with no effort at all. 

"Lance." 

Get off. Fall back. Retreat. The thoughts circled his mind. He needed to escape. He was treading that dangerous line again. He knew what he was supposed to do. But it warred with what he wanted to do. And he wanted to terribly. That much had been made clear even that morning. He tasted ambrosia and he wanted more. Keith heard the soft siren call of his name spill from Lance's lips and he surrendered to them. 

There was no moment wasted on soft pecks or light brushes. Every kiss was to the point. Open mouthed and delving. They were thick and heavy, but not one was rushed. Keith could feel Lance's fingers roaming and clutching through his hair and he wanted more. His hand shifted to find Lance's hip and it slid down his backside. It was only a short time before their breaths became laden with desire and kisses were no longer enough. Lance slid his hand down Keith's chest, but before he could work any buckles on his gear loose the door opened and they were soon sandwiched between it and the wall.  

They heard voices on the other side and Lance grabbed hold of the handle lest the door swing back and reveal the both of them to whomever had just walked in.  

"I never thought Shiro would step foot in the arena again."

"I don't think anyone else did either." 

Lance and Keith exchanged glances for a moment and Lance suddenly had to hush a laugh at their predicament. Keith glared at him as the unidentified voices continued to chat, still oblivious to what was hidden on the other side of the door. 

"You know who I'm really impressed by, is Lance." There was a heavy thud of metal against wood as one of the voices spoke. More clatter followed as they returned borrowed weaponry to the room.  

The other answered, obviously goading. "Impressed with his archery? Or impressed with his looks?" 

“Hmm.” Keith could practically hear the nodding agreement. "Legs for days on that one…" There was a deep sigh.

Keith felt Lance wrap a leg around his waist and he looked over to find a sultry smirk on his face. Keith rolled his eyes. Lance nosed him playfully and managed to brush his lips against a smirk on Keith's face.

"But I did mean his archery. Who knew he was that apt with a bow and arrow?" 

"True. According to Thace, his aim is deadly on a still target and he's improving real quick with mobile ones." There was a brisk pause as they clearly began to make their way back toward the door, "Not that you would have noticed when you only stare at his ass." 

"Don't fucking pretend you haven't been too." 

"Wasn't denying it. Everyone's always got their eyes on Lance." 

Lance allowed them to pull the door from his grip and shut it behind them. Suddenly, Keith wasn't feeling quite the same as before their visitors had entered. He was weighed down by the reminder that he was probably another fling, a temporary obsession. Something he was adamant about trying to steer clear from. There were endless numbers of cautionary tales about those that allowed their sincere hearts to be stolen by whimsical ones. 

"Sounds like I might be out of a job soon." Keith attempted to lighten his own mood as he took a step back. Instead, it left a sour taste in his mouth. If it was a humored possibility, it would mean that he would see Lance much less.

"That's true." Lance crossed his arms thoughtfully, "I could probably be your bodyguard with the amount of skill I have."

Keith shook his head with a slight smile at the thought.

"We should probably get out of here." He cleared his throat softly, "You know, before we end up crushed by another door." 

Lance chuckled again thinking about it. He nodded. "I suppose so."

Keith shifted to move, but Lance stopped him, a hand quickly slipped around the back of his neck. Keith looked back at him and Lance pressed his lips against Keith's. Keith answered it without a moment of hesitation, but he had sobered enough to not let it go any further than that. Lance seemed to agree that the storm of carnal energy had passed and urged for nothing more than several sweet kisses. They broke apart and Lance's lips curled into a subtle smile. Keith reached to cup his cheek and brushed it lightly with his thumb. 

 

Everyone's always got their eyes on Lance. 

 

-

 

 

The day had been filled with emotional ups and downs for Keith and he wasn’t quite certain how he felt by the time they all left the colosseum. There was certainly due cause for celebration to see the success of his friends and brother as he managed to lift a staff with his right hand without any assistance aside from his brace. His progress would be slow and heavily monitored by Hunk and Pidge, but the results of the day were beyond promising. Keith was well on his own way to recovery as well, certain he had pinpointed his own troubled areas. Lance had helped him to stretch out tight muscles and even had another little spar between them. Lance only meant to play, but Keith wasn’t entirely beyond enjoying while he humored him. Through it all, Keith was still plagued by the push and pull of his heart. It even began to drain him physically, most especially watching as Lance interacted with others in the arena. He attempted to not let it trouble him too much. The least he could do was make it appear as though he wasn’t bothered. Unfortunately, Keith was quite terrible at both and by the end of their visit, many outside their small circle had made it a point to give him a wide berth. 

“Wow, Keith.” Hunk noticed as they started to wrap up their exercises with Shiro, “You look awful. You ok?”

“Thank you, Hunk.” Keith huffed with a deepening glower.

“He’s probably just overworked himself again.” Pidge leered as she pulled the strap of her bag over a shoulder, “He tends to overcompensate his workouts after he gets injured.” 

Keith couldn’t argue. It was a habit of his and not one of the better ones. As much as it wasn’t the case that particular day, he would rather it be what everyone believed lest they learn the real reason why. He simply just crossed his arms and turned away. 

“I think we’ve all accomplished a lot in the arena today.” Shiro spoke up, clenching and unclenching his right fist; one of his prescribed strengthening exercises. “I think we all deserve to spend the rest of the day just relaxing.” 

“Sounds perfect.” Lance sighed, happily. “There’s a cup of wine just singing my name right now.”  

“Lance…” Hunk muttered, “I really think you have some sort of drinking problem.”

“Hardly. I’m great at it!”  

Every single one of them rolled their eyes as they left Lance to trail out behind them. 

 

-

 

The halls of the colosseum seemed abnormally quiet when Keith returned later that evening. The echoing scrapes of his footfalls seemed louder and far more hollow than usual, though it was not amiss for the place to be empty that time of evening. He wondered if it seemed that much more desolate due to the odd cloud hovering over him; the shroud of mystery to the discussion Kolivan had mentioned. With that mingling along his already-heightened sense of anxiety after what happened with Antok, Keith felt tense to say the very least. He had become so hyper aware of everything around him that when he finally knocked on the wooden door, the rapping seemed to boom around him and it made his nerves prickle with a bit of surprise.

“Come in.” Kolivan spoke as he opened the door to grant him entrance. 

Keith looked over at him as he stepped into the large room, hoping to glean some kind of impression as to the mood of the talk they needed to have. But he stopped when he saw several of his Marmoran brothers gathered at a large table, all eyes fixed on him. All of them dressed in dark robes and silent. Each face giving no hint of emotion one way or another though much of their features were difficult to make out in the poor light of the standing torches. 

“What…” he stammered, “What’s going on?”

Kolivan had shut the door, barring it tightly before taking his place at the head of the gathering. 

“Keith.” His tone was flat and emotionally void, as it always was, “I asked you here tonight to inform you that we have come to a decision.”

Keith’s eyes panned across the gathered faces once again. He unknowingly grew tense, unsure of what to expect from this ‘decision’, and he began to clench his fists at his sides.

“You have been a fixture within the Marmoran Colosseum for quite some time. You’ve grown with us. You’ve fought with us. You’ve fought for us. Recently, we lost one of our brothers.” Kolivan placed his hands on the table and leaned on them, his eyes fixed on Keith, as were the others, and he could feel them all boring into him. This was it. They were going to seek out justice for Ulaz’s death due to Keith’s negligence. No wonder they didn’t want Shiro there. Keith was certain he was done for. “And you mourned with us. You’ve become part of what we are and have done much for our way of life within these walls.” 

There was a subtle nod from the others as Kolivan spoke, but they all remained silent.

“You dedicated much of your training to completing tasks that we had laid before you in order to prove yourself worthy. And so you have. You completed them and you have pushed beyond what was required to do so. Your heart is here within the colosseum, that much is easy to surmise. And due to recent events, we have decided that we will offer you an opportunity that you alone are entitled to.” 

Kolivan was handed Keith’s sword and he pulled it from its sheath. In a smooth motion he turned it over and embedded it into the table. In the light of the fires around them, Keith could see it glisten. It was perfectly sharpened, perfectly oiled, and it glimmered like a treasure the gods themselves would desire. He squinted. The fuller had been changed. The markings different. The delicate embellishments were gone and in their place were symbols. Symbols that he could not read but were familiar somehow. 

“I will be honest, Keith.” Kolivan’s hand remained on the sword’s pommel, “This is a moment you have been groomed for since the beginning. But the choice is still yours.”

“What choice?” 

“The council you see before you is the council of The Blades of Marmora.” At the mention of the name, the others seemed to sit straighter, sit prouder. Kolivan’s eyes narrowed on Keith, “We are Galra.” 

Keith’s eyes widened and his lungs drew in a slow, deep breath. His fists were squeezed so tightly that his palms began to hurt. Were he to think of any sort of response to that, he wouldn’t have been able to bring himself to say it, his jaw was so stiffly clenched. They were Galra?! How could they be? What exactly was this Galran council for? 

“I know what you must be thinking, Keith.” Kolivan continued, his demeanor as stoic as always, “But we are not with Emperor Zarkon. We are a faction of Galran warriors heavily intent on bringing down the Empire and its tyranny. Zarkon is no man fit to rule anyone or anything. The only thing he is capable of is degrading us as a people and utterly disgracing the name of Galra. There is no honor in his rule and we seek to put an end to his reign. The Blades of Marmora are spread within his empire and we are constantly working to foil his progress and cut at every weak point we find. Keith, will you take up your sword and join us in this purpose?” 

Thinking back on it all, things began to make sense. The training that he had undergone since an early age. The deeper feeling of connection he had with the Marmoran gladiators than he had with any other, aside from Shiro. The tailor-made gladius Kolivan had a specific hand in. Everything seemed to connect. Even with the knowledge of the Marmorans being of Galra blood, Keith felt no less kinship toward any of them. He still respected Kolivan. He would still fight beside Thace. The loss of Ulaz was still just as heavy. They were trusting of him enough to tell him their secret. Moreover, they asked that he join them. There was hardly a doubt in Keith’s mind.

“Yes.” Keith answered boldly. His tension had eased and the anxiety was washed over with a sense of duty and all the resolve he had for his decision. “I will serve with the Blades of Marmora.”

Every other man in the room stood from his seat, shoulders wide and proud. They stood to greet Keith. To bring him into the folds of the faction full-handedly pressing to bring down a threat to all of Greece. Kolivan pulled the sword from the table by the handle. He then switched it to his right hand, taking it by the sharpened steel. He tripped it tightly enough that Keith could see his blood begin to run down the sword and Kolivan offered it back to him. 

"Then take back what belongs to you and take your place among the Blades of Marmora."

Keith's chest swelled with a deep breath before he stepped forward and reached for the sword. His hand wrapped around the sharp edges of the weapon beneath Kolivan's own and he felt the cut into the meat of his palm and fingers. The blade was sharpened so finely it didn't even hurt until he had already watched his own blood begin to trickle and mingle into the Galran streams.

 

“Welcome… Brother.”

Chapter Text

As the blood brothers had their hands tended to, Kolivan began to elucidate the current matter of affairs in their shadowed society.

“The Colosseum has long been a hub of Galra culture. Long before Lord Zarkon had come into power, Volta has played host to many fighters that passed through its gates, bought or brought in.” Keith knew Kolivan meant the prisoners of war that were made to fight to their deaths. It was a well-known history of practice throughout the country, though it was a rarer occurrence in Keith’s own days – thank the Gods. His caste in life would possibly have turned out to be far different. He couldn't imagine where he would have been able to thrive if the colosseum was limited to warfare and punishment. “But Marmoran hands have always been the backbone of this particular arena. Fewer of our brothers have passed through these halls in the light of day since the war began, but the numbers do not dwindle by moonlight. Our purpose, however, is much changed.”

As the wrappings were tied for them both, the room was cleared, saved for Keith, Kolivan, and three others. They all sat quietly, allowing Kolivan to continue and Keith’s attentions did not waiver.

“There are a small number of us in the Blades-” Kolivan clenched and unclenched his fist in order to adjust the bandaging to his liking. As they settled, so did his hands before him, neatly folded as his eyes focused on his protégé. “But only in comparison to the grand numbers of Zarkon’s army. We are spread all over the lands and woven throughout his ranks. Those of us that are not infiltrating his operations are free to disrupt any progress where we can and where it is most damaging to the Lord.”

“So, where do I slip into place?” Keith suddenly became very aware of what his unhesitant pledge could mean. If Kolivan demanded him to be shipped out and be inserted somewhere distant, he had no grounds to refuse. He had given his word, he had given his blood oath. Suddenly regret haunted him with the face of Shiro. With the face of Hunk and Pidge… It haunted him with a face that looked like Lance. It looked like Lance as he drifted away into a black distance with the swelling of uncertainty as to when Keith would ever see any of them again.

“Actually, your place will remain here with me.”

The disquiet ebbed and there was a quiet sigh of relief.

“There are plenty of Blades monitoring The Empire elsewhere. It’s here we need to be looking into. The activities in Altea have been under our scrutiny since the city fell. We’ve had a small handful of our own slipped beyond the walls, but any information we had hoped to glean is held up in there. From what we’ve heard, it looks as though our informants have been found out. In order to prevent risking the cover of other Blades, outside members like us will have to recover those held captive. We are completely on our own barring entrance to the city.

“Ulaz was to be part of this task.” Kolivan mentioned lowly, heavy-hearted. Keith’s shoulders sank. “You will take his place as the fifth member of this group and help us recover our brothers and sisters.”

Keith nodded stiffly. He would take up Ulaz’s mantle. He would honor his sacrifice and complete this task with the Blades without fail.

“When do we leave?”

-

They rode swift and hard on horseback. All of them were darkly adorned, equipment similarly wrapped to stifle any clanking of metal or noisy gear as the horses galloped toward the distant city. Every Blade was silent, save for the heavy breathing through thick masks, all of them pressing for their steeds to push harder than the wind. The goal was to make it as tight a mission as possible. Any normal horse would have taken them nearly a day’s ride to get anywhere near Altea. But these were Galra-bred. These were beasts. Keith had only seen a few in passing during his years at the colosseum but he had never seen one as they were pushed to limits, let alone even ridden one. The speed and force was incredible.

By the time Keith had made his way to meet with Kolivan the sunset was just starting to bleed into the open sky. As the day decayed, the chill of early autumn began to caress Keith's skin through his linens and it gave him goosebumps. He hardly noticed, though, as he found himself unwittingly distracted by memories of his last ride on a horse. He remembered the deep colors of the sky as the sun ran from them. He felt the same tousle in his hair that he did chasing after it. He could hear the cherub laughter ringing beside him as they made hurdles over rock and terrain. When he glanced over his shoulder at the rider next to him, it was not the face he wanted to see. 

He shook his mind proper. Now was not the time to fall into reminiscing. He was out to fulfill a mission. Keith's eyes focused in front of him once again, chasing close behind Kolivan. The sword at his hip was heavy with the weight of duty. He could feel it bare down on his side, the silver of the metal still painted in his own blood and that of his mentor. It would only be washed clean if he were successful in his role; if he were successful integrating into his new niche. 

Keith's brows knitted tightly.

He would be.

He ducked his head tightly and snapped at the reigns. His stallion sounded a low grunt that Keith felt between his legs and it paced harder, riding up alongside Kolivan and behind the lead horseman. They would be upon the city soon.

-

Keith had offered his oath just as the sun began to reach for the distant horizons. They had mounted for Altea in the haze of twilight. They arrived at their destination in the light embrace of a young evening. Apollo had fully covered the lands in the blanket of night. They left their beasts of burden in the cover of the forest trees and were already a man down as they left him to guard the horses. As the remaining four approached the city wall, Keith realized that they were nowhere near any entrance gate. Perhaps the plan was to scale the walls. Unfortunately, once they reached them, it was clear it was not a task they were equipped to undertake. The barrier towered over them and there was hardly a groove to claw at. For the sake of a quick ride, their equipment was limited and they carried nothing to scale with. To do so in the open was inviting trouble. Their cover of trees ended a hundred and fifty feet behind them. 

Just as Keith was about to question the thorough planning, one of the other Blades waved for the rest to follow. He fell in line behind Kolivan and the last of them tailed behind Keith. Quietly, they followed the shadowed side of the treeline and he noticed a hushed stream running near the path they trekked. As they came up to the city wall, he found the water flowed out from inside the city through a gated arch at the base of the wall. 

The lead of their infiltration showed no hesitation in stepping into the water and heading toward the arch. The rest followed behind. Keith felt goosebumps rise on his arms as the cool water flowed around his legs. It ran just below his knee and the cover of the arch was a rough few feet above his head. Just enough that it cleared the top of their 'guide' and Kolivan, both of whom were much taller than Keith. The arch was divided by brick and stone across the middle. The origin of the flowing water was lost to the dark tunnel below. Above, they could see the dim streets of Altea within.

"The hold is just across the path toward the left there." The Blade pointed through the iron that barred the entire arch at a two story structure in the distance. "There are quarters below where they were last seen going in, but no one has seen or heard what has become of them for several days."

"How many of them are in there?" Keith asked softly.

"Four." 

If they were beyond carrying themselves, that was a man for each to carry out. It would be a task to undertake and come out in detected, but Keith was nothing if not determined to make certain it was a success. They would have to keep close to the walls or risk taking a quick cross through the open plaza. They would need all the blessings of the gods to miss any patrols.

The Blade soldier reached for one of the iron bars with both hands and twisted. There was a rough crunching of sand and dirt and, with a jerk, he freed the rod from its setting. He did the same to the other set next to it and there was enough room for them to squeeze through. They set the bars aside carefully, and silently lifted themselves into the shelf of the city. Keith made it to point a few steps away as the others entered and the bars replaced for the time being. As they readied to make for their target, Keith turned and was immediately faced by two Galra patrol guards, pointed eyes fixed squarely on him. 

He froze solid. They were right on them. Had they watched them the whole time? Since they walked up to the wall? He saw they stood directly between them and their target. Did they know they were coming? Had they been set up? Keith's hand slowly reached to grip at his sword. Before he could grab it, he felt a heavy hand grip his shoulder. The Blade that led them in stayed him, his own eyes locked with the guards.

"Have you seen Jekk, lately?" One of the guards asked, suddenly. "Vaegon said he was supposed to be patrolling with him tonight too."

"No. But we passed Mauvar and Ked in the plaza a few minutes ago. They might know if he is." The other answered. "Though, it may be a while before we see them for you to even ask. If you're lucky maybe we'll run into them or Jekk while we make our way back from the palace gates. Why so interested in Jekk anyway?"

The tension in Keith's body eased. They were Blades. They were Blades and they were not only blocking any eyes that happened to wander their direction, but they were also accounting the patrol presence. Three teams of two and all more than likely overlooking areas that intersected at the palace. It was Keith's hope that the palace was a long ways out.

"He owes me a handful of drachmas from the game we and the other four played earlier in the hold." The first muttered rather audibly.

Four guards inside. But they should be clear to travel the plaza if they made their run quick enough. Hopefully they would be able to get their people out and be gone before any of the patrols were to circle back around.

Once the bar had been replaced and every one of their party was inside the walls, they made for the shadow of the buildings. As they moved further into the city, the Blades on patrol carried on their way without a single backward glance. The rescue team moved quickly and without a sound. It was early enough in the evening that, though most of the city was turned in for the night, any unusual clatter would easily gather undue attention.

Just as they reached the supposed hold, the second Blade in their group bolted forward and took off down a distant alley. Keith shifted into a deep lean forward to see around the corner and beyond his other two companions. As he wondered where Hermes had whisked him away to, their escort moved to the front door. Keith’s brows furrowed tightly at the blatant attempt made to open the door. As it only jarred, the Blade soldier moved to kneel before it and began to pick it the lock free. Keith was astounded at the flagrancy of rookie methods his counterpart was using and tapped Kolivan’s shoulder hard. How could he just- The thought never finished in his mind. Kolivan moved and arm behind him to stay Keith and the door swung open. There was an audible “Ah” from the Blade as he stared up in the lighted doorway, a feigned surprise widening his eyes - the only feature uncovered by dark cloth. In another second, he was up on his feet and dashing off. One. Two. Then three pursued him from within, calling halts and curses. The two left in the cloak of darkness watched as he sprinted toward the alleyway they noted earlier with the guards in tow. Keith understood then. 

Once they were certainly out of sight, Kolivan signaled for Keith to follow and they sidled up to the doorway. As Kolivan approached the door, the fourth guard stepped out, looking for any signs of the end of the chase. Kolivan shifted and the sound of his foot scrape caught the attention of their target. He looked over to see Kolivan tower over him. Keith could see lips part and his chest swell with air. But before any sound could form, Kolivan had his hand around the man’s throat. 

Keith slipped by them both, cleanly swiping the keys from the table as he made his way toward the back. He hurried down stone steps into a small room with four cells. All were empty, save one. In the poor light from upstairs, Keith could slightly make out the shadow of a figure slumped against the back wall of one of the cells next to the steps. 

“Hey.” He called softly, grabbing onto the bars as he squinted into the darkness. “Hey. We’re here to get you.”

There was no answer. But he heard a small shift and, soon after, a slow and shallow breath. He was alive. That was at least a start. Immediately, Keith shoved a key into the lock. The latch clacked open and he let it drop to the floor with a thick metal ‘thunk’.  

“Come on.” Keith urged as he pulled a giant limp arm over his own shoulders. “On your feet. We have to make this quick.”

Why were all of the Galra so tall? It took a great amount of effort, but he finally got the man to his feet. Keith had to support the most of his weight and it was uncomfortable the way he had managed to drape himself over Keith almost entirely. But, the man was up. He was moving. Lucky enough, he even seemed able to climb the stairs, albeit excruciatingly slow. By the time they made it up to the last step, the other two had rejoined Kolivan inside the hold and piled the unconscious guards on the floor. 

“Where are the others?” One of the other Blades asked when he noticed Keith coming up the stairs - and no one following behind.

“... There are none.” 

They all let the comment linger in the air for a moment. 

“Take the guards down to the cells and close them up.” Kolivan ordered coolly before they could dwell on dark thoughts for too long, “By the time anyone finds them down there, we should be well out of their reach.” 

The other two carried out the task and Kolivan moved to take the burden off of Keith’s awkwardly angled head. 

“Take the lead out, Keith. Make sure we’re clear.” 

-

The ride back was long. There was far too much swirling within his mind, Keith could hardly fathom the kinds of things that his fellow Blades were struggling with mentally. It was too dark to see any true extent of their friend’s condition, but it was still obvious that he - Regris, Keith recalled one of the others saying - was in a grave state. Simply holding him up allowed for Kolivan to pick out at least two broken ribs on his left side and the limp in his walk hinted at a broken ankle. Regris was unable to close a fist over a set of reigns and barely had the wherewithal to keep upright in a saddle on his own. The eventually strapped him to the back of one of the other Blades atop his horse and they managed that way until they returned to the city limits of Volta just as the sun crested over the horizon.

What did they want? 

What did they ask him? 

What did they learn?

Whatever it was they sought out of him, they wanted it very much. 



“It is unclear if Regris is much longer for this world. Though, I’m not all that certain if he would turn Hades away at this point.” Kolivan’s words fell over Keith as icy and direct as they always had. It was hard to discern any feeling toward his brother Blade’s situation as one way or another. “The surgeons are working to help him as much as they can. Once he is as comfortable as they can make him, we will come and talk with him.”

“Do you think he will have the answers we are looking for?” Keith wondered aloud for Kolivan to hear, “I’m wondering what they wanted to break him so thoroughly; to kill three other Blades- Do you think they know about the Blades of Marmora?!”

“No.” Kolivan stated plainly, “If they knew, there would have been far many more bodies.” 

Well, he had a point. If Zarkon knew of the Blades of Marmora, there wouldn’t have been a way for them to enter the city. There wouldn’t have been Blades walking patrols. They would have had soldiers at the gates of the Colosseum by then. 

“We will learn all we can from Regris.” Kolivan placed a hand on Keith’s shoulder. “Until that time, take your sword to the forge and have it cleaned up. Ulaz would be proud.”

Chapter Text

 

XI. Call To Arms

 

 

Keith could tell each breath was labored. Slow. Purposeful. Unlike his own that were thoughtless. Forgotten. Taken for granted. So they were - until he sat and watched Regris lay deathly still on his bed, save for the rise and fall of his chest. The silence in the room was punctuated only by the hushed low rumble of his lungs as he pulled breath and the occasional airy wheeze at it slipped from his lips. Keith could practically see Atropos pulling his life thread taught. But Regris refused to depart before giving his report. 

“There was an order.” He began, his lightly shut eyes flickered only slightly behind their lids. His voice was hoarse and low. Kolivan and Keith sat still, listening intently. “We were given an order to march from Thessaly.”

The words were his answer to Kolivan’s question of ‘why.’ Why Altea? It was far beyond what appeared to be the Emperor’s reach in the north. Far beyond what appeared to be in his scope of desire. It followed little sense in the scheme of conquest.

“We were told to make for Athens. There was no reason given. Even as primus pilus, I was not told why. Most simply assumed it was the prophetess Haggar that demanded it. Few question when the seer gives orders - she’s always so close to Lord Zarkon’s side. No one would dare consider arguing with her. So our single legion moved out.

“Our orders were no force of time, so our pace was hardly rushed. By the end of it, we made Thebes in just over a week - all skirmishes and other distractions withstanding. The soldiers took a few days to rest. There were reports from local Theban soldiers that they had seen a legion flying Empire banners skirt the city limits just days before we had arrived. But they made no mention of fighting or talk of siege. So we still had no answers.

“Wine was shared during the respite and drink had shaken opinions and loosened the jaws of countless among our arms. They began to freely share their disdain for the Lord’s seer. They aired their grievances over the blind marching. Soliders nattered on about their aches and pains from sleeping on dirt floor after marching for miles on end. It was blatantly clear that the majority of the legion was heavily displeased with the entire situation.”

Regris took a slow, deep breath and shifted through a pang of pain. He relished a moment of respite in his report. Kolivan took it upon himself to move to the table opposite the bedside and pour the dying man a cup of water. As he aided Regris's drinking, Keith wondered how often - and for what purpose - Zarkon, or even this Haggar, would splinter off six thousand troops. Keith felt Kolivan return to his seat next to him and it brought his attention back into the room.

“Before the night was out, the Legate had given me an order to muster the troops before daybreak and have them ready for march. By mid-morning, we hit a crossroads and our Legate stopped us cold. 

‘Brothers! We will not be the lowly pawns of an Emperor that no longer holds his people in regard, but simply his own means and ends! I offer you a new opportunity. An opportunity to fight for someone who will bring glory to each and every sword within our ranks. I give you an opportunity to fight for a new Empire! Your qualms and concerns do not fall on deaf ears. Join him and we shall find victory!’”

“They betrayed the Empire.” Keith mused softly. Kolivan sounded a low grunt in concurrence.

“It took no more convincing than that for the legion to fall behind the Legate. With a raise of her sword, she steered us all to Corinth. There was a renewed vigor in the rest of the soldiers, now that they had a purpose - and it was one that supposedly fed their own means. But the Blades made sure to stay vigilant. Now that there was a splintered faction of the Empire, we had a new sense of anxiety.  The chances of conflict had essentially doubled. We made certain to keep an eye on the Legate as we settled into the city. I received a report later that she had slipped away to the docks and boarded a ship the second day there. It wasn’t until much later in the evening she was seen back among her ranks. 

“When we resupplied for our march to Oenoe, one of the cohorts returned from the docks with near fifty wooden barrels of supplies. We had to short our amounts of food in order to make room for them all, but the Legate was adamant that we take every barrel. Once we reached Argolis, we found the encampment of the aforementioned legion. It turned out that they, too, had deserted the Galra Empire. Their Legate had them working one a new weapon since they had settled. The only thing they needed were the barrels that we had brought from Corinth. 

“It turned out we had carted a giant pile of rocks. It was some mineral; Quintite.” 

Keith’s ears perked up and his skin began to prickle. They were right! Quintite was exactly what they were after. And from the sound of it, they had found where to get a good amount of it. They were wrong about one thing, however. It wasn’t Zarkon that was after the stuff. It was someone else. Was it simply the Legatus Legioni of the deserting army? Did they truly have the resources and the means to come up with a plan to take down Altea? No, there had to be someone spearheading the entire thing. From what Regris had recounted, his Legate raised her sword to fight for ‘Him’

“The Quintite was part of the concoction that caused that whole mess - a mess I’m certain you recall vividly, Red Lion.” Regris’s tired eyes fixed pointedly at Keith and the gladiator averted his own with sinking shoulders. “As they made their mixtures in accordance to the second Legate, the rest of the legion made ready for battle. The following day, a third legion joined us from Argos, fresh off a Roman fleet. By then, we were a force of almost twenty thousand strong. And we were to march on Altea in four days time.”

“Taking the city was, unfortunately, simple. When we took Altea, it was by complete surprise, for one. Their defenses were nothing to withstand so many driven Galra forces. The Legion from Argos brought a single trebuchet with them. With the Quintite mixture causing the Alteans to panic moreso, the city was lost with almost little effort. As Volta came to aid, we had the city’s own siege weapons. When the princess escaped, her father had moved to create a diversion within the city. It was a full-force push back and he had half of his guard move to destroy the artillery. It stopped the volleys and allowed the princess to make it out. All this, you know by now. The Blades within the legions did what we could in order to dampen their progress. But there was only so much we could do to save the city. Alfor was lost and his city forfeit. Afterward, we waited for word on what to do with the city. The deserters were bolstered by their victory - though the sacrifices were great. But they were also confident in their odds now that they saw what their New Empire was capable of.

“Immediately, the Legati demanded the treasury be raided. They ordered any scroll found within to be brought to them. Once they found the city archives, the Legate from the first legion was hardly seen again. Blades have reported her scouring every scrap and roll without rest. Meanwhile the others made certain that Altea was kept under their thumb. Soldiers were made examples of. Homes were destroyed. Fear has washed over the city in a stifling cloak of oppression rivaled only by the hand of Lord Zarkon.” 

Regris cleared his throat as he settled again. It was dim in the room with only a few candles burning away the cold darkness. The light nearest the bedside was only enough to make out Regris against the blackness of the wall, but even that was enough to see the parking of his cheeks. 

Once they had gotten a good look at Regris, they were surprised he had been alive to save, let alone made it back to Volta in any stream of consciousness. His hands had been shattered; bones meticulously and methodically broken. The top of his right ear had been sliced off. His body was smattered with cuts and burns, all at different stages of healing - some stages of rot and infection. It was deliberate torture. 

“How did you and the others…” Keith’s voice started off solid and confident, but the closer he came to saying the words, they quickly faded. He saw the slightest pull of a smirk at the corner of Regris’s mouth. 

“The Legate in the archives had turned in for the night. The rumor said she was supposed to head north for Thyrea come daybreak. Tyx thought she could make it in and out of the archives without anyone being the wiser. The two guards at the door were Blades. It would have been a simple task. If it wasn’t for the wretched cat... “ Regris took in another excruciating, dragging sigh, “No. A Blade is not so easily caught. I’m certain that the Legate caught some suspicions somehow. A trap was waiting for Tyx and the other two followed quickly behind. When I heard what happened, I attempted to talk them out of their trouble. But she saw right through me. Tyx and the others were executed immediately - another warning to anyone harboring any thought on rising against the new powers that be.

“Me though…” he laughed dryly, painfully. “Me they kept. Immediately, they suspected me for a loyalist to Lord Zarkon. So long as they suspected nothing of Marmora, I was fine with it. But they tried to get the others out of me. They tried to get me to tell them what we knew. Truly, we still know nothing of their plans. We know nothing of the one that leads them or his intentions.”

Keith bit down on his lip, chewing it thoughtfully. He had some idea. He had a few. But was it wise to mention? He, himself, was the one that hushed the others about the royal mineral. Nothing was to be discussed outside of Pidge’s shop. But they knew. The Blades of Marmora knew about Quintite. And now he knew that the army that had conquered Altea had tons of it! If he said nothing, what then? He was certain that Volta would be next for these New Empire followers. 

“Kolivan,” Keith finally uttered, “I know of Quintite. I know of Quintite and I might have an idea of what these Legati may be searching for.”

Kolivan’s brow piqued but before he could say anything Rergis spoke once more. 

“Good then.” he said hoarsely, “Our deaths will not have been wasted.”

Both looked stiffly at the broken Galran on the bed.

“I will ride with Charon tonight, Kolivan.” Rergis settled deeply into his pillow. “Lion. Make certain that you keep the to the codes of Marmora. We, too, are Galra and not to be trifled.”

“It’s an honor to fight with the Blades. Your sacrifices and those of our brothers and sisters will not be forfeit so long as I have breath in my body.”

“May Ares know of your bravery and valor, brother.” Kolivan stood and placed a strong hand on Rergis’s shoulder, “We honor you.”

Keith and Kolivan shut the door behind them, leaving Regris to slip away peacefully alone in his room. 

“Keith.” 

The call of his name nearly made him jump out of his skin. As he turned, he found his brother, Pidge and Hunk in tow, heading for the fighting grounds for their daily workout. 

“H-hey.” 

“Thace said you were here at the arena - good morning, Kolivan.” Shiro nodded to the Marmoran in greeting, the other two timidly keeping hushed, “I never say you last night. Were you home?”

“I, uh-” Kolivan interrupted his stammering.

“His time had come, Shiro.” he offered, “Keith has completed his final Marmoran Trial. We held a ceremony for him and he is now a brother of Marmora.”

“Keith,” Shiro’s face lit up with his renown kind smile, “that’s great! I’m so proud of you.”

“Congratulations, Keith!” Pidge exclaimed happily.

“Yeah, that’s fantastic news!” Hunk cheered all the same.

“Alright then,” Shiro nodded to the both of them, “I’m sure you have more Marmoran business to tend to and I should get to my training. We’ll catch up with you later, Keith.”

As they all headed to the grounds, Hunk asked ‘so what does that mean exactly?’ and Keith could hear Pidge’s answer of ‘I have no idea’ carry off down the hall as they walked. He smiled. Yes. He could be proud. He could be very proud of himself. His days were building him leaps and bounds almost all at once. Better yet, he knew he had the first steps to the problem with Atlea that had plagued them for months. There was a threat looming at the doorstep to their home and he was about to do something about it.

Keith and Kolivan sat together in the council room and he explained everything. He spoke of the attack on Lance and how he felt it was connected to the incident there, at the arena. He made mention of how it turned out that Princess Allura was practically a paragon among healers. He laid out every detail of the project Pidge and Hunk had undertaken for Shiro and how it lead them to learn that Coran and Allura were quite versed in Quintite and its history. 

“So the Legati are after the knowledge of this metallurgist.” Kolivan processed aloud.

“I’m pretty certain.” 

“And Coran will know where to find it?”

“He must.” Keith insisted, “It was his grandfather’s life’s work. If anyone would know where it might be, Coran would. And if he knows where we can find it, we can grab it before the Legati can get their hands on it.”

“It will have to wait for a more opportune time.” 

“What?” Keith balked, “No, we have to go as soon as possible!”

“You won’t have the help we had last night.” Kolivan explained, “I intend to have Blades that rode with us and more to ride and spread word of the deserting army. Unless you mean to get them yourself, you will have to wait for support.”

“And what’s wrong with going on my own?”

Keith could see Kolivan grimace. “You know that would be unwise, Keith.”

“One person is much easier to sneak in and out than six.” Keith pushed, “I can do this, Kolivan. It won’t come to any price to you or the Blades.”

“And what am I to do if you manage to get yourself caught?” Kolivan was not any more entertained by the presented sensibility, “What then?”

“Then I won’t get caught.” His answer was flat and matter of fact.

“I know you, Keith.” Kolivan’s eyes narrowed on him. “And I know that as much as I would protest this, you will not listen and go anyway.”

Keith made no arguments.

“I only ask that you take a great deal of care when you go. Do well to keep to your promises.” Kolivan made to leave Keith to his intentions. He stopped. “And be sure to at least let your friends know what your plans are. It involves them as well, after all.”

 

-

 

Keith spent the rest of the hours trying to weigh his options. Was it truly wise to go it alone? He stood by what he had said to Kolivan. But, having a few helping hands would be good. What if the scrolls were too much to carry alone? It would be simple if they weren't kept anywhere near the palace. But what if they turned out to be in the archives after all? Tyx went in alone and it cost four Blades their lives. If he would take help, who would it be? Anyone in his regimen would be glad to offer help against the Empire, New or old. But he wasn't sure if their bang-and-clash method of confrontation would work so smoothly in that particular situation. He had a few people in mind, but his gut still felt uneasy about it all. Perhaps that was simply his nerves churning the insides of his stomach as he came closer to bringing everything to his friends in a few moments.

"Is everything alright, Keith?" Shiro finally asked.

Keith's felt his skin prickle a bit. The others waited patiently in Lance's great hall, curious about why the Red Lion had gathered them.

"You seemed a bit jumpy this morning too." Pidge added, "Is something wrong?"

"Shiro…" Keith cleared his throat, perhaps simply saying so would be best, "The final trial Kolivan mentioned today-"

"Aaaah." Lance smirked at him as he took hold of his chin with a thumb and index finger, "You want to float about finally joining your fancy arena group. You're an official member of their secret society and you want to tell everyone. Alright, Mister Fancy Fighter. Tell us all about it."

It pricked Keith just a little bit at the jest Lance made, but he knew he was only making light of it simply because he didn't know. He sighed deeply, letting it pass and glowered at his 'ward'. A reaction Lance believed he wanted at first.

"I-" Keith stopped and looked at the Alteans. "Last night… I went to Altea."

"Door was still locked, right?" Hunk's attempt at Lance's humor fell on inattentive ears - and he immediately regretted saying it as it left his lips.

"The task Kolivan had me complete was to aid in a rescue of four captured members of the Blades of Marmora."

Before anyone could ask, he raised his hand to hush their questions.

"Please. Just listen to what I have to say before you say anything. This conversation cannot leave this group. But you have to know what we found."

It was clear to Keith that, already, the Princess had so much to say, so many questions. As did his brother. But he had to get it all out before they were sidetracked with the bickering he was sure to ensue.

"The Blades of Marmora are a rebel group whose sole purpose is to bring down Emperor Zarkon. They've dedicated their lives to being the downfall of the Empire and... restore the true honor to their Galra name."

He saw eyes widen as his friends made connections and came to the realization that he had become a full member of a Galra group.

"Keith! How could you?" Allura raged through tears, "They're Galra and you've joined them? You can't trust any of them! By joining them you betray Altea and you betray your friends and your own city!"

"Princess…" Shiro placed a hand on her shoulder to quell her anger, "Please. Let's hear what Keith has to say."

Tears streamed down her face as she looked at Shiro, a testament to her angered emotions. Her hands were clenched into shaking fists and her jaw was tight. To aid the Galra. To set foot into her city with them – without even so much as a breath in her direction. She took a step back, hushed but still seething.

Keith breathed again, feeling all the other questioning eyes on him. He made the recount brisk, focusing only on the main details of the rescue. He told them only Regris made it out alive. Then proceeded to retell what Regris had explained.

“They have so much Quintite already…” Pidge lamented softly. “How are we supposed to fight them with stores like that?”

“Well, considering the quantity it took to make the small batch in the shop..” Hunk crossed his arms and tilted his head back to calculate in his head with the pinched expression, “- To come up with the kinds of masses described on the battlefields-”

Pidge began to consider the ratios as well. Her math seemed much quicker than Hunk’s.

“Taking into account the standard sizing of shipping barrels; they may have gone through more than half already.” she answered, “But who is to say that haven’t received more since they took the city.”

“Or found any possible stored inside it…”

“The only Quintite they would find, Hunk, my friend, is all alloy.” Coran assured, “There hasn’t been a live vein of the mineral in Altea’s grasp for quite some time.”

“Coran, do you know where your grandfather’s research is?” Shiro asked, hopeful.

“I couldn’t say where precisely…” Coran sighed softly, “But I can tell you it’s not in the archives or the treasury. If they’re anywhere, they would most certainly be in the east wing of the palace where my family’s quarters are.”

“I can find it.” Keith announced.

“Keith, you can’t just-”

“I already did, Shiro. I can do it again.”

“There will be far more peril now that their prisoner has escaped.” Allura warned.

“What about the Blades of Marmora?” Pidge asked. Allura’s brows tightened at the mention, “They could go with you again.”

“No. There weren’t that many available to us before. Now, they’ve been sent to carry out the news of the deserters. This is best.”

“That’s too risky a move.” Shiro shook his head.

“You can’t come with me, Shiro. You’ve only just started holding a sword again. There’s no way you would be able to defend yourself, let alone me.”

“I’ll go.”

Everyone stopped and looked over at Lance.

Keith didn’t even take a second to consider it. “No. Absolutely not. That is completely out of the question! My job has been to keep you safe – while here. Not to let you waltz into a warzone!”

“This is much bigger than needing someone to babysit me!” Lance stepped up, along with a little bit more volume, “This is about Altea! This is about Volta! What do you think will happen when they decide that they’ve stayed in Altea long enough? Volta will be next in line and I’m not going to let that happen – not when I have a chance to do something first!”

“Don’t you think I know that?” Keith took his own step forward, standing his ground on the decision, “I know what’s on the line! This is just as much my home as it is yours. I’m not about to let those deserters set foot on Volta ground – or the Empire, or anyone that would raise their sword against us! But that doesn’t mean I’m willing to let you walk into danger for the sake of it!”

Lance took another step, putting them practically nose-to-nose at odds over the issue.

“I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself! And I can watch your back just as easily while doing it!”

“You can barely swing a sword!”

“You - of all people – know I’ve been training to fight!”

“Exactly! Training! You’ve never fought a day in your life!”

Something in Lance snapped hard at those words. Before he could sputter any of the words his mind was storming up, Shiro spoke up.

“Enough!” He reached for each of their shoulders and split them apart. “That is enough!

Keith sighed heavily, his arms crossing over his chest. He turned away from them both, still not wanting to change his mind. The break was enough to clear Lance of whatever had stirred in him. His composure seemed restored, but neither did he seem keen to nudge from his position either.

“Take him with you.”

“What?!” Keith’s eyes widened at his brother’s suggestion, “Shiro, you can’t be serious.”

“Lance is right, Keith. This is much bigger than just one person. Besides, you all know as well as I do that Lance is more than capable with a bow and arrow. If nothing else, he can be an extra set of eyes.”

With Shiro backing up Lance, Keith knew that he wouldn’t be able to argue any longer. The last thing he wanted was to worry about Lance during this covert attempt.

“And I want you to take two more with you.” Shiro added, “Find two soldiers you feel you trust most and have them go with you as far as the city limits. At the very least, they can come back and let us know if anything happens to the both of you.”

Keith’s shoulders sunk submissively. This was not how he wanted to do any of this.

But there was no turning back now.

Chapter Text

XII. In Memoriam

 

There was still a twist in his gut as Keith packed his horse. All of it still seemed like a bad idea. He knew the right thing to do was to tell everyone about what he had found out. And if finding that research would both cut back on the Galran advantage while giving Volta an upperhand - well, that was obviously something that had to be retrieved. But he was so certain that this trip was one that should be made alone the more he thought about it. To think, Lance, of all people, was going to be the one at his side. He couldn’t believe that he was letting him - no, leading him - into danger. After what he heard them do to the other Blades and, certainly, the torment they had put Regris through… 

 

Keith shuddered to the bone at the thought of Lance going through the same. But with being the minority in the decision, there was nothing he could do but promise himself that no such thing would happen to his ward. He had made the decision to keep the infiltration to just the two of them early on. The rest of their pack, consisting of two Volta soldiers from his regime, would remain on guard outside of the walls. As Shiro had suggested, if anything were to go awry, they would be their messengers back to Volta. Keith just had to make sure nothing would go awry. 

 

He sighed heavily and yanked at the strap on his saddlebag, securing it tightly.

 

“Look, you don’t have to be so depressed over the fact that we’re coming along.” Lance grumbled a bit as he pulled his own beast of burden close. 

 

“I’m not depressed, Lance.” Keith scowled.

 

“Well, shit.” Lance bit back a little, “Could have fooled me. I’ve never seen you argue so loudly with Shiro before. I could still hear you while we were walking Hunk and Pidge out. If I didn’t know any better, I would think you hated having me around.”

 

“I don’t hate having you around.” Keith sighed heavily, finally turning his attention to Lance fully.

 

“I said ‘ if I didn’t know any better. ’” Lance smirked.

 

Keith looked at him with lidded eyes and an unamused sense to his humor. He shook his head.

 

“I just… I’m worried, okay?” Keith reached to comb his fingers through his own dark mane as he averted his eyes, “The things Regris told us - the things they did to him… I don’t want that to happen to you. The easiest way to stop that from happening is to leave you here, where it’s safe. Not galavanting into their streets.”

 

Lance grimaced and crossed his arms, “That’s rather hypocritical of you. All well and good for you to go trouncing into Galra territory without a care in the world, isn’t it? But you can just leave me to go slowly mad wondering if you were captured - or worse?”

 

Keith knew it was just as Lance said. And maybe it was wrong, but it didn’t change his mind in the least.

 

“What happened to never believing for a second that I was defenseless?” Lance asked, his tone shifting from thick indignation to that rare sincerity, “What happened to thinking I was dangerous?”

 

Lance truly was sharp. That shot struck Keith directly in the chest. No, he couldn’t deny Lance had the skills of an expert bowman. Yes, the training he had been doing with Thace was only more to his merit. Any man with a decent eye could tell Lance was more than deadly if he had a mind to be. 

 

“You’re clever.” Keith admitted in defeat, “And that’s the most dangerous type of all.” 

 

He was happy to see Lance smile just a bit at that.

 

“We can do this, Keith.” Lance whispered softly, leaning in close, “You and I will find the scrolls we need and make it out without a scratch on us. The Galra will have no idea we were even there. It will be so simple, you’ll be embarrassed that you were worried at all.”

 

Keith smirked. Lance’s confidence never left anyone wanting, it seemed. It didn’t matter the situation, Lance was always ready to take on the world. Keith had his niche. He was good at it. But Lance was as fluid as water and danced with vigor into just about anything. He envied that deeply. 

 

“Ready to head out, Red Lion.” 

 

It was Ptolemy. He led his horse behind him with Nereus at his side, the reigns of his own steed in his hand. They were both soldiers that fell under Keith’s command during that battle all those months before. Ptolemy was an older, seasoned soldier, a small handful of years more than Shiro, his hair twice as grayed. But he never had any aptitude for the art of tactics. He was just as happy to be handed a pike and begin jabbing at anything that tried to fight him. Nereus was much closer to the summers of Keith and Lance.  He was not as fevered as Ptolemy, but his quiet nature helped make it easy for him to skirt around trouble and come at it from a blind side. Both were strong assets in Keith’s eyes - even if they were only contingent to their plans. 

 

“Good.” Keith nodded curtly before turning back to his horse. “Then let’s be off.”

 

-

 

It would have been as quick a journey for them as it had been with the Blades of Marmora, if they had the same horses. This trip had them riding their less built cousins. Though noble and still plenty sturdy, they horses were not bred for such a push. There was haste in their hooves, but they would have to stop and make camp regardless, if they were to make it to Altea in the cover of dark. If they rode non-stop to the city, they would be forced to wait near its walls risking discovery. So they made the decision to pace their ride and make camp several hours away.

 

It was becoming more evident that the summer days were beginning to slip away as the nights began to cool. There was a comfortable crispness that came out with the stars as they packed down for the evening. Nereus tended to the horses, allowing them some freedom to graze while Ptolemy went to search out decent wood to burn. Keith concentrated on getting that fire started as Lance rummaged through their sacks for their dried meats, fruit and bread. Once the fire was healthy, they all settled into their own cardinal spot and had their dinner.

 

“So what exactly are we doing out here, Keith?” Ptolemy questioned between bites of dried boar meat.

 

“Someone else got out of Altea.” Keith answered, his eyes fixated on the dance of the flames, “They made mention of something we would be better off getting our hands on. Lance and I are going to try and find it before the Galra can put it to use.”

 

“What is it?” Nereus asked in an almost child-like curiosity.

 

“That’s the thing,” Lance sighed, rubbing the back of his head. “We’re not entirely sure.”

 

“You’re not sure ?” Now it was more of a boy-ish confusion.

 

“We’re looking for scrolls…” he admitted, “But we don’t know what, exactly, they contain. From what they said, it’s something the Galra are very adamant in acquiring.”

 

“So they haven’t even found them yet, either?” 

 

“Let’s hope not.” Keith added succinctly.

 

There was a bit of pensive silence between the four of them as they ate their meal. Nereus took a long sip of water from his cup and looked into the fire distantly.

 

“I hope you find it.” he said finally, “I hope you find it and I hope that it will help Altea. The Princess and her guardian seem like very good people. I’ve heard that Altea is a great city too. I can’t imagine losing it to the Empire. Losing your home…”

 

Lance smiled softly in Nereus’ direction, “Don’t worry, Nereus. Altea will not be theirs forever. And, if we have anything to say about it, Volta will never know the threat of the Empire at its gates.”

 

Nereus returned the smile.

 

“I know you would do anything for Volta, Lance.” Nereus sobered, “So would I. I know I’m not the best soldier, or the strongest. And I may not be as blessed with the spirit of a fighter like most are in the ranks…” He sighed, “But I want to protect my family, my friends, my home. They’re what make me draw my sword. It’s the same for you, Ptolemy?”

 

“Sure.” Ptolemy agreed, though he had only a faint idea as to what. He had settled down into his bedding and gotten as comfortable as one could on the cool ground to sleep, taking no more interest in the conversation aside from key words. “So long as I have a Galra heart at the end of my spear, I’m content.” He yawned deeply through his words and let his eyes drift shut.

 

“Seems a little single-minded…” Nereus said lowly under his breath.

 

“Well, we all have our reasons.” Lance chuckled softly, as he leaned back onto his hands.

 

“Yours is so self-less, Lance. I envy you.”

 

“Mnh. I’m not as broad-hearted as you think.” Sapphire eyes narrowed as an impish smirk pulled across slender lips. “Almost everything I do is for my mother. So long as I know it would make her happy, I’m happy.”

 

Keith looked over to Lance from the corner of his eye as he drank from his cup. Laid out on his side, his head rested in his free hand as he focused his attention away from the firepit.

 

“Don’t get me wrong.” Lance said through a deep sigh, “I do love Volta and I would do anything for the people of the city. But for me, Volta’s heart was my mother. My mother’s city is her spirit.”

 

“I wish I could have known your mother. Both my own mother and grandmother always speak so well of her. Even though she was brought to the city through marriage, they said she always belonged. She was never one to shy away from anyone and never spoke an unkind word.”

 

Lance smiled from his heart as he listened to Nereus speak of his mother.

 

“Thank you, Nereus. It’s really very warming to hear that others still hold her in such good memory.” 

 

“What about you, Keith?” Nereus asked, “Do you fight for your city as well?”

 

“Is Volta really ‘my city’?” Both looked at Keith curiously at the response. “I’m not from Volta - not really. I came to the city when I was very young. And if memory serves correctly, it wasn’t a very pleasant welcome for a young orphaned boy.”

 

“Really?” 

 

Keith shrugged idly as he emptied his cup. “I was smuggled into the city. My mother paid off a crotchety old farmer to take me into Volta as his grandson. The guards seemed to buy it and I was in. After that though, I was on my own. The man said my mother only paid enough to get me in. After we entered that gate he wanted nothing else to do with me.”

 

“Should I really be listening to this?” Lance teased with a soft chuckle.

 

“You’re welcome to have me arrested after we bring the scrolls back.” 

 

“What happened to your mother?” Nereus asked, cautiously.

 

“Dead, as far as I know.” Again he shrugged before sitting up fully. “But I draw my sword because I’m good at it. I draw my sword because it’s who I am, what I have become.”

 

Keith saw Lance smirk, certain that he expected that answer from him.

 

“I fight for Volta because of one person. The one person that accepted me when the rest of the city pretended not to see me. I fight for the one person that didn’t treat me like I was dirt even when everyone else told me I was. I fight for his city because without him the Gods know I would be lost.”

 

There was a quiet that fell over the group for a short moment.

 

“Shiro is lucky to have you, Keith.” Nereus managed before a yawn.

 

“We all are.” Lance added.

 

Keith could see the shifting light of the fire play at the blue of Lance’s eyes as he smiled at him. 

 

"Both of you should get some sleep." Keith urged, shifting in his place to sit upright. "I'll keep an eye out."

 

"What about you?" Lance asked.

 

"The Red Lion never sleeps." Nereus answered in a wide yawn.

 

Keith smirked at Lance's questioning look. The ride caught up with Lance, however, and he settled in without much of an argument. It left Keith with the quiet crackling of the fire and the stirred memories of his early childhood for the rest of the night. It left him wondering if the choices he made in his recent days had truly charred at their edges, or if they were simply allowing him to see the same things in a different light. A warmer light. A kinder light.

 

-

 

The morning clearly came far too early for Lance’s liking. But given the seriousness of their mission, he was quick to fall back into the line of duty and dedication. The camp was cleared out and brushed away before they took on the rest of their ride, the less evidence they left for anyone to stumble upon, regardless of how far out of Altea they were, the better. It was a brisk ride, with hardly a word spoken between the four of them. They rode hard to make it to the city just as twilight started to settle in. Under the faint light, Ptolemy found a good place out of sight, but within earshot to keep the horses settled. Nereus was left at the very same vaulted drain Keith had used on his first visit. Once Keith and Lance had lifted themselves up onto the shelf, Nereus replaced the bars and ducked underneath to await their return. Or run for Ptolemy, if anything were to go awry.

 

“Daybreak.” Keith stipulated, “If we aren’t back by then, take Ptolemy and go straight to Shiro.”

 

Nereus took in a shaky breath, but nodded curtly.

 

“Relax.” Lance grinned, “We’ll be back before you even realize. Keith is just being dramatic.”

 

I’m being dramatic?” Keith balked with a light scoff, “I’m fairly certain that you could give Dionysus quite the challenge in the theater.”

 

“Silence, heathen.” Lance snapped, “My performance would be paramount.”

 

“Guys?” Nereus cleared his throat, attempting to gently usher them on their way.

 

“Yeah, yeah.” Lance waved him off, “We’re going.”

 

Keith glanced at Nereus pointedly before falling in line behind Lance. They kept low and took careful steps. Even as the city was winding down, there was still activity and not enough shadow to cover their movements just yet. Lance reached the end of an alley and knelt to glance around the corner. Keith leaned over him to take a look as well.

 

“This is the plaza.” Keith whispered, “The Blades we met mentioned the palace and headed off in that direction.” 

 

“Given the direction we came in from, we should be near the forum.” Lance thought aloud, “If we can manage to find that, we can get our bearings. According to what Coran told me, there’s a road from the forum that leads straight to the palace.” 

 

“That way it is then.”

 

They ducked back into the alley just as a lanternarius came to bring flame to the lamp that hung just around the corner. The light was fading and soon they moved quickly to make the most of it. Slowly, the busy streets of Altea emptied, save for the bustle of Empire soldiers making final curfew rounds. It was a vast difference to the activity of Voltan streets. True, the excitement ebbed with the day, but there was never the uncomfortable silence that dampened the air. Keith noticed the uneasy grimace on Lance’s face when they managed upon the forum. 

 

Altea’s endless pursuit of knowledge would have the forum bustling through all hours of the day and night. For the halls to be so desolate was an affront to the glory of the city. The constant patrol of Empire soldiers stifling the lifeforce in such a way was enough for Lance to curse under his breath. Volta will never be like this . He swore just enough for Keith to catch. No. No, it won’t. That, he mentally promised himself as well as Lance. 

 

Once they reached the palace, it seemed that they were just in time to catch a change of guard. They settled in the shadows for a while longer as the small handful of Empire soldiers began to dwindle to nightwatch numbers. 

 

“Was it on the left side or the right side of the palace?” Lance asked. By then, he had lifted the bow from across his chest. He considered drawing from his quiver and having an arrow knocked as they traversed the grounds, but thought better of it. Hopefully, he wouldn’t need it and that way, he would have at least one hand free.

 

“Coran said the East wing.” Keith had his sword in hand and ready as well. “The quarters are at the far end and to the right.” 

 

“Doesn’t look that big…” Lance mumbled, “This should be simple.”

 

Keith was sure Lance was simply trying to keep himself convinced. The palace was far more guarded than the city streets had been. Who knew where they were stationed and what parts of the castle were repurposed to Galra Empire means. With any luck, Coran’s quarters wouldn’t be touched. But they were prepared, just in case.

 

As they skulked onto the grounds, Keith couldn’t help but notice the way that Lance held his breath each time a soldier passed by. He didn’t know it, but Keith could sense the nerves in his exhales and he could see it in his tightly knitted brows every time he looked over to signal or whisper to him. Keith cursed himself for not fighting Shiro and the others more on letting Lance come along. This was no place for him. This was Keith’s forte and Lance had no business sinking to such a level. 

 

The patrol passed and turned a corner toward the hall they had just come down. They moved on. It was rather difficult to navigate for them. Everything looked so alike and the dark hardly helped anything. With only a description to go by, they scoured every door they came across, but were moderately certain none were the rooms they sought. 

 

“Wait!” Lance exclaimed in a harsh whisper.

 

Keith stood at the ready for whatever it was Lance had seen. 

 

“It’s there! Up ahead!” Lance pointed, “Coran said there would be a silver shield on either side of the doorway with an Altean blazon on them. “Keith, that’s it!”

 

The wave of relief that washed over Keith was only momentary. In a swift movement, he reached for Lance and pushed him against the wall. The sound of him hitting it was covered by the ringing of steel as sword met sword.