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Leaves of Sage and Bonds of Age

Chapter Text

The storm appears out of nowhere, drowning out the stars and casting an eerie glow upon the wooded mountain trail.

Lance pauses for a moment, pulling his traveling cloak more firmly around himself. He begins walking again, this time with a quicker stride and wary glances at the sky every few feet along the darkening path.

Storms in the northern region of Altea are particularly dangerous for the fact that at any given moment, they could develop into magical storms. Lance has never witnessed one for his own eyes, but he’s heard accounts of them and knows the signs: a violet tint to the clouds, rapid growth of Erigeneia flowers, black lightning which is fatal only if one is directly struck, the sudden stop of the rain, and the temporary degeneration of the Amaranthine trees.

In the darkening light, Lance can see the beautiful Amaranthine trees standing still and regal on both sides of the mountain path, unmoving, and definitely not temporarily dying.

He heaves a sigh and tells himself to stop worrying. Magical storms aren’t all that common, even in northern Altea. Just because some random clouds are forming doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll turn into a magical storm.

He can practically see his sister Veronica rolling her eyes and telling him to “stop being such a worrier!”

As some of Lance’s wariness ebbs away, he allows himself to reminisce of his family, something he refrains himself from doing normally as to not be overcome with homesickness on his journey across Altea.

When he decided that he would go on a journey to find work in the more promising northern Altea in order to support his family, he did not expect to be this lonely. Sure, he makes companions out of every traveler he meets on the road, using the bright and happy—and sometimes boisterous— aura he gives off. Usually, the roads he travels are full of people and he is in his element—telling jokes, making people laugh, and bringing people together. But on lone paths like this one, his mind tends to wander back to his family, whom he misses dearly. When Lance lets himself think of his family, he thinks of their actions— his mama’s warm hugs and his brothers and sisters’ playful taunts and laughter seem to echo in his mind whenever he meets a happy family in a village or countryside town he passes through.

The thing that keeps him in a positive mindset though, is the idea of sending home envelopes filled with money for his family. He has done this a grand total of eight times from jobs on his trek across Altea. His favorites are the ones where he gets to work hands-on, making food and delivering it, making pottery, finding certain plants for a well-known restaurant, and, his favorite one, finding a missing child on his journey and bringing her back to her village. The family thanked him in tears, the mother and father hugging him repeatedly and telling him he was welcome to visit at any time, in fact, he had to come to their cottage if he ever passed through their village again.

Lance smiles at the memory as a soft rain begins to fall around him, and he holds up his hand to better feel it—

But then the rain stops abruptly.

Too abruptly.

And Lance’s thoughts are cut short by sudden movements on all sides of the mountain trail. With utmost horror, he realizes that the Amaranthine trees are dying, their beautiful leaves withering to nothing right before his eyes.

Oh no.

The storm had developed into a magical storm.

Lance starts sprinting down the path, heart leaping into his throat as waves of panic rise in his chest. How could he have missed the first signs? He risks a glance up into the sky, and sure enough, the swirling clouds are bathed in a sinister, violet glow.

Suddenly his foot catches on a protruding Erigeneia flower, and he is falling, tumbling down the sloping trail, the sharp leaves of the Erigeneias cutting into his face, his hands, the back of his neck— he feels himself slam into a boulder at the end of the path and then everything goes black.

For what feels like two seconds.

Just as Lance comes back into consciousness, he is temporarily deafened by a loud booming crash just a few feet up the trail.

And the cause of that crash is a huge bolt of very black lightning.

“Holy shit,” Lance groans, unceremoniously dragging himself off the forest floor. He scrambles painfully toward his travel pack, which flew off his back during the fall, and which is mercifully not torn apart by the sharp leaves of the flowers. He whips it onto his back, and without a second glance backward, he tears down the path at breakneck speed.

Lance can feel a few injuries as he runs, including a throbbing cut on his calf and a piercing pain in his ribs, and not to mention the almost blinding pain in his head. But fear—and maybe adrenaline—overpower the pain, and his mind is set on getting to safety.

North Altea is just ahead—just a few more feet—

Two more bolts of black lightning crash down on the mountain, one right where Lance was just running a couple of seconds ago and one directly to the left of him.

He covers his head and starts plunging down the trail in zigzags, throwing off the lightning as best as he can.

Lance remembers that the magical lightning is attracted to human and human-like heat signatures, and the safety classes he took as a kid to learn how to fend off the lightning. He just never thought he’d actually have to use them in real life.

The wind picks up then, and almost knocks Lance over as he hurls himself around a tight turn—

And there are the lights of the immense city of North Altea.

Lance would’ve let out a whoop of relief had he not been so terrified.

Pieces of earth and trees are beginning to rip off the land in the harsh wind; Lance has to duck to avoid a particularly big branch from taking his eye out.

Thinking fast, he maps out a route to the entrance of the layered city. He can’t go directly because he’ll surely get struck out in the open, so that leaves the long way, which is around to the left of the city, but thankfully under the cover of the trees. Lance needs to get into the city, as it is the only safe place from a magical storm—he can see the translucent, glowing barriers encircling the city and stretching out into the distance.

Immediately, Lance starts running through the passage. He needs to get to the city before the wind picks up to hurricane speeds, and he can already feel it throwing him off balance. His chest area and calf are beginning to hurt more prominently, and when he looks down, he sees blood soaking through his pant leg, right where the pain is pulsating from.

It also doesn’t help that he is starting to feel light-headed and that the sky is turning a darker purple, making it harder to see in front of him.

The yellow, welcoming lights of North Altea are coming closer as he closes in on the entrance, stumbling a bit—he comes face-to-face with the blue barrier, the only thing standing in the way of his safety—please let me through, he thinks desperately as he steps into it—

Relief pours over Lance as he falls through the glowing wall, hitting the solid stone ground on the other side and barely registering the impact. He lays there for what feels like hours, but could only be a couple of minutes, because the crashing of lightning, earth, and wind against the barrier rouse him from the cold ground.

Lance stumbles groggily into the entrance of the maze-like city, which is bathed in a warm, gold glow from the windows and lights on the cobblestone steps. The people seem to be inside for the night, and he can smell a faint whiff of some food he recognizes but cannot name.

All he needs is an inn, a place he can crash for the night, and he needs to find one before he passes out on the street.

Lance takes turn after turn on the cobblestone paths, feeling more unsteady by the second, the pain in his head building more and more, when finally, finally a glowing sign wobbles into his dimming sight, and he vaguely registers that it reads “inn.”

He fumbles with the handle, barely able to keep himself upright; a bell chimes from somewhere far away, and then his legs are giving out under him—

He briefly feels himself falling, falling into a warm blackness, and then everything is silent.

Chapter Text

All is quiet and peaceful in Keith’s little corner of North Altea. Well, save for the raging storm above his head. He does his best to ignore that. A fire is burning in the brick fireplace, causing patches of shadows and light to flick around the walls, and the front room of his inn is encased in a cozy, golden glow.

Business was relatively good today, in Keith’s opinion. He has three guests staying in two of the rooms for the night, and there are still five vacant rooms open for any late-night travelers.

He’s fed his familiar, Kosmo, and the giant wolf is curled up in front of the fire, ears flicking lazily in time with the soft crackles of the flames.

Keith is just thinking about how he’ll spend the money he’s collected from several guests who left the previous day, when he hears it—a faint sound of tumbling and crashing, carrying in through the wooden front door.

The noise is enough to rouse Kosmo, who springs up off of the floorboards and trots over to the wooden door, his ears perked up sharply as he listens.

The sound comes again.

Kosmo emits a little “boof” and stares at the front door expectantly.

“Did you hear that too, buddy?” Keith asks, sticking his head through the doorway to the library room, where he is balancing precariously on a stool and doing his best to shove a few books haphazardly onto the top shelves.

Abruptly, there is a loud, thumping sound against the door, startling Keith so much that he jumps off the footstool and almost drops the stack of books he’s holding.

Kosmo, on the other hand, begins wagging his tail and panting excitedly.

“What, Kosmo? Do you sense someone—”

But his words are cut short when the door flies open and a tall, cloak-clad figure stumbles in over the threshold.

And he does not look good.

From what Keith can see, there is a deep, bleeding wound across his cheek and neck, and he is half keeled over in obvious pain, with his left hand pressed against his rib-cage.

The man sways on his feet for a grand total of half a second, and then he starts to fall.

Keith’s eyes widen. Before he can stop himself, before he has really registered what he is doing, before he senses that the magic in his body has spiked up, he is sprinting toward the collapsing figure as fast as his legs will carry him.

He jumps through the air… dives for the blurred body of the man… and he hits the floor with a loud, painful thump, rolling onto his side with the lanky stranger clasped tightly in his arms.

Phew.

It doesn’t occur to Keith that he has accidentally used magic until, with a jolt of dread, he sees the glowing white marks fading from the air in the same path he had just taken to get to the man.

He sits up slowly, gently moving the unconscious man from his arms to his lap, and listens as the storm becomes deafening.

What sounds like a hundred bolts of lightning strike the protective dome at once, and judging by the volume of the noise, they have struck almost exactly above Keith’s inn.

He knows that this isn’t a coincidence. Oh, how he wishes it could be. He can feel the beginnings of pain starting in his body, a hollow kind of pain, like his magical energy is turning into a huge, churning ocean, slowly getting more out of control as he wields more and more magic.

He is used to this pain, but it is getting worse each time he uses an enchantment or charm, and he doesn’t know if he can bear it for much longer without finding a cure.

For as long as Keith can remember, he has been cursed. Cursed with too much magical power, more than an average human being could ever be able to hold. He doesn’t know how or why he was cursed, he just knows that he must not use magic in order to keep it compressed inside himself.

And because of this magic, he is a powerful beacon for magical storms.

One of the main rules Keith has learned over the years is that it’s essential for him not to use his magic during magical storms. For a reason unknown to him, the storms are attracted to his magic, making it extremely dangerous for him and for people around him. It’s one of the reasons he moved to North Altea, because of its protective barriers.

The ferocity of the storm seems to be dying down finally; Keith breathes a sigh of relief and relaxes his shoulders, which he hadn’t realized were tensed up.

He looks down at the stranger in his lap fully for the first time, and wow.

He is not that bad looking. The opposite of bad looking, actually. He has these beautiful high cheekbones that accentuate his jawli—

Keith shakes his head vigorously. Now is definitely not the time to think about that. The poor guy is out cold and bleeding profusely from the side of his face.

Keith wonders why he spontaneously decided to save him from falling. He even used magic, accidentally.

He guesses that he just didn’t think this guy could have taken any more injuries in his state.

Heaving him up by his underarms, Keith drapes the man’s left arm around his own shoulders, and he supports the guy’s waist with his own right arm. Then he tries to walk towards the stairs.

Key word: tries.

The guy is way heavier than he looks, and has a few inches on Keith, which results in him stumbling the few feet to the steps, tripping on the guy’s cloak, and almost hitting the railing.

Keith struggles, but manages to set him down gently, and then collapses on the stairs next to him, panting heavily.

He wishes he could use magic to get the man safely up the steps and to a bed, but the storm is still rumbling formidably in the distance, so that is—regrettably—not an option.

“Kosmo, can you use your teleportation to get us up the stairs?” Keith asks the wolf, a little breathlessly.

Kosmo just looks at him, wagging his tail lightly.

“Please, buddy? Just this once.”

Kosmo actually sits down this time, and starts panting in a way that makes it look like he’s smiling at Keith.

Keith groans. He grabs the man by the underarms and starts pulling him up the stairs as carefully as he can manage. What he’ll never be able to understand is his familiar’s thought process. Kosmo is a very intelligent—and sometimes stubborn—wolf; Keith has grown accustomed to not questioning his ways.

That’s why he isn’t surprised when the wolf suddenly vanishes, leaving behind a bright blue light. Keith pauses halfway up the steps, waiting for him to come back. There is another flash of light as Kosmo reappears, this time with a small, dark wooden box dangling from his mouth.

Keith wants to smack himself in the face. Of course. The medical box.

“Thanks, Kosmo. Now can you teleport us?”

Kosmo ruffs, then pads up the stairs until he is touching Keith, and everything turns to blue light.

One of the smaller vacant guest rooms materializes into view as Kosmo deposits them onto the rug near the neatly made bed. Keith pats Kosmo on the head in thanks; the wolf drops the wooden box onto the bed and then curls up on a big, overstuffed armchair, watching Keith and the stranger comfortably.

The warm glow of the fire lights the room in a cozy golden aura as Keith begins to patch the lone traveler up. His cheek has stopped bleeding heavily, but Keith notices a blood stain on his pants near the back of his right calf.

He pulls the pant leg back, and there is a deep wound traveling from the front of the man’s ankle to just below the back of his knee.

Keith winces. The wound looks really bad.

The nearest hospital is in the next sector over, which is too many stairs that may aggravate the poor guy’s injuries. But all at once, an idea comes to him.

It had been in the back of his mind for a while, though; maybe even since the traveler had first fallen through the door.

Keith could use magic to heal him.

Just as he used it to save the man the first time.

The magical storm has long since faded away, and all is quiet in the night sky over North Altea.

The feeling of wanting to save this man from agony is enough to quell the rising waves of panic, and, as if it had always been ingrained in his head, he knows what to do.

His hands start to emit a warm, blue light; they shudder a bit as he senses the familiar feeling of spiraling out of control in his gut.

Keith closes his eyes, breathes in deep.

You can do this. Do it for the man in pain, right in front of you. Do it for him.

Now his hands are steady as he places them on the traveler’s clothed chest, and the blue light slowly starts to spread out along the man’s body.

The magical ocean in Keith’s being is churning almost out of control, and his hands start to shake again as the light stretches out to reach the wound on his leg and the one on his face.

Keith’s jaw is clenched tight in a grimace, and he watches through narrowed eyes at the injuries that seem to change as though sped up: blood sinking back into the wound and skin closing up until there are white scars in place of the gaping cuts.

When, at last, the traveler’s body is seemingly fully healed, Keith lets his hands fall away from the man’s chest, and he all but collapses, sinking down on the bed and trying to push his magic down and catch his breath at the same time.

When he finally gets his breathing down to a semi-normal pace, he stands up shakily. This use of magic, in an hour or so, will consequently cause Keith either to sleep until his magic has cooled down enough, or be in excruciating pain until the magic subsides. He hopes for the former, but the pain is nothing he hasn’t gone through before, and all that matters is that the traveler is healthy again.

It could be a trick of the eye, but the man lying on the bed looks more content and peaceful in his sleep, and this alone makes Keith break his usual stoic demeanor: he smiles.

It’s not until Keith slips the traveler’s long cloak off that he sees just exactly why he was so hard to carry up the stairs.

Maybe it’s from trekking along whatever journey he’s on, but damn.

This guy is ripped.

Like lean muscled, broad-chested ripped.

Keith stares in awe for what feels like hours, then realizes what he’s doing and shakes his head vigorously for the second time tonight. He’s supposed to be checking to see if the guy is fully healed, not gawking at his toned muscles.

His face is hot for some reason, maybe from the overuse of magic. Definitely that.

The traveler looks way better, thanks to the healing magic, and Keith breathes a sigh of relief. He doesn’t know how long the man will sleep for, but he hopes it will be a peaceful sleep. The guy looks like he needs a good rest from all his travels.

Keith is halfway to the door when he feels an overwhelming wave of exhaustion crash over him, rendering him almost completely immobile. He slumps forward and reflexively grabs the side of the doorframe, his mind becoming muddled and hazy.

At least it isn’t pain this time, he thinks through the fog, his hand slipping lower along the door. There is a blue flash as Kosmo teleports to him from the armchair, and another as he finds himself in his own bedroom, laying on his bed with Kosmo beside it, looking at him almost accusingly.

“Kosmo, ‘m sorry,” Keith mumbles through the clouds of sleep overcoming him.

The last thing he remembers is Kosmo snuffing at him disapprovingly, then sleep encases him whole; a wave of darkness overtaking him.

——

Lance wakes up to a huge, snoring mound of fur.

Weirdly glowing fur.

He stares at it through bleary eyes, decides it’s a dream, closes his eyes, and slumps back onto the bed, his head hitting the pillow with a soft fwump.

Wait. Bed?

Any trace of bleariness completely gone, he lurches up with all the speed of a bullet.

How did I get here? Wasn’t I— he gasps. Holy fuck, the storm! What happened?

Lance grabs at his ribs; feels his face, where his wound should have been.

Nothing. No pain. His face is completely smooth. How is that even possible? Unless—

The mass of glowing fur next to him lets out a low groan, then, and suddenly a big, glowing wolf is staring at him.

Lance gapes at the creature. He is not afraid, for some reason unbeknownst to him. Usually, he would jump almost to the ceiling and run away shrieking, but this wolf has a sense of calm emanating out from it (him? her?), and the creature’s gold eyes are intelligent, far more intelligent than any animal Lance has seen in his life.

The wolf is almost… not an animal. More like—

But Lance’s thoughts are interrupted when the wolf abruptly disappears. Like, into thin air. The only thing left of the creature is a peculiar blue light that hangs in the air for a few moments, then fades away.

Lance completely blanches.What the fuck?! Then he pinches himself. Hard. Ow. Not dreaming.

That can only mean one thing.

The wolf is magical, which makes it a familiar, as Lance was suspecting, which also means that there is a mage somewhere around here, which means that oh my god, he gets to meet a mage.

His heart starts to beat faster in his chest. He’s never seen a mage in real-life, but he’s heard tales of magic power being wielded by humans. Lance had never really had a destination in mind for his travels, but he had subconsciously directed himself towards North Altea—as he notices know—because magic is most well-known there, and also, most ancient. Lance has always wanted to see it for his own eyes, and here he might actually get the chance.

There is another blue flash of light then, right next to him. The enormous wolf materializes into sight again, but something is different this time. There’s something with him.

Wait, no— someone.

Lance takes a split-second to realize what is happening, but it’s a split-second too late.

A form that was just hovering by the wolf’s side in teleporting now rolls off, and his body collides with Lance’s, his head smacking into Lance’s chest forcefully.

Lance grabs the stranger, his hand on the small of his back, as to not send them both rolling off the bed.

The dark-haired stranger groans, then, and slowly lifts his head up from Lance’s chest.

Lance is about to say something quick-witted and smooth to explain the odd situation, but completely forgets what he is going to say and freezes, jaw half open.

Because his eyes.

His eyes are the prettiest shade of purple he’s ever seen.

Exactly the color of the deep purple Erigeneia flowers, but worlds prettier.

And he has these silver flecks dotted around his irises, picking up the radiant light and making him seem almost…

Magical.

And now, Lance is strongly aware that there is, in fact, a mage currently lying on his chest.

Chapter Text

It takes Lance a grand total of five seconds to realize two things—one, that the mage’s violet eyes have widened suddenly, and two, just how long he’s been staring.

A heartbeat passes, then they are flying apart from each other, Lance’s hand jumping away from the guy’s back, the dark-haired man springing backward and unceremoniously slipping head-first off the bed.

Lance hears a loud thump and then there are another few beats of silence. A slight scuffling ensues and the stranger appears again at the side of his bed, this time looking rather disgruntled, his hair tousled and sticking up in the back, which for some reason makes him look even better…

Lance isn’t going to finish that thought.

“Uh… good morning?” He asks tentatively, as the stranger is rubbing his head and wincing.

The stranger looks up at him again, and Lance sees another faint flash of purple. “H-hi.” His voice sounds heavy with sleep. “This is definitely not the way I planned on introducing myself to you.”

He proceeds to glare at the big wolf lounging at Lance’s side.

The wolf pants unconcernedly at the man; Lance actually thinks he sees a hint of a smile on the wolf’s majestic face.

“Nah dude, it’s fine. Uh, magical… wolf problems, am I right?”

“Sure, I— yeah.”

Lance grins. The guy seems awkward, but humble as all heck. So he springs off the bed and holds his hand out for a handshake. Lance doesn’t really know why he does it— maybe he thinks its more this guy’s speed or something.

“The name’s Lance. Thanks for patching me up,” he says, gesturing to the white bandages wrapped around his torso, and then holding out his hand again for the man.

The guy’s eyes widen for a millisecond, and again, Lance almost gets blown away by how striking they are. But then the man is taking his hand, looking up into Lance’s own eyes with an amused half-smile etched across his face.

“No problem. I’m Keith. And this is my familiar, his name’s Kosmo,” Keith says as the gigantic wolf pads into the space between them and starts sniffing at Lance’s bandages. “He seems to like you a lot. He’s always wary of guests, but he ran right up to you when you uh… fell through the door.”

Lance cringes. “Oh right, sorry about that. I must’ve got mud all over the floor and scared the shit out of you.”

The little half-smile lights up Keith’s face again. “You kinda did,” (Lance pouts) “but it's fine, I’ve got it under control.”

Kosmo nudges Lance’s hand, and he starts to pet the giant wolf between the ears: Kosmo makes a contented snuffing noise and slides onto the floor, bringing Lance down with him.

This wolf is beginning to grow on him, he thinks.

Lance looks back up and sees that Keith is scratching his head nervously, his eyes firmly fixed on the wood floor beneath his feet, like he’s trying to figure out what to say. Or how to say it. Lance doesn’t know.

“Um… so, you’ve probably already guessed that I’m a… a—“

“A witch? Yeah! It’s so cool! I’m standing in the presence of a powerful mage and an actual fucking wolf, I feel very blessed by the universe at the moment,” Lance states proudly from the floor, because it’s true. He’s always wanted to meet a witch, and now his dream has finally been fulfilled.

Keith stares down at him, his eyes alight with shock and wonder. “Y- you do?”

“Of course! You don’t even understand. When I was a kid, I would try so hard to make like, fire come out of my hands or something. It was kind of sad actually, looking back.”

Keith looks at him for a long second, like he’s seeing Lance in a new light. “That’s uh... not really a common view of witches. Most people avoided me when they figured out I was a witch in my old town. They hate my kind because of the magical storms we attract, and how we’re… different.” He rubs the back of his neck. “So i guess what I’m trying to say is… thank you. For not hating me.”

Lance looks up at him. Smiles. “Dude, I could never hate anyone without actually getting to know them first. And also, that stigma people have against witches? It’s bullshit. Magic should be celebrated, not pushed into a corner.”

The shocked look on Keith’s face fades into a look of confused happiness. He mutters a quick thank you and stares back down at his feet, a blush spreading from the tips of his ears to the middle of his neck. A warm, comfortable silence emanates between them.

For about five seconds.

Because just then, a bell chimes loudly from somewhere on the floor below them, and a slightly exasperated voice calls: “Hello? Is anyone here?”

Keith’s gaze snaps up so fast Lance thinks he hears a whip cracking. He looks at Lance, horrified. “The guests!”

Multiple crashes ensue as Keith first sidesteps into a nearby dresser, then stumbles back from the impact and hip checks a table. He finally trips over the rug on the threshold of Lance’s room, catching himself on the door frame in the nick of time.

Wasting no time, Keith pushes off the door frame and flies out of the room.

Lance can hear his harried footsteps resounding down the hall as he pushes himself to his feet.

“I can help with breakfast!” He yells after Keith, sticking his head into the hall.

“Okay!” Keith’s voice carries up to Lance through the staircase. “But put a shirt on first, you’re gonna scare the guests!”

“Hey! My chest isn’t scary! It's beautiful!”

An annoyed groan echoes faintly back to Lance. He grins, haphazardly throwing on a T-shirt from his travel bag and sprinting off down the hall after Keith.

This is going to be the start of a great friendship. He can tell.

Chapter Text

“Holy shit, Keith. Is it always this cold in here?”

“If you haven’t noticed, Lance, we’re in North Altea. It snows eight months out of the year. It’s literally snowing right now.”

Lance grumbles. He’s carefully frying an omelette shoulder to shoulder with Keith, who is flipping pancakes at the speed of light. The amount of guests has multiplied since the first one called up the stairs, and the little inn’s dining room is bustling with sleepy travelers and passers-by who stopped in for breakfast. The heat wafting from the gigantic stove is somewhat comforting, but he really needs to get a sweatshirt from his bag.

Keith hefts a tray up on his shoulder and Lance places his omelette dish onto it, along with a few skewers of assorted fruit and a plate of sausages. Lifting his own plate of golden pancakes onto the tray, Keith balances the whole thing on one hand and hands it to Lance.

“Table for two, up against the windows in the back left corner,” he lists off as Lance takes the tray from him and balances it expertly on his own hand. This is how they’ve been working the whole morning, swapping jobs on the go and dancing around each other in a weird kind of harmony.

But it works.

Lance has no clue how Keith has managed to hold down his inn and restaurant on his own for this long. He pesters him with questions each time they make it to the kitchen together, but he gets the vague answers of “it’s just way more crowded on Saturdays,” and “winter brings more travelers from the North.”

It probably has something to do with Keith’s powerful magical aura. Lance has been able to sense it since Keith initially told him about his powers, back in the room upstairs. It’s a bright feeling, like an invisible fire is burning at the center of Keith’s being and washing everything around him in a warm glow. Everything runs smoother than it normally would, which Lance guesses is an effect of the magical atmosphere.

“Hey, waiter! Can we have a refill of water over here, please?” A guest shouts as Lance strides past her table.

“The name’s Lance. I’ll be over with water as soon as I can!” He calls back with a grin. Table for two, windows, back left corner. Table for two, windows, back left corner. He repeats Keith’s mantra of directions as he side-steps a furry brown dog curled up next to its owner’s chair.

Oh yeah, he remembers. Keith did say that the inn was pet-friendly so Kosmo could walk around freely. Lance has absolutely no problem with that. He has a special place in his heart for animals, as his childhood home was overrun with both cats and dogs alike.

The windows rear into view as he skirts around a circular table, the flurries of snow outside highlighting the room in a bright glow. Lance spots the couple in the left corner and walks up to the table, lowering the tray off his shoulder.

“One omelette and one stack of pancakes,” he says, placing the plates in front of the designated person, and the fruit skewers and sausages in the middle of the table. The couple thanks him happily.

Lance is making his way over to the guest who ordered refills when he passes a single table, occupied by a rather odd-looking man whom he recognizes as the first guest who called up the stairs earlier this morning. His actual appearance isn’t that strange—the oddness is in his clothes. The man is wearing a long, dark blue trench coat, not much different than Lance’s travel cloak. A black, pirate-like eye patch wraps around his head and covers his right eye, giving the illusion of roughness. His hair is a fiery orange, and a bushy mustache contrasts his rugged aura.

“How was the food, sir? Sorry again for the late start this morning.”

“Oh, it was just wonderful! You have a very good cook,” the man states in a singsong, heavily accented voice that definitely doesn’t match his appearance. “I’m Coran, by the way. And don’t worry about the late start! The food more than made up for it.”

“I’m glad we could be of service! Keith is a great cook and he runs this inn so well—by himself, not to mention. I can’t believe one person can do so much, and do it perfectly,” Lance says.

Coran looks up at him thoughtfully. “Young man, don’t you yourself work here?”

“Oh, I’m just helping out today. I’m a guest here at the moment.” Lance lifts the tray of dirty dishes up on his shoulder. “I’ve gotta get back to the kitchen, but you have a great day! Come by again anytime.”

As he is leaving, a brief flick of blue color on the man’s cheek catches Lance’s eye. He looks closer, and—

Lance gasps inaudibly. The u-shaped markings under the man’s eyes are the unmistakable symbol of royalty, and no less the symbol of the Altean throne.

What is a royal Atlean doing here?! Lance shuffles as fast as he can toward the kitchen, mind racing. Did we do something wrong? Is the inn going bankrupt? Why was he undercover?

Lance stumbles through the doorway of the kitchen and closes the door firmly behind him.

“KKEEIITTHH!!!”

Keith’s head whips up from the omelette he’s frying.

“Why is there a ROYAL ALTEAN in your inn?! What did you do?!”

“Wha—calm down! It’s nothing bad! They send people to check on restaurants and inns to see if they are running in accordance with the rules. It must’ve been my day.”

“Ohhhh.” Lance slumps against the door in relief. “Thank god you’re not a criminal.”

“Why would you even think that?” Keith asks, eyebrow twitching in annoyance.

“You never know these days, man! The world’s a scary place.”

Keith rolls his eyes. “Well, now that we’ve determined I’m not a criminal, can you take over the oven for me? Oh, and I’m pretty sure Kosmo won’t get in your way but feel free to kick him out if he does.” Keith points to a small, dark blue dog panting happily in the corner.

“That’s Kosmo? Did he change forms?” Lance asks.

“Uh, yeah. A gigantic magic wolf walking around the restaurant wouldn’t exactly be the most comforting thing to see,” Keith deadpans.

“Aww, but Kosmo wouldn’t hurt a fly!”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. Now hurry up and get that omelette onto my tray.”

————

After what seems like five years, the last of the guests amble out the front door. Lance pokes his head around the kitchen’s entrance to see the front door close with a soft thump.

Then Lance proceeds to fall flat on his back in the middle of the kitchen.

“Keith,” he groans, exhaustion flooding into his voice. “How the hell did you manage to run this inn by yourself before I came along?”

Keith scoffs, brushing his hair out of his face as he looks down at Lance. “Just fine, thank you very much.” He switches the burners off and the blue flames simmer into nothing. “My magic sometimes works subconsciously, so I have that going for me.”

“Ah, right.” Lance rubs his eyes. Kosmo gets up and pads over to Lance, sniffing him from above so his whiskers tickle Lance’s face.

“Hey, beautiful boy. I see you’ve changed back into your cool magic wolf form.” Lance reaches up from the floor and pets Kosmo.

“Move your long-ass legs so I don’t trip over them trying to get to the fridge,” Keith says. He glowers at Lance and prods his leg with his foot. Lance looks up at him and smirks.

“Ah, so you’ve noticed my pride and joy, haven’t you?” He gestures to his legs.

Keith rolls his eyes to the ceiling and steps over Lance as he flops to the other side of the kitchen floor, Kosmo trailing after him.

“Okay.” Lance’s voice is muffled by fur, as Kosmo has put his head down on Lance’s chest. “I’m gonna muster up some energy and go get a sweatshirt. Be back in a sec.”

“Alright—wait! I almost forgot.”

Keith grabs an envelope overflowing with paper money. He yanks all of it out and splits the pile in two along a paper wedged in between bills. He holds out one pile to Lance, who is now standing at the doorway.

“Here, take it. It’s your earnings for today,” he says and shakes them at Lance expectantly.

Lance’s eyes widen. “What? No! You can keep the money, I only volunteered to help you out,” he says, backing away.

Keith steps toward him. “No, it’s okay, Lance. You worked, which means you get the money.”

“N-no, all I did was volunteer! You didn’t even ask me to help anyways,” Lance says, putting his hands in front of himself.

Keith’s eyes are fiery as he glares daggers into him. “Lance,” he says. “Take. The. God. Damn. Money.”

“Is this a reverse mugging or something?” Lance sweats. But he gives in and takes the money anyway. Thanking Keith profusely, he stumbles off to get his much-needed sweatshirt, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth for a reason he doesn’t quite know.