Chapter 1: The Chosen Ones
Lance was standing close enough to the two wells to smell the strange mossy odor of the water, which made him slightly nauseous. Perhaps it was not the scent at all. Perhaps the nausea was a result of his nerves, like his fidgeting fingers and his heart beating too loud in his ears. It was not his first time in that ceremonial cave. He had been to this ceremony four times before, always with the same nauseating excitement, knowing that this might be the day when he would be chosen. It was strange, each time, when relief flooded his heart alongside disappointment when he was not chosen. He got angry at himself every time. He wanted this, he knew. There was no greater honor than being chosen for a quest. He trained for this. He dreamed about this at night. And yet, no matter how much he prepared himself for this, he could not get rid of the tiny part of himself that breathed a little calmer when someone else’s name was called.
The well on the right began to glow. This was unusual. Traditionally, the left well glows first and the Hero is chosen before their companion. Since Lance was not a Hero, this fact always made the suspense even worse for him. But now it was about to be over quicker.
Coran, who was leading the ceremony that day, was surprised for a brief moment and hurried to approach the well on the right.
“The Support Well has chosen,” he announced, bending over the edge of the well to catch the small piece of paper with the name, “the first Companion for this quest is…”
Coran unfolded the paper a little clumsily, chuckling as it almost fell from his hands.
His heart felt as if an iced arrow pierced through it, freezing him in place. That was him. That was his name. Someone gave him a little push forward, and he vaguely knew that it was his sister, but he wasn’t thinking clearly. Blood rushed to his face as he stumbled forward to shake Coran’s hand. He was congratulated and led to kneel before the elders as they each tied a piece of white string around his wrist. Then two dots of blue paint were rapidly tapped to his skin above his eyes, and he was told to stand still as they waited for the announcement from the other well.
There wasn’t relief this time, but his nerves were replaced with excitement. This was it. His dream was coming true. He was enjoying the feeling of eyes glued to him with curiosity and expectation, as if knowing – this person is about to achieve greatness. He located his sister in the crowd, beaming at him. Hunk and Pidge were both sending him reassuring smiles from the third row. This was everything he had ever wanted. Then the second well began to glow.
Lance knew exactly whose name he wanted to come out of that well. Everyone in Support had a Hero or two they had their eye on. They all followed the leaderboard closely, and it was common to wish for a hero with great scores, since it meant a better chance for a successful quest. Lance’s reasons, however, were a little more personal. Many nights he lay awake fantasizing about being chosen alongside Allura. He had heard everything about how quests bring companions together and how they required trust and dedication. Even though Allura had made it very clear that she was not interested in him in any way that was not entirely platonic, he knew in his heart that a quest would change all of that. He fantasized about saving her from a wild beast, or her saving him and then him tending to her wounds. He fantasized about campfires in dark woods and deep conversations after long days of facing danger. He fantasized about seeing her face as she slowly began to see him for who he truly was, not whatever image of him she usually had. About catching her watching him when he wasn’t looking. About quiet confessions in a tent and desperate kisses before a final battle. Most of all, he fantasized about returning victorious, hand in hand, mutually in love.
His chances were slim. There were 36 Heroes in that class, all perfectly suitable and eager to prove themselves. Hunk had told him, gently, to weigh other possibilities as well. He did. There were many other good possibilities. He thought of Plaxum, who was highly intelligent and creative, and rumored to have a few unique inventions and armor she built on her own. He thought of Rax, who was not exactly friendly towards him, but his physical strength and knowledge of magic was a great advantage. He thought of Nyma, who was not generally liked due to her questionable past and the brief jail sentence she served, but was fun to spend time with and would certainly make a quest interesting, if nothing else. As his gaze moved from Hero to Hero, he briefly considered what having them for a companion would entail. He came to the conclusion that all of them would be good options, even if they weren’t quite what he was hoping for. All of them except one, that is. There was one name that could not possibly be drawn from that well. Just the thought of it brought back his nausea. He pushed this thought aside. He didn’t want to entertain that possibility.
Coran caught the piece of paper and began unfolding it. Allura, Lance thought, trying his best to will his thoughts into reality. Allura, Allura, Allura. Please say Allura.
“Let’s see,” Coran said, straightening the paper in his hands, “from the Well of Heroes… The second half of this quest is going to be… Keith. Keith Kogane.”
No. No, no, no, no.
The rows parted to let Keith through. He stepped forward looking somber, as if someone had announced the death of his close relative.
This can’t be real. This can’t be happening.
Coran shook his hand and congratulated him. He knelt in front of the elders for the string tying. Lance closed his mouth, only now realizing that his jaw dropped open. When Keith came to stand beside him, red paint now dotting his forehead to mark him as Chosen Hero, their eyes met for a fraction of a second. And for that brief moment, it was clear to anyone who was looking that they both loathed this situation with all their might.
Coran gave a speech about honor, bravery and kindness. By the looks on everyone’s faces, the speech was amusing and inspiring, but Lance couldn’t focus on a single word. His dream had crumbled right in front of him. Allura stood still in the front row, not looking at him, her lips pursed tightly. Disappointed, he knew. For a moment he let himself believe that she had wanted to be his companion. Somewhere in the back of his mind he knew the truth – she had one ambition only, and she was now disappointed about not being chosen once again, postponing once more her opportunity for the quest she longed for the most. He thought of that. He thought about Allura and about talking to her after the ceremony, refusing to let his mind panic about the fact that his greatest rival was picked as his companion. He would deal with this later.
Coran’s speech was over. There was applause, and then everyone started clearing out of the cave. The next stage, Lance knew, was for the two of them alone. He had been to this cave four times before, but this stage was new. He was getting nervous again. Once everyone was out, he let himself breathe and move away from Keith. He didn’t want to look at him. He turned to stare at the Well of Heroes. He could see out of the corner of his eye that Keith was staring at it too. The silence was heavy between them.
They stared at it for quite a while. Nothing was happening. “How long is this supposed to take?” he muttered, nervous and annoyed, wishing it was all over already.
“Maybe there’s been a mistake,” Keith said. Hopeful, Lance noticed. Then, as if timed perfectly to invalidate this idea, the well began to glow. Blue, Lance realized. It was the wrong well.
“I thought we’re supposed to receive our quest from this well,” he said, pointing at the Well of Heroes.
“The Well of Support had the first pick today,” Keith noted, “maybe that’s why.”
They both approached the well and waited for the quest to emerge. A piece of paper flew out of it and Keith caught it perfectly with one hand. Lance grimaced at him, but Keith spared him no mind as he rapidly unfolded the paper. Lance came around to look at it over Keith’s shoulder.
The quest read as follows:
“A cursed kingdom needs your aid
for many decades it’s been sealed
Now, two hearts quick and unafraid
must find the secrets it concealed.
Five parts of one, five lions whole
five parts to locate and connect
Five parts the Empire once stole
you now must rescue and protect.
Remember, foe might look like friend
and allies often dress as foes
Go bring the curse right to its end
and raise Altea from its lows.”
Lance’s mouth was suddenly very dry. Most of this description made no sense at all to him. Not until he read the very last line. Their quest was about saving Altea, he realized. The kingdom which had been cursed and sealed away for decades. The kingdom which had so few descendants left, Allura being one of them. This was supposed to be Allura’s quest. His heart was torn between feeling incredibly guilty and feeling as though he was somehow robbed. This was supposed to be Allura’s quest. Their quest, together. Now, not only was he going to spend the entirety of this quest beside Keith, but he was taking what rightfully belonged to Allura. How could this day go so wrong, so quickly?
He looked up at last when Keith cleared his throat.
“We need to – we need to do the oath.”
The oath. According to tradition, the two companions must swear an oath of loyalty to each other before their quest is valid. Lance shook his head.
“Absolutely not,” he said, “I’m not doing that with you.”
“Oh, will you drop it already?” Keith looked annoyed, “do you think I’m eager to do this with you, of all people? I’m not.”
“Excuse me? You should consider yourself the luckiest man in the world for this.”
“Why? Do you really think you’re some sort of divine gift to humanity?”
“Uh, yes? I am the best member of the Support School.”
“According to whom?”
“Oh for Fate’s sake, would you fucking listen to yourself? ‘According to whom’! Fuck off, with your proper grammar and your ugly hair.”
“Wow, your insults are so incredibly mature and sophisticated.”
“I am not swearing an oath to you. I’d rather die right here and now.”
“We have to,” Keith said with reluctance, and Lance already knew what he was going to say next, “otherwise our quest won’t be considered valid.”
With a low, angry grunt, Lance stepped towards the Well of Support. Keith approached his own well. They both drew the buckets out. Lance dipped his right hand in the cold water. He turned around to face Keith, whose hand was already dripping. Keith extended his hand first. Lance watched it for a moment as if it was covered in something foul, but he eventually accepted it.
“I’ll go first,” Keith said, “so we can get this over with as fast as possible. I vow to put the quest above all else. Regardless of my personal preferences and no matter how insufferable you’re going to get, I will do what I can to protect you in order to see this quest to its successful end.”
Lance scowled at him. “Wow, what an oath,” he said, “every last girl in the Garrison must be dying to be in my place right now.”
“Just say the damn words, McClain.”
“Fine. I vow to try my best to ignore that you are the most despicable person in the whole world. I vow to keep the quest at the top of my priorities, despite my very strong urge to murder you in your sleep. I do not vow to pretend to like you at any point, but I vow to not let this ruin the quest. Happy?”
“I share these sentiments,” Keith said, withdrawing his hand. For a moment, nothing happened, and Lance thought they would have to do this all over again. Then he saw the dots of paint above Keith’s eyes begin to glow, and judging by the way Keith’s eyes now stuck to his own forehead, he knew that his paint must be glowing as well. That sealed it. They exited the cave, each heading in the direction of the group of friends waiting for them, not another word exchanged between them.
Traditionally, the night before the quest is the time for the companions to say their goodbyes and spend time with their family and loved ones. It is a joyous occasion, but there is always a bittersweet edge to it, knowing that a farewell is near and that there is always a chance for that farewell to be forever. Lance’s family did their best to hide their worry and bury it in food. Hunk and his own family came to join them right after the ceremony to start cooking, and Lance was not allowed in the already overcrowded kitchen until dinner. He spent his time with Veronica, his sister, knowing that she was the only one in his family who knew exactly what he was feeling.
“Are you going to talk to her about it?” Veronica asked him. They were sitting on the windowsill, Veronica holding a ball of yarn and Lance trying his best to do as much knitting as he could before leaving for who knows how long. He knew exactly what she was talking about.
“She doesn’t want to talk to me,” Lance answered quietly.
After the ceremony, Allura came to congratulate him. He told her about the quest. He could not keep this information to himself; it would be unfair to her.
“I’m sorry,” he began, but Allura was shaking her head with anger.
“Don’t talk to me right now,” was all she said.
“Allura – “
Tears glinting in her eyes, she left him. He had no chance to make up with her.
“You can’t just leave it like that,” Veronica told him, “you have to talk to her before you leave.”
“When? I won’t see her.”
“She’ll come to the feast.”
“Lance,” Veronica held his gaze, “she’ll come to the feast. She’s your friend. She loves you, even if not in the way that you wish she loved you.”
“It’s not about that,” Lance sighed, “I don’t care about that. Well, I do, of course, but this is different. This quest is really important to her. I know how much it means to her and I hate to see this being taken away from her.”
They were quiet for a moment.
“Do you think it’s about revenge?” Veronica asked after a while, hesitant.
“Over her father’s death?” Lance took a deep breath, “I don’t know. Maybe. Probably. I don’t think it’s just about the Galran Empire though. She wants to liberate Altea. She wants her people to have a future.”
“Oh, crap,” Veronica said, “I just now realized… Keith. If the rumors are true – “
“Oh no,” Lance said as it hit him. She was right. Allura must have heard the rumors. To know that Keith was part Galra must be devastating to her. What cruel joke was Fate playing on them? Why would they pair him up with his worst rival, who just so happened to be a descendant of the enemy, instead of pairing him up with someone who truly deserved it?
“Poor Allura,” Veronica sighed, “I can’t imagine what it must be like. And poor you.”
“Poor me, yes,” Lance agreed, “how am I supposed to go through this quest by his side? It’s so stupid. And I’m his Support, Veronica. I’m supposed to be someone he can lean on.”
“Right,” she looked at him with a warning, “but don’t forget that being Support doesn’t mean being a servant. He can’t boss you around. You’re equals.”
“Do you really believe that?” Lance asked.
He never did. Ever since he got sorted into the School of Support, he felt as if he had failed. He was meant to be a Hero, he thought. He could feel it in his bones. But the wells never lie. The wells are the eyes of magic, they say. The all-seeing eyes of magic. And the all-seeing eyes of magic were wrong, he was convinced. No matter how many times people tried to convince him that being Support was not less honorable than being a Hero, it sounded like nothing but sweet lies to soften the blow.
“I do,” Veronica said, “and I know for a fact that you’re not going to be the servant boy of some arrogant, rude – “
“Annoying,” Lance added helpfully, “stupid, heartless, disgusting – “
“Yes, well, you get the picture. Don’t let him order you around.”
“I’d rather choke than let him order me around.”
The dinner was, not at all surprisingly, fantastic. Lance had trouble choosing between the meals, and he ended up trying a bite of everything. The mood around the table was elevated. They were sitting outside, the table long and uneven since it was in fact three tables joined together and covered with four table cloths. Toasts were made, jokes were traded, and Lance had to keep battling his relatives over the embarrassing childhood stories of him they kept telling. Hunk, to his left, was crying with laughter, which was infecting everyone around him with the giggles. Lance was having such a great time that he had almost forgotten all about his worries.
Then Allura showed up. She greeted his mother shyly, handing her a bottle of wine and a box of cookies from Coran. Everyone started making space for her at the table, ignoring her pleas of “no, thank you, I just came to talk to Lance,” and then again, “no, please, I’m not even hungry – I – no, ma’am, I’m allergic to tomatoes – “
“Can you all leave Allura alone?” Lance asked them, “she’s an adult, if she wants something, she’ll take it.”
Allura smiled at him gratefully, then discreetly asked whether they could have a moment of privacy. He led her out of the backyard and into the street, ignoring the excited whispers of his family. They walked away from the house and up onto the hill to sit underneath the large tree. The sun was setting. Allura broke the silence between them with a deep sigh.
“I’m sorry for my reaction earlier,” she said, “you don’t deserve it. This is your big day. You must be excited and scared, and I just – it wasn’t fair of me. I’m sorry, Lance.”
He placed a comforting hand on hers. “It’s fine,” he assured her, “I understand. I knew you’d be upset, and I don’t blame you. This whole situation is… Is… It’s twisted.”
“It is,” she agreed, “I don’t understand. The prophecy was clear. I’m supposed to be the liberator of my people. How is this possible? It seems like a huge contradiction.”
She shook her head, stray locks falling onto her face, reflecting the orange light of the setting sun. Beautiful, Lance thought. He was going to miss seeing her face.
“I have something for you,” Allura said then, taking something out of her satchel, “it’s, uh… I know that I don’t say this a lot. I guess I’m a little worried about leading you on. But I think you deserve to hear it said. I really appreciate you, Lance,” she opened her hands to reveal a thin leather bracelet with a small metallic charm. The charm was in the form of a shield. She turned his hand over to tie it around his wrist, alongside the white strings he still had tied there. “I think… I know that you can be trusted. You are an important presence in my life, and I cherish you.”
“Thank you, Allura,” he said, trying to contain himself. He didn’t have the urge to cry this whole evening, but one cheesy sunset-lit conversation and suddenly his lips were trembling with the effort to keep it inside.
He joked to broke the tension, and she looked at him sarcastically as if it wasn’t funny, then they broke into laughter and changed the subject. He wished it was this. He wished he could have this with her, out there on the road, for however long this quest was going to last. He didn’t even wish to kiss her then, he just wanted this. To have her beside him, a friend and someone to tell him that he mattered.
But he couldn’t have this. The sun dipped behind the horizon and he had to go back to the feast, lest his family started asking too many questions. Allura couldn’t stay. They walked together down the hill, then stopped to say farewell.
“I’m sorry again for being rude,” she said.
“Don’t be, I completely understand. Frankly, I’m surprised that you’re handling it so well. I don’t know how I’d feel in your place.”
“There’s nothing I can do about it,” she shrugged, “I know in my heart that it should have been me, but magic has its ways, right? Fate will lead me there eventually. Besides, I believe in you. If anyone is worthy of carrying out this mission in my stead, it’s you. And Keith, well. He does have the highest grades in our class, does he not? I think he is a worthy companion too.”
Lance was baffled. “A worthy companion? No, he’s terrible. He’s absolutely terrible. Really, Allura? I thought you’d hate him.”
“Why would I hate him?” she seemed genuinely confused.
“Well, because,” Lance felt uneasy, “because he’s stupid and annoying. And, you know. I thought – well, I know it's a bit prejudiced, but if the rumors are true – “
“What rumors?” Allura frowned.
“Haven’t you heard? They say Keith is part Galra. I heard his mother serves somewhere in the Empire. He didn’t deny it.”
Allura stared at him. “He’s Galra?”
“Well, I can't know for sure. I don't know that much about him besides his name and the fact that he's a disgusting little - ”
“Lance. Look at me. Are you telling me that a Galra man was just tasked with saving my kingdom?”
Put in these words, the weight of the situation seemed much heavier all of a sudden. “I’m sorry, Allura. I thought you knew.”
She rubbed at her eyes with frustration. “This is too much to take in,” she sighed, “I need to think about this. I’m sorry, Lance. Good luck on your quest.”
He moved closer to hug her, but she was already turning to leave. “Thank you,” he said after her. She didn’t turn back.
Friends and family were slowly leaving the place as it got late. Everyone clapped him affectionately on the shoulder on their way out. Pidge came too, along with some other classmates from Support and two Heroes he was on friendly terms with. Hunk was the last one to stay. His mother disappeared rather suddenly, and he was almost sure that she was trying to hide the fact that she was crying. Seeing that his father was also missing, he decided that it was best not to intervene.
“Do you think she’ll ever make peace with it?” Hunk asked him. He was helping him prepare his clothes for the following morning.
“Yes. No. I don’t know,” Lance shrugged, “she is a very kind and forgiving person. It’s hard for me to imagine her being mad at someone for long. But then again… This is the one thing she never wavered about. It’s serious, Hunk. Her eyes darken when she hears the word ‘Galra’. Now I feel stupid for telling her about the rumors.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” Hunk said carefully, “I understand why it looks awful to her, but… Does it really make a difference that he’s Galra? He’s not the one who did this. He’s not some big warlord who conquered lands, or a powerful mage capable of cursing an entire kingdom. He’s just… Keith. A dark haired boy with a bad temper. He’s not even that tall.”
Lance snorted. “Well, yeah, he’s not exactly threatening like that. Although – you say that as if you haven’t seen him use a sword before.”
“Fine, yes, he’s a bit scary. But that’s not my point. He’s not to blame for the suffering of her people. He’s not the one to apologize for it, either. Is he? He didn’t do anything. He can’t control what his mother is, or what he was born as. It would be like blaming you for having blue eyes just because a blue eyed man stole my bag once.”
“A blue eyed man stole your bag once?”
“No, Lance, I’m trying to use a metaphor here. I think.”
“I get what you’re saying, it’s just a weird detail to remember about a man who stole your bag.”
They looked at each other. Hunk smiled. “Lance, I’m going to give you some advice. Would you listen to my advice?”
“Of course, Hunk. I always listen to you. You give the best advice.”
“I think you should try to give Keith a chance.”
“Your advice is garbage and we are no longer friends, please leave the premises.”
Hunk chuckled. “Come on,” he said, “trust me, I know how you feel about him. I understand. And I admit that I can’t entirely… Defend him. But the quest was picked specifically for the two of you, and there must be a reason for that. I’m not saying that you should forgive him for everything and suddenly be best buddies, of course not. All I’m saying is… Just try to be a little objective.”
Lance didn’t like any of this, but Hunk had an infuriating way of always being right and too sweet to try to dispute. “Fine,” Lance sighed, “I’ll try my best not to stab him for annoying me. What if he stabs me first? I’m pretty sure he’s going to stab me at some point.”
“If he stabs you, then you can stab him, I suppose. But I don’t think Keith is that stupid. He may be a little aggressive at times, but he’s not stupid.”
“You’ve been giving him way too many compliments over the course of this conversation.”
Hunk moved closer and wrapped his arms around him, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. You’re my bestest friend. You are glorious. You will do great.” He squeezed him tight and Lance beamed brightly even as he was almost suffocated by the embrace.
His last night in his own bed was restless. Too many thoughts plagued his mind and he could not fall asleep no matter how hard he tried. Early the next morning, his family gathered in the living room, ready to say their goodbyes. He didn’t pack for the road. Any supplies he might need, he would get at the Departure Point. All he could take with him were items of sentimental value. Allura’s leather bracelet was still around his wrist alongside the four white strings. Veronica tied a piece of blue yarn around his other wrist for luck. His shoes were a gift from his father. His nephews made a flower crown for him to wear to the Departure Point. He let them place it on his head and laughed at how they jumped excitedly when it fit perfectly. His mother, her hands shaking, gave him the last piece to complete the picture: the Quest Companion Badge. He was allowed to wear it now, since it was the day of his departure. She pinned it proudly to the front of his jacket and smoothed it over with her hand, just barely keeping the tears at bay. They hugged tightly.
He didn’t look back once he left his house behind. Tears were streaming down his face, and he had done such a good job keeping it together before, that he didn’t want to ruin the impression with these tears now. The truth was, he had never been this scared in his entire life. The truth was, a big part of him didn’t want to go on that quest anymore. But it was too late. He was walking the quiet streets with the sun rising lazily in front of him, knowing where he was headed and dreading it.
When he arrived at Last Moment Hill, Keith was already waiting for him.
Chapter 2: Departure Point
The quest is only in its first stages, but Lance and Keith are already experiencing some trouble.
The two companions seemed strangely mismatched. Leaving his house, Lance felt rather confident and put together, but standing beside Keith, he felt like a mess. His feet were not yet used to the new shoes, which made him walk a little off rhythm. His jacket was slightly too big for his narrow frame. The flower crown on his head made his hair stick up a little funnily. It was tiny details and nothing too noticeable, but Keith made it so much worse. He stood there perfectly still, like an unmovable rock. His hair was tied back neatly, and even the stray locks of hair sticking out seemed as if they were individually selected to fit perfectly in their place. His black jacket, as if tailor-made for his figure, fit him just right. He was not yet wearing a cape, but he already looked as if a cape was heroically swaying behind his back.
Lance was annoyed by all of this. He was even more annoyed when Keith quirked up an eyebrow at the sight of his flower crown.
“What,” he said, defensive, “have you never seen a flower crown before? It’s tradition. You should have worn one too.”
Keith, being rude as ever, said nothing to this. He simply turned around and started walking down the path marked with blue and red ribbons. They walked the rest of the way in silence.
Once they arrived at Departure Point, Lance was eager to go inside and check out all the equipment they could take with them. Keith didn’t let him. He said that they had to go to the library first.
“The library?” Lance scoffed, “that’s boring. Can’t we do this first? I bet you’re curious to see all the weapons.”
“None of it matters before we do research,” Keith said, his voice slightly irritated, as if he was explaining something obvious, “we don’t even know where we’re going, or what we’re looking for exactly, or what sort of equipment we might need. Research first, then we do the packing.”
Lance followed him to the giant library down the road. It was old and dusty, and surprisingly empty for its impressive size. They searched through three different halls before seeing one other person in that library besides them. Lance tried to be invested at first, but it all became boring very quickly. Keith seemed to know exactly what kinds of books they were looking for, confidently sliding them off the shelves and into his arms until he was carrying a good pile of them. Lance helped him carry the pile, but he had no idea how any of it was supposed to help them on their quest. Once they settled by a table to do some reading, Lance found himself mostly staring at Keith’s face.
He remembered, all of a sudden, the moment he saw Keith for the very first time. They were much younger then – he was fourteen, perhaps. Keith must have been sixteen. Both in their second year at the Schools of the Garrison. Hunk was his only friend back then, and they were allowed, for the first time, to enter the Common Yard. The School of Support and the School of Heroes were kept separate for the most part, but as the years progressed they did their best to let the students interact with each other. They could only spend time in the Common Yard during breaks and free periods, but at that age this was the most excitement they had ever experienced. They were going to see the Heroes.
The first glance they got, however, was rather disappointing. Their eyes were drawn to a group of Heroes shouting and cheering. There was a fight. Two Heroes were fighting right there in the yard, Lance realized. When they came closer, it was clear that the situation was somewhat different. One Hero – Keith, he now knew – was mercilessly pounding at another, who was at that point lying almost entirely motionless on the ground. And none of the Heroes watching them tried to stop him, not even when blood stained the grass and the guy being beaten seemed to be knocked unconscious. Acting on instinct, Lance and Hunk both came forward to pull the offender off the poor guy. Keith kept trying to shove past them, pushing, punching, wild with rage. Lance got a few painful blows from him then, being young and inexperienced, against a guy who was clearly older and stronger. Eventually someone intervened – an instructor, he remembered. Two instructors. Keith’s face that day was not something he could easily forget. Twisted, furious, and not a drop of blood visible, nowhere except for his ugly, bloodied fists.
There was no trace of that Keith on his face now. This Keith, twenty year old Keith, was reading a book with his face entirely devoid of emotion. Cold. Stone. A perfect statue. Lance sighed. He grabbed a book from the pile at random and tried to start reading. He was halfway through the third page when he realized that he wasn’t paying any attention to what he was reading, thinking instead of something Hunk had told him a month ago about how aggressive swans could be when provoked. This had nothing to do with his reading. He turned back to the first page and started reading again with another sigh.
“Stop that,” Keith said then.
“You keep sighing very loudly. It’s distracting.”
“Oh, oh, I’m sorry, am I breathing too loudly? Fuck you.”
“Actually, you do. Do you have a cold or something?”
“I wouldn’t sigh so loudly if the books you picked weren’t this boring. What am I looking for here, anyway? Why is this stupid book important?”
“The History of the Galra Wars in the South,” Keith said, flipping the book to show him the title on the cover, “it doesn’t get more obvious than that. We need to know what happened when Altea was cursed over a century ago. Do you really not understand this? Are you really that stupid?”
“That’s it,” Lance slammed the book shut and pushed it aside, “I don’t need this. You want to waste your day reading history books in the library? Go ahead. I’m going to go and do something actually useful, like check out the stables to pick our horses or find a suitable tent.”
“Good,” Keith said, “go entertain yourself while I do all the work then.”
Lance didn’t go into the Departure Point storage. He went to the stables and met the horses for a while, but then he got hungry and headed to the tavern. There, he was welcomed with open arms. Food was free for him, being a Companion with a badge and still on Garrison territory, and he soon forgot all about Keith or his plans to check out the equipment. He spent the day laughing with the locals over some beer and free refreshments. Several of them were rather attractive, and he enjoyed the harmless flirting and teasing comments. One of the women who joined his table, Florona, was particularly beautiful, and it made him think of Allura. Since the moment she left him after they’d said goodbye, one thought did not leave his mind. He had to do his best to move on. This was something both Hunk and Veronica kept telling him for a while, but there was always the hope in his heart that one day they might be paired up for a quest and everything might magically change. Now that he knew this was not going to happen, he looked at the situation with far more sober eyes. He did not want to lose her as a friend, not for anything in the world. He knew that his feelings for her were an obstacle hindering both of them. The conclusion was obvious: he must use his time away from her to get over his feelings and move on. He tried, as Florona was demonstrating a magic trick with her golden ring, to imagine falling in love with her. She was funny. She seemed to like him. She was smart and quick witted. Sure, they only met a couple of hours ago, but life is short and he had a dangerous quest ahead. He could tell that he was attracted to her, but something was clearly missing, and he walked out of the tavern that night feeling strangely empty.
There were a few bedrooms on the first floor of the Departure Point building. Companions were supposed to room together. Wherever Keith was that night, Lance had not seen him once. He didn’t see him the next day either. He refused to go to the library until Keith would come to apologize, so he spent another day at the tavern. The owner didn’t seem to mind, since everyone enjoyed his company and the rumor that a Companion was staying there kept attracting more customers. On the third day of this, Lance finally gave in. It was suspicious that he didn’t run into Keith even once. Besides, how long should research take, anyway? After lunch, he went into the library.
Right at the entrance, he was stopped by a worried librarian.
“Your friend is very concerning,” they said, “I come here first thing in the morning to open up – he’s waiting for me at the door. I want to lock up at night, I have to kick him out with a broomstick. I don’t know when he takes his bathroom breaks, but whenever I look up he’s sitting there. Reading. I don’t think he had eaten anything in a couple of days.”
“He's not my friend, we're – wait, what?” Lance felt a pang of guilt, which was immediately drowned by anger. Stupid, stupid Keith.
He walked outside, went to the tavern, got some food for Keith and left it on the bench outside the library. Then he walked back in.
“Keith,” he said, approaching his companion. Nothing. Keith kept staring at his book as if Lance wasn’t there.
“Right. This is ridiculous.” Lance knocked the book out of his hands. It fell to the floor with a thump.
“Hey! What the - ?”
“Come with me.”
“What? No, I need to read – “
“Shut your stupid, stupid mouth and get up.”
Keith got up, if only out of sheer curiosity. Lance led him outside, where he pointed at the food on the bench. “Eat.”
“I brought you food. Eat.”
“I don’t have time for this, and I’m not even that hungry – “ right on cue, Keith’s stomach rumbled. Lance held his gaze like a disappointed mother goose.
“Eat. Your damn. Food.”
With a sigh of defeat, Keith sat down on the bench and took the bowl onto his lap. He poked at his food with a spoon.
“You didn’t poison it, did you?” Keith asked, genuinely concerned.
“I’d lie if I said I didn’t think about it.”
Keith held his gaze for a moment longer. Then he started fishing out the beans with his spoon and placing them carefully on the paper bag beside him. Lance stared. He was clearly starving, yet he took the time to be picky about his food. This guy was ridiculous. Lance reached and plucked the beans off the paper bag to eat them himself. It was a waste of good beans.
They ate in silence. Lance took a piece of his bread, too, even though he had just had his lunch before this. He wasn’t hungry, he was just bored.
“Well,” he said at last, “did you find out anything useful?”
Keith watched him carefully, weighing his answer.
“Come on,” Lance rolled his eyes, “I’m your companion, I’m supposed to know these things.”
Keith nodded and took a small journal out of his pocket. It was filled with notes. He passed it to Lance, and while he was finishing his broth, Lance flipped through the pages. Keith explained how he already knew most of the details about the war and the battles, but he knew nothing of the “lions” mentioned in the quest. Even after three days of research, he found out very little. Before the curse, it seemed, Alteans and Galra were mostly at peace, and the king of Altea worked closely with the leader of the Galra, Zarkon. Together, they were able to share their knowledge of magic and create a magical artifact like no other. It was made out of five small statues in the form of lions, and when combined together they formed one united artifact they named “Voltron”. Its uniqueness, Keith explained, lay in the fact that it was the only artifact in existence with Altean and Glara magic combined. It was used, by Zarkon’s powerful witch, Haggar, to curse Altea and seal it off from the world. Why they did that despite the apparent alliance with Altea was unclear. It was also believed that Zarkon and Haggar used Voltron to gain immortality, or in the very least they managed to prolong their lives, since they were both still alive and well over a century later. The curse, however, could also be broken with the help of Voltron, which is why Haggar made sure to separate the lions and hide them all over the Galra Empire.
“This is good information and all,” Lance said, flipping through the journal, “but how do we find out where the lions are?”
“I… Don’t know,” Keith admitted, “I have given it my all. I scoured the library. I only have one possible lead, and even that one I found because I had an Occurrence.”
“Oh, man, you had an Occurrence already? That’s so unfair!” Lance complained. It was well known that quests were basically magical tasks carefully calculated by Fate. Sometimes, during quests, Fate would decide to intervene with tiny clues. Those clues were usually a small surge of unexplainable luck, and they were called Occurrences.
“I felt suddenly drawn to a section I wasn’t even considering before,” Keith said, “because it was fiction and folk tale, you know? It didn’t seem relevant. But I just had a feeling that I should look there. And then, a book fell off the shelf. And it opened right onto a very interesting page. Basically, there is a tale about a forest that is dark, deep and dangerous. People get lost there. Most never come back. But some travelers, according to this tale, come upon a statue of a lion with red glowing eyes, and its glowing eyes gift them with a little light that leads them out of the forest. I thought this might be one of those lions. The forest is a very real place, too. I checked.”
“I wouldn’t buy it if it wasn’t for the Occurrence,” Lance said, “but it seems like the quest wants us to start with that. I don’t think we should keep on searching, if you say that you can’t find anything else. We should go search for that lion, and hope that it somehow leads us to the next one.”
Surprisingly, Keith agreed. Once they cleaned up in the library, they finally got to the task of packing. They changed into light armor and packed up bags full of provisions. Keith planned their route carefully on a map. He took a long time picking his sword from the weapons rack, weighing each one in his hand and giving it a few experimental thrusts. Lance’s weapon of choice was a little different. He reached for the bow.
“I don’t think a bow and arrow would be very useful to us,” Keith argued, “I expect us to encounter more hand-to-hand combat.”
“Yeah, well, they call me Sharpshooter, not Sharp… Stabber.”
“Who calls you that?” Keith raised his eyebrows.
“Everyone! Shut up!” Lance turned away to examine some daggers as well. While he was busy picking something he could easily conceal, he caught Keith taking out a knife he brought with him. It was a Galra knife, he knew. Their signature purple markings ran along the blade. This was the knife which earned Keith those rumors. There were many versions of said rumors, too: His father was a traitor; his mother was a ruthless assassin; he was somehow the descendant of Zarkon himself. Details ranging from “Keith killed his first victim when he was just three years old” to “on full moons he turns purple and cannot control his urge to stab”. Lance looked away, pretending he didn’t see the knife at all. He wasn’t going to confront Keith about it right there and then anyway.
Before going to sleep, Keith warned him that they were going to wake up early the next morning. Lance didn’t like the idea, but he didn’t protest. With that, their leisurely time at Departure Point was over.
They were gone before the sun was up. They spoke very little, verifying their route and considering the best clothes to wear in light of the warm weather. The forest was mostly in Kythra, which was not yet occupied by the Galra, so they predicted that their trip there should be relatively safe. The horses Lance had chosen for them were great, and his mood was overall elevated. He was glad to finally be out on the road, doing something. As they rode, Lance couldn’t help but notice that Keith was riding just a little bit faster than he was. He didn’t want to give him the satisfaction, so he picked up the pace. This soon turned into a silent race between them. Even though Lance was a very good rider, Keith was just a little better than him, and it annoyed him to bits. If it wasn’t for his compassion for the horses, he would have pushed his horse much further, only to prove to Keith that he wasn’t the best at everything. At present, however, he had to let it go. At night, Keith insisted on building the tent.
“It’s very warm,” Lance commented, “we don’t really need it.”
“No, but we need to practice building a tent as quickly as possible, so we’re going to do it,” Keith argued. They built the tent. It was smaller on the inside than Lance had expected, and he was glad that Keith didn’t insist on the both of them sleeping in it together. Lance slept in the tent while Keith was content with a sleeping bag outside.
Two more days they rode like this, not quite talking, following their planned path closely, sleeping separately and having little to no problems. Then it was time to enter the forest.
It was, indeed, dark, deep and dangerous. Right off the bat Lance was almost bitten by a snake. There was a blur of movement and the snake was swiftly decapitated by Keith’s sword. “Careful,” he said, “watch your feet.”
Lance was annoyed. He remembered the fantasies he used to have about his first quest. Comparing those fantasies to the harsh reality was infuriating. They walked deeper into the woods, and the darkness put them both on edge. Every rustle in the bushes made them reach for their weapons. Every insect landing on their face for a brief moment made them swat at it with a panicked hand. There was too much unknown about this place, and its mysterious darkness made it worse.
Lance was not used to being quiet for so long. He was a chatty person, and he needed someone to listen to him. While he had no desire to talk to Keith in particular, he couldn’t stand the silence much longer, especially not with his thoughts eating at him every time he let his mind wander.
When they finished setting the fire for dinner, Lance decided to address something that had been bothering him for a long while.
“I’m not stupid, just so you know,” he told Keith as he passed him a bowl, “I know I’m impulsive. I say things before I think, that’s my problem. But if you take pretty much anyone and listen to their entire thought process, you might think they’re stupid.”
Keith looked surprised. “I never said you were stupid.”
“Yes you did,” Lance argued, “back in the library, you did.”
“I – “ Keith stopped. He thought about it. “I was angry and annoyed. You were ruining my concentration. I didn’t mean to say that you’re stupid, I meant… I just wanted silence, I think.”
“Well, it wasn’t the first time you said it,” Lance muttered.
“You call me stupid all the time, too,” Keith sounded defensive.
Lance rolled his eyes. “But we both know that you’re not stupid, it doesn’t count. It’s like, if I call someone a big donkey, it’s not really that offensive, because you know they’re not really a big donkey. Everyone knows that you have top grades and – and that you’re some kind of genius, I guess.”
“I’m not,” Keith frowned, “grades mean shit, Lance. Everything we learned in that school was shit. And I thought – I presumed that you, too, know that you’re not actually stupid.”
Their eyes met. Lance was uncomfortable under his gaze. He looked at the fire instead. Perhaps it wasn’t about what was said in the library. Perhaps Lance was conjuring another unpleasant memory.
“Do you remember the first time our class had a joint lesson with yours?” he asked.
“What was it? Steps and wooden swords? During Third Year?”
“Yes. I was paired with Te-Osh. There was an uneven number of Heroes, so you were paired with the instructor, but then – “
“The instructor wanted to train with Te-Osh, since she was doing so well,” Keith continued, “yes, I remember. I was paired up with you then. For the first time.”
“You kept getting mad at me.”
“You kept messing up the steps, we both looked – “
“Stupid, I know. You kept telling me how stupid I was. You said that I would never graduate. You said that I would never go on a real quest. You told me… You said… ‘I bet you will drop out by next year’. You called me a hopeless case with no potential.”
He didn’t risk looking at Keith then. He kept staring at the fire, Keith’s words buzzing in his mind. “You know,” he said quietly, “I knew that everything you were telling me was probably the truth. The instructors kept telling me that I probably won’t make it. I always made the cut by sheer luck. But I earned my graduation. I pulled a 180 during my last year. I was one of the top ten from my class, do you know that? And that wasn’t luck. That was all me. Because whatever you say, I’m not stupid. I fought for this. I earned this.”
He looked up with surprise. Now Keith was the one not looking at him.
“I’m not going to say it again,” Keith was almost too quiet, “I was wrong, all right? I was stupid. I was a ruthless teenager with too many issues and an anger management problem. I was used to doing things alone. I was used to dealing with problems alone. I didn’t know – I still don’t know how to rely on other people. But for what it’s worth,” he put his bowl down, “I don’t think you’re stupid. I never did. Take it or leave it.”
He picked up his sword and walked away without telling Lance where he was going. The conversation was over. Lance was left to clean up on his own. He was not going to accept that apology. It was not an apology at all. It was a bunch of excuses and nothing to hold on to. Still, it was more than he ever expected. Something was certainly different about Keith now than Keith four or three years ago.
At night, Lance offered to switch, for Keith to sleep in the tent this time. Keith refused, claiming that he wanted to stay on watch, just in case something tried to attack them during the night. Nothing did, but the next morning Lance wondered whether Keith had any sleep at all. He looked miserable. They kept wandering around in the forest the next day with no clear destination. Their plan, rather strangely, was to get lost in the forest in hope to find the lion. The more he thought about it, the crazier this plan seemed to Lance. Still, they didn’t have any other option, so they simply walked blindly around, hoping to stumble upon anything resembling a lion. They did not. There was nothing but small animals and darkness in this forest.
The next night, Keith said that he wanted to stay on watch again, but Lance was annoyed by his stupid self sacrifice. “You’re supposed to be the genius here,” Lance told him, “it doesn’t take a genius to know that in order to survive you need to eat properly and sleep properly. You get in the tent, I’ll stay on watch. I’ll wake you up if I see anything. No arguing.”
Keith was either too tired to say anything or not in the mood to argue. Either way, he silently slipped into the tent. Lance took out his dagger to poke the dying coals with as he listened to the silence of the forest. Some people find silence calming, he knew. For him, it was filled with dread. He wished Hunk was there to tell him something comforting. Only now, spending a few days apart from him, he realized just how close he was with his best friend. He was so used to have him by his side, it almost felt unnatural to be away from him for so long. He couldn’t remember the last time he hadn’t seen Hunk for more than three or four days. He missed him.
There was a noise. Subtle enough to be something small, Lance thought, but distinct enough to make him look up. He held his dagger firmly as he got up to his feet and walked around the tent to make sure that there was nothing there. A short distance away, right between two trees, was a large, dark figure. He could not make out what it was, but it was alive. He saw it move. Two dots glinted just for a second – eyes, Lance thought. Then they disappeared. The figure moved just slightly, but he was convinced that it was getting closer. His heart racing, Lance opened the tent and reached inside to shake Keith awake.
“Keith,” he whispered, “there’s something out there.”
Keith blinked his eyes open, confused. “What?”
“I don’t know,” Lance whispered, “I saw something. Big. It’s close.”
Keith sat up, his knife already in his hand, though Lance had no idea where he took it out from.
Keith crawled out of the tent and Lance led him to where he stood when he saw the figure. It was gone now. No shadows lurking, no dots glinting.
“It was right there,” Lance whispered.
“Are you sure you saw something? It’s dark, it might have been just in your head – “
“I know what I saw,” Lance said. They looked at each other. For a moment, Lance thought that Keith was going to dismiss him. He was going to say that it was nothing. He was going to go back to sleep.
Instead, Keith grabbed his sword and passed him the torch. “Light it,” he said, “let’s circle our camp and see what’s out there.”
Lance nodded and followed him. He lit the torch and they walked together, slowly, looking around. Now, frightened and alert, Lance started imagining the shadows moving. Every time he thought he saw something that turned out to be nothing brought doubt to his heart. Perhaps Keith was right. Perhaps it really was nothing. They almost completed their walk when Keith froze. Lance froze too, and a moment later they both heard it. Low, almost like the beginning of a growl. Lance didn’t even get to turn his head to see what it was before he was knocked off his feet. Something was standing on top of him, massive, aggressive, claws digging into his skin. Then it was gone.
He ignored the pain in his shoulders and looked up to see Keith distracting the Beast with his sword. The torch lay on the ground beside him, and in its light he could see only scales. Lance picked up the torch and got to his feet. Right then, the beast knocked the sword out of Keith’s hand. Keith switched to his knife. Lance came around from the other side, trying to find a good angle to help, but Keith kept the beast mobile and they were a bit too fast for him. He kept getting swatted by its massive tail. He regretted not taking his bow with him on this walk.
The beast howled when Keith stuck his knife into it, but he lost his grip on the handle and it had seemed to only anger the beast more. It charged. He managed to evade it once, twice, but not the third time. It tackled him to the ground, sinking its teeth into Keith’s flesh. Lance heard him cry out just as he bent down to pick up Keith’s sword. A little awkwardly, Lance threw the torch at the beast to distract it. It squealed and turned around, stomping on the torch with its wide, thick skinned feet. Lance needed to use the distraction. He gripped the sword in his hands and was about to aim for the beast’s chest, only to change his mind at the last moment. Keith’s knife was still stuck there, under the beast’s front leg. Coming at it from the front like this would be a mistake, he realized. He needed a softer spot. Stepping rapidly around it, Lance’s eyes locked on the beast’s side, right where its belly would be. He charged forward, putting all of his weight into it, driving the sword through the flesh. It sunk, not so smoothly but well enough after putting more effort into it. The beast jolted, taking Lance with it, howling in pain, loud, too loud, so that Lance could hear nothing but its awful cry. Then it stopped. Then it fell to its knees. Then it was all over.
Lance breathed heavily as he pulled back the sword. Blood was spilling rapidly out of the beast’s body, and in the darkness it looked entirely black. He wrapped his hand around Keith’s knife and pulled it out as well. Then he remembered that Keith was wounded.
Keith, ever the Hero, was already attempting to get up.
“Stay down you fool,” Lance told him as he lifted the edge of his tunic to look at the wound. The beast sunk its teeth into his hip. It wasn’t deep, but it looked rather nasty and there was the risk of infection. Lance removed Keith’s tunic, balled it up and pressed it to the wound. “Hold it down,” he told Keith, “stop the bleeding.” He needed to get him back to their camp, where they had their first aid kit. Throwing Keith’s arm over his shoulder he lifted him, half dragging him away. There, settling him down by the still smoking coals, Lance looked through the kit to find the Disinfecting Elixir. Two drops would be enough, he knew, but it was going to sting. “This is not going to be pleasant,” he warned. Keith’s face hardened, bracing for the pain. He poured the liquid onto the wound, just enough. Despite his attempt to be ready for it, Keith let out a pained grunt.
“You’re doing great,” Lance said quietly, remembering the first thing their instructor ever told them about healing: always reassure the patient. “It’s going to be over soon. Hang in there.”
Once he made sure that the wound was clean, he bandaged it tightly. There was another elixir he could use to speed up the healing, but it was not wise to mix it with the first one he used, so he would have to wait until the morning to change the bandages and use it. For now, he helped Keith pull an undershirt on and get into the tent to sleep. He used the sleeping bag himself, although it wasn’t easy to fall asleep after such an eventful night. He kept thinking that he was hearing a noise again. He kept thinking that the beast wasn’t truly dead, and that it was coming after him. He kept thinking that something was going to be wrong with Keith.
With so many worries on his mind, it was a miracle that he managed to fall asleep at all. But eventually, he did. Eventually, his mind quietened by the sheer exhaustion of his body. Later, he would feel his sore muscles and the bruises on his shoulders. Later, he would have to face the same frightening thoughts. Later, he would have to take care of Keith, bizarre as it felt. But for now, his breathing slowed down and he let his mind slip into the land of quiet dreams.
Chapter 3: The Red Lion
Keith and Lance locate their first lion at last. Then, a fight against a proud man with a sword gives Lance the boost of confidence he so badly needs.
I have some problems with the internet atm, which is why this update took longer than I prefer. It should be fixed this week, hopefully, so the next updates should be more regular.
Thank you for all the nice comments and words of encouragement, it means a lot!
In the morning, Lance let Keith sleep in. He set the traps on his own, cleaned up as much as he could without touching the tent, and checked the traps again around noon to see if he could catch anything for their lunch. By the time food was ready, Keith’s sleepy head emerged from the tent.
“It’s late,” he observed, “why didn’t you wake me?”
“You needed to sleep,” Lance said, “and now you need to eat. Come.”
Keith didn’t argue. He ate, then let Lance change his bandages and treat his wound. It still looked terrible, but thanks to Lance’s elixir the previous night, at least there was no danger of infection. Lance tested with a laurel leaf to see whether he could use the Quick Healer at that point. There was no reaction to the leaf, so he applied the potion. Keith watched all this with curious eyes, but he didn’t ask anything and Lance didn’t explain his actions. Perhaps he should have, but there was something tense in the silence between them, and saying anything at all felt dangerous. Then Keith spoke.
“You saved my life.”
“You saved mine. I’d say we’re even.” Any other time, Lance would love to gloat. Now, however, he was not in the mood.
“I didn’t know you could wield a sword. As I remember – “
“I can’t,” Lance was annoyed, “it was one thrust. That thing was distracted. An easy move.”
“It was not an easy move. I was watching you. Its skin was thick. Your move was carefully calculated. You knew exactly where to stab it, unlike my desperate attempt with the knife.”
“We both did our best,” Lance said, “let’s just leave it at that.”
“You’re not… What I remember you to be.” Keith was struggling with the words.
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t know,” he frowned, as if confused by his own reaction, “just… You did well back then. Thank you.”
Lance would have loved nothing more than to take these words, use them against him, rub them as salt into his already painful wound. But something was different. Something didn’t feel right. So many times back in the Garrison he imagined Keith taking his words back. So many times he imagined him in the most dramatic positions possible – on his knees, crying, begging. And in his fantasies Lance was always cold and cruel, the way Keith had always seemed in his eyes. But now, faced with genuine gratitude, albeit delivered somewhat reluctantly, he did not want to savor the moment. He wanted to move on.
“Stop mopping around,” he said, clapping Keith on the shoulder where he knew he still had a small yet painful bruise, “let’s keep going.”
Keith didn’t wince, too pride to show pain when he could bear it, but he didn’t say anything else either.
Once they packed, they decided to go and take a look at the beast’s body. Now that it was slightly lighter, they could see how strange it was. A giant, fat lizard, Lance would say it was. It had strange, fan-like ears and a thick turkey neck. In the light it seemed a dark green, but its blood still appeared black now that it was soaked in the ground. It made Lance nauseous. Neither of them knew what it was called, and they left it untouched. Lance wondered how long they would have to walk in that forest, hoping they would find that stupid lion soon.
It happened the following night. They decided to keep walking a little longer than usual, since they were both desperate to get out of the forest by then. Just as Lance was about to suggest giving up for the day, he noticed something in the distance.
“There,” he pointed, “a red light, do you see?” It was but a twinkle, but Keith could see it too. They ran. It felt as if the closer they got, the farther away the light appeared. Lance slipped on some dry leaves, but he caught himself and kept running. It was the good kind of adrenaline rush – there was finally something concrete to run to, something to achieve. Still, it kept slipping away, just out of reach. They were both getting tired. Normally, Lance knew that Keith would have been faster. But with a wounded hip and a terrible sleeping routine, Lance remained just a little ahead of him. He was about to start losing hope. Then he saw it.
He was the first to run into the clearing. Perfectly circular, perfectly clean. Right in the center of it, on what seemed like a glass pedestal, was a statue of a copper lion, its eyes glowing red. And it was surrounded by a ring of fire, which was strange, since he certainly did not see fire while he ran. The fire was small, however, enough for someone to simply step over it. Lance walked forward. Just as he was about to step over it, the fire rose into a wall, and he just barely escaped being burned.
“Careful,” Keith told him, “it seems like some sort of a magical protective barrier.”
“Well, what are we supposed to do now?” Lance asked in frustration, “are you telling me we came all the way here just to be burned by some fire and leave with nothing?”
Keith stepped forward. He was watching the red eyes of the lion as if he was hypnotized.
Lance watched as he stepped forward a little hesitantly. “Keith, what are you doing?”
He came close to the fire. “I think I can do it,” Keith said. This seemed extremely ridiculous to Lance. “What are you talking about? You’ve seen what happened when I tried – Keith, no!”
It was too late. Keith took the step forward, right over the flames. And then he was inside the ring, unscathed. Nothing happened.
“How did you do that?” Lance asked, feeling as if he had been fooled.
“I don’t know,” Keith shrugged, “I feel like it… It spoke to me.”
“It spoke to you?” Lance raised his eyebrows. “Do you, uh, do you hear voices in your head?”
Keith turned to give him a sarcastic look. “Fuck you, Lance. Clearly, there’s some sort of magic involved. It lured me in. I think… I can’t explain it,” Keith looked back at the lion, “but it’s like I can… It’s like I have this… Connection.”
He touched the lion. Its eyes glowed a bright red, engulfing Keith in its light, making his whole body seem as if it was buzzing with energy. Then it was gone, and with it, the ring of fire. Keith removed the lion from its pedestal.
“What in Fate’s name was that?” Lance asked.
“I don’t know,” Keith shrugged, “but I think it’s a good thing. Let’s get out of this forest.”
With the help of the lion’s guidance, they made it out of the forest in one day, even though they found themselves on an entirely different route than they expected. They were now across the border and officially within the Galra Empire, and they knew that they had to be more careful. There was a small, peaceful town nearby where they stayed for a few days, recovering from the events of the forest. Keith’s wound healed quickly, with Lance’s skillful treatment, so it didn’t bother them anymore. The main problem was that they had no idea where they were supposed to be headed next. They divided their work between them: Keith spent his days sitting with the statue in his lap, eyes closed as if he was meditating, in an attempt to communicate with it. He thought that perhaps the statue might somehow tell him the location of the other lions. Lance, upon recalling how they obtained the information about the first lion, decided to talk to the people of the town and ask them about any known folk tales. Talking to someone who wasn’t Keith was a relief, and he didn’t mind that Keith spent his days locked up, trying to talk to a statue.
But neither of them had any luck. Keith reported that he could not for the life of him understand how the magic of the statue worked. Lance, despite having heard a few dozen tales, reported that only one of them contained a lion, and even that was about how the sun is actually a lion in disguise. None of it was helpful. They started losing hope and slacking off a little. Lance found it easy to distract himself. He would simply sit down with the locals, share a meal with them and tell an amusing story, enjoying the attention. Keith, however, seemed to bury himself in a hole of despair, similarly to what happened in the library. It was an extremely depressing sight for Lance, so he dragged Keith downstairs one evening to be a part of the company. Two young women who had been admiring him for a couple of days now joined him, and they were very curious about his silent, mysterious companion.
“So are you two best friends?” the redhead asked, trying to get any kind of information out of them at all.
Lance laughed. “Best friends? No. Why would you even think that? We are Quest Companions, nothing more.”
“How does this work, anyway?” the blonde poked at his badge, “how can a magical well decide that the two of you are fit to fulfill this quest?”
“They’re clearly making it all up.” It was a different voice. A man was sitting at a table to their right. Lance had seen him before. He was always around, listening, never joining the conversation. He was a strikingly large man, too, just his presence enough to intimidate.
“Excuse me?” Lance raised his eyebrows at him, “the wells, also known as the all-seeing eyes of magic, are common knowledge. If you think we’re making it up – “
“Not that, you absolute imbecile. Those badges are clearly fake. I’ve been sitting here for a few days now, listening to your garbage. There’s no way someone with an empty bucket for a head like you can ever be chosen for a quest.”
A few people around them snickered at that. The two women they were sitting with seemed highly uncomfortable.
Lance felt his face getting hotter. “And who made you judge and jury?” he said, “you haven’t seen me in action. Just because I enjoy making people laugh, doesn’t mean I can’t defend myself in a fight or escape a close encounter with death. My badge was earned through hard work, I’d have you know.”
But the man was just getting started. He seemed to enjoy this, as if his body was itching for a fight.
“Defend yourself? With those feeble arms? Miss Golden Hair and Tiny Waist over here has a better chance to land a punch than you do. And you know what? Even if you had muscles the size of your weirdly oblong head, you still need brains to fight. I’ve heard you ask someone about the difference between grapes and a grapefruit. Do you even know left from right?”
Lance’s brow furrowed. He wanted to reply, but he had nothing. His mind was empty. As empty as that man claimed it was, he realized. He was looking more stupid with every passing moment, and his helpless silence only made it worse. Then Keith threw his entire sword onto the table. Their glasses jumped at the impact. Silence fell.
“Why don’t you put your hands where your mouth is?” Keith asked.
“Oh, would you look at that. I thought you were mute,” the man replied.
“For a man trying to accuse another of ignorance, your tongue isn’t nearly as sharp as you wish it would seem. How brave and honorable of you to sit there, observing as my companion made lighthearted conversations these past few days, all the while irritated by the jealousy festering in your heart. What is it? Can’t attract the attention you crave? Can’t make strangers like you just as smoothly? Did your mommy never praise you for what a smart, smart boy you were and now it boils your heart to hear other kids being liked for what you clearly lack?”
“If you – “ the man started, but Keith wasn’t done. He cut him off, speaking louder now, every word hitting home with piercing force.
“Bold of you to tell him that muscles aren’t everything when you, yourself, seem to rely on nothing but brute force. I bet you spent days on end training, trying to make your arms swell so someone, anyone would finally pay some attention to you. What, did you think that you’d pick on the thin guy with long legs and a pointy chin because you could probably crush him with your bare hands? And you’re calling his head an empty bucket? Please.”
The man blinked at him. When he spoke, his words were venomous. “You’re just trying to provoke me so that you can fight me instead. Do you think I can’t see that? You’re clearly much stronger than him.”
“Who, me?” Keith feigned surprise, “I’m not fighting you, buddy. You want to throw your fists at someone? Go ahead. Lance would be more than happy to oblige.”
Lance’s heart started beating alarmingly fast. “What the fuck are you doing?” he whispered, his voice panicked.
“You can use my sword,” Keith told him, his expression blank, shoving the sword at him.
“I told you, I’m not good enough – “
“If I believed that for a second, I wouldn’t be suggesting this.” Keith’s voice was ice, but it didn’t sting. It wasn’t said with malice. It was confidence. Stupid, infuriating, dangerous confidence.
“Well?” the man took out his own sword, taking a long moment to show it off, “you want to go, Bucket-Head?”
There was no time to weigh his pride against his fear. His anger settled the matter, and he was already reaching for the sword.
They walked out of the inn, followed by Keith, the two women they’d been chatting to, and a few more curious bystanders. They stood in the open road, swords drawn.
“A fight to the death?” the man suggested with an ugly grin.
“How about until one of you cries like a child and begs to stop?” Keith suggested. He sounded as if he was already bored, and Lance wanted to turn around and punch him in the face. Instead, he nodded and took a stance in front of the man.
Keith was wrong about him, he knew. Of course he had trained with a sword before. His grades were not half bad, too. But he remembered every single joint lesson with the Heroes, and how utterly incompetent he felt every time Keith disarmed him with a few swift motions, rolling his eyes at how easy that was. Still, as he stood there, he was determined to do his best against that man. He seemed even larger now that they were both standing. He had broad shoulders, impressive arms and a puffed chest. But Keith made so many more assumptions about him, of insecurities and jealousy which were nothing but wild guesses, and to Lance they all seemed entirely baseless. That man, standing in front of him, was very confident. Lance would have to rely on his speed. He would have to stay low, aim low, duck fast. Just as he was trying to strategize in his mind, the man charged.
Slow, he thought. Whenever Keith charged at him without a warning, he was lightening quick. In comparison, this man was a snail. Lance was surprised by how effortlessly he sidestepped that attack. But his opponent had a raging flame within him, and once he regained his balance he charged again, this time with less force and more speed. One, two, three jabs, all stabbing the air in vain, all missing their target. Keith could land one with twice the speed and twice the ferocity, Lance realized. This was like sparring with a huge, oversized child.
Lance was getting bold. He switched from defense to offense and struck. Where Keith was feline-like, lithe and agile when evading him, this man was nothing but a rock. If it wasn’t for his sheer strength, Lance could have ended him there and then. But he blocked the attack with his sword and pushed back against Lance, hard, too hard, dangerously hard. Lance’s panic reappeared, knowing that soon his arms would start to tremble and that would immediately give away his weakness, which he could not allow. He gave in for just an inch further, giving his opponent the sense of security he needed for the move to work. Then he mustered all his might for one sudden jolt, pushing him back just long enough for him to dodge and retrieve again. He was saved from that close call for now, but he would have to be smarter if he wanted to go for the offense again.
At the back of his mind he knew that Keith’s eyes were on him. He wanted, like a child lost in a classroom turning to the instructor for assistance, to turn around and ask “what do I do?” but that was not an option. Keith could not help him now. Not this Keith. But younger Keith, rude Keith, had called him stupid over this a hundred times. “I would never get better fighting against you,” he had said, “you’re too predictable. Why would you try this angle again? You know it doesn’t work. It’s the wrong angle. Can’t you pick another one?”
And he was right. Three years ago and about something entirely different, but he was still right. Just as with the wild beast, Lance would never be able to defeat this man from this head-on angle. He waited for him to charge again. He sidestepped. Then again. Then again. He waited for the man to get irritated by this pattern. He waited for the familiar expression of “you’re toying with me? Then I will crush you”. He knew it all too well to miss it.
He dodged another attempt, and again, and again, both of them moving out of the light of the inn and farther down the street. He was getting a little creative. He jumped over a pile of empty crates, quick enough for his opponent’s sword to get stuck in one of them for a brief moment. He slipped behind a pillar, giving this man the trouble of walking around it twice before he could try to strike. All the while, Lance was waiting for his opening. Just one mistake. One moment of carelessness.
And it came. As they were nearing a fountain, the man was getting impatient. Perhaps he thought that Lance might try to use his surroundings again and jump into the fountain. Whatever went through his mind, he charged, almost blindly, half ready for Lance to dodge the same way Lance had done so far. Except Lance aimed low this time, cut him off at the knees, drove the hilt of his sword hard into the man’s side and kicked the sword out of his hands. Before he could pull himself up, Lance stood over him, pointing the end of his sword at the man’s throat.
“Say the words,” Lance said, panting but smiling.
The man scowled at him, but he had no other choice. “I yield.”
The women cheered and someone in the small crowd they attracted whistled. Lance turned around, finding Keith and handing him the sword hilt first. “You were right,” he smiled, smug, wiping the sweat from his forehead. “I am good.”
“You need to work on a couple of things,” Keith answered, not willing to give him this moment of triumph so easily, “and you still drew it out way longer than you had to.” But as he looked up, there was a hint of a smile on his lips, and somehow that was enough. Lance turned to the women, who were now very cheerful, and he was about to suggest going back for another drink. Then one of the women shrieked in horror.
Lance turned around just in time to see the sword coming for his head. He did not see where Keith’s sword came from, but he felt its wind on his face when it stopped shockingly close to his head, saving his life.
“Now, that,” Keith told the man, whose eyes looked much darker now, “is no honorable way to fight.”
“Move away, asshole,” the man spat.
“I don’t think so.”
“Then you both die.”
The man drew back and charged again. And that, more or less, was the end of him. After Lance’s long, drawn out, somewhat entertaining fight, no one could expect what Keith had to offer. But Keith moved, just as Lance remembered it, like a merman in his favorite corner of the sea. He knocked the wind out of that man’s lungs as if he was playing with a ragdoll. He knocked the sword out of his hand as if it was but a toothpick. The man dropped to the ground with the sound a gigantic sack of potatoes would make. Keith placed one bored foot on his chest. “Have you had enough yet? I hate wasting my time on unworthy opponents. You’re not even worth that word, opponent. Just a pest.”
The man tried to pull himself up with some last minute desperation, but Keith pressed down harder and his head hit the ground again. “Stay,” Keith said, “next time you call someone brainless, at the very least make sure they can’t kick your ass this easily.”
With that, he left. He did not stay to chat with the excited women or the rest of the admiring crowd. He simply went back to their room. Lance stayed for a few moments to apologize for his rude companion, but then he joined him.
“You could have at least said something nice to them, you know,” Lance said as he was getting ready for bed.
“The girls! I mean, I know it’s hard to believe that either of them would look at you when I’m around, but I’m sure that if you turned up your charm a little, one of them could potentially find you at least somewhat attractive.”
“I’m not interested.”
Lance stared at him. “What do you mean you’re not interested? Have you seen them? They’re both gorgeous. What’s wrong with them?”
“Nothing’s wrong with them,” Keith said, “I’m just not interested in women.”
“Men, then? There were some very attractive men there, too. Why didn’t you say so? I talked to one of the guys just yesterday, and I think you could – “
Keith sighed loudly, intentionally, clearly tired of this conversation already. “We’re on a quest, Lance. We’re probably never going to be back to this place again. This is a part of the Galra Empire. Does this seem like an appropriate time to search for a romantic partner?”
“Who said anything about a romantic partner?” Lance frowned, “there’s no reason why you can’t just have a bit of fun…”
Keith looked a bit disgusted. “I really don’t want to hear about the ’fun’ you’re heaving with those people.”
“See, when you say it like that, you make it sound like I’m some sort of a pervert, doing all sorts of perverted things with large groups of people. In reality, however, I’m just talking about good, old fashioned intercourse.”
“Please don’t let me hear you say the word intercourse ever again,” Keith pleaded.
“Boo, you prude. There’s nothing wrong with it, you know. It’s a normal thing that some people like to do.”
Keith was now rubbing at his temple, as if Lance was testing his patience. “What do I have to do to make you stop talking?”
“See, there are a number of activities I can think of which would make my mouth too busy to speak, but since you don’t want me to talk about – “ Lance’s reply was interrupted by a pillow flying straight at his face. He retaliated by throwing it back, followed by his own pillow. Keith was not going to let it turn into a pillow fight. Instead, he got off the bed and rolled his sleeves, which made Lance regret ever trying to tease him.
This turned into a fully blown wrestling match, first on Lance’s bed, then on the carpet, then on the bare wooden floor. It was, to Lance’s surprise, more playful than violent. It reminded him of how he wrestled with his younger brother or his nephews. Except, while Lance was usually the one trying to go light on them, this time Keith had to hold back a little. The blows weren’t hard enough to injure. Not only that, but it soon turned into an educational moment, when Keith started saying, “why would you go for my chest like that when you see that my stomach is open?” or “and how do you get out of this situation? No, try kicking instead”. They wrestled until they both forgot what they were talking about and were now too tired to continue.
Once they were both in their beds, Lance thought about his fight against that man. He wanted to thank Keith, both for saving his life and for other things he was still denying in his mind. But he couldn’t. Instead, he said “next time, show me with a sword.”
It was quiet for a moment, and Lance thought that Keith might have been asleep already. Then he answered.
The next day, Keith resumed his attempts to connect with the lion through his strange meditation. Lance was in the room with him, reluctant to go outside at the thought of being challenged by another bloodthirsty skeptic. He was bored. Keith needed silence and concentration, so he couldn’t bother him. Instead, he took out Keith’s journal and went over the notes again. Keith’s handwriting amused him. It was neat and bold, as if Keith was trying to purposefully dent the paper. Why was he so intense in everything he did? Why couldn’t he take a moment to relax every once in a while?
Lance took out the map. He wasn’t familiar with the area in the slightest, so he thought that studying it would be a good idea. But it was so, so boring. As he stared at the map, his eyes lost focus and his mind wandered. He thought about how terrible it would be if their quest turned out to be unsuccessful. He imagined having to tell Allura that the only chance to save her kingdom was now lost forever. As dread filled his stomach, he noticed a perfect circle of blue light coming from the map. This brought his eyes back into focus, and for a brief second he saw it. A certain spot on the map was glowing blue. He shrieked loudly, almost dropping the map in his excitement. This made Keith lose concentration, and he looked up at him, annoyed.
“What was that?”
“The map!” Lance exclaimed, “it glowed! It just glowed, I swear!”
Keith got up and crossed the room in three quick steps to sit on the bed beside him. “Where? I don’t see anything.”
“Well, it’s gone now,” Lance frowned, “but I know it was here. Right here,” he pointed at the spot, “it glowed with a blue light.”
They looked at each other. Lance was reminded of the way Keith looked at him back in the forest when he claimed that he saw something in the dark.
“Are you sure that it wasn’t just the light through the curtains – “
“Keith,” Lance’s voice was intense, “I know what I saw. We were waiting for a sign. This is a sign. Trust me.”
Keith stared at him, as if his eyes could scan him for lies. “All right, I believe you,” he said at last, “where are we going then?”
It was a mountain, just within the border of one of the main Galra Empire States. The route took them mostly through wilderness, so they knew it would be relatively safe, but they stayed armed at all times just in case. Lance noticed how accustomed they’d gotten to life on the road, just in the span of a few weeks. Keith was annoyingly right about the tent – they were now experts in building it and packing it up again swiftly and efficiently. Starting a fire did not take as long either, and hunting was a collaborative effort that turned out far more successful than their first few attempts. Another change Lance had noticed was that conversations with Keith were somewhat less unpleasant. He rarely spoke unless spoken to, but he wasn’t always the cold, annoyed, impatient Keith that Lance loathed with all his might. Instead, he was disturbingly normal. They joked about his aversion from beans and about how his hair had a life of its own when he woke up in the mornings.
In the evenings, Keith watched him train with the sword. They only had one sword between the two of them, so they couldn’t spar the way they used to back in the Garrison. It was different, now. Lance swung the sword on his own, against a tree or a rock or a particularly large bush. Keith watched him, serious and stern, making comments and suggestions. Sometimes he would take the sword away from him and demonstrate. Normally, Lance would be annoyed by this. But Keith’s tone was not patronizing, as he expected it to be. He genuinely tried to be helpful. Lance had given some thought to their long rivalry.
For so many years he was mad at Keith for being mean to him during those lessons. For being a show-off, always scolding and never helpful. But now he came to realize that Keith was not an instructor. It was not his job to be nurturing or helpful. He was just a kid, like him, trying his best to move forward. Did he have to be such a massive jerk about it? No. But he also didn’t owe Lance the perfect guidance. Now, however, it seemed that Keith knew the power of positive reinforcement and was trying to use it.
“This is good, but you have to stay lower. Bend your knees more – yes, that’s it,” he would say. Or, “yes, like this, but you can be even faster than that. I’ve seen you do it faster than that. Go on.”
And while their training was short and not as intensive as it could be, Lance felt himself gaining confidence. No matter how much he tried to deny it, he knew deep down that he was secretly yearning for Keith’s encouragement.
Late at night, when Keith was asleep in the tent and he stayed outside, now having to use a proper blanket since it was getting a little windy, he remembered Hunk’s words again. Nothing could change the past. Nothing could take away the words that Keith had said to him and the damage he had done. But he himself had shown cruelty as well, and everything seemed to be different now, and the circumstances required them to cooperate. He didn’t have to like Keith. He didn’t have to think of him as a friend.
But perhaps… Perhaps, he could start letting go of his anger.
Chapter 4: Someone to Rely on
Lance and Keith think that they have their goal in sight, but another obstacle emerges from an unexpected place. You know what they say about still waters...
This chapter is a little shorter than usual, so I'll try to post the next update sooner to make up for it.
Right before their destination, they stopped to strategize. They set their camp at the foot of the mountain to discuss the climb ahead. The slope was not that steep, and they could most likely find a path to hike up the mountain with minimal climbing up cliffs involved, but they could not risk bringing the horses up. The horses would have to stay down, they decided, even though there was the risk that they would not be there once they return.
There was a lake nearby, and they decided to bathe in it on the day before their ascent. Keith insisted on taking turns, since someone had to stay and guard their weapons. Lance thought that it was silly since there was no one around for as far as they could see, but he didn’t argue as long as he got to go first.
The water was cold. While the weather was still rather warm, it was not hot enough to make this cold water pleasant. He screeched as he lowered himself into it.
“What are you screaming about?” Keith asked, his back turned to the lake.
“The water is freezing!” Lance complained, “I’m going to come out of here an icicle!”
“Stop exaggerating,” Keith called, “it’s just water. Get it over with.”
Lance winced with every step he took. The water reached his knees, then his waist, then his shoulders. He decided to submerge his head, thinking that it would make it easier to get used to the cold. It was shockingly freezing at first, but he was right. With his whole body now wet, the water didn't feel so bad. He walked in deeper, until it was deep enough to swim in. “This is kind of fun,” he admitted after a while.
“Hurry up, will you? We’re not here to have fun.”
Keith was rather far away now, and Lance could just barely hear him. He rubbed at the tips of his fingers to wash away the dirt. Keith needed to relax, he thought. He was always so uptight. It was a part of what made him so annoying.
Then, just as he was about to start swimming back to the shore, pain pierced through his ankle and he was violently dragged underwater, barely giving him enough time to hold his breath. He kicked hard with both of his feet to get rid of whatever was attacking him. He was momentarily released, just long enough to get his head above water, take a breath, and scream with pain. Then another bite came, this time at his shoulder. He flailed, in a panic, trying his best to get that thing off of him. As he wrestled with it, he got a glimpse of what it was. A Lynthus. The underwater dragon, it was sometimes called. This one wasn't very large - a baby, Lance guessed, about the length of his arm. It looked like a hybrid between a lizard and a fish. He had seen it in a picture before, never in person. But now he remembered where he saw that picture. It was a book Coran had once showed him during a lesson about venomous creatures. Venomous, Lance realized with alarm.
He wrestled it off him and attempted to swim, but it returned to take the largest bite yet, right on the meaty part of his thigh. He screamed, swallowing water, desperate to get rid of it. And then Keith was there. Lance didn’t see where he came from, but he was there, fully clothed, a knife in his hand. He frantically stabbed the Lynthus four times, and discarded it as if it was a piece of garbage. He then turned to his left and stabbed another one, which was just about to attack. The water around them was rapidly turning red. Lance felt either too hot or too cold, he couldn’t tell. He was dizzy. Something was terribly wrong.
Keith wrapped his arm around him and started to swim. Lance’s eyes slipped shut. He fought to keep them open, catching glimpses of the clear sky above them, but water kept getting in the way and it was hard to stay focused.
Then he was dragged onto the shore. He coughed up the water from his lungs and saw Keith’s face pale at the sight of the bite wound on his thigh. Lance didn’t want to look down.
“What do I do? Lance, what do I do?” Keith’s voice was panicked. Lance had never seen him this disoriented before. He looked around and grabbed at the pile of discarded clothes Lance had left behind. He pressed a shirt to Lance’s thigh in a sloppy attempt to stop the bleeding.
“Venom,” Lance managed to say, his voice in a strange pitch, “the Lynthus is venomous.”
“Crap, what do I do? Tell me, Lance, tell me,” Keith shook his shoulder, seeing how Lance’s eyelids struggled to stay open.
“Bring the kit,” Lance managed to say. Keith was gone in half a second. Lance tried to apply pressure on the shirt around his thigh, but he could barely concentrate on the muscles of his hand. He counted in his head, forcing himself to stay conscious. Keith dropped to his knees beside him, the kit now in his hands.
“A vial,” Lance said, his teeth chattering, “g-green. It’s labeled ‘LVA’.” Lynthus Venom Antidote, he remembered.
Keith was trembling too. He was still completely soaked, his clothes clinging to his skin. He finally found the proper vial. “Here, this,” he said. Lance tried to reach for it, but he couldn’t. His body didn’t obey his orders.
“I need t-to drink it,” he said, slightly worried by how violently he was shaking.
Keith moved closer, pulling Lance onto his wet lap. He lifted his head enough to tip the contents of the vial into his mouth. It was shockingly bitter, but Lance swallowed it, hoping it was enough. The venom doesn’t work this fast, he tried to assure himself. It often takes at least an hour to be deadly. But he was bitten three times, and his heart beat incredibly fast with panic, the blood circulating quickly in his body. There was no way to know whether the antidote would help. Not to mention, his wounds still needed to be tended to, and he was just barely keeping himself awake. Keith was asking him something, but he could barely hear him anymore.
Keith’s face was a blur. His voice sounded both like a whisper and a scream from far away. Lance's eyes slipped closed.
“No, no, no, Lance, stay with me,” Keith shook him by the shoulder, “I need you. Do you hear me? I don’t know what to do!”
There was too much blood. Keith regretted every time he skipped the first aid lessons or paid less attention than was necessary. He tried to remember what Lance had done when he was injured. But there was too much blood. The panic didn’t let him think. With bloodied fingers, he searched through the vials in the kit. What was it? Something to stop the blood, or seal the wound, or – “Quick Healer”. That was it, wasn’t it? Keith remembered Lance dripping this onto his wound the next day after the beast attacked, and it made the wound seal faster. Keith opened the vial and dripped it carefully onto the wound. He used three drops on Lance’s thigh, two on his ankle and just one on his shoulder, where the bite was shallow. Then he bandaged the wounds as well as he could, wrapped Lance’s naked form in a towel as if it was a blanket, and carried him back to their camp. Once there, he carried Lance into the tent, cleaned him up a little, covered him with two blankets and let him rest.
There wasn’t much else he could do for now, but he had to keep himself busy to distract himself from terrible thoughts. He cleaned up and began preparing for dinner. This was usually Lance’s job – preparing the food. He would help with the hunting, but he didn’t know the first thing about cutting vegetables into fine pieces or using herbs. Lance wasn’t exactly a cook, but this was one of the subjects taught at the School of Support. Heroes were taught different things.
While cleaning out the guts of the fish they had caught, he thought about how stupid it was. Sure, Heroes were trained more intensively in combat and battle strategy. But these were skills that everyone should know, no matter their school or specialty. He was about to place the fish on the fire when he heard some groaning from the tent. He grabbed the kit and entered it, fearing the worst.
Lance was awake, but his face was a sickly color and he was covered in sweat. “Lance?” Keith moved to touch his forehead, “you’re burning up. Is this normal? I didn’t know what to do – “
“Did you clean the wounds?” Lance asked, it took visible effort for him to pronounce the words.
“I – well, I found something to quicken the healing, and then I bandaged it.”
Lance shook his head. “Need to clean them first,” Lance said, “I might get an infection.”
“Crap,” Keith’s hands shot down to Lance’s thigh, “tell me how to do it.”
Lance covered his face with his hands. “Normally, I’d use the Disinfecting Elixir,” Lance said quietly, “but you used the Quick Healer, and they cannot be mixed. We’ll have to do it with a Purifying Potion.”
Keith had no idea what that meant, but by the strain in Lance’s voice he could tell that it wasn’t good news. “What’s the difference?”
“Remember the pain of the Disinfecting Elixir?”
Keith nodded. It stung and burned, like salt water on an open wound.
“It’s nothing like that. It’s a thousand times worse. It’s unbearable pain, and it lasts.”
Keith watched Lance’s face carefully. I’m sorry, he wanted to say. He didn’t say it.
“Is there another way?”
“If we don’t clean it now, infection is practically inevitable.”
“Then you better brace yourself.”
Keith helped him sit up. Lance instructed him as to exactly how to use the potion. Then Keith brought him a piece of tree bark wrapped in cloth to bite down on. Lance’s face was ridiculously expressive, Keith always thought. He could never hide his emotions. He was a lousy liar. And now, even though he didn’t let out a word of complaint, the fear was clear in his eyes as if he was a child facing a thunderstorm for the first time.
“Ready?” the vial in Keith’s hand hovered above Lance’s thigh, where Keith now removed the bandages. There was less blood, but the wound was still a horrifying sight.
Lance squeezed his eyes shut, took a breath through his nose and nodded.
Keith tipped the vial and the potion met with Lance’s skin. Lance’s body contorted with the pain, all his muscles tense, his throat straining against the scream ripping out of it and dying at the cloth he was biting on. Keith watched the potion practically sizzle against the damaged skin, being slowly absorbed as it mixed with the blood. His heart ached with compassion. He hated this.
Tears were streaming out of Lance’s eyes. Keith lifted his free hand to brush the wet hair away from his face with a soothing motion. “It’s almost over, hang in there,” he whispered, remembering the words of encouragement Lance offered him when he was in pain. But it was a lie. It was not nearly over. The wound on his ankle did not hurt any less, and by the time Keith poured the potion onto Lance’s shoulder he was exhausted with crying. When it was over, Keith dipped a rag in water and cleaned Lance’s sweaty skin around the bandages, an attempt to calm him down. Lance was shaking just as he was when Keith had pulled him out of the water.
“Do you want to eat?” Keith asked him, gently.
“I can’t,” Lance’s response was weak.
He let Lance sleep. He cooked the fish and ate it on his own, leaving some for Lance just in case he would wake up hungry later. A couple of hours passed, and Lance emerged from the tent, delirious with fever and pain. He dragged himself rapidly away from the tent and threw up onto the rocks, emptying his stomach of everything he had consumed that day. Keith waited for him to finish. He then made him drink water and chew on a mint leaf to calm down. Then he went back to sleep.
Keith decided to sleep in the tent that night alongside Lance. He brought in an empty bucket, a bowl of water and another rag. He made sure to keep the rag wet on Lance’s forehead and he emptied the bucket every time Lance needed to throw up again. It was one long, nightmarish night, and he was sure it was even more terrible for Lance.
The next day wasn’t much better. The wounds were beginning to close, but Lance explained that the antidote was going to take some time to clear out of his body, and it was going to make him sick in the process. He could not eat anything, but Keith made sure he drank a lot of water. While Lance was recovering, Keith went fishing again, careful not to walk into the water in fear of some Lynthus springing out of it. He cooked, he cleaned their clothes, he took care of the horses. A few times he tried to connect with the lion statue again, but it made no difference whatsoever.
The second night was a little better. Lance stopped throwing up.
“Are you still in pain?” Keith asked.
Lance nodded slowly. He was weak and exhausted, no matter how many hours he spent sleeping.
Keith reached to touch his forehead. It was hot again.
“I thought the fever was gone,” Keith sighed, preparing the rag again.
“It comes and goes.”
They lay quietly in the darkness for a while. Keith thought that Lance had fallen asleep. Then he spoke.
“I hate this.”
Keith nodded. “I hate this too. We should have checked the water first. Or, I should have gone first. Maybe we should bathe with our knives.”
Lance snorted. It was the most reassuring sound in the world, somehow.
“How come your solution always involves bringing a knife?”
Keith shrugged. “Seems to solve a lot of problems. Either way, I…” He didn’t want to say it. He was really reluctant to say it. He closed his eyes. “I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry?” he could hear Lance shuffling beside him to look at him, “for what?”
“What do you mean, for what? I fucked up. If I treated your wounds properly, you wouldn’t have to go through all this pain.”
“What the fuck are you talking about? Keith, this isn’t even common knowledge. They don’t teach it in First Aid. Most people do what you did, heal with a Quick Healer, disinfect with the potion, and that’s that. I only knew that little trick because I took extra credit classes with Coran during my last year. I should have told you that when I treated you, it just didn’t cross my mind. If anything, I should apologize to you. You saved my life, and then you had to take care of me as if I’m some – some helpless baby. And now we’re wasting time on this stupid thing instead of proceeding with our quest. And I know you’re impatient. And I know you probably hate me for this – “
“Stop.” Keith opened his eyes.
They were silent for a moment, both contemplating what was happening. They had bickered like this before, except usually they each rushed to put the blame on one another, not on themselves.
“We’re both stupid and none of this matters,” Keith concluded, “this is an unfortunate situation. It’s nobody’s fault. Let’s get you all better and move on with this quest. Fair?”
Lance nodded. “Fair.”
They fell asleep.
Lance woke up to Keith’s hand on his forehead. “Am I still burning up?” he asked, blinking his eyes open.
“I can’t tell,” Keith sighed, “I think my hand is warm. Don’t move.”
Lance waited as Keith shuffled closer to touch his cheek to Lance’s forehead. It felt strange. Even though his mother used to do this all the time, he had never in a million years thought that Keith would be doing that.
“No,” Keith said as he drew back, “I think you’re fine. How do you feel?”
“Dizzy,” Lance admitted, “weak.”
“Do you think you can eat?”
“I can try.”
Keith used some of the rice they brought with them from the town, making sure to make it bland, so as to not provoke Lance’s nausea again. Lance ate slowly, at a measured pace, bringing his body back to its strength. He watched as Keith cleaned the bowls, brought him more water, brought him a change of clothes.
“This is my job,” Lance commented, “you’re not supposed to be doing that.”
“You’re hurt,” Keith told him, as if it was obvious, “it’s nothing I can’t handle.”
“It’s strange,” Lance admitted, “it… Doesn’t suit you.”
“I think this whole deal about Heroes and Support is a stupid way to separate us. It makes no sense. We should each contribute to the team as much as we can, equally.”
Lance watched him. Equals, he thought. But were they? He remembered Veronica telling him not to let Keith boss him around. If only she knew that Keith was cleaning after him and coming to his side before he even opened his mouth to say he needed anything. She wouldn’t believe it. He wouldn’t believe it himself. The words he said came out wrong. He wasn’t talking about their roles as Hero and Support. This didn’t suit Keith, because in his mind Keith never cared about anyone but himself. He didn't say that.
That day was a visible improvement. Lance ate little by little, regaining his strength. The fever was gone. Keith was more relaxed, too, knowing that Lance was no longer suffering. Before going to sleep, Keith helped strip him down to check on the wounds and change the bandages.
“The one on your shoulder is almost completely healed,” Keith noticed, tentatively probing it with his fingers, “that elixir is pure magic.”
“It literally is,” Lance smiled, “it’s a magical elixir. I think I can take my pants off by myself.”
Lance lay back, lifted his hips and tried to slide his pants off his body. They caught on the bandages. He winced.
“Calm down there,” Keith told him, moving forward to help, “this wound will take longer to heal, it makes sense. Let me help.”
Lance sighed as he let Keith carefully work around the bandage and slide his pants off, slowing down again around his ankle. Once the bandages were changed, Lance didn’t bother pulling them on again. It was too much effort. He watched as Keith folded his clothes and stuffed them at the back of the tent to get dressed again in the morning.
“I don’t understand,” Lance blurted out, unable to filter his words, “you were never like this.”
“Like what?” Keith looked back, eyes in innocent confusion.
“Like this. Like a… Like a normal person.”
“You know what I mean,” Lance rolled his eyes, “back at the Garrison, you were… Trouble. Everyone wondered how they didn’t kick you out after everything you’ve done. Fighting other students, breaking into labs at night. I heard one time you stole a horse? You were this… This lone wolf. What happened?”
Keith lay back with a sigh. Lance followed suit, and for a moment he thought that this was supposed to mark the end of the conversation. Keith was not going to answer. Of course not.
Except he did.
“I had… Issues. There was a lot of hurt, a lot of anger I had to deal with. I let it out on others. Some of them deserved it… I don’t know what kind of impression you had of me. To be honest, I hardly remember anything about my behavior from that time. It was a blur. I kept feeling like everyone was hindering me, or making fun of me, or trying to waste my time. If I said something hurtful to you… It wasn’t about you. It was hardly ever about anyone else.”
“That guy you beat up during our second year – “
“James is a dick,” Keith said, his tone flat. This was much closer to the Keith he had known. “He knew that he was going to provoke me. Or maybe I thought he knew. It was the anniversary of my father’s death, and I was on edge, and he said…” Lance looked at him in surprise. Keith seemed to be genuinely hurt by the memory. “It doesn’t matter what he said. It was about my parents, and it hurt. I wasn’t thinking.”
“I didn’t know.”
“Maybe he didn’t know either,” Keith said, “I don’t know. I just felt like he was always trying to get to me. To trip me up on purpose. I think he was jealous of my grades.”
“How did you do it then?” Lance asked quietly, trying to change the subject. It felt dangerous. It felt painful. He didn’t want to dig there. “Why didn’t they kick you out?”
“Shiro,” was all the answer Keith provided him with.
Lance knew who Shiro was. Takashi Shirogane. A well-known Hero. He wasn’t in their class, he was older and more experienced. There was a lot of noise around him when he returned from a quest about a year before. He returned without an arm, and without his companion. Lance had seen them together before. He saw Shiro welcoming Keith outside the cave when they received their quest. He had no idea what Shiro had to do with him.
“Are you two related?”
“No,” Keith shook his head, “but he’s like a brother to me. He… Took care of things.”
“Wow. I didn’t even know you have friends.” It came out wrong. Why was it so hard to articulate his thoughts around this guy?
Keith’s expression changed.
“That’s because I don’t.” He rolled over, turning his back to Lance. “Goodnight, Lance.”
That was the end of the conversation.
Chapter 5: The Blue Lion
Three steps forward, one step back. Confronting some fears on a mountain, then addressing unanswered questions.
They were ready to start their journey up the mountain. Lance’s thigh still hadn’t completely healed, but he told Keith that he could still do it. After making sure about seven times, Keith finally gave in. They took their baggage off the horses and Keith insisted on carrying the heavier load. Then they started their ascent.
It was fine at first. The slope wasn’t steep, they were both refreshed, and they had a good full night’s sleep. It was starting to get difficult after lunch. Lance tried to distract them with light conversation – wondering where exactly they might find the lion and how they would proceed to search for the next one. But the higher they climbed, the quieter Keith was getting, and something felt off.
Lance stopped to admire the view at some point, since they were a good distance off the ground and the scenery was breathtaking. The blues, greens and browns blended nicely together at the horizon, like a carpet with intricate patterns. He was about to tell Keith how beautiful he thought it was, but when he turned around he found Keith pressed to the side of the mountain, his back to the view, his hands gripping the rock with panicked effort.
“Keith?” he moved closer to him, concerned.
“Just give me a moment,” Keith said, his voice unsteady, “you can go on, I’ll catch up with you.”
Lance stared at him. He couldn’t understand what was going on, and at first he thought that Keith was feeling sick. Then it dawned on him. “Are you afraid of heights?”
“No!” Keith denied, a little too harshly, “I’m not afraid of anything. Just – drop it, okay? I’ll be fine.”
“You knew that you’re afraid of heights and you decided to climb the mountain anyway? Why didn’t you say anything?”
“What was I supposed to say? I can’t say ‘oh, sorry, mountains are a little spooky, how about we skip this and just call it a day?’ We swore an oath, Lance. The quest comes before anything else.”
“You could have at least told me,” Lance argued, “maybe I can help – “
“How can you – “ he made the mistake of turning around. Upon seeing the view from the mountain, his eyes widened with horror and he looked as if he was about to faint. He turned away at once, almost collapsing against the rock.
It was almost comically absurd. Keith, the Big Scary Hero. Keith, top of his class. Keith, ruthless in the face of danger, who uses a knife as if it’s a part of his hand and slays water-demons with no effort at all. Keith. Queasy at the sight of a nice mountain view. Lance wanted to laugh. But as he moved closer, seeing his whitened knuckles and quivering lips, something caught in his heart. He could not understand this fear. He looked at the view and felt free, empowered, alive. But he tried to imagine what it would be like. He tried to think about something he was terrified of – like spiders. This was Keith’s version of spiders.
He placed a comforting hand on Keith’s shoulder. “Let go of the rock, Keith,” he said.
“Just give me a minute.”
“Take my hand, okay? I won’t make you look. Just do it. We won’t be able to move on unless you let go of the rock.”
Reluctantly, Keith slid his hands off the rock and moved them to grip Lance’s outstretched arm. He was squeezing hard. Lance ignored the pain.
“Okay, good,” Lance told him, “what if I walk on the side that’s closer to the edge? You can touch the rock now and then if it helps you feel more grounded.”
“I don’t know.”
“Can you open your eyes? Don’t look at the view. Just look forward. I’m holding you, okay? I’m here. I’m solid. I’m standing between you and the scary thing. Logically, that means that the scary thing should get to me first, right? If I’m still here, there’s no threat for you.”
“It’s not a logical kind of fear, Lance,” Keith said through gritted teeth. He was annoyed, but Lance knew better than to be offended by that. He was scared, he knew. Lance would do the same if this was a giant pile of spiders.
“Just try it,” he continued, “hold my arm and open your eyes.”
Keith took a deep breath. Then another one. Then he finally opened his eyes. It took him a few moments, but after squeezing Lance’s arm until he was convinced that it was going to leave a bruise, he started walking forward.
Their ascent was slow now. Keith had to keep touching whatever came close to his hand – a tree, a rock, a bush – and his other hand stayed firm on Lance’s arm. But they were moving. Lance did his best to distract him by talking about something else. They found a good pace. Once Keith got used to not looking at the edge, it was mostly fine. Then the path got too narrow for the both of them to be on it at the same time. Lance walked in front of him, instructing Keith to hold his hand and keep his eyes on him. It was going well. The sun was setting.
Then they had to climb a short distance over a cliff, and Keith started having a panic attack. Lance made him stand with his back pressed to the rock, himself standing as a wall between Keith and the edge. Keith looked as if he was going to be sick.
“We’re almost there,” Lance told him, holding him by the shoulders, “we just need to finish this climb to the top. We’ve been on this mountain this whole day. Can’t give up now, right? I bet the lion is right there at the top.” Keith seemed as if he was hardly hearing anything, but he nodded.
“Right. I’m going to stay here with you until you’re ready. We’re not moving until you are. Breathe.”
He let him take his time. Keith stood, his knees weak, the back of his head pressed to the stone, his hair a mess. Lance had the strange urge to give him a haircut.
“How can I help you with this?” he asked him, pushing his thoughts aside.
“I don’t know,” Keith’s voice was broken, “I hate this. I hate that you’re even here.”
It stung. Then Keith opened his eyes.
“I didn’t mean that.” It seemed like they never meant anything they said to each other. “I meant that I don’t want you to see me like this.”
“Why?” Lance asked. He knew why. He just needed Keith to say it.
“Because,” Keith said, postponing the confession, “because I don’t want you to see me being… Weak. A coward.”
“All I’m seeing is you being stupid,” Lance said. “Do you think that I have the memory of a chicken, Keith? I don’t. Do you think that I’ve already forgotten seeing you stick a knife into a deadly beast to save my life? Or witnessing how you brought a giant man to the ground in seconds? Or knowing that you jumped into the Lynthus-infested waters, clothes and all, to once again save my life? There are many things I think about you, some of them are pretty nasty. But I’ve never once saw you as weak or as a coward, and one panic attack on a mountain is not going to change that.”
Keith let out a shaky breath. His knees were clearly about to give, so Lance tightened his grip. “I’m your companion,” he said, “like it or not, I’m going to see you like this. I’m going to see you tired, and smelly, and frustrated, and scared. So fucking let me.”
Keith leaned forward, burying his face in Lance’s shoulder. Lance caught him, his hands firm on Keith's back to make him know that he was not going to waver under the weight. Only now, with Keith this close in his arms, he could feel how badly he was shaking. It was strange. It was awkward. It was somewhat of one-sided a hug and it felt more like holding a baby bird who had just lost its mother.
But it seemed to help. Keith’s muscles relaxed slowly as he breathed in, his head still buried in Lance’s shoulder. It was getting darker all around them, but Lance didn’t want to tell him to hurry. When Keith finally drew back, he looked slightly healthier than before. He also looked highly embarrassed.
“Let’s get to the top,” was all he said.
Lance helped him climb. It was a bit easier now that he faced away from the edge and concentrated on the rocks. There were a few minor setbacks, but eventually they did it. The stars were shining brightly above them by the time they reached the top of the mountain. If it wasn’t for Keith’s fear, he would certainly appreciate the beauty of it, Lance thought.
But with their triumph came disappointment. The lion was nowhere to be found. They checked the map for the thousandth time, as if there was a chance that it wasn’t the right mountain, but that was certainly it. What was the matter, then? Lance felt guilty. He knew that Keith was frustrated, that he had to exhaust himself with fear this entire day for nothing, but there wasn’t anything they could do now. They found a flat surface to set up the tent and climbed into it.
They were both frustrated. The air between them was tense. Lance felt as if Keith was blaming him for it, but he didn’t want to say anything unless Keith did. When Keith said something, it was not what he expected to hear.
“Do you feel anything?”
It was a strange thing to ask. “What do you mean?”
“I mean,” Keith lifted himself up on an elbow, “you were the one to see the map glowing. When I got the clue about the first lion, I ended up having a connection with it. Maybe you got the second clue because you have a connection with the second lion. Can you feel it? Can you feel anything you can’t explain?”
There was one feeling he certainly couldn’t explain. He couldn’t explain why he didn’t have his usual desire to punch Keith in the face. Other than that, nothing mystical. He shook his head. Keith lay back down.
“We should wait,” he concluded.
“Wait. You don’t think… You still believe that I saw that map glowing?”
Keith blinked at him. “Didn’t you?”
“Then why wouldn’t I believe you? We just haven’t found how to reach it yet, that doesn’t mean it’s not here. The lion in the forest was guiding lost travelers. Maybe this lion is doing something different. Or maybe it doesn’t. We don’t know enough about them to predict anything.”
They were quiet for a moment.
“Thank you,” Lance said then. He thought that he should elaborate, but Keith looked at him as if he knew what he was talking about.
“You haven’t given me a reason to doubt you yet. I don’t think you would lie. I’m not saying I trust you, but I do believe you.”
“Do you think I’m going to give you a reason to doubt me sooner or later?”
“Everyone does,” Keith shrugged, “that’s how people are.”
“Then you are dealing with all the wrong people.”
Lance thought about it. “There are plenty of people in my life who have never given me a reason to doubt them. My mom. Hunk. Allura. Pidge. My siblings. Pretty much anyone in my family, really. Except my uncle.”
“What did your uncle do?”
“Stole my mother’s favorite platter seven years ago and then denied it ever happened.”
Keith laughed. Lance looked at him with surprise. He didn’t think Keith was capable of letting out a sound so genuinely human.
“If that’s the worst thing someone’s ever done to you, then I can understand why you’re so trusting. But it’s dangerous.”
“It’s better to never trust anyone in the first place than to trust them and get hurt.”
“You don’t think that,” Lance frowned, “that’s not true. What kind of life is it, never trusting anyone in the first place? No. Look, I’m not saying that you should trust every single person who comes your way. But you have to give some people a chance.”
Keith remained quiet. Lance wondered what on earth Keith had been through that made him as strange and as troubled as he was. He wasn’t going to ask. They didn’t say anything else, except for a brief wish goodnight.
Lance woke up barely a couple hours later, feeling strange. At first, he thought that he was nauseous. He sat up, trying to decide whether he had to throw up. He didn’t. He felt restless, itchy, as if there was something -
Keith sat up at once, knife in his hand, muscles tense. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, for the love of Fate, how do you already have a knife? Put it down. I just – I feel something.”
Keith didn’t get it right away either. “What? Is it your wound?”
Lance shook his head. “I feel like I need to – like I need to go.”
“Go..? As in, relieve yourself?”
“No,” Lance rubbed his eyes with frustration, “just – ugh, follow me.”
They put on their jackets and Lance tried to figure out where he had to go. He stumbled forward. Keith was terrified by the view, he knew, but it was so dark all around them that is seemed almost as if the mountain was surrounded by the ocean from every direction. Lance turned to his left. What was it? Keith stood, his arms folded over his chest, tense, watching him.
Then Lance dropped to the ground. He cleared it from the rocks until he found one specific, tiny rock. He brought it up to look at it in the moonlight, where he could see that it was blue. “This has something to do with it,” he said, though he had no idea how he knew that.
“All right. What now?” Keith asked. Lance looked around. There was a flat surface in front of them, and rocks were scattered all over it. Lance threw the blue rock to what looked like the center to him. As if attracted by magnets, the rocks started rearranging themselves. Lance and Keith watched with amazement as they formed a perfect circle. Like the fire circle, Lance remembered. Then the blue rock changed its form. It grew and grew until it formed a pedestal, and out of that pedestal sprang, at last, the metallic statue of a lion, its eyes glowing blue.
And suddenly, Lance knew exactly what Keith was talking about back in that forest. Those eyes looked right through him and saw into his soul. He did not hear words or feel something deeply spiritual. He simply knew that he had to step over the circle of rocks and pick it up. And he did. The light surrounded him, and the connection was formed. The blue lion, he thought. He was strangely fond of it now that it was in his hands.
“Looks like we got it,” Keith smiled, “now we can get down from this stupid mountain.”
“Hey,” Lance pointed a finger at him, “don’t insult the mountain. Just because you’re scared of something doesn’t make it stupid.”
“Thank you, Great Philosopher,” Keith said, “can we go back to sleep now?”
They returned to their tent and placed the two statues together, admiring their progress for a moment. Then they went to sleep.
The descent from the mountain wasn’t as bad as climbing it. Keith seemed very motivated by the prospect of getting down from there and he was practically pulling Lance after him. The sun was barely setting when they reached the ground. The horses weren’t where they left them and they were horrified at the thought of proceeding on foot, but they found them again the following morning a short distance away.
They did not have a plan. The map didn’t reveal anything to either of them, but they decided to follow their former plan and simply ride to the nearest town. This town, however, was a little more dangerous to be in due to its questionable location, and they would have to find a way to blend in with the people so as to not be caught by Galra guards. They changed their clothes, hiding their cloaks and capes, stripping down to minimum armor, hiding Keith’s sword. The knives they could easily conceal on their body, but a sword could not be carried in a discreet way. Keith didn’t like it, but Lance assured him that with knife skills like his, the sword was never much needed in the first place.
They rode into the town and immediately realized that they were still standing out. The town was poor and everyone seemed miserable in it. Their clothes, in striking contrast, made them look like rich visitors. Their boots were made of fine leather and their tunics were thick, made of expensive fabric. They rode straight to the market to buy some shawls and scarves to cover themselves with. Satisfied with their disguise, they stayed at an inn.
In their room, Keith talked about possible places the lions could be hidden in. He theorized that perhaps Haggar would want at least one lion close to her own person, so she could protect it. Lance pointed out that the first two made absolutely no logical sense whatsoever, and trying to approach this quest with logic had done nothing but fail them so far. But Keith clearly needed to keep theorizing in order to tell himself that he was doing something, so Lance let him. There was no harm in speculating, he thought, as long as Keith didn’t actually plan to go there.
The way Keith talked about the Galra, however, surprised him somewhat. Numerous times he called them “the enemy” or “their vicious forces”. He thought, with Keith’s heritage, that he would be a little more hesitant about using words like these.
“You don’t think all Galra are like that, though. Do you?” he asked carefully. He saw the dangerous edge in the look Keith returned him.
“Don’t be a coward,” Keith spat, “if you want to ask a question, fucking commit to it. Don’t try all this beating around the bush crap, I hate that.”
Lance didn’t waver. He stood up from his bed. “All right,” he said, “are the rumors true? Are you part Galra?”
Keith got up from his bed as well. “Nice to know that you’re just as bad as everyone else,” he said, “I was just wondering when you were going to show your true colors. Not that it’s any of your business, but I don’t fucking know. My dad wasn’t. My mother left when I was too young to remember her face. He never told me. He said that I was too young to understand why she left or where she went, but by the time I grew up he died. That’s not the answer you wanted, is it? Well, it’s the only one you’re going to get. I don’t fucking know, and I don’t care either. Everyone else seems to care though. Everyone else is very involved in my personal life all of a sudden when it comes to that. Anything else you'd like to ask while we're at it? Should I address the rumors about my secret tail or the countless murder I have supposedly committed, too?”
Keith was right. It was not the answer he wanted. It was not the answer he expected. But he remembered telling Allura about it, almost as if it was fact. Now, not only was it a lot more ambiguous than he thought, but it didn’t seem to matter at all. Hunk was right all along. Even if his mother was Galra, how was that his fault? Keith had done nothing but protect him. Keith seemed ready to have any Galra soldier at the end of his blade and he did not play favorites. Why did it matter? Why was everyone so obsessed with his heritage?
The apology hung at the tip of his tongue, just about to slip, but Keith robbed him of that opportunity. “I’m going out for a walk,” he said as he went past him. He slammed the door behind him.
He was gone.
It took a very long walk for Keith to calm down. He was mostly annoyed by the fact that he was caught by surprise. What did he expect? This was Lance. He had never offered him anything but insults. He had declared him his rival and enemy since their third year at the Garrison. If Keith thought that being on the road together would change anything, it was naïve and silly of him. The worst part was that he had already told him way more than he intended. Why was it so easy for Lance to get information out of him? Why did he make him want to talk? He had never struggled with keeping his mouth shut before. What changed?
Perhaps, he thought, Lance reminded him of Shiro. But that was a ridiculous thought. In his mind, Shiro was the ultimate Hero. A role model. He was everything Keith wanted to be. What could Lance possibly have in common with someone like that?
A lot, he grudgingly admitted to himself. Lance was smart. Smarter than Keith had given him credit for. He hardly remembered ever calling Lance stupid, but he certainly remembered thinking it, at moments of anger. Now he knew better. Now he had seen Lance in the face of danger. Quick thinking, quick hands, good instincts. He kept thinking about what a quick learner Lance was. The way he held the sword in the forest against the beast was nothing like the way he held it now, in training, and it had only been a short while since. But that wasn’t what reminded him of Shiro. Instead, it was the embarrassing events on the mountain. Lance saw a part of him he was not willing to show, and he didn’t laugh. He fully expected him to laugh. Perhaps three years ago, he would have. Now, he offered him a hand. Not in pity, not in a patronizing way. It was what Shiro had done for him before, and no one else.
But none of that mattered, if Lance was in fact no different than the rest. He should not let what happened on the road so far lower his defenses, he knew. Whatever Lance said on the subject of trust, he was wrong.
Keith felt almost foolish now for the things he felt and thought about Lance. He remembered the first surge of attraction he had towards him, even back at the Garrison. He pushed it aside then, and he had to push it aside several times during this quest already. He had so much anger towards Lance still pent up inside him that there was no place for something else, at first. But it was starting to change. He was letting go, loosening his grip on the anger that grounded him, letting his eyes wander where they shouldn’t and letting Lance’s smile slip into his thoughts at night.
Foolish. Did it matter that he was good looking, or smart, or kind, if he was just as untrustworthy as anyone else? Clearly, he cared about the rumors. Clearly, Keith’s heritage mattered to him. Clearly, he had his assumptions, his prejudice, his aversion. How could Keith ever let hope slip into his heart like that?
Then he was distracted from his thoughts by something else. He had the faint feeling that he was being followed. Two figures were keeping their distance, their heads covered by hoods. He had noticed them before, but he thought nothing of it. Now, it’d been a while, and they were still walking behind him. He picked up his pace. He took more turns to see whether he could lose them. They were hot on his tail, persistent and now quite obvious.
Keith then took a sharp turn to find himself right behind a small house. He jumped over the fence into the backyard, waited for the two figures to run past him, then jumped over the fence again and ran in the opposite direction. This seemed to work, and he found his way back to the inn as fast as he could. It was already dark at that point, so he wasn’t surprised to see Lance ready for bed.
“Keith, I – “
“Save it,” Keith cut him off, “I thought I made it clear that the conversation is over.”
“Let me apologize.”
“Misjudging you,” Lance’s voice was fierce, “what, have you never made a single mistake in your life? Have you never misjudged a person? Nobody’s that perfect. I believed rumors and made assumptions, that was wrong of me. But I heard you out, and I won’t do it again. All right? No excuses. I was wrong. I am sorry. I take responsibility for my actions, and it will never happen again. Take it or leave it.”
Keith was still angry, and that apology did not make him feel any better, especially with the tone of voice Lance was using. But there were more pressing concerns to address.
“Can we just forget about that? We have bigger problems. I’m pretty sure someone tried to follow me.”
“I don’t know,” Keith said, “two people. I didn’t see their faces. They tailed me for quite a while. It took real effort to shake them off. I don’t think they saw me come here, but we should be careful, just in case.”
Lance frowned. “Are you sure they weren’t just – “
“Lance,” he gave him a serious look, “I know what I saw.”
Lance nodded. “Then we should leave in the morning. Stay away from the windows and lock the room for the night.”
They locked the room, drew the curtains closed on the small window and shut the blinds on the door leading to the balcony. Then they put out the lights and got ready to sleep. But Keith could barely fall asleep, with so many thoughts clouding his mind. He tossed and turned in bed, trying to distract himself with something neutral, to no avail. His eyes landed on Lance’s bed, where two eyes were looking right back at him.
“Can’t sleep?” Lance whispered.
“I just can’t understand who would want to follow us. If Galra guards were suspecting us, they would just come openly to arrest us.”
Lance nodded. He sat up in his bed with a sigh. “It doesn’t matter. We’ll leave early in the morning and make sure nobody follows us. Maybe we’ll have more luck in another town.”
They were quiet. Then, just loudly enough for both of them to hear, there was a small noise coming from the balcony. They exchanged looks, confirming that the both of them heard it. Neither of them thought it was nothing.
Keith raised a finger to press to his lips, indicating that they should both be silent. He grabbed the knife from under his pillow and tiptoed out of his bed. Lance got up as well. There was another noise. Someone was undoubtedly out on their balcony. Keith tried to think about the best course of action, but it felt like they were at a disadvantage. They had no idea who was out there, while the person on the balcony was most certainly hoping to catch them inside. It had to be connected to the people who followed them, he thought.
Keith turned to Lance and gestured first at himself, then at Lance, then at the bathroom.
Lance nodded and they both made their way silently to the bathroom, where they softly closed the door behind them.
“Do you think it’s whoever followed you?” Lance whispered.
“It must be,” Keith whispered back, “stay quiet. Let’s leave the door open just a little bit, so it doesn’t look suspicious. If they come here, we’ll grab them.”
Lance nodded and gently pulled the door just a crack open.
They stood quietly, pressed to the wall by the door, listening. With a click, the door to their balcony opened. Someone lit a lantern. Two voices were whispering in the room, but Keith couldn’t make out the words.
“Wait a minute,” Lance whispered, “this sounds familiar.”
Just as Keith was about to tell him to shut up, the door to the bathroom opened and he tackled the intruder, knocking them to the floor and pressing the knife to their throat.
“Who are you and what do you want?” Keith asked, his voice jarringly loud against the silence maintained in the room so far.
“BAH! Keith, man, please don’t kill me! We come in peace!” the man at his hands looked genuinely frightened.
“Hunk?” Lance peeked from the bathroom.
“Let him go, please, there is no need for violence,” said another voice. The second intruder pulled back her hood. It was Allura.
“Allura!” Lance squeaked, “what are the two of you doing here?”
“The same thing as you. Looking for the lion.”
Chapter 6: Rose Oil Inn
Allura and Hunk reveal that a mission awaits the two companions, but Lance and Keith are not enthusiastic about it. AKA: the fake dating adventure no one asked for but I delivered anyway.
The theme of this chapter has some sexual undertones. Nothing explicit, but just in case anyone needs a warning.
Keith got up from Hunk, dusted himself off and offered him a hand. Once they all calmed down, Allura and Hunk explained.
“I couldn’t let it go,” Allura said, standing by the wall and refusing to look at any of them, “I just couldn’t. This quest was screaming for me. The prophecy… I just had to go. I remembered what you said about the lions from the quest, and I knew a little bit about the magic behind Voltron, but… I wouldn’t know where to look for them. By then, you were already gone, so I couldn’t follow you either. I spent some time at the library.”
“I saw Allura sneaking out,” Hunk said, “and I had my suspicions about where she was headed, so I went after her to stop her. But that didn’t quite work out…”
“We were at the library,” Allura continued, “I was looking for information. Hunk was getting bored watching me.”
“I thought there was no harm in her reading books,” Hunk shrugged, “so while I waited for her, hoping that she would give up and go back, I looked at some books myself.”
“He wasn’t looking at anything useful,” Allura said.
“I was looking at recipe books!” Hunk argued, “they are very useful in our daily life. But yes, it had nothing to do with the quest or the lions. Except…”
Allura then took a book out of her backpack. It was one of those “100 Restaurants from Around the World You Must Visit” type of book.
“As I was trying to tell Hunk that he should leave me alone and go home, the book opened by itself and stopped at this page,” she showed them. It was describing a large, famous inn from the very center of the town they were all in at the moment. Keith and Lance exchanged looks. Another Occurrence?
But the location itself wasn’t the intriguing part. Allura pointed at the picture of the chef – a jolly looking man holding a spatula in his kitchen. Except right behind him, on a shelf, among some cookbooks and ingredients -
“It’s a lion!” Lance exclaimed. It really was. Its eyes weren’t glowing, but it was the exact same design as the first two lions.
“We came here to try and get the lion,” Allura explained, “we’ve been here for a while. We have some information. But then we saw Keith. Or, at least, we thought it might have been Keith.”
“You were the ones following me today,” Keith said. It seemed obvious now, when he remembered the approximate size of the figures following him. They nodded.
“But that’s great!” Lance exclaimed, “we can join forces!”
Keith didn’t want to say anything in front of the others, but it felt like a very bad idea.
“We… We actually might need you,” Allura sighed, “Hunk and I already messed it up a little. But we can’t let anyone know that you two know us.”
Hunk looked a little embarrassed.
“Let’s just say, before we knew what we were up against, we thought that we could just walk into that inn and talk to the cook,” Allura explained, “but that was clearly some sort of bait. The person who has the lion at that inn does not want to be found by the wrong people. There’s a code that needs to be followed. We… Didn’t know that.”
“We can’t go back there,” Hunk said, “they know us now. We’ve been racking our brains about what we should do, and then you miraculously appeared here.”
“Here’s what we’ll do,” Allura detached herself from the wall, “there’s a small abandoned barn beyond the hills, if you go to the west border of the town. Meet us there tomorrow. We’ll explain the details. Then the two of you should be able to get into that inn and retrieve the lion. Understood?”
Lance nodded. With that, Allura and Hunk exited the way they came in – through the balcony.
Lance looked at Keith as if he was expecting something from him. Keith put his knife back under the pillow and climbed into bed.
“You don’t like this,” Lance said when it was clear that Keith wasn’t going to say anything.
“No, I don’t,” Keith said, “we’re not supposed to add people to our quest. This is wrong.”
“If Hunk had an Occurrence, maybe the quest wants them to join us.”
“I don’t see what Allura has to do with it.”
“Hey.” Lance’s voice was a little too dark to be casual. Keith turned around to look at him. “Don’t talk about her like that. What do you have against Allura?”
“Nothing,” Keith shrugged, “I think that she has something against me.”
Lance got uncomfortable. “Well, you know… She… She’s Altean. This was supposed to be her quest. When she was a small child, she received a prophecy, according to which she is destined to save Altea. And then here we are, stealing her quest.”
“I didn’t steal anything from anyone,” Keith said, “this is rightfully mine. I received this quest and I’m going to finish it.”
“Stop talking as if I’m against you in some way. I’m not. We’re a team,” Lance gestured between them, “the quest is ours. You’re right. We’re going to finish it, together. That doesn’t mean that we can’t use Hunk and Allura for help.”
“Fine,” Keith turned away again, “go to sleep. We’ll figure it out once we hear what they have to say about the lion.”
The next morning, Lance and Keith rode all the way to the abandoned barn Allura had described. Hunk and Allura were already there when they arrived.
Lance didn’t say it to Keith, but he was incredibly glad to see his two friends again. Just seeing Hunk’s beaming face was a relief. Having Allura around had him a little rattled the previous night, but now he was ready for it and he couldn’t stop smiling at her.
“Here is the thing,” she said once they were ready to hear her plan, “there is a part of this mission you’re both going to hate, so I’m going to start with that and say – I don’t care. You’re going to do this. I don’t even want to hear your complaints.”
Lance’s mouth tightened. This didn’t sound good. It didn’t really suit Allura, either. She was usually very considerate. She took a deep breath.
“When you get to the inn, you’ll need to act as if you are romantically involved.”
“What?” Lance and Keith both shrieked.
“No, I don’t want to hear it,” Allura said, “listen carefully, because every detail is important. You’re going to come in. You’re going to act like you’re in love. You’re going to ask for a room on the second floor – remember that, second floor. They’re going to ask you whether you have any special preferences. Say this: say that you want it to be extra romantic. Now, they’re going to offer you a whole assortment of stupid, cutesy additions. Things like desserts, or scented candles, or whatever. Get those if you want it to seem more authentic, I honestly don’t care. The only thing that matters is the flowers. You need to say – Hunk, do you remember the phrasing?”
“Uhh,” Hunk took out a piece of paper, “it’s… Only yellow flowers, it reminds us of summers spent together.”
“Yes, you say that. Exactly that,” Allura continued, “once they tell you that the room is ready, you’re going to spend the night there. Lock the door, close the windows, don’t do anything suspicious. The important thing is, you’re going to have yellow flowers in the room and with them you’re going to find a little card with a sun on it. It’s going to say something along the lines of ‘summer memories’, or whatever. Open the card and put a coin in it. Then return the card back to the flowers. In the morning, someone is going to come ‘change the water for the flowers’. The card will be taken away then. Stay put. Once you get ready to leave, you will be offered a ‘special meal’ for being good guests. Instead of a special meal, however, you’re going to be led to a special person. This person should have the lion. Understand?”
“Yes, sure, except – I’m definitely not going to pretend to be Keith’s date. You can’t make me,” said Lance.
Allura seemed a little on edge. “Yes you are,” she said, “look. Hunk and I would do it, but we kind of messed up – “
“We didn’t know about the theme of this inn," Hunk explained, "I told them that we were siblings. It's definitely not a place you would take a sibling to. It was kind of hard to go back from that. And now they know our faces, so neither of us can go back there. It’s gotta be you two.”
“Right,” Allura nodded, “it’s really not that big of a deal. You don’t have to do anything, just maybe hold hands for three seconds. They have no reason to question you. Some couples don’t like to put their relationship on display, right? And I don’t want you to use your Quest Funds, so I will pay for anything this costs you out of my own pocket. Get any meal, any dessert, any – anything. It’s all on me. I don’t care, just get it done.”
Lance looked at Keith, who seemed just as unenthusiastic about this plan as he was. “Allura, I really don’t like this – “
“Oh, and you think I do?” she snapped. “Do you think I’m enjoying this, Lance? I came here because I wanted to be the one to fulfil the quest instead, and you end up parading in here and taking it right out of my hands anyway? It’s all so ridiculous! Do you think I want you to go with – with him to that inn? Do you think I want to hand over the reins to someone like him?”
Lance felt uneasy with the language she was using. “Hey, there’s no need for that. Keith didn’t do anything – “
“Are you defending him?” Allura seemed enraged. Lance took a step back.
“I’m just saying – “
“I’d rather die than see Voltron in the hands of a Galra.” She was looking straight at Keith. He was standing very still, looking back at her with the same intensity, but silent.
“Allura, please,” Lance sounded desperate, “I know that this is a painful subject for you, but you are not being fair to him.”
The way Allura looked at him then was heartbreaking. “You’re taking his side? Seriously, Lance? A few weeks sharing a tent with him and suddenly our friendship means nothing to you?” her eyes were filled with tears. He wanted to drop everything and tell her that it wasn’t like that, that he would never choose anyone over her. But his body was frozen. He said nothing, even as she turned around and stormed out of the barn.
“Hey, buddy,” Hunk whispered, “are you going to go after her, or..? Because it looks like you should go after her.”
Lance took a step forward. Then he got a glimpse of Keith’s face. He did not know Keith well enough, but he knew that if Keith let emotions show on his face even for a split second, it wasn’t good.
“I think you should go after her instead,” Lance told Hunk, “you have a way of talking to people. Maybe she’ll listen to you.”
Hunk seemed surprised, but he nodded and went after Allura. Lance stayed beside Keith. He said nothing.
“I’m not going to thank you for this,” Keith said. He sounded strange, his voice with less force than it usually had.
“I didn’t ask you to.”
“If you said that because there’s a chance that I’m not Galra – “
“I said it because there’s a chance that you are,” Lance interrupted, “and you don’t deserve to be attacked for this.” He was getting angry now. He didn’t expect Keith to thank him, not in a million years, but he was clearly trying to do the right thing and Keith kept acting as if Lance had some sort of ulterior motive.
“She’s right, though.” Keith’s voice cracked. Lance looked at him, surprised. He looked defeated.
“What do you mean she’s right?”
“I wear the face of her enemy. I get why she would… Remember what I said about trusting people? She’s doing the smart thing. I haven’t given her a reason to trust me.”
“You haven’t given her a reason to doubt you, either.”
“It’s subjective,” Keith shrugged, “to her, I’m associated with evil. She needs proof that I’m not like them.”
Lance nodded. “Then let’s prove it,” he said, “let’s go get that lion.”
“I thought you didn’t like that idea.”
“I don’t think any of us like that idea. But I don’t see any other options. Do you?”
“We need to choose our fake names.”
“Why? We don’t need to say our names at all.”
“Just in case it comes up. We should have fake names. What’s your fake name?”
“I don’t know. Yorak.”
“What? What kind of name is that?”
“What’s wrong with Yorak?”
“It’s – nevermind. You want to be Yorak? Fine. We’re going to be Yorak and Taylor then.”
“So I don’t get to make fun of your fake name?”
“No, because I chose a perfectly ordinary name, and you went with fucking Yorak.”
They were standing around the corner, checking their outfits to make sure nothing looked suspicious. Allura barely talked to them after she came back with Hunk, but she helped dress them up and stuff their bags with coins. This whole time they were dressing down and trying to blend in, but that was the opposite of what they needed for this mission, Allura explained. This inn was a tourist attraction, and not a cheap one either. Couples came there to propose, celebrate anniversaries and even spend their honeymoons. They needed to look like a couple of rich travelers who came there to enjoy the exquisite food and lively atmosphere.
For that reason, Allura styled them according to the fashion of the Eastern Kingdoms. She painted Lance’s eyelids and clad him in a light, sheer shawl. She also gave him her own thin, golden necklace to wear and placed a playful flower behind his ear. For Keith, she prepared their most expensive cloak and a pair of heavy boots. She brushed his hair back and clipped a tiny golden earring to his left ear. To Lance, they didn’t look like they belonged together. They certainly would attract unwanted attention if this was the Garrison. But this was not the Garrison, and Allura knew better, so they didn’t complain. Besides, Lance thought that he looked rather dashing with the paint accentuating the best features of his face.
Allura reminded them, before they left, that they had no way to know who in that inn would know exactly what they were after and who was entirely ignorant. They had to keep pretending in front of anyone who might see them. Only once they meet the person who possesses the lion, that’s when they would be able to drop the act.
“How exactly would we take the lion away, though?” Lance asked, “we’re not just going to… Take it. Are we?”
“This part is a little tricky,” Allura admitted, “we don’t even know what kind of person that is, or what to expect. I’ll have to trust you to wing it, somehow. See whether you could offer to buy it, or strike some sort of a bargain. If it comes down to it, you might have to be a little more… Threatening.”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t,” Hunk said, “Let’s hope it all goes smoothly.”
They walked inside. Lance squeezed Keith’s hand a little. “Don’t look so grim,” he whispered, “we’re supposed to be excited before a night of love.”
“This is my excited face,” Keith said, his face completely blank. Lance sighed. They walked up to the counter. He would have to do all the acting himself.
He greeted the woman who was eyeing them with bright and welcoming eyes.
“And what can I do for you, lovely gentlemen?” she asked, her eyes darting between them.
“My dearest partner and I would like your finest room on the second floor,” Lance said, leaning against the counter, “and if it’s possible, we’d like it to be… Extra romantic.”
He turned to Keith with the softest gaze he could muster. Keith blinked at him. He looked a little caught off guard. This could jeopardize their mission, Lance thought, so he decided to improvise.
“What is it, my love? Are you worried about the price?”
Keith cleared his throat. He wasn’t stupid. Lance knew he would never risk failure, no matter how embarrassing the situation was.
“Not at all, dear,” he said, his voice low and surprisingly a lot sexier than Lance thought was possible, “anything for you. I want to spoil you tonight.”
Lance pretended to swoon at that. It was easy. His cheeks were already flushed with embarrassment and he was feeling a little too hot. He just needed to pretend this reaction was due to Keith’s charm.
“We offer a variety of possibilities that can make your stay more comfortable and romantic,” the woman continued, encouraged by Keith’s claim that money was not an issue, “we can equip the room with candles, scented oils, flowers, an assortment of desserts – “
“Yes to all!” Lance said, practically jumping up and down with excitement. She started writing down his specific requests. He took his answers a little too seriously, suddenly intrigued by the description of the desserts. Keith pulled him close to whisper in his ear.
“What are you doing? You do know that the only thing that matters is the flowers, right?”
Lance drew back with the sweetest smile on his lips. “So impatient, my love! But I want our time here to be perfect, can you blame me?”
“Ah, silly me,” Keith replied, “don’t get mad, sweetheart. You know me. As long as I’m with you, any place seems perfect, no matter the circumstances.”
Disgusting, Lance thought. How did his teeth not hurt from saying something so overly sweet?
“Aww, isn’t he the best?” Lance smiled at the woman but cursed Keith a thousand times in his head, “all right, then, let’s see. I don’t mind the number of candles. But the flowers..." He remembered the phrasing, "only yellow flowers. It remind us of summers spent together.”
He looked lovingly at Keith again, selling this line as best as he could. Keith, then, for no apparent reason, raised their joint hands and softly pressed his lips against Lance's knuckles. His eyes widened at that gesture, but he could not afford to seem surprised. He looked back at the woman, who was just finishing writing everything down.
“I’ll let you know when your room is ready,” she announced, “while you wait, you are welcome to enjoy our complimentary treats. Thank you for choosing Rose Oil Inn.”
They settled in a quiet corner to wait. The inn, as Allura explained, was designed specifically to be a lovers’ retreat, and it was apparent in every single detail. The smell was inescapable - sweet to point of bitterness, like old wine and dead flowers. There were red roses everywhere, hearts carved into the walls, golden ornaments of pairs of swans decorating the plates. All the other customers were arranged in pairs. Some looked a little strange and mismatched upon a first look, but Lance thought it was rather nice that they were all united in the name of love. Now he realized how twisted it must have been for Allura and Hunk to march in there and say that they were siblings.
He turned to whisper to Keith. “What the fuck was that about, back there? Why did you – do that?” He referred, of course, to Keith’s lips against his knuckles. His skin still tingled with the traces of his warmth. It bothered him.
Keith flashed him a wicked smile. “If you could only see your face,” he replied, “it was so worth it. Absolutely priceless.”
Lance’s jaw dropped open. He wasn’t sure whether he was more shocked that he didn’t see this prank coming, or that Keith had actually done something just for the sake of having fun.
“Are you issuing a challenge here, Yorak? Because if we start trying to see who gets uncomfortable more quickly, I’m going to win.”
Keith huffed at that, which was highly offensive to Lance. He always dismissed him like this, as if he was hardly good enough to be a competitor. A server came by to give them their snacks. They were all sorts of tiny sandwiches with strangely shaped vegetables and unidentified colorful substances. Lance shoved a few of them in his mouth at once, taking advantage of the situation. Since Keith didn’t want to eat any of them, he swallowed down Keith’s part as well. He wondered why they had to be this small. He could probably eat a few more trays of those, since they were so delicious. Looking around them, Lance wondered whether anyone else there was pretending. They all seemed very genuinely infatuated with each other. Some were openly making out, others fed each other desserts or whispered sweetly in each other’s ear.
He swung one arm over Keith’s shoulders to draw him a little closer. Keith raised his eyebrows at him.
“Am I making you uncomfortable, Love?” Lance cocked his head sideways in false innocence.
Keith’s hands found their way to his waist, pulling him, very suddenly, onto Keith’s lap. Lance had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep himself from yelping.
“Much better,” Keith announced, looking up at Lance with a satisfied smile, clearly happy with Lance’s panicked surprise.
Lance lowered his head so his lips brushed against Keith’s ear. “You are being a big, big idiot,” he whispered, “if someone catches on that this is a ruse, we’re dead.”
“Then don’t let them catch on?” Keith said, his smile now infuriating. Lance was bothered by this. He was very, very bothered by the situation. He was particularly bothered by the annoying curve of Keith’s lips, and by the tingling heat this proximity invoked in him. He was bothered by Keith’s hands on his hips and by the memory of the last time someone had touched him that way. He was bothered, bothered, bothered.
“These games are dangerous,” he let slip. He didn't mean to. A whisper. Almost inaudible. It was loud around them. But his mouth was too close for Keith to miss it.
“Words of the loser,” Keith replied. It sent shivers down his spine. His skin was tingling. And then, Lance almost did it. He almost stepped too far. He almost turned his head just enough to shut Keith up with his own mouth. He wanted to. He wanted to win this game, to make Keith regret ever thinking that he could prank him without paying for it, to end this teasing, he wanted to –
Something was wrong. His desire was misplaced. His body felt hot. Too hot. Unnaturally hot.
“Am I hot?” he whispered. His tone came out wrong. The corner of Keith’s mouth shot up.
“Are you really asking me this?”
“No, you idiot, physically – touch my forehead.”
Keith frowned. Discreetly, he moved one hand from Lance’s waist up to his neck. It rested there for a moment, brushed against his skin – Lance closed his eyes just briefly, leaning into the touch, which felt incredibly good – something was definitely wrong. Keith’s hand came higher and cupped his cheek, drawing his face down.
“You’re warm,” Keith told him, “why? You don’t feel well?”
“Crap,” Lance closed his eyes again, trying to shake away the feeling, “I think there might have been something in those stupid sandwich things.”
Keith’s eyes widened. “Poison?”
“No,” Lance shook his head, sighing. It was getting worse by the second. His skin felt over sensitive. He was getting too hot for his clothes. “Something else. I think it might have been, uh…” he didn’t want to have to say it. “Keith, get me off your lap.”
Keith wasn’t smiling anymore. As smoothly as he could, he slid Lance back to his seat. Just as he was clearly about to ask more questions, someone came to show them to their room.
They did not take “extra romantic” lightly. The room was tacky. The bed took a good percentage of the space in the room: a white canopy with cascading sheer fabrics, satin sheets, rose petals scattered on top, and a variety of pillows. When he said that he didn’t care about the number of candles, he didn’t imagine there would be a candle on practically every available surface in the room. Wine, desserts, more of those cursed yet delicious sandwiches, red curtains and a painting of two swans on the bathroom door. None of it mattered. All that mattered were the yellow flowers. As soon as the door closed behind them, they locked it and closed the windows. They fished out the card, checked that it mentioned summer memories, placed a coin inside and returned it to its place. Then they had to face the big, petal-covered elephant in the room.
“There’s only one bed,” Keith stated the obvious.
“Did you expect otherwise? We’re here to make love, supposedly.”
“I can sleep on the floor.”
“Keith, we’ve slept in a tent about twice as small as this bed. Besides, you’ve seen me throw up on rocks naked, it doesn’t get more intimate than that.”
Keith shrugged. They sat down on the bed.
“Are you going to tell me what’s wrong with those sandwiches? Did they make you nauseous?”
“No,” Lance rolled his eyes, “I think they’re – uh, I think they’re laced with something… That’s meant to increase... Sexual desire.”
“Oh,” Keith’s eyebrows shot up as the realization hit him. “Oh. I see. I – uh… Sorry, then. I thought we were having innocent fun, I didn’t realize – “
“It’s okay,” Lance sighed, taking off his shawl and lying back on the bed, “it’ll go away soon enough. I hope. But maybe don’t eat any of those sandwiches, unless you want a raging boner.”
“Are you sporting a raging boner?” Keith let out a short laugh.
“Not yet,” Lance said, “but I might be getting there. Distract me.”
Keith lay down beside him. The flower had fallen out of Lance’s hair, and Keith now lifted it between his fingers and set it back behind Lance’s ear.
“How?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Tell me something.”
“Like… That time you stole a horse. What was that about?”
Keith rolled onto his back again with a smile. “It was Shiro’s horse.”
“You stole Shiro’s horse?”
“He was a pretty big deal by that time. One successful quest behind him. He came to the School of Heroes to teach us some new techniques, or whatever. I did well. I impressed him. I knew I did. He wanted me as a candidate for his Extra Credit program. Like the one you did with Coran, I guess. And I really, really wanted to go. I’d never admit it, but during the training… I tried very hard. I’d never tried this hard in my life. I just thought… You know, this was Shiro. This was the guy who went to the Galra Empire and came back in one piece. I wanted to be like him.”
Keith’s eyes lit up as he spoke. He sounded like a child describing their older sibling. My brother can do this, my brother can do that. When I grow up, I’m going to be just like him.
“Except, I overheard the instructor telling him that it was a bad idea,” he frowned, “because I was bad news. Because I didn’t play fair, and I had anger issues, and I was too unpredictable. Instead, she said, he should check out James.”
“Ouch,” said Lance.
“So I stole his horse.”
“Right in front of his stupid face. I stole his horse and rode away as far as I could. It didn’t take long for him to catch up with another horse. Then, instead of telling me that I was a lost cause or chastising me for the stolen horse, he taught me some riding tricks.”
Lance smiled. “Shiro sounds awesome.”
“I think that’s all you needed,” Lance said carefully, “I think… You were trapped in this endless loop of anger, where you lashed out at others and they showed you a lack of trust, which only made you angrier. And Shiro broke the loop.”
“I guess you can put it that way.”
“I fed it,” Lance realized out loud, “I helped feed that loop for you. I didn’t see… That. I don’t think I saw you as a person at all. You were just an angry… Mess. And I made you angrier.”
“It was all messed up,” Keith said, “but it doesn’t matter now. I don’t think anyone stays the same as they are when they’re kids. We were young. We didn’t see the whole picture, only ourselves. It’s not like that now, is it?” He turned his head sideways to look at Lance.
“I don’t think it is. I see you differently now. Although you are still quite an angry boy,” he made a light jab, but it was said with a smile, and Keith didn’t seem to take it as an insult.
“Well, there are many things to be angry about in the world,” Keith said, “like a scary Lynthus biting you out of nowhere, or a stupid… Fucking mountain.”
“You’re naming things that are scary, not things that make you angry.”
“Being scared is what makes me angry,” Keith reasoned. He absentmindedly grabbed a handful of rose petals from the bed and toyed with them between his fingers. Lance watched the motion silently. The distraction was working at first, but now he was reminded of his predicament again. How much were these sandwiches laced with? Were they magical?
Without meaning to, his hand moved to grab a few petals out of Keith’s hand. Keith retaliated by throwing the petals in his face. Lance blew away the one that landed on his mouth.
“Wow,” he said, “thanks. I’m sick, you’re supposed to pity me, not attack me.”
“You’re not sick, you’re horny,” Keith laughed, scooping the petals back into his hand. He gathered some more from the bed and threw them at Lance again. “I can’t help it, annoying you is my hobby at this point.”
“I hate you,” Lance said, swatting at the petals that landed on his face again.
“Do you, though?”
“No,” his answer came out too quickly. He wanted to say that for a while now. He didn’t know how.
“You don’t?” Keith sounded surprised.
“Don’t look at me like that, I don’t know how that happened either. Don’t get me wrong, you’re still annoying. I just don’t want to violently murder you anymore.”
“I’ll take what I can get,” Keith smiled. He started picking up the petals again, which was annoying, because Lance knew that he was just going to throw them at him again. He caught his hand with his own.
They looked at each other. Keith’s face wasn’t as close as it was when he was seated in his lap, but it was still close enough for the thought to cross his mind. Keith’s fingers unfolded, carefully releasing the petals into Lance’s hand. He liked that Keith listened to him. He let the petals fall away, releasing them, releasing Keith’s hand, raising his hand up.
Keith wasn’t moving. This was dangerous. But the line wasn’t crossed just yet. Lance’s hand brushed against Keith’s earring, unclipping it with a quick motion and tossing it aside. He didn’t know why he was doing that. He didn’t know why he was doing any of it. A part of his mind told him that it was whatever was in those sandwiches. Another part of him wondered if it was something else. It probably wasn’t, he knew. But it felt like it could be.
His fingers found Keith’s hair. He wanted to tug on it. His hand moved as if on its own accord, pulling Keith’s head down, closer, closer, dangerously closer.
He could feel Keith’s breath on his lips. But Keith was frozen in place. He would not move any further.
“You’re clearly under some spell. Don’t do something you’re going to regret.” His voice was strained.
“I won’t regret this.”
“Sounds like something you’d say if you were under some sort of spell, and would totally regret this,” Keith cocked his head sideways. Then, in one swift moment, he was gone. He got up from the bed and announced that he was going to take a bath. Lance stared at the bathroom door as it closed behind Keith and let out a long, exasperated breath. This was torture. He looked down at himself. Talk about raging boners, he thought. That night was bound to be uncomfortable.
Once Keith was done in the bathroom, Lance decided to take a bath as well. He took care of the little problem in his pants. It was better than sleeping in the same bed with Keith like that, he thought. He promptly ignored all the scented oils and creams. Then he remembered that they were playing pretend, so he spilled some of them down the drain to make it look like they’d been used.
Back in the room Keith was already dressed for bed. Lance removed his towel and slipped into a pair of comfortable pants.
“You’re not mad at me, are you?” Keith asked when Lance joined him under the covers.
“About what? About rejecting my irresistible advances?” Lance wiggled his eyebrows.
Keith rolled his eyes. “Not so irresistable if I resisted them, are they? You’ll thank me in the morning, when this thing wears off.”
“Or,” Lance suggested, “you’re going to regret this missed opportunity instead. Who can tell?”
Keith muttered something, too quietly for Lance to hear.
“Nothing, go the fuck to sleep.”
Lance chuckled. He felt as if he was a little drunk, too, which he only then realized. Just how much was he going to regret this in the morning?
“Goodnight, Keith,” he said, turning the other way.
Chapter 7: The Yellow Lion
Old faces in new places, addressing some unresolved issues, and even more secrets revealed.
Lance jolted awake at the sound of a knock at the door. He realized, with horror, that he was entirely on Keith’s side of the bed, his arm strewn across Keith’s chest and one leg hooked over Keith’s knee. Poor Keith, he thought. But Keith woke up from the knocking too, and his hand instinctively reached under the pillow.
“Relax,” Lance whispered, “it’s probably the flowers thing. Who is there?” he called.
“Sorry to intrude, Sir,” a voice answered from the other side of the door, “I’m here to serve you morning tea and change the water for the flowers.”
Lance looked back at them. They were supposed to look like they were making passionate love all night. Instead they looked like cuddly buddies.
“Take off your shirt,” he whispered to Keith.
“Shirt, off! And ruffle your hair a little more.” He took off his pants, threw them to the floor, then pulled off the blanket and wrapped it around his waist. With that, he opened the door.
“Good morning, Sir,” a man greeted him, “I will be quick.”
Lance sat back down on the bed. They waited, quite awkwardly, for the man to leave the tray with the tea on the small table by the window and change the water for the flowers. He also took the card out of them, as was expected. Only once he left the room and the door was closed behind him, Lance remembered the events of last night. He wished he could vanish right there and then.
“Oh no,” he said, “fuck. Keith, I’m so sorry.”
“What?” Keith blinked at him, still sleepy.
“About yesterday. I made an idiot out of myself.”
“It’s fine,” Keith brushed it off as he pulled his shirt back on. But it didn’t feel fine. Keith wasn’t looking him in the eye, and he felt terrible. Did he really have that little self control? If it was Keith in his stead, he thought, he would never act like that, no matter how many sandwiches he ate.
Then another terrifying thought hit him. He watched Keith as he was getting dressed, fumbling with laces and running a hand through his hair absentmindedly as he searched for his other boot. He was not going to pretend that Keith wasn't attractive. He would never admit it out loud, but in the safety of his mind there was no need to deny it. Keith was a handsome young man. Lance knew his face well by now. He knew how his skin looked in the orange glow of a campfire and could identify the flutter of his eyelids in the dark. He knew that Keith's brow furrowed a lot, and that even the most subtle change in the tension around his mouth could express entirely different emotions. Lance often admired his hands - silently, but often - rough and strong yet precise and flexible. But these were all things he would normally notice with anyone, he told himself. Except... Except the previous night brought so many more details to his attention. The tempting shape of his lips and the playful spark in his eyes when he was being competetive. The dangerous shade of his expression when he let worry show on his face. The way his subtlety was infinitely dramatic.
The effect of the sandwiches had worn off. Then why, Lance asked himself, did he still find Keith so...
He turned around, and Keith was standing closer than he expected.
"Did you hear what I said?"
Lance felt as if he was a child caught stealing from the cookie jar. His face was hot. He hoped Keith couldn't guess what he was thinking about.
"Are you alright? I mean... Do you feel well?" his eyes were searching.
"Yes," Lance nodded, "it just feels like I was drunk the entire time. Again, I'm so sorry. I really didn't mean - "
"I know," Keith sighed. He sounded... Disappointed? "Don't worry about it. I knew you weren't in control of your actions. Let's just forget about it, right?"
Lance smiled and agreed, but it wasn't as simple as that. He knew that he wouldn't be able to simply move on from this anytime soon, especially not with this newfound confusion over Keith's attractiveness. Either way, they didn’t talk about it anymore. They got dressed, made sure thaat they didn’t leave anything behind, then walked downstairs. Just as planned, they were offered a special meal for being such good guests.
Just before they were escorted through a door to the kitchen, Lance caught a glimpse of two disguised figures entering the inn, and he had a heavy suspicion that these were Hunk and Allura, but they didn’t have time to stop and check.
They were led through the kitchen and to another door, then downstairs to a basement, then through yet another door. It felt like a maze down there. There were long corridors and doors underground that made no sense being there underneath this inn. Finally, the man who escorted them showed them to one last door. “Knock four times,” he said, then left.
Lance and Keith exchanged looks. Then Lance knocked on the door. It opened.
Inside was what looked like a witch’s dwelling. There were potions lining the shelves on the walls, strange ingredients scattered on the table, all sorts of twisted artifacts put on display. The smell was thick as if they entered yet another kitchen, except it didn't smell of anything Lance wished to put in his mouth. Were those eyeballs in a jar? He forced himself to look away and focus on the woman who was standing in front of them, her expression slightly annoyed. She wasn’t very old, but the way she stood there, dressed in rags and hunched over a chair, made her seem older. Her dirty hair hung over her face like a mop. When she spoke, her lips curled back a little too much, exposing dangerously sharp teeth.
“Well?” she said, “are you just going to stand there all day? Speak. You came to ask for a magical favor, so let me hear it.”
Lance spoke carefully. “We are interested in a statue you might have,” he said, “a statue of a lion?”
Her head snapped up to look at him.
“You wish to acquire a lion… That’s bold.” She crossed the room all the way to stand in front of Lance. She was a little too close to his face, but he didn’t move. With a long finger, she moved the hair away from his forehead. “Pretty,” she said, “but do you have what it takes?”
He could see, out of the corner of his eye, Keith reaching for the knife hidden under his cloak. He wanted to reach back and touch him, as if to say it was all fine, but he had to keep his eyes on the witch.
“We will pay whatever is necessary,” Lance said.
“That is not the question I asked,” the witch snapped at him. She turned around and walked over to the large wooden chest in the corner. She opened it, looked inside for a moment, then took out the lion. It was it. A bronze lion, the exact same design as the first two. Except its eyes weren’t glowing.
“The lion only responds to special people,” the witch explained, placing the statue on the table, “do you think you’re special?”
Lance looked to Keith. They both knew what it looked like when a lion responded to them. They would both have to try.
Lance stepped forward first. He placed his hands on the statue, but nothing happened. He thought that perhaps he could try to connect with it if he concentrated, but he also knew that this felt nothing like what happened to him with the blue lion. He stepped back. Keith came over instead to try as well. He placed both hands on the statue, but nothing happened. It was useless.
“Oh, what a shame,” the witch said, “it’s not a match. I can’t give the lion to someone unworthy, you see. I can’t.”
The door swung open then, revealing Allura and Hunk, their hoods now drawn back.
“What is this? You did not knock. Intruders!” the witch cried and reached for her staff – a long wooden stick with feathers sticking out of it and a white crystal ball at its end.
“No, no, they are with us,” Lance said, trying to calm her. He looked back at his friends, but the look on Hunk’s face made him stop in his tracks. He knew that look. He was looking straight at the lion.
“I think my friend might be special,” he told the witch.
Hunk stepped forward, ignoring everything around him. He walked right up to the statue and placed his hands on it. Its eyes lit up at once, emitting yellow light, giving Hunk a beautiful halo.
“Ha, I knew it!” Lance said, “see? He’s worthy. We can take the lion.”
The witch turned, rage in her eyes. “Nobody takes my lion!” she moved her staff quickly, lightening shooting from its crystal ball. Lance’s heart skipped a beat as he was sure that it was about to hit Hunk. But Keith was fast. He pulled Hunk back before the witch even opened her mouth so speak, and his knife was now in hand. He grabbed the lion and tossed it to Allura.
“No!” the witch screamed, redirecting her staff. Keith then jumped at her, knife aiming at her wrists.
“Go! All of you! I’ll hold her off!” he tried to stab her, but she was quick too, unexpectedly so, drawing back and charging with her staff again. He was too close for her to zap him, but the staff was still a heavy stick and she started beating him with it mercilessly, with much more force than Lance thought was possible. Allura and Hunk were still standing there.
“You heard him, go!” Lance yelled. That got them moving. When Lance turned back to Keith, he was cornered by the witch. His knife flew out of his hand. Lance grabbed the first thing he could see – another statue, this one of a fat toad. It wasn’t large, but it was heavy enough to do some damage.
“Get off him, you old hag!” he threw the statue at her, catching the back of her neck. She wailed in pain and turned, her staff still in her hands. Lance moved towards her, unarmed, not quite thinking clearly. Before he realized what happened, he received the staff right to his stomach. He doubled over, both hands on the staff, trying to wrestle it out of the witch’s grasp. Keith rolled aside while they were busy fighting over the staff, picked up his knife from the floor, then knocked the witch off her feet with one swift kick at the back of her knees. With the staff now free from her hands, Lance hit her on the head with it, once, twice, until she was knocked out.
“We need to get out of here,” he told Keith. Keith agreed. They hurried out the door. Lance was worried that they might get lost in this maze of corridors, but Keith apparently made sure to remember exactly where they took the turns when they came down there, and he led them out of the basement and into the kitchen. If they looked suspicious, nobody paid them any mind. The kitchen was too busy to care about the visitors from the basement. They hurried outside, where Allura and Hunk were waiting for them with the horses.
“I thought you’d be gone by now,” Keith said as he mounted his horse.
“We wouldn’t leave you guys behind,” Hunk said, as if it was obvious, “but we should really leave now.”
A man came running out of the inn then. It was the same man who led them down into the basement. “They attacked the witch! Seize them!”
Two guards started running towards them, swords drawn.
“Go, go, go!” Lance called.
And they were gone.
The pursuit could have been terrible if the guards had horses as well. Even as it were, the busy streets of the town were hardly suitable for a race like that. Nonetheless, they made it out of there. They rode on until they were sure that there was no chance that they were being followed. Then they stopped to plan. There was not much they could do now that they were back at square one, no new leads to hint at where they should be headed. They decided, then, to avoid towns for a while and keep moving south. They kept riding for most of the day.
As the sun set, they decided to stop for the night. Keith volunteered to help Hunk with the preparations for dinner, not knowing what he signed himself up for. He could see that Lance and Allura needed some time to be alone and resolve their issues, so he wasn’t quite thinking when he offered his help. As it turned out, everything he had seen Lance do during their time together on the road was nothing compared to what dinner preperations were supposed to look like. Hunk dealing with food was truly an inspiring sight. He moved quickly and with determination, gripping a kitchen knife the same way Keith would grip a sword. Keith felt confused and a bit useless at first, but Hunk was incredibly considerate and immediately assigned him some easy tasks. His encouragement once Keith showed him his work was unlike anything Keith had ever received before. He was used to hearing “you can push yourself further” and “let’s review everything you did wrong”. With Hunk, he was showered in compliments that made him feel as if peeling carrots was an achievement. He almost forgot all about Lance and Allura, until they came back, laughing and patting each other affectionately.
Good, he thought. It was not the first thing he thought. The first thing he thought was ugly and soaked in jealousy. He told that thought to fuck off. Lance loved Allura, and the fact that they resolved their issues made him happy, so Keith should feel happy for him too. And he almost did, until he looked up to see Allura standing nervously in front of him. And then he felt dread.
“Keith,” she said, “if you don’t mind, I would like to talk to you.”
“Uh,” Keith said, stupidly, “I need to cut those carrots.”
“I’ll do it,” Lance said, taking the knife from his head. Keith gave him a confused look, and Lance whispered “just go with her.”
So he did. They walked a short distance off and took a seat on a large log. Then they were silent. It was intensely awkward.
“I owe you an apology,” Allura began. Keith had the urge to tell her that there was no need for this, but he held his tongue. She continued. “I don't want to sit here and give you excuses. I think you know exactly why I said the things I did. But you proved me wrong.”
Keith looked up at her. He wondered what made her change her mind. “Did Lance ask you to say this?”
“No,” she shook her head, “this isn’t about him. Although he did... He did say that I can trust you. Look, you and I, we have something in common. We both struggle with trust.”
Keith remembered his conversation with Lance. He knew she was right. He said nothing.
“I can’t just start trusting someone because someone else tells me to, even if that someone is Lance. He means well, but he...”
“He thinks with his heart,” Keith blurted out. Allura nodded.
“He does. So I got mad at him. I thought he was being blind, but... As it turns out, I was the one being blind. I’m truly sorry, Keith. I’m not going to pretend as if this is easy for me. I am prejudiced, it’s true. My family was murdered by Galra soldiers. My father raised me, and his family was murdered by the Galra too, so in every bedtime story he told me, they were the villains. I guess, in my ignorance, I didn’t even consider the possibility that being Galra isn’t what makes someone evil. But I can see it now. And Lance was right about you.”
“He was?” Keith fiddled with the laces of his left boot. He was never angry at Allura, not really. All she did was voice the thoughts he already had in his head.
“Yes,” she said, and she sounded confident enough for the both of them, “and perhaps it will take some time for me to unlearn certain stereotypes and improve my behavior, but... I know that you’re on our side. And I trust you.”
There were other things he wanted to tell her. He wanted to ask about Lance, and about her family, and their days back in the Garrison, spent on opposite parts of the yard, even before she knew about the rumors. He asked only one thing.
“What made you change your mind, really?”
“The moment you handed me the lion,” she answered honestly, “and I understood where your priorities lie. If you want to know whether someone is trustworthy, observe them in a life-or-death situation, I say.”
They didn’t say anything else. The silence between them was somewhat less uncomfortable now. By the time they got back, dinner was ready.
Allura told them more about Altea and the lions. She didn’t know much, she said, but her father thought it was very important for her to know about Voltron. “I know about the connection,” she said when Lance explained the way the lions reacted to them, “it means that you are paladins of Voltron.”
“We’re what?” Hunk blinked at her.
“I don’t know what it is, but it sounds cool, so I’m in,” Lance grinned.
“Paladins of Voltron,” Allura explained, “it means that the lions are capable of forming a bond with you. In time, this would allow you to access the magic of the lions. It is also how you will eventually connect them into the united form of Voltron. The lions chose you. Now that I think about it, there is truly no way for just the two of you to succeed in this quest alone,” she gestured at Lance and Keith, “there are five lions, and in order to connect them, you’ll need five paladins.”
Lance frowned. “I’m not exactly good at math,” he said, “but five lions minus four of us still seems to leave one lion without a paladin.”
“Not to mention,” Allura said, a little grimly, “there’s no way to know for certain that one of the lions would choose me as a paladin.”
They exchanged worried looks.
“Don’t do that,” Keith said then. They turned to look at him. “As we’ve seen so far, the lions control this quest more than any of us. They choose us, you say. Then let them choose. They’ll show us the right paladins when the time comes. Let us find them first.”
They all nodded. Hunk seemed to feel like there was too much tension in the air, so he urged them to eat more and talk about something more positive. They recalled the events from the inn (Lance and Keith chose wisely to omit the part where Lance was under the influence of some magical sandwiches) and Hunk showed them his impression of the witch, making them all laugh. It was rather convincing. This turned into a fun competition between Hunk and Lance, both showcasing their talents by impersonating different instructors from the Garrison. Allura, then, placed a leaf above her upper lip and made them all cry with laughter when she impersonated Coran. Keith didn’t try to participate, but Lance caught him smile, and that felt like enough.
It was unbearably quiet when they finally retired to their tent for the night. Lance thought that Keith might want to talk about Allura, but he didn’t.
“I don’t understand why you didn’t leave with the others when I asked you to,” Keith said as they lay down, “you could’ve gotten hurt.”
It took Lance a moment to understand what he was talking about. Then he remembered Keith pleading for them to leave, as if he could deal with that witch on his own. “I don’t get it,” Lance told him, “is that how highly you think of me? That I would ditch you at the first sign of danger? Fuck you. I’m your companion, remember that? I thought you had a pretty good memory, but you keep forgetting the important parts. You have my back. I have yours. This is supposed to be mutual.”
Keith was quiet for a moment. Then he said, “I guess that’s fair.”
There was another silence. It felt like there were many words unsaid between them, but neither wanted to dive into that well. Then Keith spoke again.
“So you and Allura – “
“Yes, we’re good now,” Lance told him, “and I’m very glad that you two talked as well.” He hoped that Keith would say more about their conversation.
“Oh. That’s… Good,” Was all he said. “Not exactly what I was going to ask.”
“Nothing. Nevermind. I don’t even remember anymore. We should go to sleep. Goodnight, Lance.”
This was strange. Lance wished they could talk more. Perhaps Keith was not ready just yet.
The next day, they once again debated over their route in light of the sudden forking of the road. There was another discussion about the quest and its possible solutions. Keith and Lance were not bothered in the slightest. They knew, by now, that this quest was less about strategy and more about going along with whatever the world decided to throw at them. Hunk was just happy to be there with them, so he did not complain. Allura, however, was on edge again. The excitement and adrenalin of finding a lion was now gone and replaced with despair at having no clue where to go next. They resolved to move through the wooded areas, south east from where they were, slowly moving towards the heart of the Empire without disturbing the main cities.
As they rode on, Lance felt cautiously optimistic. They had three out of the five lions, Hunk and Allura were by his side, Keith was no longer the person he hated most in the world. It was fine. It was fun, even. But the unspoken words that hung between Keith and himself were quietly getting to him whenever he was left alone for a while. He found himself studying Keith from a distance. He noticed that his countenance changed somewhat with the presence of Hunk and Allura. Alone, in their tent, Keith would tell him openly what he thought or how he felt. It was difficult to get him to open up, and conversations were often cut short when Keith felt like it was getting a little too personal, but it was something. Alone in their tent, Keith didn’t need to clutch a knife to feel safe or keep glancing over his shoulder, the way Lance now noticed him doing so very often. Alone in their tent he breathed, let his shoulders sink and relax, put his tired head down on the rolled up coat he used as a pillow. He let his eyes close. He let his fists unfurl, like reluctant flowers just now realizing spring has come. Lance watched all this and wondered how tough it must be to stay this tense during the day. He was also annoyed at himself for paying attention to all of those details and he urged himself to stop.
They were riding just outside a forest one day, and they stopped by a small river to let the horses drink. Lance was standing with Hunk and Allura, talking about nothing in particular, when he saw Keith watching the woods with a concerned look.
He walked up to him. “What’s wrong?” he asked, trying to see where Keith was looking for signs of anything out of the ordinary.
“Just… A feeling I have,” Keith said.
To them, this meant something. “A feeling?” he said, because he needed him to elaborate.
“It’s not an Occurrence,” Keith said, “just… I think I had a glimpse of something in the distance at first. I thought it must be an animal. But then… Just a sound, here and there. I don’t know. It might be all in my head.”
Keith looked away from the woods and to Lance’s eyes.
“You think there’s someone out there, don’t you?”
“Then let’s get away from these woods. We don’t have a plan anyway, and it would be stupid to ignore something like this.”
They returned to Hunk and Allura and Lance told them that they should cross the river and carry on from the other side. Hunk and Allura had no objections, but just before they got back on their horses, an arrow flew past them and hit the water.
“Get down everyone!” Keith called, his sword already unsheathed. They crouched, all facing the direction where the arrow came from. Out of the woods, three men appeared, all armed, running towards them. They were all Galra. Lance didn’t know much about the Galra Empire, but their helmets, with pointy purple horns, were easy to recognize. Allura unsheathed her sword as well, ready to fight. Hunk picked up his spear. Lance, knowing that there was an archer hiding there somewhere, reached for his bow.
It was a breath of fresh air. The familiar weight of the bow was comforting. He had made some progress with the sword, but there was no comparing the two weapons for him. Where with a sword he felt slow and clumsy, the bow showcased his true skill and speed. His fingers were perfectly trained for this. He mounted his horse and aimed at the woods. The next arrow came flying right at him, but he was ready for it, two arrows balanced in his right hand. His first was fired to knock the enemy’s arrow out of the air. The next, he fired at where he assumed the archer sat in the tree. It didn’t hit the target. He reached for two more arrows. By that time, there was a full blown battle between them. Allura and Hunk worked as a team, standing back to back, fending off the two Galra men rushing at them. Keith took on the taller one, and Lance wasn’t worried about him. This was a piece of cake for someone like Keith. Lance fired his two arrows, this time taking down the hidden archer with them. But something was wrong. It didn’t make sense. It felt too easy.
“Lance, turn around!” Keith yelled at him, his sword at his opponent’s throat.
Lance turned his horse around to see seven more Galra warriors who had just crossed the river. By the time he reached for more arrows, Allura came charging forward, taking on two of them. Keith and Hunk weren’t far behind. Lance fired two arrows at the warrior closer to him and reached for three more. Six against three was not ideal, and he knew that he had to take them out fast, but he was worried about hitting one of his friends. Keith was handling two warriors at once, and a third one came rushing at him as well.
“Keith, duck!” Lance yelled, already aiming his shot.
Keith dropped to the ground without a moment’s hesitation. One, two, three, he got them all. Keith got back up, three Galra warriors now at his feet. He turned to look at Lance for exactly half a second. He was smiling despite himself, and Lance smiled back. Did you see that? he wanted to say. I have some moves too.
With only three enemies left, they were sure to overcome them. Lance reached for more arrows. His hand never reached his quiver. His horse jolted forward so suddenly, he didn’t understand what had happened until he found himself on the ground, the wounded horse running away in panic. Lance had only a brief moment to register that someone was standing above him, a weapon raised and just about to descend right onto his head. He rolled to the left, just in time to evade the attack. The Galra warrior struck the spot right where his head would have been with what seemed like a massive hammer. Lance barely got to his feet in time before the man swung around, his hammer ready for another attack.
And Lance was unarmed. His bow was still clutched in his hand, but his quiver disappeared with the horse, and the bow wasn’t much help without it. He pointed it at the fiend as if it was a sword. “You,” he said pointedly, “don’t come any closer!”
He couldn’t see the warrior’s face underneath the helmet, but his voice was full of sarcasm. “Or what? You’ll poke me with your little toy-bow?”
“It’s – it’s a majestic weapon!” he said in defense, but his voice was a little too high and panicked to be convincing.
“Lance, sword!” came Keith’s voice somewhere to his left. He didn’t want to look away from his incredibly intimidating attacker, but he allowed himself half a second to reach and catch Keith’s sword, which was thrown at him hilt first. In that half second, he also saw Keith dashing to his side with his knife in hand, intersecting another Galra warrior who was about to attack him from the back.
They stood, then, back to back, just as they used to in their third year at the Garrison. Back then, knowing that Keith was behind him made him anxious. Now it made him feel secure. A surge of confidence charged through his body like hot electricity.
“Bring it on,” he told the man with the hammer. And he did. But his massive, heavy hammer was way too slow for Lance’s sword, and he could easily use the powerful momentum of his swing to his advantage. It took him about seven moves to finally make the hammer fly out of the man’s hands. Excitement flooded his heart – their fight was about to be won.
And then it wasn’t. By the time Lance averted his eyes from the man kneeling helplessly at the end of his sword, he realized that they were surrounded. He didn’t see where the rest of the Galra warriors emerged from, but they were now all around them. Crossbows, spears and swords were all pointed at them. He heard Keith curse behind him, clearly making the same realization. They dropped their weapons.
Lance’s mind reeled. He heard one of the Galra men say “tie them up” and realized that they weren’t about to kill them. Perhaps they would trade them for a reward in the nearest main Galra Empire State. They would become prisoners. This, somehow, seemed worse than death. He started calculating their options – would it be better to cooperate now and figure out a plan of escape later, or was this their best chance at freedom? Perhaps, if he played his cards right, he could cause a big enough distraction to let at least one of his friends escape. Keith, he thought. Keith had the best chance. He locked eyes with him. Keith’s expression was unreadable. Was he thinking the same thing? But before he could act on his plans, a different distraction appeared.
A horrible sound came out of nowhere yet from everywhere at once. It sounded like a battle horn, but it was impossibly loud, too loud to bear. Lance instinctively raised his hands to his ears, as did everyone else. If that wasn’t enough, a cloud of smoke erupted from the woods, spreading rapidly and obscuring their vision.
Lance coughed as the smoke got into his lungs. His eyes were watering and his throat felt dry from breathing in the smoke. He blinked rapidly to get rid of the tears. Then the Galra warrior nearest to him fell to the ground, motionless. Another one fell at Keith’s feet. He couldn’t see the rest of them, but as the horrible sound of the horn was subsiding he began to hear their cries, which were cut off suddenly and followed by a loud thump as bodies hit the ground.
“What’s going on?” he asked Keith, but he looked just as confused.
“No idea,” he answered, his knife now back in his hand, “but stay close. I don’t like this.”
They waited until the smoke cleared. When it thinned enough for them to see the rest of the group, the only ones left standing besides the two of them were Allura, Hunk, and two more people on horseback.
To his great surprise, Lance recognized both of them. The first, smaller rider, holding what appeared to be a glowing whip, was Pidge, whom he knew well. The second, making no sense at all being alongside Pidge, was Takashi Shirogane.
“Is that..?” Lance began, but Keith was already running.
Shiro jumped off his horse and they embraced, a one-armed hug with a somewhat violent pat on the back. “What are you doing here?” Keith asked.
“Let’s save the explanations for later,” Shiro said, “we better get the fuck out of here first. This place isn’t safe.”
Before leaving, they gathered a few of the Galra warriors’ uniforms and weapons. It felt wrong to rob them and leave them like this, even if they were the enemy. But there was no time to think about guilt and morality.
Since Lance’s wounded horse ran away, they were now short of a horse. He had to share a horse with Keith for the time being. Any other day, Lance would insist on riding in the front. Now, however, as they were all still in danger and tense about the recent events, he said nothing as he got onto the horse behind Keith and placed his hands on Keith’s waist.
They rode for longer than he expected. He thought that they would simply cross the woods to a safer area, but Shiro insisted that the danger zone was larger than they knew, and they had to ride much further east. Lance was getting tired. While at first he was cautious about where he put his hands and how close he was to Keith, eventually he stopped caring. His hands slipped until his arms were fully wrapped around Keith’s middle. His head rested against Keith’s back. He silently enjoyed the warmth of Keith’s body against his chest. He was getting sleepy.
Then they finally stopped. Shiro announced that it was good enough and they should call it a night. With six pairs of hands, building a fire, putting up tents and making dinner was quick. They each took on a task, maximizing efficiency, and they were done in no time. Once they were all gathered around the fire, Shiro spoke.
“I know you’re all waiting for an explanation from me,” he said, “but I think this is Pidge’s story more than mine. Pidge?”
Pidge looked nervous. “There’s something I have to tell you all, I guess. I didn’t want it to come to this, but there’s no point in keeping it up any longer. You should know that I’ve been lying to you. Starting with… My name. My name is Katie. I’m Katie Holt.”
“You’re a girl?” Lance frowned.
“You’re related to Matt Holt?” Keith asked.
“You lied to us? This whole time?” Hunk asked.
“You can’t be Katie Holt. Katie Holt wasn’t accepted to the Garrison, I remember it clearly,” said Allura. Pidge sighed.
“Can you just let me talk? You can ask all your questions later. I am Katie Holt. You’re right, Allura, I wasn’t accepted to the Schools of the Garrison when I first applied. The wells didn’t agree to sort me, for whatever reason. Then something happened,” she looked at Shiro, “my brother, Matt, went on a quest he never came back from. I wanted details about it, but I never got any. The Garrison is closed off and it’s too secretive for the outside world. If I wanted to find out what happened to my brother, I had to sneak in. So I did. Yes, I lied to you. I lied to everyone. Do you think I enjoyed it? Do you have any idea what it took for me to pretend to be this? I was brought up as a boy. I spent years trying to fight this perception of me. I was finally at a place where people called me what I needed them to call me and started to see me as a girl… And now I had to pretend to be what I’m not all over again. But I had to. I had to know what happened to my brother. And it worked. I found out.” She turned to Shiro again.
“Matt Holt and I were separated during our quest,” Shiro said, “and I was almost positive that he was dead. Back where we were… People don’t come out of there alive. But then…”
“As you may know, I practice magic,” Pidge continued, “and my brother has the gift too, he just doesn’t practice it as much. But he managed to send a distress signal to Shiro.”
“When I found out who Pidge is, I had to tell her,” Shiro continued, “I don’t know what I expected, but she immediately informed me that she was going to go after him, to find and free him. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to stop her. I was going to go alone anyway, so I decided that we should team up. We both know where to look for him, but something else caught our attention. We know about your quest – the lions? We just so happen to know that one of the lions is at the same location as Matt.”
“How do you know that?” Keith asked.
“Because that’s what Matt used to send the distress signal with,” Pidge explained, “and we were going to try to get him out of there on our own, but… It’s not a job for two. We figured you would want to team up, if you want that lion.”
They all exchanged looks. Ultimately, they were looking to Lance and Keith, knowing that it was their quest. Lance knew that Keith wasn’t a fan of inviting even more people to their quest. But they already knew that they would need more people, since they needed five paladins for five lions.
“All right,” Keith said without arguing, “so what’s the plan?”
Chapter 8: The Green Lion
Sometimes, help comes from unexpected places. But can it be trusted?
They were alone in their tent again. Lance thought, for a moment, about how they took it for granted at this point. They had three tents now. It seemed obvious to him that Keith would want to switch and sleep in Shiro’s tent, and he was quite ready to join Hunk in his. Yet Keith said nothing as he retired to their old tent, and it went without saying that Hunk would share his sleeping space with Shiro. Not that long ago he had spent nights sleeping outside, he remembered, just to avoid this. Now, it was his favorite part of the day.
He winced as he moved a little too sharply while taking off his shirt. His shoulder hurt and he frowned at it in confusion.
“What is that?” Keith asked, immediately by his side, inspecting his back.
“I don’t know,” Lance said, “I don’t remember injuring it.”
“There’s a bruise,” Keith said, his cold fingers light against Lance’s skin, “and it looks like – did you fall on your shoulder?”
“Oh,” Lance said then. He did. He remembered falling off his horse. He had no time to register the pain then, since he was about to be crushed by a giant hammer, but the fall was certainly painful. “Guess I did. Is it bad?”
“It’s quite a bruise,” Keith said, his fingers getting bolder as he tested his shoulder, “does it hurt when you move it? Hold on,” he carefully moved Lance’s arm, lifting it, one hand on Lance’s shoulder for support. It was fine at first, just a dull pain, until -
“Ouch,” Lance winced, and Keith’s hands eased their grip.
“Sorry,” he said, “but this isn’t good. Should I bring the kit?”
Lance sighed. “No. It’ll heal. The pain isn’t that bad. And I deserve it.”
“I should’ve seen them coming. Can’t believe I let my horse be wounded like that.”
“Stop,” Keith said, and Lance turned around to face him. “Their ambush was well thought out. We had no way to know how many of them were hiding in the woods. You’re not to blame.”
Lance nodded, although he didn’t quite believe it. He was watching them all from a distance. He should have noticed the approaching attack. Keith studied his face with intent.
“Besides,” he said, “you did quite well out there. I guess… Now I get why they call you Sharpshooter.”
Nobody calls me that, the confession threatened to slip. But this was a rare opportunity, he knew. Keith was giving him this, and he was not going to throw it away. He grinned.
“You liked my moves, huh?”
Keith bit his lip, as if to physically stop himself from smiling, “fine, yes. We make quite a good team, I think.”
Lance’s smile was so wide his cheeks hurt. “Tell me more,” he said, “how impressed are you by my sweet, sweet archery skills?”
“You ruined it,” Keith said then and turned around, clearly still hiding a smile. He busied himself by changing his own clothes for the night.
Lance allowed himself a moment of indulgence. He watched, openly, as Keith got under his blanket and turned his back to him. Like this, hiding a smile and pretending as if complimenting Lance was painful, Keith was almost cute.
Lance’s grin dissolved in the darkness. Cute? Now this was a word he would never associate with Keith, he thought. What was wrong with him? He had just seen Keith completely destroy a bunch of Galra fighters with his sword, and his first thought about him is cute?
He lay down beside him and got under the blanket. It was getting colder, he realized. They would soon need a thicker blanket. “Keith,” he said, before he realized he was saying it. There wasn’t anything in particular he wanted to say, he just didn’t want the conversation to be over so soon. Keith rolled over to look at him. They were a little closer than either of them should have been comfortable with.
“Hmm?” Keith’s eyes were a question. Lance had no answers to provide.
“Do you trust me yet?” he had no idea where that question came from, but it was too late to take it back.
Keith was quiet for a moment. “Will you use it against me if I say yes?”
Lance pretended to consider it. “Hmm, no,” he said, “but what I WILL use against you is the fact that apparently you tried to adopt an opossum once because you thought it was a cat?”
Keith’s eyes widened. “How – “
Lance chuckled. “Shiro and I had a very nice talk while we were collecting firewood.”
Keith rolled onto his back. He looked particularly murderous. “I’m going to kill him.”
“I can’t wait to spend more time with him. I bet he knows a whole bunch of embarrassing secrets about you.”
“Don’t you dare,” Keith pointed a finger at him, “I take it back. I don’t trust you one bit.”
“Too late,” Lance smiled, “you trust me. Besides, that’s just an unavoidable part of friendship. You have to embarrass each other sometimes. If you think that Hunk doesn’t torture me for weeks every time I accidentally pronounce something wrong, then you’re a fool and you’re boring.”
Keith was watching him with a strangely guarded expression. “Do you trust me then?”
Lance considered answering with a joke, but he decided against it. Perhaps Keith needed to hear this.
They said nothing more. Lance had the urge to touch him then. He thought about how, if it had been any of his other friends, he would know exactly what to do. If it were Hunk, they would be cuddling by now. If it were Pidge, he would ruffle her hair and she would playfully hit him for it. If it were Allura, she would kiss him sweetly on the cheek and warm his heart with a kind look. But Keith was uncharted territory. He still didn’t know how to behave around him, and what would be considered appropriate for them. And then Keith closed his eyes, and the moment passed, and Lance rolled onto his back. He wished things were simpler. He fell asleep.
Lance woke up with an arm thrown over Keith’s chest. Again. This was like a reoccurring nightmare. His head was pressed to Keith’s shoulder. He stayed motionless for a moment after opening his eyes, trying to keep his breathing even, hoping that Keith was still asleep. Then he moved slowly, carefully, pulling away as gently as he could. But when he looked up at Keith’s face, he was watching him, clearly awake. Lance felt his face heat up.
“How’s your shoulder?” Keith asked, visibly trying to sound casual. Lance wasn’t sure whether he wanted Keith to act cool as a cucumber or be as flushed as he was. Which one was worse? He decided to follow his lead and ignore the embarrassing situation.
“Worse, I think,” he admitted. He felt completely stiff. It wasn’t just his shoulder now; his neck and back hurt as well.
Keith pulled himself up and shuffled to sit behind Lance. He examined his shoulder again, asking “does it hurt like this?” and then “what about now?” and declaring that Lance was in no condition to keep going until they took care of it.
“Pidge has a kit that is twice the size of ours,” he said, his hands still lingering at the back of Lance’s neck, “she must have something to ease your pain. But you can’t fight like this. Damn, you’re so tense.” His fingers rubbed small circles into the back of Lance’s neck.
“Yeah, I will,” Lance said, his eyes closing with pleasure, “maybe after… After breakfast.”
Keith’s hands, it turned out, were good for so many purposes. Whether it was unsheathing a sword, unwinding bandages or… Turning Lance’s muscles into liquid butter. “Fuck,” Lance breathed, “I had no idea how much I needed that.”
“You should pay more attention to your body,” Keith told him, and his voice was a little too close to his ear, giving him goosebumps, “listen to it. Make sure it’s in perfect condition.”
Lance had a thousand snarky comments to reply with, but his tongue melted in his mouth and he shuddered at the touch of Keith’s hand on his back, forgetting what Keith had said in the first place.
It was over way too soon. Pidge stuck her head into their tent, making Keith jump back, startled. “Can you two lovebirds hurry up? We want to get moving as soon as possible.”
Keith made some noise of protest, but Pidge was already gone.
“What did she just call us?”
“Ignore her,” Lance rolled his eyes, “she likes to get on my nerves.”
Keith pulled on his tunic.
“I guess we have something in common then,” he told Lance with a smile before they got out of their tent and were ready to start the day.
They had two days of long riding ahead of them, since they were headed towards the heart of the Galra Empire, to Haggar’s Citadel. To be safe, they were all dressed in the uniforms they stole from the Galra who attacked them, complete with helmets and weapons. Hunk was excited by the new crossbow he snagged from them, and Pidge worked on magically enhancing it with some complicated spells. Lance’s shoulder healed quickly once he used Pidge’s special kit.
They fell into a comfortable routine. Having both of his best friends was comforting for Lance. Having Shiro there was unexpectedly fun, too. At first, Lance thought that he would be a little starstruck around the famous hero. He quickly learned that Shiro was a normal person, who screamed when he accidentally walked into cobwebs and looked ridiculous when he spilled broth onto his tunic. He still felt a little intimidated to talk to him, even though he would never let Keith know that.
Seeing Keith around Shiro was a very special experience. At first, it was accompanied by a strange unease Lance had almost identified as jealousy. That was because around Shiro, Keith let his guard down. Lance was secretly proud every time he noticed Keith letting himself relax around him, so seeing him do that around someone else felt strange. Then he realized what was happening, and he got mad at himself. If Keith was able to trust more people, that was a good thing. He should support that. Then, one day, he watched as Shiro made him laugh with some silly story from their past. And when Keith laughed – fully laughed, doubled over and hardly breathing – it was a precious sight. Shiro was Keith’s Veronica, Lance thought then. Keith deserved to have a Veronica in his life. He left his unreasonable jealousy behind.
They stopped when they were within sight of the citadel to plan more carefully. Haggar’s Citadel, though clearly the heart of all evil, was impressive in its beauty. It was made entirely out of black stone – the walls, the fences, the roofs. It was massive in size: the walls far taller than necessary, the doors and gates fit for dragons more than humans, each path built for three carriages to fit on. While there wasn’t much of a garden, tall statues were erected in the yard, all solid black marble, to symbolize the strength of the empire. The dark purple flags with the Galra Empire sigil - which always reminded Lance of a spider, though whenever he told someone this they gave him a strange look, as if he had a very wild imagination – hung heavily over every gate and pillar, as if to say “just so you know, in case you were wondering, this is ENEMY TERRITORY. Hope we made it clear”.
Pidge presented them with a map of the citadel, recreated from Shiro’s memory, and they started laying out the important parts.
“Our main problem,” Shiro explained, “is that we’re not entirely sure where Matt is being kept. We know that this,” he pointed with a stick,” is the building they reserve for prisoners, but there are four floors with prison cells in this building alone, and Matt could be anywhere. Not only that, but we know that there are three high-security cells right here,” he moved the stick to point at a different building,” beside Haggar’s personal quarters. We have no idea where to look for the lion, either.”
“We should split,” Keith said, “three for the general prison building, three for Haggar’s personal quarters. The lion must be somewhere close, if Matt used it to contact you, right? Once we find him, it shouldn’t take long to find the lion, too.”
“Splitting up is a risk,” Shiro reasoned, “penetrating the walls is going to be difficult enough. We're already risking catching their attention like that, if we move in two teams as well… It’s too dangerous.”
“Not if you have a way to silently and secretly get through those walls.”
It wasn’t Keith. The voice came from behind them. Three swords, a magical whip, a spear and a bow were all aimed at its source in less than a second.
A man emerged from the bushes, hands raised as if in surrender, a brilliant smile on his face.
“What’s the animosity for? I’m a friend.”
“Nobody here knows you, friend,” Lance said, arrow ready to fly at any given moment.
The man sighed. “How about an introduction then? My name is Lotor. I know what you’re after. I’ve been searching for you since your mishap at the Rose Oil Inn. And I know every corner of this citadel. I could find my way in there with my eyes closed. I have valuable information, such as a secret tunnel that can get you through the walls, the exact location of your imprisoned friend and, most importantly, the whereabouts of the Green Lion.”
They all exchanged looks. Hunk lowered his spear. Pidge lowered her whip. Slowly, Allura lowered her sword.
“You’re not going to trust this guy, are you?” Lance told her.
“No, but we should at least see what he has to say.”
They brought him closer to the map. Shiro had his sword pinned to Lotor’s back. The others put their weapons away, knowing that they could overwhelm him at any time. Hunk was sent to take a look and make sure there were no reinforcements ready to jump out of the woods to help Lotor. He returned with Lotor's horse, and reported that there was no one else around.
Lotor began by correcting Shiro’s map in numerous places. Shiro seemed annoyed at first, but he had to admit that Lotor did know the place. Then he told them, very openly, that Matt was a prisoner in the cell block on the second floor. He explained that he was first kept in Haggar’s personal quarters as they suspected, but after the incident with the lion he was moved to where magic couldn’t be of help to him. The lion, as they all figured out by then, was kept in Haggar’s private quarters, and Lotor explained that she was keeping it in a heavily secured room in the basement. Thankfully, he told them, Haggar herself was away at the moment and would’t be back for a few days at least. If she were there, he assured them, their mission would be impossible. Finally, he told them that they would have to split up. One group to free their prisoner, another to obtain the lion.
“What’s in it for you?” Shiro asked once all the details were revealed, “why should we believe you? You’re wearing a Galra helmet.”
“So are you,” Lotor pointed out, “not everything is as it seems. Yes, I am Galra. In fact, I am very close to the Galra leaders, in a certain way. But I do not want to see Zarkon prevail. I don’t think that Voltron should be kept like this, the lions separated and caged, its potential wasted. Altea deserves to be liberated and Voltron deserves to be reunited. I don’t care about your prisoner friend, if I’m being completely honest, but I don’t mind giving you as much information as you need, if it proves that I’m trustworthy. All I want is for you to possess the lion. Once it’s done, I can also reveal the location of the Black Lion. It is the only one you have not located yet, unless I am mistaken?”
Shiro frowned and looked at Keith and Lance. “It’s your quest. What do you think?”
Lance and Keith didn’t like it, but it was their best chance. They settled on believing him, but they had a plan B and a plan C just in case Lotor was leading them into a trap. If it wasn’t one, the risk and wasted time would be significantly reduced. Lance wanted it to be true.
With the sun setting, they were ready to go. Following Lotor’s recommendations, they split up into two groups. At first he suggested for Keith, Shiro and Hunk to go free the prisoner, but Pidge insisted that she had to be on that team, so she ended up replacing Keith. The other group now consisted of Lance, Allura, Keith and – against everyone’s personal wishes – Lotor.
Pidge handed out small communication devices she had enchanted. They were tiny circular discs they had to shove into their ear, accompanied by a metal ring they were to wear around their forefinger. When rubbed, Pidge demonstrated, the ring would activate the device and allow them to them speak to each other. All seven of them were connected, so they would have to keep the talking to a minimum, saying only whatever was absolutely crucial to the mission.
Pidge also supplied them with a variety of enhancements to their weapons, to improve accuracy and speed. Lance didn’t get to try out his modified quiver, but his hands were itching for the new and improved arrows.
They entered the secret tunnel as a group and split up at the first exit. From there, Lance went in first to secure the watch tower which was just in front of the exit from the tunnel. He had to knock out two guards on his way, but it went much more smoothly than he expected. He covered for Lotor and Allura as they headed to secure the main entrance into Haggar’s private quarters. Once they gave a “clear”, Keith moved forward to a different entrance in order to slip right into the basement.
“Keith, stop,” Lance said and Keith ducked behind a large statue just outside the building, “two guards are coming your way. I’ll take the one on your right, you go left.”
Lance gave him a short countdown and released the arrow at the right moment. It caught the guard and sent him to the ground. Keith knocked out the other one with a single swift motion.
“Nice work, Sharpshooter,” Keith said, and Lance could hear that he was smiling.
“Not bad yourself,” Lance told him, “quick and efficient.”
“If you two could cut the flirting to a minimum and keep this line clear, that’d be great,” Pidge said then. Lance could feel his face burning. He cleared his throat.
“Two more at the entrance, then wait for me to come down,” he said. They took out those two guards as well, and Lance hurried down the tower to join Keith in the basement. They entered together. It was quiet inside. They could hear the other team on their way to Matt through their communication device. Lotor and Allura were quiet for a while, and Lance felt nervous about that.
“Allura, Lotor, what’s the situation up there?” he requested.
“All good,” Lotor replied.
“All good,” Allura joined in. He wondered whether she sounded tense to him. He couldn’t trust Lotor no matter how nice his ideology sounded. But they didn’t have time to think about that. A horn went off very suddenly, and Lance froze, panicked.
“What in Fate’s name is that?” he asked.
“It’s us, they spotted us,” Shiro reported, “Pidge, get out of there, now!”
“Not until I find Matt!” Pidge replied.
Lance turned to Keith. They couldn’t afford to go back now either. They started running. Two flights of stairs and three knocked out guards later, they found the room Lotor had described. The lion stood in the center, on a pedestal. Keith seized it and turned around, but the door to the room was shut without a warning and they were locked inside.
“What the fuck?” Lance tried to push it. There was no door handle, which seemed strange in the first place, but it was now impossible to open. “We’re locked in the basement,” he told the others.
“It’s the lockdown protocol,” Lotor explained, “the door will only open at the hand of a Galra. Hang in there, I’ll come down to get you out.”
Lance turned around to see Keith approaching the door. He was hesitating. Lance knew what he was thinking. Putting his hand on this door now would give him an answer to a question that likely bothered him for most of his life. It was too big of a moment to have right there and then, with the horn sounding loud all around them, with Galra guards targeting them, with everyone in a hurry.
Keith took a deep breath and placed one hand on the door. It opened with a soft click. He froze. Lance could see the mixture of emotions coloring his face, but they didn’t have time for that.
Keith’s eyes snapped up. Lance felt as if he was intruding on a very personal moment. He wished he could give Keith the space and privacy he needed. But they were trapped there together, and they needed to move. “We need to leave.”
Keith nodded and they walked outside. Lance was just about to tell Lotor that there was no need to come down for them, but Lotor was already dashing down the corridor.
“The door opened,” Lance told him briefly, not giving up any details, “where’s Allura?”
“She can hold her own,” Lotor said, “we’re going out the other way.”
They ran out the same way Lance and Keith snuck in. Most of the guards seemed to be running for the prison building, none of them paying the three of them any attention. Whatever Pidge, Hunk and Shiro did must have given away their location. One guard, while running to that building, stopped in front of them nonetheless. He looked at Lotor with puzzled eyes.
“Prince Lotor?” he said, “we weren’t told you were – “
Lotor sliced his throat before he could finish the sentence.
“Did he say prince?” Lance stared at him. But there was no time for questions. Over their communication devices, they were trying to figure out what was going on. They met Allura and almost got to the tunnel when Pidge announced that she found Matt. Shiro told her to meet him on the first floor. That’s when they realized that Hunk wasn’t answering.
Lance moved forward before he even knew he made the decision. He was stopped by Keith’s hand on his arm.
“No way,” Keith told him, “Shiro will get to him. Stay right here.”
He turned to look at Keith. “Don’t do this to me. I’m not going to stand here when there’s a chance that Hunk’s in trouble.”
Keith looked conflicted. “Then I’m coming too.”
“Keith. Let me go.”
Keith sighed. He gripped him tightly with both hands and pulled him closer, so he would hear him over the loud horn still blaring in the background.
“You come back in one piece, or I’ll kill you myself. Got it?”
He probably didn’t intend it to sound as dark as it did. Or perhaps he intended it to sound darker than it did. Either way, Lance nodded once and turned to run towards the prison building. The guards were everywhere, but he lowered his helmet and blended in with them enough for them not to question it. He left his bow behind, taking Keith’s sword instead, and he was ready for blood. Pidge and Matt, he heard over the communication device, had made it back to the group. They were headed outside. It was now up to Lance and Shiro to find Hunk and get him out of there.
“I found him,” Shiro then announced, “the cell block on the third floor.”
Lance rushed up the stairs to find Shiro fighting a whole group of guards. It seemed like a hopeless fight. There were too many of them, and guards were rushing into the building at an alarming pace. Hunk was on the floor, one of his legs bleeding badly. He could barely stand up. Lance joined the fight alongside Shiro, but there was not much he could do. Then, the doors on both sides of the corridor shut closed. A woman appeared, as if out of nowhere. She was clearly Galra, with the way her weapons glowed purple, but she was not wearing the regular Galra uniform.
She helped them defeat the guards that were locked in the corridor with them. Once they were the only ones left standing, it got confusing. They had no way of knowing whether she was on their side or some sort of a trap.
“You’ll have to go out the window,” she told them, “those doors are not going to open for anyone in the next hour or so.”
“We’re on the third floor. One of us is seriously injured,” Lance pointed out, already kneeling beside Hunk to help him stop the bleeding.
“I have an enchanted rope,” she said, “I’ll get you down and then climb out myself.”
“Who are you and why are we supposed to trust you again?” Lance asked, angry that he was expected to trust so many people out of the blue in such a short period of time.
“I’m Krolia,” she said, “does it matter? It’s either that or being stuck here, with your friend bleeding out. Your choice.”
There really was no choice at all. She helped them climb out the window with the rope. Shiro went first. Hunk went second, careful with his leg, and Shiro made sure he landed safely. Lance was next, and he was nervous about it. He was watching Krolia as she lowered his friends to the ground, holding onto the rope just in case she decided to drop them. But now there was no one to watch over him.
“Better hurry,” she told him, “soon, they’ll figure out that you had no other way of escaping, and they’ll come to check the windows.”
“If you drop me – “
“That would be entirely irrational. Would you just go already?” She looked at him, annoyed. For a moment, there was something uncanny about her face. Something was off about it. Or, perhaps, not off, it was just – the answer was somewhere at the back of his mind, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. There was something familiar in the way her mouth tensed when she frowned, or the way she raised her eyebrows at him. Whatever it was, it gave him the feeling that she was not going to drop him. He took hold of the rope and climbed out of the window.
Krolia was right. Just as he hit the ground, they heard guards coming from around the corner. They had no time to turn around and see whether Krolia got out safely. They propped Hunk up, each holding onto a different side of him, and ran as fast as they could. They regrouped with the others back in the woods, patched Hunk up as quickly as they could, and left on their horses, worried that they might be pursued by the guards.
Once they were a safe distance away, they stopped. Hunk needed more assistance. Matt appeared to be in a pretty bad shape too, from being beaten up by the guards for quite a long time. Keith had a cut at his ribs, which wasn’t very serious but Lance was mad at him for concealing it until the very last moment. Other than that, they all got away with a few scratches and bruises.
While Lance was finishing with Hunk’s bandages, he watched Lotor and Allura discuss something in hushed voices. His hands clenched into fists.
“Relax, buddy,” Hunk told him, “it’s not that bad, I’ll live.”
Keith, who knew exactly where Lance was looking, shook his head. “I think Lance is worried about something else this time. I got this,” he told Lance, taking the bandage away from him, “your hands aren’t steady.”
Lance let go and got up on his feet.
“Lotor owes us an explanation,” he said, “care to tell us who you really are, Your Highness?”
Everyone looked at Lotor questioningly. He took a deep breath and stepped forward.
“I didn’t want to tell you this for fear that you wouldn’t trust me, but… Yes. I am Emperor Zarkon’s son, Prince Lotor.”
“You sneaky little – “ Lance was about to unsheathe his sword, but he was interrupted.
“So what if I am? Nothing changed. I’m still going to help you get that fifth lion to form Voltron and free Altea. I disagree with the way my father runs this Empire. Bloodshed, slaves, no respect for human lives… It must be stopped. With the power of Voltron and the help of Altea, I hope to take the throne away from my father and bring peace to the Empire.”
“Bullshit,” said Lance, “you’re just using pretty words to get into our heads. I bet you weren’t counting on helping us today at all. I bet – I bet you were behind that horn, and the lockdown protocol, and – I don’t know. You did something.”
Lotor frowned, but it was Allura who spoke.
“Lance, what are you talking about? Lotor was by my side the whole time. He fought honorably against the guards. He didn’t hesitate once. And when he heard that you were locked down there, he dropped everything and ran to free you. Yes, he… He omitted some information. But weren’t you the one who told me that we should judge people by what they do, not who they are? Lotor’s actions speak for him, and today he has done nothing but help us. I think he’s done enough to earn our trust. Don’t you?”
“How can you take his side? Allura, he’s clearly a snake – “
“Lance!” she sounded offended, “I think we’ve already had this conversation, but in reverse. Watch your tongue, your words have weight.”
He looked at Lotor, who seemed to have no expression whatsoever. There was no way for him to explain why he couldn’t trust Lotor. There was no logical explanation for it - he just felt wrong. Lance couldn’t say that. He especially didn’t want it to seem as if his mistrust was race-based. He let it go.
Lotor went on about how he knew the citadel so well because he grew up in it, and how he had heard stories about the great magic behind the lions of Voltron. Everyone seemed captivated by his stories. He was a good storyteller, Lance had to give him that. He also had a sympathetic story about how his father was an abusive jerk, which made even Lance feel some compassion for him. But no matter how charming Lotor seemed, Lance could not stop seeing a snake in him.
They kept riding deeper into the Empire. Lotor told them that the next lion was going to be within Zarkon’s palace, and they would have to get to the capital for that. Meanwhile, Pidge discovered that she had a connection with the fourth, green lion. Allura hoped that she would have that connection instead, but she still had some hope for the final lion, so now she was highly determined to get it and nothing could stand in her way.
They now faced a question neither of them wanted to bring up. With Matt saved and recovering, there was no official reason for him, Pidge or Shiro to stay. Hunk, too, could return to the Garrison if he wished. And while Shiro and Hunk seemed to take it for granted that they couldn’t leave now, it wasn’t the same for the siblings. Lance asked Pidge whether she was going to take her brother back.
“I want to,” she told him as they were washing some bloodied clothes in the river together, “but… This is going to sound weird. When I formed that connection with the lion, I had a feeling that… My job isn’t done here yet.”
Lance nodded. “I understand. So are you going to finish this with us? Break the curse, free Altea?”
“I think you’re going to need all the help you can get,” she smiled, “I suppose Matt might want to go back on his own, but I really don’t think that would be a good idea. It’s too dangerous. Besides, we don’t have enough horses as it is.”
“Then you should both stay with us,” Lance told her, “it’s been a while since we spent time together anyway. I kind of missed you.”
“Eww,” Pidge said, but she was smiling, “you missed me? What, are you going to tell me that you love me, too? Have any other confessions to make?”
“Oh, of course. I love you. You’re the love of my life. Come here, give me a hug and a kiss.”
“No, you smell like fish,” Pidge pointed out. He did smell like fish. He was helping Hunk gut the fish earlier and his shirt was still dirty. He was perfectly aware of that.
“Come to Lance – “ he said, puckering his lips and spreading his arms.
“Get away from me you stinky, stinky boy,” Pidge swatted at him as he wrapped his arms around her and squeezed her tightly, but she wasn’t trying very hard. Deep inside, he knew, she missed him too.
There was a total of four tents now. Allura and Pidge shared one, Matt and Hunk shared another, and Shiro, bizarrely, was sharing a tent with Lotor. This quest was going into really unexpected directions, Lance thought. And as everyone retreated to their tents, Lance realized that he was dreading being alone with Keith.
Keith seemed to be worried about it too, by the look on his face. He was quiet as Lance covered himself with the blanket.
“You haven’t told anyone,” Keith said once the silence felt a little too heavy.
Lance knew what he was talking about. He was waiting for him to bring it up.
“It’s yours to reveal or conceal,” Lance told him, “not mine. I’m sorry you – well, I’m sorry you didn’t have the privacy you deserve. And that you had to find out… Like that.”
“That was not ideal.”
Keith finally turned to look at him. “Does this change your opinion?”
Lance frowned. “About what?”
“About… Me. Everything you told Allura. Everything…”
“Wow, Keith. Shut up. Is that what you think of me, really? I already knew that there was a chance that you’re – “
“But there was still hope that I’m not. Maybe… Maybe you were holding onto that hope.”
The way he said it sounded almost like he was the one holding onto that hope.
“Keith, there’s nothing wrong with being Galra,” he said, “it doesn’t say anything about you. You are what you make of yourself. Being Galra doesn’t come with a certain personality or a set of values, or… It changes nothing. You’re you. From what I’ve seen so far, that’s a good thing.”
Keith blinked at him. “I hope you’re right.”
“You’re the one person who should know for a fact that’s right,” Lance smiled, incredulous, as if Keith was being silly. “Don’t you know you’re a good person? Don’t you like yourself?”
“Those are two very loaded questions.”
“Fine. Well, I – we like you. You have friends now, get used to it. And as your friends, we’re not going to let you be mean to yourself. So I’m going to tell you this right now, Mr. Kogane. Don’t be mean to my friend just because he’s Galra. That’s racist.”
Keith’s mouth curved just the tiniest bit. “We’re friends, then?”
“I thought we’ve established that already,” Lance said. Keith was grinning like an idiot. A very cute idiot. Lance wasn’t sure whether he wanted to hug him or punch him. “Yes, I know. Shut up. If you told me that a year ago – even less than that… But that doesn’t matter. Yes, we’re friends now, like it or not.”
They went quiet. Lance thought the conversation must be over. Keith did that a lot – simply stopped talking to indicate that there will be no more talking. Just before he finally fell asleep, he caught Keith’s whisper.
“I like it.”
Chapter 9: The Black Lion
It might be the last component to assemble Voltron, but the quest is far from over and new challlenges arise.
just so you guys know, unfortunately I don't feel very well and it's getting worse really fast, and I didn't have the chance to proofread the next chapter just yet, so it might be a while before the next update. hopefully, the wait won't be too long. thank you for sticking by <3
They were getting closer to Zarkon’s palace with every passing day. Shiro made sure to keep the practice drills going. He was used to being this: a soldier, an instructor, keeping the group intact. It had a visible effect on all of them. They worked better as a group, each fulfilling their own tasks and with enough helping hands to make even chores feel less tedious. Overall, the morale was high and they were in good spirits. Matt never went back. Once he recovered from his injuries, he let Pidge know that he would not return until Altea is free. To make up for their failed quest, he said.
There was a lot of talking, planning and strategizing between all of them. Lance and Shiro told the others about Krolia, which sprouted the discussion about possible Galra rebellion groups. Lotor told them that he knew nothing about it, and that even if there was such a group they should not busy their minds with it. As anything else Lotor had to say, Lance found it very suspicious and could not believe a word of it. Lotor was getting on his every last nerve. Allura seemed to be especially fond of the young prince. Whenever he spoke about the great, possibly lost potential of Altea, her eyes lit up with inspiration. Lance pictured shoving an entire eggplant in his mouth to finally shut him up.
He was practicing on his own with Keith’s sword, polishing his technique. He was giving it his best. Everything was getting more intense now, and that meant that he had to try harder. A mistake could cost him his life, or the life of one of his friends. He was interrupted by a smooth, cold voice.
“You’re putting too much force into those thrusts. You should work on speed instead.”
He turned around to see Lotor’s sharp eyes following him.
“I’m sorry, I’m trying really hard, but I just can’t seem to recall exactly when I ever asked for your advice.”
Lotor sighed and stepped towards him.
“I know that you don’t like me, Lance, for whatever reason. I hope I can change your mind, I really do. How shall I prove to you that I’m on your side? Clearly, I want the lions to be in your hands. I want to defeat Zarkon. Isn’t that what you want as well?”
“Just because I don’t know what your evil plan is just yet doesn’t mean you don’t have one.”
“Your mistrust is frustrating. But I am willing to be patient. Hopefully, once the black lion is in your hands and Altea is finally liberated, you can see me for who I am.”
“Do you really want Altea liberated?” Lance asked, “what’s it to you?”
“To me? Absolutely nothing. But to the world? Altea has so much to contribute, so much – “
“Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard it,” Lance waved a dismissive hand at him, “the magic, the potential. Sounds to me like you’re not exactly concerned about the people of Altea, only about their magic.”
Lotor frowned. “I’m sorry that that’s how you see it. But it doesn’t matter. Like it or not, you’re working with me now. We don’t have to like each other for that, do you agree?”
Lance held his gaze. It took all his willpower to keep himself from raising the sword to Lotor’s throat. He stood still as Lotor turned around and left. As he watched him walking away, he noticed Keith standing by a tree nearby. He stepped forward now.
“What was that about?” Keith asked, his expression carefully blank.
“My deep, unwavering hatred for this pretentious buffoon.”
Keith folded his arms over his chest and Lance sheathed his sword, prepared for a lecture. “Are you going to tell me how wrong I am and that Lotor is in fact our most precious addition to the team?”
“No, I’m going to ask you a question.”
“Do you really, honestly believe that there’s something suspicious about him, or is there another, more personal reason for your dislike of him?”
“What?” Lance furrowed his eyebrows, “what do you mean, a more personal reason?”
“I mean Allura,” Keith looked as if it pained him to say the words, “we can all see that she’s getting… Close to him. So is this about – “
“No, no, what? No. I don’t even like her that way.” Lance froze. He hadn’t realized it until he said it. But it was true.
Keith wasn’t convinced. “You don’t need to pretend, Lance,” he said, “it’s pretty obvious that you like her. I think it always has been.”
“No. I mean, not anymore. Look,” his mouth moved quicker than his thoughts, “I used to like her a lot, yes, you’re right. But it was always hopeless, and she made that clear to me. So before this quest, I promised myself that I would try to get over it. To be quite honest, I didn’t expect it to work. I thought that a few weeks spent away from her would dull the pain, and then it would all come back to me once the quest is over and I see her again. Then, when Hunk and Allura found us, I thought that I was done for. I thought that it was all going to get a thousand times worse, that I would start developing hope again. But I didn’t. I’m not sure why, but I just don’t see her that way anymore. And I still love her, I do, I just don’t think of her… Like that. Do you think this is jealousy? No. If it was anyone else, I wouldn’t care. If she suddenly liked Matt, or Shiro, or Pidge… I’d be happy for them. Even Hunk – although that would be weird, because Hunk has heard me say some embarrassing stuff about her – but I wouldn’t mind. There’s something wrong about this guy. I can feel it with my gut, every time I look at him I just… Know.”
Keith watched him quietly for a while. Lance didn’t know whether any of this was convincing, but he hoped it was. He yearned for Keith’s support and approval as if it was the ultimate confirmation that his suspicions were correct.
Keith stepped forward. He put one hand on Lance’s arm in a supportive gesture. “But we have to be smart about this. What you’re doing right now is too risky. Think about it. If he’s some evil mastermind, then he’s going to be very sensitive about who trusts him and who doesn’t. Right now, you don’t have any actual evidence against him, yet you’re putting a target on your back by letting him know that you can see through him.”
“What do I do, then?” Lance’s heart started beating faster. Keith believed him. He wasn’t alone. Keith’s hand moved to his shoulder, grounding him.
“We act like we believe him. We let him be. But we keep one eye open. Deceit never lasts; he will let his guard down eventually and we’ll get the proof we need. We just need to wait. Patiently.”
“I don’t think I can pretend to like him.”
“Then don’t. I don’t. Just don’t voice your suspicions. If you want, you can talk all about how much you hate him with me. But not in front of everyone else. Do you understand?”
A warm wave of gratitude washed over him. Impulsively, he pulled Keith into a hug. It took a moment, but he felt Keith’s hands gently settling on his back in return.
“Thank you,” he said into Keith’s shoulder.
“You haven’t given me a reason to doubt you yet," Keith reminded him.
Lance pulled back to look at him. They were still standing close, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. Then Keith smiled. “Now, I brought Shiro’s sword with me and I’m ready to kick your ass.”
Lance unsheathed his sword. “Wow, look at you, Mr. Confidence. We’ll see about that,” he said, fully knowing that Keith was certainly going to kick his ass but refusing to admit it in advance.
Allura had the gift of magic, they were all delighted to discover. Lance was a lot less delighted to discover that Lotor was the one to reveal this to her. He himself was part Altean, he admitted, and now they could explore their magical abilities together. As if they weren’t spending enough time together already, they would now often seclude themselves, practicing their magic and exploring some mystical connection between them.
Needless to say, this made Lance incredibly annoyed, and he had destroyed a great number of perfectly good bushes during his training with the sword. Hunk, ever considerate and sweet, tried his best to distract him and lift his spirits, though his worry was entirely misplaced. Much like Keith, it appeared that Hunk had assumed that Lance was acting out due to jealousy. Every inch of his body itched with the urge to deny this, but he remembered Keith’s words and decided to let him think that it was nothing but jealousy.
The only good distraction, he soon found out, was Keith. One night, before they went to sleep, Lance watched Keith as he placed his knife under the pillow, as usual. He had wondered many times before whether it was safe. He had other questions about that knife, too, and he never dared to ask them before. Now, however, seemed like the right time to try.
“Can I ask you something?” his voice was hesitant. Keith tensed a little, but he nodded.
“I was just wondering,” Lance started, “about your knife.”
Keith frowned at him for a moment. He reached under his pillow and took it out, holding it between them so it was visible.
“Ask the question.”
“It looks like a Galra knife,” Lance pointed out.
“That’s not a question.”
“Where did you get it?”
“My father,” Keith spoke carefully, as if Lance might hold it againt him, “or… My mother, I guess. It was a present from her when I was a baby. It’s the only thing she left behind.”
“I’m sorry, your mother decided that a suitable gift for a baby would be a knife? I think I understand why you turned out like this,” Lance joked.
“My father thought so, too,” Keith smiled, but his smile was flat with bitterness, “so he gave me the knife when I was seven.”
“That’s not much better, Keith.”
“He was trying to give me something,” Keith turned the knife over in his hands, skillfully practiced motions, as if he was born with it, “anything, you know? There was nothing else he could give me. And I kept asking. He told me that one day he’ll tell me the meaning behind this knife and where she went and why, but…”
“Maybe she will, someday,” Lance mused after the silence went on for a little too long, “maybe… You’ll have a quest to find her.”
“I thought about it,” Keith admitted, squeezing the knife with both hands now, “I thought… When they called my name for this quest, I thought…”
“That this might be it?”
“Yes.” Keith’s voice was heartbreakingly sad. Lance chewed on his lip. He never even considered that. When they got their quest, all he thought about was its importance to Allura. And when he said that they stole it from her, he never even imagined that perhaps Keith was feeling the same thing. That he was the one being robbed. He focused so much on his own personal misfortunes that Keith’s perspective never even occurred to him.
“Maybe your next quest, then,” Lance suggested, “all this means is that we have to get you back in one piece, so you can one day receive your rightful quest to locate your mother.”
“It’s almost worse that way,” Keith said, his smile even sadder now, “I don’t think I want to… Share this with anyone else.”
They stared at each other in the darkness. It was highly unlikely that they would ever be chosen for a quest again. He had never heard of someone having the same companion twice. No one even knew whether it was possible. He knew this, and yet Keith’s words sounded almost like a confession.
“Does no one else know?” Lance dared.
“I think everyone knows, somehow,” Keith replied, “or at least, some kind of version of it. But if you mean what I just told you, then no. Well, Shiro does. But he’s not an option, is he? And I can’t imagine going on a quest with anyone else from Support.”
Lance smiled, trying to seem positive for Keith's sake. “You’re so impossible. You thought that about me too, right? And I had the same thoughts about you. Don’t dismiss the possibility before it even exists. Maybe you’ll get a great companion and you’ll learn to trust them. Maybe there’s someone out there who is also looking for their lost mother. Maybe your mother and their mother are actually lovers, and you’re going to earn yourself a step-sibling!”
Keith chuckled. “We’re talking about a quest, Lance. Not a dramatic theater performance.”
“Either way,” Lance told him, “have some faith. Anything can happen.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Keith said. He was quiet then, and Lance thought he must be thinking about this, imagining a quest with someone else in search of his mother. But when he spoke again, he surprised him.
“How does it feel… To have your sister in Support with you?”
Lance talked about his family a lot. Keith already heard him speak about his siblings or his parents many times. But his tone was usually humorous, light, just an attempt to fill up the silence. And Keith never asked to hear any of it. But now he did.
So Lance told him about Veronica. He told him about how they were sorted together, and how she was always there to remind him that being Support didn’t mean any less than being a Hero. He told him how she inspired him to try harder and aim higher, her ambition driving them both. Keith listened to him with curious eyes until Lance was too tired to talk and they fell asleep.
A few days passed, and the plan was finally ready. With Pidge’s new inventions, Lotor’s knowledge and understanding of the Galra magic, and Allura’s newfound Altean magic, they had the upper hand.
Shiro gave them one last pep talk. Keith was only half listening to him. It was full of inspiring words about teamwork and the greater good, but his mind was in a million other places. When Shiro finished, everyone seemed elevated with the anticipation of a good fight. Keith looked at Lance, who was still staring at Shiro with a dreamy smile.
“What are you smiling at?” Keith asked, nudging at Lance with his elbow.
“Is Shiro single?” Lance whispered, sending Keith’s heart into a dark abyss with three short words. Then he elaborated. “I kind of want him as a brother in law. Veronica would absolutely die when I tell her about him.”
Keith smiled. He locked eyes with Shiro and said, loud enough for him to hear, “Shiro has a boyfriend. And that boyfriend is going to kick his ass when he gets back.”
Shiro threw a bag at him a little too hard, and Keith knew it was with the intention to kill. “Stop reminding me about that.”
Lance frowned. “Why would he be mad at you?” he asked Shiro.
“Well, let’s see,” Shiro tapped his chin, “last time I went on a quest I came back a failure, with a different hair color and with one less arm than expected. You can see how he wasn’t keen on seeing me embark on another suicide mission with a seventeen year old girl for a companion.”
“Ah, yes. I see.” Lance chuckled awkwardly.
“You should’ve brought him along,” Keith said, “Adam is a great rider and a fantastic strategist. He could be useful.”
“I’d never bring him into this mess,” Shiro shook his head, “no way. I know it’s selfish, but… I just can’t imagine having him risk his life like this.”
Keith could relate to that. He remembered how impossibly hard it was for him to let go of Lance when he was headed into a potentially deadly situation back at the Citadel. Still, he knew better than to try and hold Lance back, especially when his friend's life was on the line. He wondered how Adam felt about Shiro being so protective. But it was not his place to say anything, so he didn’t. He simply kept helping with the preparations, making sure that everything was in place. He helped Lance strap his armor on. They did not bother disguising themselves as Galra this time, and their own armor was much less troublesome, but it still felt nice to have someone else help with the straps. Lance returned the favor by strapping him in as well.
“It looks too good on you,” Lance muttered as he worked on his breastplate, “fits you so well. It’s like your body was specifically designed for armor.” Keith couldn’t tell whether this was a compliment or a complaint. The words were kind, but Lance was saying them as if he was accusing Keith of a crime.
“Well, you look great too,” Keith blurted out. Lance turned him around so they would face each other. He was grinning. “I know I do. I always look great. A perfect 10/10, day and night. I’m not fishing for compliments.”
Keith reached up and ruffled his hair. “Your hair’s all messed up,” he said then, “see? Not so perfect after all.”
“Joke’s on you,” Lance told him, “that is exactly the look I was going for. And it’s dashing.” He smiled, shaking his head just slightly. And Keith’s heart melted painfully in his chest, because he was right, and being this attractive should have been illegal.
The plan was in motion. The first part, for which he volunteered to go alongside Lance, was to cause a distraction at the prison cells. A suspected prison break would put most of the guards on alert for all the wrong reasons, as they’d seen in Haggar’s citadel. In order for them to avoid the danger, however, they had to find the floor right underneath the prison cells, where they would install Pidge’s special magical device, which would cause the locks of the cells to malfunction. Getting there went smoothly – Keith and Lance were now perfectly in sync when they fought side by side. They were always a good team, before they even knew it, but over the course of their quest they learned to trust each other so blindly that half a word or a simple gesture was enough for them to understand what the other needed. Keith wished it was like that in their personal relationship as well, but for now it was good enough that they could fight in tandem.
They reached the correct floor and Lance started working on the device while Keith stood on watch.
They had quite some luck so far, with almost no guards obscuring their way. But nothing could ever go perfectly smooth. “Someone’s coming,” he warned upon seeing a shadow along the wall. He tightened his grip around the hilt of his sword. “Keep working on it, I’ll take care of this.”
He leapt forward, surprising the approaching figure. It was a woman, who seemed momentarily puzzled to see him there. Then he attacked her, and she blocked him with her own sword. She was much better than he expected. She did not fight like the guards. In four simple moves, she backed him into the wall. One more, and his sword flew out of his hand. “Lance, hurry!” he called. The woman made the mistake of looking at Lance, which gave him just enough time to take out his knife and slip away.
“Wait,” she called, “I know you.”
Lance turned around at the sound of her voice. “Krolia?”
Keith frowned. “You know her?”
“Yeah, she’s the one who helped us escape at the Citadel. How are you alive? We didn’t see you get down, and the guards came.”
“I didn’t get down. I went up. I climbed to the roof. I didn’t think you’d make it, Rat Boy.”
“Rat Boy?” Lance sounded highly offended.
“You didn’t tell me your name, did you?”
“Oh, that’s nice. Why am I Rat Boy, then?”
“Thin brown hair, sticks up. Thin, pointy nose. What are you offended for? Rats are great animals. Very intelligent. A lot cleaner than one would expect. They also taste good.”
“I’m sorry, what?” Lance was too thrown off by the last comment to be offended any longer. Krolia was about to answer, even though neither of them really wanted to know about her culinary experience with rats, but then her eyes settled on Keith's hand.
“Where did you get that knife?” she asked.
“That’s none of your business. It’s mine.”
Her expression changed as their eyes met. “Keith?” her voice shuddered.
“How do you know my name?” he asked.
“Look, I really don’t want to interrupt your… Knife discussion? But Lotor is waiting for our signal and he’s going to start bitching – “
“Lotor? Are you working with Prince Lotor?” Krolia seemed alarmed.
“Why are you asking?” Lance’s eyes narrowed.
“I know someone who would very much like to slit his throat for the things he had done,” Krolia said grimly, “but it doesn’t matter right now, we’re in a hurry. What are you doing?” she pointed at the device in Lance’s hands.
“I’m going to free the prisoners in order to draw in the guards and cause a diversion,” he explained.
“I’m here to free the prisoners too,” Krolia said, “some of them are my comrades. I must be there to lead them to safety.”
Lance’s mind was visibly reeling. “We’re about to help you, then,” Lance said, “how long will it take you to get upstairs and to the end of the corridor?”
“A minute or so,” Krolia estimated.
“I’ll give you a minute, then. I’ll activate the device and you will lead your people out of here. But, Krolia, this is important. If you have someone who can give us information about Lotor and why we shouldn’t trust him, then we want to hear it. Here, take this,” he gave her Pidge’s special long-range transmitter, “I will contact you with this once we get out of here, all right?
She looked back at Keith. “I think our paths are meant to be crossed again. Yes, I will be waiting for your signal.”
With that, she was gone.
Lance started counting the seconds in his head. All the while, Keith felt as if he wasn’t really there. Everything happened too fast. This was not how he imagined it.
“Keith, we need to run,” Lance said, pulling on his sleeve. The device was activated. The locks were open. The alarm was blaring. They ran.
Getting to the others proved to be a challenge. They didn’t expect as many guards to come through the route they picked. By the time they made their way through, the communication devices were loud with screams from the others.
“We’re in a tight spot here.” It was Pidge.
“I’m on my way.” It was Allura.
“Shiro, where the hell are you? I can’t hold this post for much longer.” Hunk.
“Shiro?” “Where’s Shiro?” “Answer, Shiro!” Nothing.
“He’s with Zarkon,” said Lotor. “I’m going there.”
By the time Keith and Lance rushed into the main hall, it was all over. Shiro was lying on the ground in Hunk’s arms. Pidge rushed to their side. In the center of the hall, Lotor’s sword was sticking out of Zarkon’s body. Lotor, hands shaking with horror, was kneeling beside the now lifeless body, his cape rapidly soaking up his father’s blood. Allura stood shocked beside him, hesitantly coming to comfort him.
Keith didn’t care about Zarkon and his son. His eyes were locked onto Shiro. He sprinted across the hall and fell to the floor beside Hunk.
“What’s going on?” he asked, scooping Shiro onto his lap.
“He’s not responding,” Hunk answered, his eyes wet with tears, “I don’t know what to do.”
Pidge pressed an ear to Shiro’s chest. “He’s just barely alive,” she said, “I could use a fucking – ugh. No. I didn’t bring my kit. Maybe with Allura’s weird Altean magic – “
“Allura!” Keith whipped his head back. She turned to him sharply. “We need you,” he said.
She ran over to them and took hold of Shiro’s hands. Pidge pushed the black lion forward.
“Can you use this,” Pidge suggested, “for those Important Ancient tricks that Lotor taught you? Can you keep his essence alive until we get him back to my kit?”
“I can try,” Allura said. She concentrated on the lion.
They were all distracted when more guards piled in, freezing in shock at the sight of their Emperor lying dead on the floor.
“My father is dead,” Lotor announced, “I am in charge now. Call off the alarm.”
The guards seemed confused, but they obeyed.
With Lotor taking control, they were now officially safe in Zarkon’s, or rather Lotor’s, palace. Shiro was taken away to be treated. With the combined efforts of Allura, Pidge, and Lotor, they were sure to come up with something to save him eventually. Or so everyone kept telling Keith.
He was sitting on a bench outside the infirmary, waiting to hear any news. Lance came to check on him.
“Nothing yet,” he told Lance, “they’re still figuring it out. Are you going somewhere?” he noticed that Lance was armed again.
“I need to go see Matt,” Lance said, “he still doesn’t know what happened and everyone else is busy.”
Keith frowned. “Please tell me you’re not going to contact Krolia now. You’re not, right? We can’t start accusing Lotor now, not when we’re in his palace, not with Shiro – “ his voice cracked. Lance knelt in front of him so they could be on the same eye level.
“I know,” he said, scooping Keith’s hands into his, “I’m not going to contact her yet, don’t worry. I’m just going to find Matt and help him bring the horses in. I would never put Shiro in danger.”
Keith nodded. “I know it’s important that we expose Lotor for what he is, it’s just – “
“I understand. He’s going to be okay. Keith, he is. Three different magical approaches are in play here. It’s impossible for all of them to fail. He’s going to live.”
“Is he, though?” Keith raised his eyes to meet Lance’s. He was barely keeping it together anymore. “Everyone told me that he was going to be perfectly fine when he left on his last quest. It’s Shiro, they said. He’s practically invincible. But he just barely escaped death then, and now it’s even worse than that – “ he broke. His voice caught in his throat. Lance slipped onto the bench beside him and pulled him into his arms. His shoulder was the same unwavering rock that it was on the mountain when Keith was losing himself in fear. His hands were now the ropes grounding him and keeping him from floating away into the vastness of pain. Keith’s walls were always up, protecting against a hostile world. But now Lance’s arms temporarily volunteered to take the place of his walls. And he let himself fall apart within them. He cried the way he never did in front of anyone else. Shiro saw him cry once, at his father’s grave, but not ever since. He let go, sobs escaping him more intensely than he expected. He was rapidly realizing that this wasn’t just about Shiro either. It was everything. It was jabs and insults from kids at the Garrison. It was his father leaving him too soon. It was not one adult believing in him, however hard he tried. It was years of eating lunch alone and telling himself that’s how he wanted it to be. It was knowing deep inside exactly what he was and hoping it wasn’t true. It was the proof of truth, revealed with no warning, not on his terms, without the proper time to process and accept it. It was Krolia, recognizing his father’s knife, his mother’s knife, the only piece of her he had. It was knowing what it probably meant but being too scared to think about it. It was Lance being so painfully close yet feeling so far away from where he needed him to be.
Shiro was just the last straw on this enormous pile of repressed worries and hurt he kept pushing aside. Now it all poured out of him in the form of tears, wet and salty, onto Lance’s cape-clad shoulder. And Lance, the ever-gentle heart, pulled him close as if his life depended on it. He held him, no different than he would his closest friend or family. He was there, no masks, no walls, no effort to keep it on his terms. He let Keith break because he needed to.
Lance stayed until he was too tired to cry. He whispered gentle kindness into his hair. He rubbed his back with soothing fingers and his steady heartbeat drowned the rest of the world out in reassuring rhythm.
“Go see Matt,” Keith said at last.
“I can stay for a while, if you need me.”
I wish you stayed forever, Keith wanted to say. Instead, he said: “Matt needs to know. Go.”
Lance squeezed him one last time. “I’ll be quick,” he said, “and by the time I get back, I bet you’ll meet me with good news.”
“I wish your words were prophecy.”
“They will be. And don’t be alone, Keith. Hunk is worried too, go see him.”
“He doesn’t like me much, I think.”
“He is legally obligated to like everyone I like,” Lance joked, “so I bet he likes you plenty. Just go see him, you don’t have to have a heart-to-heart.”
Keith nodded and let go. Lance walked away with a reassuring smile.
He likes me, then, Keith thought.
Lance tried to be as quick as possible. When Matt saw him approach on his own, he almost lost it with panic, but Lance explained as efficiently as he could the way things were now. Upon hearing that Shiro was hurt, Matt mounted his horse and rode as if he was being chased. Lance took most of the work to himself. Now that he was alone, he took the time to search through Lotor’s belongings. He only had a couple of bags strapped to his horse, but Lance thought that he might find incriminating evidence there. All he found was one letter, its contents very brief:
All is well here. The operation runs smoothly.
Requesting permission to expand our borders further east, as we are running out of source material on this territory.
We are eagerly awaiting your return.
- Lieutenant Zethrid”
This was too general for him to understand. While to him this seemed like solid proof that Lotor was suspicious, to anyone else this wouldn’t mean anything. He searched the rest of the bags, but there was absolutely nothing. Lotor was being careful. He would have to wait until he could contact Krolia.
When he finally got back, he found Keith with Hunk outside the infirmary. There were still no news, but Keith seemed better than he was before. Matt was already seated on the bench across from them, staring at the wall with blank eyes, detached from everyone else.
Lance took a seat between Hunk and Keith, trying to distract them with small talk.
“Zarkon’s palace looks like it was designed by the very embodiment of evil, doesn’t it? Look at this,” he pointed at the pillars at the end of the corridor, made of black stone and visibly old, “even the pillars here have horns.”
Hunk offered him a weak smile. “I know,” he said, “have you seen the front gates? There are actual live thorns woven through the metal. Spikes on all the fences, too. So hostile. Not to mention the gargoyles, they creep me out.” He shuddered.
Lance looked over at Keith, who was staring at the door of the infirmary, not really listening to them. He kept up the conversation with Hunk, but his hand discreetly found Keith’s, fingers wrapping around his wrist with comforting pressure. Keith didn’t look at him, but he didn’t move away either.
Then the door to the infirmary finally opened and Pidge stepped out. She looked incredibly tired. “We did it,” she announced, “Shiro is going to live.”
Chapter 10: Friend or Foe
An important confrontation and a curse finally broken.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
They stayed at the palace until Shiro was able to function properly again. It was surreal. They each had a room to themselves and the guards were instructed to treat them with respect. While they were free to move about as they wished, Keith felt strangely trapped in that palace. None of them knew how to behave around Lotor, not even the guards. They didn’t look him in the eye. Zarkon’s body was burned and his ashes were kept in the burial house in the vast gardens of the palace.
The others seemed to adapt faster than Keith did. He halted in a corridor once, upon seeing Pidge, Hunk and Lance gliding across the marble floors on thin wooden planks. A Galra guard was running after them in an attempt to stop them from wreaking havoc, but it was in vain. They were too fast. Hunk almost knocked Keith off his feet, but he jumped out of the way just in time. They were having fun, he realized. He couldn’t comprehend how they could be having fun at a time like this.
He went to visit Shiro again. Outside the infirmary, Allura and Lotor stood close together. They didn’t hear him turn around the corner, and he had to clear his throat a little to let his presence be known. They moved apart at once. Allura looked embarrassed, but she was suppressing a smile. It made Keith sick to his stomach. Back when Lance first expressed his dislike for Lotor, Keith was entirely convinced that it was nothing but jealousy. Even once he believed him, it was difficult for him to understand what fueled his feelings. But now he saw it. Allura, so closely in the arms of this snake. Allura, trusting, trying to see the best in people, charmed by this lying man. This after he himself had to work so hard to earn her trust. Perhaps he blamed himself a little. Perhaps he thought that a part of it was Allura trying to prove that she was able to overcome her prejudice against the Galra. He walked past them without saying a word. It wasn’t his place.
Matt was sitting beside Shiro’s bed, reminiscing about all the good times they had at the Garrison. Keith pulled a chair quietly, not quite joining the conversation but glad to observe and listen. Matt talked a lot. He would turn to Keith and say things like “I bet you didn’t know that Shiro here was the biggest troublemaker” and “I bet you haven’t heard of this story. It was scandalous!” and then get lost in storytelling.
Keith listened. He smiled and chuckled when Shiro waved at Matt, correcting him every other sentence. “It wasn’t like that at all,” and “that wasn’t entirely my fault,” and “what? That wasn’t even me. Matt, that was you!”
But Keith could only be present to a certain extent. Inside, worries plagued his mind with a thousand other thoughts.
Pidge revealed to them that Shiro had died. Only briefly, and Allura managed to fully bring him back before it was too late, but he did. Everyone felt cautious around him, knowing that. Nothing about him changed. Not on the inside, at least. He was still the same old Shiro, with the same sense of humor and kind eyes. On the outside, however, he didn't look that well. He seemed thinner, smaller somehow. His hair was whiter now. His eyes sunk deep into the sockets, the dark circles around them making him look as if he hadn't slept in years. Even though he claimed that he felt well enough to start walking again, he didn't seem as if he was feeling well at all.
Shiro was fine, Keith reassured himself. That was the important part. Shiro was alive, and he was there, and he was laughing with Matt as if there wasn’t a thick bandage on his head and a whole assortment of magical elixirs on his bedside cabinet. Once again he thought about Pidge, Lance and Hunk screeching with glee as they slid down the corridor. Was everyone able to have fun except for him? Was he the only one feeling as if a dark, disastrous cloud was hanging over them? Were they entirely blind to the danger looming just around the corner?
He spent his days alone. He stopped visiting Shiro in the infirmary, knowing that someone would always be there to keep him company anyway. He studied the palace, observed the guards, tried to discreetly find out what Lotor had in his mind. But it was impossible. Even though the palace was now technically ruled by Lotor, it was still filled with his father's people, and there would probably be no trace of his plans or secrets anywhere. Lotor pretended to feel fully at home, but Keith and Lance knew better that to believe that. Clearly, he had a home elsewhere, and he was eager to act on it.
Lotor told them that the palace won’t be safe for long. He claimed that Haggar would not rest until Zarkon’s death is avenged, that the Empire would split into factions with various bloodthirsty state leaders seeing this as a sudden opportunity to seize power, and that sooner or later someone would come to challenge him in an attempt to take the throne.
Once Allura approved that Shiro was strong enough to walk again, they started working on the lions. During the big fight against Zarkon, Shiro found out that he had a connection with the final, black lion. Allura was visibly upset, knowing that her chance to be a paladin of Voltron was now entirely gone, but she simply concentrated on her lessons with Lotor instead, exploring her potential as an Altean mage.
Forming Voltron, however, turned out to be more difficult than they expected it to be. They could each connect to their lion, but the key to forming Voltron was in connecting with each other as well, and they still had trouble with that.
Since time was of the essence and they weren’t perfectly safe in the palace anymore, they decided to leave the Galra Empire and start moving towards Altea, figuring out how to form Voltron on the way. Everyone agreed. Lotor let them pack whatever they needed from the palace and gave them two more horses for Matt and Lance, but he also suggested taking a few guards along for help. Keith and Lance both knew that getting Lotor alone would be the best option for them if they were going to meet with Krolia, so they did their best to speak against it. Lotor ended up bringing one companion along – a woman named Acxa, who appeared to be either his advisor or personal bodyguard. With that, they were back on the road again.
Only once they were past the border of the Galra Empire, Keith could breathe again. It didn’t feel like being on enemy soil anymore. The rapidly dropping temperatures helped as well, since there was something liberating about the crisp frosty air. They started dedicating their days to connecting with the lions and trying to form one, coherent connection. Some of them managed faster than others. Pidge and the green lion seemed to form an almost immediate bond with Hunk’s yellow lion. Shiro’s black lion and Keith’s red were the next to connect. Lance struggled the most. He kept losing his concentration.
He became easily irritated, and it was hard to ignore. Keith reminded himself that he didn’t mean to be so annoying, that they were all a little on edge, but Lance could be insufferable at times. He kept snapping at the others whenever someone suggested that they should take a break or offered him a word of advice. “Yes yes yes, I know,” he would say, “focus on my breathing. I’ve been focusing on my breathing for the past five hours, and nothing!” None of them knew what to say to that.
At night, Keith decided to give him some space. He was afraid that saying something would only set him off, so he said nothing and tried to distract himself with other thoughts. Being back in their tent was strangely comforting. Here, in this small space, under two scratchy blankets and clearly feeling every rock on the ground, felt better than on a spacious bed in Lotor’s marble palace. He was about to fall asleep when he heard a sniffle. He waited in silence. Another sniffle.
“Are you crying?” he asked, softly.
“Sorry. It’s fine,” Lance whispered, “it’s nothing.”
Keith rolled over and stared at the back of Lance’s head. “Why are you crying?”
“I’m just being stupid. Don’t worry about it.”
Keith didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t remember being in this position before. Perhaps when Lance was wounded. Physical wounds were easier to treat. A Quick Healer could not solve this. He reached to touch his shoulder. Lance didn’t move. “Do you want to talk, or – “
Lance was openly sobbing now. Keith moved closer, his hand hovering awkwardly, not knowing where to settle. “Hey. Come on. Hey.” He placed it firmly on Lance’s arm, giving him a little shake. It was not at all comforting. He was so bad at this. “I can call Hunk, if you want,” he said, moving away to get out of the tent. Lance grabbed him by the wrist to stop him. “No,” he pleaded, “stop.”
Keith froze. Was it the best thing to do? Hunk would know what to do. Hunk always had a nice solution when it came to emotions. What could Keith do? He felt helpless. But Lance needed him, so he had to be there for him. He nodded and moved back. Lance was now lying on his back, eyes glinting with tears in the dark. So open. So vulnerable. Keith reached to wipe the wet from his cheeks. “Close your eyes,” he told him.
Lance blinked at him for a moment, but then he did. Keith sat at his side, legs crossed, one hand digging into his hair, rubbing small circles into his skull.
“It’s okay,” he told him, “you’re okay.”
They stayed like this for a while. Keith hoped this motion was soothing, because it certainly was to him. Lance’s hair felt silky between his fingers. His hand slid behind his ear, down the side of his neck, just barely touching smooth skin. Lance shuddered.
“Tickles,” he whispered, and Keith smiled.
“Want to tell me what’s wrong?” He kept rubbing circles into his neck, gentle now, just barely touching.
“I’m still a failure,” Lance finally gave in, “no matter how hard I tried to push past it during my last year at the Garrison, I’m still useless.”
“I am, Keith. Everyone is able to do this as if they were born with those lions by their side, except for me. I’m so stupid.”
“This has nothing to do with being stupid. It’s a difficult thing to do. It’s not entirely in your control, either. This is about an emotional connection. Maybe… Maybe you’re putting up some walls?”
Keith froze. He never even considered this a possibility. It had always been him. He was always the odd one out, the one who felt like he didn’t belong. But when they sat in a circle to try to build a connection, he had no trouble at all building a bridge to Shiro. It was easy, natural, like reaching a hand. Because it had already been there, he realized. Because there was nothing left unsaid between Shiro and himself. Because Shiro knew him inside out, no detail spared. He told Shiro about finding out that he was Galra and that Krolia was his mother. He never felt the need to hide away from him. But he assumed that Lance would have that with everyone. The way he talked with Hunk and Pidge seemed easy, effortless, the same way he felt about Shiro.
But the way Lance was looking up at him was very telling. “I love them all to death,” he said, “but sometimes…”
Keith’s hand rested on his shoulder now. “Go on.”
“Sometimes I feel like they are very far away from me. Like I’m… Like I’m behind everyone else.”
“Why would you feel that?” Keith asked, genuinely confused. To him, Lance seemed like an inseparable part of the team. Essential, was the word in his mind.
“I don’t know. Well… It’s going to sound really stupid. Sometimes I feel like I have to be loud… Because that’s the only way I feel like I’m there. Sometimes, during a conversation, I would be lost in thought for a few moments. And then I would see the conversation as if from the outside. And I would be silent, and wonder… And wonder whether it would make any difference at all if I wasn’t there. And the answer is no, it wouldn’t. If I’m not loud, or funny, or… Annoying. Then I’m just not there.”
Keith measured his words carefully. “I don’t want this to sound the wrong way. Please don’t take it the wrong way. I just want to say – my favorite times with you is when we’re quiet.”
Lance let out a short, nervous laugh, his hands rising to cover his face. “Wow, Keith. Thanks.”
“No! Crap. I don’t mean that I want you to shut up. I don’t mean that at all. I like to hear you talk, too. But I don’t enjoy your company just because you’re funny or chatty. I can’t speak for everyone, but I feel like they appreciate you much more than you know, too. If you’re not around, I’ll notice. If you’re quiet, I’ll notice. Not because silence is so greatly contrasted with noise, but just because… I like to have you there. Your presence is important. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that if I tell Hunk that you feel… Replaceable? He would spend a whole day carrying you around on his shoulders, telling everyone he meets, ‘this is my friend Lance and he is important’. And I would support that.”
Lance’s hands finally came away and he looked up at him, the smallest smile on his face. “Yeah, he would. But your impersonation of him is the most terrible attempt at an impersonation I’ve ever heard.”
Keith hit him lightly on the shoulder for that. “I don’t think that you’re stupid, but I think you might be blind. How can you not see the admiration with which we all look at you? I’d be dead without you, Lance. I’d be dead so many times if it weren’t for this Sharpshooter,” he poked his cheek. Lance rolled his eyes a little, but he was smiling now.
“I can’t help what I feel,” he admitted.
“I know. But try to believe me. Try to believe your friends. You are loved. You are important. You are an irreplaceable part of the team.”
He wanted, yearned to lean forward and plant a reassuring kiss on Lance’s face. He lightly patted him on the cheek instead. “Now stop sulking. We need you happy and in top shape for tomorrow.”
Lance swatted his hand away and pulled the blanket up. “Fine,” he said, “wow, who knew you were such a sap.”
Keith pointed a warning finger at him. “I can and will use my knife against you if you ever call me that again,” he said. Lace snorted, as if in disbelief, but his eyes told him that he would never take the risk to challenge that.
Keith slid under the blanket again and lay back, his eyes focused on the roof of the tent.
Lance’s fingers found his wrist. Warm. The touch light, barely there.
“Thank you.” They squeezed. Keith closed his hand around Lance’s fingers and squeezed harder. Reassuring.
When they tried it the next day, a connection was made between Blue and Red. After that, it was getting easier – Red, Black, Blue. Then Blue, Yellow, Green. By the end of the day, they managed one between Red, Black, Blue and Yellow. They expected to be ready the next day. It was just in time, too.
Altea was, due to the curse, a gigantic floating island, sealed off with a magical dome. They were less than a day’s ride from the shore, and Altea was now almost in sight. Allura was visibly nervous and excited. That day, Lance saw her kissing Lotor in the woods while collecting wood for the fire. He walked away, pretending he didn’t see anything, but he was hoping to hear from Krolia as soon as possible. He had received a signal from her the day before, and he sent one back for her to be able to find them, but he had no idea how long it would take her to arrive.
And then she arrived. They were sitting by the fire, getting ready for lunch. Lotor and Acxa just so happened to be away at the time. Krolia came riding on her horse down the path with a young woman at her side. She greeted Lance and Keith, sparing a quick nod for Hunk and Shiro, and introducing herself to the others.
“This is Romelle,” she said then, “an Altean woman who has something to say about Prince Lotor. I trust this information will be useful to all of you.”
Upon hearing the word “Altean”, Allura seemed particularly engaged.
“Alteans are so few in the world,” Romelle began, a fire already present in her eyes, “you would think that after a few generations there would be more of us, but that’s not true. Of the small number of Alteans who were not on the kingdom’s soil at the time of the curse, most had suffered a terrible fortune. It seems our whole race is cursed with bad luck. And we do not trust the Galra, for good reasons. So when a Galra man came to offer us sanctuary, to reunite us with other Alteans, we were humbled by our own mistakes and prejudice. Here was our hope for the future. Prince Lotor would make it right again. At first, he really did take care of us. Or so it seemed. He carried us away from the warzone, to small colonies he built on the outside of the Empire, protecting us from their scouts. Then he started picking us off for special missions. To aid the greater good, he said. My brother – “ her eyes were filled with tears. “My little brother was very talented with magic. Lotor promised him honor and glory. Bandor was… Young, naïve. I did not see him ever since he was recruited by Lotor. Not until I taught myself Altean magic to be chosen too. And then I witnessed it.” She took a moment to breathe and calm herself. “He used our magic to its limits to build and power his weapons. He drained us of our blood for his rituals. He cut, sliced, murdered so many of us, when there are so few left! He killed – “ her voice cracked, “he left my brother’s dead body in his basement for his sick experiments.”
They all had terrified expressions on their faces. Lance knew that something was off about Lotor, but he had no idea just how terrible this revelation would be. Allura looked as if she was going to be sick.
Then Lotor and Acxa emerged from the woods, lost in conversation, entirely oblivious to the tense atmosphere they were stepping into.
“Murderer!” The dagger appeared too quickly for Lance to see where it came from. Krolia’s hand was on Romelle’s shoulder quicker. “Romelle, wait.”
Acxa stepped in front of Lotor at once, her sword unsheathed.
“Stand back, Acxa, it’s all right,” Lotor said softly. He was watching Romelle with calculated caution. “I remember you. A runaway, aren’t you?”
“A survivor of your cruel tortures! I told them everything,” she was barely holding herself together, “I told them about what you’ve done. There’s no hiding and lying for you anymore. Now come and fight me in a fair duel, so I can avenge my brother’s death with my own hands – “
“I want to hear what Lotor has to say.” Allura’s voice was dangerously dark. Lance remembered then, how after a fight they once had, he told her that he would never want to get on her bad side again. She told him then that he had not seen her bad side just yet. He thought she was joking. Now he knew she wasn’t.
“What I did was necessary,” Lotor began, and Lance was shocked. Was Lotor really going to try to justify his actions? “I was working on magic to use against my father. Against his witch. It’s the only way to defeat the Empire. Of course, lives will be lost in the process. It’s a worthy sacrifice for the - “
His sentence was cut off by Allura’s fist hitting his jaw. “How dare you?” she asked him, her eyes as full of pain and fury as Romelle’s. “Have you a drop of humanity in your body?”
“Allura, please. Try to understand. I did it for a better, peaceful future. I did it for Altea.”
Lance had never really watched Allura fight. There was always something else he had to focus on at the time. He knew, of course, that she was strong. He knew that she was fast and skilled. Still, he did not expect that.
She swept Lotor off his feet, pulled him by the arm and over her shoulder, turned for momentum and threw him into the air, where he landed on the ground a few feet away, hitting his back on a tree. Everyone froze. Then Acxa was in motion, charging at Allura. Allura was unarmed, but Keith was faster. Sword clashed against sword.
Acxa was foolish to step in when she was so spectacularly outnumbered. Swords, bows and whip were all aimed at her at once. She had no chance at all. Then, with no warning, Lance's vision went white. He couldn’t see a single thing. Afterwards, they would realize what happened – Lotor temporarily blinded them, long enough to jump onto a horse and escape. But in the meantime, it was chaos. They bumped into each other, hit each other in confusion, called out to understand who was where. There were, fortunately, no serious injuries. But now Lotor and Acxa were both gone. Romelle sunk to her knees in despair. Allura walked away, alone. She needed time to think. They all felt a little lost.
This revelation left them broken and confused. They were all on edge now, the most innocent words pushing them over the line into rage. Around the fire at dinner, Hunk decided to speak up. “That’s enough, everyone,” he said, “this day has been a disaster. But we can’t let this break us apart like this. Lotor is out there. He has the entire Galra Empire at his feet, and we have… Five statues and a bunch of pointy sticks. We need to stay strong. We need to remind ourselves why we’re here. We need to free Altea. That’s our purpose. Nothing else matters. So let’s try one more time, right now.”
No one else had anything to say, so they formed a circle, brought the lions forward, held hands and concentrated. It was easier now that they all knew what it felt like, but it still took them some time to balance their connections until all five lions felt it. And then it happened. The lions rose into the air, lights glowing, mingling, the lines between them blurring, until it was impossible to tell where one lion ended and another began. And then they weren’t lions any longer. In their stead was now one solid statue, still glowing with all their colors, combined bits of their essence within it.
With that, they advanced. They walked together onto the shore, the floating island of Altea within sight. There was a storm brewing on the horizon. The sky was grey, the waves in the sea were tall and aggressive. The wind threw salt water in their faces. Keeping the connection strong, they navigated the statue of Voltron up into the air and towards Altea. It propelled itself forward with mighty speed and flew right through the magical dome, shattering it. The dome melted away, and the island began its descent into water. The group watched it lower itself slowly, carefully, until it sat comfortably in the water, a good distance from the shore. The large gates then opened, and a long, thick bridge emerged, connecting the island to the beach they were standing on. Stunned, they all turned to Allura for further instructions.
“Get your horses,” she said, “we’re going in.”
They rode across the bridge, which was lined with white bricks, until they reached the gates. Lance didn’t know what to expect. He thought there was a good chance that Altea would be a ghost island after being shut off for so many years. He thought, at best, a small group of survivors would come to greet them, and they would need help to get back to normal life.
He was incredibly wrong. Inside, Altea seemed like a secred paradise. Tall trees bloomed beautifully, pale pinks and purples, despite the biting cold. The clean roads of white brick lined the streets, contrasted by green grass everywhere. The houses were small but fascinating in their beauty, brick walls with colorful doors and golden domes for roofs. And there were people. Alteans came running out of their homes to see what was going on. Clad in soft silks, unarmed, eyes wide and curious, and so very alive. The crowd was so much larger than Lance could ever imagine. And then –
A child. A young girl stood before them, right at the gates, her eyes dead set on Allura’s face.
“It’s the Princess!” she screamed at the top of her tiny lungs.
“The Princess has finally come!”
DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA how much willpower it took for me to stop myself from writing "and then Allura yeeted his ass like the empty, empty bitch he was"?? I've been waiting for this moment since before I even knew I was going to include Lotor in this fic. I wanted him yeeted so badly.
Chapter 11: Queen of Altea
It's the calm before the storm :)
The Altean royal castle was nothing like the Galra palace. The soft blue and white of the bricks felt warm under the excessive golden ornaments. The blooming gardens made it seem like an eternal spring despite the grey sky, a perfect contrast to the barren grounds of the Galra palace, which were all stone and dirt.
They were escorted into a large hall. The floors were carpeted with blue and the sigil of the Altean kingdom hung on velvet banners from the walls. A throne was awaiting them at the end of the hall, tall, heavy and empty.
An old man was then wheeled into the room on a wooden wheelchair by two young Alteans. He came close to Allura and gestured at her to lower her head. She bowed before him.
“Yes,” the man said, his voice weak, “this is her. I am certain. Bring in the crown.”
This short confirmation seemed almost unnecessary. On their way to the castle they passed by a gigantic statue of a woman who looked exactly like Allura, with slightly different hair - it was the last queen of Altea, supposedly. The fact that she was an heir of the royal family was impossible to deny. Still, this old man’s words seemed to have a very convincing effect on everyone in the room.
A small golden tiara was brought and placed on Allura’s head. It was the most humble, quiet coronation ceremony Lance had ever heard of. He expected a parade, or at least something more public. But this was all it was: Allura on her knees in front of this old man who could barely move, his hands shaking as he placed the thin tiara on her head. “The lost daughter of Altea has returned,” the man announced, “I now crown you, Allura, Queen of Altea.”
All the servants in the room bowed with respect. Lance and his friends weren’t quite sure what to do. It felt disrespectful to stay standing straight, but this was Allura. They had known her since forever. Lance had seen her climb on trees and have spinach in her teeth and run away after she broke the neighbor’s window with a ball once. It was just Allura. Their Allura. Seeing her in this context felt almost impossible.
They bowed anyway. It was too awkward not to. Then Allura rose to her feet, and it was done.
Lance wanted to room with Hunk, but he was informed that arranging joint rooms would take some time and he did not want to bother the servants, so he once again had a room to himself. It was too spacious for him, even though he was assured that it was one of the smallest rooms in the castle. He was used to sharing a room with his siblings, or with Hunk, or even with Keith now. This room, even with its soft silks and the abundance of pillows felt cold and lonely. Then there was a knock on his door.
He didn’t know whom he was expecting. Hunk, perhaps. Or Pidge. He was not expecting Allura.
She walked in and sat down on his bed, pulling her legs up and folding them under her, trying to get more comfortable in the awkward tension of the room.
“I have so much to apologize for,” she began. Lance joined her on the bed. He felt strangely scared, as if Allura had bad news to tell him. “I told you all kinds of awful things. I trusted Lotor, even though I knew you didn’t. I – “ her eyes were filled with tears. Lance wasn’t sure how to comfort her. He wanted to say that it wasn’t her fault, but he didn’t think she would listen.
“Am I really that bad at judging people’s characters?” she said, her voice a little choked, “I don’t get it. First I make Keith feel terrible with my prejudice without even giving him a chance first. Then I just blindly trust this man – whom we didn’t even know quite well – just because he said some nice things about Altea and… Why was it so easy for him to fool me? Why didn’t I listen to you?”
Lance scooped her into his arms for a tight embrace. “He didn’t just fool you,” Lance said, “the others trusted him, too. There was no way for us to know. He did prove his loyalty by helping us with the lions and killing his own father, so how could we suspect him? Don’t blame yourself. This guilt is too heavy to bear on one set of shoulders.”
“But you knew,” she told him, her voice weak, “and I didn’t listen. I should have listened. I meant what I said, you know,” she poked at the leather bracelet he was still wearing around his wrist, “you mean the world to me. And I feel like I haven’t been fair to you. I haven’t been a good friend.”
“Stop it,” he hit her lightly on the arm, “we can all be blind in the face of love.”
She seemed uncomfortable at that. She pulled away from him. “I feel bad about that, too,” she said, “that he managed to win my heart over so quickly, and that I… Well, you must have been uncomfortable.”
Lance shrugged. “Only because I knew that he was a snake in disguise,” he said, “but not because… Well, I didn’t know whether I should tell you this, but I don’t like you anymore. I mean – not in that way.”
“Oh,” Allura raised her eyebrows, “Lance, that’s great news. You know, I was hoping that finding someone else would help, and I’m glad it did.”
Lance blinked at her. “What?”
She stared at him. Then she started backtracking. “It doesn’t matter, I’m just saying that it’s a good thing that you’re over me. To be quite honest, I don’t think I’m going to be open for a relationship anytime soon. Although I’ll probably feel much better when I rip out Lotor’s intestines and tie them in a pretty bow around his neck. If Romelle doesn’t beat me to it, that is. Right. I should get back to my room, then. It’s going to be a long day tomorrow.”
Lance wanted to go back to what she had said before, but now he thought about the following day and the conversation ahead of them. “Do we call you Your Majesty now?” He smiled.
“Please don’t,” she seemed terrified, “this whole situation is surreal.”
“Are you going to explain why they’re calling you the lost daughter of Altea?”
“Tomorrow, I will. Goodnight, Lance.”
“Goodnight, Your Majesty.”
She flicked him lightly on the forehead and left.
When Allura gathered them to tell her story the next day, Keith felt somewhat out of place. He had fewer pieces of the puzzle than everyone else did. Apparently, it was common knowledge that Allura had received the prophecy when she was very little. Apparently, Coran was related to her somehow. Apparently, her longing to free Altea was not just about her people as a nation, but her family, too. They did not know, however, that Allura was a direct descendant of the royal family. They did not know that her great grandmother was the princess of Altea, merely a child when the curse was cast. They did not know that the queen at the time tasked a young servant with the mission to take the princess and run away, making sure that she lives on and produces an heir of pure Altean lineage. Coran, apparently, was a direct descendant of that servant. Now that she was back, she had a right to the throne since she was the only person alive with the royal blood in her.
Keith didn’t know what to think of it. He knew that Allura had a large role to play in the liberation of Altea, but he couldn’t imagine just how large it would be. Now, Allura was determined to revive the Altean army and spend every day training and fortifying the island, in preparation for the inevitable Galra attack.
She had a plan in mind, and Keith was under the impression that she had a sleepless night to think about it. Matt and Pidge should both work on improving their weapons and defenses, she said. Shiro and Lance should speak to the General of the Altean army to strategize and help with the training. Krolia would contact her allies – the Blade of Marmora, of which they still knew very little – and according to her recommendation, Keith should join her. Romelle and Allura would try to figure out how to use Altean magic and the magic within Voltron to work for them. Hunk should contact the Garrison and ask for reinforcements, if there was anyone willing to travel all the way to Altea to help them. There were a few more tasks on her list, but she dismissed them with that.
Keith found himself alongside Krolia as she sent a signal to the other members of the Blade. “We are not exactly a force suitable to add to an army,” she told him, “our attacks are more precise. Singular missions to sabotage the Galra Empire. I don’t know what they would say about this, although I’m sure they would all agree that Altea must be defended at all costs.”
She looked up from her device. Keith took out his knife and handed it to her handle first. She took it, the weight settling in her hand as if it was familiar. She turned it this way and that way, as if welcoming an old friend.
“I saved your father’s life with this knife,” she said, her voice cautious, avoiding his eyes, “how… How is he?”
Keith’s mouth tightened. He didn’t know how to say the words. “He’s gone.” It came out weak.
The look Krolia gave him was painful. “I was afraid you’d say that.”
They climbed to the top of one of the towers in the castle, where the signal should be easier to receive. There, they sat with the transmitter in front of them, awaiting a response. As they waited, Krolia told him all about his father. About her mission in the Garrison and the Galra scouts who came to stop her. About the brave man who came to her aid when she was wounded and how they continuously saved each other. About how they fell in love, and settled down, and dreamed about a peaceful future this far away from the vicious Galra Empire.
She also told him about how disapproving people were. How they knew that she was Galra and avoided their house at all costs. His heart ached for her when she told him about eggs thrown at their house and nasty words written in paint over their fence. His heart ached more when he realized how strongly he could relate.
She then told him about the day he was born, and how happy they were. And, eventually, how this beautiful dream had to end, how she was needed back with the Blade, and how his father understood her sense of duty perfectly.
“He said that once you’re old enough, he’d tell you about me and what I do,” she said, “but he didn’t want to tell you while you were young. He was afraid you’d follow in my footsteps. That you would want to find me.”
“That’s exactly what he achieved by not telling me,” Keith smiled at the irony, “he just gave me an itch I couldn’t scratch and it only got worse from there.”
“He would have told you,” she said, “eventually. If he had the chance.”
“If he had the chance.”
They sat in silence for a moment. Keith felt a strange sense of mourning. Not over his father, exactly, but over everything that was lost with his untimely death. Everything that could have been but never had a chance to happen.
Then the transmitted beeped.
“We will have reinforcements,” Krolia announced, “but it seems like it might be too late by the time they arrive.”
Krolia frowned. “News from Lotor’s colonies,” she said, “his army has departed and they are marching towards Altea.”
Lance couldn’t help but wonder what Allura was thinking when she tasked him with standing alongside Shiro. He felt entirely out of place as he watched Shiro discussing strategies with General Hira. This was a job for Heroes, he thought. He was hardly paying attention to what they were talking about, since he didn’t quite understand any of it. Shiro had no experience leading a large group, he knew, but he spoke as if he knew what he was talking about. This was what Lance wished he had. No one ever told him that he looked as if he lacked in confidence, but his smiles and boasting were nothing but an act. When it came to taking action, he would never be able to fake the kind of confidence and decisiveness he now watched Shiro demonstrate. And Keith, he thought. He admired that about him. He never seemed to hesitate when it was time to act.
“Lance? Are you with me?” Shiro’s voice pulled him out of his thoughts.
“Huh? Yes. What are we doing?”
“I want you to lead Group Three through training today. Just the basic drills we discussed, nothing too advanced for now. Assess the situation, see what we should work on more, then tell me what you think over dinner. Got it?”
Lance blinked at him. “I’m sorry, you want me to what? Shiro, I’m not – I can’t lead a group.”
“Why?” Shiro raised his eyebrows at him.
“Because I’m not… A leader. I’m not a Hero. I can barely hold a sword properly myself.”
“What are you talking about?” Shiro seemed confused, “I’ve seen you fight, you’ll do well. Look, Altea is not in the best place right now, especially its army. During the last century or so, they focused more on surviving, perfecting their magic and learning to live without external interference. I’m not telling you to lead them into battle right now. Just… Do drills. Take note of the best fighters. We’ll start recruiting more soon, so we’ll have many people on our hands who have never held a weapon in their lives. And that whole crap about being a Hero - so what if you’re Support? Everything we associate with the sorting is made up and outdated. You’re saying that you’re not a leader? Maybe it’s because you’ve never had an opportunity to lead. Here’s your opportunity. Lead.”
He clapped him affectionately on the shoulder. “I’ll see you at dinner.”
With that, Shiro left him. Lance joined Group Three a little awkwardly. But they all looked at him as if he was supposed to be there, obediently awaiting his instructions. It started out a little rough due to some confusion and a few misunderstandings, but the Altean soldiers were eager to learn and cooperate, and Lance was eager to prove himself, and together they worked hard to learn from each other and improve.
Time flew by dizzyingly fast. By the time the bell rang for dinner, Lance was completely immersed in the training and having surprisingly a lot more fun than he expected.
Over dinner Allura came by, shocking everyone into silence with her presence at the community dining hall, with the confirmation that Lotor’s army was on its way, which meant that they had even less time than they thought. She didn’t say anything about whether reinforcements were coming or not, and everyone was suddenly aware of how miserably small their army was. They wouldn’t stand a chance.
When Lance retired to his room that night, his head was filled with worries.
“Doesn’t suit you.”
Lance shrieked. The corridor was hardly lit, and he didn’t see Keith at all as he stood in the shadow like a lurking cat, only his eyes glinting.
“You! Are you trying to give me a heart attack?” he placed a hand on his chest, feeling his heart beating too fast. “Wait. What doesn’t suit me?”
“This,” Keith pointed at his lips, “the frown. Can’t go to sleep with that on your face.”
“Stop it,” Lance swatted at his pointing finger, “I’m just worried. We’re all worried. Aren’t you?”
But it didn’t seem like he was. Keith was looking at him calmly, his lips in a straight line rather than his usual tense frown, his eyebrows relaxed. “You’re not,” he pointed out, “wait a minute. Are you… In a good mood?”
Keith shrugged. “What, do I have to look gloomy all the time?”
“Uh, yes, you’re Keith. If you don’t look like you’ve just lost all your earthly possessions in a flood, then something’s up. Oh, you spent the day with Krolia, right? How was that?”
“Good,” Keith looked away, and Lance could swear that there was a hint of a smile on those lips, “we talked about… Things.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Lance nodded, “I should ask her to share some embarrassing childhood memories about you. I’m making a collection in my head, in case I ever have to blackmail you.”
“She only knew me as a baby.”
“So? I bet baby Keith was up to no good. A naughty baby. The naughtiest.”
Keith rolled his eyes and decided to ignore this comment. “How was working with Shiro?”
“Good,” Lance said, “he lets me lead.”
“I hoped he would,” Keith nodded, “I told him you’d make a good leader.”
“What do you mean why? You’re good with planning. Making decisions on the spot. Observing from afar and controlling the situation through commands. I’ve noticed it pretty much every time you’ve covered for me.”
Lance felt the same kind of shock as he did with Shiro. He would never think of himself in such terms, and hearing it from Keith of all people felt surreal.
“I might join your training session tomorrow,” Keith told him once the silence stretched for too long, “there’s not much for me to do with Krolia until the members of the Blade get here. She didn’t really need me today, either. I don’t know why Allura paired us up.”
Lance knew why. Allura, with her soft spot for family, could not resist giving Keith some quality time with his mother. But he didn’t want to say anything about it.
“Yes, you should come,” he said, “I could use someone to demonstrate with. They’re good fighters, but their style is so different from mine that it doesn’t quite work.”
Keith nodded. They stood in silence. There was nothing else to say. For a moment, Lance was tempted to invite Keith to his room. Perhaps they could talk more. Just as he was gathering his courage to do so, however, Keith cleared his throat, said goodnight and left.
Keith was feeling abnormally good. It made no sense, to feel so motivated when the situation was so dire, but he did. For the first time in his life, things were making sense. Perhaps he wasn’t as comfortable with Krolia as one should be with their mother just yet, but they were both willing to try, and he was hopeful. Perhaps Lance didn’t see him the way he wanted him to, but he could see him every day and he felt closer than ever, so he was hopeful. Perhaps there was a giant army marching their way, but Hunk reported that the Garrison was willing to send reinforcements and the Blade was a force to be reckoned with, and he was hopeful.
Hopeful wasn’t a word in his vocabulary until recent events. But now he was feeling it with every fiber of his body, and he wasn’t going to let it go to waste. Once he finished strapping on his armor, he headed towards the training grounds to find Lance already lecturing his group. He was holding notes from General Hira about battle strategy and they were discussing holding a line, and Lance seemed genuinely excited when he knew the answer to some of the questions he was asked by the soldiers.
With Keith there, Lance could finally demonstrate some of the drills they were taught in the Garrison. Keith was tempted to make some suggestions, but he decided against it. Lance was doing just fine, and he didn’t want to undermine his authority. Once the demonstration was done and Lance did a few rounds correcting mistakes, they decided to train together. They didn’t have many opportunities to practice with each other in a while, so Keith was excited to see how much Lance had learned.
He had learned a lot, it turned out. Within a few short minutes of practice, Keith found himself disarmed by Lance for the first time in his life.
“What’s the matter, Kogane?” Lance grinned at him, very obviously satisfied with himself, “are you distracted by my pretty eyes?”
Keith could feel his cheeks burning. And perhaps it was Lance’s smug face which he wished so badly to turn into surprise, or the fact that he was strangely motivated and hopeful that day, or perhaps it was the memory from the Rose Oil Inn of Lance’s face when Keith caught him off guard with feigned flirting. Whatever it was, Keith suddenly found himself saying: “your eyes? They’re not even your best feature.”
While Lance stared at him in confusion, he picked up his sword. “What’s that supposed to mean?” Lance’s voice was strained, the way it was when he suspected that he was being offended but couldn’t quite tell how.
“I’m just saying,” Keith offered a smile which he hoped looked casual, “you have some better… Assets.”
It worked. Lance’s eyebrows jumped so high they almost touched his hairline. Keith’s sharp eye was trained to notice the slight faltering of the wrist, which he was anticipating, and he used it to his advantage. He charged forward, using his favorite sequence, which Lance could probably fend off if he wasn’t so shocked by Keith’s words. But he was, and Keith picked up his speed, and within seconds Lance found himself with his back pressed against the pillar and their swords crossed dangerously close to his face.
“Wow,” he said, his voice strained with effort, “really, Keith? We’re fighting dirty now?”
“It’s a valid tactic,” Keith allowed himself to shrug, despite the effort it took him, because he wanted to seem unbothered, “distract your rival with anything you’ve got. Sometimes you have to say something scandalous.”
“Right,” the corner of Lance’s lip shot up, and Keith hoped it was nothing but feigned confidence, “I see. You want dirty? I’ll give you dirty.”
And then Lance dropped to the ground. Keith faltered for just a fracture of a second. With anyone else, that wouldn’t be nearly enough to gain an advantage. Lance, however, knew him too well to miss the opportunity. Keith’s sword hit the pillar, not hard enough to get stuck in it, but enough to buy Lance the time to sweep Keith off his feet with a powerful kick. He gripped his sword tighter as he fell, knowing that losing it again would mean Lance’s victory, but he should have paid more attention to what Lance was doing, because moments later he found himself on his stomach, Lance sitting on his back, a knee on either side on him, both hands pressing Keith’s wrists into the ground. Apparently Lance couldn’t care less about his own sword, which he dismissed in favor of this physical attack.
“Ha,” Lance said, “any other shocking comments you’d like to make? Perhaps you’re actually Allura’s long lost brother, or you have a pet dragon you keep hidden from the world? Go ahead, I’m rock solid.”
Keith let himself relax. He knew that Lance could knock the sword out of his hands with a few thrusts of his wrist against the ground if he wanted to, so he decided to stop prioritizing his weapon, which was not something he did often. He knew that he wasn’t fighting the way he would against an enemy. Perhaps it wasn’t wise, for the sake of training, but he couldn’t help it. Using the psychology of his enemies against them was always fascinating to him. He was fighting Lance, so he changed his strategy to fit Lance.
“I have one shocking comment for you,” Keith said. Lance leaned down so he could hear him more clearly.
“Go ahead,” he said, sounding too smug for Keith’s liking.
“More of a tip, really,” Keith said, “you see…”
He flattened his stomach as suddenly and as drastically as he could, then pushed back with all of his might. Lance was clearly alarmed by the sudden movement, since his hold on Keith’s wrists tightened, but his attention was misplaced. Keith writhed and twisted, serpent-like and fierce with determination, until he had enough leverage to push up and get on his knees and hands. From that moment, it took him no time at all to throw Lance off him, use the moment of surprise to pin him down and mount him, his thighs holding him down.
“You’re light as a feather,” he explained with a smile, “pinning someone down is a bad move for you. For me, however,” he leaned forward to hold onto Lance’s wrists, his sword now discarded, “this is the perfect position.”
They were face to face now. Keith gazed down at Lance’s incredulous face. They were both dirty from rolling around on the ground like that. Lance’s hair was plastered to his forehead with sweat. They were gross and sticky. Then how come was this the most beautiful sight in the world? Lance’s eyes wide open, his lips parted to let in heavy breaths, chin up in defiance.
Keith felt hot, and it wasn’t the exercise or the armor. He remembered leaning over him like this back in Rose Oil Inn. He remembered Lance’s eyes darkening with desire. For a moment, he thought he could see the same expression on Lance’s face now, but he knew it was all in his head. He wanted, badly, to close the distance between them and finally meet Lance’s mouth with his own. He squeezed Lance’s wrists tighter, as if he could physically hold himself back from these thoughts, but his desire only deepened.
Then someone cleared their throat. Keith jolted backwards, getting off Lance and landing on his backside. It was one of the soldiers.
“Just to let you guys know,” the soldier said, “the bell rang. It’s time for lunch.”
It did? Keith had heard nothing. But as they looked around, most of the group had already cleared out of the training grounds. They both got to their feet, dusting themselves off, trying to make casual remarks such as “good training session”, and “I hope there’s something other than potatoes today”.
But as they walked, even though there was now seemingly no indication that something had happened between them, Keith couldn’t make his heartbeat quiet down.
“And I agree with her on that part, but it’s also a risky move considering we don’t know how close the threat is. What do you say? Lance?”
Lance was hearing everything Shiro was saying, but he was hardly paying attention. His eyes wandered all the way across the dining hall, where Keith was sitting with Krolia. With his mother, he thought. They were talking quietly, and Keith was watching her with a look so rare for him that Lance felt like he needed to cherish it. He was happy, Lance thought. He was finally spending time with family. He deserved this.
Lance’s thoughts were interrupted by a piece of bread flying at his head.
“You can stare at Keith at your leisure,” Shiro told him when he looked at him with an annoyed scowl, “not when we’re discussing important matters.”
“I’m not staring,” Lance’s face was flushed in seconds.
“That’s exactly what you’re doing.”
“Am not! I don’t stare at people. People stare at me,” Lance waved a fork at him. Shiro didn’t seem convinced. “Right, well, is looking at someone a crime now? I admire him for taking the time to catch up with his mother, that’s all.”
“Right. Relax, Lance. There’s nothing wrong with… Admiring your companion.” Shiro’s smile was devious.
“Stop saying it like it has some secret meaning,” Lance told him, “I don’t even like him that much. I like him a normal amount.”
Shiro raised his hands, as if to say he was giving up. But then he moved closer to him and spoke a little softer. “Have I told you about how I met Adam?”
“You went on your first quest with him, didn’t you?” Lance recalled.
“Yes,” Shiro said, “but have I told you about how we started dating?”
“No. Why is that relevant?”
“Just listen,” he began, “you know how everyone has a list of potential quest companions in their mind? Well, Adam wasn’t anywhere near being on my list. We’ve never even talked. I didn’t know his name until it came out of that well. So our quest started out a little… Awkward, to say the least. I don’t know whether it was the same for him; he never told me. Even if he wanted me on that quest, I don’t think he’d ever admit it. So we didn’t quite get along.”
“But then the hardships of the quest showed you how perfect you are for each other and you fell in love?”
“Ha, it was quite the opposite,” Shiro smiled, “we had a fight. A big fight. Adam was on the brink of leaving me behind and failing the quest on purpose just so he wouldn’t have to be around me. I considered attempting to complete that quest by myself. It was a disaster. But then we found ourselves in a very tight spot. We were barricaded inside a small village which was surrounded by Galra. We were outnumbered, low on supplies, barely any manpower. And I’m… Not proud of the way I behaved then.”
“What do you mean?”
Shiro looked a little uncomfortable. “I gave up. I thought it was hopeless. I was practically ready to die there. It was not the behavior worthy of a Hero. But Adam did exactly what I should have done. He was calm and collected. He gathered the people and commanded them the way a true Hero would. And that was when I realized that until that moment, I had not seen him as my equal. I was treating him like a servant, not a companion. That was what he tried to tell me, and I wasn’t listening. I was so very ashamed of myself.”
“Did you tell him?”
“Yes. I apologized. I had this whole speech prepared about honor and a man’s true worth. But he just dismissed me,” Shiro smiled, “and said that none of that mattered. That we should focus on the task at hand. Then, with both of our heads in the game, we started turning the situation around. I realized that when I actually let him flourish, we can practically work miracles together. If you ask me when exactly I fell in love with him, I have no idea. The line between a trusted companion and a romantic interest can be a bit blurry in situations like this. But there was one very important moment. It was right before the big battle. Our plan was in motion, but it was risky, and we knew that there was a very good chance that we wouldn’t make it. I wanted to tell him how much I appreciated him. I wanted him to know how much it meant for me to have him there. I wanted to express, somehow, that dying by his side would be the most honorable death I could imagine.”
“What did you say, then?” Lance was much more captivated by the story than he was willing to admit.
“Nothing.” Shiro smiled.
“I thought it would probably sound stupid, and he didn’t like my long speeches anyway. I thought, even if I liked him, it’s impossible that he liked me back the same way. I thought it would make him uncomfortable. I said ‘Adam’. We stared at each other for about ten, long, rather strange seconds. Then he kissed me.”
Lance blinked with surprise. “Wait,” he said, “so he liked you all along?”
“I guess so,” Shiro grinned at the memory, “everything I wanted to say, he told me in that kiss. Except… I wasn’t thinking about dying by his side anymore. I thought, there’s no way I can die now. Not when I know what that feels like, and not while knowing that there can be more of it. Also, when he pulled away, he said ‘don’t die’. That’s all he said.”
“And you obeyed.”
Lance glanced at Keith again. He was smiling at something Krolia was telling him.
Shiro sighed. “I probably wouldn’t have said anything if he hadn’t kissed me. I mean, ever.”
“Why not?” Lance frowned, “you’re brave, I’m sure you would have said it eventually.”
“Swinging a sword? Sure. Infiltrating enemy grounds? Any day. But telling a guy that I like him?” Shiro shuddered, “that’s some scary stuff. But…” he glanced at Keith, and then back at him. “It’s worth it.”
“I don’t know why you’re telling me this,” Lance finally tore his eyes away from where Keith was tying his hair back, “I can’t relate. I told Allura almost right away. Well, maybe not right away, but I told her.”
“Maybe you did because you knew you didn’t have a chance,” Shiro suggested, “have you thought about that?”
“No, I haven’t,” Lance picked up his empty bowl, ready to leave, “because it’s stupid and you’re wrong.” He got up from the table and left, his face burning. He could hardly admit these things to himself, so he was not going to share them with Shiro.
Just as he was about to leave the dining room, they were all summoned to an urgent meeting with Allura. Once they were all hurriedly gathered around the table in the throne room, she told them that there was an important announcement. Lance could immediately tell that something was wrong by the worried lines around her eyebrows and the way she was nervously holding onto the edge of the table.
“We have no time left,” she announced, “Lotor’s army approaches faster than we anticipated. They are going to be at our gates by tomorrow.”