“Hands where I can see them!”
There was nothing quite like hearing the sound of the shotgun you greased last night being cocked while your spine was out in the open. Lance slowly and meaningfully reached for the sky at the risk of burnt bacon. He looked over his shoulder.
Standing half in the dark half in the light of the windows that ran the whole south side of the house was the beaten omega Lance thought was dead yesterday. He looked worse now, if that were possible, with his jaw and cheek blooming purple and bandages poking under a shirt six sizes too big and knees shaking harder than a newborn kalternecker.
He shook the gun and Lance looked in his broken face. “You know how to shoot that?”
The stranger cocked. “Wanna bet?”
“There’s really no need to hold me at gunpoint,” Lance turned slowly, meaningfully. “I dressed your wounds while you were unconscious.”
“Mighty kind of you alpha. Sure you’re looking for some sort of reward for being human now, huh.”
“Shows how grateful you are,” Lance snorted. Louder, fangs flashing lightly, “and if I wanted to mate you I’d have marked you in your sleep, dumbass.”
The stranger’s eyes narrowed. He was probably pretty under the bandage and puss. The burn on his cheek would scar, though. Shame.
“You plan on leaving?”
“I sure as hell ain’t planning on staying,” he shook the gun and Lance tread forward at the crude gesture. He was led to one of several wooden posts that supported the slab roof. Rope was thrown at him. “Tie yourself and tie yourself good. I’ll know if you do it too loose.”
“What’ll happen to me when you go? You’ll leave me to die of hunger?”
The stranger obviously didn’t like how cool Lance was talking because he shook the gun again. “Someone’s bound to check on you sooner or later. Now tie it.”
The stranger stepped close to check that it was good work. He hit Lance once on his shoulder with the butt of the shotgun to distract him and check the knots over. They were tight. He brought up the weapon again when Lance glared at him, hissing all the while.
“Sorry,” the stranger looked mildly apologetic. “I gotta make sure you don’t double cross me.”
Lance rested his temple against the almost square pillar and shrugged. “No hard feelings. Just one favor?”
“Turn off the stove? The smell of burnt bacon’s getting to me.”
A doubtful look passed over his face, but he put the loaded weapon aside and abided. Shortly after he began opening and closing cupboards with a vengeance. Lance kneeled meanwhile, counting his heartbeat where his shoulder hotly throbbed. The rope chafed on his wrists. He stopped moving, but the slamming was grating.
“Water’s under the kitchen sink!” He yelled, and was satisfied when the slamming stopped. “There’s fruit set aside in an ice box under the mat over here. Just lift up the carpet. You’ll find clean clothes in the wicker chest under my bed and an emergency first aid kit in my pick up. Keys are in the kitchen—”
“Why’re you helping me?” his voice was close and Lance twisted to look over his shoulder. He walked quiet. That was unnerving.
The stranger looked at him with bitter doubt, even with one eye closed from what must have been a brutal beating. “Answer me. Why are you helping me?”
“Because it’s rough out there for an omega,” he whispered.
The stranger scoffed so hard and loud he threw back his head from the effort. “What do you know about living like an omega? Don’t patronize—”
“I am omega.”
He paused, parted his lips to scent the air between them. His brow furrowed with clear distaste. “Bullshit.”
“I keep the suppressants on a ledge over the window in my bedroom. Go for it if you don’t believe me.”
The stranger humored him. He returned with a biscuit tin container riddled with sealed plastic squares and a paper of handwritten instructions clearly outlining how the pills worked and how to take them. They were larger than most, and obnoxious white, but their home cooked quality and smell of some benign toxin coincided with universal omega memory.
The stranger looked at him. “How do I know these are yours and not some rando omega’s?”
“You really gonna ask me to drop my pants?”
The stranger’s eyes fell.
Lance crossed his legs and squealed, “No!”
“What do you have to hide? I’ve seen pussy before.”
Lance flushed. “Fuck off. Just vandalize my home and go. I’m not stripping for you just cuz—hey, hands off!”
He copped a feel...to Lance’s utter horror. When space came between them again, the stranger looked thoughtful. His dark eyes, dark lashes fanning them, dark histories behind, flickered to Lance’s bound wrist and his jerky fingers followed.
Lance rubbed the raw skin and took three steps back, and they sized up one another anew. The stranger offered the biscuit bin of illegal medications as a truce. “My name is Keith.”
“Lance,” he accepted his medicine. “I take this to mean we aren’t enemies anymore?”
“We never were,” Keith averted his gaze to the dirty rug. “I don’t have anything against omega. I just. I have nowhere to go.”
Lance softened. “I know what that’s like.”
“I’m sorry about your shoulder.”
“No hard feelings,” Lance repeated, shaking his head. “Like I said, life’s hard out here as an omega. It’s hard at all.”
“How do you survive?” Keith followed him as he took up the shotgun and put it away, crept up the window to stow the meds. “I mean, suppressants aside. How come you even smell alpha?”
Lance dropped and watched him a minute, gauging his trustworthiness. “How about we eat and trade stories? It’s been a while since I’ve had company that wasn’t coated in musk or sweat.”
Keith smirked something confidential, like there was an inside joke the product of friendship ten years old. The smile fell. “Sorry about the bacon.”
“It’s alright,” Lance rubbed his wrists.
“And tying you.”
“It’s fine, Keith,” Lance looked at him with no small sense of amusement. “Didn’t take you as the type to apologize much.”
Keith stayed quiet at that.
“You sit down, keep off that ankle.”
At the mention, Keith’s right ankle throbbed in agreement. “I want to help,” he protested.
“Pull a chair to this counter, then. Cut up and ground some stuff for me. How do you feel about venison stew?”
“You have deer meat?”
“Did you think my gun was for show?”
Keith didn’t reply.
“My neighbors call me when we go for group hunts. Split the spoils and stuff. You were right about someone finding me eventually but we still live far away enough that I could’ve died before Kolivan found me.”
“Kolivan?” Keith muttered through guilt and chopping. How surreal. One moment he was threatening Lance’s life, the next the man put him to work…
Lance was pulling something out the subterranean fridge where he had mentioned he had fruit. The meat was cleaned and gutted and looked bright. Fresh. Salted too. “Kolivan is my closest neighbor. He’s older. He’s nice. Made the wind chimes you see everywhere.”
Keith had thought the various mobiles sounding off at the slightest puff of wind were rather numerous, cacophonic really. He started when Lance slammed the meats on the counter across from him and started carving through them with an exceptionally sharp knife.
“Who else lives around here?”
Lance glanced at him and glanced back down. Keith felt unwelcome suddenly. “Alphas, mostly,” he replied. “About six that are less than a day’s drive away. A few of them are married, a few aren’t.” He looked at Keith again. “Nearest city is twelve days off. Who did you run away from?”
“I don't have an alpha husband or wife, if that's what you're asking."
“I’m just wondering if I should be expecting a knock on my door.”
Morosely, “No-one’s looking for me.”
Lance read the mood and abated. He put some meat aside and carved into more red marble. “I don’t mean to pry. I just want to know that I’m safe. That we’re safe.”
Keith looked at him and his sudden smile.
“After all, we’re a team now, right?”
Keith, despite being unsure and untethered, smiled.
“You need something for that itch?”
Keith dropped his hands into his lap with a palpable smack. “No,” he grit. “It’s fine.”
Lance glanced up again from cleaning his pistol. “You certain? No pressure, but I can make a salve.” He clicked the weapon together and switched on the safety.
Lance watched him. He stood, “Alright—”
“I—will you teach me how to do it?”
“The salve. Teach me how to make it.” Keith folded his arms after he’d yanked the sleeves firmly over his right red wrist. “I’ve been leeching off of you for days.”
Kindly, “I think I told you already that your company has been more than welcome.”
“Still, it doesn’t feel right. I want to start pulling my weight.”
Lance regarded him a minute longer. Eventually, “Come with me?”
Keith limped resolutely.
The air was warm for approaching the end of summer. In the blue haze, the sun was a cold pin-prick of light and the stars were a little green. Succulents grew in rusted cans on Lance’s steps to the verandah, and in the distance, studded in the shorn grass, were a series of twigs emulating a fence.
“I don’t know a lot about herbal remedies,” Lance said as he sat on the steps. Keith, swimming in the dark blue cardigan behind him, remained standing and attentive as Lance pointed at a flowering seedling. “This is a baby juniberry. Alfor says they can grow in almost anything. They heal almost anything too. But for you, aloe vera. They said that this one came from the First World mostly untouched. Can’t say that for a lot of vegetation out here.”
Keith watched him pull at the barbed tentacles of a darker, juicer plant in a heavy broken cauldron at the base of the flight. “Lance, how long have you been out here?”
Lance drew hardy scissors from his dirty belt. “Ten years.”
“How long did it take you to build this place?”
“Huh? Oh, a week. The community helped. We help each other—trade a lot, build each other’s houses, repair each other’s equipment…I’m a good shooter so I trade furs, skins and meat for seeds or cutlery or, I dunno. I got a generator off Rax.”
Keith looked up. Community? Far as he could see there was just hills and dirt. There was jungle to the north. “Rax?”
“An alpha from this extended family west of here. The Balmerans. Nice family but you don’t want to get on their bad side—we should go meet them. You’ll be safer if people know you’re here.”
Keith shivered a little. “Maybe not just yet.”
Lance stopped snipping and gathered the dripping leaves in a checkered cloth. “Keith, how’d you get out here?”
“I…stole a horse.”
“Where is it now?”
“Lost it at the river.”
“River? What river?”
Keith was honestly surprised by Lance’s ignorance. “When I’m better I’ll show you.”
Lance climbed three wind washed steps and Keith slid aside to make way for him but Lance paused right in front of him. Keith didn’t like the scrutiny. “What?”
“Stop whining, I’m just looking at the bruises,” Lance mumbled. “How’re they feeling?”
“Someone hit you didn’t they.”
“I can’t imagine someone would go through all that trouble of hurting you and not hunt you down. Omega aren’t common ‘round here.”
Keith averted his eyes.
Lance’s brow flickered as though with a mixture of worry and hurt, but it flashed into a neutral expression just as abruptly. “Alright. We’ll cut this longitudinally and scoop out the goop.”
“You ever had to treat wounds before?” Keith followed him inside to the space of the dining and kitchen, leaned against a counter as Lance reached for things and rolled up his sleeves and started working like an apothecary.
“Yes,” Lance said simply. “Nothing graphic like gunshot wounds though. A few parasites. Sometimes burns. Bug bites.”
“Don’t walk outside barefoot after it rains. And cover any cuts you have as soon as possible in the summer. The jungle encroaches on the land during the long summers and the bugs take advantage in the heat. They lay their eggs in open wounds that heal over and keep their babies safe.” He laughed at Keith’s expression. “I know. I don’t know where I’d be if it weren’t for Kolivan and Alfor!”
“Hm, oh—Alfor’s the owner of the land we’re on. Twenty acres. Not much in the grand scheme of things. Alfor bought this place in case things went south in the cities.” Lance was mashing. “He’s a doctor. And he travels a lot learning different ways to heal people. I saw one of his diaries once. He had a whole chapter on how the Marmora—”
“He’s a doctor? Is he the one who gave you the suppressants that make you smell alpha?”
Lance stopped mashing. “No.”
Keith waited. “Are you going to tell me?”
“Are you going to leave if you get your hands on them?”
Keith paused, startled by the sudden vulnerability in Lance’s voice. He straightened. “I mean. I wasn’t planning on staying here forever.” He was terse, “And you can’t make me stay by not telling me where I can find those tablets.”
“I won’t—by the ancients, why are you so quick to think the worst of people? I’m not trying to keep you here against your will.”
“You’re the one who…?” For some reason he felt embarrassed. He had felt threatened by Lance’s evasion. “Sorry.”
Lance wasn’t fooled by how on guard Keith remained. He stayed a little dejected. “Alfor has an omega daughter named Allura who’s a genius with medicines. She’s the one who invented the tablets. I’m due a trip to the city. If you’re healed up enough I’ll take you to her.” He nodded to the milky clear goo in his calabash. “Here.”
Keith accepted it. “Thank you, Lance. For everything.”
“Hm.” Lance still looked a little put out, but Keith didn’t let his mildly tortured heart brood over trying to figure that out. He was more concerned about spiriting away to the table and taking care of the injured skin around his fresh tattoo.
When Keith asked why all of Lance’s clothes were oversized, Lance blushed. “Hand-me downs from the community. They say I’ll grow into them.”
Keith looked at him dryly.
“Don’t look at me like that.”
“Aren’t you like, thirty already?”
“Twenty-seven, thank you and fuck off! I’m taller than you!”
“Doesn’t change the fact that you’re short.”
Their friendship was fresh and unapologetic and liberated, though occasionally haunted by Lance’s wistful melancholy or Keith’s biting reluctance. By the second week of their acquaintance, they were sleeping in the same bed, attracted to the novelty of being safe beside another omega. Ironically, apart from when their cold feet would bump in the night under duvet and mosquito net, they were barely tactile.
Much as Lance was accommodating and a light along the tunnel Keith never thought he’d come across, his feet and belly were telling him to move on. A short autumn was coming and after that the long winter. Food would be scarce and hard to source. Staying with Lance would be ideal, but Lance’s skepticism about Keith being hunted was not unfair and he didn't want to risk Lance's hospitality to the small chance that he did have a Galra tail. He had to move on, no matter how thoroughly Keith was certain he’d evaded attention.
This mentality was what motivated Keith to keep his distance. Keith’s distance was in turn the reason Lance was less and less upbeat anticipating their drive to the cities.
“You depressed or something?” Keith was walking firmer, Lance noticed, though he still favored his right side.
“You haven’t added another stitch or whatever you want to call it to your…uh, blanket.”
They’d had this argument six times now.
“Just tired,” Lance rubbed his eyes and pulled at the dyed wool through the loom. “Not looking forward to the drive.”
Keith set aside the duffel he’d been packing and stood beside the cushioned stool where Lance was seated. He had a good view of the world here through the windows that stretched from the rafters to the floor. They opened onto a back porch where three wind chimes sang in front of another ethereal sunset. In the distance was the low and gradual rise to a mountain range further away than the visage purported.
“What do you do with the tapestries you make?”
“Sell them to Alfor and Allura,” he yawned. “Allura pretends that she’s the one who makes them and accepts commissions from people in the city.”
“Why don’t you just sell them to people around here?”
“Because alphas don’t weave, Keith. That’s omega work.”
“It doesn’t have to be,” Keith bristled.
“I mean, yes, you have a point, but I don’t want to be the guy that starts defying convention, alright?” He pulled a little roughly. “Technically I’m not—uh—I’m not in the mood to talk social constructs right now.”
Keith watched him a minute. He sighed and sank to his knees. “Have you heard of the concentration camps south of Taujeer?”
Lance blinked blearily and then turned to him in alarm.
“I was born in one of them.”
“What the f—”
“I presented as omega when I was twelve and the warden sold me to a Galra named Throk.”
“By the ancients.”
“It wasn’t that bad. He didn’t touch me once until I was sixteen. I was a favourite out of his harem so he let me get away with murder.” Keith ignored how Lance’s horror increased at “harem”. “I had access to his library and he let me sit in on all his business meetings with others so I started to learn how to balance books and how Galra smuggle and destroy villages for their trade. I was twenty when I tried to escape for the first time.”
Lance shifted and faced him.
“I wasn’t the favourite after I almost got away the sixteenth time. I was too expensive to maintain. He gave me away as a gift to a ringleader named Sendak.”
“I’ve heard of him,” Lance’s eyes widened. “He leads the largest gang past Arus.”
“Some say he leads the largest gang period,” Keith shrugged. “He’s… complicated.”
Lance dropped his hands from the loom. “Rumors reckon he’s the one responsible for the destruction of Balmera.”
“Who told you—oh. Didn’t think there was a relation.”
“Rax and his family named themselves after the home they lost. So far as they know they’re the last of their people in a hundred mile radius. Keith, you defending Sendak?”
“He’s done horrible things, Lance. But…you know the Marmora?”
“Of course. Kolivan’s Marmora.”
Keith’s eyes widened. “He is?”
“Why’re you so—”
“I’m half Galra half Marmora. When Sendak found out—”
“You’re half Galra? What the hell, Galra aren’t omega! They can’t be!”
“Neither are Marmora.”
Lance’s eyes narrowed on Keith, “What does that make you?”
“You’re an omega born to people who can’t be omega. What does that make you?”
Keith deadpanned, “Omega.”
“That’s not what I meant and you know it.”
“No, I don’t know it. What are you implying? That I’m a freak?”
“No! Will you stop picking a fight?”
“I’m not the one slandering—!”
It was long and lonely and simple. Keith didn’t like the way Lance froze at the sound of it. Then there was a mad dash for the shotgun and the windows, and Lance drew a bead through the slats while Keith scanned the brush. The edge of civilization looked bored. Not a single blue pelt rose to the call.
“Should we be worried?” Keith whispered.
“Not now,” Lance withdrew the weapon. “Maybe during the winter. When they get hungry they come to human settlements. They know they can find food here.”
“You ever had problems with wolves before?”
Lance’s eyes darkened. He placed his shotgun aside and kneeled in front of Keith to roll his trousers up and over his knee. In his calf was no small divot textured with stringy flesh. Keith suppressed a shudder. “It was the third winter after I moved out here. I used to herd sheep then. I went to the barn to check on them and found most dead. Three wolves blindsided me.” He pressed a hand to his side. “I’d be dead if it hadn’t been for Kolivan.”
Keith stopped and crossed his arms on his knees. “You’re afraid of wolves.”
“I think it’s a reasonable phobia,” he defended a little hotly.
“Never said I didn’t think so.”
Lance eyed him and then stood. Keith stayed on his perch on the ground as he called, “For a guy who keeps accusing me of seeing the worst in people you’re pretty bad at trusting others yourself.”
“Ever since we met you’ve been pushing my buttons like you’re trying to drive me away and sometimes you get really defensive like, really defensive over stuff.” He stood. “You’re a damn hypocrite.”
“Well, fuck you too.”
“If we’re friends we gotta be honest with each other, don’t we?” he shrugged and returned to the windows keeping an eye out. The view remained innocuous and Lance stared plaintively.
“I suppose so.”
“Tell me more about Kolivan.”
“Hm? Oh. I guess you’d wanna meet one of your people, huh?”
“There’s that,” he bared mischievous teeth, “but there’s also the casual way you’ve been throwing his name around. If I didn’t know any better I’d say you had a little crush.”
Lance jolted to a halt.
“Does he know you’re omega?”
Lance was quiet.
“Oh—might explain all the wind chimes.”
“I’d say it wouldn’t be that out there to speculate that he had a little crush on you too.”
Lance still looked put out as he stalked to the kitchen, but to Keith’s satisfaction he looked far more energetic than when he’d set up shop before his loom. “It’s lonely out here but it’s not that lonely.”
“Don’t talk yourself down.”
Lance snorted. “I wasn't. How do you feel about soup? We can use up the perishables before we leave for Arus.”
“Is this your way of avoiding the conversation?”
“They’re some lentils and carrots we can boil down in venison broth.”
Keith smiled broadly until Lance turned around and paid attention to his unspoken snark and moved to slap that silly Cheshire grin off his teeth.
“You don’t like beta?”
“I don’t not like beta,” Keith corrected, lukewarm wind blasting through his hair. “I just find them creepy.”
“All of them?”
“The way they look like a man and a woman at once. Like they’re something all their own.”
“Well, yeah,” Lance replied from behind the wheel. “They are. They’re beta.”
Keith’s face scrunched up from the effort to explain.
“You ever really talked to one?”
“Throk’s accountant,” Keith shrugged. “Wasn’t much of a talker unless it was about putting the books in black.”
Lance hummed thoughtfully and Keith let himself drift into the scenery. The world was flat, flat, flat. From here, three days out from Lance’s homestead, not even the low-rise snow-capped mountain was visible. There was a pale straight line ahead of them during the day and stars during the night, sometimes a faraway glow of a depot where they topped up on fuel.
They stopped once to wait out a dust storm and slept almost the entire day through. When they woke up they were coated in a thin veneer of red and Lance revealed a penchant for black humor with a light threat of dust pneumonia. Keith had frowned at him.
They got to Arus in half the time, what with them switching shifts. They arrived at twilight and one day after another train arrived in town, some pelt and gold traders from the south. Keith shied away from the window at the obvious stink of Galra and their short lived horses. His eyes went a little emotionless at the tall, tall, tall figures standing in silhouette of saloons and whorehouses.
“And here I thought Arus was considered a respectable town,” Keith grunted as he cranked the window to a close. “Never seen so many prostitutes in one place.”
Lance snorted, “What respectable town wouldn’t have its unlocked knees? Half of civilization as we know it wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for two things: water and sex.”
Keith grinned, eyes on the road. “And where are your friends?”
“Deeper in. They’re not on the main road. We’ll have to park by the Holts—fair warning: they’re a beta family.”
Keith made no outward reply.
The lights got dimmer while Lance droned, “Mami and Papi Holt are both scientists. One’s a doctor on machines the other on plants. Their two kids are like an unholy mix of the two. I think you’d like Pidge. She’s scary and dry. Like you.”
“You think I’m scary?”
“You held a gun to my back the first night we met—”
“—forced me to tie myself up and then hit me in the shoulder to distract me while you made sure the knot was tight.”
“In my defense—”
“Nothing to defend, my man, I’m just saying you’re a force to be reckoned with and I pray for anyone that gets on your bad side.”
Keith scoffed loud and grinning. As he cushioned his cheek against his knuckles, “Is that an actual compliment I hear?”
“I mean, if you’re digging, sure.”
“Hardly digging. You’re saying I’m badass.”
“When did I ever say that?”
“Ever heard of subtext?”
“Woah! Idiot, don’t push me!”
The car swerved—horns brayed.
The Holt homestead was not a brick townhouse with a plastic façade as many other homes bordered Main and North Streets were. It was an independent domed cottage with a small yard lined off by a low brick wall. There were others like it studded along the dirt road. The closer the fields of corn and grain, the quieter the lights, the louder the crickets.
“Hard to think we were in the middle of a city in full swing three minutes ago,” Keith rolled his shoulders.
Lance exited and started rifling through the backseat for their bags. “Keith, help me with this.”
He looked away from the ghost white dome. It looked like a half-buried moon with vines growing up one side. “Shouldn’t we knock and let them know we’re here? Oof.”
Lance settled a fat backpack on his shoulders and cracked the door shut with his hips before loudly jingling his keys. Somewhere very close by a dog sounded. “Ah, there goes the doorbell.”
Under a yellow lantern a door swung open and a lean, androgynous silhouette poked out. “Quiet, Bae-Bae!” A bang of a mosquito screen being thrown back. “I’ve got a gun!”
Lance preened, “No you don’t!”
Barefoot, with hair wild and a mess, with denim overalls too loose and the shirt beneath riding high and showing a hungry midriff, the character known as Matt dropped into Lance’s arms after a thoroughly complicated handshake. He withdrew arms akimbo and demanded, “Where have you been? We were expecting you weeks ago to—who’s this?”
Lance thrust a rolled up tapestry in Matt’s hands. “The reason I’m delayed. Fucker showed up out of nowhere and threatened to shoot me with my own shotgun.”
Keith let out a wordless call of protest.
“Language, Lancey,” admonished Colleen over Matt’s laughter.
“Mom! Lance got us another wall carpet!”
“It’s not a wall carpet!”
“Semantics, sweetie,” she kissed Lance’s temple and turned her eyes to Keith. She looked everything like her son. Just a little rounder and shorter and mature. “And what’s your name?”
“Keith, Mrs. Holt,” he extended his hand.
She shook it and it was with a firm grip. “Welcome to Arus. You’ll be staying long?”
“Everything’s up in the air right now,” he withdrew.
Lance said, “Keith wants to get his hands on some of Allura’s tablets.”
“I see,” her eyes turned curiously critical. “The two of you must be exhausted. Will you be staying with us or the Lyons?”
“Coran can find room for us,” Lance grinned, “though I did want to see Pidge before we bounced over there.”
“Katie and dad went to visit Uncle Iverson. They won’t be back till tomorrow,” Matt leaned in the doorway. “Sure you don’t want to stay with us? I could use a second on Phantasm.”
“That game is going to rot your brain out, Matthew.”
Matt shrugged, not denying it.
“Could you have us for lunch tomorrow?”
“Of course. And we’ll have a place set aside for you too, Keith.”
“Much obliged,” Keith returned gracefully.
“See you later!”
They walked out of the warm light of the spherical bungalow and had their boots crunching on the ice under the pebble in the dirt road leading back to the glow of the city. They had bare essentials strapped to their backs and Lance balanced his other tapestry on one shoulder.
“That must be heavy. Give it here.”
“You’ll find it heavy too, dumbass.”
“We can take turns, dumbass.”
“Sorry,” and he gave it up. “Just testy. Tired.”
“Really? I feel great. It feels good to stretch my legs after all that time cooped up in the truck with bad company.”
“I’ve been wanting to get out of that rust bucket for hours.”
“Don’t you dare talk about Blue that way. She’s a beautiful marvel of modern engineering!”
“Yeah but we live in the postmodern world.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Never mind. How much farther?”
“Won’t be more than a ten minute walk,” he sighed. “Over there.”
The geometric narrow townhouses came into view again, this time facing away from urban fanfare. Each façade was different and brightly coloured and uniquely textured, each lantern taking on a distinctive colour of flicker or flare. They seemed to be fighting the monotony that disoriented Keith and he was compelled to ask how Lance could tell them apart.
“Here we are!” and he hopped up the short grey flight to a nondescript pink door.
Rap. Rap. Rap.
Keith shifted the tapestry from one shoulder to the other. “Why the fuck is this so heavy? Did you weave silver into it?”
“Not this one.”
Keith hesitated. “You’ve woven with silver before?”
Lance opened his mouth to reply.
The door swung open and they both gasped at the breeze that sucked them forward. They blinked at the vision of a gentleman wearing a light pink gown gauzy from the knees down, a soft cotton hat over his hair and ears and mustache a little shocked.
“Why, Lance!” And they swept one another up into a hug. “Good to see you, boy! We were expecting you a while now. I—oh? We have company?”
Lance still had his nose pressed to Coran’s cleavage as he replied. “That’s Keith. He’s been staying with me.”
“Hello, Keith,” and Coran relieved one arm from Lance’s shoulder to wrap Keith in. He startled, dropping the tapestry, stunned because the old man was gentler than appearances. “I can tell that you have quite the story to tell. How about I show you your room, run you a bath and then get some food in you before I put you to bed?”
Keith inhaled deeply and melted, nuzzling despite himself. Omega. Maternal. Home. Help. “Okay,” he slurred.
“You’re drugging him, Coran,” Lance giggled.
“I can’t help it, he looked so worn down,” Coran kissed Keith’s crown and he let out an abrupt purr. “You both do.” He smacked Lance’s forehead.
“Get going,” he slapped them on their rumps and closed the door and rolled up their sleeves. “You know where.”
Lance chuckled and motioned to Keith. “C’mon puppy.” Wham! Keith tripped over nothing and fell hard into the unforgiving stairs.
“Everything okay out there?” Coran called.
“Fine,” Lance moved the tapestry aside and Keith brought himself to rights. “Christ, that looked like it hurt. You okay?”
“I’m okay,” sounded a sobered reply. “I hope I didn’t wake anyone.”
“Nah, Coran’s the only one in right now,” Lance opened the third nondescript door to the left of the top of the stairwell. “If Sam and Pidge went out to Iverson odds are Allura and Alfor went with them. Iverson’s a retired sheriff of this town and owns a pretty big ranch about a day’s drive out. His wife is Pidge’s auntie and she grows every herbal plant you can imagine and then some. She sells to pharmacists like Alfor and alchemists like the Holts.”
“What’s the difference between the two?”
Lance threw down their bags and whooped. “Ask them.”
The room was small and warm with one big window and one okay bed smaller than Lance’s. The floorboards were raw and rattled and the whatnot had a face basin with clean water in it and clean face towels set aside.
Keith wanted nothing more than to throw himself into the bed. But instinct told him to bathe first. The same instinct is likely what made Lance sigh so heavily before he washed his hands. Pungent lemongrass filled the air, “handmade soaps,” Lance provided, and Keith joined him to wash up to the elbows and they kept jamming each other at their hips to move aside.
When they returned downstairs to the kitchen, Coran had prepared two glass bowls with roasted potatoes steeped in lamb and its juices. Some pears were set aside.
“Come here, sit down next to me, Keith. There we go. Now then, shall we get acquainted? My name is Cornelius Hieronymous Wimbledon Smythe, shortened to Coran among my family. I was Allura’s mother’s midwife and Allura’s nurse.”
“Coran raised Allura through infancy, practically,” and Lance made a rock-a-bye-baby motion with his arms before he sat. “Literally nursed her too.”
Keith blinked. “Oh.”
Lance snorted, “Never heard of nursing before?”
“I’ve never heard of a mother giving their pup to anyone else to feed.”
“Melenor and I were nestmates,” Coran provided as explanation. “We trusted one another with everything. Eat, eat.”
Keith ate. “I used to have nestmates. Well, kind of. We didn’t get along very well.”
“Kinda defeats the purpose of being nestmates, doesn’t it?” Lance slurped at his bowl. Coran gave a sharp smack on his wrist.
Keith looked thoughtful a moment. “I guess, but harem-mate doesn’t fall off the tongue as easy.”
If Coran was alarmed he gave no hint. “How many of you were there?”
“Less than twenty. Twelve at least, the numbers changed. There was always infighting among the mothers.” His eyes narrowed as he remembered. “They didn’t breastfeed, actually. Wanted to keep their teats up or something.”
Lance scoffed. Choked. Slurped. Coran smacked him.
Coran frowned, “Don’t tell me they were given than god-awful formula. That synthesized baby powder is no good, I know it’s not.”
“Formula?” Lance echoed with full cheeks.
“Work of the devil, never feed your pups the stuff, my boy. Don’t talk with your mouth full.”
At the mention of pups Lance ducked his head.
“So,” Coran returned to Keith, “I see you haven’t had the most conventional upbringing.”
“Far from it.”
“How’d you stumble across our Lance?”
“He found me beaten within an inch of my life. Fixed me up and took me in.”
Lance kept his head down. “And when he woke up he pointed my shotgun at my spine.”
“Why is that the first thing you keep telling everyone about me!?”
“Because it’s true!”
“But does it have to be the first thing?”
Coran laughed. “Eat, eat,” he persisted, and when they were finished he got them more.