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“Hands where I can see them!”

Ch-chunk!

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.”

Lance tied.

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?”

“What.”

“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.

“No.”

Lance watched him. He stood, “Alright—”

“I—will you teach me how to do it?”

“Huh?”

“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?”

“Fine.”

“Someone hit you didn’t they.”

Quiet.

“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.”

“Parasites?”

“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!”

“Who’s 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.”

Lance spluttered.

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.

“Hm?”

“You haven’t added another stitch or whatever you want to call it to your…uh, blanket.”

“Tapestry.”

Whatever.”

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 was twelve when 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-Marmora.”

“You’re what?”

“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?”

“What?”

“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—!”

A howl.

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.”

“Excuse me?”

“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.”

“What? Why?”

“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.

“What?”

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—”

“But I—”

“—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?”

“Sounds kinky.”

“Damn you.”

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!”

Keith chortled.

“Lance!”

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!”

“Bye, Lance!”

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.”

“Hey!”

“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.

“Coran!”

“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.”

“Hi.”

“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.

“Gross!”

“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.

Jesus Christ!”

“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.”

“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.

Chapter Text

Keith woke up in bed alone, which wasn’t as alarming as he thought it would have been after spending three to four weeks sleeping beside another body.

Had it only been a month since he and Lance met?

How time flew. He felt so established in his place beside Lance that he could hardly remember his life before—no, no, scratch that, he could if he tried. Air the room, air the room.

Keith stood and opened the single window that looked over the street they took the night before. In the bright of day, it looked blindingly different and the space race-like bungalows with their eerie roundness looked a lot closer than the walk felt.

He stretched, sore, and felt his hair on his shoulders. I should cut my hair. A brief wind waved his bangs. On second thought.

“Hey, you’re up.”

“Mornin’, Lance.” He didn’t turn around.

“How are you feeling?”

“Sore as hell.”

“Drink this.”

“What’s it, a muscle relaxant or something?”

“No? I mean, I don’t think it is. It’s just mint tea.”

“Sugar?”

“Honey.”

“It’s good.”

“Stuff Coran makes usually is. Kept up all his pop-pop’s traditions even after leaving…uh.”

Keith turned to him expectantly. He was frowning, his bangs cropping up slightly in the wind. Keith threaded his fingers through Lance’s hair on an impulse he didn’t question. The minute he did Lance’s eyes and shoulders dropped with a little relief. He rocked his head playfully against the little anchor Keith had on his roots.

“They’re from the First World.”

Keith blinked, “What do you mean they’re from the First World?”

“Don’t tell anybody.”

He recoiled, “Why would I—who would I—”

“First World folk aren’t really liked on the frontier. Accused of thinking themselves as gods or some shit.”

“It isn't all that unfounded if they really are from the First World like you say. The last colonizers landed two hundred years ago. Is that how old they are?”

“Alfor and Coran are older, obviously but…yeah, Allura’s more than a century.”

“Shit.”

“They came out here after Allura’s mom passed away. Wanted to help with the terraforming march. They move towns every forty years or so.”

“So people can’t tell that they’re immortal?”

“And also that’s just the lifespan of most towns out on the frontier.” Lance folded his arms on the window pane and was saddled such that his side was rubbing on Keith’s belly. Neither moved. “It’s pretty recent that places like Arus have been around for so long.”

“But that’s only because they have water and sex, right?”

Lance threw his head back and grinned wide. “Bingo.”

Keith chuckled.

“Finished?”

“Yeah. Thanks.” He handed over the empty mug.

“Coran said he wanted to take you to the market if you’re interested. Wanted to talk omega.”

Keith tilted his head. “You're not coming?"

Lance sniffed, “I’m not omega enough, apparently.”

-

Keith was unsure what to make of the abrupt invitation. He assumed he would be subject to a harrowing inquisition, being as he was a stranger living with, by all appearances, Coran’s surrogate son. But when Keith was taken to that part of the market that was blockaded from car and trolley and introduced to the butcher, the baker, the cobbler, the vendors, he began to realize that he was being adopted.

It was a welcome, not an interview.

“Not a fan of fish, Keith?” Coran guffawed at the way Keith’s nose wrinkled, how his shoulders hitched when the newspaper wrapped haddock hit the bottom of the wicker basket.

“Not sure,” Keith refrained from pinching his nose. “Never had fish before.”

“Truly? Well you are in for a treat. I make a fine fried haddock if I say so myself. Thank you, Plaxum. I can teach you how to make it if you like—what with two of you being out there now I doubt Lance’s staple of bacon and beans would suffice for long.”

Keith grinned furtively.

“Let’s make a B-line for the produce section. With all those travelers in town we’d be out of citrus before you can say sloven day ho!”

The market sat in the middle of a massive quadrangle bordered off by two story townhouses and a half constructed gable roofed building that was trying to be a courthouse. Vendors were on its steps in pop-up stalls, handmade trinkets spread on their tarpaulins braced by split thighs and jaded chewing faces.

Within the quadrangle itself the stalls looked a little more permanent. They were unfolded wooden fixtures connected at their roofs by blue or pink sheets or thin bamboo screens or some sort of resilient paper to keep customers in the shade. Everyone got in everyone’s way, and the smell of street food mixed with the smell of caged chickens mixed with the smell of visiting Galra.

“Bunto, darling! Your tubers are looking exceptionally golden today!”

A tiny woman that looked like a child with wrinkles in a strange but simple headdress of found coins grinned. “Thank you, Coran!” She whispered, “The sweetest are at the bottom of the pile.”

A glint came to his eyes and he dug for them through her display: “Your secret is safe with me.”

She giggled before her large eyes settled on the young man staring at some distant thing. “And who is this?”

Keith startled, “Oh, uh, I’m.”

“This is Keith, my son.”

“Another one? You’ve been busy.”

Keith coughed in his elbow and Coran grinned shamelessly, “Haven’t I? Oh, these are absolutely gorgeous.” She hadn’t washed them, so the smell of earth was rich.

“I’m Bunto,” the woman produced a stubby hand and Keith took it to the elbow. “She blinked, oh, you’re Galra?”

Keith retrieved his hand. “What?”

“The way you shake hands—never mind. What with Galra spreading like a plague sooner or later we’ll all start shaking hands like them!”

Coran’s wrinkles upturned, but he’d moved from praising Bunto’s tubers to her berries.

“Uh,” Keith ventured and she turned kind eyes on his. “Um. Why are so many of them here today?”

Just as he said so, one of them moved at his back, close enough for him to turn but distant enough for him to register it was a hazard of standing with his back to traffic.

“I heard there was flooding in Nazxela and a real brutal sandstorm in Omegashield. Forced a migration of them looking for food and better land, I guess.”

“The way things are going they won’t be moving back until after the winter,” Coran mused. “How do your scellions come out so succulent?!”

“Eggshells and banana peels and lots of love,” Bunto glowed. “And yes, it’s starting to look like Arus will become a permanent Galra settlement. But can I complain? They bring good trade!”

Keith wondered if she was thinking of the costs of the Galra’s permanent residency, but before he could ask Coran was sweeping him away. “Thank you, Bunto, we must be off. Full house tonight, you see.”

“Thank you,” she accepted his money with two hands and pressed her clasped hands to her forehead.

When they were away Keith asked what she was.

“Arusian,” Coran replied. “She’s a native, like the Marmora.”

“I didn’t know there were other types of Marmora.”

“They aren’t: Marmora is one indigenous people that we’ve bastardized into an umbrella term for all indigenous peoples. Alfor can tell you about them in more detail, their cultures and traditions.”

“Are there any others in town?”

“There must be,” and Coran craned his neck and squeezed them down a narrow way and they popped into another “street” that smelled of spices and heat and burning food. “Though apart from Bunto’s family I haven’t seen any.”

And he’d been living here for ten years, so that was saying a lot, Keith figured. He grunted from the sudden weight Coran hefted on him.

“Sorry, my boy,” he mumbled blindly. “How do you feel about a’rhoti?”

“A what?”

“It’s a type of flaky flatbread—you know what? I’ll get extra. It’s delicious. Twenty five, my good woman.”

Olia howled with laughter behind her stove, “On it! Got extra mouths to feed tonight, Coran?”

“Yes,” and he swung an arm around Keith’s shoulder, “My sons are visiting!”

“Another one? You’ve been busy!”

Keith was starting to see a pattern here.

“This is Keith. He’s been living with Lance.”

“Lance got company? Good for him!” she flipped something. “Planning on marrying, Keith?”

Keith fumbled, “Uh, Lance and me don’t—”

“Aw, ain’t that cute,” she seemed genuinely enamored too. “But that’s fine too. Lance could use a friend out there. He’s almost died out there too many times.”

Coran groaned, “I know. Gave me all my grey hairs!”

What grey hairs?”

They cackled.

Keith realized that yes, yes, actually, ten years was a very long time to be living alone, frequent trips to the city or no.

“He likes it out there,” Coran answered Keith’s unaired question as they moved around a fierce gambling group of hulking cowboys. “I asked him once why he doesn’t stay with us—he wouldn’t really answer. We love him, we wouldn’t mind. But he just keeps going back to that lonely house. It’s a good house, survived many good storms. And he does good work out there, tending to the land, farming or herding on and off. I think he likes the quiet.”

Keith could understand liking the quiet. “He’s not really alone. He mentions Kolivan religiously.”

Coran smiled in a strange way. “Kolivan is a good man.” He didn’t say it with praise.

Keith was suddenly scared to hear more.

“I like you though. And it’s clear Lance likes you too. I think you’re good for each other.”

“You do? Why?”

“I can’t say. I just have a nose for these things,” the curl in his mustache looked suddenly far too smug. “Call it a seventh sense if you will.”

Seventh?”

“The way you’re around one another. It’s like you’re cut from different ends of the same cloth.”

“Because we’re omega?”

“That has its part to play.” Coran smiled. “Ready for a bite to eat?”

Keith was abruptly jostled. He kept his hold on the basket but turned to overcompensate for the blow to his shoulder. His irritation spiked before he could stop himself, “Hey—”

“My apologies,” the stranger murmured, glancing over his shoulder and tipping his hat and barely passing his pink eyes over him. Keith was absolutely captured however, by the grace the stature and albino he knew all too well.

He was still scrabbling for a name while the not-stranger disappeared to the ground, barely showing a hint of familiarity.

“Keith? Keith, are you alright?”

“Ulaz,” the name came suddenly. “Ulaz! Sorry, Coran I have to—” he thrust the wicker basket into his hands and took off. “Ulaz! Ulaz!”

He heard Coran's faded protest.

Keith was fast, but the grain of the crowd moved against him. “Ulaz!” He was in one moment pressed to some stranger’s belly, another moment, tripping around a gangly child. Had he a coin to his name his pockets would have been filched a dozen times over.

“Ulaz!” he was just about screaming himself hoarse, drawing panicked attention.

At last, Ulaz did pause. He stopped, and Keith stopped, still a yard or two away with his heart thundering and his throat bone dry and eyes trying to shy away from the sudden glare off the white white white white of the not-finished construction site. This was the back of the market, comparatively. The loiterers were tending to horses drinking from their troughs or trucks set up on old jacks.

Ulaz’s wide hat cast his face in black shadow. When Keith took a step forward, he was jostled from behind.

The world spun. He saw the sky, his boots, the cobblestone.

“Woah! Gotcha!”

Keith felt a broad arm under his waist. He held on as he was righted and looked to his savior: and blanched.

Tall and foreboding as the mountains. Dark from heritage and sun. He’d lost an eye and gotten a little weathered since Keith had last seen him. He smelled of new leather coat and dead cologne. When he smiled, his famous filed fangs smiled with him.

Keith grabbed the loose material of the pants on his thigh and stepped back. His eyes hurt with how wide they were.

Sendak tipped his hat and his salt-and pepper hair curled under it. Keith knew what that hair smelled like. “Pardon me. If I’d known that there were such fetching omega round here I would have tread a little more carefully.”

There is a feeling to being in a control test. There is the knowledge that you are not in danger, and that you are isolated to yourself and an irritant. What Keith felt in the abrupt hollow of his bones was that feeling.

Except there was no reaction.

“It’s…fine…” he somehow managed. He stared. He stared as Sendak tipped his hat and swept over his body appreciatively in a single glide. He stared as Sendak strode to Ulaz, who had looked at them with utter boredom. He stared as they walked to their fat horses and pulled out disappeared in Main Streets fray.

Coran, with the help of the astute network of astute vendor women, found Keith curled up on a stool beside a strawberry seller named Vreg who whispered, “He asked me for directions. I told him to sit down and wait for you. White as a sheet, he is.”

Coran set down the wicker basket and stopped in front of the boy curled painfully into his lap. He touched the taut outside of his shoulder carefully. “Keith? It’s Coran.”

Keith looked up with bloodshot eyes.

Coran scanned him for bruises. “Let’s go home, hm?”

Keith followed wordlessly.

-

Keith didn’t react to Lance when Coran put him in bed.

“What do you mean he ran off and started crying?”

“Shh, Lance, let him rest.”

“But—” he kept protesting even when the door closed.

Keith appreciated the quiet.

-

It would come to pass that Allura and Alfor were not in bed despite it being ten in the evening when Keith finally roused. He’d scrubbed his face pink but there was some red in his eyes that wouldn’t go away in this bright light, and the drawing room got a little quieter when he appeared.

Lance had been seated directly across the entryway with his arm thrown around a striking black woman. When their eyes met Lance stiffened but Coran was on his feet faster: “Keith, dear. How are you doing?”

“Alright,” he croaked. “Thirsty.”

“I’ll get you some tea.”

“I can—”

“Nonsense, sit down. Acquaint yourself!” And Coran hobbled to the kitchen and Keith sat in a lone seat growing redder and redder under Allura’s and Alfor’s appraisal.

They looked alike in that non-Holt way. They both carried an air of importance and ability, and had Allura not a telltale softness about her he would have thought them both alpha.

Alfor spoke first, his voice deep and light and clear, which Keith—and the uneasy omega within him—took to immediately, “So, this is the young man who held Lance at gunpoint.”

His horror shocked him out of his melancholy. “Lance!”

In the wake of their laughter, Coran returned with a tray of tea, honey, cups and a jug of lemonade. Allura pooled to the floor immediately, sitting immaculately, somehow. Her trousers flared with abundant material—Keith had thought it a skirt at first glance. “I’m happy we managed to catch you today, Keith. Lance has told us much about you.”

Keith glared. “Clearly.”

Lance declared, “Coran, the lemonade is refreshing as usual!”

“Oh hush, flatterer.”

Alfor rumbled a hearty laugh. “He mentioned that you were interested in healing remedies? The kind of trouble Lance gets in he’s sure to need the help.”

“Hey!”

“Daddy,” Allura admonished and Alfor straightened: “Pardon me, it’s not my place to assume you would, er, stay. You are well traveled, yes?”

“That’s one way of putting it.”

His shoulders softened a little. “If you were planning on moving on, where to?”

Keith’s eyes flickered to Lance’s obstinately guarded façade. “I’m...not sure. I was hoping to wait out the winter, if Lance would have me.”

Lance’s head shot up.

“We haven’t discussed it yet. I’m still thinking.”

“Well, if that happens to be your end goal, that would be perfect,” Allura handed him his tea. “The suppressants I’ve made have different effects on different omega. In Lance it works to erase his heats and simulate alpha pheromones. In Hunk it interrupted his ovulation cycle, rendering him temporarily sterile.” She waved her hand, “Details aside, if you stay for the winter that gives me ample time to catalogue your responses so that I can figure out a recipe fit for you.”

Keith’s brow pinched, “The results aren’t standard?”

“No. Unfortunately, my pills are experimental. I’m still figuring out many things about my own and my fellow omegas’ physiology,” she offered an apologetic smile.

“Don’t let her humility fool you,” Alfor chuckled. “Allura has made incredible advancements. The problem is that we can’t find many volunteers to experiment with and act discreetly at the same time.”

Keith understood discretion. If news of the new miracle pill got out, plenty subjugated omega might want to get their hands on it, and by extension the folk who profited from subjugated omega would want to get rid of it.

Allura smiled, “I’ve had quite a bit of help from Colleen and Sanda.”

Coran stood suddenly, “I forgot the laundry.”

“Leave it, Cornelius,” Alfor waved at Coran’s receding form, “its dark out!”

“I don’t want them to get moldy!”

Alfor sighed heavily and rose to his feet. Keith balked, because he was a large creature. But his smile remained paternal, “Pardon me, folks. When Coran sets his mind to something…”

Allura and Lance tittered when the back door closed.

Mildly curious Keith asked, “Am I missing something?”

“Coran and Alfor have been dancing around each other for years,” Lance knocked his spoon against the rim of his teacup until Allura smacked his knee.

“Decades if you ask me,” Allura sniffed. “Why, the only thing that’s kept them apart has been their respect for my mother’s spirit, meanwhile I’m sure if she could see what those two fools were up to she’d try to marry them off herself! She was a very strong woman, you see.”

She nodded, and Keith felt his lips curl upwards.

“They should marry and get it over with. They’ve already spent a few heats together. I hardly doubt it’s my presence that’s holding them back.”

Lance laughed and put on airs, “Allura, how vulgar!”

“Oh shut up city brat.” She threw a biscuit at him. “Or should I get started on you and Kolivan?”

Keith’s grin turned outright malicious.

Lance paled. “Don’t you dare!”

She turned to Keith. “Had he told you?”

“Allura!”

“No, not at all. Who is Kolivan?”

“Keith you cheeky little shit!”

Allura sat in Lance’s lap and tied their hands together to keep him from throttling his roommate. “Kolivan,” she began over Lance’s rambunctious protests, “is a handsome silver fox who lives in Lance’s community. He’s Marmora, and mostly keeps to himself except where Lance is concerned.”

“For the last time, I don’t get special treatment! He talks to everybody!”

“But do the Balmerans have fifty plus sacred wind chimes in their home? Do the Garretts? No, now shush.”

Keith laughed at Lance’s defeated roll of the head.

“Apparently what happened is that Lance went up to Kolivan’s place looking for a trade. Furs for meat. Kolivan didn’t tell him he had more than enough fur when he made the trade.”

“He was taking pity on a city bug who was living through his first winter!”

“He was taking pity on the pretty young man who was polite and in over his head. Anyway—”

You’re killing me.”

She wriggled her hips in a way that couldn’t be sexual if they tried. Their play was too dynamic, too easy.

“Anyway,” she insisted, “Kolivan goes out of his way a few weeks later that same winter to see how our boy is faring. Because, y’know, it’s his first winter or whatever.”

“He was being nice.”

“I wish I could find men that would be that nice to me!”

Keith’s lips twitched in a poorly hidden grin. He drank the fruity, flowery, frothy drink.

“Poor Lance is starving to death and half-conscious in front of a poorly made fire.”

“Leave me alone.”

“Kolivan picks him up and they spend the winter together.”

Keith balked, “The whole winter?”

Allura sends a knowing look over her shoulder.

Leave me alone!”

“The whole winter. It’s a wonder Lance never got pregnant.”

“We didn’t have sex!”

“Allegedly.”

Lance buried his face into her hair.

Keith grinned, “Lance you dog.”

“Shut up, heifer.”

They were squealing with new delight when Coran and Alfor returned looking besotted with one another, a little flushed and sans midnight laundry.

-

Usually when Lance came over he and Allura would sleep together and talk love and science in the bed of the spare room. Tonight, they and Keith stared at the bed forlornly.

“It’s too small for all three of us unless we sleep horizontally and have our feet hanging off one side,” Lance speculated.

Keith turned to Allura, “Would you be against him sleeping with you in your room?”

“Not at all. Actually, the bed there is big enough for all three of us.”

“I don’t want to impose any more than I already—”

“Shut up,” Allura laughed and began dragging him. She was strong. “You’d be able to tell if you made yourself a nuisance, Keith. I actively enjoy your company and would be honored to be your nestmate for the evening. Will you take the middle?”

“I’d prefer the edge,” he admitted. He looked up when they were swept into her room. The ceiling was white and embellished with dinky, intimate fresco. The dresser was simple but ornate, and a matching mirror stood on the opposite side of a rug that looked suspiciously like Lance’s work. The bed was wide and housed them easily, and Allura lit a candle for ambiance.

“I’ll take the middle then,” she declared, and wrestled against Lance who’d been squirming to Keith’s side. “You’ll get him for the winter!”

“Unless Kolivan comes to visit,” Keith grunted.

“The two of you are assholes!”

“Language, Lancey,” Coran called as he stopped by. “Everyone in bed. Toes warm?” He tucked in the bottom of the blanket and squeezed ankles and tickled feet. “If you’re going to stay up all night at least make sure we don’t hear you.”

“Only if you promise the same,” Lance whispered.

“What was that?”

“It’ll be like we never came!” Lance repaired and Keith and Allura roared with laughter.

“Riiight. Good night, pups.”

“Night Coran,” they chorused.

Lance curled and spooned Allura immediately. Nose deep in her hair he made the allusion to sheep wool and cotton candy which she ignored in favor of asking, “So, Keith. We thoroughly embarrassed Lance this evening. Is it your turn, yet?”

Lance poked his head over her shoulder to hiss empathically, “Spill the tea!”

“I…don’t think I have anything half as entertaining as Lance,” Keith frowned. He flipped through his memories. “I was born in a concentration camp, was sold to a Galra harem at twelve, lost my virginity to him at sixteen, and he gave me as a gift to another Galra when I was twenty. I stayed with him for three years before I broke out and skipped towns until I got here.”

Allura had blinked through the whole story with a face she fought so hard to keep neutral it was almost comedic. When she frowned, it was with confusion. “How old are you?”

“Thirty.”

Lance whistled. “Damn, you look fine.”

Keith’s nose wrinkled at him. “Ew.”

Lance bristled. Allura ignored him, “What did you do for the seven years you weren’t property?”

Keith sunk into the mattress petulantly. “Sometimes I was a prostitute. Other times I worked on ranches tending to horses. I didn’t need to be ‘round alpha if I had a legitimate reason to tend to the horses.” He curled a little, “Then on Ladnok’s property, when they found out I was omega…I had to fight to leave.”

“I know Ladnok,” Allura whispered. “Not your most cultured landowner but she’s an honest if shrewd businesswoman.”

“You think Ladnok would be on the lookout for you?”

“No. Ladnok’s not the type to go hunting for farmhands that run away.” At Lance’s unspoken question, “And now I don’t think Sendak would be either.”

“Sendak?” Allura snarled, “Why in the world would he be looking for you?”

“He was…he had the second harem I was a part of.”

Allura huffed. “I shouldn’t be surprised he’s a purveyor of the traditional patriarchy. Harems! In this day and age! When omegas are voting and graduating from school! Those are the same kind of men who steal land from hardworking people like Kolivan.”

Lance melted against Allura’s shoulder solemnly. Keith shuffled into the give of the sheets.

Lance asked, “What did you mean Sendak wouldn’t be looking for your either?”

“I saw him today.”

Lance jumped up and leaned on his elbow and Allura mirrored his shock. “Are you alright? Is that why you came back from the market looking sick? Did he do something to you?”

“No. He didn’t even recognize me.” His voice went rheumy, “And I don’t know why that hurts as hard as it does.”

“Oh-oh,” Allura pulled him close and shushed in his hair and rubbed his shoulder. The calming scent she released was soft and minty, and Lance’s was bright and briny beside it. They both crooned at him in Omega voice, encouraging him to cry and saturating him in affection. It was hot and hard to breathe and overwhelming but Keith could find neither courage nor power to break away.

“I know he wasn’t a good guy but…he treated me with the most respect I’ve ever gotten in my life,” Keith sobbed and Lance’s heart broke, because Keith never looked so small until today. “When he found out I was half Marmora he introduced me to Marmorans and let me speak with them for however long I wanted. He cheated when he gambled and he ruined towns and killed to make money and he taught me to read and he whipped his employees until they bled and he listened to us when we spoke with him and I…I…I loved him.”

Lance grimaced, but he smoothed his cheeks when Allura shot him a glare. “We can’t help who we love,” she said with gravity.

Lance rested his cheek on Allura’s shoulder. “I think it’s good you saw him today, Keith. Now you can move on.”

Keith sniffled and did not reply.

-

“Asking him to move on from Sendak is like asking you to move on from Kolivan!”

“I’ve moved on from Kolivan!”

“I think you mean to say he’s moved on from you.”

Lance flinched. “Low blow, Lu.”

She pressed on her pencil and the point snapped against her notebook. “I apologize. That was low.”

Lance leaned up from her workstation. Her lab was tiny but well lit at the back of the house. It shared a wall with the dining room and looked over the backyard. It was littered with glass vials and Bunsen burners and special microwaves and all that new age crap, and she watched him testily beneath her wobbling bun as he moved from her side to the cool window. The sky was grey today.

“Kolivan—”

“You loved him. That much was apparent. And there is no shame in loving.”

Lance was silent.

“I’m just annoyed with your flippancy over others’ feelings. If you feel so strongly for a man of your past, how can you not empathize with someone who does the same?”

“Because Sendak’s a monster, maybe?!”

“And Keith fell in love with him despite that,” she returned. That gave Lance pause. She tried to be gentle, “May I remind you that you will be living with him? You do live with him. And as much as he’s defensive and prickly he’s also so, so vulnerable. And he trusts you, Lance. So much. Don’t let this new piece of knowledge from his past interrupt the obvious chemistry you two have. And what’s more, who he loves and has loved is none of our business.” She smiled wryly, “We’re just nosey little parkers and bullied it out of him.”

Lance crossed his arms. “You think that a guy loving the man responsible for murdering and raping people in the name of civilization is worth trusting?”

She turned sharply. “Lance!”

“It’s worth considering, isn’t it?”

“No, it is not. You ought to be ashamed of yourself for thinking so! Keith loves deeply but never has he ever showed inclination to be a slave to his emotions. Anything but that, to be honest.”

“You can’t say that.”

She threw her chin in the air: “And why can’t I?”

“Because you don’t know him! I don’t know him!”

“You’ve slept in the same bed with him for a month at his most vulnerable,” Allura turned in her seat and fixed him with something curious rather than admonishing. “Why has learning that he is capable of love changed that trust?”

 He pursed his lips and left her lab and she started hunting for a sharpener.

Keith was reading on the daybed when Lance did a quick turn about the house. He looked up at Lance’s entry and smiled in a way that turned Lance’s heart black with guilt. He pitched, “What’s up? Whatcha reading?”

“Everyday Herbal Remedies,” Keith showed him the cover. “Alfor said I could borrow it over the winter and that it’ll come in handy during the spring.”

“You plan on staying that long?”

Keith’s eyes flickered but did not rise to meet Lance’s. “I don’t have to stay at all.”

Lance hesitated. He folded his hands into his pockets. He snarled, “Dammit, Keith, stop looking like a puppy I kicked, will you?”

Keith set aside the book with a small frown. “I’m just letting you know that’s an option. You saved my life, Lance. That’s more than enough. I can’t ask for anything more. Like…like staying.

Lance pursed his lips.

“What do you want, Keith?”

Keith stared at him and his throat convulsed like the words were physically forcing their way out. He murmured, “I want to stay with you.”

Lance felt a little angry. “Then stay,” he rebuked with a heat that had Keith startle back in surprise. “Why do you keep giving me the option of turning you out?”

Keith shrugged. He never answered.

Chapter Text

Pidge barreled him into the floor. “You said you were coming for lunch!”

Lance wheezed.

“Mom said we were supposed to expect you three days ago!”

Lance wheezed.

“Perhaps if you alleviate pressure to his diaphragm,” offered helpful Allura, “he might be able to defend his treachery.”

Pidge sat up and Lance grinned through his gasp. “Aw, you missed me!”

She elbowed him in the gut. She crawled into Coran’s arms next, and Matt and Sam and Colleen appeared in the doorway each with a bowl of one thing or another. Alfor extended the dinner table and rustled up extra chairs and in moments the house was happy cacophony.

Keith found it overwhelming. Lance and Allura would nudge each other under the table and point at his wide-eyed expression whenever someone asked him to pass the mash or pass the gravy or take some more meat because he was too damn thin. His face was flushed from the unending excitement, and Lance was worried he might have to take him outside and give him a beat to recharge.

But Keith powered through and he smiled politely where he didn’t grin outright at jokes and stories passed around, and he answered questions easily in one liners.

Most memorably had been when Pidge, wonderful, intelligent, tactless Pidge shrieked, “Hey Keith, what do the numbers on your wrist mean?” She was playing around with code and the fact that it was only prime numbers (depending on how you grouped them) before Keith broke the levity, “I was born in a concentration camp.”

The table went quiet.

“It’s okay, though. I got out.”

In the stunned silence Allura reared forward, “Was…was that a joke?”

Lance beside her crossed himself. “Good lord, the world is ending.”

And Alfor spat his drink a little gracelessly, and Coran and Matt roared with laughter, and Pidge looked absolutely morose until Keith reached over and flicked his thumb over her wrist in reassurance. “I’m sorry, I thought it was funny.”

Pidge smile awkwardly behind her glasses, “To be honest, if it wasn’t my social faux pas I would have laughed.”

It was only in retrospect that Lance registered that Keith had lied, because the tattoo was new and was the reason Keith wanted to learn itch-relieving slaves in the first place.

But at the end of dinner, someone brought out alcohol and Matt and Lance wandered to the daybed and started talking like drunk old men and Alfor whipped out the piano and some mad skills and Pidge and Keith, Sam and Allura, Colleen and Coran began different variations of dance.

Pidge was absolutely robotic and flushed when Matt and Lance applauded her sarcastically from their perch. Her mother came to her rescue: “If you think you can do so much better boys, why don’t you?”

And so Matt leapt to his feet, Lance took his offered hand, and they descended into the most maladroit waltz Keith had ever seen. Alfor had increased the tempo to match them and at one moment someone screamed ¡olé!” and hip gyration and pretend fans were flying. It was delightful chaos.

True to Lance’s prediction, Keith and Pidge took to one another and Pidge had started begging her mother if she could stay to spend the night with him.

“There’s more than enough room,” Coran assured Coleen.

“I appreciate that,” she was stern, “but Katie has to go to school tomorrow.”

“I’ll get up early! I promise!”

“No means no, baby.”

Dad!”

“I’ll have to stick with your mother on this one. You can see Keith tomorrow after school.”

“School is so boring!”

Matt laughed, “You’re graduating three years ahead of your class, you’ll be out in two months!”

Lance moved to hug them good-bye and got a lovely swelling welt courtesy of Pidge’s love tap. When the Holts left, the house felt a lot smaller. Keith mentioned as much.

“It often feels like that,” Coran sighed. “When we first moved in it felt so cramped. Now it seems good company has stretched it out like a favourite shoe.”

Keith liked the analogy. He watched the back of Lance’s head as he thought so.

“Keith?”

He jerked to attention and met Allura’s sapphire gaze.

“Come with me?”

Lance hesitated at the bottom of the stairs. He blinked a little too rapidly when Allura rewarded him with one of her dismissive smiles, “Don’t wait up on us, darling.”

Lance’s eyes shifted between them. “Don’t bully him?”

“When do I ever—”

“Two days ago you wouldn’t get off my dick about Kolivan.”

Coran brushed past with a blasé sing-song “language!”

Allura tangled her arms with Keith’s in an elaborate knot. She swept Keith away without further argument, and only after Keith was properly seated in Allura’s lab did he hear the staircase squeak as someone ascended.

She closed the door and breathed. “Ah! Finally alone! Lance can be so protective!”

Keith smiled briefly but it didn’t meet his eyes. “What can I do for you?”

“It’s the opposite, truly,” she rummaged through her drawers. Keith winced as Coran’s dutiful organization was dismantled in a heartbeat. “I believe your menses is approaching, correct?”

“You can tell?”

“It’s subtle, but your scent has changed a little. More—hm, how do I put it—pungent? Defensive?”

Keith sulked. “You can say smelly. I’ve been told that before.”

Allura laughed consoling, “Oh—no, no, not at all.” She came to him and rubbed and squeezed his shoulders. Something was held in the fingers of her left hand. “We all go through that, Keith. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. And your scent is absolutely not repulsive. It’s…fertile. Rich. Betrays your health.”

Keith offered a wry smirk, “Connoisseur of omega scents, are you?”

“What with the omega I’ve treated for this or that condition over the years I’d say rightly so!” She paused. “Have you started already?”

“No—truth be told I didn’t even know it was coming.”

“Are you usually irregular?”

“All my life.”

“Any pattern at all?”

“Hm…three, four times a year?”

“Does it coincide with your heats?”

“Heats are rarer.”

“Oh?” she flew to her notebook and wrote something down. “I’m going to ask you to take note of your cycle from now on. It would be wonderful if I knew the habits of your cycle before introducing hormone interrupting pills but…we are on a strict schedule—I believe you’ve mostly made up your mind about staying with Lance for the winter?”

Keith nodded.

“Excellent,” she scribbled something further. “I’m going to ask you to keep a diary and record your week by week reactions.”

“Things will be happening to my body each week?”

“Maybe yes, maybe no,” Allura handed him an empty notebook that was pre-ruled. “Maybe absolutely nothing happens and the pills have no effect. Write that down. Or perhaps you find yourself hungry all the time, or that you’re putting on weight although you’re not eating as much, or your nipples feel tender or you’re feeling friskier out of the ordinary…you know how your body behaves on a normal day. Write down things that you feel are unusual, no matter how small they are. And date everything. Please.”

Keith nodded. “Alright. And the pills?”

“Right here. They’re the same kind as Lance uses. Depending on what data you can give me at the end of the winter I might be able to tweak them so that they work better for you.”

“I thought pills were supposed to be standardized.”

“They are, but people are unique,” she sat. “And you’re the first person I’ve had come in with a wildly erratic cycle. I assume that I will need to make adjustments for that. Your data will be very useful—I’m grateful for your help, Keith.”

Keith shook his head. “You’re helping me.”

“And you’re helping hundreds of omega of the future,” her eyes twinkled.

He blushed. “Uh.”

“Not used to praise, are you.”

“Not from people who don’t want something from me.”

She sobered quickly. “I’m sorry. Technically, I do want something from you. Your data. But—”

“That’s not what I mean,” Keith said the same moment Allura said, “I know what you mean.” Their eyes met and they smiled.

Keith looked at the pills, “These are the same ones that make Lance simulate being alpha?”

“Yes,” her brow furrowed, “which is infuriating. I was completely blindsided because Lance suppressing his omega pheromones and producing alpha pheromones was the farthest thing from what I was aiming for. It made me consider that alpha is an unlocked physiology in each of us but…that theory remains unfounded. Lance is especially unusual because his menstrual cycle is perfectly predictable to the hour and his heats are non-existent with absolutely no repercussions.”

“Lance sure got the full package.”

“And by total fluke!”

Keith tilted his head, “Allura, hit me if I’m wrong, but did you give Lance that land so that he could stay close for you to study him?”

Allura grinned fiendishly and slapped his knee. She declared, “I love Lance. And quite frankly giving him the land wasn’t my idea, it was father’s.”

“Oh.”

“Though I must admit him being close is brilliant for my research.”

Keith’s mouth jerked. “So you’re saying you’re an opportunist.”

She did not slap his knee.

-

Lance had plans to shop for the season: find Keith some clothes, stock up on supplies…but that was before Keith started crying in his sleep. Coran produced sweets and warm water bottles, and then Keith spent an alarming amount of time in the bathroom throwing up.

“Do you think he’s rejecting the tablets?” Allura murmured from the door.

Keith’s grunt echoed in the toilet bowl and Lance finished tying his hair out of his face. “I dunno if the tablets are the reason why he’s throwing up but I can tell you they’re definitely rejected by now.”

Keith groaned, “I don’t think it was the tablets.”

“You usually throw up on your period?”

“…no.”

“Maybe it was something you ate?”

“I’m not allergic to anything.”

Lance frowned at Allura, “Do people throw up if they’re allergic?”

“Sometimes.”

“I thought they broke out in hives.”

“It depends.”

Keith threw up.

Coran arrived with a stomach settler. Keith was washing out his mouth and drinking it the same moment Allura loudly considered that Keith could be allergic to her anti-omega pills. Lance winced at the name and she apologetically diffused that she was working on a less dysphoric title before Coran dismissed her and her too clinical conversation from the area. She didn’t leave without insisting that Keith drink plenty of water to flush his system.

Keith sat on the rim of the tub and abruptly shrieked when he stood. Lance startled: blood was everywhere.

Alfor was curiously absent the entire day.

“You should go do your shopping,” Coran murmured when Keith was in bed again. “I’ll look after him.”

Lance shuffled. “I know but.”

“You want to stay.” He smiled broadly, “I’ve never seen you attached to someone so readily before. Even with Pidge it took a little time.”

Lance looked away. “We’re a lot alike.”

“You are. He’s a survivor too.”

Lance blinked wetly.

“The winter won’t take care of itself.” He dismissed him with a love tap on the rump. “He’ll be here when you get back.”

“Thanks Coran.”

“Of course, my boy.”

Allura left the house with Lance’s invitation. They walked hand in hand, dwarfed by the Galra visitors who stared at Allura openly but did little else.

“Brutes,” she snarled under her breath, curling under Lance’s chin. “You’d think they’d never seen a woman omega before.”

“Some of them likely haven’t. Guy omegas are more popular on the frontier because it’s believed they’d survive better.”

“Nonsense!”

“I know,” Lance appraised one coat against another. “Do you think I should get the bigger one for Keith?”

“Shouldn’t you wait until he’s feeling better so that you can let him choose for himself?”

“I don’t want to drag him into town if Sendak’s around,” his gaze hardened, his voice dimmed. “God forbid he gets another panic attack or Sendak actually recognizes him next time.”

“Ah. Right. Sorry.”

He shook his head.

“I recommend the bigger one, then. More room to add layers on beneath, if anything. Cozier.”

“Alright,” and Lance bought it. They moved on.

“Keith said that he’d be staying with you.”

“Mhm.”

“You two spoke?”

“Not for very long,” his face twisted. “Sometimes I think he’s just humoring me. I don’t know what he wants.”

“He’s not that challenging to read.”

“Says the woman who makes a living out of reading people.”

She snorted and slapped his forehead.

“Ouch!”

“I find he can be very expressive. His eyes, his shoulders…”

“Shoulders?”

“Shoulders.”

“Huh.” He stared hard at scarves and mittens and leather. “Kolivan makes better versions of these.”

“Then maybe you should buy from Kolivan. It would be a good opportunity to introduce Keith as well, and let everyone know you have an omega husband.”

“I—wait, husband?”

She shrugged, “Keith rejected the medication that could let him pretend to be alpha. Rather than having an omega free with all these Galra hooligans around, it might give him a little base protection if people are aware that he’s…yours, for lack of a better word.”

“I’m,” he hesitated. He whispered, “But I’m omega, Lu.”

“Not to the majority of Arus you aren’t. And out on the frontier the only people who know you’re otherwise is Kolivan and Hunk. It’s not a terrible farce.”

“It’s a terrible farce!”

“Why?”

“For one I can’t mark him!”

“Plenty alpha-omega couples live and love without marking. My parents did.”

“All due respect, your parents were aristocrats from the First World.”

She arched a brow in challenge, “So?”

So, they’re weird!” His mouth twisted and he scratched the back of his neck. “And I dunno. Posing as a couple? Sounds a little intimate.”

“Just behave as you already do. You and Keith are plenty intimate.”

“We are?”

“You are,” she was enigmatic. Lance left her to her little secrets.

“Hey, you know…”

She turned to him.

“You can come out with us and visit sometimes. See the land and how we’re taking care of it.”

She smiled blindly. “I really do insist you invest in a phone. Don’t give me that look. Or at least a radio.”

“I’ll think about it.”

“Oh, will you think of herding sheep again?”

He made a face.

“I was wondering if you would change your mind with Keith there now.”

Lance’s face stayed, “Nn—I’ll think about it. Maybe if Keith says he’ll stay-stay I’ll think about it.”

A ruckus ahead drew their attention. Lance held Allura close when she got jostled by a kid running past. “Sorry miss!”

“Hey,” Lance caught him at the shoulder, “what’s going on?”

“An alpha in rut, he’s gone crazy! Am goin’ get the sherrif!”

“Oh honestly,” Allura righted herself. “All this for one alpha gone mad?” She stepped into the fray.

“Allura, what are you doing!”

“Step aside,” she said coolly, and someone stopped her. “Excuse me?”

“This is no place for an omega, little miss.”

“I beg your pardon this is the exact place for an omega, in particular an omegan physician! You hold me back you let that poor stranger suffer all the more!”

Lance peered over her shoulder. There was a large man, Galra, being pinned down by six non-Galra alpha, all looked affected in one way or another in the exertion to keep the howling stranger down.

“Let her through,” Lance said to the man who was holding her back. “She’s Lyons’ daughter she knows what she’s doing.”

“I’m a doctor,” and she slapped some woman’s hand away and stepped forward without sparing a glance. Then she kneeled in front of the drooling, crazed stranger and reached into her pocket and took out a vial that had something crushed and strong smelling in it.

“Who let that omega in there?”

“Someone get her out!”

“She’s gonna get hurt!”

Lance kept watch for anyone prepared to interrupt her.

Allura waved the vial in the rutting alpha’s face, murmuring gently all the while. He jerked at first, red eyes closing. He stopped shrieking. She added her own smell to the mix. The alpha pressing him into the dirt relaxed first, and then the ring of people watching silenced.

And Lance stared at Allura’s bowed back and listened to her sweet nothing prayers and would remember this vision for the rest of his natural life and think that Allura was never ashamed of being omega. Never. And she made people know that.

-

Keith, irritable and lonely, kicked off the duvet.

“Fuck.” He regretted not cutting his hair now.

The open door sounded. “Knock-knock?” Coran sang apologetically. “I brought you some tea, if you’re feeling up for it.”

Keith groaned. His red skin possessed a sheen from the past two hours of irritable thrashing. He burrowed his way into the sheets. “Mrnf.”

“I highly recommend it. Melenor and I used to share it when our cycles synced. Takes the bite of it.”

“It sure feels like I’m being eaten alive from the inside.” He welcomed the weight that meant that Coran was sitting on the mattress. He closed his eyes and stilled under the cool digits that pressed into his brow. He hummed when they shifted to his belly and rubbed.

Coran’s scent wasn’t as stark as Lance or Allura’s. It was clean, but it was soft, worn down by wind and sunlight. It smelled like a fuzzy childhood blanket felt.

Keith felt himself relax. He felt himself bloat. “I feel disgusting.”

“You look radiant.”

“Hn.”

“You should’ve seen Lance before he went on suppressants. Terrible menses. Would bite off the head of anyone who crossed him. Got in a bar fight once.”

Keith chortled, “Oh my god.”

“I heard he was a riot. Pow! Biff!” Coran did the gestures and everything, Keith didn’t have to squint hard to see the visuals explode behind him. “Started an entire brawl single handedly.”

“Oh my god.”

“Got a good clock on an alpha nearly twice his size. That was his first night in Arus.”

“His first night?”

“Mhm,” Coran at last prodded Keith into sitting up. He fluffed the pillow behind his head and back and had him lean against the headboard. He shuffled the tea into his hands. Keith took a moment to appreciate Coran’s grace. He made to drink as Coran went on.

“He appeared out of nowhere,” Coran’s eyes glittered under his lashes. His smile was dusty, sentimental. “He slept off his bruises in this bed for three days. Didn’t speak to us for three days.”

Keith sipped, but it was too hot. He kept his eyes on Coran, moving, every joint blooming with emotion.

“It was hard to look after him at first.”

Keith was quiet. “…why?”

Coran looked up, past Keith’s gaze. “Because…he reminded me a little of my own son.” He sighed. “My boy…passed away. A long time ago. He was Allura’s age. Lance looked so much like him bruised and-and…I could do no less than love him.”

Keith’s lips and eyes fell to the rim of his teacup but he did not drink.

“Forgive me,” Coran breathed suddenly, broke the spell and squeezed Keith’s knee. “I just.” He grinned and he was crying. “Sorry. Lost in my memories.”

Keith shook his head quietly.

“How are you feeling?”

His cramping was miniscule, suddenly. He nodded.

“Yeah? Feel like you could eat?”

He made a face despite himself.

“Maybe later then.” His mustache curled.

Keith’s voice broke: “Coran.”

“Hm?”

“I’m. Uh.” Coran smiled. “Thanks for looking out for us.”

“Of course. I—”

The both jolted at the screech of KEEEEEEEIIIITH that shook the townhouse to its very foundations nearly as much as the elephant tripping up the stairs did. In absolutely no time at all Pidge landed on the mattress and Keith and Coran had to scramble to keep the tea from spilling.

Pidge, of course, was unapologetic.

“Hi!”

“Hi,” Keith went oof as she landed on his chest. “Wow, was school that bad?”

Horrible. I have a teacher named Dos Santos, and he’s a total idiot. And he knows it too, that’s why he never picks on me when I raise my hand when he asks a question. He always picks on the kids that have their hands down and don’t know the answer so that he can say it out loud like he rediscovered Newton’s Law or something. And—”

Coran mumbled, “How did she get in here?”

“—so then I told him that he was being unfair, and then of course I get sent to the principal’s office, and for some reason adults always think that if a kid gets sent to the principal’s office sixteen times in one month that means that they’re the issue and not the teacher, so I had to sit through like an hour of shitty—”

Alfor cleared his throat from the doorway.

“Sorry,” Pidge squeaked.

Coran rose, “So you’re the reason this little monster got in.”

“Guilty,” and wow, Keith thought Alfor was irrevocably whipped. Coran only had to stand and smile and he held the alpha at rapt attention. Coran wasn’t unaware of it either. There was a lilt to his hips that weren’t there while he’d been ferrying tea back and forth. What power.

Pidge seemed ignorant the way she went on and on about an article she read about data storage in human DNA. Keith didn’t know what she meant and had to ask her to explain, which she was very eager to do, and Keith was impressed that he understood in the end.

“Hell, seems like you ought to take over that class from Dos Santos.”

Pidge lit up. “That’s what I said! That was what sent me to Principal Montgomery’s office the seventh and twelfth times.”

Keith grinned. He felt a thump through his body when she landed her chin directly on his sternum. Allura and Lance had coddled him, he realized in that moment, because fifteen year old Pidge was half their size and painting bruises on him within ten minutes of her arrival.

She peered up at him and her eyes glittered in the blue afternoon. He thought she was pretty as he raked fingers through her hair by an instinctual impulse he did not question.

“I didn’t even ask what you’re doing in bed. Are you sick?”

“Not really. You know about Allura’s pills?”

“Yeah, the suppressants.”

“They don’t agree with me. I threw up a lot this morning.”

“Are you better yet?”

He stopped. He didn’t know much about children, but that telltale glint reminded him too much of Lance when he was about to tickle him in the mornings. “If I say yes what are you going to do?”

“Nothing.”

Liar.

“My uterus is eating me alive.”

She seemed disappointed. “Should I move?”

“Nah. Pressure feels nice, actually.” He hummed as she settled. “You’ve done this before.”

“Matt and Lance use me for the same reason,” she pouted.

“Your brother menstruates?”

“Yeah, but he doesn’t have ovaries.”

“How does that work?”

She stared through the open window and its bluing sky for a solid eight minutes. Eventually he felt her shrug and heard her hum, Iruno.

“You don’t?”

“I have a vagina but I don’t have a womb.”

“Huh?”

“I have a scrotum, though.”

“How does that work?”

Iruno.

Weird, Keith relaxed his head into the fluff. It’s like procreation is just…an option for beta. Not a rule. He felt his face pucker.

“Does that weird you out?”

He winced. “A little. Sorry. It doesn’t make sense to me that the parts are divvied up like that.”

“Hm. I guess alpha and omega have it easy when it comes to finding partners, huh?”

He wondered about that.

“Oh, when did Coran and Alfor leave?”

Keith looked at the doorway. “Uh. Maybe don’t go downstairs for a while.”

“Huh? Why? What’s up?”

“Just trust me.”

-

When Keith woke up it was to a cramp.

Night had fallen, the bed was warm, and his leg had somehow got thrown over someone’s jabbing hip. He didn’t need to see who it was. He didn’t need to smell who it was. He curled a little harder to wait out the wave and the body he was straddling shifted and breathed.

Keith wriggled. Ugh.

The bed felt damp.

“Lance. Lance.” He threw the covers off of them and shook his naked shoulder.

Whuf.”

“I bled on the bed. Get off. I need to—”

“Mm?” He snapped awake. “What. What.”

“Are you awake yet? Move. I bled on the bed.”

“Oh.” He didn’t move.

Keith pinched his butt. Lance yowled and rolled over and crashed into the floor. Keith winced, more for the noise than out of empathy. But the floorboards everywhere else stayed undisturbed. “Really? Drama much?”

He felt Lance’s glare heat up his left shoulder.

“Turn on the light. I need to see if I got it on the duvet.”

A sigh. A click!

The duvet was untouched, but the fitted sheet and mattress had a pretty red rose where Keith’s loins had just been. Ugh.

“I hate being omega,” he growled. He didn’t see how Lance paused mid-yawn.

“Give me those.”

“What?”

“I’ll rinse out the sheets downstairs and take care of the mattress.”

“But—”

“You go wash up. Cloth or cup?”

“Cup.”

“Go wash up. Clean sheets are in the bathroom.” He yawned. “I’ll take care of this.”

Keith hesitated. Then Lance was all but kicking him out and wrestling the sheets into the inky blackness of the stairs.

Moments later, with his intimates and borrowed nightgown dripping from the shower curtain railing, Keith stood in the bathtub with tears in his eyes and hyperventilating. Eventually he crouched and turned on the tap and flinched at the cold water and watched with morbid fascination as a stream of his blood his blood went glug swallowed by the drain. He splashed himself and flinched. It was cold water.

He splashed himself.

Knock-knock. “Keith, I’m coming in. The sheets are soaking and the mattress is fine. It had a cover.” He paused and slowly closed the door behind him. His voice was softer, “Keith, you okay?”

He abruptly began to cry.

Lance teleported to his side, panicking and twisting the knobs off. One hand he kept on Keith’s pink shoulder. His ankles were speckled bright red. He looked like he was bleeding more than menstruating.

“I-I-I-I—can’t.”

Lance rubbed his skin. “Can’t what, baby?”

“It hurts.”

“More than usual?”

Keith shook his head and breathed in and Lance winced. It was like he was coughing in reverse.

“Talk to me, I can’t help you if you don’t talk to me.”

Keith turned his bloodshot eyes up and rasped a single hot breath. “The cup won’t come out. It hurts when I pull it.”

“Coran didn’t teach you to take it out?”

Keith stared at him. Keith stared at the door over his shoulder. “Did he?”

“Stand up,” and Lance did the same and offered his hands to grant Keith leverage. “One leg up. On the rim of the bath.”

“Okay.”

“Lemmie guess, you’ve been pulling it by the tail, right?”

Keith nodded. “That’s not what it’s for?”

“No, it’s not a tampon.”

“Tam what?”

“Never mind. What you want to do is squeeze the bottom of the cup. Pinch it?”

“Yeah.”

“And then pull it down.”

“But what if the blood spills?”

“You’re in the bathtub, it’s fine.”

Keith grunted.

“What, want me to do it for you?”

“No!”

Lance smirked, “Oh, I see. You can fondle my nethers but when I do it—”

“I’m bleeding, it’s gross!”

Lance’s smile fell. He sat on the edge of the tub, right next to Keith’s propped up foot. He clasped his hand over his ankle. “Keith, baby look at me.”

Keith frowned at the sudden pet name and softened under Lance’s rare solemnity. His innards squirmed.

“There’s nothing gross about this. Bleeding is a part of what makes us strong.”

“I don’t feel strong.”

“Well, that’s because you’re anemic.”

Lance.”

“Look,” Lance’s thumb flickered on his ankle. “I’m too fucking tired for this—look, do you know how strong your body and mind have to be for you to witness your body willingly shedding blood and treat it like nothing? You know how an alpha would react if they bled from their dicks?”

Keith frowned.

“They’d scream. They wouldn’t be able to handle it. They can’t handle it when their wives bleed much less themselves. And our bodies do it as a matter of course. Like we survive a war every month. This right here?” Lance tapped Keith’s flinching inner thigh, “This is nothing short of a testament to your natural predisposition to take the lemons life gives you and make fucking apple cider.”

“That’s not the saying.”

“Don’t interrupt,” he smacked a milky thigh lightly and Keith smirked. “Look, you’re a goddess. Your body knows it, it’s about time you know it too.”

Keith sighed, but tears welled up in his eyes again.

“Talk to me, beb.”

“I’m, uh.” He put his hand over where his womb would be. “I’m scared. It hurts like I’m pulling out my cervix.”

“That’s the suction. It’s what helps keep it up there to begin with. Sure you don’t want me to help you?”

Keith looked torn.

“First and last time. Just so that I can get you out of this damn tub and back into bed.”

Keith chortled. “Alright.” He flinched when Lance’s fingers grazed his labia without further prompt. All at once there was concern about his smell, about his hair, about letting another being with dreams and fears and disgusts reach into his own body.

But then something in him gave and he relaxed, and the water started up and he saw wine red get guzzled up. A damp cloth was handed to him.

Keith cleaned his loins.

“Feeling better?”

This was after the cup was reinserted—with methodical instructions Keith paid clearer attention to—he was in fresh underwear that was close against his crotch and ended at his upper thigh, he was in an oversized shirt Keith figured had been donated by one of the burly families Lance had befriended. They’d remade the bed together, checking each other’s hips and tossing pillows all the while, and then the lamp was off and they were leeching off of each other’s body heat.

“Thank you, Lance.”

“Sure,” and he nuzzled his forehead.

“I never thought omega as powerful before.”

Lance sighed. “It’s easy to forget. Allura reminded me today.”

“I don’t think Allura has ever been omega.”

“Huh?”

“She was raised to be alpha. She just. Happens to have a vagina.”

Lance screamed a laugh into his pillow. “You know you’re totally right?”

“Don’t tell her I said that.”

“I’m totally telling her you said that.”

“Ass.”

“Bitch.”

Lance trilled an omega trill, one that they knew in their bones meant happy and safe, like when Coran had embraced Keith for the first time, and Keith felt himself warm in his belly that Lance felt this way with him.

He’d never felt comfortable with dependents. Having someone, a whole other person, depending on him for something, even as mediocre as a favor, left him unnerved. Skittish. It was one reason he was so devoted to the knowledge of contraception and abortion. Yet, with Lance breathing on his breast, reliant on him for comfort and, somehow, happiness, Keith was alarmed that no matter how properly he searched his soul he didn’t feel the least bit out of place.

Their legs slid together.

Lance must have been thinking too because: “Keith?”

“Mf.”

“Will you be my nestmate?”

Keith’s fingers licked Lance’s spine. “I thought we already were?”

Lance pressed his nose into Keith’s sternum and grinned and hurt his jaw. “Yeah.”

Chapter Text

Loading up the truck was a competition in strength.

“This isn’t a competition, Lance.”

“That’s what the losers say.”

Keith set down the box suddenly.

“Wait. Stop. No. Go away.”

Allura stepped out of the house to see Keith and Lance chasing one another around the truck, squealing.

“Men,” she growled before Coran smacked them over their heads with a rolled up newspaper. Alfor meandered down the steps a moment later with a crate of provisions they’d rescued from the market remains that morning. Matt, Colleen, Sam and Pidge were behind him with other tributes.

“Why’re you going back already?” that was Pidge, latched to Keith’s middle, scenting him by virtue of proximity and the fetching fur coat he was wearing that swallowed them both.

Keith tangled his fingers in her bird’s nest at the back of her skull. She purred a little bit. “Sorry. Lance wants to get the house ready for winter. Something about prepping the windows.”

Alfor sang that he told Lance that floor-to-ceiling windows were a poor insulating design.

Lance barked irritably, “Tell me that in the summer!”

Pidge cushioned her cheek into Keith’s chest. “Summer out there is the worst. I spent a summer out there. Spent the entire time naked.”

Keith chuckled, “Sounds like faulty insulation to me.”

Lance barked more offended defenses of his home. Colleen distracted him by pooling a latched box into his arms. “Oof, what is this, seventeen solid gold bars?”

“Close,” she grinned. “It’s a radio set.”

“What?” he whined the same moment Allura cheered, “Finally!”

“You’re out there all by yourself the majority of the time, Lancey. We worry about you. Frankly speaking forcing this into your home has been long overdue.”

He shuffled it into the truck bed reluctantly. As he strapped it down, “I wouldn’t get my hopes up if I were any of you. I don’t even know how to work this thing.”

“That’s alright, Keith does.”

Lance’s head snapped up.

“And he promised that he’d make you radio us in every other week.”

Lance looked at the back of Keith’s giggling head thoughtfully. “He’s not even my real husband and he’s already taking over my life.”

She smiled a secret smile.

Allura cajoled, “Try getting it up and running before winter ends?”

“No promises,” he hopped down and to the side as Matt aimed to land a crate of tinned meat and fruit on his toes. They made faces at each other and Matt moved aside.

Because he jumped from the bed he didn’t see how Colleen’s face shifted. She pressed her hand into his shoulder, firm and disciplinary, and he was suddenly reminded that she was a mother. He stilled, intimidated. She said, “Lance, please listen. I’m concerned about the influx of Galra in the area. I heard what happened with Keith but even outside of that they are dangerous, manipulative alpha. They will press into the frontier, Lance.”

Lance worked a grim jaw. He didn’t mean to treat their concern lightly.

“Allura, Coran and Alfor have each other and the Holts can find family near anywhere. But you and Keith are alone out there. Even while you’re posing as alpha that’s dangerous. I beg of you—work smart. You don’t just have yourself to look after anymore.”

Allura nodded avidly at her side. “I stuck my nose in some gossip and it seems like the Galra in Arus are all part of Sendak’s posse.”

“All of them? And none of them recognized Keith?”

“So long as the rumors are true and the losses they suffered at Omegasheild and Naxzela weren’t blown out of proportion, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had to outfit his crew with new men,” Colleen surmised.

Allura went on, “Apparently they’re interested in setting up legitimate businesses here. Security of land routes, cheap physical labor, that sort of thing. A lot of people are interested in investing, but I wouldn’t trust it.”

Lance grimaced. “So they’ll be around for a while.”

“Still worried about Keith?”

“And what, his weird low key defense of Sendak?”

Allura’s brow firmed.

“Yes,” Lance whispered. “But I’m not…judging him for it, if that makes sense.”

“Progress, I suppose.” She slapped his shoulder and grinned. “I’m proud of you.”

He scoffed.

Keith chose that moment to penguin walk over to them with Pidge still attached to his frame and boots and babbling.

Sam laughed from the stoop, “Katie, give the poor man space to breathe!”

“It’s alright, Mr. Holt,” Keith raspberried her hair. “Lance? We ready?”

Pidge chimed nooooooo and Lance stroked her hair and hugged Allura and Colleen at once. For Matt, a smack on the ass.

(Matt yelped.)

Coran refused to let Lance go without a big serving of bird and mash, this and that, something and else for them to eat on the ride back. Alfor refused to let Keith go without a sizeable load of books and a copy of a manuscript of aboriginal herbal remedies. The whole horde was still grinning and waving when Keith pulled out for Main and Lance was half out the window waving back.

It was evening, so the clubs and pubs and brothels were stirring. Lance scanned the crowd, parting titanic Galra from posturing alpha, wondering who and who were the faces Keith knew from a past life. When he stole a glance, Keith had his eyes forward and his jaw taut.

For an hour they were just quiet.

It was getting cold. Night aside, the day had been suitably depressing for the season. Keith had looked at Lance like he was God when he gave him the coat. It was velvety inside and soft fur outside—made out of some wildcat maybe, he didn’t know—fell to his shins and had a broad hood that he occasionally went out of his way to rub his cheek in.

Lance asked, “You like the coat?”

Keith’s head swiveled to him in the dark.

“What, you forgot I was here?”

“I thought you were asleep. You should sleep for your turn at the wheel.”

“Then make space in your lap for me.”

Lance had been half joking, but Keith switched hands and patted his thigh without looking, without hesitation. Not one to stick his hand in the mouth of horses, Lance made a bed there.

“Don’t I smell?”

Lance breathed deep. “Yeah, like. Hm. Like warm baby powder. Kinda…hm? You smell like myrrh.”

Myrrh? What—no, I meant my menses.”

“Hm? No, can’t smell anything. I heard that people can smell their own period blood more than someone else can. I guess it’s true.”

Keith palpably relaxed. “I guess.”

Lance pawed at Keith’s calf. “You didn’t answer me.”

“About?”

“The coat. Do you like it?”

“Yeah, it does its job.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

Keith’s brow pinched. Lance saw it. “What do you mean then?” He heard a tenseness in his reply. It was invisible to him two weeks ago. Allura was right: he was expressive.

“I mean do you like it? I got it with you in mind. I hoped you’d like it. It’s soft. And warm.”

Keith grinned suddenly. Looking up at him like this Lance could see better that crooked incisor half tucked behind his canines that made all this teeth look sharp. He switched his hands on the wheel again and put his free hand in Lance’s hair. “Yes, I like the coat, Lance. You sound so damn vulnerable, what’s gotten into you?”

“I think I’m catching it.”

“What, a cold?”

“Your menses. I get emotional on my period.”

His nose wrinkled and didn’t meet his focused eyes. “Good grief.” His smile had dialed down but was no less genuine.

“Coran told me he and Melenor used to be on the same cycle. No more than a day apart.”

Keith hummed.

Lance went on, “Coran always said he felt like Allura was half his daughter because he was so in tune with her mom. Coran’s and Allura’s menses have lined up for as long as either of them could remember.”

Keith hummed in interest.

“I read that nestmates can conceive at the same time even if they have different partners. Does that hold up to what you know?”

“No,” albeit Coran’s story flashed in his mind, “but I’ve never really had nestmates before, remember?”

“Oh. Right.”

Keith hummed.

“I used to wonder if Allura and me would get pregnant at the same time. Kinda made me think that if I slept around I magically wouldn’t pop out a baby until she did.”

“Do you want a baby, Lance?”

“I mean.”

Silence.

“Lance?”

“You can’t ask me that when my body is literally programmed right now to make me answer yes.”

“Your body isn’t you.” He scratched his hair.

Lance deliberated. By the time he answered he realized that Keith thought he’d fallen asleep, because the muscle in his thigh jumped. “In a different world, maybe.”

“…different world, huh?”

“More—I mean, ideal world. That’s the word I was looking for.”

“And what do you think an ideal world looks like?”

“Well, it would be nice to not have to hide the fact that I can conceive, for starters.”

“Amen.”

“And it’ll also be nice if Galra weren’t running around and destroying stuff. Doesn’t make me feel guaranteed that I can raise a kid in a safe environment.”

Keith hummed petulantly.

“And…if I had a partner that wanted to stay with me and live with me and raise a kid with me. I wouldn’t want to do it alone. It doesn’t really need to be someone I’m in love with—though that would be nice—just someone I can live with and who wants a baby as much as I do.”

Keith hummed.

“And it would be nice if I could raise them at home. Close to my parents and sisters and brothers and their kids. In our heritage and language.”

Keith was quiet.

Lance murmured, “Yeah.”

“Why’d you leave home, Lance?”

Lance turned so that his nose pressed into Keith’s belly. “I married a wife beater. And it was easier to get to Arus than go back home.”

Keith looked down at him. He was curled like a kid. If he wasn’t the only other person in the car Keith would have doubted that it was Lance who’d spoken.

“What happened to him?”

“He. Drowned.”

Keith winced.

“It wasn’t me.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“You were thinking it.”

“I’d drown him too if he hit me.”

Lance snuggled closer.

Did he hit you?”

“Yeah. I mean, when we had sex he’d hit me. Part of it. But I never liked it. I told him to stop and he apologized—sorta? He said he couldn’t help himself. That I felt too good.” He was jeering the ghost of his ex now. Then he was somber, “But he’d spank me too. Not in the sexy way. You’ve seen the lines on my back?”

“Jesus Christ, he whipped you?”

“Yeah.”

Why?”

“Cuz…I’d embarrass him in front of his friends or something. It wasn’t that weird in a God-fearing puebla, if I’m being honest, kids get hit to discipline them all the time.”

“But not to scar like that.”

Keith’s belly warmed where Lance’s exhaled harshly.

“Was he alpha or beta?”

“That shouldn’t matter.”

Keith shut up.

“…sorry.”

“No, it’s fine.” Keith’s fingers returned to being soothing. “You’re not wrong.”

“I’m just. I don’t want to talk about it.”

“That’s fine. Sleep.” He rubbed the back of his head.

Lance slept.

-

Lance woke up later than he expected to. Blue was still puttering and it was significantly warmer. When he shifted, he realized Keith had thrown a coat over him. He moved: realized his head was not pillowed on thigh. Alarmed, he peeked over the dashboard.

Winter twilights were polite things. They were not as glorious as their tropical counterparts. It was all horizontal, petulant mists broken up by vacuous light. It made the world look like a painting that didn’t try very hard to be realistic.

Lance blinked. They were at an outpost. Keith was chatting with the old man stationed here, another one of those silver foxes named Ozar. There was something about the frontier that just made the old men fit and humble.

Lance sneezed.

His crotch felt wet suddenly.

“Shit.”

He picked himself up and tumbled out of the truck and exchanged the empty ring of the car seat for the muffled whisper of footsteps and quiet laughter.

“Look who’s up,” Ozar called good naturedly and Keith turned to meet him.

Mrnf,” Lance crashed into Keith’s shoulder and looped his arms around a body in parts that were deliciously warm. “Whumf.”

“Lance get off me.”

Ozar smiled, “When’s the wedding?”

Keith blushed despite that his hand was smack in the middle of Lance’s drooling face. “Oh. Um.”

“That’s fine, take your time courtin’. There’s value in that too.”

“Thanks…”

“It’s nice to see our boy finally settling down. He’s spent a mighty long time alone out there.”

Keith’s brow pinched. “Everyone seems to know Lance.”

“Well, he’s popular. Good manners, fair haggler, never mind he keeps good company with the Lyons and Holts and Iversons. He’s a good kid. Easy to like, easy to remember.” He pulled something from his coat. “Not pregnant are you?”

Keith flinched.

He shook a small marijuana kit. “Mind if I smoke?”

Keith relaxed, despite Lance nibbling on his shoulder. “Don’t mind us.”

Ozar took his time rolling, licking, sealing and lighting his spliff. “I appreciate you takin’ the time out to talk. I’m something lonely myself. Couldn’t get lucky like Lance and bag a husband though.”

“You topped up our fuel, talking’s the least I can do. How many vehicles do you see in a day?”

Ozar shrugged, “Three in a week. Not a lot of folks exist this far out. But outposts like mine make good money because there’s no competition for another day or two in any direction.”

Lance was a little more awake and started swinging. Keith rocked with him, “You trade?”

“Sure do. Lance ‘ere trades me furs, meat n’ fat all the time. You know the Garretts?”

Keith shook his head.

“Kindly family. You should meet ‘em. They have a lot of omega kids and each one has good hands. Whatever they make I buy. Heard of Kolivan?”

Ceaselessly. “Yeah, Marmora.”

“Yeah. I’d almost say he’s cut from the same cloth as Lance and me but not so. He embraces the lonely. Never seemed to need another body. He’s good at making things for the frontier you never thought you’d need.”

“Hm.”

Lance had started scenting him.

“Someone’s getting impatient,” Ozar laughed, and laughed a little harder when Keith changed colour and smacked Lance off. “You newlyweds get going. Thanks for the chat.”

“Yeah. Have a good one.”

“You too. Bye Lancey.”

Mwrf.”

The last thing Ozar heard before they piled into the truck was Keith’s incredulous, “How the heck are you still asleep?”

He grinned and waved them off.

Lance wasn’t sleepy, he was clingy. True to prediction, his period came. He was irritable and nibbled (the steering wheel weathered his teeth marks), but mostly looped his hands around any body part he could find purchase. To Keith’s embarrassment, Lance laced their fingers together and held their hands between them while it was his turn to drive. It felt terribly more intimate than anything else they’d done.

Keith kept his chin in his free palm, his eyes on the distant plateaus, and his red nose to the cold glass.

Then Lance yanked him.

He fell gracelessly to the seat and Blue wobbled off the dirt road as Lance laughed.

“You crazy ass!” He slapped him.

“Sorry, I missed you.”

“I’m right here!”

“Come closer.”

Ancients,” Keith crawled into his lap, reversing their positions from earlier. The bench wasn’t wide enough to take Keith with his legs fully stretched out. So with his head on Lance’s thigh he propped his feet freshly shed of their boots against the blustering window. Blue’s heater was poor, but outside was poorer and Lance said not to complain out loud otherwise she’d turn off the heat out of spite.

Keith decided not to test old Blue’s sentience.

“Are you always like this?” Keith’s irritation was cut short by a reflexive purr from artful fingers splayed in his hair. Lance rubbed his head with too much dedication to be giving the wheel the attention it deserved. “I hope you’re watching the road.”

“What’s to watch? This is sixteen hundred miles of mud. I’d sooner hit a Hunter than another driver.”

Keith frowned, “What’s a hunter?”

“Marmora fairytale of people who turn into rotting megafauna after falling out of grace with God and survive by eating the flesh of immoral men. It’s supposed to scare children into growing up into respectable adults.”

Keith shivered. “Kolivan told you that story?”

“Yeah.”

Keith looked up at him. Lance’s ministrations did not still.

“I can feel you staring at me, babe, what’s up.”

“What happened between you and Kolivan?”

Lance’s mood plummeted. It was in the rise of his sunken breast, the twitch of his index fingers. Keith’s didn’t care much for the softness at the edges of his grin which turned superficial in a blink. Woah, and Keith felt guilty.

“I’m sorry, I—”

“I fell for him. We…danced around each other for a while. Eventually he said that he couldn’t invest in me. That it hurt him to think I’d outlive him and be left alone.”

“Is he that much older than you?”

Lance scowled. “He’s pushing sixty.”

“Jesus, Lance.”

“You don’t understand he looks damn good for sixty.” Lance sighed, “And he treated me with respect. Like his equal.”

Unbidden and unspoken was the memory of Keith echoing similar sentiments about Sendak. If Keith thought of it in that moment looking up Lance’s nose, he made no mention. Lance felt his heart and mind grow tumulus as he revised their parallels. It wasn’t the same thing, he heard himself trying to convince himself. It wasn’t.

Petting Keith remedied his immediate discomfort. Keith purred.

“You’re so handsy today.”

“I’m bleeding, leave me alone. I don’t hear you complaining.”

“I’m not. I like you touching me.”

“Awww, babe.”

“Shut up.” Keith shifted. “By the way, did you know you talk in your sleep?”

“I do? What do I say?”

“Mrf.”

“What?”

Mrf.”

“I can’t hear you, you’re talking into your clothes.”

“Yeah, that’s what you sound like.”

Lance smacked him. Keith smacked him. Blue swerved.

Come nightfall they’d pulled aside. They pulled one of the three five gallon bottles from the truck bed to rinse what they needed to rinse their underwear and loins and cups, which was brutal, they were shaking out of their very skins—and Lance delivered a tactless joke about their wombs catching fever that Keith didn’t appreciate.

They wrestled Blue’s seat to recline as much it was able and set up camp between their folded legs. They made quick work of Colleen’s fruits, Coran’s cooking and Alfor’s reading to pass the evening before tucking in.

“What’s this word?” Keith turned the book upside down again.

With lips blue from jabaticaba, Lance muffled, “Coagulate.”

“Coagulate,” Keith repeated.

“Do you know what it means?”

His nose still pressed to the paper in Blue’s shitty yellow car light, “No, do you?”

“No.”

“Judging from the context I think it has something to do with bleeding. Stopping the bleeding.”

“Like clotting?”

“If it’s clotting why didn’t they just say clotting?”

“Because half of looking smart is that you have to be indecipherable.”

“Then how are learning people supposed to understand you?”

“Big words aren’t for learning people, it’s for learned people.”

“Stop talking out of your ass.”

“Admit it, it was a good line.”

Keith stuffed his maracuya into Lance’s grin.

“Mm.”

“Yeah, me too. Clean up and call it a night?”

“Mhm.”

They tossed the fruit peels out the window, bagged the rest and left it on the dashboard. The plates they’d eaten Coran’s leftovers out of they’d already rinsed and set aside. The truck smelled of the iron ring of fresh water and the bright twang of citrus. It was better than smelling of stale home-cooked food, however decadent it had been moments before.

They slept on Lance’s coat and under Keith’s. They tucked their arms around each other, they twined their legs together, facing each other. Keith yawned big and loud and Lance stuck his hand in his mouth.

“Asthpltshft!”

“Cover your mouth when you yawn.”

Keith smacked his shoulder.

Lance, face still split, pressed his lips briefly against Keith’s. “Night babe.” And he snuggled in.

Lance was settled for all of three seconds before he realized that Keith had only just started to recline. Through the haze of the temptress of sleep he figured that the air was charged, somehow, therefore Keith’s lips against his again did not surprise him.

“Hm?”

“Hmm.” Keith moved his lips. No tongue, just soft, lazy squishing of their mouths. Lance reached up to finger Keith’s nape. They breathed as they kissed. No urgency. Their hearts did not race. It was a polite, sleepy affair.

It was wonderful. Lance began to lift his leg—hesitated—Keith’s cold hand slipped under his knee and pulled Lance’s thigh over his hip. Their groins saddled together, they undulated unhurriedly, squeezing a little closer each time.

“Keif,” Lance breathed around the cavern of Keith’s mouth.

“Hm?”

“Wha—mm. What are you doing?”

“Shush.”

And Lance shut up, eyes never opening once, and let Keith take care of him.

They fell asleep with their mouths embraced.

-

Another poetic morning later, Keith blinked awake to the fuzzy image of something watching him. Wordlessly, he turned, shuffling away into fur and the smell of them and their saliva.

“Babe, we gotta go,” Lance sounded like he was laughing. There was no escaping him. Keith’s nose was pressed against Lance’s inner arm. Keith’s chest against his chest, their nethers entangled such to shame pretzels. By burrowing deeper he was burrowing into Lance.

Lance’s hand shook the indecent spot between Keith’s naked hip and lower back. His hand felt broad, overwarm, long twiggy fingers made to ensnare. There was a spidery quality to his hands. A musical quality. All those thoughts bubbled unbidden in Keith’s throat.

Not for the last time his mind supplied that they had kissed. Keith thought it would be more profound than this, less cordial good mornings and more awkward hellos and, maybe, more passionate makeouts. He thought that Lance might shove him off at worst. He hadn’t been thinking ahead when he chased Lance’s flavor. He did remember a voice in him salivating: mine, mine.

Keith’s eyes flung open.

“That tickles.”

Keith blinked, and Lance giggled, “Stop,” pulling away from Keith’s lashes.

Shit.

Keith croaked, “Lance.”

“Hmm?” Lance easily raked his spidery, musical fingers through his hair. Lance combed his bangs back and he felt naked, all the sand in his eyes caked up and face unflattering from inevitable grease—“Keith? Jesus babe, what. You look like a ghost.”

Keith averted his eyes, rubbed his eyes. When he blinked he had more clarity about him and Lance kissed him chastely. “Alright, let’s go. Long day ahead—”

Keith snatched at the cloth and wrist where he could find purchase. Lance fell fwumpf! right where he began. The bench groaned. “Babe, what!”

Red: “Why do you keep I mean why.”

Slowly, steadily, humor and affection blossomed over Lance’s features. His lips curled and one delicate brow angled up and emphasized his already big, buggy eyes. “What?”

Keith scowled and fell back. “Don’t look at me like that.”

“Then don’t look at me like that! With your hair all over your face like you’re like you’re like you’re—I’ve already been between your legs, thank you very much, stop seducing me!”

Keith’s heart went bang. “I can’t seduce omega.”

Lance blinked his lashes dramatically, “Is that for lack of trying?”

Keith’s eyes darted away.

“You’ve never—”

In vague panic, “I think my omega imprinted on you.”

Lance cocked his cheek against his fingers. “I’d hope so if we’re nestmates.”

“No, not like that. Like. As. Um. As an omega prints on an alpha.”

“Can’t be.”

Brief was Keith’s crush. He felt the muscles in his face and jaw a little too keenly while he took in Lance, relaxed, free, ignorant. “I know I smell alpha but it’s not real.”

Feels real.”

“It’ll go away. It did for Hunk.”

Something sharp and impolite poked at the splinters of his heart. “…Hunk.”

“Hunk Garrett. We didn’t see him while I was patching you up. He’s a friend of ours, and helps Allura with her omega research too.”

“…Hunk.”

“We’ll meet him when we get back.” He rubbed Keith’s shoulder. “You okay? You still look a little out of it.”

Keith rolled further into Lance, who squawked. “No. Just. Thanks.”

A pause. “…f’course, buddy.”

-

It was both a shower and a tub.

It was square and felt like rough bricks. It was as red as bricks. The red went up the entire wall where the water from the gravity fed showerhead might splash. Keith had showered: now he soaked.

Most frontier bathrooms were separate from the house, Lance mentioned earlier. It was especially true for big homesteads or dinky communities. Keith was horrified to learn of the concept of communal bathing on the frontier. Much as he liked Lance, bathing was the only reprieve he’d ever been able to find from him.

If for nothing else, it was over bathing that he was happy that Lance didn’t live closer to the others.

As he pooled the water over his knees he considered that it might have been a selfish thing to think, because Lance begged for Alfor’s easternmost land out of security, not personal preference: the way he spoke about how Hunk described his brothers and sisters and in-laws and nephews and nieces and cousins would splash and play and scrub backs betrayed how lonely Lance was. Lance didn’t see his face in those moments. He didn’t see how his smile was pretty, parted, and heartbreaking.

Keith pulled his hair back. Maybe I should cut it, he thought. His fingers automatically started braiding. Maybe later.

He was in another one of Lance’s oversized hand-me-downs, this being fluffy trousers and thick sweaters that hid his hands completely. Lance was dressed similarly. He was sitting on one of his high chairs with his back to the cast iron stove liking away. It was situated on the west wall, adjacent to the open kitchen and front door, and had an askew ziggurat of wood beside its last legs.

Keith loitered in the dimmer corner of the living area despite that Lance had already looked up from tuning his guitar. He was backlit by fire and a happy chirp: “There he is!”

Keith smiled sadly. Coran’s and Allura’s and Ozar’s voices overlapped: he’s lonely.

“You didn’t mention you played,” he mumbled, weirdly vulnerable as he grabbed some floor by foot and fire. Lance pushed his big toe against Keith’s shoulder to throw him off balance before he properly settled.

Lance clucked his tongue and tightened a string. “We’ve known each other for all of what, five, six weeks? There’s a lot we don’t know about each other.”

“And yet we’ve already stuck our fingers up each other’s pussies.”

Lance spluttered gracelessly. Keith laughed.

Ancients, Keith, you’re so fucking crass I swear!”

Keith hummed. The evening was good and quiet. If they listened close enough they could hear starlight. But only in between the eclectic stanzas Lance pulled as he relearned something. Keith thought his hands felt a little empty, but he was sick of Alfor’s books for now. Alfor’s books and their damnable jargon.

Then, like a stream coming to life, Lance plucked a song out of the air. It was so organic Keith didn’t notice at first. He listened, looked up, stared at Lance’s weaving fingers, listened some more. Then Lance started to sing.

Keith started. It was not a language he was familiar with. But it was smooth. Sensual and low. Pleading. Keith didn’t like it: it had no business butting into his heart.

“You like that, acere?”

“Hated it.”

“Ha-ha—fuck you.” Lance stepped off the stool.

“What language was that?”

“Puebla.”

It…was a beautiful language. Keith couldn’t tell if it was sensual by design or if that was the way Lance spun it. “You have a nice voice.”

Lance froze in his transition to lie beside him. His head rolled up their wide eyes met. Lance didn’t have pretty eyes. They weren’t framed or shaped in that feminine way. They were jarring. But mostly they were emotive. Lance couldn’t lie to save his life if he met you eye to eye. Watching him now was like reverse empathy: Keith could feel the gratitude broadcast through the air.

He scratched his pinking cheek. “What, people don’t tell you that often?”

No. You should hear my brothers sing. They are angels. Alpha in a thirty mile radius fall at their feet! They make you feel, you know?” and his accent bled through, suddenly. “They could make you feel. You could be six, or sixty, don’t understand a word. But you feel miserable or elated or grateful.” He reclined. “They got that from our mother.”

Keith got to his feet and pulled two sheets loose. They huddled together. Keith was palming Lance’s ice cold toes when he mumbled, “Tell me about her.”

“Who?”

“Your mother.”

Lance blinked at him before he consulted the fire. “My mother…is strong. The way you’d expect a mother to be. She raised sixteen kids. My brothers and sisters, five, and then my older brother’s kids, that’s seven, then her sister’s kids, that’s ten, then some of our friends who’d play football with us in the rain.”

“You’d play when it was raining?”

Lance grinned, “Yeah. You’d get ringworm but…it just looks epic to run and kick and arcs of water splash in your wake.” They rubbed shoulders.

Keith prompted Lance with a new question each time he reached for his guitar or seemed to drop asleep. By the time they were lacing their legs together Lance was speaking almost exclusively in Puebla.

“Go to sleep, mango,” and Lance kissed his lips. “I’m tired.”

“One last one.”

No.”

“Lance is a weird name from someone who comes from the pueblas.”

Lance’s eyes opened and Keith bit his tongue, because the fire caught on his top lashes and made him look like he was made of light.

“Lance is…well. My birth name was Leandro.”

Leandro,” Keith repeated with reverence and perfect trill.

Lance swallowed and went closed his eyes. “Go to sleep.”

“What does Leandro mean?”

“Sleep, Keith.”

“Did you change your name because you didn’t want your husband’s friends to avenge his death?”

“I told you I didn’t drown him!”

“That’s what a guilty person would say.”

Lance throttled him.

Chapter Text

Keith learned that Lance did not like radios.

Blue had a radio. Every time Keith moved for it, Lance smacked his hand away. Lance left the erection of the radio Colleen forced on them entirely up to Keith. The most he had done was cajole him down from the roof when he was erecting the antenna.

“How is that tiny little thing going to hear what Allura’s saying from the other side of the country anyway?”

“The broadcast waves—”

“Is just anyone going to be able to eavesdrop on what we say to each other?”

“If they’re on the same frequency—”

“Does that mean we can spy on anyone else?”

Keith threw something sharp and javelin shaped at his roommate.

True to prediction, Keith took over Lance’s life. He’d taken the weeks Keith was injured or sick for granted. Keith was fit. And he cleaned the entire cabin in one furious day, tuned Blue in an afternoon, and calculated the equipment they’d need for the winter, catalogued and outlined in a book that displayed his time under Throk’s accountant. The man was a machine.

“We’ll need more food.”

More food?”

“You keep forgetting there’s two of us here now.”

“Sure, but I didn’t expect you to eat like a horse.”

Keith threw something round and wooden at his roommate.

It had quickly become tradition.

In between bickering, wood gathering, clothes mending and last minute sheet washing, they would puzzle over Alfor’s books and throw words at each other in Altean, Puebla or even Marmora.

Lance learned from Kolivan.

(Of course.)

“I’m starting to think your beloved Kolivan isn’t real,” Keith grunted during his whittling. He blew on the latest figuring sharp and fast and set it beside the three knights and eighteen pawns he’d already fashioned. He was eager to teach Lance how to play chess.

“You think I made all these wind chimes myself?”

Keith thought not. Though he hadn’t seen Lance’s craft in anything that wasn’t textiles, the bone, shaped rock and glass didn’t match Lance’s style. Still: “You have spent a lot of time by yourself…”

Lance chucked something at his head. “Ass.”

Keith chuckled and took a break. Lance was working his loom again. His fingers worked fast. They worked like if Lance’s head dropped off they’d still move and complete the…uh…

“Tapestry?”

“Blanket.”

Keith made a strangling motion with his hands. “How much do you make in a month?”

“In a month? Just one—well. Now that you’re here and stealing all my work from me, I’ll probably be able to make two or three a month. Depends on materials though. I’m running low on wool.”

Keith’s eyes flashed. “That’s why you used to keep sheep.”

“That’s one of the reasons, yeah,” Lance grinned. “Around this time they’d be lactating so I’d get plenty of milk, and I’d bleed them to make food. Don’t give me that look. You have not lived until you’ve had blood with rice. Divine.”

Keith stayed skeptical. “Sounds like plenty of hard work.”

“It was, but it kept me busy.” His fingers didn’t slow once. “Anyway, according to your fancy little book we’ll need to pay a visit to some of my friends.”

Keith watched his smile curl.

“I get to prove Kolivan’s real.”

-

Allura’s notebook seemed inconsequential, but Keith was nothing if not dutiful. On the hours’ trip to the Garretts, he made note when he had his period, how he felt during it, why it was different from the ones that came before it, and a postscript that he and Lance had synchronized. He flipped through the empty pages and wondered where he’d be in life when they were full. Here? Back in Garrison? With Lance?

He closed the book and tucked it away.

Lance noticed and offered his hand. Keith took it.

They had not discussed their habitual kissing. For Lance it seemed to be a matter of course. But it struck Keith as significant. Nestmates, as he knew them, did not kiss. In fine, they were rivals for their alpha’s attention, particularly after they’d given birth. They’d forever felt challenged by Keith and his youth, his flat belly and his disinterest in following their path to motherhood. Catering to their alpha was all that they had left. All Keith had was the drive to move on.

Kissing he’d only ever done with patrons who visited the brothels he worked at, and even then only the ones he liked. The soldier boys from Garrison were easy favourites. They were fit, and they didn’t mind if the omega didn’t ride them. They liked being in control and having something under them. Keith learned during their midday pillow talks that it came from being under the boots of their superiors.

Keith interpreted kissing as sexual. At a stretch, romantic. Keith figured Lance thought it platonic, casual, confiding. That’s how he kissed. And he more often than not responded with surprise when Keith returned kisses that were charged and passionate, but he never pushed Keith away either. So Keith was adequately stumped over where he stood.

Lance’s thumb flicked over the side of his hand.

Keith flushed, brought from his reverie to see Lance’s profile against the edge of the frosty jungle outside their window. He flushed again. Lance wasn’t alpha. Keith knew that, he could see it. So he knew that the lurch in his gut wasn’t thanks to faux pheromones.

“I can feel you staring at me, puppy.”

Ugh.”

“What?”

“What is with you and pet names?”

“Don’t like it? I’ve got more. Cherub. Querido. Mi corazón, mi cielo. I like wub-wub myself.”

“Please don’t call me wub-wub.”

Lance grinned.

Don’t. Babe and puppy is more than enough.” He frowned. “Why?’

Lance shrugged easily, rolling Blue through the shallow cleft of low grassy hills. “Automatic. Lita always had names for us. Couldn’t remember all of our names so she gave us interchangeable ones.” He laughed suddenly. “I can hear her now: venga Marco—Luis—Manuelo—rayos, ¿quien eres? Querido, ven aquí. Ha! Need me to tone it down?”

Keith wondered. “No,” he surprised himself. “No, it’s alright.”

Lance grinned a little more genuinely and said nothing. He turned around one more hill and a wooden fence appeared.

It was black from time, or maybe that was simply because the vast expanse was immaterial white. It fenced off a lot of space. Keith couldn’t see where it ended. He noticed there was a barn and an empty corral, and there were six wooden lodges on stone foundations, each with two chimneys, three trucks tucked away beneath an open shed, and roofed platforms that connected some of the lodges together. They were scattered around the compound in no direct order at first glance, though it gave plenty of room for the cars and chickens and horses and kalterneckers that he could imagine were locked away in the barn for the winter, a barn that was thrice the size of Lance’s and could even easily swallow his home.

“Wow.”

“Uh-huh,” Lance let himself through the open gate. “The Garretts have a lot of members. Four generations live here and they are in no want of labor. Most summers are spent building and farming. They’re fucking ripped, each and every one of them.”

“A lot of alphas?”

“A couple, but twice as many omega,” he parked beside a jaded yellow pick up.

“Do they all know you’re omega?”

“No, that’s just Hunk. Grab the stuff from the bed, babe?” He slipped a finger under Keith’s chin kissed him lightly. “I’ll let them know we’re here.”

Keith hesitated as Lance turned away. By impulse he latched onto Lance’s shoulder—and it was taut beneath his palm—and he shifted forward and held Lance’s waiting face and licked into his mouth. Lance’s hand flew to Keith’s elbow to stabilize, in surprise, and he hummed faintly in approval.

Keith kissed him deeply for three swipes of his dexterous tongue. When they parted, Lance was a little flushed, a little glossy eyed, and Keith felt like he succeeded at something.

“Keith—”

“I’ll get the truck.” He flung himself out the door and Lance jolted in the quiet, wondering if the buzz in the air was just the silence or from his fried brain.

He made his way to the front porch of the main house eventually, though he need not knock. He saw one of Hunk’s nieces press her nose into the glass window. She and her teenage cousin, a pretty omega named Umi, opened the door. Umi grinned, not bothering to hide the fangs that detracted. His crush on Lance was well known and not unique.

“Lance!” They shrieked, and threw themselves onto him.

“Ouch! Ow! Careful, careful, the both of you have grown up since I last saw you!”

“Stop being an old man,” Umi teased, but peeled his baby cousin off with a gentle, “Come, Pogisa, let’s let him inside, hm?”

They had long dark curling hair like Hunk, and Lance combed his fingers through them as they beamed up at him—well, Pogisa did. Umi had shot up over the summer and stood at Lance’s height. He was sure to be taller soon, like all the Garretts.

“Hi guys, what Pogisa you lost a tooth!”

Pogisa grinned wider to show off the gap.

“Lancey?” someone called from inside that smelled warm and foody. Hunk’s aunt appeared, his mother’s sister, dark till she was blue and big and round in a way that could snap a man’s spine in two and heft a toddler on her shoulder in the same breath.

“Hi Aunty Grace,” and Lance found himself drowning in her breasts a heartbeat after.

“I thought I heard your rust bucket come in!”

Hey!”

“Say all you want about Blue, Lancey, she’s old, and the second cylinder doesn’t fire. Makes a fairly distinctive sound.”

“…Lance?”

They swiveled at the sound of Umi’s watery timbre. Grace took a defensive step forward, but Lance soothed, “It’s okay, that’s Keith. He’s been staying with me for a few weeks.”

Grace blinked, first at Keith then at Lance. “Oh.”

Keith chimed, “We brought cake.”

“Oh! Well, come in!” Umi pranced loudly up the steps.

“You little sugar addict,” Grace accused as she smacked her grandnephew inside. “Come in, Keith. It’s nice to meet you. Thank you for befriending our Lancey. Though I can hardly see why.”

Keith handed the box to her. “Lance saved my life. And he really stuck out his neck for me.”

“Sounds like a story,” she beamed. “Stay the night.”

“Shouldn’t you ask mommy first?”

Grace swiped at him. It seemed slapping Lance was a universal phenomenon. “Mom will be happy you’re finally visiting. Fair warning, she’s been in a baby craze ever since Shay began courting Manuia. First thing she’ll ask is why Keith isn’t pregnant.”

Keith tripped.

Lance shrieked, “Shay’s courting Hunk!? What!”

Distantly, “Who’s yelling?”

“Hunk! Huuuuuuunk!”

“Lance?”

“Is that Lance?”

More chimes of Lance Lance Lance that sounded younger and besotted.

The lodge felt smaller on the inside than it looked on the outside, but that was because of the sheer stuff and people. Keith couldn’t walk anywhere without stumbling over a toy or a tool, a folded rug or discarded boot. There was a lot of yelling for the kids to pick up after themselves but in their defense they had been happily playing before they swarmed at Lance’s legs, Lance who was swept up in the meaty embrace of the famous Hunk Garrett.

Hunk Garrett was a head taller than Lance, twice was broad, his arms put Lance’s thighs to shame, he had long hair in a thick braid down his back, tattoos flexing on his calves, and the softest, sweetest scent Keith had ever stumbled into.

He was the quintessential image of the perfect frontier omega.

“Wow,” Keith sighed, and then bristled when Hunk kissed Lance’s cheek loudly smack!

“Hi buddy,” Lance would have fallen at the jostling of kids at his feet and teens at his back had he not Hunk to support him. Even the kids half his height looked like they could bench press him. Keith was happy to be innocuous in his corner.

“Easy, easy! One at a time! Hello Timothy, hi Bonnie—Puku you’ve gotten so big!” He addressed them each by name, and Keith didn’t miss how the older ones flushed as he did.

Hunk laughed, rich and throaty, “Dude, where have you been? We expected you weeks ago. Did you change your mind about spending the winter with us?”

“Uh,” and Lance’s eyes flashed to Keith’s, who jolted. “Yeah, I think so.”

“Aw, why?” and Hunk took note of the stranger at last. “Oh, sorry. Didn’t see you—Pogisa, move please—hi,” he offered a gargantuan hand. “I’m Manuia. Lance is in the habit of calling me Hunk.”

“I can see why.” Keith took his hand. “You’re beautiful.”

Hunk tensed, smile blooming, “Wow, thank you! You beat me to the punch. You’re the prettiest thing I’ve seen out here since the red franjipani.”

Keith blushed and decided he couldn’t dislike Hunk.

“If you’re quite done flirting,” Lance interrupted, a three year old pup—Timothy, possibly—latched to his belly, “I’d like to introduce you to my husband.”

Hunk didn’t miss a beat. The way he looked between them said it all. “Oh, grannie will be happy to hear that. First thing she’ll ask is why you aren’t pregnant!”

Keith turned red again. Still, it was funny to see the older kids past Hunk’s shoulder wilt at the mention of ‘husband’. It was less funny to see them straighten when he made eye contact with them.

(They could bench press him too!)

Hunk asked Umi and Emanuel and Ana to stay with the pups while he ushered Keith and Lance to see his parents and uncles and this grandmother of legend. “She’s the matriarch,” Lance provided over his shoulder as they paraded up a narrow staircase. “She runs everything. Ninety-odd years old and still going. She gives the First Worlders a run for their money.”

Keith said, “She sounds scary.”

Hunk laughed, “She is. But you’re new, so she’ll be nice to you.” They came to a corridor line with a long, long rug that—

Keith cocked his head. “Lance, is that your handiwork?”

Lance jostled his shoulder. “You can tell my style already, huh?”

“It’s hard not to tell. Everywhere I go I see it.” He paused. “Do they know you made it?”

“Yeah, and they know I’m hiding that I make it because I’m alpha. I’ve bought enough yarn over the years since I quit rearing sheep myself that they start asking what I do with all of it. So I told them, and the Garretts are my finest customers.”

Hunk grinned, “We have too many kids is the problem, and we’re all used to tropical climates by nature. We’re always cold and commissioning blankets.”

Keith eyed Hunk’s bare biceps.

“Hunk’s been showing off for Shay lately, that’s why he’s showing so much skin.”

If Hunk’s complexion allowed it he likely would have changed colour. “Dude!”

When were you going to tell me that you’d caught the fair Shay Balmera’s attention?”

“When you showed your stupid mug,” and Hunk jostled him, and Lance flew, and Keith laughed. “Shay’s only been courting me for, what, three weeks? You hadn’t been around in months. Short of driving over to your place I was sure I’d get married without you knowing!”

“I’m surprised you’re not already married!” And Lance turned to Keith: “Shay and Hunk are childhood sweethearts. Grandma taught them how to read and write the same year and the first thing they wrote were each other’s names.”

Keith grinned devilishly. “Aw. How cute.”

Hunk stood rigidly. “Shut up, god! Lance, you’ve met your match.”

Lance swung his arm around Keith’s neck in reply. “I know, right? Keith, where have you been all my life?”

“Horse barns and brothels.”

Lance spluttered into Keith’s throat, struggling not to laugh. “I shouldn’t find that funny.”

Keith looped his arm around Lance’s shoulders. “I thought it was funny.”

Hunk tapped on an ornate door at the end of the rug. It was intricately detailed with good lacquered work. Ozar wasn’t kidding when he said the Garretts had good hands.

“Come in,” said a clipped voice.

“Hi grannie. Lance came by. And he brought a husband.”

Keith couldn’t see past Hunk’s hulking frame, though he made out the glimmer of a fire and the frame for a folded mosquito net.

“Lance got married and didn’t invite us to the wedding? Kick him out.”

Mommy!” Lance cried, “You’re so mean!”

With mirth, “Move aside, Manuia. Let me see their faces.”

Hunk did so, and Lance and Keith stepped forward. The room was hot. The fireplace was roaring, and the grandmother of legend was sitting on the floor with glasses on her nose and a fine web of crocheted fabric in her lap.

She was tiny, which was not what Keith was expecting, and though she was wrinkled her skin shined like it was leather buffed yesterday. Her narrow eyes were grey, her arms and legs were littered with gorgeous designs. She was tiny, but she was strong.

When she hurriedly gestured them forward, her starlight loc’ed hair wobbled from its self-tied bun. “Huh,” she snatched Keith’s wrist and turned it over. Keith pulled back on reflex. “Feisty,” the grandmother of legend said. “And from the Taujeeran camps.”

Keith was quiet: “How did you know that?”

She produced her own wrist, the numbers faded blue. In the stunned silence she patted the floor beside him and Keith sat. He flinched when she tossed fabric in his hands.

“Go away,” she demanded of Hunk and Lance. “Come back in an hour.”

Lance hesitated. “Will you be alright, Keith?”

Before Keith could reply mommy set a glare on Lance something fierce.

“Going, going!”

“Smart boy.”

Hunk laughed as the door closed.

Keith wriggled out of his coat and the sweater beneath. He paid attention as she instructed him what she was doing, and said that she was making a table cloth, and that it will take some doing but his hands were good and not arthritic like hers, so he would be good at it. “An omega needs to be good with their hands,” she said. “We don’t have inborn strength.”

“I never would have guessed it.”

She smiled despite the interruption. “Yes, well. The Garretts and the Benga are descended from big bones, for that I am grateful. My children and their children aren’t to be trifled with, everybody knows. And I make sure that they have good hands. You can be the prettiest thing on the planet but if you don’t have good hands, a good heart and a good mind you’ll stop living the minute that prettiness goes away.” She watched him. “You’re plenty pretty.”

It didn’t feel like a compliment.

“You smell like a whore.”

Keith stiffened.

“Don’t look at me like that. I wasn’t different. Wasn’t as smart as you though. Got pregnant. How long did you whore for?”

Keith hesitated. “…five years.”

“Huh. And no-one bought you out?”

“There were offers.”

“A lot of offers I’m guessing.”

Keith hesitated.

“Why’d you turn them down?”

“I was already bought and sold twice. I wasn’t looking forward to being property again so long as I had a say in it.”

“Seems you’re fine being Lance’s property.”

“I’m no-one’s property.”

“Lance knows that?”

“Of course he does.”

“You know he’s omega?”

Keith hesitated.

“He don’t know I know,” and she pulled something. “But it’s not all that hard to guess. He’s good with children. He likes them, and they like him back. And he’s too easy with omega. And too dismissive of alpha. He’s too pretty too. Puts half my grandchildren to shame.” She plucked something else, threw it in Keith’s lap. “He needs to be careful. Observant people can see past his scent.”

Keith looked down. “I know he’s omega. That’s the only reason I stayed with him.”

She watched him. “And how long will that be?”

He watched her.

“You don’t seem like the type to settle down.”

“I’m done running from what I was running from.”

“That’s all well and good. But when people stop running from something they gotta stand for something.”

He watched her.

“I like you,” she grinned suddenly, and was missing more teeth than Pogisa. “You got balls.”

That startled a laugh out of him.

“Take care of Lancey.”

Keith didn’t take her blessing lightly.

-

“My sister’s getting married.”

“Shut. Up.”

“Wedding’s gonna be in spring. Grannie wants them married before we start erecting the house.”

“Can I come?”

“I’ll beat you up if you don’t.”

Lance laughed.

“So Keith, huh?”

“Yeah.” And Lance hopped onto the counter of Hunk’s workstation and dropped his bare feet in Hunk’s lap: “So. I’m in the jungle looking for the mushrooms, you know the ones—”

“The red tops with the yellow stem.”

“I thought it was the yellow tops with the red stem.”

The red tops with the yellow stem.”

“I’m going to poison myself one of these days.”

“You already have.”

“So I’m in the jungle looking for my immediate doom,” and Hunk chuckled, “and I find a whole person laying in the mud. He’s got on a coat sure but he’s blue from cold and beaten to all hell. Burned too. Saw the mark on his face?”

“Hard to miss it. What makes a burn like that?”

“I was thinking cattle brand or poker. No?”

Hunk shrugged.

“Anyway, I decide to do the whole Samaritan thing. Pick him up and patch his wounds. He’s out for a whole day before he finds Susie and points her to my back.”

Hunk’s brows lifted. “Wow.”

“Nearly shot my spine out.”

“Hardcore. How’d you get out?”

“I told him I was omega. We struck a deal, I’d let him get his hands on Allura’s suppressants.”

Hunk perched his chin in his hands. “I’m guessing they didn’t work?”

“They didn’t, he near hacked out his stomach.”

“Ouch.”

“How’d you guess that?”

“Well, I mean, if the pills worked he would have moved on, right? He had no to reason to stick with you and pretend to be your husband if he can pretend to be alpha himself.”

Lance frowned. “But it wouldn’t last forever.”

“Sure but he doesn’t need to use it all the time. You do because it cut out your menstrual pain and kills your heats. I do cuz I like having sex and not getting pregnant.”

Lance smiled something cruel. “Does mommy know you and Shay are fucking already?”

Point is he can take what you and me use in a year and make it stretch for two, maybe three. If he’s survived this long without suppressants he’d know how to survive longer with them. Pretending to be alpha could’ve helped him get out of whatever situation got him on your doorstep I’d bet.”

Lance went somber. “Yeah. He was Ladnok’s barnhand.”

Hunk rose his hands like “see?” and leaned back. “Bummer it didn’t work for him at all though.”

“Allura’s working on alternatives.”

“You don’t look too happy about that.”

“I like him.” Hunk perked up. “I like him being around. It’s nice living with someone again. And we really get along. I’d…hate if all this didn’t mean as much to him and then when Allura can make him alpha he just…vamooses.”

Hunk’s mouth twisted. “Sorry, buddy. I don’t know what to tell ya.”

“Yeah.”

-

The next morning, with Blue properly looked over by Aunt Grace and Hunk’s dad and their bellies full with the culinary magic of the Garrett Matriarch, Keith pulled them out of the complex.

Lance had been thinking the majority of the morning. He curled between Hunk and Keith that night no problem, but seemed to be in a dull mood since.

Keith didn’t like that look, despite that the single omegas at the breakfast table whispered that a pensive Lance was an erotic one. He didn’t disagree with them—Lance’s lines cut a little starker when he was relaxed and still.

“Lance?”

Lance turned to him.

“You okay?”

“Yeah,” and he reclined again. “Well, no. I mean—hypothetical question.”

“Shoot.”

“If…if I fall in love with some pretty alpha one day. What’ll you do?”

Keith snorted. And then: “Oh. You serious.”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

Keith didn’t know how to explain that he thought Lance didn't fancy alpha. Couldn't even find a way to justify why he thought so. “Uh. I mean, that’ll be fine, right? You love who you love.”

“You wouldn’t care?”

“That’s not what I mean. It’s not my business. So long as it’s not hurting you I won’t say anything.”

“What if they were omega?” Lance watched his shoulders. “What if I found a pretty omega and wanted them to live with me?”

Hunk came to mind. Keith’s shoulders were stiff. “I figure the same rule applies.”

Lance wondered what to make of that. “You ever loved anybody Keith?”

“Short answer? I dunno. I told you about Sendak already. You don’t seem to think much of that though.”

Lance twisted away hotly. “Sorry. I was…out of line. Allura chewed me out for that.”

Keith shrugged.

“Sorry.”

“From the outside looking in I guess loving someone who destroys towns for a living is crazy.”

Lance was quiet a beat. “You think that’s what’s gonna happen to Arus?”

“Yes.”

“Wow, you didn’t even need to think about it.”

“Nothing to think about. Balmera, Taujeer, Naxzela, Omegasheild—anywhere Galra go they destroy. And they’ll destroy out here too.”

Lance pulled both knees to his chest. “I thought when I ran I ran far enough.”

Keith wondered. “I know you said it didn’t matter, and tell me to shut up and never ask again if you want. But the husband you drowned—”

I didn’t drown him.”

“—what was he?”

Lance threaded his fingers through Keith’s. “Alpha,” he said at last. “And it shouldn’t matter, but the point is that it does. It matters to me so hard. And I never want another alpha to touch me ever again.”

Keith tugged him.

“Wha—”

Guilty as he was to admit it that line of vitriol and resentment gave Keith hope. So when Lance stumbled to him he took his feet off the pedals and his hands off the wheel and cradled Lance’s face. Blue rolled forward.

“Keith, what are you—”

“I’d like to stay with you. For as long as you’ll have me.” Each breath ghosted over Lance’s stunned open lips. “I don’t care if you’ll never love me back or if you change your mind and decide to get pregnant one day I just want to be beside you. You’re the most amazing human I’ve ever met and I can’t believe you’re alone—mmf.”

Lance kissed him. Passionately. The way with tongue and teeth Keith had been clueing him in on for the past week. His fingers searched for Keith’s hair with hunger and they only stopped when Blue, unmanned, tripped over a rock, leaned up the shallow rise of a hill, and her heater glitched out and blasted them with cold air.

Ugh!”

“Shit!”

“Off off off off off—”

They sat there for a heartbeat, Blue purring, their cheeks pricking from the cold. Then they laughed a little and exchanged a sloppy embrace and messier kisses. Kissing Lance straddled the realms of amused affection and raunchy promises. But like everything else that involved Lance, it felt like the most natural thing in the world.

Keith breathed, “I’m guessing those airy hypothetical questions was you hinting that you liked me too?”

Lance’s giggle felt loud. “They’re as bad as you and your crazy kisses.”

“Kissing you was a far better hint than you going on about marrying someone else!”

“Yeah,” he kissed him, wet and loud, and they both whined. “Your right.” Then his eyes fell. “Keith…”

“Oh what now? Things were getting good!”

“I know but—this is important. Do you like me or…is all this you just reacting to my alpha scent?” At Keith’s exasperated glare Lance recoiled. “I know, I know! But. Humor me?”

“If anything I want you in spite of your alpha scent, not because of it. I’ve had my fill of alpha.”

“Literally.”

Keith slapped him. Lance kissed him.

-

Five years ago

He kissed him cryptically.

Shiro’s brow did not crease but he stayed on the bed, staring at the tiles in the ceiling, dreaming. The mattress flexed as the advisor left it. Shiro’s eyes did not roll to him to chase the finery that was his belt that cinched his maroon robes.

“I thought you were an advisor,” Shiro had asked on the first night after the close of the revolution. “Not a priest.”

And Adam had laughed and thrown his arms out. He quoted, “Why dost thou wear mother’s drapes?”

And Shiro had snorted rudely.

Then they’d promptly ruined Adam’s uniform, and wore the bed springs into nubs. The excitement from standing on the precipice of a new world wore off very quickly after that.

“I’ll be coming to pick you up at eight.”

Shiro tore his eyes away from the bleak texture of the sky. “Hm?”

“For the party tonight?” Adam clarified, and stared until Shiro confirmed. “You forgot.”

“No,” he was truthful. “I was hoping you would.”

“Funny.”

“I try.”

Shiro shifted to his feet on the opposite side of the bed and found his clothes politely folded on a plump chair. He frowned, wondered if Adam had tidied it or one of his new servants had. Frankly the idea that his lover had thought to fold his clothes and put it aside was a little more unnerving than if a paid servant had entered the room and done so while they slept.

“It’s thrown by the House of Sanda,” Adam went on as if Shiro were ignorant. “It’s unspoken, but we’re honorary guests.”

“If it isn’t explicitly said then I doubt that my presence would be missed.”

“Semantics.”

Shiro scowled in disagreement. “Wouldn’t you rather not go?”

“I’m advisor to the head of Sanda, I can’t not go.”

“That wasn’t my question.”

Adam schooled his features into something dutiful and Shiro lost hope and turned away, shoving his arms and bed hair through his shirt. Adam’s mouth sounded prettier strangled on his—

“And Griffin was kind enough to lend us his cousins to escort.”

Shiro turned, a deer in headlights. “Wut?”

Adam deflated. “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten Griffin—”

“No, not that, why are we escorting his cousins?”

“They’re omega.” Shiro was blank. “They’ll be on our arms.”

“…why? I thought you and I were going.”

“It doesn’t look good that two alpha walk into a party empty handed. We’ll need eye candy.” Adam dismissed.

And Adam dismissed, but Shiro stood in the milk white of early morning under dressed and staring at Adam’s funky robes thinking, dreaming. “Why?”

Adam had made his way to the doors of the stupid big room in the time it took Shiro to sound like an irate child. Tersely, “Why what?”

Had Shiro canine ears they would have pressed flat to his skull. His voice was apologetic. “Why can’t you and I go in together? It’s no secret that we’re friends.”

“Yes. Friends, Shiro. Do I really need to explain the intricacies of society to you?”

Shiro hardened. “Humor me.”

“Look, immoral relationships are popular in new generations but the old families hate it. It undermines how they make their connections by marrying their way to more money and power.”

“Homosexual relationships aren’t immoral.”

“You know what I mean.”

“And they aren’t uncommon. We wouldn’t cause a scene.”

“It’s dust swept under the carpet. You don’t see Griffin parading around with his new boy toy every other week.”

Shiro blinked. “I wasn’t aware that Griffin was gay.”

“Exactly. Look, that’s just how upper tier works.”

Shiro followed him into the corridors that led out of the west wings. They were carved wood in terraced grids, they were narrow and perpetual, and they were straight out of an Old World horror movie. Shiro challenged, “I thought you were trying to destroy how the upper tier worked.”

Adam halted anew.

Shiro remembered Adam’s plans. They were nineteen, cadets in the thick of a revolution six days old, and their respective COs thought they were going places. Adam was a tactical genius. Shiro a charismatic prodigy. They were friends, they were powerful as they won the love of soldiers as they rose through the ranks, and they shared bunks from day one. Shiro was always committed to his orientation. Adam always took convincing.

But Adam spoke with a gleam in his eye when he referenced the ideas for future worlds as riddled by those ancient philosophers—First Worlders like Smythe and Gregory the Infern who invented entire cities from the man up, outfitted him with a family, a job, a world of taxes, and then played the board game of interchanging his economy, his politics, his religion, designing the best outcomes for the megalopolis.

They were the ones who made Garrison.

And Adam dreamed big. So big. Bigger than the damn bedroom as broad as Shiro’s apartment. He dreamed of the redistribution of power. He dreamed of opening up the Houses’ villas to transform them into public baths. Shiro wasn’t sure when Adam seemed to stop dreaming.

“It’s not easy dismantling a system that’s been in place for centuries.”

“Yes it is,” Shiro barked. “You figured it out when you were twelve.”

Adam scowled. “There were a lot of details I left out when I was twelve.”

“I thought you wanted to make a difference—”

“I am.”

“Yes. Making the House of Sanda richer and richer!”

“Don’t you—”

“Sanda’s using you. You’re smart. You’d make a bad enemy. That’s why she invites you to parties and gave you that big fucking bedroom—”

Genuinely flummoxed: “What do you have against my bedroom?”

“—just—just.” And Shiro breathed, “I think your goals have…changed.”

“Of course they’ve changed,” and Adam’s eyes narrowed. “We can’t all stay children at heart.”

Shiro felt that hit, somewhere. “What are you—”

“I’m going to be late.”

Shiro watched him go down the horror show corridor and felt promptly hated by the opulent walls, like they were sneering at his simple clothes.

Chapter Text

Seventeen years ago

Garrison was created by the First Worlders. It was the first city, the first colonized patch of red dirt. It was designed brick by brick with individual and communal psychology in mind.

It was ruined by restless Galra.

Frankly what little history Shiro knew about the First City was horrendously outdated and knowingly misinterpreted. He and his classmates and teachers knew this. But they knew nothing else. So they clung to the vague mistruths that the First City was wrangled from the immortal gods not once but thrice, and the unending wars rippling through its urban valleys since were an omen that Garrison would never return to its former opulence.

The theory was sound at the surface. And it satisfied most men, save for Adam.

Adam had it in his mind that he was going to be the archeologist of tomorrow by digging up the truths of their not-so-distant past. He woke Shiro up in a cold sweat one night, panicked by a dream he was desperate not to forget. Shiro remembered being sore as hell because Commander Iverson was recently divorced and lost custody of his dog and was taking it out on the cadets.

Shiro groused, “I’m usually a very nice person.”

“Takashi: what if forgetting about our history was intentional? What if the entire city was subject to amnesia?”

“I’m usually not a nice person at three in the morning.”

(Adam never took the hint.)

He’d read and question the computer and created a book that documented noteworthy inconsistencies. He picked up words that would or would not frequent certain references. He traced orators to their roots until they disappeared behind the veil of unauthorized access.

Adam became the local conspiracy theorist.

Seventeen year old Shiro was popular despite his squirrely roommate chasing him down with his latest discoveries and a paper trail of blaspheme behind him. Exceptionally masculine alpha were quick to sniff out the stale taste of runt that stuck to Adam’s skin. Shiro smelt it too, and let Adam hide in his shadow while he chatted up the classmates from their logistics and strategies course, the teachers of their weapons training classes, and, of course, the communal showers.

(Omega were rare in military school, to say the least.)

But what came with the territory of defending his newfound shadow was a perennial cloud of thought and theory. And he realized, belatedly, that Adam was a genius. Shiro encouraged his prattling once and that was it. It was all the spark their friendship needed.

They shared their free time getting into fevered, heavy debates that left their minds hot and heavy. Shiro was never dispassionate when they traded academic blows, but Adam’s words always had a weight to them. He believed they were the stepping stones to something, somewhere big.

“I’m just powerless now,” he said between pull-ups. Shiro’s fingers slipped on his sneakers and he fell back without the anchor.

“Don’t stop, Sanda’s making her rounds,” Shiro whispered.

Adam closed his eyes against the dirt and sun and sweat. “I’m just powerless now. When I rise through the ranks, when I get up there—I’ll find a hidden library or something.”

“C’mon Adam, twenty-one. Twenty-one? Twenty-one?”

Adam did the twenty-first pull-up just as Sanda marched past.

Shiro whispered, “Is that why you joined the army?”

Adam paused. “Beg pardon?”

“To get to your hypothesized secret library. Is that why you joined the army?”

“Oh,” Adam warmed, because Shiro wanted to continue talking with him. He was listening. “No,” he snorted.

“Twenty-two.”

“I’m the last kid of eight and the only alpha. All my siblings were married off for huge bride prices to House heirs.”

“Twenty-three.”

“My parents didn’t know what to do with me. They didn’t have a business to prime me for like other families, and their retirement plan was settled when they married off my eldest brother. So they enlisted me into the army as soon as I was old enough.”

Shiro winced. “Sounds rough.”

“It can’t be rougher than being an orphan.”

Shiro’s lips flattened. “I dunno about that.”

That gave Adam pause. “Why?”

“It’s just…kind of sadder that you have parents who didn’t want you around than if you didn’t have parents at all.”

Adam growled a little. “I never said my parents didn’t want me.”

Shiro’s mouth twisted in disbelief, but he apologized and they switched places at the whistle. From then on, each time Shiro crunched up Adam had a solemn far-away look in his eyes.

Several hours later Adam was shaking him awake.

Shiro didn’t even open his eyes: “If it weren’t for the laws of this land…”

“Shiro, please.”

What, Adam.”

“You were right.”

“Usually. But you’re gonna have to be more specific.”

God you’re an asshole at twelve o’ clock.”

“It’s fucking twelve and Iverson still hasn’t gotten his dog back, what do you expect?!”

Adam started pushing him and Shiro rolled, but not with a dissenting groan. He slipped under the covers and didn’t say anything else, which Shiro reveled in for the minute it took his gut to figure it was wrong. He turned in clunky, loud, rustling movements, and shook the shadowy lump leeching his body heat. “Hey.”

“What.”

Now who’s moody?”

Adam whispered so low he whistled: “You were right.”

“What?”

“I tried to contact my parents. I can’t get through to them.”

“I mean, if you’re calling at twelve—”

“No, I’ve called before. I always figured I was calling at the wrong time but…what if you’re right? What if they didn’t want me? They didn’t want any of us. So they just…gave us away.”

Shiro frowned.

“I thought that parents had this unconditional love for their kid that they get when they’re born and it never goes away but. My siblings were literally sold away. And me…I was tossed.”

Shiro told him to stop talking.

Adam started crying.

“Please stop crying. Please stop crying. It’s twelve o’ clock.”

Adam laughed wetly.

“…can I hug you?”

Sniff. “Please.”

-

Adam called his parents thirty times after that for each hour of the day.

He never got through.

-

Unspoken, Adam would crawl into Shiro’s bunk to sleep and Shiro would crawl into Adam’s to think. At every opportunity they met up, worked out, studied and played. Sometimes Shiro wondered if they looked weird. Immoral. But Adam returned that alpha-alpha relationships were very common in the army.

“I mean I figure,” Shiro said between bites. “But I’ve just never seen it.”

“You’re just too busy with your nose in a book to notice.”

“That’s rich coming from you,” and he threw a cracker at him. Adam opened his mouth like a goal post and invitation to throw another. Shiro shot…Shiro scored.

Munch-munch.

They grew up a little bit when the rebellions branched into their district.

“There was a scholar who theorized that civil unrest blows up in Garrison in a predictable pattern related to the balance between advertisements, food supply, and geopolitical locations.” He closed his book and untucked his pencil from his ear. “He was never able to prove his theory though.”

Shiro was already huddled into their shared bunk. “Why not?”

“He was killed by a stray bullet. Allegedly. I feel like it was intentional.”

“You think he was assassinated?”

A distant boom went off somewhere and car sirens wailed. Adam flicked off his lamp and slunk into the sheets. By unspoken consensus Shiro reached for him, and they watched the windows warily. Classes had been suspended. Their superiors were tense.

Adam swallowed.

“You okay?”

“Yeah.”

Shiro rolled his arm a little tighter around him. “Good. Cuz I’m not.”

Adam laughed, “Ugh, stop, I’m drowning in your tits!”

Shiro pressed him in harder.

Stop!”

Laughing they parted until they could breathe again.

“Alright, let’s sleep,” Shiro yawned. “Cuz now I know Commander Iverson is never going to get his dog.”

Adam burst out laughing.

“Whaat? It’s true!”

Adam couldn’t see him in the dark nor through his jubilant tears. But he could smell him. A smell that tasted warmer and more familiar than the distant brush of his mother’s cologne. A smell that meant that he would be listened to, be thrown crackers at, and have an alibi when he was five minutes late for roll call.

His hand lay flat against Shiro’s chest and he snaked up to the back of his neck. It was a blatant question. He felt eyes on him, then lips and breath were on him.

It was messy and uncoordinated. But for the life of them they could not pause. There was a sense of inevitability that fueled their passion. They were already in bed, so it was bound to happen. The bombs were going off outside their window, so it was bound to happen.

Shiro flipped Adam on his back, braced his shoulders with his elbows, and Adam’s warming fingers traced ten rivers up his abs, round his ribs, down his quads, somehow over naked shoulders magically divested of shirt.

Adam felt Shiro learning how to kiss. He was a little more meaningful and used his tongue to caress and his lips to hold. And then he performed decadent sin with his hips and Adam wrapped his legs around on reflex.

They rubbed their knots together until—

“Nmf.”

Hn!”

“Shit.”

“Will that stain?”

-

Twelve years later

It was twelve o’ clock.

Adam stood in his formal gown with a Griffin omega on one arm, a Sanda emblem on one breast, and absolute indifference in his eyes while he chatted with the couple who birthed him.

Shiro watched him from a dark railing that overlooked a less lit partition of the city. The Griffin cousin he’d been saddled with could only stand being rebuffed twice, and left to mingle with his stag friends gossiping over Captain Kinkade’s new marital status.

Everyone looked the same as they cantered across the glossy malachite floors. He thought it was only omega who dressed silly, then he saw the broad-boned accountant and ledger keeper for the House of Sanda sporting a solid gold monocle.

Shiro felt himself scoff and drank nunvil. It tasted like horror. It was the only thing palatable here.

“You’re the life of the party.”

Without looking up: “Good night, James.”

“Is everything okay?”

Shiro’s eyes opened on the little Griffin cousin who was definitely looking at them before he paid attention. “Everything’s fine. Erin is…beautiful.”

James snickered over the rim of his flute. “That’s all he is.”

Shiro was relieved he didn’t have to say it.

“I invited Leifsdottir and Kinkade to come with me to Altea, but they turned me down. I was hoping you’d agree to be my wingman?”

Shiro watched him and his silver lapels groggily. “You invited married alpha to a red light district?”

“And they turned me down, so their chivalry is intact.”

Shiro arched a brow as though to imply, Yours isn’t.

James smiled. “My husband understands there’s a difference between sex and marriage. He looks the other way when I smell like sex, I look the other way when he has his friends over.”

Shiro returned to watching Adam. “I think I’ll pass.”

“I never thought the day would come when I would be begging for company for a night out.”

“Are you that against going alone?”

“The omega down in Altea are nothing like the ones you meet around here. They’re treacherous. Smart in a way you wouldn’t imagine. Shrewder than Ryan.” Shiro snorted. “The only way a dapper alpha such as myself is going to survive down there is if I travel with a pack.”

“Sounds like a lot of effort.”

James hummed and straightened because Adam had rejoined them.

“Shiro, you’re scaring away everyone that wants to dance with you.”

“That means my scowl is working.”

They chuckled.

“Everything okay?”

Adam smiled shallowly at his lover. “Hm? With what?”

Shiro watched Adam’s parents make their way towards the exit. “It’s the first time you’re seeing your mother and father since the rebellion.”

Adam breathed deep to reinforce himself. “I wish I could say I don’t feel anything. I’m mad at them. It feels like they were addressing a councilman before they were talking to their own son.”

Shiro pressed softly, “They hadn’t seen you in over ten years, Adam. You can’t expect them to be familiar.”

“And you expect me to be?”

“I would have thought you would give them a chance.”

“I don’t need their support. Emotional or otherwise. I’m not a child.”

Shiro pinched his tongue between his fangs. Again, there was something aimed about how he phrased that.

James came again with his nonsense about visiting Altea.

Adam arched an unamused brow. “I don't do omega.”

“They have alpha brothels.”

Adam’s eyes flickered to Shiro.

Shiro blinked. He looked over his shoulder. “…something on my face?”

“I’ll think about it,” Adam returned to James. “For now, have you seen Aaron?”

With hot incredulity, “You actually like Aaron?”

“No. He’s an idiot.”

Shiro swallowed a laugh.

“But he interjects his unasked opinions in conversations and makes other people feel very out of place. It’s entertaining. He’s quite useful when it comes to conversations I’d rather not have.”

Shiro murmured, “That’s one way of objectifying omega.”

Adam’s mouth jerked as though it wasn’t sure it wanted to smile.

James wasn’t as subtle when he guffawed. He parted from them, “I’ll see if I can find him for you.”

“Much obliged.”

Shiro watched him go with a nod of the head. “I never would have guessed that you hate being here as much as me.”

“Attending these parties are a slow death. James’ invitation actually sounds refreshing.”

Shiro laughed and watched the city. He was so focused on the geometric high rises, the ancient aqueducts turned highways, the bland sameness to the brilliant architecture that he missed Adam’s pensive regard until the latter stepped forward and murmured, “You don’t care that I’m considering James’ invitation?”

Shiro half-turned and read his expression. “What. To Altea? Of course not. Out of all of us you ought to unwind the most.”

Adam, for the first time since the week began, looked a little out of place. A glimmer of the kid Shiro fell in love with showed through the cracks where his eyes stuttered and his mouth worked for a moment. At last, “We. You and I…were we never monogamous?”

Shiro’s eyes narrowed. As though it were plain as day, “We’ve had sex with other people, so no.”

“But we weren’t together then.”

As though it were plain as day, “Were we ever together?”

Adam watched him a spell.

Shiro felt his blood pulse with a challenge but it died when Adam’s features smoothed over. He was dim suddenly, “Right.”

James returned with Aaron…and Erin. Adam smiled stiffly. Shiro was faintly certain his own smile was a scowl.

James looked straight through their facades. “So I take it I’ve found my wingmen.”

-

Altea was a seedy little district of stone pavement walkways too narrow for cars and too craggy to be called streets. Stout buildings layered on top of each other on either side of the walkways resembled volcanic structures, cubes upon cubes, raunchily decorated in neon, fairy light, obscene paints and obscene subjects, with omega dressed in bola littering their windows in various stages of undress.

There was a smell about the place as well. It didn’t smell like a place that was unsafe. It smelled holy. Which was odd against the music and the obvious shrieking of someone getting railed in an unlit public bathroom.

“Is that incense?” Adam said at last.

Ah, Shiro inhaled, incense, yes. “I was wondering what that was. Leave it to a priest to figure it out.”

“I’m not a priest!”

“Not anymore at least,” and he watched the white billowing shirt tucked into high-waist slim slacks with clear approval. He hadn’t looked like he wasn’t part of a corrupt clergy in a long time.

Adam narrowed his eyes and curled his lips into something knowing, but not without returning the once-over. Shiro had simply stripped what he’d worn to the gala. Now he stood in shiny shoes, crumpled black slacks and a fitted tank, army tags he never let alone chiming beneath it. He never lost an ounce of muscle mass since the day he won them.

James ahead of them was dressed between the two in things that were simple and easy to take off. There was little else they could do. Already the way they walked and spoke would betray their money.

An omega perched on a barrel flipped her folded fan from the white side to the red as they walked past. Her eyes stayed on them, but she flipped it back to white when they passed.

“Some prostitutes pick and choose their clients and make themselves available for the ones they want,” James answered Adam’s ask. “White means fuck off, red means fuck me.”

“Do all of them use fans?”

“Just the freelancers.”

Shiro frowned. “Freelancers?”

But he must not have spoken loudly enough because James laughed loudly when he caught sight of someone. “Nadia!”

“James,” she was a beta, pretty, but there was something no nonsense about her. The space where she took up residence had no omega loitering outside for one, and the walls of this place simply eked out times and prices. Shiro read them through introductions.

“One day? One week?” Adam read over his shoulder, “By the Ancients, they rob us at Daibazaal!”

Nadia made herself known to them then: “Daibazaal stock isn’t as hardy as the omega you’ll find here. These are frontier omega. Strong. Resilient. With stamina.” Her eyes settled on Shiro, “They might even give the big one a run for his money.”

Shiro huffed, “I don’t do omega.”

Nadia didn’t blink. “Reckon the girls can change your mind.”

James intervened, “Shiro and Adam are more, er, southbound.”

“Alpha district? To each his own,” she smiled easily. “And you, Griffin?”

James turned to them then: “Mind if I take a look around, boys?”

They were indifferent. Inside was dark and carpeted. There was a lounge, with couches oriented around standing stoves that warmed feet and sported little cauldrons of candles and incense on them. Things hung from the ceiling, grasses and glass. It favored a witch’s tavern more than a whorehouse.

But then Nadia gestured, led James to one side, and Adam watched a heartbeat before following. Shiro tuned out their low voices, casually watching the others in attendance instead. He noticed that some had already begun to play without a thought to anyone else who might be watching. He averted his gaze accordingly, but they were too busy getting fucked to be ashamed.

Then sounded a jaded voice: “Hi, stranger. You been treat right?”

It came from a slight thing with pale skin and long hair so dark it seemed to suck the light out of the air. They had an androgynous face and a slim body hidden beneath sheer and drape that, while looked easy to come off, didn’t betray their gender. Or their sex.

Shiro let himself look but said, “I, uh. I’m not looking.”

“And I can respect that. But I’ve gotta wonder why you’re here if you aren’t.”

“Here with friends.”

“Griffin?”

“He comes here that often, huh?”

“Not that often. But always with a group. Poor sucker gets mugged once and he never comes back without groupies. First I’m seeing you though.”

“He promised me I’d enjoy myself.”

“I can promise you that too.”

“I’m not—”

“Into omega?”

“Yeah.”

“Ever tried one?”

“…no.”

“I can tell.”

“Can you.”

“Would you like to? Can’t knock what you’ve never had.”

“I don’t think so.”

“I’ll give you an hour sample free of charge. If you like it I can give you the day.”

James appeared suddenly and with a pout too big to fit on his face, “You never give me such great deals.”

“You’re a slut. You’re easy.” Their eyes returned to Shiro’s.

“Try the hour, Shiro,” James petitioned. “If you don’t like it, nothing’s lost.”

“Save for my opportunity to have a good time with a handsome and intelligent stranger.”

James frowned suspiciously. “I’ve never heard you grovel before.”

They glared, “And you never will.”

“Take the hour Shiro,” James smacked him on his back. “I’ll take Adam to the south. We’ll come back for you later.”

“But I—” but James was gone, and the pretty omega was already outstretching their hand. Shiro sighed, considered it, spent a little too long trying to make meaning out of the blue tattoo there.

The fingers wiggled. “You coming, stranger?”

He took his hand and was pulled forward. “Where are we going?”

“My room. Come,” they parted a curtain. Behind it was a hexagonal stone room with a flat mattress in its middle and low tables in its corner sporting a mound of melted together candles, a bowl of water and towels, and an assortment of oils. Here, like anywhere else, smelled powerfully of myrrh. The omega closed the curtains behind him.

“Not much in the way of privacy.”

“Privacy is a myth. Sit.”

“Listen—I know you’re just trying to do your job, but I’m in the wrong place.”

“I won’t force you,” they shook their hair and quickly braided it. They were suddenly less sexual, more practical. “If I told you I was using you to get an hour of rest, would you let me?”

Shiro watched them move. The way of their hips was gone. The bounce in their toes was gone. All that was left was a person, looking themselves over in a little mirror on the ground and rinsing their face clean in the bowl provided. Shiro sat then, on little more than a padded carpet, and curled his arms around his knees and watched them and the sheer material that didn’t hide their back, belly, arms and legs.

He said, “How many clients do you see in a day?”

“Two, maybe three a week? They take one to three day sessions.”

“Sounds rough.”

“I have to work to find my breaks,” they sighed. “Didn’t think that Griffin would have a friend he wanted to scare off alpha enough he’d bring him here though.”

“He isn’t. I mean—he’s been in double A relationships himself.”

“Hm.” They pat their face dry. “Anyway, thanks for coming along. You don’t mind if I take a nap, right? If you change your mind you can do whatever you want but, don’t expect me to be crawling into your lap.”

“I’ll keep my hands to myself, no worries—but before you turn in I do have one question.”

They sighed and bedded down on the flat mattress beside him. Shiro had turned to move, but they reached a hand out and pressed it to his thigh, keeping him there. “What?”

“Why do you have to find breaks? Aren’t they assigned to you? And isn’t having one customer for a week a bit much?”

“Hm, you’re cute.”

“Wha—cute?”

“Under Nadia we get a good deal. She’s our pimp. We spend days entertaining singles or couples or groups that come in for a flat rate. But the more hours we work—or that we look like we’re working—the greater our chances she’ll sponsor us to get Garrison citizenship. She does one each year. Then we can get out from under her or start demanding our own rates. Until then? She’s the only thing between us and getting kicked out of the city.”

Shiro stared. “You’re not from the Garrison?”

“Born and bred? No. Do I look Garrison?”

Shiro honestly couldn’t tell.

“I count as frontier omega. Exotic, if I do my hair right. Means that Nadia can charge more because we can take more. I’ve seen Garrison omega put through three days of fucking. They can barely stand at the end of it.”

“And you can?”

They nodded. “It’s an average. That’s why she pays us in time, not money. That’s why her place is so popular and she’s so rich.” They watched him. “Why are you interested in this stuff?”

“I—I just never knew. It sounds…”

“Like hell?”

“…less than optimal.”

They grinned a sarcastic thing, stretched and Shiro shifted when knee bumped back. “Working under Nadia is paradise in comparison to what the other girls gotta go through. If you don’t mind now, stranger, I’d like to get some shut eye.”

Shiro nodded, but the omega was already out like a light, snoring into their arm as though they hadn’t been speaking three minutes earlier. Shiro eyed the tattoo on their wrist.

Despite himself he grew curious.

-

Adam suddenly saw less of him.

In the months that followed Shiro disappeared into the grain of the city learning about how the omega lived. His orphanage had been gendered. Before his eighteenth birthday his knowledge of omega was limited to text books. And during the army, well. Then the rebellion…then the parties, where only the vapid omega decorated arms. Shiro was clueless, and he hadn’t been aware of his ignorance.

Then he paid a little more attention to the whores of Altea and Daibazaal. He paid them for their time…and their stories. Documented each one. Traced the reasons why they were vetoed by husbands, banished by families, resorted to this choice. For some it wasn’t a choice. For some it was a matter of course.

He learned inner city language and trade, familiarized himself with their slang and clothing. Made unlikely friends. He took pictures. He read books. He spent less and less time staring at the stucco of Adam’s stupid tall ceiling.

Then he published a paper.

And all hell broke loose.

He was attacked from all angles. Attacked for generalizing omega into the helpless. Attacked for blaspheming on the sacred texts. Attacked for his personal lifestyle unrelated to his publication that dared to consider that erasing omega poverty could uplift all the Garrison. He weathered the calls and derisions.

(He stopped receiving invitations to parties—thank God.)

And then Adam, who’d been quiet during the whole thing, invited him in and barely butchered words: “I don’t understand why this is so important to you. Several months ago you and I went to Altea. You called it a night to de-stress. You weren’t acting high and mighty then.”

“People can change their minds. I didn’t know that those omega were suppressed. I didn’t know that they were being abused, being robbed, raped, held at gunpoint—I didn’t know that they were refugees, or sold their by their husbands or parents, or that they were being drugged. I thought they had consented! I thought they were sex workers on their own terms!”

Adam scoffed and called him naïve. “So many things are wrong with this city and you thought its sex industry would be progressive?”

Shiro blushed hotly. “I was wrong. I’m man enough to admit that. And I’d like to think I’m doing the right thing by calling attention to it.”

“There are far more pressing things for us to deal with in Garrison.”

Shiro felt that as much as he might have felt a slap to the cheek. “Than brutalized people?”

“Rebellions and revolts that keep undermining our infrastructure. Nutritional illnesses that cause more and more birth defects and shorter lifespans. Couples refusing to have children and those who do are resorting to blue blood. Not to mention the disarray in the political strata, the crime levels caused by kids routinely dropping out of school—people going to either the army or to crime instead of investing in the fields we need: medicine, engineering, social workers, educators—”

“Omega make up one third of Garrison’s population. Half of them are from outside of it. Everything that you just mentioned the omega don’t have so much as a foothold in! How is what I’m talking about not important?”

“The people who have the power don’t care, okay? Is that what you want to hear? The old, rich fat asses who inherited their land and wealth from their great-great-great grandparents don’t care that one third of the population lives in the gutters!”

“And don’t you see anything wrong with that?!”

Of course I do! But I can’t exactly get close to them if I’m doing what you’re doing!”

“What I’m doin—Adam, this isn’t about getting close to them! You told me we sided and fought with Sanda to undermine the system from the inside, not to join them.”

“Stop simplifying it into a cult, Takashi—”

“But it is! It’s a brotherhood on a huge scale, no different than school when everyone else was prepared to pick on you and the only way you could survive was by befriending me!”

The apartment was eerily quiet all of a sudden. Shiro felt his shoulders heave and he took Adam in, sizing him up, red faced and sentinel and irritable. His voice was much, much too calm: “Is that what this is? You resent me now that the tables have turned?”

Shiro snarled, “This is not about us! This is about people who need our help and you—YOU REFUSING to recognize it is a problem! It’s PART OF the problem!”

“Don’t shout at me.”

“Don’t be a pretentious asshole!”

Adam clasped his hands. He was soft, “Get out.”

What?”

“Leave, Takashi,” Adam was cool, but his fangs dropped and his eyes gleamed. He was a far cry from the tiny thing that hid behind him in the showers. “We’ll talk again after you’ve sobered up.”

“I’m not—”

Adam crossed the room suddenly and opened the door.

Shiro, stunned pink, shouldered his bag, grabbed his boots, and made his way out. He never heard the door close behind him and he refused to give Adam the victory of a backwards glance.

(Maybe Adam was right. Maybe he was immature.)

-

The pub that took him in was nondescript enough. Not so loud that he couldn’t think, but loud enough that he was invisible. He drank something fruity and sweet because the harder stuff was stupidly overrated. He sipped, sipped, all the while his published paper burning a hole in his satchel.

He sipped.

“Takashi Shirogane?”

Shiro spoke without looking: “Not interested.”

“I’ll only need a minute. Please hear my words.”

“Whatever you’re selling, I’m not interested.”

“You’ve already bought it.”

Shiro, alarmed, looked up, hand flying to his wallet—but it was safely nestled against his right nipple. Irritated at the distraction, he turned to the voice.

A thin elderly woman stood, olive brown skin and short pale white hair with a band in it. Her eyes were slanted such, her nose long such, her mouth wide such that he knew she was indigenous, or at least part of her was, though she spoke as clearly as any other Garrison person he wasn’t sure he could assume her origins.

“I’ve never met you before.”

“Not face to face, no,” and she smiled. “May I sit with you?”

“Free country.”

“Debatable,” she rebuked.

He paused in sipping his drink but her smile was disarming.

Unsettled, “You said I already bought something from you?”

“Or rather,” her back was damn straight, “we’ve already bought into the same idea. Garrison is dying, Mister Shirogane. There are men and women who do not believe it, and more often than not the people who believe that this world can be salvaged are the ones at the top or in church. But undoubtedly it is running straight down the path of ruination and showing no signs of stopping. We live in a post-apocalyptic world.”

Shiro hummed and sipped. “Nice pitch.”

She persevered, “But you are a vanguard of truth.”

“Beg pardon?”

“You had the courage to say what many of us have known forever but have never had the courage or the power to be heard: that omega and their power over rearing the next generation is the key to repairing our world, to building a new society. As Garrison exists the family unit is unstable, the community by default is unstable, and it creates a Domino Effect that transforms into what we see today. Rampant crime, gaps in fields where we need them—I don’t need to reiterate all of this to you, you wrote the paper.”

Shiro cocked his head and felt the tavern lurch a little bit, “Sorry, did I catch your name in all of the doom and gloom speech?”

“Reyner,” she answered.

“Nice to meet you. I’m sorry if I’m being blunt but that paper that you’re talking about? That you’re going off about almost word for word? It cost me my career. My friends. My own boyfriend of seventeen years.” He frowned quizzically for a moment. It was the first he put a label on it.

“And I’m sorry to hear that—”

“Literally any praise that you have for me is wasted. Because it didn’t reach who it needed to reach.”

“What you don’t understand is that it did.”

Shiro paused from taking a sip again. “Beg pardon?”

“Your paper has touched my heart, Mister Shirogane, with its sincerity and its honesty. And there are many others like me out there who are taking action according to it. Because of it.” She paused. “There are men and women who are taking a stand against omega oppression. And we need you to stand with us.”

“I have no more time for rebellions, thank you.”

“Not a rebellion—not a direct one at least. We’re making a new city. One far, far away from Garrison. We move slowly but surely at night.”

Shiro listened.

“Many of us are omega. Or families divided because we are immoral according to Garrison law. We carry with us forgotten scriptures and lessons of the Ancients. We have engineers and builders and social scientists. We have whole families—we’re building a society and its working.”

“You mean a microcosm of some unreachable utopia?”

“I admit that’s what it started out as but it’s developing into a town. A real functional town.”

“That’s good. Then it will become as big as Garrison and the anarchy can start all over again.”

“If starting again and again is what it takes for us to get things right then so be it. And if anything, human history demands that that’s precisely what must be done.”

The way she spoke about knowledge of the ancients…human history…he frowned. He put down his drink. “How do you know all this?”

She smiled. “I see I have your attention.”

Chapter Text

Present Day

Waking up was a jarring experience.

“Argh!”

He pulled something.

He panted and whined despite himself, but that only lasted a moment. His disorientation was fueled by dizziness, by pain running up his left arm, by cold lightning shooting up his spine from his sole, and his skin felt hot and itchy like cabin fever replaced the natural material of his dermis.

Then a mother’s touch, gentle but insistent, pressed against his chest and forehead and their smell layered over him so thickly he could taste it. He parted his lips: safe calm omega safe. They smelled like myrrh. They smelled like incense.

Shiro blinked and swallowed. He swallowed. His voice was woodwind.

“Thirsty?”

“Mmm.”

The rim of a glass bottle was pressed to his lips. The first swallow of water felt like knives. The rest like ambrosia.

“Easy. Trying to drown yourself again?”

Shiro’s voice was rough and loud: “What do you mean again.”

In the darkness the omega in shadow paused. It was night. There was candlelight aside, but it was on a floor in a corner, dim yellow, and illuminated nothing of his mysterious caretaker other than the gloss of the bottle in hand and the sheen of a scar on their right cheek.

The omega turned their back to put the bottle aside. “We found you half drowned in a river a few hours’ drive from here. You don’t remember us picking you up?”

Shiro winced at the memory of dirt and ice impaling his face during an inopportune explosion. His throat felt bloody from shrieking go go go go! He just barely remembered stuffing Reyner and Olia through the crevice.

He snapped to again, smelling the heat of the blast, the acrid flavor of the bombs. A distinct sense of nausea swept over him with the disassociation between a dark, hot room and Bandor’s terrified screams.

He didn’t know where the bucket came from but it was in time.

The myrrh mother was rubbing his back. Shiro had bolted forward to throw up, and his arm and hip were berating him for it, but he was in too much pain to recline again. He spit. He groaned.

A moist towel was rubbed against his mouth and the bottle of water reappeared. He rinsed out his mouth. He spit. He gasped. His eyes were closed all the while.

“Closer to earth yet?”

“Who are you?”

“The guy who decided to pick you up before you became a frozen carcass in the frontier’s backyard.” He left with the bucket. “You’re welcome, by the way.”

In the time it took his caretaker to toss and rinse out the bucket and return, Shiro had wrangled himself into lying down again. His eyes were still squeezed shut, but he smelled when they returned: “Where do I know you from?”

“I saved you. I just said that.”

“No. I know your smell.”

Irritated, “Wow, just met and you’re already scenting me? Fucking alphas.”

“No.” He reached and found blind purchase on their arm. He could imagine it pale, slender, and with a blue tattoo on the wrist.

“The fuck! Let go!”

“Who are you? Who sent you? Did Montgomery put you up to this?”

Shiro’s hand would have burned where the omega was desperately clawing at him, but the omega was only breaking their own nails against the unforgiving metal and plastic. Myrrh mother's voice went calm, “Let me go.”

A new smell swept into the room and it was so refreshing like a literal breeze, sea breeze, all briny and tropical, fresh and encompassing.

Shiro hissed when his bionic fingers were ripped from their perch, the jolt tearing straight down his side, and two shadows stood where there was one before. They shielded one another in an assemblage of arms.

“You okay?”

“Fine, fine.”

“He bruised you.”

“I’m fine. He’s not…here. Mentally.”

“Did he do anything else to you?”

“I’m fine, Lance. Help him.”

The new shadow shifted, and Shiro felt himself go ramrod still at the owlish eyes that set on him. There was the sense of walking up a mountain, suddenly, knees and shins jarring against the gravel. A baby crying in their group, and then the abrupt smell of motor oil.

He gasped when the mattress depressed. “Krolia? Your name’s Krolia, right? Those were your dog tags?”

Shiro’s hand slammed into his chest and the shadows jerked forward, prepared to pin him down. “No. No-no-no-no, no, where is it? Where did you put them?”

He turned, “Keith—”

Keith, the myrrh mother, put a wide berth between himself and Shiro to place something in Lance’s hand. Lance dangled the dog tags. “They’re right here.”

Shiro reached for them.

Lance put his hand against his chest, “Now wait just a minute.”

Please,” Shiro strained. He felt his mouth watering, his head pumping.

Lance breathed in deeply, “Breathe in? Out. Do it with me. I’ll give you the dog tags, but I need you to calm down first, mkay, buddy? In? C’mon. In?”

Sensing no alternative, Shiro echoed him. Peace was a long time coming but it did come, and Lance rewarded him by pooling the dog tags and chain into his hand. By then, Shiro had something new to worry about: “Who are you? Why am I here?”

Keith frowned in his corner.

“I’m Lance. Short, pale and brooding over there is Keith.”

“Hey.”

“As far as first meetings go you’ve gotten the politer one.”

“Are you still on about that? I apologized!”

Lance grunted, “After hitting me with my own gun.”

Shiro took the lull in the interrogation to maneuver the chain over his head. He felt safer with her name nestled against his heart. Nestled against his heart the cold, unforgiving water that stole him away from his mission—

He came to with the hand on his knee. In the dim light he could see a polite grin beneath owlish eyes. “Hey, it’s okay. Whatever you went through to get here, it’s over now. You’re safe.”

Shiro heard loud in his mind: No it’s not. “I need to leave.”

Keith leaned up from his perch, “Leave? Leave and go where? It’s negative fuck outside and you’ll freeze your knot off before you make it fifteen yards in any direction!”

“Never mind your left arm is broken, your right ankle is sprained, and you’re lucky your hip and ribs are only bruised,” Lance added. “I’m sorry Krolia, but we can’t put you out there in good conscience.”

“Takashi.”

“What?” they chorused.

“My name is Takashi.”

An obvious question seemed to flash in their eyes, but they didn’t ask it. Lance squeezed his knee a little, “Alright, Takashi. Please listen to reason: at least let your ankle heal up before you try going anywhere. The closest town we can take you to is Arus. We can talk more about it in the morning but right now you need to rest. Are you hungry?”

Shiro was forlorn. “No. How long will it take before I can be on my feet again?”

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable giving you less than two weeks.”

“That’s too long.”

Keith snarled, “Well shit, how about we just throw you back into the river we found you in? Seems like that’s what you’d prefer!”

Lance sighed, “Babe?”

Keith balked, ignored how chagrined he felt, and sulked instead.

Lance took a steadying breath and returned to the unwavering resolve of the alpha they took under their wing. Now that he was awake his smell was prominent. It was corrupted with distress and mistrust, and it was stinking up the floorboards and making Lance and Keith anxious.

Keith’s finger’s twitched with the urge to scrub the smell away.

“How’s this,” Lance bargained. “Eat, sleep and rest regularly and we can negotiate an early discharge. Hm?”

Shiro, defeated, sunk into the pillows meant to prop him upright. He was so damn big he took over the entire bed without trying. “I don’t have a choice do I.”

And Lance’s smile was a bit less polite.

-

Several hours earlier

Lance started when Keith maladroitly threw himself into the bathroom. Before he followed he probed himself: did he feel bloated? Nauseous? Irritable? No, yet his period was due. And if his synchronization theory held true, then Keith should also be anticipating his.

Lance kept an ear open for retching and a toilet flush, but heard nothing beside a toothbrush clattering into the sink and a mumbled whoops. So he willfully accepted the excuse to leave the behemoth of a read that the radio manual was and took up residence in the bathroom doorjam.

Keith stood in front of the mirror, pantless. His bed hair was flying every which way like an agitated barn owl and he had two hands in his mouth painting an obscene image of red gum and askew fang in the mirror.

Lance kept his face as straight as possible: “You’re really gonna make me ask, aren’t you.”

Keith smacked his mouth back into normalcy. He replied, “I read something in Alfor’s book that described that people in the city are more likely to have badly aligned teeth with less wear than indigenous people because of a difference in diet: where city people have access to a lot more food that are pre-processed and easier to chew, indigenous people work with natural foods that require a little more effort, and that effort translates to more pressure applied at the top of the mouth which affects the sutures in the skull, especially in the face, properly spacing out the teeth.”

Lance whistled. “That’s a mouthful.”

Keith’s mouth and brow pinched.

“Oh come on! How are you not laughing? That was a good line!”

Keith returned to the mirror, “I always thought that I had weird teeth because I was Marmora, not because I ate Garrison food as a kid. Go figure.”

“I didn’t know you lived in Garrison.”

“Live is a stretch,” Keith shrugged. “I spent time hiding there. They have a lot of rules and it’s hard to stay. But when I was a kid I didn’t have much of a choice.”

“When you were a part of that first alpha’s harem you mean?”

“What’s on the agenda today?”

Lance visibly jerked. He watched Keith’s resolute gaze. “I was hoping we could visit Kolivan,” he settled, “and I get to prove to you that I didn’t make all the wind chimes myself.”

The wind chimes in question were very still, according to the season. Unless one of them walked obnoxiously they didn’t ring. It’ll change come spring and summer, Lance promised.

Keith grinned, “Yeah? Sure you don’t want to go alone?”

“Very funny. I thought you’d like to see a fellow Marmorite.”

Keith frowned. “Isn’t that racist?”

Lance shrugged vaguely. “Didn’t bother him when I said it. Besides, you could ask him to sink his teeth into your theory.”

Keith remained undisturbed.

“You suck.”

“You wish.”

“What?”

“What?”

Then a light went off in Lance’s eyes and Keith immediately set to pushing him out. “I’m going to bathe. Get lost.”

“We can bathe together~”

“Shut up, I will slap you.”

God I hope so.”

Out! Out! Out! Out!”

Lance stumbled onto his face and Keith would have been guilty if he wasn’t scrambling to slam the door before Lance could catch on how pink he was. He was the farthest thing from innocent blushing virgin and far from unfamiliar with sexual innuendo and flirt. But Lance was earnest with his play, genuine in his affection—Lance’s attention felt like water was being poured down his throat and into a cup in his chest that was rapidly overflowing. Keith’s heart couldn’t survive the assault.

Keith felt his innards jump at Lance’s voice: “Babe?”

“What.”

“Can I at least wash your hair?”

A shuffle. The bathroom door clicked open. “…what?”

Lance folded his hands into his pockets and smiled easy. “May I wash your hair please?”

“…why?”

“I want to take care of you.”

“I can take care of myself just fine.”

“I know you can. And you have. But I think you should give me a turn.”

“Is this your way of telling me I’m not taking care of myself properly?”

Lance grunted and his seemed a little taller when he growled, “There you go again. Assuming that I mean the worst.”

Keith flushed.

“Maybe I just want to show you how much I care about you. Is that so hard to believe?”

Keith pouted. “…don’t use that tone on me.”

Lance pouted, “Sorry.”

“I didn’t mean to make you mad.”

Lance laughed a little, “You’ve clearly never had siblings, aw, pobrecito. Fighting is a part of loving each other. So? Can I? Please?”

Three minutes of breathless please please please’s got them naked and sharing the tub. Keith was almost embarrassed. Then Lance started singing while he spooned Keith and scrubbed his back and hair and Keith picked up enough to start harmonizing as he scrubbed Lance’s cuticles.

Like everything else, it was the most natural thing in the world.

“You’re a good singer.”

“I have a good teacher.”

“Oh? Who’s that?”

“You.”

Lance didn’t know why that agitated the butterflies. Keith kept humming and pronouncing some words incorrectly—Lance gently amended him and soon they were singing like one voice perfect, trill, inflection and all.

Then they drained the tub and sat on the wide counter on its level where Lance had a decent assortment of bottles. They did not leave the Garretts’ empty handed: the Garretts made oils from anything, and Lance combed that and his fingers through Keith’s hair until he smelled like strawberries.

Lance liked the relaxed pallor in his skin. He kissed the shell of his ear, and Keith hummed lazily.

“Can I touch you, wub-wub?”

Keith spluttered out an abrupt laugh. “Don’t call me that!”

“Very well, my cherub.”

“My god.”

“Oh, is that your nickname for me?” He traced an artful tongue around the articulation of Keith’s ear and whimpered, “It’s accurate.”

Keith huffed and felt his skin warm. “Is it.”

“Can I show you?”

“Please.”

Keith slipped into Lance’s lap and their skin fit together. They shared warmth. Keith was grateful he could hide his embarrassing expressions while Lance ran magical fingers over the angle of his hip bones and curve of his thighs. Lance might be shit at this foreplay fingering thing, but that wouldn’t matter. He was being touched by someone he’d fallen for—he was guaranteed to come.

The interesting part was how.

Lance’s fingers were not gentle. They were firm. They did not bruise. They felt like they had a mission while they enclosed flesh. And his palms cupped him diligently as well. Lance ran his hand over Keith’s pink flat belly and vaguely squeezed with reverence the same time his pressed his damp lips to the back of Keith’s ear.

Keith covered his mouth as he squeaked.

“I didn’t expect you to be reactive,” Lance purred, and his voice wasn’t dripping sex. It was affectionate, playful. Keith felt some tension slough off his joints.

Keith leaned into Lance’s chest. “I don’t remember the last time I was touched like this by someone who wasn’t me.”

Lance nibbled on his shoulder. “Is this okay?”

“Mhm.”

“I like touching you.”

Keith shut his eyes and grimaced. “I like you touching me.”

“Why are you gritting your teeth?”

“It’s embarrassing. But it comes so easy for you.”

Lance deposited his hands on Keith’s sides and nuzzled his shoulder. Keith felt the shift immediately: the play was on pause. As he turned to listen to what Lance was about to say he couldn’t help but wonder how and when he’d gotten to read Lance’s non-verbal cues.

“You find it embarrassing to tell me you like me?”

“No,” Keith fretted. “Well. Yes. Saying it. I feel like. Like.”

Lance rubbed his ribs patiently.

“I feel like whatever I say doesn’t match how I feel. I can’t come up with words so that you know how much I…like all this. I sound stupid.”

“No, you don’t. I get it. You’re more of a physical kinda guy, if you kissing me before telling me you were in love with me was any indication.”

“Please let me live that down.”

“No, it’s almost better than the time you almost blew my back out when we first met.”

“I apologized for that.”

“Do you feel weird with me talking?”

“You mean. Talking dirty?”

“Woah, easy there, I was just taking the horse out for a walk, you just took him all the way to the city!”

Keith ducked his head and blushed and Lance rubbed his thighs and laughed into his spine. “No, that’s not what I meant. Not yet anyway. Like if I’m touching you and I talk about what I like about your skin or ask you if it’s okay if I do something more. Would that be okay?”

“Y-yeah.”

“You don’t have to talk if you don’t want. Teach me to read you.”

“You read me fine.”

“I’m not confident in reading gestures like you are.”

Keith shrugged at that, he had spent too much time on her back or hands and knees vulnerable. He had needed to learn to predict others’ movements. “Okay.”

“I’m going to put my mouth on you now.”

Keith closed his eyes and nodded, threaded his fingers through Lance’s laying in the bowl of his naked lap.

Lance lapped up Keith’s neck a tapered trail between his scent glands and Keith sighed from the peripheral stimulation. On some days they were more sensitive than his clitoris. The ones on his thighs especially because he paid them extra attention.

Lance did it again and again, getting closer to his left gland. Keith was predicting him to suck on it. He didn’t predict teeth. He jumped—he wasn’t bitten, it was just pressure.

“Sorry. Too much?”

“No, you just surprised me.”

“Are surprises bad?”

“No, but. Can you—use your tongue instead? Teeth there kinda feels…like a threat. Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize, that’s fine.” He traced his tongue around the edge of the gland and then kissed it, sucked on it, and felt it harden under him from the stimulation.

Keith’s broken moan and knees twitching apart seemed like a good reaction. Lance restarted tracing patterns up and down his thighs as he laved and worshiped one gland, then the other, till Keith was red and his mouth wet and his glands delightfully enflamed.

Lance’s hands were edging towards the inside of his thighs as well, just squeezing, rubbing, reassuring, feeling. “Was that okay?”

“Yes.”

“Would it hurt if I continue?”

“A little? I dunno. I’ll tell you.”

“Can I touch the ones on your thighs too?”

Keith parted his knees and Lance ate the offering.

Within moments their laps were sticky with slick, Keith was drooling with his head thrown back and breathing shallow, his glands bright reds and stinking up the space with unbridled pleasure. Keith had started rocking, looking for a knot to knock against by instinct, and Lance was a little sorry he didn’t have so much as a vegetable to substitute. So he kissed the back of Keith’s neck and was surprised his own voice came out a little husky, “Permission to finger you?”

Keith’s fingers dug into Lance’s thigh. “Yes yes yes yes.”

So Lance’s left hand slipped from its place in Keith’s lap and, with a quick flick of the wrist, had his fingers dripping in slick when he curled his middle finger beneath and over Keith’s clitoris.

Keith’s knees bent higher, his spine bowed, his toes gripped the ceramic on either side of Lance’s knees. Lance understood, and curled his finger again and again, each time with a little more pressure. Keith writhed and whined and his fangs dropped.

Then something very interesting happened. Keith grabbed his own throat. Lance placed his hand over it on impulse, on concern, then Keith froze a little.

In a hot second of guesswork, Lance added a little pressure to the hand covering Keith’s throat and jerked his clit in fevered circles.

Keith’s panting returned, a little shrill, a little ecstatic, and Lance was worried that he was going to drive them both into a premature heat.

But all at once Keith snapped forward, ripped Lance’s hands off him, and hid his head in his folded arms while his pussy fluttered on his lover’s lap.

Lance worshipped Keith’s back until he came to, dropping a steady stream of kisses.

Then Keith reached back and Lance held fast without hesitation.

Keith’s voice came, “I told you you could read me.”

Lance resisted the urge to sink his teeth into him. He kissed his gland, “Thanks.”

“For?”

“For letting me take care of you.”

Keith chirped something low, happy and embarrassed.

-

Present Day

“Do you ever sleep?”

Shiro exhaled. “Would you sleep comfortably in a stranger’s bed?”

Lance grinned, “Yes, but the ancients didn’t make us equal. Hungry?”

“How long has it been?”

“Since we brought you here? About a day.”

“I should be hungry,” he sent a mental probe to his belly, where it disappeared. “I don’t know why I’m not.”

“How do you feel about some chicken broth?”

Shiro groaned something resigned.

“Then we’ll get you some.”

“Like I have a choice.”

“Glad you’re catching on.”

“Lance?”

Lance turned back, “Yes, Takashi.”

“Was there…did you see anyone else out there? Besides me?”

Lance’s smile fell. “No.”

Shiro closed his eyes. “Okay.”

Something cold stuck to Lance’s belly after that.

-

Several hours earlier

Lance! And Keith! Wonderful of you to call. It’s only been three weeks since we last heard from you.”

“You’re going to turn into a tree at the rate you’re throwing shade.”

She broke off in a screech of laughter.

“See, this is why I didn’t want a radio. Now people want you to call them every day. Convenience ruins us.”

Oh, tish tosh!”

“Wouldn’t you agree, Keith?”

Keith, desperately horny, averted his eyes from the stray nipple he spied in the gap of Lance’s baggy shirt. “Uh-huh.”

Hello Keith,” and Keith dropped his temple to Lance’s shoulder and pulled his knees to his chest and paid the box mumbling in Allura’s voice a little more attention. “How have you been feeling? Have you had any heats yet?”

“No, I think I’ll go the winter without one. My period’s due though.”

“Mine too!” Lance chimed.

Oh? Your cycles have lined up already?” That was Coran. “How exciting! It means you’re very compatible!”

“Hear that, bug? We’re compatible.”

Keith’s eyes snapped up from Lance’s crotch. “…bug?”

Allura asked after Hunk and Lance launched into song full of all the titters, emulations and embellishments surrounding Hunk’s older sister’s impending wedding while tastefully segueing into how Hunk was fucking Shay behind mommy’s back. He was gesturing hard even though his audience was blind, and for a moment Keith figured he was performing for his benefit. But no, Lance was just swinging his arms because the story demanded it. So he dropped his face into Lance’s lap to give him room.

The fire was hot, so they were scantily clad. Underwear and baggy sweaters and socks. It was simple bliss.

But for Keith it was a unique torture. It would only take an inch, a little wriggling, and then he could get his mouth on Lance’s sex. He was hungry! And he marveled that Lance didn’t seem the same.

He felt his fangs drop and let them, gnawing and drooling harmlessly on Lance's leg. Lance giggled and smacked him. “What are you doing?”

What?”

“Not you, Lu. Keith. He’s chewing on me.”

Oh, he seems to have adopted your habit of sinking his teeth into things that ought not be eaten.”

“Is this about your dolly?”

“She used to have perfect skin!”

“I said I was sorry.”

Sorry doesn’t repair indentations! Coran, stop laughing at me!”

Lance suppressed a giggle when Keith pressed his nose between Lance’s thighs. “Where’s Alfor today?”

Daddy went to see Iverson again,” and she sounded stiff.

“Something wrong?”

Keith paused in his ministrations.

It’s…nothing wrong, per say. But the Galra have made themselves at home. They’re setting up businesses as they claim, and sure, the town’s booming thanks to it. And I know I shouldn’t let prejudices get the better of me but I just don’t trust them here in Arus.”

“It’s not prejudice if it’s true,” Keith said. “The Galra have destroyed whole civilizations. History says they were made for it, the way indigenous peoples got wiped out for the creation of the First City and the foundations of Second. If your gut says you don’t feel right in Arus I say listen to it.”

Allura sighed, “And where would we go?”

“Here,” Lance jerked brightly. “There’s always space for you here.”

Allura sighed, “Lance…”

“Frontier life isn’t bad, Lu. I know I used to complain about it but it isn’t. It can be hard work sure but it just takes a little adjustment.”

Lance.”

“And when more people live together the work gets a little easier. I got a lot of time freed up since Keith came to live with me.”

We’ve spoken about this, Lance. Frontier life is hard for a woman in my profession. Staying in established cities, established towns…it’s easier to find a living than darning and spinning wool. I’m not looking down on what you and Keith and your friends out there do—Ancients know I’m impressed and proud. But I wouldn’t have the time and the freedom to perfect my work if I become a frontier woman.”

Keith spoke in Lance’s stunted silence, “With the Galra in Arus that town has an expiration date.”

We have an old friend in Narquod. You’ve met Blaytz, Lance.”

Lance hummed. He scratched Keith’s hair when he restarted his ineffectual gnawing. “I remember him. God, I’d let him break me in half.”

There was a loud aborted laugh somewhere behind Allura’s amused, “I realize you have a thing for older men with tragic backstories.”

Lance looked down and winked at Keith, “That I do.”

Keith burrowed his face in Lance’s thighs with new vigor. Lance laughed in time with Allura, assuming Keith’s reaction was out of embarrassment. He squeaked when Keith’s tongue laved over the scent gland on his inner thigh. When he looked down, Keith was looking up, eyes questioning, fingers tugging on the hem of Lance’s panties.

That aside, Lance, I meant to tell you that your latest tapestry was well received, thank you. I’ve gotten three requests for rugs and blankets, do you think you can meet the demand for the end of spring?”

“You’re killing me,” and his voice was tight, because though he put his hand on Keith’s head he didn’t push away, so Keith had taken it as permission and settled between Lance’s legs, kneeling on the floor and cajoling Lance’s hips forward on the chair such that he could slip his underwear to his ankles and spread his thighs.

Oh, hush. You can handle the workload.”

Keith thought the omega sex was grotesque before Lance. But when he parted labia major—and Lance swallowed a huff as he wrote down the details of the requested designs that Allura dictated—he couldn’t think of anything other than an unfurling flower, a rosebud dripped with dew, bright pink and breathing and that should have been a little gross, but more than that Keith’s tongue needed to be in there.

He struggled to be patient. He sucked on Lance’s pussy, lips and all, tongue tracing the folds between and flattening over his hole before ricocheting off his clitoris.

Lance grunted. It was sharp, he jerked, but it wasn’t loud enough for Allura to hear. He cast a glare at Keith’s head and covered his mouth with his free hand.

The texture of Lance was wonderful. It was silky, velvety, wet and meaty. And when Lance gushed a little, excited and pleased, and squeaked in embarrassment, Keith drank what was offered—it was bland, vaguely salty, for some reason palatable.

Keith didn’t expect to enjoy himself this much.

Lance’s writing went erratic when Keith receded the hood from clitoris and sucked and stayed there the bitch.

Lance slammed his head into the table.

Lance?!” Allura stuttered, “Are you alright?”

“Fine,” he coughed out the squeak. “Fine, fine. You said the second carpet. They wanted what colours in it?”

Keith sucked on his clitoris, ducked his head, laved over his fluttering hole and repeated the cycle with easy predictability. Lance felt his tingling arousal crest and fall like beach water. He felt himself shiver. He heard Keith moan, appreciative, elated really when Lance’s thighs threatened to close around his head. Keith encouraged it, his mouth devoted the entire time.

Lance cursed.

Allura laughed, “Yes, I figure it would be something of a challenge for you. But you’ve made a name for yourself.”

Sweating, trembling, he barely managed to quip back: “I think you mean to say you’ve made a name for yourself.”

Tish tosh. Will you need anything to supplement these commissions?”

“No,” but his no broke off because Keith introduced two fingers at his entrance. They were barely moving, just there, implicating. “No, I have everything I—hmm—I think I have everything.” And he bit his knuckle white.

“You’re certain?”

The fingers shallowly thrust now.

“I am so good, Lu.”

Very well.”

Keith wasn’t really even fucking him! He was just staying at the entrance of his vagina, thriving in the feel of Lance stretching gradually, and Lance was melting under the warmth of that stretch, the promise of getting something deep inside, but mostly the consistent pressure and slick on his clit. When Keith curled his fingers, pumping a little harder, Lance curled over him, clutching at his hair and throwing kisses into it. Tears were coming to his eyes from the building pressure and the demand to stay quiet. His muscles and eyes and brain burned with that good fever.

Shall I leave you to it, then?”

“Huh? Oh,” and he looked at the loom on the other side of the room. “Yeah, the sooner the be—hn. The sooner the better. Talk soon.”

“Of course, darling. And congrats on your relationship with Keith.”

“Wha—”

Lance didn’t even had time to be mortified. No sooner did Allura sign off did Keith turn everything up to eleven and Lance threw his head back, breathing hard, legs raised and coiled, near riding Keith’s face half out of the chair.

When he came he convulsed and ripped his lover off, and Keith kissed his knee and licked his lips and watched him carefully as he breathed and came down.

Lance dragged him up by his hair and kissed him wildly. “You absolute asshole.”

“Says the slut that got off on it.”

Hnmf!” He was cut off by lips and fang and tongue before he could rebuke. Kissing Keith today was like being swallowed. He could feel every undulating of tongue and cheek and it was divine and scary. Keith’s hands ran up and down Lance’s thighs meanwhile and when they broke apart it was in a series of tapering kisses.

“I bet you’d like if Kolivan saw you like that too.”

Lance coloured.

“We could invite him.”

“He doesn’t…I don’t think…”

“Let’s ask him. Let’s go and ask him.”

“Fuck, why are you so horny?”

He bit at his lip. “Dunno. Calmed down yet? Can I do it again? Will you ride my face this time?”

Lance blanched. “I’m going to die.”

-

Present day

When Shiro woke up again, Keith was in the room. He’d been filling a bowl with water on the dresser. When he turned around and caught Shiro’s gaze he glared. With the pitcher tight against his breast he moved toward the door in less than a whisper.

Shiro spoke in a croak that gave him pause, “You’re from Garrison. Aren’t you.”

Keith did not turn around.

“In a way…I owe you my life.”

Keith’s foot twisted like he wanted to turn around and ask Shiro to speak plainly, and Shiro found himself disappointed when the omega wordlessly departed instead.

Chapter Text

Though it had stayed in his peripheral vision for as long as he had known this bed to be his home, Shiro hadn’t gotten a good look at the candle until Lance picked it up one day. It was not a candle at all. It was a lamp, not unlike a kerosene lamp, with pretty orange paint decorating its bulbous glass, but it didn’t burn black enough or smell sharp enough to be kerosene.

“Yupper fat,” Lance provided, unprompted, eyes glittering with mirth when he caught Shiro’s vigilance.

Shiro’s eyes fell from Lance’s face to the lamp he moved to the bedside table, and then back again, where the irritable flicker cast his smile in a solemn glow.

Lance had a pointed chin, a kicked up narrow nose, large glassy eyes and wide round ears handling a sharp jaw. He possessed neither a whisker nor hint of struggling to be rid of them. He was the type of handsome that was handsome when he moved rather than if he were blown up sixteen feet on a billboard. He was the kind of handsome where his looks worked in tandem with his voice, words and expressions. When their eyes met Shiro felt overwhelmed by brutal sincerity. When he smiled Shiro felt the muscle in his cheek jump.

Lance was vigilant suddenly, so Shiro blinked at attention. “Can I touch you? Check your temperature and the like?”

Shiro wiggled. “I can do little to stop you.”

“Your words would stop me,” Lance sat down, elbows bracing his knees, grin wide and toothless. “Keith and I are only mean when it comes to your health.”

“And your safety, clearly,” he gestured with his chin to his missing arm.

“If you want your prosthetic back that badly we’ll give it to you. But it’ll hurt you more than us.” He tapped his own side as indication.

Shiro rest his head back and sighed, feeling the throb in his own ribs.

“Are you cold?”

“I’m fine.”

“Hungry?”

“I’m fine, Lance.”

Lance hesitated. “Would you rather be left alone? It’s just…you’ve been sleeping all day. I thought company might do you good.”

Shiro sent him a rueful pout. “I’m sorry. I’m just…I have no arms and can’t walk without support when a day ago I was hiking through the mesa.”

Lance paused, his hamster wheel near audible. He corrected tenderly, “Two days ago.”

“…it’s been that long?”

“You’ve been asleep through most of it.” Lance propped his toes on the edge of the bedframe and laced his long arms around his knees. He smiled, “That’s your alpha hormones kicking in. Your left arm should be good as new by the end of the month, all goes well. Might even be less provided you’re a good boy.” He winked.

Shiro must have made a face because Lance giggled.

“The way you were ready to run out of here though I’d bet my left foot you’ll break it again before then.”

Shiro replied instead that he was grateful. “I’d be dead with my face in the ice if it weren’t for you and Keith. I literally owe you my life.”

“Easy, tiger,” Lance laughed.

“Really. I’m in your debt. I don’t know how to repay you.”

And he rolled his neck and shoulders, “Y’know, Blue could use some parts. Some good parts—not the fourth generation three times used stuff we’re always trading out here. You look like a guy with connections, hook us up?”

Shiro smiled. “I don’t have much authority back home…but I’ll see what I can do.”

Lance grinned easy. Everything about him came easily. “Awesome. How’s your pain level by the way?”

Shiro winced at the mention.

“I can brew some Clear Day root for you.”

Shiro started, “That’s a narcotic.”

Yeaaahh, you’ll feel a liiiiiiittle high. But! It’ll ease the pain. I once smoked the stuff and I couldn’t feel anything in my extremities for days. Clear Day my ass—it took Hunk to tell me I had a nail in my foot.” At Shiro’s expression: “I’m not doing the best job talking it up, am I.”

“Not precisely, no.”

“Well if nothing else it’ll keep your mind off the pain. Might even settle the irritability you mentioned.”

“I’m not keen about being out of it for three days or developing an addiction.”

“Brewing it into a tea won’t stone you, don’t worry. You’ll still be aware but the intensity of everything will just dim. Supposedly. I’ve never drunk it myself. As far as I’m aware.”

“Great promotion.”

Lance grinned. “I’ll whip it up for you.”

Shiro relented to his fate, quietly wondering how he would have survived in the veld. Lack of motion drew his attention and he saw Lance there, standing still, still smiling, gesturing with an open hand. Shiro nodded.

Lance pressed his slender fingers to forehead and throat and Shiro was horrified to find himself leaning into it. It was a polite but indelible touch, and cradled his jaw and stroked the stubble on his cheek pensively before abating.

“Don’t go anywhere,” Lance cooed, a ghost of a love tap lingering on Shiro’s nose.

“Funny,” Shiro groused, fighting down his own grin as Lance sashayed through the door. His movements were decidedly feminine, for a frontier alpha.

It was a baffling juxtaposition.

-

Where Lance was easy and casual Keith was clipped. Keith checked Shiro’s ankle, checked his arm, checked his sores, his temperature and made note of how and what he ate, but rarely spoke. Still, Shiro found his presence a delight. In part he wondered if it was because he was under the attentions of a feral beauty. But he banked on the vaporous insistence that he knew Keith.

Since the first night Keith kept his distance unless Lance was in proximity. When Shiro woke on the afternoon on the third day, Keith was reading. The stool Lance had been perched on the night before was replaced with a rocking chair decorated in a wooly throw and a cushion. Keith had his legs folded, cheek in hand, book in lap, the most unguarded Shiro had ever seen him.

He must have breathed differently or twitched or something, because Keith’s eyes were upon him in an instant, as calculating as a housecat stalking a caged parakeet.

Shiro could do nothing but breathe under the scrutiny.

Keith silently closed the book. “How are you feeling?”

“A little thirsty,” he admitted.

Keith fluidly unfolded his legs, dropped his book, reached for a glass bottle set aside and sat on the edge of the bed to press the rim to Shiro’s lips. For the first time since he woke up, Shiro’s eyes flickered away from his face to focus on not drowning.

Keith set the bottle aside. “Your ankle’s doing well. You can put your weight on it soon.”

“And my prosthetic?”

Keith’s eyes were sharp again. “We’re aware that it’s a weapon.”

“I can take the retractable blade out. I can tell you how. It’s just…I’d like to get some of my autonomy back. You and Lance have been great but…” and he lifted his stump to gesture, wiggled the fingers of his injured arm.

Keith’s face twisted into something unreadable and unsympathetic, but at least it wasn’t passive. “Let me check your ribs again.”

Shiro held his breath as Keith peeled the shirt away. Keith pressed his fingers somewhere and told Shiro to breathe.

“Where did you learn medicine?”

“Still learning.”

“…oh.”

“Frankly I’m glad you came along. I was itching to practice on something.”

“It’s a pleasure to know that I’m your test dummy.”

Keith watched his face.

“I was joking.”

“I wasn’t.”

Shiro shut up.

Drawing back, “I’d feel more comfortable waiting at least a day longer.”

“Lance said my arm would be fine within a month.”

“Provided you don’t put too much stress on it,” and he returned to his little nest in the chair. It made Shiro’s jaw weak to see the omega curl up and wrap the throw around him, chair rocking mildly. “What did you do? Throw yourself off a mountain?”

Shiro closed his eyes. “Something like that.”

Keith paused. He looked as though he were about to say something, but he opened his book instead.

The pain was keeping Shiro awake, mad tea long since worn off. He was not a stranger to narcotic drugs—having suppressed three uprisings in Garrison, this was far from his first broken arm—but his alpha instinct rallied against requesting another mug be brewed for him. He couldn’t be redundant and oblivious, and especially not in the home of an alpha that was too friendly and an omega that was too unfriendly.

But, he tried to reason with himself, I’m safe. Safe from true danger at least.

Meanwhile, inevitably, his instinctual alpha huffed and hemmed and hawed and gnawed on the prison bars of his mind grunting it was not safe not safe not safe because friendly, bubbly cheerful Lance was alpha. Rival. Threat.

Instinct was an absolute bitch.

And he thought it was absolutely wrong. He had a feeling it was Keith he should be more afraid of. He moved too quietly, his dark eyes were too pensive, too predatory. Keith could straddle him and plunge a knife into his chest and Shiro wouldn’t blink he’d be so unsurprised.

Keith looked up and Shiro averted his eyes.

“What.”

“Nothing.”

The book closed. “Do you need something?”

“…well, I’d like to try walking today, if it’s not too much trouble.”

“Lemmie ask you something: do you want to recover?”

“Of course.”

“Then do me one thing.”

“Yes?”

“Stop pissing me off.”

Shiro sighed, “I deserved that.” And when his eyes skittered to Keith again he thought he caught trace of a raised cheek. He closed his eyes again and smiled a little to himself. “Can I at least bother you for ten minutes of conversation?”

The book snapped shut with an annoyed lilt.

“My brain is eating itself alive without something to focus on.”

A snort. “I thought alpha got off on doing nothing.”

“I can’t speak for other alpha,” he looked at Keith’s calm face half squashed in his palm. “But I feel like my best self when I’m doing something.”

“Yeah? What do you usually do?”

“Well, at home I like to clean.”

Keith snorted. “Seriously? You?”

Shiro snarled playfully. Keith tensed at the action, though he relaxed when Shiro’s tone remained light: “It’s the army in me.”

“Should’ve guessed you’re an army man. You guys put housewives to shame.”

“In the army it maximizes efficiency. But to give Mother Dayak credit my habit started with the orphanage I was raised at. Our caretaker wouldn’t take shit from any of her kids. Some workers let us get away with murder—not her. She taught us to clean up after ourselves proper and share responsibilities. I think she used to be a nun.”

“You were raised in a church?”

“No…most churches were pulled down before I was born. They’ve made a comeback recently but…back in the day people said the churches were spreading self-destructive propaganda. A lot of holy texts were burned back then, and a lot of not-so-holy ones too.”

“Sounds like a party.”

“It was nothing short of intellectual culling. When you keep the masses ignorant they’re easier to corral.” He smiled bleakly. “Sorry, went off on a depressing tangent there.”

“Actually,” Keith surprised him, “it’s interesting to hear that coming from a Garrison alpha. Until now I figured you all blindly patriotic.”

Shiro snorted and hid his flinch behind genuine amusement. “That’s a little fair. That described me, up until…well. I met someone. After that I read and talked to people and I…realized that the glitter in the city wasn’t gold.”

“…Krolia?”

Keith saw Shiro’s stump jerk as though he wanted to palm the dog tags hidden beneath his marina.

“Krolia was another positive influence on my life.” He sighed, and though there was forever a pinch in his facial expression, he seemed more relaxed now than ever. “Krolia was the one who never gave up on me when I lost my arm, my life, my friends, my motivation. I tried to make a difference and I paid the price for it. She was the one that proved to me it was never a loss.”

“…is she…?”

“Dead? Ha. No way. Death itself would come for her and she’d have him beneath her boot before dinner.”

Keith whistled. “Sounds like a charmer.”

“She left the Garrison to live in the frontier.”

“She was the one you lost at the river?”

Keith watched the defenses build up, a careful construction of stillness and faux contentment. “No, it wasn’t her.”

Keith waited for more, but it seemed they both had their fill of interpersonal communication for the day. Keith returned to his book and Shiro to the atrophy of cabin fever, and the air between them didn’t taste as thick or metallic as it had before.

-

Sleep, which was a fickle mistress, ran away at the slightest pin drop. When Shiro woke up he was exhausted, tired, annoyed—his skin felt like it had accreted another layer in his sleep and his arm warmed uncomfortably as if to greet him.

He closed his eyes but a hiss roused him. What—

“Keep your voice down.”

A smack. “Don’t you dare—”

“Keith, ssh. He’ll hear us.”

Naturally, Shiro eavesdropped.

They spoke softly enough that he had to strain to hear them, even despite his augmented senses. For a moment he wondered if they had heard him, they were silent.

Then Keith grunted, “Lance, please listen to me.”

A huff.

Lance. He’s an injured alpha who shows up in the frontier supposedly with people we can’t find the same time Galra are taking over the closest city. There is a relation and we should ask.”

“What, you think he’s working with the Galra?”

“No.” A pause. “Maybe.”

“Keith, the Garrison have hated the Galra for centuries.”

“Wrong—they hated the Galra centuries ago. They kicked them out centuries ago.”

“They never let them back in.”

“That’s what they want you to think,” Shiro could hear someone pacing. “Why are you against this? Aren’t you even a little curious why he’s out here?”

“Of course I am.”

“…but?”

“But it’s none of our business.”

“He hijacked our bed, I’d say that’s plenty of our business!”

Shiro made himself not shift despite immediate discomfort.

“People get hurt out here all the time. You did.”

“I had a reason—”

“Maybe he does too.”

A huff, more pacing. “He’s hiding something.”

“I agree.”

“Then why won’t you side with me?”

“I think…we’re safer if we don’t know.”

“…knowledge is power, Lance.”

There must have been an exchange of glances after that, because Shiro fell asleep before he heard anything that could count as a rebuttal.

-

On the afternoon of the fourth day Lance provided Shiro with an impossible choice.

“Either I bathe you or he does.”

Shiro blanched.

“It’s non-negotiable,” Keith added. “You stink.”

Shiro flushed.

Keith. Por favor, más amable.”

Keith appeared unrepentant.

“I don’t suppose I could bathe myself?”

They chorused, “Your arm’s broken.”

Shiro took that to mean that he wasn’t going to get his prosthetic back today. He wilted under their patient staring. He considered Keith, because he felt like the default option. An omega would be attentive to his needs whether he voiced them or not. But Keith was brusque, and that set him on edge such that he wasn’t looking forward to being vulnerable around him.

Lance, however, he didn’t mind touching him. Looked forward to it, in fact. But between his firm guidance and almost naïve nature Shiro was apprehensive for another reason: Lance was leggy, dark skinned, bright eyed and hopelessly his type.

Shiro didn’t want to be bathed by someone he was likely developing an attraction to.

But Lance was alpha. Would he feel comfortable with his omega alone with a naked stranger?

“Preferably today,” Keith prompted.

Shiro averted his eyes. “Uh. Um, Lance. Please.”

Lance’s smile neither widened nor dimmed. “Sure thing, buddy. Let’s get you in the bathroom. Keith, ¿puedes cambiar las hojas?”

“Bueno.”

“Gracías, m’amor. Now Takashi we’re going to take this slow,” he was already at Shiro’s side. “I’m going to help you sit up. Oh, maybe you’d like some more Clear Day before we—”

“No!” Lance and Keith startled. “I mean…thank you, but no. I’d rather be…cognizant for now.”

Lance nodded, smile back in place, and Shiro was starting to think it was fake. Then Lance gripped him in that comfortable way, avoided all his bruises and aches, and had him on his feet for the first time in forever. His legs itched with the strain and he wanted to do nothing more than go for a nice long jog to shake out the pins and needles.

But first, a step. He was unsteady, but he braced on Lance enough to recapture the rhythm of walking that he’d never take for granted ever again.

He took in the rest of the house for the first time with a little exhale of awe. The roof was littered with hanging dreamcatchers—no, they were wind chimes—motionless and vaguely ominous, and a hearth with a polite fire and a cast iron stove with a roaring one made the main room warmer than the bedroom. A few feet away from the hearth was a nest, a comfortable set up on the floor outfitted with pillows, books and sewing materials. Beside the bathroom door was a loom and something incomplete and colourful on it.

Homey as the setup was, Shiro felt apprehensive. It didn’t smell lived in. It smelled like fire, a little bit of food, but mostly it smelled like nothing. Not even dust. Did Keith clean ceaselessly?

The bathroom was much the same in the way of smells, but it was perfumed by oils made from nuts and fruits and Shiro focused on those, even as Lance put him to sit down on the tiled counter on level with the tub.

“Alright, now let’s get you nekked!”

Shiro swallowed a whimper.

“Hm? What’s wrong big guy?” Lance tilted his head to look into Shiro’s face. “Embarrassed? Don’t be, I promise I’ll be totally professional. No illicit groping.”

Keith growled from the next room over.

Lance barked back, “Eavesdropping is rude!”

Shiro blinked at his toes, “It’s fine, I’ve gone through things more humiliating than this.”

“No, no, I don’t care for that look at all,” Lance tapped his chin lightly, “Look at me.”

His voice bore no room for dissent. Shiro faced him, shamefully vulnerable.

“We’re not trying to humiliate you, Takashi. Far from it. We’re trying to help and heal you. Now yes Keith can be an absolute troll—”

More distant growling.

“—but in his own special way he means well. I do too.” He smiled, one of the genuine ones. “I know it’s uncomfortable being naked and bathed by someone who’s practically a stranger. I understand you don’t trust me—”

“I trust you.”

Lance blinked, taken aback.

Shiro dropped his gaze to his feet, surprised with himself. “I trust you,” he repeated, a little to himself. He yelped lightly at the abrupt fingers in his hair.

“Aw, puppy. That means a lot. Look, we’ll go slow, okay? And talk if you’re uncomfortable with anything. Anything at all. Got it?”

Why did Shiro feel like a child again? “Got it.”

His marina was cut off of him, and Lance sang “one foot now the other” stripping him of his pants and underwear, and then he was in the bath, sitting such that his arm in sling was above the water. He kept his eyes closed while Lance moved from his back to his shoulders to this arms to his…he didn’t focus very hard on that. But Lance didn’t linger and was soon scrubbing his feet. Oddly, Lance was humming all the while.

“Should I cut your nails too, big guy? O-or I could get Keith to do it. It’ll make you more comfortable, hm?”

“I don’t mind you doing it,” Shiro replied, falling asleep to the lather in his hair.

“Really?” A pause. “You don’t find it weird that I’m alpha and doing this for you?”

Shiro blinked awake. He admitted that he was at first. “But it faded pretty fast. Kinda forgot you were alpha, to be honest.”

Lance was quiet.

“N-not that being alpha or not means people can’t love or care for each other I just meant—”

“Easy, pup. I know what you meant.”

Shiro scoffed a little. “My turn to ask a question.”

“Mhm?”

“Were you raised in an omega dominant family?”

“…yes.”

“I thought so. You’re too nice.”

“Nicer than Keith, even?”

A distant growl.

“You’re just jealous I’m his favourite!” Lance called back. To Shiro: “Keith’s plenty nice. But the world hasn’t been nice to him back so he can be a little tense.”

Keith appeared in the doorway. “Talking about people behind their back is rude.”

Shiro quickly crossed his legs.

Lance poured a bowl of water over Shiro’s hair, laughing, “Go away. What’s for dinner?”

“What else? All we have is deer and bacon.”

“We can make bacon and beans—”

“Over my dead body.” In a new tone, “We’ll have to go hunting soon. An extra mouth to feed is hurting our stores.”

Shiro gasped, “I’m sorry. I can help hunt—”

“What part of you’re injured don’t you understand—” Keith yelled at the same time Lance hissed, “Like hell we’re putting you out there—!”

Shiro wilted beneath their admonishments, which was a fine feat. He was a six five, hulking, hard-to-miss mass in a sea of able bodied soldiers, let alone a dinky tub beside a wiry couple. He let himself sulk, already tired, and Lance doused his head again.

“I’ll go hunting tomorrow,” Lance declared.

“We can wait a few days, just letting you know.”

“Aight.”

“And I’m cooking tonight. I’ll be damned if you give me more bacon and beans.”

Lance laughed that they were a frontier classic. Keith returned that Lance was a hazard to their nutritional needs.

Lance was still chuckling when he bowed over Shiro, either uncaring or ignorant how Shiro crossed his legs again, and unplugged the bath. “We take turns cooking,” Lance grabbed a towel. “I’m a better cook than him though he doesn’t believe me.”

Distantly, “You cook the same damn thing each time!”

Lance conspired with Shiro in a whisper, “He never complains when he’s eating it.”

A little more in love with them, Shiro grinned.

Lance stepped back. “That’s a good look on you.”

“Wha—whuf!” A towel was promptly thrown over his head and everywhere rubbed at once. When he was dry and his arm checked over, Lance sat him down to rub lotion in his skin. Very necessary, Lance insisted. He came from a tropical climate and the winter turned his skin to scales. Never again. Oils were a very necessary part of living on the frontier. Shiro weathered his ministrations, struggling against a grin all the while.

When he was clothed again, in pants cottony and baggy but helplessly close on his hips and a big black soft sweater that looked like it should have itched but didn’t, he felt like a whole new person and the smell of dinner was lingering.

“There you are,” Lance stepped back to appraise his work. “How do you feel, puppy?”

“Infinitely better.” He stood. “Thank you, Lance.”

But Lance didn’t look as content as he did a moment before. In fact he looked downright shell shocked, emotion drained from his face in the same time his arms slipped from his waist. Shiro shifted, about to ask what was wrong, but Lance jerked away violently in response, sending a clatter of bottles to the floor. Like a signal, Keith was there in a heartbeat, smelling of heavenly herbs and seared meat, and he took one look at them before sprinting to Lance’s side. “Lance?”

“Is he alright?”

“What did you do?!”

Nothing!”

Lance shook his head, shook Keith off. “I’m just. A little. Anemic. Air. I’m going for a walk.”

“Bullshit,” Keith hissed, but didn’t stop Lance from going.

Shiro lingered at the bathroom door, hurt and worried, staring at Keith’s back as he stared at Lance go through the front door. When Keith turned, it was like a whip. When he approached, it was like facing down a charging bull.

“What did you do.”

“Nothing,” Shiro stood his ground, finding his hackles rising. “I thanked him.”

Thanked him?”

“He asked me if I felt better. I said yes. I thanked him. That’s all.”

Keith blinked a moment before he realized he was craning his neck up and up and up. Shiro was standing on his own for the first time. He was big.

Keith turned away, scared in his bones but he refused to let his scent sound like anything but the crackle of thunder. “Oh,” he said simply.

“…will he be okay?”

“Yes.” Frustrated, “But he’ll kill me if I didn’t make sure you ate first.”

“Go after him. Please.”

Keith spared him a look then nodded, tossing on his coat and boots in a heartbeat and was out the door in a flash, leaving Shiro to struggle with the stove when the something in the skillet started to burn.

-

Lance was shuddering in Blue.

He unlocked the door and moved over when Keith tapped on the glass, but not without starting violently first. When they were saddled together, hip to hip, Keith wrapped his coat—the one Lance gave him—around his lover, pulled the hood over his hair, and held him. When Lance began to rock, he rocked with him.

“Please tell me I don’t smell like a bitch in heat.”

Keith paused, looking up to the house in alarm. “…I thought the suppressants killed your heats.”

“With the way I ran out there looking like one I don’t doubt I smell like one too.”

“Hush, Lance,” Keith mumbled sharply. “You don’t look or smell like you’re in heat.”

“Don’t I?”

Firmly, “No. You just look scared.”

Lance scoffed wetly. He sniffed, and his hand went under the hood to wipe at his nose and eyes, but Keith did not see, and he granted Lance that little privacy. “I am. I am scared. Do I smell scared?”

“You don’t really smell like anything. Maybe it’s the suppressants.”

“God, you think he finds it weird I don’t smell like anything? Like I’m trying so hard not to smell like I’m on my menses—I bathed him in the smelliest stuff we have but I was scared he’d find out any minute.”

“What did he do to you?”

“Nothing, nothing. He—nothing. He just. He’s big. I didn’t notice until he stood up and, just, the entire bathroom just.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean.”

“I felt like I was on the floor looking up at him. And he was smiling? And my head was telling me he was being nice but…shit, I think I pissed myself a little.”

“It’s okay, Lance.”

“It’s not. How am I supposed to face him again?”

“Tell the truth?”

Another wet scoff. “Yeah: ‘Hey puppy, sorry I ran out earlier. It’s just that I’m an omega in hiding and I used to get whipped within an inch of my life by my dead husband and today you reminded me a little of him! Could you pass the pepper?’ That’ll go over well.”

Keith pursed his lips, wondering what to tackle first. Unfortunately his curiosity took precedence: “You call him puppy?”

Lance sighed, “Sorry, yeah. Habit.” He shuffled close to Keith. “It’s the way he lets me take care of him. Like my brother’s pups when I used to bathe them.”

“Jesus, Lance, mind turning the motherhood down from eleven?”

“Sorry.”

“He doesn’t have to smell you to know you’re omega if you keep up with shit like that!” Mommy Garrett’s warning came to mind.

“Shit, I said I’m sorry already, get off my dick.” He sniffed. “I fucking hate crying.”

Keith rubbed his shoulder.

“Maybe…I should keep my distance from him for a while.”

“…yeah, maybe that’s best. But, just so you know, he will be walking around now. Think you can keep it together or should we dump his body?”

God. All that trouble to get him onto his feet and you want to kill him as soon as he inconveniences us?”

Keith tucked his index finger beneath a chin and turned Lance’s rheumy red eyes to him. “If it means your comfort, yes.”

Lance looked like he was about to cry again, so Keith pressed their foreheads and noses together, wrapped them in a tight never ending hug. “Lance?”

Watery, “H-hm?”

“I love you.”

Lance abruptly started to bawl.

-

Despite Keith communicating not to through his eyes, Lance volunteered to feed Shiro. Shock therapy, he kept telling himself. Shock therapy.

It helped that Shiro looked horribly put out and promptly apologized when they were all seated, and how his eyes lit up when he took the first bite. Puppy, Lance had to fight himself from saying. Puppy.

“This is amazing. What is it?”

“Roasted heart and flash fried liver.”

“This is liver? What! This is amazing!”

Keith shot a look at Lance.

“Stuff it,” Lance replied.

Then something alarming happened. They had one utensil each. Lance had made a habit out of switching utensils when he ate from his own plate versus when he fed Shiro, but he slipped up once and ate with Shiro’s spoon.

Keith’s eyes darted to Shiro, hoping he didn’t take notice.

He did.

But he said nothing when Lance fed him again, again with the same spoon.

When their eyes met across the table, Keith felt himself straighten. Did he know?

Did he know?

Chapter Text

Eating together was clearly an important ritual in this household. Shiro was honored to be a part of it.

The rediscovery of mobility and bathing doused the cabin fever in his skin. It was easy to keep himself still and pliant when Keith pressed his shoulder such that he sat at the dinner table. It was easy to smile at Lance who was placing down woven placemats and cutlery. Lance’s smile was brief and forced, but it was returned.

Breakfast today was a milky looking broth with sliced-and-diced spring onions floating on its oily surface, a few stalks of something dark green and leafy, a bone that was as much skin and fat as it was meat, and a side of two flat slabs of whole wheat bread.

Keith sat beside Shiro—Lance didn’t sit on the opposite side of the table but he sat fairly far away—and pressed the first sip to his lips. Shiro started, not expecting the sharp taste of vinegar.

“Don’t like it?” Lance asked when Shiro had completed his spluttering and survived the unhelpful smacks to his back.

“I don’t dislike it,” Shiro cleared his throat. “It just…took me by surprise. The taste doesn’t match how it looks.”

“You can’t smell it?” and Keith immediately put a hand to Shiro’s forehead and neck. Shiro swallowed a reflexive purr.

“Well I can now.”

Lance giggled, “It burned out his sinuses.”

Keith mused aloud he might be catching something.

“If he is then Mama’s recipe will do him good. It’s sunshine in a bowl—Keith, cut up the pok choi, will you?—you’re supposed to soak the bread in the broth and eat it—Keith, you’re forgetting the hock—”

Keith put down the knife and fork with a substantial smack. “Do you want to do it?”

“No, I was just reminding you—”

“I didn’t forget, I’m right here, I know what I’m doing.”

“Okay,” Lance lifted his hands in surrender. “Sorry.”

Keith glowered until he returned to his meal and then Keith resumed. Lance looked up—

“Don’t you dare.”

Lance looked back down.

Shiro closed his eyes and wrestled his mouth into a neutral line. Keith barked, “Now look, you even have him laughing at us!”

I said I was sorry!”

Shiro did laugh then.

It was hard to be graceful when he was being fed. His chin was damp with broth. But Keith was attentive with the napkin and Keith and Lance spoke with and around him such that he didn’t feel like a slob.

Then Lance hit the dishes and Keith helped Shiro wash up and said suddenly, “You haven’t asked after your prosthetic for a while. Gotten used to us pampering you?”

Shiro grinned.

Keith pretended to be unamused. “You can show me how to dismantle the blade from that arm of yours tomorrow. Just don’t overexert yourself.”

“And my other arm?”

“I can get the hammer, whack it a few times, check if it’s still broken, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“N-no. Um. Thank you.”

Keith patted his face dry and gave him a measured look. Shiro blinked, smiled reflexively, no teeth, hoped he looked friendly—there was little he could do about his size, which he supposed was what panicked Lance the other day. He received no explanation of what happened, no clue on how to apologize. He could only hope to be as abiding as possible, repaying their hospitality with his total obedience.

“You’re a lot more…reserved now.”

He didn’t know how to answer that. “I feel better.”

Keith turned, listening to clanking and humming from the kitchen, and Shiro sobered.

“Takashi—”

“You can call me Shiro.”

Keith considered. “Why are you out here?”

Shiro looked away.

“At least…at least tell me you’re not with the Galra in Arus?”

Shiro turned to him then, and his genuine surprise was hard to mask.

Keith nodded. “That’s good enough for me.”

“Wait, Keith,” he whispered, and they both paused to listen and they both sighed in relief when Lance’s humming started up again. “What do you mean there are Galra in Arus?”

“They’ve been there a few months now. They’re doing some gentrification shit but I don’t trust it.” His dark doe eyes then settled intently on Shiro’s: “Then you appear out of nowhere half frozen to death. The veld is a big place but the community is small. It’s not far-fetched to think there was a relation. But I’m happy I was wrong.”

Shiro blinked, his head swimming with nebulae the same suspicious hue of Keith’s iris. “Oh,” he whispered clumsily. “I-I well, I—” He cleared his throat to buy time and brain space, “I d-don’t have anything to do with them. I didn’t know they were there. But I’m willing to agree with you that that’s not good.”

How eloquent, Takashi, an unhelpful subconscious whispered. He was eventually able to rationalize, “I don’t…think you and Lance will be safe here, eventually. If they’re that close.”

Keith scowled. “I know. But Lance has lived here for ten years. It’s the only sanctuary he’s ever known since—” he cut himself off, eyes flashing. Shiro was patient, but Keith had apparently decided that whatever he was about to say wasn’t important. He mumbled a 'never mind' and asked if Shiro was ready to get his teeth brushed.

Shiro sat on the seat of the toilet as a reply.

-

When they emerged again Lance was settled on the floor in front of the hearth with parts of a rifle carefully positioned around him.

“Howdy,” he chirped. “I was starting to think you two were getting friendly in there.”

Keith strode past him and pushed his head and Lance flailed and fell to the floor in a clatter. “Ha-ha. Ass. How you feeling, big guy?”

“Great, thanks.” Shiro risked stepping a little closer. “That’s an impressive rifle you have there.”

“Like it? So do I. I call her Red. Keith hates the name.”

Keith grumbled from the kitchen that he named everything and he named everything shit colours. He’d name himself Blue if he had had the option. He’d name the sky Pink if he had the option. He’d name the snow—

Lance ignored him, gestured Shiro over. “Grab some floor. Or should I grab a chair for you?”

“It’s alright,” Shiro sank to the floor, and Lance wondered at his grace for a beat. “Where’d you get a rifle like that?”

“I have friends in high places.”

“Arus,” Keith grunted.

Arus had new connotation in Shiro’s mind now.

Lance was ignorant. “Anyway,” he went on, “this baby has lasted me a good six years.”

“You’ve taken good care of her.”

“The first couple of years were trial and error. I went through so many firearms,” Lance grimaced then laughed. “How’s your ankle?”

“Hasn’t bothered me at all today.”

Lance nodded, “Nice, nice. Anyway, since Keith’s kicking me out to go hunting I figured she was overdue some lovin’.”

“Is there anything to find out there right now? It’s the peak of winter.”

“Some animals worth eating hibernate. Makes them sitting ducks. It’s a little mean but I like to think dying in sleep is a little less cruel than getting hunted.”

“They’re food, Lance. You’re not supposed to feel empathy for food.”

Lance barked go away and Keith flung a dish towel at him and Lance picked it up and folded it and set it aside nicely. “Sure but, Kolivan used to talk about the balance of life and stuff—he’s a Marmora who lives out here—he said that his people used to shoot their prey with a sap that’s kind of like the Clear Day but puts animals to sleep. Then they say a little spiel to the animal, like, ‘I’m sorry I have to kill you but I need to feed my family,’ then they kill it quickly. I don’t think that’s empathy for food, I think that’s…respect for nature. A respect for life.”

Lance was piecing together the rifle all the while, but his eyes lost some of that shimmer suddenly.

And Shiro realized that in that moment, so too as Arus had a different meaning for him in light of his conversation with Keith, so Red had a different meaning to Lance after reflecting on the way of the Marmora.

But he shook of the spiritual stupor with a breezy, “I sound crazy, right? A real bona fide tree hugger!”

“No,” Shiro interrupted softly before Keith could agree. “You don’t. It sounds…beautiful.

Lance watched him wide eyed and purse lipped.

“Lance is a softy,” Keith broke the air by crashing between them. “If he ever sees a venomous snake or aggressive yupper he’d ask them if they’re lost and offer directions.”

Lance smacked his lap with the back of his hand. “Not true!”

“The first time you killed you cried the entire time you gutted it.”

“How dare you I told you that in confidence!” And he sent a scandalized pout Shiro’s way.

Keith blindly pushed Lance over and he fell to the ground in a little crash and a blur of limbs and an agitated yelp. “He taught me how to gut game and hasn’t done it since. A decade of killing for food and it still makes him sick.”

From the floor, “So I have a weak stomach!”

“You have a weak heart too,” Keith grunted, and raked his fingers through Lance's hair. Shiro suddenly felt like a voyeur. “You wouldn’t last a week in Garrison.”

That piqued Shiro’s attention. “You’ve never been to Garrison, Lance?”

Lance rose to his elbows. “Nah. Closest I’ve ever been was my home in the Pueblas,” he made his fingers into a gun and pointed to the sky, “Varadero, last town between Garrison and a hundred miles of stars and salted rivers. I hopped towns until I settled here.”

“You’re not missing out on anything,” Keith was still stroking his hair and Lance turned, curled such that his head fell in Keith’s lap. Shiro was prepared to avert his eyes again but Lance’s eyes caught him, riveted him, like a hook in a fish’s maw.

“What’s Garrison like?”

Shiro glanced at Keith first, as if in permission, before he looked to the fire. “It’s…the total opposite of anything out here. Out here you can see for miles. At night the ground and the sky look like the same thing and the starlight is so bright you don’t need a lantern. Out here you can’t hear anything except the whirring of your own brain, worse if it’s in the winter and life itself is muffled by the snow.”

Keith felt Lance’s head grow heavier.

“In the Garrison? You can’t go anywhere without stubbing your toe on a person or seeing a grimy wall covered with holo-ads. There’s always the distant booming of a party or bomb or guns or fireworks, and of course the transportation—the railways suspended in the air screeching as they fly past. And there are so many people. Too many. So many that you’d feel sick. You can stand in any street in the Garrison and the flow of people would force you to move with them. And that’s kind of a metaphor for what it’s like to live there too.

“It’s hard to be yourself and be in the city. People are willing to ignore you to death if you meet the status quo but the instant you deviate you’re slaughtered.” He eyes steeled a little bit, seeing some historic thing. “People always have to hide who they are. And sometimes their façade becomes who they are. It’s not a great place—you pay for convenience with your freedom to move, to think, to feel.” He blinked, and the angry magic faded. “Out here is…it’s something else. In Garrison you can smell the oppression. Out here…” he looked up and grew sheepish from the expressions he saw. “Sorry. I’m boring you.”

“No!” Lance flew out of Keith’s lap, “No, oh my—the Ancients, no! You’re an incredible storyteller I could listen to you all day!”

Keith, behind him, was expressionless.

Shiro flushed a little all the same, twisted his mouth when he felt his fangs drop behind his lips. “Thank you.”

“I’m serious, are you a writer or something? Is that what you did at Garrison?”

Keith scoffed, “Lance, Shiro’s a six foot six hulking soldier, you think he has time to write?”

“You’re both right, to be fair,” Shiro said just as Lance kicked at his lover. “I worked in Garrison’s defenses. A fairly high paying job too. But I left it to start my career as a writer and, hopefully, an activist.”

“Activist?”

“I was petitioning for omega rights in Garrison,” and he saw them straighten. “It was a pretty big deal. I got a research paper together and published it and everything.”

Lance was uncharacteristically tender, “What do you mean by omega rights?”

Keith answered, “Omega aren’t treated like people in the City. They’re property passed from alpha parent to alpha spouse at best, or bootlicking slave at worst.”

Lance looked very tender. His voice broke, “Huh? That’s even more backwards than out here—”

“You control the womb, the head of the house and the first teacher of the next generation,” Shiro said darkly and clearly, “and you control the very minds of the people.”

Keith’s stare was heavy.

Lance sat on his haunches, face riveted and brimming with something big. He whispered, “So…what about you? What happened?”

Shiro wiggled his stump. “The critical review was a little harsh.”

Shiro watched them as individual emotions flashed over their faces. But, as before, without looking at each other, they seemed to come to the same conclusion.

Lance cheered in a hoarse voice, “Conversation got a little heavy, huh? Who’s up for playing chess?”

Keith snorted, “You suck at chess.”

“Do you know how to play, Takashi?”

Shiro, please,” Shiro amended automatically, softly. “And yes, I do. Where’d you find a chess board?”

“Keith made it!” And Lance hopped away to the bedroom.

Shiro grinned, “Wow, that’s really impressive, Keith.”

Keith didn’t look praised as he shrugged. “An omega has to be good with their hands. In the end that’s all they’ll have left.”

“Not only.”

“Beauty fades.”

“Personality doesn’t.”

Keith’s eyes flashed to him then, and Shiro was under no pretenses.

Keith didn’t trust him.

-

Lance was shit at chess.

They wrote in the margins of the board numbers and letters so that Shiro could call out plays and one or both of them move pieces on his behalf, but even with Shiro muttering his gameplay out loud Lance still lost, and Shiro almost felt bad for laughing at Lance because of it.

Not Keith. He was in stitches.

Lance promptly creamed him with his pillow. “Fuck off, I literally learned how to play a day ago and you’re a shit teacher!”

“You’re a shit student.”

Lance creamed him.

“How about you and me team up against Keith?” Shiro offered.

YES,” Lance squealed, and scrambled over to Shiro’s side and scattered the pieces and ignored Keith’s indignant, “Hey, I was winning!” and rearranged them on the board in their default position, which he got wrong, which Keith loudly corrected, and Lance grabbed the kitchen towel put aside and threw it in Keith’s face.

Shiro couldn’t help it. He laughed.

They were just so in love! And it was so good to see a healthy relationship for a change. There was not a lack of romantic exchanges between them, but there was a heavy dependence on friendship, on utter trust, knowing each other’s limits and playing within the realm of that—and they weren’t afraid to play—and it was a pleasant experience to witness.

When he’d calmed down, when his throat hurt from jubilance and his skin splotched with health, he heard Lance chuckling beside him and Keith picking at his cuticles, hiding behind a pout.

“Shut up,” Lance checked him with his hip as his sat down. Shiro winced. “Oh shit I’m sorry—”

“I’m fine,” Shiro was quick.

“Sorry. It’s easy to forget we’re supposed to be going easy on you.”

“Yeah,” Keith said in a lilt Shiro knew Lance was going to hate, “it’s not like his arm is in a big ass sling or anything.”

Lance creamed him with his pillow.

Shiro grinned, “Alright Lance, shall we get started?”

“You’re going down, Keith.”

“As if. Shiro sucks at chess too.”

“He’s just trying to psych you out, Shiro.”

“Well he did beat me five times out of nine—”

“HE’S JUST TRYING TO PSYCH YOU OUT, SHIRO.”

The game was slow and transparent. Shiro spoke at length about moves and strategies, and let Lance ask as many questions as he wanted, and Keith waited patiently on the other side of the board, intelligent eyes ever flickering between the pieces and their faces. Shiro was impressed that for all his talk, Keith was ever willing to learn.

Lance and Shiro lost, but it was a good battle, and their heads were a little heated at the end of it. Lance grunted, leaned his temple into Shiro’s right shoulder, and flipped Keith off, who offered a cruel smirk and a bow of the head.

“After all that I could go for a nice big fat lunch and then an eight hour nap.”

“Glutton,” Keith chided without heat. But then his smile fell.

His smell fell because Shiro leaned into Lance, which was fine. Kind of. But then Shiro turned to Lance, subtly parted his lips. Shiro subtly parted his lips and his fangs dropped—his fangs dropped and he prescented Lance, and then returned to laughing and joking as if he hadn’t.

Keith tried not to look shell shocked, and he didn’t know what face he made for the rest of the game.

-

“I thought we agreed you’d keep your distance from the alpha.”

Lance whirled, mad eyes flying to the bedroom. “Why don’t you say it a bit louder for the people in the back?!”

“Shiro’s asleep.”

“He’s a light sleeper, keep your voice down,” and Lance continued slicing and dicing and gauging proportions of spices.

“You touch him a lot,” Keith forced himself in Lance’s way, directly beside him, such that Lance had to beat at his legs to grab the pots or at his head to nab the bowls from the cupboards.

Lance got the message and stopped avoiding eye contact. “So?”

So your omega is showing. We talked about this.”

“God Keith—alpha can touch.”

“Not like that.”

Lance froze. “W-well anyway he already asked if I’m from an omega dominant family so there. That explains my weird behavior.”

“It doesn’t explain his.”

Lance frowned unhappily, hands gripping the counter as he dared ask for clarification.

“I saw him scenting you.”

What?” and his hand flew to his neck.

“He only did it twice.”

Only twice!” and his head swiveled, mad eyes flying to the bedroom. “What the hell—rude!”

“I don’t blame him,” and Keith slid closer. “You’re beautiful.”

His lover hesitated, hand falling.

“I think he likes you.”

Lance didn’t look very flattered. “I’m taking the suppressants. I don’t smell omega—do I?”

“No but…maybe he likes you for your personality.”

“Huh?”

“I know, I was surprised too.”

Lance smacked him.

“Lance…what are we going to do if he figures us out?”

Lance sighed. “The ground would be hard to dig into until the snow melts but maybe we could keep his body on ice until the spring.”

Keith grinned without amusement. “I thought macabre jokes were my thing.”

Lance’s hands turned white knuckled against the counter and he laughed at the tile in a soundless whisper. “Yeah but I thought I was the one with the body count.”

“But I’m serious.”

Lance looked up eyes hard.

Keith frowned. “You’re not serious.”

A pad of foot startled them. Shiro at the bedroom door, freshly disheveled, improperly rested, smiled tentatively. He loomed but he felt like a child waiting for the right moment to say ‘excuse me, mommy’.

Keith vacated Lance’s space, “Need a hand to the bathroom?”

“No. Um.” He fidgeted, “I. I don’t want to alarm you, but. Uh, I’m pre-rut.”

Keith stopped dead in his tracks, a whole body’s length from Shiro. From there, yes, yes! He could smell the new linger of a fertile wanton alpha. It wasn’t acrid and sharp, at least not yet, but it set Keith on edge immediately. Oh no. Oh no. He didn’t realize he’d frozen until Lance stood between them and asked softly, “How are you feeling?”

“A little anxious, nauseous. You know how it is.”

Keith’s eyes flew to the back of Lance’s head in abrupt panic.

But Lance somehow stayed level, “Alright, well this changes things. Uh—so, should I expect you to go caveman and starting hunting Keith, how’s this gonna work?”

Shiro smiled in amusement. “My ruts are usually tame, though this will be my first one from home.” His eyes flickered, “If you heavily scent Keith I won’t approach him. Um. But I was wondering if…is it alright to ask both of you to scent me as well?”

Keith snatched the back of Lance’s shirt.

Lance refused the heart that asked to jump into his throat. “That would help you stay calm?”

“Yes. The two of you have looked after me extensively this past week and I, well, I trust you. It feels trite to put it in words but I feel safe here. If you two scent me I…I’ll feel like I’m home.”

“Even though I’m alpha?”

Shiro made a funny face. Then something amazing happened.

Shiro bowed his head and tilted it to his left shoulder, baring the wide expanse of white flesh and the contour of muscle and scent gland.

The gesture was clear: Shiro was deferring to Lance. He was choosing him as the superior alpha. Keith would have found it comical if he wasn’t on the verge of shaking in his boots. Their charade was paper thin now: while Allura’s super suppressants could fool the world, could they fool Mother Nature? Could they fool an alpha in his prime in estrus? Keith didn’t trust it didn’t trust it didn’t trust it. He almost shrieked when Lance walked forward, lifted his arm, and rubbed the inside of his wrist against Shiro’s gland in a fluid gesture.

Shiro, carefully respectful, kept his eyes down, his mouth closed and his body still. He only looked up when Lance tapped a slender index finger under his chin—and Keith internally brayed that the gesture was too feminine too omega Lance Lance Lance—and said, “This makes me your pack alpha now.”

Keith was horrified when Shiro blushed.

-

Keith had seen many irate alpha in his lifetime. He had seen young alpha unused to omega driven into rut by simple proximity. He had seen alpha aware that they were going into rut slam into a prostitute for days at a time. He knew their smell—the endless burn of an itch that was within the body, unreachable, and slimy like locomotive oil over his skin, pervasive, domineering, cruel. He’d seen them fight each other until drawn blood. He saw one bite off another’s ear once.

But he hadn’t seen this.

It took a day for Shiro to fall from grace. In that time, the worst offense he made was wade into the freshly remade nest by the fire.

That was it.

That was Shiro’s rut.

No haunted screeching, no fevered fucking, just lying down, moving if Lance asked him to move, eating when food was in front of him.

They’d returned his prosthetic to him and he seemed uncomfortable with it at first, but it came in handy now when he was nonverbal. He’d be lying down for two hours, staring at the fire, then reach up—and Lance would automatically hand him a bottle of water and he’d settle down again.

Keith was flummoxed, anxious for the bomb to drop.

Lance was having a field day.

“Are you hungry, puppy?”

Shiro looked up, eyes bright, aware he was being referred to. If he had a tail he’d be wagging it.

“What do you feel like eating?”

Shiro just stared, head sinking back to the pillow.

“I thought you’d be more animated,” and Lance combed his fingers through his hair. Shiro closed his eyes. “Keith! Keith look, he’s letting me pet him! Oooh—oh! He’s purring, Keith come listen to him he’s purring—”

Keith intoned, “I would like to remind you that that is a human being, not a tamed pet.”

“Same difference,” Lance disregarded.

“He’s a wild animal if anything.” He risked treading close.

“Are you going to tell me that this—” and he abruptly leaned over Shiro and squished his cheeks together, startling him to attention—“this little chunk of adorable is comparable to a wild beast?”

Keith felt his scowl twitch. Shiro relaxed under Lance’s touch Lance was touching him. It set Keith on edge like nothing else. “Take away his comforts and see what he turns into.”

“Well, that’s true of anyone. My eldest sister went into a terrible heat once. She was in pain and screaming all the time.”

Keith's eyes flashed in interest. “What was her problem?”

“Not enough nesting material. She started clawing at her own skin and attacked anyone who came near her. It took the whole family piling into her room before she calmed down.” Lance returned to Shiro with a little smile. “I guess it works both ways.”

“What does?”

“Shiro’s having a good rut because of us. He said so before, he trusts us. And he trusts us this much,” and he pulled on Shiro’s cheek as demonstration and Shiro wrinkled his nose and lay there. “I get the feeling that short of running him over with my truck he’d let me do anything.”

Keith remained skeptical and Lance thought that was fine. One of them had to be.

Shiro turned away from Lance’s hand to yawn, rolling more solidly on his back and the padded pillows to do so. It not only put his teeth on display—rows and rows of retractable carnassial teeth that looked very healthy and very deadly—but also his erection, not at all a subtle shape in the biggest, loosest, softest sweats they had.

“Shit he’s hung.”

Keith spluttered.

“You were thinking it.”

He’s right there!”

“He said yesterday he barely remembers his ruts, its fine. Besides as a fellow alpha I can appreciate the—”

Don’t.” Keith’s glare was fierce. “I will smother you in your sleep.”

Lance rolled his shoulders and grinned. “Please do.”

“Can you take this a little seriously please?” Lance straightened and sobered at his quiet outburst. So did Shiro, but he stared at everything that moved of late. Keith kneeled and hissed, “We have an alpha in rut in our home, an alpha who was injured by ancients know what coming from ancients know where likely involved in something ancients know how big and you’re here making sex jokes?! Don’t you have an inch of self-preservation?”

Lance touched Keith’s knee, “Baby—”

“Aren’t you scared?”

Lance smiled sullenly, “Of Shiro?”

“Of—of!” and he gestured wildly, to everything.

He need not extrapolate.

Lance’s mouth firmed. “Step by step, baby.”

“What?”

“I’m…scared. I’m—” he did that breathing thing, his eyes caught a faraway look. Keith let his scent fall over them. “I’m scared, yes. But that doesn’t solve anything. What’s important is getting Shiro through his rut and on his feet. After that…we take it as it comes.”

Keith looked miserable. He allowed Lance to take his face in his hands and kiss his nose. Keith almost grimaced. He smelled of nothing but alpha and rut. It took digging but he found Lance’s sunkissed sea spray in the dip of his throat.

Keith jumped when he felt something on his hand and he and Lance turned to see Shiro sitting up, prosthetic drawn to his chest as though burnt, eyes attentive and watery, mouth in an apologetic shape.

He meant to…comfort him?

Bizarre.

Lance rubbed his hand and his smell into the gland on Shiro’s nape, and Shiro dropped his head and gaze in overt submission.

Lance watched, fascinated, as Keith went through the aborted movement of doing the same. He wanted to reassure, but simply let his had stay where it was until Keith followed through and…

…and Shiro leaned into Keith a little, face still down but air palpably happier.

Keith flushed despite himself. He retreated.

“Baby? Where are you going?”

“We’re running out of food.”

“You’re going to hunt? No—” he got up and Shiro whimpered his dissent. “You don’t know where to go or how to track.”

“I’m a fast learner.”

“It’s dangerous. You’re inexperienced!”

“And you weren’t once?”

“And I nearly bled to my death because of it!”

“So you want us to starve here!?”

Shiro whimpered and they paused. He rose from the bedding fluidly and suddenly, and Lance and Keith jerked back in reflex. Shiro slipped between them, nosing Lance’s hair, then moving to do the same to Keith. Keith jerked away.

“Let him scent you, babe.”

No!”

“Keith—”

“You might think this is normal and cool and just roll with everything but it isn’t! It isn’t and I thought you and I were on the same side!”

“About what?”

“About alpha,” Keith snarled, and Shiro flinched, eyes still blank. “About the threat they pose to our freedom and our lives! The reason you ran away a-and me—and now you’re just returning to them and everything they stand for like a basic bitch in heat!”

Lance’s sympathy broke in an instant. “Hey—”

“Look at me in the eye and tell me you coddling him from day one wasn’t you happy to fall into the role of doting housewife. From day one you’ve been cooing over him and—acting like an omega!”

Quietly, “I am omega, Keith.”

“A-and-and—and you never once stopped to think that you’re endangering our lives because of it!? Because of your fucking actions?!”

Quietly, “He’s a good man, Keith.”

“You don’t know that!”

“I have a feeling—”

Fuck your feelings—fuck your instincts—they’re going to get us killed.” And he glared at Shiro so hotly it cut through his rut and made Shiro flinch back. “Or worse: fucked.”

And he left in a sweep of gorgeous hair and aborted smacking gestures, grabbing his boots and coats and a gun and for a sick moment Lance thought he would shoot Shiro. To his mutual relief and horror Keith went through the door, likely to Blue, and Lance scrambled to follow him.

A firm grip on his shoulder made him pause.

“Shiro,” Lance breathed, “I know it doesn’t make sense to you right now but I have to go, okay?”

Shiro didn’t comprehend words, but he seemed to understand tone just fine.

In return to his whimper and pout, “I know, puppy, I’m sorry. But Keith—” the truck started. “Stay here, puppy. Stay.”

Lance tore from his grip, crashed through the door, threw himself at Blue who was reversing into the wide white world flailing and screaming. If Keith noticed he only sped up, reversing and reversing and reversing, and eventually turning and making a straight route to the blue jungle on the horizon. Lance screamed after him, calling him the whore, the maniac, the short-sighted pussyfooting anarchist, and he was so mad he didn’t recognize he was cold until his fingers started colouring.

He meandered up the porch exhausted and terrified—angry at himself that despite his disappointment and rage in Keith he was still in love with him and prayed for his safe return—and hesitated at the image of colossal alpha at the door.

Shiro watched him, pensive, strangely intelligent, before offering his prosthetic in a feeble gesture.

Careful to avoid his broken arm, Lance embraced him, and melted into the nose digging through his hair, the purr rumbling down his spine.

“Please tell me you won’t remember all this.”

Shiro didn’t reply.

Chapter Text

In the long summers between the short rainy season and the short brisk autumn sometimes water would flood the veld from woi woi.

The summers always saw scrub. It coated the lay of the land awash in sienna and frog green. When waters flooded the veld, the world got a little greener. Some of the green stuff was edible, sometimes they provided shelter for the panting fish that hatched in the shallows mid-migration.

In the summer when the waters came, rushing down from the melted snowcaps and the thunderstorms in the unseen mesas, it looked like it went on forever, a true horizon pool. It was always moving, always shimmering, always shallow and always fertile. The land was rich.

And with the water came megafauna—aggressive yupper and mostly passive kalternecker—and it was easy to spot the herds that could amount in the thousands moving on the horizon like a black mirage.

“That’s why the house is on stilts,” Lance narrated. “The houses around here are weird because they have to be. They have to be really well insulated because the summers are hot and the winters can be brutal, but you need big windows to ventilate. And it helps to keep the plants indoors during the winter,” and Lance pointed to the pots he usually kept outside, the broken cauldron pregnant with aloe and the sturdy calabash brimming with juniberry. They sat in cold squares of sunlight, uncomplaining.

Shiro’s head swiveled when Lance pointed, but he was quick to return to subtly scenting Lance’s knee from his place at his feet. It comforted them both.

“I was trying to keep up a greenhouse once when I changed my mind about rearing sheep, but that didn’t play out well. So I started investing in those lights, y’know the indigo ones, but I don’t have my dad’s green thumb so,” and he made a rude sound. “So I just have the equipment and I whip it out for the winters to keep the plants that aren’t made for snow toasty. I usually keep that junk in the loft of the barn.”

Lance pulled at the tapestry on the loom and tapped his foot in agitation. Shiro’s head swiveled.

“Come to think of it I really need to clean out the loft. There are probably spiders big as dinner plates taking up residence up there fucking and eating each other. Have you ever seen a spider as big as a dinner plate? They’re bird eaters. I once saw one snap a bat straight out of the air. I’ve never felt safe walking the jungle during the summer after that. I think they burrow underground for winter.”

Shiro’s head swiveled, scenting Lance’s knee.

Lance pulled at the tapestry. The yarn yanked and made a pretty sound that was a threat to snap. Lance sighed and dropped his hands to Shiro’s hair and the alpha, delighted, closed his eyes and let a snore-loud purr rattle their bones.

“It’s beautiful here in the summers,” Lance whispered. “It’s loud with crickets and bright at night with candleflies…and the water is muddy but every so often you see a tadpole or baby fish like they’re wishing you luck…and the birds, there are so many birds…they aren’t all bright and colourful and the ones that aren’t have really funny dances.” Lance moved his hands and the ebony eyes between them blinked, uncomprehending.

“I wish Keith could see the summer.”

Shiro whined, and Lance took that as indication that his arm was acting up again. Lance bowed over him, letting his smell wash over them both. Shiro quieted and burrowed into the quilt of Lance’s arms.

It was evening. The blue sunset was fading. At the front door were too big bags and satchels and boots prepared for the long walk tomorrow to hunt down Blue and her lone occupant. Hours earlier Lance was sure Keith would have come to his senses in the time it took the sun to walk across the sky…

…but no. Keith was out there and Lance was here, desperate to give him the benefit of the doubt, scared out of his mind. The only thing that kept him patient was Shiro. Taking care of Shiro kept Lance from stumbling out into the night in a panic.

Was it a full moon tonight? He could track by starlight if—

Shiro whined and Lance pressed his face into his strawberry smelling hair. “I’m sorry puppy. I’m so so sorry.” His words got lost in the alpha’s roots. “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.”

Shiro swiveled his head slowly, saturating his hair in sea breeze and cocoa butter.

“Keith would know what to do. We’ll find him first thing in the morning. You’ll be good for me, won’t you? We’ll take our time hunting him down…knock him over the head with a club and tie him to the supporting beams for the rest of his natural life.”

Shiro swiveled his head slowly.

“Hn,” Lance shifted and his innards shifted, something fell and he grimaced. “Sorry, up? Up?”

Shiro abided, rising gracefully, despite the sure pain that leant to his sluggishness.

Lance lead him to the nest. It was little more than an amalgamation of bedstuff right now. There was no concrete form to it, no leading lines of where and how one should lie. It made Lance’s inner omega pace restlessly for a beat.

That is, until Shiro took note and began rearranging it according to his own firing hormones.

Could alphas nest? Lance took a step back, hip and shoulder checked against one of the handful of support beams in the living area and grinned, staring, with a little bit of awe, with a little bit of amusement as Shiro dismantled in a haste and slowly reconstructed: layering the courser mat first, the heavy duvet on top of it, and once that was nice and flat he began setting up the cushions, pillows and balling up clothes to create a ring.

Just as he was throwing a sheet over that arrangement and tucking it in curiously ingenious ways such that the pillows wouldn’t shift, Lance stole away to the bathroom.

He sighed when the bathroom door shut with a subtle click! In the quiet his guilt over failing Keith resurfaced, and his shoulders fell.

Lance understood the fear of letting someone who wore the face of their abusers in. But Shiro had done nothing but defy every expectation! He was polite, patient, agreeable, gentle, humble, had a sense of humor and a gorgeous storytelling lilt. Lance was eager to befriend him because he’d never met an alpha like him before, not since Alfor at least.

But wait, was that it? Was it because of Allura and Alfor and Coran—and the medications that hid him in plain sight—that Lance had the benefit of knowing that alpha need not be pussy-hungry megalomaniacs?

To Keith, wasn’t Shiro an anomaly? Different, and therefore worth suspicion? A ticking bomb?

“But he decides to run away because of that?” Lance scrubbed a little harder. “What sense does—”

WHAM!

Lance jumped three inches high, panties almost tearing in his grip. The water ran glug glug glug and he scrambled to shut it off and opened his ears. For all of three seconds there was no—

WHAM!

Lance audibly gasped this time.

A moan, long and loud and heartbreaking, shook the house. It turned into a hoarse squeal at the end and the wham-wham splintered the bathroom door.

“Shi-Shiro?”

WHAM!

One more inhuman moan. There was scrabbling, pacing. It was like being besieged by wolves all over again. Their nails squeaking against the floor as they paced and dug, trying to reach him—

Wham!

Lance scattered back on the toilet seat. He landed hard, his wrist and ankle throbbed where he hit the porcelain. His heart hurt and wouldn’t listen to him chanting tranquila tranquila tranquila.

WHAM-WHAM-WHAM

Lance was unsurprised when the hinges popped! and the door collapsed bladam with far more noise than it had business making, but he shrieked anyway, lifting his feet up onto the lid of the toilet, squeezing himself into the smallest shape he could manage.

One crazed alpha stood black in silhouette in the doorway.

Keith was right.

-

Keith shivered beneath his coat.

Failing to be a creature of habit, Lance ensured that Blue’s tank was not full. There was no extra in her ample bosom, and the antifreeze, which Keith could see clear as day in his mind’s eye, was properly stored on the high shelf beside a shiny wrench that probably saw use once.

Therefore Blue spluttered and died on the fringe of the frozen jungle with the moon and cold at high tide.

Walking back was an option left for the daytime when freezing to death was a little less likely. But would his pride let him return empty handed?

Keith twisted and fought to sleep out of sheer spite.

He twisted and fought to sleep.

He was tired come morning, his anger spent, but he was still stranded. All he had to his name was a good coat, whittling knife and a gun. He scowled at Lance’s memory when he found ammunition under the chair. All the same, his odds had been worse before.

At daybreak he left Blue’s security, took one glance at the flat flat white world and the smudge that he knew was home, then turned his back to it all and marched into the jungle.

The difference was immediate. He could see no farther than nine feet in any direction, belayed by criss-crossed branches ahead and above. It was dark and it was quiet. His footsteps were the loudest thing, muffled by soppy loamy earth. The foliage caught and accreted the majority of snowfall, leaving patches of light to rain down at inopportune intervals. The trees broke the wind. It smelled faintly.

It was warmer than Keith expected, like the trees exhaled moisture and kept things green and alive. Keith was surprised to find mushrooms hiding in black root systems. And there was more than just hibernating animals.

There were droppings, evidence of rabbit-sized prey being stalked by diagonal walkers—fox-like creatures, and excavations around root systems with small paw prints in the dirt implying active yelmore. He didn’t know they thrived this far north.

Keith felt a new spike of irritation. All this wealth of prime meat and Lance hunted deer?

Keith grumbled, wrinkled his nose as he came across the acrid smell of piss. Warm! Something was around here…

As he rolled his feet forward, coat making him out to be just one more kind of dark pelted animal in the underbrush, he recalled the polite hunt as Ulaz had taught him. None were as patient as the Marmora. They could settle in wait for days at a time for a single kill. Ulaz continually chagrined Keith for his impulsiveness, and joked it was good that he was Sendak’s otherwise he’d starve in the wild.

Keith’s knife flashed in a pool of light from above. He held the handle a touch too strongly. He listened and he waited.

His blade didn’t draw blood until high noon. A fox-sized infant klanmiurl was stalking towards his general location, something bleeding in its mouth. By the time it smelled Keith his knife was embedded in its eye. It fell, and Keith wrangled the squirrel from its mouth. That with the nuts he found buried in an abandoned spider den would make a decent lunch, he decided.

As he set up fire and started spinning hair and leaves together into a makeshift pouch for the meat he was about to gut, he recalled the marks of something bigger and predatory. Their tracks betrayed an unusual gait, either old and arthritic or injured, easy to outrun maybe, but still rather close for comfort.

He’d track it insofar as to avoid its territory. He ate burnt squirrel and packed the klanmirul skins, meat, bones and guts into blue, and washed his hands in the snow.

-

“What’s it gonna take to get into your good graces?”

Sendak lumbered up the last steps to the loft. Keith had a threadbare blanket and lantern to his name. When the behemoth lurked close Keith made himself small and Sendak just caught the lingering glimpse of his swollen ankle slip into anonymity.

He pressed his lips together and looked through a curtain of hair to the battered omega’s face. He was pretty under the purple and shiner. Sendak hesitated getting any closer. Keith looked bad, but Sendak’s men weren’t well off either. The light licked off dead eyes and Sendak knew he was in the territory of a wild animal.

Keith’s lips parted and three rows of crooked teeth flashed.

Had those teeth been any straighter Thace and Haxus would have lost their hands.

Sendak sat on the edge of Keith’s world, which didn’t make him any happier, but he didn’t go out of his way to aim for jugular either.

He’d never known an omega in heat to act like this.

Throk advertised him as feisty on yesterday’s stage, and the omega acted like it. He didn’t care for being paraded in a theatre that smelled like hot lust. He’d been bound, the only omega bound, and he’d been yanking out of Throk’s grip the entire bid.

He had smelled delectable. He still did. But he was the epitome of the parable that spoke of licking honey from a thorn.

(So far the honey remained untasted.)

Throk had made himself scarce since the sale. Haxus said that that was by design. Sendak said it didn’t matter. He was besotted with the idea of Keith, much to his subordinates’ resentment. A wild omega in estrus begging to be dominated had appealed to them too…until Keith opened his mouth, bit off someone’s finger, and made all the Marmora in their party jump back and start praying.

But the problem wasn’t solved by them throwing Keith into the barn loft of the ranch they let. Keith was still in heat, and was due to be heat sick unless they did something about it.

“There’s no reasoning with you though, is there,” Sendak murmured.

Keith’s bright eyes stayed on him, unseeing, downright otherworldly in their steadiness.

“You’ll thank me come morning.”

Sendak rose to his feet and Keith skittered away, blanket scattering. Sendak pursued quickly. Keith lunged unpredictably and his maw—caught!—in a leather gauntlet! He struck, and his fist caught Sendak in his ribs.

Sendak grunted but grabbed that wrist and pulled such that Keith’s body was twisted against his volition, forcing his back to Sendak’s chest and belly, and wrenching his mouth free enough to shriek shriek shriek shriek—

Sendak cursed and forced him to his knees. Wailing followed.

“What the shit—” Sendak felt his forearm burn. Even with the gauntlet hastily prepared for him Keith’s teeth had gone through and pierced, no, shredded skin.

Keith was mostly subdued now. His arm was held at a painful angle to his back and his free hand trembled from the effort of keeping him mostly upright, keeping him from posturing. Sendak had to respect the animal that rebuffed him.

He leaned forward and rubbed his nose into the blossoming scent glands on Keith’s nape. The poor omega had been wearing a thin lacey mid-thigh nightgown for hours that left little to the imagination, gooseflesh and all. It was too easy to hike up the important parts and nudge his burst knees a little wider.

As if he knew what was coming, Keith shrieked again.

“What, you wanna be heatsick?” Sendak growled as his belt slapped free. “Shut up!”

Whap-whap! went the belt against Keith’s thighs.

Keith shut up and was trembling.

“That’s it,” Sendak cooed, slowly rubbing the insides of his wrists against the insides of Keith’s thighs—he tried to force them closed but Sendak pinched him if he tried.

Drenched in the scent of alpha Keith quivered, wide-eyed but unseeing. Sendak released him.

He instantly darted forward.

“Shit!”

Sendak caught his ankle and Keith turned, slammed the heel of his free foot into Sendak’s nose. The alpha toppled. His grip stayed.

Keith wailed, injured ankle throbbing against coarse Galra skin. He cried. He shrieked.

Sendak crawled over him making no slow a show of forcing down his trousers and licking the blood from his upper lip. “You’ll thank me come morning.”

Keith’s hits lacked force now. All he could smell was alpha respite relief help alpha alpha.

Keith orgasmed.

-

Keith woke up to the unmistakable smell of a Galra mount.

He took longer than he ought to have clearing out camp, trembling from an unloved memory. It's no use being anxious, he chastised while he hid Blue to the best of his ability. Red snug against his shoulder. All the same he lurked through the black underbrush and the smell of short-lived horses got stronger and stronger.

Like Kalternecker, like Garrison, like people, the Galras’ mounts were designed by the Ancients for the New World. They were strong, fast, durable, ate little, but they lived no longer than five to eight years and gave off an acrid smell that soiled everything: leather, wood, hair, skin…Keith had never gotten used to it and his omega nose could fish it out of a market in full swing. It had.

Keith loped along a piece of jungle that he didn’t recognize and left subtle markers as he tread deeper and deeper. The smell got strong enough that he lifted his hood and scented it best he could to cancel it out.

He paused and crouched at the vision that parted before him.

Dusted beneath a thin veneer of snow was an encampment studded by freshly sheared stumps and readymade peach yurts. Twilight leant them a ghostly glow. Between the yurts was an occasional fire, and shadows in the shape of men were wandering between a station that looked to be outfitted with cooking, makeshift stables, and a tiny armada of shiny vehicles.

Keith dared linger forward.

He came to a pause beside a mountain of empty cages. The looked like they’d fit an adult person if they were lying on their side. They were clean, they smelled clean. He wrapped his fingers around the finger thin bars. Sturdy, despite appearances.

A grunt sounded and Keith ducked, hidden by the lack of light and immobility.

A gargantuan figure strode nearby. He had a broad face and thick build, his arms as thick as Keith’s waist. His coat had him favor a bear and the way it opened put his belts and guns on display. When he spoke he spoke in a deceitfully soft tone, “Fuck this weather.”

Keith could drink to that.

“I find it refreshing,” a fellow Keith didn’t see replied. He sounded younger. “The air is so clean you could almost taste it. Beats Garrison and Ryfod by a mile. I miss my worldly pleasures though.”

“Naturally. What would you and your generation be without your autonomous cleaning bots and gold laced shoes?”

“You wound me, Ranveig.”

Keith frowned. Their upper lips were too stiff to be well acquainted with the frontier.

Ranveig turned such that his back was to Keith, “No more news?”

“None. Excavation resulted in another cave in. Ladnok lead a team to track the slot canyon headed north but…I bet Varl they’ll come back empty handed. There’s too much land and they got weeks of a head start—”

“How much.”

“Huh?”

“How much did you bet?”

A pause. “Two hundred.”

“Hm. Three hundred from me they don’t find anything.”

“What? If you don’t think we can find them why’d you let them go?”

“Gives them something to do.” He moved off. “Anyway, there’s always the likelihood they’ll find something even if…”

But by then they were out of earshot and Keith’s heart was begging him not to stretch his luck any tauter.

He was shuffling back with his eyes on the clearing and the ever brightening sky when, just as he hit cover, a slip of cold metal slipped under his chin.

Keith was soundless in his panic. He stayed crouched, stayed breathing, and kept his eyes forward. He didn’t feel or smell the presence of whoever held him at knifepoint. Heck, according to Keith’s senses all that existed was the knife!

The person spoke. Their voice was deep, cool and clear, like the stream in the middle of summer, and just as ageless though unavoidably masculine: “What are you doing out here?”

Keith swallowed. “Hunting.”

“Are you with them?”

“No.”

“Who are you with?”

Should be say? “Do you…know Lance?”

The blade fell away immediately and Keith took his time to look over his shoulder. A gaunt gentleman kneeled in the rotten sod. His face was ruddy and sculpted and weathered, his eyes were faintly yellow around grey irises, his hair was shock white and fell in a tight braid over the fluff of his coat, which hid his physique.

Keith traced the scar on his face with his eye, “Are…you Kolivan?”

The stranger’s eyes narrowed. “Come,” he said instead.

He took up a brisk pace to ancients’ know where and made as much sound as the dead. Keith trailed after him with the grace of a newborn kalternecker.

Sunlight was threading through the canopy proper when the man Keith was mostly convinced was Kolivan settled again and turned to say, “How do you know Lance?”

“I’ve been living with him since the winter began.” He added as an afterthought, “He’s been meaning to take me to meet you for weeks but we got…sidetracked.”

Kolivan quirked a brow. “You are his intended.”

“Uh. Well—sure. Yes.”

Kolivan did not bring attention to his indecision. “Where is he?”

“Back at the house. We have a…guest.”

“One of them?”

“No. Or at least he claims not to be.” He sulked. “Lance trusts him.”

“Lance has good instincts.”

Keith’s grimace formed slowly.

“…I did not catch your name.”

“…Keith.”

“Keith. I recommend you go back. These grounds are not safe for frolicking.”

“I wasn’t—”

“You were less than three feet away from a man thrice your size.”

“He didn’t see me.”

“And if he did?”

“I didn’t come out here to be treated like a kid—”

“Nor did I expect to find one.”

Keith snarled, “Listen—”

“You listen. Here is not safe. You go back to Lance and get him to understand that. He is stubborn, but you will need to leave.”

“And go where?” And at last Keith’s fears were aired: “Arus is overrun by Galra and now they’re here there’s nowhere left to go! We’re at the edge of the world as it is! How long do we have to run before we can just…just live!?”

Kolivan watched him, sorrow genuine beneath his stark brow. He breathed, “I do not know, Keith.”

Keith rubbed his salty eyes.

“I wish I knew.”

Keith scoffed.

“The fact remains that you should return to him.”

“Easier said than done.”

“And why is that?”

So Keith relayed the little adventure that led him here.

“It figures Lance would have attracted an idiot as his spouse.”

Keith glared, laughter fighting anger in his throat. “I thought you said he had good instincts.”

“And like begets like.”

“Is that how you talk about someone you had feelings for?”

Kolivan’s face went guarded, to Keith’s curious dismay. “This and that are two different matters.”

Keith scoffed.

“Follow. I might have something for your truck in my cabin. I have been telling Lance for years to invest in horses…”

Keith followed, recalling the day they set up the radio antenna. “Lance is afraid of heights.”

Trod. Trod. Trod. Trod.

“Is he.” Kolivan murmured at last. “I did not know that.”

Keith stared at the back of Kolivan’s head curiously.

-

Lance made himself small.

He was hiccupping behind his hands when Shiro reached him. Shiro kneeled in front of him and his body heat washed over Lance’s naked knees like a soft exhale. Shiro placed his prosthetic on Lance’s toes and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And at last Lance peeked through his fingers.

Shiro perked up when they made eye contact.

“What…”

Shiro moved forward at the sound, bowing his head and rubbing the back of his neck against the long expanse of skin available. Lance was startled out of his stupor by the jostling. “Wha—wait, Takashi, you’re going to knock me off the—eeek! No tickling!”

Shiro had pressed his nose to Lance’s ribs.

Embarrassed as Lance was that he was naked from the waist down, Shiro was indifferent. Rather, he seemed excited to have new territory to mark, and his prosthetic fiddled with the hem of his borrowed sweater as though contemplating joining Lance in nude solidarity.

“What the hell is going on with you,” Lance felt a light nip to his thigh followed by a bloom of happy and relief. “What, did you think the bathroom ate me or something?”

Shiro purred.

“Weird.”

Shiro began nosing Lance’s lap and Lance jerked up—“Nope! No, no, absolutely not, bad puppy! Bad. Stop. Stay. No.”

Shiro stayed on his knees and watched each movement of Lance stepping into a new pair of underwear. He shuffled forward the instant Lance stopped moving.

Jeez! Why are you—alright, okay. Up?”

Curiously enough, Shiro understood that command and was on his feet. (It was likely from tone than the word itself.)

Lance grabbed the edge of Shiro’s sweater…and paused.

What am I doing, he asked the fingers rubbing the soft material. Keith is out there more than likely freezing to death and I’m playing house with—

Shiro made an inquiring sound.

Shiro made an inquiring sound and leaned close, tucked his face into the top of Lance’s hair. Lance looped his arms around Shiro. He avoided his arm in sling. He pressed his nose into the pattern of the sweater, the heat of Shiro’s body, the smell of his skin. It did not smell like incense. It did not smell like myrrh.

Shiro sensed his distress and purred at length.

“Why am I such a roller coaster today?” He thumped his head against Shiro’s clavicle. “It’s all your fault. Breaking down doors, scenting me all the time. And—and—and—” he hiccupped, “and Keith isn’t back yet and you’re in rut and I’m bleeding everywhere all the time and and and—” he hiccupped, and gnawed ineffectually on bone and wool. Shiro’s purr looped deep and then went back mellow.

Lance stopped biting and Shiro pushed himself a little closer until Lance nibbled on him again. It was a back and forth until Lance chuckled, “You’re going to make Keith and Allura mad you enabled my bad habits.”

Shiro licked his temple.

“H-hey—what are you—why is your purring so loud oh my god—”

Shiro nuzzled and licked his cheek.

Lance burst out laughing.

Shiro licked into his mouth.

Lance froze.

Lance froze long enough for Shiro to sample the flavor of his bottom lip. Lance leaned back, Shiro followed, ever childish the way he rubbed their noses together and their lips met again. Shiro was not forceful in the least. His prosthetic stayed at his side and when Lance pushed his hands against his chest Shiro relented. When Lance dropped his hands Shiro hesitated before gradually leaning close, granting Lance leeway to move away.

In other words: Lance had absolute control.

Lance had wondered before what it must be like as an alpha to have an omega at their heel. He assumed that they felt powerful, indomitable. Lance had fantasized about having an alpha at his mercy. But now that Shiro was putty beneath his fingers, Lance didn’t feel very strong. If nothing else, he felt more vulnerable than ever.

Shiro rubbed their faces together a little more briskly and their lips met and Shiro mouthed against him for a heartbeat before repeating.

Lance could taste the blood rising to the surface of his skin.

“That’s enough, puppy,” Lance whispered.

Shiro did not understand and Lance knew as much.

Lance’s fingers slipped to the edge of Shiro’s borrowed threads again and the alpha shuffled closer and Lance felt a hot, hard, familiar weight against his belly. He flinched and Shiro, ever perceptive Shiro, moved back, appraising him anew.

“It’s fine. I’m fine. I, um.” He ran light hands to Shiro’s hips.

It was new, this reciprocity. Lance thought alpha equivalent to booming voices and plastic masculinity. In a matter of days Shiro shattered that perception. He was considerate, gooey and artful without sacrificing his version of what it meant to be alpha.

Lance’s hand trailed low and Shiro’s squirming slowed.

How novel. Lance could pace how they moved. He could do as he liked! He preened mildly at the thought. He dropped his gaze to the sliver of taut tummy and line and happy trail that he was familiar with by now. It was too easy to slip his hand beyond the elastic and cup his forefinger and middle finger against the shaft and knock the concave bend of his thumb against the sensitive underside of the flared head.

Shiro thrust forward suddenly and sharply such that his heels went thud against the floor. He shook, clearly forcing himself to stay still, and wouldn't let Lance see his face no matter how the omega turned.

"Do you like this?"

Shiro's prosthetic caged Lance against the sink. He exhaled long and hard.

Lance warmed. Never mind vulnerability--this was power. He stroked and Shiro whined and bowed like a musical instrument. He felt his own blood flee south. He bit an available clavicle to keep his own vocalization under wraps.

Shiro’s breath grew wetter. He was panting. He was drooling.

Excited: “Are you letting me touch you because you’re in rut or because you want me to?”

Shiro dropped his forehead in Lance’s hair.

Sober: “…you can’t even answer.”

Shiro licked his temple. He whined when the stimulation slowed, then stopped. He gasped prettily.

Lance retracted his hand and dropped a chaste kiss on Shiro’s cheek. “Let’s go to bed, puppy.”

Shiro abided, but Lance was half amused to note that he sulked the entire time.

Chapter Text

Lance had lit up when Kolivan said the bow was his. It was on that day that Kolivan learned that Lance’s people had retractable fangs that “dropped” when they were excited, angry or aroused. His lips and tongue were sore when Lance was done with him, and Lance did a piss poor job of looking apologetic over spilled blood.

“Can I use it now?”

“It is why I gave it to you, Lance.”

He touched the wood of the recurve bow. “It’s just…it looks so important. Like it’s ceremonial.”

“Thank you for saying so.” Kolivan reached to touch him, hesitated, but Lance walked into his hand. “I hoped to make something fitting to suit your beauty.”

Lance’s fangs dropped again. “Flirt.”

“Show me that you’ve learned how to use it. Bring us something for dinner.”

“Will you help?”

“Do you need my help?”

Lance sneered.

"May I kiss you?" Lance nodded and Kolivan used his tether on the boy’s cheek to pull him in for a brief kiss. “Go.”

And though he could be quieter, Lance stalked into the jungle with learned efficiency.

Kolivan sat and waited.

It took four hours, time in which Kolivan had outfitted their impromptu camp with a fire and a workplace to clean his knives and guns. Lance emerged from the bush quieter than he left—he learned something while he was out there—four limp bodies hanging from his hand and quiver on his hip mostly full. He was grinning as he stepped forward, and when Kolivan turned his eyes to him he beamed impossibly brighter.

Kolivan collected the game.

“Pretend to be demure all you want, Koli,” Lance stalked him to the fire and the waiting makeshift grill. “I know you’re impressed.”

“I’m not impressed at all.”

Lance’s smile fell and he blinked in surprise.

“Impressed would mean that I would not have believed that you could do it in the first place.”

His smile returned full force. He watched in giddy affection as Kolivan skinned and cleaned, ever disgusted, but familiar with the motions. Kolivan had found a good flat rock to work on and had cleaned it with the river water they collected from an hour’s trek north.

“Y’know, back home, they’d call me a dyke for being good at this.”

“At hunting?”

“Mhm.”

“I assume the word dyke is an insult?”

“Depends on who says it but, yeah, mostly. Because I have my hair short and I dress like this and I hunt. Alpha are really the breadwinners of the family.”

“I cannot empathize. Among my people neither gender expression nor sex limits a person’s occupation, only a matter of skill.”

Lance leaned his cheek in his knee, “Man that sounds awesome.”

“I find it so.” He smiled, “You would be a highly coveted individual in our town.”

Lance sat up, “Really!”

“Of course.”

Cheekily, “Why?”

Kolivan put the first strips of meat on the lightweight tripod grill and without meeting Lance’s eyes he replied: “You are a quick learner and a survivor. You learned the rudiments of living in this world within moments, and that was born from your natural ability to befriend anything. Your skills are innumerable and despite being able to mold yourself to any situation you have never sacrificed an ounce of your personality.” He looked up and softened at a strangely meek Lance who his half his face behind his knees and peered at Kolivan with glittering doe eyes.

Kolivan stood and washed his hands, then sat beside Lance to risk a kiss to the temple that was well received: Lance curled into his side.

“Why are you crying?”

“No-one’s ever told me that before.”

“That is a shame. But I assure you that everyone thinks it.”

“They think I’m loud. And petty. And immature.”

“You are also all of those things. But that does not detract from your virtues. We must learn to embrace all facets of who we are, good and bad, and change ourselves for the better if the case may be.”

Lance poked his head into Kolivan’s smoky smelling throat. “Have you?”

Kolivan’s voice rumbled into his very skin. “It is an ongoing process.” Lance moved when Kolivan looked down at him. “May I kiss you, Lance?”

“You don’t have to ask each time, Koli,” and they kissed.

Something sad was in Kolivan’s expression when they parted. “Yes I do,” he whispered.

-

Lance woke up to vigilant pewter.

He was kissed on his mouth by something intelligent, welcoming and cool. Lance hummed. Lance hissed when cold cold cold settled on his naked shoulder and somersaulted up to his jaw where he was encouraged to pull closer, closer to something intelligent, welcoming and cool.

Lance submitted.

In his sleepy haze his unimpeded throat thought it timely to chime in a timbre unfamiliar to the conscious mind. But the sound echoed down his hair and marrow singing safe stay peace safe stay peace and Lance dreamt of sunny cathedrals he’d never visited haunted by cordial fairies.

Lance pressed closer still.

The thing kissing him was colossal, and by now Lance’s subconscious provided that it was a body, a person, something apart from him that was begging to be adopted. Lance swallowed, and half the saliva wasn’t his.

He chimed and purred, sounds erupting from his belly, and his legs loped forward to strangle thighs that were bigger than him, a body colder than him, an arm in a—

Shiro yowled and flinched back.

Lance jerked awake.

Shiro rolled onto his back, squirming, expression anguished, and his prosthetic dug shallow marks in the floor.

“Oh-oh-oh,” Lance bound to his knees and looked before pressing hands to jaw and belly and letting himself stink of reassurance. “I’m so sorry, puppy. I’m so sorry. I forgot I—I.” He swallowed.

Shiro panted and gasped, eyes still screwed shut, mouth wide in a grimace.

Lance, driven to tears by Shiro’s distress that he could almost hear, began to mumble a lullaby. It was nonsense words and much of the melody he made up hanging off of a broken reprise he misremembered in his mother’s voice. It likely did nothing, but Lance held onto it as he rubbed Shiro where it wouldn’t hurt, and Shiro hung onto it as he blinked the wet from his lashes and stared at Lance with fading turmoil.

Lance stroked his hair and at last, at last, Shiro purred into it.

“I’m so sorry. What was I doing?” he paused.

What was he doing? Keith’s voice complained: fraternizing with the enemy and he banished it with a mix of guilt and loss. He scratched lightly at Shiro’s stubble and thought, He’s attractive. Both in form and function. All the same it should have taken more than attractiveness to break the spell called trauma.

Two days ago he was hysterical, driven out of home by the sheer proximity of alpha! And now, overnight, his body betrayed him and let him croon and coddle as though Shiro were just another omega nesting with Allura and Keith.

Lance scratched Shiro’s hair.

Shiro sighed, not quite smiling, rolling his head into Lance’s unending touch.

“No offense puppy but I don’t want to be attracted to you. I’m,” he chuckled, “I’m kinda taken, you know?”

Shiro listened owlishly.

Lance sat up while remaining kneeling, craning his head this way and that to look at Shiro’s splinted arm in sling. When he oriented himself such that he was leaning over Shiro at one point, the prosthetic crashed down on him leaving Lance splayed over chest and abdomen. Lance protested and an alpha’s hum deposited something warm and syrupy in his lower belly.

“I don’t want to enjoy this,” he protested. “I’m not supposed to.”

Keith was right, wasn’t he? He was acting like the stereotypical omega that they fought to reject. He was being soft and maternal and doted on the first alpha in his life who didn’t immediately raise his voice or his fist.

Lance scented Shiro’s sweater, then fought a sudden lethargy that kept dragging him to sleep on Shiro’s heartbeat. “Ugh,” he complained, and Shiro’s enquiring chirp and prosthetic got him out of his head. “Fuck I better not be catching anything. I can’t deal with that right now.”

Shiro, after invigilating Lance’s several attempts to get to his feet, eventually rolled to his own and pulled Lance upright.

Lance grimaced. “I hate you.”

Shiro would be wagging his tail if he could.

-

“Drink.”

Keith startled, “What is it.”

Kolivan drew back the clay bowl too tiny in his oversized hands. The lamplight turned his cheeks and chin into drama. The thin broth smelled like honey and blood. When Kolivan described what it was Keith decided that he preferred to imagine it as honey and blood.

“It is an amended concoction from a recipe generations old.”

“Yeah? What’s it amended for?”

“For omega,” Kolivan replied simply. “I will leave it here. Change your mind as you wish, but it is more palatable hot.”

And Kolivan stood and returned soundlessly to the fire in the centre of the stone room.

Like the walls in the terrain on the way here, Kolivan’s hideaway home was red, hewn rock. Casually dismissed as a feature of the landscape from the outside, on the inside it was round, had several narrow windows that did nothing for light, and housed a loft in which Keith was currently saddled, sweating beneath three sheets made in Lance’s hand, fighting off flu and heat.

Heat! Now! When Galra were a three miles downwind and he was beside a man with whom he had a three hour relationship, who poked at a cauldron that smelled of bone marrow and yupper fat.

Keith asked the dim, “You really can’t smell me?”

“I cannot. Lance would ask the same questions, but we had discovered long ago that I am incapable of communicating on an…olfactory level.”

Keith watched the bowl. “Did you feed Lance that too?”

“I did.”

“And he wasn’t in heat after?”

“He described it to me as turning down the heat, although it never goes away completely. I know little about your people but from what he has described to me over the years, when a heat comes a heat stays. There is no dismissing it.”

Keith sat up and his head swam. “That sounds about right.”

Kolivan stared at him until he took a sip and made a face. Keith wasn’t rightly sure but he was mostly certain that he smiled then.

“So you’re Kolivan.”

Kolivan went about preparing…something. “Had you imagined me differently?”

Keith had imagined an Ozar with an indigenous twang. He wasn’t that far off, he supposed. “You’re a little meaner than I thought you’d be. Or should I say colder?” He sipped. He made a face.

“Before making Lance’s acquaintance I was colder still. Time has not treated me or my people justly for me to be anything but.”

“Hear that,” and Keith lifted the bowl in a toast.

Kolivan peered into him, through his eyes and into his guts. Keith tucked his nose into the bowl as a feeble defense.

“You have a touch of Marmora in you.”

“That doesn’t sound like a question.”

“Am I wrong?”

“No.”

“Then it wasn’t a question.”

Keith’s mouth twisted. He stared at a tapestry in Lance’s hand on the right hand wall as he revealed, “My mother was Marmora, or so I’ve been told. What tipped you off?”

“Eyes,” and Kolivan touched his own. “The others do not have eyes in that colour. Although that you have white around it is unusual.”

“I think you having yellow sclera is unusual.”

Kolivan grunted and returned to stirring.

“What are you mixing anyway?”

“Dinner.”

Keith was never going to complain about Lance’s bacon and beans again. He sipped. He made a face.

“It will taste better than it smells.”

“Am I wearing my thoughts that plainly?”

Kolivan provided an expression that the light tricked into a smirk. His voice was light, “Lance likewise was sensitive to the meals that I made for him. I had assumed it was just him but I am now led to believe that it is a facet to your…people.”

“Why do you say it like that?”

“Come again?”

“You just say your people and even the Galra you just called them them. What’s with that? Don’t you have a name for us?”

“As you have named us? Savage, brute, subhuman and thinking animal?”

Keith frowned. “I never—”

“Not you,” Kolivan turned. Keith adjusted his take. The man wasn’t stoic, he was subtle. Keith paid closer attention as he went on, “Names have power. It is in my tradition to respect names, and not to impose a name--and therefore meaning,--on another, thereby ripping their identity from them.”

Keith watched him relax, but not soften: “But among my people, before a series of calamities forced us away from our motherland, we needed a name to fit our stories. Bringers.”

“Bringers.”

“Yes. Bringers of a means to destroy the world.”

“…fitting.” He sipped. He made a face.

“Later I learned that you had different names for yourselves. Galra. Alpha. Omega. Beta. But you are all part of the same system that has helped torture our planet for centuries.”

Keith wondered about the fire that boiled in his gut suddenly. It wasn’t anger in the defense of his people, after all each word Kolivan spat was truth. But it felt too general for Keith to want to be a part of it so he said, “For the record, it’s not black and white. I’m omega and I’ve been running from that system for years.”

“You are not the first, nor the last. The system’s mechanics is…changing. Whether for better or for worse I cannot tell.” He ladled the juju juice into a bowl. “I wonder if I’ll even be alive to see the result of that change.”

Keith stared at him as he lingered close and exchanged the empty bowl for the refreshed one. In it floated meat and bone and tuber.

“What.”

“How old are you?”

Kolivan stared over Keith’s head.

Keith frowned, “You have to count?”

Kolivan frowned, “I am ninety winters.”

“You’re ninety!? Lance said you were sixty!”

“Perhaps when he translated it back into your standard of measurement…” he turned. He had a flourish about him, despite how simple he kept his movements, there was a grace to them that only came with hunting with the bow and arrow tucked in the corner or walking in the jungle for days on end or just living in isolation. For that musicality Keith could understand why Lance fell in love with him. Lance had a similar choir on his bones.

“Eat.”

Keith sipped. He made a face.

-

A bowl clattered and Kolivan tensed, holding himself shoulder to shoulder to the shadows. Through the tiny windows winked a promising pink dawn, and light slit through them on the ladder and floor. Bobbing in and out of those stalks of light was a fat blanket.

Kolivan pretended to be unamused, “What are you up to?”

The fat blanket settled beside his crossed legs. A slender hand poked out and snaked onto his thigh.

Kolivan felt his nose twitch from the aborted laugh.

The hand danced to his knee, then back, then to his knee again, then up his thigh and hip to his belly. Kolivan waited patiently.

An adolescent Lance lifted the blanket from his head with a huff, “What the hell.”

“What is it, love?”

“Aren’t you ticklish?”

“Am I what?”

“Ticklish, when I press your body, don’t you want to laugh?”

“No. Is that usual among your people?”

“Are you telling me Marmora aren’t ticklish? What a cruel and vapid existence!”

Kolivan turned away with an endeared, “Yes, we’ve been denied the carnal pleasures of man.”

Lance scurried closer still. “What are you doing?”

“Thinking, meditating. Join me?”

“What do I do?”

“First,” Kolivan peeled the sheet from Lance’s hair, “we sit up.”

Lance, unsheathed, sat cross-legged before him, shirtless, and a streak of light fell over his shoulder and forearm transforming him into backlit amber.

“Then what?”

“Close your eyes and clear your mind.”

Lance closed his eyes.

“Breathe deeply and evenly.”

Lance inhaled—his neck and torso and fingers elongated, his entire body swooped with wind, and Kolivan thought of the hawk during a dive.

Lance exhaled—his lashes stopped fluttering, his toes stopped quirking, his play melted and Kolivan was touched by his sincere effort. Despite himself, he leaned forward and pressed their lips together.

Lance jolted mildly but kept the kiss alive, even if his lips twisted into a smile. “Is that part of it?” he mumbled.

Lance felt fingers made of wood and water mold against the shape of his jaw. “No,” he whispered, their mouths grazing on every other word. “Forgive me. I distracted you.”

A bird cried somewhere outside their isolated den. It coincided with Lance opening his eyes, caught in the ever moving streak of light, and his blinding smile stayed formless in shadow. “Do you want to continue?”

Kolivan looked sad, “Do not let me pressure you.”

“I offered, Koli.” His posture melted into the stalk of a wildcat claiming Kolivan’s lap as his den.

Kolivan’s kisses on his mouth were chaste, fueled and lingering and Lance adored each and every one. All the same the omega flinched when hands grazed his scarred back.

“Forgive me—”

“It’s not your fault. It doesn’t hurt,” he scrambled to reset his giant hands on his spine, but Kolivan resisted and settled to hold him about his hips instead. Lance whined in frustration, “You’re not hurting me.”

“The physical scars have long since faded,” he agreed.

Lance looked angry.

“Do not curse me.”

“You’re babying me!”

“I would not treat a baby as I treat you.”

Lance hissed, “That’s not what I…!”

Kolivan watched him.

He slouched. “I wish you would be firmer with me. The way you tiptoe around me feels like you’re not being yourself.”

Kolivan patted his hair, “Our love is tentative.”

Lance scoffed, “For eternity, apparently.”

Kolivan smiled, “Only good things can come from a patient gait.”

Lance grumbled that he wasn’t in the mood for parables.

Kolivan paused. “If you insist…”

Kolivan held him, fingers bark and river stone, and yanked him forward such that Lance’s hands were splayed out on his coarse chest to maintain balance. Kolivan kissed with more passion, but it was rushed, and his hands fell down Lance’s body like drunk wildfire.

Lance met him, however, and broke apart once only to kiss him from a refreshed angle. He curled his hips to fit against Kolivan’s pelvis, and not for the first time Kolivan marveled at how Lance conformed to his height and breadth. Lance was small bodied, but he was long, and the days learning the bow and building Garrett fences were lending him a strength that Kolivan tasted wherever their skin kissed.

But he fit that strength and length against any form, every move Kolivan or the wilds made, such that there was never a question of a place he claimed.

He was beautiful in an untamed fashion, self-made and rich because of it. Every roll of his body each move of lip and tongue and teeth was by independent design…and Kolivan felt his stupid old heart twist in envy and want.

He pitched Lance backward, careful to cradle his head as they landed on the discarded blanket. He—

A hand slammed into his mouth.

Kolivan withdrew, alarmed and in pain, and watched Lance scurry, rabid, to the far corner of his hideaway. His eyes caught between past and present. His beauty broken.

Kolivan licked the blood from his teeth.

“I’m sorry,” Lance huffed. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

Whether Lance spoke to him or ghosts he was unsure, but Kolivan murmured reassurances from the other side of the room.

-

The south facing windows had a panoramic view of the snow dusted veld. There were several potted plans on its sill and a handful hanging from above to catch light from the kitchen skylights. As Lance sliced and diced, he rubbed elbows with the littler aloe he and Keith dragged in before the winter set in.

Lance grew a little sadder watching a pink-blue paint the reluctant morning. Just a few more moments, he mentally recited, and then they’ll track Keith down.

He was lost in thought enough that Shiro’s shadow took him by surprise at the last possible minute. For a heartbeat he was happy that he hadn’t entirely lost his instincts. Regret took over when the zing! that comes from a deep cut spiraled up his palm and wrist.

He swallowed his screech and the knife fell to the sink.

Shiro flinched at the clatter.

Lance held his wrist and inhaled. He exhaled a slew of gorgeous profanity. He glared at Shiro.

Shiro perked up.

“Go away.”

Shiro, predictably, did not.

He came forward instead to hold Lance’s wrist in a feather light hold and leaned forward with mouth open and obvious intent.

Lance’s hand smacked against Shiro’s forehead. Shiro paused and looked up, cross-eyed, calling in an inquisitive mmmmrwp?

“Don’t do that.”

Shiro didn’t move.

“Stay,” he willed all his intent in his tone.

Shiro watched him.

“Good boy.”

Lance dropped his hand and Shiro darted forward.

“Takashi!”

It felt good, the heat of mouth invading his very sinew, his tongue moved in a mesmerizing caress, sensual and polite. Alpha saliva was designed to heal quickly, especially with bond marks in mind. Within moments the pain went away. In its place came a laziness that made Lance’s lashes heavy. It dragged his hip to lean against the counter and weakened his knees and shins.

“Why am I so tired,” he switched his fingers from Shiro’s mouth to his own.

Lance sucked twice before the twang of metal made him recoil and watch his hand, and somehow himself, in utter shock. Why did he do that?

Shiro crowded against him looking for affection in his hair. Lance let him, languidly watching the floorboard grow lighter and lighter from a diffused pink light.

“We need to go after Keith,” Lance slurred.

Shiro’s nibbling cascaded from his hairline to his ears. Lance angled his head and suppressed a yawn. He felt hot. Shiro’s skin was cool. He pressed his cheek to Shiro’s cheek.

Shiro pressed back and their scents exchanged.

Lance stepped into Shiro and, mindful of his arm, dropped his forehead against his clavicle. Shiro’s prosthetic held him aloft. A trickle of dread lingered in the back of his skull when his innards bloomed with a warm sensation of contentment. More importantly, Shiro’s skin was blessedly cool. Enviously. Deliciously. Lance wriggled against his collar bone as hungrily as his fingers scratched a trail beneath Shiro’s sweater.

Shiro pressed closer still, hold insistent as he nipped and kissed and sucked at the skin beside hairline.

The sky grew brighter still.

Lance expected Shiro’s erection. He left his hands to roam over sides and back and forth and back and, with a spark of juvenile glee, dared step closer until he felt the shape of Shiro’s penis defy his sweatpants, Lance’s sweater, Lance’s cottony tights.

Shiro chuffed in his hair, bowing over him, pliant.

Lance nibbled on his collar bone and rocked the heel of his thumbs against the divot at the front of Shiro’s hips. Shiro breathed. With that steady hold Lance guided their movement. Lance smiled and purred as Shiro moved with him, according to him, and pulled the pants’ drawstrings with a smile and slipped his hands over the naked round of his ass.

Shiro rocked back and forth, his prosthetic holding fast to Lance’s nape in growing desperation, his fangs drawing inconsequential beads of blood on the shell of his ear. He whimpered.

Lance drew back but barely registered the hickies he embedded in masculine flesh. All he could manage was to tip his head back, mouth wet and red with want, blown eyes catching the sunlight while he uttered:

“Please, alpha.”

-

As Keith woke up for the fifth time he instantly empathized with Shiro. Being sick was boring. He lifted himself onto quaking elbows.

“You should sleep.”

“I’ve been sleeping for hours.”

“Should I prepare Clear Day for you?”

Keith smiled to himself. So that’s where Lance got the idea of drugging patients from. “I’ll be good, promise.”

Kolivan remained seated while Keith floundered, kicking off the blankets with varying success and promptly shivering when he roused in a single oversized beige cotton shirt. Keith wobbled down the ladder then tugged a blanket free to wear as a cloak as he plod around the fire. He caught Kolivan’s expression.

“You’re laughing at me.”

“Not at all.”

Keith narrowed his eyes. Then he dusted off an aptly placed straw mat and sat down, toes pointed toward the fire.

It was then that he saw Kolivan was working on a bow. It was long, small, the way Kolivan manipulated it, it looked lightweight. It shone in the firelight. It boasted sinful curves. “It’s beautiful.”

Kolivan smiled this time. “Thank you. It is Lance’s.”

Keith jerked, “Lance is an archer?”

“I see you do not know everything about him after all.”

Keith didn’t know what to make of that.

“I taught him shortly after he and I became friendly.”

Friendly is one way of putting it.”

Kolivan said nothing.

“He loves you, you know.”

Kolivan said nothing.

“And by the look of things it looks mutual.”

“When had I ever given the impression?”

“Every other object made of fabric in your home was made by him.”

“We trade. He makes good things.”

“So do the Garretts.”

Kolivan said nothing.

“You talk about him in every other sentence.”

“He is a mutual subject of conversation.”

“Stop deflecting.”

Kolivan’s eyes flashed up to his and he scowled. “Lance and I have a platonic relationship founded in respect and courtesy. You need not worry.”

“I’m not worried!”

Kolivan performed a skeptical brow.

Keith scoffed, “I’m confused. I don’t understand what split you guys up if there’s still something there.”

“I will do better to help him as mentor and friend than as lover.”

“Why not both?”

“No. I cannot be teacher and lover. I cannot help him as a lover.”

Keith didn’t get it. He said as much. He was told to go to sleep.

-

An alpha’s saliva enabled speedy recovery in flesh wounds that were not life threatening. A beta’s saliva has been known to aid in pre-digestion, vital in feeding newborns and infants when their mammary glands were not as developed as an omega’s, and they needed to prepare solid food for the baby as nutritional compensation. An omega’s saliva was benign until their heat.

In heat their saliva was viscous, copious, and tingled the flesh. It was slippery, did not dry instantaneously, and had been appropriated as lube as often as there were sexual encounters. Heat saliva rivaled heat slick. What’s more: they were chock full of hormones that when absorbed could incite sexual action…a naturally occurring aphrodisiac.

Shiro, who had never laid with an omega before, did not know this.

All the same enabling a suddenly sexual Lance while he basked in the remnants of his rut came to him as second nature. He kept Lance close and scented him, he bathed his scent glands in saliva, provided as much skin contact as possible, and reveled in the tingling on his tongue when they kissed.

Lance had on a pained expression while he carefully maneuvered Shiro out of the woolen sweater. No matter how often Shiro kissed him it wouldn’t go away. Before the discarded clothes could hit the floor Shiro’s prosthetic curled under Lance’s chin and Lance followed him to his parted lips and the soft barely open-mouthed kisses that awaited him there.

Lance melted into it, the press and play of lips, the hint of tongue, the lack of teeth. Shiro’s tongue ran slowly against Lance’s bottom lip and Lance felt his brain black out, aware of nothing else but the sensation and a compulsion to go further, further, further…

Shiro held his nape a little firmer and smooshed their faces together. Lance breathed out a sigh, “I’m so sorry puppy. I’m so sorry. I’m sorry.” Shiro kissed him. “Alpha please alpha. Alpha. Alpha.”

Lance’s fingers splayed maladroitly over skin and scar. He was leaned against Shiro’s right side, steering clear of his arm, and the bruises had dulled into fade discolorations. Shiro did not wince when Lance touched them. He bowed when Lance held his neck and yanked down so that Lance could suck on the scent gland there.

Shiro went cross-eyed and his knees buckled from the wave of pleasure. He panted, leaned against the kitchen counter, and rode the onslaught against his senses. Wherever Lance touched him heat and pink propagated across his flesh like dye in water. Shiro shivered everywhere he did not touch.

Lance cupped the obscene bend of Shiro’s erection through his pants and Shiro bucked, whined, hid his face into Lance’s hair. His voice, raspy from days of disuse, was so low: “O-omega…please…”

Lance salivated. His voice his voice his voice! His VOICE! His—

Omega…omega!” Shiro squirmed beneath Lance’s teasing. Lance’s own breath picked up and a coil grew between his bladder and his womb, tightening like a spring, and Lance was afraid of it, because it felt bigger than when he enjoyed Keith’s company.

Shiro whined, his big teeth tracing a line on Lance’s temple. “Please omega please omega…”

Lance sunk to his feet and slipped the fabric beneath the shape and…oh. What a shape.

Shiro’s penis was long, dark and crooked with pre-cum already glistening on its pretty pink tip. It didn’t curve towards his belly, almost as though it were pulled down by its own weight. Unlike the rest of him it was warm, it radiated warmth.

Lance looked up—Shiro stared at him in utter submission, utter permission, asking, begging really—and Lance, in one movement, ran the tip of his tongue around the foreskin, edged his entire mouth over his shaft and swallowed to get a good approximation of his size.

Shiro turned noticeably pinker and his belly tensed and shook from the strain of keeping still, as Lance indicated with his flat palm pressing against his hip. Like a switch or a final thread breaking, Lance’s eyes went black with heat. He understood nothing short of alpha omega cock safe want hungry alpha safe.

He sucked at his leisure tasting for the first time in years alpha cock, alpha want-scent, alpha sound, alpha reaction and good good rut. Lance’s body relaxed, his brain shut down, and he was little more than instinct and desire while he took his diabolical time savoring.

Shiro kept his prosthetic gripped on the edge of the counter. He shifted every so often but his body didn’t belong to him anymore. He felt possessed…trapped even…and he blinked, “O-omega…” and he blinked again.

Lance rocked himself forward and back on Shiro’s cock thriving off of the indentation it made down his throat. His loins were dark from slick. It began to drip on the floorboards.

“…Lance?”

Lance tilted his head, unseeing, unresponsive, and his eyes fluttered shut as Shiro’s cock went impossibly deeper.

The alpha’s breathing changed.

Lance peeked up. Shiro stared at him, wide eyed and tensed with something that was not pleasure, and he watched him, watching for instructions.

“…Lance?”

Lance blinked at him. When the alpha made no other moves, he sunk his mouth and throat down—

The alpha made a series of aborted sounds and movements and there was a bang as he hit the counter and a suppressed howl.

“Lance, stop, stop, stop—off please! Lance!”

Lance hesitated a touch too long—

“Get off and submit!”

Lance scrambled back before he was aware of what he was doing. He moved so fast and so blindly to comply that his back and head hit the edge of the dinner table and he grunted, but rolled forward to prostrate while he recovered from the blow.

All the while he smelled of slick and arousal and murmured a string of “sorry sorry sorry sorry” in his mother tongue.

Shiro was still forcing his heartbeat under control as he shakily brought his sweats to his hips and sunk to the ground, eyes on Lance, ears on Lance, nose on Lance.

The last thing he remembered was…lying down with Lance in his line of sight, Keith…absent.

Shiro coughed. “Keith?” he called, and there was no response save for a whimper from Lance.

Shiro cleared his throat. He willed his body to calm but with an omega in heat in proximity and the unforgiving tingle on his uncooperating cock—

What the fuck.

Shiro blinked again, becoming more and more clear-headed each passing moment. He sighed, “…Lance?” He coughed.

He struggled to his weak feet and shuffled to Lance before taking a graceless knee with a grunt. “Lance?” he touched his shoulder.

I’m sorry, alpha,” was the immediate high pitched response, “I’m sorry I’m sorry. Please alpha please alpha please please—”

Shiro frowned, tired and weak from his rut and horny despite his lethargy, but mostly boggled out of his mind that the alpha who had looked after him the past few weeks…was not alpha.

Shiro slapped his hand into his face (and regretted it after nose connected with unforgiving plastic) and blew out a sigh. “Fuck, I’m an idiot.”

Lance sobbed.

Shiro touched him, “Oh no no no, not you, oh please don’t cry. You’re okay. C’mon sit up.”

Lance gradually got to his hands and knees before sitting back on his calves, expression still swollen and ruddy. He breathed deep, wouldn’t meet Shiro’s eyes, was shaking violently.

“You’ll get sick if you stay like this,” Shiro mumbled, familiar with the bloodshot eyes, the elevated temperature, the scent of salt and wind fighting a losing battle against the smell of smoke and burn. Lance was sweating, drooling, oozing slick. He needed water and rest. But with the way his eyes stayed trained on Shiro’s groin…

“God,” Shiro blanched. “Please don’t hate me.”

Lance whined softly, deferring, offering his neck.

Shiro winced. “I’m really sorry,” he touched his shoulder. “I’m so, so sorry.”

Lance kept his eyes on the floor and shrieked when Shiro’s teeth sunk into his scent gland.

-

Kolivan roused to the vision of haunted indigo eyes. He straightened. “Is something the matter?”

Bluntly, “Are you familiar with omega cycles?”

“…I have a rudimentary understanding.”

“Our bodies go through periods of fertility and infertility. A heat happens when we’re at our most fertile, but it’s energy consuming so it doesn’t happen as often as our menstruation, which is when our body resets the womb with fresh blood and tissue.”

Keith admired that Kolivan listened without so much as a wince.

Keith went on to describe that an omega’s smell was slave to the hormones that cause this cycle. “It alerts people who can impregnate us whether we can or can’t conceive.”

Kolivan winced then.

“With omega, if we stay near each other long enough, our cycles coincide. Synchronize.”

“…have you and Lance synchronized?”

“Yes.”

“Despite Allura’s suppressants?”

Keith nodded.

Kolivan frowned further, “Why mention this now?”

Keith’s eyes went rheumy. “Because, if I’m in heat, maybe Lance is too.”

“Despite Allura’s suppressants?”

Keith shook his head and whined, “I don’t know.”

And it was killing him, Kolivan could see. He moved to his feet. “Then I see only one course of action.”

Chapter Text

“How’s your arm?”

“Itches.”

“Sorry, pup. Not much I can do about that.” And Shiro’s scalp vibrated in thin parallel lines where Lance’s fingernails raked. Shiro had the mental image of an open field, of rows and rows of produce in all directions, of Lance there, somehow responsible for it all like an undiscovered pagan deity.

He smiled a little to himself when his line of sight drifted from the ceiling to Lance’s face. Lance brightened, “What?”

He suppressed that smile. “Nothing.”

Lance, after a heartbeat of a pause, took back his hand.

They had returned to the bedroom. Lance had tidied up the remains of the nest and dragged aside the redundant bathroom door. They both took warm baths and currently smelled more of soap and oils than each other, to which Shiro’s restless inner self hissed sacrilege! Slander!

That aside, Shiro noticed Lance preserving a physical rift between them. He voiced his suspicions: “Lance, are you afraid of me?”

He shook his head faintly. “Why would I be afraid of the man who saved my life?”

“That’s a bit of a stretch,” Shiro replied, though he inwardly preened.

“Heatsickness isn’t something to sneeze at,” Lance said. Shiro was aware. “I mean, maybe it doesn’t kill but it cripples. It hurts.” Shiro was aware.

Shiro rocked his head against Lance’s fingernails to prompt him. Lance stroked him.

“Can we…talk about this?”

His caretaker put on a complicated expression.

“Please? I have…a lot of questions.”

Lance’s gaze settled on the space behind Shiro’s ear. “Shoot.”

“First: please sit on the bed beside me?”

Lance blinked at that. Politely, so as not to make Shiro feel out of place but gently failing anyway, he took back his hand and folded it against his lap. “Why?”

Shiro swallowed. “Because I because I feel…restless, with you so far away.”

Lance’s finger twitched. “I’m right here.”

Shiro mumbled, “You know what I mean.”

Lance’s head turned to the doorway. For a hot second Shiro thought he’d jump to the kitchen with a thinly veiled threat to drug Shiro once more to avoid talking about their…feelings.

Shiro was surprised when Lance shifted from the rocking chair to the space beside his healed ribs. He saw Lance’s tense shoulder bow, faintly, and felt his own inner alpha settled, leaning forward in his consciousness.

Shiro sighed, “Isn’t that better?”

Lance nodded.

“Scratches please?”

Lance grinned at last. “Even out of rut you’re just a puppy.”

Shiro blushed. “I didn’t act out of line, did I?”

“No.” Lance’s free hand curled on his own shoulder. “No, you were perfect.”

Shiro winced, “I Marked you.”

“You saved me. And you did that when I assaulted you.”

Shiro recoiled, “I wouldn’t when did you assault? Lance, you were…you weren’t yourself, it’s fine—”

“It’s not fine!” Lance snapped, “How many days were you in rut and not once did you touch me inappropriately but I’m in heat for ten seconds and I force myself on you!”

“You weren’t yourself.”

Neither were you.”

“Our conditions affect each of us differently. You can’t blame yourself.”

“Well it certainly wasn’t your fault! You were perfect!”

Shiro winced. “Don’t call me that.” He exhaled. “And it wasn’t anyone’s fault.”

Lance pulled his hands away—Shiro sulked—and ran it through his own hair instead. “I’m trying to say that I’m sorry.”

“It wasn’t your—”

I sucked you off without your permission,” and Lance momentarily delighted that Shiro flinched and flushed at his choice of words. He went on: “I took advantage of your inability to reject me. It was my fault. I’m sorry.”

“…how could you have taken advantage of me when you were as vulnerable as I was?”

“I wasn’t always,” he grit his teeth in shame. Shiro murmured stop doing that with your jaw. “I could have removed myself from the situation when I realized what was happening. But I didn’t. I chose to stay with you when I knew that it could have endangered us both.”

“…and if I wanted you to stay?”

Shiro’s question was so tiny, so small, so supple and so innocent, that Lance felt the immediate urge to coddle and coo. He insisted instead on twisting his tongue into militant shapes, “You would have wanted to be raped?”

Shiro shook his head. “That’s not what I meant.” He challenged, “And you know it.”

“I don’t want to fight, Takashi,” and he scratched Shiro’s hair again and the irritation in their bones ebbed, ebbed. What magic, he thought drowsily, coming to only as Lance went on. “Just…please understand that I’m sorry. I hurt you.”

He breathed to rebuke.

“I took advantage of you,” Lance rushed. “I’m in the position to look after you. I shouldn’t have put you in a position where you should have had to take responsibility for me.”

“You’re my friend.” He watched Lance’s countenance for change. “I’d want to take care of you too, sometimes, as your friend.”

Lance’s eyes skittered away.

“Aren’t you my friend, Lance?”

Yes, but that kinda makes this worse, doesn’t it?”

“I don’t blame you. It was an accident.”

“I could have prevented it.”

“It’s okay. You made a mistake, but it’s okay now.”

And at that Lance placed his hand over the padded bandages beneath his cardigan.

Shiro squirmed for an entirely new reason. It was his Mark his Brand on another human being, and as much as he was revolted by his possessiveness…he also hoped that Lance felt the same as him. He hoped that some part of his feelings were effectively received and in some form, at least a fraction was reciprocated. He felt dizzy wondering where he ended and his hormones and instincts began. The result was anxiety.

“It will fade within the next three months,” he promised. “I tried not to bite too deep. It should heal well.”

Lance didn’t reply, absentmindedly rubbing Shiro’s knee.

Almost panicky, “Does it hurt?”

“No,” a little dazed, “it feels nice. Warm. I can almost still feel your mouth there.”

Shiro bit his lip and stared at the ceiling when he felt his fangs drop and his loins curl.

The voice at his side was suddenly sheepish. “Sorry. Inappropriate?”

Shiro eyed him, too pleased to answer.

Lance cleared his throat. “You had another question for me?”

What do you mean you can still feel me on you? Tell me everything. Does your skin thrum each time we touch like mine does? Does your heart and body feel like it’s no longer yours like mine does? “…yes. You’ve been Marked before?”

Lance smiled stiffly. He nodded. The bandages chafed suddenly.

“Then you know that…” he cleared his throat. “Then you know what to expect.”

Lance nodded.

Shiro fidgeted, “I want to let you know that I um that I am I’m not interested in you being close to me or my friend because you’re omega or you have my Mark. I genuinely like you. Apart from. Before I—”

“I know,” Lance rescued him sweetly.

“You do. You do?”

“I like you too, Takashi.”

Shiro slipped a fang over his bottom lip again when he felt his mouth betray him and stretch up and out. He sobered a little, “I also respect you, Lance.”

“Thanks. Likewise.”

“And because of that I need to leave as soon as possible.”

“What?”

Shiro winced. Lance’s thumb stopped tracing half-moons on his knee. Distressed, “Why?”

This is why,” and at that Lance retreated a little. “This…feeling of needing to stay beside each other isn’t entirely our own. And it’s no way to start a friendship together.”

“I am not my body, I can act independently of how I feel.” He grunted, “Despite evidence thus far to the contrary.”

A little firm: “Please stop beating yourself up.”

Lance nodded dismissively.

“The urge to reciprocate the bite is only going to get worse, and it will only fade with the passage of time and with distance.” He sighed, “That aside I’ve spent too long here. I need to go to my leaders.”

“What leaders?”

Shiro stared at Lance’s petulant cheeks. He wanted to touch them. To kiss them. He wondered how much of that impulse was his own. He replied, “I work for people. That’s why I’m out here.”

“What do you do? I thought you worked at Garrison.”

“I…it’s a complicated and long story.”

“I like stories.”

“Lance…”

“Fine, fine-fine: don’t tell me.”

Shiro wondered how much of Lance’s desire to be included was his own.

Lance stood.

“Where are you go—” he caught himself. Lance stared at him, eyes round, knowing. “Uh.”

“I’m going to go make some tea.”

“Oh. Oh. Yeah. Okay.”

“Would you like some tea?”

Shiro squinted, “Are you going to drug me again?”

Lance gasped, “Takashi,” and Shiro felt guilty. “Why would I ever drug you against your will? To keep you in bed until you heal? To lock you away in the dungeon forever? To spoon feed you oats for the rest of your natural life?”

Shiro snorted, unable to suppress the laughter. “Please don’t.”

“I won’t,” Lance giggled. “I know you don’t like oats.”

Shiro grinned, “I’m not fond of being imprisoned either.”

Lance flirted, “You don’t know that.”

Shiro laughed.

“I don’t get why you hate Clear Day. It’s not an unpleasant feeling.”

“Maybe not to you,” he said without bite, “but I don’t like being unaware. It scares me.”

Softly, “But that’s how you are during your ruts.”

“Yes, and that’s why. I’d…prefer to be in control of myself. As much as possible.”

Lance watched Shiro’s prone fingers. “Even at the cost of your comfort?”

“Being aware is my comfort.”

Lance stared. Shiro watched him think. At last: “Is leaving your comfort as well?”

“I…Lance I—I mean, in the long term, yes. I want to have a meaningful friendship with you, not one half controlled by an ugly Bond.”

Lance’s hand lifted to his bandages and defended, almost angrily: “It’s not ugly!”

“That’s…flattering to hear but what I meant was—”

“I know what you meant,” Lance’s mouth twitched in embarrassment. He insisted, “This is the most beautiful Mark I’ve ever seen. It is clean and precise and you didn’t stay longer than you had to. And the person you’ve shown us to be so far, and the way you work so hard to keep our relationship healthy… I mean, what I’m saying. If…if…anyone had to Bond with you, it wouldn’t be a hardship. They’d be so lucky.”

Would you like to be that lucky anyone?

Shut up.

Shiro smiled, honestly touched. “Thank you, Lance.”

Lance smiled, and if the lights allowed it Shiro was half certain that he would have been a little rosy cheeked. He moved jerkily, a cute form of anxiety clipping his movements. “Would you, uh, that tea? Um, the fever grass one, not the other one.”

Shiro bit his bottom lip. “Yes, please. Thank you.”

Lance’s shoulder blade bumped into the doorway on his retreat. He smiled skittishly, departed reluctantly, and Shiro worked very hard not to laugh at his expense.

Then he sunk his head into the pillow with a hum and focused on his depressed alpha gnawing on the bars of his mind cooing omega my omega good GOOD omega content omega—

Not ours, he schooled himself. Not ours.

It was quiet.

Then: Their alpha their alpha their alpha their alpha—

And Shiro sighed. He couldn’t argue with that.

-

Keith pitched himself clear off the saddle before the horse had even slowed to a canter.

He thundered up the porch steps with Kolivan and dawn at his back and pounded on the front door. “Lance!” he screeched, “Lance! LANCE!”

Kolivan had half a mind to drag him away before he beat the cottage into splinters. Keith broke down in a fit of coughs before he started up again. Kolivan noticed a shape move at the kitchen windows, but by the time he focused on it the shape was gone. “Keith, step away from the door.”

He did not speak in time.

The door swung open and Keith toppled forward—splat!—at Lance’s feet.

Kolivan winced at Keith’s expense.

“Keith!”

Lance was then on his knees and swallowed up by Keith’s coat as they embraced. Keith felt air leave him in a rush while Lance’s fingers melted the ice from his cheeks and lashes. Then Lance’s hot, wet mouth was on his nose, his cracked lips, and Lance whimpered when he tasted blood from where Keith’s mouth split.

Keith held tight. Then Lance’s hand was on his throat and he opened his eyes and dressed back, immediately attentive, submissive and willing.

Lance wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Keith wanted to lick his mouth so that he did it again.

“Keith,” Lance’s voice was deep, cool, steady. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” he squeaked. “Are you?”

“I’d be better if you hadn’t left.”

Keith loosely cinched his fingers round Lance’s thin wrist. “I left to get us food.”

“You left because you were angry,” Lance corrected. Keith felt terribly guilty that he didn’t feel guilty enough under Lance’s admonishment. “You left because you didn’t think.”

“I thought I was doing the right thing.”

“You put yourself in danger, Keith!” And at last, relief. He dropped his head and arms around the shoulders that were not alpha not alpha not alpha but nonetheless innately home. “I’ve been worried sick.

“Please don’t cry.”

“I’m not crying!” Lance sobbed into fur.

“I’m sorry, Lance.”

“You should be!”

Keith held him.

“Did you at least find something while you were out there?”

“Erm…”

“You mean we went through all this for nothing?!”

“Not nothing,” Keith protested. “But…”

But Lance wasn’t listening. He’d lifted his head to give Keith another earful when his line of sight caught on something above and beyond. Keith heard him murmur, “Koli?”

Keith looked over his shoulder. Kolivan waited on the porch, more jubilant than Keith had ever seen him. His whole face wrinkled under the influence of seeing Lance again and, moments later, of sweeping up Lance in his embrace. He dwarfed Lance, Keith noticed, almost more so than Shiro ever did.

Kolivan hummed, “Hello, love.”

Lance said something into his chest.

“Keith was scared for your safety,” he replied, “so we hurried here.”

My safety?” Lance looked up, turning from Kolivan to Keith, still sitting on the floor.

“Many things have happened in the past day alone. We must discuss. But first I must tend to the horses. They worked hard to get us here.”

Lance nodded, leaving his company only for Keith to be at his back and curl around him anew. The door was still open but Lance barely felt it between the two of them.

No sooner than it was closed and Kolivan barely off the porch did Keith begin mouthing at Lance’s skin. “I missed you.”

Lance swatted at him. “I’d have hardly guessed.” He put a hand on Keith’s forehead when Keith moved towards to his other shoulder, his injured shoulder. “W-where’s Blue?”

“Dead.”

“You killed my truck?!”

Keith ducked his head, “It’s not my fault you left out the antifreeze.”

Lance pulled away from him. “So it’s my fault you decided to take her out on a whim!”

“That’s not what I…” he growled. “Please. I was wrong. You were right. Don’t be mad at me. I’m just…glad you’re safe.”

Lance swallowed. He shrugged shakily, “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“I…was scared. When my heat hit. I knew you said that the suppressants got rid of them but I was scared for you anyway.”

Lance exhaled, “You’re on your heat?”

“Somewhat. Kolivan gave me something to drink.”

“Oh. Ew.”

“Yeah, that’s the one.”

Tentatively Keith lifted his arms and easily Lance shuffled into them and rocked and Keith rocked with him. “Where’s Shiro?”

“Sleeping. His rut broke yesterday, so he’s exhausted.”

“Is that all?”

He hesitated. “He knows I’m omega.”

“Why am I not surprised.”

“I can do without the cheek, deserter.”

Keith grit his jaw and said nothing.

“Sorry. That was uncalled for.”

“S okay.”             

Lance untangled Keith’s hand from where it held his upper arm, laced his fingers through and brought his blue knuckles to his lips. “You’re stone cold. How long were you riding?”

Keith shook his head.

“Sit down, I’ll make you some tea.”

Keith shook his head again.

Lance pried himself loose, “Please, kitten? If you rode without stopping all the way from—”

“Kitten?” Keith spluttered. He didn’t miss Lance’s poorly suppressed grin. “Why kitten!”

“Do you dislike it?”

“That’s not what I said.”

“Aw, you like it.”

“That’s not what I said.”

“I mean, it just fits, doesn’t it?” he dug for the tea leaves and honey. “Shiro’s puppy. You’re kitten.”

Keith gaped for a full minute. He surprised Lance when he whined, “I was puppy first!”

Lance stared wide eyed.

Keith blushed.

“I knew it! You do like petnames!”

Keith thunk’ed! into his seat. “Leave me alone.”

Aww, poor cub.”

“Stop.”

“Lamb.”

“Aaaaaauuugh!”

Keith waited until Lance returned to the dinner table and set down their respective mugs before he made to kick him. It descended into shameless, aggressive footsie accompanied by muttered ows and giddy yelps and breathless laughter. One or two stuck out tongues were thrown into the mix.

Lance, suddenly, couldn’t recall what it was like to not have Keith around. He grinned.

Keith noticed. He squinted. “What.”

“Thanks for coming back.”

Keith deflated, “What? Lance, of course I’d come back. I went hunting, not to war.”

Lance sniffed, “War oh my god. I’d leave a flower wreath on your tombstone each morning.”

“I hate flowers.”

Lance sniffed, “I’d leave a flower wreath on your tombstone each morning.”

Keith kicked him.

Lance’s attempt to kick him back resulted on his heel getting hooked onto Keith’s thigh. “I mean, potential of dying of exposure or hypothermia aside—”

Keith’s glare would have knocked a full grown horse dead.

“—there’s just this feeling in my gut that you’ll vamoose one day.”

“…I told you that I wanted to stay with you,” he sounded hurt.

Lance softened and didn’t meet his eyes. “Yes, but people’s feelings can change.”

“Not about this.”

“I think,” Lance protected his newfound pragmatism, “if something happened out there, if the right thing happened out there, you’d change your mind.”

Keith looked down. “Don’t…talk like that. Like you know what I’d do in the future.”

“I’d like to think I know you a little bit.”

“You do. But you don’t know. I don’t know.” He grit his teeth, “All I can say is that I don’t feel that way. I’ve never felt connected to someone like I feel connected to you. That’s why I want to stay. I can’t imagine what would change my mind.”

Lance watched him, immobile and unreadable. Only the faraway fire made his eyes move.

“I can’t promise you that I’ll stay beside you forever,” Keith struggled. “But I want to.”

“Even if I…had feelings for someone else?”

“I know how you feel about Shiro.”

Lance turned away.

“But…does that change how you feel about me?”

“No! No, no-no. No. This and that are two different things. They’re…the way I feel for you, the way I feel for Shiro…it’s incomparable.”

“Then I don’t care. I trust you. I want to stand beside you. I won’t care—unless he ever hurts you.”

Lance scoffed at the idea of Shiro hurting him. He scowled at the memory of him hurting Shiro. “I’m…not deserving.”

“Of what?”

“Of you.”

Keith smiled. “That’s too bad. I’m not going anywhere.”

Lance stood.

Keith stiffened.

Then Lance moved, and Keith recognized the language of his hips.

It was the same dance that possessed Coran’s bones when he was in want for Alfor’s attention. Now being on the receiving end Keith could appreciate the charm of Lance’s lines singing hum-humm like drums sounding in the distance.

His teeth were long by the time Lance stood over him.

Something in Lance’s eyes made him keep his hands on the mug.

Then Lance pinched one of his wrists and curled it under his sweater. Lance delighted when Keith’s throat moved despite himself.

Lance’s skin was normal skin. It whispered like paper. But because it was Lance’s skin it was special skin. It contained spontaneity. It contained Lance’s reactions, a language in the form of hiccups and twitches. At the moment it was still. For whatever reason, that made Keith look into his face and wait for the next instruction.

Lance gave it to him: he pried his other hand from the mug and hooked it onto the elastic band of his loose, cottony bottoms.

Keith swallowed, fingering the threshold of skin and almost-more-skin waiting for more permission. Lance’s hands held his head. They cradled his hair. He inhaled shallowly, scared of breathing too loud.

Lance’s whispers were wet: “You have power over me, babe. You have no idea.”

Keith whined. He peeled Lance’s sweater up, letting their skin drag and sound off, and he let his red lips make a sound where it touched his flat belly. He tasted it flex beneath him.

“I’m scared of you.”

Keith, doe eyes boring into Lance’s, made a show of sticking his tongue out far as it would go, razing it up Lance’s body far as it would reach.

Lance gasped, finally shaky, “P-please, Keith. Please don’t scare me like that again.”

Keith kissed him, sweater edging a little higher a little higher. “I won’t.”

At that Lance’s hands covered his. He guided Keith’s hands a little lower a little lower. It bucked over his bottoms again, and this time Keith hooked his nails under it.

Please.”

“I won’t,” Keith sniffed. “I’m sorry. I won’t.” He edged the elastic band down and kissed the beginnings of a happy trail. He hummed, spreading his hands on either side of Lance’s hips.

Pretty pretty, the heat-drunk part of him praised. My pretty my pretty.

Lance bit his lips. Keith dragged his teeth against skin and hair as more was revealed, as the pants slipped under the curve of his ass. He kissed Lance’s mount of Venus, dutifully trimmed—Lance could stand for no less—and Keith’s belly bubbled in amusement when Lance flushed.

“Keith, I—”

“Don’t be scared. Or ashamed. Or embarrassed,” Keith pleaded against Lance’s pubic hair. “Not with me.”

Lance’s fingers fell in his mane.

Keith turned and kissed the wrist he could reach. “Not with me, okay?”

Lance’s head bobbed.

“Words.”

“O-okay,” Lance submitted. He gasped a little when Keith bared him a little more. He squeaked when Keith opened his mouth, no preamble, no warning, no teasing, and divided labia with his tongue. So easily he mouthed Lance, so wantonly, so willingly, Lance felt like an idiot: of course Keith wouldn’t leave. What part of him had ever doubted it?

Keith’s hands snaked up thigh for his thumbs to part the flesh at Lance’s groin and provide more reach to a pretty pink nub the tip of his tongue curled around.

Lance gasped into his free hand. His other hand curled into Keith’s hair. Keith kept his ears on Lance’s breath, his nose on Lance’s skin.

Pretty pretty pretty pretty. Keith could feel his heat licking away, refueled.

When had he gotten to his knees? It must have been a while ago. But he felt his vision clouding and his sense of rationality ebbing. “Lance?”

Lance paid attention in a snap.

“I’m…I’m going into heat again.”

Lance nodded, “I’ll make that gross stuff Kolivan makes. Sit down and I—”

“Wait—no, I want to continue but. Is that safe? With Shiro here? And is that okay with you? If-if we continue?”

He curled his hand under Keith’s jaw and felt him purr more than heard it.

“Shiro isn’t any of your concern, kitten,” and Keith’s eyes lidded, “and I would be honored to take care of you.”

Keith nodded.

“Words?”

“Okay.”

“Are you ready to let go?”

Keith lifted a hand, Lance held it. “Just one thing?”

“Anything, kitten.”

“Promise to ride my face?”

Lance bit back a laugh, but his nerves thrummed with glee. “I promise.”

“Okay.”

“When you’re ready.”

Keith nodded and reburied himself in Lance’s lap. His fingers dragged the rest of the paraphernalia down Lance’s legs, but he left him in his socks. He knocked him into the chair and spread him obscenely wide—marveling at his flexibility while Lance marveled at his boldness—and sucked a chain of hickies from Lance’s knee to his inner thigh. When he looked up and saw Lance smiling and his eyes glittering and his shoulder curled downwards, he did it again to his other leg.

Lance was significantly wetter when Keith returned. He proceeded to lick him dry.

Keith’s tongue traced his natural shape in between sucking on his clitoris. Then his thumb took over that duty for his tongue to slide lower and circumvent the entrance of Lance’s vagina.

Lance slumped further in the chair, his grip on Keith a little more insistent. Keith’s face was coked out when he decided to take notice, and he grew even more dazed the more purposefully Lance guided him. Lance therefore decided to hold Keith’s face and roll his hips.

He smelled sweet slick that wasn’t his.

Kolivan might open the door any second.

Shiro was one room away.

This was not the time.

But omega but omega but omega, his innards quarreled against looming self-hate.

Then Lance grunted with a particularly harmful thought: he didn’t deserve it. Not after—

He drew away from Keith’s lips and sat on the chair properly. He felt sorry for himself.

Keith stared at him unsurely, then chirped in a heartbroken trill: “Omega?”

Lance flinched. He stood. Keith flinched.

“I’m…sorry. I…,” he cleared his throat. “Let’s get you cleaned up, okay? We’ll continue later.”

Lance could have laughed at the Keith who bore a striking resemblance to Shiro the way he pouted.

-

Kolivan was serenading the horses in Marmora when Lance arrived.

“Sorry there’s not much to feed them with.”

“The grain you had was adequate.”

“I had grain in here?”

“Yes,” and he pointed, “the ones you kept on the lower level were full of mold. The bags from the loft were fine.”

Lance watched the horses drink melted lukewarm ice and eating from the old buckets and abruptly remembered Hunk and Grace riding onto his land during a distant summer. “They’re a year old,” he reported.

Kolivan nodded, patted someone’s mane. “That’s fine.”

“Isn’t grain bad for horses?”

“It’s just for one night.”

“Should I get blankets for them?”

“If you have to spare, thank you.”

“Here, drink this. I’ll double back for the blankets.”

“Wait please.”

Lance hesitated. He lifted the tray a little to accommodate when Kolivan selected his mug. He took a sip, quietly delighted. “Peppermint.”

“Not in the mood for your favourite?”

“You spoil me.”

“I don’t even like peppermint,” Lance lied, “Allura always pushes it on me when I visit.”

Kolivan smiled. “Sit with me a little bit?”

They made the broad steps up to the loft their loveseat. Beyond Kolivan’s shuffling horses, splinters of daylight glinted through the boards. There was one lone yellow lantern swinging from the ceiling. The darkness outside of its perimeter consisted of unusual shapes of junk Lance allocated over the years, testaments to failed or abandoned projects.

Lance settled, comfortable with the silence in a way he could only be around Kolivan. It was as though was alone and not alone at the same time. It was like meditating. Lance closed his eyes.

Unbidden rose the hundred times Kolivan taught him to breathe the world in. To focus, utterly and entirely, on everything outside and everything within. Lance was out of practice, because mostly he could only remember Kolivan’s voice lecturing him before Lance caused lessons to deteriorate into play. Somehow his train of thought got hijacked by memories of harassing Keith as a morning ritual. Then memories of harassing Shiro.

“I sense there is something bothering you.”

Lance winced. “Where do I start?”

Kolivan sipped.

“Keith told me the Galra are here.”

“There were always promised to come.”

“But not now.

“Why not?”

“I’m tired,” he dropped his head against Kolivan’s unforgiving bicep. “It’s like running a race with no end in sight but the fear of losing or tripping keeps me running anyway.”

Kolivan uncharacteristically slumped to place his elbows on each thigh. Lance easily shifted to accommodate. “The Marmora are what Alfor calls a semi-nomadic people. Moving locations is a part of our identity. But similar to how you moved from your home to this home with your sense of self intact, so too will your sense of home when the time comes for you to move again.”

Lance groaned, “Is that a parable?”

“It is advice to change your perspective. You are not running away, you are running towards.”

“Towards what?”

“That is for you and Keith to discover.”

Lance fell out of love with Kolivan’s enigmatic poetry. “I don’t like you right now. Give me back the peppermint.”

Kolivan held it out of reach.

“Cheat.”

“I know that deep in your heart you knew that moving on was inevitable. There is something else troubling you.”

Lance buried his face into Kolivan’s furs.

“You need not tell me. But, selfishly, for my own peace of mind, I hope that you do. I want to help you, Lance.”

Lance’s posture fell. “You’ll look at me differently.”

“I will learn a new facet to who I know you to be,” Kolivan corrected.

Lance sat up straight and stared his old lover in the eye. He spoke clearly albeit shakily: “I assaulted Shiro.”

Immediately: “That’s unlike you.”

Irritably: “Can’t you pretend to be surprised?”

“If you told me this simply to get a rise out of me you will need to tell a story congruous to your nature.”

Lance sneered.

“Shiro is the name of the stranger you took under your wing, yes?”

“Yeah. Keith told you?”

“Yes. He told me that he was from the Garrison. That you found him at the same river you found Keith, a river that was not there when summer began.”

Lance nodded, “Where did that river come from anyway?”

“It is unclear. But the world is always changing and it is connected. Very, very far away from here something might have happened that affected us here.” When Lance was quiet for too long Kolivan prompted, “And you took advantage of him?”

Lance recalled the series of events that led up to that morning. By the time he was finished Kolivan’s mug was empty, though that was not a hardship.

Kolivan’s first words were: “Shiro has forgiven you. Move on.”

Lance balked. “What!”

Kolivan cocked an eyebrow.

“How can you say that? I took advantage of him! I’m an offender! A danger to society!”

“So is any alpha who goes into rut, or any omega who goes into heat, no?”

Lance quarreled, “I shouldn’t expect you to understand.”

“I do not. Not from your perspective. But I consider that an advantage. Shiro clearly has experience dealing with people who, at times, cannot be in control of themselves. To the best of his ability at the time, he acted accordingly. No one was hurt. You learned your lesson. Furthermore, he does not blame you.”

“I wasn’t out of control.”

“While you were sane you hadn’t touched him unjustly—”

“I wasn’t insane either!”

“—so this lapse in character does not line up with your intent. You never meant Shiro harm. He knows that.”

“But if he didn’t force me off—”

“There is no use wondering what if, Lance. You will drive yourself mad wondering what could be different. You have the ability to take action in the present. Do so. If you continue to beat yourself up you will stop yourself from learning.”

Lance curled his knees under his chin. “What action should I take now?”

“I believe you are already taking it.”

“What?”

“Talking with Shiro. Talking with me. I recommend you speak with Keith as well, given that he shares experiences parallel to yours. Does he know you bear Shiro’s Mark?”

No! No, and ancients willing he never finds out!”

Kolivan blinked. “I’m surprised.”

Lance almost celebrated at that.

“Why haven’t you?”

He dropped his face in his hands, still half buried under Kolivan’s arm. “He wouldn’t get it. He’ll blame Shiro when it isn’t his fault.”

“You do not give Keith enough credit, I think.”

“You don’t know him like I do.”

Kolivan could not argue with that.

“I just need to wait for the Mark to fade. Then everything will be fine.”

“Do Marks usually fade? I was under the impression they last a lifetime.”

He could hear Allura’s voice as he recited: “They do if it’s Reciprocated, which means that I’d bite Shiro back. Then we’d have to spend upwards of three days together for our bodies to chemically reset to each other and the Marks will scab over and heal into really dark marks, kind of like tattoos but instead of ink it’s a naturally occurring chemical in the scent gland that reacts with the melanin in the healed tissue. Otherwise it’s just an ordinary wound.”

“Hm.”

“Shiro gave me a Mark to adjust my body to his cycle, which was why my heat ended, because his rut ended. But when my body realizes the Bond isn’t mutual it’ll spring back into its normal rhythm.”

“How does all of this affect Shiro?”

“He’ll have the urge to want me to reciprocate, of course, but—”

“I meant emotionally.”

“…emotionally?”

“You do not know?”

“He…he looked fine. He spoke with me fine.”

“Hm.”

“…Do you think that’s weird?”

Kolivan looked him dead in the face and took a long draught from Lance’s tea.

“Right. Sorry. This whole thing is weird to you.”

“Hm.”

“But you think I should tell Keith.”

“I do not have all the answers, love.”

“You act like it.”

Kolivan smiled.

“You drank my tea.”

“I did.” He put the mug on the tray. “May I have some more?”

-

Keith was lucid when Lance returned from the barn with Kolivan in tow.

When he yawned his three rows of sharp, excited teeth yawned with him, and Lance flushed and glared, aware that the display was for him. Keith pretended not to notice them as they filed around the dinner table, and Lance was in half a mind to give him a swift kick to the ankle. Kolivan taking a seat belayed him.

Keith then noticed how big he was. It was almost laughable how Lance’s home looked like a doll set around him. He remembered the Ulaz and Thace from Sendak’s gang. In retrospect they hadn’t looked very much out of place against a backdrop of Galra, but this was why: they were huge. Too calm and sated to be mistaken for alpha, but too colossal to be assumed as anything else.

Lance didn’t seem to notice, the way he flitted around and touched Kolivan’s cheek or jaw in casual, flirting gestures. Kolivan suppressed a smile in response to each one.

Keith drank the ugly tea and made a face before he grunted, “So what now?”

Kolivan looked up from the broth Lance reheated for him. “In regards to…?”

“The Galra,” Keith frowned as though it were obvious. “They’re right there. It won’t be long before they take over the area.”

Lance said from the kitchen, “There’s hardly anything to take over though.”

“I’ve seen how they operate, Lance. That won’t stop them.”

Lance was nervous though he wouldn’t admit it. He was finding things to keep his hands busy. When he finally sat at the dinner table, it was with his arms full of needle work.

“How do they operate anyway? What’s the agenda for destroying town after town?”

Kolivan looked to Keith with new interest.

Keith shook his head, “I can’t speak for all of them but…in Sendak’s gang it’s not like they go out of their way to destroy the place. That’s just a bi-product. When they move from place to place it’s just to refuel, resupply, so that they could move on again. It’s just that the things that they need are so much they end up wrecking the local farms or families or economies.”

Lance muttered, “They’re starting to sound more like an invasive species of pigs than thinking people.”

Keith replied, “Pigs think.”

Lance watched him, unsure if he should kick him or not.

“Whatever their motivations,” Kolivan segued, “this area is certain to be impacted. The jungle will disappear, then the fauna, and we will be forced to move or starve.”

Lance asked, “Would you come with us, Koli?”

Kolivan turned to him with a stony expression.

A groan unsettled them.

“Oh, Takashi,” Lance was on his feet, flitting, dancing to the bedroom, hushed exchanges to follow. Keith sipped. He made a face.

Shiro was standing on his own despite Lance panicking mildly at his side. He stepped through the doorway and his face lit up when he recognized Keith. Keith flinched before his overt joy. But he did not receive a greeting, because Shiro’s head snapped to Kolivan.

Kolivan waited, aware a predator chases when prey runs.

“That’s Kolivan,” Lance broke the tension. Was he even aware of it? “He’s my friend of the Marmora I told you about?”

“Oh,” and Shiro’s eyes flickered to the ceiling.

Keith saw Kolivan scowl faintly when attention was drawn to the scores of wind chimes. Keith smiled behind his cup. He said nothing.

“A pleasure to meet you, Kolivan,” Shiro smiled. Keith thought it decidedly polite, though not precisely kind. “I’d shake your hand if I had any to shake.”

“Oh! Right!” and Lance ducked into the bathroom.

Keith pushed a chair out for Shiro with his toe in lieu of a hello himself. Shiro flashed him a sincere grin and sat down.

“Likewise, Shiro. I’ve heard much about you.”

“Only good things, I hope.”

Kolivan’s eyes flickered to Lance who shuffled forward with the prosthetic. “Yes. Only good things.”

Lance was used to helping Shiro by now. Equipping his limb took all of five minutes.

“Thanks, Lance.”

“Of course,” Lance tapped under his chin and moved away.

Then Shiro said, “So the Galra are in the jungle.”

And the table froze.

Shiro looked to Kolivan, to Keith and to Lance. Keith abruptly filled his mouth with terrible drink. Kolivan sipped his broth and replied, “They are.”

Lance resisted the urge to throw his head into his hands. Takashi heard them. “They’re a day’s ride from here at best.” What else had he heard?

Shiro nodded, grim. “That changes things—”

Lance threw himself out of his chair, “Would you like something to eat?”

Shiro was a little wide eyed, “Um. Sure. Thanks.”

Lance bustled to the kitchen. What else had he heard these past two weeks?

Keith’s voice returned them to the topic at hand, “They were looking for people and had cages and trucks ready. I’m guessing that they were looking for your people.”

Shiro breathed. “Maybe.”

Maybe? Who else would they be sneaking around for?”

“It just doesn’t make any sense. Why would they be coming after us?”

Kolivan asked, “Who is us? Exactly?”

Shiro was quiet until Lance set the bowl in front of him. He lifted his head to say thanks, but Lance wouldn’t meet his eyes. He sighed, “Are you familiar with the Garrison?”

Kolivan nodded.

“There are a lot of people there who don’t benefit from the system and the vast majority are omega. I’m part of a group that gives them a chance at a new life outside the Garrison.”

Keith was prepared to bristle, “What does that mean?”

“We’ve founded a place where omega aren’t subjugated. It’s a small city, but it’s functionally matriarchal, centered around the family and the home, a place ruled by community and council instead of an oligarchy. We call it Olkarion.”

Keith snorted that it sounded too good to be true.

“It has its imperfections,” Shiro admitted. He looked at Lance, directly across the table from him, wide-eyed and wide-eared as he danced the needles between his fingers. “But it’s better than living each day in fear. Far better."

Kolivan asked, “And you work for this Olkarion?”

“I escort people running away from Garrison to Olkarion.”

Keith whispered, “An underground railroad.”

“Of a sort. We work in secret and a single trip can take weeks.”

“But you were intercepted.”

“Yes. We were in the mesa when rocks started falling around us. I remember pushing them into the entrance of a slot canyon. I remember explosions and trucks and then…I woke up here.”

Keith said quickly, “Don’t worry about them, Takashi. I heard men at that Galra camp say that they couldn’t find anyone and they didn’t know where they’d gone. Maybe they’re safe and sound at Olkarion as we speak.”

“Maybe.”

Kolivan said, “There is one thing I do not understand. If it were the Galra who likely intercepted your group at the mesa, what are they doing here?”

“We have more than one trail we take,” Shiro slumped under the weight of the world. “One through the mesa, one through the jungle.”

Keith alarmed, “So they’re waiting for the next group to pass through. They’re working with inside information!”

“Which is why you were so desperate to leave,” Lance’s quiet voice rang across the room clear as a bell.

Shiro met Lance’s steady, unflinching gaze.

Lance looked at Shiro’s broken arm.

Shiro was insistent, “I have to go. I have to.”

Lance frowned, “But Takashi—”

Shiro was loud: “We’ve been compromised and lives are at stake! I can’t stay! I can’t.”

A moment of silence.

“Keith,” Lance stood. He stood slow, regal, impossibly calm. “Can I talk to you?”

Keith obeyed. He grabbed Lance’s coat, helped him into it before slipping into his own.

Lance carefully smiled to the men left at the table, “We won’t be long.”

Kolivan nodded. Shiro stared. Lance closed the door.

No matter what, bright bright sunlight and bright bright snow would forever be wrong in his mind. Sunlight meant warmth and sand. Snow meant cold and darkness. It was amazing that the sun was out and he was shivering.

In his pocket he held Keith’s hand and they walked a lazy perimeter around the cottage. They saw Kolivan at the kitchen window once.

“Don’t let him get to you. He’s stressed and—”

“Do you think Takashi heard us talking about us wanting to kill him?”

Keith stared. It took a moment, but eventually he put on a miserable expression. “Not our proudest moment.”

“I feel awful.”

“He’s not making much of a big deal over it.”

“Well, I mean, he’s kinda prioritizing his friends’ lives right now and I don’t blame him.” His nose itched from the cold. “Kinda poetic. We talked about taking his life and he’s talking about saving the lives of others.”

“At the cost of his own. I don’t find that poetic.”

“Never said it was happy poetry.”

Keith snorted, but did not smile.

“We can’t stop him.”

Keith shrugged. “Wasn’t going to. Not after all that. And it’s kinda time he moves on anyway.”

“Time?”

“Isn’t it?” he stopped. “We said two weeks. That’s it. It’s over.”

Lance tugged them into walking again.

Keith followed. “You’re really attached to him.”

Lance swallowed. “Yeah. I like him.”

“I noticed.”

“There’s…um. There’s something else.”

Keith hummed.

“I…I went into heat. When you were gone.” Lance felt Keith jerk towards him. “I went into heat while Shiro was in rut a-and…and…”

“Why didn’t you tell me? You said that…you’re crying. Did he hurt you?”

Lance shook his head. He knew he looked ugly, chin mottled and shaking and cheeks straining to keep the tears in. “No,” he gasped. “M-me. I hurt him. I—I-I, I didn’t take care of him when he needed me to. I…”

“What? Lance,” he stopped them, held Lance’s shoulders. Lance ducked his head. “Lance…”

“He’s so good and…and I…and we talked about killing him because we were scared…and when he was scared he trusted us…and then I betrayed that trust—”

Keith frowned, “Lance, the Galra are literally at our doorstep and we’re caught up with them in some…some conspiracy tied back to Garrison and you’re here sobbing over one alpha!?”

Lance clapped his hands over his red eyes.

Keith grabbed him and held him close. “Right, you want me to pity you, right? That’s why you called me out here.”

Lance wriggled violently, but Keith held fast.

“Just shut up and cry.”

Lance did so.

-

Two horses dragged four bodies across the white veld.

When Shiro looked over Keith’s head he could not see Lance around Kolivan’s woolly figure. They were exchanging soft words since daybreak, when they left home in a canter. So far as Shiro could tell, they were not speaking either Altean Standard or Puebla.

Half of him despised Kolivan. The other half found him agreeable, keen and wise. Shiro knew what parts of himself felt this way. It took a while, but nearly all his innards were clean and compartmentalized.

Keith turned his head and looked at him out of the corner of his eye.

Shiro felt his innards jump.

“Hm?” he asked eloquently.

Keith faced forward again. “You’re quiet.”

“O-oh. I…I didn’t know you were much for conversation.”

“I’m not.”

Shiro exhaled softly.

Keith continued to surprise him, “So you’re leaving.”

It was well established by the satchel that weighed down their mount.

“I am.”

“Will you ever come back?”

Shiro watched the blue horizon. “…I will.”

Keith nodded. “I wish you the best, Shiro.”

“Thank you, Keith. Sincerely.”

Keith nodded.

The world rocked with the gait of their horse. “Are…are you and Lance alright?”

“Fine,” he was too quick. “Why?”

“The two of you just seem a little icy with each other, that’s all.”

“It’s hard to maintain conversation over horseback.”

It really wasn’t.

Keith deflated not a moment later, “We’ll be fine.”

“Trouble in paradise?”

Please don’t offer relationship advice.”

Shiro chuckled, “I promise you I am the worst when it comes to romance.”

Keith nodded again, and Shiro wondered if he imagined the lifted cheek. “Likewise.”

“Can I ask…what attracted you to each other?”

“Really?”

“Huh?”

“We’re about to enter the territory of the Galra who are likely responsible for your injuries and your missing friends and you want to talk romance?”

Shiro smiled and shrugged when he caught Keith’s eye again.

Keith sighed. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “We’re…alike. We’re running from the same monsters.”

“The Galra,” Shiro sobered.

“No,” Keith looked up, to the side, all was white white white. The only change ahead was the blue mound of the advancing jungle. “More like… the situations that made us into the people we are now. Did Lance tell you he was married?”

Shiro’s eyes immediately looked for his omega.

“He didn’t have the luxury of choice for a while. Then he came out here and he found that he could make a lot of choices, without repercussions from family or husbands. That’s why the barn is full of shit. It’s just Lance doing anything, everything he can.”

Shiro murmured, “And you?”

“It wasn’t always black and white for me. I kept my agency in small acts of defiance. Lance got it like,” he snapped his fingers. “It was nice finding someone else like me. I like the way Lance…uses his autonomy, if that makes sense.”

Shiro hummed.

“Have you ever found someone like that?”

“Like Lance? O-or did you mean like you?”

“Neither. I mean: have you ever found someone who you just…stuck to? No rhyme or reason about it, no awkward acquaintance waiting period required?”

Shiro immediately thought of Adam. When he tried to think of anyone else he smiled a little sadly. “Yes…but. Not for the same reason.”

“No?”

“No. I…they…they’re just the kind of person that could attract anyone to them and I got caught in the web is all.”

“Mm. Lance is like that.”

Shiro blushed upon being found out. He defended, “I don’t I’m not we’re not—he’s yours, you know.”

“Of course he’s mine.”

Shiro swallowed. He jolted when Keith looked at him again, all coy and furtive and with a layer of raven hair between them. His voice dripped with casual cattishness: “But I’m not above letting you borrow him.”

Shiro, dumb and horny, nodded.

Keith went on, either oblivious or uncaring to the storm he was pulling Shiro through. “He told me what happened. When he went into heat.”

Shiro grimaced.

“I’m sorry that you had to go through that.”

Shiro said, “No no, it wasn’t his fault. I told him that already.”

“I’m sure you did. But what happened to you was awful. You remember what I said about us knowing what it’s like to have no choice? That’s what happened to you, Shiro. Your choice was taken from you.”

“It wasn’t—”

“And you’re discrediting yourself by not allowing yourself to see that.”

Shiro frowned, “Lance was not at fault.”

Keith snapped, “This isn’t about Lance, Takashi! It’s about you. You did not choose him at that moment, for whatever reason, even if there was no reason at all, and that’s fine. Stop making this into nothing. It’s not nothing. Don’t think so little of yourself.”

Shiro stared at him.

“Treat yourself better.”

He barely heard when Kolivan called them to canter once more.

They were at the footnotes of the jungle in moments, and Lance’s truck showed up tucked away in the foliage a moment later.

“Blue!”

It was the first time Shiro heard the clear note of Lance’s voice in hours. In light of his profound conversation with Keith, he wasn’t sure what to make of the hollow ring down his spine.

He and Keith were out of the saddle and Lance already had the hood up and was checking the filters for nuts. Rabid little squirrels might have colonized his mechanic goddess, Lance grumbled. True to form, there were a stash of nuts there. Shiro almost laughed when Lance screamed as he found them.

Keith busied himself on the other side of the truck. “Untouched,” he reported. “The Galra didn’t come this way.”

Shiro asked how far away they were.

“I can show you,” Kolivan offered, dismounting.

“What about them?”

“Lance and I can handle the truck, Shiro. Go. Just say good-bye before you leave.”

Shiro nodded and immediately felt eyes on him. But when he looked, Lance had just finished turning away. Shiro followed Kolivan with an uneasy guilt brewing in his belly.

The Marmora seemed to neither make track or sound as he guided Shiro through the underbrush It was as though he were a shadow himself. Only movement helped Shiro keep an eye on him as he dipped in and out of speckles of light. Had Kolivan stayed absolutely still, Shiro might have walked straight past him.

“Ssh,” Kolivan indicated, though Shiro had said nothing, and he swallowed an irritation that was not his own. “Stay close.”

Shiro flanked him, and visibility improved ahead, light pooling onto the jungle floor as though trees weren’t blocked the sky there. When they made it to the clearing he realized it was exactly that. Trees had been downed—their wood gone—and an almost perfect circle of pink sky greeted them. But that was all there was. There were no tents, no cages, no shiny new trucks.

Kolivan skirted the clearing unsurely, curious how so much can move in so little time. But the tracks were a whole day old, implying they’d moved out shortly after he and Keith had discovered them. Shiro scented the air and all was stale. He straightened and walked ahead. “They’re gone.”

“That way,” Kolivan pointed to an obvious tunnel punched out of the foliage.

“East,” Shiro murmured. “Towards Garrison.”

Kolivan eyed him but said nothing.

“I almost wish them being gone is a good thing but I’m only more antsy now.”

“Lance had taught me an expression: the evil you know is better than the evil you do not.”

Shiro’s smile was tired. “I suppose that fits. Is there an equivalent Marmora saying?”

Kolivan was quiet for a moment. Then he spoke in a language of stones and water. He translated, “The bear den is empty because something else cleared it.”

Shiro, wide-eyed, chimed, “Spooky.”

“Hm.”

“So something else cleared out our Galra, huh?”

“Something bigger than them.”

Shiro did not like how ominous that sounded.

“Your arm is broken.”

It was so sudden that it startled a laugh out of Shiro. “Yeah, it is.”

“I offer myself as a travelling companion.”

Shiro blinked. Shiro defended, “I’m not invalid—”

“There are men out there who tried to kill you once. What harm is there in taking precautions to prevent them from trying again?”

Shiro watched him.

“Feel free to consider,” Kolivan turned without as much as a whisper. “I will report back to the others.”

-

Shiro was still lost in thought when snow crunched under footfall behind him. “I think I’ll take you up on that offer.”

“…what offer?”

And Shiro stood because it was not Kolivan. It was Lance, dropping his hood, wearing Shiro’s designated satchel on one shoulder and the strap of his beloved hunting rifle on the other. He must have looked skittish because Lance smiled apologetically. “Did I scare you?”

“N-no.”

“No, he says, while the whites of his eyes are as wide as dinner plates,” he came closer.

Shiro laughed out a puff of air. “That was pretty good.”

“You think so? I thought to take some cues from you on this poetry thing.”

“Oh, well. Good for you. I’m not a poet, though.”

“And what, you couldn’t be? Sit down sit down, you’re making me nervous.” And he dropped his stuff.

“Where are Kolivan and Keith?”

“With the truck. I wanted to take a break. Want a nut?”

“Is that…the same nut that was in your truck’s filter?”

“I washed it,” Lance promised. “And roasted it. I made a small fire wen I got sick of fixing up my girl. I love her but she’s a bitch sometimes.” He wiggled the nut. “Want or nah?”

He accepted the peace offering.

“And Kolivan said that he wanted to go with you at least half of the route you had left to Olkarion. Oh!” he snapped his fingers and Shiro turned to him, “That’s what you meant by offer, huh? Yeah, that’s good! That’s good, Kolivan’s really smart. And he’s got a way with the land. He’ll be a good travel partner.”

“Lance…”

“Hm? What’s up? Want more nuts?”

“Lance, you’re coming on a little strong.”

Lance’s brightness cracked when his smile twitched. He turned away from Shiro, proceeding to gnaw on the nut. Shiro rolled his own between his fingers. There was a crack far too loud for the clearing, like the ghosts of the Galra were going to return, and Shiro was concerned Lance broke a tooth. But then Lance repeated the process.

“You’re not going to eat it?”

“I’m going to eat them all at once, not one by one like a heathen. Like Keith. Like Kolivan.” He offered Shiro the stink eye. “Like you.”

“You only gave me one nut!”

Lance threw another in his lap. Shiro laughed.

They exchanged a beat of silence. Lance relaxed and watched the sun paint the muddy clearing a little too clearly.

“I’m sorry I yelled at you,” Shiro said suddenly.

“Huh? Oh, no it’s—”

“I was frustrated and you didn’t deserve it.”

“It’s cool,” Lance bumped his shoulder awkwardly. “Like after all that Kolivan and Keith dropped on you, I’d be pretty stressed too. Hell, I am stressed. More nuts?”

Shiro accepted it.

“Don’t blame me for being worried, though. I mean…I know that your arm isn’t totally healed. And it itches!”

“Yes,” Shiro smiled, “because itching is the worst thing that has ever happened to me.”

Right?!”

Shiro wiped his smile into the frozen collar of his borrowed coat.

“I just…I want you to be safe, Takashi.” Lance swallowed. “I like you.”

“I like you too. And I’ll be safe. I promise.”

“How can you promise that?”

“Because I want to see you again. And if I’m going to do that I have to take care of myself.”

Lance watched him. "...you okay?"

“My head…is all over the place lately.”

“Because of the—”

“Not only because of the Mark, no,” Shiro rolled the nuts between his fingers, feeling neither their texture nor resistance. “Just…in general.”

Lance pressed his lips together, forcing himself into silence. He turned to the clearing. He looked at Shiro again when he heard tinny jingling.

“Here,” he said.

Lance held out his hand and skin warm metal fell into it. “Your dog tags?”

“Mhm.”

“What, you want me to read it or something?” And he read it, Krolia’s name in bold, some numbers below and the insignia of Garrison on the back.

“No. I’d like you to hold onto it for me.”

“I don’t understand. Isn’t it important to you?”

“Yes. That way you know I’ll come back for it.”

Lance rubbed it between his fingers until it got cold. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, Lance.”

“Are you sure you want to see me again?”

“Yes, Lance.”

“Even after what I did to you?”

“After you nursed me back to health?”

“No, I mean—”

“After you took care of me when I felt embarrassed and lost?”

“I meant—”

Shiro rested his hand in the frozen sludge and leaned on it to press his lips against Lance’s temple. Lance stayed still until he dressed back.

Then Lance turned and kissed him gently on the mouth.

“Oh.”

He immediately regretted it. “Oh. I’m sorry. I should have asked—”

“It’s okay, it’s--" He shook his head upon recognizing the cycle. He breathed instead, "Ask me."

“What?”

“Ask me now.”

“But I just—”

“Ask me, Lance.”

Lance huffed, “Permission to kiss you, your lordship?”

Shiro burst out laughing.

Lance, unable to get Shiro to stop, never got that second kiss.

Chapter Text

Two weeks before the bite left the wind, the sun had a glimpse of warmth to it and Keith and Lance found themselves among the first yellow shoots of the Balmera homestead, they received a transmission from Allura.

“Arus is developing,” she reported with audible confusion. “It’s growing. We have a research facility now, if you can believe it.”

Keith grunted, “What are they researching?”

“Medicines, mostly. But also material science. Katherine’s mother has found a place there. I’ve been tempted to go myself—it’s only the need for discretion that keeps me at bay from their incredible laboratory.”

Lance blurted, “What use do the Galra have for a lab in the middle of nowhere?”

Keith frowned, “I don’t trust it.”

Nor do I, but their positive impact on Arus is undeniable. People are flooding in, everyone is finding work erecting buildings, fixing cars, opening businesses and practices—there are designs on the table for creating a railway system to bridge the gaps between here and Narquod.”

“There it is.”

“Beg pardon?”

“Where do you think they’re getting all these resources? Galra are just a little better than bandits, they don’t have access to money and technology that they can throw it at a random town like that. And whoever they’re being supported by would benefit from having a network they can control.”

Lance gasped. “You think the Garrison is behind this.”

“That’s quite the leap,” a skeptical Allura replied.

Lance then relayed in detail the past few weeks they spent divining higher truths about their world. The encroaching Galra, their shiny new toys, the runaway band of omega and the signs that Garrison might be extending their reach through the Galra to—they theorize—find and destroy Olkarion, or at the very least disrupt the fleeing omega.

Allura was quiet a beat. “When you put it like that,” she groused slowly, “the progression of Arus suddenly feels far more ominous.”

Keith wrapped both hands around one knee. “I think the Galra are operating under instruction. By appearances Garrison doesn’t get along with them, but I’ve seen both Throk and Sendak have dealings with more than a few.”

Lance quietly flexed his arm. His healing bond mark pulled and he hissed. He shook his head at Keith’s abrupt attention. He said, “So what. Garrison’s, like, conquering the world now? I can’t tell if that’s better or worse than the Galra just running amok—hey, does this mean that all this time when Galra destroy towns it was on purpose?”

The question was posed to Keith, whose brow darkened in uncertainty, but it was Allura who said sharply: “We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. Troubling as the evidence that has been posed to us is, at the moment all of our theories are but speculation, and I refuse to let any of us be bogged down by our own overactive imaginations.”

“But Lu, something’s happening—”

“So it is. But the fact remains that we do not know. It is no good panicking over speculation.”

Keith was grim. “We can’t do nothing.”

“All I ask is that you be cautious.”

Lance smiled wryly, “Is that you giving us permission to sloth?”

“Sleuth,” Keith corrected faintly.

“That’s such a stupid word.”

“Then don’t use it.”

Allura giggled, “If I were to give you permission over anything, it would be to visit Arus as soon as you are next available. You have some blankets and rugs for me, and Katherine has been asking after Keith non-stop.”

Lance saw Keith soften. “Tell her I miss her too.”

“Very well, but I expect you to be here soon to tell her so yourself.”

“We’ll visit first thing after the wedding.”

“Wedding? You’re getting married already?”

Keith grinned when Lance squeaked, “No! Not us! Hunk’s older sister! She’s getting married to one of the Balmerans!”

“Oh, that’s much better. I’d hate to be unable to tell all of Lance’s embarrassing stories at the reception.”

Lance simmered in unusual embarrassed silence. Keith said on his behalf, “We wouldn’t dream of it. I think we’d want Shiro to be there too, wouldn’t we Lance?”

Lance turned away, more insistently quiet than before.

“Who is—oh, is that the alpha?”

“Yes. He’s sweet on Lance too.”

“Shut up, Keith.”

Keith watched him, trying to gauge if he struck a nerve or not. Lance turned away from his scrutiny.

Allura’s inflection was thick with surprise, “And it’s mutual? You surprise me, Lance. What with your past experience I—”

“Yeah, it took me by surprise too can we talk about anything else?”

Had Allura been there in person, she and Keith would have exchanged a look. Keith spoke first, “Okay… on the topic of Shiro I have a question.”

Lance perked up.

Go on.”

“While he was with us, he went into rut.”

Tense: “Are you alright?”

“We’re fine, we’re great. Shiro just sat down in the nest Lance and I built and that was it. For days. He’d asked us to scent him beforehand, and he deferred to Lance too…though admittedly that was before he knew Lance was omega.”

“Oh,” she was surprised. “He exhibited no aggressive behavior or sexual behaviors at all?”

Keith turned to Lance.

“What? Huh?”

“Allura asked if he ever acted out or came onto you.”

“You were there—oh,” he gently pulled at the skin on his neck, trying to divert tension from his itching mark. “No, he was super passive. No wait—he did break down the bathroom door because he couldn’t reach me. After that though he was super chill. All hugs and stuff.” He looked down.

Keith recognized the look. It haunted him each time he reflected on Shiro. He said, “Allura, I think he also kickstarted our heats. Lance got his even though he was on suppressants.”

“Did he! Now that’s interesting information. I wonder what that…means…” and there was a scribbling sound of pen on paper. “As for your passive alpha, that’s normal behavior, though not as commonplace as it ought to be. Out here there are few opportunities to create meaningful, mutual bonds between alpha and omega. Many of us are still too bogged down by the unspoken rules of the patriarchy that they get in the way of constructing an equal relationship, be it platonic or romantic. The rut that you described is routine in this household. My father knows that he is safe with Coran and I, so he has no need to lash out. He feels protected.”

Lance perked up. “Wait wait wait wait wait—you’re telling me that Shiro was all chill because he felt like we were protecting him? Doesn’t that go against everything alpha stand for?”

Amusedly, “That’s the patriarchy talking.”

Lance scowled.

“Alpha on their rut are vulnerable. They become aggressive if they do not have a stable, safe home to curl up in. They become sexual as a defensive mechanism, to claim an omega mate in the bout of their hysteria so that they can provide a safe haven for the alpha until he comes to. In the hectic lifestyle living on the frontier provides however, unhealthy ruts are the norm.”

Keith frowned, “It’s just as common in Garrison.”

“That’s a testament to the environment that the First City is. Rather macabre, honestly.”

Lance shook his head: “Wait wait wait wait wait wait—you’re telling me that Shiro, big buff daddy could throw me over one shoulder with one hand was looking to me and Keith who are like half his weight combined for protection?”

Keith was insulted. “I’m not that light.”

“It’s not the kind of protect like: oh there’s a big scary bear, I need to protect it from my alpha—no, no. An alpha in rut is vulnerable because they are not…themselves, per say. When their bodies are flooded with chemicals their minds withdraw to protect itself. I won’t bore you with the science of how or why that is but ultimately they’re left without higher cognitive function and need to rely on someone else to make those decisions for them. Traditionally that role falls to the omega, but double A and A-B relationships can facilitate healthy ruts as well.”

Keith hummed, “So Shiro…”

“In a way, Shiro adopted the two of you as members of his pack to look after him when he was at his weakest.”

Lance pressed his hand to his bond mark that wouldn’t shut up. It was hot and itchy and speaking fever into the back of his mind. But it had saved him. And it was as much palpable truth of Shiro’s respect and love for him as the dog tags he kept warm against his heart. He hummed non-committedly, lost in thought.

“Did your heat come as a result of being in proximity to Shiro as well, Keith?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s normal too, it’s nothing to worry about. It’s a way of Shiro’s body trying to protect itself, by luring in omega so that they can be claimed.”

“Shit,” and Keith looked at Lance. Lance looked stiff. “Lance, did he bite you?”

“What?! No!”

“Even if he did it would be fine so long as it’s not reciprocated,” Allura interrupted. She suspected, Lance realized. “Symptoms of an unclaimed bond are—”

“I know what they are,” Lance blurted. He stood. “Nice talk, Lu, but I’m gonna head out now. Blue’s needed a lot of attention since she got ditched on the edge of the jungle.”

Keith smarted. “Hey…”

Allura was soft, “Of course, Lance. Ensure that the next time we speak it is in person.”

“Mhm.”

Keith waited until he was gone to speak again. “He’s been bipolar lately.”

“Fluctuating emotions are one symptom of an unreciprocated bond, but it could just as readily be his hormones reacting to the sudden absence of an alpha who was in rut.” She paused. “I’m not sure how to ask this given that he rejected the idea so readily but…”

“I think Shiro marked him.”

Allura sighed, “You mustn’t hold it against him, Keith. Shiro was…trying to protect himself. In his own way, at the time, I’m certain he thought he was protecting Lance too—”

“It’s not Shiro I’m mad at. It’s Lance. He’s keeping something from me. I hope it isn’t the mark though.”

“Why not?”

“Because that would mean he lied to my face. It would mean that he doesn’t trust me. I don’t understand why he’d keep this from me. Why wouldn’t he trust me?”

“…have you ever had disagreements before?”

“We usually just talk it out then fuck it out but he’s not even letting me touch him. I can’t get three words in before we’re fighting again.””

“…denying tactile interaction with anyone who isn’t the alpha that marked him is another symptom of an unreciprocated bond.”

Keith dropped his face in his hands. “He’s lying to me.” Keith hated that it hurt that much. He was surprised that it hurt that much. Somehow, in the back of his mind, he had the idea that he’d rather Lance leave him than stay and lie. It made him restless. It made him feel small and disrespected. It was heartbreaking.

“Talk to him,” Allura insisted. “If you wait too long there won’t be anything to talk about at all.”

“Okay.”

“And use tact.”

“Tact’s…not really my thing.”

“Try? He seems…irritable.”

“You have no idea. He broke a mug last week because he forgot to put in the honey.”

“Oh. Well. I recommend wearing a helmet when you confront him.

Keith laughed, but it was humorless.

-

Then the bite left the wind, the sun had a glimpse of warmth to it and Keith and Lance found themselves among the first yellow shoots of the Balmera homestead.

His feelings towards Lance had been amorphous since. Keith couldn’t look at Lance without feeling a swell of resignation and doubt. He wanted to hide from his feelings by burying his face into Lance’s lap, but Lance was too prickly to enjoy more than a chaste kiss in greeting, and that only in passing.

Lance’s voice startled him: “I’m going to find Hunk. You’ll be okay on your own for a bit?”

“Uh. Y-yeah.”

“If you need me shout.”

“Yeah.”

He paused, like he was turning something over in his head, and his conclusion manifested when he curled his fingers under the back of Keith’s hair and pressed their lips together. It felt wrong. Keith swallowed the compulsion to tear himself away and demand that Lance stop forcing himself. His lack of response was enough.

Lance was frowning, guiltier and sadder than he had the right to be, Keith thought, and he opened his mouth to speak.

“Keith! Lance!”

Hunk found them.

Keith had just finished turning around when he was swept up into a storm of a hug. In an instant his melancholy was blown away: Hunk was too warm, too kind, too elated. The very air around him buzzed with festivity. “Happy you could make it!”

He set a cured Keith down and made for Lance.

Lance darted to the other side of Blue. “Oh no you don’t.”

Hunk gave chase. “C’mere, you!”

No! Last time you hugged me you broke my back!”

Lance screamed when Hunk jumped over the hood.

Keith grinned. “Have you been here long?”

“Just a day,” Hunk said from Lance’s squirming breast. He was heaved clean off his feet, and Hunk held him aloft as though he were a toy in the arms of a child. Lance sulked. “It’s tradition for the bride’s family to arrive before the bride herself, so both families can work on erecting the wedding. Getting the food prepared and putting up the tents up and stuff.”

“Bride? I thought your sister was alpha…?”

“She is, but the Balmerans don’t ascribe. Well, the older ones don’t. So they have a binary system where gender and sex is the same thing, like the Marmora and Arussians.”

Lance sulked, “Mind putting me down?”

“Shush, Lance. Basically, to them marriage is between men and women. Some of the Balmera don’t understand how gender doesn’t imply sex, and some really don’t like the idea of Rax marrying my sister, but because he presents as male and she presents as female the elders let it slide.”

Lance grunted, “They don’t care it’s a double A union?”

Hunk bobbed Lance a bit. “I dunno. I guess not.”

Keith frowned, “Why does any of it matter?”

“Ask them. I think it all boils down to the fact that it’s confusing for them. They had a belief of how the world worked and it worked fine. Then we came along with our boatload of genders and sexes and it makes them uncomfortable because their traditions don’t fit into it. But it’s okay—they’re turning around now. Women and omega will deal with the hard work of putting the ceremony together. Alpha and men will do the cooking for the next few days. Beta go wherever needs more hands. We’ll work in gangs managed by the family heads until the actual marriage in three days.”

“Sounds like a lot of work.”

“Will you please put me down?”

“Shush, Lance. It’s fun! I hope I get to be in the gang that makes the consummating tent. I want to slip in some embroidery that she’ll see and it’ll kill the mood.”

Lance sulked and Keith laughed.

“You’ll be with me. Come: I’ll let mommy know you’re here.” And he set Lance down and held Keith’s wrist in a commanding hold.

Despite their recent coldness, Keith immediately lurched for Lance in a bout of apprehension and Lance, seeing it flash in his eyes, took an instinctual step forward. Hunk laughed at Keith’s expression though. “Relax! You’ll be safe. The worst we’ll have you do is repair some masonry in the bath house.”

Lance curled his hands into his pockets. He mouthed in Puebla, “I’ll find you later.”

Keith offered a stricken expression as response.

Against the backdrop of an impossibly flat world, the ice floor was lined with muddy paths forged of tire and hoof and sole, and studded on occasion with tiny, bright white and yellow flowers and their tinier dark purple thorns. They thrived in patches untouched between the uncoordinated maze of tents and yurts in different states of erection. Lance meandered through this warren with one shoulder weighed down by the roof for the week. It was amazing that just two families and a score of friends made up a city so readily, as shabbily erected of rope and tarp as it was.

Lance stumbled when a pair of children cut in front of him. He would have lost his balance if it weren’t for someone from behind who offered hands to balance out the paraphernalia he hefted.

“Ixunt!” Rax bellowed in brief exertion and irritation. “Fine job you’re doing, flailing around like a fresh born filly.”

Lance made to grin over his shoulder. Rax’s march forward had him pay attention to his feet instead. He still managed to cheer, “If it isn’t the man of the hour! What are you doing here, shouldn’t you be taking an ice bath with your cousins?”

“That’s not till t’morrow night. Set up here, my back’s killin me.”

Lance laughed as the tent stuff slipped into the spare grass. He reached forward to clap his hand against Rax’s meaty forearm. He was broad, pure bulbous muscle, and in a blunt square head above roughly hewn cheeks were eyes as odd in yellow as Keith’s were in purple. They leant Rax a genuine air.

Rax was genuine to a fault. He scowled with his arms akimbo and did not return Lance’s cordial gesture. “Good to see you,” he said with neither joy nor dislike. “If word from the Garretts is to be believed, I’d thought you would stay holed up with your partner til kingdom come.”

Lance flushed completely. Somehow he grinned through it. “Word spreads fast.”

“Where are they?”

“Hunk—er, Manuia stole him away for the omega—er, women’s—uh, the other gang.”

Rax’s eyes narrowed. “I heard he’s beautiful.”

Lance hooked his thumbs into the hoops on his jeans. “Gorgeous,” he reminisced.

“Be careful. My sisters are hunting.”

“I don’t think he’d do them much good. He’s omega, after all.”

“Don’t matter, they’re looking for kindred spirits. It’s easy to get a kid. Harder to find a soulmate.”

Lance folded his arms, “I’m surprised to hear you of all people say that.”

Rax huffed, his version of a chuckle. “This wedding business has turned me sentimental. It’s horrible.”

Lance laughed and Rax cracked a grin. It fell to instruct: “Wrap up here. We need you.”

“Yessir.”

Rax huffed and was off in a series of broad strokes. Lance watched him go with an appreciative leer. If only he weren’t so gruff…

He shook his head and set to work. It took less time than he thought it might to erect the tent he and Keith would be sharing. It was small for two, but it was roomy enough for either one of them to stand comfortably one at a time. Once outfitted with cots and a solar powered heater later it was more than bearable.

Then he fell into line, heaving on a rope to draw the heavy drapes of the kitchen up. Everyone was bigger and meatier than him, a few he didn’t recognize sent him curious glances. They’d already started singing their songs to keep rhythm, to keep on task, and Lance’s powerful voice joined them, and the curious ones looked away.

Then came to process of pinning the ropes into the earth.

Whock! Swung the huge mallet through the air in the arms of one Balmera or one Garrett, burly and heaving and working so hard vapor poured off their hair and lips.

Whock! On went the singing, the smashing of mallets driving the giant stakes into the earth in time. Someone laughed, then a crowd laughed, the song lapsed, and someone else cried out: “Another!”

Whock!

Lance volunteered to turn the earth into a floor on the inside of the tent when there was a call for it. He claimed a paddle while latecomers got a shovel, and they smack smack smack smacked the plowed earth into a sturdy floor. When he looked up the kitchen was erected as such:

The floor was oval and would be trampled into further hardiness in the coming days. At its perimeter pillars of wood were erected, emigrated from a nearby grove and hacked into usefulness before the majority of the families had arrived. Material was pulled against them to make the walls, lashed to the posts by rope running through holes in the poles and in the waxy tarpaulin. The roof was a separate structure altogether, pulled taut my men and held by stakes, kept aloft by a single large pole in the middle of the space. There were slits designed at its very top to accommodate the rising smoke, and again around the edges of the walls. In all, it was as large as Lance’s whole cottage and then some.

Smack! Smack! Smack!

Lance twisted in irritation. He searched for the floor maker who was out of time. He quickly averted his attentions when he nearly exchanged glances with a Galra.

“Rax!” Lance hissed when he slipped in beside him, dwarfed between him and his chuckling brothers. Rax’s blush was fading from their teasing, and he turned to Lance in bored attention. “What is he doing here?”

Rax looked. “Who, Lahn?”

“I don’t know his name—the Galra!”

Rax’s mouth firmed. His eyes narrowed. “Lahn is a hand we took in some weeks ago. I’d appreciate you don’t badmouth him.”

“Badmouth…he’s Galra, it ain’t badmouthing if that is what he is!”

“I don’t care,” he grunted. “He’s a good hand, and he’s no different than any other man looking for food and shelter and work out here. It’ll do you good to remember that.”

No different, Lance began to rebuke. He scowled instead and let them move on, smack smacking the ground fiercely at the missed edges. Of course he was different. The shape of his musculature, the never receding line of fangs, the perennially bloodshot eyes, the animalistic way he moved…it was all too clear  to Lance.

But not so to Rax, who had to learn the differences among men.

Looking at Lahn work hard, accept instruction, laugh with his peers…for the first time Lance wondered if there were differences at all.

-

Keith still did not understand how the gangs worked. Had it been only of people who did not ascribe, then they would be split by sex-gender, man and woman. Even that simple explanation confused him, because there was no man-and-woman, there was no duality. That was simply not how human form worked, even in non-ascribing societies.

That aside, the Balmerans—or the older generations who were still trying to wrap their minds around it anyway—seemed to substitute omega for woman and alpha for man. Which was convenient, because then the folk would be equally divided by sex. But then they began seeing men among their women and omega did not translate the same way anymore, and beta even less so, when their own third gender did not fit smoothly over the beta shape.

In the end, the chips fell wherever they fell. By practice, Balmera men and Garrett alpha took to the kitchens, and Balmera women and Garrett omega took to everywhere else. Even this was not a hard and fast rule, as women were employed in the cooking and men in the renovation of the bath houses that would tend to their bloated community, to say nothing of the beta who were grossly overlooked by the hastily cut-and-paste system.

Umi only grinned at him when Keith tried to make sense of it all. “It won’t matter after a while.”

Keith gave up on an impossible shingle. He and Umi were posted to the roof to lacquer it in something black and smelly and sticky, a sealant, he was told, to keep the roof from leaking given that it was approaching the season when snow turned to rain.

Keith dropped his hood to tie back the strands of hair that came loose. “What do you mean?”

Umi cotched his bucket against a chimney which fed the oven that warmed the baths. “Need help?”

Keith turned. “Thanks.”

“No problem. Anyway, I mean the people who really have issue with what ABO and man-woman means is the old fogies, but they’re on their way out. Eventually the Balmera and the Garretts are gonna make up one big family where that won’t matter anymore.”

“Because everyone will ascribe,” Keith realized.

“Uh-huh.”

If there was anything that the veld could report for certain, is that anyone who ascribed, Galra included, would have kids who also ascribed. In the Galra’s case they almost exclusively gave birth to Galra, which motivated them to find non-Galra partners. Non-Galra likewise could not have Galra offspring, not without Galra parentage in the mix. When it came to those who did not ascribe, the aboriginals, the Marmora, the Arussians, the Narquodians, should they take anyone of ABOG ancestry as a partner, their child would inevitably ascribe.

Keith sighed when he felt his scalp tighten and Umi finish binding back his hair.

“Sorry, too tight?”

“No, it’s great, thanks.”

Umi returned to work, thinking what was the best way to compliment Keith’s hair. His own was curly, and tamed only by oil and a myriad of tight braids that ran down his neck, as were the style of most of his siblings and cousins. Keith’s hair was thin. There was a lot of it, but it was easy to draw his fingers through. And it was warmer than he thought it had any right being, what with it being tossed through the air so easily, but—

“It’s kind of sad, isn’t it?”

“Huh?” Umi looked up only to find Keith looking at the homestead. They weren’t that very high up that the distant folk erecting tents and ferrying things back and forth looked like ants, but Umi could still squeeze an uncle’s form between his thumb and forefinger.

“It feels like,” and Keith resumed painting, “with each generation, people who don’t ascribe grow fewer and fewer in number. Like something’s being lost.”

Umi didn’t understand. “Why does it matter?”

“I guess it doesn’t.”

Umi thought Keith might have been disappointed by his reply so he went on to say, “I mean, the important parts are preserved, right? The stories of what used to be will be told and stuff. And the Balmera’s culture isn’t being hurt or re-written. This entire festival is a Balmera tradition. I don’t think anything’s being lost. I think, maybe, things are changing but….that doesn’t sound so bad. I think.”

He wrangled his mouth out of an embarrassed grimace and resolutely kept his head down when Keith stopped to look at him. Keith’s soft, amused exhale encouraged him to peek up. Keith was smiling at him, straddled on the roof of the bath house, weird white nose turned red from the cold and his lips littered with red cracks as he mumbled: “That’s a really clever way of looking at it.”

Umi looked down, a little embarrassed, a little pleased. “Thanks.”

Keith returned to work too, albeit with Kolivan’s—and now Umi’s—perspective of the future resonating between his ears. That was why he startled so badly when Grace called up to them, and Umi’s rough grip on his coat saved him from a nasty drop.

Her voice was rougher than he’d ever heard her to be: “Speed up, we don’t have all day! I want you finished when I come back!”

Umi grunted something under his breath, but worked faster.

So did Keith. “I thought weddings were supposed to be happy.”

Umi grinned sardonically, “Never been to a wedding before, huh?”

“And if I survive this one I’ll never go to one ever again.”

“It’s more high stakes in the beginning. The first two days are rough, but it gets better after that, you’ll see.”

“What else do we have to do around here?”

“Well, after the bath houses are repaired—there are three of them, by the way—we’ll still need to put up the consummation tent and maypole—”

“Maypole?”

“There’s a dance. We dance around the maypole to give thanks for the year gone and celebrate the new one. And some of us need to rehearse for that, on top of the regular chores of looking after the horses. But after that comes the fun part. Have you ever played tag?”

No. “Yes,” Keith avoided. He knew how it worked at any rate.

Umi discerned no deeper meaning. “The day before the wedding there’s a game of tag we play, but it’s more like a team. Say, six people are being chased and six people do the chasing, bride and groom too.”

“Okay.” Fswh-fwsho went his brush.

“So the people doing the chasing have to make these flower wreaths—”

“With what flowers?”

Umi pointed. “Haven’t you seen them everywhere?”

“But they have thorns!”

“Yeah, that’s a part of it too, or at least it has been since the Balmera settled here about two generations ago. The aim of the game is that the people who do the chasing make these flower wreaths to put on the heads of the person they want to be their wife or husband. If the person who is captured likes the person who caught them, they keep the flower wreath on even though it might prick them. It’s supposed to be symbolic. About braving rough times together, or something.”

“What if they don’t like the person who caught them?”

“Then they throw off the wreath and run off and someone else gets the chance to catch them.”

“Oh.”

“The game ends with the bride and groom catch each other.”

“Do the people who end up liking the wreaths on them really end up getting married?”

“Sometimes. It’s just a fun dating game, really.” He sighed, “Figures. I’m finally old enough to play and Lance isn’t single anymore.”

Keith shifted uncomfortably. He was not precisely sorry. “Uh.”

“I’m happy for him though, honestly.” As an afterthought: “You too.”

“…thank you.”

“You think you two will play?”

“I’ll…ask.”

“Cool,” though he was clearly pleased. “Maybe then I’ll drop a wreath on Lance too.”

“Oh, I guess I’ll be doing the chasing then.”

“I mean, it’s not black and white. People can chase and be chased at the same time.”

Keith looked alarmed.

“It sounds messier than it really is.”

“Sounds like a short game.”

Umi shrugged.

Aunt Grace came back.

-

Keith stepped into the only tent he recognized and felt relieved how hot it was.

He could have collapsed in front of the little electric heater to warm his fingers gone black and blue from cold and hard work, but the red lantern running on yupper fat was on, deposited neatly on the pop-up table situated between two low cots, and illuminated more brightly than anything else in the room—more than the gleaming tin cups hanging above, more than the kaleidoscopic duvets Lance undoubtedly made by hand, more than the cast-iron pot of food and two shiny spoons on it—two flower crowns, one of pure yellow and the other of pure white, half stacked on each other.

Keith made for it, but Lance’s voice made him jump: “Ah-ah! Boots off boots off!”

And he barreled past Keith. In a brief display of skill, his own boots flew off his feet in three well placed steps. Keith rammed him back by instinct. It was an instinct born of kicking each other under tables and wrestling before bed and chasing one another around trucks. Lance, by that instinct, laughed as he crashed down on his cot, and Keith thought for sure it would have broken beneath the strain. Instead Lance righted and their eyes met and their memories returned and their smiles dimmed.

Keith cleared his throat and turned to tie close the tent. When he stooped to undo his boots, the wreaths were gone. “Huh?”

“What.”

“Where are the…” and he pointed.

“What?”

Keith gave him a flat look.

Lance’s lips thinned in the telltale way like he was preparing to lie. “…what?”

Keith reached for his pillow.

“No—no no no no no no sir you put that down right this—eeek! No!”

Keith creamed him with his pillow, straddled him and found himself grinning sometime between when Lance yanked the pillow away and when he screeched with laughter the minute Keith resorted to attacking his sides.

He was crying before he relented. “Nooo! I give up! Stop stop stop—”

Keith smirked in triumph. He was sweating, because he hadn’t yet taken off his coat, and the heater and exertion was getting to him. He lifted a knee to—but Lance’s hand came down on his thigh. There was no pressure behind it, the simple weight eased Keith back down. Lance’s hips fit under Keith’s seat easily.

Lance’s hand slithered up in the sudden quiet. In the relative quiet—outside there was a peal of a child’s cry or a quarrel between lovers, or the smack of someone enjoying a meal—but between the two of them there was only the dance of the lantern fire and the whisper of skin against coat. Keith’s coat slipped from his shoulders. Not once did he break away from Lance’s gaze, but his regard was steadily turning steely while Lance…

Lance abated. “I’m sorry.”

Keith, elated that Lance finally finally was opening up, sulked. “About what?”

“I…you’ll hate me.”

“I’ll hate you more if you keep lying to me.”

Lance’s eyes widened. “Oh.” He looked away when Keith threated their fingers, penning him in. “I…I um.”

“Do you want me to guess?”

Lance shook his head. “I’ll say it.”

Keith waited.

“I’m sorry.”

“…about.”

“Lying to you.”

“About?”

“Shiro.”

“What about him?”

“He…he bit me.” Lance sweat when Keith said nothing. “He had to. I was going heatsick—there wasn’t anything else he could have done, Keith—”

“Which side?”

“Wh-what?”

“Which side did he mark you on?”

Lance’s left hand twitched, so Keith reached for the left side of Lance’s neck. Lance let out a muffled protest. Keith pulled the collar of his cardigan down and one of the higher buttons popped under the tension.

Keith sighed. He couldn’t see all of it, but the scarring betrayed clean indentations of the lower rows of teeth. There was no sign of pulling, as might have happened if Lance fought the marking process. There was no sign of claws, as some alpha were known to dig into the bite after making it, refining their “brand”. It was beautiful because it betrayed that Shiro knew what he was doing, and he did no more than necessary. It was beautiful because it healed well, there was no tampering on Shiro’s side or Lance’s, as omega have been known to scratch themselves bloody in the effort to remove unwanted bond marks.

Keith exhaled, “It’s beautiful.”

Lance nodded reluctantly.

“Why wouldn’t you tell me?”

“Scared.”

“Of?”

He threw his free hand over his eyes. “I was scared you’d hate him.”

“Hate him?” He had many questions. But most vitally: “Why didn’t you even tell me to give me the choice?”

Lance didn’t answer.

Maybe I’d get mad. Maybe I wouldn’t. If you had explained it to me, like you explained what you did to him when you went on your heat, I wouldn’t be mad.”

Lance didn’t answer.

Angry, “Why won’t you talk to me!?”

Lance mumbled, “Don’t shout at me.”

Quieter but no less insistent: “Talk to me, Lance. Please. You not talking to me…it hurts. It…hurts, it really does. It doesn’t feel good to not be trusted.”

Lance was upright in an instant. “No-no no no no I trust you. I trust you, Keith.”

Keith’s eyes dropped to Shiro’s brand. “Not about this. Obviously.”

Lance framed Keith’s face in his hands. Keith grabbed his wrists but didn’t pull away. His eyes fluttered closed when Lance’s index finger rubbed the rough skin of his curved burn on his cheek. He was almost ashamed of it, except this was Lance touching him, who understood more than anyone that brands, unlike marks, didn’t really go away.

Lance mumbled, “I’m sorry. I thought I was doing the right thing.”

“Like me, when I left you?”

Lance made a complicated expression. “Maybe. I. I thought it would be best you didn’t know. Like it never happened.”

“But it did happen. It’s been affecting us. And if I didn’t have my suspicions I would have thought…it was me. That you finally chose Shiro over me.”

“Babe, no—”

“Answer me. Just—answer me straight. Why didn’t you tell me?”

Lance’s eyes dropped as he sorted out his thoughts. Eventually, “I’ve…never heard you say anything good about alpha and you weren’t exactly happy about me getting close to Shiro. If you knew you were right, I was scared you wouldn’t let him back into our lives.”

Keith blinked. “I was right.”

Irritated, “Keith.”

“No, listen. I was right. You were reckless, you fell in love too easy.” He barreled on even as Lance’s mouth made an obstinate shape. “You did. And if Shiro was any other sort of man that would have cost us.”

Lance defended fiercely, “If Shiro was any other sort of man I wouldn’t have…I wouldn’t,” he swallowed. “I wouldn’t have fallen in love with him.”

Keith cradled Lance’s face in his hands unsmilingly. “I know.”

Defiance left Lance’s bones and nerves.

“Don’t…ever make decisions for me again, okay? Never. I’ve gotten than enough from being in two harems and working on my back. We’re a team, aren’t we?”

Hoarsely, “We are.”

“Then we need to stay on the same wavelength, okay?”

Miserably, Lance kissed Keith’s thumb. “Okay.”

“I’m not asking you to tell me everything but this…” and his gaze dropped to the pretty Bond, “I mean, is it fair to say it’s kinda my business? I care for you, I’d want to know about this sort of thing.”

Lance nodded.

“Is there anything else? You didn’t reciprocate, did you guys have sex?”

No.”

“Just asking.”

“I can’t anyway.”

“Can’t what.”

“Can’t have sex.”

Keith stared at him.

Lance rolled his eyes, almost laughing, “With alpha, I mean. Penetrative sex.”

“Oh.” Keith frowned. “Why? Everything works.”

Lance blushed and grinned and knocked the back of a laughing Keith’s head. “Yes, everything works. It’s just…I seize up at the idea of penetrative sex.”

Keith’s smile fell. “…oh.”

“Yeah.”

“I didn’t know.”

Lance hummed, Keith kissed his forehead.

“Thank you for telling me. About all this.”

Lance hummed, looped his arms around Keith’s body, and Keith shuffled closer until Lance’s nose was pressed to his sternum.

“Does that bother you?”

“Hmm?” he was toying with the shape of Keith’s ass.

Keith let him: it didn’t feel sexual at all. “Because it shouldn’t. Not wanting to have sex like that—”

“It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s that I don’t have a choice. My body,” and he let go of Keith to gesticulate uselessly. “My body isn’t me and it reacts in ways I can’t control sometimes.” He hissed, “I hate it! I hate that it just…decides for me….when to….” And his spat ended with his forehead thumping against Keith’s chest. “I feel helpless sometimes.”

Keith felt his body get a little heavier and melt to conform to Lance’s weight. He twisted his fingers through Lance’s hair without tension. “Me too.”

“I felt helpless when you left. And when my heat came.”

“I felt helpless when I knew something was wrong but you wouldn’t tell me.”

“I’m sorry. I just,” and he grasped his body again. “I don’t want you to go. I don’t want to give you a reason to go.”

“I’m not going anywhere!” Keith gripped him, flummoxed and startled. “Why do you keeping thinking—”

“Because I’m selfish. I can’t be alone again. I thought I could I thought but I can’t be without you. I just can’t. I can’t I can’t.”

So Keith stayed. Confused and more than a little out of depth, he stayed.

-

Keith noticed the Galra on the second day and asked Hunk about it.

“Yeah, he was employed as a cow hand a few weeks ago for the Balmera’s cattle.”

“Isn’t that a little…reckless? They know what the Galra can do.”

“Galra’s more of a culture than a people, don’t you think?”

Keith gave him an odd look.

“Think about it. They go from place to place destroying stuff sure…but on their own they’re pretty civil. A lot of stories would demonize them as a group but you don’t hear much about what they’re like as individuals.”

Keith looked over Lahn’s head in thought. True they were human in his memories with the way they laughed and supported each other, but that was only reserved to people they thought their equal. Toward everyone else they thought only in terms of how this beta, that alpha, or this Balmera might be used (or destroyed) to their benefit.

Keith started when Lahn laughed and was clapped on the shoulder by someone else. “I don’t know,” he decided. “Galra keep to their own. That he’s alone strikes me as…”

Hunk offered: “Rare?”

“I was going to say suspicious.”

“You’re a lot more bigoted than I thought you’d be,” Hunk replied with disappointment.

Hot shame spiked in Keith’s throat. He felt his gums sting where his fangs dropped and kept his glare on a frostbitten flower. “I grew up among them. I know what I’m talking about.”

Hunk spoke in soft shock, “You grew up among—”

“Manuia!”

“Oh,” he turned. He put a heavy hand on Keith’s shoulder. “We have to rehearse. Do you dance, Keith?”

Keith blanched in horror.

“Don’t give me that look,” he laughed. He answered to one of his…uncles? Cousins? He was an adult, wide and maternal and with his big hair studded with flowering weeds. “I like your hair,” Hunk teased.

He smiled wide wide. “Who’s this?”

“Lance’s…er, what are you? I guess intended is accurate?”

Keith shrugged, indifferent. He startled when he was swept up in a storm of a hug. “So that’s you! Welcome! You’re prettier than rumor!”

Keith flushed despite himself. His cheek was pressed to this unnamed uncle’s/cousin’s hair when his hood fell, and it was softer than its coarse appearance implied. He just managed to squeak “thank you” before he was earthbound again.

“I am Paulo,” introduced Hunk’s cousin? Uncle? “Do you dance Keith?”

Keith threw another distressed glance in Hunk’s direction.

Hunk grinned, but did not come to his rescue.

Keith swallowed, “Um…depends what you mean by dance?”

“I mean to music, drums. For an audience,” and Paulo tilted his head in curiosity. “What other sort of dance is there?”

Hunk smiled, “Yes, Keith—what other sort of dance is there?”

Keith tucked his hands into his coat and let himself be teased.

Paulo jostled him, a blow that left him tripping to regain balance. “Aw, I’m sorry I’m sorry. Don’t pout.”

“Who’s pouting? I’m not pouting.”

Paulo grinned ever wider. To Hunk he said, “The Balmera have prepared their hall for us. Grace and your mother are rounding up the others.”

Keith let Hunk twine their arms together as he was lead to the Balmera homestead. Unlike the Garrett constructs, which were each big lodges linked by half sheltered external corridors, the houses in the Balmera configuration were less eccentric.

There was one, wide, long single-story home that was outfitted with dozens of rooms of equal size where work, play and rest happened indiscriminately. In its middle was a courtyard, the greenest patch of living things since Keith visited the jungle. He stared at the sprawling black tree and the pots of vegetation sheltered by it in awe while he was ushered into one of the many bare faced rooms.

There was a kitchen somewhere, large but too small for a horde of families, and it was in a corner of the housing complex sealed off by walls of stone. The bathing houses were separate, equipped with toilets, and stood between tent city and the homestead itself.

In the room he was escorted into there were irregular groups of omega (he scented lingering beta) and older Balmera women chattering and eating over instruments or dresses or accessories that looked like pom-poms or belts and bracelets made of bells.

Keith recognized the Garrett matriarch sitting within a foot of the fire. Somehow she hadn’t been roasted by proximity. She seemed to be working on a veil.

“This is where we’ll be holed up for tonight and most of tomorrow,” Hunk provided. “We repair musical instruments and costumes.”

“It’s also the only time we truly get to talk smack about our husbands,” a woman Keith did not know grinned at his elbow, and the men and women around her laughed.

Paulo provided, “We work, but we also get to talk at length about things our significant others might not understand.”

Keith nodded. He understood, but he couldn’t sympathize after finding Lance’s company.

He was eventually deposited at in a circle and thrown the skirts of a costume to mend. As he got to work he realized why Hunk asked him if he could dance:

“Traditionally, only the unmarried girls—oh, excuse me. The unmarried who are looking for a husband,” equally gendered but Keith grasped the meaning, “dance the last dance at the end of the third day to catch the eyes of potential husbands for the game of chase the following morning.”

“Alpha have been known to dance it too,” someone volunteered. “There’s no limit on who can participate. But they all wear the same thing: skirts and bells.”

“It’s hard work learning the dance. It’s not one of the harder ones though. That goes to those who have already given birth. There’s a lot of stopping and bending and holding positions,” and he dropped his weaving to angle his arms and fingers in a beautiful shape. “Oh! It’s wonderful. I ache, but I will be dancing again.”

Keith asked how many dances there would be tomorrow night.

“Only six. The first three are performed by the children, then one by those coming of age, then the mothers, then the unmarried looking for spouses.”

Hunk leaned over and mentioned that when the majority of the work was done here, some of the mothers would break off to find their children and run dance rehearsals one final time.

“Speaking of spouses, Keith.”

Keith jumped.

“Congratulations of snatching one of the veld’s most eligible bachelors.”

“Oh, that was you!”

“Aw, I hate you! Congratulations!” Someone else laughed.

“Oh, Lance is so beautiful. Have you ever seen him dance?” And he struck another pose. Someone told him to work his fingers as much as he worked his mouth. He ignored them, “Oh! He’s strong but moves like an eel in water.”

Keith was surprised. Lance danced?

“Yes, yes he does! He dances with the children and the married women. It was very clear that he wasn’t looking for a spouse, you see. He was careful to never give us hope. But I’ve heard rumor that he will be taking part in the last dance tomorrow.”

Hunk laughed. He wondered who started that rumor. Keith eyed him suspiciously. “I don’t know if he’ll be participating,” Hunk said airily, “but I do know that he asked me to teach him the dance.”

Keith frowned. He never saw him practice. Never heard of it until now. It felt like it was coming out of nowhere.

“Well, he can’t expect you to see him dance before the big night now can he?”

Keith scowled skeptically.

“I’m surprised you’re surprised. Of course Lance can dance! Haven’t you felt it when he makes love?”

Keith spluttered.

The gang laughed. Even Grandmother Garrett cracked a smile from her faraway post.

“In a way I wouldn’t be surprised if Lance never touched him. He so polite.”

“Why wouldn’t he touch him? Is he not beautiful?”

“Maybe he doesn’t like men.”

“Idiot, he came here with him claiming him as his intended.”

A sniff, “Why doesn’t he have a mark then?”

“Ask him, isn’t he right there?”

Keith swallowed when eyes flickered to him. “Uh. Um.”

Have you had sex with him?”

Keith nodded, “Yes—”

“Of course he did, they’re intended!”

“What is he like!?”

“You had sex with him and didn’t know he could dance?”

“Now that you say it it’s obvious,” Keith admitted. The music in Lance’s bones that he always heard when he swept through the kitchen, or even in his fingers when he worked the loom or carded through his or Shiro’s hair, or the curl in his hips when he stopped moving mid-thought, or when he walked. The simple act of walking had bounce and beat. It was so obvious in retrospect. He was always dancing.

“And?”

“And what?”

“What is he like in bed?”

Keith stiffened and felt Hunk breathe to come to his defense, but Keith murmured, “He’s good.”

“Is that it?!”

Wolves, all of them.

“He’s…good. With his fingers.”

“Oh!” and the dancing fellow struck a new, sinuous shape with his arms: “That boy always did have graceful hands.”

“Shut up and work!”

“I taught him the first movements,” he went on, ignoring the plea.

Keith didn’t know how to answer. “Uhm. Thank you?”

The room dissolved into laughter. A string broke on a guitar. “Shit,” someone muttered.

“It’s always the G string,” someone else muttered.

There was the sound of a distant smack.

“You know,” someone who was repairing the belled anklets began, “my husband won’t come out and say it? But he likes taking it up the ass.”

More laughter.

“It’s true!”

“It is true, it is true.”

“Is that true for alpha too?”

Someone must have nodded, because there were more squeals.

Keith felt a little overwhelmed. It all reminded him of the baseless chatter of the omega in the harems. He thought them too empty headed to think of anything else and rejected their appeal for conversation out of the fear that he’d turn as stupid as them.

He felt like revising his opinion among these men and women now, if only because he knew that they could talk about anything else. They chose to talk about love and sex and romance (or the lack thereof, in one or two more morose stories), rather than being unable to talk of anything else from ignorance and inexperience.

Someone said something and Keith frowned. “Huh?”

“It’s true, she has eight lovers, the glutton.”

“Give me back my wife!”

More laughter.

“No, not that. I thought I heard you say…”

“What, that I fuck them? I do! The bride we all got together for has a brilliant eye for creating pleasure devices.

“God, just call them dildos! Strap-ons! Sex toys! We’re all adults here!”

More laughter.

“Shit.”

“The G string again!?”

Keith asked, “You make sex toys?”

Hunk jerked, “Well, not me personally, I mean, not that I can’t—that is, um. Yes. Yes I do.” He chuckled, “But can you blame me? Heats are murder and I’m not the only one. There’s a market for it,” and he gestured to the room.

Keith watched Hunk. Keith asked, “How much?”

Chapter Text

Keith shifted. In the dying embers of the kyanite sunset, Keith treaded a shuffling crowd of coats and chattering. Hunk’s solid presence had steadied him for a while, but now he felt aimless. He cradled the piping hot fish tea in his hands, though the sky had warmed enough that he couldn’t see his breath until the first stars appeared and the fires were lit.

They were waiting on the final dancers. The first five already had his blood thrumming in delight and his knees throbbing in impatience. He wanted to see Lance! But it had been half an hour already and he was starting to wonder if some tragedy had happened behind the wings.

A stage was carved out for the dancers, marked by a perimeter of bright red rope. Keith was hypnotized by toddlers daring each other to cross the threshold. He startled badly when the first drums sounded.

It sounded like a hollow mountain testing its voice. It rattled the ground and broke open the sky. Flutes blared soon after, a chaotic medley. Some started clapping clap-clap-clap-clap but Keith couldn’t follow the rhythm.

Not until the first dancers appeared at least.

They ran through the crowd, appearing on all sides, hopping upbeat and at once. They were in black form fitting long sleeved shirts that stretched over their knuckles. Over it was a black vest glittering and heavy from coins, coloured tassels, and pretty stones. On their waists were belts from which bloomed wide skirts, also black and tasseled, but just beneath was a rainbow of petticoats and twirls and leaps easily revealed.

Spectators whistled and jeered, but it felt appreciative, Keith thought. Keith grinned, quickly warmed by the dancers’ uncoordinated, elated bouncing. Then—maybe it was by count or maybe there was a dip in the music he did not notice—they synchronized. They jabbed their elbows in the air and stepped forward and turned, swinging their hips, their skirts. Each movement was something exaggerated in their hips or back, but that made sense, because the energy had to translate into flashing the bright petticoats, which caught the light from the bonfires brilliantly.

Someone whistled very loudly beside Keith. He laughed when he recognized Lance, because Lance was the only one who broke away his broad smile to make a grotesque face with a lolling tongue.

The dance was high energy from start to finish, but that did not mean it lacked finesse. It was clear that a lot of flexibility was required: more than once the almost-brides jumped, arched their backs, and aimed the tip of their toes to the crowns of their heads. Some were far off. Lance’s toes touched his hair each time.

They fell to the ground often, rolling and appropriating predators for a heartbeat before leaping up and turning into humans again. Or almost human. They looked like wind nymphs the more the drums sounded, the more the flutes blared, and Keith forgot himself. He could feel a narrative in the dance, but like the gateway between mortals and the fantastic he’d be damned before he could figure out what it was.

The magic of it all ended too quickly, when the dancers, the almost-brides, spun once and then collapsed into splits as violent as the sudden drop of song. Several cries of sympathetic pain rose up from the audience, but the dancers themselves showed no pain save for heaving breasts.

Before Keith could assure himself it wasn’t all a spectacular hallucination, they scattered like cockroaches diving between squealing children and pawing alpha. Laughs and applause went up. There were wolf whistles, but they came and went in no particular direction.

Keith breathed to join the fray—

A strong hand latched onto his forearm and tugged him against a body radiating heat. He went easily. They carried him to the edge of the crowd and then rushed him across the abandoned prairie to tent city. Keith laughed and grasped for the amorphous figure of a feminine Lance in front of him. Somewhere during his kidnapping he lost his tea. Lance whooped. Keith felt the energy, the air, the freedom. He laughed, “Aren’t you tired?!”

“Exhausted!” Lance whistled back.

They laughed all the way into their tent, stumbled in, giggling, cold, while Keith laced up the entrance Lance tripped and fell.

Keith saw nothing, but the cacophony that followed Lance’s decline from grace was all the imagery he needed. He laughed and laughed and laughed before he had the presence of mind to offer a hand. “Oh Ancients, are you alright?”

“No, I think I just rammed the heater up my ass.”

“Oh Ancients—”

“I’m kinda into it.”

“Shut up,” Keith would burst if he laughed any harder. A strong hand latched onto his elbow messily, desperately holding on, and blindly yanked him down down...Keith fell in a painful heap. A knee clipped his side, a spoon indented his hand that landed against the floor, his mouth and nose crashed against Lance’s teeth. They moaned. They laughed. “Idiot, I can’t see!”

Lance giggled, “I can’t see either, fuck,” but they could see, once their hands fell into place, and Keith oriented himself to straddle Lance while Lance untucked cutlery from his back. Then he crashed back. “God! It’s over. Fuck.”

Keith hummed and rested his cheek against Lance’s chest. His heart was going a mile a minute. He wished he could kiss it. “Were you scared?”

“Of?”

“Being up there. Of everyone watching you.”

“No.”

“Oh.”

“I…there’s the jitters you get before everything starts, yeah,” Lance panted into the dark. It was quiet outside the tent, but footfalls sounded, and lanterns started getting lit, and the mutilated shadows of passersby began painting the canvas overhead and turning muddy shadows into vague outlines of recognizable things. Keith slipped his fingers under Lance’s square vest as he went on. “But it’s like when you’re cold and in the snow, you just move a lot to generate heat. When I start moving, the jitters melt away.”

“Oh.”

“Did you see me?”

“It was impossible not to. You were the best dancer there.”

“Flatterer.”

“I couldn’t see anyone else.”

“It’s cuz you’re so short.”

Keith pinched him.

“Ow.”

“I’m trying to pay you a compliment.”

“You’ll need to do better than that,” and Lance tilted his head up. Keith, feeling the movement, looked up. Lance’s eyes flickered, and somehow he knew what that meant. He shuffled forward and pressed their lips together. A flex of soft warm muscle, that was all it was. All the same Lance smiled into it, Keith licked his broken bottom lip, and they separated a little muter than how they began.

Lance drew nonsense snowflake patterns on Keith’s back beneath the fur parka.

Keith traced fingertips on the sharp of Lance’s jaw. “You’re wearing make-up.”

Lance’s small smile didn’t abate. Someone lit a lantern just outside their tent, and they were awash with a burst of yellow for a moment.

“Just a little. You think it suits me?”

“I dunno. But I couldn’t see it while you were dancing.” Though his black lips and smoky eyes were more than apparent this close up. “Doesn’t that kind of defeat the purpose of wearing it in the first place?’

Lance shrugged. “I felt pretty. I think that it served its purpose fine.”

Keith frowned a little bit. “You’re always pretty, Lance.”

“Aw. Babe.”

“No,” he said firmly. “I mean it.”

Lance’s eyes shifted. It was brief, but his face had been vulnerable and genuine and distant. “Thanks.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong.”

“I’d like to think I know you a little bit,” Keith gently traced the contour of Lance’s nose. “You just thought of something.”

“It’s not exactly pleasant.” Lance shifted. “I don’t want to kill the mood.”

“Are you uncomfortable? Should I get up?”

“No, no, stay. I like your weight on me.”

“Okay. And you wouldn’t kill the mood, whatever it is.” He knew he wouldn’t find the right words for what he wanted to say next. “We make the mood. It changes, according to what we say. It’s supposed to.” He screwed his face up. “I’m trying to say that you can speak your mind. Don’t censor yourself.”

Lance smiled. Lance kissed him. He said, “I know I’m not conventionally pretty—”

“No-one is,” Keith interrupted. Mommy Garrett’s words came to mind. “And it doesn’t matter. It genuinely doesn’t matter.”

Lance shrugged, “Still, wearing make-up feels like I can be a stronger version of myself. A prettier version.”

“I…don’t think the two words are interchangeable.”

“Pretty people have power. You don’t notice because you’re always pretty.”

“Am not.”

“Are too. You sparkle in your sleep.”

“Shut up.”

“Even when you’re drooling on your pillow and everything.”

“Shut up!”

Somehow Keith got his hands on an upended pillow. Lance squealed when he was creamed by it. When they settled again, the pillow was under Lance’s head and Keith’s nose and mouth were against his throat. Lance’s fingers went tick-tock-tick-tock against Keith’s elbow, and the upside-down heater dispersed the slow seeping cold such that they didn’t need to be afraid if they fell asleep on the ground.

“Lance?”

“Mmm?” it seemed that Lance was already falling asleep.

“I want to do something for you.”

“Is it a back massage?”

Keith hesitated. With an odd inflection he replied, “Actually, it can be.”

Lance was curious enough to open his eyes. “What is it.”

“You don’t need to sound so suspicious.”

“I’m lying with the man who tied me to a post in my own home when we first met, of course I’m going to be suspicious.”

Keith had long since given up. He didn’t dignify that with a response.

“What’s the surprise?”

“It’s not really a surprise it’s just…you know how Hunk’s sister makes sex toys?”

Lance’s eyes widened perceptibly in the dark. “Oh my god you bought yourself a dildo.”

“No! Well. Not precisely.”

Lance cocked his head while Keith rummaged for something. He returned with a vat of oil and…oh. Affixed to an adjustable harness was an alpha’s cock, complete with a knot, shiny and pretty and blunt. Lance asked what it was made of once: Hunk resigned to calling it a kind of wax.

Lance blurted, “That’s not going to break off in someone’s coochie, is it?”

Keith blurted out a laugh. “Uh—no?”

“I don’t like that answer.”

Keith ignored him. “In light of what you told me the other day, about…the fact that you’re not sure if you like penetration, I was wondering if you would like to experiment with me and find out.”

“How much did that cost?”

“Don’t worry about that.”

“Did you sell them your unborn child?”

“Don’t worry about that.”

Lance braced up on his elbows. He breathed to reply.

“It’s okay to reject me,” Keith said.

Lance looked away. “I don’t want to disappoint you—”

“Disappoint me,” he demanded. “I’m asking for your honesty, not to compromise. Don’t compromise, be selfish. Do you want me to fuck you with this?”

Lance screwed his brows together. “I…don’t know.”

Keith smiled, stalked forward, and kissed him, rewarded him.

“I’d…I’d like to see you in it, though.” He sounded nervous. He licked his lips hastily, as though as an afterthought.

Keith wondered. “Would you like to suck me off too?”

Lance’s eyes flickered with a nascent heat. “You don’t find that weird?”

“Be selfish.” He kissed him again. “I’m in a subservient mood tonight.”

Lance’s grin in reply was wicked. “When aren’t you?”

Keith made for the pillow.

“Don’t hit me don’t hit me!”

Keith did not. He slipped out of his coat, unbuttoned the woolly cardigan Lance had made several summers ago. The boots he’d kicked off shortly after they’d made a makeshift nest of cutlery on the floor. Lance’s fingers slithered between the tight space separating skin from denim and easily popped it open.

Keith sighed, and Lance could feel him giving pieces of himself over. He asked, “Would you want to be naked?” Quickly: “Or is it too cold for that?”

“I’ll keep this on.”

Lance nodded. Keith bowed over him and kissed him, gracefully leading him to lean back on the pillow again. He put Lance’s hands on him, and Lance peeled the jeans down to his thighs. After that Keith stood, then returned silhouetted by the glow of the moon and neighboring lanterns diffused by the fabric of their tent. He was wonderfully supple and taut and pale, and looked wonderfully owned in the cardigan that Lance could name by stitch.

Then he stepped into the harness and popped a hip to figure it out. Lance scrambled to his knees and shuffled forward in his borrowed clothes to help.

“You look good down there,” Keith teased. He gasped when Lance licked the crease of his groin. Something in his person trembled.

“Don’t get cocky.”

It took a full minute for the joke to settle in.

Keith shouted, “Don’t!”

Lance cackled.

“God, I hate you!”

Lance cackled.

“I can only be cocky right now!”

Lance shrieked with laughter.

Keith, in a moment of brilliance, pinched the hefty girth of his new cock between the pad of his thumb and the side of his forefinger and tapped it smack! against Lance’s bright cheek.

Lance’s laughter broke off.

Keith paled in dread, “I’m sorry.”

Lance shook his head, expression indiscernible. “It’s fine,” he replied. “Can we lay down some ground rules?”

“Of course,” and he rubbed Lance’s cheek apologetically. He felt Lance smile against it.

“One: no smacking me with your dick, please and thank you.”

“Done.”

“Next: no smacking me at all.”

“Like, with my hands you mean?”

“Yeah. I…don’t think I like it rough. I like you bossy but…for this, I want to be in control. When I hesitate…when I’m not sure…”

Keith waited.

Lance cleared his throat. “If I hesitate, please check in.”

“Duh. Next?”

He felt Lance smile again, but it felt like a secret, like Keith wasn’t supposed to know that Lance appreciated something he said. He went on: “Two—uh, wait. We’re not on two are we. Where are we, three? Four?”

“Just say ‘next’,” Keith dismissed hurriedly.

“Bossy! Next then. Next: don’t…leave me?”

Keith frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Like…I want to know I’m having sex with a person. I want to feel your hands on me. I want to know you’re aware, and that you know I’m here with you and…god, what am I saying—”

“No, no, I get it,” Keith kneeled. His new cock jutted out awkwardly between them, but was mostly hidden by their shadows. Lance felt it brush his knee when Keith leaned forward and kissed him passionately, but still, somehow, it wasn’t sexual. It was lovely, with a slow, long, wet drag of his tongue against Lance’s bottom lip, and a little suck against his mouth as they parted, then again and again. It dissolved any immediate apprehensions in Lance’s heart.

Keith said, “Letting you know I love you while I’m fucking you isn’t a hardship. I’m doing this for you, okay?”

Lance almost sobbed. “Fuck I don’t deserve you.”

Keith kissed him. “Shut up.” Keith kissed him. “Do you want that massage while I fuck you?”

“Um…can we start missionary first please?”

“Of course.” Lance shuffled back and Keith settled between his legs. He lifted his hands to Lance’s socked ankles, then ran them up up up his bare, cold calves, his lukewarm, knobby knees, the flesh of his warm, round thighs. “Mmm.”

Lance chuckled, “Shut up.”

“You feel amazing.”

“Your cock isn’t even real, what are you talking about?”

“You feel amazing under my hands, dumbass.” He pinched him.

Lance giggled, “Ouch!”

“You’re just so…pliant under me. I move you…and you move with me.” He sighed when he did just that, shuffled a little closer into a mess of skirts and Lance’s legs parted a little wider. “I love it when you move. God, you’ll really let me do this for you?”

Lance, suddenly shy before Keith’s brutal vulnerability, nodded. “Just,” he breathed, “just be slow? Please?”

“Yes. Can I—” he swallowed. “Can I fuck you with your panties still on?”

Lance covered his face. Why was he nervous! Why was it erotic?! They were clothed. Keith’s dick wasn’t real. Why did it feel like he was getting his cherry popped all over again? He nodded. He gasped when Keith’s fingers rolled under the curve of his ass, fingering the hem of his underwear. Keith’s fingers were cold. His clitoris stirred.

“Speak to me. Can I fuck you with your—”

“God, don’t say it again!”

“Then tell me,” Keith grinned. “In a whole sentence. I want to hear you say it.”

Lance covered his face with both his hands. “Fuck me in my panties. Please.”

Mm. Good boy.”

“I thought I was in charge?”

Keith’s eyes flashed to his, dangerous and alert. “You are,” he said carefully.

Lance relaxed. “Oh.” He swallowed. “Right.” Keith could stop at the beat of a hat. Would stop the moment he breathed funny. He was fine. He was safe.

“Relax.”

He relaxed.

The oil was suspiciously warm. Lance jumped a little when it fell almost perfectly on his clit through his panties. He whined when his underthings were wonderfully soaked, and Keith’s fingers followed the rise and fall of his shape, and pressed perfectly over his clit. His hole felt hot suddenly, like it had a sentience of its own and was eager to be filled. Lance whimpered, angled his hips up into Keith’s touch.

The petticoats ruffled as Keith chuckled. “Responsive tonight.”

Lance hid his face.

“You look good like this,” with his free hand he lifted Lance’s leg and dropped the back of the knee on his shoulder. “You look beautiful when you’re willing. When you want.”

Lance didn’t let on how perfect his words were. He jerked when Keith slipped beside his panties and teased the entrance of his sopping vagina.

Jesus Lance.”

“Don’t tease,” Lance blushed furiously. “I can’t help it—you’re getting me all hot and my body’s just…”

“Your body wants me too?”

Lance bit his bottom lip. “Yeah.”

“And you want me to fuck you too?”

“I’m sure we established this—uhn!” Keith rolled his fingers with a delicious pressure and pace. Lance lifted his hips into it. His hands flew to the back of his head, seeking purchase in the pillow. “Please. Please, I’ve never wanted it so much in my life! Please fuck me please fuck me Keith!”

Keith angled over him.

And Lance’s breath caught.

Unbidden came a forgotten emotion. Dread. Panic. Not fear: they hated the smell of fear. The shape of the thing over him was different. He held his breath. He saw clay walls and the scratching where he drew a coyote with his sister’s baby. He—

“Lance.”

Lance could see the thatch roof, and the garden snake coiled there, watching him with pity.

“Lance,” the figure moved and all pressure, wonderful and wanted or otherwise, abated. “Lance, look at me. Look at me. It’s Keith.”

“I know who you are.”

“Then look at me.” Keith was grasping for his hand. Lance turned and let him hold it. “That’s it.”

Lance rubbed his eyes. He felt nauseous. “I feel sick.”

“Just breathe.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I went through this too.”

Lance looked at him in alarm. “You did?”

“I’m a…survivor too.”

Lance wanted to tug his hand away. He didn’t think they were alike at all. Not like this. He said in lieu of his thoughts, “You’ve never been married. Or marked.”

“No, but I’ve been forced on.”

“I wasn’t.”

Keith didn’t answer, but Lance could feel the disagreement in the air. “Would you like to stop?”

“No! No, it was just getting good!” He didn’t know where all the good sensations went. They were all right here! And now all that was left was hunger, and not even the good kind. He sighed, “I fucked up.”

“No, you did not.” Keith kissed his forehead. When did it get clammy? “I told you, we make our mood.”

Lance sighed.

“You want to tell me what happened?”

Lance closed his eyes. “I remembered my husband.” He made a face.

“…do you want to talk about it?”

“Do I have to?”

“No.”

Lance smiled a little, grateful for the out. He admitted, “I wanted to visit my sister. She’d just given birth. I’d been married for a few months. My husband hadn’t started hitting me yet. But he said if I wanted to go see her that…”

“Jesus.”

“I didn’t finish.”

“I get the gist.”

“He didn’t force me.”

“An ultimatum isn’t consent.”

Four little words and they utterly upended Lance’s comprehension of how relationships worked.

Keith said: “Consent isn’t conditional. It’s binary. Yes or no, there’s no inbetween. If there is an in between, it’s no.”

Lance huffed, “That sounds…oversimplified.”

“It is simple.” He rubbed his thumb against Lance's fingers. “I’m sorry that happened to you.”

Lance looked at Keith and saw utter understanding. “You too.”

Keith smiled. A thought came to him. “Hey, do you want to fuck me instead?” Just as quickly: “Not that you have to. We can stop here.”

“That’s not a bad idea but…” Lance untangled himself from Keith. He pulled off his square, borrowed vest and tossed it into a dark corner. He went to his knees, pulled up his petticoats, and threw his face down into the pillow.

Keith’s shoulders melted and his mouth watered at the obscene vision of Lance, smelling of alpha, of sea musk, of desire, posturing. For him!

Keith swallowed: “Fuck, Lance.”

Lance grinned, “That’s, yeah. That’s kinda the goal here.”

Keith moved behind him, held the skirts aloft to see Lance’s ass, grey in the diffused light and cut in half by ruined panties. Fuck! What a gorgeous, obscene shape: like he’d been used a while ago, too eager to get his ass plowed he couldn’t even undress, and here he was bent over again begging for anything to fill him.

Not anything. For Keith to take responsibility for his pleasure.

Keith stuck his tongue in Lance’s ass and Lance squealed: “Not there!”

Keith licked and sucked anyway, holding Lance in place by his upper thighs.

“Keith, wai—ughn!”

Keith had reached forward, stroking Lance’s clit through the panties again. The fabric felt coarser now than they had a moment ago. It took a moment for Lance to register his clitoris was unsheathed, and each stroke was sharper. His cries were sharper too.

Rustling, rustling—then Keith’s tongue dipped out of Lance’s ass—something blunt pressed against his labia. Lance keened. Keith froze.

“Sorry, I’m moving too fast?”

“No,” Lance shook his head. “Please, Keith. Please. I’m ready.”

Keith gulped, his heart erratic. He looked down: under layers and layers of fabric and one ruined underthing hitched to the side of his faux cock, Lance’s pussy was patiently parted, impatiently throbbing, like it was trying to swallow him down.

“Did you…did you come already?”

Lance gasped, “No…but I’m sensitive so I’m almost there—ah!” Keith’s finger flicked experimentally. “Fuck me please I can’t think of anything else.”

Keith shivered in delight. He did that. He reduced Lance to this. He pressed forward.

Lance squeaked when the head popped through. He relaxed when Keith pulled out and then pushed in, not going any further, fucking him shallowly. His finger had taken up more leisurely strokes—Lance felt Keith’s forearm flex against the skin of his hip with each stroke of his middle finger—and Lance’s pussy squelched loudly.

Keith asked, “Are you pre-heat?”

Lance gasped, “I shouldn’t be if you aren’t.”

“You’re on Shiro’s cycle now, remember?”

“Oh yeah. Fuck.” Lance rolled his eyes when he felt himself getting penetrated a little deeper. He popped his ass out further. “Poor Shiro—hnf! Out there somewhere on rut…without…without…”

“Without his omega.”

Lance sighed. Lance whined.

“Do you want to be his omega, Lance?”

“Keith, I want you—”

“I know. But do you want to be Shiro’s omega too?”

“…yesh.” His honesty was rewarded by three fast fucks and furious jabs to his clitoris. Lance yelped, which was loud in the silence thereafter. Keith was not moving. His fingers were not moving. Outside the tent was quieter than it had been an hour before.

“Do you wish I was him fucking you?”

“…no.”

“Don’t lie to me,” and Keith’s free hand played with Lance’s ass.

Lance groaned. “I’m not! I’m not—I want this to be you! I do! I—hm—”

One hand on his clit, one painting oil on his anus and his vagina swallowing around something suitably girthy, Lance was pinned body and soul.

“Would this ass be able to take both him and me? Do you think?”

Lance shook. “Keith please fuck me—”

“Answer me. Would you like to have your ass filled too?”

“Yes yes yes yes—oh!”

In time, Keith thrust forward thrice, hard, finger jerked against Lance’s clit, his other finger popping through the tight ring of muscle.

Lance trembled. He mumbled in awe: “You’re edging me.”

Keith was abruptly coy. He sang: “Nooo…”

“How’d you get so good at reading me?”

“Virtue of eating you out every other day for several months,” Keith laughed, and did his rapid fire combination again. Lance squealed in the back of his throat. His toes scrabbled against the tent floor. His innards pulsed hotly, in part satisfied, in part about to throw down if Keith didn’t fuck him properly!

Keith could feel the vibrations of Lance’s pussy undulating through his cock into the leather straps. He didn’t wish he had a cock. He did wish his tongue was inside Lance’s channel while it was so obviously enjoying itself.

Keith moved consistently at last, but slowly, artfully balancing himself between fucking, fingering and rubbing Lance who deteriorated into a sobbing, convulsing thing beneath him. But as he had when he was completely aware, Lance’s body was pliant beneath Keith’s ministrations, shifting if Keith shifted, and Lance responded verbally if prompted.

For now he purred, happily hazy as the urge to orgasm ebbed and flowed. He gasped on and off, Keith listened, learning Lance’s language. He got very little out of all this physically, but to see Lance enjoying penetration because of his efforts outweighed that impeccably.

“K-Keith?”

“Yeah. Yeah?”

“I’m glad it’s you.”

Keith smiled. “Thank you.”

“Hm? For what?”

“For coming on my cock.”

“What are you—ah—ah! Ah ah ahahahaHAHAHAH—!!”

-

In the morning, men and alpha sang from the direction of the bath houses, where Rax and his merry band would spend an hour shivering and laughing with each other until the games of tag-cum-hide and seek after breakfast.

Lance slept heavily. He was entangled with his lover, finally naked, and Keith carefully ran his hand up and down his side, staring at smudged makeup on face and pillow, in between laughing and wanting to kiss it.

He sighed on smelling heatscent that was not his own. Shiro was in rut somewhere, because Lance was pre-heat but Keith was not. Lance would be fine today. They could pass it off as Keith being pre-heat and fevered scenting causing Lance to smell like that. But they would have to leave tonight for risk of exposure. It meant missing the wedding.

Keith kissed Lance’s nose.

It wrinkled.

“Up?”

Lance turned into the pillow. He comprehensively replied: “Hnnrfthsp.”

“I fucked you that good last night huh?”

No response.

“I said—”

“Shut up I heard what you said and you did now shut up.”

Keith laughed in his hair.

“I think I’m pre-heat.”

“Yeah. I know.” Keith smelled Lance’s hair. Was an omega supposed to get aroused by the smell of another omega? Keith wondered if it was nature or conditioning that made him want Lance so abruptly.

Lance sighed.

Keith patted his shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

“This cuts our visit short.”

“I know. At least I got to see you dance.”

Lance chuckled. He groaned. “What am I going to tell them?”

“The truth? That we have a big heat coming up and we need to go home.”

Lance sighed.

“I’m sorry.”

“At least we get to play the game today.”

“Mhm.” That reminded Keith. “You made two flower crowns the other night.”

“Ack. You saw that.”

“Is there someone beside me that you were going to try to snag for a husband?”

Lance maladroitly smacked Keith. He missed by a mile. “Doofus. You’re the only one for me.”

“Well. Me and Shiro.”

Lance turned his face to glare at him, unsure if he was being teased or not. Keith’s smile did not tell him. He said, “I made one for you.”

“I gathered as much. That means you want to run me down, right?”

“What self-respecting alpha would do less?”

Keith chuckled. “And the second one?”

“I made that for you. So you can run me down with it.”

Keith popped a brow. “You want me to chase you down?”

“Yeah.” Lance flushed and bit his bottom lip. Keith heard in the way he breathed that he was preparing the words. “Maybe it’s the omega slut in me, I dunno, but I like the idea of you catching me and owning me.”

“Like I did last night.”

Lance glared.

Keith grinned.

“I’m trying to be sincere here.”

Keith’s grin fell. He pressed a kiss to his own fingers, then against Lance’s mouth.

Lance accepted the apology by licking his fingers.

“So it’s a game of who catches who first.”

“Mhm.”

“I like it.”

Lance grinned, broad a boyish, an askew fang Keith never noticed before mildly tucked behind an incisor. It was cute. “Good.”

Keith was compelled to kiss him. “Where are they?”

Distracted, “What?”

“The crowns you made. I want to look at them.” He sounded oddly urgent, so Lance dusted off the last of his sleep to unearth them. They were a little drier, and the flowers wilted a little, and the crown was a little damp, like Lance had them in water to preserve them.

Keith took one and promptly held it over Lance’s head.

Lance laughed, “This isn’t how it works!”

“Sshh,” and Lance settled, smiling that boyish smile that kicked off Keith’s heart in an unfair way. He exhaled shakily. He settled the flower crown on Lance’s head. He watched Lance close his eyes, his smile turning softer and softer the more Keith arranged his hair to make the crown stay without pricking him.

Keith kissed him, and Lance jumped, because he hadn’t expected it. Keith said: “I wanted to do it nicely now because when I’m out there running after you, I won’t be so gentle.”

Lance guffawed, “That sounds so ominous.”

“I’ll fuck you extra good tonight as apology.”

Keith half expected Lance to complain or at least feign indifference.

He was pleased to see Lance flush and turn his face into the pillow instead.

-

The game began at high noon. That had given the participants time to settle their meals, catch up their hair and don the boots that wouldn’t slip against the foliage. Keith spied Hunk and made his way over to him.

“Hey!” Hunk had someone do up his hair so that it wrapped around his head. He was wearing makeup too—his mouth was redder and black lined his eyes.

“You’re pretty today,” Keith greeted.

Hunk grinned, “Thanks. Half the game is looking enticing. You’ll notice the ‘chasers’ are posturing, even non-alpha.” He grinned in derision, and Keith joined him upon spying the men and women on the opposite side of the clearing spreading their chests and pulling back their shoulders and stretching to bring attention to their bare arms.

Keith asked lightly, “Aren’t they cold?”

“Of course they are. They wouldn’t admit it though. Only Shay and Lance are acting civil—but even Lance is…ugh.”

Lance had just flexed to someone who called to him, complete with a wink.

Keith snorted. “That’s my man.”

Hunk didn’t miss that he sounded exasperated over the fact.

Someone began hitting pans to call for attention. The games would be starting soon. “Those who will begin by chasing go to my left, those who will begin by running to my right!”

The little crowd divided, two uneven rows of people facing each other. Keith heard someone tease Lance about smelling like he was in heat. He saw Shay’s even gaze stay on Hunk. He felt Hunk fidget beside him, and a pleased, aroused undertone invaded his scent. He kept his eyes on Lance. Lance saw him, and when their eyes met Keith remembered how juvenile he looked that morning with flowers in his hair and laughter on his teeth.

He looked away before he started smelling like Hunk.

“Runners will be given a ten minute head start. Chasers will catch runners by holding their wrist and asking if they can put the crown on the head of the person they captured. If they are denied, they either return here or seek another to chase.”

Like any self-respecting alpha—or man, as the case was—would return early as proof they’d been shunned. They’d either sit and lick their wounds until the gong sounded or try their luck with someone else. Keith looked down the line. There were what, roughly thirty omega and women among him? Some of them he knew were already married to some of the chasers. He saw Umi and waved.

“Runners are allowed to run ahead now,” and many of them took off for the grove. They’d be hidden within minutes.

Keith made sure to catch Lance’s eye before he took off. He smiled, and by the way Lance’s eyes widened, he was certain that his smile was successfully predatory.

He ran.

He knew when the ten minutes was up when a short eternity later he heard someone scream.

“You fucking scared me!” someone shouted loud enough for the grove to hear. There was giggling, muttered vows, and then familiar silence.

Keith startled when an alpha saw him, a woman with a broad face and long black hair—a Balmera—but she only smiled a secret smile and moved on.

So she had specific prey, Keith noted.

Keith did not wear his beloved winter coat. He wore a dark woolen jacket and gloves cut so that he could feel the trees when he climbed them. He pants were close and coarse such that when he sat on a broad limb above, it did not irritate him. While he waited his braided his hair.

He contemplated cutting it: it grazed his shoulder blades in uneven droops. But he liked how the braid beat his back when he ran or rode. He wondered, if he asked, if Lance would hold it while he fucked him.

The idea made him want to forfeit the chase altogether.

Another scream. This one didn’t end with a chorus of laughter. A spurned lover.

Someone tread too close to his post. An unmated beta, a man, dark and strong and of clear Garrett make. Keith threw one of his twelve pebbles at a faraway tree. The unknown Garrett jerked, waited, then stalked toward the sound. Keith didn’t see him again.

He nearly fell from his perch when he heard Lance’s voice: “Keith come out, it’s not like we’re looking for anyone else anyway!”

Keith growled. Idiot! Why was he giving away his position? But it seemed like he was just putting on airs, because there were a few chuckles that answered him.

The testosterone infected him, Keith thought with a roll of his eyes. He got to his feet when he spied a figure…

…that was not Lance.

It was the lone Galra, Lahn. Keith froze in alarm. How did he know I was here? He sniffed his sleeve. He was not obvious, was he?

But Lahn didn’t see him. He stalked straight for another emerging figure.

Straight for Lance.

Where Keith nearly fell from his post in dread, Lance was indifferent. “Hey dude,” no, a little tension was underneath. Keith wondered if he was the only one who could hear it.

“Hi,” Lahn inclined his head. His eyes stayed trained and he walked. Keith twisted this way and that as they circumvented his tree and circled each other. “You’re Lance. Friend to the bride’s little brother.”

“That’s right. Word gets round. You’re…”

“Lahn. Rax’s grandfather took me in as cowhand.”

“That’s cool,” he nodded. “So, I’ll be going this way then.”

Keith almost threw a rock at his head.

“Wait,” Lahn caught Lance’s wrist. Lance jerked instinctively. Keith jerked in alarm. Both of them widened their eyes when Lahn pulled a flower crown from his person. It was not as robust as the ones that Lance made, and it was made with an indelicate hand, but it held, and was held out to Lance.

Lance’s eyes flickered up from the crown to Lahn’s face. “Oh.”

“I…would you be interested?”

Lance winced. “You’re…that’s kind, but I kinda have someone. And I’m alpha to boot so—that’d kinda be awkward. Two ruts and all. Not for the best.”

Then a curious thing happened. Lahn frowned, tilted his head and said, “What do you mean you’re alpha?”

Keith covered his mouth for fear his breathing would give him away.

Lance blinked. Keith could see him fighting to smell himself, to check. “I mean I’m alpha.” But he said so with a vibrato likely even Lahn heard.

Lahn advanced. It was an innocuous step, but Lance skittered back anyway. Lahn paused, still frowning. “I don’t understand.”

“I’m alpha, I have an omega mate—”

“You need not keep up pretense with me. I understand that you and the other one are playing roles to protect yourself out here. It’s why you live alone, and why you try to disguise your scent. But with your heat—”

Lance stepped back. “Dude—”

Keith dropped and landed directly between them. Both Lahn and Lance jerked back.

Keith spoke harshly before Lahn could gather his bearings: “He’s not interested. Our relationship isn’t a pretense. You should go.”

Lahn looked between them, then nodded and stepped away. He paused and looked back, “I apologize.”

Lance shook his head, still a little shocked, but Keith shielded him, blocking their gazes from each other. Only after he was entirely gone did Keith turn and take note of Lance properly.

“You’re trembling.”

“Do I really smell omega?”

Keith frowned. “Not to me.

“So what, that was a lucky guess?”

Keith rubbed his hands up and down Lance’s arms to comfort each other. “No…”

“We have to tell Hunk.”

“Hunk will be fine. Hunk’s promised to Shay and has two, massive families protecting him. You’re alone. You’re vulnerable. I just hope Hunk was right and Lahn really doesn’t have any ties with any other Galra.”

Lance took his hand and kissed his knuckles. “Are you alright?”

I’m fine. You’re the one who got hit on by a Galra.”

“It was kind of flattering, to be honest,” Lance dismissed with a laugh.

“This isn’t funny. He could smell you. Maybe Allura’s suppressants aren’t working anymore?”

“Because Shiro bit me?”

Keith put on a frustrated expression. He turned them both around. “We’re leaving now. We’re leaving.”

“I need to tell the others good-bye—”

“No, Lance. No. We’re going. Now.”

Lance saw Umi and Grace on their way out anyway, and relayed the message. Keith was going into heat, he lied. They needed to get him home, get him to a place where he could comfortably nest. It would be better than a tent, where foreign sounds and smells might drive him sick.

They let them go reluctantly.

Lance and Keith had packed up within half an hour, and had Blue primed and gunning it for home moments later. Keith drove back. Lance looked over his shoulder.

“He didn’t seem like a bad guy.”

“Who?”

“Lahn.” At Keith’s silence: “The Galra.”

Keith scowled. “No. He seemed decent.”

Lance resettled in the bench and playfully pushed at Keith’s jaw. Keith growled at him with no real heat. “Don’t grit your teeth, baby, you’ll grind your fangs into nubs and then where would I be?”

Keith smirked. He pondered. “Y’know…Hunk said that Galra is more of a culture than a people.”

He felt Lance sober. “Do you agree with him?”

“I don’t know.”

Lance hummed.

“I’ve never noticed Galra who didn’t act…dangerously, I guess is the word I’m looking for.”

“What about…uh, what’s her name. You worked with her before you came to me.”

“Ladnok,” Keith agreed. “She was…tame, yes. And unlike any other Galra I’d met. It’s why I stayed with her.” His brow darkened. He shook his head. “Maybe I’m wrong about Lahn. But I don’t want to be right and we’re not prepared.”

“Hence the speedy exit,” Lance murmured bitterly.

“It wasn’t safe. There was too much opportunity for something to go wrong.”

“But hiding in a house in the middle of nowhere is safer?”

“It’s worked for you these past ten years, didn’t it?”

Lance chuckled a little. “I didn’t have Galra that can smell my heat through my suppressants to worry about.”

“Speaking of which, how are you holding up?”

“Eh, a little loopy. A little horny.”

“As soon as the last wave hits we’re going to pack up and head for Arus. Maybe Allura can shed a little light on…everything.”

“I can’t wait to see it. All its glittering lights and shiny new machines…”

Keith grunted. “Yeah.”

Lance shifted.

“I want to agree with Hunk.”

Lance was surprised. “About Lahn?”

“About Galra. I want to believe that Galra is a state of mind or a choice rather than an inherently evil people.”

Lance shrugged. “In your experience does it matter? The result’s the same.”

“That’s…pragmatic of you.”

Lance shifted. “Eh, I have my moments.”

“Are you okay? You keep rocking.”

“The seam on my pants is rubbing the perfect spot.”

Keith grinned.

“Don’t tease me.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

Lance shifted, pouting. He startled when Keith pulled Blue off course. “Hey, where are you going?”

“I wanna pull over.”

“You wanna switch already?”

“No, that’s not what I said.”

Lance shot him a quizzical look, but maintained his silence all while Keith pulled beneath the thin cover of six young trees, rummaged through his pack and tilted the seat back into a makeshift bed.

“What are you—”

Keith shook out of his beloved coat. “Lie down on this. I want you to smell of me.”

Like a switch, Lance moved without complaint. Confusion had turned to curiosity. He relaxed, curling into the leftover heat of Keith’s coat as his boots were unlaced. He was asked, “Are you still sore from yesterday?”

He rolled a shoulder experimentally. “Yeah. Why?”

“Do I have your permission to give you a massage and fuck you at the same time?”

Lance blinked.

Lance blinked.

Keith didn’t bother hide his amused smile. “Anyone in there?”

“Is that…is that okay?”

“Of course it is. I asked.”

“It’s just that—I mean, I haven’t paid you back for last night.”

Keith frowned, “This isn’t a transaction.”

Lance rolled his head in exasperation, “You know what I mean. I don’t want it to be like you’re doing all this for me and I haven’t returned the favor. It isn’t fair.”

“Hmm. On your belly.”

“Keith,” he moaned, but complied. He lifted his hips as Keith peeled his jeans off and folded them neatly and rested them on the dashboard.

“I want you to know,” and he hiked Lance’s shirt up, “that I actively enjoy doing this to you.” He kissed the dip down his spine.

Lance settled, sighed.

“I like being in control. And I like pretending that I have it.”

“You do have it.”

“You’d let me do whatever I want to you,” he massaged Lance’s right cheek appreciatively. “Within reason.”

“No hitting, no rough sex.”

“No hair pulling? No strangling?”

Lance made a face. “Who’s into that?”

“I am.”

“Oh.” Lance made a face. “Oh. Noted.”

“Shut up, and lie down,” Keith poked Lance’s head down into the soft furs, where a little chuckle was muffled. “The oil might be a little cold, okay?”

“Okay.” He flinched when it hit his skin. But Keith’s hands soon followed and the friction made it palatable. Keith’s hands were good, with good pressure, easily coasting over his unseen sores. His arousal was stoked into a low fire, flaring with ever other kiss Keith left on his shoulder blade or nape. He moaned drowsily.

“I’m going to press in now, okay?”

Lance arched his ass up as reply. They both exhaled as Keith’s cock slipped past Lance’s glossy folds. Lance couldn’t place when Keith even put it on. Maybe he only needed one hand, seeing as they adjusted it to fit him the night before.

Keith pushed deep and slow and his hands followed. Lance felt disembodied. He cried out a little once, when Keith inadvertently scraped a place inside him he didn’t know existed, and riled his lover up by using his hands to spread his cheeks.

Keith rolled his thumbs into Lance’s lower back, rocking into him steadily. He did not speak.

Lance, in a pang of anxiety, threw his hand back: Keith grasped it, threaded their fingers together.

“I’m here,” Keith assured. “You okay?”

Lance drawled, “I’m glad it’s you.”

Keith leaned over and caged him in with his body. Lance chirped in appreciation. “I’m glad it’s you too,” he breathed in his ear. “Thank you for sharing yourself with me.”

Lance turned his head and licked into his mouth.

-

They saw their barn by sundown. They’d spent half the day lazily fucking. They ran out of oil, but Lance was generating enough slick to keep them going. He drooled on Keith’s lap now, dead asleep, as they rolled up to the familiar angles and—

Keith hit the breaks.

Lance thudded into the floor. "What the fuck?!"

“The lights are on.”

“What?”

“The lights are on,” he pointed. “Someone’s in our house.”

Lance scrambled for Red. "What?" He hastily wiped his mouth. “Stay here.”

"What, I'm coming with you!"

"Stay here, Keith!"

“I’m not letting you take all the risk!”

“You don’t have a weapon. And it might just be Kolivan.”

“Kolivan?? Kolivan is in the habit of breaking into your house?”

Lance’s hesitance was all the answer Keith needed. He insisted, “I’m coming with you.” He reached for his boot.

“Where’d you get the knife?!”

“Never mind that.”

Lance only risked watching him oddly for a second longer. “Fine. But stay behind me?”

Keith didn’t answer. They pooled out of the car and trotted around the cottage, keeping to the shadows and avoiding direct vantage between them and the colossal south facing windows. They scrambled up to the porch without incident. There was the sound of…cooking, inside.

Keith and Lance exchanged a look.

“I’ll open the door,” Keith mouthed.

Lance nodded, armed himself.

Keith turned the handle slowly, slowly, slowly—the door flung open.

Keith fell back.

Lance aimed and shouted: “PUPPY!”

Chapter Text

Lahn said, “You’re not supposed to be here. I’m done with the clan. You—”

“Spare me,” Sniv denounced succinctly. He circled him in the darkness of the grove. The hoos and hahs of the construction nearby gave them as much cover as the night and the thin trees. Still, Lahn glanced warily to the Balmera homestead and its lights and laughter. He jerked away when Sniv slipped a finger under his denim dungarees.

“Quaint,” he decided. “Have you really joined these backward—”

“Don’t.”

“Lahn, you were a commander! You were wearing the best silks, could snap your finger and have a dozen men and women lapping at your cock: you owned the south! You have to admit, objectively speaking nothing here compares.”

“Commander,” he scoffed. In a new voice he declared: “State your business or get out of my sight!”

Sniv gave up trying to reapprehend him. “Fine. Ranveig has been talking about taking over from Sendak.”

Lahn blurted, “That’s insane.”

Sniv shrugged, “He says he’s lost vision, and I agree. To overpower him, Ranveig wants to wrangle the favor of a Garrison patron away from him who happens to be very interested in the recent mobilization of omega leaving the city.”

Lahn’s brow pinched.

“We have very little information about what’s happening or who’s orchestrating it but we intercepted a radio signal recently that might be the lead we’re looking for.”

“What has any of this got to do with me?”

Sniv pretended to clean his nails. “Do the names Allura, Alfor or Lance mean anything to you?”

Sniv pretended not to see Lahn stiffen in recognition.

-

Shiro looked healthy.

When he moved he did not wince, when he smiled it was not through an attempt to disguise his injury. He was almost a different person while he wasn’t afflicted by pain or drug or rut. His complexion wasn’t as sallow, the edges of his mouth not as hard.

And he smiled easier. Wider. It was an infectious smile, it even had Keith softening under its effect.

He moved smoothly: reciprocated Lance’s hug in a heartbeat and held him off the floor as they embraced. “Thanks for not shooting me,” he joked, and the air bubbled with laughter.

Keith closed the door. “It’s good to see you again, Shiro.”

Shiro smiled over Lance’s head and offered his left hand. Keith startled when he noticed he wore a gauntlet over his forearm—or perhaps it was a cast, was his arm still broken?—but he took his hand easily, subtly rubbing their scent glands together.

Shiro’s breath caught, subtle as the exchange was, it was profound. Intimate. Welcome.

It was doubled by Lance practically drenching Shiro in his own scent. They were claiming him, recognizing him as pack. Whether they did so intentionally or not, Shiro warmed and reciprocated. It was more than he would have expected of them. “It’s good to see you too,” he replied softly. “I’m sorry for showing up unannounced—”

“You’re pack, don’t worry about it.” Lance squeezed his chin in affectionate chagrin. “You’re looking better. Much better. Kolivan got you to your home alright.”

Keith glanced around, “Is he here?”

“No,” and Shiro let Lance stand on his own again, though neither moved away from each other. “Kolivan decided to come to Olkarion with me, and volunteered to survey uncharted territories to plot new routes for our trains from Garrison to take. A lot has happened these past few weeks.”

Lance looked grave for a moment. But he patted Shiro’s chest and smiled. “How about you tell us all about if over dinner?”

“Did you really make all this?”

“I’m almost offended,” Shiro teased Keith. “Didn’t think an alpha can cook?”

Keith looked at him cautiously.

“I’m joking. Benefit of living independently for years, you learn how to look after yourself. I wasn’t sure when I’d see the two of you but I’m glad I made more than enough for all of us. Oh—I didn’t even ask, is anyone allergic to anything?”

Lance glanced at Keith, who shook his head.

“I’ll set the table,” Lance offered. “How long were you here, Shiro?”

“Two days. I was asked to look out for more Galra activity, but I’ve been unlucky so far. Or maybe it is luck why I haven’t come across anyone, considering.”

Keith blurted, “Did you fix the bathroom door?”

Lance looked up. Shiro blushed. “Well, I did break it.”

“And did you clean?”

Almost guilty, “It was dusty.”

“And you did laundry?”

Lance said apologetically, “Shiro, there’s no debt that you have to repay to us.”

“No, no, I just…there were things that needed to be done and I thought…why not do them as I wait?” He poured something into a serving dish. “If—if I overstepped then let me know but—”

Keith called, “Overstepped? You even cleaned the bathroom!”

Lance swooned, “Stay with us forever.”

Shiro laughed. “Where had the two of you been?”

And so Lance descended into the long winded tale of how he knew Hunk and the Garretts and the details of the love lives that interlocked the two families. While he was explaining the matrimonial games and bemoaning missing the wedding ceremony itself, the table was set, everyone’s hands were scrubbed, and everyone settled to tuck in.

Shiro brought food with him, apparently, because there were vegetables and slabs of meat that Keith didn’t recognize. And it was delicious. They were simple meals, but they were filling, and they allowed for seconds and thirds.

“Why didn’t you stay for the ceremony?” Shiro asked.

Lance paused. “Aren’t you going on rut soon?”

Shiro froze.

Keith chastised, “Lance. Boundaries much?”

“Sorry—right, right. That was inappropriate. Let me back up: my heat’s coming. It’s unexpected but we figured it would be better to have it here than there. I just…I asked that question—totally unreasonable and rude question I am so sorry—because I keep taking for granted that you’re aware we’re…uh, on the same, uh, hormonal clock.”

Shiro, still immobile with a fork in his mouth, glanced at Keith.

Keith lifted an eyebrow in attention.

Slowly he came to. “You…aren’t mad.”

Keith frowned. “About?”

“You aren’t mad that I, um. I bonded to Lance. Without his consent or awareness.”

Keith was oddly unmoving. “You did your best at the time, all things considered. Why would you think I’d be mad?”

Shiro’s eyes guiltily flickered back to Lance, who had sobered and was poking at his plate.

“Oh, I see. Lance told you not to tell me.”

“To be fair, at the time there were more pressing things to talk about,” Lance mumbled.

“You took the time out to tell me you assaulted Shiro but couldn’t tell me that you got Marked?”

“Why are you mad?” He put down the fork but didn’t meet Keth’s eyes. “We talked about this.”

“No we didn’t talk about this. I’m now learning that you had Shiro in on it! You conspired against me, you kept me in the dark—”

Shiro dared interrupted, “Keith, he’s not only at fault—”

“Takashi I admire you’re trying to keep the peace but stay out of this.” He stood. “Lance, if you don’t trust me, just say it to my face. I can’t take you doing things behind my back. I won’t forgive that. I’m transparent with you, is it too much to ask for the same in return?”

Lance didn’t lift his head. “No, it isn’t.”

“I don’t want to have this discussion again.”

Lance mumbled something.

“What was that?”

“I said ‘yes sir’.”

Keith bristled. He huffed, “I’m going to unpack the truck.” And he was outside in moments.

Shiro whispered in the quiet, “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize…”

“It’s not your fault,” Lance huffed. He dropped his face in his hands, suddenly tired. “Thanks for dinner. I’ll wash up. Um, give Keith a little breathing room for now, okay?”

Shiro didn’t need to be told that. He nodded.

But he couldn’t help but notice that even while mad, Lance and Keith worked like a well-oiled machine.

Keith wasn’t as sociable, but he did answer or volunteer conversation where necessary. Where should I put the leftovers for now? What are our sleeping arrangements for tonight? Can I bathe first?

In a way, it was terrifying.

Shiro wasn’t sure if it was his imagination, but the air was still threaded with some kind of energy. As though all the unspoken things unsaid between them turned to static in the atmosphere. Shiro was on the threshold between marveling at their attempts to keep the peace or offering to sleep in the barn before it all blew up.

“Need help with that?” Keith offered.

Shiro startled out of the doze he hadn’t realized he fallen into. “Oh,” he looked down at the spilled book in his lap and his languid prosthetic. “Yes, thank you.”

Keith nodded. “Does it detach the same way like the old one?”

“Yeah.”

“I can wipe it down for you too, if you like.”

“You don’t have to.”

“I offered. I want to keep myself busy.”

Shiro sighed when the prosthetic came free. He slumped a little about the bedstuff—he wanted to sleep on the floor within sight of the hearth and the door. “Thank you, Keith.”

“Of course. I’ll put it here when I’m done. Are you going to turn in yet?”

“Not just yet. Can I beg you for a few minutes of company?”

The right corner of Keith’s mouth lifted. “More than a few.”

“Ha. I remember when you thought it a hardship to speak with me.”

“I didn’t trust you then.”

Shiro smiled. “Thanks.”

Keith shrugged, “If you taking care of Lance while you were on rut couldn’t convince me you’re worth trusting what would, right?”

“…that’s. That’s a joke?”

“Somewhat.”

Shiro could not decide on the correct response to that.

“Can I ask an inappropriate question?”

Curiosity got the better of him. “Yes.”

Are you expecting your rut?”

Shiro smiled, “No, I’ve been on suppressants for a while.”

Keith looked up. “Suppressants?! You?”

“…yes?”

“I…I didn’t know suppressants existed for alpha.”

“I didn’t know suppressants existed for omega that makes them into alpha either.”

“Oh no, that’s just Lance. It doesn’t work the same way for all of us.” He didn’t answer Shiro’s curious look. “How do your suppressants work?”

“Suppress ruts, I guess?” Keith made a face that said I should have guessed as much and Shiro chuckled. “I feel a little more sluggish taking them but its more than worth it if I’m working among omega. When you and Lance dragged me out of that river last month I was off, but that’s because that trip had taken much longer than planned.”

“You ran out?”

“That and a few vials broke.”

“Vials.”

“Yeah. That’s not how you take yours?”

“No. Tablets.”

“I need something fast acting, in case of emergencies.”

Keith understood. “How often do you take them?”

“Everyday. It’s kind of like…have you ever known anyone to take insulin shots?”

“Mhm.”

“It’s like that.”

Keith pouted. “Where’d you get the new arm?”

Shiro watched it in Keith’s lap: dark, lightweight metal that looked more like it belonged on armor than a person, limbs a little too long, fingers a little too long. “Olkarion. I told you we have scientists there?”

“So you’ve cut off all ties with Garrison now.”

Shiro looked at his feet. “I’m trying. I still have an apartment there, believe it or not. I keep it just in case we’d ever need to hold people in transit but the district it’s in is a little too…conspicuous to be marching people in and out every few days.”

“Do you like Olkarion more?”

“To live in?”

“Mhm.”

“…no, actually.” He blushed a little. “I like it here.”

Keith almost asked what he liked about the wilderness, the middle of nowhere, the edge of the world. But he noticed the personal way he smiled and wriggled his toes and thought, Oh. He likes it here.

Lance at that moment appeared from the bedroom. He spared them a glance, but disappeared to the bathroom.

Keith said, “For a civilization that can make prosthetics this sophisticated I’m surprised that they left you with injecting yourself every day. Aren’t there better ways of doing that?”

“There are, but this is more of a trial run. If I like it I can switch to the kind of implant that I only need to have renewed each year.”

“Is that healthy?”

“Other people are doing it and they haven’t dropped dead yet, so…”

“I mean, to not have ruts. At all. I know Lance doesn’t, didn’t, since he took his suppressants—not until you came along anyway—but I thought for alpha…I dunno. I thought you’d go sick without going crazy every so often.”

Shiro laughed despite the stereotype. “Are you trying to offend me?”

Keith answered too slowly. “No.”

Shiro chuckled. “I won’t get sick. I went on rut recently, actually. It wasn’t…the best.”

“What, kind and docile Shiro went on a rampage?”

Shiro said heavily, “Yes.”

Keith watched him, waiting for the punchline.

“No-one was hurt, thankfully, though I do owe Reyner a new door. Ha. I see I have a thing with doors when I’m out of it.”

“And you?”

They turned. Lance was behind them, soft from a bath and sleepiness and a too big sweater that reached his knees.

Shiro did not did not did not entertain what the sweater might look like if it sloped off a shoulder and bared the Mark he knew was there to the world. “Hm? What?”

“Are you alright?” Lance repeated, and sat beside Keith. He touched Shiro’s right shoulder, watched his eyes sadly. “That must have been a scary moment for you, to black out, not remember anything, and hear you were responsible for breaking something.”

Shiro swallowed. Lance’s gaze demanded honesty, somehow. “I...” he couldn’t face either of them directly with how volatile he suddenly felt. In a broken whisper: “Yes.”

Lance shuffled to his knees and pulled Shiro’s ear against his breast. He let his body rumble to the timbre of Omega Voice, and felt Shiro collapse against him.

Shiro blinked rapidly. He felt Keith rubbing his knee. “I was scared,” he admitted for the first time. “I’m scared of myself.”

“Shh-sh,” Keith sang. “You’re alright now.”

Shiro twisted his face into Lance, wrapped his arm around the thin body as if it held him aloft. If Lance found it unbearable, he did not mention. If he thought his chest was wet, he didn’t mention. Keith’s hand was warm against his knee. Neither of them said anything. In the quiet Shiro realized: he was always scared. He was always scared one day he’d wake up and be told he did more than just roll around on the carpet.

Surely it should be impossible to fear oneself? Yet what else would he call the urge to hide, to stay in the one place that really felt like home, to not really exist, not really, except for the arms of men he barely knew?

He liked it here.

He was asleep before he knew it.

-

Lance woke up and Shiro was gone. He nearly had a heart attack before he heard water running in the bathroom.

He sunk into the duvet and sheets with a sigh and listened to the crackle of the fading fire while staring at the rafters. He breathed deeply to settle his heartbeat. Were these feelings his own? Or were they the lingering threads of a dissolving Bond?

Or was he just really that gone on Shiro that he was eavesdropping on the man brushing his teeth?

He hadn’t clicked this quickly with anyone since…since…

Keith drooled on his shoulder. He had an arm thrown over Lance’s chest, which was starting to feel tender thanks to his advancing heat. He turned to Keith and poked his nose against his hairline.

They both reeked of alpha.

Lance almost disliked it, because it seemed to seep into everything. Into the floorboards, the sheets, their pillows, their skin, their blood, their scent glands. It dominated. But he couldn’t help but smile, because it was such a happy smell. Don’t ask him how he could borderline taste the emotion: but it was light. It didn’t sting the back of his nose.

And he could taste seaspray and myrrh at the back of his throat too, like everything was still trying to come together. He smiled. It was an odd combination. It was a combination he’d forever remembered accompanied grey mornings, dead fires, and the sound of their alpha brushing their teeth.

Not our alpha, Lance corrected himself. At least, not really. He was pack, but he was not their alpha, not in the conventional sense.

Lance’s bladder protested. He groaned. He shuffled from under Keith’s weight. Keith whined in protest.

“I’m sorry baby,” Lance wriggled.

Keith moaned less cutely as he rolled away.

Lance raked his fingers through Keith’s hair as an apologetic parting gesture. Three steps took him to the bathroom door ajar. He was about to knock. A sliver of grey light caught his eye and he focused and caught Shiro’s reflection in the mirror.

He wasn’t smiling. He was all square jaw and vaguely hollowed, stubbled cheeks and small mouth with rose pink circular lips. He had the tap running, and his gunmetal eyes flickered down and up as he shaved. His eyes were a little sunken, a little dark—lack of sleep? But red. From crying? From exhaustion? He switched to the other cheek and his left bicep flexed and Lance averted his eyes, abruptly realizing he was a creep first and aroused second.

He went through with his original plan to knock on the door. He almost heard Shiro jump in surprise. “Sorry, emergency.”

The door swung open, “Of course,” Shiro smiled from behind the hand towel he borrowed to dab at his cheeks. Lance thought he was shirtless. No, he was in a marina. It…wrapped Shiro’s physique. No seams, as far as Lance could see, and made from a vaguely shiny material. It wrinkled around his narrow waist and thinned over his chest. It left a piece of skin open for Lance to ogle, a dismissive strip of flat, hard muscle—

Lance was suddenly very interested in the floor and shut his mouth to keep his waterlogged tongue from dropping out.

He wanted to squeak out a thanks or something, but he only bobbed his head and shuffled in and closed the door and sank to his knees and gave up fighting the trickle of slick that soaked his underthings. He covered his face in a mixture of shame and guilt. He proceeded to wash up.

Shiro had the kettle on the fire and was restarting the hearth when Lance remerged, rinsed underthings in hand. Shiro looked up to say good morning and Lance ran away. Keith snored.

Shiro had tea ready when Lance reappeared.

“Thanks,” Lance mumbled and accepted the mug.

Shiro watched him, not unkindly, not scrutinizing, “Are you alright?”

Lance smiled dismissively. “Heat.”

Shiro nodded. “Is…” he stopped, covered his mouth, obviously rethinking.

Lance watched him over the rim of his mug. “Is?”

Shiro flushed. “I…I’m sure I said before I…I don’t want to be your friend because I learned your presentation and I absolutely am not offering out of…of…obligation or…”

Lance was lost.

Shiro cleared his throat and faced him. “Is there…anything I can do? For you? Nothing—I’m not offering to…to…um. Not that I wouldn’t want to…but that’s not—oh dear.”

Lance fought down a smile. He rescued, “Can I get a hug?”

Shiro stopped stuttering. Like a deer caught in headlights, “That’s it?”

Lance couldn’t help it: “Disappointed?”

“No! No, I mean—that’s not to say that I wouldn’t—UH—I meant, if that’s all you need from me then yes, of course.”

Lance shuffled close and leaned his back against Shiro’s front. Shiro hesitated a moment before wrapping his arms around Lance’s shoulders and dropping his cheek to his hair. Lance delighted quietly, We fit! And something hungry and amorphous vanished from his belly.

Shiro sighed a little, like something had been nagging him too and was now satisfied. “Can I scent you?”

“It feels like you already did in your sleep.”

Shiro stiffened. “Sorry.”

“No, no, I’m teasing, pup. Sure, go ahead. Can I?”

“Of course.”

Lance busied himself with one free hand to get access to the inside of Shiro’s left wrist, and Shiro rubbed his nose and mouth against to back of Lance’s neck. If someone purred, no-one mentioned it.

“Thank you for being here,” Lance said, relaxed at last. “I figure it wasn’t intentional but…you being here while I’m on heat is…nice.”

He felt Shiro smile. “Thanks for having me.”

“How do you feel about—and I’m going into sexual territory here—how do you feel about being around while Keith and I have sex?”

Shiro was quiet for a moment. Eventually, “If we’re going to talk about sex you might not want to lean against me anymore.”

Lance hiccupped with laughter. He met Shiro’s eye over his shoulder: “I’m not afraid, I’ve seen your erection before.”

Shiro didn’t reply. His mouth went taut in that way it does when he’s trying to hide the teeth that detract from arousal. Lance sipped while Shiro cautiously answered, “I…could go to the barn, I suppose. There’s enough to sort through there that could have me out of your hair for a few hours.”

“Ancients, Shiro, we’re not going to kick you out.”

“You. Want me to.” Listen? Watch? “What are you asking?”

“I guess, well. I have this picture in my head of you walking around doing whatever while me and Keith get it on. Like, it doesn’t bother you. And I’m wondering if you’d be into that.”

“You’re asking me to be your voyeur.”

“Shiro, you’re pack,” Lance pretended to be dignified, “it was going to happen eventually.”

Shiro huffed out a laugh at the back of Lance’s hair. “I um. Honestly, I’d prefer to keep my distance.”

Some of Lance’s amusement faded. “Oh. Okay.”

“Don’t get me wrong I’m flattered, but watching you two isn’t…I think it’s too intimate for me.”

“Fair.”

“Sorry to disappoint you.”

“I’d rather you be comfortable.”

“Wouldn’t you be uncomfortable with someone watching you like that?”

“It depends. Certain people. I wouldn’t mind Hunk watching. He’s my friend who’s sister got married?”

“I remember. I didn’t know you were close, sexually.”

“We…like, not really. We’ve made out a couple times but nothing really came of it. I wouldn’t feel weird about watching him get it on with his SO, and I wouldn’t mind if he watched me and Keith.”

“Do you like him?”

“Of course I like him.”

“No I mean…I get the feeling that you’re poly.”

“Poly?”

“Polyamorous? It means you’re romantically attracted to more than one person at the same time?”

Lance nodded, “That sounds about right. I feel strongly about you and Keith. And Kolivan.”

Shiro stiffened. “Kolivan?”

Lance paused. Had he said the wrong thing? “Yes…” he replied slowly. He felt Shiro swallow.

“I didn’t know you had feelings for Kolivan. I wouldn’t have guessed.”

Lance couldn’t read his tone. It made him a little scared. “I…we…it’s not simple, but—”

“These things never are,” he interjected dryly.

He suppressed a grin. “Shut up. Kolivan and I were…close, for a few years. We parted amably. Amably? Amably—”

“Do you mean amiably?”

“That sounds right.”

“And Keith knows about Kolivan?”

“Mhm. He doesn’t get why Kolivan and me, uh, broke up, for lack of a better term. He says we still love each other, why aren’t we together?”

“And why aren’t you?”

Lance put his mug down and folded his hands over Shiro’s arms. He rocked them, and Shiro rocked with him. “Too many things are in the way.”

He didn’t go into detail.

“Okay.” Shiro decided.

“Are a lot of people poly in Garrison? I didn’t know there was a name for it.”

With new breath, “No. Or at least, not publicly. Conventions in Garrison state that any relationship that isn’t alpha-omega or beta-omega or beta-beta is immoral, and in some circles is a good enough reason to discriminate, bully and even kill.”

Lance made up his face in horror. “I always thought Garrison was this awesome place. It’s called the First City, y’know? It was always made up as something huge in my mind, with light from heaven shining down on it and everything.”

“It’s the first city,” Shiro agreed, and pressed his cheek against Lance’s hair. “Like anything you do for the first time it’s riddled with issues. The Ancients had plans for ten cities total, if the old records can be believed. The second barely had its foundations set before they disappeared.”

“The Pueblas,” Lance answered.

“Yeah. The Pueblas were supposed to be a civilization that rivaled Garrison, that learned from its mistakes, and the third was to learn from the second and so on and so on, until the perfect utopia was achieved.”

“What happened to them?”

“The Ancients you mean? We don’t know. There’s speculation—that they died, that they left us to tend on our own, that they never existed in the first place and some religious fanatic got his hands on the ancient texts and defiled them.”

“How do you know all this?”

Shiro hummed, and Lance thought him unreadable again. “I had a friend. A-a lover,” he stammered to correct, “who was interested in that sort of thing. I learned from him.”

“What happened to him?”

“Oh, he’s still there in the Garrison.”

“Why isn’t he here with you?”

“He…he isn’t…” Shiro sighed. “To be honest I don’t know. He wasn’t…interested in doing this. He wants to make the Garrison a better place his way, and he doesn’t believe that it’s a lost cause like some of us do.”

“Do you still love him?”

Shiro frowned in thought. “Sometimes,” he admitted. “Sometimes I remember that I loved him but…we didn’t part on the best of terms, unlike you and Kolivan. And after our fight I doubt we could even get along as friends.”

“That’s sad.”

Shiro chuckled. “I guess so.”

“Even if Keith doesn’t want me anymore I don’t think I could stand not being friends. I fell in love with him for a reason, y’know?”

“I understand,” Shiro smiled at Keith, still snoring. He’s since pulled his feet away from the fire. “You’re lucky to have each other.”

Lance nuzzled Shiro’s chin and looked over his shoulder to face him. “We’re lucky to have you too. If—if you’d have us, I mean. I know we went ahead and lowkey adopted you without asking.”

“I’m honored to be a part of your pack, Lance,” and he smiled, and Lance gulped at the teeth there. He’s seen them before, yes, but coupled with an honest smile? With a heartfelt admission? It was nearly Lance’s undoing.

Lance touched his lips. Shiro startled, but didn’t object.

“Sorry, I—”

“It’s okay. It’s instinct, right?” He held Lance’s hand close, encouraged his thumb to stroke his bottom lip. It was broken and white. “I Marked you so. You’d be curious what my teeth look like.”

“Does that work for you too?”

Shiro blinked rapidly as if fighting down the blush that still rose up against his scar. “I’m…curious, sometimes. Yes.”

“Do you want to see it?”

“See…?”

“My Mark. Well. Your Mark. Doesn’t matter really.”

Shiro closed his eyes and sucked in his bottom lip willing willing willing the want away. Doesn’t matter really doesn’t matter really as though Lance figured accepting Shiro as the man who marked him, as his almost partner for life, was as inevitable as the snow on the mountains.

Doesn’t matter really, because Shiro’s Mark on Lance was Lance’s Mark too, and he just welcomed Shiro, all of Shiro, into his life (into his body too!) with a statement that was so matter of fact—

Shiro leaned his forehead against Lance’s, who yelped in surprise. “Thank you.”

“What? F-for what?”

“For accepting me.”

Lance hesitated, “Shiro, we accepted you from day one. Well. More like day four, give or take a few hours. Y’know what, in retrospect I’m gonna call it day eighteen, when you were gone for like a whole day and the place was really really quiet.”

Shiro laughed, and Lance tasted it and found it infectious. He felt his own fangs drop, and something ripple and curl between his legs. Before Lance could warn Shiro about his casual seduction Shiro asked, “May I kiss you?”

Lance watched Shiro’s eyes, too too close, dilated and eager and so patient. He looked everything like the puppy that rolled around in a broken nest for three days and licked his wounds and…allowed Lance to touch him and…

Lance looked down. “Uhm.”

Shiro leaned back and smiled reassuringly. Softly, “You can tell me no.”

Lance smiled, because in that moment he sounded like Keith, and a little like the thing that made him fall in love with Keith. A little cheeky: “Kiss me please and thank you.”

Shiro breathed out a laugh. He wrapped his left hand at the back of Lance’s head, his prosthetic loosely holding his hip, and Lance leaned into him and angled his head up and tilted—

Simple as it was, they’d been aching for it. Shiro immediately inhaled in shock? Relief? Pleasure? And Lance’s fingers tangled in his tank. Lance arched into him with all the strength in his tendons, rising on his toes, pulling Shiro into him, like they could get even closer, like they could melt into one organism.

Shiro held him equally as fiercely, shielding him from the world in their embrace, forgetting a world existed beyond the sour on Lance’s wet, articulate tongue, the way their lips cupped together…

When they broke apart, it was in a scatter of lingering, reluctant kisses. Shiro’s tongue curled under Lance’s—Lance hummed and sucked very lightly on Shiro’s bottom lip—Shiro’s erection was no secret between them now, and Shiro’s fingers twitched with the urge to slip between Lance’s legs and feel the slick he’s been smelling.

Lance pulled away a little and Shiro, a little drunk, followed him.

“Wait wait wait wait wait.”

Shiro came to attention at once. His hold loosened. “Yes? Yes. I’m,” he hastily rubbed his mouth dry. “I’m here. You’re okay?”

Lance grinned. “I’m great, pup. But…I’m…you might have noticed I’m a little turned on…?”

Shiro’s smile twitched. “I might have noticed.”

“You said you didn’t want to watch me and Keith, right?”

“Oh,” Shiro released Lance. He was getting to the point of no return, he meant. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be. God. Don’t be. Thank you.”

Shiro blushed. He took a step away, though both of them cringed as though separation physically hurt them. With the way their inner selves protested, it might as well have. “Then I’ll. I’ll get going.”

Lance wanted to grab his hand and ask him to stay. Shiro took another step back. He blurted in alarm: “Can I get one last kiss before you—”

Shiro was on him in an instant. Held him by his jaw, ran his thumbs over Lance’s cheeks, dipped into Lance’s mouth with more passion more need—

“Christ.”

They broke apart, startled. Keith stood nearby rubbing the dust from his eyes. He yawned, “Is this how we make breakfast now?” When they didn’t answer he waved. “Move over.”

A little stunned, they moved aside, and Keith started taking out pans and bread and eggs, plucking coriander leaves from the window-bound plant, getting out the oil—“Actually, get out of the kitchen altogether. I can’t make an omelet if the two of you are jizzing up the counter.”

Shiro dropped his hands to his sides with a clap.

Lance protested, “We aren’t—we weren’t!”

Keith scratched his chin, “Whatever, just move. I’m hungry.”

Shiro broke away first. “I’ll go do the. Yeah.” And he moved.

Keith watched him go in groggy confusion. After he was gone, he jumped at the look Lance gave him.

“Fucking hell,” he muttered. “If looks could kill!”

-

Lance had his mouth mashed against the kitchen counter while Keith’s hips slammed into his ass. Keith’s fingers held fast to whatever hot skin was available under his sweater. Lance’s panties were rolled down to his thighs—Keith liked seeing them each time he pulled back before he slammed in. The kitchen smelled of seared onions, the aroma of cilantro and thyme, and sex. Lance grunted, his nails scrabbling against the tile, drooling, cross-eyed, thrusting back in time.

“Touch your clit,” Keith demanded.

He did so, and Lance bit his bottom lip with a hiss. “Keith—” he protested.

“Sh-sh,” Keith rolled his hips and the dick inside Lance rolled too, sinful and exotic. Lance hiccupped on a cry, squeaked, and more slick painted the floor. “I want when Shiro comes back he smells you everywhere. I want him to get a boner just from looking at you.”

Keith started up his thrusts again. Smack! Hold. Smack! Hold. He reveled in how Lance’s body jiggled in his hands. He whimpered in the face of how willing Lance became, body and mind.

Lance thought he didn’t like it rough. He couldn’t decide if this was rough or not. Nothing hurt, he wasn’t getting hit. He liked it, but he wasn’t sure if it was his heat speaking for him.

“Keep rubbing.”

Lance pressed his forehead to the counter, gasping. Why was it that the tension in him felt white?

“How do you feel about shouting? Maybe if he hears you he’ll change your mind about watching how you hang off my cock.”

Lance spasmed from the visual, but shook his head. No screaming. He barely had the stamina to stand. “Wh-y-y ah-ah-ah—w-why do you hm. Want Shiro to know so bad?”

Keith leaned over him, licked his ear. “I want him to know what he’s missing out on. I want him to feel bad he turned all this down,” he squeezed Lance’s ass and spread it, drawing Lance up to his toes with a squeal. “You’re so submissive. How the hell does a red blooded alpha turn this down?”

“He-e-e wants to be friens,” Lance slurred. “He-e-e priorioritzes fresnhip.”

Keith grunted. “I’m not fucking you hard enough if prioritizes is still in your vocabulary.”

He moved Lance’s hand away and jerked him off as he saw fit.

Lance’s knee came forward and slammed against a cabinet, hard. He squealed, he drooled, he sobbed.

“I want him to regret turning you down,” Keith hissed. “And I want him to come asking me for permission to fuck you when he’s ready to atone.”

“Keith Keith Keith Keith—”

-

Lahn crouched on the edge of the jungle and exhaled, exhausted. His horse was somewhere behind him, worse off than he was. Before him, a focus in the endless expanse, was a single cottage and barn, warm windows winking in the monotone morning. He saw a figure working in the yard, then saw it disappear to the barn.

His feet protested when he edged forward. It was now or never, he decided, and rose from his haunches—

A blade slipped under his jaw. He did not move. He had heard nothing, he smelled nothing. As far as he could understand all that existed was the knife!

An old voice said behind him, “Who are you?”

“I mean no trouble,” Lahn grit. “I have business with Lance and his kin.”

“What sort?”

Lahn pressed his lips together. He mumbled, “You’re the Marmora aren’t you. The one who lives alone out here.”

Kolivan narrowed his eyes. “What business do you have with Lance? I will not repeat myself.”

“He’s in trouble. He and his partner. People I know are coming after him, think they’re the key to what happened in Arus.”

What happened in Arus?”

“It’s gone,” Lahn licked his lips. “Razed to the ground, destroyed in a single night. And the men who did it are coming for Lance because of his radio transmissions.”

Kolivan dropped the blade.

Chapter Text

Adam replied: “The Galra are a nomadic people of the outside world who move between pockets of civilization and assimilate those cultures, languages and traditions into their own. Against popular belief, they aren’t banshee war criminals let loose into the world to do as they see fit.”

“Bah,” someone grunted, and Adam’s eyes glinted dangerously at the challenge. “I don’t mean to patronize you, Weis, but you don’t speak from experience. They destroy towns. I’ve seen it!  They’re a invasive species. There’s a reason Garrison expelled them all those centuries ago.”

Adam swallowed his disappointed sigh. He glanced at Sanda, who smiled preemptively behind her fist. When her ice blue eyes met his own, her subtle nod gave him permission to correct:

“The Galra were expelled from Garrison because they banded together and rejected what we believed to be our divine right; that the Ancients gave us dominion of them. They have since gone on to thrive, disproving the sentiment that they’re ignorant oafs dependent on betters.”

The minister leaned back in his chair. His long shiny black hair curled around his epaulettes and brass buttons. His eyes were jaded. His utter indignation of Sanda’s favourite in their meeting was clear on his teeth, “Do the books you consume justify their genocide too?”

Adam turned almost contritely to the screen behind him. “The term genocide is misleading and propagandist language.” He ignored how the minister of information bristled. “Please pay attention to the board, gentlemen. It is a schematic plotting Galra action over the past hundred years. You can see they favored the south at the beginning of the century. In that time the records show that the peoples there, an indigenous group who called themselves the Tando, co-existed with them for several generations previous. However, between 1121 and 1131 new developments occurred.

“As you know, when a Galra procreates the child is male and alpha. It’s one of the defining features of how we identify Galra groups. The Tando people, then, essentially became the Galra people in a very short span of time. This means of ‘conquering’ them was not violent. It wasn’t even intentional. Violence was not a term exchangeable with Galra until fifty years ago when decisive action drove them from the lands they occupied in a semi-nomadic fashion to northern communities, absorbing them one after the other.

“Gentlemen, this was a radical change. A conscious change. They were being led by a single ruler, a single man who has passed on the mantle to contemporary chieftains and gang bosses. What’s more there are Galra still in the south who preserve Tando traditions which proves it is not in their nature to dismantle whole civilizations! It is a new phenomenon, less than two generations old, but it fit into preconceived notion of what we think Galra to be so perfectly that it was all too easy for the belief to spread that they had always been this way.”

The minister neither seemed chagrined or impressed. Adam was beginning to doubt he had the capacity to be either.

Another minister, balding and white-haired, a minister of education spoke in a soft, easy-to-dismiss voice: “Fascinating as this is, why tell us this? The Galra have little to no impact on the Garrison.”

“That is not true, actually,” and Adam switched the slide to a chart. “By appearances the Garrison rejects contact with the outside world. This includes sister states such as the Pueblas or the City of Narquod. However, individuals have found trading with Galra to be lucrative. As recent as fifty years ago the Serrano Family found their fortune by exchanging advanced weaponry for cattle herded by a Galra gang who were at that time under the leadership of a man named Ranveig. There have been other transactions before and since.”

The minister with the long curly hair chuckled under his breath, “Where is he getting his bullshit?”

Adam replied (despite knowing that he wasn’t supposed to hear), “Friends in low places, minister. You’d be surprised what a spurned mistress has to offer.”

The minister, curiously, looked put out at that.

Adam faced  the long table of dignitaries and politicians. “I bring this to your attention because we face a crisis. People are leaving our city under the veil of night, spirited away by the empty promises of some distant, mythical utopia.”

“Say it as it is,” a general blurted. She glared over her glasses. “It’s not people. It’s omega. Omega are being stolen from under our noses. And you’re implying the Galra have something to do with this?”

“Not at all,” he said quickly, crisply. “In fact my informants from outside have relayed to me that they are as clueless as any of us where these people are going to. The only hints we have are the whispers of a distant, secret city. If such a place exists, then the folk who are attuned to the lay of the land have a better chance of discovering the truth than our best trained men—who we need here to suppress recent uprisings.”

Someone straightened. “By the Ancients…you want to employ the Galra?”

Adam gestured blindly with a sweep of his arm to the graphed data behind him. “History has shown that we have done so before. What do we have to lose by doing so again?”

The general said powerfully over the resulting unsure murmur: “You want us to pay the Galra to find and return our omega.”

Adam nodded. “Yes, general.”

“And what would the Galra want of us? Gold? Jewels? Access to the city?”

Adam smiled, “The Galra are beyond seeking re-entry to the Garrison. They are content with their ways of living. And their economy has no use for precious metals or gems.”

Someone whispered, “They don’t have an economy.”

“But recent gangs of…organized venture could make great use of our trucks, our guns, our filtration systems, our technological advancements that are not so readily available in the wilds. Things that make their way of living easier. Perhaps a percentage of the omega they find can be promised to them.”

“Sell them our omega!”

“Should they prove successful the rewards outweigh the investment, gentlemen.” His eyes glittered over a sea of murmuring heads. He clasped his hands behind him and waited, his performance complete.

Someone said, “No, I cannot agree. We pay the Galra with things that they can use to attack our walls and take over our city. I will not arm them.”

Adam wondered if he could ever convince these people that people born outside the First City were genuinely content there. Would they be able to understand that it wasn’t the dusty wasteland of popular media? If he told him that there were hundreds of little settlements with electricity, running water, sewage systems more reliable than their own outdated infrastructure, would they believe him?

His eyes caught on one of the old men who was known for travelling outside the walls on a pardon twenty years ago. His expression was peaceful in comparison to his scared, younger contemporaries.

Sanda stood at his left drawing their attention. She was quick. “Shall we vote?”

And so they did.

An hour later Adam escorted his old teacher through the courtyards enclosed by the parliament walls. He considered the top of the yellow walls curiously and thought how uncanny it was that the sentinels there paralleled the ones that protected the Greater Walls surrounding Garrison. Parliament acted like a microcosm in that respect, he suggested to himself, and the people within imprisoned themselves with ignorance…

Sanda’s boots on the grass distracted him.

The garden here was unlike any other in the city, but then very few could afford the invisible screening that kept the smog out of the air and the poison out of the soil.

She plucked a flower and Adam winced. He always thought it was such a waste to pick flowers.

“I think you waded into Charlie very nicely today.”

Adam hummed.

“Something is bothering you?”

“I’m not…happy with how I encoded my information at your request.”

Sanda turned, unthreatened. “You did not lie.”

“No, I implied.” He looked away in thought. “I implied that the omega were being taken. They aren’t. They’re running away willingly. And I can’t blame them.”

“You’re unhappy.”

“Garrison isn’t getting better, Sanda. People know it, that’s why they keep calling for change or running away.”

“Like the Serrano,” she tsked. “Funny that you mentioned them today. The minute their money problems turned around they ran off to the Pueblas. Didn’t have the guts to stick around and try to make the city a greater place.”

Adam mumbled, “Were they so wrong?”

Sanda didn’t answer. The rose twisted in her fingers. “Have you heard from Shirogane?”

Adam blinked at the abrupt change. “No…not in years.”

“The two of you used to be so close.”

Adam said nothing.

“He ran off too. Incited a whole new wave of rebellion and then fell off the grid. I wouldn’t be surprised if we find him in the Pueblas either.”

Adam frowned. “He meant well, Sanda.”

“He was a coward. He didn’t have the strength to stay.”

“He tried. The backlash his paper brought ruined him. He was viciously attacked in his own home! I can’t blame him for laying low.”

Sanda smiled, “You’re too kind, Adam.” She tucked the rose into his breast pocket. “You’re too kind, and that’s why you and Takashi got along so well. He was kind too. And brilliant: a tactical mind, a good soldier but an independent thinker.” She hardened. “He lacked the proper guidance. The right mentor.”

Adam knew she was paralleling them. He knew she was implying that he ought to be grateful because Sanda chose him, not Shiro. He had his doubts. He wished his friend was close so that he had someone to ruminate with. He felt lonely being the only sensible fellow in the room. But he knew what Shiro would say. He’d said it before. He shouted it the night they parted.

And how had Adam responded?

Sanda’s hands left his breast. “Have you contacted your informant from the outside?”

“Yes. But his desire to remain anonymous means that after this he disappears. We’ll be left in the hands of a man named Sendak.”

She arched a brow. “I thought you mentioned Ranveig as the current leader.”

“He was…outvoted. Although he’s still alive and acts as one of Sendak’s right hands.”

She grunted. “Sounds like a war waiting to happen.”

Adam didn’t disagree.

“Maybe we can take advantage of that.”

“Excuse me?”

“Think about it. Ranveig, demoted to being the right hand to a position that he once held, perhaps we can stoke those fires, turn a little infighting to our advantage.”

Adam sighed through his nose. Not everyone is as vindictive as you, he thought.

He said nothing.

-

“I think we should get a bell for you,” Shiro joked from the loft.

Keith nearly spilled the tray. He nearly glared. “Didn’t see you there.”

“I didn’t hear you,” Shiro returned. He stood and wiped his hands free of something in a conveniently tossed rag. He cut an imposing figure in the foggy yellow light. The edges of his mouth turned up. “Is that for me?”

“Yeah. Hungry?”

“I could eat.” He descended the stairs. His smile widened as he eyed the tray. “Unless you plan on stuffing me for the kill that looks like two portions.”

Keith stalked forward, quiet, graceful, intent. “Mind my company?”

Shiro gestured to the open stairs. “Not at all.”

They sat, Shiro a little higher up, sharing the tray on a flat, wide step between them. It was a beat before Shiro mentioned Kolivan. “He’s quiet like you. He’d scare the shadow off nighttime if he had the chance.”

Keith smiled, “Interesting choice of words.”

“Thank you. I’ve been turning it over in my head for a while.”

Keith had forgotten Shiro said he was a writer. “Kolivan stayed in Olkarion?”

“Somewhat. He connected with the Marmora there but I’m not sure what his ultimate decision is. He was among the first to volunteer to survey the mountains for new routes.” He frowned. “For now, all teams leaving Garrison are suspended.”

Keith spoke around his round cheeks, “Because of the Galra.”

“That’s part of it.”

“Any leads?”

“We can safely assume the Galra are being backed by a third party. There are families, old money names that live in the Pueblas or Narquod that could have funded them.”

“But people from Garrison have the most to lose.”

Shiro agreed, “That’s why we’re focusing our attentions there.”

Keith settled his elbows on his knees. “And you? Why’d you come so far this way? It couldn’t just be to see us.”

Shiro’s sad smile went unseen. “Would that be so bad?”

“No, but you’re pragmatic to a fault. You were ready to break your arm and ankle for the cause when we last saw you.”

“To protect Olkarion,” Shiro defended. “To save hundreds of lives.”

Keith looked over his shoulder. “I wasn’t belittling your motive.”

Shiro watched him and didn’t reply.

“But if you died out there then where would that have left the rest of us?”

Shiro looked down.

“I don’t know much about what you do but you sound pretty important. You can’t keep putting off your own health and safety for others.”

Shiro made a dig, “You know me that well, huh?”

“I know you forgave Lance for raping you within three seconds of him saying sorry.”

Shiro jolted. He stared agog at the back of Keith’s head.

In the silence Keith mildly snapped: “It’s just you have this whole noble, humble, holier than thou thing going on and I get it, you’re kind.” Keith still wasn’t facing him. His hands were white and taut as he gestured. “You’ve gone through enough shit that you don’t want people thinking you’ve got weaknesses, and they believe it. Then you start believing you’re invulnerable too.”

Shiro scoffed, “If you’re quite done talking out of your ass—”

“Struck a nerve, did I?”

“Back off, Keith,” Shiro said firmly, steadily. “I mean it.”

Keith spared him a glance. Shiro watched him unflinchingly. It took a moment before Keith let the defiance in his shoulders melt. He finally looked ashamed with himself. “Sorry. I was out of line.”

Shiro nodded.

Keith returned to his cold sandwich.

“Lance didn’t rape me.”

Keith stared.

“He didn’t. He was confused, o-our cycles overlapped.”

Keith frowned.

“He wasn’t thinking straight.”

“That explains his behavior, it doesn’t justify it.”

“He acted unknowingly.”

“This isn’t about him!” Keith gasped, “It’s about you, what he did to you, how what he did affected you. Why do you keep defending him?”

“I’m not!” Shiro blinked, “Why do you want me to hate him!?”

“I don’t! I want you to question why you’re bending over backwards to make Lance into the victim! What—big strong alpha can’t take that he nearly got topped by a little omega?”

Shiro flushed in anger. “It’s not like that!”

“Then why can’t you see—”

Because!” Shiro shouted, and Keith jerked back, but practice denying huffy alpha steadied him, made him vigilant in a cattish sort of way, taking in how Shiro shook and grimaced and held his temples.

Shiro exhaled, breathed, long and slow, and Keith couldn’t help but think it was a practiced reaction.

Shiro murmured in slow draughts of air: “If…if I admit that the Lance who…touched me while he was in heat was still Lance, then I have to admit that the man who broke Reyner’s door during rut…was me.”

Keith’s shoulders smoothed out in comprehension. His mouth and brow stayed pinched.

“I took a big risk when my rut came, when I first knew you and Lance. But I felt safe. My alpha felt safe. I trusted nothing could go wrong. But I still acted out violently and I don’t know why. I don’t know what causes it. How can I be responsible for my actions when I’m ignorant of them? I just…”

Keith whispered, “You saw yourself in Lance.”

Shiro watched Keith over his clasped hands. His eyes were rimmed red. They were wide, shining, more naked and vulnerable than Keith had ever witnessed. He steeled his heart a little to be impartial for Shiro’s sake, even as he cupped his knee.

How had Shiro kept this from them? He tried to remember his reaction to when Lance told him that the mutilated bathroom door was his doing, but all Keith remembered was tension in Shiro’s mouth and caution in his eyes: he had been in pain, then Kolivan delivered the news about the Galra on the lookout for people running to Olkarion, he was concerned about his people—

Keith made a note to pay more attention to what Shiro didn’t say or react to.

Shiro covered his eyes. “What am I doing.”

“You’re talking,” Keith shifted the tray aside and sat a little closer, such that his thigh was pressed against the outside of Shiro’s boot. “Have you ever talked about this with anyone?”

“The doctors. They said there’s nothing physically wrong with me.”

Keith huffed.

Shiro chuckled sheepishly. “That’s not what you meant.”

“I meant if you’ve talked to human beings.”

Indignantly, “Doctors are human beings.”

“No they are not.”

Shiro’s lips thinned into a smile.

“I don’t completely understand. When I’m in heat I’m still me. Just like I’m still me when I’m angry, or depressed, or hungry.”

Shiro casually berated, “I don’t think heats and ruts count as emotions.”

“But they don’t change who you are,” he insisted. “I find it really hard to believe that the giant puppy who rolled around in a nest with Lance for three days wasn’t you.”

Shiro spluttered. “Is that why Lance calls me puppy?”

Keith’s eyebrows launched into his hairline. “You didn’t know?”

Shiro put on a flummoxed look. “I…didn’t question it.”

“God, you’re so whipped.”

Shiro flushed. “Shut up.”

“As I was saying…” and he ignored Shiro’s almost put out expression. “What was I saying?”

“You were saying I’m still me.”

“Yes, yes, but I had a point. A conclusive point,” he pinched his chin in frustrated petulance. “A big finish.”

Shiro giggled in his throat.

“Don’t laugh at me.”

“You’re dorkier than you let on.”

Keith recoiled in abject horror. “I’m not dorky! Lance is the dorky one!”

“Then it rubbed off on you.”

Keith made up his face as though genuinely disgusted. He smacked the knee he had been consoling.

Their play concluded when Shiro gathered their empty cutlery. “Keith,” he said hesitantly.

Keith met him on eye level, since Shiro descended the stairs and Keith was on the third to last step. He patted his frostbitten jeans free of dust. “What?”

“You were a bit…hard with me, I think.”

Keith rolled his eyes. “You’re just used to Lance doting on you.”

Shiro sobered. He straightened. He was surprised: “You don’t like me.”

Keith wouldn’t meet his eyes as he frowned. “You’re a good man,” he said without heat, without tension, without sarcasm. “You’re a good man but…you kind of have this…suicidal approach to life. You throw your entire being into situations or into your cause. You will end up hurt.”

“Is that a backwards way of saying you care about me?”

Keith didn’t answer. He popped his arms akimbo and looked into a dark corner. Shiro interpreted that look to mean the jury was still out.

Shiro smiled warmly, but Keith was willing to bet he was hiding something. “I hope we can become friends, Keith. Honestly. Apart from our respective relationships with Lance.”

Keith realized Shiro thought the two of them were pack only by virtue of both of them investing their feelings in Lance. Keith decided that this was the case.

Keith wordlessly moved to the edge of the barn. He pushed it open and let Shiro through first.

“Kolivan?”

Keith’s head snapped up.

-

Lance came to and immediately screwed his nose in disgust. A veneer of the broth he recognized and hated coated his tongue. He flailed a bit.

“Easy, love,” Kolivan greeted with no small measure of amusement.

Lance glared. It must have been a particularly nasty look because Kolivan’s smile widened. He caressed Lance’s cheek. “I am sorry.”

“You don’t look very sorry.”

Kolivan was not. He said, “In a way I am. I wish I did not have to administer it to you under such dire circumstances.”

“Dire?” Lance echoed as he sat up. It was a grueling process, even with Kolivan’s iron arm at his back. “What’s going on?” He took stock of the scalped bedroom. “Where’s Keith?”

“Keith is with Shiro, they are outside with your truck packing and tuning it for the trip.”

Lance’s eyes narrowed. “Trip.”

“We came to the vote.” Kolivan shifted. “We agreed that it would be safer if you and Keith left this place for now.”

Like soapy water being discarded to the dirt, a wash of cold flushed Lance’s system. He felt possessed by clarity and ignorance all at once. Something in his person was resigned, the day has finally come, it whispered, but the rest of him didn’t understand. He whispered, “I don’t get to vote?”

In a small song: “You would have been the only one to disagree.”

Kolivan’s thumb crested the high of Lance’s cheek. The nails were long and yellow and clean. The gesture melted some of the nascent terror, stoked some of his downtrodden arousal. He leaned into the hand, and then into Kolivan’s chest, smelling sweat, skin, horse and leather.

“Lance.”

Lance burrowed his head deeper into the folds of coat and body.

Kolivan began trying to nudge him off. “Lance, please meet my eyes. I must tell you something.”

“I don’t want to hear it.”

“I cannot give you that luxury, love.”

Kolivan watched, proud and affectionate, as Lance tucked away his juvenile reluctance and faced him bravely. His eyes were red, his brows would not uncurl, his mouth stayed downturned, but his eyes were ready. Kolivan skimmed his knuckles against Lance’s jaw in praise.

Lance threaded his fingers through that hand and dropped it between them in quiet rejection. Not now, he intoned. “Tell me.”

Kolivan sighed, “There is no easy way to say this. Arus has been destroyed.”

The single blow had Lance’s eyes widen. His mouth opened, his fangs dropped—Kolivan had half a mind to run before Lance tore out the throat of the messenger. He stayed, sorry and strong for them both.

Lance turned away, covered his mouth. He gathered himself. Still, he shook. He could hear her voice on his hair, her skin on his skin, the taste of Coran’s lemonade and the tremble in the furniture from Alfor’s laughter. He could smell them. And rambunctious Pidge—and darling Matt—and Colleen, Sam—he could taste the softness of their home, count the grains in the rafters of her room. His voice broke: “…Allura?”

“We have not heard from her. There is the chance that she and the others left with a band of people fleeing to Narquod. But we do not know for certain.”

Lance kept his fingers on his lips. “…are we going to Narquod?”

Kolivan pressed his lips together.

Lance hissed, “Why not?”

“Shiro and I discussed. Please listen.”

Lance paid attention, though seemed doomed to look aghast through it all. Kolivan suffered his regard. “Arus was destroyed due to a power struggle between two Galra leaders. They were apparently aware of Allura’s medicinal abilities, and a conflict of interest resulted in a daylight brawl.”

Lance closed his eyes. He pinched his nose and sniffed wetly, but listened as Kolivan went on.

“One of those leaders is aware of her connection with you and Keith. Whatever Allura’s fate, she is not in their hands, else they would not be coming to this place now.”

“What do they want?”

“Knowledge of the suppressants, I assume.”

Lance shook his head. “I don’t understand. Why?”

“That I do not know. Lahn would be better equipped to answer that question.”

Why did that name sound familiar?

“He is a Galra who defected from the gangs on their way here now. He knows much about them. It was he who came to issue the warning.”

Lance clutched the sheets to his chest. He looked smaller than usual. Younger than usual. Kolivan wished he’d let go of his hand so that he could pet him again. “Why do you trust him?”

“His words are sound. They match my own observations. And his warnings are dire. You would prefer not to listen? To risk the chance of being surrounded by a horde of desperate, violent men with a single rifle to your name?”

Lance stared at the bedroom door. Kolivan suspected that he did not see it.

He placed his other hand on Lance’s lap. “Shiro and I both agree that you and Keith would be safest in Olkarion. It is closer than Narquod, and the path is unkind to those who don’t know it. We know that the Galra do not know it is there.”

Lance grasped at straws. “They could follow us.”

“Who do you think you are talking to? I can track a man through sleet and hail, I know how to not leave tracks.”

“The truck.”

“Necessary for the first leg of the journey.”

Lance pinched his nose again.

Kolivan reached to cup his cheek. Lance let him. “I am sorry, love.”

Lance sniffed, angry somehow.

“We go as soon as you are able.”

Lance nodded and twisted his hands into Kolivan’s shirt. “Help me up.”

Kolivan stood with Lance in his hands easily. Lance leaned heavily into him, trembling like a newborn foal, bitterly cold now that he was free of the duvet. His thighs were raw and flakey from dried slick. He’d have been embarrassed had Kolivan not seen worse of him.

Kolivan held him aloft, embraced him softly. “You are doing very well.”

Lance didn’t answer the whole shaky journey to the bathroom.

-

Lance strut onto the porch and it was later in the day than he thought it was. Navy blue already clutched to the edges of the sky and painted his rust bucket in flattering colours. He frowned at how empty the bed of the truck was.

Beside Keith, who had drawn up his hood and had his back to the cottage, was the Galra Lance only met once. Lahn was dressed less warmly than the fading snow should have allowed. In fine, the fawn coat and thick muddy boots made him look as though he were out for a mere stroll.

Then he turned, and Lance felt his inner omega tense. He paused on the bottom step. He was still staring at Lahn’s open regard when Keith carted up to him and slipped his cold fingers over his neck and cheeks.

Lance hissed. “Keith, what the hell—what’s the point of wearing gloves if you cut off the tips of the fingers?”

“I need to feel things,” Keith answered. “How are you feeling?”

“Feel things? What do you mean feel things?”

“Like if I’m tuning your truck or dismantling the radio or climbing a tree, I need to feel it, or else I’ll miss something.”

“Why the hell are you climbing trees?”

Keith scoffed in exasperation. He pinched Lance’s chin between his thumb and forefinger and waited until Lance settled…settled in his grip. When Lance locked onto his eyes, when his limbs smoothed out, Keith said lowly, “How are you feeling?”

Lance blinked rapidly. His lips thinned.

Keith let him go. “I’m sorry.”

Lance dismissed the sentiment with a shake of the head. “Why did you agree with the others to go to Olkarion?”

Keith straightened. “Where else is there?”

“Arus.”

Keith softened. “Too far away.”

Kolivan stepped around them.

Lance pulled Keith close by the lapels such that Keith had bracket his feet on either side of Lance’s on the same tread. They kept their balance with one hand on the railing. Keith tasted Lance’s whispers: “Why do you believe him?”

“Who. Lahn?”

“Yes. His claims are pretty steep.”

“That’s putting it mildly.”

“So?”

“What does he have to gain by lying to us?”

“Maybe it’s a trap. Maybe he’s luring us into a trap and his gang is waiting for us.”

“He left the gang.”

Lance hissed: “Allegedly!”

Doubt flickered over his features at last. When their eyes met again, their lips followed. Lance let himself calm a little. Keith replied, “It’s less Lahn more Kolivan and Shiro. Shiro’s given a lot of his time and effort and life into defending the interests of people like us. And Kolivan doesn’t strike me as the kind of man who’d move on an empty claim, right?”

Lance mumbled miserably, “No…he isn’t.”

“There’s something to this that they see that I don’t. I trust them.”

Lance kissed him. “I trust you, babe.”

Keith stared without answering.

Kolivan cleared his throat. Keith stepped down, looked over his shoulder: Shiro, a fresh colour over his cheeks, was suddenly besotted with the sky. Lahn was furiously inspecting his laces.

“We should get going,” Kolivan issued softly.

“Right,” Keith’s voice was clear. He gripped Lance’s hand, and somehow he gave Lance the strength to follow him to the car.

Shiro hesitated before meeting them face to face, and he still looked a little skittish after their flagrant display. His smile was bashful. When it faced Lance it was meaningful, multilayered. He unfolded his arms and leaned his head forward in subtle deference. “How you holding up?”

Lance reached forward with his free hand and squeezed Shiro’s fat pinky. “Thank you, pup.”

And Shiro pinked a little more.

And then there was Lahn.

Lahn held himself politely apart from their coterie. He watched Lance break away from them with the same hesitance he’d approached him just a few days before…

“Can I ask you something?”

Lahn shrugged.

“Why are you helping us?”

Lahn frowned. “I know you don’t think highly of men like me, but I’m not the type to do nothing when friends of the family that took me in are in danger.”

“How did you know?”

Lahn looked behind Lance. “Your friends—”

Lance said firmly, “I’m asking you.”

“We don’t have a lot of time for an interrogation.” He unfolded his arms. “What you need to know you can hear from them.”

“I’m asking you.”

Shiro began: “Lance—”

“Did you wanting to court me have anything to do with this?”

That gave Shiro pause. Lance felt both his and Keith’s avid stares at his back. How Lahn shuffled, he must have felt the heat from it too. He looked away again, then folded his fists in his shallow pockets. “No.” Then he scratched his shallow beard. “That was. Um. That was something separate.”

“And you’re helping us despite that I turned you down?”

“Hell—you turned me down, you didn’t murder my mother.”

As Lance was quiet, Lahn decided that he didn’t like the steady look in his wide eyes.

“I think I’ve stuck around long enough. I can tell I’m not exactly welcome.” He pulled himself up into the stirrups before Lance had the presence mind to deny.

Shiro interjected: “You’re not coming with us?”

“Ain’t that for the best?”

Keith frowned, “Will you be safe among the Balmera? When your friends find out we’re missing, they might come back to find you and ask questions.”

Lahn snorted: “They aren’t my friends. You remember that. And there’s still work to do at Balmera. Wouldn’t want what happened to Arus to happen to them.”

Lance gasped: “Hunk.” He swiveled, “We can’t go, we have to get them to come with us.”

Shiro looked apologetic.

Lance hissed: “Takashi!”

“Lance,” Keith cupped Lance’s shoulder, “those Galra are after us. If we go to the Balmera homestead it’ll be a beacon for the Galra that destroyed Arus to come straight to them. The best you and I can do for them is disappear.”

Lance resisted, “They’ll end up on the Galra’s map anyway.”

“You let me worry about that,” Lahn called from his saddle.

Lance shot him a contrite look.

Keith insisted, “We buy them time by giving that gang something to chase.”

“And they’ll chase us all the way to Olkarion?”

Kolivan frowned and spoke at last: “We will not leave tracks,” he said as firmly as he might state the earth was red, the water was cold, their time was short.

Lance scowled. “You all have it handled, huh.” He spun and faced each of them. “Little ol’ me don’t need to worry his head over shit.”

The wind answered him.

Lance stomped to his truck and crawled in, fiddling with the keys before starting her up.

“I guess that’s our cue,” Keith muttered. He followed him.

One by one they fell to their posts: Lahn vanished to the southwest and Kolivan led the little found-pack in Blue towards the mountains.

And then the oddest thing happened when Lance looked in the rear view mirror at his home of ten years.

It looked like an empty shack.

-

Keith squealed when he was tossed on his back. He laughed despite himself and covered his face. Warm, large, dry lips pressed against one naked hip and then the other. He leered down at Sendak.

He was…older than the memory required. He had salt and pepper hair and white crow’s feet from squinting in the sun all day. He was missing an eye. But he smiled, relieved outside of the company of the men he had to look tough in front of, and he rest his scratchy cheek against the soft inside of a young Keith’s thigh.

Keith hiccupped, moaned a little when the scent gland there got provoked.

“I guess you are Marmora after all,” and he produced another shot out of thin air. “Thace and Ulaz don’t hold their liquor well either.”

Keith hummed in laughter, drank it down. It was sweet, sweet sweet and then it flared, simmered, spread in his belly. He giggled into the empty shot glass and marveled at the acoustics. Sendak gently pried it off his teeth.

Keith propped himself up on his elbows and embedded one heel into the mattress. The air was dry and still. The curtains were too thin. Keith could see the outline of the trees of the freshly purchased plantation through it.

He bucked when Sendak laved his tongue over the inside of his thigh. In long, broad, sensual strokes he warmed Keith up, taking note of the diminishing giggles and escalating panting. He nibbled on an enflamed scent gland: Keith’s hips bucked up and he bit out a moan. He dropped his hand over his eyes.

He gasped when that hand was ripped away.

“You’ve been cutting yourself again,” Sendak hissed miserably.

Keith shook his head: “Nuh uh nuh uh.”

“Don’t lie to me I’m looking at it.” He dropped Keith’s arm and it bounced limply on the bed. “You promised me.”

Keith’s fangs dropped and he snarled, “Cuz you want all of yours pretty.”

Sendak paused. He pinched Keith’s chin between his thumb and forefinger. He took in Keith’s clouded expression, his inconsistent gaze, his throaty humming, his hacked short hair. He wore no jewelry. He was thinner than the others in his harem. He kissed Keith full on the mouth. Keith grunted.

“I want you to be healthy,” Sendak said against his lips. “I want you to be content.”

Keith only stared at him.

“It makes me unhappy to see you hurt yourself.”

Keith spoke.

“Say that again?”

“It’s a tattoo,” Keith’s voice broke. His fangs receded. “I wasn’t it’s not self-harm. It’s a tattoo.” He lifted his wrist. “Look.”

Sendak deposited Keith more firmly on the bed such that his ankles were no longer slipping off. He then straddled Keith’s lap and delicately picked up the thin white wrist and undid the binding. Bright pink, bright black, the numbers glistened in the twilight. Beneath him Keith began to drift off.

Sendak let a little Alpha Voice leak into his question to rouse him, “Why?”

Keith started. He licked his lips. “My mother. My mother—would know it. She’d know me.” He drifted again. “If she sees it.”

Sendak leaned over him and sucked on the scent gland on his neck, licked a trail up behind his ear. Keith keened a little, and his legs parted by an instinct he didn’t understand.

“You want to find your mother.”

“One day,” Keith whispered, panted. He gasped at Sendak’s fingers rolling over his folds, parting his panties to slip into him—“Mm! Sendak—”

“Sh, sh,” and Sendak dressed back. Keith missed him a little immediately. His heat, his weight, it was a comfortable constant. He curled onto his side, felt the dizziness beckon him into sleep sleep sleep…

A large body rest at his back and something familiar and blunt invaded the space between his thighs. He whined and moved away. “Sen—dak—”

“Sh-sh,” and he held Keith against him, pressed his back to his belly and rolled his hips smoothly forward.

Keith shouted, but barely heard it over Sendak’s gratuitous murmuring and kissing and sucking and licking right in his ear.

Keith felt his body rolling, felt his insides moving, felt his own arms scrabbling against Sendak’s stony, hairy skin—whether with or against the grain he stayed unsure. He knew he was wet. He knew it was Sendak taking care of him. He didn’t feel sleepy anymore.

“You feel wonderful, omega.” Sendak kissed his hair.

Keith felt the urge to cut it.

Shiro awoke with a gasp.

The back of his throat tasted like exhaust and his eyes were grainy from grit. He cleared his throat, felt sweat on his brow, and struggled to get to his elbows and fight the nausea without his prosthetic. Helpless, catatonic, sick, he whimpered.

“Hey,” someone whispered.

He gasped again, heart jumping a mile a minute. A hand pressed against his chest.

“Sh-shh,” he whispered, Keith, judging by the smoky sweet smell. He rubbed circles on Shiro’s chest. “You’re okay. Would you like some water?”

Shiro, not trusting his voice, nodded. Keith’s hand vanished. A shuffling mound of blanket and hair said “mrnf” as Keith began rustling in the dark.

Gradually it came back to him. There was barely light coming through the windows of the truck to see, but Shiro remembered that this was not Bandor and Olia and Reyner. This was Keith and Kolivan and Lance, tucked up in the reclined bench of the old pick up leeched off of one another’s body heat in the wild’s dying winter.

“Here.”

“Thank you.” The flask shook. Keith’s fingers were bitterly cold where they grazed him. He tried to make out Keith’s expression in the dim. “Are you okay?”

“Nightmare,” Keith admitted after a solid pause. “I’ll be fine.” Another pause. The rustling of dry skin on dry skin. “Did you have a nightmare too?”

Shiro gasped and swallowed. “Mm. Yes.”

“Feels like an omen.”

Shiro exhaled a laugh.

“What time do you think it is now?”

“Not sure.” Shiro blinked. His eyes acclimated. Keith’s skin was wraithlike like this. Ethereal. For a wild moment he thought he was speaking with a spirit. “Try to sleep. We’ll need it for the long hike ahead.”

“Hike? What hike? We have the truck and a horse.”

“The horse can make it through the pass, but the truck can’t.”

Keith bedded down. “Lance isn’t going to like that.”

“Hmf,” the mound between them agreed. The sound of a deep breath and tendril of a sea breeze later, Lance’s head popped up from the folds and folds and he yawned, wide and loud. “Quite done gossiping, ladies?” he smacked.

Keith opened his mouth to crack a joke in reply. Anticipating it, Lance stuck his hand in his mouth.

“Ansthewerpthk!”

Shiro convulsed in a bout of suppressed laughter.

Lance proceeded to sit up and strip his shirt off. “God it’s warm in here. Where’s Kolivan?”

“On second watch,” Shiro replied. Taking a risk under the veil of darkness, he drank in Lance’s rippling musculature, the grace in his dance as he wiggled his hands free, the play in his feet as he kicked Keith against the door. Keith growled. Lance laughed.

Shiro felt the whole truck bounce when Lance landed again, almost wholly on top of him, Keith quick to follow, both of them snarling and giggling infectiously. Shiro admired how casual they were. Less than a day ago their world was upended, and now they were playing aggressive footsie like a bunch of hyperactive pups. It was a simple happiness, but there was something powerful about laughing in the face of danger and grief.

It was with great reluctance that he reached up with his only hand and tugged on Lance’s upper arm. “I’m sorry, but we really should rest. We have a long day ahead.”

“Mhm, you’re right.” Lance turned to face him, tangled their legs together. “Okay. Oh, sorry, is this okay? I can—”

Shiro’s hand flew to Lance’s hip to keep him close. “It’s fine,” he blurted. He blushed when he heard Keith’s amused snort from somewhere over Lance’s shoulder. A little slower: “It’s fine.”

Lance beamed. He pressed his nose against Shiro, then gently joined their mouths. “G’night, puppy.”

Shiro felt himself following the warm pressure. “Uh, yes. Good night Lance.” He cleared his throat. “Night, Keith.”

Keith peeked over his shoulder. Shiro jumped when Keith’s eyes traveled to his groin. He replied: “Mm. Good morning.”

Shiro didn’t see what Lance used, but whatever he hit Keith with—repeatedly—had him coughing and laughing for a full ten minutes.

However, it was morning. The sky started brightening before Shiro could properly reclaim sleep. He watched in a strange blend of peace and dread as details of Lance’s sleeping face came more and more into view. Lance slept facing him and had his arms tucked between their bodies, but they were wrapped in individual blankets. Lance had one shoulder bare, and it was the shoulder that sported Shiro’s Mark.

Beautifully uninterrupted, speedily healed, Shiro felt his jaw go a little weak at the vision. The scabs were gone by now, and the deep melanin colours remained.

But that too would fade without true Reciprocation. Shiro’s inner alpha whined at the idea. It couldn’t rationalize enough to agree with Shiro’s insistence on abstinence. A Bond was forever, one did not simply do so over a month old relationship.

The idea surprised him. Did he want to Bond to Lance? The idea was certainly romantic. He touched Lance’s shoulder.

But there was too much unspoken between them. Easy chemistry or no, they were strangers to each other. His forefinger circled the Mark.

And then there was the matter of how much of their attraction was influenced by the impromptu bite. Was Lance’s personality closer to Keith’s when the magic wore off? Was Shiro himself more distant once his alpha finally realized that the Mark was conditional? And then there was the matter of—

His fingers brushed on something. A flare of panic bloomed in his chest. Did Lance have a growth on his back? A laceration? Fueled by concern, he traced his finger lightly under the blanket. He felt the raised, leathery flesh of a scar. It felt big. He frowned. His heart pranced. How had he never noticed? How had he never seen—

Tap-tap.

Shiro jerked upright. Through the window was Kolivan’s stately face. He only gestured come hither and Shiro began hunting for his boots. He caught Keith peering at him curiously when he wrestled his coat on.

“Sorry to wake you,” he mouthed.

Keith shook his head. “We’re going now?”

“Soon.”

Keith nodded. He was wrapping his arms around Lance and mumbling sweet insults in his ear when Shiro left them.

Kolivan was across the little fire they made last night. Trees rose high all around them: there was barely space to drive anymore. Kolivan’s horse stood by the fire and under two of Lance’s wooly blankets.

“Good morning. Is everything alright?”

“I am uncertain. We are being followed.”

“Galra?” Shiro peered into the foliage and saw nothing.

“No. An animal. I saw its eyes last night. It is quiet, and this morning I saw its tracks. It is familiar enough with people to follow in pursuit of food, but smart enough to stay out of sight.”

Shiro crouched by the tracks. While not as gifted as Kolivan at reading the land, he could recognize most prints, and immediately mumbled, “A dog.”

“Or a wolf.”

“Only one?”

“I believe so.”

“Do you think we should be worried? If it’s just one and it didn’t attack at night…”

“I am worried Lance notices it. He is terrified of wolves. He almost lost his life to a pack.”

Shiro straightened. “Oh.”

“I need you to be aware, but do not notify them.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Try to trap it.”

“…and kill it?”

“I would rather not.” His eyes settled on Shiro at last. “On another note: what do you think about the story of a gang perusing Keith and Lance?”

Shiro stared into the unfamiliar forest. “Honestly? It sounds a little far-fetched. But if its Olkarion they’re after, it makes sense.”

Kolivan frowned. “There are too many holes in these stories.”

“I know.”

They both turned to the sound of Keith and Lance chatting. Lance volunteered ideas of breakfast and Keith lunged at him. If Shiro had to guess, Lance volunteered bacon and beans again.

Kolivan strode towards the fire without another exchange or backwards glance. Shiro returned to eyeing the wilderness searching for a pair of intelligent eyes watching him in turn.

Chapter Text

“We’re making good time.”

“Are we?” Keith didn’t look at Shiro. He pitched his voice ahead of them: “I thought we would have been days behind thanks to the funeral ceremony for a damn truck!”

Lance ahead threw his arm into the mist and performed a generously rude gesture in reply.

Shiro turned his eyes up. They were making good time. Then again, it was only Keith and Lance, and Keith and Lance were fit. Garrison folk didn’t have to do half the labor that frontier omega survived each day, and didn’t move with such steadfast determination.

“We should get to the last safe house before nightfall,” he went on, one eye on the grey sun dripping through the black foliage.

Keith suddenly ducked out of his peripheral vision and he turned urgently. He smiled. Keith was bowed over the roots of another colossal and alien tree. “Butter mushrooms!” He whispered and reached forward with a reverent forefinger.

Shiro stepped close. “Are they edible?”

“Absolutely, if you want an inflamed tongue and your throat to close.”

Shiro grimaced.

“Cleaning and boiling them gets rid of the worst of the toxin. It’s a good coagulant when mixed into a paste with a specific purple dye.”

“How do you know all this stuff?”

To his alarm, Keith had started digging, fingerless gloves and all, not a modicum of hesitation. There was no snow here, and he made a curious sound when he found earthworms a few inches in. “Alfor’s books.” He looked somber for a heartbeat. “Alfor’s Allura’s father. They were both medical practitioners.”

Shiro’s eyes went downcast. “I’m sorry.”

“Lance’s taking it harder than me.”

“I…can imagine. He’s been laughing all day today though.”

“He cries at night, sometimes.” Keith met his eyes. “Shiro, about—”

A low whistle came from ahead. It was long and had a lilt on the end, and Keith couldn’t help but think it a question. Shiro replied—Keith jumped, it was loud—equally long and haunting, but his whistle ended on a lower note. “We should keep moving,” he reported. “Kolivan and Lance are too far ahead of us for our liking.”

“Give me a second.”

Then the hike continued through the zig-zagging incline up the impossible, forested mountain. There was rock somewhere beneath all the soft, rich, smelly earth, but they couldn’t advance very far without someone slipping, usually one of the omegas or the horse. Kolivan and Shiro were used to the trail.

“It’s a new route,” Shiro volunteered. “Kolivan was the one who mapped it out. It’s inconvenient in most places for cars or wagons, hence we had to leave Lance’s Blue behind. But there’s a lot of cover from both prying eyes and the elements. And it’s easy to get lost, with all the crags that can force pursuers to turn around and around.”

Keith hadn’t gotten a good view of the place before they were under the behemoth trees, but apparently it was a steep, rippling valley. Apparently the entire area was chock full of rises and falls like the undulation of crinkled bedsheets. In one of those crinkles was Olkarion.

“It’s like finding a needle in a haystack. The city’s in a good defensible position.”

“It was chosen with that in mind. The people who originally scoped the place out figured they would face animosity one day.”

“How did the place get started? How big is it even?”

“Hm…have you ever been to Narquod?”

“It’s that big?!”

“Maybe smaller, if you don’t count the farmland, but it’s sizeable yeah. It’s a whole, functional city with its multiple marketplaces, residential districts—it’s pretty old. It was built on Marmora land. It was at first a town made of stone walls and houses, and then adventurers from Garrison settled here. At some time someone made a connection and in recent decades the population boomed with emigrating omega. But it’s not just omega I should mention—while the ratio is omega dominant, there are plenty of alpha and beta there. People who are sick of getting their asses kicked in the First City. And more Marmora than I’ve ever seen in one place.”

Keith rubbed his wrist as that sunk in. “What will Lance and I do when we get there?”

Shiro shrugged, “Whatever you want, I suppose. When I say it’s a land of opportunity I mean it. It’s a big place but we always have a demand for teachers and craftspeople. Kolivan’s knowledge of weapon making revived a whole tradition you likely won’t find anywhere else. Between your knowledge of medicinal plants and Lance’s skill with the loom you’d be busy before you properly settle down.”

Keith rubbed his wrist.

Shiro noticed. “Are you alright?”

“Yes. I just—tell me more about the Marmora?”

“Mm,” he looked ahead in thought and Keith studied his profile as he waited. Pockets of light danced over his wide cheeks as he took giant strides. He casually bit his bottom lip looking for the right words. He was big. He was powerful. But Keith forgot that because he spoke so softly, so carefully, so sincerely.

Shiro’s eyes snapped to him with the awareness of a creature being watched—

—and Keith was surprised enough to slip and hit the ground wham!

Shiro’s hands were on him immediately. His voice sounded congested from laughter. “Are you—”

Keith grunted dismissively, grimacing, blushing—slipping again and nearly tumbling down the mountain if not for Shiro’s iron grip. “Stop laughing.”

Shiro, biting his lip and exercising commendable restraint, lifted his eyebrows and his bright, bright eyes shone as if to say: Laughing? Me? He did chuckle when Keith pulled his arms free in a wave and a flap.

“Thank you,” he intoned ungratefully. He clapped his knees.

“Anytime. Maybe we should get you some cleats—”

“Shut up.”

Shiro snorted into the back of his hand.

Keith paraded staunchly ahead. He yanked his hood down and picked at the mud under his nails or otherwise tucked them under his armpits as he navigated root systems and slippery fungi on rare exposed rock.

Kolivan and Lance were visible chittering shapes ahead of them, but the mist seemed to absorb their sounds and keep them all the more hidden from the world. Keith was about to ask about the weather, if the fog was perpetual, but caught Shiro looking behind them.

“Are we being followed?”

Shiro hesitated. “Well, yes. But not by a person.”

Keith arched a brow. “How reassuring.”

Shiro chuckled. “You’re so dry. It’s fine, it’s just a wolf.”

“A wolf!”

“It’s okay, it’s just one. And I think a juvenile, by its size. We don’t have to worry.”

“Don’t have to worry?” he echoed, obstinately looking behind him even as Shiro prompted him to keep going forward.

“When I’ve escorted families through the interior we get stalked by wildlife all the time. Foxes, crows, wild dogs, a kalternecker calf followed us all the way to Olkarion, once. He’s probably just following in the hopes we drop scraps. He’ll give up eventually.”

“And if he doesn’t? Lance is scared shitless of wolves.”

“He is?”

“He got mauled by a pack once.”

“Jesus.”

Keith lifted his eyebrows in question.

“What do you expect me to do about it? Keith, it’s harmless. You want me to kill it on the off chance Lance looks behind us?”

“Can we…feed it and make it go away or something?”

“We feed it and it’ll just follow us openly.”

“Shit.”

“Just leave it alone. When it realizes we don’t have food for it, it’ll go.”

Keith opened his mouth to rebuke and slipped—Shiro caught him.

“Maybe we should hold hands?”

“Fuck off.”

He ignored how utterly delighted Shiro looked to make fun at Keith’s expense.

And if a twig sounded behind them? He ignored that too.

-

The safe house was not unlike Kolivan’s hideaway home in the rocky hills against the veld’s perennial jungle. But it was bigger, smoother, older. There was less rock more design to the domed ceiling. Lance said it felt like standing on the inside of a chicken egg. Shiro burst out laughing, but Keith thought it apt.

There were three round rooms here, smaller the further into the cave one went. In the first and largest Kolivan quickly had a fire going. In the second he warmed, fed and watered the horse. The third was a storage room stockpiled with food, medicines, clothes and sheets.

Keith was nursing his feet beside the fire when Lance suddenly attacked Shiro: “Kolivan said they’re hot springs! Are there really?”

“Hm??” Shiro spun, confused to have his arms suddenly full of Lance. “O-oh, yes.”

Poor Shiro, Keith thought. He could see the man trying not to look too pleased that Lance was hanging onto him like bark on a tree.

“Can we go?”

When Shiro turned considerably redder, Keith knew exactly how far down the gutter his mind had fallen.

(He did not lift a finger to rescue him.)

Kolivan reappeared at that moment to report that he would check the surrounding area. “To cover our tracks and ensure we have not attracted attention.”

“Can I come? I want to learn.”

And Keith watched in quiet glee as Shiro did the math and pinked.

Kolivan nodded. “Certainly.” He waited as Keith tucked into his boots anew. To Shiro he said, “We will be back before it is too dark.” To Lance, “Be careful at the springs, love. The temperature difference may shock you.”

“Yes, Koli,” Lance studiously replied from Shiro’s breast.

Keith stepped close, “Lance, go away. I want to have a word with Shiro before I go.”

Lance stared at him with open curiosity. His arms remained latched protectively around Shiro’s waist. Unbidden came to Keith the memory of Allura dragging him to her kitchen laboratory and Lance hovering restlessly as if contemplating snatching him back. Through it all, Shiro was still bowing his head and baring his neck in deference.

But in the active display of their love for each other, Keith was not alone: Lance placed an artful hand behind his neck and stroked the skin beside his dormant scent gland. “Are you going to bully him?”

Keith leaned into his hand. “Just a little bit.”

Shiro did a double take.

Lance pressed his mouth against Keith’s in a way that was plain and conversational, and then he sprang towards Kolivan babbling in Marmora, gestures wide in gaiety,  voice fading the more they drifted to the mouth of their hideaway…

Shiro turned to Keith with palpable reluctance.

“Stop looking at me like that. I’m not going to eat you.”

Shiro’s mouth stretched into a flat white line. “I wouldn’t put it past you.”

“Oh hush.” He swatted at him but missed by a mile.

Shiro’s smile went a little more relaxed. “What did you want to talk to me about?”

Keith folded his arms. His teasing gaze went terse.

Shiro straightened. His joints shivered with the instinct to stand at parade rest. He remembered how blustering his first day as a cadet had been.

“You’re aware that Lance and I are together.”

“All but married,” Shiro replied stiffly.

“Until the day he feels differently, I want to stay by his side. And with the way he’s taken to you, you’ll be in my life too. So there are things I need to know about how the three of us…uh. Work together.”

“Then why did you ask Lance to leave?”

“Because I think this is something we each need to talk about on a one-on-one basis before talking as a pack.”

Shiro watched him.

“I’m…not good with words. I’ll be blunt.”

Shiro nodded in encouragement, expecting no less.

“What are your—no. Why—hm. Don’t give me such a pitying look, shut up. I’m asking…do you want Lance?”

“…want Lance?”

“As your omega. Or is it just a friends with benefits thing?”

Shiro looked away. “You’re asking what the nature of my relationship with him is.”

“I’m asking what you want Lance to be to you, in the end. He bears your Mark now but when it fades, will you renew it? Will you ask him to Reciprocate?”

Shiro was thoughtful.

“Or maybe you’ve just been stringing Lance along thoughtlessly?”

To Keith’s surprise, Shiro cast him one single hot look. It was whiplash after facing his perpetual submission.

Then he remembered himself and half turned, and Keith knew the way he touched his mouth his gums were stinging from detracted teeth.

Keith decided to answer Shiro’s offense with a sigh of relief. Lance clearly ranked higher than a passing fancy in his mind. He waited for a verbal answer.

It did not come easily. It came eventually. “I…want to be…his alpha.”

Keith frowned.

“But not in the conventional sense. I…I think…I want to be his lover but…the way you are, with him. I want to be your equal, and your friend, and his friend as well as his lover, eventually. If he would have me.”

Keith rolled his eyes, big and exaggerated: “Oh, he’d have you. No question there.”

Shiro smiled furtively. His teeth didn’t go away. “But I don’t want to impose my fantasy of an ideal relationship on him. I know that love takes time and work and sacrifice and a lot of awkward conversations like this one.”

Keith frowned. “In what way is this conversation awkward?”

“You look like you want to eat me.”

He scowled. “I just have this kind of face.”

“The cannibalistic kind?”

Keith cast him a dry look. He shifted his weight to one leg and set his arms akimbo. “You’ve turned into quite the smartass since we left the veld.”

Shiro inclined his head in half-assed apology. “I have you to thank for that. You showed me that I need to be…tough with you, sometimes.”

Keith watched him, unamused. He concluded, “Hm.”

Shiro spread his hands: “So? Do I pass your test? Am I worthy?”

“That is Lance’s decision.” He watched him cattishly, unblinking. “You should tell him about your intentions.”

Shiro sobered. “You’re right.” Claiming to be friends but easily making out with him was a classic example of mixed signals. Lance outwardly seemed to have no issue, but wasn’t that the point? Shiro didn’t know. He never asked.

“Also, he doesn’t like having his hair pulled or getting slapped, but he appreciates hand holding and the constant reminder that you recognize him as a person instead of a sex toy.”

Contrary to his expression, Shiro’s voice was deceptively composed. “…why would you—?”

“I mentioned it just in case. He freezes up if treated too roughly.” He gave him a sharp look. “Don’t make a big deal about his back, okay?”

Shiro was about to ask—but then his fingers remembered the texture of Lance’s scars. “Okay.”

“And if you ejaculate inside don’t worry about it, I found white whittle. It’s the thorny plant I picked yesterday? I can make into a contraceptive tea.”

Shiro stared bright eyed and incredulous.

Keith suppressed his grin. He shrugged. “Just in case.”

Shiro’s lips parted, whether in shock or to reply Keith was unsure, but in either case nothing came out. So he added conversationally: “Still, though creampies feel pretty good to me, I honestly don’t know how Lance feels about—”

“Can we not—” Shiro huffed and rubbed his face aggressively. He muttered into his hands: “You don’t have to worry about that.”

“You don’t want to have sex with Lance?”

Shiro groaned into his hands.

“Why are you hiding?”

“Please leave me alone.”

Keith gave his shoulder a parting smack. Shiro more felt than saw his smirk.

-

Lance asked how badly Keith roughed him up.

“My bruises have bruises,” Shiro joked and poked the fire.

Lance guffawed. “Aw. Poor thing.”

A little more seriously: “I think he only tolerates me because you like me.”

“Who, Keith? No! That’s just his face.” Shiro snorted, though warmed when Lance patted his knee. It was curiously Keith-like. “He thinks highly of you, promise.”

Shiro’s smile was unconvinced. “Does he?”

“If he didn’t he wouldn’t make the effort to make this,” and he gestured wildly to the air between them, “try to work.”

“Sometimes I feel like he’s trying to scare me off.” Shiro closed his hand around the memory of the texture of Lance’s scars. “Other times…I dunno. I know he has your best interests at heart. We can’t get very far in a conversation without talking about you.”

Lance perked up. He then put on the most lascivious and most plastic sneer Shiro had ever seen. “What do you guys talk about?”

“Your kinks.”

Lance immediately blanched. “You’re kidding.”

“I was, but your reaction has me curious.”

He clicked his tongue. “Trickster! Fine. You really want to know?”

Shiro felt his heart hiccup. He didn’t understand how his voice stayed level, not with the way the happy fire dripped over Lance’s form and left him looking like the embodiment of the sun—save for his eyes, pinpricks of resolute blue, no less warm but decidedly defiant of the flame…

“I…” he blinked in a flutter. He reset. “You’re willing to tell me?”

“Well,” and Lance tugged off one boot then the other, “you were going to know eventually.” He paused in shrugging off his coat. “If—that is, I mean, if you were interested in having that sort of relationship. I know you said you wanted to be friends.”

There it is. Shiro shifted close until their thighs and knees pressed firm. Lance was quick to fit their bodies together and Shiro curled his arms around him, tucked his nose into his hair. “I’m sorry that I was so vague.”

“…about?”

“When I said I wanted to be friends. It’s the truth, but I wasn’t finished.”

“Are you going to tell me the whole truth now?”

“Yes, but it’s amazing how hard it is to be honest. Even with someone I trust.”

“It’s like cracking open your skull and letting someone else take a peek,” Lance nodded sagely. “Your body’s resisting you.”

Shiro heaved a jaded sigh. “Not wrong, though I was going to go with a more romantic analogy…”

Lance patted his hand patiently. “You get used to it. Take your time.”

Shiro fell in love with him a little bit. “Okay.” Somehow they’d ended up scenting each other. Lance’s fading heat pried at Shiro’s dormant libido. Touching and tasting Lance at the back of his throat satisfied him.

He watched Lance’s toes wiggle in the warm. He said, “I want to have sex with you.”

The wiggling stopped.

“Eventually.”

Lance grasped at his chest, “Fuck that was like a jump scare.”

That alarmed Shiro. “You think sex with me is scary?”

“What—no! No no, I mean: you just came out with it like wham! I was not expecting that. And I thought Keith was frank!”

Shiro smiled.

“I mean, I’m not surprised, but it’s a different thing hearing it out loud.”

“Not surprised?”

“It’s in the way you kiss. I can feel it.”

Shiro complained, “Please. I’m embarrassed as it is.”

“Embarrassed about liking me?”

“No, about being transparent about it.” He hid in Lance’s hair. “I’m usually…the way I am around you and Keith…I’m not usually like this.”

“What, are you more surly and dignified?”

“I’d like to think so, yes. More like Kolivan.”

“Like Kolivan! I can’t see it. I can only imagine you as a soft, squishy, oversized puppy.” Lance felt Shiro grow heavier. “Okay, I’m done. I’m done teasing.”

He moaned, “No you’re not.”

“I’m not. No I am not, not by a longshot and I am so sorry,” Lance cackled. “But I interrupted you. Keep going.”

“Hm.” Shiro gathered his thoughts again. “I want to have a sexual relationship with you but I don’t want that to be pivotal to how we see each other. In my head there are phases: we meet, we become acquainted, we become friends, we court, then sex then the Bond. And instead…well. I essentially forced you to marry me before we really knew each other. And I’m scared that that’ll hurt how we interact.”

Lance waited a beat. “Marry?”

“Bonding in the Garrison is the same as a legal marriage.”

“But I didn’t Reciprocate.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“Doesn’t matter?” Lance hissed, “That’s insane! What’s stopping a crazed rando alpha from marrying people willy-nilly?”

“Unenforced laws, mostly.”

“Does it work the other way around?”

“Rarely. Most laws don’t recognize omega bites without a Reciprocating alpha bite, and Marks between omegas isn’t considered possible to begin with.”

Lance stroked the Mark Shiro gave him. “…sorry. I derailed you again.”

“Oh. Where was I?”

“You said you had this, um. Hierarchy—hierarchy?” and Shiro nodded, “about how you think relationships should develop. And you and me went all the way to base nine before clearing base one.”

Shiro spluttered. “Basically.”

“You know that relationships aren’t prêt-a-porter, right?”

“Come again?”

“It isn’t one size fits all. Like: it doesn’t need to follow a set format to work. We aren’t machines.” He paused. “What does your ideal relationship look like?”

Without hesitation, “You and Keith.”

Lance barked out a laugh. “What?”

“I’m serious. The two of you are friends, it’s so obvious that you’re friends the way you talk to each other and tease and play: you guys honest to god play and I admire that so much. Don’t laugh, its true. You two have fun. But you also speak seriously. Like that time at the dinner table when Keith was upset with us, you both worked through it. You communicate. You’re family. And then there’s the fierce way you defend each other—you guys are a unit. A team. And it’s so admirable. I’d love to love like that.”

Lance listened.

“I think that’s a major part of why I came back and why I was really happy to be part of your pack—even though Keith doesn’t like me—”

“Keith likes you fine.”

“—I love the way you guys love. Sometimes I…sometimes I think it’s a little selfish that I’m here.”

“Why?”

“It feels like…not exactly like I’m getting between you two but like I’m…getting a taste of something that I shouldn’t. Like I’m unwelcome.”

“If you were unwelcome we would have let you know, puppy. Keith and I both see you as pack. He said so to your face.”

Shiro held him a little closer and Lance leaned into him easily. “It’s not like…you and Keith think I’m unwelcome more like…a niggling little voice in the back of my head saying that this shouldn’t work and that it won’t work. And that it’s unfair to the two of you.”

“How?”

“Because I like you, Lance. And you like me but you’re with Keith and Keith and I…are not close. Yet. Doesn’t that sound unbalanced to you?”

“Yeah but we just started. It’s gonna feel weird for a while until we work it out. That’s why talking like this is important.”

The fact that Keith prompted this discussion sounded in Shiro’s head like a gong.

“Keith’s good at talking. He helped me work out a lot of issues.”

“What kind of issues?”

“Oh. Um. Well. It’s sex related.”

Shiro hesitated. “Is it something you don’t want to talk about?”

“I don’t mind, but are you okay with that stuff? If you want us to be celibate for now…”

“Celibate?”

“Is. Is that not what you want?”

“…I…would—if you’re comfortable with it, of course—”

“Spit it out, pup,” Lance blindly pinched a cheek.

Shiro smiled around it. “I’d like to kiss and touch you, if that’s alright.”

“More than alright, we’re doing that already.”

“I’d like to do more, gradually. With your permission.”

Lance purred an affirmative.

“But I need you to know that I don’t want to be beside you because of the physicality of our relationship.”

“I know, pup. I can tell.”

“You can tell?”

“It’s in the way that you kiss.”

Shiro marveled at that for a heartbeat.

“Also, something else: I get the feeling you’re not like me. You said I’m a polyamor.”

“Polyamorous.” He mused to himself: he found Keith attractive, but any attempt to imagine a romance blooming between them was met with a solid black wall.

“Does it bother you that I like multiple people?”

“No, I was just surprised at first.”

“What if I asked to have sex with someone other than you or Keith?”

“Why would you need my permission?”

“Well I’d like you to at least be okay with it—it’s not really about permission it’s about…if it bothers you, then you have the right to ask me to keep sex between us, y’know? You have that right.”

“Oh,” Shiro considered. “I…have to think about that a little more.”

“That’s fair.” He took a breath to steady himself. “How do you feel about me liking Kolivan?”

Shiro had been thinking about that for a while. “I…I might sound a little cold, but I don’t care. I know Kolivan. He’s one of the most decent men I’ve ever met. If anything I’m just surprised that you two get along.” At Lance’s expression, “Because he’s so tempered and you’re so…”

“Loud? Childish?”

“I was going to say…open. Kolivan is pretty closed off.”

“That’s because you haven’t been friends with him for ten years.”

“That’s fair.”

Lance nodded.

“Do you want to have sex with Kolivan?”

Lance hesitated. He spoke gradually. “I’ve been thinking about it ever since Keith—oh, that’s what I forgot to say. Keith knew that I had a thing against penetration.” If he noticed Shiro stiffen, he didn’t say anything. “Keith said it was because I was assaulted—oh, actually I have to go even further back.”

“You were assaulted?”

Lance leaned up and out of the nest that was Shiro’s body. Both of them missed the heat and the pressure, but both appreciated having their eyes meet, even if Lance’s gaze quickly skittered to the left. Shiro was unable to place it, but he was willing to guess he was ashamed. “Lance?”

“I was married when I was…what. Fourteen? Fifteen? I see your expression, ha. To be honest I was pretty young, even for the tradition. But the guy thought I was pretty and my bride price was hefty. I don’t want to make it look like my family sold me, okay? They didn’t. They loved me and wanted the best for me. They just…didn’t know he was gaslighting me and beating me. Don’t make that face. No use getting mad at a dead man.”

Shiro didn’t notice when he was frowning, but he did feel the tension in his face ease up at those words. “What happened?”

“We went to a beach and he got pulled out by a rip tide while I was looking for shells.” Lance began to speak monotonously. It chilled Shiro a little. “I spent the whole day looking for him and when I found his body on the other side of the cliffs I realized I had to run away. If he was dead but I was still alive at worse I’d be accused of murder and my family could suffer from the fallout. At best I’d be married to my dead husband’s brother or cousin and…well. I didn’t want to.”

Shiro offered his hand. Lance tangled his fingers in it. “So you ran away.”

“Mhm. Traveled for about a year town hopping before I met A-Allura,” he swallowed.

Shiro squeezed his hand tighter. “We don’t need to talk about this if you don’t want to.”

Lance’s hand was limp in Shiro’s. He did not speak for a moment. With his back to the fire his face cast in shadow was unreadbale. When he spoke, he avoided the memories of Arus altogether: “Sometimes my husband would hit me but I was so stupid I didn’t think it was abuse. I thought it was normal. So I had this trauma built up around sex and penetration and I didn’t even realize.” His eyes flickered to Shiro’s eyes and back. “I have scars.”

Softly: “I know.”

He looked annoyed. “Keith told you?”

“No. I touched your back when you were sleeping, once. I just wanted to see my—your—my Mark. I’m sorry.”

Lance shook his head. “Does…do they gross you out?”

What?”

“My scars. You don’t find it…awkward, at least? All my scratched up skin left behind by another alpha. His Mark faded but these don’t, like I’m branded by him even in death—”

“I have an idea. Take off your shirt?”

Lance’s head snapped to him. He searched his face for something but found nothing but eagerness. He narrowed his eyes. “Why.”

“I don’t think that at all. I want to show you I mean that.” He tilted his head. “Please?”

“Ugh,” Lance recoiled. “Don’t pull that expression on me.”

Shiro grinned.

“You know what you’re doing. You’re devious, puppy.”

“So?”

Lance pouted and, with reluctance, with all his strength, curled his fingers under the hem of his shirt and pulled, pulled, pulled…

Cross-crossed raised flesh gleamed in the firelight. They were on his upper back mostly, but some crude lines scratched even his tailbone. Lance was too close to the fire to be shaking from the cold. Shiro rubbed his forearms. Lance went boneless at the touch.

Then he leaned forward and kissed the bottom of his nape, the starting of a raised scar.

Lance squeaked.

“Is this okay?” Shiro checked in.

“Mhm,” Lance sighed, “it’s just…I haven’t bathed yet and—”

“If I bathe you then do I have permission to kiss you head to toe?”

Lance looked over his shoulder without moving. Shiro thought the sudden twist in his spine flirtatious. “You make it sound like some great travesty if you don’t right now.”

“It is,” Shiro whispered, closer than he was a heartbeat earlier. His breath fanned over Lance’s healed scent gland and a trill old as time spiraled down his spine. “Can I suck on it? Just a little?”

The desire to please this alpha left only one option available to Lance’s senses. “O-okay.”

Shiro disappeared for a moment then Lance found himself tugged back into his folded lap. Shiro provided his hands for Lance to thread his fingers through, then his tongue descended on the faded Mark imprinted in Lance’s skin.

Lance cried out a little, and though Shiro paused, his alpha brain kept telling him that that was a good sound, a happy sound. Happy omega content omega. Shiro locked it away in a cage. “Lance?”

“I’m fine,” he hung his head. “I didn’t expect it to feel so…sharp.”

“Bad sharp?”

He shook his head. “I’ve touched it before, Keith’s touched it before, but when you do it’s like…that patch of skin has a thousand more nerve endings all of a sudden.”

“Well, I am the one who gave it to you.” And he laved his tongue in a quick show of possession. “Your body knows that too.”

Lance flushed at Shiro’s uncharacteristic forwardness. “So I belong to you now, is that it?”

Shiro’s fogging head cleared. Utterly serious: “No. If anyone belongs to anyone, I belong to you.”

Lance curled at that, a sound like mrrwp! echoed in his throat, and Shiro kissed his hair knowing he was pleased.

“Hey.”

“Mm?”

“Still want to visit the hot spring?”

Lance’s eyes glittered. “Yes.”

“You’re so excited. It’s not some a magical place, you know. It’s puddles of warm water.”

“Doesn’t matter, I’m itching for a bath. Can I wash your hair too, puppy?”

Shiro spluttered, “Y-you want to bathe? With me?”

Lance’s expression crashed. He ducked his head. He spoke slowly. “I’m sorry. I meant, ‘Shiro, would you like to bathe with me’?”

“Oh,” and it clicked. Hadn’t the last time they met Shiro reminded him to ask? Somewhere along the lines the rules of consent blurred, and mutual scenting and kissing didn’t need to be prefaced with a request. But there were still limits that they were poking at.

Why had he assumed things would work out so long as he was honest and submissive? He had immense respect for Keith’s power of observation all of a sudden. Had Keith not known Lance’s character and grown to learn Shiro’s, he would not have interfered insofar as to deepen the relationship between Shiro and Lance by prompting a necessary discussion.

But what if he hadn’t? What might have his relationship with Lance turned into? A pair of dancing figures dubious of each other’s intentions? A repeat of his mishap with Adam?

Shiro affectionately cupped Lance’s jaw. “I’d love to.”

Lance smiled in a way Shiro knew came before a casual press of their lips.

Shiro was still leaning forward for more when Lance left in pursuit of his satchel.

-

Lance’s hand slipped out of Shiro’s as he barreled ahead to get his first eyeful of the hot springs. He made an exclamation in awe, though Shiro couldn’t see why.

In the slope of the mountain warm water trickled out of a crack. Moss and grass grew beside it. That trickled into a pool the size of a bowl. That trickled into a pool the size of a bathtub. That trickled into a pool that might comfortably float Lance’s abandoned truck. But it was shallow, no more than three feet deep, albeit it’s opaque jade green colour was weird and deceiving.

Unlike most of the rest of the forest, here mud and silt and rotting leaf gave way to gravel. There were many springs that this one scattered across the valleys. Quite a few of them boasted warm water. Olkarion had several. Even as he told Lance this the stars didn’t leave his eyes.

“I’ll get tired of the scene eventually, leave me alone. Let me bask in the moment.”

Shiro chortled. “Yes, sir.”

He started stripping complaining yowling about the cold. He was out of his coat and trousers in record time. Shiro found himself picking up and folding this clothes to set on a flat rock behind him. Then Lance slipped in: “Hot!”

Shiro quickly followed. “I brought jerky. Hungry?”

“Ooh, yes please! Fish tea would be nice now too.”

“Fish tea?”

“It’s like soup. Watery. You drink it more than you eat it.”

Shiro frowned in thought. He bent at the waist to hand Lance a strip and his eyes caught on Lance’s neck. “You still have it.”

“Hm? Oh, your dog tags.” He began to take it off.

“No no, keep it,” he smiled and kneeled. “It’s obviously safe with you. I didn’t expect you to wear it.”

Lance shrugged. “I didn’t want to lose it. It’s important to you, right?”

“More the memory than the trinket, but yes.” Lance wondered what that meant. He asked instead, “Aren’t you coming in?”

The sun fell, the air got colder, the water remained pleasant. The blue sunset ricocheted off the mountains that faced them with gorgeous intensity. Shiro angled into Lance’s fingers scrubbing away at his scalp.

“Duck a bit.”

Shiro ducked and Lance rinsed his hair clean.

“There we go. Don’t you feel like a human being again?”

“Would you like me to wash yours?”

Lance was excited for the opportunity. He’d never had his hygiene tended to by an alpha before. But Shiro’s movements were too gentle and he had to laugh. A little more pressure, he insisted, otherwise not only will his hair not get cleaned properly but they’d be there all night! He would not complain though. The vapor rising off the pools in the light of the lantern was ethereal.

Lance was still defending his eyes against the soap when Shiro suddenly called, “Keith. You’re back.”

Lance waved blindly.

“He’s to your right.”

Lance waved blindly.

Keith snorted, “Have you guys been in here the entire time we were gone?”

Lance heard him crouch in the gravel. “It’s too warm. Every time I move to get out it’s too cold.”

Keith flicked water at him.

Shiro asked, “How’s the perimeter looking?”

“Doesn’t look like we have a tail.” He glanced at Lance ensuring his eyes were still closed. He mouthed, The wolf follows.

Shiro nodded grimly.

Lance crooked in finger in the wrong direction again, “I wanna wash your hair.”

“Maybe later.” He stood. “I’ll help Kolivan with dinner. Are we going to expect you prunes to join us within the next century?”

Lance flicked water at him. He missed.

Shiro replied, “Almost done here.”

Keith nodded and departed.

It was a moment before Lance curled his head back. “Is he gone?”

“Yes. Duck?”

“Where?”

Lance,” Shiro laughed.

Lance ducked.

“There. All clean.”

“Thank you, puppy,” and he turned and kissed him in that casual, conversational way. A light peck that implied so much intimacy and affection and gratitude and not an ounce of sensuality.

Shiro liked it, and nuzzled forward for another. Then another. Then another. Lance shrieked with laughter, turning away and nearly swallowing water. Shiro’s one arm held fast around his narrow waist and kisses continued to bloom on the shell of his ears, his nose, his cheeks, his jaw, his neck, his shoulders.

Shiro thought, We’re playing. He asked, “Are you ticklish?”

Lance’s hands crashed against his chest. “Don’t try to find out!”

“I won’t I won’t,” he laughed, and he promised with a kiss. Lance sighed a little in relief and he settled on Shiro’s lap, and Shiro pulled him against him and Lance’s arms wrapped around his neck and tilted his head and they were playing again. They were playing again between slow rolls of tongue, between little hums to direct them to repeat or deepen. Their eyes were closed for the past six minutes.

Lance liked the texture of chest hair on taut, rich skin. He raked his fingers up and down mapping the contours of his alpha’s body. He registered a scar here, a scar there, and the minute Shiro let him breathe he dove beneath the surface of the water to lick them.

“Mm,” Shiro cradled the back of his head.

Lance nibbled on a nipple. Shiro jerked. Lance drew back. “Too hard?”

“No, it’s wonderful,” and he gently pressed his thumb against Lance’s red mouth. It was hot to the touch. “Just a minute, I need to tell you something.” He exhaled and the lantern caught his breath before it disappeared. He inhaled: “Iveneverhadsexwithanomegabefore.”

The way Lance squinted Shiro was scared catatonic that he was going to be asked to repeat himself. He felt dread nonetheless when comprehension dawned in his eyes. To Lance’s credit, he neither laughed nor pitied him. “Does that mean you’ve never had sex with someone with a vagina before?”

Shiro wouldn’t meet his eyes.

Lance held his jaw and nudged him to face forward. “I’m not making fun of you.”

“I know.”

Lance squished his nose and mouth against Shiro’s cheek and made an obnoxious wet smack. “Stop looking glum.”

Shiro worried, “I don’t want to if you’re and then but I—and then I can’t.”

Lance hummed in understanding.

Shiro dropped his head to Lance’s clavicle. “Keith was teasing me about giving you a creampie and then I realized—”

“Wait wait wait,” Lance pulled Shiro up by his shoulders. “Keith talked to you about sex? About having sex with me? My Keith?”

“As opposed to the other Keiths running rampant through the forest, yes.”

“Shut up, smartass. Is that really what he kicked me out to do? Talk sex with you?”

Shiro’s eyes flickered.

“Why aren’t you answering?”

“You told me to shut up.”

Lance pinched his nose in retaliation.

Shiro shook him off. “Yes,” he laughed. “Not only,” he sobered. “He also told me to talk to you about what we are and where our relationship is going. Which—I realize in retrospect we didn’t really finish.”

Lance looped his arms around Shiro’s neck solemnly. “Told you he liked you.”

“Because he talked to me?”

“Yes. I think you should talk to him about that too.”

“I think we already have.”

“Bring it up again. It’s clearly bothering you.”

Shiro offered an inconsequential nod. He was less somber when he received a kiss on the top of his nose, right on his scar. He thought Lance might have asked about it, but he did not.

“Shall I give you a crash course in pussy then?”

Shiro flushed, the shape of his bitten lip and rosy cheeks fantastic in the dim light, and Lance felt a swell of adoration and responsibility and power when Shiro whispered, “Yes, please.”

Lance kissed him long and gentle to settle him. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of,” he reminded. “My turn will come when I have to learn from you too.”

Shiro gave a quizzical look.

“People are different and I don’t know what you like yet.” He issued simply. “I want to start by showing you how I like to be fingered. I want to sit in your lap and direct your hand. I have your permission to do that?”

Shiro nodded all sheepish again. Lance kissed him, waited for Shiro to get comfortable with flat stone against his back, then sat on his lap. Shiro’s erection was flattering against the naked cleft of his ass. He spread his legs, “Ready?” felt a nod and took Shiro’s hand.

Slowly slowly he placed it on his own knee and immediately felt Shiro’s confusion. Slowly slowly he dragged it down his thigh and into the water. He said, “I’m high maintenance. Teasing me by not touching where we both want to touch is necessary for my pleasure. Sorry not sorry.”

Shiro laughed voicelessly on his shoulder.

“Touching can be sexual even if you touch non-sexual places. Just appreciation of my body. But not like I’m something up for sale. More like…”

“More like you’re some mythical creature from a place I didn’t know exist and I can’t believe you’re letting me touch you?”

Lance was quiet a bit before he swallowed. He was barely audible, “Yes.”

Shiro kissed the space beside Lance’s Marked scent gland and Lance noticed he took to the first lesson rapidly. He whispered on the shell of his ear, “What next?”

Lance sighed shakily, “Um, follow the shape of my body and more or less forget about clits and vaginas. In the beginning that’s not the point.”

Shiro curled his hand up, still running against Lance’s leg, out of the water and under his knee, slowly pulling down with more emphasis on his middle finger than anywhere else. The result was a light touch of skin resisting skin that sent something ablaze in Lance’s consciousness.

“Very nice, puppy.”

Some of the reflex dominance that had leaked into his attitude faded and he blushed into the crook of Lance’s neck.

Lance nuzzled his hair. “Can I ask about your prosthetic?”

Shiro looked up a little. His hand drew nonsense patterns on the inside of Lance’s thigh.

“Do you feel more comfortable having sex with it off, like you sleep with it off?”

“Mhm. Too heavy. And I wouldn’t want to hurt you on the off chance I make a mistake.”

“Okay,” Lance replied shakily. He gasped when a finger grazed closer than before on his scent gland. That one leg was being stimulated and the other was alone made his skin hypersensitive to touch. It was glowing with self-awareness. Lance stayed still, scared to hurt the magic.

He jumped like a coiled spring when Shiro’s teeth nipped the space beside Mark.

He urgently whispered, “Sorry, I thought—”

“No, it’s fine. I like it,” he shuddered a little. “Very good.”

Shiro pressed his nose and mouth into Lance’s shoulder to hide.

He took Shiro’s hand. “Come. Let me show you how I like it.”

Lance guided him to his labia, and some part of his mind was unsurprised. Still he mumbled, “Oh,” and smiled when Lance laughed.

“I’m not laughing at you, I’m sorry,” he giggled. “Just oh like someone put salt in your coffee instead of sugar.”

Shiro snorted indelicately.

“Okay. So it’s more of an art than a science and a lot of trial and error—it took a while for me to figure it out myself—but the basics: my clit can be kinda covered, so fingers here,” and he angled Shiro’s fingers beneath where the Mount of Venus made way for sensitive flesh, “put your fingers more tightly together, yeah, and then pulling up a little exposes it. There’s a way to do it one handed that leaves the middle finger available to jerk it. Is this your dominant hand?”

Shiro shook his head. “I can write with it though.”

“That’s fine.” He repositioned Shiro’s forefinger, pinky and wedding finger to part his labia on either side of his clitoris. “And pull up just a little bit—that’s it. And then with your middle finger—mm!”

Shiro stopped. “Too hard?”

“No, I’m just weirdly sensitive at the moment,” he shifted a little. “You learn fast.”

“I have a good teacher.”

“Hm. Okay. Movements include,” and he performed them on Shiro’s knuckle as he described them. Rolling the finger from the bottom up. Circular movements. On occasion quick back and forth movements. Pressure was important. More or less was the difference between pleasure or displeasure. “That’s the tricky part,” Lance added.

“Is it the same if I were to use my mouth?”

Lance’s voice wavered, “Uh yeah. Basically. Personally I think oral’s easier than fingering. It’s like the tongue was just made for the job, the texture’s right.”

“Would you prefer to do that now?”

“Oh, um,” and he looked embarrassed at last. “Honestly, maybe not? I’d have to be out of the water, for one. It’ll be hard to float and take head.”

Shiro only took a moment to think. “What if you put on your shirt and coat and lie down on the edge? Your feet could still be in the water. You could use my coat too so the cold doesn’t—”

Lance turned and kissed him.

Shiro blinked, “Huh? What’s that for?”

“A thank you. For wanting me.”

Shiro didn’t understand.

“Never mind.” He stood. “But instead of that, I want to give.”

“You…want to…”

“Suck on your dick? Yes please.”

Shiro blushed. He was not prepared for Lance’s sudden tenderness. “I’d like to have your complete and enthusiastic verbal consent this time, if you’re willing to give it. If not, can we just make out a little then go eat?”

Shiro nodded, stood and Lance opened his mouth for a kiss—Shiro raspberried his cheek.

“Shiro!”                                                                                                                   

“I’d very much like you to suck me off,” Shiro admitted against his cheek. He felt Lance nod. “Thank you.”

“Thank you.”

Shiro slipped away. He didn’t think that Lance was watching his back and arm flex as he maneuvered into his shirt until he piped up, “Do you need help? Or want to put on your arm?”

He jumped a little. “I’m fine. I’m used to it. I don’t wear my prosthetic much around home.” He smiled at the vision of long, brown limbs bobbing in malachite water. He looked like a water nymph.

“Why not?”

“It’s too much effort, to be honest. I can manage to cook a full meal without it, for example, though it does take me longer.” Just as the cold was getting to him he’d slipped into his coat.

Lance reached his arms up. “Come. I want to button it up for you.”

Feeling strange with his bottom half mostly exposed—he was still wearing his underwear and Lance appreciated the gratuitous bulge in it—he sat on the flat flat gravelly bed surrounding the pool, tucked his feet into the water and Lance kneeled between his knees.

Shiro asked, “What do you like about sex? And what things do you not like?”

Lance hummed. His long fingers darted the buttons through the holes with careful precision. “I don’t like being hit or humiliated. I don’t like rough sex, though I think that changes when I’m pre-heat. Keith used a strap on me earlier this week and was kind of mean but it didn’t scare me like it usually does.”

“Sex scares you?”

“Sometimes. I’m vulnerable.”

“What makes you feel less vulnerable?”

Lance’s mouth stretched into a wide line. “Giving head.”

“Oh.”

“It makes me feel powerful.” He winced. “But also responsible? I have a duty to make you feel good. And safe.”

Shiro stroked Lance’s hair. “I feel safe with you.”

Lance nodded and rubbed Shiro’s knees. “Thank you.”

“Of course.”

“Can I start?”

“Mhm,” he bit his lip. Lance’s fingers, cold from exposure to the air, slipped under the last latched button above Shiro’s navel and caressed his happy trail. He asked Shiro to shift forward by pulling at his hips. Shiro obliged. Lance sucked on his flat belly and ground the heels of his thumbs into the inside of Shiro’s hipbones. He felt the underwear under his chin pulse in arousal.

“Can I touch your, oh,” and Lance put his hand on his head.

“No yanking,” Lance said while tonguing the strap of his underwear.

“Okay,” he sighed when Lance dipped his tongue under the elastic strap. In between his sharp teeth nipped him, and Shiro welcomed the mild lacerations. “You can bite harder. I-if you want.”

Lance hesitated to cast him an intrigued look. Then he sucked and licked and sunk his top teeth into skin. Shiro took back his hand to whimper into it.

“Too hard?”

Shiro shook his head. A little breathless, “Again?”

Lance bit him again. He eventually descended to his thighs, threw Shiro’s knees over his shoulders—to which Shiro chuckled—and drowned in the unmarked real estate. “Mmf.”

“Are you alright?”

“Pretty. You shmell pret’.”

Shiro tapped his head. “You’re slurring. Should you be slurring?”

“’m fine.” He ran the tip of his tongue around the scent gland on the inside of his thigh just under the elastic of his underwear, nosed under the fabric and sucked on the crease there, teasing Shiro’s cock and balls and agitated knot by intentional accident. Shiro bucked a little. Lance’s hand flew up and smacked against the outside of his thigh. “No moving.”

Shiro managed an amused and thin, “Yes sir.”

But it was challenging. While he focused on not moving, Lance seemed to be doing everything within his power to encourage him. From ignoring Shiro’s erection—now madly rioting against its confinement—Lance had turned his whole body into a tinderbox. He felt hot despite the gooseflesh on his thighs.

“Lance, please. I won’t last.”

Lance had mercy instantly. He planted his tongue on Shiro’s damp underwear. He sighed before running his nose along it. “Sorry. I was enjoying myself.”

Shiro was happy to hear it. He was drooling too much to feel confident to reply. As he covered his mouth he wondered if that was normal.

As he covered his mouth Lance unsheathed his cock.

Uncut, dark, drooling and profane, the muscle fit snug in Lance’s hard grip. It was fat beneath then head and slimmed into a wide knot. It had a kink in the shaft that pointed the pink head skyward. Lance did not think. Lance rolled his tongue around the glans and swallowed in a single movement.

Shiro bucked.

“Sorry,” he quickly whispered.

Lance shook his head, watched Shiro’s expression. He perked up in question when their eyes met. He was conscious. He was aware. Lance could relax and enjoy himself then.

Shiro squirmed and shook in the effort to keep himself still and quiet. He was doubly flushed thanks to cold and arousal and strain, but when Lance paused to ask if he’d rather be loud Shiro admitted that the effort was fun in its own way.

Lance nodded, descended, rolled Shiro’s penis carefully between his dangerous teeth, then swallowed more and more and more and more until his lips quaked at his knot and Shiro poor on-the-verge Shiro was impressed enough to wonder if Lance would swallow that too.

He threw his head back a little. When Lance noticed, he pushed at his belly until he lie on his back. Shiro went, and Lance came out of the water enough to brace his elbows on Shiro’s thighs. Dripping and shaking a little, when he caught Shiro staring he grinned, all his teeth excited and sharp.

“Are you sure you aren’t a magical creature, Lance?” Shiro sighed. “You look like one.”

Lance was a little bashful. “Be quiet and let me taste you.”

“Yes s-sir…” he half joked in a hoarse whisper. Lance took him in hand and mouth again and he hung his head back and caught his mouth. “Fuck!”

Lance made such quick work of him it was almost embarrassing. He worked his throat with excited bodily thrusts, digging his nails into Shiro’s skin as if he could feel the rising sense of urgency. He moved with Shiro’s helpless little ruts now, accommodating with such ease—

Shiro lost himself, too wrapped up in coming to get a word of warning out before he let out a half-eaten cry instead. He was sweating inside his winter coat. It wasn’t until he felt a wet hot weight on his legs did he realize: “I made you swallow,” he said in a panic.

“I don’t mind,” Lance replied. He was lying on Shiro’s belly, one hand massaging his scrotum with lazy passion. “Was there anything you didn’t like?”

“I want to do it to you.”

Lance smiled. “Really? Maybe later. Keith and Kolivan would be waiting on us.”

Shiro pouted. Lance pulled himself out of the water to straddle Shiro, lie on his chest and kiss his jaw. Shiro didn’t hesitate to peck him on the mouth. Lance appreciated that too.

“You look beautiful,” Shiro murmured and pulled Lance’s coat over them. “I can’t believe the god of the hot springs actually wanted to do this with me.”

Lance squished his hand over Shiro’s mouth. “Shut up!”

But Shiro’s eyes still glittered with awe and affection and Lance had to duck his head because it was a lot. It was a lot of something overfilling the cup in his chest.

“Aren’t you cold?”

Shiro’s limp cock was very warm and twitched against Lance’s belly.

“A little,” he lied so that Shiro would hold him tighter.

-

Kolivan shook Keith awake.

Carefully and quickly, he peeled Lance’s arm from his belly, shuffled into his tights and coat and trousers, and while he was tightening his boots risked a glance at his pack. Shiro spooned Lance, practically covering his with his sheer size, his nose and mouth pressed obscenely to the back of Lance’s neck—which must have been the cause of their ceaseless purring throughout the night. Still, Lance’s cheeks were swollen. Salt dusted his eyes. Keith pressed his cold fingers to them, and Lance grunted in his sleep.

Kolivan started bedding down a little ways from them.

“Want to take my place?” he whispered. “It’s warmer. I know Lance wouldn’t mind.”

Kolivan glanced at Shiro tellingly.

“He knows you’re pack.”

He did not deliberate as long as Keith thought he might have. He slipped beneath the covers facing Lance, who mumbled awake, “Koli?”

And Kolivan replied something, and then there was only the crack in the fire and an abrupt snore from Shiro.

Keith grabbed Lance’s rifle stalked into the dark.

The trees were pitch black silhouettes and the sky was magnificent: Keith tripped when his mind tricked him into thinking he was falling. He instead kept his feet down as he walked and counted, found a familiar tree, pulled his coat up, tasted the air.

There was one issue with this safe house and it was that they couldn’t hide the smell of a campfire. The light was hidden by the bend of the rocky entrance, the smoke was hidden by a screen made of branches of thick leaves.

There was also the issue of a forming trail. Kolivan could teach him how to disguise tracks, sure, but now that he knew what to look for all it seemed pointless. Kolivan said they covered their tracks to keep the less than perfectly competent away. Keith worked out the math to mean it would take one seasoned tracker to lead the wrong men on the right path.

And wasn’t Ulaz still by Sendak’s side?

Keith huddled in his oversized coat and waited for the forest get used to him. It was getting warmer. He could still see his breath in the starlight yet there were eager earthworms underfoot and Lance made a spectacle of a rainbow coloured cockroach yesterday (and he started hunting the thing down to collect it)—

Keith jerked his head to the left but his eyes betrayed him: they could not penetrate the shadows. But his instinct told him that something was there.

He did not relent in his vigilance even as his heart steadied.

Eventually and inevitably the trespasser stalked forward. A pair of glittering eyes showed up first, then a black nose toed the light at the edge of Keith’s field of vision. The infamous wolf, Keith realized.

It shrunk back when Keith moved for something on his person.

“Skittish,” he said softly. “Shiro said that you were a juvenile. You seem so shy I find it hard to believe that you’ve ever taken a bite out of someone in your life.” He kept his voice low and soothing.

The eyes stayed. Keith heard a huff, or a sniff.

“I can’t help but wonder why you keep following us. Close enough that we can see you but far enough that we can’t really do anything about it. It’s almost like you’re trying to get us used to your presence.”

His nose reappeared again.

“Though whether you want us to lower our guard so we feed you or you can tear our throat out while we’re asleep, I’d never know.”

A blue muzzle appeared.

Keith’s ubiquitous companion stayed within his realm of sight while he spoke at length about everything and nothing, bearing his heart in a way he never had before with the security that this beast, however intelligent their eyes, would not betray him. But somehow he thought that they could understand, that the melancholy that dripped between his words was universal.

The wolf inched close enough that Keith could see its entire head and woah it was larger than his expectations. If he had to guess the whole thing was likely as big as Kolivan. Its fur oddly glittered in the moonlight. Keith marveled at it as he slowly got used to the beast’s size.

“Pretty,” he thought distractedly.

Then suddenly and for no reason at all it leapt away. Keith stared at where it had been in alarm. Had he imagined the encounter?

And then the steps sounded behind him: too loud to be Kolivan, to hesitant to be Shiro. “I’m over here, Lance.”

Lance appeared shortly after. “What are you doing all the way over here?”

“Stargazing,” he pointed at a break in the canopy. “How did you find me?”

“I heard you mumbling.”

“And what, you thought I was possessed? What’s with the bow and arrow?”

“You took my rifle and I wanted to catch something for breakfast.” He tilted his head. “Are you okay?”

“Don’t put your hand on my forehead—get away. I’m not sick. If anyone’s sick it would be you and Shiro after fucking outside in this weather.”

Lance scoffed and sat on Keith’s lap sideways. Keith held him up with a grunt of complaint.

“He told me you gave him permission to knock me up.”

“That’s a gross simplification and you know it.”

“He’s mostly convinced you don’t like him.”

Keith frowned. “I thought we were getting along lately.”

Lance shrugged. “Do you like him?”

“I don’t hate him.”

“That’s not an answer.”

He admitted, “I wouldn’t sleep next to him or talk to him if I didn’t.”

“That’s what I said!”

“I think he’s comparing me with you. You’re more affectionate. You always have been. That soft shit doesn’t come easy to me.”

“Yes it does,” Lance kissed his forehead with unnecessary sound effects. Keith grimaced.

“Wanna go to the hot springs?”

“Again? You’re going to catch a cold, Lance.”

“I didn’t get to wash your hair.”

Fine fine fine. Up.”

Lance sprung up. “It’s this way.”

“Coming,” but before he followed he took out the jerky he had been fingering in his pocket and rested it on the fallen log he’d made his lounge chair.

The sky was getting bright when they arrived at the pool. At first Keith was content just to dip his feet in. They were sore from the hard walking. But aggressive badgering from Lance soon had them both naked and splashing each other like children.

“Your hair’s longer.”

“I keep meaning to cut it,” Keith reflexively reached for his bangs, but Lance had pulled them back while combing soap through his hair. “My knife’s in my boot, want to get it for me?”

“Oh. Well—okay but let me rinse out the soap first.”

“You don’t want me to cut it?”

“It’s not up to me. I don’t want to say I like seeing you with long hair because I hate when people tell me that. You should grow your hair out like no. No. In what capacity do you have the right to say that about my body—”

“Lance, do you like me with long hair?”

Lance began to answer. He hesitated. “You’re laughing at me.”

“Yes.”

“Rude.” He dunked him. “I’m getting the knife.”

Keith didn’t hear him. He was too busy spluttering.

It was in time that Lance turned around. Had he not, he would not have seen the stranger approaching them in the clearing. In a single bound he had Red in arms and aimed. The advancing figure paused.

“Who are you!”

Keith jerked to attention then, and waded to the pool’s edge to access Lance’s bow. The stranger and lifted their hands in that time. In one hand was a dagger. In the other was the hood they yanked down.

It was a woman. A Marmora woman. Taller and stronger than them both, dressed in soft painted furs and boots that barely disturbed a pebble. Lance said in Marmora, “Who are you?”

She did not seem surprised that he could speak her tongue, but no recognition reflected either. At least not until her eyes flashed down and caught on his dripping dog tags. Then she flung her hand out and called, “Don’t shoot.”

Keith turned and aimed at a new figure on the opposite side of the spring also aiming with a loaded bow. Keith frowned when their eyes met. She was sharp eyed and dressed like a Marmora, but he never knew them to have blonde hair. But hadn’t Shiro said Olkarion was full of all kinds of people?

“Where is Takashi?”

Lance’s eyes widened. He pointed the rifle down. “You know Shiro. You’re from Olkarion.”

“And you are going there. You are omega.”

“Yes.”

“Where is Takashi?”

“Sleeping at the safe house with Kolivan.”

Keith whispered, “Does she know Kolivan?”

“I am Krolia.” She introduced herself with a fist on her left breast. Lance’s heart skipped in recognition. “And that is—”

She never finished, because out of nowhere a larger than life wolf tore out from the treeline and plunged the screaming blonde Marmora into the water.

Chapter Text

“Will she be alright?”

“She will be fine,” and he rested a large hand on Keith’s shoulder. Through thick hide Kolivan’s warmth seeped into Keith’s skin. He was therefore unsurprised when Lance absolutely it up when Kolivan’s other hand dipped under his hood and stroked his nose and cheek. “Romelle began complaining the moment the physician asked after her wellbeing: she will live.” He paused. “You are cold, love.”

“I’m warm now that you’re here,” Lance flirted.

Keith rolled his eyes when Kolivan barely smirked. His voice was unaffected though: “My home is not far. We can wait for Shiro there.”

“I wanna stay,” Keith grunted. “It’s my fault that Marmora was injured.”

Lance blurted: “Are you kidding? That wolf popped out of nowhere and cut her down and you wrangled it off her bareback like a prehistoric warrior in buckskins and a loincloth!”

“Which is no small feat,” Kolivan added.

“Fuck yeah, that thing was as big as Koli!” and he thumped Kolivan’s chest for added effect. Kolivan grunted. “How heavy was it and you just ripped it off? Fuck, what I wouldn’t give to have had you around years ago!”

Keith’s rebuttal that the wolf had eased up on its own volition died on his tongue. He felt like admitting that he had fed the thing was a betrayal to Lance. He hadn’t yet processed his feelings enough to decide whether it made a difference to keep this truth to himself or not.

Kolivan said, “Staying will not help Romelle. You should gather your strength. Rest.” He turned Lance’s face to him. “You look tired.”

“I’m too excited to sleep,” Lance bounced on the balls of his boots. “We’re in Olkarion! We’re actually here!”

Keith glared, “Why are you so excited? This was the last place you wanted to come to last I checked.”

“Guilty as charged. But fuck, we’re in a secret city that was constructed by omega for omega—like, how wild is that?”

“An inaccurate summary,” Kolivan corrected gently, his thumb stroking. “While many families that emigrated to Olkarion and expanded it are omega dominant, what sets her apart is not her omegarchies, but the equality extended to all people. Galra live among us as well.”

Lance stopped bouncing. “Really?”

“There are Galra who exist that are not defined by the laws set in place by men like Sendak, Ranveig and their founder,” Kolivan pinched his cheek. Lance’s eyes fell, chagrined. “I have friends I would like you both to meet, when you are properly rested.” He watched their dirty faces. “Which I insist upon.”

Keith sat. “You go ahead. I think I’ll wait on Shiro at least.”

“Don’t be stupid, we’re not leaving you.”

Keith glared.

Lance bloated his cheeks in reply.

Keith felt his belly jump. He held his breath to keep from laughing. He succeeded until Lance toed his foot.

Three hours ago they were escorted into Olkarion and only saw the wooden walls of its medical center since. But the medical center was a palace. Maybe as large as the entire Garrett homestead, it was a compound of courtyards, wings of operation rooms, terraces of verandas that cascaded down the slope into the valley. From one of them, the view that Keith, Lance and Kolivan were afforded was a wall of mist. A shingle roof or an aqueduct poked through the veil, but the hidden city still remained hidden for the couple who didn’t have the memory of the city to fill in the blanks.

Keith slipped his hand into his coat and pressed his cold fingers against the bandages on his forearm. He and Lance received five shots each. They were given juice pouches of electrolyte drinks. They were told to rest for the next few days. Being fussed over had drained Keith more than the walk to Olkarion did. He lay his head against Lance’s shoulder.

Lance chatted amiably with Kolivan, who made the appropriate noises at the appropriate moments. Keith let their sounds wash over him. A patient or a nurse came to a fro, barely paying them mind. The wide veranda was a busy byway dotted with benches and loiterers like them were common. Their footsteps were not…loud, against the floorboards, but the floorboards sounded off. Keith tapped out the beats on his knee in between Lance’s exclamations.

Then came a familiar beat. Strut. Strut. Strut. Strut. Keith envisioned strong shoulders, a straight back, an easy smile. Lance’s voice tapered off the same moment Keith lifted his head.

“Puppy!”

“Shiro.”

What power, Keith thought. He was not bonded to Shiro and yet he recognized his sound apart from a sea of sounds. Was this what it meant to be pack? Was it out of choice that he became so attuned to his alpha?

Well. Not his alpha.

Regardless, Shiro’s stubbly face was welcome after being submerged in all things unfamiliar.

“Hey guys,” he was missing his prosthetic. He held out his hand for each of them in turn. Keith and Lance scented him briefly and blatantly. “Were you waiting for me? You guys didn’t have to, I could have caught up with you later.”

Kolivan said, “They insisted.”

Lance grinned. “We insisted!”

Keith could see how his flush wrinkled with his grin. “Thank you. Oh, uh—” and as he turned a human shape popped out of his shadow. “Sorry, I—Keith, Lance, this is Reyner. She’s one of the leaders of Olkarion.”

Keith stood and shook her hand. She was small. Her smile was wide and knowing, her eyes flitted across his face in interest. He vaguely felt like he was under Mommy Garrett’s scrutiny again. “It’s an honor to meet you.”

“The honor’s mine,” she replied, and shook Lance’s hand with grace and that same, knowing spark in her expression. “Takashi has spoken highly and…vivaciously of you.”

Shiro frowned. The black of his brows and sheen of his scar looked darker with his growing flush. “Reyner.”

“You’ve had a long journey and I don’t mean to keep you,” Reyner ignored him. “I just wanted to see your faces. Will you be with Takashi or Kolivan for your stay?”

Keith and Lance glanced at one another.

Reyner beat them to the punch when indecision flashed across four faces. “Whatever accommodations you work out, send word to my home when you are settled. I’d love to have a chat about what you’ve experienced out there.”

Keith asked, “You just debriefed Shiro, didn’t you? Why not us too at the same time?”

“Respect for your pack’s boundaries.” She smiled. “I didn’t want Takashi to be mad at me if I was not gentle with his new found family.”

“I wouldn’t be mad…

“No, you’d just avoid me for a week,” she snapped back.

Keith and Kolivan suppressed a smile at Shiro’s scandalized expression. Lance laughed at him outright.

“Don’t let me keep you,” and she cupped Shiro’s shoulder and bowed her head to Kolivan. “Until later, then.”

She wasn’t five steps away from them until someone intercepted her hurriedly, and she kept up with them at her sober, level-headed rate.

“She’s kinda scary in that maternal way,” Keith admitted softly.

Lance snorted. “All mothers are like that.”

Keith hummed in contemplation.

Lance turned: “Alright fellas, seeing as we have the two of you as options, I suggest we figure out who to live with in the most efficient way possible.”

Keith tried, “A diplomatic discussion?”

“What? No, no-no-no-no. A fight to the death. Duh.”

Keith was dry, “Of course.”

And then Shiro went mute from the shock of Kolivan facing him in a defensive position.

Over Lance’s hacking laughter Keith droned, “Don’t humor him.”

Kolivan pet Lance’s head affectionately. “All things considered, it is an easy choice.” He met Shiro’s eyes. “Am I wrong to assume you would prefer to host them?”

Shiro’s lips parted to answer and then, belatedly, he turned to Keith and Lance. “…if that’s alright with you two.”

Lance sniffed melodramatically and tapped Kolivan’s chest. “You’ve been defeated.”

Kolivan placed his hand over Lance’s and stroked his thumb over his fingers. “I will learn to live with the loss.”

Keith asked Shiro, “I lost sight of our stuff when we came through the gate.”

“They were transferred when I asked for some horses. I’ll take us to the stables now.”

Lance was still playing theatrics on Kolivan’s arms: “Don’t forget me! Rage against the dying of the light!”

Keith tugged on Lance’s hair and returned to him his sobriety.

Ow.”

“Kolivan,” and Keith spread his arms, “I can’t thank you enough. For everything.”

Kolivan recognized a rare offering. He bowed and hugged Keith, and Keith immediately understood why Lance was always hanging off of him. He was encompassing. Being wrapped up in Kolivan’s arms and furs felt like the rest of the world and its series of unending realities was a minor inconvenience. And when he spoke his voice tumbled over skin and bone, “Of course, Keith.”

Lance wriggled his way in. Kolivan kissed his crown.

Leaving the center and Kolivan behind was so swift after waiting at length in the chill. The corridors they braved and the stairs they descended swept under their feet in a blur. The stables were a long shelter in the dark of a grove caging in the compound from the rest of the world. Within, three stallions were saddled with their belongings.

“Are horses the only means to get around in Olkarion?”

“No, we have cars and trollies,” Shiro checked over the horse laden with his things. “Do you need help getting into your—oh.”

Keith smiled from the saddle. Lance’s arms were looped around him. “You forgot we’re familiar with horse riding didn’t you.”

“Yes. I mostly remember Lance complaining about losing his truck.”

“Don’t start him up—”

“Oh my precious Blue!”

“See what you did? Now he won’t shut up for the entire ride. You did this.”

Shiro apologized between his grins. He swung into the saddle. “Let’s go.”

“—she was so young—”

Keith smacked the reigns.

“Woah!”

-

Shiro’s home was a cube in the middle of the forest.

Despite its brutal architecture, Keith did not notice the structure until they were right upon it. It seemed small, despite its two floors. When the lights were on it felt bigger on the inside. Maybe it was because of how bright and warm all the floorboards were. Or maybe it was the lack of furniture.

Alone in the bathroom tub Keith couldn’t help but think the cottage was lonely. Separate from everyone else, hidden in the wilderness…

…if Shiro had as much control over the construction of his home as Keith was assuming, then he and Lance were more alike than he thought.

Knock-knock.

“Go away.”

Lance said through the door, “How did you know it was me?”

“I didn’t.”

Lance laughed. “I want to wash your hair.”

“You always want to wash my hair. Why is it always my hair? Don’t you ever want to wash other parts of me?”

“Is that an invitation?”

Upon recognizing his flirtatious lilt, Keith folded his arms on the lip of the bath and grinned. “Get in here.”

The door slid open with a ginger clatter. Lance arrived with only a drooping towel to act as his modesty. “Oooh, nice tub! It’s so big! Ha! That’s what she said.”

Keith made grabby-hands at him and punctuated that with an impatient grunt.

“Coming,” he chirped. “Did you see his bedroom yet? It’s a loft on the second floor. The bedframe he has is really low to the ground and he said he was willing to take the floor and I was personally offended because we’ve all slept together like, three times now not counting when we camped out in Blue and—”

“Does your throat hurt?”

Lance slipped into the green water and sent a quizzical look.

“You’ve been talking non-stop.”

Lance opened his mouth to reply.

“For two days.”

Lance flicked water at Keith’s nose. “I mean…I dunno. I’m giddy, I guess. We’re here. We’re in a place most people don’t know exists! It’s kinda magical, I think I’m gonna wake up any minute now.”

Keith held Lance’s shoulders. Broad, thin, the dirt on them coagulated under his fingers. Lance watched him in response, his eyes flitting over his features and his posture and expression fading as time ticked on. Keith just ran his fingers over Lance’s collarbone and throat, which moved as he swallowed, then down his chest and his pebbling nipples. Lance melted into his touch.

Lance’s eyes lidded and he folded his legs over Keith’s, dragging him into the air he breathed. Keith’s fingers dipped up behind Lance’s head and pulled him close. Lance tilted his head, and his index finger was committed to learning the shape of Keith’s bottom lip. When they kissed, that finger was caught between them.

Lance pulled at Keith’s mouth to open it and run his tongue against the salt-metal taste of excited skin. Keith’s tongue met him shyly, arduous, dexterous, pliant as butter, and Lance smooshed their faces together falling in love with the texture of Keith’s mouth over and over again. The moment his actions were insistent Keith wrangled back control with his fingers twisted in Lance’s hair.

Lance broke them apart. He was unprepared for—

Keith’s voice was soft and sorry. “I know you’re not okay.”

Lance clicked his tongue. He made to pull away. “Keith—”

“Don’t shut me out,” Keith whispered against his lips. He let his hands run down Lance’s skin like water. Lance let him touch him. “I can’t fix how you feel. But if you want to get some of those feelings out, I’m here.”

Lance scoffed. “What are you even offering?”

Keith shrugged. “Whatever you need.”

Lance opened his eyes. Water dripped from his chin. He looked like he was born from the water. With the expression in his big, glassy eyes, Keith almost believed that Lance would dissolve into it to avoid talking about this. “And what do you need? You lost your home too.”

“No I didn’t.”

“What?”

“You’re my home.”

Lance stared at him.

Lance laughed.

Keith splashed him. “Bastard!” he was blushing furiously, “I’m trying to be romantic here!”

“Y-y-you are! But you’re just cheesy as fuck—”

Fuck you, those were my real feelings!”

“I don’t doubt it—ha—stop splashing me—ha—babe, I’m drowning—”

“I don’t care!”

Lance was still smiling when he caught Keith’s hands and squished their faces together. It was less a kiss more a hug of faces. Keith bit his nose in protest.

“I’m sorry,” Lance pinched his red nose, tears in his eyes, cheeks still high. “That did make me feel better,” he played with Keith’s fingers. “That was really sweet.”

Keith’s new colour was less angry more shy. “It’s the truth. I…felt like the place I belong to moved with us. Where we met, where we lived…that’s just a house.”

Lance’s mouth stretched wide.

“I know the place meant a lot to you.”

“It did but at the same time—I kinda feel the same way? It’s just a house.” He grinned. “I’m not okay, Keith.”

Keith perked up. “Yeah?”

Lance’s grin got watery. “I…it’s just…Allura. Allura.”

“Yeah…”

He dropped his head. “And Coran and Matt and Pidge and—everyone y’know? Just to know where they are even if it’s in a fucking grave.”

“Shh, don’t talk like that.”

“I should be ready for the possibility, right?” he was sobbing now. “Maybe they are—”

“You don’t know. Don’t stress yourself out wondering.” He rubbed his shoulders.

Lance rubbed his cheeks. “Yeah.”

“Hey.”

“What.”

“Can I wash your hair?”

Lance coughed out a wet laugh, “What the hell. You gonna take care of me, now?”

“I have been taking care of you for a while now, thank you very much.”

“Ha.”

“You’ll be okay.”

He sniffed, his smile dim and juvenile. “Mhm.”

“Now turn around.”

“Wait—kiss?”

Keith leaned forward, kissed him gently.

Lance teased him into something deeper, until Keith was in Lance’s lap with his legs wrapped around his waist. Lance’s hands rolled over Keith’s hips and under his ass, slotting them together, and Keith whimpered because he wanted to get closer. Until their scents blended together, their skin blended together, until people saw them and couldn’t distinguish one from the other, Keith wanted that so badly.

Lance caught the fat of Keith’s thighs and rolled his thumbs against the periphery of each scent gland while his mouth latched onto his neck.

Keith gasped something voiceless, loud, tremulous, needy.

Lance’s tongue was almost on the gland on his neck. The nails dragged on hyperaware skin underwater. Keith felt his body freeze. He was paralyzed by the promise of pleasure.

Lance kissed his right ear. He withdrew enough to drag his lips across Keith’s lips, then kissed his left ear. Keith closed his eyes and breathed. He felt his labia ache and tingle and want.

“Stand up, put one foot on the edge of the tub,” Lance whispered.

“What?”

“Do it?”

Keith did it. He towered over Lance, water running down, down down the curves of his pecs, the sharp of his hips, the rise and fall of his belly, the swell of his mount. Lance flattened his nose and tongue against Keith’s pubic hair and dragged himself up his happy trail to his belly button. Keith put his hands on his shoulders to brace them both. “Oh!”

“You steady?” Lance asked once he was on his knees.

Keith, blushing, nodded.

Lance parted Keith’s labia with his thumb and ran his tongue from hole to clit. His other hand he traced butterfly patterns on the back of Keith’s knee. Keith shivered. He held Lance’s head and held him close. Lance sucked.

“Hmn!!!” Keith rocked his body against teeth, tongue, and suction. The bathwater rocked with them. Lance’s chin grew slippery. He met Keith’s eyes as he ate him out and Keith’s breathing grew pitchy. Keith felt exposed. He wanted to fall. He wanted Lance to eat him up as much as he was drinking him in, pulling him in with his eyes...

Lance slipped two fingers in—god, Keith was sopping—and angled forward, pumping slowly in a rhythm that didn’t match how ferociously he attacked Keith’s clit.

Keith was decimated to a single word: “There there there there there there the—!”

His foot slipped from the tub’s edge as he came. Lance scrambled to hold him aloft. Keith whined, yelped in his throat, and then exhaled and came down…

Lance kissed his thigh, just beside his gland. The body in his hands shuddered loudly. “Alright?”

Keith nodded. He kneeled and wrapped Lance in a hug. He felt soft and volatile. Lance giggled and squeezed him. “You’re welcome, baby.”

Keith chirped against his throat.

-

Keith later had the pleasure of noticing a pink Shiro scrubbing the kitchen sink with far too much elbow grease than the job desired. He’d heard them.

“You smell like horse.”

Shiro jumped a whole foot into the air.

Keith put up his hands both to shield him from the flying soap suds and disguise his grin.

Christ, Keith!”

“I apologize,” Keith said unapologetically. “I didn’t notice this place had stables.”

“There’s a separate barn,” Shiro replied with one hand to his thumping chest. “It’s small and half subterranean built into the natural rise of the hill how did you sneak up on me?”

“Maybe you’re just unobservant.”

Shiro gave him a grossly doubtful look.

Keith snorted. “So sassy. No wonder you and Lance get along.”

Shiro’s eyes darted.

“He’s upstairs, unpacking.” He folded his arms and leaned against the counter. “Feel free to go to him. I can take care of dinner.”

“No, it’s fine.”

“I was insinuating that you can fuck him while I cook.”

“I know.”

“…so?”

So I don’t want to.”

Keith cocked his head to the side. Shiro caught it and groaned.

“Keith,” he stood and wiped his hands in a dish towel, “why do you think I like Lance?”

Keith gaped, unsure if it was a trick question.

“You’re aware that I’m not only physically attracted to him, right?”

“He told me that you want to prioritize your friendship, but I also know he swallowed your shlong the minute you undid your zipper.”

“The two are not immutable. Those feelings can exist side by side.”

“I know that.”

Shiro hung the kitchen towel on a designated rung. Shiro’s kitchen was as brutal as the sharp edges of the exterior. “Why do you think I like you?”

Keith gaped.

Unlike before, Shiro did not volunteer an answer.

“I assume it’s for my wild untamed beauty and uncanny sense of humor.”

Shiro ducked his head and laughed and Keith held his posture taut even as his cheeks and neck were set aflame in embarrassment. “I spend too much time with Lance,” he chastised himself.

“You’re not wrong,” Shiro teased, and Keith’s stomach summersaulted in response to Shiro’s everyday charm.

“O-oh?”

“It’s your brutal honestly. You wear yourself on your sleeve. You manually worked on fashioning yourself into the man you are today. You can be honest to a fault though but…even that I find that admirable.”

“Flatterer,” Keith accused.

Shiro’s fangs glinted. “Can you blame me for trying to get on your good side?”

“Are you flirting with me?”

Shiro’s grin dropped and his expression blanched.

Keith’s heart fell in part in disappointment in part sorry he was responsible for inspiring such a horrified countenance. “I was kidding.” He wouldn’t meet his face. “It was a joke.”

Shiro scrambled to repair: “I didn’t mean to—”

Lance descended at that moment and cheerfully declared, “So you’re the one that smells like horse!”

Shiro stared at him. Keith stared at his feet. Lance stepped a little more into the clear light of the kitchen. Unlike Keith, the skin on his soles whispered against the grain of the floor. “Am I interrupting something?”

“Nothing,” Keith said quickly. He seized the opportunity to distance himself from Shiro and kissed Lance in greeting. “Are you done?”

“Mostly, yeah. I came down to ask what shelves we could use—”

“Any,” Shiro said quickly. “My home is your home.”

Lance offered a lopsided grin. “Thanks!” He turned. He turned back. “Also, tell me when you go to bathe. I want to wash your hair.”

Keith’s smile when unseen by Shiro.

“Why is it always my hair? What’s wrong with the other parts of me?”

Lance roared with laughter. He punched Keith, “He’s just like you!”

Keith glared and rubbed his sore, bandaged arm.

“Just—let me take care of you.” Then he wagged his eyebrows: “I’ll wash other parts if you want.”

“You’re insatiable today,” Keith accused under his breath.

“It’s hard work taking care of two lovers,” Lance sighed and bent his limbs into theatric shapes again. “Y’all would help me out if you took an interest in each other.” In the thick silence that resulted, Lance slowly patched over, “Not…that I’m complaining.”

Shiro cleared his throat. “I’m almost done here.”

“Great! Awesome. Nice! Great—I already said that—I’m gonna back away slowly and get the bath ready.”

Keith kicked at his feet. “Stop being weird.”

Lance’s shins connected with Keith’s and Keith stumbled after him to strike his head and Lance shrieked and stampeded up the stairs and Shiro heard a loud whump when Keith finally caught him and then a bladump as they fell from the bed Keith threw them into onto the floor.

Shiro cleared his throat. “Are you guys alright?”

“No,” someone whimpered the same time someone else shouted, “Stop laughing at us!”

Shiro hiccupped on the laughter he swallowed.

-

Shiro’s bathroom was roomy and all tile. The tub sat comfortably beneath high horizontal windows. It was sparingly decorated with a single soap bar. Lance chittered and chattered and chatted about how he learned to make soaps and how he would spend the summers using Pidge as cheap labor to make all sorts of weird things. Once she made a bar of soap he was never able to replicate but it smelled amazing and exfoliated pleasantly. She always said he would have to pay her for the recipe.

“She wanted to be paid in the form of strawberries. I don’t know if you know but out there strawberries don’t grow on trees—”

“I can undress myself,” Shiro protested.

Lance batted his hand away. “Did I ever tell you about the time I operated a fish nursery?”

Shiro fell silent, resigned to his fate.

It was like being a coalescent at their mercy all over again. Shiro fell under his smothering with grace, felt as though he always belonged at Lance’s side. Lance’s magic hugged in that respect: his aura took you in and held you close to the bosom. His ceaseless voice caressed the spaces his hands missed.

Shiro sighed when his prosthetic slipped off.

“You okay?” Lance touched his cheek and jaw. “Mm, stubble.”

Shiro flushed. “I—”

“Do you like shaving? I can do it for you.”

“Oh. You can shave?”

Lance rolled his eyes. “Yes, I shave, puppy.”

“But you don’t have…” and he gestured to his own cheek and chin.

Lance laughed, “No, but I do have…” and he gestured to his crotch.

Shiro closed his eyes and blushed. “I should have known that.”

Lance laughed, “Get in the tub. One leg, now the other~ good boy. Mwah. You remind me of my big sister’s eldest—”

The bathroom door clattered open: “Ancients have mercy! I don’t think you’ve stopped to breathe since we left the veld!”

Lance threw a bar of soap at Keith.

“Miss!”

Lance picked up a mirror. Shiro grabbed for it: “Ah-ah-ah-ah-no-no-no—”

Like so, Shiro was bracketed by omega. One sat on the lip of the tub purring out half-spoken songs and playing in his hair, the other sat on the toilet by his feet. Occasionally Keith left to check on the stew he was making. Sometimes he returned smelling of onions and thyme. Sometimes he returned with a book he made notations in.

“Lance, your period’s due, right?”

“I dunno, why—oh,” Lance looked up from Shiro’s scalp. “You’re still keeping track of our cycles?”

Keith chewed on his pencil. “Of course. It’ll come in handy when we see Allura again.”

Lance exhaled, relieved, enamored, grateful. Keith’s love was so subtle, so attentive. He bit his lip and felt his heart skip a beat.

Shiro looked up from scrubbing his toes. “I don’t think I ever asked—but who is Allura?”

Keith cast Lance a wary look.

“My friend. My nestmate, aside from Keith.” He sighed, “She lived with her father and Coran in Arus.”

Shiro hummed his sympathies.

“She’s a doctor,” Keith added. “She’s the one who made the suppressants that make Lance smell like an alpha.”

Recognition flashed in his eyes. “Oh, that was her.”

“Well, to be specific,” Lance interjected, “the suppressants don’t work like that for everyone—baby, pass the razor? Gracías—for instance my other nestmate, Hunk, it suppresses his heats and he can’t conceive while he’s on it. Uses that to his slutty advantage.”

Keith snorted. “Do they work as birth control on you too?”

“Allura said it didn’t. She did this experiment with blood and mucus—I dunno what it was about, something with my cervix—she said I can still get knocked up on it, which is fine. Hunk and I are the outliers. She didn’t expect it to work as birth control for him and to simulate alpha pheromones for me.”

“Her research could go a long way in helping us move families from Garrison,” Shiro mused aloud. “We’re always in want of suppressants.”

Keith pulled a foot up to the toilet lid, “Speaking of, while you’re escorting, omega go into heat, right?”

“They do, sometimes, yes. More often than not. It slows us down.”

“Do you help…take care of them?”

Shiro felt Lance’s hands slow in his hair.

“Is that an appropriate question?” Lance squinted. “That sounds like an inappropriate question.”

“It’s fine,” Shiro said. “It’s a fair question. In short: yes. I carry emergency suppressants for serious cases. People who can’t walk because they’re in too much pain or too weak.”

“Have you ever run out of emergency suppressants?”

“You’re asking if I’ve ever Marked someone before.”

Keith nodded.

Shiro, conscious of Lance’s bared breath at his neck, replied carefully. “Yes. Twice, in one group. One was a beta.”

Lance frowned. “Beta can experience heats?”

“Think of biology as a continuum,” and Shiro’s hand made a line in the air. “On one end is Galra, on the opposite end is omega. A person’s sex can land anywhere on the continuum. If they’re able to conceive they’re usually branded closer to the omega range, if they’re able to inseminate they’re closer to the alpha and Galra range.”

“And in the middle are beta.”

“Yes. Beta are mostly intersex, but there have been people who are omega who are capable of insemination, and alpha who can carry.”

Keith frowned, “So why don’t they count as alpha or omega respectively?”

“Lots of factors. Size, weight, what hormones are most dominant—people classify others or themselves based on how much more alpha, beta, Galra or omega traits they have. With that in mind, feasibly, anyone can have ruts or heats. There are debates that they’re one and the same, actually, and the only thing that distinguishes them are what hormones drive it.”

Lance laughed, “Keith, remember when you said Allura was alpha, she just happened to be born with pussy?”

Keith quirked a brow and smiled slowly.

Lance looked at the blade in his hand thoughtfully. “Puppy,” and Shiro leaned back to smile attentively, “the people that you Marked. Did you like them?”

Shiro rolled his wet head onto Lance’s lap. “I only have eyes for you.”

Lance frowned and blushed. Shiro grinned, giddy with the knowledge he was capable of rendering Lance speechless.

“Chin up,” Lance grunted. Shiro obeyed with a cheeky, self-satisfied purr.

Keith vanished to check on their food. He returned and said, “Stew’s done. Oh, you work fast.”

Lance smiled, curling his fingers and the blade up up through foam. He whispered, “Have I cut you yet?”

Shiro’s eyes were closed. “The day’s still young.”

Lance clicked his tongue and Shiro chuckled. He looked good there, Keith thought, with his head back and the long column of his neck glistening with water and trust. Lance looked good bowed over him too. His features were sharp in concentration. His whole body breathed in time with the strokes he carved against Shiro’s skin.

My pack, a thought came to Keith unbidden. This alpha and this omega were his. His. And something in his chest went out to them. He was hesitant to call it love. But it was a feeling that suppressed his fear and his grief and his qualms with the world. This was the closest thing to home he ever got. Lance and Shiro were his home.

“Done,” Lance kissed Shiro’s nose and dabbed a moist towel against his face. Shiro jumped. “Did you fall asleep?”

“A little.”

Lance nuzzled him.

“Ack! Lance!”

“By the way, I had a question for you.”

Shiro was surviving Lance kissing and drying his hair as he replied, “Yes?”

“Both of you.”

Lance looked up in surprise.

“Earlier you said that if Shiro and I took an interest in each other that it’ll be a load off for you.”

“Christ, babe, I was joking, promise. I love playing with the two of you, it’s no hardship.”

“Okay, but…if I said I was interested, what would the two of you say?”

The way Lance’s avid stare dropped to hear Shiro’s response gave Keith all the answer he needed from him. But Shiro’s clouded expression made him regret saying anything at all. Still, he steeled his back and strapped his heart and stomach down. He hoped his expression was indifferent.

“I…” Shiro paused and revised his words. “I want to…prioritize a strong friendship.”

“The two feelings are not immutable,” Keith teased lightly.

Shiro’s face twisted. “I know…it’s…”

“You can tell me no,” Keith laughed around his disappointment. “I’m not going to fall into bed bawling that our alpha is playing favourites.”

Shiro looked freshly alarmed.

Lance chimed, “I’m his favourite though.”

“You’re everyone’s favourite.”

“Awwww, babe—”

Keith threw a towel in his face. “No offense, Shiro.”

“None taken,” Shiro laughed. “Can I think about it more? And can we talk about it when I’m not…naked?”

Lance chimed, “But I like you naked.”

Shiro blushed.

Keith rolled his eyes and got to his feet. “You can shag after you eat. Dinner’s getting cold.”

“But we won’t take long.”

Shiro spluttered.

“That’s not a dig at your stamina, pup, I’m certain you’re more than able to last than when I—”

Don’t finish that sentence!”

Keith’s belly clenched with an aborted laugh and an aborted sigh.

-

The blonde Marmora fell into the water with a garbled scream.

Keith only hesitated for a moment, and in that moment the gargantuan wolf was shaking their head, thrashing the woman who had pointed an arrow at him under the water. She would drown at this rate, if they didn’t sever her head from her body first.

He didn’t think. He launched himself forward and wrapped his arms around wet matted fur. The beast was hot, even with his skin pre-warmed from the hot springs, and the muscles beneath it were stone and power. Keith’s hand shifted and ran against something coarse.

Scar tissue? A collar? It was rope. A rope collar was tied around the thing’s throat. Keith yanked on it.

Immediately, the wolf let the woman go. She came up, gasping deeply for air, grunts of pain behind her teeth as she skittered back. By that time the other Marmora woman, the one who had besieged Lance, was behind her and helping her to her feet and looking her over for injuries. Behind her, Lance had his arrow trained on the wolf…

Keith lifted his hand to say don’t shoot don’t shoot and with his movement the dry, brittle, old rope snapped under his fingers. He fell back with the loss of his perch on the beast. They whirled on him and Keith gasped in dread. The rope had kept them pliant, he realized. It was so tight that it narrowed their gullet, that they could only swallow bite sized morsels of food…food cut up by a human and served to them. They had been dependent on them. They had been obedient to him because he had fed them when it was hard to feed themselves.

And now? Now that they could hunt and eat at their leisure?

Keith watched their eyes. Intelligent, dark, thoughtful. Oh. He wasn’t going to be eaten.

Then Lance let his arrow fly and it impaled the gravel by a large foot. In a single bound the wolf vanished into the wood, and only the rustling of the brush indicated that they had ever been there at all.

“Keith?” Lance’s hands trembled as it tried to find purchase on his skin. “Keith, are you alright?”

Keith stared at the dark wood.

“Keith?”

He—

A berry bounced off his forehead.

Keith blinked up from his stew to find Shiro and Lance staring at him. Lance had his hand perched over a bowl of berries. Keith glared. “Put that down.”

Lance threw it anyway. Keith caught it. Lance applauded. “Shut up.”

“Are you okay? You zoned out for a while,” Shiro’s voice was smooth and earnest. Had it always been that nice?

“Fine,” he cleared his throat. “Sorry just…thinking. Uh. What did I miss?”

“I wanted to know how you ended up in Garrison,” Shiro ate. “Maybe we’ve crossed paths before.”

Keith huffed, “Garrison’s a country. And unless you were in the west end of the city loitering around red light districts I highly doubt it.”

Shiro hummed, “Actually, I’ve visited a lot of places around there. Daibazaal, Altea…”

Keith’s head jerked up. “You’ve been to Altea?”

He nodded. “One of the first things I started researching was the sex industry. It’s not omega dominant, contrary to popular opinion, but its riddled with plenty of omega who can’t catch a break between the pimps, the drugs, the contracts…”

Keith nodded. “I…I worked there. I was trying to get citizenship to live in Garrison.”

Lance never heard this detail to the story before. “What happened?”

“I got one abusive client too many. I tore a hole in his dick and I was thrown out.”

“Holy shit.”

Shiro echoed the sentiment in his expression.

Keith picked at his food. “Probably shouldn’t be talking about that over dinner, huh?”

Lance ate anyway. “And you left Garrison after that?”

“Well, yeah. There was no easy way to get in after the stunt I pulled. I hitched a ride from place to place either working as a barn hand or on my hands and knees. Ironically, I got more money off of dirt poor farmers than I ever did off the politicians in Garrison.”

Shiro seemed unsurprised.

“What is it like?”

“What?” Keith rose an eyebrow. “Working as a prostitute?”

Lance nodded. “Mommy Garrett said that she hated every minute of it. That the first time she cried.”

Conflict flashed over his expression. “I never…I guess…it’s different for everyone,” he decided. “Let’s just put it that I’d rather work horses than clients.”

Lance’s foot hooked under Keith’s. Keith rolled his ankle to reciprocate. He asked, “And you? After you drowned your husband—”

Lance deadpanned, “I didn’t drown him.”

“—how did you leave the Pueblas? Arus is pretty far away just to get to it in a year.”

Shiro silently shifted his attentions to Lance.

Lance rolled his shoulders, “I was aiming for Garrison, actually. That’s where all the big bucks were, I thought. But somewhere along the way I got on the wrong train or something. There was this group of indigenous people who were emigrating from the south and they let me hitch a ride. They were the ones who taught me how to weave baskets from grass. I wanted to live with them but their elders didn’t like me. Not a lot of indigenous people like us,” he added at Keith’s expression. “Kolivan told you what the Marmora calls people like us?”

“Bringers,” Keith said softly.

Shiro echoed, “Bringers?”

“Bringers of chaos and destruction,” and Lance cackled for extra effect! “Basically ABOG folk are people who descended from the sky and spread like a plague, destroying everything in their path. To some, we are to them what the Galra are to us. Which…is lowkey disturbing in retrospect.”

“Marmora here are wary to integrate with the people of Olkarion,” Shiro volunteered petulantly, “though I’ve never heard them refer to us like that.”

“Maybe it’s an old term? Kolivan’s pretty old.”

Keith levied Lance an unimpressed look.

“Why are you looking at me like that? I said he’s old, so what? It is what it is, doesn’t make him less attractive.”

Keith rolled his eyes.

Shiro chuckled, “Speaking of, how did you ever start anything with a man like Kolivan? He’s a good man, but he’s…”

“Cold?” Keith tried.

Shiro amended, “I was going to say stoic.”

Lance growled in appreciation. “Part of his charm.” He sobered up suddenly, “Is it okay to talk about him?”

“I asked, didn’t I?”

“Well. It’s just that. I dunno, but. When I mentioned it before…”

“Are you afraid I’ll be jealous?”

Lance’s voice went tiny. He ducked into his shoulders. “No...”

Shiro reached across the table to tap his cheek affectionately. Lance squeaked—his prosthetic was cold. “I was surprised the first time you told me. I said that before, didn’t I?”

“So it doesn’t bother you? At all?”

“It…it’s both me feeling relived that there’s someone that I know and trust that you also know and trust, and also me fighting back my inner alpha that wants you all to myself.”

Lance blushed. “Oh.”

“But it’s not up to me to tell you who to love. No more than it makes sense to feel jealous of Keith for bagging you first.” He paused. “Stop looking so smug, Keith.”

Keith smiled smugly.

Lance sighed, “Okay. Well. To cut a long story short—”

“Leave out no details,” Shiro cut in.

“Ditto,” Keith chimed. “Allura gave us the compact version, I want to know the instant you thought I’m gonna let this man impregnate me.”

Shiro spat out his drink.

Lance was shock red: “We never had sex!”

“Doesn’t mean you never wanted to.”

“Wait, wait. A decade you’ve been on the veld and knew Kolivan and you were never intimate?”

“Are you calling me a prude, Takashi?”

“No! No, it’s just—I just—it’s just—”

Keith choked on his laughter.

Slowly, slowly, Lance reassured Shiro he was joking and he unraveled the tale. Keith kept his teasing barbs to a minimum, echoing Allura’s words on occasion to set Lance’s cheeks aflame. He looked at the table swallowing smiles as he spoke about his terrible first winter and begging Kolivan for help, and how Kolivan surprised him by showing up less than a week later with basic essentials to survive the cold. They emerged into spring as unlikely friends, and exchanged gifts for years. Shiro’s mouth made a silent oh the minute Lance mentioned the wind chimes, and Lance’s blush turned even more furious.

“As for why we never had sex,” Lance sighed, “I admit I wanted to. But I’d freeze up, and Kolivan eventually said that we didn’t have to have sex to be intimate. So we stuck to kissing, heavy petting, that sort of thing.”

“And then you separated.”

“Yeah. Kolivan said he…he felt like he wasn’t the one I needed, which felt like a cop out and I said as much. Then he said that where he was going in life he didn’t want me to come with him.”

Keith’s head was on his arms folded on the table. Their empty plates lay forgotten across the dinner table. “What does that even mean?”

Lance shrugged. “I took it to mean that he was scared I’d outlive him. I didn’t ask at the time, I was so mad. Then two weeks later he showed up with another wind chime.”

Shiro laughed.

“When we go back to the veld I’m getting all those wind chimes.”

Shiro hesitated. “W-when you go back?”

Keith slurred: “My condolences for your home.”

Shiro chuckled abruptly. “I look forward to it. Maybe then this place will finally have some character.”

Thinking of that, Keith glanced around. It was an empty bachelor pad, but there was room for a spouse and child. So he asked, “Why are you single, Takashi?”

Lance cleared his throat.

Keith sighed, “Why were you single, Takashi?”

Shiro grinned and Lance’s smug expression. He replied, “It’s a long story.”

“I like stories,” Lance chirped.

“Okay, well,” and he fiddled his fingers on the black placemat. “Back in the Garrison, I had a…well. I didn’t know what to call us at the time and in retrospect that was a contributor for why we broke up but let’s say lover. Adam. He was another alpha and we were together since we were…what, eighteen, nineteen…we met in the military, were roommates, and I couldn’t shake him to save my life.”

Lance asked, “What do you mean shake him?”

Shiro smiled broad and nostalgic, “Adam back in the day was a little…annoying. He was a dork always going on about conspiracy theories and he was small for an alpha, a runt, so he was easy for others to pick on.” He paused. “You don’t really seem to care that he’s alpha, by the way.”

Lance straightened. “Should we?”

“Double A relationships are taboo in Garrison,” Keith reminded. Lance made a face. It was quickly becoming his Garrison is weird and horrifying face.

Taboo is putting it lightly. If we ever got caught everyone in our grade and our teachers would give us the beat down of the century. But we were careful, survived years together. We rose through the ranks, I had a part to play in suppressing rebellions that would crop up every other year and he became an administrative leader, befriending people in high places. And the more of those friends he cultivated the more he changed. He got colder and his interests seemed to align with the interests of people I wanted to fight. We were drifting apart for years, but when I published my paper it was the nail in the coffin.”

“Do you miss him?”

“Funny, Lance asked the same thing. Sometimes. I miss what we had. I wish it never had to change. Maybe it wasn’t love but what we had was strong and I…if I just tried a little harder maybe we could at least be friends now.”

Lance’s foot rolled on Keith’s. Keith rolled back.

“Later, I lost my arm,” and it wasn’t lost on his friends that he didn’t describe how, “though that was after Reyner approached me about Olkarion. I moved to Olkarion and Krolia worked on getting me back to a hundred percent. She’s the Marmora that you met yesterday.”

“The dark haired one?”

Keith squinted. He hadn’t gotten a very good look at her.

“Yes. The other one, the blonde, Romelle? That’s her daughter.”

“Oh,” Lance said politely.

“They don’t look alike, they know,” Shiro laughed. “But they worked on me. I’d be a completely different person if it wasn’t for her. She saved my life. Both her and Reyner. But it was around that time that I started blacking out during ruts. For the majority I was told I didn’t act out of line, but once or twice I caused them trouble and then I asked for this place, so I could ride it out alone. It took a while to synthesize a suppressant that worked for me, but after that I liked it here and didn’t move back in with Krolia.”

“You were living with her?”

Shiro smiled affectionately. “Jealous?”

“No!”

Shiro laughed. “Don’t be. I’m young enough to be her son—”

Keith spoke under his breath, “Lance is young enough to be Kolivan’s grandson.” He got smacked.

“—and that’s basically what I am to her.” He tapped Lance’s nose. “Don’t worry.”

Lance wrinkled his nose. “Alright but your story doesn’t explain why you’re single.”

Shiro shrugged, “Between my recovery and my work I just…lost interest. In the beginning I was still mourning my relationship with Adam but after a while I thought I just, couldn’t love. That it wasn’t love that I felt for him and that I was doing the world a favor by not subjecting anyone else to my indecision.” He blushed a little. “Then I met you guys.”

Lance pinked, brightened, and Keith wondered around the ache in his belly if he’d changed colour too. He felt his insides jump when Shiro’s eyes landed on him. “And…about…what you said earlier…”

Keith’s heart hammered in his chest. He wished he’d never said anything. He never knew anticipating rejection hurt. He’d take being heatsick in a heartbeat.

“There’s one thing I don’t understand. I was mostly sure you hated me.”

Lance groaned. “Puppy.”

“Or, a-at the very least,” Shiro scrambled, “that you just tolerated me because you wanted to keep Lance happy and me comfortable.”

Lance sulked.

Keith frowned. “For how long?”

“Pretty much from the day we met?”

“No,” he stretched his arms, folded his arms, “no, no. I was…wary. I was scared. You were everything that I resented. And then after Lance’s heat and the way he looked at you I was scared for a different reason. I didn’t want you to be with us, with him, out of obligation or worse because you felt that Lance took something from you while he was in heat.”

Lance’s eyes dropped to the table. Keith was frozen under Shiro’s laser hot focus. He went on, “I admit I challenged you a few times. I wanted to know how you think. Why is this man here? Why did he come back? I thought there was a catch.”

Shiro gasped softly, hurt, “There’s no catch.”

“I know that now but—”

“I understand,” he offered his hand, Keith took it, they scented each other. “Go on?”

Keith rolled his foot against Lance’s. “And then, I dunno. Something clicked.” He scowled. “I’m not asking you to fall in love with me. I’m saying…I’m saying you’re my alpha. You’re my alpha. Our alpha. Or something.”

When he braved a look up again, Shiro’s lips were parted in a shape of awe and his complexion was splotched ruddy. Keith felt himself salivate and then he noticed that it was Shiro’s fault, that he suddenly smelled delectable.

Lance said, “I think the feeling is mutual.”

Shiro scrambled back as if he could turn himself off, patting himself down looking for a switch, busying his hands until his body was back under his control. Omega content omega loved omega want omega, his insides rallied in praise, and he covered his face and breathed, fighting a rousing erection. He felt embarrassed, ashamed and cheap, no matter how genuinely moving Keith’s approval and desire was, he was mortified he was affected so strongly.

He felt someone patting his hair. Lance he realized. Lance had a thing for hair and cheeks and jaws and noses. Keith had a thing for shoulders and knees and hands. Shiro frowned behind his hands. When had he learned them so well?

“Don’t be embarrassed, puppy. Keith turns me on all the time!”

“That’s because you’re a slut.”

“That’s rich coming from the guy who begs me to ride his face!”

“If you’re trying to slut shame me it won’t work. I love fucking you, there’s no shame in that.”

There was an indignant sound, and then the smell of arousal. Keith laughed. Shiro laughed. Lance laughed, “Stop laughing at me!”

-

Keith patted the mare’s strawberry hair. “Pretty girl,” he cooed, and summoned a brush to rub down her side. He was warned yesterday that she was green, that she was feisty, and that he was going to get her skull bashed in by her. But Keith figured that they just didn’t know how to treat a lady. She’d been the best company he’d had for months, docile and flattering, and an intelligence reflected in her eyes that encouraged him to talk to her at length.

Keith was cleaning the dirt from her hoofs when for no real reason at all he popped his head up.

Sendak darkened the stable entrance.

Keith returned to his work casually. “I thought you were going over to the next town,” he called. “They told me that you went off on another one of your investments.”

Sendak’s footsteps sounded close, and Keith ducked around the mare to attack her other hoofs. She shuffled and snorted and Keith heard Sendak pause in his advance, and Keith smiled. It was as though the girl was happy to act as a barrier between them.

“You know that we have men to do all this manual labor. All this hard work will turn your hands rough.”

Keith grinned dismissively. “I like working with my hands. Gives me something to do.”

“There are other things you could be doing.”

Keith let his irritation get the better of him, let the mare’s hoof fall to the straw and glared at Sendak’s handsome mug across her broad back. “Other things?” he echoed. “Say what you mean. Things more becoming for an omega.”

“I didn’t mean it like that, come on.”

“Yes you did.”

“I don’t want to keep you from your hobbies but I thought you came to me and mine because you didn’t want to work.”

“That’s why the others joined your harem.” Keith crouched to rinse out a coarse and thick rag in a bucket. Sendak watched his biceps flex with appreciation, even as frustration and irritation and anger rolled off his omega’s skin in waves. “That’s not why I’m here.”

“And why are you here? I noticed from day one you take to horses better than people.” He made the mistake of leaning against the green mare and she twisted and bit at him. He retracted his hand just in time and the mare looked sorry for it.

Keith chuckled at him. Sendak busied himself with his hat to look nonplussed, but his surprise was in how he held his face taut. “Not gonna answer me?”

Keith shrugged. “Wasn’t much my say in how I got handed off.”

“No? If you had the choice between staying with me and tending to horses the rest of your life, what would you choose?”

“Horses.”

“You could at least think about it,” Sendak grumbled. “You’re hurting my feelings.”

Keith curled up some rope and set it aside. “You’re just used to the others treating you delicately. You want sweet talk you go to them.”

“And if I don’t want sweet talk?”

Keith eyed him over the mare’s broad back. Sendak met his gaze coolly.

Keith replied coolly, “Then you get back to work.”

Sendak grinned. “You’re out to break my heart.”

“Is it working?”

“I thought you and I got along,” and he walked around the horse, and Keith stiffened. “The way I broke your heat and all—”

And Keith’s hand flew to his sore shoulder. He glared at the ground ashamed of the way his gut clenched and his pussy flexed. His body betrayed him, wanting the man that saved him from a world of hurt and nothing else. He owed Sendak nothing. He owed Sendak nothing!

Sendak left breathing space between them, but pinched Keith’s chin and let their eyes meet. “None of that,” he whispered. “You don’t have to be scared of me.”

Keith wrenched his face free and his body shrieked at him in outrage for it. “I ain’t scared of you.”

Sendak likely could taste his arousal in the air now. Between the stink of sweat and horse and dirt, he could smell the slick accreting in Keith’s shorts. He leaned forward.

Keith fisted the coarse brush in his hand. Maybe he could scratch Sendak and run, run, run until his body gave out under the trauma of being separated from the creature it was in love with.

Sendak’s lips pressed firm and brief against his cheek. And then he was out of Keith’s space, and out of the stables, and Keith touched his face curious by the small scrape of stubble and the sharp lingering cologne of an aroused Galra.

The mare stared at him.

Keith woke up for no real reason.

Shiro’s huge bed was soft and soaked in blue moonlight. It was chilly, even beneath the smooth sheets, but the roof was silent: it had stopped raining. Keith shifted and his panties felt cold and wet. Shame broiled in him. He wasn’t allowed to feel this way for him. Not for him not for him not for HIM, he threw the duvet off, pissed and frantic, completely forgetting his bedmates.

Lance shifted and whimpered and Keith paused. Lance remained asleep. Under closer scrutiny Keith could see tears crystallized on his lashes and cheeks. Keith sighed and licked his thumb and rubbed them away. Lance’s nose wrinkled, but he stayed asleep.

On the other side of his lover, the bed was empty.

Click-click-click-rattle-rattle, said something from downstairs. Keith frowned. With a final glance to Lance, he slithered across the bedroom space to the edge of the loft and the stairs there. A speedy descent later and he saw Shiro’s back heaving silently as he click-click-click-rattle-rattled a kitchen window.

Keith let his footfalls sound off, but Shiro did not respond. He yawned and smacked his lips and felt annoyed when Shiro jumped and spun around.

“Fuck, Keith!”

“I’m starting to think you and Lance have hearing problems,” Keith said in lieu of a greeting. “Short of yelling, I announced my presence.”

Shiro shot him a dubious, humored glare.

“What are you doing?”

Shiro’s levity faded a bit. “I’m…uh. Just checking the locks.”

“…now?”

“I mean, yeah it’s—yes. I am. I am checking the locks at midnight.” He chuckled anxiously and slapped his palm on the counter. He snatched his hand to his chest and stared towards the bedroom in alarm after the smack! he unintentionally made. No rustling came from the bedroom in response.

He jumped mildly again when Keith’s ice-cold fingers touched his right shoulder and danced across numb scars. “Takashi. Are you alright?”

Shiro deliberated and then laughed, but it sounded self-mocking. “It’s a silly ritual.” He paused, smile too thin. “Did I ever tell you how I became a leftie?”

Keith frowned at his forced cheer. He was taking a page from Lance’s book tonight, it seemed. But he humored him, “No.”

“I was coming home after half the city had thrown my paper back in my face with interest in the form of slurs and rotting fruit—you get the picture—and I was so stressed I was pre-rut and didn’t notice people were in my apartment. I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the neighbor who came to complain about the noise. Ha.”

Keith kept his face unsmiling and neutral even as the thought came unbidden: is that why he blacks out during ruts? He knew nothing of psychological trauma. He didn’t pretend to know. But he filed it away to consult someone in the future…Allura came to mind…

He offered his hand.

“What?”

“I’ll come with you. Were you done with this floor? Do you want to check the bathroom too?”

Shiro swallowed. His eyes flickered with unease. “It’s just a silly ritual—”

“I heard you. But it brings you peace, right?”

Shiro nodded.

“Then let’s go.” Keith only let go of Shiro’s hand to let Shiro toggle the locks on the windows. They checked the rest of the kitchen, the living space, the chimney, the bathroom, and when they made it to the bedroom they loitered over Lance’s prone shape. Shiro didn’t look ready to go back to bed yet, so Keith sat on the floor next to him.

“I don’t do that every night.”

“You don’t have to defend yourself.”

“I just wanted to tell you,” he said lightly, though sounded plenty defensive. “I think it’s because it’s the first night you and Lance are here. I feel like my home isn’t secure enough. Deep down I feel like nowhere ever is.”

“You’ll go crazy thinking like that.”

“Yeah,” he rubbed his hand over his face. He looked pale and haggard. “I’m sorry I dragged you into this.”

“Into helping you?”

“Into—”

“Into being there for you?”

“Into—”

“Into loving you?”

Shiro hesitated.

“We’re your friends, Shiro. And your pack. And one day, I think, your family. You’re allowed to rely on us. You should.

Quietly, “I think of you as family now.”

Keith smiled. “I think we need to get into some more fights first. Don’t tell Lance I said this, but I love getting into fights with him. I feel like we bond after we resolve our issues.”

Shiro hummed. He admitted: “I hate fights.”

Keith snorted. Shiro chuckled. Lance shifted. They both glanced at him, and wore warm smiles when he snuffled.

“I feel helpless, sometimes,” Shiro whispered. Keith rolled his head against the mattress. His legs were sprawled out in front of him. Shiro, in contrast, had his body turned to Keith with his legs tucked under him and his elbow resting against the bedframe.

Shiro met Keith’s patient eyes, then stared at a faraway shadow to go on, “I feel like no matter what I do I’m not enough. It’s like trying to help a ship from sinking by throwing out water with a pail.”

Keith squeezed his eyes shut and pinched his lips together.

“You’re allowed to laugh.”

“Pffft—!”

“I thought it was funny. I said it to be funny.”

Keith held his breath, struggling not to wake up Lance. Eventually he came to and rested a hand on Shiro’s knee. “You’re doing better than that, I promise you.”

Shiro scoffed.

“You are. Your paper incentivized the growth of Olkarion and your conscious effort to keep it alive saved hundreds of families, including ours. It’s more like…you threw a bunch of dinghies into the water and rescued people who would drown otherwise.”

“In that metaphor, isn’t the ship still sinking?”

“Ships sink, Takashi,” Keith yawned. “What’s more important, the ship or the people on it?”

Shiro squeezed his eyes shut. “This is getting too profound for me.”

Keith chuckled.

“You’re tired,” Shiro rubbed Keith’s cheek. “Go back to bed.”

“Hm. But you’re still not coming though are you.”

“To bed? I feel too awake.”

Keith’s eyes opened. “Nervous?”

Shiro felt a wave of uncertainty slam into him. He answered hoarsely: “Yes.”

Keith’s thumb stroked on his knee.

“Nervous about everything failing. About failing you and Lance. And Olkarion. And myself, I guess, after all this work and effort and it’ll come crashing down because some fat fucks in a rotting city can’t understand the mechanics of basic decency…”

Keith’s cold cold fingers dropped on Shiro’s lips. “Easy, pup.” He felt Shiro smile. What magic. Two words and Shiro’s downward spiral was halted. “You’re doing great. We’re proud of you.”

Shiro held Keith’s hand to his face. “Thank you. That….that means a lot. Coming from you.”

Keith popped a drowsy brow. “From me?”

“Let’s get you into bed.”

“But…”

“Come on. Up? Up?” he grunted as Keith barely helped himself to his feet. Shiro was strong though. Soon Keith’s forehead was pillowed against his chest. His shoulders shook with mirth. “Work with me here Keith.”

“Shiro?”

“Mm?”

“Proud of you.”

Shiro huffed in his hair and threw his arm around Keith. When the compulsion to kiss his crown struck he did so, and felt Keith’s arms loop around his waist. “Thank you Keith.” He felt Keith squirm.

He released him, but Keith held fast, leaned up on his toes even as Shiro leaned down to inquire—and kiss him on his cheek. Shiro paused. When the compulsion to kiss his lips struck he asked, “May I—”

Keith kissed him.

They fit together as though they fit together a thousand times before. At first it was a wet press of mouths, and then Keith moved with him, into him, shaping his lips to mold against Shiro, and pressing close to embrace him. Keith was smaller than him but he could feel, breathe, taste, hear, know nothing else, not the cold on his forearm, only the cold in Keith’s hands lazily clutched to his lower back.

Kissing Keith was without passion, which Shiro thought would feel emotionless or passive. Not so: Keith’s hands roamed on his body, his mouth moved calmly and curiously, and there was no interest to move anywhere else but to enjoy this, this, this. Sweet sweet cascading lips, a building warmth, casual and safe…Keith made a soft sound when Shiro kissed the corner of his mouth and Shiro kissed it again, his insides fluttering with pleasure when he felt Keith smile.

Lance interjected: “Now with tongue.”

They jumped.

“Don’t stop on my account,” Lance yawned. His eyes were puffy (though he’d deny it) and his grin was slapstick.

Shiro glowed with humiliation. “How long have you been awake?”

“Y’all were going on about boats,” Lance frowned, “which is…horrible, by the way, horrible terrible pillow talk. Talk about dicks and ass like normal people.”

Keith fell on him and Lance shrieked as his sides were attacked. Someone started calling to Shiro for help, and then they both started calling to him for help, and he replied by crushing both of them beneath him. They wheezed.

They woke up like that.

Chapter Text

When Shiro woke up, his eyes were still closed and he was painfully hard.

He winced.

He expected Keith had—or would—crack a joke about it as he did the morning they camped in Blue against the wilds. He relaxed as it never came.

At the memory of Keith’s cattish regard, the sensation of his lips came unbidden. A part of him writhed at how pretty he was. Keith had always been something stunning against the backdrop of life and Shiro had never needed reminding. And yet sometimes he would be completely caught by surprise by a genuine laugh, a sincere phrase, or a look that didn’t wholly shutter away his heart, that lit up his entire expression, that nearly turned him into a different human being.

Much the same could be said of Lance, but for a different reason. While Keith appropriated a dormant dream, Lance was an everyday man with inherent magic. He never over exaggerated when he likened Lance to forgotten pagan gods or deities of hidden hot springs. Lance had a duality to him: plain and ethereal, mortal and timeless, like something older than the rain was wearing a human skin.

And if it was not their weird beauty that struck him mute it was the things they said or the pressure of their hands on his body or the gestures they did when they thought no one was looking: when Keith pulled the sheet over Lance’s bare feet last night, or when Lance moved Keith’s books away from the stove when Keith had been reading and cooking.

Shiro groaned into his pillow. His morning wood was enhanced by arousal. He was certain his dignity lay in tatters and it was all their fault. He was usually so composed! He knew himself to be decisive, pragmatic, strategic. He didn’t usually fall apart when speaking with charming people. He only deferred to his family. He only stuttered in front of Lance and Keith.

And Shiro didn’t know why. In fine, he didn’t understand attraction to begin with. But even less he understood the severity of what he felt for his new pack. He fell for them quickly and passionately. It wasn’t love yet, but it was something. Something tenuous and unshakeable like the hand curling around his cock—

Shiro stiffened, now thoroughly awake. The hand jerked away and large eyes peered into his.

“I am so sorry I promise I didn’t know that was your cock I thought Keith was fucking with me—”

It took a moment for him to come to. Then Shiro slithered forward and pressed his mouth against Lance’s in a long, lazy kiss. He felt his heart and belly and penis stir in response to Lance’s delighted hum of surprise. He parted his lips with a wet smack and rolled his tongue against Lance’s abiding mouth that followed his instruction. Shiro pressed ever closer, and his hand caught Lance’s lower back, his erection tangled in the cloth at Lance’s belly, and Lance twisted their legs together. His breathing turned from delighted to desperate.

Gorgeous, Shiro thought of the sound of Lance’s breathing. Quick from interest, calm from trust and recognition. He slipped his large thigh over Lance’s hip and pulled himself to kneel above him, caging him in with his body. Lance looked up at him, small and supple, lips damp and parted, and Shiro whispered against them, “Is this okay?”

He couldn’t know that his voice, rough from disuse and sleep, sent a shudder through Lance’s system that switched off his defiance and made his knees twitch apart. “This is okay,” he echoed as softly, and he tilted his chin up. Shiro obeyed and slid his tongue into Lance’s mouth.

Shiro could only cage him in with one arm, which kept him aloft by digging the elbow into the mattress beside Lance’s ear. Had he another, Lance mused he might be pumping his length leisurely even as they kissed. Lance ran his hands down Shiro’s sides in a slow experiment, giving his lover room to move away. He hooked his thumbs into Shiro’s baggy pants—which by the lump beneath it he wore commando—and threatened to edge them down.

Shiro leaned up and watched him with dark, sated eyes.

Lance’s breath hitched. He withered beneath his dominance. A part of him was madly aroused. The rest was frozen in apprehension.

Shiro murmured, “You can touch me, if you like.”

He was still whispering. For some reason, despite that Shiro was a behemoth, half the time it felt like he spoke with half his lung capacity. Not that he was inaudible, but his voice didn’t boom, it didn’t rattle teeth or furniture, it didn’t demand attention. It requested. It debated. It deliberated. It melted Lance’s concerns.

In reply, he slid the elastic band down hips and just under the apples of his ass. Shiro hissed a little as his erection sprang free, heavy and mighty. Lance wished their positions were inverted—his throat swallowed around the memory of Shiro’s corona spooning his uvula.

Lance shuddered at the vision of his erection silhouetted by morning light.

Shiro licked his cheek, a kitten lick, “Okay?”

“Okay,” Lance answered. “Would you like to use my thighs?”

Shiro’s eyes widened.

Puppy, Lance thought reflexively.

“Can I?”

“Of course.”

“Yes please.”

Lance smiled. “So polite.”

And Shiro’s subtle dominance melted away as his blush and grin spread. He looked between them as Lance lifted his hips and rolled his panties down. Shiro salivated. He only just noticed Lance was wearing one of his shirts. And now that the flimsy fabric was being rolled down brown thighs, now that the scent of happy and eager want rose up to greet him, now his dick dripped pre, and he was almost embarrassed by how honest his body was today: he shook with the desire to suck, fuck, finger, worship his little lover all at once.

Lance parted his labia with one hand then with the other guided Shiro to the flesh there. When aligned, Shiro canted his hips down—at that moment Lance crossed his ankles—and Shiro hissed again appreciatively. “You’re wet,” he growled.

Lance flushed. He huffed, “Let’s see you not get aroused if me or Keith were all over you first thing in the morning—”

Shiro ran his tongue around the shell of Lance’s ear, effectively silencing him. “I wasn’t complaining,” he kissed the lobe. “I was praising you.” His tongue followed the creases in his ear and Lance forgot what he was irritated about. His ear felt warm and wet and why was that so sensual?

“I was thanking you,” Shiro went on, and kissed a hot trail down Lance’s jaw. He pressed their bodies closer together at the hips and Lance went a little cross-eyed at the brief friction against his clit, the gooey masterpiece of a mess that was his slick taking to Shiro’s cock like a duck to water. He gasped, held fast to Shiro’s tough shoulders.

“May I move?” Shiro asked. His fangs scratched at Lance’s throat.

Lance didn’t even register when he angled away to give Shiro access to his skin. His voice broke, “Yes.”

And Shiro’s hips canted musically.

Lance immediately wished Shiro was inside him. He moved artfully. He moved sinfully. He continued sucking on Lance’s throat or nosing at his cheek until they faced one another to resume long, sloppy kisses. Lance’s hands fisted in the back of his shirt and he found himself bucking up against rock hard flesh. He’d never known Shiro to be this hard.

Shiro rest his chest on Lance’s chest, and he was heavy, but Lance welcomed the weight, otherwise he feared he might float away. Some part of him thought he ought to be a little scared. But the sun was bright, the birdsong was clear, and only the smell of a happy family clung to the sheets. It would take effort to feel distressed.

Shiro moaned straight in his ear, and Lance felt himself gush in response. Enflamed, intimate flesh slid against one another without hitch, without break in pace, and the consistency was encouraging the coil in Lance’s lower belly faster than he anticipated it would.

Shiro hiccupped, “It’s so soft. I didn’t know it could feel so soft.”

And Lance remembered that Shiro had never touched an omega before him. Lance felt like giving him everything in response, in showing him everything his body could offer. He went dizzy with the desire to please his affable alpha.

He scratched Shiro’s nape come hither and Shiro hid his drooling face in the juncture of neck and shoulder. Shiro gasped and felt his body move despite him. Lance whined in excitement.

Shiro sucked on Lance’s shoulder anew, just shy of Mark and scent gland, and that sent sparks ricocheting through Lance’s bones. He whined louder, a cry of appreciation, and made to spread his legs.

Shiro’s hips slammed down at the same time and stayed there, and their skins buzzed from abandoned friction. “Don’t. Don’t move.”

Lance’s body locked into place. “Yes, alpha.”

Then Shiro resumed to a hysterical pace. He huffed out with each wet smack! of their skin. The bed began to creak. The sun got brighter, and Shiro started whining as something crested.

Lance came with a silent shudder the minute Shiro’s knot formed and crashed against his clit in a series of rough jerks. Three overstimulating thrusts later Shiro exploded into Lance’s skin, drenching every crease and fold in slippery white seed. It was a horrible mess.

Lance rubbed his thighs together, utterly in love.

Shiro whined, “Please, no moving,” he sounded ruined. “I’m still ah. I’m still…”

Lance felt more somethings squirt against his folds. He fell motionless. He could feel Shiro’s erratic heartbeat through the knot caught between his thighs and vulva. He asked in awe and concern, “Are you still coming?”

Shiro laughed breathlessly, only to hiccup and with a grunt, convulsed again. “Yesh,” he slurred, mouthing at Lance’s shoulder. “P-please…”

“I’m here, I’m here,” Lance kissed him. “Come for me alpha.”

Shiro held him impossibly tighter and shivered.

His semen had grown cold and unpleasant by the time he’d completely recovered. He pulled away from the safety of Lance’s skin at last. He looked wrecked.

His eyes were bloodshot as though he’d been crying. His mouth was red from sucking incessantly. His arms and legs shook from exhaustion, and his heavy cock drooped after its arduous expend. His hair lay against his wet forehead and his teeth had yet to recede. And despite all that, when his eyes flickered to Lance watching him patiently, his cock stirred pathetically.

Lance patted Shiro’s quaking belly. “Okay?”

Shiro nodded. He rubbed his eye and sniffed. Lance sat up quickly, wincing as the sheets and mattress squelched beneath him and his panties tried to trip him. He wrangled them off even as he ensnared his hands around Shiro’s jaws. “Are you crying? What is it?”

Shiro huffed weakly. “I’m just tired. It’s a lot.” He coughed with a wince. “That’s not I don’t I’m not usually like this.”

Lance flirted, “Crying shame.”

And somehow Shiro turned redder.

“Lie down? I’ll wipe you down.”

Shiro tossed himself to the untouched half of the bed as reply. Lance returned with a moist towel that was warm to the touch. He worked quickly and left no spot untouched, and even did something with the ruined mattress, though Shiro doubted that baking soda or salt or whatever it was that was caked on there would do it much good.

Then Lance read his mind and cuddled close and spooned him and mashed his nose against the back of his neck, purring and chirping and vocalizing nonsense happiness. It turned Shiro’s innards to goop.

Shiro cleared his throat.

“Are you alright?”

“Throat’s itchy.”

“Want some water?”

Shiro shook his head. He asked, “Did I…did I use my Voice on you?”

“Alpha Voice?”

“…yes.”

“You did, when you told me not to move.”

Shiro deflated. Lance wondered what face he made. “I’m so sorry, Lance. I didn’t mean to do that and you didn’t deserve it.”

Lance squeezed harder. “Nothing to apologize for.”

“But I commanded you. Without permission or warning.”

“Yes but…in the moment it felt…nice.”

“It felt nice to be commanded?”

“By you,” Lance pinked.

Shiro was quiet.

“I’ve been on the receiving end of Voice before. Some alpha think that omega and beta find it pleasant, like we’d fall over ourselves to follow orders if it’s given with Voice.”

Shiro shook his head. “No,” he said softly. “I know—they told me. They said it feels awful, like in the moment their body betrays them and they feel disembodied and helpless.”

“And resisting hurts. Only the Ancients know why they made us that way. People think that it’s to keep us obedient, but then that doesn’t explain why beta and omega have Voice too. But it doesn’t hurt like Alpha Voice.”

“When I used my Voice on you, did it hurt?” He jumped when Lance kissed the space between his scent glands.

“No. Not at all.” He hugged him tighter, curling around him. “I think it’s because I wanted to obey you. So when you used Voice on me it was the opposite of painful. I got goosebumps.”

Shiro huffed a little. “Still...”

“I enjoyed myself, promise. I like your Alpha Voice. I wouldn’t mind more of it. I wouldn’t mind more of this. How come you don’t always orgasm like that?”

Shiro spluttered out a laugh. He coughed. Lance shook with it. “Because I’d die maybe?”

Lance burst out laughing. When he settled: “So what made this time different?”

Shiro sighed. Then he turned around and faced Lance and rubbed their noses together and Lance chirped in his throat with a smile. Shiro answered, “I blame you.”

Blame me!”

“My inner alpha is bending over backwards to please you and Keith and it won’t listen to me—”

Lance cackled again.

“Speaking of, where is Keith?”

Lance shrugged. “He was up at dawn earlier. Cleaning the bathroom.”

“…what did you do?”

“Why is it immediately my fault?!”

“I’m not blaming you—”

“Yes you are.”

“—but I know he cleans when he’s upset.” The spotless house when Shiro had been in their care, the impulsive cleaning he did shortly after he and Lance got into that argument…but he couldn’t imagine what accounted for Keith’s ire this time.

“He wouldn’t tell me. He wasn’t in the mood for hugs earlier though. He was all…what’s the word. Tacky-tacky.”

“Taciturn?”

“That. He said maybe later and started cleaning. He said he wanted to be left alone.”

Shiro inhaled long and deep. Sweat and sex aside, there was no egg no bacon no onion or garlic on the air. Keith hadn’t eaten yet. He rubbed Lance’s back. “Let’s make him breakfast, yeah?” Lance didn’t reply immediately and Shiro watched in concern. “Lance?”

“When you say breakfast,” Lance said sedately and intently, “do you mean food or food?”

“Lance…”

“Because honestly I thought breakfast in bed this morning was very satisfying other than the fact that I didn’t swallow anything, which is a travesty—”

Shiro thought his cheeks would burn through the sheets. “Lance, please.”

-

One of the horses kept nibbling on his hair.

“Ack.” Keith said for the sixth time. He tugged his braid from between its teeth, the braid that had come undone from the hasty coiffure he knotted it into. If Lance were here he’d do a better job. “Stop that, Penelope.”

The horse blinked at him, and her snuff of indignation clouded in the air.

“I don’t care. You’re Penelope now.”

She at last seemed disinterested in him and nosed and the trough of warm water he prepared for them. The other two, a black stallion and a fawn mare, were polite in comparison. They let him pet and brush their hides without complaint, and didn’t move away from the woolen quilt he threw over them to keep them warm. Their ears flickered whenever he spoke, but they didn’t react to his words as much as Penelope did.

The black stallion didn’t even look when Keith brought up a convenient stool and began checking his legs and hoofs.

Shiro’s little stable was a dinky hideaway that just managed to shelter three horses. There was no divide between them, and a shallow fence that could easily be cleared was all that penned them in from the outside world. But Keith suspected that the warmth and the dryness kept them put for the day and night.

Morning cleared through the trees with gumption and Keith wondered if they’d risk wandering around. He’d have to ask Shiro if a fence surrounded his property, otherwise he’d volunteer to watch them while they grazed on the wild grasses.

Sometimes it was hard to remember that they were in the mythical Olkarion. Shiro’s home was so remote that the distant cry of people had scared Keith rather than reassured him. Even now he jumped at some far away banging of open windows and a father calling Bo Biiiiii! Bo Biiiiiiii!

The land was rich too. Keith couldn’t go very far without tripping over something he recognized: blackberries, water currants, butter mushrooms, he even found a nest of white whittle behind a fallen log encrusted with moss and lichen and filed the spot away in his mind for future reference. After a brief stint of wandering the grounds he decided that it was by design. The placing of plants and their health was too convenient to be the work of nature alone, especially when he couldn’t find a single parasitic or invasive strain.

Was that Shiro’s doing? He spent so little time here that he seemed the sort to practice sustainable agriculture.

A click sounded and Keith drew and knife from his boot and held it aloft to throw it. A silhouette stood at the entrance of the hovel-of-a-stable and his mouth went dry. His cheeks warmed from the friction of stubble. His shoulder warmed from the memory of teeth.

The figure lifted their hands. “I didn’t mean to surprise you,” said a decidedly feminine voice. “I am Krolia.”

Keith sighed and his shoulders fell and he rubbed his eyes. “Oh. Right.” He cringed at his lackadaisical greeting. He cleared his throat. “You’re…you’re Shiro’s friend. He called you his mentor. Said you raised him.”

Krolia dropped her arms and smiled and nodded. Now that she was out of the immediate glare of dawn, he could see her obviously not-Galra features. She was a tall woman, though most of the Marmora seemed to be tall in Keith’s experience, and her hair was impractically and oddly cut. She was pretty in the stone faced kind of way, and maturity suited her.

She also looked strong. Decades of climbing mountains and shooting arrows and spearing wild pigs likely did a number on her arms and posture. She loomed over him, even as she leaned on a pillar to look casual. “I am. And you are one of the people of his new pack. Reyner told me.”

“My name’s Keith,” he would offer his hand, but he wasn’t sure how Marmora greeted one another. Should he use the Classical Altean greeting? Or the Galra greeting? Krolia did not rise either, only nodded her head. Dumbly, “I’m sorry I aimed my knife at you.”

“Don’t be,” she smiled in genuine amusement. Her teeth were bright against her dark skin. “It’s good that you have such quick reflexes. I know many people I command who are in want of that skill.”

“You’re a general?”

“Of a sort. I manage the perimeter of Olkarion.” Keith remembered the gates they walked through to get here, tall as a mountain and straight as an arrow, the fog clouded where the wall might have ended and Keith had believed at the time it went on forever. “I came to check on Shiro. His arm was not completely healed when he returned to the field.”

Keith felt a flicker of frustration in his belly. He knew he should have asked about the odd gauntlet on his left arm! But the majority of the time if there wasn’t something more pressing to discuss it was hidden beneath his clothing, out of sight out of mind, and by the time he remembered to be curious again…

Krolia’s widening grin surprised him. “You look angry.”

Keith felt embarrassed being read so easily. “I tried to help him heal that arm. He’s undoing all my hard work.”

“Yes, you took care of him. Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me,” Keith sat and busied his hands on the horses again. He rolled up his sleeves. “I wasn’t always eager to help him.”

“But you did. And I thank you anyway.”

Keith shrugged, let her do as she wished. “Shiro was asleep last I saw him. Lance might be up though, if you call loud enough.”

“I won’t disturb them just yet. I would like to know more about the people he let into his life and home, if I may trouble you.”

Keith shrugged, eyes on his work. Brush brush brush. “What do you want to know?”

“What is the name of your other packmate?”

“Lance. He’s omega too. He’s the one who saw Shiro’s body first. Kind of foreshadowing, now that I think about it, given he warmed up to Shiro first too.”

“And you and Lance knew one another long?”

“Uh, no, three-quarters of a year now. We met last summer.” He sighed and put down the hoof. Krolia moved in his peripheral vision. “I was a little beat up and run down and Lance took me in even though I’d tied him to a post and hit him, scared he’d hurt me.”

Krolia arched a brow. “You sound…formidable.”

Keith smiled to himself. “Thanks.” His voice was dry. “Can I ask you more about…well…” and she gestured to everything.

She tilted her head. “What would you like to know?”

Keith found himself compelled to look at her, “Is Romelle okay?”

She blinked as though she wasn’t expecting that question. “Just fine. She’s been through worse. She is on bedrest for another few days and under observation because she was mildly concussed, but the fact that she’s eager to find the wolf that attacked her tells me she’s more than fine.”

“Find the wolf?”

“It is just a brave front,” Krolia placated. “Marmora do not hunt for sport, and she was raised in our ways, no matter how much she might joke of wearing its pelt.”

He laughed voicelessly. “Happy to hear it.”

“I did not get to thank you for saving my daughter. Had you not been there to get it to let her go in time…”

Keith grimaced. He didn’t know why, maybe it was because the guilt he’d been suppressing plus the haunting emotions of his dreams were too much for his body to take at once, but in a rush of breath that he did not permit he blurted: “The wolf was protecting me.”

To Krolia’s credit, she did not look surprised, though she was very very still. “The wolf was yours to command?”

“No, or at least,” and he stood and raked his hands through his hair. “I didn’t mean to. Shiro said that there was a wolf that was following us and one night when I was on watch I saw it and…and…” and it was beautiful. It was as pensive as an intelligent beast and glittered like starlight. “I left it jerky.”

He startled at a loud hacking sound. It took a moment for Keith to realize Krolia was laughing. She’d thrown her head back and grabbed her belly and had one arm in the air as if looking for something to hold onto to brace herself while she survived her humor.

Keith stared at her in shock and irritation. What had he said?

Keith,” and her voice left his get warm in the way Coran’s did, “forgive me, but one does not simply gain a wolf’s loyalty by leaving it jerky.”

His cheeks were red. “There was a rope around its neck. It—it was constricting its gullet, I think, it could only eat pre-cut slices of food.”

She hummed. “I suppose that makes a difference,” but a smile was still on her teeth. “All the same, wolves like that, canis astra our teachers call them, are solitary creatures. The one you found may have been domesticated once, which is why it seemed docile. But they are selfish, and above all else they are wild. I urge you not to romanticize its actions: they are not human. It could be your undoing one day.”

Keith defended, “Then why did it attack Romelle and not me?”

“I would not know.” She shrugged, “I’m not a wolf, Keith.”

The rebuttal was so casual and soft and sound that Keith could only cross his arms and huff. She chuckled a little and crossed her arms too. “So tell me, how did you find yourself here?”

Keith shrugged, still shaking off the humiliation and the determination that there was more to that wolf than meets the eye. “Do you want the short version or the long version?”

She shrugged, indifferent. Was she echoing his gestures? He patted the stallion’s nose as he leaned close. Penelope huffed at his shoulder, aiming for his hair again. He pulled it away from her. He didn’t miss the flash of amusement in Krolia’s eyes again.

He suppressed his irritation. She wasn’t making fun of him. And it was better that she found him amusing, he supposed, given that he aimed a weapon at her head twice and happened to be sleeping with her surrogate son.

He gave her the run down. Horses, whores and harems, he said, in a few breaths and fewer sentences. Somewhere between Garrison and Taujeer her smile fell, and fell again a few years later at Sendak and Ulaz, but her expression didn’t give away what she thought of his life’s story.

When he was finished, she was petulant, and her stare unnerved him. In a word: feline, like a predator that saw the bird on the window sill within reach.

He jumped a little when she broke contact and moved to her arm, unraveling the gauntlet of fur and leather and pulling up the purple sleeve to show a brown forearm. Over the veins that connected to her wrist were numbers, not half as bright as Keith’s, but instead a faded blue and almost illegible. Keith recognized them.

They were his numbers.

Krolia’s voice was weighed with a thousand unspoken things, “Would you take a walk with me, Keith?”

-

Shiro rotated the shoulder of his injured arm and flexed his prosthetic as Lance finished attaching it. “You spoil me,” he joked. “I’ve gotten too used to you or Keith helping me fit it on.”

Lance’s mouth split in a display of happy, sharp teeth. “Good.”

Shiro watched him warily. Lance stood from his crouch in a jump though, and didn’t flirt any more than a wink. “For a place you don’t come to often your home is really well stocked,” and while he spoke he turned and Shiro smelled himself on Lance’s skin.

And he pressed his forehead against the cold dinner table.

His inner alpha was humping against the bars of his mind. Lovely omega my omega their alpha, it chimed, gratuitously pleased that the being it was in love with accepted being claimed so readily that morning.

“Whenever I came back I’d eat Krolia and Romelle out of house and home,” he replied, “so I learned to have a lot of food ready.”

Lance’s voice filtered from the kitchen area. There was nothing dividing it from the living area: it was a parade of counters, a stove, fridge and freezer and cabinets that spanned the wall of an otherwise social space. “Where do you get electricity? This fridge is amazing, is it made out of stone?”

“Olkarion has a dam,” Shiro replied from the cold dinner table. “And the house has solar panels. There are wind turbines on the mountain, and we started making appliances recently. That one is a prototype. Sometimes it cooks my food instead of freezing it.”

Lance reached up for something.

Lance reached up for something and Shiro’s black shirt rode up and Lance was not wearing underwear.

Shiro shut his eyes. His blood boiled. His sore cock swelled. His teeth shivered, and his tongue remembered the taste of blood. Mark him, every fiber in his being said. Mark him. It was an instinct to bag a willing mate before it was too late, an instinct useful during the invention of fire.

It was an insistent call, but not an overwhelming one. It was unusual, but not unfamiliar. He’d had the same reaction to Adam a dozen times a day when they’d first started…dating? Courting?

Years on and he still couldn’t put words to the relationship he and Adam had. When he worried about bringing that indecision into his relationship with Lance and Keith, the call ebbed away.

Guilt took its place.

God he was emotional today.

He startled. Lance kneeled beside him again. His eyes were bright and roamed his features. “What’s wrong? You smell like a train wreck and look like someone just murdered your mother.”

Shiro snorted, and that seemed to alleviate Lance’s fears a bit. “I’m okay. Just seized with terror over my unconditional attraction to you.”

Lance’s eyes got bright. He smiled. “Oh!”

“You look too happy. I’m in agony.”

“Is loving me such a great travesty?”

Shiro felt a stroke of confidence and seized it to reply, “Keeping myself from rawing you into the floorboards is, yes.”

Lance was as still as an age old pond at first. Then colour bloomed against his skin and Shiro felt his ego swell. He felt horribly embarrassed too—such language!—but watching Lance go mute and pink and squirmy was a victory that he lauded. Lance and Keith had a lot of power over him, but he would forever be delighted he had power over them too.

“Wh—what are you—you! Puppy! Takashi how dare y—you! You can’t just say that!”

Innocently: “But it’s the truth.”

Lance looked ever more scandalized. “I-I-I-I-know it’s the truth that’s why you can’t you shouldn’t ugh!”

Shiro licked his teeth behind his lips.

“Stop looking so smug.”

Shiro launched his eyebrows up in faux incredulity: Smug? Me? And he laughed when Lance smacked his knee.

“I didn’t know you had this side to you!” Lance pressed his hands to his breast, outraged and enamored.

Shiro’s humility finally caught up with him. His face blazed. “Me neither,” he squeaked. When Lance pressed close again, Shiro’s mind immediately leapt into the gutter. But Lance squeezed Shiro to his chest and Shiro felt the amorous impulses melt away. He said, “You say a lot with your hugs.”

With one ear pressed to his chest, Shiro thought Lance’s voice cavernous, like someone speaking from within a limestone cave. Everyday magic, he thought.

Lance asked, “What does this hug say?”

“This hug says let’s make Keith breakfast.”

Shiro’s head rattled with Lance’s resulting laughter. “Okay,” and they parted.

True to form, Lance volunteered the frontier classic. Shiro replied that he understood now why Keith was always throwing things at his head.

“Think of it as a homage to the home we left in the veld,” Lance protested.

Shiro picked up a lemon and aimed.

Lance ducked. “Wait wait wait wait wait wait wait wait—”

He caught the lemon with a bold ‘aha!’ and Shiro murmured: “I let you catch it.” Then returned to his work.

He leaned against the counter and appreciated a masterpiece of the masculine form. Sunlight carded through Shiro’s hair and turned his body into undulating planes of colour and shadow. As he salivated over Shiro’s mathematical correctness he asked, “So what do you have in mind for breakfast?”

Shiro wore sweats and a tank. He stood straight as an arrow, his balance impeccable. Lance leered forward.

“There are a lot of fruits around so we could go picking again, maybe make a batter for pancakes and throw berries in.”

“Mhm.” Lance stood behind Shiro, dug his teeth into his bent finger. Shiro remained ignorant, chattering on about the city’s flour mill and how it was erected one hundred years ago by some of the first settlers in the valley.

He spoke at length how native structures were preserved when Olkarion’s foundations were laid, and that some buildings were reconstructed with the help of native builders when he felt Lance’s hands pool against his lower back and drip under the elastic of his pants.

“I’m listening,” Lance purred. “You said that the architecture was a blend of Arussian and Marmora, go on.”

Shiro looked over his shoulder with a half-hearted glare.

“If you don’t like what I’m doing move away,” Lance said seriously. He waited while Shiro’s look faltered, then he turned around and chopping resumed on the board.

Lance slipped his hands under the beautiful curves of ass. “What types of buildings did the constructors remake?”

“One was a kiln,” Shiro went on, if tremulously. Chop chop went his hands. When he shifted left or right to turn on the stove or rinse out a pan, Lance and his greedy hands moved with him. He bowed his head as he spoke. “The Marmora aren’t a big pottery culture, but Arussian sites have never shown mastery over—nnf.”

Lance’s fingers slipped between his cheeks. One hand rolled forward at a snail’s pace and combed through his pubic hair. Shiro’s poor sore spent cock twitched to awareness almost immediately.

“Mastery over what?” Lance kissed the back of his neck. “I know I’m teasing you but this is genuinely interesting.”

Shiro exhaled carefully. He braced both hands against the sink. The motion put power in his shoulders and popped out his butt a little bit, and Lance took the opportunity to slide Shiro’s pants down just enough that stroking and rubbing him wasn’t a trial.

Shiro hung his head and sighed. “…a mastery over the craft on this scale. Some theorize that they emigrated west because of hm ah changes to their o-original homeland: the grasslands around places like the town of Ah-rus for example, s-so named because you can’t get very far without cutting your tires on a…mm…broken urn.”

Lance tongued the space between scent glands, then lightly scraped on one with pointy teeth. Shiro’s spine bent and his ass practically crashed against Lance’s front. Lance sighed in delight, “And what made the pottery here so different?”

“D-different,” Shiro swallowed, sighed at another scrape over his agitated gland, “different firing techniques. Unique to the valley. Glazes mm each made that needed to be fired at different temperatures and—oh—a-and the kiln found here was unique for that special purpose, to fire pottery at different…different heats at the same t-time.”

Lance sucked on Shiro’s gland. He’d agitated it enough that oils flowed aplenty into his mouth. It was bitter and he disliked it, but quickly found good use for them. He lifted his fingers from Shiro’s ass and swirled it around in his mouth in spit and oils. Then he swallowed if only to issue “relax” and twirled his finger around his anus before popping one finger in.

Shiro shuddered, but was obedient in Lance’s grip. Lance stroked his cock leisurely with the aim to comfort and keep it warm more than get it hard. It throbbed in his palm, content to stay semi.

“I-I need to get to the stove.”

Lance dressed back and neglected his cock, but his finger still calmly pumped his hole. “Then go to the stove.”

Shiro shuffled, cheeks dusted light pink from humiliation. Lance followed him, still stroking. He said as Shiro set something to sear, “Anything I do you don’t like, stop me.”

He nodded. “I know.”

“Is there anything you want me to do?”

He bit his lip. “Um.”

“You can ask, the worst that I’ll do is say no and offer something else.”

“Well,” and he sighed at the soft, healthy pumps of his cock, “W-would you be willing to eat me out?”

Lance grinned. “Yes. But you have to keep telling me about Olkari history.”

His eyes widened in distress, but he nodded jerkily. He gasped when Lance smoothly went to his knees. “Uh, um…I could tell you about the aqueducts?”

Lance made a gesture for him to go on, copiously licking his lips.

Something in Shiro clenched in anticipation. “Well, um, the foundations of the aqueducts were in place. There was an entire project surveying the ruins and the system of how it worked was almost as fascinating as the sewage system, which was still functional and barely needed additional—oh!”

Lance licked him from the back of his balls to the top of his crack without finesse or preamble. He did it again and again and Shiro froze, shivering, on the top of his toes, gripping the counter that was his only saving grace. He flinched and cried out again when, after his skin was generously softened by omega spit, Lance parted his cheeks with his thumb and laved against Shiro’s tight hole with a beautiful hunger.

Shiro arched his back, grinding into Lance’s mouth, and Lance let out a hum of approval. He subjected Shiro’s erection to a loving pressure all the while. Lance practically crawled beneath him, hitting Shiro’s legs apart, to slide two fingers up his hole and take his balls in his mouth.

Shiro hiccupped, holding his mouth, gripping the sink. There wasn’t an ounce of hesitation in Lance’s movements. He felt worshipped, all his hair, his skin, Lance adored it, thanked him for the chance to taste.

Lance moved such that when Shiro looked down he could see Lance peering up at him. Two fingers worked his ass in generous, slow, sensual, uneven undulations just at his prostate without precisely striking it, and Lance’s cheek were full with his—“Mmmm!”

Lance had a fluent tongue. It curled around and between each sack without wasted movements. Shiro’s erection, bloated from neglect, throbbed against smooth forehead and the way Lance didn’t move it or himself away he clearly enjoyed it.

Lance’s fingers began striking his prostate. Shiro went up to his toes again with a cry, and pulled free of Lance’s mouth. He rest his left hand in his omega’s hair, scratching, and went cross eyed.

“Shiro?” came a soft inquiry.

His fingers were still driving Shiro insane, but he managed to look down his red nose and drunk cheeks to give Lance his attention.

“Can I suck you off?”

Ancients yes, please don’t stop fingering me?”

“I won’t. Hold my hair?”

Shiro gripped it. Lance let out a delighted trill. Then he sucked Shiro down, his throat distending with the shape, cheeks darkening from the pleasure, and Shiro bit his lips in the effort to keep still. His hips ached with the desire to fuck Lance’s throat. The urge came so abruptly and unbidden that Shiro was surprised at his own graceless passion. He whined, at war with himself. All the while his ass got stirred up to a consistent heat.

“What do you need, puppy?” And with how debauched his voice was ruined, the nickname became absolutely filthy. “Tell me.”

Shiro whined, shook his head. “I don’t want to…scare you.”

Scare me? What do you want to do?”

Shiro felt awful. “I want to move.”

Lance’s eyes widened. “You want to use me.”

“You make it sound bad.”

“You just want a willing mouth and throat.”

“That sounds even worse!”

Lance came to a conclusion quickly. “Okay,” he breathed and nodded, “Okay. But please start gentle.”

Shiro’s heartbeat raced. “Really?”

“Yes, really. But start slow!” Lance insisted. “And don’t go faster until I tap your leg twice, understand me?”

“Yes sir,” Shiro’s eyes lidded, eager to please his omega, to prove that he could be trusted with his fears. He wanted to be the man that undid years of trauma set in Lance’s blood, in his back. He wanted to be the man who returned to Lance his innocence and curiosity. He understood the gravity of Lance’s yes.

“If I need you to stop I’ll tap incessantly.”

“I understand.”

“I’m not going to stop fingering you, okay?”

“Please don’t.”

A grin, and then Lance opened his mouth wide wide wide.

Shiro moaned. He knew what Lance’s mouth looked like but to see it open for him personally? The twists in his pelvic floor threatened to become undone. He rest the head of his penis on the bed of Lance’s tongue then followed its contours up up and in in…seeing his flesh sink into Lance’s willing, prone form…

“I’m not usually like this,” Shiro gasped, threading his hands through Lance’s hair and whining from overstimulation. Lance blinked up, attentive and processing. “I promise. I’m not usually…I don’t usually want to dominate like this. I hope—I hope I don’t scare you. Or make you feel like this is what I wanted all along. I…I just want to try different things with you.”

Lance’s eyes dilated, his eyes lidded, his mouth drooled.

Shiro sighed shakily. “May I move?”

Tap. Tap.

Shiro gasped, grasped the counter edge with his prosthetic to brace himself, slowly pulled his hips back and slowly pushed forward. His cock was alive from the friction against tongue. He didn’t know what he expected Lance’s reaction to be, but it wasn’t this.

Lance melted around him.

He moaned. His eyes fluttered shut. His shoulders slumped. His hands stilled. Lance went as lax as a babe at rest and sucked on cock like it was a pacifier.

Shiro whined, moved slowly back and forth again, and Lance’s fingers resumed but their personality changed. Rather than being decisive and taunting they’d become probing, caressing. The warm in his belly named arousal flared from it.

Tap. Tap.

“Faster?”

A nod.

Shiro moved with a little more purpose. Lance, likewise, was a little more awake, and gripped Shiro’s ass in one hand like he was half in the mind to swallow Shiro whole. Shiro’s hand in his hair transitioned from caressing to holding. “Tell me if I hurt you,” he pleaded, unsure if his hold close to the roots ached or not.

Lance made an A-ok gesture and Shiro laughed, and tapped his cheek affectionately.

Tap. Tap.

“Faster?”

A nod.

“Are you sure?”

A nod. And his fingers grew insistent. Shiro was carting his hips forward at enough of a speed for his damp balls to smack Lance’s chin. Lance held and stroked them in reply, adding to the barrage of sensations that left Shiro a slave to him. Why had he ever wondered, even for a moment, that he was the one in control here? Lance had been in control from the beginning. Shiro was very happy to register that.

Lance was throwing his face into Shiro’s crotch soon enough, luring Shiro deep into his throat by tap-taps to the back of his knees and outright yanking him forward by ass and hip and thigh and wherever else he could grab purchase. Shiro had two hands on Lance’s head now and he was loud: yelping, hissing and gasping, vocalizing nonsense just to get the extra energy out.

It felt good. It felt overwhelming. He felt sore and hurt and raw but it felt good. He couldn’t tell if he was in pain or not. Was he in pain? But the texture of Lance’s tongue was so good so good…so good that his vision was going spotty…

Eventually he crested. It came like a crash, his shouts pitched high, and Lance yanked him even closer, determined to swallow him whole swallow him whole swallow him whole he was being eaten.

Shiro came in a burst of silence. He pressed Lance’s face against his crotch, his knot bloat against mashed lips and nose. Throbbing ache radiated through his blood and bones. Exhaustion claimed his muscles piece my piece. His ears were ringing. And he relaxed a little, still jerking, still coming, and then he felt Lance swallow.

Shiro’s cock and belly lurched from the feeling. His knees shook and the roof looked very odd…

Lance was apparently the only thing keeping him upright because the moment Lance pulled himself free—his face soaked with sweat and musk and aroused alpha oils and semen—and beamed up with an open empty mouth, Shiro’s eyes rolled into the back of his head and he collapsed.

-

Krolia led him along a way that was made because many people walked along it, not because one person cleared a path. Along this way were fruits ripe for the picking. Between the two of them they had a hearty breakfast.

Keith asked, “Can I ask the hard questions first?”

She looked ahead, her face prepared. “Yes.”

“Why did you abandon me?”

She thought she was ready, but she still flinched. She supposed that she ought to be grateful that he asked rather than shouted in outrage. But that he asked with such a resigned expression left her feeling equally bereft. She felt closer to Keith when he thought of her a stranger than when he recognized her as his mother.

Or, rather, the woman who happened to give birth to him.

She steadied herself as they walked slowly, stick in hand idly striking trees they passed. “I didn’t mean to.”

“I’m not trying to guilt you, Krolia. I’m asking for an explanation. I was at that concentration camp for years. I was twelve when the warden sold me. You didn’t come back for me in all that time, why? And Romelle looks about my age, is she my sister?”

“No, she’s not related to you,” she shook her head. “I thought, in the beginning when my brothers came for me, I thought that she was you. I was so tired, I’d given birth just hours before, and I was under heavy medication.” Her mouth was a thin line. “The mission went sour. I wasn’t supposed to spend nine months imprisoned.”

Keith was curious what the nature of her mission was—and who she was working with at the time—such that she’d be placed in a fucking concentration camp. But didn’t he already know? It was a prison for Garrison’s least liked. Whatever Krolia’s mission, it had made her an enemy of the First City.

He asked, almost whimsically, “Was I wanted?”

“Yes,” her head turned to him in a snap as though terrified he would doubt it. “Yes. I wanted you.”

“Was I…were you…my father’s Galra. Isn’t he.”

She understood his meaning. “I loved your father.”

He sighed, relieved. “Wait. Loved? As in he’s…”

“Missing,” she was prompt. “We don’t know what happened to him. He was on my team as well. He’s missing.”

Not dead, he noticed. She sounded a little like Lance. He nodded. For the first time in his life he wondered what his father was like.

They came to a bridge. It was green from moss and had plants growing out of his creases. Beneath it ran a black river too wide to jump, shallow enough to wade in but too cold for him to want to try. Here Keith could hear more calls of people, but they didn’t have the same ring of domesticity to it.

“Are we approaching the wall?”

“Yes, one of the barracks,” Krolia nodded. “I wanted you to…meet your uncles.” He paused. “If you were willing.”

He frowned. “I have uncles.”

“Yes.” She smiled. “You have many uncles. You have an aunt as well.”

Keith stopped in the middle of the bridge. His heart was going wild. “Can we talk a little more first?”

Her smile fell. “Of course. I…” she folded her arms. “I do not want to impose the family that I have on you. I understand this is swift and will take getting used to.”

“I just…there’s a lot I don’t understand. You wanted me, but you mixed me up with the wrong baby when you were taken out and you never came back?”

“I tried to come back. It was a month before I realized Romelle was not mine. By then we’d travelled across several towns, several grasslands, and we were right upon Olkarion, or…what would become Olkarion. It was a nameless village then.” She sighed, “I could not come back at once. I had to…prove my loyalty in order to safeguard Romelle’s future. I was suspect after I defected in order to live with your father.

“Your father and I were thieves. I was young and disinterested in the ways of the Marmora, and when I left and came across him living with a wandering band of Tando we ran away together. We cut our teeth stealing in Narquod. We started with picking pockets, then elevated to stealing from wealthy merchants and business owners. We formed a team, set our sights on Garrison.”

Keith didn’t miss her smile. She was remembering things that she wasn’t saying. He stiffened when she stiffened:

“It was the worst mistake of our lives. Our first mission and we lost half our crew within hours. I was caught and everyone else killed, save for your father whose body was never found and neither was the jewelry we picked.”

Keith’s eyes widened.

“I know what you’re thinking. That he ran away with the jewels, started over somewhere. It’s likely. It’s likely he doesn’t know I’m alive. But I was in love with him. And I was in love with him for a long time.”

“Not now?”

She shrugged. “Can’t love who you don’t know.”

Keith watched his boots.

“But I loved you. I knew you were out there. I told my brothers, two of them left and never came back. I went in pursuit of them, left Romelle with my sister, and…I don’t know how I missed you, Keith. I looked for you. I snuck into the camp, asked questions. No-one knew of a child there.”

“The warden kept me close,” Keith sighed. “Practically raised me.”

“I took every and any mission that would get me in or near Garrison. I looked for you for years in between. One day I encountered Reyner and I hoped she could help me find you. I spearheaded the first emigration of people from Garrison to Olkarion.”

Keith watched her.

Krolia looked at him fiercely, eyes rheumy. “I thought that was the best way to find you. I knew you were omega, I was told that when you were born but I knew nothing else and I…I couldn’t find you. And then, I thought I would never…and then you just…show up…” she turned away, pinched her nose and breathed cautiously as though inhaling too hard would make her cry. Keith closed his eyes and didn’t know what to feel for her. She said, “We are strangers to each other but I would like to ask if I can please get the opportunity to know you. Please.”

Keth dropped his gaze to his feet. He slipped off his coat and rolled up his sleeves. She watched in alarm as he presented his tattoo, bright, crisp against his skin. She frowned. “It looks like new.”

“I redid it every so often,” Keith said. She looked up sharply. Did his voice shake? He didn’t know. “I knew it would mean something to my mother.”

Krolia bit her lip and ducked her head.

“I’d like to get to know you too.”

She exhaled slowly and then lifted her head. “Thank you,” she managed.

He redressed. “So, uh. These many uncles and one aunt are at the barracks, huh?”

She lit up, eyes wet and wide and disbelieving. She whispered, “Yes. Would you,” her voice broke. “Would you like to meet them?”

Keith smiled.

Then someone popped out of the brush. They were so frightened that Keith had his knife in hand and Krolia had drawn hers to throw as well and they stood, mirrors of each other, faces bright and blotchy, threatening enough that the stranger who glimpsed them screamed and slid and stumbled into the river.

Keith winced at their yelp. Krolia jumped the bridge to help them. “Bandor? What are you doing here?”

Keith watched from afar. Bandor was a barely out of boyhood and had a shock of golden hair. He was squirrely in form and gesture, and he breathed deep and hard. Heat was washing off his body in waves, even after his impromptu cold bath. From how far had he been running?

“Romelle—” he coughed, “Romelle sent me to find you,” he gasped. “It’s your brother, he—” he broke off and swallowed around a dry throat.

Krolia braced him. “Antok? Ilun? Vrek?”

Ulaz,” Bandor wheezed, and a trill of dread ran down Keith’s spine. “Ulaz is back from the dead.”

-

Shiro said, “I am dead.”

Lance shot him a miserable look.

“I told you I’d die if I came like that twice.”

“First of all, you said that you’d die if you came like that all the time,” Lance refuted, wringing out a damp towel with a sad scowl. “Second of all I thought you were joking!”

Shiro laughed. “Me too.” He reached for the ice pack at his head.

Lance batted his hands away. “It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have pushed you. I’m sorry. You warned me—”

“I asked for it,” Shiro shot him a lovesick grin.

Lance smacked his knee.

“I haven’t been eating well,” Shiro admitted.

Lance frowned. Shiro had eaten yesterday, hadn’t he?

“I caught a stomach flu shortly after coming back to Olkarion.”

“Christ, Shiro, why didn’t you say anything?”

“I recovered. I think. I felt fine. Most of the time. Though I haven’t been eating as much as I should have been, maybe. Most likely. I can feel you glaring at me, stop it. And I didn’t drink a lot of water yesterday. Couple that with exertion and I got a little light headed.”

“A little lightheaded? You fainted!”

Shiro protested, “Let me walk away from this memory with some of my pride intact?”

Lance pouted. He edged Shiro to sit up from the hastily constructed nest on the living room floor. “Come on, big guy. Try to drink some more, okay?”

Shiro was about to protest.

Lance snarled, “Don’t you fucking dare give me sass.”

Shiro opened his mouth and let Lance tip the bowl of lukewarm water in his mouth. He murmured his thanks and reclined again. “I’m better now. I promise.”

“Save for the headache, I assume.”

“…how’d you know I have a headache?”

“You’re too still,” Lance stroked the bangs from his face, recharged the cool towel and placed it on Shiro’s eyes. “And you’re joking to distract from the pain.”

“That’s disturbing.”

“What is?”

“You know my tells. I’d lose against you in poker.”

“Ha.” Lance rest his hand on Shiro’s chest that expanded on each breath. It was reassuring, soothing, placating. “You scared me.”

Somber: “I’m sorry.”

“You promised me you’d take care of yourself.”

“I’m sorry. Old habits die hard.”

“That’s not good enough.”

Shiro did not say anything.

Lance stroked his lips.

“I’m trying,” Shiro whispered.

“That’s better,” Lance growled, and kissed him.

They broke apart to a rapid knock on the door. Lance felt Shiro jump underneath him. “I’ll answer the door. No I’ll answer—stay. Down. Otherwise I will kill you this time.”

Shiro chuckled, “By the same means as before I hope?”

Lance would have kicked him if he wasn’t sick already. He jumped to his feet and dashed to the front door hidden from immediate view by a screen wall. It protected the modesty of the home, Lance supposed, by preventing people at the front door from looking in.

Lance yanked the heavy, black wooden door open and startled to see a disconcerted Keith and a blanched blonde boy behind him.

“Keith?” he stepped aside and Keith stormed past, and Bandor slipped past with an apologetic good morning. “What’s going on? Who’s this?”

“My name is Bandor, pleasure to make the acquaintance of the man who saved our savior’s life.”

Lance’s handshake was limp in Bandor’s enthusiastic one. “Uhm?”

“Shiro? What happened to you?”

“A little over exertion, I’m fine. What’s wrong?”

“No, Takashi,” Lance broke away from Bandor, “you need to rest and eat. You—”

“If I say I’m fine I’m fine, Lance,” Shiro cut him off. “Now what’s the emergency?”

Lance’s steps faltered. His face was twisted as though he’d been physically struck. Bandor dashed around him to kneel at Shiro’s side as if in prayer. Keith kneeled more casually.

“Krolia’s older brother Ulaz has returned,” Bandor reported hoarsely.

Keith said, “Lance, agua por él por favor.”

Lance recovered enough to abide.

“Ulaz and Thace had disappeared to the veld over twenty years ago and were thought to be lost, but now Ulaz has come back and claims that Thace, too, still lives. And they have news about the Galra hordes that may threaten our borders.”

Shiro sat up without as much as a wince. “Where are they?”

“Krolia went to meet him at the barracks,” Keith answered when Bandor’s mouth was full of water. He watched Shiro get to his feet and smelled Lance all over him. He frowned but was unsurprised. “She already summoned Reyner and other members of some council. She sent us to get you.”

Shiro grabbed his coat and boots.

Lance protested, “But—”

Shiro looked at him with a sharp shake of the head.

Lance pressed his lips together. He was reminded of the Shiro who was desperate to get back to Olkarion and save his people. He didn’t protest when Shiro tossed him his coat with a curt “get dressed” and barely followed their group through the door.

Shiro took point, Bandor at his side, leading their group down a straight line that intersected other paths but was not a well-worn path itself. So Shiro lived near the barracks but did not visit it often enough to wear a trail into the land? Or maybe the other trails he and Krolia had followed had not been made by one man? The bridge certainly looked older than…

Lance’s warm hand lacing through his cold one distracted him. It was at that moment he saw Lance’s disturbed expression. “What happened to you?” he sniffed. “And why do you reek of Shiro? Have you guys been having sex?”

“Playing, I guess, no penetration.” He winced, “Sorry we burned your breakfast.”

Keith frowned, puzzled. “Breakfast? I already ate.”

“Oh. That’s good. Wait, when?”

“With Krolia, we took a walk and picked some berries. Uh, and also she’s my mother.”

Lance nearly stopped dead in his tracks. He yanked Keith against him. “Keith what the fuck—you can’t just drop a bomb like tha—how? How do you know? Does she know?”

“Yes.” His walk that had been as brisk as Shiro’s faltered to a pensive stride like Lance’s. They fell behind a little, but kept up. “We have the same tattoo.”

“The Taujeeran camp tattoo? But…you were different prisoners, shouldn’t you have different tattoos? Like different identification numbers?”

“I’m starting to doubt that’s how the numbers work but I never got to ask that detail I was still wrapping my head around the fact that she’s my mother.”

Lance stroked his thumb on Keith’s hand. “And your dad?”

“Missing, apparently. He may or may not have left my mother to her fate and fucked off with the jewels and gems they stole.”

Lance blinked rapidly, processing.

“I said the same thing,” Keith joked mildly.

“And…are you okay? About this? How do you feel?”

“Honestly? I think something’s wrong with me.”

Gently, “Why?”

“I don’t…feel anything. Numb. Like I’m watching from somewhere else. All the feelings that I thought I’d feel aren’t…here, anymore. I’m not angry at her, I’m not happy to see her…its scaring me a little.”

“You’ve been holding out a hope to meet her again all your life.”

“Exactly. Shouldn’t I feel something? Elation? Irritation?”

“I don’t know,” Lance held him firm. “But—”

“Keith, Lance, walk up,” Shiro barked without a backwards glance.

Lance let out an irritable hiss. “Bossy.”

Keith picked up speed, pulling Lance with him. “I don’t blame him. Ulaz was thought to be dead. He could be the missing piece to this whole mess that landed us in Olkarion in the first place.”

“Who is this Ulaz guy anyway?”

“Krolia’s brother.”

“Oh.”

“And do you remember the Marmora I told you about who was part of Sendak’s group and I saw in Arus?”

“It’s him!?”

“Yes,” Keith’s eyes darkened. “And I have a lot of questions for him.”

Then the trees parted and they faced the wall. As colossal as memory, it canted into the sky with unbridled glee, no end in sight, painted bright blue with the sunrise. It was not smooth: it had balconies and terraces and windows and pillars and projecting shingle roofs each was carved with geometric precision. Altogether the structures reminded Lance of the termite nests he terrorized as a boy. Those structures did not exist on the reverse side, though he recalled seeing spots when they were bid entry. Had those spots perhaps been windows?

The barracks were buildings that extended out of the base of the wall in between its trusses as though it had grown there. It was a village build around a central complex designed as such: connected to the wall was the largest structure, a palace of terraces of roofed verandas and stairs not unlike the architecture of the medical center. One either side of it and flanking the empty complex were rectangular buildings that looked like they might have been housing offices, meeting rooms, or even dormitories. Other buildings spiraled out from this main center and followed the square lattice structure it established in the form of swept dirt roads and houses in brutal shapes akin to Shiro’s home. It was all made it stone, some of them looked to be hewn out of living rock.

Lance and Keith had gotten such a great view of the barracks because they were at the top of the incline. As they descended the buildings loomed over them.

“It’s like a city within the city,” Lance marveled.

“I didn’t expect them to be so bright,” Keith admired the red columns, the mustard buttresses, the bright white walls and bright blue window grills. Every so often was a potted plant sporting juvenile fruits or smelly flowers. “Where are all the people?”

“Likely in the main hall,” Bandor replied over his shoulder. He’d regained his voice and he practically sang each word now. “Even those who should be training at this moment came running at the news.”

“Ulaz is popular?”

“Commander Krolia is, and her brothers by extension,” Bandor said smilingly. “She was the one who organized Olkarion’s defenses, a fraction of which is what you see here. If not for her, Olkarion would have been discovered years ago.”

Lance whistled. “Your mother’s pretty badass,” he whispered.

Keith was expressionless. “I know.”

They saw more people as they strode down the main complex, a huge empty space that might be used for training exercises or performance battles or whatever else. Some issued stiff helloes when they recognized Shiro, and as they skipped up the stairs into the yawning, multi-coloured mouth of the main hall, folk parted to bid them entry.

Among the crowds rose up murmuring “Good morning, Commander” and “Good to see you, Commander” and others stared or bowed their heads in silence. More than a few watched Keith and Lance in curiosity. Lance stared back. Keith stared straight ahead.

Shiro offered stiff nods and brisk waves to those who greeted him, but kept his walk rapid until they came to the center of the room. Here seats were arranged in a semi-circular fashion. The seats were ornately carved stools. In the middle was a cushion where kneeled a Marmora, tall even for his people, his head bowed and his bald head glittering white.

“Ulaz,” Keith whispered to Lance.

Lance watched the albino curiously.

Shiro turned to them, not seeing them not touching them as he issued, “When I take my seat I need the two of you to stand at my back but don’t speak. Not unless I ask you to or another council member asks you to step in the middle to give your account on something. Do you understand?”

“I understand, but puppy: what’s going on?”

Shiro’s lips firmed. “An interrogation at best, an inquisition at worst. And I think that the two of you may be called into it.”

Keith chimed, “So much for Reyner’s private interview.”

Shiro smiled sadly for a moment, then turned and was a hard faced commander again.

So this is what he meant when he said he was more like Kolivan. Stoic and contained, Shiro was a beacon of authority in their eyes, and likely in the eyes of all of the people who made this cavernous room feel very, very small.

And there were so many people! Some were dressed in uniforms akin to Krolia’s garb, in leather skirts and fur trimmed hoods and sporting white triangles across the sash on their chests. Others were in heavy folds upon folds of robes that looked tight and shiny, hardly armor but not ceremonial either.

Others still were dressed in simple coats and boots, as Lance and Keith were, but between the crushing sea of bodies and hanging platters of fire they slipped out of them one by one. Keith followed suit, as did Lance, and though they had their shirts tucked into the waists of their jeans, the billowing sleeves left little to the imagination over whose shirts they wore.

Shiro kneeled beside Krolia, who had never looked away from her brother until then. Her eyes lit up when she saw him and she embraced him briefly but wholeheartedly. She pinched his broad chin and spoke fiercely in something that was not Marmora or Altean or Puebla, and he laughed and kissed her temple and then moved to his seat.

Keith and Krolia exchanged a nod and profound look. When Krolia’s eyes fell on Lance, he bowed clumsily and ran to Keith’s side. They stood on either side and behind Shiro, Keith with his arms crossed, Lance fidgeting with his hands behind his back. With one thousand eyes peering at them he felt horribly out of place.

But Keith set up a good façade of looking important and the strength in Shiro’s shoulders never faltered. He emulated them.

Reyner arrived soon after, as hastily roused as the rest of them, and behind her was a train of strangers. They filed in until all of the stools were occupied. After brief pleasantries exchanged between them, Reyner stood and put up her hands.

The hall fell silent in a whoosh.

Keith was scared to breathe.

Reyner’s voice called powerfully: “Good morning, Olkarion!”

And, like a sermon, the hall replied, “Good morning.”

Keith shivered. He never wanted to hear another group of people speak in unison for the rest of his life.

“Today is a day that may shift our future operations. As we know, gangs of people have been searching for us. Led by Galra, we have reason to believe that they are being sponsored by the Garrison. To protect us, all operations between us and Garrison were recently suspended.” She let them murmur a little. “But today a man who has lived and worked among the Galra for years has come to us. He was a part of this land before we knew it as Olkarion. Ulaz, please stand.”

Ulaz rose to his feet like a waterfall in reverse.

“Please tell us who you are.”

“I am a Marmora. I was born in this valley and raised to be a healer. Years ago my brother and I left to find a nephew lost to the veld.”

“He is my brother,” Krolia vouched passionately.

A man Lance hadn’t noticed shift to his feet returned to his stool silently.

Reyner said, “Please tell us what happened between your leaving this valley and your return.”

“Weeks turned to months and years we continued our search. We joined forces with a semi-nomadic group of Tando-Galra to survive an assault between two warring peoples, a fight we were caught in by chance. We stayed with them in the interest of our survival. Shortly after we found the nephew we were looking for, absorbed into the group as one of many brides for their leader. But he was heavily protected and we were never able to smuggle him away. Then he disappeared.”

Lance glanced at Keith, who stared at Ulaz wide-eyed. He was pale and too far away for Lance to grasp his hand.

“Thereafter we found our mission had changed. We received word of Olkarion and that it was the work of our brothers and sisters. We stayed in order to deflect the Galra’s interest from coming to these mountains.”

A woman Keith did not recognize asked, “And you did this without returning home once in twenty years?”

“Yes,” Ulaz face her. “Thace and I knew that should we ever leave, we would not be welcomed back. That is the Galra way. We would serve our brothers and sisters better fighting from that side.”

Reyner prompted smoothly, “And what had changed?”

“As your operations picked up, so did Garrison’s vigilance. A representative among the families that run the First City approached the leaders of the group and asked for their assistance and loyalty in return for materials, weapons, vehicles, and a share of the omega they reclaim.”

A murmur spiraled through the crowd.

Reyner let them whisper for a moment, then she lifted her hands again in a call of silence. Her face was hard and speculative. “The Garrison leaders are using the Galra to sniff us out, you can confirm this?”

“I can.”

“And why had you returned now?”

“Because I no longer have sway within the group. Recently the group fractured. Thace went with one half and I stayed with the other, under the leadership of a man named Sendak. But he is going senile. His plans make no sense, he has no directive. His mission has changed from finding the people that have run away from Garrison to finding omega anywhere and offering them as tribute for more weapons, more vehicles.”

Lance’s breath hitched. Keith watched him warily.

Krolia asked, “And what of the other group?”

“That group is led by a man named Ranveig. Unlike Sendak, he is decisive, driven and dangerous. He had caught wind of radio transmissions that spoke of a hidden city in the mountains, and the last I heard he had mobilized his men to find it.”

“When was this?”

“The intelligence is three days old as of this morning.”

Krolia asked, “Are you still in contact with Thace?”

“I am. He had domesticated a wolf which ferries messages for us.”

Keith’s voice hitched. Shiro resisted the urge to meet his eyes. He asked, “Where is that wolf now?”

“On standby outside the city,” Ulaz said. “It will come to me, when I call for it.”

More mumbling around the room. Keith wished they weren’t here. Was it part of a ceremony that they were in attendance? He jumped when Reyner turned to him: “Keith, please come forward.”

Keith automatically looked to Shiro, who nodded.

Ulaz’s eyes widened a fraction when he recognized him. Keith watched him for one heartbeat, then faced Reyner.

She asked him, “You were among Sendak’s men for years. Do you recognize Ulaz?”

“Yes,” and he met his uncle’s eyes. “I’m the nephew he was looking for, though I didn’t know it at the time.”

More murmuring. Lance saw Shiro jump and jerk to meet Krolia’s eyes, but she did not turn to meet his.

“Do you know Ranveig?”

“Not as well as I know Sendak.” He swallowed. “When I knew Sendak he was sound of mind.”

“And what can you tell us about Sendak?”

Lance watched Keith blanch and sweat under the pressure of a thousand eyes and the questions and the stress that if he answered incorrectly an entire civilization would crumble. Lance moved forward—

Shiro grasped his wrist in a tight hold. “Don’t move.”

Lance hissed, “Takashi!”

“Stay put.”

Lance stared at his firm, resolute features and did not recognize his puppy.

Keith balled his hands into fists. “I…know that it’s under him that many towns were destroyed like Taujeer and Arus. If you were to ask him he’d say that it was unintentional, that he didn’t go out of his way. But…his means of providing for the people he’s responsible for is dangerous for everyone else. He only cares about himself and the things he owns, everything else is free pickings.” Keith squeezed his eyes closed. “Personality wise…he thinks himself a good man. He doesn’t think he’s doing bad things.”

Lance tugged against Shiro’s hold.

Ulaz said, “Ranveig, according to Thace, thinks similarly. And he is far more decisive.”

One of the council members frowned. “So what is our next course of action?’”

“We hold. That was what Olkarion was built for.”

“Olkarion may have defenses but against an army infamous for destroying entire civilizations?”

“We launch an attack. Seed their intelligence, lead them to where we want to go.”

“We can’t ignore Garrison. We cut off the head of the snake the tail dies; we should focus on destroying Garrison’s value to the Galra.”

We are Garrison’s value to the Galra!”

“And what of the omega waiting in Garrison itself? We cannot abandon them.”

“We’re hardly in a position to help them either! We save ourselves, we’ll be in a position to save them.”

“I agree.”

“I don’t agree!”

“Lance,” Shiro’s grip slipped.

Lance strut forward unafraid of the crowd. He was beside Keith when he shouted: “Out there are men and women who are at risk of dying and you’re only thinking of saving yourselves?! The Galra are everyone’s problem! As we speak Sendak is probably launching an attack on Narquod, the second largest city in our world—”

“If it keeps them distracted—”

Lance turned savagely. His Voice dripped with oppressive vitriol: “Excuse me!?”

The woman who had piped up shrunk back and clutched her chest with a pained expression. Her pale lips moved I’m sorry but her eyes were alarmed and bright.

Shiro strode forward and snatched Lance by the hook of his elbow. “That’s enough.”

“After what she said?! Throwing away the lives of people you’ve never met—” and he pulled against Shiro’s grip as he spat: “That doesn’t make you any better than Ranveig!”

“I said that’s ENOUGH.” Lance’s spine went still against his volition. His blood turned to acid. He couldn’t speak. He was under the thrall of Voice.

Shiro’s eyes went wide with grief when he realized what he did, but he grit his teeth. He whispered: “Kolivan. Please escort Lance home.”

Lance, shakily, jerkily, walked to a surprised Kolivan. His coat was shifted onto his shoulders, and the hood was drawn against curious eyes, some amused, some outraged, some sympathetic, and he was led though a not very busy corridor that emptied into some nondescript outside.

He walked Lance to Shiro’s box shaped cabin in the forest, but was surprised Lance kept going without even giving it a glance.

“Love? Where are you going?”

“Shiro said to go home,” Lance replied, his voice stronger than Kolivan expected it to be. “I’m going home.”

Chapter Text

“You would look beautiful with long hair.”

Keith giggled around the hickies Sendak left him. “Is that an order, my alpha?”

Sendak purred, “You’d look nice.”

Keith cut his hair the following morning.

-

“How dare you.”

And the room fell silent. On the other side of the screen doors an attendant hurried past. The semi-circular table the council sat at faced open doors to a verandah overlooking the lake and dam. In its center was a polite arrangement of juvenile juniberries. Krolia’s glare was unyielding. Shiro cleared his throat.

Her brother, her second, Antok, stood behind her with his arms folded and face thunder. They had dressed in Marmora regalia for their summons. It was blatant that Krolia was here as a Marmora first and a servant to the people of Olkarion second.

Reyner’s eyes flashed to Lubos.

Lubos replied, “You were there when we drafted our laws, Krolia. Outsiders are to be thoroughly questioned.”

“But not to be publicly humiliated! Not to be presented before a public tribunal without the sanction of all members of the council!”

“It was an emergency.”

“It was my brother.”

“Well I hardly knew that at the time now did I!

“It wouldn’t have made a difference would it!” Krolia’s voice was not loud, but it carried. It carried with vigor.

“Now you’re simply being accusatory.”

“You slandered my family. You called into question my brother’s loyalty before the entire city. You did that. Yes, I accuse you of that.” She slapped her palm on the table and dared, “Rebuke me.”

Lubos’ cheeks were high and white. “We are operating on a severe time limit. The Galra—and by extension the Garrison—are right at our doorstep! We need to respond to that threat swiftly, and I did so. When my scouts relayed the Marmora’s location to me—”

“His name,” interrupted Antok’s scaly voice, “is Ulaz.”

Lubos flushed for a moment. His gelatinous jowls shivered and then he said softly, “When my scouts relayed Ulaz’s location and reasons for being here, I arranged the tribunal to get us the most information in the timeliest manner.”

Shiro rasped, “And summoning all hands from each of the barracks was part of that timely plan?”

“The men and women of the barracks need to be updated with the latest information,” Luxia softly interjected.

Updated,” Krolia emphasized. “Not entertained. You made a show out of my brother and he rode it out with more grace than your impromptu inquisition deserved.”

My inquisition! May I remind you that we all were present to carry it on?”

“Just barely,” Krolia hissed. Her back was straight. Triangular symbols that implied she was a leader among the Marmora gleamed on her sash. “If you could have run that pony show single-handedly you would.”

“You and your baseless accusations have no place at this table—”

“You’ve been trying to belittle my presence and the presence of the natives of this valley from day one! Lubos: you and your people are guests in our land. We taught you how to grow your food and build on the hills, how to nurture the forest fires and how and when and what to hunt. We belong here. Your attempts to undermine us will be your undoing. Not ours.”

“And we rebuilt your valley when you were living in your own ruins—”

“We lived in humility in the embrace of the Earth—”

“We provided progression! We provided action!”

Krolia rolled her eyes in defeat.

“You blame me for my actions as though you were powerless. You could have dismantled this morning’s assembly with a snap of your fingers.”

Her yellow eyes flashed. “I didn’t by choice. And you know why. It was by your design.”

Lubos puffed out his cheeks. “The accusations…!”

Shiro was careful not to glare at Lubos. He thought: None of us could have broken up the assembly without making it obvious that the council isn’t as cohesive as it appears. A splintered authority would not inspire a city facing a siege. They needed Olkarion to keep it together now more than ever.

With that in mind he had to wonder what Lubos’ angle was. His discontent with Krolia’s place at the table and the forthright power the Marmora had in Olkarion had always troubled him, but he’d never behaved so drastically against her before now. And what’s more it was a personal blow. It left her visibly rattled. Shiro daren’t think that Lubos did this by accident. He cleared his throat.

Was he using the Galra threat against her in some sort of coup? A way to dethrone her and eliminate the best representative of the Marmora, Arrussians and Tando who had settled here?

Too much of the First City is in Lubos, Antok had said once. Shiro saw it clear as day now. Garrison never cared for the aboriginal peoples of their world, quick to either reform or evict them.

Reyer tapped her pipe. It rang out against the ceramic cigarette dish with three loud musical clangs. “Are the two of you finished?”

Krolia’s eyes flashed in a mix of anger and shame. Lubos pulled himself up with entitled pride.

Reyner said, “Lubos: you acted out of hand. It was not your place to have scouts, to act on their information, and to act without consulting the council and you know that. We are a team. We are not Garrison.”

He looked put out but kept his fat lips pinched.

“Krolia: we have our laws. Your anger is justified and I am sorry for the disrespect you, your brother and your family has suffered. But if he was not posed difficult questions today that implicated his loyalty, they would have been posed tomorrow.”

But they would have been posed humanely, Shiro itched to say aloud. He cleared his throat.

Krolia thought so too. She exhaled, “I understand.”

Reyner clicked her pipe again. “This is no time to broaden the fissure that has our council divided in half.”

And she sat right in the middle of it. On her left were Shiro and Krolia. On her right were Lubos and Luxia. Krolia and Shiro were concerned with Olkarion’s defenses. Lubos and Luxia were concerned with its infrastructure. Krolia and Shiro kept the city safe. Lubos and Luxia kept it functional. They frequently clashed, overtly and subtly, and not just in the council room.

“Now more than ever we need to pull together. We need to allocate our resources, we need information and plans,” Reyner looked at them expectantly.

Luxia bowed her head. Her pretty earrings glistened in the grey light. They were blue drop earrings. They’d look nice on Lance. Shiro cleared his throat. “Where do you suggest we start?”

“We need to know what they know,” Krolia said. “We know that the group has split into two, and that the group seeking our location is led by a man named Ranveig. But we don’t know how he operates.”

Antok tilted his head: “Shiro, your pack. They are intimate with these Galra.”

“Intimate is a stretch,” Shiro rasped. “And Keith’s knowledge is outdated by a few years. Ulaz and Thace are our best sources of information.”

Lubos began, “And we know that we can trust Tha—”

Antok and Krolia wore livid expressions.

Luxia softly interjected, “Forgive us, we are unfamiliar with the Marmora way, but spending two decades in the company of Galra seems a long time for men to remain unchanged.”

Krolia replied icily, “What do they have to gain by betraying us?”

Luxia inclined her head and spoke with delicate articulation. “That is the question, isn’t it.”

Shiro laced his fingers together and pressed it over his mouth and cleared his throat. It did not bode well that, so far, the majority of the council were skeptical of the best informants at their disposal.

Luxia went on, “And, in the best case scenario that we can trust their information, how can we trust that it is not in Ranveig’s plan?”

Krolia snapped, “Now you’re just speculating.”

“In other words,” and she lifted a hand in apology, “Ranveig knew that Ulaz was a Marmora. Ulaz came here directly. How do we know he had not led them here, advertently or inadvertently?”

“Then we deploy our scouts,” Shiro said. “We do a reconnaissance mission, we keep an eye out, we learn what they know. Based on that intel we keep them at bay.” His voice cracked and he cleared his throat. “We know these mountains. They’re on our playing field. Worst comes to worst, Olkarion is well-hidden and well-defended.”

Luxia’s eyebrows rose, “You speak as though we’re at war.”

Krolia frowned, “We will have to fight.”

“There are other means to battle than with bows and arrows. Unlike Sendak—if the rumor can be believed—” and Krolia flinched at rumor, “—Ranveig is a smart man who was given a gracious offer by Garrison. That implies that he can be bought.”

Shiro didn’t like the sound of that. Nor did Krolia. Reyner tapped her pipe. “What do you mean?”

“We learn the nature of the Galra’s loyal ties to Garrison and we exploit it. We offer something better and turn Garrison’s dogs against them.”

Shiro sighed. If Lubos was racist, then Luxia was sexist. She had been a wealthy omega and one of the foremost sponsors of their project when Olkarion was little more than an idea. She was in love with the idea of a perfect omegarchy, which meant every so often she sent Shiro a scathing look for the poor luck of his sex.

Reyner shook her head. “Garrison is a wealthy country eons old. We are a tenement yard in comparison. What could we possibly have to offer the Galra?”

“We have technology far superior to Garrison,” she returned with an odd look, as though she expected Reyner to know this best of all. “We have concrete walls that repair themselves, medicine that can cure lethal diseases in a day. Surely that’s better than guns and trucks and tents.”

Shiro opined: “That’s for the Galra to say.”

She sent him a sharp look. Shut up, her eyes said. “A fair point,” her mouth said.

“Striking a deal with the Galra doesn’t ensure our safety,” Krolia disagreed. “It’s just playing with fire.”

“Should our defenses fail we’ll need to resort to negotiations anyway.”

Krolia firmed. “Our defenses won’t fail.”

Reyner tapped her pipe. “We do reconnaissance, then we strategize. Krolia, Shiro, prepare the scouts and ready our defenses. We do not let ourselves be seen. We erase our tracks from the land. All goings and comings in Olkarion are suspended until further notice, or unless specifically sanctioned by the council.”

Krolia and Shiro nodded.

“Lubos, Luxia, we stockpile. Gather the things that you need now. Be prepared for wounds, sicknesses, a siege ten years long. I want our granaries bursting at the seams and then some, our farmlands prepared for exhaustion, our produce maximized.”

Lubos and Luxia nodded.

“For now, that’s that. We decide our plan of action when he have more to work with. In a best case scenario we aren’t discovered at all. In a worst case scenario we beat them back with a stick.” Her eyes flashed around the room. “Any concerns, queries or other topics of discussion?”

The council members glanced at one another, then back at Reyner.

“Then this meeting is dismissed. I want a progress report from each of you in three days.”

“Yes, Reyner.”

They stood. Reyner slid open the door for Lubos and Luxia. They were dressed in the same loping fabrics, beautiful and ethereal. Krolia and Shiro were in dark, form fitting things, ready to leap and fight at a moment’s notice. It reminded him of the dichotomy that was Lance and Keith. Shiro cleared his throat.

Krolia grasped Shiro’s shoulder: “It’s good to have you back, Shiro. Luxia and Lubos have been tag-teaming me in your absence.”

“I’m sorry,” he held her hand. “If I’d known that things were this bad I’d never have gone on the last run.”

“Nonsense, we needed you out there. Have you seen Olia since you came back?”

“Not yet, I plan to visit her today.”

“I’ll go with you. Send for me when you go: I’ll be at the barracks with Ulaz.” She paused. “And I’m sorry that you found out about Keith and me that way.”

Shiro jumped. “No, not at all.” Shiro had forgotten he was speaking with Keith’s mother. “It’s somewhat obvious, in retrospect. He looks like you. And has your charm.”

Antok piped up: “The lack thereof, you mean.” He bowed over when she elbowed him in the gut.

In Shiro’s peripheral hearing, Reyner and Luxia parted and he turned. “I’ll look for you later—I need to catch Luxia.”

Krolia winced. “Be careful.”

Antok smiled. “Protect the face.”

Krolia looked at him oddly.

Shiro skipped down the corridor of the hall to flank her. “Luxia,” he greeted as she turned to him in cool disregard. “May I have a quick word?”

Luxia turned to him fully and said nothing.

“I’d like to formally apologize for Lance’s outburst this morning. He had no right to cut you down like that, nor to use his Voice on you.”

“Are you going to punish him?”

Shiro blinked. He blinked again. “Excuse me?”

“Are you going to punish him?”

He stared at her, at a loss of how to reply. What in the world did she mean?

“Because you’re here, apologizing on his behalf, as if he is incapable of speaking for himself, as though he were a child who didn’t know better.”

“I…it was because he was under my care or responsibility, for lack of a better word, when I took him to the tribunal this morning. When he spoke he spoke under my behalf, therefore I owe you an apology as well.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Under your behalf. You have two of them don’t you. I would have thought it beneath one of Olkarion’s saviors to have a harem.”

Shiro flinched as if slapped. “Keith and Lance are my pack. My family.” He took a breath to control his rage. “They are not my harem.”

“One couldn’t tell what with the way you kept Lance on a tight leash this morning.”

Shiro closed his eyes and pressed his lips together. Shame and anger and ugly thoughts poisoned his system. He couldn’t trust himself to form a coherent reply.

“Lance is welcome to come to my home to issue an apology himself,” Luxia said. “Good day, Commander.”

She strut away and Shiro stared at her, his expression dark and unreadable.

-

“I wish you wouldn’t do that.”

“Do what?”

“The bloodletting.”

Keith sat in front of the fire, naked, with a bowl of ash in front of him and a needle in hand. Blood and self-made ink bled down his wrist and over his scent gland.

Sendak came behind him and mouthed at his ear. “Come to bed,” he purred.

Keith set the needle aside and stared at his unfinished work. “Coming, alpha.”

-

“This is rich,” Lance giggled. “This city has giant holographic projections for public entertainment and they use a town crier.”

Kolivan paid the vendor. Lance stood at the window of the supplies wholesale shop peering through a small latticed window at the crowd a stone’s throw beyond. He was in borrowed clothes again: years of swimming in trousers six sizes too big made him an expert at blousing the shirt and cinching the pants at the waist. It emphasized his narrow waist, his broad shoulders and his long lean arms in such a way that Kolivan caught himself staring repeatedly.

He stood behind and towered over Lance to peer down an awkward angle towards a podium where a boy belted that Olkarion was under lockdown. No-one was allowed to leave except with express permission from the councilmembers. He sighed and the bag heavy with canned food dug into his shoulder.

“The snare is empty and upturned,” Kolivan said. “Or, as you might say, a monkey has thrown a wrench in things.”

“Don’t pretend you’re not relieved.” Lance folded his arms. His eyes were unrepentant. “This doesn’t change anything.”

“I was afraid you might say that.”

Lance smirked, unamused.

“Love,” and Kolivan rested his chin on Lance’s crown, “I beg of you to realize that this course of action will do you and your family more harm than good.”

“Shiro doesn’t need my help to do that.”

“Your anger blinds you.”

“And what, love didn’t? I trusted him and looked where that got me.”

“I remember a time when the boot had been on the opposite foot.”

“Don’t.”

Kolivan pressed his lips together and winced as Lance tore away from him.

“I hurt Shiro back then and he forgave me and now it’s my turn, right?”

“Do not speak for me,” Kolivan followed him into the street and sky. “I did not say that.”

“I don’t owe him my forgiveness!”

“I did not say that.”

“He violated my trust and I—” hate him—

Lance crashed into a familiar shoulder. He stabilized them and recognized the strawberry blonde hair first and the doe-eyed expression last. Now, as then, Bandor ran hot, even when the air was saturated with a perennial cold drizzle that sapped the heat out of most else.

Bandor gasped, “Mister Lance! I—am happy—that I found you!”

“Uh,” and Lance escorted them into a corner of the street. “Hi?”

Bandor dropped his hood. “I have a message for you.” He rummaged through his parka.

“Is this your job?” Lance laughed, “Do you run around the city delivering messages?”

“Yes,” Bandor answered from his armpit.

Lance blinked. He was kidding.

“I work directly for the council. I ferry messages around on their behalf.”

“What, they don’t have phones?”

“Devices like those are not allowed in Olkarion.”

“Wait, what?”

“And more often than not the saviors handle very sensitive information. This is true now more than ever.” He brought a handkerchief out of a pocket and wiped his face. Lance frowned. He had been expecting a letter. “Even on the long journeys between here and Garrison runners accompany escorts ferrying valuable information for no-one’s ears but those who they are intended for.”

“I’m missing something. Where’s my message?”

Bandor grinned and tapped his temple.

Lance felt Kolivan’s heat at his back. “But then: you know everyone’s dirty laundry!”

Bandor shrugged. “I know plenty, but I don’t know everything. There are many runners, the whole image is fractured from my vantage point, and having a little knowledge is worse than none at all, at times, and even if I had the whole picture I’d never be able to put it to function the way the saviors do.”

Lance’s eyes narrowed. “Yeah. Uh, right. Okay, so what’s my message?”

“From Savior Shirogane—”

“Don’t call him that.”

Bandor blinked in surprise. He did not seem to employ Lance’s request as he continued, “He says that Luxia has invited you to her home when you are prepared to issue an apology.”

Lance folded his arms.

Bandor smiled briefly then wiped his face.

“What?” Lance jerked upright. “Is that it?!”

Bandor looked startled. “Yes?”

Lance looked mystified. Then he bit his lip and glared at his boots.

“…would you like me to run a message in reply?”

No. No. Just—forget it. Forget it. Thanks, I guess.” Lance jerked away from Kolivan’s thumb aiming to move his lips out of his teeth.

“I can escort you to Savior Luxia’s home,” Bandor offered.

Kolivan asked, “Remind us: who is Luxia?”

“Savior Luxia was among the first of Olkarion’s saviors. She was the one who invested in the first buildings of the city and the building blocks of its structure today. Her Ancients-infused talents—”

“Stop stop stop stop,” Lance interrupted. “Just, lead the way please?”

“It would be an honor to—”

Lance marched past him.

-

Keith felt a jolt of satisfaction when Sendak couldn’t find purchase in his hair. He bit his lips when Sendak’s hips bucked wilder.

-

Luxia’s apartments had a similar style to the barracks in that they seemed to be hewn from living rock.

Hers was a wide building with a slab roof held up by a forest of square pillars. The rest of the structure was made of wood and independent of the roof. Natural springs fell around her house and fed the artificial pool that Lance had to cross on a stone path to the front door. Foliage framed tall narrow windows. Moss and lichen decorated the stone steps to the patio. Every few steps there was someone working.

“Good afternoon. Are you Lance?”

Lance jerked. A pretty girl with red hair and impeccable posture smiled at him having formed out of thin air.

“Uh. Yeah?”

“Welcome to the home of Councilwoman Lady Luxia,” she smiled. “My name is Verona and I was tasked with escorting you to our lady. If you will please follow me?”

“Uh, sure,” and he shoved his hands in his pockets and trailed her at a leisurely pace. A skeptical Kolivan took the rear.

Luxia’s home was a series of rooms connected by a grid work of corridors. It seemed brutal architecture and square lattice grids were the aesthetic foundation of Olkarion, reconstructed ruins indigenous to the valley notwithstanding.

“Verona, can I ask you something about, uh, Councilwoman Luxia?”

“Of course,” she replied brightly.

“Why do you call her ‘lady’?”

“It is her title. Before Luxia devoted her life to the cause, Lady Luxia was a well-respected figure in Garrison, an icon in networking and fashion, and the daughter of one of the city’s oldest families.”

Lance whistled. “Sounds like she had it made.”

“Lady Luxia was aware of her privilege and used the power at her disposal to pave the way for the Olkarion you see today. If not for her, our city would look very different. The people consider her one of its saviors.”

“Saviors,” Lance echoed. “I’ve heard that before.”

“I am not surprised,” and she smiled over her shoulder. “Commander Shirogane is one of Olkarion’s foremost saviors as well. Both he and Lady Luxia are popular with the Olkari, second only to our founder and matriarch Reyner.”

“Huh.” He winced when a door opened and light flooded in. The windowless corridors had been dim.

“Lady Luxia,” Verona called. “Lance has arrived.”

Lance bit on his lip. Luxia was intimidating. She was backlit by the sun-kissed mountains and it made her black hair shimmer blue. She was middle-aged and she was one of those women where maturity looked good on them. When she walked she glided, and when she smiled Lance expected a row of shiny, sharp teeth.

“Welcome Lance,” Luxia stepped forward with a smile. “I was not expecting you so soon.”

Lance dropped his eyes in shame. “I should have come sooner.”

Luxia smiled then tilted her head up. “Welcome. Your name is Kolivan, am I correct?”

Kolivan inclined his head. “Yes. Thank you for receiving us.”

“It is nothing. I’ve been dying to meet the little pack that Shirogane adopted. He’s been such a frugal loner these past six years that learning his status has changed was the juiciest gossip my attendants had the pleasure of twittering about.”

Verona, standing aside with her eyes down and her hands clasped, gave a tight smile as though she were keeping a broad grin under wraps.

“May I interest you in refreshments?”

“Who am I to refuse such generous hospitality of the lady?”

Verona shivered with restraint when she spied Kolivan roll his eyes.

Luxia gestured them to a long black table, a polite arrangement of flowers in its middle. The chairs were of branches that looked as though they were alive while woven and lacquered, and their deep blue cushions were very cozy. Verona took the head of the table, Lance sat at her left, and Kolivan at Lance’s left.

Drinks were summoned and crackers that smelled of sweet coconut, and Lance had demolished three out of the basket before Luxia asked how he was finding the city.

“It’s amazing,” Lance grinned. “I really like the market place. Koli said I wouldn’t be out of place there.”

Luxia’s eyes shifted. “You are a man of talent?”

Lance shrugged, “I wouldn’t call it talent—”

“Lance can make reed baskets, blankets and tapestries, and has exceptional skill with a guitar and voice.”

Lance blushed. “Oh shut up.”

Luxia smiled, “Yes, I can tell you have a powerful voice.”

Lance immediately blanched. “Lady Luxia, about this morning, I am so sorry. I was just…mad, but, not about what you said.”

“Now that is a blatant lie.”

Lance stilled. He felt Kolivan still beside him.

Luxia was still smiling. “I upset you this morning, Lance, that much is very clear. And while I am a little angry that you used your Voice on me I am willing to forgive you if you answer one question.”

Lance swallowed. “Just one?”

She smiled. “Just one.”

“Must be one helluva question then.”

“My question is this: why are you in Olkarion?”

Lance frowned. What sort of left-field question is that?

“Is it,” she guided, “that you heard of an omegas’ paradise and couldn’t wait to come here? Or was it the only option you had apart from being swarmed by the Galra?”

Kolivan’s eyes flickered to Lance’s bowed head.

“Can I be honest?”

He voice wasn’t light. Kolivan grew wary.

“Of course, Lance.”

“I never wanted to come here.”

Kolivan hissed, disappointed and hurt, “Under the circumstances…”

“I know. I know. You guys were looking out for us. It was either Olkarion or the Galra, like Luxia says—uh, sorry, Lady Luxia.”

“You have my permission to drop the title.”

“Thanks. Anyway long story short: out of the four of us I was the only one who wanted to go to Narquod. Don’t get me wrong, Olkarion’s amazing. But the families that took me in, that low key raised me when I didn’t have a home, they’re still out there and it drives me nuts that I’m in paradise and they’re probably living in hell.”

Luxia hummed. “You said there were four of you?”

“In our pack. Me, Shiro, Keith, Kolivan.”

Kolivan jumped. “I count?”

“Of course you count,” Lance snapped. “Don’t be stupid.”

Luxia’s eyes took in Kolivan’s awe and Lance’s indignation. She poured them more drinks. “Did you hear this morning’s public address?”

“Public address?”

Kolivan murmured something.

“Oh! The town crier! Yeah,” Lance snickered. “He had a big voice for a little guy.”

She gave him a sly smile. “It’s always the unassuming ones.”

He wondered what to make of that.

“Olkarion is under lockdown until further notice. Only people with express permission from the council may leave. This morning the council decided that they would send scouts into the mountains to gather intel on Ranveig and his men, who we believe are advancing on our location.”

Kolivan narrowed his eyes, his wariness building.

Lance shrugged. “Mmkay. Sounds good? Great job, good luck.” He drank.

“I would like to volunteer the two of you as some of those scouts.”

He nearly did a spit take. “What? Why?”

“The Galra’s forces are weakened, split in two, and there are multiple paths to the outside world, many completely hidden unless you know what to look for. Kolivan knows the land. It will take little for the two of you to use one of those many routes to reach…Narquod, was it?”

Lance opened his mouth to reply. His expression was loud and bemused.

Kolivan’s cool tone cut in first: “You forget the other half of the Galra. Men under the instruction of Sendak. You mean to walk Lance straight into danger.”

“I mean to grant him the choice he was not offered by his pack,” she said smilingly.

Kolivan recoiled.

“Dire times are upon us. If Ulaz’ intel stands to be true, and any of your friends are omega, they risk being thrown over shoulders and shipped off the Garrison like tributes to some malevolent god.”

She’s scaring him, Kolivan realized. He placed his hand over Lance’s fist. But had Lance been that obvious this morning? Was it that obvious that he was a little less than ecstatic to be here? He said, “What do you have to gain by Lance leaving the city?”

Lance snapped, “Kolivan!”

“Are you not curious? There is no free lunch, Lance.”

With growing anger, “We have parables where I’m from too—don’t look a gifted horse in the mouth!”

He held his fist tighter. “At the very least a journey of such stakes warrants a comprehensive discussion.”

“Yeah, like we discussed it among the four of us the first time,” Lance yanked away. “Luxia, I’ll take you up on that offer.”

Kolivan startled. His heart dropped. “Lance, it’s—”

Lance stood and bared down on him. “If I wanted to live obeying the orders from people who want to do what’s best for me I would be at home and pregnant with my sixth baby.”

Kolivan winced.

“I’m going. I’m not asking permission.”

Kolivan pressed his lips together. When he looked past Lance’s shoulder, Lady Luxia’s smile remained unchanged.

-

Sendak asked—

-

“You’re leaving?”

Keith sent Shiro an exasperated look. He dwarfed the bathroom doorframe but looked more like a wounded puppy than ever. All that was left was for him to be shivering and pouting and whining. Keith had seen the man in rut: he wasn’t above it.

“Of course not,” Keith replied as he stole a toothbrush. “But I’ve never seen Lance so mad. He’ll probably stay with Kolivan until he cools off, I’m just gathering stuff I think he’ll need.”

Shiro folded his arms. He wanted to ask if that was the cover story for a long and gradual disbanding of their pack. His gums itched and his inner self wailed, heartbroken. He whispered, “You’re mad too.”

Keith opened a cabinet and rediscovered their strap on. After a moment’s peruse, he grabbed it. He shrugged. “I mean. Things could have gone better, yeah.”

Shiro stepped aside as Keith stormed forward. He went up the stairs and ignored Shiro shadowing him. Shiro sat on the edge of the bed and watched Keith go through the closet. His heart tore a little at each article of clothing that he emptied from it. He was scared that when it was all over there would be nothing in the house that smelled of either of them. He clasped his hands between his knees. “I didn’t mean to,” he said quieter than before.

He didn’t think Keith heard him. Keith stopped throwing things in a makeshift duffle. “I know.”

“Will you eventually leave too?”

“Like I said this isn’t permanent.” He resumed packing.

“But,” and Shiro swallowed around his itching throat, “if Lance is leaving, you’ll leave too.”

Keith’s movements slowed.

“Am I right?”

Keith stared at him cattishly.

“You would have no other reason to stay.”

Keith stared at him.

Please say something.”

“Do you want me to say that you’re right? Is that what you want to hear?”

The perverted side of Shiro that was begging for punishment said yes. He wanted to atone in the best way to appease his friends. He felt sick with grief and hunger, a hunger that came from knowing that his flank and his nest were empty and cold because he wasn’t the providing, nurturing alpha that his friends, his omega needed him to be. He failed. His inner self was going haywire. He didn’t know how to respond.

“I…I think,” he struggled. He struggled again when Keith sat beside him. He didn’t deserve to have him within reach. He flexed his hands. “I think that, although we are friends, Lance is more important to you.”

Keith frowned in thought. Shiro wasn’t one to struggle with words but discussing feelings and relationships seemed to take a physical toll on him. Keith suppressed his burst of impatience as he said, “We’ve already talked about this.”

“I don’t think that I’m the necessary evil in this relationship, but I don’t think I’m necessary for this relationship. I don’t think I get between the two of you, but I know that if you go it will hurt me more than it hurts you.”

“You talk like I don’t care about you.”

“You care about Lance more.”

“I’ve known Lance longer,” Keith corrected. “I invested in him more, and for longer. Our relationship will be deeper—Shiro, I’ve known him for half a year! How long have I known you?”

That didn’t placate him.

“That doesn’t mean I don’t want to invest in you. That doesn’t mean I don’t care.”

“But you’re leaving,” Shiro senselessly whined. “You’re leaving for his sake rather than staying for mine.”

Keith recoiled.

He had never known Shiro to ask for anything. Shiro was the manifestation of selflessness. It was the basis upon which they met, it was the basis upon which Keith had cultivated doubts that Shiro would be a healthy addition to their company. That Shiro had the urge—no, the ability to be selfish was so fascinating that Keith forgot to be angry that Shiro was practically asking Keith to choose between him or Lance.

Keith tilted his head and wondered aloud, “What do I mean to you?”

Shiro met his eyes sharply. They were bloodshot. He hadn’t been crying, he was still trying to keep himself together. He still had duties to Olkarion today. He looked so tired. Shiro looked away just as quickly. He pinked in humiliation. “I didn’t mean to say that.”

“But you did, so let’s talk about it.”

Shiro glared at the far away wall. His pink lips pulled into a tight line.

Keith risked a touch to his shoulder. “Answer me?”

“This isn’t about me. I shouldn’t have said that. Lance is…Lance needs you.” He looked like he wanted to say something else, but his mouth only opened and closed.

Keith pinched his arm.

Shiro flinched and looked at him in such horror that Keith scoffed out a laugh. “Fuck you, alpha. I told you you had this toxic sense of selflessness before, right? You’re not above help. Why do I need to keep reminding you about this?”

Shiro frowned, still a little outraged but mostly confused.

“Takashi, let me help you.”

“I’m not the one who got yelled at.”

“Yeah, and Lance isn’t the only victim. He shouted at that other woman too. Stupid.” He huffed. “But let’s forget about him for a minute.”

Shiro frowned.

“I am not here because Lance fell in love with you.”

Shiro twiddled his thumbs.

“Not only, at least. I’m here because you’re a good man. I trust you to look out for the most important person in my life. I still trust you with that. And that’s a big thing for me, okay? I trusted Lance quickly because we have the same enemies. I trust you because of who you are. And while I’m mad at you for what you did today your actions today aren’t who you are. And I get the feeling there’s something deeper there that explains why you behaved that way.”

Shiro looked away sharply.

“Thought so.”

“It’s…complicated.” He flexed his prosthetic. “I don’t have the…the language to explain myself properly, right now.”

Keith shrugged and pulled his legs up onto the bed. “It’s just as well, I guess. We’ll need to talk about it together, all three of us.”

Shiro’s eyes closed in exhaustion and resignation.

“For a man who practically runs a city you’re really bad at managing yourself.”

“I never needed to before.”

The stroke of honesty jumped out at Keith. “What?”

Shiro’s eyes flickered to Keith and away, as if he didn’t want to say anything. “No one’s ever needed this level of introspection of me before.”

“You remind me of the pups I’ve met who didn’t know how to clean a house.”

“What?’

“You just sweep all the dust under the carpet.”

Shiro made a face. “Ew.”

“Exactly. Ew. That’s what your brain looks like right now. Years and years of shit swept under a carpet.”

Shiro stared at him in disgust.

“The face you’re making at me right now? That’s how I feel.”

“That’s why you were wary about letting me near Lance.” He sighed. “And I was so mad at the time but you were right.”

“No, no,” and he pinched Shiro again and Shiro actually yelped this time. “I didn’t want to let you near Lance because I thought you’d self-combust into an emotional puddle and drag Lance down with you, exhausting him in trying to put you together over and over again.”

Shiro’s eyes flickered. “Is…is that not what’s happening now?”

“No.” Keith smiled. “Because you’re talking. You’re trying. And I’m really proud of you.”

Shiro turned away and sniffed and glared at the wall. “I hate you.”

“Huh!?”

“One minute you’re making me laugh, the next you’re making me cry.”

“That has nothing to do with me: you have the emotional intelligence of a four year old it’s no surprise you’d have tantrums like one!”

Two tears fell and Shiro laughed around them.

Keith rubbed his back.

“You’re good at this.”

“Not that good,” Keith murmured. Before Shiro could ask for clarification Keith said: “And you never answered me.”

“About what?”

“What do I mean to you?”

Shiro stared at him. He clasped his hands together. “Uhm.”

“Yikes. That’s promising.”

“Give me a minute!” Shiro hissed.

Keith sighed.

“When I first met you at the cabin,” Shiro spoke slowly and Keith was careful not the interrupt, “there was a time I went through this period where I was sure you were going to kill me and I was so disturbed by how okay I was with that.” Keith didn’t burst out laughing like Shiro expected him to. He said quickly: “It’s a joke. It’s a-a kinky sort of joke. I’m implying—”

“I know,” Keith said softly. “Keep going.”

Shiro swallowed at his pensive tone. He kept going. “I um, I found it weird how much I wanted to impress you. I wanted you to like me. I wanted to get along. And I still feel that way. You’re intimidating and I want you to notice me.”

“Takashi you’re thrice my size.”

“I’m not that big.”

Keith looked unimpressed.

Shiro went on anyway, “It’s the way you talk, how resolute and firmly yourself you are. Your confidence, your self-assuredness: you know who you are and no-one can take that from you. Some people go all their lives trying to find themselves but you seem to have it all figured out.”

Keith blinked and blushed. “Flattering,” he accused. “I have shit worked out, thank you very much.”

“Well, you’re leagues and miles ahead of me.” He chuckled. He paused. He frowned. “I look up to you. And I wanted to impress you so much, wanted to get in your good graces so much, that I couldn’t imagine being in an intimate relationship with you. I couldn’t imagine desiring you in that way. I just wanted so badly to be noticed, and to be your friend.”

Keith wasn’t sure he was flattered anymore.

“And then you held my hand and checked all the windows with me.”

Keith jolted. “That was the turning point for you?”

He smiled in thought. “It was the first time you were really caring with me.”

“I healed you for two weeks!”

“I got the feeling Lance would bully you if you didn’t.”

Keith clicked his tongue. Shiro was astute.

“You didn’t ask questions,” Shiro dreamed. “You just walked me through it.” He had felt so accepted, so whole, even despite his fracturing reality.

“You realize this was last night, right?”

“I remember it like it was yesterday…”

Keith pinched him.

“Ow.”

“So you only fell in love with me last night, is that what you’re saying?”

He said it blasé, but Shiro heard the stutter and saw his blush and the eyes that didn’t meet his, instead seemed to be fixed on a spot just below the scar that divided his face.

“No,” and he lifted his hand. Keith stared in surprise but did not move away. He let Shiro cup his cheek, let Shiro’s thumb trace his numb scar. “I’m not in love with you yet but I’d really like you to give me the chance to try, please.”

Keith’s nose wrinkled and his colour deepened. “That was fucking smooth.”

Shiro grinned. “I try.”

“Smartass,” and Keith jerked forward and kissed him.

Shiro caught him. He was surprised but his body knew how to wrap Keith up in his arms and his eyes stayed closed. When Keith tilted his head and crawled into his lap Shiro held him, and they both sighed when they settled into a comfortable position and rhythm. They fit.

They fit: Keith’s arms sliding over Shiro’s shoulders, his seat in the hollow of Shiro’s lap, Shiro’s hands bracing him up and smiling up up into their mouths, all of it came with a rush of calm and comfort. Shiro felt his anxiety ebbing away. The worst of it was behind them. Keith felt his awkwardness melt away. He had felt unsure around Shiro in congruence with how sure he felt beside Lance. But now?

Now they kept their hug loose and their kisses languid and unskilled. Keith sighed often, and cupped the short hair of Shiro’s nape, and Shiro broke away messily. A string of saliva connected them for the heartbeat it took them to recover.

Anticipating rejection Keith went a little wide-eyed. “Shiro?”

“I’m sorry I just—I didn’t lie but, aren’t we moving too quickly?”

Keith smiled selfishly. “You’re getting hard aren’t you.”

Shiro grumbled, “Can you blame me?”

Keith smiled, his teeth plentiful and shiny. He saw Shiro’s eyes dart to them in interest, saw his Adam’s apple bob.

He also saw Shiro avert his eyes.

Keith sighed. “I never asked you to love me.”

Shiro snapped to him. “I know that.”

“When I said you were my alpha I meant that, but I didn’t mean like this. You’re my alpha whether this,” and he gestured between them, “exists or not.”

“I know.”

“We’re pack, and I’m happy with that. It’s more than I ever thought I’d get from this crummy planet. I don’t want you to feel obligated to want me.”

Shiro cupped his cheek again. “I don’t.” His eyes flickered between Keith’s eyes and his mouth. “I don’t feel obligated. I want to be the man you can trust.”

“I trust you.”

“And I don’t think I deserve it yet. But I want to try so hard to be worthy of you.”

“You are a fantastic human being, Shiro. Don’t be hard on yourself.”

Shiro kissed him. “Thank you.”

Keith whined. Shiro felt good. He smelled good. Some part of him was incredulous that he was here with an alpha. An alpha. Of his own volition. He wanted to stay. He whimpered, then pulled himself out of their embrace. “I have to go.”

Shiro’s voice cracked, “I know.”

“I’ll be back.”

“I know.”

Keith grabbed the duffel and stood at the top of the stairs. “Uhm. And Lance will come around. So don’t beat yourself up, or else I’ll beat you up.”

Shiro chuckled. “Okay.”

Keith exhaled. He watched Shiro, lonely and slouching on the bed. He returned to Shiro’s side with something in hand.

“What—”

Keith thrust black fabric in his hand and practically ran away.

Shiro sat on the bed with his hands fisted in his own shirt. Bemused and lonely, he threw himself back and then, for no true reason at all, lifted the shirt up his chest. He sniffed. He sniffed.

It smelled of a bonfire on a beach.

-

Sendak—

-

Lance turned the permit over in his hands. He was to leave first thing in the morning. Kolivan occasionally glanced at it as though he were in half a mind to throw it over the bridge.

Lance pulled his hood over his ears. “Does it ever stop raining in this place?”

“Luxia is using you.”

“And rain is wet.”

Kolivan glared sharply. “You are aware?”

“The woman wasn’t exactly subtle.”

“And yet you still leave Olkarion.”

“I want to leave Olkarion. She can get me out of Olkarion. Win-win.”

“At what cost?”

Lance tucked his permit in his pocket. “What cost?”

“There is no such thing as a free lunch: if she grants you this favor for nothing in return, then she gains something out of it. Do you not find that reason enough to be wary?”

“I don’t care.”

“Self-imposed ignorance is ignorance in itself.”

“No-one is dragging you to come with me!”

“I will come with you, Lance, because I love you, even when you are at your most stupid.”

Lance smiled in a cruel, self-loathing sort of way. He seemed prepared to say something scathing, but he never said it. The silence between them was filled with the depressed clop of donkey carts and discordant drum of raindrops on parasols. Lance kept rubbing his thumb over the permit in his coat pocket. And then they saw Keith.

Keith sat, soaked and curled, on the doorstep of Kolivan’s nondescript townhouse. Kolivan’s home was one two-story prism among several that formed a block, at the center of which was a shared garden isolated from the smells and sounds of the road. The front doors of these homes spilled directly onto the surrounding streets, such that Keith was barely sheltered where he shivered on the stoop.

Lance darted to his side. “Keith! What’s going on why are you sitting in the rain like this?”

Keith started. “You’re back,” he croaked. And glanced at Kolivan over Lance’s shoulder.

“What are you doing here? Where’s Shiro, why aren’t you with him? Did he do something to you?”

“Nothing, no, nothing. Stop,” and he bat Lance’s hands away from his neck. He stood. He winced from stiff limbs. “Stop, Lance. I wanted to talk to you.”

Lance drew himself up. His hands fell. “About what?”

Keith’s eyes flickered. He hunched a little.

A little less defensive, “Baby? What’s the matter?”

Kolivan in that time had opened the door. He beckoned them in with a wave. The rooms were small here. Kolivan’s home could fit in Shiro’s twice. But he’s spent his twilight years living out of a cramped cave, Lance thought this something of a luxurious advancement.

The walls were cool as stone, the stairs and floors bamboo tile. Downstairs was a wide space that acted as living room, kitchen and workstation with a view of the isolated garden if he chose to open the screen doors. Upstairs was the bed and bath.

Keith jerked.

Lance, who held his hand, looked at him in alarm. “What?”

“Isn’t that one of yours?”

“What? Oh,” Keith was referring to a knitted blanket hanging off the stair railing. “Yes.”

“Lance’s blankets are warm,” Kolivan began, returning from the open kitchen. “I always make it a habit to have at least one in my travel satchel.”

“At least one? How many do you have?”

Kolivan smiled a little. “A few. Here.”

“Thank you, Kolivan.”

“Is this the anti-heat muck?”

“No,” Kolivan smiled at Lance, “but I can brew some for you especially.”

“Very funny.” Lance drank.

“I will get going. I assume the two of you have much to discuss.”

Keith reached up, “Kolivan, wait, the last thing I wanted was to kick you out of your own home.”

“It is not that: I need to gather more things for our trip tomorrow.”

“Trip? What trip?”

Kolivan glanced at Lance, who glared back. Kolivan smiled humorlessly and left. As he door closed and the sound and smell of rain was dampened again he rounded on Lance. “What trip?”

“Kolivan wasn’t supposed to say that.”

“Is he leaving?”

“He was chosen as one of the scouts for the recon mission.”

“What recon mission?”

“You didn’t hear?” Lance frowned. “I thought Takashi would have told you: Olkarion’s on lock down. No-one in or out without permission.”

“Makes sense, I guess. We wouldn’t want anyone accidentally leading Ranveig back to…” Keith saw something twitch in Lance’s being. His shoulders sunk. “You’re going with him.”

“Keith—”

“Aren’t you?”

No. No—I mean, not forever. Just for a little while.”

“Were you even going to tell us?”

“Of course I was!”

“What, tomorrow morning? Five minutes before you go? You wouldn’t even give us the courtesy of talking about your decision?”

Lance rose his voice: “Like you talked about ‘our decision’ when we left the veld?!”

Surprised by his tone: “You were outvoted!”

I was unconscious!”

“Even if you were awake—”

“So my feelings didn’t matter? What, you’d put this to a vote too and all three of you will say I have to stay and I just have to obey you?”

“Of course not!”

“I don’t need all of you telling me what to do for the greater good!”

“That isn’t what this is! No-one’s trying to control you!”

“Right, and Shiro didn’t command me today!”

“Like you didn’t use your Voice unfairly either!”

“At least I had the courtesy of going to her and apologizing to her face unlike Takashi who resorts to messenger boys to tell me what to do like I’m some misbehaving child!”

Keith recoiled, “Because you are such a paragon of maturity!”

Lance’s lip curled back. “You—!”

Keith thrust out his hand. “Wait.”

“Wh—?” Lance tripped over his tongue. “Are we seriously doing this right now?”

Keith rubbed his forehead. “Just stop for a second. I didn’t come here to fight with you.”

Lance felt his temper lay flat like the coat of a raven that wasn’t cold anymore. With his anger shelved he noticed Keith’s hand was burnt and trembling. He sighed and scavenged through Kolivan’s cabinets. He returned stirring a cup of baking soda and water. “Give me your hand.”

Keith looked up, distracted by pain and thought. “What?”

Lance took it, quickly and gingerly, and began coating the paste on red skin.

“Ah. Ah! That hurts!”

“It’ll suck the worst of the heat out of it. It only hurts because of the temperature difference.” Lance kept his eyes on his work. Even when rubbing Keith’s inflamed skin was unnecessary, he kept rubbing.

Keith, gradually, relaxed beneath his touch. He felt soft and vulnerable suddenly. He pinched his nose with his other hand.

Lance murmured, “Keith, why are you here?”

Keith gathered his thoughts.

“Also, sit closer to the fire. You’re shaking.”

“I’m not cold.”

Lance stared.

“I’m not cold, Lance.”

Lance stared.

Keith sat closer to the fire. Lance’s hands rubbed Keith’s in an unspoken peace treaty. Keith admitted: “I came here…because…I wanted to talk to you.”

“Mmhm? What about?”

“Um. It’s about Sendak.”

Lance paused. “Oh. Okay?”

“Do you remember when you said I was in love with him?”

“Kinda hard to forget.”

“Well, uh. I don’t think that’s true.”

Lance scooped more white sludge on Keith’s hand and rubbed. He let his voice stay cool. “Why?”

“Because his voice,” Keith tilted his head to find the words, “his voice sounded like Shiro’s Voice.”

“What?”

“His Alpha Voice. That’s what Sendak’s voice sounded like all the time. All the time.”

Lance straightened. “What?”

“He only ever speaks in Voice. Or, at least,” Keith pulled a knee to his chest, “he only ever spoke in Voice around me. Around omega. I’ve been…thinking, sometimes, memories come back but they come back in bits in pieces in a weird way like I’m still twenty-odd but I’m myself now and it’s like looking at things with glasses where one lens is blue and the other is pink,” Keith squeezed his eyes shut. “Some…of the memories…don’t seem right. They’re…the way I think of them, now, they’re very disturbing. Which is disturbing in itself because I thought they were pretty okay memories, you know? Not exactly great, but good. Okay.”

Lance scooped more baking soda on his hand. He prompted softly, “But now?”

“Now…now they’re all wrong. It’s like I’m watching someone get abused and then realize its me.”

“But you already knew that.”

“Yes but…I didn’t know it was like this. I didn’t know that Sendak was using Voice. It never hurt. I didn’t recognize it.”

Lance pursed his lips. “That,” he began jerkily, “happened to me too.”

“I know, when Shiro—”

“Before that. Shiro used Voice on me earlier and I liked it. It didn’t hurt.”

Keith stared.

“But I didn’t feel manipulated. At the time, what he wanted me to do, I was happy to do. I would have done it even if he hadn’t used Voice. So…I dunno. Maybe it’s a bit too soon to rule out that at the time you really did love Sendak.” He added playfully: “Suspect as that is.”

Keith glared and grinned and smacked Lance’s side with the heel of his foot. “Ass.”

“Ow.”

Keith reflected. He watched Lance’s useless toiling over his hand. It still hurt, like a flame was trapped right beneath his skin. “Lance.”

“Yeah, baby?”

“Why did you use your Voice on that woman?”

Lance huffed. “She pissed me off. She talked like people were expendable, like Olkarion was such a great place that it can afford to let other people die.”

“You shouted at her out of anger.”

“Well, yeah.”

Keith stared at the fire.

Lance watched him think. Watched him parse through one thousand memories and then one more.

“Lance.”

“Mm?”

“What’s your last name?”

“What?” Lance straightened, “What does that have to do with anything?”

“I just realized it. I don’t know.” He stared at him. “I don’t know a lot about you.”

Lance flinched. Keith stared at him, steady and cool, even tempered, his dark dark eyes curious and kind and intelligent. Lance’s mouth worked before he whispered, “My family name is Serrano.”

“Serrano. Your name is Leandro Serrano.”

Lance’s head jerked up. “You remember my name?”

“Of course I remembered your name,” Keith growled with a tinge of humor. “Why, you’d prefer me to forget it?”

Lance shrugged. “You never really call me Leandro so…”

“Yes, because you introduced yourself to me as Lance. I thought that’s what you preferred.”

“It is. Yeah. Does your hand feel any better?”

“Not really, no.”

“Okay, I’ll get the knife. We’ll have to cut it out.”

“Wait wait,” and he grabbed Lance when he made to stand. Lance was already on one knee so having a body knock into his belly both winded him and crashed him to the ground. He laughed and felt his belly flex beneath Keith’s embrace.

“I was kidding!”

“Fuck you.” Their humor ebbed when Keith whimpered into Lance’s shirt, “Don’t leave.”

Lance sighed. “I can’t leave them out there.”

“Then let me come with you.”

“No.”

“Why?”

“Because I need you to do something for me here.”

“What?” Keith looked up. “What.”

Lance looked down and let himself blush and smile. Keith was cute today. As Lance raked his fingers through a mane of hair fluffy now that it was dry, Keith’s eyes narrowed into cattish slits and he pouted. Lance murmured, “I need you to take care of Takashi for me.”

Keith’s eyes widened a little.

“He’s shit at taking care of himself and if what Kolivan says is true then he needs someone in his corner.”

Keith straightened a little, a look of responsibility crossing over his face cancelled out by him clinging to Lance like a babe to its mother. “What did Kolivan say?”

“He says there’s some sorta politicking going on. The woman I yelled at who gave us permission to leave Olkarion is in on it, he thinks, because she gets something out of me leaving. The only way I can see me leaving would affect anything is that it’ll bug Shiro.”

“More than just bug him,” Keith whispered. “He’s broken up over what he did. If you leave, it could mess him up even more.”

“If he’s that broken up why hasn’t he talked to me yet?” He grumbled. “Why did he send Bandor? And you?”

“He didn’t send me. Who’s Bandor?”

“The messenger boy we met this morning. He told me that Shiro told him to tell me that Luxia wanted to see me. He didn’t say anything along the lines of I’m sorry or meet me here later or anything. Nothing.”

Keith thought for a moment. He closed one of his eyes as Lance worked through a knot in his hair. “I think he’s trying to be considerate and give you space.”

“How kind of him.”

“I think it is. I think it’s really cool of him to step back and consider that you might not want to see the alpha that abused his authority on you in the same day to apologize. And also—not discounting how you feel—also I think he needs that space too. He didn’t mean to do it, y’know. I think it took him by surprise as much as it took us.”

Lance sighed. “So I’m the villain for not forgiving him.”

“It was an accident, Lance,” Keith said even softer. His hot breath pooled through Lance’s shirt. “Yes he owes you an apology, but he didn’t go out of his way to make you submit. He didn’t want you to submit.” Lance said nothing so Keith went on: “You think he’d be trusted taking care of omega to and from Garrison if he resorted to Voice every time he was panicked or angry or scared?”

“So what, you’re saying I’m a special case?”

“You’re trying to be sardonic but that’s exactly what I’m saying.”

Lance paused. Lance frowned at him thoughtfully.

“There’s something else going on here but I’m willing to bet that those instructions he gave us was for our protection. And when you violated those instructions he wasn’t angry, he was scared.”

“So by protecting me he shouted at me.”

“Fear isn’t rational.”

Lance lay down again. “I’m pretty sure the reason you came over here to talk was about Sendak and your unresolved feelings about him, not me and Shiro.”

“That too.”

Lance combed his fingers through the space behind his ears. “Are you alright, baby?”

“Not really. It’s been bothering me for a while. It’ll bother me for a little while longer. I might want to talk about it again.”

“That’s fine. I’m here.”

“Except you won’t be. You’ll be gone. Ironically you’ll be closer to Sendak now.”

“All goes well,” Lance growled, “I’ll never lay eyes on him.”

“That doesn’t make me feel better.”

“So what, you want me to stay here and do nothing?!”

“I’m not trying to stop you.”

“Oh,” Lance whispered. “You’re not?”

“I just really really really don’t want you to go.”

Lance smiled and pulled at Keith’s shoulders. “Come up here.”

Keith shifted onto his knees and crawled up Lance’s body. When his hips were straddled and their chests pressed together, Lance cupped Keith’s face in his hands and brought him forward in a slow, wet, articulate kiss. So tender were his lips that the tension Keith didn’t knew he had bled out of his spine. He melted into Lance’s crevices.

Lance pulled back, his head resting against the floor. He took in Keith’s dazed expression with a fiendish pride. “Should I leave you something of mine then? So that you’re assured I’ll come back?”

Keith nodded.

“What should I give you?” his mind flew to Krolia’s dog tags still hot against his breast, but they were Shiro’s promise to him. He felt more than a little possessive over them.

“Your Mark.”

Lance smiled. Lance jerked awake. “What? What?”

Keith blushed and looked away. “Too soon?”

“Wait, no no, baby, look at me,” and he cupped his cheeks again, gentle as if he were holding water he didn’t want to spill. “Are you serious? Are you sure?”

Keith was so pink his eyes and lashes looked even blacker. His scar stood out like a mountain range against starlight, and his throat bobbed in a movement of odd sensuality. Lance flicked his thumb over Keith’s cheek as he nodded.

“No, tell me. Tell me. Say it.”

“I want your Mark, Lance.”

“Holy shit,” Lance laughed. “Okay. Fuck, okay. Okay. Um. D-do you want it to be mutual?”

Keith looked down again. He shook his head. “No.” But before Lance could be disappointed he said, “I’ll give you mine when you come back.”

Lance grinned. “Clever.”

“Shut up. Is this okay? Are we doing this?”

“Yeah. Okay. Um, Ancients I feel like an awkward virgin all over again!” He clapped his hands over his eyes.

“You talk like you’ve never given a Mark before.”

“I mean, no one’s ever asked me to Mark them before. That’s different. You’re…you’re agreeing to give up a part of you to me. That’s huge!”

Keith shrugged, “I already have, Lance.”

Lance shaped out several words in silent shock. Then he grinned, “Why Keith,” and Keith already hated his tone, “are you saying you’re in love with me?”

“Unfortunately.”

Lance hiccupped with laughter, but the awe was bright in his eyes. He grabbed Keith less tenderly and kissed him messily and Keith smacked at his shoulders egging him to let go. When he didn’t, he limply resigned to his fate and threw his leg over Lance’s hip.

Lance held him by the back of his neck and his ass. It was uncomfortable to writhe on the unforgiving ground, but it was easy to tune out when Keith’s earnest tongue rhythmically lapped against Lance’s lower lip and the tip of his tongue in long, slow drawls.

Mmf,” Lance complained, begged, squeezing Keith’s body and pulling him tighter to rock against his groin. “Gosh I’m kinda sorry we don’t have the strap. Can I finger you, baby?”

“Yes,” Keith whimpered. “We do have it though.”

“Mm?” Kiss. Kiss. “Have what?”

“The strap.”

“What?”

“It’s over there.”

What? Did you come over here anticipating we would fuck?”

“No,” Keith answered honestly. “I thought you’d be staying with Kolivan for a while and maybe you’d have more use for it than I would, given that Shiro’s built in.”

Lance blinked. He drew back a little a squinted. “Wait. You and Shiro?”

Keith nodded.

Lance arched a brow. “For real?”

Keith blushed and nodded. “You’re worrying me. Is…should I not—”

“No! No, no, uh, congrats, I guess?”

“Shut up.”

“Ooooh, don’t pinch me you’re turning me on.”

“Ew!”

Lance nuzzled his throat. “I knew you guys were comfortable enough to kiss but I didn’t know you were having sex already. I didn’t smell him on you that much.”

“We haven’t, we didn’t. We just…talking. Talked about it.”

“Here’s to the happy couple,” and Lance kissed him. “May you have copious amounts of sex in my absence!”

“Ew. Is this what you meant when you said I had to take care of Takashi?”

“No, you have to remind him to eat.”

He doesn’t eat??”

“But now that you mention it,” he ignored Keith trying to circle back to Shiro’s eating habits, “if you want to and if he’s into it, peg him for me?”

Keith stared for a moment. “I’ll peg him in front of you when you get back.”

“Fuck, now I really don’t want to go.”

“If I knew this would work I would have started with the dirty talk.”

“Keith?”

“Hm?”

“Make love to me? Please?”

It sounded off aloud. Lance’s red complexion proved it. There was also something melancholy in his request, as though this were the start of a drawn out goodbye.

Keith nodded and folded himself off the ground. He retrieved his coat from where Lance had tossed it and lay it carefully on the ground two arm’s lengths from the hearth. “Take off your clothes and lie down?”

Lance smiled a little, kissed him chastely in gratitude, and untucked his shirt.

Keith took his time retrieving his duffle and scouring Kolivan’s kitchen for oil. His heart thundered. Kolivan could be back at any moment—he had a nauseous case of déjà vu. As he carefully washed the strap and slipped it on, a new sense of urgency made him want to rush to Lance’s side. Instead he walked slowly, and anxiety turned into excitement. Lance wanted him. Lance wanted him. Lance wanted him so badly they didn’t even question that they were about to fuck on the floor in the home of another man he was hopelessly in love with.

He turned and Lance lay silhouetted by the fire: gentle, long strokes made up his limbs and hips and shoulders. He seemed distracted, boney fingers toiling over some kink in the coat. Because he was focused, his sharp facial features cut an impressive figure. Then he looked up and it melted away a little.

Keith walked forward, kneeled and kissed him. “Hands and knees, please.”

“What, no foreplay?”

Keith pinched him. “Shut up and trust me.”

Lance went to his hands and knees. He watched Keith move out of his peripheral vision. He shivered at the kiss on his inner thigh right beside his scent gland. He felt Keith’s nose harassing the same thigh, and it was then that he realized Keith was on his back, mouth aligned for his sex.

Keith asked, “Grind on my face, please?”

Lance shivered. So polite. He widened his legs, leaned back and little and lowered himself slowly. He jerked at the negligible touch of tongue against his lips. Keith’s hands shot out to steady him and he yelped. He yelped again at the hot hot hot pressure against his crease and clit. Lance pressed his forehead into the lumps of Keith’s hood, high on his scent, and keened loudly.

Keith yanked Lance’s body down on him.

“Keith!” He didn’t want to hurt him. But the earnest suction that came as a reply seemed to imply he was far from hurt. Lance twisted, instantly overstimulated, rapidly insatiable, whining against the sparks of pain between the pools of warm pleasure and fighting whether to stay or go.

Keith meanwhile felt his toes curl. Lance smelled fantastic. He smelled sunburnt and aroused, supple and his, and he was so proud that it was Keith’s tongue and Keith’s words that leant Lance the strength to offer a piece of himself to Keith like this.

He spread his tongue wide and laved it up up, flicking the tip just over clitoris. Lance squealed. Keith smoothly licked one side of it, then the other, then repeated himself, slowly hinting two fingers at his slick entrance without penetrating. He moved his head with his motions and smelled his hair tickle Lance’s scent glands. He was drowning in Lance’s smell. He felt his toes curl into the floorboards.

“Keith, finger me, please,” Lance whispered desperately.

Keith let his middle finger touch his entrance, prodding insistently, and Lance groaned.

“Keith, please.”

Keith shook his head and Lance’s thighs quivered, closing around his head a little bit. Keith hummed happily. He jerked his two fingers with more intent, and was delighted when Lance rocked his body against Keith’s face anticipating something.

Then Keith tapped out.

Lance swung his leg off. “You good?”

“Mhmm,” Keith grinned at him upside down. “You taste amazing.”

Lance tensed up, hot red.

“On your back now?” Keith prodded, transferring to hands and knees. He yanked Lance in place. “Sorry. Is this okay?”

Lance, in love, nodded mutely.

Keith leaned over him to kiss him. Lance moaned into it, felt the cold strap against his belly. Tasted himself—slimy and salty and watery—on Keith’s mouth. Keith’s mouth descended to his neck, his fingers played with Lance’s clit.

“Mmm!” Lance’s back arched. He gasped, “Keith, Keith, just like that oh please just like that—”

Keith maintained the pace and sucked shapes and marks into Lance’s throat. He cataloged each hitch of breath, each uncontrolled spasm, and then he withdrew his hands and kissed each pec.

Now Lance groaned in a mix of relief and frustration. He was still high strung, because Keith’s fingers had taken to the task of teasing his hole again. He reared up and grinned triumphantly.

Lance made to kick at him and Keith ducked with a laugh. “Wipe that smirk off your face.”

“Kinda hard to do being as I’m the happiest guy in the world right now.”

Lance went pinker still. “Oh hush.”

“I’d like to penetrate you now, if that’s okay.”

“It’s been okay since the gods made Garrison please fuck me.”

Keith took his time reaching for the oil. “Touch yourself,” he said, and poured a little over Lance’s groin. His folds shimmered beautifully.

Lance obeyed. He bit his lip as he jerked himself off, his knees bent and high in the air. He held his head, watching Keith generously and slowly lube up his member, and Lance felt his hole burn in hunger. His moved to—

“Don’t finger yourself,” Keith said quickly.

Lance whined.

“I just want to see how you do it. Don’t cum. Don’t whine, I just want to see you do it. Please?”

Lance obliged, parting his legs further still. Keith held his knees aloft and let Lance cotch the heels of his feet against his shoulders. Keith wove his tongue between his rows of sharp teeth. Lance’s fingers moved at a brutal pace, pressing hard, and he was whimpering and gasping and bucking against them.

“Remember not to come,” Keith whispered, staring at Lance’s pink hole flex with awe.

Lance grit his teeth and paused at that.

“How about doing it a little slower, mm?”

Lance snarled a little, and Keith lit up. He looked savage, a beast just picked off the plains or a feral nymph from his pond feigning disobedience.

“Just a little,” and he lifted one of Lance’s feet and kissed the ankle. “Please?”

Lance settled and moved his fingers in slower, sensual rolls. Keith hummed in appreciation. Lance jerked when Keith put his fingers there again, pretending to finger him. He let out a delightful breathy hiss. He did it again when Keith pressed just a little deeper. He exchanged two fingers for three and Lance warbled beneath the burn and the satisfaction of finally finally having something plug him up.

Then Keith retreated and he complained.

“Come here,” Keith leaned over him. Lance wrapped his legs and arms around him and whimpered into Keith’s placating kisses. “Are you crying?”

Lance ducked his head and Keith kissed his wet lashes. “I wasn’t trying to be mean. You’re just very pretty. I just wanted to see.”

Lance nodded. He gasped as Keith oriented his dick to press in. The hard lump sent Lance rigid and earnest.

“May I fuck you now?”

Lance nodded.

Keith frowned. “Are you alright?” That Lance was non-verbal for a while now bothered him.

“Fine,” Lance croaked. “I’m fine. Please fuck me?”

His voice was thick with want and brokenness. Keith kissed him. He rolled his hips forward. Lance’s breathing picked up in his ear. He sucked on Lance’s throat. Lance squeezed him cooing yes yes yes yes yes and bit his lip, grabbing Keith’s ass and rocking him deeper, hurting himself a little, burning a little. “Ooooh…”

“Did I hurt you?”

“No. No. Move. Move.”

“Touch yourself.”

Lance snarled again.

“Slow. Like I like it.”

Lance whimpered. He slid his hand between their sweaty bodies, Keith eased up to grant him access, and when Lance’s brows pinched just so, Keith rolled his hips back and thrust forward in time.

Lance went cross eyed. His free hand covered his face.

“Hands behind my neck, Leandro,” Keith charmed.

Lance watched him mutinously and complied. He got a kiss for his willingness.

Lance panted in his mouth as Keith bucked into him and a moderate pace. “Stick out your tongue.” Keith ran his tongue up and down Lance’s just for the depravity of it and to keep Lance’s mouth open so that he could hear him ah ah ah AH ah ah—

How lovely this felt. For a moment, he felt like all he existed for was the joy of his best friend. He wanted to give him something. Something more than pleasure and felt woefully small. He ducked his head and kissed what sweaty skin he could reach.

“Bite me.”

Lance licked his shoulder right over his gland. Keith moaned. “I said bite me, Lance.”

“Are you sure, ba-baby?” Lance hiccupped.

Keith slowed his tempo. “Yes. Yes, more than anything.”

Lance’s hands slithered up Keith’s sides and shoulder blades to the back of his head. Keith was moving slower now, slow hard drags that made Lance squirm and ooze. “Mm, stop moving.”

Keith slid in to the hilt, jerked twice, and stopped.

Lance scratched at Keith’s hair. “Fuck you’re very good at that. Mmmmm you make me want your babies.”

Keith laughed in Lance’s collarbone. “Come on,” he jerked twice again, now less pleasurable more playful.

Lance kissed Keith’s gland, sucked on it. That bitter, slimy oil coated his tongue again. He nipped at the gland with his upper teeth. And when Keith did no more than hold Lance tighter, Lance sunk his teeth in.

Keith shouted then muffled the rest of it in Lance’s neck and the coat that now reeked of sex. He felt his eyes burn, and his shoulder ache and a flash of hot pain slid down his spine like a knife. He didn’t recognize he was biting Lance in turn until Lance murmured ow and he realized he was released and he’d put a very nasty wound in Lance’s shoulder directly beside Shiro’s fading Mark. There was something poetic about seeing the Mark of his alpha in his omega’s skin. He said reflexively, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright,” and Lance held Keith’s butt consolingly. “I didn’t mean to hurt you that badly. Sorry to make you cry.”

“Cry?” and he spluttered when Lance brushed his thumb over his eye.

“You got me back pretty good.”

“I just…have more teeth,” Keith said, dazed, disoriented. Lance’s wound looked shallower than Keith’s felt. “Mmf,” he said when Lance rolled him to lie beside him. He slipped out of Lance, but Lance quickly mounted him again. His expression was urgent. Keith relaxed, content that Lance was desperate to stay close as much as he.

“Can we stay like this for a little while?”

“I’m kinda scared Kolivan catches us,” Keith replied, his sensibilities still numb. He could vaguely feel his mind rewiring itself to accommodate his new mate.

Mmmm supposing Kolivan catches us? Maybe he’d be into it. Maybe he’d watch. Maybe he’d join, offer to fuck us both cuz we’re too out of it to do much else.”

“You’re into Kolivan, not me. Count me out.”

“Boo.”

“Lance…do you want to have sex with Kolivan?”

Lance did not reply immediately. Eventually he shook his head. “It would be nice, but it would be empty, I think, if we don’t talk about things first.”

Keith stroked Lance’s back. He purred when Lance licked his new wound, his new Mark.

“How do you feel, baby?”

“Floaty,” Keith replied. “Numb. Don’t leave me.”

“Wasn’t planning to.” He pressed a kiss to Keith’s cheek. “Those feelings will pass.”

“I know. I…” his eyes burned. “Am I crying again?”

“Yes,” and Lance patiently and calmly brushed them away. “Does anything hurt?”

“No. Just…overwhelmed? I think. I…I’m yours. I’m yours.”

Lance kissed his nose. “And you’re mine.”

Keith held him tightly.

-

In the morning, Keith was warm. He was clean but naked beneath Lance’s blanket. His strap was off and cleaned and politely deposited on clean clothes folded aside. A bandage was over his sore, aching shoulder, and a glass of water was within easy reach.

A grey morning funneled through the windows. Lance and Kolivan were gone.