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Behind the Clouds

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On the third anniversary of Allura’s death, the paladins gathered once again on Altea. Coran offered his traditional toast. Pidge talked about teludav development and her research group’s work on spreading new technologies to Earth and across the coalition. Huk waxed eloquent on food and diplomacy, and, of course, provided supper for the group. Shiro mostly smiled a lot, and when he did speak, not a single one of the companions failed to notice how often Curtis’s name slipped past his lips. Keith entertained the group with tales of space pirates, and the antics of his generals. And when Lance’s turn came, he talked about Allura and her mission, and Keith’s gaze on him was soft.

On the fourth anniversary of Allura’s death, the paladins opened the party to significant others for the first time. Coran once more offered his toast. Pidge brought the AI she was developing; who provided surprisingly pleasant counterpoint to all the gushing about her new transgalactic extranet - YouTube pending. Hunk had Shay’s help with supper this year, at least when she wasn’t busy with the baby, and he told more stories about diapers than diplomacy. Shiro and Curtis only had eyes for each other. Fresh from their honeymoon, they looked hale and tan, and held hands so that their matching rings touched as often as possible. Keith came alone, and with coaxing spoke briefly about ongoing missions and entrenched Galra splinter cells. His veiled references to black ops tactics drawing concerned glances from the assembled friends. And when Lance talked about Allura and her mission, Keith stared at him with tired eyes.

On the fifth anniversary of Allura’s death, the party had grown further still. Coran invited his new lover, an older Altean woman named Leytha, and rambled endlessly about his hiking excursions through the Altean countryside with her teenaged sons. Pidge, to general delight, brought a young Olkari named Elles, who she described as the father of her AI research. Hunk and Shay’s brood had expanded with the addition of a pair of twins. And Shiro and Curtis were accompanied by their new son -- a six-year-old named Oliver. Keith arrived late still dressed in his black marmora armor. He looked painfully thin, especially once he set aside the blue and white rank insignia that had been obscuring his frame, and he spoke little. When pressed, he would only say that he had been on an extended mission on a planet called Enlad. And when Lance’s turn came around, and he talked about  Allura and her mission, Keith’s shadowed eyes turned wounded, and he left the table.

On the sixth anniversary of Allura’s death, Keith didn’t come.

***

After supper is finished, while Pidge and Hunk entertain the collective with space kitten videos fresh from her new extranet, Shiro pulls Lance aside with a quiet, “I have something you need to see.”

Ushering Lance over towards the fountain, Shiro pulls his comm unit out of his pocket and queues a brief video for Lance before handing the device over. There, floating on the screen above his black-clad form, Keith’s drawn face looks almost corpse-pale, and the shadows under his eyes match his bodysuit alarmingly. If Lance had thought he’d looked thin the year before, now he looks like he’d been starving for months. He looks cadaverous. When he speaks his voice is somber and almost too quiet to hear. “Shiro, I’m not coming this year -- I’m not... well. I’m going away for… a while. Tell him I’m sorry…”

Lance looks up from the screen, surprised and no little unsettled. “And I’m the one you’re supposed to tell? Why is he apologizing to me? What’s wrong with him? Where did he go?”

Shiro’s eyes are sad. “I don’t know where he went, Lance. No one does. He’s not answering anybody -- even Krolia doesn't know where he’s gone.” He pauses for a beat. “Do you really not know why he wanted me to talk to you? To tell you ?”

“Of course I don’t. It’s Keith. I never really got him, you know? Does anybody?”

“Then I don’t really think it’s my place to say anything, except that… he cares for you. Deeply. And watching you subsume yourself so entirely into this mission of yours has been… hard on him.” Shiro takes a deep breath. “And, at least according to Krolia, other things have been awfully hard on him too. She wouldn’t give me any details on what happened, but I know he hasn’t been active with the blades for a while now. Krolia said he was discharged.” Shiro locks his eyes on Lance. “Medical reasons, she said. From how he looks in that message, I’d say something went very, very wrong on his last mission.”

“A while… How long ago did he send this message, Shiro? How long has he been missing?”

Shiro’s sigh is heavy and pained. “He sent the message six phoebs ago, Lance. Right about the time he was discharged. No one has seen him since.”

Anger rising, Lance can’t help but glare at his one-time idol. “And you waited until now to tell me? Have you told the others? Is anyone even looking for him?” Lance can’t help the rising edge in his voice. Sure, he’s angry that Shiro didn’t tell him sooner, but he’s far angrier that Keith is out there somewhere, alone, and there’s no one there to help him. Lance hasn't been there to help him. Isn’t there to help him. He’s been merrily living his life. Well, maybe not merrily, but he’s been going on about his business for months while he should have been finding Keith.

“I sent you three messages asking to meet.” Shiro replies quietly, with only a hint of fatherly reproach in his voice. “Your speaking schedule just couldn’t seem to accommodate it, and I felt like this was a discussion that we needed to have in person, not over the comm.” He puts a hand on Lance’s shoulder. Lance is tempted to shrug it off and wallow in his anger, but it’s Shiro, so he doesn’t. “Curtis and I have been looking for him -- searching transit records and reviewing flight manifests, that sort of thing. But we haven’t found any sign of him at all. Keith is highly trained -- a skilled and experienced operative. You know that the only way he left a trail is if he wanted to.”

Ay por Dios , Shiro, he sounds so… hurt? We have to find him. Help him.” Realizing that he still hasn’t even looked up from the comm, Lance wrenches his eyes away from the forlorn figure on the screen. “What about the others? Do they know? Maybe Pidge and her super AI brain can help.”

Pidge, apparently having heard her name, shifts away from the group currently entranced by space cat video number fifteen or so and latches onto Lance and Shiro. “Hey guys, what’s up?” she queries brightly.

After observing the body language of the two men for half a tick, she continues in a more serious voice. “What’s the matter?”

Lance grimaces and hands her the comm unit; and as Keith’s message replays, her eyes widen behind her specs.

...going away… a while… sorry…

Pidge’s widened eyes flick up to meet Lance’s. “Well shit.” she says with some force.

Shiro flinches a bit, but restrains his obvious urge to correct her linguistic selections -- presumably due to her increasingly apparent adulthood.

Still staring hard at Lance, Pidge licks her lips and continues, “Do we know where he is? Lance, are you going to go after him?”

Lance blinks. Then he blinks again. “Wait, wha… um. Why me? I mean. Yes? Or, maybe, it would be better if Shiro went instead. Except he’s got Curtis and Ollie now. Um. Yes. I could go… should I go?”

Pidge rolls her eyes. “Oh God, Lance. Pull yourself together. Yes, you should go. You’re the one that Keith wants to see, after all.”

Lance blinks, you know, more, while Shiro shifts uncomfortably. “Pidge,” Shiro starts, “I don’t really think that we should meddle.”

Pidge’s eye-rolling continues unabated. “Quiznack, Shiro. Shut up. We’ve spent years merrily ignoring our now missing Lord-Noble-Suffering and Lady-Completely-Oblivious over here. For the sake of universal peace, accord, and contentment, it’s well past time to meddle.” She turns decisively back to Lance, reaches all the way up to his face, and flicks him in the middle of the forehead. Hard. “Keith is in love with you, you utter doorknob.”

Lance gawks.

Shiro sighs.

“What do you mean he’s in love with me? He can’t be in love with me. He hated me. We were rivals. Sort of. Well, and then we were friends, I guess… but then he left. And when he came back I was with Allura, and, we… oh. Quiznack!”

Lance looks heartbroken. “Pidge, are you trying to tell me-”

“Yes.”

“No. Wait. I mean… all this time?”

“Yes.”

“You can’t be serious. Why didn’t he ever say anything?”

Pidge arches an eyebrow, “You mean while you were dating Allura? Or while you were mourning her death?”

Ay por Dios .”

Pidge slaps the flat of her palm against her forehead. “Are you trying to tell us that you never mmph -” Pidge’s diatribe is brought to a relatively abrupt halt as Shiro finally bestirs himself and claps a hand over her mouthy little mouth.

“Pidge, why don’t you go show the message to Hunk and Coran. Maybe the three of you can brainstorm some ways to help locate my errant little brother.”

Pidge eyeballs Shiro for a moment, his hand still firmly over her mouth, but appears to notice Lance unspooling rather abruptly in front of them. She reaches out and pats Lance’s hand, causing Shiro to remove his own. “Take care of Lance, team dad,” is all she says before darting off with Shiro’s comm clutched in her hand.

Shiro nods and wraps an arm around Lance’s shoulders and guides him over to the lip of the fountain where he sits the both of them down. He waits - substantially more patiently than Pidge would have - for Lance to get some sort of grasp on the whirlwind in his thoughts.

Lance shudders and writhes his hands together in his lap for a few ticks before turning glassy eyes to Shiro. “I’m so sorry, Shiro.”

His seatmate frowns slightly. “Why are you apologizing to me, Lance?”

“I don’t know. He’s your brother and I hurt him. I mean, I must have.” He takes a shaky breath. “No wonder everyone always thought I was the dumb one -- I obviously am. Looking back, how could I not have realized how he felt? How did I miss this for so long? It must have hurt him so badly. I… I just ignored him. Used him when I needed him and then fucked right off to do my own stupid thing.” Lance pauses for a ragged breath or two, his eyes searching. “Why didn’t he just tell me?”

“Lance, it’s okay. You don’t need to apologize to me about it. Keith has never been good at talking about, well, anything. Especially about his feelings.” Shiro’s voice is quick and soft, and his expression is tender as he places a hand on Lance’s shoulder. “Would it be helpful if I share what I do know with you?”

“I dunno Shiro -- I’m not entirely sure that anything is going to help me at the moment.” Lance’s shoulders are hunched and he’s staring full force in the direction of his feet. “I feel so damn stupid. How long has this really been going on?”

Shiro grimaces wryly. “Since the Garrison.”

Lance is, if possible, even more stricken. “Shiro, that was more than a decade ago. Are you actually telling me that Keith has been in love with me for more than ten years and never once said anything about it? Merciful quiznack.” Ten years is a long time. And for most of that time, he was a complete ass to Keith in one manner or another. How could Keith possibly have been in love with him since they were teenagers?

“Yes, well, maybe not actually in love for all of that time, but at least infatuated. I seem to remember him complaining endlessly about this one cute boy in his classes. He was so loud and happy, Keith just couldn’t scare up the courage to talk to him. In case you’ve never noticed, communication has never been one of Keith’s strong suits. Anyway. I don’t really think he fell in love with you until after I died and took up residence in Black. I think your supporting him as my successor was probably the turning point.”

Taken aback, Lance tries not to let the anxiety sparkles swirling around in his vision take complete control over his thought processes. “I don’t… I don’t know about that, Shiro -- I wasn’t really very supportive. Especially not at first.” His frown deepens until it looks like someone carved it onto his face. “Are you sure about this? I mean, if he was, um… falling in love with me, then why did he leave?”

Shiro groans audibly and actually goes so far as to lower his face into his palm for a moment. “You mean to tell me he still never explained any of that to you? He didn’t talk to you when he came back from the abyss?”

“Well, sure, he talked to me -- but given what I’ve learned this evening, I think we should obviously assume that Keith talking to me and Keith actually telling me things are not at all the same. Also… to give the jerk at least some benefit of the doubt, we’ve probably also established that me understanding things that Keith has told me is not at all a given at this point.”

Shiro’s hand tightens on Lance’s shoulder. “Try not to fret over that too much -- misunderstanding Keith is an awfully common ailment.” He clears his throat. “So, from your response, Keith has never really explained to you why he actually left, even the parts that were less about his personal feelings for you.”

“No, Shiro. Of course he didn’t. He was back, and I was happy he was back. And… he seemed like he actually wanted to be friends, so I didn’t push it.”

“Alright then, I guess I should tell you. Please bear in mind that while I agree with a lot of his reasoning here, I don’t necessarily think he reached the right conclusion -- that he had to leave. And I need you to know that in no way do I hold it against you .” Shiro pauses to look meaningfully at Lance.

“Sounds like an awfully bitter pill. I’m not so sure I want to know now that you’ve had to add that disclaimer to it…” And truthfully, Lance is torn now, and knows he probably looks it -- that in addition to the ongoing shell-shock from the earlier revelation.

“Still, I think, since Pidge has let the cat out of the bag, so to speak, and all this is on the table now -- I think it’s important for you to understand what he was thinking. Of course, part of why he was willing to go was that he wanted more information about the blades and his mother. That part of the equation had nothing to do with you, Lance. The other parts, they’re not as easy. He left because he was falling in love with you. Hard. And he didn’t know how long he’d be able to hide it. He was worried about how you would respond. He didn’t want to damage your friendship, and he was terribly afraid of what might happen to the team if he told you and you reacted badly. Beyond that, he respected the fact that you had feelings for Allura, and he didn’t want to interfere with that.”

“What do you mean, if I had reacted badly? I mean, come on, I’m bi. It’s not like I would have gone into some sort of gay panic and tried to shoot him or anything.”

“Lance, does he know that you’re attracted to men? Have you ever told him?”

“Shiro, everybody knows that. I mean, I’m a pretty equal opportunity kind of guy.”

I know that, Lance, but consider how much difficulty Keith had reading social cues sometimes. Well, any time that’s not combat-related. Unless you actually said to him at some point, ‘ Hi, I’m Lance, and I like both guys and girls ,’ - and I’m pretty sure that you haven’t - it’s safest to assume that he doesn’t know. I… I tried to hint at it a couple of times, but since you and I hadn’t ever talked about it, it felt like too much of a presumption to just confirm out of hand. So Keith always dismissed it as wishful thinking. All I could do was tell him to talk to you, which was clearly not a particularly effective strategy.”

Lance entertains himself for a minute by running his hands through his hair before locking eyes with Shiro. His shoulders hunch, and he can’t help feeling young and confused. Oh, and stupid. “You know, man, if he had told me then, I think… well… I wasn’t serious about Allura yet; and she sure as hell wasn’t serious about me. I mean. If he had just said something, we might have ended up…” he trails off, feeling distinctly sad. Lance is no stranger to ‘ what ifs ’, but this one has a new flavor and he’s finding it very bitter.

“Yeah, Lance. I know.” Shiro says, his voice still gentle. Fatherhood has been good for him. Shiro was always a good space dad, but he didn’t always have quite this practiced a touch. “I think you need to hear the rest now.”

“God. There’s more?” Lance nearly whimpers.

“Well, yes. Besides the potential for personal drama, Keith couldn’t stand how worried you were about your place on the team. So… he made certain that there would only be five paladins around, instead of six.”

Lance’s surprised breath sounds suspiciously like a sob. “That fucker. He tells me, ‘ leave the math to Pidge ’ and then goes and fucks off by himself just so that I can feel important? Quiznack, Shiro! This really is all my fucking fault.” Lance’s discomfort ratchets up abruptly to actively writhing in his seat. If it weren’t for Shiro’s hand on his shoulder, he’d probably have been swimming in the fountain by now. “You’re telling me that all that time I spent thinking he had abandoned us, that I spent thinking he thought the blades were more important; he was actually busy covering my complaining, insecure ass? That he loved me enough to give up being a Paladin of Voltron just so that I wouldn’t feel like some spare?”

Shiro’s sigh is deeper this time, and it takes several moments for him to formulate his response. “Well… in a very self-damning nutshell, I suppose what you just said is true. He left because he thought you were more important to the team.” Shiro pauses yet again, as if to consider. “In his cups, at least, Keith’s been known to refer to you as Voltron’s soul -- and in many ways, I agree. You’re the morale guy. The guy who keeps everyone else happy and functioning. And, even more importantly, you’re the moral guy -- the guy who hopes, who reminds the rest of us in the end that good is enough to conquer evil.”

Lance stares at Shiro with watery eyes. “Keith, who can barely say good morning, let alone good job, actually said all of that to you? Are you sure this is him talking, and not just you? I mean, he really thinks… all of that? About me?” Lance has never been particularly brilliant at math, but at the moment he’s quite certain that the shock and, the honestly surprising amount of sadness swirling around in his skull are playing off each other in one of those equations that involve exponents and wind up equalling something stupidly large.

Shiro’s hand tightens on Lance’s shoulder again, and he reaches his spare hand out to chuck Lance under the chin until he looks up and meets Shiro’s eyes. “We both think that, Lance.” He insists, his voice in full Shiro -mode: chased and fitted with absolute certainty and utterly without guile. “I might be paraphrasing a bit, but what I’m sharing is definitely what Keith thinks.”

Lance chokes on an actual sob. “Oh.”

“Look Lance, it’s late, and we’re all tired from the long trip to get here. Why don’t we set this aside for tonight and see what the others have come up with in the morning.” Shiro leans over and finally pulls a reeling Lance into his strong arms. “Hey buddy, I know this is a lot to process, but we’ll find him. If you want to take point, the others and I will have your back the whole way.” His arms tighten. “And if you can’t, that’s okay too -- I’ll make sure we get him home.”

“Okay Shiro. Okay,” is all that Lance can manage to whisper out as he slowly untangles himself from Shiro’s arms and rises to his feet before tottering off in the direction of the citadel behind them.

Chapter Text

Lance doesn’t notice that he has the undivided attention of everyone in the group as he makes his unsteady way towards the citadel. He doesn’t notice that by the time he’s made it to the door, the former paladins, Curtis, and Coran have all sat down at the table, locked in discussion with serious expressions on their faces. He doesn’t notice where he’s going. At all. Somehow, he winds up at the door to his room anyway. He doesn’t notice that there are tear tracks on his face.

He autopilots into his room and strips down to his underpants before collapsing onto his solitary bed without a single thought for moisturizer, or even a toothbrush. Lance knows battlefields. He’s seen a lot of them. He was a soldier for a long time, after all, and right now, he’s sure that, that word - battlefield - is the appropriate descriptor for the inside of his aching head. And that is the single, solitary thing he’s sure of right now.

Considering the fact that he’s alone, and given the sheer explosive yield of tonight’s bombshell news, Lance figures no one would look down on him too much for talking to himself for a bit; so he stares up at the darkened ceiling above him and braces himself for a long, likely awkward chat.

So, Keith is in love with you. Pidge says so, and Shiro agrees, are they right?

“Yup,” comes his morose reply.

And he’s been in love with you for years, and you never noticed.

“I guess. How could I have been so dumb?”

Reasonable question, but probably not helpful. Do you love him back?

“Do I love him? Of course I do. Like a friend. That jerkface -- I love him like a brother… I’m not, you know, in love with him.”

So you’re saying your feelings for Keith are the same as for Marco or Luis?

“Well, no, of course not. I mean, he’s my brother… but we’re not blood, right? Which is good, because otherwise the fact that I think he’s totally hot would be so unbelievably awkward. Besides, Keith understands parts of me that Marco and Luis never could. We fought a war together. Defeated a dark lord. Saved the universe.”

So he’s your brother; or quasi-brother; or brother-in-arms; and he’s in love with you, and has been for years. But you’re not in love with him. But he is hot. And he understands you in a way that nobody else does, or ever likely could.

“Christ, that statement is a complete mess, brain. I can’t even have a coherent conversation with myself about this…”

Well, perhaps you should reference that earlier thought about being dumb.

“Still not helpful.”

True. Maybe we should have started with an easier question.

“Like what?”

Well, let’s pretend you’re still in middle school. Do you like Keith?

“I don’t know.”

Cop-out.

“Shut up.”

Nope. Do you like Keith? Could you love Keith?

“Um… I still don’t know.”

Search your feelings.

“Thanks, Darth.”

Don’t be daft. I’m not your father, Luke, I’m your you. Shiro said that Keith has liked you since the Garrison. How did you feel about him then?

“I hated him. He was the best at everything without ever seeming to even try. I couldn’t ever get ahead. He got everything I wanted. I just wanted to beat him at something. I wanted to beat him at anything.”

Lance, you suck. There are so many things in that statement we’re going to have to pick apart. You’re a real shithead. Why don’t we start with the most obvious: you hated him? Really? Do you actually think it’s helpful or healthy to lie when you’re talking to yourself? And lie badly, no less? You sound crazy enough as it is.

“Fine. I didn’t hate him. I… envied him. And he was… he was so cute. I just wanted him to see me. I wanted him to pay attention to me. And I wanted him to smile at me. He never smiled. I wanted to make him smile, and I couldn’t figure out how to make that happen. All he ever did was give me that horrible blank stare. He didn’t care about me.”

Well, at least now you’re telling yourself something like the truth. Within reason, at least. Do you really believe he didn’t care about you -- even after everything Shiro told you tonight?

“I don’t know what to believe. Shiro said that he was, what… infatuated with me, I guess. Why couldn’t he have just said something? That would have been enough. That’s all I really wanted.”

What do you do when you’re infatuated with someone?

“Flirt.”

On the nose. And what does Keith do when he’s infatuated… or, well, when he experiences normal feelings of any sort?

“Clam up.”

No kidding. So we’ve established now that you liked Keith at the Garrison. And that Keith liked you at the Garrison. Why didn’t you flirt with him? You just admitted that it was your default response, after all.

“He wouldn’t even make eye contact with me. I couldn’t read him at all, and I didn’t want him to get mad at me. I liked him too much. He was special.”

Putting aside ‘he was special’ for a moment: do you suppose that your inability to read him might have come from him being all ‘clammed up’?

“Well, yeah -- I suppose that could be true. I have no reason to doubt Shiro. I trust him, and he knows Keith better than anyone. So I have to admit that Keith liked me. It was true. Is true?”

Yup. So now, given your default is flirting -- don’t you think it’s at least possible that by not flirting with Keith, you were just about screaming “I’m not interested” at him? I mean, you’ve met slavering space abominations that read social cues better than Keith, but you can hardly claim that he wasn’t observant. He might not always, or even often have understood what he saw -- but you know he noticed things.

“What exactly are you getting at, Mr. me?”

Patience, grasshopper, I’m formulating… You flirt with everyone but Keith. Isn’t it a little unfair to expect him to bare his soul to you under those circumstances?

“Oh. Fuck me. I’ve liked him for years, and I’ve been sending him the worst kind of unmixed signals, haven’t I..?”

Yup. Not only did you fail to flirt with the hot guy you liked -- purely because of how much you liked him, how special he was. You actually spent years sniping at him constantly and taking every single pot-shot available. Lance, you’re a real dick sometimes.

“Is it too soon in this conversation to say fuck me again?” Lance covers his face with his hands, digging his palms into his stinging eyes and whines. “Fuck me. I’m a huge dick. Not only did I like him. I treated him like a… fuck -- I was an enormous horse’s ass to him. For years. And then he turned around and gave up his whole life for me. And then he spent years holding me together while I was trying really hard to fall apart. And then I flew off and left him without a second thought. And not once in that entire time did I bother to notice that he was in love with me. Or that I was in love -- ugh. In like with him. Whatever. Christ on a biscuit.”

Don’t expect me to pretend I didn’t hear what you just said, you asshat. But let’s move on, shall we; after all, we’re just getting started. Do you remember a dobosh ago when you complained that Keith had ‘everything you ever wanted’ just handed to him?

Lance writhes. “Shit.”

You mean like a loving family, supportive friends, a respected place on the team, and the opportunity to be a hero?

“I get it. I get it. He had none of those things at the Garrison. Especially after Shiro left on the Kerberos mission. And later, once he’d actually found all of them, he gave them all up without even hesitating and spent his time fighting with the blades and rotting away on the back of a space whale all for the sake of my peace of mind. Well, that and a chance for me to romance a beautiful princess.”

Wow! Accurate self-reflection. What a concept. You are a colossal dick for never noticing what this guy has done for you over the years. In any case, I feel like we’ve now at least established for certain that you like him. Maybe we’re not quite ready for ‘do you love him’; let’s try, did you love him?

“Yes.” Lance replies immediately, surprising himself with the ease of the answer.

Could you love him again?

Another easy question. “Yes.”

What do you need to make that happen?

“I just need to see him. I need… I need to hear some of this from him. And I need to look at his face. I want to be sure.”

Do you deserve him?

Lance whimpers to himself as an abrupt character change occurs in his head. Before he can even really brace himself, his snarky, dispassionate internal monologue slips away. Slips away only to be replaced immediately by an old friend: screaming self-doubt.

You have done absolutely nothing to deserve the kind of devotion that Keith has shown you over the years. He gave up his whole life just to make sure you could feel comfortable as a member of the team. He buried his own feelings and encouraged your pursuit of Allura. And then, when she died, he spent  years comforting you. Visiting you just to check in when you didn’t return his messages, and listening to you talk about her ad nauseam. Stopping in the middle of missions just so you could cry on the comm about how lonely you felt. He never once complained. And just think, Lance. How did he look? How was he doing when you compare one visit to the next?

Tears start to leak from Lance’s eyes once again. “Every time I saw him, he looked worse. Thinner. More exhausted. Sadder. Like he was still fighting a war the rest of us had managed to leave behind. Like his life was… like it was slowly stripping parts of him away.”

And was there ever a time in those first few years after Allura died when he didn’t return a call, or swoop in for an unexpected visit when you couldn’t be bothered to answer your mail?

Lance sniffles. “No. Not one. No matter where he was, or what he was doing. No matter how important his job was, or how wretched he obviously felt; there was never a time he was too busy to sit up all night while I cried over the comm. And how many times did he show up to support me out of the blue when I started making speeches, spreading Allura’s message? Or show up on Earth, or Altea, or God-only-knows where, just to say hello and help me plant juniberries?”

So tell me, Lance, did you even notice when he started to drift away? When all you could seem to talk about was how important you mission was, and he got quieter and quieter? Did you notice when your damn speaking schedule got so hectic you didn’t even have time to see him any more? Did you ever once, in all that time -- in the years he spent silently supporting you -- ever even once notice that he might have needed your support too?

Do you deserve him, Lance?

Lance curls into a fetal position.

Do you deserve him, Lance?

Lance sobs.

Do you deserve him, Lance?

Lance wails. “No!”

***

Returning from the kitchen with a pair of warm bottles for the twins, Hunk can hardly miss hearing Lance’s vocal distress as he passes his door. He hurries back to his own suite to deliver the babies’ 0300 meal to Shay and quickly explains his intent, leaving her to feed the kiddos.

Shrugging into a robe, he turns down the hall and hustles back to Lance’s door, his fingers move immediately to the locking mechanism. He knocks once before hitting the override. “Lance, buddy, I’m coming in.”

Lance ignores the opening door in favor of continuing to entertain his misery and hardly even notices the dip in the mattress as Hunk sits down besides him. He’s in his head, and his head is not the place to be right now. Lots of it is shouting at him, and the rest of it is crying and cowering in a corner somewhere. In fact, he hardly registers Hunk’s existence at all until he’s being gathered up in his capacious arms, and the warmth of a Hunk hug begins to eat away at the edges of his dismay.

“Shh. Shh. Hey buddy, it’ll be okay. We’re going to find him. Shh.” Hunk comforts as Lance sobs into the soft robe covering his shoulder.

“H-Hunk. I’m a complete bastard. I d-don’t deserve him. He… loves me, and I’ve done n-nothing but hurt him. For y-years… nothing but hurt him and ignore h-him. I probably would have done less d-damage if I’d j-just stabbed him with one of his f-fucking knives.” Lance manages to whimper out.

Hunk tightens his arms around Lance. “Yeah, buddy. I know. It’s… not great. But I don’t think it’s the end of the word either.”

“H-how can you say that? He r-ran away. B-because of me. He n-needed me, and I was too stupid and s-self absorbed to even n-notice.” The heartbroken expression etched deep into Lance’s features is, well, heartbreaking.

“Lance, do you love him?”

Lance sniffles and shrugs his shoulders. “M-maybe. I care about him. According to my subconscious, I like him, at least. In, you know, a middle school kind of way.” Snuggling a bit further into Hunk’s hold, he takes a deep, ragged breath and wipes at his eyes. “It started at the Garrison. I didn’t understand it then, of course, because I’m a giant idiot. So I invented that damn rivalry instead, and stuck to it as hard as I could for, well, for years.”

“Then we found him trying to rescue Shiro, and he said he didn’t even remember me! So I just doubled down on my asshole-like tendencies. So there we were, together in space, and me still all obsessed with being a total prick. Eventually, of course, we made friends, and if he hadn’t left to join the blades when he did, I think all this would probably have erupted out into the open back then. But he did leave, and by the time he came back, Allura and I had actually worked out all our shit. And, well, you know -- then the last six or seven years happened.”

“Well, Lance, I don’t think you being a giant idiot will come as any huge surprise to Keith. And I don’t think it’s really something he’ll hold against you either, since he’s a giant idiot too. I think the important question for now is: could you love him again? Do you actually want to be with him now?”

“Does it really matter? He’s not here. Nobody even knows where he’s gone. And even if he was here, how could I ever ask him to take a chance on me? After all the time he’s spent waiting for me, how could I just got to him now… I mean… what would I even say?”

Hunk tilts his head and stares at Lance with a slightly confused expression on his face. “What would you even say? Lance, that’s the easy part. Say you’re sorry for taking so long and ask him if he wants to date.”

“Just like that? Pretend like I haven’t been breaking his heart for the last decade and just, what... ask him out to dinner?”

“Yes, Lance. Do exactly that. He’s been waiting for you to do that for a very long time now. Why complicate things any more than absolutely necessary?”

Lance stares back at Hunk, seriously nonplussed. “And you honestly think that will work? That Keith will forgive me just like that and then we’ll, what, we’ll just live happily ever after?”

Hunk smiles and nods his head emphatically. “Yeah, buddy, if that’s what you want, then that’s exactly what I think you should make happen. I mean, knowing Keith, he’s going to insist that you have nothing to apologize for -- and while I don’t know if that’s strictly true, you and I both know he’ll just go all uncomfortable on you if you try to grovel.” Hunk’s expression turns more serious. “Just, Lance, be sure that it is what you want before you tell him. ‘Cause if you offer it, and then take it away because you’ve changed your mind, it’ll probably actually kill him.”

Lance knits his eyebrows together and rubs at his forehead. “I know, man, I know. I don’t think I’m in a place where I can declare my undying love for the guy, but I do… I do legitimately have feelings for him. I mean, yes, I want to help him, bring him home; but that’s not all I want. I want to see if this thing between us has some real, adult mileage in it. I’m not going to talk myself into being in love with a guy I haven’t seen in a year -- not to mention a guy that I’ve never even kissed. But I’m also not going to talk myself out of the possibility out of guilt, or force of habit, or sheer bloody-minded stupidity.” Lance glances down at his hands. “Well, I’m going to try, anyway.”

Hunk gives Lance a squeeze and a pat on the head. “Lance, I’m proud of you. That’s some surprisingly solid perspective. You must have managed to talk with one of your more stable personalities before you got all lost in ‘oh woe is me’ land.”

Lance rolls his eyes. “Shut up, bro of mine.”

Hunk smiles beatifically and plants a very paternal kiss on Lance’s temple. “Alright, so you know what you’re going to do when we find him, and we’ll deal with the finding him part when everybody’s up in the morning. Are you feeling enough better that I can go see to the needs of my other children now?”

Lance elbows Hunk in the ribs as he rolls out of his arms and lays back down on his mattress. “Yes, Papi -- thank you for chasing away all the monsters that lurk in the dark.”

Hunk ruffles Lance’s hair and stands up to leave. When he gets to the door he turns and gazes back at Lance with a soft smile.

“Any time, my brother. Any time.”

“Thanks, Hunk. I love you.”

Chapter Text

There’s already full sunlight slanting in through the windows when Lance wakes up. “Oh well, so much for an early start,” he muses. “The others must have decided I needed to sleep in or something…” he stops and frowns. “And I’m apparently still talking to myself -- I should probably quit it before somebody decides I actually belong in an asylum or something…”

Good luck with that… ’ snarks his brain.

Lance gives it, well, himself… Lance prominently displays his middle finger and hauls himself out of bed. Bending to paw through his suitcase he selects a comfortably, fuzzy sweater - light blue - and a pair of white jeans and then wanders into his ensuite for a shave and a shower.

Most of a varga later, he finds himself ensconced at a conference table in an airy room with the entire crew in attendance, a sumptuous Hunk brunch arrayed in front of them. After a few quiet doboshes filled with the clinking of silverware, Shiro clears his throat. “So, Lance, how are you feeling this morning?”

Lance swallows his current mouthful and shrugs his shoulders a little. “It was a bit of a rough night, I’ll admit; but my best buddy Hunk stopped by to set me straight. Or maybe I should say, set me gay.”

“Laaance…” Pidge groans as most of their tablemates roll their eyes fondly.

Lance smiles, but it doesn’t quite reach his eyes. He raises a hand to press at his temple for a moment before continuing. “I’m going to go and get him, Shiro. I’ve got to make this right, and… more than that, I want… I need to work out just exactly what he and I are supposed to be to each other. And if I have to find him first in order to do that, then that’s just the way it’s got to be. Hunk swears to me that happily ever after isn’t necessarily off the table -- and if that’s something that I can still have… that we can still have, then I’m going to grab it with both hands.”

Shiro looks almost painfully relieved. In fact everyone looks pretty painfully relieved. The rest of the paladins and company are also staring at Lance like he’s just saved the universe again. “I’m so very glad to hear you say that, Lance.” Shiro replies through his wide smile. “Pidge, I do believe that means the floor is now yours.”

Pidge somewhat regretfully sets aside what appears to be a mimosa. “Alrighty then. Lance, you and I are going on a road trip.”

Lance nods. “Okay. I’m down. Does that mean you know where Keith is? Also, we’ve got to remember to pick up snacks first. And just think: this time around there won’t be a cow taking up all the bunk space and besmirching the hold… Where are we headed anyways?”

“After we drop Elles off at home on Olkarion, we’re headed straight for Daibazaal.”

“You think he’s still there?” Lance asks. It sure didn’t sound like Keith was sticking around there, but maybe Pidge actually found him under a rock in Krolia’s private imperial garden, or whatever.

“I absolutely do not. That said, after a thorough search, complete with support from the universe’s most helpful AI - and the other designer of the universe’s most helpful AI, the lovely Elles - the only sign of Keith that I could turn up was a departure log for an unmarked shuttle from the first family’s private fleet. Krolia knows more about what’s going on than she shared with Shiro, so we’re going to go and extract it from her and see what leads we can come up with.”

Lance glances between Shiro and Pidge, uncertain of himself all of a sudden. “And you think that I’ll be... helpful with that? I doubt Krolia has a very high opinion of me -- especially if, like everybody else in the universe, she already knew… knows what’s up with Keith before I did. I mean, she knows Keith thinks of you as his brother, Shiro. Are you sure it wouldn’t be better if you tried with her again?”

Shiro shakes his head stiffly. “No, Lance. I already pushed her just about as hard as I’m willing to. As far as I can, really, without actually challenging her to a fight -- and I don’t foresee that doing us any good. She’s known how Keith feels about you for years now. Probably since they spent all that time together on the whale. I think that if you can convince her of your sincerity - show her that you truly do want to help her son - then she might just let some more information slip.”

“Besides,” Pidge interjects, “there’s a reason that I’m the one all set to be your wingman this time around. If Krolia won’t tell us what we need to know, then I’m going to hack the crap out of her systems.” And with a pompous little headshake, she goes back to her drink, one of her fingers trailing along Elles's skullcap.

As the group begins to finish their breakfast, Lance’s can feel himself growing more pensive despite the humorous reminiscences floating around the table. Eventually, after several doboshes of jittering about in his chair and noodling with his flatware, Lance clears his throat. He’d like everybody’s attention, and wonders if he’d be having an easier time getting it if he wasn’t avoiding eye contact with any of them like the plague. “So. Um… I feel like I should apologize to everybody.” He chuckles a self-deprecating little chuckle. “I’m sorry for being such a dumbass. Truly. I really fucked this one up, and now you’re all having to spend a bunch of time cleaning up a mess I could have - should have - put a stop to years ago.” He takes a deep breath, still staring intently at the leavings of his meal. “But I promise… I promise I’m going to bring him home.”

If Lance were willing to look up, even a little, he would see collective headshakes and a broad assortment of lovingly concerned expressions; but he refuses to look up. To perhaps no one’s surprise, it’s Shay who responds for the assemblage in the end. After all, who better than Shay to offer a few sweet, encouraging words. “It’s going to be alright, Lance. You see, love is a lot like the sky. Endless and wide open: stretching from horizon to horizon. Sometimes it’s terrifying in its immensity, and for those of us standing on the ground, it can be terribly difficult to reach. But once you do, you realize that it’s not so scary up close, and that it’s so full of infinite wonders.”

Shiro smiles softly and glances at Curtis. Pidge rolls her eyes, but smiles anyway as she sidles closer to Elles. Hunk’s eyes gleam suspiciously and he reaches over to touch Shay’s hand. And Lance, well, Lance just gawks at her. He forgets for a moment that he’s trying not to look at anybody, and a rosy blush tints his high cheekbones, accenting the blue marks there. After a tick, he swallows loudly and grins. “Shay, that has got to be the single sappiest thing I’ve ever heard,” he manages to squeeze past his surprised smile. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repay you for saying it.”

“We shall see, Lance,” she replies with twinkling eyes.

***

Having taken a few moments to coordinate with Pidge following breakfast, Lance heads back to his room to pack and finds Shiro and Coran in the hall waiting for him. He keys open the door and gestures for them to enter. “What can I do for you, my dudes?”

His guests smile and wrap their arms around him from either side, leaving a surprised and tangled Lance. Shiro speaks first, and Lance doesn’t think he’s entirely imagining the hint of tears in his voice.

“I’m so very thankful that you’re doing this, Lance. I would really like my baby brother back, and, more importantly, I would dearly love to see the both of you happy. I know you’ll find him, and I truly hope that the two of you can find that happily ever after you mentioned at breakfast. I’ll do anything that I can to help.”

“Jeez -- no pressure in that sentence, man.” Lance laughs as he pokes Shiro in the shoulder. “Seriously though, Shiro. I am going to bring him back. We are now officially commencing Operation Make Keith Happy , and I’m planning to stick with it -- even if it takes the rest of my life.”

Coran sniffles loudly in Lance’s ear as his crying into his moustache ratchets up several notches to outright blubbering at the sentiment. Shiro offers him a handkerchief, and Lance, feeling an overwhelming need to comfort the older man wraps him fully in his long arms. When that doesn’t seem to be enough, he picks him up bodily, and spins him around awkwardly once or twice. Or thrice. Shiro has to dive out of the way to avoid their tomfoolery. Finally, Coran wipes his eyes, blows his nose on the hanky, and fondly reaches up to pat Lance’s cheek. “I’m so very proud of you, my boy, and ‘Llura would be as well. She would be very pleased if she could see the affection between you and Keith finally blossom.”

Lance is more than a bit shocked, and for a moment looks like he might just tear up himself. “You mean she knew about Keith? About how he feels?” He swallows painfully. “D-does that mean she knew how I feel… felt… feel about him, too?”

Coran frowns slightly. “Of course she did! She never said anything about it to you?” Coran makes a face and gesticulates substantially. “No, of course she didn’t. If she had, we would have hardly needed last night’s grand revelation, would we?” He harrumphs, blowing out his moustache impressively. “Oh, my dear boy, Allura would have been the very first in line to tell you that you aren’t meant to spend your life alone. One of our princess’s dearest hopes during that last campaign was that you would find someone else to cherish you as she did, were the worst to happen to her. And, I am certain that if there is one person in the universe she would have chosen to entrust that most important task to, that person would be Keith.”

With that out in the open, Lance’s eyes do overflow once again as a worry he hadn’t even apprehended yet melts away. “So, I s-suppose that’s a l-lot like having her blessing then, isn’t it?”

Shiro’s lips quirk and he nods as Coran replies. “Yes, Lance. It truly is.”

All three of them are far away for a tick as they remember the silvery-haired woman they’d lost six years earlier; and as their eyes clear, Coran returns his hand to Lance’s shoulder, shaking him from any remaining reverie. “Also, lad, don’t worry about your speaking engagements. I’ve taken you off the roster for the foreseeable future at the very least.”

Lance turns to face Coran, brows knitting in consternation. “Shit, Coran! I hadn’t even thought of that! What are we going to do? I mean, I must have, what, ten or fifteen appearances already booked for the next phoeb. I can’t just not show up!”

As Lance’s upset becomes apparent, Coran shakes his head and pokes a finger into Shiro’s overdeveloped pectoral with a broad grin. “Not to worry, Lance, not to worry at all. You’ll be understudied by a certain former black paladin here. He’ll be taking charge of our darling princess’s message for now.”

Lance goggles at Shiro, his apprehension melting away. “Really, Shiro? It’s not too much to ask? I mean, especially with Ollie at home now -- you’ll be gone all the time!”

Shiro shakes his head with a grin. “Well, Lance, since Curtis and I are both officially retired from active duty, we’ve had all this spare time on our hands. And honestly, I’m grateful for the opportunity to show the universe to my husband and son from this perspective, instead of from behind the barrel of a gun -- I should probably be thanking you instead.” Shiro takes Lance’s hand for a moment. “And besides that, I agree with you that spreading Allura’s message is the job of one of her former paladins; and if you’re going to be busy taking care of my brother for me, this seems like the least I can do in return.”

Lance hugs Shiro again. “Shiro, you are the absolute best.”

***

Two vargas later everything is ready to go. Lance has packed his clothes and triple-checked his bathroom to make sure all of his precious hygiene accoutrements have been stored away safely. He’s taken copious pictures of all his assembled friends - especially the children - to share with Keith once he can locate the butthead. And he’s had a surprisingly decent conversation with his mother, all things considered.

°°°

‘Mamá, you’re looking very nice today. How are you doing?”

Carmen Mcclain’s eyebrow lifts immediately and her expression turns sharp. “What have you done now, Lance?”

“What do you mean, Mami? What makes you think I’ve done anything? I mean, I haven’t done anything.”

She continues to stare.

Lance shrinks in his seat. That’s not a good stare. “Well, at least I haven’t done anything lately .”

“In that case, why are you using your ‘ contrite and dutiful son’ voice?”

Lance sighs. Telling his mother that he’s about to disappear again for some unknown period of time isn’t exactly his favorite part of this whole proposition, but he supposes there’s nothing for it but to get it over and done with. “Well, um… you see, Mamá, I’m going to be going away for a while -- I just found out that there’s something I have to take care of.”

Tears immediately spring to Carmen’s eyes. “Oh Lanzo, no! I forbid it! No more fighting -- you’ve done your part for the universe already.”

Lance can actually feel the blood draining out of his face at his mother’s tears. Pale, he waves his hands in front of the comm terminal, “No, no, Mami. That’s not it at all.” He takes a deep breath, wondering how much he wants to share with his worried mother over the damned phone. “Mamá, you remember Keith, right?” Well, that was a dumb question. Of course she remembers Keith. He used to come to Cuba all the time.

Carmen, still reeling visibly, appears willing to withhold her opprobrium for the moment and nods her head. “Of course I remember Keith, mijo.”

Lance smiles sweetly. And while it’s entirely possible that he doesn’t even notice he’s doing it, his mother certainly does. With that smile her face brightens and her posture relaxes, at least a bit.”Well, you see, Mamá: Keith is upset over… well, something I id, I guess, and some other things that have happened while he was fighting for the Blades of Marmora; and now he’s off hiding somewhere. We’re not sure where he is, but I have to go and find him. I have to bring him home.”

Carmen lets out an explosive breath and even manages to smile back a little at her son as she dries the remnants of her worried tears with the tail of her apron. Despite the news, that little smile is still on Lance’s lips, and his mother seems truly relieved to see it. “Well, at least you called first this time. Lanzo, mi corazon, I haven’t seen you smile like that in… well, years. It’s good to see it again. You go find your Keith -- but no fighting. No crazy space-guns. No alien monsters. Absolutely no more scars. Do you hear me, Lance? I don’t give a damn how old you are, if you come home with any more marks on your pretty skin, I’m going to ground you for the next decade.”

Lance’s color returns in a stinging rush as he chuckles and blushes a bit, and a twinkle appears in his eyes to match the soft upcurve of his lips. “Thanks for understanding, Mami. I’ll be in touch when I can. Give my love to everyone, please. Tell them… tell them I’ll be home just as soon as I find my jerk.”

Your jerk, huh? It’s about damn time,” Carmen says with a happy little chucke. “Te amo, mijo. You stay safe, and when you find him, you bring your Keith home to Cuba with you -- it’s been far too long since he was here for a visit.”

“Yo tambien te amo, Mami. Voy a. La prometo.”

°°°

With their various preparations complete the paladins and company assemble once more to see the questers off on their journey. Smiles and good wishes are shared; hugs, kisses and handshakes are exchanged; babies are cuddled; and several meaningful gifts change hands. Hunk presses a hamper of treats for the trip on Lance, for which Pidge also looks immensely grateful.

Opting for one more private word, Shiro pulls Lance aside from the group while handing him a small tablet. “Lance, thanks again for doing this. I put some texts on the tablet for you to read. Try not to worry too much , some of them are a little... grim; but I want you to be prepared. Keith has been a soldier for a long time now, and if the read I got from Krolia is anywhere close to correct, he’s been through some very rough times in the last couple of years.” Shiro heaves a heavy sigh. “Anyway, I’ve included information on PTSD, anxiety, depression -- pretty much anything I could think of that might be useful. I don’t know, you might not need any of it -- but a lot of it is info I wish I’d had back at the beginning, when we were first on the castle together. I want you to have it just in case.” Shiro gives Lance a quick hug. “Just find him. And once you do, be patient with him. What he needs most is for you to be there.”

Looking both thankful and worried, Lance tucks the tablet into his pack and pulls Shiro back into his lanky arms for a more thorough embrace. “Thanks Shiro. Truly. You think of everything.” Lance squeezes him just a bit tighter and leans to whisper in his ear. “You’re the best big brother a guy could have. Keith and I are both very lucky.” Shiro looks touched and more than a bit misty-eyed as he steps back and wraps an arm around Curtis and Oliver.

Coran is the last to approach Lance as they prepare to depart, and his manner is oddly diffident. He pulls a small, flat box from his pocket and hands it over. Lance takes it and turns it over in his hands a few times before looking quizzically at the red-haired man. Coran just smiles a wobbly little smile at him and reaches over to point out the hidden stud that controls the box’s locking mechanism. Lance pushes it and the top of the box springs open to reveal a pair of fine chains made of some lustrous, blue-grey metal. Each chain bears what looks a lot like a small oval dog tag in matching metal, and Coran picks one up and touches Lance’s fingertip to the tag.

At his touch, a beautifully detailed miniature appears on the face of the tag -- a photograph of Keith and Lance sitting back to back in the training room wearing their paladin armor, swords balanced across their knees. Their helmets are off to the side and their hair is sweaty. They’ve obviously just been sparring and their matching smiles are infectious.

A completely blown-away Lance stares at Coran, his wide eyes definitely begging for an explanation.

Coran smiles at him. “Alfor gave me these lockets, oh, well, more than ten-thousand deca-phoebs ago… obviously. And now I’m giving them to you -- one for you, one for Keith. They’ll display whatever image you select, but as you can see, I’ve programmed one in for you already. That way, if you ever forget what it is you’re searching for, all you have to do is look.” He pauses, his hand once again coming to rest on Lance’s shoulder. “They’re also entangled communicators. The wearers can speak to each other at any time, over any distance -- anywhere in the universe. As long as the two of you have them, you’ll never really be apart again.”

Lance finds his eyes overflowing with tears yet again,and he sniffs audibly as he yanks Coran in for a hard hug. “Coran,” he whispers wetly, “These were a personal gift from Alfor, weren’t they?”

Coran nods.

“Are you sure you don’t want to keep them? I don’t know if I should accept something so… well, so precious…”

Coran gazes directly into Lance’s eyes, his own both wistful and proud. “I’m very certain, lad. Alfor would have wanted them to be used as they were meant to -- to connect two people that belong to each other, no matter the distance. And so do I.”

Lance nods his head dumbly and closes the lid again before hugging the little box tight to his chest. “Thank you, then, Coran. I’ll… we’ll treasure them.”

Coran smiles and ruffles Lance’s hair once again. If people keep doing that, he’ll have to use the leave-in conditioner if he wants to get the tangles out. And then he proceeds to shove Lance up the ramp and onto Pidge’s shuttle. “Off you go, my boy. You bring Keith home.”

Lance nods and waves as the ramp retracts. The others wave back.

Chapter Text

As the doors slide shut on the assemblage of waving friends, Lance notices the space he’s standing in for the first time. Or the lack of space, as it were. Half entryway, half cargo hold -- currently at about three hundred percent of its reasonable cargo capacity. A profusion of crates run in stacks from floor to ceiling; palettes of random techno gewgaws lean vicariously against groaning shelves stuffed with boxes of unknowable provenance; and several robot - android? - things that Lance can only hop are friendly crouch ensconced in the mess.

In an island of relative calm in the middle of the room sits a rattan living room set replete with pink and white cushions that looks very much like it belongs in the Florida sitting room of a 1980’s sitcom. It is, however, remarkably clean and sittable considering the state of the rest of the hold.

“Apparently the golden girls were here, and Blanche forgot to take the wicker with her when she left…” Lance murmurs to himself, which leads to a quizzical glance from Elles, who’s just re-entered the terminally overfilled chamber.

“The golden who? I’m sorry, Lance, but I don’t know anyone named Blanche. There really aren’t any girls around here but Katie.”

Lance smirks. “Aww. You call her Katie? That’s so sweet!”

Elles blushes, which immediately leads Lance to wonder whether the action should still be called blushing when the result is a lovely shade of spring green. “Well, yes. I call her Katie. That is her name, after all. In any case, she says to bring you to the bridge so that we can ‘ get our asses out of here ;’ although why you humans are so preoccupied with moving that particular body part with such sole emphasis, I still don’t understand.”

Lance chuckles. “Don’t worry about it, man -- it’s just a figure of speech.” He begins threading his way through the assemblage of stuff. “And given Pidge, er… Katie as a role model, I can only imagine that your English is likely to be a bit colorful. Anyway, lead the way.” He punches Elles lightly on the shoulder as he catches up to him. “Also, you’ll have to tell me all about how you met Katie . Pidge bringing a real, live boy to the party was quite an occasion, after all!”

“I heard that, assface. Get your skinny butt up here so we can get under way,” floats disembodied down the hall, followed shortly by, “Oh, and El, tell him nothing. Lance is not to be given ammunition in the form of embarrassing stories -- on pain of death.”

“Yes, dearest,” quips Elles under his breath; earning him a wink from Lance. “And there she goes with posteriors again,” the Olkari mutters as he leads Lance up the short hallway to the bridge.

Organizationally speaking, the bridge itself is not much of an improvement over the hold. The walls, excepting control panels and the viewport, have been covered over with whiteboards, which Lance thinks is a pretty cool idea. Unfortunately, he has no idea what any of the squiggles on them might actually be trying to communicate. He thinks the ones that look like little fish are pretty cute, though.

All of the stations, with the exception of the one currently tenanted by Pidge, are buried under a profusion of tablets, notebooks, and variously assembled computery-robotics stuff. Lance briefly wonders if he should have paid more attention to past lessons from Pidge and Hunk -- if only so that he could put names to at least some of the crap he’s currently concerned about breaking. In the end, he decides that teaching him any of that would likely have been a lost cause anyway. It’s not the sort of thing his brain tends to retain.

Pidge waves at the two of them from her captain’s chair as she continues through her pre-flight checklist. “Hey guys -- pull up a pew so we can get started.”

Lance looks around again, still finding the idea more than slightly demoralizing. “Um, Pidge… anywhere in particular? I don’t want to break anything.”

Pidge just shrugs. “Naw -- just rock and roll, Lancelot.”

Elles, thankfully, is polite enough to look slightly chagrined at the mess, and begins cleaning a seat for Lance by shifting a stack of, well, contraptions onto one of the control panels off to the side. This causes the lights on the bridge to rapidly darken to an angry pulsing red and a shrill klaxon to sound.

“Um… El, hon, could you please deactivate the beam weapons before Altean flight control decides we’re attacking?” She sounds slightly exasperated but entertained.

Elles once again takes on a verdant sheen as he struggles with the tech-strewn controls; a coloration which becomes more marked as he notices Lance mouthing the word ‘ hon ’ at him in the most sing-songy manner he can manage while actually remaining silent.

Thankfully, sufficient seats are finally cleared, the weapons summarily deactivated, and permission to leave the ground granted. Further, Lance is pleasantly surprised to find out that they’ve been cleared to use the high-priority teludavs on both Altea and Olkarion. This means no waiting around for commuter departures and no need to hop through sixteen different wormholes to get to their destination. Nice.

Apparently someone has decided that their mission is important enough to warrant them a pair of direct wormholes, thus getting them to Daibazaal as fast as possible. Lance finds himself gratified that someone out there shares his priorities.

***

A few short hour later, Pidge brings the shuttle down on Olkarion for just long enough for Elles to disembark. Lance really isn’t any more informed about their backstory than he was when they sat down -- Pidge is guarding her background information jealously. When Elles goes to leave, Pidge stops him bodily at the door, having vaulted over the back of her chair, and pins him to the bulkhead with a lascivious kiss before allowing him to make his harried way off the ship.

Pidge returns to her seat without a word and signals for clearance to leave the ground again.

A few doboshes later, as the ship lifts off, she notices Lance’s shit-eating grin. “Yes? Can I help you with something?” she inquires snottily.

“Not really,” Lance replies airily. “Just noticing how much my baby sister has grown up. That was quite a kiss…” He waggles his eyebrows at her. “It may be time for us to have a little chat.” His smirk is almost audible as he sets off. “You see, my Pidgeon, when a mommy and a daddy love each other very much-”

Pidge looks extremely unimpressed as she cuts him off. “Yeah, fuck you very much, brother-mine. Considering your positively monastic existence of late, I imagine I could teach you a thing or two. That said, if you don’t quit right now, I’m gonna sic my cloaked cameras on you right now and sell your upcoming wedding night with team leader to the highest bidder.”

Lance’s cheeks darken to something resembling fuchsia, and considering the likelihood that Pidge actually has cloakable cameras to be fairly high, Lance manages to shut up. He mimics the zipping of his lips and tosses away an invisible key.

Pidge nods, looking slightly mollified. “That’s better.” She glances at a flashing light on her control panel. “Hold onto your socks, the Daibazaal wormhole is opening in about fifteen ticks.”

Lance nods as the viewscreen flashes white.

***

As the wormhole swirls around them, the former paladins wander back to the hold and break open Hunk’s hamper of snacks in search of lunch. Apparently satisfied with her selections, Pidge sits cross-legged in one of the rattan armchairs opposite the sofa where Lance has posted himself up. After taking a bite from her sandwich, she fixes him with a serious look.

“So, Lance -- I’m sure you’re tired of this question already today, but how are you really doing?” She twists her fingers uncomfortably for a moment. “Also, I should probably apologize for the way I said things last night. I mean, I stand by my reasons for saying them, but my approach was, um… not subtle.”

Lance snorts past his canape. “Yeah, not subtle is one way to describe that. Maybe next time just find a two-by-four to smack me with. It’d be gentler.” He pauses for a couple of bites before continuing. “I’m okay, mostly. I think. I’m pretty sure that some parts aren’t going to sink in until I actually see him in person.”

Pidge coughs.

Lance blushes again. “For once, I actually didn’t mean that the way it sounded.” He cowers into the sofa, considering whether or not there’s somewhere to hide his burning face. “Apparently I’m messed up enough about this that my innuendo is becoming accidental. I mean -- you know me: that’s an uncomfortable place for me…”

Pidge reaches across and takes Lance’s hand while she waits for him to continue.

Lance shudders briefly, and wonders if the shuttle is cold. Either way, he tightens his grasp on her fingers. “And I’m worried about some of the things Shiro told me today. I’m worried what we may find out from Krolia. I mean, you remember what he looked like at last year’s reunion. And you saw how bad he looked in Shiro’s message…”

Pidge grimaces. “Yeah, he looked like he’d been dragged face down through hell.”

“Yeah,” Lance almost whispers. “Apparently his life with the blades has been… hard on him. It’s been bad for the past couple of years, I guess. Shiro packed me a whole library on mental health and war trauma -- so I’m pretty worried about that…”

Pidge gets up and settles herself next to Lance on the sofa. “It sounded like you wanted to add a ‘but’ to the end of that sentence, so I’m guessing that’s not all that you’re worried about.”

Lance shrugs, looking pained. “Well, that’s the Keithy part of what I’m worried about; most of it at least. Of course, there’s a Lancey part that I’m worried about too.”

“Of course there is. Go ahead and get it off your chest. I’m not great at the whole emotions schtick; but I’m happy to listen.”

Lance grimaces. “Thanks, Pidgey. I actually think your analytically disdainful brain might help might help me out here anyway. Everybody else sounded so certain about the whole ‘ love will conquer all ’ thing… What if it doesn’t? I spent all morning wishing I could be certain too, you know? But a lot of my experiences tell me that love doesn’t always - or even all that often - conquer all.”

Lance droops a bit, still clinging to Pidge’s hand. “I mean, for starters, what if he left because he actually got tired of waiting for me to fucking wake up and smell the affection? I mean, it’s not like it’s impossible that his response to me finding him is going to be ‘ Eww. What are you doing here? I was trying to get away from you, damnit. ’”

“And even if that’s not what happens, and he’s actually happy to see me, what if Shiro’s right and Keith is broken? Too broken for me to fix? I mean, I’m not a professional or anything. And I don’t know if I’m even any good at comforting him as a friend. What if I do something wrong and make it worse? Pidge… what if I fucking break Keith more?”

Lance is, by now, edging towards actual panic. “Then there’s the worst of the lot… Keith has been in love with me for a long, long time. And even if he still feels that way, what if I find him and realize that I don’t feel the same. What if I don’t love him back? Or, Christ, what if I realize that I do love him, but he finds out he’s actually in love with some figment, and he actually hates the real angsty, neurotic, obsessive, clingy Lance?”

Obviously concerned that if she lets him keep going, Lance may actually talk himself into a panic attack, Pidge scuttles over to him crab-wise and collapses into his lap, surprising him into silence. When he tries to start talking again, she locks her bony little arms around his narrow waist and resorts to squeezing him until he huffs and keeps silent instead.

“Okay, Lance, that was… a bunch of stuff. Take a breath.” She looks up at him, her eyes a little wide behind the lenses of her glasses. “Was that the ‘ I just need to say this stuff out loud ’ kind of rant, or do we actually need to pick it apart?”

Lance shrugs helplessly.

Pidge grimaces. “Okay. Pick it all apart it is. That’s okay. We have the time -- otherwise we’d probably just end up playing truth or dare anyway; and I already know all your secrets.”

Lance smiles wanly. “Yeah, I suppose you do.”

Pidge sighs, settling in against Lance’s chest. “Why don’t we start with the silliest one and work our way through from there?”

Lance nods a little. “Works for me.”

“Okay, fear one: Keith ran away because he’s tired of me and doesn’t love me any more.”

Lance winces.

“Can you think of a single time, outside of our first six months as paladins, where Keith was unhappy to see you? Especially after a long separation.”

“No,” Lance replies immediately.

“Whether it was him coming back from the blades; or you coming back from a mission; or him waking you up too early in the morning for an extra sparring session; or you calling him crying in the middle of the night after Allura died -- you can’t think of a single time when Keith was actually unhappy to see you, regardless of the circumstance.”

“No,” replies Lance, more than a little surprised at the obvious seriousness of her tone.

“I wholeheartedly, well, whole-headedly agree. I believe that this is because Keith has been chugging along in the hopelessly devoted to Lance category for nearly half of his life. Do you have any evidence that this has changed?”

“No.” Lance murmurs.

“Then, citing lack of new evidence, the safe presumption is the status quo. Keith is madly in love with you. Fear two: upon further examination, you will discover that - despite this - you are not in love with Keith.”

Lance nods again, somewhat more dumbly than before. He hadn’t really been expecting full force rebuttals of this degree to be presented in response to his random anxiety-rambling.

Pidge continues smoothly. “Is there any action that Keith could take that would cause you to abandon your friendship -- you know, short of something entirely unbelievable and Zarkon-esque?”

“No.”

“What if you found out that he was a black-op assassin?”

Lance’s eyebrow quirks. “Pidge, I was the team sniper. If I can make peace with the blood on my hands, I can certainly do the same for Keith.”

“Good. Do you find him attractive? Is there sufficient sexual chemistry present?” By the look on her face, she is clearly asking the question in all seriousness despite the hairpin turn in subject matter.

Lance blushes brightly again. “Ummm…”

Pidge flicks him on the forehead again, just like last night. “Oh Christ, Lance, work with me here. Do you want to fuck him?”

The vulgarity seems to sting a response out of the red-cheeked man, and he manages to squeak out, “ Urk … yes,” before sinking his face into his hands.

“And would you let him fuck you?”

Lance stares at Pidge from between his fingers and actually, legitimately says, “ Eep .”

Pidge rolls her eyes. “I’ll take that as a yes as well. So, let’s see: if you could pick up any one person -- your favorite movie actor, newscaster, porn-star, or what-have-you. And then you stood your choice next to Keith and had to pick one or the other to fuck, which would you fuck?”

Lance lets forth a truly embarrassed whine. “ Madre de Dios , Pidge. Could you please stop saying fuck? Could you especially please stop saying fuck and Keith in the same sentence?”

Pidge adjusts her glasses. “So, you’d choose to fuck Keith.”

Lance eeps again, and considers fleeing to the head or something -- after all, the door probably locks.

Pidge, however, still seems to be steaming forwards in the direction of a conclusion. “So, I don’t think that this particular query needs too much more summation. You and Keith are almost hopelessly devoted to each other.” She pauses for a moment, taking in Lance’s rosy cheeks and wide eyes before amending. “I mean, are hopelessly devoted to each other. You have an unshakeable friendship that’s been tested by war and separation, and also by the fact that you are both frequently big bags of dicks. Added to that, you are both intimately interested in each other’s big bags of dicks.”

“Saying that you’re in love, and even recognizing that you’re in love are both important things, I guess, but both of those things grow out of being in love; and to the objective observer, you’ve both got that covered. Unless, of course, you go on to discover some unfortunate and unexpected physical incompatibility, all that’s really left to mark this category as complete is some awkward time playing squeeze and squish; and I think I’ll just leave you to complete that at your leisure.”

Ay por Dios ,” is all that Lance can manage to croak out at this point, his face, neck and ears all aflame. He does, however, manage to summarily eject Pidge from his lap and hugs his knees to his chest as tight as he can manage instead.

Pidge resituates herself primly on the next sofa cushion over and returns calmly to her abandoned sandwich. After some thoughtful chewing, she begins once more. “That just leaves us with the actual legitimate one: fear number three -- what if you can’t fix him.”

The frightened little boy eyes that Lance points at Pidge are apparently sufficiently pathetic to overcome her immunity to such things. She replies by stuffing another canape into his mouth to distract him while she methodically chews her way through both her sandwich and the problem.

“This one is harder,” Pidge notes seriously. “Since it actually has a real problem at its root. I won’t tell you that Keith is fine, or even that he will eventually be fine. For one thing, I just don’t know enough about what he’s been through in the last couple of years to speculate accurately.” Another bite of the sandwich goes down the hatch, and another canape winds up shoved into Lance’s face.

“We might have a better idea after we talk to Krolia, but that remains to be seen. And, in the end, I don’t know that it would really change my conclusion anyway.”

Lance is apprehensive as he manages to swallow the most recent portion of his force-fed lunch. “And what… what is your conclusion, exactly?”

“That Keith may well be broken.”

And, oh no, the heartbroken look is coming back, so Pidge rapidly soldiers on. “I mean -- think about it. In terms of what we’re discussing, Shiro is broken too. He’s doing well now, he’s happy with his life: he has Curtis and Ollie. But , he also still has PTSD. I’m sure that he still has bad days, has nightmares, has problems of various kinds. We all do. I do -- and I know that you do too. We’ve all lived through some things that left us a bit… mangled on the inside. This doesn’t meant that life doesn’t go on, and it doesn’t mean that we can’t be happy.” She sighs and grabs Lance’s hand again. “I guess what I’m trying to say is that just being broken isn’t the end of the world.”

Lance is stunned, and presumes that he looks stunned too -- he lost control over his facial features some time ago, probably while Pidge was talking about fucking. It takes him a few ticks before he can manage to stutter out something resembling a response. “So you mean… what you’re saying is… I guess… that fixing Keith isn’t actually what I should… what I should be worried about?”

“Exactly, Lance. Do you think that it’s Curtis’s job to fix Shiro?”

Lance shakes his head.

“To whatever degree that it’s possible, fixing Keith is Keith’s job. Your job is to make sure that he has the tools to do it with. And I’ll guarantee that the most important of those is being there for him. I mean, think back to when he was helping you after Allura died. Did he ever actually do anything?”

Lance manages to smile. “No, Pidge. I think I get it. It’s not like there was anything Keith could actually do for me. He couldn’t bring her back; he couldn’t just reach in and repair my heart or my mind, or whatever. The important thing was that he was there . He was present. Some days, it was the only thing that kept me going.”

“Exactly. That’s exactly what he needs from you now. He needs to know that you'll be there for him. You need to let him know that it’s alright for him not to be alright. That it’s okay for him to be broken. That’s always been really hard for Keith. And you need to show him that even if he’s not alright, that you’ll be there for him anyway. That he’s not alone.” She reaches up and sets a hand to Lance’s cheek, her eyes unusually somber. “Can you do that for him, Lance? For all of us? He really needs it, and I’d really like that jackass back some day.” Her eyes look suspiciously shiny.

Lance cups his own hand around Pidge’s, leaning into her touch just a bit. “Yeah, Pidge. I think I can handle that,” he says, soft but certain. “When did you get so smart?”

Pidge nods and blinks owlishly just as an alarm sounds from the bridge. “I’ve always been smart, you spaz.” Then she whispers, “And… I know you can do it, Lance. I have faith in you.” She shoves a final morsel into his open mouth. “Now, come on. Enough of this mushy shit. That alarm means we’ll be coming out of the wormhole in three doboshes.”

Lance nods and chews.

Chapter Text

The wormhole is already beginning to destabilize by the time they manage to return to their seats on the bridge. Moments later, the screen shows their return to normal space and Daibazaal - in all of its restored maroon glory - swirls into focus in front of them.

The comm crackles to life and a sharp voice issues from the speakers. “Olkari vessel, state your designation and the purpose of your visit.”

Pidge hits a key on her console and the planet is replaced by a heavily-muscled purple figure in black armor. “This is paladin flight zero-seven-niner from Altea via Olkarion. We’re the former red and green paladins, and we’re here to speak with Executrix Krolia about her son.” Pidge replies while Lance attempts to school his face into an expression both serious and formal.

The Galra’s eyes narrow suspiciously. “Transmit identity confirmation immediately and heave to, to starlane one-six-four-four-nine immediately. Deactivate your drive systems and await inspection. Do not deviate from your assigned position.” The channel clicks off and Pidge pauses to shoot her middle finger at the now empty monitor before keying in their identification codes and shifting their orbit to the identified customs area.

She shoots a slightly apologetic look in Lance’s direction. “Ah, the Galra, always so polite… I’m afraid this may take a while, Lancey-Lance. Customs inspections on this shuttle are not always the smoothest of operations -- for some reason, security officers always seem to think that my research projects are either going to spy on them or explode.”

Lance laughs freely, which is a sound Pidge appears to rather appreciate. It’s been noticeably missing the last couple of quintents. “Well, Pidgey -- to offer them the benefit of the doubt, a lot of your inventions have been specifically designed to spy on or explode the Galra…”

Pidge snorts. “Not fair. That hasn’t been true for years now -- and it was never these Galra I was trying to explode anyway. It’s not like I was staying up late nights inventing new ways to blow up the Blade of Marmora…”

Lance smirks and nods, and is just settling himself in to wait in something resembling comfort when the comm pings again. This time, when Pidge keys the channel open, Krolia herself appears. She looks older - worn away at the edges a bit, maybe - and her black armor is heavily slashed with white, blue, and purple. Lance presumes its an indicator of her now exalted rank, and wonders just who it was that decided her title should be ‘ executrix ’.

Her voice is just as stiff and clipped as the guard’s from orbital command, but substantially more authoritative. “Paladins, I have been expecting you. Come to the following coordinates immediately. There are things we must discuss.” With that, she presumably moves a hand offscreen to key in her coordinates, as they immediately flash across Pidge’s terminal, and then proceeds to shut down the channel without saying anything further, or allowing any communication on the part of the paladins at all. Given her blank stare, and the look on her face, or, really, the lack thereof, Lance is pretty sure she’s not exactly pleased to see him.

The coordinates lead them around to the far side of the planet, but rather than descending to a landing zone and finding themselves in front of some great Galra palace, they find themselves directed into the open bay of an enormous Galra heavy cruiser. Lance and Pidge trade discomfited glances.

“Well, at least it’s not shooting at us.” Pidge remarks.

“And I actually dig the new paint jobs. Galra ships aren’t quite so scary now that they’ve nixed the evil purple…” Lance mutters.

“Of course you like it better, the Galra fleet is blue now.” Pidge replies. Lance nods and stands as they touch down. He finds himself reaching for a bayard that’s no longer there out of sheer habit, and notices Pidge doing, or rather, attempting to do the same.

She smiles at him a trifle weakly, her eyes also jumping towards his grasping hand. “Old habits die hard, huh?” she observes stiffly, leading him off of the bridge and out of the shuttle.

***

As they reach the bottom of the ramp, they’re met by a pair of blades -- fully armed, armored, and masked. The one who speaks is quite a specimen, even for a Galra. He towers at least three feet taller than Lance and speaks with a truly stentorian voice. “Paladins of Voltron, be welcome on the Kare Shu’un , the flagship of Executrix Krolia. Follow swiftly, she awaits your arrival.”

With no further instructions, or communication of any sort, and with truly minimal fuss, Lance and Pidge are led along what seems like the entire length of the massive battleship at an uncomfortably fast walking pace. Or, in Pidge’s case, something more like a jog, given her shorter legs. They finally arrive at an unmarked door which opens abruptly onto a dim chamber. The two guards already in place flanking the door salute and fall out, leaving the escorts to take up their positions.

A tight voice from within calls out into the hallway. “Enter.”

Lance and Pidge sidle into a space that looks more like the workroom of a team of tactical analysts than the sumptuous office one would expect from a head of state. It’s all brushed metal: hard edges and glowing displays. And Krolia, small for a Galra, looks almost delicate ensconced behind a huge workstation where she appears to be observing a collection of talking heads on her monitors. As they walk slowly towards her, she dismisses the figures and stands from her seat. Gesturing to a pair of torturous-looking metal chairs arrayed before her desk, she says, “Be seated.”

Wincing inwardly, Lance folds himself into the wretched excuse for a seat and then finds himself staring at Krolia with absolutely no idea of what to say.

She stares back.

Finally, he clears his throat and says the first semi-coherent thing that comes to mind. “Hi Krolia. We’re looking for Keith. Do you know where he is?”

Krolia continues to stare at him, and now Pidge is side-eying him too. Jittery, Lance soldiers on. “Shiro said he talked to you, but that you wouldn’t tell him anything.” He swallows painfully, which does nothing to address the growing dryness in his mouth and throat. “So, um… he thought that I should come and talk to you instead. So now I’m here, and I’m asking you to tell me -- do you know where Keith is?”

Krolia is still staring at lance, and might as well be carved from marble - well, purple marble - for all the information her face is currently giving away. Finally she blink, and her face goes, if anything, harder. “And why should you care where he is, Lance McClain, Red Paladin?” Her voice is still quiet, but it’s grown more sharp edges than her knife collection.

Lance winces substantially, and then winces again as the first motion drives him against the edges of his chair; but he manages to maintain eye contact. He also wonders why it is that no one offered him a drink. Usually visits with heads of state come with drinks. Supposing there’s nothing for it, he sets himself to ignore the desert growing in his mouth. “I…” he begins, and then is forced to clear his throat and try again. “He’s my friend, and I think he’s in trouble. I think… that he needs me…” he trails off, quailing before Krolia’s cold yellow glare, but rallies some when he feels Pidge’s fingertips fluttering against his own. “I think he needs me, ma’am, and I know…” another painfully hard gulp. “I know I need him … Krolia. Ma’am. Do you know where your son is?”

After a seeming infinity of long, silent moments, Krolia rises from her seat and stalks across the room. Lance and Pidge both stare after her, confused. She swiftly returns, setting tumblers of water in front of each of the paladins, and holding a thick sheaf of papers in a dark grey folder. She returns to her seat and sets the folder in front of her, resting a taloned hand on it almost pensively.

Lance, thankful in the extreme, immediately reaches out and grabs the glass. He’s already drunk half of it before it occurs to him to wonder whether or not Keith’s mother has sufficient reasons to poison him. Figuring it’s already too late if that’s her intent, he finishes off the water and returns the glass to the desktop.

Krolia’s eyes still haven’t softened at all, but her statuary-like face has taken on a bit of a careworn cast by the time she finally nods - almost to herself - and pushes the folder across the desk to sit in front of Lance.

That done, her gaze finally turns frank and assessing. “I do not know that I would have chosen you for my son, Lance McClain.” She states firmly, though without rancor. “But I must admit that I also don’t know that I wouldn’t have done so. And, more importantly, that choice is not mine to make, and it was firmly made long ago. I would not unmake it, even if I could.” She pauses, her eyes flashing minutely towards Pidge before continuing. “I do not know where my son has gone. He left without warning after I was compelled to release him from his duties as a blade.” Her eyes flick towards Pidge once again. “I will not speak on the details -- many of them are personal, and I will not betray my son’s confidence.”

As Lance reddens, this time in anger rather than embarrassment, Krolia raises a hand and continues in her steady voice. “Lance McClain, you may read for yourself in the file I have given you. Though I warn you to prepare yourself, for some are… very harsh.” During her next pause, Lance see’s that she’s looking a little less as if wrought in stone or steel. “I would ask that you not share the contents. With anyone. The secrets there are for Keith to share -- or not. No one else should force that decision on him.”

Lance’s flash of anger hasn’t really faded, he’s just not exactly certain where he should direct it. Given only a single feasible option at the moment, his voice lowers to a near-growl. “Then why the hell are you telling me ?”

Krolia stares at him, her yellow eyes growing hard and icy hot. Which Lance realizes is hardly an actual thing, but Keith’s mom is scary, okay, and she might be impeding the vocabulary of his internal monologue just a bit. Despite what spite may be visible in those eyes, Krolia’s voice remains smooth and controlled. “I am releasing the information to you, Lance McClain, because my son indicated - in writing - that in the event you made the request, all information was to be released immediately. Because of this directive, and your distinguished and trustworthy history as a Paladin of Voltron, I am extending the entirety of his records to you. The only redactions I have made are references to potential lateral assets currently engaged in ongoing operations.” Her eyes narrow slightly. “The only eyes cleared to see that file are mine, Kolivan’s, Keith’s and now your own.” A piercing frown slides across her face. “For some reason, my son trusts you a very great deal; and because of this, I am extending my own trust to you. Do not abuse it.”

That last comes out as a quiet snarl served up on the point of a sword, and Lance is absolutely certain he’s not imagining the overtones of ‘ if you hurt him, I will personally gut you. Slowly. ’ He also realizes that doing so is so entirely within her abilities.

Pidge finally can’t seem to restrain herself and wait quietly through any more of the stilted conversation. Inwardly, Lance is surprised that she’s managed to for as long as she has. “Executrix, you’ve got to be fucking kidding me…” she begins, drawing the first surprised look Krolia has let fly in the course of this meeting; as well as a pleading, quelling grimace from Lance which she either doesn't notice or completely disregards. “I mean, come on. You just admitted that you have no idea where Keith has gone, and you’re telling me that the only person who can look for clues is Lance ?”

At this, Lance apparently looks sufficiently offended to warrant a softly murmured, “Oh… sorry Lance.” to follow up that outburst. At least now Krolia’s sulfurous gaze is now focused on Pidge instead.

“You err, Green Paladin.” Krolia says, her voice still perfectly even but cold as the vacuum of space. “If that file contained information on Keith’s whereabouts, this conversation would be unnecessary.”

Pidge still looks mutinous and unconvinced. “You have to know something! We can’t just search the entire universe for him blind. You have to have at least something we can go on…” by the time she trails off, Pidge’s voice has taken on an edge of desperation that Lance finds both wounding and vindicating.

Krolia shakes her head, looking almost lost herself, and for the first time, Lance can see that she’s just as worried for Keith as they are. “My son left in a deep cover scout vessel -- its range is functionally unlimited. We have the vector and the duration of his departure wormhole, and given the lack of teludavs in his exit galaxy, we can safely presume he is still there. Unfortunately, factoring in the engine specifications of the ship and the consumables available to him at his departure, anywhere in that galaxy would be a viable destination for him.”

At that, Pidge can only sigh. “An entire galaxy isn’t really any better than the whole universe as far as a world-to-world search is concerned. What about the ship itself? There’s no transponder to track?”

Krolia exhales forcefully through her nose. “The transponder went dead before Keith entered the wormhole. I find no difficulty in imagining him disabling it purposefully. Especially considering the fact that the backup transponder that he shouldn’t have even known about was deactivated as well.” She takes a deep breath and glances at each of the paladins in turn. “Additionally, he is masking the signal from his blade.”

Lance starts. “I didn’t know that the blade could be used to track him.” Pidge also looks surprised.

“No, and no one may be allowed to know that such a capability exists. It is one of the Blade of Marmora’s most closely guarded secrets. Each of our swords is entangled on a quantum level with the master blade -- the one currently held by Kolivan. Despite the fact that there is no way he should know to do so, Keith is also somehow dampening this effect. His blade still registers as intact, and extant within our reality, but something is obscuring its location.”

Lance finds he can do very little at the moment but sit in the awful chair and look increasingly upset -- largely because he is increasingly upset. Pidge, on the other hand, looks intrigued. “I’ll turn that over in my head a couple of times… it’s possible that we might figure out some way to get around Keith’s countermeasures.” She turns her head to the side slightly as ideas start to flicker across her face.

Krolia looks supremely unconvinced, offering Lance a brief window into the high regard in which she holds her son. After all, Krolia knows all about Pidge’s often savant-like tech capabilities, and she still doesn’t think that Pidge will be able to find a way past his defenses.

Pidge lights up a bit as another idea apparently occurs to her. “Wait, what about tracking his ship itself -- you know, its wake. Ships outside of wormholes leave ionization trails and create disruptions in local energy fields. If we know the wormhole vector and duration, we can calculate exactly where he exited. We should be able to pick up on his trail somehow from there.”

Krolia shakes her head again, a hint of defeat in its cant. “I’m afraid not, Pidge.” Lance notices that this is the first time that Krolia has referred to one of them by their forename alone. “Keith made certain that he left in the perfect ship for hiding. It contains a new prototype engine model, a type of slipstream drive. It’s engines don’t even leave a ripple in the local background radiation. It’s not entirely impossible that you could eventually devise some method of tracking it, but no such technology currently exists. And, as I’m sure you know, any wake or trail that he might have left has already been degrading for phoebs, and would continue to do so for the entire time required to devise and test a new detection method. It’s simply not feasible.”

Pidge looks flummoxed, and Lance’s increasing upset finally reaches a boil. “The what the hell are we supposed to do, Krolia? He needs us. He needs me! I have to find him, and no one can tell me how!” he shouts, his volume increasing to a near howl by the end of his little tirade. By the time he’s done, he’s breathless, and a single tear has left a track down his cheek. He closes his eyes and knots his hands together roughly in his lap.

Pidge immediately turns in her chair and reaches across to lay one of her own hands on top of Lance’s, hopefully preventing him from actually dislocating any of his distressed fingers. Krolia, on the other hand, looks quite surprised, and if Lance’s eyes had been open, he probably would have noticed her giving him a rather out-of-place soft look for the first time.

“I’m sorry, Lance.” Krolia says, her voice sounding sincere and shot through with a sadness of her own for once. “I’m sorry -- I truly wish that there is something more that I could do to help.” Her voice grows softer still, and wounded sounding. “I want him back too.”

Lance opens his reddened eyes and gazes at her through damp lashes. In a choked, lost voice he manages to force out, “What… what do I do now?”

As Krolia opens her mouth to respond, the monstrous ship shudders around them and a moment later, the far off wail of an alarm can be heard. Krolia’s eyes narrow, and she quickly reaches up to tap on an acid-purple alert that has just appeared on one of her screens. Immediately a Galra officer flashes onto the monitor and salutes stiffly.

“Report.” Krolia bites out.

The officer frowns thunderously. “An unidentified vessel has just appeared within our defensive grid and fired on the doors of the tertiary shuttle bay. After destroying the doors, it appears to have landed within. Nothing is registering on sensors, and all visual channels are being blocked. Additionally, the internal doors will not open. It appears they are being obstructed by some sort of particle barrier. I can report that the containment fields on the bay are intact and functioning. We are not losing atmosphere. A security squad is moving into place and making attempts to cut their way into the room, but so far they have been unsuccessful.” His attention flicks away from the screen for a moment as he waits for a subordinate offscreen to report. His attention refocuses and he salutes again. “Defense wings one through eight have been scrambled, and your protective detail is making preparations for your immediate departure, executrix.”

Krolia frowns her own stormy frown, and for a moment the resemblance to Keith is uncanny. “I will evacuate when and if I determine it is necessary, admiral, and not before. Dismissed.” The admiral looks like he’s going to argue for a tick before he nods his head and offers a third sharp salute before signing off the channel. A few additional key presses from Krolia brings up what should be the internal feed from the shuttle bay’s security cameras. Unfortunately, all that there is to see is snow. Krolia growls.

Lance stares quizzically at the mess on the screen. “Um… Krolia, are your camera feeds always that color… when they’re not working right, I mean?”

Pidge and Krolia both stare at him, confused.

“What color, Lance?” Pidge finally asks.

“Red.” Lance replies, still staring at the monitor. “Don’t you guys see red snow?”

“No.” Krolia replies shortly. “There are no colors currently visible on the feed -- only black and white.”

Lance’s eyes widen abruptly, and his voice is full of the sudden desperate hope that springs up in his chest. “I need… we need to get to that shuttle bay. Right now. I think I know what’s going on.”

Pidge and Krolia both stare at Lance some more, unsure; but when he rises to his feet and races across the room, they follow readily enough. He makes it to the door, which slides open automatically, only to come to an abrupt halt when the veritable mountain of a Galra guarding the door grabs him by the shoulders and shoves him back inside. For a moment, he looks like he’s about to take a swing at the colossus, but this proves unnecessary as Krolia issues a peremptory command in her abrasive native tongue. A command delivered with bone-withering force that melts any opposition out of Lance’s path immediately.

Lance fails to notice that the two guards they left in the hallway have somehow metamorphosed into twenty. He also doesn’t seem to care whether or not Pidge and Krolia are with him as he takes off down the long, nondescript hall at a dead sprint. He also doesn’t pause at all to be perplexed by the fact that he really should have no idea where he’s going. Instead he simply goes. He just runs.

Lance is puffing hard by the time he reaches a pair of huge cargo doors with an entire damn regiment milling around outside of them; and he would surely be irritated at being stopped by the confused soldiers if he weren’t busy panting at the moment - bent over with he hands on his knees.

Probably a full dobosh later, just as a recovered Lance is starting to get really antsy in his attempts to bypass the soldiers, Pidge and Krolia peel into view with all twenty of the hallway guards hot on their heels. Pidge slides to a halt beside Lance, hand pressed hard to her side and completely out of breath. “Christ… Lance… would… it…” she puffs disjointedly, “have… killed you… to slow down? Didn’t you hear me shouting?” she manages to rasp out sounding snarkier as her blood oxygen level slowly normalizes.

An order from Krolia, who sounds as if she’s merely been out for an afternoon stroll in the park finally allows Lance to approach the warded door. To the surprise of everyone assembled it slides open immediately. In response the soldiers’ guns come up in a single smooth motion, and one of them even goes so far as to fire at the doorway. The beam immediately reflects off the particle field with is still apparently filling it, and forces Lance to hit the deck to avoid being shot.

A vicious reprimand from Krolia cuts off a muttered curse, but Lance hardly notices as he’s distracted by his first glance into the interior of the bay. There, sitting calmly in front of the blasted-in outer doors, is the red lion.

Lance simply remains prone on the floor and stares intently through the particle barrier. For the first time in years, he can feel the full, warm weight of his lion bond sitting at the base of his skull; and his mind is full of Red’s ardent, sparkling music.

When Lance first started piloting Red, he found her endlessly distracting. Blue had always been a calming, centering influence in his mind: regular like the waves, and soft like the rain. Red had been a whole lot harder on his ADD-riddled brain. It had taken him quite a long time to realize that his new lion was often just as scatterbrained as him, and even longer to understand that by meshing together their paired inabilities to adequate pay attention, a single creature of adamantine focus could be created. Once they’d truly bonded, Lance had been thoroughly startled to find beauty in the multiplicity of foci -- an endless array of gems making up all the details of everything around them, all strung together like simple ideas just waiting for their natural conclusions. It was light years better than the amphetamine that doctors had doped him with as a kid in hopes of tamping down some of his natural tendency towards bounciness.

Oh how he’d missed her.

And so, despite the fact that Pidge and Krolia are probably trying to talk to him; for a few doboshes, Lance just lays there, abstracted on the hallway floor and listens to his lion sing to him.

There are many bright, major motives woven through her song today: delight at being reunited; excitement about all the new adventures to be shared from their time apart; all undergirded with a paean of joy at the thought of her two dorky, idiotic excuses for paladins finally overcoming their obliviousness and coming together. But, in the depths, below all these lighter themes, Lance can’t help but find himself dwelling on the quieter strains of her sadness.

There are deep, minor chords there that communicate to Lance all the shadows of Keith’s pain -- it’s jarring, especially considering the vast physical distances in play. Those quiet chords ache in Lance’s mind, throbbing like a broken bone; heightened and intensified by the insistent diminished chords he recognizes as his own worries for Keith, and the sharper augmented ones that pulse in time with his worries for himself. And burning all around and through this darker melody, like a fever, like acid, Lance can hear need like strident, drilling tritones. Lance’s need to find Keith, his need to help him. His need to bring him home. And deeper still, almost like an echo, he can hear Keith’s need as well. His need to be found. His need to be cherished, and, to Lance’s shock, his need for Lance himself.

And, once again, for the fifth, or tenth, or fiftieth time in the last two quitents, Lance is crying a rain of tears. He’s silent this time, there are no sobs. Lance doesn’t really notice. Or, at least, he doesn’t really care. His breath and attention both catch as one by one, all of those disparate chords: major, minor, diminished, augmented… they all begin to flow together. In suspension after suspension, they all begin to move towards some inexorable conclusion, modulating into something entirely new. The cadence is soft, but penetrating, and the resolved melody is full of an abundant, almost ineffable joy that slowly filters its way into Lance’s overstimulated brain.

And then, all of a sudden, he gets it. Lance understands. The slump that had settled into his shoulders while Krolia explained just exactly how lost Keith had managed to make himself melts away. Red knows where Keith is. That’s why she’s here. Red is going to make sure her boys are together.

Lance smiles.

Chapter Text

Eventually, Red’s song quiets to an enthusiastic hum and Lance’s brain settles back into his own head again. When it does, he becomes aware of both Pidge and Krolia crouched down in the hallway beside him. Their soft, concerned muttering leads him to believe that they’re worried that the ricocheting shot might have somehow clipped him. He finally blinks his eyes open all the way and realizes that he’s smiling like an idiot. He decides that now would be a lousy time to stop.

Lance clears the frog from his throat while questing with both hands and eventually succeeding in finding one of each of theirs to grab onto. “Hey there. Sorry about that. I’m okay. Red just had some important things she needed to tell me.”

Pidge looks unsurprised. “I kinda figured, but that rapport was a bit longer and deeper than usual.”

“Well, we haven’t seen each other in a while. One or the other of us might have been a little excited.”

Krolia is looking at him again, this time her concern is showing clearly on her face. A fact which Lance finds surprising. Maybe she doesn’t hate him after all. “I am pleased that you are well, Lance. Keith would not be… pleased, if harm were to come to you on a Galra ship. I doubt I would be forgiven for such a thing.”

Lance wonders if she’s being serious. She doesn’t sound like she’s joking, but then again, Galra humor is a little hit or miss in his experience. Mostly it makes him wonder at the idea that Keith could feel so protective of him as to be angry at his own mother because of an idiot soldier and a dumb accident that caused no real harm. Realizing that he’s likely been silent for too long, and probably looks dumb again, he squeezes both of the hands he’s still holding onto and decides to share his news.

“So… Red knows where Keith is.” His broad smile remains firmly fixed. If anything, it brightens more.

Now looking surprised, Krolia glances at the giant magical cat. “Where?” she inquires, her voice betraying a tinge of hope.

At the same moment, Pidge yanks her hand free so that she can perform an excited air punch. “Jackass, here we come! What are the coordinates, Lance? Where are we going?”

Red takes the opportunity to sing Lance’s own leitmotif to him -- the spritely little theme that she uses in place of his name. Lance’s motive alone. His smile turns a trifle sour as he sits himself up and fixes Pidge with what he hopes is a sympathetic look. “Sorry, Pidgey. You know how this sort of thing goes. Red didn't tell me where Keith is. Red knows where Keith is. She’s going to take me to him, but I’m pretty sure she’s not inviting anybody else…”

Pidge looks irked. Krolia looks unsurprised. Red plays him a little melody that sounds very much like Keith’s old identifier; except that it’s much slower now than it used to be. Sadder. The word that it brings to mind for Lance is ‘ downtrodden ’. As he turns his head to look at Red again, she adds a second figure -- Lance’s again. This time it mingles with Keith’s melody, and suddenly it sounds a little less abject; less broken than it had before. Happier or not, the paired melodies remain slow and sweet and lonely. Lance looks back through the door and nods his understanding to the great cat - he gets the picture - and turns his face back towards Pidge.

“She says that I’m the one that needs to go. From the sound of it, I think he may not be feeling up to a bunch of surprise company right now.”

Pidge still looks rather mutinous, like she’s about to disagree. Loudly. Thankfully, Krolia cuts off any opportunity. “Your lion is a wise being, Lance. We would do well to heed her advice. And she knows my son very well. She will know the right thing to do.”

Krolia snaps her fingers and several soldiers step forward, depositing Lance’s luggage, as well as a number of black packs bearing the blades’ symbol as close to the door as the particle barrier will allow. As they do this, Krolia rises gracefully to her feet, pulling Lance up behind her and steadying him when he wobbles. Once he’s standing firmly on his feet, she aligns their arms so that she is grasping his just below the elbow and waits for him to return the grip. Once he does, she speaks.

“Lance McClain -- I entrust you with the care of my only son. Do not fail me.” Her voice is once again hard and formal, but after a moment she bends closer, speaking the remainder of her message softly into his ear. “When you find him, tell him that I love him, and that I'm sorry. And, when he’s ready, lead him home again.”

Lance twitches his fingers tighter, and when he replies, his voice is equally soft. “I will Krolia. I give you my word.” Krolia nods and releases his arm.

Lance then gathers Pidge’s still scrawny form up in his long arms. “I’m not so sure about this, Lance. What if something goes wrong? What if you need help?” She still sounds a bit steamed. “Maybe I should try to convince Red to let me come…”

At that, Lance can’t help but laugh. “Pidge, no one has ever convinced Red of anything. It just doesn’t work that way with her.” The irreverent trill that the lion floats across his brain at that can only be interpreted as ‘ damn straight .’ “It’ll be okay, Pidge. Red will keep me out of trouble. I mean, she’s had a lot of experience with rescuing Keith, after all.” And there’s that trill again. “Thanks for coming with me this far. And thanks for talking with me today. It helped.”

He gives her a squeeze and then lets her go. And now, my Pidgeon, I’ve got a job to do and literally no one else can do it.” He seems to stop and think for a moment, glancing away from both Pidge and Krolia, and then returns to finish his thought. “And even if someone else could, there’s no way in hell I’d let them. That jackass is mine .”

With that he steps away from them and begins hauling the various baggage towards Red -- another task which literally only he can do, as she’s apparently dead serious about this being Lance’s soloquest, and she won’t permit anyone else across her barrier.

Once Lance has managed to load everything, he paces back across the barrier for final goodbyes. Krolia presses the heavy grey folder into his hands and then turns to depart with her guard, her piece apparently already said. Pidge gives him one last quick hug and then punches him in the shoulder with all her might. It hurts quite a lot and deadens his arm instantly, nearly causing him to spew top secret files all over the hallway. Thankfully, he somehow manages to hang on. Barely.

She smirks at him and offers her parting shot. “Try not to fuck up too much, Lance. Except the ways we talked about over lunch. Fuck up like that all you want -- it’s good for the circulation.”

Lance blushes bright red and gives her the finger before fleeing back across the particle barrier and up the ramp into the mouth of his waiting lion. The next thing he knows she’s guiding them out through the ruined doors and his blush is, if anything, deeper. Mostly because Red’s response to Pidge is best translated as ‘ bow chicka wow wow -- go get ‘im Tiger!

Lance wonders how he’s ever going to survive this trip.

***

Using the teludav reserved for the blades’ military vessels turns out to be something of an experience. Red simply hops the line and programs the destination herself -- no doubt bypassing a whole passel of regulations and safeguards. While she’s busy doing this, Lance is treated to a howling video conference with several officials who actually go so far as to threaten to shoot him when the best response he can offer is, “Sorry guys, my lion is driving at the moment.”

Just as it’s starting to look a little grim, Red finally conferences in Krolia herself, and Lance has just exactly enough time to say “Sorry-” before his lion lunges into the opening wormhole and the whole mess swirls away.

Once Lance manages to take a breath or two, he fixes the controls in front of him with a look of faux contempt. “Diplomatic as ever, I see…”

Red snorts at him. It sounds like someone trying to play a trombone backwards.

“Stylish,” he murmurs, shaking his head. “So girl, any idea how long it’s going to take us to get to whatever godforsaken corner of the cosmos Keith is holed up in?

Lance is treated to six long, low tones.

“Six quintents?” he replies.

They sound again, slower this time.

“Ugh. Six movements?” he groans.

“Yup.” Red replies happily in his mind.

Lance spends some time wondering why that’s the only actual word she’s ever bothered to learn. Eventually, his eyes stray to the weighty folder still perched in his lap. “Well, I guess I’m going to have plenty of time to get thoroughly acquainted with whatever nightmares are lurking in this fucker…” He sighs heavily. “I’m really worried about what’s in here, girl. Even Krolia talked about it like it was bad, and she’s been a super secret ninja spy assassin, or whatever, for decades…” His second sigh is longer and he reaches up to run his fingers through his hair.

“This is the right thing to do, right girl? I mean, every single one of my friends, and even Keith’s mom seem to think so. But I’d like to hear it from you too, I guess.” Lance lets out a low whistle. “Christ. I sound needy, don’t I? I don’t know why I’m having such a hard time accepting all this. I mean, every time somebody pushes me - demands an answer - I have it right at the tip of my tongue. It never seems to take any thought at all. In those moments, I think I must actually be in love with that asshat.”

“But then things get quiet again, and I’m by myself, and I just find it all so hard to believe again…” another sigh manages to escape the man. “I’m sorry I’m such a mess, girl. I don’t even really know what it is I need… I guess… I guess I just wish that Keith was the one who told me what was going on. I mean, he’s not very good at, you know, talking. But I think it would have been a bit easier on me if it had actually come from him and not, well, Pidge.” He laughs a bit, only a hint of despair coloring the tone. “I mean, I trust her brains to the end of existence and back, but she’s not necessarily the consultant I’d choose for the ‘ advice for the wounded heart ’ category.”

As Lance finally peters out, a very quiet song starts to sound in the bottom of his mind. It’s different than anything he’s ever heard from either of his lions -- more organic somehow. There are moments where he can almost pick his own familiar motive out of it -- Red’s name for him. But it’s not quite the same. Lance sits in rapt attention as the melody continues to develop. It sounds like walking through the warm dusk in the rain. And then it modulates into something more like a morning at the beach, the sun shining, and families playing frantically in the waves. That motive that sounds like him emerges again, and after a moment, seems to be floating alone in the velvety dark. It sounds lonely. Then a second, sweetly diffident voice enters. That second voice sounds a lot like - feels a lot - like the sad Keith theme from earlier, and the want that fills it aches alarmingly for a moment or seven. As the two voices slowly twine together in the deep dark, the Lance voice no longer sounds so alone, and the want in the Keith voice suddenly sounds more like hope.

It’s only then that Red begins to color the music with her own voice, and the song - recording? - that she’s been playing for him is identified as by Keith, instead of about Keith. The little trill she sneaks in asks Lance if he understands.

Lance is speechless for a long while as the music swells along, and then he nods his head. “That was Keith, wasn’t it? That’s what he sounds like to you when he… when he thinks about me? That’s how his feelings about me sound to you… Red, that’s what love sounds like, isn’t it?”

The warm response is unmistakably affirmative.

“When, um… when is that from? When did you record that? The last time he flew with you was like seven years ago.” The expression on Lance’s face is torn between hope and worry.

This time her answer is more complex, and he has to wait for her meaning to drift up into his conscious mind. “Oh,” is all that he says at first, and then he touches his fingers to his lips. “That isn’t some kind of recording. You asked him how he feels about me, and that was his response. Do you really mean that he’s thinking this right now, while I’m hearing it?” Lance sounds doubtful, as if that idea is simply too good to be true, but the unquestionable affirmative floats across his skull again.

“Oh,” he says again, much more softly this time, as if this time he’s much farther away. And then, for several minutes, Lance is silent. He sits in his chair, quiet and unusually still -- especially by Lance standards.

Finally, he blinks and reaches out a hand to stroke across the lion’s controls. According to his face, he’s thinking seriously about something. Eventually he makes his request. “Red, could you do the same thing for him? Could you tell him what… how… fuck. Tell him how I fell, too?” The question is not without some trepidation, but Lance is pretty sure it’s the right thing to do anyway. Well, he hopes it’s the right thing to do.

Red responds in the affirmative once again, so Lance nods. “Okay then, girl. Let’s send him a message then. He may not understand, but hopefully at least he’ll know that it means someone, somewhere is thinking about him -- that he’s not really alone any more.” Lance waits for a moment as Red asks him a question, and then chuckles a little, feeling more than a trifle embarrassed.

“Yes, Red, if he doesn’t understand what you tell him, I’ll try to do it with words instead when we get there.” And then he sits back in his seat and thinks about how he feels. Words often get him into trouble, and they’re not really what Red is looking for anyway. So he sits there quietly and thinks about Keith, and he thinks about just how much he wants to see him, to take him in his arms, to help him find his way home. And he hopes against hope that Keith can hear him while he does.

Lance’s eyes flutter open some time later when Red prods at his mind. “What do you want from me you silly cat? I was asleep.” Lance rolls his eyes as he listens to her response. “Yes, Mami, I’m sure that I would sleep better if I go and lie down.” He scoffs. “Of course I trust you to fly. And you’re right, this hasn’t actually been the easiest two quintents in my life.” He shrugs, which causes an unpleasant crack in his joints, so he carefully stretches his arms out over his head. This causes his spine to pop in two or three - or twenty - places, and he looks rueful. “Yeah, yeah, cat. I’m not as young as I used to be. I’ll go to the back and sleep.”

He stands stiffly, dumping the black file of death off his lap and onto the floor. Fortunately, someone had the foresight to add one of those clip thingies, saving Lance an awful mess. He glares at the offending folder for a tick before abandoning it to its temporary fate.

“I’ll deal with you tomorrow. I’ve already felt about three lifetimes worth of emotions today. My tank is full.” He rests a hand on the main dash. “Goodnight, my lovely girl. I am truly very happy to be with you again, and I’ll never be able to thank you enough for doing this.” He smiles at the purr that shakes the room and makes his way to the back. Fortunately, one of Krolia’s packs turns out to be a sleeping bag, which teases a tired. “ Sweeeet ,” from Lance as he strips off his clothes. He’s asleep almost before he can get it unrolled on the bunk.

***

Lance wakes up warm, comfortable, and completely disoriented. He turns his head as he gazes around blearily, muzzily wondering where the hell he is. It’s not until he gets a sharp little prod from his lion that he remembers just exactly what’s going on, at which point he sits up abruptly and manages to flail himself off the narrow bunk and onto the floor.

Red’s laughter burbles through his mind.

“Yeah, yeah. Yuk it up, girlfriend. I know I’m a spaz -- it’s not like you have to rub it in.”

He drags himself out of the sleeping bag and returns it to the bunk before stepping into the tiny head to relieve himself and take a quick shower. Once he’s done,  he digs a pair of soft sweats out of his suitcase and goes hunting for breakfast.

In amongst the various supplies so conveniently pressed upon him by Krolia, Lance discovers the hamper of foodstuffs from Altea. “Yesss! And Hunk for the win! Lance is not yet reduced to Galra field rations.”

As he reaches the hamper, he manages to knock over one of the blades-gifted cases on the way, and is properly shocked when a broad assortment of packaged earth food comes tumbling out of it and spreads across the floor. As he begins picking up the mess, he discovers a note.

°°°

Lance McClain,

I do not know how long it will take you to reach my son, so I have provided rations, such as they are, for a three phoeb voyage. In deference to your hopefully similar tastes, I had them drawn from Keith’s private supplies.

Please consider sharing anything that might remain with my son upon your arrival, as many of his preferred dishes are included. Those which he most favors, I have marked with a red tag.

I wish you best speed and good luck. Please take care of my son.

    -Krolia

°°°

And now Lance is shocked again. Krolia went through all the trouble of providing him with Earth food. Not to mention the fact that she has once again showed surprising trust in him regarding her son. Maybe, just maybe, it’s safe to presume that she doesn’t hate him. And just maybe - although this one is a bit squishier and less certain - maybe she even approves of this whole Keith and Lance thing; or at least could some day. Lance finds himself feeling surprisingly, well, what -- heartwarmed? Can you say it that way? Lance figures he can at least think it that way, and finds himself humming as he continues tidying up his larder and manages to snag some kind of egg dish for breakfast from the remnants in Hunk’s basket.

***

Lance eventually wanders back to the bridge and takes a seat in his chair. “Morning, girl. Anything fun happen while I was sleeping?”

Lance chuckles at her response. He’d forgotten just how much ‘ nope ’ sounds like a flatulent contrabassoon. His chuckle dies away as his eyes snag on the folder he left sitting on the deck last night. He bends down and retrieves it, and is about to open it up when Red sends the mental equivalent of a ruler across the knuckles at him. He looks up sharply and notices one of his viewscreens filling with text. It’s an index, and based on its contents, probably something that Red has pulled from Shiro’s tablet. Several entries on it are flashing, and Lance arches an eyebrow at her.

“Are you telling me to read these first? You want me to do this before I look at Keith’s file?”

Affirmative.

“Okay, lady, I trust you. I’ll do my homework before I get to the fun stuff… Anything in particular you’d like me to start with? Though, I don’t know -- with you doing all the driving; and playing nursemaid and watching my bedtime; and tutoring me on mental health, I’m beginning to worry that I’m not carrying my own weight here. It’s almost like I’m letting you do the lion’s share of the work…”

And there’s that ruler again. This time it stings all the way down to something Lance thinks might actually be his soul.

“Youch!” is his indignant response. “Come on, Red, you used to like my jokes.” He pauses. “Yes you did.” Pause. “Did too.” Pause. “ Did too !”

Lance holds his tongue and his stomach as the inertial dampeners kick back on and Red pulls out of the triple barrel roll she’d swung into. “Alright!” he mutters. “You win.” And then he turns his attention to the proffered text on PTSD.

Thankfully, the book that Red has chosen for him is approachable. It avoids a lot of medical jargon and contains a number of solid examples alongside its analysis. Lance can feel Red’s focus supplementing his own, helping him keep on task and aiding both of them as they try to absorb what Lance is reading.

After PTSD, she helps him through the chapters on depression and anxiety; through a treatise on night terrors; through essays on the connections between physical and emotional trauma; and finally through an exploration of both survivor- and perpetrator-guilt. She caps the day with a final chapter on the effects of long-term captivity, and by the time he’s done, Lance is reeling and has trod right past worry and fear into outright terror of just what’s waiting for him in Krolia’s fucking secret folder.

As Lance rubs his palms against his sandy eyes he slumps as far down in his seat as he can without courting a second close encounter with the deck for the day. He can feel Red reaching out to him more firmly. He can feel her concern for him, and share in her concern for Keith. He finally begins to relax just a bit as she slowly replaces that concern with the security blanket of her affection for him. And once he’s managed to shudder and let out a cleansing breath or two, Lance closes his eyes in relief. There, in the back of his brain, he can hear Keith again. The song is a little different than last night, but the meaning hasn’t changed.

“Red, can he hear me right now too?”

Tonight’s affirmative is warmer -- gentler.

“Thanks girl, you’re the best.”

***

It took six more days of ‘homework’ before Red would even consider letting Lance look into the grey folder. On the third day, to his shock and joy, Lance discovers that Red had been hiding a game controller in her main console for who knows how long; and that at some point she had squirreled away every edition of Mario Kart ever released, along with a truly vast collection of other games. That particular day she wouldn’t even let Lance read from Shiro’s library, and after a few minutes of arguing, Lance realized with a start just how much he had needed the break.

During his study week, Lance also learned a lot about what Keith likes to eat. Krolia’s supplies were surprisingly varied and of frequently impressive quality. Lance learned that Keith likes Mexican food. Unfortunately, Lance found the processed versions of such both bland and depressing. They made him truly pine for his mother’s Cuban home cooking. This firmed Lance’s resolve to prepare for Keith those of his mother’s dishes that could be reasonably converted to whatever the local vernacular is in Keith’s hidey hole; and further, to swear again to himself that he would eventually drag him to Cuba - kicking and screaming if need be - so that he could experience the real thing for himself again.

Beyond the depressing Mexican, what Keith really seems to treasure is good old simple Americana. Mac and cheese, cheeseburgers, turkey with potatoes and stuffing -- the simple pleasures. This was something Lance could get behind, as he had often craved much the same thing during their shared food goo era. Red was most curious about the cheesecake, so Lance promised her that if she could ever figure out how to eat it, he would make sure that she had as much as she could ever want.

And so passed the first week of the journey. Days were spent learning about all the ways that brains could fail on the people tasked with protecting the universe from itself. Evenings were a time for exploring Keith’s tastes and besting Red at silly video games -- or losing impressively, as the case often was. And the nights, those were Lance’s favorite. Each night before Lance rolled himself into that sleeping bag perched on its narrow bunk, Red would sing Keith’s song for him. Some days it was bright and warm and pleasant; and other days it felt dimmer and far away, as if it was echoing from the bottom of a deep well. But one way or another, it was always there -- without fail. Most nights Lance actually found himself praying to, well, something , that Keith - so far away and all by himself - could really hear Lance too.

***

When Lance wanders onto the bridge on the eighth morning of their journey, for the first time he finds no new homework listed for him on the monitor. He immediately goes pale.

“So, lady love, today’s going to be the day, huh? Today we pull the trigger on the bad news…”

This morning, Red’s affirmative response is longer, filled with an absolute promise that she will be beside her paladin the entire time. That he won’t have to do anything alone.

Before he sits, Lance walks back into the back room and roots through his suitcase. At the very bottom he finally finds what he’s looking for, a fleecy blue throw that he carries back with him to the bridge.

“Heh. You remember this old thing, Red? Came from my bed on the castle. I’ve had it ever since that first night.” He sits down on his chair and tosses the blanket around his shoulders. “I guess it’s pretty silly for a twenty-five-year-old to carry a security blanket, but it makes me feel better. Besides, I’m traditionally pretty good at wearing ‘ silly ,’ so I guess it’s okay. I don’t think that you’ll tell anybody just to embarrass me, except maybe Keith - and the joke’s on you there - he already knows. I told him about it one really bad night after Allura died. After that, he made sure he always knew where it was any time the two of us were together. Just in case he might need to get it for me.” Lance laughs softly, mostly at himself. “My god, he is most certainly a prickly grump of a fucker; but he’s also probably - no definitely - the sweetest guy I’ve ever met.” More laughter follows, rueful this time. “Still can’t believe I got his love declaration from Pidge… that I never realized how he felt. How am I supposed to pass on the dumbest paladin crown if I pull stunts like that?”

He tilts his head to the side, listening.

“No, Red, I’m not stalling - I’m working myself up to it.” Lance takes several deep breaths, exhaling each sharply through his nose -- a trick he learned from his homework for dealing with anxiety. With one final sharp exhalation, he yanks Keith’s file into his lap and opens the cover.

The file itself is huge, probably at least a thousand pages long, and after flipping past a couple of indices, Lance finds a likely place to start. A page that looks like some sort of demographic breakdown.

°°°

Name:  Kogane, Keith

Race:  Hybrid -- Galra/Human -- First Generation

Sponsor(s):  ■■■■■, Krolia -- Mother

                   ■■■■■, Kolivan -- Blademaster

Blade Rank:  01Ω

Term of Republic Service:  54 phoebs

Status:  Discharged -- Honorable, Medical

Ground Engagements:  116

Space/Aerial Engagements:  174

Aerial Kills [1x1]:  655

Non-Military Tactical Engagements:  128

Elimination Rate:  96.4%

Diplomatic Engagements:  313

°°°

Lance slams the cover back shut and throws the folder onto the dash, his eyes pressed tightly shut. When he speaks it’s barely a whisper, and his voice quivers. “Red, does ‘ non-military engagements ’ mean what I think it does?”

Red’s affirmative is deeply colored with a sorrow that matches Lance’s own.

Ay por fucking Dios . Pidge’s example was actually spot on. The fucking blades were using Keith as an assassin. And not just that -- he wasn’t just their hired killer. He was an ace pilot too. That means he was the guy that they put out front to mow the enemy down. More than six hundred kills, that’s at least what: ten or twelve a phoeb. And they had him doing that for years .” Lance breathes sharply. “And the ground combat… that would have been even worse. Even more kills. Christ. Many more kills, probably. On his worst day, Keith’s worth at least ten to one in hand-to-hand matchup…” Lance shudders, his shoulders hunched as far as they’ll go. “I fought a war beside Keith. I killed enemies, and watched him do the same, but here we’re talking about hundreds… quiznak, no, probably thousands more deaths they’ve made him responsible for. And this time, there’s no Zarkon, or Haggar, or Lotor to shoulder part of the blame…” Several frustrated tears make their way over the blue marks on Lance’s cheeks and disappear into the scruff of beard he’s developed over the course of the trip.

“The blades, his own mother , turned him into a killing machine for the sake of carving out their new republic -- and none of us even knew. He never once complained. He probably ‘didn’t want to be a burden’ that noble fucking idiot. At least during the war, we stood together, and when we… when lives had to be taken, we knew why, and we were there for each other. To help commiserate, to help… mourn. To help remember why we were fighting. None of us had to carry that burden alone.” Lance sinks his face into his hands and is quiet for a long time. Finally, Red quietly asks for his attention, and in a very unusual step for her, writes him a text message that splays across the monitor at his elbow.

< I’m so sorry, my heart, but you have to read about Enlad now. It will be listed in the third index. >

Lance blinks. He can’t actually remember another time when Red has actually used words with him. Blue used to do so, on rare occasions, and apparently Green spoke with Pidge that way all the time. But for Red to do so, this must really be important.

With trepidation, Lance picks the folder up once more and opens it to search the index for ‘Enlad’. The name sparks something familiar in his memory. And then Lance remembers, Enlad was the place that Keith had been before the fifth reunion. The place that he wouldn’t talk about, and that left him looking like the contents of a reheated grave. Lance’s anxiety begins to mount as he finds the planet on the list and flips towards the end of the file to the section in question.

As Lance reads page after page he begins to slump lower in his seat. He yanks his legs up to his chest and nearly sends the file skittering across the deck once again. His visible profile grows smaller and smaller, almost like he’s shrinking, and he wraps himself tighter in his fuzzy blue blanket. Eventually, he starts to cry.

By the time he’s finally finished, and the report does fall to the ground once more, dropped from nerveless fingers, Lance is sobbing inconsolably; and Red, clearly concerned that Lance isn’t hearing anything she says anymore, begins piping her comfort over the actual speakers on the bridge.

Finally, Lance gets something resembling a hold on himself and begins responding to her once more. “Red, this is so, so bad. Keith ahd h-his team were sent in to t-take out some Galra warlord and his entire command structure. At his daughter’s wedding.” He sniffs. “They were successful -- they killed the warlord, and like fifty other people. The problem was that their intel wasn’t entirely accurate. They thought that the daughter was marrying the second-in-command -- they were wrong. The daughter was the second-in-command, and she turned out to be way worse than her dad was.”

“A few months later, they sent Keith back in after the daughter. Except this time she was expecting them, and the whole team was captured.” Lance stifles another sob. “They had Keith for almost five phoebs. They tortured his team to death in front of him one by one, trying to break him. And they hurt him too. They hurt him so badly.”

“I read… I read his medical report. He had to have bone grafts to repair his spine, and they had to put in prosthetic joints to replace his shoulder, and his hip, and his knee. They completely rebuilt both of his hands and one of his feet… if Krolia hadn’t insisted, he’d have three bionic Galra limbs to match Shiro’s old one now.” Lance takes a deep breath, and then another, and then a third -- trying to maintain some level of calm.

“When the blades finally found the shithole he was being held in and sent some sort of extraction team, the guards on his cell tried to finish the job before they team could get to him. They shattered his pelvis and most of his ribs, and they fractured his skull. I guess the team medic had to drill holes to relieve the pressure on his brain -- he… they… quiznack. Red, they lost his heartbeat three times before they could get him into stasis in a healing pod.”

Lance’s voice is muffled by his hands, and he’s making no attempt to stifle his tears, though he seems to have the sobbing under control for the moment. His terrified, wounded eyes roam the bridge, looking for something - anything really - to focus on, and they find nothing but cold banks of controls. Oh, Red. It’s a miracle he’s still alive. He was stuck - frozen - in that Christ-forsaken pod for almost six movements. It’s amazing that he came out with any shred of sanity left.”

Lance laughs a painfully bitter little laugh that contains no trace of humor at all. “Of course, it’s hard to tell whether that’s true or not from the reports. Whether he’s sane or not, that is. Galra mental health care seems to leave something to be desired… a couple of his doctors - or maybe ‘so-called doctors’ would be better - wanted to report him as a traitor when he refused to go back to fighting after he woke up. From the look of things, he went on a few more diplomatic runs after Enlad, but he wouldn’t even pick up a weapon. He had a couple of close calls where he wouldn’t -- or maybe couldn’t fight. Finally, Krolia stepped in and relieved him of his duties.” Lance’s sigh sounds very wet, and Red is still trying to comfort him from every speaker she can muster. “A few movements later, he took a ship - a fucking untrackable ship - and just disappeared. I’m amazed he managed to even send that message to Shiro, given the state he must have been in…”

Lance trails off and his shoulders begin to shake again. “Keith,” he whispers brokenly, “I’m so sorry. So, so sorry that I wasn’t there to help you when you needed me.” His whisper morphs until it sounds more like a prayer. “Please hang on a little longer. I’m coming. I’m coming to you now. Please let me help you. Please don’t let it be too late…” Red’s music over the speakers dies away, replaced slowly by the strains of Keith’s song, low and sweet. Eventually Lance cries himself to sleep.

***

The remainder of the trip is not particularly eventful. Lance dedicates a part of every day to reading the secret, awful history of the last five years of Keith’s life. There is a lot of blood and death. Hard battles and serious injuries. But, to Lance’s great and ongoing relief, there’s a lot of life in there as well. Keith wasn’t just an assassin in the night. He was also a diplomat that brought medicine and food to the sick and starving. He resettled uncountable scores of war refugees. And he showed great personal drive in his ongoing projects to house, protect, and whenever possible, place with families the orphans born of Zarkon’s ten-millennia war.

In the end, Lance reads every word in that grey folder. And when he’s done, he feels like he probably knows Keith better, and he hopes that he is better prepared for whatever it is he’ll find when he finally arrives. What doesn’t change, as he pores over the documents, is the way that he feels about Keith. There are dark and unfortunate things in those pages -- but none of them are reprehensible. Lance finds no evidence of a monster in that file, just sign after sign of a man who has been at war for far too long. A man struggling with the increasing weight of his own experiences.

***

By the end of the trip, Lance is way beyond antsy, and Red is admittedly getting a bit fed up with him. Several times across their multi-movement star trek she had offered to land somewhere and let him stretch his legs -- and maybe buy a razor to replace one he somehow managed to leave on Altea. Each time Lance had firmly refused. He couldn’t stand the idea of making Keith - or himself - wait any longer than absolutely necessary, so Red allowed herself to be overruled. Besides, Lance has decided that he kinda likes the beard -- it looks dignified. Or something.

In any case, when the morning of their arrival finally rolls around, Red awakens Lance with an astringent poke to the parietal and tells him to make himself presentable. Also to dig out something waterproof to wear. Not wanting to irritate his poor lion any more than absolutely necessary, Lance follows her instructions without question while trying to ignore the growing feeling that he’s about to go crawling out of his own skin.

He showers and dresses in a pair of medium grey jeans and the heaviest sweater from his bag, a woolen cable-knit in dusty plum. He rounds the outfit out with a pair of stout hiking boots from his own bag and a comically large black Jacket from Krolia’s gear that sheds water brilliantly when he tests it briefly under the showerhead. He snags a granola bar and some dried fruit of Galra provenance and wanders to his seat on the bridge.

He eats, and dorks about, making a generally jittery nuisance of himself until he catches sight of a planet slowly growing large on Red’s main screen. “Is that where we’re headed?” he inquires, his attention finally focusing hard on something. His interpretation of Red’s reply is ‘ close enough ’. Lance isn’t really sure what that means, but he’s not about to start second-guessing his lion now.

As they ease closer and closer, Lance realizes that the vast orb hanging in front of them is a gas giant all in luminous shades of violet and rose. It also has an extensive ring system in burning shades of crimson, and great storms in shocking indigo swirl periodically across its upper atmosphere. “ Dios mio , girl, that might just be the prettiest planet I’ve ever seen.”

Red agrees softly, and then adjusts their heading towards a sparkle hanging above the rings that slowly resolves itself into a moon. As they get closer, Lance begins to pick out the features of their approaching destination. It’s big for a moon, probably about the size of Mars; and as opposed to earth and her oceans, this moon seems to lend itself more towards mountain ranges. There still appears to be a fair amount of open water, and lots of greens and healthy browns; but the moon’s primary biome appears to be alpine, which means lots of crags, meadows, and snow.

Before the close on their final descent, Red makes a request that doesn’t really make a lot of sense to Lance, but one that he really can’t see any harm in, so he goes along without any demur. He traipses back to his bags and retrieves the box that Coran had gifted him with movements ago on Altea and returns to the bridge. Red opens a cavity in her dash that very much resembles a glove compartment and directs Lance to place the necklaces inside of it. When he inquires as to her purpose, all that she will say is that she wants to add her blessing to Coran and Alfor’s. Figuring that’s good enough, Lance shrugs his shoulders and slips the boxed necklaces inside.

Immediately afterwards, Red closes the compartment and crowds Lance into his seat before dropping into the upper atmosphere. Lance watches, rapt, as they begin to swirl down through the clouds and the landforms below begin to resolve. His heart beats faster and faster, and all his excited brain can squeeze out is ‘ Keith -- I’m almost there!

Chapter Text

Red skims effortlessly down through the clouds and Lance can hear the soft patter of rain beginning to beat against her hull. He grins. “So, you were right about needing a jacket, hey Mami? That’s okay, you know how I feel about the rain.”

Red harrumphs at him, a slight shiver running through her mechanical body.

“Yeah, yeah. I know. You don’t really feel the same about water as I do. Maybe sometime when we have the leisure, I’ll manage to change your mind.”

She harrumphs again, moving swiftly enough across the landscape to turn the viewscreen into a blur. Eventually, she slows and begins her final descent into what looks to be an old quarry. Lance looks at it with interest.

“Well, by the looks of things, there’s at least some sort of civilization here… I seriously doubt that Keith decided to dig himself a whole quarry in his spare time. Do you suppose he’s actually made friends with the locals? You know, paragon of friendliness that he is…”

Lance is, all things considered, expecting another barely verbal harrumph, and is instead surprised by Red’s affirmative ditty of a reply.

“You mean to tell me that our grouchy, old Keith has actually been befriending the locals? Well, blunders never cease.”

Red’s reply is caught somewhere between amusement and subtle sternness at the potential mockery of her beloved paladins. Lance strokes her dash.

“I guess I’ll find that out soon enough, won’t I girl. Hopefully they’re not giant, scary bug monsters who eat visitors.”

As she lands lightly on her paws in the quarry, Red assures Lance that they are not. She then gives him brief instructions on where he’s headed, and tells him to pack a change of clothes or two before she hunkers down so that he can exit and begins to power down her systems.

Lance strokes his hand along the dash once more, and when he speaks, there’s no joking in his tone. “Thank you, my lovely girl. You’ve worked very hard to get me here and keep me sane all at the same time. I’ll never be able to repay you for your help, or your love. Have a nice nap.”

Her reply is a simple, muted burst of affection that bleeds slowly through their stilling bond as she drifts off into whatever dreamland she visits when she’s recharging.

Lance walks into the back room and begins to sort through the various crap piled there. Luckily, Krolia’s supplies include a backpack, so at least he won’t have to be wandering around trying to carry a suitcase. He pulls a pair of jeans and a couple of sweaters out of his bag and shoves them into the pack. Then, for good measure, he adds a pair of sweats and about fourteen times the number of socks he thinks he could possibly use -- in deference to the rainy-day hike he expects he’s about to embark on. After a moment’s consideration he slips Shiro’s tablet into the bag, followed by a couple of his own and a box of granola bars. A bit of questing about turns up a water bottle which he fills and adds to the assemblage.

Lance steps back and eyes the remainder of the gear. There’s the sleeping bag, and a nice tent, a camp stove, and all manner of other stuff he could probably put names to if he really tried. Mostly. Maybe. But, since Red had been pretty specific about what he’d be needing, he just tidies the rest back up into a decent stack and then pauses to use the facilities before he heads out. ‘ This isn’t one of those go down to the creek for water and use the outhouse out back in a thunderstorm sort of planets, right? ’ inquires the little friend in his head. ‘ Oh God. I hadn’t even thought of that. Keith wouldn’t… I really hope not, ’ he thinks back. He really hopes it’s not that sort of planet. Er, moon. Whatever.

Given its relatively small proportions, Lance figures that the pack will fit fairly easily under his oversized raincoat, and indeed it does. Thus accoutred, he makes his way to the ramp. As he reaches up to key the airlock open his hand stops in midair and he shakes his head. Turning around, he hustles back to the bridge and retrieves his fuzzy blue blanket from the backrest of his chair. He folds it carefully and slips it into his bag as well and then returns to the airlock. He traces a finger along the doorframe and murmurs, “Bye, Red. You have a good sleep now. I’ll call if I need you.” That done, he squares his shoulders, keys open the airlock, and steps out into the light rain.

***

Lance manages to make it ten or twenty steps before it occurs to him that he ought to have looked at the atmospheric readouts. Or at least asked Red about it. He must be out of practice, he figures. He inhales deeply and finds nothing overtly questionable -- at least not that he can smell. In fact, to Lance at least, it smells very pleasant. Rain, clean dirt, vegetation, and maybe just a hint of something peaty. He can’t smell any pollution to speak of. No smog or exhaust. So he concludes that, thus far at least, this moon seems nice enough. It’s not exactly warm, but he’s not freezing his balls off or anything. The air’s not trying to poison him, and nothing has tried to eat him yet. Yeah, it could definitely be worse.

Lance can’t really see much of anything at all. The rain clouds are hanging low -- nearly to the point of fog, and most of his surroundings are thoroughly covered in a damp silvery haze. He makes his way towards the track he can see at the edge of the quarry and climbs out onto the sparsely wooded moor. He notices that his steps feel rather light, and jumps experimentally. His clearance off the ground mid-leap is unusually impressive. He grins. Low gravity planets are fun. Once he returns his attention to the matter at hand, he takes a look at the track in front of him. It obviously hasn’t seen much use lately -- it’s hardly more than a subtle trough with slightly shorter grass covering it; but thankfully, it’s clear enough to follow without trouble, so follow he does.

He’s gone perhaps a mile when he’s compelled to call his first halt. Breathing heavily, Lance leans against a twisted little tree and wonders why he feels so damned out of shape. It’s not like he’s been sprinting down the trail, and his pack’s barely heavy enough to even notice. In fact, given that he only feels like about three-quarters of his normal self in the relatively low gravity, he can’t quite put a finger on why he’s currently leaning against a tree trying to resist the urge to groan.

Eventually, he figures it out. As his breathing normalizes he frowns at the terrain surrounding him, remembering that the whole damn surface of the moon is way above whatever passes for sea level around here, and that clean or not, the air is probably a bit thin compared to what he’s used to. He wonders for a moment why it took him rather longer than it should have to work that out, and if he should add another tick mark to the dumbest paladin column. In the end, he decides to give himself a pass. Hell, he’s from the damned beach, after all. Born and bred. Never having claimed to be a mountaineer, he figures it’s okay that he, you know, isn’t one. Once he’s no longer puffing like a bellows he sets forth once more, albeit at a slightly more sedate pace.

An hour or so later, Lance’s vague little track runs smack into a somewhat larger trail. It’s broader, and most decidedly muddier -- apparently getting enough traffic to wear away the ground cover. Across from him he spies a stoutly built wooden sign, which he can’t read, of course. It has a prominent arrow carved in it, but Lance isn’t sure exactly how much credence he should be giving the arrow carver. He ponders over Red’s instructions for a moment. They mostly told him to go up to Keith. Unfortunately, other than some generalized rolling, the ground around him is pretty flat. Lance ponders. Then he pouts. Then he pouts some more. Then he sighs and reaches his mind out towards Red.

“Hey girl. I’m sorry to wake you already but I’m not sure which way I should go.”

Her initial nonsensical tootle sounds like a wind ensemble tuning before a concert, which sparks a smile from Lance. Eventually she wakes herself up enough to get him going in the opposite direction than the arrow on the sign would have sent him, leaving Lance glad he asked.

“Thanks, beautiful. I suppose I should have just guessed ‘ away from civilization .’ This is still Keith we’re talking about…”

He smiles to himself as his lion replies with nothing more than a drifty little snore, and begins to walk away from the sign. It doesn’t take all that long for the trail to resolve into something that’s headed rather more obviously up . Apparently, the quarry that they landed in is down in something of a valley, and now Lance finds himself switchbacking his way up out of it through the mud. By the time he manages to slog his way to the top of the ridge, the rain has cleared a bit, and more of his surroundings are starting to peek through the haze.

What he can see of the trail he’s following winds its way around and over the foothills in front of him, clearly headed in the direction of the imposing peak slowly emerging from the murk. Lance heaves a sigh. “Keith, if you’re on top of that damned mountain, I may just kill you once I manage to drag my soggy ass up there and find you…” he murmurs, taking a minute to turn around and glances behind him as well. The valley below is still thoroughly socked in, and all he can see are the pearly grey clouds filling it. Lance digs a granola bar out of his bag and takes a swallow from his bottle. “At least I’m not likely to dehydrate here,” he observes to no one and gets himself walking in the direction of the mountain once more.

***

Something like three vargas later, Lance finds himself beginning to run a little low on good humor. He’d managed to soak himself to the knees crossing a creek inelegantly, and he’s quite sure that his wet boots are currently engendering some fairly impressive blisters. Beyond that, it’s still raining, and he’s feeling more than a trifle moist and increasingly chilly. In fact, he’s just on the verge of waking Red up again so that at least he has someone to bitch to when he’s distracted by a hint of earthy smoke in the air.

Lance spins in place several times before finally locating what of the smoke plume is actually visible as it blends into the rainy grey sky and sets off towards it at a fair clip. As he gets close he finds, to his surprise, that it appears to be rising from one of the little hills just off the trail. A hillock, really, he supposes. Confused, he begins to skirt around it and immediately notices that its sides have a surprisingly regular pitch to them. And… windows. Not normally something you find growing on hills in the middle of nowhere.

After a few more paces Lance finds himself standing next to a fence enclosing a small dooryard. On this side, the little hillock has a black-painted wooden face, complete with windows and a door. There are flowers growing in the dooryard, and in boxes below the windows too. It’s idyllic. The setting is completed by a flagstone path that leads from the gate to the doorstep. Lance stops and stares at the tableau in surprise. If the partially completed companion structure across the way is anything to go on, then this hill with it’s doors and windows and flowers isn’t so much a hill as it is a cleverly wrought and thoroughly charming cottage built out of sod.

As Lance stands in the middle of the trail and wonders whether or not he ought to go up and knock on the door, he hears an excited yip behind him. Half a breath later, he’s letting loose a surprised yip of his own as something substantial runs at speed into his back and knocks him flat on his face in the mud.

Lance’s attacker snuffles excitedly - and wetly - at his hair. Lance makes a face. His new beard is probably less dignified looking when it’s full of mud. Oh well. Just as he’s about to roll over and see what kind of wretched monster is none-too-gently nosing at him, he hears a low voice from surprisingly close by.

“Kosmo, no! Bad wolf! That’s very impolite, you know.” There’s a little pause. “I’m very sorry about that, sir. He’s usually better behaved. If you’d like to come inside and clean up, you’re-”

Keith cuts off abruptly as Lance flips himself over as fast as humanly possible at the sound of his voice. Now he’s sitting in the mud instead with his eyes locked on Keith’s shocked face. Kosmo promptly sprawls across Lance’s now available lap. The mud under him squelches unpleasantly. ‘ Probably a good thing Red made me bring spare clothes ,’ is the only thing even resembling coherence that his spinning brain manages to spit at him.

Keith looks poleaxed. His mouth moves soundlessly for really rather an extended period of time before he manages to stutter out a single choked word. “L...Lance?”

Lance, who comes to realize that speaking just isn’t in the cards right at the moment, especially considering the din in his brain, at least manages to coax his head into some semblance of a nod. Apparently that’s enough for Keith, as it causes him to stumble forward on uncertain feet and, before Lance can really get a handle on, well, anything, Keith’s ass hits the mud right in front of him. And there they sit. Lance and Keith. Keith and Lance. In the mud. Kosmo remains delightedly flopped across Lance, deigning nobly to ignore the dirty water dripping off of Lance’s face and into his fur. Some distant part of Lance’s brain points out that Kosmo is awfully big to be playing lapdog, given that he’s somewhat bigger than a pony.

When asked later just how long this uncomfortable, wet, and dirty greeting carried on for, neither man will have any idea at all. Finally, Keith raises a hand and touches it to Lance’s cheek with a sort of desperate gentleness. Lance brings up his own filthy hand to cup Keith’s fingers and hold them more firmly against his face. Keith looks dazed. His mouth continues to work periodically, but this time, for the longest time, not even a single word manages to make it through. Finally, when Keith does manage to second word of his greeting, it’s one that makes Lance’s heart hurt.

“Real?” is the word that Keith ultimately manages to utter, his voice sounding so lost and full of disbelief that Lance wonders if he’s going to start crying. Instead, he leans forward into Keith’s touch, tightening the hold on his fingers, and manages to use his words instead. “Yeah, Keith. I’m real. I’m Lance and I’m real and I’m here.” He lets out a noisy breath, “I’m sorry it took me so long to catch up with you.”

It ends up being Keith that cries, rather than Lance, and he doesn’t do it prettily. It’s a lot like watching a burning building collapse in on itself. For a moment, at least, Lance doesn’t see a strong soldier, trained and stolid. What he sees is a skinny, lonely kid who’s absolutely beside himself, and Lance finds that he has absolutely no idea what he’s supposed to do now.

Thankfully, Kosmo is at less of a loss. He disappears from Lance’s lap and pops up behind Keith. One small nudge later, Lance finds a sobbing, clinging Keith in his lap instead and immediately wraps him in his long arms. Keith’s weeping is distressingly silent. Wrapped in Lance’s firm grip, his body shakes with sobs, but he doesn’t make a sound.

Lance still doesn’t know what to do. He’s never seen Keith fall apart like this before. Honestly, he’s not sure he’s seen anybody fall apart like this before. In the end, he does what feels most natural. He cradles Keith in his arms and rocks the both of them gently back and forth. He hums under his breath and murmurs whatever occasional random, hopefully comforting words come to him. Whatever random babble his currently useless brain is serving up. He hums, and he whispers, and he waits. He holds his silent, heartbroken Keith and eventually realizes that he’s crying too. As he cries, the tears work tracks through the mud on his face.

***

By the time Keith’s storm of crying finally winds down, the afternoon light is starting to dim and all at once Lance realizes that he is horrifically uncomfortable. He’s been sitting in the cold mud in the rain, probably for hours now. His legs have long since gone numb under Keith’s weight. Lance looks down at Keith’s face, still cradled against his breast. It seems blank now, open but tired and empty -- eyes staring blankly at nothing. “Hey, buddy, you think maybe we should get up and go inside?” Lance tries softly.

Keith doesn’t respond. Lance wonders what the hell he’s supposed to do now.

A cold nose touches Lance’s cheek, and he looks up to find an attentive Kosmo standing beside him. Kosmo bumps his nose against Lance’s temple and then walks over a few steps and opens the gate before glancing at Lance over his shoulder, clearly waiting.

Lance nods at the wolf, and with some unusual physical grace he manages to heave both himself and Keith to their feet. Lance groans as the blood flow to his legs is abruptly reestablished, and stands there shakily with his knees locked while he waits for the pins and needles to subside. Kosmo remains patiently by the gate, his tail wagging. When Lance is finally sure he won’t fall over again in the attempt, he takes a step towards the wolf. Keith immediately stiffens next to him, and with an inarticulate moan, he grabs great handfuls of Lance’s coat and hauls him to a stop.

Lance takes a moment to relocate his balance and then stares at Keith, confused. Keith’s jaw is tensed as he grinds his teeth against each other, his face twisted into a rictus of fear. Lance blinks, and then wraps his arms back around Keith and pulls him close again.

“Keith… Keith, it’s going to be okay. I’m not trying to leave. We’re just going inside.” Keeping his arms tight around the larger man, Lance manages to shuffle both of them towards the cottage about half a step. Keith’s face and posture relax slightly, now that Lance is no longer trying to move away from him, but his hands remain locked tight on Lance’s jacket. Finally, Kosmo apparently fed up with waiting, comes back over to the creeping pair, making a circuit or two around them. After assessing the situation, Kosmo begins bumping gently against them, chivvying them both towards the door.

With the wolf’s help, Lance manages to get Keith inside without dismantling their awkward embrace. He’s sufficient preoccupied that he finds it hard to take in the detail of his surroundings beyond the fact that it appears to be immaculately kept. This causes Lance to glance down at the to two of them, dripping in the doorway, and shake his head. “Shit, Keith. We look like we’ve been rolling in the fucking mud…” Lance trails off, blinking. “I suppose because we have been rolling in the fucking mud.” He eyes Kosmo. “By the way, thanks for helping get us inside, doggy. It’s possible that I can forgive you for ruining my outfit.”

Kosmo wags his tail some more.

“Keith, buddy, do you have, like, running water? We’re going to need a shower, or a bath, or something; and I really don’t fancy trying to find the local lake…” Keith continues to stare at nothing and cling to Lance. Lance looks around helplessly. Kosmo walks to the other side of the room and nudges open a door. Through the doorway, Lance catches sight of a shower cubicle.

A new problem wanders into Lance’s mind and curtsies politely. He looks at Keith, his eyebrows furrowing. “Hey, man, do you think you’ll be able to let go of me for long enough to take a shower?” Keith shakes, and his grip tightens further. Lance spends a moment of his own staring blankly at the wall and taking deep breaths, and then allows himself a shudder. This, of course, manages to dislodge a mournful keen from Keith. Lance reminds himself that being dramatic is unlikely to be helpful at the moment. Lance pulls Keith back against his chest and sways back and forth for a moment. Keith half-relaxes once again.

“That’s okay, Keith. We can just… do it together. No big deal.” Lance keeps his voice slow and quiet and calm. Something he read in his homework about shock comes to mind, and Lance figures it’s worth a try. Right. Focus on simple commands or requests with easily achievable outcomes. “Keith, can you take off your right boot for me? You’ll still be able to hold onto me with your left hand.”

To Lance’s relief, one of Keith’s hands unknots and he reaches behind himself to meet his raised foot, yanking off the requested boot. Lance smiles at him. “Great job. Now can you do the same with the left boot?”

The process of getting the two of them both out of their respective clothes while also keeping at least one of Keith’s hands in contact with Lance at all times is trying to say the very least.

Lance manages to slowly talk Keith out of the rest of his clothes first - one specific article at a time - before he turns to the puzzle of getting out of his own while Keith is still clinging to them. Lance manages to get himself to the point where only his muddy purple sweater is left before accidentally setting Keith off again. In the course of pulling it off, Lance, of course, has to pull his head down into the body of the sweater. Unfortunately, this means that Keith can no longer see his face, and with another heartrending moan, Lance abruptly feels Keith’s callused hands dive beneath the sweater and skitter across his bare skin. This of course, followed immediately by Keith crashing their very and nearly very naked bodies into each other with considerable force.

Lance manages the strip off the sweater in record time, and wraps his arms around Keith again, calming him once more. Lance’s violent blush spreads rapidly from his face down his chest, but Keith certainly doesn’t notice. Lance sighs and does his valiant best to soldier on.

He edges Keith through the door Kosmo opened and spends a frustrating dobosh fiddling with the unfamiliar shower controls while not being able to see them, as they’re on the far side of a still clinging Keith. As Lance finally gets it right and maneuvers the both of them into the now steaming water, some of Keith’s physical markers begin to filter into the conscious part of his brain. While Lance is striving mightily to keep this process as clinical and non-invasive as possible, he can’t help but notice the fact that these days, Keith is built more like Shiro than he is like Lance. Keith is still a bit leaner than his brother, and probably always will be, but at this moment he looks an awful lot like two-hundred pounds or so of impeccably trained muscle. In fact, Lance is rather pleased to find Keith back at his fighting weight, so to speak. He looks much healthier now than he did a year ago, or in that wretched recording.

The second thing Lance notices is that Keith’s mullet is gone. At the moment, Keith’s head is covered in about a half inch of incredibly thick, soft black hair. Lance simply isn’t sure how to classify the and store the sensations he experiences while working shampoo into it. He does observe that it looks rather like Keith may have taken a pair of clippers to it himself. Lance finds he rather misses that dumb mullet, but decides not to mourn it too much.After all, hair grows back, and there are certainly bigger fish to fry at the moment than how hot Keith looks with a ponytail.

The third, and by far worst thing Lance notices during their impromptu shower is the scarring. Now Lance is no stranger to scars -- he has plenty of his own, and he’s seen plenty of Keith’s before too. I fact, cosmetically speaking, the front side of Keith isn’t much different than before, at least taking into consideration those parts that Lance has seen before; and barring those parts that he’s busily refusing to pay any attention to. What Lance finds troubling is Keith’s back.

The hot water, or Lance’s constant presence, or some combination of the two had calmed Keith down to a degree, allowing for a modicum of relaxation as the shower progressed. Lance, seeing that Keith would now remain calm as long as at least one of them had a hand touching the other, took the opportunity to get Keith turned around under the spray so that he could rinse the suds from his face and hair. Meanwhile, Lance decided to check and make sure that there wasn’t mud all over Keith’s back.

There isn’t. What Lance finds instead is a series of broad white scars striping horizontally across Keith’s back and flanks from neck to buttocks. It’s all Lance can do to choke back on a howl as he’s presented with the physical evidence of Keith’s months in captivity. What little noise he does allow to escape is nearly enough to set Keith off again.

Lance quickly reaches out and grabs both of Keith’s shoulders, managing to keep him still, and then, releasing one, washes his back for him. Lance glides the washcloth gently over each of those scars in turn. And even if he had been in a state to notice, Keith would probably have had a hard time telling the tears on Lance’s face from the spray of the shower if he’d turned around.

Keith’s eyes are beginning to droop quite obviously by the time Lance is sure that they’re both clean and shuts off the water. Lance finds that he himself isn’t far behind. Keith still isn’t talking, but he’s following requests with a little more clarity and competence and makes no attempt to fight Lance for contact while he dries them both off. About the time Lance goes to hang up the towel, Kosmo nudges the door open again and drops two pairs of shorts at Lance’s feet. Lance stares at the wolf, and wonders just exactly how smart the not-so-little guy is. Then he shrugs to himself and decides that he doesn’t really care all that much. At least at the moment.

“Thanks, Kosmo,” Lance says with great sincerity. Kosmo wags his tail and sits outside the door patiently. Lance slips into one of the pairs of shorts and hands the other to Keith, who manages to get into them without help or direction. Lance takes Keith by the hand and leads him back into the main room of the cottage. He finds that it’s nearly full dark now, and there’s not much to see outside of the glow coming from the still-lit fireplace. Kosmo immediately stands and shepherds the two of them over to a low-slung sofa sitting by said fireplace. Once there, the wolf shoulders the two of them over onto it with no show of remorse.

Seated now side by side, Keith immediately curls into Lance, his strong arms shaking slightly as they snake around him. Lance turns to face Keith as well and wraps an arm around his neck and shoulders, pulling Keith’s head to rest against his chest again. With his other hand, Lance arranges Keith’s legs so that they’re stretched out along the length of the sofa across his own lap. That hand takes up a post resting against Keith’s hip, and Lance leaves it there, deciding that that’s as good a place as any for it. Better than most, really.

Lance knows that Keith is in no headspace to talk - obviously - since he hasn’t said a word in vargas. And Lance figures it’s okay, since he’s too tired to talk at this point anyway. Lance turns his head to regard Kosmo, remembering his initial greeting and wondering whether he should have tried to clean off the wolf as well. A careful glance reveals no mud, and Kosmo does look slightly damp and curly in the low light. Lance figures that he must have taken care of his own ablutions.

“Wow, you really are a smart wolf, Kosmo,” he whispers. “Thanks for cleaning yourself up. And thanks for watching out for us this afternoon -- we’d have been way more wrecked without you,” Lance admits with a little smile.

Kosmo’s tongue lolls out of his mouth in a lupine smile of his own and he pads over and licks Lance’s face from chin to temple before wandering wandering off into the dark. Lance hears a quiet rustling as he entertains himself by wiping the slobber off of his face, and Kosmo returns shortly, dropping the blue throw from Lance’s pack onto the sofa beside them. Lance reaches over and scratches behind Kosmo’s ears before shaking out the blanket and spreading it over both Keith and himself.

Lance is dead to the world, wrapped up in Keith’s arms before Kosmo can even get back to his favorite rug in front of the fire.

Chapter Text

When Lance wakes up, there’s sunshine streaming through the windows set high along the roofbeam of the cottage. The next thing that he notices is that Keith is still in his arms. Lance finds himself stretched along the backrest of the sofa, half on top of Keith, who is lying flat on his back taking up most of the seat with his broad shoulders. The third thing that he notices is that Keith is staring at him again, although he’s traded in his terrifying blank lack of expression for one that dangles midway between happiness and disbelief instead.

Lance yawns and then smiles at the other man. “G’morning,” he says softly, his voice scratchy. Keith stiffens slightly in his arms.

Keith lets out a fast, heavy breath and reaches a hand up to run his fingers through his now short black hair. “You’re… really here.” Keith huffs out another breath. His voice clearer than Lance’s -- as if he’s been awake for a while. “I was pretty sure I’d just gone completely round the bend. I’ve been having dreams where Red sings about you for, well, about a phoeb now, I guess. And then yesterday, there you were, standing by my door. I thought I’d finally actually cracked.”

Lance’s blue eyes turn a little shadowed. “Yeah, for a bit there I was kinda afraid that you had too.” His breath catches, but he covers. “You weren’t, um… you weren’t talking, like, at all.” He tightens his arms, as they’re still conveniently wrapped around Keith’s chest. I’m really, like, truly glad that you’re talking now. So thanks for that, I guess.”

Keith’s eyes home in on Lance’s, regret visible in his expression. “Oh. Sorry about that. I guess I kind of -- blacked out? I don’t really remember anything that happened after Kosmo knocked you down. Or, well, after I realized it was you that my dumb wolf was attacking, and not some random stranger.”

Lance offers him a little smile. “Well, you didn’t miss too much. We sat in the mud together and cried. For an hour or two, I guess. I don’t really know how long. Until it started getting dark and Kosmo showed up to herd us inside.” Lance flicks his eyes away towards the pile of muddy clothing beside the door and his cheeks take on a dusting of pink. “And then, well, you absolutely refused to let go of me, and we were both completely filthy, so we… kinda… might have taken a shower, well, together.” Lance manages to mumble.

Keith’s face goes radioactive red for long enough for the color to begin splotching across his pale, bare chest before rapidly becoming whiter than before as regret etches its way onto his features once again. He clears his throat uncomfortably. “Oh. Oh man… I’m so sorry for putting you through that. You come all this way just to end up taking care of my crazy ass. I’m sure it’s not what you signed up for.” He shifts his shoulders as if he’s going to escape from Lance’s arms and lever himself up off the sofa.

Lance immediately locks his arms around Keith’s waist, and then tosses a leg across him as well, just for good measure. He’s certain that Keith could still get up if he really wanted - or needed - to; but Lance hopes the contact will help underscore the sincerity of the things he’s psyching himself up to say.

No apologies , my dude. It might not have been the most comfortable thing ever, but… you’re jumping to conclusions about why I’m here. I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what I signed up for.”

Keith gawks at Lance, uncertainty written on his brow and filling his eyes. Lance wonders if this conversation is going to end up getting Keith’s face permanently stuck in ‘ pained confusion ’ mode.

Lance takes the opportunity to convince one of his hands to abandon Keith’s bare ribcage so that he can run his own fingers through the thick black furze on Keith’s head. It’s still unbelievably soft. He lets his eyes wander down from the furrows on Keith’s forehead to lock onto their confused violet counterparts. “So,” he says matter of factly. “We have a whole lot of quiznak to talk about, but I thought we should probably try to get on the same page first. So… there’s something I need to ask you before I lose my nerve.” Lance takes a deep breath, his own eyes now reflecting a bit of the uncertainty. “Um… Keith -- would you go out with me?”

Keith’s brow fails to smooth out. Lance resists the urge to poke at the wrinkles. “I still don’t think you’re using that word correctly.”

Lance starts uncomfortably, confused by the response. “Wait, what?” he manages.

Keith eyeballs him. “Quiznak. I still don’t think you’re-” and then he stops dead in the middle of his sentence, his eyes going comically round while his mouth gapes rather like a fish.

“Ah, there it is.” Lance remarks somewhat dryly.

“What did you just say to me?” Keith asks, his words nearly tripping over each other.

Lance smiles a little shakily. “I asked if, um… if you would go out with me. You know, like, would you like to date?”

Keith’s face shutters and his previously soft purple eyes harden to amethyst. He looks offended. “Lance, that’s not funny.”

Lance continues to look confused, and maybe now a trifle hurt. “Keith, man, it really wasn’t meant to be…”

Despite Lance’s physical attempts to dissuade him, at this point Keith does haul himself off of the sofa in order to pace back and forth in front of it instead. “I mean, this really isn’t something to… joke about. Not for me at least. I mean, for fuck’s sake, Lance. Why would you ask me that?”

Now Lance definitely looks both confused and hurt. Keith doesn’t seem to notice -- he’s too busy pacing. Lance closes his eyes for a moment before squaring his shoulders and trying to make eye contact with Keith again. Keith’s eyes are too busy being all angry slits wandering back and forth across the room; so Lance carries on without. “Well, I was um… under the impression that you have, um, feelings for me? So I figured I’d just get it all out there and, well, ask.”

Keith’s eyes narrow further. If Lance weren’t entirely distracted, he would likely be wondering how it is that Keith can still see where he's going. As it is, he is completely distracted. “Under the impression, huh?” Keith bites out, his fingers clenching. “And who gave you this impression ?” His voice is hard, and definitely starting to sound like old Angry Keith.

Lance quails but manages to murmur out a response. “Well, uh, Pidge might have told me that you were… in love with me?”

Keith’s face darkens further. Lance can’t tell whether it’s from anger or embarrassment, but either way, he feels himself winding up and up, and he can just feel the babble boiling in his brain preparing to vent out through his damned mouth; which, he notes silently, has already apparently gotten him into sufficient trouble in the four doboshes he’s been awake this morning. Despite said trouble, and Lance’s awareness of it, he fails to summon any greater control over the wretched process than normal. So he braces himself instead, his knees rising up to his chest as he sits himself up and his mouth falls open and engages.

“Well, you didn’t show up to the reunion, you see, and then Shiro showed me your message, and I… I didn’t understand because… well, because I’m a huge idiot, I guess. So Pidge thumped me on the head and told me that you’re in l-love with me. Or, I guess now, maybe that’s wrong and you aren’t -- though maybe you were?” He takes a quick, rough breath and rushes on.

“Anyway, Pidge told me that you were in love with me, and at first I was pretty sure she was crazy. Then Shiro agreed with her, and since it didn’t seem likely that they were both completely nuts, I had to accept that I was a giant, stupid asshole who had just never bothered to notice how you felt. So I went off and, well, shouted at myself for a while -- until Hunk overheard me and came to tell me to shut up. Oh, and to talk some sense into me, or whatever. Which sort of worked -- that was when I realized that you weren’t the only one with… feelings. Or, I guess, used to have feelings. I mean, I still have feelings, but maybe it’s too late for that now. Anyway, Hunk got me calmed down; and then at breakfast everybody decided that it would be best if I came to find you -- so Pidge and I went to Daibazaal to talk to your mom; who might not actually hate me. Well, I guess she will now, since I’ve totally fucked this up already.” During another panted breath or two it’s Lance’s turn not to notice the change in Keith this time, who has stopped pacing and is now staring with an odd combination of horror and wonder at the babbling man on his sofa.

Lance wraps his arms even tighter around his knees and continues on at full speed. “Anyway, so we got in to see your mom, who of course didn’t know where you were at all. Probably because she trained you to be such a good super secret spy assassin. Anyway, she didn’t know where you were, even though you left in one of her ships, and I got pretty upset. I might have yelled at her a bit -- I don’t really remember… But that’s about the time that Red showed up and blasted her way into one of the shuttle bays. So I ran down there to talk to her, and she said that you loved me too - just like all the others said - and she knew where you were. I was so relieved…”

“She wouldn’t let anybody else come along, so it’s been just me and her for the last six movements. She helped me read your file, and kept me sane while we flew through deep space for nearly two months without stopping. And, at night, she would sing to me about you. About how you feel. Or, felt, I guess. She thought it meant that you loved me, and I… I thought it meant that too. Maybe she just wasn’t getting it right, or you were too far away, or something. Or maybe she just doesn’t understand people as well as I thought she did. Anyway, I had her try to tell you how I felt about you too -- that’s probably what you’ve been dreaming about. I’m sorry I made you think you were crazy. And… I’m sorry… s-sorry that I didn’t understand until… until t-too late, I guess. I’m s-sorry.”

Lance’s voice had started to get softer and softer about the time Red had arrived on scene in his tale, and by the time he was trying to half-assedly explain Red’s Keith song, it had grown rather choked. By the end of his story he’s making no attempt to prevent his tears any longer, so he simply buries his face in his knees instead, not really wanting Keith to see.

This leads to Lance being so surprised that he nearly falls over when a tentative hand runs along his brow and through his hair. He looks up, eyes red, and sees Keith kneeling on the floor in front of him. Keith’s coal-black eyelashes look suspiciously damp. Without thinking about it, Lance leans into the touch. Keith lets out a stunned little breath.

“Wow, Lance. That was… a lot,” Keith murmurs.

“Yeah,” Lance replies dully.

“And all of that really… happened?” Keith’s small voice continues, containing no little shock.

“Yeah,” Lance replies again. This time it sounds both dull and tired.

Keith’s fingers run through Lance’s hair again. “Obviously there are some things we’re going to have to talk about… but let me make sure I’ve got the gist of it.”

“Okay.” Dull and tired and sad.

Keith’s fingers continue their path through Lance’s hair, leaving it thoroughly tousled. “So, because I didn’t show up to the party, it was announced that I… I have… shit. That I have feelings for you. And that made you realize that  you have feelings for me . So you went and extracted a truckload of top secret information from my mother, the executrix of the Galra Republic - who you’ve always been totally afraid of - and maybe shouted at her. And when that didn’t help, you summoned a giant mystical lion robot back from some other dimension and spent six movements by yourself flying to the edge of the fucking universe to find me so that you could, um… ask me out?” Keith releases another stunned breath. “Is that about it, Lance? Is that what you’re trying to tell me actually happened?”

Lance nods his head, apparently having used up all of his words. For the time being at least.

Keith’s fingers tighten slightly in his hair, applying light pressure to Lance’s scalp. His expression is unusually tender. “Oh, Lance. I’m sorry-”

Lance cuts Keith off, looking devastated, tears spilling from his eyes again, and manages to shrug his hunched shoulders while turning his face away from Keith’s. “It’s o-okay. I shouldn’t h-have… I’m sorry t-that it took m-me so long to -- I’m sorry that I’m t-too late…” He sighs, or maybe sobs. It’s hard to tell. “It’s okay. I d-don’t expect-”

Both of Keith’s hands are suddenly on Lance’s face, the rough pads of his fingers tracing along the tear tracks. Lance stutters to an abrupt stop. Keith’s eyes are still a bit wary, still swimming with uncertainty, but his voice is warm and gentle. “Shut up, you tool. Let me finish. I’m sorry for thinking you were making fun. I didn’t realize that… I didn’t know that you… Dammit.” Keith lets loose a self-deprecating snort. “Shit. I’m so bad at this. Yes , Lance… the answer is yes.”

Lance looks at Keith with wet eyes and a confused grimace. “What?”

Keith smacks his free hand against his forehead and gives Lance’s hair a tiny tug with the other. “To your question. The answer is yes. I’d… I’d like…” He leans forward and rests his forehead on Lance’s knee as his cheeks pink up. “I’d like very much to… to go out with you ,” he admits in a rush, his voice quiet and full of wonder.

“Oh,” Lance replies intelligently. Then he gives his head a little shake and tries again. “ Oh !” He gives Keith the faintest little smile. “Really?” And apparently now it’s Lance’s turn to see just how many volumes of disbelief and uncertainty he can contain in a single little word. Keith’s soft smile turns rueful and a little sad at that. He hauls himself up off his knees and sits down next to Lance before pulling him into his arms.

Lance lets out a ragged breath and Keith pulls him closer as he mops at his eyes. “Really. Truly.” Keith sighs, his fingers finding their way into the hair at the back of Lance’s neck this time, his touch almost inquisitive. “I promise, Lance. It’s not too late, or whatever you said. You… we… haven’t missed our chance or anything. I’ve been in…” Keith coughs uncomfortably and tries again. “I’ve had feelings for you for, well, pretty much forever, I guess. I just didn’t think there was any chance that you-” he stops again, his eyes seeking out Lance’s and once again full of that damned uncertainty.

“But what about… you and Allura -- how are you… I mean, I’m -- ugh…”

Once again Lance looks thoroughly confused. “Um. What about Allura? I mean, sure, there’s a part of me that will always love her -- always miss her. But she’s been gone six years now. I’m not… mourning her any more. Honestly, she’d definitely be the first in line to smack me on the head and tell me to get on with my life.”

Keith’s high cheekbones are looking decidedly rosy again. He clears his throat awkwardly. “Uh, no. I mean, Allura was a girl. I thought you were, er… I mean. You like girls -- I thought.”

“I do,” Lance replies, still looking confused.

Keith looks, if possible, more uncomfortable, and more than a little frustrated. “But I’m… then why are you asking me to-”

The shoe drops and Lance’s face clears. He reaches a finger up to Keith’s lips and puts a stop to his arduously roundabout question.

“Yeah, I do realize that you’re a guy, and not a girl. It’s called bisexuality, K. Not all of us are quite as drawn to the extremes as you.”

Keith releases a long, relieved-sounding breath and his face clears as well. “Oh. Okay. That makes sense then.”

Now it’s Lance’s turn to free up a hand to smack into his own face. “Yeah. Sorry about that -- I should have spared you the misery of trying to ask that particular question. Shiro said you probably didn’t know. That was one of a whole list of things that I was probably supposed to tell you before just asking you out like an awkward schoolgirl with a big crush.”

“Wait. Shiro knew that you were bi?”

“Keith, everybody knows that I’m bi. I’ve been out since I was like twelve. I had a boyfriend our first year at the Garrison.”

“I didn’t know.”

“Obviously.”

“Why didn’t you ever tell me?”

Lance blushes a little. “I don’t know…” he hedges. “Why didn’t you ever tell me how you felt about me?”

Keith blushes in turn and hedges right back. “I… don’t know.”

Lance begins to chuckle and Keith joins him almost immediately. Before they know it they’re both laughing so hard that they’re beginning to tear up again, each clinging on the other.

Lance finally manages to squeeze some words past his glee. “ Ay por Dios , Keith. We’re bad gays. We’re going to have a hard time as boyfriends if we can’t get past the, like, repressed, straight caveman level of communication.”

Keith stares at him with something approaching joy coloring his gaze now and whispers, “ Boyfriends …” in an almost prayerful tone before leaning even closer and touching his lips to Lance’s.

It’s a brief kiss, and chaste, but it lasts long enough for Lance’s eyes to slide closed and he hums happily. Boyfriends.

***

It’s the call of nature that finally drives Lance from the cocoon of Keith’s strong arms. With a bit of a smirk, Keith offers him an unaccompanied shower, and figuring it will give him some time to get more firmly ahold of himself, Lance gladly agrees. Also, he feels a distinct urge to wash his face uninterrupted. He digs through his bag and retrieves a clean outfit - after all, it really isn’t quite warm enough to be cavorting about in just a rather brief pair of Keith’s athletic shorts - and the bag containing the barest emergency selection of his hygiene essentials; and then decamps to the bathroom.

This time, he actually manages to look at the room around him. It has paneled walls crowned with a bright window near the ceiling and a beautifully smooth flagstone floor. The shower, sink and toilet are all clearly anachronisms from an entirely different technological epoch than the room itself -- probably repurposed from Keith’s ship or something. Lance reminds himself to thank his boyfriend later for not subjecting him to some charmingly agrarian outhouse.

Lance spends longer in the shower than is strictly necessary. Long enough to convince himself that any lingering embarrassment from this morning’s communication fiasco has probably passed. After all, everything seems to have turned out alright, and Lance figures that Keith is at least as bad at feelings as he is. He decides Keith won’t hold it against him.

After swearing at himself that he will aim for a drama-free rest of the day Lance drags himself out of the shower and dries off. After carefully re-washing his face and combing his hair and then beard to thoughts of ‘ wow… still not used to having this thing. Should I keep it? I wonder if Keith has an opinion… ’ Lance slips into his clean clothes and back out into the great room just as Keith is returning from the other door in the kitchen.

He’s wearing a cream-colored, cable-knit sweater and fawn-colored trousers. Lance concludes that he looks unusually and surprisingly appealing in simple clothes and neutral colors. What with his broad shoulders, his narrow waist, that impressive muscle tone -- his short hair tousled by an apparent breeze, and a week or so’s blue-black stubble on his cheeks and chin. Keith catches him staring.

“Hey Lance -- something the matter?”

Lance shakes his head and smirks. “Nope, K. Just looking. Haven’t really had the opportunity to do it before without a confusing internal monologue bitching at me about it.”

Keith blushes again and chuckles at lance as he makes his way into the kitchen and sets down a small pail of milk and a little basket of eggs. “Um. I wasn’t really expecting company, so I hope something simple will be okay for breakfast.” His voice is a little hesitant and a little hopeful.

Lance grins at him. “You know me, man. I’ll eat just about anything -- whatever you normally have is just fine with me.”

Keith nods and sets about making their breakfast while Kosmo sidles up to Lance and demands his attention. A few minutes and a vigorous belly-scratch later Lance finds himself summoned to the table and presented with scrambled eggs and little rounds of lightly spiced sausage with a side of dark nutty toast and a mug of something like tea that tastes slightly of both licorice and vanilla. Keith adds some of the fresh milk from his pitcher to the mug.

“Wow, Keith. When you said simple, I was picturing, you know, cereal or something. This is really nice. Thanks.”

Keith just smiles and continues eating.

“Also -- I didn’t know that you could cook.”

Keith takes a sip of his not-tea. “Yeah, the first two phoebs I was here I lived in the village down the hill. The woman I stayed with taught me how to do a thing or two in the kitchen. Oh, speaking of -- I still go into town a couple of times a movement to trade or help out. If you’d like, I could introduce you next time I go. If you’ll still be around.”

Lance looks over at Keith. “If I’m still around?”

Keith nods slowly, his eyes suddenly very interested in the tabletop. “Well, yeah. I don’t really know how long you intend to stay. We haven’t really talked about, well, much of anything yet. But you’ve already taken a bunch of time off just to come look for me. I’m sure you’ll want to go back to your life sooner or later. Probably sooner.”

Lance shakes his head and reaches over to place a hand atop Keith’s, stilling the fingers that had been toying nervously with the grain of the table. “Keith, I didn’t chase you to the ass-end of nowhere just to declare my, um... affection for you and then disappear again. I’m here until… until you say go.”

Keith’s eyes leap up from the table swimming with surprise and worry, and, not-so-shockingly, uncertainty and laser-lock onto Lance’s own. “But… um -- what about, you know, your mission? Allura’s mission? You don’t have places you need to be?” Despite the obvious confusion and worry coloring his voice, Lance is absolutely certain that he can hear just a hint of hope underneath. For a moment, he really wants to kick himself for neglecting this boy for so long.

“Oh right. That,” Lance says airily, waving his unoccupied hand. “Nope. I retired.”

Keith looks flabbergasted. “You did what?”

“I retired. Shiro’s taking over my speaking tour -- he’s going to take Curtis and Ollie off to see the universe. Oh, speaking of Ollie -- you won’t believe how big he is now! I’ve got pictures from the party to show you later. Wait till you see the twins!”

“Hang on. Don’t you change the subject! When did all this happen?”

“Six movements ago on Altea.”

“You mean to tell me that you just up and quit your whole life when… when you…”

“Yup. When I figured out what a colossal fool I’d been for ignoring you for years.” Lance’s reply is utterly matter-of-fact. Keith looks like he just might cry again, or maybe burst an aneurysm of some sort.

“Lance, you can’t just… give up your whole life for me. You were doing something important. I’m… I’m not-”

“K, if you finish that sentence with ‘ worth it ’, I’m going to be mad at you.”

Keith looks to be at something of a loss. “Just like that, Lance? You find out that some random guy has been pining after you and you just upend your entire life in a single evening? Are you crazy?”

Lance shakes his head firmly. “Nope. Not crazy. Well, not crazy for doing this, anyway. Also, I take offense at some of what you just said. For one thing, you’re absolutely not some random guy. You’re my best friend. My brother, who I’m thankfully no actually related to, which makes it okay that I think you’re hot. The other thing: I’ve heard lots of advice from the people that I trust most, including a very overprotective lion. And more than that, I’ve had - let me tell you - lots of time to think about this. Six movements alone with Red left plenty of time for soul-searching.” He pauses, his smile growing, “Honestly, I've never been so certain of anything in  my life. It’s kind of unnerving for me, actually -- I feel absolutely no urge to dither about it.”

“Look, I know we’ve got a ton of stuff to talk about -- to figure out. And God-only-knows what kind of shit - individual or collective - to work through; but I’m telling you right now that I’m here for the duration. I’m not leaving until you tell me to go, or you’re leaving right beside me.”

Keith looks away again, his posture now nearly screaming his uncertainty to the room. “Lance, I have to… to tell you… I don’t… I don't know… uh-”

Lance finds Keith’s struggle to speak actually hurts his heart, so he makes a guess about Keith’s particular worry and dives in. “You don’t know when you’re going to be ready to leave? Is that what you’re trying to say?”

Keith nods, his eyes anywhere but looking at Lance.

Well, in for a penny, in for a pound, ’ titters the aphorism spectre in Lance’s brain. He’s pretty sure he already mentioned Krolia’s file in his word deluge earlier, but figures he ought to address it a little more directly. Hopefully that will help. “Keith, I know you may not be ready for a while. Hell, if I were you, knowing what you’ve been through, I might not ever be ready. Your mom gave me the files you released for me. I know… I read all of them, Keith.” Lance squeezes Keith’s clenched fingers. “I’m not making this offer to you blind. I know it may be a while, and that it will take hard work from both of us. I don’t care about that. This is what I want; and as long as it’s what you want too, then I’m damn well going to make sure that we have a chance to have it.”

Tears finally spill over Keith’s long lashes, and this time it’s Lance’s turn to be the comforter again. He’s out of his chair in a flash an crouched next to Keith’s, and then he’s gathering him up in his long arms.

Keith smiles through the tears as he slips his own arms around Lance and whispers, “Lance, I think I love you.”

Lance’s brains says, ‘ sooo much for no more drama today. ’ Lance’s mouth says, “I think I love you too.”

***

Once all of their emotions are tucked away, Keith insists on doing the dishes. Lance figures he’ll have to talk Keith out of the whole ‘ hostess does all the housework ’ thing, but as tidying appears to calm Keith down, Lance isn’t going to fight it for now. He notices that Keith has also already cleaned up the muddy clothes from last night’s little al fresco adventure. And apparently mopped the entryway as well. Lance wonders just how long he was in that shower.

He also takes the opportunity to look around for the first time. The sofa they shared last night is boxy and low, upholstered in some nubbly, dark gold fabric. There are two similarly built low, square armchairs in deep brown leather facing it over a small coffee table and a grey fur rug -- with a few blue accents Lance figures are Kosmo’s addition to the decor. Before the seating group stands a substantial ashlar fireplace in several shades of buff stone with a fragrant peat fire burning in its grate. It’s surprisingly nice and grown-up looking -- very mid-20th century Danish, at least by Lance’s estimation of dated Earth decor trends. Properly and surprisingly gay.

Lance finds that he approves. The cottage itself is set several steps down into the ground. The floor is covered in the same smooth ochre and cream flagstones as the bathroom and the walls are clad in honey-colored wood with grey figuring. The kitchen cabinets and the table and chairs where they’d eaten their breakfast are made of more of the same, stained just slightly darker.

There’s a steep flight of stairs behind the chairs in the living room which, from the look of things, leads up to a sleeping loft; and there are two doors leading off the kitchen: one to the bathroom, and the other to someplace that Lance hasn’t been invited to visit yet.

Nowhere does Lance see any evidence of technology post-dating the industrial revolution. Even the stove Keith cooked on appears to be something of a cast iron behemoth, and when he thinks back, Lance is pretty sure he saw Keith stoke the fire in that monster’s belly while he was cooking. As he looks around, the only exception that Lance can find in the entire room is the faucet attached to the huge soapstone sink. Slick, shiny, and installed next to a grouchy-looking manual water pump -- it appears to be a concession to the modern, much like the contents of the bathroom that it matches.

Lance jumps slightly as Keith’s slightly damp hand closes on his shoulder. Keith smiles apologetically, a dish towel hanging from his other hand. “Ah, sorry Lance, didn’t mean to sneak up on you there.” His eyes trace along the path that Lance’s have been roving. “Does it meet with your approval?”

“Actually, yeah, it looks really nice in here, K. Did you do all of this?”

Keith colors slightly. “Well, I didn’t build it from the ground up or anything. It was an old summer cottage that no one was using, so I bought it and did a bit of remodeling. Repaneled the walls, smoothed the floors down until I could walk on them comfortably with bare feet, replaced the cabinets -- that sort of thing. One of the other moons of Nefoedd is more populous, and quite a bit more advanced. I picked up the furniture there. Oh, and fixtures for the bathroom.”

Lance laughs. “Plumber Keith and Decorator Keith. I’m impressed. Thanks for that, by the way, I really appreciate that you don’t have an outhouse.”

“Oh no, I have one. I’ll even show you where it is, if you’re so inclined -- but I don’t expect you to use it. Or to bathe in the creek or anything.” He pauses for a tick, his face a little pensive. “There’s not… I haven’t felt the need for a whole lot of technology in the time I’ve been here, but if… if there’s anything you want, we can always take the ship to Farchnad and pick it up.”

Lance slips his own hand over the one Keith still has resting on his shoulder. “Don’t worry about it, K, it looks great to me. A little rustic, maybe, but given the whole hot running water thing, I’m pretty sure that I approve.” He gives Keith a soft smile. “So, Farsh-whatsit-”

“Farchnad.”

“Okay. That’s the other moon you were talking about -- the one that’s a little more modern?”

“Yeah, they’re about on par with Earth, development-wise. Though the population is much smaller.”

“And a tick ago you said something about, um, Nefwuth? Is that the gas giant?”

“Yep. Nefoedd -- technically Llygad y Nefoedd, but nobody really uses the full name. You can’t really see it from here this time of year, it’s already set for the season. It’s too bad, it’s beautiful. The name means, uh, Eye of Heaven .”

“And, um, where are we? I mean, you’re the only person I’ve seen here. I don’t even know what this place is called.”

Keith nods, “Right -- it’s been just you and Red. It’s not like she would have been a lot of help with the local names, I suppose. This moon is called Dolydd. And its inhabitants are called the Geifr. They’re very polite and surprisingly welcoming and neighborly.” He stops, glancing at Lance before going on like a mini-Coran. Or maybe a maxi-Coran, depending on what part of the equation you’re describing. “They’re quite small, as you may have guessed from the gravity. And they look like, well, goats.” He sounds a little hesitant.

“Wait. Goats?”

“Goats.”

Lance screws up his face a little. “Are you trying to tell me they have-”

“Super-creepy square pupils? Yes. That’s what I’m warning you about right now.”

“Ack! Get thee behind me Satan!”

Keith rolls his eyes. Hard. “No, Lance. They’re -- it’s like I said, I think they’re very nice. You can’t hold the shape of their pupils against an entire race…”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“And you’re absolutely sure that they aren’t devil worshippers?”

“Yes, Lance.”

Lance shivers. “Okay. I’ll give them a chance, but only because you’re recommending them. Besides, if they decide to sacrifice me to some creepy, square-eyed goat demon, you’ll be around to keep me safe.”

“Always,” Keith replies seriously. “Would you like to go outside and look around?”

Lance glances down at his bare feet, his eyes straying to the angry-looking blisters he had earned himself yesterday walking around after stumbling through that damned creek. Keith’s eyes follow his, and he makes a muted, pained sound. Keith’s hand disappears from his shoulder as he rushes through that second kitchen door only to return a moment later with a medkit in his hand.

Lance finds himself seated on one of the chairs by the fire with Keith knelt down in front of him again. Keith’s hands are almost suspiciously gentle as they work some small device over the damaged skin -- as if he’s holding something substantially more precious than Lance’s feet. Once most of the blisters have disappeared and Keith has carefully bandaged the few places that will have to finish healing on their own, he releases Lance’s foot and rocks back on his haunches. Unable to resist the urge, Lance leans forward and brushes his lips against Keith’s. Keith sucks in a surprised breath.

“Thanks, K. That feels a better. Let’s go outside and look around now.”

Keith looks at Lance’s feet again. “Are you sure?”

“Yup. All better now.” Lance walks over to the entryway and digs a pair of socks and his tennis shoes out of his backpack and leans against a small cane chair while he slips them onto his feet. They really do feel much better now, he thinks.

Keith wanders him around the interior of the cottage for a minute first. Lance’s supposition about the living room stairs turns out to have been correct. They lead up to a sun-drenched sleeping loft dominated by a large bed, a dresser, and what appears to be a generous closet. The other door off the kitchen leads to a sort of multi-purpose storage room that contains - to Lance’s continued joy, a set of very modern laundry machines - currently humming away on yesterday’s discards. There’s also a trap door that leads down to a root cellar nearly as big as the cottage itself and already stocked with an enviable array of provisions, as well as a large pair of chest-shaped freezers. Lance applauds Keith in his head for not being a technophobe in all the ways that really count. Back upstairs, the store room also contains an exterior door that drops the men onto a short path leading out into the half-finished structure Lance remembers from the afternoon before.

Lance looks around at the chest-high earthen walls. “Decided to add a pool? Or a media room, maybe?”

Keith laughs as he follows Lance into the unroofed space. “No Lance. This is a barn.”

“Seriously? Not just Plumber Keith and Decorator Keith, but Builder Keith and Farmer Keith? Really? Who’d a thunk it.” Lance looks around a bit more. “What exactly are you planning on keeping in this barn? I didn’t see any animals.”

“Goats,” says Keith with an absolutely straight face.

Lance blinks. “Um… you mean like the neighbors I haven’t met yet?”

“No. Not people goats. Animal goats. Where do you think the milk from breakfast came from?”

Lance shudders theatrically again. “I suppose you’re going to tell me that they have demon-eyes too…”

“Yes, Lance. They may be space-goats, but they’re still goats -- square pupils and all. I promise I won’t let them eat you either.”

Lance glares at Keith.

Keith ignores him. “I also have some space- um, chickens? No, more like ducks. Space-ducks. Did you like the eggs at breakfast alright? I know they’re a bit more pungent than chicken eggs.”

Lance nods. “I thought they were pretty tasty, yeah.”

Keith nods back. “I’m glad. There are some other bird options around here, I guess, but I was assured the space-ducks are the easiest to take care of. They don’t fly.”

Lance glances at Keith for a moment, his eyes serious. “You know, I grew up on a farm. I know quite a bit about this kind of stuff.” He huffs. “I guess, what I’m trying to say is, um… I hope you’ll let me help you out around here. I didn’t actually come just to be an imposition.”

Keith just smiles. “And thank God for that, Lance I’m really lucky that the dumb critters I've got now all know what needs to be done to take care of them, ‘cause most of the time, I have no fucking clue what I’m doing. I was not raised on a farm.” Keith’s voice goes softer around the edges, almost hesitant. “And you’re not an imposition, Lance because I want you here.” After that, he bustles along, not making eye contact for a while.

Keith leads them out of the unfinished barn to a pen behind it with three diminutive creatures that look exactly like small goats. They bleat at Lance and stare at him with their hateful eyes. His next question excites another confused stare from Keith. “What are their names?” Lance asks.

“Their names? Lance, they’re goats. They don’t have names.”

“Why not, are you planning on eating them?”

“Not really. What does that have to do with anything?”

“Well, usually you don’t name the animals you’re going to butcher, that way nobody gets attached.”

Keith eyes Lance, clearly still confused.

“Don’t worry about it, K. It’s a sentimentality thing -- not really your cup.”

“Ah. Gotcha. We’re not going to be eating the goats, though. So-” his voice drifts back towards uncertain again. “If maybe you… wanted to give them names, that would be okay.”

“Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather,” Lance replies immediately.

“What?" says Keith, sounding nonplussed but amused.

“Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather,” Lance repeats firmly.

Keith side-eyes him. “Do I even want to know?”

Lance rolls his eyes. “The three good fairies from Sleeping Beauty .”

“What’s that?”

“Oh Keith, you philistine. It’s a Disney movie. Don’t worry, I have them all on my tablet. We can finally introduce you to classical culture.”

Keith looks less than convinced, but replies stolidly nonetheless. “If it's important to you, then I’ll do it.”

Lance finds himself surprisingly touched.

After naming the goats, Keith walks Lance past the space-duck coop. In Lance’s opinion the flightless lavender birds look more like kiwis than ducks, but he decides not to comment. Keith offers to let Lance name them as well, but he demurs, explaining that birds are stupid enough that names are entirely wasted on them.

The coop is apparently the edge of Keith’s developed holdings in this particular direction, though apparently he owns quite a bit of the land around them. After making nice with the barnyard creatures, Lance finds himself led out into the middle of Keith’s very own alpine wonderland -- a meadow, dry and relatively warm now that the sun has been shining on it all morning. The two of them wander across the expanse until they reach a significant glacial erratic overlooking a meandering creek. The ground all around them, stretching on for miles, is painted a riot of colors by the multitudes of delicate wildflowers that call the meadow home. Dominating the horizon, the mountain glints white in the sun. It’s painfully picturesque. Lance finds that he’s nearly breathless, and this time he doesn’t think it’s the elevation.

They sit down on the huge boulder, and after a few ticks, a smile curves across Lance’s lips as he feels Keith’s fingers timidly steal into his own.

After a dobosh or two of enjoying the view together, Keith clears his throat and breaks the silence. “So, not that I’m trying to scare you away or anything, now that you’ve said you’re staying, but I should warn you that there won’t be many more days like this. This could be the last one, actually.”

Lance tears his eyes away from the mountain and the flowers and the creek and focuses them on Keith’s calm face instead. Lance’s face, on the other hand, looks immediately worried at the statement. “What does that mean, my dude?”

Keith blinks, and then smiles reassuringly. “Shit. Sorry. That wasn’t very clear at all, was it? I don’t mean anything grim. I was talking about the weather. We’re right on the cusp of the rainy season and winter.”

Lance’s shoulders relax substantially as he laces his fingers together with Keith’s more thoroughly.

“Seasons are a little weird around here. Something to do with the way we orbit the gas giant, I suppose. The year lasts about twenty phoebs. Ten phoebs of mild summer, which is unfortunately just ending, by the way. And eight phoebs of winter.”

“That’s only eighteen. What about the other two?”

“Wow. At some point you actually learned basic math! I guess I have been away a long time…”

“Ass.” Lance shoves Keith’s shoulder with his unoccupied hand. It requires an awkward reach around, but there’s no way he’s letting go of his jerk’s hand any time soon. “What about the other two?”

“The local equivalent of spring and fall are only about a phoeb long each, and are pretty uniformly filled with torrential rain.”

Lance grimaces slightly. “What a lovely place you’ve decided to settle on. Always winter, never Christmas, with a serious side of monsoons twice a year. You know, I usually like rain, but torrential seems a little unnecessary.”

Keith’s face closes off a bit and the set of his shoulders goes hunched and uncertain again. Lance swears at himself in his head. “Sorry. That was sarcasm.”

Keith looks over at Lance, his head still bowed a bit. “Really? You mean you don’t mind?”

Lance sighs. “K, if this is where you want to be, then I really, really don’t. Like, at all. As long as you’re here, I couldn’t give a single fuck about the weather.”

Keith looks unconvinced. “Even if it pours for a month and then snows eight or ten feet?”

“Even then. Were you planning on making me go out in it when it’s really atrocious?”

“No.”

“Do you have a problem with me curling up on your sofa in front of a big fire and ignoring the snow?”

“That’s pretty much what I was planning to do…”

And now I can do it with you ,’ shrieks lance’s brain merrily. “And if we get really fed up with the weather, do you know where there’s a nice tropical beach on one of these moons? We could always go on vacation…”

The smile is beginning to creep back onto Keith’s face. “Yeah, I know a place.”

Lance grins and leans over, fingers still tangled together, and places a kiss on Keith’s temple before grinning some more. “In that case, my favorite dude, we’re golden.”

***

The guys stay there, on that boulder in the meadow for hours talking about inconsequential things and laughing at each other. Eventually Kosmo puts in an appearance as well and drops his head into Lance’s lap with an artful little whine.

Keith laughs. “I’d forgotten how much Kosmo likes you, Lance. He wants you to play with him. Or maybe he just wants to take you on a tour of his own. I’m going to go get started on supper -- is there anything in particular you’d like?”

Lance grins. “Is that some sort of trick question? I’ve only been here a day -- I have no idea what the food is like.” He pauses for a moment, thinking of the food Krolia had shipped him off with. “Just make something you like. We like a lot of the same things.”

Keith looks surprised. “We do? How come I never noticed?”

“Probably because most of the time our choices were food goo or food goo.” Lance pauses. “Please don’t make food goo,” he pleads.

Keith shudders theatrically. Lance finds himself somewhat proud of the gesture. Paladin Keith would have had a hard time with so revealing a movement. “I absolutely promise that I will never cook food goo in our kitchen.”

“I’ll hold you to that,” Lance manages to croak out before he just about swallows his tongue due to the casual reference to ‘ our kitchen ’.

Keith hauls himself up with a little bit of  a groan and bends down to touch his lips to Lance’s. Kosmo barks at them.

Lance laughs. “Yes, doggy, I know it’s your turn. I’m not going to kiss you, though.” Kosmo barks again and Keith smiles as he finally untangles their fingers for the first time in hours and heads back across the meadow towards the cottage. Kosmo disappears for a moment, trailing a spray of blue sparks. When he pops back, it’s to drop a leather ball in Lance’s lap.

Lance picks it up and gives it a random toss. More sparks sparkle and Kosmo reappears next to the ball. A tick later he flashes back and returns the ball to Lance’s lap. Lance chuckles and scratches behind his ears. “You know, buddy, I’m not sure if that’s actually how you’re supposed to play fetch, but whatever floats your wolfy little boat.” He throws the ball high this time and finds himself impressed when the wolf teleports himself into mid air to pluck it up and then calmly reappears on the ground. Lance laughs again.

Lance looks at the meadow around him and considers the flowers. Deciding that Keith must like them too, since he brought Lance out here to look at them with apparent joy, he sets about collecting a handful of them to take inside while continuing to toss Kosmo’s ball about and enjoying the purple-red alpine glow beginning to filter across the glaciers on the mountain. After fingering several different stems of flowers, he decides to go with a simple motif and plucks up a generous handful of the tiny, delicate, cobalt-blue daisies he’s decided are his favorites. After maybe forty minutes of teleport fetch he leaves the meadow in the deepening dusk and follows Keith inside with Kosmo trailing after him.

***

Back in the cottage Lance finds Keith hard at work in the kitchen. He watches from the doorway as Keith slides a roasting pan full of bird and some sort of puce tuber-things into one of the ovens and then lifts the lid of a sizeable pot to give something wonderful-smelling on the stove a stir. After turning the counter to begin measuring out what looks like flour into a mixing bowl as he casts a glance over his shoulder and smiles at Lance. “We had a bit of a late breakfast, I know, but are you starving now?”

Lance shakes his head. “Not particularly. Why?”

“That bird’ll take about two vargas to cook. But I can hurry the soup along if you don’t want to wait that long.”

“It smells great. Like -- french onion?”

“Something like that. There are these great little wild onions growing all over the place up here. And I picked some mushrooms on my way back and tossed them in there too.”

Lance can’t help but look surprised and pleased. “Sounds really nice, actually,” he says softly.

Keith fixes him with a quizzical look. “Everything okay?”

Lance nods, his smile edging towards dreamy. “Yeah. I’ve met a lot of really cool Keiths today, but I think I like Domestic Keith the most. He’s really… great.”

Keith blushes prettily as he averts his eyes, his lips twisting into a shy smile. Then he notices the flowers in Lance’s hand for the first time and asks somewhat dumbly, “What’re those?”

“Flowers, of course. Nitwit.”

“No kidding… I mean -- why do you have them in your hand?”

“They’re for you. I mean, they’re from your meadow, so I guess they were already yours. But I picked them for you anyway. My Mamá taught me that when a nice boy invites you to dinner, you don’t show up empty handed.”

Keith blushes some more and then turns to root around in one of his cabinets, eventually coming up with a glazed pitcher that suits his purposes. He fills it with water and then walks over and holds it out for Lance to deposit his bouquet. Once the flowers have changed hands Keith moves to set them down on the middle of the table. He’s quiet as he fusses with their arrangement, and when he turns back to Lance, he has that soft, open look on his face again. Lance is happy -- that look is so much better than the uncertain one.

“Thank you for these. They’re beautiful.” He pauses, as if contemplating what he’s going to say next. “You managed to -- these ones are… actually my favorites.”

Lance’s smile is surprised. “Really? I figured you’d go in for some of those killer red ones.”

“Well, like those too.” Keith still looks shy. “I suppose it’s not very manly and soldier-like of me, but I like a lot of flowers.” Another pause. “But these blue ones especially.”

“Why?”

“Actually… they remind me of you?”

Lance ponders, peering again at the little blue flowers. “Remind you of me? How?”

Keith blushes more, verging on magenta at this point, and then mumbles, “Your eyes. They’re the same color as your eyes.” Then he flees back into the kitchen to stir his soup again.

Lance realizes he’s blushing too.

After waiting a tick for his heartbeat to wander back down from the stratosphere Lance follows Keith into the kitchen. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

Keith fishes a bright orange berry from one of his bowls and pops it between Lance’s slightly parted lips. Lance blushes again at the intimate act before he’s totally distracted by the thing in his mouth. The berry tastes like a pear. In fact, it tastes like the peariest pear ever. It’s like a pear squared. Lance can’t seem to restrain his quiet moan, which causes Keith to grin at him. He’s pretty sure that’s the first Keith grin he’s seen so far. He’d really like to see some more.

“You like that, huh?”

Lance doesn’t have the RAM to be embarrassed, and considers begging Keith for another. As if reading his mind, Keith pops another berry into his mouth. Lance closes his eyes.

“Okay, well it looks to me like those meet with your approval.”

“My approval?” Lance manages. “Magic pear berries are my new god. I may never eat anything else ever again…” he announces dramatically.

Keith chuckles. “Yeah, I remember you bitching about how much you missed pears on the castle. I thought you would like these.”

“I like them very much.” Lance says before his smile turns a trifle suspicious. “You’re not going to do something all horrifically avant garde gourmet like put them in the soup, right?”

A faintly disgusted expression filters over Keith’s features. “Gross. No -- who do you take me for, Hunk on experimental Thursdays?”

Lance shudders. “No, I really didn’t think so, but I had to make sure you weren’t going to waste these treasures.” He glares at Keith before eying the berries possessively. “What exactly are you planning to do with them?”

Keith pulls a rolling pin out of the cupboard. “I was going to make a pie.”

Lance goggles, positively astonished. “ A pie ?”

Keith eyes Lance, a flash of that miserable uncertainty flitting across his violet eyes once again. “Um, yeah. Is that okay? If you don’t like pie, I could make something else instead…” he looks at his mixing bowls as if trying to figure what else his ingredients could manage to morph into.

Lance’s enraptured stare continues for a moment before he notices the reappearance of the uncertain eyes and pulls himself together. “Keith, everybody likes pie. I love pie. I am in love with the very idea of magic pear-berry pie.” A beat. “You really know how to make a pie?”

The uncertainty begins to bleed away again. “Uh, yeah? I can really bake a pie. It’s not actually hard or anything. Mostly you just have to practice until you get the crust right, and I’ve already done that.”

Lance finds that he’s lost control of his mouth again as he wonders just how many pies he’s already missed. “Keith, my man, marry me.”

Keith drops his rolling pin. “What?” he squeaks.

Lance swiftly raises his hands in an attempt at hiding his burning face.

Keith’s own face goes unreadable first, and then sad and distant, and his voice comes out quiet and reserved. “Lance? Could we please not… joke about… that sort of thing?”

Lance drops his hands from his face back to his sides, but upon seeing Sad Keith, which may even be worse than Uncertain Keith, he raises one of them back up to cup Keith’s cheek gently. All of a sudden there’s no humor in his expression. “Two things:” he says softly. “One: I’m sorry. That was a thoughtless, kneejerk attempt at communicating what I was actually thinking, which was ‘ you’re absolutely wonderful ’.” Lance bites at his lip. “Two: while I promise you that wasn’t an actual proposal, I also wasn’t joking. There are all kinds of steps we need to take before we actually talk about that , and I really don’t want to skip over any of them-” Lance rushes in as deep a breath as his lungs will permit. “And I really don’t want to scare you away by saying this, but I told you this morning that I wanted to get us on the same page, and that’s still true.”

Keith is still staring at Lance, but his face has flipped from sad back to unreadable. “We’re not ready for that discussion, I know,” Lance continues quietly, “but you should know that it's what I’m aiming at. I meant it when I said I was here to stay.”

Keith looks daunted, but Lance’ll be damned if he doesn’t see that glint of hope poking through again. “You're really… serious?”

“I am,” Lance replies.

“About… about…”

“About the fact that you’re wonderful, and about us. Yes.”

Keith’s eyes dive towards the kitchen floor. “Lance, I’m… I’m not wonderful. I mean, you said you’ve read my blade files. You know what I’ve spent the last five years doing. It wasn’t… wonderful.” For a fairly big guy, Keith suddenly looks so small: his head down, his shoulders tight and hunched in.

“Keith, look at me.”

Keith’s eyes are apparently glued to the floor.

Lance presses his hand gently against Keith’s cheek and chin. “Keith. Look at me.”

Keith still doesn’t look up.

Lance sighs and steps closer, letting go of Keith’s face in favor of taking him in his arms instead. “Okay, you don’t have to look at me right now. Just, please listen to what I have to say. You are wonderful. You are not the same as the things you have done. You’re not just the sum of the last five years. Hell, even if you were, in my opinion your last five years still add up to more good than bad, and I have read your file. I know you’ve done some dark things, but I also know how many refugees you resettled. How much food and medicine you brought to those in need. How many orphans you found happy homes for.” Lance’s long arms tighten around Keith’s still-hunched shoulders, and it feels like Keith is leaning at least a little bit of his weight against him as he continues to stare at the floor.

“But, in the end, I don’t give a damn about that. I’m not here because you were an assassin, or a soldier, or a diplomat; any more than I’m here because you were a paladin. I’m here because I honestly think you’re wonderful. I think that because I showed up randomly on your doorstep after ignoring you for years and you took me in and held me all night and made me breakfast. I think that you’re wonderful because today you took me to one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen and spent all afternoon with me just because you wanted to. I think you’re wonderful because after entertaining me all day, you came home to cook me dinner and bake me a pie.” Lance pauses to breath for a moment before pulling out the big guns.

“I think you’re wonderful because you waited for me to be ready for years , despite the fact that I was too damn dumb to realize that I wanted the same things you did. And because, despite how you felt and how I acted, you were always there for me when I needed you. When I was with Allura, and then after she died. I think you’re wonderful because you’re the only person who’s ever wanted me to be Lance all the time. You’re the only who just wants me .”

Lance sucks in a stunned breath as he finishes and realizes that Keith is looking at him again, and that the spark of hope in his purple eyes looks more like a conflagration now. “Keith, those are the same reasons that I’m serious about this. About us. I know we’ve got some distance to cover - lots of it, maybe - but I want to cover it with you. I’m pretty sure… pretty sure that you’re -- you’re it for me.”

Keith swallows mightily as Lance finally sails to his conclusion. His voice is very quiet when he responds, soft and filled with wonder. “You… um… me too, Lance. For me too.”

Lance hugs Keith as tight as his arms will let him and for a few heartbeats they just stand like that in the kitchen. Finally, Lance eases back, his hands gliding up to squeeze Keith’s shoulders. “Keith, can you promise me something?”

“Anything,” comes Keith’s immediate, serious reply.

Lance finds himself gratified and a little amazed that Keith has such trust in him, even after all these years. “If I promise you that I’ll always be serious when I talk about us… about our… relationship-” Lance wants to groan, worrying over how much better this might have been if he hadn’t stumbled over that damn word. He restrains the urge and fortified with another deep breath, he soldiers on into his second attempt. “If I promise to be serious about us, could you promise to -- or at least promise to try to believe me?” Lance feels surprisingly vulnerable, as if asking the question bared more of himself than he had really intended. ‘ Oh well, might as well let it all hang out ,’ declares his generally unhelpful brain.

Thankfully, Keith’s reply is once again immediate. His voice is still soft, but this time Lance can hear a touch of that old, steely resolve in it. He’s heard that sound before, after all. “Yeah, Lance. I can do that. I promise.”

“Thanks,” Lance replies, his voice a little weak. Keith simply replies by pushing their lips together again.

After another moment of basking in each other, Lance finally bends down and retrieves the rolling pin Keith had dropped. After rinsing it in the sink and toweling it dry he hands it over to Keith.

“I believe that you said something about a pie. I’m beyond intrigued -- hop to it.”

Keith takes the rolling pin with a light laugh. “Aye, sir,” and then he fixes Lance with a grin. “Why don’t you go wash up. You smell like a wet dog.”

Lance fixes his expression to ‘ mortally wounded ,’ but hums under his breath as he pulls the sweats from his bag and carries himself off to the bathroom to comply.

***

Keith is just sliding the pie into the second oven as Lance returns from his impromptu cleansing. Noticing that the glow from the fireplace is beginning to flag, Lance wanders across the room and adds another block of peat from the hopper. That done, he meanders over to his backpack in the entryway and retrieves one of his tablets. He browses until he finds something suitably unobtrusive and with a keypress quiet music begins to filter through the cottage, earning him a smile from Keith who’s on his way over with a tall glass in either hand. Lance takes the proffered beverage and finds it to be some sort of intermediately alcoholic cider with a sweet body and a zingy, sour finish. He decides he’s probably earned it and takes a pleased swallow.

“Wow, this is fun stuff. I like it,” he observes of his beverage as Keith guides him to the sofa and sits down next to him, his arm draped across Lance’s shoulders.

“I know, right? I’ve been here quite a while now, and I’ve yet to find a food that I don't like. I mean, sure, some of them are a bit uninspiring; but that’s about the worst of it. Nothing anyone has served me has actually been bad.”

“Yeah, it’s quite the place you’ve found, K. Good food, gorgeous scenery, friendly square-eyed goat people who aren’t devil worshippers… It might actually make up for the eight months of winter a year.”

Keith rolls his eyes.

“How exactly did you find it? I mean, I don’t even know what galaxy we’re in.”

“Honestly, I don’t really know. I wasn’t… thinking very clearly when I left Daibazaal. I kind of just ended up here. I mean, I’d never been here before. I’m pretty sure I’d never even been to this galaxy before.”

Lance tilts his head, his eyes curious. “You know what I think?”

“Usually something ridiculous.” Keith smirks.

Lance pokes him in the chest. “Hey, that’s not very nice. And just think of all those nice things I just said about you… Rude.”

Keith looks properly chastised. Or, at least pretends to look properly chastised. It’s a little hard to tell with him. “What do you think, Lance?”

“I think it was the lions. Red, or maybe even Black.”

Keith looks intrigued. “Or both,” he puts forth. “You know what, I bet you’re right. Maybe they knew that I needed to go someplace where I could just… be for a while.” His expression turns shy again, and that high little blush reappears along his cheekbones. “And… they knew that I… that… I needed you too.”

Lance positively melts. “That’s adorable,” he almost whispers. And just to prove that he means it, he pecks Keith on the cheek. Twice.

They sit together in comfortable, companionable silence for a few doboshes, sipping their drinks and enjoying each other’s presence, the soft music, and the warm fire.

It’s not too long before a timer summons Keith back to the kitchen. Lance follows him and as Keith begins to pull things from the oven, Lance pokes his head through the cupboards until he finds plates and bowls and begins setting the table. Keith slides open a drawer and gestures Lance towards the silverware as well as he pulls the bird from the roasting pan.

Kosmo zips into the kitchen precipitously. “You know you’re not supposed to be in here while I’m cooking…” Keith reproaches even as he carves off one of the drumsticks and hands it to the wolf before shooing him out of the way.

“Aren’t cooked bones, like, bad for dogs?” Lance inquires.

“Regular dogs, yeah, but Kosmo can and will eat just about everything. Space porcupines, trees, the occasional rock -- it must be nice to be a magic space wolf. There are a few things he doesn’t seem to like , but I’ve yet to encounter something he actually can’t eat. I just assume he knows what he’s doing and give him what he asks for. It’s easier that way.”

“Good to know.”

Keith carries his pot to the table and ladles soup into the bowls Lance had set out before returning his pot to the warming rack along the back of the stove. He gestures Lance towards the table. “Go. Sit. We can have soup while the bird rests.”

Lance figures the bird’s probably beyond the point where a nap will help it at this point, but his mouth begins to water as he gets a solid whiff of the soup, and he folds himself into a chair at the table as directed. Moments later, Lance is raving about the wild onion and mushroom soup in its delicate golden broth -- served up with more of that nutty brown bread.

Just as he’s scraping a crust across the bottom of his bowl, Keith appears with a platter of roast whatever-fowl. It’s moist and dark, and Keith serves it up with the red-brown tubers he’d seen earlier, which taste not entirely unlike potatoes: ‘ puce-tatoes ’ thinks Lance triumphantly; and small silvery-pink pea things that taste, well, surprisingly rather like peas. Lance is pleasantly surprised that the likely space-goat butter that’s intimately involved in the cooking doesn’t taste at all like it came out of a goat.

***

After a thoroughly pleasurable meal where Keith tries to teach Lance the names of the things he’s eating, and Lance proves almost entirely immune to the new information; the two of them rise from the table to pack the leftovers that don’t end up on the plate Keith fixes for a pleased Kosmo. Afterwards they return to the sofa with thick slices of Keith’s pie still warm from the oven, served with generous dollops of clotted cream and accompanied by more mugs of that not-tea from breakfast.

Digging into the pie, Lance finds himself moaning a little again without meaning to, and the frankly interested look that flits across Keith’s face lights a bit of a fire in his belly. To his surprise, he finds himself in no terrible rush to chase after it, and has a moment of realization about not being sixteen any more before deciding that this unusual willingness to be patient is actually probably a good thing. Despite the fact that they both seem to know what they want, the situation is still a bit fraught, and Lance is glad that they’re not rushing into everything all in one night.

Having just percolated that thought process through to completion, Lance nearly spits out a mouthful of his not-tea when keith almost immediately afterwards says, “So, do you want to sleep with me, or-”

Lance finds himself staring so hard at Keith that he wonders if his eyeballs are actually going to pop out of his head. He manages to squeak out a very dignified “S-sorry?”

Keith looks like he may actually catch on fire, and from his expression, he’s obviously hoping that the flagstone floor will open up and swallow him just like the training room used to when you failed the drone exercise.

Lance opens his mouth to try again, but Keith actually beats him to it. “I… I mean to sleep. Oh God. In my… the… my bed. See, there isn’t a spare room anymore because I turned it into the bathroom. So I was wondering, um, sleep to share the bed upstairs?” Lance blinks at the word jumble, but sorts out the gist as he works at talking his heart out of outright fibrillation.

Keith is still looking completely mortified, and Lance finds himself concerned that the fucking uncertain eyes are going to make a reappearance any moment now. Ignoring any residual embarrassment of his own, he opts to buffer Keith’s instead. He cuddles more firmly into Keith’s rigid side and calmly replies, “Of course, man. As long as you’re comfortable with it, I’d be happy to share the bed with you. We made it through the night together on the sofa just fine, and the bed is much more spacious.”

Keith looks like he just might shed a thankful tear over the rescue, but after a moment he sighs and briefly tightens his arms around Lance’s shoulders before getting to his feet and offering Lance a hand up off the sofa instead. While Lance takes a quick turn through the restroom to relieve himself and clean his teeth and face; Keith makes a circuit of the cottage, turning down lights and banking the fires in the fireplace and stove. After his own trip to the bathroom, Keith leads Lance up the steep stairs to the loft, and with only a hint of awkwardness they both strip down to boxer-briefs before climbing under the down comforter.

At first they lay on their backs, rigid, maintaining a careful neutral zone between their two bodies; and then their faces turn inwards toward each other and they both smile little smiles. Keith’s hand creeps across the intervening space and shyly brushes its way into Lance’s. Lance’s own fingers begin to glide across Keith’s callused fingers, as if mapping them out.

Lance’s eyes seek out Keith's, his expression the shy one this time. “Listen, last night was, um… nice. Would it be alright if I -- uh, could we…” His face begins to pink up once more. ‘ Maybe Pidge was actually right about that whole circulation thing… ’ mocks his brain.

Glancing at Lance’s rosy cheeks, Keith replies with just a hint of sing-song in his voice. “You want to cuddle?” he inquires as his smile curves into something more like a soft smirk.

Lance’s pink shifts to red. “Yeah… I mean, unless you don’t want to…” he quickly offers Keith an out.

Keith just continues to smile, his smirk slowly morphing into a full grin. “Sounds nice. C’mere.”

Keith rolls onto his side towards Lance and opens his arms. Lance immediately rolls as well and slots himself into the larger man’s arms. For a minute or two they roll, jostle, jiggle, and poke -- seemingly all elbows and knees, but eventually they manage to settle into a surprisingly reasonable jumble of limbs. In the end, it winds up much like the position Lance had awakened to on the sofa all those hours ago: Keith on his back with Lance curled into him on his side, one arm crossed across Keith’s chest. Lance with his head cushioned securely on Keith’s chest and shoulder, and Keith with his arm wrapped around Lance’s shoulders in return.

Lance feels a ruffle in his hair and grins broadly when he realizes that Keith just kissed the top of his head. “Comfortable?” Keith asks, his voice a quiet rumble that shivers through Lance as it vibrates.

“Very.” Lance replies. “You?”

“More comfortable than I've been in a very long time.” Keith assures him sincerely.

In response, Lance wraps his free arm tighter around Keith, his hand running gently across his ribs.

After a few minutes of soft breathing, Keith speaks up again. “Lance?”

“Yeah?” comes the faintly sleepy reply.

“When’d you grow that beard?”

Lance nuzzles against Keith’s chest. “On my way here.”

“Why?”

“I forgot my razor on Altea.” Lance pauses. “Do you not like it? I can shave it off…”

“Didn’t say that, sharpshooter. I’ve just been meaning to ask.”

“Oh. Okay.” Lance replies, still edging towards sleep. This doesn’t prevent his own query from escaping away. “Uh, why did you cut off all your hair?”

Keith groans as if pained, it rattles through Lance’s bones. “Of course you’d ask me that… I guess I started it,” he grunts.

Lance winces and stiffens, immediately more awake. The reaction causes Keith to tighten the arm around him again. “It’s okay, you don’t have to tell me. Sorry,” Lance mumbles out.

Keith places another kiss on the crown of Lance’s head. “No, it’s okay. It’s nothing bad - just irritating - and maybe a little embarrassing… Ask me tomorrow and I’ll tell you about it.”

Lance lets out a soft breath and relaxes again, his fingers going back to wandering along the ridges of Keith’s chest. “Okay, samurai.” Lance whispers with an audible smile.

Below them in the dark cottage, Kosmo growls.

“Okay, Papi, we’ll shut up now,” Lance says, a laugh coloring his words.

“Good night, Lance,” says Keith.

“Good night, Keith,” Lance replies.

Kosmo growls again.

“Good night, Kosmo,” the guys say together, and with a chuckle they drift off, comfortable in each other’s arms.

Chapter Text

When Lance wakes up he finds himself fighting an almost suffocating cloud of déjà vu. Yup, the sun is shining through the clerestory windows again. Yup, he’s still rolled into Keith’s warm side with Keith’s arms wrapped around him. And, well, yup -- Keith is still staring at him. For several horrific moments Lance finds himself desperately afraid that he’d just dreamed up all of yesterday’s events and that everything is about to go terribly, awkwardly wrong again as soon as he opens his mouth and his idiot brain starts leaking into the room.

Keith obviously notices the way Lance tenses up, as the arm around him is joined by another and both immediately tighten. That, and the fact that Lance’s bed cohabitant gives him a cute little interrogatory hum.

Wait. Bed. Right -- not the sofa. Yesterday actually happened. Lance’s brain kicks on the rest of the way and he immediately relaxes into Keith’s grip once more. Besides, Keith’s starey face is different this morning too. Not so much uncertain and disbelieving as, well, soppy. In fact, Lance is pretty certain that he should be making fun of just how soppy Keith looks, staring at him with stars in his eyes. If eighteen-year-old Red Paladin Keith were here now, he’d probably kick Soppy Keith’s ass in a fit of embarrassed pique. Well, try to anyway. Red Paladin Keith was a lot smaller than Soppy Keith is. Not nearly the biceps or pectorals currently on display-

His thoughts are interrupted by a happy little whine. “Laaance -- it’s too early to be thinking that hard. Quit it,” Keith says, no trace of sleep in his voice.

“Nngh. Hard is not an accurate description of that thought process in any way…” Lance murmurs as he blinks the grit out of his eyes. “How long have you been awake?”

“About an hour, I guess.”

“And you’ve just been watching me sleep?”

“Uh… yeah. Is that creepy?”

“Not if you’ve been smiling like that the whole time. It’s cute.” Lance glances over at Keith and tries to smile back but can’t help a little shudder as his anxious brain flashes the last vestiges of his wake-up panic at him.

“Is something the matter?”

“Nope. Just my brain being stupid at me. It seems to be firing on all cylinders now. Or most of them, at least… You’ll get used to it. I’m even dumber first thing in the morning.”

Keith’s arms squeeze him again. “I don’t think you’re dumb. You call yourself dumb too much, but we can talk about that some other time. Are you sure you’re okay? You’re still all tense. For a minute there I thought you were going to go flying out of the bed or something…”

Lance looks at Keith’s face, checking for the whole glazed uncertainty of doom look. He feels almost nauseatingly bubbly when he doesn’t find even a hint of it this time. Keith still looks pretty soppy, and maybe a little concerned for him. Lance decides that he likes ‘ concerned ’ for him a lot more than ‘ concerned because of him ’. Either way, he decides to see if he can dispel that concern, and wonders if that dreamy smile will come back.

“For a minute my brain was trying to convince me that we were just now waking up on the couch: that yesterday was some kind of unusually complicated dream or something. I didn’t want yesterday to be a dream -- some really important things happened to me that day, after all. I’m just… really happy that you’re not my imaginary boyfriend.”

Yes. There’s that smile again. ‘ Be still my heart… wait: does my face look like that when I look at him too? ’ Lance queries his brain. ‘ Yup, you ridiculous little puppy, ’ it replies. Lance wonders whether it would be possible to trade it in for something more pleasant.

“Me too, Lance,” Keith hums quietly as he buries his face in Lance’s hair.

Lance nuzzles his own face against Keith’s chest. Keith giggles. Lance is taken thoroughly aback and can’t help but crane his neck to glance up at him.

“Keith, man, you just… you just giggled . I didn’t know you could giggle…”

“Your beard tickled me -- so sue me.”

“You sure you don’t want me to shave it off?”

“Nah -- I think it’s pretty hot, actually,” Keith responds calmly.

Lance actually gasps, albeit half-theatrically. “Did you just tell me you think I’m hot?” An unintentional hint of disbelief may have snuck into his voice there -- he couldn’t help it. ‘ He actually thinks your hot?! ’ his brain squawks on loop.

“Technically, I think I told you that your beard is hot, but I’m absolutely certain that you would still be hot if you shaved it off. So, by virtue of the, um, commutative property, or whatever, yeah I did - I suppose - say that you’re hot.” Keith’s voice is still calm and even.

“Oh,” says Lance brilliantly. Keith’s already admitted to having feelings for him. That he finds him attractive shouldn’t exactly come as a galloping shock. It does anyway. Lance wonders how long he’s been awkwardly silent this time.

“Hey Lance?” Keith says softly.

“Yeah?” Lance replies, equally hushed.

“Now I feel like I’ve gotta be sure that you know this…” Keith continues.

“Know what?”

“I think you’re totally hot. I’ve always thought that. Beard. No beard. Whatever. You’re beautiful.” Keith’s voice sounds just a bit raspier now, a little deeper. Not sad rough so much as truthful, quasi-secret-revealing rough. “You remember that time we went swimming?”

Lance attempts to marshal his thoughts and point them more accurately at the conversation. “Of course.”

“I seriously thought I was going to lose it,” Keith recalls, looking intensely shy for a moment. “You. All wet. Hardly any clothes on… I spent the whole damn time praying I wouldn’t end up with a hard-on you could pound nails with.” Now Keith’s voice definitely sounds rougher around the edges.

Lance wonders if his face feels warmer against Keith’s chest now, what with the unbelievable blush he’s scrounged up from somewhere ‘ Ay por Dios ,’ says Lance’s brain. “ Ay por Dios !” whimpers Lance’s mouth.

Keith laughs a little awkwardly. “Sorry. Was that too much? I just… you sounded like you didn’t believe me when I said you were beautiful. And… you should believe me.”

Lance breathes out hard through his nose as he tries to collect his errant thoughts. He notices that his hand is wandering aimlessly around Keith’s unclad abs and decides that it’s allowed to do that as long as Keith doesn’t complain.

Keith doesn’t complain.

“No, no. It’s alright, K. You didn’t make me uncomfortable. Er… well, not bad uncomfortable or anything -- just took me by surprise a little. I mean, I kinda figured you had to think that. I mean, the whole feelings thing wouldn’t make much sense if you didn’t find me attractive. It’s just… different to actually hear it out loud.” He smiles at Keith, he hopes it looks genuine, it feels genuine to him. “Good different. Also, makes me feel like I should tell you that I think you’re hot too, by the way.” Lance pauses and takes a breath. “You look…. amazing.”

Lance catches sight of Keith flashing bright red as well. ‘ Score ,’ says his brain. ‘ Shut up ,’ Lance replies. “Also, the whole swimming pool anti-hard-on prayer?”

“Uh… yeah?” Keith even sounds a little red.

“I was doing the same fucking thing, my dude. Maybe we shouldn’t have prayed so hard -- just think of all the time we’ve wasted…”

Keith laughs out loud and nuzzles his grin back into Lance’s hair again.

***

Lance finds sitting down at a table with Keith to share a breakfast of leftover pie in nothing but their underclothes to be an oddly freeing experience. He reflects on it amidst small talk and while waiting for the not-tea’s caffeine analog to kick in. He and Allura had never shared this kind of intimacy. They’d had sex - good sex, even - and Lance is still certain that he had loved her. Loves her. Whatever. But their relationship never had anything even approaching this easy physicality.

For all their difficulty with words -- for all that those words seem to get both him and Keith into trouble. A lot. The awkwardness the two of them displayed trying to declare, and then, heaven forfend, discuss their feelings has brought more blushes to Lance’s face in the last two days than he can remember in the last five years combined. For whatever reason, that doesn’t seem to carry over to his physical interactions with Keith at all -- a fact for which Lance is profoundly grateful.

His mind wanders back over their most recent wake up. All it took to light both of their faces in semi-permanent flames was admitting that they found each other attractive. As if that was some huge admission. As if that was something they didn’t already know. What never would have occurred to Lance in that scenario, and apparently not to Keith either, was to include in that embarrassment their close, scantily clad embrace throughout the whole conversation. Despite burning faces and awkward words and two obvious stands of morning wood, neither man had shrunk from the other for a moment. Lance is not only comfortable around Keith in apparently pretty much any scenario, he is actively comforted by his mere physical presence. And, having watched his reactions through yesterday’s various dramas quite closely, Lance is pretty sure that Keith feels the same way.

“... to Lance. Everything okay? Your brain trying to eat you again, or whatever?”

Lance blinks. “Oh. Um. Yeah, pretty much. Though it was good things this time, instead of nightmarey ones.”

“Well, that’s something at least. Anything you want to share with the class?” Keith actually looks curious. Right. Keith cares about Lance, and his opinions, and his stupid brain. Weird.

“Hmm. Most of it is still pretty half-baked… I guess the gist of it is: I’m surprised how comfortable you make me -- by how comfortable we are with each other, you know - physically - when we can barely talk without falling down and hiding our faces most of the time.”

Keith nods, a thoughtful smile on his face. “I noticed that too. It’s definitely part of why I l- … like you so much. I’ve never really been, you know, comfortable. At all. The only person I ever really got close with - beside you - is Shiro. And that feels -- not even close to this? I mean, he’s my brother, and I trust him with my life, but you I trust with… what? My soul?” And there are those pink cheeks again. “Christ. Does that make any sense? If it does, I’m sorry it’s so irredeemably sappy…”

Lance grins at Keith and brushes their fingertips together. “It makes sense to me -- that’s actually a pretty good way to explain the racket in my brain, as far as I’m concerned.” His grin broadens even more. “Oh, and sappy works for you, by the way. I like it.”

Keith chuckles. “Well, that’s good, cause I can’t seem to help it with you around.” His thoughtful look wanders back. “It’s all part of the same thing, isn’t it? I’m bad… with words. Really bad. Because words are evil and awkward. But with you, I just… say them anyway. I guess because I trust you not to… I don’t know, judge me? And I trust that you'll accept my apologies when I fuck up.”

“Yeah, my man,” Lance agrees easily. “Same for me.” Keith sparkles. “So, what’s on the docket for today?”

“Well, I need to work on the barn -- gotta get the roof up before the bad rain starts. Do you want to help?”

“Of course! I have no idea what I’m doing. You’ll have to show me the ropes; but as long as I get to be with you, it’s exactly what I want to do with my day.”

“Now you’re being irredeemably sappy.”

“Yup.”

***

They climb back upstairs and into the simple homespun work clothes that Keith yanks from his closet. Lance grimaces slightly at them as he tries to tuck the baggy shirt into the slightly-too-large pants in such a way as to keep them up around his slender hips. Keith chuckles and hands Lance a belt. He and Keith may not be all that far apart size-wise, but Keith’s clothes don’t do much for his substantially leaner figure. Lance decides it’s not like anybody’s really likely to see him wearing oversized hand-me-downs. ‘ Except the one person you want to see you… ’ says that spiteful little voice. Lance grunts and slips the belt around his waist.

Before they get started on their main task for the day, Keith stops to milk the goats. Hoping to be helpful, Lance wanders over and collects eggs from the space-ducks while Keith is fondling the monsters. After dropping their bounty off in the kitchen, Keith leads Lance back outside and up to another doorwayed hillock. This one turns out to be a toolshed, which Lance figures just wasn’t interesting enough to have been included in the nickel tour yesterday.

From a fairly broad array of tools Keith retrieves a pair of bladed, shovel-like implements and a wheelbarrow nearly substantial enough to rate being called a cart. They set out in the opposite direction of Keith’s gorgeous meadow. Today it’s overcast and blustery, and it looks like the rain could come at any second. Lance finds himself glad for the heavy loaner clothes, even if they are a bit dumpier than he might like.

After maybe fifteen minutes of walking they arrive at a broad field decorated with a long series of narrow, muddy slashes in obssessively compulsive straight lines. Keith speak up, “I think this is the right kind of grass. Short blades and thick roots, just like the Geifr said. That’s what you want for building, I guess, so it’s what I’ve been using.”

“Why the sod, anyway? Is there some particular reason beyond the country cuteness, or is it just a local peculiarity?”

Keith shrugs. “Well, as you can see, timber’s pretty sparse around here because of the elevation, and… well, the wood’s a real bitch to work with too.”

“Yeah, I’d guess that from looking at the trees around here. I haven’t seen a single one that’s growing in a straight line. And the trunks are pretty narrow too -- lumber must be expensive.”

“It is. And then there’s the goddamn fucking sap.” Keith’s voice betrays a surprising heat at that.

“Whoa there. I feel like there’s probably a story or something you haven’t told me, given that tone of voice…”

Keith rolls his eyes heavenward looking put upon by the world in general. “Well,” he sighs, “I did tell you last night that I would explain what happened to my hair.” He looks faintly mournful. Lance snorts as he tries to keep the spurt of laughter born of Keith’s expression under wraps. Keith’s eyes narrow into a bit of a glare as he hands Lance one of the shovel things. Lance has spent a long time on the receiving end of Keith’s glares, and all he can see behind this one is affection.

“I’ll show you how to do this real quick, and then I can entertain you with tales of my molestation while we work.” Keith finishes, resulting in an eager nod from Lance as he follows Keith out into the field.

Lance finds that cutting turf isn’t exactly rocket science, and soon enough they’re both hacking strips out of the ground and manhandling them onto the barrow. “So Keith… your hair…” Lance prods.

“Alright, alright,” Keith acquiesces. “So, I’d been up here for, oh, maybe a phoeb before I decided it would be way more convenient to just raise some damn space-ducks rather than run into town every other day for eggs. This was also, by the way, the decision that led to the existence of the goats and the need for us to be out grubbing in the mud today.” He grunts slightly as he hauls another yard of sod from the earth and walks over to shrug it onto the pile. “Anyway, nobody had kept animals up here in decades, so I needed a new coop, and a pen for the goats, and there was this ugly-ass tree right where I wanted to build them. Aaand , since I was feeling industrious, I guess, I decided to just go ahead and cut it down.” Another strip makes its journey to the wheelbarrow.

“The Geifr warned me not to get sap from the trees on things -- said it wouldn’t come out. They did not warn me thoroughly enough. Apparently all of the trees here do the same thing, so it didn’t even occur to them that I wouldn’t know…”

“Wait, what do they do?” Lance inquires, making his own addition to the slowly growing load. It’s not as neat or pretty as one of Keith’s. Lance stares at it for a moment, wondering if it’s okay. Keith drops one of his own right next to it and then gives Lance’s shoulder a muddy squeeze. Lance figures it must be good enough. “I mean, it’s not like it can attack you are something, right, it’s a tree we’re talking about…” Lance continues.

Keith grunts. “I’m getting to it, you impatient jerk. Don’t be impertinent.”

Lance sticks out his tongue. Keith lobs a wad of mud at him, but luckily - or perhaps purposefully, since he’s Nice Keith now, after all - it misses Lance’s face.

“Also, I wouldn’t be so sure about the whole not attacking thing. Apparently all of the trees here have this, um, pressurized layer. Vascular, I guess you call it. It’s how they survive the winter.”

“A pressurized layer? Are you trying to say that the tree blew up on you when you tried to cut it down?”

Keith groans out a half-playful sound of mourning. “In a manner of speaking. I had chopped maybe a third of the way through the trunk when I started hearing this weird kind of whistly, sizzly noise, so I backed up a bit in case I’d pissed of a nest of space bees or some shit like that. The next thing I know, the tree starts, well, it sounded almost like it was grunting and then it hoses me down with several gallons of the stickiest fucking tarry white sap you can possibly imagine. It hit me three or four times before I managed to get out of the way…” By the time he trails off, Keith is sounding mortally offended by his own story.

Lance stares at him with what he is certain is a very odd look on his face. Lance can admit to himself that controlling his glee has never been one of his stronger suits. “Did you say it was white ?”

“Yeah. Why?”

Lance doubles over abruptly, cackling.

“Uh, Lance?”

Ay por diddly-fucking Dios , babe! You had to cut off all of your hair because you offended a tree in your yard and it fucking came on you!”

Keith tries valiantly to look offended. He doesn’t really succeed. It’s almost like Lance’s sudden joy is infectious. “God, Lance, the story is bad enough without you making it all sophomoric. I mean-” he stops abruptly, his eyes going round and rushing to Lance’s. Noticing the change, Lance reigns himself in looking quizzical.

“Did I say something, um… wrong? Bad?” Lance asks, not at all sure what to make of Keith’s expression.

Keith blinks, well, several times in succession. “Uh, Lance,” he eventually manages once he locates his words. “Did you just call me, um… babe?” His croaky voice sounding surprised and hesitant.

Lance’s eyes go round enough to match Keith’s white for white; and fuck it all with the words and the blushing again. “Yeah, um, I guess I did? Is that… not okay?” He asks, both curious and more than a little bit vulnerable.

Keith looks vulnerable right back at him, though for once, Lance can’t find any of that uncertainty that seems to plague Keith. And, having come to distrust that expression, he looks pretty hard for it too. Keith finally manages to dredge up a few more stuttery words. “If… do… um… do you want to call me babe?”

Lance’s head jitters a little nod. Watching him, Keith takes a deep breath and then nods back a tick later, much more firmly. “Then yes, it’s okay with me sharpshooter.” That makes Lance’s lips part open as the old nickname takes on new dimensions for him. Keith’s eyes shift from hesitant to warm and a trifle piercing as he watches the expression on Lance’s face. Lance feels his vulnerability wither away under the influence of the heat building in his belly again from that gaze.

Lance tries to figure out how to bask in that little burst of warmth while also keep himself from just vomiting it embarrassingly out of every one of his pores. Finally, he decides on the best way that he can come up with - gentle ridicule -  and tries out his new toy. “Well then, babe , I believe you have a story about tree semen to finish.”

Keith’s eyes on him go, if anything, hotter and they sparkle as a flush of color brightens his face for a tick. Blinking slowly, Keith rolls those violet eyes and shrugs his shoulders as he moves back to cut another strip of sod with just a hint of swagger in his step. “Fine, fine. The tree came all over me. Buckets and buckets of fucking tree spunk. The only saving grace in the whole damn experience was that I occasionally listened to Coran’s lectures and was wearing my safety goggles. They managed to keep the wretched shit out of my eyes -- and saved my eyebrows and my eyelashes too. Other than that, it was everywhere. It soaked right through my damn clothes…”

Lance’s mouth drops open. “You mean it got-”

“Yes,” Keith grates out, interrupting Lance.

Lance’s shoulders shake silently for a moment before he just can’t contain it any longer and the laughter howls out of him again. “You’re just lucky that you didn’t wind up pregnant. Pulling out is not a reliable method of birth control -- especially not when you just stand there and let it get all over everything.”

Keith shakes his head and glowers. Lance isn’t fooled, he can see the smile twitching and pulling at the corners of his mouth. “I’m gay, Lance. Birth control isn’t really my area of expertise…” he replies more than a little saucily before rolling back into the denouement of his hairy tragedy. “Anyway, so there I am: covered head to to in stinking, stick, gross, white tree cum. I finally convinced a very reluctant Kosmo to take me to the village to see if they had any advice for getting me clean again. They did… I didn’t like it, so I tried everything else I could think of first. Showered with every kind of soap I could get my hands on. Tried every solvent that I could halfway trust not to take my skin off along with it… nothing worked. The stuff bonds to anything it touches. Permanently. When it hits your skin, it dries, and eventually flakes off with the skin cells it’s bonded to. I looked like some Elizabethan lady in her lead white makeup for like three movements. Everywhere except around my eyes, and you know, my feet where it couldn’t soak through my boots.”

“How very… unfortunate…” Lance manages to snort out through his chortling.

“No,” Keith disagrees flatly. “That was not the unfortunate part. That I could have lived with. Been happy about? No. But lived with? Sure, why not. I’m used to being pale, after all. The unfortunate part was what happen when it bonds with hair instead of skin. When it bonds with hair, it never dries. Ever. It stays the stickiest shit that I’ve ever encountered in my life. Stickier than Pidge and Hunk’s extra-super-special-don’t-ever-under-any-circumstances-get-it-on-your-skin super glue. Permanently.”

And that’s it. Lance’s grasp on those fragments of self-control that keith’s story hasn’t already flayed just falls apart. He finds himself laughing so hard that he winds up falling over onto the springy turf and actually, literally rolling. Eventually, he runs out of breath and slows down. As a modicum of restraint drifts back within reach he turns back to keith, grinning as he wipes his eyes on his slightly-too-short sleeve. “How long did it take before you actually followed the advice?”

“Fourteen vargas,” Keith replies shortly.

“So you spent most of a day very sticky before you finally-”

“Yeah, yeah. Before I finally shaved off every hair on my damned body and spent two movements looking like a fucking porcelain doll. Oh, and itching unbelievably. Regrowing your body hair is hell.”

Lance’s grin grows a trifle fixed. “I know. I used to swim competitively, remember?”

“And you shaved yourself willingly for that?”

“Well, grudgingly, I would say. Besides, I was young. Wasn’t that much to shave.”

“Still means your nuts…”

“Ohmigod, Keith. Was that a pun and a double entendre?”

“Maybe.”

“You’re so totally my hero!”

Keith’s smile goes a little gooey around the edges before his eyes turn curious. “Why did you want to know, anyway?”

“Want to know what?”

“About my hair? I thought you hated my ‘mullet’.” And, oh yes, that word comes with a pair of derisive air quotes attached.

Lance glances down as he finds his response blurting out of him. “I may have exaggerated a bit…”

Keith rolls his eyes, “Of course you did.” Lance notices that his smile is still awfully soft. Several of the versions of Lance inhabiting his brain suggest to him that crowing would be an appropriate response. Instead he manages to quip, “And the ponytail, it -- it worked for you.”

“And for you too, apparently.”

“Yep, For me too.”

“Well, then, I suppose I’ll just have to grow myself a new one.”

“You don’t have to… for me. I mean, if you like it short, it’s fine.”

“Nope. You liked my ponytail. That’s definitely more than enough reason to grow it back.”

“Sap.”

“Ugh. Lance! Too soon.”

Lance laughs and wraps an arm around Keith’s shoulders. ‘ Ohmigod, who knew Keith was actually funny!? ’ his brain coos at him. Lance concludes that much like Soppy Keith, Funny Keith is definitely a keeper.

***

Once their wheelbarrow is finally full, or overfull, really; they set out for the cottage again and spend their afternoon adding another two feet or so to the walls of the barn. Once that’s done, Lance helps Keith assemble the framing and trusses that will support the roof they’ll build tomorrow. Apparently having learned his lesson about native trees, Keith produces light, slender beams of foamed steel for this purpose, rather than something more traditional. Lance decides that Keith has entertained him enough today, and keeps any commentary he might have to himself.

Once they’re finished with their framing and have tramped their muddy way through the shower, trading out their work clothes for sweats; they share a quiet meal of leftover soup and roast-whatever-bird sandwiches. As they eat, Lance realizes that they have spent every instant of the last two days together, with the sole exception of a couple of quick showers. Neither of them seems to be showing any signs of becoming bored with the other. No sniping. No snarking. In fact, two days in, Lance is increasingly certain that he’s never been happier.

Tonight as their eyes begin to droop in front of the fire, there’s no awkward discussion about sleeping arrangements. They cycle through the bathroom and batten down the house for the night before climbing into the loft. This time when they strip down, neither set of eyes is nearly as averted. For one shy moment, their eyes catch as both men stare before they climb into bed in near unison. Tonight once they're under the comforter there’s no jostling, no accidental elbows poked into ribs; they click immediately back together like a pair of puzzle pieces: Keith on his back with Lance draped half across him, his head pillowed on Keith’s chest.

As they lay there Lance finds his hand once more trailing almost mindlessly across the skin hiding behind the flimsy layer of Keith’s undershirt; wandering across the ridges and dips of his abdomen. And Lance, he feels no urge at all to repress the occasional shivers he experiences as Keith’s callused fingertips ever-so-softly map out the delicate musculature along the ridge of his spine.

Wrapped in the soft darkness - and a pair of thickly muscled arms - Lance begins to drift. Something occurs to him just as sleep begins to close. “Hey Keith?” Lance whispers into his chest.

“Yeah, Lance?” comes the reply, muzzy but immediate.

“Whatever happened to the tree?”

“I won.”

Lance snorts. “What’s that supposed to mean?” He can feel Keith shift his shoulders beneath him, and the comfortable vibrations of Keith’s quiet words threaten to tip Lance closer to the edge of sleep. Lance pokes Keith lightly in the side.

Keith vents a lighthearted sigh. “Fine. Once I’d recovered my temper enough to fly safely, I got in my ship and shot that motherfucker with the particle disruptor. It didn’t cause me any more problems after that.”

“Keith, you used a particle disruptor -- it didn’t exist after that,” Lance giggles.

Keith huffs at him. “Exactly,” and then nuzzles into his hair to kiss the crown of his head as his arms tighten once again.

Chapter Text

There’s a loud noise -- Keith moaning. Lance’s eyes pop open. It’s a bad sound. It sounds way too much like terror. The loft is very dark, only a tiny glow filtering up to them from the cottage below. Lance lays in the dark, listening to the sheets rustle until Keith whimpers, “ Please… no… ” in a broken, broken voice and shudders violently. Lance’s heart constricts and he sits up and grabs Keith’s shoulder.

“Babe, it’s just a nightmare,” he whispers, but at his touch Keith cries out and flails his body wildly. Lance immediately shrinks away. Keith begins to mutter between fast, panted breaths -- Lance can’t understand the words, but they feel far too much like agony.

Lance sniffles a little and whispers to himself; or maybe to Keith. “What do I do? Am I supposed to wake you up? What if I make it worse?”

All of a sudden there’s another weight on the mattress and it’s all Lance can do not to shriek in surprise. Kosmo lunges up and licks a broad stripe right up the middle of Keith’s face. Keith does shriek. His hands leap to the wolf and for a moment they grapple silently. Then Keith gasps. Then he sobs.

Kosmo butts his head against Keith’s shoulder and whines piteously. Keith’s sobbing gets worse, each beginning to wrack his body. Kosmo whines again, and looks at Lance, his pained eyes shining in the dark, before touching a cold nose gently to his neck and flashing back out of the way.

Lance understands the wolf’s request, and he moves back across the bed as soon as Kosmo departs, splaying a tentative hand across Keith’s chest. It’s drenched with sweat and freezing cold. Keith flinches awfully at Lance’s touch and moans again through his sobs. Lance doesn’t pull away this time, he stays crouched beside Keith and begins to talk, his voice as sweet and low as he can make it. His hand remains steadily in place.

“Keith, babe, it’s just me. It’s Lance. You had a nightmare, but it’s over now. I’m here. I’m not going to leave you. I love you.” Lance doesn’t really register what’s coming out of his mouth, he just keeps up a soft-voiced litany hoping that somewhere, some part of Keith can hear him. As he continues to talk, Keith’s muscles slowly begin to relax. If anything, it makes the sobbing worse.

Finally, just as Lance is considering calling Kosmo back for more help, or even trying to wake Red for advice, he feels Keith’s icy, trembling fingers close over the hand still resting on Keith’s chest. Keith is still sobbing, panic lacing every choked breath, but he’s not flinching away any more and Lance interprets this as a good sign. He gently moves himself until his body is back in contact with Keith’s and Keith immediately rolls towards him and just cowers. Lance keeps then hand on his chest in place, now trapped between their bodies, and wraps his other arm around those hunched and shaking shoulders. He keeps up his recitation, still hoping that some part of Keith can actually hear him, or at least be comforted by the sound of his voice. Keith is still sobbing.

Lance realizes that Keith isn’t getting any warmer, and that he himself is beginning to feel chilled. After a tick he grasps that it's because Keith’s whole half of the bed is just soaked, and thus frigid. He remembers getting Keith into the shower on that first afternoon together, and figures that some instructions, or at least a warning is probably in order -- he’s afraid of how Keith will respond at this point to getting bodily dragged somewhere.

“Hey, Keith,” he says gently, trying to get his attention. “This side of the bed is soaked, can we move to the other?”

Keith doesn’t reply, but when Lance applies gentle pressure to his shoulder, he scoots readily enough. Once they’ve shifted over to the dry half of the bed, lance directs his voice down into the dark. “Hey Kosmo, can you come here?”

Immediately, the wolf is at his side, looming beside the bed. Lance doesn’t know how far the wolf’s understanding stretches, but he figures now’s as good a time as any to test it out. “Hey boy, can you bring me a towel? And maybe another blanket?”

Kosmo blinks his sad eyes slowly and then flashes away. When he returns, he’s holding a bath towel and Lance’s blue throw in his mouth; both of which he drops on the bed.

Lance sighs in relief. “You really are the best doggy I’ve ever met. Thank you.” Lance picks up the towel, but his eyes travel back to the wolf. “Could you just stay up here a while, in case we need you?” he almost begs. Kosmo gives him a tiny lick right over the blue spot on his cheekbone and then lays down silently next to the bed. “Thanks boy,” Lance whispers again, his voice colored with gratitude.

Lance turns his attention back to Keith. He’s not sobbing any more but silent tears are still coursing down his face, and he’s started to shiver violently. “Keith, baby, I’m going to get you out of your wet things and dry you off so that we can get you warm again, okay?”

Keith offers no argument as Lance strips him of his underclothes. Noticing that his own are now just as bad, they’re the next to go; and then, with Keith clinging to him, Lance gently runs the towel over both of them. When he goes to dry Keith’s hair, Keith shudders and recoils until Lance manages to get the towel adjusted so that it doesn’t obstruct his vision.

Finally, figuring they’re as dry as he’s going to get them, Lance tosses the towel after the clothes and then arranges himself against the headboard before pulling an unresisting Keith more thoroughly into his lap. He wraps the blue throw around them both and hunkers down. Keith clings to him and just weeps like a broken-hearted child.

By the time Keith finally begins to still, Lance has talked and sung and hummed his voice down to nearly non-existent, and he can see dawn beginning to stain the sky through the windows. When Keith’s breathing actually evens out, Lance gently lays him down on the bed before sliding behind him. Keeping their bodies in solid contact from shoulders to feet. He wraps his arms around Keith’s chest, sliding one underneath him in order to do so, and holds him as close as he can. Keith’s hands immediately reach up and grab on to his arms, locking them in place.

Lance continues to hum until he’s absolutely certain that Keith has fallen asleep again. Doboshes later, he turns his attention back to their other companion. “Kosmo,” he rasps, nearly silently. Immediately he can feel the wolf’s breath on his exposed ear. “I have to sleep for a while. Please wake me if he needs me…” Lance grates out. Kosmo nuzzles his snout against the back of Lance’s neck before presumably laying back down once more.

Only then does Lance close his eyes.

***

When Lance is next awake, the light coming in the windows clearly proclaims that it’s morning. Keith hasn’t moved, but he feels very rigid in Lance’s arms. Lance brushes on of his hands across Keith’s chest, at which he flinches hard before stiffening even further. “How are you doing?” Lance manages to ask muzzily. He has to suppress a flinch of his own at both the raw sound of his voice and at the dry pain in his throat.

His muscles still fully rigid, Keith’s response is barely audible. “I’m sorry.”

Lance tightens his arms and pulls Keith back towards his own chest. After a moment, Keith stops resisting and melts backwards into Lance. “I’m sorry,” he insists again.

Lance rocks Keith against him with slow, rhythmic pulses of his arms. “Nothing to be sorry about, K,” he rasps, finding himself wishing for the warm, even timbre he’d used all night to come back. “Nothing at all. I promise. You didn’t do anything wrong. Didn’t hurt me, or yourself. Didn’t break anything.” He continues to rock. “Just had a nightmare.” Lance kisses the back of Keith’s neck. After a few ticks he tries again: “How are you feeling?”

Keith sniffles and after a long silence, whispers: “Bad.”

“I’m so sorry.” Lance grinds out. “Do you want to talk about it?” Keith shakes his head. “Is there anything that I can do to help?” Lance offers another avenue.

Keith sniffles some more, his hands gripping tight to Lance’s where they rest on his chest. “Don’t… d-don’t go. Don’t w-want to be… alone now…”

“Never again,” Lance vows, and he realizes that he means it with all of his aching heart.

***

Lance hadn’t really meant to sleep again, but when Keith drifted back off, Lance followed right along behind him almost immediately. Now as Lance meanders back towards consciousness he can feel Keith shifting against him as if he’s considering getting up. Very little morning light is bleeding through the windowpanes now, and Lance can hear heavy rain blowing against them.

“Do you want to get up?” he asks quietly, pleased to hear that at least a little of his voice has come back. He still sounds hoarse, but less like he took a razor to his vocal chords.

“No,” Keith replies sounding very subdued. “Have to. The animals…” Lance notes that his arms are still wrapped tight around Keith and so continues to cradle him close. Keith’s grip on Lance’s hands hasn’t changed either.

“Let me take care of it?” Lance half asks, though he intends to be the one who goes out into the downpour either way. “You just stay here. Keep warm. Maybe sleep a little more if you can.”

Keith’s fingers tighten. “You sure? I can… get up.” His voice still sounds dead.

“I know you can, baby. But you don’t need to. I don’t mind at all.” Lance wonders when it is ‘ babe ’ morphed into ‘ baby ’. He offers himself an internal shrug -- it seems to work. If anything, Keith seems to be responding positively to it. Well, as positively as he’s responding to anything at least.

Keith nods a little and Lance places another kiss at the base of his skull. Keith reluctantly releases his hands.

“Thanks,” he whispers. He sounds so apathetic that Lance just wants to lay there and cry.

“Of course.” Lance responds as he gathers Keith closer still for a final hug before sliding out of bed and grabbing a set of sweats from the dresser. Noting the chill in the air, he yanks them on as quickly as he can. Keith doesn’t turn around; doesn’t move at all. Lance can’t help but worry. “You’ll be alright for a little while?”

“Yes,” comes the blank reply.

Lance hurries down the stairs and relights both fires as quickly as he can manage before making a side-trip to the bathroom. On his way out, he sets water on the stove to boil. He heads out through the storeroom, grabbing the milling pail as he goes, and once he steps outside he stops to swear. Rain is sheeting down nearly horizontally.

He walks out from behind the partial protection of the unfinished barn and immediately the goats bleat at him piteously, their creepy eyes wide and rolling. Lance shudders, and then he swears again. They’re soaked and shivering. Oh, and creepy. He runs to the toolshed, hoping for once that his memory isn’t lying to him. Thankfully it’s not, and the self-sealing tarp he thought he saw yesterday is indeed sitting on a shelf next to the door. He grabs it and sprints back to the barn.

Five doboshes later it’s set up and the barn feels immediately warmer as the wind and the rain are cut of. The tarp thrums noisily in the near-storm, but Lance can’t be bothered to give a damn at the moment. Deciding that the space-ducks are probably fine in their coop, Lance only concerns himself with the little goats. After a brief, admittedly shouted argument with Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather about following him out of the pen, Lance swears a third time and makes the two trips necessary to bodily carry them into the barn.

They calm down right away once they’re out of the weather and become very affectionate. This arouses a feeling in Lance lodged very firmly between pleasure and revulsion. They also let him milk them without any protest. Though, in fact, milking one while the others are trying very hard to climb into your lap turns out to be a bit trying. Once that’s finished he ducks inside and grabs a pair of towels from the laundry which he then uses to dry the wretched creatures as best he can manage. Once he’s fairly certain they’re not going to die of exposure or anything, he lays the towels down so that the little goats don’t have to lay on the flagstones. He can’t tell if they’re appreciative or not, but he’s in a hurry and the agreeability of their lifestyle isn’t really hitting to top of his to-do list right now.

Back inside, he pours now boiling water into mugs and mixes in the powdered not-tea from the canister just as he had seen Keith do. He promptly burns his tongue.

He takes the second up to Keith, but finds him asleep again, so he sets it on the nightstand beside him instead. Kosmo looks up at Lance from beside the bed and an idea occurs to him. He beckons to the wolf and then climbs back down into the great room. Kosmo flashes down after him.

“Hey Kosmo, would you be able to take me somewhere?” The wolf licks his face, which Lance takes as an affirmative. Lance finds he’d rather like to sit down, but he’s soaked to the skin, so he bounces from foot to foot in front of the fire as he attempts to warm up a little instead.

“And, if we go out, will you still be able to tell if Keith needs us?” Lance wonders if the dog can read the worry on his face too, but figures that Kosmo probably won’t make fun of him for it anyway. One way or the other, Kosmo licks his face again. “Okay. Sweet.”

Lance quickly empties his backpack out into one of the armchairs and then shrugs it on before pacing towards the door to retrieve his overly large Galra raincoat from its hook. Noticing that Kosmo has trailed along beside him, Lance drops his hand on the wolf’s shoulder, sinking his fingers into the deep blue ruff. “Can you please take me to Red-”

The world disappears into shadows in a roil of blue sparks before he can even finish his sentence.

When Lance blinks his eyes back open, they’re standing on Red’s bridge. She murmurs a tired greeting and he runs his fingers down her dash. “You can stay asleep, girl. Keith’s not good today, but me and Kosmo are handling it.” His other hand scratches its way up the back of the wolf’s head. “We’re just here for some supplies.”

Red murmurs lovingly in his head and then drifts back off. Lance hurries into the back and tugs off his jacket. Pulling off the backpack, he yanks its zippers open and begins to sort through the remnants of the food bin, slipping the red-tagged contents into the pack as he goes. All Keith’s favorite foods, at least according to Krolia. Once the pack is full he closes it up and pulls it back onto his shoulders before shrugging back into his jacket.

Now comes the part of the mission that he’s less certain the wolf can handle. He drops his hand to Kosmo’s shoulder again. “Kosmo, can you maybe take me to a place where there are lots of Keith’s favorite flowers? You know, the blue ones, that… like, uh… my eyes? But it’s okay if you-”

The world sparkles away again.

Lance finds himself shaking his head in disbelief when he opens his eyes and finds himself completely surrounded by cobalt blue. From the look of things, they’re in a different part of Keith’s meadow, and it’s definitely the right part given his current goal. It’s cold and the rain and wind are oppressive. Lance couldn’t care less. He rushes around plucking strand after strand of the delicate little daisies. Not settling for a handful this time, inside ten doboshes he’s picked as many as he can reasonably manage to hold in both arms without crushing them.

“Okay, Kosmo. Let’s go home.” Lance announces, cradling his flowers, and pleased that his goat drama plus the whole excursion has taken less than a varga. As he has no free hand to grab onto this time, Kosmo simply bumps into Lance as he flashes them back to the cottage.

Kosmo lands them in the store room where Lance can drop off the flowers unobtrusively just in case Keith happens to be awake. Lance can’t help but wonder again at the apparent understanding, and, dare he say, wisdom of Keith’s pet -- well, companion.

Lance sneaks back upstairs and ascertains that Keith is, indeed, not awake. After climbing back down he sets his backpack on the kitchen floor to deal with later and hangs his coat back up before proceeding to fill every pitcher, most of the drinking glasses, several mugs, a couple of mixing bowls, and about half of the pots in the house with an absolute riot of the dark blue daisies. These he places on every surface available. The kitchen table; the counters; briefly on the stove, before remembering that wood stoves don’t have burners that turn off -- narrowly avoiding making an accidental pot of favorite flower soup; from there he moves on to the mantelpiece and the little table in the entryway and so on. The last large bouquet he sneaks upstairs and sets on the bedside table Keith is facing so that he’ll see them when he wakes.

His tasks finished, Lance finally strips out of his soaked sweats and dries off with the towel he’d abandoned in the night before climbing back into bed behind Keith and aligning their bodies just like earlier. Keith stirs, but doesn’t really wake. His hands, do, however, immediately reach up to grab onto Lance’s arms just as soon as they slip back around the sleeping man. He also murmurs, “ Love you…

Lance beams and settles in for a nap, appreciating the warmth of various sorts available to him.

***

Lance’s final wake-up call for the day comes in the form of a surprised little sound from the man in his arms. As Lance pres his eyes open again his vision is dominated by the tousled black head still pillowed right beside his own, so he bends forward and places a kiss on the knob of the pale white neck in front of him. As he waits for a brain to switch back on, Lance notices that dusk is starting to fall outside and that weather still sounds abominable.

About the time he remembers that he should actually be checking on Keith instead of woolgathering, he feels Keith’s hands tighten briefly on his own before releasing them as Keith rolls over to face him. ‘ Thank God he’s moving again ,’ Lance’s brain announces immediately. Lance wishes that he could roll his eyes at it for stating the obvious without looking like he’s doing it to Keith instead.

Now staring straight at him, Lance realizes that Keith looks pretty sincerely terrible. His skin is almost translucently pale and there are deep, black voids under his eyes again -- just like in the blasted video message that started this whole odyssey. And above those, his eyes look spiritless. They aren’t sparkling like they’re supposed to, and they’re far too red-rimmed for comfort. He looks exhausted, as if he spent the day bodily dragging himself through hell instead of lying in a bed. At the sight, the pain that’s been lodged in his heart all day unfolds into something bigger -- something that feels like it’s covered in thorns.

Despite all of this, when Keith’s eyes lock onto his and he realizes that Lance is actually awake too, the apathy and exhaustion on his features thaw a little, and what might just be the tiniest quirk of a smile drags at the corner of his mouth. For a moment, Lance wonders if Keith is faking - for his sake, or whatever - but he dismisses the idea after more thought, concluding that Keith just isn’t that subtle an actor.

When Keith finally opens his mouth to say, “You brought me flowers?” Lance has a hard time deciding whether to wince or cheer. Keith’s voice sounds as exhausted as he looks and more than a little bit lost -- not to mention raspy with disuse. On the other hand, for the first time since Lance’s abrupt awakening in the middle of the night, Keith doesn’t sound terrified, or even apathetic. Instead he sounds surprised, and maybe even a little confused, but brighter. Eventually Lance realizes that he probably ought to answer somehow, so he nods his head, his attention still glued to Keith’s face.

And as Keith says, “You went out… in the storm, just to get me flowers..?” is it possible that just a hint of warmth and wonder sneak into that quiet, tired voice? ‘ Yes! ’ trills Lance’s brain. For once, Lance wholeheartedly agrees with that dumbass.

“You had a… a hard night. And a bad day. I thought that…” Lance swallows. “I thought that seeing something you like - something pretty - might… help.” Lance hates that he sounds so hesitant, so out of his depth; but he also figures that trying to sound other than how he feels right now would be way too much like lying.

Keith’s eyes never leave Lance’s as he slides a hand up to brush lance’s hair back from his brow and them rests it against his cheek. A real and unquestionable - if still tiny - smile finally makes an appearance on Keith’s face. “Believe me, Lance, it does.” Keith whispers.

Lance feels relief wash over him like a physical sensation as he blinks and nods again, pressing his cheek oh-so-slightly into Keith’s hand. It takes a minute for his brain to poke him, announcement in hand. ‘ Wake up, you little shit, he’s talking about you , not the flowers. ’ Lance blinks his widening eyes several times in rapid succession before he manages to smile back, all the while instructing himself in no uncertain terms that he is not going to cry. Keith just continues to stare at him with that diminutive smile on his face. That smile makes Lance feel so warm.

Lance just lays there for a while, wondering what he ought to do next. Finally he sneaks up a hand and twines his fingers with the ones still resting on his cheek. “Do you feel like, um, maybe getting up for a while?” Lance glances over at the mug on the side table -- at least it’s empty. That’s better than nothing, he guesses. “Maybe we could have something to eat?”

Keith just shrugs his shoulders a little, that apathetic mask slipping back over his features. Lance hates it and wishes he hadn’t made the suggestion at all.

Finally, Keith dredges up the reserves from somewhere to reply. “I guess,” he whispers, sounding exhausted and seriously dubious.

Lance decides to just run with the first thing that comes to mind. “I just… thought it might be nice to go sit… you know, by the fire, yeah?”

“You’ll, uh, you’ll stay?” Keith swallows, his eyes breaking from Lance’s and boring into some point around his shoulder instead. “With me… I mean?” He sounds tiny. Tiny and young and desperate.

Lance’s reply has left his lips before it even registers with his brain that his mouth is open. “Absolutely, baby. I’m not going anywhere. I swear.”

Keith nods slowly, still hiding his eyes, and levers himself into a seated position. He seems almost dizzy for a tick and Lance rushes to sit up beside him and wrap steadying arm around his shoulders. Keith sags into the contact without any hesitation at all. It reminds Lance of how he cowered in the night and another freshet of thorny pain unfurls in his chest.

Lance makes no move at all to hurry Keith along. Eventually, Keith begins to pick back up some of the weight he’s currently leaning onto Lance and shuffles himself to the edge of the bed. Lance moves right along with him so that they remain side by side and Keith can still lean on him if he wants.

It’s maybe five doboshes before Keith makes any move to actually stand. Lance waits with a patience he hasn’t aware he had -- a patience he hasn’t had for anybody else, in fact. When Keith finally does haul himself up, Lance immediately moves with him again so that the arm around him never leaves his shoulders. For the span of a heartbeat, Keith wavers, and lance’s arm tightens before he can sit back down or, heaven forfend, fall over. Keith seems to find his balance, or a part of it at least, and the two of them slowly totter over to the stairs.

Lance notices that Keith must have been up at least briefly at some point, as he’s wearing sweats of his own now, rather than the nothing that Lance had left him in earlier. Lance can’t help but wonder if he dragged himself out of bed just to put on clothes, and worries that he should have tried to dress him earlier. His worrying escapes the zoo almost immediately and burbles out of his mouth. “I’m sorry I didn’t get you anything to wear earlier. And… that I… well, stripped you down… you know, again . I didn’t mean to-”

Keith drops his head against Lance’s shoulder, stilling his voice. Eventually he scrounges up another whisper. “It’s okay, Lance. I remember. And… I trust you.” He takes an unsteady breath, “I’ll always trust you.”

Lance’s jittery heart slows itself back down to normal. Keith’s hand drags across Lance’s chest and lance realizes with a rush tat it feels just a bit more intimate than it probably ought. Glancing down at himself, he remembers that he isn’t wearing anything. ‘ You were out picking flowers in the rain, you dickwit… ’ his irascible brain points out.

“Right. Shit. rain.” Lance murmurs. “Hey, K. I need to go grab… some clothes,” he states a little unevenly, his cheeks pinking a little. Keith shudders and leans even closer. Lance automatically pulls him the rest of the way flush with his, well, everything. The pink gets brighter, but lance ignores it and keeps his voice steady as he whispers. “Hey, man, it’s alright. We can both go over there. You can come with me.” Keith just nods his head and they leave the stairs to lurch over to the dresser instead.

Lance liberates what appears to be the last handy pair of sweats from the drawer and makes a mental note to do more laundry and, at some point, have Kosmo run him back to Red for the rest of his clothes. What follows is not an example of an activity with no embarrassing highlights. Lance grits his teeth and endures as they put on a brief reenactment of their first afternoon together on Dolydd wherein Lance tries to get into clothes without completely disrupting either Keith's hold on him or his ability to see Lance’s wincing face.

The wardrobe change finally accomplished and seemingly years after he had first asked Keith if he wanted to get out of bed, Lance finds their progress grinding to a halt once more. They manage to get themselves back over to the stairs before Keith just stops dead again, dragging Lance to a halt. To his chagrin, Lance notices that Keith’s hands are shaking against him and his eyes are screwed tightly shut. Lance tightens the arm around his shoulders and waits.

“L-lance… I don’t know if… I don’t think…” he swallows audibly. “I… I can’t let go right now, and the stairs -- too steep…” Keith looks like he just wants to sit down on the floor and cry. Lance twists a little so that they’re facing each other and tilts his head forward so that their foreheads rest against each other. He finds his hands slowly sliding up Keith’s shoulders and then neck until they’re both cupping his face instead.

“It’s okay. It’s alright, K. Just hang on for a second and let me think…”

Lance can feel Keith take that suggestion literally as a pair of muscled arms lock around his waist -- he can still feel Keith’s hands shaking. Lance closes his eyes and lets a long, slow breath out through his nose. He sways his weight back and forth between his feet as he thinks, rocking Keith right along with him. Then his eyes pop back open.

“Oh. Hey. I’ve got it,” he whispers before brushing his lips against Keith’s -- swearing internally as he notices that even those are pale at the moment. Lance pulls his head back and turns it towards the offending staircase. “Hey Kosmo,” he calls softly. “Could you come give us a hand -- er, paw?”

Kosmo is beside them in less than a heartbeat. He noses up to them so that he can rest his long muzzle against both of their shoulders at once, and with a very small yip from the back of his throat, he disappears all three of them; bringing them in for a landing in front of the sofa.

Lance frees up one of his hands to run through the soft fur on the wolf’s face. “Thanks, buddy. You’re wonderful.” Lance has always liked animals - especially dogs -  but even he wonders at the sincere gratefulness in his voice at the moment.

Kosmo gives another tiny yip and then huffs out a sigh as he flops back down on his rug. Lance shoulders Keith very gently towards the sofa.

Keith collapses bonelessly, pulling Lance down with him. As they land, Keith immediately buries his face in Lance’s shoulder with a tiny, wet sigh. Alarmed, Lance runs his hands back to Keith’s face and turns it towards his own. Keith’s eyes are closed and Lance finds his drawn cheeks are wet again. Lance leans over and kisses the tear marks. “Oh Keith…” he murmurs.

Some of the heartache leaks through into his voice, he can’t stop it, and Lance can feel the beginnings of tears stinging in his own eyes.

“I’m s-so sorry that I’m l-like this…” Keith cries, his eyes still shut. “You s-shouldn’t have t-to deal with m-me. Shouldn’t have to p-put up with some emotional cripple…” Keith rambles as he breaks back into sobs. “You’re so b-bright and happy -- you should b-be with someone who can b-be happy with you. Somebody who can m-make you happy. I don’t know if I’ll ever b-be able to d-do that. I’m afraid I’ll j-just make you sad t-too. Sad and b-broken like me. And I can’t see you l-like that. I think it would k-kill me…”

Lance feels his own tears stop merely threatening as they begin to sneak down his face as he reaches down and pulls an unprotesting Keith’s feet onto the sofa so that his legs are once again stretched across Lance’s lap. He can feel the tears dripping down into his short beard as he leans back against the backrest and pulls Keith into his chest. He can’t help but sniffle as he tightens his arms as much as he can around Keith’s broad shoulders and begins to rock the weeping man in his lap.

“Keith, do you know what would kill me?” Lance asks quietly. While there are still tears leaking from his eyes, his voice is calm and certain.

Keith doesn’t reply, but Lance can feel him tip his head upwards a bit against his chest so that he can sneak a glance at Lance’s face.

“What would kill me is knowing that you’re having days like today - days where you feel like this - and not being here with you. Leaving you like this; to go through this alone -- that’s what would kill me.”

“You really w-want to just sit h-her and watch m-me fall apart over and o-over again? You’re saying that will, what, m-make you happy? That this doesn’t w-worry you? Scare y-you? That I’m not m-making you sad right now?”

Lance sighs. “Of course it doesn’t make me happy to see you like this, K. It breaks my heart. It breaks my heart that I can’t just reach in and fix this for you. That I can’t take your place and feel all this so that you don’t have to. All that I can do is make sure that you don’t have to do this alone. Make sure that, even if you know that nobody can carry this burden for yo, that there’s still someone in the universe that can carry you . Being that person, that makes me happy.”

Keith shakes his head against Lance’s chest almost angrily before hiding his eyes again. “Bullshit. You’re n-not happy right now. You’re s-sad, Lance. You’re crying -- b-because of me !”

“Keith, can you look at me, please?” Lance requests, somehow managing to keep his voice steady. Keith won’t look up. Lance shifts a hand to Keith’s chin and tilts his face towards his own. Keith closes his eyes, his wet face a picture of misery. Lance sighs and tilts his forehead down to meet Keith’s once more. “That’s okay, just listen then. Yes, baby, I am,” he admits, his voice incredibly gentle. “I am crying.”

“And you’re t-telling me that this is you being happy? I d-don’t believe you.”

Lance continues to hold Keith just as close as he can manage. He keeps their foreheads pressed together. And he continues to rock his sad, angry, disbelieving Keith in his lap. His hands caress gentle circles across the twitching muscles of his back. Tears continue to leak down his face now and again, but Lance can feel his resolve growing.

“No, Keith. What I’m saying is that even though I’m sad right now - though I’m sad in this moment, and I’m worried, and I’m crying - I’m happier here with you then I would be, or could be, anywhere else. You make me happy, Keith. Because I love you. Because I’m in love with you. Even when you’re sad. Even when you’re angry. Even when you’re broken . I’m sad right now, but now is only one moment. I’m happy because I get to spend all of my moments with you, and if being sad -- if crying now is the price I have to pay for that, then I do it gladly - I promise I do - and I think it’s a bargain.”

“A surprisingly wise person told me not too long ago that just because someone is broken, it doesn’t mean they can’t be happy. Being broken doesn’t mean that life comes to a stop. Life keeps moving. Sitting here I’m starting to understand what that means. I wouldn’t give up this moment for anything, because this moment is part of my life, and I’ve found lately that my life is a pretty great place to be. Nothing I see right now, nothing that’s happened today even begins to convince me otherwise.”

“That’s why I won’t give up on Sad Keith, or abandon Broken Keith. Because they’re part of you just like Plumber Keith or Farmer Keith; just like Funny Keith and Gentle Keith. Those are all just aspects, just moments of Keith, and I love him so much that sometimes I think I might just burst…”

Lance finally trails off, a little lost in his own head now and a lot shocked that all of that just came pouring out of him. Maybe the timing isn’t the greatest, but on reflection, he can’t find a single word in what he just said that he regrets. Sure, Keith’s probably not in the best headspace for huge admissions; and Lance is scared of just what it all might mean. And sure, he’s scared - well, honestly, maybe terrified is more accurate - so, terrified of being in love with anyone again. And he feels terribly raw right now, almost physically sore from laying himself so bare in front of Keith: But he can’t regret anything he just said -- it’s all true. And he’s going to endure the smoldering, naked feeling of discomfort because he wasn’t lying when he said he trusted Keith with all of himself either.

Keith is completely silent. He’s not talking, but he’s also not crying anymore either; and he’s made no move to pull away from Lance, so Lance just does the same. He sits in silence hugging Keith close to his chest and lets him process.

That was a big speech, after all, and Lance figures that the least he owes Keith for listening to his spiel is a few doboshes to figure out what the hell he’s talking about. And then probably a few more after that to decide just what it might mean to Keith himself. Lance has had weeks to consider what Pidge told him about being broken and still managing to live and be happy; and he’s had weeks to think about how he feels about Keith -- with that in mind, he decides that Keith definitely deserves at least a couple of minutes.

So Lance waits and lets his mind drift, or well, doesn’t let it drift so much as finds himself incapable of preventing it. He finds himself thinking about his feelings and what he said while trying to find a quiet path through the his mounting anxiety -- through what feels a lot like icebergs clustered all around him. Occasionally he rocks to two of them back and forth. Occasionally the fire pops.

***

Some time later Lance feels Keith begin to shift in his embrace. He has no idea exactly how much later it is: maybe doboshes; maybe vargas. The interminable ticking away of that time has not been particularly kind to Lance. The anxiety that felt like icebergs a few… well, a while ago, has kicked itself up into a full fledged storm. His anxiety hasn’t been this bad in years, and Lance can feel it eating away at his defenses.

He told Keith that he loved him, and he meant it -- means it. And Keith hasn’t responded, and Lance honestly doesn’t know how Keith’s going to respond. What he’s going to say. On top of that, he’s gone and sprung all of this on Keith out of the damn blue: in the middle of what is, by all appearances, a truly wretched day for the poor guy. Out of the blue, not at all unlike how he’d dumped his entire chaotic existence right into the middle of Keith’s well-ordered life with no warning not three days ago.

Lance is pretty sure that normal people take longer than three days to discover and then declare their undying love. Lance feels like he’s treading water, and not doing very well at it -- like he’s not sure how long he’ll be able to keep his face above the waves.

Lance jolts slightly as he remembers that Keith was trying to move and his eyes snap shut as he slowly releases his hold on the other man to allow him to get up, if that’s what he wants to do.

The bereft sound this immediately yanks out of Keith is enough to send those arms flailing back to their embrace just as fast as they can manage. To Lance’s surprise, Keith doesn’t pull away at all.

It takes Lance several breaths before he can bear to open his eyes and look at Keith. Apparently all Keith was trying to do was shift himself in his seat so that their faces were even. His face now on full display, Keith still looks so very, very tired. Beyond that, Lance honestly can’t tell. He can’t tell what Keith is thinking -- what he’s feeling. There are so many different thoughts, feelings, ideas - whatever - warring in Keith’s eyes right now, in his expression; that Lance can’t even begin to figure out what they mean. He doesn’t even know where to start trying to decipher.

For yet another long, silent stretch Keith does nothing but stare at Lance’s face. One moment he’s looking at Lance like he’s never seen him before in his life. In the next, it’s more like Lance is the most precious thing that he’s ever seen and he’ll never look away again. And then it shifts again, and Keith is staring at him like he’s some unsolvable puzzle, like he’s the one thing Keith can never hope to understand -- probably a thing that frustrates him endlessly. Expression after expression, Lance finds himself trying to figure out what Keith is thinking -- figure out whether Keith is trying to tell him something without words. Expression after expression, Lance feels like he’s falling. He can’t tell what, if anything, Keith is trying to say, and it makes him feel like he’s sinking.

Sinking or not, he keeps watching Keith. As he does something occurs to him. For all of the expressions he’s seeing, there’s one that Lance can’t find. It’s that missing expression that makes his breath catch. Keith doesn’t look uncertain right now. Those uncertain eyes that Lance has come to dread every time they’ve showed up. That wrenching expression that lance has learned to hate over the last couple of days as it’s flashed over Keith’s face again and again.

That look is missing. And then it’s like a flashbulb going off in Lance’s murky head. He understands what he’s been looking at. What he’s been reading as uncertainty is actually a much darker, much scarier thing. Lance realizes that what he’s been looking at is the look of a drowning man staring at the lifeboat that could save him, but doesn’t, or worse, chooses not to . That look is a doorway opening onto Keith’s longing for one thing he wants most in the universe -- the one thing he’s never believed that he could actually have. Lance looks and looks and he can’t find that uncertainty - that longing - anywhere. His breath stutters, and he can’t help but wonder, can’t help but hope that telling Keith that he loves him has banished that fucker for good.

The two men stare and stare. Keith’s slow processing shows on his face. Lance has no idea what’s on his face right now, he really can’t even tell that he has a face -- he can’t feel it. He’s so torn between love and worry and hope and anxiety that he feels like he’s going to fly apart at any moment. The only thing keeping him in one piece is the absolute certainty that Keith needs him right now.

Lance shudders deeply as he feels Keith’s eyes go from staring at him to staring into him. It feels like Keith is looking at his… well, his soul, he supposes. The realization that it’s likely not a pretty sight right now makes him shudder again. Then Keith is talking and lance’s attention is elsewhere.

Keith’s voice is deep and quiet when he finally speaks. Lance would call it placid if he couldn’t hear just a hint of a snap to it. It has an incisive edge that reminds Lance of a time when Keith was his leader, when he depended on Keith to support him and keep him alive. A time when he looked to Keith to inspire him.

“Lance, do you really… believe all that? Feel all that? Watching over me today, you’re really sure that this is what you want?”

Lance answers honestly; feeling like Keith, or the universe, or, at least just he himself is intent on baring whatever dusty corners of his soul are still uninspected. “Yes. I’ve never wanted anything more.”

Keith’s voice turns, if anything, more penetrating. “And you really love me? You're… you’re in love with me?” his eyes burn across Lance’s face, as if searching for something. Lance isn’t sure what, so he just lets his face do whatever it wants and hopes that if he doesn’t hold anything back, Keith will find whatever it is he’s looking for.

“I am. I… I love you more than anything,” Lance whispers, his thoughts still drifting as he wonders if he should pull the ripcord on the thing he’d understood a few minutes ago when he was finally telling Keith how he truly feels. The thing that had been poking at him while he was treading scary water in silence, waiting.

Now or never, you coward, ’ prods a braver section of his brain. Lance's intended mental shrug at the monologue comes out as something more like a helpless slump when it accidentally communicates through to his actual shoulders. Lance tries for a deep breath and chokes instead. He closes his eyes. “I love you more than anything. More than everything I’ve ever loved,” he repeats and expands. “I love you more than myself, more than my friends, my family. I love you more than… more than I ever loved Allura.”

Lance blinks his eyes carefully back open in time to watch Keith’s go very, very round. For a moment it looks like Keith is going to interrupt, but Lance raises a shaky hand to Keith’s lips in a nonverbal plea and Keith holds his tongue and lets Lance continue.

“Part of how I got over Allura’s death was the… was that i knew that if our roles had been reversed, I would have… done the same thing. Made the same choice that she did. I would have given her up, left her all alone in order to do my duty.” Lance’s voice sounds sad, but it’s firm. He’s searching for the words he needs to translate the maelstrom in his brain, but once he gets them out, there’s no hint of doubt to them. “Knowing that helped me… not resent her for leaving.”

Lance stops for a breath, licking his lips and trying to swallow around the anxiety that’s now actively trying to yank him down with a vengeance. It feels like acid in his throat. Keith’s eyes are still wide,his lips parted a bit - presumably with shock - but he seems to recognize Lance’s difficulty. He slowly raises a hand of his own and wraps it very gingerly around the back of Lance’s neck, his fingers burying themselves deep in the soft hair there.

Where they belong, ’ whispers Lance’s constant mental companion, the sibilant noise almost entirely lost in the swirl of adrenaline and memory and anxiety.

Lance swallows and his dry throat clicks. His voice feels raspy again, but he makes himself continue anyway. “I’m telling you this because it’s how I know that I love you more.” Lance’s eyes are laser-locked on Keith’s. He couldn’t look away right now if his life depended on it. “If I had to pick between leaving you and letting the universe burn, then I’d let it burn and I wouldn’t regret it.” Another dry, painful swallow. “Keith, that’s why I can cry with you, be sad with you; and still tell you truthfully that I’m happy. Because I know , beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I could stand beside you and watch the universe die, watch the end of all things, and still consider myself lucky because I was the guy standing next to you. I can’t exist in a universe where you’re not beside me. I won’t .”

The self-deprecating laugh that lance lets fly after revealing that little secret is loud in the dim, quiet room. Lance closes his eyes again, desperately trying to find a way to center himself, trying to locate some sense of calm and order in a brain that’s just not built to exist that way. He realizes that there are tears on his face again, and wonders how long they’ve been falling. With a self-conscious little sniffle he opens his eyes again, though he finds he can’t really seem to focus them on anything. He shakes his head. “Probably a good thing I’m not in charge of saving the universe any more, huh? I guess my focus is a little split…”

Something finally seems to snap Keith out of his shocked reverie. Maybe it’s the change in Lance’s tone, or the tears leaking from his eyes again; or maybe it’s the wry, agonized grimace that crawls its painful way onto Lance’s face and pretends to be a smile. Whatever it is, two fat tears well in Keith’s eyes and, with his next blink, fall across his cheeks. Some wise-sounding voice deep inside Lance somewhere tells him that these tears are different than all of the others Keith has shed today. Lance doesn’t know who the hell that voice belongs to, but he really, truly hopes that it’s right.

Ohmigod, Lance …” Keith finally manages to say, his voice unnaturally high and breath as it trips over itself. He clears his throat and gives his head a little shake without once breaking eye contact. “I didn’t… know that -- I didn’t realize…” Unfortunately, it doesn’t take very long for words to escape Keith completely again and he trails off, his eyes still painfully wide. Lance finds himself desperately afraid that the emotion he’s seeing in them is fear.

Quailing before the apparent terror, Lance’s anxiety slips more and more from his control with every passing tick. He feels his fingers and toes begin to tingle, and everything around him begins to swim in his vision. It feels like someone’s pulled all of the air out of the room and replaced it with honey. He can hear a shimmering noise in his ears, a noise that begins to push away the other sounds in the room, begins to overlap and blend with them in confusing patterns. With a wrench, he manages to latch onto Keith’s voice when he starts speaking again. It gives lance something to focus on -- an anchor to help hold him on the ledge a little longer.

“I thought that you and… I… we… Fuck !” Keith blows out a hugely frustrated breath, as if to underline the sheer tonnage of irritation attached to that curse.

Keith’s frustration washes over Lance and he just can’t deal with it. He can’t handle trying to interface the noise around him with the noise in his skull any more. It’s all too much. He feels himself begin to sink in earnest -- feels when the anxiety latches on with steel jaws and drags him under. It feels like drowning.

Something that sounds like his sense of self-preservation is screaming something at him. Hopefully it’s telling him to just shut down, to turn off. What little is left of lance’s mind can’t help but think that’s probably the right idea. So he just stops - lets what tenuous little grasp he has left on reality dissolve.

He falls far enough away from himself that he doesn’t notice when his hands start to shake, or when his leg starts to bounce, or when his teeth start to chatter. He can’t tell whether his eyes are open or closed any more. He doesn’t even notice when his rough breathing finally stutters to a halting stop.

Thankfully, Keith does .

As Lance begins to slide down across the backrest, Keith curls his body around him and braces him in place. Keith’s hands flash to lance’s temples, his fingers rubbing tiny circles there against tan skin gone ghostly pale. “Lance, you’ve got to breathe,” he says in a voice that he’s clearly trying to keep calm.

Lance can’t hear him.

“Listen to my voice, Lance. Just… can you focus on me? Do what I do?” Keith takes a deep breath and then holds it in for a few ticks before slowly releasing t. Then he does it again. Then again.

Lance doesn’t respond -- he can’t. He doesn’t understand. Or, well, really, it’s more like he’s just not even home.

“Please Lance, you’ve got to breathe. Please -- for me…” Keith finally pleads with him. And something in that tone, something there grabs onto Lance and yanks at him. He tries to take a breath and chokes instead. Keith makes a tiny sound in the back of his throat. Lance still can’t hear. A pair of hands tighten on Lance’s face and pull him forward. Pull him down. Keith puts lance’s ear right over his heart.

That , Lance can hear. The sound is soothing. To fast, but regular. Repetitive. Something that Lance can grab onto and begin to make sense of. He thinks that he can hear Keith’s voice too, but it’s too far away to make out. Lance listens intently to that heartbeat. Once he’s concentrating on that, he starts to hear its counterpoint as well. He can hear the air rush in and out of Keith’s lungs. He can feel the chest rise and fall beneath him. The rhythms wash over Lance and he begins to mimic them without even realizing; begins to internalize them.

By the fifth or sixth breath, Lance’s inhalations have synced with Keith’s. By the twentieth or so he can feel his body begin to relax. After fifty or sixty he slowly begins to pry open his eyes.

Lance can feel Keith’s palm spread across the side of his face, holding it safe against this chest. He can feel Keith’s fingers working slowly through his hair. He can feel the gentle drag of the calluses against his scalp. He manages to tilt his head up just far enough that Keith’s face is there in front of him. He blinks his eyes until they remember how to focus correctly.

Once Keith’s worry registers with him, Lance’s brain begins to fire more quickly again. That dear, tired face in front of him starts to make sense. He sees the shift in expression when Keith realizes that he’s back. He recognizes the instant when Keith’s worry for him and his frustration with the words he finds so difficult both die away between heartbeats. He watches the darkness, and the apathy, and the sadness etched on that face bleed away with them.

He sees Keith transfigured, and seeing it, a huge, fast breath rushes out of his lungs instead of a slow, controlled one. Keith is okay. They’re okay. When Lance closes his eyes again, it’s in relief. He closes his eyes and smiles a little when he realizes that his breathing is still synced with Keith’s.

Lance can feel Keith shifting his body, pulling Lance away from his chest, and for a moment he almost panics again, screwing his eyes tighter, before he feels Keith’s other hand move to bracket his face again; touching it like it’s the most precious, most delicate treasure he can imagine. Touching it almost like he’s afraid it might disappear. Keith’s thumbs reach up and brush away the tears that have gathered below Lance’s fluttering eyelids. Lance can feel another subtle shift and then Keith just barely brushes his lips against lance’s closed left eyelid, followed immediately by the same on the right. As cliched as it might be, the feeling is electric. As those kisses register Lance’s eyes snap open. As water blue locks with watery violet something sparks in both. Lance twists slightly in Keith’s hold until their faces are even with each other, until their foreheads are leaned together again. Keith’s eyes glimmer as he crashes their lips together.

Lance can feel Keith pouring everything into that kiss: as if he can use that one simple action to say all of the words that fight him, that stick in his mouth. As the kiss deepens, Lance begins to think, and then to believe, that Keith can do exactly that. Lance can’t bare to close his eyes, so he watches instead. He has to watch Keith, has to see him. Keith’s eyes gaze right back, that light never once leaving them.

When they finally part, both men are breathless. Keith blinks just once and then brushes a second, tiny kiss across Lance’s lips, one so light that it only barely registers as a touch at all. Then he opens his mouth and makes a final attempt at speaking.

“Lance… I… I love you too. I always have. With… with… with all my heart.” There’s still more than a hint of a stumble to them -- as if Keith has never tried to say them out loud before; but his voice helps to calm Lance long before the words themselves register. Something in that voice helps to calm Lance long before the words themselves register. Something in that voice begins to penetrate the thick blanket of noise still wrapped around Lance’s wits. Those words are important; but it’s the tone, the color, the sound of them that makes Lance jolt noticeably in Keith’s arms. Lance hears something he hasn’t heard in years. Something he didn’t even realize was dead until it was alive in Keith once more.

Lance wonders if he’s about to break down and cry yet again, and finds he’s not even really sure why. If he’s heartbroken now because he knows that it was missing; or enraptured because it’s come back to life because of him -- for him.

Keith’s voice sounds full and alive. For the first time in a very long time, it rings. Lance had thought he’d heard hints of his Black Paladin earlier in the conversation, but they were shadows compared to this. The voice seethes with a living passion that stretches beyond Keith’s physical form and dances around him. It blazes.

That voice, that man telling Lance that he loves him: him he’d recognize anywhere. He knows him in his heart, and his bones, and in the quiet of his soul. That’s what the Black Paladin sounded like in his strongest moments -- the times when he knew something was right or wrong with every fiber of his being and fought with all his strength. He sounded like that in those rare times when he shared the essential truths he guarded in the deepest reaches of his heart. That’s what Keith sounded like when he was the salvation of the universe.

That Keith could find that fire again, and find it for Lance - especially on a day like today - that leaves Lance entirely awestruck. He knows that he’s staring, but he can’t seem to help it. Now Lance can’t find any words. He can’t even find the strength to move. Oh how he hopes that at least there’s a smile on his shock-numbed face.

Lance’s attention catches on reality again as Keith draws in a heavy breath, and he presses his forehead a little more firmly against Keith’s, trying to center himself. He doesn’t want to miss anything he might say because he’s come unhinged and is wandering around in the least orderly sections of his messy, messy mind. Keith smiles at him and then presses their lips together for a brief little instant before continuing. After that kiss, Lance can feel his lips again. Yes, there’s a smile on his face.

“I didn’t know that you felt that way… felt that much for me. Honestly, I… I didn’t know anyone could feel that way about me .” Keith’s voice catches a little, and Lance’s chest constricts as he hears the doubt bleeding in. It washes over that fire like a pall.

“I don’t know if… if I deserve it. I don’t… I don’t know what I did to make me worthy of someone like you.” His fingers caress Lance’s face as if he can’t stop them from mapping out his features. Maybe he can’t. Maybe he just doesn’t want to. Lance never wants him to stop, and wonders if he should just tell him that. Keith’s next deep breath is shaky, and his eyes look more vulnerable than Lance has ever seen them before.

It’s almost like he can actually see the layers of Keith’s defenses peeling slowly away. Finally, they reach the bottom and Lance finds a very old pain huddled there, bound up at the center, at the heart of Keith’s existence. He sees the unbearable pain of a little boy who everyone abandoned; a little boy with no family, no home, nothing to rely on but his own inadequate self. He sees a little boy broken again and again by the cruelty of reality. This is the pain that underscores all of the others; all of the fractures, all of the wounds, all of the broken places that mar Keith -- and that make him beautiful.

Lance knows in that moment that he’d give anything to prove to Keith that he doesn’t have to be that little boy any more. That no matter the cost, Lance will never give up on him, will never be another person who abandons him. He knows that he would spend everything he has, everything he is to show Keith how much he loves them; to teach him how much he’s valued, how he’s adored. He understands at the very core of him that he’ll spend the rest of his life proving this to Keith not just willingly, but with joy.

With this new knowledge, this promise is still ringing in his mind, Lance opens his heart as wide as he can because he can hear that little boy asking for him now. He opens his heart and he listens.

“I don’t know if I deserve you,” Keith repeats, his voice sounding quiet and torn and so full of hope. “But, Lance, I love you. I love you and I… I want to deserve you.” He finally glances away. “Is that… is it e-enough?” Keith sounds like he’s begging. Lance knows that he’s begging, though he doesn’t understand why. There’s no need to beg for an answer that Lance would pay anything to give.

Lance cups Keith’s face, his touch dragging Keith’s gaze back to his like gravity. “Yes, Keith. Yes.” Lance says, having found his clarity. His heart in his eyes, he continues, “It’s more than enough. You are  so much more than sufficient.” Lance breathes out very softly, adn this time he’s the one that closes the distance and touches their lips together. Against them he whispers, “ You’re everything ,” just barely loud enough to be heard.

***

Silence reigns for a very long time after that conversation. It’s almost as if the guys can’t bear to say anything more, that any more might just collapse this new reality around them under its own weight. Occasionally their lips find each other, or a brow, or a palm. Fingers trace a cheekbone, or a jawline, or tangle into already tousled hair. And their eyes, those are hopelessly lost in each other’s faces. Searching out new depths in features they both thought held no more surprises.

Keith’s exhaustion is eventually enough to carry him away again, and Lance is much more than content to simply hold him and watch him sleep. He lets the look of peace that he can see there now begin to wash away the images of terror and anguish from the night.

Eventually, realizing that the time marches on, regardless of comfort level, Lance tests to see if Keith is asleep enough to allow him to move, and discovers that he is. Lance slips himself out of his arms and brushes a kiss across his forehead before rising.

Once up, Lance ghosts through the room. After adding peat to the fires he runs upstairs and quickly strips down the bed, replacing the sheets with clean ones dug from the laundry. Fondling his blue throw for a moment, he decides it’s still sufficiently clean and drapes it around his shoulders like a cape. The rest of the spoiled linens plus the growing pile of clothes on the floor he rounds up and hauls back down the stairs. He manages it without falling flat on his face and finds himself surprisingly proud. He manages to dislodge his cape onto Keith on the sofa en route to the laundry machines.

Said machines, of course, are equipped with a full set of nearly undecipherable buttons. Lance does his best to follow the odd little pictograms. After concluding that space icons are of decidedly questionable value, he manages to get the silly thing to fill with water of an apparently reasonable temperature and adds what he hopes is soap and not some kind of baking ingredient before dumping in his armful of washing.

That done, Lance finds himself humming slightly as he hurries into the kitchen and sets more water on to boil. He pulls a package of macaroni and cheese from his backpack and triggers it to heat himself while he bumbles through the cupboards until he comes across a tray big enough to serve supper on. He outfits it with plates and silverware, mugs of not tea once the water boils, and a drinking glass full of some of the prettiest of the dark blue daisies culled from the profusion surrounding him.

Once he’s dropped his provisions off on the coffee table, Lance digs out his tablet, just in case a distraction should prove necessary or useful and then eases himself back down next to his boyfriend as if he’d never left. Keith doesn’t wake, but his arms shift back around Lance without any prompting.

When Keith does wake up. Lance is still there, patiently watching him. Lance realizes that this is something of a role-reversal, and hopes that he is as not-creepy while watching Keith, as Keith is when he lays in bed and just smiles dopily at him. When Keith’s eyes open, they look a little brighter to Lance. He can still see the darkness there, but it looks a little smaller and a little farther away.

“Hey there. How was your nap? Are you feeling any better?” Lance realizes that some of his bubbly self seems to have regrouped, and started talking without his full permission. He also finds it almost embarrassingly thrilling when his dumb smile seems to summon its match on Keith’s face.

“Nap was good,” Keith replies to the first question before closing his eyes again and appearing to assess the answer to the second. When he opens them again, that little smile is still playing about his lips. “Yeah, Lance, I think I am… Thank you for today, for… for everything,” Keith almost whispers.

Lance’s smile just brightens further. “Of course,” he replies matter-of-factly, as if there was no other way he could have possibly spent his day. Probably because he can’t think of any other way he could have possibly spent his day. “I love you,” he concludes his thought without losing a beat.

Keith glows.

This also marks the first time today that Keith has actually looked at his surroundings with any sort of clarity, and he sputters when he realizes that he is surrounded by literally thousands of flowers exactly the color of Lance’s eyes. His head whips around. “Lance! When did you.. I… what?” Lance can’t help but to chuckle. Oh Keith and his way with words.

Lance glances around the thoroughly bedecked room somewhat serenely. “This afternoon while you were sleeping. Same as the ones upstairs.” He turns his soft gaze towards Keith. “Like I said, I was hoping that seeing something you like would cheer you up, and I wanted to… um… hedge my bets? So I picked, well… lots .” Lance tries to continue sounding sure of himself, but he can’t help but feel like he might have gone a trifle overboard now that Keith is actually looking at the riot of flowers. He finds himself hoping that Keith won’t mind the mess too much.

Keith looks around again, and Lance realizes that his eyes are faintly misty when they meet back up with his own. “I love you, Lance,” Keith says. This time there’s no stutter -- no hesitation. And as  he says it, that rare-for-today smile is still on his face. “And for your information, I do see something I like. Something that makes me feel better every time I open my eyes. Just like I have for days now. Ever since I watched my wolf knock him flat on his face in the mud…”

Lance blushes seriously for the first time all day -- his little nudity episode having been to controlled and to distracted to classify. Also, maybe, just maybe, Lance can bring himself to admit that he actually squeaked a little at that. ‘ Still blushing at every little thing, I see ,’ his mind observes acerbically. ‘ Bite me, bitch ,’ Lance replies merrily to his monologue, his mental tone sparkly with joy.

As the heat in Lance’s face slowly fades and his wandering fingers trace their way across one of Keith’s biceps, he asks, “So, babe, you feel up to eating a little something?”

The tired look crowds its way back onto Keith’s face, though it doesn’t quite quench his smile this time. “Yeah… I guess. Though, Christ, I don’t feel like cooking.”

Lance just smiles and bends down to retrieve the spoils of his earlier mission. “Gotcha covered, my dear. How about mac and cheese?”

Keith looks genuinely astonished as Lance pops open the steaming container and spoons its contents out onto the waiting plates. He hands one to Keith along with a mug of now lukewarm not-tea, both of which Keith eagerly accepts.

Keith closes his eyes as he eats the first bite. Lance remembers the vaguely predatory glee in Keith’s eyes while he had watched Lance moon over his pie. He has a feeling that he looks just like that right now as he watches the muscles in Keith’s jaw and the motion of his neck as he swallows -- not to mention the need he feels to bask in the beatific little smile on his lips.

About halfway through inhaling the contents of his plate, Keith finally looks up at Lance and catches him staring. The tiny smirk that plays on his lips as the catching does nothing to bank the flames sputtering at the base of Lance’s spine. “Lance, where the quiznak did you get macaroni and cheese?”

“Kosmo and I took a little side trip to visit Red and raid the larder,” Lance explains. “I can’t take all the credit though. Your mom sent me with all of your favorites.”

Keith’s surprised look flashes back on. “Really?”

“Yeah. She sent me, her love, and an Earth food care package. You’re a lucky guy.”

“You’re right, Lance. I really, really am.”

Chapter Text

It takes several days for Keith to return to what seems to be his baseline. The first day after their departure into the mutual land of ‘ I love you ’ is mostly spent on the sofa. Keith can’t seem to find the energy to get much further from the bed than that. Since he seems to be at his happiest when cuddled into Lance’s arms, Lance can find absolutely no reason at all to be anywhere other than either on top of, or underneath Keith -- either way his arms locked around him to keep him close.

Lance takes this as an opportunity to begin introducing Keith to the wonder that is classic Disney -- starting, of course, with Sleeping Beauty to introduce him to his goats’ eponyms. Lance is really quite surprised at how well the experience seems to go over. Apparently somewhere lurking under the guise of the super secret ninja assassin, there’s a soppy, sentimental man who enjoys watching cartoons with his boyfriend. Who knew? So far Keith’s favorite definitely seems to be The Rescuers . Lance wonders whether he should dig for hidden meanings in that, but decides against tainting the purity of Keith’s Disney experience instead.

Lance also digs deep into the newly recovered Earth provisions, as Keith still doesn’t feel up to cooking and Lance is, well, afraid of the wood stove in the kitchen.

Keith’s infirmity also provides the creepy, square-pupiled, live-action versions of Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather more opportunities to bond with Lance. They seem to like him a lot. In fact, they still seem to be holding a sort of awkward little hircine contest to see which of them can spend the most time attempting to curl up in his lap. The best that can be said for Lance is that he’s almost certain that he won’t wake up some night to find them arrayed around the bed chanting a depraved, blood-fueled summoning ritual. He figures this is progress.

***

On the second morning Lance goes so far as to attempt scrambled eggs while Keith is in the shower. He learns swiftly that ADD is even less compatible with wood stoves than with their modern brethren. Kosmo seems rather offended when Lance offers him the carbonized once-food, and proceeds to ignore Lance until he makes a peace offering in the form of a sizeable hunk of sausage.

When Keith comes back from his shower, he looks briefly alarmed by the pall of smoke until he catches sight of a sheepish Lance currently staring at a cast iron skillet in the sink. Then Keith just laughs. Lance decides that he might just have to burn more things if they bring that sound into his life. The world is a warmer, brighter place when Keith laughs like that.

“Stove giving you trouble, love?” Keith inquires from across the counter, still flushed and damp from his shower.

Lance finds himself spending most of his willpower attempting to keep himself from flat-out gawking when he realizes that Keith isn’t just flushed and damp: the only thing he’s currently wearing is a low-slung towel around his hips.

Then he remembers that the specimen in front of him is actually his boyfriend now, and thus he’s actually entitled to stare -- it’s allowed, if not maybe even encouraged. So he stares, and Keith lets him. His eyes are so busy that Lance doesn’t even notice the really rather important new endearment Keith has put in play. When he finally takes in the fact that Keith is actually saying things - rather than just providing him with eye candy - Lance struggles mightily to expand his attention sufficiently to allow his ears to work as well.

“...anyway, it’s not really too different from a regular stove -- you just can’t turn it down. Or off. It’s bitchy that way. You really just have to keep an eye on what you’re doing. If it cooks too fast, just pull it off the stove or move it to the warming rack in the back.” He chuckles. It’s then that Lance understands that while Laughing Keith is god, Mostly Naked Laughing Keith is better . “...a little practice. Don’t worry too much about it -- I burned so much shit when I was first learning, I thought Mab was going to just give up on me completely.”

As he’s been talking, Keith has also been sidling towards the stairs -- presumably on a mission to retrieve some clothes. Lance thinks this is very decidedly too bad. “Wait -- what… or, from the context, I guess: who is Mab? Is that the lady you lived-” Half watching Keith walk across the room and half paying attention to the conversation, Lance comes to a very abrupt halt when Keith turns to go up the stairs, fully revealing his back to Lance.

It’s the first time that Lance has really gotten a look at the scars on Keith's back when there were no extenuating circumstances. They’re just as bad as he remembers from the shower -- maybe worse, honestly, since there’s nothing distracting Lance from them right now. Lance ties to say something and finds that, in this particular instant, he really can’t. He doesn’t have any words at all.

Keith turns back around looking quizzical. “Hey Lance, everything okay? You just kinda stopped in the middle of your sentence…” Keith looks more closely at Lance. Lance continues to stare in the direction of the scars he can no longer see -- he’s not even sure if he’s blinking right now.

Ultimately Keith seems to figure out what’s going on and his face shutters -- the mask that goes up betrays absolutely nothing. He briefly twists his head over his shoulder as if that will allow him to get a good look at his own back before briefly looking at Lance again -- before fixing his eyes firmly on his feet.

“Oh, um… sorry about those. I know they’re… I know they must look ugly. I’ll just get a shirt. Sorry…”

The uncertainty in Keith’s tone - which Lance hopes to God isn’t creeping back into his purple eyes as well - snaps Lance back in and he’s abandoned the sink and lit out across the room before Keith can even begin his slump-shouldered way up the stairs.

Lance lands a damp hand on each of Keith’s shoulders. “You. Are. Not. Ugly.” he insists with great emphasis. “You can put on a shirt if you want; but I don’t ever want you to think that there’s a part of you that you need to hide from me. I love all of them. All of the parts of you .” His fingers tighten on the tense muscles beneath them. “Every one.”

Keith looks utterly unconvinced. “I know what they look like, Lance… they’re not beauty marks. It’s okay to tell me if they… to say if they… bother you.” And that Christ-forsaken uncertainty is in his eyes again. It makes Lance want to scream.

Instead he replies very evenly and with particular care. “ The scars don’t bother me , K. I promise you. I absolutely promise. I’m sad that you had to go through all of the things that gave them to you; and if you ever want to talk about any of that, you know I’ll be here.” His hands begin to massage gently at muscles so tight now that they’re nearly quaking. “But the scars themselves -- honestly Keith, I just don’t care. I told you I love all of the parts of you. All of the the Keiths -- Scarred Keith included.”

“Really? But you… you stopped talking when you saw them. And… your face was -- it was not good, Lance,” Keith nearly mumbles. He still sounds uncertain, and burdened with more than a moderate amount of disbelief.

Despite all that worry, and the incredulity; Lance is sure that he can hear a hint of Gentle Keith - of Hopeful Keith - starting to crawl through the briars in that uncertain mind of his. It changes the timbre of his voice -- the quality of that quiet sound. Lance knows he needs to find a way to talk to Hopeful Keith now -- to get past the grim fortifications that uncertainty has built up. His hands still working gently at Keith’s shoulders, Lance begins to wonder if maybe - just maybe - an object lesson might do the trick.

He releases Keith’s shoulders and quickly yanks off his own shirt. Turning around he jams a finger over his shoulder and into what should be the middle of his own most impressive scare. His aim ends up being pretty good.

The starburst-shaped remnant of that first explosion - the one where he’d saved Coran - is largely faded at this point. The pod had made certain it was never too terrible to start with, but the outlines are still definitely there. “Does this make you feel any different about me? Not the fact that I jumped in front of an explosion to save somebody, mind you -- just the mark on my skin. Does it bother you?”

“Well… no.”

Lance turns back to face Keith and brushes his fingers across several of the more obvious scars scattered across his own chest and abdomen. “What about these ones? There are quite a few.”

“Not really, Lance -- I have… well, lots more. Even if you don’t count my back.”

“Do these bother you?” Lance pushes insistently.

“No.”

Lance brushes his fingers along the blue marks on his cheekbones. “And what about these?”

“Lance, those aren’t scars…”

“Marks on the skin left by wounds suffered in a war -- I think they qualify. They’re… they’re probably the deepest scars that I have; and the most visible.” Lance touches his fingertips to the marks again. “Do they bother you?”

“No, Lance. Of course they don’t.”

All of that established, Lance shifts his attention from his own collection of scars to Keith’s. He drops swiftly to one knee and traces gentle fingertips along the line of a scar running across Keith’s calf. Next he reaches up and rests them against the pockmark of a laser blast on Keith’s side. “These remind me of what you’ll do to save your team - your family - from being hurt. This one from pushing Hunk out of a trap. It doesn’t bother me. Neither does this one from where you took that shot for Pidge.”

He stands up and allows his palm to cup the dusty silvery-rose scar on Keith’s jaw. “And this one, this one reminds me of just how far you’ll go to pull someone you love back from the abyss. It tells me that you’ll never stop trying. It doesn’t bother me.”

Without even looking he runs that same hand from Keith’s face down his neck and across his shoulder until it’s draped over an old, jagged scar left by a marmora blade. Given the new scars snaking across it, no one would ever find it if they didn’t know that it was there. Lance’s hand drifts right to it. “This reminds me of how dedicated you are to discovering yourself; to understanding the world and how you fit into it. It’s all about how much you’ll fight to see, to grasp, to learn. It doesn’t bother me.”

Finally, Lance walks around Keith entirely and takes a very good look at the scourge marks on his back. His fingers begin to trace across them, one after the other -- just like in the shower that first day; only this time Keith isn’t catatonic or locked into some sort of crisis-mode fugue.

Going by his immediate reaction, Keith can definitely feel those fingers. At first he stiffens even further, the muscles in his back growing taught as he sets his shoulders; but by the time Lance has made it to the fifth or sixth scar, Keith’s body begins to ever-so-slowly relax into his touches. Lance’s fingers linger over each and every cruel scar - every single mark - before he speaks. When he does, his voice is a little rough, maybe even choked, but it burns with conviction.

“And these, my Keith, these remind me that after everything you’ve been through, after everything you’ve suffered, you’re still here. Still alive. They remind me that life goes on, and that things get better.” Lance drops a kiss on the back of Keith’s neck. “I love them for that -- you never have to hide them from me.” He kisses him again, this time right between the shoulder blades. “I’m sorry that I reacted badly when I saw them. I’d… I guess I’d forgotten they were there. They surprised me and I just froze. I promise you don’t have to worry about them. Not for me. Not on my account.”

Keith’s voice sounds very wet when he replies without turning around. Lance desperately hopes that those aren’t sad tears he’s hearing. “H-hey, Lance?”

“Yeah, K?”

“I love you.”

Lance lets out a silent breath of relief -- not sad tears then. He grabs Keith’s shoulders again and turns him around so that they’re face to face. Keith makes no attempt to hide either the tears or the smile on his face. Lance brushes those tears away with deft fingers and kisses that smile with soft lips.

“I love you too,” Lance murmurs into the kiss.

***

On the third day following the nightmare, Keith declares himself well enough to ‘ get some fucking work done .’ Lance isn’t so sure, but Keith has never liked being fussed over.

Having known this about Keith for nearly a decade now, Lance has already had to ameliorate some of his anxiety-driven worrywart tendencies. Resisting the urge to ask Keith how he’s doing every three doboshes, for instance. Given the number of times Lance had asked that question immediately following ‘ The Night of the Nightmare ’ as his damn fool brain insists on calling it: eighteen-year-old Keith would have stabbed Lance with his marmora sword and gone off to sulk if he’d been in attendance. Gentle Keith, of course, did nothing of the sort. Instead, his thoughtful, careful responses ended up being much, much worse for Lance.

Every time Lance got worried or distracted and asked Keith that particular question, Keith immediately stopped whatever he was doing and carefully thought about it so that he could answer Lance truthfully.

To that particular end, Lance found himself quite touched by the thoughtfulness and the trust in him that it revealed. Unfortunately, it also meant that every time he asked, Keith’s face sunk back into bleakness and depression or turned tired and haunted while he thought about just exactly how he was feeling so that he could answer. And every single time, that awful face as Lance’s goddamned fault.

This proved to be more than sufficient motivation for Lance to change from asking ‘ how are you? ’ every other breath to simply saying ‘ I love you ’ every time he was tempted to ask instead. Having seen enough awful faces, this new methodology was deployed by the end of the first day of Keith’s recovery. This gave Lance a way to be certain that Keith knew he was there, and concerned, and thinking about him. This meant that, instead of watching some depressive frown swoop in and take over, Lance got to watch Keith glow with striking regularity for a tick or six instead.

In any case, when Keith announces that he is ready to go out and accomplish something, Lance finds himself somewhat dubious, but simply responds with, “Sure thing, K. And, I love you,” rather than anything more probing. Three days into the strategy, it still seems to be working. Keith still glows. And he hands Lance a set of heavy work clothes before proceeding to dress himself in more of the same.

The clothes still don’t fit Lance, and when Keith notices him fretting at them, he smiles. “You look fine, Lance. I promise that I don’t care if you don’t quite fit into my clothes… But, if it bothers you, we can get some work clothes made for you in the village.”

Lance, mostly abstracted by his current search for a reasonable belt replies with a simple, “Thanks, K.”

Thusly garbed, the guys head out into the rain, which is happily only falling as a drizzle today, rather than anything more torrential. They head back off towards the sod field, wheelbarrow in tow.

Keith is not so animated on this particular trip -- it yields no tales of logging mishaps, though he does seem to be happy enough to laugh along with Lance at funny alien exploits drawn from his time as an inspirational speaker.

They fill the barrow twice that day, working steadily until the roof looks just about two-thirds complete. Since said barrow is still half full and the daylight is still holding strong, Lance is somewhat surprised when Keith calls a halt for the day.

“Is something wrong, K? We still have more sod -- probably enough to finish today if we keep going…”

“Nope, love. Nothing’s wrong.”

Having actually noticed the endearment from Keith this time, Lance’s shock nearly sends him tumbling off the roof of the barn. The fact that Keith does so with such ease and obvious warmth does little for a wide-eyed Lance’s balance. Regardless, since Keith has already gone on with his explanation, Lance hunkers down and makes some attempt to, you know, understand words and things.

“...have half of the cart left, but we have to hang the windows before we can finish the top section of the roof. We’ll have to make a trip into town. The windows should be ready to go, since they were supposed to be finished last movement. I’m a little behind, I guess -- I seem to have gotten distracted by something…” Keith chuckles and hops down to the ground before offering a hand to help Lance off the roof.

Lance accepts it and manages to slither down without too much trouble despite the fact that every channel in his brain is still screaming ‘ ¡LOVE! ’ at him.

“It’s awfully late to go this afternoon. Besides, I’m tired and cold -- and we’re fucking covered in mud. We can go tomorrow, if that’s okay with you.”

“Of… of c-course!” Lance manages to stutter out.

Keith looks at him oddly for a moment, one of his eyebrows arching. Since Lance can’t seem to manage anything more than a somewhat vacant smile at the moment, Keith just quirks his lips into a little smile of his own and trudges into the cottage with Lance on his heels.

Still rather out to lunch, Lance pretty much plows straight into Keith, who’s come to a stop in the entryway and started yanking of his boots. Lance manages to catch Keith’s arm and keep him from ending up on his ass on the floor.

Keith rights himself and eyeballs Lance again. “Hey, you okay?”

Lance manages to rally. “Yeah, uh… of course, my dude. I’m fine.” His cheeks pinking rapidly, he bends and distracts himself with removing his own boots.

Keith lets out an amused little snort and goes back to stripping off his soiled work things. “I hate working in the mud…” Keith complains as he works himself out of his clingy pants while trying to to make an absolute mess or fall over. Once he wins the fight he turns back to Lance, now clad in nothing more than a damp pair of lavender boxer briefs. “By the way, love, thanks for all your help today. This goes much faster with you around.”

Lance, similarly clad excepting the shirt he’s currently trying to pull off comes to an abrupt halt, nearly choking himself. He manages to get the shirt off and drop it in the pile on the floor, granting him an unobstructed eyeline to stare at Keith. ‘ He did it again! ¡LOVE! ’ exhorts his stunned brain.

Lance finds himself increasingly agog. He isn’t even sure if Keith knows that he’s saying it; and he’s more than a little afraid that Keith’ll stop if Lance actually mentions it -- especially if he’s not doing it on purpose. So instead he does the only sensible thing. He takes a big step forward and kisses Keith, his arms immediately wrapping around the other man’s bare, muscled middle.

Keith is very still at first -- stiff with surprise, one presumes. But he seems to get over it inside a tick or two, and his body relaxes into the embrace as he returns the kiss. And boy howdy does he return that kiss. Lance is pleasantly taken aback as Keith transforms their kiss from the ‘ why, hello… ’ varietal into something decidedly more serious. Namely, into one of those kisses that make your breath catch and your knees weak. As the kiss continues, Lance can certainly feel himself responding; but, more importantly, he can also feel Keith’s erection growing rapidly against his hip.

Just as Lance is assessing his next move, Keith pulls away in a rush, his face red and his expression torn. Hustling, he disappears into the bathroom, leaving a “Covered in mud -- mind if I catch the first shower?” floating behind him.

Lance is left staring after him in confusion, a pair of fingers rising unconsciously to his lips while the very obvious tent in his own damp underpants shows no evidence of diminishing. The swearing inside his head is colorful. He berates whichever various parts of himself are apparently responsible for scaring Keith away. One in particular may have borne the brunt of that. Lance promises himself that he’ll move slower and then turns his attention to thinking himself out of his unsurprisingly persistent boner and collects the work clothes in his arms to haul over to the wash.

After their showers, they’re a quiet pair as they cook supper together that night - an activity mostly made up of Keith showing Lance how to use the wood stove without burning down the cottage. And, following an equally quiet meal, they both agree to an early night. There’d been plenty of energy burned today, after all, and Lance figures they should probably both get some sleep. Hopefully it will help him with whatever tomorrow’s excursion to the village has in store.

Neither brings up that kiss - or those erections - but Keith doesn’t shy away from Lance at all when they climb into bed together. Wrapped up in Keith, as has swiftly become Lance’s precondition for sleeping comfortably, he tries not to worry too much, and succeeds at least partially.

Maybe.

***

When Lance awakens he discovers two things. One: he is awake before Keith for once, which is sort of novel in and of itself. Two: rather than being curled up next to Keith with his head all nicely and semi-platonically pillowed on Keith’s shoulder; his position this morning would much more accurately be described as curled up around , or maybe upon Keith instead. It takes remarkably little time for Lance to apprehend that this leaves them sparring via nocturnal tumescence, as it were.

It takes slightly longer for him to formulate the most brave and manly course of action possible. He pretends he’s still asleep.

This is not a great example of how to succeed at ‘ Operation Don’t Fucking Scare Keith Away’ you know ,’ Lance is informed by his bright and sunny internal companion.

Don’t you think I know that, you fucker? ’ Lance replies in kind with substantially less sunshine and considerably more silent chagrin.

In fact, this seems like it’s more of a move from operation ‘ Convince Keith You’re a Nighttime Molester’ if you ask me…

By dint of raw frustration Lance manages to withhold any sort of audible groan. ‘ That’s the thing, you asshole. I don’t remember asking you. Ever.

Lance’s monologue actually has the temerity to laugh at him. ‘ Come on now, Lancey. You don’t have to ask to end up getting my opinion. You know perfectly well that’s not how we singers of your choir invisible work.

Lance is just about to reply uselessly to himself when he feels Keith shift beneath him and his attention is immediately drawn elsewhere.

Not-quite-awake Keith groans something barely audible and shifts his hips a little. Lance isn’t exactly sure which part of him is responsible for withholding the resulting, shudder, stutter, and moan. Whichever one it is, he figures that he owes it flowers, or ice cream, or a beer -- you know, some sort of present for that.

Keith makes another not-particularly coherent sound and then Lance feels the arms around him tighten, loosen, and tighten again. It’s almost as if Keith can’t figure out what the hell to do about the situation either.

Stalemate.

Lance is, of course, fully aware of the fact that he’s on top. And so mindful of the fact that he will eventually have to be the one to move. Or die of outright mortification -- whichever comes first. It’s while contemplating this that his brain makes one of its rare, valid points.

You know, the longer you give him to actually wake up, the more likely he is to realize that you’re awake too, right? Also, the more awake he is, the more likely he is to react badly to this for whatever reason…

Lance nearly swears aloud. Instead he simply - or rather - complicatedly slides off of Keith using the smallest number of muscles he can manage. It’s not a perfect maneuver, but when he slides back into his normal curl beside Keith the breath that Keith lets out sounds potently relieved.

Sharing enough of that relief to relax again, Lance actually manages to nod back off for a few more minutes. Before Lance fades to black entirely he muzzily notices Keith shifting enough to wrap an arm around him and place a kiss on the crown of his head. The fact that Keith doesn’t seem to be upset is sufficient to burn away some of Lance’s discomfort. He’s still pretty sure that Keith never needs to know who woke up first this morning though.

***

Lance’s second wakeup isn’t nearly as fraught. It arrives in the form of Keith’s arm tightening slightly around his middle in combination with his deep, sleep-buzzy voice.

“Hey, love. Good morning. Are you ready to get up?”

He called you love again, ’ Lance’s monologue observes gaily.

I know. I heard, ’ Lance titters back before something occurs to him. ‘ You know, if he keep sit up, you… I… we… whatever . Can’t react like this all the time. Pidge would say it takes up too much bandwidth. She’d be right.

Hmph. We’ll see, ’ replies his brain.

“Lance -- you awake? Do you need to sleep more?”

Oh right… respond to Keith when he talks to you. “Mmmph. Nope. ‘M awake, babe.” Lance yawns. “So, what adventure do we have planned for today?” Hopefully something easier on the nerves than his first adventure this morning.

“We’re going into town, remember? We need to pick up the windows so that we can finish the barn. And we need some things from the market.” He pauses for a tick, as if deciding how to say something. “Also, I’d like you to meet Mab, and… I… she left strict orders to bring you to meet her if you ever actually, well, came to Dolydd. We’ll go for tea.”

“Mab? Right, your friend the goat-lady.” Lance frowns. “Wait, do you mean she’s been… waiting to meet me? How does she even know that I exist?”

Keith looks a little embarrassed, or at least a little shy as he explains. “Well, you see, love, she knows all about you… She kinda, knows all about all of my life.” He looses a little snort. “Well, you’ll see when you meet her. She has this way of… getting you to talk about things, I guess.”

Lance can’t repress a little shudder. Mind-reading goat-ladies. That does not constitute the less exciting adventure he was hoping for. “Uh… that sounds… um… nice?” Lance sounds exactly as convinced as he feels. He restrains a wince.

Keith just smiles. “It’ll be okay. It is nice, actually. She’s kind of like the local therapist, I guess.” He pauses for a beat, looking a little sheepish. “Um… well, at least you know if it’s me telling you that talking to her about your terrible repressed shit is nice ; then it’s gotta be true...”

Lance relaxes as he laughs and twists himself around so that he can peck Keith on the lips. “You’re right, babe -- that’s kind of like Hunk announcing that he’s met someone that he absolutely hates and then cussing when he refuses to introduce them to you…”

“Yeah, sounds about equally unlikely,” Keith acknowledges with a smile as he unravels himself from Lance and climbs out of the bed into his neatly stacked house clothes. “If I go take care of the goats, do you think you can manage to fry some eggs or something?”

“No problem, K,” Lance replies as he sits up and fishes for his own sweatpants. He’s more than happy to do battle with the wood stove if it means no square pupils first thing in the morning. Wait . Square pupils. Going to the village means he’s actually going to have to meet and interact with the goaty denizens of the moon today. Lance groans rather loudly.

Keith flashes to his side. “You okay?”

“Ugh. Villagers… square fucking pupils…” Lance grumbles almost subvocally.

The worried frown that had formed on Keith’s face slips away and he rolls his eyes as he smiles. “Lance, that is an absolutely irrational fear. They’re really nice. You’ll see,” Keith insists.

“I know. I just don’t have my diplomatic hat on yet…”

“I have faith in you,” Keith says without a single hint of sarcasm as he heads downstairs.

Lance grumbles a bit longer before following him down to see about breakfast.

***

Following chores, showers, a shave for Keith and an uneventful breakfast - with no burned eggs - the guys troop back upstairs to get ready. Lance watches as Keith walks to the closet and removes a deep maroon sweater and a pair of smart tweed trousers -- caramel brown flecked with creamy tan. Keith lays them out on the bed and walks to the closet again. He’s returning with a camel top coat and a pair of dress boots when Lance stops him.

“Um, Keith, babe, what should I wear? I mean… you just pulled out like the country mouse edition of Sunday best… do I need dress clothes?”

Keith squints at lance in his tank top and sweatpants. “Shit. Lance, I didn’t even think of that. The Geifr are pretty formal… do you have anything in your pack?” His eyes flash to the closet. “Or, you could borrow something of mine.”

Lance pulls a face. “In my pack? Nope.” He glowers at the idea of swimming through his public presentation on this world in Keith’s clothes for a tick before his brows lift. “Can we stop by Red and grab my suitcase? I have real clothes in there.”

Keith’s face is dubious, and just for a moment Lance thinks he sees fear there before the walls come down and the emotions drain away. Keith shrugs his shoulders.

Lance doesn’t like that flash of fear very much. Keith shouldn’t be afraid of Red. That just doesn’t make any sense. “K, it’s alright. It’s not like she’s going to just fly off with you against your will or something…” he says, taking a stab at the only source for that fear that he can think of.

Apparently his aim is right on. Keith snorts, but it’s a subdued little sound instead of something more humorous. “Yeah… cause, you know, she’s never done anything like that before…”

Lance walks around the bed and stops behind Keith, his arms wrapping around the other man’s waist. “She’s also never hesitated to take down walls to get to you. If she was going to rush in and drag you back, I don’t think the sod is what’s stopping her. I don’t think she has any intention of grabbing you and dragging you away from here.”

Keith just shrugs a little, although Lance is heartened to feel him lean his weight back into Lance’s body.

“Baby, I think she knows that this is where you’re supposed to be -- where we’re supposed to be right now. I mean, she could have just told everybody where you were. Not knowing any better, we probably would have sent a whole damn armada t o find you. Instead, she insisted that I come by myself. She wouldn’t even show me a picture of the galaxy we’re in. She was very careful to make sure that no one but me could find you before you were ready to be found. She wants what’s best for you, just like I do. And right now, that’s to be here and get better.” Lance tightens his arms, one of his hands smoothing up and down Keith’s ridged stomach. “I do know that she’d like to see you, though.”

Keith’s posture slowly relaxes down from fight-or-flight to something softer, and he ultimately turns around in Lance’s embrace so that he can wrap his arms around Lance as well. “I’d really like to see her too. It’s been a long time.” he chuckles through a wry little smile and looks Lance in the eyes a bit bashfully. “I’m being stupid, aren’t I?”

Lance smiles back. “Maybe a little. Though this is Red we’re talking about. She’s at least as impulsive as the two of us put together. It’s usually worth thinking through how she’s going to react to something.”

“Awww, Lance -- where’s the fun in that?” Keith laughs. “If I’d thought through everything in advance, Red and I wouldn’t have had half of the adventures we wound up having.” His arms pull Lance closer. “Yeah, let’s go see her and get your things.” Keith lets out a brief whistle followed by a request to the downstairs. “Hey Kosmo, could you run us over to Red please?”

Kosmo pops in and they all disappear before Lance can even change position.

***

Their arms still wrapped around each other, Lance finds Red’s bridge much warmer and more pleasant than he had when Keith was lying in a depressive heap in his bed. Although Lance is forced to admit that not being soaked to the skin might also be having some effect on the feeling. As he slowly unwinds his own arms from around Keith, red gives him a brief little hello, but mostly what lance is hearing are the muted aftertones of whatever Red and Keith are saying to each other.

It’s a bit odd, being in a lion that they’re both bonded to. Lance can hear that they are talking, but he can’t understand any of it without actually being invited to join the conversation. Seeing that Keith has an abstracted little smile on his face, lance figures that their chat will keep him busy for a while and heads aft. He’d left the space in relatively decent order the last time he was here, so the job of figuring out what to do with everything isn’t too bad. He checks the head for abandoned supplies first before walking to the bunk and tidying up the contents of his open suitcase. Zipping it shut, he’s mostly down to figuring where he’s stashed his second bag and randomly wondering what to do with the supplies from Krolia.

Eventually Keith wanders in after him. “Hey, love, you want to get ready here, or run this stuff home?”

Keith’s eyes are looking a little red and puffy, but the smile on his face is genuine and unforced, so Lance concludes that Keith’s reunion with Red must have gone alright. “Let’s take this home. I’ll be wanting other things from it sooner or later. Besides. You have to get dressed too.” he gestures towards the stack of things from Daibazaal. “Do you have some use for all this stuff?”

Keith looks over the blade-issued gear. “We’ll keep the sleeping bag -- I only have one on the ship and it could come in handy at some point. And the food, of course, though it looks like you brought most of that home already. The tent and the other gear we can use to trade in town -- the economy’s mostly barter around here. Someone will want it.”

“Sounds good to me. I don’t suppose that your mom was expecting to get it back or anything,” Lance says as he picks up his suitcase while Keith gathers up the remaining gear. “It was nice to see you, girl. Thanks again for all your help,” Lance murmurs to the robot encasing them. Keith carries his share of the stuff over to where Lance is standing and casts a fond glance of his own around the room. Lance hears Red’s soft goodbye echo in his head as Kosmo lopes over and zips the three of them back to the cottage.

Keith, Lance, and Lance’s suitcases appear in the loft while Kosmo carries the rest on to the storeroom. Lance stares down the loft towards the storeroom door. “Keith, just how smart is your wolf?”

Keith just laughs for a tick. “Lance, I’m pretty sure Kosmo is smarter than we’ll ever be. He’s a great friend, and more useful than nearly any person I’ve ever met.” Lance isn’t quite sure what to do with the fact that Keith’s shy eyes flash to his own when he says nearly . “I can’t even begin to tell you how thankful I am that he’s stuck around…” And those eyes are still stuck on Lance when he says it.

Lance sucks in a deep breath while concluding that sticking with talking about Kosmo is probably the safest response. “I know, me to. He’s really the best, handiest, most helpful dog I’ve ever encountered.” The next part slips out a little more unbidden. “And I’ve had some pretty high opinions of dogs in the past.”

Keith’s look turns into a look . “You know, I’m pretty sure it’s good evidence of just how much I love you that I can let an opening like that sail past…”

Mushy averted for the moment, Lance’s lips quirk. “Yeah… shut up, babe.” He hauls his suitcases up onto the bed and begins pulling things out of the smaller of the two even as Keith turns with a smirk to change into the clothes he had already laid out.

Lance reviews his own dress-up options and settles on something in the same vein as he’d seen Keith select earlier. A pair of light charcoal slacks and a cashmere sweater in a rich tone of periwinkle. He also fishes out a pair of black dress shoes and a belt before opening the larger case to retrieve a navy peacoat. Satisfied that his selections are relatively unwrinkled, he strips off his house clothes and changes.

By the time he’s dressed and is paying attention to his surroundings again, he notes that Keith is changed as well. Lance stares at Keith. Keith stares right back. After a surprisingly long and silent interlude, Lance finally licks his lips and says, “ Ay por Dios , Keith! You look totally hot!”

Keith smiles bashfully. “I was thinking the same thing. My sweat clothes just don’t do you justice, sharpshooter. You look gorgeous all dressed up.” His tone is as shy as the look on his face, though he doesn’t trip at all over the words of his compliment.

Lance is having a hard time not devolving back into open-mouthed staring. Keith is clean-shaven now, and his dimples are out in full force. He looks very good in dark red. It makes his pale skin pop and accentuates the blue-black of his hair. Not only that, but the sweater looks like it was poured onto him. Every muscle he has - and that’s plenty, thanks - seems to be on display. Furthermore, given the way his brown slacks cling slightly to his thighs and calves, Lance is pretty sure that if he catches the view from the posterior, he’s going to need to get a room.

“Babe, I think I’ll just stick with ay por Dios … that way I won’t say anything embarrassing while I’m busy drooling over here. I mean -- damn!” Lance shakes his head. “I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen in you real dress clothes before… I mean, your blade uniform and things, sure. If you’d dressed like this when we were paladins, I’d never have gotten anything done at all.”

Keith blushes markedly -- it makes the red sweater go even better with his skin. “You mean back when I was a pale, weedy little asshole with no social skills and you were the tall, slender, pretty jerkface who was convinced that I was your rival?”

Sidestepping through the potential conversation on their rough beginnings, and even around the solid compliment not-so-buried in Keith’s description; Lance goes with what seems to be the easiest path. “I do miss being taller than you. I hardly knew what to do with myself when you came back from the abyss all taller than me…”

“And grizzled ?” Keith recalls with another smirk. Lance is really coming to like that smirk. “Well, you caught back up. I don’t think that either of us has a good claim on being taller at this point.”

“Oh well. We can find other things to argue about.” Lance finally unsticks his eyes and slips into his peacoat before picking Keith’s topcoat up off the bed and holding it open for him. As Keith slips his arms into it, Lance asks, “Are we ready? Is this a place we’re walking to, or are we taking the Kosmo express?”

“Kosmo’ll take us to town, unless you really want to walk. It’s about fifteen miles to the village from here.”

“In the mud? In these shoes? Christ no, they’re much to pretty for that kind of treatment.”

Keith laughs as he scoops up a brown leather satchel from beside the bed and tosses it over his shoulder. Kosmo’s already beside them, whisking them away before Keith can even snap his fingers or call his name.

***

The wolf, ever polite, sets them down at the edge of town some hundred paces after the muddy road has turned to cobblestones. Lance looks around himself with interest. The village appears to be similar in construction to Keith’s cottage, meaning the guys and their lupine companion appear to be wandering their way along a relatively broad stone path through a substantial collection of low green hills. Each of those hillocks - a cottage, of course - has its own little dooryard leading to a wooden face just like Keith’s. Many are painted black like their own residence, but Lance also discovers an entertaining array of brighter colors making themselves known. Most have carved shutters and flower-filled window boxes.

Despite looking fairly closely, Lance can’t find a single piece of garbage anywhere -- and beyond that, not even a tool seems to be out of place. It’s  a very pretty, orderly little sort of world they’re wandering through, and he’s yet to see a goat anywhere, sapient or otherwise.

In fact, beyond smoke from the chimneys and the occasional twitch of a curtain, Lance sees no evidence of the inhabitants at all until they climb a bit of a rise at the end of the lane and find themselves in what has to be the center of the village. Here, all of a sudden, there are goats. Single goats walking from door to door with packages or baskets of produce. Goat couples holding hands demurely, making square goat-eyes at each other. Finally, in the middle of a sizeable pitch next to a large wooden building at the center of town, - the village green, Lance presumes, and maybe the town hall - a number of goat children appear to be playing some sort of involved ball game. One of them catches sight of the approaching visitors and shouts, “Goodman Keith!!” The cry is taken up and the whole lot of them are suddenly descending on the guys at full speed.

As Keith had suggested they would be, the Geifr are a rather petite race. The tallest specimen that Lance can find would barely make it to his or Keith’s shoulders, and most are not nearly that tall. The clothes that they’re wearing wouldn’t be at all out of place in Victorian England: nicely cut suits over pressed shirts and long dresses with full skirts seem to make up the core of the style. Black and brown are both much in evidence, though every person Lance can see is wearing at least one article in some cheery color as well. The adults around the square smile at the two humans and Kosmo and offer polite little nods, though some of them seem to be casting interested glances at Lance in particular. The children, on the other hand, are still running towards them excitedly.

And then they arrive.

As they cluster around, the little ones seem rather reserved in regards to Lance himself, but it’s obvious from their behavior that Keith and Kosmo are regular and beloved visitors. Several of the older boys immediately make off with Kosmo, who can shortly be seen flashing around the green carrying two of them on his back while the others leap after them. The remainder cluster tighter around Keith.

“Goodman Keith, it’s been so long since we’ve seen you! It’s naughty not to visit your friends,” overlaps with “Goodman Keith, we’ve been ever-so-well behaved. Have you brought us treats?” and “Goodman Keith, who is your friend? His sweater is very lovely. What’s that color called in your English?” Lance finds it a little hard to track who’s saying what as their piping voices trip over each other.

Keith smiles the broadest, easiest smile that Lance thinks he’s ever seen on his face as he pulls the bag off his shoulder. Opening it, he pulls out a surprising array of candy and small toys -- little dolls, fidget spinners, puzzles, a wood sword, and the like. Each child waits his or her turn to select a candy and a little gift with surprising equanimity, most of them babbling questions all the while that Keith attempts to answer as best he can.

Lance can’t help but be impressed. He doesn’t remember Keith having any particular talent or facility with children. In fact, he can actively remember Keith looking uncomfortable and unsure of what to do around them back in their Voltron days. That Keith is apparently gone. This Keith has a joy about him -- a peacefulness practically pouring off of him there in that chattering knot of caprine little urchins that Lance just wants to sit back and soak in. He looks so happy.

Lance just stands and watches, delighted, until he feels a little tug on one of his hands. Looking down, he finds a tiny girl - hardly knee-high - in a bright green frock staring up at him with a polite sort of burning curiosity on her long face. She has a new little dolly clutched in one hand and two of his fingers caught in the other. Lance is actually taken aback by how not creepy she is for a goat. Yes, she has square pupils - just like he was warned - and yes, she is definitely goaty . Velvety chestnut hair covers her long, ovoid face. It grows long enough on the top of her head to nearly cover the little brown nubs of her juvenile horns  and spills down along her long neck in carefully arranged curls caught back with a velvet bow that matches her dress. Her long, fuzzy ears are perked inquisitively out from her head at nearly right angles. She’s just way too cute to be creepy.

Lance smiles kindly at the little girl. She smiles back, staring, it would seem, at the Altean marks on his cheeks. “Excuse me, Goodman. I’m sorry, I don’t know your name -- but is it too forward to ask if you are Goodman Keith’s Posie Prince?” Her English is excellent, and when she speaks with that high, lilting burr, he can hear actually hear her capitalizing letters carefully.

Lance stares at her, confused. “I’m sorry, sweetheart, am I Keith’s what now?” He pauses, wondering what on Earth, or well, Dolydd, she’s talking about; though he feels compelled to add. “Your English is very good. Did Keith teach you?”

The little girl nods, her eyes still raptly fixed on Lance’s face. “Yes, Goodman Keith and Goody Mab taught us. It is a simple language…” she blinks and casts her eyes down for a tick before going back to staring. “But are you the Posie Prince ? The one with the most beautiful of all the flowers? You know, the pink ones! The prince who lost his princess and went to tell the stars her story?”

Lance can feel his face go slack with surprise. Pink flowers -- juniberries. The lost princess and her message to the stars… This little girl is talking about Allura. Lance blinks. Several times. Apparently he is the ‘Posie Prince.’ “Well, yeah… um. Yes, I guess that I am? How do you-”

Keith, apparently having noticed Lance’s little visitor steps over, remaining children in tow, and rests one of his large hands on the little girl’s head, carefully avoiding mussing her curls. “I see that you’ve met Bronwen,” he notes as he drags Lance into the little circle. “Everyone, this is Goodman Lance-”

“The Posie Prince!! ” Bronwen inserts in the loudest stage whisper ever to occur.

Lance is completely hemmed in by eight or ten sets of cute, tiny, square-pupiled eyes that widen in the extreme. Whispers that sound like his name buried in an entirely incomprehensible, if beautifully lyrical native conversation ensue and Keith turns scarlet as he looks at Lance’s face, apparently trying to assess his reaction. Keith looks like he’d rather like to hide his face, but toughs it out and leans a bit towards Lance instead.

“I, um… meant to warn you about that. Sorry, love. I wasn’t quite sure what to… to say.”

“The Posie Prince? Where the hell did that come from?”

“I’m pretty sure that little Bron there is actually the one that started them all calling you that.”

“I mean… they seem to know who I am. Hell, they seem to know all about me…”

Keith’s blush deepens further, which Lance hadn’t thought physically possible. “They… really like stories, you see. Mab is kind of their… caregiver? Or maybe their school teacher, sort of? So I was around them a lot when I was staying with her. And they really like stores, and well.. You ended up being in a lot of mine.” Keith finally gives in to his embarrassment and looks away as he continues in a quiet voice. “I’d be surprised if there’s anyone in the village that doesn’t recognize you. Humans are obviously novel around here, and your marks, they, um… well, they are pretty noticeable.”

Lance is utterly floored. Or really, he’s actually the absolute opposite -- he’s actually a little concerned that what he’s currently feeling might just cause him to actually float away or something. His Keith is so enraptured with him that he was telling these people stories about him long before he’d ever shown up. Keith hadn’t known that Lance was coming; hadn’t even known that Lance remembered that he existed. Given how he’d acted towards Keith in the last couple of years, how he’d pretty much just ignored his existence entirely -- Keith should have presumed that Lance didn’t give a single fuck about him or how he was doing. Despite this, Lance was still the focus of enough of his stories that the local children all apparently know his personal history and like him well enough to give him a moniker. Lance is totally blown away, and he can feel his eyes getting a bit misty.

Keith notices and his expression immediately goes concerned and no little chagrined. One of his hands leaps up to Lance’s jaw. “I’m sorry that I told them all that -- I didn’t mean to embarrass you or anything. I should have thought to warn you… I just never really thought… you know, that you would actually… be here to hear about it?” And now, Lance sees that Keith’s eyes are getting misty too, but not for nearly as good a reason.

Lance’s own hand reaches up to grab Keith’s and bring the knuckles to his lips. “No, no, baby,” he whispers back. “Please don’t apologize.” He gives that hand a second kiss. “I think it’s honestly the sweetest thing I’ve ever actually heard. And you know what a sap I am at heart -- I’ve been known to go looking for sweet things to watch just to entertain myself.” He sighs happily. “I’ve never found one this good.” A third little kiss. “I’m just… during a time when I hardly even bothered to find out if you were alive , you thought so much of me that you were telling stories about me…”

Keith’s eyes clear and he looks surprised. “Of course I told them about you. I love you.” A little of his blush comes back, pairing with a little twinkle in his eyes. “You’re the hero in all of my stories…” he admits, his voice edging lower.

Lance leans over and pecks Keith on the rosy cheek as his own pink up to match. This, of course, prompts squeals from the pack of children Lance has been ignoring. It’s Bronwen who finally speaks up in English once again.

“Does that mean that Goodman Keith is your new princess, Goodman Lance?” Having asked that, her eyes turn instantly stricken. “You haven’t come to take him away to the stars, have you?” She sounds like she might cry and several noises suspiciously like sniffles issue from her compatriots. Keith looks like he’s about to speak, but Lance jumps in first.

“Oh no! Of course not!” Lance immediately insists, crouching down to something closer to her diminutive height. “Keith can’t be my princess , he’s much too busy being my prince . And why would we need to go away to find stars? There are lots of stars right here? We just have to wait for them to come out at night, right?”

“But it’s almost winter…” she mopes. “You won’t be able to find any flowers…”

Lance has to resist the urge to hug the little girl, uncertain as to how it would be received. He settles for smiling hugely instead. “Then I’ll just have to wait here with Prince Keith until the summer comes again, and all the flowers are blooming.”

The girl gazes at Lance with dewy, square eyes for a tick before she nods in apparent satisfaction, and Keith finally makes a move to rescue them from the crowd of inquisitive children. He gestures towards the green. “Lance and I have to go to the market now. Why don’t you all run and play with Kosmo, and we’ll both see you for tea this afternoon.” The munchkins cheer and run off as a body towards the wolf. “Don’t get too dirty, or your mothers will have my hide!” Keith calls after them. They don’t deign to hear.

Lance wraps an arm around Keith’s waist and plants another kiss on his cheek before allowing him to lead them off to their next destination.

***

Their first stop is at what certainly appears to be the carpenter’s shop. Complete with substantially more broken English than the children were speaking, the pudgy little carpenter shows them a set of four white-framed windows set with thick, bubbly glass. It’s not nearly the quality of the window-glass in the main house, but Keith seems pleased -- Lance guesses that it really doesn’t matter for a barn as long as they let in some light. Keith pays for the windows with a set of measuring tapes, rulers and a pair of calipers from his bag. It takes some time for him to convince the little goat that he’s not being drastically overpaid - which, of course, Lance figures he probably is - but eventually the bulky little carpenter accepts the finely machined tools with obvious glee and shows them to the door, agreeing to have his apprentice deliver the windows to Goody Mab’s house later in the afternoon.

The next is the tailor’s shop; which comes complete with a proprietress who, for all that she’s barely four feet tall, intimidates Lance just a bit. Well, maybe more than a bit. Keith explains that they are looking for several sets of work clothes for Lance, as well as a list of various other things, including perhaps a winter coat, that Lance doesn’t really pay attention to. He mostly gets distracted by the array of bright fabric samples he’s surrounded by. He does catch a glimpse of Keith piling skeins of yarn in an array of eye-catching hues on the counter at the same moment as the seamstress bustles up to him and crowds him over into the middle of the room. Once he’s in place, she orders him to strip in a no-nonsense voice. He hesitates until she yanks a pin from the corner of her mouth and jabs him in the ass with it.

Lance yelps, jumps, and strips down immediately; handing his clothes to Keith as he goes. Keith laughs. Hard. And doesn’t even have the decency to pretend not to watch as a now very scantily clad Lance is poked, prodded, and measured to within an inch of his life. Once the torment is finally over, Lance scrambles back into his clothes while Keith haggles over the price. And by haggles, Lance means immediately agrees to the price the seamstress asks for - five bolts of dressmaking fabric - in a tone that Lance is certain means that he’ll show up with ten for her instead.

At some point, Keith seems to have become both great with kids and generous to a fault. Lance loves it. He’s so far gone on this man that it isn’t even funny.

The final objective in their shopping extravaganza is a larger store looking right out onto the green that’s apparently shared by the local grocer, butcher, and miller, amongst others -- essentially a cute little medieval supermarket. At Keith’s direction quite an array of roasts, chops, and sausages, as well as several cheeses and a brace of thankfully headless, footless and featherless birds are all wrapped in rough brown paper. Keith also selects a substantial array of vegetables and conscripts Lance to select fruit for the household while he grabs staples like butter and flour. Lance - having no idea what any of the damn things he’s looking at taste like - mostly picks the things with the most pleasing shapes and the prettiest colors before finding himself being plopped down in front of the spice counter and told to pick the things he likes from an elderly goat who speaks no English at all while Keith busies himself elsewhere. It turns out to be a trying experience.

In the case of this particular store - probably for the sake of ease, if nothing else - Keith overpays for their wares with tiny slips of gold from his pocket, and once they’ve made arrangements for another delivery, Lance finds himself headed inexorably for the main attraction of the day: meeting Keith’s favorite little goat person.

Keith leads them along the large wooden hall at the center of town. “So, K, what’s this building anyway? It seems to be the only thing in town built all of wood… Is it important? Like their church, or something?”

Keith glances up at the building. “That’s the grange. They don’t really do church here. There’s no organized religion; at least that I’m aware of. The grange takes the place of parts of that, I guess -- I don’t really know that much about church.”

“I only know a little,” Lance replies haphazardly. “My abuela used to take us to mass on Christmas and Easter - things like that - but that’s about it. Mami and Papi weren’t really into it. The only churchy person in the family is my brother Marco -- it doesn’t make him more endearing…”

Keith grimaces at Lance’s mention of his brother, apparently remembering some of Lance’s stories about him, but apparently opts to save that conversation for another day. “Some of the villagers get together to share meals there now and again. Oh, and it’s where they do the big village events - weddings and things - when the weather’s bad. Um… what else? It’s where the town elders meet.” Keith looks up at it again. “It’s a public building -- we could go in and look around if you want.”

Lance’s eyes join Keith’s, pointed towards the large rectangular building with its steep pitched roof and its pillared porch, and he notices a fair number of industrious little Geifr carrying parcels of various sorts inside through the wide doors. “Nah. Maybe some other time, K. I looks like they’re getting ready for something. I don’t want to get in the way.”

Keith smiles at him. “See, you’re embracing the local sense of orderly politeness and decorum already.”

Lance pokes Keith in the ribs before taking Keith’s hand in his and allowing a smiling Keith to lead them away from the market square. Any visible population around them dies off almost instantly again. “Hey, K, how many people live here? It seems pretty quiet.”

“In the village itself? Two hundred, or a few more? Definitely not more than three. I think there are about six or seven hundred in the district.” He glances around as well, his fingers squeezing familiarly at Lances. “There aren’t many people in town right now, though -- everybody’s probably out in the orchards. It’s the tail end of harvest, and they’ll be trying to get in the last of the crops before the rain starts.”

“Well, that would explain why it seems so empty.”

“Yeah, it’s a pretty small place. When everybody’s out working there’s not really much to do.” Keith says as he looks over at Lance. “Well, even when everybody’s not out working, there’s still not much to do…” he admits. “But I like it here. It’s… peaceful.” Keith does look rather like he likes it. Just like when he was surrounded by burbling children, he looks whole, smiling as he walks down the path with light steps, his fingers tight in Lance’s. It’s definitely something that Lance can get behind.

“I like it here too, babe. It’s definitely not such a bad place to spend some time.”

Keith pulls Lance’s hand up so that he can brush his lips across the knuckles.

Withholding his gleeful little bleat with some effort, Lance smiles at his boyfriend. How far to your friend’s house?”

“She lives on the far edge of the village - so - all of about three minutes walk from here,” he explains with a small chuckle, swinging their arms just a little. Lance keeps smiling. Couldn’t stop if his life depended on it, really. And he bumps his shoulder against Keith’s as they walk hand-in-hand down the narrow, cobbled lane.

Chapter Text

As they walk towards the far side of town the village begins to thin out into the surrounding orchards. Keith draws them to a halt in front of a substantial house. It has a full, two-story wooden face complete with a small balcony in addition to the nearly universal carved shutters and flower-filled window boxes. The wall is painted an eye-shocking hue of bright blue with the windows and shutters all done in sunny yellow.

Lance looks at it slightly askance. “That’s… quit a color. Colors... “ he observes most shrewdly. “Is this her house?”

Keith nods. “Yep, this is Mab’s house. I’ll introduce you, of course, but you should remember to call her Goody Wynion until she invites you to use something less formal.”

“Why Goody? Is that the same as the kids calling us ‘goodmen’ or whatever?”

“Yeah. Mab is actually the one who picked those out when she first learned English. You know, the day after I landed here. She didn’t like Mr. and Mrs. at all -- too much like master and mistress, she said. It’s some sort of cultural thing, I guess. She chose goodman and goodwife instead -- goody for short, if it’s a woman you’re talking to. I think they’re, um, Scottish maybe? I dunno. At this point I’m sure she knows more English than both of us stacked on top of each other.” He purses his lips into a mock-scornful face. “Knowing her, lots more.”

“And the Geifr all learned English just because they, uh, like you? I mean -- I certainly like you. I’d definitely learn a  language so I could talk to you; but that seems like a lot to expect from the random shopkeepers…”

“The Geifr are all super talented at languages. In, you know, a racially savant kind of way. Also, we can’t speak their language.” He gives Lance a fairly serious look. “At all. Don’t even try.”

“Why not -- wouldn’t that be, like, the polite thing to do? Learn their language instead?”

“Lance, they have two tongues.”

Lance narrows his eyes. “Really?”

“Really. Life if you split ours right down the middle and then learned to move the two halves independently.”

“I really don’t know whether that’s cool or creepy…” Lance points out with a huff.

“Yes,” Keith agrees simply with an absolutely straight face.

Lance laughs. “And we really can’t learn any of their language?”

“A word here and there -- I mean, you’ve heard me try to say some of their place names and things. But even then, most of those are simplifications. Really, Lance: Dobbllfyryeui -which I promise I just said very incorrectly - has at least sixteen sounds that we're anatomically incapable of making. Also, it’s tonal -- like Chinese. It’s unfortunately easy to accidentally say offensive things, and, like I said, the Geifr are… mostly a little formal. It’s much better not to accidentally swear at them.”

Lance goes a little cross-eyed at the name of the language. “Yup. Good safety tip, babe. I’ll stick with English.” He grimaces slightly. “Is there anything else I need to know before I meet your friend? It’d be nice if I could, you know, make some kind of decent impression at least…”

“Uh, let’s see: Mab is, um, quite elderly, but her hearing is fine. So don’t shout at her. She doesn’t like that at all. Oh, and definitely don’t do the whole speaking slowly to foreigners thing. You’ll just end up sounding dumb.”

Lance pulls another face. “Yeah… I’d like to avoid that if I can. I’m plenty good at sounding dumb without an external help, thank you.”

Keith leans over and kisses Lance on the cheek, his eyebrows slightly furrowed. “You really call yourself dumb too often, love. You’re not dumb, and you’re really good with people. Besides,” his cheeks color just a little, “I love you, so Mab will at least give you the benefit of the doubt.”

“Like I was saying -- she’s really very nice. But… she’s also pretty, well… forthright, I guess? If she wants to know something, you’re way better off just telling her. Don’t try to avoid her questions. She’s too tricky for that. She’ll find another angle. Always. I’ve never… I’m… I can’t keep secrets from her, you know, at all.” He kisses Lance again. “Maybe you’ll do better?”

“I love you too, K, but you’re not making me feel more comfortable about this. She sounds a little… scary.”

“Maybe just a little.” Keith agrees with a little shrug; much to Lance’s dismay. “But she’s got a very good heart, and she’s an excellent judge of character. I already know what your character is like, love, so I’m not worried. She’ll like you. I promise.”

Lance remains somewhat unconvinced, but since he isn’t at all interested in disappointing Keith he decides to man up and just try to make it through this little tea party intact.

With an encouraging smile, Keith leads them both up to that blue, blue door and raps on it with the hand not entangled with Lance’s. Then they wait. And wait. Lance can’t help but note that his boyfriend’s posture is unusually correct at the moment and falls to mimicking him before he even realizes what he’s doing: straightening his shoulders, unducking his head. He runs a couple of nervous fingers through his hair to make sure it’s still semi-presentable. Keith notices him doing it and smiles, giving his shoulder a bit of a teasing nudge. After a tick or seventy Lance finally hears a sound from inside. It sounds like a stick tapping on stones. Tap, tap, tap. The door swings open noiselessly.

***

Lance catches his very first sight of the tiny woman, sunlight silhouetting her against the darker interior of the house. She shuffles forward another step. Lance considers reassessing but concludes that tiny is indeed the correct word for the ancient nanny in front of him. She’s silvery-white from the short hair on her long, caprine face to the generous bun situated between her petite, backswept horns. She smiles warmly as her milky-blue, square-pupiled eyes settle on Keith. Once she’s had a moment to take in Lance standing next to him - her eyes flashing from their tangled hands to the blue marks on his cheekbones - her face shifts to something substantially more opaque.

“Well, well, well. Come in then, boys,” is all she says before turning back inside and hobbling down the stairs into the hall; leaving them to trail along behind. Lance hesitates slightly, but gentle tug from Keith gets him under way. Mab’s voice has the same lilting burr as the children's, and while it contains a touch of trembling old age, it’s an impressively resonant contralto from somebody so lilliputian. So far she’s said exactly seven words. It only took about half of those for Lance to conclude that the old lady is definitely one of those people that he will never willingly argue with. About anything. For any reason. There’s no way he would win if he tried.

All of three-and-a-half feet tall, Mab is wearing a ruffled dress in pale rose with with white lace at the cuffs and a heavy, cream-colored shawl. The source of the tapping Lance had heard is obviously the knotty cane she leans on as she walks.

She leads them down five stone steps into an entry hall paved in black and white tile. Much like Keith’s cottage, the walls here are all paneled over in wood - though much darker, in this case - and this house is immediately less austere looking than the place Lance is rapidly beginning to consider home. It looks like money -- in a Victorian village sort of way. The heavy wooden furniture is carved in high relief and immaculately waxed. There are oil paintings on the walls, beautifully detailed pile-woven rugs on the floor, and finely wrought lamps light the house around them with a buttery glow.

Their hostess leads them into a parlour and gestures for them to take a seat on a tufted maroon sofa with rolled arms and a scrolled back. Lance finds the idea concerning -- the furniture here all seems a little bit like it belongs in a dollhouse. It’s small, dainty, and looks as expensive as all hell. These things add up to a Lance that feels rather more like an ogre or something than he’s used to.

Keith doesn’t seem to share his qualms, as he folds himself onto the sofa easily; so Lance sits himself down rather primly - close enough to Keith that their knees brush and their still interwoven fingers cause them no difficulty - and waits for introductions. Keith’s softly squeezes Lance’s fingers several times, catching Lance’s attention. As the comforting motion continues, Lance looks down at their hands for a tick and then manages to drag his eyes up and smile at Keith. Just a bit.

Keith angles his body slightly towards Lance and smiles softly while the old woman carefully posts herself up in armchair across the coffee table from them and kitty-corner to Lance. Once she’s in place, Keith turns his head towards her. “ Mam-gu , this is Lance. Um… My Lance.” he already has a rosy little blush on his cheeks when he casts an encouraging side-eye back towards Lance. “And Lance, this is Goody Mab Wynion.”

Lance now - of course - wishes that he had thought to ask Keith about handshaking etiquette. Not wanting the little lady to feel like she has to get up again, he reaches his free hand across the coffee table towards her. She gazes at it for a moment, as if assessing, and then takes it with one of her own -- a knurled, fuzzy little thing with tough, horny pads on the fingertips. She grips, but doesn’t shake. Lance can’t help but wonder if she’s checking to see if his nails are clean.

Finally, grammy-goat speaks. “Well, Posie Prince , I suppose you do all of this ones tales some justice. It’s good to finally meet the man whose great deeds I’ve heard so very much about.”

Embarrassed already, Lance blushes more than a little while feeling at the same time really rather like he’s on trial. This little old lady clearly means something to Keith, so Lance very much wants to make a good impression on her. On the other hand, she’s immediately at least as scary as Keith’s mom - for all that she’s less likely to decapitate him and make his well-moisturized pelt into a tapestry or something - and she certainly sounds like she already has opinions about him that he’s not necessarily prepared to face -- or try to live up to.

“It’s very nice to meet you, ma’am -- um, I mean Goody. You’ve made quite an impression on Keith… Thank you for having us in your lovely home.”

Luckily, before Lance is forced to come up with additional nothings to say, a dappled grey Geifr ina  no-nonsense black dress enters with a tea tray. She sets it down on the coffee table and pours a little china teacup of not-tea for each of the seated three. Finding his throat rather dry, Lance drinks his down fairly quickly -- barely noting a faint, floral aftertaste that differentiates it from what he’s been drinking with Keith since his arrival.

With a tiny bob, the maid absent herself again and now armed with a drink, Mab turns back to Lance. “And what, pray tell, brings someone so illustrious to our little village? As I understand, it’s rather out of the way of your regular haunts.”

Lance, slightly confused, drains the remainder of his cup before answering. “Well, we needed some things from the market, and Keith wanted to introduce us-”

Keith shakes his head a little and jumps in. “I think she means: what are you doing on Dolydd, Lance. It’s not exactly the sort of place that makes it - well, made it - onto your touring roster.” He turns back to Mab. “ Mam-gu , he came to find me. I told you that someone would come looking eventually…”

“You thought that it would be your brother, Shiro, no? As I recall, it was not an event you were looking forward to. And yet, I seem to detect very little dread, lad.” For all that Lance can’t be sure how well she can see out of her cataract-whitened eyes, the scary little lady doesn’t seem to miss much of anything. At all. She sits forward enough to lift the teapot politely and Lance immediately extends his now-empty cup. She refills it and he catches an indecipherable little look on Keith’s face as she does. Keith doesn’t actually say anything though, so Lance offers himself an internal shrug and sips at his new not-tea.

Eventually Keith speaks up again. “No, mam-gu . No dread. I was… afraid that Shiro or someone would come and… well, try to take me back… before I was ready, I guess.” He lets out a little sigh and his eyes lock on Lance. A small smile replaces his pained expression immediately as he does so. “That’s not what Lance is here to do.”

“Oh now?” the old woman inquires, her eyes boring into Lance. “And why then have you come, oh Posie Prince ?”

Lance drains his cup again. “Well.. I came because I was worried about Keith, and I… I didn’t want him to be alone any more.”

She nods her head slightly and refills his cup again. “Well, that’s a solid enough reason, I should say. I think there’s probably something more to it than that, but to keep him company will serve as an answer for now.”

She gracefully turns the topic to easier things after that and Lance begins to actually relax. She asks after Keith’s remodeling projects and seems quite charmed when Lance digs his comm out of his pocket and shows her the pictures he’d snapped of the great room -- coincidentally decked out in a riot of tiny cobalt daisies. When she sees them, her eyes flash to his again, something about them frankly assessing.

As the conversation continues, Lance discovers that the cottage had originally belonged to Mab and her husband, though it had sat empty since his death some decades before. He also listens politely - somehow managing not to jitter and flail himself about like a lunatic - as she tells Keith about the various village goings on and updates him on the adventures of the gaggle of local children that seem to have him wrapped around their tiny, goaty fingers. This goes on for some time, and Lance swiftly loses track of how many times she refills his little teacup as they chat.

Seeming to come to the end of her news, Mab’s eyes stray to a large clock on the carved stone mantel. “Well, my dear,” she says, her eyes pinning Keith for once. “It’s coming on time for tea. Why don’t you go fetch the mhlant ,” Keith mouths ‘ children ’ silently to to Lance. “And, of course, your disreputable blue friend.” She smiles a little smile. “You’ve been derelict in your duties to entertain them -- take time for a game of ball or something.” The command in her voice is unmistakable. Keith is being dismissed so that she can have a conversation alone with Lance. Lance swallows hard.

Lance would be beyond happy if Keith could somehow find a way to refuse; but he’s also intimately aware of the fact that if it were him being so dismissed, he’d probably already be out the door. Keith gives Mab a bit of a hard look, and for a tick, Lance wonders if he’s actually going to object. In the end, though, he just flashes an apologetic little pout at Lance before replying.

“Alright, mam-gu . I’ll leave you two alone to talk for a bit.” Before he continues, he smiles softly enough at Lance that he can feel a touch of bravery bloom in his chest. “ Please try not to break him. I really like him quite a lot…” Keith squeezes the hand he’s still holding and leans over to drop a kiss onto Lance’s cheek before rising and showing himself out. Mab watches their interaction closely. Lance feels over-examined.

The instant Lance hears the front door close behind Keith down the hall, Lance can feel Mab's eyes boring into him full force again. He has another one of those moments where he wonders if his soul is visible. She fills his teacup again before she speaks.

“Alright, boy, I intend to speak frankly. It would do well for you to answer me in kind.” Her voice is melodious and low and utterly compelling. Lance doesn’t know if he can agree with Keith’s description of ‘ nice ’, but he’s beginning to understand what he meant when he said that she has a way about her. He’s pretty sure he’d already spill any secret he’d ever known if she asked him - or rather - told him to. Her voice brims with a mild yet undeniable authority.

“What are your intentions towards Keith?” she continues without preamble.

Well, that’s both easy and far more complicated than can be summed up in a single sentence. Lance feels his fingertips tingling and hopes to hell that he’s not going to do something utterly lamebrained like have a panic attack in front of Keith’s little friend. His tongue feels awfully loose - even by it’s standards - as if it’s just about to set out on one of it’s unmanageable, bubbly ejaculations. That feeling is hardly unusual, if markedly harder to leash than normal. In hopes of avoiding that , Lance decides to start with the easy answer and try to work up from there as necessary. “I love him.” Lance admits in a quiet voice.

“Like a friend, perhaps? Like a brother? A long-lost companion-in-arms?” comes her immediate rejoinder. While her voice is not at all harsh, it is sufficiently trenchant that Lance can’t help but wonder if she can actually cut things with it. ‘ Like interloping boyfriends? ’ chitters his brain. Lance clutches at the leg of his trousers with his cup-free hand, fingers still prickling.

“No. Well… yes, like those things too . But… I mean, I actually love him -- like a… a l-lover.” Lance blushes and stutters over the word, still feeling her peering eyes creeping across his skin. Or maybe his soul. Ick.

“Indeed? And how long do you intend to sojourn here on Dolydd?”

“I’m… I’m not visiting. Not really. I came, well… I came here to stay. I don’t intend to leave unless he tells me to go. And… I don’t think he’ll do that.”

“But what of your great mission? Exhorting the message of your dear princess -- the one I’m told was love of your life?”

Jeez. While some of the information may have been, well, completely wrong - or at least substantially out of date - apparently Keith really did tell this lady everything . ‘ Wait! ’ insists his brain in an urgent voice that sounds unusually foggy. ‘ Love of your life… that’s a test, Lancey-pants. Be sure you tell her the right thing here… ’ Lance wishes that he weren’t in polite company that makes swearing aloud at the halfwit in his skull unacceptable. It certainly would have been nice if his brain could have been less of an asshole just this once, and, you know, actually told him what the right thing to say is . Oh well. He supposes he’ll just have to wing it like normal.

“Allura wasn’t… I mean… Keith… shit.” Lance replies, hanging his head. ‘ That was less winging it than flopping it, you knob .’ his brain points out vaguely. He clears his throat uncomfortably. Very uncomfortably. And tries to keep himself from writhing in his seat. “Look, Goody Wynion, obviously you’ve heard some things about me… about my life. I did love Allura. I mean… some part of my does love Allura, I guess, but she isn’t… wasn’t… isn’t the love of my life.”

“You have someone else in mind for that role, do you, lad?” Her voice is so piercing that he can’t help but wonder whether she’s hiding a spear or something somewhere he can’t see. Maybe under her lovely knitted shawl.

“Yes,” he says quickly, trying to keep his voice even and failing. Badly. “Keith.” the name comes out pretty whispery. Lance concludes that it could have been worse -- at least it wasn’t some proto-pubescent squeak or something.

“You’re absolutely certain?”

Remarkably, that question causes some of Lance’s gumption to drift back by, and he grabs it with both hands before it can wander off again. “I am,” he says, managing a much more convincing tone this time.

“You know about his past? What he has done, and what has been done to him?”

“Yes. All of it. He… I know he doesn’t like to -- or, well, maybe even can’t talk about it. He hasn’t really said much; but I’ve read all of his files. I know what happened.”

“You’re correct, he truly struggles to talk about it at the best of times. The reasons for this are easy enough to understand. Trauma is difficult to process. He’ll speak when he’s ready.” She continues to regard him closely. “If you’ve actually read his dossier, then you likely know many more details about his history than I do.” Given the way her face moves, Lance can only presume that she’s arching an eyebrow at him. Silver on silver is a little hard to follow. “This doesn’t frighten you, Posie Prince ? The way he is now -- damaged?”

“Frighten me? No.” Lance wobbles his head a little and blows out a breath. “I mean, I’m concerned, of course. I wish it had never happened. And… I guess I’m a little frightened for him sometimes.” He sighs. “A lot of the time… But I’m not scared of him, if that’s what you mean.”

“No,” she replies rather blandly. “Truly, I wonder if you are frightened for yourself . I want to know whether you trust Keith. How much you trust Keith.”

“Always, and with everything I am,” Lance replies instantaneously in his firmest voice; not having needed even a single moment to consider.

For the first time, Lance sees Mab actually smile at him . She rocks forward in her seat and fills his teacup yet again. For a while she’s silent as she regards him. Not sure what to say or do, Lance just tries to smile back and ignore the fact that both his hands and feet are now tickling and prickling at him rather aggressively. ‘ Hah. Tickling and prickling… ’ gurgles his brain. In fact, he seems to be tingly, well, pretty much all over at this point. He wants to heave a relieved sigh - or something - but curbs the urge. This doesn’t feel like anxiety. He’s actually pretty sure that the sensation would be enjoyable if the situation were slightly less charged.

At what definitely feels like long last, Mab speaks again. “Good,” she says, her voice easily as firm as Lance’s just was. “I believe you.” A bright smile warms her lined face. “And I apologize for the inquisition, but I’m concerned for that poor boy. I would not have him hurt any further.”

Lance wonders if swooning in relief would be too much. Obviously he’s not going to actually do it, because - well - that’s just a bit too dramatic -- even for Lance. Also, because his brain manages to squawk out an urgent little ‘ Don’t you even consider it, you fuckwit! ’ as soon as the thought occurs to him. Still, the idea seems rather appealing. Thankfully, the expression on the little lady’s face continues to soften before his very eyes, and that’s enough to let the smile on his face grow into something slightly more genuine. “I can appreciate that, Goody Wynion. I don’t want him hurt either. Keith needs everyone in his corner that he can possibly get.”

“He does at that,” she says as she gives Lance a look chock-full of calm and understanding with just a dash of compassion thrown in for accent. “Allow me to tell you at least part of why I have been so concerned. You should understand, Lance, that this will be my two-hundred-thirty-eighth winter.”

Phew… that’s really old, ’ observes his worthless brain before it notices that she’s just used called him something new. ‘ And she called you Lance . You might actually be winning, or something… ’ Lance does his best to ignore it and pay attention to Mab instead. Hopefully he hasn’t missed too much of whatever she’s saying.

“...seen a great many children in love. Once upon a time, I even was one myself.” Her eyes lock on Lance’s - cleave to them - taxed with a sort of weary, grave wisdom. “In all my long, long life; I had never seen a person as deeply, surely, unreservedly in love as your Keith.” Her voice turns a little more direct -- burdened with an undercurrent of somber caution. “If you can’t return his feelings, the breaks in his heart will end him, Lance. He will die for lack of any reason to keep living.”

Her keen scrutiny pis Lance like a butterfly to a dusty museum display. “And I mean that quite plainly, sweet lad.” Her eyes betraying what a more poetic Lance would be tempted to call a haggard melancholy, the old woman keeps on. “I’d never seen a storybook love before I met your precious Keith. Ancient and withered and wise -- I was certain and assured that all such things were a fiction. Pretty, petty tales for the young - the naive - and nothing more.”

“Yet nevertheless, in all my certainty, I was wrong. Half a year ago I opened my door one day and there one lay - a boundless love - cupped in the hands of a riven boy standing stoop-shouldered on my doorstep. A sublime thing guarded from peril by a brave, broken lad trying to mask all his missing pieces behind a long-tattered facade.”

Mab pauses her grim saga to sip from her tea. Lance dearly wishes he hadn’t emptied his own cup. His mouth is almost as dry as his eyes are threatening to be wet. Still apparently missing next to nothing, Mab leans forward with her teapot again. Lance accepts with an aching gratitude. This is not a good story -- not a good adventure. He really needs to know what she’s going to say next; and he really doesn’t want to know what she’s going to say next. The cognitive dissonance is… unpleasant.

Finally, that melodic voice starts again, sparing Lance from the contents of his head. Still touched with just a hint of a tremble, a quaver of age, it seems somehow warmer now -- and almost surprised. “I hadn’t ever thought to see its like again.” The pause between her thoughts is almost as keen as her words themselves. “And yet here you are. And here I find that very fantasy repeated. A second portion of some preposterous, mythical tenderness in the hands of an earnest boy who’s seen too much of a wicked world.” Her eyes narrow slightly. “Are you here to make yourself lost like your Keith? To retreat from the wounding? Or are you the one who still hopes? Tell me, Lance, who are you here to redeem?”

Lance’s view of Mab trembles as the mist in his eyes threatens to turn into actual tears. Is this still some kind of test? He’s here to save Keith, right? Except that - well - saving Keith is only one part of the puzzle. Lance nearly chokes as he tries to swallow and has to clear his throat twice - thrice - before he can manage to reply. Not that he really… well… fine. “Both,” he whispers. “Both of us.”

Mab reaches across the intervening space and takes hold of Lance’s dangling hand. “Be gentle with him, Lance. You must . He loves so deeply, and he’s still so very wounded. That day on my doorstep he was a bird with two broken wings. Now one of them is starting to mend, but it will be a long time before he’s ready to fly -- if he ever is.”

The tears in Lance’s eyes finally lose their patience with him and become the tears on Lance’s face instead. He sniffles as stealthily as he can manage -- which is not very, he’s forced to admit. “I’m trying -- I really am. I worry… I… I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t want to do anything wrong. I don’t… what if I make everything worse?”

The gentle smile on the old goat’s face endures. “In most things, let him be your guide. Keith will show you what he needs. Telling you may be beyond him, but he will show you. And listen to your heart -- let it lead. I know that sounds trite, but it’s the best advice that I have. If you know your Keith even a quarter as well as he knows you, your heart won’t steer you too wrong. It will know what he needs.” She pauses, finally looking the part of the kindly grandmother Keith had wanted him to meet. ‘ Keith was right after all… she’s nice, ’ his brain blinks at him in wonder. “Do not be afraid to make mistakes, Lance -- because you will. Mistakes are the plight of all of us fallible creatures. Don’t fear them. Learn from them.” Her fingers close as tight on his as their palsy will allow. She sets her teacup aside and pulls an embroidered handkerchief from somewhere beneath her shawl, offering it to him.

Rather embarrassedly, Lance takes the hankie and scrubs semi-delicately at his eyes. Mab lifts her teapot again, and Lance extends his cup once more. She waits politely, sipping slowly at her own not-tea as Lance settles himself back down. At last he manages to dredge up something resembling a smile for her. Apparently taking this as an indicator that he’s ready to continue, Mab’s own smile turns just a little smirky around the edges.

“Now, I’ve told you to let Keith guide you. And you should -- in most things. Tell me, Lance, what of the physical side of your relationship. How does it fare?”

Lance frowns at her, sniffles fully forgotten as his face flushes hot. ‘ The ancient goat-biddy wants to talk about sex?! ’ screeches his monologue aghast and rather shrill. Lance tries to restrain a wince as he replies, his own internal voice unsteady and dismayed. ‘ Apparently Keith was right and she really is a therapist or something… Sex… I don’t know if I can talk to someone old enough to be my grandmother’s great-grandmother about sex… It’s not like we’re having any anyway… ’ Lance is not at all sure that he wants to have this conversation. In fact, that’s a complete lie: he wants nothing to do with it at all. Unfortunately, rather per usual, his mouth feels no such indecision. “You mean… um… sex, right?” said mouth clarifies needlessly, much like his brain is wont to do when left to its own devices. “We don’t… haven’t…. I’m not…. Ugh.” Lance can’t help but think of Keith shying away from him and the alarm bells that his retreat had set off in Lance’s head. “I don’t think he’s… ready for that, maybe? Not yet, I guess. I don’t want to… can’t scare him away.”

Mab’s little smirk is still there. As he watches uncomfortably it turns a trifle secretive and a lot more than a trifle wry as her eyes sparkle with humor. “I assure you that he’s just as interested in such activities as you are. Were he here - and, one supposes, actually capable of probative speech about his feelings - he would tell you that he fears the exact same reaction from you. That you are unready for such a step.”

Lance feels that fun surprise rather like another little spear wound. Or, maybe it’s more like a poleaxe this time. This lady must have an entire arsenal hidden in her bustle. “Why would he… what would make him… Hell. Why does he think that? I mean, we haven’t really… talking… Christ on a crutch ,” Lance blasphemes before huffing out a vexed breath. “I’m occasionally adequate at talking about things. Keith is… not so much. But I’m… I’m definitely not opposed to the idea.”

The goat actually laughs an earthy little laugh. “And I promise you, Lance: neither is he. Keith has spent years of his life denying himself even the possibility of this relationship you’ve miraculously presented him with. Much of the underpinning of that came from convincing himself that you are -- I believe the preferred term in your English is ‘ straight ’.” Her expression seems slightly curious. “I take it that this is, in fact, not the case?”

Lance colors even further and gulps down another cup of not-tea. “No. I’m… uh… that is… that won’t be a problem,” he manages to dribble out.

“Good,” she laughs again. “Then I would suggest that you will need to demonstrate this to him.”

Lance’s mouth falls open. “Are you telling me to-”

“To seduce him? I most certainly am. How, exactly, I leave up to you. I’m uncertain as to the mechanics involved for humans. As for when, sooner rather than later, lad. Else you’ll both be in for a very long, uncomfortable winter.”

Lance nearly falls off the sofa.

“Be good to him. Be gentle to him. But remember that sometimes you’ll have to be the one to push. You’ll never scare him away, he wants this - wants you - too much. But he’s desperately afraid that he’ll frighten you away somehow. And intimacy will be one of his particular worries. The cloud of apprehension he’s carrying around with his is, hmm… piquant. It’s written in the set of his shoulders; in the lines of his mouth, the clench of his jaw. You’ll have to show him. Prove him wrong. I believe your saying goes, ‘ he who hesitates is brunch .’”

Lance begins to feel like he’s never going to stop fucking blushing, but that doesn’t keep him from seeing the truth of what Mab is saying. The markers are there in all of Keith’s actions. Lance was the one who had to admit his feelings first. Once he did, Keith reciprocated. He had to be the first to say, ‘ I love you .’ Once he did, Keith opened up like a flower to Lance’s sun. Lance can be the brave one. He has to be. He begins to dig around in psyche, looking for the courage to take the lead in this too. It’s not a pose that he likes very much, but it’s a courage he might find. Somewhere. Someday.

“I… I think...” he stutters rather lamely. “ Follame de lado . I’ll try.”

Mab pats his hand again. “You’ll do fine, Lance. You love each other.” She chuckles very warmly. “If you didn’t love him, you’d never have endured any of the parts of this discussion. I’m very glad that you did.”

Just as Mab comes to the end of her statement Lance hears the front door again and a multitude of little voices filter into the hall. A knock sounds on the parlour door before Keith lets himself back in. He observes the scarlet on lance’s face and winces rather sharply, his shoulders hunching. Thankfully, the shy little smile that Lance manages to beam at him seems to relax him -- at least a little.

Keith smiles his own little smile right back before turning his attention to Lance’s elderly companion. “Well, you both seem more or less intact,” he observes dryly. “Are you ready for tea, mam-gu ?”

“Certainly, my dear. Come help an old lady out of her chair.”

Keith moves to her side, retrieving her cane for her before offering her a hand up out of the chair. Lance tries to stand as well and fails impressively. He loses his balance and falls back onto the sofa with a soft thump instead. It creaks slightly under the sudden weight.

Keith cranes his neck around and stares at his befuddled Lance for  a tick before fixing an accusatory little glare on the lady of the house. “Mab, just how much did you give him to drink?”

Mab winks at Keith, absolutely unrepentant, and straightens her shawl around her shoulders as he hurries over to help Lance up off the sofa. Keith fixes a firm arm around Lance’s waist as soon as he’s standing.

“Enough to loosen his tongue, of course, darling one.”

Lance can’t really figure out quite what it is they’re going on about. The head rush from standing, falling, and standing again fades back into pleasant tingles as Lance leans comfortably against Keith and presses a kiss against his handy cheek. The fresh stubble coming in there prickles against Lance’s lips.

Mab totters out of the room on her cane with some gusto, a gay little laugh floating behind her, and leads them out of the parlour and down the hall to a sizeable dining room where the maid is just seating the gaggle of children in front of a substantial luncheon.

Keith pours Lance into a somewhat undersized chair and helps him stuff his protruding knees under the table before fixing him a plate of tiny sandwiches along with something that looks to be quiche. After slipping a couple of pastries onto the plate as well, Keith sets it down in front of Lance before thoughtfully providing him a tall glass of water as well. Lance’s heart swells as he realizes the things on the plate in front of him are exactly the things he would have chosen for himself. Keith knows exactly what he wants to eat. Keith has watched Lance so closely for so long - knows Lance so intimately - that he can effortlessly replicate his tastes. How many other wondrous, useful, and entirely inconsequential but terribly sweet things must he know. Lance wonders if that’s something he ought to be getting tear about right now. Ah well, what’s a poor sap to do?

The children eat merrily, peppering the adults - mostly Lance - with questions all the while. He answers gamely - albeit somewhat blearily - at least when the questions don’t overlap each other too much to follow. Once everyone has cleared their plates, he finds himself being pressed for a story in the most aggressively polite of manners. After some careful thought, he winds up spinning them the tale of Kolivan’s rescue and Keith and Kosmo’s battle against Macidus, Haggar’s murderous druid, in the depths of a ruined world.

Lance glows as he talks about Keith’s skill and bravery, interspersed and highlighted with expansive hand gestures and captivating sound effects. Keith blushes while the children remain glued to Lance with wide, rapt eyes. Mab spends the whole of story time with a soft smile on her face for Keith and Lance both, her eyes trailing slowly between them.

The afternoon shadows are beginning to lengthen as Lance finishes his tale and the long tea party winds itself to a close. Mab sees the whole party to the door. The children scatter out the door and run home after offering happy little bows and curtsies not only to Mab and Keith, but Lance as well. At this point Lance is managing to stand up under his own power, and no longer seems to be weaving on his feet. He’s definitely still feeling a bit liquored up though. Sneaky, boozy, goaty not-tea!

Mab eases herself up beside Lance and offers him a sly little smile while Keith is busy retrieving their coats and assembling their now safely delivered purchases for transport home. Mab hands Lance a bottle of something yellow and slightly pearlescent. “This is what was in the - what does Keith call it - ‘ not-tea ’ that we were drinking earlier. I think you’ll find that he’s rather fond of it, and it might just ease you along the path we were discussing earlier.”

She’s telling you to get him drunk… that’s funny, ’ giggles his brain as Lance blushes yet again and murmurs a nearly silent “ Thanks …” and slides into the coat Keith is offering him, secreting the bottle in one of the pockets.

Keith obviously catches sight of his reddened cheeks and eyes Lance thoroughly, but seems none the wiser. Mab winks at Lance.

“Now, my boys,” says Mab with a nearly audible twinkle in her eyes. “Go on home and leave an old, old lady to her nap. Given your unique means of transportation, I know I can depend on you to drop by for tea, say, at least once a week once the weather sets in, yes? You wouldn’t leave me to become some sad, ancient shut-in this winter, would you?”

Keith bends down and presses a kiss to her withered, silver-haired cheek. “ Of course we will, mam-gu .”

She looks up at Lance expectantly and taps a finger to her other cheek. Eventually he understands and bends to offer her a kiss as well. Luckily, Keith is right there to steady him when his booze-debilitated balance flails.

“Thank you very much for having us to tea, Goody Wynion,” Lance says politely, remembering his manners and Keith’s etiquette coaching.

“Now, now,. None of that,” she scolds gently, patting Lance’s hand. “You call me mam-gu just like your boy here, my lad.”

“Of course, mam-gu ,” Lance replies with no idea at all what he’s actually saying. Mab steps away from them with a wave as Kosmo sidles up to zip them and their new provisions home.

***

Kosmo drops the guys in the kitchen with the foodstuffs - less one of the carefully wrapped sausages - that joins him on his trip out to the barn with the new windows. Keith is quiet as he begins sorting the groceries into two separate piles. Once he finishes his task he turns to Lance.

“I’m going to take this stuff down to the cellar,” he says, gesturing at the larger of the piles. “Could you put the rest away up here?” His voice is polite but a little strained around the edges. Lance isn’t sure what the problem is, and his brain is still more than a little fuzzy from mab’s brew, so he just nods a little dumbly.

“Of course, K. No problem.” Keith nods back to him with a tight little smile and immediately begins manhandling his stack into the storeroom. Lance hears the trapdoor to the cellar squeak open.

With Keith out of view, Lance decides to take at least part of Mab’s advice and pulls the bottle she handed him out of his pocket. Opening it, he gives it a sniff. It smells sweet and floral and only vaguely alcoholic -- a scent which Lance now knows from experience is deceptive. He retrieves two mugs from the cupboard and pours a healthy dollop into each before adding the powdered makings of not-tea from a large canister and stashing the bottle in one of the less trafficked cupboards.

This accomplished, he stirs up the fire in the stove and fills the kettle before returning it to its burner and going about storing the various foodstuffs in his pile in the refrigerator or cupboards as seems most appropriate. Not knowing what half of the stuff is, he finds himself guessing frequently, and hoping he’s not tipsily disrupting some careful system of Keith’s. His boyfriend’s life here is - was - a very orderly thing, and Lance promises himself that he’ll learn more about the kitchen shit so that he can better avoid making messes. At least he’s pretty sure he’s got everything perishable put away right.

By the time Keith comes back upstairs everything is put away and Lance is just pouring hot water from the whistling kettle into the mugs. He sniffs at one a bit surreptitiously and decides that, much like what Mab was serving, it doesn’t smell inebriating at all. No wonder she managed to sneak so much into him.

Keith is still being quiet. The silence feels a little awkward. Lance sets his potables aside to cool and crosses the room to go upstairs and change out of his dress clothes. He allows his fingers to brush Keith’s hand on the way by. He feels that same hand take up a position on the small of his back as Keith catches up at the staircase. Lance smiles to himself -- despite whatever’s currently cooking in Keith’s head, that touch certainly doesn’t feel unhappy.

They change in continued silence, and as Lance dumps his discarded clothes on the bed Keith immediately scoops them up and hangs them in the closet next to his own. All of a sudden Lance can’t help feeling very much at home. He likes it quite a lot. Psyching himself up to be patient and let Keith think his way through whatever’s weighing on him, he crawls back into his abandoned sweatpants and tank top and shambles back down the stairs.

He returns to the kitchen and finds the drinks now a drinkable temperature. He samples his own to make sure that he’s not going to accidentally poison Keith or anything, and concludes that his version is - if anything - weaker than what Mab was serving them earlier. Satisfied, he glances towards the living room in time to see Keith futz with the fire and then seat himself stiffly on the sofa looking uncomfortable.

Lance joins him, sprawling comfortably next to him in the middle of the sofa and handing him his drink. Keith offers him a quiet thank you. They sip in yet more silence for a dobosh before Keith finally begins to speak.

“So, um… Lance, I’m sorry that Mab cornered you like that. I… I hope she didn’t… upset you… or offend you, or anything. And I’m really sorry I forgot to warn you that she would probably have liquor in her teapot. She used to pull the same thing on me all the time when she wanted to, uh… extract information…”

Lance has a hard time not physically starting at the tone of raw fear in Keith’s voice. Keith’s not supposed to sound like that. He’s the brave one. Lance really, for the life of him can’t figure out what Keith is so afraid of. Then his brain whacks him with it.

Don’t be daft, you ninny. Mab already told you what Keith is afraid of. You .

What do you mean he’s afraid of me? What’s he afraid of me for? ’ Lance ponders back with a bit of a wobble.

My God you’re thick sometimes. Well, always, really. He’s not afraid of you . He’s afraid that you’ll leave . He’s afraid something will scare you away . He’s afraid that Mab might have already scared you away…

Lance feels very much like he ought to smack himself in the face. Then he realizes that, despite the fact that Keith’s face is currently angled towards the floor, Keith is, in fact, staring at Lance through his long eyelashes. The trepidation in his gaze is palpable.

Right. Stop talking to yourself when Keith is trying to talk to you. It makes you look inattentive at best, and angry at worst. Really stop talking to yourself when Keith needs to you to be reassuring him instead. Lance realizes that he’s still doing it and finally manages to kick his brain into gear and respond.

“Baby, it’s fine. I liked meeting her. We had a… good talk. Maybe a little uncomfortable, and, well, scary in parts, sure... but still good.”

“Really?” And there’s that hopeful, disbelieving look again. Keith’s really good at that one. Lance concludes that Mab was absolutely right, and that it’s definitely part of his job now to prove to Keith as soon as possible that he’s really not about to disappear.

“Really, K. I promise. I’ll admit, she’s a little intimidating when she wants to be…” Keith eyes him dubiously. “Okay. Fine. A lot intimidating when she wants to be.” Now Keith nods. “But seriously, babe, she was just looking out for you. Once I realized that she really just wanted to make sure that you were okay. I appreciated what she had to say. And I definitely appreciated how much she cares about you. You really won her over somehow.”

Keith colors a little. “Must have been my broken bird routine, I guess,” he murmurs, causing Lance to smile even as he’s taken back to Mab’s describing Keith in just that manner.

“She told me some important things. And, there might have been some... advice in there too… I think she’s probably right about, you know, all of it.”

Keith manages to look even more worried. “Such… um…” he clears his throat and then hides behind his mug. “Such as?”

Lance reaches his mug-free hand up and traces it along Keith’s again-stubbled jaw. He only hesitates for a moment before he begins to speak. “She said that you were afraid that I would leave. That you’re afraid of scaring me away. That you’d spent so long convincing yourself that this… that we could never, well, exist. I think that maybe you’re probably having a hard time believing that it’s actually happening. That all this is real. That we’re really… together.”

Keith is staring at the floor again. He moves his mouth but has apparently mislaid his words once again.

Lance shifts his hand a little so that his fingers are brushing through the short, thick hair at Keith’s temple instead. Rather than leap in and try to talk Keith out of his fears directly, Lance wonders if maybe being brave and sharing some of what he’s been afraid of would help. It’s worth a try, anyway. “I’ve… I’m afraid of the same thing, K.” He braces himself for potential embarrassment, and tries to ignore the possibility that Mab could be wrong and that this conversation will send Keith sailing out of the damn building.

“Like yesterday, when we were kissing, and I… well, we got um… excited.” Lance snorts out a sharp breath. “I thought I, uh… scared you away. That you weren’t… aren’t ready for that sort of thing yet. And then this morning-”

Lance stops himself, the parts of his brain capable of carrying out a scheme shouting that Keith wasn’t supposed to know that Lance was even awake for the pudendal fencing match. Lance’s face flushes and he feels distinctly like he’s reverted to being about thirteen. When he drags his eyes back up, he’s surprised to find Keith actually looking at him.

“Wait, Lance. You’ve been afraid of scaring me away?”

Lance can’t help the very small smile that sprouts on his face. That’s an entirely more pleasant disbelieving tone. “Well, yeah… I was afraid, well, am afraid, I guess. I’m afraid that I’m pushing you into something you’re not ready for. Or not in a good headspace for. Or, hell, maybe even just something that you don’t even want. I mean, we haven’t really talked about the… uh… physical side of things.” Lance blushes more and now he’s the one staring at the floor.

He also finds that now that this fear is out of the box, several of its compatriots are trying to make their escape as well. And he’s trying to figure out when they switched polarities from Keith being and sounding afraid to Lance himself being and sounding afraid. While he’s busy trying to parse the brain-spew, he’s not really spending enough attention guarding his tongue.

“And, well, I guess I’m afraid of… um… disrupting this well-ordered life you’ve got here. I mean, it’ snot like you, you know, actually invited me. I just kind of showed up and, well, moved in with you without ever really asking…”

Lance is chagrined to realize that even now he’s not at the bottom of the pit of anxiety he’s currently touring with Keith in tow. “And I’m afraid that I’ll do something wrong, or say something wrong -- like when you were having that nightmare. I didn’t know if I should wake you, and then I didn’t know if I was supposed to touch you or not touch you. I didn’t know if I should hold on, or if that would make you panic. I just… I love you, Keith. I don’t want to hurt you. Even if that means I have to go away so that I’m not, just… bothering you any more, I guess..”

Lance sighs. That seems to be the bottom of this particular gaping chasm in his emotional continence. He is not pleased with how wet his voice sounded by the end of all that. Some comforter he is.

Since he still hasn’t convinced himself to look up, Lance jumps slightly in in surprise as he feels Keith’s burly arms snake around him and yank him over until he’s nearly in Keith’s lap, his shoulder and side curled into Keith’s broad chest. It’s a bit of a role-reversal for the two of them. Lance finds it hugely comforting, and wonders if this is how Keith feels when Lance cradles him close instead. He certainly hopes so. Keith blows out a breath and it ruffles Lance’s hair.

“Wow. We really need to practice not freaking ourselves out, Lance. You’ve been so good at… um, putting me back together, I guess. I didn’t know that all this stuff was bothering you.”

“It’s okay. I didn’t, you know, tell you any of this before now. How could you have known?”

Keith looks down at lance’s face and manages to catch his eyes. Lance notices the little twinkle of wonder in that purple gaze has come to visit again. “Lance, you really do mean it when you say you want to stay with me, don’t you?” For once he doesn’t sound worried or uncertain. It seems more like he’s just confirming a fact for his own edification.

“Yeah, K. I really do mean it.”

“Good. Maybe we can both try put at least a couple of our stupid-ass fears to rest then.” Keith takes a deep breath as his cuddles Lance even tighter. His voice is a little shaky when he begins talk again. “So, um… Lance, would you like to, uh… move in with me?”

Lance blinks up at him. “I thought we already-”

“Well, yeah,” Keith cuts him off gently. “We did. But you’re worried that you’re disrupting my life. That you’re the houseguest that just shows up one day and invites himself to stay.” Keith swallows nervously. “So now, I’m inviting you. Would you like to move in with me? ‘Cause, Lance, I… I really like the way you’ve disordered my neat little life. And… I’d really like it if you’d keep doing that.”

Lance lets out a heavy breath of his own. It actually feels like some giant has been sitting on his lungs and then suddenly stood up and wandered off to find something better to do. He cranes his neck around so that he can mash his lips into Keith’s in an awkward, sloppy kiss before breathing out his reply. “I’d love to, samurai.”

Keith’s return kiss is mostly swallowed by his grin. Lance thinks it’s the new record holder for the broadest one he’s ever seen on Keith’s face. Lance opts to roll himself around in Keith’s arms far enough that they can kiss properly, and amuses himself with doing that for a while.

Quite a while.

Keith is the one who finally breaks the kiss, an eventuality that lance isn’t exactly happy about when it occurs. Conversely, given that he can feel not-so-little Keith at something more than half mast tucked up against his hip, he’s hardly surprised that Keith is about to pull away again.

So - of course - Lance is actually markedly surprised when he doesn’t. He just tilts his head back from the kiss so that he can look Lance in the eyes again. Both men are breathing heavily, and more than a little red in the face. Oh, and that eye contact -- it doesn’t last very long at all.

Keith opens his mouth and attempts speech. Several times. Lance wonders if he ought to try and help out somehow, but instead this time he just waits, pretending to be patient with all his might. Largely because he’s still spinning a bit from the kiss, and probably from the sneaky alpine moon booze as well. Keith clears his throat again and one of his attempts at words finally breaks through the logjam.

“So, um… I guess we… uh… should talk about it.” He swallows uncomfortably, throat bobbing. “Sex, I mean. Talk about sex… and, you know, us… having it?”

Lance nods slowly, not sure whether to be overjoyed that Keith is engaging with the topic or horrified that Keith is engaging with the topic. He supposes that time will tell which way he ought to fall on that.

“You, uh… you said that you thought I… um… ran away? I guess, because you thought that I wasn’t ready for… well, sex. You know, with you.” Keith’s squinted eyes couldn’t be more fixed on the far wall if someone actually nailed them there. “Does… does that mean that... uh… are you ready for… to… are you ready then? I mean, do you want to have sex?” Keith sounds jittery and as uncomfortable as Lance has ever heard him -- which is saying something. It’s rather like he’s balanced on something high in the air and wobbly as all fuck.

A limb. That’s right -- there’s a word for the wobbly, high-up thing. Lance decides to climb out there and join him. “Yeah, K. I’m ready. I think… I mean, at least to… well… get started? We don’t have to rush into anything… and, if you’re not ready yet -- I would never… I don’t want to pressure you. I… I was a little afraid to bring it up, even. In case that was… uh… pushy?”

“I know… I mean, we were never the particular brand of friends that talked about sex… I… I know that you and Allura were, um, sleeping together. But I don’t know if you’ve-” Keith groans slightly and presses on. “Look, so I know you’re not a virgin or anything, but I don’t know if you’ve ever even been with a guy before.” Keith’s mouth backslides into working without silently for a while before he can declare, “And, I’m… well, I’m hardly a virgin either, but I, um… I’ve never actually been with a human before. Or… uh… well, anybody that I actually care about. Anybody that I love.” Keith’s face has long since passed the cutoff for nuclear fusion as he trails off and waits for some kind of response, still avoiding eye contact like a communicable disease.

Lance is both surprised and unsurprised by this little revelation. Given Keith’s antisocial tendencies as a teenager, Lance can totally see him having been a virgin at eighteen when they’d left Earth. As an adult, Keith is absolutely smoking hot, and, as Lance is joyfully discovering, remarkably sweet. He could have sex on tap anywhere and everywhere he wanted it. But, thinking about Keith’s admission, he has to admit that the time Keith has spent around humans outside of the paladins themselves is actually pretty limited.

Shoving his musings aside for now Lance turns to the matter at hand and decides that, since laying his cards on the table with Keith has worked out really pretty well for him so far, he should probably just do that again. Besides, Mab told him to, and he’s decided that his life will be a more pleasant place if he goes along with whatever the terrifying tercentenarian says.

“Well, to answer your question: yes. I’ve been with men before. It’s been a long time. I haven’t-” Lance blushes a blush of his own and finds his own eyes searching hard for whatever the interesting thing on the wall is that Keith’s been looking for. “I haven’t… uh… bottomed since the garrison. I didn’t really like to-”

Keith’s face flashes back towards Lance and the movement catches his attention, causing them to lock eyes. “We don’t have to do that then. I would never ask you to do something you don’t like -- that you don’t want to do.” Keith’s words are weighted with sincerity but Lance definitely saw the flash of disappointment in his violet eyes before his consideration squashed it right out. Lance immediately grabs Keith’s hand.

“K, let me finish my thought. I wasn’t trying to say-” Lance sighs, forced to speculate on how deep he’s planted this particular seed in Keith’s mind. Idiot. “I guess what I’m trying to say is that I discovered pretty early on that I don’t really like… Well, I guess… Shit. I never really liked sex without feelings. Especially, uh… penetrative sex. Casual sex was always… top, bottom, men, women, whatever.” Lance sighs again. “Not like a random handjob in the back of a club, or a blowjob in a hotel room -- there’s been… enough of that in my life, I guess.” A third sigh escapes through his nose, long and drawn out. “What I’m really trying to say is that I haven’t had, uh, real sex since Allura died.”

“Ah,” Keith says in an soft, hesitant voice, clearly not quite sure how he ought to respond to that.

Lance squeezes Keith’s fingers. “But, for the first time in a long, long time Keith -- I really do want to,” Lance finally manages to come out and say, his voice a little reticent.

Keith’s eyes flash back to Lance’s again. They’re full of that soft, vulnerable happiness that Lance is increasingly sure is solely for him. A special gift from Keith that he’s only seen a very few times, but every time it’s been pointed at him. “Oh. Good. That’s um. Really good. Me to. I… uh, I want to do it too.”

Lance’s eyes widen slightly, and his impertinent mouth takes the opportunity to leap in again. “Now?” it inquires.

Keith sputters. “You, uh… now… I didn’t mean… how… or. I guess I didn’t not mean… uh…” His eyes are very wide as he edges back from Lance a little, a new hesitation on his face. “Maybe we shouldn’t -- you might still be-”

“Drunk on moon flower wine, or whatever?”

“Uh, yeah, mlodeuyn cordial…”

“So are you. How do you think we managed to get through this conversation without, like, passing out from unqualified self-consciousness?” A little giggle escapes Lance. “Besides, aren’t your fingers tingling by now? Mine are.” Lance frowns at his hands as he splays his fingers out in front of him. “Maybe that only happens to me,” he observes as he allows them to come to rest on Keith’s chest.

“I am not…” Keith wiggles his own fingers and then frowns too and stares at Lance. “How?”

“Mab slipped me a bottle. Told me that you liked it.” Lance scowls a cheery little scowl. “She also gave me very firm instructions to seduce you… but, I thought it would be better if we, you know, tried to talk about it first.”

Keith turns so red that Lance is honestly concerned about his blood pressure. He really looks like he wants to run away, or hide under the sofa or something. “She… she... s-she didn’t!” he manages to stammer.

Lance just smiles a little bashfully and nods.

Keith does finally hide his face in his hands at that and actually whimpers. Lance gives him a minute and then slowly slips his hands behind Keith’s to bracket his face. When Keith finally lets his hands fall away. He’s still very red, but the serious look on Lance’s face snares him and the blush begins to fade.

Lance cups Keith’s face between his hands and leans in to kiss him. Seriously. He runs his tongue over Keith’s bottom lip and then nibbles at it, teasing his mouth open; and then they’re the both of them exploring. Keith’s hand finds its way to the nape of Lance’s neck and his fingers tangle in the soft hair there. They tug slightly ever time Lance nibbles at his lips.

Lance’s brain feels splendidly fuzzy. He’s already decided that this isn’t the night for something acrobatic, presuming that Keith doesn’t insist -- which, given his general reticence, he definitely won’t. But dammit all if he’s not going to take advantage of the drop of liquid courage in their veins to get the two of them past this initial awkward moment. Mostly because he’s absolutely certain that there are better things to come once they do.

He allows his hands to stray down from Keith’s face and drag across the planes of his chest. His fingers tweak a nipple experimentally through Keith’s thin undershirt and Lance feels Keith’s erection lurch against him. His own throbs in response and he hums out an approving noise. Keith gives a little jerk and makes a tiny, agreeable noise in the back of his throat.

Lance breaths out hard as he breaks the kiss and tips his forehead against Keith’s instead. This causes Keith to open his hazy eyes and look at him. “Is this okay?” Lance asks in a gravelly voice, his own blue eyes blinking as the purple ones in front of him swim back into focus.

Keith nods and swallows. When he speaks, his voice is husky and strained across the bottom of his register. “Yeah, Lance. It’s more than okay,” says his growly whisper, and then he does something, well, brazen. He grabs one of Lance’s long-fingered brown hands in his callused grip and places it firmly on the bulge in his sweatpants. Lance can’t restrain his gasp any more than Keith does his groan as Lance’s fingers rapidly map out the shape behind the cloth. Lance drags a slow palm up the underside of Keith’s fabric-clad cock.

From there everything rapidly evolves into a tangle of open-mouthed kisses and twisting limbs in the tawny firelight. Keith leans back on the arm of the sofa, pulling Lance over on top of him. Pants are thrust down and shirts yanked up as Lance shifts to kneel astride Keith’s hips and their fingers knot together in a tandem grip around their paired erections.

There’s no time to look tonight -- no time to think. Just soft exhalations between kisses and quiet moans muffled against throats and collarbones as the men press against each other. Lance finishes first with Keith chasing him a heartbeat later, and there, heartbeat to heartbeat, they breath each other in as the firelight plays across them.

It’s a full dobosh or three before their breathing entirely normalizes. Lance remains in place atop and astride Keith with great contentment. For a bit. In the end, it’s the cooling mess between them that ends up being his downfall as its presence begins to register more fully. He rolls over onto his side, his back flush against the backrest of the sofa. Keith makes a small, mournful sound as lance’s weight shifts off him.

“I miss you. Come back,” Keith’s dumb, sappy murmur demands, leaving Lance no other option than to giggle mindlessly.

“I love you very much, my Keith, but we’ll both regret it if we lay here and end up glued together…”

“I know that you’re right, but I don’t want to get up. And I really don’t want you to get up…”

Precisely as Keith stops talking Kosmo wanders by and drops a washcloth on the beautifully defined, stickily defiled muscles of Keith’s exposed belly before disappearing again. Both men stare.

“Keith, my dude, did your dog just bring us a wet rag?”

“Uh… yes, love, it seems he did.”

Lance eyes it. “Is that… slobber?”

“No, Lance. It’s semen.”

Lance pokes Keith in the ribs. “Shut up. I meant on the rag, you ass.”

Keith regards it with a bit of a jaundiced eye before ultimately summoning the strength of character, or fortitude, or whatever to poke at it with a single finger. “Nope. Warm water.”

“You mean to tell me he actually soaked it in the sink or something?”

“Apparently.”

Keith continues to lay on the sofa like a lump, clearly trying to enjoy the afterglow of his orgasm. Given the warm, happy gravity being exerted on him by his own, Lance can definitely understand why. Deciding to let Keith luxuriate for as long as possible, Lance picks up the rag and gently cleans the both of them off. It’s almost embarrassingly intimate, and Lance has to keep reminding himself that it’s allowed. Keith watches with a smile like sunshine on his face. That smile makes the reminding pretty easy.

Finished, Lance gives the rag a little toss for later retrieval and fixes Keith with a stern look. “I think you should be a little bit more concerned about the sapience of your wolf.” His eyes narrow further. “Do you suppose that Kosmo just watched us have sex?”

“Maybe. I don’t know.” He casts an impish little look at Lance. “Do you actually care?”

Lance sucks in a breath to reply and then stops himself, a smile breaking out on his face as well. “Not even a little bit.”

Keith reaches up an arm and yanks Lance back down on top of him. Lance falls willingly.

“Better,” Keith mumbles.

Chapter Text

Contrary to what one might read on the internet, one shared orgasm does not do away with all awkwardness in a new sexual scenario. Lance abruptly discovers this when he wakes up on the sofa with a mouth like sawdust, very much at least as astride Keith as he was yesterday morning. Moreso, in fact. ‘ You’re doing it again ,’ his brain points out. ‘ And this time there’s a whole lot more skin involved… ’ it continues in a faux-helpful voice. Lance realizes that he and Keith must have passed right out after their little tryst last night. Excepting the one little part that crows, ‘ Sweet Jesus on a stick! I had sex with Keith! ’ the vast majority of those parts of his brain that are awake stop functioning abruptly upon remembering.

Given that both of them still have their sweatpants tangled somewhere around their knees, Lance is in for quite a ride when Keith actually starts to stir. He’s not entirely certain, but he’s pretty sure that he actually ‘meeps’ when he feels Keith’s morning-induced erection slide against his own. Keith’s eyes pop open abruptly and Lance discovers that there’s still enough unoccupied blood in his body to rush some of it to his face.

“Uh… good morning, babe,” Lance manages.

Keith’s eyes flash downwards - admittedly, to little effect - given his supine inferior position and he blushes right back at Lance. He shifts his hand, seeming to realize that it’s currently resting on Lance’s bare ass. In the end, he appears to decide that it’s probably welcome where it is.

Lance agrees.

“G’morning, love,” Keith mumbles, still blinking owlishly. After a long pause he speaks again. Lance still hasn’t moved. “Uh, Lance -- I’m… I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do right now. I’ve… never really been in this situation before.” He sounds surprisingly matter of fact.

Lance grimaces. “oh, man. I’m sorry? Are you uncomfortable? I should, um, probably get off of you. I didn’t mean to post up on you for the night.”

Keith’s arms slide up under Lance’s, pulling tight and locking around Lance’s ribs. “Don’t! I… um, I like it. I like being… close to you? I’ve just never really done this whole waking up with somebody. I’ve never slept with anyone before you.”

Lance gives Keith a confused look. “But… I thought you said-”

“Ah, no. I don’t mean sex. I’m talking about… I’ve never really slept with anyone before. You know, shared a bed; or a sofa, I guess.”

“Oh,” Lance replies with great wit and verve.

“I never really… trusted anyone around when I was sleeping. Even before…” he trails off, the shadows behind his eyes starting to swirl.

“Oh,” Lance says again. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to-”

“Lance,” Keith interrupts, his voice clearing and firming. “Love, stop apologizing to me. You haven’t done anything wrong. I really like waking up like this. With you. It’s good.”

Lance lets out a relieved little huff and decides to test the waters further. “And you don’t… um… regret last night? What we did?”

Now it’s Keith’s turn to look surprised, and then slightly worried. “Of course not. You… you’re okay too? I mean, I didn’t, um… we’d been drinking a little - well, you maybe more than a little - I didn’t mean to-”

“Take advantage of me?” Lance completes Keith’s thought with a bright little grin. “You didn’t. Believe me -- I was a more than willing participant. Last night was great.”

Keith grins back, the worry easing from his features.

Pleased with the results of his foray, lance screws up his courage and decides to carry on with the logical suggestion given their present circumstances. “Do… do you…” he blows out a quick breath. “Keith, do you want to do it again?”

Lance can feel Keith’s muscles tighten up beneath him and for a tick he worries that he’s overstepped -- right up until he feels Keith’s hips roll up against his as he growls, “Yes!” in a very low voice.

With delight Lance responds in kind and ruts down against him while managing to sneak a hand between their closely aligned bodies. Keith groans out his appreciation, his hips moving against Lance at a slowly increasing pace. He angles his head up to kiss Lance who embarrassedly tilts his face away. Though it should probably be noted that his own thrusts against Keith are unaffected. Keith makes a little interrogatory noise deep in his throat as his wide-pupiled eyes open and focuses on Lance. Lance can feel the noise rumble through his chest.

“I have…. Ugh… morning breath,” Lance manages to pant out.

“I don’t… give a fuck,” Keith grates out his insistence as one of his hands tangles in Lance’s hair and pulls his face back into prime kissing range.

Neither of them can claim a display of particularly impressive stamina this morning either - this whole thing is still way too new and way too exciting - and their activities yield predictable results.

“Keith, I’m all sticky again,” Lance complains, his voice more than a little breathy.

Keith’s arms lock back around Lance, betraying his absolute disinterest in either of them moving. “Don’t really give a fuck about that right now either, sharpshooter,” he grunts.

Lance smiles and nuzzles his face into the hollow of Keith’s neck. ‘ This is really, really nice, ’ muses his inner muse. ‘ I know, right? ’ Lance thinks back somewhat blearily. ‘ We should have done this years ago, ’ it continues. ‘ Yeah, I know, ’ Lance agrees wholeheartedly.

“Whatcha thinking? Love?” Keith queries.

“That I love you,” Lance replies without missing a beat. Keith kisses the top of his head.

“I love you too, Lance.”

Once again Lance manages to make it maybe five whole doboshes before he begins to fret at the mess. He squirms a little and Keith groans beneath him. He can feel that in his chest too. ‘ Hot, ’ supplies Lance’s brain.

“Lance, you’re really not very good at just lying still, are you?”

“I’m sticky ,” Lance whines again. The noise Keith makes in response sounds rather like it’s caught somewhere halfway between a chuckle and a sigh.

“Do you, um… do you want to take a shower?”

Lance nods his head, causing it to bump against Keith’s stubbly cheek and even thoroughly disarraying his his already disheveled hair. “Yeah. Unless you’d like to go first. It’s not like I’ll die from being a little sticky for a few minutes. Or even a lot sticky…”

Keith is quiet for a tick before he responds. “No. I… I meant, would you like to, um, takeashowerwithme ?” His last five words slur together and Lance has to pause and decipher. Once he does, he leans himself up on one elbow so that he can stare at Keith with something resembling shock.

“Really?”

Keith hesitates. “Only if you, um, want to… Don’t have to -- I just thought it… sounded nice?”

Lance grins down at his boyfriend. “It does, samurai. And I definitely want.”

Keith lets out a relieved little breath and then grins back. “Lead the way then, sticky.”

***

Given that the guys are not actually fifteen year-olds, and they are thus afflicted with something of a refractory period, the shower is a largely sedate affair. Despite their recent doings, they’re both still a trifle bashful. Lance does take the opportunity to wash Keith’s back again, his fingers tracing gently across the scars there. He also gives himself full permission this time to gaze at Keith’s luscious muscular ass. It’s well worth the time to regard. ‘ God you’re a lucky son of a bitch, ’ observes his brain. Lance ignores it, as most of his efforts are going towards not salivating too obviously.

When Keith blushes and asks Lance if he can wash his hair, Lance, can’t help but figure that turnabout is fair play. He doesn’t have to think about it very long at all before agreeing. Or well, at all , really.

No longer sticky, the guys sit down to a breakfast of leftover pastries from Mab’s house accompanied by unenhanced not-tea and then suit up in Keith’s earth-toned clothes and set off to do the chores and finish their roof. As has become their routine, Lance gathers eggs while Keith does the milking; and they both spend a few doboshes taking taking turns tossing Kosmo’s ball for him before they move on to hanging the windows.

Thankfully, Kosmo is still handy when Lance lapses into a clumsy phase and drops one of them into the barn below. Keith laughs, apparently more entertained than upset by the potential property damage.

By noontime the windows are hung and they’ve moved on too wonderful, mucky, muddy sod. By the early afternoon the barn looks to be complete.

“Hey, Farmer Keith, you have a barn!” Lance points out happily. Keith wraps an arm around Lance’s shoulders.

“Nope.”

Lance twists his head around and quirks an eyebrow. “Nope?”

We have a barn. I was serious when I asked you to move in with me. We’ve just finished the first addition to our cottage. That makes you Farmer Lance, too.”

Lance melts.

With the barn officially raised, the guys head inside and assemble a salad for lunch. Keith even makes his own vinaigrette. Lance can’t help but continue to be impressed by his easy facility in the kitchen. Well -- with most things, really. As they eat together, Keith makes a suggestion.

“Would you like to, maybe, go for a run with me this afternoon?”

The weather is still fairly decent -- for the time being at least; and Lance has to admit that the idea holds some definite appeal. Other than their travails with sod architecture, his stay on Dolydd has been pretty sedentary. It occurs to him that Keith's life has been pretty much the same since his arrival; and given the general state of Keith’s physique, that’s obviously a major change for him too.

“That actually sounds really nice, K. Have I been, uh, cramping your routine since I’ve been here?”

Keith chuckles and pulls up the tail of his shirt before jabbing a finger into his washboard stomach. Lance most certainly stares appreciatively. “Well, yeah… is it starting to show?”

Lance snorts. “Hardly.” Another thought occurs to him. “Yeah, I’d love to go for a run with you, but, um, maybe I could just, you know, join in on whatever your normal routine is going forward?”

Keith looks surprised. That seems to happen quite a lot when Lance says things. “You want to work out with me?”

“Well, yeah. For one: I kinda want to, you know, do everything with you -- at least as long as I’m welcome. But I also always liked working out with you. You were always so motivated… it helped keep me focused.”

Now Keith looks flattered, and maybe just a little touched as well. “Love, you’re always going to be welcome anywhere that I am. I usually work out for an hour or two before breakfast. If you want to join me, I’d… I’d love that.”

Lance leans over and gives Keith a quick peck and then begins clearing the table.

After they’ve seen to the sparse lunch dishes standing side-by-side at the sink, Lance runs upstairs to rummage through his suitcase, swiftly coming up with shorts to trade out for his sweatpants and a pair of sparkly blue running shoes. As he’s closing up his bag Keith passes behind him and smacks him lightly on the ass. Lance jumps, gulps, and shivers a little as he straightens up.

“Tease…” he complains while Keith grins at him. Lance notices that Keith has changed into a pair of black lycra shorts that leave absolutely nothing to the imagination and finds himself fighting that urge to publicly and obviously salivate again. Apparently said fight is not very subtle and Keith’s grin widens.

“See something you like, love?” Lance can hardly fail to notice the predatory glee in that voice, and decides that Keith probably deserves a little teasing of his own. Lance’s hips sway suggestively as he walks over to Keith, and just for a moment, Lance allows feather-light fingertips to graze across the bulge in said little black shorts.

“Several things actually…” he practically purs as Keith endures his own little jump and shudder, his face going a shocked red. “Oh, I seek, K -- you can dish it out, but can’t take the heat…”

Keith narrows his eyes and grunts out, “Bring it on, sharpshooter,” before handing Lance a spare hoodie and vaulting down the stairs.

***

The guys set out across the meadow at an easy lope, Kosmo prancing happily alongside them. Keith sets a reasonable pace and Lance finds himself puffing moderately as they run. It’s not too bad, so he figures he must be adjusting to the thin atmosphere. Maybe two miles into their cross country trek Keith slows down a bit.

“How are you holding up, love?”

Lance frowns a little. He knows he isn’t fit to anything like the degree that Keith is, but he’s hardly out of shape or anything. “Fine. Why?” His voice comes out a little sharper than he intends.

Keith misses a step as he turns his head towards Lance and stumbles to a stop. “Oh… no -- I just… I had a hard time running for my first couple of weeks here. The oxygen’s pretty thin. I didn’t mean-”

Lance grimaces and cuts Keith off mid-apology by grabbing one of his hands and lacing their fingers together. “Don’t apologize. I’m sorry I got snippy there. Just a flash of competitive teenage Lance showing through for a minute, I guess,” he puffs out a little sigh. “I was always a little jealous that I couldn’t ever put on any muscle like you did. Just destined to be a skinny little fuck forever, I guess.”

Keith, still gazing at Lance, blinks repeatedly as he tilts his head to the side a little. “Why would you want to? I think you look great. I like you just the way you are -- all clean lines and grace,” he admits. Lance can’t really tell if Keith’s blushing, or if his cheeks are just pink from the breeze and the exertion, but the look on Keith’s face says that he’s being absolutely sincere. Lance feels a warm flash despite the wind.

“Thanks babe. I love you.” Lance says in a small voice, trying to dismiss his feelings of inadequacy.

Keith squeezes his fingers and says, “Love you too, Lance,” before releasing his his hands and setting of at a briskly increasing trot. Keith matches Lance stride for stride.

Nearing what Lance figures is the four mile mark, Keith begins to pick up more speed, and soon enough both of them are flitting across the flowered hills of the meadow through the drizzle at a flat run. Kosmo seems to have no difficulty at all keeping up with them, and pulls ahead of them in an effortless, ground-consuming lope. Lance can’t help but glare at the wolf a little. He would also swear that the damn dog winks saucily at him as he ambles by.

Just as a stitch is starting to seriously prick at Lance’s side, Keith eggs the both of them into a final sprint and Lance finds himself almost stumbling - no, strike that, actually stumbling - down onto the main trail. Keith manages to grab his arm just in time to keep him from performing another faceplant into the mud. Keith’s firm grip remains as they slow down to a walk, and once Lance has recovered his breath and his balance as he tosses an arm around Keith’s shoulders. Keith, still looking fresh and peppy, just smiles at his panting boyfriend and wraps a complementary arm around his waist.

Their fifteen minute cooldown walk occurs in companionable silence before the trail skirts a rock face and the cottage comes into view. Approaching from this angle, Lance takes the opportunity to admire their handiwork on the newly finished barn once again.

“What do you think we would have said ten years ago if someone had told us we’d be living together, building ourselves a cute little barn to house our fairy-memorializing goats?”

“Well, you would have called them completely nuts, mocked them mercilessly and then insulted my ‘mullet’.” Keith replies seriously. “I probably would have just punched them in the face.”

Lance manages to laugh a little before the meat of Keith’s statement sinks in. “I’m sorry I was such a little bitch to you back then. And that… that it took me so long to figure out what I wanted. You know -- figure out that I love you.”

“You don’t have to apologize to me for those things, Lance.” Keith insists. “It’s not like I was much better, or really, any better to you when we were younger. And I can hardly fault you for not figuring out how you felt when I was spending all my time hiding my own feelings. For, you know, years .” He reaches his other arm across his chest and brushes some of Lance’s sweaty hair out of his eyes. “How about this: what if I just say I forgive you. For all of it. I forgive you for anything that you might have done that was hurtful, or whatever.” His hand brushes along Lance’s temple. “Can you forgive me too? Can we just leave that stuff in the past where it belongs and go from where we are now? ‘Cause, Lance, I really like where we are now.” He heaves a little sigh. “I think we both deserve forgiveness for being insensitive oblivious dumbasses at eighteen.”

“Of course I forgive you, samurai. I have you now -- for that I could forgive anything. And, just for the record -- I really like where we are now too. Together. Staring up the road at our home.”

Keith holds Lance a little closer and rests his head against Lance’s shoulder as they walk the rest of the distance. Lance continues to consider the cottage and its new friend.

“Hey, have you thought of maybe adding a little covered walkway between the side door and the barn? That way we could get in there without having to wade through the monsoons when they come.”

Keith follows Lance’s eyes towards the cottage. “That’s… actually a great idea, Lance. Will you help me build it? We should still have a couple of days before the weather goes completely to shit.”

“Of course I will, babe.” Lance hesitates a moment or two before expanding on his idea. “And maybe we could, um, add some trellises to the posts. That way when summer comes again, we’d have a place to plant some of those blue daisies…”

Keith doesn’t hesitate at all when he replies. “Sounds beautiful, love. Let’s do it.” He drops a peck on Lance’s cheek right on the mark that matches the flowers Lance is talking about.

***

The next day finds them outside after breakfast, forgoing their newly planned workout in favor of getting their new new building project both started and finished before the storms of the brief but approaching fall arrive. Lance watches as Keith carefully paces of the distances along the little path leading from the side door. After appearing to reflect for a moment, he paces the remaining leg of the L-shaped trail leading on from the barn to the toolshed as well.

Figuring that Keith is expanding on their construction plans slightly, Lance broadens his mental image to match. If they put a covered walkway to the toolshed as well, it will leave them with this nicely delineated quadrangle next to the cottage. Lance promptly begins laying out a kitchen garden in it: snuggled between the house and the barn, and surrounded by cobalt blue daisies. It’s a singularly lovely little picture. Lance walks out into the grass to do a little pacing of his own. It’s not a huge space, but plenty big enough to play farmer in to his heart’s content and not so big as to present a huge mountain of work.

Apparently finished with his own measurements, Keith walks over to Lance. “Whatcha thinking, love?”

Lance wraps one arm around Keith’s waist while the other is busy gesticulating broadly as he explains. “Well, I saw you pace off that second stretch of path and realized that it leaves us with this great little plot here. I was thinking it would be nice if we put in a garden here once the winter’s over. I like to garden,and that way we could grow some of our own food…” he trails off, his excitement beginning to chill swiftly when he sees tears gathering in Keith’s eyes.

“Baby -- what’s wrong? Did I say something-”

Keith shakes his head and paws at his eyes before pulling Lance into his embrace and kissing him soundly. His lips taste a little salty.

“Keith..?” Lance mutters into the end of the kiss.

Keith kisses him again, a tear or two still sparkling on his eyelashes. “No, love. Nothing’s wrong.”

“But… you’re crying,” Lance points out with a little wobble in his own voice.

Keith offers him a wet little chuckle. “You should probably say I’m crying again , you know. I seem to be doing that an awful lot since you showed up.”

Lance feels more than a little stricken. “I’m… I’m sorry. I really didn’t mean to upset you,” he manages to half-whimper out.

Keith pulls him even closer. “Lance, you’re apologizing to me again. You’ve got to stop doing that. I’m not… you didn’t upset me. It’s just -- you’re making plans for something that won’t happen for phoebs . I think it’s just finally really sinking in that - for some crazy-ass reason - you’re really going to stay here with me.”

Lance’s face twists itself into a serious expression. “It’s not ‘crazy-ass.’ I love you, and I want to be with you. That’s all.”

“I know, Lance. And I love that you’re making plans. Believe me, I do. It’s just a little hard to believe that this is all actually happening sometimes. I still don’t know what I did to deserve it; but I’m definitely, definitely not complaining.”

“If you don’t deserve it, then nobody does,” Lance insists with great earnestness before kissing Keith back and then returning to happily running on at the mouth about the layout for the dream garden blossoming in his head.”

Keith just listens and smiles.

***

It’s because of that conversations like the one that took place in what Lance is already happily referring to as his garden that he begins to look for little ways that he can prove to Keith that he really is going to stick around. Their new project requires Keith to make another trip into town for building materials. This time, Lance demurs when Keith offers to take him along. Instead he spends most of the afternoon emptying his suitcases.

The rest of his meagre collection of decent clothes he hangs next to the outfit he wore into town. T-shirts, jeans, socks, and underclothes he piles on the bed next to his sweaters and things before taking the time to make room in the dresser for them. He yes them all a bit grumpily and finds himself wishing for the rest of the wardrobe currently sitting in his bungalow in Cuba. That is, until he concludes that the majority of those clothes - meant for the tropics - wouldn’t actually do him much good here in the soon-to-be-frozen tundra. He decides that he’ll have to ask Keith about making a trip over to the slightly more civilized moon so that he can expand his basic wardrobe into something more reasonable.

As he begins to paw through the dresser to make space, he can’t help but notice that Keith’s boxer briefs come in a startling array of bright colors that he would dearly love to see juxtaposed next to all that pale skin. The point at which he begins to consider seeing them peeled off of said integument he stops himself as his brain points out that he’s being a little - or, maybe more than a little - stalkery. In the back he discovers several pairs shoved behind the others featuring little cartoons of Voltron and its constituent lions. He nearly laughs himself hoarse.

Unable to resist the potential for later joke material, he quickly strips off his pants and trades out his simple heather-grey briefs for the sky-blue pair decorated with little red lions and spends a dobosh contemplating Keith’s eventual response to seeing him in them. They look pretty good, he insists to himself.

Once he’s got his mirth - both actual and potential - back under wraps he slides back into his pants and goes on about his task. He fits his clothes into the drawers next to Keith’s without any difficulty. Maybe he should talk Keith into expanding his own wardrobe a bit too. He goes back over to his suitcases and squats down next to them.

He pulls a trio of framed photographs from a padded inner compartment. Having learned his lesson from their precipitous departure from Earth a decade earlier, Lance never travels without them any more. He looks at each of them in turn, and two of them he sets on the bed beside him. The first is a picture of Lance with the entirety of his extended family on the beach near his parents’ house in Varadero. He gazes at it fondly, observing all the happy faces as he sets it aside.

The second shot is of all the surviving paladins and Coran on Altea. This picture is also full of smiling faces, though Lance can’t help but notice that the smiles on this part of his family are a lot more bittersweet. He also notices for the first time how Keith’s attention seems to be split between the camera and a smiling Lance who’s standing next to him with his arm draped across Keith’s shoulders.

“How I never fucking noticed, I’ll never understand,” he muses aloud. “Keith may never have said anything, but he wasn’t actually very stealth about the whole feelings thing. I mean, everybody else knew. Everybody !”

You weren’t ready yet, ’ his brain observes, cutting Lance the sort of slack it very rarely affords him.

Even so, I should have noticed. ’ Lance sighs heavily. ‘ It feels bad, how oblivious I was -- but Keith really doesn’t… Considering how things seem to have turned out, I should probably try to let it go.

“I should let it go,” he repeats aloud as his eyes are drawn to the third picture. It’s a portrait of Allura standing alone in a garden. Right after they’d saved Earth, she’d used her quintessence to bring it this particular little garden on the grounds of the Garrison back to life. She’s wearing her standard warm smile, paired with twinkling eyes, and her silvery hair is almost luminescent in the soft light of the photo. Lance traces a fingertip along the line of her cheek, smudging the glass. By now, he’s wearing a bittersweet smile of his own.

“Hello, my old love,” he whispers. He feels a tingling spark race across his skin. He’s never really been sure exactly how gone Allura actually is. Obviously and incontrovertibly she’s gone physically -- dead for the vast majority of intents and purposes. But, especially in the first year after her death, there were a lot of times when he could have sworn he could feel her presence. When they’d been together, lance could always tell when she entered a room. He could feel her Altean magic as if had been graven in his skin. A spark very much like the one he’d just felt. And after she was gone, and her magic really did linger in his skin - leaving its marks behind to prove it - there were still moments where he felt certain that she was in the room with him, just somewhere he couldn’t see.

Looking again at her picture, Lance realizes abruptly that this is one of those moments. Lance hasn’t actually felt her like this in a long time now, and for several long breaths he’s not really sure how he feels about the visitation. A loud little portion of his brain is yelping insistently that he ought to be guilty - feel guilty - about being happy again, about being in love with Keith. That portion is summarily overruled by Lance.

Most of what is left just feels wistful. He runs his finger along that smudge on the glass again. “Hey Allura -- it’s been a long time, hasn’t it?” Lance discovers with no little surprise that there’s actually a smile on his face. “I think -- no. I’m sure that you would be happy for me. For both of us, really, if you knew. And given how I can feel you in the room right now, I’m pretty sure that you probably do know. Please remember that I loved you, and that some part of me always will.” He swallows hard. “I can’t apologize to you for being in love with Keith, and I’m pretty sure that you would yell at me if I tried anyway. But, um, Allura, maybe I could ask for, uh… your blessing? It’s always felt like you were watching over me; but maybe now you could help me watch over him instead?”

Lance takes an unsteady breath. “Allura, he seems so broken sometimes that I just don’t know if I’m going to be enough to guard him from all the dark things in his head. In his heart. Maybe, if it’s not weird -- if it’s not too much to ask: maybe could you help me help him? I love him…”

Lance trails off as he catches a glint of light reflecting off the glass in his hands. He realizes that the marks high on his cheeks are glowing just a little, and that the subtle, unwavering light they’re giving off has just a hint of pink amongst the blue. Lance smiles the smile of someone truly touched. “Thanks, ‘Llura,” he whispers, and then he slides the third photograph back into his suitcase.

He feels at peace, at least for now. And he’s surprised to find that there are no tears on his face. He’s long since passed the phase where randomly encountering a picture of his martyred princess makes him cry; but this is the first time he's felt her so physically close since her death where he didn't wind up teary with the experience and the memories that it summons up.

Lance searches his feelings. There is still a warmth there, the afterimage of an old love, and there’s pain too, and a hint of sadness; but they roll gently through him. There’s none of that burning, twisting pain any more. No waves of agony and loneliness crashing over his head. Lance realizes that this is what moving on truly feels like. He murmurs again. “Yeah. Thanks,” and climbs slowly to his feet and returns to his impromptu moving in.

He stashes his now-empty suitcase in the back of the closet and tidies the drawers of the dresser before climbing back downstairs with an armload of various stuff. His peacoat and the old olive jacket both find homes on the hooks in the entryway. Beneath them, at the edge of the sisal doormat, he lines up his boots as well as the sparkly blue running shoes and a pair of flip-flops with Keith’s assembled footwear there.

Across the room, he splays his three tablets across the coffee table -- one for movies, one for music, and one for reading or games: just like Pidge taught him and his ADD multi-channel attention demands. The two family photos he carefully places on the mantel beside that first bouquet of blue daisies: the one that Keith had somehow preserved. He’d even acquired a blown glass vase in deep, matching blue to display them in from somewhere. He retrieves his blue throw from a bunch at one end of the sofa and shakes it out before folding it up neatly and draping it over one of the arms.

In his final step, he carries his armload and skin- and hair-care products into the bathroom and proceeds to cover all of the available shelf space with it. It’s not like Keith is using it anyway, what with his one bottle of shampoo and his lonely bar of soap.

Lance stares at the tumbler holding their toothbrushes. They sit there side by side -- very domestic. Lance decides that he is as moved in as his current worldly possessions will allow. Wandering back into the kitchen he looks around and realizes that the only thing that would make the cottage feel more like home is if Keith was actually standing in it at the moment. Lance gets that soft, little, Keith-driven smile on his face again as he begins to understand that as long as Keith is there, anywhere - a shack in the desert or a castle in the stars - would be home now. Keith is his home, and as sappy as that is, Lance can’t help but to love it.

***

By the time Keith and Kosmo come trailing home, night has fallen and Lance can hear substantially more serious rain pelting against the windows again. Long since having finished his unpacking, Lance has moved into the kitchen and begun preparing their supper. Having poked around through the fridge until he found some hamburger - well, ground something-beast, at least - Lance is merrily frying patties in a cast iron skillet. He’s just opened the oven to check on his buns when he hears the door open. No, he didn't actually bake them himself -- he’s not quite that ostentatiously domestic yet. They’re lovely little white manchet rolls that came home with them from Mab’s house. He did manage to slice and butter them all by himself though.

When he slides the oven shut and peeks over his shoulder he spies Keith standing in the entryway fingering the Voltron-era olive jacket he’d hung up earlier. ‘ Success! ’ crows his monologue. Not wanting to overstate, Lance’s just thinks, ‘ We’ll see, ’ back at it before noticing that Keith’s other hand - the one not currently fondling his jacket - is clutching a bundle of flowers. Lance wonders briefly about the structural integrity of the roof as that feeling of incipient floating away returns. ‘ You’re so sappy you make me want to vomit -- all that blushing and mooning… ’ snarks his companion. Lance just grins at it, figuring that for once the expression applies accurately to both his brain and the real world as well. His eventual response goes something like: ‘ Yeah, fuck you. I never once claimed not to be an enormous sap.

His monologue makes a kissy noise and then gags at him.

Eventually Keith finishes communing with said jacket and sidles into the kitchen. It seems he won’t - or maybe can’t - look Lance in the face as he thrusts the bouquet in his hand stiffly out towards him. “Hi,” he mutters. “I love you, so I… got you some flowers.” His extended hand shakes slightly as he rushes on past to his next thought. “How was your afternoon?”

Lance laughs gaily and leans around the outthrust, beflowered hand to kiss Keith on the cheek before taking the flowers away from him. Their long, curvy stems are weighted with heavy, bell-shaped flowers: snowy white with insides of deep pink -- they just about match the current shade of Keith’s face. Lance brings the flowers up to his own face for a sniff. They smell sweet with just a hint of spice.

“They’re beautiful, babe. Thank you.” Mimicking Keith’s earlier handling of his first bouquet, Lance goes to the cupboard and pulls out the same glazed pitcher. Adding water, he carries it across the kitchen and situates the flowers right in the middle of the table.

Speaking, or at least thinking of Keith’s flowers, Lance’s eyes trail over to the vase on the mantel. “Can we do whatever you did to preserve those ones to these?” he asks as Keith follows his gaze.

Keith nods, “Sure. I used the botanical sample scanner from the ship.”

“I think it would be nice if we added them together, don’t you? These would look pretty with the daisies.”

“They would,” Keith replies, stepping up to the stove. “Cheeseburgers?” he inquires, flipping the patties with Lance’s spatula.

“Well, something like, anyway. I know it’s not hamburger, but it looked close enough. I hope they’re okay -- and that you weren’t planning on using that meat for something else,” he adds, trepidation slipping in uninvited.

Stop that! ’ orders his brain.

I’m trying, ’ Lance whines back at it.

And don't whine at me, it makes you sound twelve and bratty.

“...it,” says Keith.

Lance swears at his brain. “Sorry, I was… busy there for a minute,” Lance admits, tapping a finger against his forehead. “Can you say that again?”

Keith closes the distance between them and kisses Lance’s forehead precisely where his finger had just tapped. “I just said, ‘don’t worry, they smell great,’ and that I didn’t have any specific plans.”

Lance smiles, relieved, and bends down to check his buns again. His mission expands abruptly when Keith also bends down -- in his case to root in one of the cupboards. Lance lets the oven close with a clang because there are suddenly more important buns to check. “ Mmm ,” he fails to avoid saying aloud.

Still rooting about, Keith’s voice sounds a little muffled when it comes floating out of the cupboard, “ Laaaance , are you checking out my ass?”

Lance whips back upright, blushing all the way to the roots of his hair. Keith stands up as well, a jar of purple… things in his hand. He looks at Lance’s face and then kisses Lance’s forehead again. “I didn’t say to stop , sharpshooter,” he laughs.

Lance, ever valorous in the face of embarrassment, takes the jar from Keith as a distraction and shakes it a little. The purple things bob. “What’re these?” he inquires, changing the subject.

“Pickles,” says Keith. “Well, sort of. They’re actually kind of like tomatoes. Well, they taste a little like tomatoes. They’re firmer though, and purpler -- obviously. I also think they taste a little like fish, but Mab says I’m nuts.”

Lance eyeballs them with his eyebrow raised, obviously unconvinced as to their appeal.” Keith pops the lid off and a briny smell permeates the kitchen. E sticks his fingers into the jar and pulls out one of the small, questionable vegetables. Fruits? He holds it out for lance to try.

Lance stares at it.

“Just try it, love. It’s not going to bite you or anything. I think you’ll like it.”

Lance is certain that he still has a dubious look on his face, but he extends Keith the courtesy of the benefit of the doubt. Especially considering the fact that it offers him an opportunity to get back at Keith for the whole ass-gazing thing. Lance wraps his lips rather lasciviously around Keith’s fingers and prises the purple thing free with his tongue. Keith looks stunned. Lance chews slowly and waits for the blush to build on Keith’s face. It doesn’t take long at all.

“Yep, babe, you’re right. Aftertaste is a little like anchovies. Fishy tomato pickles… weird, but oddly tasty.” Lance opens the oven again, and, concluding his buns are sufficiently toasted he grabs a tea towel and removes the pan to the counter.

Keith sputters.

Lance flips his burgers once more before topping each with a slice of some sharp, white cheese and covering the skillet with a lid. Keith busies himself slicing purple things and pulling an array of what Lance presumes are condiments from the fridge.

Once the cheese is sufficiently melty, Lance slides the burgers onto the buns. Keith adds his pickles and something leafy green and crunchy-looking to them and gestures at the bottles he’d retrieved. Lance adds the brown one liberally and a sprinkle of something yellow. The red and white ones he sniffs at and then eyes distastefully. As Keith doctors his own burgers, Kosmo bumps meaningfully against Lance who turns and hands him the last one without even pausing to think. Kosmo snuffles at him in clear thanks before disappearing to whatever secret haunt he dines in.

Lance carries their supper over to the table and Keith follows after filling a pair of tall glasses with what appears to be a pleasantly frothy beer. They sit and eat, and Lance is not unimpressed with his creation. The beer and company are pretty nice too.

“Lance, these are good.” Keith observes, having inhaled most of one already. “Thanks for cooking dinner, love.” He also slides his feet over and hooks it around Lance’s ankle.

“No problem, I actually kind of like cooking -- even if your stove scares the bejeezus out of me.”

“You did great. Didn’t burn down the house making goatburgers or anything.”

Lance stares at his plate. “Did you say goat?”

“Yep. It’s one of the premier meats around here. Everybody eats it.”

“Like, goat like Flora and Fauna, right? Not goat like Mab?”

Keith snorts. “Of course, you dummy. Though this random hot guy once told me that they probably don’t have names like Flora and Fauna. It’s not like we’re currently eating a villager named Mary-Anne or something.”

Lance is still staring at his plate, a little frown on his face. “But, you’re telling me that the goat-people eat the goat-animals? Isn’t that still kind of… cannibalistic?”

Keith shrugs. “I kinda thought so too, at first. But they’re tasty and ubiquitous. I got over it.”

Lance grimaces at his burger for a moment longer before picking it up again. “True. Potentially weird, but definitely tasty. As long as it isn’t ground neighbor.” He shrugs a little and takes another bite.

***

Once the supper dishes are washed Keith and Lance retire to the sofa with tumblers of the sparkly yellow flower booze and the remnants of the leftover pastries. Lance calls forth soft music from the appropriate tablet now parked on the coffee table and snuggles into Keith’s side. Keith wraps an arm around him. The silence is warm and easy while they eat their dessert, and once they’re done eating as well.

Lance finds Keith’s fingers straying into the short hair of his beard, wandering along his jawline. It’s a very pleasant sensation.

They talk a little about their project and Keith’s supply run into town, and then Lance quizzes Keith on local plantlife. When Keith realizes that Lance is planning out his garden, his smile lights the room.

Keith notices the pictures on the mantel for the first time when he levers himself up to stoke the fire. His eyebrows arch as he turns to lance. “Where did these come from?”

“From my suitcase. I was so homesick on the castle I swore that I’d never travel without pictures of my family again.”

“Family…” Keith murmurs, his fingertips ghosting over Lance in the picture. “I was so in love with you… I didn’t do a very good job of hiding it.”

“Hopefully you still are,” Lance observes, noting the past tense. “Despite the fact that I was too oblivious to notice.”

“More every day,” Keith replies very seriously as he rejoins Lance on the sofa. Straying towards the less intensely personal, Keith actually asks for an update on the other paladins for the first time since Lance’s arrival. Lance shares all the new gossip from the most recent reunion enthusiastically, being especially careful to note everything about the various paladins junior that he can remember. Just the fact that Keith asked about them excites Lance. It feels like progress. He pulls his comm out of his pocket and flips through pictures of the party for Keith. Lance can hardly keep his delighted trembling under control when Keith literally coos over the babies and little Ollie.

As Lance’s stories wind down Keith takes hold of his hand. Lance glances down at it but Keith’s voice rapidly refocuses him. “Lance, would you like to go to bed?”

Lance’s brow wrinkles. “It’s still pretty early, most favorite dude -- do we need to get up for something tomorrow?”

Keith’s voice drops a little deeper. “I didn’t say go to sleep, Lance. I was inviting you to bed…”

Keith doesn’t stammer at all, so Lance does his best to replicate the tone. “I would like that very much.” Lance already believes that he is exceptionally excited, but finds that said feeling grows to the point where he’s nearly beside himself when they stand up and he sees the prominent bulge in Keith’s pants. Suddenly he can't get upstairs fast enough.

Once the getting there is done though, Lance feels his glee diminish some as the situation starts to sink in. This is no closed-eye romp on the sofa. He’s about to be afforded the opportunity to look at a fully naked Keith. Actually look this time. As exciting as the prospect is, it also means that Keith is about to get his first real eyeful of Lance too, and that leaves him feeling gawky and boyish again.

Since Keith has already lost his shirt, Lance rapidly follows suit. Keith looks like a marble statue of some greek god -- all heavy muscles and milky skin flashing in the low light. Lance’s eyes catch on the thatch of black hair between Keith’s pecs and follow it down the stark trail across his sculpted abdominal muscles.

His eyes meet Keith’s hands just as they reach down to shuck off his pants, and that leaves him standing in front of Lance in nothing more than a pair of tight, vermillion boxer briefs. ‘ Hey look -- there’s one of those bright colors you so wanted to see! ’ observes Lance’s observer. Lance nods numbly in response, his eyes and the vast majority of his brain far too busy to formulate another response.

Lance can feel Keith’s eyes on him as well, and that hot sensation drags him back close enough to reality to realize that Keith is currently getting way more points in the being undressed game. Lance loses his own pants in a hurry. The cartoony blue underpants he had long forgotten he was wearing are revealed to be and at present a lot fuller than most cartoony underpants are intended to be. Some of the little Reds are looking positively distended at the moment. A little of Lance’s earlier mirth returns as he catches Keith’s eyes widening.

“Did… did you find those in my drawer?” Keith asks a little dumbly.

“Sure did, samurai. And I figured that, since I’m the Red Paladin - or, well, was the most recent one at least - that they were probably mine to wear by rights.” Lance replies with a little chuckle that switches itself from implicit to explicit without any permission from its wielder.

Keith is still staring at the underpants, a little blush riding high on his cheeks. “They were a gag gift…” he begins to explain, sounding a bit breathless. “My mom found out that I was buying all of my clothes from the kids section. You know, ‘cause I’m so much smaller than an adult Galra. After that, all I ever got for presets from her or the generals were brightly-colored Galra kids underwear.” He pauses for a long moment, almost panting at this point. “Before now, I never knew that they were hot .”

As much as Keith staring at him and calling him hot lights a bonfire in Lance’s belly and arouses more of the bashfulness he’s currently trying to crowd out; it’s the mirth that wins out at the moment. Laughter bubbles out of Lance with considerable force. He ends up grabbing at his sides with tears of an entirely pleasant nature in his eyes. He wipes at them as he tries to respond. “Your… your super secret ninja assassin mom bought you… bought you Voltron Underoos ?”

Keith smiles at Lance, his currently smokey eyes still burning trails across Lance’s skin. When he speaks his voice can only be referred to as a growl. “Yes, she did. But they look better on you , sharpshooter.” Keith fixes Lance with a very serious look, his tongue darting out to wet his lips. His voice is thicker still when he continues. “But, as good as those look on you, I think I’d prefer them off .” And with that he yanks off his own shorts, his eyes never straying from Lance.

Lance’s brain fritzes right off, lost in white noise and fire. Something gives his body the command to mimic Keith and the next thing he knows he’s stepping out of his paladin-appropriate underwear, his wide-blown eyes locked on Keith’s cock. It’s hard enough to bob a little with each of Keith’s heartbeats, and it’s ruddier than the rest of his pale skin by a fair margin. Lance’s eyes break from it briefly as he glances down at his own erection, performing that age old, fully-automated comparison. Keith’s looks to be a little shorter than his own - which is long and lean like the rest of him - but it’s noticeably thicker with a bit of a taper out towards the glans.

As opposed to not-really so-little-Lance, which has taken his standard station flush against Lance’s belly, Keith’s erection stands straight out from the coal-black hair at its base, the patch that connects to that continuous line carrying down all the way from Keith’s chest. ‘ Pugnacious ,’ comments Lance’s brain. ‘ Hot! ’ Lance pants back. He has no idea how long he’s been staring when Keith finally starts towards him.

Once Keith is standing right in front of him, Lance can’t help but compare the two of them somewhat unfavorably. For all that they’re the same height nowadays, he feels like a little boy standing next to a grown man. Lance’s golden skin is relatively hairless outside of his armpits and the trimmed patch of tight curls above his cock. He’s leanly muscled head to toe - built like the runner he is - but next to Keith it just feels inadequate. Keith’s biceps are at least as big as his calves, and the muscles just get grander from there. Lance can feel some of his acid anxiety begin to leak out and eat away  at him.

Fortunately - just like last time - Keith proves to be its balm. He takes a final step towards Lance, his erection brushing against Lance’s hip as one of his hands rises to Lance’s jaw and the other trails across his chest and down his stomach. “You’re perfect ,” he exclaims, just before he kisses him.

The words don’t register for a while as Lance gets lost gets lost in the kiss. When they do finally play across his brain as the guys break for air, Lance can’t seem to stop the self-deprecating chuckle that escapes. “Hardly…” he says. “I mean -- look at you . You’re-”

Keith cuts him off with another kiss. What seems like years later he pulls back a little, forcing Lance to look him in the eye. “Nothing to do with me , my love. You are perfect. You’re gorgeous. I wouldn’t change a single thing.”

Given his tone of voice, Lance is nearly driven to believe him. Nearly. “Are you… Really?” he says in a voice that sounds young and unsure enough that it really makes him want to grimace.

Keith’s fingers trail down and close their callused pads around Lance’s dick. “Really,” Keith breathes with finality.

Lance shudders and this time, he begins the kiss. His hands alight on Keith’s shoulders and then stroke down to grasp at his hips instead -- thumbs playing over the sharp ridges of muscle sweeping down towards his groin. Lance pulls Keith closer, slotting their bodies together.

He feels Keith’s muscles flex against him and the next thing he knows Keith is wrapping an arm around his waist and bearing him down onto the bed.

Lance makes no protest and essentially stops breathing when Keith kneels between his legs. He watches with rapt attention, resting back on his elbows as Keith kisses his way down Lance’s taught stomach. He can’t restrain a gasp when Keith tongues the underside of his dick -- admittedly, he doesn’t really try. And when Keith takes him in his mouth, his head falls back with an unrestrained groan.

Entranced by the sensation, Lance can’t help but peek up again. Watching his cock disappear between Keith’s reddening lips is nearly more than he can handle. He collapses back on the bed with another moan while his hands bury themselves in Keith’s hair, seemingly of their own volition.

From the seriousness of his motions and the rhythm he’s developing, Keith would obviously be perfectly happy to get Lance off right now, but various parts of Lance’s brain are starting to swim back into view, and dammit if they aren’t insisting on a turn of their own with definitely-not-so-little-Keith. Lance tugs on Keith’s hair.

Keith glances up at Lance through his long eyelashes. Lance tugs again, managing to whine, “ Keeeith …” and Keith immediately pulls off, a hint of worry beginning to show on his face.

“You okay?” he almost begs, his voice hoarse.

Oh the things that hoarse voice does to Lance’s insides. Lance nods, grinning as he goes searching for words. Eventually some wander into his lust-emptied skull. “Great. I’m great. I wanna turn. Get your ass up here.”

Te brief almost-panic slides right back off of Keith’s face and as he rises from his crouch Lance sits up in a flash. He can’t even pretend to resist what’s about to be presented right to him. Keith stands and Lance’s hands jump out and grab onto Keith’s cock. Keith jumps enough that one of his hands has to stray to his hip in order to steady him. The remaining hand pumps up and down a few times and then tugs a little roughly, bringing Keith down beside Lance on the bed in an untidy sprawl. Lance shifts slightly so that Keith can swing his legs up onto the bed and bends to his work.

Keith’s cock is still ruddy and pugnacious. And Lance discovers that it has a rather exciting heft to it. As Lance applies his mouth to his new plaything, some part of him definitely notes that it tastes, well, like a cock. It’s salty and slightly bitter-sweet at the head where it’s damp. It’s hardly the most delectable thing in the universe, but it’s certainly inoffensive. What’s a lot more than inoffensive is the pheromone-laden musk rising off of Keith. That’s positively intoxicating. Lance swallows down so that he can bury his nose in Keith’s pubic hair and hums as he arrives. That manages to wrench a moan out of Keith. Lance can feel the muscles under his hands bunch and release, and Keith’s own hands take up positions curled into Lance’s hair.

Keith is not a loud lover, but he is definitely a responsive one. He pants and shifts at Lance’s ministrations, clearly controlling his hips with some substantial difficulty. Lance swiftly learns, though, that repeating that little hum will earn him a moan every single time. Keith’s cock is an impressive enough accoutrement that Lance decides it’s definitely worth of some worship; for all that a portion of his consciousness cringes away from the pornographic trappings attached to that piece of terminology. From his responses, Keith has no complaints about the potentially tawdry etymology of Lance’s current behavior.

Lance is sufficiently entranced that he has truly no idea how long he’s been at it when he feels a sharp little tug on his hair. He pulls off and ends up making a shocked little noise when Keith half leans up and effortlessly flips Lance bodily around on the bed. Apparently those muscles are good for things besides looking at.

Given the new position and the fact that he can feel Keith’s mouth on him again, it doesn’t take Lance long to engage with the new idea. Lance wraps his own math back around Keith, and this time he doesn’t have to hum at the bottom of his strokes -- he can moan instead. Keith seems to like that even more.

Lance loses most of his focus to the pleasure of Keith’s skilled tongue and the thrumming body beneath him. His hands stray up and down Keith’s heavy-muscled thighs, delighting in the scratchy black hair there. He ends up dipping one of those hands between Keith’s legs to press against his perineum while the other strays to his rising balls. One hand or the other, or some combination of the two sends Keith over the edge. Lance swallows each pulse of salty-bland semen without a second thought and then plummets right after him, every muscle tightening into his own orgasm as the flash of musk and Keith’s quivering body carry him away as well.

At some point Lance returns to semi-coherence and releases Keith’s penis with a wet little pop. This immediately prompts Keith to wrap his big hands around Lance’s ribcage and flip him around again so that they’re panting face to face instead. Despite his postcoital haze Lance feels a faint little firework-burst of want flow through him at being manhandled again, which he can’t help but being surprised at.

Learn something new about yourself every day, I guess… ’ his mind whispers dryly at him.

Yup ,’ Lance replies -- even his mental voice sounding a bit hoarse.

For a long time they just lay there and breathe, Lance resting comfortably on Keith’s chest reveling in the feel of all of Keith’s skin aligned with all of his own. When Keith does finally say something his voice is still wrecked and rough. “Perfect,” he murmurs. “That was perfect. You’re perfect.”

Most of Lance wants to just bask in the praise, but he can’t quite escape the sour skittering undertone that traipses through his psyche. In a similarly semi-functional voice he replies. “Keith, I’m so far from perfect…”

Keith just shakes his head, his nose brushing against Lances and tightens his arms where they rest around Lance chest. Ultimately he whispers, “I don’t care about flaws, or imperfections, Lance. I don’t care about any of it. I love you. For me , you’re perfect; and fuck anyone who doesn’t think so.” His voice is very quiet but his face and his eyes are alive with feelings for Lance.

Lance lets out a slow, slow breath and focuses on those eyes. If Keith can believe it, maybe Lance can too. He lets go of the last fragments of that particular worry. Or, at least he tries to. He hopes he does.

He stores away that look in Keith’s eyes, telling himself that if Keith can look at him that way, maybe he can learn to see himself like that too. That if Keith can look at him that way, then nothing else really matters. And the thing is - worries aside - he’s pretty sure that he’s right about that.

***

In the morning, the guys dive full force into their new project. They only end up having to dig two of the postholes themselves, as Kosmo decides that digging is great fun. They sink the dark, knotty wooden posts that Keith had acquired in the village and then begin to assemble trusses out of those foamed steel beams they’d been using in the barn. This necessitates Lance’s first trip to Keith’s purloined ship.

“Hey, love, we’ve gotta get some more steel for the framing. Would you mind giving me a hand?” Keith requests while Lance is standing at the sink finishing the lunch dishes. “The wheelbarrow will probably be too heavy for me to move by myself once it’s full.”

“Of course I will. You really don’t need to ask, K,” Lance insists. “Do I have to put on grown-up clothes or anything?”

“Nope. No reason to dress up. We’re just going down the rise to the ship -- it makes them.”

“That’s both easy and convenient.”

“Yup.”

They retrieve the wheelbarrow from the toolshed and trundle down the trail a ways. En route Keith points out the outhouse that Lance hopes never to have anything to do with. As they turn off the main trail and circle a large hill, Lance notices a substantial furrow in the earth running straight across the rolling meadow towards the cottage.

Noticing Lance notice, Keith explains. “That’s where I ran the connections to the house. Power, water, sewage -- all the conveniences of modern life come from the ship.”

“I figured it had to be something like that. There’s a real dearth of electricity around here otherwise.” Lance’s brow crinkles a little; he really hadn’t thought much about the realities of his brief time on Dolydd thus far. He wonders if he should be helping Keith pay for things right up until the point where he realizes that he has no access to any sort of money out here anyway. His frown increases in severity as he decides to stick with conversation at hand; shunting the whole money conversation off to some other anxiety-stricken day. “Isn’t it hard on the ship to run all the time? We aren’t going to wear it out, or anything, right?”

Oblivious to Lance’s mental detour, Keith responds easily, “Naw, it’s one of the new Galra/Altean hybrid models. The power core runs on a Balmera crystal. At the rate we’re going, that crystal will be fine for, oh, about twenty-thousand more years.”

“Well, I guess I don’t need to worry about us running out of gas then.” Lance’s quiver of anxiety decides to search for other issues. Lance wishes it wouldn’t, but it seems to be running his mouth at the moment. “What about the snow?” He vomits out. “The lines won’t freeze or anything, will they?”

“They’re all insulated and buried in the ground, Lance. They’ll be fine. We’ll continue to have lights, and a shower, and a flushing toilet regardless of the weather,” Keith assures.

Lance manages to smile a little bit. “Plumber Keith....” he observes.

“At your service.”

“You’re an awfully handy guy to have around, you know.”

“Are you saying that’s why you love me? My handling of sewage lines?”

Falling into Keith’s teasing tone, Lance manages to step out of his head for a moment. He eyes Keith lasciviously. “For other things too, samurai,” he says with a suggestive little leer.

This, of course, all happens immediately before he walks into the ship’s particle barrier and knocks himself flat on his ass.

Keith laughs so hard he nearly joins Lance on the springy turf. He ends up leaning against the wheelbarrow clutching at his side. “Love… that might just have been the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen,” he manages to snort out.

Lance mock-glares at Keith most fiercely. “Sexier than the red lion underoos?” he bites out, somehow managing to restrain his own laughter.

At that question, Keith’s laughter chokes off and his cheeks begin to burn as he averts his eyes. Lance just waits, sprawled on the ground.

Ultimately, Keith manages to meet his eyes again, his face decorated with a shy little smile. “No, Lance. Nothing I’ve ever seen was sexier than that .” He breathes out a sharp little breath. “Well, no clothes I’ve seen, at least.”

Keith leans down to offer Lance a hand up. Lance grins and grabs his arm. Giving it a yank he hauls Keith down on top of him instead and wraps his arms around that broad chest. Keith makes a surprised little noise but doesn’t fight Lance at all as he’s pulled from his feet. He just curls up into Lance and cuddles with all of his considerable might.

Paladin Lance would never have believed that Keith could be cuddly -- especially not with his ‘ mortal rival ’. Paladin Lance would have been very wrong. Adult Lance revels in his predecessors wrongness and joyfully cuddles with Keith on the springy meadow turf. Neither of them pay any attention at all to the drizzle slowly wetting their clothes and hair.

It’s probably twenty doboshes later when a now rather damp Keith finally bestirs himself to produce a controller from his pocket. He deactivates the barrier with a keystroke. Each hanging on the other, the guys haul themselves to their feet and Keith marches them straight up to the ship.

He lays his hand on a panel next to the hatch, causing it to open and extend a short ramp. Rather than heading inside, Keith enters several more commands on the controller and then grabs Lance’s wrist and slaps his hand against the same sensor. It tingles and a low chime from deep inside the ship echoes through the open doorway.

“There you go, love. You’re keyed to the ship now. It’ll let you across the barrier whenever you’d like. And, of course, open the doors and things.” He pulls Lance’s hand from the pad, entangling their fingers as he goes. “Oh, and it will let you fly it now, too -- just in case the need should ever arise.”

“So it recognizes me now? Like one of the lions?”

“Sort of… it’s not really alive or anything, and it definitely won’t sing in your brain; but the AI knows you now.”

“Cool,” says Lance as he looks at the ship. It’s not particularly impressive to the eyeball. Matte black and, well, ship-shaped. It’s a little bigger than one of those Altean long-range shuttles, and certainly much smaller and less grand than any of the lions.

Keith leads them up the ramp and into the hold, dragging the wheelbarrow along with them. Activating some sort of work station, he sits and types commands into the console in rapid-fire Galra, bringing an industrial printer across the room online. It begins to extrude the steel they’d come for -- pretty damn slowly from Lance’s perspective.

“This is going to take a bit, Lance. Feel free to look around.” Keith points a little smirk at Lance. “Also, oh my cargo pilot, try not to fly off or anything -- we’re still connected to the house. The results would not be good.”

Curious, Lance does indeed decide he wants to look around. “Sure thing, K. I’m not gonna break my toilet just for the sake of a joyride.”

Keith nods, his eyes still on the screen and Lance wanders off to explore. He finds the engine room, complete with the promised Balmera crystal. Its shiny blue glow reminds Lance immediately of being on the castle. Following the one door leading further aft, he finds himself in an engineering bay complete with a pair of high-quality hoverbikes. Running a hand over one of their seats, he makes a mental note of their existence; figuring someday they might just come in handy. Or, at least be entertaining to ride with Keith once the weather turns nice again.

Wandering back up the bottom floor of the ship, he walks down the hallway that will apparently lead him to the crew quarters, at least if he’s interpreting the Galra on the little plaque correctly. Said hallway seems unusually generous to Lance until he factors in the general size and build of a Galra. The average giant purple cat man is definitely bigger than either Lance or Keith, after all.

The living quarters are nothing really to write home about. A bunk room and a slightly better-appointed captain’s quarters share a head and abut the tiny galley with its stiff-benched dinette. Lance shudders at the familiar, nozzled outline of a food goo dispenser. If anything, the Galra version is likely to be even less palatable.

Having wandered through the entire main floor of the ship in less than five minutes, he climbs a shiny ladder up to the partial second deck. It leads him to the weapons station, complete with its angry-looking turret; and then onto the bridge. He sits himself down at the pilot’s station and reviews the control panels in front of him.

It doesn’t take long to conclude that his Galra is rusty as fuck -- and it’s not like it was ally that spiffy to start with. Despite this, Lance ends up pretty certain that he could fly the ship safely, if the need were ever to arise. He also can’t help but note that the chair is too big for him. His feet are mostly dangling instead of resting comfortably on the floor. This, of course, requires another mental note: bring a footstool if you’re going to play pilot in this silly, oversized ship.

Just to entertain himself while Keith is working his metallurgical magic, Lance summons up enough of his dissed language skills to review the ship’s specs. They’re certainly impressive enough. Between weapons, shields, and power generation; not to mention its food- and industrial production capacity -- the little black ship is a fortress designed for essentially eternal functionality. Lance can’t help but be impressed that Keith managed to steal it. Given what he’s seen and what of the specs he’s managed to read, it becomes obvious that this little ship cost a couple of hundred million GAC to design and build.

Halfway lost in thought, Lance remains precariously dangling in the chair until he hears Keith call from below. “I’m done, love, you read to head home?”

“Coming!” Lance hollers back before leaving the bridge and taking the opportunity to slide rapidly down the shiny chrome ladder. “This is a cool ship, babe. Nice job with the whole grand theft auto thing,” he observes as he reenters the cargo hold. He helps Keith load the wheelbarrow and the both of them grab a handle as they allow it to roll down the ramp to the ground.

Individually the beams aren’t heavy at all, especially not for steel; but a full cartload is obviously going to take both of them to maneuver anywhere. Especially up to the cottage along the muddy trail.

“No Kosmo today..?” Lance inquires before griping to Keith as he pauses to close the hatch and reactivate the barrier. “This is fucking heavy.”

“Nope, it’s his day off or something. Union rules.” Keith replies with an entirely straight face.

“Funny man…” Lance grunts as the two of them attempt to get the wheelbarrow rolling up the trail.

***

About a week later, Lance is admiring their handiwork while Keith finally puts that damned wheelbarrow away. Thankfully, the last of the sod is in place when the sky opens up and holds forth with great fervor. Lance is almost shocked -- and instantly soaked to the skin. It’s almost like the air has actually turned into water. Despite the fact that Keith is definitely no more than fifty feet away right now, Lance can’t see him at all through the sudden downpour.

Lance tilts his head back to stare up at the sky, half-affronted. He stops looking with an extended splutter as the rainwater begins to trickle into his nose. Still experiencing some degree of irk, Lance jumps when Keith appears out of nowhere and claps him on the shoulder.

“I like the rain, K, I really do. Always have. But this seems… a little excessive,” Lance observes dryly -- his voice being the only part of him that can even remotely pretend to exist in that state at present.

“Come on inside, love, before you catch your death.”

“You’ve been spending too much time around your old goat lady -- just listen to you talk. You sound like a nonagenarian!” Lance chuckles.

Keith simply takes his hand and pulls him forward towards the door. “Whatever you say, love.”

Chapter Text

Apparently the number of orgasms necessary to unwind all of the awkwardness in a new sexual liaison is three. Well, three orgasms and the big naked reveal, at least. When Keith prods Lance awake and goads him out of bed to exercise, neither of them shrink at all from the fact that they’re nude. It gives Lance an opportunity for a full, daylight eyeful; and boy does he take it with pleasure. This, of course, gives Keith a chance to do the same, and he seems to do so with an equal measure of energy and happiness. Lance can’t quite manage to decide whether the lack of Keith’s usual cute, little blush is solid progress in handling intimacy; or an unfortunate loss, you know, because it was a cute, little blush. In fact, Keith’s gaze is so frank and appreciative that Lance honestly isn’t sure why he isn’t the one blushing. But, since he isn’t, he’s certainly not going to complain about that.

Ultimately, Keith breaks the staring session with a saucy little wink -- one that Lance can’t help but Laugh at as Keith walks over to the dresser and pulls out two pairs of those black lycra shorts. Handing one pair to Lance, he slips into the other.

“You know, babe, if this is all we’re wearing to work out in, there’s a fair chance that I’m going to end up getting us all distracted and off task…” Lance admits with a laugh as he climbs into his own shorts.

“Well, a man can hope, can’t he?” asks Keith as he saunters by and smacks Lance lightly on the ass before climbing down into the great room.

Lance squawks fondly and gives a little hop before shouting, “Tease!” and chasing after him. He launches himself at Keith once he reaches the bottom of the stairs. Keith merely makes a smooth little turn and catches him out of midair with no discernible effort and a smile on his face.

Kosmo looks up at the two of them from his rug in front of the fire with something distinctly resembling disgust in his gaze and harrumphs loudly. He lays his head back down on his paws before the whole of his recumbent form dissolves into sparkles and he carries himself away to quieter climes.

The guys both laugh at his departure as Keith sets Lance back down on his feet and disentangles himself. He takes a few steps and touches a panel on the staircase wall. It slides open to reveal a closet.

“Hey -- I didn’t know that was there,” Lance observes observantly, blinking at what seems to be a collection of linens, blankets, a couple of coats, and other ephemera.

Keith nods, pulling out a pair of exercise mats. “Yup. Sorry ‘bout that. Should’ve told you it was here, since it looks just like the rest of the wall. I forgot.” He points to his left. “The same panel over on the other side of the stairs opens too.”

Lance walks over and slides it open with a touch. He’s immediately enveloped in a warm, earthy smell.

“Peat,” says Keith, somewhat unnecessarily. “There’s another store like that in the back of the toolshed too. There should be plenty laid down for the winter between the two. And we can always get more in town if we run low.”

Lance takes another deep whiff - it’s a rather pleasant smell, after all - and closes the closet again. “Well, that’s good. You know how I feel about being cold…”

Keith nods. “I do. And, since I know you hate being cold, and I haven’t actually been through a winter up here myself, I was thinking we might run over to Farchnad and get some space heaters -- just in case the fireplace and the stove don’t end up being enough. Besides, there’s no stove in the barn, and I wouldn’t want your dearest friends out there to freeze either.”

“It’s not my fault that the creepy little fairy goats like me so much…” Lance points out in a half-whine.

“Yeah, you’re just too sweet for your own good,” Keith replies, sounding entirely serious as he rolls the mats out in the empty space between the entryway and the sofa.

He plops himself down onto one of them and immediately begins to stretch. Lance is entranced by the show until Keith’s guffaw yanks him back towards reality and he tumbles himself down onto the other mat. Keith is impressively flexible; but watching him, Lance realizes that this particular physical contest is one that he might actually win. With a contented little groan he begins to push his sleep-heavy limbs through the first steps of his Altean yoga warm-up. He’s more than gratified when suddenly Keith is the one that’s staring.

Finishing his own stretches, Keith gazes fondly over at Lance. “So, I see you’ve been keeping your ‘Loverboy Lance’ skillset alive. It looks like you barely have any bones there, Lance…” he says in a voice low enough that it almost purrs.

Lance grins over at him from his current pose. “You keep talking like that and I’m going to end up finding one, and I don't know if these shorts were built for it…”

“Promises, promises…” Keith mutters through his grin as he drops into an aggressive set of push-ups. Not being utterly insane, Lance sets his pace to one quarter of Keith’s and begins his own exercises.

Some doboshes later Keith blows out a breath and says, “Four hundred,” nearly inaudibly. As a puffing Lance rolls his eyes and collapses onto his mat, Keith spins himself around into an easy crouch and then glides to his feet. “I’m gonna do pull-ups next, if you want to do crunches or something until the bar is free,” he says, gesturing up towards the medieval torture device bolted to the external wall.

“Crunches… Of course, K,” Lance gripes a little breathlessly as he groans slightly and flops over onto his back. Deciding that he’ll likely need the incentive, lance readjusts hi angle slightly so that each sit-up will afford him the opportunity to watch the muscles sliding smoothly under Keith’s skin as he hauls himself around on the damned bar.

Keith catches him doing it and grins sweetly as he hops up and grabs hold of the bar. Lance just grins a jaunty little grin back at him and gives him a little salute as he starts his set.

Given the eye candy, Lance manages more sit-ups than he thinks he’s ever done before by the time Keith finally hops down and wanders back to his mat. While Lance puffs and grumbles at the sensation of a whole crowd of someones jabbing his stomach with many, many white-hot needles, Keith at least has the good grace to look a little red and sweaty at this point, even if his breathing is still entirely under his control.

“You can have the bar now, if you’d like, love,” Keith says as he drops to his mat again and begins his own sit-ups; each one twisting enough to touch an elbow to its opposing knee.

Lance manages a little groan amidst the puffing and decides against it. “I think I’m going to have to work my way up to that, babe.”

Keith chuckles and replies without losing his rhythm. “That’s fine. I think the altitude is probably still fucking with you.” At the highpoint of one crunch he reaches a hand over and pats Lance on the shoulder. “Like I said, it took me weeks to catch my stride here. It gets easier.”

Lance’s sigh of relief is silent. Sort of. Some, admittedly fairly big part of him had been expecting Keith to, well, not mock him; but makes a little fun at least. ‘ Silly fool. ’ Oh. There’s the mockery… ‘ Keith hasn’t once mocked you in the time you’ve been here. Really, he hasn’t actually mocked you in years. You need to lay off it with the sort of expectation. This is love, not a competition, you assface.

‘-ance. Hey, Lance -- you alright?” Keith’s concerned voice filters in as Keith pokes gently at his shoulder. “You just kinda… stopped.”

Lance snorts and pats at the hand Keith has rested on him. “Yeah, babe. Just conversing with that nitwit I usually refer to as my brain.”

Keith quirks a brow. “You seem to do that quite a bit. Should I be concerned that you’re hearing voices?” he asks. Lance can tell that he’s mostly joking.

“Naw, it’s not really voices, K. Well, i guess it is, but, like the voices are me. Parts of me, maybe? It’s kind of hard to explain. I’m pretty sure that it’s the whole giant case of ADD thing. It’s not like they’re scary demons trying to convince me to jump out a window or stab someone to death. It’s more like… I don’t know, more like just how my processor works.” He yields a self-deprecating little snort. “I’ve been told that I’m better at explaining it when I’m drunk. Maybe you should just get me a little sauced some night and ask me about it again.”

“I may just do that -- that is unless Drunk Lance can come up with some more interesting way to pass the time,” he replies with a suggestive little wink before flipping over and dropping into another set of push-ups.

Lance’s body grumbles nigh audibly at the very idea of following suit, so he wisely opts to work himself back into his yoga poses instead. He can’t help but smirk a little as he catches Keith sneaking glances at his cooldown routine. “This is nice,” he breathes out with a sigh, looking over at Keith. “Almost like old times on the castle. All that’s missing is a good sparring match.”

That is apparently the wrong thing to say, as Keith’s arms immediately tense to the point of shaking and then collapse beneath him. Keith makes no attempt to catch himself and thumps down onto the mat. By the time Lance can scramble out of his pose and turn to face his boyfriend, Keith’s looking at him with bleak, terrified eyes; his pupils blown wide and his skin gone white as snow. Lance can’t even tell if he’s breathing. He goes to reach a hand out to Keith, who in response lets out a terrified little yelp and launches himself to his feet.

He flies across the room and up the stairs like they’re not even there before Lance can even process the sound that he made. Lance stares after him. ‘ What the fuck did I do? ’ he demands into the vaults of his brain. ‘ No idea, but that was a bad face. A very bad face. Whatever you just broke, you’d damn well better fix, ’ the voice of the vaults exclaims back at him sharply.

Lance jams his palms into his eyes, rubbing at them until he sees stars, and then clambers to his feet. He follows Keith to the base of the stairs. “Keith, baby, can I come up there?” he asks, schooling his voice towards calm and away from the fear-laden anxiety that’s already spinning him around more than a little.

Keith makes no reply, so Lance begins to climb slowly, bringing his bare feet down hard enough on the steps that keith will be able to hear him. “I’m going to come up there. Can you just… Keith, just tell me if that’s not okay?” He continues his slow climb and stops once his head and shoulders clear the landing and Keith comes into view.

Keith is sitting in the center of the bed, back flush against the wall. His knees are pulled up against his chest and his arms are tight around them, the muscles bulging and twisting as his hands writhe together. Keith’s head slowly scans back and forth across the loft, his eyes leaping from object to object.

Hypervigilance ,’ says Lance’s brain. ‘ Oh fuck me, PTSD, ’ says Lance proper.

Lance waits motionless in place until Keith’s roving eyes settle on him. When they do, Keith jumps, his arms tightening even further and his shoulders hunching yet more. Lance can’t even tell if Keith recognizes him right now.

“Baby, it’s me -- it’s Lance. I’m not going to hurt you. I promise. I’d never hurt you,” Lance insists in a slow, clear voice which he dearly hopes might sound at least a little comforting as well. He very slowly releases the bannisters and raises his hands into full view, thanking Shiro silently for having at least tried to prepare im for some of the realities of this. Keith flinches hard at the motion. “See, K. No weapons, nothing hidden,” he says, stepping up another step to make his face more visible over the foot of the bed.

Keith’s eyes jump between his hands and his face and eventually he relaxes ever-so-slightly again, his hands twitching where they’re twisted together. Lance tries to fix his eyes on Keith’s, but Keith isn’t really cooperating. “Is it alright if I come up the rest of the way?” he asks, and then he waits.

Keith’s eyes make one more jumpy circuit of the room and then seem to focus in on Lance. After what feels like vargas, he finally nods and Lance clambers his way up the rest of the stairs very slowly, keeping his hands in full view the entire time. Once he’s at the top of the stairs, he stops again. “Can I come closer?” he asks hesitantly, his voice very soft.

Keith tenses back down but eventually nods again. Lance walks the few steps to the foot of the bed and stops once more. “Can I sit down here with you? Would that be okay?”

Keith immediately tightens all the way back down, his hands shaking and his eyes frantically mapping the room again. Lance valiantly resists the urge to swear.

Lance stands there, trying to keep from fidgeting, or making, really, any movements at all. It’s not an easy thing for him to attempt. He stands and stares at Keith. Keith sits and stares at everything .

He’s not calming down. Not at all, ’ Lance thinks desperately.

Now who’s uselessly stating the obvious? ’ retorts his brain.

Could you try to be helpful -- just this once? Please? What do I do? ’ Lance begs his consciousness, or his subconsciousness -- really anyone who might be listening. ‘ I need to help him! He’s not calming down and I’m afraid to… to get any closer. I can’t let him hurt himself, and… if he were to somehow hurt me -- I mean, I don’t care, it doesn’t matter, not really. But he would never forgive himself. Please help. Please help…

Lance isn’t sure if he’s shouting at himself, or praying, or what; but he’s damn sure that his frightened, frustrated tears are about to start. He sniffles a little. Have started.

Then he hears it. Music. Apparently Keith does too, as his twitching eyes slow and his head cocks slightly to one side.

Oh, thank God. I love you, Red, ’ Lance calls out silently, and he can feel her response, her affection, pulse back along the song like an afterbeat. Lance has never heard her sing this particular song before. The feeling of it reminds him a little of Keith’s love song, but it’s brighter -- lighter somehow. Swift little motives that almost seem to trip over each other and bumble together, somehow piecing themselves into a larger, more profound whole. It builds and builds, idea on top of flitting idea. Lance has trouble following them all, and begins to wonder if he’d just lose what’s left of his mind if he even tries. Keith, on the other hand, seems to be having no such trouble -- his twitching slowly becomes the subtlest swaying in time instead.

As Lance focuses back in on Keith, and the music in his head swells, understanding starts to leach into his spinning brain. ‘Red, this is… It’s coming from me, isn’t it? This is… this is how I feel about him, right? ’ Lance asks with some trepidation and a little hint of dawning wonder. Red’s warm affirmative is unmistakable. ‘ Oh- ’ is all that Lance manages to get out before he notices that Keith is looking at him. Only him.

Keith opens his mouth and stutters out, “L-Lance?”

Lance lets out a very long breath and smiles. It’s a rough, wobbly sort of smile, but it’s there. “Yeah, baby, it’s me.”

“W-what happened?” Keith asks, looking truly bewildered.

“Can I sit down?” Lance asks quietly.

Keith’s bewildered look deepens substantially. “Course you can…” he mumbles.

So Lance sits carefully down at the foot of the bed, still making certain that none of his movements could be seen as sudden or unexpected.

Bewildered rapidly sinking into actively worried, Keith’s still puzzled voice shakes a little. “What’re you… why are you down there? And… what are we doing upstairs? Lance -- what happened?” Keith looks at him more closely, resulting in his voice growing shakier and shakier as he continues. “And you’re… y-you’re crying again. Lance, what did I do?”

Lance sighs. He desperately wants to touch Keith. Comfort him somehow. He’s just not sure if he’s allowed to right now, and he’s more than a little afraid to even ask. He touched off this whole shitshow, after all, and he certainly doesn’t want to make it any worse. “Keith, I can’t be, you know, sure; but from the way you were acting, I’m pretty sure you just had a PTSD… attack? Flashback? Episode? I’m not sure what to call it.”

Keith hides his face in his knees, which isn’t great, but at least it suggests he’s got some control over himself. Enough not to need to watch the room obsessively. His shoulders shake and a wet-sounding, “Fuck!” comes whistling out of him.

“Is it… can I… shit,” Lance says concisely, still urgently trying to keep his voice calm. The cognitive dissonance is a bit painful. “Baby, can I come up there? Is it… is it alright if I touch you?”

Keith doesn’t reply, but Lance can feel Red prodding him onward anyway. Figuring that she knows what the hell she’s talking about, and that she has a much more tangible connection with the inside of Keith’s head at the moment than he does, Lance crawls gingerly across the bed until he can sit next to Keith. He puts a soft hand on Keith’s shoulder and Keith instantly topples over into him. Encouraged by the move and discouraged by his shaking shoulders, Lance wraps his arms around Keith and holds him close. Just like his homework taught him, he keeps his touch light so that Keith can pull away, but present enough to be a comfort. Or so he hopes.

Keith sits there huddled into Lance’s side and cries.

There are no great tearing obs this time, just quiet snuffling and shaking shoulders. Lance just holds on and lets him get it out. Red’s still singing, so he sits quietly and listens to the sound of his own - what… soul? - for a whole. It’s different than Keith’s in many ways, but seems no less potent.

Eventually the crying dies down and Keith’s breathing begins to even out. Figuring that a little nap will probably do him some good - at least it usually seems to - Lance settles in to guard him as he sleeps. Red is still singing, and Lance doesn’t notice the quiet nudge to his brain that sends him to sleep right alongside Keith. The last of Red’s song that he actually hears carries a hint of her voice along with it. His subconscious muzzily translates it to something like, ‘ You sleep a little too -- I’ll keep watch. ’ Not having been given any choice in the matter, Lance dozes off as well.

***

When Lance blinks back awake, the quality of the light tells him it’s not yet mid-morning. He’s stretched out on the bed and Keith is sitting beside him, cross-legged, not quite touching him. Lance blinks until his eyes focus, and manages to make out the sour grimace on Keith’s face. It’s so serious it looks almost pained.

“Lance, you have to tell me what happened. You have to. Did I… did I hurt you?” Keith’s voice is almost too quiet to hear, though not quite quiet enough to disguise the fear in it begging for a negative response.

“Of course you didn’t, K,” Lance responds immediately and firmly. He reaches a hand out to take hold of one of Keith’s. Keith jolts and acts like he’s going to shy away, but at the last moment allows Lance to take his hand with a shudder. “I’m sorry,” Lance says immediately as he goes to release it again. “Should I… should I not touch you right now?”

Keith keeps hold of the potentially offending hand and laces their fingers together. Apparently not so offensive after all. “I’d… I’d like it if you would,” he finally admits. “As long as you feel safe…”

Lance does not like the scared, defeated tone that that’s delivered in. Not even a little bit. “Of course I do,” he insists, flexing his fingers around Keith’s. Keith doesn’t squeeze back.

“Lance, I’m so, so sorry,” Keith murmurs, his voice remaining both very quiet and very serious as he continues. “This… hasn’t happened in a while.” His eyes track from Lance’s hand wrapped in his, along Lance’s arm and eventually up to his face. “Are you… are you sure that I didn’t… hurt you. I didn’t try to… or anything?” And there’s that begging tone again.

“Keith, you really didn’t. You just ran away upstairs when I said something about-” Lance cuts himself off abruptly rather than repeat his earlier mistake.

“Said something about what? Lance, I can’t remember any of what happened -- I never can when this happens.”

And now it’s Lance’s turn to shudder, shifting worriedly in his seat. “What if I say it and I set this all off again?” Lance asks, unable to keep the tremor of fear out of his voice.

“It doesn’t really work like that, Lance. Not for me, at least. Just saying a word won’t set me off. It -- it’s usually a word or a noise that… I don’t know -- catches me off guard. When it combines with something that I’m thinking, or worried about, I guess. It doesn’t happen when I’m actually focused on a conversation. It’s too sneaky for that.”

Lance stares at Keith’s face. He seems pretty certain about what he’s saying, so Lance decides to follow his lead. “I said something like: ‘It’s almost like old times -- all that’s missing is the sparring.’ That was… that was the word that you set off, I think. Sparring.”

Keith’s face falls further. “Of course it was… we can’t… Lance, I… that’s…” Keith’s words seem unusually stuck, even for him.

Lance crawls up a bit so that he can sit against the headboard again, keeping careful hold of Keith’s hand as he does s. Once he’s situated, he holds his other arm out. “K, do you want to come sit with me?” He wishes his voice was a little less plaintive, but he’ll take what he can get.

Keith nods his head and proceeds to spend a few ticks convincing his hand to let go of Lance’s so that he can crawl the foot or two between them. He curls up at Lance’s side and drips down so that he can lay his head in Lance’s lap. He moves his mouth some as he does, but is obviously still struggling with saying actual words.

Lance works his fingers into Keith’s hair. “It’s okay, baby. You don’t have to talk about it. If you want, I’ll listen - I’ll always listen - but you really don’t have to.”

The silence stretches on for a long time. Lance just holds onto Keith and plays with his hair and listens to the rain beating against the windowpanes. He’s not at all sure how long he’s been at it when Keith finally does clear his throat and begin to speak.

“I… you read about what… happened. In that… place. That prison. It… Lance, it made me too… dangerous. It’s almost like I’m all -- all trigger now. There’s no filter between sparring and fighting for my life. No difference between friend and for any more. That’s… that’s why I stopped fighting; why I left the Blades. It’s one of the reasons that I came here. I’m not safe to be around. Lance, you probably… probably shouldn’t-”

“Stop right there,” Lance insists immediately, his fingers tugging lightly at Keith’s hair. “I get what you’re saying. I do. I’ve been in enough combat to understand where you’re coming from -- or, at least, to understand what you’re describing. And, I admit, it sounds pretty bad. But K, nothing is going to scare me away. I’m not going anywhere, so don’t even suggest it.” He trails a finger along Keith’s stubbly jaw. “If we need to have some rules or something, we can do that: no sparring, no fighting , no weapons -- whatever you need. But I’m telling you right now, I’m not going anywhere.”

“But… but what if I hurt you? Lance -- I could kill you. I mean, you’re in great shape - especially for a civilian - and you’ve got all of your paladin training to fall back on. But Lance, for fuck’s sake, I’m a goddamn assassin; and I’m exceptionally good at it. If I was out of my head, I could kill you and there’s nothing you could do to stop me.” Keith sucks in a ragged breath. “It’s not safe to be around me. If I were ever to actually hurt you…” his ragged breathing degenerates into half-sobs. “I don’t… I can’t… you can’t stay with someone who hurts you. You said you would only stay until I said-”

Lance arrives at the point where he can’t take any more and scoops Keith out of his lap and into his arms, forcing him to look up at his face, and demonstrating that Keith is hardly the only one around with some upper body strength. “No, Keith. No . I said I would stay until you wanted me to leave. Not until you came up with some silly reason why you think I should. I get that you’re afraid. I do. I’m afraid of a lot of things. You’re not one of them. You’re suggesting that we take the coward’s way out, and that isn’t going to work for either of us.”

“But… but Lance -- I could really hurt you. You’re saying that… that this is important enough to risk that? To risk your life?”

“It absolutely is, Keith. I said I’d give up anything for you, everything for you. Burn the universe to the ground if that’s what it took to keep you beside me. That’s a big enough promise to cover this too.”

“But you wouldn’t be able to-”

“Kosmo,” Lance says quite definitively.

Keith stares at him, confused. “What?”

“Kosmo,” Lance says again. “Could you catch him if he didn’t want you to?”

Keith’s face calms a little as he stops to think. “No, of course not. He can teleport. He could get away any time he needed to.”

“And do you think he would save me if he needed to? Protect me? Protect us both?”

“Yeah. He would. Kosmo would show up to save either of us. Always. Regardless of the circumstances.” He takes a breath, and lance is pleased to note that the shudder isn’t so bad this time. “Lance, you really trust him enough to give him a job this important?”

“Yup,” Lance says easily, his arms tightening around Keith. “Alrighty, now we’ve got a backup plan in place. If we need more rules, more plans - whatever -we’ll make the; but that’s the end of it. No more talking about running away. That’s not… I love you, and that’s just not the way it’s going to be.”

Lance plants a serious, if chaste, kiss on Keith’s lips. “Now, get your ass out of bed. We’ve got to take care of the goats before they get lonely…”

***

Lance keeps a watchful eye on Keith for the rest of the day. Keith keeps a watchful eye on everything for the rest of the day. Mostly they spend their time alternating between the kitchen, where Keith has embarked on the so-far pointedly unsuccessful task of baking cakes for some upcoming event of a caprine nature; and the sofa where Lance continues his education on Disney movies.

Shockingly enough, Keith still doesn’t seem to mind. Lance does wonder periodically if it’s odd for two arguably grown men to camp out on a sofa an watch cartoons from the dark age of civilization, but as long as Keith doesn’t complain, he intends to squeeze as much saccharine goodness into him as he possibly can.

He also hears periodic murmurs from Red, signalling that she’s much more awake down the hill in her quarry than she has been. Keith’s occasional abstracted, ‘ I’m listening to my lion ’ face suggests that Lance isn’t the only one that can hear her.

A thought occurs to Lance. “Hey, K. I’ve been here for a couple of movements now, and I was on the road for, like, six. We should probably try to come up with a way to get in touch with someone and let them know what’s up.”

Keith turns white - well, whiter - and looks stricken as he reaches up to pause the movie. “Uh,” is the entirety of the response that he manages.

Looking over at him and realizing that he’s verging on breaking Keith again , Lance leans against him a little harder and takes his hand. “I’m not saying that I want to leave, or anything K. Or even that I think we should tell anyone where we are… Just -- someone needs to know that I found you, and that we’re both safe. That way they won’t keep looking for us. Is that… would that be okay.”

Keith’s pallor remains “I… we… if we call with the ship, they’ll be able to track the signal. I -- I don’t know if…” he trails off with a heavy sigh, his fingers clinging to Lance’s. “No, I know that I’m not ready to see… people yet. I don’t… I don’t know any way to contact them without giving away our location.”

Lance frowns. “And obviously, none of them can be trusted to follow directions and ignore a tasty little tidbit like where we are. Hmm…” He taps the fingers of his free hand against his chin, which reminds him that he has a beard to play with while he thinks now. Thus he thinks, and plays with his beard. This is good, as apparently his chin hairs contain ideas. No wonder people tug on them when they think. “What if we send Red?”

Keith stares over at Lance. “What do you mean?”

“Well, Red is going to have to go back to whatever heroic life she’s been leading at some point. What if we send her to take a message to Shiro, or something? We could record it and she could drop it off on her way back to wherever.”

“But… Lance…”

Lance blinks. “Yeah, K?”

“You’d have no way to get off Dolydd if Red leaves.”

“No, I’d have exactly one way to get off of Dolydd if Red leaves, and it’s the only way off this moon I’m planning to take anyway.”

“What?”

“You, you dummy. You have a perfectly nice ship. When it’s ready to go somewhere, you know I’ll be on board.”

“But what if you-” Keith stops and clears his throat, “Or what if-” he pauses again and looks helplessly at Lance.

Lance sneaks an arm around his shoulders. “Shall I fill in those blanks for you, babe?” he asks, and then proceeds to do so before Keith can reply. “What if I want to leave? Never gonna happen. What if I need to leave? See answer A. What if you’re never ready to leave ? I don’t think that will be the case, but if it is, so be it . Does that about cover the quandaries from the peanut gallery?”

“I… uh… Yeah. Lance, do you really-”

“Believe in you? Trust you that much? Yup. In a heartbeat.”

Keith sniffles and buries his face in Lance’s chest. Lance wraps both arms around his shoulders and smiles. Eventually Keith scares up some few more words. “Well, if you’re sure, and if Red is willing, then we can use her as a postlady. Did you-”

“Want to do it today?” Lance interjects again with a little grin. Keith eyes him, but finally has a little smile on his face too. “Naw, we’ve got cakes to bake and movies to watch today. And presumably a trip to the modern-ish market tomorrow. Sometime after that will be sufficiently responsible of us for notifying the universe that we indeed haven’t been eaten by a weblum or anything.”

“Don’t joke about that. Being eaten by a weblum is no fun at all, love.”

***

The trip to Farchnad entails a quick little bit of teleportation to the bridge of Keith’s ship a la Kosmo to avoid the truly horrendous rain and a slightly less quick two-varga flight around the sherbet-colored gas giant to an even larger moon. This one with enough population to look cosmopolitan from low orbit. As the guys wait for landing clearance, Keith eyes the gas giant rather fondly.

“Just wait until summer comes, Lance. Nefoedd isn’t visible on our part of Dolydd this time of year, but in the summer, the view’s spectacular. With the colors and all the reflected light, sunrise and sunset go on for hours.”

Lance leans over and grabs Keith’s hand, his feet lifting irritatingly all the way off the floor. Damn the over-tall Galra. “Hours-long sunrises and sunsets. Who knew you were such a closet romantic, babe?”

Keith colors slightly and casts his eyes down at the deck, but his fingers tighten on Lance’s.

Lance squeezes back. “I love it -- by the way. There’s nothing I’d like more than to sit in our meadow, surrounded by wildflowers, and watch the sun set with you for two or three vargas.” He pauses for a moment with a subtle frown. “Well, I have to admit the possibility that there are other things I might like as much , but definitely not more.”

Keith’s eyes drag up to Lance’s, still slightly embarrassed, but full of adoration. He’s just about to speak when a voice crackles over the comm and, Lance presumes, grants them landing privileges. It’s mostly whistles and chirps, so it’s hard to be sure. The ship attempts to translate it into Galra for them.

Lane is pretty sure that he hears something about the foggy stump incinerator. He stares at Keith. “Did that make any sort of sense to you?”

Keith shakes his head. “Nope. Translator’s not much good with this language either, I’m afraid. It’s no Castle of Lions.”

“Yeah, kinda makes me miss my paladin helmet.”

“No kidding. Alfor and Coran knew what they were about. How’s your Galra?”

“Um… rusty? What little of it there is. Why?”

“Some of the natives here, especially in the merchant district actually speak a little. Zarkon never made it out this far, but the empire cast a long shadow. Mostly that means there are enough Galra speakers around to get by, and , since the empire wasn’t rampaging across their planet, they don’t mind speaking it.”

“Well, that’s good, I suppose. I might be able to scare up enough conversational Galra to be useful. Maybe.” Lance doesn’t feel very convinced, and so probably neither looks nor sounds very convinced.

“Now worries if you can’t, love, I’ve got us covered.”

“Sure thing, K. So, should I be bracing myself for more goats?”

“Nope, different race here. They’re more like, um, those fuzzy sea-critters.”

“Urchins? Anemones?”

Keith laughs. “No, love, think less terrifying and more, uh, mammalian. Otters? I think that’s it.”

“Aww, babe! Otters are cute!”

***

Their landing coordinates take them to a pad in a busy starport in the middle of what appears to be a major shopping district from the looks of things. Chock-full of human-sized otter aliens. Needless to say, the both of them get quite a few odd looks as they disembark, though Lance does note that they aren’t the only aliens around. The otter-folk speak in high, chirping voices that Lance finds somewhat irritating, but on the bright side, they appear to wear fairly normal-looking, and normal-sized clothes, a decent indicator that this excursion might just be okay for his wardrobe.

The idea of buying things brings Lance up short. “Uh, K, I don’t really suppose there’s any way to access things like my bank account, is there? I wasn’t really planning an extended trip when I left Earth for Altea -- I’m not exactly flush. And, hell, I don’t know if what I have would even spend here anyway…”

Having apparently already thought of this, Keith was already pulling Lance to a stop in front of what appears to be an ATM anyway. It takes about six tries and at least twice as many curse words to get the alien machine to spit out a credit chip of some sort. He holds it out to Lance. “Here, love. It’s tied to my local account. Just go ahead and get whatever you’d like.”

Lance eyes the card in Keith’s hand dubiously, and then drags his eyes up to look at Keith’s face dubiously. “And that’s okay? You want me to just… spend your money? What if I spend too much? How do I pay you back? How much is too much?”

Keith tries very hard to keep his normal, straight face for a moment but can’t quite seem to hold back his chuckle in the end. “I think I’ll approach this discussion ‘Lance-style’, babe . Thing one: there’s no such thing as my money any more. If you’re stuck with me, you’re stuck with my money. Our money. Thing two: as long as you don’t try to buy, you know, a skyscraper or something, you’ll be fine. I think the bod I opened the local account with was worth, um, like ten million GAC? Something like that.”

Lance’s dubious eyes end up open very wide instead. “Ten million GAC? You’re giving me a… a limitless credit chip attached to an account with ten million GAC in it? How’d you even get ten million GAC? Keith, that’s so much money!

Keith continues to laugh. “Well, if you’re going to put up with all of my faults, I suppose that the least I can do is be loaded, right?”

“But how… how did you end up with…” Lance trails off and grimaces forcefully. “Wait. Am I being rude? Is it rude to ask?”

“Maybe if I was a stranger, and not, you know, your lover.”

Briefly distracted from the matter at hand, Lance finds himself completely unable to avoid the urge to lean over and plant a big kiss on Keith. “I like lover, though I think you should consider soulmate instead. It’s sappier.”

Keith smirks and kisses him back -- somewhat awkwardly due to said smirk. “Fine, I declare it not rude to ask your soulmate where he suddenly got his vast pile of filthy lucre from.” Keith thrusts the card at Lance again, and this time, Lance takes it and slips it into his pocket. “The Blades are decentralized in many ways, love. Financing has always been one of them. Every time a member sets up a new revenue stream, they retain ownership of a small portion of it. It was set up that way so that there were no central accounts for Zarkon to track, and so that when he dd come across one, it wouldn’t lead back to everyone and bring down the whole order.” He lets out a low breath, “But, functionally, that means that every time I negotiated a trade treaty or set up planetary mineral rights, or repossessed defunct imperial materiel, a part of the value of an ownership stake was transferred to me.” He smiles an awkward little smile. “I’m worth - well, honestly,I have no idea - but I was a very successful Blade. Billions of GAC, probably. More than we could ever spend unless we’re in the market for our own planet or something.”

Lance wonders if there’s a hard limit on the amount of surprise necessary to actually cause his eyeballs to pop out of their sockets. “Sweet merciful quiznack, Keith. You’re hot , and you’re loaded . You’re a motherfuckin’ Galra princeling. What are you doing with me ?” Unfortunately for the sake of his peace of mind, the latter part of the statement comes out a lot more plaintive than he had actually intended.

Despite the crowd, Keith doesn’t hesitate at all to gather Lance in his arms. “I was in love with you long, long before I became a ‘princeling’ with an embarrassingly large amount of money -- which, by the way, I have no idea what to even do with. And you were in love with me before you knew that I had said embarrassingly large amount of money. There’s nothing I could buy that I would rather have than you. And I could buy, well, anything really, I guess,” he says very firmly.

Lance realizes that his mouth is moving without him saying anything. Unusual for him -- he must have learned it from Keith. Finally he manages to squeeze out something that sounds like, “Really?” His voice is too small, and leaves him wondering if he should man it up with a throat-clearing and a repeat attempt or something.

“Really,” Keith answers him immediately, with no question at all in his voice -- as if he’s never been so certain of anything in his life, in fact. “What’s mine is yours, my love. If you’re going to take all of the bad that goes with that, you should at least get something good out of it…”

Keith’s own now plaintive voice is enough to reverse Lance’s polarities and make it clear to him that it’s now his turn to suck it up and be sappily supportive “K, there was already so much more good than bad in that particular bargain. I couldn’t give less of a damn if all you had to your name was a trio of creepy milking goats.” He follows that up with another sound kiss.

“Good then,” Keith says with a little sigh. “No more worrying about money.” He pulls Lance tighter for a moment before releasing everything but his hand and starting again through the crowd. “You buy whatever you need -- whatever you want. If it makes you happy, you should have it.”

Lance drags Keith’s hand up and kisses his knuckles. “I already have everything I need to be happy, samurai. Everything else is just window dressing.”

“Curtains it is then,” says Keith.

Lance rolls his eyes and holds Keith’s hand a little tighter as they walk out of the spaceport doors and onto the street.

***

Lance and Keith pass what’s left of the morning wandering from clothing boutique to clothing boutique. They even slide into a sort of rhythm. Lance tries on five or six things and chooses one. Keith then insists on adding at least two of the other selections to their growing armload of purchases. Then they bicker about whether or not Keith needs new clothes too, and Lance charmingly bullies shim into the changing room to try on something pretty himself. Most of the time he finds that Keith is more amenable to trying on new clothes when he’s just been made out with.

Do they get a bit carried away in one of those changing rooms? Maybe, but Lance will never tell, after all, he’s something sort of resembling a gentleman.

By the time they’re both thoroughly tired of looking at clothes, it’s time for lunch anyway, so they find a little bistro. The menus are, well, absolutely useless. The special ends up being representative of a local diet that seems to revolve around spicy shellfish. It’s actually pretty appealing. It also gives Lance some hope for finding peppers of a sort that might allow for the recreation of some of his mother’s Cuban fare for Keith. He finds the idea still definitely appeals to him and asks if they can go to a grocery store.

Instead, Keith leads him over a few streets to what seems to be a multi-block farmer’s market and they while away a varga or two trying samples and shoring up their provisions. Peppers included. By the time they’re ready to move on, Keith goes so far as to hire out a taxi to haul them and their booty around. Luckily, they manage to find a driver who speaks pretty decent Galra.

Keith also has them make a stop at the local fabric store so that he can fulfill his agreement with the village seamstress on Dolydd. Fifteen bolts of silk velvet and, god knows, fifty skeins of yarn later, they’re back in the cab. Lance still doesn’t know what all the yarn is for, but he’ll figure it out eventually, he guesses.

At Keith’s request, their final stop is at what’s best described as space Walmart. They split up at the doors, agreeing to meet back in a varga. Lance wanders until he finds the beauty section and begins his purchases with a box of wet wipes. They smell funny, but he shrugs and carries on. This timely purchase allows him to fondle his way through the face- and hair-care products until his fingers lead him to the ones with the most appropriate contents. He has to stop and wonder for a moment at how much time he spent learning to judge the difference between alien conditioners via fingertip, but decides in the end, that however long it was, it was time well spent, and that his hair will thank him for it.

He comes to a grinding halt an aisle over in front of an almost frightful array of personal lubricants. The pictures are distinctly unhelpful. He supposes he could try to ask someone, but realizes fairly quickly that he never knew the necessary Galra for that particular conversation anyway, so out come the wet wipes again. At a loss, he eventually just picks three that don’t smell repulsive and feel about right on his fingers. That, and that pass muster with the tiny scanner in his comm that says they aren’t in any way poisonous; praying that one or the other will serve its assigned purpose when the time comes.

His last stop takes him to the print shop situated in the corner of the store. After an awkward, trilingual conversation, Lance eventually manages to get his comm connected to their printers, and he can’t help but smile as portrait after portrait of his and Keith’s paladin history come spooling out. While they stack prints Lance spends a few minutes perusing the store’s selection of frames and photo albums. Finding a number that he likes, he pays for his upcoming art project and incipient present for Keith and secretes the whole collection in the bottom of the bags he’s carrying.

Lance is just in time to meet Keith at the front of the store juggling a quartet of heavy-looking cylindrical machines along with several bags. Lance manages to reshuffle his own bags and takes two of them with a raised eyebrow before Keith can drop them.

“Thanks, love,” he says, before explaining. “These are the heaters I wanted. One for the loft, one for the bathroom, the barn, and a spare. I really don’t want us to end up dead from hypothermia when the snow comes.”

Lance can’t help but nod his head in agreement. “Yeah, good plan, K. Not as romantic as the fireplace, or eccentric as the cast iron stove, but eminently practical. I applaud the whole not freezing our balls off thing.”

“Anything else you want to do today, love? Need anything more?”

“Nope, babe. I’ve had quite enough shopping for one day, thanks very much. I want to go home.”

So they do.

Chapter Text

It rains. Hard. All the time. Hard . And while Lance has always been a fan of the rain; he’s really happiest with that first, dusty-smelling, warm rain that falls after a long dry spell. Such is not the description of what’s currently going on outside his cottage. It rains solidly, stolidly from dawn to dusk, pretty much obscuring both in their entirety. And then it rains all night long. Hard .

Since Keith shows no evidence of being bothered by it, Lance endeavors not to be either. In the end, it’s the monotony of it that truly makes it difficult for him. Keith, on the other hand, mostly seems bothered by cake -- or rather, by the fact that no matter what he does, he can’t seem to get one to turn out right. Lance is also beginning to get tired of, well, almost-cake. And Kosmo is definitely growing notably less excited about it. Especially as it’s the more questionable attempts, the not-quite-cakes, that he’s being offered one after another.

Lance stares at the most recent attempt, which is currently deflating on a cooling rack on the counter. It’s mostly… mostly… completely collapsed in the middle and noticeably dark around the edges. “Hey, K - not to stick my head in the lion’s mouth, or anything - but what’s with all the cake?”

Keith barely glances up from the fulminant deflation of his most recent creation, and boy does he look irritable when he does. “Huh?” he snorts out before taking a breath and deflating rather like his cake. His features soften as he actually looks over at Lance. “Sorry, love, didn’t mean to be -- whatever. What did you say?”

“I was just asking why you’re so… insistently baking cake. Or trying to bake cake, at least.”

Keith frowns rather substantially. It reminds Lance of the rain clouds outside. “The Geifr have this big annual festival right after the first snowfall of the year. Mab signed me up, or, well - us now - to bring a cake. It’s quite a big deal, I guess. The festival, that is. A dinner for the whole village -- everybody brings something to contribute. People exchange little gifts. Children sing. It’s a lot like Christmas, I suppose.”

Lance grins. “I love Christmas!”

The response manages to squeeze a smile out of the dour, cake-obsessed man at the counter. “I know how you do. I seem to remember you decorating the whole castle. Several times. One of them in what I was pretty sure was July…”

Lance raspberries Keith. “It’s important to get into the spirit of the season, K.”

“So you’ve taught me over the years. Why do you think I’m still baking cake? I don’t enjoy failing so much that I do it over and over again for my own amusement, Lance. I just -- none of these will fucking turn out! I don’t know what I’m doing wrong…”

Lance’s eyes stray back to the sad, cake-esque thing in front of them. “I’m no baker, but I’ve spent plenty of time watching Hunk, well, and mamá, I think this one didn’t have enough baking powder… or, goat baking powder. Whatever. Also, the oven was probably too hot…”

Keith just sighs and looks over at Kosmo. Kosmo ignores him, so Keith abandons the attempt to relieve his counter of the dying cake for the time being.

A few doboshes later, the guys have both made it to the sofa. Keith drinks moodily from a steaming mug of not-tea while Lance putzes about on his tablet. The putzing shortly yields a cottage filled to the brim with Christmas carols. Keith and Kosmo both stare at Lance.

“What?” Lance asks innocently.

Keith leans over and presses a kiss high on Lance’s cheekbone. “Oh, I do love you, Lance,” he breathes. “God only knows why sometimes.”

Lance smirks at Keith and settles into his side, burrowing down until Keith takes ahold of him. “Those pound cakes you made were really pretty good…”

His observation is met with an arched brow. “Pound cake will not impress Mab, Lance. And everyone knows she taught me to cook. I don’t want to-”

“Disappoint your little goat mother?”

“Grandmother,” Keith corrects.

“Huh?” says Lance smartly, somewhat surprised at the immediate rejoinder.

“What did you think ‘ mam-gu ’ meant?”

“Keith, how the Christ should I know? I don’t speak goat,” Lance replies as his eyebrows ratchet themselves up in the direction of his hairline. “Wait -- your old goat lady told me to call her grandma?”

“Yup. Regardless of the fact that you were drunk, you managed to make quite an impression on her. Or, well, maybe it was because you were drunk. It’s kinda hard to tell with her.” Another little kiss. “Either way, she liked you.”

“Wow. Does that mean I can call her-”

“No,” Keith interrupts.

“-nanny?” Lance completes his thought, entirely unphased by the interruption.

“No, Lance. Definitely not.”

“Still -- pound cake… Keith, I have an idea!”

Keith looks a bit dubious but allows Lance to take his mug away from him and drag him back into the kitchen.

Lance yanks two pound cakes from the ‘ save these, they seem okay ’ section of the counter and hands them to Keith. “Here, babe. Slice these up like bread.” Keith’s dubious look grows firmer, but he bends to his assigned task.

Lance retrieves eggs and cream and a saucepan. The cream goes into the pan and onto the stove under Lance’s unusually careful watch. He adds sugar, whisking carefully. “K, do you have anything like vanilla?” he asks, still stirring away; pausing only to randomly crack an egg into a mixing bowl.

Keith pulls several small bottles from the cabinet and sniffs their contents. “No, not really.” He offers one dark amber vial to Lance with a little shrug. “Will this do?”

“Smells kind of like almonds,” Lance observes, sniffing it. “It’ll work, I think.” He dribbles a liberal sprinkling of it into his cream. As it slowly comes to a boil, he uses a spoonful to proof the eggs that a thankfully attentive Keith had finished cracking for him without instruction when he’d gotten distracted and forgotten about the task. Prepped, they end up poured into the saucepan as well.

Keith stares at the now yellowish concoction. “Lance, what is it that you’re making?”

“Custard. Shh. Don’t distract me! Have to keep stirring…” Lance replies abstractedly, hands busy and eyes not leaving the stove in front of him. Eventually, the contents of his pan thicken and he pulls it off the fire. “Now, I need fruit. Pear berries?” he suggests with some hope in his voice.

“Sure,” replies Keith before making his way down to the cellar. When he returns, Lance is digging through the drawers like a madman. “Love, what are you looking for?”

“Pastry brush,” Lance quips distractedly.

“I… don’t know what that is, but I suppose Mab might have set me up with one.”

“Success!” crows Lance as he yanks the sought after utensil from the drawer he’s bent over. He pauses to survey Keith’s berries, popping one into his mouth with a smile. “Half of those in a pot on the stove with some water and a little sugar, please, babe-of-mine,” he directs as he retrieves the bottle of yellow liquor from the cupboard and pours a finger or three into a mug. He begins delicately painting each slice of Keith’s cake from it while Keith busies himself with the berries.

Lance finishes just as Keith summons him over to the stove to observe the thickening, orange berry glop that he’s still stirring at. “Is this what they’re supposed to do, love?” he asks, sounding dubious as ever. Lance takes the spoon from him and gives said glop another stir. “Yup. Nice job, babe!” He yanks the pot off the stove and stirs in the remainder of the berries.

Keith’s questioning look finally starts to thaw as Lance begins pressing a layer of cake slices into the bottom of a casserole dish and then pours custard and then compote over them. Finished, he begins the process again with another layer of cake. It only takes a few doboshes to use up all of their freshly prepared ingredients. He smiles and hands the dish to Keith.

“How about this? All we need is some whipped cream for the top. Or maybe some meringue.”

Keith assesses the confection in his hands, seeming faintly astonished. “And.. what is it? You just made it with no recipe -- how’d you learn to do all that?”

“It’s trifle, K,” Lance replies with a smile. “Mamá always makes it at Christmas -- though I personally think that the pear berries will prove to be superior to the Earth fruit options… Will this work, though? Is it good enough? Nice enough?” He can’t help the frisson of worry that climbs across his voice as he asks.

“It’s brilliant, love. Thanks. Will you help me make a big one when it’s time for the party?”

“Of course I will. You don’t even need to ask. We’ll need to find something pretty to serve it in though. Preferably clear… like, glass or crystal or something -- so people can see the layers.”

“We’re due at Mab’s tomorrow for tea -- she’ll have something we can borrow.” Keith pecks Lance on the cheek. “Thanks for your help. You’re my hero.”

He says it with all seriousness, so Lance believes him and blushes a little as he leans to kiss him back. “Any time, my Keith. Always.”

***

The next day as it rolls on towards tea time, Lance pulls his trial dessert from the refrigerator. He hadn’t allowed either of them to sample it yesterday, claiming that it needed time to ‘gel’. And now he finds himself staring at it with something like trepidation when Keith follows him into the kitchen.

“Something wrong, love?” Keith asks him gently.

Lance drags his eyes up to Keith’s. “Well, I was thinking… we could take this with us.” He swallows, feeling stupid about being worried over a dessert. “But what if it’s no good? I mean-”

“Lance,” Keith interrupts him, his voice soft. “I’m sure it will be fine. I trust you. You certainly looked like you knew what you were doing when you made it.” He takes the trifle from Lance, now buried under a mound of whipped cream. “I think it’s a great idea to take it. God knows, Mab has suffered through plenty of my crap. I think she’ll appreciate this lovely little thing you’ve made.”

Still feeling uncertain, Lance nods and tries to scrounge up a bit of a smile for his Keith. He allows a finger to reach over and trace along Keith’s jaw as he passes by and head upstairs to change for tea. He opts for the new, steel-grey suit that Keith had insisted upon buying; paired with a deep aubergine dress shirt with a bit of a sparkle that Lance just hadn’t been able to resist.

Keith climbs up behind him and pours himself into tight black slacks and a pearl-colored turtleneck: both sartorial selections of Lance’s.

“K, you look amazing. Edible. Hot ! Are you sure we have to go to tea today?” He’s pretty sure that at least a little of his leer shows through as Keith’s cheeks color slightly.

Keith chuckles a raw, lusty little chuckle. “Yes. I told Mab we’re coming today. You can find out what color today’s underpants are later.”

“Promise?”

“Yes, love. I promise.”

“They’re a different color than this morning’s?”

“Yup.”

“Goody.”

***

They arrive for tea right on the stroke of, well, whatever time it is they’re meant to show up, Lance supposes. He’s disinclined to learn yet another system of timekeeping - and by disinclined, he mostly means unable. He still has a hard enough time with doboshes and vargas and quintents. Trying to add another, likely unpronounceable set of times to his busy, buzzy mind just seems like asking for it. Besides, most of the time, it’s just him and Keith nowadays, and time just doesn’t seem to matter all that much.

In any case, they pop into some sort of ancillary sitting room and Kosmo wanders off to do wolfy things as keith politely raps on the door leading to the rest of the house before letting the two of them out into the hall. Mab is already there waiting for them just a door or two down.

“I see that the front door is too pass é for your rapacious creature,” she observes dryly.

“Sorry about that, mam-gu ,” Keith replies, slightly shamefaced. “He doesn’t really ask for specifics; just drops us off wherever suits him. And he’s not a big fan of the rain.”

Mab rolls her eyes at Keith, but has a little smile on her face anyway. Her attention catches on the dessert he’s carrying. “And what’s this?” the little goat asks, crotcheting up to peer at the casserole dish currently clasped in Keith’s hands. “Have you baked something for us today?”

“Not me,” Keith replies. “This was Lance’s doing. I was thinking we’d bring something like it to the festival, and Lance wanted you to try it first.” A hint of shame passes across his expression as he continues. “I’ve been trying to make a cake like you asked… it hasn’t been going well.”

Lance thinks the look on Mab’s face may be faintly embarrassed as well, but it’s a little hard to read subtle expressions on a goat. “Oh, fuck me,” she says quite politely with zero hesitation. “I should have thought about that before I signed you up. That oven never was consistent enough for cake.  I’m sorry, my lad -- I probably set you on a fool’s errand with that particular assignment.”

The guys don’t reply. They’re busy staring rather blankly at Mab.

She eyes them back. “Have I said something wrong?”

Keith sputters, leaving Lance to play wordsmith. “Well, no  mam-gu , not wrong . It’s just f-” he stutters to a halt on the expletive and then forces himself to swear. It doesn’t come out nearly as smoothly as Mab’s did. “ Fuck just isn’t a very polite word. That’s all. In fact, it’s one of our… um… saltier curses.”

“Your English is so flavorful. Salty indeed. I mostly remember this one-” she points a gnarled finger at Keith. “Using the word quite repetitively within the precincts of my kitchen here. Thus it seemed thematically appropriate for this conversation, as cooking was involved.”

Keith blushes brighter. Lance laughs.

Mab’s officious little maid appears from down the hall. Lance notices how Keith jerks slightly as he immediately turns to face her, watching her progress closely. She bobs a polite little curtsy before taking Lance’s dessert from Keith and spiriting it off - one presumes - to the kitchen or something. As she departs, Mab taps Keith’s hand, garnering his attention, before taking his arm and, by all appearances, leaning heavily on it. “To the morning room then, my lad. We’re not having any other company today.”

Keith nods again and begins to help the old woman down the hall, leaving Lance to trail along behind them.

“So, Lance,” Mab begins, her voice floating back to him, “I don’t remember you being the great chef in your Keith’s stories. That role belonged to another of your illustrious number, as I recall, no?”

Lance clears his throat. “Yeah, that would be Hunk. I -- I’m no great cook or anything, but this thing I made is a lot like a traditional holiday dish from our home planet that I’ve helped my mamá with many times. I hope it turned out alright…”

Keith turns his head far enough around to flash Lance a supportive look over his shoulder as Mab continues. “I’m sure it’s fine, boy. Your mother would be proud. She raised you well, after all. You have enough manners not to show up at a party empty-handed, anyway.” She opens a door and leads them into their destination.

The morning room is all done up in creams and pale yellows; and has a substantial wall of room-level windows -- unusual for Dolydd. They look out over the rainy, mist-shrouded orchards beyond her house. Before them, four heavy chairs, rather between armchairs and their dining counterparts, stand around a round table decked out in white linens. Keith helps Mab into one of them and gently shifts the teatray over in her direction before pulling out a second chair for Lance. He sits with a hint of a blush and watches Keith as he walks around the table to sit on Mab’s other side.

Mab eyes Lance all the while. Eventually, she adjusts her gaze to take in Keith as well. She pours tea for all of them, and as Lance picks up the teacup she offers, she finally says, “So, I see you’ve taken my instructions to heart, prince of posies. I trust you both enjoyed the experience?”

Bravely attempting not to spit his mouthful of not-tea across the pristine table; Lance promptly chokes on it instead. Keith watches him rather confusedly for a tick and then, clearly remembering the old goat’s directive to Lance at their last visit - go home and seduce him - he goes nuclear, high-blood-pressure red in the face. Busy ignoring his own discomfort while trying to get his choking under control, Lance still can’t help but notice that Keith’s violent flush goes rather nicely with the creamy, grey-white of his turtleneck. Keith always did look good in red…

“Come, come now, boys. It’s just a little fucking, no?” Mab observes, her voice still dry. “Or is that another impolite use of the word?” Lance seems to have lost all powers of speech, but he does manage to catch the wry sparkle in her milky eyes.

Mam-gu !” Keith finally manages to exclaim, or perhaps complain.

“What? It may have been a long, long, long time ago; but I was your age once upon a time. I seem to recall it being a rather randy period in my life. Are you humans really so different?”

“No, not really…” Keith mutters, sounding as if the words are being forced out of him at gunpoint.

“In that case, I’m surprised that you managed to crawl out of your bed and visit me at all. You may be a little odd to look at, but you both do certainly seem rather strapping.” Apparently Mab has every intention of maintaining the pair’s collective embarrassment for as long as possible. “Doesn’t your aphorism go something like: ‘ If you’re too young to talk about it, you’re too young to do it’ ?”

Lance begins to wonder whether it would be unduly rude to crawl under the table. The tablecloth hangs close enough to the floor that it looks to provide pretty good cover. Unfortunately, it looks rather like Keith might just dive down there first. Lance wonders if they’ll both fit.

Thankfully for the both of them, the maid reappears bearing multi-tiered serving platters full of sandwiches and other dainties at this most opportune of moments; and all three of them are silently entertained by the food for a while. Lance can’t help but notice that Mab’s pale blue eyes are still alive with something resembling mirth.

This is fun! I like her! ’ observes his blasted monologue. Lance does his very best not to groan aloud.

“I see that your new prince has been improving your wardrobe, lad,” Mab observes to Keith, taking the collective to safer conversational ground. “You took him off to Farchnad then?”

Keith nods, pulling a small, velvet-covered box from one of his pockets. “I did. And I brought you… something pretty?”

Mab takes the little box. Upon clicking it open she smiles and holds it out for Lance to see. It’s a floral cameo carved on the face of some rosy-pink stone and set in a filigree brooch of pale gold. “Keith, my dear boy, it’s lovely. You do know you don’t have to bring me gifts, though.”

“I know, mam-gu , but I like to anyway. I’m… I’m glad that you like it.” He looks a different, softer sort of embarrassed now. A look that Paladin lance wouldn’t have believed mopey, grouchy, stoic Keith was possibly capable of. He finds he’s very glad indeed that this Keith, his Keith, is capable of such an expression -- it’s, at the very least, unbelievably cute. Lance almost wants to declare it captivating, but that seems a little storybook: even for him.

They eat and chat back and forth about inconsequential things, and Lance is careful - this time - about his intake of not-tea. Keith catches him contemplating such, and shoots a sly little smile his way.

Eventually, as one should certainly expect, the final course can’t be put off any longer, and the maid appears with three servings of Lance’s trifle in delicate china bowls. Lance watches her like she’s the executioner stepping up onto his scaffold. As the bowls are set out in front of each diner, Lance stares at the contents. The trifle looks right. So as long as he didn't do anything boneheadedly moronic - like replace the sugar with salt - it should be edible, right?

He’s wandered so far afield into his anxious brain that he fails to notice that Keith and Mab have both already sampled his cooking -- right up until the moment that Mab’s twisted little hand pats him on the cheek. “You have indeed done your mamá proud, little prince. This is very pleasant.” She turns to include Keith in her commentary. “This will be a great success at - how did you decide to translate it - Firstfall ? Add a little brandy to the cream, I should think; oh, and some ground sbeis to the custard.” She glances around. “And you’ll be needing something to serve it in, of course. I didn’t send anything like that when I set up your kitchen. Off to the kitchens with you, my lad.” she says, waving a negligent hand at Keith. “Ailwen will have something appropriate for you.”

She rings a little bell, and the maid - Ailwen, apparently - pops into the room. Mab trills a set of incomprehensible instructions to her, and Keith rises to follow the maid from the room. He pats Mab’s arm as he walks away from the table. “Be good, mam-gu ,” he says while giving Lance a sweet smile.

This time around, Lance is substantially less terrified to be left alone with Mab. Though, if pressed, he would be forced to admit that substantially less is not the same as not terrified . He finds her eyes boring into him again when he glances in her direction.

“How has he been?” she asks simply.

Lance breathes out through his nose. “Well enough, I guess. We had a bit of a turn with his PTSD the other day…” he pauses. “Oh. That’s-”

“I recognize the term, lad. I’ve read pretty much all of our Keith’s informational library at this point. I made a special point of familiarizing myself with your ‘mental health’ literature and its terminology.” One of her hands seems to rise unconsciously to pat the silvery-white bun in her hair; teasing a strand or two back into place. “He didn’t become violent?”

“Oh no. Not at all. He just, well, he freaked out a little, and then ran away.” Lance breathes out again, a little harder this time. “And, afterwards, he couldn’t remember any of what happened. What he did, how he got upstairs, what I said…”

“I see. And you’re still firm in your convictions, Lance? You’ll be staying with him here?”

Lance eyes the goat, wondering if everybody is always going to be trying to convince him to leave Keith to his demons. “I’m not going anywhere,” he insists  a trifle shortly.Wincing a little at his own tone, he’s just about to apologize when Mab reaches over and rests her hand over his.

“Good. He seems well today. You’re good for him, Lance. The last time he went to Farchnad, it was two of your movements before he left the cottage again. When was it that the two of you traveled there?”

Surprised, Lance’s eyebrows knit as he offers a quick reply. “Yesterday -- it… um, it didn’t seem to bother him any. Being there.”

Mab nods her head. “As I said, you’re good for him. You know, you’re the only person I’ve ever seen him allow to stand behind him close enough to touch. He was doing it earlier in the hallway. He trusts you implicitly,” she pauses, her small face serious. “And, from what I’ve seen and heard; I think he’s probably right to.” She lets out a little sigh, the first that Lance thinks he’s heard from her. “Thank you for setting your life aside and coming here for him, Lance.”

And now it’s Lance’s turn at the soft, thoughtful blush. Finally, he sighs a little sigh of his own and says, “That wasn’t my life, mam-gu . I hadn’t… I just hadn’t realized it yet, is all.”

Keith and the maid reappear at the door, Keith lugging a carved crystal monstrosity of a centerpiece. Lance rises to his feet as the maid hands him two bottles: a large on full of amber liquid, and a much smaller one full of some pungent, brown powder.

Setting aside her teacup, Mab smiles at the both of them. “Fine, fine. Off with you now. Naptime is upon us, and you both have baking to do, after all,” she insists as she allows Lance to help her up from her seat. Once she’s standing, she tugs him down until he lowers his ear to the level of her face. “You’ve done well, Lance. With Keith, and with your mother’s dessert. I appreciate your efforts, and I’m certain that your Keith does as well,” she says in a low, warm voice. Lance nods and smiles as he helps her out into the hall.

Kosmo meets the assemblage by the front door this time, and each man bends in unison to drop a kiss on the little lady’s white-furred cheeks.

The trip home is, as usual, instantaneous; and the guys settle in swiftly for the night. It turns out that this afternoon’s underpants were lime green.

***

Several mostly entertaining days are spent perfecting Lance’s remembered recipe in advance of the impending party. By the time Keith brings up Lance’s proposed communiqué again, it’s been almost two movements since he’d originally suggested using Red as their own private postal service. He does so one day in the middle of their morning exercise routine -- expanded by unanimous consent due to the sheer volume of custard they’ve both been consuming.

“So, love, do you want to go and record messages today? You’re right… we should let everyone know that you’re okay.”

“That we’re okay, samurai. Or, at least, that we’re working on being okay. They all knew what I was headed out to do, after all. It’s you that they’ve been worried about…”

Keith looks decidedly uncomfortable. “Look, Lance, I’m sorry I-”

“Nope!” Lance leaps in, interrupting Keith with a sing-songy vigor. “None of that. If you feel like you want to apologize to everybody else in the video, I won’t try and stop you. But, seriously, K -- your whole running off to goat mountain thing has really worked out okay for me. So no apologizing. Not to me!” he orders firmly.

Keith manages to scrounge up a bit of a smile at the interruption and leans over to kiss his boyfriend sweetly in response. In turn, Lance flops over into him and then proceeds to wrap his lanky, lanky limbs all around Keith’s bulkier form; pinning the both of them to the exercise mat in a tangled heap.

“I love you,” they both manage to say in something approaching unison.

After they’ve done their barnyard chores, breakfasted, and spent some rather fine time in a lengthy and thoroughly entertaining conjugal shower - one where they both do their level best to test the bottomless nature of the cottage’s hot water - Lance and Keith both climb into comfortable clothes and have Kosmo hop them over to Red. As per usual, he drops them on the bridge before taking a moment to press his cold nose into each of their faces in turn before ambling over to the corner and laying down. Keith stands there next to Lance and stares at nothing. Lance stands there next to Keith and stares at, well, Keith. Eventually, Lance gathers his silent boyfriend into his arms.

“How are you doing, samurai? You gonna be alright?”

Keith doesn’t say anything, he just leans into Lance’s embrace instead.

“You know, baby, we don’t have to do this right now,” Lance offers, his voice a little hesitant. Now that they’re here and he’s watching Keith withdraw, he can’t help but feel like this whole thing might be pushing a bit hard; and he can’t help it as his anxiety begins to whip itself up into a furor. “We… w-we could come back another day or something, if that would be better.”

Keith curls down far enough to rest his head against Lance’s chest for a moment as he takes deep breaths. A deep-breathing Keith listening to his heartbeat seems to calm Lance a bit as well. Keith blows out a sigh and leans his upper body back far enough to look Lance in the eye for a tick and shake his head. “No, Lance, we’re already here. I’ll be okay, love. As long as you’re with me, I’ll be okay.” His eyes track over towards the main dash. “What about you, girl? Are you alright with the idea of playing mail-lion for us? We know you probably have better things to do than babysit us or run our errands, but-”

Keith’s quiet, rambling query is cut off by an audible sour note from Red followed by a firm little etude that serves to remind them both that Red is perfectly capable of deciding what’s important all on her own, thank you very much. Keith looks a little chagrined, and Lance figures he probably looks about the same, but he manages to scrounge up a thankful little smile for his lion anyway.

“How do you want to do this, K?”

Keith stares at Lance for a long handful of ticks, his eyebrows slowly knitting together as he considers the question. Then he drags Lance along with him a couple of steps and then drops himself down into the pilot’s seat, yanking Lance down with him so that he’s essentially sitting on Keith’s lap. “Like this, I think,” he says, his voice still a little hesitant, while his arms dart around Lance’s waist.

“Well, at the very least, this will certainly save us from having to update our relationship status…” Lance quips without much thought. To his dismay, however, the little smirk on his lips dies a rapid death as he feels the arms around him flinch and begin to retreat.

“Oh… I didn’t… I d-didn’t think of that. You don’t… Lance, you don’t have to sit with m-me -- we don’t have to stay like this. We really d-don’t have to tell.. I mean, if you don’t w-want to say anything, don’t want to t-tell people; then we d-don’t have to. It’s… i-it’s okay.”

Keith sounds uncertain. And in Lance’s recent experience, Uncertain Keith is a bad thing. In addition to that, Lance is desperately afraid that he hears a taint of resignation in those words that edges painfully close to despair as he offers Lance this out that he has absolutely no interest in. Lance stops the escaping arms with a firm grip and pulls them back around his waist even as he twists around a little in Keith’s lap so that he can look him in the eyes. “Keith, I love you. I love you . Have I ever said anything to make you think that I’m embarrassed of you? That I wouldn’t want our friends, our family , to know?”

Keith blinks and opens his mouth to answer, but Lance - with an instant frowny face of his own - leaps back in instead. “Wait! Don’t answer that. Answer this : have I said anything lately , you know, in recent history , to make you think that I have some problem with this, that I’m embarrassed of you? ‘Cause if I have, I’m so, so sorry, baby.”

Keith blinks again, but thankfully the hint of a smile curling at the corners of his lips appears nigh instantaneously. His body relaxes and his arms sink back into their hold on Lance’s waist. “So you don’t mind everyone… everyone finding out? Knowing about this? About us?”

“Of course not, K. I love you. You love me. Hell, they’ve all known that for ages anyway. I just… Keith, I love you, and I’ll joyfully have it tattooed on my forehead, if you’d like.”

“No, love. I like your pretty face just the way it is, thanks very much. Just… um… stay with m-me then? Just like this? It… i-it helps. Everything is better - easier - when you’re close. When y-you’re with me.”

Lance takes a moment to blink himself. Repeatedly. He’s feeling undeniably melty at that revelation, and trying quite shrilly to talk himself out of the tears that he finds are now threatening. ‘ Christ, man, suck it up and pull yourself together! ’ shrills his brain. ‘ But that was s-so sweet! ’ Lance sniffles back internally. His brain makes another of those vomiting noises.

“S-sorry,” Keith apologizes after a moment, clearly trying and failing to wait patiently for Lance to re-emerge from conversing with his psyche. “That was t-too… sappy. Sorry.”

And here comes that defeated, worried tone sneaking in again. Shitballs with the yoyoing. Lance dredges for a smile and ends up surprised by the ease with which he finds one. After all, Keith has just told him just about the sweetest thing ever uttered in the history of the universe, after all. “Samurai, you’re apologizing again . We’ve really got to work on that. Besides, there’s no such thing as too sappy. Not for me. I’ll always be right here with you. There’s no other place I could ever want to be. Truly. For as long as you’ll have me. I promise, K. I absolutely promise.”

“So, forever?” Keith manages to huff out in a nearly inaudible voice. Lance doesn’t fail to note that shiny hope sparking in Keith’s eyes again though; lighting them up with a sort of violet wonder. It’s simmering away in that hushed little statement of his too.

“That’s the idea, my Keith -- that’s absolutely the idea,” Lance states at his firmest before leaning in a hair closer and kissing Keith soundly. It takes a second kiss -- and a third before he can manage to drag himself back and resituate himself to face the screen again. Keith certainly seems to like this response, so Lance hopes that maybe that hope will stay kindled. “Are you ready, K?”

“As I’m going to be, I g-guess.”

At Keith’s assent, Red fires up her main screen and an image of her two paladins cuddled into their seat together winks into view as if she’d hung up a mirror in front of them. A little light in the corner flashes from red to green and both of the guys smile into the camera. Lance’s smile is bright and broad -- beaming even. Keith’s is smaller and looks a little careworn, a little subdued; but it’s there, and it’s genuine. Lance snuggles a little more firmly into Keith and then wraps one of his own arms around sad boyfriend’s shoulders.

Keith tightens his arms around Lance and manages to speak first. “Hi Shiro. And hi to Curtis and Ollie, and, w-well, everyone else who sees this. It’s Keith -- obviously. Well, it’s Keith and Lance…”

It’s adorably awkward the way he flushes slightly as he points out the bleeding obvious for the viewers at home. Entertained by his ever-captivating boyfriend, Lance cranes his neck around and presses a kiss onto Keith’s cheek. Keith’s blush deepens and he breaks off his greeting to do the Keithy thing where he moves his mouth, but no words manage to make it out. Lance jumps in to fill the dead air instead. “So, guys, I found him!”

Keith rolls his eyes through his blush. “I think the video here makes that self-evident, Lance.”

“Well, of course it does, K -- but you remember Shiro’s lessons: always state the mission outcomes at the beginning of the report.”

Keith rolls his eyes again and turns his attention back to the camera. “I’m so sorry that I worried you all. I’m… w-well, I’m not… uh, fine; but I’m working on it. And Lance is -- h-he’s helping me. It’s better… I’m better, now that he’s here. So, if you’re worried about having meddled in the whole, w-well, us -- this particular time I’m going to forgive you. Thank you all for s-sending him here to me. I never… I’ll… I c-can’t repay you for that. So, just, t-thanks.”

And, of course, now it’s Lance who’s fighting though an obnoxiously obvious blush. Well, that and worrying internally more than a little about what exactly he’s supposed to say. Or not supposed to say. They probably should have discussed this beforehand. He really doesn’t want to upset Keith, set him off again, cause problems, be the source of pain -- the list goes on. And he’s definitely concerned about his sempiternal tendency towards oversharing.

In the end, he takes a deep breath and settles in to ramble about their general health and wellness, hoping that Keith himself will manage to fill in whatever blanks he thinks are appropriate.

“So, yeah -- I found him, everybody. Well, Red did. But you all know how that goes. We’re in a safe place. Things are going okay. Well, really, some of it’s pretty damn great, honestly. We’re getting ready for winter here. That’s not necessarily great - you know, me and the cold don’t necessarily mix all that well - but I think it will be okay. Keith has this lonely little cottage outside of the village here. It’s wonderful actually, it’s really nice, and - you know - weatherproof. And there’s this beautiful meadow full of wildflowers… I mean, not so much in the winter, of course, but winter won’t last forever. Oh, and the locals are really nice too -- even if they are goats…”

And there goes Keith’s eyeroll yet again. It almost seems like enough to brace him for a moment, but his face begins to fall again as he starts to speak. I”m… s-sorry, but I’m not ready to… um…”

Keith’s struggle tears more than a little at Lance’s insides, so he leaps to the rescue, tilting his head slightly to lean it against Keith’s. “We’re going to stay here for a while and work on things,” he says utterly without informative details. “But we both wanted you all to know that we’re found, and safe, and recovering, and, you know, stuff. You don’t need to worry too much about us; you know, beyond how a guy from the beach and a guy from the desert are going to survive all the snow that’s on the way.”

Keith’s arms tighten again, and Lance drops his free hand down to caress the pair of hands knotted together in his lap. “We, uh, Red will d-deliver this for us, but w-we still have my ship…” Keith explains carefully. “So, we’ll call when I… I’m… when I can-”

Lance cuts Keith off once more, squeezing his hands. “Keith says things really are okay here. We’re going to be okay. So, you know, don’t call us, we’ll call you! And be sure to tell the kiddos that Uncle Keith and Tio Lance are thinking of them. We love you all,” he finishes with a smile before turning to kiss a nodding Keith on the temple. The poor boy’s finally wearing a relieved little smile of his own again, finally, and leaning into Lance as Red cuts the recording with a pleased little purr; so Lance figures that they must have done alright.

***

After a few doboshes of silent cuddling to recover Keith’s will to live following the initial filming, they take turns recording a pair of supplementary messages: Keith to Krolia, and Lance to his mamá and the rest of his family. They also give Red a last going over, pocketing the few odds and ends they’d left behind on their previous trip and giving her internal compartments a thorough washing.

They’ve both returned to the bridge to say their final goodbyes when the lion gives the pair of them a stiff little poke. At least, Lance presumes Keith heard the same message, as he gives a little hop and turns to Lance to inquire, “Wait -- what necklaces? Lance, do you know what she’s talking about?”

Lance nods his head and walks a little dumbly over to the dash. He’d completely forgotten about them. The hidden compartment pops open as he approaches and Lance reaches in to retrieve the box he’d secreted there movements before. Turning to Keith, Lance holds it cupped in careful hands. “Yeah, K. She’s talking about these,” he says. He fiddles with the box, looking for the latch as Keith approaches. It pops open just as he takes up a post right in front of Lance.

Lance grabs one of Keith’s hands and touches his finger to a necklace -- just like Coran had done to Lance when first demonstrating their features. The tiny portrait of the two of them flashes to life: sweaty and smiling, sitting back to back in the castle training room. Keith stares at it with no little surprise.

When he doesn’t pull his finger away, the scene flickers and changes, and then they’re treated to a candid shot of a very young and shirtless Lance and Keith standing in a castle elevator with towels draped around their necks.

Lance sucks in a surprised breath, but manages not to drop the box. “They didn’t do that before…” he observes, not particularly helpfully, as the miniature changes again. This time it shows the pair sleeping in front of a campfire, leaning against each other with Lance’s head on Keith’s shoulder and red’s forepaws just visible at the sides of the image. It looks almost like she’s cradling her paladins there.

“Lance, what are these?” Keith asks with awe in his voice. “Where did they come from?”

“They're, um, a gift from Coran.” Lance swallows. “For us. And from Red now, too, I guess. He said they originally belonged to him and Alfor…”

Keith’s eyebrows rise. “Wait, King Alfor? You mean Coran and Alfor were-”

“Apparently,” Lance replies nodding his head a bit vacantly. “Oh, and they’re some kind of communicator too, he said. Quantum-something-or-other?”

“Entangled?”

“Yeah, right. That’s it, I think. Coran said that they’re always connected to each other, no matter the distance. He said… Alfor would want them to be used as he had originally intended. That they were meant to connect two people that belong to each other. He wanted us to have them…” Lance can’t help but notice the wet, glossy look in Keith’s eyes as he tries to explain. “Baby, you alright?”

Keith nods slowly, blinking his hint of tears away. “Yeah, I… w-we should wear them then, yeah? I mean, if you want to,” Keith says in a mild, far-away voice.

Lance immediately pulls one of the blue-grey chains from its velvety backing and Keith ducks his head so that Lance can slip it onto him. Lance does so with no hesitation; and then he’s ducking his own head so that Keith can mimic the action. As soon as the necklace settles at his throat, Lance’s brows furrow. He can hear something.

Without actually thinking about it, he reaches up and wraps his fingers around the tag at his throat and his mind immediately fills with music. Lance recognizes it - how could he not - it’s Keith’s song. His eyes widening, he pushes Keith’s hand up to grab at his own necklace. As Keith’s fingers close around the twin to Lance’s, Lance can hear his own love song blending with Keith’s.

Keith’s eyes rapidly widen to match Lance’s, making it clear that he can hear the music as well. “What… Lance, it sounds like… I think it sounds like those dreams I was having before you got here? Is that possible?”

Lance gives a stunned little nod of his head. “Yeah…” he says, his voice breathy. “That’s… K, that’s what our feelings sound like to Red. Mine for you and, uh, yours for me…”

As they stand there a handsbreadth apart from each other, a third voice joins itself with their songs -- one they both immediately recognize. Red’s voice wraps around and through the Lance and Keith melodies; highlighting them, supporting them, lifting them up and binding them together. Now Keith’s eyes aren’t the only glassy ones in the room.

Kosmo’s own wise eyes open and fix on his boys as they both sniffle. He watches them intently as Keith’s free hand scrambles for Lance’s; but as their fingers twine together, he seems satisfied as to their well-being and rests his head back down on his paws.

“Red… She said… um. K, when we landed here, she said that she wanted to add her own blessing,” Lance murmurs in a halting voice. “She must have tied them into herself somehow, too.”

I did, beloved ,” resounds a warm, maternal voice from all around them. Both men crane their disbelieving heads towards the main controls as they all light up and come online. “ I wanted you both to know that wherever I am, whenever I am, I will always be with you; watching over you. You are my children, my sons, my treasured paladins. And I know that even when I can’t be here physically, that you will watch over each other for me .” Lance can feel the slight tremor in his own hand, as well as the matching one in Keith’s; and he leans his head over against the other man’s, brown hair splaying against inky black as Red continues. “ I go now to fulfill my purpose: to guard the light at the center of all things. But know that if ever you need me, I will hear you, and I will come. For you, Lance and Keith, I will never truly be gone. My song, and my love will endure with you. Live and love together, my cherished sons. Cleave to one another and find the future that you deserve in each other’s arms. You are heroes -- saviours and defenders of the universe. Love each other, and know that I could not be more proud .”

As Red’s vibrant and wholly unexpected contralto fades away, neither Keith nor Lance can seem to find a single word to say in reply. What do you even say to something like that? Lance can feel Red in his mind, the music and emotions of their bond underlining her words as he hears the outside door sliding open and the ramp descending to the quarry floor.

Lance realizes that at some point, both Keith and he himself had managed to wrap an arm around the other’s waist. Rather than part, they step together to Red’s main dash, each releasing their necklaces to rest a hand against it instead. The controls flare at their touch.

“Thanks girl,” Lance whispers in the same moment as Keith mumbles, “We love you too.”

With no sound but the clicking of his nails against the deck, Kosmo comes up behind them and leans just a little against their joined bodies for a tick before making his way out the door and exiting the lion. With similar serenity and silence, Lance and Keith slowly turn and follow him out.

As they walk down the ramp, Lance definitely notices that for the first time in, well, what seems like forever, it’s not raining any more. A few meters beyond the ramp they stop and turn back towards Red as she stands gracefully and then bends her great, metal head down until it’s level with their own. Her eyes sparkle and shine.

Be well, my most beloved sons ,” she says. “ Be well .” And then, with a swelling chorus like a hundred thousand whispers, she raises her muzzle to the sky and lifts off just as the first flakes of snow begin to filter down through the rarefied air. Her red body shimmers and glints against the silvery clouds until disappearing with a final twinkle and leaving Keith and Lance standing arm in arm watching nothing more than the falling snow.

Chapter Text

“So, the festival is tomorrow, since the snow finally started. We need to make your soon-to-be famous trifle,” Keith observes as they finish washing the breakfast dishes. Lance feels a little - admittedly ridiculous - fillip of terror run through him.

Pull yourself together, kemosabe , you defeated Zarkon, and Lotor, and Haggar. You saved the entire fucking universe. The fact that a dessert has you considering running away with your tail between your legs and hiding is embarrassingly ridiculous, you fool, ’ his brain observes caustically.

Lance’s attention refocuses when Keith’s dishwater-dampened hand comes in for a landing on his cheek. “Lance, no worrying. It’ll be great. I loved what you made. Mab loved it too. Everyone will be impressed. I promise!”

Lance swallows and dredges up a smile as he leans into his lover’s touch and warms his chilly, anxiety-riddled soul on the absolute certainty in Keith’s voice. “I know. I’m okay, just - you know - brainfucked like normal,” he says faintly.

Keith just smiles at him and leans closer to give him a little kiss. On the lips. And more than a phoeb into this wonder of a relationship, Lance is starting to get used to that. Sort of. Nevertheless, he still can’t help melting a little every single time it happens.

“I’ve got a run into town today. I still need to pay the seamstress for your new clothes -- they’re definitely ready to pick up by now. And I was going to drop off the gifts for tomorrow at Mab’s so that we don’t have to worry about them later.”

Lance frowns a little. “Gifts?”

“Well, yeah. Firstfall is a lot like Christmas. People exchange little presents at the dinner.”

“But… I don’t have any-”

“I picked something up for everyone on Farchnad. From the two of us. So… nothing to worry about there. I meant to mention it before, but I forgot. I’m sorry, love. I’m not expecting you to-”

Lance’s brain flashes to the ream of photos he’d printed out on their little excursion, and the collection of frames currently hiding under the bed waiting to be filled. He cuts Keith off with another little kiss. “No, no. None of that, Mr. Forgetful. I’ve got something to give you. Couldn’t let our first goaty little Christmas sneak by without giving you something .”

Keith blinks a surprised little blink. “You… have a present for me? I didn’t even tell you about the holiday in time…”

“No, no, you didn’t. But a boy scout is always prepared.”

“You were a boy scout?”

“No, but I’m susceptible to a good motto. Besides, did you get something for me ?”

Keith colors a little. “Well, yeah.”

“Then quiet, you. Presents are good. And surprises are better.”

Keith smiles, “So, would you like to come along?”

“I can if you need me to, but I do have a thing or two to take care of if you don’t need my help.”

“Lance, really, don’t worry about a present for-”

“Nope. Presents! Surprises! Christmas!” Lance nearly sings in his insistence.

They spend the rest of the morning in the kitchen baking new loaves of pound cake and making more magic pear-berry compote and custard. Once all of the substructural pieces of their feast-day contribution are tucked away or cooling on the counter, Lance follows Keith down into the cellar to help him retrieve what is apparently his secret stash of gifts.

“I’m not going to find mine down here, am I? I’d hate to ruin your surprise…” Lance asks a touch slyly once they reach the bottom.

Keith eyes him. “Nope. Besides, weren’t you just explaining to me how wonderful surprises were?” Clearly not expecting an answer, he leads Lance across the room to a substantial pile of boxes and bags. “Careful lifting the boxes on the bottom, some of them are pretty heavy.”

Lance stares at the slightly menacing pile. “All of these are gifts? I should start calling you Santa Keith.”

Keith blushes a little again. Lance finds that he really appreciates his boyfriend’s milk-pale skin -- it makes those attractive little blushes so damn obvious. “It’s nothing too big or expensive… just… enough toys for all of the kids to pick one. Oh, and little household conveniences - tools and things - for the adults.” He opens one of the boxes, revealing hammers, saws, wrenches, pots and pans: all manner of high quality little things that would prove technologically impossible or, at least prohibitively expensive here on this barely steel-age moon. Lance grabs one of Keith’s nervous hands and gets up on his tiptoes to brush a kiss against Keith’s temple right at the hairline.

“My Keith, you are a good, good man; and I love you very much.”

Keith blushes more, but manages to murmur a little, “I love you too,” as he hefts one of the boxes and carries it upstairs. Lance follows his example and soon enough the whole substantial stack has migrated to the entryway.

Kosmo, who had been rooting his way through his breakfast, wanders over and gives Keith quite a look. Keith shoots it right back at him and pulls his coat down from its hook. “You sure you don’t want to come?” he asks Lance again as he slips into its sleeves.

Lance wanders over and gives him a fairly serious kiss this time. “Nope. Things to do, samurai. Christmas!”

Keith smiles his soft, little for-Lance-alone smile and pecks him back before settling a hand on Kosmo’s haunch with a pat. Keith, Kosmo, and the entire array of gifts-to-be sparkle away.

***

As soon as Keith is out the door, Lance transforms himself into a positive flurry of activity. He digs his way through the kitchen drawers until finally finding a pair of scissors that don’t look like they were forged in Elizabethan England for the purpose of shearing sheep. He also digs out a pair of rulers and then most carefully washes and dries the largest of Keith’s cutting boards.

Thus set up on the brightly lit counter, he hies himself upstairs and retrieves his great stack of pictures as well as the various frames from under the bed; congratulating himself warmly for his forethought when he yanks forth the art knife, glue, and thoroughly diverse selection of matting paper he’d acquired on Farchnad.

He works quickly and diligently at his project, measuring frames and cropping pictures. ‘ Thank the seasonably semi-appropriate little Christ that your mamá and Ronnie made you spend so much of your time as a teenager scrapbooking with them. I remember just how much you always ‘ hated ’ doing it… but it seems to be standing you in good stead at the moment, ’ mocks Lance’s brain.

Lance sticks his tongue out at it.

Well, he sticks it out more, as it had already been poked out of the corner of his mouth in its ‘cute concentration’ pose. ‘ Shut it, you bitch ,’ he replies merrily once he finishes his measurement and grimaces down at a picture for Keith and Shiro from behind, their black and white hair mingling where their heads are leaned together. ‘ I just hope that Keith will like these. It’s not all that original a present, I’m afraid.

His mind - choosing to have one o fits rare, supportive moments - blows a raspberry at him. ‘ Can it, you wanker. He’ll love them. Despite the muscles and the whole dashing, mysterioso, ninja-assassin thing, Keith is just as big a sentimental sap as you are.

“I hope so…” Lance mutters aloud as he continues to work.

As his frames begin to fill, Lance starts setting out his new tableau on the broad mantelpiece. On the far right, opposite the existing pictures and the vase of blue and white flowers, he sets the largest of the frames out like an anchor. It’s separated into nine segments, the largest of which - the one in the middle - holds a copy of the same smiling, sweaty-haired Keith and Lance in the training room that appears on Coran’s necklaces. Each of the smaller sections surrounding it holds a headshot of one of the paladins, all decked out in their helmets: Shiro, Pidge, Hunk, and Allura. The remaining voids he fills with Coran and Kosmo, as well as a shot of Black and red flying gracefully together; and finally one of the Castle of Lions itself, resting gracefully on the Arusian coastline.

Next to that he begins to arrange his selections of each of the paladins individually. These come from more recent times, for the most part. Shiro and Curtis with Ollie on the day they brought him home; a tired looking Hunk holding newborn twins and grinning dopily while Shea sits beside him cuddling their eldest; Pidge and Matt with their father, all bent over some kind of techno gewgaw, complete with enraptured looks on their faces; and a long-range shot of Coran, all decked out in his Altean finery, and speaking to a crowd at the foot of Allura’s statue -- a smiling statue visibly shining its benison down on all assembled.

As he continues his careful work, each photograph delicately cropped and mounted on a color-coordinated matte from his not-quite never-ending array of options, another little section of the scene is revealed. Keith in his admiral’s dress uniform, flanked by Krolia and Kolivan. Keith lunging out of bed to hug his mom in the hospital after the battle for Earth. ‘ Grizzled ’ Keith laying in a pile with Kosmo on the Castle’s observation deck, his black hood pooling on his shoulders. That shot of Keith and Shiro watching the sunset, the orange light seeming to soak into Keith’s black hair while it glints off of Shiro’s white.

Work, work, work. Next to those, Lance begins to work in some shots of himself as well. Him and Hunk cooking in the castle galley. Him covered in dirt and manually gardening with Pidge on Olkarion, the Olkari looking on bemusedly as plants flit through the air in response to their mental commands. Him and Keith running a footrace in full paladin armor at games in their honor on some recently liberated planet.

More of their friends go in for balance too. Hunk standing next to Shiro and Curtis’s wedding cake - one of his grander creations - affixing the two little grooms to the top. Pidge asleep on her laptop keyboard as Shiro drapes a blanket over her shoulders. Shiro and Allura at the head of a conference table surrounded by dignitaries. All of the paladins together in the mess hall watching in bemused horror as Coran serves them food goo and nunvill for the four thousandth time. The list goes on.

Lance sits and breathes and ponders the increasingly busy mantel as he plans out his last set. ‘ Is it too much? ’ he inquires a little shakily. ‘ Nope, ’ rings the firm reply. ‘ I hope you’re right… ’ Lance brain-murmurs back, but he hauls himself back up and returns to his workstation at the counter to fill the last couple of frames anyway.

These last few are a little shakier, quality-wise, and he can’t help but be glad that his comm is a much better photographer than he is by himself. A selfie of Keith and Lance smiling in the sunny meadow on their first day together - wildflowers dotting the background - ends up next to a shot of Keith bending to kiss Mab’s cheek, and another of him surrounded by a veritable riot of tiny caprine children clutching at their new toys. Lance deems both pictures decent enough, considering that he'd snuck taking them with his comm barely peeking out of his pocket. Next comes a less candid shot of a very muddy pair of boys posing in front of their newly finished barn while a recumbent Kosmo watches them attentively from his post on the grassy roof.

Blowing out one last, long breath, Lance adds a final picture -- mostly for his own benefit. This last one is of Keith, bundled up in the blue throw on the sofa, the very fireplace it’s sitting above is visible off to the side. He’s sleeping in this photo, and his face is relaxed -- bearing just a hint of a hazy smile. And in the foreground sits a coffee table absolutely awash in a thousand or so tiny, cobalt blue daisies.

Despite being described as ‘one last’, Lance’s previous long breath is joined then by an even longer one, this one almost a sigh, as he collapses bonelessly onto the sofa and attempts to take in his handiwork. He decides that he’s thoroughly pleased by the result. The room seems more gracious now, more hospitable -- a little more lived in, now that it has a little of their history imprinted on it. On a whim, he dips his hand into the neck of his t-shirt and draws out his locket. Wrapping his fingers around it, he listens to the crooning of Keith’s song for a dobosh before deciding to give the thing a try.

“Hey, babe. Can you hear me?” he asks aloud with careful clarity. After a pause, the necklace in his hand goes just a tiny bit cooler.

Lance, is that you? Can you hear me ? Is everything alright? ’ comes a reply that rings in the vaults of his mind. He even catches a whiff of Keith’s faint concern puddling along in the undertones. It’s almost like talking to Red, except - you know - with words. Which would be unique for her, their last unexpected conversation notwithstanding.

“Yup. Just me. Everything’s fine. I just thought we should see if these actually work as advertised.” He pauses, concluding that they certainly seem to. “How’s things?”

It's a little busy here. Well… actually, it’s a madhouse, ’ drifts in the reply. It feels more harried than the tone suggests. Lance decides the necklaces might have an interesting bit of truth-meter potential. ‘ I’ve been drafted to help a little with the setting up. Is that okay? Will you be alright by yourself for another couple of vargas?

Lance nods, and then rolls his eyes at himself for nodding to somebody who’s currently like twenty miles away. Keith’s voice floats back in ‘ Lance, did you just nod at me? ’ it inquires.

Lance blinks. Definitely some interesting potential. “Yeah, K… I did. The necklace told you that?” Lance concludes that it doesn’t really matter at the moment, and rolls on to his answer. “Anyway, that’s fine. I’ll be fine here. Or… do you need me to come and help? You could send Kosmo back for me.”

No, no. It’s okay. They just need a bit of help with the heavy lifting. The wolf and I have it covered.

“Okay, K. In that case, since you’re being all helpful and neighborly; and probably all sweaty and manly too - what with the heavy lifting - um…” Lance pauses. “Wait. Where was I?” He can hear Keith chuckling at him over the link. “Yeah, shut up. How about you let me cook you supper?”

You don’t have to do that, love, ’ Keith insists.

“I know that I don’t have to, babe. I want to. It’s different. Maybe it could be like… you know… a date. I’ll make us something special for our first Christmas Eve together!”

Love, you do know that it’s actually like August, right?

“Yeah, shut up again you. Christmas! Christmas Eve special dinner date for Keith and Lance. Don’t spoil your appetite!”

Sounds lovely. I promise that I won’t- ’ There’s a pause in the conversation, and the music still swelling along in the bottom of Lance’s consciousness swells in volume and complexity. ‘ Hey, Lance?

“Yeah, babe? What is it?”

I love you.

***

Having no particularly clear idea of when Keith will actually return from doing his good turn for the caprine community, Lance tidies up the leavings of his not-so-little art project and sets aside his photo albums and the remaining pictures for the time being, in favor of retreating to the kitchen proper and attempting to channel his mamá with all his might.

He’s forced to bypass the Cuban Christmas standard, as he’s fairly sure that he won’t find a suckling pig in the larder regardless of how hard he might look. Instead, he goes trolling for other Cuban inspired possibilities. As he sets various options out on the counter, his shaky plans begin to coalesce.

Thankfully, he’s discovered that beans and rice - well - bean-things and rice-things seem to fill some sort of evolutionary niche, and are thus readily available. Admittedly. The bean-things are fuchsia, and the rice-things a sort of violent turquoise; but disregarding the errant colors, Lance has fairly high hopes for them. So, some of Keith’s thankfully pre-soaked bean-things find their way into a pot, eventually to be joined by the colorful rice-things; and Lance moves on to chopping.

He chops space onions and space garlic, and slices some space mushrooms. And he dices a veritable riot of spongy, purple Dolydd-born tomato-things. With a little snort, Lance decides he should probably stop appending ‘ space ’ to everything in an attempt to save time and effort, if nothing else. Then he moves on to his peppers from Farchnad. He starts with a small, unassuming, cream-colored one. This winds up being a mistake. When he samples a tiny shred of it, his eyes immediately begin to stream.

Lance flounders over to the sink, and then spits and swears. He spits and moans. He spits and cries. All the while his brain wails a joltingly monotonous scream of ‘ Quiznack! Quiznack! Quiznack! Quiznack! ’ at him. In the end, he winds up sitting on the floor next to the refrigerator, having guzzled an entire half pint of heavy cream before the noise in his brain, and on his tongue, dies down.

Deciding to move as far along the spectrum from unassuming as he can get, he levers himself back to his feet and wipes his eyes on his shirttail a final time before selecting his next pepper. It’s spiky and angry looking, and a surprisingly belligerent shade of blue. Thankfully, it winds up being almost counterintuitively sweet and mildly zesty, thus making the cut for this evening’s purposes.

The mushrooms end up in a skillet with some of the onions, and what Lance is pretty sure is ground bird-monster of some sort; sauteeing away on a back burner while Lance turns his attention to what he hopes will be the main attraction. A lovely, marbled goat roast slides into a heavy-ass cast iron pot that Lance wrestles onto the stove. It’s joined by the tomato-things and the rest of his collection of veggies, along with a splash of vinegar. Well, it looks and smells like vinegar, at least; so there’s hope. As well as a healthy dose of soup stock purloined from Keith’s stores.

He carefully stokes the fire in the belly of the stove and leaves his bean and roast concoctions to simmer along gently. Setting aside his now nicely browned ground bird-monster for the time being, Lance can’t help but be impressed with his outcomes thus far. Things look right. They smell right. Nothing is burnt, and the house hasn’t caught fire. ‘ Housewife Lance, is it actually possible that you’re really going to succeed with this whole multitrack cooking odyssey you’ve set yourself on? ’ inquires his brain. Lance can’t really tell whether he’s being congratulated for his successes, or mocked rather snottily, so he shrugs his shoulders and replies, ‘ I think so…

Probably shouldn’t have thought so.

By the time Keith and Kosmo teleport in sans enormous stack of presents, the house is full of the homey, slightly spicy scent of Lance’s culinary successes; and Lance would probably notice a pleasantly excited response from both the boyfriend and the wolf if he weren't busy staring morosely at his culinary failures. At the fifth of five mixing bowls, in fact, or rather, its contents. The bowls are ranged across the counter in front of him. In point of fact, he’s so busy staring that he doesn’t even notice them come in. At this point in his adventure, he’s covered head to knees in flour, and is lurking, hunched over that last bowl. Straddling it, in fact, with his elbows on the counter while his ruinously messy hands wreak havoc on his already batter-spoiled hair.

“Lance, love, you doing okay?” Keith asks somewhat hesitantly as he walks towards him. He’s using the kind of voice you’d use when an animal is about to bolt, so it’s fair to presume that he’s more than noticed Lance’s miserable, abstracted state. Despite the careful quiet of Keith’s question, Lance lurches dramatically, nearly sending his mixing bowl to the floor; takes one long, long look at Keith; and then dissolves into frustrated tears.

Keith makes it the rest of the way into the kitchen in record time, pulling an admittedly very messy Lance into his arms utterly heedless of his batter-covered state. His arms locking around Lance, a rather shocked-looking Keith manages to stutter out, “Lance… oh, love… what’s wrong?”

“I’m… I’m c-completely w-worthless. I can’t even manage to…” he trails off and gestures around Keith at the prominent sequence of mixing bowls. Their contents range from something that rather resembles white paint to something that looks remarkably like gravel. None of them appear to be even remotely edible.

Keith kisses Lance on his thoroughly-powdered forehead, followed by his thoroughly-powdered lips. The profusion of flour has left the tear tracks on his face looking rather pasty. “Lance. Lance, it doesn’t matter. It’s certainly no reason to cry. Can I… maybe I can help?”

“I wasn’t supposed to need any help. You were supposed to come home to this perfect meal. A p-perfect date. I’ve r-ruined everything. Just l-like usual.”

“Love, please don’t worry about that. Please don’t cry! You could have hiked down and got food goo from the ship; or just forgotten the food entirely-” Keith pauses. “Well, that would probably have been preferable to food goo anyway…” Keith adds with a weak little chuckle as he tilts his head to kiss away the milky-looking tears. “The only thing you ever have to do to make my evening perfect is be there. Show up.”

Lance blinks and snuffles before managing to hiccup out a disbelieving little, “ Really ?”

“Really,” Keith assures him instantly. “Now, what are we trying to make here?” He glances back into the bowls. If he represses the urge to shudder at what he sees, he does it well and Lance can’t tell.

“I was… quiznack.” Lance heaves out the remnants of a forlorn sigh. “ We’re making empanadas, but I can’t get the dough to be… well… doughy, I guess. I’ve never tried to make the crust part before.”

Keith glances at the bowls yet again. “It should be kind of like pie crust, right?”

Lance nods his head a little. “Well, these are… uh, savory. So probably a little… um, thicker? And what… heavier? I don’t really know what that means, I guess. Is that the right word? Does that make sense?” Lance scrubs a hand through his hair, depositing even more kitchen cadaver into it.

“Sure it does. It just means you have to replace some of the lard with butter.”

Lance’s eyes go comically wide and he stiffens in Keith’s arms.

“What, Lance? What is it?”

“Lard… I should’ve… apparently that’s the problem here. Lard. Lard, lard, lard…”

Keith can’t help but laugh as he pulls Lance closer again. After a moment or two, Lance gives one final, half-hearted sniffle and begins to chuckle as well.

“Love, will the things cooking be alright by themselves for a few minutes?”

“Sure. Why?”

“Let’s take a shower, then. I stink. I’ve been moving trestle tables all afternoon. And you -- you’re covered in… well, we’ll call it ‘not-crust.’”

Lance actually manages a hint of a giggle at that as Keith leads him from the room by the hand. Yes, supper can wait a little.

***

Keith is soft, and sweet, and gentle to Lance in the shower. Full of quiet murmurs meant to soothe, he washes all of the incipient glue out of Lance’s hair, and then his beard -- and really, seriously, how exactly did he manage to get that much ick on his face anyway? Regardless, by the time Keith’s done, Lance has mostly settled into a state of strikingly, coherently firm mortification. He insists to Keith that he’ll be alright, and though Keith doesn’t actually look at all convinced, he nods and gives Lance a little smile as he climbs out of the shower. Thus, Lance is left alone under the hot spray as Keith bustles his way out of the room. He tries pretty hard not to think about his little… episode in the kitchen. He’s not very successful.

By the time he finally manages to drag himself out of the cubicle and towel off, he feels calmer and, well, stupider. He finds the sweatpants and the tank that Keith has obviously ever-so-chivalrously slipped into the bathroom for him, and crawls into them before running a brush through his damp hair. Devoid of excuses, Lance winces his way back out into the kitchen, quite actively fighting the urge to actually tiptoe.

You towering, cowering, fuck-factory -- what the three-day-deceased Christ were you thinking? That display was so far past the fucking pale I don’t even know what to say to you, and I am very rarely at a loss for words… Unfathomable asshattery at it’s very finest that was -- let me tell you, ’ shrieks the monologue Lance is doing his level best to ignore entirely as he slips through the half-open door and freezes at the sight of Keith at the sink.

The vessels of disaster have been removed from the counter, and given Keith’s location, clearly washed up for Lance already. And just as soon as Lance freezes in his boots - well, bootlessness, he supposes - Keith dries his hands on his dish towel and nearly hops over to Lance, a soft expression on his face. Before Lance can speak, or move, or really even think, Keith has enveloped him in a bear hug firm enough to lift Lance’s bare feet right off the ground at its offset.

“I love you, Lance,” Keith says into his damp hair as he presses his lips to Lance’s head. “Thank you for cooking supper -- it looks, and smells, wonderful.”

And while Lance had finally actually not been expecting mockery from Keith for his most  recent behavior - misbehavior - whatever. He had been expecting… well… something . Keith’s thank you throws him completely and he finds himself grinding his gears stuck between potential responses.

“I’m… I… uh, thanks? Or, er… sorry?” Lance blinks repeatedly, and when Keith’s arms squeeze a little tighter again, some part of his brain stem kicks back on and wraps Lance’s arms up and around to match.

“I’m sorry you were so frustrated. I wish I could have helped better,” is what comes out of Keith’s mouth, leaving Lance even more abjectly dumbfounded.

“Wait… uh… w-wait! You’re apologizing to me ? K, I had a total, stupid, deranged meltdown and cried about pastry. You shouldn’t be apologizing -- I should be…”

“No!” Keith replies with surprising force. “I really, really don’t want you to. No apologizing to me, love. Promise me you won’t. You spent all afternoon making this lovely dinner. You worked so hard. And please, please believe that Iunderstand the whole baking meltdown thing. I mean, hell, I was on the verge of one for the most of a movement there before you swooped in to save me from the great litany of failed cakes.”

He pauses for a moment before squeezing Lance a final time and then taking a step back. His arms slide from around Lance, but he does stop after that single step and allows his hands to come to rest on Lance’s shoulders instead. He fixes his gaze on the still slightly downcast face in front of him and waits for Lance to actually look up. Actually look at him. When he finally does, he can’t help but notice that Keith is looking a little hesitant now, all of a sudden. Or, maybe just a little shy. It’s hard to tell with him sometimes.

“Lance, love, would you… uh… would you like me to teach you?” he asks in a rather quiet voice. “Or,” he rushes on, “If you just want to be done with the whole thing, I could just make some pastry for you? Or, if… oh… you could just tell me what still needs to be done, and then I could just finish everything off for you, if you’re still, you know, frustrated with the whole kitchen thing.”

Ah, yes. Shy. Shy and almost unbearably sweet. “Would you?” Lance asks. Keith stares at him for a tick before Lance is driven to smack a palm into his own forehead. “Oh, er… shit. That was really ambiguous, wasn’t it?” Lance snorts out. Said snort slowly molds itself into a chuckle, and that’s enough to get Keith going as well as his posture relaxes. It’s hardly a tick before they’re both laughing hard and falling back into each other’s arms.

As the laughter finally trails off, Lance presses a kiss - quick and firm - against Keith’s lips and tries to pick up the dropped stitches of his earlier response. “Would you teach me? I… is that okay? We could finish everything together.”

Keith grins and bestows on Lance a kiss of his own. It turns out messy because of said grin, but teases a matching smile out of Lance effortlessly. “That sounds great, love. Come to the counter.”

There, in a place no longer ravaged by the corpses of Lance’s culinary failures, Keith sets out a clean mixing bowl and fresh ingredients. As Lance watches, he measures out flour and cold water, butter and lard, and then adds a double pinch of salt.

“Okay, now you just work it all together with your hands. Gently. You don’t want to handle it too much -- it’ll get tough,” Keith advises, gesturing for Lance to go ahead and give the whole hands-on portion a go. “There’s a tool you can use for this, but I think it’s better to use your hands -- you can’t tell what’s going on if you don’t actually feel the texture.”

Feeling emboldened by the supervision, Lance does as he’s bade and sinks his hands into the contents of the bowl. After watching for a moment, Keith adds his own hands to the mix. Lance stills as Keith aligns them so that his palms and fingers are draped directly over the backs of their counterparts, and begins to move them; effectively kneading the dough using Lance’s hands as tools.

They work at it like this until Keith is satisfied with the results. Still smiling, Keith splits the ball of dough in half and then sprinkles the counter with flour before plopping half of it down and retrieving his rolling pin.

“So, I thought I would go ahead and roll out the first half while you watch, and then you could try on the second. Sound okay?”

As Lance nods, Keith begins to roll out his dough wad. Halfway through, he dusts it with flour, flips it over, and then sprinkles the other side before completing his task. Lance stares at the perfect specimen gloating at him from the counter as Keith slides it aside, hauls out the unrolled half, and hands over the rolling pin.

Lance immediately breaks the ball of dough in half and gets one of those halves rolled completely around the pin.

“Don’t push so hard, love,” Keith advises without even a chuckle. “Really, you don’t have to push down at all -- just let the weight of the rolling pin and your hands do the work for you.”

Keith pulls the stuck portion free and presses it carefully back into its compatriot, flopping it several times as he merges the dough back into a single enemy to be defeated. Then, he places his hands over Lance’s once again and shows him what to do. By the time they’re done, the both of them have flour in their hair again, but there’s finally crust to be had, and Lance finds himself feeling rather proud. It’s a nice change.

They cut the crust into circles and Lance shows Keith how to fill and then crimp the dumplings. This leaves Lance feeling yet a bit more better about himself, as his finished empanadas look quite a lot nicer than the lumpy ones Keith has assembled. By the time the tray is sliding into the oven, both Keith and Lance have firm smiles on their white-dusted faces. They adjourn to the dinette with beer as they wait for the timer to tick down, with Lance periodically bustling back and forth in those moments where checking on things seems like the thing to do.

***

To Lance’s enduring satisfaction, the serving and eating of his laboriously and adventurously prepared supper go off without a hitch. Lance can actually sort of cook like a grown up. Who knew?

“So, love, I really didn’t know you could cook like this. It’s great . What’s it all called?” Keith asks with a broad grin as Lance deposits his loaded plate in front of him.

Ropa vieja and moros y cristianos , my babe. Well, sort of. It’s… I guess, Cuban food à la Dolydd… hm. Maybe that should just be à la goat? Well, and some ground bird-monster or something, I think… in the empanadas.”

“I… uh… don’t know what any of that means, love. My Spanish is questionable at the very best.”

Lance laughs from the kitchen as he finishes dishing his own plate. “Well, it means old clothes and moors and christians .” He laughs some more. “Which, I suppose doesn’t help you all that much anyway; so speaking Spanish is pretty optional for this conversation, I guess. What we’ve got here is stewed goat and purple tomato-y things served with a side of pink beans and blue-green rice; instead of stewed beef with tomatoes and black beans and rice.”

Keith, who had been waiting ever-so-politely to eat until Lance returns to the table with his own plate and seats himself; finds his waiting accomplished. So, he digs in with visible gusto all the while carefully trapping one of Lance’s legs between his own ankles.

“Lance, this is so great. Really, really great. I don’t even know what to say… Thank you. Thank you for doing all of this, for going to all this trouble. I’ve missed spicy food living here. And I’ve… I’ve missed your mamá’s home cooking too.”

“Well, I can’t claim that this is that , exactly, but it’s a pretty decent homage, I think. And you really don’t have to thank me, babe. I wanted to cook tonight, you know, except for that one hour in the bowels of perdition. Besides, you helped me cook anyway… came to my rescue, just like you always do.”

“And always will, my Lance. My love. Always.”

***

After supper, considerably more beer than is probably good for them, and the unusually sloppy washing of the dishes -- wherein Lance only broke one plate; the boys repair to the sofa with tumblers of that flowery, yellow booze in hand. It’s not until Keith drags himself over to stoke the fire that he finally notices the new additions to the room. He stands and stares, and stands and stares.

Lance isn’t quite sure what to think as the silence drags on. He manages not to sink too far into his burgeoning inferiority complex, mostly because it - the silence, that is - doesn’t feel uncomfortably. No, it doesn’t feel uncomfortable exactly, but it does feel sort of… loaded. He finally hauls himself a little unsteadily up off the sofa and sidles over to join Keith. 

The pictures look nice on the mantel, he thinks -- they do make the room more lived in: more like a home, and less like a Danish country living magazine from like 1861. 1961? Whatever. The silence continues. Silently. Lance, feeling increasingly alone with his thoughts begins to bounce from foot to foot without actually realizing he’s doing anything of the sort.

Ultimately, Lance is about to open his mouth and say, well, anything really -- it’s not like he’d planned out a conversation for this in advance; though having thought of it, now he kind of wishes that he had. Instead of opening his mouth and letting some predictably useless nonsense escape, he finds himself drawing up short instead as he feels Keith’s arm wrap around his waist and pull him closer.

“You put all of these together this afternoon?” Keith finally asks in a quite, surprised voice. “Made all of these and cooked supper?”

“Um… yeah? Merry Christmas. Er… Goatmas?”

“Thank you,” continues Keith’s deep, soft voice as he leans over to rest his head against Lance’s, his eyes still roving from frame to frame.

“You, uh… you like them, then?”

Eyes still busy, Keith nods first before tearing his attention away and fixing it on Lance instead. “I love them. And I love you.” He raises a hand to brush across the selfie of the two of them in the meadow. “I don’t know, it makes it feel… warmer? They remind me that I… that we have a family out there that loves us.” His eyes track back to Lance’s, “It’s a good thing to remember, I think… It’s like our friends - our family - I mean… like they’re here to welcome us home.”

Lance curls a little more tightly into Keith’s side. “I was thinking the same thing, baby. I like it when we’re, you know, on the same wavelength.”

“So do I,” Keith admits as he taps his still-extended fingers against the mantel right next to the portrait of Lance’s family -- the one that he put up when he moved in what already seems like so long ago. “There’s still one missing though.” He tilts his head back upright so that he can look Lance in the eye again. “Did you… do you not want to put the last one up with these?”

Lance, of course, immediately knows that Keith is talking about the portrait of Allura still stashed away in his suitcase; but can’t help but be surprised that Keith even remembers that it exists at all. He hasn’t seen it in… Christ... three or four years now. “Oh. Um… I didn’t think… I mean, I didn’t know if -- I thought she… that, that picture might-”

Keith twists Lance around so that he can pull him into his arms properly, cutting off Lance’s uneasy babble. “She’s family too, Lance. And… we wouldn’t be here without her. I think she deserves to be here with the others.” His eyebrows knit and Keith shakes his head. “No, Lance, I know she does.”

Lance nods a single, stupid nod before letting his forehead drift forward to lean against Keith’s. “As long as you’re okay with it,” he nearly whispers.

Keith pecks Lance’s lips. “I am. She’s family. She belongs here with us. Watching over us.”

Lance lets out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding and nods again. Not willing to tear himself away quite yet, he basks in the comfort of the warm fire and Keith’s arms for a moment longer before disentangling the two of them and making his slightly wobbly way up the stairs. He grabs his suitcase from the closet and his hands fumble slightly as he jitters Allura’s portrait from his pocket and lites back downstairs to Keith’s side. He places the portrait on the mantel with some great reverence.

Keith smiles at Lance and then picks the framed photo of the princess himself. He stares at it for a long moment, that soft smile lingering on his lips, and then wipes Lance’s old, smudged fingerprint from Allura’s face with his shirttail before smiling once more and returning the photograph to its new home. Satisfied, he grabs Lance’s hand and pulls him back over to the sofa. He flops the both of them down with an easy sigh and pulls Lance so close beside him as to be nearly in his lap.

Drinks back in hand and soft Christmas music flowing once again from Lance’s tablet, Keith manages to extract tale after tale of McClain holiday hijinks from Lance. It takes longer than it probably should for a tipsy, chatty Lance to realize that he’s the only one doing any actual talking -- the only one telling stories. This, of course, drives him to question the boyfriend he’s mostly lodged atop as he draws a story about Luis and Marco stealing a goose to a close.

“K, don’t you, you know, have any fun stories to share with the class?”

Keith looks just a little abashed as he shakes his head and shifts in his seat. “No. Not really.”

“You didn’t celebrate Christmas?”

“With my dad? No, not really.”

Uh-oh. Dad . Dangerous territory, Lance. Tread very carefully, will you. Please try not to break happy, tipsy Keith, ’ chimes the meddling of Lance’s busybody of a brain. Unfortunately, Lance can’t add any new points to his ‘ I dislike my brain ’ meter this time around, as he finds the advice fairly apt. “Oh… um… really? Why not?” asks his mouth before he can stop it -- warning or no. He claps a hand over his offending lips. “I’m sorry, K. Maybe I shouldn’t have asked that. Should I have asked that?”

Keith shoots Lance a quizzical little look paired with a tiny curl at the corners of his lips. “Of course you can ask that.” He grabs for one of Lance’s hands and drags it to his lips before settling it in his own lap and tracing callused fingertips along the now available knuckles. “Love, you can ask me whatever you want. Always. Why would you think you shouldn’t ask me about Christmas?”

Lance swallows hard. “Well, um, I know you… that you don’t always like talking about your past, you know, at all . And… you mentioned your… uh… your dad too, and…” he trails off a little helplessly as Keith takes the hand in his lap and chafes at it with both of his own.

“Lance,” he begins in that soft, serious voice that pretty much always sounds like ‘ I love you ’ regardless of the actual words. “It’s okay to ask me about my dad, you know. About anything, really. I know that… hell -- I’ve never been good at, well, talking . Never been good at letting people in. But, Lance, I want to let you in. I want you to know all the parts of me. Even the ones that aren’t necessarily easy.” He sucks in a deep breath, almost like he’s bracing himself for something unpleasant. “Sometimes… sometimes you might have to ask, might have to push -- I need you to know that it’s okay. There are things… fuck… probably lots of things that I’ll never talk about otherwise. And, if you think one of those things is important, then I want you to ask. I trust you with… with, you know, everything. All of it. So you can always just ask -- you’re my… my person .”

“Oh,” Lance breathes, a relieved sigh slipping out right alongside that most questionably valuable word. He scrounges up a weak little smile. “Okay. I can do that.” He casts his eyes down at the rug for a moment as he digs for some bravery. “K. You know that you’re mine too, right? My person?” He drags his eyes back up just in time to catch both the especially soft, ‘ only for you, Lance ’ smile and the encouraging little nod. “Okay then. In that case… Christmas?”

Keith chuckles. “It’s not a big deal, really. It’s just that dad’s family wasn’t from the US, so he didn’t grow up with Christmas being a big deal. So… neither did I. Most of the time, he worked on Christmas -- he wanted the other guys in his company to be able to spend the holiday with their kids.” Keith shrugs a little, his fingers back to tracing across Lance’s knuckles. “If he was working the overnight, he’d let me stay at the station the station with him and raid the junk food. And if he was off, then he’d take me to my favorite Chinese place and take me to the theater and let me pick the movie. It was… it was always nice...”

Keith sighs and looks off into the fire for a long couple of ticks. He looks sad when he turns back -- sad enough to make Lance’s heart ache. Opting for the most obvious salve, Lance crawls himself even closer to Keith, tossing a leg across his knees and curling his head down to rest against his shoulder. Keith finally surrenders the hand in favor of playing with Lance’s hair instead. “After he was… gone, I was in the system. It’s not the greatest place for fostering holiday cheer.” He sighs again, more deeply this time. “Well, for fostering anything really,” he adds with a healthy dose of bleak irony. “The first person I met who really thought that Christmas was important - important enough to try and get me excited about it - that was you, Lance.”

Lance can’t help the frown that locks down his features at that particular admission as he yanks his head from Keith’s shoulder to glare at him. Well, maybe pretend glare. “Really? Me ? Keith, I thought you hated my parties. I always had to make such a frickin’ fuss to even get you to show up…”

“I… uh…” Keith looks shamefaced, and blushes with surprising ferocity. I liked it… when you made a fuss,” he finally admits more than a little shyly. “It… it made me feel… crap. It made me feel like you, um, like you actually wanted me there.”

“I did want you there, you damn jerk. And, you know, try as you might, you always ended up smiling.” Lance glances over at Keith, his face reeling from that little frown, right through a broad grin, and then back to something a little sad. “It was always so hard to get you to smile…”

“I was… I… oh, fuck me . I was smiling at you , Lance. It was always you.” And despite the fact that, that revelation has definitely left him right on the verge of bubbling over - perhaps even literally - at just how cute Shy Keith is, Keith carries on anyway. “You… you were always so smiley. So happy. How could I not smile?”

“Oh… Okay,” Lance manages to squeak out past his glee. He chuckles as he drops his head back to Keith’s chest. “Dios mio -- we were so quiznacking oblivious!”

Keith laughs merrily at that -- it sounds like bubbles of joy at the source where Lance’s ear is tucked against his heart. “Tell me about it...” He stops talking for just long enough to drop a kiss on the crown of Lance’s nestled head. “Thank you for coming to find me, lance. Thank you for coming to save me. And…” Another kiss. “Thank you for bringing Christmas with you, too. To me, Christmas means you being happy. I… that’s what I want it to mean. Always .”

Seeing as Lance can’t even pretend to abort the little chuckle-sob that escapes him over that , he rubs his face against Keith’s chest instead for a moment before responding, “Quit that, you dick. You’re going to make me cry. Again!” he insists more wetly than he’d like to admit.

Keith’s arms tighten, finally pulling Lance fully into his lap. “No, don’t cry, love. I’ll end up crying too,” he instructs, or maybe confesses; his slightly muffled voice vibrating in Lance’s bones.

Lance lays in silence against Keith’s chest, and their breathing syncs as he listens to the slow, even thrum of his heart. He has an unbelievably hard time keeping quiet about the feelings the whole evening seems to be dead set on kindling, so finally he stops trying. He traces a finger along Keith’s jaw as he breaks the comfortable silence. “Hey Keith?”

After a long beat Keith’s head perks up a little. Lance feels the rumble of the answer before he hears it. “Yeah?” 

“I love you.”

Keith’s head drops back down to rest against Lance’s again before he replies. “I love you too.”

***

When Keith impatiently pokes a slightly hungover Lance awake the next morning, it takes quite a few ticks more than usual to categorize the various wrongnesses of the situation. For one, Keith is standing next to Lance’s side of the bed and is rather more fully dressed than he usually is when he wakes Lance from his post buried beneath him instead. Well, that is to say, he’s wearing some sweatpants. Beyond the whole clothed Keith not flopped on the bed underneath him, Lance apprehends just how dark it still is in the cottage. Barely sunrise, if even that. “Too early, K. ‘s still dark… Whaddaya want?” he manages to grumble and slur all at once.

“It’s time to get up. I made you breakfast.” And damn it if he doesn’t sound chipper as all get out.

Lance blinks himself a little closer to coherence. Then he remembers where, when, and - you know -  who he is. “Ay por Dios! You’re being all Christmas morning-y!” he manages to exclaim with a little gasp as he sits up abruptly, rubbing the sleep from his now-excited eyes.

Keith flushes at the patently true accusation, but holds his hand out to Lance anyway. His eyes twinkle when lance takes it and hauls himself out of bed, merrily ignoring his earlier protestation. He can smell breakfast now anyway, and it’s sufficiently appealing to overcome any remaining bed-inclined reticence.

Keith hands Lance his own pair of sweatpants to put on and vaults bare-chested down the stairs at his normal, breakneck pace. Lance, on the other hand, finds himself drawn up short as he starts to follow. Keith’s obviously been up for… a while . The banisters have been twined with sparkling fairy lights, and Keith certainly didn’t stop there either. Over in the entryway, the door and windows; and the countertop of the kitchen island; and, of course, the fireplace -- they’re all festooned with ropes of amber twinkles. On top of that, Keith’s tucked swathes of greenery all through the new pictures on the mantelpiece. Pretty, mixed greenery with little clippings of red and white berries all sprinkled through. It’s… well… in a word, it’s magical .

Lance manages to kick himself into gear and clamber down the stairs to join Keith at the sofa where he’s currently dishing out a plate of fruit-studded pancakes. A plate which he hands to Lance as he sits. After adding a generous dollop of whipped cream, that is.

Lance, however, and despite his interest, is immediately distracted from the food when he catches sight of the alterations that Keith has made to the wall behind the armchairs. It’s now dominated by a massive viewscreen. A screen also decked out in shimmering lights and sprays of greenery, and currently displaying the opening scene of The Little Mermaid -- all queued up and ready to go.

Keith follows Lance’s eyes. “Oh, uh, yeah. Merry Christmas, love. I… I thought it would be… nice? You know, if we could watch our Disney movies in a little more style…” he pauses a little awkwardly before going on. “And, I tied it into the ship’s systems too, so that when I’m...  w-when we’re ready, we’ll be able to talk to people from the house.”

Lance can only shake his head a little. As if he needed a comm linkup to convince him of the value of the big, shiny, Disney-exhibiting gift. Hell, he really didn’t even need the screen. Keith standing there announcing to him that The Little Mermaid was one of ‘ our Disney movies ’ would have been more of a gift than Lance ever really needed or expected. He sets his plate down for long enough to yank Keith down next to him and kisses him within an inch of his life.

Keith finally sputters his way out of the enthusiastic with reddening lips and a smile gone far less shy. “So, I take it you like your present, then?”

Lance sighs happily, retrieving his pancakes from the coffee table. “Of course I like it. Now, shut up and play the movie, boyfriend. And no talking during Little Mermaid -- it’s my favorite.”

Keith smiles a fond, fond smile at Lance and does as he’s bade before settling next to him and picking up his own plate.

A few doboshes later, Lance deigns to break his own rule. Turning to Keith, he says in an unusually small voice - especially for Lance - “You know that the best Christmas present is being with you, right?”

Keith’s already broad grin ripens into something beatific as he wedges himself a little closer to Lance and continues to eat, his eyes still on the screen. After a tick, he sets down his fork and reaches a finger over to poke Lance lightly in the ribs. “Shh. You’re interrupting the daughters of Triton.”

Their breakfast is long finished by the time the movie is over. Despite the dishes cluttering the coffee table, clearly being offered some sort of parole from Keith’s universally dogged drive towards consummate tidiness, neither man has moved so much as an inch. 

“You know, K, I really wanted to be a mermaid when I was little. Well… a mer man , I guess.”

Keith cocks his head in interest and glances over at Lance with an inquisitive little smile on his lips. “What changed your mind?” he asks, as if the inherent difficulties of becoming a mermaid might not have been enough to dissuade a young Lance all on their own.

“Well… I turned eleven,” Lance replies a little cagily.

“What does the one thing have to do with the other?” Keith inquires easily.

Lance huffs, swearing at himself a little internally, as he feels his cheeks heat. Nothing for it, he supposes, seeing as he had so carelessly opened the door to this conversation. Idiot. “Well, I, uh, turned eleven and… I was eleven when… Christ, Keith. That’s when I-” Lance cuts himself off, feeling even pinker, and most likely looking it too.

Keith frowns minutely. “When you-” he prompts casually, clearly still having no idea what Lance is going on about.

“Ah hell. That’s when I discovered what penises are actually for… well, what my penis was for, at least… discovery of the point behind other people’s was a couple years later…” Lance finally rambles out.

Keith stares at him with a confusion-driven brow quirk before his face smoothes in entertained understanding. “Oh, and mermen don’t have penises -- at least not in Disney movies. Is that what you’re saying? You realized you were… unwilling to give up your new toy?”

Lance’s cheeks still feel absolutely no cooler; surprise, surprise. And Keith’s sudden look of amused interest doesn’t seem to be helping matters any either. “Yeah, K. That’s what I’m saying. Well, what I’m trying to say, I guess.”

To Lance’s surprise, suddenly Keith is the one looking a little pink, and Lance’s attention definitely perks up when he hears the shy hesitation shot through Keith’s voice when, after a moment, he manages to make his next, slightly confusing request. “Will… will you show me?”

Lance blinks at that. “Show you what?”

“The thing that made you give up your childhood dream to be a mermaid,” Keith replies, pink and oblique.

“Oh… Oh . You want to-”

“Yes.” Keith cuts Lance off mid-sentence. And while Lance is suddenly feeling quite a bit less embarrassed as the focus of the conversation tilts on its axis. On the other hand, Keith is looking pretty red by now.

“-watch me-” Lance continues airily.

“Yes.” Keith interjects again. Oh, and his face… label that as entertainingly red now.

“-masturbate?” Lance concludes his thought with an easy little flourish. He pairs his easy gaiety with a broad, bright smile that doesn’t quite steal all the attention from the piercing, entertained eyes that watch Keith go nuclear and almost certainly consider flight.

A wide-eyed Keith squeaks, but finally manages to squeeze out a third, strained little, “ Yes …”

Exuding a sense of casual, well, Lanciness -- a cockily quirked eyebrow flies and a pair of broad shoulders shrug. Lance’s reply is easy, and delivered without a qualm. “Okay.”

Keith blinks, looking startled. “Okay? That’s… that’s all you have to say?” he rambles out, still sounding a hair uncomfortable and several hairs embarrassed.

“Um… yes? Sure? Of course? Keith, what were you expecting me to say? It’s not like it’s a big deal or anything. I mean, you’re not asking if you can tie me up and drip candle wax on me, or something.”

Keith looks a bit violently appalled at the idea. “That would hurt you. Why would I want to do that?” he asks a little faintly.

Lance shrugs again. “I don’t know, but people do it. I’ve never really understood that particular kink, so I’m kinda glad that you’re not interested.” He pauses, one of his hands running up to touch Keith’s stubbled jaw. “But seriously, if you did want to, I’d probably let you.”

Keith’s forehead wrinkles as his brows knit downwards. “Oh,” he finally says into the quiet that follows, turning his face away from Lance shyly. His cheeks are still pink, and his knees bounce uncomfortably under his twisting hands.

Lance takes hold of those hands and pries them apart so that he can knot his fingers into them instead. “K, you don’t have to be embarrassed. Please… you can always tell me what you want. Ask me for what you want. The very worst thing that will ever happen is that I might say no,” he explains in an equally soft, though much more certain-sounding voice. This is important, he thinks, and he wants Keith to understand; so it’s probably a good moment to attempt to be an adult about, you know… the sex stuff.

“Oh,” Keith says yet again, though his voice is a little louder, and his knees stop their bouncing.

“And even if I were to say no to something,” Lance continues thoughtfully. “Keith, I wouldn’t be mad about it. I wouldn’t be offended by the question, okay?”

The breath Keith had apparently been holding finally makes its escape, and his posture relaxes slightly. “Really?” he almost whispers.

“Truly,” Lance replies with a happy, admittedly relieved, little smile. Then his eyes catch on Keith’s bare, pale chest; still heaving slightly and tinged with red to the collarbones from his blush. Lance’s mind turns to other things. “So… you wanna watch me get off… here? Now?” His smile is still there, even perhaps growing wider, and it may have just a little edge to it now.

Keith swallows, his head swivelling back towards Lance as his attention is caught. “Uh, yeah… sure… um, yes? If you want?”

“Sure. You going to join me?” Lance inquires easily, his voice dragging down in the direction of something resembling sultry.

While Keith is visibly surprised by the question, it leaves him looking obviously interested as well. “Yeah… uh, sure. I can do that. Well, I guess we can do that,” he replies with what Lance charitably qualifies a swallow, rather than a gulp.

Lance just nods and smiles. He goes so far as to ruffle Keith’s hair as he stands calmly and divests himself of the sweatpants Keith had given him. About a single, quickening heartbeat later, Keith is on his feet doing the same just as Lance flops back down on the sofa. Keith returns to his seat a little more primly, and with a fresh blush on his cheeks. He sits down a whole cushion over from Lance.

Rolling his eyes, Lance scoots over to join him. Keith jumps a little when Lance’s knee first knocks into his, but by the time a naked Lance is plastered to his side, he’s smiling.

Lance can feel Keith’s eyes on him as he takes ahold of his conveniently arisen erection. Observing his boyfriend at least semi-stealthily from the side, he’s gratified to find those eyes - that gaze - shifting rapidly from interested, through frank and intent, and swiftly on in the direction of being transfixed. With a hot, hard Keith leaned against him, breathing in sharp little bursts, his own hand smoothly beginning to pick up speed; Lance finds himself curling his bare toes into the fur of the rug and accepts that this activity is likely to come with a seriously premature expiration date. Given that Keith doesn’t seem to be bothered by such a prospect as his legs widen and tense against Lance’s own, Lance figures that it’s probably okay.

As Keith’s breaths shorten even further, Lance finds his own eyes drawn to the flickering motion of his boyfriend’s hand, and decides that he is more than subtly entertained by this new pastime. That decided, he allows his free hand to drag across Keith’s chest, sly fingertips teasing a nipple on the way to burying itself in the coal-black thatch of hair on his breastbone. This is apparently enough encouragement for Keith, as he tenses and comes with a low growl, spattering his torso and the back of Lance’s hand rather impressively.

That sight, of course, is more than sufficient to finish Lance off with a groan of his own. Well, the sight and the fact that he can still feel a panting Keith’s burning eyes on him. He’s man enough to admit just how much that… helps. At least in his own head. Relaxing with a long exhale, Lance slumps back against the cushions and pries his sticky hand off himself, only to rest it on his even stickier belly.

Keith shudders slightly beside him, and Lance leans his head forward slightly to accommodate the arm that he can feel sneaking around his shoulders. “Thanks… uh… thank you for… that, Lance.” Keith mutters into Lance’s now slightly sweaty hair as he presses a kiss to his temple.

Lance chuckles bemusedly. “Of course. Though you don’t really have to thank me for, you know, sex stuff. It’s not like I didn’t get something out of it too.” Then he can’t help but snort. “That was just like middle school all over again. All that was missing was three super-awkward thirteen-year-old boys and some really bad porn…”

Keith rolls his eyes. Well, Lance presumes that Keith rolls his eyes. He can’t really see them at the moment, but it feels like Keith is rolling his eyes. Instead - or perhaps in addition to - Keith uses his handily-located arm to nudge Lance’s face towards his own and presents him with a most lascivious Christmas kiss.

“Still feel like middle school?” He asks, half-panting, half-snotty when he finally releases Lance’s lower lip from between his teeth and allows them to pull sloppily apart.

Lance swallows and licks his now-reddened lips. “Uh… no, K. Not so much now,” he admits a little breathlessly. “Middle school Lane would never have believed he could grow up to be so lucky.”

Keith’s eyes flit back skyward, but he kisses him again. “Good. Now, come on. Let’s get in the shower before the sticky starts to erode your sanity any further.”

Lance can’t help but smile at that. Keith knowing him feels nice. Keith accepting his idiosyncrasies with nothing more than an upwards glance and a patient smile feels much nicer. “Good planning,” he chuckles out. “Lead the way, samurai.”

And does he stare at Keith’s ass as he gets up and does indeed lead the way? Sure as shit he does.

***

The day flies by as the guys manage to shower and shave, sort the breakfast dishes, and then assemble the largest trifle ever to grace goatkind; it’s carefully laid layers filling the entire crystal… trough that Keith had hauled back from Mab’s house. That finished, and a bit more sitting and Christmas carol listening accomplished, Keith nudges a slightly drowsy Lance and informs him that it’s time to dress for the party.

Lance finds himself slightly confused when he follows Keith upstairs and is handed what appears to be a suit bag. “What’s this, then?” he inquires.

“Party duds,” comes the bisyllabic answer.

Lance lays the bag out on the bed. “You got me a shiny new frock for the party? Something that will impress all the little goat-monsters?”

Keith laughs heartily, if a little shyly at that. “Well, something like that, I suppose,” he admits, hefting his own bag over to the bed. “Everybody wears white for this festival -- it’s tradition. So I had the seamstress put something together for you. I hope it’s alright.” He pauses for a long breath. “I hope you like it… maybe I should have just had you tell her what you want…”

Lance shrugs a little and shoots a little smile over his shoulder as he opens the bag. “Your fashion sense might be a little iffy sometimes, but I trust you anyway, babe. I’m sure I’ll like it just fine.”

Keith glances over at him through sooty eyelashes. “Thanks, love.”

As Lance begins pulling articles from the bag, he finds a heavy-knit sweater with a cowl neck and just enough gold thread spun in with the white to warm it up to match his own dusky-gold skin. That, and make it sparkle just a little when the light hits it. Lance grins, as he thoroughly approves of sparkles. He unpacks further, revealing a pair of heavy woolen trousers cut with a bit of a flare starting at the bottom of the calf, and a knee-length frock coat - complete with an absurdly locale-appropriate Victorian capelet and a puff of white fur trim. Eyeing it, he concludes that it will likely fall just past his knees once he’s gotten it on.

Keith brushes his shoulder to get his attention and rounds out the incipient outfit by handing him a pair of soft-looking, leather dress boots, also - of course - in snowy white; and a matching pair of gloves.

“Are these kidskin?” he asks impertinently, taking the gloves and boots with a smile.

Keith flicks his eyes back heavenward, but can’t seem to help the smile that creeps out in place of a verbal response.

“K, I’m going to look like a virgin bride in all this white… or maybe just like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.”

Keith glances over at him again, halfway into his own white pants. “You’ll look like the what?”

“The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.”

Keith continues to stare at him blankly.

“Come on, K. You know: Ghostbusters.”

The blank look of incomprehension doesn’t resolve. Not even as Lance gestures grandly in further… explanation.

“Okay, well, now I know what we’re watching next on that glorious new TV you’ve provided, at least…” Lance mutters.

Keith smiles over at him again as he fastens his shiny white belt. “Whatever will make you happy,” comes his instantaneous response. And - oh - he’s using his dead-serious voice again when he says it, so Lance immediately knows he’s not being made fun of; as deserving of it as he might be. Thinking about that tone, Lance is pretty sure that if he told Serious Keith over there that Schindler’s List was a gay romp through the sunshine, that Keith could watch it and still probably agree. Crazy smitten, that one. It’s really nice.

After shrugging into a thin, white tank, Lance slips into his own virgin-white trousers with a low coo of acknowledgement - they fit beautifully , hugging at every single one of the right places - and does up the slip, gold-buckled belt that Keith passes over next. He turns his attention to the sweater. It feels thick - unwieldy - in his hands as he pulls it from its hanger. It’s also then that he first notices the snowflakes knitted prominently across the breast; all picked out in slightly denser gold than the general weave. “What, no reindeer?” he queries almost spitefully, although with what he hopes is plenty of mirth in his eyes.

The purple eyes roll again, so apparently he got the mirth ratio right. “You expected me to explain Rudolph clearly enough to Addfwyn the Seamstress to get him accurately embroidered on your shirt?” Keith asks with a hint of a smug grin. “You couldn’t have had the red nose anyway. Just put the damn thing on, Lance.”

Lance ends up shrugging a little and doing as he’s told with a smile -- and if that’s because Slightly Smug Keith is intolerably hot, well, nobody has to know that , do they. Once the sweater settles onto his shoulders, however, Lance can’t help but be surprised. For all that it had felt too heavy, too big in his hands - ungainly, even - once it’s on, he realizes that, much like the trousers, the sweater fits him like a dream. It’s beautifully fitted, and all that extra loft he’d been dubious about ends up being just exactly enough to fill out his upper body. It takes him from his normal look of whipcord lean and makes him look… muscly? He turns to stare into the mirror mounted on the wall. Hell. He looks pretty damn good, actually.

It takes an almost embarrassingly long moment for Lance to realize that Keith is staring at him in the mirror as well. In truth, he doesn’t realize it until Keith’s arm slips around his shoulders; moments before he’s being flipped around to face him. Keith’s eyes are wide, and darker than usual: his blown pupils crowding out a measurable portion of the normal, soft purple.

“I… uh…” Keith stutters, and then he kisses Lance while he collects his thoughts. At least that’s what Lance presumes he’s doing, as he speaks more clearly when he pulls back a little and tries to talk once more. “I think it suits you, sharpshooter. You look beautiful.”

Lance smiles at the compliment and takes a moment to appreciate his counterpart’s snowy raiment as well while he fixes his hair. Well, pretends to fix his hair, because he’s mostly - entirely - consumed with looking. Keith’s turtleneck is of a much finer weave than Lance’s -- white mingled with a hint of silver in his case, instead of gold. And it seriously looks like someone painted the damn thing onto him with a brush. A very careful brush. Each plane and ridge of muscle shows through the almost-gossamer fabric stretched across Keith’s chest. His pants are tighter than Lance’s by a fair margin, and lack the bootcut flare below the knee where they tuck straight into what certainly appears to be a pair of white leather combat boots. Combat boots finished off rather saucily with rows of tiny silver buckles running up the outsides.

When Keith turns back to the bed and grabs one of the topcoats, Lance finds himself in need of a breath. Those slim-fit trousers are pure sin from the back. Keith holds the coat open for him, and Lance sputters briefly and finishes fingering his hair into place before sliding his arms in. Keith helps him settle it around his shoulders, and as he does so, Lance immediately finds it to be at least as well-tailored as the rest of the ensemble. He can’t resist the urge to swish it around himself just a little as Keith hands over his gloves and then turns to slide into his own coat. Lance is forced to admit… no, Lance freely admits that Keith and the village seamstress have done a much more than adequate job.

“Well, if I have to play the virgin bride, at least I won’t be alone…” Lance mocks playfully, letting fly a little leer towards his now white-garbed Keith.

Catching said leer and shooting it right back effortlessly, Keith claps Lance on the shoulder. “Yeah, shut up, sharpshooter. We look hot and you know it.” He claps that gloved hand on Lance’s shoulder a second time. “Now, let’s get this damned part over with,” he says as he twists Lance around to face the stairs. “Maybe if you’re a lucky virgin bride, you’ll even get appropriately deflowered later,” Keith points out as he smacks Lance on the ass to get him underway.

Lance absolutely fails to resist the urge to shiver.

***

Watching Keith waltz his way through the party is an eye-opening affair. His Keith, who hates parties, hates small talk, hates… well, most everything and everybody, really. His Keith is a veritable wonder. He controls every conversation with a sort of elegant finesse; he whisks them from group to group, dancing the politically adroit, diplomatically deft dance of a trained ambassador; and he carries Lance along beside him in his wake with no display of effort at all. And he does it all with grace, and poise, and an easy, charming smile. Once Lance notices that the amiable smile stops long before it gets to Keith’s eyes, he takes the opportunity to stand a little closer to Keith; takes especial care to stay attached to his side.

If he wasn’t currently smack dab in the middle of the process as seeing this spectacle for himself, Lance never, ever would have believed such a thing possible. As it is, it takes him six or eight full caprine encounters before he manages to wrap his head around the fractured, frenetic, almost random flitting from group to group. So it’s not until midway through their pre-dinner rounds that something Mab had said at their last little tea party drifts back to him. Keith is moving so fast, handling everyone and everything so adroitly for one specific, slightly sad, and not-all-that-obvious reason. He changes groups, sweeping the two of them back and forth across the room every time someone violates the little bubble of necessarily empty space behind them. Every single time.

PTSD is what keeps them twirling effervescently around the room. Lance watches carefully. The only people allowed inside that bubble; the only one that don’t burst it like some delicate, rainbow, soap-sud confection; the only ones permitted behind and within Keith’s own walls of surface tension are Lance himself and the smallest of the local children. This is actually lucky, as many of them seem to latch on most intently and set to following them intently without knowing any better.

Thankfully, as they do seem to be named amongst the very few to escape Keith’s constant scrutiny, Lance isn’t forced to find some way to keep them away. In fact, they actually seem to be helping in Keith’s flowing, running pavane across the room. They permit introductions to family members, and proffer excuses to go swirling away to the next topic, to the next little group at a moment’s notice. It’s so shockingly smooth that Lance is almost convinced that the whole thing has actually been rehearsed.

Despite Keith’s mad, almost frantic… well, the closest word Lance can come up with is: attack . So, despite Keith’s attack on the party, Lance does manage to take in the setting itself. It’s charming. Almost overwhelmingly so. The vast grange is full to brimming with tiny goats. The chattering clusters, all in brilliant white, lilt at each other in their light, warbling brogues. The cavernous chamber is sheathed in dark, almost black wood; and, even full as it is, it presents a huge, emptily pillarless space, with its hammerbeam ceiling disappearing far above them in the gloom. The soft, low light in the lodge is provided by the twinkling glow of the thousand thick, white tapers lining the tables around the periphery. It smells of dusty, dry snow; the bales of greenery decorating the hall; the earthy peat burning in three colossal stone hearths; and, of course, the wondrous, homey proceeds of a hundred commingled country kitchens. Whether Santa is missing or not, Lance is forced to admit that it feels rather a lot like Christmas; and as thrilled as he is to share that feeling, that event with his Keith, he can’t help but miss his family a little. Maybe more than just a little.

For this moment, at least, the two of them are standing alone, side by side, with the crowd curling slowly around them. They’re close enough together that their shoulders are already brushing. The touch firms as Keith leans over, his hand brushing against Lance’s, and then taking it in his own. “I’m sure that they miss you too,” Keith murmurs into Lance’s ear out of the blue, much to Lance’s notable surprise.

“Huh?” he says discerningly as he cocks his head and whispers back.

Keith smiles most softly at him - maybe the softest of an already soft-smiley day - and fails to obscure the little twinkle of pain echoing in the backs of his violet eyes. “Your family, Lance. I’m sure that they miss you too.”

Lance tries and fails to shake off the feeling of being flabbergasted. “Why do… how… um.” He blinks. Thrice. “K, how did you even know that I was thinking about them? I mean, man… when did you learn to read my damn mind?” He wants to wince at the almost offended sound of his words, but Keith only softens further next to him, leaving Lance to believe that he heard the intended surprise rather than any suggested annoyance.

“I didn’t,” Keith immediately admits, his wistful smile still shining. “I just… I… I recognize that particular look on your face, Lance. That’s your ‘ I’m missing my family ’ expression.” His smile finally fades into something a little more sickly. “I’m sorry for keeping you from them. Again…” he admits with a sigh.

Lance works his arm through Keith’s before lacing their fingers back together. Tightly. “I’m not.”

Keith frowns, “You’re not what?”

“Sorry that I’m missing them. Sorry that I’m here instead. K. Baby, I’m where I’ve chosen to be. Where I want to be. It’s okay that I’m missing them. I’ll see them again. I really am right where I want to be right now.”

Keith’s posture relaxes a touch, some of his weight now seeming to hang on Lance’s arm. Since Lance hadn’t even noticed the tension in the first place, he applies a firm little internal smack to his parietal and reminds himself to pay better attention -- especially in a crowd.

“Okay. Just… thanks,” Keith whispers again, and after a breath, he continues. “Thanks again for coming to find me. Thanks again for staying,” he murmurs.

Lance pulls him a little closer, burrowing just a little into his side. “Of course, I came baby. Of course I stayed. I love you,” he says as if it’s the easiest, most sensible thing in the world. And, come to think of it, it just might be.

Keith beams.

The crowd that has been milling about them during their little huddle opens slightly -- enough to allow Mab to approach them from the other end of the room. She totters up, leaning on her cane, and waits expectantly until both boys have leaned down to kiss her cheeks in greeting.

“Well, lads, enjoying the party so far?” she asks sounding - as usual - old, and wise, and more than a little dry.

Lance instantly summons up a bright, public smile and says, “Of course we are, mam-gu ,” at the exact same moment as Keith dons a grimace and says, “No, not at all. Parties are hell.” Lance elbows him in the ribs, albeit very gently. Keith snorts at him. Mab, on the other hand, just peals forth with a silvery little chuckle in response.

“You’ll both sit with me, of course?” she half-orders, gesturing at the high table at the end of the hall. It’s sat up on a single-step dais, and, as opposed to the dark wood trestle tables lining the rest of the room - bare but for their greenery and their candles - the high table is decked out in billowing linens of silver and sage. It also appears to come complete with padded chairs instead of communal benches.

Keith glances down at her, askance. “You, uh… you want us to sit with you? Up there? In front of everyone?”

Mab rolls her square-pupiled eyes. Lance has to wonder if that’s a local peculiarity as well, or if she’d learned the behavior from Keith. If so, it’s a good imitation. “No, of course I don’t want you to. I was forced to make the request by the terrifying denizens of winter who are holding hostage me…” she trails off with a huff. “Keith, the high table is meant for the families of the village elders. You aren’t planning on making me sit up there with that collection of dusty, ancient boors unattended, are you?” She shoots a surprisingly winsome and girlish glance at Keith. “Surely you would never be so ungallant.”

Keith doesn’t really seem equipped to respond at this particular moment, so Lance jumps in with full gallantry instead. “We would be honored to join you, mam-gu . Thank you for the invitation.”

Mab leans forward to pat Lance’s hand, her mirth-filled eyes still on Keith. “See, what did I tell you -- this one has the most lovely manners.” With an imperious little twitch, the old goat leads them up to the table at a slow but dictatorial pace, and seats them just beyond her at its far side: Lance ensconced to her right, and Keith in the end seat, left thankfully with only his boyfriend for a seatmate. She does this as others - mostly also ancient-looking and silvery-furred - begin to filter from the crowd and take their own seats. Lance narrowly avoids knocking over the rather-too-short table with his gangle knees as he tries to sit; and only avoids floundering his way to the floor himself due to a swiftly applied hand from Keith to the small of his back. Mab smirks over at the pair as another goat helps her into her own seat. “Yes, indeed. Manners, if perhaps not so much with the grace.” She laughs heartily, jerking a smile from the embarrassed Lance. “Well, can’t have everything, one supposes.”

As the table fills, the rest of the villagers line up and begin to make their orderly way past the groaning buffet tables and take seats of their own around the hall. In the case of the high table, plates are brought up by servitors instead - white-suited youths with deferential smiles - and Lance has to wonder if part of the reasoning for their place of apparent honor here is Mab avoiding the need for Keith to wend his way through the even tighter crowd surrounding the food. If that’s the case, Lance reminds himself to thank the elderly woman for it later -- especially since he can feel the tightly leashed tension fair radiating off Keith’s body next to him already. He can see Keith’s peripatetic eyes too, as they scan all across the huge room, certainly looking for threats that Keith himself already knows aren’t going to materialize.

Lance scoots his chair over just a hair and shifts his leg until it’s firmly pressed up against Keith’s -- touching from knee to ankle. Keith jolts a little at the contact at first, but then Lance can feel him pressing back a little more firmly. Lance leans in further. “You doing alright, baby?” he whispers low enough that only Keith will be able to hear him over the gentle, caprine din.

Keith leans towards Lance just a little in turn. It’s enough to brush their shoulders and upper arms together as well -- just like their legs below the table. Lance can feel the fin tremor in Keith’s limbs start to still as he offers Lance a tight little smile. “Yeah, I’m okay, Lance. It’s just…” he blows out a breath. “A lot. It’s a lot of people. A lot of noise.” Another almost painful breath. “I’m really glad you’re here. I… It… it would be too much otherwise,” Keith admits with a little slump of his shoulders.

“Then right here is where I belong, baby.” Lance twists his head around far enough to brush his lips against Keith’s cheek. “If there’s anything I can do to make it easier; or if it gets to be too much or something, and we need to go, just let me know.”

“Just stay with me,” Keith whispers back, his smile looking a little easier, a little more natural this time. “Just stay with me -- that’s all I ever need.”

Lance brushes his lips across Keith’s cheekbone again. “Always, you sap. Always,” he breathes just as their plates arrive.

Eating dinner ends up being a pleasant affair, which shouldn’t really surprise Lance, given the food he’s been offered thus far on Dolydd. It’s headlined by servings of fried this thing, fricasseed that thing, and rotisserie-broasted whatever. You know, or something like that… et cetera. All accompanied, of course, by mashed green substance, buttered yellow substance, and cheesy orange substance. Seated next to him, Mab makes every attempt to explain to Lance what it is that he’s eating. Lance, in turn, makes every attempt to listen to her and actually retain something. He fails utterly, but enjoys the things he’s eating nonetheless.

As if entertained by the incapacity of Lance’s brain, Keith eats beside him in bemused silence and watches the two of them with a hint of a grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. Peeking over and watching Keith eat in that amused silence, and breathing out a silently relieved breath or two as he watches some more of the tension bleed out of Keith’s broad frame; Lance is increasingly certain now that Mab indeed parked him there at the end of the table where only she and Lance can access him quite on purpose.

This is confirmed when Lance catches her eyes over the freshly delivered dessert plates and she gives him a little nod immediately after they watch Keith attack a slice of some sort of cake. His leg still carefully tucked up against Keith’s, Lance leans towards Mab for a moment instead. “Thanks for watching out for him, mam-gu ,” Lance says in a low voice.

“Of course, boy. Of course,” the little lady responds, patting his hand before reaching for her wine glass. “I say the same to you. He’s doing better than I’d expected him to this evening.” She takes a long sip. “That’s mostly to your credit, I should think.”

Lance can’t help the slight flush that he feels creep along his cheeks at that. Thank the high whatever for beards -- he should have grown one earlier in life. “Maybe some… a little. I think it’s mostly a credit to him though, honestly. He’s the one doing all the work to get better. I’m just… I don’t know… along for the ride, I guess.”

Mab snorts as a little frown forms on her face. “I can appreciate a bit of self-deprecation, I suppose, lad; but don’t sell yourself short. He’s improved much more in the time you’ve been here than in the rest of his sojourn combined. I assure you that you are good for him.”

Lance can’t suppress the wistful little sigh that escapes at that either. “God, I hope so. He’s good for me too. The only thing for me, honestly. And I hope that I’m helping him… He says that I am. Even if I’m not so sure. I’m really not doing anything.”

“He’s right. And, Lance,” his eyes flash over to her -- she doesn’t use his name very often, after al. “Lance, you’re doing many things for him. You’re supporting him in a way that no one else can. You’re doing many things, and I do thank you for them. I’ve said that you’re good for him, and I most certainly mean it.”

“I… thanks. I know. We’re good for each other.” Lance tilts his head a little more and feels like he might have caught onto the edges of Keith’s soft, little for-Lance smile. “I mean that too.”

When Keith’s fingers brush over his hand, Lance turns around and offers his attention to said object of his affections. “Are you two done talking about me yet, or should I continue to politely ignore you?” he asks with a knowing look and a subtle smile.

Lance gives an embarrassed little head shake and replies, “We’re not,” in an unconvincing voice; and also in awkward unison with Mab who merely offers an arid, “Probably not.”

This occurs a mere instant before the stoop-backed leader of the council of elders rises from his seat at the middle of their table. And boy does he rise -- to the full and imposing height of about three-and-a-half feet. He clinks a spoon against his glass and the hall quiets around him while he sets off  in his slightly querulous voice on what is presumably a charming Christmas toast full of goaty anecdotes. As he speaks, the village children rise en masse from their seats and flit into the middle of the hall.

Some half of them form up into a white-robed phalanx in the precise middle of the room while the others assemble into looser configurations of two, or three, or five. Then the children in ranks begin to sing. It’s surprisingly musically competent. To Lance, they sound rather more like a professional choir than he figures children have a right to. Clearly, no random Sunday school pageant performance is good enough for Firstfall . As their clear voices rise in harmony, their more loosely grouped confreres begin to dance; wheeling about in singles, pairs, and little clusters until the song reaches its climax and they all leap back into the center of the room and kneel in a circle around the choir.

The song ends, and Lance sits mesmerized in silence as the next begins. It actually starts in darkness, as the last cadence of the first song was met with the extinguishing of all the candles in the room -- the one in front of Lance and Keith having fallen prey to Mab’s swift fingers. The enormous room is cast into near blackness, lit only fitfully by the blazes in the fireplaces as the second song begins. A single boy steps from the choir and entreats the room alone in an achingly clear tenor. He sounds lonely, but hopeful, Lance thinks. He holds a single candle, which he lights as he continues. As the song carries on, a youthful baritone joins him, lighting his own taper from his companion’s. He’s followed by an alto, and then a childish soprano. It’s enchanting. They finish their long verse and are slowly joined by the choir in parts, each section lighting their candles one from the other as the canticle rolls along.

The third verse begins in a great swell of sound, a great unison note from the choir that shimmers through the room even as the dancers rise to their feet and step up to light their own candles. They carry them on swift little feet to each corner of the room where they begin to relight the candles on the tables. Lance watches and listens, entranced, as he feels Keith weave their fingers together on the tabletop.

Only the high table is dark now, and as the voices of the choir fall away in diminuendo and the quartet reemerges, the little dancers make their way up onto the dais, each taking up station before one of the still-extinguished tapers. The members of quartet drop into silence one by one until only that solitary, lovely tenor is singing again. As he reaches the last phrase of his song, the little dancers step forward as one and relight the high table’s candles.

For a breathless tick, silence reigns over the expansive grange, and then the applause begins. The children’s serious little faces begin to shine like the candles they’re still holding as the clapping and whistling wash over them. Furry little fists pound the tables as the tiny tenor takes his bow before being joined again by his quartet. Lance and Keith both happily join in, clapping enthusiastically until the pint-sized entertainers have rejoined their parents at the tables.

The mayor… chief-elder… whatever, stands again and waves his furry hands until the crowd quiets. He makes another incomprehensible announcement, this one enticing cheers from some of the children and smiles from the seated masses as they begin to bustle. Mab translates for them. “It’s time for the gift giving, he says,” she explains to the guys. Her eyes flick to Lance. “Your over-generous lover has insisted on providing gifts for everyone , so the two of you will, of course, have to endure a receiving line of your own.” She gestures behind them and Lance can see the array of things he’d helped haul out of the basement yesterday. All unpacked, they take up really quite a lot of space along the back wall of the grange. Keith blushes slightly at Mab’s commentary, but takes Lance’s hand and hauls him out of his chair and over towards the gifts nonetheless. They don’t have long to wait for attention from the Geifr.

Keith’s bevy of children approach first, families in tow. Each child hands Lance a framed painting. To his chagrin, he features in many - or, well, all - of them. In little Bronwen’s, he’s insistently presenting Keith with a hug armful of shockingly pink flowers -- juniberries, obviously. Each little painting, from abstract childish, to surprisingly and astutely detailed, is traded for a toy personally curated by Keith from his collection.

As the children make their joy known, the rest of the assembled crowd begins to make their way over to Keith and Lance in careful little dribs and drabs. Keith hands out saws, and trowels, and hammers. Needles, knives, irons, tiny little solar-powered lamps - little, useful things - to each and every neighbor who comes to wish them well. Lance, in turn, continues his role as receiver for the pair. Socks, gloves, hats, scarves, towels, and on and on. Several afghans make an appearance; and they and a pair of lovely quilts are joined by a beautiful copper tea kettle, a new wrought iron fireplace screen, and a pair of blown glass lamps. And that’s just the start. It goes on and on. And, indeed, on.

The only thing that Lance can come up with is that Keith has truly made a most positive impression on the locals. And, that his thoughtful attempts to share his own time and good fortune with them are clearly being matched in kind. Some of the Geifr speak English, at least enough to whisper a kindly greeting to Lance and say a few words about what keith has done for them, or their sister, their uncle -- even just the village as a whole. They smile broadly at Keith’s gifts and deposit their own. Some of them just warble at the boys in their warbling native tongue and cast sparkly, square eyes at Keith and Lance together. And a few of them even manage to channel Mab’s earthy little soul as they observe what a wonderful match Lance has made for himself, and inquire after a wedding, or ask when the children will start to arrive. Lance blushes helplessly at those ones while Keith remains unhearingly busy and Mab just smiles along, regularly and thoroughly amused.

In the end, the line of tiny, white-wearing wellwishers dies down and the crowd begins to filter out the main doors and into the snowy night. A few of the older children linger to help Keith and Lance to somehow pack the profusion of gifts into the boxes that Keith had just emptied. Keith looks on, clearly embarrassed, as they do.

“Why… I… I didn’t expect to get so many things,” he murmurs to Lance and Mab. Mab casts a poorly suppressed, amused glare at him.

“And why not, Keith? You’ve done nothing but help this community since your arrival on Dolydd, and you know it. You helped with the planting, and the harvest. You raised barns and sheared - what do you call them in your English… sheep? - and looked after their children. When the Terfels' house burned, you were the first to show up and fight the fire in the night. When it couldn’t be saved, you paid out of your own pocket to have it rebuilt and refurnished.” She hobbles over and takes hold of one of Keith’s vaguely flailing hands. “Keith, why are you surprised that your neighbors would want to give you gifts?”

Keith’s murmuring continues. “Well… yes… but I… I could afford those things. They… they didn’t need to get me gifts. I helped because I wanted to, not because I wanted to be paid back.”

And, of course, now Lance is surprised. Surprised and proud. He hadn’t realized that Keith had managed to do all of that. That his Keith, burdened by war, and death, and torture; that he had gone so far out of his way to improve the lives of those around him. Even though some days - too many days, really - he could probably barely stand to drag himself out of bed. Lance takes hold of Keith’s arm and drags him closer -- close enough to hug properly as he plants a tiny kiss at the corner of his mouth. “You’re a good, good man, my Keith. They’re not trying to pay you back. They just want you to know that they appreciate you. That’s why you give gifts… at least it’s why you should . They love you, and I love you. Merry Christmas.”

Keith mumbles and blushes some more, but he shows all evidence of resting comfortably in Lance’s arms even as his eyes tick across the broad array of gifts given them once more.

Mab watches the two of them, her eyes very fond. “He’s right, you know -- your Lance. You’re a good man, Keith. You support your neighbors in good times, and in bad. You care about your home. We’re lucky to have you here. When you could have gone anywhere in the great cosmos, you came to light up this little place at the end of everything.” She chuckles warmly as she dodders over and rests a hand on their conjoined arms. “Selfishly, I’m most pleased that Dolydd is where the both of you ended up.”

Keith shakes his head a little dumbly. “I’m the lucky one, I think,” he finally admits. “You’ve all offered me - and now Lance, too - a peace that I’ve never found anywhere else. Not in all of my wandering. In all of my fighting… Thank you for letting me stay -- hell, for convincing me to stay, mam-gu . Thank you for teaching me about what home is supposed to be.”

Even Mab’s eyes go soft and teary at that, as Lance forces down a sniffle of his own and instead declares, “Well then, I think all that’s left to say is: Happy Goatmas to all, and to all a good night!”

Chapter Text

For Keith and Lance both, the snow ended up being unsurprisingly novel, and amounted to a great deal of fun at first. At first . The abrupt cessation of the endless, unflagging rain meant that it was suddenly possible to spend time out of doors again without active fear of drowning. So, despite the intensifying cold, the guys started doing just that. They immediately went back to running together at least once, and sometimes twice a day, in addition to their now routine of - to Lance’s mind, at least - slightly overzealous morning calisthenics.

They ran together through slowly accumulating snow, through dwindling sunlight as the winter afternoons faded a little earlier each day. They ran together, cheekily ignoring the raw wind, while getting some serious use out of the new hats, and scarves, and mittens their gracious little caprine neighbors had knitted for them. They ran together, and usually Keith managed to catch Lance whenever he slipped, never failing to do his best to spare his boyfriend the indignity of sprawling on his ass in a snowbank.

Lance thought Keith looked particularly fetching in one singular bright red beanie -- bright red with a pure white bobble on the top. So fetching, in fact, that Lance coaxed him into wearing it at every single opportunity. He did so, of course, without bothering to explain why. Keith never once fails to tug the silly thing on, never once complains about the likely affront to his dignity. And every time he does tug it on, he fails utterly to hide his crooked little smile. This leaves Lance pretty sure that he’d been figured out without the explanation anyway.

The presence of the snow also, unsurprisingly, led Lance to goad Keith into a snowball fight once or, well… truthfully, eight or ten times probably. Usually to his own chagrin. Lance’s aim was typically superior to Keith’s, what with being the sharpshooter and all. Unfortunately for Lance, the raw strength and stamina Keith would invariably call upon consistently ended up yielding him the upper hand regardless of their non-comparable targeting abilities. Whether the imbalance arose due to the last gasps of Lance being unused to the thin atmosphere; as simple evidence of the physically superior nature of Keith’s Galra lineage; or just as proof positive that Lance really is a stringy, noodle-armed runt of a skinny, useless little fuck: Lance isn’t really sure. Nevertheless, Keith was invariably good to him, win or lose; and at the cold, wet conclusion of each and every snow battle Lance goaded him into, he never once failed to ply his boyfriend with hot not-tea, hot blankets, and hot kisses in the aftermath.

No, no, the snow was fun. Frequently a lot of fun. Right up until the moment where the novelty wore off. Of course, at the point, despite the bloom being off the rose, it kept snowing. And snowing. And snowing .

Lance helped Keith diligently with the last few tasks remaining in the mission to winterize their little homestead. They removed the now-empty window boxes from the dooryard, and then secured the stutters firmly over the mullioned panes before boarding up the transom windows above the door as well. In a boon to Lance’s peace of mind, they checked - quite carefully, in fact - the water, sewer, and electrical lines running from the cottage across the field to the ship; carefully reburying everything section that the persistent rain had succeeded in exposing to the elements. They broke down the space-duck coop and stored it away in the toolshed to await the return of summer and the seasonal exodus the little purple fowls would then make from the barn back to the yard.

They did all of those things, and the snow fell softly around them. They diligently cleared their walks, shoveling the powder regularly from the flagstone paths - a task made easier by Lance’s suggested roofs and eaves - and still the snow fell. They ran, and snowball fought, and made paladin- and space-wolf angels with Kosmo, and still the snow fell.

It didn’t fall like the rain -- not at all. So it didn’t seem to Lance that the world was on the verge of ending in ice. At least not at first. When Lance had first heard someone say the phrase, ‘ too cold to snow ’ some long years ago, it had made no sense to him at all. Hell, he’s a beach kid from Cuba -- a child of the tropical summer. And he’s pretty sure it only snows when it’s cold, after all. What the hell is ‘ too cold to snow ’ even supposed to mean?

On Dolydd, the increasingly apparent answer was: nothing at all. It got colder, and snowed. Then it got colder still, and snowed. Then colder… well, you get the picture.

Eventually, Lance actually began to pray occasionally that he would stumble across the magical point, and then learn the meaning of ‘ too cold to snow ’. Thus far, he’s had no luck in that regard.

By the time they’d borne four movements of deepening winter - four movements of unrelenting cold and snow - it had grown so frigid outside that neither Keith nor Lance could motivate themselves to leave the cottage at all. No matter their down-filled parkas, no matter the layers, or the scarves, or the cute, cute hats; neither could suffer through another afternoon run, or endure even the briefest of snowball fights. No, their inclination towards excursions ebbed so far that they ventured outside only when necessity demanded they slip and slide their way through a perilous beeline for the barn to feed the livestock.

Then, in the deep hours of one hyperboreal night, the first blizzard of the year blew in.

The wind howled incessantly - both excessively and mournfully - and it rattled the clerestory windows without remorse. And while neither man could manage more than a fitful doze as the winter wailed around them, neither of them was at all willing to crawl out of bed, out of the arms of the other, or out from under the delightfully warm and downy pile of their comforter -- now supplemented by both their splendid new quilts. No, no, nope. Posted up and braced to merrily ignore the gale with a slightly grouchy Kosmo flopped at their feet; the boys curled around each other, their limbs woven into a torturous- looking but marvelous- feeling contortion beneath the covers. Lance couldn’t admit to being a big fan of the raging storm or the brutal temperature; but there, secure in his Keith’s arms, he certainly couldn’t fault the company.

As the night wears on towards a dawn wholly buried somewhere behind the unbroken cloud cover, the tedious racket of the blizzard finally dies down and allows the blanket-bound duo’s slumber to drift into something less fitful. Vargas later, upon being somewhat discourteously awakened by the cold nose of their cosmic canine companion, the standard-issue, dumb Morning Lance can’t help but be perplexed. The cottage is dark. Middle-of-the-night dark. Poking at a slowly stirring Keith and fishing for his comm on the bedside table, Lance checks the time. Hoping to orient himself at least a little, he discovers that this dark and gloomy hour of his awakening is, in fact, slightly before noon. Or well, goat-noon.

Lance sits up and checks his comm more thoroughly. Yep. Noon. He pokes at Keith again. “K,” rasps his sleepy-husky voice. “Why’s it so dark? It’s like…” He waves his comm in front of his boyfriend’s blearily blinking eyes. “It’s, like, the middle of the day. Am I having a time zone problem, or a stroke or something?”

Keith bats the comm away and sits up looking equally groggy. “No… the storm probably just covered the windows.” He disentangles himself from the blankets and rolls over to climb out of the bed, griping when his bare feet hit the apparently chilly floor. Keith hauls himself vertical and begins crawling expeditiously into his sweats. “Come on, love. We need to feed the animals.” He looks around the darkened room a bit grumpily. “After that, we can go back to bed, for all I care. It’s dark and I didn’t sleep very well.”

Lance clambers out of bed and into his own clothes with little more than a grunt in reply and a wince to match Keith’s at the frosty-feeling floor. He shivers a bit in air that’s gone decidedly nippy in unambiguous defiance of the supplemental space heater. “Probably ought to relight the fires too, babe. Maybe make some not-tea. After all, I’m all for hibernating with you. Maybe we can just sleep until summer,” he suggests half-heartedly.

Keith’s grumpish look fades entirely as he turns to smile over at Lance. “Sounds marvelous to me, love. I like your plan. I like it very much.” He pads across the loft and then vaults himself into the great room below, leaving Lance to follow down a stairwell now safeguarded by the ten or twelve framed paintings gifted the two of them at the festival -- one from each of Keith’s brood of local youngsters. Little Bronwen’s rather skillfully rendered canvas of Lance presenting Keith with a hieratically immense bouquet of blushing juniberries holds the pride of place.

Keith bustles over the broad, ashlar fireplace and dumps a double armload of peat into its firebox. A smile on his face, Lance turns to watch from the kitchen counter as Keith’s eyes narrow and his countenance resolves into something honed and battle-ready. With an eye-catching flourish, he retrieves his lighter and sends it darting and twisting across his fingertips. A sweeping flick of his wrist unleashes a long, writhing coil of searing orange sparks that curl across the peat and set it alight. Lance’s smile widens into a bright grin -- he likes that particular gizmo. Quite a lot. Almost as much as he likes the show Keith puts on with it every damn time he lights the fire. Never satisfied with some pedestrian, centimeter-tall flicker of flame; Keith insists on a lighter with pizzazz. A lighter that he never fails to brandish with uncompromising poise and every whit of his natural grace.

Dragging his eyes away from the spectacle, Lance busies himself with stoking and lighting the stove. It’s not nearly so spectacular a production, but he gets the job done and even remembers to set the copper teakettle on to boil before trotting over to the entryway and donning his parka. As he’s hopping into his fur-lined galoshes, Keith manages to tear his attention from his pyromaniacal merrymaking and bounces over to join Lance in his accoutering.

Girded for their battle with the elements, the guys decamp to the store room and open the side door only to be confronted by a delightful surprise. Despite the earlier established time of day, the door opens onto what certainly looks to be outright midnight. It takes Lance another long moment to figure out why. Well, a long moment, and Keith pointing his handy flashlight out the door and illuminating a walkway altogether immured by the fresh snowfall.

“Oh… um…” Keith clears his throat. “Okay. Apparently it snowed quite a bit last night…” he murmurs, half to himself.

Stupefied, Lance gawks down the twilit tunnel. “No, shit,” he finally replies, whistling through his teeth. “No shit.”

And so, once again forced to gird, bundle, and brace against the abominable out-of-doors, Keith pirouettes his way around Lance, wrapping him snugly in a long, cerulean scarf. In turn, Lance tugs that most favorite vermilion hat down over Keith’s increasingly curly hair and pauses to beam at Keith as he stoically endures a dobosh of Lance fiddling with the pristine white bobble. Then he almost gleefully thrusts a faithless instrument of anguish into Lance’s hands, grabs his own shovel, and sets forth manfully into the dank shaft.

Keith, probably somehow reading Lance’s preposterously grandiloquent thoughts on shovels, turns around after about three steps and rolls his eyes most eloquently. Twice. Then he sets to clearing what snow has fallen onto their actual walkway. Lance joins him in scraping the powder off to either side and pressing it into the walls as they make some attempt with shovels and gloved hands to adequately shore them up. The walls ignore them. Mostly, the gleam and reflect off the headlamp now strapped around that bright red hat.

By the time they actually make it to the barn, both are chilled and sweaty -- it’s an unpleasantly moist sort of scenario. On the other hand, the goats are as happy to see Lance as ever, and immediately crowd against him bleating and, one presumes, looking for their breakfast. Neither they nor the ducks seem any the worse for the storm, and their heater has done its duty in keeping the barn relatively temperate.

Kosmo wanders in behind them, apparently fresh from surveying the new tunnel for himself and glances around. He fixes his glowing eyes on Lance and then Keith in turn, twists around and pokes his head back out the door for a moment, and then flips again to glare at both of them before disappearing with a very sparkly blue harrumph.

Keith looks up from his milking and watches the wolf’s snotty dematerialization. “Well, I’m pretty sure that was him giving us our marching orders. We’d best see about digging out of this fucking snow.”

Lance looks up from his egg collecting aghast. “You want to try to unbury the house? That’s… I’m pretty sure that’s totally nuts, babe.”

Keith chuckles and turns his attention back to Fauna -- or maybe that’s Merryweather. It’s pretty hard to tell. “No, no. Not the whole house, love. Just -- we should probably try to dig out the front door at least. That way we can get up to the surface if we need to.” He casts his eyes towards the buried walkway. “You know, wherever that happens to be at the moment.”

Lance grabs the last of the eggs, feeling relieved. “Oh. Well, that’s okay then. That doesn’t seem so crazy at least.” His breath huffs out in a frosty cloud as he walks over to join Keith and they head together for the tunnel. “How much do you think there is?”

Keith shrugs. “I honestly have no idea, love. I did read once that snow… um… what the hell was it? Snow, uh, ‘ accumulates by a magnitude .’”

Lance nudges Keith out into the tunnel and shuts the door firmly behind them. “And what exactly does that mean, K?”

Keith shrugs again and turns to Lance with a crooked little smile, while his headlamp sends rainbows chasing up and down the walls again. “How the Christ should I know, Lance? I’m from the fucking desert.”

As soon as they’re back inside the house, Lance finds himself offering thanks to whatever goaty little god may be listening. You know, because Keith takes the shovel out of his hands as soon as they’re through the door. Apparently this special nuisance of a seasonal task is not to be achieved by main strength. Setting both shovels aside, Keith instead pulls out some kind of… scanner? Surveying tool? Lance grimaces and resolves to learn at least something about Keith’s handy Galra tech. Anyway, Keith pulls some kind of technical implement from a cupboard. 

In the entryway, Keith conscientiously rolls the sisal rug away from the front door. Taking the hint, Lance kicks the collection of footwear back out of the way as well. Keith eyes the door suspiciously for a tick before carefully opening it. He frowns thunderously as the snow does exactly what he must have expected it to do -- comes cascading in all over the place. It drifts - or perhaps spews - inside, heaping up in a great pile of freezing ick.

Keith stares at the mess with narrowed eyes for a long handful of ticks. Lance seriously can’t help but smirk at the mortally offended look on Keith’s face as he surveys the obvious affront to his meticulous housekeeping. Keith activates his gizmo and proceeds to completely erase the mayhem invading the foyer with fastidious sweeps of diffuse magenta light. 

Appearing at least somewhat satisfied, Keith directs a sneer at the large damp spot on his stone floor and then aims the magic snow-disappearer right at the clogged doorway. He turns the intensity up a few clicks and begins firing a much more concentrated, almost achingly fuchsia beam into the leavings of the blizzard.

Stamping his feet all the while to firm up the floor, Keith maintains a careful, gradual angle of ascent by dint of a long series of exacting movements. For Lance, tromping along behind, it’s almost like watching someone paint or something. It’s art: each step deliberate, each gesture thoughtful and precise. It takes twenty or thirty paces for Keith to break them through into daylight, and as soon as he does, the tunnel mouth positively glows and drops from warmish and a trifle steamy to ball-freezing frigid in a heartbeat. They stop up into the blinding, crystal-bright noontime and everything, everywhere is white. The rocks, the trees, the mead -- everything is gone; all disappeared beneath pearly drifts. The sun is shining gaily, and there’s just enough wind to kick rainbow-sparkly ice crystals high into the sky every now and again.

Lance spins slowly around and looks back towards the cottage. He finds nothing more to look at than a slightly taller hummock drowsing amongst the breeze-gentled drifts. He turns back and joins Keith in gazing intently towards the gleaming peaks of the mountain on the horizon instead. “We’re up at like the level of the roof now, right?” he asks, his voice sounding oddly muffled in the white-padded world.

Keith twists around and glances down into his new tunnel, his brows knitting as he engages in what is most likely some not-all-that-fun mental math. “Something like that, love. Probably a little higher, honestly.” Turning back around, he leans over and brushes his shoulder against Lance’s. “To answer your earlier question: I’d say about twenty feet.”

“Twenty feet of what?” Lance asks a little dumbly, his own brows furrowing.

“Of snow. You asked how deep it was, I thought…”

“Oh… Yeah, I did.” Lance blinks. “You’re shitting me,” he continues, surprised, as Keith’s estimate starts to sink in.

Keith’s eyebrows caterpillar towards one another again. “No. Why would I do that?”

Lance shrugs, and then becomes responsible for knocking their shoulders together again. This time Keith stays close, maintaining the contact. “No, I know you’re not, babe. I just didn’t know it could snow that much, you know, all at once…” Lance trails of and shivers a little as he leans harder against Keith. In response, Keith wraps a parka-swathed arm around his boyfriend and pulls him all the way tight into his side. The extra warmth is nice. The extra contact is nicer . Unfortunately, neither serve to fend off the raw little panic that worms its way into Lance’s consciousness. “Shit, Keith. What if it snows like this again tonight? What if it keeps happening? How long can we go before the whole damn roof collapses? I mean… snow is really fucking heavy, right?”

The arm around Lance’s waist tightens against as Keith cranes his head around to face him and sneaks his free hand - glove and all - into Lance’s scarf in order to cup his bearded jaw. “It’s okay, love. There’s no problem. The cottage is built like a bunker -- you know, specifically to handle snow like this. We’ll be just fine.”

Lance nuzzles against the gloved hand but feels - and so probably looks - profoundly unconvinced. This is likely what prompts Keith to continue. “Also, Mab told me all about blizzards here. They only happen a couple of times a winter. Just look at the sky, love. There’s not a cloud anywhere. There won’t be any more snow tonight.” Then he cocks his head and points at their surroundings with his chin. “And a lot of this will melt in the phoeb between now and the next big storm.”

Lance still doesn’t necessarily feel convinced, but Keith is using his ‘ I’m the Black Paladin, and I know what the hell I’m talking about ’ voice. Lance isn’t about to start doubting that now. After all, it’s one of the main pillars supporting the entirety of his own, personal cosmos. And besides that, Mab has lived through like two hundred and fifty winters like this, or some shit like that. So Lance figures he should at least try to give her the benefit of the doubt. His level of faith and trust retabulated, Lance grimaces at the white menace encircling them and shivers again. He also does his best to shut down the anxiety-driven nonsense. He shivers some more, but digs up a weak smile for his protector anyway. Then turns his attention back to the gleaming behemoth of a mountain tyrannizing the skyline, his eyes squinting at the stabbing brilliance of it all.

Keith, one arm still locked firm around Lance’s waist, disentangles his other hand from Lance’s scarf and delicately tucks it back into place before raising the hand to shade his eyes. “We should go back inside now, love.”

“Really? I know it’s fucking cold, and the snow is kinda… oppressive? But it’s so pretty out here, K.”

“I know, love -- I think it’s pretty too; but it’s too bright. Look how you’re squinting. We’re going to hurt our eyes.” Keith lets is red-capped head drift against Lance’s, his eyes still shaded. “Snow blindness is a thing, and we seem to have mislaid our paladin helmets somewhere.”

Lance, startled at the thought, swiftly raises a mimicking hand against the glare. “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that. How’d you get so smart, K?”

Keith grins a wry little grin at him and then swivels his face just far enough to press a slow kiss against Lance’s temple right below the border of his hat. “I occasionally listen to people who know things when they talk to me,” he taunts gently, his lips tickling Lance’s skin.

Lance frowns theatrically before flailing himself around enough in Keith’s grasp to press their lips together instead. “Yeah, yeah. Shut up, you.”

Keith’s grin remains intact as he begins to shuffle his feet. “You ready to go back in and warm up then -- maybe have some breakfast?”

“Sure thing, babe. Breakfast sounds good. Warm sounds better.” Lance steals another kiss. “And I’m not giving up on going back to bed, either,” Lance finishes what might be just a hint of seduction in his deepened voice. He crowds Keith towards the tunnel and they make their way back into the optically-safer semi-twilight of its deeper reaches.

About halfway down, a thought occurs to Lance, and he drags the both of them - still arm in arm - to an abrupt halt. Lance’s feet slip heavily in the process, but Keith braces him with ease. As soon as he’s balanced again, Lance repays this chivalry by poking Keith hard enough in the ribs to make him jump even with his chunky, down parka in play.

Lance slips his poking hand into Keith’s coat pocket and withdraws the magical, snow-obliterating raygun thingy. Waving it in Keith’s face, he affects the most haughtily offended tone he can manage. “Now that you’ve let me in on this little baby’s spectacular existence; could you maybe tell me why exactly we’ve spent the last goddamn month shoveling snow by hand while this miraculous contraption was collecting dust?”

Keith’s eyes cross slightly as he regards the little machine with a remarkably straight face. He does this despite the fact that Lance has come perilously close to accidentally shoving it right up his nose. “Chores build character, Lance. Everybody says so,” he replies solemnly and with consummate sincerity, all served up with an artful little shrug of his shoulders. “Besides, shoveling snow is good exercise.”

Lance takes the somewhat unusual opportunity to fire one of Keith’s patented eye rolls back at him, no holds barred. “Baby, I am so very disappointed in you. I don’t even know what to say!”

Keith huffs out a huff decked out in full, Lance-quality dramatics before grinning and serenely snatching his toy out of Lance’s hand. He returns it to his pocket before allowing his arm to revert to its favored position around Lance’s waist. Their bodies realign once more and with an amused little shake of his head, Keith sets about towing his ridiculous boyfriend back into the warm dark of their thoroughly buried cottage.

***

Cabin fever. For days, cabin fever becomes the thing that most concerns Lance as the snow persists. Mab’s wisdom regarding the weather patterns on Dolydd - delivered via a very earnest Keith - turns out to be correct. Well, thus far, at least. No second, roof-crushing blizzard arrives on the heels of the first. In fact, it’s bright and clear and absolutely freezing for days afterward. It’s most of a week… a movement… hell, whatever. Quite a few days have passed before the clouds even roll back in; and when they do, the temperature measurably rises, and some of the snow even melts. Some of it.

Keith estimates the load on the cottage is down to about twelve feet when it starts snowing again. Lance decides that, that’s enough of a melt not to be concerned with being crushed or suffocated to death. So, instead he finds himself worrying about cabin fever.

It doesn’t occur to him that he and Keith have already been locked in together alone for months. Well, for all intents and purposes, at least. Well, for all intents and purposes, at least. It doesn’t occur to him that during said months, a young Lance would absolutely have declared ‘ there’s nothing to do here ;’ well, whined it, really. It doesn’t even occur to him that through the months in question, months of arguable boring isolation, he’s been certifiably happier and more entertained than ever before in his life. What does occur to him, or rather, what he recollects, is the bane of his existence that cabin fever was during his stay in the castle. That he recalls, so he worries about cabin fever.

All of this would be just fine - honestly - pose him no more difficulty than any other existential problem if it weren’t for the mistake . The mistake was Lance mentioning to Keith that he was worried about cabin fever, and he’s been grimly watching the mistake disassemble Keith ever since.

Keith blinks his slowly drooping eyes open with a start and reaches up, almost violently, to pause the movie they’re currently watching. Lance turns to him with, by now, well-earned trepidation. Keith takes one of Lance’s hands gently in his own and then asks, at his very most heartfelt: “Is this movie still okay, love? Do you want to pause it for a while and do something else? We could…” Keith trails off and looks glum for a while as he thinks. “We could play one of your games, or… maybe it’s even warm enough to go outside for a while… or… maybe we could move the furniture and play with Kosmo in here… or-”

He stops talking when Lance squeezes his fingers and turns to face him more squarely on the sofa. Lance tries to restrain the irked sigh that escapes him. He really does. Especially since Keith is in no way the person that he’s irked at. No, that honor goes to, well… Idiot, Loudmouth, Worrywart Lance. Regardless of who the irk was actually aimed at, Keith absorbs it like a body blow. His shoulders slump, and he ducks his head down so far Lance is a little afraid he’s about to lose his balance and fall to the rug.

Lance squeezes Keith’s hand again, but the slump remains and Keith doesn’t even pretend like he might look up. Instead, Lance slumps over as well, in his case right over on top of Keith’s mournful frame. He drapes himself across those slumped shoulders and lets his face come to rest on the crown of Keith’s head. His hair tickles. Lance ignores it. “Baby, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I did this to you,” Lance whines in a low, tired voice. “Can you please not be sad?” he almost begs.

Lance doesn’t believe the tiny, muffled reply he gets. Not at all. It’s probably the single saddest, “ I’m not… sad… ” that anyone has ever heard. Really, probably in all the history of, you know, hearing things. It’s simply not believable. He’s definitely sad. It’s all Lance’s fault, and after several days of this, Lance is rapidly arriving at his wit’s end trying to walk back the stupid mouthings of his own… well… mouth.

The problem is, this time, instead of listening to one of Lance’s damnfool anxieties and then defusing it; this time, Keith just kind of absorbed it and ran with it instead. Ran a whole marathon’s worth. Hell, maybe even two marathons’. The silly little niggle had festered so thoroughly in Keith that last night in the middle of making dinner, he came to a dead stop in the kitchen and very nearly insisted on tossing out what they were cooking and starting again. Not because there was anything wrong with it, but rather because Keith’s new little internal alarm went off, and he convinced himself that Lance was going to grow bored with whatever they were cooking and needed something more interesting instead.

The didn’t have an actual fight over it, and they did end up finishing the supper they’d already started. As an aside, Lance had found it very much to his liking, and not at all boring; but, then again, he’d have to describe really all of Keith’s cooking in just the same way. In any case, they didn’t quite fight over dinner, but the whole affair led to a quiet, unusually morose sort of evening. One where a silent, fretting Keith was clearly trying to figure out how he’d offended Lance. This would, of course, most definitely be difficult for him. Or rather, you know, impossible, due mostly to the fact that he hadn’t offended Lance. This led to an equally silent evening for Lance, who was mostly trying desperately to figure out how to unbreak his Keith. A dilemma, the solution to which he obviously still hasn’t worked out, given their current predicament.

Finally, Lance gives up on flogging the reeking abattoir that people lovingly refer to as his brain and decides instead to just attempt to lay the whole sordid thing out plain. Maybe they can manage to wade their way through this pestilent, pustulent swamp Lance has created if they do it together. And maybe, just maybe, if they do it together and they’re very, very careful; maybe they can avoid stepping on any more of the landmines hidden beneath the scummy surface.

Lance takes a fortifying breath, holds his metaphorical nose, and dives on in. “Keith. Baby. Can we… maybe… um-” He sucks in another breath and steels himself for a second attempt, maybe one where he doesn’t skip right off the surface like a flat rock on his second attempt. “Christ. Can we please talk about this whole… thing?”

Lance holds his non-metaphorical breath as he awaits a reply. When it arrives, it sounds just as sad as Keith’s previous assertion. It also sounds a lot like, “ Okay ,” but it’s aimless - desultory - in a way that Lance has never heard Keith sound before. Fearless, driven Leader Keith has apparently gone to the zoo and is unavailable for comment at the moment.

Lance sucks in another breath and tries to come up with some sort of strategy, even as his body responds on autopilot to the wretched, lost-sounding quality of Keith’s voice. His arms tighten on Keith’s shoulders while his face nuzzles more firmly into Keith’s tickly hair. To Lance’s chagrin, the increase in affection shows no evidence of pulling Keith up out of his mortal slump. Lance, or maybe just Lance’s body, clearly deciding that some emergency measures are in order. While his arms remain tight around Keith, he flops back, correcting his own slump into more of a recline against the sofa back, and dragging Keith right along with him.

Apparently winding up in Lance’s lap wasn’t exactly what Keith had been expecting to happen, and for the briefest moment, he goes painfully, fight-or-flight rigid. Lance half wonders if he’s about to leap up and fly off into the loft, or even out the maybe marginally useful front door. If Lance were anyone other than, well, himself, the battle-tense muscles would probably make him worry that Keith was about to hit him or something instead. Fortunately, there’s not a single shred of Lance that’s even capable of considering the possibility that Keith might hit him. So, thankfully, that thought never even makes it onto his radar. Instead, the half- well, no… quarter-formed thoughts about escape routes end up being irrelevant anyway, as the painfully stiff Keith makes no move to bolt. No, he just shudders a shudder that on Lance would probably come off as painfully overdramatic. On Keith it just comes off as painful. Then he relaxes almost bonelessly against Lance, burying his face in the soft sweater covering Lance’s chest.

Lance tries for yet another of those deep, centering breaths only to realize that he has to get around to expelling the last one first. Finding it still somewhat unfortunately stuck in his lungs, he does so, but not very gracefully. Then he chokes on its replacement. ‘ Centering my ass ,’ kibitzes his brain spitefully as he allows his head to loll back against the backrest despondently. ‘ Jesus fuck… Fuck me! ’ he whines at himself with some force.

Lance blinks his eyes back open and snaps his head back up to stare when Keith relapses to fight-me-now rigid in his lap. Well, that and looses a despondent, almost frightened-sounding whimper. Lance manages to ratchet his head down far enough to catch a look at Keith’s face. It’s paler than usual. Much. And his usually expressive eyes are blank and so, so wide.

“Baby, what-” Lance manages to croak out before he’s interrupted.

“I’m sorry!” Keith blurts. “I’m sorry!” he repeats. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” he nearly chants.

The apology… apologies render Lance entirely speechless. He stares at Keith with his mouth hanging open and his brows full-furrowed as he tries to figure out just what the ever-living fuck is happening right now.

“I’m sorry,” Keith whispers, his lips now barely moving as he continues to stare at Lance with fear-widened eyes.

Fuck that brain-thing -- what’s it called? Oh. Yeah. Thinking. And fuck the deep breathing too. Watching Keith break still more, and in real time, is more than Lance can even pretend to handle. He feels his brain try to disengage in the same instant that his mouth gears up to do his frequently reprehensible… thing. Uh… talking. Right. Rambling… That’s what it’s called. The last shrieking shreds of sapient Lance do the only thing they can think of and force one of his hands free. A hand which he immediately and preventatively slaps over his own mouth.

Keith stares at Lance. Terrified. Lance stares at Keith. Terrified.  Well, no, that’s not quite right. Not terrified. Horrified? Maybe, Keith shows all evidence of sticking to his guns and, you know, not talking. Lance tries to breathe again and fails. Then he remembers his hand is covering his mouth and uses his nose instead. That works better.

The silence oppresses. Oppressively. Keith is still with the staring and the not talking, so Lance mans up and tries to do his duty. “K, why are you apologizing to me?” he finally manages somehow to ask. It seems like a good question, since at this point he’s really not sure.

Keith’s lips quiver, but don’t even really form those soundless not-words this time around. Lance watches and then he recruits the hand that was just covering his mouth and has now devolved into plucking uselessly at his beard. He conscripts it quite firmly and sends it to sink into the soft hair at the nape of Keith’s neck; praying all the while that Keith won’t flinch away.

He doesn’t. He leans a little into Lance’s hand instead and finally, finally has his huge eyes blink. The pace of that blink is glacial, and Lance begins to worry that those sad, scared, purple eyes are going to stay closed. They don’t. The long lashes do finally part again, and when they do, at least a little more of Keith seems to be present and looking back at him again. Lance presses his hand a little harder against Keith’s skull; curls his fingers a little deeper into the hair there.

“Keith, do you want to… to not talk right now?” Lance asks softly. “It’s okay if you don’t,” he adds.

Keith just shrugs a little, his shoulders rucking up Lance’s sweater. Most of his muscles are still at full tetany, and Lance can feel them beginning to tremble against him. He runs his fingers through Keith’s hair again, and in doing so, accidentally brushes them against the chain of his locket. Deciding to follow the sudden inspiration that causes, Lance gingerly pulls his other hand free and shifts it up to Keith’s throat. His fingers fumble there for a moment, but Keith remains motionless as Lance pulls the locket out of his shirt. Once it’s free, Keith’s fingers give a useless little twitch and Lance is treated to another slow blink. After considering his options, Lance smiles at Keith - probably a confused, pained smile - but that’s what he’s got at the moment. He smiles at Keith and nods his head.

Keith’s fingers twitch again, and then they fumble their way over to the locket and curl around it. Keith’s eyes fall closed and the tremors calm as his body slowly unwinds against Lance again. Lance’s weak smile turns into - no - transfigures into something much more real.

Lance decides he has to try again: try to fix this thing before it cracks any further. “K, if you can, can you tell me what you were apologizing to me for?”

Keith shudders through a ragged breath, and Lance watches his knuckles whiten as his fingers tighten around the necklace. Keith doesn’t open his eyes, but he does tuck his head back down against Lance’s chest again, dragging the hand in his hair along with him. For tick after tick he just lays, silent except for his slightly overloud breathing. Just as lance is about to give up and ask again - or maybe just give up entirely - Keith finally whispers. “Because I made you mad. Because I frustrated you so much that you swore.” The words are tiny. Tiny and flat and clinical, but they’re words, and that’s progress.

Unfortunately, they’re confusing words that Lance isn’t really sure what to do with. You know, at all. Ultimately, Lance decides to go with the only pertinent question he can think of. “When?” He scrunches his face as he thinks. “When did I swear?”

When Keith shifts again in lance’s lap, it feels too much like a flinch. A swift glance down is thankfully enough to reveal that it was nothing more than Keith shifting his head to look towards Lance’s face. He looks quizzical. Quizzical might not be great or anything, but it’s miles better than anything Lance has seen in the last few doboshes. “When?” Keith fires the question back at him, his eyebrows drawing down. “Just now. Like two doboshes ago…” he answers matter-of-factly, albeit with a hint of obvious bewilderment.

Lance remains confused. “Wait. I did? Really?” He runs back over the last few doboshes as swiftly as he can and comes up with a blank. “Um… K? What did I say?”

Keith’s brow remains furrowed, although some concern has now definitely started to seep into his perplexed gaze. “Uh…” he says a little hesitantly. Then he swallows and quotes, “ Jesus fuck. Fuck me, ” in a dry, very uncurselike monotone. It definitely lacks the… fervor that Keith usually curses with.

Lance flinches a surprising, Keith ily violent flinch as his eyes widen and he declares, “Shitballs!” He slams those eyes shut as he lets his head flop back against the backrest again. At first, Keith does nothing -- doesn’t move. This continues through the silence right up until the moment where he does move. The hand that’s not busy clinging to his locket slips out from between them and creeps up until it’s cupping Lance’s slack jaw. Then he goes back to the not moving thing again.

Lance feels bad. He’d been trying to pour water on a burning boyfriend, but randomly picked up the fucking gascan instead. ‘ Fix it! Fix it! Fuck you… fuck me! Fix it, you fucking moron! ’ his brain orders at its most hysterically imperious… and foulmouthed. Lance growls aggressively, all of his perennially deficient attention focused on keeping his answer soundless and pointed at his own brain. ‘ I am! I mean… at least I’m going to try. So fuck off and let me think. Besides, this is your motherfucking fault! You leaked !

“-nce. Uh… Lance!” filters through into his reverie. It sounds worried now. Keith sounds actively worried.

Lance drags his head back upright and forces his eyes open again. “You shouldn’t have heard that, K.” He grimaces. “I mean… you weren’t meant to.” Keith looks no less confused, and the worry only seems to grow, so Lance tries harder. “That was… the swearing was only supposed to be inside my head. You shouldn’t have heard it, because I didn’t mean to say it. My monologue leaked out,” he admits, feeling lame.

“I’m sorry-” Keith starts to say again before he cuts off as Lance cringes fiercely beneath him.

The feeling that floods through lance as he nearly cowers at yet another repetition of those words goes a lot like: No. No more of that. Can’t handle any more of that . Lance’s hands fair fly to bracket either side of Keith’s face as his own shoulders take their turn at drooping into a helpless slump and he begs the burning in his eyes not to be tears. “Keith,” he pleads, staring straight into eyes full of something resembling shock. “Please, please don’t say that again. You’ve already… God… too many times! Just… please stop saying that you’re sorry. I… I can’t handle it.”

“Lance..?” Keith replies in a helpless voice as the confusion and concern baldly war with each other in his expression.

Lance blinks. Shit. So much for praying that the burning turn out to be pink eye or something. The pair of tears feel too hot on his face as they link down into his beard. He shudders through a breath. Then another. Then a third. Blowing the last one out sharply through his nose, he refocuses on Keith and tries again to clarify… himself. “Just… Keith, please don’t apologize to me any more. Not right now.” Wow. His voice sounds weak. Weak and tired. “This whole thing is my goddamned fault. I didn’t mean to break you, but I did. And then I made it worse trying to fix it. And then my brain leaked all over you instead of shutting the fuck up and staying in the corner where it belongs. And… and… and then you’re apologizing to me , and… I…”

Lance would really like to bury his face in his hands, but they’re still busy being attached to Keith’s face; and he’s not about to move them. When he feels Keith’s hand press harder against his jaw again, he really wants to crow or something in response, but settles for nuzzling against it while he sniffles instead. He figures that neither of those responses is something that could be considered particularly dignified anyway, so it probably doesn’t matter.

Keith stays quiet for a while, a fact for which Lance is grateful, as it gives him the opportunity to at least pretend to collect himself. When Keith finally does respond, his brows have unfurrowed part of the way, at least, and his lips have gone all pursed. They’ve shifted their way into ‘ Lance, you’re the weirdest puzzle I’ve ever seen… ’ mode. “What do you-” he snorts and shakes his head minutely between Lance’s grasping hands. “Crap.” He squints. “So, it’s possible that this is, like, buying into your delusion, or something; but I don’t know what else to ask… So: how did you ‘break’ me, exactly?” His fingers are too busy to make the unconvinced air quotes around that word, but Lance can hear them anyway.

Lance hesitates. Then he huffs. Then he hesitates again. Then he braces himself and just says the Christ-forsaken words. “Cabin fever.”

Keith flinches. Of course Keith flinches. Then he looses that single, elucidating word. “Oh.”

Lance quakes at just how hopelessly dead that little word sounds. Then he opens his mouth and vents the whole frustrating, neurotic mess currently simmering away inside his skull. “Keith… it’s just… fuck. Normally, you’re so good - so good - at handling all the stupid shit, the dumbass little anxieties that my brain accidentally piddles all over you on a daily basis. You take them, and grind off the sharp edges, and polish them all up before you slip them back into my skull. All with a cute little smile, usually. I mean… I know they’re stupid-” he pauses and frowns. “Well, almost all of them are stupid. The water line randomly freezing, the roof caving in under the snow… They’re dumb, and you’re so good at explaining to my asshole of a brain why they’re dumb.”

Lance sighs a troubled sigh. “The cabin fever-” Keith flinches again. Lance sighs again. “Keith. My Keith -- that one’s stupid too. But for some reason, it didn’t bounce off of you like normal. Instead… shit. Instead it’s like I fucking stabbed you with it and now I’m just dicking around worthlessly while you bleed. I… I… fuck. That’s how I broke you. And I really didn’t mean to. Really ! And now…” Lance traces his fingertips in feather-light circles on Keith’s temples. “Now I’m not sure what to do. I don’t know how to fix the thing I broke. I can only… only do this -- tell you what I think it is.”

Lance blows another excessively long breath out his nostrils and then cants his head forward awkwardly -- quite a bit further than it’s really meant to go. Just far enough, in fact, to brush his forehead against Keith’s as he frames his plea. “K, I don’t think it’s something that I can fix. Not by myself. I… I know it’s my fault that it’s even happening, but I need you to help. Can we… maybe we can try to fix it together?” Lance would probably be proud of how sensible that whole suggestion sounded, if he wasn’t busy being terrified of Keith’s response.

Keith doesn’t move, and he doesn’t talk. Thankfully, he doesn’t tense back up either, which Lance is going to go ahead and take as a win. Keith’s eyes slip back shut, and Lance hates how pale his face has gone. Lance’s apprehension eases slightly as Keith gives a tiny nod, his stubbled cheeks grating lightly across Lance’s hands, and then his eyes open again. They look as plaintive and alarmed as Lance feels. Keith’s mouth opens and closes. Then it opens again, and this time it whispers, “Okay.”

Lance nods, his forehead still pressed awkwardly to Keith’s, and then he bends even further and touches their lips together - the barest whisper of a kiss - while his fingers continue to trace their tiny circles against Keith’s brow. For just a moment, he holds the two of them suspended. He holds them there with his hands, and his body. With his will, and with his heart -- with whatever might actually work, really. He’s not going to be picky about that right now. He doesn’t try to smile, as he’s pretty sure he just doesn’t have one in him right at the moment; but he holds the silence and searches it for some peace. Some peace he’s intent on sharing in whatever measure possible with his Keith.

Time ticks by unnoticed until reality eventually rears its ever-ugly head. Lance’s hyperflexed neck begins to cramp. Given the accidental horror it sparked the last time, he resists the urge to swear - even silently at himself - and slowly pulls away. As he does, Keith’s eyes open again and watch him. They look sad and wary - they look wounded - but they no longer seem terrorized. And maybe, just maybe, there is a splintered fraction of that peace that Lance was searching for in there too.

Lance pulls gently at Keith’s head, still cradled in his hands, and Keith follows along willingly enough. He shifts his body as Lance cradles his head back against his breast. There’s something subtle in that shift, something that Lance doesn’t understand until Keith stops moving again and Lance has his arms around him. The slump is gone. It’s replaced by a Keith who’s curled up against - no - curled up with Lance instead. His curved form seems too small; fitted into a space much smaller than one man Keith’s size should be able to fit into. But small as it is, it’s not a slump. Keith feels tiny and fragile there, folded into Lance’s embrace. Tiny, and fragile, and wary, and sad.

Lance feels the barest hint of a smile tugging rather surprisingly at the corners of his mouth. Wary and sad is not terrified despondent. Wary and sad he can work with.

Keith seems… no. Keith feels calmer, more tranquil there in his tiny curl against Lance’s chest, but he’s still silent -- even his breathing is hushed now. As the penetrating quiet stretches on, Lance realizes that he’s left with little option but to probe. He summons up all the grace ever granted to him as he tries desperately not to break anything any more than he already has.

“Baby, can you tell me what it is that’s bothering you?” he asks, gentle in the utmost. “I mean… it’s okay if you can’t. Or… if you don’t know, or you can’t put it into words. But, if you can… can you tell me?”

Lance feels Keith’s tiny shrug in all the places they’re pressed together. He nods his head as he thinks and then sinks his chin to rest against Keith’s hair, unconsciously looking for every point of contact he can find. “Okay. That’s okay. How about…” He shifts one hand so that it’s free to run up and down the sharp curve of Keith’s spine. He can feel each vertebra as his hand slides across the circumscribed musculature. And he can feel some of the more prominent scars where they cut across Keith’s flesh. His hand keeps moving. “How about if I just talk a little then? Is that okay? Maybe I’ll come up with something. Something that means something to you - something that makes sense - if I just talk my way through it. Is that okay? Are you okay to listen?”

He can feel Keith nod against him too, his beard teasing Keith’s hair into a haystack in the process. Lance opens his mouth, but hesitates on the first word. “Uh.” His eyes slide shut.

“I’m worried K,” he admits in a whisper. “What if I say something wrong? What if I… if I… Christ. Baby, what if I h-hurt you m-more?”

One of Keith’s hands is all tucked up against Lance’s chest, still maintaining its death-grip on his locket. He works his other arm free and snakes it around Lance, his hand burrowing between his back and the sofa cushion until it finally inches to a stop between Lance’s shoulder blades. It presses there, big and warm and solid. “It’s okay, Lance,” Keith murmurs in a gravelly voice, down at the very bottom of his register. “It’s okay to talk to me. Always. Always and about anything. It’ll be okay.” The arm behind Lance pulls him even closer. And that stable, present hand continues to linger. “I love you,” that husky whisper goes on. “So very, very much. And even if you said something… upsetting. Lance, you know that there’s nothing you could ever say - ever do - that I couldn’t forgive, right? Nothing . Never .”

Relief simmers in Lance and summons that tiny tug of a smile again. “I love you too, Keith,” Lance begins as he tries to order his thoughts. “I guess… I guess I’ll just start at the beginning and see where the stream of consciousness takes us then.” Lance blows out his breath from between pursed lips, ruffling Keith’s hair in the process. He can feel more than see or hear the single snort of what just might be a chuckle. That little tug makes its presence known again.

Lance manages to convince himself to say the damnable words again. “Cabin fever…” he begins. This time, thankfully, there’s no accompanying cringe from either of them. “It was my third greatest enemy as a paladin. Homesickness, that was number one. Zarkon and his batshit Galra were number two. Then comes number three: boredom. Cabin fever. I’ve always… my brain, my ADD hates boredom. Probably more than any other single thing. A normal person, a normal brain works like… like a freeway, I guess. All the lanes in a track -- all the thoughts, all the focus flowing together in the same direction. Some people might get to split their focus a little; add, say a frontage road or two alongside. But the vast majority of the traffic, it stays on the freeway.” Lance lets fly another of his self-deprecating snorts. “The ADD brain - my brain - on the other hand… Keith, there’s no nice freeway with handy road signs and topiaried offramps. It’s more like…” Lance trails off, digging his chin just a hair more firmly into the crown of Keith’s head. “Fuck, this metaphor is already stupidly complex-”

“It’s okay, Lance. Keep going,” Keith interrupts gently.

The hand that’s not busy trailing along Keith’s spine splays across his hipbone instead, his fingers flexing gently. “Okay, okay.” Lance pops his lips a couple of times as he tries to finish his thought. “So, my brain… not so much a freeway as a… a roller coaster. Well, no. More like twenty roller coasters. They might all start in the same place, but it’s like every track is a different length. And they all run at different speeds, and usually end up going off in completely contrary directions before ending in entirely contradictory places. By the time your thought… my thought… is, well, what amounts to complete, it’s pretty much total chaos in there.” Lance snorts again. “And that’s not even the worst part. The worst part is that I don’t usually even get to pick most of what’s in line to take the damn ride. Well, that, and that if something’s not riding on about half of those stupid tracks, and I mean all the damn time , then my brain gets cranky, and they all break down. That’s why boredom is… bad for me.”

Lance drags his hand away from its grip on Keith’s hip in favor of tucking it back into his silky hair again. It’s still much shorter than it has ever been, at least in Lance’s memory; but it’s definitely starting to grow back in. What Lance finds really entrancing, though, are the curls. He can only presume that they’ll eventually fade as the tousled mop lengthens back into the wavy, feathered mane he’d so persistently mocked as a mullet in the past. In the meantime, he’s definitely taking every opportunity to bury his fingers in the tangle sprouting at the nape of Keith’s neck. Planting them and twining them into the blossoming ringlets.

All of his fingers now welcomely occupied, Lance nudges his chin against Keith’s head again. “Am I making any sort of sense?” he asks more than a little plaintively.

Keith nods a little, Lance’s beard tangling his hair even further. “Yeah, love. I’m following,” he responds, calm and quiet. “Go on.”

“Well, that’s something at least.” Lance tugs lightly on those curls. “Do you…” he sighs. “Is this doing any good?” His voice meanders on beyond plaintive and of in the direction of outright supplication.

The arm around him hugs tight again, and Lance can feel strong fingers flex against the tens muscles of his back. “I don’t know if it will help answer your question…” Keith allows somewhat delicately. Thankfully, he continues his thought before Lance’s hopes can sink lower than they already are. “But even if it doesn't, I want you to keep going, Lance.” His arm pulses again. “Any part of you that I can understand, I want to understand. I… I told you that I want you to know all of me and… and I meant it. But, love, I want to know all of you too. This… this helps with that. If you can keep going... please, keep going.”

That tug on Lance’s lips is stronger this time. That’s more words than Keith has said all day right there. With his often quiet Keith, more words usually means more hope for a positive outcome. “Okay, Keith. I’ll keep going.” Lance swallows, noting that his throat is already going a little dry, but concluding that there’s no way on Earth… Dolydd… that there’s no way he’s going to disturb their current arrangement for the sake of a glass of water. Ignoring his discomfort, he carries on in a slightly raspier voice. “Where were… um… Oh, yeah. Roller coasters. So, to work at all, this good for nothing brain of mine needs extra stimulation. Something to entertain it all the damn time. I literally can’t use only one track at a time. If I try, my brain gets bored and the thought, or whatever.. Well, all the thoughts escape, really. My brain gets bored, and, well… cabin fever .”

Lance’s fingers carry on with their distracted little enterprises. “To work at all, I have to use… uh… let’s say: five. Five tracks. Because five is a nice, arbitrary number. So, say I’m sitting here watching a movie. That uses, hm… two tracks. Not enough. Boredom and badness ensue, and I won’t even be able to remember what the movie is about. But , if I grab my tablet and play a game too -- that’s three more tracks down and blamo ! My brain works! I remember the movie, and win the game.” Lance actually manages to chuckle. “Or lose it… that part doesn’t really matter. Mostly, it just helps if I can, you know, keep my hands busy. Shit like that.”

Lance hums as Keith’s thumb settles against a knot in one of his rhomboids and begins to tease it out. “That’s pretty much the long and short of it. Well, almost, I guess. Um… it’s the extremes that are worst for me. Use too few tracks, and my brain gets bored and shuts itself off completely. Use too many, and I end up bouncing off the walls like a five-year-old on the mother of all sugar highs. I… it took me a long time to learn, but eventually I found my balance.”

“I guess that’s the thing that I should say about it now. Make sure that you know. I mean, I know I scared you with this whole cabin fever thing -- even if I’m not sure why. But, K, I’m actually pretty good at the whole balancing thing nowadays. I’ve had a lot more practice than when I was seventeen. Also, I… you… I don’t really…” Lance sighs yet again. “You, Keith. You help. You always have. Just being around you… us being together, that… I guess it occupies some of the tracks too, or something like that. It’s different when you’re around. Better.” Lance huffs, aggravated with himself. “The rest of the damn circus -- that’s my responsibility.”

“What if I want to help?” Keith queries softly, sounding uncertain.

Lance is almost shocked out of their sprawled jumble by the interjection -- as he’s been the only one speaking for some time now. His brows quirking, he replies, “Then… you can? I mean… Keith, my very own dude, I’m definitely open to suggestions. But I’m not - you know - a toddler. I don’t have to have something new and sparkly every five doboshes to keep me entertained.” His self-deprecating quasi-humor makes another appearance in its usual snort form. “It’s more like every fifteen.”

With his spiel winding down, and thus no longer providing a distraction, some of the frustration from earlier begins to wash back over Lance. This time around, he does his absolute utmost to keep it out of his voice. “I… boredom… cabin fever… crap.” He spends a few ticks just breathing. “K, it’s always been a problem for me. I… I just… I don’t get why it’s such a problem for you .” Lance notices that his grimace is reappearing. In spades. Great. “I mean, I know you love me, and that you want me to be happy, and stuff; but this… Keith, it feels like more than that, and I don’t know why.”

The recurring grimace seems to have brought a fun friend along for the ride -- a stabby pain presently spiking him behind the eyes. “It’s just… I don't know. It seems like you’re afraid that I’ll get bored, and I don’t… I just don’t get it. I don’t know why.” Lance pauses, dragging his dry tongue over his lips to little effect. “Keith, am I making any sort of sense?” He really wants to pinch the bridge of his nose - maybe squeeze some of the intensifying pain away - but Keith is more important, so his hands stay right where they are.

By the time he actually manages to respond, Keith’s voice has dwindled back into a sad, dire whisper. “Lance, I… I… I a-am afraid .” He sniffles quite audibly. Because I… I r-remember.”

Well, that’s a start at least, though the obscure answer seems to actively increase the number of icepicks gouging at the innards of Lance’s skull. “K, I know this is hard to talk about. And I’m… I’m trying to be gentle -- I really am.” Lance digs for some courage, or, you know, something. “On goat-Christmas you told me that sometimes I should ask. That I… might have to push you into talking about things sometimes.” Lance pauses again, taking the time to try and somehow combine his most resolute voice with his nicest, most considerate voice. Mostly he just ends up sounding plaintive, and maybe a little constipated. “So… will you please… No. Can you please tell me what you’re so afraid of? What is it that you’re remembering?” And there it is: the push . The shove . Lance’s head hurts and he feels like a colossal dick. He feels like a bad guy.

Keith’s responding breath sounds suspiciously like a sob, and his shoulders shake for a moment before he squares them again and that woeful, muffled whisper starts drifting up to Lance from his sweater again. “Y-you said, just a f-few minutes ago… you said that two of your b-biggest problems are homesickness and b-boredom.” He sniffles again, more obviously this time. “That’s w-what I remember. That is w-what I’m afraid of.”

Lance lurches, his body drooping down and curling further around Keith’s as he pulls his chin from Keith’s head only to press his cheek there in its place. He just doesn’t understand. Seeing no other recourse, he simply admits that. “Baby, I don’t understand. I… why do those things make you so afraid?”

This time Keith does sob. There’s no mistaking the way his shoulders shake or how his breath starts to hitch. “I… I… f-fuck.” The shaking continues unabated. “I r-remember the days that were so bad t-that you would have left if you c-could.” Keith clears his throat noisily and seems to pick up a whiff of steam. “Except, Lance, you c-couldn’t leave. Because there was n-no way to get you home to Earth; and then, once there m-might have been a way, you couldn’t b-because it could have l-led the Galra there. And… a-and you wouldn’t leave because you were d-dedicated to b-being the paladin the universe n-needed. But Lance, I… I r-remember all of them. Every d-day that you would have left if you could…

That would seem to be the full extent of the available answer, given the way Keith just gives up and dissolves in lance’s arms as soon as the last word is out. Lance rocks his weeping Keith back and forth, his mouth murmuring random snatches of who-knows-what - probably Spanish lullabies or something - even as he pummels both his brain and Keith’s answer with all his might. He hammers at both of them as if shattering them and sorting through the pieces might help him find an insight of some sort. The storm-the-castle approach doesn’t seem to help much either, so in the end Lance just… stops. He just rocks with Keith and hums for a while.

It’s not until Keith has started to calm down a little that the explanation actually arrives. As his sobs quiet and his shaking calms, Keith’s subvocal whimpering begins to shift itself back in the direction of actual word shapes. When Lance finally notices what’s happening, he breaks off his crooning and listens instead. At first it’s all nonsense -- a jangle of half-formed murmurs. In fact, it’s mostly gibberish in the middle too. But after maybe ten doboshes, as Keith continues to regain his composure, those word shapes start to sound more and more like actual words instead.

Then it happens. Lance’s ears perk up as one of the chanted noises actually communicates its meaning. The form it takes doesn’t please him. Not at all. But it does mean that he begins to understand the terror that’s been boiling Keith alive for three days now. Come to think of it, the word showed up quite a few times in Keith’s torn and tattered explanation too -- enough times that Lance really probably should have picked up on it sooner.

The word, of course, is leave .

And so, even as Keith’s storm slacks off into quiet tears, Lance actually grasps at the heart of what’s going on, and he feels his own face crumple as he does. His own eyes fill, and then overflow. He does his best to keep his reaction silent, to keep it gentle. Better for the moment that Keith not realize… Don’t want Keith to have to play the comforter right now… Even his thoughts seem to break down a bit, and it only gets worse as more of Keith’s recitation begins to filter through into Lance’s reality.

Don’t go… can’t leave… need you… Lance, please

Of course, it’s that please that ends up being Lance’s undoing. That’s the word that breaks him, and despite his best intentions, and a most heartfelt attempt to stave it off, Lance can’t stop the sob that claws its way out of his chest.

Keith’s response to that ragged sound is instantaneous. Almost miraculously so. That hand - the one still planted between Lance’s shoulder blades - it fists his shirt as the powerful muscles in Keith’s arm crush Lance into him one hairsbreadth shy of painfully. Beyond that, Keith doesn’t really move. Not at all. Yet he still somehow manages to… unfurl. Apparently all it takes to completely transform Lance cradling Keith into Keith cradling Lance is that one, single sob. Well, one sob and Lance rapidly crumbling under the weight of understanding just exactly how it was that he accidentally broke his Keith.

° °

That understanding presents itself to Lance as a sort of ugly, burny, arterial-spurt red wasteland stretched all around. Hellish and demonic enough for Lance to realize that he’s in pretty damn deep. Lance’s anxiety disorder, as it is thoroughly wont to do, birthed up and spewed forth one of its stupid, senseless, frequently baseless apprehensions. In this case: boredom. Cabin fever . Hardly a novel problem for Lance in general, and honestly not even a real one - problem, that is - for Lance as an adult.

Lance stands in the angry, incarnadine firestorm and firmly reminds himself that he’s no longer a lost little fucktard of a teenager. And that Adult Lance is entirely capable of staving off the ravages of tedium and managing his own anarchic brain. And that those things are true when he’s on his own. That they were true before Keith seared his way back into Lance’s life. The positive… gravity that Keith exerts on Lance -- the seer joy of being around him just has to be as much a panacea for his boredom as it is for his homesickness.

And there -- right there in that half-dobosh worth of self-analysis, Lance can already see the extent of his fuck-up. It’s right there in front of him, after all. In poisonous detail, his deep brain presents him with the elements of the mistake that currently have insides curdling with what he can only refer to as shame.

He didn’t bother to think about the problem. Not even for a moment. If he had, he would certainly have remembered that the boredom that gnawed away at him like a terminal disease at seventeen had long-since receded. Well, been forced to recede. Brought under control. Driven to dwindle into a mere inconvenience by the time he was twenty-two or twenty-three and regularly spending months on end away from Earth entirely of his own accord. It was conquered in the era where he was hopping from planet to planet, speech to speech, through that favorite haunt of the boredom monster -- deep space. Christ. Or fuck. Yes. Fuck. For fuck’s sake, there’s a reason that he’d taken to carrying four goddamn separate computers with him in his luggage wherever he went. And that reason’s name is cabin fever .

And that’s hardly the only bit of reasoning that Lance utterly failed to consider. He failed the spend a single moment considering the implications of this new life that he’s been building. That he and Keith … that they’ve been building. Failed to consider ho wit might affect this perennial collapse into nihilistic ennui of his. Today, upset in the extreme, neither he nor Keith had any trouble at all summoning up and naming the two most gaping chasms in Lance’s emotional and attentional continence: homesickness and boredom. And bloody double-fuck him if he and Keith haven’t already done their due diligence - and the emotional heavy lifting - on one of those topics. 

It should have immediately occurred to Lance that existing in Keith’s orbit - loving Keith, and being loved by him - would cancel out the entire worry. Or, at least drive it into utter insignificance. Hell, he’d even already explained the whole thesis to Keith right in the middle of several hundred tiny, white-garmented goats. Right in the middle of a Christmas party. Keith had apologized for making him miss his family, for being the cause of his homesickness, and Lance’s reply, his rebuttal had been both immediate and correct.

I’m not… sorry that I’m missing them. Sorry that I’m here instead. K. Baby, I’m where I’ve chosen to be. Where I want to be. It’s okay that I’m missing them. I’ll see them again. I really am right where I want to be right now.

I wasn’t that Lance hadn’t felt homesick in the moment. Not that at all -- because he had . It was that in the choice between missing his family and missing his Keith, there was simply no contest. Just being with Keith, having Keith beside him was far more than enough to trump the single greatest concern of his youth. After all, how could Lance feel homesick when his home was standing right beside him?

The incanted swearing in Lance’s head increases in volume exponentially as he feels himself slipping down through his burning hell. Otherwise known as his realization that if Keith trumps his vaunted problem number one: homesickness, and does so with no need for thinking, no need for agonizing, and with nothing more than a feeling Lance would have to call absolute clarity of purpose; then how the merciful fuck did Lance not conclude that Keith surely vanquishes mere boredom with nothing more than a blink and an awkward smile.

° °

Lance glances around at his existential abyss as he slides down and it grows… ickier. Most of it is still ugly, angry, bloody red and fiery; but a disconcerting amount of ghastly, scabrously-boring, medium-grey immutability seems to be in play in this more occult subbasement of his brain as well.

It’s only down here that the third failure. Third indiscretion. Third misconduct. Third… transgression against Keith and the forces of reason and contemplation gnashes its way into focus. The third one, that’s the one that’s killing him now. That’s the burning in his gut lie an irascible bonfire.

The first one, the indiscretion , was a failure of self-reflection, of self-analysis. For that, lance can respond, ‘ Yeah, what else is new? ’ It might not be ideal, but gazing into the rat trap affectionately known as his brain and teasing enduring truths free from the grasping anxiety demon -- that’s never been one of Lance’s strengths. That’s a flaw that he can both forgive and work on. It’s an almost purely internal matter.

The second -- the misconduct . That one hurts more. It’s the guilty conscience equivalent of a kick in the balls. How do you forgive yourself for failing to factor your boyfriend into your thinking? Probably not too hard. But when it’s the love of your life that you're talking about… it seems infinitely harder to Lance.

He wonders whether down here is the sort of place where wracking his brain requires some sort of somatic component. He stares at his hands and wiggles his fingers. That doesn’t seem to help, so he waves his arms around instead. Nothing. Lance sighs and wracks his brain like normal. The mishmash world of angry reds and ugly greys pulses around him, and he winces a little as the greys begin to win out and take over. So he wracks his brain and ends up standing in the middle of an atrocious, dead and achingly-medium-grey plane of existence that could only have been constructed by the sort of banal devil who’s both an equally ardent adherent of M.C. Escher and a vehement opponent of Euclidean geometry.

Lance’s monologue whispers in the air around him, it sounds… suspiciously nervous. ‘ Do you suppose that this is the place where dead Cthulhu waits dreaming? It really sort of looks like it. I would definitely consider calling this a nightmare corpse-city…

Lance drags his eyes to a halt before their impulsive attempt to follow the preposterous lines of the irrational landscape around him can actually drive him all the way crazy. “Jesus Christ, brain. Shut up,” Lance mutters. “It’s bad enough in here already, if you actually make corpses appear, I’m getting a fucking lobotomy.I should really, really have listened to Hunk and not let Pidge talk me into reading Lovecraft… Apparently my subconscious liked it a lot more than I did.” 

Lance lowers his face to his hands and, while he considers screaming, he decides that a heavy sigh will be sufficient for the moment. Right. Wracking his brain. The only thing that he can come up with is that his thought processes just haven’t caught up yet. That his relationship with Keith is still so new that his thinking hasn’t adjusted to automatically accommodate his beloved yet.

The explanation feels like a cop-out. An excuse. But Lance is forced to conclude that it has validity nonetheless. As much as his brain yearns for novelty, it’s not so great with remapping to accommodate new… factors. Especially not giant, life-changing ones.

Lance looks around again, absolutely refuses to vomit in response to the raucous… drabness, and then wedges his eyes shut before crowding himself into a calmer mental corner and rebuking himself for wasting time and avoiding the real failure. The killer.

° °

Even with his eyes shut, Lance feels funny all of a sudden -- dizzy. His stomach swoops. He cracks open one eye just far enough to realize that he’s hanging upside down off one of the… stalactites..? Towers..? Things hanging down into Escherland. He scrunches the eye back shut with a nauseated huff. Deciding that he’ll probably do better with a lower center of gravity, Lance sits his ass down on the ground. Up on the ground? “Christ on a cupcake!” he shouts. It echoes. A lot. It doesn’t make the whole mental prison-world any nicer.

Lance does his best to shut everything out and actually focus on the thing he doesn’t want to focus on. Then, of course, he realizes that the world is being obnoxious because it’s trying to do exactly what he wants it to do. Distract him from his realization. “Fuck!” Lance shouts. That echoes painfully too, at first. Then the echoes die down and the vertigo bleeds away. Lance slowly opens his eyes to find himself sitting on a flat plane of perfect grey in… a flat plane of perfect grey. “Better…” Lance mumbles. And then he braces himself to accept what’s coming.

Number three. The transgression . The sin . Lance shrinks his, what, mental state? Mental… self? Whatever. “I feel like I’m saying whatever an awful lot here, but there really aren’t any good synonyms…” he complains aimlessly to no one at all. Realizing he’s procrastinating again, Lance redirects himself towards his awaiting trespass. Let’s just say that Lance quails at number three, and decides that he’s glad that he’s deep enough inside his brain, or his psychosis… doesn’t matter. He decides that he’s glad he’s far enough removed from his physical body that the filth this particular failure is exuding can’t make him vomit up his literal lunch all over the poor Keith sitting in his lap. Well, presumably sitting in his lap. How instantaneous this whole nightmare… daymare… brain mare is, is entirely unclear at the moment.

One and two, the indiscretion and the misconduct , those were unfortunate, and maybe ill-done. Maybe even contemptible; but also survivable and forgivable. They were failures internal to Lance -- really only inflicting harm on himself, or his sense of self. Or something. The transgression , that was a sin against someone else; and not just anyone else, but against Keith. His Keith . It’s not something that Lance can forgive. He already knows that. Forgiveness for this one has to come from Keith. Lance already knows, understands in the deepest reaches of himself, that he’ll be forgiven. That understanding was probably painted all over the walls in Escherland. Keith will forgive Lance anything . Always . Just like Lance would do for Keith. There’s just no question. Therein enters the easy way out of this particular torment.

Unfortunately for a man - and Lance does want to be a man: a good man , if he can possibly manage it - unfortunately for a man who has just castigated himself for a failure of self-reflection, Lance’s sense of duty, of honor, demands his understanding first. Infinitely more important than his own want to be upstanding though, there is a louder voice making the demand as well. That voice comes from his need to love Keith, and do it the right way; do it fully. That love, it demands a conscious accounting. It won’t permit Lance to ask forgiveness for a crime - to repent of a sin - that he doesn’t fully understand.

Lance stares into the burning pit in his stomach; into the burning pain in his soul. He stares, and he stares, and he watches it crystallize in front of him. He climbs back to his feet and stares a little longer. Then he walks inside without flinching. Without looking back.

° °

In its best, stupidly ridiculous fashion, Lance’s warping brain constructs him an absurdly malignant metaphor. Ensconced in the eye of the shitstorm, he watches his very own, personal anxiety demon defecate forth that useless, baseless, and grimly ruinous little disquiet: boredom. He watches as Past Lance picks up his tired old enemy and nuzzles it to his chest; forgetting that it was already long defeated. He watches Past Lance forgets all about the radiant sentinel already protecting him from that fucker too. Then Past Lance takes the feculent little oyster, flops it over in his hands once or twice, and then blithely passes it over to Past Keith.

There’s no malice in Past Lance’s intent, but in acting without thought or care, the malice leeches its way into the truth of the thing anyway. Intent isn’t the only pathway malice can follow, after all. And Lance can’t hide behind his intent here, because neglect is an avenue that malice can seep its corruption down just as easily.

Lance watches the initial echo of himself splay out into a throng, into a litany of faded reflections of other, older Lances. Some of the phantasms are a decade old, and pale to near-invisibility. Others - those with clearer outlines, more visible details - they’re fresher. More recent. He observes each one of them as they find their complement in the curia of Keith’s. He watches as each one of them takes its turn and hands over some little token, some manifestation of an old anxiety, over to their Keith shade.

Then, as he continues to observe, he realizes that the process isn’t actually so simple as he thought, not nearly so unidirectional. Before his eyes, the Chthonic Keiths begin to hand some fear, some worry of their own, over to their Lance counterparts. And in a behavior budding from those first true exchanges, he watches as some of the brighter, more distinct - and thus, more recent - Keiths actually seem to be the figures initiating the contact. He watches as the Keiths begin to seek out Lance doppelgängers of their own accord and hand over their apprehensions with little more than a shy, thankful look on their phantom-faces.

Confident in his grasp of the meaning behind the exhibition, Lance waves a shaky hand and dismisses the phantasmal legion; stripping the scene before him back down to Three-Days-Ago Lance and Three-Days-Ago Keith. Having watched that multitude of moments, Lance understands that the action itself - the behavior, the sharing - that is righteous. He considers this, and watches the most recent… transaction again. He can find not hint of sharing in this, the most current example. None of the grace and regard he’d seen in the older exchanges. What he sees is a silly boy abandoning his problem with someone else, blind - willfully or not - to the fact that the fear he’s abdicating so readily is poisonous to its consignee too.

The two spectres are bright and limned with details that most of the hazier, older memories lacked. The careless Spectral Lance he sees there looks unsympathetic and callous. The Lance makes no attempt to understand the ugly excreta he’s holding, he just shrugs his shoulders and all but flings it at Spectral Keith. The Keith, of course, catches the damned thing. And he does it with the same sincere diligence he exhibits with every aspect of caring for Lance. He plucks the baleful deformity from the air with his normal, earnest expression and his caring mien. As the Keith turns the ugly oyster over and over in his hands, it cuts him. Every time, it cuts him. Long, ragged wounds that bleed black here in the profundity of Lance’s brain-abyss slit the phantom hands. And as the Keith bleeds on that grisly little oyster, it bleeds right back. It bleeds its poison into him and Lance watches as his heartbeat carries the poisonous barbs right to the deepest, most fragile reaches of the Keith.

The visual generated by this is… not good . Lance learns intimately and unforgettably what it would look like to watch Keith die of cancer. Well, if the terminal stretch of the disease were sped up to take place in about thirty ticks or so.

Profoundly shaken, Lance turns away and closes his eyes. Then he shudders. Several times.

° °

When he looks back up, the expression on his face has gone rather harsh. Thoroughly, toweringly irritated, one might say. He glares around himself for a moment, and then huffs at the degree of overbearing existential nonsense currently taking place inside his own fucking head. Lance takes a breath and tries to summon up some sort of realism-based overlay for the infernity. When nothing happens, he rolls his eyes and then snaps his fingers with a grand flourish instead. The endless grey nothing around him collapses into a room with actual, finite dimensions. Another snap relegates the still-lurking spectres to a newly created viewscreen hung on the newly created wall. A third snap deletes the monster-killer soundtrack still howling in the background. Lance nods his head.

The metaphoric panoply arrayed in front of him remains intact, although removed to the video screen instead of existing in the same degree as lance himself immediately lessens its power over his viscera. Yes, there’s the Keith holding an ugly oyster that cuts his hands to shreds while it drips venom in the wounds. And yes, next to him stands a truly vacuous-looking dupe of a Lance. Thankfully, the demonic overtones and pseudo-biblical lexicon have eased off a bit. The walls flicker fitfully, but subside when lance raises his hand and threatens to snap his fingers again.

Lance puffs out an aggravated breath when the screen flips itself into theater mode and shit starts playing on it. He puffs again as the blood-covered oyster in Past Keith’s hands opens up on a pearl as black as Zarkon’s soul. Lance kicks himself in the… figurative… figurator ? The oyster slams shut with a cackle and then screeches like an unoiled hinge as it opens back up to display what Lance thinks is supposed to be a black hole. He watches as the… thing attempts to suck all of the light and detail out of a Phantom Keith that seems to be pinned in place; not to mention a Phantom Lance that appears uncaringly motionless. Yep. Black hole. Lance grimaces and pinches himself in the arm. Mind-arm? Whatever. Hard .

° °

Lance blinks through the blur and the murk as he opens his eyes on a setting very much more normal to him than the purgatorial vista he’s been abiding in. The gruesome tableau is gone and his surroundings look more like… well, nothing at all. The nothingness is comfortably familiar. It’s what the cloistered precincts inside his skull are supposed to look like. Well, at least what they look like when his brain’s mood is all neutral and non-objective. Lance has always just figured that here’s supposed to look like what the actual world looks like. Well, what the world looks like if your eyes are closed.

Relieved, Lance lets his long-pent breath loose in a protracted gust.

Now much closer to his normal mental stomping grounds, Lance is definitely forced to wonder how long he’s been staring vacantly at Keith -- or, you know, doing whatever else his body has been up to while he’s been on brain vacation. Shrugging his musings aside, Lance focuses back on his guilty conscience. It’s still there, but it’s hardly an all-consuming, mortal-peril sort of situation any longer. Probably because he understands what happened now -- understands how it was he broke his Keith. Well, and because he’s apparently left the bad acid-trip portion of this particular and demented experience and arrived firmly within the borders of get-some-fucking- perspective - ville.

Feeling himself, or, well, his avatar..? “Christ on a fucking bike with the miserable pronoun mess already…” Lance snarls.

Feeling shit finally start to relax, Lance sighs yet again. He understands that he broke his Keith by failing to adequately respond to his own mental health failings like an adult. You know, like the grownup who has long since learned how to do so. Like the grownup that he’s supposed to be. Beyond that, he broke his Keith by failing to consider the changes Keith’s presence has wrought in his life, on his behaviors -- and vice versa. Most damning of all, he broke his Keith through a combination of taking him for granted and failing to consider how his own dumb mental health issues - past and present - overlap with, influence, and in this case, frantically trigger Keith’s own.

Though Lance thinks the shitty oyster is, well, gross; and he has no particular intention of sharing the metaphor itself with Keith -- he does have to admit that it’s fairly apt. Lance’s anxiety demon birthed the boredom oyster. Lance carelessly floundered said oyster onto Keith, entirely failing to consider just what effect his Lance -esque issues  might have on said boyfriend -- especially the historical issues that Keith had spent years observing in person… spent years interacting with on a day-to-day basis. The complete lack of intention on Lance’s part or malice from either side hardly stopped Keith from plucking up the anxiety oyster of boredom and then choking on its poison for days. He choked on it hard while it underwent its apodiabolosis, transmogrifying itself into Keith’s very own anxiety pearl of recurring abandonment .

Lance swears and glares down at what moments ago, was infinite nothingness beneath him. It’s once again become convincingly floorlike. It pulses and goes all hellscapey at him. He swears again and looks at his shuffling feet. With a groan, he twists about and lifts his them to check the bottoms. Thoroughly peeved by the amount of wacky subconscious shit filtering up from his mind’s very own abyssal plateau, Lance is rather surprised to find that the psychological detritus isn’t dogshat all over the soles of his tennis shoes. Resisting the urge to make a pun about ‘ souls ’ instead, he looks back up into the surrounding emptiness and growls instead, “ Seriously? The apodiabolosine pearl of recurring abandonment ?” His deep brain sounds like a particularly and most terribly overwritten Monsters and Mana campaign. Lance stomps his foot as hard as he can.

° °

The floor ripples indignantly for what seems like miles in every direction before reverting into a much more agreeable absence of everything. Lance manages to ferret a flash of serenity out of some previously undiscovered cache somewhere, and drapes it about his metaphorical self as he attempts one final time to sum up. Mostly, he concludes: he done fucked up . He handed a problem over to Keith that he could have easily handled on his own, and did it without even pausing to consider the possibility that his dumb little Lance problem could trigger a huge, hemorrhaging Keith problem. And, of course, it did trigger a huge, hemorrhaging Keith problem.

Long and short, Keith has almost certainly already convinced himself that Lance is going to up and abandon his whole life on Dolydd in the very instant that he grows even marginally bored. And the growing bored, at least… Lance has to admit that it’s exactly the sort of thing that might well happen to him while snowed in -- buried diversionless in their pre-industrial, alpine cottage at the utter ass-end of all creation.

Then he stops himself and allows some of the newfound understanding from his little nightmare drip into his active thought process. In light of the new insight, Lance concludes that he doesn’t actually have to admit anything of the damn sort. Not about his current self, at least. He probably should admit that the situation Keith’s so dreading is absolutely the sort of scenario that would have vexed Teenager Lance to death on the spot. Thankfully, the irritating majority of Teenager Lance is already long gone. That, and spiffy, new Dolydd-born Lance - Keith’s Lance - is definitely on a crusade to root out any leftover tendril of his teenaged specter that might be pernicious, or even just inane.

No, Keith’s Lance - otherwise known as Actual Lance - has absolutely no need to admit to a fear of growing bored and abandoning his entire life here. Mostly because Actual Lance is not, under any circumstances, ever going to do any such thing. With that truth durably affixed in the firmament of his awareness, Lance decides that it’s well past time to stop entertaining the psychedelic-inspired mental breakdown he’s currently engrossed in.

Yep. Time to go back. Go back and figure out the most effective way to convince Keith that he’s never, ever going to leave him. Wake up and convince him that he’s not going to abandon him for any reason. Not for homesickness, and most absolutely not for something random and dumb like boredom.

And after that, then he can abject apologize for accidentally being a ginormous , negligent douche.

Lance sits himself down cross-legged on the oblivion beneath him, his upturned hands resting atop his knees. He tries to relax. Closing his eyes and regulating his breathing, he begins to make a concerted attempt to center himself and, you know, wake the fuck up. The voice tolls softly in the oblivion all around him, and its tone is… unusual. It’s.. intimate, and makes Lance feel… cherished?

His eyes pop open and he looks around, trying to figure out what exactly the fuck is saying things to him right now. Of course, there’s absolutely nothing there in the… nothingness. By the time he’s done concluding such, the voice has stopped talking. Lance grabs hard at the bridge of his nose when he realizes that he entirely missed whatever whoever was just trying to tell him. “Fuck me. Can you say it again?” he appeals to the void aloud.

My God, Lance… you’re not supposed to be able to ignore me , you know. That’s not how this is supposed to work ,’ replies the monologue with a hint of its usual spiteful candor. Then Lance feels it shrug, and the dulcet-but-sober timbre returns. ‘ I told you that your plans for talking to Keith -- well, maybe plans is a bit strong… your intentions for talking to Keith are good. Then I told you to please try not to fuck this up. Please ? You need to fix your Keith -- that’s the most important thing by far. But… Lance do try to remember that neither of you are really to blame for this carnival of fuckuppery. The crazy’s something long since abused into both of  you. Neither of you are really at fault. I need you to fix him… I don’t necessarily need you to feel bad while you’re doing it -- and I don’t really think feeling bad will help this time anyway.

Lance can’t remember a single, solitary time in the past when his monologue sounded nearly so not dry, and so not wry, and so not bitchy . He’s honestly not at all sure what to do about it. After an appropriate period of gaping, he opts for something simple. Or, well, something simple is all he can really come up with. Whatever. “Uh… thanks? I’ll… I’m going to fix him. I promise you… me… us..? Christ. Well, I promise to try. As for not feeling bad, I… I’ll do what I can. Thanks for not being a giant ass for once, I guess.”

Now sounding somewhat aggrieved, the monologue merely replies: ‘ Wake up, you assbiscuit . Now ! ’ And then it… well… someone… Something ? Regardless, Lance is quite literally shaken by the immense choking sound that knells from vacant horizon to vacant horizon.

Christ on a cross, ” Lance blasphemes with savage vigor -- right before his irritation, along with the entirety of his attention is wrenched away by a second, choked detonation of truly reality-demolishing proportion. The clamor convulses its way into a wracking cough. A cough which rather ruthlessly demolishes both Lance and the entirety of his blank, comforting nullity. A cough which pulverizes the whole of the nihilistic everything around him with ease, leaving nothing in its wake but coruscating glitter.