Keith hadn’t worn a formal suit in years.
Not since he left his kingdom, gave up his crown for a sword and his finery for a coat of armor. It was how he preferred it, really, and it was better this way—Shiro was always better than he was when it came down to diplomacy, regality, being in the public eye in general. Keith preferred to keep out of the spotlight, and what better way to do that than to become the captain of Prince Lance’s guard, and by extension, his personal guard?
It was his job to remain unseen or overlooked but ever-vigilant.
That was why it surprised him when the prince ordered him to put other guards on the rotation this evening and take a night off, to trade his armor for a suit. He’d allowed a dagger to stay (at the moment concealed by his coat but within easy reach, because Lance’s safety would always be Keith’s priority), and hadn’t brought up a crown—Keith supposed Lance knew his aversion to that situation.
He milled about the ballroom of Tierae’s palace, eyes on the prince practically every second they could be, when Keith wasn’t caught up in a dance—which, he’d been caught in too many to count, every single one by people he had no interest in, and especially those he’d never have interest in. After his last one he’d slipped away and gone back to sticking to walls, among the other guests too tired or merely unwilling to get lost among the crowd at the ballroom’s center.
The center, of course, never meant the room’s true physical center. It meant the same center his heart gravitated toward, and Keith tried to slow its beating as he looked out again at the prince, crown slipping slightly down his forehead. The giggling princess on his arm at the moment must’ve made some comment about it, because he smiled at her and then momentarily removed his hand from her waist to adjust it.
That’s still not quite right, Your Highness, Keith thought, hands clasped behind his back. Allow me to assist you.
Only occasionally did those words from Keith’s lips mean keeping the crown on Lance’s head.
He pressed his mouth into a thin line to keep from smiling at that, as the prince’s eyes lifted from the princess and cut across the room, and landed on Keith almost immediately. Keith inclined his head slightly in acknowledgment, and Lance looked away, smile widening just the slightest. Keith’s stomach fluttered, because he knew full well that that expression did not belong to the princess who’d been granted the honor of dancing with Lance.
That honor didn’t last much longer; the last notes of the song faded away after no more than a minute, and Lance bowed to her, and let her go, and then swept through the ballroom.
His eyes remained firmly on Keith.
The guests around Lance parted like the Red Sea as he strode forward, a few arms reaching out to him but never touching, a few voices giggling in his direction or calling out compliments, but they fell away. Lance had one mind for one person at the moment, as he finally stopped in front of Keith with a softened expression. Keith turned to face him fully, as any subject would if their prince approached, and then bowed reverently.
“Your Highness,” Keith greeted, and lifted his head just enough to meet his prince’s eyes, while the prince smiled and extended a hand.
“Sir Kogane,” he said in return, “may I have this dance?”
The twinkling in his eyes betrayed the serious, casual look he tried to wear, and Keith smiled warmly in return, slid his hand into Lance’s. “You may certainly.”
Lance’s hand came to rest on Keith’s waist as he clasped their other hands, while Keith set a hand down upon his shoulder. If they hadn’t had a crowd, he might’ve wound his arm all the way around Lance’s neck, the same way Lance might’ve snaked his all the way around Keith’s back and held him as close as they physically could get. But prying eyes peered curiously at the prince and his captain of the guard, somewhat of a bold choice for a dance partner, as Lance lead them into a waltz.
“You know,” Lance said quietly, carefully navigating the ballroom dance floor, “I insisted you come tonight to see you relax, but here you are, tense as ever.”
“I’m just trying to look out for you,” Keith replied. “Balls can be just as dangerous as any military excursion.”
“That they can be,” Lance responded with a wink, earning a flush and a scowl from Keith. “But I have the finest fighting force in the world guarding the palace tonight, and I have your direction to thank for that. You’ve more than earned a night off, and I really don’t want to have to break out the prince card and order you to have a good time.”
“You and I both know I’m happier anywhere that doesn’t involve me in a suit, My Prince,” Keith said. “Although, I do admit that perhaps…this is improving my night.”
They stepped in a circle, speeding up just slightly, Lance’s hand tightening fractionally, fingers digging in a little harder to the side of Keith’s suit jacket.
“Well, I’m glad to be a source of your happiness,” Lance said, “but might I ask that you reconsider that first statement?”
Keith tilted his head, as the first traces of a blush crept upon Lance’s skin, each and every freckle catching and igniting. “Is there something you want to tell me, Your Highness?”
“It’s a rather important issue, actually,” Lance answered. “It’s required a tedious discussion with the king and queen, and even still, nothing is quite…set in stone, yet. Hopefully, they will be soon, because this tiptoeing around certain issues within palace walls…it’s becoming exhausting. But this isn’t the place to discuss it at length.” Lance tipped his chin at the room around them, the other guests dancing, talking, eating and drinking to their hearts’ contents. “I request that you accompany me back to my chambers as soon as this event ends.”
Nothing out of the ordinary there, but the edge to Lance’s voice as he spoke…Keith guessed there were other affairs happening tonight than their usual ones. So he nodded, expression smoothing out from confusion and apprehension to one of concern, and he dropped his voice.
“Is everything alright, Lance?”
Everything inside of Keith itched to reach up and cup his cheek, but he clamped down on the urge. Former royalty or not, Keith had given up that life, and he had a duty he’d sworn to Lance to be his guard, first and foremost. Being his guard meant playing it safe to keep Lance out of danger, be it physical or otherwise. So he kept his hand firmly on Lance’s shoulder; even still, he squeezed their other hands.
“Hopefully,” Lance answered, after a moment of contemplation. “I think, for now, we should set thoughts of later aside. I didn’t mean to bring down the mood. After all, you still need to loosen up. You’re so stiff, my dear. Relax. You’re in my arms.”
Well, not quite, though Keith would have loved for Lance to be holding him fully. But that sentiment still pinkened Keith’s cheeks, still recovering from Lance’s earlier remark. This time, the burn wasn’t quite as bad, the warmth comforting more than scorching.
“And you’re not worried about what people will say about that?” Keith asked.
“No,” Lance breathed out, after a moment. “Please, enlighten me, Sir Kogane. Tell me all about those who might have the audacity to challenge a prince or his guard captain about their choice in dance partner.” When Keith didn’t answer, he continued on. “Besides, to them, you’re just another guest here, and every guest deserves a fair chance at dancing with me, wouldn’t you say?” Another beat. “Of course…you’re not just another guest to me.”
Lance swallowed thickly and met Keith’s eyes head-on. Then they flicked to the hair coming undone from its careful arrangement. Keith normally let his bangs get stuck to his face by sweat, had grown used to it. But tonight, for the occasion, he’d slicked them back, in an effort to dress up a little, even if the effort had been for Lance more than the sake of his own reputation. Now, a few strands broke free, fell forward into his eyes.
Lance liked to fix his hair the same way Keith liked to fix his crown, and Keith could see the desire in his expression—just a simple gesture, to sweep his bangs back and tuck them behind his ear, to let his fingers graze the side of Keith’s face.
But the song ended, then, and Keith broke the pair of them apart and bowed before Lance once more.
“It was a pleasure,” he said. “Thank you, Your Highness.”
“Thank you, Sir,” Lance responded, “for granting me the opportunity.”
Another beat as they traded long looks, and then Keith retreated, back toward the outskirts of the ball, while Lance moved inward, onto other guests, onto other princes and duchesses and barons and ladies.
The ball wore on for another handful of hours before finally the guests thinned out and dispersed, back to carriages and guest rooms, until Lance, Keith, and the on-duty knights remained the only souls in the room.
“The lot of you, back to your normal posts,” Keith ordered, voice echoing around the empty ballroom. “Holt, you’re on the prince’s chambers with me tonight.”
“Yes Sir,” the knights chorused, and Matt gave Keith a salute, took up position by the door while Keith approached Lance, one hand resting on the hilt of his sword.
“Your Highness,” he murmured, and gestured for Lance to lead the way.
Lance gave him a long look in return, and finally spun on his heel and began for his bedroom. Keith followed a few feet behind—a knight keeps a respectful distance, that had been drilled into him ever since he took up the position—and glanced around the room every so often, and then the hallways, until finally they were in the secluded hall that led down to Lance’s chambers, and Keith allowed his guard to drop just the slightest.
It didn’t drop fully, though, until they were inside, in a room flooded with moonlight spilling in from the semicircle of a bay window on the far side of the room. Keith shut the door between them as Matt took up post against the door frame outside, to ensure no one else would enter and interrupt them, or bring harm to the prince.
In here, Keith set his sword down on the trunk at the foot of Lance’s bed, and then Lance’s arms snaked around his waist and Keith found himself suddenly flush against Lance’s body, arms circling his neck and lips meeting lips. Lance held him tightly, an anchor tethering him to this world, like if he let go he would lose Keith forever. Keith held him just as tightly in return, even as Lance pulled back to breathe.
“You have no idea how much I longed to do that this evening,” Lance whispered, knowing they had ears just outside the door.
Keith lifted eyes to the crown slipping down Lance’s head. “And you have no idea how much I wanted to tell you that your crown was slipping all evening.” He reached one hand for it, took it from Lance’s head, and flung it onto the four-poster canopy bed. “That’s better.”
“You have a knack for making me look better,” Lance said, “although that’s not why I’ve brought you here…well, not exactly.”
He kept his voice down as he let go of Keith’s waist, and instead gripped his hand and laced their fingers, and led Keith over to the window, where a bench, cushioned with blue velvet, ran around the wall underneath the sill. Lance sat down, and brought Keith down next to him, pulled his hand into his lap and squeezed.
“I know,” Lance started, and then swallowed thickly, licked his lips and stared at their hands, “that when you came here, I told you I’d never ask you to put a crown on again. You didn’t want that life. You wanted to be a knight—more specifically, my knight. You didn’t say it at the time, but I knew.” He brought his other hand in, clasped Keith’s between both of his, now. “I remember…I remember seeing you at events hosted by us, by the surrounding kingdoms…by your own kingdom. I remember the friendship we forged then, so when you came to us, years later…”
Friendship was a loose term, far too loose for the dark corners and stolen kisses, for the dances filled with heart-to-hearts, secrets for them and them only.
“You’ve ascended the ranks and become the leader you are now, and you’re one of the finest leaders my knights have ever seen, if not the finest,” Lance went on. “Your leadership has gotten our military to where it is now. I’m proud of you, because I know it’s a lot on your plate, on top of…this.” He nodded to their hands. “I would never ask of you anything that would make you uncomfortable or overwhelm you, but…we’ve been on my mind, as of late. Many of my siblings have already married off, and…the other day, my mother and father summoned me to bring up that same topic.”
Keith had learned many things over the years of being a knight, of being Captain of the Guard. One of those things was how to conceal his emotions, and he kept a carefully blank face, kept his breath from hitching as Lance squeezed his hands again.
“As of right now, nothing has been arranged. However, my parents began…naming some possible spouses they’d like to see me begin courting within the near future. They’ve given me time to make a decision, but, as you already know…I’ve had my decision made for quite a while. And after all…you are of royal descent, though you’ve given up that title to be here. I’m unsure of…whether or not my parents would approve, but before I even brought up the idea to them…I thought it best to ask your approval, first.”
Keith didn’t answer, let a silent few seconds pass; in those seconds, Lance sighed and closed his eyes, while Keith’s gaze drifted to the windows, and the dark world beyond the square-patterned glass. Lance’s chambers overlooked the castle gardens, and just past them, the training grounds where Keith ran drills with the rest of Tierae’s knights. Briefly, Keith allowed himself the moment to wonder how many times Lance had watched the knights from up here, had watched Keith training on his nights off, long after sunset.
“I know you don’t want to be a prince or a king, Keith, and if we were to unite, I don’t know what that would do to your current position. I know I’m your prince, but I cannot order you to answer one way or another in this matter. You don’t even need an answer now, but please, just…contemplate it.”
Lance’s voice drew Keith back to the matter at hand, and Keith pursed his lips, and watched Lance’s eyebrows knit in frustration.
“Who did your parents name?” he finally asked quietly, and Lance opened his eyes, allowed them to bore into Keith’s with an ache a thousand miles deep.
For a moment, he couldn’t bring himself to answer, to name people that could very well turn into Keith’s competition, could very well take his place at Lance’s side, but then he allowed his shoulders to slump. “Princess Allura of Altea, Prince Ryan of Garronid, and Princess Plaxum of Bakku. A marriage with Allura would solidify a powerful alliance, one with Ryan would give us all the lands from here to the sea, and one with Plaxum would end the conflict with Bakku before it spirals out of control, and could possibly even lead us into peace talks with the Galra Empire.”
“And do you know what one with the rogue prince of Thayserix might do?” Keith asked, even more quietly than his previous question.
Lance blew out a breath through his nose, something between a snort and a laugh, half-hearted at that. “One with you would pin down Naxzela and force them into peace talks, lest they desire a war on two fronts. It would be a viable option, but you…”
Me. I’m the problematic variable.
“I don’t know what my parents would say, if I brought up the idea of marrying my personal guard. I don’t know what sorts of ideas my parents would get about you and what we’ve been up to, and whether or not it would result in something more favorable, or, worst case scenario, your banishment from the kingdom. And I don’t…I don’t wish you to suffer the rest of your days. Even for my sake.”
“I believe I already do that now,” Keith said. “I think it’s even in the job description that I take your injuries for you.”
That one earned a genuine laugh out of Lance, be it a wet one—Keith noticed the mist in his eyes, the way he couldn’t quite fully collect himself.
“You’re smart, Lance,” he continued, while Lance tried to calm himself. “What do you think is the best move for you and for your kingdom?”
He clasped his other hand over Lance’s, and drew Lance’s eyes to their little pile, collected on top of Lance’s lap. Lance stared for a moment, and Keith could practically see the gears turning in his head as he mulled it over—best for himself, best for his kingdom—the equivalency of those two things—
“Any one of those things would be beneficial to us,” he finally said. “If I could do them all at once, without having to promise myself to another person…I would. But I can only do one of those things. Thayserix and Bakku each may bring an end to a conflict, but the one best for myself…” Lance raised his eyes again. “I don’t believe that’s wholly up to me.”
He let one of Keith’s hands go, to caress his cheek; Keith leaned into the touch, pressed a hand over Lance’s, kept their steady gazes locked.
“I want you, Keith,” he whispered. “I’ve wanted you for years, and now that I’ve had you for just as long…I don’t want to let you go.”
But I will if I must. If his parents disagreed. If Keith turned him down here and now.
“No matter what decision you make, you’ll have me by your side,” Keith finally said.
Lance’s face fell. “So then…”
Keith brought his fingers underneath Lance’s chin and tipped it up, as Lance’s eyes began to fall away with his hope. “You’ll have me at your side as your guard, regardless of your choice. But, truly—if you want me, and if your parents approve…” Keith allowed his eyes to rove over the freckles on Lance’s face, slide along the slope of his nose and drop down to his lips, and then finally return to his eyes. “I could possess all the willpower in the world, and it would not be enough to keep me from taking up a crown again and being your husband.” He brought his hand to the back of Lance’s neck and gently massaged him, tried to ease some of the tension out of him. “I took up this position because I didn’t want the crown, that much is true. But more so, I took up this position to be closer to you, to protect you in every way I could. There’s nothing that says I cannot do the same as your spouse.”
He leaned in until their foreheads were pressed together, and Lance sighed again.
“I don’t want to force you—”
“You’re not forcing me into anything,” Keith interrupted gently. “I know full well that you would let me walk out that door and never look back. You don’t want to let me go, but you would, because that’s who you are. You’re selfless, Lance. Selfless to the point you would make yourself the most miserable man alive to see others happy and prospering.” He ran a thumb over Lance’s cheekbone as a single tear slipped down Lance’s face. “I might have been unhappy in a crown before, but I could never be unhappy with you.”
He brought his other hand up now, to cup both of his cheeks, while Lance grasped his wrists tightly.
“Say it. Please,” he whispered. “I—I need to hear it.”
Keith chuckled. “Yes, Lance. Granted, your parents approve…then I’ll do it. I’ll marry you, regardless of what happens to my knight position.” He pressed his lips against Lance’s, softer than before, in and out before Lance could reciprocate. “I want you, and I don’t want to lose you, either.”
There was more he didn’t say, as Lance closed the distance between them this time, made a desperate noise in the back of his throat and let go of his wrists, only to grasp the front of his suit jacket and pull him closer, closer, closer until he couldn’t anymore. And Keith knew he needn’t voice everything he left unspoken, as he deepened the kiss, one hand sliding to the back of Lance’s head and tangling in his hair.
This was enough.