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Something Worth Living For

Chapter Text

Keith is never ready for the blast of heat that rushes out to greet him when the doors to the throne room open. It sears even his lungs, ruffling his hair and stirring the heavy material of his robes.

Dis as a city is hot; everything on the fire plane is. But it’s the throne room in the base of the iron tower where the heat in the palace is most insufferable.

He steps through the doors, footsteps hushed on the thick carpet covering stones the color of iron. Fire lights the walls from deep trenches of oil at their base, forever burning.

The room is one big oven, the air rippling and shimmering with it, thick enough it's near impossible to breathe.

Braziers large enough for Keith to lay down in stand to either side of the throne. Each of them are blazing, their metal grates an angry orange. Only the spells on them keep the material from melting under the heat.

Keith has never understood Dispater’s desire for such an excessive display of flame, but it must make sense to the man or he wouldn’t fixate on it so much. Keith’s natural resistance to fire is the only thing keeping him for scorching in the space. He doesn’t know how Dispater himself stands it.

The general standing to the right of the throne watches Keith approach with stony eyes. Her hand falls to the blade at her hip in open warning as Keith comes to a stop before the throne. They call her The Iron Maiden. She’s as cold and unfeeling as Dispater himself and the head of his network of spies. She is Dispater’s eyes and ears and it’s said nothing happens in the city without her knowing about it.

Keith spares her a glance before bowing deeply.

“You summoned me my lord?”

Dispater stares down at him impassively, one long claw tapping against the arm of the throne.

He’s a general himself, the woman beside him almost as well known for her brutality in battle as he is. It is no wonder he’s chosen her to protect him.

“There is an auction to be held in the palace.” He sounds almost bored, tone cool and level, the same as it always is.

“You are to ensure order is maintained and bid on anything of interest.” He flicks his fingers dismissively. “You know what I like.”

Keith inclines his head in acknowledgement. By the standards of most in the city he’s quite small but he’s also a commander in Dispater’s army. A position he’d rightfully fought for and earned. He will not hesitate to draw blood should things get messy.

“As you wish my lord.” He bows deeply before turning to the imposing woman standing next to the throne, one hand still on her sword. She hasn’t removed it since he walked in, ready to cut him down at any perceived threat to the life of her lord.

“General.”

She doesn’t so much as blink, eyes cold and hard as Keith takes his leave, backing away before turning.

The heavy iron doors open before he reaches them and he marches through. They shut behind him with a clang that rumbles in his ears, setting his teeth on edge.

The pit fiend waiting outside shoves a sack of gold into his chest, sneering down at him when it nearly knocks him off his feet and Keith snarls. An erinyes, his own personal guard for the auction, bares her teeth in warning.

“To get you started,” the fiend rumbles, thoroughly unimpressed, his voice vibrating the floor beneath Keith’s feet.

He takes the gold as a scroll is shoved into his face. It bears the bloody wax seal of all Dispater’s missives and orders; likely promising whatever the seller wants in payment to be delivered upon acquisition.

“For anything else you might decide is of interest to my lord,” the fiend growls.

Keith snatches the scroll from the friend’s massive hand. “I’m aware of how an auction works,” he snaps, fire spilling from his mouth. “I do not need the likes of you to tell me.”

The fiend just laughs and Keith marches down the hall. His own personal guard for the auction, an erinyes falls in line behind him and he passes the purse off to her. Keith pockets the scroll, trying to cool his temper.

He hates the auction.

 

Chapter Text

Keith wanders idly through the crowds lounging on the sales floor trying not to be surly. The red marble pillars flicker with lamplight and the cluster of bodies pressed into the couches lining the walls beneath the upper floor. Smoke and incense thicken the air and the room buzzes with the low hum of conversation and laughter. People cluster around the gambling tables where the light is brighter, louder, as if subconsciously they know the darker parts are for secrets and more illicit activity. Not that everything going on here isn’t already illicit.

Keith wrinkles his nose, hand falling to the pommel of his sword. He hates days like today. Hates the noise and the press of people. Hates the staring. Like they think he’s for sale too. Once upon a time he was.

Shivering, Keith pushes the memory away. It was a long time ago. He supposes that’s the worst part of it. Given enough money he’d probably be up for sale again, especially if he stops being useful to his lord and he can’t let that happen.

He tightens his grip on the sword and keeps his head high, expression neutral.

As the time draws near for the bidding, more and more people move into the center of the floor towards the still empty stage. Keith moves to the fringes of the room to avoid the press of bodies. It’s the only reason he pays the doors nearest him any more than a cursory glance as two soldiers and an officer drag a struggling young man inside, kicking violently.

There’s a gag in the boy’s mouth but it’s doing little to stop him from cursing and yelling through it. The noise is beginning to draw attention and Keith straightens his spine, already moving to investigate before anything can get out of hand.

He intercepts them under the balcony level, halfway to their destination. They see him coming and Keith can feel the ripple of tension run through them as he does. He tries not to grin as he comes to a stop before them.

“Lieutenant.” The man gives a deferential nod at him, the lines of his mouth tight.

“Commander.” He can hear the barely restrained gravel of petulance in the man’s voice at being delayed.

Keith gives the boy a cursory look over, making it obvious he’s doing it. He’s young, brown skin and blue eyes, tousled hair. He almost looks human if it weren’t for the flecks of deep blue scales, like chips of sapphire accenting his cheeks. Or the way his pupils have narrowed into slits in the light. Fangs flash around the gag as he lunges at Keith, still trapped in the grip of the soldiers. One of them yanks back on his hair, bringing him to heel and those eyes sparkle with restrained fire. Keith has no doubt he’d kill them all should he get loose.

He’s half dressed in a pair of tattered pants, the same dark blue scales covering his shoulders, larger and fitted more closely together. They ripple up and down his forearms as his clawed hands flex in the shackles, eyes wide and furious.

Dirt and soot streak his face and he reeks of sweat and travel, the remnants of a plane shift spell clings to him and the two soldiers but not the lieutenant. There’s a length of chain binding the boy’s knees as well as his ankles and Keith lifts an eyebrow at the unusual form of restraint.

“Everything alright here?” Keith asks, looking lazily at the lieutenant. Given his bat like features and grey skin Keith guesses he’s a gargoyle, part of the night watch. Strange to see him out and about this early during the day.

The man stiffens at the question, not sure if Keith means it as an insult. Keith isn’t sure either. He hasn’t decided yet.

The man straightens, jaw firming.

“Yes sir.”

Keith flicks a hand at the boy. “What’s all this then? The auction is set to start. I thought all the merchandise was previously put away.”

The boy lunges for him again, another litany of half-mangled words strangled behind the gag. The two soldiers holding him struggle to keep him still, one of them twisting their grip in his hair to make him still. Keith doesn’t so much as flinch.

“He isn’t for the block,” the gargoyle says tightly, hands clenching behind his back. “He’s not for sale.”

Keith snorts derisively, a sharp smile in his eyes. “Everything is for sale in Dis.” He looks the boy over again, letting his gaze linger meaningfully. He sighs as if it’s some great loss and wonders what the fuck he’s doing.

“If he’s not for the block then what of him? Why bring him through here?”

“It’s the fastest way to the Hall of Blood,” the gargoyle says, trying very hard not to spit the words. He’s visibly frustrated Keith has stopped them, placing himself between their progress and the nearest exit.

Keith lifts an eyebrow. “He’s to be executed? For what crime?” He pouts and tries not to feel sick about it. “Seems an awful waste.” He lets the words linger, flicking his thumb over the pommel of his sword, eyes dragging over the young man.

The lieutenant’s expression sharpens and Keith wonders if he’s misstepped. He watches the man’s eyes flick to the erinyes standing behind Keith and visibly holds his tongue.

“For killing half our company,” one of the soldiers snaps, startling them both. “He’s a murderer.”

Keith flicks his wrist dismissively. “Everyone in Dis is a murderer.” His eyes go to the lieutenant meaningfully. “And everything is for sale.”

“Not this fucking lamia,” the soldier spits, shaking the boy and likely rattling his brains. Keith arches a curious brow. A lamia?

“And his price just doubled,” the lieutenant growls now that the soldier has spilled the beans.

Keith grins, showing his teeth. “Then I’ll take him.” He slaps the scroll Dispater had given him into the man’s chest.

He spins on his heel and marches away, gesturing languidly over his shoulder as he does, voice lilting like he’s just asked for morning tea.

“Bring him.” He can hear the lieutenant cursing behind him and grins.

~

The soldiers drag the lamia kicking and shrieking through the halls and to Keith’s room. His regular guards are waiting outside the door, the erinyes stopping to join them as the lamia is dragged inside. An iron collar is snapped around the boy’s neck and shackles on his wrists to join the other bindings. It’s an absurd amount of iron.

All three are bolted into the dark stone wall and Keith grinds his teeth. He hates them and should have had them removed ages ago. He could have removed them himself but they’d been a morbid kind of reminder. Keith may not wear them anymore but he’s still bound by shackles. Even if they’re no longer quite so visible.

“Lieutenant,” Keith says lightly as the man turns to leave, the lamia standing awkwardly in the room. The chain between his ankles rasps along the floor. “The key please.”

The lieutenant’s expression sours as he glances between Keith and the lamia. Keith flicks his fingers and finally the man slaps a key into Keith’s waiting palm.

“Now get out.”

The angry soldier from before snarls. “Careful of your new pet Commander ,” the man spits. “He bites.” The lamia lunges for him, brought up short by the collar and choking. That doesn’t stop the soldier from landing a hard blow to his stomach that has Keith bristling. He forces his jaw to relax, grip white knuckled on his sword under his sleeve.

“I will keep that in mind,” Keith says tightly, taking a step between the soldier and the lamia, still curled over on the floor, struggling to breathe. “But soldier,” he threatens lowly, finally drawing the attention of the man. “If you lay a hand on my property again.”

He whispers the words, leaning into the man’s space, baring his teeth against his ear. Keith can smell the fear coming off of him now. At least he knows better than to flinch away.

“I will remove your hand.” Keith bites the words out, letting his breath heat, throwing sparks until the man is flinching away. When he does Keith straightens, eyes cold.

“Now get out,” he snaps. The soldier tries not to run from the room, shoulders tight. He scowls at Keith from a safe distance before marching out into the hall, the other following without a word. Keith wonders if he’s had his tongue cut out.

The lieutenant stops in the doorway, offering one last warning. “His bite is paralytic. Took out three of my men trying to get that gag on him. I wouldn’t recommend removing it sir,” he warns.

“Noted lieutenant. Dismissed.”

The man inclines his head stiffly before closing the door, leaving Keith to wonder what the hell he’s just done. He pinches the bridge of his nose and goes to make some tea, tossing the key at his new acquisition and it clatters across the floor.

“Get that thing off.” Keith turns his back on him, heating the water in the pot with his hand until it boils, letting the tea steep.

When there’s nothing but silence behind him Keith looks over his shoulder at the boy who’s glaring at him, the key to his gag still lying untouched at his feet.

“Do you want to wear a gag forever?” Keith demands, frustrated and angry with himself. Spirits what has he done. “For the love of Dispater, I’m not going to hurt you,” he mutters going to the door and demanding something to eat be brought up.

He doesn’t have much time. He’s been off the floor for too long. If he doesn’t get back soon it’ll be his hide. Still, he doesn’t move until a tray of food has been brought up. He pours a cup of tea, setting it on the tray before leaving the entire thing within reach of the boy. He still hasn’t moved.

“Eat. You look half starved.” He plucks a piece of the cooked meat from one of the bowls, popping it in his mouth, trying to show it isn’t poisoned. The boy narrows his eyes threateningly but Keith can see the tension in his shoulders, the way his arms are curled in front of himself protectively. He’s scared.

Keith sighs. He has to get back to work. “No one’s going to hurt you in here,” he says, trying to be soft. “Now eat.”

He stands and makes his way through the door, trying not to slam it shut behind him. His mother is going to kill him when she finds out.

Chapter Text

The lieutenant is furious and it isn’t long before Keith finds he’s being summoned back to the iron tower. He finishes bidding on two Aasimar children, skin like polished brass, arranging for payment to be delivered before making his way there.

It comes as no surprise when he finds the lieutenant from before waiting, hands clenched behind his back. Keith ignores him as he stands at his side, bowing to the demon before him.

“My lord. You summoned me?”

Dispater’s finger strokes up the arm of his chair, claw scratching across polished stone. “I hear there has been some dispute.”

“Such as?”

“You know damn well what I’m talking about,” the night guard snaps. “You stole the boy right out from under me.”

“Are you leveling a formal complaint of theft?” Dispater asks, his voice soft and lilting. It’s hardly more than a whisper, the same as it always is, but it rings through the room the same as a drawn blade, sending a chill through the lieutenant. His nostrils flare and he straightens his shoulders.

“No my lord.”

“The boy was on the sales floor and you agreed to the price,” Keith says calmly. “If he was not for sale why was he there?” He turns to Dispater, hands clasped behind his back. “I see no reason for my presence here.”

“The boy murdered my brother! I demand justice.”

Dispater is unmoved by the display of temper and Keith refuses to shift nervously as those dark eyes come to rest on him.

“What is it you plan on doing with this boy you’ve purchased with my name and funds?” Dispater asks, bottomless eyes assessing.

“Companionship my lord. My bed has long been cold and my preference has always been for men. My position affords me the claim.” He inclines his chin respectfully. “Unless you would wish him elsewhere.” Unless he wishes to take him for himself Keith means. One fist clenches inside his sleeve where neither of them can see it. He only hopes Dispater has no interest in the boy or Keith has condemned him.

“Surely a life under the thumb of the commander as a slave is more fitting a punishment than the removal of his head,” Dispater rumbles slowly. He finally looks away from Keith, turning to the lieutenant. “Death is sometimes preferable to suffering. Wouldn’t you agree?”

The lieutenant grinds his teeth loudly enough Keith can heart it beside him. “As you wish my lord.” He inclines his head, bowing stiffly.

“You are dismissed.”

The lieutenant turns on his heel, Keith moving to follow with a low bow.

“Keith.” Dispater calls, giving him pause. He holds his bow, eyes on the floor and waits. His back begins to ache before Dispater speaks again, a thread of warning in his voice.

“You will not do such a thing again,” Dispater warns.

He keeps his eyes to the floor. “No my lord.” He knows he was pushing boundaries by laying a claim to the lamia for himself in the way he did. He hopes it doesn’t come back to bite him in the ass.

Dispater is a paranoid man. He could see what Keith has done as a traitorous act and it could put a fissure between them and the trust Keith has so rightfully earned.

Dispater makes a soft noise in the back of his throat Keith takes for assent. He waits until he’s dismissed to rise, returning to his duties at the auction as instructed. There is more work to be done.

Chapter Text

When Keith makes it back to the room at the end of the day he’s pleased to see the tray is empty. The gag has been thrown across the room as well. So have the knee and ankle chains and the first set of cuffs on the boy’s wrists. He’s still bound to Keith’s wall but at least he isn’t wearing the extra set of manacles anymore.

He still startles, crouching into a defensive position when the door opens.

“I’m sorry,” Keith apologizes once the door is shut. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

The boy watches suspiciously as Keith clears the tray, delivering it to one of the guards outside the door. His own dinner and a fresh pot of tea are already waiting for him on his desk, still steaming. Keith guesses the lamia was less than kind to whoever brought it considering his own empty tray had remained untouched.

Keith pours himself a cup of tea, removing the pin holding his hair up and dropping it onto the desk with a clatter. He scratches at his scalp where it prickles with relief. He’s glad to finally be able to take it down.

“Do you have a name?” he asks after several minutes pass in awkward silence, the boy still staring at his back. He isn’t surprised at the lack of an answer though he can’t keep calling the boy ‘lamia’ in his head.

Keith chooses to ignore him after his brief attempts at conversation fail, waiting until a second tray is brought in. He asks for several bags of fire sand and it’s plain counterpart to be delivered as soon as possible. No one questions him but he knows the request is unusual. Not that there’s anything he can do with it he can’t already do on his own.

He barely resists the urge to roll his eyes at their paranoia and doesn’t bother explaining himself as he shuts the door. It’s none of their business. Rumors will be flying if they aren’t already, it doesn’t mean he has to feed them.

He goes back to his desk to wait until the sand is delivered, poking through a number of reports and scrolls, trying to stay busy. It doesn’t stop him from glancing at the lamia who’s still curled in the far corner, bare skin pressed tight against the stone walls.

Keith knows how cold those stones are, remembers from experience and frowns. After a brief debate with himself, Keith strips the blanket from the bed and one of the thicker pillows, tossing them into the corner for the lamia. He tries to keep as much space between them as possible; not that he thinks the boy could hurt him, but more in an effort to make him feel safer.

Keith knows very little about lamia but if they’re part snake, and the scales suggest that much is true, Keith can’t imagine him being very comfortable on the cold stones, leeching any excess heat from the room.

The lamia for his part just glares at Keith, ignoring the lump of blanket and pillow sitting next to him though he’s shivering.

Keith sticks to what’s been working so far and blatantly ignores the other boy’s presence. He pours himself another cup of tea and goes to stare out the window at the gardens below. The city spreads out further below that, expanding into a barren desert and Keith tracks the line, his back to his new captive.

It’s strange having someone else in the room. Keith is used to the isolation and can feel the weight of the lamia’s presence in the air, like the tension before lightning strikes. Given the boy’s barely contained rage he finds the comparison apt.

It takes less than an hour for the sand to be delivered and Keith dismisses any offers of assistance, dragging the mishmosh of bags and ceramic urns into the corner himself. He waves the lamia away so he can tear into the sacks with his claws.

“Shoo,” he mutters, waving a hand and the boy scrambles a few feet off to the side as much as the chains will allow. “You’re in the way.”

Keith covers the stones where the lamia had been sitting in a protective layer of the plain sand before dumping the fire sand on top. Sparks curl into the air as he does and Keith revels in the heat coming off it. It’s such a rare thing in his room. His room is one of the only places in Dis that is cold. His mother’s is likely much the same.

The lamia watches intently, eyes still wary as Keith works but doesn’t make an effort to attack him. Keith hopes it’s a positive sign. Or maybe the boy is just too cold. Keith thinks he can hear his teeth chattering.

He grabs another bag of the plain sand, mixing it on top to diffuse the heat. Just because he can stand the temperature doesn’t mean anyone else can.

“I don’t know how long this is going to last but I hope it’s better than the floor.” He drags over the last of the bags and the final urn, leaving them within easy reach.

“There’s more if you need them.” He stands, cracking his spine as he does, letting out a low groan but the pain fades rapidly.

“I don’t think it’ll be hot enough to set those on fire.” Keith glances at the blanket now around the lamia’s shoulders, the pillow having vanished from sight. “If it’s too hot there’s more sand in the bags to cool it down and if it’s too cold there’s fire sand in the urns.” He toes at the urn with his foot, rubbing at his sore neck. It’s been a long day.

“If you need anything just ask.” He goes to the armoire, changing for bed before sitting at the garish vanity, running a comb through his hair. The rhythmic sensation helps him relax and Keith’s eyes slip shut as he gently works the knots from the day loose.

He slowly removes the golden jewelry decorating his horns, tossing the pieces into a little tray off to the side. His head feels lighter without them.

“Lance.”

Keith’s eyes flick open from where he’s started to braid his hair and he turns to look at the boy. Lance ducks his head and won’t meet his gaze as he does, the blanket still pulled tight around his shoulders. Keith makes a note to find him something to wear.

It’s the only word he says, shifting a little deeper into the sand. He looks more comfortable than he was before and Keith nods, turning back to the vanity as he does.

“Keith.”

Neither of them say anything for the rest of the time Keith spends getting ready for the night. He tucks himself into bed and darkens the lamps with a flick of his hand.

“Goodnight Lance.”

He’s not surprised there’s no response, the little bits of fire sand winking at him in the dark. Still, Keith hopes they’re making progress.

~

It’s another day before boredom finally sets in and Lance deigns to speak with him again.

The conversation is stunted at best, Lance justifiably angry. Keith does his best to seem apathetic and non-threatening but it doesn’t stop the biting tone in Lance’s voice; Keith isn’t sure anything will. Not that he blames him. It took Keith years to learn to hide the rage. Lance has had one day. He’ll learn with time.

“Why can’t you just let me go?” Lance yanks at the cuffs binding his wrists, no doubt bruising them but ignoring Keith every time he tells him so.

He signs a document before putting it aside and picking up another.

“Too suspicious,” he says idly, eyes scanning the page. “If you vanish I come under scrutiny and if you’re caught-” Lance interrupts him with a scoff, “and you will be .” Keith looks up, leveling a stare at Lance. “You will be executed as you were supposed to be before I intervened,” he says, as if Lance needs the reminder, “and I will likely follow behind you.” He turns back to his documents but the words keep swimming in front of his tired eyes.

“Wish I cared,” Lance snaps, yanking ineffectually at the chains again, glaring at Keith for good measure.

“Wait three weeks.”

Lance stops struggling and stares at him from across the room, not sure he understands.

“What?”

Keith lowers the paper, trying to rub the graininess from his eyes.

“Three weeks and then you can go. Make your daring escape, see how far it gets you. I don’t care. I’ll unlock you myself but you’re on your own from there.” He does his best to double down and focus, lifting another paper. “It’ll be enough time to make it look believable.”

Lance blinks at him dumbly, arms going slack in the restraints.

“You would let me go?”

Keith gives him a withering glare. “You really think I’d keep you chained to the wall of my bedroom for the rest of your life?”

Lance’s expression darkens. “Seems to me everyone else here would. Or just cut my head off and be done with it,” he spits, yanking on the chain again, feet kicking up sand. He can feel a number of scales scraping loose.

Keith tries to read the document again but the words keep sliding off the page. His head is starting to ache.

“Guess I’m not everyone else.”

Lance snorts. “That remains to be seen.”

Keith sighs, already regretting his decision to buy the boy.

“Could you please be quiet. I’m trying to concentrate.”

Lance redoubles his efforts with the chains and Keith really begins to rethink buying him.

Chapter Text

Keith’s attempts to focus only last another few minutes before he gives up, Lance’s incessant rattling driving him to distraction.

“Are these really necessary?” Lance asks, yanking on the chain that connects his metal collar to the stone wall as if Keith needed reminding. He rattles the one connected to his wrists for the hundredth time this morning.

“If I take them off are you going to kill me in my sleep?” Keith asks standing up from the desk and stretching idly. He cracks his neck with a wince.

“Of course not,” Lance scoffs, his eyes hard and glittering like the edge of the blade Keith carries inside his sleeve. His voice turns dark and cold as Keith crosses the room. “I’ll kill you where you stand.” He bares his teeth, flashing fangs but Keith remains unmoved.

Secretly, part of him is impressed that Lance is so bold, enjoys his fire and the anger in his eyes. It’s nice to see someone this damn city hasn’t broken yet. Even if it’s only a matter of time.

Another part of him is terrified. Had Lance said something like that to anyone else they’d have beaten him bloody, knocking the teeth from his mouth or cut out his tongue; possibly all three. That thought drowns out the amusement Keith feels, leaving him cold.

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” Keith says, void of all emotion and something in Lance’s eyes flashes.

“I never do.” His claws flex threateningly in the shackles.

Keith can’t help the little flicker of hope that stirs in his chest and hurries to stamp it out before it can spark into a full flame. Nothing can kill an Oni. Especially not a half-starved lamia chained to his bedroom wall.

Speaking of.

He collects the bowl of fruit one of the servants brought to him for breakfast this morning, setting it down within reach. He doesn’t have anything else to offer at the moment. What does a lamia even eat anyway? Other than what the rumors mention Keith really isn’t sure. He’d devoured the food from the last tray once Keith was gone but whether it was because he enjoyed it or was just that hungry he doesn’t know.

Wiping his hands against his pants Keith stands.

“Then yes, the restraints are necessary.” Until such a time as they’re not, he thinks darkly. Maybe he can pass it off as an accident, or conveniently leave the key to Lance’s collar nearby so he can find it if he doesn’t learn to behave. There has to be a way.

“Nothing can kill an oni,” he says idly, going to the basin to wash his hands and he can feel Lance glaring daggers into his back.

“Maybe you should let me try,” he snarls and Keith almost smiles.

“Maybe I will.” It has to be the exhaustion that makes him say it, that makes him admit to considering it, soft and earnest. Keith splashes water over his face, trying to reel himself back in. He has to get his rogue thoughts back under control or he’s going to get him and his mother both killed. And right now he can’t afford that.

There’s a polite knock on the door that interrupts Keith’s train of thought and he picks up a towel to dry his hands.

“Enter.”

One of the guards stationed outside Keith’s door opens it and Sendak saunters in.

Lance bares his teeth and hisses, curling away from him which only makes Sendak grin. Keith had assumed word had gotten around about his little acquisition, but to have Sendak here under whatever guise he’s crafted just to see Lance makes Keith’s spine twitch.

“Breaking him in early I see.” He leers at Lance as he comes into the room, the door shutting behind him. Lance scrambles backwards, the chain around his neck drawing taunt and Keith realizes they’ve met before.

There’s nowhere to run but Lance holds his head high from where he’s still sitting on the floor and meets Sendak’s eyes. Keith knows he's trying to hold onto what dignity he has left. He almost feels sorry for him.

Sendak squats down, heavy arms draping across his knees.

“Think it’s true what they say about them?” he asks Keith as if Lance isn’t right there. As if he can’t hear him. Like he’s nothing more sentient than a pretty tapestry or an animal. It makes Keith’s stomach churn like he’s swallowed wormwood. Maybe wormwood could work… Keith files the thought away for later.

Sendak’s eyes are roving over Lance like he’s something he wants and Keith scowls.

“That he seduced and murdered half the high ranking officers in a company before they caught him,” he asks. He keeps his tone carefully casual, hoping to scare the man off. “Or that he ate them alive afterwards?” Keith delicately dabs water from where it had gotten on his sleeve, watching it turn to steam beneath his fingers. He carefully watches Sendak from the corner of his eye.

Sendak’s leer darkens in a way Keith knows well and doesn’t like. He’s seen it on the battlefield a hundred times before. It’s always a prelude to violence.

As if he can hear Keith’s thoughts Sendak catches Lance’s face in one hand before the boy has a chance to react. He grips his cheeks so hard it forces Lance’s mouth open. Keith’s hands curl into fists inside his sleeves, fingers warming dangerously. He holds himself very still, knowing any kind of a reaction from him will only give Sendak further reason to hurt Lance.

Lance growls a warning, low in his throat, but with his hands bound there’s little he can do but glare. But glare he does. Keith can’t help but wonder if the accusations leveled against him are true. He’d thought it was just the guards being dramatic but it was true they’d been plagued by bad luck for a couple of years now. He wonders how much of the seemingly random deaths were Lance.

Sendak swipes a thumb over Lance’s lip, pressing into his mouth and hard against Lance’s teeth, looking at his fangs. Keith watches as Lance’s hands flex, eyes darting to Keith. He shakes his head minutely, only hoping Lance will take the warning to heart. His hands curl into fists, his shoulders going rigid but he holds still much to Keith’s surprise.

“I was thinking in general,” Sendak says slowly watching venom drip from one of Lance’s fangs. They'd appeared the moment Sendak grabbed him. Keith can’t help but notice his pupils have slitted too, the scales he’d noted on Lance’s arms spreading. Over the past few hours the patches had diminished but they flare down his arms and hands now, nails sharpening into deadly claws.

“Like if their saliva really is an aphrodisiac or not.” He tilts Lance’s face first to one side then the other, the scales on his face catching in the light. They glitter like stone shards, broken and beautiful and a deep blue.

“Always wanted to see one of you up close,” Sendak mutters. “Pretty thing aren’t you?” He drags a claw down Lance’s face, drawing blood and Lance flinches.

“Enough.” Keith's voice comes out hard and commanding and with more emotion than Lance has heard before. Sendak may be another commander and allowed a certain level of leniency but Keith has had about enough. Especially when a touch of fear crawls into Lance’s eyes.

Sendak’s eyes flash and his grip on Lance tightens painfully, bruising, making Lance squirm.

“But I’m just getting started,” Sendak growls.

“Then maybe you should have been the one to buy him,” Keith says coldly. “Then you could do whatever you want.” Sendak still doesn’t let him go and Keith’s hand falls casually to the hilt of his blade.

“He isn’t your property.” Something cold and heavy settles into his gut at the word. It pains Keith to say it but it’s the only thing Sendak will respect.

Sendak’s lips curl in disdain but he releases Lance who yanks his head back and scurries into the furthest corner. Pink fingerprints are already blooming on his skin. He works his jaw, still glaring heatedly.

Sendak spits on the floor, knocking over the marble bowl Keith had placed there for Lance, scattering the assorted fruit and no doubt bruising it. Keith tries very hard not to roll his eyes at the churlish act of pettiness.

“Come on, were gonna be late,” Sendak snaps and marches from the room. The door bangs against the far wall when he throws it open.

Keith closes his eyes for a moment and takes a deep breath. It’s going to be a long day.

~

By the time he’s able to return to his room Lance is curled up on the floor asleep. Keith sets the little jar he’s picked up from the healer on the floor within reach. He hopes the ointment will help with the bruising like she’d said.

Keith finally rights the untouched bowl Sendak had deliberately upended that morning. It doesn’t look like Lance has eaten any of the spilled fruit and Keith’s heart sinks.

He drapes his arms over his knees and watches Lance’s ribs rise and fall, wondering if he’s made a terrible mistake.

    “What have I done?”

Wiping a hand down his face Keith sighs.

“I don’t know how to help you,” he whispers. Lance doesn’t respond, his chest continuing its steady rhythm and Keith stands, stripping out of his heavy robes. The cold air prickles his skin and he frowns, glancing over at Lance who’s half dressed and sleeping on a tangle of sand and the blanket Keith had thrown him. Another had been brought up to replace it on Keith’s bed that same day.

Crossing back to the corner Keith presses his palms to the floor, letting his hands warm the sand again. Most of the heat has already faded. It doesn’t last long, the stone built to absorb heat, but he hopes it will help take the chill away. He does the same with the blanket, careful not to scorch it and and tugs it a little higher around Lance. He’ll need to figure out better sleeping arrangements for him soon.

Chapter Text

Keith unlocks the shackles around Lance’s wrists the next morning, setting them aside as he lifts the jar he’d placed nearby last night. Lance still hasn’t touched it or any of the fruit Keith had replaced.

“You sure taking these off is a good idea?” Lance’s tone is mocking, mimicking the guards from his first night. “I could kill you.” Lance flexes his fingers, long claws clicking against one another for effect as he sits in the sand.

“No, you couldn’t,” Keith says dispassionately, dabbing some of the ointment on Lance’s bruised wrist. “It’s the only reason they sold you to me.” Lance bares his teeth but Keith ignores him, gently turning Lance’s hand to cover the rest of the bruise. There are a number of small scales missing and raw open patches where Lance has raked his hands against the unforgiving edge of the shackles.

“I told you, you were going to hurt yourself,” he mutters, taking a length of linen and gently wrapping it over Lance’s wrist, tying it in place, careful not to hurt.

When he’s done Lance snatches his thumb, bending it back and away hard enough to make Keith flinch. He doesn’t fight back as Lance’s other hand catches his throat, lightning quick. Keith is almost impressed but he stares at Lance flatly; it’s an expression he’s had years to perfect.

“What is stopping me from ripping your throat out right now?” Lance snarls, just a breath away.

“Besides the guards at the door who’ll kill you on sight?” Keith rasps out past Lance’s grip on him, sounding bored.

“Yeah, besides that.”

Without looking away Keith pulls a small blade from his sleeve and Lance’s grip tightens in warning, claws extending to prick at his skin. Keith sees spots, hand fumbling as he unsheathes the blade, dragging it in a jagged line down his arm. His blood wells and steams in the air, dripping to the floor before the wound slowly stitches itself closed. Lance’s grip on his throat loosens enough Keith can draw a breath and his vision clears, but Lance still doesn’t let go.

Keith wipes the blade clean on his sleeve, tucking it away and Lance shoves him back, frustrated and angry. The bruises on his throat vanish before they can do much more than turn red, a ghost imprint of Lance’s hand.

“I’ve been through worse,” Keith says righting his upended supplies as if nothing has happened.

“I told you before. You can’t kill me.” He looks up at him. “Not that I didn’t think you were capable of it. And you’re still welcome to try.”

He extends his hand to Lance. “Now give me your other wrist.” He gestures for Lance’s other hand where he’s curled up against the wall to sulk. His knees are pulled up to his chest, protecting himself.

“Why?” Lances eyes are hard and angry.

“Because you’re still hurt.” Keith is trying to be patient. Lance studies him like he isn’t sure Keith doesn’t intend to hurt him in retaliation. He slowly uncurls from the wall, and after a minute carefully puts his wrist in Keith’s outstretched hand.

He jerks back on reflex when Keith goes to touch him, as if he’ll try to do what Lance had done. Keith simply dabs more of the ointment onto his damaged skin, movements slow and methodical.

He finishes wrapping Lance’s wrist then carefully lifts his chin, turning his head to examine the deep purple bruises and the cut on Lance’s face with some level of disdain.

“I’m sorry about Sendak.” He swipes a small amount of ointment onto the bruises, apologizing when Lance flinches. “He’s one of the people to watch out for around here. He enjoys hurting people. Watch your back.”

For a moment Lance thinks Keith’s going to put the shackles back on him now that he’s done. Instead Keith wraps the iron chain around his hand, melting it and tearing it free of the wall with a scowl. They don’t have the same enchantments as the stones. His fire hadn’t been that hot as a child. And he wouldn’t have been able to summon it if he’d tried.

He does the same with the iron collar, unlocking it and carefully pulling it free before melting the chain, dumping it in a pile beside him.

Satisfied, he lifts Lance’s chin again, looking at the ring of soft brown bruises peppered across his throat from the collar. There's a deeper purple band from where he’d nearly choked himself to get at the guards.

Keith’s lips thin in displeasure and he carefully smooths the ointment onto the damaged skin and across the blooming bruises on Lance’s collarbones before he’s satisfied.

Keith sits back to examine his work, leaving the ointment on the ground beside Lance.

“Put that on any time the bruises start to hurt. It should help with the pain and speed the healing but if it doesn’t let me know. We can try something else.”

Lifting the pile of damaged chains he marches over to the door and throws it open. He tosses the restraints out into the hall with a clatter before slamming the door again.

Keith stops in the middle of the room to look at Lance who’s staring at him with thinly veiled surprise and suspicion.

“Thought you were gonna wait three weeks before letting me go. It’s barely been two days.”

Keith shrugs. “Run if you want, but there’s nowhere to go. You’re safer here.” He gathers his things for the day and leaves, making a mental note to have something other than fruit sent up to his room. Lance hasn’t eaten since yesterday.

~

They spend the next few days awkwardly getting to know one another. Lance only bothers to answer Keith’s questions and weak attempts at conversation out of sheer boredom. He’s still stubbornly sleeping in the sand pit and Keith hasn’t been comfortable enough to invite him to the bed. Not that Lance would accept the invitation.

“Where are you from?” Keith asks as Lance wanders idly along one side of the room, fiddling with whatever he can get his hands on. Keith sets his pen aside and turns to study Lance. He’s wearing one of the robes Keith had asked to be brought up, foregoing a shirt, and a loose pair of pants.

Lance scowls, turning over a small gold puzzle orb from the bookcase. “A small village on the coast. My father worked in the fields. My mother was a weaver.” He narrows his eyes. “Why?”

Keith blinks at him in surprise. He’d never realized how far from home Lance was. The soldiers who brought him in had been patrolling in the heart of the grasslands on the mortal plane. The nearest coastline was weeks away, maybe more. Keith spins the pen idly between his fingers as he thinks, a habit he can’t seem to break.

“Most rumors seem to indicate the lamia live in caves. I didn’t-” He frowns. “I didn’t expect you to be so far from home.”

Lance’s expression darkens and Keith can’t help feeling embarrassed and awkward.

“They say we eat babies too,” Lance snaps. “You believe everything you hear?”

“Not if I know what’s good for me.” He goes back to writing missives before the guilt twisting in his stomach wrings an apology from him. He hadn’t meant to upset him.

“I’m sorry. I just don’t know anything about you.”

“Yeah, well where are you from?” Lance throws back, trying to make Keith uncomfortable more than because he’s curious.

Keith doesn’t look up and it takes him a moment to answer. He remembers so little.

“A desert canyon. Far south on the mortal plane.” His fingers flex around the pen remembering the fires and the screaming the night his father died. He pinches the bridge of his nose, running his fingers over his eyes, trying to forget.

He can almost smell the smoke, taste the ash from that night. And then he does. With a surprised yelp he hurries to pat out the burning missives and other documents he’s scorched on top of his desk but they’re already ruined.

Keith lets out a long sigh, shoulders slumping. He’s going to have to start over.

“That bad huh?”

Keith brushes the ash and ruined bits of parchment to the floor. “We all came from somewhere Lance.”

Lance frowns, fiddling with the orb. He hadn’t thought of that. It was easier to think of Keith as a bully, someone who didn’t care. It was easier if Keith wasn’t like him. Even the notion that Keith might be a slave was preposterous and Lance scoffs.

“If you’re trying to tell me you’re just as much a slave as I am I’m not buying it. You’re not the one who was in shackles.” He glares at the wall Keith had ripped the chains from in distaste, bruises still dark on his wrists and throat. He plays restlessly with the puzzle, the pieces sliding open.

Keith hums noncommittally, rising slowly as Lance opens the orb. Inside rests a small blue and white stone. It’s glowing faintly, nestled in a thick pillow of deep indigo velvet and Lance studies it curiously. He puts it to his ear, catching a faint strain of a voice coming from inside it.

Keith approaches, hoping Lance won’t touch it. Or move it any closer to his mouth.

“Careful,” he warns softly.

“What is it?” Lance asks, tilting the half of the orb with the stone, studying it.

“A soul stone.” Keith gently removes the puzzle from Lance’s hand, closing the two halves and sealing it back inside.

“What’s a soul stone?” He watches as the faint light is sealed away, still curious.

“A delicacy in Dis. It’s a fragment of a soul.”

“And you eat it?” Lance’s lips curl with disgust and Keith gives him a withering look.

“They’re not to my taste,” he says flatly.

Lance’s eyebrows knit together as Keith deftly twists the various pieces back into place, setting the orb on its stand to keep it from rolling.

“Why’s it in the box?”

Keith makes his way back to the desk, robes swishing across the stone. “To keep anyone from finding it.”

Lance lifts one eyebrow. “Not a very safe location if I was able to open it.”

A smile pulls at Keith’s mouth. “No one else has been able to.”

Lance blinks at him in surprise.

“If you like them I’ll ask for several more.” Keith dips his pen in the pot of ink and starts over. “Give you something to do.”

Lance stares at the orb, considering. “I’d like that.”

Keith nods firmly and makes a note of it, pleased to know something about his new companion.

~

That night Keith changes his mind about offering Lance a place on the bed. He doesn't know if Lance can’t sleep or if he’s just uncomfortable but he keeps shifting about restlessly, shoving sand everywhere.

“Do you want to sleep up here?” Keith asks, breaking the silence. He levers himself upright after Lance shifts in the sand again with a disgruntled noise.

“No thank you.”

“You’ll be more comfortable,” Keith offers.

He can hear Lance hiss at him in the dark.

“Lance I’m not going to touch you. I am simply trying to offer you a place to sleep that isn’t on the floor like a dog. Just because you’re a slave doesn’t mean I have to treat you like one. You’re a human being.” Lance shifts about and Keith can feel him watching him in the dark.

“It’s a big bed, bigger than I need,” he says reasonably.

“Promise me,” Lance whispers, something vulnerable in his voice. Or maybe it’s just the dark.

“I swear it on my mother’s name,” Keith says softly, the oath heavy in his mouth. “I will not touch you.”

“Better not,” Lance threatens. “Or I will actually kill and eat you.” There’s a pregnant pause as he remembers the wound in Keith’s arm stitching itself shut. “Or at least rip off your fucking hand.”

A flicker of a smile crosses Keith’s face in the dark, proud of Lance’s fire. “I don’t doubt it.”

He can practically hear the gears in Lance’s head grinding together before he slowly stands. He gathers up the spare blanket Keith had offered him on his first night. Keith moves over to the edge of the bed furthest from Lance, making room, yanking his own blanket over so Lance can crawl in.

Lance sits down slowly, the mattress dipping under his weight. He’s radiating tension and Keith turns his back to him, trying to get comfortable again. He hopes it will help ease Lance’s anxiety.

Lance’s movements are slow and wary, like he’s afraid Keith will turn and attack him at any moment. Eventually he lays down on the opposite side of the bed, wrapped in his own blanket. Keith doesn't even complain about the sand in his bed.

~

That night Keith has a nightmare. He remembers startling awake with a half scream, the fog of sleep still clinging to his brain, making everything thick and heavy.

On the other side of the bed Lance flinches. He rolls over, making a small distressed noise, his hands reaching.

“...arco?” he mumbles, still half asleep.

He pulls Keith into his chest on reflex, seeking to comfort the same as he would one of his siblings. Part of him thinks it's Marco, the reality of the situation failing to penetrate his sleep-addled brain.

His fingers stroke over Keith’s arm or maybe his side as Keith curls into him. His hands are tucked to his chest, both of them still half asleep and lost to their dreams.

Lance adjusts on his pillow, his head coming to rest in the nest of Keith’s dark hair, both of them drifting back to sleep.

~

In the morning they’ve shuffled around to their own sides of the bed again. If either of them remember what happened they don’t talk about it for fear of it being nothing more than a dream.

It isn’t Keith’s first and it won’t be the last, but it is the only one he’s had someone to hold him through it; dream or not.

Chapter Text

Over the next few days Lance settles a bit. He’s no longer as skittish around Keith, some of his personality coming out but he still keeps his distance and Keith lets him.

Keith wouldn't call it trust exactly but something like a rapport is slowly building between them. Keith finds the more he engages with Lance the more comfortable Lance seems to be. He makes an effort to try.

“Why do you wear that?” Lance aks one day, eyes dropping curiously to Keith’s red and white robes. He’s stretched out across Keith’s floor in a patch of sunlight, a blanket beneath him to stave off the cold of the stones, thick white tail stretching out across the floor behind him.

Keith is ashamed to admit when Lance had transformed he’d stared. Lance had preened under the attention and Keith averted his eyes but they keep wandering back and forth between Lance and the book he’s pretending to read. Lance is beautiful and fascinating and Keith has never seen anyone like him. He feels wretched over his own curiosity. Lance is a person not a gaudy trinket to be ogled over.

Still, Lance seems to invite the inspection and Keith can’t help being curious. He’s longer than Keith expected, the scales on his waist tapering out from the lapis blue to a soft bone white. He’s big enough he could wrap around Keith and suffocate him with ease but he hasn’t attempted to hurt Keith after that first time.

Idly, a part of Keith wonders if his scales are warm.

Keith’s expression darkens, finally processing Lance’s question.

“It is to mock me,” he grinds out and it takes him a moment to stabilize his breathing, get his temper under control.

“My father was human, Korean. This-” He lifts a hand, gripping the end of his sleeve as he turns his wrist up, brandishing the fabric. “Is to remind me of my inferior blood.” He bites the words out. “It’s something like a traditional Korean hanbok but elements of it are combined with both Chinese and Japanese design as well.” He scowls down at the sleeve.

“I don’t know if they did it to humiliate me further or not.” He grinds his teeth and drops his arm. “Not that there’s anything I can do about it.”

Lance studies the robes, the wide red collar closed tight about his throat over some other thicker material, white as snow. Both layers are cinched tight about Keith’s waist. The white and red robe over the top of it all is patterned down the sleeves with small red petals like drops of blood. They collect about Keith’s wrists where another red band stretches down, stubbornly trying to cover his hands. It’s a wonder he can move at all.

Lance is used to being at least half naked at all times, all lamia are. Nudity is a regular part of their lives. Being swathed in so much material would suffocate him.

Parting at the hips Lance can see a loose pair of black pants underneath it all and wonders just how many layers Keith is wearing.

Every set of robes Keith wears are much the same. The colors and patterns alternate but are all thick and cumbersome, some with cuts up the sides and a set of pants, some not. Lance thinks they’re supposed to be to hinder his movements. Sometimes there are flashes of gold thrown in, like the one Keith had been wearing when they’d met but mostly they’re simply red and black and white.

Still, the colors compliment Keith’s complexion even as they make him look like he’s covered in blood, drawing out the red cast along his throat, the points of his ears as they blacken to vanish in the sea of his hair. Only his eyes aren’t red but a soft deep violet and Lance wishes all at once he could see Keith in something softer, something that isn’t soaked in blood.

He can’t stop the image filling his head of Keith on the coast with the wind in his hair, head tilted back to the sky as a storm rolls in, tinting the water purple, and blue, and green. Keith would be beautiful by the sea without a thick collar choking him, without the fabric weighing him down; just the wind and the sea and the sand.

Keith takes that moment to realize Lance is staring and Lance nearly chokes on his own tongue when he realizes he’s been caught.

“What?”

Lance scrambles to recover, not wanting to think about whatever expression might have been on his face. He stretches one leg out, trying to lounge.

“If you hate it so much you could always take it off,” he suggests, sure to let a thread of something provocative ease into his voice, holding Keith’s gaze boldly with his own. For a moment Keith stares back like he wants something from Lance and then he’s looking away, hiding his pretty eyes and that feels like such a shame.

Lance lets him escape for the moment, letting silence fall. But only for a moment.

“Back home,” he begins idly, “in the summer, these flowers would bloom all along the dunes.” He closes his eyes and lets his head fall back. “Whole swaths of them.”

He imagines he can smell them, taste the sweetness of them mixing with the salty air on his tongue. “Stretching as far as you could see across the sand,” he whispers, voice turning wistful. He opens his eyes to find Keith staring at him.

“Pretty little things.” His gaze moves over Keith's face, open and obvious, stretching the pause.

“Same color as your eyes.”

To his delight Keith flushes, red suffusing his cheeks to blend with the pigment all under his cheekbones until Lance can’t tell the two apart.

He watches with delighted wonder as Keith fidgets, staring down at his book without really seeing it. He’s beginning to realize the person he shows the world and the person he is in his room are two vastly different entities. The man who’d bought him on the sales floor would never be blushing like a desert rose. And yet he is.

Keith clears his throat awkwardly, trying to make it subtle and failing miserably.

“How long has it been since you were home?” he ventures, knowing it’s a tender subject.

Lance’s expression turns sad around the edges, the sweet memories turning bitter in his mouth.

“Too long.”

Keith nods slowly, eyes focusing back on his work as he spins his pen idly. “For what it’s worth,” he begins. “I hope you make it back.”

Lance nods, picking at a nail. “Me too.” He looks at Keith from under his eyebrows. “Maybe I can show you those flowers someday.”

He’s surprised to find he means it and doesn’t know what to make of that. Keith is not his friend. But he wonders if things had been different if he might have been.

The corner of Keith’s mouth twitches but Lance doesn’t think it’s a smile. “Maybe.”

“What is there to do around here?” Lance asks, changing the subject to something more comfortable, flopping restlessly across the floor. He drags his arm back in when it hits the frigid stone.

“Not much I’m afraid,” Keith says, dragging his eyes back to his book when he realizes he’s staring again.

Lance groans, tugging at his hair. “I’m going stir-crazy cooped up in here. I’m bored Keith.

“Entertain me.” He rolls onto his stomach, resting his chin in his hands, watching as Keith reads. His coils shift, the sound drawing Keith’s eyes and Lance grins. Keith scowls, dragging his eyes stubbornly back to his book. He tries to ignore the sound of Lance doing it again on purpose, just to get his attention.

“Entertain yourself,” he mutters.

Lance’s eyebrows flick upwards suggestively and Keith rolls his eyes. “If you’re honestly that bored I’ll have something brought up for you to read. I’m sure someone could teach you to embroider or paint if you’d like.” Lance makes a face and Keith makes a mental note.

“Until then you’re welcome to visit the gardens or go for a walk. Just have one of the guards escort you.” He turns a page he hasn’t actually read.

“Cause someone’ll grab me?”

“Cause someone will grab you,” Keith echoes, turning another page in his book.

Lance groans, flopping down onto the blanket again. He doesn’t much fancy going out with either Keith or one of the guards watching his every move.

He contents himself with a nap in the sun instead, but it doesn’t mean he stops grumbling about it.

~

“Where does one bathe around here,” Lance grouses by the end of the week, bored out of his mind. He’d quickly solved the two puzzle boxes Keith had delivered for him, rather surprised when they’d arrived. He hadn’t actually expected Keith to do it.

“Please tell me you people bathe.”

Keith gives him a withering look. Lance feels dirty and gross and it’s making him surly.

“Of course we bathe.”

“Well I don’t know!” He throws his arms up dramatically. “I’ve been here almost two weeks and I have yet to see any kind of water or anything remotely resembling a bath house. My scales itch.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m more than happy to go rolling through that pile of sand to scrape myself clean but my hair is starting to get real gross.” He gestures over to the corner with the fire sand.

“And I am tired of that frigid basin water.”

He is ashamed to admit he hadn’t thought of that. He doesn’t often visit the baths himself just because he’s never alone and he doesn’t like the stares. Using the basin had never bothered him. But then again he’d always been able to warm it.

“I could take you to one of the baths if you like,” Keith offers. “But you’re bound to draw quite a bit of attention.” As of yet Lance hasn’t deigned to leave the room, sequestering himself inside while Keith is gone, only seeming to relax when he comes back. Keith had expected him to run by now or at least go exploring. Especially for how often he complains about not being able to go anywhere on his own.

“And I can’t go myself because?” Lance drawls, crossing his arms over his chest and scowling. They’re still less than friendly but Lance is no longer so openly hostile towards him.

Keith reaches for his patience.

“Because you’re a pleasure slave Lance,” he says softly, meeting his eyes. “Going without escort will be seen as an open invitation to anyone who’s there.”

Lance shrugs lazily. “What if I want the attention?” A biting smile crosses his face but Keith remains impassive.

“If you wanted company all you had to do was ask.” It’s easy to miss but surprise flickers across Lance’s face for only a moment before his expression is smoothing once again, hands falling to his hips.

“If you’re interested in companionship tell me who you’d like to spend time with and I’ll send them an invitation.”

“Why can’t I just spend time with who I want when I want?” Lance grouses.

“Because it will get you assaulted,” Keith snaps, his patience finally fraying. “Because any advances you make towards anyone other than me will unravel what little protection and freedom I can offer you.” His temper simmers and he tries to remember Lance isn’t familiar with all the convoluted politics of Dis. And he has no reason to believe Keith wants to keep him safe.

“For all intents and purposes you are a sex slave and my claim on you is the only thing keeping people like Sendak from cornering you in a hall and hurting you either because they can, because they want to, because they feel they have the right to, or simply because they want to unseat me, my position and power, or draw doubt on my loyalty to the court as well as Dispater.”

Lance pales, hands slipping from his hips to hang at his sides. “You work for Dispater?”

“I belong to Dispater,” Keith grinds out, angrier than he’d expected. He thought he’d buried that rage long ago.

“Who else did you think lived here? You’re in the second level of hell Lance what did you expect?” He pinches at his eyes in frustration and grinds his teeth. There’s no reason for him to be taking his anger out on Lance. He does his best to force it away, to make his voice level.

“You’ll be lucky if he doesn’t decide he wants you himself.” Keith runs his hands over his face, suddenly exhausted.

“I thought you owned me.”

“But I bought you with his money.” Keith lifts his head and meets Lance’s eyes. “I used his position and power to save your life and you remain mine only so long as he wills it and you keep your head down and remain uninteresting.”

“And if I don’t?” Lance asks, not sure he wants to know the answer. Keith notes the question isn’t asked with defiance but more out of fear.

Keith’s lips thin in apology.

“Then you’ll wish I’d let you die.” His jaw works uncomfortably and he sighs.

Lance clears his throat uncomfortably, arms crossed tight across his chest. He reaches for the casual indifference, the sarcasm he feels safest in and raises a skeptical eyebrow.

“All because I want to get laid?”

Keith turns away from him to hide his blush. “Unfortunately yes.”

Lance groans. “Ugh I hate court politics.” He drops to the bed in a huff.

Keith couldn’t agree more.

“Like I said. If you’re interested in someone, tell me. At least then I can extend an invitation to my room and veil it under the guise of liking to watch.” He flushes and looks down at his book. “That way you’ll still be safe and it will be on your terms. It’s the only work around I can think of.”

Lance frowns, crossing his arms over his chest. “And none of this bothers you. At all?”

Keith shrugs. “There is little happiness to be found in Dis, let alone companionship.” His eyes are old and sad in that moment and Lance wonders how old Keith really is. “If you can find it, enjoy it.”

“Or you could save us all the trouble and just fuck me yourself,” Lance throws back just to see what will happen.

Keith scowls, furious. “You don’t actually want that,” he snarls, nearly snapping his pen.

Lance’s eyebrows lift mockingly. “I don’t? Oh do tell, I love it when people tell me what I do or don’t want.” He scowls fiercely.

“You just want to get under my skin and make me uncomfortable. You think flirting with me will do that. You think it will somehow make it easier to manipulate me into letting you go which I already plan on,” he snaps, “or get you something you want, and I don’t care.” Something around his eyes turns faintly sad and Lance almost feels bad.

“If you want something Lance all you have to do is ask. You don’t need to manipulate me to get it. So just save us both the time and tell me what you want.”

Lance studies him intently, crossed arms falling to his sides. “I want a bath.” It’s the most honest and direct he’s ever been and Keith nods.

Keith reaches for a piece of parchment and a quill, beginning to take notes. “Hot or cold?”

Lance blinks at him dumbly as if he hadn’t been expecting Keith to take notes. He wanders over, one of the few times he’s willingly come close to Keith to look over his shoulder. He leans against the desk and makes more and more outlandish suggestions and requests just to see what will happen.

Keith writes all of them down without comment or criticism, making plans and notations for a private bath to be installed in his room. For today, the public baths will have to do.

~

Keith takes Lance to the baths after they’re done discussing specifications, trying to mentally filter through what Lance actually wants and what’s just to be obnoxious. It’s difficult to tell.

One of the few things Keith has learned about him in their time together is that Lance is a magnificent liar.

As they make their way down the hall Keith passes off the note where Lance can’t see. He whispers to one of the servants and presses a number of coins into their hands. They nod hurriedly and scramble off to see to his request.

When they make it to the baths the door opens and steam comes rolling out to greet them, thick and perfumed. Lance looks delighted, his eyes sparkling and the first real smile Keith has seen.

They change quickly, Keith keeping an eye on Lance and making note of the few others already there as they step out.

Lance doesn’t seem at all perturbed walking nude into a room full of people, slipping into the steaming water with a little sigh of contentment.

Keith makes sure to place himself between Lance and the few people watching him closely, making it very clear who Lance belongs to.

Lance seems completely oblivious to the attention and lingering eyes, scrubbing himself clean until his skin is pink and tingling pleasantly, the dirt and sand he’s been perpetually covered in washing away. He hasn’t had a proper bath in...he can’t remember how long.

He washes his hair vigorously, dunking his head below the water to rinse, scratching all along his scalp with a pleased little hum. When he surfaces he makes eye contact with a devil on the other side of the bath, watching him intently, their lips pulling wide. Lance pretends to ignore him, turning to Keith with a mischievous smile, carefully noting the others watching as he does. One of them has slunk closer, a hungry look in his eyes and Lance is having none of that.

He drifts towards Keith, lazily picking up the sponge sitting on a tray and working up another lather before taking one of Keith’s hands, beginning to wash him. Keith watches from under his lashes as Lance works. The soft smile never leaves his face but Keith can see the way his pulse is hammering in his throat.

Lance finishes with Keith’s arm, moving to the other before working the sponge over his chest. He scoops water with his hands to slowly rinse away the suds as he goes.

The devils are watching openly, both of them much closer than before.

Lance slings one knee over Keith’s hips, sitting in his lap and draping his arm languidly over Keith’s shoulders. He drags the sponge over Keith’s throat, letting water and soap run over his skin and Keith lifts his chin, playing into the part Lance has set for him.

To his credit Keith doesn’t startle, just opens his eyes slowly.

“What are you doing,” he whispers blandly, arms still stretched across the lip of the bath as Lance settles in his lap.

Lance leans forward, tipping his head into the side of Keith’s neck, pretending to kiss him there.

“They’re watching,” he murmurs.

“I tried to warn you.” Keith’s voice is sad as he turns his head, murmuring the words into Lance’s hair. “Without the collar or the brand you look like a free meal.”

Lance twitches before kissing Keith’s neck, then his jaw.

“Since we have an audience we may as well perform.” Lance grins, his voice lilting. “They already think you’re a deviant, might as well. They don’t have to know you’re really a prude.”

Keith looks at him, sees the faintest spark of fear in Lance’s eyes. Glancing over his shoulder he notes the two devils and one fiend, watching hungrily.

Lance tips his head to the side, drawing his attention back around.

“Don’t you want to kiss me?” he asks playfully, running his fingers down Keith’s chest.

“That would be sexual assault,” he hisses, trying not to move his lips. “So no. You are in no position to be consenting to this,” Keith grinds out, trying to keep his expression smooth.

“You gonna sit there all day or do something about it?” one of the devil’s calls and Lance’s smile flickers, that fear back again.

“Okay, I'll bite,” Lance whispers, beginning to rock slowly, rising on his knees, enough space between them they aren’t touching. Not that anyone will be able to tell through the water and someone whistles.

“How do we get out of here?”

“You pretend to give me a hand job or just keep doing what you’re doing,” Keith whispers, keeping his chin down so the others can’t read his lips. “Fake it.”

Lance pouts. “What, can’t we just make out for a couple of minutes?”

Keith tries very hard not to scowl. “Only if that’s your preference.”

“Wouldn’t be the worst thing I’ve ever done.” Keith almost snarls, barely managing to swallow the sound, ducking his head to hide the expression.

“And this would be a lot more convincing if you’d touch me,” Lance whispers in his ear.

“Do you want me to?”

“Not particularly but if it’ll get me out of here.”

Keith does not look pleased by that answer but takes his arms off the wall, slipping them below the water to rest the tips of his fingers safely on Lance’s waist, keeping up the pretense.

Lance starts panting as he rocks up and down, movements slow and languid for the next several minutes. He tips his head back, mouth open, sweat and water gathering on his skin. The next time he rises on his knees he holds himself there. Sweat and water slide down his face, dripping from his hair as he leans over Keith, eyes intent. Keith makes sure to keep his hands on Lance’s waist or to his sides below the water where no one can see.

Lance tips his head slowly, glancing between Keith’s eyes and his mouth, letting Keith know what’s happening before he closes the distance, kissing him.

Keith keeps things as minimal as he can, his hands barely touching Lance, kissing him for several minutes, letting him lead without taking it too far. Lance pulls away only to trail kisses back to Keith’s throat as he settles in his lap, sucking on tender skin. For a moment Keith lets him before tipping his mouth to Lance’s ear with a smile for the sake of those watching.

“We should be good. But I need you to go first.”

Lance’s forehead is resting on Keith’s shoulder and he’s making a show of breathing heavily.

“Why?”

“To make sure none of them try to follow us.”

“They could do that?”

“I really don’t want to find out. Now go. I’ll be right behind you.”

Lance lifts his head and kisses the corner of Keith’s mouth. “Thank you,” he whispers sincerely, blue eyes heavy with honesty.

“For what?”

“Helping.” His expression turns serious. “For bothering to ask. No one else ever did.”

Before Keith has time to process that, Lance pulls away. He puts on a coy smile, looking at Keith over his shoulder as he stands, stepping boldly out of the bath. The two steps he takes before Keith follows are terrifying, a chorus of shouts and whistles filling the bath behind him.

His heart pounds as a set of footsteps fall into place behind him and Lance bites his lip, hoping it’s Keith. The door to the changing room clangs shut behind him an eternity later and Lance nearly jumps out of his skin when a robe falls over his shoulders.

“Just me,” Keith says softly and Lance deflates, running a hand over his face, clutching the robe. He’s never been so relieved to see him.

Lance slides quickly into the robe, tying it tight, hands shaking.

“Yup, pretty sure I prefer private baths now.” Lance drags a hand through his hair, sweeping it back. He hopes his voice doesn’t sound as shaky as he feels. “Pretty sure I feel dirtier than before I went in.” He hugs his arms closer and shivers.

Keith dries his hair quickly, leaving it ruffled and still dripping before pulling on his own robe. He wishes he could reach out and touch Lance, to offer comfort but knows it’s the last thing he needs.

“I’ll have one built.” He tosses the towel to the side before opening the door to the hall, urging Lance through ahead of him. He doesn’t want to linger.

Lance doesn’t know if he’s serious or not.

~

Keith has a small pool of water sunk into the floor of his room two days later. It’s filled with saltwater and glowing tide stones that make the water ripple and shift with the moon. It’s built to Lance’s preferred dimensions and specifications. It takes up a large portion of the center of the room to catch as much of the sun from the window as possible. Keith rearranges his things in the space as needed without comment. Two stones have been engraved and enchanted with the necessary runes to modify the temperature as needed.

If Lance is surprised by the pool after they come back from a day trip out to the gardens he doesn’t comment but Keith can see the delight in his eyes.

Lance smiles more that day than he has in years, and means it.

Chapter Text

“Why the tattoos?” Lance asks one day, lounging across the bed as he watches Keith work. “On your wrists.” He’d seen the dark clouds of ink-like smoke swirling across Keith’s skin in the baths but didn’t have the chance to study them.

“What are they?”

Keith tries to subtly tug his sleeve down to cover them where the edge of the tattoo is peeking out. It’s the closest to uncomfortable Lance has ever seen him.

He dips the tip of his quill in the ink, carefully holding his sleeve back without exposing the tattoo.

“The brands wouldn’t take.”

Lance blanches, shifting uncomfortably. “Does that-” He bites his lip until it hurts, then clears his throat. “Do they do that to all their-”

“Slaves?” Keith finishes for him blandly, dropping the quill back in its stand. “Yes. And their soldiers. If you belong to the royal family they want everyone to know it. They take great pride in their possessions.”

Lance stares at where Keith is hiding his wrist under one hand, a note of fear working its way into his voice. “Is that going to happen to me?”

“No,” Keith snaps hotly, eyes flicking to Lance’s, dark with anger and defiance, a muscle in his jaw flexing.

“Why not?” His voice is smaller than he means for it to be but the idea of being branded does not sit well with him.

“Because you don’t belong to them.” Keith turns back to his work, trying to reign in his temper. “I’m not going to let that happen.”

“Because I belong to you .” His tone darkens and Keith’s stomach twists.

“If you want to put it that way, yes. It’s the only thing keeping anyone else from hurting you, much as it sickens me to say it. You know that.” He glances at Lance from under his eyebrows and wishes there was more he could offer.

“I promise it’s to keep you safe so long as you remain trapped here and I will not have you branded. It’s a horrific practice marking you as chattel and you are no such thing.” He turns back to his work, lifting the quill and dipping it in the inkwell, shaking the excess ink from it to keep it from blotching. “I’m afraid it’s the only freedom I have to offer.

“But you belong to no one but yourself.” The faint scratch of the quill over parchment catches irritably in Lance’s ears. “You always will.”

Chapter Text

“Are you ever going to ask me?” Lance taps his nails against the stone lip of the tub, his new favorite spot in the room. It’s been almost three weeks since Keith bought him. Their relationship is slowly warming, Lance continuing to flirt relentlessly. Keith just hopes it means he’s happy. Or at least as happy as he can be.

“Ask you what?”

Lance smiles lazily, propping his chin in his hand. “Whatever burning questions are hiding tucked behind your teeth.” His expression turns sly when Keith looks up at him.

“I can it see it in your eyes every time you look at me.”

To his surprise Keith blushes, dropping his gaze. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean…” He trails off, chewing at his lip before glancing at Lance again.

“I just don’t know anything about you. Or lamia in general. I don’t even know what you eat.”

“Babies remember?” He chuckles when Keith rolls his eyes at him.

Lance lifts a shoulder in an easy shrug. “It’s okay to be curious.” He crosses his arms, shifting in the bath to get more comfortable and rests his head against his arms. “Ask me.”

Keith doesn’t look convinced this is a safe topic but eventually his curiosity wins out.

“Forgive me if any of this is offensive but-” He works his jaw for a moment like he’s changed his mind before letting out a huff. “Was Sendak right?” Lance’s eyes shutter at the name but he forces the tension in his shoulders to relax. He’s trying to build a rapport.

“Is your saliva an aphrodisiac?” Keith finally spits out.

“Why don’t you kiss me and find out?” Lance teases.

Keith’s face goes as red as the tinted skin under his jaw and Lance laughs, coils rolling in amusement, displacing water.

“But no. Complete slander.” He sticks his nose in the air, watching Keith through his lashes. His eyes sparkle as his chin comes to rest back atop his crossed forearms. “What’s next? I like this game,” he asks, delighted by Keith’s flush.

“I didn’t expect you to be such a prude,” he says when Keith just pouts.

“I am not a prude,” he snaps, cheeks darkening much to Lance’s delight and he coos.

“Aw, you’re adorable. You literally blush every time I get naked.” He slaps a hand against the stone in a rapid clap. “Come on, next question.”

“Did you really kill Lieutenant Therok?” Over Lance’s time here rumors have been flying. Keith knows better than to believe them but someone had certainly killed the man. The lieutenant had accused him of as much. And Lance was being taken to be executed before Keith interfered for slaughtering half a company. Keith would not be surprised to find it was Therok’s.

“Yes,” Lance says simply, trailing a finger over the stone.

“May I ask why?” Not that there wasn’t good reason to do so. Therok had been one of Keith’s least favorite individuals after Sendak.

“You can ask ,” Lance says slyly, implying he won’t tell him. “Maybe I was just bored and hungry,” he teases, eyes bright.

“Thought you didn’t eat people.”

“No, no,” Lance corrects, one finger in the air. “I don’t eat babies. People are fair game.” He grins, something in his eyes a little feral and Keith can’t tell if he’s kidding or not. He still hasn’t managed to find any of Lance’s tells.

He twists the pen in his fingers nervously, feeling wrong-footed. There are a number of other questions burning on his tongue, none of which he’s bold enough to ask.

“That was it,” he says softly, turning back to his work.

Lance pouts, sighing dramatically. “Fine, keep your secrets.” His voice lilts pleasantly. “I’ll wriggle them out of you some day.” He shifts about, making himself comfortable in the sunlight.

Keith has no doubt of that.

“But in that case I have a question for you.”

Keith lifts an eyebrow, waiting for Lance to go on.

“How long have you been here?”

Keith stares into the middle distance, calculating.

“Sixty-eight years.” He says it easily and Lance chokes, sputtering and coughing as he slips in surprise, his head going under water.

Water splashes across the floor as he surfaces, struggling to breathe. His eyes are watering and his face is red as he coughs into his fist.

“I’m sorry?” he chokes. “How long?”

Keith stares at him, startled by the sudden fit. “Are you alright?”

“How old are you?” Lance counters, voice still pitched high.

“Eighty-two.” Keith says it so casually, like that number isn’t staggering and Lance struggles to wrap his head around it, blinking rapidly.

“You said you were an oni right? How long do you live ?”

“I’m half human remember,” Keith clarifies. “My father was human. My mother is several hundred years old. She’ll live for up to a thousand. I doubt I’ll live as long as her given my mixed blood, but probably a few hundred.” Lance stares at him, running the numbers in his head, horror slowly dawning on him.

“You’ve been here since you were fourteen?” Lance asks softly and Keith’s lips thin, his expression hardening.

“Yes.”

Lance shifts in the pool and looks uncomfortable.

“I thought you were born here. That you were kidding before.”

Keith doesn’t answer and all Lance can do is stare. He marvels at the vestiges of compassion Keith has managed to maintain while living in such a wretched city for so long; wonders at all the things he's suffered.

Lance's heart gives a guilty little beat. It doesn’t excuse the things Keith has done, but Lance understands it was for survival.

Keith isn’t all he seems to be.

“I have never lied to you,” Keith murmurs, eyes still downcast. “And I never will.”

“I’m sorry,” Lance says softly.

Keith grunts in response and Lance scratches at one of the stones.

“What happened to your father?” Lance knows he’s probably pushing at a tender subject but he wants to know.

“He was killed in the raid to capture my mother and I. He wasn’t worth keeping.”

Lance winces, fighting back the memories. He presses his cheek into the cold stone, using it to ground him. “Mine too.”

Keith finally looks at him, his eyes ages old and unbearably sad. “Is that how they captured you?”

Lance shakes his head, still staring at the stones. “My village was razed.” He remembers the fire, the heat, the screams.  “Everyone died. I was one of the only survivors.” He’d watched his family die, the same as Keith.

Keith frowns. “Why?”

Lance lifts his eyes, holding Keith’s gaze as if taking his measure for one long moment.

“Someone felt entitled to my mother's attention,” Lance says slowly, still watching him.

“Who was it?” Keith asks. He already knows but he wants to ask, wants Lance to say it.

“Therok.” He says the name almost blandly. “When she told him to go fuck himself he came back and tried to take what he wanted by force. She cut him up pretty bad before he stuck her to the ground with a polearm.” He fights to keep the expression on his face from warping but fighting it just makes it worse. He’d seen her body from a distance when the screams had drawn him back to the village.

“She was doing laundry at the time,” he goes on. “Everyone heard her scream, watched her writhing on the ground, pinned there, like the fish we hunt for food on the end of a spear.” He wipes a hand across his mouth and takes a deep breath.

“It’s how he lost the eye and got the scars on his cheeks.” Lance mimes scratching his face, Keith’s eyes lingering on his claws. “He shouted an order and he and his men attacked the entire village while she bled out in the dirt.” Lance’s jaw flexes angrily, claws scraping at the stone. His scales ripple in waves up and down his arms, tail thrashing in the water behind him as he fights to get ahold of his temper.

“We fought back as best we could,” Lance says from between his teeth, struggling to stamp out his anger, “but we were no match for trained soldiers.

“I was with my sister at the time. We watched him-” Lance grinds his teeth and meets Keith’s gaze boldly. “We watched him grind the pole into her, staking her to the ground. My sister grabbed me when I screamed, when I tried to help her. We ran for the sea when the soldiers started cutting us down.” His eyes burn. “I saw her cut down on the beach as she shoved me into the water. I was too scared to go back.” He swallows thickly and looks away when his voice breaks. “I got away because I ran.”

“You survived,” Keith says softly. “That is not cowardice.”

“It feels like it,” Lance says tightly, a knot in his throat. He rests his head on his crossed arms. “I wish I’d died on that beach with her.” He bites his lip, part of him hating he’d shared all that, another part of him relieved to finally talk about it.

“After that I hunted the company down one by one and made sure they could never do something like that to anyone’s family ever again.” His words are choked with hatred and tears he refuses to cry, a deep pain that’s barely begun to heal.

“Therok was the last officer on my list. I’ve probably lost a number of soldiers who were there but the important ones are dead.” He takes a slow breath, trying to loosen the tension in his throat.

“How did he die?” Keith asks.

Lance looks at him point blank. “Used his own lust against him.” He shrugs. “It wasn’t hard. Every army has its camp followers. I hid with them, making eyes at Therok whenever I could and eventually he had me brought to his tent like so many others.

“I paralyzed him, castrated him, cut open his chest while he was still bleeding and ate his heart.” Raw hate drips from the words and Lance is so angry he’s shaking. His self-control is breaking apart.

Keith spins his pen back and forth between his fingers. He wonders if Lance’s previous offer to answer his questions still stands.

“Did you really sleep with him?” He doesn’t know why that bothers him so much but it does. The thought of someone like Therok having his hands on Lance makes his skin crawl. The man was a letch.

“You really think I would have let that piece of shit touch me after what he did?” Lance snarls. His tail coils in and over itself, claws dragging into the stone.

“I only went as far as it took to sink my fangs into him. Once paralyzed he was at my mercy and I took my time. I made sure he remembered what he did and why he was dying,” Lance snarls. “That he remembered my mother.”

Keith is almost passive by comparison, his voice quiet and level.

“And no one heard you?”

Lance bares his teeth in a vicious approximation of a smile. “He wasn’t able to scream,” he says lowly, something dark and hard in his eyes. “But just in case...I cut his tongue out and put a hot coal in his mouth.”

Keith fights the urge to gag. He’d tortured and murdered his fair share of people for Dispater but Lance’s story makes his stomach turn. No wonder he’d been so heavily chained when they were bringing him in.

“His men were used to turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to what went on in his tent anyway. He was mine to do with as I wished for the night.” He struggles to reign in his temper, to forget the sticky feeling of blood on his hands, in his mouth.

“Fiends don’t taste very good.” He smiles, baring his fangs. Keith thinks it’s meant to threaten him.

When he doesn’t react Lance drops his chin onto his arms again.

“Making it out of the camp was a lot harder than getting in,” Lance goes on, heedless of Keith’s inner turmoil. “The soldiers found his body and grabbed me before I could make it out. They decided to bring me here hoping to make some coin off me.” His lip curls with disdain.

“Apparently I’m unique for the area.”

Keith’s mouth pulls sideways. “Dis is fond of its rarities,” he drawls. And slavery was an integral part of the way the city worked.

“I made enough of a nuisance of myself they’d changed their minds by the time we got here.

“I take it the lieutenant who wanted my head removed from my shoulders was a friend because he lost his damn mind when he found out what happened.”

Keith nods. “His brother,” he affirms.

Lance’s lips curl back from his teeth.

“He’s the one who wanted my execution to be public. Some nonsense about that Hall of Blood cursing the soul or whatever.” He rolls his eyes. “That was when you intervened.” He gestures with a hand. “Now here I am.”

Keith stares at the floor for a moment, considering.

“With Therok dead what would you have done?” He’d dreamed of vengeance for a long time. For awhile it was all that motivated him; when it burned out he had little left to live for. Without his mother to protect he would have let someone remove his head on the battlefield long ago and hoped it would be enough. But he never seemed to die. His own blood keeps him trapped in this living nightmare, denying him the freedom even death would provide.

Lance shrugs. “Gone home to be with my family.” Gone home to die. Keith can understand the sentiment.

Lance purses his lips. He doesn’t know how to feel about the similarities between his life and Keith’s, doesn’t like to think they could be the same, so he stops asking. Instead he turns to slip below the water, holding his breath and cries where Keith can neither see nor hear him.

Chapter Text

Keith gives Lance a knife a few days later, the blade narrow but sturdy. The handle is carved and plated with gold as is the scabbard. 

He pulls up Lance’s sleeve, placing the knife and the vambrace it’s hiding under, to his arm, checking if it fits.

“If you’re going to go out with the guards, or even with me, always wear this. Your sleeves will be long enough to hide it,” he explains, strapping it to Lance’s forearm. 

“Why?”

“To keep you safe. Especially after what happened at the baths.” His expression darkens. “I’d be happier if you didn’t go out with the guard at all but I can’t stop you.” 

“Sure you could.” Lance means it to be light but it doesn’t quite land and Keith’s lips thin. He does not like to be reminded of the position of power he has over Lance. Not that it makes it any less true.

“Guards can be bribed,” he explains. “I don’t want you cornered without a weapon. No one touches you without your consent.”

A faint smile alights briefly in the corner of Keith’s mouth as he adjusts the straps so the vambrace fits snugly and won’t slide. 

“Think of it as another fang.”

“I already bite.” Lance bares his teeth, fangs extending but the display is harmless and meant to amuse. 

Something in Keith’s face gives him pause and Lance sobers. 

“What?”

“One day you might not be able to.” 

Lance frowns, mentally running through every brief interaction he’s ever had with the guards and servants and random members of the court over his time in Dis.

“Does this have something to do with those glowing collars I’ve seen people wearing? They’re enchanted with runes. You mentioned them in the baths too.” He taps at his throat. “Most of the people wearing them don’t seem human. Not that anyone here is, but they don’t look like they’re native to the city.”

Keith nods and Lance’s frown deepens. 

“What do they do?” He isn’t sure he wants the answer to that but it feels like he needs to know.

“Suppress magic. If you were wearing one it’s unlikely you’d be unable to shift to defend yourself.” Keith’s fingers fumble briefly on the vambrace before they steady. He remembers the weight of those collars all too vividly. How cold he’d get without his fire.

Lance pales and the knife on his arm grows heavier. 

“Hence the knife,” Lance says weakly. His fingers skim over the vambrace, tracing the carved shapes, trying to parse some meaning from the design. 

“I meant to give it to you sooner but it wasn’t ready.”

“How’d you convince them to let you give me a knife?” Lance asks. 

“I told them it was for me. Which is why it’s absurdly opulent and why it took so long to make.” He makes a face. “I’d be happier with something more balanced but it’ll have to do.” 

  Lance looks down, studying the vambrace in a new light, flexing his hand, adjusting to the feel and the weight of it. 

“Why am I not collared?” Lance asks quietly after a moment. “Like the others.” Compared to a number of other slaves Lance has seen, Keith is right; Lance has considerably more freedom than they do.

“Because they’re more frightened of you without it. You bite.” A smile comes unbidden to Keith’s face. “Your reputation has done a lot of the work for me already so you’re rather free to go about your own devices. Most people are going to be too afraid to make a move for you.” 

“And those that aren’t?” He looks at Keith askance.

“Depends on whether or not I get to them first for daring to try it.” 

Lance fiddles with the pommel of the knife, unsheathing it, to reveal a sliver of the blade, weighing the consequences. 

“Defending my honor or your property?” Lance ask. The words have a little more bite to them. 

Keith shrugs. “Depends on who’s asking.”

Lance looks at him from under his eyebrows, stroking a finger over the pommel. “Just me,” he says softly.

“Then it’s both. Defending my claim on you keeps someone else from trying to take you until I get you out.”

Lance’s brows come together and Keith can hear his breath shallow. 

“And then what?” 

“I assume you go home.”

Keith releases his arm and clasps his hands behind his back.

“You would really let me go?”

“Of course I would. I promised you three weeks remember? It’s almost up.” 

Keith watches as Lance struggles with that. In the end he clears his throat and looks away, changing the subject.

“So, uh, what happens if I use this on someone?” he asks, pulling the blade out fully and examining it.

Keith’s expression pinches. “Nothing good but it depends on who it is. I doubt you’d walk away unscathed, if at all. 

“Attacking a member of the court would be instant death, no exceptions. One of the soldiers or the guards…” Keith tips his head. “You may not walk after but you’d live.”

“And if I used it on you?” The question feels weighted but less threatening that it might have once been.

“You already know the answer to that.” Lance’s eyes flick to the naked blade. “But you’re still welcome to try if you like.” Lance doesn’t rise to the bait.

“You have to know if someone catches me with this they’ll think I stole it.” He slides the knife home and lifts his arm, showing Keith the elaborate vambrace. 

“You’re clever,” Keith says, lowering Lance’s arm and pulling his sleeve down. “Don’t get caught.” 

“I could stick this in your heart in the middle of the night,” Lance argues, exasperated. 

“Or you could have taken the knife under my own pillow and done the same before now,” Keith says. “I know you know it’s there. But you won’t.”

“Says who?” Lance scowls the way he does when he feels he’s been slighted and the corner of Keith’s mouth flicks upward. 

“You. If you were going to you’d have done it by now.” 

“Thought it wouldn’t kill you,” Lance sasses.

Keith suppresses his smile. “It wouldn’t. But it might give you enough time to get to the door.”

“Where the guards would no doubt cut me down.”

Keith nods. “No doubt.”

Lance frowns, curiosity written across his face as Keith fusses with the sleeve, smoothing the material. It’s not a perfect disguise but it’s good enough. 

If Lance is caught with the knife maybe Keith can insist it was a gift. If he argues loudly enough someone might believe him. It’s not unheard of for someone to give gifts to their concubines. Maybe it’ll be enough. 

“Why are you giving me this?” Lance asks, drawing Keith out of his thoughts. 

“Because I’d rather have you armed and safe than assaulted. Because I know you can take care of yourself but I thought I’d make it a little easier. Because you are not a slave,” he insists. He looks at Lance, stubborn determination written across his face. 

“Stop trying to let them convince you otherwise. They may all think that way but your mindset is the only thing that matters. What’s in here.” He taps Lance gently on the forehead. “You are free in here.” His voice drops, serious. “Do not let them take that from you.” 

Lance’s eyebrows knit together. “You really believe that?” he asks curiously, tugging on his sleeve.

“Yes,” Keith says fiercely.

Lance searches his eyes, sharp as crystal and finds he believes him. 

 “Are you a slave?” Keith demands, quiet but insistent. 

Lance purses his lips, anger in the line of his mouth. 

“No.” His voice is firm and Keith nods in approval. 

“Good.”

The vambrace is mostly hidden beneath his sleeve and Lance runs his fingers over the engravings through the fabric before looking up. 

“You’re very strange you know that?” 

Another small smile flickers in Keith’s eyes. 

“So I’ve been told.” 

He turns and Lance watches the sway of his hair, wondering at what Keith has said.

“Hey Keith?” Lance fiddles with his sleeve.

“Hmm?”

“Are you?” he finally asks and Keith pauses. He looks over his shoulder curiously.

“Am I what?”

Lance bites the inside of his lip, afraid to ask. 

“Are you a slave?” he asks gently.

Keith turns his back on Lance, going to pick through his books for something to read. His fingers tick over the spines if books and along scrolls, barely seeing them. 

“I don't know anymore.”

Chapter Text

Keith doesn’t see him coming. The lieutenant whose name he never bothered to learn is just there, a knife buried up to the hilt in Lance’s back.

The blade takes him straight through a kidney, driving the breath out of Lance in a gasp which is what catches Keith’s attention. The thick rug running the length of the hall had disguised the man’s steps.

Lance stumbles as the knife is torn free, the lieutenant shoving him. A gush of blood follows and Lance sinks to the ground.

Keith snarls, whirling on the lieutenant with claws bared. The man’s eyes widen in fear as he stumbles back. Keith catches him by the head as the man lunges forward with the knife. Fire sears from his fingers as Keith snaps his neck. The lieutenant’s body goes limp as the light leaves his eyes and he hits the floor in a pile, limbs bent at awkward angles. Keith bares his teeth, withdrawing the blade where it’s lodged in his stomach. With a growl he sheathes it in the man’s heart. Bone snaps, the knife sinking wetly into the man’s chest, ribs caving under the force of the blow. Keith can feel the blade strike stone.

With the threat gone Keith turns to where Lance is still sprawled across the rug, kneeling beside him. Blood from the carpet seeps through the thick layers of Keith’s robes to wet his knees and he panics. There’s more than there should be given how little time has passed.

“Lance?”

“Ngh,” Lance manages, shivering with pain. He’s lying on his stomach, half turned to one side, trying to press a hand over the bleeding wound. Sweat beads over his skin and he makes another distressed sound.

Keith tears the fabric of the robe away from the wound, stained and wet, trying to see how bad the damage is.

“Get Allura!” he snaps at a nearby guard as he sees how bad it is. Keith’s heart pounds so hard it leaves him light headed.

He swears under his breath, watching Lance bleed with every panicked beat of his heart, the blood pulsing in tune with it. The knife must have hit an artery. He’ll be dead in minutes.

“This is gonna hurt,” he warns and Lance still can’t find his voice. He whines softly, in too much pain to move. Blood is pooling on the carpet underneath him, staining the fabric of Keith’s robes.

Keith slips two fingers into the wound as deep as they’ll go, hoping it’ll be enough.

Lance finally catches his breath enough to scream as the fire cauterizes the injury, the sound shrill and painful and Keith’s stomach turns over. The smell of burning flesh sticks in his nose, making him sick.

“Where is she!?” he demands but the remaining guard doesn’t react, just stands impassively.

Keith swears again, ripping off his sleeve and pressing it into the wound.

Lance sobs and Keith brushes his hair back, streaking it with blood.

“I know, I’m sorry,” he whispers. “Hang in there. You’re gonna be okay.”

Keith grinds his teeth and reaches for his patience as Allura comes around the corner, her kit over one shoulder. She sees them and breaks into a run. Apparently the guard had forgot to mention how bad it was.

“What happened?” She skids to a stop, dropping to her knees, her pants immediately stained.

“He was stabbed.”

Keith pulls back the makeshift bandage, exposing the wound.

“I cauterized it to stop the bleeding but I don’t know if I got deep enough.”

“How long was the blade?” Allura checks Lance’s pulse as Keith reaches over, yanking the knife free of the lieutenant’s half caved in chest.

He shows it to her impassively, blood dripping from the blade and Allura blanches.

“Right. Thank you.”

Keith shoves it back in the man’s chest where it belongs without looking. There’s another sickening crunch and Allura’s jaw flexes but she says nothing.

“You’re gonna be okay,” she says to Lance before covering the wound with both hands and closing her eyes.

The collar around her neck flares with light as energy suffuses her hands. She presses the energy into the wound, stitching it closed as best she can.

Sweat breaks out across her brow, her power limited by the collar. Her eyebrows furrow as she presses to her limit, pulling the energy she needs.

Keith faintly hears music in the air as she works, a natural part of her magic. It does little to soothe his nerves as he waits, minutes ticking past in agony before she’s done. The blood pulsing from Lance’s wound slowly fades, coming to a stop and Keith watches the wound close.

The light fades from Allura’s hands and she sags forward with a sigh.

“He’ll be alright,” she breathes, wiping her forehead with the back of a wrist. Keith would touch her if it weren’t for the blood on his hands and the guards who are ever watching. He spots one of Dispater’s imps up in the corner of the ceiling, spying as always.

“Thank you,” he says cooly and Allura nods. She stumbles to her feet, dragging her now too heavy kit over her shoulder. Keith catches her elbow to steady her, leaving a red handprint behind.

“I’m alright,” she insists, taking a moment to catch her balance before waving him off.

“Get him to bed. He’s lost a lot of blood and will need to rest.” She pulls a container out of her kit and passes it to him with shaking hands.

“This will help with what I wasn’t able to fix.”

Keith nods, pocketing the little jar before scooping Lance into his arms. Blood drips to the floor and down the front of Keith’s robes, staining them further but he doesn’t care. He doesn’t like the wet weight dragging against him because it only enforces how much blood Lance has lost.

“Thank you,” he says again, this time more sincerely, adjusting Lance’s weight in his arms.

Allura nods, brushing a lock of hair out of Lance’s face. He’s breathing thinly but his face is cleared of most of the pain and he tries to smile. She cups his cheek before heading back the way she’d come, the guard who’d gone to fetch her escorting her back.

Keith carries Lance back to the room, his own guards opening the doors for him when they see him coming. He doesn’t bother disrobing before he walks straight into the pool, sinking to the bottom, Lance cradled in his lap.

He carefully unties and removes Lance’s robe, pulling off the knife strapped to his arm and setting it aside. Not that it or Keith had done him much good.

Blood clouds the water as Keith cradles the back of Lance’s head, keeping it above the water as he wets Lance’s hair. He picks up the nearby cloth, gently washing Lance’s face. He stares up at Keith with glassy eyes, too tired to do anything other than trust Keith won’t drown him.

His breathing rasps as his eyes flutter closed and Keith takes up the cake of soap, carefully washing Lance’s hair until it rinses clean.

He washes the blood away, maneuvering Lance gently as he needs to, resting Lance’s shoulder against his chest to get to the wound on his back. It’s stitched closed but still swollen and angry, the edges warped from the burn.

“I’m sorry,” Keith whispers, his fingers skimming the wound gently. He hates that he had to burn Lance. “I didn’t know what else to do.”

Lance doesn’t have the energy to speak but he squeezes Keith’s arm gently. Keith hopes it means he’s forgiven.

Free of blood, Keith goes through the tedious process of removing the heavy layers of silk and linen he’s buried under, Lance still cradled in his lap.

Once he’s free of the fabric he stands, stepping out of the pool. He warms the air around them until they’re both dry before tucking Lance into bed, covering the wound with the salve.

Keith brushes damp hair out of Lance’s face where he’s lying on his stomach.

“Get some sleep,” he whispers.

Lance’s fingers brush against his arm and Keith squeezes his hand, pulling the sheet up a little higher before leaving him to rest.

~

It’s only a few hours before there’s a knock on the door. A chained devil is waiting for him, stare impassive.

“You’ve been summoned by Dispater.” His voice is deep and gravelly, the chains on his body shifting and clicking against one another like living things.

Keith glances at the bed where Lance is still sleeping. “Very well.” He steps forward but the figure doesn’t move.

“Bring the boy.”

Keith grinds his teeth but nods. He’d expected this. He’s just surprised it took so long.

“Give me some time to help him dress. I wouldn’t want to dishonor my lord,” he says when the man’s eyes narrow.

“Three minutes,” the devil grinds out and Keith nods respectfully, shutting the door. He darts to the armoire, pulling out a robe before hurrying to the bed, rousing Lance.

“Lance, I need you to wake up,” he says, quiet but insistent. He shakes him by the shoulder until Lance cracks open and eye and glares at him.

“We’ve been summoned by Dispater, we have to go.” He pulls Lance into a sitting position, giving him the robe.

“Why?” Lance croaks, finding his balance and slipping it on, eyes still half closed.

“Because I killed the lieutenant. He will make me answer for that.” He’s kneeling by the bed, one hand on Lance’s arm, afraid he’ll topple sideways. He’s still weak and sitting up has left him dizzy.

“But you were defending me,” Lance argues, blinking the dark spots out of his eyes.

“That’s not important,” Keith says in a rush. “Look, I know you don’t want to but when we’re in the Iron Tower I need you to be respectful. You will call him my lord, you will bow when we arrive and before we leave, and you will not speak unless spoken to directly. Keep your eyes on the floor.”

Lance’s expression darkens. “I will not-”

“You will,” Keith snaps, shaking him by the arm. “If you want to make it out alive you will. Be uninteresting.”

“Or what?”

“Or he’ll lay a claim to you out weighing my own.”

Fear flickers in Lance’s eyes and he sets his jaw.

Keith loosens his grip on Lance’s arm. “Please,” he says softly. “Just do what I say and you’ll be fine.”

“I’m not sure you can promise that,” Lance says weakly.

Keith’s lips thin but he doesn’t argue and Lance knows he’s right.

Keith stands as Lance slips into the robe, tying it around his waist. The door opens abruptly and the devil glares at them both.

Lance watches as Keith’s expression turns cool and neutral and he smoothly faces the door. He crosses the room and steps into the hall, Lance hurrying to follow after him, struggling not to lose his balance as he does. Keith doesn’t offer to help him and Lance doesn’t ask.

~

The Iron Tower is as scorching as it always is, the thick carpet leading to Dispater’s throne the only thing keeping Lance’s feet from burning. He can barely breathe through the heat and feels his skin stretching tight.

He bows stiffly a beat after Keith, struggling to remember to keep his eyes on the floor.

“My lord,” Keith greets, cool, respectful, and detached, unlike anything Lance has ever heard. His voice wasn’t even this dead on the auction floor.

Dispater hums, twisting a knife in one hand, the tip pressed into the pad of his finger. Keith recognizes it as the one from the lieutenant.

“Is this the boy?”

Keith inclines his head. “It is.” He knows Dispater already knows. There’s little that happens in Dis that doesn’t reach his ears.

Dispater hums thoughtfully and Lance struggles to breathe in the oppressive heat.

“Have you recovered?” he asks and it takes Lance a moment to realize Dispater is addressing him.

“Yes. My lord,” he stumbles to add even though it’s a lie. Keeping his head tipped down is making him dizzy.

Dispater makes a neutral sounding hum and Lance hopes he’s answered correctly.

Dispater’s eyes slide back to Keith and he lifts the knife.

“Care to explain?” He tosses the knife lazily and it skitters across the stones to land at Keith’s feet. He stares at it impassively before lifting his eyes.

“The lieutenant damaged my property,” he says cooly.

“So you took it upon yourself to punish him.”

Keith arches an eyebrow, both hands clasped behind his back.

“He was very expensive. And very skilled. It would have been a shame to lose him.” Lance bristles, realizing Keith is talking about him.

“Slaves are easily replaced,” Dispater says, waving a hand.

Keith inclines his head in agreement. “True enough.”

Lance grinds his teeth, hands in fists behind his back. Keith tries to mentally tell him to hold his tongue.

Silence stretches almost painfully and Keith realizes The Iron Maiden is missing. She must be on a mission for Dispater.

“This is the second time you have overstepped your authority,” Dispater says and there’s a tone of warning in his voice.

Keith inclines his head in apology. “Yes my lord.”

“You understand you will be punished.”

“Yes my lord.”

Dispater hums, lounging back in his throne.

“Twenty lashes.”

Keith hears a whip uncurl and hit the floor behind him. The erinyes who’d been his guard at the auction grins.

“What!? That’s-” Keith strikes Lance hard across the mouth before he can say anything else.

“You will be silent.

Lance cradles his throbbing cheek, blood in his mouth and Keith knows whatever trust they’ve managed to build shatters. He doesn’t know what else to do. No slave would defend their master like Lance was about to. At best Keith comes under scrutiny and is seen as weak. At worst Dispater takes Lance speaking as an affront to himself and stars only know what will happen then.

Keith grinds his teeth and strips to the waist, pulling his loose hair forward over a shoulder. He hadn’t bothered to tie it back after their bath.

He tries not to flinch as he hears the whip slide across the stone, a terrifying silence, and then the impact takes him hard across the shoulder blades with a crack. She’s trying to draw blood.

The lashing takes an eternity, the wounds half healing between strikes. He keeps his eyes on Dispater the entire time, knowing he likes to watch.

By the time the erinyes is done Keith is streaked in sweat and blood, shivering with pain.

He squares his shoulders, lifting his chin before bowing deeply, the gashes pulling painfully before sealing closed.

“Thank you my lord.” He manages to keep his voice level and cool.

Lance finally bows next to him, still furious, rigid with pain and rage.

“You are dismissed.”

Keith rises, taking several steps back before turning for the door.

The erinyes coils her whip as he goes, licking the blood from the little metal tip with a grin. Keith ignores her.

Lance has the good sense to remain silent until they reach the room, only lashing out after the door has shut behind them.

“What the fuck was that!?” His jaw is swollen and red where Keith struck him and he stays a good arms length or more away. Keith can’t say he blames him.

“You were going to get yourself killed,” Keith hisses, ever aware of the listening ears outside his door.

“I was defending you!”

“Exactly!”

Keith strips out of his ruined robe, frustrated to have lost two in a single day.

“You don’t- ugh!” He makes a frustrated gesture with his hands like he wants to throttle Lance. “You can’t do that,” he hisses, lowering his voice again. “You cannot defend me or they will take you away.”

Keith dumps the robe in a corner where he’d left the others and incinerates them.

Tears burn inexplicably in his eyes. “I’m not allowed to be kind to you.” He’s so tired.

A deep sigh escapes him and Keith leans into the wall, his back to Lance as he watches the flames engulf the fabric.

“Who I am in here when I’m with you is not who I’m allowed to be out there. Trust me, I’ve tried.”

Lance scowls fiercely, arms crossed over his chest.

“That’s really fucked up.”

Keith nods. He doesn’t bother wiping away the sweat and dried blood still sticking to him, just reaches for a clean robe and pulls it on, making sure his sword is firmly at his hip. He doubts Lance wants to be stuck in the same room with him right now and guilt is eating him alive.

“There’s more of that salve from before on the vanity,” Keith offers quietly, making his way to the door. He pauses when he touches the handle.

“I know you don’t believe me but you are safe in here.”

Lance scowls, arms crossed over his chest.

“Just not out there.” He gestures sharply at the door. “With you or anyone else.” His fingers flex on his arms  

A deep weight drags on Keith’s heart, a crushing sense of despair pulling at his shoulders, threatening to break him.

When he smiles at Lance it’s bitter.

“Welcome to hell.”

Chapter Text

Lance is understandably angry with Keith, giving him the cold shoulder for several days, stubbornly wandering the halls as if to spite him. The shadow of the bruise still lingers on his jaw.

He’s been in the castle for almost three weeks and still hasn’t bothered to leave Keith’s room. If he’s going to find a way out he has to start sometime. Especially if Keith is true to his word and lets him go, maybe more so if he isn’t. 

“I’m going for a walk,” he announces to the guards, adjusting his robe more tightly around himself, conscious of the knife strapped to his arm. “You can either stay here and wait for the Commander to return or follow me, I don’t particularly care which one you do.” And he marches off. He’s not particularly surprised when one of them splits off to follow him but he is a little disappointed. There goes that plan.

Still, if he’s ever going to make it out of the palace he needs to know his way around. And so far there’s nothing stopping him from doing just that.

~

Lance memorizes the passages, their twists and turns, learning his way to and from Keith’s room as the days stretch past the third week. Partially because he needs to and partially to avoid Keith. He notes the ways in and out of the palace and which entrances are guarded or spelled to prevent exactly what he’s planning. His options are few and far between but he comes up with several ideas nonetheless. He’s not above seducing whoever he needs to get what he wants.

He tries to escape in the night at the end of the week when Keith doesn’t come back before nightfall like usual. He’s been spending less time in the room than usual and if that’s deliberate or Dispater is keeping him busy Lance doesn’t know. He slips down the hall, managing to lose his guards and runs straight into Sendak just when he thinks he’s home free. The man’s thick fingers curl painfully around Lance’s arm before he can retreat or make his excuses, keeping him from stumbling back. Lance remembers Keith’s warnings about wandering around unescorted too late as Sendak’s lips pull back in a grin. 

“And where are you off to so late at night?” Sendak’s fingers tighten and Lance knows there will be bruises there in the morning.

Lance’s heart is racing. He wonders if he can get a good bite in, if Sedak will fall for a kiss the way so many others have. Or if he just wants to hurt Lance instead. He’s met a couple of those too.

Before he gets a chance to decide, Keith steps out of the shadows and Lance’s stomach turns over. Keith doesn’t look at him and Lance doesn’t know if he feels relief or resentment that he’s been caught. Twice.

“I promised to show him the gardens,” Keith’s says easily as if nothing is out of the ordinary.

“In the middle of the night?” Sendak narrows yellow eyes suspiciously. His grip on Lance tightens enough to make him flinch and Lance grinds his teeth to keep from lashing out, the knife on his arm burning under his sleeve.

“And I hear you spend an awful lot of time there already.”

Keith shrugs, pulling on what little he’s learned of Lance to formulate a believable lie.

“He’s coastal,” Keith says easily. “Hasn’t adapted well to the heat of the city. And there’s an entire corner of the garden dedicated solely to night blooming flowers.” He tilts his head curiously. “Or didn’t you know that?”

Sendak scoffs, finally releasing Lance. He struggles not to put a hand to the throbbing in his arm where Sendak’s fingers had dug into his skin. Keith moves smoothly up next to him, tucking Lance’s arm gently through his own like he’s done it a thousand times. It’s to keep him from doing anything stupid as much as to play the part as he looks up at Sendak.

“Would you care to join us?” Keith offers, fingers tracing between Lance’s knuckles almost fondly.

“Maybe you should put a collar on the brat,” he snarls. “The better to keep him from wandering.”

Keith shrugs easily.

“He’s a lamia,” he says smoothly, as if that explains everything. When Sendak doesn’t understand Keith leans closer, lowering his voice. 

“Maybe that’s how I like to fuck him,” he whispers in a voice like velvet. At his side Lance flushes, going rigid and Keith steps back. 

“What and how I choose to use him is none of your concern.” 

Sendak growls, turning and marching away with a sneer. Keith waits for a moment, watching him go before he moves in the opposite direction. With his arm through Keith’s, Lance is forced to follow him, stiff and uncomfortable. He’s surprised when they don’t immediately head back in the direction of their room.

Keith keeps an ear open knowing Sendak has his own network of spies and the walls always have eyes and ears. The longer the silence reigns the more tense Keith becomes.

“Where are we going?” Lance asks after a minute, his voice grating on Keith’s already frayed nerves.

“To the gardens,” he grinds out, trying to keep his voice low and expression smooth. “Otherwise it’ll look suspicious.” His grip on Lance’s hand in the crook of his arm tightens.

“If you get caught trying to run again I won’t be able to protect you,” he hisses. “I told you to wait.” Keith leads him out the doors and through a gap in a hedge.

“You told me that weeks ago,” Lance whispers back. “That you would let me go yourself.”

“And since then you’ve done very little to assuage suspicion. The more you act out the longer it will take to get everyone’s eyes off you,” he scolds. “You are drawing too much attention.

“Only one other person has ever managed to successfully escape Dis and I don’t want you to get hurt trying.” He turns dark eyes on Lance. “And you were still recovering.” He had hoped Lance would settle, that thoughts of escaping would slip his mind, that maybe... It was a foolish thought.

“Do you have any idea what they’ll do to you if they catch you?” His grip on Lance’s hand is tight and he forces himself to relax, remembering the way Sendak had held his arm. He can practically hear Lance roll his eyes.

“No, but I’m sure you’re gonna tell me.” The lackadaisical tone in Lance’s voice leaves Keith cold with fear. He can’t help but worry he’s given Lance too much freedom, that he’s protected him from the dangers of the city. Lance doesn’t understand how much danger he’s in.

“First offense is a caning,” he says softly, pulling his arm free from Lance’s, afraid he’s going to hurt him, afraid of his own anger. “Do it again they flay or burn the bottoms of your feet.”

He grits his teeth and hurries through the sprawling garden ahead of Lance and down the path. The night garden is more secluded from the other plants as it’s less able to take the heat. Enchantments have been worked into the ground and surrounding areas to keep them alive but many of the plants are still fickle and sensitive. He doesn’t stop to make sure Lance is still behind him.

“Then they break your legs.” Keith’s breathing is rapid and shallow. He forces himself to take a steadying breath, tucking his hands up inside his sleeves to hide how badly they’re shaking.

“After that you lose your feet.” He slows as they step under a little awning, light spilling out into the darkness from the moonflowers, some of them as big as his hand. He reaches out, lifting the edge of one gently with his finger.

“You speaking from personal experience?” Lance doesn’t know why he asks. Doesn’t know that he wants to know, but he can’t help it. “You seem so at home here,” he snipes. “I can hardly believe you’d ever want to leave.”

Either way Keith doesn’t answer and lets the petal slip off his finger.

“Eventually you stop running,” he says softly. He isn’t quick enough in pushing back the memories, to keep from seeing the fall of a blade, the scream; the way it had felt when his feet re-attached themselves. The way his mother had screamed.

He flinches, swallowing thickly and tangling his fingers together inside his sleeves. Keith forces himself to take a deep breath. He can smell desert blossoms somewhere. They must be new.

“How do you-”

“Lance,” he interrupts. He’s done talking. “Shut up and enjoy the garden.”

~

Lance hadn’t expected to see anything in the dark, but to his surprise there are trails of luminescent flora swirling along the gravel path like ribbons of stardust. Someone has taken great care to style and design the layout, the night plants flourishing. Their sweet scent coats the air, sweet as summer and a pang for home strikes Lance. It’s been almost two years since he last saw it. He trails his fingers over the midnight colored leaves as they walk, the darkness painting everything in the same uniform velvet.

“Why did you say that?” he asks softly, eyes wandering over the garden. “To Sendak.” He turns to Keith. “You’ve never touched me.” 

Keith shrugs. “To keep up the pretense. I’m supposed to be sleeping with you remember?”

Lance nods. Keith had said he was bought as a pleasure slave before. 

“Oh.” He wanders a little further down the path, gravel crunching under foot. 

“Do you want to?” he ventures as Keith falls into step beside him, a healthy distance between them. 

“Do I want to what?” he asks curiously.

“Sleep with me.” 

Keith flinches and Lance wonders why. “Does it matter? I haven’t touched you and I’m not going to. You couldn’t consent to it even if you wanted to.” He steps away and Lance watches him go, the dark slope of his shoulders tense. He follows after a moment, trying to dissect Keith’s answer. 

Keith keeps a few steps ahead of Lance after that, letting him explore but doesn’t come close enough to touch again. 

“Thank you,” Lance says eventually, catching a soft petal between his fingers. Little threads pulse like a heartbeat inside it Lance can almost feel. He hopes it’s possible to salvage the night.

“For earlier.” He glances up at Keith, releasing the flower. “You didn’t have to do that, intervene with Sendak. So...thank you.”

Keith watches him as Lance wanders through the garden, many of the flowers glowing around him, their light swelling at his presence. He gasps in delighted surprise when he stumbles across the star drops. They throw little blue sparks into the air as Lance touches them, light suffusing their petals. Keith’s heart squeezes and then Lance is looking at him, his expression soft.

He smiles, plucking a length of the flowers, dripping from his hand like wisteria. Keith is frozen to the spot, feet rooted to the gravel path as Lance comes closer, tucking the glowing flowers behind his ear. He feels silly but he can’t stop staring at the way the lights reflect in Lance’s eyes like stars on the water. He flushes, hating himself for wanting Lance. Especially given the situation.

Lance’s fingers slide through his hair, catching in the strands before stroking over his jaw to his chin, coaxing Keith into looking up. He feels so damn vulnerable, cheeks warming under the attention.

“Why did you save me that day? When you bought me,” he whispers, his eyes searching. “I never asked.”

Keith’s heart skips at the tenderness in Lance’s eyes and it wrings the truth out of him.

“I think I was trying to save myself.” 

Lance frowns, tipping his head to one side. “How so?”

“I didn’t want to see them break you they way they did me,” he admits. “You’re too alive, too full of spirit and light and rage. I do want to get you home Lance. I’m trying. But it’s complicated. Even if you managed to make it out of the city, Dis is on a separate plane of existence. There’s nothing around but desert.” His eyes are unbearably sad. “You’d die out there and I don’t want that.” His lips press together. “Someone deserves to make it out of here.”

Lance runs his thumb gently over Keith’s chin and Keith’s breath hitches, stomach flipping at the tenderness in the touch. No one’s ever touched him like that, like he was precious.

He swallows thickly, forcing himself to take a step away and Lance’s fingers fall, leaving him cold.

He shakes his head. “I can’t.”

Lance looks so heartbroken in the dark it makes him hurt. Keith doesn’t have the strength to walk away. It’s been so long since anyone has wanted him. Not his rage or his blood or what he could do for them. Just him . It’s been so long since anyone has touched him and Lance’s kindness is killing him, his heart aching with it.

“Please,” Lance whispers and the raw want in his voice pins Keith in place, like a pin through a butterfly. He’s helpless to do anything more than stand there as Lance steps towards him again, making his heart race and his breath shallow.

“Why?” Lance asks softly, fingers catching on the very edge of Keith's sleeve, the heat of his skin as his fingers brush over Keith’s knuckles making him shiver.

“Because. Lance you’re practically my fucking property .” He gags on the word, feeling sick and hating himself more, wanting to scrub out his mouth just for saying it.

“No I’m not.” Lance all but breathes the words against his cheek as he steps into the space Keith has created between them. Keith feels his resolve wavering, melting under the heat of Lance, the nearness of him.

Lance lets go of his sleeve to trail his fingers over the back of Keith’s hand.

“I don’t belong to anyone but me remember?” He skims his lips over Keith’s cheek again, moving to the corner of his mouth.

“I’m doing this because I want to,” he says softly. “I know you may not believe me but I care about you. That’s probably weird but it’s true.”

“I hit you.”

Lance nods. “I know. And then you gave me space and a salve to help heal it. I know why you did it. You were protecting me.” Keith looks away, hating himself. All he ever does is hurt people.
“That doesn’t make it okay.”

“You were keeping me safe,” Lance says softly. “Dispater would have done worse if you hadn’t. I understand that.” 

Keith chokes on his own self-loathing but he can’t bring himself to step away. 

He touches Lance’s jaw where he’d hit him, the bruise forever imprinted in his brain. “I’m sorry.” 

Lance tips his cheek into the touch. 

“I forgive you.” 

“You shouldn’t.” Keith withdraws his hand. “I’m not a good person Lance.” 

“Yes you are,” he argues gently. “This place is just backwards and broken. Sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to, to survive.” 

Keith’s jaw works for a moment before he finds his voice. “You mean like this?” The idea Lance could be using him hurts. Mostly because he wants Lance to want him. 

Lance’s face falls. “That’s not what I meant.” 

“You’ve barely spoken to me for a week.” 

Lance looks unbearably sad.

Keith squeezes his eyes shut as Lance takes his hand. He cups Keith’s face with the other, drawing him back when he tries to turn away. His voice drops to a whisper.

“I know. I was just angry.”

“And now you’re not?”

Lance’s smile is sideways. “You hit me Keith. Of course I’m still angry.” He tips Keith’s chin up when he looks away. “Maybe you can make it up to me?” There’s a teasing glint in his eyes. 

“You can’t consent to this,” Keith argues weakly. He’s been in chains before but nothing has ever made him feel so trapped, so unable to move as Lance’s fingers resting gently beneath his chin. He couldn’t leave if he wanted to. 

“You can’t take something from me that’s already being freely offered,” Lance whispers.

He presses closer to Keith, breathing him in. “And I’m offering.” His eyes are as bright as the flowers in the dark, the star drops reflecting back in them. The delicate light catches on the planes of his face and Keith has the absurd notion that Lance would be beautiful by candlelight.

“You’re not pressuring me into anything,” Lance whispers. “I want you to kiss me.”

“Lance-” Keith’s voice cracks over the word, the raw want in it making him flush.

“Keith.” He breathes the name against Keith's lips and he’s helpless. “Just pretend,” Lance whispers, breath ghosting over Keith’s skin. “Just this once.”

Keith barely registers the tear slipping down his cheek as Lance kisses him, soft and warm.

Something curls tight in his stomach and then the tension melts away as Lance wraps an arm around his waist, drawing him into his chest. 

His mouth is tender and kind against Keith’s as he kisses him, pulling at his lower lip and then his upper and Keith melts under the attention. It’s been so long since someone kissed him and it was never this soft.

Lance flicks his tongue against the seam of Keith's lips and Keith is weak. He opens his mouth with a groan, Lance’s tongue slipping briefly inside, stroking over the tender inside of his lip, catching on his teeth before sliding against his tongue. Keith makes an embarrassing noise as Lance touches the tip of his tongue to the roof of his mouth, drawing back towards his teeth before pulling away. Keith doesn’t want him to go, fingers curling in Lance’s robe to keep him there.

Lance tangles their hands together again, smiling, and Keith loses his breath at the sight, allowing himself to appreciate just how beautiful Lance is in the moonlight, just this once.

“Come on.” He tugs gently on Keith’s hand. “You can show me how to get back to the room. I’m a little lost.”

Keith blinks, trying to think through the haze in his brain and he swallows thickly, shivering at the taste of Lance’s tongue still in his mouth.

“Right.” His voice comes out in a dry rasp as he struggles to bring his thoughts back in line. The hand not in Lance’s shakes as he leads them back out of the garden to their room.

Neither of them notice the fallen length of star drops on the gravel path behind them, their light slowly dying.

~

As soon as they’re back in the room, the door shut behind them, Lance is kissing him again, backing Keith into the wall. His heart races as Lance works his hand into Keith’s robes cinched so tight about his throat. He bares Keith’s shoulder to the cold air and Keith shudders, goosebumps rippling over his skin. Lance sweeps long dark hair back, covering Keith’s skin with kisses that leave Keith burning.

His fingers fumble to untie the sash at his waist, the heavy fabric falling away one layer at a time. Lance kisses every fresh expanse of bare skin and Keith gasps as Lance shifts, staring in surprise at the white scales glowing in the moonlight.

“Oh,” he breathes, fingers dancing along the line of milky scales over Lance’s hips, like little disks of moonstone. They fade up into the same dark blue scales on his cheeks and shoulders, that ripple down his arms when he’s angry.

Keith blinks in surprise at the long white tail curled against the stone as Lance slips out of his robe.

“Surprise.” Lance grins, leaning in to press another kiss against Keith’s throat. He can feel Keith staring, the brush of curious fingers over his waist. He shivers as Keith explores the sensitive blend of skin and scale, startling Keith when he hauls him up in the air. He wraps his legs around Lance’s hips to hold himself up, shivering at how warm Lance is against him, the cold stones biting into his bare back.

Lance pins him against the wall, holding him there and sucking a bruising kiss under Keith’s jaw that’s healing moments later.

Lance pouts, pulling back the curtain of Keith’s hair to watch as the hickey fades.

“Oh that’s just unfair.”

Keith draws him back around for another kiss and Lance slides a hand under his hips, half for support, half to squeeze at his ass as he crushes Keith to the wall, lavishing him with attention.

His tail curls beneath him as he holds Keith several feet in the air, leaving a trail of bruises over his throat. He’s a little disappointed they don’t last but still enjoys putting them there.

As he holds him Keith realizes how big Lance actually is. He doesn’t often shift unless he’s bathing and then his coils are tucked up and distorted under the water. The only other time Keith had seen him he’d still been draped in loops across the floor, his full length partially hidden. Now that Keith can see him this close, can feel how strong he is, Keith is reminded how easily Lance could crush him. Even knowing it wouldn’t kill him the thought is a little terrifying.

His fingers slip blindly down Lance’s spine, searching out the scar. He drops his head to Lance’s shoulder when he finds it. 

“I’m sorry.” 

Lance tucks Keith’s hair behind his ear, trying to see his face. 

“For what?”

Keith is overwhelmed with the need to cry, tucking his face to try and hide it. 

His fingers press against the scar, trying to find the words.

“For hurting you. For letting you get hurt.” He curls against Lance, knowing he doesn't deserve him. “I was supposed to protect you. But I can’t protect anyone.” His voice cracks and he swallows thickly. 

“Hey.” Lance leans back, lifting Keith’s chin. “What happened wasn’t your fault.” He smiles. “And you avenged me remember?” 

Keith flinches and Lance’s smile falters. 

“I’m sorry,” Keith manages, fingers seeking out the bruise to Lance’s jaw. “I’m sor-” 

Lance cuts him off with a kiss, pressing him into the stone, trapped between heat and searing cold. He can barely think.

“Stop apologizing,” Lance whispers. “It wasn’t your fault.”

“Yes it was,” Keith’s argues weakly.

Lance noses along Keith’s cheek, dropping a kiss there. 

“Just kiss me again,” he whispers, lips on the corner of Keith’s mouth. 

Keith kisses the side of his jaw where the bruise is tenderly, making his way slowly to Lance’s mouth. 

Lance holds him for several more minutes, just kissing him, like the strain on his arms is negligible. 

Holding him tight Lance finally pulls away from the wall, carrying Keith to the bed. 

His scales rasp against the stone as his tail moves in languid ripples, carrying him forward. Moonlight catches along his scales as it spills in through the window, painting him silver.

“Beautiful,” Keith whispers, chin tucked over Lance’s shoulder to watch. Lance drops a kiss to his shoulder, his chest, the side of his throat.

Keith is high on the taste of Lance, the heat of those scales under his thighs where they’re wrapped around Lance’s hips. The flex of claws against his back makes him arch further into that heat.

He expects to hit the bed but finds himself carefully lowered into the coils of Lance’s tail, curled tight and safe around him, the mattress beneath him. He grinds up into the heat of Lance’s body, shuddering.

Lance laughs against him, rocking his hips down against Keith’s, pressing him into the mattress.

“So impatient,” he whispers, kissing up Keith’s throat. He catches one of Keith’s wrists in his hand, pinning it in place and Keith freezes, body rigid as he tries to tug himself free; he’s  surprised to find he can’t.

Keith’s eyes are wide in the dark and Lance pauses, watching him.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” he soothes but Keith doesn’t relax. Lance pulls away, looking down at him seriously, his grip on Keith relaxing but he doesn’t let go.

“Do you want me to let you go?”

Keith flexes his fingers and tries to think for a moment but it’s hard. His brain is muddled.

“No,” he finally manages, staring at his fingers as they flex in Lance’s grip. “Just new.” Lance smiles and kisses him, tightening his grip again.

“Okay. Let me know if you change your mind.”

Keith loses himself to the feeling of Lance against him, to the taste of him in his mouth, the motion of Lance’s hips, sweet and smooth. It’s different but so very good and he loses track of time.

“When was the last time someone touched you?” Lance whispers, fingers trailing over Keith’s throat, his chest and it’s a struggle to think, to find the memories, to form the words.

“Can’t remember,” he breathes and Lance pulls away, something in his eyes Keith’s brain is too fuzzy to process.

“You have been touched though right?”

Keith blinks dully. He doesn’t know why that matters. “Yes. Once or twice.” He pulls Lance down into a kiss, sweeter than the rest. “But I was only ever a means to an end. They didn’t actually want me .”

Lance’s face does something complicated and he leans down, laving attention and kisses over Keith’s face and neck and chest until he’s warm and pliant all over. He's shivering with arousal, little sounds of pleasure dragging out him with every touch.

They’ve lost the heat and urgency from before, the kisses turning kinder than Keith wants, leaving him feeling on edge as his head clears.

Lance finally pulls away, staring down at him. Keith is flushed, hair in disarray and tangled about his horns, chest hot under Lance’s fingers. Lance touches his cheek, fingers tender and warm before firming his jaw and kissing Keith hard on the mouth.

Something in the expression niggles at the back of Keith’s brain. Distantly he thinks this is a terrible idea, but with Lance’s tongue in his mouth he can’t remember why and he dips into that pleasant fuzz again.

He lets himself sink into the feeling of being wanted and smiles, kissing along the scattering of scales on Lance’s face and arms, letting his free hand wander.

Lance’s tail coils under and around Keith, smooth and hot, the rasp of his scales sliding together, tangling with the sheets what feels like years later. He gently pins Keith’s other wrist to the bed, breathing heavily as he rocks his hips. He licks the back of Keith’s teeth before pulling away and it takes Keith a moment to open his eyes, thick and heavy.

“Were you there?” Lance whispers, eyes still so blue in the low light, pupils bearing just the slightest of points at the top and bottom.

Dizzy with adrenaline and the potent chemical of Lance’s saliva, it takes Keith too long to focus, trying to chase Lance’s lips for another kiss but he pulls away. Keith’s pupils are dilated and Lance’s claws are dragging slowly down his chest, catching on every rib. They leave a trail of sparks under Keith’s skin that make him writhe.

Lance dips down to nose along Keith’s jaw, pressing the flat of his tongue along tender skin, tinged with red. It's a pale comparison to his mother's and a glaring symbol of his own mixed blood.

“Were you there?” Lance asks again, voice a little harder, nails pressing just so against Keith’s stomach, right under his ribs. All at once Keith realizes he’s pinned beneath and between at least two hundreds pounds of lamia and Lance’s claws are poised to gut him.

Even through the haze of aphrodisiac he has enough sense to feel a cold flash of fear. He tries to tug his arms free but they’re both pinned, Lance trading out his hands for the weight of his tail.

Keith’s heart races but he turns his head slowly to look at Lance, deliberately baring his throat as he does. He knows what Lance is asking.

“If I say yes,” he whispers, voice still heavy with want. Lance’s nails curl, the points in his eyes sharpening as he looks at Keith and Keith has his answer.

He searches Lance’s eyes and asks anyway.

“Will you kill me?” He hates the way his heart breaks at the realization. “Like you did the others?” He’s just another victim. Another easy mark, lonely and stupid. Keith tries not to cry.

Even through the heartbreak Keith wants him, wants to be wanted by someone like him. He hates himself for it.

Lance is shaking and Keith feels his nails draw blood. Even pinned and achingly hard, dizzy on Lance, Keith thinks if he really wanted to, he could fight him off. He knows what his body is capable of, the kind of damage it can take and recover from. Lance would inevitably gut him where he lays but that wouldn’t stop Keith from calling the fire if he really wanted to. Every inch of him could ignite with flame hot enough to sear the skin from Lance’s body, scales and all. It’s a fight Lance wouldn’t win. But Keith’s heart is still broken and he doesn’t know that he has the willpower to fight. So he lies there and lets Lance decide.

Lance’s fingers curl, drawing little red lines down Keith’s abdomen that are already beginning to heal. Keith flinches reflexively, still half turned on by the pain.

“Yes,” Lance hisses, the word slurring through his fangs, thick was rage but deeper than that, with pain. Heartache and grief and a loss Keith is intimately familiar with if only in its similarity to his own.

Keith expects Lance to gut him in that moment, wishes he would, but he doesn’t and the trembling rage in his shoulders finally levels off. Not by much, but a little as he gets a hold of himself.

“You didn’t answer me,” Lance grinds out and his other hand sinks into Keith’s dark hair, claws dragging over his scalp as he wrenches back. Keith grinds up against him with a gasp. 

Lance kisses him hard and deep, tongue licking past Keith’s teeth and stroking over the roof of his mouth, sliding against his tongue. He pulls back and does it again and Keith knows he’s doing it on purpose, drugging him. He doesn’t fight it.

Keith can’t help the tear that slips past his lashes, racing down his temple. He just hopes Lance won’t see it and will blame the thickness in his voice on the lust still burning hot in his stomach, fuzzing his brain.

He can feel the barest prick of fangs against his lips as Lance pulls away but Lance hasn’t bitten him yet.

Maybe it’s that Keith isn’t struggling. Or that Lance wants him to fight back. Keith isn’t sure. But either way Lance has had ample time to paralyze him with his venom and hasn’t.

Keith wishes he would.

Lance drags his tongue across Keith’s lower lip, pinching it briefly between his teeth before pulling back and Keith is so high he can’t think straight. Can’t see past the eyes floating in front of him, past the wave of want and desperate need he’s drowning under and he still can’t move. His arms are trapped under the weight of Lance’s coils and the fire in the lamps flicker and flare as Keith groans. He arches off the bed as much as his position will allow, searching for friction, wanting more.

Lance drags his tongue over Keith's sweating chest, teeth nipping.

“Were you there,” he snaps and this time when he bites Keith’s shoulder he draws blood, fangs retracted. The pain sharpens and ripples into pleasure and Keith whines, high and needy. It takes him a moment to gather his thoughts together enough to give him the answer he wants, Lance’s tongue lapping over the wound.

“No,” he manages, voice weak and shaking as he struggles to breathe. “But I would have-” he gasps, losing his train of thought, his grip on the rage he needs for clarity slipping.

Lance’s fingers gentle in his hair and Keith’s eyes find his because he doesn’t deserve forgiveness, because he wants pain, wants to hurt; anything to hide the gaping wound in his chest.

“But I would have let it happen.”

Lance snarls with fury and shrieks, lunging forward, body undulating and sinks his teeth, fangs and all, into Keith’s throat. The fingers in his hair pull so hard Keith feels strands pop along his scalp, his neck protesting at the sharp angle.

The pressure of Lance’s coils around him threatens to crush him as Keith feels a pulse of venom and then another, deep into his bloodstream, Lance shaking above him. Keith smiles up into the dark, relieved, and lets his eyes flutter shut, waiting for Lance to rip out his throat. Blood seeps from between Lance’s teeth and Keith can feel it dripping from his neck and soaking the sheets.

Numbness settles into Keith’s extremities, cool and prickling. Distantly he feels Lance sink his teeth in deeper, jaw stretched wide. He lifts his chin to make it easier, that same numbness crawling up his cheek and into his face.

Blood slides warm and thick down Keith’s chest with a wet gush as Lance opens his mouth and pulls back. Steam curls in the cold air the way it always does when Keith bleeds and his heart sinks.

Lance snarls and shoves himself away from Keith, his coils vanishing as he stalks away from the bed. The bite in Keith’s throat slowly closes as he lies paralyzed, cold and disappointed. He stares at the ceiling as another tear slides down his temple and hates himself a little more.

In the distance, through the venom, Keith is angry and disappointed and guilty. He wonders if maybe the numbness in his chest will be enough to make his lungs stop working in the night. Then maybe this nightmare will finally be over.

He closes his eyes and wills himself to sleep, hoping this time he won’t wake up.

Chapter Text

When Keith comes to, the venom has worn off and Lance is sulking in the pool, his resident happy space. He’s back in his half snake form, arms crossed on the tiled lip of stone, chin resting on one arm. He stares moodily at the far wall, watching dust motes dancing in the sun.

He blatantly ignores Keith who is both disappointed and surprised to be alive.

There’s no trace of the blood Lance had been covered in last night, though enough of it soaks Keith’s clothes and bedding, leaving the fabric stiff.

Keith strips it all without a word, tossing everything in a pile and setting it on fire. The smokeless blue flames consume them until there’s nothing left but ash and a deep scorch mark on the stones. Lance watches it all through a mask of impassiveness, eyes cool and detached.

Keith lights the laps and gets dressed before sitting at the vanity and brushing the tangles from his long hair. The same as he always does. He feels Lance’s eyes on him but neither say anything. He washes away the dried blood on his throat and chest, scorching the sodden rag when he’s finished until it’s nothing but ash as well, shaking it from his hand. He doesn’t want anyone to smell the blood and thinks he should hate Lance instead of going out of his way to protect him. He incinerates the bloody water in the basin as well.

There’s a brief knock on the door and breakfast is delivered.

Lance makes no move to get up out of the pool and Keith doesn’t have much of an appetite. He makes a cup of tea and goes to stand by the window, watching the lower city come to life.

“Why didn’t you stop me?” Lance’s voice is quiet but there’s a hidden edge under it that Keith doesn’t quite understand.

Keith doesn’t answer him and he can hear water slosh, the dry rasp of scales as Lance shifts irritably.

“Last night,” he clarifies as if Keith hadn’t known what he was talking about. “Why didn’t you stop me? You could have. But you didn’t.”

Keith lets his thumb rub along the edge of his teacup.

“Why didn’t you finish it?” Keith whispers. Part of him is relieved Lance hadn’t ripped his throat out. He’d thought- It doesn’t matter what he’d thought. It was foolish to hope that maybe someone could care for him, especially here. Foolish to think it could have been Lance. Especially given his current situation.

Keith’s hand tightens dangerously around the porcelain. He should have known better.

Another part of him is furious and disappointed he’d woken up again.

“I can’t.”

That has Keith turning towards him, the little cup trembling in his hands.

“Why?” There’s more bite to the words than there should be and Keith knows he’s losing his temper. Lance’s fingers are flexing on the edge of the pool, nails carving into the stone. His jaw is set, a muscle flexing and his eyes are cold and angry.

“Because you weren’t there. Because I made a promise, ” he spits, tail shifting restlessly, “and I can’t break it.” There’s barely contained fury in his voice and Keith schools his features until they’re once again impassive.

“Did you want to.”

Lance’s tail shifts irritably throwing water as he bares his teeth. The grooves in the stone get deeper. Keith wonders if Lance hates him.

“Did I want to what?” he hisses.

Keith sets the barely touched cup down on the tray, now gone cold and walks over to Lance’s pool. He deliberately puts himself within striking distance as he crouches, bringing himself to eye level with Lance.

“Did you want to kill me?” This close he can see the way Lance’s eyes flicker as they search his, count the freckles across his face. Lance’s eyes harden.

“Yes,” he hisses, jerking forward into Keith’s space to intimidate but Keith doesn’t pull back, doesn’t react at all.

“Then you’re a coward.” He stands and crosses the room to collect his sword. “And just as much a slave as the rest of us.”

He doesn’t mean it, not really. Just says it out of spite, to be mean, to get under Lance’s skin. To hide how used and hurt he feels. 

When he leaves he slams the door behind him. 

Chapter Text

In the end Lance doesn’t listen to Keith’s warnings about escaping, does it maybe to spite him for their last conversation. They’re barely talking after the events in the garden, Keith as impassive as when they’d first met. If Lance didn’t know better he’d say Keith was a statue, as cold and unfeeling as stone. But he’s seen otherwise. It makes it harder to hate him.

To Lance’s credit it’s almost another week before he tries to escape again and this time, Keith can’t save him.

Sendak throws open the door to Keith’s room, startling him awake. Keith’s knuckles are white around the blade beneath his pillow and he doesn’t let go as Lance is thrown into the room. He hits the stone floor hard, unable to recover in time to roll, the impact knocking the breath from him. Keith grinds his teeth, furious at Sendak for treating him so roughly. Even after everything Keith doesn’t want to see Lance hurt.

“Going for another midnight stroll?” Sendak growls, a dangerous and imposing silhouette in the doorway.

Lance clamors to his feet, his back to Keith like he can trust him to protect him. Keith feels his stomach plummet as he slides from the bed, hating himself as he uses that trust to his advantage.

He knows what Sendak means, knows Lance must have been trying to escape again. And that now he can’t protect him.

“Not tonight,” Keith says.

Lance darts a look at him over his shoulder but not fast enough to keep Keith from driving a foot into the back of his knee. He wrenches Lance's head back with a hand in his hair. Lance hits the floor hard, the impact bruising his knees. He freezes as Keith presses the edge of the blade to his throat, trapping him.

Sendak looms above him and Keith can feel the way Lance’s breath hitches as he steps closer.

“Looks like a second offense little lamia,” he purrs and Keith scowls.

“First,” he corrects, a thread of warning in his voice, still trying to protect, even now.

Sendak’s lips curl. “You’ll excuse me if I don’t believe you,” he growls.

Keith’s eyes dart to the soldiers behind Sendak and knows there’s no protecting Lance this time. He’s at the end of his reach.

“I’m sure considering his history of violence you’ll agree it’s wise to make sure his punishment is fitting.” Sendak grins as he straightens, trying to intimidate. “I doubt a simple caning would deter him from trying it again. Next time he could kill someone.” Sendak looks at one of the lamps on the wall, dragging his fingers through the flame and Keith struggles not to react. A burn is better than the flaying Sendak would surely provide if Keith hesitates. And only if he’s lucky.

“Then I’ll do it myself,” Keith growls. “Hold him.” He shoves Lance away and there’s a brief scuffle before several of the guards get involved. Lance manages to bite one before they’re able to subdue him, the guard going motionless, body rigid as he falls moments later. Sendak snaps a collar around Lance’s neck, the runes flaring and Keith wants to scream.

Keith doesn’t hesitate to grab one of Lance’s ankles, wrenching it painfully to the side when Lance tries to kick him. All he can do is pray Lance didn’t take the knife with him when he left or that the guards won’t find it, that he won’t be foolish enough to try and use it.

“Looks like you’ve been neglecting your training,” Sendak growls. “Or is the little lamia too much for you to handle?”

Keith ignores him, fire igniting in his hand as he burns the bottom of Lance’s foot. His screams echo around the room, searing themselves into Keith’s mind and he struggles to hold on. He does the next as quickly as possible, the stench of burning flesh in his nose making his heart race. He buries the memories and forces himself to stand, releasing Lance’s blackened foot. 

The look Lance gives him could curdle milk, furious and hurt and betrayed. Tears stream down his face before he’s curling in on himself, trying to hide, or at least muffle the sounds of his crying.

Sendak sneers, poking at Lance with a boot. “You got off easy,” he sneers. “I’d have taken them both.” He steps into Keith’s space, leaning down to whisper in his ear.

“If I find him wandering the halls again,” Sendak hisses in his ear, “he won’t be yours anymore.”

He kicks Lance across the head, drawing a pained whine from him before marching from the room. The guards follow, dragging their paralyzed comrade with them. Keith waits until the door closes, counting his breaths as the steps fade and then some, struggling to control his temper.

“Damn it Lance.” He covers his face with a hand, taking slow deep breaths, fighting back the tears. All he wants is to cry or be violently sick or both. He can’t get the smell of burnt skin out of his nose and he wants nothing more than to be as far away from the room as possible.

He barely spares a look at Lance as he crosses the room and out the door. He needs Allura.

~

The celestial is less than pleased with Keith as he explains what happened, but gathers her supplies and hurries after him. He stands in the far corner of the room as Allura tends to Lance. He’d managed to drag himself to the pool, little whimpers of pain leaving him as he soaked his feet. 

Lance hisses in warning, face warped with rage as the door opens. He slips across the stones to the foot of the bed where he can sit up, a trail of blood and water behind him. 

A low growl sits in his throat and Keith stays in the far corner of the room as Allura cautiously approaches. 

She looks disdainfully at the collar around Lance’s throat. 

Allura speaks to him quietly when he flinches, her voice soft enough Keith can’t make out the words. Not that he minds. Whatever she’s saying seems to be working. Lance’s shoulders are relaxing and whatever Allura’s mixing to soothe the burns is chasing away the wretched smell from before.

“Put him in the bed.” Keith raises the light coming from the lamps on that side of the room, leaving himself swathed in darkness.

It’s the only thing Keith says the entire time Allura tends to Lance, lifting him onto the mattress, keeping the weight off his feet. She rinses the burns, working quickly, covering the burns and ruined skin with a thick salve. She carefully binds his feet, whispering to him the entire time.

Long after her work is done she sits beside him, murmuring and Keith sees her run her fingers through his hair. Keith doesn’t move from his spot in the corner as Allura slowly collects her supplies, putting them away. She comes to stand next to Keith, her eyes blazing as she looks at him.

“You did this to him?” Allura hisses, her voice quiet but no less sharp for it. “The burns? The collar ? After everything you’ve been through, you-”

“Allura I had to,” he interrupts, arms falling loose from where he’d crossed them over his chest. “Or Sendak would have done a lot worse.” He hates to say it, knows the memories it will bring up, but he needs her to know if he’d had another choice he would have taken it.

His voice softens. “You know that. And the collar was Sendak. I promised him I would never collar him and I meant it.”

“Then get it off,” she hisses.

“I sincerely doubt Lance will let me close enough to remove it,” he says quietly. “Not after what I did.”

Allura pales but stubbornly straightens her shoulders. “Hurt him to help him,” she grinds out. “What a twisted-”

“But it’s true.”

Allura doesn’t answer. She knows he’s right but that doesn’t mean she has to say it.

Keith’s mouth works silently and Allura watches the pain manifest in Keith’s eyes. 

“If it makes you feel better I can’t do it again. I won’t.” Keith struggles to take a steady breath. “Sendak would have taken his feet if I-”

Allura’s anger slowly fades and she touches his cheek. “I know. We’re all in hell here. It’s just different for each of us.”

“I have to get him out. Somehow. He has to make it out of here. I owe him that.”

Allura doesn’t try to talk him out of it, doesn’t tell him how foolish it is and Keith appreciates it.

Pulling a large jar and some linen from her kit she sets them on the desk harder than she needs to. Her temper is no longer directed at Keith but their situation.

“He needs rest and to stay off his feet. Change his bindings out at regular intervals and keep them clean.”

Keith holds himself tightly. 

“He’s never going to let me touch him. Not after this. I’ve broken his trust twice now, I’ve hurt him twice . He’s never going to forgive me.” He grinds his teeth, struggling to fight back the tension in his throat. 

“There’s nothing more that you can do?” Distress makes Keith’s voice come out higher than he means to. “Allura you’re a cel-”

“No,” she snaps, eyes hard. “Not unless you want me to end up like him.” She sighs, wiping the back of a wrist across her forehead and her voice softens. “I did what I could to take away the pain but if he heals too quickly…” She chews on her lower lip, glancing back at where Lance is lying prone on the bed. “You know there’s a limit to what I can do.” She touches the iron collar around her throat and Keith’s hands curl at his sides. The runes glow a brilliant pink before fading. He wishes he could take the damn thing off but it wouldn’t do either of them any good.

Keith darkens the lamps further, extinguishing those closest to Lance.

“Sendak will know. I’m sorry, but that’s as much as I can do.” She adjusts the strap over her shoulder. “He should be sleeping now. I gave him something to put him under but he’s understandably without much of an appetite.”

Keith doesn’t know if she says it to hurt him or not. “You should get some rest too. You look terrible.”

Keith sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose.

“Thanks,” he mutters.

“Are you still having the nightmares?” she asks, pulling his hand away to look at his eyes.

Keith grinds his teeth. “I always have them,” he says darkly.

Allura purses her lips again before digging around in her kit and passing him two packets.

“For your head,” she says softly, pressing one into his hand. “For the nightmares.” She presses the second into his palm. “The first should help with Lance’s pain as well. Just keep an eye on the burns. He should be fine.”

Keith pockets the medicine.

“Sure.” He doesn’t sound like he believes her and Allura touches his arm.

“Are you alright?”

Keith looks at her from under his eyebrows. “Would you be?” He glances to the bed. “Is he gonna walk again?”

Allura’s face falls. “I’ll do what I can.” Keith flinches and Allura squeezes his arm before letting her hand fall away. “Goodnight Keith.” She’s reaching for the door before Keith calls out to her, darting a look at the bed to make sure Lance is still resting.

“Thank you.”

~

With the door shut Keith moves quietly to the bed. If Lance wakes while he’s there Keith knows it won’t end well. 

Thankfully he doesn’t stir and Keith is able to remove the collar binding him. His hands shake as he carries it to far end of the room. 

A deep rage boils inside of him, manifesting in his hands as a brilliant blue flame, hot enough to sear the air around him. 

Keith watches as the collar slowly turns orange, the metal softening before sliding between his fingers and pooling on the floor. He spits on it for good measure.

~

Keith spends the next fifteen minutes sitting at his desk, watching the steady rise and fall of Lance’s breathing and hating himself.

There’s a quiet knock on the door Keith recognizes and relief rolls through him. He hasn’t heard that knock in months.

Squaring his shoulders Keith schools his expression and goes to answer the door, knowing the guards won’t touch it. A smile tries to make its way across his face and Keith swallows it down.

He opens the door, inclining his head in greeting to the stern woman in the hall. She’s terribly intimidating, standing a whole head or more taller than him, thick horns curling from under her dark hair. Sharp violet eyes are nestled beneath dark brows, her vibrant red skin jewel-bright under the flickering flames of the lamps.

“General.” He opens the door wider and steps back, deferential, inviting The Iron Maiden inside. Her hands are behind her back, broad shoulders rigid as she stops a few paces away, her back to him. Keith shuts the door. It isn’t until he comes to a stop behind her that she turns and smiles, wide and bright, the tension rolling from her shoulders.

“Keith.” She pulls him into a hug and Keith sinks into it, sighing as she runs her fingers through his hair. She kisses the top of his head, right between his horns and Keith hugs her tighter.

“I missed you.” The words are muffled against her shoulder but neither of them pull away.

“I know. I’m sorry,” she says. “Dispater’s been keeping me busy.”

Keith’s mouth twists to the side, bitter but understanding. “Me too.”

Krolia runs a hand down his back and Keith takes a half step away. His mother looks over his shoulder towards the bed.

“How is he?’

Keith’s eyebrows lift in surprise and he turns to follow her gaze. “You know already?”

Krolia’s expression softens, her thumb stroking over his arm. “Allura came to see me,” she admits. “Said you could use a visit. And you know how everyone here gossips.”

“Allura talks too much,” Keith mutters but part of him is grateful that she’d told her.

“Perhaps.” Krolia smiles, her expression sly, the cant of her lips wry. “But she’s usually right.”

Keith makes a noise that’s not quite agreement as he leads his mother to the small couch to sit down.

“How are you?” she asks, drawing him into her side, one arm around his shoulders.

Keith winces, sinking into the couch beside her. “Sick,” he admits and he takes a shaky breath. He knows he’s imagining the smell of burning flesh that’s stuck in his nose, but he can’t shake it.

He hangs his head. “He’s never going to trust me again.” His throat tightens painfully and he tips sideways until his head is resting on his mother’s shoulder.

“I don’t know how to help him,” he admits.

Krolia runs the pads of her fingers, careful of her claws, along the base of Keith’s horns through his hair, soothing. He hums, relaxing into her, letting her massage the stress away.

“I’m tired of hurting people,” Keith whispers and Krolia kisses the top of his head again.

“I know,” she says softly. “I am too.”

She finger combs his hair with the arm she has wrapped around his shoulders. “Just keep doing what you’re doing. There’s nowhere safer in this entire city he could be.” Her eyes wander to Lance’s sleeping form again. “He could be far worse off than he is.”

“I just want to get him home, mom,” he says, sounding, for once, as young as he is and not the commander of one of the most brutal armies in hell. “He doesn’t deserve to be here. No one does. This is all so twisted and I can’t do it again. I know whatever happens to him that doesn’t come from me could be so, so much worse but I won’t do it again.” His voice cracks. “I can’t. Not him. I’m done.”

Krolia is quiet for a long time, nails scratching gently along his scalp. “I’m sorry,” she murmurs. “That I couldn’t protect you. Or your father.” Keith sits up, turning to look at her and her hand falls away. Keith is surprised to see her crying.

“That wasn’t your fault.”

“Yes it was.” She sags heavily into the couch. “If I’d never met your father, if we’d never-”

“Then you’d be miserable and alone,” Keith argues, voice going sharp.

“But your father would still be alive and none of this would have happened.”

“We can’t change the past remember?” He squeezes her hand and tries to smile, parroting words he’s heard a hundred times back at her. “What’s done is done. All we can do is move forward and make things better.”

Krolia smiles, cupping his cheek with a hand. “When did you get so wise?”

He covers her hand with his own. “My mother taught me.” His smile falls and he turns to glance at the bed where Lance is still sleeping.

“I don’t know how to help him. Allura did what she could for him but the burns are bad . I don’t know anything about lamia beyond what he’s shared with me and it hasn’t been much. Do you?” He turns to her curiously.

“Hmm…” Krolia strokes a claw along her lip thoughtfully. “They originated in Greece,” she says slowly. “Children of a woman cursed by a god. Most of the stories are rumors, as all things are.” She makes a face, tipping her head towards him. “Just like those about us. About eating babies and consuming human flesh and the like.” She hums thoughtfully, something in her expression going wistful. “I met one once. A long time ago.”

Keith blinks at her in surprise. “You did?”

Krolia nods. “Rare, tend to keep to themselves.

“Lots of fear mongering about them from the local humans but the young woman I met was kind and polite. Never met anyone sweeter actually. Loved the water.” She smiles. “If I hadn’t already met your father…”

“Okay, gross,” Keith interrupts and Krolia smothers a laugh, tucking a strand of hair behind his ear. “Did not need to know that,” he grumbles.

“They’re an honest bunch from what I know,” Krolia goes on, “peaceful, curious, keep to themselves. Once they make a promise they keep it. Can be a little blunt and direct and come across as rude but they’re trustworthy. They were hunted at one point for their hides. That’s about all I know.”

“He was going to be executed for single handedly murdering half a company from the west as well as their commander,” Keith says flatly. “So they’re not all as kind as your friend.”

Krolia nods her confirmation like it’s something she’s heard before. “It was one of the smaller companies yes,” she confirms. Keith has no reason to doubt Lance's story but hearing it from Dispater's own spy master only validates it.

“Lieutenant Therok’s command.” Her expression darkens at the name. “The reports that came in said someone had been plaguing his company for months, maybe longer, killing off a number of their soldiers. They’ve had a run of bad luck for a long time even before that but things were escalating recently.

“So many died they thought it was a group of rebels. Turns out, it was just him.” If Keith didn’t know any better he’d say she sounded almost proud.

“They’ve been plagued by accidents and bad luck since the attack on the village that I assume was his; poisoned food, contaminated water, venomous snakes in their beds, things like that.”

“He said he was the only survivor.” Keith doesn’t know if he should be sharing that information. Lance had trusted him enough to tell him but Keith needs someone to confide in.

“Killing them to a man no doubt.” Krolia’s fingers trace idle patterns across Keith’s shoulder.

“Or as close as he could get. Soldiers change commands and men come and go over two years.”

Krolia nods like she expected as much.

“Sounds like a blood oath.”

Keith frowns. “A what?”

Krolia hums thoughtfully. “It’s a ritual I suppose. They swear their lives to something or someone, usually in an act of vengeance. They become the walking dead. 

“It is a rare thing. They complete their goal or die trying. It appears Lance’s was completed.

“The lamia are patient. It does not surprise me he methodically hunted them down one by one.

“From what I heard he walked straight into the camp, hiding among their followers and seduced Therok himself.” Keith flushes, fingers curling in his lap as he remembers Lance doing the same thing to him, how easy it had been.

“That man never could keep it in his pants.” Krolia bares her teeth, fire curling from her mouth in a huff. And then she smiles slowly.

“Lance paralyzed him, carved off parts of his body and ate him while he was still alive before taking his heart.” She sounds proud again.

Keith’s stomach twists itself into knots. “He said much the same thing, that he castrated Therok before eating his heart.”

Krolia shrugs. “It’s no less than the man deserved.

Keith shakes his head. Therok was known for both his temper and lascivious nature.

“I am not sorry he’s dead.” Krolia says, looking at Lance, fingers drumming idly.

“Be careful. I don’t know that he would hurt you,” she says slowly. “But I don’t know that he wouldn’t. From what I’ve heard he’s a capable fighter and stronger than he looks.”

Keith chews on the inside of his cheek, debating on whether or not to tell her about what happened; but in the end they’d decided no secrets between them.

“He already tried.”

“What?” Krolia is rigid beside him but Keith puts a hand on her knee and hurries on before she can do something rash.

“He tried to kill me,” he says which, understandably, does nothing to reassure her. “Like with Therok,” he clarifies and Keith’s cheeks color at the implication. He can feel Krolia staring at him.

“He let me go.” Keith lifts his head to look at her. “He could have killed me and he didn’t. He let me go. After paralyzing me,” he says dryly.

Krolia frowns, her grip on him tightening for a moment. “Why?”

Keith shakes his head. “I don’t know. He asked me if I was there when his village was slaughtered and when I said no, he let me go. He said he’d made a promise. One he couldn’t break.”

Krolia lets her eyes slip closed, her expression pained as she leans forward.

“Damn.” She runs a hand over her face and sighs. “So he has sworn a blood oath, likely swearing to kill everyone involved. He has no claim to your life because you weren’t a part of it but I’m making assumptions from one conversation centuries old.” She takes his hand, squeezing it. Her eyes are sad.

“Be kind to him,” she says. “Take care of him.” She runs a hand over Keith’s hair, studying him for a moment, pinching a strand between her fingers and tugging it gently.

“I’m not very good at kind,” Keith says, throat tight and his eyes drift to Lance’s bound feet poking out from under the sheet.

Krolia tucks a lock of hair behind his ear. “Yes you are. He may not see it as a kindness now, but you saved him from something far worse.” She kisses his forehead. “You were always kind Keith. You still are. Do not let them take them from you.”

Keith’s chin wobbles and he nods.

“What if they already did?”

Krolia frowns at the look on his face, her eyes searching his own.

“Are you sure he didn’t hurt you?” she asks softly, cupping his cheek and Keith tries to smile.

“Just my heart,” he admits, trying and failing not to cry, watery smile collapsing in on itself.

“Oh Keith.” She pulls him into her arms and Keith lets her. For a moment he just lets himself hurt.

Chapter Text

The time Keith gets to sit with his mother passes too soon and finally she’s sighing, running her fingers through Keith’s hair and Keith knows it’s time.

“I should go before they come looking for me. I’ve been gone too long.”

Keith tries hard to hide how that makes his heart sink. It’s been months since he’d last seen her.

As if she can read his mind Krolia wraps him in her arms and holds him tight. “I love you,” she whispers and Keith nods.

“I love you too.”

“Keep doing what you’re doing,” she says softly. “He will need a friend.” She runs a hand down his arm, looking at Lance over his shoulder. “And try getting him to shift,” she adds, almost an afterthought. “I don’t know that it will speed his healing, but it may make it less painful to move about. And try to find something for him to do. He has to be bored cooped up in here all day.”

“Mom,” Keith interrupts, a smile in his voice. “You’re fussing.”

She straightens the shoulders of his robe, smoothing out the wrinkles in the fabric. “Can you blame me? It’s not often I get to.”

Krolia presses one more kiss to his hair, covering his heart with a hand.

“Try and stay safe.” She strokes his chest with her thumb and Keith covers her hand with his own. “And I’m sorry.”

Keith nods. “Me too. My own stupid mistake.” Krolia tucks a strand of hair behind his ear.

“Love is never a mistake.” She says it with far too much knowing and Keith flushes in both shame and embarrassment. 

"I never said anything about love."

Krolia's smile is sad and she cups his cheek. "You didn't have to."

Keith squeezes her hand before taking a deep breath and stepping away. Both of them slip on their masks of professional detachment as Keith escorts her to the door and opens it. Warm light spills into the darkness, making him blink.

“Thank you for coming by General,” he says as she steps back into the hall, shoulders once again squared, head held high.

She inclines her head with more respect than Keith thinks he deserves, her expression cool and detached when their eyes meet again.

“Thank you for entertaining an old woman at this late hour Commander. Sleep well.” She turns on her heel and makes her way down the hall, Keith indulging in the desire to watch her go before closing the door. He sighs deeply, resting his head against the thick wood, missing her already.

Tired but unwilling to sleep he goes to stand by the window and stares at the stars, trying not to remember the way they’d looked reflected in Lance’s eyes.

Lance watches him from the bed, chewing over all he’s heard.

~

The next morning Keith scoops Lance up in his arms, still tangled in the sheets to keep him from fighting and ignores him when he does. He slashes at Keith with his claws, too afraid of the pain in his feet to fully shift or to run.

There’s nothing Keith can say to make it better so he doesn’t try. 

Once they’re in the hall Lance grinds his teeth but doesn’t say anything as Keith carries him to Allura’s room.

Keith raps sharply on her door with his knuckles and waits patiently, shifting Lance’s weight in his arms. When the door opens Allura ushers them inside and Keith gently lays Lance down on the couch, Allura putting a pillow under his ruined feet.

“Good morning,” Allura says with a blinding smile, sitting next to him. “How are you feeling?”

Keith retreats to the other end of the room, slipping outside onto the veranda, closing the delicate glass door behind him. Curling designs carved from wood swirl through the glass like lace, cutting off the soft sound of Lance and Allura speaking behind him.

Keith takes a deep breath of the dry air, trying to relieve the pressure in his chest. He tips his face back to the sun, basking in it. Keith can’t shake the sensation that’s settled in his chest, pulling at the heat inside him even as the sun warms his skin. He’s never been cold before.

He summons fire into his hands, threading it between his fingers in a ribbon. He stretches it back and forth between his hands before condensing it into a ball. The warm yellow and orange flame spins, turning blue and heat ripples out between his fingers, scorching the hem of his robes at his wrists. It does little to chase away the chill.

He stays on the veranda until Allura is done, only looking back once to find Allura has coaxed Lance to shift to his tail and back again, assessing the damage to his feet. There’s a pained expression on his face that sends a wretched knife of guilt through Keith’s heart and he turns his back to them again. It’s little consolation but he tries to offer privacy and a friend to Lance whom he can confide in. Stars know Lance will need it. This place is hard enough to survive alone as it is and Keith doesn’t know how much more he can offer. His heart and his trust are shattered.

~

The next couple of days are awkward as Lance heals, the faintest bit of Allura’s magic in the salve to help rebuild the damaged flesh. He studiously ignores Keith, his silences leaving the room colder than Keith has ever felt it before. He hadn’t realized how much he’d come to look forward to returning to his room at the end of the day because of Lance, hadn’t even noticed it happen. Somewhere along the way Lance had made him happy.

Keith for his part, dances around Lance, spending less and less time in the room until they’re barely seeing each other let alone speaking. His nightmares grow steadily worse until he’s barely sleeping.

Lance isn’t sure where Keith has been sleeping if at all. He’s pretty sure it’s either not in the room or somewhere in the back corner in the sand but Lance has yet to catch him. He isn’t sure how to feel about that but the burning sick twist of guilt in his stomach is unmistakable.

It isn’t until Keith comes back one night covered in blood, robes torn that the silent stalemate between them shatters. 

Lance smells him before he sees him. And then the doors are banging open and Keith is storming in. He places his sword back where it belongs with barely restrained rage, one of the guards smoothly pulling the door closed behind him. Keith’s shoulders tense, nails scraping over the table, digging long grooves into the wood, little curls of it spiraling off to the sides. The quiet click of the latch is what sends him over the edge.

With a scream of rage Keith turns, hurling a fireball back through the door, shattering the wood. Pieces of it splinter out into the hall along with a tongue of flame and a curl of smoke and sound. Neither of the guards move.

He spins back around, swiping everything off the desk, sending it to the floor with a loud crash. Lance’s favorite green and white tea set shatters, loose papers curling through the air as fire consumes them, little embers drifting to the stone.

Keith flips the desk, spinning to throw another fireball which destroys a wall hanging. Lance realizes every wall in the room is made of the same cold grey stone. He’d never noticed before.

None of the stones warp under the wicked blue flames but glow briefly before absorbing the heat. Suddenly Lance can see it; Keith’s room is elaborate and beautifully decorated but specifically catered to his abilities. The guards at the doors aren’t there to protect him but to watch him, to keep him trapped inside, to make sure he doesn’t run. The swirling tattoos around his wrists are shackles, binding him more surely than Lance’s own had. The thick collars of his robes cinched right about his throat the same as any of the others. He’s a prisoner, exactly the way Keith had said he was; and Lance hadn’t believed him.

Keith leans against the wall, breathing heavily. Smoke curls from the charred sleeves of his tattered robes, light from the hall spilling into the darkened room, slashing across his back. The fabric is severed down to the skin in a long line that starts at Keith’s shoulder and ends at his side, black and stiff. Lance can still smell the dried blood and wonders how much of it is his.

Keith briefly covers his eyes with a hand and takes a shuddering breath. He keeps one hand pressed flat against the chilled stones like he’s trying to ground himself.

Lance slides carefully from the bed, one foot at a time, careful not to make a sound and further set him off. His feet ache but between Allura’s magic and his own shifting he’s mostly healed and without losing any real mobility, much to his surprise.

When his fingers find the edge of Keith’s robe he flinches like he’d forgotten Lance was there.

“Don’t touch me.” His voice comes out thick and raw and he jerks away from Lance who’s unmoved by the display of temper. He slides his fingers over the thick collar, pinching it gently to pull it away but Keith slaps his arm loose.

“I said, don’t touch me.” His eyes glow with little embers at the core, but more than that, moonlight glints off the tears on his cheeks.

Lance has never seen him cry.

Making up his mind Lance withdraws his hand and marches to the door. He steps out into the hall through the shattered rubble to glare at the guards.

“Leave.”

Neither react and Lance’s hands curl into fists, long claws digging into his palms. Keith’s room deadends in the middle of the hall; there’s nowhere for him to go. Lance lets his pupils slit and his fangs elongate.

“I’m sure you can watch your prisoner,” and he spits the word, venom dripping from his fangs. It spills down his chin, his voice slurring, “from the end of the hall just as well as you can from outside his shattered door.” He lets his scales surface, rippling down his body threateningly as he flexes his fingers, claws extending.

“Or I will drag you there myself and someone’s going to die.”

The guards exchange a look before finally stepping away and moving a few yards down the hall. It isn’t much but it’s something. Lance snarls and storms back inside wishing the door were still intact just so he can slam it.

The armoire in the corner is smoldering, one side blackened but when he pulls out Keith’s favorite robe it’s unscathed. He collects a gilded brush and comb from where Keith had upended them when he’d swiped the desk clear. The little emblem and hairpin Keith always wears in his hair has been torn free and is lying on the floor to the side, glinting in the dark. More than a few long dark strands are still attached to it.

Lance kicks it across the room out of spite, realizing it’s part of a uniform Keith is required to wear. The robes, the hair, the armor; it’s all dictated to him, every part of who he is, carefully wrapped up and put on display for everyone to ogle. Lance doesn’t know how he’d never noticed before.

Dropping his treasures on the bed, Lance collects a small cloth, wetting it in the pool with the salt water. The urn and basin are shattered on the floor with everything else.

Saltwater Keith had requested and brought in for Lance’s benefit and guilt curls in his stomach, sour and painful. Like he’s swallowed wormwood. He really had gone out of his way for Lance and he’s thrown it in Keith’s face.

Lance squeezes the excess water from the cloth and goes to stand by Keith, taking one of his hands. This time Keith doesn’t fight him off. Blood is caked to his skin like black ichor and he tenses when the wet cloth touches him. His hands are so hot the cloth doesn’t stay cool for long, steam curling into the air. Lance flinches at the heat but sets his jaw and stubbornly wipes away the blood.

He rinses the cloth before coming back to scrub out the dirt and blood and whatever else might be caked beneath Keith’s claws. He's trying not to think about it.

It takes several trips back and forth to the pool to wash both Keith’s hands and his face and it doesn’t escape his notice that Keith won’t meet his eyes. Not that Lance can blame him. He wouldn’t want to look at him either.

When he’s done there are rivulets of water running over Keith’s cheeks, dripping from his hands. Lance doesn’t need to, but he wipes Keith’s hands with the silk of his own thin robe, knowing full well the water would have turned to steam in minutes. But Keith’s skin is no longer scorching to the touch as Lance carefully pats his face dry.

He leaves the dirty rag in the pool when he’s done, collecting the scented hand cream he likes but that Keith never uses, carefully spreading it over Keith’s hands and wrists. He works it gently into Keith's skin as they stand in front of the window. His fingers dig carefully between Keith’s fingers, working at the tense ligaments all the way up to Keith’s elbows and back again. When he’s satisfied everything is where it’s supposed to be, he works away the tension before moving on to the other hand.

By the time he’s done Keith’s shoulders have gone slack, the anger leaching out of him until he just looks small and broken, tears dripping from his chin.

On a whim, Lance tucks a length of hair behind Keith’s ear, Keith’s hand still in his and their eyes meet. The vulnerability and the heartache, the broken trust Lance knows he put there has Lance tugging him gently towards the bed. Keith is too tired and heartsick to argue.

Keith lets Lance disrobe him, the ruined fabric falling into a heap on the floor. Lance leaves his own robe there as well, grateful he’d opted to wear pants this morning, his sleeves still wet. He slowly helps Keith into the robe he’d brought over earlier, noting the blood still clinging in dark slashes to his skin.

Lance ties the red sash around Keith’s waist, straightening the seams and smoothing the fabric into place. He leaves the collar loose around Keith’s throat. 

Once satisfied he crawls onto the bed, tugging Keith in after him.

He goes without struggle, settling between Lance’s knees and letting Lance gather his dark hair over his shoulders, head bowed low. Lance slowly begins to work the knots loose with the brush.

He’s careful to untangle the hair from around Keith’s horns, removing the gold bands and caps as he goes, setting them aside. He presses his fingers to the base of Keith’s horns, rubbing gently the way he’d seed Keith’s mother do.

Keith goes almost liquid in his lap, a soft breath, almost a groan, leaving him. Lance has never wanted to kiss him more.

He spends the next hour brushing through Keith’s hair. Little flakes of blood fall into his lap until there are no more left and Keith is slumping over looking defeated.

Lance doesn’t realize he’s humming until Keith speaks.

“Why are you doing this?” His voice sounds raw and Lance’s fingers slip on the braid he’s putting in Keith’s hair. He takes a breath and works the plait loose, running the comb through the strands to start again.

“I have broken every promise I’ve ever made you.”

Lance keeps his voice low and soft, Keith’s hair slipping through his fingers like silk. “No you haven’t,” he argues gently.

Keith scoffs, the movement of his head upsetting Lance’s braid and he starts again, ever patient. 

“Name one.” It comes out filled with a self-loathing kind of bite.

Lance points over his shoulder to the pool in the center of the room. 

“You made that for me,” he says softly. “So I’d never have to go back to the public baths.”

Keith ducks his head, pinching at the sheets, rolling them between his fingers. 

“Not sure that was a promise,” he mumbles.

Lance hums noncommittally. “Close enough.” He carefully works the new knots loose with the comb. “And I’m doing this because you need someone to care about you,” he answers softy and Keith tenses again. “No matter how much you don’t want to admit it.” For a moment Lance thinks he’s going to argue and pull away but then Keith’s shoulders drop.

“I literally burned you until you couldn’t walk,” Keith chokes, devastated. “I don’t deserve this.”

Lance leans around him, taking his chin and lifting it. “Yes, you did.” Keith flinches, trying to look away. “But I didn’t give you much of a choice.” He holds Keith’s gaze firmly eben as Keith tries to look away. “Did you do it out of spite?” Lance asks, his voice firm.

Keith looks appalled, trying to jerk out of Lance’s hand. “No! If I hadn’t Sendak would have done worse!”

Lance nods. “Exactly.” Keith pauses, his mouth softening in surprise. “You warned me what would happen, that you could only do so much to protect me, and I didn’t listen. Am I still angry with you for that? Yes. It hurt like a bitch.” His thumb taps against Keith’s chin.

“But you did tell me you were a slave here as much as anyone else.” His eyes are sad but thoughtful. “I think I’m beginning to understand what you meant by that.”

He slowly lets go of Keith, taking up the braid again.

“Of course you deserve tenderness Keith, everyone does. I’m not ready to forgive you for hurting me, but I hurt you too. Just because I’m angry doesn’t mean I want to see you like this.”

Lance chews at his lip, fingers brushing over the nape of Keith’s neck under his hair.

“And because I’m sorry,” he rasps, voice going quiet. “I shouldn’t have-” He swallows back the rest of what he was going to say because there’s no gentle way to put words to what he did. How he abused the trust Keith had given him. How little he’d understood what that meant at the time. And because he cares. More than he should.

“I wasn’t lying when I said I cared about you. I know you don’t believe me and I can’t say I blame you. You deserve better than this,” he whispers. “From everyone. But especially from me. After everything you’ve done.”

Lance carefully presses his hand to Keith’s back as he chokes on a sob, trying to muffle it behind a hand. Lance leaves his hand there, trying to communicate how sorry he is but unable to form the words.

“And because I never thanked you for it. You didn’t have to do anything you’ve gone out of your way to do but you did.

“I didn’t understand. Didn’t think you meant it.” He’s overwhelmed with the desire to hug Keith but doesn’t know that he can so he doesn’t.

“You gave me something I didn’t appreciate and like everyone else I abused it and I am so, so sorry.” The words knot in his throat. “I’m sorry Keith.” He lets his head tip forward, resting gently against Keith’s shoulder, his hand pressed to Keith’s spine over his heart.

“I shouldn’t have hurt you. And I’m sorry.”

Finally he pulls back and turns to the braid again, blinking the tears from his eyes. He does something long and complicated with Keith’s hair so he has an excuse to keep touching him. Lance hopes at the very least the contact will lend him some kind of comfort in spite of all Lance’s done.

Lance is halfway through the braid before Keith speaks again, voice steady.

“Thank you.”

Lance nods though Keith can’t see him. “You’re welcome.”

When he’s done Lance ties off the braid with the gold chord from his robe, the extra length woven through Keith’s dark hair like a fate thread. He smooths a hand over Keith’s hair the way he’d seen his mother do just a few nights ago. 

Lance leans forward, draping himself along Keith’s back and holding him. He presses his cheek to Keith’s shoulder because he’s weak, because he wants to. Because as much as Keith is loathe to admit it he needs touch and Lance doesn’t know how else to apologize.

Keith tenses, one hand hovering over Lance’s arms around his waist as if not sure what to do before finally settling feather-light against his wrist.

Keith ducks his head, curling into himself and Lance holds him tighter, pressing closer, like somehow that will be enough to protect him.

Like this, in the dark, Lance can’t help thinking how young Keith seems. How young he is. For someone who will probably live to be at least a few hundred years old Keith is still very young. As young as he is old. 

Lance pulls the blankets up over them, laying down with Keith still curled against his chest after a bit of shuffling..

“Go to sleep,” he whispers, arm still around Keith’s waist.

Keith covers Lance’s hand with his own and closes his eyes. He lets himself pretend, just this once, that maybe somebody cares.

~

When the nightmares hit, Lance is there to hold him through it, to whisper everything’s going to be okay, to cradle him as he cries until it passes. He runs his fingers through Keith’s hair, kissing the top of his head and Keith buries his face against Lance’s chest, holding on.

He wants so badly to believe.

Chapter Text

Lance wakes before Keith and intercepts breakfast before someone has the chance to knock, waking Keith. He thanks the young woman who delivers it before making tea, making it just the way Keith likes before pouring a cup and taking it over to the bed.

He tucks a rogue piece of hair behind Keith’s ear, carefully wafting the tea beneath his nose.

“Hey, wake up.” Keith grunts, tucking his face further into the pillow and Lance tries to smother a laugh. “Come on, you’re gonna be late for whatever it is you do every day.” He runs his fingers through Keith’s hair, waving the cup of tea at him when one unhappy eye peeks open.

“Just the way you like it.”

Keith sits up, rubbing at his eyes, the braid Lance had done last night night slipping over his shoulder.

“How do you know how I take my tea?” he mumbles sleepily. Lance takes his hand, carefully settling the cup in his upturned palm. He closes Keith's fingers around it, careful not to spill.

“I’ve seen you make it often enough.” He rises from the bed, going to make his own, Keith watching. He stands by the window feeling awkward and unsure now that Keith is awake. He owes Keith an apology, he just doesn’t know how to come out and say it, not in any way that’s tactful. So he just dives in head first.

“I’m sorry.” He ducks his head, watching Keith’s reflection in the glass, cradling the cup closer.

Keith frowns. “For what?”

Lance blows across his tea, letting it cool, hoping it will help settle his nerves.

“Everything. But especially for making you think I don’t care.” It comes out softer than he intends it to and he takes a deep breath, turning to face him. “And for-” He gestures to his neck, indicating when he’d bitten Keith before. They still hadn’t talked about it.

“I made several assumptions about you that weren’t true and I’m sorry.” He swallows thickly, looking about the room and the modifications Keith has made to try and accommodate Lance, make him more comfortable.

“And to thank you. For protecting me. For-” He gestures vaguely around the room, words failing him.

Keith spins his tea cup, something Lance is beginning to realize is a habit he does whenever he’s nervous.

“I’m sorry too.” He’s voice comes out deep and rough from sleep. “That you’re stuck here. That I can’t help you get home. That all this shit happened to you because of me.” He pinches at his eyes. He’s just woken up and Keith is already exhausted. His hand thumps heavily to the bed.

“I’m sorry I can’t save more. I’m sorry I can’t do more.” He covers his face with a hand and takes a shuddering breath. Lance comes to gently lift the teacup out of his hands before it spills. He sets it on the nightstand next to his own.

“Is this about yesterday?”

Keith curls inwards and Lance knows he’s hit the nail on the head. He sinks onto the mattress beside him, trying not to press any boundaries. He doesn’t know where they stand anymore.

“Can you tell me what happened?”

“What always happens,” Keith snaps but Lance knows the anger isn’t directed at him and doesn’t rise to it. “I’m an attack dog. Someone says bite, I don’t ask questions.” He hides his face in his hands.

“What other choice do you have?” Lance asks softly.

“I don’t know! But there has to be something! I can’t just-” All the fight goes out of him. “I can’t just keep killing people, Lance. Soldiers, fishermen, nobles, they’re all the same. They’re all just people trying to survive and I’m tired. ” He closes his eyes. “And the worst part of it is I was actually fucking happy!” He jerks away from Lance. “You made me happy.” His eyes fill with tears. “God I don’t deserve that,” he chokes. “After every-” He grinds the heels of his hands into his eyes, claws raking down his forehead and Lance wrenches his wrists away. 

“Stop, Keith- stop, please.” Blood streams down Keith’s forehead into his eyes, dripping down his cheeks. Lance kisses the wounds even as they stitch themselves closed. 

“I’m so tired of being covered in blood,” he chokes. “Of seeing their faces every time I close my eyes.”

Lance pulls him into his arms and lets him cry, Keith’s blood drying on his lips. “I know. I know you are.” He smooths Keith’s hair back, holding him tight and tucks his chin to Keith’s ear.

“You deserve to be free,” Lance whispers, running a hand over Keith’s back. “To have never been put in this situation to begin with.” He tucks his head to Keith’s neck. “It’s okay for you to want to be happy,” he whispers. “To be happy. No one can fault you for reaching for that.”

Keith tucks himself further into Lance. “Instead I dragged you down with me when I dared to.”

Lance pulls back to look at him, lifting Keith’s head. “Keith, you have to stop.” He wipes away the blood and tears. “You have to find a way to forgive yourself and move forward.”

“I can’t.”

Lance looks at him seriously, hands on Keith’s arms to hold him up. “And I can’t fix you,” he says seriously. “You have to want to heal.” He smiles sadly. “But I am here. You deserve to be happy.” He pushes Keith’s hair back, cupping his cheek as he cries. “Stop punishing yourself for not being miserable all the time.” He searches Keith’s eyes. “I forgive you.”

That only makes him cry harder.

Chapter Text

They’re awkward around one another after that, neither of them sure of the others boundaries or quite where they stand in spite of Lance’s deceleration. They manage to have a number of brief if somewhat stilted conversations but it’s another few days before things shift.

~

Lance comes back from wandering through the gardens on his evening stroll. The guards follow behind him like always, a second set standing watch over Keith’s door. Lance rolls his eyes. Keith has been here for eighty years. He doesn’t know why such a watch would be necessary. 

“Away you go,” Lance mutters, waving his hands at the guards who shift out to take up their station at Keith’s door. He curses at them in his home language before shutting the doors with a hiss. He hates feeling like a dog they take out for its evening walk. He makes a scoffing kind of sound from the back of his throat before turning to face the room. 

He finds Keith sitting on the end of the bed. There’s a knife in one hand, the other hanging limply between his knees. He’s never looked more disheveled. 

Unease curls around Lance like smoke, dissolving what remains of his good mood.

Keith’s hair is a mess, tangled in front of his face where his head is hanging between his shoulders. He’s half dressed, wearing only one linen robe, the outer silk layer strewn carelessly across the bed behind him. Lance has never seen Keith anything less than perfect, not really. The sight is disquieting. 

“Can you go for a walk?” Keith whispers without lifting his head. There’s no aggression to it, no spite. It’s almost pleading. It sets Lance more on edge and he eyes the knife warily, his good mood evaporating. 

“I wasn’t expecting you back so soon.” Keith’s voice is thick, like he can’t breathe.

“Keith?”

“Please.” He’s all but begging, voice cracking on a sob and Keith covers his face with a hand. His sleeve falls away as his shoulders heave, the red fabric slipping to his elbow. The red covering his hand doesn’t go with it. 

That’s when Lance notices the dark puddle on the floor beneath him, almost indistinguishable against the stones and his stomach drops.

“Oh what were you doing,” Lance breathes, a pit in his stomach. Keith hides his face behind his hand, smearing blood as Lance comes closer. 

“Just go,” he whispers, voice broken. The knife in his hand trembles. “Please.” His breath stutters and Lance kneels in the puddle at his feet. 

“Keith,” he says carefully, gently, “can you give me the knife? Please?” When he gingerly takes the knife by the blade it slips from Keith’s fingers like he was barely holding on. Lance sets it aside, taking Keith’s bloodied hand and pulling it away from his face. 

He knows Keith can’t be killed. He also knows he still feels pain. And he doesn’t scar. The thought had never truly terrified Lance until this moment. 

Keith is flawless, not a single scar on his body. The fact he’ll never know what Keith has suffered because his body doesn’t hold onto those stories frightens him. He can only imagine what Keith has been through. Or what he’d been doing. 

“Why are you doing this?”

He slides his hand over Keith’s bloody wrist, wrapping his fingers around it as if to hide the wounds that are no longer there. His sleeve is soaked and there’s a disturbing amount of blood on the floor. 

Lance cups the side of his face as Keith cries. 

“Can you talk to me?” he asks gently, thumb stroking over his cheek. “What’s going on?” 

Keith chokes, eyes squeezed shut. He looks broken. 

“I don’t want to be here,” he cries. “I don’t want to hurt people.” He blinks open his eyes, so wounded it makes Lance ache. “I don’t want to hurt you anymore. I don’t want to be here.” He bows forward, like the weight is crushing him and Lance rises up on his knees, taking Keith in his arms. 

“I’m sorry,” he cries into Lance’s shoulder. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” He says it again and again, broken and wet. All Lance can do is hold him. 

“I know.” He runs a hand up and down Keith’s back, trying to help.

“But you have to stop hating yourself. Stop punishing yourself.”

Keith cries, clutching at Lance’s back.

“I don’t think I know how.”

Lance pulls away to cup Keith’s cheeks with both hands. “Just hang in there okay? We’re gonna get out of here. I promise I’m gonna get us out.” 

Keith just looks all the more defeated. “No one escapes Dis.” He says it like it’s one of the laws of the universe, like it's a fact. 

Lance pulls his head up. 

“Hey, you said someone made it out once. Who’s to say we can’t do the same?” He tries to smile. 

Keith looks broken and he shakes his head where it’s still resting in Lance’s hands. “It doesn’t matter. You either die trying or become the very thing that makes this place so awful. You start doing to others what they did to you until you’re no better than they are.” He flinches, pulling away from Lance’s hands. “How can you stand touching me after what I’ve done to you? I’m a fucking monster.” 

Lance grabs a fistful of his hair, yanking his head up and holding him there. 

“Hey,” he says sharply, eyes hard. “You are not a monster. You hear me? You have done terrible things.” Keith flinches, trying to look away but Lance won’t let him go. 

“That, you see that?” He ducks his head, pressing closer until he’s all Keith can see, forcing Keith to look at him. “You still care,” he whispers, his eyes darting between Keith’s. 

“I know you have a heart,” he whispers, “because I can see it breaking right now. You can’t be a monster and still care Keith. They haven’t broken you yet.” He eases his grip, pressing his fingers into Keith’s scalp in apology. 

“That’s what makes you different. You do what you have to, to survive. You do terrible things to save the few you can, when you can, not because you enjoy it.” He shakes his head gently, cupping Keith’s jaw. “You’re not a monster,” he whispers, pressing closer as his voice goes impossibly soft. “And I forgive you.” He kisses Keith’s cheek, whispering in his ear, the words breaking him. “I forgive you.”

Keith’s head tips forward, dropping to Lance’s shoulder with a jagged cry. Lance presses into him, a pillar of strength as Keith crumbles. 

“Just hold on,” he murmurs, tucking Keith’s hair behind his ear. “I’m gonna get us out.” 

Keith clutches at him, struggling to breathe.

“What if I can’t?” He chokes on the words. “I’m tired.” He sags further forward, going weak. “I’m so tired Lance.” 

Lance holds him all the tighter.

“Then let me help. You don’t have to do this alone anymore. I’m here.” He runs a hand down Keith’s hair, meaning it. “I’m here.” 

Chapter Text

After that night their lives pass in snapshots, brief flickers of happiness, quiet eddies in the river of blood Dis runs on. Keith still struggles with his guilt, he’s still angry, still has nightmares. Sometimes the best thing Lance can do is leave him alone. Other times he holds him, pressing kisses to Keith’s face to chase away the tears when Keith lets him. He’s there when Keith needs him, helping to hold him up when Keith doesn't have the strength anymore, the same as he promised.

From then on Keith allows Lance to braid his hair every night before bed and then to brush it out in the morning. Moments of tenderness amid the chaos and Keith finds he needs them, needs the fingers in his hair, the gentle humming, the kindness in Lance’s eyes. It gives him the courage to face each day and a refuge every night. 

He’s never considered his room to be a sanctuary. It’s always been a prison, but with Lance there he looks forward to coming back every night, to holding him and being held.

The looks they exchange in the mirror are still weighted and heavy with things unspoken, Keith always the first to drop his gaze. Their progress is slow but Lance hopes they’re starting to repair the damage they’ve done to one another as the weeks pass.

Keith comes back on more than one night with blood on his hands and Lance takes it upon himself to wash it away. He doesn’t ask, doesn’t pry, just washes the blood clean. On one such night his fingers linger, tracing over Keith’s palm instead of reaching for the hand cream like he always does. They’ve made progress but Lance has never pressed their level of intimacy. And he wants to.

He looks at Keith, trying to gauge his mood, watching carefully as he lifts Keith’s hand to his mouth.

He kisses the tender inside of Keith’s wrist, the memories of coming in and finding Keith hurting himself haunting him.

Keith’s breath hitches at the press of Lance’s lips, soft and warm against tender skin. Lips still against him Lance lifts his eyes and does it again, slowly, open-mouthed and hot. This time Keith shudders and his eyes darken.

Lance sucks a hickey into his wrist, working the skin over with his lips and tongue and teeth until it’s an angry red under the ink. He slides his tongue into Keith’s palm; Keith who still hasn’t done anything to stop him. He works his way against the tender webbing between Keith’s fingers, feeling the skin heat with want, briefly pulling two fingers into his mouth. He sucks on them gently, slowly, bobbing his head and closing his eyes. He holds himself there, tongue pressed to the underside of Keith’s fingers before pulling away. He kisses the tips of Keith’s claws, using Keith’s hand to tug him forward.

“Come to bed.” Keith looks torn and scared and Lance can’t say he blames him. The last time they’d tried Lance had abused that trust and while they’ve come a long way there are some things they still haven’t talked about. 

He kisses Keith’s knuckles. “Please? Nothing has to happen. I just want to hold you. If you’ll let me.”

When he steps back towards the bed again Keith follows.

Lance spends the rest of the night trying to earn back some small part of Keith’s trust and to prove he means it. Because he does.

He takes down and brushes Keith’s hair but leaves it loose, helping him change for the night. He traces his fingers over Keith’s skin where they’re sitting on the bed, the gentle fades of red to black, the unblemished skin and the scars that aren’t there.

Keith doesn’t kiss him, and Lance doesn’t try but he does let Lance press his lips to his hands up to his shoulder and eventually his throat. Lance moves slowly, never pressing too far, checking to make sure it’s okay before he does something, backing down when it’s not.

He presses a kiss to Keith’s cheek, coaxing him into lying down and just holds Keith in his arms, running his fingers through his hair.

“I lied to you,” he whispers, wincing as Keith tenses and he hopes he’s not about to undo weeks worth of work. He knows now is probably not the time to bring this up, not when they’re struggling to repair their relationship, but Keith deserves to know the truth. “About the saliva.” He continues to stroke his fingers through Keith’s hair.

“We have a gland in our mouths we can control at will to secrete something like an aphrodisiac,” he explains quietly. “But otherwise there’s nothing special about our saliva.” Keith doesn’t respond. “It’s why you weren’t affected in the baths when I kissed you. And why you were in the garden.

“And I’m not going to use it on you again,” Lance says softly. “Not unless you want me to. It can be fun when your partner is consenting. We don’t- we aren’t supposed to use it the way I did. I guess I’ve been doing it for so long I didn’t think.

“I shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry.”

He pulls back, trying to see Keith’s face.

“And I know this is pushing a boundary and it’s probably too soon but...will you let me kiss you?” Lance asks and Keith looks uncomfortable. “You can say no,” he offers sincerely. “I just wanted to ask. Wanted you to know I still want to.”

Keith bites his lip, dragging it through his teeth and Lance’s eyes drop to track the motion, at the wet sheen Keith’s tongue leaves behind when he lets it go.

“Okay.”

Lance is surprised by the answer. He hadn't expected Keith to agree to it, had more or less asked just to let Keith know he wanted to.

“Let me know if you change your mind okay?”

Keith nods and Lance leans in to kiss him, their lips brushing. It’s nothing like the kisses they’d shared previously. Lance kisses him slowly, carefully, not trying to deepen it like he had before. He pulls away after a moment, thumb brushing over Keith's cheek.

“Thank you. For letting me.”

“You deserve better than this,” Keith says softly. “Better than me.”

“I want you . If you’ll let me after everything I’ve done. If you can ever trust me again.” His lips tremble. “I know you think I don’t mean it, that I didn’t that night in the garden, but I did. I do care about you.” He carefully lifts a stray strand from Keith’s cheek, pulling it away. “More than I should. I just needed to know. I needed to make sure you weren’t involved.”

Keith’s hiding his face in the pillow, staring at Lance’s collarbone and Lance can see him thinking.

“You know you could have just asked me,” Keith ventures, soft and vulnerable. “If I was there. You didn’t have to…” His cheeks color with shame and he tucks his head again. 

Lance nods, stroking his fingers through Keith’s hair. “I know.” He chews on his lip. “I think- I think I wanted a reason to hate you.”

Keith shrugs. “Didn’t give you much of a reason not to.”

Lance gapes at him as best he can when Keith’s face is tucked against his chest. “You saved my life. And protected me when I was being a stubborn jackass.”

Keith’s face pinches, his voice low. “A life here isn’t much of anything. You’d have been better off before I intervened.”

Lance pinches the fabric of Keith’s robe, rolling it between his fingers, tugging it gently to get Keith to look at him.

“I’m glad you did.”

Keith looks confused and Lance almost laughs.

“Why?” Keith asks, his eyebrows knitting together. The word comes out high and tight with disbelief.

“Because I’m happy. I know that’s probably really weird considering what the past few weeks have been like but it’s true. And I haven’t been happy in a long time.” He looks at Keith shyly.

“You make me happy. And I was scared of what that meant. I still am. Because if you don’t want me back, I don’t know what to do or what that makes us.” He voice trembles and he takes a steadying breath. “But I can deal with it.

“I want to be happy with you. Preferably anywhere other than here. I still want to go home and I want to take you with me. But I’m happy to be here with you, as weird and backwards as that is. I just realized it a little too late.” He searches Keith’s eyes, so expressive in the dark.

“And because you needed saving just as badly as I did,” he whispers. “I will be here if you want me. And if not, I'll do my best to give you the space you need,” he promises.

Keith cups the side of his face, kissing Lance’s temple and pulls him into a hug, staring at the far wall over his shoulder. He hasn’t been this scared in a long time. He hasn’t wanted anything in a long time. And now that he does, it makes him weak. Vulnerable. And vulnerabilities can be exploited. Especially here.

“I do,” he says weakly, daring to admit it out loud and Lance’s smile is blinding.

He pulls back, kissing Lance’s cheek and smoothing a hand over his hair. Lance savors the attention before sitting up, tugging Keith’s hand.

“Come on, I need to braid your hair for bed.”

Chapter Text

“What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you get out of here?” Lance asks, finger drawing little circles over Keith’s chest where they’re cuddling. It’s taken another month to get them back to where they were before Keith burned Lance. Their progress has been slow but worth it.

Keith tilts his head to look at him, his expression carefully neutral. “We’re not getting out of here Lance.” His voice is soft and kind but the sad honesty in his voice doesn’t damper Lance’s mood.

“Pretend with me,” he grins. “Come on, humor me.” He smacks Keith’s chest playfully and Keith reaches up to tangle their fingers together. “What’s the first decision you’re going to make that’s going to be solely your own?” he asks.

Keith stares into the middle space for a while before answering, his thumb stroking over Lance’s knuckles in thought.

“Cut my hair.”

Lance tilts his head curiously, lips forming a soft pout. “Why that?”

Keith reaches up with the hand he’d settled around Lance’s waist and idly touches his hair. “Because there is not a single aspect of my appearance that is within my control. I like my hair long, but it isn’t my decision.” He looks at Lance. “And I want it to be.”

Lance nods firmly. “Good. I like it, it’s a good idea.” He taps at Keith’s chest again as it to confirm the statement. “I’ll help you do it.”

Keith looks at him from under his eyebrows, stroking over his shoulder. “Yeah?”

Lance grins. “Well yeah. I’m sure as hell not gonna stay here,” he teases. “Besides, you’ll never get out without me.”

Keith laughs, more startled into it than anything.

“Is that so?”

Lance leans up to kiss the top of Keith’s nose. “Yup. If it weren’t, you’d have gotten out long ago. You were just waiting for me.”

Keith’s expression softens and he stares into Lance’s eyes, wondering if they match the sea.

“Maybe.” He runs his fingers over the little scale shards on Lance’s cheek, drawing him down for a kiss.

He nibbles on Lance’s lip, still a little scared but Lance doesn’t open his mouth, just pulls on Keith’s lips with his own, pressing into him. He doesn’t kiss him the way he used to and Keith realizes he wants him to, wants more.

“Lance…”

“You should go,” he says softly. “You’re gonna be late.” He kisses Keith’s cheek in apology before pulling away. “Breakfast should be here soon.” He slides out of bed much to Keith’s disappointment. He lets his robe fall to the floor with a cheeky grin before stepping into the bath.

Keith does not pout but it’s a near thing.

“Come on lazy,” Lance calls over his shoulder. “Up. You’re gonna be late and I don’t want Sendak coming in here to drag you out. Especially not while I’m naked.”

That gets Keith out of bed and over to the armoire. He pulls out his clothes for the day along with a light set of leather armor. He doesn’t wear it often but Lance has gotten used to seeing him wear over the top of his robes. He must be training soldiers today.

“Fine. But you’re doing my hair,” Keith grouses just for the sake of getting Lance’s mind off Sendak.

Lance smiles from the bath. “Always.”

Chapter Text

“Are you ever going to kiss me,” Keith ask. He’s tired of being patient. It’s been months of rebuilding their relationship but Lance won’t let him take it any further.

“I kiss you all the time.” Lance drops a kiss to the tip of his nose as if to prove his point.

“I mean really kiss me,” Keith clarifies. “Like you used to.” The look in Lance’s eyes tells him no .

He tucks Keith’s hair behind his ear, pushing the length of it behind his shoulder, tracking the movement.

“Keith…”

Keith takes his face in his hands, forcing him to look up and holding him carefully.

“Because I want you to.” He searches Lance’s eyes, a faint smile pulling at his lips. “I’m offering,” Keith whispers, throwing them both back to that night in the garden. He strokes his thumbs over Lance’s scales. “I want you to kiss me like you did then. I want you to touch me. If you still want me.”

Lance’s hands fall to Keith’s hips, holding him. “You have no idea how badly,” he whispers, voice low and gravelled. “I just-”

“Then shut up and kiss me.” Keith’s grip on him tightens.

“Are you sure-”

“Lance I swear to the gods, if you don’t put your tongue in my mouth-”

Lance swallows the rest of the threat, gripping Keith tight and kissing him hard, one hand sliding around to grip at his ass, yanking him forward.

Keith melts under the force of it, letting Lance shove him towards the bed. They tumble into it together, Keith dragging the thin silk robe from Lance’s shoulders to press kisses to his skin.

Lance’s eyes close and he shivers, holding himself above Keith as his lips seek out the sensitive places of Lance’s throat.

Keith deftly loosens the knot to Lance’s robe, pulling it off him entirely and discarding it.

He runs his fingers over the firm line of Lance’s hips to his waist, scales shifting beneath the skin like ripples on water before vanishing again. Lance struggles to keep from shifting.

“Show me,” Keith whispers and Lance opens his eyes, his pupils half slitted.

“Keith-”

“Please.”

For the first time Lance looks self-conscious.

“Keith I’m half snake from the waist down,” he says vaguely, skirting the conversation. “I don’t think-”

Keith rolls them and Lance groans, his hands falling to Keith’s hips with a gasp as he grinds down onto Lance’s cock.

“Show me,” he says firmly. “Like you did that night.” His voice goes impossibly soft. “I want to see you.”

Lance’s eyes glitter in the dark before Keith feels the shift happen, muscle and skin and scale shifting beneath him.

Lance’s lids flutter and Keith feels a damp heat growing between his legs.

He shifts back curiously and Lance spasms, fingers clawing at the thick robe covering Keith’s hips as if to drag him back.

As the fabric falls away Keith is startled to see Lance fully erect, two cocks twitching in the air and glistening. He was expecting Lance’s anatomy to be somewhat different but the twin cocks are a surprise.

“Are you really going to stare at me all day?” Lance whispers, flushed and vulnerable, hands shifting nervously. “I told you-”

Keith leans down and pulls one into his mouth without hesitating, stroking the other with his hand.

Lance nearly screams, startled by the sudden heat. His hips snaps up before Keith can shove them back against the mattress with a hand, holding them there. He bobs his head, moving his hand in rhythm and Lance babbles, fingers falling to Keith’s hair, pushing and pulling, knocking over his horns.

Lance squirms, tail shifting restlessly and Keith rides the flow of the movement, rocking into him.

Lance hisses and snarls, his head thrown back as Keith swallows around him, taking him down his throat.

“Oh my god,” Lance pants, “no one’s ever- oh god- Keith- you’re-” He dissolves into breathless noises, Keith finally pulling back and wiping at his mouth.

“I’m what?” he rasps, a wide grin on his face as he removes his robe, discarding the layers.

Lance is lying limply on the bed, sweat dappling his chest.

“Amazing,” he gasps. “Beautiful, and so gods damn perfect.” He grabs Keith’s arm, pulling him down into his chest.

“Now please come here and kiss me.”

“But I just-” he argues, gesturing vaguely at Lance’s cocks.

“I don’t care.” Lance drags him in by the hair, sliding his tongue into Keith’s mouth before he can argue again. He whines when Keith wraps his hand around both Lance’s cocks, slipping one finger between the two while stroking him. He grins, rolling his hips into scale, warm and smooth, shivering with pleasure at the strange sensation.

“I want to fuck you,” Keith whispers, stroking slowly. Lance’s coils hiss and rasp and he groans at the admission, body undulating.

“Still- can,” he gasps, hands fluttering along Keith's arms and Keith’s hand stutters. Lance nearly cries with frustration as he stops.

“What?”

Lance blinks slitted eyes open and reaches beneath Keith’s hand to the base of his cocks, hand trembling. His slit gives way just a little under the pressure and he slides a finger inside himself, finding enough control to retract his claws.

“H-here.”

Keith’s fingers release him and Lance whines, hips lifting off the bed for friction. He’s as annoyed as he is excited as Keith slides the pads of his fingers over the spot. His claws scratch over Lance’s scales and he swallows thickly, glancing up at him.

“I don’t want to hurt you.”

Lance covers Keith’s hand firmly with his own, pressing Keith's hand flat against warm scales.

“Won’t,” he gasps. “Please Keith,” he whines, body rolling.

“Give me the knife,” Keith pants, something desperate gripping him. “Under the pillow.”

“Why?”

“Just do it.”

Lance fumbles for the blade, the sheath falling to the ground as he pulls it free, passing it to Keith. It’s shaking in his hand. 

“What are you-?”

Keith severs the claws from two of his fingers, wincing as he draws blood. He drops the knife on the floor where they can’t accidentally roll across it. 

His hand shakes as the wounds close, blood dripping down his fingers. Before he can wipe it away Lance takes his wrist, slicking his tongue over the blood, pulling Keith’s fingers into his mouth, making him groan.

He sucks the blood away, bobbing his head repeatedly, feeling Keith tremble and opens his eyes.

“Spirits…”

Lance grins, finally pulling off with a wet pop and Keith’s hand is shaking.

“Now shut up and finger me,” he snaps. “Or am I gonna have to do it myself?” Keith slips his two fingers with the blunted nails inside him to make him shut up. Lance bucks up off the bed, clutching at Keith’s arms with a strangled cry.

Keith doesn’t move until Lance is flat against the bed again, panting, skin dappled with sweat and then twists his wrist, sinking his fingers deeper. Lance nearly screams, hips rocking as he fucks himself on Keith’s hand, covering his fingers in fluid.

His voice is garbled as he struggles to say something but then Keith’s mouth is on him, licking a hot stripe over one of Lance’s cocks. He wraps his hand around the other, pumping his fist and licking and fucking Lance. He swallows around him as his cock hits the back of Keith’s throat and it’s too much.

Lance wails, fingers tangling in Keith’s hair, coils thrashing. He pulls Keith back and shakes his head, sweat slicking his face and curling his hair. It takes him a minute to catch his breath, for his eyes to focus on the shit eating grin Keith is wearing, fingers still working carefully inside him.

“I-If you keep doing that,” he gasps, hips rolling with the movement of Keith’s hand, “you’re not gonna get to fuck me and I really-” Keith slips his tongue into Lance’s open mouth and Lance nearly cries as Keith positions himself above him, knees on either side of his hips.

Lance claws at his thighs, trying to drag Keith down, leaving bloody trails in his wake. And then Keith is sinking into him. He’s hot and slick and perfect and Keith buries his face against Lance’s neck. He's trying to hold still, legs shaking with the effort.

They’re both shuddering but Lance is impatient, coils shifting, hips stuttering and rolling. Keith pulls back just far enough to sink into him again.

The heat of Lance’s scales under him, along his thighs, his ass, has Keith sitting up, hands splayed across Lance’s chest as he rocks into him; Lance who can’t stop moving and Keith snaps his hips forward. Lance’s claws sink into the bed, shredding the mattress instead of Keith’s back and Lance bites his own knuckles bloody as Keith does it again and again.

When Keith wraps a searing hand back around both his cocks Lance comes undone.

It isn’t long until Keith follows after, still buried inside him. Keith’s limbs are twitching and breath stuttering out of him as Lance kisses along his throat where he’s collapsed against his chest. Keith is boneless as Lance carefully rolls them, Keith sliding out of him as he does.

Lance cleans himself up with the sheet, tossing it onto the floor with their discarded clothes and the knife. His coils wrap around Keith as he pulls him closer, kissing the top of his head between his horns.

“Gonna have to start blunting my nails,” Keith murmurs.

Lance snickers into his hair and Keith smiles.

Chapter Text

Keith is sitting in Lance’s lap sprawled across his chest, one of his cocks pressed firmly against Keith’s ass and he can’t stop rocking back against it, needing more.

“Want you to fuck me,” he mutters, hair catching across his mouth as he reaches back to align Lance against him, whatever slick his body creates smoothing the way. Lance catches his wrist, body shuddering beneath him at Keith’s fingers fumbling over his cocks.

“Are you sure?” Keith’s face is still pressed into Lance’s chest. “Keith look at me.” And he does, dark hair tangled with sweat, eyes wide and dark, lips kiss swollen and red. He looks thoroughly debauched and they haven’t even done anything yet.

“Yes,” he pants before Lance can ask again, hips rolling in little aborted motions, cock rubbing against the heat of Lance’s stomach. His fingers fumble for Lance’s cock again.

“Yes, yes I’m sure just- fuck, Lance-” He whines and Lance helps him sit up, positioning him. Keith’s knees are spread wide over Lance’s tail and pressing into the mattress. Lance helps guide him, both of them gasping as the head of his cock presses slowly inside Keith.

Keith works his way down, taking his time to adjust until their hips are flush, Lance’s second cock pressed tight against the cleft of his ass. He reaches for his own cock, stroking himself and Lance’s hands are on his hips as he watches, spellbound.

“Stars, Keith.” He rolls his hips up to meet Keith as he starts lifting his hips, both of them finding a rhythm that has them gasping in tandem. Lance wraps a hand around Keith’s ass, pressing against his second cock as Keith fucks himself, lifting and dropping his hips in a steady rhythm.

“Both,” he chokes and Lance nearly swallows his tongue as Keith grinds on him.

“Both, Lance I want-” He groans, curling forward as Lance hits his prostate in a slow drag. His breath is hot against Lance’s chest.

“Are you s-” Lance tries to ask but Keith sinks his teeth into his shoulder in warning. Lance wraps his coils around him with a growl, crushing Keith to his chest and driving his hips up before he can stop to think straight.

“Yes, yes- just, fuck Lance .” He’s still rolling his hips, clenching around Lance as Lance reaches back. His fingers press against where Keith is stretched tight around him already, making him whine.

“Fuck, o-okay.”

It takes some doing but eventually Keith is sitting up, both of Lance’s cocks up his ass, and when Lance wraps a hand around him he screams. The pressure is so good inside him and Lance gasps as Keith clenches around him. Pleasure blinds him and Lance thrusts up as best he can because hot, and slick, and tight and he wants more. And then the door is being thrown open and Lance is startled to see the two guards rush in.

Keith’s hands are still on Lance’s chest for leverage as he glares back over he shoulder, face flushed.

“...out,” he gasps, the guards just staring at them wide-eyed. Lance sinks into the bed, coils shifting, inadvertently lifting his own hips up into Keith which has him tipping his head back with a gasp. His eyes roll, and he grinds down before he can stop it, a deep groan tearing out of him. One of Lance’s cocks is pressed tight against his prostate in constant stimulation and he’s dizzy with it.

Lance stares boldly at one of the guards, eyes wide in the dark. He reaches out with a hand, stroking Keith, doing it again just because they’re watching, slow and deliberate. Keith shudders above him and Lance bites his lip, staring at the guard boldly. Sweat drips down Keith's back, tangling his hair.

“Get out!” The angry roar that tears out of Keith is followed by a jagged ball of fire that drips across the room, wild and out of control. It snaps the guards out of their shock and they make a hasty retreat from the room, slamming the door behind them.

“Did that on purpose,” Keith grouses, still fucking himself on Lance’s cocks as he strokes him.

“You liked it.”

Keith glares but then Lance is sitting up and pulling his hair, yanking his head back, the arm around his waist crushing Keith to his chest.

Keith gasps, body shivering as Lance forces him to bare his throat, his back arched to try and relieve the pressure. He can feel Lance smile, taking a moment to just stare as Keith drags in breath after breath. The hand against his back slides around to run over his chest, feeling his racing heart.

Keith is forced to sit there, naked and vulnerable, every reaction carefully observed and cataloged. He’s never felt so vulnerable.

When he’s a breath away from struggling in Lance’s grasp, so uncomfortably exposed Lance has mercy on him. He finally leans in, sucking a hickey into his throat and making him groan, the anxiety bleeding out of him. He snaps his hips into Keith over and over again, free hand wrapped tight around Keith’s cock. The other hand drops to the mattress for leverage. He strokes Keith in a way that has his eyes rolling, pressure building low and hot against his spine.

“Cum for me,” Lance whispers, tongue flicking over Keith’s ear, and he does.

Chapter Text

“Why do you have to do this again?” Lance is standing on the other side of the room, watching as Keith strips down to a pair of red pants. He’s sitting in front of the vanity, carefully tying his hair back into a long braid with skillful fingers. The heavy gold collar sits in a tray in front of him and Lance eyes it warily.

“Because I belong to Dispater.” He says it easily, like someone owning him is normal. As sure as the sun rises in the sky, Keith is someone else's property. It makes Lance’s stomach turn, realizing he could have been forced into a similar position. He hadn’t believed Keith when all this first started, that he was safer with Keith than anyone else, that his life in Dis could be so much worse; now he does.

“So I perform at his whim.”

“Like a trained pet,” Lance spits, the idea sitting unpleasantly in his stomach.

Keith’s red and black shoulders tense and Lance watches the way the light casts shadows across the planes of his back. His long braid dips down his spine like a scorpion’s tail, shining ink-dark and oiled to gleam.

“You really are collared aren’t you?”

Lance pushes off the wall, walking towards him. Keith watches him approach in the mirror, affixing one of the thick gold vambraces to his arm. Fire flares in his palm and Lance runs a hand over his hair, cupping the braid in a loose fist. He turns his hand, letting the thick of the braid loop around his wrist before it slides free. His knuckles slip down Keith’s spine and Lance watches in the mirror as his eyes close, savoring the touch.

“Whether it’s the tattoos, the iron collar, the gold,” he glances pointedly to the gold collar, thick as a gorget, resting on the vanity. “Or the fabric of your robes always cinched so tight around your throat.” He traces a finger over Keith’s bared throat while he can. “They found a way to remind you.” His expressions warps and his voice cracks. “I’m sorry,” Lance says softly. “I don’t want this for you.”

A long sigh escapes him and Keith wilts under the touch. His face crumples and Lance presses the flat of his hand to Keith’s back trying to lend him strength. He didn’t realize he’d become such a weakness for Keith.

He steps to the side, hand still against Keith’s back and gently tips his chin up with his fingers. Keith opens his beautiful eyes, skin painted in the warm lamp light and Lance bends down to kiss him.

“You’re not alone,” he whispers, thumb stroking over Keith’s chin. “I’ll be here when you get back.”

Keith touches Lance’s wrist, sliding his hand over it.

“I know.” He opens his eyes. “Help me?” He lifts one half of the collar, holding it against his throat. The scales hanging from the edge drape over his collarbones and part way down his chest in little spears. The thick band comes up over his throat almost to his chin, making it impossible for him to lower his head. Lance grinds his teeth, but there’s little he can do.

“What do you need me to do?”

“Fit the second piece into the grooves on either side and slip the pins in to hold it there,” Keith explains.

Lance does as he’s asked, closing the collar around Keith’s neck, sliding the pins home. It’s as thick as his finger and wrought like a gorget, the scales dripping from the lower edge resting across Keith’s chest and shoulders. With it on he looks feral and dragon-like.

As Keith brushes gold dust over his skin, the flames gilding him, Lance has to admit it’s striking and beautiful. If only it also weren’t so heinous.

“Will you do my back?” Keith passes him the brush and Lance scowls at it.

“Only if I get to wash it off you later,” he growls.

A smile flickers in Keith’s eyes. “If you’d like.”

Lance huffs, lips curling in distaste but he takes the brush.

He works in silence, carefully dusting the powder over Keith’s skin until he glows.

Frustrated and angry he steps over Keith, settling into his lap and brushing gold along the high points of his cheeks, his ears, and his jaw. Every stroke just feels like another chain holding Keith in place, forever binding him. With every pass of the brush Lance’s frown deepens. 

He sucks a bruising kiss into the side of Keith’s throat just under his ear where he can still reach and Keith’s grip on his hips tightens. Lance works his teeth over the skin because he can and a low groan builds in Keith’s throat.

“When you get back I’m ripping every piece of this shit off you,” Lance growls and Keith shivers, hands flexing. “And then I’m going to fuck you until you remember you don’t belong to anyone but yourself. And you always will. They can’t take that from you,” he whispers in Keith’s ear, making him tremble.

Lance pulls back, fingers trailing over the collar, barely resisting the urge the slash into the soft gold with his claws.

Keith’s hands wander up to Lance’s waist. “What if I want to you belong to you?” he asks, soft and careful. 

Lance takes his chin again. “Then that’s a decision you get to make, not anyone else.” He holds Keith’s gaze firmly, eyes liquid and warm. “I took that choice away from you once.” He shakes his head briefly. “I’m not doing it again.” He searches Keith’s gaze, violet eyes soft in the lamplight. Lance thinks this was how Keith was always meant to be seen; in low firelight, soft and gold and warm, not covered in shadows and ash.

“Whatever you want is yours.” Lance’s voice is heavy with the gravity of what he means and how much he means it. “All you have to do is ask.”

He sees it when Keith’s lips part around the hitch in his breath. 

“Will you kiss me?”

Lance does, long and slow and deep. When he pulls away Keith is smiling and Lance’s heart tries to take flight out of his chest.

With steady hands he applies rouge to Keith’s lips, pressing more gold to the bow of them and the swell of his pout because he can, because he loves Keith’s mouth. He can’t wait to ruin it when he gets back.

Buckling on the final vambrace Lance slides out of Keith’s lap, kneeling on the floor to dust the tops of his feet. He sits back on his heels and looks up when he’s done, the brush resting on the floor in front of him. His expression is nothing short of reverent.

“I would do anything for you.”

Keith flushes and pulls Lance to his feet, rising with him.

“Then I’d have you just the way you are. Angry and sarcastic and beautiful. I’d have you happy,” Keith says, squeezing his hands. “And only on your knees because you want to be.”

Lance grins and if he weren’t so set on not ruining Keith’s perfect lips he’d kiss him. As it is he hooks a finger through Keith’s waistband, the tip of a claw brushing over him, half hard already.

“What makes you I think I don’t want to be?” He leans in and nips the bottom of Keith’s earlobe, making him gasp.

“Spirits, you are the worst kind of tease.”

Lance’s grip on Keith’s pants tightens.

“You sure you have to go right now?” His lips brush over that tender spot just under his jaw again, pressing closer. The hickey he’d left there before is already gone.

There’s a knock on the door and Lance growls, glaring over at the guard who steps inside without invitation. 

“It’s time.”

Lance doesn’t bother stepping away from Keith, his grip on the waistband keeping him from stepping back a respectful distance. Keith flushes but holds his head high.

“Get out,” Lance snaps.

“The court is waiting,” the guard argues, looking between them, his eyebrows drawing together in displeasure.

“And the longer you stand there the longer they will continue to wait, now get out!” he roars, lifting a jar of scented oil from the vanity and hurling it at the door. The guard jerks back, slamming the door shut and plunging the room into low light again. Lance chuffs, pleased with himself, the scented oil wafting through the room.

Keith chuckles, pressing his forehead to Lance’s.

“You’re so impertinent,” he scolds but he sounds fond.

Lance lifts the heavy golden belt, fitting it to Keith’s hips. More golden scales hang from the lower edge, sounding musically when he moves.

Lance pulls Keith into a hug, holding on tight, savoring the feel of Keith against him. Before he pulls away he tugs the braid. 

“You can keep the braid. We’ll play with it later,” he promises. 

Keith flushes again, taking a moment to recover as Lance throws open the door, hissing at the guard before letting Keith step past him. His expression is cool and aloof, fire already dancing over his fingers. The look he gives Lance somehow still manages to be heated and filled with promise. Lance inclines his head briefly with respect before stepping back into the room and shutting the door to wait.

Chapter Text

Lance has learned to wait until the door is shut to gauge Keith’s moods. He’s hard to read until he feels safe. Tonight is the same. He strides into the room head high, looking like the sun incarnate, all gold and red and black, proud and powerful. And then the doors are closed and Keith’s shoulders are falling, spine bowed, dark braid slipping over his shoulders. His skin is coated in sweat and streaked with ash, dark blood coating him in slashes and spatters.

Lance slips from the bed, abandoning the book he was reading as Keith claws at the heavy gorget.

“Get this off me.” His voice is tight and he drags in a jagged breath as Lance eases his hands away. He plucks the pins from the collar, throwing the two halves across the room with a loud clatter.

Keith takes a deep breath and this one is steadier, tipping his head back for the first time all night. Lance slides his hands over Keith’s now bare throat, stroking his fingers over the tender skin, soothing.

“You’re safe,” he says softly, fingers resting over the hollow of Keith’s throat. He reaches for the vambraces, divesting Keith of those too, throwing them to the side.

Lance pulls off his own robe before undoing the laces of Keith’s pants, dropping them to the floor and then leading him into the pool.

The tide stones glow beneath their feet as Lance walks through, sinking onto the low bench carved out of the stone, water lapping at his chest. He coaxes Keith to sit down between his knees and he goes willingly, leaning into Lance’s chest. Using a sponge and a cake of soap Lance begins to carefully scrub the layers of sweat and dust and blood from Keith’s skin.

“What happened?” Lance doesn’t want to pry but he’s worried. Keith is quiet and withdrawn in a way Lance doesn’t like. Maybe Lance should have gone after all, but he didn’t want to see whatever spectacle was about to take place and Keith hadn’t seemed to mind. Had almost looked relieved when Lance refused to participate.

“What always happens.” His voice is thick with gravel.

Lance squeezes a handful of the water, warmed by Keith’s presence, out of the sponge and down his back.

“I danced. And then I fought some poor sod for their amusement.”

Lance runs the sponge over Keith’s shoulders, washing away the blood, the gold dust flickering on the surface of the water.

“It was hardly a fair fight. It never is.” His teeth clench. “I can’t fucking die,” he grinds out, hands curling into fists beneath the water. “And they had me fight him anyway.”

Lance slips his arms around Keith, dropping a kiss to his shoulder, just holding him. Keith leans back into the embrace, one hand coming to rest over Lance’s arm.

“How can I help?” Lance asks softly. 

Keith turns his face towards him. “Make me forget? At least for a little while.”

Lance smiles, kissing his nose. “Soon. First we need to wash your hair.” He sits back, fishing for the end of the braid.

“Thought you said we were going to use it,” Keith says and there’s a teasing lilt to his voice Lance is pleased to hear. He plucks the tie free, tossing it over his shoulder and begins to unweave the braid.

“I don’t need a braid to pull your hair,” he teases, trying to wash the blood away.

His fingers slide up the back of Keith’s neck, working over his scalp, massaging away the tension for a moment before curling into a fist and pulling. Keith’s head tips back, baring his throat and Lance hums, nosing along Keith’s pulse as he gasps.

“See?” His tongue darts out to flick at the skin and Keith’s hand falls to Lance’s thigh beneath the water, his heart fluttering. Lance’s mouth is warm as he works over the skin briefly before pulling back, turning his attention to washing Keith’s hair again. Keith seems to have other plans. He turns around, moving to straddle Lance’s hips, kissing him.

Lance savors the moment, stroking his tongue against Keith’s languidly, one hand roving up and down his back, cupping his ass and squeezing. They separate with a wet pop. 

“I still need to wash your hair,” Lance murmurs.

“Don’t care.” He cups Lance’s jaw, tilting his face up and deepens the kiss. “My hair can wait.” He kisses the side of Lance’s neck, rocking into his lap and Lance groans, fingers flexing on Keith’s ass.

“Need you,” he murmurs and fuck it, Keith’s hair can wait.

Lance reaches for Keith’s cock, stroking lazily and Keith rolls into Lance’s fist, hands settling on his shoulders.

Lance kisses his temple, smoothing a hand over Keith’s hair.

“What do you need?”

Keith sinks onto his heels, thinking, Lance’s hand moving over him. “To feel in control.”

Lance’s grip tightens, fingers rolling across the head and Keith’s eyes flutter.

“I think I can help with that.” He flicks his tongue over Keith’s mouth, grinning as he reaches for Keith’s ass again.

“Do you want to fuck my mouth?”

Keith groans, head dropping forward. His cock twitches in the water.

“I’ll take that as a yes.” Lance sounds positively pleased with himself, running his hands over Keith’s thighs.

“Stand up.”

Keith looks up in surprise. “What, here?”

“You got some place else to be?” Lance arches an eyebrow and Keith’s cheeks color.

“No I just-“ He glances at the bed. “You’re just not going to be very comfortable.”

“I’m okay with that.”

Keith doesn’t seem very sure and his fingers toy with the wet ends of Lance’s hair at the back of his neck.

“Keith, I want you down my throat right here, right now and I’m not turned off by a little bit of pain. Now get up here.” He lifts Keith from under his thighs, helping him stand until Keith’s cock is eye level.

His hands are on either side of Lance’s face, tipping his head up.

“Are you sure?”

Lance licks a hot stripe over Keith’s cock, wincing when Keith yanks his head back with a scowl.

“Answer me.”

Lance savors the way that tone burns through him and grins.

“Yes.”

Keith bows forward. “Then shut up and open your mouth.”

Lance does, eagerly taking Keith’s cock. He bobs his head as Keith loosens his grip, sinking deeper around his cock each time. He runs his lips and tongue over the head, sucking gently but Keith still hasn’t taken over. He's holding himself rigid and tense, hips twitching and Lance pulls away, looking up.

“Keith, I can take it.” His eyes are sure as he looks up, Keith biting his lip. “You’re not going to hurt me,” he says softly, fingers stroking over Keith’s wrist. “I promise.” He takes Keith’s hand, pressing a kiss to his palm. 

“Trust me to know my own limits.” He shakes his head gently, Keith’s fingers still in his hair. “This isn’t one of them. I can take it.” He guides Keith’s hand tighter into his hair before scooting forward just enough to slide his hands behind his back, holding his own elbows.

“Take what you need.” He lets his jaw go slack and waits. Keith’s grip in his hair hardens and his hips snap forward. Lance groans as Keith hits the back of his throat and he swallows, his eyes watering.

Keith shudders, pulling back slowly and does it again. His cock slides in and out of the wet heat of Lance’s mouth, water sloshing against his legs.

Lance is careful to keep his lips curled over his teeth, saliva pooling in his mouth as Keith cups the back of his head, alternating his pace. He periodically drags Lance forward until his nose is pressed flat against his pubic bone, nestled in the dark curls there. Keith shudders, holding himself very still. His hips make stuttered little rocking motions and then he’s pulling away, letting Lance drag in a breath. He shifts his weight, bracing a hand on the lip of the pool, wrenching Lance’s head back, fucking into Lance’s mouth over and over again.

Lance’s fingers flex around his elbows with a whine, needy and desperate to touch but forces himself to hold still, to let Keith fuck the back of his throat.

Keith loses his footing and slips, Lance reaching for his hip to stabilize him. Keith grabs his wrist pinning it to the floor by his head and driving his hips forward with a growl. Lance’s jaw aches and his throat hurts but that doesn’t stop him from trying to lift his head when Keith pulls out. His mouth is open and wanting, Keith letting him catch his breath.

Lance's chest heaves, saliva dripping all over his chin, lips swollen and red. Before he has a chance to whine Keith is back and a moment later he’s cumming in Lance’s mouth, making him choke.

Keith snaps his hips forward once more, burying himself in Lance’s throat. His legs shake, giving out beneath him and he’s falling into Lance’s lap. Lance gags, choking, and drags in a breath, cum and saliva spilling from his mouth, tears spilling down his cheeks.

Keith swipes a wet hand through the mess, clearing it away as Lance catches his breath, slumped over in the pool.

“...so good,” Keith murmurs. “You did so good.” He kisses Lance’s aching jaw and Lance flushes at the praise, his chest tingling. “So proud of you, Lance.” He drops kisses all along Lance’s cheeks as he comes back to himself. He blinks his eyes open.

“Are you okay?”

Lance makes a little noise and nods, Keith’s hands running through his hair.

“’m okay,” he assures, voice wrecked. Keith kisses his throat and Lance lifts his chin, smiling. Keith spends the next few minutes just gently lavishing Lance with affection until his voice comes back.

Lance strokes a hand over Keith’s side and down his back, kissing his temple.

“Still really want you to fuck me,” Keith murmurs. He flicks his tongue over a bead of water on Lance’s throat, making him hum.

“Later,” Lance promises. “Really want to fuck you too.” He kisses him, soft and sweet because Keith doesn’t seem to mind. “For now, let's get you to bed.”

Keith pulls back, looking offended. “But you’re still-” He can feel Lance’s arousal still pressing into his thigh but Lance interrupts him.

“This wasn’t about me. And you don’t owe me anything.” He smiles, lips still red and abused. Keith runs his thumb over them and Lance presses a kiss to the pad of it.

“But I want…”

“I know, but you’re exhausted. You need sleep.” Lance grins cheekily. “If you really want though I’ll let you watch.”

Keith moans and nods, head dropping to Lance’s shoulder.

“I want,” he rasps and Lance hides a laugh in his hair.

“Alright, come on.” He pulls Keith out of the water, toweling them both dry and brushing Keith’s hair before tugging him into bed. Keith stretches out across the mattress, tugging on Lance’s hand.

“Come here.”

Lance straddles his hips, Keith’s hands on his waist and works a hand over his cock until he’s hard again. He's playing into it just because Keith is watching, moaning and rocking on his knees like he had that day in the baths, except now he means it.

“Kind of defeats the purpose of the bath don’t you think?” he asks breathily, tipping his head back.

“Don’t care.” Keith’s hands flex on Lance’s thighs.

Lance bites his lip and hums, flushing, knowing Keith is watching as he strokes himself. Keith trails his hands up Lance’s sides, stroking over his chest where the flush has reached. He hesitates only a moment before sliding his hand over Lance’s throat. He doesn’t add pressure, just holds it there and Lance grins, rocking harder into his fist.

He drops his head and opens his eyes, staring down at Keith, shivering at the rapt look on his face, solely the focus of Keith’s attention. Lance makes a pleased little sound, his eyes fluttering and Keith lifts a finger over Lance’s chin, pressing at his lips.

Lance lets his mouth drop open obediently and Keith dips his finger over the tender inside of his lip. He shivers as Keith presses past his teeth to his tongue, stroking gently. He adds another, Lance’s tongue slotting between them, flicking at the tender skin. He can feel Keith’s claws pricking at the back of his tongue but trusts him not to hurt him.

Lance closes his mouth over Keith’s fingers, sucking on them and Keith groans, his free hand dropping to Lance’s ass, making him whine. His hand stutters in its rhythm and Keith’s joins it, fingers still bobbing in Lance’s mouth.

He whines and shivers as Keith takes over the pace, finally drawing him over the edge with a twist of his wrist.

His legs are burning and he tips forward, one hand hitting the bed to keep him upright as he shudders. Keith’s fingers slip from his mouth, a string of saliva stretching between them. Lance swallows thickly, trying to catch his breath and opens his eyes.

“You’re beautiful,” Keith whispers. “I know I keep saying that…”

Lance gives him a tired smile. “‘S’okay. I like hearing it.” He leans down to kiss him but he hasn’t quite managed to catch his breath yet and it breaks shortly after. Lance rests his forehead against Keith’s, their breath tangling.

He grabs the sheet, cleaning them both up before tossing it aside.

“Better?”

Keith smiles, soft and affectionate and Lance rolls to the side, hitting the mattress next to him.

“Yeah.” Keith pushes Lance’s hair back, kissing his forehead and sighs deeply.

Lance smiles tiredly. “Good. ‘m glad.”

“Thank you,” Keith whispers and Lance covers his cheek with a hand, dragging tired eyes open.

“You’re welcome. I’m glad it helped.”

Keith kisses him softly, his cheeks and temples, his forehead again. “Go to sleep, Lance.”

He hums tiredly, snuggling against Keith’s chest, mumbling something Keith doesn’t understand but doesn’t need to. He gets the idea.

Chapter Text

It’s the middle of the night when there’s a fierce glow and a section of Keith’s outside facing wall melts. The stones were made to absorb heat from the inside, not the outside. And sure Dis is hot enough to heat metal and Keith’s fire burns hot enough to turn sand to glass but this… 

Whatever is heating the stone form the outside burns hotter.

In a ripple of searing heat the stone turns molten and bleeds away, leaving a gaping hole behind.

Keith watches as it happens, slowly maneuvering himself over Lance until he’s draped across his body, weight half hovering above him. He slides one hand under the pillow, gripping the knife he keeps there, shielding Lance from whatever is coming. Keith feels it as Lance tenses under him, the tips of his fingers sharpening into lethal claws that press against his spine where he’s holding him. There’s a subtle shift of fabric as Lance’s legs thickening into a tail, the coils coming up to bracket Keith on either side. The stone melts into a puddle, dribbling across the floor and out into open air.

A figure as molten red as the melted stone peeks its head into the room. Light curls under the blackened cracked surface of their skin. It looks like magma.

The light under their skin fades until they’re backlit by starlight, black and formless in the night. They duck away and Keith hears a strange jagged sound like rock crumbling and another winged figure fills the space.

Keith’s hand tightens on the knife as the figure’s wings collapse and then vanish as they touch down inside the room, a blade in hand. Lance opens his mouth, baring his fangs as his coils shift. His grip on Keith tightens as he prepares to roll them from the bed and onto the floor away from the figure.

“Keith?”

They both freeze, Lance’s eyes flicking to Keith’s for explanation. He shakes his head minutely.

“I know you’re awake,” the figure goes on, their one hand awkwardly fumbling out to the side. “I can’t see and I really hope you remember me or this is going to be a really short lived rescue,” he mumbles to himself, groping around for something solid.

“Keith?” The voice rises but only a fraction and Keith glances at the door, hoping the guards can’t hear.

Keith lets a soft emberlight fill his hand, drawing the attention of the figure towards the bed. Lance tenses as whoever it is comes towards them, trying to swallow the threatening hiss building in his throat.

“Shiro?”

Keith sits up, the fire flaring brighter and Lance lets him go but sits up with him. He keeps his coils still between Keith and the figure, a shield of muscle and scale.

“Yeah. It’s me.” He steps closer to the bed and Lance sees a human with a shock of silver hair and a pale scar across his nose. The wings have vanished.

Keith glances between Shiro, the door, and the new hole in his wall. “What are you doing here? You can’t be here.” He shifts, making to stand and Lance slowly uncoils from around him, letting Keith step off the bed. He catches Shiro by the arm dragging him back to the hole. “You can’t be here,” he hisses again. “What are you doing?”

“We came to get you out.”

Keith stumbles to a stop, hand still on Shiro’s arm. “We?”

Shiro points out the hole to the ground where another two figures are now waiting, hiding in the dark below.

“Come on.”

Keith steps out of Shiro’s grasp and shakes his head. “I can’t. My mom-”

“Is already gone,” Shiro hisses, anxiety in his voice. “We don’t have a lot of time. You have to come with me.”

“I-”

“Keith, please .” Shiro catches him by the shoulder and Lance growls. “We have to go.” He squeezes Keith’s arm, eyes like steel in the light. “Trust me.”

Lance watches from the bed, still lost and uncomfortable with Shiro touching Keith, no matter who he is.

“I’m not leaving Lance.”

Shiro glances past him to the bed where Lance is still tangled in a mess of coils and sheets, watching them through narrowed eyes.

“We didn’t plan-”

“I am not leaving him,” Keith snaps and Lance’s heart turns over. Keith takes a step away from Shiro, back towards Lance, expression fierce.

“Can you hurry up?” a voice from down below hisses. “I can’t keep this up forever.”

Shiro turns back to Keith, anxiety in ever line of his body. “Fine. Just hurry up.” He steps out into the dark and drops, the human form falling away. Wide black wings beat at the air to slow his descent as he falls and then he’s gone.

Lance slips from the bed, scales scraping against stone as he comes to a stop by Keith, his own knife in hand. His tail shifts until he’s left standing in his robe again.

“What’s happening?” he whispers.

Keith shakes his head. “I don’t know but he’s an old friend. He saved my life a long time ago.”

“And you trust him?” Lance starts strapping the vambrace to his arm.

Keith opens his mouth and glances out the hole. “I did. But it was a long time ago.”

Lance catches his hand, drawing Keith’s attention. “Do you trust him?” he asks again, his eyes searching.

Keith bites his lip. “Yes.”

Lance nods. “Okay. Then how are we getting down.” He sticks his head out the hole and looks down.

“I hold you and jump.”

Lance looks at him in horror, glancing back out the hole. “Keith it’s thirty feet,” he whispers. “At least.” When Keith looks unperturbed by the information Lance’s eyes widen.

“You’re going to break your legs.”

“Then you can help me walk until they heal.” He scoops Lance up into his arms and steps out into open air before Lance has time to protest. They hit the ground and Lance will never forget the sound of Keith’s bones snapping at the impact. He grinds his teeth around a groan of pain, falling sideways onto his hip. Lance scrambles to find his footing, helping to right them before they both face plant.

There’s a startled noise next to them and Lance looks up to see a small humanoid. Their outline is a void in the dark, body filled with nebulas and galaxies and they turn and look at Keith with eyes like solar flares. Lance can feel their gaze like the weight of a black hole against his skin.

“What took you so long?” they snap. “I can’t keep the illusions up forever. Do you want to get us caught?”

Lance hears another telltale snap and flinches, turning back to Keith whose legs are already reforming themselves.

“Oh I’m gonna be sick.” The larger man off to the side chokes and the small one glares.

“Oh no you are not. Swallow motherfucker or they’re going to find us. No evidence.”

Shiro scowls where he’s standing over them. “Pidge, Hunk, enough. We have to go. Is Matt out yet?”

The little one who looks like space in human form shrugs. “He better be because I am not coming back here for him.” It’s a lie but Shiro gets the point.

Lance hauls Keith upright, pulling him into his arms to keep the weight off his broken legs.

“I can walk,” he argues, but his legs are a mess underneath him and Lance makes no move to put him down. He kicks dirt over the blood they’ve left behind in the fall, grumbling.

“Like hell you can.”

“We have to move,” Pidge snaps. They stand, arms still held aloft like they’re holding something. “Everybody get real familiar, hold hands or something, just make sure you’re all touching.” They turn to Shiro. “Do it.”

Shiro nods, all of them shuffling closer. He arches one wing through the air as the illusion ripples, darkness trailing behind it, spreading over them in a dome as he snaps it down towards the ground. A massive purple rune flares to life under their feet as the dome descends, sealing closed as he plane shifts them. Keith winces at the build of pressure, the dry scratch of it against his skin, like he’s about to split open. A deep weight tries to drag him to the ground and he can feel Lance’s arms shaking.

He feels his bones grinding together and his ears pop. A moment later the rune snuffs out, leaving them in darkness. Lance stumbles briefly before righting himself, adjusting Keith’s weight in his arms with a relieved gasp as whatever was weighing them down lets go.

“You alright?” he whispers, nosing at Keith’s hair.

“‘M fine,” Keith mumbles, embarrassed by the attention. “I can walk.”

Lance doesn’t pull away. “Maybe I’m still worried and just want to hold you,” he whispers.

Keith blushes but stops trying to get Lance to put him down. Lance grins in triumph, kissing his cheek.

“Thank you.”

Keith grumbles a response that’s more disgruntled noise than words, settling into Lance’s arms with a pout. 

Pidge glares at them both when Lance finally looks up.

“Are you two done? Because we kind of need to go.”

Lance flashes a winning smile that does little to improve Pidge’s attitude. “Lead the way.”

~

They walk through the dark, Lance using his serpentine eyes to keep his footing as Pidge and Shiro lead them. Hunk stumbles a couple of times but does his best to keep up.

Lance carries Keith until his legs no longer ache and for some time after, only putting him down when he starts to hurt and Keith insists.

“Are you alright?”

Lance nods, putting a hand on Keith’s shoulder for balance while he stretches out his feet.

“Yeah, my feet are just hurting,” he murmurs. He flexes one foot, feeling the scar tissue stretch across the arch. It hurts in a deep almost pleasant ache. “I haven’t done this much walking in a while. Especially over uneven terrain.”

Keith looks crest-fallen and Lance presses a hand to his cheek as he finds his balance.

“I forgave you remember?”

Keith’s face does something complicated but he nods, lips pressed thin.

“You could shift,” Keith offers as they start walking again, one hand resting under Lance’s arm, lending support but Lance shakes his head.

“I don’t want to scare them.”

“Pretty sure no one here is human,” Keith says softly, taking his hand.

“I know, but I’m apparently an unexpected variable. I’d like to stay as non-threatening as possible. He turns a smile on Keith that leaves him weak, the way it always does.

“Besides, it’s not that bad. I’ll deal.” He squeezes Keith’s hand. “Come on, we’re falling behind.” He tugs gently on Keith’s hand, trying to pick up the pace and Keith follows, still worried.

“Would you two please keep up?” Pidge snaps quietly, clearly frustrated with them both. “We have a long way to go.”

“Sorry,” Lance says brightly. “I tripped. Keith was helping me up.” Lance flashes another smile and Keith looks at him from the corner of his eye, unsure why he’s taking the blame, but doesn’t say anything. “Won’t happen again.”

Pidge grumbles and rolls their eyes but hurries on ahead, moving deftly through the dark. Lance doesn’t know how far Shiro’s managed to get them outside the city to be in a forest but he’s grateful for the feeling of dirt and detritus beneath his feet. He tips his head back, breathing deeply, catching glimpses of the stars through the leaves. The air is cool and crisp with none of the dust and heat of Dis. He hasn’t had a breath of fresh air in almost a year.

They walk for hours, Lance’s feet throbbing until he’s struggling not to stumble, Keith’s hand under his forearm for support.

“Where are we going?” Keith calls as Lance stumbles over his own feet, gritting his teeth in frustration.

“We’re almost there,” Pidge promises.

“Almost where?” There’s a frustrated tension in his voice. 

Hunk drops back to walk with them, a friendly smile on his face. “We’ve been planning this for a long time. Pidge and their brother set up a camp for us before we even breached the city. There are wards on the trees to create a temporary illusory shield over the area. It will disguise our tracks, hide our fire, and do this really cool thing where anytime someone gets too close to it they get confused and disoriented until they’re all turned around.” Excitement fills his voice as he talks. “Pidge and Matt are the only ones who can see it, which is why they’re leading.”

Lance blinks at him in surprise. “That is so cool.”

“I know right!?” Hunk’s face lights up in a bright smile. “They’re both amazing,” he gushes.

Keith watches Pidge’s tiny form moving in the dark.

“What are they?” he asks carefully. “I’ve never seen anything like them.”

Hunk sticks out his lip in a pout. “We’re not really sure to be honest. But Shiro called them both children of the universe, whatever that means. They specialize in illusion magic, manipulation, and weird mental stuff.”

“Like what?” Lance asks curiously.

“Like the kind of shit that will get you lost in this forest for the next hundred years if you don’t shut up,” Pidge snaps back at them. Shiro sighs from somewhere in the dark and Keith smiles.

“Are we-”

“We’re here,” Pidge interrupts Lance, leading them all into a small clearing. The space is completely empty and unassuming. Shiro lifts an old log, pulling out a bundle of firewood, wrapped in wool to keep it dry, beginning to build a campfire in the middle of the space. Pidge removes a number of bundles from a scattering of holes, hollows, and piles of leaves, dumping them next to Shiro. Hunk pulls over a pile of stones, forming a fire pit before he begins separating the bundles. He lays out bedrolls for each of them and collects whatever supplies he’s brought with him or needs from the forest for dinner.

He lays out a bedroll for Keith, expression apologetic as he looks at Lance.

“Sorry, we don’t- we weren’t expecting anyone else-” He chews on his lips awkwardly and Lance gives him a tired smile as Keith helps lower him down.

“It’s okay,” he assures, looking at Keith. “We can share.”

“Pidge, are we ready?” Shiro looks up, searching for them in the dark, waiting to light the fire.

“One sec.” They place their hand to a tree, a symbol beginning to glow a vibrant green beneath their palm, rippling like light across water. A number of other symbols come to life in a circle around the little clearing. A thread forms between and connecting them, creating a protective ring around the camp. There’s a shimmer, like heat off the sand in the desert and then they wink out.

Lance looks around expectantly but from what he can tell nothing’s changed. “Was that it?”

“Was that-” Pidge gapes at him for a moment, before their expression roils like a thunder cloud. “Ugh! That spell took a whole day to cast you ungrateful-” They stomp over to the fire, throwing themselves down to sulk. They glare at Lance from over the flames as Shiro brings it to a full burn.

“Sorry, I didn’t…” Lance looks at the others awkwardly. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”

Hunk drops a hand to Pidge’s shoulder, the weight of it rocking them sideways but their scowl never wavers.

“Don’t worry about Pidge. They’re just worried about their brother. They’re going to be surly until he gets here.”

“Fuck you,” Pidge snaps, furious when Hunk gives them a gentle pat on the shoulder, and then ruffles their hair.

“How’s a nice hot dinner sound you little grump?”

Pidge grumbles but nods and Hunk passes out some dried meat and cheese along with some apples to tide them over until he can get some stew going. They’ll leave the cooking supplies behind when they leave, stored in one of the hollows. For now it’s nice to have something other than travelling rations.

“Is there water?” Keith asks, sitting down beside Lance who’s stretched his aching feet to the flames.

“Oh, yes!” Hunk passes over a canteen. “We made sure to store enough for at least two days so drink what you need.”

“Thank you.” Keith takes a drink, passing it to Lance and then uses his claws to rip a length of fabric from the bottom of his robe.

Lance squawks at him in surprise, spilling water down his chin as he nearly chokes.

“What are you doing?”

Keith takes back the canteen, wetting the fabric before passing it back to Hunk, blatantly ignoring the question.

“Thank you.”

Hunk glances between them as he takes it. “Uh huh. Sure.”

Keith warms the fabric with his hands before gesturing for Lance’s foot.

“Give me your foot,” he says softly.

There’s something like panic on Lance’s face and he glances at the others who are all watching. “Why?”

Keith stares at him impassively and Lance finally relents, shifting around to place his foot in Keith’s hands. He flushes as Keith takes the silk, beginning to wash away the dirt. Lance flushes, trying to pull away.

“Keith-”

Keith holds his ankle firmly but not tight enough to hurt and Lane is too embarrassed to really put up a struggle. Keith works carefully over the knots of scar tissue, washing away the grime from the walk. Lance is humbled by the display and sits quietly, letting Keith wash his feet.

When he’s finished Keith incinerates the material but doesn’t let go of Lance’s ankle. He tries to pull away again as Keith begins to massage his foot. He finally settles as Keith’s thumb presses into the arch, working away the tension and the bone deep ache.

He gorans with relief, leaning back on his hands and Keith smiles, small and private.

They all watch the display curiously and Lance blushes again. He makes himself comfortable, nibbling on the rations for something to do.

Pidge shakes their head like all of this is insane.

“I’m sorry, who are you?” they demand, looking at Lance from over the fire with narrowed eyes before looking to Keith. “Who is he?”

Somewhere during their journey their appearance had shifted to that of a petite, androgynous human with ruffled sandy brown hair and eyes. Lance would almost take them for a sprite based on their build alone if it weren’t for what he’d seen during their rescue.

Lance grins, Keith still working his fingers over Lance’s foot. “I’m his sex slave.”

Keith groans, dropping his head as there are shared looks of horror all around. “Do not.” He pinches one of Lance’s toes in punishment, cheeks warm.

“What?” Lance grins, apparently recovered from his previous embarrassment. “I’m a slave you have sex with, ergo, sex slave.” He can see Keith’s glare peeking out from behind his hair.

“You are not my property,” Keith argues, finally releasing Lance’s foot to take up the other one, cheeks burning with mortification.

“Uh, pretty sure you bought me so it makes me yours.” Lance pops a bite of food in his mouth and smiles cheekily.

Shiro turns to look at Keith, a look of disapproval on his face. “Keith…”

“It’s a long story,” he mutters, cutting Shiro off before he can get started with the lecture Keith knows will be inevitable.

“And to be fair I seduced him first,” Lance says.

Keith grinds his teeth. “Not helping.”

Lance glances around the fire at the looks of suspicion and discomfort coming from them all.

“Oh my god would you people relax? He didn’t hurt me. He never touched me without my consent, never has and never will. I was kidding. Chill.”

“But he owns you. That’s not-” Shiro’s lips thin and Lance rolls his eyes. He turns to Keith where he’s still studiously working the tension from Lance’s aching feet.

“If I wanted to walk away from here right now, vanish into the dark, and never see you or anyone else again would you stop me?” Lance demands, his tone sharp.

Something in Keith’s chest squeezes painfully, constricting tight around his throat and his fingers stumble. He has to swallow thickly before he can speak.

“No.” The word comes out strangled and he’s half afraid Lance actually will get up and leave. “I don’t own you,” he insists.

Lance gestures at him to make his point. “There. See? I was kidding.” He bumps his foot into Keith’s hand before slipping from his grasp. He scoots closer until they’re side by side and some of that pained look in Keith’s eyes eases.

“I’m here because I want to be,” Lance insists.

Keith tears off another piece of silk, Hunk passing him the canteen back so he can wash his hands, watching the water steam and evaporate.

Lance slides his hand into Keith’s, the last of the tension easing from his shoulders and he finally looks up.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Lance says, soft and reassuring and a small smile flickers across Keith’s face. He squeezes Lance’s hand, a quiet thank you and Lance squeezes back.

Shiro’s eyebrows lift briefly but he doesn’t say anything.

Lance turns back to them. “I was trying to lighten the mood. My sense of humor may be a little warped. Sorry.”

The others all sort of ignore them after that, going about whatever business they need to until the stew is ready, Hunk passing around bowls.

Lance and Keith split one, the two of them talking quietly.

“You didn’t have to do that,” Lance says, reveling in the heat of the fire after the night’s chill. He passes the stew over to Keith, nibbling at an apple. “I would have been fine.”

“Did it help?” Keith asks and Lance stretches experimentally.

He sits quietly for a moment. His feet still ache but nothing like they did before.

“Yes,” he admits quietly and Keith nods like he’d expecting as much.

“Good.” He turns back to the stew. “You were hurting. I wanted to help.” He spins the spoon. “I don’t like it when you’re in pain.”

Lance’s expression goes all gooey and soft and he’s overwhelmed with emotion, the same as he was in their room when Keith had refused to leave without him. He’s struck with the urge to kiss Keith but before he can they’re being interrupted.

“Gross,” Pidge mutters from across the fire, scowling at them both.

Lance shoots them a withering look and rolls his eyes. “You don’t like it, don’t watch.” And he kisses Keith, Pidge gagging in the background.

Chapter Text

Keith takes first watch even though Pidge’s shield renders it unnecessary. Lance slips out of bed to stay with him near the border of the shield.

“What are you doing awake?” Keith whispers as Lance comes closer. The coals in the fire are banked, the light low to make sure it doesn’t burn out of control.

Even with the spell Keith is paranoid. They’ve come so far to escape, he can’t stand the idea of being captured now.

Lance slips out of his silk robe, the only thing he’d been wearing during their escape, and lets it fall to the grass.

“Lance,” Keith hisses, darting a look at the others as they’re sleeping even as he opens his arms, letting Lance slip easily into his lap. He sits so he’s facing Keith, legs tucked to the side.

“You’re gonna freeze,” he scolds.

Lance’s expression is somber as he loops his hands behind Keith’s neck.

“So keep me warm.”

After a moment Keith undoes the sash at his waist, parting the fabric to wrap it around both of them and exhaling into the night.

Lance sighs, pressing closer, the heat of Keith’s skin keeping him warm. He tucks a lock of hair behind Keith’s ear, that same expression on his face as Keith’s hands settle around his hips.

“What is it?” He lets his fingers play over Lance’s back. “You’re oddly somber.”

Lance kisses him, sweet and chaste. When he pulls back Keith imagines he can see the stars reflected in his eyes.

“I love you.” He runs his fingers over Keith’s jaw, playing with his hair. “I think you know that already. But I wanted to say it.” His eyes meet Keith’s. “I’m not going anywhere. I just want you to know that.” He kisses him again and Keith doesn’t know what to say.

They cuddle for awhile before Lance stands and Keith is somehow colder without him. He catches his hand before Lance can get far.

“Stay?”

Lance stares at their hands for a moment.

“If you’d like.” Lance lets himself be pulled back into Keith’s lap, Keith pulling him back against his chest, arranging them so the robe covers as much of Lance as possible, his back pressed to Keith’s chest. He uses his natural heat to keep Lance warm and it feels good to use his fire to help for once, instead of to hurt.

Keith wraps his arms around Lance’s waist, Lance covering them with his own.

“Warm enough?”

Lance hums, turning his face into Keith’s throat and breathing him in.

“Mmhmm.”

“Good.”

Keith’s hair is loose and slips over Lance’s shoulder, making him smile.

“Haven’t cut your hair yet,” he murmurs and Keith strokes his thumb over Lance’s knuckles.

“Not free yet.”

He can feel Lance smile against his throat. “Think I like it long.”

“Yeah?”

Lance nods. “But I’m still going to help you cut it. Then you can choose to grow it back out again or keep it short. You don’t need my permission obviously. Just wanted you to know you look good. You always look good.”

Keith smiles, squeezing Lance. “Thank you.”

Lance begins to drift, lulled to sleep by the sound of Keith’s heartbeat, the steady rise and fall of his chest, the warmth of his skin.

His body goes slack and warm with sleep and Keith kisses his forehead, whispering softly.

“I love you too.”

~

“Aren’t you supposed to be keeping watch?” Shiro teases, coming to a stop beside them two hours later as Keith’s watch comes to an end. “Not exactly mobile with a lap full of lamia,” he lifts an eyebrows, smile in the corner of his mouth.

“What if someone were to ambush you? I thought I taught you better than that.” His voice is light and full of familiarity long lost.

“They couldn’t get to him if they tried,” Lance says, startling them both. He cracks open one eye, staring at Shiro, expression cool as he lounges across Keith.

“You’re supposed to be sleeping,” Keith scolds, adjusting the robe to keep him covered.

Lance makes no move to get up and Shiro’s expression tightens like he doesn’t approve, arms crossing over his chest.

“I’ve got fifteen extra feet on me,” Lance warns, each word soft and slow. He never breaks eye contact. “They wouldn’t get anywhere near him because I wouldn’t let them.”

“You’re not that fast.”

Lance opens his other eye and grins but it’s cold and detached, making a show of displaying his fangs, pupils slitting. His hand is resting casually over the hidden blade on his arm.

“Yes, I am.” The lack of arrogance to the words leaves Keith chilled. He’s seen Lance move before, faster than lightning, and wonders if that had only been a fraction of his speed. He runs a hand down Lance’s arm and wonders.

Lance finally breaks whatever silent staring contest he’s gotten into with Shiro and sits up with a yawn. He disentangles himself from Keith and stands, stretching languidly, shameless. Keith flushes, pulling his robe closed and tying it off as Lance scoops up his own, sliding it back on.

He extends a hand to Keith.

“Come to bed. It’s Shiro’s turn to take watch.”

“In a minute,” Shiro cuts in and Lance tries not to bristle. It takes a moment but he shrugs lazily.

“Alright, I know when I’m not wanted.” He bends to press a kiss to Keith’s knuckles.

“Hey.” Keith tightens his grip on Lance, tugging him closer. “You’re always wanted,” he says softly and Lance’s eyes warm. He leans down, kissing Keith, cupping his jaw, tracing patterns over his skin with his thumb. The kiss lingers for a moment before Lance drops another quick one to his mouth and then he’s straightening.

“I can take the last watch if you like,” Lance offers, turning to Shiro, their fingers still tangled. “You guys deserve to get some sleep.”

Shiro looks less than thrilled with the idea.

“Pidge is more than capable of keeping watch,” he says, still watching Lance closely. “But thank you.”

Lance smiles but it’s not particularly kind.

“I see.” He nods slowly, his expression finally softening with a sigh. “I understand.” He runs his thumb over Keith’s knuckles, smiling down at him.

“Come to bed soon. I’m cold without you.” He lets his fingers slip through Keith’s with a fond squeeze and wanders back to the fire, finally tying his robe closed.

Keith watches him go, Shiro studying him. “You really do care about him don’t you?”

Keith blushes, embarrassed by whatever look might have just been on his face. He clears his throat.

“Yeah. Yeah I do.”

Shiro’s expression softens and he sinks to the ground across from Keith. “I guess you really don’t need me to protect you anymore.”

Keith gives him a flat look. “I haven’t needed you to protect me for seventy years Shiro.”

Shiro’s smile fades. “I’m sorry about what happened,” he says softly. “That I couldn’t get you out sooner. And your mom but she wanted to make sure everything was perfect.”

Keith reaches out and takes his hand. “It’s okay. It wasn’t your fault.”

“I should have been there. The only reason they found you was because they were hunting me. If I hadn’t-”

“We’re out now.” Keith squeezes his hand and Shiro tries to smile. Keith scoots closer, pulling him into a hug.

“I missed you.”

Shiro holds him tight, careful not to lose an eye on one of Keith’s horns. “Missed you too kid.”

Something niggles in the back of Keith’s head and his thoughts grind to a stop. “Wait, what do you mean she wanted everything to be perfect? I thought you planned this.”

Shiro snorts. “Hardly. Over the years Krolia’s built an entire network of spies, pulling people together to help smuggle people out of Dis or to buy them on the block. There are a number of people loyal to her living in the city. We have a lot of people to thank for getting you out but it wouldn’t have been possible without her.”

Keith stares at him dumbly. “I didn’t know that.”

“You weren’t supposed to. If things fell apart she didn’t want your relation blowing back on you and causing you to fall out of favor with Dispater. She spent years building that trust up, finding allies one at a time, using a figurehead to help communicate to slaves or spies what needed to be done. Her position and reputation naturally frightened people and made them suspicious. But it also allowed her to manipulate information, redirecting eyes to where she wanted them and away from where she didn’t. She’s saved a lot of lives.”

Shiro smiles warmly. “You’re more like her than you think.”

Keith doesn’t know what to say but his eyes burn. He looks away, biting his lip and clears his throat.

“Speaking of mom.” He plucks at a blade of grass. “She should be here soon right?”

Shiro looks around as if she’ll suddenly emerge from the shadows.

“Yeah. I actually expected them sooner. Matt should have gotten her out by now.”

“Matt? Pidge’s brother?”

“Yeah, he’s an old friend,” Shrio says idly, still searching the trees. “And a part of that network your mom built. He knows where we’re meeting and Pidge’s spell is keyed so he can find us but he’s cautious. So is your mom. They’re going to make sure they’re in the clear before meeting up with us. They’re probably taking the long way or something.” His eyes finally come around to meet Keith’s again.

“Try not to worry. They should be here in a few hours or at least by morning.” He puts a hand to Keith’s cheek. “Get some sleep. I’ll wake you when she gets here.”

Keith nods. “Alright. Don’t forget to air out your glamour, I know how exhausting that is for you.”

Shiro laughs. “Alright. Just didn’t want to scare anyone.”

Keith scoffs, but his eyes are warm and there’s a smile on his lips.

“You and Lance both. You’re hardly the most terrifying thing any of us have ever seen.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Shiro says gently. “Now go to bed.”

Keith makes his way back to the fire, Lance rolling over to greet him. He reaches out with a smile, tugging Keith into his still very cold bedroll.

“Hey,” Keith says softly, sliding in beside him and Lance makes room where he can. “I’m sensing a bit of friction between you and Shiro. Everything okay?” Keith tucks his hair back so they’re not laying on it, shifting until Lance is pressed up against his back, one arm thrown over his waist, cuddling up close.

Lance hums, sinking into Keith’s warmth, kissing the back of his neck.

“He doesn’t know me. Doesn’t trust sleeping while someone he doesn’t know keeps watch. I wouldn’t either.” He hums thoughtfully, curling his finger through Keith’s hair. “That or he’s racist.”

Keith snorts, covering Lance’s arm over his waist with a hand. “Hardly.”

“That’s what I thought.” Keith can hear the smile in his voice. “Normally I’d be offended but I can’t say I blame him. None of them know me and if they know of me what they’ve heard won’t be very flattering. Either of the lamia and all the rumors around us or me specifically.” He pulls a thread of hair from Keith’s lips, kissing his cheek.

“He cares about you.” Lance grins. “Probably thinks I seduced you and have you wrapped up under some spell,” he whispers, kissing the side of Keith’s throat. He barely pulls his lips far enough away to speak.

Keith turns towards him, firelight catching in his eyes. “You kind of do,” he says softly, pulling Lance down into a kiss. 

When it breaks he tips his head, stroking their noses together. Lance traces his fingers over Keith’s cheek.

“He can be a little overprotective,” Keith mutters. “Probably still thinks I’m seven.” He snorts and Lance smiles against his skin, unable to resist dropping another kiss to his cheek.

“Maybe next time you can both share watch,” Keith suggests, “get to know one another. I’d like you to be friends.”

Lance hums against his mouth. “Maybe.” He lays back down again, Keith turning to face him.

“You wanna tell me what’s up with you two?” Lance asks, glancing across the space to where Shiro has let his glamour fade, stretching his wings out. In the dark he blends in with the sky, the patterns on his skin getting lost among the stars. They’re glowing faintly.

“He found me when I was a kid,” Keith says softly. “He was hurt after escaping from Dis and I was lost. He’d lost his arm and was bleeding to death. I cauterized the wound for him and between his wings and my familiarity with the desert, I was able to bring him home to my parents who could take better care of him. 

“We became friends after that, while he was healing. He’d come back to visit now and then before we were attacked.” Keith turns and looks at Shiro, stroking his fingers over Lance’s arm around his waist.

“He’s been through a lot,” Keith says softly. “It’s why he hates the idea of me buying you. Because someone did it to him and to me and my mother.” Keith’s mouth works stubbornly. “He’s afraid I’ve become the thing I used to hate.”

Lance touches his face. “You’re not,” he says softly. “You’re not. Or I wouldn’t love you.”

Keith covers Lance’s hand with his own, using it to stay grounded. 

“Even after he got better he’d come back to check on us or just to visit. He’s…” Keith chews on his lip throughtfully. “I guess he’s my brother. When I think of my childhood, of my life before Dis, he’s always there, in almost every memory.” He tips his head, bunting affectionately into Lance. “He’s family.” He looks up, dark hair tangled beneath him and Lance’s expression clears with understanding.

“Ah, okay.” 

A smile curls across Keith’s mouth as the mood lifts. “Why? You jealous?” he teases, violet eyes sparkling and Lance snorts.

“Um, yeah. Have you seen him?” Lance whistles lowly. “The guy is gorgeous. Even without the glamour.” He gestures at Shiro with his chin. “I mean the six fingers thing is a little weird.” He bites his lip, wiggling his eyebrows at Keith. “Unf, six fingers .”

“Oh my god, shut up. Please, please shut up.”

They both dissolve into giggles and it only gets worse when it draws Shiro’s attention. He stares at them in confusion, Keith and Lance leaning on one another, trying to smother their laughter. He smacks Lance in the chest before making a dramatically affronted noise, gasping up at him, a hand over his heart.

“Do I need to be jealous? Are you going to switch me out for my brother?”

When Lance looks down at him, his eyes are liquid warm and heavy.

“Never,” he rasps, leaning down and kissing him, laughter still in his mouth as he presses Keith into the ground. His fingers curl in Keith’s hair, scratching at his scalp and he pulls Keith’s lower lip into his mouth, nibbling at it.

The ground is lumpy and cold, bits of stone and twigs digging into Keith’s back through the material of the bedroll. In spite of that, he sighs into the kiss, more content than he’s been in a long time.

When Lance pulls away, Keith’s breathing is shallow.

“Get a room,” Pidge calls grumpily, rolling over and trying to go back to sleep.

Lance snorts, burying his laughter in Keith’s throat, dissolving into giggles. He drops one more quick kiss to Keith’s mouth, addicted to him, before he lays down again. He’ll never get tired of kissing Keith. Not now, not ever.

“Glad we got that sorted out. Now keep me warm,” Lance says, voice petulant as he snuggles into Keith’s back. “It’s cold.”

“You big baby,” Keith mutters, but he’s smiling, pulling Lance’s arm more tightly around his waist.

”I’m a giant snake Keith. Sleeping on the cold hard ground doesn’t exactly do it for me,” he snipes, but there’s no bite to it  

Keith rolls his eyes good naturedly, Lance scooting forward until he’s pressed tightly to Keith’s body.  

“Yeah, yeah,” he mumbles.

Lance settles down, pressing his nose to the back of Keith’s neck. He drops a kiss there and can feel it when Keith smiles , the hand curled around his wrist giving an affectionate squeeze.

As Keith drifts off to sleep feeling safe and warm he finally dares to hope.

Chapter Text

Lance wakes with a snarl, snatching at the wrist hovering just a breath from Keith’s shoulder, hissing. Scales burst from under his skin, fangs and claws snapping out and he grinds the bones of the person’s wrist together, ready to break it.

Wide gold eyes look down at him from a red face, blackened horns curling from a head of thick familiar hair exactly like Keith’s. The woman takes him in, unmoved by the display of aggression or the pain in her wrist. Her gaze drops to Keith, still sleeping and half buried under Lance’s protective lunge and to his surprise, she smiles.

It takes Lance a moment to recognize her and he gasps, immediately releasing her wrist. She has the same dark swirls inked into her skin.

“Sorry,” he whispers and she sinks to the ground across from them, her robes pooling around her.

“It’s okay,” she says, voice just as soft and warm as he remembers from the night she’d come to visit.

Lance’s hand burns where he’d touched her. He’d thought Keith was warm.

“Lance, correct?” There’s a faint accent to her voice he can’t place but it’s as warm as the rest of her.

Lance nods, hand settling on Keith’s shoulder where he’s still breathing slow and deep, oblivious to her presence. Her eyes glow like embers in the dark the way Keith’s do only when he’s furious.

“It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”

All Lance can do is swallow, suddenly very nervous, and nod dumbly. “You’re his mother. The Iron Maiden.”

Her expression flickers with surprise before she smiles and inclines her head. The glossy surface of her horns reflects the dim light of the banked coals like polished obsidian.

“I take it I wasn’t supposed to know that.”

She seems almost pleased. “No, you were not,” she says mildly. “You are full of surprises Lance.” She inclines her head respectfully.

“I mean it’s not like it’s hard, you’re both Oni and…” He gestures vaguely.

“And many would have assumed instead there was no relation. We don’t look much alike.”

“Yes you do,” Lance whispers, watching her intently. “He has your eyes.” 

Krolia ducks her head, trying not to cry. When she speaks again her voice is steady.

“My name is Krolia. And I have worked very hard to distance myself from the thing you have so easily accepted.” Her head tips curiously. “Are you not afraid of me?”

“Of course I am.” His gaze flicks between her eyes. “But you’re his mother. And not everything in Dis is what it seems. Keith wasn’t. Neither are you.”

Krolia’s eyes narrow, her expression intent. “You were awake.” She smiles and Lance sees the points of her teeth. “The night I came to see him. Clever boy,” she praises softly. “Not many are able to fool me.”

“You were a little distracted at the time.”

Krolia nods slowly. “That I was.”

Lance can’t get past the urge to stare at her. He’d never considered Keith to look particularly human in all the time they’d spent together, not with his horns and claws and teeth and coloring, but compared to his mother Lance can see his human blood clear as day.

“It’s an honor to finally meet you.” Lance extends his hand to her and she takes it, shaking it firmly before letting go. That smile is still pulling the corners of her mouth up. She’s more gentle than he’d imagined, especially given the rumors he’d heard of The Iron Maiden while in Dis. Then again his own rumors where a mix of half-truths and inflated rumor so he should have known better. They all played parts.

She inclines her head. “The honor is mine.”

Krolia looks down at Keith and smiles, small and private and filled with love. She brushes a strand of hair out of his face with a long claw as he sleeps.

“Thank you. For protecting him,” she clarifies.

Her head tips to the side, dark hair slipping over her shoulder. Lance can’t tell if the red cast to it is natural or from the emberlight.

Her eyes turn sad and she looks at Keith. “Especially when and how I could not,” she says slowly. When she looks at Lance again her expression is heavy with gratitude. “Thank you for protecting my son.”

Lance inclines his head respectfully. “You’re welcome.” Emotion sits heavy in his stomach and he feels his eyes burn but can’t pin down why exactly. “Thank you for trusting me with him,” he says, voice thick.

“I can think of no one more worthy of his heart.”

Lance winces at the words, his fingers stroking subconsciously over Keith’s shoulder.

“Not sure I deserve it,” he whispers weakly. That burning in his eyes intensifies. “Especially after what I did to him.”

He startles at the gentle touch under his chin, drawing his head back around.

Krolia’s face is so soft Lance’s heart squeezes.

“He forgave you,” she says slowly, the word carefully emphasized. “So do I. He loves you,” she says fiercely. “More than he’s ever loved anyone or anything.” She squeezes his chin gently. “Be worthy of it.”

Lance’s mouth trembles and he nods shallowly. “I’ll try,” he promises. “Offering more than that would be a disservice to you both and I don’t make promises I can’t keep.”

Krolia’s smile is wide as she pulls her hand away. “Pain is how you learn one another’s boundaries. Just try not to do it on purpose.”

Lance’s mouth firms. “That I can promise.”

Krolia smiles again and it’s dazzling, dimpling the same as Keith’s. “That is all I ask,” she says.

Lance leans closer, adding more pressure to Keith’s shoulder, stroking his arm. “Keith, wake up. Your mom’s here.”

Keith grumbles, soft and dazed and Lance’s heart swells with affection. He tucks a length of hair behind Keith’s ear where it’s fallen over his face, unable to resist the urge to lean down and kiss his cheek.

“Wake up beautiful, your mother would like to hug you.” He sits back, rubbing Keith’s arm to draw him further to consciousness. The grumbling only grows louder as Lance puts space between them, letting cold air rush to fill the void. Keith’s violet eyes finally flutter open.

“Keith.” At Krolia’s voice Keith’s eyes snap into focus.

“Mom?” He sits up and Krolia’s expression turns vulnerable and softer than warm gold. Lance’s heart squeezes at the sight. He feels like he’s invading on something he shouldn’t be seeing.

Keith bolts upright, reaching for her. “Mom!”

She embraces him and Keith is small by comparison, tucked carefully in her arms. She whispers in his ear, smoothing back his hair. There are tears in her lashes.

Lance turns towards the fire to give them some privacy, poking at the banked coals and adding another log, trying to stay busy. Without Keith to keep him warm, goosebumps are rippling over his skin. Even as a water snake he’d never handled the cold particularly well and being outside is making him lethargic.

A hand touches his shoulder and Lance looks up curiously. There’s a look on Keith’s face, conflicted, and Lance’s expression softens into a smile. He doesn’t even have to think about it.

“Go.” He gestures to Krolia with his chin. “I’ll be here.”

Keith sweeps in to kiss him and Lance smiles into it.

“I love you,” Keith whispers.

Lance smiles. “I love you too.” He pushes at Keith’s shoulder. “Now go, stop being gross in front of your mom, it’s embarrassing.”

Keith grins, wide and bright and Lance knows he’s gone. He would do anything for that smile.

“She’ll live.”

Krolia laughs as Keith leans in, kissing him one more time before Lance shoves him away with a laugh, trying not to wake Pidge.

“Go, you have a lot of catching up to do.”

“I’ll be back,” Keith promises before standing, Krolia rising with him.

Lance watches him go, his expression soft.

“I know.”

Keith steps away, Krolia inclining her head towards Lance.

“It was a pleasure.” She takes Keith under her arm, the two of them walking towards Shrio who rises to embrace them both from where he’s still keeping watch.

Lance’s heart aches for his own family, some part of him hurt and feeling excluded but knowing Keith will come back. He deserves time to reconnect with his family. Lance smiles in their direction before pulling the blanket more tightly around himself, scooting close to the fire and drifting back to sleep.

Chapter Text

Sometime in the night Lance shifted, trying to stay warm and he wakes curled around Keith like he’s a hot stone. Lance vaguely remembers Keith coming back to bed and laughing at him quietly as Lance had wrapped him in a tangle of limbs, cuddling.

Now Keith is sleeping deeply in the loops of Lance’s tail, looking for all the world like it’s the safest place he’s ever been.

Lance watches him breathe for a moment, stroking a finger over his cheek, a besotted smile on his face.

“Gods could they be any more handsy,” Pidge gripes and Lance sticks his tongue out at them, realizing everyone else is already awake.

“I mean probably.” A taller version of Pidge walks into view, chewing on a piece of bread from a loaf Hunk had packed away for them. They’re the spitting image of Pidge, just with longer hair, windswept and wild.

“I think it’s cute.” Hunk smiles at them, passing a cup of something warm and steaming to Lance to fight the morning chill.

“Is that tea?” He sniffs it curiously and Hunk nods.

“Good.” He turns to Keith, the cup held carefully in his fingers. “Wake up,” he says softly, “there’s tea.” Keith grumbles and Lance drops kisses to his face, slowly waking him. “Rise and shine buttercup. Morning tea is here.”

Keith finally blinks awake and Lance snickers as Pidge makes another disgusted noise, walking away.

“Good morning,” Lance says warmly.

Keith pouts the way he only does in the morning, turning and burying his face in Lance’s chest and Lance is overwhelmed with affection. He rubs his free hand over Keith’s back, tangling in his unbound hair.

“You have to wake up sweetheart. We’re packing up camp.”

Keith grumbles and either it’s just nonsense or it’s a garbled complaint.

“Your tea is getting cold,” Lance warns.

Keith finally huffs and sits up, leaning back into Lance’s tail like it’s a couch. Lance shifts about to support his weight as he passes over the tea. Keith cradles it in his hands, still looking petulant and Lance begins to finger comb his hair, trying to untangle it.

Krolia comes over as Lance begins to braid it like usual, passing him a long hair pin. She drags a fingertip over the top of one of Keith’s horns, making him bob his head as she gently drags it sideways and he smiles up at her. She gives him a wink before going to help Shiro.

Lance finishes off his braid, holding the pin in his mouth as he loops it into a long coil on the back of Keith’s head in a knot. He strategically places the pick through it to hold it in place, the loose end of his hair swaying gently in the breeze. Lance gives it a careful tug to make sure it won’t fall loose before deeming it suitable. He takes Keith’s head, tipping it up so he can drop a kiss between his horns to let Keith know he’s done before deciding it’s time for breakfast.

He turns to find the others staring at them.

“What?”

Matt’s eyes are warm as honey. “You’re adorable.”

Lance blushes, taking the food Hunk offers him and starting to nibble at it.

Lance wraps an arm around Keith, letting him steal a bite of his breakfast. Keith settles under the arm without a care in the world. He’s too tired to bother with being embarrassed.

“Come on love birds,” Pidge calls, clapping their hands. “It’s time to go. Let’s get this show on the road.”

Lance turns to Hunk, snitching a sip of Keith’s tea. He makes an affronted little noise somewhere between a huff and a whine and Lance smiles behind the cup before handing it back.

“I thought you said they were going to be in a better mood when Matt got here,” Lance teases.

Hunk blinks at him as Pidge goes about packing up and stashing what they won’t need and what they’ll take with them.

“They are.” He turns to help them finish packing up and Lance groans.

“Oh this is gonna be fun.”

~

“So where are we headed today?” Lance asks, Keith’s hand in his after Pidge has threatened them into getting up.

“As far as we can get. Shiro can you fit us all in the dome?” Pidge taps their foot restlessly and Shiro frowns at their group dubiously.

“Maybe but it’s going to be an uncomfortable fit.”

“Perfect.” And before Keith can complain Lance scoops him up in his arms, kissing the tip of his nose.

“Were you always this touchy in the mornings?” Keith throws at him, pouting from his arms.

Lance hums thoughtfully before shaking his head. “Nope. Must be the newfound freedom.”

“You’re insufferable.”

“Yeah but you love me.”

Pidge groans loudly as Lance leans in to give Keith a quick kiss. “Can we go now.”

Shiro tries to smother a laugh and Hunk picks Pidge up to set on his shoulders. They cross their arms atop his head and Krolia steps up next to Lance. She rests one hand on his back, all of them shuffling together. Shiro closes his eyes to focus and a ring of purple light spreads beneath his feet. It grows to encompass all of them before snapping inwards. Krolia’s hand slips to Lance’s waist, strong and firm as he wavers under the pressure with Keith in his arms. He feels like he’s being shot through the air like an arrow, slamming to a stop hard enough to knock the breath from them. They’re still in the forest but now they’re another hundred miles away from camp.

Shiro shakes off the spell as it ends, blinking back a wave of dizziness.

“Are you alright?” Keith asks as Lance sets him back on his feet. He puts a hand to Shiro’s arm as he wavers.

“Yeah. I’m just not used to using that much magic in such a short amount of time. Think I’m out of juice for the day.”

Krolia puts a hand on his shoulder and Shiro gives her a tired smile.

“You’ve done enough. You got us out.” She turns to look at all of them in turn, tears in her eyes. “All of you.” Her eyes land on Keith. “You got us out.” He goes to hug her and she takes a deep breath.

“So did you.” Shiro nods to her. “You risked a lot to make this possible. We couldn’t have done it without you.”

She blinks back tears.

“Thank you,” she says softly. It takes her a moment to collect herself and then she’s pulling back, wiping at her eyes.

“So what now?”

Pidge shrugs. “I don’t know about you guys but we’re going home.” They gesture between themselves and Matt with a finger.

Hunk lifts his hand. “Yeah, same.”

Keith, Krolia, and Lance all stand awkwardly, trying to decide what to do. None of them had thought this far ahead. Keith looks to his mother for guidance.

“We could go back to the desert,” he offers quietly. "To the canyon."

Krolia smiles sadly. “There is nothing left but bad memories. And I fear it would remind me too much of the city.”

Keith wrinkles his nose and has to agree with her. Part of him is relieved. He’s missed the desert, terribly. But he’s a little done with heat after Dis. The forest has been a wonderful change of pace. He wouldn’t mind staying somewhere green. At least for a little while.

Lance watches all of this play out on his face. It’s strange to see Keith so relaxed, with none of the pressures of his position sitting on his shoulders, weighing him down. He’s allowed to just be.

“You could come with me,” Shiro offers. “I have to get back and let my husband know I’m alive or he’ll kill me.”

Keith startles. “Wait, you’re married?”

Shiro actually blushes, rubbing at the back of his neck. “Yeah. He’d love to meet you.” His eyes flick to Krolia. “Both of you.”

Krolia smiles warmly. “I look forward to finally meeting him.”

“Wait, you knew about this?” Keith whirls on her.

Krolia’s eyes sparkle as she leans towards Keith. “He was all giggles and giddy energy when they first met. He could barely contain his excitement when Adam finally agreed to marry him. He couldn’t stop gushing about it the next time we met.”

Shiro’s cheeks pink. “Can you blame me? You’re practically my mother.” He shrugs awkwardly. “I wanted to share that with you.”

Krolia makes a soft noise, drawing him into her arms and kissing his forehead.

When she pulls away Shiro clears his throat, giving a sharp nod.

“Then it’s settled. You’ll come with me.

“Pidge, will the sigil take more than one?”

“With Matt here, yeah, it shouldn’t be a problem. Ours will have to take two anyway. It shouldn’t be that hard to make one for the four of you. We’ll just have to make it a little bigger, that’s all.”

“Then it’s settled. You’ll come with me. All of you.” His eyes settle on Lance and he nods briefly.

~

Together Pidge and Matt set about making three teleportation circles; one for Hunk, themselves, and one for Shiro and his new tag-a-longs. They pass around some bright blue crystals so they can keep in contact if necessary. In a matter of hours they’ve said their goodbyes and are stepping into the glowing green symbol. Lance has to close his eyes against the blinding light as it flares beneath them. When he opens them the trees have vanished, replaced by a sheer cliff of grey stone beneath their feet.

Mountains rise up to either side, bracketing the lush floor of a valley stretching out below them. The edge of the cliff extends into open air, a steep drop to the valley floor, high enough to give Lance vertigo and he takes a step back from the edge. When he turns there’s a house looming up behind them stretching to the sky.

The roof is steep and wide, the proportions of the entire structure broad and different than anything Lance has seen before.

The house is nestled back in the scraggly trees clinging to the rocks, hugging it on three sides like an egg in a nest and a beautiful baby blue.

Shiro herds them off the fading teleportation circle and towards the house.

“Come on, I’d like you to meet Adam.”

~

As they walk inside a man looks up from the couch where he’s reading, a pair of glasses perched on his nose.

“You’re back.” Adam doesn’t drop the book so much as it falls as he rushes up from the couch, all but running into Shiro’s arms. Large white wings wrap around them both as they embrace, Shiro’s dark ones tucked up inside in stark contrast.

Adam sighs in relief, sinking into him. “I was so scared.”

“I know.” Shiro kisses the worry from his face. “But I’m back. And there are some people I want you to meet.” He pulls back and Adam withdraws his wings, taking his hand.

“Adam, this is Keith.” He gestures to the group of strangers standing in the doorway. “And his mother, Krolia.” He squeezes Adam’s hand. “They saved my life, back when I escaped from Dis.”

Adam nods. “I remember you telling me.” He dips his head in gratitude.

“Thank you.” Adam smiles, wide and bright, extending his hand to Keith. “For saving my dumbass husband all those years ago.” His smile turns toothy. “It’s nice to finally meet you after all this time. Shiro never shuts up about you.”

Keith shakes his hand numbly, staring at the man wide-eyed, at the brilliant white wings stretching up behind him. They’re glowing faintly, a gold cast to them in the light.

“You’re a celestial,” he says in wonder before his head snaps to Shiro. “You bagged a celestial? How. You’re a disaster.”

Adam bursts into laughter and in that moment Lance decides he likes him. “He’s got you there.” Shiro frowns, his lips pursing into a pout as he tucks his wings close.

“I am not a disaster,” he argues petulantly.

“Are so,” Keith throws back. “I lived with you for seven years, you’re a disaster.”

“Am not,” he grumbles and Keith smiles more brightly than Lance has ever seen. He wraps his arms around Shiro, smiling into his chest and Shiro lets go of Adam’s hand to hug him.

“I missed you.”

Shiro’s posture relaxes and he puts his hand to Keith’s hair. “Missed you too kid.”

When he pulls away he looks to Lance who’s shifting awkwardly behind everyone ,feeling very out of place. Their eyes meet and Shiro actually smiles.

“And this is Lance. The man my brother’s in love with.”

Keith flushes, smacking Shiro in the chest.

Adam extends his hand and Lance hurries forward to shake it firmly. “It’s nice to meet you Lance. You must be something special if Shiro approves of you.”

Lance’s eyebrows lift in surprise and he glances at Shiro before looking back at Adam.

“Uh, thanks. It’s nice to meet you too,” he manages, wondering what exactly changed overnight because now he knows he’s not imagining it.

“Come on, I’ll get you something to eat.”

“We just had breakfast,” Shiro says, turning to follow Adam into the kitchen. One of his wings bumping into Adam’s, stroking down it gently, the gesture strangely intimate.

“Yeah but you’re exhausted. Look at you.”

“I’m fine.”

“He used his teleportation to jump us this morning and plane shifted last night,” Keith offers, smug grin on his face. “He nearly fell over when we got here.”

Shiro throws a dirty look at him over his shoulder. “I take it back, I didn’t miss you.”

Keith laughs, bold and bright as Adam smacks his husband scoldingly.

“You’re such a terrible liar.”

“But I’m not hungry,” Shiro whines.

“You’re eating anyway.”

They continue to bicker as they head into the kitchen, Krolia passing Lance and Keith as they lag behind, giving them time to talk.

“What changed?” Lance asks, glancing into the kitchen, suspicious of Shiro’s sudden change of heart. “Not that I mind, the man throws a mean hairy eyeball, but…” He shakes his head and looks at Keith dumbly. “What happened?”

Keith pulls him towards the couch and away from the kitchen where Shiro and Adam are still bantering back and forth.

“My mother.”

Lance’s eyebrows lift. “We talked about everything that happened last night, from how we met up until now. She convinced him you were worthy.”

“Of what?”

“Me.”

Lance flushes with pleasure at that. “That’s...probably the most flattering thing anyone’s ever said about me.”

“You make me happy,” Keith says. “She’s seen it. That’s all she really needed.”

Lance is embarrassed at the tears in his eyes and he pulls Keith towards him, resting their foreheads together. “You make me happy too.” He scoots closer, draping his legs over Keith's lap. "Now tell me what's up with you. You've been weird all morning."

Keith sighs and Lance runs his fingers along the back of his neck, trying to soothe.

"It's silly," he mumbles.

"No it's not."

Keith makes a frustrated little noise, leaning into him.

"My mother and I decided a long time ago there wouldn't be any secrets between us. It's a promise I've kept." His eyes drift towards the door. "And one I thought she'd kept too.  He chews on his lip and looks away. “I don't know, I just-"

"Feel like she betrayed that trust?”

Keith flushes with shame. "Yeah."

Lance brushes a knuckle over his cheek. "Sucks to be the one on the other end of the 'doing it for your protection' thing huh?" The tease is gentle and consoling.

Keith huffs, sinking further into the couch. "Yeah, it does. I understand it..."

"But it still hurts," Lance finishes.

"Yeah."

Keith kisses his forehead. "It gets easier," he promises. “You do comes to terms with it eventually.”

"I feel like I'm being stupid and irrational,” Keith mutters. “She was always supposed to be the one person I knew better than anyone else in the world. And now...we’ve been apart for so long and there are so many secrets. What if I don’t know her anymore?”

Lance rubs a hand up and down his arm, a tangle of emotions twisting in his chest. 

"I don't know what to say to help," he admits and Keith tucks his face into Lance's throat, sliding an arm around his waist.

"It's okay. It was nice just to share it."

Lance hugs him close. "That's what I'm here for."

~

They spend the day together, all of them catching up, swapping stories, and getting to know one another. Adam outfits them both with a change of clothes, helping fit the strange, backless shirts to them both. They feel a little strange but it’s nice to have something other than a robe to wear. Lance has to swap out the high collared red-brown shirt he’d first put on and exchange it for a soft cream one instead with a lower neckline. He doesn’t like the feel of the material against his throat and finds he’s pulling on it uncomfortably every few seconds and clearing his throat.

When he apologizes Adam smiles, undoing the laces and straps of the shirt.

“Don’t worry about it,” he says softly. He undoes the buttons down the front, helping Lance slide out of the shirt.

“Shiro was the same way for a long time,” he murmurs, glancing at Lance from over the top of his glasses. “Did they collar you?” He tries to ask it as gently as possible.

Lance shifts uncomfortably, trying not to remember the feel of the iron around his throat.

“Yes. It wasn’t for long and Keith didn’t put one of the enchanted collars on me after but still. Some days are better than others. Then someone else snapped a collar on me. Keith was the one to remove it.” He presses a hand to his throat. "I guess today's just a bad day."

“He didn’t collar you?” Adam glances to the first floor down below where Shiro and Keith are talking.

Lance shakes his head. “He probably should have but-” He lets out a huff of breath that’s almost a laugh. “He gave me what freedom he could and for a long time I didn’t appreciate that, didn’t see it. I know that probably sounds weird but he was the kindest person I’d met in two years.” He snorts. “The guy who bought me being kind.”

“From what I’ve heard of him I’m not surprised,” his voice low. “Shiro says he has a temper but a fierce desire to help others as well.” Something sad pulls at his mouth. “I think they’ve both been through the ringer.”

“Then I guess it’s a good thing they have us.”

Adam laughs, his eyes sparkling. “I knew I liked you.”

Adam finishes pulling Lance out of the shirt, swapping it for the other. Two straps cross over Lance’s upper back just below his neck, hooking on the back of the sleeves at his shoulders. The neck dips to his collarbones and Lance doesn’t feel like he’s choking anymore.

“Better?”

He nods. “Yes, thank you.”

“It’s not a problem.”

Adam adjusts the straps across Lance’s shoulders, lacing the back of the shirt so it fits. He gives it a brief tug before nodding in approval.

“Now that it’s fitted you can just undo the buttons down the front to take it off. You won’t have to bother with the laces in the back.”

He comes around to stand in front of Lance. “It looks good on you. Much better than it ever did on me. I know the cut is probably different than you’re used to but if you like, you can keep it. I’ll run down to the town and grab you both some shoes but if you’d like something different I’ll see what I can find.”

“This is fine, thank you.” He shifts, trying to get used to the feeling of being dressed with so much air still against his skin. “If you come across a cloak though I’ll take it.”

Adam frowns curiously, watching him move and adjust to the shirt. “You going somewhere?”

Lance bites at his lip, lowering his arm and when he speaks it quiet so as not to carry to the lower floor.

“Yeah.” He searches Adam’s eyes, not sure how much to tell him. “I have to head home.” A weight settles in his chest at the idea of leaving. “I’m not sure how long it’s going to take me.”

“If you know where you’re going, I can help. The circle outside is keyed to be flexible. Just hold a mental image of where you want to go in your mind and I can send you there.”

Lance looks at him in surprise. He’s never heard of a teleportation circle like that. Most are locked to a single destination.

“You can do that?” he asks in wonder.

“Of course. It’s not hard, though it did take a year to install and a lot of planning. That’s how Shiro knows Pidge and Matt actually. They helped us design it. It was a pain in the ass but it’s proven to be worth the trouble.”

“Huh.” Lance stares at him in awe, remember Pidge and their brother, wondering how powerful they really are.

“I feel very boring by comparison,” he admits, his voice half teasing.

Adam’s eyes sparkle. “I sincerely doubt that.”

~

True to his word Adam makes an impromptu trip to the town down below and gets them each a sturdy pair of boots. He also brings back two cloaks, both of which he smuggles to Lance with a whispered “Just in case.”

Lance lingers in the doorway hours later, just watching Keith and Shiro, Krolia, and Adam as they interact. Their laughter echoes through the house and Lance looks up at the open second story. There’s no ceiling to it, just a wide floor with a big square cut out of it and Lance realizes it’s wide enough for them to extend their wings. All the rooms are and he realizes that’s why the proportions are so strange. The doorways and rooms are all built to accommodate Adam’s impressive wingspan. Shiro’s are almost as wide but more narrow, like a seabird.

A set of stairs cling to one wall, leading to the upper floor which is how Lance was able to get up. He suspects they’re more for the visitors than Shiro and Adam’s own use. The house seems to be deliberately positioned on the cliff so it can only be reached from the air as well.

Light tumbles in from wide windows on both floors as well as parts of the ceiling and it’s been a long time since Lance has been around this much space. After living in Dis he’d want the extra space too. He’s felt trapped long enough.

He closes his eyes and just listens. The sounds of their voices blur together until it’s lilting and indistinct but comfortable and familiar. If Lance pretends hard enough it’s almost like being home.

There’s a dull pang in Lance’s chest and he slips out back through the kitchen when no one’s looking. He goes out the back door, shutting it softly behind him. He makes his way around the house to the cliff, the stone warm beneath his feet. He’s more used to being barefoot than in shoes and wants to feel the earth beneath his feet after months of stone.

Lance tips his head back into the sun as he reaches the edge, taking a deep breath of fresh air, free of dust and the oppressive heat of the city. Homesickness hits him hard, nearly buckling his knees and he cries, one hand pressed over his heart as that ache sharpens.

The valley is beautiful but it isn’t home. It’s been three years since he last saw the sea, last felt the wind in his hair, the salt making it curl. He wonders if he’ll ever be able to love it again or if his last memory of it will be his sister dying, her blood in the sand.

~

It isn’t long before Keith comes looking for him, Adam’s eyes flicking to the kitchen when he catches Keith searching. He nods and heads that way, trying to figure out where Lance has gone. On a whim he cuts around to the front of the house and sees him standing in the inactive teleportation circle.

Lance’s tears have dried and he stands, watching the sun set beyond the valley, warm golden light painting him beautifully. Keith smiles, coming up behind him. He trails his fingers over the swath of skin the shirt leaves open, displaying a large portion of his upper back.

“Hey,” Keith says softly and Lance turns to him, the arms he's had cradled across his chest falling loose. At the conflicted expression on his face Keith reaches out to smooth the furrow between Lance’s brows. He can't help wondering at the remnant tear tracks on his cheeks.

“What are you thinking about in there?” he murmurs, his hand slipping down to the side of Lance’s neck.

Lance chews on the inside of his cheek, toeing at the stone. It’s gone cold.

“I-” He doesn’t know how to say what he’s thinking and opens his mouth but nothing comes out. His fingers flex restlessly at his sides and he plucks at the material of his pants.

Confusion and worry flash across Keith’s face. “Lance?”

Lance bites his lips and just spits it out. “I have to go.”

Panic grips Keith and his heart slams into overdrive, his hand withdrawing without realizing it. There’s a dull roaring in his ears, thumping in time with his pulse and it takes him a moment to focus through the fear.

“I have to go home,” Lance whispers and that fear in Keith’s chest doubles. They’d talked once about Lance’s plans once they were free and he’d implied he’d go home to die, to be with his family, to finally rest. Keith had thought maybe that was no longer the case.

Lance must read what he’s thinking on Keith’s face because he reaches out to touch Keith’s jaw, grounding him.

“Oh sweetheart, no. No, not like that.” He strokes Keith’s cheek, reaching up with his other hand to cup his jaw. “I just meant I need to see it,” he whispers, his eyes darting over Keith’s face. “I have to tell them goodbye.”

Keith’s breath rushes out of him in relief and he sags into Lance’s hands, shaking at the sudden crash of adrenaline. He hadn’t realized he’d stopped breathing but now his heart races and he pulls a jagged breath.

“I know we talked about you coming with me but-” Lance looks past Keith to the house behind them as Keith gets his feet under him again. “Your family is here.”

Keith reaches up to hold Lance’s wrist. “Do you not want me to come with you?” He searches Lance’s eyes as they come back to his.

“Of course I do.” His eyebrows knit together again. “I just didn’t think it was fair to ask.” His eyes flick to the house. “You just got them back. I don’t want to ask you to leave again. You’ve been together for less than a day.”

The last vestiges of fear clinging to Keith’s heart fade away. “I like that you want my company.” He swipes his thumb along the tender inside of Lance’s wrist.

“And you promised to show me those flowers remember?” A teasing note works its way into his voice. “The ones that matched my eyes?” He purses his lips into a smile. “Or was that just you trying to manipulate me.”

“No. Well I mean I was ,” Lance drawls, running his fingers into Keith’s hair, smoothing the parts that have fallen loose during the day. “But they do.” His thumb strokes over Keith’s cheekbone. “Exactly the same color,” he whispers. He’s unexpectedly choked up, searching Keith’s eyes, seeing those same flowers trapped in his irises.

“You’re the first piece of home I’ve seen in years.”

Lance cups Keith’s face in his hands, leaning in until their noses touch. He hovers there a moment, letting himself feel the heartache, like pressing into a bruise just to see if it still hurts. The last vestiges of the setting sun catch between them before Lance kisses Keith, soft and affectionate.

They linger for a moment after the kiss until Keith bumps their noses together.

“When are we leaving?”

Lance feels his throat tighten and his heart squeeze. “In the morning. Adam says he can get me there without it taking weeks or months on foot.”

“Us,” Keith corrects, tapping a finger against Lance’s wrist and Lance pulls him close, one arm sliding around his waist.

“Us,” he amends, kissing him again.

They miss the sun as it dips below the mountains, painting the sky over their heads in pink and gold and purple. They're far too wrapped up in one another to notice or care.

Chapter Text

Adam, Shiro, and Krolia see them off that morning. Lance is surprised when each of them give him a hug, Krolia dropping a kiss on his cheek.

“Take care of him,” she whispers and Lance hugs her a little tighter. She reminds him of his mother in that moment and he’s embarrassed to admit his eyes burn a little and he hangs on a little too tight. She holds him until he’s ready to let go and then smooths his hair.

“I will,” he promises and Krolia nods.

“I know.”

Adam steps up as she lets go, passing a purple communication crystal to him. “Say my name into that if you ever want to come back for a visit. I’ll come get you.”

It’s faster than walking at least. And safer. They’re all technically still wanted by the lord of Dispater. They could be spotted on one of the main roads and easily dragged back to the fire plane. Keith can’t help wondering if they’ll ever be safe. Or if they’ll be looking over their shoulders for the rest of their lives.

They say their goodbyes and Adam lights up the teleportation circle.

“Close your eyes,” he instructs. “And hold in your mind where it is you want to go.”

Lance takes Keith’s hand and imagines the coastline where he grew up, the small fishing village, the market he remembers that used to bustle with laughter and music and merchants hawking their wares.

There’s a flash of light and the ground suddenly shifts beneath them, soft sand underfoot.

A stiff breeze blows in off the water, so thick with nostalgia that Lance is crying before he opens his eyes. And then he can’t. He doesn’t want to. All he has are the memories from before, tainted by what happened. If he opens his eyes he’s afraid he’ll see them, the bodies and the blood and an irrational fear grips him.

“Lance?”

He shakes his head, squeezing his eyes more tightly shut, afraid something will peek in if he doesn't. He can hear Keith shift to stand in front of him, still holding his hand.

“I can’t.” His chin trembles and his hand finds Keith’s arm, holding tight.

“What are you afraid of?” Keith whispers.

Lance bites his lip hard and shakes his head, rapid and broken.

“Hey.” Keith touches the side of his face. “Talk to me. You don’t have to open your eyes. What are you afraid you’re going to see?”

“Them,” he chokes. “They’re all dead. Just lying there across the stones and the sand and I just let it happen.”

He feels Keith wiping away his tears.

“Sweetheart, they’re gone,” he says softly. “The beach is beautiful, smooth and white, the same as your scales and the water is as blue as your eyes. You’re facing the water. There’s a line of structures past the dunes behind you and cliffs of golden stone beyond them.” Keith’s voice gets thick as he describes it.

“I didn’t know a person could look like a place but you do. It’s just as blue and brown and beautiful as you.” He steps closer until they’re standing chest to chest, Keith’s shadow falling across Lance’s eyes. “Can you open your eyes for me love?”

Lance’s breath trembles but slowly he does and all he sees are Keith’s eyes, wide and violet and beautiful. The sea breeze is playing with his hair, toying with the ends.

“Do you want to go?” he asks softly.

Lance swallows his fear, tipping his forehead to Keith’s. It takes him a moment but he shakes his head.

“No,” he rasps. “Sorry. I don’t know what I’m so scared of.”

Keith reaches up to cradles his jaw. “It’s okay. Take your time.”

Lance nods and takes a deep breath. It takes him a few minutes collect himself.

“Start small. If you’re ready, take a step back. Just a little at a time.”

Lance does, still holding Keith’s hands and lets a little of the blue sky, the crashing waves, and sand peek into his vision on either side of Keith. He takes another step back, letting a little more in, searching out the sky and the waves and the line where they meet.

He takes another step and sees the dunes, the beach curving away from him to either side. He turns and sees the cliffs of soft stone, the old houses and buildings of the market he remembers. Lance slowly turns in a circle, taking it all in, one hand still in Keith’s.

Everything is just the way he remembers it, pristine and untouched, perfectly preserved. There's no hint of the violence that had changed his life so drastically. He doesn't know if he's disappointed or relieved.

“You okay?”

Lance squeezes his hand. “I really don’t know how to answer that.”

“Do you want to show me those flowers? You’ve been telling me about them for almost a year now. I’m beginning to think they don’t exist,” he teases gently.

“Oh yeah?”

Keith hums. “Mm hmm.”

“Guess I’ll just have to prove you wrong then.”

“Guess so.”

Lance smiles and takes a step towards the dunes where he knows the flowers grow, determined to prove Keith wrong.

~

Together they explore the beach for hours, Lance showing Keith the tide pools, identifying all the things living inside them. They both know he’s avoiding the shell of the village but eventually they walk together to face it.

What they find is exactly what Lance expected. The buildings are abandoned, sand drifting up inside them. It hurts and Lance sees ghosts everywhere but he makes it through. Little white shapes peek up out of the sand here and there and Keith tugs Lance away from them without comment. Lance pretends not to see them. He leads Keith to what’s left of his house.

When they arrive it’s an empty shell, a hollowed out husk of the warmth Lance remembers. Keith squeezes his hand and Lance nods.

“Can you wait here?” he asks. “I don’t-”

“Sure.”

Lance doesn’t really know why he wants to do this alone but he does. He squeezes Keith’s hand again, kissing him fiercely before heading inside.

He goes to dig up the floorboards and collect everything he left behind, Keith waiting patiently. He can’t stop staring out to sea. It’s unlike anything he’s ever seen, as wide and expansive as the desert from home but made of water. He’s never seen so much water before, didn’t know it was possible. It’s magnificent and awe inspiring and keeps drawing his gaze.

He misses the shadow darting towards the house.

Inside Lance pries up the floorboards, pulling out the bundle he’d left behind. Inside is the wool blanket his mother had made, one of Rachel’s scales, his father’s knife. Small trinkets to remember each of them by. Each of them except Veronica. Her body was gone by the time the soldiers had left and Lance had the courage to come back. She’d been washed away by the tide. 

Lance had packed each of the mementos up, burying them beneath the floorboards before he'd left. He'd promised to come back for them when he was done, when their deaths had been avenged. He clutches the blanket close, pressing it tight over his heart and cries.

Someone comes up behind Lance and he turns with a snarl, the bundle held protectively to his chest. He barely manages to deflect a blow from Veronica, both of them with their claws and fangs out. Matching snarls die on their lips and they're both left shaking and ashen. They look like they're seeing ghosts.

“V?”

She stares at him blankly, her wrist still pressed to his where he'd blocked her. She stares at him like she can’t understand what she's seeing. She’s trembling.

“Lance?” Tears well in her eyes, spilling down her cheeks. She makes a sound that’s painful to hear before lunging forward again, pulling him into a hug and sobbing.

She pulls back to cover his face in kisses before hugging him again. Lance is caught between hysterical laughter and tears.

“I watched you die.” He’s too numb to cry. “I thought-” He holds her face in his hands like he’s afraid she’ll disappear.

“Shut up,” she interrupts, “Sand and stone, shut up.”

Keith leans into the open doorway, one hand on his knife, drawn by the noise.

Seeing him Lance waves him in.

“Veronica,” he chokes, wiping at his face. “This is Keith. He saved my life.” He grips her arms as if just remembering. “They’re dead V." He pulls back, holding her up. "They’re dead. All of them. Everyone who was here, who attacked us, who were responsible for what happened. The ones who killed mom.” He struggles with the words, the shock of seeing Veronica wearing off and he’s overwhelmed with tears he thought he was done crying.

“They’re dead.” He swallows thickly, pain and horror mixing with rage. “I was caught after killing Therok.” Veronica’s lips peel back in an enraged hiss at the name, her pupils slitting.

“They took me to Dis.” He sees his sister pale, the grip on his arms tightening. “They were going to execute me for what I did to him.”

“I hope he suffered,” she spits.

Lance nods slowly. “He did.” He doesn’t explain but the look on his face must be enough because Veronica doesn’t ask. “Keith put a stop to my execution.” He doesn’t explain how.

He takes Keith’s hand, drawing him closer. He kneels in the sand beside them.

“And he and his friends got me out. I wouldn’t be here without him.”

Keith doesn’t know that he would describe what happened like that but he keeps his silence.

Veronica disentangles herself from Lance to hug Keith, holding him close. “Thank you,” she says wetly. “For saving my brother.” Keith’s hands finally come up to hug her. “For bringing him back to me,” she cries and Keith holds her a little tighter. “He’s all I have left.”

Keith holds her awkwardly for a moment before settling into the hug. 

“He was worth it.”

Veronica gives him a squeeze, kissing his cheek before pulling away. “Can you stay?” She looks between them, one hand on each of their wrists. “Both of you?”

Lance opens his mouth but isn’t sure what to say and glances at Keith awkwardly. He knows Keith wants to spend time with his mother. They’ve only just gotten free of the city. But it’s not like they have a home and they can’t stay with Shiro and Adam forever. 

Part of Lance doesn’t want to leave now that he’s found his sister and he knows Keith feels much the same way about Shiro and his mom. All of which Keith reads in his eyes.

He takes Lance’s hand, lacing their fingers and smiling warmly. “We’d love to.”

“Are you sure?” Lance asks softly and Keith nods.

“Yeah.” He turns to Veronica. “So long as you don’t mind my mom and Shiro maybe dropping in. We haven’t had much time to connect and I’d like to if we’re going to settle down for a bit.” He looks to Lance. “Which I really don’t have a problem with.” He squeezes Lance’s hand again. “I’ve never been to the sea. If you want to stay…” he offers quietly. “I’d like to stay.”

Lance smiles wetly and Veronica’s smile is blinding through her own tears. When she goes to hug Keith again he welcomes her with open arms.

~

Lance leads Keith to the cliffs afterwards, Veronica explaining she’s moved further up the coast where they’re welcome to stay. There’s another small village there where the survivors are recovering. Lance hadn’t known anyone but him had made it out alive. He’d promised to come with her but first he has to take Keith to where the purple flowers grow, clinging determinedly to the stone. He plucks one, tucking it behind Keith’s ear with a smug smile.

“There. See? Perfect match.” He pulls the knife out from under his vambrace, using it like a mirror to show Keith. He has to admit, the flowers are a close match.

“Thought you said they grew over the dunes,” he teases instead of giving Lance the satisfaction.

“Okay so that part of it was a lie. I thought it sounded more romantic,” he defends and Keith laughs. He’s doing that more often now.

“Maybe.”

Lance tucks a lock of hair behind Keith’s ear. “Hey,” he says softly. “We never cut your hair.” He runs his fingers through the loose strands. They’re soft as silk. 

“We could do it now.” Keith turns the knife, holding the pommel out to Lance. “If you still want to help me.”

Lance takes the knife, kissing Keith for a moment.

“Turn around.” He sheathes the blade, pulling the pin from Keith’s hair, letting it tumble loose. “How short do you want it?”

“I don’t care. Just cut it,” he says, looking back over his shoulder. “I don’t want it anymore.”

Lance nods as Keith turns around. He takes the braid where it hasn’t quite managed to slip loose yet, looping it around his wrist and holding on. 

“I’m going to need you to put up a little resistance. This may hurt.”

“Do it.”

Lance sets his jaw, slipping the knife under the braid at the back of Keith’s neck and begins to cut through it.

It’s far from clean in spite of the sharpness of the blade and Lance has to saw his way through it. Jagged slashes of hair fall loose before the braid finally snaps free, Keith’s head dipping forward at the sudden release.

Lance lowers the knife, offering the hair to Keith. The length of it drips like ink from his hand, drifting in the wind.

Keith turns, dark hair now framing his face and Lance smiles. “It’s not pretty but it’s done.”

Something coy flickers in Keith’s eyes. “Are you saying I’m not pretty?” he teases, taking the hair.

“Never.”

Keith smiles, tightening his grip on the hair and incinerating it. The smell tickles at Lance’s nose and he sneezes which makes Keith laugh, ash falling from his fingers. He pulls Lance in for a kiss.

“Thank you,” he murmurs, Lance reaching up to play with the ends of his hair, relearning the shapes of his face.

“For what?” Lance puts the knife away, slipping his arm around Keith’s waist, a curious furrow between his brows.

“Everything,” Keith says softly. “For getting me out when I didn’t believe you. For this. For caring. For not giving up on me.”

Lance holds his gaze seriously, reaching up to cradle his face.

“We made it,” he whispers with a smile.

Keith covers his arm with his own, staring out at the sea. He feels overwhelmed, like this is all a dream. But it’s not. Lance is warm at his back, the sand firm beneath his feet, the short strands of his hair tickling against his cheeks in the breeze. 

Tears prick at his eyes and Keith takes his first breath of fresh air in years. 

“We did.”