“The next person of royal blood who touches this wheel will fall into death-”
“Into a deep sleep.”
“Don’t interrupt me when I’m placing a curse!”
“But it seems a bit mean for them to die…”
“Fine. The next person of royal blood who will touch this wheel will fall into a sleep so deep that it will last-”
“-until the traditional waking methods are invoked.”
“What are you-?!”
For some reason, Lance had been acting kind of weird around Keith.
He’d noticed it when he entered the lounge area a week or so ago, the day after Keith had had to throw himself at Lance to keep him from being attacked from behind. After that, Lance got… antsy was the best word for it. Whenever Keith entered a room he was in, Lance would seem to get nervous and a little red in the face. He laughed a little louder and contradicted himself and generally confused Keith with the way he was acting.
Which wouldn’t have mattered that much if a part of him didn’t hope it was because of him. It was frustrating: Lance was loud and argued about the stupidest things, not to mention his flirting with every alien in sight. Heck, he even flirted with Sven for a couple of minutes after Sven had saved Lance in the other reality. That incident had made Keith really irritated after they’d managed to get back to the Castle, almost snapping at Lance a couple of times.
But Keith still had feelings for him. Shiro had been the most important person in his life and he’d lost him, twice. The first time had been horrible, but Lance had been there for him the second. His feelings had been around before that horrible day, but they had only solidified more when Lance had helped him through the Lion change. It made Lance’s odd behaviour more stark, more confusing. Did he want to be around Keith or not? Keith wanted to confront him about it, but he always talked himself out of it. And now wasn’t a good time, seeing as Lance was currently flirting with a native on the most recent planet they had landed on.
“It truly is an honour to meet such beautiful ladies,” Lance was in the middle of telling the people who had come to greet them.
“Really, Lance!” Allura interjected. “Please try to show some respect. This is Queen Eflyrga and her daughter, Princess Crlar.”
“Oh. Well, uh, forgive me for not taking that into account, Your Majesty.” Then Lance placed a hand over his heart and bowed, as if he was some sort of butler or prince. “But my statement still stands,” he added as he straightened, throwing them a wink.
Crlar giggled. At least, Keith assumed it was Crlar. She was a little shorter than the other, but neither of them were wearing crowns or tiaras, likely because the Galra Empire had been running things here until Voltron’s appearance had them running scared. There were also no distinguishing features between the two; both of them had red hair that flowed over their shoulders, and blue eyes that shone with delight. They even both sported what the Lanachians had as a unique feature: all of the people they had seen on the planet had ears that looked as though tiny hearing horns had been stuck into the sides of their heads. Their noses were actually more like pig’s snouts, as well, another eye-catching feature. Keith didn’t see their appeal, but Lance clearly thought they were pretty enough to pay attention to them…
“Oh, please, do not bow to us,” said Eflyrga, hastily. “You are the prince of the Blue Lion, correct?”
“Um, huh?” said Lance, intelligently.
“Ah, we are sorry for the confusion, Queen Eflyrga,” Allura quickly explained, stepping forward. “Lance is actually the Paladin of the Red Lion at the moment.”
Eflyrga blinked and looked Lance up and down. “But his princely armour is blue…?” she said.
“I was originally the Blue Paladin,” Lance told her. “There was… an incident that meant that I had to change Lions.”
“Oh, I see,” said Eflyrga with visible relief. Even her ears lowered a little as she relaxed. “So you are the Prince of Blue at heart.”
“I mean… Maybe?” Lance looked to Allura, eyebrows up at his hairline.
“They are only Paladins, Your Majesty,” said Allura, gently. “They are not royalty.”
“Nonsense!” Eflyrga waved a hand in dismissal. “They are members of Voltron and, thus, on this planet, are princes, my Queen.”
Team Voltron paused, all of them watching Allura out of the corner of their eyes. “‘Queen’?” she said.
“It is an honour to have a Queen of Altea once more on our planet.”
“I was not alive to see it before,” Crlar piped up, “so I am looking forward to entertaining both Alteans and, uh…?”
“Humans,” Hunk provided.
“We’re from Earth,” Pidge added. “I suppose you could also call us Earthlings?”
“I see,” said Eflyrga. “Well, it is an honour to host a Queen and her princes.”
“We’re not-” Keith began, fed up with the continued miscommunication.
“No, honestly,” said Lance, “we are honoured to be here.” Lance’s hand reached out and, before Keith could say or do anything, he had taken Crlar’s hand and bent down to press a kiss to it. “Thank you for letting us stay on your beautiful planet.”
“I am sure your planet is prettier, Prince Blue,” Crlar replied, looking bashful.
“Please. It’s Prince Lance,” he insisted. “I wouldn’t want formalities to stand in the way.”
“Lance!” Keith hissed, catching everyone’s attention. He tried not to frown too much, but it probably hadn’t worked; Lance winced and backed away from the local royals. With a jerk of his head, Keith managed to encourage Lance to come close enough for him to whisper to him, Hunk and Pidge leaning closer to hear what was happening. “What are you doing?!”
“Well, what’s the harm in them thinking we’re princes? Sorry - and a princess, Pidge,” Lance quickly added.
Opening his mouth to speak, Keith stopped, his eyes widening a little. There was really nothing he could say in response to that stupidity. Thankfully, Pidge helped him out. “Maybe because rumours spread fast in this galaxy?” she suggested. “You’ll have everyone thinking we’re princes.”
“To be fair,” Hunk interjected, “I think Queen Efly- Efl- Queen Effie? The Queen. Um. I think she thinks of us as having the titles of princes instead of paladins. And, y’know, since we are paladins, maybe it’s just… the same thing?” He paused and glanced at Allura who was currently debating whether she was a princess or a queen with Eflyrga, who seemed adamant that she was a queen. “I would say we should ask Allura but I don’t think she’s winning that.”
“Fine,” said Keith with a heavy sigh. “We’ll be princes. But at least try to explain that you’re the Red Paladin.”
Lance grinned and his face lit up with happiness. Keith jolted where he stood as he tried not to wince from how bright and beautiful he was. At the same time, he could feel his cheeks heating up and knew that he was blushing. He turned away from Hunk and Pidge with folded arms as Lance rushed back to the royals, showering them with more praise.
At that same instant, a shudder ran down his spine; it was almost as though his instincts were warning him of something…
“... the princes and princess of Voltron!”
The cheers had Keith grimacing. What seemed like hundreds of Lanachians had gathered in front of the palace steps to greet them. Normally, he wouldn’t have cared - they were all getting a little used to this sort of reception. Lance even revelled in it. But, at that moment, he felt a little naked without his Paladin armour. His fingers twitched, entire hand bare for once. It unnerved him to be without any gloves, but Princess Crlar had insisted on it.
While Allura was talking diplomacy with the Queen and the High Officials, Crlar had insisted on showing the ‘princes’ and ‘princess’ of Voltron around their planet, starting with their capital city. Lance had jumped at the chance, but he’d glanced at Keith as if seeking permission. Keith hadn’t been able to say no, not when Hunk and Pidge were interested to see what was out there as well. What he had tried - and failed - to object to was that Crlar wanted them to change into clothes ‘more befitting their station’. Again, Lance had been ecstatic, while Hunk and Pidge had agreed that it would be more comfortable.
And so the four of them were wearing formal trousers and tunics. Keith’s trousers were black with a thin, white stripe down the outside of his legs. His tunic was red with white detailing, a lion depicted over his heart; every time he moved, the light hit the tunic in a different way and made it look as though there was a flame flickering. Over his shoulder sat a sash which was black with white patterns; it brushed against his neck since it had been suggested that he tie it back. According to the person who had helped him into it and adjusted it for him, the red was for his princely status and the black and white were to represent how he now flew the Black Lion. Keith had not been impressed with this strange clothing, all the more so since it didn’t come with gloves. He had no doubt that he looked stupid.
Meanwhile, Lance looked every inch the dashing prince. His tunic was an ocean blue that seemed to shimmer in the light and his trousers had a sky blue stripe down each leg. The sash was a stark contrast, yet also complimented the blue, the deep red covered in little flower detailing picked out with a pale blue thread. It made Keith think of roses and romance and it didn’t help that he’d caught Lance smiling down at it, running his fingers along the design. Lance’s hair had even been swept back till it was completely out of his eyes so that everyone could see their beauty. Basically, Lance looked stunning and Keith probably looked like he’d been stuffed into these clothes.
Lance had looked surprised when he’d seen Keith, taking a few moments to just look at him, though he’d only commented that he had assumed that Keith would have refused to wear it.
Both Hunk and Pidge were also in tunics and trousers, though the bottom of Pidge’s tunic had thin ruffly bits to it. As Crlar introduced them to the public, Keith could see her picking at them. He had the feeling that it would mysteriously disappear at some point. Hunk, meanwhile, kept nervously smoothing down his hair. Someone had taken his headband in exchange for the small crowns they were all wearing and his hair seemed to have a mind of its own. Next to him, Lance swatted at his hand and leaned in to say something, a fond smile on his face. Jealousy rose within Keith and he quickly looked out at the people in time for another cheer, before royal guards began ushering people aside.
“What happened to the dress for our second princess?” Lance asked Pidge as Crlar led them down the steps in front of the palace. There were an unnecessary number of them, especially since there were stairs that led back down just in front of the entrance.
“Well,” said Pidge, pushing her glasses up her nose, “I figured that, with our luck, we’d probably need to rush back to our Lions at some point today, and I can’t really do that in the massive ballgown they were trying to give me.”
“Aw! I wanted to see my favourite Green Paladin in a dress,” Lance complained. “I’m sure you’d be very pretty. I mean, look at Hunk. He’s living up to his name.” And Lance winked at her.
Pidge frowned at him. Keith watched Lance grin in response, completely guileless. It took Keith a moment to realise that Lance wasn’t flirting with either of them; he was giving them both a genuine compliment. Hunk was smiling now, looking a little less nervous, and Pidge finally cracked one of her own. “Thanks, Lance,” she murmured.
“Even Keith is pulling it off,” Lance commented, nonchalantly.
“Thanks,” said Keith, sarcastically. He tried not to get too flustered; he wasn’t sure if Lance was being genuine.
“No, seriously,” Lance continued, as if he had heard Keith’s thoughts. “You look good.”
“Oh. Thanks.” Keith smiled at him, a small, shy thing that he inwardly cursed himself for displaying. It was only made worse when Lance’s eyes widened and he quickly looked away.
“Hahaha, no problem, dude. Everyone needs a compliment or two, right?”
“I… Right?” Keith was losing track of the conversation.
“Anyway,” said Pidge, pointedly. She turned to Crlar. “This is a lovely city. But why is everything kind of… small?”
Now that Keith had actively tried to stop looking at Lance, he noticed that Pidge was right. From above, it hadn’t looked that different. The palace was definitely the same height as the other buildings, though it sprawled over a larger plot of land. All of the buildings surrounding the palace were made of a purple material - as opposed to the silvery stuff of the palace - and were rather squat. They also looked rather round, with doors and windows that were entirely circular. Keith thought they looked like a cross between a Hobbit’s house and a cottage until he peered down an alley: the houses and shops were longer than they appeared at the front, probably to accommodate the multitudes of people that seemed to be emerging to watch them pass.
“All of the buildings here,” Crlar explained, “are made of fligarnia. We have a limited supply of that due to the Galra interference and due to the previous conservation actions we took before they invaded.”
“Uh,” Hunk piped up. “What’s fligarnia?”
“You do not have fligarnia on Earth?” Crlar asked, obviously surprised.
“Not unless you have another word for it?” suggested Pidge.
“Oh, it is a type of stone. It deadens noise, somewhat,” Crlar explained. “The purple is its natural colour and it is sturdy enough to be built with. This planet used to have a massive amount of it on the legishan side, clearly seen from space. But our ancient ancestors began to build with it and mined most of it away. They even dug down, into the core of the planet, but it left the land above it unstable so we had to limit how much we dig up once it has replenished itself in five decaphoebs.”
“Why do you want to deaden noise?” asked Hunk, looking confused. “I thought people usually built places so they could hear better.”
“Our ears are quite adept at hearing, thank you,” said Crlar, waving at her head. All of them looked at the hearing horn-like appendages. “Our ancestors realised pretty quickly that having spacious rooms and large houses made everything too loud for us. So we had to demolish the original buildings and start again.” Suddenly laughing, Crlar looked down at them, clearly pleased with something. “In fact,” she continued, “there’s a story of how there were protests at the demolition. It involves witches and curses and is usually told to children as a bedtime story.”
“Oh!” said Lance, his face lighting up with excitement. “Like fairytales!”
Crlar tilted her head, blinking at Lance as she scrunched up her snout. “What are fairies?”
As Lance launched into an explanation, with interruptions and interjections from Hunk and Pidge, they continued to walk. Keith could see more and more people slowing in their own journeys or stopping completely to watch them pass. Quite a few of them were bowing, though the others didn’t seem to notice. Every time, Keith had to resist the urge to bow back, hurrying after the others. Beyond those people, Keith could see the effects of the Galra occupation. Dilapidated and abandoned buildings, falling apart even as people began to fix holes with a lilac paste of some sort. At one point, they passed a group of children who were crowded around a woman who was trying to hold several bowls of food at once. It made Keith feel rather ashamed that he was being treated like a prince.
Soon, they came to a large space that looked as though it used to be a garden or a courtyard. Now, the plants had withered and the paths were cracked. However, despite all the ruin, the people had already started to make the best of it. There were stalls set up with colourful items and people were bartering for things. Children danced around the adults and tables, laughing and waving neon yellow flowers that seemed to be a toy of some sort. Looking around, Keith could see that there were stalls selling clothes, both second-hand and new. Others sold weapons pilfered from the Galra and their sentries. Some sold things that Keith couldn’t make sense of - he even saw one that seemed to be selling spinning wheels. Enticing smells wafted over from food stalls, though there was also the tang of paint in the air - Keith had the sneaking suspicion that the food cart with the brightly coloured food was the source of it and resolved to keep everyone on the team away from it.
However, the most striking thing about the square was the large, white building that had managed to survive. It was only a little taller than the other buildings, so it hadn’t been visible from the street they had walked down. Two round towers jutted out from each corner, though it otherwise had sharp edges. Its doors were massive, glinting in the sunlight. Keith wondered if it was made of gold. People were seated on the steps, talking or resting or eating something from tiny bowls. A ripped flag fluttered weakly atop one turret, while the other was missing one entirely.
“Woah,” said Lance, having also seen the building. “What’s that?”
“That is one of the only buildings to have survived the Demolition Age,” Crlar informed them. “Since we as a people had used the fligarnia so much, we had a lot of buildings like this. When we realised that it was harmful to dig up more of it for new buildings, we demolished a lot of the buildings that we didn’t need and used the material from it to make these smaller ones. This one, however, was under the allotted height limit, so it was kept. It is now a museum that showcases our technology and culture through the ages. The Galra decided to use it as a reference for this planet’s politics and such like.”
Keith didn’t even bother looking at the others. He already knew that Pidge and Hunk would have stars in their eyes about seeing something like that. Lance would suggest they go take a look. And, sure enough, when they did, Keith shrugged a shoulder at their hopeful expressions. “Sure. I suppose we have the time. Right?” he added in Crlar’s direction.
“Of course, Prince of Red. We will have plenty of time to do so - if you stay the night, then I will be able to show you the rest of the city tomorrow before you leave.”
Thinking of all the things they could be doing - looking for Shiro, gaining more intelligence on the empire, liberating planets - Keith looked over at Lance. He smiled back, somehow looking encouraging. To Keith, it seemed like Lance was trying to tell him that he would support whatever decision he made right then, whether he would agree or if he would insist on leaving as soon as Allura was finished with her work. Sudden appreciation for Lance swept through Keith and he found himself wanting to do something for him. There wasn’t much he could do, but a holiday…
“We’ll see what Allura says,” Keith finally said, watching Lance’s smile grow.
“Then, let’s go to the museum!” Lance declared, throwing his arms into the air in celebration.
They made their way through the marketplace, peering at stalls and pointing at things of interest. Pidge stopped them when she found some alien game consoles; somehow, she came away with one of them and several games with the promise of Lance playing with her later. Hunk had them pausing at each one with food to try it; thankfully, Lance steered him away from the neon food. At one point, Crlar pointed out some quality clothing and snagged Lance’s attention; for their entertainment, he held some of the more ridiculous dresses and tunics up against him, all of them too shiny and flamboyant. Keith couldn’t stop himself from laughing at the ridiculous poses and dialogue Lance recited to accompany them. Their final stop before the steps up to the museum was a stall that Lance dragged Keith to. It sold knives, but Lance pointed at a belt with a scabbard set into it that would probably fit Keith’s blade in it.
“Stop sticking it down the back of your pants,” Lance scolded him, smacking him on the back, directly on the knife so that the hilt bit into Keith’s skin momentarily. “It’s not safe. I mean, what if you stabbed yourself with it.”
“It’s got a sheath!” Keith protested.
“I would feel better if it wasn’t in your pants,” Lance muttered, though he didn’t resist as Keith dragged him by the elbow back to the others. “People might get confused…” Lance added, smirking at him. Keith spluttered out another protest, but Lance only laughed merrily and rushed up the steps. Pouting a little, Keith followed and skillfully ignored Hunk and Pidge’s raised eyebrows.
A couple of Lanachians opened the doors for them, bowing deeply as they passed them. Keith nodded thanks to them, but kept up with the others as they stepped into the huge room beyond. It looked a lot like the museums that Keith had been to on school trips: wide foyer; huge, eye-catching exhibits that hung from the ceiling or that were planted in the middle of the room; a small desk that was a little crooked but still probably functioned as a reception and information desk; rooms and paths branching off in every direction; helpful signs pointing in every direction. Despite the fact that most of the place was intact, there were still signs of the occupation here: a light hanging from the ceiling, cables visible; rubble in a corner; missing exhibits.
Pride of place, however, on a large plinth with steps leading up to it, was another spinning wheel. This one was large and made of something like copper, shining in the light. There was something like string or wool stuck in the contraption, obviously for people’s amusement or to pose with it for pictures. Panels, probably with historical descriptions, surrounded it. Keith thought it was pretty and felt a strange urge to go to it.
That urge made him feel uneasy.
“Guys,” he began.
But he was too late. “Wow, look!” Lance exclaimed over the top of him. “A spinning wheel!” He bounded forward, heading for the steps. Clearly curious, Hunk and Pidge followed at a more sedate pace. Crlar smiled brightly and quickly caught up with them. Keith, meanwhile, bit his lip, wondering what this strange feeling was and whether they should be getting out of there and back to the Castle. Eventually, he forced himself to move, climbing the steps to the thing.
“You have these on Earth?” Crlar asked as she made her way up the stairs.
“Yeah,” Lance replied. “Though no-one really uses them any more. And I don’t think they were made out of this kind of metal.”
“This one is special, Prince of Blue,” said Crlar, gesturing at the panels they couldn’t read. “It was used by one of my ancestors, thousands of decaphoebs ago. She enjoyed using them to make clothes for the poor. But a witch grew jealous of the attention she received when she could also provide clothes of a similar quality. So she put a curse on this: no-one of royal blood can touch this or else something terrible will happen. What, we do not know, as the translations of the documents that recorded this curse and time period differ from one to the other. Some say it will result in death, others a long nap.”
“A nap doesn’t sound so bad,” Hunk commented. “I could go for one now.”
“Yeah,” said Pidge. “That doesn’t sound so threatening. Like, ‘Gimme all your money or I’ll make you take a long, refreshing nap!’”
“It is probably a translation error,” Crlar admitted.
“What do you mean by ‘translation’?” asked Keith, frowning at the wheel, daring it to hurt anyone.
“Oh, well, over the decaphoebs, our language changed enough that the old ones died out. People have studied it recently, transcribing what the old books and documents contain. Of course,” Crlar added with a wince, “the Galra occupation slowed all that work.”
“Huh,” said Lance, who was standing close to the wheel. “I wonder if it still works…”
“I am unsure,” Crlar told him. “I do not often come near this, just in case.”
“Let me have a look.” Lance smiled at her before he turned to the wheel, frowning at it in contemplation.
“Maybe you shouldn’t touch it, dude,” Hunk said, sounding a little nervous. Keith wondered if he could feel that urge that was drawing him to it as well.
“The Prince of Yellow is correct - I am not sure what effect it will have on you, Prince Lance,” Crlar quickly interjected.
“I’ll be fine,” Lance said, dismissively. “I’m not actually of royal blood. Nothing’ll happen.”
That uneasy feeling returned and Keith grimaced. “Lance,” he said, his tone a warning. “Don’t.”
But Lance wasn’t listening. Perhaps that strange pull had made him deaf to others’ warnings. Whatever the case, he moved closer, reaching out to it. “I think you have to do something with this bit,” he murmured, a finger pointing at what Keith thought was the spindle, if he was remembering correctly. Lance shifted and, suddenly, he drew his hand back with a yelp. “Oh, man! That thing is sharp!” He lifted his finger with a pout, showing where a single drop of blood oozed from the minor injury. All of them watched as it fell, landing on the base of the wheel. Keith stared at the spot of red, waiting for something to happen: an explosion; the wheel to dissolve; Crlar to collapse. Instead, there was Lance’s voice. “Oh,” was all he said.
And then Lance fell backwards, his eyes fluttering closed.
Eyes widening, Keith darted forward in an attempt to catch him. Behind him, he heard Pidge and Hunk call Lance’s name, both of them aghast at the sight of Lance’s collapse. A gasp came from Crlar’s direction, but Keith barely registered it, already reaching for Lance’s arm, hoping to catch it and pull him into a steadying embrace.
That was when the wheel seemed to explode with an indigo smoke.
Keith was flung through the air, his arm raised to protect his eyes. He crashed into an aerial exhibit that showcased some sort of vehicle that, presumably, flew across the planet. Before he fell the several feet to the ground, he grabbed hold of the edge of a wing, scrambling to pull himself onto it properly. Nearby, Pidge and Hunk had landed on a hovering depiction of Lanacho which was in the process of slowly deflating. Crlar was nowhere to be seen but Keith could still see Lance, draped across the podium, one arm flung out, his legs curled, face relaxed in sleep.
Standing over him, tall and menacing, was a figure in a black and indigo dress, the colours twisting around their body, a pointed tiara atop their head.
“Lance!” Hunk cried, panicked.
There was no response from the Red Paladin, not even a twitch. Keith’s heart beat in his ears, his breathing quickening as he realised that there was no way for him to safely get down to save Lance. Or, if there was a way, he would need Lance to show him how. He raised his eyes to the figure, hoping that they would ignore Lance now that the curse had obviously begun.
However, the person turned to Lance and leaned over him, inspecting him. Keith almost shouted at them, almost ordered them to get away from Lance. But Pidge and Hunk were too close to him. If something like that explosion was directed at Keith for interfering, they’d be caught up in it, too. Lance would never forgive him for that. His fingers dug into the wing he clutched, teeth drawing blood as he bit his lip, hard.
Whoever this person was, they were glowing purple. It reminded Keith of the Galra but, looking closer, he could see that they had the ears and nose of the Lanachians. However, they were a lot taller than the Lanachians they had seen since they’d landed here. Also, their face was screwed up in a twisted expression of sadistic glee. They reached out for Lance and, before any of them could cry out or doing anything but watch, they grabbed hold of Lance’s sash and hauled him up. He dangled from their grip, completely at their mercy, limp and lifeless.
Keith’s eyes burned as he forced himself to hold back his distressed tears.
“Finally!” the person said, their voice high and rather feminine. “My revenge has begun!”
“No!” came a shout from below Keith. Startled, he looked down to see Crlar struggling to her feet. From his position, Keith wasn’t sure if she was injured or not, though she did seem to stumble a little as she stepped forward. “Your revenge is not for him!”
The person laughed, a cruel sound that echoed in the large space. They dropped Lance, his arms flung out, head hitting the floor. “He is a prince. The Prince of Blue, hm? How noble. How selfless. How naȉve.”
“Please!” Crlar cried, taking another step forward. “Transfer the curse to me - he cannot-”
There was a whooshing noise as that smoke surrounded the person completely. In the same instant, it flew across the room to Crlar, stopping in front of her. The smoke suddenly swept away to reveal the person, glaring at the princess. Unfortunately, they were still too far from Keith for him to throw himself on them.
“No,” snarled the person - the witch. “This curse will run its course. And no-one will interfere!”
With that, the smoke encircled them once more, racing back to the podium. It receded again to reveal the witch as they leaned over Lance, their hand reaching for his tunic. Dread rose within Keith and he kicked his legs, trying in vain to clamber onto the vehicle properly, to get himself down there. Before he could, the smoke enveloped both the person and Lance - and shot upwards and out of sight.
“Lance!” all three of the paladins shouted.
Then there was another explosion. An invisible force blasted into Keith and the vehicle, causing it to sway. Pinging noises sounded as its moorings came away from the ceiling, tiny bits of the material from above falling in its wake. Keith curled his legs up as he attempted to protect his body from injuries; a glance to the side showed him that he’d done it just in time, as one of the wires whipped down where his legs had been. The entire exhibit jolted and dropped, Keith clinging to it as it was jostled to and fro.
With a slicing sound, the vehicle suddenly dropped into a nosedive, heading directly for the floor.
In a last, desperate bid to keep himself from slamming into the ground and becoming useless , Keith let go of the wing, reaching for the odd little stool that was set into the top of what amounted to a plank of wood. By some stroke of luck, he managed to grasp it, pulling himself onto it. In front of him were a number of dials and buttons set into a kind of primitive dashboard. There was also a lever that Keith quickly grabbed and yanked, hoping it wouldn’t break. With a high-pitched, horrible squeak, the lever moved - and the air vehicle suddenly levelled out.
It was headed straight for the front of the building and the very solid wall.
As quick as he could, Keith yanked the lever to the left, hoping it would turn the thing. Instead, the lever creaked dangerously and, with a loud splintering noise, it snapped off in his hand. A light came on under a dial, flashing in warning, and the vehicle tilted to the left. Keith clutched at the edge of the 'cockpit' while the vehicle spiralled out of control. He was flung around, he fingers scrabbling for purchase, his legs wrapped tightly around the seat. Thankfully, it managed to avoid anything it could fly into and, once it was low enough, Keith risked jumping from it, rolling through his landing with the wealth of experience. The vehicle landed shortly afterwards with a loud crash, taking out an exhibit of a chemical structure that Keith didn’t recognise.
Jumping to his feet, Keith dashed around the desk. He had to find out if Hunk and Pidge were okay. He had to see if he could find Crlar. He had to get to Lance.
When he reached the area they had been in, he found the fake planet half deflated at the side of the room. Hunk and Pidge were sprawled on the floor, groaning, but neither of them seemed to be badly injured. Closer to the podium, Crlar lay unconscious, pale pink blood smeared across her face. Glancing upwards, Keith couldn’t see the witch on the podium and there wasn’t any sign of Lance. He tried not to panic, took a deep breath, and tried to be the leader that Shiro thought he could be. Keith had to be the leader that Lance needed right now.
“Pidge! Hunk!” he called, hurrying towards them. “Are you two okay?”
“Urgh,” said Pidge, pushing herself into a seated position. “I think so.”
“No,” Hunk groaned. “I think the planet landed on me…”
“Can you get Crlar?” Keith asked them, stopping in front of them. “It looks like she’s injured - we need to get her to a pod. Or… Or whatever the Lanachians have for that. I’m gonna find Lan-”
With a loud, horrible rumbling, the ground shook beneath them. Hunk wailed in fear, curling up against a danger they couldn’t see. Pidge’s eyes widened as Keith stumbled in front of his friends, trying to stay on his feet. Then her eyes slid beyond him and Keith quickly turned. He stared in shock as the ceiling began to rise and the room began to change, the walls shifting around them, slowly beginning to twist. Glancing towards the door, Keith noticed that even that was moving.
“Is it an ear- a Lanach-quake?!” Pidge exclaimed.
“I don’t think so!” Keith replied. “We need to find Lance-!”
“You should go,” said an eerily calm voice.
Spinning, Keith stared at a tall Lanachian, one who was the same height as the witch, though she wore a pastel pink dress. He dropped into a defensive stance, one arm held behind himself to reach for his blade. “Who are you?” he demanded.
“Please go,” the Lanachian said. “You must leave or you’ll be killed.”
“What have you done with Lance?” Pidge demanded, scrambling to her feet.
“The prince is sleeping. It was the only way to keep my sister’s curse from killing someone. But you must go - she is returning this building to the planet’s former glory.”
“What does that mean?” Hunk asked, shifting where he now stood. “Is that why the building’s moving? Will Lance be okay-?”
“Sister!” a voice yelled, echoing in the building.
“I must go. Get the princess somewhere safe,” said the Lanachian. And, before any of them could stop her, there was a flash of bright light and she was gone.
At that moment, the ground gave a violent heave and Keith staggered into Pidge who nearly toppled over if it hadn’t been for Hunk grabbing hold of her shoulder. Distant screams could be faintly heard from outside. Keith looked up at the podium, thought of Lance, looked down at Crlar, grimaced as another shift in the building almost took him off his feet, and made a decision. Gritting his teeth, he turned to his fellow paladins.
“We have to get out of here - for now,” he added when he saw Pidge open her mouth. “We have no idea what’s actually happening here. We need intel and we need to get Crlar to safety. Lance would have our heads if we left her here when she’s hurt.”
“I think he’d be more worried-” Pidge began, but Hunk nudged her.
“Where should we go?” he asked, already shakily making his way to the fallen princess. “The Castle? Or should we take her home?”
“Figure that out later!” Keith exclaimed. He pointed to a map that had been on the wall beside the door. As the wall twisted out of shape, the map disappeared. If they stood around any longer, the door would shift out of existence as well.
Hunk easily hefted Crlar over his shoulder with absolutely no hesitance. Then all of them hurried towards the door. Keith was sure they would have been faster if they hadn’t kept stumbling. A few times, Pidge was even lifted off her feet and bowled Keith over. Hunk had to haul them up and, after the third time of that happening, he grabbed the back of Pidge’s tunic and carried her to the door that way.
Finally, they reached the door. Keith grabbed the handle and wrenched it open, shoving at Hunk to make him keep going. When he glanced outside, he found that Hunk had stumbled out into the square where things looked just as they had when they entered, though everyone was staring at the museum in horror. He paused before he left, looking back into the building, hoping to see a clue as to where Lance was now. Instead, all he saw was that all of the exhibits were now broken or were being twisted out of existence. Above him, the ceiling was out of sight, though a set of winding stairs now shut out most of the light, growing with each circuit.
A hand grabbed his arm and, with a yank, Hunk pulled Keith outside. Pidge was there to slam the door shut. Keith turned to the square to find everyone looking at them expectantly. “Uh,” he said, looking at Pidge and Hunk for help. If Lance was there, he would have known just what to say.
“It’s not safe here!” Pidge exclaimed. “Get back!”
There was a beat of silence. Then someone screamed, “It’s the curse!” Pandemonium ensued as the Lanachians ran every which way in an attempt to leave the square. Stalls were overturned. Bread - or something like it - rolled along the slabs and were squashed underfoot. Clothes tangled people’s legs together and forced them to the ground. A child cried for their parents only to be grabbed and carried off by, presumably, someone who knew them or a good Samaritan. Keith winced at the chaos, but followed Hunk and Pidge down the stairs.
Looking over his shoulder, he saw what had frightened the Lanachians. The museum’s building had begun to grow, spinning in its place as it rose. Up and up and up it went, until Keith lost sight of its new roof, the red tiles a stark contrast to the purple bricks it was now made of. A door kept appearing and disappearing, spinning out of sight as the building became high enough to be considered a skyscraper. Since all of the buildings around them were short and squat, the building looked out of place, looming over everyone with a sense of doom.
The three of them were halfway through the square when, with a horrible creaking, the building stopped rising. Now, it was a tower, so tall that Keith was sure the top of it would pierce any clouds had there been any. Keith paused to take a look, sure that the immediate danger was over. However, he was quickly proved wrong when that same smoke appeared, wreathing the tower and slowly sneaking outwards. As it moved over the land, a plant began to appear, bursting from the ground, all yellow points that jabbed towards them. It even grew up the side of the tower.
“Dammit!” Keith snapped. “Keep going!” He pushed at Pidge’s shoulder when he noticed that she had also stopped. “We have to get out of the square.”
“Go to your flying Castle,” said an urgent voice. Hunk made a noise of surprise ahead of Keith and Pidge and skidded to a stop, Crlar’s head bumping off of his back. The Lanachian that had appeared before, the one who was the witch’s sister, was hovering in front of them, blocking their way. “You must not be on this planet when the triaks covers the ground or you will be caught up in what will happen next.”
“Why are you helping us?” Pidge demanded.
“Just go!” the Lanachian said, pointing to the encroaching plants. “You are the only ones who will be able to fix this!”
Though he was hesitant to trust another witch, Keith knew they had no idea what the plants would do to them, nor what had happened to Lance or the building or who the witch was. Without a plan of attack, and with one paladin down, they would likely get their asses kicked. So he grabbed Pidge’s arm and shoved at Hunk.
“Come on! Let’s go!”
They obeyed him with little resistance, stumbling for a few steps until they were keeping pace with him as he ran through the streets. Frantically, he tried to remember the correct way back to the palace and the Castle, only to have to rely on Pidge’s memory. Behind them, they could hear the growth of the plant, the rustling and crackling loud enough to be heard over the distant, panicked cries. Sometimes, they would see someone rush by, wide-eyed and tearful.
Finally, they rounded a corner and were greeted with the sight of the buildings falling away to reveal the land in front of the palace. There, the Castle stood, tall and proud, towering over the smaller buildings. A crowd of people were standing in front of the palace, shouting and arguing with the guards who were attempting to keep them back. Two figures stood in front of the Castle, one of them pacing up and down.
“Allura!” Keith called, speeding up. “We need to get everyone onto the Castle and take off from here!”
Stopping her pacing, Allura spun towards them, eyes wide and confused. “What? Why do we need to do that?”
“A witch told us,” Pidge explained as she staggered to a halt in front of her. “A good witch, I think.”
“What?” Allura repeated, obviously alarmed.
“Where is Lance?” asked Coran, peering over their shoulders.
“He’s-” Keith couldn’t bring himself to say it, his jaw locking as the loss suddenly hit him. First Shiro, now Lance…
“We don’t have time for that!” Hunk exclaimed, pointing. The plants were at the edge of the city now, quickly crawling along the ground, growing upwards all the while. “That witch said that we needed to get off the planet before that covered everything! Something bad’ll happen if it reaches us!”
“He’s right,” Keith told Allura. “We should get as many people as possible onto the Castle before it gets to us.”
Allura grimaced, glancing towards the palace. “I am not sure that will be possible at such short notice. But, as she is a witch, perhaps we can stay and fight it off.”
“We don’t have our bayards,” Pidge pointed out. “And that witch seemed to think we’d be able to come back after it’s finished growing.”
“Then…” Allura gave a pained look at the frantic crowd. Keith knew she wanted to rescue them all - he did as well, but he couldn’t think of a way to get their attention quickly. The plant was fast approaching and it would soon be growing over the bottom of the Castle. “Let us save them all, quickly.”
They managed to take off just in time.
When Coran brought up the images from down below, they saw that the plants had completely grown over where the Castle had been just a few ticks before. The plants had even grown over the people down there before it seemed to recede, only for the smoke to obscure what was happening to them. Coran piloted the Castle into orbit as they watched the devastation, teeth gritted and fists clenched. Keith’s heart ached: he spent a lot of the time watching the tower, waiting for Lance to appear, for Red to go save him, to have Lance brought back to him.
Crlar was taken to the healing pods as soon as they’d gotten clear of the planet, and they waited for her to be well enough to emerge. Keith spent the time standing as still as possible, completely tense, resisting the urge to pace. Hunk did that for him, striding up and down and pushing his fingers together, muttering to himself and looking near to tears. Meanwhile, Pidge was looking over the scans on her tablet, flicking through the readings that told them that the only sign of life was in the tower. All of them were worried about the people; Keith also worried about Lance’s reaction to finding out what his actions had done.
Finally, the pod released Crlar into Allura’s waiting arms. They took her to the dining room, gave her food and debriefed her. Once she was up to date with the situation, she gave them all an apologetic look. “I am so sorry about this, my princes, princess and queen,” she said. “I should not have taken you there. The curse is widely known on this planet; it did not occur to me that it would be dangerous to anyone other than me and my family.”
“That doesn’t matter now,” Keith told her, leaning on the table to get closer to her. “We just need to know how to get Lance back. How to fix this,” he corrected himself.
“I… I only know the stories.”
“Well, why don’t you tell us them?” Pidge suggested.
Crlar looked between them all, her worried expression not easing. Then, with a deep breath, she nodded and began to tell her tale. “Several decaphoebs ago, just before the Demolition Age there was a witch. Two witches, though the second was good and not the main concern. They lived in a beautiful building that was slightly taller than those around them because of their parents’ wealth. The first witch was friends with a local girl. They did everything together, and the witch helped her with anything that she asked, even teaching her how to spin greker wool into beautiful garments. They were happy.
“According to some versions, the witch and her parents were part of the Anti-Demolition movement, something her friend didn’t approve of. They didn’t want the old buildings to be repurposed for new and were very vocal in the debates about it. People say that it was because of the witch’s love for the buildings and not greed that she protested it, unlike so many of the people who did. Others say that the witch had a clothing business, something that was precious to her. Her friend helped her as often as possible - and they say that that is where she met the prince.
“However it happened, she met the prince and fell in love. She ended up leaving the witch behind to become a princess, to live with her beloved. Apparently, the witch was content to wait for the woman to return her letters, to summon her to the palace so that they could be together again, to take up the political fight at the very centre or to be given royalties. But the king was against witches and forbid the princess to do such a thing. When the witch found out, she only smiled and said that that would change, that the princess would change the opinions against the witches, that she would champion their equal rights.
“The prince was crowned, and the princess with him. But the laws regarding witches went unchanged. It confused the witch, not aware of the political obstacles the queen faced. And, the longer that there was no response, the longer that the witch dwelled with her longing to her friend, the angrier that she became. Or she grew angry because of the free clothes that the princess gave to the poor, making business dry up for the witch.
“Whatever the reasons, time passed and there came a time when the queen gave birth to a child. Ecstatic, she invited several prominent members of the planet to celebrate. She also invited the witch’s sister - the second witch - because she had married a nobleman who advocated for the equal rights of every living being, including witches. Or because she understood and supported the Demolition. But she did not invite the witch, on the advice of the council and her husband. As far as the stories go, she planned on sneaking off to introduce her friend to her daughter as soon as she could, intent on forgiving the witch for any transgressions.
“Unfortunately, when she heard of the christening and her sister’s invitation, the witch became furious. She blamed her friend for all her misfortune and turned up at the palace. With everyone watching, she cursed one of the gifts - a spinning wheel - to kill the next royal who touched it, hoping it would be the queen. However, her sister managed to nullify the curse and make sure that the person would only fall asleep. With the way their magic works, though, she had to make the curse vague and now…”
“There has to be a way to wake Lance,” Keith said. “What is it?”
“Well,” said Crlar, looking consternated, “it is only ever said that the ‘traditional waking methods’ must be invoked. But I do not know what that means.”
“Maybe it’s something like throwing water over him?” Hunk suggested. “Or pulling him out of the bed.”
“Or,” said Pidge, smirking at Keith, “it’s like True Love’s Kiss.”
“I doubt that’s relevant,” said Keith, quickly. Unfortunately, he could feel the heat in his cheeks as he blushed. He hoped Coran wouldn’t notice and insist he go into a healing pod.
“Whatever it is, we need to get to him first,” said Allura. She turned back to Crlar. “We need to know what’s happening to the people down there. What can you tell us about that smoke?”
“I do not know about the smoke,” Crlar replied, apologetically. “But there was a theory that, to stop the curse from lifting, the witch would stop the people, too. I would expect that they are all asleep, if they are being affected by the smoke.”
“Will we be affected if we go down there?” Keith asked.
“I… I am unsure. You may be, if they become you are aware down there.” Crlar looked between them again before hanging her head in shame. “None of the stories knew what would happen and no-one took them seriously. Who believes in magic today?”
“Magic is just the manipulation of quintessence,” said Allura. “Mostly,” she added when Coran opened his mouth to speak.
“So we don’t know what’s happening down there?” Hunk piped up. “What’re we gonna do? We’ve gotta save everyone!”
“And Lance,” Pidge added.
“We’ll have to risk it,” Keith began, before pausing. If all of them descended to the planet and were incapacitated, there would no-one to be able to save Lance. And there would be no more Voltron. Zarkon would win. He clenched his fists and gritted his teeth, quickly making a decision. “I’ll have to risk it.”
“What?” said Hunk, alarmed. “What are you talking about? If we’re going to save everyone, we should all-”
“No,” said Keith, firmly. “If we’re all cursed, then the universe is doomed. I’ll go down and you three keep watch in the Lions. If anything happens to me, you’ll be able to do something. Save Lance; save the Lanachians.”
“But…” Pidge trailed off, watching him.
“I can use my sword to get through those plants,” Keith continued, looking at them all with determination. “And I won’t stop until I get Lance back.”
“I’m not sure…” said Allura.
“It’s too dangerous,” Coran added. “Though… It is Lance, Princess.”
“We can’t leave him behind,” Hunk declared, nodding at Keith, even though he looked extremely worried.
“We won’t,” Keith promised. “I’m not losing anyone else out here.”
Allura bit her lip, looking between all of them. “I… Yes. Of course. We have to do something and, I suppose, this will be as good as anything else we could think of.”
“Then let’s get into our armour-”
“We can’t,” Pidge interjected. “We changed in the palace, so our armour’s down there, and so are our bayards.”
Keith grimaced, knowing that he’d be at a disadvantage if he didn’t have his usual weapon. Then a sudden thought occurred to him. He reached behind himself and drew out his blade, pulling it from its sheath. With a thought, he activated it, forming the sword he needed. Apart from that, he had everything he needed: the determination to get to Lance thrummed under his skin as he looked up at them all. “Let’s go.”
Allura showed Keith how to use one of those one-man pods so that he’d be less visible and sent him on his way with an encouraging word. Her smile, though, could have done with some work. Pushing that thought to the back of his mind, Keith held onto the pod tightly as he was launched, thoughts of Lance in his mind. Would Lance wake when he reached him? Would the solution come to him in time? Would the witch stop him?
As he shot through the vacuum of space, he heard the roars of the Lions in his mind and spotted them emerging from the Castle. Blue came up on one side of him, and Green and Yellow appeared on his other. Just their presence boosted his confidence and he leaned over the pod, willing it to go faster. Eventually, he broke through the atmosphere and left his friends behind, quickly building up speed as the planet’s gravity took hold.
He burst through a cloud, wincing at the cold and wet feeling that pressed against the suit he’d had to put on over his clothes. It was enough to protect him from the vacuum of space, but it was thin and, apparently, would be best left behind once he landed. As such, the cold pierced the material and made him shiver.
Below the cloud was a layer of smoke, broken only by the tower that was tall enough to poke through it. Keith braced himself for what would happen when he touched the unnatural smoke and angled his pod closer to the tower. Thankfully, when he hit the smoke, all it did was disperse. When he glanced over his shoulder, he could see that the area of cleared sky slowly expanded from where he had disturbed it: the others should be able to see what was going on once he reached the ground.
Looking down, he could see that the plants, whatever they were, covered the entirety of the area Keith was heading towards. They even stretched out to the horizon, so Keith assumed that they covered the entire planet. Keith had to correct himself as he grew closer, however: there were patches where the plants didn’t cover, no more than a few feet in diameter. Squinting, Keith tilted his head to and fro until he realised that there were figures in some of the clearings, some on their own, some with others, huddled together in fear. None of them were moving, and Keith frowned.
Since his curiosity had been piqued, Keith angled himself closer to one of them. Something seemed strange about them, but Keith wasn’t sure what, not even when he drew even closer. Finally, he crashed through the plants and landed, skidding with the force and speed of his landing. Once he’d stopped sliding along the ground, Keith stood up and quickly removed the suit, stashing it with the pod. He looked around at the branches that surrounded him - they reminded him of briars. The only difference was that sickly yellow colour that made Keith curl his lip in disgust. There was no movement nearby, no sounds or smells or even the feeling of a breeze. Everything was deathly still.
“Keith. Hey,” came Pidge’s voice. “Did you make it?”
“Are you okay?” asked Hunk.
“I’m fine,” Keith assured them. “I’ve landed. But I saw some of the Lanachians here, in among the plants. None of them were moving, though.”
“So they are asleep,” said Allura.
“I don’t know. They didn’t seem to be lying down.”
“What does that mean?” Crlar demanded, still safe in the Castle with Coran.
“I don’t know,” Keith repeated. “Hang on; I’ll find out.”
With that, Keith drew his blade, transformed it into a sword, and began to hack at the plants. They broke easily, though they left behind a horrid smell, something rather like food that had been left too long in a fridge. It was hard going, especially since he had no armour to protect him from the sharp points of the plants. Scratches appeared on his hands. He felt branches scraping his arms, even with the tunic’s sleeves in the way. The sash got caught on twigs and he had to cut himself free: he thought about removing it, but decided it wouldn’t be good diplomatically if he’d lost something he’d been given by the Lanachians.
Eventually, he broke through into a clearing. It surprised him enough that he stumbled and nearly fell into the Lanachian standing there. Once he’d straightened, his eyes widened in horror. The Lanachian was white all over: skin, hair, clothes. In fact, Keith realised that they looked like they had been made with the same material used to make the museum. Whoever it was, they stood with an arm raised, their face scrunched up as they looked away, clearly trying to ward off whatever was approaching them. It had not worked.
“The…” Keith said into the comms, trying to keep his voice steady. “The Lanachians have… have been turned to stone. Or whatever that building was made out of. The white one.”
“Oh, no!” exclaimed Crlar. “What will we do?”
“Don’t worry,” Pidge said, sounding all-knowing. “In these sorts of curses, when we break the one on Lance, it’ll free the rest of ’em.”
“Are you sure?” asked Crlar, uncertainly.
“Oh, yes,” Hunk replied, though Keith could hear his voice wavering. He decided to cut in before Hunk could make matters worse.
“I’m going to move on,” he told them. “I’ll let you know when I reach the tower.”
“Roger that,” said Pidge.
“Got it,” Hunk added.
“Be careful,” Allura told him, sounding worried.
With a decisive nod that the others couldn’t see, Keith turned towards the tower and began to hack his way through the bracken. He tried to move in a straight line as much as possible, but he often found himself being blocked by buildings or even crowds of terrified, frozen Lanachians. As such, his path was winding and it seemed to be taking far longer than he had thought it would be. Desperately, he hoped that he wasn’t being led in circles or that the magic hadn’t elongated his path without him noticing. Gritting his teeth, he swung his sword with more force, desperation yielding to a laser focus.
Something flew at him from above and, just in time, he backed away from the plant he was trying to cut apart and swung at it. The blade connected with whatever it was and sent it flying aside. It caught on some of the branches and dropped down until it hit the ground, the clanging sound of it making contact with the ground ringing through the silence. His heart was pounding from the exertion and the surprise, and he glanced towards the fallen item to figure out what had happened. Keith blinked. It looked very much like a flaming arrow, though the unnatural green flames sputtered and died as soon as he noticed them.
When he returned his attention to the sky, he saw that a whole barrage of them were flying towards him from above.
Activating his comm, Keith readied his sword to defend himself. “I’m under attack!”
“What?!” exclaimed Crlar. “But who would be-?”
“Do you need assistance?!” Allura interrupted her.
Before Keith could finish, the arrows suddenly glowed with a warm light. He blinked against the sudden brightness and, when he opened his eyes again, the arrows were gone. In their place were several, long-stemmed flowers. Their petals were a pastel yellow and seemed more natural than the horrible branches surrounding him. With soft taps, they rained down on Keith before falling to the ground.
“Keith?” came Hunk’s voice, startling him from his shock. “What’s happening?”
“It’s… It’s fine. They’ve gone,” Keith replied, speaking slowly.
“Huh? What do you mean?”
“I mean… I’m surrounded by flowers now.”
There was a pause as everyone absorbed the information. Then Pidge snorted and Hunk barked out a laugh. “There he is,” Hunk said, still chuckling. “Our jokester.”
“I’m not joking,” said Keith, raising an eyebrow despite only a statuesque Lanachian for company.
“Are-? What, so the arrows magically transformed into flowers?” Pidge demanded.
“I think so,” Keith replied.
“So that woman…” Allura said, sounding contemplative.
“The witch’s sister,” Pidge added.
“She’s really helping us?” Hunk asked, dubiously.
“There’s no way to know,” Keith said. “All I can do is keep going and hope for the best.”
“Right,” said Pidge. “Good luck.”
Off Keith went, back to swinging his sword back and forth. This time, he was sure he was getting closer, could see the faint outline of bricks as he hacked at the plants. Ahead of him, though, he could hear noises. From what he could make out, they seemed to be arguing. He wasn’t sure whether he should tell the others when, suddenly, he found himself breaking through the thicket and stumbling into the square in front of the tower. At the same instant, in the centre, smoke billowed upwards, forcing aside the sister who fell into the remains of a stall. Keith would have went to her aid and asked for her help had he not found himself tangled in the branches and twigs. By the time he had pulled free, the smoke had cleared. He froze in shock.
There, standing in the middle of the square, crushing the plants underfoot, stood an indigo dragon, several feet high.
For a moment, Keith could only stare, watching it spread out its wings and stretch out its neck. Then, activating his comms, he checked in with the other paladins. “Uh, guys? There’s a dragon.”
“A what?!” Pidge demanded.
“A dragon-” Keith began, but he was cut off by the dragon’s roar. He winced at how loud it was, reverberating in his ears and chest.
“Oh, my God,” whispered Hunk. “I can- The smoke’s cleared enough and I can see it. I’m coming to pick you up!”
But, as Hunk had been speaking, Keith had been taking better stock of the situation. Beyond the dragon was a door into the tower, likely the only entrance save the windows at the top. The witch’s sister stared at the dragon, paused in the act of extricating herself from the broken stall. Since the dragon matched the smoke and the witch, Keith drew a quick conclusion.
“I think it’s the witch.”
“What is?” asked Allura.
“The dragon,” Keith explained. “I think the witch turned herself into a dragon.”
“But-!” Coran stopped and Keith could see in his mind’s eye that he was probably hitting buttons on his console. “That’s not possible! Quintessence does not work in that way, not unless it’s corrupted - but the Castle’s scanners aren’t picking up any unnatural quantities of quintessence.”
With a sudden jerk of the head, the dragon turned its attention on Keith, one of its large, black eyes staring straight at him. It jerked its head back then and opened its jaws wide. Down its throat a red light began to grow; Keith knew exactly what was about to happen and quickly spoke into his comm again. “Well, whatever it is, it breathes fire!”
He threw himself aside, ducking down behind a large pot that had been overturned from a stall full of them. Fire blasted the ground where he had stood just moments ago, setting the plants ablaze. The crackling noise of it burning wasn’t enough to cover the sounds of the dragon moving, its large feet pounding the ground as it turned. Foul-smelling smoke filled the air, making Keith cough as the awful yellow stuff billowed towards him.
There was a sound not unlike the roar of a gasoline-fuelled fire, and Keith dove for cover behind what appeared to be some sort of covering that flapped loose. He scrambled to his feet as fire quickly melted the pots into one huge glob of metal. In order to keep from being scorched or burnt alive, Keith knew he would have to keep moving. So, with a deep breath of (mostly) clear air, Keith staggered into a run, dashing around broken stalls and fallen items.
His movement drew the dragon’s attention. Out of the corner of his eye, Keith saw it turning, its lumbering movements knocking other produce flying. Ducking down, he continued on while doubled over, hoping the dragon would lose track of him. Glancing up, he realised that, with the limited space, his team probably couldn’t help him.
“What do you mean, breathes fire?!” Pidge exclaimed in his ear.
“It’s a dragon,” Keith replied as he ducked under a bit of wood that had fallen from a food stall, the smell of the delicious food thankfully overpowering the foul stench of the smoke. “What did you expect?”
“I-” There was a pause. “I suppose I should expect anything,” Pidge finally said with a sigh.
“Yeah,” Hunk added. “Giant robotic lions are a lot weirder than a fire-breathing dragon. After all, you’d expect dragons to breathe fire. You don’t really expect super weapons to be shaped like giant cats.”
“Paladins,” Allura interjected. “Please focus.”
“I am,” Keith told her, just as he dove for cover. He was just in time: despite being slow to turn, the dragon had spread fire behind him as it turned, almost scorching him as he attempted to dodge it. Keith could feel the heat of it at his back.
This time, however, the dragon kept turning, so Keith scrambled back to his feet, eyeing the creature’s wings. Was there a way to attack it from behind? Were those scales or something else? Could he damage it if he slashed at its wings? Would leaping onto its back and attacking from there be a viable option?
Before he could come to a decision, a voice had him whipping around. "Excuse me, young prince."
Spinning in its direction, Keith found himself facing the second witch. Despite the danger, Keith could see that her hair was the same red as Crlar and her mother’s, though bits of wood were now tangled in it. Her ears were wiggling, possibly due to distress. Still, he raised his elongated blade, ready for anything. "Who are you?" he demanded.
"I am Silarn," the woman replied. "My sister is Nikar, the one who put the curse on the spinning wheel."
"That was decaphoebs ago," Keith pointed out.
"My sister tied her quintessence to the curse so she could wake with it. I did a similar thing so that I could help the unfortunate soul that…"
“Got in the way of her revenge?” Keith suggested.
“Whoever was caught up in it,” Silarn finished.
“The Prince of Blue is safe in the room at the top of the tower,” Silarn assured him. “He just needs to be woken. But, to do that…” She turned back to where the dragon seemed to be searching for Keith, burning down stall after stall.
“We need to get past… Nikar?” said Keith, glancing at Silarn.
Smiling, Silarn nodded. “Only you need to get up there. But here: look carefully. Do you see the jewel above her heart?”
Keith looked where Silarn was pointing and saw the reddish-purple thing glinting on the dragon’s underbelly, high up where one would expect the heart to be. It glinted in the light provided by the unnatural fires. Barely the size of Keith’s fist, he hadn’t noticed it in the folds of the creature’s hide. “Yes,” he said. “What about it?”
“That is how she transformed,” Silarn explained. “If you can destroy it, she will not be a threat. We both used most of our magic in the curse and counter-curse. She will not be able to hurt anyone once you get rid of it.”
“How do you suggest I get close to her? I don’t have a shield and she’s out in the open.”
“I said we’d used most of our magic.” Silarn gave Keith another smile and turned to the wreckage behind them. “Not all of it.”
What seemed to have been a jewellery stall was near them, its necklaces and rings and bracelets strewn across the ground. Turning to it and raising a hand, Silarn narrowed her eyes at the mess. Slowly but surely, and picking up speed, the metal chains and trinkets rolled and slid and slinked towards her. Once they reached her knees, they lifted off the ground and flew through the air towards her hand. There, they rearranged themselves and melted and spun. Keith stared in awe as the metal became smooth and elongated. Finally, it was finished and Silarn held it out to him.
To Keith, it looked rather like the medieval shields that you could see in movies, the sort that knights and princes used when they rode into battle. Except, this shield was far more expensive than anything they would have used. It glinted in the sunlight, the metal golden in colour. Blue jewels littered the shield, as if it was a reminder of who Keith was fighting for. Larger ones were arranged in a cross, quartering the shield. In each of the sections was a flat, red jewel, the colour dark like blood. A massive black gemstone was set into the middle of the shield and Keith felt sure that he could use that as a weapon if he needed to.
Carefully, he took the shield from Silarn and turned it so that he could hook his hand through the chain. “Thank you,” he said, shifting it so that he was holding it properly.
“Go save everyone, my prince,” Silarn replied, smiling at him. Her smile quickly fell, though, and she cast a sad look at her sister. “Save her.”
“I’ll do my best,” Keith promised. And he stood up.
As soon as he had, his comm crackled and his friends’ voices sounded in his ear. “-we hit Keith?!” Hunk was exclaiming.
“If he’s not responding, then…” Pidge said, her voice tight.
“We cannot risk that, surely?” Allura replied.
“Guys,” Keith said.
The comms erupted.
“Oh, my God, Keith!” Hunk exclaimed.
“You’re alive!” Pidge added, unnecessarily.
“Why didn’t you answer-?” Allura began.
“Guys,” Keith repeated. “Listen. I’m going to have to take out the dragon.”
“What?!” shrieked Hunk, making Keith wince.
“It’s the only way to get to Lance. Don’t worry, okay? Just… If anything happens to me…” Keith trailed off. There were a lot of things he wanted to say, a lot of things he wanted his friends to do for him. But, mostly, he just wanted them to get Lance home safe.
“We’ll do it,” said Pidge, quietly.
“Okay. I’m going in.”
With that, Keith leapt over the stall he had been hiding behind using his shield to brace himself, sword in hand. As soon as he was clear, the dragon - Nikar - turned, roaring her displeasure. He didn’t hesitate; tightening his grip on his sword, he raised his shield and, with a roar of his own, charged straight for her. Over the top of his shield, he could see that there was fire gathering in her open maw once again.
He was halfway to her when she released her flame in one long, powerful eruption. Ducking down, Keith let the shield take the brunt of it, digging his heels in to keep himself from sliding backwards. Heat licked at him from around the edges of the shield, enough to make him break out in a sweat. The shield held; whatever magic it was made with, it was strong enough to withstand the attack. Gritting his teeth, Keith shifted a little and stepped forward, pushing with all his might against the dragon’s flame. Slowly, he began to gain ground.
Finally, the dragon ran out of breath, the flame disappearing. Keith didn’t wait around. With a grunt, Keith launched himself forward, quickly covering the remaining distance before Nikar could take a breath. She growled and swiped at him with her claws but it was easily deflected by the shield. He swung his sword at her other hand as she tried to surprise him with another attack; the tip of it sliced through her arm and made her stumble back, her body open. The jewel winked like a target. Without hesitation, Keith used his momentum to fling it at her, the point flying true. With a loud crack, the blade imbedded itself in the gem.
Keith watched as the red colour faded until a clear crystal was all that remained, the massive crack a hideous black part of it. Then it suddenly fell apart, each part of the crystal tinkling on the ground, a sweet sound in the midst of the crackling of the fires surrounding them. His blade fell with it, returning to the size of a knife once more. The sound it made was a loud clanging that cut through the square.
As if that was its cue, the dragon roared one last time. Keith could hear the agony in the terrible noise, could hear the grief and anger that had sustained Nikar for so long. She stopped, as if she had run out of breath. Then, with no noise whatsoever, the dragon seemed to deflate, its body folding in on itself, indigo smoke billowing from its mouth and nose and ears and stomach and- A Lanachian shape was visible under the collapsed dragon, swamped by the hollow body. It wobbled and fell, draped out across the remaining flagstones.
Still wary, Keith slowly lowered the shield. As soon as he had, there was movement from his right and he turned to watch Silarn rushing towards her fallen sister. She gathered Nikar to her, pulling her close. It reminded Keith of Sendak’s attack on the Castle and Lance unconscious, sprawled across the floor… His heart clenched in worry. Biting his lip, he watched as Silarn yanked at the dragon’s skin - it vanished to reveal Nikar’s form, her head lolling against Silarn’s shoulder.
“Is she…?” Keith asked, itching to leave, reluctant to leave Silarn behind.
“She will be fine,” said Silarn, even as she frowned at her sister in worry. “But you must release this world from the curse. You should go to your beloved.”
Eyes wide, Keith quickly shook his head, aware of his reddening cheeks. “No, he’s not-”
“Remember,” Silarn continued, “you must use the traditional waking methods.”
There was a crashing sound from behind him and Keith whirled around. His heart pounded even as he let out a sigh of relief; it was only a burning stall that had collapsed in on himself. When he turned back to Silarn, however, he noticed her grimacing. “I cannot stop this fire. If you break the curse, everyone will be saved.”
“Right,” said Keith. He wasn’t sure if waking Lance would stop the fire, but he hurried over to his knife. Scooping it up, he paused for a moment to look at the shield. As far as he was aware, he wouldn’t need it any more. So, once he had quickly sheathed his blade, he held the shield out to Silarn. “You can use this against the flames, if I don’t get to Lance in time.”
Silarn smiled, looking a little sad. “Thank you.” She took the shield, manoeuvering it until she had gotten it between her sister and the flames.
With a nod of acknowledgement, Keith turned to the tower and darted across the remaining space, dodging fires and other debris. He turned on his comm again. “The dragon’s been defeated.”
“Already?” said Pidge. “Sheesh, Keith.”
“That was really quick,” Hunk commented. “I’d ’ave expected it to go on longer. A lot of rolling around and dodging fire and swinging your sword around.”
“I only had to destroy the jewel,” Keith told him.
“What jewel?” asked Allura.
“I’ll explain later. For now, I’m going into the tower.” He paused in front of the door. “I’ll let you know when I get Lance.”
“Okay,” Hunk said. “We’ll stay around the tower in case you, like, need to jump out the window.”
Amused, Keith turned a small smile upwards to where he could see the three Lions circling above. Then he turned his attention to the door and pulled it open, the old-looking wood resisting him till he gave it a good yank. He stepped into the tower and was met by a spiralling staircase that wound up the walls. Flaming torches provided light at convenient intervals. Taking a deep breath, Keith started up the stairs at a run, eager to find Lance as soon as he could.
Partway up, Keith had to stop to catch his breath.
He wasn’t sure how far he’d gotten, only that he couldn’t keep running up the steps. At the same time, the fact that he had had to stop made him scowl. Lance was at the top of these stairs. Lance needed him. Keith was letting Lance down by stopping. Shaking his head to clear his thoughts, Keith waited until his breathing had calmed enough and continued on his way at a more sedate pace.
As he climbed, he tried to steer his thoughts away from his guilt and yearning. Instead, he tried to work out what the best way to wake Lance would be. Shaking him would be ‘traditional’, right? That’s what people normally did to people who were asleep. Or dragging the covers off them. There was that one time that Shiro had dragged Keith off the bed - it had made his heart stop for a moment in fright when he’d felt himself falling to the floor. Hunk had mentioned splashing Lance with water and he knew that was another extreme method. He didn’t even have water, so maybe some loud noises would work?
But Pidge’s words kept coming back to him: True Love’s Kiss.
Every time he remembered that, he quickly tried to shove it to the back of his mind. His cheeks were stained red, from both embarrassment and exertion. Why would Pidge even suggest that? Had Keith been more obvious about his feelings than he’d thought he had? Or was it some other reason?
Suddenly, he came upon a door and all his thoughts were interrupted. On the other side of it was Lance, unless Silarn had lied to him. What was he going to do if Lance was elsewhere? Taking a deep breath, shaky from both the exercise and nerves, Keith pushed the door open and stepped into the room.
Although it was smaller in height than the initial room in the museum, it was still large, spanning the entirety of the tower. Two windows let in light from the star that the planet was orbiting. The light spilled across the flagstone floor, revealing a vanity and wardrobe that were clearly not needed. A jug of water stood on the vanity next to a cuboid tumbler. Under the window at the far wall sat the spinning wheel, innocent and unassuming. Keith sent it a glare before he turned his attention to the large bed in the middle of the room.
Despite being on an alien planet, the bed was a four-poster. Thin, blue drapes hung from the canopy, fluttering in a slight breeze. The luxurious covers were navy, little red lions rearing up in intervals. Laying atop them was Lance, quietly breathing.
Somehow wary, Keith slowly made his way towards him, taking in the sight. Lance’s brown hair was spread over the navy pillow, the weight of it pulling it away from his face. His brow was smooth, face relaxed in his sleep. In sleep, Lance’s lips were parted slightly, tantalisingly pink. With his princely garb, Lance looked so beautiful that Keith had to jolt himself from his reverie: he had been staring in awe at him for long enough that the shadows in the room had shifted.
Reaching the bed, Keith perched on the edge of it, almost loathe to disturb him. Slowly, he reached out to Lance, his fingers stretching towards his face. Then, realising what he was doing, he pulled his hand back and dropped it onto Lance’s shoulder. “Come on,” Keith muttered, gripping Lance tightly, desperately. “Wake up. Please.” And he gave Lance a shake.
Nothing happened, so he tried again. And again. And a little harder. Still nothing. Lance barely moved, only strands of hair shifting from the disturbance and his hands, clasped upon his chest, slid from their place. Keith grimaced. There were no covers to pull off him and he didn’t think that soaking Lance would be appreciated, so Keith grabbed Lance’s arm and pulled, trying to move him, pull him off the bed. But Lance was lifeless and, as soon as he was lifted, he fell forward and slumped against Keith’s shoulder. Keith was quick to put his arm around Lance, squeezing his waist.
“Come on , Lance,” he murmured, shaking him again. “We need you- I need you. Please wake up.” Keith could feel the tears in his eyes, could feel them building up, ready to fall. What was he going to do if Lance never woke up?
Pidge’s idea suddenly came to mind. True Love’s Kiss. Was that even a real thing? Turning his head, Keith looked down at Lance’s mussed hair, the way his lashes were fanned out over dark skin, his plump lips… Maybe it would work.
Since Lance was at an awkward angle to kiss, Keith gently nudged him off his shoulder and lowered him back onto the bed. There, Lance lay sprawled out, his arms akimbo, hair more of a mess. Keith hesitated, feeling guilty for ruining his picturesque form. So, as he tried to calm his racing heartbeat, he smoothed down Lance's hair and carefully placed his hands on his chest. His fingers lingered, savouring the feeling of the silky hair and smooth skin.
He shook himself. This was no time for admiration. Lance needed him. Taking a deep breath, Keith leaned over Lance. Visions of Lance's blue eyes, half-lidded but open, looking up at him with love and desire, made Keith falter. Something within him said that this was wrong, this was like stealing a kiss, that he looked like some sort of pervert. His stomach clenched and he swallowed, hard. Should he really do this? Would Lance hate him when – if – he woke up?
The thought of Lance not waking made Keith lower himself, one hand braced on the other side of Lance's head. His heart was pounding in his ears as he moved closer, his eyes flicking between Lance's eyes and his mouth, aware that Lance could wake at any moment. Keith licked his lips, eager but nervous. What sort of a kiss was True Love's Kiss? Was he meant to use tongue? Should it just be a press of his lips?
Annoyed at himself for being so ridiculous, Keith dropped down quickly. He closed his eyes at the last moment and pressed his lips to Lance's. It was a chaste kiss and only lasted a few ticks, but, to Keith, it felt like a lifetime. There was just enough time to feel the pleasant tingles, the way his breath left him, the strange indigo sparks. His eyes fluttered open as he pulled away, confused as to the strange, electric sensation. Had that been his imagination or had it actually happened?
Then Lance shifted in place, a small, sweet groan escaping his pretty lips. Keith's eyes widened and he reached down to shake him a little. “Lance? Lance, wake up!”
Those eyelashes beat against Lance's cheeks a few times before, slowly, he opened his eyes, squinting against the light. “Huh?” he mumbled, voice a little hoarse. “What?”
“Wait there,” Keith told him. “I'm gonna get you some water.” In a rush, he stood from the bed and hurried to the jug. He poured some into the glass, spilling some all over the vanity in his haste. By the time he turned back, Lance had sat up and was looking around the room.
“Where are we?” he asked, accepting the glass from Keith. “What happened?”
“You touched a cursed object,” Keith explained.
“'Cursed'?” asked Lance once he'd gulped down half the glass.
“Yeah, some sort of magic. You were asleep.”
“Then... How did you break it-?” Lance broke off and raised a hand to his lips, his fingers brushing over them. “Did you... Did you kiss me?!”
“I, uh...” Keith debated denying it, but he couldn't think of a fake solution to tell him. “Yeah,” he said. “Pidge suggested- I just thought I'd try. And it worked, didn't it?”
“Dude!” Lance yelped.
Keith crossed his arms. “What?” he snapped. “Shouldn't you be grateful? I did just fight a dragon and then climb all those stairs to get to you.”
Lance's eyes widened. Despite his irritation, Keith felt relief flood him at the sight of those beautiful eyes, open and alive. “You did what?! Have I been transported to another reality or something?”
“What's so weird about me coming to save you?” Keith demanded, frowning at him.
“Not that. God, you always do that,” Lance replied. “What's all this about a dragon? Are we on another planet? 'Cause, last I checked, there were only Lanachians. And... And a spinning wheel?” Lance grimaced suddenly and put a hand to his head.
“Are you okay?” Keith quickly asked, his anger dissolving instantly. “Just- Take it easy. I don't really know the specifics, but I think she messed with your quintessence.”
A horrified expression crossed Lance's face. “Thanks, Keith, for making that sound like a big thing.”
Sighing, Keith shrugged. “I don't really know how she did it.”
For a moment, Lance looked as though he was going to reply. But something in Keith's appearance made Lance pause, looking him over. Keith watched as he swallowed and his cheeks turned red. “I... Did you really kiss me?”
“Well, yes,” said Keith, a little hesitantly. He could feel the warmth in his own cheeks and forced himself to keep eye contact. “I couldn't think of any other way of waking you up – except soaking you, anyway.”
Lance's lips wobbled just a little, holding something back till he gave up and chuckled. “Thanks for not soaking me.” His smile held as he glanced up at Keith, almost shyly. “But... that means that...”
“That it was... was True Love's Kiss.”
They stared at each other, both of them blushing. Keith lifted a hand to cover his mouth in a vain attempt to stop Lance from seeing him looking so stupid. But Lance reached out and caught Keith’s hand in his own, his long fingers curled around Keith's palm. He froze, uncertain. “What-?” he began.
“Was it really?” Lance asked, and ducked his head, as if he couldn't look at Keith when he told him the answer.
“Was it-?” Keith stopped, suddenly understanding. “Oh. Um...” Keith thought it over. Sure, he definitely liked Lance more than he thought possible. But he wasn't sure if it went beyond an intense crush. With everything that was going on, he couldn't be sure, couldn't be certain and he didn't want to confuse Lance, or raise his hopes if he was wanting something from this. “I don't know,” Keith told him. “I...” He took a deep breath. “I really like you. Like, more than a teammate or a friend, more than anyone I've ever met-”
“Even Shiro?” Lance gazed up at him through his lashes, making Keith's heart stop.
“Shiro's different,” he insisted.
After a pause, Lance smiled. “I know,” he said, softly.
“But so are you.” Keith took Lance's hand in both of his own. “I really like you, okay? I don't know if I love you, not yet, but I'm willing to bet that I will, someday.”
Lance gasped and looked up at him, eyes wide. “I-! You-You do?”
“Of course I do! Why wouldn't I?”
“Wha-? I…” Lance’s eyes darted about the room, his cheeks growing redder. “You… You really…?”
“I like you, Lance,” Keith said. He felt tense, unsure. Did Lance feel the same or was it all wishful thinking? “And…” Keith continued. “If you don’t feel the same, then I-”
“I do!” Lance exclaimed, lunging forward and grabbing hold of Keith’s shoulder with his free hand. He stilled once he realised what he had done but, once Lance seemed to have caught his breath, he looked deep into Keith’s eyes. “I like you, too.”
Keith blinked at him. “Do you?”
Lance snorted. “‘Do you’, he says.” He shook his head in disbelief. “Dude, you just slayed a dragon for me!”
“I don’t think she’s dead,” Keith told him. “She’s definitely not going to bother us again, though.”
“Whatever. You still fought her for me.”
“Yeah,” said Keith, smiling at him.
“Who wouldn’t fall for you after that, huh?” Lance shook his shoulder. “Of course I like you.”
At a loss of what to do, Keith said, “Oh.”
A smile bloomed on Lance’s face, making him all the more beautiful. Keith’s heart felt overly large, full of warmth. “Why do you think the kiss broke the curse, hm?” Lance said, sounding amused.
“Well… I don’t know.”
Lance rolled his eyes. “True Love’s Kiss. Or… I mean… Probably more True Like-Like’s Kiss.”
Unable to help himself, Keith laughed, full of giddy joy. “You are so weird!”
Spluttering, Lance leaned a little closer, brow furrowed. He squeezed Keith’s hand and shoulder in his flustered state; Keith wanted to pull him closer, but he was too busy staring at Lance’s beauty to move. “I am not!” Lance protested, turning red - presumably at Keith’s words or his attention or at the knowledge that they were allowed this. “You- I- Just- You shut up!”
Again, Keith couldn’t help but laugh, utterly delighted. “Oh? Really? Why don’t you-?”
He didn’t get to finish his teasing. Lance suddenly yanked Keith towards him. Keith fell towards him until their faces were closer than ever. Before Keith could catch his breath or react whatsoever, Lance let go of his shoulder to grab the back of his head and hold him in place as Lance leaned up. At the last tick, Keith understood what was happening and tilted his head a little, his eyes closing as he moved towards Lance.
Their lips pressed together, firm and a little frantic. Lance shifted a little and opened his mouth, moving against Keith. Pressing closer, Keith pulled one of his hands free from Lance’s and wrapped his arm around Lance’s waist, pulling him against his chest. With the sudden change in position, Keith realised just how well they worked together. Both of them kissed each other in a sensuous push and pull that made Keith yearn for more.
When Keith’s tongue swept out over Lance’s lower lip, Lance groaned, pressing still closer. Keith helped by tugging Lance towards him until Lance was sitting on his lap. When Keith pressed his tongue against Lance’s, he pressed back, letting their tongues twine around each other’s. Their arms moved and, suddenly, they were embracing, holding each other close. Keith’s relief made him hold Lance tight.
They would have continued to kiss, perhaps would have done so while lying on that bed, if the entire tower hadn’t suddenly shuddered. Alarmed, they broke apart, staring around the room. The jug on the vanity wobbled and fell, shattering and sending water across the counter and onto the floor. Keith straightened, gently pushing Lance back so that he could stand.
“What’s happening?” Lance asked.
Keith glanced at him, noting that his lips were a little redder from their kissing. “I think we need to get out of here.”
Grabbing Lance’s hand, Keith pulled him up. Once Lance had gotten his feet under him, Keith began to make his way to the door, not letting go of Lance. Behind him, he heard Lance following for a few steps before he was jerked to a halt when Lance stopped in his tracks. “Wait,” Lance said. “Is there a hairbrush on that vanity? I probably look a mess.”
“Don’t be silly,” said Keith, sternly. “You look just as gorgeous as usual. We’re not stopping for a hairbrush. Now, come on, Sleeping Beauty.”
He allowed Lance a moment to blush at his praise, before he pulled Lance onto the stairs. They hurried down them, stumbling every time the place shuddered. Keith held onto Lance tightly, trying not to lose him now that he’d gotten him back. A few times, though, they slipped on a shaking step, both of them bumping into each other as they flailed to keep their balance.
“You need to let go, samurai,” Lance told Keith. “We’ll go faster if we’re not holding onto each other.” Keith frowned at him, tugging him along in a silent form of protest. Lance laughed. “You can hold my hand later, team leader.”
After a quick debate, Keith nodded. “Fine. Just don’t get cursed on the way down.”
“Hey!” Lance exclaimed, rushing along at Keith’s back. “It’s not my fault that just claiming to be a prince means I have royal blood!”
“Or maybe one of your ancestors was royal,” Keith suggested.
There was a particularly big shudder and, suddenly, the stairs began to drop from under them. Lance screamed and grabbed hold of Keith. Twisting as much as he could, Keith reached for him, gripping Lance’s arms. He glanced down and wished he hadn’t: the entire staircase seemed to be falling, the tower dropping with it. Then it began to twist and the two of them were hit by the rotating tower, the edges of the steps digging into them. Keith rolled them so that he was pinning Lance - as much as he could when they kept floating and slamming down as the tower fell - and shook his arms to make Lance look at him.
“Can you reach my knife?” Keith yelled over Lance’s panicked noises.
“I don’t wanna let you go. Grab my knife!”
Lance stared at him for just a moment. He nodded and reached down, his hand pressing against Keith’s back. If it weren’t for the danger, Keith would have appreciated the touch, the position they were in. As it was, he only felt relief when felt Lance’s fingers nudge against his blade.
And that was when the wall next to them seem to explode. Again, Lance screamed, though Keith was with him in making the noise. Bricks flew out over them and below them as their movement carried them out of the way. Then yellow metal thrust its way through the bricks and Keith’s eyes widened with realisation. Quickly, he pressed himself against Lance who hugged him close. Jaws opened and, before they could fall much further, they were scooped up by the Yellow Lion. They dropped to the floor in its mouth and groaned, neither of them moving.
"Hey! You guys okay?" Hunk's voice exclaimed through the intercom.
"Peachy," groaned Lance.
"We're going back to the Castle. The tower's collapsing."
"We'd noticed," said Keith, pushing himself up and off of Lance. "What about the Lanachians that were in the vicinity?"
"They were unfrozen a little while ago and are all clear."
"What about the witches?"
"Uhh… Oh, look. The Castle."
Before either Lance or Keith could respond, there was a click as the intercom switched off. They looked at each other for a moment, perplexed. Shrugging, Keith got up and held out his hand for Lance. Without hesitation, Lance took it and Keith pulled him up, remembering that time on Arus and the moment Lance had forgotten. He was sure, however, that Lance would remember their moment in the tower for far longer.
When they had landed and the ramp had been lowered, Lance and Keith emerged to see Coran and Crlar waiting for them at the foot of the Castle. The Green and Blue Lions had set down nearby and both Allura and Pidge hurried towards them. Behind them, Hunk’s heavy footsteps followed them out.
“You managed to wake him!” Crlar cried, clearly delighted.
“You’re okay!” Pidge called to them, before practically barrelling into Lance’s stomach to hug him.
“Yup,” Lance replied, wheezing.
“I was so worried!” Hunk cried, grabbing Lance from behind and hoisting both him and Pidge into a tight hug. Lance gasped for breath, looking to Keith for help.
“Okay, guys. Don’t kill him after we went to all that trouble to get him back,” Keith said, smiling at him. He had meant for it to be a smirk, but it was far too fond. Lance smiled back, if a little weakly.
The two paladins released Lance who stumbled a little once he was back on solid ground. He deliberately stepped towards Keith then till they stood close to each other, their hands brushing. Lance looked at them all. “I’m sorry, guys. I didn’t mean to be cursed by an evil witch.”
“Her sister helped a lot, actually,” Keith commented. He looked around at the Lanachians who were slowly getting back to their lives at a distance from the alien presence. When he looked towards where the museum and tower had been, he saw nothing - presumably it was all rubble. The air above them was completely clear of smoke and all of the plants had disappeared, presumably either burnt up or dissolved with the curse. “Where are they?” he asked the others. “You were keeping an eye on them, right?”
The other paladins looked at each other, all three of them with uncomfortable expressions on their faces. “Uh, well…” Hunk began, grimacing.
“I’m afraid…” Allura glanced towards Coran and Crlar who both nodded. “We believe that Nikar’s quintessence was tied to the curse, and her sister’s tied to hers. When the curse was broken…”
“They sort of turned into millions of tiny fireflies,” Pidge interjected. “It was… It was kinda beautiful.”
“They… But…” said Keith, not sure how to feel. Should he be relieved that the witches couldn’t interfere with the lives of the Lancahians ever again? Or should he be sad that they had died when they could have been saved? Maybe he should be glad that they were able to see each other in the end, that they were together.
Something touched his hand and, when he looked down, he saw Lance’s fingers were hesitantly curling around his own. It was a question, Keith realised without looking at his expression, and he answered. Their fingers slotted together as if they’d always belonged together. “Hey,” said Lance, drawing his attention up to those bright eyes. “There was nothing you could do for them. Don’t beat yourself up about it, man.”
“I know,” Keith murmured.
There was a pause then as everyone thought of what had happened in the last few vargas. It was interrupted by a shout from the palace. They looked over to find Queen Eflyrga hurrying over, looking rather worried. As everyone turned to deal with her questions, Keith didn’t let go of Lance’s hand. In fact, Lance squeezed Keith’s, smiling at him. Keith smiled back, happier than he had been in a while.
Perhaps it would turn out to be a ‘happily ever after’.