“I said ‘no,’ Shiro,” the young man seethed.
It had been a week.
Only a week.
And Shiro had already wanted to jump back into the fray, after everything Keith had risked to get him back safe.
It had felt like a punch to the gut, a blow from an opponent, only worse because it had been at the hands of someone he trusted.
“We need you. I need you,” Shiro pleaded.
“You don’t need me. You want me,” Keith countered.
A moment passed.
“You don’t have to do this. You got out. I don’t understand why you have to dive back in,” Keith had growled, pulling at his hair. “You haven’t even recovered! Barely remember what happened to yourself over the course of a year. It’s not your responsibility to help the Alteans.”
“No, it’s not,” Shiro agreed.
“Then why risk your life? Why risk mine? Adam…” Keith hesitated, noting the rigidity of Shiro’s shoulders, but he knew it needed to be said. He continued, “Adam thought that--”
“Don’t talk about him,” Shiro snapped.
“I damn will,” Keith roared. “Adam broke up with you for the wrong reasons--we both know that--but he predicted loss, Shiro. What if it didn’t end after you were taken by the Galra? What if it continues? You could be walking into another year of torture!”
“It would be worth it.”
Keith stood before strangers.
Three people vastly different from one another in complexion, build, coloring.
A tall one with arms like tree trunks and solid frame stood between the two others, both lanky. The one to the right reached half the height of the big man; the little imp couldn’t hope to take him, though Keith reminded himself that with magick, anyone could be an opponent. She stood with confidence despite her stature. He noted to keep an eye on her, especially with the various new age gadgets and magickal equipment surely to be hidden in the pouches along her belt. The grave look on her face almost hid her age; a few years younger than himself possibly, though exceedingly more willing to jump into the fray.
In a quick blink, Keith’s eyes roved the young man to the left. Tanned with chestnut curled hair. Handsome yet boyish. His lean muscles swept down his crossed arms--not as lanky as Keith had initially thought. He could pack a punch, but what most worried Keith was his magick. The style and soft blues of his clothing indicated a hydro-elemental, though perhaps not one from the Witch Pocket. The cut of the fabric wasn’t indicative of the coven the hydro witches often aligned with; regardless, his magick could pose a problem for Keith’s fire.
The strength of the man in the middle could rival Shiro’s. Bulging muscles, but a soft face. Keith narrowed his eyes. Perhaps he wasn’t a fighter. His fingers fidgeted to his sides as if nervous until one hand pulled back his thick dark hair, which immediately flopped back over an intricately made golden ribbon spanning his forehead. It looked important, but Keith couldn’t place it. The remainder of his clothing was plain, though sturdy, ready for a journey.
Each stranger a physical antithesis from the next, presenting an array of traits. Keith assumed them all to be witches and that would be the only similarity he could conclude except for the analyzing look in their eyes.
Their inquisitive gazes made his skin itch, though complaining would be hypocritical.
Besides, he recognized them.
All of the strangers had been present the night Shiro had returned. Keith remembered scoffing when they had told him they were there to rescue him, flaring in anger at such a blatant lie. He had surrounded himself and his brother in flames, cutting them off from the group and escaping into the shadows.
Keith had seen them a second time a day later when they had broken the protection spells on the door to his shack he had rebuilt, the three of them barging in without warning. If Shiro hadn’t been shakily up on his feet at that moment, they would have been incinerated by Keith who had stood lit up in flames by the living room. Exhausted, Shiro had pacified him and then ushered the three out with promises to explain everything later. Keith hadn’t asked for an explanation, simply ordering Shiro back to his bed before he collapsed on the spot.
Now a week later, the strangers stood before him again.
Shiro had managed to convince him to join their group the night before.
A horrible decision really.
Shiro claimed the Galra Unseelie Court had taken over the Altean Seelie Court in the Fae Pocket. Such an act would have been the first in recorded history. The Courts had always been at odds, both with their own monarchies and advisors, laws and punishment, culture and societal standards, though supposedly they had been friendly competitors and respected their differences.
If the Galra had taken over the Alteans, then both Courts would have been joined under one monarchy, as opposed to the two separate rulers. The High Council, a reigning group consisting of the various pocket leaders, would have needed to be informed about the leadership change, whether or not they would agree with the Galra’s take over. But if they had been notified, a spontaneous meeting would have been called to discuss and possibly welcome the new leader and no such thing had occurred.
The Fae were notoriously known for being secretive and never ventured from their pocket, excluding the Fae Guardians who patrolled the ley lines. Either the Galra had not informed the High Council or no change to the Courts had occurred. The truth wouldn’t be known until the annual High Council meeting commenced--enough time for the Galra to solidify their rule over both courts.
Keith wouldn’t care about the change in power, probably wouldn’t believe it had happened, if it weren’t for Shiro’s captivity under Galra rule. Bile rose up his throat at the memories of Shiro’s panics, the nightmares, the scars; Keith had wanted to tear something apart, light the sky with fire and ash, scream until his voice died in his throat. He had run into the desert after he first saw Shiro’s scars, the ragged lines and rough textures criss crossing his skin; he had feared his necromantic magick would have taken the reigns in his emotional state. He had been lucky that night.
Only a week of freedom and Shiro already wanted to pursue ending the tyrannical regime. And Keith understood his need to stop the Galra. He really did. But for Shiro to place himself in a position to be captured by them once again… Keith had yelled at him for hours, attempting to show him the idiocy of his plan.
Yet here he was, having agreed to follow Shiro into battle.
And being willingly assessed by these people in front of him.
“Is it just me or is this guy really intense?” the big man failingly whispered. The blue one shushed him as Keith’s brows knitted further together.
“Shut up, Hunk! We are supposed to be intimidating.”
The imp shook her head in disappointment, her hand coming up to slap her face. Keith liked her the most.
“Not that this staring contest isn’t riveting,” Keith turned his head to Shiro who stood talking to the side of them, “but introductions would probably be a good idea considering all the time you’ll be spending together.”
Shiro easily smiled as he walked over to Keith and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder, heavier than before his captivity, weighed down by the muscle he had gained. Keith wanted to melt under the pressure, but with the others intently staring, he tensed under Shiro’s grip instead. He rather be on guard than risk Shiro or himself being hurt because these people thought he was weak.
“This is Keith,” Shiro introduced. “And he’ll be joining us to the Fae Pocket.”
“Wait,” the little imp breathed, taking a step out of the line of strangers. Her eyes shined curiously behind her gold framed lenses. She raked them down his form before settling on his face, amber glinting in recognition. “Keith?”
His nose scrunched in confusion. He crossed his arms defensively despite Shiro’s hand tightening. “Do I know you?”
“Yeah, yeah, it’s me,” she said, taking a breath. “It’s Katie.”
“I thought your name was Pidge!” the blue one gasped.
She whirled on him with a biting tongue. “It is. Well, now it is. But he doesn’t know that.”
Keith ignored their exchange, too caught up in seeing Katie again after so long. Katie.
He hadn’t seen her since he left the Leo Coven for Shiro’s.
It’d been years. Her long brown hair had been cut, her waves sticking out along her ears and the back of her neck. Her pale skin shone bright in the desert sun. She was still small, frail even; though she’d kick his ass if he ever voiced that thought. Her lenses… They weren’t hers but her brother’s.
“Katie? Matt’s little sister?” Keith softly questioned, taking a step from Shiro’s grip. A solemn grin stretched her lips before she nodded. “But Matt…”
Matt had gone with Shiro to the Fae pocket along with his father a year ago.
Matt had gotten separated from Shiro in captivity.
Matt hadn’t been seen since.
“I’m sorry,” Keith sincerely said, head slightly bowed.
“Don’t apologize like he’s already dead,” Katie spat. Her eyes burned like boiling honey as she took a step forward. “I’m going to find my family and bring them home, so don’t you dare apologize.”
Keith froze, struck by the familiarity of her reaction: the immediate denial, the vehement words clipped off her tongue, the false bravo embedded in her stance. He had the same attitude a week beforehand, before he had finally found Shiro. His stomach dropped at the mistake of thinking no one else had gone through a year without family. Katie stood before him with all the confidence of a seer grasping at the image of her brother and father instead of half-blood witch blindly searching for a path to her loved ones.
Keith shook his head, another apology on his tongue, but he swallowed it.
Words wouldn’t be enough.
He stood silent instead.
The others did as well. Still as the silence permeating the desert.
Katie bit the inside of her cheek, looking to the side before setting her eyes on Keith.
“Look, sorry about that--”
“No,” he interrupted. “I deserved it.”
“Keith,” Shiro scolded, though for his words or his rude interruption, Keith didn’t know nor care.
“I… I shouldn’t have assumed.” With a confident gaze, Keith said, “I never gave up on Shiro. You shouldn’t give up on your family either.”
Katie stood frozen, before hesitantly smiling, nodding. She rocked back on her heels.
“We’re good, Sparky,” she smirked, crossing her arms and lifting a brow up, clear amusement present in her words.
Keith sputtered on a breath, completely forgetting about the childhood nickname. He could hear Shiro chuckling behind him as his ears glowed red.
“Ha! Sparky!” the blue one snickered, snorting slightly in his laughter. Keith immediately narrowed his eyes on him, thick brows low and sneer plastered on his face.
That nickname was reserved for Katie.
“Don’t call me that,” he growled, even as sparks danced across his knuckles.
The blue one immediately sobered before saying, “I won’t call you Sparky if you only call them Pidge,” taking a step forward and leaning his elbow on Katie’s shoulder before pointing at her. Keith’s neck could snap at how quickly his emotions shifted from cackling harpy to demon-like seriousness, his darkening blue eyes piercing once he stepped close enough. The pyro-witch looked to Katie for a confirmation, clearly not trusting the other boy.
She rolled her eyes before pushing his elbow off her. His stoick face remained trained on Keith’s. “Sorry about him,” she said, “but he is right. I’m no longer Katie. Pidge is just fine.”
Keith shrugged. “Alright, but your nickname still stands.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” they said aghast.
He tilted his chin up challengingly. “Only if you behave.”
“Like you’re one to talk, Sparky,” they teased. Keith frowned, opening his mouth to retort before Shiro interrupted.
“Why don’t we continue with the introductions,” he said. “We should really have a plan of action by nightfall and I’d like to discuss camp roles. It’ll be a long way to the Unseelie Court if we want to keep a low profile. Fae don’t like other species in their pocket.”
Keith nodded face darkening before turning to the big man when he nervously stepped forward. The blue one stepped with him, standing close as if for support.
“Hi, I’m Hunk,” he introduced. Keith remained silent, studying the golden band spanning his forehead before his eyes drifted down over his form: hunched shoulders, stiff arms, tapping foot. Keith would be proud about how intimidating the boy found him if they had met on the streets; however, working together meant that they’d have to communicate and though Keith appreciated the fear he had instilled in this giant ball of nerves, it meant he’d have to put more effort into showing a softer side of himself, one he didn’t often show to strangers.
Keith nodded in acknowledgement. The simple action had Hunk’s shoulders lowering fractionally.
“I, uh, I’m not a witch like you guys. Also not from the Witch Pocket,” Hunk said. “I’m part of the Garrett Pack in the Shifter Pocket.”
A werewolf. Keith masked his interest, hiding wide eyes under shifting, black bangs.
“Not just any werewolf,” the blue one interrupted, throwing his arm over the shoulders of his friend. He dramatically pointed to the golden band covering Hunk’s forehead. “Son of the ruling Alphas. Big man of the woods.”
Hunk nervously chuckled. He rubbed the back of his neck, leaning more into the blue one. “It’s not that big of a deal.”
“Nope, my Hunk is not gonna sell himself short,” the blue one announced. His gaze found Keith’s. “Strongest animal in the forest, right here.”
Keith ignored him and his challenging eyes that were simply daring him to say something. An itch to retort tickled his tongue, but it wouldn’t be fair to Hunk. He was already carrying the weight of his friend.
Keith addressed Hunk. “You have strong connections with the shifters,” he glanced to Shiro before continuing. “We don’t exactly know what we are getting into, but if we get tangled in another pocket or… or captured with the Galra, your prolonged absence will be enough for your Alphas to call a High Council meeting in order to find you. Especially if they find out the situation with the Fae.”
“Hey! Hunk isn’t a pawn,” the blue one defended.
“No one said he was,” Shiro interrupted, placing a placating hand out. The blue one retreated, hugging Hunk tighter. “But Keith has a point. We can’t go to the High Covens, but if another Council Leader calls a meeting, the take over by the Galra will be revealed to all the pocket leaders and they’d have to take action, if not to stop them, then to find Hunk and subsequently us.”
Hunk raised his hand. “Yeah, hold on. Why can’t we tell the High Coven Leaders? Won’t they just call a meeting if they know what’s going on?”
“Ah, my man, we rescued Shiro from the Watchers,” the blue one said, patting Hunk on the chest. Keith caught the slightest flinch from Shiro. The night of Shiro’s rescue hadn’t been easy, far from it. The images of hostile Watchers and glinting, magickal suppression cuffs too raw for the two of them to dissect, to discuss. The organization Shiro had dedicated his life to had betrayed him, restrained him like a wild animal and gagged him like a dangerous prisoner. It had been abhorrent. “Ya know, the guys sworn to protect witches and who are loyally sworn to the High Covens.”
“...So they aren’t the good guys?” Hunk asked.
Pidge huffed. “Far from it. When Shiro and my family went missing, they wouldn’t tell me anything, which is bullshit. How is there not a report for an Ambassador, his assistant, and their assigned Watcher going missing? They’re all corrupt liars.” They caught eyes with Shiro. He stood rigid, could almost seem unaffected if the stillness wasn’t so unnatural. But Keith knew who he was thinking about. “Sorry. Not all of them.”
“The point is,” Shiro said, ignoring Pidge’s comments, though with lackluster in his eyes, “they can’t be trusted. The Watcher organization works independently under the High Covens, but to be safe, we can’t contact the High Coven Leaders. They could be orchestrating something or not--we just don’t have enough information to put our trust in any witch governmental authority.”
“And--and why don’t we just lay low?” Hunk asked. “If this plan relies on me disappearing, why can’t we just camp out. Right here. Out of danger.”
“But it doesn’t rely on you,” Pidge said. “It’ll rely on us and any Altean resistance we can find. You being a factor in our rescue is a back up plan. Hence the rescue aspect.”
“Don’t worry, Hunk,” the blue one said. “I’ve got your back. We’ll just pop in to the Fae Pocket, round up some resistance fighters, and bam! The Galra regime ends and we get to head back home heroes! Imagine all the babes we’d get!”
Keith snorted. Was this guy serious?
The blue one turned to him with a slight sneer.
Keith’s vision tunneled.
His heart rate picked up.
No longer did he face a bluclad teenager, but a little boy with a teasing smile and a glint to his eyes. Memories came rushing back, too quickly to understand, too short to process, but flooding with emotion: a sense of helpless terror washed over him, as it had washed over him all those years ago. He stood before the same boy who threatened to be his friend; the same boy who threatened to be his executioner.
His throat constricted around his breath, but he refused to choke with the strangers staring him down, all waiting for a response or an answer.
Shiro took a step forward. For all the expertise Keith had on hiding his emotions, Shiro had never been one to be fooled easily.
Sparks popped along Keith’s knuckles.
The blue one’s face lit up. “Aw, Sparky!”
“Lance,” Pidge groaned.
Lance. Lance. Lance.
Keith crossed his arms, hiding his shaking fists beneath them. He took a step back from Shiro, a slight glare stopping the man from coming any closer.
Keith didn’t need comfort right now, didn’t need to appear weak to the others. If Shiro so much as touched him right now, he’d bolt. He couldn’t handle anything else. His mind already ran wild, striking a headache to his temples with the amount of panic surging within it. He couldn’t believe out of all the witches in the pockets, the one who would be helping them against the Galra was Lance .
A thought hit Keith.
Lance had called him Mullet. Lance had called him Mullet.
Did he recognize him?
Keith almost hiccuped on an ashy breath. A tug began in his gut.
He needed to leave. Now.
Keith turned on his heels, not caring for Shiro’s concerned face or the protests of the others. He sped away, tears stinging his eyes and ash coating his tongue. The sand slowed him down, grasping at his soles, and if he could, Keith would sink into it, drown in it, and disappear.
As he stepped onto the porch of his shack he heard, “The name’s Lance!” shouted across the dunes. Keith released a dark chuckle. As if Lance didn’t already know they knew each other.
Keith slammed the door shut, leaving the others in the desert heat. He buried his head in his knees as he crumpled against it, choking and hoping that Lance would offer him a quick death.
He just wanted a quick death.
Deep breathes, in and out. The ash didn’t clear from his throat.
Why didn’t Lance lashed out? Why wasn’t Keith dead yet? Lance acted as if he hadn’t known him. A lie. A good one. If he hadn’t let the nickname slip, Keith wouldn’t have known, possibly brushed over Lance’s name as a coincidence. Keith groaned at a realization: Lance was toying with him. The witch knew him, knew where he lived, was in the same resistance group as him. Lance had all the time in the world to kill Keith. It was a gamble, considering Keith could attack first, but… no. He wouldn’t.
And Keith didn’t know if it made him any less of a monster.
Another tug on his gut had him keening over. He had to do something before his magick got out of hand.
Shakily he stood, ignoring the wobble of his knees and stabbing in his gut. Shiro had been building up his control over the past week, relearning how to use his magick. He had bottles of sleeping draughts scattered around the house. Though the idea of being unconscious while Lance was so near scared the shit out of him, he’d rather risk his own life than any of the others’. He could practically feel how close they were and how his magick reached out to them, particularly Lance.
Keith could let go. He could let his magick eliminate Lance. It’d be so easy to stop the battle before it's begun, to be rid of the witch before he could approach Keith with water at his fingertips and tempests in his eyes. But Keith shook the thought from his head as he stumbled to a small table, picking up a bottle of draught.
He couldn’t murder someone. Not again. Not if he could help it.
Killing Lance wouldn’t solve any of his problems. There will always be someone waiting for him to slip, waiting for an excuse to lash out at a necromancer. He would fight against his necromantic magick for as long as he could.
Keith unscrewed the cap and placed the bottle to his lips. Thick, creamy liquid flowed down his throat. The taste nastily mixed with ash. He struggled to swallow it down, but once the final drop passed his lips, darkness quickly overcame him, almost too fast for him to make it to the couch against the wall. He fell against it, bottle slipping from his fingers.
His panic spiked. He was being whisked away far too quickly for any safe sleeping draught, but he laid prone, eyelids forcing themselves closed and muscles relaxing.
Keith was gone.