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Once Upon A Time

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Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there was a beautiful princess. She was kind and just and strong and very, very lonely, and trapped in a castle by a terrible man who meant to use her to control the neighboring kingdom and keep her father, the king, under his thumb.

But this story isn’t about her. 

There is an evil that must be defeated, and a beautiful person locked in a dungeon. But this beautiful person is not a princess - he’s only a commoner.

There is a hero, dashing in only the loosest definition of the word, but he is loyal and handsome. He’s not a prince, however.

But – they do fall in love. That is the most important part of any story, or so I’m told.

And there is a princess, so. Good enough.

~

Lance is the only son of Lord McCain, so of course he becomes a knight. For a while he’d thought he could escape it, could become – well, it doesn’t matter. His sisters all make suitably advantageous marriages, delighting their mother, and he becomes a knight, so they all do their family duty. He is also a knight named Lance, so that’s a great source of fun whenever he meets someone new. He doesn’t mind being a knight, but when he was sent off at twelve to train and uphold the family honor he imagined it would involve far more rescuing damsels and fighting dragons than exhaustingly boring border patrols where nothing interesting never ever happened. Which were even worse on foot.

There’s a shove to his elbow and Hunk says in his ear, “Daydreaming will get you killed.”

Lance rolls his eyes, “Well, patrols always carry the threat of death by boredom.”

“You keep thinking that. Then we’re going to run into some actual trouble, and you’re going to wish we’d stuck to boring patrols,” Hunk heaves his broadsword over his shoulders. There’s no one around for miles, so Lance doesn’t know who he’s trying to look cool for.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN MY MEADOW?”

Hunk screams and runs behind Lance, letting his broadsword fall to the ground. Lance tries to unsheathe his sword, but it’s poorly timed and he ends up punching Hunk in the side instead. “Oh my god I’m so sorry!”

“It’s all right,” Hunk wheezes, “Happens to the best of us.”

EXCUSE ME!” Lance and Hunk swing their heads wildly around, but there’s nothing there.

Hunk grabs Lance’s shoulder, “It’s a ghost! We’re going to die!”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Lance scoffs, huddling closer to Hunk, “Ghosts aren’t real.”

“DOWN HERE!”

Lance and Hunk look down and meet the furious gaze of a very short girl with honey colored eyes. “I’ve never met a dwarf before,” his friend says.

She narrows her eyes and kicks Hunk in the shin. He yelps and scrambles back, “I’m not a dwarf, I’m a faerie! What are you doing in my meadow? Are you here to defeat Emperor Zarkon?”

“Zarkon’s domain is through the Impenetrable Forest!” Lance says, “No one’s stupid enough to cross that. The last guy who tried never returned. With the others we at least got their bodies back.”

The faerie stares at them. “You guys did it.”

“No we didn’t,” Hunk says, rubbing at his shin. You’d think armor would protect him from one little girl’s kick, and yet, “We’re patrolling the border for King Alfor.”

She grabs both their elbows and twists them around. The forest behind them does look especially dark and menacing and impenetrable. “Huh,” Lance says, “I told you we should have gone right.”

“I’m the one that said we should stay right!” Hunk says indignantly, “You’re the one that kept going left! This is your fault!” His eyes narrow, “This is your fault, isn’t it? Lance, did you –”

“Semantics,” Lance says, waving his hand dismissively. Hunk makes an offended sound in the back of his throat. “But hey, since we’re here and al.”

“You can’t be serious,” Hunk says, “No – absolutely not. We have nothing – no horses, no plans, no weapons, nothing! What makes you think we can take on Zarkon on our own?”

“I’ll help!” the faerie pipes up, “He keeps on messing with the forests and stuff. My meadow doesn’t like him, and I don’t either.”

“See,” Lance claps Hunk’s shoulder, “We’re golden. We’ll sneak in, kill Zarkon, and rescue Princess Allura. The faerie will help.”

She glares at them and crosses her arms, “My name is Pidge.”

Lance bows, “My lady Pidge, we’d be honored by your assistance.”

She blushes and rewards them with a small, shy smile. “We will not!” Hunk howls, and she glares at him, “Because we’re not going to attack Zarkon. That would be moronic.”

“Come on,” Lance says, “Where’s your sense of adventure?”

~

Breaking into the castle was unexpectedly easy. Probably because no one was stupid enough to bother, but Lance wasn’t about to bring that up. Unfortunately, they didn’t know the layout of the castle, so they were sneaking around trying to figure out where Zarkon’s rooms were. Hunk and Lance had abandoned the majority of their armor in favor of stealth, while Pidge was reduced to sneaking around with them since the castle was littered in iron, rendering her powers useless.

He’s in the dungeons looking for Princes Allura, jumping up to look in the slot on top of the door to each cell. He finally sees the ice blue of Altea, but it’s not the princess. He jumps up again, grabbing the bars to hold himself up there. He recognizes the sigil stitched into his tunic, which is the only reason he knows to whisper, “Shiro? You’re supposed to be dead!”

The man snaps his head up. He’s dirty and bruised and too thin, and in spite of it all he still looks better than Lance. It’s a crime against humanity. He should leave him in the cell. “Who’re you?” he croaks, forcing himself up on trembling legs, “What do you want?”

“I – don’t move,” he orders, “Trust me.”

Trust you?” he repeats incredulously, but Lance doesn’t have the time to be offended. He hops down and runs his hands over the door, looking for any weakness. There aren’t any, but it is made of iron, so it can rust. That’ll have to do. He concentrates and tugs, and Shiro’s panicked voice echoes from the cell, “Hey – what, what are you doing? Are you, you’re one of –”

The door comes off at the hinges, and Lance grunts under the weight, shuffling it awkwardly to the side. He braces his hands on his knees, panting. “I am Lance McCain,” he says, still trying to catch his breath, “I am the only son of Lord McCain and a knight sworn to the service of King Alfor.”

He leans against the door frame. Shiro takes a hesitant step closer, slowly lifting his hand and trailing his fingers softly over the edge of Lance’s jaw, and his thumb reaches up to swipe across Lance’s bottom lip. It comes away red, and Lance hadn’t noticed he was bleeding. “What are you doing here?” he asks, eyes drinking Lance in, and the young knight can’t hold it against him – he might be the first friendly face Shiro has seen since his disappearance over a year ago. “Alfor said I would be the last he sent.”

“We weren’t sent,” he says, the heat from Shiro’s body on one side of him and the cold of the castle walls on the other. “We just kinda – got lost and ended up here.”

“Lost,” Shiro repeats, raising an eyebrow. His hand sits warm and heavy on Lance’s chest, and he shouldn’t be able to feel it through his chainmail but he most certainly can. “You got lost in the Impenetrable Forest and ended up on the other side? By accident?”

“More or less,” he answers. “Hey, I don’t suppose you know where Zarkon’s sleeping chamber is?”

“East tower,” he says, “At the very top. Why?”

Now that they’re so close Lance can see that streaks on Shiro’s tunic are too dark to be the dirt marks he thought they were. He reaches up and tugs down Shiro’s collar, revealing ugly, sluggishly bleeding welts. He curses – he should have brought a waterskin. “We’re going to kill him.”

Shiro grabs his hand, “You can’t. You all need to get out of here, immediately. I’ll try to follow.”

Lance looks at him like he has two heads. “Don’t be stupid, you can barely walk. We’re going to kill Zarkon and save Princess Allura, and now we’re going to rescue you too.”

Shiro presses Lance up against the wall, hands bracketed on either side of his head. It’s the least intimidating thing in the world because he looks like a strong wind could knock him over, but it is certainly distracting. “You don’t understand, Zarkon and his men will kill you, this is a job for an army, not a couple of knights.”

“Don’t be silly,” he says, tilting his head back so he’s looking at Shiro’s eyes and not his lips, “we have a faerie too.” Shiro’s eyes narrow like he thinks Lance is messing with him. He doesn’t know how to even begin to explain he isn’t, so he just says, “Look, stay here okay? We’ll come get you when everything is over.”

“I’m not going to stay here and do nothing –“

“Oh, okay,” Lance snaps, “come along and collapse from malnutrition in front of Zarkon, that’ll be really helpful.”

Shiro glares and they maintain their angry stares for another moment before Shiro sights and lets his head drop onto Lance’s shoulder. “Fine,” he says, “but there’s another prisoner from Altea in the next cell. I saw them bring him in a few days ago, so he still might be able to fight.”

“I’ll check it out,” he answers, and he wants to hug the man but with all the lash marks on his back that’s not a good idea. So instead he grabs the back of Shiro’s neck and squeezes. “Stay here, okay? I’ll leave the door off its hinges but you have to promise to stay here.”

They have no reason to trust each other besides that they’re both wearing Altean blue, but Shiro nods against his shoulder and for no reason that Lance can name he believes him.

Lance heaves the door back where it was, and it looks like it did before except now with one strong push the whole thing will fall to the ground. He opens the door to the next cell over the same way he had Shiro’s, and is instantly ducking out of the way of a fireball. “Hey!” He rolls forward and twists under another stream of fire before bodily tackling the mage to ground. He pins him there, and when the black spots clear from his eyes he has to blink twice because he’s certain he’s hallucinating. “Keith?”

“Lance,” his former friend answers, “Still completely useless at the things that matter, I see.”

He has the insane urge to unsheathe his sword and show Keith exactly how useless it is, but this is so not the time. Unfortunately. “What are you doing here?” he gets off of Keith, reluctantly offering a hand to haul him to his feet. “Didn’t the palace offer you a position on one of their mages?”

Keith’s eyes narrow, “How do you know about that?”

Lance flushes and looks away, “People talk, or whatever.”

“Did you recommend me to the king?” he demands, “Lance!”

“Well what else was I supposed to do?’ he snaps, “It’s not like anyone else would employ you. Considering your track record you’d be lucky to get a job as a blacksmith’s fire keep.”

He crosses his arms, “I didn’t ask for your help. I don’t need your help, and I don’t want it.”

Lance wants to grab him and shake him. “You obviously did need my help considering all the stories that made it to the palace about all your stupid stunts! Were you being an idiot on purpose? Because you never got caught before!”

“Well I wasn’t alone before, was I?” he says. “I had you! Then you had to go off –”

“I DIDN’T WANT TO LEAVE!” he shouts, and this is the worst time for them to be having this old argument, but clearly Keith isn’t interested in giving him much of a choice. “My father demanded I return home and uphold the family honor, so I did. I’m a noble, Keith! I can’t just – do whatever I want!”

“Your father’s an idiot,” Keith throws out, and Lance snarls, “You should have stayed. You’re a shitty knight.”

“I’m a brilliant knight, thank you,” he says, “Keith, I have a duty to fulfill. To my father and my king.”

Keith opens his mouth to say something rude, Lance is certain about this based on their many years of shared friendship, but there’s a low boom from above them and the whole castle shakes. “Crap,” he says, looking up, “they must have gotten caught.” He looks back at Keith, “Are you ready to fight?”

Sparks dance over Keith’s fingers and his grin curls wicked over his face, “Keep up if you can.” He goes running out the cell and up the stairs, and Lance rolls his eyes before hurrying after him. He used to be the one that said that.

The race to the main hall, and Hunk and Pidge are doing their best to defend themselves against a couple dozen guards while Zarkon sits on his thrown, watching the struggle with clear amusement. Lance catches a glimpse of Princess Allura by Zarkon’s side, her hands bound in chains. His view is soon blocked by the flames flowing from Keith’s hands and he has to duck and roll under them to keep from being burned. Luckily, he’s had practice avoiding them, even if it’s been a few years. Old instincts die hard, and it’s almost easy to twist and turn around the flames, his sword swinging up and through enemy knights.

He uses the tip of his sword to flip an enemy’s helmet off, then uses one powerful swing to cut off his head. He jumps over the body, finally finding himself back to back with Hunk. Pidge’s fingers are sparking with magic, but she’s at an obvious disadvantage against knights covered in iron. “See, didn’t I say this would be fun?”

“If we die here,” Hunk grunts, spearing two of the once with some impressively clever footwork, “I’m going to kill you.”

“I’m not sure how that would work,” Lance grabs a knife from his boot and sends it sailing through the air and into the throat of someone who was just about to skewer Pidge.

The fire finally dies away, and Keith dives and rolls for cover behind a column. “PUT DOWN THE SWORD AND DO SOMETHING USEFUL!” he hollers, and Lance would flip him off if he had the free hand.

“He might have a point,” Hunk says, “Also, is that Keith? How did he get here?”

“No idea,” Lance ducks, narrowly avoiding a beheading. “Also, with what? The goblets?”

“THERE’S A MOAT OUTSIDE YOU MORON!” Keith shrieks, running out from behind the column with hands still sparking.

Lance hesitates. He’d sworn to his father he’d let it lie, that he would honor his oaths and fight with steel and sweat and the other strengths of common men. But his sword might not be enough to get him out of this mess, and if he dies here his sisters will be sad. Keith will die here, Hunk will die here, and Shiro –

Shiro should be the least of his concerns, he barely knows the man, and yet that’s the final push he needs. Shiro is half dead already, and Lance will not leave him alone to rot away in that dungeon cell.

“Step back,” he commands, his sword clattering to the floor. Hunk cuts through another two knights to reach Pidge, grabbing her by the back of the shirt and hauling her behind him.

Lance takes a deep breath, lets the sounds of battle fade from around him. He reaches inside, goes to place inside of him that has always been there, that will always been there, that he never truly abandoned no matter what he told his father and friends and the king himself. “Exspecto.”

The windows smash open. Water fills the room, and Lance opens his eyes. He looks down, and his reflection’s eyes glow a bright, unnatural shade of blue. There are wisps of magic circling his hands, and he looks right at Zarkon when he says, “Obruen eos.”

The water listens because the water always listens, has listened to him since he was a little boy who could make puddles dance. It’s forms into spirals and shoots at Zarkon’s knights, forcing itself down their throats and into their lungs. For the first time, the emperor looks worried. Lance can feel his water in the knights’ lungs, knows that it will not betray him, and he looks at Zarkon and says, “You brought this upon yourself. Release Princess Allura.”

“I will do no such thing,” he hisses, rising to his feet. A fireball hits him in the shoulder, and he staggers back at the force of it.

Keith comes up to him, perfectly dry even while Hunk and Pidge are soaked, because Lance’s magic knows him, grew up with him, two small, terrifyingly powerful mages whom nobles and teachers alike were wary of. Lance’s magic swells and warms to Keith’s presence, the icy blue streaks of his magic dancing around the sparks on Keith’s fingertips. “Huh,” Keith says quietly, “I guess you didn’t completely renounce your magic.”

He rolls his eyes, “My magic isn’t as jealous as yours. I can pick up a sword and fire a bow and my magic still knows I’ll come for it – I never renounced it at all.”

“If you think you children will make a fool out of me,” Zarkon hisses, stalking forward, “you are gravely mistaken.”

It’s been years, but just like Lance can effortlessly spar against Hunk, knows his every trick and can predict his every move, so do he and Keith fall in line with each other.

Duobus unem,” they say together, and Lance can’t do this with many people, not that many people are his equal. But Keith is, is even better than him at something things. And so this spell actually works, and their magic blends together, blue wisps and fire sparks combining to become lighting in their hands.

And as one they pull back then forward and that bolt of lightning leaves the space between their hands and strikes Zarkon right in the center of his chest. He’s dead before his body hits the ground.

Hunk rushes past them falling on bended knee before the stricken princess. “My lady,” he says urgently, “we must leave at once. Your father is most anxious to see you home.”

Allura holds out her bound hands, and Hunk severs the chains with his broadsword. He totally knows Lance could have rusted them off, so Lance is sure he did that for dramatic effect. That smooth charmer. Allura stumbles on her first step, and Hunk braces her with a hand on her hip. “Thank you,” Allura says, making no move to separate herself from Hunk’s touch.

“My pleasure, Princess,” he says, beaming.

“Wait,” Lance says, “there’s someone we need to get first.”

~

It’s not safe on this side of the woods, but Shiro is in no condition to walk through the Impenetrable Forest, even if it’s a task made less impossible than tedious by Keith and Lance’s magic. Keith and Lance are little wobbly due to the stunt they pulled back at the castle, so Hunk ends up carrying Shiro on his back all the way to Pidge’s meadow.

“I’m very sorry about this,” Shiro says, clearly speaking to Hunk but still staring at Lance, as he has been for the entire trip. Lance is trying very hard not stare back, but they keep catching each other’s glances anyway.

“Don’t worry about it,” Hunk says cheerfully, “You’re light as a feather.”

Shiro’s mouth twists, and it’s not like the man is emaciated, but he’s certainly lost more weight than is healthy. “Hey,” Lance says suddenly, “Pidge, does your meadow have a stream?”

“Don’t you dare,” Keith glares, “You’ll deplete your magical core and die, and I’ll tell everyone you were useless during the battle and fainted.”

Lance shoves Keith in shoulder, “Don’t be so dramatic. Pidge is a faerie, which means she’ll have a faerie blessed stream. Right?”

“Right,” Pidge says warily, “What are you going to do?”

“Just a little bit of magic,” he says.

A couple hours later he and Shiro are stripped to their underwear, and Lance is about waist deep in the stream. The water is light and playful and full of latent nature magic, and oh so willing to help. “Come here,” Lance says, holding out his hand.

Shiro cautiously inches from the shore to the water, hissing as he wades into the freezing river. “Aestus,” Lance says without thinking, and that’s closer to a Keith spell than his, but the river obliges, warming a path from him to the shore. Shiro smiles and walks until he’s standing in front of Lance. It’s hard to appreciate the full effect of having Shiro shirtless in front of him with all the still bleeding lashes covering his torso. “This might feel – odd,” he warns.

“I trust you,” the other man says simply, and heat flushes up from Lance’s neck to his cheeks.

Lance takes a step closer, raising a hand to cup the side of Shiro’s face. They don’t need to be touching for this spell, but Shiro turns his cheek into Lance’s hand and he can’t bear to move away. “Ementure,” he says, pulling at the magic around him instead of the magic inside of him. The last time he used this spell it was to fix Hunk’s dented armor, but it doesn’t matter. Personally, he likes to use the words, but half the time Keith doesn’t bother because the words don’t really matter. Intent matters, desire matters, so when they’re both bathed in the cool blue light of his magic and the stream rises to effulge them, he doesn’t worry. His desires are pure, and so his magic will be too. That’s something the teachers at the academy never seemed to understand, something that he and Keith had figured out as children.

If you trust it, magic will never betray you.

As the seconds pass and the water doesn’t lower, Shiro begins to panic, looking around for a way out. Lance can’t have that, Shiro has to trust the water for this ridiculous piece of magic to work, so he tugs the older man forward and pulls him down and seals their lips together. He opens his mouth and lets Shiro breathe in the air from his lungs – it’s not like he needs it. He can feel the tension draining from his shoulders, and he could probably move away, but he doesn’t. He tilts his head and softens his touch, turns it from a kiss of life into to just a kiss, and Shiro grasps Lance’s hips hard enough to bruise.

Lance can see the bright glow of his magic working from below his eyelids, but he forgets to feel triumph and instead focuses on Shiro’s lips and his hands and this is exactly what he had imagined being a knight would be when he was twelve, ironically. The river falls away from them, the sun beating down once more, and Lance reluctantly pulls away. He doesn’t make it very far, because Lance still has a firm grip on his hips. “Hey,” he says.

“Hey,” Shiro answers, and his eyes crinkle at the corners when he smiles. It’s adorable.

Allura is laughing at them and Lance glances over to see Keith rolling his eyes and Hunk giving him a thumbs up. Pidge is more concerned with checking on her river than anything else.

He coughs and grabs Shiro’s hands, holding on to them as he takes a step back to get a better look at his handiwork. He’s filled out, not exactly as he probably was before but certainly better. All the lash marks are healed, only faded criss-crossing scars left behind to show he ever injured in the first place. “Huh,” Hunk says, head tilted to the side. “Maybe Keith is right. You’re a great knight Lance. But you’re an amazing mage.”

“Thanks,” he says dryly, then looks back up at Shiro, “Are you ready to go home?”

He bends down and gives Lane the softest and sweetest kiss of his life. “Yes.”

Lance knows he blushing so red that he’s lucky the water around him isn’t bubbling. He can’t find it in himself to mind though, because Shiro is still holding his hand.

~

The king is so happy to have his daughter returned to him that he doesn’t even behead any of them for going against his orders. Shiro is given the position as the head of his knights, and after a quick whispered conversation with his daughter Hunk is appointed as Princess Allura’s personal bodyguard. Considering the shy glances Allura and Hunk keep sharing, Lance wouldn’t be too surprised if Hunk was made Prince within the year. Good. Keith accepts the position of Royal Mage, but he keeps looking over him. Lance refuses to meet his eyes – extenuating circumstances or not, Lance has taken an oath to turn refuse the mage’s path, and he’s going to stick to it.

“And what do you wish, Lance McCain?” King Alfor says gravely, looking down on him from his throne. “From all accounts you led the rescue of the princess, and I would see you properly rewarded.”

Lance opens his mouth, but nothing comes out. He swallows and says, “Your majesty, what I truly wish is nothing that you can give me. I am a knight of Altea, and saving Princess Allura was my pleasure and my duty. I require no reward for completing my duty.”

King Alfor raises an eyebrow, “Eloquently put, young McCain. However, I truly must insist. Is there nothing I can do to show my appreciation for your bravery?”

He hesitates, but he remembers Shiro’s lips on his, and unbidden he looks up and finds the older man’s gaze. Shiro holds his stare, and Lance knows he’s not presuming too much. All the stories talk about love at first sight, and he didn’t believe in any of it until he looked through dirty prison bars and fell so hard he never thought he’d get up again.

His father wouldn’t let him become a mage because it was not an appropriate path for the only son of a lord. He can’t imagine his father would be willing to arrange a marriage between him and a commoner either – no matter if Shiro now leads the knights or not.

But perhaps –

“If it’s not too much trouble, your majesty,” he says, “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to – well, I know this is a bit old fashioned, but would you be willing to announce a courtship in progress?”

“That practice is a bit outdated,” he says, now grinning, “but I’m happy to oblige. I’ll even distract your father when he inevitably comes storming to the castle in a rage.”

Lance laughs, so full of relief he’s dizzy with it. The magic hadn’t been worth the fight, because whether his father liked it or not the water would always answer his call. Shiro, on the other hand –

Well, Shiro was worth fighting for.

~

That night there’s a knock at his door in the middle of the knight, and Lance answers it still half asleep. “Hullo?”

“Hi,” Shiro says, and Lance is instantly wide awake.

“Hey,” he says, “Hi. Uh – what’s up?” Shiro isn’t having second thoughts already, is he? This would be the shortest courtship in history.

Shiro holds something out, and Lance takes it without knowing what it is. “Courtships are traditionally started with gifts, so – well, here. It was my grandmother’s. She was a mage too.”

It’s a necklace, a fine silver chain with a dark blue tear drop sapphire on the end. “She was a shapeshifter,” he says, “Wasn’t she?”

Shiro starts, “I – yes, she was. How do you know that?”

“Some of her magic still clings to this,” he says, “Are you sure you want to give me this? It’s – it’s a family heirloom!”

“Well,” Shiro takes half a step closer, “it is my hope that we will one day be family, so it seems appropriate.”

Oh my god, Lance is so not going to survive this courtship if he keeps saying stuff like that. “Help me put it on?” He turns around and Shiro reaches around him to pluck the necklace from his hands and gently lays it across his neck, opening and closing the clasp with exaggerated care, and the heat of his body enough to drive Lance to distraction. “How does it look?” he asks, mouth dry as he turns around.

“Perfect,” Shiro answers, not looking at the necklace at all, and if he keeps this up Lance is going to die.

Lance pulls Shiro down and kisses him just to keep from standing their blushing like an idiot. Somehow, he feels like this is going to happen a lot.

He’s so okay with that.

~

So there was a captured princess rescued by a dashing knight, and the princess married the knight who then became a prince, and the happy pair ruled for many happy years.

But of course, this story wasn’t about them.

It was a about a commoner turned knight who got locked in a dungeon. It was about a nobleman with magic breathing under his skin, a man who became a knight to please his father.

This man rescued our commoner knight, and –

– they lived happily ever after.