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He Who Fights Monsters

Chapter Text

Lance really hated the desert.

Lance also really hated dragons.

So of course he would be the one who had to search the desert for a dragon. Of course.

“Pidge,” Lance growled into his radio, “why did I get this job again?”

Uh…because you’ve been begging to go on a field mission for ages? Pidge said, his voice staticy from distance and bad reception.

“Yeah, a field mission to slay a dragon, not to go looking for a dead one!” Lance exclaimed. “It’s just insulting. Why does Iverson hate me?”

Maybe because he heard you calling him a bastard with a tiny dick in Spanish in your first week at the Garrison?

“Rhetorical question, Pidge,” Lance muttered, dragging his boots through the sand and peering into the distance. His flashlight beam was wide and bright, slicing through the darkness in front of him and casting eerie shadows over the rocky crags and spiky plants that pushed up through the endless sand.

The sky above him was as dark and endless as the desert, but it was nicer to look at, speckled with stars and banded by the glittering Milky Way. When Lance had first joined the Garrison, he’d been amazed by how clear the night sky was without all the pollution from back home. Now that he’d spent a year out here, the initial awe had faded away – he didn’t have time for stargazing if he wanted to be the best Knight the Garrison had ever seen.

Lance actually had a chance of being the best, too, now that Keith, a.k.a. Mr. Perfect, had been expelled. Keith Kogane had been top of his class at the Garrison, and it was rumored that his simulator scores were the best the Garrison had ever had. He’d taken down a Class 4 dragon simulation in thirty seconds. He should’ve gone on to become a Knight, maybe even a Knight Commander. But instead, he was kicked out six months ago, shortly after the failed Kerberos Mission. Lance didn’t know the specifics, and he didn’t really care. Keith was gone, and that was all that mattered.

Hello, Earth to Lance! Have you found it yet?

Lance looked away from the stars and back to the unwelcoming desert. “Remind me what it is I’m looking for, exactly?”

Pidge sighed long-sufferingly. The scouts said it was a medium-sized male, dark coloration, two-horned. They’re not sure about the cause of death – its wings were shredded, but the scouts couldn’t make out any other major injuries from the air. That’s what you’re here for.

“Do they think it’s a rogue Knight who killed it?”

Pidge made a doubtful sound. Could be, I guess, but there aren’t any known rogues in the area. Listen, you’re just supposed to examine the body and get the samples, Lance. Hurry up, we don’t know what else is out there.

“Some geckos,” Lance said dismissively, just as one darted into his path, scurrying away through a patch of cactus. “Probably some snakes. Hey, I think I just saw a bat. Oooh. Scary.”

Lance, please focus for five seconds.

“Hey, it’s not my fault that everything looks the same out here – holy shit!”

The hulking mass rising up in front of him was definitely not a cactus. The flashlight beam swept over it, revealing a rough expanse of dark violet scales and a massive pair of leathery wings, folded and bent at odd angles, torn like tissue paper. Lance clapped a hand over his nose and mouth – the smell was unbearable. This thing had been baking in the desert sun all day, and the thick layers of scales and armor just speeded up the process, like a really messed up oven.

You found it?!

“Yeah,” Lance breathed, skirting around the edge of it, giving it a wide berth. “Damn, it’s not just the wings that are shredded. This thing looks like it went through a meat grinder. Ugh.”

Thanks for that lovely mental image. Can you give me specifics?

Lance swallowed, picking his way carefully through the rocks and finding himself face to face with the fallen beast. Panic rose up in him, instinctive – unbidden, a memory rose up with it: flames surging through the street, feet pounding against the asphalt as he ran from the fire, holding his little sister’s hand and telling her not to look back, if you don’t look back and keep running, it can’t catch you.

But Lance had looked back, and he had seen the dragon as it rose up with a roar, destroying an entire city block in a wall of fire. He had seen dragons before, but only on the news, in blurry photos, or in shaky videos. Nothing could have prepared him for the real thing. It was terrifying. It was monstrous.

They were savage creatures, and though they were supposedly capable of speech and intelligent thought, Lance couldn’t imagine them as anything but the vicious predators that they were. Dragons had been around for a long, long time, and they’d been terrorizing humanity since the very beginning. Some argued that dragons wouldn’t be so bad if their warmongering Emperor, Zarkon, was taken care of.

But the Kerberos Mission had proved that was impossible. Even the Garrison’s best Knights never stood a chance against the dragon elite, called the Galra. The Galra were the worst of the worst, more dangerous than Class 4’s, unclassifiable. They served Zarkon and carried out his dirty work, and it had been a Galra who had destroyed Lance’s family and his life that fateful day two years ago.

It was a Galra dragon that lay dead in front of him now. From the air, it would have been easy to miss, but up close Lance could see the symbol branded onto the dragon’s brow, a series of crossed, jagged lines between its blank yellow eyes. He would never forget that symbol – it was burned into his memory just like it had been burned into the dragon’s scales.

“It’s a Galra,” Lance said into the radio, voice low. Suddenly there was a chill in the air, and he shivered, tugging his jacket tighter around himself.

There was a long, crackling silence. Then Pidge came back on, sounding out of breath. You’re absolutely sure?

“Yes,” Lance hissed, staring at the symbol. “Pidge, what’s a Galra doing here? It’s way too close to the Garrison, something’s not right.”

Espinosa, describe that dragon to me immediately. Iverson. Shit. Lance’s eyes widened. Something definitely wasn’t right here.

“It’s, um, purple? It has the symbol on its forehead, kind of a slim face and long body, shredded wings, black ventral plates, and – sir, its…its throat was torn wide open.”

Torn? By what, cadet?

Lance shuffled closer, steering clear of the open mouth, the lolling black tongue, and the serrated white teeth. The Galra’s neck was slashed in several places, the wounds encrusted with blood, and…they were high up on the neck, too high for any human to reach. Lance’s gaze traveled over the rest of the Galra’s corpse, and slowly, its mangled state began to make sense.

Except, it didn’t make sense. Because…this didn’t happen. Ever. “Sir,” Lance stammered, “I think…I think it was attacked. By another dragon.”

Iverson swore, loudly. Lance flinched and almost dropped the radio. It’s him, Iverson said, muffled, like he was trying to cover the radio and not quite succeeding. It has to be.

“Sir? What should I –”

Report back to the Garrison, cadet, Iverson ordered.

“But sir, I haven’t completed my mission –”

Now, Espinosa!

“Yes, sir.” Lance glanced around nervously, feeling very alone and vulnerable as the radio lapsed back into silence. The Galra’s golden eyes glared at him, and though he knew it was dead, Lance couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched.

“Now you’re just freaking yourself out,” Lance grumbled, turning away from the Galra and back the way he’d come…

…and coming face to face with a pair of very alive golden eyes, looming above him, glowing in the darkness. Lance stumbled back, the breath leaving him like a punch to the gut, and though he had been trained to fight, he could do nothing in that moment but run for his life.

Lance’s boots skidded over the rocks and loose pebbles, and he heard a rumbling growl close behind him, and then there was a flare of scalding heat and Lance screamed as the night was illuminated with wild, flickering flames, surrounding him in a rough semicircle, effectively blocking any escape. Trembling, Lance turned, hand flying to the knife at his hip. But the thought of trying to use it against the furious dragon standing before him was laughable – it would be like fighting off a tiger with a toothpick. Still, he unsheathed it, gripping the hilt tight and raising the blade. Lance Espinosa wasn’t gonna go down without a fight, no matter how pathetic that fight might be.

The dragon growled again, and stepped forward, into the flickering light of the flames. It was smaller than the dead one, and its scales were a dark, burnt red; the color of blood. Its horns curved up wickedly from its sharp-featured, narrow head, and there were three pairs of spiky protrusions coming from its jaw, just under its ears. Its head was crowned with a darker red crest, starting just above its glaring eyes and running down the entire length of its neck, ending where its wings rose from its back, fanned out behind it in a threatening yet oddly defensive stance. And all over its body were the signs of a fight – scratched scales, shallow cuts, a tear in its wing, bloodied claws and teeth.

Lance knew then that he’d been right – the Galra was killed by another dragon, and this was that dragon. Was it rabid or something? Why else would it turn against its own kind?

The dragon stalked forward, tail lashing behind it, head lowered and jaws parted. Lance swore he could see fire glowing in its throat. He jabbed at the air with his knife. “Stay back!” he shouted.

The dragon actually paused, head tilting and eyes narrowing. Its nostrils flared, scenting, and Lance stumbled away again, close enough for the heat of the flames to warm his back. He was dizzy with fear, and knew the dragon could smell it, and it probably made the dragon all the more excited about eating him.

But the dragon didn’t eat him. Instead it spoke.

“Who sent you?”

Lance couldn’t help it, his jaw dropped. The dragon spoke. It was growly and gravelly and inhuman, but it was speech, and he could understand it. “What?” Lance squeaked.

The dragon bared its teeth. “The Garrison,” it snarled. “They sent you, didn’t they? To find me.”

“You killed it,” Lance said, shocked. “The Galra, you –”

“Answer the question!” the dragon boomed.

“I don’t – I don’t know who you are, I didn’t even know there was another dragon, I –”

The unmistakable sound of helicopters filled the air. The dragon tensed, wings spreading fully, head jerking up and around, and Lance saw the bright lights of five helicopters flying towards them, stamped with the Garrison’s insignia. His knees went weak with relief. Iverson and the other Knight Commanders were here, and they were going to save him, and he wasn’t going to get eaten after all, and this was gonna be such a crazy story to tell Hunk and Pidge when he got back –

The dragon lunged, not for the helicopters but for him, and Lance could only let out a helpless shriek as claws closed around him, trapping him and knocking the knife from his hands, and the next moment the dragon was leaping into the air, and Lance struggled and screamed in its clutches as the earth fell away, replaced by wind whipping past him as the dragon built up speed, wings carrying it higher and higher, farther and farther away from any hope of survival. The helicopters whirred louder, picking up speed, the figures within them yelling and pointing at the fleeing dragon.

Then they started firing their guns, and Lance screamed for a new reason – if they killed the dragon, he was going down with it. “Stop!” Lance cried, waving his arms, “stop, it’s me, it’s Lance –!”

“They don’t care,” the dragon snapped, dodging the hail of lasers effortlessly and soaring ever higher. “You’re just collateral damage.”

“What are you even talking about, oh my god!” Lance screamed. “You’re going to kill me too! Either way, I end up dead here!” He was maybe a little hysterical, but Lance would like to see anyone be not hysterical after being grabbed by a dragon.

The dragon squeezed him a little tighter and he let out a pained gasp. “Stop talking or I’ll drop you,” the dragon growled.

Lance screamed again in reply. “Like hell I’m going to do anything you say!”

The dragon made a distinctly irritated sound. “You asked for it,” it said, and then its body was nearly vertical, hurtling upwards towards the stars, and as the air thinned, Lance’s vision spotted, and everything went black.

Chapter Text

Lance awoke in stages, his head aching and eyelashes sticking together as he opened his eyes groggily. He was lying on something hard and cool – rock, scraping his palms as he pushed himself upright and glanced around with confusion. He was in a cave of some sort, one of the largest he’d ever seen, walls and ceiling spotted with pale lichen and black soot stains. In the far corner was what looked like a huge…nest? Lance’s brow furrowed.

“You’re awake. Finally.”

Lance yelped and whirled around, scrambling backwards at the sight of the dragon. “Oh, shit shit shit,” Lance swore, grabbing the closest thing to him that vaguely resembled a weapon and brandishing it like a sword – only to realize it was a femur, Jesus Christ, and threw it across the cave so forcefully that it cracked in half on the wall, where it landed in a heap of more bones. Lance was starting to hyperventilate slightly.

The dragon sat back on its haunches. It was blocking the exit, through which Lance could see a full moon and a sky full of stars. How long had he been out? “Are you done?” the dragon asked.

Lance hastily got to his feet, pointing a shaking finger at the dragon. “You kidnapped me!” he half-shouted.

The dragon scowled at him – well, it kind of constantly looked like it was scowling, but the scowl increased, Lance was pretty sure. “I saved your life,” it snapped. “The Garrison soldiers weren’t coming to rescue you; they were coming to erase the evidence. Who knows what they would’ve done to you.”

Lance gawked at it. None of this made any sense. “Well, I’m 5000% sure it would be better than getting eaten!”

The dragon made a face. “I’m not going to eat you.”

Lance folded arms. “Oh, yeah, very convincing. Kidnap me and take me to your cave full of bones and try to tell me I’m not gonna be your dinner. Ha, ha.”

“They’re not human bones,” the dragon grumbled. “I don’t eat humans.”

“Just other dragons, huh?” Lance retorted, remembering the Galra with its throat slashed, seeing the blood on the red dragon’s teeth.

But the dragon recoiled. “No,” it growled, “I just kill them. Although maybe I should start eating them, if it keeps nosy Garrison cadets away.”

“Nosy?!” Lance exclaimed. “That was my field mission, thanks very much! Besides, I never asked for you to kidnap me –”

“Save you,” the dragon corrected.

“I’m not feeling very saved!” Lance shrieked.

“Stop being so noisy,” the dragon said, eyes narrowing. Lance noticed that though they had been golden in the darkness, glowing like a cat’s, their true color was a grayish violet. And its eyes were more human than catlike, which was…unsettling. The dragon didn’t seem to like him staring, shifting up into a standing position and shaking its head. “Anyway, now that you’re awake, I’m going hunting, because someone distracted me from it last night.”

“How is any of this my fault?!” Lance said, throwing up his hands. “Listen, tell you what, how ‘bout you let me go and forget that any of this happened? You can hunt in peace; have your bone cave all to yourself, free of any annoying humans –”

The dragon rolled its eyes. “You still don’t get it. Fine. I’m hungry and not in the mood for explaining.” It unfolded its wings, which were so large they barely fit in the width of the cave, clawed tips scraping across the stone as the dragon turned away and padded towards the entrance. Lance’s breath caught – the dragon was leaving. That meant he had a chance to escape, he could slip out of the cave and run for the hills –

But then the dragon heaved at something with its shoulder, and Lance let out a panicked cry as a huge boulder rolled to block the entry, and all the moonlight with it. Lance ran forward desperately, but the stone ground into place with a loud thud, plunging the cave into darkness. Lance fell forward against the boulder, pounding at it with his fists, but the dragon was long gone.

“No, no, no,” he gasped, the darkness stifling and complete, pressing down upon him and magnifying every little sound. Lance could hear the blood rushing in his ears, and felt his knuckles bleed as he hit the rock again, pulling back with a wince, cradling his injured hand to his chest and clutching at the wall with his other hand, trying to anchor himself, to stop the panic rising up in his throat from choking him.

The place they had hidden in was dark and cramped like this, pitch-black as he and his little sister had crouched together, holding their breath and each other.

“I’m scared,” she’d whispered.

He’d shushed her. It was still out there, searching the ruins for bodies. He could hear it, lumbering footsteps down the street, shaking the smoldering city to its core. Occasionally it roared, or something crashed in a burst of fire, and his little sister clung to him, smothering her whimpers in his shirt. They were both soaked in sweat – Havana summers were hot, and dragon fire didn’t help. He didn’t know how long they’d been trapped there, knowing that to run would be certain death. That dragon wasn’t the only one – they rarely hunted alone.

And Lance refused to watch his little sister die with the rest of his family. He was resigned to their deaths – he and Stella had watched the apartments go up in flames. It was like watching a movie. It didn’t feel real. He and Stella had been getting milk from the store – they’d only been gone ten minutes. That shouldn’t have been enough time for Lance’s entire life to go up in smoke.

But it had.

They’d huddled in the darkness for hours. Lance had lost track of time, he was numb when the firefighters pulled him and his sister from the rubble, both physically and mentally. It hadn’t really sunk in until he and Stella were standing in the crowded hospital morgue, looking at rows of figures covered in thin white sheets. He’d seen his mother’s feet poking out from one – the toenails were painted blue. She’d always loved to paint her nails. And suddenly everything had hit him like a wave, and Lance was no longer numb, he was angry.

He’d cried then, and he cried now, silently and slumped in the corner against the cold cave wall, his stifled sobs echoing hollowly through the darkness. Lance had really thought he could make a difference by joining the Garrison – he’d really thought he could set things right. And now here he was, trapped and at the mercy of one of the very monsters that had taken everything from him.

It felt like hours later when the boulder rolled away, faint rays of dawn seeping into the darkness and making Lance blink blearily, tensing and shrinking back when the dragon’s shadow cast across the floor and something heavy dropped at its feet. “Hope you like rabbits,” it muttered, and then paused, raising its head and peering at him. Its nostrils flared. “Are you…bleeding?” And then, more startled, “Are you crying?!”

The dragon stepped towards him and Lance cowered, ducking his head. He didn’t know what to say except, “It was dark.” His voice was wrecked, raspy from dehydration and thick from crying.

The dragon made a strange, low sound in its throat. It sounded almost…guilty. “I didn’t think – I forgot you can’t see in the dark.” It tilted its head and made the sound again. “Here.” And it opened its jaws, fire glowing within, and Lance froze in terror…only for it to turn its head and breathe gently on a pile of charred brush and wood near the center of the cave, flames flowing from its mouth and setting the kindling alight in a rush of heat and light.

Lance stared at the small bonfire in disbelief. It was enticingly warm, crackling merrily away like any other fire, yet it had just been exhaled by the dragon currently picking up a dead rabbit and holding it over the fire with two claws, roasting it carefully as Lance gaped.

“Are you…cooking that?” Lance managed.

“Yes,” the dragon said, flicking the rabbit off its claws and onto the rock. “Or would you prefer it raw?”

“No, I just – do you always do that?”

The dragon sort of shrugged. “It tastes better. Why are you looking at me like that. Stop.”

“I don’t think dragons usually barbecue their food,” Lance said. “Wait, do they?”
“Are you going to eat your rabbit or not?” the dragon asked testily.

Lance eyed the rabbit, which…didn’t look half-bad, actually. His stomach rumbled, traitor that it was. The dragon probably didn’t hear, because it was munching on the other rabbits loudly. Lance winced at the sound of bones crunching and decided his stomach could wait. “I’ll eat later,” he said. “What I really need is some water.”

The dragon swallowed and blinked at him. “Oh. Why didn’t you say so earlier?” It gestured clumsily with a claw to further into the cave. “There’s a spring, in one of the tunnels. Fresh water, safe to drink.”

Lance hadn’t been expecting that. How big was this cave, exactly? “Okay,” he said, and got away from the dragon and its loud eating. He was surprised to see that what he’d thought was the end of the cave actually curved into a smaller tunnel, one that looked just big enough for the dragon to squeeze through, and it branched off into several other tunnels. Lance was at first hopeful that one might be a way out…but they were all dead ends, it seemed, more like large alcoves than tunnels.

He found the spring easily, and fell to his knees to scoop the cold water into his mouth, soaking the front of his jacket and not caring at all. The water tasted fresh and clean, not like the metallic faucet water from the Garrison, which always tasted a little rusty and dusty. Once he got out of here, he would tell them about this place. Maybe they could redirect the water or find the spring’s source…after they killed the dragon.

Lance drank a last handful of water, washed off his bloodied hand, and got up unsteadily, frowning down at his reflection. “We’re gonna get out,” he told it firmly. “If some weird master chef dragon thinks it can keep us locked up, its in for a reality check.”

Lance’s reflection did not look entirely convinced.

“You’ll see,” he muttered, “we’ll show that dragon who’s boss. It’s not so big, and it hasn’t hurt us yet, so we’ve got a fighting chance.” He puffed out his chest. “Maybe we’ll take it down in its sleep, and we can go back as Lance the Knight. Lance the dragon slayer.”

“You better not be taking a bath,” the dragon called, voice rumbling through the caves. “Rabbit’s getting cold.”

Lance took a deep breath in, and let it out slowly. He just had to be patient, and careful, and maybe he’d have a chance of not just getting out of here, but killing his first dragon. With that in mind, he stepped away from the pool and walked back into the main cave, where the fire was dying down and the dragon was licking the last rabbit’s bones clean. It nodded to the one left on the floor.

“Thanks,” Lance mumbled, sitting next to it and hesitantly tearing a piece off. It…wasn’t so bad. A little charred, but…not the worst. The dragon watched him. “What?” Lance snapped.

“Why were you crying?” it asked. Lance stiffened. “I already said I’m not eating you.”

Lance dropped the piece of rabbit. “Sorry if I’m not exactly at home here,” he said tightly.

The dragon almost looked sad. “I tried to make it as comfortable as possible –”

“By leaving me alone in the darkness in a cave for hours?!”

The dragon bristled. “I didn’t mean to do that! If I’d left the cave open you would have tried to leave!”

“And then what would you have done?” Lance asked, hands curling into fists. “Carry me back, kicking and screaming?”

“Why are you being so difficult,” the dragon gritted out. “I am trying to help you.”

“Then let me go!”

“NO!” the dragon thundered, and Lance’s heart stopped briefly. The roar echoed through the caves and the dragon glared down at him, violet eyes shining fiercely. “You’re not leaving,” it repeated. “You’ll thank me later.”

“I’m not thanking you for shit,” Lance snarled. “Stay away from me and give me real food, if you really want to keep me alive that badly.”

The dragon growled, lips peeling back to expose gleaming white fangs, but then it grumbled to itself and turned away, once more blocking the entrance with the boulder and glaring at him over its shoulder. “Don’t even think about trying to sneak out or kill me in my sleep. I won’t eat you, but I promise I’ll make you sorry you ever tried to cross me.”

Lance stayed in his corner. “I’m not scared of you.”

The dragon laughed, a sound as crackling and dangerous as the fire. “Goodnight,” it said.

Chapter Text

For the next three days, Lance waited for an opportunity to escape.

The dragon was careful, Lance would give it that much – it seemed determined to keep him in its cave and never forgot to roll the stone in front of the entrance when it left or completely block the entrance when it slept from just before dawn to just after noon. At least it didn’t leave him in the darkness again, always lighting the little fire first, and did start bringing him “real” food. Lance didn’t know where it was getting the bread, fruit, and various snack foods, but he was pretty sure it wasn’t asking nicely.

Lance still didn’t know what the dragon wanted from him. A part of him thought that the dragon was just fattening him up to eat for later or something…but he’d never heard of a dragon doing that. They weren’t exactly known for their patience.

So that was why he waited for the dragon to slip up, to make a little mistake…and when it returned on the third dawn, it did. It seemed tired when it shoved the stone aside and halfheartedly tossed him some packaged muffins, and from the blood on its muzzle he guessed it had already eaten, and it had eaten a lot. His stomach turned at the smell of singed hair and burnt flesh. The dragon sat down heavily and curled into a ball, wrapping its wings around itself and falling asleep almost immediately.

There was a Lance-sized gap between the dragon’s side and the open entrance. Lance set down his muffin and eyed it. The dragon usually seemed like a light sleeper, but today it was snoring, smoke rising lazily from its nostrils and head tucked under a forepaw like a giant cat. Lance took a hesitant step forward, holding his breath. No reaction. His heart raced. He could see the sun peeking over the jagged desert mountains, illuminating the dark landscape, and couldn’t wait any longer. Heart in his throat, Lance tiptoed as fast as he could along the wall, past the dragon, and finally out of the cave.

The dragon slumbered on. Lance did a mental victory dance and got the hell away from that cave as fast as he could. The cave was on the side of a mountain, but it wasn’t a very big mountain and it was easy for Lance to pick his way down the side, biting his lip whenever his boots scuffed the rocks and caused a mini rockslide, pebbles skittering down to the valley below. He stuck to the shadows, staying close to the scrubby trees and scraggly cacti, expecting at any moment to hear a dragon’s roar above his head and see it diving for him.

But he reached the bottom of the mountain without incident, and once he was on fairly level ground, Lance ran for the hills.

Literally – the jagged mountains gave way to softer hills to the west, and they looked far more hospitable and likely to have humans than the uninviting land of sharp peaks and deep ravines the red dragon called home. They were still in the desert, which was actually comforting – it meant he wasn’t halfway across the world. The Garrison might even be close by.

Lance had been walking for at least twenty minutes when the hills gave way to a dry riverbed lined with mesquite and palo verde trees, their tiny leaves fluttering through the air to land on the smooth rocks, carpeting them in a layer of dull green and yellow. The air was still and quiet – too quiet for dawn, when the whole world was waking up. The birds were silent, and Lance hadn’t seen a lizard sunning on the rocks in a while. Maybe this was just a…a quiet area. Yeah, that was probably it. Still, Lance walked a little faster, glancing around warily.

Then he saw it, stark and unmistakable on one of the slender palo verde trunks. Clawmarks, raked across the bark with such force they nearly snapped the tree in half. And they were fresh.

The hair on the back of his neck prickled. It was time to get the hell out of here.

Then there was a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye, and Lance whirled towards it, heart pounding. There was nothing there.

“What do we have here?”

Lance whirled back and almost fell over – there was another damn dragon standing there. Or, prowling, more like – it was crouched in the trees, its golden tawny scales hidden by the yellow foliage, watching him with large purple eyes. Trembling, Lance took a useless step backwards. The golden dragon tilted its head.

“A human stray?” it murmured, ears flicking up. As it stepped out of the trees Lance saw it was longer and lither than the red dragon, with horns that curved downwards and a voice that sounded less gravelly and more…feminine, if that was even possible. Its lips curled back from its teeth. “A Garrison brat, no less.”

Lance held his hands up, which seemed to amuse the dragon rather than appease it. “W-wait, I can explain –”

“I forgot how you humans jabber on,” the golden dragon retorted, and opened its jaws, poised to strike –

“Nyma, stop.”

Lance whirled, and, surprise, there was another dragon on the other side of the riverbed, larger with dusty lavender scales spotted with a darker purple in places. It glowered at him but seemed less intent on eating him.

The golden dragon – Nyma – looked at the other one plaintively. “What, Rolo?” she whined. “I’m tired of rabbits and snakes. We haven’t had human in ages.”

Rolo growled, stepping forward and eying Lance. “Can’t you smell that? He reeks of Red.”

Nyma blinked, stepping closer too, until Lance was frozen in place with two dragons mere feet away, sniffing him with matching expressions of bewilderment. “What’s Red doing, keeping Garrison humans to himself?” Nyma hissed. “He hates them even more than we do!”

“Maybe he’s got a living larder?” Rolo muttered, sounding unconvinced. He nudged at Lance with his pointed muzzle and Lance yelped, wrapping his arms around himself protectively. “But he doesn’t smell like blood.”

Nyma’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t care if he’s Red’s or not, he got out, he’s in our territory, and he’s ours now.”

Rolo stiffened, raising his head to the sky and flaring his wings, on full alert. “Wait – is that –”

The red dragon dove from the clouds, pulling up just above the trees and landing heavily in the riverbed, wings held low and defensive, teeth bared. Lance stared at it with a strange mix of relief and absolute terror. The red dragon – apparently creatively named Red – did not look happy.

“Red, long time no see,” Nyma chirped, tilting her head at him. “It’s so rude of you not to share your Garrison food with us, but we’ll take this runaway as compensation.”

Red shook his head. “I can’t let you do that, Nyma. Give him back to me and no one gets hurt.”

Rolo huffed and stalked forward. “Was that a threat, Red? You’re in our territory, so you’ll follow our rules.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” Nyma murmured, tail lashing behind her. “It’s two against one, Red, and it’s not worth it for one scrawny human.”

Red’s eyes darted between them, body held low to the ground. Lance got no warning when Red leapt forward, scooping him up with one massive forepaw and taking off in two long bounds across the riverbed, the other dragons roaring and spreading their wings, taking flight much less gracefully than Red, in Lance’s opinion. Lance clung to Red’s scales, heart in his throat, trying valiantly not to scream when Red went into a nosedive, spiraling away from the two angry dragons now in hot pursuit.

Lance failed and screamed his lungs out. “We’re going to die!” he wailed as a stream of yellow flame singed the tip of Red’s tail.

“This is your fault!” Red retorted, tucking his wings in and then, as the ground rushed up to meet them, spread them fully, sending them rocketing upwards. Red rode the thermals effortlessly, darting up and away from their pursuers, but it wasn’t fast enough.

“They’re gaining on us!”

Red squeezed him. “Keep your mouth shut. You’ve done enough.”

“No, seriously, above you – AHH!” Nyma dove from above, her body connecting soundly with Red’s, sending them both into a free-fall as she grappled against him. Red snarled and twisted, but he was smaller, and Nyma was inches from sinking her teeth into his flailing wings. Lance didn’t get to see the outcome of the battle, because in Red’s desperate midair writhing, he dropped Lance.

Lance plummeted like a rock, the air torn from his lungs as he shouted uselessly, tumbling head over heels towards the hard, unforgiving earth hundreds of feet below. It rushed up to meet him, a blur of color, his mind a blur of panic as it drew closer. So this was it. Well, Lance thought hysterically, at least dying by falling was better than being burned or eaten alive.

It didn’t feel better, though, especially when he thought about all the people he was leaving behind. About Stella, alone in her bed in Titi’s house, with no one to hold her and cry with her when the memories wouldn’t leave. About Hunk and Pidge, getting a new roommate to fill the empty bunk and never knowing what had happened to him. About his family, never getting the justice they deserved.

Lance had to close his eyes.

Then there was a rush of wind and sound and a shadow overhead and Lance had never thought he would be relieved to feel dragon claws closing around him and snatching him out of the air, but he was.

His eyes snapped open in disbelief. Red was holding him close to his body, still swooping and darting away from the other two dragons as fast as he could. This close to the dragon’s chest, Lance could hear the thunderous pound of his heart and the panting of his breath, and wondered how long Red could keep this up. Lance could also see the scratches on Red’s neck, angry and pink where Nyma’s claws had snagged between his scales.

Why had this dragon gone to all this trouble to save his life?

Red was gaining altitude, wings flapping harder and neck straining as his body fought the force of the wind. Lance didn’t want to look down. Behind them, Nyma and Rolo were shrieking and letting out bursts of furious flame, but Red was undeterred. He kept climbing higher and higher and higher, until the clouds seemed close enough to touch. Then Red looked down at Lance and growled, “Don’t fall again.”

And he folded his wings to his body and plummeted. Falling to the earth was better in a dragon’s claws, but just barely. Lance still felt like he was going to throw up, but thought Red might actually drop him if he did. The enraged sounds of the other dragons were fading into the distance. Red pulled up about thirty feet above the dry ground, soaring over the hills, until they gave way to the mountains. Lance felt him relax as soon as they entered his territory, his grip loosening slightly and his chest heaving in a relieved exhale.

They didn’t return to the cave, though – Red landed on another mountain, in a small wooded area of mesquites and cottonwoods which grew around a good-sized pond. Water was a rare sight here, yet there were few other creatures in sight – Lance had a feeling Red had made sure everyone knew this was his pond. Many of the trees had deep scars from where dragon claws had bitten into the bark again and again.

Red dropped him on the bank unceremoniously. Lance scrambled to his feet, brushing himself off and looking at the dragon warily. Red glared. “You are an awful human,” Red told him.

Lance bit his lip. “Now that’s a little harsh, don’t you think?”

“You tried to run away,” Red snapped, “into another dragon’s territory.” He pawed at the ground in agitation. “Idiot! If I’d gotten there any later, you would’ve been killed. Brutally.” Red narrowed his eyes. “Rolo and Nyma play with their food. They got a Garrison Knight last year, and you know what they did to her? Burned her, kept her alive, and impaled her on an –”

“Okay, okay, I get it!” Lance exclaimed, taking a step back. “Jesus.”

“Do you?” Red retorted. “Maybe I should’ve left you to the Garrison’s mercy. Maybe then you’d understand why I didn’t do that.”

Lance folded his arms. “The Garrison aren’t the bad guys here. You are.”

Red stared at him for a long, hard second. Then he swiped a paw out and pushed Lance into the pond.

“Dude!” Lance spluttered, splashing and surfacing frantically, spitting up pond water and wiping his eyes. “Not cool!”

“Running off and almost killing us both is even less cool,” Red deadpanned.

Lance looked at his muddied orange jacket in dismay. “My uniform is ruined!”

“Good,” Red said. “Take it off.”

Lance spluttered some more, because wow, that was not something he’d ever expected to hear or wanted to hear coming from a dragon’s mouth. “Excuse me?”

Red rolled his eyes. “Take the jacket off so I can burn it already. Wearing that thing in dragon territory is like wearing a target on your back. Also, it’s ugly.”

Lance gaped at him. “You are such a mean dragon.”

Red sat back on his haunches, unfazed. “Chop, chop.”

Grumbling, Lance wriggled out of the jacket, tossing it at Red’s face. He missed and it landed in a pathetic heap at Red’s feet. Red wasted no time in burning it to ashes. Lance couldn’t bear to look. He yanked his T-shirt over his head and tossed it to a bank with less fire damage, reveling in the feeling of cool water on his bare skin in the dry, hot air and stretching luxuriously, muscles sore from being cooped up in that cave for so long.

The back of his neck prickled, and Lance turned back to Red, only to see the dragon staring at him with wide eyes. Lance yelped and folded his arms over his chest. “What’s your deal? I thought you said you weren’t going to eat me!”

Red blinked and shook his head. “I’m not,” he muttered.

“Well…good,” Lance said awkwardly, watching as Red bent his head to the water, turning it to the side and letting the water wash over the scratches on his neck. The dragon winced, then sighed and sat down heavily, lifting his head and craning his neck to reach the scratches, licking his wounds with soft rasping sounds.

“Y’know, you’re basically a giant, scaly cat with wings,” Lance said.

Red eyed him coolly mid-lick. “I forget to tell you there are snakes in there,” he said.

He continued grooming himself smugly while Lance shrieked and got the hell out of the pond.

*

Lance waited with dread for Red to punish him somehow for running off, like he’d promised he would, but when they returned to the cave around noon Red did nothing except flop down on the ground and yawn. Lance sat down a safe distance away. “I guess I woke you up earlier, huh.”

Red glowered. “Yes,” he gritted out, “you did.”

“Sorry,” Lance said. “And, uh…thanks for not letting those dragons eat me. I didn’t know dragons could be so…not totally evil.”

“And I didn’t know humans could be so unbelievably annoying,” Red muttered.

Lance grinned. “So you do have a sense of humor.”

“That was not a joke,” Red said. “You are so irritating I’m seriously considering breaking my no humans rule just to shut you up.”

“Why do you have a no humans rule?” Lance asked, curious despite himself.

Red put a paw over his face. “Reasons,” he said.

“Are you allergic?”

Red peeked at him through his claws in confusion. “What?”

“Or is it like an ethics thing? You don’t eat humans because we’re smart and have feelings?”

Red groaned and covered his face with both paws. “If it was just because of intelligence, I think I would have eaten you by now.”

“Hey!” Lance exclaimed. “I’ll have you know I would’ve been top of my class, if not for Keith Kogane.”

Red went very still. He took his paws away from his face and looked at Lance unblinkingly, brow lowering.

Lance continued obliviously. “He was gonna be the best Knight in the Garrison. He could’ve slain you, easy – Rolo and Nyma, too. He could’ve been a hero! But instead he got himself kicked out six months ago –”

Red growled. “Stop talking about the Garrison. I don’t care.”

Lance frowned. “What’d they do to you, exactly? You don’t seem to like other dragons much, so the way I see it we’re doing you a favor.”

Red’s lips curled back from his teeth and he raised his head. “The Garrison has never done anyone a favor, believe me.”

“They did for me,” Lance retorted. “Without the Garrison, I would have nothing, because your kind took everything I had away.”

Red blinked slowly. “Do you think you are the only one who has lost things?” he murmured.

Lance blinked back. “What did you lose?”

“Who,” Red corrected, and then curled away, spreading his wings to block the entrance. “I am sleeping. Do not run off…” He paused, and looked slightly embarrassed. “What is your name?”

“Oh,” Lance said, “Lance. Lance Espinosa.”

“Do not run off, Lance Espinosa. It would be a very stupid idea.”

“I don’t know,” Lance mused, “I don’t think one terrifying near-death encounter is enough. I’m tempted to stare into the jaws of death again as soon as possible.”

Red swatted at him with his tail. Lance decided a well-rested dragon was less likely to kill him and shut his mouth.

*

Red woke up late that afternoon, leaving Lance with a small fire when he left the cave closed to go hunting. He returned earlier than usual, and Lance noticed there was no blood on his muzzle or claws. “Did you eat?” Lance asked, a little nervous.

Red pushed the various bags of convenience store snacks at Lance, along with a…frozen pizza? “I ate enough last night,” he said.

“And what exactly did you eat?” Lance pressed.

“A herd of javelinas,” Red said dreamily. “They were delicious.”

“Don’t those have really big teeth?”

“Mine are bigger.” Red pushed the pizza closer to him. “You like pizza?”

Lance took it out of the box, turning over the cold slab of dough and setting it down on the stone. “Sure, but this is frozen – Jesus Christ!”

Red had lit the pizza on fire, three feet from Lance’s face. “Problem solved?” he said hopefully, tilting his head.

Lance scrambled back, flattening himself against the wall and staring at the conflagration, his breath short and shallow. “Give a guy some warning,” he managed, heart pounding out of his chest.

Red cocked his head at Lance. “Oh,” he said. “Are you afraid of fire?”

“You’re burning the pizza,” Lance snapped.

Red blew it out in a rush of cinders. The pizza crust was slightly charred but the dragon fire seemed to have actually done the trick. Red sat back and continued looking thoughtfully at Lance. “You’re afraid of the dark and afraid of fire? That seems kind of contradictory.”

Lance ignored him, going to grab some pizza. Red’s tail flicked in front of him, blocking his path and gently pushing him backwards. “You’ll burn yourself,” Red told him.

Lance huffed, shoving lightly at his tail. “Thanks, mom.” The scales were surprisingly warm under his palms, not like a snake or a lizard at all. Red startled away at the touch, coiling his tail protectively around himself and bristling. Lance laughed a little. “You’re not used to company, are you?”

“No,” Red said, guarded. “I have been alone here for…a while.”

“Yeah? You don’t make a habit of keeping human captives?”

“I don’t make a habit of telling them my entire life story, that’s for sure.”

“Huh,” Lance said, “what is your life story? Got nothing better to do, so let’s hear it.”

Red scowled and Lance knew he was about to hear a very condensed version. “I kill things, I avoid the Garrison, and I make decisions I later regret deeply.” He looked directly at Lance as he said it. Ouch. “That is all.”

“You said you’d lost someone,” Lance said.

Red hissed in exasperation. “You know what? Go ahead, try the pizza. If you burn your mouth badly enough, I won’t have to listen to you anymore.”

“How did you lose them?” Lance prodded. “Was it the Garrison? Is that why you hate them so much? Or was it the Galra? Is that why you killed that one –”

“Both,” Red said, and Lance fell silent, not expecting the dragon to answer. “It was both the Garrison and the Galra. They are equally at fault for…what happened.”

“And what did happen?”

Red was quiet for several moments. Then he said, “Someone close to me went on a suicide mission. I tried to make them stay. But they didn’t have a choice. I never saw them again.”

Lance considered that. “Well…look on the bright side, if you haven’t seen them since then, you don’t know that they’re dead, right?”

Red sighed and looked away. “There are worse things than death.”

“Wow,” Lance muttered, “dramatic, much? Okay, I’ll stop bothering you. For the next five minutes, anyway.” He sat down next to the pizza, and tore off a hunk that somewhat resembled a slice, only burning his tongue slightly.

Red yawned again, and rolled onto his side, sprawled over the cave floor with his wings spread haphazardly, watching Lance eat. “Who did you lose?” Red asked when Lance was halfway done with the slice.

Lance paused. “My family,” he said. “Everyone except my little sister Stella and my aunt in the States.” He chewed his lip, hesitating. “I lived in Havana,” he said.

Red winced noticeably. “Oh,” he said. The Havana attacks were notorious due to their high death toll, mass destruction, and the resulting economic fallout – an entire country was crippled by five bloodthirsty dragons in a single day. “I…am sorry.”

“Thanks, Red, that really makes me feel better,” Lance said, rolling his eyes and tearing off another slice. “Suddenly all dragonkind is redeemed by your heartfelt apology. Amazing.”

“I mean it,” Red added. “I hate the Galra as much as the Garrison. You saw what I did to Haxus, didn’t you?”

“Yeah,” Lance said, setting down his pizza. “Wait, Haxus? Why does that name sound so familiar?”

“He was the second-in-command of Sendak,” Red said. “Zarkon’s lieutenant.”

“Holy shit,” Lance breathed. “And you killed him? I bet Sendak’s pissed now.”

“Yes.” Red shrugged. “Let him come, I’ll be waiting.”

“You…seriously?! You think you can fight Sendak and win?” Lance exclaimed.

“Or die trying,” Red said grimly.

Lance didn’t know what to think of this dragon. “Are you suicidal?” he asked worriedly. “Do I really need to explain to you that Sendak is like, three times bigger than you and a complete asshole?”

“I know,” Red muttered. “I’ve seen him before.”

“You what?!” Lance squawked.

But Red did not elaborate, just gave him a look and said, “Pizza’s getting cold, Lance.”

*

That night, Red closed the cave, but he did not leave. He left the small kindling pile smoldering enough to create a soft glow so it wasn’t entirely pitch black, but the space still felt too small and Lance was hyperaware of the fact that a huge presence was slumbering several feet away. Red had been considerate enough to finally get Lance some proper bedding – he’d flown off after dinner and returned with a small mountain of blankets.

“I tried to find sleeping bags or an actual bed,” he explained as he delicately handed over each blanket, “but I think people would notice if their bed went missing.”

“You think?” Lance’s arms were overflowing with sheets and duvets and honestly, Red was a pretty ridiculous dragon. “Did you steal these from clotheslines?”

Red grumbled noncommittally. “Can you just be grateful and take them?”

“I’m grateful, but –”

“How about you just stop right there,” Red suggested. “You’re welcome.”

So that was how Lance ended up in a large pile of fabric that felt a million times better than the bare stone, snuggled up under several layers of sheets and listening to the rumble of Red’s breath in the near-darkness. From here, Lance could only see his silhouette, a hulking mass of crests and spikes that rose and fell with every steady inhale and exhale. This was truly a bizarre situation he’d gotten himself into. Kidnapped by a dragon that did not eat humans, stole bedding for him, and killed Galran officers in its spare time.

It took a while for Lance to fall asleep, but when he did, it was a deeper sleep than any nights previous.

But it wasn’t a pleasant sleep.

Lance used to have terrible nightmares all the time, for at least a year after the attack. Horrible, vivid memories twisted into monstrosities, walls of flame and snapping jaws and burning bodies and concrete crushing the air out of his lungs. Sometimes they repeated themselves, but mostly they were new incarnations, each one worse than the next. This dream was one of those.

He was running in the dream, running through rubble, leaping and tripping over rocks and chunks of building, bones cracking under his bare feet, ashes falling through the air like snow and filling his mouth with the taste of death. There was something behind him, lumbering, crashing through the rubble like it was made of matchsticks, and Lance knew deep down that he would never be able to outrun it.

It roared, and a wave of sulfurous heat washed over him, making him stumble, losing stride. The beast leapt, and Lance tried to run faster, but it was too late. He was caught. The beast snarled and lashed out, claws raking down his back like knives, tearing through his shirt and making him scream in wordless pain, struggling to crawl away from the beast’s grasp as its claws closed around him, piercing his flesh everywhere they touched. It lifted him up, into the ash-filled air, and held him in front of its face.

It was the Galra from that day – the first dragon he’d ever seen for himself, the one he’d only got a glimpse of, the one whose vicious grin was burned into his mind forever. Its eyes shone gold, white teeth gleaming. “You can’t kill me,” it said, claws slicing further through him, blood dripping down its scales in crimson rivulets. “But I can kill you.”

“Stop!” Lance gasped, his voice wet and weak. “Shut up!”

“I’ll kill you just like I killed them,” it purred, dangling Lance from one claw like a hook. “Slowly.”

Lance jolted awake with a shout, soaked in sweat and shaking violently, and cried out again when the same golden eyes loomed over him in the pitch-black. No, no – the dream was over, he was awake, but it had found him, it had –

“Lance?” the dragon’s voice echoed through the cave, different from the Galra’s, concerned and sleepy. “Shhh.”

Lance, panting, was frozen in shock, so when Red dipped his head down and nudged at Lance’s shoulder he could only gasp and flinch. Red hummed and kept his muzzle against Lance’s shoulder, then started sort of…nuzzling him. Lance held perfectly still. Okay. So this was…weird. But nuzzling was better than mauling. And Red was really warm, like a giant portable space heater, and the nuzzling was oddly comforting.

Eventually Red stopped, tucking his head alongside Lance’s body and blanket pile, eyes falling shut and breaths evening out again. Lance gulped and rolled to face him, his heart slowing as it realized he wasn’t in danger, miraculously. Up close, Red’s features looked…delicate, from the smooth curve of his nose to the little spikes above his nostrils and under his chin, to the three small, golden spots on the scales under his eye. Lance reached out carefully, laying his hand ever-so-lightly upon one of them. Red’s nose twitched, a little huff of smoke coming out, but he slumbered on. Lance sighed, closed his eyes, and curled up into a ball as close to the warm scales as possible.

No other dreams came that night.

Chapter Text

Lance still really hated dragons.

Just, like, maybe not Red? As much? Because man, it was really hard to hate Red when he did things like bring Lance clean clothes, held gingerly between his claws, depositing them gently at Lance’s feet. It was hard to see him as a monster when he amused himself by rolling onto his back and blowing little puffs of fire into the air. It was hard to imagine Red would hurt him, because even though his claws were longer than Lance’s forearm and his teeth could strip meat from bone in thirty seconds flat and his fiery breath was hot enough to melt gold…he hadn’t so much as scratched Lance. Yet, anyway.

It had been over a week. Possibly two weeks. Lance had trouble keeping track – he’d tried carving tally marks into one of the cave walls, but the days and nights started to blend together after he reached ten. However long it had been, he was still in Red’s cave, and he was getting antsy.

Lance approached Red about it that night when he returned with dinner.

“Hey, so,” Lance started.

“Eat,” Red grunted, pushing what looked like steak towards him, cooked to perfection by dragon fire.

Lance ignored it. “Red. Buddy. How long are you gonna keep me here?”

Red paused, blinking at him owlishly. “I…don’t know?”

“Great,” Lance said. “Because I think we can both agree that this, uh, arrangement isn’t going to work in the long term. You need to go back to your solitary broody dragon ways, and I need to go back to my friends and family –”

“You can’t go back,” Red growled. “The Garrison will –”

“Yeah, uh-huh, got it, Garrison bad, you’re protecting me from the Garrison, we’ve been over this. But you can’t just keep me here in your bone cave forever!”

“Why not?” Red muttered, his expression distinctly petulant. “Don’t you…like it here?”

“Not really!” Lance exclaimed. “Listen, it’s been fun, and thanks for not eating me, but I’m not staying, Red! I’d rather just brave the evil Garrison; I think my chances of survival are pretty good –”

Red bristled and glared down at him which would have been scary if he didn’t do it so often. “You have no idea what they’ll do to you if you go back. You can’t go back.”

“No idea, huh?” Lance folded his arms. “But apparently you do have an idea, don’t you? So why don’t you enlighten me, Red? If it’s so bad, then just tell me already!”

Red looked conflicted. “I…I can’t tell you. You wouldn’t believe me. And if you knew, and they found you, it would be even worse for you.”

Lance threw up his hands in frustration. “I think you’re missing one really important detail here, Red! You’re a dragon! You’re the Garrison’s Enemy Number One; of course they’d do something bad to you! But I’m a Knight cadet, and a pretty good one at that! I’m on their team!”

Red whapped his tail on the ground in frustration, shaking the stones on the cave floor. “You think they care about some Knight cadet? You’re not important to them, Lance! You’re disposable. And they will dispose of you if you know things they don’t want you to!”

Lance flinched. “I…I am not fucking disposable, what the fuck, Red.”

“No?” Red retorted. “You think they haven’t already replaced you?”

Lance threw the steak at him. “No! I know they haven’t! I bet they’re looking for me right now!”

Red dodged the steak and shook his head. “If they are, they’re not looking for you, Lance. They’re looking for me.”

Lance glared right back at him. “Why? Why would they care so much about you?” And then he remembered something, and his blood ran cold. “Wait. You…Iverson knew who you were. He knew you attacked other dragons and he sent five damn helicopters after you and –” Lance took a step back. “What did you do?”

Red shook his head again. “Nothing. Not like you’re thinking.” He pushed the steak back to Lance. “Eat.”

Lance gulped. “Red –”

“I said eat,” Red repeated, eyes narrowing and tone sparing no room for disagreement. More than a little alarmed, Lance did.

He wasn’t so sure Red wouldn’t hurt him, now.

*

He found it on the beginning of the third week.

It was an accident – he’d been getting a drink of water from the spring when he saw a glint of…something, deeper in the cave. Lance’s first thought was sunlight, a way out, and he glanced back at the main cave where Red was eating before heading towards it. He hadn’t explored these smaller tunnels much because they were too dark when Red was gone and when the cave was open and Red was there, Lance felt like he was intruding somehow. But he forgot about fears of intrusion as soon as he saw the light, and was more than a little disappointed to see that it wasn’t an escape route, it was a belt buckle.

Wait, what?

Bewildered, Lance picked it up – it was on a belt, plain black leather, atop a pair of messily folded pants, a black shirt, and…a Garrison jacket. Lance froze. And then he saw the nametag, pinned neatly to the breast pocket, and almost dropped it.

KNIGHT CADET KEITH KOGANE

Oh, hell no. Heart in his throat, Lance glanced behind himself to make sure no dragon had somehow crept up on him, because holy shit. This could not be happening. Keith had been here. With Red, in this very cave, just like Lance.

And now…now he wasn’t. And Lance did not like the implications of that at all.

Then he unfolded the jacket, stepping into the light to see it better, and did drop it.

It was ripped, violently torn, and covered in bloodstains.

Lance covered his mouth. “Oh my god,” he whispered. “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god –”

There was a questioning rumble from the main cave and the sound of scales on stone. “Lance?”

Red had killed Keith Kogane.

There was no question about it – when Lance picked up the pants and shirt with trembling fingers, they were just as ruined, reduced to tatters and stiff with blood. His stomach roiled in disgust – he’d really been naïve enough to believe that Red was different. But they were all killers, in the end.

Lance knew he was probably about to die. But if Red planned to murder him, better get it over with now rather than wait, dreading every day and never knowing when the dragon would turn on him. Grabbing the jacket and balling it up in his hands, the nametag digging into his palm, Lance returned to the main cave. Red was sitting up, tilting his head curiously at Lance, blinking as his nostrils flared and he smelled Lance’s anger and fear which must have been filling the air like noxious fumes. Red made a low, confused sound in his throat.

Lance held up the jacket. Red reacted violently, flinching back and flaring his wings, eyes wide and tail lashing in agitation. “Put that back,” Red snarled.

“Still trying to hide the evidence?” Lance spat. “Too late. I saw it all. I know what you did to Keith Kogane.”

Red bared his teeth. “You don’t know anything –”

“I know that you kept him here, just like you’re keeping me! Probably told him you were keeping him safe from the Garrison, too, didn’t you?” Lance shook his head bitterly. “And then you killed him.”

“No –”

“And you kept his clothes, as, what, some kind of sick trophy?” Lance’s hands curled into fists. “Did you keep his fucking skeleton, too, after you’d eaten your fill?”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Red growled. “I didn’t –”

“They’re covered in blood!” Lance exclaimed, his voice breaking. “Stop denying it!”

Red stepped forward, shaking his head. “Lance, it’s not what it looks like.”

Lance barked out a disbelieving laugh. “Yeah? So this isn’t Keith’s blood and you didn’t rip him to shreds?”

Red opened his mouth, then closed it, face twisting into a frustrated snarl. “I didn’t kill him!”

“How did you even catch him in the first place?!” Lance snapped. “He was the best. He should’ve – he should’ve killed you easily! Or did you lure him here, promising you were on his side; that you weren’t like the others, you would protect him from the Garrison? And then when he trusted you, you slaughtered him. Is that it?!”

Lance’s fists were shaking and his heart was pounding in terror and Red’s expression was furious and Lance was going to die, right here and right now; but he couldn’t stop thinking about Keith, alone and scared in this cave, screaming and begging and dying in agony where no one would ever find him. Red towered above him, eyes shining with fiery light, and Lance still couldn’t stop babbling.

“Is that what gets you going, you bastard?! Making humans trust you, taking them under your wing, fattening them up before you murder them?” Lance spat at him. “Well, joke’s on you, because I never trusted you! I always knew you were a monster, because you’re all the same. I joined the Garrison to kill your kind and I should’ve killed you when I had the chance!”

Red shifted, adopting a distinctly predatory stance, body held low to the ground, haunches raised and head level with Lance’s, lips curling back from his teeth. His growling rumbled through the cave. “Shut up. You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. You don’t know the first thing about me. You don’t know the first thing about the Garrison.” He narrowed his eyes, violet flaring gold. “And you don’t know the first thing about Keith Kogane, either.”

Lance pointed a shaking finger at him. “Fuck you! I know – knew – everything about Keith Kogane! He is – was…my arch-rival! I was – I was always trying to be better than him, always; always trying to figure out his secret, because he had to have one, nobody is just that good – but I could never beat him, because he was…he was perfect, okay, he was perfect at everything and he would’ve been a goddamn hero if it wasn’t for you!”

Red flinched noticeably, his eyes huge, growl ceasing abruptly.

Lance felt like he was going to cry. “But I hope it was worth it,” he added, voice thick and wobbling dangerously. “And I hope he put up a fight before you…you…”

Red started forward. Lance backed up, hitting the wall and swallowing hard, bracing himself. “Just. Just do it,” Lance said. “Stop playing the good guy and just get it over with.”

Red blinked at him, and took a hesitant step closer. Lance squeezed his eyes shut. Red made a soft, strange sound. “Lance. I didn’t – Keith isn’t –”

The unmistakable sound of helicopters filled the air. Lance’s eyes flew open and Red stiffened, looking towards the open cave entrance with obvious panic. Lance’s knees went weak with relief. “HELP!” he shouted, running past Red and towards the entrance, where he could clearly see three Garrison helicopters in the darkening sky, headed straight for the cave. “Help! It’s me, it’s Lance –”

Red shoved him away from the entrance with one giant forepaw, knocking all the breath out of him and sending him sprawling, sliding a painful ten feet across the cave floor from the force of the blow. Gasping, Lance tried to crawl onto all fours, but Red roared and pushed him back down, Lance’s cheek connecting hard with the rock, bruising on impact and leaving him momentarily stunned. He watched blurrily as Red stalked to the cave entrance, casting one look at Lance over his shoulder before leaving, but not before rolling the stone over the entrance.

The space was plunged into near-darkness, lightened only by the smoldering remains of the fire from dinner, and Lance focused on its golden glow, head aching as he regained his senses. Outside, he heard the helicopters closing in, heard Red roaring and then a thunder of gunfire.

Lance heaved himself up with a wince, rubbing his bruised cheek ruefully and checking that nothing was broken. Red could’ve crushed him, easy, could’ve made sure Lance never stood up again. But everything was miraculously not crushed, just sore, and Lance hurried over to the cave entrance, trying to hear something, anything, to get some idea of what was happening out there.

The dragon roaring had ceased, and his heart leapt. Was it over already? There were people talking and moving right outside the cave. Lance pressed his ear to the stone and listened.

“Where did that damn dragon go?”

“He’s still circling. Probably trying to figure out how to take down three choppers.” There was a burst of laughter.

“This is definitely his cave, though. And Espinosa has gotta be in there.”

Lance paused, about to call out, but…something made him hold his tongue and keep listening.

“Should we blast this rock, then, open up the cave?”

“If we blast it, Espinosa could get buried alive by the rubble.”

“Yeah, and? He’s gonna get eliminated either way, you heard what Iverson said. Dead or alive, as long as we get him.”

Lance’s blood ran cold. No. No, that wasn’t…that couldn’t be right.

“How do we know the dragon hasn’t eaten him yet?”

“Iverson said it would keep Espinosa alive. He seemed pretty damn sure about that.”

“Great. So, we blast it, then? Two birds, one stone?”

“Sounds good to me. Let’s hope it takes care of Espinosa so we don’t have to.”

“Ugh, messy. But if it gets the job done…”

Lance took a stumbling step away from the entrance. Red had been telling the truth all along. The Garrison wanted to kill him. And…and now Red was out there, trying to protect Lance from them. Something heavy thumped to the ground outside and Lance startled back, heart racing. They were really gonna do it – they were gonna blow this cave up while he was trapped inside. Lance swayed, steadying himself with a hand on the cave wall, struggling to breathe in and out, in and out.

He could think of plenty of terrible ways to die. Getting crushed under several tons of rock was pretty high up on that list. For a moment he was back in the ruins of Havana, curled into the small space between the fallen cinderblocks and crumbling concrete with Stella, scared to move a single muscle for fear the entire pile of rubble would come crumbling down on top of them. It felt like every breath was a risk.

That had been bad. But the air had been even worse – thick, stifling, grimy; acrid in his throat and burning his lungs with every labored exhale. After the first couple of hours had passed, Lance had wondered if he and Stella would die not from heavy rocks and broken bones, but from the dizzying lack of oxygen and the dust that they inhaled and exhaled with desperate, rasping pants.

If he was trapped under the rocks here, Lance wondered with a detached kind of horror if the Garrison Knights would let him suffocate. You’re disposable. Lance shuddered.

There was a light pounding on the cave wall – they were tamping down the explosives, probably, and Lance could do nothing but listen helplessly and move to the back of the cave, slowly sinking to his knees and remembering the position he’d memorized at the hospital afterwards, watching the TV as the nurses tutted over him and cleaned the various abrasions marking his body.

Lance still didn’t know how the news anchors did it. They were so eerily calm, droning on about a state of emergency in Cuba as the five Galra dragons wreaked havoc across the southwestern coast; horrific images flashing across the screen that made Lance’s heart ache – colorful houses reduced to cinders, Varadero Beach covered in screaming people as the sand was bathed in flames, airports crammed to capacity, soot-covered children crying amidst toppled market stalls, horses and cows wandering dazedly through smoldering fields.

One of the anchors had demonstrated how to brace yourself against falling rubble. Get on your hands and knees. Cover your head and neck with your arms and hands to avoid spinal injury or brain damage. If possible, cover your entire upper body. Use a piece of fabric like a shirt or bandana to cover your mouth and nose to avoid inhaling harmful debris in the air. The anchor had then gotten back to her feet and smiled apologetically. In the event of becoming trapped or injured in rubble, please remain calm and stay still until help arrives.

Easier said than done, Lance had said to the TV. The nurses had looked at him worriedly.

He’s in shock. Pobrecito… They’d checked his temperature and swabbed his throat and bandaged up the deep gash on his chest, clicking their tongues and asking how he got it.

I don’t know, Lance had said. We were running…I tripped. There was a lot of blood. I don’t know. I didn’t stop to look. It was…it was going to catch us. We had to get away. I had to get Stella away –”

Hush, querido.

There was a loud click from outside and Lance snapped out of it, hurrying to huddle down against the ground, closing his eyes and waiting with dread for the explosion. It was going to be loud. He might even go deaf, it was so close, and with the echoing of the cave it would be even louder and he would be lucky if he even made it past the initial explosion and didn’t get flattened by pieces of rock flying through the air –

Then there was a deafening roar, and Lance tensed, expecting the explosion, but it never came. It was Red, shaking the ground as he landed outside the cave, and Lance heard shouts and gunfire and the sounds of one very angry dragon. Hesitantly, he uncurled from his position on the ground, sitting up and listening, biting his lip hard enough to bleed. The cave was filled with the sounds of the fight, and occasionally heavy things would hit the entrance with sickening crunches, but Lance didn’t know what was happening out there – after a certain point it was almost impossible to discern the yelling of the Knights with the furious snarling of Red and the earsplitting roaring of the helicopters.

He didn’t know how long it went on for – probably just minutes, though it felt like hours.

Then he heard the unbearable shriek of claws on metal followed by the boom of an explosion and an agonized, animal bellow that made him bolt upright, eyes wide and Red’s name on the tip of his tongue. There was another roar, another boom, screams, and then…and then silence.

Lance took a step forward, halting. Should he call out? Should he try to leave? Should he –

The rock at the entrance shuddered and, with excruciating slowness it rolled aside, flooding the cave with the golden light of the sunset. Red was standing in the cave’s mouth, silhouetted against the glowing horizon. Lance started towards him, but stopped halfway as his eyes adjusted.

Lance had never seen so much blood.

Red lifted his forepaw, lurched sickeningly to the side, and then crumpled to the ground with a dull thud.

Lance ran to him. “Oh, god,” he breathed. “Red – what did they do to you –”

Red’s body rose and fell with rasping breaths, his wings flung out at his sides, torn in places, but that was nothing compared to the rest of him. His shining scarlet scales were dented and burnt, the larger scales on the underside of his body covered in various wounds, most of them bleeding sluggishly. Several bullets were embedded on the surface, but the worst of them was the harpoon wound on his belly, a long tear straight through the hard scales to the soft flesh beneath. Blood puddled under it, staining the desert sand darkly.

“Red,” Lance said again, not knowing what to do. “I…”

Red made a sound like a chuckle, stretching out his neck and letting his head fall to the side, exposing his neck and the one unmarked patch of scales on him – the soft area under his jaw. Lance swallowed. That was a dragon’s most vulnerable spot, and every Garrison cadet knew that if you managed to reach it, the dragon had no chance of survival. It would bleed out in minutes.

“You want to kill me?” Red murmured, violet eyes half-lidded. “Go ahead.”

Lance stared at him. “W-what?”

“You said you should’ve killed me when you had the chance. Here’s your chance.” Red closed his eyes, and heaved a shuddering sigh. “Isn’t that what you want? Lance Espinosa, dragon slayer.” He laughed again, choked and wet, blood dripping from his jaws.

Lance shook his head. “I don’t – I didn’t…I heard what the Knights were saying. About me. About…” He sucked in a breath. “About disposing of me. You were right. You…you saved my life. I get that, now.”

Red cracked an eye open. “Do you?” he said. He sounded…sad.

“I’m not gonna kill you,” Lance snapped. “Okay? There, I said it. I owe you, okay, so I’m not gonna let you die either.” He folded his arms. “Just…promise me one thing, okay?”

Red blinked at him. “What?”

“Promise me you didn’t kill Keith Kogane.”

Red exhaled. “I promise I didn’t kill Keith Kogane.”

Lance didn’t know if it was true or not, but he felt better hearing it anyway. “Okay,” he said. “First we need to stop the bleeding.”

Red rolled his eyes. “You’re a genius, Lance.”

Lance glared at him. “Don’t speak. You’ll just make it worse.”

Red grumbled but when Lance went to grab a handful of the sheets from his makeshift bed, Red tried to move and hissed in pain, wings folding in tight to his sides. “Stop it!” Lance ordered, his chest twinging at the genuine anguish on Red’s face. “Stay still!”

“Can’t,” Red gritted out, “more are coming soon.” Lance’s heart sank. “One of the helicopters got away.”

“And this time they know where we are,” Lance said, “and…and they’ll make sure they have enough Knights to get the job done. Oh, shit.”

Red nodded in grim agreement and immediately hissed again, continuing to make pained sounds the whole time Lance hastily tied sheets together and started wrapping them around his middle as best his could, trying to bandage up the harpoon wound. He’d almost used all the sheets by the time he managed to staunch the bleeding, and Red was trying to get to his feet.

Lance put a hand on his foreleg. “You can’t go anywhere like this.”

Red stood up anyway, managing to steady himself though it looked like he was on the verge of collapse. “We need to leave. I need to get you out of here, now, before they return.”

“Red…if you try to fly like this – I don’t even know if you can fly like this –”

“Only one way to find out,” Red retorted, crouching down. “Get on.”

Lance gawked at him. “Excuse me?”

“Get. On. My. Back.”

Lance opened and closed his mouth like a fish. Red growled impatiently. “Okay, okay!” Lance yelped, scrambling up onto his back, not sure where to go from there. This was not like riding a horse – Red’s back was too broad to sit comfortably, so he had to crawl forward until he was sitting in the space where his neck met his body. Lance didn’t know where to put his hands. Maybe he could just hold on with his legs –

Red stood up and Lance clutched desperately at his neck. Nope, he was definitely going to have to cling for dear life. “This is a really bad idea,” Lance told him. “We’re probably both going to die.”

Red glanced back at him. “Maybe,” he said. “But if we stay here, we definitely will.”

“Point taken,” Lance mumbled.

Red limped out of the cave, and Lance saw the aftermath of the battle for the first time. There were bodies strewn everywhere, at least a dozen of them, all in Garrison armor with their weapons scattered around them haphazardly. The two helicopters were smashed and smoldering on the blackened earth, blades still spinning lazily. The air smelled like smoke and death – like Havana, but more concentrated. Lance pulled his shirt up to mask the smell and hid his face in Red’s scales. He didn’t know how to feel about their deaths. He didn’t know how to feel about anything anymore.

“They aren’t the good guys, Lance,” Red said, quietly. “I didn’t have a choice.”

“We should go,” Lance said.

Red spread his wings, and leapt.

Chapter Text

They barely made it.

At first, Red managed to fly well enough, a little clumsy and not as fast or nimble as usual, but Lance was confident that they could actually get out of his territory in one piece. For the first ten minutes, anyway. Then the sun went down, and the wind picked up, and Red started to falter. Lance could feel the flex and lift of his body, the way it tensed and shuddered at a particularly strong gust of wind, the way that Red winced and curled in on himself as the wound on his belly started bleeding again.

Abruptly, they dropped several meters before Red could steady himself, panting hard and beating his wings desperately. Lance’s palms were sweating, and his stomach didn’t feel quite right, and the ground was way too far away, but he couldn’t think about that right now. He leaned forward against Red’s neck and rubbed the undamaged scales in a way that he hoped was soothing.

“Hang in there, buddy,” he said over the wind. Red grunted and gained some altitude, the strain of staying aloft all too evident. “We’re almost there.”

“Not really,” Red retorted. “You have no – augh – idea where we are.”

“Less talking, more not dying,” Lance reminded him.

After that, it just went downhill. Literally – Red couldn’t go any higher, hard as he tried – the wind was not on their side, buffeting them from both sides, and Lance felt like he was going to fall off at any second. He tried to find comfort in the warmth and the power of Red’s body under him, but it was a little difficult when Red was getting tossed around in the wind like a broken umbrella, his wings trying and failing to catch updrafts, his body seizing up with new waves of pain.

“Red, we need to land,” Lance shouted over the wind as it howled around them, picking up dust and swirling it in stinging clouds that made Red struggle and flail even more. “Red!”

“I can’t see!” Red cried, twisting and swinging his head back and forth, flapping his wings with waning strength, continuing to lose altitude. “There’s too much dust –”

Suddenly a dark, hulking mass loomed up in front of them out of the gloom, and Lance screamed, and Red tried one last time to right himself, and then the wind bashed them straight against the rocky outcrop. Lance felt the moment Red was knocked unconscious and screamed again as the dragon’s body went limp, falling fast down the steep slope, scales scraping against the stone and wings tucked uselessly at his sides. Lance held on as tight as he could, squeezing his eyes shut as Red crashed through trees and cacti and rocks, everything a blur of motion until at last the ground leveled and Red slid to a abrupt stop at the bottom of the hill in a motionless tangle of limbs and wings and tail.

Lance groaned, unwinding his arms from Red’s neck and half-falling off, blindly picking his way towards Red’s head in the darkness, feeling across the sharp spines and crest and finally the smooth arch of his brows and nose. “Red?” Lance whispered, nudging him. “Red, wake up.”

But Red did not stir, and Lance had to press his face to his throat to hear his pulse, all too faint, thudding in a shallow rhythm. He didn’t have to see to know Red was bleeding anew – he could smell it, sharp and metallic and wet against his palm as he reached out gingerly, snatching his hand back as soon as it touched his skin, hotter than human blood, nearly blistering. Red’s wings unfolded little by little, until they were spread like crumpled tissue paper on either side of him.

Lance stroked his hand over Red’s jaw, trembling. “Please wake up,” he said, his voice sounding very small. He never thought he would mourn a dragon, but…there was a lump in his throat as he sat down beside Red, tucking himself into the curve of his neck, letting his hand settle on the soft place where his pulse beat weakly, as if to protect it somehow. Lance closed his eyes, said a prayer to whoever was listening, and fell asleep to the fading pound of Red’s heart.

*

“Lance!”

Lance opened his eyes blearily, rubbing them and lifting his head, confused to see that it was still dark…but there were bright white lights cutting through the darkness, headed towards him…flashlight beams? No…headlights. It was a quad, weaving through the trail of devastation Red had left on the side of the hill, with two people in it.

“Wait, is that him? Lance, is that you? Lance!”

Lance froze. He knew that voice. He started to his feet, squinting into the light. “…Hunk?” And then, even more bewildered, “Pidge?!”

“Lance!” Hunk shouted. The quad pulled up several meters away and they jumped out, running towards him. They both had their Garrison cadet swords and uniforms on. Lance hesitated. What if…what if this was a trap? But…no, no, Hunk and Pidge wouldn’t do that to him. They wouldn’t. But…

“How the hell did you guys get here?” Lance demanded. “We’re in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night!”

“We’ve been trying to find you for weeks!” Hunk exclaimed. “Pidge set up a drone to track the patrols Iverson sent out to find you, but obviously they didn’t find you until today.”

“Yeah, Rover’s the best,” Pidge said, brandishing a small blue and silver pyramid that glowed softly in the gloom. “But enough about us – Lance, I can’t believe you’re alive.” Pidge and Hunk exchanged looks. “We saw what that dragon did to the patrol,” Pidge muttered, eying Red with disgust. “But, hey – looks like they took care of it, in the end.”

Just as Pidge said that, Red awoke; opening his eyes with a low, pained whine and raising his head before letting it fall back down defeatedly.

Hunk gasped and Pidge swore, both of them reaching for their swords. “It’s not dead yet?!” Hunk shrieked. “Lance, why isn’t it dead yet?”

“Stop!” Lance ordered, stepping between them and Red, holding his hands out. “Don’t hurt him.”

Pidge and Hunk gaped at him in disbelief. “Who are you and what have you done with Lance?” Hunk asked in a strangled voice.

Lance took a deep breath. “The dragon’s name is Red and he saved my life,” he told them. “More than once, actually. You can’t hurt him.” Lance sniffled and cleared his throat. “He’s…he’s hurt pretty bad already.”

Hunk stepped forward, brow creasing. “Lance…what do you mean? The dragon…helped you?”

“Yeah,” Lance said, frowning. “I know it…I know it doesn’t make any sense, but he did. When I found that Galra corpse…guys, Red was the one who killed it. He hates the Galra as much as we do.”

Pidge’s eyes widened hugely behind his glasses. “The dragon kills other dragons?! So that’s why Iverson was so interested in it!”

“I don’t think it’s just because of that,” Lance muttered. “Red hates the Garrison, and for some reason…I think they hate him too, more than most dragons. It’s like he’s one of their targets or something…I don’t know.”

“So…it didn’t eat you?” Hunk asked suspiciously. “It didn’t even try?”

“No,” Lance said, crossing his arms. “Red has a no humans rule.”

“So what did it feed you?” Hunk pressed.

“Pizza,” Lance said. “And steak.”

“Do you have Stockholm Syndrome?” Pidge asked. “Because you were gone for a while, and to be honest I was kind of afraid of something like this, but I didn’t think it would be this bad –”

“No!” Lance retorted. “Guys, it’s not –” He bit his lip. “Red took me in the first place because he said he was trying to protect me from the Garrison. I didn’t believe him or understand him until today, when the patrol came to his cave.” Lance sighed. “I heard them talking outside. They said they were gonna kill me, guys. They said I was going to be…eliminated. That Iverson had ordered them to get me, dead or alive.”

Pidge was very pale. Hunk looked like someone had just stolen his secret stash of cookies.

“That doesn’t make sense,” Hunk stammered. “W-why would the Garrison be after you?”

“No, it…it does make sense,” Pidge said. “I never understood the audio feeds Rover managed to record…they talked a lot about ‘eliminating.’ I just assumed they meant the dragon. But…there was other stuff. About experiment numbers, and confidentiality, and chemicals, and some strange word I didn’t recognize that started with a Q…” He shook his head. “It wasn’t good.”

“But how did the dragon know that?” Hunk asked, mystified.

Red stirred again, and this time his eyes opened fully and he managed to raise his head enough to see the newcomers. Hunk and Pidge stood their ground this time. Red’s lips curled back from his teeth. “Lance – get back –”

“No,” Lance said, turning to him. “Red, they’re my friends.”

“They’re Garrison,” Red growled, trying to get up but not even making it an inch. “They’ll hurt you –”

“We’d never hurt Lance,” Hunk snapped, and Red blinked at him. “He told us you saved his life. And that the Garrison was gonna kill him.”

“Yes,” Red said, glancing between them, eyes darting warily. “I did. They were.”

“You’re injured,” Pidge said, stepping closer. Red shied away nervously, staring at him as if he’d seen a ghost. Pidge laughed, startled. “Lance, is your dragon shy?”

“He’s kind of a loner,” Lance said. Red gave him a betrayed look. “Sorry. Red, just let Pidge look at that nasty cut, ‘kay?”

Red hesitated, then rolled slowly onto his side, wincing and gritting his teeth. The three of them grimaced in unison. “Oh, that’s bad,” Hunk whispered, looking rather green. “Is that from a harpoon?”

“Must be,” Pidge said. “Look at all that blood. The ground’s soaked in it. And it’s all over your clothes, Lance.”

Red tried to crane his neck to look at the wound but gave up halfway, head thudding to the ground. He looked up at Lance desperately, and his eyes had the flat, frightened appearance of a cornered animal’s. Lance understood that he didn’t know what to do; that he knew he was dying, and he had no choice but to trust these strangers if he wanted to survive this. His chest was heaving, and the white sheets were completely saturated with blood.

Lance didn’t know how much blood a dragon had to spare, but he had a feeling Red had lost too much. He was having difficulty keeping his eyes open and he didn’t even flinch when Pidge carefully peeled away the sheet, exposing the two foot long gash. “Yeah, definitely a harpoon,” Pidge declared. “It – sorry, he – must’ve ripped it out. Not a good idea – you just made it worse.”

Red huffed, smoke curling into the air. “Thanks for the advice, but you’re a little late.”

Pidge snorted. “Shy and sarcastic. What a catch, Lance.”

Red huffed again, hiding his face under one of his paws. Lance patted his neck and Red peeked at him from between his claws. “So…what’s the consensus, Pidge? How bad is it?”

Pidge shook his head. “You know I’m better with technology than first aid. But…it’s not good, I can tell you that. Could be worse, since his guts aren’t hanging out –”

“Pidge!” Hunk exclaimed, gagging.

“Sorry, but it’s true. Dragon skin is thick, but it’s a deep cut, and if it does manage to heal it’ll scar badly. I don’t even know how to go about treating this…we’d need tons of antiseptic to make sure it doesn’t get infected. And more bandages.” Pidge wrinkled his nose. “Lance, that’s a lot of work to save a dragon.”

“I know,” Lance retorted. “But he –”

“Saved your life, yeah, got it,” Pidge sighed. “Fine, we’ll see what we can do –”

Red’s head jerked up, his neck crest and wings flaring, staring at the night sky, looking more terrified than Lance had ever seen him. “Red? What’s wro – oh. Oh. Is that –”

“Galra,” Red rasped, heaving himself to his feet, tail wrapping in a protective circle around the three humans. “You need to go. Lance, run, run, I can’t fight them off!”

But Lance was frozen in place, staring at the shadows blocking out the stars, giant wingspans, the symbols on their brows glowing violet in the darkness as they all plunged towards the earth, towards Red, towards him.

“Lance!” Red pleaded, shoving him with his nose, so feebly that Lance barely stumbled. “Run!”

Lance didn’t hear him.

Hunk and Pidge were similarly frozen, huddling together fearfully as the Galra landed around them in a bristling circle of teeth and claws, five dragons that towered over Red, dark scales shining in the quad’s headlights and yellow eyes glowing like burning coals. The largest of them was easily the largest dragon Lance had ever seen or even imagined.

Not only was it easily twice the size of Red, it was bound in muscle, with a short, powerful neck and bulky shoulders. Its legs were similarly muscular, and its right foreleg was armored, claws enhanced by metal duplicates. Its head was framed by spiky frills and crowned by large, batlike ears, sharp horns, a short crest, and of course the Galra brand. Its scales were a rich, royal purple and its wings were a shade darker, spread and arching over them in an obvious display of dominance.

Red kept his body low to the ground, growling and keeping his own wings half-folded as if to somehow shield Lance from them. The Galra could smell his blood; knew that he was in no shape for a fight. They weren’t here to fight. They were here to kill.

The largest dragon tilted his head, and as the other side of his face was cast in the light Lance flinched back – he was missing his right eye, the entire area covered in ugly, dull purple scarring. The Galra sensed his unease and stepped towards him, grinning, yellowed teeth wickedly sharp. “Well, well, what have we here?” the Galra crooned, his voice deeper and rougher than Red’s; less human, more monstrous. “Little Red and three little pigs. How thoughtful of you, to bring us a snack.”

You,” Red snarled, throat illuminated by sparks. “Took you long enough.”

The Galra did not seem to appreciate this taunt, baring his teeth and narrowing his eye. “Your very own neighbors tattled on you, as it turns out. Did you really think you could escape the Empire? Zarkon wants your head on a pike, Little Red. Unfortunately for you, I have a different fate in mind. You deserve to die slowly and painfully for what you did to Haxus and my other soldiers.”

“You’re Sendak,” Lance whispered, dread coiling in his stomach with heavy finality.

Sendak’s mouth curled back into a vicious sneer. “The little pig speaks,” he chuckled. “Yes, I am Commander Sendak, and I will enjoy tearing the flesh from your bones while Little Red watches.”

Red reacted violently, lunging at Sendak with a roar that became a bitten-off whimper when Sendak’s jaws closed around his throat. Lance took an aborted step forward, hand outstretched, watching helplessly as Red thrashed weakly for a few moments before going limp, body slumped in surrender. Sendak released him with a sound of disgust, and Lance’s heart did something strange at the sight of Red falling to the ground, eyes dull and hopeless. They met Lance’s and seemed to say, I’m sorry.

“I should thank the Garrison for doing most of the work for us,” Sendak mused, idly prodding Red’s wound with a metal clawtip. Red squeezed his eyes shut. Lance’s hands clenched into fists. “Of course we could have killed him ourselves, but this is far more satisfying.”

“The Emperor will be most pleased,” one of the other Galra said, eying Pidge and Hunk hungrily.

“Yes, but we’re not delivering them straight to Zarkon,” Sendak retorted. “All he wants is Red’s head. Haggar can deal with them in the meantime.” Lance watched carefully to see if Red had some reaction to that name, but he just looked dazed and on the verge of unconsciousness. Sendak nodded to the other Galra. “Well, go on. Seize them.”

Hunk drew his sword, panicked. The Galra growled. Lance put a hand on his arm. “Don’t,” he whispered. “There’s no point.”

“He’s right,” Pidge mumbled, “they’ll just make it worse for you.”

Hunk swallowed hard. “I don’t want you guys to die,” he said. “Just…just run, okay, and I’ll…I’ll…”

“You’ll what, Hunk?” Lance snapped, tears coming unbidden to his eyes. “Kill them? Don’t…don’t be an idiot.”

Hunk shook his head. “It…it wasn’t supposed to end like this.”

“I know,” Lance said, and then Hunk dropped his sword and there were Galra claws closing around them, carrying them away into the night.

*

Lance hadn’t fully understood how gentle Red was for a dragon until he was in the claws of a Galra, barely able to breathe, eighty-percent sure that at least one of his ribs was broken. Dragons were unimaginably strong, but while Red had always held him with care even when snatching him out of midair, the Galra gave zero fucks about his well-being.

At first it hurt, but as the minutes dragged on Lance felt himself go numb, until the claws caging him were just a constant, uncomfortable pressure and his short breath and dizziness was expected. The Galra also wasn’t as good at flying as Red was, which Lance was smug about on Red’s behalf. He tried to think about that rather than look at Red hanging lifelessly from Sendak’s claws, fighting to keep his eyes open.

Pidge and Hunk were carried by other Galra on either side of him. Pidge was white as a sheet and Hunk had closed his eyes tightly. Lance wanted to hug both of them and never let go. It was because of him that they were here – they should’ve just stayed in the damn Garrison. But he knew that if one of them had gone missing, he wouldn’t have stopped searching until he found them. So he couldn’t really hold it against them.

The darkness was disorienting and Lance’s eyelids were heavy, so he drifted off in fitful intervals, awoken by occasional hard gusts of wind and sharp jabs of claws. By the time the Galra began to descend, the horizon was lightening with the pink streaks of sunrise and the stars were winking out one by one in the face of the impending dawn.

As Lance’s tired eyes made sense of where they were headed, he wasn’t sure he would ever see the sun rise again. It was a towering peak of dark rock, carved over the years by the elements and far less natural means – as the Galra dove towards it, Lance saw the once-smooth surface was gouged with thousands of claw marks, so many that they crossed and covered each other, a canvas of violence. The peak was riddled with caves which led to an endless series of tunnels. If the stories were true, they were a maze of passages, and once lost inside it could take years to find a way out, in the rare occasion that you survived that long. After all, this was the very heart of the Draconic Empire, the palace of Emperor Zarkon – the Spire.

Red started struggling anew as Sendak plunged toward it. Lance knew there was no escaping at this point, even if he did somehow manage to get free – there were hundreds, even thousands, of dragons in the vicinity, watching them, waiting to snatch up any runaways. He couldn’t see them, but he knew they were there, just inside the caves; hungry; waiting.

The only time humans had voluntarily come here was the Kerberos Mission. And that had ended so well.

Lance had no illusions about what was going to happen to them. Maybe that was why he was the only one who didn’t scream as the Galra carried them into one of the caves, hurtling through the darkness, the eerie echoes of rustling wings and scraping claws and rasping voices filling the air. It felt like they were entering another world, an abyss from which there was no return, with darkness so thick that it seemed almost alive, smothering and impenetrable –

– and suddenly there was light, dim and grayish but light nonetheless, illuminating the huge open space they’d flown into. Lance’s heart stuttered in his chest. It was filled with dragons – dragons of every kind, every size, every color, young and old, soaring above them and under them, calling to each other. The light came from the very top, a kind of natural skylight for the vertical atrium through which dragons came and went, many bringing things back upon their return. Lance had expected the Spire to be filled with Galra soldiers – that was what the Garrison had always told him, anyway. But most of these dragons did not bear the Galra brand – they were just common dragons like Red or Rolo or Nyma, going about their lives here.

Lance saw on one nearby cave ledge two dragons nuzzling at each other while two nestlings played and rolled like puppies at their feet. It was almost harmless, almost sort of cute, and then the dragons caught the scent of humans and looked up, their eyes narrowing to slits, lips pulling back from their teeth.

But as the Galra passed by them, Lance noticed they didn’t just look hungry – they looked afraid. Of…of the Galra? He craned his neck to look at them, and saw the male dragon pull his mate gently closer, eyes never leaving the Galra. The female brought the nestlings close to her chest, chuffing quietly, the line of her body tense and poised for fight or flight, he wasn’t sure. The nestlings whined and curled up, hiding their faces.

Then the Galra left the atrium and there was darkness once more.

The calls of the dragons faded behind them, and the air grew colder, damper, and ever darker. Then, with an unexpected jolt, the Galra landed, and Lance found himself tossed carelessly on the cool, stone floor. The Galra who had been carrying him, a large male with curved horns, leered down at him, teeth and eyes gleaming. Lance was still. It was just like his nightmare, but this time there was no waking up.

The sound of claws clicking on stone filled the chamber. “Haggar,” Sendak greeted, bowing his head. Lance gulped. If Sendak was deferential to this dragon…who could possibly be higher-ranking than Zarkon’s lieutenant?

Haggar stepped into the chamber, bringing light with her – a strange, sickly violet glow emanating from a sort of lantern hung around her neck, swinging with every long, measured stride she took. She was smaller than the male Galra, as was typical of female dragons, yet they all bowed their heads to her in silent reverence. Her face was marked with two long reddish stripes, running from just under her eyes down to her chin, and Lance heard Pidge’s sharp intake of breath and saw Hunk’s shocked expression.

Haggar was a Druid; she had to be. No one had ever seen a Druid before, but there had been rumors of dragons with markings like hers; markings that Zarkon himself supposedly bore. They were the most powerful dragons, feared and respected by even the Galra, because as the stories told it, Druids could practice magic. Lance had always hoped they were just stories – a world with dragons was bad enough; a world with magic dragons was ten times worse.

Lance had expected someone so important to be surrounded by guards, but Haggar stood alone, slender head tilted coolly, regarding the four prisoners with apparent indifference. Her yellow gaze lingered on Red. “This is the one,” she said. It was not a question, but Sendak nodded anyway. “Hmm,” she murmured. “He is…small. And badly wounded.”

“The Garrison got to him before we did,” Sendak explained.

“And he fought them instead of fleeing? Why?” Haggar appeared positively intrigued now. Before Sendak could answer, she paused, sniffing the air delicately, her head swinging towards Lance. He tried not to hyperventilate too noticeably. “How curious,” she said. “This human is covered in his scent.”

Pidge and Hunk glanced at him, brows furrowed. Lance did not elaborate. Sendak growled, and shoved Red’s body with his forepaw. “Traitor,” he snarled. “Consorting with humans rather than your own kind?” Red did not react, the only sign of life the slight rise and fall of his chest and the steady bleeding of his wounds.

Haggar seemed amused by Sendak’s words. “Yes, apparently so,” she said. “It seems he was defending the human from the Garrison forces. How very…kind.”

“He is weak,” Sendak retorted, shoving Red again. Lance wanted to punch him, though he would probably just break his hand. “Humans are meant to be killed, not coddled.” He turned back to Haggar. “So? Can you dispose of them? Preferably in the most unpleasant way possible…you know what he did to our soldiers.”

“I understand,” Haggar said, moving her gaze from Lance to Pidge, eyes narrowing. “Yes, that can be arranged. Easily.”

“Good,” Sendak said. “My soldiers will assist in bringing the prisoners to their cells. I will set aside four –”

Haggar chuckled low in her throat. “We will only need two cells.”

Sendak blinked. “Oh. I…well, get to it, soldiers; you heard the Druid’s orders! The humans in one cell, the traitor in the other –”

“No,” Haggar corrected. “Put that one,” she nodded at Lance, “with him.”

Confused, Sendak obeyed. Lance panicked when the Galra started carrying Hunk and Pidge away. “No!” he cried, pushing ineffectively against the claws that held him, “Stop! Come back; don’t – please let me go with them, please –!”

Haggar laughed and peered down at him through the cage of claws. “Hush, little one. It’s better this way. You’ll see.”

“What are you going to do to us,” Lance gritted out, staring up at her.

“What would be the fun in telling you?” Haggar said lightly. “I’ve always preferred surprises.”

The Galra carried him and Red out of the chamber and through the twisting passages, until they reached another chamber, this one larger and round. The door was an iron grate reminiscent of prison bars, and as the Galra threw them inside, Lance saw the only other entrance in the room was a large hole in the rock over a hundred feet up, too high for Red to reach even on his hind legs. If Red could fly, they might have a chance, but he wasn’t even able to walk right now.

The hole let in faint light, enough for Lance to see the dark bloodstains on the floor. The Galra moved to flank the open gate, and Haggar sat back on her haunches in the cell, looking at the two of them with unrestrained delight. “This is exciting,” she declared. “It’s not very often that we receive guests like this.”

“Like what,” Lance snapped, moving to Red’s side.

Haggar’s lips curled. “Most of our guests are too attached to their form, you see. They forgot what they were long, long ago. But this – this is a rare find.” From the tunnel, another Druid appeared, a smaller female with another odd lantern around her neck. But this one was golden, not sickly at all but rich and warm, and as she walked through the gate Lance felt inexplicably drawn to it, like a moth to flame. The younger Druid bowed her head and Haggar lifted the lantern from her neck carefully, holding it from her claws like a precious jewel. Lance saw that it was not a lantern, but a glass vial, filled with glowing liquid.

Red stirred, eyes cracking open, widening when he saw the golden substance. He made a strange, guttural sound. Haggar uncorked it slowly, and then, with medical precision, pried his jaws open and poured the whole vial down his throat. Red choked, eyes rolling back in his head and throat convulsing, and then fell back down, still once more. Haggar retreated with her Druid, the gate slamming shut behind them. She paused outside the gate, expectant, head tilted.

Lance shook Red’s shoulder. He was trembling, the convulsions growing stronger, blood dripping from his mouth and face twisted up in agony. “What did you do?” Lance shouted at the Druids, voice echoing through the cell over and over again. “What the hell did you do to him?!” Red spasmed violently, eyes wide open and filled with panic, trying to stand up and failing miserably, and as Lance watched in horror his scales began to shed, falling from his body like drops of blood. His wings flared out, desperate, claws scrabbling at the ground, and his head fell back and his jaws opened and…he was changing.

Red was…he was shrinking, rapidly, the color fading from his scales, limbs and horns and tail shortening, head changing shape, wings disappearing into his shoulders as he made a sound like a roaring sob, back arching and…and then the dragon was gone, replaced by a small pile of bloodied blankets. Lance started towards it, heart in his throat, but then the blankets shifted and something lifted weakly from them. Lance stopped short.

A hand. A very human hand.

Lance ran to the blankets, dropping to his knees beside them and shoving the blanket away.

“Oh my god,” he whispered.

Keith was Red. Red was Keith.

Lance couldn’t process it, even though he was currently cradling Keith slash Red in his arms and staring down at his still, bloodied face. Lance thought back to when he’d accused Red of being a monster, a murderer, a creature that lacked a single speck of humanity. And the entire time, Red had been none other than Keith Kogane, cursed and trapped in the form of the very creature he’d been taught to despise and kill.

Keith stirred slightly and Lance let go of him as if burned. Keith’s long black hair fell over his face as his head lolled to the side, lashes fluttering. He made a low, hurt noise and Lance saw the wounds had mostly remained through the transformation; a wide, ugly gash across his midsection and long scratches and scars littering the rest of his bare body, though at least the bullets had been shed along with his scales, and all the wounds looked as if they were halfway healed. But his breathing was still labored and he was shaking, soaked in sweat, feverish.

From outside the cell, Haggar laughed. “So that’s who’s been killing our soldiers,” she mused. “A Garrison Knight cadet. Keith Kogane.” Her gaze sharpened and she bared her teeth in a grin. “Takashi Shirogane’s old friend, hm?”

Keith twitched at the name, eyes opening blearily, and it was somehow a shock to see that they were the same color as Red’s, gray violet. “Shiro?” he whispered, confused. His voice was hoarse from misuse.

Haggar laughed again, delighted. “Oh, this will be fun,” she declared, and strode away with her Druid.

Keith was shaking more violently, wracked with chills, and Lance didn’t even think before wrapping his arms around him, holding Keith close to his chest. Keith stiffened for a moment, and then melted into it desperately, tucking his face into Lance’s shirt, breath hot through the fabric. He hadn’t had human contact in over half a year, Lance realized, hadn’t been touched, hadn’t been held.

Something tightened in his chest at that, in anger and sympathy, and he hugged Keith as tightly as he dared. Keith whimpered and clung to him, nails, no longer claws, digging into Lance’s back. Lance stroked a hand through his hair and Keith shuddered, lifting his head, nuzzling into the crook of Lance’s neck, open mouth pressing against his throat sloppily. Lance froze, hand still in his hair. “Keith –”

He was naked and he was bleeding all over Lance. Very, very naked, and very, very bloodied, and now was absolutely not the time to be thinking about how unbelievably hot Keith was or how hot his mouth was on Lance’s skin. Keith made another whimpering sound and Lance shushed him, pulling away and grabbing for the sheet, tearing a strip off and wrapping it clumsily around Keith’s middle. Keith gasped in pain and squeezed his eyes shut as Lance bandaged it as quickly as he could, and when he was done Lance didn’t even think before kissing Keith’s sweaty brow. It just felt…right.

Keith trembled and whispered, “Lance.”

Lance moved back slightly, staring at him. Keith stared back, eyes shiny and face flushed. “The whole time,” Lance said, and stopped.

“Yes,” Keith croaked. “Yes, I…it was me.” His face twisted and he ducked his head. “That thing was me.”

“Red,” Lance said, and Keith looked up, and immediately looked upset with himself for doing so. “You’re not – you were never a…I’m sorry.”
Keith looked around at the cell, brows drawing together. “This is my fault,” he said. “This is all my –” He doubled over, coughing raggedly, clutching at his stomach.

“Shhh,” Lance said, shaking his head. “It’s not your fault, Keith.”

“They’re going to kill us,” Keith said with certainty, his eyes huge and rimmed with red. “You should have run, Lance. I…I told you to run. Why didn’t you run?”

“I couldn’t just leave you,” Lance retorted, and Keith’s eyes got even bigger. “I know what you did for me. You were protecting me from the Garrison because…because you didn’t want them to do to me what they did to you. Right? They were the ones who…turned you into a dragon?”

“Yes,” Keith whispered, pained. “I knew too much…about the Kerberos Mission, about them.” His breath came out in a rush and his shoulders slumped. “They announced I had been expelled, but…they kept me the whole time, locked in a lab in the desert.” He shuddered. “I thought they were going to kill me, but…it was worse than death. They…they treated me like an animal. Like a fucking lab rat...”

“Okay, enough,” Lance said, putting his hands on Keith’s shaking shoulders. “You don’t need to talk about this; it’s clearly upsetting you –”

“But you need to know!” Keith interrupted, staring at him wildly through his tangled hair. “You need to know what the Garrison did; how they changed me, how they ruined everything –” He stuttered off into coughs, and let his head fall against Lance’s shoulder, breaths rasping as his lungs struggled to keep up with his words.

“Later,” Lance murmured, grabbing the clean part of the sheet and draping it over Keith’s shoulders like a blanket. “For now, you need to rest.”

“But –”

“Rest,” Lance insisted, and Keith’s eyelids were already drooping, his battered body leaning into Lance’s. “It’s…it’s gonna be okay.” Keith made a quiet, doubtful sound, but his breaths were evening out and his body went slack as he succumbed to exhaustion, arms draped loosely around Lance’s waist.

*

Admittedly, Lance had dreamed of sleeping with Keith Kogane plenty of times, but, uh, not exactly like this. Although, technically, he’d been sleeping with Keith for a month now, just…Keith with more rough scales and less soft pale skin. Lance was kind of freaking out just thinking about it. He’d undressed in front of Keith. He’d cried in front of Keith. He’d blurted out how he’d basically worshipped Keith in front of Keith.

And now he was holding Keith and trying really hard to ignore how warm Keith was and how unbelievably nice he felt pressed up close all along Lance’s front. He’d managed to half-drag Keith over to the rock wall so they could lean against it, hoping that might make Keith use him as a human pillow a little less, but if anything it just made it worse. Keith made a content snuffling sound and shoved his entire face against Lance’s throat, snoring softly, half in Lance’s lap. Lance counted to ten and prayed fervently for strength. It did not come to him.

Lance was a horrible person and he was totally going to hell, but he may or may not have peeked under the sheet a few times and or obsessively ran his fingers through Keith’s hair and over the smooth curve of his neck. So sue him, okay, he’d had a hopeless crush on Keith Kogane since the first day he saw that broody bastard. Who wouldn’t? He somehow managed to be attractive even when he was on the verge of death and drooling all over Lance’s shirt. That was just unfair.

It took a while for Lance to fall asleep, half because Keith was sleeping on him and half because they were in a Galra prison cell. Keith had said the Galra would kill them, but…Lance hadn’t liked that look in Haggar’s eyes. If she was gonna kill them, it wouldn’t be quick or easy. When he did manage to drift off it was a shallow, troubled sleep, filled with fragments of Pidge and Hunk’s terrified faces and Haggar’s sharp smile and Keith lying still and ashen in a puddle of blood shaped like spread dragon wings –

“Lance.”

Lance jolted awake. Keith was sitting up, turned towards the gate attentively, every muscle tensed. “What is it?” Lance whispered, rubbing his eyes.

“Listen,” he muttered, getting to his feet with a wince, tugging the sheet around himself like an afterthought. “There’s…somethings’s coming. Something…big.”

“Should you be walking?” Lance said nervously, standing and reaching out to steady Keith as he limped with determination towards the gate, bloody sheet trailing behind him. “Maybe…don’t…”

Then Lance heard it – the unmistakable clank and clatter of chains. Heavy, numerous chains, and something fighting against them. Whatever it was, its lumbering footsteps shook the cell ominously, and a thunderous roar echoed through the air. Keith blanched and took a step back. “It’s angry,” he whispered.

“No duh,” Lance said.

“No,” Keith said, “you don’t understand. It’s really angry. I…I don’t know what they did to it, but it wants – needs – to kill something.”

“Awesome,” Lance said. “And here I was hoping they would give us a fruit basket.”

Keith shot him a look, and it was simultaneously hilarious and disturbing how similar it was to Red’s look.

Lance heard voices in the corridor outside the cell. Haggar’s stood out amongst them, and so it was not a surprise when she emerged from the shadows with two of her Druids. “Good morning,” she said, not at all pleasantly. “I hope you two have enjoyed your reunion, because another touching reunion is about to begin.”

Keith glared at her and took a step forward. Without warning, one of the Druids beside her hurled something sharp and bright through the air – a dagger, though in size it was more like a sword. It plunged squarely into Keith’s shoulder and he stumbled, shocked, and fell heavily to his knees from the impact. Lance swore and moved towards him, but then Keith crumpled and Lance saw the sickly violet glow coating the dagger, spreading out across his skin and making it blister and distort wherever it touched. Keith convulsed and then cried out.

“NO!” he screamed, writhing and clawing at the ground, “No, not again, not again, not a –”

The sound of his bones cracking and rearranging was horrific, and even worse to watch, as his joints popped out of place and his jaw lengthened and his spine elongated and, with a sick tearing sound, wings burst from his shoulders, followed by the crest and the scales, his screams becoming more and more animal with every passing second. Lance stared at him, and then at the dagger, still glowing brightly, purple light pulsing faster and faster. That had to be what triggered the transformation. If he took it out…maybe he could stop it. Maybe he could –

He tried to grab for the dagger and Keith made a truly terrifying sound, twisting away from him violently. “Don’t touch it!” he roared, his clawed feet slipping against the stone. “It’ll curse you too!” He threw his head back as the fangs replaced his teeth, slicing through his gums and splattering blood across the ground, sizzling the stone where it landed.

Lance cowered in his shadow as the scales covered him completely and the transformation ended, leaving him with Red once more. Lance had thought he might be healing, had thought he might make it…but the shift between forms had Red bleeding again, agonized and drained and panting harshly. Haggar, still watching, made a strange, shrill clicking sound, almost like a whistle. Like a sound one would use to call a dog.

Red’s head lifted, his – Keith’s – eyes hazy and full of pain. Groaning, he managed to lift his head enough to grasp the dagger between his jaws and rip it out of himself, tossing it across the cell. The violet light was gone from it. The wound, Lance saw with dismay, had been on Keith’s shoulder but it was on Red’s wing muscle, rendering the whole wing virtually useless. He flapped it weakly, as if realizing this, and heaved himself into a sitting position, keeping the wing curled tight against his body.

Haggar made the sound again. And this time, it was followed by the sound of chains…and then of a lock being released.

A new shadow fell across the cell. Slowly, Lance looked up, and immediately wished he hadn’t. Standing on the ledge of the high window was a huge black dragon, yellow fire burning in its slitted eyes and a deep scar running across its nose. Red – Keith, it was still Keith in there – shrank back, staring up at it with something more than fear – dread.

“Who is that?” Keith growled, eyes never leaving the black dragon.

Haggar laughed. “Don’t you recognize him?”

“No,” Keith said harshly, “no, no, no…”

“Yes,” Haggar said, triumphant. “Shiro, kill them.”

The black dragon bounded off the ledge and into the cell with a wordless roar.

Chapter Text

So Takashi Shirogane was apparently a dragon now, too. Because why the fuck not?

Lance had concluded that the world was utterly broken and no longer made any sense at all, because he was now in a room with two legends who were both supposed to be dead. Two legends who had once been best friends, and were now pitted against each other in a fight to the death, no less. Haggar sure had a sick sense of humor. She was still watching raptly with her Druids as Shiro advanced on Keith, wings flared threateningly and jaws open, fangs strung with strands of saliva like a slavering hound.

It wasn’t even close to a fair fight. Even if Keith had been uninjured and at full strength, Shiro was at least twice his size, both in height and muscle mass. In fact, he looked like he’d been doing a whole lot of fighting in the past six months – his shining black scales were sliced and chipped in places, his wings and crest were notched and torn at the edges, and his muzzle was marred by that distinctive slash of a scar.

He circled Keith and Lance with predatory, feline grace, tail lashing behind him and head held low to the ground, nostrils flared. His head and shoulders were bulkier than Keith’s, with horns that curved down and out like a ram’s, built for smashing and goring. As he turned slightly, Lance saw something around his neck – a collar made of thick leather that looked suspiciously like dragon skin. He shuddered – that was just messed up. There was something embedded in the collar, in the hollow of Shiro’s throat – a stone of some kind, or a crystal, glowing the same sickly purple as the dagger and Haggar’s vial.

Lance would have been more intrigued about that if he hadn’t been so focused on not dying. Shiro growled, low and menacing. Keith whined and flinched back when Shiro snapped at him. “Shiro,” he said urgently, “Shiro, please, it’s me. It’s Keith.”

Shiro growled louder and lunged for him in reply. Keith barely avoided him, damaged wing hanging uselessly at his side and blood dripping from his belly, staring up at him with frantic eyes. “I’m not going to fight you!” Keith panted. “Shiro, please –”

Shiro roared and swiped at him, massive forepaw catching Keith squarely on his injured shoulder and sending him sprawling with an agonized grunt. Keith held up a paw weakly to try to block the next hit, but it was no use, claws raking across his side as Shiro tried to push him over onto his belly. True to his word, Keith wasn’t fighting back, barely resisting Shiro’s increasingly vicious shoves, trapped wings flapping arrhythmically like a bird caught in a hawk’s talons, resigned to its fate but still chasing the instinct to fly.

Lance couldn’t just stand by and watch Shiro shake Keith around like a ragdoll. He had to do…something. His gaze fell on the dagger, tossed several meters away. Shiro was entirely focused on Keith, so Lance made a mad dash for it, grabbing the wooden hilt and raising it as high as he could.

“Hey!” Lance shouted, banging the dagger against the stone wall with a resounding bang, “over here!”

Shiro paused mid-snarl, lifting his head and blinking at Lance with genuine bewilderment. Keith shifted slightly, turning to look at Lance, barely conscious. “No…what the hell are you doing…?”

“Yeah, that’s right, Shirogane!” Lance yelled, jabbing the dagger at him. “You want a real fight? Come and get it, big boy!”

Shiro’s bewilderment turned very quickly to irritation with a dash of rage. He roared and leapt over Keith’s prone body, charging straight for Lance.

Okay, so Lance hadn’t thought this out very well. Shiro’s paw came down hard about two feet from where Lance was standing and he shrieked, sprinting the fuck away while still waving the dagger around. “Lance, stop!” Keith cried, panicked. “He’ll kill you!”

“He can damn well try!” Lance crowed, narrowly dodging another blow, the chamber shaking with Shiro’s fury. “Ha ha, missed me! Try again, cabrón!” Shiro leapt, nearly crushing him, leathery wings sending rocks tumbling down. Lance swore, ducking away from the falling rubble and slipping against the smooth ground, rolling away from Shiro’s snapping jaws not a moment too soon. He scrambled to his feet, realizing too late he’d dropped the dagger.

Shiro’s head drew back like a snake’s about to strike, and then his throat began to glow a deadly, burning purple. “Shit, shit, shit, shit!” Lance chanted as the first burst of flame hit so close it singed his eyebrows, heat crackling and distorting the air. Shiro exhaled fire again but this time Lance was ready for it, running not away but towards the dragon, because it wouldn’t breathe fire on itself, now would it? He hoped not, otherwise he was screwed.

Shiro wasn’t a fan of this trick, snarling and stomping and swiping blindly as Lance weaved under him, between his legs and lashing tail where the fire couldn’t reach. Then Lance tripped, and Shiro’s hind paw connected hard with his chest, knocking all the air out of him and sending him flying halfway across the cell. Lance hit the ground with a pained gasp, rolling onto his stomach and heaving himself up on his hands and knees with effort, wincing when he breathed. Yeah, if his ribs weren’t broken already, they definitely were now. Awesome.

Keith whined piteously and tried to drag himself upright, crest and wings flaring in frustration as he failed to do so.

“You’re…gonna have to try…harder than that,” Lance wheezed, standing shakily.

Answering the challenge, Shiro charged again and swung his head towards Lance, and Lance didn’t even think – he grabbed the horn that was seconds from impaling him, and held on as tight as he could. Shiro reared up, disoriented, and Lance scrabbled desperately at the ridges on the horn, finally finding a solid purchase and climbing up onto it. Shiro shook his head violently, trying to dislodge him, but Lance wrapped his entire body around the base of the horn and attempted to channel a barnacle. He was dizzy and his chest really fucking hurt but he was not letting go, no siree.

Shiro tried to reach Lance with his claws, scratching at his own horns, but Lance was out of his reach. He was probably going to lose consciousness in less than a minute, but hey, this was a pretty badass way to go...all things considered. Shiro shook his head again and Lance squeezed his eyes shut, skull rattling around in his head and blood roaring in his ears.

“Lance,” Keith called, and Shiro stopped shaking his head abruptly. Lance opened his eyes. Keith was getting to his feet slowly, resolve in his face and teeth bared. “Shiro, you don’t have to do this. I know this isn’t you. Listen to me –”

Clearly in no mood for listening, Shiro lunged, and in five seconds flat he had Keith pinned and his jaws closed around Keith’s neck. Lance clung to his horn, watching helplessly as Keith writhed and kicked with increasing feebleness, eyes wild and teeth gritted as Shiro clamped down mercilessly on his throat, scales crumpling under his sharp teeth and the brute force of his powerful jaws.

Lance saw the moment Keith started suffocating, his frantic struggling fading to weak squirming, terrified eyes rolling back in his head and jaws gaping open soundlessly. Shiro increased the pressure. Keith shuddered and, with strange suddenness, he went limp, all the breath gone from him.

Shiro didn’t let go. Lance shouted and tugged at the horn though he knew it was pointless. “Stop!” he screamed, pounding a fist on the scales of Shiro’s brow. “You’ve done enough, stop it! You’re killing him!” Shiro didn’t react. Lance grabbed at his crest, pulling as hard as he could, and Shiro rumbled in annoyance, shrugging him off like a pesky fly. “Keith tried to find you!” Lance yelled in his ear. “He tried to help you! And it’s your fault that he got turned into a dragon in the first place! You can’t kill him!”

Shiro’s jaws loosened, and he shuddered oddly, blinking his eyes, the yellow light flickering. A strange, harsh sound came from deep in his throat, a word that was not quite a word, and hope flared brightly in Lance’s chest.

It sputtered out in a moment, when Shiro snarled and jerked his head sharply to the side. Lance slipped, one hand losing its grip, sweaty palm sliding dangerously as he dangled by one arm, muscles straining and shoulder aching. Shiro tossed his head and Lance slipped again, barely holding on to the very end of the horn. Hot, sulfurous breath washed over him, and when he looked down it was straight into the dragon’s maw, which was glowing purple again. Lance braced himself.

Then another dragon smashed into Shiro.

It happened so fast, one second Lance was clinging on for dear life and the next there was a bone shattering roar, a crash, and the sound of ripping flesh – no. Not flesh…leather. The other dragon, which was somewhere between Keith and Shiro in size, was tearing the collar away from Shiro’s neck. Lance’s vision was blurry from sweat and smoke, so all he saw was a green blur and a flash of violet as the dragon tore the collar off, hurling it across the room where the crystal shattered upon impact.

Shiro crumpled to the ground like a puppet with cut strings. Lance let go, landing unsteadily on his feet and backing away. The green dragon climbed off of Shiro and lowered its head, peering at Lance with bizarrely familiar hazel eyes. Lance didn’t understand why they were familiar until Pidge’s head popped up over the dragon’s crest, his nearly identical hazel eyes filled with worry.

“Lance!” Pidge exclaimed, and Lance watched, dazed, as he slid off the green dragon’s back with Hunk close behind. “Are you okay? You look like shit!”

Lance swayed and Hunk was there to steady him, patting his back gently. “Guys, Red is Keith Kogane,” he whispered. “And the black dragon is –”

“Takashi Shirogane, yeah,” Pidge said hurriedly. “Matt told us.”

“Not about Keith!” Hunk exclaimed, staring at Red’s unmoving body and then back at Lance. “How do you know – what happened –”

“Hold up, Matt?” Lance asked, looking at the green dragon, who had moved to stand in front of the gate. Haggar and her Druids were opening it, and they needed to get the hell out of here, but… “Matt, as in…”

“Yes, the other Knight, Matt Holt,” Pidge finished. “Lance, I’ll…I’ll explain later. But for now, we’ve got another problem on our hands.”

Shiro was rising to his feet, shaking himself and unfurling his wings slowly. Lance tensed, but when he opened his eyes they were no longer yellow, but a dark gray, hazy with confusion. The confusion sharpened to panic as he took in the scene before him – the three huddled humans, the advancing Druids, the growling Matt, and the motionless, mutilated red dragon at his feet. He blinked and took a hesitant step forward, lowering his head and nudging the limp body gently.

Then Shiro jolted back, eyes wide and dismayed. “Keith?” he murmured, uncertain, and then, with horrible recognition, “Keith?!” That collar had done something to Shiro, made him lose control of his actions, but Lance had a sinking feeling that Shiro now remembered exactly what it had made him do. He started trembling, from his tail to his wingtips, and made a low, wretched sound, again lowering his head and placing his muzzle against Keith’s, shivering. He nosed at Keith’s damaged neck and then at the hollow of his throat, closing his eyes in concentration, listening. He drew back after a few seconds. “Alive,” he breathed, slumping in relief. “He’s alive, he’s still alive –”

“Yeah, barely,” Lance retorted, and Shiro turned to look at him, startled. “You almost strangled him to death. And I’m pretty sure you broke most of my ribs, thanks.”

Shiro winced emphatically. “I…I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean –”

“Yeah, yeah, magic collar crystal juju, got it,” Lance said. “You can apologize later. Right now, we need to leave!”

“Shiro!” Matt called over his shoulder. “I’ll take Katie and Hunk! You get the other two out!”

Katie?

“Don’t let them escape!” Haggar snarled, lunging for Matt along with her two Druids. He leapt back and Hunk and Pidge scrambled up his back, barely getting a firm hold before he took off, wings beating hard to gain altitude in the cramped cell, spitting a crackling plume of fire that engulfed the Druids before swooping up and out of the window.

Shiro crouched down. “Come on, quickly,” he said, and Lance climbed up onto his shoulders, and immediately found that they were a lot more difficult to sit comfortably on than Keith’s. “I would tell you to hold on tight, but you have no problem with that,” Shiro added, and Lance almost laughed. Almost – actually laughing hurt too much, and a weak, choked noise came out instead.

“Can you fly with him?” Lance asked doubtfully as Shiro carefully gathered Keith up in his paws.

“I have to,” Shiro said firmly. “I’m not leaving him.”

Haggar and her Druids burst through the fire, glaring at Shiro and spitting streams of poison that hissed when they touched the stone. In reply, Shiro snarled and swung his heavy tail, knocking one of them over, following it by a scorching blaze of purple flames that delayed Haggar enough for him to drag Keith up into the air, powerful wings working furiously as, little by little, they rose. Shiro grunted with the effort, slowly gaining momentum, and then, with a final upwards thrust of his tail; they were off, soaring through the window and out into the caves beyond.

Shiro followed Matt through the maze with intense focus, darting and weaving after him, deftly avoiding the Galra soldiers that were slowly realizing they were experiencing a prison break. But the unprepared soldiers didn’t stand a chance against Matt and Shiro – they illuminated the dark caves with roaring flames, violet and gold, slashing and shoving their way through any soldier who tried to block their passage through the steadily widening caves. They had been waiting for this escape; craving it, for six months, and they were done waiting.

When they burst out of the narrow caves and into the main atrium of dragons, all hell broke loose. Terrified shrieks and wailing alarm calls echoed through the air as Matt and Shiro’s flames licked at the black walls and rocky ledges; mothers shielding nestlings with their wings and fathers baring their teeth, poised to attack; younger females and males wheeling haphazardly around them with excited shrieks, darting away fearfully when Shiro or Matt came too close. From below them, the Galra leapt into the atrium with resounding roars, and that was when true chaos broke loose.

The younger dragons screamed in fright and landed on the closest ledges they could find, huddled tightly together, claws digging desperately into the rock and luminous eyes watching the chase with a kind of horrified fascination. The mother dragons hissed and herded their young far back into the caves, while the fathers bristled and growled and snapped their wings and crests in threatening displays. The whole atrium was a blinding whirl of flashing wings, and even the Galra were confused by it.

One of the Galra soldiers lunged at a particularly distracting male, and the male lunged back, and another male joined in, and suddenly the Galra’s attention was divided and Lance wondered if these dragons were not prisoners of a sort, too. There was little time to wonder about that, though, because then Shiro was yanked down violently, and when Lance looked he saw a Galra had grabbed Keith and was trying to pull him from Shiro’s grasp.

Shiro snarled and kicked out at him, but the Galra was determined. Shiro’s grip slipped. “No!” Lance cried. Shiro bucked under him, snapping and then roaring, bathing the Galra in purple flames. It released Keith with a pained yelp, its scales singed and its wings rapidly blackening and blistering. Shiro roared at it again and it dove away, back into the depths.

Shiro glanced at Lance. “They’re gonna have to try harder than that,” he promised, and then he was spreading his wings and catching the cave’s updraft with Matt, both of them rising towards the exit, the square of pale blue sky that would mean their freedom.

Matt reached it before Shiro did, and Lance saw three Galra just below Shiro, reaching again for him, but then Shiro breached the skylight and the thermal carried them victoriously upwards, hundreds of feet above the Spire and its dragons.

Lance knew they weren’t out of the woods yet, though – the dark swarm of a Galra patrol was headed straight for them, barely visible from the other side of the Spire but advancing fast. Matt looked at Shiro with fierce determination. “We can make it a few miles before they catch up to us. And then…”

“If it’s a fight they want, it’s a fight they’ll get,” Shiro growled. “Let’s go. Make those miles count.”

Matt nodded, and the two of them dropped like stones, diving towards the desert and extending their wings at the last minute, staying close to the earth where it was harder for the Galra to catch them. They were both out of practice with flying like this – maybe they’d never flown like this – but Lance understood that that didn’t matter to them right now, because they were free. And he could practically feel the adrenaline coursing through Shiro’s veins; feel the resolve that they would never be caught again, or die fighting.

Maybe they actually had a chance to get out of here after all.

They raced across the arid land for long enough that the relentless sun began to burn Lance’s neck and both dragons’ tongues lolled out of their mouths, yet still their wings beat on and the Galra’s shadows did not reach them. At one point Lance thought they might give up, but they continued to tail Shiro and Matt until the two dragons were clearly exhausted. They were going to fly themselves to death at this rate.

Then Shiro banked sharply to the right and Matt followed, heading to a collection of five rocky outcrops and landing beside one of them, releasing Keith and nuzzling at his pulse point again, humming in relief when he found the unconscious dragon’s faint heartbeat. He lowered his body for Lance to climb off. Lance ran to Keith immediately. Shiro watched with a tilted head. “He is still with us, but not for much longer,” he said somberly. “Stay with him while I take care of this.”

‘This’ was apparently the five Galra landing several hundred feet away. Lance stared at him. “Five against two? C’mon, you’ll never make it.”

“Is that a bet?” Shiro retorted. “Because I’ll take it. Stay.”

Matt had landed with Hunk and Pidge nearby, and they came running when Matt and Shiro bounded off towards the Galra. Pidge was very pale. “That idiot,” he seethed, “running straight back into trouble the first chance he gets, always trying to play the damn hero!”

Lance frowned. “Pidge…how do you know Matt Holt?”

Pidge sighed. “I’m…I’m his little sister.”

Lance opened his mouth, then closed it. “Excuse me?” he said, voice coming out high-pitched.

“My name is Katie Holt,” Pidge said, shaking his – her – head. “I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you before, but…the Garrison’s been on my ass for months and they’d expel me if they ever found out who I really am. Don’t make it weird, ‘kay? You can still just call me Pidge.”

“Okay then,” Lance said, only slightly strangled. “Hey, Hunk? You aren’t actually Superman or something, right? Because I don’t know how many more shocking identity reveals I can take, here.”

Hunk patted his shoulder. “I’m just Hunk,” he said. He noticed Lance sway and wince and peered worriedly at him. “Did Shiro really break your ribs? I thought you were just being dramatic.”

“Nope,” Lance wheezed, “pretty sure they’re in splinters, dude.” He slumped back against Keith’s foreleg, knees giving way under him. “I’m just gonna…chill right here.”

Keith didn’t react at all. There was a slow, dark trickle of blood coming from his mouth. This close, Lance could hear his slow, rasping breaths; inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, every one sounding like a struggle.

Lance swallowed and looked away, back to Hunk and Pidge. “How’d you guys escape in the first place?”

“Pidge figured out the collar was controlling Matt,” Hunk said. “I ran around banging rocks together to distract him while Pidge climbed up and unfastened it. After that, it was pretty easy – Matt’s not a very scary dragon. He almost cried.”

“Dragons can’t cry, don’t be ridiculous,” Pidge huffed, folding her arms. “I’m guessing it’s a good thing we found you guys when we did. Shiro’s gotta be at least a Class 4. How did you even manage that long against him?”

Lance coughed and cleared his throat. “Uh. I kind of waved a dagger at him and then grabbed ahold of one of his horns and tried to annoy him to death.”

“Solid strategy,” Pidge muttered.

There was a sudden chorus of earthshaking roars from the plateau, and a vicious blur of movement.

“Um, guys?” Hunk squeaked. “That…doesn’t look good.”

Seven dragons fighting was a truly terrifying sight. The Galra had apparently tired of circling Shiro and Matt and had decided to strike. Shiro took one down immediately, grabbing the Galra by the throat and jerking his head to the side violently, fangs ripping clean through its neck. The Galra fell to the earth, convulsing as it bled out, and Lance unconsciously put a hand over Keith’s neck, as if to somehow shield it. So maybe Shiro had been fighting the effects of the collar to some extent, if it was that easy for him to kill a dragon – even in his mind-controlled state he’d opted to crush his windpipe instead of go for his jugular.

Lance just hoped that windpipe crushing wasn’t nearly as lethal.

Matt, meanwhile, was doing less throat-ripping and more roasting alive. The Galra couldn’t get within ten feet of him without being bathed in blinding golden fire. It was hard to tell, because Lance wasn’t a Flame Expert or anything, but it seemed like Matt’s fire was hotter than Shiro’s if the Galra’s agonized howls and furious screeches were anything to go by. Dragons, obviously, were mostly fireproof, but they had weak spots – eyes, wings, crests, and bellies – and Matt was aiming for them all. One of the Galra stumbled back, its face horribly charred and eyes unrecognizable, and Shiro lunged, taking out the blinded dragon with a loud crunch of his jaws.

They were working together, perfectly in-sync, to kill off the Galra one by one. It was simultaneously horrifying and impressive, and Lance wondered how many times they’d been forced to do this before – because they must have fought together previously; there was no denying it. The way they moved, fluid and deadly, covering each other’s blind spots and using their strengths to rip and burn their way through their enemies, wasn’t something that just happened. They’d been killing together for a while.

For all six months, maybe.

But it was still evident that it wasn’t an easy battle. Three of the Galra were dead, but the other two were putting up a hard fight. They were the largest, and probably the oldest, one of them as large as Shiro and the other one even bigger, heavily muscled and seemingly tireless in their attacks. The largest predicted Shiro’s leap towards the other Galra and met him halfway, knocking him into the dust where the two dragons grappled against each other in a writhing whirl of scales and wings and snapping white teeth. In the meantime, the remaining Galra advanced on Matt, who knew he was outmatched, growling and holding himself in the same defensive posture Keith had adopted, wings and crest flaring, sparks crackling as the Galra stalked closer, unafraid of his fire.

Pidge grabbed Hunk by the arm, her fingers white-knuckled and eyes wide and scared. “No,” she whispered. “Don’t you dare.”

Then, with no warning and no explanation, there was a loud boom and a ray of blue-white light hit the Galra square in the chest. Everyone froze. Stunned, the Galra stiffened and crumpled, a smoldering burn mark on its scales. Matt seized the opportunity and the Galra’s throat. It died quickly.

Shiro and the last Galra were staring at the five stone protrusions, where the ray of burning light had apparently originated. They didn’t stare for long, though, because no sooner had Matt killed the other one, another identical ray hit the last Galra in the head. It didn’t just leave a burn mark – whatever it was, dragon skulls didn’t stand a chance against it. Shiro recoiled with a startled cry, rearing up and flapping his wings in alarm.

“Oh, fuck that,” Lance gasped, gagging. Shiro didn’t need to do anything to that one – it was definitely dead.

“Was that a plasma gun?!” Pidge breathed.

“Yes, as a matter of fact, it was a plasma gun.”

Lance, Pidge, and Hunk whirled. Behind them, where the central bluff of rock rose up from the ground, a door was inexplicably opening. There were two figures standing there, one of whom was holding a massive rifle that was glowing a bright blue-white. Shiro and Matt backed away, and Shiro looked at Keith desperately, as if weighing his chances of escaping with him or dying in the process.

“You just shot two Galra!” Hunk exclaimed. “With a plasma gun!”

The figures stepped forward. The one carrying the gun was a stern-looking woman with dark skin and a wavy cloud of silver hair. The other was a tall, pale man with a shock of ginger hair and an equally ginger mustache. As they approached, Lance just got more confused – their ears were…pointed. And there were strange, crescent-shaped markings under their eyes, the woman’s pink, the man’s blue.

“Yes, we did,” the woman said, her voice cool and commanding. “They were attacking you, were they not?”

“Well, yeah, but –”

“Would you like us to shoot the other two?” she asked.

“No!” Pidge shouted, and then, quieter, “No, they’re on our side.”

Oddly, the strangers did not seem at all phased by that admission. The woman just inclined her head and lowered the rifle, then nodded to Keith. “Was that one on your side as well?”

“He is,” Lance replied sharply. “He’s still alive. Just…barely.” He hesitated. “Could you…is there any way you could help him?”

The strangers both looked surprised. “It couldn’t hurt, could it?” the man muttered, eying Keith’s sorry state and pursing his lips critically. “The poor bastard will die before nightfall otherwise.”

The woman frowned. “What happened to him?”

Everyone looked at Shiro, who flinched. “I…the Galra used Druid magic on me to make me attack him. He nearly suffocated and he…most likely has several broken bones. And the Druids injured his shoulder, so he can’t fly.”

“He was injured before that, too,” Lance added hastily. “He was protecting me from Garrison Knights and they harpooned his belly pretty bad.”

At the mention of the Druids, the strangers’ expressions had darkened. At the mention of the Garrison, Lance swore he could see storm clouds forming in their eyes.

They shared a glance. Then the woman said, “Alright. We will help your unfortunate friend.”

Lance’s jaw dropped. “Wait, really?!”

The man chuckled. “Yes, really. But first we need to get rid of those.” He gestured to the fallen Galra. “Can’t be drawing attention to the Castle.”

“The Castle?” Lance, Hunk, and Pidge echoed.

The woman looked towards the open door. “It is through here. There is enough room for a dozen dragons, luckily for you.” Her eyes narrowed. “However, do not even think of turning against us once inside. The Castle is filled with very dangerous weapons, and we will not hesitate to use them on any dragons who do not behave with decency.”

“How many dragons have you met that behave with decency?” Lance asked in bewilderment.

“There are more than you know,” the woman replied, brow furrowing. “And I see your friends are among them. They’re not entirely dragons yet, you see. There’s still hope for them.”

“I’m fairly certain I’m entirely dragon,” Matt said, puzzled.

“No, you are not,” the man said, “or you would have that damn symbol branded on your head, and we would have shot you by now.”

“Oh.”

“Anyway. Clear those bodies away, help us get the red one inside, and then we’ll see what we can do,” the woman said. “Hurry, before they send others looking for the patrol that never returned.”

Shiro and Matt hurried to obey, taking off and carrying the lifeless bodies between them, off into the distant hills, one by one.

The woman handed the rifle to the man and walked over to Keith with purpose. Lance moved in front of his head, blocking her from his soft spot.

She looked at him curiously. “You are close to this one?”

“You could say that,” Lance said warily. “He’s…a friend.”

“Ah,” she murmured. “In that case, I am sorry you must see him like this.”

Lance watched her as she bent down beside Keith’s belly, and felt weirdly jealous when she ran a hand lightly over the warm scales, face pinched in concentration. “What’re you doing?” Lance asked.

She blinked, lips parting. “He was turned recently…was he not?”

“Turned?” Lance paused. “Back into a human, you mean?”

“Mm,” she said, shaking her head. “Yes, that would explain it. The Druids turned him to his original state and then turned him straight back to this one, didn’t they? Cruel. Very cruel. Such a transformation takes a tremendous toll on not just the body, but the mind. It is no wonder he’s unconscious.”

“More of a wonder that he’s not dead yet,” the man added brightly.

Lance glared at him, emotions tangling in his chest, panic and confusion and fear all fighting to be heard. So maybe his words came out a little harsh – he was feeling pretty stressed. “Listen, we appreciate your help, with the plasma shooting and the first aid and all that, but no offense – who the hell are you people?”

The woman got back to her feet gracefully. “My name is Allura,” she said. “In another world, I was a princess. But this world is…very different.”

“And I’m Coran,” the man added. “Not Prince Coran, unfortunately, but I wouldn’t object if you addressed me as such!”

“What do you mean by another world?” Pidge was looking between them; face a mix of disbelief and elation.

“It was called Altea,” Allura told her, smiling faintly.

“Was?” Lance repeated.

“Was,” Allura said. “Altea is no more.” Shiro and Matt came back over the hills, the last of the Galra safely scattered throughout the desert, and Allura put her hands on her hips. “But enough of Altea. We are on Earth, and there are more important matters at hand. You,” she pointed to Shiro, “drag your injured friend inside. Stretchers do not come in dragon sizes, so we will have to make do.”

Shiro nodded and padded over to Keith. Lance looked up at him. “Be careful,” he said.

“Of course,” Shiro replied, and Lance believed him, but he still tensed when Shiro fastened his teeth into the scruff of Keith’s neck and started pulling. He relaxed a few seconds later, though – Shiro was exceptionally gentle, holding him so delicately that he drew no blood, moving slowly so as not to cause any more damage. Lance felt bad about yelling at him earlier – guilt was practically emanating from Shiro as he dragged Keith through the doors and into the castle, and Lance saw the shame in his eyes when Keith left a rusty red smear along the white floor in his wake.

He hadn’t thought it was possible for a Class 4 dragon to look pathetic, but Shiro managed.

Allura and Coran led them through the wide, white hall, and Lance realized they were headed underground, and wondered how much bigger this place was on the inside, exactly. It was sort of like a bunker, but there was something distinctly…strange about it. Lance had never seen lights like the ones illuminating the passages, blue-white like the plasma gun. It felt like a space ship; everything sleek and bright and spotlessly clean.

Then again, those same attributes also made it feel like a hospital, especially when they reached a large space with a vaulted ceiling filled with complicated-looking equipment and shelves of glass vials and medical implements that could double as very nasty weapons.

“You have a med bay?” Lance asked.

“Well, technically it’s our research lab, but hopefully it can double as a med bay, yes,” Coran replied.

Shiro deposited Keith in the middle of the room and awkwardly hunched over in the corner. The lab was barely big enough for two dragons, so Matt stayed out in the hall, resting his head on his forepaws and watching the proceedings with worried hazel eyes. Allura and Coran started pulling vials and instruments off the shelves.

“Get some gloves,” Allura said over her shoulder. “We need to patch up the harpoon wound first if he’s going to have any chance of survival.”

“We?” Hunk squeaked.

“This is more than a two-person job,” Allura retorted. “Gloves. Now.”

Lance reluctantly grabbed a pair along with Hunk and Pidge. Coran was fiddling with some equipment and out of the corner of his eye, Lance saw him lift something sharp and metallic towards Keith’s neck, and whirled in a panic.

“It’s an IV,” Allura assured him, stilling him with a hand on his arm. “We are here to help, not harm.”

“Sorry,” Lance muttered. “I just –”

“Yes, I understand,” Allura said, and Lance got the impression that she very much did – there was a soft, sad, faraway look in her blue eyes, like sympathy but stronger. She blinked and shook her head, turning towards the others. “There will be blood when we clean and stitch up the wound. You,” she pointed to Hunk, “fetch towels from the closet three doors down.”

Looking relieved to not be given a job that involved blood, Hunk nodded and hurried off.

“You,” she pointed to Pidge, “can help Coran clean and sterilize the wound, and bandage it up after.”

Pidge bit her lip nervously but nodded, rolling up her sleeves and joining Coran beside the glass shelves.

Lance really hoped Allura didn’t expect him to play surgeon, here.

“And you can monitor his vitals,” she told Lance, nodding to the screen in the corner, which had dozens of cords plugged into it. “Let us hope that electrodes work through dragon skin, or we will simply have to hope that he isn’t going into cardiac arrest during surgery.”

“If he isn’t already,” Matt said under his breath, which was still rather loud because he was a dragon.

“Trust me,” Allura said grimly, “if his heart had failed, we would know. His death throes would have destroyed this entire lab.”

“Death throes?!” Hunk repeated in horror, standing in the doorway with his arms full of huge white towels.

“Less panicking and more helping,” Allura said.

Lance got the electrodes and, with Allura’s direction, placed them on Keith’s throat, chest, and forelegs. There was an uncertain flicker on the screen, and then, to Lance’s relief, it lit up with the sharply-peaked lines of Keith’s heartbeat. His relief faded, however, when he saw just how sharp and short the beats were, echoed by the monitor’s increasingly frantic beeping and the terrifyingly high numbers displayed.

“That can’t be good,” Lance said.

“It’s not,” Allura sighed. “He’s lost too much blood and oxygen; his body is in shock. We may not be able to perform surgery after all…he would likely die anyway.”

“Wait,” Shiro said, uncurling slightly from his gargoyle-esque position, “what if we gave him a blood transfusion?”

Matt lifted his head. “Takashi –”

“No, I’ll do it,” Shiro said, determined. “Would that work?”

Allura folded her arms. “It’s possible. Dragon blood types should parallel human blood types, however, so there may be complications if his body rejects –”

“I’m O negative,” Shiro interrupted. “Universal donor.”

“It may not be safe,” Coran told him, peering at the monitor. “Judging by his dangerously low blood pressure and terrifically high heart rate I’d guess he’s lost at least twenty percent of his blood –”

Shiro rose to his feet, towering over them all, a hulking, intimidating figure with wide, imploring eyes. “I don’t care what it does to me, as long as it helps him.” He stepped forward, standing beside Keith and tilting his head down towards Allura. “Please, just try it.”

Matt opened his mouth as if to argue, then closed it, sighing heavily. “You might as well,” he added. “If you don’t, he’ll probably find a way to do it himself.”

Allura hesitated, then inclined her head. “Very well. We will try. But you should sit down again – I doubt you will be able to stand afterwards.”

*

The minutes passed with painful slowness. Allura, Coran, and Pidge had gone to work turning all the white towels red after connecting the IV tubing to begin the transfusion. Hunk was huddled on the other side of the room trying to look at anything but the ongoing surgery, and Lance was stationed in front of the monitor, between Keith and Shiro, watching to make sure nothing went wrong. He didn’t really know what qualified as “wrong,” but assumed it would be pretty obvious.

Keith was still unresponsive. They’d given him some sedative through the IV in case he did wake up, and Lance hoped it was working. He hoped Keith couldn’t feel them slowly suturing the gash shut, because he couldn’t imagine that felt especially great. At least that was his only major injury – he did have a few sprains and possible fractures but Allura seemed confident that those would heal in due time on their own. Dragons were tough – if they weren’t, Keith would be dead by now.

In other words, if Keith were in human form, he would be dead by now; so Haggar had inadvertently saved his life by turning him back. It didn’t make Lance any less bitter about it, though. He couldn’t forget the expression on Keith’s face when the dagger had hit him, nor could he forget the terror and anger and utter hopelessness in his screams as he changed back to the form the Garrison had imprisoned him in for half a year.

“Stop worrying,” Shiro rumbled quietly, blinking slowly at him. “Keith will be alright.”

“Will he?” Lance shot back. “Haggar turned him back into a human, you know. Then, for the fight against you, she turned him back, so he could die as a dragon.”

Shiro made a soft, sad sound. “She is known for toying with her prey. She did the same to me, in my first month at the Spire. It is a form of torture.”

“Does it hurt a lot?” Lance felt a little stupid for asking.

“Yes,” Shiro said. “It feels like being ripped in half slowly and set on fire.” His eyes fell shut and he laid his head down on the floor. “You said something to me…when I had the collar on. That…that Keith tried to find me, and that was what got him turned into a dragon.”

“Yeah,” Lance said. “He…tried to investigate the Kerberos Mission. The Garrison caught him and locked him up in some lab in the desert. I guess he escaped, eventually…he didn’t tell me much about it.”

“Oh, Keith,” Shiro murmured, eyes still shut, and there was raw, unguarded emotion in his tone that made Lance’s gut twist with jealousy, sick and sharp. He shoved it down vehemently. Keith and Shiro had been best friends. Of course they cared for each other. Of course they were close.

But how close?

Lance’s nails bit into his palms. Oblivious, Shiro turned his head and touched the tip of his muzzle to Keith’s jaw with an unsteady exhale. “I suspected the Garrison had the ability to turn humans, but…I hoped they wouldn’t use it. Especially not on him.”

“The wound is fully sutured, we’re bandaging it up now,” Pidge called from the other side of Keith.

“The transfusion could take hours,” Allura added. “Lance, you are welcome to stay here and continue monitoring them in the meantime, or Coran could –”

“I’ll stay,” Lance said quickly.

“Very well.”

Hunk got some fresh towels while the others bandaged up the surgical site. Shiro’s body was becoming increasingly slack, and his breaths sounded shallower than before, though it could have just been Lance’s imagination. What was certainly not imagined, however, were the heart monitor readings.

“He’s out of mortal danger, for now,” Allura announced, taking off her thoroughly bloody gloves. “Still in shock, and likely sustaining internal damage, but the transfusion should help with that.”

“Shiro, hanging in there?” Matt asked.

“Mm,” Shiro rumbled affirmatively. “Just tired. I’m fine…you should go. Catch up with Katie.”

“If you die, I’ll kill you,” Matt warned, and then rose to leave with the others.

The lab was quiet save for the beeping equipment and the sound of sleepy dragon breaths.

Lance broke the silence. “What…what is it like?” he asked. “Being a dragon, I mean.”

Shiro shuddered and opened his eyes, hazy gray. “It makes you feel powerful,” he said quietly. “Invincible, even. But it’s terrible, too – it takes something away from you, makes you think of doing things you’d never do as a human. Everything is more instinctive…savage, in a way. Like a beast, but…a very, very smart beast capable of killing thousands. It makes you angrier…possessive, too, fiercely protective of what’s yours.”

Lance swallowed and looked at Keith again. “He almost died protecting me,” Lance whispered. “From the Garrison...they found his cave, they would have killed me, or maybe turned me, if he hadn’t driven them off.” Lance bit his lip. “And…and when he returned, bleeding all over the place and barely able to fly, he just lay there and looked at me and said if I wanted to kill him, I should just get it over with.”

Shiro looked down at Keith too. “There was probably a part of him that wanted you to do it,” Shiro murmured. “A part of him that hated what he’d become so much that death seemed preferable to continuing on that way. I was like that, in the beginning, before I became…resigned to it.”

Lance’s chest twinged. “I wouldn’t have killed him,” he said. “He never hurt me, even if I drove him crazy.”

“Keith was always a stubborn one,” Shiro said. “And being a dragon just magnifies that. It magnifies everything.”

Keith’s chest was rising and falling more evenly now, though he was still unresponsive. Shiro extended a wing, covering his smaller body tenderly, and again Lance felt that sick stab of resentment and immediately hated himself for it. Keith was dying, and Shiro had saved his life. What had Lance done?

He didn’t want to answer that question.

I joined the Garrison to kill your kind and I should’ve killed you when I had the chance.

Lance found it was easier to just look at the heart monitor, and wait.

Chapter Text

In hindsight, maybe letting the person who had broken ribs monitor Shiro and Keith for several hours wasn’t the best idea in the world.

Coran and Hunk came by to check on them and as they were exclaiming over Keith’s remarkably stable state and Shiro’s ability to stay conscious despite losing roughly seventy pints of blood, Hunk made a really stupid pun and Lance, unthinking, laughed…only to double over with an equally painful gasp.

“Oh, no,” Hunk whispered, “your ribs – Lance, I totally forgot, why didn’t you say anything –”

“It was fine,” Lance gritted out, “and I wasn’t bleeding out, so, y’know, priorities.”

“What happened to his ribs?” Coran asked in alarm.

Shiro’s sleepy eyes blinked to alertness. “I threw him off my horns and onto solid rock,” he said. “He must’ve flown at least twenty feet through the air before…” He cut himself off unhappily.

Hunk folded his arms. “Take off your shirt.”

“It’s gonna be bad,” Lance warned. Hunk waited. Lance bit his lip, and tried to pull his shirt up and over his head, immediately swearing at the blaze of fresh pain as his ribs refused to cooperate with the movement. Hunk, his mouth pressed into a thin, pale line, grabbed a pair of medical scissors and cut his T-shirt open down the side so he could get it off without moving his arms.

“Hey,” Lance protested weakly.

“It’s covered in dragon blood,” Hunk retorted.

Lance shrugged the shirt off.

“Oh, dear,” Coran said despondently.

Lance was afraid to look.

“It’s purple,” Hunk said with a mix of horror and a trace of anger. “Lance.

Lance looked down. “Oh,” he said, oddly impressed by the gigantic, blue-violet bruise splotching across half his torso. “Damn.”

“I am so sorry,” Shiro told him.

“Little late for an apology,” Hunk snapped, and Shiro shrank back regretfully.

“I did not realize human skin could be purple,” Coran remarked with mild fascination.

“It’s not really supposed to – ow, fuck, Hunk, ow ow ow –” Hunk had grabbed a chunk of ice from the nearest medicine cabinet and wrapped it hastily in a clean rag before pressing it firmly to Lance’s ribs. The intense cold burned for the first few seconds, and then, slowly, the numbing set in. It didn’t remove the pain entirely – no amount of ice could do that – but it dulled it and made breathing and talking slightly less excruciating.

“Thanks,” Lance mumbled, putting his own hand over the ice and holding it there. He looked up at Coran. “You guys wouldn’t happen to have an x-ray machine or anything, would you?”

“Well, no,” Coran said, “but we do have healing pods.”

“You have what now?” Hunk and Lance said at the same time.

Coran shrugged. “Healing pods. The patient is placed within them and their metabolism is temporarily slowed and their body temperature lowered, leaving them in a state of torpor while the pod does its best to, well, heal them.”

“Great, well, we know where you’re spending the night,” Hunk said, helping Lance to his feet.

“Er, there is one thing, though,” Coran added hurriedly. “The pods are a bit…well, dated. They’ve been through a lot. So I can’t guarantee you’ll make a full recovery…though it will do a full scan, so at least we’ll know what’s wrong, and it should speed up the process slightly.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Lance wheezed. “But what about the transfusion –”

“I’ll find someone who isn’t purple to monitor the rest,” Coran replied, and Hunk gave him an approving look.

“Feel better?” Shiro tried. Hunk shot him a glare.

“It’s not his fault,” Lance muttered resignedly. “Thanks, Shiro. Don’t pass out.” He hesitated. “And…if Keith wakes up, tell him I said hi.”

“Of course,” Shiro murmured, looking amused. Or maybe that was just his face. Dragon eyebrows were not quite as expressive as human eyebrows – too many spikes.

“Healing pod,” Hunk said, steering him away from the dragons and out of the lab. Then, hissed next to Lance’s ear, “Less pining, more thinking rationally and telling us when your ribcage is busted.”

“I am not pining,” Lance hissed back, followed by a hiss of pain.

“I rest my case,” Hunk said, and hurried him down the hall.

*

Lance emerged from the healing pod the next morning with a circle of worried faces peering down at him.

“Aw,” he said, yawning and glancing up at Hunk, who was supporting him with a careful arm around his waist. “Are you all here for little old me?”

“You have three broken ribs and three bruised ones,” Pidge said icily. “You could’ve had a collapsed lung if you’d neglected to tell us any later.”

“Yeah, but it’s cool now, right?” Lance asked hopefully, straightening up and wincing. His chest hurt, but it was nothing like before, and the bruising had faded – still, it was pretty obvious that his ribs still had some healing to do.

“I’m afraid it will be about three weeks before they’re healed entirely,” Coran informed him. “But it’s better than two months.”

“I apologize for giving you a duty when you should have been resting and receiving medical attention,” Allura added, stepping forward. “It is miraculous you managed to last that long without medical attention, in fact.”

“I was more focused on making sure Keith was gonna make it,” Lance replied.

Hunk made a low, exasperated sound that only he could hear.

Allura only nodded. “Oh, do you wish to see him? He is resting in an unused storage room along with Shiro, who fell asleep almost as soon as the transfusion was complete. You can go to him after we get you properly bandaged up.”

“You need to keep your ribs bandaged and iced for at least a few days,” Hunk said.

“Thanks, doctor,” Lance retorted. Later, when Hunk helped him bandage them in the room they’d been given, his face still closed off and eyes hard, Lance added, “I…really am sorry, for not saying anything sooner.”

Hunk sighed. “I know,” he said, expression softening. “It’s just…Lance, we were so worried – I was so worried. When you went missing, and the Garrison said you were carried off by a dragon…” Hunk’s voice broke. “Everyone thought you were dead. Iverson kept sending patrols out but nobody really thought they would bring back anything other than…than your corpse, at best.” Hunk looked away, hands twisting in his lap. “But me and Pidge still tried. And we joked sometimes about you just showing up one day with a great story and a dragon head.” He sniffled. “Didn’t exactly turn out like that.”

Lance swallowed. “I tried to escape,” he whispered. “Before I knew what Red – Keith – was protecting me from. I ended up running straight into another dragon’s territory. Keith saved my life – they would’ve eaten me.”

“Okay, I get that he was trying to help. But did he really have to hold you hostage in a remote cave?” Hunk asked, mouth twitching up.

“He didn’t really think it through,” Lance admitted. “He’s more of an act now, consequences later kind of guy.”

“Dragon,” Hunk reminded him. “He’s a dragon.”

“Temporarily,” Lance said, half to himself.

Hunk stared at him. “What did you do with Keith when Haggar turned him back.”

Lance opened his mouth, then closed it. “Nothing! What are you even – I didn’t do anything to him, Jesus, stop looking at me like that! He was bleeding out!”

“And probably naked,” Hunk said.

Lance squawked at him. “He was distressed and in pain! I did nothing except comfort him, completely platonically –”

“Uh-huh,” Hunk said. “Naked platonic comforting.” He raised an eyebrow. “And now you have a crush on a dragon.”

“I have a crush on Keith Kogane,” Lance corrected, “and that’s not exactly a new development –” He stopped. “Shit.”

Hunk was gawking at him, equal parts shocked and delighted. “A-ha! You finally admitted it! All that rivalry crap, and all along, I knew you were just in denial –”

“You tricked me!” Lance howled. “I am an invalid and you used my state of confusion and agony to twist my words!”

“Do you want to see your dragon boyfriend or not?” Hunk asked, chuckling gleefully and darting away when Lance swatted at him.

On the way to the storage room, Lance said, “I meant to say, before you started yanking skeletons out of the closet –”

“Or you,” Hunk added cheekily.

Lance glared. “Before that, I meant to say that I’m sorry that you and Pidge had to go through that, and that I missed you guys a lot. You’re…you’re my best friends, and you’re like family, and…I was afraid I would never see you again.”

“I would hug you but I think that would be a poor choice right now,” Hunk said, smiling, eyes shiny. “You’re like family too, Lance. And I’m so glad you’re okay. Mostly okay.”

Lance smiled back. It was like a mental hug, and he’d take it.

They’d reached the storage room, which was built more like a cave than a hospital, with sections of exposed rock on the walls and jutting up from the floor. It was large, too, large enough to comfortably fit the two dragons curled together on the far side of the room. They were curled together pretty tightly, Lance couldn’t help but notice, his throat tightening at the sight – Shiro asleep, wing still draped over Keith, with Keith’s head resting on his shoulder and Shiro’s head tucked under Keith’s neck. Their damn tails were twined together, even.

Lance couldn’t take another step forward.

Hunk, beside him, frowned. “You okay?”

Keith shifted slightly, making a sleepy, content sound and nuzzling into the curve of Shiro’s neck. Shiro let out a snore like a rumbling purr. Lance turned around and walked away.

“Lance?” Hunk pressed. “What are you…” He paused. “Wait, you don’t think Keith and Shiro are –”

Lance kept walking.

Hunk caught up, shaking his head. “But…they were just friends, close friends, they weren’t dating at the Garrison –”

“Not dating,” Lance retorted. “That doesn’t mean they weren’t…” He didn’t know how to finish that sentence.

“Lance, c’mon, you’re just gonna jump to conclusions and walk away?” Hunk said.

“I’m not jumping to any conclusions,” Lance lied. “They just obviously need to rest and so do I.”

Hunk frowned, but walked with him back to the room.

They didn’t talk about Keith anymore.

*

As it turned out, Lance ended up “resting” – a.k.a. avoiding Keith – for the next three days. Hunk didn’t press him about it, and when Pidge tried to, Lance just made excuses about being tired, and the painkillers made him even sleepier, and Keith really needed to have some recovery time anyway, so, it worked out for everyone, right?

Pidge and Matt gave him identical skeptical stares, but dropped the subject. Lance was half-tempted to ask Matt about Keith and Shiro, but he also didn’t want to die of embarrassment, and Matt could be kind of scary when he wanted to be. He was obviously fiercely protective of Shiro – he’d been doing his best to hunt for the two incapacitated dragons, but the ordeal left him exhausted, so he slept late most days and was only up and about after noon, sometimes even later.

Coran and Allura remained helpful, albeit enigmatic, steering conversation away from questions about their origins and their purpose here as best they could. They did share a few things, at Pidge’s insistence – they came from Altea, a world like Earth, but far from it. When Pidge asked how that was possible, Coran gave some long, complicated explanation involving wormholes and parallel universes and dark matter.

Allura gave him a warning look when he mentioned dark matter.

“What happened to Altea?” Pidge asked.

“It no longer exists,” Allura replied shortly.

“What happened?”

“It…” Allura folded her arms. “It succumbed.”

Lance raised an eyebrow. “That’s not ominous at all.

Pidge frowned. “Succumbed to what?”

“The very force that threatens your world’s survival now,” Allura said.

“Which is?”

“This is a discussion for another day,” Allura muttered.

“Did Altea have dragons?” Lance asked, trying to change the subject.

Instead, Allura’s expression just soured further. “In a way,” she said.

It was obvious they would not be getting anything else out of her about that.

*

On the third night, Lance had a dream.

That wouldn’t have been a strange occurrence if it hadn’t been such a strange dream. He was walking down a hall, shining white just like the Castle, yet this place, he knew with certainty, was a hospital. Or perhaps “medical facility” was a better name for it, because Lance also knew with certainty that this place helped no one.

The air reeked of antiseptic, stifling and sinister, and the hall was lined with equally sinister doors, all sheets of impenetrable metal marked with numbers. Lance also knew that there was someone – or something – behind each door. He could feel their presence like a prickling on his skin, and in his chest, a deep sensation of unease that increased with every step.

The hallway did not go on forever, though it seemed like it might be one of those dreams, at first. It ended in a door, like all the others, except this one was ever so slightly ajar. Lance reached out, the metal cold against his palm, and slowly pushed the door open.

The room beyond was small, square, and gray, the color of bare concrete. There were no windows, no furnishings, no decoration – nothing at all except for the pale, naked, huddled figure in the far corner, knees drawn up to their chest and arms wrapped tight around themselves, hiding their face under their tangled black hair.

“Keith,” Lance whispered. He hesitated on the threshold, fearing that if he stepped inside, the heavy metal door would shut behind him.

Keith did not react at all. His only movement was the trembling of his shoulders, as if he was freezing, or crying, or both. Lance said his name again, louder, but still nothing. Worry outweighing hesitation, he stepped into the cell. “Are you alright?” Lance asked, approaching him as one would approach a wounded animal; slow, cautious. “What is this place?”

No response.

Lance knelt before him, so that they were eye level, and touched Keith’s bare, shaking shoulder.

Keith went utterly, eerily still.

“Keith?” Lance wet his lips.

Keith’s head jerked up and Lance jerked back with a cry, but he was held fast by Keith’s hands around his wrists, too strong and too sharp to be human, clawed and rough. Keith’s eyes were blazing with vibrant golden light, as bright as the sun, twisting and sparking like flames, and Lance could see the same golden glow just under his skin, illuminating every blood vessel, a fire within. Lance opened his mouth to shout again, but he choked, and something warm and liquid like blood dripped from his lips and onto the concrete between them.

It wasn’t blood. It was golden, shining, like Keith’s eyes and skin. Lance’s hands, trapped in Keith’s, began to glow too. Lance stared at him, terrified and fascinated; every fiber of his being awash with indescribable euphoria. Keith stared back; blindingly, brilliantly bright.

“What is this?” Lance asked him, his voice sounding distant, echoing.

“Everything,” Keith replied, and then his face twisted, contorted, consumed by spreading red scales, and his eyes flared violet, the gold snuffed out.

Lance awoke with a jolt, panting and wincing when he sat up in bed. Across the room, Hunk was still snoring in his bed. Lance was dizzy, and his skin felt warmer than usual. He lifted a hand to his lips, wondering, but his fingers came away clean.

But it had felt so real. If not real, then important, anyway. That violet, the violet of Keith’s eyes…it was the same violet as the Galra dagger, the same violet as the Galra symbols, the same violet as Haggar’s lantern, the same violet as the crystal controlling Shiro.

It meant something, but Lance didn’t know what.

Rubbing his head, Lance got out of bed, pacing across the cool floor. His mind would not stop buzzing, no matter how hard he tried, and he resigned himself to the fact that he wasn’t going to be able to get back to sleep for a while.

He left the room quietly after pulling a blanket around himself, feeling childish walking down the dark hall with it wrapped around his shoulders. But there was no one awake to see him. His thoughts turned over and in on themselves as he tried to make sense of the dream. He’d never had a dream like that – most of his dreams were nightmares, when they were that vivid, anyway. His initial feeling of uneasiness had vanished upon seeing the golden substance falling from his own mouth.

The Galra had poured that substance down Red’s throat to turn him back to Keith, Lance realized. It was the same – it had to be. He walked faster, excited. They needed that substance, whatever it was, to turn Keith back, and Shiro and Matt too. But what was it? Everything, Keith had said, which of course made no sense.

Lance stopped, suddenly. His wandering had led him down a different hall, a vaguely familiar one. The hall that led to Keith and Shiro’s room.

Would Keith know what the golden substance was? Would Shiro?

Lance had to know. He started down the hall resolutely, his resolution faltering when he reached the large doorway and saw Keith was alone, laying on his side, bandaged belly exposed. His eyes were open, half-lidded and distant, but when Lance walked in they widened and focused. He lifted his head, scales rustling as he shifted upright, blinking at Lance in the darkness. They were golden, just like the first time Lance had met him in the middle of the desert, just like they had been in the dream.

“Hello,” Keith murmured, sounding surprised. “I thought you were bedridden.”

Lance stood awkwardly in the room, ten feet between them. “I’m alright now,” he said. “I just couldn’t sleep. Where’s Shiro?”

Keith’s brow furrowed. “He’s out hunting; he finally felt up to it.” He paused, looking confused and faintly hurt. “Why, did you want to talk to him?”

Lance shook his head. “No…I mean, maybe, I don’t…I don’t know. How are you feeling?”

“Better,” Keith said, tilting his head. “Much better.” He narrowed his eyes. “Shiro said you had broken ribs. Because you tried to distract him from me and he kicked you.”

“Yeah.”

“That was really stupid, Lance,” Keith said, but it didn’t exactly sound like an admonishment.

“Yeah...”

“Stupid, but brave,” Keith added, his mouth lifting. “He could’ve crushed you like an ant.”

“Good thing he didn’t, because that would be awkward, huh?” Lance said nervously.

Keith’s smile fell. “It would be more than awkward.”

Lance cleared his throat and looked down.

Keith was still watching him. “You don’t have to just stand there,” he told him. “You know I don’t bite.”

Lance shifted. “I don’t want to, uh, intrude,” he said.

“Intrude…? We were in a cave together for a month,” Keith retorted. “And now you’re keeping your distance? Why –” Keith cut himself off, suddenly looking dismayed. “Oh,” he said. “I made you uncomfortable, didn’t I? I meant to apologize about that…about when I turned back, and what a mess I was.”

Lance faltered. “Wait, what? Why are you apologizing?”

Keith ducked his head. “I was…confused. Delirious, even, after the transformation. I barely knew who I was, let alone who you were, and I wasn’t in control of myself, and I’m sorry you had to see me like that.” He put his head down on his paws and gazed at Lance steadily. “And…it must have been a shock for you to find out who I was. I’m sorry about that, too. That I didn’t tell you sooner.”

“I would never have believed you if I hadn’t seen it for myself,” Lance said. “You don’t have to apologize for any of that, Keith.”

“Hmm,” Keith said. “In that case, thank you. For…for staying with me, when I was out of it and afraid and…and human. It…means a lot.”

“Not like I had anywhere else to go,” Lance joked. “We were stuck in a cell together, so.”

Keith’s gaze slid away. “Yeah, I guess.”

Lance swallowed. “I wanted to apologize, too,” he admitted. “I said a lot of horrible things to you when you were Red, and I shouldn’t have. I shouldn’t have tried to run away, I shouldn’t have gone snooping through your stuff, and I shouldn’t have put you in danger.”

“You didn’t know,” Keith said quietly.

“I wouldn’t have killed you,” Lance blurted.

“I know,” Keith replied. “I gave you the chance to, and you didn’t. Why didn’t you?”

Lance bit his lip. “You’re my friend,” he said. “And it’s kinda rude to kill someone who’s saved your life repeatedly.”

“Kinda,” Keith chuckled, relaxing slightly. “So, friends, huh?”

Lance nodded. And then, because the air was cold and his legs were feeling a little unsteady, he crossed the room and sat down next to Keith. The blanket fell from his shoulders, pooling on the floor around him, and Keith made a distraught sound. “What?” Lance said.

“Your chest,” Keith breathed, “it’s…”

“Purple, yeah. It was worse before the healing pod,” Lance said, picking up the blanket to wrap it around himself again. Before he could do so, though, Keith lifted a paw and the curved edge of a claw brushed against Lance’s ribs carefully. Lance startled away and Keith hastily withdrew it. His claw was cold, like the ice.

“Sorry!” Keith exclaimed, hunching his shoulders. “Sorry.”

“Keep sharp objects away, thanks,” Lance said, trying not to let his voice shake. He wasn’t sure he quite succeeded, because Keith’s gaze flickered oddly. Lance cleared his throat. “Anyway, there was something I wanted to ask you. I had…a weird dream. About that golden stuff Haggar used to turn you back.” Keith drew in a sharp breath. “Do you know what it is?”

“Yes,” he said, after a beat. “I know the Garrison scientists called it quintessence.”

“And what is it?” Lance pressed.

“Dangerous,” Keith said. “And rare. They treated it like actual gold.” He sighed. “I don’t know where they get it and I don’t know what it is, exactly. They didn’t exactly give me a lecture on it, just injected it into me.”

Lance shivered and tugged the blanket tighter around himself. “Why? What does it do, besides turn you human again?”

“It’s like heroin,” Keith murmured. “Everything is warm and nothing matters.”

Lance spluttered. “Heroin?! Keith!”

Keith looked defensive. “It was one time,” he retorted. “I was in a bad place. Mistakes were made. Anyway. I guess it’s probably like any drug, where it makes you feel on top of the world, but take too much, and…” He shuddered, wings rustling as he folded them closer to his sides. “I thought I was going to die. Overdosing on it doesn’t hurt, exactly, but it feels like…like being consumed. It’s powerful, unbelievably powerful.”

“So it’s a drug?” Lance asked, intrigued.

But Keith shook his head. “No, I don’t think it is, exactly. I don’t know how to explain it, sorry.”

Great. “So what’s the purple stuff? The stuff that was on that dagger, the one you didn’t want me to touch. You said it would curse me too.”

Keith recoiled. “It’s even more powerful,” he said. “It’s like quintessence, but…”

“Corrupted.”

Lance scrambled to his feet and Keith’s head shot up. Allura was standing in the doorway, expression grim. “What do you mean?” Keith asked.

She walked towards them, her light blue nightgown doing nothing to diminish her ever-regal presence. “You are correct in that quintessence is not a drug,” she said. “It is a form of energy. It is a life force, the life force of a world and of all the creatures in it. So it was on Altea, as it is here. Quintessence is what allows the Universe to accelerate, and what ties worlds together. It is, quite simply, the fabric of everything.”

Keith looked as bewildered as Lance felt. “But that doesn’t make sense,” he argued. “If it’s the fabric of everything, then why did the Garrison say it was so rare?”

“Because it is,” she retorted. “Quintessence is found throughout the Universe in what humans call dark matter, which makes it incredibly difficult to extract. Thus, quintessence must be extracted from worlds themselves…and the creatures inhabiting them.”

Lance and Keith exchanged looks of horror. “What happens once the quintessence is gone?”

“Like all matter, quintessence cannot be destroyed,” Allura corrected. “It can, however, be corrupted. That is what happened on Altea. That is what happened here, on Earth. Quintessence is not meant to be extracted from life and used in its purest form, because it is all too easily tainted. And such quintessence corrupts everything it touches.” She folded her arms. “Your Garrison found that out the hard way.”

Keith froze. “You don’t mean they were the ones who…who corrupted it in the first place?”

“That is exactly what I mean.”

Lance had a terrible thought. “Wait,” he said. “How…how does the corrupted quintessence corrupt things, exactly?”

Allura turned away. “I believe it varies, from world to world. Corrupted quintessence kills most things, like plants or lesser animals. But when used on the dominant species of a planet – for example Alteans, or in your case humans – it twists them into a form that is universally feared and vilified in that world. For Altea, it was a race of warmongering giants. For Earth…it is dragons.”

Chapter Text

For a moment, Lance seriously thought he was going to faint; just swoon away from shock like a helpless damsel in an old Hollywood movie. He probably would have if he’d been standing up. As it was, a strange sound escaped his mouth, somewhere between a gasp and a curse.

Keith’s toothy jaw had dropped. “How is that possible?!” he demanded, voice rough even for a dragon. “How can all dragons be human?”

“The Garrison created dragons,” Lance whispered, then louder, “The Garrison created dragons.

Allura sighed reluctantly. “Yes. The Garrison evolved from another organization – an ancient society of primitive scientists who discovered and extracted quintessence from unwilling subjects. It was originally intended to be used as an energy source, but they realized its other uses when the subjects began to…change. It is unlikely that they became dragons right away – perhaps they displayed increased aggression, a skewed sense of morality, loss of memory, or inhuman strength and stamina. The scientists likely thought they could capitalize on this – I expect they were more excited than afraid when the first one turned. In those times power and brute strength were the keys to success; humans were barbaric conquerors who saw dragons as tools to intimidate and destroy those who stood in their way.”

“But let me guess, that didn’t go so well,” Lance muttered.

“It did not,” Allura agreed. “From the few records we found – the Garrison has attempted to erase most of them – the humans never stood a chance. And so the tales of dragons as ferocious beasts to be feared and killed at all costs arose, and the scientists from the Dark Ages became the modern-day Garrison, who train their courageous Knights to kill dragons and protect humans.”

Lance felt like he was going to throw up. “If they were human…why would they turn on other humans? Why would they eat other humans?!”

“Treat someone like a beast and they will become one,” Allura replied grimly. “The dragons forgot their humanity, thanks to the corrupted quintessence and the scientists’ cruelty and selfishness. Those dragons – the first, the most powerful and the most dangerous – became what you now call the Galra. Their Emperor was among them. The most elite – Zarkon, Sendak, Haggar, to name a few – were created many centuries ago.”

“What about the other Galra?”

“The other Galra have been corrupted by other means –”

“Druid magic,” Keith said with dawning comprehension. “The symbols on their heads…they control them, don’t they? Just like the collars.”

“Exactly,” Allura said. “I have never studied them up close, but they appear to somehow contain concentrated, corrupted quintessence. The Druids are the Galra who remember, you see. They know of quintessence and its power and they use it to their advantage, to control and further corrupt their fellow dragons in any way they can.”

“And they know they were originally human?” Lance whispered. “How can they do what the others do…and why don’t they want to turn back?”

“Just because they have not forgotten does not mean they have any humanity left,” Allura said. “Corrupted quintessence is a corrosive element; it eats away at a being’s natural quintessence, at the very core of their being, at what makes them, them, until there is nothing left but the corruption.” Her eyes were hard. “They might have been human once, but for many of them, no amount of pure quintessence can turn them back now. Even if it did change them physically; inside they would still be monstrous.”

Keith swallowed. “How…how long does that take?”

Lance looked at him, startled. And then, with dread, as Allura frowned and said quietly, “On Altea it took about one of your Earth years for a corrupted individual to begin losing who they were entirely. Sometimes it happened later, but…sometimes sooner, too.” She turned to Keith, who looked terrified, with pity. “How long for you so far?”

“Seven months,” Keith said.

“And for Shiro and Matt?”

“Eight.” Keith curled his tail tightly around himself. “You…you don’t think that we’ll stop remembering…that we’ll hurt…”

“You will,” Allura said with certainty, “if we cannot find a way to turn you back soon.”

“Why didn’t you tell us this, like, immediately?!” Lance half-shrieked. “It seems kind of really important!”

Allura shook her head. “It is important, but it is also complicated. You are both injured, so we will be unable to venture out to find pure quintessence for another month at the very least – I did not wish to alarm you about…what could happen.” She bit her lip and looked away.

“There’s something else,” Keith said, eyes narrowing. “What?”

“I fear your change may progress at a faster rate than the others,” she admitted. “You received an extra dose of the corrupted quintessence, at a time when your body was weak; in fact it was barely clinging to life. Your natural quintessence is thus weak as well, and it may have difficulty overcoming the corruption –”

“Keith wouldn’t let that happen,” Lance snapped. “He’s managed this long, hasn’t he?”

But Keith didn’t look so sure. He looked very scared, actually, and said, “I thought I was going insane.”

“In a way you are,” Allura murmured, which wasn’t comforting at all.

“How do we stop it, then?!” Lance pressed, and if he sounded panicked, well maybe he was.

Allura hesitated. “I don’t know how much of a difference it will make, but it stands to reason that prolonged human contact would help to strengthen your natural quintessence, Keith. Just as corrupted quintessence thrives in the presence of its own kind, so does natural, pure quintessence. It won’t reverse the process, but I believe it could slow it.”

“So I’ll stay with him,” Lance said.

Keith looked at him in surprise. “You will?”

Lance coughed, and cleared his throat. Be cool, be cool. “Uh, yeah, I mean, if you want, I guess I could...just hang out. Sleep here too, if you want. Like in your bone cave, for old time’s sake, y’know?”

“Bone cave?” Allura repeated, eyebrows arching.

Keith blinked at Lance some more with utter bewilderment. “That’s…thoughtful of you. Thanks, Lance.” He furrowed his spiky brow. “But you can’t stay on the ground, you need a proper bed or you’ll hurt your ribs more.”

“I suppose we could move Lance’s bed here,” Allura said, eyebrows still raised. “Shiro will be very confused when he returns…or perhaps you would prefer Shiro to find another room?”

“No!” Keith said quickly, and Lance tried not to feel too bad about it. Apparently he failed miserably, because Keith tilted his head at him worriedly. “Unless…do you not want Shiro here? I’m sorry, I know he hurt you and you probably don’t feel safe around –”

“No, it’s…that’s fine,” Lance replied, squashing down the little voice grumbling in favor of making Keith evict Shiro from the storage room cave ASAP. “It’s cool.” He smiled even though it felt a little forced. “I know you guys are close. Wouldn’t want to break up your happy reunion.”

“Thanks, Lance,” Keith said with a sharp dragon smile. “I’m glad you understand.”

Do I? Lance thought, but smiled back. “Sure thing, buddy,” he said.

*

The next day, Allura and Coran told the rest of the gang about quintessence and how the Garrison originated from a bunch of people who royally fucked up a long time ago. Everyone was shocked, though some more than others – Pidge, Matt, and Shiro seemed to have had inklings about what was going on, so they weren’t as utterly floored as Hunk, whose reaction was more like Lance and Keith’s. They spent a while trying to calm Hunk down, and then breached the subject of where to find pure quintessence since that was the real problem at hand, here.

“It’s unspeakably rare,” Allura warned.

“I thought you said it could be extracted from living beings,” Pidge said.

“Yes, through a long, complicated process which involves a huge amount of power that we do not have access to,” Allura retorted, frowning. “Besides, extracting quintessence leaves the beings like empty husks; they’re reduced to a vegetative state. I will not be responsible for doing that to someone or something.”

“So how did the first scientists extract it, then?” Lance asked. “They didn’t exactly have access to huge amounts of power either.”

“No, they found quintessence within the Earth’s crust,” Allura said. “That would be ideal for us, like stumbling upon a goldmine, but such deposits are nearly impossible to find. It’s like looking for a normal-sized needle in a haystack with an area of two hundred million square miles.”

“So, never mind then,” Lance muttered. “What’s Plan B?”

“The Garrison,” Matt and Keith said in unison.

“No,” Shiro said firmly. “That’s too dangerous. You both know the Garrison is specially equipped to kill dragons; it would be a suicide mission.”

“Not if we don’t attack the Garrison itself,” Keith argued. “We just need to get into the lab where they held me. The place is surrounded by an electrical field but –”

“Stop it! You can barely stand; you’re in no state to be making attack plans!” Shiro scolded.

“And you’re in no position to be babying me,” Keith retorted. “That’s our only chance of getting pure quintessence and you know it.” His eyes narrowed. “Unless you think going back to the Spire is a better idea.”

Matt shuddered. Shiro glowered at Keith. “No,” he conceded. “No, that’s a terrible idea. I’m never going back there – none of us are.”

“Good,” Keith said. “So, Garrison lab it is.”

“When you’re properly healed, of course,” Coran added. “You won’t be going anywhere or doing much of anything for a month.”

Keith opened his mouth to protest; Shiro thumped his tail firmly against Keith’s side. Keith huffed and lowered his head. “Fine. Great. Good to know I have a choice in the matter.”

“You don’t,” Shiro told him. Keith glared.

“In the meantime, we can plan,” Pidge pointed out. “Rather not rush in blindly, especially if electrical fields are involved.” Matt nodded vehemently.

“Plan and relax,” Hunk said. “Is it just me, or has this past week been really emotionally taxing?”

It’s definitely not just you, dude, Lance said with his eyes. Hunk gave him an apologetic shrug.

“Wonderful, well, I’m glad that’s settled for now,” Allura declared.

“Wait,” Pidge said, “you never told us what happened to Altea, and why you’re here now.”

Coran eyed Allura with a frown. “Princess, you do not need to –”

“Altea’s version of the Garrison failed,” Allura interrupted, folding her arms. “The corrupted creatures took over; until the planet itself was infected by their overwhelmingly tainted quintessence. King Alfor, my…” She swallowed. “My father sent me away, and Coran with me. He used Altea’s last known pure quintessence to do so – his own.”

“How?”

“While quintessence can be extracted, it can also be…given up freely, I suppose you would say, as a sort of final sacrifice. I am uncertain how to explain it. My father knew the specifics of the process through his own research; he did not pass it on to me. All I know is that he gave it to us so that we might arrive here, in the Castle he built for us, and saved us by giving himself up. My father is no more, and thus Altea is no more.”

“I’m sorry,” Pidge said. “I didn’t mean to –”

“It is fine,” Allura retorted sharply. She sighed, voice softening. “I know you all must have lost people to this corruption. You asked earlier what our purpose on Earth is. Well, our purpose is to save as many as we can from the same forces that ravaged and ultimately ended Altea. That is what we will help you do…to the best of our ability.”

Allura glanced at Lance and he saw the empathy in her eyes, the understanding, the shared loss between them and the silent vow that she would uphold her promise.

“Thank you,” he said.

*

It did take a little adjusting to move in with Keith and Shiro, but by the end of the first week, although Lance never thought he would be saying it, he actually felt pretty comfortable sharing a room with two dragons.

At first, anyway.

Shiro did his best to give Lance space despite being a forty foot long creature built like several tanks, and was out most of the night anyway as he continued to hunt with Matt. Keith usually stayed curled in his corner, alongside Lance’s bed, which was an elevated futon heaped with blankets that was basically an upgrade from his bone cave blanket pile. Shiro and Lance made Keith stretch and move around as best he could for at least an hour every day, and there was definite improvement – he could leave the cave now, though he limped and had to walk slowly to keep himself from wincing, and his left wing still dragged uselessly at his side. Shiro made him flex it once, and Keith let out a horrific, grating sound halfway between a shriek and a growl of pain. They decided to leave the wing alone after that.

Maybe Lance was imagining it, but Keith seemed to enjoy being alone with him, talking with him late into the night after Shiro was gone. Not that they didn’t talk during the day, when Shiro was there, but usually Shiro slept past noon, and Keith often joined him. Even though he wasn’t out hunting all night, nocturnal habits were apparently hard to break.

When they weren’t sleeping, Shiro helped Keith groom himself, rubbing off the dead or dented scales with his curved muzzle and licking all the smaller wounds that Keith couldn’t reach. It was a lengthy process, and an uncomfortable one to watch, for Lance anyway. Grooming between dragons, like with any creature, seemed pretty intimate. Especially reciprocal grooming – when Keith wasn’t entirely exhausted, he would sometimes lift his head and nuzzle at Shiro’s scales and healing wounds; careful and almost sweet.

It was kind of gross, but it still made that ugly stain of jealousy flare in Lance every time they tended to each other with what seemed like the tenderness of lovers. He always tried to sleep when they did that, to stop himself from making any other painful assumptions.

Lance tried to keep a normal sleep schedule as much as possible, but it was so easy to talk to Keith, once he’d opened up a little. Near-death experiences tended to do that to a person, apparently. Keith still preferred to listen, though, watching Lance with round violet eyes, head resting on his paws as Lance told him the stories from his past that were the least painful to tell. They were all painful, but…some more than others. And Lance liked talking about home, even if it hurt.

“Havana was the most colorful city in the world,” Lance told him, sitting on his futon and leaning against Keith’s warm, scaly side. The first time he’d done that, Keith had tensed and stared at him, but he was used to it now. “Everyone’s house was a different color. All the restaurants and shops, too. Even the cars were – Havana was full of old, classic cars, y’know. Oldsmobiles and Plymouths as far as the eye could see.”

Keith blinked sleepily. “Why?”

Lance shrugged. “Communism, I guess. Castro wasn’t a big fan of Camrys.”

“Hmm,” Keith mused. “Can’t say I blame him.”

“Plenty of other things to blame him for,” Lance countered. “It was a beautiful city, but…not everywhere. I remember this one apartment block, it was literally falling apart. Decaying, more and more every day. I had to walk past it every day on my way to school, and I saw people living there, standing on the balconies that looked like they were gonna crumble and fall at any second…I remember wondering why nobody did anything about it.”

Keith made a quiet sound. “Where did you live?”

Lance tipped his head up to the ceiling and sighed. “Miramar. It was the nice neighborhood, sort of, on the west side of Havana. We had an apartment for the six of us – me, Mamá, Papá, Stella, and my little twin brothers.”

“What were their names?”

“Hugo and Julian,” Lance said, closing his eyes. “They’d be six now. They were four, when…yeah.”

“Shit,” Keith said.

Lance laughed, choked. “Yeah. Shit.”

Keith hesitated. “How old were you?”

“Sixteen,” Lance said. “Stella was thirteen, almost fourteen. Too young, anyway. We were all too young.”

“I’m sorry,” Keith murmured.

“It’s okay,” Lance said. “When I get too sad about it I just think about walking down the Malecón with them all, looking out at the ocean, close enough to touch.” He swallowed. “I miss the ocean.”

“You’ll see it again, someday,” Keith told him. He sounded certain, and Lance hoped he was right.

“What about you?” Lance asked, turning to look at him. “How’d the world screw you over?”

Keith made a weird motion that was probably the dragon equivalent of a shrug. “Dead parents,” he said. “Either dead, or didn’t care. But I doubt that’s the Galra’s fault.”

Lance frowned at him. “The orphan club is no fun. But what makes you think they didn’t care? Sounds like bullshit to me.”

Keith looked away, exhaling a hazy ring of smoke that stung Lance’s eyes. “They left me in the rain on the doorstep of St. Agnes Catholic Church of Paterson, New Jersey. Only thing they left was a note with my name and a knife, of all things.”

“Wait, hold up,” Lance said, “your parents left a baby with a knife? The fuck? Were they assassins or something?”

“Or something,” Keith muttered. “Anyway, that’s it. Raised by nuns and got away from them as soon as I could, ended up somewhere somehow worse.”

“Huh,” Lance said. “But…there were good parts in between, right? You were practically a legend at the Garrison, and the even more legendary Takashi Shirogane was your best friend.”

Keith’s gaze lightened. “Yeah…there were some good parts. That was…that was fun, while it lasted.”

Aiming for casual, Lance asked, “How did you and Shiro even meet in the first place?”

Keith’s mouth quirked up. “I beat him in hand-to-hand combat when he was instructing my first class.”

“You really did that?!” Lance squawked. “I thought that was just a crazy rumor!”

“Nope,” Keith said smugly. “I mean, I spent sixteen years getting into fights…and I may have broken some Garrison sparring rules. Apparently kicks to the balls are ‘unsportsmanlike’ and ‘cruel.’”

You kicked Takashi Shirogane in the balls,” Lance said with unbridled delight.

“I would say it wasn’t my proudest moment, but it kind of was,” Keith snickered. “Anyway, the idiot decided to take me under his wing –”

“I see what you did there,” Lance interrupted.

Keith rolled his eyes. “He decided to do that instead of stay the hell away from the kid with obvious issues or get me in trouble. I still don’t know why he did it. I kicked him really hard.”

“Well, even if it was ‘unsportsmanlike,’ it sounds awesome. He was probably impressed and was like, ‘I want this little hooligan on my side.’”

“‘Little hooligan,’” Keith repeated, snorting. “You sound like the nuns.”

“You take that back,” Lance laughed. “I’m way cooler than any nun and you know it.”

“I dunno,” Keith mused, “Sister Catherine was pretty cool. She smuggled me My Chemical Romance CDs for three years.”

“Oh my god,” Lance said. “You’re even more emo than I thought.”

Keith flicked a pebble at him with his claws. “The Black Parade is a lyrical masterpiece, asshole.”

“It’s pretty good,” Lance conceded. Keith rumbled approvingly and closed his eyes.

Lance fell asleep still leaning against him, warm and safe.

By the middle of the second week it didn’t hurt to breathe anymore, and the angry bruises had faded to a dull yellow that didn’t look so bad. Keith could walk a little farther without limping or wincing, and when he flexed his wings despite Shiro’s fretting it didn’t make him yelp. The muscle ached and wasn’t strong enough for him to fly yet, but soon. Maybe. Hopefully. He still got tired, though, and preferred to listen to Lance’s stories rather than tell his own.

Keith liked hearing about Lance’s family the most. Lance liked talking about them, especially Stella, because she was the only one who didn’t make his heart hurt, and her face was the clearest in his memory.

“She sounds a lot like you,” Keith said once.

“Yeah,” Lance said, smiling. “She is. She’s smarter, though, and stronger than me. She’s gonna be an astronaut, someday.”

Keith tilted his head. “Better up there than down here, huh?”

Lance’s smile faded a little. “Yeah. Her name means ‘star,’ y’know. We always used to joke about that.” He twisted his hands in his lap. “She’s…she’s terrified of dragons. Doesn’t bat an eyelash at the thought of the vacuum of space and zero G and black holes but…dragons, no way.”

“You were scared at first, too,” Keith said after a beat.

“Me?” Lance sighed. “Not like her. She used to have these…these night terrors about when we were – when the Galra burned down Havana.” He bit his lip. “You remember how freaked out I was about being in the dark in the cave?” Keith nodded wordlessly. “Me and Stella were hiding in a pile of rubble for hours, waiting out the attack in the dust and darkness. Once, one of the Galra got really close and I’d never seen Stella so scared. She was a fearless kid, always getting into stuff and going places she shouldn’t, but…just that glimpse of it made her freeze up and start hyperventilating. Full panic attack, and we could barely breathe as it was. I thought she was gonna die – not from fire or claws or falling rubble but from asphyxiation. Ironic, huh?”

Keith’s brow furrowed. “Lance…you do not have to talk about this.”

“Nah, I’m good,” Lance lied. “All bueno over here. She’s better now anyway, I think. Night terrors lasted for the first couple of months, then she started seeing a therapist and said that helped a lot.”

“Did you ever see a therapist?” Keith asked.

Lance avoided his gaze. “Who, me? Nah, like I said, all bueno. Two years does wonders, plenty of time for the seven stages of grief and all that.”

“Do you have night terrors, Lance?”

Lance glanced up, startled. Did Keith remember that night when Lance’s scream had echoed through the cave and a warm, unexpected nuzzle had soothed him back to sleep? Because Lance sure as hell wasn’t going to mention it. “I have bad dreams sometimes,” he managed. “Don’t we all?”

“Hm,” Keith said, and thankfully dropped the topic there.

Towards the end of the second week, Keith started acting…kind of weird. Not that he didn’t always act weird, but it was more so now, definitely. He was quieter and seemed to have difficulty focusing, frequently zoning out and then guiltily asking Lance to repeat himself. When Lance tried to ask him about it he seemed confused, and said he was just tired.

It got even weirder when, as Lance was talking about how Hugo and Julian had tried to adopt dozens of starfish, Keith interrupted and said, “I’ve been thinking about the Garrison lab a lot, lately.”

Lance paused. “Um…okay? What about it?”

“About what they did to me,” Keith said, no inflection in his voice. “Pretty messed up, don’t you think, for humans to do things like that to other humans.”

Lance frowned at him. “You okay, Keith?”

“Of course,” Keith said, gaze unfocused. “But I wasn’t okay in the lab. I screamed so loud and so long that I lost my voice, for a little while. After that they gagged me so I would shut up when they shoved needles into me.”

Lance winced. “That…doesn’t sound fun.”

“The opposite of fun,” Keith agreed quietly. “There was one scientist…Dr. Reyes was her name. She was always trying to play at being the nice one. They would feed me this tasteless gruel every day…she’d bring me little treats, like cookies and apples, and tell me it was going to be okay with the fakest smile I’ve ever seen.” Keith exhaled smoke slowly. “She was the first one I killed.”

Lance tensed and shifted subtly away from him. “When…when you escaped, you mean?”

Keith rumbled affirmatively. “They’d been doing tests on me for what felt like weeks before they actually turned me. When they did…it was blinding; the pain, the sensations, the scents, the sounds…it was too much. I lashed out. They’d miscalculated – the restraints weren’t strong enough, and I broke through them, and before I knew it I tasted blood and everyone was screaming.”

Lance felt sick, tucking his hands under his knees to hide the way they trembled. “You…ate her?” he whispered.

“No, but a part of me wanted to,” Keith said. “I ripped her apart, anyway, along with the next three scientists who tried to intervene. It was…messy. I was angry, and disoriented; I didn’t know what was happening, only that I had to get the hell away. So I did. Burnt straight through the ceiling and clawed my way out. I flew through the electric field, that’s how desperate I was.” His lips curled back from his teeth. “They didn’t think I’d ever make it past that, so they didn’t try to stop me. It fried every nerve in my body but I did it, out of sheer adrenaline and fury if nothing else.”

“Keith…” Lance whispered, hesitantly laying a hand on his scales. Keith’s head jerked up and he blinked at Lance in a slow, calculated way that made the back of Lance’s neck prickle.

Keith’s nostrils flared. “You are afraid,” he said, toneless and indifferent, merely stating a fact.

“Well, yeah,” Lance retorted defensively. “You’re kinda freaking me out.”

“Why?” Keith asked, blinking again, cool and utterly inhuman. “I thought you would be interested to hear about my past, since you have shared so much of your own with me. Was I wrong?”

Lance bit his lip. “No, just…are you feeling okay?”

Keith’s gaze flickered. “Yes. Yes, I’m fine.” He lowered his head again, resting it atop his paws. “You are a very thoughtful human, Lance.”

Lance furrowed his brow. “Don’t say stuff like that. You’re human too, Keith. Don’t forget, ‘kay?”

“How could I ever?” Keith replied, but there was a sardonic lilt to his voice that Lance didn’t quite like.

Keith thankfully quieted down after that, drifting off into sleep and only awaking when Shiro returned with dinner. Lance accepted a piece of javelina steak and ate it carefully, keeping an eye on Keith the whole time. He seemed more tired than before, chewing listlessly with drooping eyelids. Shiro was telling him about the hunt, but Keith appeared apathetic and his only replies were soft grunts and tilts of his head.

It was only towards the end of dinner when Keith shook himself and said abruptly, “Lance should get some fresh air.”

Shiro paused and peered at him, then at Lance. “That’s not a bad idea…you’ve been cooped up in here for a while, Lance.”

Lance looked at Keith. His eyes were narrowed and his jaw was set, his whole body tense and tight. “Agreed, but…are you sure it’s okay to leave you, Keith?”

“Yeah,” Keith said. “Yeah, it’s fine.” He nudged at Lance with his tail. “Go on.”

“I can take you on a little night flight, if you’d like,” Shiro suggested, kneeling so Lance could climb on. “There’s a full moon tonight, so you’ll even have some visibility.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Lance heaved himself up onto Shiro’s shoulders. Keith slumped in what could have been relief, curling back into a ball of red scales. “Have fun. Be safe.”

Lance eyed him with apprehension. Keith wanted him gone…but why? “You too,” he said. “Bye, Keith.”

*

Riding a dragon was a lot more enjoyable when they weren’t in a life or death situation.

Shiro’s wings were large enough for him to soar for long distances over the desert – he explained to Lance that like birds of prey, different dragons had differently shaped wings which allowed them to perform different flight maneuvers.

“My wings are broad and long, more like an eagle’s, while Keith’s are curved and pointed, more like a falcon’s,” Shiro told him, gliding smoothly through the cool night air, wings spread fully to the slight wind. “I’m better at long flights, fighting maneuvers, and steady descents, but Keith is better at sharp turns, fast dives and ascents, and overall speed.”

“That’s so cool,” Lance breathed, tipping his head up to look at the glittering stars. “Why didn’t they teach us any of that at the Garrison?”

Shiro swooped down towards a tall butte, landing gracefully atop it and letting Lance off. “The Garrison could fill several books with everything they don’t know – or want you to know – about dragons.”

Lance hopped onto the dusty earth and picked his way through the sagebrush, sitting down near Shiro’s head as the black dragon lay down with a sigh. “Does the Garrison actually help? With fighting the Galra and all that?”

“It’s difficult to say,” Shiro replied. “They’ve killed their fair share of Galra, but they’ve also killed dragons who could have still been saved. And, well, they certainly didn’t help me or Matt.”

Lance looked up at him. “What…what did Keith mean when he said he knew too much about the Kerberos Mission? What did he find out?”

Shiro frowned, looking out at the desert. “It was never supposed to succeed,” he said. “The Garrison knew we could never defeat Zarkon – they knew we would get turned instead. In fact, I think they hoped we would.”

“They…they hoped the Galra would turn their best Knights into dragons?”

“They wanted weapons,” Shiro muttered. “I think they were curious about what would happen when Knights became dragons – would they retain their loyalty to the Garrison? Would they become the weapons the Garrison had always wanted dragons to be? They wanted to fight fire with fire, I suppose.”

“Is that why they turned Keith?” Lance asked. “Even though he escaped, he did kill other dragons…but they still wanted to catch him.”

“They wanted him leashed,” Shiro murmured. “They wanted to control his power and take it for their own, as I suspect they would have done to me and Matt if we had returned.” Shiro’s voice grew sad. “If we can’t get Keith out of this mess, I…I don’t know what I’ll do.”

Lance glanced at him and then away, the question on the tip of his tongue. What is Keith to you? What are you to him?

Shiro turned towards Lance. “You’re worried about him too, I know. Very worried.” His gray eyes glinted. “He’s lucky to have you, Lance.”

“He’s luckier to have you,” Lance said before he could stop himself.

Shiro seemed taken aback, cocking his head and blinking at Lance. “Wait,” he said, with sudden realization, “you think that Keith and I are...together?”

Lance coughed, his face hot. “Well, you don’t have to rub it in,” he mumbled. “It’s pretty obvious anyway.”

Shiro blinked again, and then, to Lance’s confusion, he started laughing. “Lance, no,” Shiro chuckled, “Keith and I are close, very close, but not like that.”

“Then…then what are you like?” Lance managed.

“Brothers,” Shiro said, shaking his head in amusement. “Best friends and brothers, Lance, not lovers.” His expression sobered. “I apologize that you thought otherwise. It’s not the first time someone has had that misconception about us.”

Lance gawked at him. “But – but you’re always snuggling and grooming each other and you look at each other like –”

“Like we love each other?” Shiro finished. “We do.”

“Like brothers,” Lance said in mild disbelief.

“Yes,” Shiro said. “When I first met Keith, he was very alone. He had no one supporting him, no one standing by his side. As a result he was wary of other people, and especially wary of trusting them.” Shiro drew patterns into the dirt with his claws, gaze distant and thoughtful. “I wanted to change that. He’s talented, more than he knows, and I didn’t want that to go to waste. But more than that…no one should have to be alone in a world like ours. So I tried my best to make sure he wasn’t, and eventually he warmed up to me.”

“Still doesn’t sound like brothers to me,” Lance said under his breath.

Shiro rolled his eyes. “It might be fair to say that Keith developed a slight dependency on me. Not surprising, given that I was the first person in a long time to give him the respect and kindness he so desperately needed, but clearly it caused issues when I…when the news of Kerberos got out.” He frowned. “I didn’t know he would sacrifice so much to find out what happened to me. I…I wish he hadn’t.”

“Sacrifice seems to be a running theme with Keith,” Lance admitted.

Shiro hummed. “Not a common theme. Not with most people.” He eyed Lance. “Then again, you are not most people, are you?”

“Um,” Lance said. “Y’know, I thought I would feel better knowing that you’re not dating Keith, but knowing that you’re like his big brother isn’t exactly…comforting.”

Shiro grinned. “Don’t worry. We won’t have any problems unless you hurt him, in which case…” Shiro raised an eyebrow and lifted a long, sharp claw, making a slicing motion across his throat with it.

“Right,” Lance squeaked. “That shouldn’t be an issue anyway, because…in case you haven’t noticed, he’s still a dragon, and he probably doesn’t even like me back.”

Shiro snorted. “Uh-huh. If you say so. I think I know pining when I see it.”

Lance flushed, standing up and brushing his jeans off. “We should head back.” Once he was back on Shiro’s shoulders and they were aloft, he leaned forward and added, “Thanks for…for the talk, I guess. And just so you know, I would never hurt Keith.”

Shiro was quiet for a time, then he said, “I wish I could say Keith would never hurt you either, Lance.”

“But…?”

“Love is as difficult for him as trust is,” Shiro said simply.

*

Shiro left Lance with Keith in the cave, saying he’d be back in a while – he and Matt wanted to go over some of the Garrison’s defenses with Coran and Allura before calling it a night. Lance got into bed quietly – Keith was out cold, head lolling to the side and chest rising and falling with even breaths, wings folded comfortably and tail tucked around himself. Lance’s previous apprehension faded – Keith had just needed some sleep, that was all.

He slipped under the blankets, shifting until his ribs didn’t have too much pressure on them, using a pillow to cushion them. The cave was cool but Keith emanated heat, and Lance felt warm and cozy in the bed, wrapped up like a human burrito. It didn’t take long for him to fall asleep, a soft smile on his face as he remembered what Shiro had told him.

*

Lance woke abruptly, disoriented and agitated, with the distinct impression that something was wrong.

He didn’t understand what it was until he found, with shock and horror, that he was being lifted into the air, dangling from something sharp and curved, like a hook. Lance blinked the sleep rapidly out of his eyes, looking wildly around in the darkness, breath catching when a pair of glowing eyes rose up to meet him. It came together quickly then – Keith was picking him up with two claws, lifting him to eyelevel. Lance tried to calm his breathing and stopped squirming, squinting back at him.

“Keith?” he hissed. “What the – what the hell, buddy, what’re you doing?”

But Keith just chuckled, low in his throat and downright sinister, so much so that Lance froze in fright, blood running cold and heart skipping a beat. Keith smiled, teeth gleaming bright and so, so sharp in the gloom.

Lance stared at him, feeling vulnerable and exposed, hanging in midair. “Keith?” he whispered, voice very small.

“Are you afraid of the dark?” Keith crooned, claws digging into Lance’s back, pinpricks of pain. “Let me help.” Flames alit in his mouth, and Lance twitched instinctively away with a gasp, eyes wide. “Oh, that’s right – you’re afraid of fire, too. Such a contrary boy.” Keith lifted Lance closer to his face, close enough for Lance to feel the scorching heat of the smoldering flames. Lance jerked more violently, heart thudding frantically in his chest, ribs aching from the strain.

“Keith, stop!” Lance cried, voice breaking, desperation bleeding through. “Let me go!”

“No,” Keith said, and his glowing golden eyes flared purple.

Chapter Text

Lance couldn’t help it, he screamed.

This was like every nightmare he’d had, every dream where the Galra caught up to him, where they dug him and his sister out of the rubble with merciless claws and teeth, glaring at him with those violet eyes; eyes exactly like Keith’s. There was nothing familiar in Keith’s eyes when Lance stared into them, not a single trace of empathy or remorse, not a single hint of humanity. They were cold and calculating and bright with derision as Lance struggled uselessly and swore at him, heart thudding too fast and breath shallowing.

“Stop that,” Keith growled, more claws joining the party, circling tight around Lance’s middle, pressing warningly against his ribs until Lance was held – or perhaps caught – securely in his grip. “I don’t want to hurt you…much.”

Lance stilled, terrified by the dormant strength in Keith’s grip and the knowledge that he could crush every bone in Lance’s body. “Then what do you want?” Lance whispered, shaking.

Keith considered this, eyes half-lidded. “I don’t know,” he admitted, seeming puzzled.

“Then let me go, Keith, please –”

“Why do you keep calling me that?” Keith interrupted. “That isn’t my name.”

“What…” Lance blanched. “…Red?”

Keith – or, apparently, Red – purred affirmatively. “Clever boy.”

“No!” Lance snapped, pounding a fist against his paw. “You’re not Red, you’re Keith! I know you’re still in there, so stop –”

Red pressed a claw tip to his throat.

Lance stuttered off into silence. The claw was cold and sharp as any blade – all Red had to do was draw it across the soft column of his neck, and Lance would be toast. Really bloody toast. A sound like a choked whimper escaped from his mouth unbidden. Red glowered down at him. “No wonder most of us eat humans,” he growled. “You’re very annoying.” His gaze darkened, claw tip tracing down, into the hollow of Lance’s throat and across his collarbones, catching on his shirt. “And oh so fragile.”

Lance squeezed his eyes shut, lower lip trembling, tears threatening to spill over. Red’s claw stopped, lifted away.

“Most of us,” Red repeated, in a tone that could have been softer than before. Or maybe that was just wishful thinking. “You’re a strange little thing, Lance Espinosa. You make me more intrigued than hungry. And besides…I might not know what to do with you, but Keith wants to keep you.”

Lance swallowed thickly. “Keep…me?”

“Mmm,” Red murmured. “Keep you all to ourselves. In the old days, dragons hoarded gold and jewels and suits of armor. But perhaps we can just be content with hoarding you.”

Lance’s heart sunk, Shiro’s words flashing through his mind. It makes you angrier…possessive, too, fiercely protective of what’s yours. He wet his lips. “S-sorry, but I don’t really want to be hoarded,” Lance said weakly.

Red’s eyes narrowed. “And why not?” he demanded imperiously. “Have we not proven ourselves capable of defending you and tending to your various, finicky human needs?” He bared his teeth. “Or have you decided you prefer the company of another dragon?”

“I don’t prefer the company of any dragons!” Lance exclaimed, voice pitching high and panicky. “I prefer the company of Keith –”

“And I prefer you to shut your mouth,” Red snarled. “You’ll be mine whether or not you want to be.” He stood, wings unfurling slightly, and Lance’s eyes widened. He wasn’t really going to try to…to carry Lance off, was he? Not after everything they’d been through.

Lance twisted in his grasp as much as he could. “No, no, I won’t let you do this, you can’t!”

“I can do whatever I want,” Red warned, flames flickering again.

Lance screamed again, louder and longer than before, and Red squeezed his bruised torso in response and Lance let out a strangled sound of pain mingled with a sob, the tears finally spilling free. Memories flashed with violent intensity behind his eyelids; black smoke and hellish fire and blood and bodies and tears on soot-stained brown faces and his mother’s blue toenails peeking out from under the white sheet in the morgue –

“Keith, no!” Shiro roared, and Lance was distantly aware of a struggle; of Red getting knocked down and dropping Lance; of a heavy landing on a futon and a pile of blankets; of crawling away across the cold ground on his hands and knees; of tears running uncontrollably down his cheeks. There was another shout, a human one, and then someone was hauling him up to his feet – Hunk, he realized faintly, a sturdy support that he leaned into gratefully.

Hunk’s arms wrapped gingerly around him. “Lance, shh, shh, you’re safe now. I’m so sorry, buddy. So sorry.”

Through bleary eyes Lance looked over Hunk’s shoulder and saw Red pinned under Shiro, body going suddenly limp as the larger dragon overpowered him. Matt was there too, hanging back with Pidge, looking as uncertain and startled as Lance had ever seen him, wings half unfolded as if contemplating flight. And Allura and Coran were standing in front of the fighting dragons, Allura with her plasma gun and Coran with a huge sword.

“His eyes!” Coran shouted. “We’re too late!”

“No,” Shiro growled, “Keith, listen to me. Fight it. You hear me? You’re stronger than this.”

Red made a guttural, animal sound, violet eyes reduced to slits fixed on Lance, muscles flexing as he vainly tried to escape Shiro’s hold. “He’s…he’s mine,” he rasped.

“He isn’t yours,” Allura spat, the venom in her voice palpable. “When you first arrived here we swore we would use the weapons at our disposal on any dragons who turned against us. It seems that time has come.”

“No!” Lance cried, stretching his hand out towards her. Allura turned, looking at him in surprise. “Don’t…don’t hurt him.”

Her blue eyes darkened. “I know this is difficult for you, Lance. But he hurt you. He is no longer the Keith you knew – the corruption has taken hold and there is nothing else to be done except –”

“Wait, look,” Pidge cut in. “His eyes…they’re fading.”

Everyone looked. Sure enough, the sickly violet light dimmed, replaced by Keith’s dazed, more human eyes. “Shiro…what are you doing…what’s happening?” he mumbled, lifting his head as Shiro slowly moved off of him. Then he saw Lance, and dismay flooded his expression. “Oh,” he said, “oh no, Lance, I –” He started forward but Allura blocked his way, still holding her rifle. Keith blinked at her, hurt and confused.

“You’ve done enough,” Allura warned. “I’d suggest you keep your distance.”

“Lance…?” Keith said in the smallest voice a dragon could have.

Mutely, Lance turned his face away, into Hunk’s chest. His chest ached, and it wasn’t just because of his ribs.

Keith made a wordless noise of anguish.

“C’mon,” Hunk whispered, guiding him to the door. “Let’s get you some ice, okay?”

Lance nodded numbly and walked unsteadily with him, violet eyes burning holes into his mind the whole way.

*

“Post-traumatic stress disorder,” Lance repeated. “Huh.”

“Yep.” Hunk handed him a new ice pack; Lance waved it away, burrowing deeper under the blankets instead. “I’m kinda surprised your therapist didn’t diagnose you with it sooner.”

“Therapist?” Lance shook his head. “I never had one.”

Hunk gawked at him. “What?! But…but you told me about Stella, you said she had one, to help with the nightmares…”

“Yeah, well, we could only afford that one,” Lance muttered. “We lost everything in the fire, including most of the family savings. It didn’t seem fair for me to ask Titi to use more of her own money to get me a therapist, too. And I had to be strong for Stella, so…I pretended nothing was wrong and went off to join the Garrison as soon as Stella was better.”

“Lance,” Hunk said in his Disappointed Mom tone. “PTSD is really serious! How many episodes have you had?”

Lance didn’t even want to try to count them. “A lot,” he admitted. “And I still have nightmares.” At Hunk’s expression he quickly added, “It’s fine, though! Usually I’m fine. There’s just certain, uh, triggers, I guess.”

“Like a dragon picking you up and squeezing the life out of you,” Hunk supplied helpfully.

“No,” Lance sighed. “The eyes were the trigger, actually. And Red didn’t squeeze the life out of me; he wouldn’t have done that.”

“How can you be sure?” Hunk asked. “Look, I know you said ‘Red’ wanted to keep you alive as part of his hoard or whatever, but maybe he doesn’t know his own strength – he could’ve broken your ribs again, or even…”

“He didn’t, though,” Lance pointed out.

“Are you seriously defending him. Seriously.” Hunk pinched the bridge of his nose.

“I’m not defending him, I just…” Lance trailed off, frowning at a dent on the wall. “Red isn’t Keith.”

“Except he is,” Hunk said. Lance opened his mouth to protest but Hunk held up a hand. “Yeah, yeah, you think Red is the corrupted side of him and Keith is the good side, good cop bad cop, you told me that. But I’m not sure I buy it. You said Keith was acting weird before, didn’t you?”

Reluctantly, Lance nodded. “I think…I think he knew, or at least some part of him knew, that he was losing control. He made Shiro take me out of the cave that night…but then Shiro brought me back, and Red woke up, and…” Shuddering, Lance put a hand to his sore side, which was bruised anew. “But at least he tried, right?”

“I guess,” Hunk conceded. “I still don’t like it. I don’t like seeing you like that, Lance…none of us do.”

“And you think Keith does?” Lance retorted.

“I think ‘Red’ does,” Hunk countered. “Or he doesn’t care for your wellbeing, anyway.”

Lance thought about it, thought of the claw on his chest and the deadly flames so close to his skin, both capable of hurting him but neither doing so. “Maybe ‘care,’ isn’t the right word,” Lance said. “But he’s definitely…possessive.”

“Oh, that sounds really healthy,” Hunk muttered sarcastically.

Lance glared at him over the blanket. “It’s better than eating me!”

“Don’t even joke about that!” Hunk squawked, flailing his arms around like a large chicken.

Lance sighed, slumping back against the pillows. “Sorry,” he said. “Man. This is so complicated.”

“Were you going for simple when you developed a crush on a dragon?” Hunk asked. Lance swatted at him with a pillow. “Ow!”

“I like Keith, not Red,” Lance said. “It’ll be okay once we get the quintessence and turn him back.”

“If we still can,” Hunk said. “What, don’t look at me like that. I’m trying to be realistic here.”

“I prefer optimistic,” Lance grumbled. He couldn’t even think about Keith becoming Red permanently.

“Hey.” Hunk put a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry. And I hope, for both of you guys’ sakes, that we can turn him back.”

“Yeah,” Lance said. “Me too.”

*

Lance didn’t feel up to getting out of bed for the first day after the incident, and didn’t want to even go near the storage room cave for the next couple days after that. Irritatingly, he seemed to be trailed by Hunk, Coran, or Allura everywhere he went, so even if he had tried to go to the cave he was pretty certain they would have steered him in a different direction.

Not that he really blamed them. They were all shaken by what had happened, and he knew they just had his safety in mind. Coran pulled Lance aside after breakfast two days afterwards, and if Hunk had a Disappointed Mom tone, Coran had a Concerned Dad tone.

“Lance, how are you holding up?” he asked, aiming for casual and missing by several miles.

“Could be better,” Lance said, munching on the remnants of his blueberry muffin. “Could also be way worse, though.”

Coran paused, processing that, mustache scrunching up in confusion. “Er…I suppose that’s good, then?”

Lance sighed. “Yeah,” he said. “Thanks for checking up on me.”

“Of course, Lance,” Coran said brightly. “Good to see you’re in one piece. Allura is…ah, rather upset about recent events. The way she talks about it, it’s like the dragon severed your limbs or something!”

Lance winced, lifting an arm and wiggling his fingers. “Nope…everything’s intact here. Even got all my phalanges.” He frowned. “Wait…why is she so upset?”

Coran got a shifty look in his eyes. Lance threw the muffin wrapper in the trash and folded his arms. Coran’s mustache twitched. “Oh, dear, you’re really going to make me say it, aren’t you? You are. Hmph. Well. The Princess…er, I mean Allura, she…was in a somewhat similar situation to yours, once upon a time.”
Lance was intrigued. “How similar are we talking, here?”

Coran hesitated. Lance raised his eyebrows and he relented. “Oh, fine. Allura, like most royalty, had her future all laid out for her by the time she turned thirteen. She was to be wed to Prince Raimon, of a wealthy neighboring kingdom. They got along well as children, always pulling pranks and getting themselves into trouble. Little partners in crime, they were.” Coran looked a little misty-eyed and sniffed, clearing his throat and continuing hastily. “Anywho, Raimon grew up a handsome and charming young man, and Allura…well, you know her! Everything seemed perfect.”

“And then…?”

“Then the corruption swept across Altea,” Coran said. “Raimon, courageous as he was, insisted on fighting on the front to try to stop it. He returned home severely injured – Allura refused to leave his bedside. But she did not realize until it was much too late that –”

“He had been infected with corrupted quintessence.”

Lance and Coran spun guiltily to find Allura standing there, expression cool. Coran shrugged helplessly. “Apologies, Princess…he asked for clarification on why you reacted so strongly the other day.”

Allura glanced at Lance. “I have all my limbs,” Lance told her, because he could think of nothing else to say.

Allura’s lips quirked. “That you do,” she said. “Luckily.”

“I think it was due to a little more than luck,” Lance muttered.

Allura snorted. “Ah. You think it was due to the tenderness of his dragon heart?” Lance flushed. “What we saw in that cave was not tender at all, Lance. He was crushing you like a toothpick, and he was doing so with complete delight.”

“D-delight?” Lance spluttered. “Geez, that’s a little…dark. Besides, he wasn’t crushing me, okay, I just got a few more bruises to add to the collection.” Allura did not look amused. “What? We all know he could’ve barbecued me alive in five seconds flat if that’s what he really wanted to do. But he didn’t do that.”

“Sooo…he’s not as bad as he could have been, I suppose?” Coran summed up.

“That isn’t the point!” Allura snapped. “The point is that the corruption has set in to the point that he was unable to control it. Who knows when the next episode will be?”

“I mean, there were some red flags,” Lance muttered. “For example, if he starts talking about lots of murder and revenge, maybe time to leave.”

“Makes sense,” Coran mused.

Allura threw up her hands. “Do you have no sense of self-preservation?!” She sighed, rubbing her temple. “Please, listen to me when I say that I understand your emotions are currently overruling your logic. But if you continue on this path…you are going to get hurt again, Lance, and I fear you will be hurt far more than you were this time.”

“Okay, that’s plausible I guess…but there’s no way to know that for sure, with absolute 100% certainty, right?” Lance wheedled.

“I know,” Allura said, with what sounded like quite a lot of certainty indeed. “Lance, when Raimon turned into a corrupted beast, I tried to reason with him. I searched desperately for even a shred of the person he had once been. But hear me when I say there was nothing left. He was a monster, and he killed someone dear to me and injured me badly before I was able to dispatch of him with a hastily-constructed weapon involving a bedpost and a candelabra.”

“It was not a pretty sight,” Coran added grimly.

Lance bit his lip. “There was something still left of Keith in Red,” he said. “I know there was.”

“Perhaps,” Allura agreed after a long pause. “I hope there is, Lance.”

She gave him a long, searching look before turning and leaving, shaking her head with a soft ripple of silver hair.

*

On the third day, Lance asked Hunk how Keith was doing.

Hunk fiddled with some wires that were part of the electromagnetic pulse gun he and Pidge were working on. “Is that a rhetorical question?” he mumbled.

Lance hooked his chin over Hunk’s shoulder and tried to balance his water bottle on Hunk’s head. “Uh, no. Why? How…how bad is it?”

“Well,” Hunk said slowly, “given that pretty much everyone except Pidge and Matt yelled at him and or gave him a piece of their mind, I doubt he feels great.”

“You yelled at him?!” Lance exclaimed, stepping back and frowning. The water bottle stayed balanced. “Hunk!”

I gave him a piece of my mind,” Hunk corrected. “Allura and Shiro yelled at him. Well, I guess Shiro didn’t really yell, because that would’ve brought the whole Castle down, but he used a very stern tone that made Keith look kind of like a kicked puppy.”

Lance could imagine it. Vividly. “But…but it wasn’t his fault.”

“Debatable, he might have been able to focus more on controlling himself –”

“That’s bullshit and you know it.”

Hunk gave him a reproachful stare and handed Lance his water bottle before returning to the wires. “You asked. Anyway, far as I know he’s still brooding. Moping. Pining. Et cetera.”

“Maybe I should…stop by,” Lance said.

Hunk set down the tools and looked up at him. “Can you handle that?”

“I don’t know,” Lance admitted, sitting down on the edge of the cot and putting his head in his hands. “I don’t want to freak out in front of him again; that’ll just make him feel worse.”

“Then don’t stop by,” Hunk said gently. “Yet, anyway. I know I can’t stop you from going eventually, but…until you feel totally better, don’t.”

“Keith probably needs some time to recover too, right?” Lance said, picking at his jeans. “I mean, I would need to take a breather after realizing I had a scary alter ego.”

Evil alter ego,” Hunk corrected.

Lance took a sip of water and pursed his lips. “Morally gray.”

“What is ‘morally gray’ about him grabbing you in your sleep and trying to choke you out, Lance?” Hunk sighed.

Lance choked on his water. “Qué carajo –”

“You’re gross,” Hunk informed him, wrinkling his nose.

“Why’d you have to put it like that?” Lance groaned, flopping back onto the bed. “You’re gross.” He sniffed. “Anyway, it’s morally gray because there was at least some conversation beforehand; he wasn’t totally violent.”

“Yeah, he told you his plan to hide you away in his lair for all time. Great convo.”

“I mean,” Lance said. “Still better than death.” He sat up. “There was another thing, though…he said something like ‘most dragons eat humans.’ But he said it like he didn’t want to eat any humans, even as Red.”

Hunk did look intrigued by that. “Huh,” he said. “So he isn’t at the cannibalism stage yet. Cool.”

Lance rolled his eyes. “You’re so supportive.”

“You know I’m just worried,” Hunk told him.

“Yeah,” Lance said. “I know.”

There was a knock at the door. “Hey, is Lance in there?” Pidge.

Lance hopped up and opened the door. “You bet I am!” Lance said. “What’s up?”

Pidge always looked pretty serious, but she was even more so now. “Can we talk?”

“Isn’t that what we’re doing?” Lance asked archly.

Pidge was unamused. “Alone,” she said. “No offense, Hunk.”

“None taken,” he mumbled, peering closely at one of the wires. “Go somewhere less distracting, please.”

“Ouch,” Lance said, but left with Pidge.

Pidge was quiet as they walked down the hall, and Lance was a little surprised when they went through the main doors, outside. The desert was bathed in the golden light of sunrise, streaks of pink clouds visible in the lightening sky. It was harder to keep track of time inside the Castle…Lance hadn’t realized it was so early. It was nice, though…serene in an austere kind of way. The barren landscape didn’t offer much of a view, but it did offer lots of places to sit. Pidge climbed onto a nearby boulder and gestured for him to follow.

Lance sat down beside her. “This seems serious,” he said lightly.

“Kind of,” Pidge replied. “As you probably guessed, it’s about Keith.”

“As most things are, these days,” Lance joked. “What about Keith, though?”

“I talked to him the other day,” Pidge said. “He’s…” Pidge trailed off, her brow furrowing. “Lance, you can’t tell anyone this, but…Matt’s had episodes too. Not as dramatic as you and Keith – I really doubt anyone could be as dramatic as you two –”

“Hey!”

“– but he still has them,” Pidge finished. “He’s just…not himself, sometimes. His eyes don’t always go purple, but they’re kind of…foggy. Freaked me out so badly when it happened the first time. It was all wrong; his mannerisms, his speech patterns, even his voice was weird and different.”

“Did he keep referring to you as ‘human’ and ‘girl,’ too?”

Pidge nodded. “And he’d deny he was human when I pressed him about it. It was…worrying.”

“So…how do you snap him out of it?” Lance asked.

“I keep reminding him who he is, and maintain physical contact. Usually I bring up some memory that’s meaningful to him; that almost always does the trick.” Pidge frowned. “But I guess that wouldn’t really work with Keith.”

“It might,” Lance mused, remembering Sister Catherine and St. Agnes. “He told me some things.”

Pidge looked surprised. “Really? Shiro said he was pretty hush hush about his past. But...yeah, if you know anything, talk to him about it.” She hesitated. “I know it’s a little different with Keith because…well, Matt’s never said anything about hoarding me. He’s creepy, but never really…aggressive.”

Lance looked down. “Red’s middle name is aggressive.”

“I know,” Pidge said. “Which is why it’s even worse for Keith.” Lance looked back at her. “He was messed up afterwards, Lance. He could only remember bits and pieces, and he thought he seriously hurt you. With Matt, he’s shaken up when he snaps out of it, and he’s always apologetic, but Keith was ten times worse. It took half an hour for me and Shiro to convince Keith that you didn’t hate him.”

“I should have told him that myself,” Lance said guiltily.

“No, no, that’s not…” Pidge sighed. “I’m not blaming you for anything, Lance. I get that you didn’t want to face him so soon afterwards. That’s what I told Keith – that you just needed some time.” Pidge had never been great at comforting or deep, emotional talks, but to her credit she tried. “Matt and I lost our dad when I was five in the Los Angeles attacks. And it’s nothing compared to what you’ve been through, nothing compared to Havana; but I understand that it never really leaves you. We saw him die on live TV and…” Pidge inhaled sharply. “This isn’t a pity party. I just wanted to…to let you know that I’m on your side, and Keith’s side. I get it, even if Allura or Coran or Hunk aren’t totally there yet.”

“Thanks,” Lance said after a beat, shooting her a small smile. “Really, Pidge...Katie. Thanks.”

“Sure thing,” Pidge said, bumping her shoulder lightly against his before jumping off the rock. “Now…what d’you say you help me scour the Castle for some rubber bands?”

“Ugh,” Lance groaned, “I knew there was a catch.”

“I don’t give heart to heart chats for free,” Pidge retorted, grinning. “Hop to it.”

*

That night, Lance had another weird dream – a dream which should have been bad, but wasn’t, quite.

Morally gray, maybe.

He was in the white hallway again, but this time it was dark – the lights were gone, and somehow Lance knew that they hadn’t just been turned off – a circuit had blown, or maybe there was just…no electricity anymore, anywhere. Ironically, it felt less sinister in the dark, and Lance walked slower past the doors…all of which were now open.

He peered carefully into each room as he passed. They were yawning caves of blackness, yet as before he sensed something was in each one – a huge, powerful being, crouched unseen, the only sign that they were there the sound of their steady breathing. In the first dream they had been agitated, on edge behind their locked doors in their small cells; but now they were quiet and still.

The last door, as before, was open. Wide open, now, and just as dark inside as the others. “Keith?” Lance called, wary.

The darkness shifted in reply, a ripple of shadow like the rise and fall of a living creature’s chest.

It wasn’t threatening. Maybe it should have been, but it wasn’t. Lance continued towards it, pausing, as before, on the threshold. The darkness reached out to him, tendrils of nothing, beckoning. Lance took a deep breath and stepped into it.

The darkness was blessedly cool, like a pool of water, but with more solidity. It wove its way around Lance’s shoulders and waist, enveloping him softly, smoothing over his hands and wrists with care. It was a strange feeling, like being embraced from all sides, but not an unpleasant one.

“Keith?” Lance repeated, questioning, and the darkness sort of…hummed. There was no actual sound, just a kind of…resonance.

Weird. Then again, Lance was starting to get used to weird.

“What is this?” Lance asked. “I’m not the best at figuring out symbolism crap so, uh…oh!”

The darkness, shadow, whatever it was, spun him around firmly and pushed him against what he assumed was a wall. “Okay,” Lance breathed, “wow. What kind of dream is this, exactly?”

The resonance sounded like laughter, this time. Exasperated laughter. Then it touched his face, the tendrils resolving into a form very much like a hand. Lance leaned into it and the darkness sighed. Lance, it whispered. Lance.

“Hello?” Lance stared into it, searching for a sign of sentience, for a face, eyes, a mouth, anything but impermeable, protean shadow. He got another hand, gentle and inhumanly smooth as the first, cupping the other side of his face. “This is nice,” Lance told it conversationally, “but I’m still confused.”

One of the hands left his face and settled in the middle of his chest. It seemed to grow warmer, and then there was a sharp tugging sensation from somewhere within his ribcage that made him gasp, eyes widening as the skin under the shadowy palm began to glow with golden light, shining even through his clothes. The darkness pressed closer, eager, almost desperate, and Lance watched as the light spread over the shadow hand and up the suggestion of an arm, turning the darkness to…flesh.

Lance’s lips parted as the figure solidified before him, miles and miles of pale skin, followed by slowly-revealed violet eyes and a dark mane of hair. The hand didn’t leave his chest. The light pulsed between Keith’s fingertips, strands of it snaking up his arm and illuminating his veins. Lance’s knees wobbled unsteadily under him; he was lightheaded.

“Keith,” Lance whispered dazedly. “I’m…I don’t feel so hot, buddy.”

Keith leaned in, eyes half-lidded, hungry. “Don’t worry,” he murmured, “I don’t need all of it. Only half.”

Lance opened his mouth to ask what he meant but Keith closed the space between them and light rushed up Keith’s arms like electricity through copper wire and Lance swayed and fell against him and –

Lance jolted upright in bed, breaths too-loud in the darkness of the small room. He glanced at the other bed – Hunk was of course still sound asleep, snoring contentedly away. He could probably sleep through a hurricane. The clock, blinking on the nightstand, read 4:19 AM in red.

Lance snorted. So close.

The dream remained a hazy impression in his mind as he got out of bed, wide-awake despite the hour…maybe he’d picked up some nocturnal habits after all. The dream sort of made sense…Keith had been using Lance’s quintessence to regain his human form. But…only half? Lance shook his head, slipping out of the room and down the hall, unable to make sense of it.

As far as he knew, there was no way to voluntarily transfer half of his quintessence to Keith – Allura had talked about her father’s sacrifice, but he’d gotten the impression that there hadn’t been any leftovers. But…would doing that actually transform Keith? And what would it do to Lance?

And why was he having these dreams in the first place? They weren’t your standard, run-of-the-mill dreams – he remembered them long after he awoke, and they felt so real when they were happening. And he knew they were dreams. Was the universe trying to tell him something? Was it his quintessence, speaking to him through cryptic subconscious scenes? Or maybe it was Keith’s quintessence…Lance had no idea how any of that would work. And it was too early for any critical thinking anyway.

Lance walked without any real destination in mind, intending to just wander through the Castle, but he found his feet carrying him to the storage room cave unconsciously (for the second time), though it was unsurprising that he was drawn there…he had stayed there for several weeks. And maybe he could stay there again. But for now…for now he just wanted to finally see Keith.

The cave, when he entered, wasn’t dark as he’d expected – there was a sizable fire crackling away in the middle of the space, with what looked like cactus skeletons as kindling. Keith was huddled beside it, misery conveyed even in his posture, sorting through what looked like…a pile of rocks.

Intrigued, Lance came closer. Keith’s head shot up, amber eyes wide and owlish as they settled on Lance, twenty feet away.

There was a moment of utter silence.

“Hey,” Lance said. “I heard you missed me.”

Keith shuffled backwards, wings tucked close to his sides and distress obvious in every line of his body. “Lance, you shouldn’t…shouldn’t be here. Shiro’s not here to chaperone in case I…in case…”

“Keith,” Lance said, coming closer and not missing the way Keith shrank away further, eying Lance like he was liable to shatter at any second. “You don’t need a chaperone, c’mon.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I know that you’re freaked out right now and you shouldn’t be,” Lance countered, folding his arms. “I’m not mad, or anything. And I’m not scared of you.”

“You should be.”

Lance rolled his eyes. “Right now, you’re about as scary as a kitten. A really fluffy kitten with huge eyes.”

Keith slowly relaxed, more or less, though he was still looking at Lance worriedly. “Why are you here?”

Lance shrugged. “Weird dream. Couldn’t sleep. Why are you poking your way through a pile of rocks?”

Keith started, glancing down at the rocks and then making a little sound like a yelp. “Oh, um, well, I had this all planned out, you see, but then you decided to wander in here right now and so…” He cleared his throat and hunched his shoulders. “I was trying to find the perfect one but they’re so small, it’s hard to tell which one is the smoothest.”

Lance raised an eyebrow.

Keith huffed, ducking his head further. “They’re for you, okay! Pidge and Hunk told me about your…your PTSD, and I remembered this book I read once, and it said sometimes people use these things called worry stones to deal with stuff like that, and calm themselves down for a little while, anyway. And Shiro showed me this dried up riverbed and it had all these smooth stones so I thought I’d bring some back…in case you wanted one for some reason, I guess. I don’t know. It’s stupid.”

“No,” Lance said quietly, “it’s really, really not.” He walked over to the pile of stones and Keith scrambled back in a way that would have been funny if it didn’t make Lance’s heart hurt so much. He picked up one of the stones between thumb and forefinger. It was smooth – worn down by years of flowing water, until it was a polished oval about the size of Lance’s thumb.

There were at least a hundred other stones. Lance looked up at him.

“You brought all these back for me,” he said.

Keith was having difficulty looking him in the eye. “Yes,” he muttered.

“That’s really sweet,” Lance said without thinking.

Dragons could not blush, but if they could he had a feeling Keith would be even redder. “I just thought,” Keith said, and stopped as Lance picked up another stone, and another, and another, turning them over in his hands. “That it might help,” he added hastily.

“Do you just hold them?” Lance asked. He’d found a black stone with pale flecks that felt just right in his palm, a slight weight and as cool as the shadow from his dream.

Keith looked vaguely amazed, as if he’d expected Lance to throw the worry stones back in his face or something equally ridiculous. “You’re…supposed to rub your thumb over them, I think. But you can do whatever, I mean, it’s yours…they all are.”

“As tempting as a hundred worry stones are, I think I’ll stick with this one,” Lance chuckled, tucking it safely into his pocket. “To be honest, though, we could all do with a worry stone. Although you might need a really big one.”

Keith’s mouth curved up slightly. “True. I’d rather not carry around a boulder to relieve stress.”

“When you turn back,” Lance suggested. “Pick one for then.”

Keith looked ready to protest, but after a moment, plucked a small, pale stone from the pile. “I’ll lose it,” he warned.

“Then give it to me for safekeeping,” Lance said, and Keith sighed and tossed it to him. Lance put it alongside the other one, and though it was only a rock it felt like a precious gem. “Thanks, by the way,” Lance told him. “And I’m sorry I didn’t come by sooner.”

Keith blinked at him. “Don’t be sorry,” he said. “I didn’t think you were going to come back at all.”

Lance frowned. “I thought Pidge said she talked to you and explained things –”

“Well, yeah, but I didn’t really believe her,” Keith said defensively. “Any sane person would have stayed away.”

“Hmph,” Lance said. “Well, I’m here now. Can’t get rid of me that easily.”

Keith tilted his head like he couldn’t quite believe it. “Yes,” he said, “apparently not.”

Chapter Text

The first time Keith took flight after his month of recovery, Lance held his breath.

There was a moment, as his paws left the ground and his wings beat desperately, neck straining towards the sky and teeth gritted, when Lance feared he might not make it; might tumble back to earth in a heavy tangle of limbs and tail, defeated. But the moment passed as his wings caught the wind and carried him upwards, healed muscles flexing as effortlessly as they had before. Well, maybe he was a little stiffer on his turns and had to be more careful on his dives, but there was no obvious weakness in Keith’s deft flying.

Lance cheered on the ground with the others, watching as Matt and Shiro joined Keith, flying figure-eights above their heads, nipping at each other’s wings and tails playfully. Shiro and Matt even started wrestling in midair, rolling over and over and never losing altitude, like puppies play-fighting. Giant, scaly puppies. With wings. Okay, so maybe not the most accurate comparison.

Keith started to look a little left out when they did that, though, so they broke apart and Shiro flew over to Keith, saying something to him that made Keith let out a rumbling laugh and dart away, prompting the other two dragons to chase after him. They shrank to fuzzy specks in the twilit sky.

“He’ll be alright,” Hunk said, as if reading Lance’s mind.

Lance shot him a grin. “He is a pretty tough cookie.”

“And it’ll be good for him to stretch after being cooped up in the Castle for so long,” Pidge added. “I dunno how he didn’t go crazy after being stuck with you for so long, Lance.”

“Half crazy,” Lance said.

“Red hasn’t made an appearance for a week,” Pidge retorted. “I think you staying with him actually helped keep that under control. No, I’m talking about driving him up the walls because you’re so annoying.”

“He doesn’t think I’m annoying!” Lance exclaimed, highly offended. “Keith thinks I’m great. He wants to keep me, remember?”

“Do not make light of that,” Allura muttered, shaking her head and going back to the Castle doors. “‘Keep’ is not a positive thing, not in the way that ‘Red’ means it.”

“Maybe it’s not totally positive, but it’s not really that bad either, is it?” Hunk mused. “Didn’t you say Keith used to make pizza and steak for you? So, like, you’d be trapped in a dragon cave for the rest of your life, but on the plus side, endless pizza and steak.”

“I still don’t believe Keith can cook,” Pidge said.

“He can’t,” Lance told her. “He just set everything on fire and hoped it worked out.”

Allura frowned deeply. “Endless pizza and steak is not a good tradeoff for being held prisoner, Lance.”

“Uh-uh, he didn’t say imprison,” Lance corrected. “Keep.”

“Against your will!” Allura snapped. “To keep someone against their will is exactly what imprison means, Lance! Kidnap, hold captive, imprison, keep.”

“Who said it would be against my will?” Lance said, folding his arms. “I think I get to decide that!”

Allura made a supremely frustrated noise and went inside. Coran gave Lance a look and followed her.

“I hope you’re not serious about wanting Red to kidnap you,” Hunk said worriedly when they were gone.

“Nah, ‘course not,” Lance said. “But I don’t like it when Allura talks about Keith like that.”

“It’s not without reason,” Hunk reminded him.

“Yeah, but Keith doesn’t deserve it,” Lance said. “The poor guy’s been through enough.”

“Hopefully all the arguing will be over soon, once we get the quintessence.” Pidge started back towards the Castle. “C’mon, Hunk – we have an electromagnetic pulse gun to finish. And Lance –”

“Lemme guess, more rubber bands?”

“You got it.”

*

Keith returned from the flight at dawn, exhausted but elated, his eyes brighter than they’d been in weeks. Lance awoke blearily to hot breath ruffling his hair, and opened his eyes to see Keith several feet away, peering back at him. He yawned and started to sit up.

“No, no, go back to sleep,” Keith murmured. “Sorry I woke you.”

“S’okay,” Lance slurred, rubbing his eyes. “How was it?”

“Great,” Keith said, beaming as best as a dragon could. “Shiro raced me and I won.”

“I let you win,” Shiro said from the other side of the cave, sounding tired and amused.

“You did not!” Keith exclaimed, then, lowering his voice guiltily, “Sorry, Lance.”

Lance smiled sleepily. “S’all good. Glad you’re feeling better, buddy.”

Keith blinked. “You are so cute,” he said.

“Huh?” Lance yawned again. There was a low rumbling sound that could have been Shiro laughing.

“Nothing,” Keith said hastily, eyes wide. He was still staring at Lance. “Um. Is this okay?” He lay down next to Lance’s futon, keeping several feet of space between them, but close enough for Lance to feel his heat.

“Yup,” Lance said, closing his eyes again and nestling back into the pillow. “Totally.”

Keith’s tail flicked lightly over Lance’s blanket-covered legs, weirdly affectionate. “Goodnight, Lance.”

*

The next day, Keith and Matt somehow persuaded Allura that it was a good idea to take Lance out hunting with them. Lance was still worried that Keith needed more recovery time, but he was practically vibrating with excitement when Lance climbed up onto his shoulders, shifting around and pawing at the earth like an impatient pony. Shiro nuzzled them both goodbye, nodded to Lance, and went back to the cave to get the fullest night’s sleep he’d had in ages.

“You sure you’re up for this?” Lance asked as Keith spread his wings.

Keith looked over his shoulder at him. “Of course. Are you up for this? You’ve never seen dragons hunt before, have you?”

“Pretty sure most humans haven’t,” Lance retorted.

“Fair point,” Matt said. “Well, prepare yourself, because hunting for three means a lot of prey.”

“More like hunting for four,” Keith said. “Shiro eats enough for two dragons, at least.”

Matt snorted. “Don’t let him hear you say that. Alright, you ready?”

In reply, Keith bounded across the sand and leapt into the air, drawing an elated whoop from Lance as his wings carried them effortlessly upwards. He remembered when this had been terrifying, but now it was an incredible adrenaline rush, body pressed tight to Keith’s scales and wind ripping through his hair and clothes as they spiraled towards the stars. Keith only did a few risky maneuvers – Matt was more straightforward and less fancy in his flying, and soon they were just soaring leisurely above the earth, scanning the ground for signs of movement.

“There’s a ranch with cattle not far from here,” Matt said, banking to the left, Keith following. “How do you feel about steak?”

“Mmm,” Keith replied. “Steak it is.”

“Do you guys ever get tired of just eating meat?” Lance asked.

“Well, sure, but we’re not exactly made to eat salad,” Matt laughed. “Have you seen our teeth?”

“I tried to get dinner from a cornfield, once,” Keith added glumly. “I was throwing up for days.”

“Ugh,” Lance said. He paused. “Do you guys ever get like…weird cravings for human flesh?”

Keith made a strangled noise.

“Is that a yes?” Lance asked, a little worriedly.

“No!” Keith spluttered. “No, that’s not a thing!”

“I mean, maybe,” Matt mused. “I don’t think you’d call them cravings, exactly, but…I’ve definitely seen people and briefly considered it, on an instinctive level. It wasn’t a conscious thought.”

Lance tapped Keith’s crest. “It sounds like a thing.”

“I have never wanted to eat you, Jesus, Lance,” Keith muttered. “The only people I’ve ever thought about eating were the Garrison Knights, and only because they were going to kill you.”

Lance blinked. “Oh,” he said. “Huh.” He cleared his throat awkwardly. “I wonder why dragons eat people; I mean, that’s pretty fucked up now that we know there was a human behind every dragon.”

“I imagine people are a more reliable and filling food source than javelinas,” Matt said. “And dragons enjoy creating chaos. Nothing more chaotic than plundering cities and burning slash eating everybody, right?”

“Guess not,” Lance muttered, shoving the memories away. He felt Keith tense under him.

“Maybe…let’s not talk about plundered cities,” Keith said quietly.

“Oh, shit, sorry,” Matt said. “Changing topics…”

“I think we found the cattle,” Keith said, eyes fixed on the faint outline of a fence and the dark, blobby shapes moving within. Lance could barely see them when he squinted.

“Yeah, that’s it,” Matt said. “Looks like longhorn, mostly. This is going to be more difficult.”

“How many are we getting? Three?”

“Two. They’re pretty big.”

“So Shiro gets one and we share one?”

Matt hummed in assent, swooping lower, but still too high for the cattle to sense them.

“What happens if you guys get caught?” Lance asked nervously. The lights of a farmhouse were visible from a ways off, a yellow glow in the blue-black night.

“We won’t,” Keith said. “Dragons can be pretty stealthy predators when we need to be.”

“Don’t you think they’ll be kinda upset when they realize two of their cows are missing?”

“Steers,” Keith corrected absently.

“Excuse me?” Lance asked.

“They’re steers, not cows,” Keith told him.

“And you would know how…?”

“He lived in Texas for a while,” Matt said, sounding gleeful.

“You did what?!” Lance exclaimed, feeling betrayed. “You said you lived in New Jersey!”

“Until I was thirteen,” Keith muttered. “Then I moved to Texas, and stayed there until I joined the Garrison.”

“Why would anyone voluntarily go to Texas?!” Lance squawked.

Keith grumbled louder. “I was trying to find my family, you jerk.”

“Oh, Dios. You’re Texan? Keith. Keith, no.”

“There was a symbol on the knife they gave me that led me to Texas, so maybe, I still don’t know!” Keith snapped.

“Guys, can you focus for five minutes and argue about Keith’s Lone Star heritage later?” Matt said.

“I need like, a minute at least to process this,” Lance protested.

“You got thirty seconds,” Keith said, and dove down towards the cows – or steer, whatever. Lance barely held back his shriek as they plummeted down, and faintly heard the startled mooing of the steers, and then, with billowing clouds of dust and hissing sparks, watched as Keith and Matt separated two of the largest steers from the anxiously shifting herd.

Longhorn was not a misnomer. Those were some long-ass horns. Not as long as a dragon’s, though, and though the steers charged blindly and swung their heads around, the others retreated in terror and the steers didn’t stand a chance on their own. The dragons made quick work of the stunned animals, and Keith’s stomach rumbled noticeably when claws breached flesh and blood splattered across the dry earth. He’d half expected them to pick the steers up and drop them from a hundred feet up, but instead they were efficient and almost careful in the killing.

It made Lance’s skin prickle, vaguely unsettled. He was glad when they took off again, steers in their clutches, though the smell of blood was still sharp and metallic in the air.

They landed on a secluded mountaintop, and Lance looked away from the carcasses until they had barbecued them beyond recognition. Keith and Matt started ripping into one of them like dainty wolves, occasionally using their claws like fingers or nudging more meat to each other to make sure they each got a fair share.

It didn’t take very long for them to strip the steer to the bone.

“Do you want any?” Keith asked, licking his chops in a very satisfied way.

It did smell really good. “Um…looks like you guys finished it off already.”

“Not all of it,” Keith said, and carefully plucked off a piece from a leg that was roughly jerky-sized. “Here.”

Lance took it because waste not, want not; a gift once given, et cetera. “Mm,” he said around a mouthful, “this is even better than the pizza.”

Keith chuckled. “I think anything is better than the pizza.”

“It wasn’t bad pizza,” Lance argued. “Still, this is…pretty awesome.”

“First time eating stolen steak?” Matt asked archly.

“Nah,” Lance said, grinning. “Me and Stella stole an entire bowl of vaca frita from our crazy neighbors, once. I think it tasted better stolen.”

“No wonder you and Keith get along so well,” Matt said, rolling his eyes. “Partners in crime. Speaking of which…I’m gonna head back and get this to Shiro. You good, Keith?”

“I’m good,” Keith said, and he actually sounded good too, for once. “Bye, Matt.”

“Wait, we aren’t going back too?” Lance asked, confused, looking from one dragon to the other.

“Not yet,” Keith said. “If…if that’s okay with you, I mean.”

Lance paused. “Uh…yeah, it’s fine, just…what are we doing?”

“Climb aboard,” Keith said, eyes bright. “It’s not too far from here.”

Still bewildered, Lance did. “So…it’s a surprise, then?”

“Don’t worry, you’ll like it,” Matt assured him, inclining his head to them both before taking off with the steer, flying back the way they’d come, and leaving Lance alone with Keith on the mountain.

“I’m guessing Allura doesn’t know about this part?” Lance said as Keith took off flying in the opposite direction.

“No,” Keith said after a guilty pause. “She wouldn’t have let me take you anywhere.”

“Maybe that’s not totally unreasonable…?”

Keith’s wing beats evened out, until they were gliding smoothly through the night. “You think I’m going to turn on you again,” he said quietly. Sadly.

“Maybe,” Lance murmured. “But, listen…I know you wouldn’t have seriously hurt me, even as Red.”

“How could you know that?” Keith retorted, tone too soft to be truly accusatory.

“Because you still cared about me,” Lance said. “Even if it was a twisted kind of caring, it was still there.”

Keith didn’t answer.

Lance patted his neck. “You can’t ignore me; I’m literally on your back.”

Keith sighed. “I’m not ignoring you,” he said. “I’m just…thinking.”

“About?”

“How annoying you are.”

“Rude!”

“That, too.”

“I’m great and you know it,” Lance declared.

Keith exhaled a cloud of smoke that blew straight into Lance’s face. “The greatest.”

Coughing, Lance smacked his scales. “That stuff is foul. Is that literal sulfur?”

“Tsk, tsk, someone didn’t pay attention in class,” Keith said. “It’s hydrogen and methane.”

“Methane? Like cow farts?”

“I will throw you off my back,” Keith warned.

Lance giggled. “Like a bucking bronco? I’m sure you’ve been to plenty of rodeos, cowboy –”

Keith plunged abruptly downwards and Lance’s stomach briefly entered his throat.

“AHHHH, OKAY, NEVERMIND, LO SIENTO, YOU’RE NOT A COWBOY!”

Keith leveled out. “Glad we got that established,” he said pleasantly. “Are you alright?”

“Peachy,” Lance wheezed, slumping forward. “Near-death experiences are my favorite thing.”

Keith snorted. “That would explain a lot, wouldn’t it?” His voice was distant – he was scanning the ground for something, tilting his body and wings into and out of the wind with slow precision, and as Lance peered down cautiously, he saw rocky peaks and canyons that seemed somehow familiar. Then it clicked.

“Are…are we going back to your bone cave?”

Keith hummed affirmatively, wings catching the wind that buffeted them as he angled downwards to the dark spot near the top of one of the larger peaks. Lance clung to his crest as they swooped into a landing in front of the dark opening, half-expecting to see bodies still scattered around.

There were none. “The Garrison cleaned up, huh?” Lance joked weakly, sliding off his back and staying close to his side.

“Yes,” Keith murmured, padding into the cave and wrinkling his nose. “They were in here, too – ugh. It reeks of metal and human.”

Lance squinted up at him. “What does human, uh, smell like, exactly?”

Keith shrugged. “I don’t know how to describe it.”

“Well, what do I smell like?”

Keith looked distinctly sheepish. “Me,” he said.

Lance blinked. “Still?”

Keith ducked his head and didn’t reply, walking deeper into the cave, breathing flame over the small, leftover pile of blankets to illuminate their surroundings. It seemed mostly unchanged, save for the layers of heavy bootprints in the dust – lots of Garrison people had been through here. It made Lance a little upset, oddly – they were trespassers here. Keith clearly agreed, judging by the way he rubbed his scales noisily along the wall as he passed. He scratched five gouges into the stone with a paw for good measure, marking it as his own again.

“I was worried another dragon might claim this place, but I doubt any of them want to come within five miles of it,” Keith mused.

“Lucky for us.” Lance was on-edge – he kept thinking about Rolo and Nyma and the escaped Garrison helicopter, and he thought about Red, too…about being trapped in the darkness here, about finding Keith’s torn clothes and shouting at him with tears in his eyes, about Keith throwing him across the cave like a ragdoll when he tried to run out to the Garrison, about listening to the Knights discuss the best way to kill him, about seeing Keith covered in blood and barely able to stand.

“Hey.” Keith had stopped walking, his tail curling around to circle Lance’s waist and legs loosely like a very large monkey. “You’re thinking too loudly. Relax.”

Lance blinked up at him, the flared, spade-shaped tip of Keith’s tail brushing his cheek before curling away. “Why did we come back here?” he asked.

“I wanted to give you something,” Keith replied.

“Give me something?” Lance echoed. “From in here? Hate to break it to you, but I’m pretty sure the Garrison got rid of everything you were stashing –”

“Not everything,” Keith said with certainty, walking into one of the tunnels which branched off into smaller caves. “Wait there.”

Lance sighed and sat down on a boulder, wondering what Keith could possibly want to give him. He didn’t have to wait and wonder for long – within a few minutes Keith half-bounded back into the main cave, a small, plain chest dangling from his claws. He set it carefully at Lance’s feet and sat back on his haunches like a dog awaiting treats. “Go on, open it.”

Lance did, undoing the rusted latch with some difficulty and leaning back to avoid the cloud of dust that accompanied the lifting of the lid. There wasn’t much in the chest, but what was there was fascinating – folded red fabric, a knife in a leather sheath, and a bundle of photographs. Lance picked up the photos first, face breaking into a grin at the very first one.

It was Keith as a little boy, no older than five or six, with shaggy hair and pudgy, folded arms, lower lip stuck out in an indignant pout. He was wearing a school uniform, but the jacket was wrinkled, the shirt was untucked, and the tie was tied horribly wrong.

“Why would you give me this blackmail material?” Lance asked gleefully, turning it over in his hands. It was dated from over twelve years ago, with St. Agnes Preparatory scrawled underneath it in neat cursive that was most definitely not Keith’s handwriting. “Sister Catherine?”

“Sister Isabella,” Keith corrected, making a face. “She was obsessed with ‘documentation.’ That was taken on…the first day of first grade, I think.”

“You look like a gremlin,” Lance told him, still grinning. “A cute gremlin, though.”

Keith huffed but tilted his head, expectant, as Lance thumbed through the others. There was one of Keith on a swing set, face a blur of joy and arms outstretched. “I broke my arm on that thing,” Keith rumbled, mouth twisting in rueful amusement. “Worth it, though.” Another was of an older Keith, maybe around ten, with shorter hair that stuck up every which way, clutching a black cat to his chest and looking down at it, face mostly concealed. The cat stared at the camera with huge green eyes.

“You had a pet?”

“It was a stray,” Keith murmured. “The nuns wouldn’t let me keep it; we gave it to a shelter. But I liked to visit and pretend it was mine. Her name was Kiwi.”

“Did you name her?” Lance smirked.

Keith looked away. “Maybe,” he admitted. “Okay, yes, I named the cat Kiwi, shut up.”

Lance couldn’t stop smiling, going through picture after picture of child Keith…and then paused.

The photos were different, halfway through. Lance had a feeling the nuns weren’t taking them anymore – there was a photo of a barren desert landscape with a single, small house that was really more of a shack in the foreground, a red and black motorcycle propped up against it. “Did you live here?” Lance asked, hesitant, because somehow this felt more personal than silly childhood moments.

“For a year, yeah,” Keith replied, still watching him carefully, as if trying to read his reactions.

“It looks so…lonely,” Lance said.

Keith made a low sound in his throat. “It was,” he admitted. “Sometimes it was nice…getting away from everything. Other times…” He trailed off into silence.

Lance looked at the next photo. “Whoa,” he breathed, “what’s that?”

It looked like some sort of cave, but the really interesting thing was the huge symbol carved on one of the walls – it looked like a jagged S, or maybe a lightning bolt.

“It’s the same symbol on my knife.”

Lance unsheathed the knife, and sure enough, the same cryptic symbol glinted on the hilt with a purple gleam. “Do you know what it means?”

“All I could find in that cave was bits and pieces,” Keith told him. “It’s the symbol of a group called the Blade of Marmora. I think…I think maybe my parents were a part of it. It was why I left the orphanage – I was chasing false trails and finding dead ends for months before I found that cave, and even then…there wasn’t much. I found out that they fought dragons, so…I decided to join the Garrison.” He hung his head. “Clearly…not the best choice.”

Lance frowned, and sheathed the knife. Time to move on. He flipped to the next photo. To his surprise, it was of Keith and Shiro, both in Garrison uniforms, smiling with their arms around each other. They were both younger…Keith looked around sixteen. He was so beautiful it hurt.

“Not a totally bad choice though, it seems,” Lance said lightly.

“Oh,” Keith said. “I forgot about that one. Yeah…that was a good time.” He sounded wistful.

“You were still a cadet here, right? And Shiro was a Knight?”

“He was a senior cadet here,” Keith said, exhaling softly over the photo to clear the dust away. “He became a Knight a couple months later.”

“And he still hung out with you?” Lance asked, raising an eyebrow. The Knights were notoriously snooty towards the cadets, but then again Lance couldn’t imagine Shiro strutting around and arrogantly shoving his Knight badge in everyone’s faces.

Keith’s smile turned impish. “He helped me sneak into the Knight training arena at night,” he chuckled. “Repeatedly.”

“That’s totally not allowed,” Lance said, wide-eyed. “Shiro broke rules for you?!”

Keith smirked. “Uh-huh. Said he saw ‘great potential,’ or something.” He deflated slightly. “Anyway. Guess that didn’t do much good, in the end.”

The next photograph was also surprising – Keith must have taken it, because it was of Shiro and Matt, sitting across the table from him in some diner, laughing and sharing a milkshake. Lance’s eyebrow went up further.

Keith just raised his spiky eyebrows in reply.

The next photo, and last photo, was of Keith sitting alone on the edge of a rooftop, head tilted up towards the stars. He was mostly just a silhouette, with a flash of pale face and gloved hands, but the night sky was captured in all its brilliance…or, well, most of it, because the photo was in black and white.

“Shiro took that,” Keith said quietly. “He had a photography phase. Got it developed in a dark room and everything.”

“It’s beautiful,” Lance said, because in a stark, sad kind of way, it was.

“That was a month before Kerberos,” Keith said. “Well, that’s all the photos, and the knife. There’s one other thing.”

Lance picked up the red fabric and unfolded it. “A scarf?”

Keith nodded. “It was mine for a long time. I wanted you to have it. I know it’s not too cold in the desert, but at night…it’ll keep you warm.”

Lance looked down at the scarf, at the photos, and the knife, and then back up at Keith. He had a bad feeling about this. “Keith…why are you showing me this stuff?”

Keith looked away. “I…I figured someone should see it before…” He sighed. “In case I don’t turn back.”

“Keith,” Lance whispered, shaking his head. “Don’t say that. We’re gonna get the quintessence and you’ll be all back to normal again. Okay?”

“You don’t know that, Lance,” Keith said gently. “It might already be too late.”

Lance’s gut twisted. “Don’t say that,” he repeated.

“I just want you to keep this,” Keith said. “Whether I turn back or not. I don’t…I don’t want to be forgotten, I guess, and this is all I have left from before.”

“I wouldn’t forget you,” Lance told him, looking up at him, brow furrowed and chest tight. “Never, Keith. You hear me? Never.”

“Yeah, well,” Keith muttered, “I want you to remember me like that,” he nodded to the pictures, “not like…this.”

“You’re still you,” Lance whispered, reaching out and laying a hand on the warm, smooth curve of his muzzle.

“Barely,” Keith said, but nuzzled into the touch, eyes falling shut.

Lance hesitated, then leaned forward and kissed the tip of his nose. It was so soft that he didn’t even know if Keith would feel it through the thick scales, but his eyes snapped open and he startled back, going cross-eyed as he stared down at Lance.

Lance wordlessly picked up the scarf and looped it twice around his neck. Keith’s eyes widened further.

“It’s very warm,” Lance murmured, turning his face slightly into the fabric and wishing it smelled like something other than dust and old paper. “Not as warm as you, though.”

Keith was frozen, ironically, gray-violet eyes still blown wide and crest flared fully like a fluffed-up cat. He looked as if he might bolt if Lance so much as breathed on him. Lance considered, briefly, that he was flirting with a dragon, and wondered how many people had been stupid enough to do that. Then again, he wasn’t really flirting with a dragon – he was flirting with the lonely, lovely boy underneath.

Lance had held Keith in his arms once and he would do anything to have that again.

The moment, strung tight as a bowstring, snapped at the unmistakable rumble of engines. Keith tensed in a different way, head swinging towards the cave entrance, moving instinctively to block Lance with his body.

“That’s our cue to leave!” Lance said, hastily closing the box with the knife and photos and tucking it under his arm, climbing clumsily up onto Keith’s offered shoulder and clinging as best he could with one hand. Keith stalked out of the cave, tail lashing behind him and wings half-spread, scenting the air and growling.

“Garrison,” he snarled, but Lance could see them, driving across the rocky landscape in three quads, headed straight for the cave. As they drew closer, though, he saw the orange jackets – cadets, not Knights. Keith must have noticed it, too, because he faltered, torn between fight and flight.

They were just kids…and when the headlights illuminated their faces, Lance realized with horror that they were kids he knew.

The quads braked sharply at a distance, at least several hundred feet away. There were two Knights in their gray uniforms, but neither looked armed for a serious fight. The cadets, five in total, were gawking at the nervously shifting dragon standing before them in the flesh…and then, when they saw Lance, looked as if their jaws might actually hit the ground.

The Knights paled. “Is – is that…”

“It’s Espinosa. I don’t believe it.”

Lance?!” one of the older cadets called, her voice shocked and shaky. It was Shay, Hunk’s long-time crush. Beside her, Lance recognized her older brother Rex, and huddled in the other quad were the younger cadets – fifteen or sixteen, terrified but unable to look away.

“Yeah, it’s me, I’m alright,” Lance called back, wary, placing a calming hand on Keith’s neck. He wanted to get out of here. But…Lance had to try. Had to try to explain that things weren’t as black and white as they’d been told.

One of the Knights stepped forward. Keith bristled. The cadets trembled. The Knight tipped her head up and spoke in the cool, level, adult voice used by doctors and teachers dealing with troublesome people. “We know you’ve been kidnapped by this dragon, we can take care of it and get you back to –”

“No!” Lance shouted, and the Knights paused at that. “I haven’t been kidnapped; I’m here of my own free will! He isn’t a killer, not like the Galra.”

“Not a killer?” the other Knight repeated. “He murdered an entire patrol!”

“Because they were going to kill him!” Lance retorted. “And not just him – the Garrison was going to kill me, too. I heard the orders Iverson gave you – dead or alive, as long as we get him, is that right? He’ll be eliminated either way.

The cadets squirmed in their seats and looked between their superiors, Lance, and the increasingly agitated dragon. The Knights looked like they’d just been caught red-handed. “That is – Espinosa, you have clearly suffered some sort of mental –”

“I found out the truth,” Lance snapped. “And I’m not going back to the Garrison.” Shay gasped and covered her mouth. “Neither should any of you – all this is their fault.”

“Lance, we need to go,” Keith rumbled, and everyone jumped about three feet in the air.

“It spoke!” one of the younger girls shrieked. “Did you hear that?!”

“Lance,” Keith said again, more urgently, as one of the Knights grabbed a rifle from the backseat and started loading it. The cadets were panicking. The Knights were trying to cover their tracks.

“Hunk and Pidge are fine, too!” Lance called to them all. “The Garrison is lying to you! Don’t follow them blindly out of anger and fear like I did –”

“Very inspiring, time to say goodbye,” Keith yelped as the Knight fired the rifle and just barely missed. He leapt into the air frantically, another crack of another rifle following them into the sky. Keith was panting and panicky, and Lance felt bad for putting him in danger, but he’d warned them, at least. No doubt the Knights would try to indoctrinate them all over again and lecture them about not listening to a single word from delusional boys who rode dragons; but at least they would be forced to think about it. He’d planted the idea and a little curiosity might go a long way.

When they were safely out of range, Keith landed heavily on a cliff, trembling under Lance.

“You okay?” Lance asked.

“No,” Keith replied, voice rougher and lower than usual. Lance stiffened and Keith shook his head. “It’s not…not Red. But it’s the corruption, I think. It’s…it makes me feel weaker. Like I’m being poisoned little by little.”

“Fight it,” Lance said. “You have to. I know you can.”

“Not for much longer,” Keith warned, exhaling a long, shaky, smoky breath. “Lance, it hurts.”

Lance wrapped his arms around Keith’s neck, and even though he couldn’t reach all the way around, it was the closest thing to a hug that Lance could give him. Keith’s legs buckled, and he eased himself down to his knees, kneeling in the dust, head bowed. Lance didn’t know what to say. Keith’s breaths were ragged, and for what felt like a long time they stayed there, in a strange, silent embrace under the stars.

Then, with a determined grunt, Keith heaved himself back onto his feet and spread his wings again.

Lance didn’t stop hugging his neck until they returned to the Castle.

Chapter Text

“Shiro, we are not going over the plan a fifth time,” Allura said with obviously waning patience.

“I just want to be sure,” Shiro fretted, pacing as best he could in the small amount of space. “If anything goes wrong –”

“If anything goes wrong, we get out of there,” Allura finished.

“We can’t just leave,” Keith protested. “This time, we have the element of surprise. But if we flee, and try to come back…they’ll be expecting us.”

“And they’ll probably have more than an electrical field waiting for us,” Pidge added grimly.

Matt nodded. “We have one shot at this, and one shot only.”

“Oh, I do wish we could go about getting quintessence some other way,” Coran sighed. “Anything involving the Garrison makes me awfully queasy.”

“There is no other way,” Allura retorted sharply, her arms folded. “It’s this, or…”

There was a brief, heavy silence.

“There’s not gonna be an ‘or,’” Lance declared. “It’s this, end of story. We get the quintessence, get out, and turn you guys back. Simple.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Hunk said, glancing around nervously. “So, uh, when do we leave?”

“Tonight,” Allura said.

Shiro’s eyes widened. “Tonight?! But Keith isn’t fully healed –”

“I’m fine,” Keith snapped. “Totally fine.”

Lance knew he was lying. But he also knew Keith couldn’t afford to wait any longer. “Don’t worry,” Lance told Shiro. “It’s all good. The sooner we do this, the better, right?”

“Right,” Keith said firmly.

Shiro didn’t look happy about it, but he conceded. “Okay. Can we please go over it one last time, though?”

Allura rubbed her eyes tiredly. “Very well. Everyone, restate your roles, please.”

“Shiro and I bring Lance, Coran and Allura to the nearby canyon, where we can stay hidden from Garrison radar until the time is right,” Keith said.

“I’ll climb up the cliffs to a good vantage point with the radio so I can be the communicator and let you all know if anything’s gone wrong,” Coran said. “Not that it will go wrong! But, better safe than sorry.”

“Me and Allura get into the lab the back way using the fake keycards Pidge made, and jump some Garrison scientists to borrow their uniforms and go in undercover,” Lance said.

“We then find where the quintessence is stored and relay the information back to Coran,” Allura said.

“I bring Pidge and Hunk to the outer perimeter and keep hidden to defend them if need be,” Matt said.

“Hunk and I use the electromagnetic pulse gun to disable the electrical field and give Keith and Shiro access to the lab,” Pidge said.

“Keith and I fly down, bust through the roof, and get Lance, Allura, and the quintessence out of there,” Shiro finished.

“This is so cool,” Hunk exclaimed. “It’s a real-life stealth mission. Well, stealth minus the part where Keith and Shiro fly in with guns blazing!”

“That’s the most dangerous part,” Shiro muttered. “Maybe Matt should go with me instead of Keith –”

“No,” Keith said. “I’m going with you. And you’re wrong – the most dangerous part is Lance and Allura’s role. You haven’t been inside that lab…if they get caught, the Garrison won’t hesitate to –”

“If they get caught, we’ll extract them immediately,” Shiro said. “I know we only have one shot at this. But everyone’s safety is paramount in this mission, understood?”

There was a murmur of assent. Lance glanced at Allura – her arms were folded and she was looking off into space, brow furrowed and expression serious. He wondered if she was thinking about all the ways this could go wrong, or if she was thinking about Altea. About Prince Raimon, and how it had been too late for him – about whether or not it would be too late this time, too.

“Well, then,” Coran said, clapping his hands, “we’ll reconvene here after dinner, I suppose. Ta-ta until then, everybody!”

“Ta-ta,” Allura echoed, lips twisted into the slightest of frowns, turning away.

*

That afternoon, Lance returned to the storage room cave and found, as usual, Shiro sleeping and Keith restless and awake.

“You need to get more sleep, buddy,” Lance told him as he sat down on the futon next to him.

Keith exhaled smoke rings, gaze lazily tracing their path upwards. “I can’t sleep,” he said. “Makes it worse.”

Lance bit his lip. “Do you have bad dreams?”

“Bad is an understatement,” Keith admitted.

“What are they about?” Lance pressed.

Keith’s eyes flicked to him, then away. “You don’t want to know,” he said. “They’re not…it’s not me, in the dreams. But I can see everything, feel everything – I’m trapped. And every time I wake up from a dream, I feel less and less like myself.”

Lance frowned, absently patting Keith’s side. “If it makes you feel better, you’re not the only one who’s been having weird dreams.” Keith rumbled questioningly. “I’m not even really sure what they’re about,” Lance said. “They’re cryptic as hell, and always leave me feeling kinda…drained and disoriented, that’s the only way I can describe it.”

“Hmm,” Keith mused. “That’s…strange. You don’t remember them at all?”

Lance hesitated. “They’re, uh…they’re about quintessence. My quintessence. And maybe yours, I don’t know.”

“I’m in your dreams?” Keith asked, confused. “As a dragon, or…”

“As a human,” Lance replied, but remembered shadow Keith and his distinct lack of human-ness. “Kind of,” he amended.

“Hmm,” Keith repeated. “You think it’s actually your quintessence – or mine – trying to tell you something?”

“Is that how quintessence even works?” Lance said. “Is it…sentient?”

Keith tilted his head thoughtfully. “In the lab…the Garrison scientists always referred to it like it was a living thing. They talked about certain types of quintessence, like blood types – some people have more compatible quintessence with each other than with others.”

“So does that mean your body could reject a different kind of quintessence?”

“Not the kind they have there,” Keith explained. “That kind, the kind we’re looking for, is pure quintessence. They put it through some process to make it one-size-fits-all. But quintessence straight from the source – from a human, for example – they called that raw quintessence. It’s different, somehow. Maybe it’s more sentient or a closer reflection of the person it belongs to.”

Lance considered that. “So…maybe the dreams are telling me our quintessence is compatible?”

Keith ducked his head, crest flaring briefly. “…Maybe.” His eyes narrowed. “But don’t get any ideas, Lance – we’re getting the quintessence from the lab, and that’s it. I know you love to play the hero but that’s not gonna help anyone.”

It might help you, Lance thought, but he shrugged and raised his hands in surrender. “Did I say anything about playing the hero? I’m pretty sure I got the plan down, thanks. Anyway…I didn’t swing by to talk about dreams, Keith.”

Keith raised an eyebrow and shifted to look more fully at him. “What, then?”

“I wanted to…” Lance cleared his throat. “I wanted to tell you that you mean a lot to me, Keith. Whatever happens tonight…I want you to know that.”

Keith was silent, looking vaguely stunned for a moment. “I. Um. You mean a lot to me, too?”

Lance snorted. “Wow, you’re great at confessions.”

“C-confessions? You’re confessing?” Keith’s eyes widened. “Oh.”

Face flushed, Lance didn’t look at him. “Yeah, guess I am. I like you a lot, Keith Kogane. Although you’d have to be pretty blind not to see that.”

Keith blinked, and then with a rustle of scales lifted his head until it was directly over Lance, peering down at him with unmistakable fondness. “I like you a lot, too,” he murmured, and Lance’s heart did a little somersault.

Shiro’s loud, jarring snore broke the moment, and they both laughed nervously in the aftermath.

“C’mere,” Lance said, making grabby hands at him, and Keith complied, curling his neck around where Lance sat in a scaly circle, his head resting on the futon at Lance’s feet. Lance reached out and touched the sharp ridges of his horns, letting his fingertips rest on the needle-sharp points for a second before sliding his hands back down, over the golden spots under Keith’s eye.

The faintly glowing eye closed, a low, content purr reverberating through the cave. Lance leaned against his neck. “Lance,” Keith murmured, eyes still shut.

“Hm?”

“Don’t you dare die tonight,” Keith warned. “Or I’ll kill you.”

Lance laughed. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Nobody’s dying tonight. Now get some sleep, will you, drama queen?”

But as Keith grumbled and drifted off into a fitful slumber, Lance couldn’t shake the feeling that he was very, very wrong.

*

The air was still that night, with a cloudless sky that stretched above them like a yawning maw as the dragons soared soundlessly towards the long, low white building crouched in a ravine between two towering sandstone cliffs. It even looked sinister, and as Keith and Shiro wheeled around to the canyon that narrowed into the ravine, Lance swore he saw a flicker of energy in the air, in a vague dome shape over the entire building.

They landed amidst rocks and sagebrush. Lance hopped off of Keith’s back and bumped his shoulder lightly. “See you soon,” he said.

Keith inclined his head. “Be safe.”

Shiro helped Coran scramble up to his vantage point, sniper rifle and radio in hand, while Allura joined Lance on his walk out of the canyon. They were both dressed in plain, dark clothes, fake keycard tucked in Lance’s pocket. Allura had a gun concealed under her shirt; Lance had Keith’s knife. He hadn’t wanted to take it at first, for fear that it was too special, but Keith had insisted on it.

It felt too quiet as they made their way down the rocky path, the pale building visible up ahead, just over the rise. “If the ground security is as light as Keith claims, we should be fine,” Allura murmured. “But just in case…be ready.”

Lance nodded. “Got it. Let’s do this.”

They ducked out of the canyon and into the ravine together, walking hurriedly towards the closed metal door, the entrance partly sunken into the ground like a spooky, futuristic cellar. Lance braced himself for guards outside, or an ambush, or something that would make them call the whole thing off…but there was only the keycard scanner, and when Lance slid the fake through, it beeped gently and the door swung open to admit them.

The hallway beyond was long and gleaming white. Allura stepped inside first, Lance following close behind, glancing around nervously. It was the same hallway from his dreams; there was no mistaking it. Even the doors were the same, though this time he didn’t sense anything behind them. That didn’t mean there was actually nothing behind them, though.

They were nearing the end of the hallway when they heard voices from around the corner.

“How could someone have just entered the building? No one else is due to come in tonight.”

“I don’t know; that door is keycard-accessible only, and the system didn’t recognize the ID on it. Just recognized the chip as valid.”

“Strange. Guess we should check it out…”

“In here,” Allura hissed, opening the closest door and tugging Lance in with her. It was a supply closet, thankfully, not a padded cell, but Lance still started to sweat when the footsteps and voices got closer.

“Well, there’s nobody here,” one of the voices snapped. “Are we sure the system isn’t just glitching out again?”

“I thought we fixed that,” the other one said doubtfully. “Huh.”

“Now,” Allura hissed, and before Lance could react she flung open the door and flung herself at the nearest scientist, grabbing him in a chokehold. Lance was left face to face with the other one, who gawked at him in terror, eyes wide above their surgical mask.

Lance had a second to wonder why the hell they had a surgical mask on before they lunged at him. He managed to remember basic combat training and kicked them in the shins, managing to hold them off for long enough for Allura to step in and knock them out too.

“Jesus, a little warning would’ve been nice,” Lance panted, staring down at the two unconscious scientists.

“No time for warnings,” Allura muttered. “We need to change into these. Quickly…before the others wonder where their friends went.”

*

The scientists were named Ramirez and Laurie, according to their ID cards, and Lance just hoped nobody got too close because he and Allura weren’t exactly twinning with them. But hopefully it would be enough to get them to the quintessence storage room – hopefully there actually was such a thing.

They searched vainly for some kind of map, and came up unsurprisingly short – why would a top-secret lab have handy things like that lying around? They took evasive measures to avoid the few other scientists they encountered, but most of them seemed too distracted with their clipboards and radios to pay much attention to either of them.

Eventually they got to a different wing of the lab, another hall lined with doors…but these doors most definitely had something behind them. Lance saw huddled figures in tiny cells, along with dark stains on the floor and walls. Some were bound by what looked like chains. One figure was collapsed entirely on the ground, dressed only in a thin hospital gown, long blonde hair concealing their face. They were human…except for the wickedly sharp claws curling from their blue, scaly hands and the long, limp dragon tail at the base of their spine.
Lance inhaled sharply. Allura shook her head and bade him to follow. “We’re not here for them,” she whispered, and though he knew she was right, it was still hard to pass the prisoners, especially when he imagined Keith among them.

That hallway branched off into a narrower one, and to the left was a door labeled simply, “Pure Supply 1.” There was a keycard scanner next to it, unlike any of the other doors.

“That’s it,” Lance pointed. “That’s gotta be it.”

Allura eyed the door uncertainly, but pulled out Laurie’s keycard and slid it through. The light beeped green, and the door swung open…revealing a room absolutely filled with golden, glowing canisters of pure quintessence. “Oh, my,” Allura breathed. “They have a veritable hoard of the stuff.”

“More than enough to turn them back, right?” Lance asked excitedly, going to one of the canisters and touching the glass, which was warm against his fingers.

“More than enough,” Allura agreed, shooting him a rare, hopeful smile. “One canister for each should do the trick.”

“Alright, let’s call ‘em in,” Lance declared, reaching for his radio.

*

They only had to wait a few minutes before they heard alarms going off in the lab, distant but shrill, and then a dull boom followed by the thunderous roars of dragons. Keith and Shiro just had to follow the radio’s signal using a handy device Hunk had built for them, and then…

CRASH!

Coughing, Lance covered his mouth and eyes as the two dragons smashed through the ceiling of the storage room – or, more accurately, Keith smashed through and Shiro followed to avoid crushing everything in one fell swoop. It was a large room, about as large as the storage room cave, so the dragons could stand shoulder-to-shoulder comfortably. There were sirens blaring all around them. As he landed, Keith nudged Lance’s shoulder gently with his muzzle, as if to say, It’s alright, I’m here. Lance resisted the urge to kiss him again.

“Get three canisters and take us out,” Allura ordered.

Shiro hurried to obey, Keith hesitated. “Only three? Shouldn’t we take as many as we can?”

“Do you want them to chase us to the ends of the earth?” Allura retorted. “Quintessence is precious and I have no doubt they would try to hunt us down for taking any more than three.”

“Um, guys?” Lance said, voice pitching high as scientists filled the corridor outside. “We really need to go.”

“Noted,” Shiro said, going for the nearest pile of canisters…and then something strange happened.

Lance hadn’t noticed it at first, but as it began to fill the room it became impossible to ignore – thick violet smoke was coming in through the vents, swirling around their feet and then upwards, smelling sickly sweet like fruit left too long in the sun. Lance’s neck prickled with unease and Allura’s eyes widened.

Keith and Shiro went suddenly, utterly still.

“Lance,” Allura whispered, “Lance, get away from --”

Keith turned jerkily towards him, head cocked and eyes alight with a terribly familiar violet glow, jaws opening in some twisted semblance of a smile. “Keith,” Lance said, taking an uncertain step back. “Keith, buddy, you gotta fight it. You gotta -”

Allura’s cry split through the air as Shiro lunged at her, huge paw swiping viciously and nearly knocking her down. She stumbled away to the far wall, chest heaving and hand going to the gun under her lab coat. Lance’s hand instinctively followed suit, resting over where the knife hung at his belt, sheathed and concealed, and Keith - Red - laughed at him, soft and mocking.

“You wouldn’t hurt me, Lance,” he said with certainty.

“Keith, we need to get the canisters and get out of here,” Lance pleaded, his back hitting the wall hard. He was cornered. The scientists stayed outside in the corridor, watching like the sick fucks they were. “Keith,” he said desperately. “Please.”

His eyes narrowed, smile vanishing, replaced by a snarl. “That’s not,” he growled, “my name!”

And then he was lifting Lance into the air again, but this time he didn’t seem to care about being careful. His claws cut through the starched white lab coat and into Lance’s skin and Lance shouted at him, twisting, pain shooting through him as the claws dug deeper. “Stop!” Lance yelled, frantic and terrified as the violet eyes darkened and the smoke choked up his lungs and Keith’s lungs and only fueled the monstrous thing he had become. “Let go of me, let go, stop, stop, augh!”

The first blood was a shock, somehow, red splattering hotly across white fabric and brown skin when curved claws sliced into his shoulder, white-hot pain that made Lance jerk and gasp. It was so easy, like a knife cutting through butter, and perhaps it fascinated Red too because he did it again, and again, and again, and Lance was vaguely aware of Allura screaming, or maybe it was himself. “Stop,” he pleaded, barely a whisper, and Red growled at him and lifted him higher and then Lance was looking straight into open jaws dripping with saliva like a rabid dog, full of teeth sharp as straight razors, and he closed his eyes because he couldn’t bear to watch as the jaws closed around him with a horrific crunch and -

And then, Lance definitely screamed. Jesus, it fucking hurt. It hurt even more when Red’s jaws opened and Lance fell the twenty feet to the ground, hitting the concrete with a dull thud and the loud crack of bones breaking.

He was having difficulty keeping his eyes open through the red haze of agony, or maybe that was blood dripping into his eyes. He was bleeding too much, he could feel it soaking through his midsection where Red’s teeth had pierced through, could feel it dripping down his shoulder and legs, he could feel it pooling in all the wrong places inside of him like an oil spill. He tried to sit up and made a raw, agonized sound, vision whiting out from the pain, crumpling limply back down.

This is it, then, he thought blurrily. And this time it wasn’t a thought of terror or uncertainty - just resignation. They had tried their best, hadn’t they? And they’d been so damn close, so close to fixing things, to fixing Matt and Shiro and Keith...but the Garrison had been one step ahead. So he would die here, bloodied and broken on the cold floor of a secret Garrison lab where no one would find him, and Keith would die here too, in a way.

It wasn’t so bad. At least he would die trying to save someone. At least he would die knowing the truth. At least he would die having held Keith once...maybe once could be enough. Lance felt like the mariposa flowers his Mama used to pick and put in a vase of water on the windowsill - fading and wilting with alarming speed, their pale petals turning in on themselves as if trying to hide from the sun; the sun which had once given them life but now scorched them into death.

The sun was towering over him now in a golden blaze of fire, and...wait, that wasn’t right. But they were inside...but it was nighttime...confusion made Lance force himself to focus, and look up.

Red was standing over him, wings spread and jaws open, flames pouring from them, and...not at Lance. It was aimed at the corridor, at the scientists, and as he watched from hazy eyes he saw Shiro lunge at Allura, who was firing the gun and blocking his snapping jaws with an empty crate. Red turned his attention away from the scientists and, to Lance’s utter bewilderment, hurled himself at Shiro and grabbed him by the throat, dragging the larger dragon away from Allura and her crate.

Shiro thrashed in his grip, slavering and snapping like a wolf, like he had when they’d first encountered him in the Galra prison. His eyes were violet too, but, Lance realized...Red’s weren’t. He was Keith again, somehow, despite the thick smoke still filling the air. Lance managed to smile. He was fighting it. He was actually fighting Red, and winning. He was holding his own against Shiro, too, because while Keith might not have stood a chance against him in the Galra prison, he was at full strength now, and determination shone fiercely in his eyes as he shoved hard against Shiro’s side and, after three hard shoves, sent him sprawling heavily to his knees.

“Resist,” Keith roared, and Shiro shook his head, whether in denial or trying to shake the fog away, Lance didn’t know. “Shiro! Listen to me!”

Shiro bared his teeth and tried to twist away. Keith wasn’t letting go. “Not again,” Keith said firmly. “Takashi. Snap out of it before you hurt someone else.”

Shiro’s eyes flickered. He growled, and Lance thought it was hopeless...and then the violet sputtered out, replaced by shocked gray. “Keith,” he breathed, and then saw Allura, and then Lance, and Lance didn’t know what he looked like but he could guess, based on Shiro’s expression of absolute horror. “Lance - oh, god. Is he - did we…”

“It was just me,” Keith said, trembling visibly. “I did that.”

“He isn’t dead,” Allura declared, deciding it was safe enough to abandon her crate and running to Lance’s side. She touched his shoulder, and he didn’t feel it, but her palm came away scarlet. “Yet. We must hurry.”

“I’ll get the quintessence, you get them out,” Shiro said, gathering up the three canisters hastily and spreading his wings. The smoke seemed to be getting thicker, Lance thought vaguely. The scientists were panicking...they’d failed. Keith had stopped them.

Allura was trying to get him to his feet, but Lance couldn’t quite figure out how to use his legs, so he found himself scooped up into her arms instead. “Hmm,” he slurred, head lolling against her chest. “You’re strong.”

“Stop talking, please,” Allura said, her voice cracking, looking as sad as Lance had ever seen her.

Lance didn’t know how she managed to get him up onto Keith’s back, only that it hurt, a lot, and by the end of the ordeal his skin was soaked in sweat and he just wanted to close his eyes and sleep for a while. But Allura got very upset when he tried to do that. “Keep your eyes open,” she snapped, tugging him upright, so that he wasn’t slumping over Keith’s neck. “Lance. Stay with us. We’ll get you into a healing pod...it’ll be alright.”

“Healing pod...can’t fix this mess,” Lance told her, looking down at his hands over his stomach, blood seeping out through his fingers. “Oh well.”

Allura’s grip on him tightened. “It will be alright,” she said, but it sounded like she was trying to convince herself, and Lance knew she was wrong anyway.

Somewhere along the line, Keith had taken off. They were flying; flying faster than Lance knew Keith could fly. He sighed and laid his head down against Keith’s scales again. He liked flying. He was glad that would be the last thing he remembered.

Allura made a soft, terrible sound and stroked his hair. “I did warn you. But I had hoped I was wrong…”

Keith’s voice was barely audible over the rush of wind. “How is he?!”

Lance opened his mouth to reply that he’d been better, but his tongue was heavy and swollen in his mouth and his lips wouldn’t move and suddenly nothing would move, and Lance was so tired, and Allura’s frantic voice was a low buzz in his ears as his eyelids fell shut and the world spiraled away into nothing.

*

Lance slipped in and out of consciousness, catching glimpses of Allura’s worried face, of red scales, of the night sky, and finally of a white ceiling. He tried to stay awake then, because he realized they must be back at the Castle, and something important was happening...he couldn’t quite recall what.

But he fought to keep his eyes open, a circle of faces hovering over him - Hunk with his lower lip trembling, one hand supporting Lance’s head, mumbling over and over that Lance was gonna be okay, just hang in there, buddy, just a little longer. Pidge was there, too, her eyes shiny behind her glasses, saying nothing. Coran stood off to the side, his expression grim, shaking his head and saying something about how the healing pods weren’t equipped to deal with this sort of thing. Allura was arguing with him.

A shadow fell across him. Keith. Hunk said something angry, Pidge shushed him, and Keith’s voice rumbled, too low for Lance to make out the words. But he could hear the tone - it was hopeless; miserable and hopeless and, above all else, sorry.

“Keith,” he croaked.

“Oh, Lance,” Keith whispered, lowering his head. “I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Lance mumbled, eyelids fluttering shut again. “Wasn’t you.”

“Still such an idiot,” Hunk said, choked.

“A cute idiot, though?” Lance asked.

“The cutest,” Keith said, and Lance would have smiled but his voice was still quiet and somber.

“It’s pretty bad, huh.” Lance’s vision was tunneling again, but he knew now that he couldn’t close his eyes, or he would never open them again. “Soy una mariposa muriendo,” he murmured absently.

“He’s starting to speak gibberish!” Keith exclaimed fearfully.

“It’s Spanish, you asshat,” Pidge said gruffly.

“I lived in Texas for four years; I know it’s Spanish!” Keith retorted. “But he isn’t making sense. He isn’t a...a dying butterfly.”

Lance snorted. “Mariposa flowers,” he said. “From home...I miss home…” His lashes fluttered and he swallowed, thick and metallic, with difficulty. “Tell Stella I’m sorry.”

“You can tell her yourself,” Hunk told him, lowering him to lay on something soft. They’d haphazardly tried to bandage him up, but from what Lance could see of his body it was a lost cause. He looked like a chew toy on its last legs, and for some reason that thought made him laugh, which was a mistake. He made a horrible, choked noise, lips wet with blood, and everyone shushed him in unison. Allura had stopped arguing. Shiro and Matt were there too, looking on with bowed heads, the glowing canisters at their feet.

Keith followed his gaze, and his eyes widened. “Wait,” he said, “we can use the quintessence on Lance, to heal him.”

Pidge’s brow furrowed. “Would that even work?”

“We’d need the whole canister to save him,” Shiro said, expression inscrutable. “Keith...there wouldn’t be enough to turn you back.”

Keith shook his head. “I don’t care,” he said. “Doesn’t matter. Just give it to Lance.”

“We’re not going to be able to find any more quintessence,” Allura said, looking up at him. “Certainly not in time to stop you from losing yourself completely. We would be forced to…”

“To make sure I don’t hurt anyone else? Good,” Keith finished.

“Keith, no,” Shiro started.

“I’m not going to let him die because of me,” Keith snapped. “Just give him the canister already, he’s not going to last much longer --”

“Lance?” Hunk gasped, startling away from Lance’s side. “What the...what’re you doing?!”

Lance didn’t know. He only knew that Keith was being stupid, and there was no way Lance was going to let him sacrifice his humanity for Lance’s life. No. Way. And with that resolution, something inside of him shifted, and to everyone’s disbelieving eyes, he began to glow.

It was a warm, pulsing, living light, golden at the center of his chest and fading outwards like a cloud of fireflies, darting and sparking and lifting, steadily, towards Keith. Shiro and Matt froze. Coran blanched. Allura covered her mouth. Keith flinched back, eyes huge, reflecting the golden orb as it detached from Lance like a rising sun. There was a sensation of hollowness mixed with relief when it left his body, and Lance knew deep down that it was important, knew it was a unique and irreplaceable part of him; but more than anything he knew that he wanted Keith to have it. And that was all that mattered.

As if awoken from a trance, Allura stumbled forward, arms outstretched. “Stop!” she shouted. “Lance, stop, you’re losing your quintessence, you can’t!”

“He isn’t losing it,” Pidge breathed, awed. “He’s giving it away. To Keith.”

Keith made a rough, shocked, scared sound. “Lance, don’t,” he pleaded. “Don’t, I won’t take - you’re going to die, I’m not worth that, and you know it!”

“You are,” Lance said, so faint he didn’t know if anyone could hear him. “You are.”

“Stop,” Allura said one last time, and crumpled to her knees, head in her hands, as the orb touched Keith’s scales.

Keith cried out, a mangled sound that was both human and dragon, ringing in Lance’s ears as the light faded, and he let himself drift away.

Chapter Text

Open your mouth. C’mon, Lance, please.

Is he still breathing?

I can’t tell. Doesn’t...doesn’t matter, just pour it down.

What if...what if it doesn’t work?

Then he’s gone.

*

Death, Lance had always supposed, would be like dreaming. Sleep, but deeper. Hazy, perhaps pleasantly so, with no real sense of time or transitions. And for a while, it was...there were long intervals of nothing, interspersed by blurry scenes like memories, but not quite. Familiar faces, but twisted into unfamiliar expressions, mostly of pain and anguish and fear, which...was unsettling. Sometimes he saw his Mama or Papa, sometimes Stella, sometimes others from when his life had been like any other. But they had different voices...familiar voices, but not their own.

They kept telling him to wake up. Please, wake up. You can’t die; I won’t let you. Lance, Lance, Lance.

Sometimes there were vague sensations, in between the memories and the nothing...a hard floor, a soft mattress, a warm blanket, and then, once, the press of lips against his brow and a calloused hand tangling with his own. But there was no pain. No pleasure, either. Just...existence. Limbo.

It was a shock, then, when he opened his eyes and suddenly everything was bright and sharp and real and alive and...and…

“I’m alive,” Lance said, to no one in particular. Even so, the slumped figure in the chair beside his bed jolted upright, rubbing sleep out of their eyes and staring at him like they thought they were still dreaming, too.

Lance stared back. Because… “Keith?”

Keith gawked at him. His hair was a shaggy, greasy mess and his clothes were oversized, mismatched pajamas and he had huge bags under his eyes, which were very red; but in that moment Lance couldn’t think of anything more beautiful.

“...Lance,” Keith said after a beat, brow lowering, reaching out towards him in slow wonder. “You’re...you’re okay?”

Lance wiggled his toes experimentally, then his fingers, then his arms and legs, and turned fully towards him. “Apparently,” he said. “And apparently you’re...uh.” He gestured lamely at Keith and his general lack of draconic features.

Keith’s mouth quirked. “Yeah,” he said. “I am.” Then his smile fell and his eyes narrowed. “You’re an idiot, you know that?”

Lance’s jaw dropped, and he folded his arms indignantly. “I come back from the dead and that’s what you say to me? Rude.”

Keith scowled at him. “Yeah, you did come back from the dead, asshole.”

Lance faltered. “Wait…really?”

“You didn’t have a pulse for at least a minute,” Keith muttered, gaze lowering, shoulders hunching. “We all thought…I thought…” He bit his lip. “You were gone.”

Lance considered that, which was, uh, pretty terrifying, actually. “So…so what happened?”

“We gave you the whole canister of quintessence,” Keith said. “Well, most of it…you weren’t responding or swallowing any of it at first. But we kept trying, and eventually you drank it and started healing.”

“Healing?” Lance blinked, and looked down at his bare arms. “There’s…no scars. Whoa.”

“Quintessence is one hell of a drug,” Keith said dryly. “Though it did take you long enough to wake up.”

“How long…?”

“A day, give or take,” Keith said. “We’ve been switching shifts to watch over you. Shiro almost passed out during his, so, I had to take over so he could get some sleep.”

“You look like you haven’t slept at all,” Lance blurted.

Keith flushed. “I haven’t,” he said. “I…I couldn’t, actually.”

“Aww,” Lance cooed, “you were that worried?”

“No,” Keith snapped, and then sighed. “Well, yeah, I was, but…it was more than that. I mean I physically couldn’t sleep. You…you gave me your raw quintessence, Lance. That was what turned me back. I think…I think it’s still linked to you, somehow.”

Lance tilted his head. “If I gave you my quintessence, then…how am I okay right now?”

“Allura said that you must’ve only given me some of it,” Keith mused. “If you’d given all of it…” He trailed off and glared. “That would’ve been even stupider.”

“Hey, it wasn’t, like, a conscious decision on my part!” Lance spluttered. “I just…did the thing, okay, and I’m sorry but I didn’t want you to turn into Red forever; I didn’t want it all to be for nothing.”

Keith looked at him then, dark and steady. “It would have been for nothing,” he said quietly, “if I’d killed you.”

“You didn’t,” Lance said. “Look. Not dead. Totally bueno. A-Okay, over here. Cheer up, dude. Jeez, you’re just as grumpy as a human, aren’t you?”

“Hmph,” Keith said. “And you’re always annoying, all the time.”

“Says you!” Lance stuck his tongue out at him. “Anyway, now that I’m awake, there’s no excuse for you to not take a shower. You stink. And it looks like a small, fluffy animal died on your head.”

“Thanks, got it,” Keith muttered, standing up hastily, not looking at him. “I’ll tell the others so you don’t have to deal with me anymore.”

Lance’s gut twisted. “Wait – Keith, you know that’s not what I –”

Keith shook his head and left without a word, and Lance didn’t know whether the slump of his body was exhaustion, defeat, or both.

*

Lance was smothered by hugs for roughly fifteen minutes, mostly by Hunk, who kept babbling things that didn’t make sense and forgetting that breathing was kinda important to Lance’s continued survival. Pidge only hugged him once, but sat on the edge of the bed and couldn’t stop smiling. Coran beamed at him and squeezed his shoulder. Allura awkwardly patted his arm, but Lance saw the emotion in her eyes.

Matt was there, too, hair still wet from a much-needed shower, wearing one of Pidge’s oversized sleep shirts and a pair of what Lance was pretty sure were his jeans. He raised an eyebrow at Pidge, who batted her eyelashes innocently. Matt looked a lot like his little sister, albeit a little bit battered, with pale streaks in his light brown hair and a solemnity in his eyes and face that probably hadn’t been there before Kerberos. He was quiet, but gave Lance a smile, and looked very peaceful. Lance figured it must feel pretty great to finally be in the right body after almost a year.

The only ones missing were Keith and Shiro. “Shiro’s been napping,” Hunk said brightly. “Poor guy couldn’t even walk straight, he was so worn-out.”

“And Keith’s getting cleaned up, finally,” Pidge added. “Shiro was gonna cut his hair later; he already cut Matt’s but he was a little out of it.”

Matt shrugged. “My hair isn’t as bad as Shiro’s. He just tried to buzz it off and gave up halfway, so he has his old fringe back, kind of.”

“Human hair grows rather quickly, doesn’t it?” Coran said, intrigued.

“Keith’s was sort of long to start with,” Matt replied.

“Speaking of Keith,” Hunk said, and Lance braced himself. “He seemed kind of sulky when he came to tell us you were awake. Please tell me you didn’t immediately start arguing with him, Lance.”

“That…would be lying,” Lance admitted. “But in my defense, he started it!” Hunk gave him a disapproving look. “What, you’re on his side, now?”

“Nobody’s taking sides, chill,” Pidge cut in. “But did you stop to consider that Keith’s…in a fragile state right now?”

“Fragile?” Lance scoffed. “Oh, c’mon.”

But nobody else was laughing. “Keith’s transformation was more difficult than mine or Shiro’s,” Matt murmured. “It looked and sounded even more painful than usual, and when he did turn he was extremely distressed and kept saying your name.”

Lance swallowed. “Oh.”

“We know you’ve been through a lot too, buddy,” Hunk added. “Everybody’s on-edge. You all just need to get some rest.”

Lance nodded, throat tight. “Sounds good to me.”

Everyone said goodnight then, and trickled out of the room, until only Hunk was left, trying to fluff Lance’s pillow to perfection.

Lance looked up at him, hesitating. “Say, um, when Keith gets done with showering and haircuts or whatever, can you tell him I’m sorry for earlier, and…and there was a reason I gave my quintessence to him.”

“Of course.” Hunk nodded and gave him one last hug. “Sleep tight, and no strenuous activity. That includes getting up and walking around.”

“That is not strenuous and I am fine!” Lance protested. Hunk tickled him until he relented. “One could argue that tickling is pretty strenuous too –!”

Hunk rolled his eyes. “Lance. Stop talking and go to sleep.”

Lance grumbled and tugged the covers back up. Hunk went to the door. “You promise you’ll tell him?” Lance asked in a small voice just before he reached for the doorknob.

Hunk half-turned to look back at him. “Promise,” he said. He smiled. “Don’t worry. He’s…you mean a lot to him, Lance. Being human hasn’t changed that at all.”

*

Despite Hunk’s warning, hunger forced Lance out of bed around noon, and he wandered down the hall to the kitchen, hoping he didn’t run into anyone else.

But as it turned out, he wasn’t the only one getting a snack – Shiro was leaning against the counter, watching a package of ramen noodles spin around and around in the microwave, tapping his fingers in an offbeat rhythm against the metal. He looked up when Lance walked in, and they both did a double-take.

“Lance,” Shiro greeted. “You look much better.”

“You do too,” Lance replied. Takashi Shirogane had been tall and muscular before Kerberos, but now he seemed much broader, muscles obvious even under the Star Wars T-shirt he must’ve borrowed from Hunk. He looked older, too, emphasized by the slash of a scar across his nose and the white shock of hair falling over his brow.

“Ah,” Shiro said, touching the hair self-consciously. “Yeah, that’s new. Matt has some white hair too…Coran and Allura think it might be from extended exposure to the Druid magic.”

“It doesn’t look bad,” Lance offered, which was kind of an understatement. Shiro would probably still look fantastic with green hair and purple eyebrows. “Like an edgy grandpa.”

Shiro rolled his eyes. “Wow, thanks, Lance. I’m not that old, y’know.”

“Kidding,” Lance said lightly. “I’m glad you guys are alright.”

Shiro pursed his lips. “Matt and I are,” he said. “But Keith is…”

“Brooding?”

“Mm.”

“Matt said…” Lance looked away. “He said Keith’s transformation was pretty rough.”

Shiro frowned. “It was,” he murmured. “Keith was crying. I mean, a lot of people were crying.” He furrowed his brow. “It was all very…dramatic.”

“I always wanted to go out with a bang,” Lance joked.

“Well, you came pretty close.” His eyes narrowed. “Too close, some might say. ‘Some’ meaning a certain ex-dragon who was moping the entire time I was cutting his hair and speaking in monosyllables only.”

“Yeah, got it, he’s not happy with me,” Lance muttered. “Where’d you find that ramen, because I’m starving –”

“No, you don’t got it,” Shiro said with exasperation. “You remember what I said about pining, Lance? Still a thing. Except now you’re both human.” He gave him a meaningful look.

Lance cleared his throat awkwardly. “Yeah, and? Nothing’s stopping him now except his own stubborn, moody self.”

“Lance.”

Lance deflated slightly. “Okay, fine, I told Hunk to tell Keith I’m sorry for arguing with him earlier. But clearly he either didn’t get that message yet or he just doesn’t care.”

The microwave beeped. Shiro took his ramen. “He didn’t get the message yet,” he said after a beat. “But I might just be able to tell him…anything to make him stop pouting and whining about the unfairness of the universe.”

“Thanks, Shiro. And I mean, in his defense, the universe did kinda screw him over,” Lance pointed out.

Shiro grabbed a fork. “It could be a lot worse,” he said over his shoulder. “We’re the lucky ones, Lance. Remember that.”

Just before he left, he added, “Ramen’s in the third cupboard. Don’t touch the yakisoba or Matt will destroy you and Keith will have to mourn you for real.”

*

After a bowl of non-yakisoba cup noodles and a long nap, Lance awoke, much less disoriented; and once again Keith was at his bedside. This time, though, Keith had been the one to wake him up, and…Lance couldn’t stop staring at him.

He was clean, pale skin scrubbed pink and raw in some places, scars clearly visible. He’d changed into a black T-shirt and jeans, and his hair had definitely been cut – though it was still long enough to curl under his ears and into his face. It had been washed, too, and it looked so soft that Lance had to physically grab his own wrist under the sheets to stop himself from reaching out to touch. His expression was carefully neutral, lips set in a thin line.

“Do I get the Lance seal of approval now?” Keith asked, raising an eyebrow.

“You always did,” Lance said, embarrassingly enough.

Keith didn’t know what to do with that, his cool mask cracking. “Uh,” he said. “I, um, I did?”

“I mean,” Lance backpedaled hastily, “this is definitely an improvement from that extreme grunge look you had going on this morning, and the lack of scales is definitely a plus. Although, gotta say, I got so used to your dragon expressions that it’s kinda freaky seeing them on your actual face.”

Keith opened his mouth, then closed it, still looking utterly bewildered. “Okay?”

Lance inwardly winced. “Sorry,” he said. “This is…weird.”

To his relief, Keith understood. “Yeah,” he agreed, expression softening. “It is.”

“Maybe not bad weird, though,” Lance added.

Keith blinked at him, hesitant, his hands twisting in his lap. “Do you want to make it even weirder?”

Lance coughed and hoped Keith couldn’t see him blushing. “I guess…?”

“Move over,” Keith said, and okay, he was unzipping his jeans and kicking them off and Lance’s brain was not processing, except to note that Keith had bright red boxers and really nice legs, and for some reason he was getting in bed with Lance.

Lance made a squeaky sound when he slipped under the sheets, his weight dipping the bed slightly. “What –”

“It’s not that,” Keith muttered, face flaming. “I’m still tired, and Hunk said you were tired too, and so, here I am.”

“You want to sleep with me,” Lance said, shocked, trying to keep innuendo out of it and failing.

“Not like we haven’t done that before,” Keith retorted. “I was a dragon, but it’s the same concept.”

Lance exhaled slowly, trying to calm himself, and shifted a little closer. “Is cuddling allowed?”

Keith’s lips parted, and then quirked. “We’ve already done that, too.”

Lance curled closer. It was somehow startling to feel Keith’s skin; soft, fragile, human, just like the rest of him. Keith hummed and closed his eyes. “I like this,” Lance murmured, “a lot more than the other times.”

Keith exhaled, warm against his collarbone. “Yeah,” he said. “Me too.”

*

Lance woke up in the night abruptly.

Keith was fast asleep, nestled all along Lance’s front, their legs tangled. His mouth was open, wet heat against Lance’s neck, and Lance’s hand rested low on the curve of his spine, almost too low. Lance felt trapped, warmth pooling in his belly and making him squirm, because –

Keith awoke just as abruptly, jerking away with wide, confused eyes, peering at Lance uncertainly.

“Keith,” Lance whispered. “C’mere. Please.”

In the darkness, Keith’s pupils were dilated completely, his teeth digging into his lower lip. The sheets rustled as he shuffled closer, slowly lifting his hand to Lance’s face. “You’re so warm,” he said, wondering. “Lance, you have a fever –”

“Not a fever,” Lance said, flushing. “Keith. It’s…it’s okay. I’m okay. You’re okay.”

Keith swallowed hard. “You…you still want…?”

“You?” Lance finished. “Yes, you idiot. Yes, God, yes, I want you.”

“I’m the idiot?” Keith hissed. “You had a crush on a dragon!”

“A cute dragon, though,” Lance shot back, grinning. “But…I had a crush on you way before you were a dragon.”

Keith’s blush was obvious and delightful even in the darkness. “Just kiss me already,” he breathed, and at long last Lance did. Keith’s mouth was shockingly soft and hot against his own, yielding sweetly when Lance’s hand found his hair; turning greedy and sharp when Lance tugged. Keith made a low sound in his throat and bit Lance’s lip and Lance couldn’t get enough, pressing closer, harder, forgetting to breathe and having to pull away too soon, lightheaded. Keith dragged open-mouthed kisses over his throat and Lance groaned, holding him there and shivering helplessly.

“You’re so,” Lance gasped, and couldn’t finish. Keith’s leg was wrapping around his waist, hitching their bodies closer, rough and instinctive, and Lance couldn’t think, couldn’t react; it was all happening so fast, too fast –

“Keith, wait, stop,” Lance said, stilling him with a hand on his shoulder. Keith, panting, raised his head, brows drawing together and body pulling away hastily. He sat up, kicking the sheets off, red-faced and sweaty with his hair sticking up every which way and his T-shirt rumpled, boxers not doing a very good job of hiding anything.

He looked…guilty. Guilty and scared; and for a moment Lance remembered claws and teeth slicing through him but then he remembered what had followed, too – horrified violet eyes and a frightened, frantic voice; a furious blaze of flame and a shadow falling over him, shielding him from harm.

“I…” Keith ducked his head, hunching his shoulders and turning away. “Lance, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have –”

“No, stay,” Lance murmured, drawing him back down to the bed. “Just…slow down, okay? We’ve waited long enough for this. We have time, now…together.”

“Oh,” Keith said, wide-eyed. “Oh. Yes. Okay. What…what do you want to…?”

“I like kissing you,” Lance said, smiling, smoothing a hand over Keith’s cheek, brushing his hair out of his eyes. “Let me kiss you.”

“Yes,” Keith said, and then they were kissing again, slower this time, unhurried and easy. Lance had done what he considered a fair amount of kissing in his eighteen years of life, and liked to think he’d developed a pretty good technique. Not too sloppy, but not too chaste either. He hadn’t had any complaints…well, after the first couple of kisses, anyway.

On the other hand, Keith kissed like he hadn’t done much actual kissing, but had spent a hell of a lot of time thinking about it. He used too much tongue and he didn’t seem to know what to do with his teeth…but it wasn’t as much of a mess as it should have been, and he was a fast learner; eager and passionate, making up for any inexperience with enthusiasm. He seemed surprised by the careful touches Lance gave to him; every soft stroke of his hair and gentle caress of his jaw or neck making him tense and then, slowly, melt into it, making soft sounds that buzzed between their lips.

Keith kept one hand on the back of Lance’s neck and the other on the small of his back; maybe because he was uncertain about where he was allowed to touch, which Lance thought was hopelessly endearing just like everything else about Keith. His nails scratched against Keith’s scalp and Keith shuddered, mouth falling open and teeth catching on Lance’s lip, breaking the kiss briefly.

Lance looked into his eyes. They were dark, huge black pupils ringed with gray violet, looking at Lance through his lashes.

“You’re so beautiful,” Lance whispered, and had the pleasure of seeing Keith flush scarlet; red in a way that involved zero scales at all, the color spreading even under the hem of his shirt. Lance decided he wanted it off. He unsubtly slid a hand under the fabric and Keith let out a shaky exhale, the breath becoming a faint hint of a moan when Lance’s palm smoothed over his stomach and ribs, feeling the ridged outline of the scar there. Ooh, he was sensitive. “So beautiful,” Lance repeated, and Keith made a sound like a growl and sat up, tugging his shirt up and over his head in a fluid movement that made Lance’s mouth go dry.

He’d seen Keith naked before, in the Galra prison, but not like this – not in his bed, flushed and frustrated and desperately wanting; muscled, scarred torso flexing under Lance’s hands, stomach going taut when Lance’s hand snuck downwards, curious fingers dipping just below the waistband of Keith’s boxers.

Lance felt hot, damp skin and Keith made a sound like a wounded animal, surging forward and capturing his lips again, but this time he didn’t bother keeping his hands still. He yanked at Lance’s shirt and Lance struggled to pull it off, sucking in a sharp breath when he succeeded and Keith’s mouth moved eagerly to cover the newly revealed skin. Lance’s hands fisted into his hair and Keith slung a leg over his hips again, pressing him down onto the bed.

Lance’s hips pushed up against him and Keith grinded down into it in a smooth, sinuous roll that left Lance gasping and tipping his head back on the pillows. Keith’s breaths were hot and fast on his skin, but he was still making an effort not to rush; trailing long lines of sloppy kisses over the line of Lance’s neck and the planes of his chest, letting his calloused hands roam freely over Lance’s stomach and thighs and ass and –

Lance swore, bucking up into his grip. Keith licked his lips, eyes wide. “Fuck,” he rasped, squeezing and watching as Lance whined and bit his tongue to stop himself from begging. Keith didn’t relent, rubbing the heel of his palm deliberately against the rapidly dampening front of Lance’s pajama pants, giving him friction but not enough; not the kind he wanted right now.

“Keith, stop – ah – teasing,” Lance groaned, half-glaring up at him.

“I thought you told me to slow down,” Keith replied, batting his eyelashes with false innocence.

Lance huffed and grabbed Keith’s shoulders, shoving hard enough to flip them, but only managing to do so because he caught Keith off-guard. Keith flopped onto the bed under him with a startled oof, blinking in surprise when Lance settled between his half-splayed legs and pinned his wrists to the pillow above his head. Lance saw the way he swallowed, hard; throat bobbing and head tipping back ever so slightly, a silent invitation. Keith’s reactions were subtle but Lance was learning to read them, and he read in that moment that Keith liked this.

Also, he hadn’t pushed Lance off, so.

Lance leaned closer to his face. “I’ve been waiting for this – for you – for three months,” he told Keith. “I’m not that patient.”

“Yeah,” Keith breathed, “neither am I.”

Lance snorted and tucked his face into the curve of Keith’s neck. He smelled like sleep and clean cotton. “No duh. You’re the least patient person I know.”

“What makes you think that?” Keith snickered, squirming impatiently under him even as he said it. “I don’t know how I ever gave you that impression –" He cut himself off with yelp.

Lance had just, rather clumsily and suddenly, shoved his hand into Keith’s boxers. On second thought, maybe he should have asked, but now that he was there Lance didn’t think there was any going back. Keith was really hard, and it was one thing to feel it through several layers of fabric, but another entirely to feel it in his bare hand. “Um,” Lance said, suddenly shy. “Is this…are you…”

“If you don’t shut up and get both of our clothes off already I will murder you in your sleep,” Keith hissed fiercely.

Alright, maybe not so subtle after all.

“Holy shit, okay, okay!” Lance spluttered, mildly terrified and unbelievably turned on, releasing Keith’s wrists, fumbling to kick his way out of his pants while ridding Keith of his underwear, which was an impressive feat considering he lost all focus when Keith was finally naked under him.

“You’re not the only one who’s been waiting for this,” Keith retorted, his eyes fluttering shut when Lance adjusted his grip and stroked in earnest, thumb sliding over the leaking tip. “Nine months,” he gritted out. “At least you had hands.”

Lance paused. “Oh, man,” he said. “Wait. I didn’t even think of that. I guess it would be kind of difficult to jerk off as a dragon…how does that even –”

“NO,” Keith interrupted loudly, his face screwed up in a ridiculous mix of pleasure and absolute horror, “I am not talking about that with you, especially not right now!”

“What? Shoot me; I’m just curious about –”

LANCE.”

Laughing, Lance kissed him, and Keith bit his lips in silent retaliation, nails scratching over his back as Lance worked his hand over him, figuring out what he liked, grinning when Keith moaned into his mouth. But his grin fell right off his face when Keith’s hands slid down the back of his boxers, because oh, okay, someone was squeezing his ass. Very enthusiastically.

Lance was not complaining.

Especially when Keith managed to kill two birds with one stone and got his boxers off entirely. Once they were skin to skin Keith kind of pounced and rolled, kissing and pushing until they were lying side by side with the sheets pooled around their ankles and legs tangled and Lance just had to take a moment to pull back and breathe and just…look at him.

“What?” Keith said suspiciously, eyes narrowing. “Is there something on my face?”

“Yeah,” Lance said, and leaned in to kiss the tip of his nose. “There is now.”

Keith turned pink, clearing his throat awkwardly. “Seriously, Lance, what are you –”

“I didn’t think I would ever,” Lance said, and stopped, words catching in his throat. “Get to have this,” he finished in a whisper. “Get to have you.”

Keith swallowed again. “Neither did I,” he admitted. His voice turned soft, wondering. “I didn’t really believe you wanted me,” he added. “I didn’t really believe you would wait for...” He sighed. “I thought you would leave,” he said. “Go back home, find someone who wasn’t…”

“Wasn’t what?” Lance asked, touching the downturned edge of his mouth. “One of the bravest people I’ve ever met?”

“Lance –”

“Someone who wasn’t willing to put themselves in danger to save my life multiple times? Someone who wasn’t my crush slash idol for the last several years? Someone who wasn’t everything I ever wanted?”

“Someone who wasn’t me,” Keith said harshly, looking away. “Especially after what I did to you.” He pulled his hands back, away from Lance, fingers curling in the sheets.

“That wasn’t you,” Lance whispered, thumb moving soothingly over his jaw. “We both know that wasn’t you.”

“But I almost killed you,” Keith said, eyes squeezing shut.

“The Garrison almost killed me,” Lance corrected firmly. “I don’t blame you, Keith, and neither should you. It was their fault – all of this is their fault. You and me – we’re the victims, here.”

After what felt like a long time, Keith opened his eyes, violet slits lined with long, dark lashes. “We’re not victims,” he murmured. “They didn’t get us, in the end.”

“No,” Lance agreed. “And they never will.”

“You don’t know that,” Keith said, brow furrowing. “It’s a dangerous world we live in, Lance.”

“I know,” Lance sighed. “But…is it silly that I feel a little safer with someone else by my side, now?”

Keith’s mouth quirked up. “No,” he said. “Not silly at all.” He hesitantly reached out and took Lance’s hand, intertwining their fingers. “Somebody once told me I’m pretty badass, you know.”

Lance grinned, and curled closer, squeezing his hand. “You have your moments,” he said.

Keith made a sound of mock outrage. “Moments?!” he exclaimed. “I am always – mmph.” Lance kissed him and Keith stopped talking, and instead tried to wrap his entire body around Lance like a pale, clumsy octopus. And okay, this whole naked thing? Pretty awesome. Lance couldn’t stop kissing Keith, and sort of forgot about breathing, which resulted in an uncoordinated jerk back and a really unsexy gasp. Keith, undeterred, immediately decided the next course of action was to start kissing Lance’s neck and yep, Lance could totally get on board with that.

Probably, he would be on board with anything Keith did to him. Lance wasn’t a picky guy.

He tilted his head back as Keith’s teeth dug into his throat, tongue sliding over skin purposefully, sucking hard. “Dude,” he said breathlessly, “th-that’s gonna leave a mark.”

“That’s the idea,” Keith mumbled against his neck, eyes flicking up, so dark that Lance’s stomach flipped. And his voice was all deep and gravelly and firm and Lance’s brain could not help but realize that he sounded almost like Red. And yeah, okay, maybe Lance kinda did have a crush on a dragon because he shuddered at the sound and jolted forward against him, rubbing off against Keith’s hip.

Keith blinked, dark eyes following the movement, widening when Lance’s hand did too and closed around his own cock. His bewildered expression turned wicked, and he pressed his lips back to Lance’s neck, his fingers tangling with Lance’s between their bodies and making Lance hiss. “You like my voice like this,” he murmured, “don’t you? You like me marking you up.”

Lance made a really embarrassing high-pitched sound when Keith bit him, dull human canines nothing compared to Red’s, not sharp enough to pierce skin, but just enough to leave a mark; just enough to hurt. Keith licked over it in an oddly tender way, dragging kisses across Lance’s collarbones as their hands worked in messy tandem. Keith was moving against him, cock pushing wetly into Lance’s thigh, and Lance didn’t even think before grabbing his ass, tugging him impulsively closer. Keith groaned and then the world was spinning, and Lance found himself on his back, Keith above him, thighs bracketing his hips, rocking down in a determined rhythm.

Lance choked on air at the sight, and moaned aloud at the sensation; the weight of Keith atop him, the heat of their bodies and the slide of them against each other, the snug space Keith had created for Lance between his legs, the overwhelming impossibility of the whole situation.

It was a lot. More than Lance had ever gotten, and more than he’d ever hoped to get with Keith, of all people.

Probably seeing the shock and utter incredulity written all over Lance’s face, Keith cupped his jaw and peered down at him, slowing the unfairly sinful undulations of his hips. Somehow that just made it worse. “Hey,” Keith chuckled, voice pitching low again, his lips curling into a smirk when Lance unconsciously went lax under him. “Don’t freak out. You can touch me, yeah? Touch me.”

“Shit,” Lance said eloquently, and lifted his hands to Keith’s waist, because he wasn’t sure he could handle doing much more than that right now, to be honest. To his relief Keith hummed in satisfaction, head tipping back and hair falling with it in a dark wave as Lance, feeling braver, moved his hands down, back to where he could squeeze and feel where Keith moved atop him.

Everything was warm and sweat-slicked and hazy with pleasure yet so, so sharp, strange little details imprinting in Lance’s mind. Lance didn’t think he could ever forget the clean edge of Keith’s jaw; the bright gleam of his scars; the curl and scrape of his fingers on Lance’s chest; the violet smoke of his half-lidded eyes; the sounds he made as he took himself in hand; the powerful arch of his back; the way he said Lance’s name when he got close.

“Lance, Lance,” he was panting like a mantra; under his breath and quiet in the room but sounding like thunder in Lance’s ears. “Ah – I’m not…I’m not gonna –”

“You feel so fucking good,” Lance gasped, his hands on Keith’s ass moving inwards, uncertainty slipping away in favor of more. “Do – do you want to –”

“Next time,” Keith groaned, spine bowing under Lance’s fingertips. “Next time, yeah, you should fuck me.”

Lance swore and came in a dizzying rush. He was dimly aware of Keith laughing, and dragged him down into a messy kiss. Keith stopped laughing and whimpered into Lance’s mouth instead, shuddering and spilling across their stomachs. Lance held him through it, his heart skipping a beat when Keith slumped over his chest bonelessly, nuzzling the blooming bruises on his neck. “Mmm,” Keith mumbled when Lance pet his hair. “I didn’t know you were so into me riding you.”

“Eh, I’ve already ridden you, so I thought we’d better switch it up,” Lance said before he could stop himself.

Keith lifted his head, mouth open. “You did not just say that,” he said, and then promptly flopped back down, groaning into Lance’s shoulder. “That was so bad. I hate you.”

“Uh-huh, clearly,” Lance retorted, patting Keith’s ass. “Your loathing has never been more obvious.”

Keith swatted halfheartedly at him. “You’re so weird. First my voice, then riding – any other leftover dragon kinks I should know about?”

Lance snorted, and pretended to consider it. “Hmm…you know, I am really disappointed that you don’t have a tail anymore. We could do a lot with that.” Lance managed to keep a straight face while Keith gawked at him in dismay for exactly seven seconds before he burst out laughing.

“Why are you like this?!” Keith exclaimed. “Ugh, fine, you got me.”

“Your face!” Lance cackled with glee.

Keith rolled his eyes, but he was smiling. “Even if you really were that much of a freak, I’d probably still fall for you,” he said, and then stopped, flushing and flinching back.

Lance paused. “Fall for me?” he repeated.

Keith huffed and moved off of him, hunching his shoulders and looking awkward. “I…just forget I said –”

“Oh, no you don’t,” Lance said, grinning. “You just admitted you fell for me.” Keith turned pinker. Lance wiggled his eyebrows. “Aww, you do care.”

Keith’s gaze darted to him, hesitant, his shoulders relaxing a little. “Well. Obviously.”

“You gotta know by now that I’m already head over heels for you.” Lance poked his arm. “Obviously.”

Keith didn’t say anything, but he curled back into Lance’s side and closed his eyes, arm slung over Lance’s chest; a warm, comfortable weight. Lance continued to pet his hair, because Keith was either too tired to complain or he actually liked it. Judging by the way his arm tightened around Lance’s chest and the fact that he actually started drifting off, it was probably the latter.

Lance elbowed him. “Nooo, don’t fall asleep on me! Keith, c’mon. We’re both a mess, if you hadn’t noticed.”

Keith mumbled something unintelligible and flapped a hand at him, eyes still closed.

“Keith! You are sticking to me!”

“S’fine,” Keith muttered, cracking an eye open. “I don’t care.”

Lance spluttered. “You’re so gross. Oh my god. Are you really going to make me clean this up.”

Keith let out a dramatic fake snore, but giggled when Lance nudged him again, and managed to stay awake for long enough to go into the bathroom and wash off all residual bodily fluids before reluctantly putting his boxers back on and collapsing heavily back into bed. Lance counted it as a win, especially when Keith sighed and fitted himself against the curve of Lance’s back once they were both under the sheets, humming contentedly and tucking his nose into Lance’s neck. Lance felt warm and safe and sated; drained in the best way.

“’Night, Keith,” Lance whispered, blindly grabbing his hand and squeezing.

Keith kissed his shoulder in reply.

*

Lance woke up with his face half-smushed in the pillow, groggy and disoriented. His back was cold, and when he sat up, rubbing his eyes, he saw that Keith was gone. Lance yawned, trying to tamp down his uneasiness – the clock told him he’d slept in, so probably Keith was just an early riser or…or something.

He’d been woken up by some kind of loud noise, he was pretty sure, and was puzzling out what it could have been when he heard it again – a deafening crash. Lance’s eyes flew wide and he scrambled out of bed, tugging on his pajama pants and T-shirt and attempting to unruffle his messy hair. He glanced in the mirror on the way out and realized, too late, that his neck was covered in bruises the size of Keith’s mouth. Lance sighed, resigned to his fate, and left the room.

It wasn’t hard to follow the noises to their source – it sounded like complete chaos was breaking out, and Lance warily approached, only to turn the corner into the main commons area and freeze in shock.

“…What,” Lance squeaked.

Keith peered down at him. From over twenty feet up, with familiar, startled, faintly glowing eyes.

“Apparently,” Allura said, clutching Coran’s shoulder with white knuckles, “there were some unforeseen…side effects.”

Lance’s eyes widened in realization. Only half…

“Hey, Lance,” Keith rumbled, lowering his head to Lance’s and grinning sheepishly with his many sharp teeth. “Hope you still like dragons.”

Chapter Text

one year later

Keith was nervous; that much was obvious.

He clutched Lance’s hand tightly as they walked along the sidewalk, eying everyone who passed them with wide eyes and trying to hide under his shaggy fringe of hair as much as possible. It was cold, for Tampa, anyway, so he was wearing one of Lance’s hoodies and Lance was wearing Keith’s red scarf, both of them walking close enough for their sides to touch, huddled up against the rare cool wind blowing in from the bay.

Unlike Keith, Lance was perfectly calm for the first time in a while, inhaling the scent of the sea and feeling an overwhelming sense of belonging wash over him. Tampa wasn’t home, exactly, but man, it sure felt close. It was home for the only family he had left. It might have been his home too, if he hadn’t run off to the Garrison the first chance he got.

They rounded the corner and the café they’d agreed to meet at was just across the street, a little yellow building surrounded by tangles of green vines and bright tropical flowers. It was fairly busy, with clusters of people eating and laughing and talking inside and outside. Lance felt Keith’s fingers twitch against his palm as he came to an abrupt halt at the edge of the pavement.

Lance turned to him and raised an eyebrow.

For the thousandth time, Keith mumbled, “What if…what if she doesn’t like me?”

Lance shook his head fondly. “How could anyone not like you?”

Keith frowned. “You didn’t, when we first met.”

“I’d say those were pretty extreme circumstances, querido,” Lance chuckled. “Chin up, ‘kay? She’ll like you. I know she will.”

Keith bit his lip. “I just…you’re sure that this is a good idea?”

“I’m sure,” Lance said firmly. “You didn’t hear her on the phone, Keith. She’s…” He swallowed back the lump in his throat. “She missed me as much as I missed her, and she’s beyond excited to meet you.”

Keith looked at him for a long moment, and then nodded. “Okay,” he said. “I trust you. Let’s…let’s go.”

They crossed the street together, still holding hands, and picked their way through the café’s garden, up the cobblestone path and through the door, which jingled as they entered. It was quieter inside, with soft natural lighting and even softer music, a slow Cubano song that might’ve made Lance cry if he listened to the words hard enough. He didn’t.

He was focused only on the slim teenage girl with a long brown ponytail sitting alone at a table for three, looking out the window, her face tilted away and head resting in her hand. Her nails were painted blue, the same color as the sea, the same color as their mother’s.

“Stella,” he whispered, taking a hesitant step forward, and then, louder, “Stella!”

She turned, startled, and Dios, she was so beautiful, and he’d missed her so damn much. Lance might have run, or maybe tripped his way over, but either way he ended up hugging his little sister as hard as he possibly could, and she was hugging him back twice as tightly.

“You jerk,” she whispered in his ear, her voice thick. “You have no idea how much you scared me.”

“I’m sorry, Stel,” he said, pulling back slightly, but still close enough that they wouldn’t be heard. “If I’d known those Garrison cabrones would send you a letter and lie and say that I…Stel, I’m so sorry.”

“I knew there was something fishy about it,” Stella muttered. “All it said was that you were…you were missing, presumed dead, possibly captured by the Galra. No details. Hardly any condolences. And I thought to myself, no way they got my big brother that easy. No way.”

“You were right,” Lance said, squeezing her shoulders and stepping back. “As usual.”

As he moved away, Stella’s hazel eyes lit up. “Is that him? Hi! Ooh, Lance, he’s so handsome.”

Keith cleared his throat awkwardly. “Um, hi. Yeah, I’m Keith. It’s nice to – oh!”

Stella was hugging him. Keith stared at Lance over her shoulder and made distress signals with his eyebrows. Lance laughed at him. “Told you she’d like you,” he said, and Keith blushed.

Stella released him from her clutches and beamed at him. “What! Of course I like you! Why would I not? You’re adorable and you make Lance happy, so. What’s not to like?”

Keith hesitated and looked away, brows furrowing. Stella folded her arms, giving Lance a questioning look. “Right,” Lance said, sitting down and gesturing for Keith to sit next to him. Stella sat across the table, confused and beginning to look a little worried. “Stel…I didn’t just set up this meeting so you could meet Keith. It’s…” He glanced at Keith. “A little more complicated than that.”

“I figured,” she said seriously, gaze darting between them. “So spit it out already, would you?”

“Not here,” Lance said. “It’s…not the kind of thing to reveal in public.”

Stella pursed her lips. “Okay…?”

“Let’s get some stuff for the road,” Lance suggested. “What’s good here, Stel?”

“The road…?” She shook her head, eying him suspiciously but glancing at the menu. “Uh, they’ve got great coffee…not as great as back home, but pretty good. The mixtos originales and medianoches are awesome, but the pastelitos and buñuelos are my personal favorite.”

“Still got a sweet tooth?”

She rolled her eyes. “Por supuesto.”

Keith was looking at the menu over Lance’s shoulder and looked kind of lost. “Um…what’s a buñuelo?”

Stella and Lance looked at him with matching expressions of disbelief and mild outrage. Stella hastily called a waiter over. “Let’s get a dozen buñuelos and two pastelitos de guayaba, por favor.”

“Make ‘em good,” Lance added, patting Keith’s shoulder. “He’s never tried Cubano food.” Keith hunched down in his seat as the waiter clicked his tongue in equal parts disapproval and sympathy and wrote down their orders. They all got coffees too, and sipped them while they waited for the food.

“Sooo,” Stella said, raising an eyebrow at Keith, “you’re a very mysterious guy, Keith. All Lance would tell me was that you used to be the best Knight cadet at the Garrison, disappeared, and met Lance in the middle of the desert where you saved his life repeatedly.”

Keith glanced at Lance with slight panic. “Uh…I mean, that’s basically what happened. Pretty much. Sounds about right.”

Lance smiled. “He lived in a cave.”

Stella’s brow furrowed. “A…cave.”

Keith’s nails dug into Lance’s thigh under the table. “It was more of a temporary house –”

“Fue totalmente una cueva,” Lance told Stella conspiratorially. Keith glared at him. Stella still looked rather perplexed.

“Okay…any other weird things I should know about your desert adventures with Keith?” Stella asked cautiously.

Jesus, Keith’s nails were going to leave marks through his jeans. “Eh, not really,” Lance shrugged. Keith relaxed slightly. “Except that he fought off two dragons and a fully-armed Garrison Knight patrol. Ow!” Keith really needed to cut his nails; no wonder Lance’s back was all scratched up these days.

Stella’s eyes were huge. She leaned in. “What, really?” she breathed, reverent, looking at Keith like he was Batman or something, which was…well, not too far from the truth. “Are you even human?!”

Lance didn’t yelp at Keith for digging his nails in that time. “He’s a man of many talents,” Lance said easily. Keith was looking intently at the tablecloth. Under the table, Lance grabbed the hand on his thigh and squeezed it gently. “I’m lucky to have him.”

“Aww, aren’t you two disgustingly cute,” Stella cooed, flicking a crumb at him. “Seriously, though – that’s incredible.”

Keith cleared his throat, face pink. “Thanks.”

“Gotta say, I’m pretty excited to see what this surprise of yours is,” Stella said as the waiter returned to their table with boxed buñuelos and pastelitos. “So, where are we going?”

“We can just call a cab or something –”

“Nah, I’ll drive,” Stella shot back, grabbing the pastelitos and shoving the buñuelos at a startled Keith. At Lance’s shocked expression she stuck her tongue out and said, “I got my license six months ago, don’t look at me like that. Not my fault you weren’t around.”

Lance flinched, even though she was right. Maybe because she was right.

“Hey,” Stella said, noticing and frowning a little. “I didn’t mean it like that. I mean, sure, I wish you had been here, but…I bet you had a hell of a good reason to not be.”

“He did,” Keith said firmly, surprising them both. “And he’s here now, isn’t he?”

She smiled lopsidedly. “Yeah,” she agreed, “guess he is, huh?” Then she started towards the door with determination. “Alright, gang – to the Mystery Machine!”

“Oh my god,” Keith said with despair. “There’s another Lance, isn’t there?”

*

“If you told me you were going to make me drive half an hour to the middle of nowhere and then hike through the swamp, I would’ve brought better shoes,” Stella griped as they slogged through the least muddy path they could find, which was still pretty muddy. Winter or not, the air was thick and a few mosquitoes buzzed about with lazy interest. Keith kept eying every murky puddle or pond they passed as if fully expecting to see an alligator at any minute.

To be honest, that wasn’t an entirely unfounded fear. Then again, Lance wasn’t worried – they had a much bigger reptile on their side. Wait, were dragons reptiles? Stella lagged behind a little and Lance hissed into Keith’s ear, “Are dragons reptiles?”

Keith almost tripped and gave him a dirty look. “Lance.”

“Well, are they?”

“No,” Keith muttered grudgingly. “They’re mammals, I guess. I still produce body heat and don’t lay eggs, so, there you go.”

Lance snorted. “Dude, if you started laying eggs I think being reptilian would be the least of your concerns.” Keith elbowed him.

“What was that about laying eggs?” Stella panted, jogging to catch up.

“Keith was just talking about Hunk’s chickens!” Lance supplied. “You know, the ones I told you about on the phone. He just got two new ones, Fergie and Beyoncé. They’re adorable and I want to adopt them.”

“I want to meet Hunk and his infamous chickens,” Stella declared. “And I wanna see for myself if his omelets are really as good as you say they are.” She turned to Keith. “I don’t trust Lance’s culinary taste; he’d eat anything you set in front of him.”

“Oh, I know,” Keith replied sweetly, batting his eyelashes, but Lance saw the gleam in his eye.

“Gross,” Lance hissed under his breath.

“But true,” Keith murmured. “That’s what you get for talking about eggs.”

“So, are we headed anywhere in particular, because…” Stella raised an eyebrow, lifting her faded red Converse, which were caked in swamp ooze. “How far away from society do we have to be, here?”

Lance looked to Keith, who had gone tense again. He pointed to a clearing up ahead with slightly less water and higher ground. “Over there should be…fine, I guess.”

“Let’s go, then,” Lance said, hurrying over, making sure to hold Keith’s hand. He was trembling, and Lance could feel the fast pitter patter of his pulse through the thin skin of his wrist. Stella reached the clearing before they did, rocking on the balls of her feet and waiting with arched eyebrows and folded arms.

Wordlessly, Keith stepped away from Lance and tugged the hoodie off, handing it over to him. Stella blinked. “Whoa, wait…is this a weird scar or tattoo or something? Cool –” She started forward.

“Stay back,” Keith said sharply, and she froze, confused. “I’m sorry. Just…please don’t freak out, okay?”

Stella glanced at Lance uncertainly. “What…what’s going on, guys?”

“Stand over here, Stella,” Lance said. “And just remember that I trust Keith with my life, no matter what, and he’s on our side. I wouldn’t have brought you here if I thought you would get hurt.”

She walked over to Lance, biting her lip. Keith had taken off his shirt and jeans and was shivering in his boxers, teeth gritted and eyes closed in concentration. Lance waited – he’d gotten faster at this, but he said he had to get into a certain mindset to do it, to make a mental as well as physical connection with the other half of his quintessence. Lance saw the moment he succeeded; Keith’s body going abruptly taut and spine arching, a guttural sound slipping past his lips that was one of barely-contained agony.

He’d gotten better at dealing with the pain, too, but it still made Lance’s heart hurt seeing him like that.

Stella grabbed Lance’s arm. “Lance?! What’s wrong with him? What’s –” She broke off as unmistakable red scales started to cover Keith’s skin, her knuckles ivory and breath leaving her in a gasp. The wings tore from his shoulders and she covered her mouth. She was silent and shaking through the rest of it as Keith’s shadow rose up to tower over them, clinging to Lance like they were kids again. “It’s…it’s a…” Her voice was high with fear.

“Shh,” Lance whispered. “Stella. It’s still him.”

“Lance, he’s…” She stared at Keith, then him. “Your boyfriend is a dragon?!”

“Half,” Lance corrected.

“Mostly human,” Keith rumbled.

Stella squawked. “He still talks?!”

“Of course,” Keith said, tilting his head and lowering it. Stella gaped at him.

“L-lance, I don’t think – this isn’t exactly what I was e-expecting,” she stammered.

Keith made a soft chirping sound Lance had never heard before. “It’s okay,” he assured, padding towards them. Stella held perfectly still as he lay down, tucking his paws under his head, so close Lance could smell the smoke. “You don’t have to be afraid of me.”

Lance took Stella’s wrist gently, and though she resisted the first few inches, he guided her hand to the smooth slope of Keith’s muzzle. It hovered uncertainly a few inches away, and then, with a deep breath, Stella lowered her hand to the red scales. “Oh,” she said, lips parting. “It’s…you’re very warm.”

Keith chuckled. “Probably because of the fire.”

Lance thought Stella might jerk away at the mention of dragon fire, but instead she looked fascinated and asked, “You can breathe fire? So…you’re really an actual dragon. Flying, fire, all of that?”

“You forgot carrying off damsels,” Keith said lightly.

Stella paused. “Wait,” she said, and turned to Lance, then back to Keith, face filling with realization. “Oh my god. Are you saying Lance was your damsel?”

“Yes,” Keith said smugly as Lance exclaimed, “No!”

Stella looked rather delighted now. “You carried off my brother?”

“Saved him, actually,” Keith replied. “It’s a very long story.”

“Very long,” Lance emphasized. “Like, we could probably write a book.”

“Well, I wanna hear it,” Stella said. “Uh…maybe not in the middle of the swamp, though? My shoes are toast and there are a bunch of deserts waiting back in the car, calling our names.” She patted Keith’s nose, and grinned when he bumped her lightly. “What do you guys say we head back to Titi’s house – she’s still at work, so we’ve got hours to spare. I want all the details.”

Keith raised his spiky eyebrows.

“Okay, maybe not all of them, you nasties,” Stella said, rolling her eyes.

“Sounds like a plan,” Lance said, beaming. “I would ask Keith to fly us over there, but…I don’t think Tampa’s ready for him yet.”

Stella’s eyes got huge. “He flies you places?! Carajo, that’s so awesome!”

“Language, Stel!”

Stella laughed brightly. “Shut the fuck up and let’s get you and your dragon boyfriend home, shall we?”

*

It took around an hour to update Stella to the point where Keith officially became half-in-half. Lance told most of the story – Keith was exhausted from the transformation and the hike back the car and just preferred to sit back in his blanket burrito eating buñuelos and licking sugar off his fingers like a heathen.

Stella listened raptly to the tale, occasionally asking questions and laughing at all the right times. She bit her fingernails and gasped when Lance told her about how the Garrison had wanted to kill him, about being captured by the Galra, and about finding out Keith’s identity.

(He most certainly left out the part about him being a pervert while cradling Keith’s unconscious body.)

She looked like she might faint when Lance got to explaining the quintessence and the fact that there was – or had once been – a human inside every dragon. Stella got very quiet and solemn when Red came into the story. She kept glancing over at Keith worriedly, but when Lance told her about the visit to the cave and the gifts, she smiled at him. Her smile fell, though, when Lance talked about what had happened next.

“Those cadets you ran into by the cave,” she asked, “are they okay? I mean, don’t you think the Garrison might’ve punished them?”

“They’re alright,” Lance said. “In fact…well, Shay and her brother are with us, now.”

“‘Us’?” Stella asked quizzically.

“You’ll see,” Lance said, and continued.

Stella’s eyes were misty by the end of it. “I can’t believe you went through all that,” she said, shaking her head. “I can’t believe you’re okay!”

“More or less made it in one piece, yeah,” Lance said proudly.

Stella leaned over and punched Keith in the arm. He squawked and blinked at her anxiously. “That’s for hurting Lance,” she said. He winced. Then she sighed and kissed his cheek and he squawked even louder. “And that’s for everything else.”

“Um,” Keith said. “Thanks?”

Stella flopped back into her chair. “Don’t mention it. Anyway…so, that’s that, but where have you been for the last year? You mentioned an ‘us’?”

Keith and Lance exchanged glances. “That’s kind of why we’re here,” Lance admitted. “See…since we turned Keith half-back, we’ve been doing some investigations into that secret society I mentioned, the Blade of Marmora. And we think…well, we think there are others like Keith.”

“Other dragon shifters?” Stella asked. “Lance…if there were…that could change everything. We could fight fire with fire, right?”

“Exactly,” Keith said. “We’d actually have a chance at taking down the Galra, and maybe even saving those who could still be saved, without any help from the corrupt Garrison. From what we’ve found, if there are other shifters, they’re hiding out somewhere in Asia, which makes sense – dragons aren’t as maligned there, and it’s possible they could’ve found sanctuary.”

“We’ve narrowed it down to China and or Korea, which I realize isn’t exactly a small area to cover, but…we do have a slight aerial advantage.” Lance patted Keith’s knee. “Pidge and Matt have been working on decoding some encrypted documents we found, too, so those should help us pinpoint a more exact location. Meanwhile, Shiro and Allura have been working on developing weaponry to use in case the dragons we find aren’t so friendly. And Coran and Hunk have been preparing the Castle for flight – apparently it’s also basically a spaceship, so we get first class tickets to China on that thing.”

“And Lance and I have been scouting out everything,” Keith added. “The Blade has secret caves and hideouts scattered all across the US, and we’ve found…well, almost all of them.”

“Damn,” Stella whistled. “You guys have been really busy.”

“Yeah, and…there’s one other thing,” Lance hedged. “We…we want you to join us, Stel.”

Her eyes widened. “Join you? You mean…go to Asia with you and fight the Galra?”

“If you want to,” Lance said. “I know it’s a lot to ask, you’d have to leave Titi for a while and…”

“I graduate this spring,” Stella blurted, flushed with excitement. “And I have been saying I want to take a gap year…” She raised an eyebrow. “Those Mandarin classes might finally be good for something, huh?”

“So you’re in?” Lance asked, hardly believing it.

She grinned at them, eyes bright. “I’m in,” she said.

Lance did a fist pump and whooped. “Yes!! Hell yeah you’re in!”

Stella shook her head fondly. “You bet I am. But right now, I need to take a shower – I forgot how gross swamps smell.” She got up and went towards the hall, calling over her shoulder, “And don’t leave yet, ‘kay? Or I’ll go all the way to Arizona to find you. Three years away are long enough, Lance.”

“Trust me, I know,” Lance agreed. “We’re not goin’ anywhere, hermanita.”

Satisfied with that, she walked down the hall, leaving them together on the couch.

Lance leaned against Keith’s side and Keith yawned, slouching down against the pillows.

“I don’t know about laying eggs, but I ate so many buñuelos that I feel like I have a food baby,” he mumbled.

Lance snorted and pushed up the bottom of his shirt, revealing the slight swell of his stomach. Lance remembered how lean he’d been a year ago – muscled but thin enough for Lance to feel his ribs. He’d gone without food for weeks at a time as a dragon, and eating nothing but meat for six months wasn’t great for humans, as it turned out. He’d filled out a little since then, and Lance kept finding new sleek, soft places that hadn’t been there before.

Keith hummed contentedly when Lance rubbed his belly. “I love our child,” Lance said seriously. “We will name them Gordito and they will be beautiful.”

Keith snickered. “We’re not naming our nonexistent kid Little Fatty.”

“Just you try and stop me,” Lance said, and pressed his face against Keith’s shoulder, closing his eyes, hand still resting on his belly. Keith didn’t move away, but instead snuggled closer, soft hair brushing Lance’s cheek. They lay there like that for a while, and Lance reveled in it – he would never get tired of cuddling with Keith. Even after a year…it was as good as the first time every time, but so much more familiar. Keith’s fingers curled against the back of Lance’s neck, and Lance’s hand carded through his hair, and they breathed together, quiet, catching rare moments of peace in each other’s arms.

After a while, Lance murmured, “I’m really proud of you.” Keith made a questioning sound. “For showing Stella. I know you were afraid, and it was really brave of you to do it anyway.”

“I trust you,” Keith said. “You told me it would be okay, and it was.” He exhaled. “It was better than okay.”

“Yeah,” Lance agreed. “I knew she’d love you. Not as much as I love you, though.”

“Hmph,” Keith said, hiding his face in Lance’s neck. He still got all flustered when Lance mentioned love, which would never stop being adorable. Lance smiled and hid a kiss in his hair. After a beat, Keith mumbled, “D’you really think we’ll find the Blade in Asia?”

“I think we’ll find something in Asia,” Lance replied honestly. “Maybe dragon friends, maybe Galra, maybe more clues.” He hesitated. “Maybe your parents.”

Keith lifted his head hopefully, the corner of his mouth quirking up. “You think the scales run in the family?”

“I think the rebellious streak does,” Lance shot back, ruffling his hair. “Who knows? Maybe they’re the ones who founded the Blade of Marmora in the first place. Maybe they were being hunted by the Garrison and the Galra, and that’s why they left you at St. Agnes. Maybe they’ve been leaving all those clues and trails to follow just for you.”

Keith huffed and shook his head. “That sounds too good to be true, but…it’s a happy thought.”

“We need all the happy thoughts we can get these days, huh?” Lance sighed.

“You’re my happy thought,” Keith said, kissing the corner of his mouth shyly. “The happiest one I’ve ever had.”

And Lance knew what he really meant was, I love you too.

He unwrapped the scarf halfway and looped the other half around Keith’s neck, pulling him in for a proper kiss. Keith smiled against his lips, and Lance held him tight, wondering not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, how he got to be so lucky.

Lance still kinda hated the desert.

But dragons? He could totally handle dragons.