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The Six Gun Sound (Our Claim to Fame)

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******

 

The blood gushed over his fingers, and the harder he pressed, the more red spilled out of him. His thoughts buzzed all over the place, disjointed, incoherent, rambling without pause, and mostly they were variations of didn’t see the gun, how did I not see the gun, careless, stupid.

 

“Keith, look at me!”

 

Lance demanded so much of him, but Keith was nothing if not a sucker for the Blue Paladin nowadays (if Lance could hear Keith’s thoughts, he wouldn't be able to resist the obligatory sexual innuendo). Keith looked up. His vision blurred, but he was still able to see the wide, wide blue eyes staring back at him.

 

“Good, okay, okay, damn it, okay, I’ve got this!” Lance was babbling a fair bit, clutching at Keith’s jaw, forcing him to maintain eye contact, and that shot could have hit Lance, how could you be so oblivious, so unaware, you idiot. “You need to listen to me—”

 

Several more explosive gun blasts, shattering glass, and suddenly Keith’s hearing was no longer muffled from shock, a roar of sound bursting through his eardrums — the sharp, uneven bursts of broken furniture and the enraged shouts. The bar had exploded once the first gun went off, and while Keith had still been stunned from the shot, Lance had dashed into lightning quick action — pulling Keith behind the bar counter, shoving them both to the floor.

 

The shock was keeping the worst of the pain at bay, but it would wear off soon. Keith kept his hand over his gut and tried to focus.

 

“— can’t do this if you don’t stay with me, Keith, we are not going to get out of here alive if you don’t pay me some damn attention!” Lance yelled over the cacophony, flinching each time another shot rang out, or a body was flung through a table.

 

“Bruil double-crossed us,” Keith grit out, inhaling sharply as Lance dropped a hand down to his wound. “That asshole lied—”

 

“Yes, yes, we got screwed over yet again,” Lance said breathlessly. “But Bruil’s minions are currently being torn apart. For being stupid enough to fire at us in an open crowd of angry, armed, drunk criminals. So we can get outta here in one piece, if—”

 

“One piece, right,” Keith said with a grimace. “And the money he was gonna pay us? Lance, if we don’t get—”

 

“I know, okay?” Lance ran a shaking hand through his hair, not realizing or not caring that he was spreading the blood all over the brown strands. “But owing Jorlack isn’t our biggest problem right—”

 

A huge alien was tossed over the bar, crashing to the floor right behind Lance — Lance whipped around, gun at the ready, but before he could fire, the reptilian female leapt to her feet and jumped right back into the fray. There was the awful, visceral wet crunch of breaking bones, somehow louder than the gunshots.

 

“We are getting out right through that broken window.” Lance gestured with his gun to somewhere behind Keith. “And you are going to stay low, hold onto me, and it’s going to suck. But we are leaving now. Do not let go of me.

 

Lance bent over him, grabbing him around the ribs (Keith let out a hoarse shout of pain, uncaring because it hurt, damn it), and hauling him to his feet. Keith ended up hunched over, clutching Lance’s waist to hold himself up, as Lance unholstered his second gun and started his determined stride for their exit.

 

He had to duck and weave as several laser blasts and bullets struck the wall and bar around them; the jerky movements forced Keith to grip even more tightly, concentrating with everything he had on his feet and not accidentally tripping Lance.

 

When Lance reached the window, he said something like sorry, Keith, brace yourself, and in the next second, Keith was shoved out, while Lance kept his guns pointed towards the massive melee that had almost killed them — that had been started by the asshole who had tried to kill Keith, tried to kill both of them.

 

He hit the ground and a guttural cry was torn out of him. Immediately afterwards, Lance’s feet were in his sights, and then Lance’s arms and chest, lifting him from around the waist again, tugging him in close and walking as fast as he could from the carnage.

 

Keith could see the small hoverspeeder they had driven here in, just around the corner, but then his sight went grey about the edges, and Lance was yelling his name, chanting, “Please, please,” over and over. Keith wanted to reassure him, wanted to stand up on his own feet and … But the lure of unconsciousness was too powerful, and so the darkness consumed him.

 

******

 

“You over-dramatic jackass.”

 

“Lance, that isn’t very—”

 

“I don’t care, Yathir, he … Wake up, you bastard—”

 

Keith did not want to wake up because whatever was happening was loud and annoying, and he was so tired. And heavy. Everything felt weighed down, tingling pressure somewhere that was pleasant, cool and soothing …

 

And then one of the voices registered in Keith’s brain as Lance. Lance, who had been getting shot at, and who had pushed Keith’s useless body out of a window, and …

 

His eyes snapped open. He jumped up in the bed, hissing out vicious swear words as his side flared up brutally, the cooling pad on his wound not enough to combat the pain from his ill-advised movements.

 

“Oh good, you’re back,” Lance breathed out. “Never do that to me again, you—”

 

“Not nice to call an orphan a bastard, Lance,” Keith said through clenched teeth. He turned his head to face the Blue Paladin … and saw him sitting on an absurdly small stool, his eyes sunken and rimmed in shadow, his jaw slightly darkened with scruff, and his hair an absolute disaster, standing on end in every direction.

 

“Which one of us was shot?” Keith asked dumbly, his brain coming online way too slowly, his voice raspy from disuse. “How the—”

 

“The doctor said you ripped up a bunch of stuff, but none of it hugely important, and nothing that won’t heal over. You’re gonna have a wicked scar,” Lance said flatly, nodding towards the bandages and the cooling pad resting on top of them. “So, you scared the crap out of me for nothing. Again. You bastard.

 

“Lance,” came the creaky, scolding voice of Yathir, their landlord and saviour. The six-armed alien was standing in the doorway of Lance and Keith’s tiny, shared room, holding a tray of food (something on it that smelled truly delicious), and a few glasses of water. “You could stand to be a little kinder, considering how many days—”

 

Days?!” Keith had been unconscious for too damn long. They had a deadline to meet, and it was going to mean death if they didn’t have the funds when the day arrived.

 

“Well, they don’t have cryo pods here — just drugs that knock you out and speed up the healing process. Which cost us what few gems we had, by the way,” Lance said bluntly. “So now we have nothing to give Jorlack. But, no worries! Allura could fly the Castle in tomorrow and save our bacon!”

 

The harsh truth and false cheer grated Keith’s nerves, but he swallowed down an angry retort as his mind finally clicked back into full awareness.

 

He knew that Lance was drop-dead exhausted from the job they didn’t get paid for, the vicious fight that came right after, and from camping out at Keith’s bedside.

 

It was all too obvious that Lance had spent the however many days Keith was comatose right here, next to him, probably barely sleeping — that wild, anxious look in his eyes was hauntingly familiar. It echoed back to the Keith of six weeks ago, the Red Paladin who had spent three days watching over a feverish Lance, in the aftermath of crash landing, desperately afraid that he was going to be stranded on this thrice-damned planet alone. (Never mind the terror of losing Lance, since the Blue Paladin had become a specific kind of important to him.)

 

And once Lance had recovered, once they realized that they weren’t getting rescued any time soon, they had both made a promise, an oath, that they were going to live, and that they were remaining at each other’s side, no matter what fights or disagreements would inevitably ensue. The only way they could survive and escape was together.

 

“There’s still a week before Jorlack’s men come collecting,” Yathir reminded them, bending over Lance to put the tray down on the small nightstand between the two thin beds.

 

Lance had to lean way into Keith’s space to allow the innkeeper room. The Blue Paladin smelled strongly of sweat and leather. Keith didn’t wrinkle his nose at the unwashed smell — he was used to it by now — but he did comment on it. “Dude, when was the last time you showered?”

 

“I haven’t spent the last four days sweating up a storm in bed, so I’m a rose garden compared to you,” Lance answered, leaning back when Yathir straightened up from his stoop. “And yes, Yathir, we have a week, but it’s a week with no job prospects, and no one is going to want to hire an injured merc.”

 

“Even if we could somehow get a job every day from now until the due date, it still wouldn’t be enough. We keep getting double-crossed,” Keith growled. “No one pays you in full here, how the hell does anybody get their money’s worth?”

 

“By not letting the betrayers get away with it, I’m afraid,” Yathir said plainly. “You boys do good work, and that’s made the rounds — people know that you’ll get it done. But they also know that you won’t fight back if they try to short you.”

 

“That’s bull!” Lance exclaimed. “We’ve absolutely fought!”

 

“Not in lethal ways,” Yathir cut him off. “You've killed to protect each other, but never for anything less. You must understand that no one here thinks twice about bleeding for the sake of gems. As long as they’re alive and in good enough health to spend them, they’re willing to sacrifice an ear or a finger to keep what little they have.”

 

Lance fell silent, his eyes zeroing in on Keith’s injury.

 

Keith sighed, sitting up further, restraining a wince as he did so. Lance opened his mouth to say something, but Keith held up a hand swiftly and forcefully. When the quiet continued, he used that same hand to push Lance aside so he could swing his legs out of bed.

 

“What we need is to think outside the box,” Keith said, bracing himself on Lance’s shoulders as he stood up.

 

“Keith, this whole planet is basically outside the box,” Lance retorted with no small amount of annoyance. “There are no rules here.

 

“He has a point.” Yathir had taken a seat on Lance’s empty bed. “The only limit is what you think you can pull off. And whether or not you can avoid getting comeuppance for it.”

 

“Everybody’s out to get somebody else,” Keith muttered. “Everybody owes somebody a favour or gems or—”

 

“Holy crap, I got it!” Lance said abruptly, standing up quickly and throwing Keith off balance.

 

Lance was fast, though, wrapping an arm around Keith’s back, holding him up while also unintentionally pressing him in against Lance’s chest. The sudden proximity was … unnerving. Keith’s cheek brushed against Lance’s as he tried to put a little distance between them, while still using Lance to support himself. But then he was looking directly into Lance’s eyes from far too close — and Lance was staring right back, blinking rapidly in surprise. His richly tanned skin took on a pinkish hue across his face, and Keith didn’t want to think about it. No, not now.

 

“What do you got?” he asked, managing to keep his voice steady as he carefully placed his hands against Lance’s chest and gave a gentle push.

 

“I, um, forgot, that I did some research while …” Lance stumbled over his words, and then took in a deep breath before trying again. “Jorlack, Bos’Nar, Gunthra — they all pay one person to keep their goods safe while they transport them. It’s probably the biggest protection racket on this side of the mountains.”

 

“Okay …” Keith said. “So?”

 

“So …” Lance paused. He did that thing where he looked up at the sky and then off to the side because, clearly, Keith was not going to like what he had to say next. “While you were healing, I took one day to find out if there was a way to go over Jorlack’s head, if we could arrange a later payment date with whoever his boss was—”

 

“Damn it, Lance, you went out alone?” Keith shouted, both incensed and retroactively panicked over what could have happened.

 

“And I found out from Caspor—”

 

“You went to see Caspor by yourself?! That slimy perv—

 

“—that Jorlack has no boss, per se, but if he were ever to miss out on a payment to Dreyulin, then he would be chopped up into itty bitty pieces.”

 

“So far you’re not telling me anything helpful,” Keith said, pressing one arm against his wounded side and making his way around Lance; he limped over to the small chest at the foot of his bed, lowering himself in an awkward squat to open it. He needed to take a shower himself, and then maybe he could reason this out with Lance. Right now, he was just getting frustrated all too quickly.

 

“Dreyulin has what amounts to the only bank within four towns,” Lance said hurriedly. “Everyone pays him to keep transportation and couriers flowing all over. He has a monopoly. And he keeps his gems, all of them, in a bank that he owns.”

 

And then he said nothing for a while, his eyes darting about nervously.

 

Keith had a towel around his neck and a bar of soap in his hands when he straightened to stare at Lance.

 

“No.”

 

“Yes.”

 

Yathir raised two hands. “I agree with Keith’s objection …” Then he lifted the rest of his hands. “But you boys don’t have many options.” He stood up, leaving the room as he said, “Try not to break anything in your disagreement, hm?”

 

As soon as Yathir shut the door behind him, Keith exploded.

 

“We’re not robbing the bank of the biggest crime lord here, Lance! Do you have a death wish?”

 

No,” Lance snapped. “And that’s the point. We have nowhere to run. Outside these towns, it’s desert for hundreds of miles and we don’t have enough resources to survive out there — you’ve told me this a million times! And even if we did, Jorlack has the means and the will to hunt us down and kill us, so you know what?” Lance exhaled, clearly trying to re-establish his calm. “Let’s just do our damn best to not die. I am too gorgeous to expire this early, dude — I haven’t even hit my prime yet.”

 

The smile Lance offered was weak and barely there, and once again, Keith’s frustration got the better of him.

 

“Oh ha ha, Lance, great joke! Except that even if we do this, even if we get the money, what happens when Dreyulin comes for us next!”

 

“Or Jorlack? Or the next boss we piss off? The next job that screws us? Or just some random bar fight that gets one of us shot?” Lance was all but screaming at the top of his lungs now, and Keith had never seen him this furious. “I am so damn tired of looking over my shoulder, Keith. Unlike you, I’ve never slept with a weapon beneath my pillow — until we got here. Let’s just do something so fucking impossible that everyone leaves us the hell alone. If we can’t hack it in the desert, then we’re going to hack it here no matter what it takes.

 

Lance ended off with his chest heaving, his hands clenched into fists at his sides, and a glare that could strip paint.

 

Keith, feeling every inch of the exhaustion Lance was exuding, in addition to his own, was left with no other recourse but to say, “All right.”

 

“All — you — yes?” Lance stammered, his angry stance deflating.

 

“Yeah. Let’s do this. But first, I’m going to shower. While I do that, eat some of the awesome food Yathir made. Then you’re going to shower. And then we’ll figure this crap out.”

 

“I. Um. Okay,” Lance said, but he straightened up again after a moment, his eyes gleaming. “Glad to have you back.”

 

“Glad I’m not dead.” Keith turned to hobble out. He stopped in the doorway, glancing over his shoulder. “We’ll make sure we both make it out alive. I gotta be around long enough to see what your prime looks like, after all.”

 

And he was gone, turning his back on Lance’s spluttering so the other Paladin couldn’t see the blush covering his cheeks.

 

******

 

“I’m going to need new guns after this,” Lance said, cleaning the sights of his laser pistols. “Or maybe just more guns? These things are high maintenance, as cool as they are.”

 

Keith was sitting next to him at one of the tables in Yathir’s empty bar, taking in the blueprints they had projected on the wall from Lance’s personal computer. “This isn’t up to date?”

 

“No,” Lance replied regretfully. “I am no Pidge when it comes to hacking. Plus, these systems are old and unconnected. I had to access it directly at the bank. I barely managed to get these before a guard came around. They’re from when the bank was first built, meaning a bunch of stuff could have been added on since then.”

 

“Then we need to talk to a guard,” Keith said. “Someone who works inside.”

 

Lance nodded. “I have a couple of names that Caspor gave me. And you can come with me, as back-up.”

 

“Oh really? Now you want back-up.” It was unfair and he knew it, but he couldn’t stop the words from falling out.

 

“Keith. You were in a drug-induced coma. I couldn’t just sit on my hands the entire time.” Lance was being totally reasonable. Keith wished that weren’t the case. “If I tell you Caspor was a perfect gentleman, would you believe me?”

 

“No.”

 

“Well, yeah, of course he wasn’t. But I handled it,” Lance said with a sly little grin. “It’ll take a couple of weeks for his fingers to heal.”

 

Keith felt viciously thrilled that the leering, perving Caspor had gotten his due, but another part of him was aching at the thought of Lance being forced to intimidate someone, being made to snap a couple of fingers, just to get information without being groped. He remembered the Lance who cried into his pillow every night for the first couple of weeks they were here. The Lance who threw up the first time he shot someone without them shooting first. The Blue Paladin of Voltron who used to crack the most ludicrous, eye-roll-inducing jokes at every opportunity.

 

But that bitterness, that sadness and the sense of loss, he shoved them down, and he hardened himself against letting those types of feelings rule him. They had to do a lot of questionable things to survive of late, and those unsavoury acts were only the beginning. Lance and Keith had moved their line we won't cross a few times already, just as Keith had expected — soon, they wouldn't bother to redraw it.

 

The fact that Caspor had tried something, while unsurprising, somehow sent Keith’s blood into a boil regardless. So maybe next time Keith saw him, he would break a few more fingers, just to make sure the message was clear.

 

“The alarm system is so basic that I could short-circuit it.” Lance gave a brief laugh, his frown emerging nearly straightaway. “But Dreyulin has at least fifty people on site, at all times. And everyone around here is terrified of him, which is its own kind of protection.”

 

“Great,” Keith intoned. “Fifty armed mercs with no compunction about shooting first, shooting again, and forgetting the questions? Awesome.”

 

“Oh, then you’re going to love my next idea,” Lance said brightly. “I want to go in when Dreyulin is there.”

 

Keith turned with his whole body to face Lance, an incredulous expression on his face. “Why?

 

Because I want to … take him out of the equation.” Lance was pale as he explained, but his eyes were steely. “Look, we’re risking everything on this one shot. If it doesn’t work out, we’re dead. If it does work out, we might still be dead. So let’s better our odds for that second one. We take him out, no one is around to come after us.”

 

Silence followed as Keith processed this. Lance waited patiently, continuing to clean his guns.

 

“What if we really go crazy then,” Keith said slowly. “We take him out. We take over his business.”

 

Lance dropped the pistol component he was holding. “What?”

 

“I’m not interested in becoming some big boss, so we ditch the protection racket, and instead offer up our services as transporters and couriers, or at least bodyguards to transporters and couriers … If we take Dreyulin out, then people like Gunthra and Jorlack — we’ll have proven we’re better than them, that we can work with them instead of for them.”

 

“Holy shit,” Lance breathed out. “That’s brilliant. I could kiss your stupidly handsome face that is so freaking brilliant.”

 

Keith pressed his lips into a thin line, and Lance rolled his eyes. “Right, I'm done with this — you can flirt with me, but I can’t flirt back? Really?”

 

“Lance, we’ve talked about—”

 

“Yeah, yeah, ‘too distracting’ and ‘maybe after the Galra are defeated’ and blah blah woof woof,” Lance said with dramatic use of air quotes. “Except that you’re not exactly sticking to your own rules, buddy. You've never stopped me from getting some of my own back. And that conversation happened back on the Castle before we got temporarily booted from the frontlines. There is no Galra Empire here to worry about.”

 

“No, instead we got vicious mob bosses and crooks out for our blood,” Keith said shortly. “Now’s not the time.”

 

“Okay,” Lance agreed way too easily. “But if you’re going to keep giving me moon eyes and firing off flirty quips, then please be aware that I will keep doing the same — and more. So think before you flirt.”

 

Keith growled out some choice words, but let Lance have his point. Because he was right. Damn it. At long last, Lance was calling Keith out on his erratic flirtations, tracing back to their time on the Castle, and Keith knew he deserved it. What was more, he would never stop Lance from sneaking in gropes, batting his eyelashes, tossing out innuendos ... Because if Keith couldn't have all of Lance, those little hints of what could be ... He enjoyed them even as they made him feel guilty, made him ache with want.

 

“Before you two head off into the wild …” Yathir interrupted them (for which Keith was pathetically grateful) by dropping a large sack onto the table. “Take these with you whenever you’re ready to hit up that bank.”

 

Keith opened the satchel and then stared, mouth falling open. Lance rose from his chair and bent in close, a shocked noise followed by a low whistle escaping him. “Holy crap. Yathir, why do you have so many of these?

 

“Boys, you realize I’ve lived here nearly all my life?” Yathir said somewhat patronizingly. “There’s a reason no one bothers an old man like me. The ones I can’t beat to death anymore, I tend to eliminate in far more explosive ways.”

 

Keith filed away the "nearly all my life" into the mental folder where he catalogued the few details Yathir let slip about his personal life. Then Keith grimaced. “We can’t accept this.”

 

“Why not? I’m offering, free of charge.”

 

“Yeah, and that’s the problem,” Keith said bitterly. “You’re letting us stay here for free, and we haven’t been able to pay you for food for two weeks—”

 

“I told you that you pay when you can—”

 

“And now you’re offering us some of your defences for a crazy plan that might not even work,” Keith finished. “We owe you so much. Too much.”

 

Lance was in silent agreement at his side, gazing between Yathir and Keith with that world-weary expression on his face that had gradually become his default state.

 

Yathir pulled up a seat at the table, folding four of his arms in front of him. “All right, younglings, I am going to say this but once. The kindness you showed me out in the desert — I have never seen the like in these parts. You were barely standing on your own two feet, but you lent me a hand. I couldn’t let something like that go. I will not send you off, to what looks like an impossible fight, without making sure that I’ve done my part to try and get you back here alive.”

 

One of his hands reached over to gently rest on Keith’s arm, and he smiled encouragingly; his species had sharp canine teeth, but at no point did Keith ever feel threatened. Even knowing that Yathir could take him apart, having seen him dispatch people in a swift and brutal fashion before — on the day they met him, in fact.

 

“We’ll pay you back,” he said finally.

 

“You cover a few of my days in the bar while I reset my sleep cycle, and we’ll call it even,” Yathir countered cheerfully. “Now, continue on with your plotting.”

 

Yathir went back to the kitchen. Lance and Keith sat there, staring at the bag of timed bombs and grenades.

 

“I think we can do this,” Lance said softly.

 

“Yeah. I think we can, too.” Keith dropped a hand onto Lance’s shoulder, squeezing a little. “You got more ideas for me?”

 

“Yeah. You got a way to string it all together into an actual battle plan?”

 

“Yeah, yeah I do.”

 

Lance covered the hand on his shoulder with his own. Keith didn’t flinch or pull away, and he got a slow, sincere smile in return.

 

“Then,” Lance said, clearing his throat and bringing up a list of names on his computer. “Lemme tell you all about these guards …”

 

******

 

On what could be their last night alive, Keith was sitting in front of his chest of belongings, staring at the pieces of his Paladin armour.

 

Lance was getting ready, buckling his hip holster belt, throwing on a black, knee-length coat that had seen better days — there were a few tears at the hem, and several missing buttons. Keith’s own dark green jacket was no better. One of the first things they should do with the gems they got (after they paid off Jorlack) was buy some new clothes.

 

Because they were going to survive. There was no other option.

 

“We really can’t use the armour — too flashy, they’d see us coming from a mile away,” Lance repeated for the third time in as many days, an old rule they'd established during the first week after they'd crashed here. “I’m sorry.”

 

“I know,” Keith said. “Ready to go? Guns? Bayard?”

 

“Yeah.” Lance indicated the inside pocket of his over-sized jacket. “But once more with feeling — it’s a last resort, Keith. If anyone sees our bayards, they’re going to want them. Bad. We haven’t seen any technology here that comes even close to this, and I don’t feel like being hunted down by a blood-thirsty, money-hungry mob.”

 

Keith nodded, sucking in a long breath, accepting Lance's words easily. No bayards was yet another rule Keith himself had instituted just a few days into their stay, when it had become apparent that nothing on this world compared to Altean tech.

 

Keith’s own bayard was strapped to his back, and his two mismatched swords were shoved into sheaths at his hips. He knew that he couldn’t use the bayard unless desperate, but it was like second nature to wield it; his Paladin weapon had been stuffed in this chest, abandoned for so long that his hand practically ached for want of gripping it again.

 

And his armour — it had felt like the uniform of good, representing what was right and just in the universe …

 

Any longer on this planet, and he didn’t think he could ever face putting that on again.

 

“Hey,” Lance said quietly from just over his shoulder. “We set?”

 

Keith stood up, facing him with as calm an expression as he could manage. Lance was gazing at him with eyes that glistened in the moonlight — unshed tears, maybe, and Keith couldn’t quite deal with that right now, feeling as though he were balancing on a knife’s edge himself.

 

But he reached over and wrapped Lance in a hug because it was extremely likely that they would … Except they wouldn’t. No. Survival at all costs, together.

 

He pulled away quickly, barely allowing himself to feel the sensation of Lance’s arms around him. When he looked at Lance again, his eyes were clear.

 

“You good with that?” Keith nodded towards the backpack filled with explosives.

 

“Yeah, it’s fine. Let’s go, we got a schedule to keep.”

 

Keith hesitated, and Lance waited — he looked into Keith’s face with an expression that demanded nothing of him, and yet Keith felt as though this was a moment that required a specific set of words.

 

“Just us two, and that’s all we need to get this done, right?” he said, watching Lance closely.

 

The Blue Paladin stared and then murmured, “The two of us, and no one else. We’ve made it this far.”

 

“Then let’s keep going,” Keith said with finality, turning to walk out of their room.

 

Lance followed close behind him as they left the silent inn. Yathir was already asleep — they hadn’t told him the exact time they were leaving, mostly because neither of them wanted to face a good-bye. And Yathir wouldn’t have wanted that either.

 

Good-bye implied an end.

 

******

 

“Caspor’s going to deliver on his promise?” the reptilian guard asked, a savage glint in her one eye. The other was scarred over, permanently closed by a horrific burn.

 

Keith held back on saying anything, letting Lance do the talking here. If Keith opened his mouth, he knew his tone would give away everything — namely, that he thought Caspor was a slime you couldn’t trust to do anything other than put his hands where they weren’t wanted — but Lance was smiling up at this eight-foot tall woman and nodding.

 

“Wesdru, you have my solemn vow that he will, trust me. I made it very clear that if he didn’t hire you on at a twenty percent pay rise, then I would break the rest of his fingers. He owes me one.” Lance smiled, sweet and charming, and Wesdru responded with a vicious grin of her own.

 

“Good. Then a deal’s a deal — cameras are off already, only along your set path. And here’s the other half of the intel.” She put away the gun that had been making Keith nervous, and then drew a quick map in the dirt a few metres away from the underground entrance. “I’ve told a couple of my crew to look out for you. They know better than to cross me. They won’t give you problems once you make it up top. But remember there’s a couple of Sedluni that patrol the basement here and here, and they are mean as fuck.”

 

There was no way Keith could ever forget that. The Sedluni were a species of seven-foot tall bear-looking carnivores with sharp teeth and even sharper claws. Lance was in charge of taking them down, and that was no small task. Keith had once seen a Sedluni rip the bowels out of someone. The screaming had gone on for a while, until the Sedluni grew tired of his victim’s gurgled wailing and just tore his throat out.

 

That was not an ideal way to die.

 

“Once you’re past them and on the first level, my people will get you to the stairs leading up, no problem, but you’re on your own on the second floor. Here are the patrols.” She sketched a rough map of the second story, marking guard locations and their assigned paths to monitor, with a few quick notes about timing.

 

This was information Lance and Keith had already bribed out of another guard, using a few of the explosives as currency. Weapons worked almost as well as gems at enticing people to give up information, it seemed.

 

What Wesdru drew out on the ground matched what the other guard had described, including the timings of the patrols. This made Keith feel the tiniest bit better. Not a lot better, but at least they were working off of reliable intel.

 

They stared at the roughly drawn map, a handy reminder of information they’d already memorized, before Wesdru erased it with a big three-toed foot.

 

“Now, I’ll be off to enjoy my free night. You boys have fun!” She smiled with all her teeth and walked away with a spring in her step.

 

Lance unholstered one of his two pistols and looked over at Keith, pale in the moonlight. “Right. We going?”

 

“We’re going,” Keith stated firmly, and unsheathed his two swords as he spoke.

 

They walked down the roughly hewn stone stairs towards the now unguarded entrance. The basement door had been left unlocked by Wesdru, and Lance opened it halfway with considerable care so that it didn’t creak. Lance didn’t let himself rush — Keith appreciated the caution. He did not want to be disembowelled tonight.

 

It was pitch black inside. Lance closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and walked in before Keith could say a word. He stood, frozen, unable to hear anything as Lance moved incredibly slowly and silently. Wesdru had previously outlined the path of the two Sedluni, and more importantly, pointed out a few sturdy shelves that lined the wall. Lance was now (Keith hoped) climbing one of those shelves with a clear view of the door, and the Sedluni were (Keith really, really hoped) currently on the other side of the basement.

 

When they had planned this out originally, Lance had said to give him thirty seconds.

 

Keith had started counting as soon as Lance had disappeared into the darkness.

 

When he hit the thirty-second mark, he grabbed the partially opened door and swung it wide, letting it bounce off the staircase railing behind it.

 

From inside, he heard two vicious snarls, and the heavy, thick footsteps of two giant creatures. Keith backed up slightly, his swords (pathetically small, probably wouldn’t be more than a paper cut to them) at the ready.

 

When the first Sedluni poked its head out, Keith did not make a sound. He just sneered and pointed at it with a blade.

 

The second Sedluni, Keith could only catch glimpses of — but he could clearly see the moment when Lance fired, twice. The laser bolts pierced the skull of the giant guard neatly, dropping him forward onto his co-worker's back. The first Sedluni, getting ready to swipe at Keith with its already bloodstained claws, whipped around just in time to get two laser bolts of its own, face first.

 

A weighty thump sounded as it collapsed over the first corpse.

 

Silence.

 

Keith stepped over the two bodies and entered the dark basement, hearing some shuffling to his left. He whipped around, his swords out, only relaxing minutely when Lance spoke, “Hey, that was a little too easy, right?”

 

“Do not overthink this,” Keith whispered. “Let’s just get upstairs.”

 

They navigated the basement — full of shipments of booze, ID plates, weapons, etc. belonging to the various crime lords who engaged Dreyulin for protection money and sometimes transportation services. Even taking cautious, near silent steps, they made it to the stairs in just under a minute. Keith went up first, Lance closely behind him.

 

The door opened before they reached the top landing, sending them both scrambling to back up and hide — and they managed to do so, but it turned out to be unnecessary.

 

“McClain, that you?”

 

Who is that? And McClain? Keith mouthed at Lance, confused.

 

Lance blinked back and shrugged. “Yeah, it’s me. And Keith.”

 

“Good. Those two bastards dead?”

 

“Deader than dead.”

 

“Even better. Get your asses up here.”

 

Lance took the stairs first this time, and when he looked up to greet the speaker, he smiled in a way Keith hadn’t seen before — a touch charming, a touch … something else.

 

“Befferor? You didn’t say you worked for Wesdru,” Lance said in a low voice. There was nervousness in the way he shuffled his feet, in the way his hands, still holding his pistols, couldn’t seem to decide whether to gesture pointlessly or rest at his sides. But he was also grinning easily up at Befferor — an alien who was tall, lithely muscled, and with a deep burgundy skin and wide golden eyes.

 

It had taken a second, but this guy’s name finally registered with Keith. “This is the guy you gave the bombs to?”

 

“Uh, yeah?” Lance raised an eyebrow. “You were there.”

 

“I was standing watch at the other end of the alley, I didn’t actually see him — or hear you talk … Must have been an interesting conversation,” Keith said, trying to keep his tone from growing accusatory.

 

Befferor met them halfway down the stairs. His eyes flicked towards Keith once before sliding firmly back onto Lance. Apparently, it hadn’t been just the weapons that had enticed Befferor into giving up the layout and the guard rotations of this bank.

 

“Why didn’t you say you knew Wesdru?” Keith asked, suspicious.

 

“Why didn’t Lance tell me about her?” Befferor pointed out, and Keith scowled. “Exactly. But for the record, Wesdru is the meanest person here, after Bulo and Edro — the two assholes you just took out.” Befferor swung his huge rifle around, grinning dangerously. “But she got me and Jacina this job and had our backs since we started. She cut us in on five percent of her pay hike, paid out over the next couple of months. So me and Jacina will be letting you up and then you’re on your own. You get caught, and we’ll be the ones shooting first.” Befferor’s grin was now a different kind of predatory. “Dreyulin can’t know we helped you steal his shiny gems. You understand.”

 

That was terrifying but fair. Lance and Keith hadn’t breathed a word about their plan to kill Dreyulin, and so Befferor and Jacina covering their asses from retribution for betrayal was understandable. Keith catalogued a few weak spots in the tall alien’s armour. He knew where to slice to take him down, if he had to.

 

From the top of the stairs came another voice, whispering, “Enough chit-chat, Bef, get the pretty boy up here — time’s almost up.”

 

Pretty boy. Keith had to wonder what it was about this planet that had sent several aliens drooling after Lance. Which wasn’t to say that he didn’t consider Lance attractive. He did. And it sucked. Because he couldn’t have this, not when their lives were at risk.

 

Befferor’s easy grin disappeared as he nodded at Lance and Keith to head up. They moved fast, the taller alien guarding their backs. Jacina was of a different species, but similar in build — the variances lay in her hairless head and the extra-large pointed ears.

 

“Well then, Bef, you didn’t say the other one was cute too,” Jacina said with a slow grin, her teeth even and sharp; she was apparently happy enough to chat now that they were up and inside. “Hmm, McClain told Bef that you wouldn’t be interested in sharing, but what if we invited you along too?”

 

On Keith’s possibly last night alive, he had been propositioned to partake in a foursome.

 

When they got out of this, he was going to take a long, hard look at his life and the choices that led him here. (He decided to ignore the implications behind Lance telling Befferor that Keith wouldn’t be interested in sharing him.) Lance’s neck had acquired a distinct flush that was crawling up to his ears, possibly his face — Keith couldn’t tell because Lance was staring up at the ceiling and refusing to look his way.

 

“No time,” Befferor said, coming up behind Lance (a little too close, and Keith had to restrain an urge to tug him away). “Get 'em upstairs.”

 

Jacina nodded, all business now. “Right. Follow me, and do not speak.

 

They did as they were told, weapons drawn. While Lance faced forwards, Keith’s gaze was jumping behind them and into each hallway they passed. He noted that, so far, the layout appeared to be like everything they had committed to memory.

 

“When you get up top, there’s a small storage room to your right.” Jacina pointed with her automatic laser rifle. “Duck in there, wait exactly three minutes. Kes likes to take a deathstick break when he finishes his next patrol. That’ll buy you about five minutes to get down the hall, and into the safe room. It’s on you to deal with the alarm and combination lock.”

 

Lance and Keith both nodded. When Jacina jerked her head up towards the stairs, they took off, quickly but quietly. They reached the top and crammed themselves into the tiny room as Keith caught a glimpse of a dark shape coming around the far corner. They waited with baited breath, able to see each other by the dim light that emerged from the bottom of the door. The guard cast a shadow as he walked by — Keith held his breath — and then they could hear him going down the stairs. It had only been a few seconds, so Keith held up three fingers to Lance, indicating that they should wait the full three minutes Jacina had recommended.

 

When the silence stretched, Keith whispered, “Why McClain?”

 

Lance pressed in close to him to answer, not that there was much space between them to begin with. “Because,” Lance breathed into Keith’s ear, “it was the first name that came to me? It felt weird, dude, to give them my actual family name. It … didn’t feel right.”

 

Keith could understand that — like taking on a persona, an alias, distancing himself from what they were doing …

 

“And I’m weirdly paranoid about … I don’t know, this somehow coming back to us, in a way. Not like they’re many humans, let alone ones named ‘Lance’ or ‘Keith’ out here, but still …”

 

“So then, McClain?” Keith murmured into Lance’s ear.

 

He felt Lance shrug. “This’ll make me sound dumb, but it is a family name, just not mine. I’ve got a great grand uncle from Scotland, of the clan McClain. He immigrated to Cuba way back when. Married my great grandfather’s younger sister. That line of my family — all McClains. A few of ’em still got the bright red hair, too.”

 

Lance snorted a little, and Keith’s mental count said they had less than a minute left to wait, so he asked, “What?”

 

“Just, the McClain clan had a motto, centuries ago. Virtue is my honour.

 

The sad irony of that seemed to weigh heavily on Lance. Keith nudged him a little as he said, “Sounds right to me. We gotta go. On the count of five.”

 

He rested his hand on the door. Five seconds later, they were bolting down the hall with the most soundless sprinting they could manage.

 

Lance skidded to a stop at the door to the safe room, sliding to his knees and ripping the keypad off — he handed Keith both of his guns so Keith could keep watch. He then took his personal computer out of his pocket, hooking it up to the alarm; within thirty seconds or so, he had it short-circuited.

 

“That was the easy part.” Lance then set to hacking the door open. Pidge had given all of the Paladins access to her hacking software, but neither Keith nor Lance were sure if it would work with the technology on this planet. Their personal tablet computers were very similar to many of the communication devices they’d seen, but they could do a hell of a lot more, unknown to the inhabitants of this lower tech place.

 

“C’mon,” Lance muttered urgently to no one.

 

Keith was staring from one end of the hall to the other, counting off the seconds, bracing himself for someone breaking their patrol pattern, or Kes coming back early. With each passing second, his heart skipped into a faster rhythm.

 

“Got it!” Lance said, breathless and relieved. “Move, move!”

 

Keith ducked into the room. Lance replaced the keypad before stepping in and shutting the door behind him. He leaned against the wall, taking a few precious seconds to breathe in and out in a deliberately measured way.

 

“Lance,” Keith spoke sternly. “Lance, we can’t stop.”

 

“I know, I know.” Lance swung the backpack off. He took back his guns from Keith, holstering them, and then reached into the backpack, passing Keith one of the explosives. As Keith set up the bomb right by the door, Lance took a seat in front of the safe. He stared for a moment, cocking his head.

 

“Right, so this might actually be a freaking manual safe. The last time I saw one of these was in a museum.” Lance sucked in a deep breath. “Okay. I can do this anyway.”

 

“You can?”

 

“Remember the program Pidge created to detect seismic activity?”

 

“When we were on that planet that had earthquakes every couple of days?”

 

“Yeah. Well, maybe I can use it to detect the minute vibrations — the click — of the locking mechanism when you hit the right number?” Lance sounded doubtful, but he was fiddling with the computer as he talked, resting it next to the lock and then beginning to slowly —painfully slowly — turn the dial.

 

Keith finished setting up the bomb, and then watched, frozen despite the desperate need to pace or do something.

 

“Holy shit.” Lance huffed out a shocked laugh. “I think it’s working.”

 

A minute later, the safe was open.

 

“You’re smarter than you look,” Keith said with a smile.

 

Lance stuck his tongue out, and then he turned to open the safe door all the way. He made a soft noise of astonishment, goggling at the contents.

 

Keith fell down next to Lance, staring at the hoard. The deceptively small safe itself was deeply set into the wall, and Lance had trouble reaching the back of it even with his long arms. There were hundreds of bags, colour-coded, each about the size of a large human fist and stuffed full of gems. And yet the safe itself was not entirely full.

 

“So next we hit up Dreyulin, who should be counting his monthly haul,” Keith said casually, as if it was no big deal.

 

Lance reached into the backpack again, taking out the cloth satchels they had rolled up and tucked in alongside the bombs; they scooped up the gem bags and tossed them into these satchels. This was Keith’s burden to carry — but he had practised fighting with these cloth bags, filled with rocks and strapped to his back. Lance had sparred with him every morning and every night for the last three days. He knew how to balance himself, and how to use the extra weight to his advantage.

 

And his injury, while not appreciative of the workout, did not trouble him anymore; Keith had been careful to take breaks every time he had felt it hurt the slightest bit more than a dull ache. If he had ripped himself open, it would have been a disaster. As it was, that wicked scar Lance had mentioned was well on its way — a jagged circle, about five centimetres in diameter and slightly raised.

 

Two of the three satchels they had brought were now full to bursting, while the third had some room to spare. Lance helped Keith secure them all onto his back, the straps digging into his chest. Afterwards, Lance grabbed the backpack, still filled with a considerable amount of explosives — Lance pulled a few of the grenades out and tucked them into his inner and outer coat pockets. Then the bag was back on his shoulders.

 

Lance and Keith stared at each other for a long moment.

 

Again, something tugged at Keith, important, weighted, but he didn’t have time to think on it. He checked his pocket computer.

 

“We’re right on schedule. The guard will be passing us to check on the stairs in about two minutes. Then we dash to the office.”

 

“Wherein I have to shoot the two guards at the door before they sound the alarm,” Lance recited for the hundredth time. “I got it.”

 

“Right.”

 

The two minutes passed in charged silence, and when Keith gave the signal, they both opened the door, closing it behind them, and then once again dashing as quietly as possible, this time even further down the hall. Lance rounded the corner first, his two guns already out — he fired several times, and the two guards were down and dead before Keith had fully come to a stop at Lance’s side.

 

Lance kept his guns up, his arms shaking ever so slightly. Keith walked past him, gripping the door handle. Lance nodded once. Keith whipped it open.

 

There was no one there.

 

“What the—”

 

“He must know.” The blood drained from Lance’s face. “Oh god, Keith. He knows. We’re dead, we’re—”

 

“No.” Keith walked over to the desk, his eyes caught on a glimmer of flickering light below the glass surface. The gems were sitting there on top, sorted in their bags. He put the half-empty satchel down and filled it. “He doesn’t know. He can’t. We didn’t tell anyone. We just had some shit luck.”

 

“What do you mean?” Lance said, his voice coming out breathy and high-pitched.

 

“Look.” Keith pointed at the desk — there, beneath the gems and the glass, was a video display showcasing a live feed of the various security cameras.

 

The ones along Keith and Lance’s path were off, as Wesdru had promised. (Wesdru had assured them that the cameras regularly malfunctioned, so Dreyulin wouldn’t notice or care — there was a reason why he hired so many armed guards.) But the cameras in other sections of the building were functioning, and Keith could see Dreyulin downstairs, in the area behind the bank tellers’ counters.

 

He was holding court with several of his guards, discussing what looked like a new delivery, given the boxes stacked high next to them. Dreyulin, huge even compared to his brutish sentries, with orange skin and clawed hands, was gesturing angrily.

 

He had probably exited his office while Lance and Keith were in the safe room — the two guards had been there to protect the gems Dreyulin had left on his desk, but the boss man himself was gone.

 

“They’re downstairs.” Keith's mind was swiftly recalculating their plans. “And that throws everything off — the patrols aren’t on schedule anymore, and Dreyulin …”

 

“Oh god,” Lance said, his panic rising again. “We’re still gonna—”

 

“Lance?” Keith hiked the third bag back on, securing the straps again. “No. We’re not. Now gimmie those bombs.”

 

What? 

 

“We have the one in the safe room. We’re going to plant one more here, and then we’re going to set them off.”

 

“While we’re still in the building?” Lance hissed. “Do you remember what Yathir said about how powerful these damn things are?”

 

“Yes.” Keith held out a hand.

 

Lance passed him the backpack.

 

“We’re going back to the closet, setting these off, and when everybody comes running upstairs, we make a break for it.”

 

“And taking out Dreyulin?”

 

“Will have to wait for another day. I’m not risking anymore,” Keith said decisively.

 

Lance opened his mouth, closed it, and then simply nodded and waited as Keith set up the bomb on Dreyulin's desk.

 

When everything was done, they left the office, moving more cautiously than ever. Lance poked his head around the corner. Seeing nothing and no one, he gestured to Keith without taking his eyes off the hallway. Keith ran past him, and Lance followed on his heels — that mad dash to the hall closet was simultaneously one of the fastest and one of the slowest runs of Keith’s life. He had never sprinted that hard, but it still felt like eons before they were behind a closed door and (relatively) safe.

 

They stood in the semi-darkness, gasping for air, and when they finally had breath to speak, Keith said, “Ready?”

 

Lance shook his head. “No. But do it.”

 

Keith pulled out his personal computer, brought up the program that was synced to the timers on the bombs. He stared at the trigger button for a solid ten seconds. And then, without looking up at Lance, he pushed it.

 

The floor rattled beneath their feet, knocking them off balance. Keith’s eardrums felt like they had exploded from the noise — but, soon enough, a sharp, high-pitched ringing settled in them. Within a few seconds, he was able to hear heavy footsteps, dozens of them, as however many guards (and possibly Dreyulin?) rushed up the stairs.

 

Lance passed Keith a gun, and Keith took the initiative to crack the door open a sliver.

 

There was a huge crowd in the corridor. He couldn’t see past the massive, hulking aliens to get a look at who, exactly, was there, but the more important fact was that they seemed to have congregated by the ruins of the safe room and beyond.

 

Keith glanced over his shoulder. Lance was staring at him, eyes huge in his still-pale face.

 

In an instant, Keith shoved open the door, grabbing Lance’s wrist and dragging him along — they hurtled out of the room, hearing shouting and roaring and shots.

 

Keith tripped down the now uneven steps, Lance nearly falling over him, and they all but slid down the hall.

 

And there was Jacina, gun raised, an apologetic look on her face that clicked over into a cold, hard stare. Keith grabbed Lance again, jerking him into another hallway as she opened fire, laser blasts peppering the space they had just occupied.

 

Lance ran ahead, taking his turn at snagging Keith’s wrist, pulling him into the open front area where the bank tellers did their daily business — Lance was being yanked off to the side, disappearing so fast Keith couldn’t have — there was no way to … He spun in the direction Lance had been hauled, the laser pistol shaking terribly in his hand. He went to reach for his bayard, but realized it was no help here.

 

Befferor had Lance in a chokehold, his huge arm wrapped around Lance’s skinny neck, holding him up high enough that Lance was standing on tip toe, in danger of being suffocated. His gun had been ripped from his hands, tossed to the floor in front of Keith, who saw in Befferor’s other hand a sharp, wickedly curved blade, pressed in close to Lance’s right side.

 

Keith’s breath seized in his chest.

 

Befferor shrugged one shoulder. "Sorry, boy. And sorry to you, McClain."

 

Keith backed away as more guards burst in from the passageway he had just come from — including Jacina. But he couldn’t back off any further, he couldn’t leave Lance, would never leave him behind.

 

One breathless moment later, from amongst the masses, came the towering, broad shouldered alien, orange skin and sharp, dark brown eyes — nearly black. He had a bald head and an easy-going smile.

 

Dreyulin was visibly unconcerned by Lance and Keith. He was relaxed and even jovial when he said, “You might have gotten away with it if that fool Bruil hadn’t delivered his goods to me a day early. What a shame. Now, there is an incremental chance you and your partner may live, if you give up the gems.”

 

An easier choice had never been presented to him. He tossed all three satchels to the floor, keeping his gun trained on Dreyulin. “There. Let him go. I will shoot you dead if he’s hurt, I don’t care what happens to me after.”

 

“That so? Shall we test that?”

 

Before Keith could say or do anything, even take a breath to shout his objection, Befferor plunged that knife into Lance’s side.

 

The guttural scream that rent the air tore Keith’s heart in half, and he staggered towards Lance, his feet snagging on the straps of the gem-filled bags. Dreyulin held up a hand, preventing his people from shooting Keith where he stood.

 

Befferor gave a licentious grin as he yanked the blade out, sending Keith’s mind into a tailspin as Lance cried out again, weakly, tears streaking his cheeks — the bleeding, oh god, the bleeding. One of Lance’s hands had dropped from Befferor’s arm to brace against his injury, and Keith could see blood already coating his side …

 

“You were smart, quick — I could use you in this little outfit of mine,” Dreyulin said in a very conciliatory tone. “Your partner might not make it, but I do have a doctor I can call in, and he can join as well, if he lives.”

 

Keith could feel himself losing grip, his brain working too hard to come up with solutions, while also silently screaming in agony as Lance slowly bled to death in front of him. The hand holding the gun up was trembling harder than ever before.

 

Lance, god, please, Lance was shaking his head as much as he could in Befferor’s unforgiving grip. He rasped out, “Don’t bother. No point.”

 

Dreyulin cast an amused look over at Lance. “No, boy? Trying to be a hero, a self-sacrificing moralistic champion from ages gone by? There has never been the like on this planet. And if there has been, they died alone, forgotten, buried in unmarked graves. Like both of you will be if you don’t take my offer.”

 

Lance actually grinned then, though it was more of a grimace. “Then why don’t you join us, you son of a bitch?”

 

The hand that had been gripping his injury came up, bright light catching Keith’s eyes — a grenade. A primed, blood-soaked grenade, blinking and mere seconds from exploding.

 

Befferor roared in shock, shoving Lance as far from him as possible — Dreyulin and all the other guards scrambled for cover.

 

Keith caught Lance in his arms, and the grenade hit the floor, rolling away — in what direction, he didn’t see. But somehow, Lance was standing, bending down, maneuvering as though he didn’t have a giant hole in his side, dragging both Keith and a bag towards the counters a couple of metres from them.

 

The grenade went off as they hit the floor just behind cover. The explosion once again rendered Keith temporarily deaf, but even more so, it lit up the room, sending debris flying everywhere — over their heads and out towards the front entrance. Their exit. No one was there, they could make a run for it …

 

“McClain!” came a roar from behind them. Befferor was still alive.

 

Lance stared at Keith, and Keith stared back.

 

“Show yourself, boys, or we will drag you out and beat you to death. Being shot is easier than you deserve!” That was Dreyulin.

 

Lance shook his head. He passed Keith another grenade, and then he grabbed his gun from Keith’s death grip — Keith had forgotten he was even holding it. Lance jerked his head in the direction of Dreyulin, holding his pistol close to his chest. Keith nodded as he primed the grenade with a quick button press and tossed it over the counter. There was more screaming as the explosion rocked the very foundations. Lance popped out of cover as soon as the dust had settled and fired several times. Keith heard shouts and hisses, along with the sound of bodies hitting the floor.

 

Lance whipped back around the corner as a barrage of shots came their way. His eyes were closed, but his chest was heaving — Keith pulled him into his side, searching his jacket for grenades. He found two more.

 

Lance grabbed his hand as more shots came towards them; not one of the guards, not even Dreyulin, tried to rush them, clearly afraid of more bombs being lobbed their way. Lance lifted his arm up, firing blindly over the top of counter, and then it dropped down into his lap like dead weight.

 

He gripped Keith’s hand tightly with his free one, saying through teeth gritted in pain, “The backpack, with the bombs — it’s there, by the gem bags. If I can shoot it a couple of times …”

 

He would set off the biggest explosion yet. It would probably destroy the entire building — with them inside it.

 

Keith primed the second last grenade and threw it over without looking, causing another mad scramble and more yelling as it went off.

 

Lance flinched, wincing, but he didn’t take his eyes off Keith. His face and hair were drenched in sweat, his breaths were now coming out unevenly, and …

 

Keith had never wanted him more.

 

Wanted him safe, forever at his side, cracking jokes and flirting without reservation, challenging him and comforting him and rambling in Spanish, and reminding him of all the good the universe had to offer. Keith didn’t give a crap how stupid that all sounded — or how it was horribly cliché, ridiculous, and ill-timed as hell.

 

“McClain!” Dreyulin didn’t sound even slightly amused anymore as another wave of blaster fire punctuated his words; now he sounded furiously merciless. “You’re both dead, do you hear me? It’s going to be as slow as I can make it — have you heard of the thousand-day dismemberment? Because that’s what I’m going to do to you!

 

“Then why don’t you come here and try it, asshole!” Keith yelled while keeping his gaze fixed on Lance. “I don’t give a shit about blowing myself up along with you! These two McClains have nothing to lose!”

 

He fired blindly as Lance gawped at him, slack jawed.

 

“Did you just … take my fake-not-really-fake name?” Lance whispered.

 

“Yes,” Keith said without compunction. “Any objections?”

 

“Are you … marrying me right now?”

 

Keith fired blindly over their heads again, and grinned inanely. “If we had some kind of judge or priest here, yeah, but since we don’t” — more shooting, Dreyulin’s crew, followed by Keith — “consider it a promise for later.”

 

Puta madre, Keith, you are the worst, just—”

 

Keith didn’t let him finish, priming the last grenade, throwing it over before pressing Lance back into the ruined counter with a firm, no-holds-barred kiss. The explosion meant nothing to him as he stole what might be his last moment with Lance, their mouths messy and uncoordinated. Lance had his eyes shut as Keith pulled away, and when he opened them in the aftermath of the last grenade, it was with a glare that filled Keith with joy.

 

That was Lance at his most irritated, Lance convinced that Keith was his rival in all things, and this Lance was going to blow everything to hell.

 

He shoved the gem bag at Keith, who immediately whipped it onto his back, straps over his chest.

 

“We’re not leaving empty-handed. Be ready to run.”

 

Without any further ado, Lance threw himself out from behind the counter and fired two rapid shots at the abandoned backpack.

 

Keith was grabbing Lance around the waist as the last shot hit, and throwing him towards the front door, flinging himself after him. The first shockwave had simultaneously shoved them even further. Keith somehow managed to get his feet under him, his arms wrapping around Lance’s chest as the last batch of explosives went off all at once, sending the pair of them flying out onto the rough dirt, face first into the ground, debris pricking them everywhere, glass and stone and metal.

 

But they were alive. In one piece, more or less.

 

Lance flipped over onto his back, his eyes tightly shut as he groaned. “Keith …”

 

“I’m here,” he coughed out, on his side, his head turning back towards the bank building.

 

There was nothing left but a flaming pile of rubble. Nothing. No one.

 

They had done it.

 

Keith pulled himself closer to Lance, lifting the coat aside to see the stab wound — it was deep and oozing blood. Lance’s entire right side was soaked in red, his skin taking on a greyish tinge. Just as Keith felt the panic rising, his renewed adrenaline on top of a previous rush causing nausea to choke his throat, he heard the sound of a speeder.

 

His head whipped up, and he was feeling around for Lance’s solitary gun, gripping it and pointing it at — Yathir.

 

He was there, climbing out of the speeder while clutching a bag that Keith prayed like hell had something in it to save Lance.

 

Yathir took huge strides towards them, falling to his knees next to Lance, the bag opened and a massive bandage pulled out — it was strange and damp-looking. Without saying a word, he ripped Lance’s shirt out of the way and slapped the wet bandage over the jagged tear in his side. Lance arched in agony, but didn’t make much noise other than a hoarse moan. When he fell back to the ground, his eyes were still closed, but not so tightly as to appear in pain. Yathir breathed out a soft sigh, glancing at Keith once Lance settled.

 

“I figured I should head over here about the time you’d be wrapping up, assuming you kept to your plan.”

 

“If we’d kept to our plan, that medical bag wouldn’t have been necessary.” Keith swallowed past a lump in his throat.

 

“Well, I’ve been around long enough to know that even the best plans don’t foresee every eventuality.” Yathir smiled comfortingly. “He’s going to be fine. That’s going to disinfect and hold his wound closed, at least until we can get the doctor to stitch him up. You seem to be all right?”

 

“Maybe?” Keith wasn’t actually sure — everything was buzzing, tingling, and he couldn’t quite process the fact that both he and Lance were alive. “Let’s get back to the inn. Might have an answer by then.”

 

Yathir nodded and picked Lance up with four of his six arms. Once he was on his feet, he tilted himself towards Keith, a fifth hand extended. “Let’s go before the scavengers show up.”

 

Keith took the hand offered him, feeling as though Yathir did most of the work in getting him to his feet, heavy bag of gems and all posing no problem for the elderly alien.

 

By the time they were back at the inn, Lance resting on his narrow bed, having regained consciousness only twice on their way over, Keith couldn’t hold himself up anymore.

 

But he couldn’t bear to be separated from Lance, even by the measly half metre between their beds. His skin flushed as he embarrassed himself with his own neediness, but unlike the vigil he kept for Lance nearly two months ago, this time he felt like he could get away with it; he could have this, would have this, damn all of you who might take this from me.

 

He curled up on top of the covers next to Lance, barely fitting comfortably. He rested a hand over Lance’s heartbeat, the reassurance he gleaned from that steady sound, the soft exhalations of breath, easing him into sleep faster than any drug could have.

 

And when Lance woke up first in the morning, ready with a teasing quip despite the pain in his eyes, Keith let him mock mercilessly; he let Lance rant about how much time you’ve wasted being noble and professional, por Dios, and best of all, let Lance gloat about Keith McClain, huh? We should get little labels made for your clothes, and holy crap, handkerchiefs, with, like, initials and stuff …

 

For the first time in two months, something clicked into place inside of him; a cool relief, a sense of home permeated his thoughts — and he allowed himself to drift off to the sound of Lance’s mockery, smiling into his broad shoulder. Even if it was only for those few drowsy minutes, Keith, for once, did not feel that bitter ache of pain that came from missing their friends and family, wandering amongst stars too far for Lance and Keith to reach.

 

He had a home in Lance, and for now, for however long it took to either find a way to leave, or for the others to find them, that would keep Keith sane … and also, happy.

 

******

One Week Later

******

 

Bruil was sitting in his ramshackle office, the small one-story building right next to Denna’s Pleasure Lair. He was bent over a ledger when Keith and Lance kicked the door in, swaggering their way inside without a care — Bruil had clutched a rifle before the door had fully swung open, but Lance fired once, startling the alien into shooting wildly up at the ceiling, and therefore unable to swing his gun back down before Lance could potentially fire again.

 

Bruil stood there, arms and rifle held up in the air, shocked and outraged. “My men!” he blurted angrily. “They should’ve—”

 

“Stopped us at the gate?” Keith shrugged. “We gave them a couple of shiny reasons why they should head over to Denna’s.”

 

“Gems and my pretty new guns!” Lance chirped. “They’re very shiny and very accurate. Watch!”

 

Bruil bent over, crying out after Lance blasted a hole in his shoulder. The rifle skittered along the surface of the desk and then slid off to the floor. Keith stepped over it, and as Bruil scrambled for yet another weapon, Keith plunged his own freshly purchased, very shiny blade right through the alien’s hand, pinning it to the desk surface.

 

The screeching was annoying, but when Bruil noticed that no further pain came after a few seconds, he quieted down.

 

“What — what?!” he blubbered, his green skin clammy, his eyes darting back and forth between the looming figure that was Keith, and the cheerful, hard-eyed Lance hanging in the back by the door.

 

“You tried to kill us to avoid paying up a couple of weeks ago, Bruil,” Keith said with no inflection. “We almost lost our heads to Jorlack. But we resolved that, and I’m sure you’ve heard how.”

 

Lance mimed an explosion with his gun-toting hands, his smile sharp and pitiless.

 

“So you’re going to give us what was owed then, plus twenty percent interest to cover my doctor’s bill. And you’re going to do it now, not later, not in instalments, or Lance and I will fill you with holes, of the gun and knife sort, nice and slow, until you bleed out.”

 

“I’ll start with your feet, I think — maybe blow off a couple of toes.” Lance twirled his guns. He’d been practising that move non-stop, and Keith rolled his eyes at Lance’s triumphant look when he didn’t fumble at all. Keith had warned him to be careful lest he blow off an important part of himself, but Lance maintained that the “rule of cool” would keep him safe.

 

“I … I don’t have that much on me right now!” Bruil gasped out. “How can I …”

 

“Your rifle is nice,” Lance said, flicking his gaze down. “That’s at least thirty gems, right there.”

 

“That and whatever else you hauled in today from your deliveries should be enough,” Keith said. “After all, it’s not like you’re paying protection money to Dreyulin anymore, is it?”

 

Lance cocked both his guns and pointed them directly at Bruil’s face. “Keith is going to let you move now. Better make it fast.”

 

With that, Keith yanked the knife out of Bruil’s hand. The loud yelp and instant recoiling back in his chair, followed by a clumsy rush to the safe just behind him in the wall … It was satisfying in ways Keith didn’t know he could feel.

 

“I’ll, I’ll find a way to get you for this, I’ll—”

 

“Yeah, yeah.” Lance waved off the threat. “You and Deswi, and Kullop, and everyone else who’s screwed us since we got here. You weren’t our first stop. All we’re asking is what we were owed for jobs well done. No more, no less. Well, a little more in your case, but you caused the most inconvenience, so …”

 

A few gem bags were tossed onto the desk, a little bloody from the sizable hole in Bruil’s eight-fingered hand.

 

“How, you're two nobodies — you actually killed Dreyulin? And everyone that worked for him?” He sounded less scared and more awed now.

 

“Absolutely,” Lance confirmed with a cheesy grin. “And we’re willing to let bygones be bygones, as our people say, Bruil. We take these gems, and this nice rifle, and no more bad blood. We’re even willing to work with you on transportation of your merchandise. You know we’re good. We did it before, with less experience and crappier weapons.”

 

“We’ll charge you a better rate than Dreyulin ever did,” Keith said in a low, vaguely threatening tone. “And we won’t send thugs to break your arms if you decide to hire someone else later. We don’t need your loyalty, just your word that you’ll pay us when we finish the contract.”

 

“Because if you don’t keep your word, then we don’t break your arms, Bruil.” Lance’s guns hadn’t so much as trembled in the past few minutes, immovably trained on Bruil’s head. “We’ll just end you and move on.”

 

A loud gulping sound echoed in the room.

 

Keith put the gem bags in a small satchel tied at his waist, and then pulled the rifle strap over his shoulder.

 

“And we’re not nobodies, we have a name,” Lance said, his grin growing to ridiculous proportions. “We’re the McClains. Find us if you need us. Or don’t. From this point on, we can have nothing to do with each other. If you don’t come after us, we don’t need to beat your goons down and then put you down.”

 

Keith stood next to Lance, silently agreeing with every word, his dark eyes fixed on Bruil as steadily as Lance’s guns were. The male alien nodded shakily, and Lance nodded back, his grin shrinking into a smirk.

 

“Pleasure doing business with you. Have a lovely rest of the day!” Lance reached around Keith, winking coyly at him as he dug into the gem satchel. Keith held back a matching smirk by sheer force of will. Lance pulled out a bright white gem, also used to power small computers and communication devices. “Here, join your crew and take some time at Denna’s, on us!”

 

He tossed the gem onto the desk were it landed just short of the blood splatter. Their transaction (and revenge) successfully concluded, Lance and Keith retreated; they turned their back on an enemy with the confidence of two people who knew Bruil wouldn’t dare cross them again.

 

When they reached outside, the afternoon sun blaring down on them brutally, Lance tilted his head up towards the glowing skies, shielding his eyes and humming a little as he basked in the warmth.

 

Keith watched him silently for a minute before asking, “You feeling all right?”

 

“Yes.” Lance sighed exasperatedly. “Doctor said I was fine three days ago.”

 

“I know. That’s not actually what I was asking about.”

 

“I know. But let’s not talk about that. Let’s talk about going to the flea market and getting some new clothes!” Lance smiled brightly at Keith, his natural cheer shining through at last today. “And maybe a new holster for me. I have awesome guns, and I wanna carry as many of them at once as I can.”

 

“Okay,” Keith agreed easily. “I could go for that. And then Jorlack’s for dinner?”

 

“Yeah, that sounds good. I’ve been jealous of everyone eating that damn stew for ages. It smells like gumbo, and just …” Lance smacked his lips together. “Damn. Maybe let’s do that first.”

 

“Good. Let’s call that our first date then,” Keith rattled off in a rush. He walked speedily past Lance before the other boy could see the blush blooming on his face.

 

“Wait — what?

 

Keith groaned to himself. Lance sounded way too gleeful as he hurried to catch up to him.

 

“A date, huh?” Lance stretched his arms out above his head, lacing his fingers together and then dropping his hands down to his sides, pretending to be casual. “A date sounds good. A bit weird, considering we’re pretty much engaged—”

 

“I didn’t actually propose—”

 

A promise for later — you swore to marry me at some point in the future,” Lance said with relish. “Engagement.”

 

Keith sighed. “Crap. I guess I did. I can’t claim blood loss affected my thinking?”

 

“Uh, not when I was the one bleeding to death, no.”

 

Keith sneaked his hand into one of Lance’s, walking at a leisurely pace down the semi-busy streets. “Then, I guess, yeah. We’re engaged. But we’re not getting married until we’ve been on at least … a hundred dates.”

 

“Fifty.”

 

“Ninety.”

 

“Fifty-four.”

 

“Eighty-eight.”

 

“Sixty-two,” Lance stated with finality. “Sixty-two, and you tell me that you love me sometime before the wedding day.”

 

Keith paused in his walking. He felt Lance grow nervous next to him, so he moved quickly, tugging Lance beneath a tree that was tucked slightly into the mouth of an alleyway. It was ancient and bright green, similar to a grand willow tree from Earth, except its bark was closer to birch in its smoothness.

 

“I could tell you right now, if you want,” he said, his voice cracking much to his consternation. He pushed on regardless, watching the anxiety melt off of Lance’s features. “It’s been true for … a truly stupidly long time.”

 

Lance swallowed and said, with his own rasp and break in his tone, “Yeah. Same here. But I would rather … save it for another day. A day with no blood on our hands. Okay?”

 

Keith felt a sharp twinge in his chest at that, but he saw the wisdom in it, felt Lance’s need for it to be so, and he agreed readily. “Okay.”

 

Lance pulled him in for a kiss, passionate and desperate, but he eased off swiftly into light and playful, leaving Keith a little dizzy.

 

“Now, feed me." Lance's lips were brushing against Keith's as he spoke, as he smiled widely. "Also, clothes.”

 

“Hey, the Two McClains!” called the voice of Gunthra. Lance and Keith turned their heads in unison towards her; on the other side of the street, she sat at a table outside of a small café/weapon’s dealer shop. She grinned at them lasciviously. “Don’t tease us with previews if you aren’t going to offer the full show!”

 

Lance laughed, uncaring of the leers sent their way, the jibes, and the mockery. A few people laughed along with him, and Keith pressed in close to his side, unable to prevent the smirk this time.

 

“We should see if there’s a tailor or seamstress at this shopping place,” Keith said offhandedly. “I’m in the market for a monogrammed handkerchief.”

 

“Maybe we should print up some business cards,” Lance suggested, still laughing a little. He tugged Keith along by their joined hands. “The Two McClains has a great ring to it.”

 

“Hm,” Keith approved with a soft smile in Lance’s direction that he rapidly shifted back into his neutral scowl for the masses.

 

But he kept Lance’s hand in his own, feeling the rough gun callouses that were starting to form, locking into place against his own sword grip marks.

 

If he was going to be losing pieces of his soul, his sense of right and wrong while living in this wretched place, then maybe he could give those things to Lance for safekeeping, and they could make it out of here not only alive, but also whole.

 

******

Rebel souls,
deserters we are called.
Chose a gun and threw away the song.
Now these towns,
they all know our name.

Six gun sound is our claim to fame.
I can hear them say

Bad company
and I won't deny,
bad, bad company,
till the day I die.
Till the day I die.

Bad Company

******