Keith stood in the shade, on the porch in front of Yathir’s inn, his sleeves rolled up and his hair pulled back in a messy ponytail. Despite the lack of direct sun, he still managed to work up a sweat, washing the windows while Yathir manned the bar inside. Keith had also cleaned all the tables, mopped the floors, and had at least five other things on his list. Since he and Lance couldn’t afford to pay Yathir for food as often as they wanted to, manual labour was Keith’s way of compensating.
Lance was supposed to be helping him, but he managed to get a short, low-paying job for that morning — accompanying Brisha, one of Jorlack’s runners, who also worked as a server in his gamblers’ saloon, on a quick merchandise drop.
Keith had just finished the second-to-last window when Brisha rode up. She sat astride an ikuril — a massive creature that looked something like a cross between a rabbit and a llama, except muscular and lacking fluff. Keith took a few quick steps back as it bent to sniff at him; he didn’t want to be licked by the slimy blue tongue that poked out as it panted.
“Hey there, Keith!” Brisha greeted him cheerfully. “Lance is right behind me.”
He didn’t need her to tell him that — the long ears on the ikuril perked up, listening in on something Keith heard a few seconds later.
At which point, he rolled his eyes hard.
“He was doing that a lot,” Brisha said, patting her riding beast on the head. “Does it hold some special meaning back on your world?”
“Yes,” Keith said immediately. “It’s the wailing cry of the village idiot.”
Brisha was still laughing as Lance, formerly a distant blur in the mid-morning sun, became a distinct shape — and then a very clear picture, pushing his ikuril to its limits. Keith dropped his sponge into the bucket, crossing his arms while Lance reigned in his ride, rearing it back onto its two hind legs, clearly trying to look impressive.
Keith hated to admit it, but he sort of did look impressive. Actually, that was the wrong word. What Lance looked like right now … Keith couldn’t find the right term, but it was something that belonged in a calendar featuring scantily clad men shooting the camera come-hither stares.
“You went out in public like that?” Keith said, and his voice didn’t even waver, which was great since he was suddenly very thirsty.
Lance was a bit dusty, more than a little sweaty, and grinning ear to ear. “You betcha! And by ‘public’ you mean ‘the desert.’ It was a drop for Jorlack, Keith. No one was there other than the usual pair of scum from Ithorla to pick up their delivery.”
Lance hopped off the ikuril, dropping to the ground and kicking up more dust as he did so. He had actual spurs on his boots, and dark brown leather chaps over his rough navy pants (that were as close to denim as they’d found on this god-forsaken world). His shirt was white, the sleeves ripped off to expose his arms, and it was unbuttoned almost to the middle of his chest. All of that combined with his hip and shoulder gun holsters, and that damn cowboy hat …
Keith was having trouble keeping the impassive look on his face. And also keeping his eyes focused up on Lance’s knowing grin, damn it.
“Ithorla’s actually quite nice — that’s my hometown you’re besmirching,” Brisha scolded lightly, her soft voice melodic with an accent that thickened just then. “No one tried anything with him, Keith. They know Lance’ll shoot them full of holes before they get to lay even one finger on him.”
“And that if, somehow, my brilliant marksmanship fails me, then my partner in crime will fill them with stab wounds,” Lance said merrily. “Brisha, you okay to lead Schwarzenegger back?”
Brisha nodded as Keith groaned.
“You named the ikuril Schwarzenegger. Of course you did,” he said, sighing.
“Lance told me he was a great hero on your planet — a legend that always returned from battle.” Brisha brushed a loose strand of dark purple hair from her eyes, which were glinting with good humour.
“Actually, what I said was that he’ll be ba—” Keith swooped in and covered Lance’s mouth with one hand.
“I’m so sorry that you had to deal with him all morning.”
“Oh, we had a great time,” she said with the kind of sincerity that got her huge tips at Jorlack’s. Then she sobered, staring at them both, concern on clear display in her silver-eyed stare. “And he told me … about Keegin Dras.”
Keith removed his hand so he could smack Lance’s shoulder. “Really, Lance? You talked to Brisha about this?”
Lance rubbed at the sore spot, glaring back. “Well, who better? I just wanted to get some advice from someone who’s dealt with her before!”
“Please don’t be upset with him, he was right to ask me,” Brisha hurried to say, the young woman always a level of kind that baffled Keith — how she managed to work for people like Keegin Dras and Jorlack, while still maintaining that sweet disposition …
Brisha was pushing at her wayward locks of hair again. Keith’s gaze was hopelessly drawn to the two stumps where a pair of fingers used to be.
“Dras will hold this grudge for a good long while, but if you’re smart and keep your heads down, she’ll leave you alone eventually. My only suggestion would be don’t take any jobs from Ollewa in Byothal. Dras hates him. Turn her down and take up with him? She’ll see it as a direct challenge — then you’re dead.”
Lance nodded. “We got it. Thanks. And thank you for cutting me in on this job.”
“Jorlack knows The Two McClains get it done. He asked me to bring one of you along.” She smiled widely, dimples forming in her blue cheeks. “I’m always happy to work with the nicest mercs I’ve ever met. Here’s your pay.” She tossed Lance a small bag of gems. “Now, I’m off back to Hutton. I have a bar shift tonight. Get your promised one a bath, Keith, he worked hard today. Have fun tomorrow!”
She rode off on her beast, the second ikuril following as Lance shouted a cheerful round of farewells.
Keith leaned into Lance’s personal space to take an exaggerated sniff. “Hm, you have something rank going on there.”
“Oh yeah? Bet that wouldn’t stop you from following me into the shower. I can read you like a book, McClain,” Lance said with a leer. “You were undressing me with your eyes as soon as you saw me.”
“No, I was just struggling to believe how ridiculous you look,” Keith argued. “I didn’t even know you owned chaps. How? When? And that shirt isn’t even a shirt anymore, Lance, you might as well throw it out —”
“Should I, though? When it gets you looking at me like I’m a prime rib-eye?” Lance waggled his eyebrows. “Right? Right?”
“This is only because I need to shut you up,” Keith said, unable to completely keep the smile off his face as he dove in for a kiss. Lance laughed against his mouth, fighting back in a fiercely passionate way that had Keith reaching up to the exposed skin of Lance’s chest, sliding into the shirt … He pulled away abruptly, leaving Lance blinking in owlish surprise.
“What did Brisha mean when she said ‘have fun tomorrow’?” Keith asked suspiciously.
“Dude, you forgot?” Lance sighed. “What am I even saying, yeah, you would. It’s your birthday tomorrow. We have plans. Or, well, I have plans, and you agreed to go along with them.”
Keith remembered a vague reference to this a couple of months ago, on Lance’s birthday, when Lance had worn his damn cowboy hat to bed paired with only his leather pants and hip holsters … Keith had overlooked the promise about celebrating his own birthday because of …reasons. Very good reasons.
Surely it had come up again since, but … Right, so he had forgotten, but his birthday had never really mattered to him.
“Okay. So, what’s happening?” Keith asked, leaning in again, his hands seeking skin.
“It’s a surprise!” Lance took a step back, smiling mischievously when Keith made a noise of protest. “Save it for tomorrow, cariño, we’ve got a whole day to … celebrate.” He winked.
Keith sighed loudly, letting Lance give him a swift and sweet embrace, along with a peck pressed to the side of his head — neither of which satisfied him.
He had been breaking his back cleaning the inn all morning, Lance having disappeared to work with Brisha before Keith had even woken up … He wanted just a taste, a small sample of whatever Lance had planned, and really, that wasn’t so much to — Lance darted away, laughing, when Keith tried to sneak in a quick grope.
“Nope, sorry, no dice.”
“Not even tonight, after —”
“I said I was going to make your birthday amazing, and I meant it. So slow your roll, I promise it’ll be worth it.” Lance took off his hat, fanning himself with it. “Want me to help finish these off?” He cocked his head towards the windows.
Keith wanted to say yes, but then he thought of Lance in this outfit, except wet, and that was just a level of torture he wasn’t willing to inflict upon himself.
“No, go away. Take a shower. There’s some leftover veg from last night in the fridge. And hey, we have a small gig with Wesdru later, so take a nap to keep from falling asleep on the job.”
“Will do!” He gave Keith a mock salute and disappeared inside.
Keith stared down at the sponge and bucket, letting out another great heaving sigh. He trusted Lance not to have anything too crazy planned, but that didn’t stop the apprehension from filling his mind and painting some horrifying images. Most of them involved Denna’s Pleasure Lair, and that was something he wasn’t ever planning on revisiting.
It was breathed against his ear, the air tickling him. He grumbled incoherently, flinching away from the intrusion.
“C’mon, Keith, early start,” Lance said, pushing at Keith’s shoulder, which did not move even slightly despite Lance’s insistence. “Man, we really need to get your sleep evaluated at some point. How are you so dead every night?”
“I need to recharge after a whole day with you,” Keith groused, rolling onto his back to glare up at Lance, who was way too chipper for this ungodly hour. “The sun is not even up yet. I hate you.”
“Happy birthday! Feliz cumpleaños, querido,” Lance murmured the last few words, pressing a hot, too hot, kiss to Keith’s mouth. When he pulled back, he made a face from the morning breath — which Keith didn’t care about, it was Lance’s fault for being up this obscenely early — and then resumed grinning like a loon. “Get showered, get dressed! We’re hitting the road!”
The road? Keith moaned. He did not want to travel today. His body still ached from all the physical labour that was cleaning the inn yesterday morning. He'd had work later that night, too, even though the job for Wesdru had been easy money — standing around protecting a nervous drug dealer from her competitors, who hadn’t even shown up at the drop.
“Let’s go, Keith! Up and at ’em!”
Keith groaned and poured himself out of bed sluggishly. Lance made a happy sound and then disappeared to do … something. Keith did not know, or care to know, what it might be.
By the time he had completed his morning routine, he was awake enough for that slight edge of anxiety to creep up again.
Lance was downstairs, waiting while clutching a cloth satchel filled to bursting. He was dressed in his most commonly worn clothes — the hat, an off-white long-sleeved shirt, patched-up brown leather pants, and his midnight blue jacket. Keith stopped in front of Lance, his hands braced on his sword hilts, wearing his own usual red duster and scuffed black boots.
Lance bounced on his heels and then whipped around. “Great, let’s go!”
Keith followed him warily, out to the hovertruck that was packed with even more bags.
“How far are we going?” Keith asked as he climbed into the passenger’s side.
“Not actually that far — just up the mountain.”
They were at the foot of the mountain now, in Dagos. He squinted into the grey horizon as Lance pulled the truck out onto a path that led upwards.
Keith quickly warned him, “There’s a few caches up there, belonging to some big names, you better not—”
“I know, man. I’m not going to piss off a crime lord on our day off, so we’re going nowhere near those. Now chill and enjoy the ride.”
Keith decided to do just that — and ended up sleeping most of the way. His eyes fluttered open once or twice when Lance pulled the truck sharply around a few fallen rocks and downed cacti. When they reached their destination, high up enough for Keith’s ears to pop, the sun was just starting to appear over the desert-scape.
“Perfect!” Lance crowed in triumph. “C’mon.”
Keith rubbed at his eyes, yawning as he stumbled out of the truck, helping Lance grab the bags. It took a few minutes for him to register their surroundings.
They were on a plateau at the top of the mountain, partially obscured by huge trees, the willow-looking ones that he often saw scattered amongst the buildings in Hutton, but these were far bigger, their leaves brushing the ground. The air was cooler up here, which would surely change as the sun had a chance to shine for a few hours.
Lance was walking just beyond the trees to an outcrop of flat rock — he dropped one of the bags, and the other he rested on a knee as he pulled out two big, fluffy blankets. He laid them both down, one on top of the other, and then kicked off his boots and stood on the makeshift bed.
He extended a hand out to Keith, his smile soft. “C’mere.”
Keith hauled the heavy sack he was carrying further up his shoulder as he answered Lance’s siren call. He put the bag down on the edge of the blankets and then removed his own boots.
Once Keith stood on the surprisingly cushy bedspreads, he smiled back at Lance, taking his hand and allowing himself to be reeled in.
When Lance kissed him, it was gentle and no more than that. He leaned down to tug Keith into sitting on the blankets, facing the rising sun. He arranged their limbs so Keith was reclined back onto Lance’s chest, cradled between his long legs.
Lance’s arms were wrapped lightly around his waist, his chin digging a little into Keith’s right shoulder as he said, “See? Amazing.”
The sun’s slow crawl up the sky was magnificent. It stung Keith’s eyes, but he looked on regardless, watching the light touch everything, brightening the previously grey and gloomy landscape. Hutton and the other towns rested on the opposite side of the mountain, leaving a barren, untouched land laid out for their viewing pleasure here. They could see out to forever, it seemed, including to another set of distant mountains, and no one, no city, for hundreds, if not thousands of miles.
Keith's stomach growled, echoing in the emptiness around them.
Lance laughed, his body shaking behind Keith’s. “I came with all sorts of goodies, so hold on.” He shuffled over slightly to the left, keeping Keith between his legs; he yanked one of the bags closer and pulled out several glass bottles of water, containers filled with food, and …
Keith smirked. “Prepared for all eventualities?” He picked up the bottle of massage gel, made from the soft insides of the cacti and useful for many things.
“Keith, you better believe that most of today is going to be spent depleting that bottle right there, but first — food!” Lance opened a container and passed on slices of bright pink fruit, an orange-like plant that grew on the foothills near Dagos.
It was sweet, tangy, and most importantly, juicy. Keith could feel both his thirst and hunger settling as he ate. Lance was munching beside his head, and when he pressed a piece of fruit to Keith’s lips, he had no problems sucking it in, licking at the fingers that rested near his mouth.
Lance's chest heaved sharply behind him. “No, stop, we need to eat some more, it’s gonna get hot, and then—”
Keith turned in Lance’s arms, pressing a wet, fruit-tasting kiss to his lips that he deepened within seconds, not giving Lance the breath to object. He could feel Lance tensing, getting ready to fight, so Keith dropped a hand to his pants and ended that immediately.
“You are a cheater,” Lance gasped out when Keith slid his mouth down his neck, paying special attention to the scar below his ear. “Seriously, dude, the worst—”
“It’s my birthday. I do what I want.” Keith grinned at Lance’s affronted noises.
“Um, you didn’t care about your birthday, until I—”
But Keith was ignoring him, shoving Lance’s jacket off his shoulders, and then pushing his shirt out of the way to pluck at his hip holster belt. Once the guns were safely set aside, he worked on the pant buttons. Lance was still trying to complain; really, it was remarkable, but Keith knew that the nagging was going to stop shortly — as soon as he got comfortable on his stomach, between Lance’s thighs …
Sure enough, Lance was cut off mid-word, a loud, shameless moan escaping his lips. They typically weren’t that noisy together — all too aware of Yathir and the odd inn guest sleeping a few doors down or in the rooms beneath them — but there was nothing and no one anywhere nearby now. Apparently, Lance was taking advantage of that by voicing endless praises and pleas, babbling and groaning in turns.
He went silent towards the end, Keith glancing up to see his blue eyes fluttering closed, and his mouth falling open in a wordless shout.
Keith rested his head on Lance’s leg for a few seconds, his chest heaving in time with Lance’s wheezing breaths. Then he sat up and reached for a glass bottle of water, rinsing and spitting a few times a ways from the blanket bed, before taking a few solid chugs of the cool liquid.
He grinned triumphantly at Lance’s dazed expression, at the sweat gathering at his brow and his mouth hanging open, panting.
“I’m all hydrated now,” Keith said casually. “But here, you look like you could use some water, buddy.”
Lance’s eyes flashed, and Keith was tackled back onto the blankets, laughing when Lance snatched the bottle and took several deep gulps, saying between drinks, “You are the worst. I cannot get over this, like, how — you know what? This was supposed to be all about you, and I’m sticking to that plan, damn it!”
Keith was laughing even harder at Lance’s annoyed expression as he went about stripping Keith of his jacket, sword belts, and pants with sharp, irritated movements, whining about cowboys who don’t know how to celebrate their freaking birthdays.
Keith stopped being smug about thirty seconds later when he remembered that, for all that Lance was full of hot air, he also had an amazing ability to hold his breath for a stupidly long time. And that ability, when applied to certain endeavours, was pretty fantastic.
Afterwards, they were lying on their backs next to each other, staring up at a different shade of blue than the sky back on Earth, but close enough to feel a bit comforting. At least, it felt that way to Keith. He knew Lance ached in ways he couldn’t fully empathize with, not having any family waiting up on him, but he hoped this helped, if only a little.
“Do you speak any Korean?” Lance asked, apropos of nothing. "It's been fun, teaching you Spanish — if you know Korean, you could teach me some?"
Keith was used to this kind of randomness, so he didn’t hesitate before answering, “No. My dad’s family immigrated to Texas before he was born. He spoke it only with his parents, until they passed away. English was his primary language.” Lance snorted, muttering Texan English, and Keith nudged him with a knee, smiling self-deprecatingly. “I tried to learn to get … closer to him, but then he was gone and it didn’t feel … I didn’t want to anymore.”
He’d forgotten most of it. He knew eomma and appa. He remembered saranghae. That was all. He didn’t feel a great loss, though maybe he should.
“Your mom was Korean, too, right?” Lance said, turning on his side to study Keith’s face.
Keith saw him in his peripheral vision, but he kept his eyes focused on the cloudless sky. “Yeah, but she … she was a fourth or fifth generation American. Or at least, that’s what my dad said. She never spoke about her parents, and before she was gone, she gave me that knife … And, well, you know how that went.”
Lance clicked his tongue. “Yeah. My fiancé is a hot one-quarter or one-fifth or something alien. Have I told you how much I love your eyes, by the way? Greyish-purple is way too fabulous. I think you’ve got a couple of yellow flecks in there. Hot.”
“Yeah, they’re pretty cool,” Keith said nonchalantly. He grinned when Lance thumped his chest with the hand that had been resting on it.
“That was your cue to say but Lance, you have the prettiest blue eyes I’ve ever seen.”
“I mean, they’re interesting. Dark blue isn’t all that common—”
“Excuse you, they are a royal blue, asshole.”
Keith shrugged. “But are they a one-of-a-kind shade found only in alien-human hybrids?”
“Hybrid your face,” Lance blurted out.
Keith cracked up again, because he could, because there was no reason to not enjoy the day.
Lance straightened suddenly, peeling off his shirt. “Oh, I almost totally forgot.”
Keith took a moment to appreciate a shirtless Lance while he was rummaging through the bags again, pulling out a small jar. It was a bright orange, and Keith recognized the smell as soon as Lance uncorked it.
“You brought sunscreen?”
“Sunburn is no joke — and we’re not going back for a long while. Plus …” Lance smirked and peeled his unbuttoned pants off, leaving him sitting there completely naked. “Happy birthday, Keith, and welcome to your twenties. Your present is me, all day nude, all day free access. Come at me, bro.”
“Do not use the word ‘bro’ in this context,” Keith said primly, but he was already reaching for the jar, his eyes feasting on every inch of the lush light brown skin before him.
For some reason, the sight of Lance was different in broad daylight, out here on the mountaintop, with only trees and sky to frame the picture.
He took the sunscreen away from Lance as the other man flipped over onto his stomach. He couldn’t help the way his hands lingered on certain spots, tracing familiar scars and freckles. Lance made noises of pleasure, but they were lethargic, no real intention behind them. He turned over onto his back, and Keith worked the cream onto his face first, tenderly outlining his features while Lance’s eyes were closed. Then he moved from his neck down to his toes; Lance giggled as fingers slid down the backs of his knees and brushed the bottom of his feet. Keith would have made that a whole thing, but Lance straightened up quickly, tucking his legs under him as he swiped the jar from Keith’s hand.
“Your turn,” he said in singsong.
Keith went down easily, only needing to take off his shirt to join Lance’s state of undress. He let Lance work his front before he flipped over, and by the time he was covered in the flower-scented sun-guard, he was tempted to fall asleep, especially with Lance lightly massaging his shoulders and back.
“You can, if you want,” Lance murmured. “Take a nap, I’ll wake you up for lunch.”
“Hm, no, food now,” Keith said, forcing his eyes wide open and sitting back up.
Lance smiled. “Okay, sure. I’ve got leftovers from dinner yesterday, some veggie sandwiches made with that sweet naan-like bread thing, and fruit. Also, more water, some crispy-fry-chips, and candy sticks. Oh, hey, Yathir snuck in some pie! Awesome.”
“Bring it all out, I’m starved.” He felt vaguely guilty about eating so much when they couldn’t afford to pay Yathir for it right away. But he was already salivating over the pie the innkeeper had baked for them, and so he decided to let it go, just for today.
They sat there, completely naked on top of a mountain, eating a selection of food that was nothing like the fare on the Castle or back on Earth, but still good, the tastes having become familiar to Keith. His weapons were within arm’s reach, but he didn’t feel the need to check every five seconds. Keith was relaxed, and that was honestly the best gift Lance could have given him. Well, with one possible exception.
“You said you wanted to make today all about me, right?” Keith said, sealing the containers up and pushing the remaining food aside. He took a swig from another bottle of water, smirking at Lance, who was leaning back on his hands, a matching expression on his face.
“Uh huh, that’s how a person’s birthday is supposed to go. You’re learning!”
“Then I want what you got on your birthday,” he said, putting the water down and reaching over to their pile of clothes. He plucked Lance’s hat out and shuffled over on his knees, placing it firmly on Lance’s head. “I want a ride, cowboy.”
Lance guffawed. “Wow, is that as close as you’ll come to saying it?”
“I am never saying it, Lance, because no one should ever say it. That was one of the worst lines you’ve ever used on me, which is saying a lot.” Keith was holding the bottle of massage gel in his hands, scowling at Lance, fighting back a smile with everything he had.
Lance’s grin was painfully cheesy as he took the bottle from him. “Because it’s your birthday, I won’t make you repeat it. Just know that on any other day where you want this? That is so a condition of getting your ride.”
“But not today,” Keith said insistently. “So giddy-up.”
Lance was giggling now, even as he thoroughly coated one hand in the gel. “No one would ever believe me if I told them this story. Keith, breaking out the Texas—”
“I lived there for barely any time, Lance, I don’t have an accent—”
“And the cowboy jokes.” Lance sighed, his fingers sliding along Keith’s thighs, tugging him in closer. “Man, could you imagine Hunk’s face when I tell—”
“Um, could we not picture anybody else right now?” Keith objected while glaring. “Really, you’re—”
His voice faded out, Lance’s hands working hard at rendering him speechless, doing an excellent job right from the start.
Lance raised one hand to his own head, tilting his hat a little further back so he could kiss Keith effortlessly. It was wet, and passionate, and soon they were gasping into each other’s mouths, the sun beating down on them, lighting everything up so nothing was in shadow.
Keith could see every bead of sweat forming on Lance’s skin, the exact colour of his gorgeous eyes when they darkened further, and the pink of his tongue as it slipped out to trace his lips.
As they reached the peak, Lance managed a grin and a cry of, “Yeee-haaaw!”
Keith laughed so hard he set Lance off, everything made a million times sharper because of their delight. They were both convulsing in laughter and pleasure, Lance with one hand on his hat to keep it on, and Keith wrapping his arms around Lance’s shoulders. Keith buried his face in Lance’s neck as he came down from the high, shivering and shaking with mirth.
Lance held Keith up momentarily, before he tipped them both over onto their sides. He reached with one hand into a bag, pulling out a rag, wetting it with some water and cleaning them up. When he was done, Lance tossed the rag to one side, letting out a quiet sigh as he relaxed back into the blankets.
They breathed together for a time.
Keith opened his eyes to see Lance staring at him with such bottomless affection that he felt the air catch in his lungs, just for a second, before he exhaled in a long release.
“Actually, I know what story I want to tell Hunk first,” Lance said, picking up their conversation as if nothing had happened.
Keith propped his head up on one hand. “Right, the gun battle with Caspor’s men, where you made that shot without looking? Or the alleyway with those idiots who tried to ambush us after—”
“Nope.” Lance popped the ‘p’ and grinned. “I was thinking about what happened last month—”
“No, never, Lance, stop,” Keith whined, the image of Denna’s Pleasure Lair looming in his mind’s eye.
“And I know exactly what to call this tale — That Time My Fiancé Thought I Was Stripping For Cash.”
Keith buried his face in the blankets, groaning. “Why. Stop. You said you wouldn’t bring it up again.”
“I absolutely didn’t, how could I? It was gold, Keith. Your face …”
“You took a job that put you in a brothel every night. You made an obscene amount of money, and you wouldn’t tell me how. What the hell else was I supposed to think?!”
“I don’t know, dude, but it was one of the best things that has ever happened in my life, no lie,” Lance said with a happy smirk. “I am going to hold this over your head for the next ten years, easy. And that's without considering the promise you made — remember what’s gonna happen on my birthday, next year?”
Keith didn’t complain further, mostly because he wanted the subject dropped so the damn teasing would stop, too.
But there was another factor as well. Namely, the way his heart thudded painfully whenever he thought of the scene he’d come upon at Denna’s — Lance on that stage, exposed in an entirely different way than he’d been expecting, but still … too intimate for the hungry eyes that had devoured him. Keith’s own eyes included.
Then again, alongside that now dull pain, there was the memory of an all-too amazing night after Keith finally knew the truth, and Lance decided to reward him …
He was brought back to the present by Lance, who was now rummaging through the bags once more; he pulled out a deck of cards, tossing them into the space between them. Keith picked them up, shuffling them easily while tilting his head curiously, grateful that Lance had let go of the mockery.
“Right, I’ve been wanting you to teach me that thing you do with your sleeves …” Lance grabbed a shirt and a jacket without looking. The shirt was his own, but the jacket was Keith’s. He pulled the white top over his head, shrugged on the red duster, and sat there, looking ludicrous without his pants.
Keith chuckled, and Lance tried to kick him. Keith caught the leg easily, gripping his calf and stroking lightly. “You want me to teach you how I cheat at cards?”
Lance pulled his leg back, grinning and nodding. “I don’t mind being your distracting piece of eye candy, but it would be cool to have another skill under my belt.”
“You’ve got plenty of skills beneath your belt,” Keith said dryly, raising an eyebrow and causing Lance to groan.
“Wow, I bring out the worst in you. Seriously, this is all my fault, and I apologize to the universe at large.”
“Thank you for acknowledging the terrible influence you have on me. Now, pay attention …”
The sun fell at a leisurely pace as Keith, after putting on his shirt and Lance’s jacket (triggering a storm of giggles in Lance when he also chose to remain pants-less), attempted to teach the fine art of card hustling.
Lance managed to conceal the cards well, but he lacked finesse when attempting to slip them into his hand.
“You’ve got to use your hand as a shield, almost,” Keith explained, grabbing Lance’s wrist gently and placing the card in the centre of his palm. He arranged his fingers so the card was completely hidden, and then showed him how to slip it into the fanned out collection of cards in his other hand.
“Huh,” Lance said, struggling to imitate the action on his own.
“Here.” Keith slid over, sitting right next to Lance, pressing in close. “Watch it from my angle.”
He picked up two cards from the deck instead of the one he was supposed to, dropping the second card into his sleeve without looking. Lance watched closely as he then demonstrated the subtle fall of the hidden card into his hand, followed by the quick slip of it into his other cards. He then did it again, this time far more quickly, the way he would do it if he were actually sitting at a gambling table with other crooks.
“Dude, that is some trick,” Lance said, whistling afterwards. “I don’t think I could ever be that smooth.”
“You, lacking in smoothness? I’m shocked.”
Lance nudged him hard with his shoulder. “I’ll practice, but, man, I think I’m definitely gonna stick to being your hot distraction.”
“You know you don’t have to—”
“Yes, Keith, I know, you’ve only said so a million times. It’s fine, I’m good at it, and it’s fun, fooling those dumb jerks. Caspor especially. Gunthra, not so much, but then again, I’m not entirely sure we are fooling her.”
“Yeah, I’m starting to think she knows and she just … likes the show,” Keith said, wrinkling his nose. “Whatever, we get money from her out of it.”
“The lady gets what she paid for,” Lance said with a coy grin. “Who wouldn’t want to stare at this every once in a while?” He gestured towards himself, looking absolutely absurd half-dressed, and Keith rolled his eyes.
“As long as she never decides to just tear us to shreds, yeah, go on, Lance.”
Lance laughed and stripped off his clothes again.
Keith should have been immune to this by now, but … No, this was still one of the best sights in the universe, hands down. He followed Lance’s example, and after he’d tossed his shirt and the jacket aside, Keith tangled himself up in those long limbs. Lance wrapped his arms around Keith, pulling him in for an awkward hug considering they were still sitting next to each other.
The sky was changing from blue to dusky orange as the sun descended towards the horizon.
Keith knew it was probably going to be a spectacular sunset, but he focused on Lance instead — on all the plains and dips of his body. The muscles that had developed over the last few months, more prominent than ever, though he remained lanky. Keith had strong arms and legs before they were downed on this world, but now his body was hard and marked all over.
Lance’s hands were tracing Keith’s abs, catching on a jagged circular scar as he said, wistfully, “You used to have a bit of belly fat. It was soft and nice. We need to get you eating more. Here.”
He pulled away and reached into the now considerably less full bags, removing yet more food and water … And a bottle of blue wine, half full.
“I saved it,” Lance reminded him. “And I think we should finish it tonight. We have a second bottle still.”
“And what will we save that for?” Keith asked, tugging the food in and reopening the containers.
Lance went quiet, falling back to sit with a little more space between the two of them. Keith looked up, worried, to see him chewing on his lower lip, staring down at the wine.
“For when we leave,” Lance said finally. “Or when the others find us.”
Keith’s heart skipped agonizingly in his chest, his throat seizing.
He had no doubt that they would leave this place — they had more than enough for a ship now, though they still couldn’t afford fake passports, identity plates, and a hacker to insert their names into the appropriate databases … But the idea of being able to find their friends and family again … That seemed more and more like a dream, a wisp of hope and fantasy that only had a barest hint of reality to it. The certainty of reunion had faded in the last few weeks, and Keith couldn’t say why — only that something had been quietly dying inside of him without notice. Until this moment.
When his throat permitted him, Keith said, “Yeah. That’s … we should keep it safe until then.”
“But for now!” Lance said brightly, a touch too loud. “Cheers to the birthday boy! Twenty years of life, and counting!”
He uncorked the bottle and passed it to Keith. As soon as Keith had a mouthful, Lance was diving in, kissing him. Keith almost choked on the wine, but he managed to swallow, sputtering just a little. Lance reared back, wiping at his chin and laughing.
Keith was tempted to upend the bottle over his head, but decided against it as the tingling sensation over his skin reminded him how good this stuff was.
Lance dragged the food back in, setting up the spread between them. Everything was cast in an orange glow as they feasted, passing the wine back and forth, and discussing which foods tasted best in combination with the wine. They demolished every piece of sustenance Lance had brought with him, and the blue wine was finished shortly after that.
Their skin prickling pleasantly, they lay back down, staring up at the darkening sky.
“I … think that I’m kinda messed up for thinking this, but I don’t know if I would change things. Stop us from crashing here.” Lance murmured the words, hardly more than a breath of sound.
Keith glanced over at Lance, his eyes taking in the slope of his nose, the shape of his lips, the length of his eyelashes. He put away the blood and the tears and the pain, and he remembered Lance’s mouth against his with the backdrop of an explosion. The first time they had pressed in close together, skin against skin. The sparring practices that ended with cool drinks in the shade of ancient trees, and long conversations about everything vital and nothing of importance. Lance, on a stage, his wounded soul on display for the world, and the promise, the vow Keith made to himself each day, that he was going to be with Lance for as long as the universe permitted.
“Then I’m messed up like you,” Keith said softly. “Voltron is needed, but I’m not sure that it matters more to me than every good thing between me and you.”
“What does that mean when we find the others?” Lance asked in a whisper. “Are we … are we still Paladins? Will the Lions even want us? Could we even form Voltron considering …”
“All I know is that we can’t stay here forever. Someone, somewhere is going to get lucky, on a day that we’re unlucky, and that’ll be it.” Keith slid in closer to Lance, wrapping his arms around him.
“Yeah. And as cool as Yathir, and Brisha, and even Wesdru are … I can live with missing them. This place is … pretty much what I would imagine one of the circles of hell to be like. Which, again, makes me screwed up for not regretting this whole damn crap situation.”
“Lance, let’s just agree that we’re both fucked up beyond fixing, and move on.” Keith pressed a kiss to his ear. “And thanks … for today.”
“Again, birthday. This is how things are supposed to be, you dope,” Lance said teasingly, but it was tender and sweet, and he ended it with a kiss to Keith’s lips.
The sun slowly vanished for the day, but that didn’t stop Lance from slipping his hands along Keith’s skin, allowing Keith to pull so that he rested on top of him — they were kissing like the world was ending at first, then just as if today was ending. Keith was floating along with everything Lance did, quietly approving, his hands buried in Lance’s hair, and then dropping to his shoulders, sliding down his arms until he hit the blankets, clawing at them a little as Lance brought stars to Keith’s eyes, even with the sun clinging to life beyond them.
Lance collapsed on top of Keith, forcing a breath from his lungs. Keith shivered now as the sweat on their skin cooled swiftly. Night had fallen, and he could see real stars when he opened his eyes, staring up at the sky for the final time that day.
“I’m kinda sad,” Lance said. Keith braced himself for another emotional conversation, but then Lance finished with, “We only got, like, a third of the way through the massage gel.”
Keith broke out in laughter again, his joy resounding across the mountaintop.
Lance snorted into Keith’s chest and then pushed himself up, careful of his position between Keith’s legs, which were still wrapped loosely around his hips. “I think it’s time we head back home.”
Neither of them flinched at that last word, but there was a slight pause after it escaped Lance’s mouth.
Keith spoke first, saying, “Yeah, you’re right. It’s going to get cold pretty soon.”
When Lance tried to move, Keith tightened his legs around him, preventing him from getting up. Lance looked down at him quizzically.
Keith swallowed before speaking. “I know I’ve said it already but, seriously, thanks. Gracias. It’s probably the best birthday I’ve ever had.”
Lance’s answering smile was tender. “You’re welcome. De nada.” And he gave Keith a lingering kiss, full of promise for better days.
When he pulled back, Keith untangled their limbs, letting Lance sit up, and he followed shortly after, running his fingers through his incredibly messy hair. He reached into his pants’ pocket for a tie, struggling to see in the dim twilight.
“Did you bring a flashlight?” he asked Lance.
“Yeah, hold on a sec.”
By the light of a small lantern, they got dressed, and then packed up the blankets and the empty containers of food and water. With a considerably lighter load, they walked easily back to the truck, comfortably quiet.
Lance drove down, and Keith was awake for the trip this time, watching the scenery and enjoying the breeze on his face.
When Dagos was in sight somewhere beneath, the lights of the tiny town beckoning them in, Keith said, “We should plan our wedding soon.”
Lance nearly drove them off the side of the mountain. They weren’t that high up by this point, so Keith was mostly unconcerned, though he did have to pry his hands off the dashboard. Lance had hit the brakes and whipped around to face him, his eyes wide.
“Holy crap, Keith, you can’t just say that,” he wheezed out.
“Why is it so surprising?” Keith asked, raising an eyebrow. “We’ve been engaged for six months.”
“Because … I don’t know, there’s being engaged, and there’s actually getting married,” Lance said, waving his arms for emphasis. “Do not ask me to explain why this gets to me, I actually can’t.”
“That you don’t understand the workings of your own mind makes total sense to me,” Keith said, not ducking from the slap Lance directed at his arm. “But, really, I … want to. Have a wedding, that is. A simple one.”
Lance was silent for a while. Keith waited, drumming his fingers lightly on his thighs.
Finally, Lance said quietly, “Can we … wait until we’re back? I mean, on Earth. My dad would die if he didn’t get to see me get married. My mom wouldn’t really care as long as I’m happy, except that my aunts and uncles totally would, and she would never hear the end of it, so yeah, to spare her the grief … Never mind my brothers and sisters, and my cousins — just, everyone would wanna be there, and I want them there.” Lance took in a deep breath. “And it’s not like we’re missing out on tax breaks or visitation rights or anything while we’re out here, so …”
“Lance, I get you.” Keith gave him a quick half-smile. “I get it, and I’m cool with it. But we can still plan, sort of. If we’re inviting your entire family, that’s … probably going to get out of control.”
“Oh, you have no idea. And don’t forget we totally gotta have everybody from Voltron, and Hunk’s family is close to mine, and …” Lance went silent again. But when he next spoke, his voice was chipper. “My mom is going to interrogate the crap out of you, dude. Apologies ahead of time.”
“As long as she likes me by the end of it, I don’t care — I think the Spanish will probably score me some points,” Keith said, smiling wider as he pictured it. “I’m actually a little more worried about your older brother and sister, um, Javier and Lucia?”
“Look, Javi won’t hurt you, but you gotta be ready for him to isolate you and then give you the lecture of your life. Seriously, he could give Shiro a run for his money when it comes to guilt-trips, and my sister? Lucia is probably going to threaten violence, but you just promise to let her kick your ass if she needs to, and you’ll be good. Uh, unless she actually just wants to kick your ass on principle, then, maybe, run and hide — she’s an MMA fighter, and might actually snap you in half.” Lance kept right on rambling as he started driving them the final distance to Yathir’s inn.
They pulled in while fighting about whether or not to have a live band versus a DJ, and Keith was so happy it actually unsettled him somewhere deep down, but he ignored it, and let himself feel the full measure of his joy.
The doubts were there, always, the sureness of their reunion with their team fading, but Lance was a constant, and that was enough.
“No, I am not sitting through auditions for a live band, Lance.”
“Fine, I’ll do that, and you can deal with finding the photographer. Oooh, should we have somebody recording too?”
“That’s a thing people do?”
“Keith. Keith. Yes. Yes, it is.”
They still had to deal with Keegin Dras cutting them off from most well-paying contracts, avoiding creating yet more enemies for themselves, and saving up enough money to escape. That last one Keith knew would happen — of that much, he was sure.
But right now, he was fighting with his fiancé about having a videographer at their wedding and agreeing on the ridiculousness of paying for centrepieces and hall decorations. So everything else could wait — Keith was celebrating the best birthday he’d ever had, in his entire life, and he wasn’t quite ready for that to end.
They spent the rest of their night alternating between laughing at each other’s increasingly ridiculous suggestions, and then arguing over the more serious ones.
Afterwards, they fell asleep with cheeks sore from laughter, and bodies aching pleasantly from lovemaking, but these were the kinds of aches and pains that Keith dwelled on contentedly, that he wished would linger on into their next day, and the day after that, and all the days ever.