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What Stars Do Best

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It was an altogether quiet and unassuming night in both Wall and Stormhold, when one twinkling star was knocked from the sky.

In that one second, that one heartbeat, that one streak of light, the night flared to life for a boy named Lance, a warlock named Lotor, and a prince named Shiro.  For they all knew what a fallen star meant.  They all knew what a fallen star could do.  And they wanted, more than anything, to claim that star for their own.

What they did not understand, each in their own way, was that they were wrong.

For a star was not an easy thing to possess.

 

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Humming a drinking ditty to himself, Lance put the finishing touches on his masterpiece, the ultimate setting for wooing, the greatest idea he’d ever had.  This was going to work.  Finally, after years of flirtations and throwing rocks at windows and begging for even a second of Nyma’s time, he was going to get what he wanted.  A kiss.  Her hand in marriage.  True and genuine attention, something she had yet to give him.  He really wasn’t picky.  He would take any of the above options.  Anything for her to notice him.

She was marvelous.  Funny, beautiful, and challenging.

And confusing.  Very confusing.

Shaking his head, Lance put his hands on his hips and grinned at the blanket, the candles, the picnic basket, and the bottle of champagne that had cost him most of his savings.  There was no way she could refuse him after this.  The stars were out and the moon was bright—the perfect atmosphere.

Nerves bubbling in his stomach, Lance adjusted his jacket and straightened his back.  It was time.

Setting off for the village, sincerely hoping that the wind wouldn’t knock down any of the candles and start a fire that would burn the whole place down—though Nyma would be worth even that—Lance finished the song he’d been humming earlier, steps feeling light.  It had been a long time since he’d been so confident about something.

When he got to her street, he found a pebble on the ground and tossed it at her window.  Hardly any time later, she cracked it open, her blonde hair spilling out and waving in the wind.  Rolling her eyes, she said, “What is it tonight, Lance?”

“A picnic.”

Yawning, she said, “I’m not terribly hungry.”

“More for me then,” he said, his smile fading as he realized this was already going terribly.  All the confidence he’d managed to build while he was alone and daydreaming traveled down his body, into his feet, and out into the ground.  Still, he wasn’t one to give up.  “There’s a whole bottle of champagne for you, though.”

“You can’t afford champagne,” she laughed.

“If you don’t believe me, you can always come and see.”

She stared at him for a moment and then shook her head, laughing exasperatedly.  “Oh, alright.  You’re lucky I have nothing else to do tonight and that you look so fetching in that jacket.  I’ll be right down, darling.”

Grinning, Lance waited, rolling onto the balls of his feet and back.

A minute later, she opened the door, stepping out in a floaty white dress, her hair down, and a small, pleased smile on her face.  Approaching him, she strung her arm through his and said, “Lead the way, handsome.”

Together, they strolled to the spot Lance had painstakingly prepared.  He was a ball of excitement, practically bouncing, anticipating her reaction.  Glancing at him occasionally, she would roll her eyes and smile Lance’s favorite smile.  It wasn’t kind or gentle, but it was full of life, full of a spark that Lance understood.

When they reached the blanket, Lance let out a small breath, happy that it looked unchanged.  Glancing over at Nyma, he saw her violet eyes widen.  She gasped and released him, stepping forward, hovering her palm over some of the candles.  Spinning back to him, she laughed delightedly, taking both of his hands and dragging him towards the blanket.  “This is amazing,” she said.  “Did you really do all of this for me?”

“I did.”

“You’re so cute,” she said, sitting down, spreading her dress out around her in a circle.  “Pop the bottle of champagne, would you?”

“You got it,” Lance said, joining her, keeping a little distance for the sake of propriety.  Opening the basket, he took out the bottle and removed the cork.  He was about to mention there were glasses when she stole the bottle from his hands and took a large swig, keeping her eyes on the stars.  Staring at the long line of her neck, Lance sighed.  God, was she lovely.

“So,” she said, taking another drink, “what’s the occasion?”

The nerves settling back in, Lance dug through the rest of the basket and pulled out the food he wanted.  “Sure you don’t want to eat anything?”

“Very.”

“Because there’s lots of…”

“Lance, darling, whatever you have there, I can buy better.”

“That’s true,” Lance said, leaning back on his hands and staring at the sky.  There was something comforting about the stars, the vastness of the sky.  Whatever happened tonight, it wasn’t even a speck of importance to them.  Those stars had been witness to a situation like this millions of times.

Nudging him with her shoulder, she tilted her head and smiled.  “Aren’t you going to answer my question?”

Swallowing, Lance steadied himself.  “Can’t I just want to spend time with my best girl?”

Humming, she nodded.  “Yes, I suppose.  I should really get home soon, though.  I’m expecting Sendak early in the morning.”

“Sendak?”

She nodded, carefully prying the chunk of bread Lance was slowly consuming from his hands, breaking off a small piece and placing it in her mouth.  “Oh, yes.  He’s been traveling ever so long and I’m terribly excited to see him.”

“I thought he was leaving for a month.”

Laughing, she slapped him on the arm.  “It’s been a month, silly.”

“Oh.”

“Don’t look so sad, darling,” she said.  “I’m sure we can still spend time together once I’m married.  I’m sure a little dalliance on the side would be thrilling.”

“Married?” Lance choked, feeling sick to his stomach.  All this work for nothing.  Surely there was something he could do.  Nyma had to know Sendak didn’t care about her.  Not really.  She had to know there was someone so much better for her out there.  Getting up on his knees he said, “Don’t marry him, Nyma.  Don’t.  He left you for a month and I’ve been here, with you.  Has he ever held you while you cried?  Has he ever picked you flowers?  What has he done for you, Nyma?  What?  Because I would do anything for you.  I would take a ship to the other side of the world, fetch you whatever you wished for, I’d go make my fortune if you’d wait for me, I’d cross the wall, I’d…”

“You’re so dramatic,” she sighed.  “No one crosses the wall.”

“I would do it.”

  Resting back on her own hands, she said, “I know that, darling, but that does me very little good.  Sendak is handsome and rich.  So very rich.”

“There’s no guarantee money would make you happy.  I don’t have much money and it’s really not so bad, I swear.”

“I disagree.”

“At least I’d love you.  God, Nyma, would I love you.”

Pulling her shift closer around her, she sighed again.  Her hand found the champagne bottle and she took three long sips, before she opened her mouth, about to talk.  Lance could see that she was on the verge of breaking his heart and he brought his knees up to his chest, curling up in anticipation, when a flash of light traveled across the sky, disappearing at the horizon, falling somewhere beyond the wall.  Eyes sparkling, Nyma said, “Oh, how beautiful.  Wasn’t that beautiful?”

Coming up with an absolutely insane idea, Lance blurted, “I’d go get you that star.”

“What?”

“I’d bring you that star.  If you’d marry me, I’d bring you that star.”

Smiling, Nyma leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.  “My very own star?  Truly?  That would be marvelous.”

“Really?” Lance grinned.

“Really.  Bring me that star, Lance.”

“I will,” he swore solemnly.

Laughing, she rose, leaving the champagne bottle uncorked and the crumbs from her bread scattered all over the blanket.  “Now walk me home.  I have an early morning and an engagement to delay.  It’s going to take all of my energy.”

Hopping up, leaving the candles and blankets—he’d come get them later—Lance took her arm and escorted her back to the village, absolutely elated.  Sure, he would have to cross the wall and find a piece of shiny, metallic rock, but he could do it.  After all, it was for Nyma, the most beautiful girl in the village.

 

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“Sir,” Ezor said, carefully pushing back on of the red dusty curtains of Lotor’s bed, “I have news.”

“What is it?” Lotor sighed, closing his eyes.  He was tired.  He was always tired these days.  It had been so long since he’d felt energized.  Young.  There was a little star left, but he was saving for it a special occasion.  A special occasion that would probably never come.  All his magic, all his work over the years, and he would end up wasting away on this bed, with an old, ugly crone serving him.

“A star has fallen.”

Bolting up, he pushed himself out of bed, trying to ignore the creaking of his bones, and stumbled to the cages lined up on the wall, filled with animals that no longer screeched, simply because they were too tired to do so.  That was a relief.  Their screaming had been tiring.

Finding a chicken—this was a small piece of magic, he didn’t need something large—Lotor carried it to a long wooden table, picked up a knife, and cut its head off.  Then he sliced it open, taking a quick peek at the liver.  Ezor didn’t lie.  There was a fallen star, somewhere to the west.

Leaving behind the animal—Ezor would clean it up—Lotor hurried over to the shelves on the left wall.  The junk they’d managed to collect over the past hundred or so years was ridiculous.  While he was gone, perhaps he would have Ezor work on sorting through it all.

As he searched for the box with the star, he said, “You will stay here while I go in search of the star.  I may call on you for help.  While I’m gone, make this place fit for a king.  Once I’m back, that is what I will be, what we will be.”

Smiling, Ezor said, “And what a delight that will be.  I do miss my skin.  It was so smooth and clear.  And my magic, of course.  Do you think you could start teaching me again, once you find the star?”

“Of course,” Lotor said smoothly, meaning every word.  It was the one thing he enjoyed about Ezor.  She’d been a magnificent student.  Intelligent and interested, though prone to distraction.

Laughing, she clapped her hands together and set about cleaning.  Watching her for a second, Lotor sighed.  That would be slow going.  Neither of them could walk very fast.  Nor could they work for very long before tiring.  They, after all, were on borrowed time.  They’d been on borrowed time for longer than most people lived.  But what was the point of possessing magic if you couldn’t be extraordinary?

Finding the box, he let out a soft sound of happiness, and tugged it out from underneath stacks of paper and bottled spleens.  Some toppled to the ground, but he paid them no mind.  Setting the box on the same table that he’d just removed the chicken’s head on, blood slowly staining the wood, Lotor cracked it open and smiled down at the light spilling out.  Cupping his hands, Lotor gathered the remainder of the stars heart and swallowed it down, closing his eyes to focus on not gagging.  There was, of course, nothing pleasant about the procedure, but that was as it should be.  In order to live forever, he dealt in murder and blood.  This was a part of his punishment, among other things.

Feeling magic once again pulsing in his blood, Lotor went to a mirror and watched as he transformed back into who he had been over fifty years ago.  His hair grew out, silky and strong.  Every part of his body lengthened, his skin tightened, and his eyes filled with light.  Closing his eyes, Lotor listened to the beating of his heart.  This was what it was to be alive.  This is what he waited for.

Reaching for the warmth low in his stomach, Lotor flicked his fingers and the dusty, dank room filled with light, candles on the chandeliers flickering to life.  With another flick, the dust floated away, up into the sky.  With yet another, he was wearing more appropriate clothes, dark green, closely fitted, and smart.  There was more he wanted to do, but he forced himself to stop.  He would have to be careful with his magic.  He’d had to use it at least once, just to remember what it felt like, but now, he would have to practice restraint.

“Wow,” Ezor said, coming up beside him in the mirror.  “I’d forgotten.  I’ve quite missed your face, sir.”

“As have I.”

Extending to the tips of her toes, using his arm to keep herself stable, Ezor’s dry, cracked lips pressed against his cheek.  “Find us that star.”

“I will.  Have no doubt.  There’s no escaping me.”

With that, Lotor strolled to the doors of their palace, pushed them open, and strolled out, runes clattering in his pocket, knife in hand, off to seek his star.

 

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In the royal palace of Stormhold, Prince Shiro was staring out the window of his room, gazing up at the sky, asking something of it, just not entirely sure what.

His mother was dying and he didn’t know what to do.  It would be soon now.  As was tradition, she would be setting him a task, something to prove to both his council and his people that he was fit to rule.  He had no idea what it would be, but that was the least of his concerns.

His biggest concern was how terribly he was going to miss her.

A knock on the door shattered through his thoughts.  Bidding whoever it was to come in, he retreated from the window to his desk and poured himself a glass of water from a pitcher.

Matt, his manservant, entered, bowing.  “Your Highness, Her Majesty wishes to see you in her room.”

“Alright,” he sighed.  “Does she…never mind.  I’m sure I’ll see for myself.”

Eyes saddening, Matt whispered, “She does not have long.”

Nodding solemnly, Shiro passed Matt by, not sparing him a glance.  Normally, he would muster better than that, but he was finding it difficult to do anything but remain in his room, alone, attending to whatever duties he could.  That was his duty, after all.  Taking care of the kingdom where his mother could not and hoping she could continue to taking care of what she still did until he was ready to take her place.  He wasn’t sure he ever would be.  To him, there was no one who could do what she did.

It didn’t matter what he thought, though.  He was going to have to be ready.

When he arrived at his mother’s room, her manservant opened the door for him.  Stepping inside, he lingered at the edge of her bed, unsure what to do or say.  She was lying in the middle, heavy quilts piled around her, her gray hair spilling across the pillows.  Her breaths were shaky and rattling and her eyelids were hanging low on her eyes.  “Shiro, sweetheart,” she whispered, “come here.”

Doing as he was bid, Shiro sat down on the edge of her bed and grasped her hand.  “You look lovely today, Mother.”

Laughing tiredly, she patted his hand.  “You’re a good boy.  Help me, would you?”

“With what?”

She attempted to sit up and Shiro quickly placed his hands on her shoulders, helping lift her and keep her steady.  With shaking hands, she removed a necklace from around her neck, the ruby bright and red.  Carefully, Shiro lowered her back into the pillows and she cupped the necklace in her hands.  Bending down, she blew on it gently and the red faded, the ruby turning clear, as pure as starlight.  “I have thought of a task for you,” she said quietly.

“I assume it has something to do with that necklace.”

“You would assume correctly,” she smiled.  “All that you must do is find it.  When you take hold of it, the ruby will turn red.  Present it to the council and they will make you king of Stormhold.  If I die before you return, they will rule as one body.  Is that acceptable to you?”

“Of course.”

“Very well,” she said.

In Stormhold, everyone had a little magic.  Some more than others, but the queen had known since she was young what would be required of her in life and she’d saved much of her magic for this moment.  Willing the necklace to hover in the air, she said, “Go to the window.  Watch the skies.”

Nodding, Shiro stood and went to the window, pushing back the filmy curtains.  There was a breath of movement behind him and then the necklace whooshed past his ear, flying higher and higher, until it left the atmosphere, a flash of light all that was left of it.  Not long later, a streak painted the sky, a star falling from the heavens into the realm of Stormhold, somewhere to the northeast.  Stars didn’t fall often.  It wasn’t a regular enough occurrence for Shiro to assume anything other than his mother’s necklace had knocked that star from the sky.

He would have to seek that star.  For it had his necklace.

And maybe he would have its heart, as well.  That would certainly save his mother’s life.

“Go,” she said.  “The kingdom will be well until you return.”

Bowing, Shiro exited the room and went to his, calling for Matt.  It wasn’t long before Matt was there, ready to do as he was asked.  Together, they packed for the trip and when Shiro asked Matt to come with him, needing someone to take care of the more mundane tasks, but more than that, needing the company, Matt didn’t protest for a second, simply packing his own bag and shouldering it.

They went to the stables, loaded up their horses, then struck out into the night.

 

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As Keith fell from space onto Earth, he idly wondered why, out of all his brothers and sisters, he’d been the one to get struck by that damn necklace.  What could those humans possibly be doing, anyway?  What possible reason could they have for casting that eyesore into the sky?  They couldn’t very well get a necklace back from space.  If it hadn’t hit him, they never would’ve seen it again.

It was a long fall, wind buffeting him, and he supposed he was scared.  The place he was going wouldn’t treat him kindly.  He’d seen that much, whenever he’d cared to gaze at the earth in boredom.  And, frankly, he did prefer his place up among the stars.  At least he belonged there.

But it was hard to summon the proper amount of fear right now.  This was the most exciting thing to happen to him in a millennia. 

It wouldn’t be much too exciting until he was stranded on earth, alone, probably injured—the landing wouldn’t be kind, after all—and prone to all the things humans suffered every day.  Eating and bathing, for example.

Honestly, it was all just really inconvenient.  This had not been in the plan and he would’ve preferred if it had stayed out of it.

Sighing, he closed his eyes and let the wind block out his thoughts.  Soon, he would hit.  It was going to hurt.  A lot.  That was also inconvenient.

He’d probably create a massive crater.  That was something.

In the middle of wondering if his family would miss him, Keith struck the earth.  It felt like all his bones were shattering, like he was seconds away from dying, but he was very conscious that he wasn’t dying. 

For awhile, he laid there, eyes closed, getting accustomed to his new body.  It was strange being contained in something so small, so compact, so human

One of his legs was broken.  Probably.  He was relatively sure that was something that could happen to bones.  Either way, it hurt quite a lot.  Walking would be a struggle, which was unfortunate, because he would need food eventually.  And sleep.  And there were almost definitely people on their way to murder him and it would be excellent if he could get out of this crater before that happened.

Letting out a low groan, he opened his eyes and sat up. 

With a small swell of pride, he saw that the crater he’d created was quite large.  At least he’d left his mark on this stupid place.

Beside him was the necklace.  Picking it up, he cradled it in his hands.  For a second, he thought about leaving it here in this crater—good riddance—but then he lifted the chain up over his neck and tucked it beneath his shirt.  The damn thing had knocked him from the sky.  If nothing else, it was his now.

Struggling to stand, swearing under his breath as his leg kept giving out, Keith eventually managed.  The first thing he did was look up at the sky, eyes trailing to the place he’d been, the sky there now dark.  The second thing he did—well, that happened to him—was fall back to the earth, something heavy, warm, and making an obscene amount of noise crashing into him.

 

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“Where are you going?”

Slowly turning, Lance smiled warily and said, “Nowhere?”  The pack on his back suggested otherwise, but if he pretended it wasn’t there, maybe his father would to.

Instead of doing that, his father rolled his eyes and crossed his arms over his chest.  “I’ve said that before in my life and nowhere was never the place I was going.”

Sighing, Lance fell into a chair and said, “Across the wall, actually.”

“Why?”

“Star,” Lance mumbled.  “It fell and Nyma wants it.”

“Ah.  Nyma.” 

There was a long silence and Lance reluctantly looked up at his father, eyes pleading.  “I know no one ever crosses the wall, but I’m pretty sure it’s the only way I’ll ever get Nyma to marry me and I’d at least like to try.  You’re not going to stop me, are you?”

His father shook his head.  “No.”

“Oh.  That’s unexpected.”

Laughing, he said, “Son, there are people who cross the wall.  It’s not a safe place, exactly, but it’s not any more dangerous than it is here.  Probably.”

“No way.  People really cross the wall?”

Sighing, his father stood and headed for the stairs, gesturing that the both of them should go up into the attic.  “It’s time I told you something.”

Shrugging, Lance followed.

 

“Wait, wait, you crossed the wall?”

“Yes.”

“And you had sex with some random woman?”

His father sighed.  “Yes.”

“And that random woman is my mother?”

“Do we really need to go over every detail of the story?”

“Yes!”

“Then, yes.”

“Huh.  Alright.  Why did you have to tell me that?”

“Because she left some things for you.  They might be helpful.  After all, she’s of that land and whatever insight she has is going to be more helpful than anything I have to say.  I wasn’t there very long and I spent most of it…”

“Having sex.”

Laughing shortly, his father dug around in a box and pulled out a roll of parchment.  Handing it over, he said, “For you.”

Unrolling the parchment, removing a dark candle that was nestled inside and setting it beside him, Lance began to read.  It was short, but sweet, his mother detailing the situation she’d been in when she’d discovered she was pregnant and how impossible it was for her to keep him.  Then she talked about the candle, explaining that if he lit it and thought of her and only her, he would be taken to her.  When he finished reading, his father handed over a small flower.  “Snowdrop,” he said.  “She told me it would keep me safe.  It’s yours.  Please, stay safe, Lance.  You’re the only family I have.”  Suddenly remembering something, he pilfered around in a different box and handed what he grabbed to Lance.  “There’s also this piece of string, the string that witch used to hold her captive.  I’m not sure what use it is, but it’s also yours.”

“This candle…”

His father nodded.  “I think that it could take you to your star.  Or it could take you to her.  Whichever you choose.  It’s up to you.”

Picking up the candle, Lance shifted it from hand to hand, the wax cold and smooth against his skin.  As he stared at it, he wondered what he should do.  The star would give him Nyma.  No, correction, it might give him Nyma.  But, this, this could give him his mother.  No question.  And for most of his life, Lance had dreamed of finding his mother.  His father rarely talked of her.  Lance had thought it was because it was too painful, but it was simply because he hadn’t known her well.  Still rolling the candle, Lance said, “What did she look like?”

“Absolutely beautiful,” his father said.  “Long black hair, light skin, and blue eyes.  That’s what you have of hers.  Otherwise, I’m afraid, you’re all me.”

“Not a bad thing,” Lance said, smiling.  Then he stood and held out his hand for a match.  Prepared, his father struck one and handed it over.  Taking the match, Lance lit the candle and said, “I’m going to find her, Father.”

The candle flared and before he knew it, there was a sharp tug on his navel and he was traveling fast and far.  It was such a surprise that he forgot to think of his mother.  He forgot to think of much of anything, too focused on holding onto the candle.

Hardly any time had passed when the world began to slow and he was crashing into someone, toppling them to the ground.  Groaning, he lifted himself onto his knees and blinked slowly, realizing that whoever he’d barreled into was below him and that they were glaring at him, looking distinctly put out.  “You are not my mother,” he said.

The man’s frown deepened.  “Are you sure?” he asked, voice dripping with sarcasm.

Shoving off the ground, Lance started babbling.  “But I’d decided to search for my mother.  I shouldn’t be here.  I should be with her.  Of course, I did lose track of what I was thinking, because I really did not expect the candle to do that, and…oh my god, of course.  Hey, whoever you are, have you seen a star?  Judging by this crater, it probably fell here.  That would make sense, because that’s the only other thing I would’ve thought of.”

“Have I seen a star?” the man asked, sitting up.

Lance nodded.

“You mean the star that was minding its own business in the sky until it got knocked out by the ugliest necklace in existence?”

“Sure?”

“I’ve seen it.”

“Really?” Lance said, brightening.  “Where?”

Groaning, the man fell backwards, lying spread-eagle.  He was mumbling to himself and Lance grew irritated, wondering when this man was going to respond.  It wasn’t that complicated of a question.  Then the man sat up, ran a hand through his hair, and said, “I’m the star, idiot.”

Chapter Text

“You’re the…”  The man started to laugh, loud and long, obviously not believing Keith.  Wondering what this man thought he was looking for and finding it hard to imagine that his day was actually getting worse, Keith gingerly attempted to stand again.

“No, but seriously,” the man started, wiping his eyes, “have you…oh, do you need help?”

“No,” Keith grumbled.

“What are you even doing out here?  Are you looking for the star, too?  How’d you get hurt?  Do you think there are…”

Picking up a small chunk of rock, Keith hurled it at the man’s leg.  That got him to stop talking.  Briefly.  Then he started protesting and asking if Keith was insane and Keith sighed, stumbling towards the edge of the crater.  It was going to be difficult to get up it alone, but if it meant getting away from this idiot, Keith was going to try his damnedest.

The incessant talking stopped and a hand gripped his bicep, tugging him backwards.  “Hey, wait,” the man said, “at least let me help you up the side.  Just give me a minute to look for the star.”  Picking up the rock that Keith had thrown at him, the man said, “Do you think it’s this?  It’s not very sparkly.  Shouldn’t it be sparkly?”

“You came to look for a star having no idea what one looked like?”

“I hoped I’d recognize it when I saw it.”

Snorting, Keith said, “I’m pretty sure it could tell you it’s a star and you wouldn’t recognize it.”

Pausing in his search, the man said, “You can’t honestly expect me to believe you’re a star.  You’re…human.”

“And you’re in Stormhold.”

Blinking, the man stared at him, actually taking in his clothes, made of silver silk, the chain resting around his neck, and then gazed down at something in his hand.  Keith watched as it clicked, as all the evidence added up.  “You are the star.”

“I am, yes, and I’d really like to get out of this crater, so, excuse me.”

In a burst of movement, the man leaped forward and slipped something over Keith’s wrist.  Glancing down, Keith saw it was a thin, silver chain.  It didn’t appear to be tied on.  There was no seam.  It was just a circle of silver chain looped around his wrist.  And the end of it, well the end of it was in the man’s hand.  Sighing, Keith sat down at the edge of the crater, leaning back against the wall.  “I’m not going to move,” he said.  “You’re going to have to drag me out of here.  Good luck.”

“I have to take you to Nyma.”

“Again, I wish you luck.”

“But…please?  What else do you have to do?”

“I don’t know,” Keith said, glaring up at the man.  “But if it doesn’t involve being held prisoner, it sounds better than this.”

Worrying his lip, the man frowned at his feet.  Then his face brightened and he said, “What if I promise to take you home after you meet Nyma?”

“And how are you going to get me home?” Keith asked.  Pointing up to the sky, he said, “It’s quite a ways up there.”

Opening his hand, the man showed Keith what had been in it all along.  A Babylon candle.  Well, half of one.  But enough to get him home.  It was too bad there wasn’t enough to get him to this Nyma.  He could’ve been home by the end of the night if he’d had a full one, just in time to sleep, to stop shining.

How this bumbling fool had managed to obtain one of those was beyond Keith.  For as long as they’d existed, they’d been worth more than most people could afford.

Still, it would do as the man promised. 

Lifting himself back up, Keith said, “Fine.  Let’s go meet Nyma.”

Grinning, the man said, “Excellent.  Do you have anything to light this with?”

“You are not allowed to light that.  At any point.  Do you understand?  There’s barely enough to get me home and I would really prefer not to end up halfway there.  I’ve already fallen once and I don’t want to do it again.  The landing hurts.”

Nodding, the man stowed it away and then sighed.  “That means we have to walk.  It could be worse, I guess.”

“Speak for yourself,” Keith mumbled, glancing down at his leg.  It was throbbing gently, but he knew if he stayed on it, it would go from a throbbing to a searing pain in not time at all.  Closing his eyes, Keith reminded himself that there were people out in this world who wanted his heart.  Whenever one of his family fell, they all watched intently, and every time, it ended on a table, someone with a knife carving and slicing, blood staining clothes.

If nothing else, this man didn’t want him on a table.  Not yet.  Keith would have to be careful, make sure he didn’t find out what a star’s heart could do in Stormhold.

Carefully, they started the hike out of the crater, the man keeping a hand at the ready, taking Keith’s elbow whenever he lost his balance or didn’t have the strength to make the next step, gently easing him through.  It grated at Keith, but he remained silent.  After all, if this man hadn’t found him, he would’ve been stuck in that crater, essentially waiting to be murdered.

Once they reached the top, both breathing hard, the man smiled triumphantly and said, “I’m Lance, by the way.  It’s nice to meet you.  What do you want me to call you?  Star?  I actually sort of like…”

“Keith.  My name is Keith.”

“Oh.  Stars have names, huh?”

“You’ve never looked at us and wondered?”

“Wondered what?”

“If we’re looking back,” Keith said, jerking hard on the chain, seeing if he could break it.  When it remained firmly around his wrist, he started to walk, wanting as far away from the evidence of his fall as possible.  Wordlessly, probably stupefied into silence, Lance followed.

 

˚  ˚     .     

  .  . 

  *     

  .  ˚      ·   

.  *  ·            ·

            

 

They’d been riding for most of the night, the road north largely empty, their faces cloaked.  They were still close enough to the palace that they’d probably be safe, but the further away they got, the more dangerous it was to be recognized.  There weren’t many who knew his face, but the people who did were capable and unafraid of robbing royalty blind if they thought they could do it without consequence.

There were also some who desperately wanted to kill him, Shiro was sure.  He was the last of his line.  If he died, the throne was open for the taking.

Of course, it was also possible he was overthinking it.  He tended to do that.  There was no harm in being cautious, however.  No harm at all.

“Your Highness,” Matt piped up behind him, yawning as he did.  “Are we going to ride all night?”

“Shiro, please, until we’re back at the palace.”

“Okay.”

Too caught up in his head, it took Matt saying, “Are you going to answer my question?” before he even remembered that he’d forgotten to respond. 

“I’m sorry,” he said.  “I’m a little distracted.  Are you tired?”

“Aren’t you?”

“Not terribly.”

Matt mumbled something to himself.  In a much louder voice, he said, “Alright, then, Your…Shiro.  Look at us.  Riding all night.  How…fun.”

It was such a strange response that Shiro brought his horse to a halt, waiting for Matt to catch up with him.  They looked at each other, Matt quickly averting his eyes, and Shiro was forced to recognize how odd of a situation this was.  He, perhaps, could’ve maintained their roles outside of the palace walls, but he’d already insisted Matt call him Shiro.

Matt had no idea how to behave around him.

And Shiro didn’t know him.  Not the way Matt knew him.  For it was Matt’s job to remain invisible and serve Shiro’s every whim.  That was still his job, but it was different now.  Now, they weren’t going to have any time apart.  Now, Shiro had no one else to talk to or to ask for advice.  Now, it was them and them alone.  Searching for a star wasn’t an exciting business, after all.  It was likely to be slow and dull until the very last stretches. 

Pulling off to the side of the road, Shiro dismounted and led his horse to a tree, tying off the reins on a thick branch.  Matt followed his lead.  After he tied up his horse, he put his hands on his hips and scanned their surroundings.  Glancing at Shiro, then away, he said, “Well, looks comfortable.”

Unsure what to say, Shiro started unpacking what blankets they had.  They were traveling light, lighter than Matt had originally packed for, since it was only the two of them.  Technically, it was official business, but not the sort that warranted tents and guards and other such things.

Despite keeping his hands busy, the silence remained awkward.

You are a prince, Shiro reminded himself.  Since you were born, you’ve been practicing every social skill under the sun.  You can diffuse this tension.

Finding his water skein, he turned and offered it to Matt.  “Would you like some water?”

Smiling nervously, Matt lifted his own and waggled it in the air.  “I packed, remember?”

Huffing out a laugh, Shiro nodded.  Matt shot him a small smile, Shiro tossed him a few blankets, and then they continued to go about their own business, Shiro silently cursing himself.  His mother wouldn’t have even made it this complicated.  She already would’ve cemented her place and Matt’s place, made it clear what to expect.

But Shiro wasn’t like his mother in a lot of ways—something that had been hard to face when he was younger—and one of them was a well of kindness that no amount of special treatment, lessons, and the insistence of every person in his life that he was more important, could quash.

Once they were lying down, relatively comfortable—as comfortable as a person could be on the ground—Shiro said, “Thank you for coming.”

Matt snorted.  “Was I going to say no?”

“You could have.”

“If you say so.”

Smiling to himself, staring up at the trees bathed in moonlight, Shiro said, “You’re adapting much easier to this than I am.”

“Well, you didn’t sentence me to death after two bad jokes, so I’m giving it a try.”

“I wouldn’t do that.  You’ve served me loyally for years.”

“And yet you hadn’t been on the receiving end of any of my bad jokes.”

“They weren’t bad,” Shiro said.

Laughing out loud at that, wild and uncontrolled—Shiro was, in fact, relatively confident Matt had snorted once or twice—Matt said, “There’s no need to be nice.  Serving you is a cushy job.  I’d prefer to keep it.”

This silence was still awkward, but it was filled with nervous, bubbling tension, just like the space before a laugh erupted.  There was some rustling, Matt readjusting his position, and then he said, “So how are we going to find that necklace?”

“I genuinely have no idea.”

“Seemed like you did.”

“I believe that.”

“Well, you’ll figure it out,” Matt said.

“Will I?”

“You always do.  Good night, Your Highness.”

“Shiro.”

“Shiro.”

Within minutes, Matt was asleep, Shiro could tell by the way his breathing changed.  He laid awake a good while longer, pondering Matt’s words.

You always do.

There had been such faith in those three words, as though Shiro could do no wrong.  If it was anyone else, someone who hadn’t seen him at his worst more than once, he’d simply assume the faith was a faith in his power, in his position. 

Rolling onto his side, Shiro squeezed his eyes shut, trying to erase all of the guilt he felt, knowing the weight would keep him from sleep if he didn’t.  These were the moments he felt he wasn’t destined for the throne.  Late nights, alone with his thoughts.  Late nights like tonight, when he was painfully aware that there was a man right next to him who knew him, who trusted him, and who he’d never bothered, in years, to truly learn anything about. 

 

˚  *

       

  ·   ·       * 

    ˚            

    +    ˚      ˚

*         ˚ .·  *

˚            

 

When dawn began to rise, Lotor came to four conclusions.  First, Stormhold had changed since he had last stepped out into it.  Without his full power, it wasn’t a place he ventured, for there were other people with power like him and most of them, when their paths crossed, wished him harm for various reasons, grudges held from the past.

Second, he was woefully unprepared.  His magic was at full force, yes, but he was very limited in means of transportation and food and lodging.  Never, in his life, had he concerned himself with any of those things.  They were easy enough to conjure with magic.  But he was trying to conserve what he had, stay young, stay beautiful, stay refreshed until he had another star and he could be all of that for another century.

Third, the star was on the move.  And that made things difficult.

Fourth, he missed Ezor.  That, he wasn’t sure what to do with.  For too many years to count, he’d spent every waking second with her, constantly and idly playing with the idea of locking her up like one of the animals, anything to get her to stop chattering away about this and that.  He hadn’t been in the mood, after all.  About the only thing he’d been in the mood for was dwelling on how miserable his life was and how desperately he needed a star.  Eternity without purpose, after all, was dreadfully dull.

But, still, worth living.  Because he was alive.  That was what mattered most.  Death was so final.

Sighing, Lotor tossed his runes into the air again, silently asking if the star was still to the west.  The four runes clattered back into his hands, each and every side blank.  Cursing, Lotor glared down at the runes.  They were very fidgety.  He had to be exact with his words and it was exhausting.  It would be much easier if he could just slaughter something.  Blood magic was much more powerful and less exacting.

He was going to have to contact Ezor.

First, however, he needed a faster way to travel.  It was no use wasting magic to discover where the star would be, if he couldn’t arrive quick enough to intercept it. 

Climbing to the top of a hill, the grass long and lush, waving in the wind, Lotor scanned the horizon, unsure what he was searching for, but positive he would know it when he saw it.

It was a gentle morning, the sun not rising in a blaze of colors, but in muted pastels, the clouds blocking most of the light.  Lit in pale pink was a small house, settled in the middle of a small farm.  It wasn’t clear if it was abandoned or not, but it hardly mattered.  There had to be something there he could use and it wasn’t a terribly long walk.  It would only cost him an hour or two.

Setting out at a brisk walk, Lotor chased the horizon.

 

Tired and irritated, Lotor finally arrived.  He wasn’t meant to be slogging through nature like this.  Originally, he’d been simply searching for a horse, something to ride, but now, he was desperate for a carriage and a horse.  Sitting back in comfort while something else did the work was exactly what he needed.  He was a powerful warlock, after all.  If that was not something he could obtain for himself, what was the point?

There was plenty of magic inside him.  Using a little couldn’t hurt.  It’s not as if he was going to do a spell of any major significance. 

Wandering around the outside of the dilapidated shack, Lotor spotted a wheelbarrow.  That would do nicely.  It already had wheels and it’s purpose was similar to that of a carriage.  It would not be a complicated transformation.

Now, if only he could find something with a heartbeat. 

After circling the entire residence, it became clear that there were no animals.  Scoffing—what kind of farm was a farm, after all, if it didn’t have animals—Lotor straightened his clothes, checked for mud and grass on his boots, making sure they were spotless, he went up to the door and knocked.

Scuffling could be heard on the other side and then a woman answered, her hair tied up haphazardly, the hem of her dress heavy with dirt.  “What d’ya want?”

Looking her up and down, Lotor sighed.  She would have to do.  “This won’t hurt, I assure you,” he said, pressing two fingers to her forehead.  Before his eyes, the woman transformed into a small goat, who immediately bayed at him accusingly.  Rolling his eyes, Lotor led her away from the house.  Not only did his skin lose some of its luster, but she’d turned into a goat, not a horse, which was what he’d really been aiming for.  Stars needed to fall more often, clearly.

Transforming the wheelbarrow into a carriage—that, of course, went according to plan—Lotor hitched the goat up and sighed.  That goat would not be able to pull him.  He would need another.

Glancing back at the house, he growled in irritation, clenching a fist.  Nothing was going right.  Last time a star had fallen, it had been simple.  The star had been injured, unable to move, and he’d nursed it back to health, until it trusted him, until it was shining—for a shining star, an unafraid star, lasted longest—and then he’d cut its heart out.  Within a day, he’d possessed it.

That wasn’t going to be the case with this star.

Determined to make it work, Lotor headed back to the carriage, when, out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a young boy walking back from the forest that bordered the farm, wood in his arms.  “Finally,” he mumbled to himself, “something goes right.”  Heading towards the boy, who stopped dead when he noticed him, Lotor didn’t even bother with pleasantries before he transformed him, the wood clattering to the ground as another goat appeared before him.

This he could work with.

After the second goat was hitched, Lotor went to a rain barrel, peering into the surface, his reflection gazing back at him.  Closing his eyes, he mumbled a spell under his breath.  When he was confident it had worked, he opened his eyes and Ezor was staring back at him.

“Sir,” she said brightly.  Briefly, he wondered if she was pleased to see him.  “What is it?”

“I need you to tell me where the star is.  It’s traveling and the runes are being difficult.”

“Aren’t they always?”

“Yes.  It’s quite frustrating.”

Nodding, Ezor disappeared—she was talking to him through a mirror on her end.  When she returned a few minutes later, she said, “The star is coming your way.  It’s alone and weary.  Simply be patient, sir, and it’s heart will be yours.”

Plan already forming, Lotor nodded.  “Very well.  That will be all.”

“Good luck,” Ezor said and then Lotor stopped the flow of magic, glancing down at his hands and grimacing.  The aging spots he’d accumulated over the years were coming back. 

No matter.  The star was close and he knew exactly how to capture it.

 

        ·   ·     

˚    ·   . 

       

  *       .  .

   ·    *    

              ·

 

They’d been walking quite awhile and Keith was flagging.  Lance felt a twinge of guilt about that, but the sooner they reached Nyma, the sooner Keith could go home and surely, that was something he could appreciate.

Of course, Lance was beginning to wonder if it mattered how far they walked or how little they rested, because he was terribly lost.  The wall was somewhere to the west and he was relatively confident he was heading west, but there were no signs and he had no idea how far the candle had taken him and it was dark and…oh god, what if they died out here?  This was not a place he wanted to die.  This was not a place he ever imagined dying and certainly not with this kind of company.

Because Keith was terrible company.  If he talked, which was rare, he complained or said something scintillating and sarcastic.

He got knocked from his home today, Lance reminded himself.  He’s just in a bad mood.  Anyone would be.

“Could you slow down?” Keith called from behind him.

Doing exactly that, Lance looked over his shoulder, shooting Keith a sheepish smile.  “Sorry.  How’s your leg?”

“How’s my leg?  Seriously?”

“Yes?”

“Well, broken, for one.  And I’m walking on it.  And I keep tripping over twigs and rocks because walking down an unused road by moonlight is impossible.”

“It’s not…”

“And I’m exhausted,” Keith continued in a low grumble.  “Dawn isn’t far off and unlike you, I expend most of my energy at night, meaning I typically rest during the day.  Oh, and I’m going to see some woman who I don’t know for some reason I also don’t know.  So, I guess you could say that my leg is doing about as well as I am.”

Slightly stunned, Lance picked through those words and mulled over the only ones he could give a real response to.  “Her name is Nyma.”

“Whatever.”

“She’s the love of my life.”

“Great.”

“And she said she’d marry me if I brought her you, so that’s what I’m doing.”

“Yes, because nothing says romance like the gift of a captive, injured man,” Keith said.

“Well, I didn’t know you were going to be human!”

“How is that my problem?”

“You should’ve just been a lump of rock, that’s how.”

Laughing shortly, Keith said, “Hang on, let me just concentrate really hard.  Maybe I can make myself one and then we can both be at peace.”

“I don’t like you,” Lance grumbled.

“Feeling’s mutual.”

Silence fell between them, but Lance could feel Keith’s gaze boring into the back of his neck, angry and accusatory.  The longer it went on, the more frustrated Lance became, until it turned to pettiness.  “You’re going to have to be nicer when you meet Nyma.”

“If I have to hear that name one more time, I might actually try and kill you,” Keith said.

“There’s no way you could.”

“I’ve got this chain and the advantage of surprise.”

“What surprise?  You literally just told me your plan.”

“I wouldn’t do it right now, idiot.”

“Have you ever had a pleasant thought in your life?” Lance asked.

“The image of me killing you is actually pretty pleasant.”

“I can’t believe stars are like this.”

There was a loud sigh and then a lot of the fight left Keith’s voice.  “Can we please just stop for awhile?  If you expect me to walk during the day, I’m going to need some sleep.”

“Why would you be tired during the day?”

“What do stars do, Lance?”

“Live to irritate me, apparently.”  But he stopped walking and faced Keith, taking in his appearance and feeling a much stronger pang of guilt.  Slowly, gradually, sunlight was climbing the road and though it was pale, barely enough, Lance could still see that Keith was minutes away from collapsing.  He was swaying gently and blinking slowly.

It was impressive, frankly, that he’d managed so long.  Softening, he went over to Keith and picked up one of his arms, slinging it over his shoulders.  Keith didn’t complain, leaning on him heavily, the warmth from his body seeping into Lance’s, and together, they stumbled to a tree.  Carefully, Lance helped Keith to the ground and then sat beside him, leaning back against the trunk.  Looking over, he saw that Keith had tilted his head back and closed his eyes.  Something like peace had settled in around his mouth and Lance found himself smiling.  Nudging his shoulder into Keith’s, he said, “I’m going to go find us some food.  Somewhere.  Somehow.  You promise to stay here?”

“No.”

Groaning, Lance said, “Fine.”  Rising, he wound the chain around the tree and Keith’s chest a couple of times, grateful that it seemed to be willing to grow however long he needed it.  Then he bent down, wrangled it from Keith’s wrist, and brought the ends together, theoretically securing Keith to the tree.

“That’s comfortable,” Keith murmured sarcastically.

“You could’ve just promised.”

“Yes, because I want to stay with the incompetent idiot who’s keeping me chained to a tree.”

Opening his mouth to shoot something back, only to realize he didn’t have the words, Lance gave Keith a rather pathetic scowl—you had to be in the right mood for a truly proper scowl—and then headed down the road, hoping that eventually, it would lead to a village or an inn, any place that might have food and be willing to give him some.

 

After a long walk, a majority of it spent wondering if he was an idiot—he was beginning to realize he had no idea if Nyma really was going to marry him, especially if he brought Keith back to her—Lance found a quiet village.  At a tavern, he flirted with one of the waiters until he parted with some leftover scraps, and then headed back the way he’d come, glad he hadn’t had to leave the road.

When he was relatively sure he’d arrived back where he’d left Keith, he plastered on a smile, found a little energy left, and declared, “Guess who’s got food?  Someone’s going to have to say one or two nice things if they want some.”

There was no response.  Maybe Keith was asleep.  Maybe he was just being difficult.

But then the tree came in sight and Lance knew it was the tree, because the chain he’d used to hold Keith there was on the ground, back to it’s original size.  Picking it up from the ground, Lance groaned.  It figured, really.  Nothing in his life ever seemed to go right.

Keith was gone.  Somehow, he’d escaped.  And Lance had no idea how to find him.

Chapter Text

Spinning in a circle, Lance wondered if he should just close his eyes, point, turn a few more circles, and travel whichever way his finger pointed.  There was no saying where Keith had gone and it hardly mattered which direction he traveled in because it wouldn’t change how lost he was.  All he knew for sure was that he wasn’t going to give up.  Returning without Keith was out of the question.  Maybe it was stupid, but he was stubborn enough to not care.

Sighing, he sat down and leaned back against the very tree Keith had been chained to and started eating the food he’d managed to gather.  Halfway through a chunk of stale bread, Lance mumbled to himself, “Look what you could’ve been eating, Keith.  Stale bread is better than the no goddamn bread you’re going to be getting.”

As he chewed, he pooled the chain in the palm of his hand and wondered how Keith had managed to wrangle his way out of it.  Maybe stars had powers.  Keith had given no indication that was the case, though, and clearly, he would’ve escaped if he could’ve. 

Nope.  This was just a result of the flaming wreck that was his life.  Of course the one thing that would give him what he wanted disappeared.  Why had he expected anything different? 

Why had he left Keith?  That had been so stupid.  Everyone with half a brain knew to keep what was important to you close so that exactly this kind of thing didn’t happen.  Of course, he’d also left Nyma to go wandering through a fantastical land he knew nothing about, so what did that really say about him?

Taking a few deep breaths, Lance shook his head, attempting to dislodge what was an almost endless stream of doubt and self-loathing, and tried to form a plan.  He wasn’t a tracker, he was a simple shop boy, so finding Keith on his own would be impossible.  He would need to enlist help, somehow, which was likely to prove difficult, provided what little he had to offer in exchange.  Still, that was his only option and whatever it cost him, Nyma would be worth it.

“Alright, Lance,” he mumbled, standing and brushing off his pants.  “All you have to do is find some form of civilization.  You can do it.  You will not spend the rest of your life in this forest.  And when you get there, someone will appear in front of you and they’ll magically know where Keith is and everything will be okay again.”  Nodding, letting the words fill him with faux confidence, Lance set off in a direction, hoping that direction would lead him away from trees.  Forests, after all, had to end eventually.  Although, he’d come into this place thinking a star would be a rock and he had a feeling that was not the last way Stormhold would prove him wrong.

 

·  ·                

       

                 

*      ·    

    *             

     * .  .     *

  .      *     *

 

Lotor was glancing between the age spots on his hands and the empty field of dull yellow grass before him, populated by two goats, weighing his options.  This was going to take a lot of magic.  The goats he was transforming, yes, but the inn, the inn he was going to have to create and that took a lot of power, a lot of energy.

Running through his plan again, Lotor considered his chances of success.  He was not one for risks and if this was going to expend a significant amount of the power he had, it would absolutely have to work.

That being said, barring any unforeseen circumstances that he already hadn’t calculated for--unlikely--there were very few scenarios where the star got away from him.  There were numerous more where the star was frightened, it’s heart shining dimmer than Lotor would like (it bought him less years and tasted absolutely foul) but that would be an outcome Lotor could live with.  Another star, after all, would come.  Though their descents to earth were rare, they were consistent.

Nodding once, Lotor let out a breath and felt the magic flow from the middle of his chest to the tips of his fingers.  With precision and direction, Lotor watched as an inn formed in front of his eyes, dark wooden doors, latticed windows, warmly lit lanterns, small enough to seem homey, but large enough to give the sense that it housed a number of customers.  A little sign plopped down right next to him, declaring the inn, “The Red Rose”. Sneering, Lotor considered the swinging board.  That, apparently, was the best he could do on the fly.  A poor and cliche alliterative.

Mumbling to himself, searching for a better adjective, Lotor strolled over to the goats.  Barely giving them a second glance, he transformed them into two red-headed humans.  They moved strangely and whenever they tried to talk, they bleated, but if he made sure they didn’t speak, they would work fine for his purposes.  Pointing to the one on the left, he said “You’re my husband.”  Then he shifted his finger to the other.  “And you’re my daughter.  Do what I say and we won’t have a problem.  For now, go prepare the inn for a customer.  We have a very important one headed our way.”

The humans who had once been goats headed for the inn.  Lotor had no idea if they would actually do what he asked, but at least they were out of the way.  Transforming his clothes into something more plebeian, Lotor decided he’d done enough.  Taking a deep breath, he looked down at his hands and sighed loudly.  The skin was very loose and gently wrinkled.  He must look absolutely disgusting.  Thankfully, this was the last night for a long time he was going to have to look like a slowly rotting fruit.

As he walked around the perimeter of the inn, verifying that there was nothing glaringly wrong in his spell work, Lotor heard a crack of thunder.  Smiling, he glanced up at the sky and saw dark purple clouds rolling in.  Very soon, it would rain.  Very soon, a wet and ill-tempered star would arrive at the door of his inn, begging for shelter.  And, being the gracious host he was, Lotor would cater to it’s every whim.

Not interested in being rained on himself, Lotor retreated inside the inn, finding the goats roaming around aimlessly in the large hall directly inside the front door, occasionally chewing on the corners of tables.  Assuming he could deal with that later and battling a rather ferocious headache (he had not expended so much power so quickly in quite awhile) Lotor went upstairs and found himself a bed, lying down and closing his eyes.  Sleeping was out of the question—he couldn’t miss the star—but this was enough.

Only a few minutes into his rest, there was a loud clatter from downstairs.  Sighing, he rose and found the goats behind the bar, looking at the bottles on the wall.  One of them had accidentally knocked one off.  “Clean that up, one of you,” he said.  “And the other, go take a seat on the far wall over there and do not move until our guest has arrived.”

With a small, shy bleats, they did as he asked.  When his ‘daughter’ was finished cleaning up the spill, rather disastrously, but Lotor did not find it in himself to care much, he ordered the same thing of her.  Hopefully, their survival instincts would kick in and they would stay put.  He didn’t very much feel like killing goats today simply because they were unintelligent.

With that, he returned to bed.

 

A few hours later, there was a knock on the door of his inn.  Leaping from bed, Lotor straightened his clothes and hair, not daring to look into a mirror to double check his fussing, and headed downstairs, finding the goats against the wall just as he’d asked.  “One of you go behind the bar,” he said.  “The other, stable whatever creature the star arrived on.  If there is one.”

They didn’t nod or bleat, but they did move and Lotor decided that would do.  Crossing the hall, making sure all the candles were lit as he did, Lotor opened the door and smiled as kindly as he could down at a soaking wet and shivering star.

The star looked up, dark hair plastered to it’s face, and said, tone begrudging, “Hi.  Turns out this world hates me more than I thought.  Do you think I could spend the night here?  I should probably tell you I don't have any money.”

Grinning wider, Lotor cracked the door open wider, letting warm light flood onto the star.  “Why of course you can.  Please, come in.  Would you like a bath?  I can draw you one.”

“That would be, uh, nice?”

Ushering the star in with kind words, Lotor watched as it circled in the middle of the hall, taking in it’s surroundings.  This one would be easy.  All it needed was some kind words and attention and it would be glowing fantastically.  Shutting the door behind him, Lotor thought of his knife upstairs, under a bed, and smirked.

 

  .      ˚        

       

   ·     

  .       

  ·.  * *      

*           ·    ·

 

“It’s going to rain,” Matt said.

Glancing up at the sky, all Shiro saw was fluffy white clouds and slivers of blue sky.  Not wishing to be rude, Shiro said, “And how do you know?” instead of what he wanted to say, which was: “Are we looking at the same sky?”

The corners of Matt’s mouth quirked.  “I don’t know how to describe it.  I just know.”

“You just…know.”

“That’s right.”

“I see,” Shiro said.

Bursting into laughter, Matt said, “You know, out here in the middle of nowhere, I’m confident it would do very little damage if you didn’t act like a prince for a few seconds.”

“I don’t doubt you, Matt.”

“Uh huh.”

“I don’t.”

Eyeing him, the smile disappeared from Matt’s face, making Shiro irrationally sad.  It was a nice smile, comforting and companionable, and Shiro would prefer if it stayed.  But then, Matt’s eyes grew warm and soft and Shiro felt it had been a fair trade.  “Alright,” Matt said.  “You don’t.  If that’s really true, I think it would be smart of us to find shelter.”

“It would be prudent.”

“Prudent,” Matt mumbled.

“Are you making fun?”

“Only a little.”

A part of Shiro immediately froze, the one that insisted he was a prince and that he was owed a certain kind of respect.  But it was the part of him that was formed by his mother and while he loved her dearly, it was something he fundamentally disagreed with.  For what was a prince or a king without his people?  Shooting Matt a smile, Shiro said, “Well, let me think.  I’m relatively confident a village lies not far to the west of us.  It will put us off track slightly, which…”

“But my thighs are sore,” Matt whined.  “We’ve been riding so long.”  Slowly, he doubled over on top of his horse’s head.  “I’m not built for this, Your Highness.”

“West it is, then.”

They exchanged smiles and Shiro’s didn’t disappear when he looked away, spurring his horse forward.  Even if he didn’t find the necklace, however unacceptable, it was becoming clear this journey was life-changing, anyway.  It had only been a little longer than a day, but he couldn’t imagine, not for a second, ignoring Matt the way he had any longer.  Once they returned to the palace, he would make sure nothing changed.

Because Shiro knew he was making a friend and he’d never had one of those before.  The life of a prince was a life of acquaintances.

As they rode, the natural light of the day slowly faded to something closer to twilight and Shiro looked back up to see purple clouds.  Somehow, Matt had been right.  They were about to be in the middle of a downpour, one that would make them wet and cold.  Neither one of them could afford to catch a cold, so finding shelter was suddenly imperative.

The first pattering of rain drops began and Matt groaned.  Immediately after, however, he laughed and Shiro blinked, not quite believing how quickly that transition had happened.  Catching Shiro’s confused glance, Matt said, “Oh, I was just thinking about my sister.  She’d be embarrassed out how soft I’ve gotten.  We were raised on a farm, you see, and this is nothing in comparison to some of the downpours we worked through.”

“You have a sister?”

Matt nodded, his eyes growing distant.  “Yes,” he said softly.  “She’s my best friend.  I haven’t seen her for such a long time, though.”

“Oh.”

“And that is not your fault, Shiro.  Stop doing that with your face.”

“Excuse me?”

Snorting, Matt waved his comment away.  They came upon a small inn called “The Red Rose” and Matt turned his horse so that they were riding straight for the door.  Biting his lip, Shiro followed.  Something was wrong, but he couldn’t put his finger on it and whatever was wrong was probably better than riding in the rain, so he didn’t say anything.  Still, this was a strange place for an inn. 

Hopping down from his horse, Matt helped Shiro down without being asked and then led the horses towards a stable to the left of the inn.  Smiling helplessly, quite liking the interesting juxtaposition of Matt’s forwardness and his quiet servitude, Shiro knocked on the door.

A very tall man with white hair opened it.  He looked to be in his mid-fifties and when he saw Shiro, he scowled.  It disappeared almost instantly, however, in exchange for a pleasant smile, and Shiro wondered if he’d imagined the initial expression.  “Hello,” he said.  “Do you have any rooms available?”

“I’m afraid that…”

“I’ll pay double,” Shiro said quickly.

There was a stretch of silence and then the man nodded.  “Please, come in.  My husband will show you to your room and do let me know if there is anything at all I can get for you.”

“Could I have two rooms, actually?”

“There are not two prepared.” 

The tone of his voice did not ease Shiro's concerns that something was wrong.

“Alright,” Shiro said slowly, preparing himself mentally for sleeping on the floor tonight.  “One will do fine, thank you.”

“Husband!” the man shouted.  Then he left the doorway and a red-headed man took his place.  There was something strange about the way he walked and the way he tilted his head as he looked at Shiro.  The man took him by the arm and started to drag him inside.  Digging his feet in, Shiro said, “Please, I need to wait for my manservant.  I don’t want him to get lost.”  The truth was, he still felt that something was wrong and he did not want to enter this place alone.

The tugging stopped, but the man did not let go of his arm.  Smiling—politeness was all he had when he was uncomfortable—Shiro waited in silence.  When Matt came up beside him, the wave of relief he felt was unparalleled.  Together, they were led up to their room.  The man left, thankfully, and Shiro went immediately to the bed, lying down, needing a minute to settle his brain.  “Well, that was bizarre,” he said.

With a laugh, Matt laid down beside him and they stared at the ceiling.  “It’s just a strange place,” he said.  “There was a girl out in the stables and she was talking to a unicorn in odd bleating noises.”

“A unicorn?”

“Yeah.”

They both rolled their heads to the side at the same time and burst into laughter, unconsciously curling towards each other.  When they stopped, they both were taken aback at their closeness, but neither moved.  In a low voice, Matt said, “To think we’re just looking for a necklace.”

That started them laughing again and as he laughed, Shiro realized he’d never laughed so long or so loud before.  Falling onto his back so he didn’t have to stare at Matt when he spoke, Shiro said, “I quite like you, I think.”

“I’ve always liked you.”

“I’m beginning to understand that.”

“It’s not your fault,” Matt said.

“Stop saying that.”

“It’s not.  You’re a prince.  There are likely even rules against becoming friends with me.  I promise you, I didn’t mind at all.  I knew my place.  I still do.”

Shiro nodded, rising from the bed and stretching.  “I’ll sleep on the floor tonight.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“I’m the prince and you’ll do as I say.”

“Fair enough,” Matt said, spreading out on the bed.  “Suits me just fine.  This bed is way better than the ground.”

Smiling, Shiro said, “I’m going to go find us some food.”

“What service.”

Rolling his eyes, Shiro stepped out of the room, closing the door behind him.  Looking down from the balcony, he saw the strange man shuffling around and the tall man standing beside a roaring fireplace, chatting cheerfully with a man in a bathtub, a man who looked as though he couldn’t decide if he was uncomfortable or not.  And around his neck was Shiro’s necklace.

 

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Keith watched as Lance walked away, glancing back more than once, as though he thought Keith was just a figment of his imagination, something that was going to disappear in a rush of wind, a whoosh of quiet breath.  Testing the chains binding him to the tree, finding them just as unbreakable as they’d been before, Keith blew his hair out of his face and gazed up at the sky.  His brothers and sisters were twinkling, distant and unreachable.  It hit him finally that he was homesick.

Sniffing, a few tears streaked down his cheeks.

No.  Crying was pathetic.  He was not going to sit against this tree and cry.  He was going to find a way out of this situation instead.  And maybe internally rant about Lance to keep his brain occupied.  There was plenty of material there, after all.

Surely there was a way out of this situation.  There was nothing that sheer determination could not beat.  And Keith was very determined not to spend the foreseeable future trailing after a lovesick boy who couldn’t seem to understand that the girl he proclaimed to love wouldn’t have sent him on a hopeless quest if she loved him in return.

Love was the one redeemable thing about this world and Keith couldn’t understand why Lance was spending his share on someone who couldn’t possibly spare even half the affection.

In a more practical sense, he couldn’t understand how it was his goddamn problem.

Fighting against the chains again, Keith sighed when they didn’t so much as creak.

If only he could shine.  He thought, maybe, if it was bright enough, strong enough, he could break this chains.  But it would take a level of happiness he was incapable of reaching right now.  His leg was hurt, he was irritated and cold and hungry, and all he had were memories of happiness, memories that were tied inevitably to heartache and loss.

The sky lightened, heading towards afternoon, and Keith was still pressed against the tree, back aching and eyes stinging from being awake so long.

About ready to scream in frustration, it was then that a unicorn appeared from the shadows, stepping gingerly towards him.  Bowing it’s head, recognizing him for what he was, it came closer and cut the chain as easily if it were a string of twine.  Smiling, Keith reached up and stroked it’s nose.  “Thank you,” he murmured, not even hesitating when it lowered itself to the ground, offering it’s back.  Climbing on, Keith held tightly to it’s mane as it rose.

He didn’t know much of unicorns, but he knew they were creatures born of moonlight.  They were kin.  This was an animal he could trust.  It would not lead him astray.  Not purposefully, anyway.  Wherever it was heading, he was going to go.  It was better, after all, than going nowhere, which was about all he could come up with.  It’s not like he’d meant to fall.  He had no plans, no desires, no wants, needed nothing from this place.  All he wanted was to be home.

As the unicorn picked it’s way out of the forest, Keith complained about Lance, outlining each and every one of his faults.  The unicorn was an excellent listener and before long, Keith had talked his throat sore.  He was halfway through describing the fall from the sky, when the unicorn neighed softly.  Unsure what that meant, Keith took in his surroundings.  It quickly became clear that the sky was darkening.

Within minutes, they were riding through a downpour.  Running a hand through his hair, tugging the wet strands out of his eyes, Keith sighed.  Rain seemed like the perfect end to an awful day and a half.

Thankfully, the unicorn had found him an inn, a quiet little place in the middle of nowhere.  There was something not quite right about it, and Keith kept that in mind as he slipped off the unicorn and headed for the door of the inn.  It was a risk, he knew that, his instincts were finely tuned, but he was shivering and there had to be fire inside.  He was just desperate enough.  There was only so much horrible he could take in such a short period of time.

Almost immediately after he knocked, the door swung open and an exceptionally tall man was standing there, his hair reaching down to his waist.  It was an odd shade of white, but the smile he gave Keith was welcoming and kind.  Keith mentioned he had no money and it didn’t seem to bother the man in the slightest.  Again, odd, but Keith was not in a position to turn down charity.  He was, in fact, to his consternation, counting on it.

The man immediately took him up to a room, with the promise that the bath would be ready soon.  The room was small but comfortable and there was a small fireplace, fire already roaring in the grate.  There was a set of dry clothes hanging off the end of the bed.  Taking those, Keith changed and then sat down on the floor in front of the fire, curling up and gazing at the flames.

Before long, he was content and imagining Lance wandering around the forest aimlessly, lost and just as stuck as he had been.  To say it was an unpleasant image would’ve been an outright lie. 

Smiling, he rested his chin on his knees and lazily considered sleeping, when the door to his room opened after a short, rapping knock.

The light, shimmery glow around his hands disappeared.

The owner of the inn smiled down at him.  “Your bath is prepared.  I’ve had it set up in the main hall, since it is easier to transport water on the ground floor, but there is a screen for your privacy.”

“Oh,” Keith said warily, unsure how exactly he felt about submerging his body in water.  It was not something he had done before and it had always struck him as strange.  “Okay.  I’ll be right down.”

The man bowed his head and left.

Rising to his feet carefully, only wobbling a little, Keith started the descent back to the main level, making a very conscious effort not to put much weight on his foot.  It took very little movement for it to start throbbing again.

In front of the screen, a wood panel of fine latticework, the man was waiting for him, a towel draped over his arm.  He handed it to Keith and then went behind and to the left of the panel, where a large roaring fire was.  Briefly, Keith considered pointing out that was probably a breach of the privacy he’d been promised, but he didn’t care much.  This was a body that still didn’t feel quite like his.  Privacy was the least of his concerns.

Undressing, Keith eyed the water, then decided this wasn’t going to be the thing that defeated him today.  Stepping in, he slowly let himself slide in, smiling despite himself.  It was amazing.  He felt light and warm and the pain in his leg had eased into something dull and almost unnoticeable.  He knew he was shining and he also knew that he, perhaps, shouldn’t have been doing that, but it was becoming quickly apparent that he had very little control.  Even when he concentrated on dimming the glow, it simply grew with his joy as he pooled water into his hands.  It was different in the sky, when it was his job to shine.  Here, he had no idea what controlled it.  However, he was beginning to suspect it was tied to his emotional state and that could prove to be a real problem.  When he felt an emotion, he felt it.

“Nice, isn’t it?” the man asked from his place by the fire.

Keith nodded, wariness creeping back in as he remembered where he was.

“I noticed you were limping earlier.  I could assist you with that if you would like.”

“You possess magic?” Keith asked.

“Very little,” the man said, bowing his head.  “Healing is, I’m afraid, all I’m good for.”

Frowning, Keith debated the offer.  Being able to walk without pain was bound to be critical as he attempted to find a way home, but trusting this man was not an easy thing. 

Eventually, his brain landed somewhere between ‘what the hell’ and ‘what’s the worst that could happen’ so he nodded.  The man strolled over and knelt down beside the bath.  He didn’t touch Keith.  He simply dangled his finger in the warm water and a stream of blue wound it’s way through the water and down to his leg, like his finger had held a drop of dye.  The remainder of the pain disappeared and Keith circled his ankle, pleasantly surprised and pleased.  “Thank you,” he whispered.

“Of course.”

Slipping further into the water, Keith closed his eyes.  It was either that or try and engage the man in conversation and Keith had very little interest in doing that.

Immediately, his peace was disrupted when another man spoke, saying, almost accusingly, “That necklace around your neck?  It’s mine and I would very much like it back.”

Sitting up in the water, Keith picked up the jewel on the necklace and held it in his palm.  Turning, he saw a man with aesthetically pleasing features staring right at him.  Snorting, Keith said, “This is yours?  You do realize it’s the ugliest thing in existence, right?”

There was a stretch of silence, one neither man seemed to know how to fill.  Shrugging, Keith pooled more water in his hands and watched as it slipped through his fingers.  “Doesn’t matter, anyway.  I’m keeping it.”

“My name is Shiro and I’m prince of this realm and that is my birthright.”

“You princes and kings always have all sorts of birthrights,” Keith said.  “Let me be the first to tell you that nothing is owed to you when you’re born.  You’ve got to earn it and you definitely didn’t earn owning this necklace as much as I did.”

“Please.”

Keith considered him and almost laughed again.  That was cut short when a knife was drawn.  Keith sat up straighter and eyed Shiro.  Quickly, he realized Shiro had no intention of using it, not really, but the owner of the inn did not.

“You,” he said, stepping forward, “are not the one who is going to kill him.”

That was a strange enough response that Keith got out of the bath and wrapped a bathrobe hanging on the screen around himself.  “I’d prefer if no one killed me, thanks.”

The owner smiled, much wider than he’d smiled at any point earlier in the night, and said, “Well, that is too bad.  For, you see, you are going to die tonight.  I promise I’ll be much kinder than this brute.  If you don’t struggle and stay quiet, I’ll make it quick.”

Blinking, Keith backed away from the both of them and into a wall.  Scanning his surroundings, Keith wondered what in the hell he was supposed to do now.  Running appeared to be his only option, but one of these men had magic and the other was fit and likely very used to standing on two legs since he’d been doing it his entire life.

Taking off his necklace, Keith held it out to Shiro.  “I’ll give it to you if you get me out of here alive.”

There was a short nod from the prince, before he was flung against the far wall, head lolling as he slid down it.  The owner of the inn hadn’t even taken his eyes from Keith as he’d done it.  Suddenly, there were green flames everywhere, keeping Keith pinned in, and the man prowled closer, grinning.  “You aren’t shining, but I suppose this will do.”

This man knew he was a star.

 

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Lance was on the verge of tears.  He was tired and lost and there were scratches everywhere, somehow, even though he didn’t actually have a lot of skin showing.  He’d been tramping through the woods or so long and they showed no sign of ending.  Nor was there any sign of Keith.

Kicking sticks and shrubs as he walked, Lance silently berated himself for deciding to do something so stupid.  At this rate, he was going to die out here.

Then, something strange happened.  Something unexplainable.  Words disrupted his thoughts and they weren’t his.  Though there was no way to prove where they’d come from, Lance knew it was the stars.  The stars were talking to him.

“Our brother is in terrible danger,” they said, voices blending together into something shimmery and intangible.  “You are the only one who can save him.  Please.  If you run fast, as fast as you are able, towards the brightest of us, you will arrive in time.  He’s inside “The Red Rose”.  Hurry.  We’ve watched too many of our kind die.”

Lance didn’t spare a second.  Suddenly, he had purpose.  Taking one look at the sky, finding the one his eye was automatically drawn to, Lance started to sprint, branches thwacking against his face, leaving yet more scratches.  He pushed what he could out of the way, but it wasn’t worth slowing down.  He was not going to lose Keith.  Not after all of this work.

Besides, he couldn’t just let Keith die.  He didn’t have it in him to be even indirectly at fault for the death of someone else.

Even when he wanted to stop, he didn’t.  Even when he was ninety percent sure he was going to collapse and die himself, he kept going.  Then the inn was there in front of him.  Without knocking, without waiting to see if he was welcome, he burst in.  He watched as a man he didn’t know was flung against a wall by another man, who was staring down Keith.  Keith, who was standing against a wall, eyes furiously searching for a way out.  He wasn’t, however, cowering and Lance felt a wave of admiration for that.  He definitely would’ve been cowering.

But then, two walls of green flames appeared, as though sprouting from the ground, and in between them was Keith and the man, a wall at one end and the man on the other.  Keith had no way out.

Hardly thinking, Lance ran again, despite the burning of his lungs and legs.  Slipping between the flames and the man, barely avoiding getting burned, Lance crashed against the wall right beside Keith.

“What the hell are you doing?” Keith asked.

The man had stopped moving forward, clearly surprised by the interruption.  Bending down, grasping his knees, Lance focused on breathing.  Then he held up a finger and took a few more deep breaths, before gasping, “Yeah, I think I might vomit.  Give me a second.”

“Fantastic,” Keith mumbled.

“You wish to die with the star, I see,” the scary, flame man said.

“Less talking and more killing and you might actually get to.”

“Do you even have a plan?” Keith roared.

Blinking at him, Lance realized he did not.  “Uh, no,” he said.  “But my dad would read me all these stories when I was younger and I hated when the villain talked his way into losing.”

“You deserve to die.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, did you want to die alone?”

“It might’ve been less embarrassing!”

Lance had a comeback ready, but from the corner of his eye, he saw the man approaching once more, a rather nasty looking knife in hand.  He was moving leisurely, clearly not concerned that his prey was going to escape.  Lance couldn’t help agreeing with him.  He had nothing.  And, despite Keith’s posturing, and the rather impressive amount of determination and fire in his eyes, it was obvious he didn’t either.

There was heat licking at his side now.  The fire was moving inward.

Fire.

Then it came to him.  Reaching into his pack, digging through the stale bread, Lance found the other half of the Babylon candle.  It was possible Keith would not return to Wall with him now, since Lance was about to use up his way home, but it was still better to be alive.  Closing his eyes and gritting his teeth, Lance stuck the candle in the flame, wincing as the skin on his hand burned along with it.  Then he shouted, “Think of home!”

In a flash of blinding light, they were flying away from the inn, the echoes of the man screaming in frustration following them.

Chapter Text

When the world jolted back into place, Keith felt rain driving against his face and his fresh clothes immediately soaking themselves through.  There was a flash, making the hair on his arms stand up, and Keith tilted his head back and closed his eyes.  Because they were on a cloud.  In the sky.

Of course they were.

And the first thing out of Lance’s mouth was, “How are we not falling through?  And, also, are you having trouble breathing?  Because I definitely am.  How high up do you think we are?”

“You’re not having any trouble talking,” Keith mumbled.

“What was that?” Lance shouted, the sound of their voices too easily carried away by the wind and the rain and the lightning to talk normally.

“Nothing.”

“What even happened?  This isn’t home.”

“Yes, well, I thought of my home and you thought of yours,” Keith replied, crossing his arms over his chest in an unsuccessful attempt to keep warm.  “Now we’re stuck in the middle.”

“Obviously I meant my home.”

“Yes, this is entirely my fault.”

“I sense sarcasm, but…”

“I don’t even know where your home is!  Or what it looks like!  All you said was ‘think of home’ and so I did,” Keith yelled.

“Wow, so sorry I saved your life.”

There was a retort ready on the tip of his tongue, but Keith hadn’t expected that response and he fell silent.  It, after all, was true.  If Lance hadn’t shown up when he had, that man would’ve cut his heart from his chest.  Some of his irritation dissolved and Keith grudgingly asked, “How’s your hand?”

“Eh, it’s alright.  Kind of stings, but I once sliced my thumb open and it’s not as bad as that.” 

Silence fell between them.  The wind became white noise and Keith felt himself go numb.  Curling in on himself, he gazed upwards and realized he couldn’t see the stars from here. 

“What now?” Lance asked in a small voice.  Glancing over at him, Keith noticed how pathetic and wet he looked, hair almost black, water dripping from the tip of his nose.  They were a sad pair.

“We die.”

“Oh.  At least it’s better than getting stabbed by that knife?”

Keith shrugged.  “This’ll be slower.  Infinitely slower for me.  I’m not actually sure I’ll die.”

“Right.”

Sighing, Keith said, “But it’s better than that man getting my heart.  He doesn’t deserve it.”

“He wants your heart?  Why?”

“To eat it, I assume.”

Lance made a noise of disgust.  “Are you serious?  That’s disgusting.”

“Yes, well, it lengthens his life.  And I suspect returns a large amount of his power.  He’s a warlock.”

“So you do have powers!”

Glaring at Lance, unable to prevent the softening of his face when he saw the childlike glow in Lance’s eyes, Keith said, “My essence has power, I suppose.  But there’s only one thing I can really do.”

“What’s that?”

“You’re an idiot.”

“Hey!”

“How many times do I… what do stars do, Lance?  When you look up at the sky, what are they…”

Keith was interrupted when a net fell over the both of them and then cinched, holding them both captive.  Lance was struggling and yelling something beside him, but Keith realized there were many ways to die on this earth and starving or freezing on a cloud had to be one of his least favorite ways.  Whatever they were getting dragged into now had to better than that.

They were flying through the air and then, unceremoniously, they were in the hold of a ship, a few crates against the wall, specially lined with a material Keith didn’t recognize.  That was all Keith could see, since he was on his side, but judging by Lance’s, “We were having a fine time on that cloud, you know,” there was a person in the room.

The net was slipped off of them and the man mumbled, “Sorry about this,” and tied up their hands and feet, wrestling them back to back.  His hands were strong and steady, so Keith didn’t put up much of a fight.  They were in the sky, after all.  There weren’t many ways off this ship and his only goal was to survive until they docked.  Judging by the crates, that was something that happened on occasion. 

The man left the room and Lance sighed shakily.  “At least it’s warm in here,” Lance said.

“Yeah.”

“And we’re not dead.  Course, that won’t last long, will it?”

All of the energy had been leeched from Lance’s voice and it surprised Keith when his chest tightened.  Apparently, Lance saving his life had already had an effect.  As they sat there, Keith desperately tried to remind himself that this man had tied him up and dragged him around on a bad foot, just so he could marry a girl who didn’t love him.  But the more he thought about it, the more he realized Lance hadn’t ever meant to be cruel.  He was simply energetic and excitable and foolishly in love.  Very foolishly.  There didn’t seem to be much he wouldn’t do for Nyma.  That kind of devotion was admirable, if insane.

Silently cursing himself, not quite believing that he was going to make an attempt at comforting, Keith used what little mobility he had in his fingers to press them against the back of Lance’s fingers.  “We are going to live.  I will get you off this ship and back to Nyma.  I promise.”

“Okay.”

“I’m serious, Lance.”

“Why?  I’ve been treating you like…like that man was treating you.  Like an object.  Why would you even…”

“Because I’ve seen a lot of the world from up in the sky and I know that you’re nothing like that man.”

A long stretch of silence followed and then the tips of Lance’s fingers slipped in between his, putting Keith slightly off balance.  “Okay.”  This time, hope rang in each syllable.

“And thank you,” Keith whispered.

“For what?”

“Saving my life.”

“I think you just said something nice to me,” Lance said.  More than one nice thing.  Did you hit your head or something?”

Groaning, Keith wrenched his hand away.  “Forget it.”

“You definitely told me I was a good person.”

“You aren’t going to cut my heart from my chest.  That’s it.  That does not necessarily make you a good person.”

“Helps, though,” Lance said.  Keith could hear the smile in his voice.  “And let’s not forget you held my hand.  You like me.”

“That was not hand holding.”

“Was.”

“Was not.”

“How would you describe it, then?”

“Hand…caressing?” Keith said, wincing.  Why, oh why, hadn’t he taken the time to think before responding?

Bursting into laughter, Lance tipped his head back so that it was resting against Keith’s.  “Wow, that was so much worse than I was expecting.”

“Comforting hand touching?”

“Not a lot better.”

“Whatever.”

“Hey, Keith?” Lance said.

“What?”

“How are you going to get home now?”

“I don’t know,” Keith sighed.

Lance’s fingers were back in his and Keith pressed his head back into Lance’s, taking what comfort he could.  It worked much better than he expected.  No wonder humans frequently touched each other.  The longer his skin was up against Lance’s, the less sure he was that he could ever let go.

Suddenly, the door to the hold swung open with a bang and from just outside, there were shouts from what was presumably the crew, cheering the captain on. 

“Get them, Captain!”

“Show them who’s boss!”

“Throw them overboard!”

Lance clutched his hand tighter as Keith looked up into the eyes of a man with an impossibly large mustache and a ferocious, almost maniacal grin lying beneath.

 

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Head throbbing, Shiro gradually slipped back into consciousness.  Squinting, he saw that the inn was on fire and that in the middle of the flames was the man who had done this to him.  Aware of the stark power imbalance, Shiro only moved as much as necessary, taking in his surroundings.  The fire seemed to be controlled, not spreading, until there was a bright flash and a scream.  Then, the fire lost all shades of green and began to spread, smoke filling the room.

He had to get out of here.

He had to get Matt out of here.

Coughing, Shiro attempted to stand.  By the time he was on his feet, however, a strong wave of nausea was threatening to incapacitate him.  Closing his eyes and standing very still, Shiro did not see the warlock approaching him until he was pinned up against the wall, purple eyes boring into his.

“What do you want with the star?”

“Nothing,” Shiro said, which ultimately, was true.  The second he’d seen the star, realized that he was scared, desperate to live, feeling, Shiro knew that was a heart he would never possess, no matter his mother’s condition.  Unlike this man, he was not capable of hurting another human being coldly and purposefully.  Not for himself, anyway.

“You’re lying.”

“I want the necklace.  That’s all.”

“Why?”

“It’s mine,” Shiro coughed.

The man stared at him long and hard and then let him go.  Stepping back, he swept his hair away from his face and then stared down at his fingers with consideration.  Shiro almost rolled his eyes.  Maybe if this man was less inclined to dramatics, he would’ve successfully captured the star.  Glancing up with a smirk, the man said, “I think I’ll kill you, anyway.  I don’t want you getting in my way.”

Shiro could hear his heart beating in his ears.  Desperately, he willed himself to move, but his body was slow and sluggish—unresponsive—and Shiro began to panic, unfamiliar with the sensation.  All he could do was watch the man prowl closer, a flicker of magic between his fingers, and wait to die.  It was the most helpless he’d ever felt and the most useless.  Maybe it was good his journey ended here.  If he couldn’t even protect himself from this, he couldn’t protect an entire kingdom of people.

There was a loud crack and the man crumpled to the ground.  Blinking, Shiro saw Matt standing there, a large beam of wood in hand, blackened and lightly smoking at one end.  Without pausing, Matt dropped the beam, took Shiro’s arm and wound it around his shoulders.  Gradually and more quickly than Shiro thought possible, Matt wound them through the hazardous landscape and out of the front door.  They kept going until they were far enough away that breathing didn’t rouse a bout of coughing. 

“I have to go get him out.”

“Shiro…”

“I can’t just leave him there to die.  I can’t…”

“No,” Matt said.  “We’ll die if we go back.  He’s not worth that.”

“But…”

“Shiro, he tried to kill you.  He was going to end your life.  Do you understand that?  I’m not risking my life to save a man who will only try to kill you again once we do.  You are worth ten of him.  That’s a lot of life lost if I lose you.”

“I know, but I can’t…”

In a soft voice, Matt said, “You can barely even move.  How’s your head?”

“I don’t know.”

“There’s a lot of blood.”

Looking up at Matt, the night illuminated by the bonfire behind them, Shiro smiled.  “You sound worried.”

A harsh raspy sound was in his laughter.  “I am worried, Your Highness.”

“Don’t be.  I’m alright.”

“Of course you are.”

“We should…”

Matt nodded.  Sitting down beside Shiro, he looked over at the burning inn and said, “Think there’s a bed anywhere in there that miraculously escaped the flames?”

Laughing, Shiro leaned into Matt, not just for warmth, but because it felt natural.  Almost immediately, he realized Matt was shaking.  Overwhelmed with a desire to touch and comfort, Shiro distanced himself.  “You saved my life,” he said.  “Is there anything at all I can give you?  Or do for you?”

Matt laughed again and shook his head mockingly.  “You don’t need to thank me.  It’s my job.”

“Yes.  Of course.”

Shiro knew Matt was rolling his eyes.  “That’s not why I did it.  Stop thinking what you’re thinking.”

“No?”

“No,” Matt said.  “You’re my friend.”

Thinking back to what Matt had said just an hour earlier, Shiro said, “I thought you knew your place.”  Only after he said it, did he realize how badly he’d phrased that.  Finding the strength to look over at Matt, Shiro saw, surprisingly—or maybe unsurprisingly—that he was smiling.

“I did.  Shiro.”

“What changed?”

“I didn’t think I was going to get to you in time.”

“But you did.”

“I did.”

Closing the distance between them once more, Shiro slipped an arm around Matt’s shoulders and pulled him in close because they were friends and his friend was still shaking.  In a whisper that only Matt could hear over the crackling flames and flying sparks in the distance, Shiro said, “I’m safe.  You’re safe.”

 

     

  ·     ˚         

        .  . ·   .   

.    ˚   · ·   *   

.  .      ·      .  

   .   *    .

   .

 

For hours later, Lotor tossed his runes in the air, asking question after question, trying to formulate the right set of words to receive the answer he wanted.  But no matter how he asked, the runes could not give him a definitive location of the star and its companion.  Wherever they had gone, they were currently unretrievable.

It was the first time since the star had fallen that Lotor was unsure what to do.  Giving up was out of the question.  He’d already expended more than he should’ve.  Failing to capture the star was not an option.

Which meant waiting was the only answer.  But where to wait?  And what to do while he was waiting?  Lotor had absolutely no idea.

Part of him wanted to return home and see Ezor, but it was a long journey, one he would have to make again once the star found its way back to him, and it wouldn’t be worth it. 

He was simply going to have to find a way to occupy his time for however long it took.

It was time to find a city.  He would find rest there and plenty with which to replenish his supplies with.  Maybe he would even find an alternate way to contact Ezor.  For now, he wanted to save what magic he had left.  Though the star hadn’t proved particularly resourceful, it had proved lucky, and if it came down to luck again, Lotor wanted to be prepared enough that not even all the luck in the world would matter.

Walking out of the wreckage of the inn—he’d found a relatively comfortable seat right in the middle (there was something satisfying about looking at pure destruction that he had caused)—Lotor realized that his goats who had once been humans and his humans that had once been goats had both burned up, along with his carriage.  Sighing, cursing how utterly beneath him it was, Lotor began to walk.  Halfway up a grassy hill, mud squelching, Lotor tossed his runes in the air.  This time, they had no trouble answering Lotor’s question.  A city lay to the northeast, ready and waiting.

 

˚             

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    *         +       .

*    .     

         

.   +        .       

        +

 

Lance had no idea what was happening.  He was relatively sure Keith didn’t either, but he was much better at pretending like he did.  It helped that, unlike Lance, he managed to keep his mouth shut.  Already, Lance had asked more than one stupid question.  But, to be fair to himself, it was all very confusing.

They were in the Captain’s cabin.  Eating his food.  Drinking his alcohol—something pleasant and bubbly—and everyone outside the doors of this haven thought they were dead, flung out of this cabin’s window.

Instead, the Captain had thrown out two mannequins wearing the clothes they’d been captured in.

Lance was still trying to understand why a sky ship had mannequins on board.  And that had been ages ago.  Since then, another million things had been added to the list of events that had happened recently in his life that he had yet to think about or properly deal with.

Another was his hand.

He had stuck it in dancing green flame just to save Keith’s life.  And he wasn’t even sure why he’d done it, anymore. 

For Nyma, he reminded himself.

It’s all for Nyma.

When it didn’t ring quite true, Lance shoveled food into his mouth as a distraction.

Beside him, Keith had already finished what food had been in front of him and was idly wiping his mouth with a napkin, giving it a furtive glance as he pulled it away, as if he wasn’t sure it had done anything at all.  Unable to help himself, Lance laughed.

Immediately, Keith glared at him.

“Napkin bite you?”

“Ha ha.”

“I am hilarious, you’re right.”

Rolling his eyes, Keith balled his napkin up and threw it into Lance’s face.  Then he laughed, a purely joyous sound, as Lance sputtered.  Words didn’t come as fast as he would like.  He was too busy trying to remember if he’d ever heard Keith laugh before, and if he had, why he hadn’t liked it quite so much as he did now.

“That’s a much better use for that,” Keith said.

“Probably because you’re terrible at using napkins.”

“I do not.”

Grinning, Lance reached out, ignoring Keith’s light flinch, and plucked a bit of mashed potato off his cheek.  Holding his finger out, Lance said, “You’re definitely terrible.”

Hitting his hand away, Keith scanned their surroundings.  When a loud cheer came from outside the cabin, Keith said, “Do you think that’s good or bad news for us?”

“Good?”

“Maybe.  I don’t understand what the ruse is for, though.”

Lane nodded thoughtfully, eating more of his food.  That was what was confusing him, too. 

The Captain had promptly dragged them out of the brig, still all tied up, and had made a rousing speech that had made little sense.  There had been mentions of duels, giving Keith to a winner of something, throwing both of them overboard, interrogating and torturing them, and yet none of those things had happened.  The Captain had brought them back into his cabin, saying something about the torturing aspect of whatever plan he’d laid out, and then he’d gave them food and drink, tossed mannequins out his window, and then disappeared back onto the deck.

“Maybe he’s making us comfortable so he has more fun torturing us?”

“Optimistic,” Keith mumbled.

“Yeah, I’m done with optimism.  Not one good thing has happened since I found you.”

Looking down at his plate, Keith nodded.

“I don’t mean…”

“It’s fine, Lance.  You’re right.”

“I know, but…”

“Do you stop talking?” Keith asked softly, scraping his plate with his fork.  He didn’t eat a single morsel of what he scraped up, just pushed it around his plate.

“Would you just listen to me?”

“Fine.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“Wonderful.  That’s really good to know.  Thank you.”

“That was a lot of sarcasm,” Lance observed.  It was not at all the response he’d expected.  This man, this star, made absolutely no sense to him.  Lance began to wonder if that was just how it was going to be for the extent of their acquaintanceship.  Keith, after all, was not of this world.  Maybe he was simply unknowable.

Frowning, Keith said, “Sorry.”

“You don’t need to…”

“It’s just…I was knocked out of the sky, found by you, tied up, pulled around on a bad leg, and then almost killed by a warlock, and I miss home and I don’t know if I will be able to get back and it would just…never mind.”

Prodding Keith in the shoulder with his finger, Lance smiled at him until Keith was smiling grudgingly at him and slapping his hand away.  “What were you going to say?”

“I wouldn’t mind if someone was glad I was around, I guess.  Particularly if they’re uninterested in killing me.  And even though you’re…you’re all I’ve got, Lance.  You’re the only person who hasn’t tried to kill me.  I do find the whole Nyma thing completely ridiculous, but I…”  Keith stopped and met Lance’s gaze.  “Why haven’t you tried to kill me?  I don’t think Nyma is going to be expecting me and you could have immortality.  Or close to.  As close to it as you’ll want to get.”

For a long time, Lance didn’t speak.  He was too busy laughing at himself for how wrong he had been.  Keith was not unknowable.  Not even close.  In fact, a lot of what he was saying resonated with Lance in an almost uncomfortable way, so close was it to his own insecurities.  Keith was a star, but he was also human.  Somehow, Lance had thought the two mutually exclusive until this moment.

What Lance knew more than anything, though, was that no one deserved to feel the way he felt about himself.  Searching for Keith’s eyes until they locked with his, Lance said, “You’re a good thing.”

Keith snorted.  “You’re better at lying than I expected.”

“I’m not lying!”

“Uh huh.”

“Ugh,” Lance groaned.  “You are so infuriating.”

“That’s more like it.”

“It doesn’t have to be like that.  We had a bonding moment, Keith.  You held my hand.”

“That wasn’t hand holding.”

“The point is,” Lance said, pushing forward, choosing to ignore Keith’s continued delusion, “we could be friends.”

“While you force me to go see Nyma?”

“I’m not forcing you to…”

“You very much are.”

“Well, fine, it’s not like…”

The door to the cabin opened a crack and the Captain snuck in, keeping he and Keith out of view.  He turned and beamed at the two of them, a glow in his eye.  “Now,” he declared, “where were we?  I don’t rightly remember, but are you enjoying the food?  Oh, and please, come raid my closet.  Those old things are not meant for either of you.”

“I’d love to raid your closet,” Lance said, “but, uh, could you explain, like, everything to us?”

“What needs explaining?”

“Are you serious?” Keith asked.

“Maybe we shouldn’t be rude.”

“I’ll be rude to whoever I’d like, thank you.  Especially to people who pulled me off a cloud by a net and threatened to kill me multiple times.”  Turning his attention back to the Captain, Keith said, “Are you going to kill us?  Because if you are, we have a problem.”

“But I already killed you.”

“Oh, perfect.  He’s insane,” Keith grumbled.

Instead of getting offended like Lance undeniably would’ve, the Captain laughed.  “I’ll take that as a compliment, lad.  Sadly, I’m not as insane as all that.  But my crew thinks your dead and for all intents and purposes, you are.”

“Why?” Keith asked, exasperation thick in his voice.

“Have you ever been captain of a ship, my boy?”

“No.”

“Well, I have been for a very long time and we’ve developed a bit of a reputation.  It’s important, you see, because it keeps us safe.  We do trade in lightning, after all.  Very lucrative business, lots of money to make.  Without our reputation, we would be under attack frequently.

“And, unfortunately, our reputation cannot depend on rescuing people from clouds and taking them under our wing.  No.  You had to die.”

“And the crew isn’t in on the ruse?” Lance asked.

“No,” the Captain said, smiling proudly.  “They are quite oblivious.”

“So who are we now?” 

“Kill me now,” Keith mumbled.  “Please.”

Why he wasn’t excited at the prospect of a little acting and a larger dose of being someone else, Lance didn’t know.  But he was thrilled.  This was the kind of adventure he would’ve never imagined he could be a part of, but had always, deeply and secretly, wished he could.

“My nephew,” the Captain beamed.  Staring at Keith, he said, “And you can be his husband.”

“No,” Keith said flatly.

“Fiancé?  Significant other?  I’m afraid you do need to be something, dear boy.  There needs to be an explanation.  The crew can’t know you survived.  They do look to me, after all.”

Laughing, not entirely pleasantly, Keith said, “We have the same faces.  Do you really think they’re going to see us and think we’re someone different?  There’s no point acting anything.  I’m not going to pretend to be in love with him just because you think you’re fooling someone.”

“That’s where the makeovers come in.”

“Makeovers?” Lance asked brightly, feeling that he was finally getting paid back for all the horrible days he’d lived through recently.

Getting up from the table, Keith headed for one of the windows.  “I’ve survived a long fall once,” he said as he walked.  “Maybe I can do it again.”

“What’s wrong with being in love with me?” Lance called after him, cackling.  He stopped cackling when Keith actually opened one of the windows and stuck his head out.  Without a thought, he ran over and tugged Keith back inside, shutting the window.

Unsurprisingly, Keith was soaked.  And grumpy.

It was hilarious.

Because Keith had been the one to do something so dramatic, Lance decided it wasn’t his fault when he started laughing so hard he cried.  For a long moment, Keith just stared at him and then he turned to the Captain and said, “I need to be alone.  Is there a place that can happen?  And does this help you understand why I can’t pretend to be in love with him?”

The Captain shrugged.  “To be honest, lad, no.  I think you’re already halfway there.”

“You’re delusional.”

“Why don’t you go pick something to wear from the closet?  I’ll keep this young man out here, get him washed, do something with his hair, give him a clean shave.”

“Fine,” Keith said, stomping off, following the Captain’s finger.

Chuckling, the Captain said, “Before we get started, I believe introductions are in order.  Let’s start with the young man who just showed himself out.”

“That’s Keith.”

“And you are?”

“Lance.”

“And I’m Coran.  A pleasure, nephew.”

Grinning, Lance took his hand and shook.  “Thank you.  Uncle.”

From the other room, they heard Keith shout, “You don’t have to pretend when you’re alone together, idiots!”

Laughing jovially, Coran said, “Well, I quite like him.”

Sitting down in the chair he’d been directed to, Lance smiled to himself, surprisingly glad for the hour or so he’d legitimately thought he was going to die and had found the patience to properly talk to Keith, to connect with someone before the end.  Because it had led him here.  “Yeah.  I do, too.”

Chapter Text

Staring into the full-length mirror at the end of the impressively massive closet—especially for being on a flying ship—Keith frowned at his reflection. An excessive amount of laces decorated the sleeves of this shirt and Keith couldn’t figure them out. He liked the rest of it, though. Dark, flowy, and breathable. Much better than the silk he had been wearing.

Still, the laces were a problem.

Sighing, Keith resigned himself to the inevitable. Stepping back into the main part of the cabin, where Lance and Coran were flipping through topics faster than Keith had fallen to the earth, he said, “I’m going to need help with these laces.”

Their conversation came to an abrupt halt and they both turned to Keith. Lance’s eyes widened slightly and Coran grinned. “An excellent choice, lad. Exactly the kind of thing I would’ve picked for you.”

“Uh…thanks?”

Rising from his chair, Lance strolled over. Motioning for Keith’s arms, he said, “I’ve got this.”

Reaching down, Keith tried to point out the holes the strings needed to be wound through, but Lance slapped his hand away. Scowling, Keith glared at the top of Lance’s head and pictured it exploding in a burst of light. It wasn’t nearly as satisfying as he’d hoped it would be. That was probably because Lance looked remarkably different. Apparently, washing made a huge difference, the dirt falling away to reveal something beautiful enough that it would be a shame to watch it explode.

When Lance’s fingers brushed against the thin skin of his inner arm, Keith flinched.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” Lance murmured, glancing up from underneath his lashes, before returning his focus to Keith’s shirt.

“I know,” Keith replied. There wasn’t a single thought in his head devoted to that worry. But something was making him uncomfortable.

“Well, you’re acting like a shy horse.”

“Well, you’re…”

“Yes?” Lance asked, already laughing.

“Infuriating.”

“Good comeback.”

“I don’t like you.”

“Whatever you say, Keith,” Lance said, tying a bow at the bottom of the sleeve. Then he moved to the other arm. What had Coran done to his hair? It didn’t look different, but he looked older nonetheless. And how long had he been in that closet? There had been lots of options, it was true—most absolutely horrifying—but still.

Shaking himself, Keith said, “You tied it too tight.”

“Too bad you can’t do it yourself, huh?”

“Remind me to tell Nyma you’re a horrible person.”

“You wouldn’t.”

Keith laughed. Not because he felt vindicated or because he felt it was a viable threat. His opinion was not going to matter in the slightest to someone like Nyma. He laughed because Lance’s eyes were glittering and he’d gasped dramatically, so dramatically he’d started choking. Slapping Lance on the back with his hand, Keith said, “Maybe you should ease up on the dramatics. They’re clearly not good for your health.”

“Worth it,” Lance coughed.

When the coughing fit was over, Lance’s eyes were watering, but once he’d wiped them clear, it was as though nothing had happened. He went back to doing up Keith’s sleeve.

Well, almost like nothing happened. Keith did not miss the unselfconscious smile that wouldn’t wane.

The second Lance was finished, Coran clapped his hands. “Time for your hair.”

Fingering the ends of his hair, Keith shook his head. “You are not touching my hair.”

“Let him,” Lance said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Your hair is awful.”

“Not as awful as your face.”

“Well, my face is better than yours, so…”

“I’m going to…”

“Boys, boys,” Coran said, smiling genially. “Court each other later. Please. We’re on a schedule, here. I can’t very well pretend I picked my family up from the sky. I’ll have to pretend I’ve been hiding you away in here and since we only docked a day ago, it’s still believable, but it won’t be for much longer.”

Crossing his arms over his chest, Keith grumbled, “I don’t care about your reputation, you know.”

“There’s no need for threats.”

Rolling his eyes, Keith sat down in the chair Lance had abandoned and waited.

“Lance, why don’t you go get dressed while I do Keith’s hair?”

Brightening, Lance nodded, hurrying off to the closet. There was a loud gasp seconds later and Coran laughed. “Ah, I’m glad the lad enjoys my things. I don’t get to share them much.”

Keith tried to think of a response to that, but he came up blank. So he closed his eyes and tried to ignore the niggling desire to move as Coran’s hands slipped into his hair and the sound of scissors snipping echoed in his ears.

Surprisingly, it was not a long lasting torture. The scissors were put away early in exchange for a hairbrush. And once the hairbrush was gone, Coran simply tied up his hair into a low, stubby ponytail. Reaching back, Keith felt for it curiously. “There’s a mirror on the back of the door, lad.”

Standing, Keith went to look in it and nearly screamed.

He hadn’t forgotten he was in a mortal body now, but it was still odd seeing it stare back at him, not quite believing this was what was holding him to this earth. His body did not look anything like he thought it would. Dark hair, dark eyes, angular features.

It was strange, being human. Humanoid. How did they manage it so effortlessly? This didn’t feel or look like enough to contain him. He was a star.

Part of him liked it, though. It was nice to feel stable. It was nice to actually interact with people and environments. That was the one thing the stars always complained about, not that Keith would ever tell anyone down here. All they could do was watch. They couldn’t experience.

There had been some who had longed desperately to experience. But stars could not knock themselves from the sky.

As Keith straightened his shirt and took a deep breath, watching the rise and fall of his chest, confirming the image was him, he wondered if he’d been one of those stars and just hadn’t realized it until now. It was becoming harder to imagine returning to the sky.

“What do you think?”

“It’s…I don’t hate it.”

“A high compliment.”

Turning, Keith gave Coran a small smile. That was when, in a burst of motion and noise, Lance came out of the closet, did a small spin, his jacket flaring, and grinned. “I know. It’s fabulous, isn’t it?”

Keith blinked. He had on a cream white jacket and a belt and boots with buckles. It was so much more complicated than what Keith had picked, but he looked comfortable and happy in it. Looking at him, Keith felt like he was back in the sky, just for a moment.

Maybe Nyma made sense.

Lance wanted more from life than what it had been giving him.

Keith could understand that. Hopefully, Lance would someday realize that Nyma was not the definition of more. Even without meeting her, Keith knew that much.

“Want a sword?” Coran asked. “That’s a good outfit for a sword. Swashbuckling.”

“You’re giving him a sword,” Keith said flatly.

“Why not?”

“I would love a sword, thanks for asking.”

“Yes, because absolutely nothing will go wrong.”

“Well, I am going to teach him how to use it, lad. You too. Knowing how to protect yourself can never hurt.”

“Who says I don’t already?” Keith asked, just to be contrary.

“The manner of your arrival.”

Laughing, Lance said, “He’s right about that. Don’t you want a sword, Keith? All the best heroes have them. I guess you wouldn’t know those stories, though.”

Ignoring Lance, despite his curiosity, Keith said, “Why even teach us? What’s in it for you?”

“Maybe he’s just being nice,” Lance said.

“Maybe.”

Coran grinned, putting his hands on his hips. “I like the both of you. Besides, Lance and I are related and what wouldn’t I do for family?” He winked at Lance and Lance winked back. “And who says I don’t get anything out of it? We happen to trade in lightning. And someone’s got to bottle it up.”

 

  ·   .

+               

˚        

   .            

            ·

    ·    .  *

 

The further Lotor walked, the more he was considering giving up his hunt and declaring a very real war against mud. It was caking his boots and there were flecks of it all over his clothes. Somehow, some had even managed to find its way to his hair. He’d always wondered if peasants bathed in mud, but it was quickly becoming clear it didn’t take nearly that much.

Lotor, in fact, felt more like a peasant than he ever had and he absolutely loathed it. All of this was beneath him. Walking, mud, searching for the next crowded, dirty city, mud, losing a star, and mud.

What was more horrible, however, was the niggling voice in the back of his mind that got louder the more tired he became, the older he became, asking him what would become him if he didn’t find the star. There was another voice, too and that one rattled Lotor to his core. It liked to ask if dying would be such a tragedy, after so much life. If there was really anything he was living for, anymore.

Shaking his head, Lotor laughed, dispelling what baseless anxiety he could. Living simply to prove he could live forever was enough. It always had been. Why would that change now?

At the top of a small hill, he stopped and scanned the horizon. There was still no sign of the city that his runes assured him was there.

“How does anyone do anything without magic?” he said to himself, moving forward. At least he’d finally found a road and that was bound to carry him to the place he wanted to be.

Not long later, a cart rattled behind him. Turning, he saw a paunchy woman with startlingly red hair coming his way, reins in hand, leading a horse gently down the path. The cart, which was really a wagon, was bright yellow. Hailing her, sure that he’d seen her somewhere before and even more sure he wanted her wagon, Lotor said, “Do I know you from somewhere?”

The wagon came to a halt and the woman eyed him. “Can’t say, sir.”

“I’m sure I do.”

“I don’t…”

“Are you a witch?”

The woman smirked and nodded. Returning the smile, Lotor said, “That must be it. Please, sister, break bread with me. I’m desperate for news and perhaps a ride. I’m making my way to the nearest city.”

“As am I.”

“What do you say?”

“Very well. I could eat.”

It didn’t take long for them to set up a camp of sorts, Lotor sparing some of his magic simply to prove he was what he said he was. When they were finished, there was a crackling fire, a rabbit on a spit, and terribly watered down ale in their hands. Lotor was pretending to drink it. Not because he was concerned with getting drunk, but because it was truly abysmal.

On a perch at the end of the wagon, a bright blue bird sang a mournful song.

“Oh do shut up,” the witch said.

“Are you talking to your bird?”

The woman smirked again and Lotor almost laughed. She obviously didn’t know who he was. Most likely, she thought herself more powerful. It was typical among his kind, the people in this land who devoted their time to the study of magic. They liked to prove they were better than each other. Lotor had used to worry about that. But, now, he knew he was best and had nothing to prove. He’d been alive much longer than any other witch or warlock in this place.

With a snap of her fingers, the bird transformed into a beautiful woman, skin brown, eyes bright blue. “Yes, it’s a wonderful trick every time, mistress. Can I please go back to being a bird?”

“Why on earth would you want that?” Lotor asked curiously.

“It’s easier to pretend I can fly away,” the woman replied, staring him dead in the eye. She was one not used to servitude, though she’d clearly been involved in it for some time. Lotor liked to fancy himself important. She, however, was a person who had been born important.

Lotor would stake his life that she was the missing princess. It was interesting, but concerned him little.

“Tell me,” he said to the witch, “have you heard story of a fallen star?”

“A star? Lord, I could use one of those. I’ve certainly seen better days.” The witch poked and prodded at her face, a whimsical smile on her face as she imagined what that would be like. Rolling his eyes, Lotor realized she was useless. It seemed too much work to kill her, however.

“Quite,” Lotor said dryly, turning his gaze back to the princess, her eyes catching his attention. He’d seen them somewhere.  And not on her face.

Why couldn’t he remember anything important today?

“Think we could search for the star together? Split it? I’ve got resources.”

“I think not,” Lotor said.

“I think you underestimate me,” the witch said, eyes fiery.

Finally, Lotor recognized her, the spark of youth transforming her face back to an age he recognized. Dishwater Sal. Powerful, fought dirty, but nowhere near as powerful as him.

“And you do not know who I am, Dishwater Sal.”

She flinched and Lotor sighed, already bored. Waving his hand, he said, “The star is not for you. If you encounter it, you will not see it or hear it or smell it. It will simply not be there. The star is mine and no one else’s.”

The witch’s eyes went fuzzy and the princess glared at him. “I’ve heard fallen stars look like you and me.”

“What of it?”

“People are not possessions.”

“You tire me,” Lotor said, turning her back into a bird. “Now, Dishwater Sal, what do you say we head for the nearest city?”

 

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          ·   *

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            *

 *     .

 

 

They hadn’t made it far from the inn before they’d thrown together a haphazard camp and slept in shifts, keeping an eye out for the man who had burned it down. Thankfully, he hadn’t shown. Obviously, they’d just been in his way and now that they weren’t, he wasn’t concerned.

Shiro was worried that once they were in his way again—it was inevitable, after all, the star still having his necklace—either he or Matt wouldn’t make it out.

They were both awake now, sharing a breakfast of salted meat, and Shiro kept glancing at him, trying to decide what he was going to do next and how much he could ask of Matt now that his quest had turned into something dangerous. The kind of dangerous there was no returning from if things went wrong.

Somewhere in between the fifth and tenth glance, Matt rolled his eyes and chucked some of his meat at Shiro’s face. “Don’t look at me like that. I’m not going anywhere.”

“I don’t want you to get hurt.”

“I’ve got you protecting me.”

“I’m not sure that man is someone I can protect you from.”

Matt shrugged. “Then I’ll protect you. I did a fairly good job last night, I must say.”

Shiro frowned. “You could die.”

“Lightning could shoot down from the sky and kill me right now.”

“There’s no lightning.”

Laughing, Matt leaned back on his hands and said, “Well, there you go. I’m perfectly safe.”

“This isn’t your quest, it’s mine. Only my life should be forfeit.”

“You know, I really admire you. I do. I think you’ll make a great king. Stormhold will become a better place because of you. But it’s my life and I’ll do what I like with it, damn your principles.”

“What if I ordered you?”

Immediately, Shiro wished he could take the words back. So many times already, he’d insisted Matt treat him not as a prince, but as a man, no different than him. Shiro had never thought of himself of a man who was unable to follow through, but he was failing miserably in this situation.

“I told you,” Matt replied, “I forgot my place last night. Haven’t remembered it yet.”

“What are you saying?”

“That I wouldn’t listen to an order from you unless I liked it.”

Staring down at his hands, Shiro whispered, “Why? Why would you go so far for me? I’m a prince and that’s all I know about myself. That’s all that’s ever defined me and a prince, a figurehead, is not worth dying for.”

“A lot of people would disagree with you, I think.”

“This is different than dying in war, an army behind you, a cause driving you.”

“Maybe so, but it doesn’t change my answer.”

Shiro noticed how Matt avoided his question. Not wanting to press, Shiro nodded and ate more of his salted meat, staring out at the horizon, at his kingdom. Giving himself a moment to take it in, he was glad that his quest had at least forced him out of the castle. This is not something every prince got to see.

“So,” Matt said, wiping his hands on his pants, “What’s the plan, Your Highness?”

“We follow him.”

“I was afraid you’d say that.”

“You can leave.”

“You’ve said,” Matt smiled, standing. Reaching down, he helped Shiro up and then set about packing up, not once asking Shiro to help. It was getting progressively harder to watch Matt do his job. As he shouldered a pack, Matt said, “Do we really have to?”

“He has magic. It’s very likely he’ll be able to find the star. I don’t think we will.”

“I know it doesn’t help us at all, but I’m glad he got away.”

Shiro nodded.

“His heart could save your mother’s life, couldn’t it?”

Shiro nodded again. “I’ll admit, the idea appealed.”

“But?”

“He’s as human as you or I.”

“Is he?”

“Close enough.”

Matt bumped against his shoulder, heading towards the road they’d been traveling on when they’d found the inn. “That’s why.”

Trailing after him, Shiro smiled to himself. There had been pride in Matt’s voice and Shiro thought if that the roles were reversed and he was the servant and Matt was the prince, he would understand. The same pride would be in his voice. He would make the exact same choice.

 

*        ·   ·  ˚   

         ˚

  · .      

   ·   ˚     ·    *

           

 ·      ·    

˚          .

 

As they stepped out of the cabin to be introduced to the crew, Lance not nearly as confident that their disguises would hold as he’d pretended—mostly just to irritate Keith—he realized that yet again he was in over his head. Coran was looking to him, clearly expecting him to take the lead here and when Lance glanced sideways at Keith, he thought that was likely a reasonable assumption.

Unsure what else to do, he reached down and took Keith’s hand. For a few tense moments, Keith didn’t curl his fingers around Lance’s hand. But then he did.

Nodding at Keith, not very subtly, making Keith groan and Lance laugh as silently as he could, Coran said, “Crew, I would like you to meet my nephew, Lance, and his betrothed, Keith. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen my nephew and I’d never met his delightful fiancé, so I’ve been keeping them to myself, but no longer. They’ll be with us for some time, after all.”

“We will?” Keith mumbled.

“The only other option is jumping off the ship,” Lance whispered back.

“I’m still willing.”

“I definitely wouldn’t survive that fall.”

“Too bad,” Keith said sarcastically.

Gasping as loudly as he could, Lance said, “You wound me.”

“How does anyone put up with you?”

“At least I’m fun.”

Laughing, Coran said, “Do excuse them. They do this a lot. Very in love, you know. Why don’t the two of you say hello?”

Shrugging, Lance diverted his attention from Keith and to the crew. They were a motley bunch, all largely unwelcoming, but that had never discouraged Lance before. Waving, he said, “Hello! Really nice to meet all of you. I’m afraid I know nothing about ships, especially ones that fly, but I’m more than willing to learn.”

He received stares in return.

“Rudeness doesn’t become you,” Coran said to his crew, voice stern. “Remember our recent prisoners? Any of you could meet the same fate.”

That earned grudging hellos. One man stepped forward and actually smiled, shaking Lance’s hand. “Hi, I’m Hunk. Sorry about this lot. They don’t like newcomers. Especially untried ones.”

“Reputation, right?”

“Afraid so. I actually like people, though. It’s almost got me kicked off a couple of times.”

“Pirates don’t make friends,” one crew member said.

“We’re not strictly pirates,” another said.

“Like hell we aren’t.”

“We don’t steal anything!”

“We do, too.”

“When was the last time we stole something?”

“Captain does all the time,” another chimed in.

The argument continued and Lance grinned. This was a place he could belong. These people weren’t all that dangerous and they were alive. More alive than anyone he’d known in the village. This whole world was more alive.

“Alright, get back to work,” Coran said, almost sneering. That earned cheers from the crew and they did as they were asked. Before heading back to his cabin, Coran told he and Keith to get used to the ship and the crew. Tomorrow, they would start their training of various kinds. Whatever that meant. Either way, Lance was terribly excited. Keith looked less so.

“You know,” Lance said, tugging on his hand and pulling Keith to the side of the ship, so he could hang off the edge and look down. Keith did not follow his lead. “You could look more in love with me.”

“Uh huh.”

“Maybe you could shoot for happy?”

“I’m alright.”

“What’s wrong with you? We’re on a flying ship. Nobody’s trying to kill us. We’re going to bottle up lightning. My life hasn’t ever been this interesting.”

Keith leaned back against the ship and crossed his arms over his chest. The wind blew though his hair, ruffling his bangs. It was a good look for him. So was the ponytail, actually. Now that he could properly see Keith’s face, the shape of it, the angles, Lance had trouble looking away. It was simply fascinating. Keith possessed a kind of wild beauty he hadn’t seen before.

“I don’t want interesting.”

“I think you do.”

Sighing, Keith said, “I don’t know what I want.”

The crew member who’d introduced himself earlier, Hunk, popped up behind them, a much smaller person beside him. She had glasses and intelligent eyes and when she said, “My name’s Pidge and I’m eighty percent sure the two of you are who we captured yesterday,” Lance knew he’d found a friend.

Smiling, Lance said, “Us? But I’m Coran’s nephew.”

“Sure you are.”

Hunk sighed. “Sorry,” he said, slapping Pidge on the arm. “She suspects everyone and everything.”

“I do not.”

“You do.”

“I’m sorry, but if you think the Captain is even a little scary, or that he actually throws people overboard, you’re crazy. He’s softer than you are.”

“Not possible. Haven’t you heard all the things he’s done?”

“Anyone can say they’ve done anything,” Pidge said. Eyeing Keith and Lance, she said, “Are you two even engaged?”

Lance nodded, slinging an arm around Keith’s waist and tugging him in close. To his credit, Keith didn’t even flinch, though he didn’t return the embrace in any way. “Who wouldn’t want to marry him?”

Keith mumbled something to himself.

“What was that, darling?” Lance said, trying not to laugh. This was about as much fun as he was capable of having. In fact, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d had quite this much fun.

Glaring at him, Keith said, “Please stop talking.”

“That’s not what you said to me last night.”

Groaning, Keith slapped his arm away. Lance whined and pulled his arm into his chest. To him, it wasn’t a very convincing performance, but Pidge didn’t comment. Neither did Hunk. They, in fact, seemed to buy it. That had to be Keith’s fault. He did look like someone who was incapable of proper romance.

“How’d the two of you meet?” Hunk asked. There was genuine curiosity in his voice and his smile was kind. Lance wondered how he’d ended up here of all places.

“He knocked me over,” Keith said flatly.

“But then I helped you up.”

“That’s true, I suppose.”

“He really does like me, I swear,” Lance said as fondly as he could. It took a lot less effort than he’d thought it would. “He’s just grumpy. Don’t know why I put it up with it.” It was light and teasing, but Lance wanted to swallow the words. That was something Keith would take offense to. This ruse was about to fall apart before it’d even started.

Meeting Lance’s eyes, Keith smirked. Lance was pretty sure his heart stopped. “Because,” Keith said, holding his gaze, “It’s only for you.”

A lot of things changed in that moment.

One, Lance realized he couldn’t even remember what Nyma looked like. Not exactly. Only vaguely. Two, he wasn’t sure he even wanted to go home. Stormhold felt more like a home and he’d only been here a few days. But it was the kind of life he’d been searching for. Somehow, he’d found it without even looking. Three, Keith had just flirted with him convincingly. Four, it had worked.

There was so much vivacity in Keith’s eyes, enough to power an entire world, and Lance was confident no one had ever looked at him like that.

And Lance knew Keith wasn’t that good of an actor. There was genuine care and laughter in those eyes. Whatever Keith said, he enjoyed Lance’s company. Truly enjoyed it.

Lance wasn’t sure Nyma ever had.

Both things were a revelation.

Letting out a breath, Lance said, “Yeah. You’re right. That’s definitely it.”

Keith smiled and shrugged. “I know.”

“Interesting” Pidge said, interrupting them. Lance suddenly and desperately wished Pidge and Hunk weren’t here, which was strange because he loved making friends. But there was so much he wanted to say to Keith. There was so much he wanted to figure out. Alone. In private.

“See, Pidge? The captain doesn’t lie about everything,” Hunk said.

“Maybe not. I’m going to show you, though.”

“I know, I know. Well, we have to get back to work, but you’re welcome to hang out with us anytime. We drink and play cards almost every night and you’re invited.”

“Thanks,” Lance said.

Hunk nodded and the two of them walked away. Turning to Keith, Lance said, “Well, here we are.”

“For the foreseeable future.”

“Could be worse.”

Keith nodded. “That’s true.”

“That wasn’t so painful, was it?”

“No,” Keith mumbled. “It wasn’t.”

When Lance reached over and took Keith’s hand again, relying on the presence of the crew members as an excuse if he needed one, Keith didn’t pull away. He simply leaned his free elbow on the railing and gazed out into the sky, a vista of clouds and blue.

Lance couldn’t tear his eyes away. And he was glad he didn’t. Because, ever so slightly, almost impossible to see in the light of day, Keith started to glow.

Lance didn’t know what that meant, but he didn’t care.

He was too busy wishing he could kiss a star and trying not to worry about what that meant.

Chapter Text

Leaning back against the railing of the ship, Keith watched Coran and Lance spar each other, most of the main deck their training ground. The crew was gathered around the edges as well, cheering Lance on. Almost immediately, he’d become a favorite of every member. He played cards, he socialized late into the night, he was happy to learn new things, he made jokes, he worked hard when he needed to, and he invented all sorts of ways to have fun, some the crew hadn’t even come up with.

At first, Keith had been jealous of the way he’d melded so easily, but then Keith had managed to make friends with Hunk and Pidge, the only two people who actively sought him out, and it hadn’t disturbed him any longer.

“He’s gotten so much better,” Hunk said beside him, wiping away fake tears. “I’m so proud of him.”

“Bet he still couldn’t beat me,” Pidge said.

“He’s only been learning a month!”

“Bet he still couldn’t beat Keith.”

“Yeah, but Keith’s a natural.”

Smiling to himself, Keith looked down at his feet. Pidge nudged him in the side with her elbow and said, “Get that smug look off your face. No big heads allowed around here.”

“Big talker,” Hunk said.

“I will attack you.”

Pretty sure what passed as a fight between these two—a lot of fingernails and weak hitting—Keith pushed himself away and crossed to the other side of the ship, skirting the edges of the fight. Coran noticed him and pulled back. Stroking his mustache, something he did with alarming frequency—Keith had thought it incredibly dramatic and pretentious at first—Coran said, “I think he may be ready to take you on, lad.”

At that, Lance grinned. He’d been itching to fight Keith for weeks. Coran hadn’t allowed it, saying it would damage his learning process, hurt his confidence beyond retrieval.

Drawing his sword, Keith smirked at Lance. “You sure you want to do this?”

“Bring it, darling.”

They faced each other and Lance bowed with a flourish. Rolling his eyes, Keith followed his lead, then held his sword out, gripping the handle loosely but surely. Hunk hadn’t been entirely inaccurate. It had been a surprise to him, but everything about this mortal pursuit had come to him with incredible ease. The speed with which he’d learned the basic skills had been abnormal, according to Coran.

This wasn’t going to be a prolonged fight.

Playfully, Lance ran his blade up Keith’s, the connection making a high-pitched scraping noise. He was still smiling and Keith’s chest felt strange, tight. That had been happening a lot recently. He hadn’t told anyone about it, because he didn’t want someone to tell him he was sick. That was one part of the mortal world he hoped to avoid and ignoring the possibility seemed the best way to do that.

With a forward lunge from Keith, they began, Lance parrying and then circling, actually conscious of his footwork, undeniably the hardest part for him, which was strange, because his dancing lessons had gone infinitely better than Keith’s.

Stepping again, not one for caution, Keith swung his sword towards Lance’s shoulder.

Parry, thrust, parry, thrust, carrying on long enough for the strain in Keith’s arms to become noticeable, and then Keith saw an opening, a bad angle on a block giving it to him. Lance’s eyes widened as he sensed it and Keith spun away from his wild thrust, getting up close and kicking his legs out from underneath him.

Falling to the deck, Lance managed to keep his sword in his hand, but the shock was substantial enough that he couldn’t get his sword up in time. Resting the tip of his blade against Lance’s neck, Keith said, “I win.”

“I hate you,” Lance said.

“Sore loser.”

“Bet you’d be worse.”

“Guess we’ll never know.”

Lance laughed and shook his head, holding out a hand. Taking it, Keith pulled him up. Something odd happened to his stomach again when Lance didn’t immediately let go, instead moving within inches of Keith. Leaning in, he kissed Keith on the cheek, very close to his mouth, and whispered, “There’s your congratulations.”

Keith blinked. His first thought was that Nyma was a colossal idiot. His second was that she must be very stubborn to resist advances like this. His third was that that was a strange thought to have. This, after all, was Lance, the man who was taking him to the love of his life as some kind of trophy.

Besides, the weren’t real advances, they were pretend. And Keith wasn’t falling for them, anyway. He wasn’t that naive. From the sky, he’d watched love fail more times than he could count.

Of course, Keith was beginning to think there was a big difference between living something and observing it. Traps were harder to see when you weren’t far away enough to notice them coming.

A thumb stroked the corner of his mouth and down his chin. “What are you thinking about?” Lance asked quietly.

“What?”

“Looked serious.”

“It’s nothing,” Keith said lamely, desperately wanting to bat Lance’s hand away but knowing better. Instead, he fell back a few paces.

Lance shrugged, smile brighter than it should’ve been. After a month, cooped up here, pretending to be in a relationship, having dinner with the captain almost every night, and capturing lightning, Keith had a much better understanding of Lance’s expressions. Something was wrong and it was probably his fault.

Just as desperately as he’d wanted Lance to stop touching him, he wanted to ask what was wrong and make it better, but he was confident he wouldn’t do it right. Often, they just ended up fighting. Keith, in fact, couldn’t seem to say a single thing right.

So he turned away and went back to the railing.

“Hey, buddy, what’s wrong?” Hunk asked.

“Nothing.”

“You just beat Lance at something. Usually, you’d be gloating until dinner.”

“I just…feel off,” he mumbled.

At that, Hunk nodded knowingly, as though that explained everything. Keith shot him a look and he stilled and started to whistle, slowly ambling away. Pidge put her head in her hands and then yelled, “Real subtle, Hunk. Just leave me to deal with it, why don’t you?”

Hunk waved and disappeared below deck.

“What was that about?” Keith asked.

“Don’t worry about it,” Pidge said with a smile, grabbing a hold of Keith’s sleeve and tugging him towards the prow of the ship. “Come on, we’re about to leave the clouds and it’s worth watching from up here.”

Frowning, Keith allowed himself to be lead away, glancing back over his shoulder to see Lance standing in the middle of the deck, holding his sword loosely. Their eyes met and this time, Lance didn’t smile. The expression on his face reminded Keith of a couple nights ago, when they both had gotten very drunk—there was an endless supply of alcohol on this ship as far as Keith could tell—and they’d ended up on the deck, the light of the moon spilling down. It had been freezing and they’d curled up into each other, even though no one was there to see them. And they’d talked, laughing more than they said anything of substance, and then when it had grown silent and Keith had slid away from Lance, realizing through the haze of alcohol that they were acting like day old lovers, Lance had looked at him like that.

And Keith knew it. Longing.

Which was endlessly confusing, because Lance shouldn’t be looking at him like that. Nyma still existed.

Maybe once they were back on the ground and no longer pretending anything, Lance would remember himself. Keith hoped so, because if Lance thought he was okay with being a distraction until he was a home with who he really loved, he was terribly wrong.

By now, he and Pidge were at the prow of the ship and the clouds were parting around them, cold and wet. But then through the mist, Keith saw a lake, blue and glowing in the sun. Glancing sidelong at Pidge, he smiled, a small part of him wishing she was Lance.

Perhaps he had not avoided quite as many traps as he’d imagined.

 

            ·  * .

·  ·  .   *    *  .

  +      .        

    ˚  *  ˚       *

             .

 

 

It hadn’t been a good month for Lotor, which was why he was here, in a tavern, in the middle of the afternoon, playing dice and cheating people out of their money. Most didn’t know magic when they saw it and the rest decided he lost often enough that he couldn’t possibly be cheating, but was just having a lucky day. Idiots. All it took was a modicum of intelligence to discern what he was doing.

Beside him, was Dishwater Sal, laughing uproariously as she drank her third glass of cheap wine. At least he wasn’t drinking in the afternoon. He had not fallen that far.

Though he was sitting with her and she was tiresome. Almost tiresome enough to kill. He would if it wouldn’t break the curse on the princess. He would’ve left by now, too, if it weren’t for the princess. But he was still trying to figure out where he’d seen her eyes before, because he knew it was important.

There was also the small fact that he had nothing better to do. He was waiting for a ship to land. It hadn’t taken long to uncover where the star was, but Lotor did not have the means to search the sky, so here he was, waiting. At least he had a fairly good idea of when and where the ship would be landing.

“’Nother round?” said an old, bearded man with yellowed teeth that he showed too much of.

“Here, here!” Dishwater Sal said.

Rolling his eyes, Lotor swept up his winnings and stood. “Enjoy the rest of your game. Please, excuse me. I have other things to attend to.”

“See you tonight?” Dishwater Sal asked.

He looked down into her face, her bright red cheeks almost as irritating as the green something stuck in her teeth. Resisting the urge to groan, Lotor nodded. “Yes, of course. I wouldn’t miss out on a single one of our dinners.”

“Isn’t he such a sweet boy?” she said to the men playing with her. They all cheered, probably paying absolutely no attention to a word she was saying. Lotor wasn’t even sure what she was saying. Sweet was entirely the wrong word to describe their interactions. Polite, yes. Cordial, yes. Sweet? Never. And the furthest thing from a boy, for that matter.

Sweeping out of the tavern, Lotor wandered over to the little yellow wagon, parked at the side of the inn, pleased to see that the princess was not in her bird form. It was, in large part, what the politeness was for. For most of their relationship, Dishwater Sal had enough distrust of him to keep he and the princess as far away from each other as possible. He’d probably eyed her curiously one time too many in their earlier interactions.

When she saw him, she stopped her sweeping of the front porch and put a hand on her hip, her long brown ringlets swaying with the movement. “I have no interest in talking to you.”

“We don’t have to talk, if you’d like. I’ve got some cards.”

“I know what you’re doing.”

“But how often do you get to play cards?”

Sighing, she strolled down the porch steps, the chain around her ankle trailing her. Settling into the long grass, she extended her dress, making a space to lay cards. “If you speak a word, I will stop playing.”

“That’s not very sporting.”

“You want something from me. I do not know what it is, but I know you do, and I would very much prefer if you did not get it.”

“Why, because I’m determined to eat the heart of a star?”

“That among many other things. I wasn’t once capable of reading a situation,” she tugged on the chain around her ankle. “Obviously. But, it’s different now and you set my hair on end.”

“Smart,” Lotor smirked.

“Deal the cards and stop talking.”

He did and they played. The entire time, he thought. He racked his brain for the connection it was trying to make. When he was able to look directly into her eyes, like he was now, it was always so close, like a word, just on the tip of the tongue.

She won the first game. Folding the cards over, she slid them across her dress and said, “Loser shuffles.”

With a flick of his fingers, he shuffled them, uninterested in doing it properly. There was a flicker of true fear in her eyes at his magic, which was understandable given her position, but it gave him exactly what he needed. That fear was familiar. There were flames and a star and an inn. A boy had run in and with a Babylon candle had saved the star’s life, ruining everything.

Their eyes were the same. 

Smiling, Lotor said, “You had a son.”

The princess’ mouth fell open. She chose to say nothing, but it was too late. Her shock had given away enough.

His star was with a prince, with this woman’s son, and he wasn’t sure now how that could help him, but he knew it would. The more information, the better. Always. Picking up the cards and shuffling them by hand, Lotor asked, “Another game?”

 

.    .       

    .      .

* *       *    .    +

             

    .          .

 

Matt yawned, lounging against one of their packs, a large leaf frond propped up against another pack, shading his eyes from the sun. It had taken him over fifteen minutes to set it up just right and Shiro still hadn’t decided if it was utterly ridiculous or endearing. His hands were resting on his stomach and his fingers would not stop moving. “I am so tired of this tavern. When’s he going to leave?”

“I wish I knew,” Shiro said, looking out at the very tavern they were speaking of. They had a room there, but they spent most of their days outside of it, lounging in fields, hiking in some nearby woods, anything. It had gotten claustrophobic within days of being there.

“Why’s he waiting? The star has to be moving. And why…”

“Matt, I’m not going to know the answer this time, just like I didn’t know it the other seventy times.”

“My, did I hear a hint of irritation?” Shiro could hear the smile in his voice.

“That wouldn’t be very princely of me.”

“Who told you you weren’t allowed to feel things?”

“Everyone,” Shiro said.

“Well, I think you should’ve thrown them all in prison.”

“And how was I supposed to get my mother there?”

“You could’ve tied her to a wheelbarrow.”

Shiro laughed. “Why was that your first thought?”

“It wasn’t. Drugs were. I thought that was a little much, though.”

“A little treasonous, perhaps?”

“Something like that.”

Looking over his shoulder, Shiro grinned at Matt. Their gazes lingered much too long, but Shiro hardly cared. The past month had made a couple of things clear. One, that Matt was in love with him and might’ve been for quite a long time. Two, that he was well on his way to feeling the same way. And, three, that he had absolutely no idea what to do about it and neither did Matt. They were stuck at an impasse; an impasse of rank, duty, and inexperience. It had been a surprise to Shiro when he’d realized one night, late, Matt breathing slowly in the bed beside his, that he would consider letting all of that go.

Shiro had a sense Matt would not let him, though. Despite his jokes and his outlook on life, despite how comfortable he had become, he was still sensible and realistic.

Clearing his throat, suddenly quite interested in his fingernails, Matt said, “Did you want to hike today?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

Matt hummed in response.

Sighing, Shiro fell backwards, lying down beside Matt. The sun beat into his eyes, the leaf frond’s shadow not reaching him. Closing them, seeing red, Shiro said, “Is there something you want to do? I’m sure it’s your turn to pick something a hundred times over.”

“Well, there’s…no, never mind.”

Smiling, Shiro rolled his head to the side. “What?” he asked. “Tell me.”

“You won’t want to.”

“Try me.”

Matt laughed, flipping onto his side and resting his chin on his hand. “I didn’t think I could like you more, but getting you out of the palace was incredibly wise of your mother.”

“Was it?” Shiro asked, heart racing.

“Even prince’s need to know how to have fun. That’s a rule of being a human and alive on this planet.”

“Would you please just tell me what you have in mind?”

“Have you ever been drunk, Your Highness?”

 

*  ˚  

*        ˚    

  ˚  .  .     ·· 

     ·     ·    

   ·    ·   .      ·   

            +

* ·

 

“Buddy, there’s only so much forlorn staring a man can do,” Hunk said.

Groaning, Lance took a sip of wine and leaned against the railing. They were on water now, the stars above them, and he could feel in every stare from the crew, in the candles decorating the deck, in the fancy dinner laid out on a table they’d dragged onto the deck, that this was their last night aboard this ship.

This was the last night Lance could get away with touching Keith without having to explain anything and he wasn’t sure he could go back. When they weren’t touching, he often craved it, a feeling similar to hunger that settled in his chest.

“But look at him,” Lance whined. He’d never looked at Keith and seen a star before. But, tonight, he did. Coran had put them both in his best clothes. Keith’s in particular were spectacular. Dark, shiny, and fitted in all the right places.

“You could just…tell him. Pretty good setting for it.”

“But we’re still faking! It’s not gonna work.”

“Give him some credit.”

“He won’t understand. Trust me.”

Shrugging, Hunk said, “I don’t know, Lance. You managed to convince me and I was pretty sure that you two were already in an actual relationship.”

“You’re not Keith.”

Nudging Lance in the arm, Hunk said, “Well, why are you hanging out with me? You never know what can happen a night like this. Besides, he looks lonely.”

“Yeah,” Lance whispered. And he did. Ever since their makeshift party had started, he’d retreated to the edges, dangling a cup of wine over the ocean, as he stared up at the stars, a kind of ancient sadness that Lance couldn’t ever hope to understand lining his face.

“Go on.”

“But this is my last night with you. Ever.”

Tearing up, Hunk pulled him into a crushing hug, lifting him off his feet. Hugging him back tightly, Lance saw Pidge coming from behind them and said, “Get her in here, would you?”

Obligingly, Hunk swooped Pidge up into his arms. She wriggled futilely for a moment and then sighed loudly. “I would like to not participate in this.”

“Too bad nobody asked you.”

“I love you both, I swear, but I was getting food and that sounds better than this.”

Almost immediately, Hunk released her. Before she went to the table, she smiled at Lance and gave him a quick hug. “I’m glad I got to know you,” she whispered, before fleeing. Putting a hand to his chest, Lance watched her leave fondly.

“Go save him from his brooding,” Hunk said.

Lance’s eyes trailed over to Keith and he nodded. Hunk punched him lightly in the arm. Straightening his back, Lance strolled over and casually leaned up against the railing beside him. When he moved to cross one foot over the other, he practically tripped himself, arms flailing for purchase until balance returned.

Somehow, Keith managed to roll his eyes even though he was already looking up.

“Hey there, gorgeous.”

Dropping his head, Keith gave Lance a flat look. “Hi.”

“I…you…” Lance took a deep breath to get his thoughts back into order. “You genuinely look really nice.”

Keith flushed. “So do you,” he mumbled.

“Missing home?”

Keith returned his gaze to the sky. “No,” he said. “I was…I don’t think I’ll get back. So I was saying goodbye.”

Wincing, Lance reached over and took Keith’s free hand. “I know that I wasted your one…”

“You saved my life,” Keith interrupted. “Don’t.”

“But I promised to get you back and I will. Whatever I have to do.”

“I’m not sure I want to go back.”

“Oh.” Trying not to get his hopes up, his brain firing off all kinds of reasons for the change, Lance said, “Can I ask why not?”

“I just don’t.”

“Right.”

Wincing, Keith faced Lance. “Sorry, that was…let’s talk about something else. Like what the plan is once we get off this ship, for example. I’ve been looking at some of Coran’s maps and judging by his normal routes, we’ll be landing in a port only twenty or so miles from the wall. If we get in early enough, we can probably make it there in a day.”

“Woah,” Lance said, squeezing Keith’s hand. “Relax. We don’t have to talk about that now.”

“Why wouldn’t we? Nyma’s waiting.”

It had been awhile since he’d heard her name and it wasn’t a pleasant experience. Guilt flooded him and he couldn’t fight his way through it to argue with Keith. He was right, after all. At the start of this journey, this had all been for Nyma. It wasn’t, anymore, but maybe it still should be. It wasn’t like him to give up on a person.

Keith slipped his hand out from underneath Lance’s. “I’m going to get some food. Want anything?”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Okay.”

 

  ˚  ˚   

           *            

    

   ˚           

·  ˚    

           ·

.        +  *    

 

 

Coran clinked the side of his cup with a fork and the entire crew came to attention. Lance made eye contact, but he didn’t listen. There were cheers and growls from the crowd, so it was probably one of Coran’s pointlessly violent and gruesome speeches, anyway.

But then music started to play, a dancing tune, one from their lessons and Lance felt a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. He loved dancing. It might be able to turn around this night.

None of the crew made a move to dance. They weren’t really the sort, but Coran walked over to Keith and said, “One last lesson?” holding out a hand and Keith accepted. They moved to where there was space and began a waltz. All Keith did was stare at his feet, but he managed to keep up and that was saying something, considering how bad he’d been when they’d started learning a month ago.

When he made his first mistake, he apologized, but Coran just smiled. After that, further mistakes, however abysmal, however badly they made Lance want to laugh, made Keith smile, until he was grinning and glowing. Unmistakably glowing. It was relatively faint, but the dark of the night was a perfect background.

He was absolutely the most beautiful thing Lance had ever seen.

Lance’s feet moved without his permission. Before he was genuinely conscious of his actions, he was tapping on Coran’s shoulder and asking to dance with Keith. Without argument, Coran stepped away. “Is this okay?” Lance asked Keith.

“I’m still your fiancé, so yes.”

“Keith, is it okay?”

Slightly taken aback, it took a second for Keith to nod. Waiting, Lance let him cross the distance between them. Very carefully, Keith slid his hand into Lance’s, the other resting on Lance’s hip. Instead of looking at his feet, he looked into Lance’s eyes.

The music that started was much slower and sweeter than the previous song. Lance glanced at Coran and he grinned, giving a thumbs up.

When his eyes, inevitably, fell back on Keith, the glowing was much fiercer and Keith’s cheeks were red, as if he knew. Stepping closer, so that their chests were almost pressing together, Lance lifted his hand from around Keith’s waist and trailed his fingers through the light, marveling at how his fingers shimmered. “Why does this happen?” he whispered.

Keith shrugged.

“I think you know,” Lance smiled.

“Prove it.”

Laughing, Lance slid his arm tighter around Keith, holding on for as long as he could. “Well, I love it. Very unique.”

“Really? Are you sure? It’s almost like I’m not human.”

“You’re in a particular sort of mood tonight, aren’t you?”

“Only when I’m talking to you.”

“You say the sweetest things,” Lance teased.

Opening his mouth, Keith closed it a moment later. Instead, he brought their clasped hands to his chest and held them there. Lance’s heart dropped. When Keith leaned forward and pressed his face into Lance’s neck, there was very little stopping Lance from kissing whatever part of Keith he could reach. There were so many thoughts running through his brain that he could almost feel a sort of pressure from them.

Lance had drastically underestimated how bad of an idea faking a relationship was. Keith had been right all along.

Into his ear, Keith whispered, “You weren’t the worst fiancé, you know.”

“Neither were you.”

By now, they were about as close together as they could get. The light emanating from Keith’s body was shrouding them both and Lance imagined it as some sort of protective barrier, shielding them from reality, from what was waiting for them on the shore. Breathing Keith in, Lance let himself imagine one last time what it would be like to have Keith like this all the time.

He’d always seen Nyma as a bright flame, beautiful and contrary and fierce. And maybe she still was. But Keith was an entire tempest and he’d blown Nyma’s flame out.

He was making such a big mistake.

The song ended too soon and Keith stepped away, his glow fading, but not altogether gone. Lance stood stupidly as he walked away, having no idea what he was supposed to do now. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Everything was supposed to be different.

Falling in love with a star had not been in the plan. It hadn’t even been a consideration.

Digging a knife into Lance’s sheer misery and confusion, Coran came up beside him and said, “This may not be my place, but…lad, your true love is right in front of your eyes.”

Lance didn’t need to be told twice.

 

*  .  ˚      

*       ·        

.   *      .   

.      .      

     . ˚

 

“No…Matt, would you…” Shiro started to laugh as wine slopped over the sides of the cup he was positive Matt had casually ‘borrowed’ from the tavern. “Stop, stop! I didn’t need more.”

“I’m the one pouring and I think you do need more. You’re not slurring a goddamn thing.”

“Neither are you.”

“Poured myself more, too, don’t you worry.”

They were on top of a hill, looking down at the tavern, candles lit now that it was dark. The stars were out, Shiro was warm from the alcohol and from Matt’s presence, and he was confident he’d never been happier in his life. Grinning over absolutely nothing, Shiro said, “This is not at all what my mother had in mind when she sent me away and I don’t even care.”

“Cheers.”

“I love this. I love the grass and the stars. I even love that awful warlock, because he brought us here. This is perfect.”

“Oh, fantastic, you’re this kind of drunk.”

“Is that bad?” Shiro asked shyly.

“Not at all.”

“I’m talking too much, aren’t I?”

“More than you usually do,” Matt said, smiling so fondly, Shiro lost all brain function. “It’s wonderful. Please don’t stop. I’ve always wanted into your head.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re so silent and stoic. I admire it, but I also worry about it. Did. Still do, I guess. I worry that no one’s making sure you’re alright. I worry you’re not letting people do that. It wasn’t my job, so I…”

“I’m more than happy for you to assume that role starting now, if you’d like.”

Matt laughed loudly, without restraint. It was such a natural sound, like a bubbling creek or the wind rustling through the leaves. Shiro loved everything about it. “I bet you are.”

“Any role you’d like, in fact. I don’t want…you’re more important to me than the position you have in my life. And I…I wish that it was different. I’d make it different if you’d let me.”

“Shiro…”

“You’re right,” Shiro said, laughing to himself. “I’m sorry. This is why you shouldn’t have suggested this.”

“I like where I am.”

“I know.”

“But…”

“But?”

Matt flicked his eyes away and didn’t say anything else, just took another sip of wine. The wind was tugging on his curls, shining gray in the moonlight. When one flipped straight up, Shiro reached over and straightened it. Matt didn’t move a single muscle, not when Shiro trailed a finger down his cheek curiously, not when Shiro scooted closer, not when Shiro said, “I’ve wanted…tell me to stop.”

Matt didn’t speak. Shiro could tell he was searching for something to say, but he seemed to have run out of jokes. When Shiro leaned in and kissed the corner of his mouth, Matt whispered, “I don’t want you to.”

“I don’t want to, either.”

“We’ll probably regret this.”

“I won’t.”

“You’re a prince and I’m…”

Not wanting to hear the end of that thought, Shiro tilted Matt’s head up and pressed their lips together. When he pulled away, just to see Matt’s face, Matt’s eyes were still closed and his mouth was hanging open slightly. Stroking his cheek, Shiro whispered, “I wish I’d gotten to know you sooner.”

Slowly, Matt opened his eyes. “It doesn’t matter. You know me now.” Then they were kissing again and they didn’t stop until the alcohol settled into their bones, exhaustion spreading through every fiber of being. They stumbled back to the tavern, fell into the same bed, and almost immediately succumbed to sleep.

Chapter Text

The morning bloomed yellow and bright, the lake the ship was docked on a vibrant blue, but Lance thought it felt cold, anyway. That month had been a dream and with a few steps, he was back in reality, faced with a decision that would shape the rest of his life. It made him want to walk straight into the water and not come back.

Beside him, Keith was waving awkwardly at the ship and her crew. There was a small smile on his face, but his eyes were blank and Lance had learned that meant something was very wrong.

They were both feeling the hard ground beneath their feet, missing the sky. Lance just couldn’t know for sure what about it Keith missed.

He never knew anything. It was a terrible curse.

Quietly, not daring to think too loudly or hope too wildly, Lance thought, if I asked you again why you were glowing in my arms that night, would you say it was because of me?

Before he could travel further down that twisting road, Keith turned abruptly. In a clipped voice, he said, “Let’s go.”

Great. Rolling his eyes towards the sky, Lance wondered if all of their progress on the ship was suddenly erased. It struck him as a very Keith thing to do. He had a tendency to be irritating.

Covering up his anxiety with a smile, Lance bounded after Keith, bumping their shoulders together when he caught up. Though he kept his head lowered, Lance knew Keith was looking at him. Feeling uneasy, Lance said, “Think we can make it to the wall without any more incidents?”

Keith shrugged.

“It’s been awhile since you’ve been this good at shrugging.”

Letting out a sigh, Keith stopped walking. Turning, he faced Lance, opened his mouth, and then froze when the sound of hooves clattered somewhere above them on the road. Realizing a second later what that meant, Lance tackled Keith to the ground behind a rock. They’d made it this far. This was not where Keith was going to get captured and his heart eaten. Lance liked his heart. Preferred it where it was.

Landing on top of Keith, Lance kept quiet and tense, listening hard for the possible danger to pass. Only when it passed, did it occur to him that every inch of him matched every inch of Keith. Raising himself up, but not all the way, Lance finally met Keith’s eyes. There was a furious blush in his cheeks and his face was turned away, the line of his jaw hard.

“Sorry,” Lance whispered. “I just don’t want that man to get you. Better safe than sorry.”

“For Nyma, right?” Keith said flatly.

All it took was that sentence. All it took was the feeling of his stomach falling and his chest cracking down the middle for him to realize it wasn’t a choice between Keith and Nyma. It was a choice between his past and his future, between promises and beginnings, between who he was and who he was becoming. If it was simply down to Keith and Nyma, it would’ve been Keith thousands of times over.

Something steadied in him, spurred by the knowledge that if he spoke the wrong words here he could lose Keith.

He’d been right in his first thought. It wasn’t a choice.

It was Keith a thousand times over.

“No,” Lance said. “For you. I can’t lose you.”

“I thought you were going to get me home.”

“And I thought you didn’t want to go.”

“I don’t,” Keith whispered, moving his hand, as though to touch Lance’s face, but then aborting the movement. Instead, he tried to sit up, growling at Lance to get off of him. Scrambling away from Keith, Lance stood and wiped down his clothes.

“You like the mortal world that much, huh?” he asked.

Keith was already started up the road. He didn’t turn when he said, “Something like that.”

 

     *   ˚

.   ·     ·  +  ˚ 

      .

            ·

·  ˚ .   *      

  *            .

 

 

They’d been walking in complete silence for over three hours and for that entire time, Lance had been trying to contrive a sentence perfect enough to break it. The list of things he wanted to say was long, but very few would put Keith in a good mood.

Your true love is right in front of your eyes.

Groaning, Lance sat down in the middle of the road. Then he waited for Keith to realize that he wasn’t being followed. It took a surprisingly short amount of time, Keith spinning, confusion crinkling his brow. When he spotted Lance he rolled his eyes and walked back. “Really?” he said.

“I’m not moving until I know you’re going to stop being mean.”

“I’m not being mean.”

“Definitely are.”

“Am not,” Keith said.

“You haven’t talked to me since we got off the ship!”

“Yes, I have.”

Flopping down onto his back, the sheath of his sword clattering against the cobbled stone, Lance gazed up at the sky, wishing it was dark and he could see stars, because maybe Keith’s family could explain Keith to him. There had to be someone, in the wide universe, who understood him.

Above him, he heard a long-suffering sigh, and then there was a body spread out beside him. Not close enough to touch and Lance wondered if that was deliberate. “Nyma isn’t going to wait forever,” Keith said.

“I know,” Lance murmured.

“So being dramatic is probably not in your best interest.”

But I don’t want to go home, Lance thought. I want to stay in Stormhold with you. But he still didn’t have a way to tell Keith. And he was scared. Downright terrified.

It was strange. It had been so easy to tell Nyma how much she meant, how much he would do for her, all the ways she was pretty and perfect, but for Keith, it was impossible.

Gradually, Lance was becoming more and more certain he hadn’t loved Nyma at all, but the idea of her. Because he’d never felt this bare with her, this close to losing his mind, this unsure and this invested. It genuinely felt as though the world would end if Keith didn’t feel the same way. And that was only a little dramatic.

Saying as much as he could, Lance murmured, “We’re friends, aren’t we?”

Keith didn’t answer right away. He just breathed, the hands interlocked on top of his chest, rising and falling with it. “It feels more complicated than that,” he said eventually.

“Why?”

“Because you were just another person who wanted to use me.”

“Oh,” Lance said weakly. “I’m sorry about that. Now. And I don’t want to, anymore.”

“Really? Then where are we walking to?”

Lance opened his mouth to say something, he had no idea what, when the clattering of wheels interrupted him. Sitting bolt upright, he realized it was too late to move out of the way. But it wasn’t the warlock. It was a yellow wagon drawn by a horse, an older, worn down woman driving.

The wagon stopped when the woman noticed them. “Get out of the road, whelp.”

Glancing at Keith, Lance felt the unsaid words hang heavy between them. Still, there was time. They could be said later. He just wished there was time right now, because Keith was going to take his next request the wrong way. There was nothing for it, though. Lance still had to get back to Wall. Because, whether or not Nyma was deserving, Lance had to tell her what had happened and that she was free to marry Zarkon. It was who he was.

Smiling broadly, Lance said, “Hello! How are you?”

“I’m…that’s my flower!”

“What?”

Pointing to the pocket of his white jacket, the woman said, “That’s my flower. Years I’ve been looking for that.”

Looking down, Lance saw the fragile snowdrop flower his father had given him before he’d crossed the wall. It had been an afterthought, keeping it on him, a small reminder of where he’d come from, and he realized he hadn’t thought of it in almost a month.

A tiny blue bird sitting on the woman’s shoulder began chirping wildly.

Tugging the flower from his jacket, he asked, “Are you my mother then?” He tried not to look disgusted, but it was hard. This was not how he’d imagined his mother when he’d idly dreamed of her late at night.

Thankfully, she looked more disgusted than him. “No.”

“Huh. Well, that’s good.”

“Excuse me?”

“Never mind,” Lance said. Then he held out the flower, “I’ll give it to you for a lift to the wall. Safely. Emphasis on safe. I don’t really want you to kill me or something.”

The woman grinned, “Deal.”

Beside him, Keith frowned. “Lance, I’m not sure this is a good idea.”

Ignoring him, figuring the protestation was from the destination, Lance walked up to her and handed her the flower. She started laughing as she pocketed it. “You’re an idiot, lad. That was the only thing protecting you from my magic.”

Seconds later, the world went dark.

 

*   *   

  ˚   .              

       

            

  ·       *         *

  ˚  ✧✵          +  .

 

 

As he did every hour, Lotor threw his runes up in the air, asking if the airship that housed the star had docked yet. These days, he was expecting the backside of the runes to be face up. It, after all, had been a month. Why should anything change now?

But change it did. In the palm of his hand, he could see each rune, carved painstakingly into the stone. The star had landed. He could chase it once more. Soon, so soon, it would be in his grasp.

Feeling absolutely elated, he hardly wondered what part of his body would sag after this use of magic when he used the basin of water to wash his face to scry Ezor.

There she was, in the mirror, and Lotor smiled wider. Though a month was just a blink in his life, it still felt like a long time since he’d seen her. She looked as terrible as always, but he was ready to be home with her, beginning their new attempt at eternity.

“The star is back on earth,” he said. “I want you to prepare. I’m tired of this game. Once I’ve got my hands on the star, I’m bringing it back home. It’s heart may not glow, but it’ll be a heart nonetheless.”

“Of course, sir.”

“It should not be long.”

“Should I clean?”

“I did just say we’re having guests, didn’t I?”

“Is that a yes?” she asked, brow furrowed.

Rolling his eyes, he nodded. “Of course it is. I will not have anyone know I live in squalor most of the time.”

“I know.”

“Yes, well, you live in it with me.”

“I’ve missed you, sir.”

“And I you. Now go.”

“Really?” she asked, smiling, her teeth crooked and yellow.

“I will not repeat myself. I’ll see you soon, Ezor.”

“Yes, sir.”

Their connection ended and Lotor gathered what things he had, already packed, and left the tavern. The yellow wagon was still parked outside. He was hoping that Dishwater Sal would not notice him leaving, but she did, calling after him cheerfully.

Closing his eyes, reigning in his irritation, he turned back to her.

“Where you going?” she asked.

“Away from you.”

She frowned. “I could turn you into a bug, you know.”

“Not before I turn you.”

“We were having fun!”

“You were,” Lotor said. “I got what I needed from you and now I don’t need you anymore. Go. Find something new to do with your time. There’s lots to do for someone as easily entertained as you.”

“Fine. I will.”

“Excellent. Goodbye, Dishwater Sal. I would say it’s been a pleasure, but that would be a lie.”

It was so satisfying to say, that he almost forgot the princess. Only because his eye caught on the motion of her broom did he remember. Internally cursing, Lotor weighed his options. It was likely that boy would still be with his star and if he was as troublesome as last time, he could prove to be a problem. In that situation, possessing his mother would be worthwhile.

But maybe he wouldn’t pose a problem.

Oh, he didn’t have time for this. If he needed the princess, he could find her and finally kill Dishwater Sal to keep her out of the way. It would be only too easy, but much too messy for being under a time constraint. So he turned away and headed in the direction his runes told him. Each time he flipped them, they answered ‘yes’, and he was finally beginning to feel his luck was turning. This time, for sure, the star would be his.

 

  .   

   ˚               *

             *    

            *

  *   ·       

  . .     .      

  ˚ .

 

When he arrived at the small port town, the ship was docked, bobbing in the waves. Pocketing his runes, Lotor climbed up onto the deck and glanced around. It appeared to be empty, but that was alright. He could wait. The star would be back, he was sure. It had to know it was safe in the sky, aboard this ship. If he was the star, he wouldn’t leave this ship.

Interested in keeping occupied, Lotor began to search the ship. There wasn’t much to see, but as he wandered, he realized he heard the faint sound of music from somewhere. He was willing to recognize the chances were low that it was his star, but the sooner he could leave this ship for home, the better. It was worth exploring.

Listening carefully, he was lead to the door of what was most likely the captain’s cabin. Not wanting to announce his presence, Lotor did not knock. He opened the door as quietly as possible and crept in.

What he saw was the last thing he expected.

A man with a fantastically large and bright orange mustache was dancing around the cabin alone, donning a dress made entirely of pink ruffles, and waving a fan around. Blinking, Lotor had to take a long moment to find words. All that he could manage was, “Excuse me.”

The man turned and grinned. “Why, hello. Would you care to dance while I explain to you all of the reasons you can’t share what you’ve seen here with anyone?”

“No, thank you.”

Sighing, the man raised the needle of his player, the music halting. Sitting down at his desk, he offered the chair across from him. Not wishing to refuse the polite offer, Lotor took it, feeling close to an out of body experience. This was, perhaps, the oddest thing he’d encountered and that was saying something, considering how long he’d been alive.

“Do you like my ship?”

“It’s…yes.”

“Fantastic. Now, tell me why you’re on it.”

“I’m looking for a star and I will do anything to get it, so don’t test me. I won’t hurt you if you aren’t in my way.”

The man nodded, stroking his mustache. “There are lots up in the sky, you know.”

“I know one was on your ship just this morning.”

“His name’s Keith, you know,” the man said. “And I’m Coran, by the way. I really should’ve started there. How rude of me.”

“Lotor. And I don’t care what it’s name is.”

Coran grew serious, an expression that looked wrong on his face. “You should. He’s not any different from you and me. If you’re planning to eat his heart, that should be something you think about as you do it. You should have to live with that.”

“I don’t need a lesson in morals. Now, tell me where the star is.”

“Can’t do that.”

“At least entertain me while we wait, then. Because I’m not leaving until the star returns.”

There was a flash of surprise in Coran’s eyes but it quickly disappeared. Smiling genially, he said, “You’ll have to fight your way through me when he does return, but I believe I can keep you occupied until then. I have more dresses, if you’d like to wear one.”

“Again, no thank you.”

“There’s this sparkly one, that would look just…”

“I will kill you.”

Sighing, Coran dropped the topic and started the music again. This time he didn’t dance, but he did begin making some tea. “How do you feel about oolong?”

 

.  *   *          ˚

         ·      

       * 

.  .  +   .   

˚           + 

      ˚  +  *   

      ·   * *   .

 

“Do you really think your necklace is on that ship?” Matt asked, peering out between leaves. They were hiding behind a bush, with Shiro found rather ridiculous, but Matt was having a good time and that was what mattered.

“Only one way to find out,” Shiro replied.

“But this is such a nice hiding place.”

“If he finds the star, he’ll kill him. We know that. It’s our job to protect him.

“Why did you have to get serious on me?”

Shiro glanced at Matt, who laughed brightly, eyes sparkling. Then he blushed when Shiro didn’t look away, drinking in the expression on Matt’s face, not wanting to forget it for even a moment. They still hadn’t talked about what happened and Shiro was worried they never would. He was worried this was just borrowed time. Once home, Matt might not even allow long, lingering looks like this. If only one of them saw a future, there wasn’t one.

“Come on,” Shiro said.

“He could kill us, you know.”

“I know.”

Nodding, Matt rose from behind the bush. “Alright then. Let’s go die.”

Laughing shortly, Shiro followed his lead.

They weaved through the crowds surrounding the dock, shouting, selling their wares, carrying heavy boxes, and snuck their way onto the ship they’d seen the warlock board. There was no one in sight, but Shiro noticed that the door to the captain’s cabin was open slightly. If there was anyone aboard, that would be the first place to look.

Matt followed his gaze and then shook his head, “Oh no. No. We are not going in there. There’s only one exit. I’d prefer to dive overboard if things get ugly, thank you.”

“I’m going.”

“Can you not be noble this time?”

“I thought you liked my nobility.”

Matt frowned. “Well, yes, but…”

“You don’t have to come.”

“Stop saying that.” They stared at each other and then Matt sighed. “Fine. If you insist. It’s not like I can say no to you.”

“You can. You know that.”

For once, Matt didn’t argue and it felt like progress. All he said was, “I’ll let you make your choices and I’ll make mine. Anyway, into the cabin of death we go.”

“Would you stop saying we’re going to die?”

“No. Because we are.”

Smiling fondly, Shiro reached down and took Matt’s hand in his. Gently, he pulled him towards the cabin door. Before they entered, Matt stumbled his way through, “You know, you’re going to want that hand back when you have to…you know, fight people. Probably. I hope we don’t have to fight people.”

“You’re probably right,” Shiro said, kissing the back of Matt’s hand before he let it go.

“Thanks.”

“Thanks?”

“I didn’t know what else to say?”

Laughing quietly, Shiro pushed the door open and together, they walked in. Sure enough, the warlock was there, seated at a desk, looking distinctly put out, and a man was sitting across from him, pouring tea. He looked up when he heard their footsteps and smiled. “More guests? Come in. Come in. Grab a seat. There’s more than enough tea to go around.”

“Tea?” Matt said. “I love tea.”

“Here’s a cup, lad,” the man said, grabbing one from a platter on the desk and filling it from the teapot. Brightening, Matt slid the cup into both his hands and took a sip, sighing happily.

“Good?”

Matt nodded. “Thank you.”

The warlock, who had remained silent up to this point, scowled at them. “The star isn’t here. Leave before I kill you.”

Matt glared at him. “We just want the necklace he’s wearing. You really don’t have to kill us.”

“And I do not care.”

“Nobody is killing anybody here,” the mustached man said. “This is my ship and we follow my rules. Coran. This is Lotor. And you are?”

“Shiro.”

“Matt.”

“A pleasure.”

“Truly,” Matt said, sipping more of his tea. “Can I ask where you got this?”

Coran launched into a wild tale about a mysterious port he’d found once on his travels and that he hadn’t found since. Matt listened intently, but Shiro and Lotor did not. Instead, Shiro sat beside Lotor and said, “What do you mean he isn’t here?”

“It’s with the crew. I’ve been informed they’ll be back soon. Then, I’m afraid, I’ll have to kill the crew. This man is stubbornly insistent on dying for the star. If you genuinely wish to avoid dying, I’d leave before then.”

Shiro nodded, not intending to do any such thing, and wondered what exactly he was going to do. If Matt died, he would never forgive himself. There had to be a way out of this situation while still getting what he wanted. Lost in his own mind, it took him awhile to realize he and Lotor were alone and that Coran and Matt had gone somewhere. Looking around, it took Lotor saying, “Don’t strain yourself. They’re just playing dress up,” for Shiro to relax.

“Dress up?”

“Yes.”

Not wanting to irritate Lotor further, Shiro didn’t ask for an expansion. They just sat in painful silence until Coran and Matt returned, Matt wearing his own dress, something dark purple and straining. Unable to help himself, he laughed. Following the laughter like a plant does the sun, Matt grinned. “What do you think?” he asked, twirling.

“You look wonderful.”

“I thought so.”

Then Matt came forward and slipped into Shiro’s lap. It took everything in Shiro to remain calm. Looking up into Matt’s face, he whispered, “What are you doing?”

Not responding, Matt leaned in and trailed a few kisses up Shiro’s neck. There was a low, gruff whine from Lotor, who stood and walked over to the window, looking out. Unsure what was going on, Shiro put a hand on Matt’s chest and tried to push him away, but Matt quietly shushed him and he sat back, stunned. Stopping at his ear, Matt whispered, “He isn’t here and he isn’t coming back. Coran is stalling. We should go. Now, when I pull away, give me an appallingly aroused look.”

“Excuse me?”

“I just said something really sexual.”

Gathering up what pieces of his brain he could, Shiro nodded. Matt carefully extricated himself from Shiro’s lap, his dress trailing, and went back to his tea. Trying not to feel intensely awkward, Shiro trailed his eyes up Matt’s body. He’d most likely done a terrible job, but Lotor didn’t seem to notice or care. Once their display was over, he did return to his chair, however. There was something dark in his eyes and Shiro made sure Lotor knew he’d noticed. Clearing his throat, he said, “I think Matt and I are going to leave. Thank you for the tea.”

“So soon?” said Lotor blandly.

“Once threatened a certain number of times, I tend to get the message.”

Lotor shrugged.

Coran smiled at him, gave Matt a hug, and then they were leaving. Only when they were a good distance from the ship did Shiro slap Matt on the arm. “What the hell was that?”

“I couldn’t think of anything else!”

“Seriously?”

“What would you have done?”

Shiro sighed, unable to come up with something on the spot. “So where is the star, then?”

“Headed for the wall.”

“Why did Coran tell you?”

“He trusted we weren’t going to hurt him.”

“Let’s head for the wall then.”

Matt nodded. When he smiled slyly, Shiro knew he was in for the teasing of his life. Resigning himself to the fact, he waved his hand, asking for the onslaught. Laughing, Matt said, “Your face when I got into your lap was priceless. I almost dropped the ruse.”

“Are you done?”

“No. I’m never going to stop teasing you about this.”

“Incidentally, can you take off that dress?”

“Trying to get me naked?”

“Oh for…”

Matt started laughing louder, but he did as he was asked, his clothes underneath it. He flung the dress into the bushes beside the road. When he turned back to Shiro, he bent over, his laughter now soundless. Rolling his eyes, Shiro began to walk, knowing Matt would catch up eventually.

When he did, Matt said, “I feel like I just destroyed your innocence.”

“You didn’t.”

“Well, at least I learned something.”

“And what’s that?”

“I’ve got a prince under my thumb.”

Shiro didn’t know what to say, fully aware that it was a joke, but having no desire to laugh, because it wasn’t entirely untrue. Instead, he leaned down and kissed Matt, who kissed him back for a moment, a wildly beautiful moment, before he pulled away. “We shouldn’t,” he whispered.

“Okay.”

“I’m…”

“Okay.”

When they set off properly, they were both quiet, the whooshing of the wind making it all the more obvious.

 

*  

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The wagon was trundling along and Keith was staring into a small cage forlornly, watching as Lance ran around and around on a wheel.

The woman driving this wagon hadn’t noticed him at all, as though he were invisible. There hadn’t been any kind of protestation as he’d climbed into the wagon and sat down, a bright blue bird staring at him for oddly long periods of time.

Still, it wasn’t as odd and tragically unfortunate as the fact that Lance was a mouse.

“Why didn’t you listen to me?” he grumbled. “You’re such an idiot.”

There wasn’t even a squeak from Lance. He just kept running on the wheel. For all intents and purposes, he was really a mouse. Keith hoped that the witch would turn him back and that when she did, he would not retain any mouse-like characteristics. That would be a line too far. He was already struggling not to run and leave Lance lost and without the one thing that could buy him a better life back home.

Honestly, what was keeping him here? Why had he climbed into the wagon? This was undeniably Lance’s fault and Lance was just going to ferry him across the wall the next day, show him to Nyma, and then never see him again. It was so pointless.

Reaching a finger into the cage, Keith watched as Lance ran over and sniffed him. With a sigh, he petted the top of Lance’s head. “I hate you, you know.” There was no acknowledgement of the words from Lance, so Keith kept talking, desperate to get everything he was thinking out of his head, not only so he could figure out exactly what that was, but so he could move on and stop thinking about it. “I really do. I don’t know who you think you are, asking me if we’re friends. I don’t know what you were doing on the ship. I actually have no idea what you’re thinking at all, because you’re saying one thing and doing another. It’s so goddamn frustrating.”

Standing up, Keith went to a wheel of cheese sitting on a plate on a small table across from a bed. Tearing off a little chunk, he fed it to Lance, who took it between his tiny paws and nibbled happily. Rolling his eyes, Keith continued. “You are, in fact, the single most frustrating person. So why can’t I leave you alone, Lance? Why? It should be easy. I don’t want to go to Nyma, I don’t want to be presented to her, I don’t want any of this.”

Lance kept chewing.

Groaning, Keith let his head fall to the table. Gently, he pounded it against the table a couple of times. “I guess that’s not true. You’re alright. I hate that you are, but you are. You’re funny and sweet and stupid and you were such a goddamn good fiancé, which wasn’t at all fair. You weren’t supposed to be. You weren’t supposed to be any of that. You were just supposed to be the imbecile who tried to capture me and take me to his lover. I was supposed to hate you for the rest of time for that.

“But then you went and made this world bearable. More than bearable. You’re the reason I don’t want to go home. You probably know that, but since you’re a mouse, I’ll admit it. I don’t know, you just made me see that there was so much more to a mortal life than a cold eternal one.”

Looking up, feeling dumb for looking into a mouse’s eyes, but not knowing where else to look, Keith said, “I’m saying I’m in love with you, in case you can’t keep up. I’m in love with you and I’m never going to tell you because I want you to be happy and you still seem to think Nyma will do that for you. Which is just…fantastic. Really great. I’m so glad I got knocked from the sky for this.”

There was a squeak from Lance and then he went back to his wheel.

“Figures,” Keith sighed, getting comfortable. Soon enough, they’d be at the wall. Soon enough this would be over.

 

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The wagon stopped in a town next to the wall and Keith followed the witch out, as she carried Lance in her hands. Setting him down on the ground, she transformed him back and Keith felt a wave of relief. The witch didn’t say anything, didn’t look at him, just went back to her wagon and trundled away.

Below him, Lance groaned and opened his eyes. Blinking slowly, he said, “Keith?”

Sighing, Keith helped Lance from the ground, then looped an arm around his shoulders. “Come on,” he said. “We’d better get you to bed.”

“Mm, bed,” Lance slurred.

“Uh huh.”

“Was I…a mouse?”

“Yep.”

“Cool.”

“It’s unbelievable how much I hate you,” Keith mumbled.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

Leaning into Keith, Lance pressed a kiss to his cheek. “You’re so good at walking. It’s very impressive.”

“Thank you, I guess.”

Apparently, that exhausted Lance, because he closed his eyes and it was suddenly impossible to move him. Desperately wishing for a different life, Keith stopped and rearranged his hold so that he could drag Lance easier.

Finding an inn, he pushed his way in and got a room. Somehow, he managed to get Lance up the stairs and into a bed. Tugging the sheets out from underneath his body, he removed Lance’s shoes and then threw the blankets over the top. Looking down, he rubbed a smudge of dirt off Lance’s cheek and then bent down, kissing his temple. 

There was a bathtub in the corner of the room and for a few more gold, he was able to get it filled with water. He’d missed this since his first experience in the inn that the warlock had tried to use to trap him. Sinking into the warm water, he felt some of his cares fall away. Smiling, he closed his eyes and tried not to think of tomorrow, instead focusing on the burning in his toes from the sudden temperature change.

A few minutes later, there was a click and Keith cracked open an eye to see Lance looking through a little hole in the screen separating the rest of the room from the tub. Surprised, Keith flinched and sat up. “You’re awake,” he said.

“Well observed.”

“Shut up.”

“Get out of the tub, would you?”

“Why?”

“Because I’m bored,” Lance whined. “You can’t very well entertain me from there.”

“And that’s my job?”

“Please?”

Laughing shortly, Keith stood and reached for a towel beside the tub. Lance was still looking at him, eyes stuck, a blush rising from his neck. Wrapping the towel around his body, Keith stepped out. Grasping the edges, he frowned, wondering why he was bothering. He didn’t mind being naked and this was inconvenient. Still, it seemed to make Lance more comfortable. He was chatting happily once more, talking about how warm the fire was and how rested he felt.

Sitting down on the bed beside him, Keith listened, content. Whether or not he wanted to admit it to himself, it was unavoidably true that he could listen to Lance blather on all day.

That is, until Lance said, “So the sky’s cold and eternal is it? Figures.”

“What?”

“Well, I was always kind of curious what it was like up there, but I didn’t ask because I thought it might dredge up too much…”

“You…you heard that.”

“I did.”

“But you were a mouse. I fed you cheese.”

Lance’s smile grew wide and he scooted closer to Keith. “That’s true, but I definitely heard everything you said. Everything.”

Closing his eyes, Keith left his body. This wasn’t happening. He refused.

“Keith? Are you still with me?”

Not if he could help it.

“Okay, well, I love you, too.”

Snapping his eyes open, Keith said, “I swear, if you’re joking, I will…”

Taking Keith’s hands, Lance said, “I’m not. I’m really not. I’ve wanted to kiss you for ages and I don’t want to go home, either, not with you here.”

“Right.”

“Really, really want to kiss you.”

“Uh huh. I got that.”

“Are you sure?” Lance asked, worry tinging his voice. “Because you don’t look like you’re retaining much of anything.”

Finally meeting Lance’s searching eyes, Keith reached up hesitantly, brushing a finger down Lance’s cheek. Without hesitation, Lance leaned into the touch. His entire expression was open and honest, begging Keith to see all that was there and Keith stared and stared, unable to believe that it was true, that someone loved him as much as Lance seemed to.

But the longer he looked, the harder it was to ignore. There was so much softness, so much forgiveness, so much adoration in his gaze and Keith felt the same feelings rising in him, desperate to match Lance’s, to give as much as he was getting.

Out of habit, Keith stifled it.

Lance didn’t seem to mind, however. He just smiled, cupped Keith’s face with both hands, and kissed him sweetly. Again and again and again.

Chapter Text

Only a couple of candles were still lit, the rest either blown out by Keith or drowned by their own wax. Though dim, the lighting was soft, ideal for sleeping. But Lance wasn’t asleep and he wasn’t planning on doing so anytime soon. Beside him, Keith was somewhere between wakefulness and sleep, curled into a tight ball. There was a crinkle in his forehead and Lance might’ve thought he was upset or regretting what he’d said, except for the light, bright and glowing around his body. Lance didn’t know exactly what it meant, but it hadn’t dissipated since they’d started kissing. Or when they’d been dancing. Or during late nights when they’d been talking on the deck of the ship instead of sleeping.

It certainly wasn’t a bad sign.

Grinning stupidly, unable to stop, Lance ran his fingers through Keith’s hair. Humming quietly, Keith rolled towards him, eyes still closed. Then he hummed again, questioningly this time.

“First time you’ve been sleepier than me this late at night.”

“I guess I’m getting used to this place,” Keith mumbled.

“What would the stars say?” Lance asked, feigning disappointment.

Keith snorted.

“Talkative.”

“Sleepy.”

“But I’m not,” Lance whined.

With a long sigh, Keith opened his eyes. Though the smile didn’t reach his mouth, it was sparkling in his eyes and he was doing a very poor job of hiding it. Capturing Lance’s hand in his, he pushed it away. Lance could tell he was about to let go, but then he didn’t, instead running his thumb up and down Lance’s. “What if I told you a bedtime story?”

“Really?”

“That was sarcasm.”

“Is it a lot of work being this grumpy all the time?”

“It’s easier than you’d think. Easier than talking all the time.”

Bringing the back of Keith’s hand to his mouth, Lance kissed it. “And here I thought you’d be nicer to me now.”

“That’s your mistake.”

“I know you’re flirting with me.”

Breaking into a unrestrained smile, Keith ducked his head into Lance’s neck. Voice muffled, he said, “I might be.”

“Might be, huh?”

Soft and unsure, Keith kissed his neck. Wanting to encourage such affection, especially from the likes of Keith, Lance tipped his head to the side and laughed when he felt Keith smile, before kissing him again. Then Keith rolled away and onto his back. “This is stupid,” he declared at the ceiling.

“What is?” Lance asked, turning onto his side and leaning his cheek in his hand, fingers pushing up into his hair. The expression on his face was probably ridiculous, but he was charmed by everything Keith did. Clearly. Because, right now, all he was really doing was breathing.

“How much I like you.”

“Yeah, I can see that. You are a bit emotionally constipated.”

Grabbing a pillow, Keith hit Lance in the face. “You don’t get to say anything at all, Mister Hi-I’m-Here-To-Kidnap-You-And-Take-You-To-The-Love-Of-My-Life.”

“Well, I was wrong about that, wasn’t I?” Lance said softly.

“Were you?” Keith whispered. “I’ve seen it before, you know. Someone in love with more than one person. I’ve seen it a lot, actually.” He started to fiddle with the hem of the sheets, plucking at the tight sewing with his fingernails. “It wasn’t that long ago that you would do anything for her and, well…”

“Keith.”

“…Better fit for you life, especially if you ever want to go back to Wall. I’m not sure I…”

“Keith.”

“What?” Keith sighed.

“I’ve lived my entire life in the same small village. I wasn’t particularly good at anything and I wasn’t going to amount to much, which was fine, but one day, this really pretty girl saw me and her eyes stuck and when I flirted with her, she laughed. I felt like someone when she noticed me and that was enough, about what I deserved.”

“You’re such an idiot.”

“I’m trying to be vulnerable here.”

“Sorry,” Keith mumbled. “Continue.”

“I think, somewhere deep down, I knew that the way she treated me was wrong, that she was just playing when I wasn’t, but even play was better than nothing. I willed myself to ignore all of it. But then I came here and I met you.”

“Hang on, I need a second to swoon,” Keith said, voice soaked in sarcasm.

“I hate you.”

“Of course you do.”

Laughing despite himself, Lance fell towards Keith, until their foreheads were resting together. Continuing in a whisper, he said, “You didn’t laugh when I flirted with you, you wanted to kill me, and getting you to say one nice thing to me took saving your life and, like, twenty goat sacrifices.”

“Ha ha.”

“When you smiled, I’d earned it and that made me realize a lot of things, but it definitely made me realize what I had with Nyma was only a poor rendition of what I have with you. So stop worrying.”

Keith didn’t offer a response and Lance got the sense he was still worrying about it, but the thought quickly passed from Lance’s mind as Keith’s lips met his. When they parted, Keith ran a finger across Lance’s bottom lip. There was something sad and distant in his eyes, as if he could see a future Lance couldn’t, but Lance was too afraid to ask and Keith didn’t elaborate. Instead, his fingers moved to Lance’s neck, right over his pulse. They lingered there and Lance didn’t move a muscle, the beat of his heart racing just for Keith’s fingers.

The silence ached and eventually, it was painful enough for Lance to ask what he needed to ask in the most indirect way possible. “What are you thinking about?”

“This is real, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Feels like it.”

“Yeah, it does,” Lance said. “And I’ll prove to you just how much. I’m not going anywhere.”

Curling a hand around Lance’s neck, Keith gently tugged him down until they were curled up together. Trailing his fingers up and down Lance’s arm, Keith whispered, “Sleep, Lance.”

“If you insist.”

“I do.”

“Good night, my star.”

“That’s disgusting.”

“You like it.”

“Good night, idiot.”

 

.  ·        *

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·     

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        ·  *   .   .

·      ·  ˚    .

 

 

It hadn’t taken terribly long to reach a village just outside of the wall, but neither Shiro or Matt had any idea where to go from there. Without Lotor, they were largely powerless, just two men wandering the countryside, searching for a specific needle among needles.

Except that he was the prince. It was a fact he’d been trying to forget, recently, trying to create a fantasy where Matt didn’t look at him like he was looking at him now. Or, rather, glancing. They hadn’t made genuine eye contact since Shiro had kissed him.

A wall had risen between them and there were gates, but they were shut tight, with no clear way to open them. Matt would know what to do if that wall had been of Shiro’s creation, but it wasn’t and Shiro was at a loss. There was no denying that he didn’t know Matt nearly as well. That imbalance was something they were going to have to remedy.

If there was anything to remedy. Shiro wasn’t sure there was. They’d been here before, but this felt more permanent, as though Matt had made a firm decision.

It was time to stop pretending. He was the prince. He could get things done. Though he didn’t have magic, he had power. Stepping away from Matt, not looking back, Shiro straightened his back, let his shoulders fall back, and lifted his chin. Heading towards a booth that was selling a variety of ‘magical’ items that Shiro was relatively confident were just junk, Shiro stopped in front of the tender and said, “Please, sir, have you seen anyone head to the wall today? Or seen anything strange?”

The woman scratched her chin. “Perhaps.”

Sighing, Shiro said, “I’m Prince Shiro.”

She blinked and then laughed. “Sure you are, lad.” Closer to the palace, people would’ve known, would’ve recognized, but they were far from the seat of his power. He was going to have make this a bigger deal than he’d wanted, but in the crowds it would draw, he’d surely find someone who could help him.

Finding a guard patrolling the streets, he stopped him with a hand to the arm. There was a moment of silence, where they stared at each other, the guard clearly debating whether or not this was a real threat and he should draw his sword, when Shiro said “The Queen sends her regards to General Ravenor and her son requests that you help him with a small matter.”

There was no real reason to believe him, of course, but he said it with a confidence few but the actual prince could muster. And confidence was the real secret to anything in life. Enough confidence and one could get away with anything.

After a short pause, the guard bowed, then said in a gruff voice, “The lot of you doing? This is your Prince. Pay him proper respect.”

Grimacing, Shiro watched as the people within hearing shot did, some reluctantly. He felt that reluctance down to his bones. Searching for Matt, because he was uncomfortable, because he didn’t know what else to do, he saw him bowing along with everyone else, eyes directed towards the ground.

This had never been a job Shiro loved, but it had not been one he’d ever hated, either, his immense and unshakeable sense of duty protecting him from that. For the first time, he was questioning everything. Never once had he asked himself if he actually wanted to be king, thinking it a question with a preordained answer. There were a lot of things he hadn’t questioned and though he’d slowly become aware of that, it hadn’t hit him quite so hard as it did in this moment.

Shaking him from his thoughts, the guard said, “What can I do for His Highness?”

“I’m searching for someone. They’re heading for the wall, looking to cross it. I’m afraid that’s all I know and I realize that’s not much to go on, but…there would be two of them, both mid-twenties, one wearing a necklace with a large ruby. I suspect they’ve been in a rush and they’re rather unlucky from what I can tell, so it’s possible they heralded some sort of strange behavior or…”

Nobody said a word.

Clearing his throat, the guard said, “May I suggest The Sleeping Giant? It’s the most popular inn closest to the wall. We keep tabs on who crosses the wall and though my information is old, as of a couple hours ago, no one had crossed today.”

“Thank you,” Shiro said.

“Your wish is my command.”

Nodding, afraid he would say the wrong thing, Shiro looked at Matt and jerked his head in a silent plea to leave. Strolling away together, Shiro only relaxed when he was back in the bustle of people, these ones oblivious to his identity.

Matt kept side-eyeing him.

“What?”

“That was terrible.”

“Yes.”

Shrugging, Matt simply said, “That’s unlike you.”

“Is it?”

“What?”

“I don’t know. Is it? Does it matter if it isn’t?”

After a long silence, Matt said, “I can’t answer that question for you.”

“Would it matter to you?”

“Yes. But I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a prince, not really. Don’t want to, either. Seems pretty horrible to me. All those fancy frills.”

“Just the fancy frills?” Shiro asked, relatively sure he’d never worn anything with frills in his life. Maybe when he was a baby.

Smiling weakly, Matt slowed, until he stopped completely. It took a second for Shiro to catch on, but when he did, he stopped as well, looking back. Matt didn’t look sad, exactly, but there was enough indifference in his eyes that Shiro knew he was feeling something strongly enough that not even humor could hide it. “Matt?”

Pointing to a building, Matt said, “The Sleeping Giant.”

“Oh.”

“Why’d you think I stopped?”

Shiro laughed, heart clenching painfully. “A good question,” he said, stepping into the inn.

 

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After nearly an hour of describing and bribing, Shiro and Matt finally discovered what room the star and his companion were in. They also booked themselves a room for the night, since it was late and whatever happened, they weren’t going to travel any longer today. To say they were both in abysmal moods would’ve been an understatement.

“You know,” Matt said, voice dull, “It’s late. They’re probably asleep.”

“I don’t want them to disappear again.”

“I know.”

“You have to know that I don’t want to…”

“You’re the prince. I’m sure they’ll stop minding the minute they know.”

“Would you stop saying that?” Shiro murmured.

“Just speaking the truth.”

“And I’m painfully aware of it, thank you.”

“I…sorry.”

Nodding, accepting the apology, Shiro rapped on the door, then he listened. There was no movement beyond the door and he winced as he knocked harder and longer, likely disturbing neighbors now, as well. This time, he needn’t have bothered to listen consciously, because there was a loud crash and then muffled bickering. Beside him, Matt started to laugh silently, his shoulders shaking.

The door swung open and the boy accompanying the star was standing there, grinning tiredly, blocking the rest of the room with his body. Swaying slightly, he said, “Hello! What can I do for…oh, it’s you guys.” Turning his head, he said, “Hey, Keith, it’s alright. It’s those guys from the inn.”

“Just because they weren’t actively trying to kill me doesn’t mean they aren’t going to try now, you idiot,” Keith said.

When there was a stretch of silence, Matt stepped into fill the gap, fitting in as effortlessly as he did everywhere else. “I’m Matt,” he said, reaching for the boy’s hand and shaking it. “Sorry about the hour, but this one’s impatient.” Then he gestured to Shiro.

“I’m not…”

“Semantics. Do you think we could come in? I feel a bit ridiculous just standing out in this hall.”

“Lance,”  the boy replied, with a smile. “Sure. Come on in.”

“Next time you say you’re going to protect me, don’t be so bad at it,” Keith said to Lance, coming to the door and narrowing his eyes at Matt and Shiro. Without hesitation, Lance’s eyes trailed to Keith and the corner of Keith’s mouth cricked up. Then he pushed Lance out of the door and took up the space himself. “I’m a star and my heart could extend your lifespan for a very long time. Is that going to be a problem?”

“Absolutely not,” Matt said confidently. “Eating a heart sounds kind of gross, to be honest.”

Rolling his eyes, Keith moved out of their way and went back to the bed, the sheets mussed, half on the floor. It was likely that crash had been one of them falling out of the bed. There was no doubt in his mind that they’d been sharing it. They gravitated towards each other. When one moved, so did the other.

“Want some tea?” Lance asked.

Starfishing on the bed, Keith said, “We don’t have tea.”

“I was just trying to be polite!”

“Uh huh. And what were you going to offer them when they said yes?”

“I don’t know, Keith. I’m very tired. Why don’t you figure that out?”

“I didn’t offer the tea,” Keith replied.

“Yes, but you love and support me.”

Sighing loudly, Keith sat up. “Do you two want something? The necklace, right? I assume that’s still what you’re after?”

“Yes,” Shiro said.

Nodding, Keith reached underneath his shirt and drew out the necklace. Tugging it up over his head, he tossed it to Shiro. “There you go. Now leave. I want to go back to sleep.”

“Keith,” Lance whined.

“What?”

“You’re being rude.”

“Whoops.”

“I’m terribly sorry about him,” Lance said. “Stay as long as you’d like. I bet you’ve been on the road a long time, too, huh?”

Matt replied amiably and a conversation took off between the two of them, but Shiro was paying very little attention. With hardly any effort at all, he had the necklace in his hands and the ruby was glowing faintly, throbbing with his heart beat. He’d done it. When he returned home, he would be coronated.

It was such a hollow victory. Keith hadn’t even asked for anything. It felt a lot less deserved than Shiro had imagined.

Did he even want to be king? Did he want to go back to the castle, enclosed, removed from the rest of the world, gradually forgetting all that he had seen the past months?

In the back of his head, a voice said you could do it differently. There’s no saying the way you rule has to look like the way anyone else has. You could be among the people. You could change the world.

It was a responsibility he hadn’t had a choice in.

And that was when he realized what this quest was really about. It was about making that choice. It was about confronting himself, confronting that everything was a choice, and realizing he could go either way, that both choices would have consequences, and he would have to face and deal with that.

Glancing at Matt, who was talking animatedly, using his hands, Shiro saw a flash of a farm, practically run over with animals, and Matt in the distance, tilling the ground, a stupidly large hat on his head. Carefully, with immense sadness, Shiro tucked that vision away.

He was the only one left to rule Stormhold. He wouldn’t leave it to squander. He could not do that.

“Pidge!” Matt yelled, breaking through Shiro’s thoughts. “That’s my sister! You really saw her? How is she?”

Lance laughed. “Just fine.”

“I can’t believe she’s been on a flying ship for years. That’s so awesome. I’m so impressed. Do you know what the ship was called? Where it docks?”

Lance provided the information and Shiro hadn’t seen Matt so happy. Though he wasn’t glowing faintly, like Keith was, he felt just as bright. It was the same energy.

There was movement beside him and Shiro glanced over to see Keith pulling over a chair and sitting down beside him. “Since it looks like we’ll be here awhile,” he said.

Shiro smiled. “We can go, you know.”

Keith shrugged. “He’s happy. And I’m fine. Tired, but fine.”

Unsure what to say, Shiro said nothing.

“End up earning that necklace, Your Highness?”

Laughing weakly, Shiro shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

“I can take it back if you want.”

“No, I’ll…I’ll keep it.”

Staring at him, Keith said, “Take it from someone who does it too. You’re being too hard on yourself.”

“How so?”

Gesturing to Matt, Keith said, “I know if I asked him, he would tell me you’d earned that necklace and more.”

“Probably,” Shiro whispered.

Crossing his arms over his chest, Keith stared into the fireplace, lit by coals. “I’ve watched a lot of this world. I can see the patterns and the machinations. Though, it’s a lot harder when you’re down in it,” he said, with a short laugh. “But I do know that it takes a certain kind of person to inspire that kind of loyalty.”

“I’m not sure it’s loyalty.”

“Maybe not.”

Actually looking at Keith, taking him in in a way he hadn’t before, seeing only the star or the necklace, Shiro realized just how far from human this man was. How ancient. He couldn’t be described as world-weary, his time here short, but there was no question he had a large bank of experience to draw on, though it was pretty clear he didn’t draw from it often. There was novelty in acting young, in acting like you didn’t know better, and Shiro had seen in the bickering between him and Lance that Keith was more than happy to occupy that space most of the time.

“How long have you been alive?” Shiro asked.

“No idea,” Keith replied. “Time doesn’t mean much up in the sky.”

“Do you miss it?”

The dark eyes traveled from the fireplace to Lance. “Not as much as I thought I would.”

“Is it strange? Being in love with a human?”

Not startling in the slightest, as though he’d been expecting the question, Keith shook his head. “No. It’s the most alive I’ve felt. It’s different, experiencing the world with him, through him.”

“I can understand that.”

Keith looked at him. “Have you told him how you feel?”

“Kind of. It’s complicated.”

“Only if you make it complicated.”

“There’s…”

“Choices,” Keith interrupted. “Ultimately, one thing is more important than the other. There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s hard, but I don’t think it’s complicated.”

Shiro nodded. “But there’s what I want, too.”

Laughing, Keith nodded. “Sorry, I’ve just started getting used to that one. Hard to want when there isn’t anything to want. What do you want?”

“To be king and to have him.”

“Who says you can’t?”

“Him,” Shiro whispered. “I can’t claim to know a lot about him, but I know that much. Ruling isn’t what he wants. It’s something he wouldn’t do for me, a place he wouldn’t follow, not in that capacity, anyway. He’d stay my servant if I let him, of course.”

Keith nodded.

“No wisdom to impart?”

“None at all. Sounds like you understand the situation pretty well.”

“I hate it.”

“That’s life.”

“You’re not very good at comforting, are you?”

“Not at all,” Keith said, tilting his head back and yawning. Taking that as a sign to leave, Shiro rose.

“Thank you for letting me into your head for a bit. It was very fascinating.”

“I’m not a goddamn curiosity.”

“Of course,” Shiro replied. “Forgive me.”

“Whatever.”

The youth was back in full force, as though he hadn’t participated in a conversation with Shiro at all. Laughing softly, Shiro said, “Matt, we should go. We’ve got to head back to the castle tomorrow. It’ll be a long, hard day.”

“Coming.”

Opening the door to the room, Shiro waited in the hall for Matt. When he stepped out, they headed to their own room, tense silence eating up whatever calm they’d found.

 

˚   .     ·    

  .  +  

  . ·  

    ✧✷       . *      ˚

             *     .

        ·   

 

 

To say it had been frustrating when he’d discovered he’d been lied to was a vast understatement. And it’d only gotten worse when the captain and his crew had gotten out of his grasp, fully anticipating his understandably homicidal reaction. It’d been such a long time since he’d been humiliated so impressively and it had left Lotor in an absolutely foul mood.

Lotor wasn’t delusional enough to fancy himself a good person or a nice one, but he attempted to be polite and considerate. Those traits had lingered long after childhood. Why those in particular had stuck, he didn’t know, but he was glad of them. They offered some control and a sort of excuse, if he didn’t feel like holding himself personally accountable for something.

But, now, it hardly mattered. The star was dead. His companion was dead. Those charlatans on the ship were dead if he ever found them again. Dishwater Sal was dead and that princess was dead and anyone he’d ever encountered who had inconvenienced him in the slightest was dead, because this was exhausting and unacceptable and his life was what he made it. If there was no one left to inconvenience him, maybe he could finally be at peace. And immortal. Most importantly, immortal.

It hadn’t been difficult to find their trail, his runes working as they were supposed to, now that they weren’t soaring through the sky. Spells had been coursing through his fingertips almost non-stop for most of the day, but Lotor was having a hard time caring about that either. This was the last time he lost the star. Whatever magic was necessary to capture it he was willing to sacrifice, because if he didn’t succeed, it wouldn’t be long before he was old and weak anyway. Once a star ran out, the decline into old and age and death was rapid.

So, riding a horse he’d created out of an old wheelbarrow, running as fast as wind traveled, and trying not to look at the veins popping out of his hand, like lines on a map, was simply how it had to be.

Dawn. He would be outside the wall at dawn. Hopefully it would be soon enough. Given his luck, there was no telling what this particular star would do.

If only Ezor were here. She’d look horrible enough to make him feel better. She’d be impressed with his magic. She’d even have the decency to tell him he still looked handsome.

Maybe then this chase would be easier. Maybe then it wouldn’t feel like he was heading towards something he was entirely unprepared for.

 

˚  ·      +    

    ˚      *      *

   ·  ·      .   

     .       . .

            

 

Why Lance woke up as the sun began to rise was beyond him. The light hadn’t even poured into the room yet, still stuck beyond distant hills, painting them gold.

Glancing over at Keith, he wondered if it was because Keith was shining brighter than those hills.

He knew he should feel tired, especially after last night’s interruption, but he wasn’t. There was something reassuring about the glow surrounding Keith’s body, a reminder that last night had actually happened, that a star was in love with him. That he was so inconceivably in love with that very same star. He, in fact, was struggling to think of little else currently. Though he was prone to distractions and random, inane thoughts, they were, for once, overshadowed.

It was just hard to wrap his head around.

This was not something for the likes of him. And yet, there was a boy beside him in bed. One who was snoring lightly and almost definitely drooling onto his pillow. Lance hadn’t ever seen him so content or so careless. However mundane, however often he had thought it in the past hours, it didn’t lessen the truth of it, the tenacity of it.

Keith was beautiful.

Closing his eyes, Lance smiled. If this moment was the rest of forever, that would be okay.

Rays of sun finally pierced through the window and it reminded Lance that time was moving despite what he wanted. It reminded him that there was a world outside this room, that they were beside the wall, and that Lance had no idea why they’d come here of all places. There was little for him beyond that wall anymore. Sure, he’d like to visit his father, but he could do that anytime. Family was family, no matter how long you were apart.

Undeniably, they were here for Nyma and Lance hadn’t stopped it from happening. There was an easy excuse—he’d been a mouse—but it felt unfair to use, because he was confident that if he hadn’t been, they still would’ve ended up here. Why hadn’t he stopped it?

Guilt burst from his chest and he winced. He hadn’t because he wasn’t that person, the person who ran away because something was hard or ignored closure because it didn’t matter to him. Or, at least, he liked to think he wasn’t. What he was and wasn’t had always been unclear to him because there was a gap, a vast one, between who he wanted to be and who he actually was.

Here, though, he’d felt that gap closing gradually. Maybe he should take a leap, trust that, this time, he would be there for himself.

It was entirely possible Nyma wasn’t even waiting for him. Lance knew that now. Very little of what she’d said and done had been real. Very little of what he’d said and done had been real. He’d been in a world more fantastical than this one, where simply the idea of loving someone that much was enough to sustain him. Really, it hadn’t even mattered who he’d pinned the idea on.

But, either way, he’d pinned it on Nyma and she deserved an explanation, whether or not she wanted one.

And Keith didn’t have to be there for that.

Taking a dagger Coran had given him from his bedside table—he’d left it there, because he didn’t know where else to leave it; what did people do with their daggers?—Lance stroked Keith’s hair as long as he could, before he would be unable to stop, then cut a small lock from the ends. This was nothing compared to the actual star, but it was enough, as much of Keith as he was willing to give to someone else. There were already too many people who thought of him as nothing more than a means to an end.

Despite the snick as his hair was cut away, the kiss Lance pressed to his forehead, the shifting of the mattress as Lance got out of bed, Keith didn’t wake. He hardly even moved. Laughing quietly to himself, Lance didn’t have qualms leaving. He could be back before Keith wake up, he was positive. Nothing was going to disturb him.

Slipping out of the room as quietly as he could, Lance crept down the stairs, told the innkeeper where he was going in case Keith did wake up, and then left, heading directly for the hole in the wall.

 

*        ˚        

  *  .  .        

    ·        +    

          *  *  

   ·      *   ·.

 

The village was quiet and small, much smaller than he remembered it being. On his way to Nyma’s, he walked by his own house. He considered stopping in, but it was likely his father was already at work and whatever visit he would be able to manage today, anyway, would be much too short. His father deserved better.

When he reached Nyma’s pretty little cottage, the vines winding down from her window flowering, Lance wondered if he should wait, make sure she was awake before he said goodbye.

Moving to settle against the side of her house, Lance peered down the street, genuinely curious, trying to understand why he felt so different about the place he’d grown up, especially in such a short amount of time, when he spotted someone he didn’t think to see strolling down the street.

It was Sendak. He was back then. And he was headed this way. Nyma was awake, then, most likely. Sendak looked prepared, flowers in hand, as though this clandestine meeting—though Lance wasn’t sure how clandestine something could be in the daylight—had been planned. Sendak, after all, wasn’t the type to throw rocks at windows. Or knock on doors for that matter.

In a way, they deserved each other.

Inevitably, Sendak arrived and when he did, he looked Lance up and down, confusion crinkling the corners of his eyes, but he quickly recovered, saying, “Ah, Lance, I thought I might find you loitering here.”

Pettiness prickled and Lance fought not to engage in childish bickering. It wasn’t why he was here. Mildly, he said, “Here to see Nyma, too?”

“Why, yes. We have a morning stroll planned, you see. Your presence, therefore, is unwelcome.”

“Bet it is,” Lance mumbled.

“Excuse me?”

Rolling his eyes, Lance sat as he’d previously intended. “Relax, Sendak. You’ll get your stroll. I’ve just got something to say and then I’ll go.”

“You must’ve found your fallen star.” There was a flicker of humor in his face and Lance sighed. This man was the worst.

“I did, actually.”

“Where is it?”

Making a face, Lance said, “It’s not for you.”

“Nyma won’t care. We’re engaged.”

“Good for you.”

Laughing, Sendak shook his head. “You’re exactly the same.”

“Why are you talking like you’ve been gone years?”

“All the adventures I went on, it feels like it.”

“Unbelievable,” Lance whispered, glancing up at the sky, wanting more than anything to be back with Keith. Or, at least, for it to be dark, the stars enough to pick his mood up. “You’re such an asshole.”

“What?”

The look on his face was menacing and Lance had flashbacks to nights when Sendak had pushed him over, getting him to leave Nyma’s doorstep, times when he’d laughed in Lance’s face and Lance had done nothing to stop him, feeling that it was deserved, times when he’d stolen Nyma’s time when she’d clearly been devoting it to him, the way that Nyma had let him. And, for a beat, it was enough for Lance to back off. He stumbled for words. But then he found his way back. Meeting Sendak’s eyes, he said, “You’re an asshole.”

Sendak made a move for him and Lance was ready, more prepared for this than he was typically, anyway, when the door of Nyma’s house opened and she stepped out, grinning, as though this was exactly her dream, two boys fighting over her. It probably was.

It didn’t hurt, seeing her.

“Lance!” she said with a laugh, running to him and flinging her arms around his neck. “Oh, it’s so good to see you. I was so sure you’d lost your way out there.” When Lance didn’t hug her back, she stepped away and smiled flirtatiously at him. “You’re looking very handsome. Wherever did you find such a lovely coat?”

“A friend gave it to me.”

“Oh, you made some friends. Are any of them devilishly handsome? Rich?”

“Afraid not.”

She pouted, but immediately brightened. “Did you bring me my star?”

“I did,” Lance said, removing the handkerchief he’d folded the hair into from his coat pocket. Holding it out, he smiled when Nyma took it, seeing exactly what it was about her he’d been so attracted to, her eyes sparkling, full of life, and not feeling a tug of want in the slightest. It felt strange and sort of pretentious to think he’d grown up, lived too much in a couple of months to come back here, but it was true. One of those unshakeable truths that’s quiet in it’s solidity.

Carefully, Nyma unwrapped the handkerchief and her face immediately fell. “But it’s…it’s just dust.”

“What?” Lance asked.

She shook the handkerchief and metallic dust clouded in the air.

Lance didn’t know exactly what that meant. But a sick feeling crept into his stomach and that was enough. He didn’t know for sure what Keith was doing right now and if he crossed the wall, it was possible he would turn to dust, just like the lock of his hair, all of his life, all of his years and knowledge and magic and beauty crumbling to nothing.

Swearing, Lance rushed through words, paying no attention to what they actually were. “Listen, I know that even if that had been something you’d actually liked, you still wouldn’t have married me. I’m not dumb. Sendak is richer and…well, that’s it. That’s all, but that’s fine. I respect that. Whatever makes you happy, Nyma. It’s just not going to…I met someone. That isn’t important, though. All that really matters is that I don’t want this anymore, because I…well, I like myself too much for that. Anyway, really, I hope you have a good life. I’ve got to go. It’s entirely possible the love of my life is about to turn to dust, so…” Then Lance took off, heading for the wall, running as fast as he could.

 

   *    .        

            *    

   *                

  *        ˚

            

 ·

 

 

Blinking slowly, Keith reached across the bed, searching for Lance, but finding an empty mattress instead. Sitting up, he yawned and looked around the room, expecting to see him. But he wasn’t anywhere. And despite himself, despite the chant of ‘you’re being insane’ in his head, Keith couldn’t help wondering if Lance had left, gone back to Nyma, snuck away in the night.

It would be a fitting ending to this crash landing. Getting left right when he decided to stay.

Crawling out of bed, Keith pulled on a shirt and scanned the room, looking for anything that Lance wouldn’t have left behind. But it was all gone.

Maybe he’d just gone downstairs.

Heading out of the room, Keith wound his way to the front of the inn and was stopped immediately by the innkeeper, who looked a bit disgruntled that he had to be a messenger boy, but doing it anyway. “Your companion, he went across the wall. Giving someone what they asked for.”

Rolling his eyes, Keith left the inn in a flash. Anger rising, he cursed Lance for being so vague, for not talking to Keith about this before deciding it, for assuming that Keith was secure enough in what they had not to worry.

And if he had gone back to Nyma, if somehow, Keith had been tricked that fantastically, Lance was going to receive the pounding of his life. There was no getting off clean. Keith had things to say. Not that he’d be able to articulate them once he was in front of Lance. All he’d manage, he was sure, was a whole lot of shoving and yelling, “You’re such an idiot.”

That was, in fact, what he was muttering to himself as he headed toward the wall, unable to face that he was scared. So scared. Because he’d finally wanted something, someone, wanted it enough that he desperately didn’t want to lose it.