Lance sighed through his nose as he scanned the surrounding area through his binoculars. They were heavy, something that’d surprised him when he’d first obtained them, but it meant they were real. Good. Nowadays, they were a familiar weight around his neck. And it wasn’t rare to find him with a familiar array of bruises on his chest, evidence of him sprinting and being unable to hold his binoculars in place, making them bounce and bang against his chest with every step.
It was worth it, though. Being able to see was critical, these days. Almost as important as it was to hear, and so Lance scanned the area carefully and thoroughly. More so than he might have had he still been with Hunk and Pidge. He was the only one looking out for his own skin out here, after all.
It’d been his idea to split up. His friends hadn’t liked the idea, of course, had argued with him about it for ages, but he knew it made the most sense. The van was out of gas, after all, and his old house was on the complete other side of town. Cars and gas stations had long since been pilfered of remaining fuel and they couldn’t waste what little they had driving that hunk of metal through town. No, his friends would be going around it, stopping to siphon gas wherever they could manage, while Lance made his way across the town in the hopes of finding his family.
If everything went well, they’d be seeing each other again tonight.
Lance shook his head, trying to physically dislodge his negative thoughts. There was no use thinking like that. All it did was dishearten him further, and in times like these, staying positive was almost as important as staying alert. Otherwise you ended up as one of those people who decided they couldn’t take it anymore. Someone with a bullet in their head and a gun in their hand.
“All right,” Lance muttered to himself, still crouched on the broken down bus in the middle of the street. And you couldn’t blame him for talking to himself. It might be a little crazy, sure, but there were much worse things you could be, lately. Namely, the living dead. “Just get across town, and don’t die. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.”
And it should be relatively easy. He’d grown up in this town, after all, and he knew his way around like he knew the back of his hand. Maybe that’s what was making this so much harder. Seeing the devastation that’d wracked the very place he’d grown up. Seeing familiar storefronts with the windows smashed in, familiar landmarks with the undead crowding all around it. Maybe even seeing familiar people, though not so people-like anymore.
Lance shook his head, forcibly removing himself from his thoughts and straightening up, letting his binoculars hang against his chest. The chord dug familiarly into the back of his neck as he crept towards the front of the school bus.
He couldn’t see any of the rotters hanging around now, though of course that didn’t mean there weren't actually any around. That kind of thinking got you killed.
Still, Lance couldn’t see anything that wanted to kill him anywhere nearby, and as long as he stayed away from cars and alleys where a deadhead could surprise him, he should be fine. He had his bow, after all, so it wasn’t like he was defenseless.
Glass crunched under his feet after he slid off the hood of the bus and onto the ground, taking quick steps away from the vehicle in case there was anything underneath it. There wasn’t — or at least, nothing under there came after him — so he continued on his merry way.
He didn’t really know what he was hoping for. Driving down that highway towards home, nearly a year after the Silence, he’d known he couldn’t just pass it by. He hadn’t heard from his family in a year, hadn’t known if they were safe at night for nearly two.
As he saw it, there were only a couple outcomes this trip could have, few good, and many horrible.
He could walk up to that old house of his and see a barricade of fortifications. There could be a massive perimeter of zombie traps and his mother’s singing voice drifting from an open window, maybe accompanied by some soup she’d managed to make out of the vegetables growing in their backyard.
Or he could find the house completely abandoned. Maybe with a note on the counter for him, just in case he ever came by to check, something like, Lance. Heading west. Love you lots and may God be with you.
Yeah, that’d be nice. The house intact, no blood on the windows or walls, no signs of a struggle. Just a happy family prepared for the apocalypse and taking off on an undead road trip. That didn’t sound too bad.
Of course, that’s also where the good ideas tended to peter off. He never thought of those nice scenarios too much. Usually at night, when he wasn’t worrying about whether he’d wake up to a zombie gnawing on his leg or maybe Hunk’s face, he’d be thinking about his family. Wondering if their corpses were still wandering around his family home, if he’d walk in one day and see their blood on the floors, their dead eyes staring at him, their rotten hands reaching for him as groans spilled from their lips, as they tried to eat their son, their brother alive.
In comparison, finding an empty house wouldn’t be so bad. He’d forever be plagued with the desire to know, forever haunted by the fact that he didn’t quite know what had happened or was happening to his family, but that was also some of the good part. You didn’t have to mourn people you didn’t know were dead, didn’t have to cry over people that could very well still be alive.
Lance flinched, his bow in his hand and an arrow strung in it in an instant, even as he silently cursed himself for getting distracted. It was almost like he had a death wish.
He spun around, arrow still drawn, looking desperately for the source of the noise. It’d sounded almost like a car door slamming shut. Or maybe a dumpster lid? Something heavy, something audible.
Lance’s entire body was tense, the muscles of his back tight as he spun and spun, looking for whatever had made the noise. There was nothing, though. He could see a few of the undead shuffling around at the end of a nearby alley and further down the street, but nothing close enough to have made that noise. Had he hallucinated it? Was he going crazy?
It didn’t seem too far fetched. He’d watched people lose their minds, these last few years. Knowing that people were coming back from the dead, that the vaccines weren’t successful, that the quarantines weren’t working — it was enough to drive a lot of people mad. And if that didn’t do it, then living each day walking on eggshells or watching someone be torn apart, well. That could do it too.
But Lance hadn’t gone crazy. He’d… gotten used to it, almost. Yeah, the dead were living. And he would happily trade one of his precious few arrows for a cheeseburger, at this point. What else was new?
Jaw clenched, Lance tried to force himself to ignore the sound he’d heard and continue on his way. The dead weren’t paying him any attention, far enough away to not notice him unless he made a lot of noise. Or spilled some blood.
Lance turned down another familiar street, shoving down any uncomfortable emotions that tried to arise. So what if his hometown looked just like any other? It wasn’t like it was special, like it was going to remain free of the plague haunting the rest of the world.
Getting across town was slow going. He took a much longer route than he would have had he still been in high school, his home untouched by the undead. As it was, he was a college dropout (not by choice, but because it was kind of hard to graduate when your professors were dead) and his home was very much affected, but at least he still knew his way around. Knew which streets had always been quieter, less populated. He barely had to kill any of the deadheads on his way across town, doing so swiftly and quietly whenever he was forced to.
There were a few more occasions where he thought he heard something, stopping dead in his tracks to look around desperately, but each time he failed to find anything.
“It’s whatever,” he mumbled to himself later. “You’re just going crazy without Pidge and Hunk around. Totally fine.”
Still, his unease had him hurrying his pace. The sooner he got to his house the sooner he could know whether his entire family was dead and the sooner he could mourn and get the fuck outta there, assuming he wasn’t overwhelmed by grief and consumed by zombies in the process. If all went well, he’d find his house relatively untouched and be headed towards the rendezvous in an hour’s time, where he’d then wait to be joined by his friends, who would hopefully have a good few tanks of gas.
The closer Lance got to his old house, the more tense he became. He grew sloppy with his attention to detail, taking stupid risks in an attempt to get there faster, like forgetting to check under cars and forgoing scanning the area from atop a vantage point first. If he’d been concentrating a little bit more, he might have caught the noises trailing behind him, the rhythmic clack of something constantly tapping against the pavement behind him, but he didn’t.
And so he led whatever it was straight to his house.
Actually stepping out onto his old street felt like a dream: the same and alien all at once. There wasn’t a zombie in sight, thank God, but it was clear devastation had met this area all the same. Windows smashed open, probably by scavengers. Cars parked haphazardly. The street empty and silent whereas before it’d always been filled with life and joy. Kids screaming as they’d chased each other; adults watering their lawns, talking on the sidewalks to their neighbors. And now, nothing.
No noise emitted from Lance’s home. None of his mother’s singing or the smell of her cooking drifting out the window like he’d wanted to imagine. Just more of that silence.
His limbs felt stiff and heavy as he made his way up the driveway. The door was locked, and it was with a weird sort of reverence that he pulled out his key, hanging on his necklace in place of the cross that used to hang there.
“Why do you keep that thing?” people had asked him in the past. Mostly his fellow classmates, bitter and angry at the world. So was he, obviously, but he’d tried not to show it.
It wasn’t the school’s fault everything had gone to shit. And it sounded like a good idea to lock them in, in theory. Keep the kids here, keep the dead out. They’ll be safe. Everyone thought their ideas would work until they didn’t.
“Because,” Lance had always answered them, usually with a nostalgic laugh. “My mom said she’d killed me if I lost another house key.”
So Lance used it and felt something in his chest squeeze tight as the door groaned open, the sound so familiar it made his insides ache. That stupid fucking door. He couldn't count the amount of times he’d been caught sneaking back into the house because of the damn thing.
“Hello?” he called softly, because even though he’d felt it walking down the street, even though he’d felt it climbing his porch steps, he didn’t want to acknowledge it. The hopelessness. The knowledge that they weren’t here, of course they weren’t here, why would they ever have stayed here?
No one answered his call. He stepped further into the house, into the home he’d been half-sure he’d never see again, half-sure he’d die before reaching. “Mami?”
And then he froze, his foot hovering half an inch above a trip wire. Just like that, hope flooded back in. Someone was here.
It was then that he finally noticed the signs of life. A window by the back door was smashed, sure, but it was boarded back up. There were other kinds of booby traps around the back door too, though whether intended for the living or the dead, Lance wasn’t quite sure.
Still, he couldn’t find it in himself to care right then. His head felt light with excitement as he drew in a breath, barely paying attention to any possible booby traps as he made his way further into the house. “Veronica?” he called, louder than he’d spoken previously. “Marco?”
No one answered. Lance fumbled with his feelings, tried to crush his hopes back down before they could get too high. These could be old traps, set up long before they left. They could be miles and miles away by now. But regardless of his attempts, his hopes bubbled right back up, through the gaps of his fingers still trying to push them down. They could be out for the day, he thought desperately. He hadn’t seen their old car out there, after all.
But then he walked into to the kitchen and could see the living room. The house was so bare. All the cabinets were thrown open and empty. Furniture in the living room was in the wrong place, cushions from the couches nowhere to be found. Lance swallowed thickly. People must’ve come in, must’ve taken stuff.
He looked around, a bit desperate at this point, but he couldn’t find anything. Didn’t see a note anywhere.
And he knew he should look upstairs, should go to his room and see if there was anything left, try to gather some clean clothes or soap if there was any around, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He couldn’t make himself climb those steps, couldn’t make himself see his and everyone else’s old rooms, empty. Barren.
Lance drew his shoulders back, knowing he needed to leave now. Pull yourself together, McClain.
A sigh had just barely shuddered out of him when he heard it. A creak behind him: the loose floorboard. He’d maneuvered around it automatically, years-worth of repetitively avoiding that stupid squeaky flooring making him do it without thinking, but…
He whipped around, arrow already drawn and a second from flying before he realized it was in front of a person’s face. Like, a person person’s face. Not a dead person.
“Holy shit, man!” Lance gasped immediately, weapon lowering a bit. “I almost shot your brains out!” And then he realized there was a person in his house, likely having followed him for some reason, and his brows were furrowed and his arrow was in the guy’s face again. “Wait, why are you here? Did you follow me?”
The guy looked surprised that he’d been caught. He must’ve been a pretty quiet dude, if that was the case, but not even the tippiest of toes could avoid the age-old flooring of this ancient house. Plus, Lance was pretty observant. He saw things others didn’t, heard things that were barely there.
“Start talking or I’ll shoot this through your eye,” Lance growled, pulling the string back just a little bit more. There was no way the arrow would go straight through his head, this close, but it’d definitely do a lot of damage. Probably get all the way into his brain, too.
“Wait!” the guy said, when Lance glared just a little bit harder. His arm was outstretched, a katana in his hand, not that Lance was entirely surprised. It was easy to get weapons these days. Everyone had stocked up in the beginning, and by now most everyone was dead, so their weapons were for the taking. That’s why Lance had such a good bow. Then again, not many people were actually looking for bows, when guns and crossbows were available. Not Lance, though. He’d been going to archery camp every summer since he was seven. He was totally Zombie Apocalypse Ready. “I didn’t follow you here!”
Lance scoffed. “Stop lying to the guy with an arrow in your face, dude.”
This just earned him an even harsher glare. “I’m not lying,” the guy bit out. “If anyone should be doing the threatening here, it’s me. Those traps were set up for a reason, you know.”
Lance blinked. His arm twitched, his bow nearly lowering in his surprise, but it remained steady. It would take more than alarming news to dislodge his aim at this point. He’d remained calm and steady and level-headed while hearing people scream as they were torn apart. Hearing this guy talk wasn’t about to mess him up.
“What, you live here?” Lance said incredulously. And then he kind of took the other guy in. He looked as dirty as Lance felt, his hair greasy but probably long enough to be pulled up and out of his face, which was streaked with dirt. Lance couldn't relate. He kept having Pidge cut the ends for his own hair, though it was starting to hang in his eyes again.
But as for his clothes… Red, red, red. He was dressed in it from head to toe: his jacket, his boots, even the hair tie on his wrist was red.
“Is that my shirt?” Lance said, his voice definitely having climbed a few octaves by now. The guy looked down at his chest, blinking at the spiderman shirt he happened to be wearing under his red jacket. It was too tight for him, Lance’s frame much leaner than his buffed up one.
“Uh, no?” he finally answered, looking up at Lance like he was insane.
“It is!” Lance said. “You’re wearing my shirt!
“You’re in my house!”
“I — wait, this is your house?”
Lance looked around desperately, then. Nothing on the walls. No picture frames on the tables. His family must’ve taken them all. But maybe…
Lance strode over to the fridge, letting his bow fall to his side, though he kept his arrow notched, his heart pounding first with anxiety and then relief when he saw it. A tiny picture was still stuck to the fridge with a magnet, his whole family crowded in close and smiling. His mom used to force them to take these pictures when she had everyone come over for dinner. It’d always been a pretty rare occasion to get everyone in the same place at the same time, what with everyone’s busy schedules and many of his siblings having kids of their own, at this point.
“Here,” Lance said, after sparing a moment to take in the picture he already knew so well. He nodded towards it, and Red followed him, looking at it with wide eyes.
“Damn,” he said. “I guess this really is your house.”
“Yeah,” Lance said resentfully, retaining that last bit of his anger. And then it slipped away. “So… you haven’t seen them?”
The guy, this total stranger, looked at Lance with pity poorly hidden in his eyes. “No,” he answered. “I’ve only been here for about a week, but… This house has been totally empty.”
“Right,” Lance said stiffly. He noticed Red had put away his own weapon the moment Lance had walked away. It probably hadn’t been a good idea to turn his back on someone holding a sword, but Lance wasn’t exactly in the right mindset right then, standing in his family home with none of his family around. Still, this guy clearly wasn’t trying to kill him, and it was with a sigh that Lance reached over his shoulder and slipped his arrow back with his other measly amount, slinging his bow over his back as well.
“I’ll just be going, then,” Lance said weakly. He wasn’t about to demand that this guy leave, after all. It wasn’t like Lance had been intending on staying here in the first place. All he’d wanted was a sign, and maybe this stranger was as good of a sign as he was going to get.
Lance couldn’t quite decipher the expression that came over Red’s face as he turned to leave, picking his way back through the entry way laden with booby traps. He’d only just reached the front door, his hand on the handle, when he heard, “Lance!”
He froze, his body stiff with shock as he turned slowly, squinting cautiously back the way he’d come. That hadn’t been anyone from his family’s voice, he knew that. It’d been Red’s.
But how did he know his name?
The guy came sliding out of the kitchen — holy shit, he was wearing socks! Why was that weirdly adorable? — with something in his hand held aloft. The picture. Shit, yeah, Lance had meant to take that with him.
“There’s something on the back!” the guy said desperately, and easily, almost carelessly, stepped through the traps he’d set up. He held the paper out to Lance, his cheeks looking oddly flushed.
Lance took the picture, glancing down at his family for a moment, Mami, Marco, Luis, Veronica. Nadia, Sylvio, Matias, and flipped it over.
Lance, it read, his name written in his mother’s familiar handwriting, something that Lance hadn’t realized before now would be something that’d make him tear up. We plan to stay in the state. Unsure of where we’ll go, but God will lead us back together again, someday. We prefer evens. Love you so much, mijo. Stay safe.
“What does ‘we prefer evens’ mean?” Red asked. He must’ve scanned the note before calling out Lance’s name.
“I… I think she means stations,” Lance mumbled. “Like, on a walkie talkie.”
A fist reached through Lance’s chest and squeezed his heart, battered his lungs. He didn’t have a walkie talkie. There were two between the three of them — him, Hunk, and Pidge, that is — and Lance had ensured that they keep them. They’d be in range of hearing each other, after all. No point in Lance having it.
“I have to go,” Lance said abruptly.
Lance paused, looking up at the stranger, who seemed almost as surprised at his outburst as Lance was.
“I… It’s just…” he started. “Do you have a ride?”
Lance blinked. It was one thing to let a stranger stay in his home long after his family had abandoned it. One thing to do the guy the favor of not putting an arrow through his head when he’d first laid eyes on him. But inviting him to come along? To let him near his friends, near all of their supplies?
It wasn’t that he didn’t want to trust this guy, ‘cause he totally did. It was rare enough that you saw actual, living people these days. But it was even rarer that those actual, living people weren’t crazy and desperate. It wasn’t just the dead killing the living, out here. People killed people just as often, usually for something stupid, and Lance really couldn’t risk putting his friends’ lives in jeopardy.
So, “No,” he said, shaking his head.
The guy before him frowned. “Then how did you get here?”
“There’s nothing around here for miles,” Red said logically. “No way you walked here. You’d have been eaten in your sleep.”
“Maybe I don’t sleep,” Lance said, which, yeah, probably wasn’t his best comeback, but he kind of hadn’t eaten yet today. Good comebacks didn’t run on empty stomachs — that’s just a known fact.
“Look,” the guy said. “I’m skilled with my sword, and your weapon’s only good for long-range. The two of us could easily make it to your car without any trouble. I’m only trying to get to the next city.”
Lance ground his teeth. This guy was right, however much Lance didn’t like it. Letting the rotters get too close to him had always been a problem, because it wasn’t exactly easy to string up and aim when one of those things was right on you. On more than one occasion Lance had been forced to just grab an arrow and jam it through a zombie’s head, and it was kind of terrifying having to get that close to them in the first place.
“Okay,” Lance said slowly. “Fine.” Because this guy had given him his mom’s note, right? He’d picked it up off the fridge, seen the writing on the back, and called out for Lance. Sure, it was what any decent person would’ve done, but it was getting harder and harder to find decent people with each passing day.
Plus, the truth was, Lance wanted this dude to be a good guy. It’d only been a few days since Lance had been separated from Pidge and Hunk, but already he could feel the effects of being alone, and he wasn’t liking it. Plus, meeting new people these days wasn’t something that happened all the time. It was usually, ‘Oh, nice to meet you! Aaaand you’re getting eaten by a zombie now. Great’. Either that or, ‘Jesus Christ, you lost all your morals! Stop trying to kill me for my meager food supply, you bastard!’
So the fact that this guy had yet to try to kill Lance for his supplies or get eaten by a rotter in his presence was kind of uplifting. And Lance’s opinion was of course in no way being influenced by how the guy looked. Like, you’d think the dirt and grease and blood (because who wasn’t covered in blood these days?) would just go ahead and make him ugly already, but nope. If what looked like a mullet couldn’t de-beautify him, nothing could.
“Really?” the guy said, looking surprised and hopeful at Lance’s agreement.
“Yeah,” Lance said. “My friends and I are meeting at the highway just out of town. They’re getting gas while I…” Lance trailed off, gesturing around the house kind of pathetically.
And then Lance stood by silently, creeping back out of the booby traps before he accidentally set one off while his new acquaintance went about gathering his supplies. It didn’t take him very long, seeing as his supplies were already packed up and all together as any other good zombie survivalist would’ve had it.
Lance stood with his arms crossed and an eyebrow raised as Red stood up after fastening his boots. Lance didn’t know why, but he was kind of sad to see his socked feet go. Thinking about it now, Lance wondered when the last time he’d been able to walk around without shoes was. He slept in his shoes, most nights, never knowing when he’d have to get up and run right when he opened his eyes. And yet here this guy was, confident enough on his lonesome to walk around Lance’s old house in socked feet.
“Gonna tell me your name or should I just call you ‘Red’?” Lance finally demanded, gesturing up and down at the guy’s outfit.
Red looked down at his outfit, possibly taking in all the red for the first time, before looking back up at Lance. “My name’s Keith,” he said.
“Perfect,” Lance said. “I hope you like hiking, Keith.”
Lance held out the handful of nuts for the third time in the last ten minutes.
“For the last time,” Keith said angrily, turning his fierce glare on Lance. “I’m not hungry.”
“Guess we’ll wait,” Lance sighed, tucking the food right back into the pouch it’d come out of. Keith honest-to-God growled, something which had Lance automatically glancing around, so accustomed to that sound coming from the dead.
“Just eat them,” Keith said angrily. “You don’t need to wait for me.”
“But I do,” Lance said wisely. “I’m horrible at rationing, honestly. If I start eating without sharing any you’ll end up with way less than me.” This was a lie. Months of watching what he was eating and constantly making sure he would have more for later had conditioned Lance. He could spend a good twenty minutes eating a single cashew if he really wanted, but he wasn’t about to tell Keith that. They definitely needed to get their energy up if they were going to be walking all the way to Lance’s rendezvous spot, and you never knew when you were going to end up having to fight without expecting it. Really, it was just better to be energized.
“Jesus Christ,” Keith muttered, holding out his hand and letting Lance plop the handful of nuts into it. He popped one into his mouth immediately and Lance followed in suit with a hum. He couldn’t wait to meet up with Pidge and Hunk again. They had the majority of their food, after all, seeing as they had the van with all their stuff in it.
They’d been walking for a few hours now. Morale wasn’t exactly high, seeing as walking for any amount of time out in the open these days was reason enough for your nerves to be shot. It didn’t help that Keith seemed to be a grumpy person in general. You know, besides your usual ‘the world is ending and i have a reason to be grumpy’ grumpiness. And he wasn’t one for idle conversation, apparently completely fine with walking in silence despite Lance feeling like he was drowning in the awkwardness of it all.
“So,” Lance said, starting his latest (and probably just as likely to fail) attempt at conversation. “What’s there for you in the next city over?”
Keith shifted his unimpressed stare over to Lance, who just raised his eyebrows, popping another cashew into his mouth.
“Nothing, if I’m lucky,” Keith finally answered, in that grim tone that everyone understood these days. Hell, even Lance could relate. One of his good scenarios had been finding his house empty, after all. Because when there was nothing to find there was nothing to know. There was still a chance that, whoever it was you were looking for, was still out there. Still alive.
“Gotcha,” Lance said, nodding his head. And then, trying to continue the conversation, “Girlfriend?”
Keith scoffed, glaring at Lance. All right, so personal talks were definitely not his forté. Whatever, Lance could live with that.
Another awkward silence blanketed over them, broken only by the rhythmic sound of their boots on the asphalt. Lance let his gaze shift away from the other man, scanning carefully over the surroundings. They hadn’t seen another deadhead in a while, which was more unsettling than it was comforting, honestly. It just racked his anticipation up even higher, his whole body tense and uneasy, unwilling to grow complacent in the absence of anything trailing after them and attempting to eat their flesh.
Speaking of things trailing after them, Lance twisted his neck, trying to get a good look at the open stretch of road behind them. He couldn’t shake this feeling that there was something there, something following them, but whenever he looked, there was nothing. It was unsettling beyond belief, and obvious that Keith didn’t feel the same thing. Still, Lance never let his guard drop completely, his ears constantly straining for some sort of noise to give away whatever phantom thing was following them.
And unfortunately, Keith still seemed annoyingly comfortable with the lack of conversation. He’d sheathed his sword a while ago, seeing as he hadn’t had to use it in forever, but he remained aware and alert with every step they took. Lance found himself growing oddly irritated with the stupidest things about his hiking partner.
Stupid Keith with his stupid fingerless gloves. Stupid Keith’s hair, which had no business looking that good, having been pulled into a ponytail about ten minutes after they’d started walking. Stupid Keith who didn’t even notice the silence between them, perfectly content to walk next to someone without interacting with them at all.
“You know how to use a sword before all this?” Lance blurted, interrupting the God-awful silence. He couldn’t help it. He was a talker, okay? He talked when he was nervous and when he was angry and when he was happy. No matter the emotion, words just seemed to have a way of escaping him in streams and this silence wasn’t exactly doing it for him.
“Yeah,” Keith answered. Monosyllabic. Nice. He didn’t elaborate and Lance didn’t ask, deciding he was past trying to turn Keith into a talkative person. He was hopeless.
Maybe Lance could learn a few things from him. He, Hunk, and Pidge had definitely had a few close calls due to distraction in the past. They’d made it pretty far into this thing for a bunch of young adults, though. In this day and age, it was everyone fend for yourself, and if you couldn’t, you were dead. Lance could hardly remember the last time he’d seen a living person (besides Keith, anyway) but even when straining his mind, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen an adult adult. It might’ve been as long ago as when he still had professors.
“Let’s do a check,” Lance said, because it’d been a while and it would be irresponsible not to. They’d made it to the highway a few hours ago but walking along one was entirely different from driving along one. Hopefully they were finally nearing the exit they needed, where they’d be able to just hunker down and keep an eye out for Hunk and Pidge, who should be arriving at the same place shortly after them if they weren’t there already.
But seeing as they were on the highway, there were a lot of cars, which meant progress was slow going if they wanted to make sure they didn’t stumble into a zombie trap. And they weren’t all together, like one might think, but spread out. Cars abandoned on the sides of the roads, long after the Great Plague had started in earnest. Cars piled up in clumps, ones that’d crashed and been swarmed by the dead. But there were still long stretches of highway, rural and empty, where you could walk for a while and almost forget everything. Almost feel like you just needed to wait for the next car to come by and stick your thumb out.
They were coming up on the next clump of cars, though, which almost certainly meant the dead. Rotters tended to stick around the places they died, wasting away and waiting for their next prey to come along. Lance couldn’t see any of them wandering around between the cars now, but that didn’t mean they weren’t lying in wait inside or under the cars, prepared to snatch any unobservant person that walked near enough.
Sometimes, Lance wondered how much of the person inside the deadheads was really gone. He knew they were dead, their soul or their spirit or whatever eradicated the second their eyes slipped shut. He knew those people weren’t people anymore, with their skin sloughing off their bodies and their eyes yellowed and their bite much stronger than a rotting corpse’s bite should be. But that didn’t change the fact that they seemed to know things as a collective whole.
Like, sure, obviously the dead were dumb as a box of rocks, but there was still… some sort of innate knowledge in them, somehow. Like, they were always more active and abundant at night. That lead you to believe it had something to do with the sun or the heat, but even on days where the sky was dark and the air as cool as the night, things remained the same. Even then, the dead amassed at night.
It was something Lance didn’t understand. He wondered if anyone understood it, if anyone anywhere was still in a position to study it, learn from it. Actually, scratch that. Pidge and Hunk were totally taking notes on everything, but they were still just undergrads like him. And it wasn’t like they had the time or luxury these days to be able to run experiments on the zombies.
Besides the night thing, there was other stuff the dead seemed to know. Like how to hide from them. How to lie in wait like a true predator stalking its prey. And the world order was supposed to be the smartest thing on top — humans eat the cows which eat the grass — but now they weren’t on top. Now they were just scrambling to be anywhere on the food chain at all, meanwhile the dead strolled around with rocks for brains, dominating the earth and eating anything with flesh.
So it wasn’t that Lance was particularly worried about there being any humanity left in the living dead. He knew there wasn’t — everyone had known their wasn’t, when the first cases of the disease had surfaced, of mother’s eating their babies and husbands eating their wives. But even with nothing in there, that didn’t stop the fact that the dead were alive. And that maybe they were learning.
No one wanted to hear that, of course, so Lance never said it. Not even to Pidge and Hunk. But he was pretty sure it was true.
Because when he thought back, back to the days when it was just beginning and everyone was so sure there’d be a cure and that it’d never happen to them, the dead had had no trouble strolling around in the day. Wandering out of the houses they’d been concealed in by desperate family members, infecting those in the streets who rose and infected others in turn. They hadn’t minded the sun, the heat, and maybe they didn’t even mind it now. Maybe they just knew, somehow knew, that humans were weaker at night.
They were vulnerable. They couldn’t see, couldn’t travel, couldn’t function. Any light in the darkness drew the dead’s attention, so no one dared with flashlights or headlights. They became stationary and paranoid. And Lance really, really thought the dead might know this, might be learning its victims’ weaknesses and picking them off through it.
“Sounds like a good idea,” Keith said, breaking Lance out of his thoughts. They were approaching the truck Lance had been planning to climb on top of. His binoculars continued to beat steadily against his chest with every step and his hand automatically came up to grip them.
There was nothing under the truck, and a quick check through the back window provided nothing but what looked like moldy blankets in the backseat. So Lance hopped up onto the roof of the pickup while Keith stayed on the ground, alert and glaring off into the distance. It was obviously what he was best at.
Lance lifted his binoculars up to his eyes with a hum, twisting the handles as he zoomed in on the wreckage before them. At first, there didn’t appear to be anything, but the longer Lance stared, the more he could see the tiny twitches of movement among the cars. Something shifting in a car here, another thing moving in the breeze there.
A quick scan of the surrounding area didn’t provide much, a field on one side of the highway and a dense forest on the other. Neither seemed like particularly safe options. The tall field grasses were likely moving due to animals, but there could just as easily be deadheads crawling through there. And Lance had never really liked forests, always feeling like there were a million things he couldn’t see that could see him.
He felt like going through the cars was still their safest bet, though they’d definitely want to be careful about it. It’d probably be a good idea for Keith to get his sword out now, and hopefully the two of them could creep through the wreckage without drawing too much attention. God knew Lance didn’t want to waste his time killing every deadhead lingering in this stretch of highway, and he didn’t want to have them following after them either.
“All right,” Lance said, zooming his binoculars back out with a final sweep over the area. “I’m pretty sure I see a good path for us to take. Hopefully we’ll only have to kill a couple rotters—” Lance cut himself off as Keith let out a shout. His binoculars were out of his hands and smacking against his chest in an instant, wide eyes taking in everything around him in half a second.
First, Keith was struggling, his sword trapped between his back and the truck as a rotten hand choked him, trapped him against the side of the car. Second, the pile of moldy blankets was not, in fact, a pile of moldy blankets. Instead, they were a stupid fucking zombie, its upper body shoved through the smashed in window of the back of the car and its face rapidly descending towards Keith’s shoulder.
“Keith!” Lance exclaimed in horror, and with adrenaline overtaking his thoughts, he whipped his bow off his shoulder and notched it. His body took the position automatically, none of that fidgeting and perfecting and measuring and breathing he’d been all about back when he’d done archery competitions as a kid. Now it was just arm drawn back, not thinking about how if the angle was wrong the arrow could go through the zombie’s head and into Keith’s, and letting loose.
The deadhead’s gasps and growls silenced abruptly as Lance’s arrow pierced its skull, its body slumping onto Keith, who wrenched himself away, panting. He didn’t look at Lance as he yanked the arrow out of the rotter’s head, and Lance didn’t say anything about how visibly his hand was shaking when he held the projectile back out to Lance.
“Close call,” Lance muttered, his heart having not yet gotten the memo about Keith no longer being on the brink of death, given its continued erratic pounding in his chest.
“Yeah,” Keith breathed. And then, “Shit.” The reason for the curse was obvious. Following Keith’s gaze, Lance could see a good number of rotters stumbling towards them, having been drawn by either Keith’s shout or Lance’s. It hardly mattered now, with what a quick headcount provided was more than ten of them, coming towards them.
Keith reached for the handle poking over his back, his sword sliding out of its scabbard with a shwing as he stared at the advancing dead with cold eyes.
“Wait,” Lance said, when Keith took a step forward as if he were about to take on the rotters all on his own. “I have six good arrows — let me take some down first.”
Keith swallowed, but nodded, letting his sword fall down to his side as he continued to stare at Lance.
“Here,” Lance said, lifting his binoculars over his head. It felt wrong to feel the weight of them leave his neck — it always did — but he handed them over anyway. “Make sure nothing’s coming out of the field or trees.”
Once Keith had the binoculars pressed to his eyes, Lance straightened back up, his body subtly shifting into position. Back straight, legs spread, feet pointed. He didn’t bother to clean off the arrow in his hand, already greasy with brain matter and covered in gray chunks as he notched it and aimed.
This shot wasn’t like before, with a zombie mere feet from Lance and time nonexistent. Lance had more time now, and he used it. The dead were advancing quickly but were still far enough away for Lance to close an eye, to breath out through his nose, to steady his grip, pull back, and let go.
The closest zombie, the fastest one, dropped dead. Deader than usual, anyway, but Lance didn’t waste time whooping or cheering, just pulled the next arrow out of his quiver and shifted slightly. He moved fluidly, quickly. Taking aim and pulling the bowstring back and shooting all in the same second. His forearm quickly grew red, grazed, seeing as he had no brace to soften the snap of the bowstring against his skin, but it hardly mattered. Six arrows were loosed and six of the dead fell, at which point Lance nodded to Keith, finding he was already looking at him, the binoculars held limply in his hands.
“They’re all yours,” Lance said, and Keith took off. Only five remained, there only having been eleven after Lance’s frantic headcount, and Keith took them down easily. He hadn’t been lying when he’d said he was skilled with his sword, the weapon moving like an extension of his own body, which moved swiftly and easily.
The undead didn’t stand a chance of getting him — not when he wasn’t unawares, anyway. They couldn’t even get close to him, heads separated from shoulders with Keith’s expertise. Lance could almost imagine him in some sort of karate-kung-jitsu thing, whatever it was called when you fought with swords instead of fists.
Lance had to check to make sure his jaw wasn’t hanging open when Keith was finished, ducking down to wipe his sword on the clothes of one of the deadheads. Lance hopped off the truck and approached him, stopping to collect his arrows along the way. Now the brain matter did bother him, his lips turning downward in disgust as he felt the grease and slime against his fingers. He did his best to wipe off his arrows before putting them back in his quiver, promising himself he’d clean them properly soon.
“You okay?” he asked when he came to a stop beside Keith. He wasn’t panting, nor had he even broken a sweat, despite having just taken down five deadheads all by himself.
“Yeah,” he said. “I didn’t get bitten,” he added hastily, and then, “I’ll show you, if you want.” Keith was already reaching towards the collar of his shirt.
“Nah, I believe you, man,” Lance said quickly. Keith looked surprised, and Lance wondered if there was a reason for it. Wondered if there’d been someone who hadn’t believed him before. “Guess we should get going, huh?” Lance continued, looking back out over the wreckage. There was definitely less movement now, apparent even without his binoculars. The path Lance had planned, through a slightly wider gap on the right side of the road, might not even have any of the dead near it anymore.
“Yeah,” Keith said slowly, a bit tentatively. “Um. Here,” he said, handing the binoculars back to Lance.
“Thanks,” Lance said absently, mentally preparing for the two of them to revert back into their predictable silence.
“They’re heavier than I expected,” Keith said, the second the binoculars settled back against Lance’s chest. He looked over at Keith, surprised, because he wasn’t sure Keith had initiated a conversation in the entire time since they’d left Lance’s house.
“That means they’re good,” Lance promised. “If it’s light, it’s cheap.”
“Makes sense,” Keith said, and when Lance glanced over at him his cheek was puffed out, almost awkwardly. He seemed to be fiddling with the zipper on his jacket. “So,” he said slowly. “You’re pretty good at archery.”
Lance smirked. Was Keith actually trying to make conversation with him now? Why the change of heart?
“You think so?” he said, failing to hide his cocky tone.
“Well, yeah,” Keith said plainly. “You took out each of your targets in a minute flat. Isn’t archery supposed to be really hard?”
It was difficult to ignore the warm, bubbly feelings rising up in his chest. God, this was the same way he’d always felt when someone had flirted with him. Nowadays someone telling him he’s a good shot had him practically head over heels. What had the world come to?
“It is,” Lance answered truthfully. “Or, it used to be. All my siblings had hobbies when we were little — soccer, piano, swimming. I was upset about not having a ‘thing’ and my parents ended up signing me up for archery,” Lance explained, swinging his bow off his back and into position as they started through the pile up. Lance’s eye had been true and the path they made their way through really was the best one, none of the cars so close together that they had to squeeze through or climb over. They were able to walk quickly and carefully, Lance’s eyes continually scanning back and forth, looking for movement.
“I hated it at first,” Lance continued. “I couldn’t hit the targets and the string hurt my fingers and my arms ached at the end of the day. But I didn’t quit, and slowly I got better at it. Soon, I was the best one on the archery field.”
“Modest,” Keith commented.
“How many other people have you seen with a bow as their weapon of choice?” Lance scoffed, turning back to look at Keith. A hand was reaching out from under a car, not too big a deal but enough to possibly trip him, and Lance reached out and yanked him forward before the hand could touch him, Keith blinking in surprise. “Anyway, it’s not so hard anymore. In the beginning you have to think all about your posture and technique, but after a while that stuff gets ingrained. Then it’s just you and the target.”
“That’s… really cool, actually,” Keith said quietly. His sword was still out, held casually in his hand. Lance guessed holding a lethal weapon could totally be a casual thing when you were that good with it.
“What about you?” Lance tried again, despite Keith having brushed off his question earlier. “How’d you get so good with that sword?”
There was a pause, a moment during which Lance was sure the conversation was going to shut down and they’d revert back to their stoic silence again, before Keith cleared his throat. “My mom taught me,” he answered. “Probably when I was younger than she should have, but I was a pretty persistent kid,” he said with a hollow laugh. “And she was always obsessed with swords, too. She was probably eager to teach me.”
“I can totally see that, if she was anywhere near half as good as you,” Lance said lightly, picking up on the past tense. Practically everyone was spoken of in past tense these days. “Watching you fight was insane. It almost looked like a dance.”
Keith didn’t look cocky or assured at the praise. He clearly knew how good he was, it almost seeming like it meant nothing to him. Just another fact of life. You ran into the dead walking on the street and Keith was a master swordsman. No biggie.
“I’m lucky if I’m half as good as she was,” Keith corrected Lance, sounding nostalgic. A small, soft smile graced his lips.
“I’m sure you are,” Lance said kindly, and then he was shooting a rotter that popped out from behind a car in the head, retrieving the arrow, and stepping out of the last of the car pile up. Ahead of them was more free road, and just at the curve of the road… “The exit!” Lance said excitedly, jabbing a finger in the distance. “That’s our exit!”
Keith shared Lance’s grin, and the two of them took off at a faster pace than before, excitement rejuvenating them, blinding their senses to their company, trailing carefully after them.
“You’re gonna love my friends,” Lance said excitedly as the two of them rounded the bend of the exit. “They’re both super-geniuses, first of all, so that’s always good during an apocalypse. And Hunk’s the nicest person on the entire planet — even before most people were zombies, I’m serious. And I think you’re really gonna get along with Pidge. She’s one of those people that you can just sit in silence with forever and it never feels awkward.”
Keith let him ramble, Lance sometimes catching smiles on his face as he did. Lance couldn’t help it. Talking about his friends was something that really got him going, you know? He could go on and on and on, as long as someone was willing to listen.
Soon, they emerged onto the next stretch of highway. There weren’t any cars too close by, except another pickup similar to before. This time Lance checked it more carefully, making sure there were no rotters camouflaged on the inside.
“They should be here soon,” Lance assured Keith, already on top of the truck and with his binoculars pressed to his eyes again. Keith didn’t say anything, but Lance felt the pickup shift when Keith climbed into the bed to take a seat. Lance copied him, plopping down on the roof with his elbows on his knees, his binoculars held firmly in his hands even as he lowered them.
He smiled down at Keith, though it threatened to falter when he caught Keith’s answering expression. He knew that expression.
“They’re not dead,” Lance assured him, and he saw the guilt erasing the hopelessness and pity that’d been on Keith’s face before. “They’re too careful for that. And they have Blue, besides. They’ll be here soon. You’ll see.”
Keith didn’t argue with him. “Blue?” he said, after a moment’s pause.
Lance smiled. “My truck,” he said happily. “I mean, I guess it’s our truck, technically, since we’re all living in it, but I’m the one who found her. Me and Blue have a bond.” Keith snorted, which Lance ignored, taking the higher road for once.
“Must be a pretty cool ride,” Keith commented idly. Lance neglected to tell him that whatever fancy schmancy truck he was imagining, wasn’t Blue. There were two old, worn seats up front, one for the driver and one for the passenger, and a whole lot of room in the back. Freezers lined one wall, currently used to store all their extra supplies, and the rest of the truck was just floor space, so they’d shoved a mattress in there. Yes, the three of them were living the height of luxury, driving around in an ice cream truck and actually getting to sleep in a bed at night.
Lance didn’t tell Keith any of this, though, figuring he’d get to see it for himself soon enough. Hopefully he didn’t mind spooning — now that there were four of them the bed would definitely be getting a little cramped.
They settled in to wait, the silence that fell between them for once not awkward or oppressive. It just felt comfortable, and Lance didn’t do anything to interrupt it as they sat there. He let his binoculars settle against his chest, seeing as he hadn’t spotted any movement anywhere around them, and went about twisting the handles back and forth, back and forth.
He’d always been a fidgeter. He just couldn’t sit still — something that was evident in his now bouncing knees, his tapping foot, his hands on the binoculars. Keith glanced at him a few times, cataloguing the movement, maybe, but he didn’t say anything, which was good. One good snap of, Can you knock it off?, would’ve had Lance stilling all over. And then the next however long amount of time would’ve been spent with Lance sitting there as still as possible, every ounce of concentration going towards making sure he didn’t start bouncing and fidgeting.
It’d already been well past noon, possibly bordering evening, when they’d arrived here and settled down. Now, the sun was steadily sinking through the sky, bringing dusk with it.
“Lance,” Keith said, breaking the silence that’d fallen between them. Lance didn’t turn his attention to his companion, though. He knew what he was going to say.
“We can’t stay out here.”
Lance gritted his teeth. “They’ll be here,” he assured Keith. “Any minute now.”
“You don’t know that,” Keith said. Not harshly, not cruelly. Just matter-of-fact.
“I do,” Lance argued. “They’ll be here.”
“And maybe we won’t be,” Keith said, gesturing all around them. Cars, forest, field. They were right out in the open, totally susceptible to anything that came along wanting to kill them. “We can’t stay here,” Keith repeated.
And Lance… Lance couldn’t accept that. Hunk and Pidge were like his family, now. And he couldn’t lose his family to an unknown fate a second time. He couldn’t leave, couldn’t risk missing Hunk and Pidge when they came along. He just couldn’t.
“Maybe you can’t,” he hissed bitterly, barely sparing a glance for Keith before putting his binoculars to his eyes again, staring desperately into the distance as if that would make the familiar ice cream truck finally appear on the horizon.
“You’re right,” Keith said, and the truck jostled as he stood up in the bed. Lance let his binoculars drop, trying to disguise the surprise he was feeling as he looked at Keith’s hardened expression. “I’m not staying here as zombie bait for two people who might never show up.”
Lance bristled, his breath catching in his lungs at the very notion that his friends might be dead. “They will,” he hissed.
“Yeah,” Keith scoffed. “Keep telling yourself that.” And then he jumped off the truck, turning a hardened look on Lance. “You’re really gonna stay here?”
Lance glared. “Yes.”
Keith shook his head. He was looking at Lance like he was crazy. “Your funeral,” he muttered, and then he hiked his bag up on his back, turned on his heel, and walked away. He headed towards the forest, making unease crawl all along Lance’s spine, just thinking of the horrors waiting for him in there.
Whatever. He wasn’t Lance’s problem anymore. He forced himself to keep his eyes off Keith as he disappeared from view, walking further and further into the forest.
Keith was right about one thing, Lance thought as he took to scanning his surroundings even more carefully than before. He couldn’t see anything, but that still didn’t shake that bit of unease lodged inside him, still convinced he wasn’t alone. He really was in danger, out here. Even more so, now that Keith was gone.
It didn’t matter though. It’d all be worth it when that familiar truck rumbled up beside Lance, his friends safe and apologetic inside.
With a sigh, Lance slung his bow over his lap, figuring it was better to have it just a little more accessible. He fiddled with an arrow, eyes constantly and anxiously trying to observe everything around him, as he settled in to wait.
It probably wasn’t the best idea to sharpen his arrows in the middle of the night — it wasn’t like he needed to draw any extra attention to himself, after all — but he couldn’t help it. Sitting there and doing nothing had him feeling even more restless, and Lance figured attracting a rotter or two was probably worth it if it meant getting rid of his unease. His arrows should kill ‘em pretty quick, anyway, given how sharp they now were.
Plus, saying it was the middle of the night was a bit of an exaggeration anyway. If time actually mattered anymore, Lance would guess it was probably around nine at night. Dark enough to feel unsafe and unsettled, but still just the tiniest bit light enough that you knew the total darkness had yet to come. Yay.
Lance’s excessive arrow sharpening wasn’t just due to inability to sit still, either, amplified with the anxiety he was now feeling in Keith’s absence. Because there was part of him that almost wanted to attract attention.
Okay, Lance knew that sounded insane, knew that sounded like a warning symptom in some sort of zombie apocalypse self-help book. Do you find yourself taking excessive risks? Toying with the idea of death? Well that’s just another symptom of zombie induced suicide ideation!
But really, Lance wasn’t trying to get himself killed. He just… couldn’t shake the feeling that something had been following him. All day. Like, ever since he’d been trekking his way through town.
Lance froze as he heard something. It sounded like shuffling. Was it coming from under the car? God, that was just a recipe for disaster. Either Lance hopped down now and tried to deal with it in the dark, or he waited until it was lighter out, hoping the rotter didn’t try to kill him before then.
Lance’s head whipped to the left, his bow up and an arrow drawn before his eyes could even find the source of the noise.
“Where are you, you little bastard?” he muttered to himself, searching frantically through the trees, his arm starting to ache where it held the bowstring. It was bad form, holding the string back like that. Much better to just pull it back and release all at once, after finding his target. But Lance was too hyped up on nerves to consider that, his eyes darting all through the dark trees, suddenly sure a storm of undead were about to pour out of them.
“Come on,” Lance urged, his arm shaking now. “Come on.”
Another crack of a branch snapping and Lance finally found it, the figure snaking through the trees, and he lined up his arrow between one second and the next, his fingers just starting to let go before he realized it wasn’t a deadhead — it was Keith.
With a frightened gasp, Lance jerked his bow to the side, his arrow flying wide and thunking into a tree somewhere to Keith’s right instead of into his head.
“Keith!” Lance exclaimed, probably too loudly for someone sitting practically defenseless in the middle of a road at night. “I almost shot you!”
Even from this distance, Lance could hear Keith scoff. “Yeah, I can see that!” he answered, before yanking the arrow out from where it was buried in the trunk of a tree and continuing through the forest at a faster pace. Lance almost couldn’t believe he was alive.
Logically, he knew the forest wasn’t likely teeming with zombies. The undead were where the living had died, and not many people had died in the woods, or close enough to wander into them. But forests had always represented the unknown, the horrors of the night, and Lance knew it’d be just his luck to sneak attacked by a zombie in them.
Keith came to a stop a good few feet from the truck, Lance’s arrow dangling between his fingers. He held it up, wiggling it a bit like a peace offering. Lance took it.
“You came back,” he pointed out.
“I did,” Keith answered.
“You’re a good person,” Keith said, after a moment’s pause. “You saved my life today. I guess… I just think you don’t deserve to die out here.”
Lance smiled. And then, forgetting about the shuffling he’d heard under the car, gestured Keith forward and said, “C’mon, get up here.”
Keith had taken barely half a step when something shot out from under the car, tackling Keith to the ground. Lance gasped, another arrow notched and aimed before—
“A dog?” Lance said incredulously.
“Shoot it!” Keith gasped. It was almost comical, his hands desperately holding back the dog that was trying desperately to lick his face, its tail wagging at hyper speed.
“Um, did you just ask me to shoot a dog, Keith?!”
“It could have rabies!”
“It doesn’t!” Lance said immediately, defending the poor thing, but he hopped off the truck regardless, swinging his bow back into its sling as he grabbed the dog’s scruff, holding it back so Keith could scramble to his feet. He had his sword out in the next moment. “Jesus, dude! Put that shit away!”
“It tried to attack me,” Keith said, panting, his sword angled at the dog still in Lance’s grasp, panting happily and wiggling in Lance’s hold.
“With kisses, maybe,” Lance insisted. “Have you never had a dog before?”
“No,” Keith said immediately, and Lance felt himself frown. Well, that was just totally sad. First a zombie apocalypse, and now Keith’s never even had a pet dog? Just when Lance had thought the world couldn’t get any worse.
“Just pet him!” Lance insisted, because it wasn’t every day you came across a living dog. You know, one that wasn’t covered in bites and about to drop dead any second.
“I’m not petting that thing,” Keith said, backing up towards the truck. Lance gasped, highly offended.
“Don’t call him that!” he said. “He can hear you!”
“He’s a dog!”
“Exactly why you should be petting him!”
Keith let out a frustrated noise and climbed onto the truck, well away from the excited animal. Lance released it, letting the dog do a good few laps around Lance’s legs, tail wagging happily. Lance made a cooing noise, unable to help it, and dropped to his knees, running his hands all over him.
“Lance,” Keith said, going unnoticed because uh, hello? Dog. There was a dog here. “Lance,” Keith tried again. “Get away from that thing, I’m serious.”
“Keith, are you scared of dogs?” Lance said abruptly. He stopped petting the dog in order to do so, which resulted in the dog jumping up and kissing all over Lance’s chin, making him laugh.
“Oh, gross,” Keith muttered. “You don’t know where that thing’s been.”
“Dog saliva is cleaner than human saliva,” Lance informed him matter-of-factly. “It’s a known fact.”
Keith grumbled something angrily, and Lance turned his attention back to the dog, feeling happier than he had in forever. All thoughts of his absent friends, of the zombies probably somewhere surrounding them, disappeared from his mind. That probably wasn’t actually a good thing, but it felt nice, not worrying for once.
“What’s your name, huh?” Lance asked the dog, scratching behind its ear. It barely wanted to concentrate on Lance, it seemed, head continually arching towards Keith. It whined low in its throat. “He wants you to pet him,” Lance said.
“No way in hell,” Keith muttered, sword still out and perched across his lap, as if he’d leap out of the truck and stab the dog dead should it threaten Lance in any way. How heroic.
“He’ll pet you eventually,” Lance assured the dog, his voice changing from its usual timbre to one much higher and babyish. The dog looked like a border collie, or maybe a mutt of one. Either way, it was cute as hell, and Lance decided he was in love with it.
When he climbed back into the bed of the truck, the dog happily followed him, and Lance snorted when Keith immediately scrambled away, climbing up onto the roof of the truck.
“You’re telling me you’re more scared of this dog than the zombies?” Lance demanded, looking up at Keith incredulously as the dog curled into his side, its head plopping down on his lap happily.
“You let me kill the zombies,” Keith muttered. “Just — go to sleep, Lance. I’ll take first watch.”
Lance grinned up at Keith, unashamedly ecstatic that Keith had come back to him. Staying up all night was definitely something he hadn’t been looking forward to, knowing his surveillance skills would suffer because of it. So Lance happily closed his eyes, shuffling around and getting a bit comfier in the bed of the truck as he did, murmuring an apology to the dog for disturbing him.
He arranged his bow beside him, a hand gripping it even as he closed his eyes, and finally let himself fall asleep.
Lance was shaken awake a good number of hours later. There was no way of knowing what time it was exactly, but Lance got the feeling Keith had let him sleep a little longer than he should have.
“Hey,” Lance croaked, sitting up and rubbing his eyes. It looked like Keith had shaken him awake with his foot, on which he wasn’t wearing a shoe. Lance had to fight back a smile, still not quite sure why he found that so endearing. He should be reprimanding Keith, of all things. What if a barrage of undead came? And they had to get up and run without notice?
“Will you be able to stay awake?” Keith asked, breaking Lance out of his internal Keith is bare foot tangent, looking exhausted himself.
“For sure,” Lance said. “You wanna switch spots?”
Keith shook his head. “I’ll just sleep up here,” he said.
Lance smirked. “I swear he won’t bite,” he said, plopping a hand on the sleeping dog and stroking his back. Keith glowered at him.
“Whatever,” he said, before pulling his backpack towards his head and plopping down onto it. He slept like that, curled up near the edge of the truck, his whole body facing Lance.
And so Lance took to observing. The terrain, of course, making sure no rotters were sneaking up on them while Keith slept. But then, it was kind of hard to observe only that. Like, Keith was just laying there, his fingers occasionally twitching in his sleep, or a certain one of his inhales louder than the others, and then Lance was looking at him instead.
Keith looked unfairly peaceful in his sleep. The kind of peaceful that made you think they weren’t living through their worst nightmares right now. He looked younger, his eyebrows losing their signature furrow and smoothing out instead. His lips were parted too, just barely, his eyelashes occasionally twitching against his cheeks as his eyes moved.
Lance hoped he was having a nice dream.
The hours passed slowly, though it wasn’t unbearable. Peaceful, more like. Lance wasn’t sure whether it was due to the location or just plain luck, but nothing came to kill them in the night. Better yet, Lance learned Keith talked in his sleep. Nothing of importance, just little mumbles here and there. Even so, it was enough to make Lance smile, his heart clenching painfully in his chest at the adorableness of it all.
He didn’t wake Keith as the sun rose, figuring he’d let him sleep for as long as possible. They had nothing but time, anyway.
The dog, which Lance figured they’d have to name sooner or later, woke with the sun, hoping off the truck and wandering into the neighboring field happily. Lance almost wanted to stop him, but he wasn’t about to follow the dog and leave Keith over here defenseless. Plus, he figured the animal probably knew what it was doing. Instincts, if not experience. It’d managed to live through this as long as Lance had, hadn’t it?
The sun slowly rose through the sky, bringing with it the feeling of relief. Lance no longer felt like anything had a chance of sneaking up on them, and he even got off the truck and checked under it, just to make sure there was really nothing around that could kill them.
It was about another hour before Keith woke up, his eyes blinking open drearily as he slowly became conscious.
“You shouldn’t have let me sleep so long,” was the first thing he said, although it came out all deep and croaky with sleep.
“Thank you for letting me sleep, Lance,” Lance said in falsetto. “Oh, you’re welcome Keith! Did you sleep well?”
Keith glared at him, though that didn’t exactly hide the way his lip twitched in amusement.
“Here,” Lance said, holding out the baggy of nuts to Keith. It was still the only food Lance had left. If Hunk and Pidge didn’t show up soon, he’d be facing a bigger problem than just lack of friends.
As Keith ate his meager breakfast, Lance plopped his backpack in front of him, unzipping it. He still had a good couple bottles of water, nice and clean from the water purifying drops he had in another pocket of his bag, and it was knowing he had plenty of water to spare that he allowed himself to waste some for brushing his teeth.
Keith stared at him with wide eyes as Lance revealed his toothbrush and toothpaste.
“Toothpaste…” Keith muttered, his gaze trailing from Lance’s hand to his face.
“Yeah, you want some?” Lance offered, holding the toothpaste out to Keith. “I don’t know if you have a toothbrush, but we’ve got a couple extra back on Blue—”
“I’ll use my finger,” Keith said hastily, and he snatched the tube out of Lance’s hand, put a good glob on his index, and shoved it into his mouth. Lance could relate.
Luckily, it didn’t seem like they were in too much danger of running out of basic necessities. Food was always scarce, sure, resulting in frequent trips to grocery stores or abandoned houses, but even when they couldn’t seem to find any food they usually managed to scrounge up a tube of toothpaste or a stick of deodorant. Admittedly, they weren’t the most sought-after things nowadays, and most people wouldn’t waste their time looking for them if they went into a store alone. Thankfully, Lance had always made his grocery runs with Pidge and Hunk in tow, meaning they never felt completely defenseless and could take their time because of it.
Lance offered Keith his water bottle after he finished scrubbing his mouth, and Keith spit over the edge of the truck. “Holy shit,” he said happily. “I didn’t know how badly I needed that.”
“It’ll be even better when we get you a toothbrush,” Lance assured him, and his smile changed targets when the dog suddenly emerged back from the field, Lance having half expected it to never return.
“Fuck,” Keith muttered bitterly. “I forgot about that dog.”
“Dude, I’m telling you, you don’t need to be scared of him,” Lance said, patting the truck and laughing when the dog hopped up right away. Keith stiffened but didn’t actually climb onto the roof this time. “He’s the nicest dog in the world. Just give him a pet!”
Keith looked wary, but he could obviously see that the dog wasn’t harming Lance. “Come on,” Lance encouraged, jerking his head towards the dog. Glaring fiercely, Keith put his hand out towards its face. He flinched when the dog turned, immediately licking his hand, but didn’t pull away, even giving it a good pat or two on the head.
“See?” Lance said happily, bumping his shoulder into Keith’s. “Kosmo’s nice.”
Keith blinked. “No,” he said. “No, don’t name it.”
“What? He needs a name!”
“You’ll get attached,” Keith said. “And then you’ll end up taking stupid risks for a dog.”
“It’s okay, Keith,” Lance said blithely, totally ignoring Keith’s reasoning. “I won’t tell anyone you’re afraid of dogs.”
“You don’t even have to worry!” Lance spoke over him loudly, standing up and raising his hands in the air. “Your secret’s totally safe with me.”
Keith let out a noise akin to a growl, but Lance just smiled at him. “Now, if you’ll excuse me,” he continued, “I really gotta go to the bathroom. Watch Kosmo for me?”
There was no answer other than Keith’s continued glower, but Lance just shot him a wink and hopped off the bed of the truck, walking towards the forest. And he was only in there for a minute or two, tops, but by the time he got back…
Lance’s heart stopped.
There Keith was, standing on the ground beside the truck, his katana dripping in blood. Lance’s breath caught in his throat as he stumbled back towards the road, not daring to believe it.
Keith couldn’t be that cruel, right? Sure, he was a little hardened, and glare-y, and grumpy seeming, but he wouldn’t… he wouldn’t just kill Kosmo, right?
And then Kosmo came prancing into view, circling Keith’s legs and wagging his tail happily. Keith flinched a little, but he glanced down at the dog, offering it a tentative pat on the head before ducking down, presumably to clean his sword.
When Lance reached the road, it was to find a rotter with its head stabbed through laying beside the truck, Keith wiping his sword clean on its shirt.
“Where’d it come from?” Lance asked, making Keith startle a bit, having not realized he was back yet.
“Wandered right out from the field,” Keith said, pointing with his sword. Well, that confirmed a fear of Lance’s. Great.
“Sorry you had to deal with it on your own,” Lance said, leaning up against the truck. Keith just shrugged.
“It’s no big deal,” he said. And then, “The dog ran right up to it when it came out of the field. I had to kill it before it could bite him.”
Lance’s mouth dropped open, though it slowly closed again as Lance was unable to hold back a grin. “Keeeiith!” he sang, stepping forward to sling his arm around Keith’s shoulders, who immediately tried to shove him off. “You protected Kosmo?”
Keith huffed. “You would’ve thrown a fit if he was dead when you got back.”
“You protected Kosmo for me?” Lance corrected, and Keith scoffed, ignoring Kosmo who was still begging for pets at his side. He was clearly obsessed with Keith, despite Keith not returning the feeling.
The rest of their morning was spent similarly in the bed of the truck. They didn’t dare leave despite Keith mentioning a river he’d found last night, wandering in the forest alone. What Lance wouldn’t give to submerge himself in a body of water… But he couldn’t. What if Pidge and Hunk showed up just after he left? And assumed he wasn’t coming? Or thought he’d already been and gone, thinking he’d imagined the worst and moved on?
He couldn’t have that. Couldn’t risk losing them.
So they stayed put. Keith didn’t bring up the fact that if Lance’s friends didn’t show up, they’d have to decide what to do, sooner or later. And Lance didn’t bring it up either. He spent most of his free time playing with Kosmo, trying to teach him tricks.
Hours passed. This time it was Keith who broke out some of his rations — dried fruit, thank God, a nice change from all the cashews Lance had been eating over the past few days — and they passed one of Lance’s water bottles back and forth in slow sips. Lance reorganized his backpack while Keith cleaned his sword, the both of them scarcely interrupting the quiet that’d fallen between them.
“I know they’re not dead,” Lance said into the silence, making Keith look up from where he’d slowly been inching a cashew towards Kosmo, who didn’t look interested.
“I didn’t say they were,” Keith said quietly, looking up at Lance.
“You were thinking it,” Lance muttered. His bow let out a twang as he plucked the string, restless. He’d need to wax it soon, but he’d left his bowstring wax back on Blue. An unwaxed string would be the least of his problems if his friends didn’t show up, though.
“If you say they’re alive, then I’ll believe you,” Keith said quietly. “There’s a lot of crafty people out here.”
“They’re not crafty,” Lance said. “Or, they don’t need to be, ‘cause they’re really smart.”
“Then there’s probably a good reason they’re not here yet,” Keith said. Was he comforting Lance? Was that what this was? “They could’ve found a really good haul and needed to stock up,” Keith said. “Or maybe they saw some people and decided to help them.” Lance nodded along listlessly, trying to make himself believe Keith even though he knew he couldn’t. The bottom line was, they never would’ve been late to their rendezvous point by choice. If there was really such a good haul, they would’ve gone back for it after getting Lance. And although Lance knew they were good people, the state of the world had made them untrusting. Back when the three of them had seen people far more often, they’d been kind to people who had fucked them over on too many occasions had fucked them over. Now they weren’t usually so trusting.
“Yeah, maybe,” Lance finally agreed with a sigh. He wasn’t expecting it, which maybe made it all the more touching when Keith reached over and punched him lightly in the shoulder. He didn’t seem like a very touchy kind of guy, which probably explained the dude-bro shoulder punch, but Lance appreciated it all the same. He smiled, letting Keith return it before he looked down to his lap again.
They’ll be here. They were held up for some reason, sure, but they were Hunk and Pidge. If taking as many classes as they were legally allowed to take in one semester hadn’t killed them, then a few zombies certainly weren’t about to do them in either.
That’s what Lance kept telling himself as time passed with his eyes trained in the distance, his entire body slowly growing more tense as he silently begged them to show up, for them to just be alive. Two more rotters stumbled out of the field to their right as the sun inched across the sky, each of them going down easily with an arrow in the head. Lance was even alerted to their presence a little bit before he heard them himself, Kosmo’s ears perking up and his head lifting before Lance caught sight of the grasses moving unnaturally in the wind.
It was just a half hour after Lance downed the second zombie, Keith having finally succeeded in feeding Kosmo a cashew (which he spit right back out), when everything changed.
“Lance,” Keith said, his voice expectant, his hand on Lance’s arm. Lance looked up at him, away from the fingernail he’d been cleaning with the head of an arrow. “Look.”
Lance followed Keith’s insistent jab towards the horizon, choking on air as his heart went ahead and shoved itself up his throat. It took everything in him not to jump up and scream for the attention of the passengers in Blue, but as it was he still jumped up, waving his arms wildly from atop the bed of the truck as the familiar ice cream van weaved through the few abandoned cars in the distance.
“Oh my God,” Lance was saying lowly, over and over again. His gaze kept jumping from the truck to Keith, the smile on his face so big it actually hurt his cheeks. “They’re here, Keith!”
“I see that,” Keith said, but he was smiling too, and he stood up beside Lance, not waving with him but just standing there as support. And Lance couldn’t help it — he was right there, and Lance was so excited, every fiber of his being having been so doused in worry and anxiety — he pulled Keith into a hug. It was brief, with Lance jumping up and down as he hugged him, Keith not even getting the chance to hug him back before Lance had released him, jumping in place instead.
Kosmo had no idea what was going on but he was just as excited as Lance, running around him and Keith and jumping up and down from the bed of the truck. He didn’t bark at all the commotion like Lance would’ve expected him to, but then again, he must’ve learned as much as Lance had in these past years. He knew excessive sound would draw the dead.
“I can’t believe they’re here,” Lance said giddily, a laugh slipping out of him as Hunk’s hand stuck out the window and waved wildly, Lance responding with enthusiasm. Could they waste excessive noise, Lance didn’t doubt Hunk would be laying on the horn in excitement.
After waiting all night and day for his friends to arrive, watching them drive over that last strip of road shouldn’t have felt like any time at all, but Lance could’ve sworn hours dragged by in the minute it took for Hunk to get around all the cars and speed down the last stretch of the highway. The ice cream truck squealed to a stop beside the truck Keith and Lance had made camp on. Lance jumped off the side at the same time as Blue’s passenger door slammed open.
All Lance saw of PIdge was a tiny blur before she was barreling into his chest, making Lance wheeze as much as he laughed, squeezing her tight and picking her up into his arms as he spun her around, shoving his face into her hair. And then Lance really couldn’t breathe because Hunk had hauled both Lance and Pidge into his arms, squeezing them tight and making them groan.
“Thank God you guys are here,” Lance said, squeezing tightly onto anything he could reach. “Fuck, I thought you were dead!” At that, there was a soft scoff from nearby, and Lance opened his eyes to see Keith standing a few feet away, his arms crossed. Sure, Lance might’ve told him he was sure his best friends weren’t dead only an hour ago, but that was just bravado. He’d still been panicking on the inside.
“Pfft, and break our suicide pact?” Pidge joked, finally peeling herself out of Lance’s arms to stand back and look up at him. Lance laughed, loud and long and full of relief, Hunk still hugging him from behind. He wheezed as Hunk leaned backward, his arms tight around Lance’s stomach and Lance’s legs kicking in the air as he was lifted up.
“Hunk,” he managed around his probably broken ribs. “Hurting… me.”
“Sorry!” Hunk said, putting him back down and patting his hair down apologetically. “I just missed you, buddy.”
“Back at ya, big guy!” Lance said, turning to see Hunk with watery eyes. “But guys, let me introduce you to Keith,” Lance said, drawing his friends’ attention — apparently for the first time — to Keith, who suddenly looked very awkward, put on the spot. “We met at my old house and hiked up here together. Keith, this is Hunk and Pidge,” Lance introduced.
“Hi,” Keith said, lifting a hand in a small wave. Oh, great. It seemed stoic, silent Keith was back. He wasn’t shy, was he?
“Hi,” both Pidge and Hunk returned, sounding relatively wary.
“Oh! And before I forget!” Lance said hastily, drawing everyone’s attention away from Keith, who looked appreciative. “This is Kosmo!” Lance gestured grandly at Kosmo, who pranced forward and licked his fingers.
“Oh my God,” Pidge said, followed by, “We have a dog!”
“A-are we sure it’s safe?” Hunk said immediately, keeping his distance as Pidge fell to her knees in front of Kosmo, accepting kisses to the face as she giggled and cooed and stroked his fur. “I mean, it could have rabies, right? Or like, what if it was bitten? What if it’s a zombie dog?”
“It’s not a zombie dog,” Lance insisted. “And he doesn’t have rabies!” he added, directing this at Keith more than Hunk, who seemed amused. Stupid Keith with the same stupid worries as Hunk.
“A face this cute couldn’t have rabies!” Pidge said, tugging on Kosmo’s ears. “Isn’t that right? Isn’t that right?!” she said to him.
Lance cleared his throat, looking between Pidge and Hunk, who were still petting Kosmo and anxiously standing a few feet back respectively. “So…” he said slowly, glancing over at Blue, who seemed to be in good shape. “Why were you guys so late, anyway? Did you run into trouble?”
“Not the trouble you’re thinking,” Pidge scoffed, finally standing up in order to cross her arms grumpily. “Honestly, I can handle rotters better than the shit we actually had to put up with.”
“What? What’d you have to put up with?!” Lance demanded, looking between his friends worriedly and trying to catalogue any injuries.
“Well we were clearing all these cars, right?” Hunk began, looking at Pidge as if for backup. “I mean, there was this major pile up on the highway and we had to move a bunch of ‘em, and of course there were a bunch of zombies around too.”
“Yeah, but that wasn’t even the worst part,” Pidge interrupted angrily. “Just when we finally got a path cleared, we got jumped by a gang.”
Lance blinked. “Gangs… still exist?”
“Apparently,” Pidge said furiously. “And then they made us clear a path for them on a different highway!” she fumed.
“How many of them were there?”
“Only a couple, but we think they were just on a supply run for wherever they set up base,” Hunk said. “They had all these massive guns and threatened to kill us if we didn’t clear the road for them.”
“Yeah, and they definitely could’ve done it faster than us,” Pidge scoffed. “I mean, do you see how tiny I am?!”
“Well, yeah, but you usually yell at me for pointing that out,” Lance joked.
“Whatever,” Pidge muttered. “It was the worst. I’m just glad you had the sense to wait for us here — I have no idea what we would’ve done otherwise.”
“Me neither,” Lance said wryly. “So… should we get going?” he prompted.
Hunk’s easygoing expression went strained, the skin by his eyes tightening minisculely. “Um… all of us?”
“Yes,” Lance said firmly. He understood Hunk’s wariness, of course. He had just been jumped by a gang, and that certainly wasn’t the first time people had fucked them over more than the zombies, but Lance wasn’t about to leave Keith behind. Not after he’d come back for him last night. “Kosmo’s potty-trained.”
Lance knew damn well that Hunk hadn’t been talking about Kosmo, and Hunk knew that Lance knew.
“Okay,” Hunk said, non-confrontational enough to take Lance’s answer for what it was. Plus, he trusted Lance, no doubt. Had Pidge and Hunk shown up with a random new person Lance probably wouldn’t have been too happy, but he would’ve at the very least trusted their reasoning for taking them on.
“You want me to drive?” Lance offered, already holding out his hand for the keys. They’d learned the hard way to never leave their keys in the car. “You and Pidge can sleep in the back. Keith can help me keep watch.”
“That actually… doesn’t sound too bad,” Hunk said, relieved. “You ready to go, Pidge?”
“Huh?” Pidge said, distracted. She was laying on the ground, not really trying to hold Kosmo back as he showered her with kisses. “I mean, yep, yes! All ready!”
So, with a smile at Keith and a jerk of his head, Lance led the way back to the car, Keith following with a wary scowl and his hands shoved in his pockets. He’d probably loosen up around Hunk and Pidge after a good couple of conversations. Or maybe he only bonded with people after fighting zombies with them. In which case, it still wouldn’t be too long before he loosened up, probably.
“Thanks Lance,” Hunk said appreciatively, ruffing his hair as he passed him and climbing into the back of the ice cream truck, Kosmo on his tail. Pidge followed him, offering a small smile to Keith on instinct, who looked taken aback, and followed after her, though he slid into the passenger seat instead of venturing to the back. Lance, on the other hand, plopped happily into the driver’s seat. He never felt more at home than when he was sitting there.
“You never told me Blue was an ice cream truck,” Keith muttered, shooting Lance an amused look, his eyebrows raised.
“Don’t be jealous, Keith,” Lance joked, turning her on and listening to that beautiful hum of the engine. Ah, the wonders of having engineer friends in the midsts of an apocalypse.
Lance’s hand fell on the stick, switching it into gear as he started down the road, eyes scanning the sides for directional road signs and zombies alike.
“A stick-shift, huh?” Keith said conversationally. “Not many people can drive those these days.”
“Not many people these days,” Lance muttered instinctively. Before, “Wait, can you?.”
“Yeah,” Keith said casually, and something in Lance bubbled up. Probably happiness. Pidge couldn’t drive stick, and though Lance and Hunk kept telling themselves they were gonna find the time to teach her, they still hadn’t managed to get around to it. Lance couldn’t help thinking it’d be nice to have another driver on rotation.
“Thank God,” Lance said, sparing him a glance. “Only me and Hunk know how.”
Keith gave Lance a look he couldn’t quite describe, but it turned into a soft, small smile. Lance smiled back, gaze flicking between him and the open stretch of road before them.
“So,” he said, voice cheery. “Wanna play I-Spy?”
“Does this look like a good place to sleep?” Lance called, slowing down right in the middle of the road. It wasn’t like it mattered nowadays. It was doubtful anyone would come across them, and even then they could just go around.
Keith glanced around carefully. It seemed like a good enough place to him. This stretch of road had virtually nothing surrounding it. There were trees in the far distance, and grass on either side of the road, but it was nowhere near tall enough for anything to be hiding in.
Hunk wandered up from the back of the truck, having only been back there for an hour or so. He’d taken over driving after they’d all eaten lunch — much better options than the meager supplies Keith and Lance had been sharing — and then Lance had reclaimed the wheel after their small dinner. Keith had been thankful when Pidge had gone to join Hunk in the back too. He hadn’t been looking forward to being forced to sit in the back alone with him, especially since it seemed like he didn’t particularly trust Keith. Not that Keith felt any differently, really. He only trusted Lance.
That was kind of funny, wasn’t it? That he was trusting someone so soon after he’d promised himself he wouldn’t trust anyone anymore. It wasn’t worth the risk, to help someone out and end up far worse off than before. Then again, it wasn’t always the strangers who fucked you over.
Keith shoved those thoughts away, not in the mood to replay the pathetic events of his pathetic life over again. At least things were different now. Besides, Lance was a stranger, and he’d saved Keith’s life.
“Seems good to me,” Hunk said, leaning between Keith and Lance’s seats. Lance nodded decisively, putting the car in park right there in the middle of the road and dusting his hands off theatrically.
God, Keith really hoped he wasn’t making a mistake in trusting him.
Then again, he’d hardly have to care whether or not Lance was trustworthy by this time tomorrow, wouldn’t he? Lance would drop him off in the outskirts of the next city and Keith would set off on his own, hoping to find Shiro in a form that wasn’t a walking corpse. It’d been forever since he’d talked to him, and even longer since they’d seen each other in person, but back when Shiro had been his foster brother, only his second foster family, he’d always said that Keith could go to him for anything, anytime. He’d promised that Keith leaving for another foster family wouldn’t change that — that they were still brothers.
But it was hard not to want to trust people. Keith hadn’t realized how much he didn’t like being alone until he was suddenly with company. He’d thought he’d be irritated by how consistently Lance managed to talk, but instead he found himself entertained, holding back scoffs and snorts at the comments Lance made and the stories he told. He wanted to keep him at arm’s length, but it didn’t seem feasible.
Clear evidence of this was Keith going back to him last night, knowing he’d be much safer sleeping high up in one of the trees in the forest. He’d barely been up there for thirty minutes before he’d been climbing back down, his imagination suddenly overactive, having managed to convince himself that Lance was dying out there on the road without him.
Maybe this was just what happened in an apocalypse. You’re by yourself for some time and then, when you find yourself no longer alone, you latch. You find yourself trusting when you know you shouldn’t, longing to stay together when you’d convinced yourself you were fine on your own. Human nature, Keith guessed, could explain it. Although he wasn’t quite sure if that also explained why he couldn’t help thinking Lance looked way too attractive for a man covered in as much blood and sweat and dirt as he was.
“Did you find that toothbrush?” Lance said, twisting around in his seat to look at Hunk, who’d disappeared into the back again.
“I did!” Pidge called, which was immediately followed by something flying through the air and smacking into the windshield.
“Thanks,” Lance said, deadpan, and he gave Keith a look filled with as much amusement as aggravation before reaching for the toothbrush — still in its plastic wrapper — and holding it out to Keith. “Told ya we had extras,” he said.
“Oh,” Keith said, blinking down at it in surprise. Honestly, he’d forgotten about that conversation, but now he felt like every nerve inside of him was vibrating with excitement. Clean teeth. He hadn’t thought to grab a toothbrush when he’d left his house all those months ago — hadn’t thought to grab anything really, in his panic — and now he was practically salivating at the thought of having that minty toothpaste in his mouth again. “Thank you,” he finally managed, dredging up his manners that’d been buried around the same time as his mom.
“No problem,” Lance said, before sliding out of the driver’s seat and standing up to stretch. He groaned, arms lifted above him and hands splayed against the ceiling of the truck. Keith’s eyes hopelessly traced over his body, from the line of his neck to his battered sneakers on the floor. “Hope you like to cuddle.”
Keith blinked. Looked up from Lance’s shoes. Did he imagine that?
“What?” he said, and Lance jerked his head towards the back, where Hunk and Pidge were talking quietly, sitting on the mattress with their backs against the wall.
“One bed,” Lance said. “Don’t worry, I won’t make you sleep next to them just yet. You can spoon me if you want,” he added, waggling his eyebrows at Keith sarcastically. Keith frowned. There was no way he was sleeping in that bed with them.
“I think I’ll just… sleep here,” Keith said slowly, sinking into the passenger seat a bit more as if that would solidify his decision.
“What?! When we have a perfectly good bed right there?” Lance demanded. It was a pretty good bed, Keith could admit. He’d sat on it earlier with Lance and Kosmo when Hunk had been driving. There were an impressive amount of pillows scattered all over it, and someone had even taken the time to make the bed.
“Yes,” Keith said. He couldn’t imagine sleeping in a bed with them. It was probably cramped enough as it was, and Keith would probably go insane, pressed up against near strangers like that. Even Lance… Keith couldn’t imagine cuddling with him being anything but overwhelming, despite his unfortunate attraction to him.
“Suit yourself, man,” Lance said sadly, shaking his head. It was a while longer before any of them went to bed, the trio Keith now found himself with in the possession of quite a few nightly routines. They all brushed their teeth, sure, but then Hunk started meditating, and Pidge pulled out a journal. Lance, on the other hand, asked Pidge how they were doing on batteries, albeit quietly. Hunk didn’t appear to notice, anyway, and Keith probably wasn’t supposed to be paying attention either, but he was.
“Pretty good,” Pidge said, after opening one of the freezer’s stock full of random supplies. “How come?”
“Just wondering,” Lance said, but Keith could see the walkie-talkie sticking out of his back pocket from his vantage point.
Lance started to turn, then, and Keith slammed himself back into the passenger seat, facing forward. He almost expected Lance to come back up to the front with him, but instead he heard the door behind the passenger seat slide open.
“Where ya goin’?” Keith heard Hunk say.
“Just gonna go to the bathroom.”
“Want me to go with you?”
“Nah, I got it.”
“Okay. Watch out for zombies, will you?”
The door slammed back shut and Keith peered into the side-view mirror. Lance stepped out from the truck, then leaned against the side of it. He pulled the walkie-talkie out of his pocket, turned it on, and spoke. Keith didn’t know what he was expecting, but it wasn’t for Lance to reach up to the channel knob and speak again, his expression growing tighter and tighter every time he repeated the action. That’s when Keith remembered.
We prefer evens.
I… I think she means stations.
He was trying to contact his family. Keith swallowed, trying not to feel pity. He hated it when other people pitied him, after all, but he could hardly help it. All of this… it was just kind of hopeless, wasn’t it?
Sure, that note Lance had found had said they were staying in the state, but figuring they were still even alive, what were the chances of their radio being on at the same time as Lance’s? What were the chances that, even if they were on the same station at the same time, they were close enough for their walkie talkies to actually connect?
Still, it wasn’t like Keith was about to tell Lance any of that. Hell, he probably already knew himself.
For some reason, Keith couldn’t draw his eyes away. He just kept watching, until Lance finally turned the walkie-talkie off. Keith watched as he put the device back into his pocket, and he watched as Lance slowly lowered himself to the ground, his head buried in his knees and his shoulders shaking. He watched when Lance came back into the truck, too, a smile on his face and his hands fashioned into finger guns in Hunk’s direction, claiming he’d just had ‘the shit of a century, dude’.
He caught Keith’s eye and smiled at him too, obviously oblivious to the fact that Keith had just seen the whole thing. Still, if he didn’t want to talk about it…
Keith smiled back. And he repeated Lance’s sentiment when he called goodnight, curling up a little tighter in his seat and ignoring him when Lance offered to ‘come spoon’ once again. It took him a while to fall asleep, uneasy sleeping in a new place surrounded by strangers, but he figured he wasn’t in too much danger. They were in a pretty good location, after all, and they’d taken pre-measures to make sure they wouldn’t be attacked in their sleep even still. All the doors were chained shut, thanks to Hunk’s efforts, and everyone still had their weapons on them too, just in case.
Keith found himself staring out the windshield for a long while, his eyes tracing over the horizon for any sign of movement. Maybe it was the lack of it and the false sense of security that came with that that finally allowed Keith to fall asleep, curled up tight in the passenger chair.
“Rise and shine, amigos!”
Keith jerked awake with a gasp, ignoring Lance’s chuckle from somewhere beside him and blinking around at his surroundings tiredly. The sun was up, though not too high, and Pidge and Hunk were both grumbling in the back, which was similar to how Keith was feeling.
Still, he got up along with the rest of them, failing to hold back a wince when he stood and everything ached. One hand reached up to rub his neck, which twinged, as he unchained the door behind the passenger seat and slipped outside. The air was chilly, making Keith glad they’d had the walls of the ice cream truck to shield them, and he just breathed in the air for a minute as he tried to stretch and wake up.
It was now obvious that sleeping upright for an entire night had been a horrible idea. Keith tried to hide how sore he felt, not wanting Lance to tell him off for not accepting his offer to sleep in the bed in the first place, though it was certainly difficult with how every movement seemed to remind his back of the fact that it was in pain. A box of Cheerios was passed around for breakfast, each of them taking a couple handfuls, and then they were back on the road, Hunk driving this time.
“Where are you going, again?” Lance asked, stretched out on the bed with a mountain of pillows propped up behind him, his hand continually petting Kosmo. Every couple minutes, the dog scooted a little along the bed, seeming to get closer to Keith, but he was keeping him back with a glare. Keith was sat on the floor beside the mattress, his back against the freezers and his knees pulled up to his chest, his shoes sitting beside him on the floor.
“Arlington,” Keith said. “I’ll recognize the exit when we get to it and you guys can drop me off there.”
Lance blinked. “You… don’t want us to go with you?”
“There’s no reason for you to risk your lives for someone you don’t know,” Keith said shortly. “Besides, you’re all probably trying to get somewhere. DC, maybe?” Right before the Silence there’d been tons of rumors about DC, about how it was zombie-free and how there were safe-holds and how someone there was coming up with a vaccine. Keith was surprised people still believed that shit.
Lance shook his head. “Nah,” he said. “My mom never woulda gone to DC, and I’m trying to find my family, so…” he trailed off for a moment, his eyes faraway before he shook his head. “Besides, Pidge and Hunk are keeping an eye out for their families too. Or even just a good place to settle down for a while, you know?”
Keith nodded slowly, despite not knowing. Not really. How could anyone stay in one place these days? What if you stayed too long and found yourself surrounded? Couldn’t escape?
“Then there you have it,” Keith said quietly. “We’ll split up at Arlington.”
He ignored Lance’s frown, looking away when the other boy’s mouth opened. He wasn’t interested in some pitiful invitation to stay. Especially when it was pretty clear that he didn’t fit in here. He had never really fit in anywhere, to be honest, and that was when there were a whole lot more people to try to fit in with. Even with all those options, he’d only ever really clicked with one person, and now that person might be dead.
About thirty minutes later, Keith stood and made his way to the front, recognizing their surroundings. He told Hunk which exit they’d be taking, and responded tentatively to the grin Pidge sent him. After that, he was plopping back in his spot across from Lance, who had taken out Pidge’s sudoku book and was making an attempt at completing one, a pencil spinning between his fingers and his tongue poking out from between his lips.
“Why do you do that?” Lance said suddenly.
“What?” Keith asked, looking up to find Lance’s pencil pointed towards his pair of shoes.
“That,” Lance emphasized. “You always take your shoes off.”
Perhaps inexplicably, Keith blushed. It was just a thing he did. He never felt comfortable when he was wearing shoes, alright?
“I don’t know…” Keith said slowly, but he glanced over at them, feeling like he needed to put them back on.
Lance frowned, clearly dissatisfied with the answer, but he didn’t say anything more of it, as Hunk was calling out, “Hey Keith, is this the right exit?” from up front.
It was, so they took it and slowed down appropriately, maneuvering around the two abandoned cars in the exit lane as they did. Lance came up to stand beside Keith, the two of them holding onto the seats as they rumbled down the road.
“Looks pretty abandoned,” Lance commented. Everywhere looked pretty abandoned these days, but Keith got what he meant. There were barely any cars, and even though they were in a small city, it didn’t appear to be packed with the dead. There were a few ambling along the ends of the streets, turning their attention towards the movement of the ice cream truck, but it wasn’t like what Keith had been expecting.
It gave him hope. Which sucked, honestly. He could feel it bubbling up in his chest, the thought of coming across Shiro’s apartment and finding him, or a note from him, when in reality he was probably one of the dead on the street. It would only hurt more, now, when he didn’t find him there. Even so, Keith couldn’t help it. Couldn’t help the nervous anticipation jittering inside of him, adrenaline building in his veins at the thought of finding Shiro’s apartment, opening the door…
“Where we goin’?” Lance asked.
Keith glanced at him. “Aren’t you dropping me off here?”
“The city doesn’t seem too crowded,” Lance said casually. “I think it’d probably be safer to just drop you off at their apartment, you know?”
Keith opened his mouth to protest, but Pidge was already leaning forward in her seat. “Go there,” she said, directing Hunk. And then, “Do you know the address, Keith? We have a map in here somewhere.”
“I, uh… Yeah,” Keith managed, overwhelmed and possibly a bit relieved. He didn’t have to be alone with his thoughts just yet. Didn’t want to have to think about what had happened to Shiro in the months since the Silence.
With Pidge’s help, Keith found Shiro’s address on the map. He’d never actually been to his apartment before. He hadn’t even seen him since the Shiroganes had stopped fostering him all those years ago, but they’d kept in contact, solely thanks to Shiro.
“Well that looks promising,” Hunk muttered sarcastically. Keith’s heart dropped into his stomach. The outside of the building Shiro may or may not still be living in was absolutely surrounded by rotters. They hadn’t heard the ice cream truck’s engine over the sound of their own groaning and moaning. Their fingers were scraping against the bricks of the building, hands banging against windows and doors, certain adventurous zombies trying to scale the walls but ultimately failing with their weak and rotting limbs.
At least Keith knew there was something inside.
“Jesus,” Lance said, a hand on Hunk’s shoulder now instead of the seat. “What do we do?”
“Leave,” Keith said. “You’ve brought me far enough. Don’t risk your lives for me.”
“Nobodies risking their lives,” Lance said loudly. “And we’re not leaving you either. Look, I know you don’t wanna hear this, but the person you’re looking for might not even be here. At least if that were to happen… we’d still be here for you.”
Keith wanted to answer. Retort, maybe. But he could feel a lump in his throat and he didn’t really like his chances of trying to talk around it. Lance was right, anyway. Keith had no idea why he was offering to let him stick around with them, but if Keith really had no other options… Well, it was almost that or die. Especially if Shiro really wasn’t in this building.
Finally, he managed a nod. When he looked back up from his feet, he expected to witness the end of some kind of nonverbal argument. A how dare you invite him to stay with us?! kind of one. Instead, he was just greeted by three determined gazes, gears obviously turning in everybody’s heads.
“So what do we do?” Pidge prompted. “No way we’re getting through the front doors, not even if Lance had a hundred arrows.”
“We’ll have to find another way in,” said Lance. “Hunk? Think there’ll be some sort of sewer/basement entrance kind of deal going on?”
Hunk shook his head slowly. “No,” he said. “Yeah, no, these buildings look too new, they wouldn’t have added that kind of entrance in the layout.”
“Damn,” said Lance. “All right. All right, okay! What if we go in through a window? Like, go to the building next door, throw a rope over, and climb across?”
Hunk looked queasy. Pidge thoughtful. “It just might work,” she said.
“Really?” Lance exclaimed. “Let’s do it!
No one really liked the idea of it, but no one could think of anything better, either, and so it was with Lance’s plan in mind that they went to park the truck about half a block away, just to make sure it wouldn’t get swarmed with the dead. They all made sure they had a good deal of things before leaving the truck, each of them putting on their backpacks filled with emergency supplies of food and water, just in case.
Pidge armed herself with an array of knives strapped to her belt, meanwhile Hunk seemed content with using several tools as weapons, including a crowbar and a sledgehammer. Lance strapped on his trusty bow, and Keith slung his katana in its sheath onto his back.
“Stay,” Lance said for the third time as they tried to exit the truck. Kosmo didn’t seem to like the idea of staying, though, and he ignored Lance a third time as he continued to follow after them.
“Just let him come along,” Keith said finally. “He’s going to do whatever he wants, anyway.”
“Ugh!” Lance groaned, but he stopped trying to get the dog to do what it didn’t want to do, letting Kosmo follow them as they started down the street. They ran into barely any rotters on the first few streets; the ones that they did encounter were taken down easily with Keith’s katana and Hunk’s hammer. The dead started to grow more and more concentrated the nearer they got to Shiro’s apartment building, a few of them having broken off from the hoard and started wandering away, which was when Pidge had to pull out her knives, Lance walking a step or so behind them with his bow in his hand, though they didn’t want him to use his arrows unless he really had to. Stopping to collect them would only slow them down, make them more vulnerable.
“Here,” Hunk said, nodding at the building they’d decided on. The windows didn’t seem too far from the ones of Shiro’s apartment building, and the door around the back remained relatively unaffected by the dead. Lance was the last one in, standing a few feet back and surveying their surroundings carefully as he waved everyone in in front of him. Keith took the lead, his fingers secure around his sword as he stalked carefully through the dingy hallways of the back of the building, his every nerve on edge just waiting for a zombie to jump out of a doorway or something.
Luckily, nothing happened to jump out at them. They managed to make it all the way to the fifth floor, which they figured was a good enough place to enact their plan.
It was easy work, unsticking the window from its frame, with Hunk on their side, as he made what surely would’ve been a lot of pushing and pulling for Keith look easy, popping the window out entirely. There was no screen, so they immediately set to work, Hunk’s bag on the floor at their feet and each of them pulling handfuls of thick rope out of it. They were lucky Lance, Pidge, and Hunk were such hoarders when it came to materials harbored in the ice cream truck.
They worked in silence, twisting ropes together to make them more sturdy and tying them end to end, as they didn’t have any one piece long enough to reach from one building to the next.
“All right,” Lance said, stepping up closer to the window. Keith noticed him look down, likely taking in the horrible growling mass below them, before he cleared his throat and straightened up. “Here goes nothing.” He pulled the string of his bow back, an arrow notched, and let loose. The arrow flew so fast it was a blur, hitting the window opposite them dead center, a shatter echoing in the air before them. But while the window shattered, the arrow fell to the ground, tail over point until it was lost in the number of rotters below them.
“Aw man,” Lance said weakly, a hurt noise slipping between his lips as he leaned out the window, looking down for his arrow fruitlessly.
“I’m sorry, Lance,” Hunk muttered from behind him. “We’ll find more soon, all right?”
Lance nodded, though he didn’t look any more assured. Keith wondered how often he’d heard that promise. He couldn’t help feeling uneasy himself, too. Now that he thought about it, he’d never seen Lance with any weapon other than his bow. Didn’t know if he even had another one on him. And now he had one less projectile, one less thing to keep him safe. He wondered how Lance felt.
“Let’s get moving,” Lance said suddenly, straightening up and swinging his bow over his back. He had the rope in his hands a moment later, and he looked to the rest of them for help. “How’re we gonna do this? We need the rope to stay up somehow.”
“Look,” Pidge said, pointing. Inside the room opposite them, there appeared to be a wooden wardrobe. “Do you think you could get an arrow through the door?”
Lance looked. Thought. “Yeah,” he said assuredly. “Not all the way through, but past the head, I’m pretty sure.”
“Good,” Pidge said. And then, “Mind wasting another arrow? I promise I’ll help you sharpen it later.”
Lance grumbled but didn’t hesitate, letting Keith tie a complicated and secure knot on the arrow before he took aim. This time when he shot it, the rope flew with it, zooming between the buildings and thunking well into the wardrobe. Lance gave it a few good, hard tugs, but the rope didn’t budge.
“Should be good,” Lance assured them. “I’ll just climb across real quick, see if there’s anyone in the building, and then—”
Lance didn’t get to finish. All three of them interrupted him at once, loudly.
“You’re not going,” Keith said, Pidge nodding vigorously beside him. “I’m the one who wanted to come here, it’s my friend who’s on the other side, and I’m the one who should crawl across.”
Pidge stopped nodding.
“Obviously I’m the one who should do it,” she scoffed.
“What?!” Keith said, in unison with Hunk and Lance. Pidge glared at them.
“Don’t be idiots,” she snapped. “I’m the lightest one here. If it’s gonna be safest for any of us to go, it’s me. I’m the least likely to pull that arrow out of the wood.”
“Yeah, and you’re also the least likely to have any of us agree on you going across,” Lance scoffed. Hunk nodded solemnly.
“Yeah,” he said. “Even I’d go before you, and I’d definitely break the rope.”
“Guys,” Pidge said angrily. “It just makes the most sense.”
“I’m sorry but you’re eight. You’re not going,” Lance said.
“I’m fucking two years younger than you,” Pidge growled, but Lance was ignoring her, already hastily tying the rope to the leg of a desk beside them and attempting to crawl out the window before any of them could stop him. He wasn’t that fast, though, so Keith just grabbed his leg and yanked him backward harshly.
“Yeah, no,” he said. “I’m going and that’s final.”
Lance tried to protest, and Pidge did too, but Keith ignored them. He kicked off the hands that attempted to grab for him, shucked off his backpack and sword to reduce his weight — Lance could toss ‘em over if he actually made it — and started out on the rope.
It was terrifying. The rope shook like crazy as Keith tried to crawl on it, the thing only as thick as maybe half of his fist and shaking violently underneath him, though he figured that was his fault, seeing as he himself was shaking so bad. The rotters beneath him had taken notice, possibly because of Lance shattering the window in the first place, and it was horribly disconcerting to see them all below him, their hands raised to the sky and their mouths gnawing at nothing.
God. Fuck. Fuck.
If he fell, the height might kill him first. Maybe. Otherwise, he’d feel what everyone else felt when they were eaten alive. Would feel his flesh torn from his limbs, teeth sinking into his skin, nails scraping through his muscles. God fucking dammit.
“You can do it, Keith!” someone said from behind him. He was maybe a third of the way there, clinging onto the rope for dear life and wondering how the fuck acrobats could actually walk across shit like this.
“You can do it,” Keith echoed to himself, scooting himself forward just a little bit more, and that’s when his world turned upside down. Literally.
Gasps and a muffled shriek emitted from behind him as everything in Keith squeezed tight, tight, tight, as if bracing for death. He was still clinging to the rope, for dear life now as he dangled upside down, his legs kicking in the air beneath him. He realized he was gasping for breath as he held on for all he was worth. But he was never going to get across like this, and already he could tell he wouldn’t be able to hang on for much longer, his muscles growing tired and the rope biting painfully into his palms.
“You’ve got this,” he whispered, desperate, and then he started moving, one hand in front of another, closer and closer, almost halfway there…
Something snapped. He heard it a split second before he felt it, and then everything was rushing away, and for a second Keith thought he was actually falling to the ground, before he realized he was swinging, barely managing to brace himself before his entire body slammed into the wall of the building, the pain so sharp and jolting he almost let go of the rope.
As it was, he managed to cling on, even though every ounce of his body was aching, a whimper slipping pitifully through his lips.
It sounded like someone was sobbing, and for a second Keith had the wild thought that it was him, but then he glanced over, could see Pidge shaking in Lance’s arms as he held her close, tight, his fingers carding through her hair as he reassured her. “See?” Keith heard him saying. “He’s okay. He’s okay. Keep going Keith, you’re okay!”
Keith nodded, weak and dizzy and in pain but he had to. He couldn’t let Pidge see him fall to the ground, couldn’t let her see him get torn to pieces. So he climbed. Grabbed onto the rope and steadied his shaking legs against the building and pulled himself up with weak, noodle arms.
Grunts and gasps and all assortments of pained noises escaped him as he climbed, and climbed, and climbed, until he was finally pulling himself through the window. He collapsed right on the floor, gasping against the tile and shaking violently, pretty sure he was in shock from almost dying but knowing he couldn’t afford to be for long. He was lucky there were no zombies in the room, considering he hadn’t even stopped to check. Then again, it wasn’t like he had his sword with him either, and he felt so bruised all over he wasn’t sure he could actually take down a rotter if he needed to.
He gave himself another minute to just lay there, trying to catch his breath and trying to calm down. He hadn’t even realized he’d been crying until he sat up, feeling how wet his cheeks were, and then he pulled himself the rest of the way up after wiping them off, slumping against the window and smiling weakly as his friends cheered.
Were they his friends?
Probably not. Keith had never had friends before. Shiro, maybe, but he’d been a foster brother. Kind of forced into it. And his mom, sure, but again, forced into it. Plus, she’d died when he was young.
None of the others would probably consider him a friend. Lance had let him tag along because that was the kind of person he was, and Keith had asked. Hunk and Pidge were Lance’s friends, and although Keith could feel them growing on him, he doubted the feeling was mutual.
Then why was Pidge crying? a desperate part of his brain insisted. Because she didn’t want to witness it, maybe. Because she was sensitive. But even as he thought it, he couldn’t really bring himself to believe it was true.
What he wanted to believe was that he’d actually made friends, finally. That in this fucked up, broken, dying world, he’d managed to stumble across a group of people willing to accept him, to care about him, to mourn him when he was inevitably murdered brutally by cannibals.
Keith laughed, raising a hand and grinning as his friends — please be my friends — cheered louder, hugging each other and jumping up and down in the opposite window, looking so happy and relieved that Keith couldn’t help thinking it was contagious.
Luckily, Lance was as good of a thrower as he was a shot, and he got each of Keith’s items through the shattered window for him, which he was thankful for. Mere moments later, he had his backpack on and his katana strapped underneath it, finally letting himself glance around in the room of the apartment he’d crashed into. An office, it looked like.
“I’ll come back here when I find him,” Keith promised, calling across to the others.
“We’ll find a way to get you back,” Lance answered. “Much more safely.”
Keith nodded, relieved, and then he took his sword out. Just in case.
Thankfully, the entire apartment was abandoned, probably long before the Great Plague grew to the level it was at now. A good amount of people had realized how dangerous cities would become, but not enough of them to have kept cities from actually becoming as dangerous as predicted.
The outside of the apartment revealed that Keith was in 502. Shiro’s address was 526, so he got moving, turning corners carefully and keeping his ears peeled for anything at all.
The closer he got to Shiro’s apartment, the more distant from himself he felt. It was as if he was viewing himself from afar, though still able to hear his heart beating loudly, still able to feel the sweat pooling in his palms, in his lower back.
516. 518. 520. Shiro was here. He had to be here. He’d said Keith could come to him for anything, anytime, and he was finally, finally here. It’d taken him years, years of texting Shiro and wondering to himself late at night if even Shiro was only just pretending but now he was here. He was here and Shiro had to be here because if he wasn’t nothing was fair, life wasn’t fair and nothing was fair and Keith just might go insane, okay? Shiro was the only family he had left. He needed to be here.
522. 524. Fuck. 526.
Shiro was here.
Shiro was here, Shiro was here, Shiro was here, Shiro was—
Keith knocked. Maybe it didn’t make sense — he couldn’t remember the last time he’d knocked on a door, after all — but if Shiro was here he wasn’t about to just burst in on him. Plus, what if there were traps? Or what if Shiro shot him, thinking he was a deadhead? God, how horrible would that be? And how long would the rest of his friends wait in the building next door, waiting and waiting and waiting for Keith to come back when he never would?
The door didn’t open. But then again, who knocked these days? Who was even listening for a knock? Or, if you heard one, what were you supposed to do? Open it?
So Keith tried the handle. It was locked, of course, and that made Keith’s heart jump, because why would it be locked if no one was here? So he pulled out his pocket knife and crouched before the door and jammed his knife in there none too gently, forgetting all about being careful and precise and instead just desperately trying to unlock the door, to see if his brother was still with him or if he was gone, if he’d been gone all this time.
The lock clicked, and Keith pushed the door open before he could give himself time to really think about it, to try to prepare himself for whatever might be on the other side. It swung open, and Keith stepped through, taking in the clean, put-together apartment.
“Shiro?” he called, his voice soft and hopeful in the quiet apartment. “Shiro, you home?”
God, that sounded weird. Weird because of how normal it sounded. And it felt normal too, with Shiro’s pristine walls and clean apartment and open blinds, the light filtering into the rooms nicely, making it look put together and lively.
The image was shattered when a knife flew past his head, smacking into the wall behind him and sticking out from the dry-plaster, handle quivering. Keith jumped a good foot in the air, spinning to see a girl with short, choppy silver hair glaring at him fiercely.
“You’re not Shiro,” Keith said dumbly, which probably wasn’t anywhere along the lines of what you were supposed to say when you were nearly murdered.
“No shit,” the girl said sharply. “Get out or the next one won’t miss.”
“Wait!” Keith said. “I just want to know if Shiro’s here! I—“
The girl’s glare hardened, and then her arm was whipping back and Keith was dropping to the ground with a yell, hands covering his face as another knife slammed into the wall just where his head had been.
“Get out, Galra scum!” the girl yelled, taking aim again, and this time Keith got his wits about him. He couldn’t scramble away fast enough, but when the knife flew he had his sword out, and he was batting it aside.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Keith growled, shoving himself back to his feet now, glaring at the bitch before him. “If you’re holding Shiro hostage, I’ll fight you for him.”
“Wha— holding him hostage?!” the girl scoffed. And then, “Wait. You… don’t know who the Galra are?”
“Um. No?” Keith said, and he watched as the girl before him lowered her knife.
“Allura?” a girl called from another room, and Allura’s head turned towards the voice, expression conflicted. “Was it Galra?”
“Um,” Allura called back. “I don’t think so?”
A head popped out around the corner. This head was covered in pale blond hair, the length of which was really long, two halves of the volume pulled up into pigtails. The girl looked surprised to see Keith standing there alive, and her gaze shifted over to Allura.
“What’s going on?” Keith demanded. “Where’s Shiro? What did you do to him?”
“We didn’t do anything to him,” Allura scoffed. “In fact, we’re helping him. Why else would we attack the people coming into his apartment?”
Keith glared at Allura. “Shiro wouldn’t need anyone to fight for him,” he claimed. And he believed it. Shiro had always been good at going to the gym regularly. No doubt he was in great shape when the Plague hit, able to take on zombies with barbells if he wanted to.
Allura and the other girl shared a look. They knew something Keith didn’t.
“What?” Keith demanded. “Where’s Shiro?”
“We’ll take you to him,” the blonde said.
“Romelle,” Allura reprimanded.
“What? It’s obvious he’s not Galra,” she turned her attention on him. “So? How do you know Shiro, anyway?”
“He was my foster brother,” Keith said, thrown aback when both girls’ eyes widened.
“Keith?” Allura demanded.
“Yes,” Keith said slowly. “He’s mentioned me?”
“He mentioned you a lot, back when he was delirious,” Romelle scoffed, no longer hiding behind the wall. She was leaning against it, arms crossed and eyes running over Keith, as if appraising him.
“Why was he delirious?” Keith demanded, frantic, and the two girls shared another look.
“It’s better if you just see,” Allura finally sighed, and she turned and made her way through the living room, Keith following after her automatically.
Shiro’s apartment was nice all over. Beside the two knife marks now seated in the wall by the front door, it was pristine. It was clear his apartment was still loved, still taken care of. Still a home.
Distantly, Keith could hear the zombie hoard growling.
Allura led him to the master bedroom, knocking on the door lightly before she swung it open, not waiting for an answer. For a moment, Keith’s heart soared, seeing Shiro sitting there in his bed, and then it dropped again.
Shiro was there, sure, but he was… different. A scar disrupted the evenness of his face, cutting right over his nose and across his cheeks, and his hair had gone white at the front, as if from stress. Keith thought that was the worst of it, but then he caught sight of Shiro’s smiling face, watched the way he pushed himself out of his bed with his left hand and stood, revealing the fact that his right arm was gone entirely.
“Oh my God,” Keith said weakly. “Shiro.”
“Stop looking at me like that,” Shiro said, still smiling. His voice didn’t sound all weak and frail like Keith had been imagining. “Just get over here and give me a hug.”
Keith couldn’t deny himself any longer. His brother might have gone through hell, but at least he was alive. Keith crossed the room and crashed into his arms — or… arm… — and hugged him for all he was worth. Despite only having one arm, Shiro hugged him back just as tightly, rocking them back and forth and squeezing Keith as hard as he could.
“I’m so glad you’re alive,” he said, and Keith finally pulled away to look in his face. The scar was old, he was noticing now.
“I’m glad I could find your apartment without GPS,” Keith joked weakly. Shiro laughed, pulling him back in for another hug, and that’s when Keith couldn’t stay silent anymore. “Shiro,” he said. “What happened?”
“A lot,” Shiro said, laughing sarcastically. “But I don’t know if we have the time right now. There’s a reason Allura almost took your head off at the door.”
At that, Keith glanced over at Allura, who at least looked apologetic now. “We’re… expecting someone,” Shiro hedged.
“Murderous someones,” Romelle added helpfully, now standing in the doorway.
“Okay, then let’s get out of here,” Keith said, looking around at everyone desperately. He wasn’t going to come this far, get this close, only to have Shiro taken from him at the last moment. And by people, no less.
“We can’t,” Allura said. “I have no idea how you got past the rotters down there, but there’s no way we can get back out. They’ll pour into the building the second we open the doors.”
“I came in through a window,” Keith said. “And my friends are making a way for us to get back as we speak, so…”
“Friends?” Shiro said, sounding way too excited. Keith was suddenly forced to remember countless conversations of Shiro pestering him, demanding whether he’d made any friends in his new schools yet.
“Yes,” Keith said, glaring at Shiro. No need for Allura and Romelle to know he’d been a friendless loser the majority of his life. “Are you guys ready to get going? Our truck’s big enough to fit all of us.” Keith really hoped Lance wouldn’t mind him inviting people along. Sure, Hunk had seemed pretty hesitant about him, but… Well, it was Shiro. And that Allura girl seemed pretty good with her knives, so she could definitely be useful to have around. And he didn’t get a murderous kind of vibe from either her or Romelle — at least, not anymore — and that was always a good thing.
The three friends were exchanging looks, appearing as if it were almost too good to be true.
“You said your friends were finding a way for you to get back,” Romelle suddenly spoke up. “What happened to the way you got here?”
Keith winced. The reminder was enough to have him remembering how much his body ached, throbbing all along his right side. He wondered, vaguely, if he’d hit his head on that wall too.
“I was climbing across on a rope,” he explained. “It snapped.”
“Is that how you got this massive bruise?” Shiro demanded, grabbing Keith’s chin and turning his head to examine the side of his face.
Huh. Guess he had hit his head.
“I guess,” Keith said. “Seriously, are you guys ready?”
There seemed to be another quick, silent debate, and then everyone was shrugging, nodding.
“We’re almost out of food here, anyway,” Romelle said, and with that, everyone was scrambling around, gathering their stuff. Thankfully, they’d been smart about it and most of their stuff was already together or packed up anyway, and soon enough Keith had three backpack toting adults following behind him as he led the way back to where he’d came, sword out and by his side once again.
His brain kept trying to slip back into all the questions he had, how Shiro had ended up like this, where Allura and Romelle had come from, who was coming after them, but there wasn’t any time. He needed to concentrate, besides. Hopefully Lance and the others had actually managed to figure out a way to bring Keith back across while he’d been gone.
When Keith walked into the room, glass shards on the floor and a familiar arrow embedded in the wardrobe, his friends across the way let out a cheer.
“You’re alive!” Hunk yelled, pumping a fist into the air which was made difficult by the fact Lance was clinging to him in a hug. Then Shiro, Allura, and Romelle came into view in the window and the cheering quieted, replaced with surprise. Either by the fact that there were more people than they’d been expecting or because they hadn’t thought Shiro would really be alive, Keith had no idea.
“Here,” Lance called from his window. “We went back and got a saw from Blue and Hunk sawed the top of this desk off,” Lance explained, slapping the panel of wood extending between the two windows.
“We had to cut it lengthwise and nail it together to make it long enough, but it’s sturdy,” Hunk promised. “We tested it in here and it can even hold my weight, so you guys should be fine as long as you walk across one by one.”
“Nail it down on your side first though, okay?” Pidge added, and then they were all backing away from the window so a bag of nails followed by a hammer could be thrown into the room, probably courtesy of Lance.
Allura took up the hammering before Keith could offer, and so he made himself useful otherwise, going to the wardrobe and trying to figure out how to get Lance’s arrow out of it. He ended up having to unscrew the head of the arrow, nearly slicing his fingers in the process, and then he was pulling it out and putting it back together again, slipping the projectile into the waist of his belt.
When the bridge was secure, Romelle was the first one they sent across. Allura was so anxious she looked angry, and Keith sat on their end of the bridge just to assure her it was held down even more carefully. He helped Romelle balance as she stood on the bridge and held his hand out for her as long as he could, Lance on the other side with the longest arms reaching out for her too. But before she could reach his hand, there were a good few steps she had to take alone, during which all of them sat silent and anxious until her hand finally found Lance’s and they could all let out a breath of relief.
Allura was next, following Romelle and walking much quicker than she had, possibly desperate to be by her side again, especially in a room full of strangers. She made it safely, thankfully, and Lance grabbed her hand and tugged her into the room to rejoin Romelle.
“You next,” Shiro said.
“Yeah fucking right,” Keith scoffed. “You’re going.”
Shiro looked like he wanted to protest, classic big brother, but Keith wasn’t having it.
“Do you need something to help you balance?” he asked, and Shiro shook his head.
“I haven’t had my arm for a long while now,” he said. “My balance is perfectly fine.”
Even still, Keith watching him go anxiously, having to tell himself not to cling onto his hand and actually let go so he could walk across what was practically a gangplank to get to the other side. He sat there stiffly and anxiously the whole time, Shiro’s journey across seeming to take longer than the others’, and he found himself barely able to breathe. Had the bridge bounced this much for Allura and Romelle?
Shiro made it, though. His hand found Lance’s and Keith’s entire body deflated in relief, before he was standing up himself, preparing to make it across.
“Just be careful, okay?” Lance said, and Keith could’ve sword he shifted, trying to push himself just a little further out along the bridge.
Keith nodded, and then he was walking. It was a lot scarier from out here. And fuck, he’d already seen this view before, hadn’t he? The zombies below, growling and gaping and begging for Keith to fall.
His head hurt. Did he have a concussion, maybe? His entire body throbbed, still, and he wobbled a bit right in the middle of the bridge, making someone on the other side gasp. He regained his balance, though, and he took careful, steady steps until his fingers were fumbling for Lance’s, until Lance was dragging him through the window and pulling him into a hug, surprisingly. Keith let it happen, his body shaking again as he leaned heavily into Lance.
Maybe he was scared of heights.
“You’re okay,” Lance murmured softly, his hand rubbing up and down Keith’s back. “I’ve got you, you’re okay.”
When Lance released Keith, he realized everyone else was talking. They’d all introduced themselves, apparently, though they still looked kind of wary of each other, standing in clumps across from one another. It was Shiro who broke the tension.
“Thanks for getting us out of there,” he said, ever the peacemaker. “We’ve been trapped in there for weeks.”
“You’re gonna have to tell us all about it on the truck later. For now, how about we all try to get back there safely?” said Lance. There were nods all around, and neither Hunk nor Pidge protested to having more strangers on their truck. When they turned to leave, Keith fell in step beside Shiro automatically, which only made him more surprised when Pidge hurried over to wrap him in a brief side-hug, followed by Hunk clapping him on the shoulder with a smile.
Getting back to the truck was excruciating. Now that Keith had Shiro back, all he wanted to do was sprint to safety with him. Instead, he was forced to do the much more logical thing and slink along the streets, making sure they were taking the safest paths, especially since the sheer number of their group increased the amount of danger they were in, considering they could much more easily attract unwanted attention.
Plus, Keith was a hundred times more anxious, completely on edge and prepared to defend Shiro, now that he only had one arm. Shiro seemed particularly amused by this, continually sending Keith side glances, a weapon of his own in hand.
“You don’t need to protect me,” Shiro muttered as they turned onto the next street, Lance in the lead. He had his binoculars in one hand, seeming to take extra care with their path back to the truck.
“Evidently, I do,” Keith scoffed, making Shiro snort, which evolved into an outright laugh when Keith jumped about a foot in the air after Kosmo snuck up out of nowhere, licking his hand before trotting off towards the front of the group again. Thankfully, Shiro ignored this, continuing the conversation.
“When I told you I could take on anyone who tried to fight you with a hand tied behind my back, I wasn’t lying,” Shiro said, amused. “I can take care of myself. It doesn’t even hurt anymore.” Shiro’s lip twitched at the last part, a clear sign of him lying. Still, Keith found himself believing the rest of it. Shiro had a metal baseball bat held loosely between his fingers, and despite it being his left hand, Keith figured that wasn’t really much of a disadvantage for him, which only led him to start wondering again. Had he had to cut off his arm because of a bite? Or had someone done this to him? And if so, how?
Keith didn’t ask, though. Despite the tension-filled trek back the the ice cream truck, the atmosphere between him and Shiro was light, and he didn’t want to ruin that just yet. He’d missed him for longer than there’d been zombies running around.
“Oh, thank God,” Lance said up ahead of them, when the truck came into view and it wasn’t surrounded by the dead. He pulled the keys out of his pocket, unlocking the car and holding the door open for everyone. Keith stopped beside him.
“Can I drive tomorrow?” he asked, thumb playing awkwardly with his belt loop. “It’s just, Shiro and I are gonna have a lot of catching up to do. And it’s easier to talk when you have something to concentrate on...”
“Of course,” Lance said easily. “We’ll probably only drive a couple hours before stopping for the night. Maybe start a fire and get something good going for dinner for once.”
“That’d be nice,” Keith agreed, and Lance grinned at him before jumping into the truck, though he stopped once he was inside of it, sticking his head back out to talk to Keith.
“Oh, and you’re sleeping in the bed tonight,” he added. “Don’t think I didn’t notice you rubbing your back all day. And now you’ve been literally slammed into a wall, so...”
Keith opened his mouth to protest — deny the backache, at least — but Lance disappeared into the truck before he could say anything. Keith followed with a groan.
Lance felt… warm. This was a rarer occasion, these days. It was getting chillier with every passing day, especially at night. Soon enough finding a good place to settle down for the winter would become imperative for surviving until spring. Otherwise they’d be trying to warm up on freezing days in Blue’s metal interior.
He peeled his eyes open, blinking into the dim lighting and suddenly remembering. Oh yeah. Blue was a lot fuller than usual.
Glancing around, he could see his new companions sleeping all throughout truck. The bed was being slept on sideways — he, Hunk, Pidge, Keith, and Shiro smushed into it — meanwhile Allura and Romelle were sleeping on the driver and passenger seats, leaned all the way back.
Everyone was still asleep, Hunk curled up on the edge of the bed and Pidge beside him, her mouth open and drool dripping down her cheek. Lance was beside her, their legs tangled together, and when he turned his head he could see Keith and Shiro. Shiro was on the other edge of the mattress, his scar looking soft and barely noticeable in the sleepy lighting, and none too abrasive in his sleep. Keith was between Lance and Shiro, laying on his side and somehow managing to touch neither of them, the side of his face still blue and purple.
Lance snorted. Leave it to Keith to manage to not touch anyone even in his sleep.
That’s when Lance got an idea. A kind of evil idea, maybe, but an amusing one nonetheless.
Carefully, he scooted backwards, closer to Keith. He seemed to be a heavy sleeper, thankfully, not waking up even when Lance carefully lifted Keith’s arm and slung it over his own waist. The second Lance’s was seated comfortably against him, Keith relaxed. He let out a slow, even breath in his sleep and tugged Lance closer, snuggling into him. Lance had to bite down on a grin when he felt Keith’s nose brush against his spine, his warm breath spilling across Lance’s back.
A good while passed before Keith started to wake up, though Lance didn’t mind. It was nice cuddling with someone who wasn’t Pidge or Hunk, for once. Pidge was all bony and moved constantly in her sleep, plus she didn’t really like cuddling anyway. And while Hunk was definitely a good cuddler, he could get a little too enthusiastic. Lance usually woke up crushed, his ribs aching and his breath short.
Keith was good at it, though, even unconsciously. His arm was a perfect weight on Lance’s hip. He could imagine how much better it’d be if Keith were actually conscious for it, his other arm tucked under Lance’s head, maybe, his fingers playing over Lance’s hip, slipping under his shirt to do so. But even so, it was still good. Comfortable. Relaxing. Lance nearly fell back asleep because of it, but he managed to stay awake, knowing he needed to be conscious for the best part of this joke.
When Keith did start to wake up, finally, he didn’t enact the cuddles of Lance’s fantasies. Instead, he panicked, though Lance had been expecting that. It was why he’d done this in the first place, after all.
He felt Keith stiffen behind him, heard his shocked inhale, and when Keith tried to pull his arm away from Lance without waking him, Lance pretended to stir. Keith immediately halted his movement, and Lance let his breathing even back out, letting Keith believe he was still sleeping peacefully.
He heard a frustrated little exhale from behind him, followed by Keith kind of relaxing into him again. Ugh, he should cuddle voluntarily more often. He was great at it.
As it was, Lance could practically still feel the panic still thrumming through him and decided to have mercy on him. He groaned quietly in his “sleep” and rolled over, letting Keith yank his arm away the second he had a chance to. Lance pretended to stay asleep as Keith hastily climbed out of the bed, followed by the sounds of the door-chain being undone before Keith slipped out of the truck.
It was safe to say Keith was panicking. Like, full-out, oh my fucking God what the fuck do I do?! panicking. Because he’d been cuddling Lance.
God, he was such a fucking idiot. He should’ve known this would happen! Keith, with his stupid feelings and his stupid thinking Lance was attractive and his stupid agreement to sleep on the mattress instead of breaking himself further by sleeping in an upright position again. It wasn’t like sleeping laying down had even helped with his array of aches and pains – now that it was the next day it almost seemed to hurt more, his body thoroughly determined to never let him forget about any of his injuries in the slightest. Every movement left him aching, but not even that could break his attention away from the fact that he’d woken up cuddling with Lance.
And fuck, it’d felt so good. So warm and comfortable, had it not been interrupted by his waking up and panicking over it. God, Lance probably wouldn’t even have been bothered! He’d offered to spoon the night before, hadn’t he?
But nooo. Keith had to get overwhelmed. Had to feel awkward. Had to escape at the very first moment he got.
Now, he was doing pushups outside the ice cream truck, trying to work some of his adrenaline out before they actually got on the road for the day. Even still, he probably wasn’t going to be able to stop thinking about this. Probably wasn’t going to be able to forget what it felt like to be pressed against Lance, the feeling of another person so close, so perfect.
He’d never cuddled with anyone before. Kind of wanted to do it again.
He totally wasn’t going to be able to look at Lance. He’d just be there again, pressed up against him, breathing in his scent. And how the hell did Lance manage to smell good in the middle of a fucking apocalypse? Keith couldn’t even remember the last time he’d showered and yet Lance somehow smelled like clean laundry.
Keith wasn’t sure how long he spent out there, panicking and exercising because of it, but he finally pulled himself together when the door slid open and Shiro himself stepped out. He looked amused.
“You’re doing pushups?” he said, voice still groggy with sleep.
“Gotta stay fit,” Keith muttered, embarrassed, before getting to his feet and stepping past Shiro, who’d most likely stepped out to pee. “You need a toothbrush? ‘Cause Lance and them have extras.”
“I brought mine, but thanks,” Shiro said, and he reached out to squeeze Keith’s arm. It was strangely familiar, bringing Keith back all those years to when they’d lived together, to when Shiro had snaked past all the walls Keith had built after his mom died. He managed to give Shiro a small smile before disappearing back into Blue, where everyone was now in stages of waking up. Keith avoided looking at Lance, not wanting to know whether he was awake or that Keith had been cuddling him, and headed right up to the front of the truck, settling himself in the driver’s seat.
“You driving today?” Hunk commented around a mouthful of breakfast bar, giving Keith a start. He must’ve followed him up here.
“Yeah, Lance said I could,” Keith said. “I have a lot of catching up with Shiro to do, and I feel like it’ll be easier when I have something to concentrate on.”
“I feel that,” Hunk said immediately, and then he handed Keith the second half of his granola bar, continuing before Keith could protest. “I always make Lance drive when I feel like he’s bottling stuff in. Opens right up.”
Keith offered a small smile, wishing he was better at small talk, but Hunk didn’t seem to mind his non-talkative nature. He just returned the smile before retreating into the back again, where everyone else was currently gathered.
Only a half hour later everyone was awake and fed, finally ready to get on the road. They hadn’t really talked about their goals or destination yet, but no one protested the idea of getting moving. Keith had a feeling everyone felt the same as him, like staying in one place in something as defenseless as a truck was never a smart idea.
Thankfully, Shiro settled into the passenger seat without Keith having to ask him to. Probably because he realized Keith had a lot of questions he wanted to ask, but secretly Keith hoped he was craving Keith’s company as much as Keith was his. It’d been years, after all. He would’ve been living with Shiro all that time if Shiro’s dad hadn’t lost his job, forcing the adoption to fall through.
He wondered how things might’ve gone different if he’d been with them all this time. If he’d been with Shiro when the dead had started to rise.
“So,” Keith said, once they’d been on the road for a good two and a half minutes and he couldn’t try to be patient anymore. He glanced over at Shiro, finding him sporting that amused smile he was so bad at hiding. It made Keith feel twelve again, like he was trying to convince Shiro to drive them to the gas station and buy him chocolate bars without outright asking for it. “Wanna catch up?”
Shiro laughed. “About stuff before the apocalypse or strictly after?”
Keith glowered. “I know what was happening with you before the apocalypse.”
It was true. He’d never been the best at making friends, or maintaining contact with people in general, but Shiro had always been different. He’d managed to make Keith smile for the first time after his mother’s death and subsequent tumble into the foster system, and he’d stayed in contact with Keith even when he’d been forced to move on. At first, Keith had been so angry – at Shiro’s father for losing his job, at the court for not letting them adopt him “in good conscience”, at the entire world – that he’d barely kept in contact with Shiro. Had replied to his emails with one-word answers or ignored them completely.
But Shiro had been insistent, because of course he had, and eventually Keith had latched to him, the one constant in his life. He’d told him all about the schools he went to, the cities he lived in, and graduating from the foster program; moving into an apartment of his own. In exchange, Shiro had told him about college, about his boyfriends, his jobs.
When the dead had started to rise, they’d talked about that too. About how terrifying it was, about instances of it they’d heard about that day, about what they’d do if it turned into an all out apocalypse like in the movies, never for a second expecting that it actually would.
Losing contact with Shiro after the Silence, when the internet had “fallen” (Keith was still convinced the government had dismantled it, somehow. He was convinced they’d started the Great Plague as well, though that was a conversation for another time), had been terrifying. He’d been all alone so suddenly, so abruptly, and that’s when everything had gotten so much worse. No more warnings about attacks, no more information about the severity of the plague, just everything descending into chaos. People rebelling, capitalism collapsing, the dead suddenly roaming the streets en masse. It was terrifying, and horrible, and Keith had been so, so alone.
“I guess that’s true,” Shiro sighed. “A lot’s happened in the past year…”
That was true for everyone, though Keith couldn’t say that he’d lost his arm or anything. Still, he stayed silent, waiting for Shiro to continue on his own.
“After the Silence, everything went to chaos,” Shiro explained. “I don’t know what it was like where you were, but around here, people immediately fell into gangs. Everyone was a part of one, and if you weren’t, you were as good as a rival gang. I saw more deaths at the hands of people than deadheads, in the beginning.”
Keith nodded slowly. It hadn’t been like that around him, or if it had, he’d just been good enough at staying alone and out of the way that he hadn’t noticed.
“I didn’t know what to do, but I decided leaving Arlington would be the best for me. I couldn’t imagine being in one of those gangs. But when I was leaving, I ran across a group from a gang called the Galra. Instead of killing the stragglers they came across, they took them as prisoners, which is how I spent the next few months.”
Keith couldn’t hold back a gasp. Reality was horrific enough as it was without having everyday people actively making it worse.
“And did they… Was it them who took your arm?” Keith asked tentatively.
“Yes,” Shiro said. “After I tried to escape. They caught me, and punished me…”
Keith swallowed. He couldn’t imagine it. The pain. The horror of realizing you were losing a limb. The struggle to recover, probably made even harder in the hands of the Galra.
“They gave me enough antibiotics and changed my bandages often enough to keep me alive,” Shiro continued. “I didn’t escape until a few months ago, thanks to Allura and Romelle. They were part of a gang too – the Alteans – but the Galra destroyed almost all of them. They freed a whole faction of their prisoners in an attempt to get back at them, and while everyone else went their separate ways, I stayed with them. We’d been hiding out in my apartment ever since.”
Keith’s fingers were aching. He realized it was because he was gripping the steering wheel so tightly, glaring at the road in front of him.
“God, Shiro,” he finally managed. “I’m so sorry… I – I should have been there—”
Shiro scoffed. “Don’t try to blame yourself for this mess,” he said. “Besides, it’s been almost a year since I lost my arm. I’ve kind of adapted, you know?”
“Anyway, tell me what’s been up with you. How long have you been with these guys?”
“Three days,” Keith answered. With Lance, anyway. He’d known Pidge and Hunk for two, now.
Shiro looked over at him, surprised. “Wait, really? What were you been doing before them?”
Keith stared hard at the road. He remembered being all alone as the dead swarmed the streets, as they made their way into his apartment complex, scratching and knocking on the walls. He remembered leaving, going to the one place he’d thought he’d have comfort. He remembered realizing how very, very wrong he’d been, and continuing on his own feeling somehow even more alone than before, focusing solely on getting back to Virginia, back to Shiro. He’d left a trail of fuel-less cars and state borders behind him, and it’d finally, finally paid off.
But Shiro didn’t need to know that whole sob story. Keith didn’t like thinking about it, and it was nothing compared to Shiro’s, anyway.
“Trying to get back to you,” Keith decided on. Shiro made a noise somewhere in the back of his throat, but Keith didn’t look over at him, not even when Shiro reached over and ruffled his hair, just like he was twelve again.
“I missed you, Keith,” Shiro said sincerely. He looked so different – not just because of his face and hair and arm, but because he wasn’t pixelated and buffering over a Skype screen.
“I missed you too,” Keith said quietly. He was glad he was driving. Glad he could stare out at the scenery ahead of them. It was easier when he didn’t have to make eye contact.
After that, a comfortable silence settled between them, filled by the noises from the back of the truck. Lance’s voice was the most prominent, Keith catching the tail end of a story where Lance fended off a zombie by smacking it with his bow, and peals of laughter followed, Allura and Romelle’s distinctive.
How the hell did he do that? Just… meet people and talk to them? Make them like him?
He was an enigma to Keith, who struggled with even talking to people, much less befriending them. He sighed, propping an elbow up on the door and leaning his head into his fist, which was when everything went wrong.
His elbow hit a switch, and then suddenly music was blaring from the ice cream truck as if to attract children on a sweltering day. Instead it just attracted a mass panic, Keith yelping and swerving the truck in surprise as everyone started talking over each other at once. Already, Keith could see rotters wandering out from the residential area they were driving through, taking clumsy, running steps towards the vehicle.
“Turn it off!” Shiro yelled above the calamity of everyone else’s yelling, and Keith glanced frantically towards the door, looking for the button he’d pressed, but now he was finally noticing that there was an array of them. He reached over and pressed one frantically but that just changed the song, and it sounded even louder, if that were at all possible.
Rotters weren’t just behind them anymore but pouring out onto the streets in front of them. Keith was driving with one hand, swerving around and between the dead as he jabbed every button he could reach, the ice cream truck’s tune changing over and over again without actually shutting off.
“Turn it off!” Shiro repeated.
“I’m trying!” Keith shouted, yanking the wheel to the right hard to avoid a huge clump of deadheads. The longer the song played, the more dead showed up, and the streets ahead of them were already looking horribly crowded. That was nothing compared to the streets behind him, where a hoard of zombies was attempting to follow after them, the sound of their groaning and growling somehow audible over the truck’s music.
Lance suddenly appeared between the two front seats, clinging onto them frantically. He’d probably been trying to get up here for a while now, which couldn’t have been easy with the weird maneuvers Keith kept having to pull. Somewhere in the back, Kosmo let out a bark, and Keith found himself having a pang of sympathy for the dog, hoping he hadn’t managed to hurt it.
“I can’t turn it off!” Keith said, sparing a glance towards Lance. If they couldn’t figure this out soon they’d never make it out of here, the streets becoming so clogged they wouldn’t be able to maneuver between the rotters. Keith was really hoping he wouldn’t have to actually run any of them over, either, seeing as he didn’t want to be forced to clean their guts off of Blue.
“This has happened to us before, hold on,” Lance said, voice strangely even and calm even in the panic of the situation.
He leaned over Keith, clicking a button which didn’t halt the music, and Keith peered frantically around him, yelling, “Lance! I can’t see!”
Lance let out an exasperated noise before plopping himself down on Keith’s lap, scooting as far to the left as he could as he examined the buttons, Keith trying his best to steer the truck properly when his left side was impeded by Lance’s being there. The same order of songs being selected and unselected played out over Blue’s speakers, but finally, finally, the music shut off. Instead of blissful silence, the sounds of the dead outside grew tenfold, the noise so unsettling Keith felt the skin by his eyes tighten, his frown deepen.
Thankfully, Lance didn’t try to scramble back off his lap, sensing Keith was concentrating hard on not letting them become overwhelmed. His foot was almost completely flat on the pedal, his right arm doing all the steering, seeing as there was no room for his left. This made changing gears almost impossible, so he prayed he wouldn’t need to slow down. He could sense Lance staring at him but couldn’t spare much thought for it, his hand flying around the wheel, yanking the truck this way and that as they got closer and closer to the end of the teeming mass before them.
Up ahead, though, there was no clear path, nowhere to go, and Keith braced himself, wrapping his free arm around Lance’s torso as he plowed through two zombies, guts spraying up on the windshield, and broke into an opening, escaping from the crowd from there. After that, it was just a matter of driving steadily down the road, the rotters nowhere near fast enough to keep up with a speeding car.
Once the hoard of the undead were just a speck in the distance, Keith let himself relax. It was then that he realized he was still holding onto Lance, and then that he remembered this morning, another time that he’d been holding onto him. He very abruptly released him, clearing his throat as he sat back a little more firmly against the seat, doing everything within his ability to avoid looking at the man literally in his lap.
“Well, that was eventful,” Lance commented, before sliding back across Keith’s lap, Keith switching gears and pressing on the break automatically. “Is everyone okay?” he called into the back, a chorus of affirmations thankfully reaching them.
“How about we drive for an hour or so, just to make sure we’re really in no danger from that crowd we stirred up, and then we can stop for lunch?” Shiro suggested. “Then we can talk about what we plan on doing from there.”
“Sounds good to me,” Lance said happily, and so they did just that.
Keith was tense the entire time, both from the residual adrenaline of escaping a zombie hoard and the potential awkwardness of Lance knowing he’d been cuddling him in his sleep. When everyone finally decided it was time to stop, Keith did so with a sigh of relief, not wanting to be the one driving anymore. He couldn’t believe he’d caused such a huge problem his first time behind the wheel.
With the truck stopped, Lance went outside and climbed onto the hood, then the roof, his binoculars pressed to his eyes. He was probably just as on edge as Keith after that horrible adventure they’d just had, but whatever he saw (or didn’t see) must’ve been good, because he hopped back down towards the rest of them, smiling.
“I say we have a feast of animal crackers and peanut butter for lunch,” Lance said happily, looking between them all. “You said you had peanut butter, right Romelle?”
“Way too much of it,” Allura scoffed, despite looking fond. “It’s her favorite food.”
“Perfect,” Lance said happily, before distributing packs of animal crackers to them all. It was a surprisingly filling meal, the seven of them gathered around the jar of peanut butter and taking turns dipping their animal crackers in it. They passed a few water bottles around the circle as well, and Keith blinked when a bottle of Advil landed in his lap.
“I figured you’re probably still in pain,” Lance said in explanation. “I’d give you ice packs, too, if we had any,” he added, gesturing to the side of his face. Right, Keith had totally bruised that up yesterday, along with the rest of the entire right side of his body.
He nodded his thanks, popping a couple pills into his mouth before continuing with his meal.
Also surprisingly, or maybe it wasn’t actually surprising at all, the conversation flowed naturally. Lance didn’t even have to do that thing where he kept talking and talking and talking in an attempt to fill the silence. Instead, it seemed like everyone had something to say, equally as invested as sharing as they were about asking questions of the others.
Keith didn’t really say much unprompted, though it didn’t feel like a big deal. He laughed as often as the others, anyway, usually at the hands of some witty comment Lance had made.
Before long, their animal crackers were gone and their shrunken, malnourished stomachs were full to the bursting, making them feel like they’d just eaten a feast. After that, it was all business.
“It’s likely we all have different plans or destinations in mind,” Allura said, taking charge of the conversation. “In which case, we could go as far in the same direction as is convenient before splitting off from each other.” Everyone was nodding along. “So, where are you three headed?” Allura said, the question directed towards Lance, Pidge, and Hunk. Lance took charge.
“We’re staying in the state,” he said immediately, Hunk and Pidge presumably from around here too. “Other than that... Well, it won’t be long until it’s too cold to sleep in Blue,” he said, angling his thumb over his shoulder at the ice cream truck. “We’ll want to find somewhere to settle down, set up camp by then.”
Allura grinned. “That’s exactly what we’re doing,” she said, pointing to herself, Romelle, and Shiro. “We were going to go down to my uncle’s house,” she explained.
Keith frowned. “Are you sure he’s still... there?” he asked tactlessly, Lance sending him an affronted look when he did.
Instead of biting his head off, Allura laughed. “Positive,” she promised. “Plus, you don’t know my uncle. Or his house.”
“What’s his house like?” It was Lance who asked this, sounding shocked.
Allura smirked. “Let’s just say we call it ‘The Castle’.”
Lance sat there in awe. “I wanna go there please,” he said.
And everyone was in agreement. Allura was somehow altruistic enough to invite near strangers to come to her home, even under circumstances like these, when any of them could be out to double cross her. Then again, Keith didn’t get the feeling many people crossed Allura — or if they lived to see the next day, considering they did.
With the end of lunch, the rest of their day was planned out. They’d drive for another hour or so before stopping in a small town near the highway, where they’d break off into groups to gather different supplies. There’d be gas and grocery groups, each of which would split off in the hopes of covering as much area and gathering as many supplies as possible.
Thankfully, Hunk took over the next shift with driving, which left Keith in the back with everyone else, aside from Romelle, who sat up front with him. It seemed like they’d taken a liking to each other, again making Keith wonder how people formed friendships so quickly and easily.
“I slept so good last night,” Lance was saying to Pidge, and Keith felt his face grow hot. Did he know? Or did he just coincidentally have a good night’s rest?
Lance happened to glance over at Keith and he jerked his gaze away, very determinedly looking towards the other side of the room. Unfortunately, this left him staring at Kosmo, who seemed to take his gaze as a signal to come over. Keith flinched a little when Kosmo curled up next to him – he couldn’t control being a little bit afraid of dogs, okay?! They were just… big, and… filled with teeth. It wasn’t his fault! – but he didn’t move away. And Kosmo didn’t do anything else, thankfully, just sat there and slept. Eventually, Keith worked up enough courage to pet him a little. It was surprising how soft his fur was, especially considering how long it’d been since he’d likely last had a bath.
“You loooove him,” Lance sang, and Keith’s head whipped back towards Lance, not having realized he was being stared at.
“I tolerate him,” Keith corrected.
Lance scoffed. “Yeah,” he said dramatically. “I always go around petting the things I tolerate.”
Keith ignored him, but he didn’t stop petting Kosmo. He could see the dog’s body rising and falling in his sleep, and occasionally his ears twitched, as if he was hearing something in his dreams.
Lance didn’t pester him about it anymore after that, though, and he didn’t mention his apparently terrific sleep to Pidge again either. The rest of their drive was spent with everyone relatively minding their own business, conversations quiet and comfortable.
Keith didn’t even realize they were there until the truck rolled to a stop right in the middle of town. This might have been due to him accidentally falling asleep, though, his head having lolled to the side, his hand still buried in Kosmo’s fur. But he shook himself awake and forced himself to pay attention, blinking repeatedly as the truck began to fill with movement.
“Everyone ready?” Lance said, already on his feet and strapping his bow to his back. Hunk was stretching, having stood up out of the driver’s seat and made his way into the back with the rest of them. Keith climbed to his feet, patting Kosmo on the head when he looked up immediately, curious, and gathered his own things as well.
A chorus of agreements echoed throughout the truck as they all put together their finishing touches of heading into the town. Bags were secured for transporting as many materials as possible, weapons strapped to their backs or sides or legs for easy access, and shoes double and triple knotted. Keith had yet to see someone go down because of an untied shoelace, but he didn’t trust his luck enough to chance it.
“Let me just take a look around, then we can split up,” Lance said, before taking a careful step out of the truck, immediately followed by the sounds of him climbing onto the roof.
“Let’s all agree to not take any excessive risks today, okay?” Shiro said, looking around at everyone. His gaze came to settle on Keith for far longer than it lingered on anyone else and Keith glared. He didn’t take excessive risks!
...Most of the time.
Sure, he could be a little impulsive, and okay, sometimes he did things that seemed better in the moment than they actually were, but he could still handle himself. He’d lasted this long, hadn’t he?
“Agreed,” Allura said primly. Although, everything she said sounded kind of prim with that accent of hers. “These materials are important, but not more so than our lives,” she instructed. “If any one building is over-occupied, skip it. We can always stop in another town and try again.”
Pidge and Hunk were nodding along, apparently having no problem with taking instructions from a near-stranger. Then again, strangers didn’t feel quite the same as they used to, before all this. Keith couldn’t help feeling like he had something in common with everyone here, at least. They were alive. And that wasn’t something everyone could say for themselves these days.
The door banged open, making several of them flinch, but it was just Lance barging back into the truck. “We’re good,” he informed them. “There’s more rotters on the streets towards the east, but I think we can avoid them easily enough. Everyone just needs to stay alert and we should be fine.”
“Sounds good,” Hunk said, hefting his sledgehammer over his shoulder. Everyone filed out of the truck, standing in a loose circle outside it, wary of their surroundings despite Lance’s assurances.
“All right, so we’ll meet back here in say, two hours?” Lance said, glancing at his watch as he did. Everyone was in agreement and so they broke off into their groups. Pidge and Hunk to gather fuel and spare car parts (hopefully they’d be able to fix that ominous rattling under the hood); Shiro, Allura, and Romelle to stock up on food; and Keith and Lance to replenish weaponry. Not everyone’s weapons were in the best shape, and it never hurt to have extra, seeing as sometimes they lost a knife or two in a scuffle.
Hunk pointed everyone in the right directions, looking at a map they’d taken from a rest stop near the town, and then they were truly separated. Mere minutes later Keith couldn’t even see anyone else, he and Lance having turned down a couple of streets, already approaching a hardware shop.
Of course it was Keith’s luck to be stuck with Lance. Not that he didn’t like him — he was one of the people he would’ve preferred to get paired with, after all — but it didn’t help that Keith had woken up cuddling him that morning. Every time he looked at him he felt a flush of embarrassment, and his entire mind was a chorus of does he know does he know does he know?
Whether Lance knew or not didn’t matter, though. They had weapons to get, and besides that, he clearly didn’t care, even if he did know. He wasn’t acting strangely at all, and it made Keith wonder how he appeared to be acting, to the outside view. Had he talked to Lance more on previous days? Had he avoided looking at him less? Probably.
“Do you wanna cuddle?”
“What?” Keith said, turning to look at Lance, his face hot and his eyes wide. Lance frowned.
“I said, ‘do you wanna huddle?’ I think that’s the hardware store and we should probably make a plan instead of just barging in.”
“Oh, yeah, uh. Sounds good,” Keith managed, trying to kick his stupid annoying feelings out of the way.
“How about this,” Lance said, before describing a long and arduous plan that involved not only climbing through air shafts, but lowering each other from the ceiling like actual ninjas.
“How about, instead of that, we go inside and throw something. If anything comes running, we kill it.”
Lance pursed his lips. “I mean, sounds a bit simple, but I guess it’ll work,” he muttered, and then they were off.
The slide doors didn’t slide when they got to them, because they never did anymore, so they pried them apart by hand. They stayed open behind them as they slipped inside, staring at the inside of hardware store. The shelves were high and the ceiling higher, covered with all kinds of tools and supplies that Keith had no idea how to use. The weapons were probably in the back.
“Here goes nothing,” Lance said, before grabbing a big thing of paint located on the nearest shelf and slamming it down on the floor before them. It let out a loud thunk as it hit the ground, exploding upon impact and spraying the floor (and Lance) in blue paint. Lance hastily got out of the way, then, scrambling to stand behind Keith with his bow drawn, waiting.
Moments later, the dead emerged. They came running — or as close to running as they could, stumbling over broken ankles and twisted legs. The first one slipped and fell on the paint, an added bonus, and Keith sank his sword into its head before slicing upward to kill another approaching one, only to find it already dead, an arrow in its head.
Those two weren’t the only ones in the store, though, as more kept stumbling out from between the shelves until there were at least ten stumbling towards them.
“Oh shit,” Lance lamented, and Keith silently agreed despite holding his ground. Four to the right, six to the left. All closing in. Lance had four arrows left, so he could kill two on either side. That still left more on Keith’s left. If he concentrated on those too much, the ones on his right could overwhelm him…
“Hah!” Lance yelled, a second before another bucket of paint went flying. It crashed into one zombie head-on and Keith winced as he saw its skull dent, the rotter dropping straight to the ground, it and its neighbors covered in paint.
“Nice one!” Keith cheered, and Lance grunted in acknowledgement before hurling another can. It was rather impressive, considering how heavy those things were and how hard he had to have been throwing them for them to actually kill the rotters.
Keith lunged for a rotter approaching on his left, gritting his teeth as his bruised body twinged in protest, and he killed it and the one beside it before backing towards Lance again, not wanting to leave him unguarded. Not that Lance needed much guarding, apparently. Though his weapon was long range, he didn’t let that make him weak when enemies got too close, proven by the fact he was currently swinging a paint can through the air and smashing it into the closest rotter’s head. Paint exploded everywhere, Lance spitting it out of his mouth as he grabbed for another can, panting.
There were five left, closing in all around them, now, and Keith stepped closer to Lance instinctively. They were back to back, Keith able to feel Lance panting like this, and he stabbed at the deadhead closest to him, flinging out his hand and catching the other zombie’s wrist before its nails could dig into his skin.
Lance grunted as he swung again, and again, and Keith pulled him back and stepped in, taking the last zombie and standing there panting as it dropped at his feet.
“Good one,” Lance said breathlessly, wiping paint out of his eyes.
“You too,” Keith said. “With the,” he waved a hand through the air uselessly, “paint thing.”
Lance laughed, more like a wheeze, really, but the sentiment was still there. “You’ve got a little…” he said, waving at Keith’s face.
“Here,” Lance said, and then he was reaching forward, his hand cupping Keith’s face and his thumb brushing right near Keith’s mouth, taking a glob of paint with it. Keith was breathless, his body gone stiff with shock and anticipation, hot all over. He was aware of how close the two of them were, of how much his knees were shaking, of how if he were to kiss Lance right now, there’d just be paint on his lips again.
“There,” Lance said happily, stepping back with a smile on his face.
“Thanks,” Keith said, except it came out as a whisper and shook halfway through.
“No problem,” Lance said, before turning around and scanning the store. “Looks like it’s empty now. Ready to go?”
Keith managed a nod, clearing his throat twice as Lance went to retrieve his arrow. Lance’s bow was returned to his back but Keith kept his sword in his hand, still on edge from the fight and not quite willing to trust that nothing was going to jump out at them still. Together, they made their way through the store, ignoring all the materials they didn’t need as they scanned the signs still hanging from the ceiling and made their way to the weapons.
Unsurprisingly, the weapons rack was pretty much picked clean. This was to be expected when everyone was forced to fight for their lives on the daily, but this didn’t mean all hope was lost. The both of them carefully scanned the entire area, looking for forgotten hunting knives or weapons dropped and kicked under the shelves.
“Dammit,” Lance muttered, when still nothing turned up.
“We should check in the back,” Keith suggested, not wanting to go back to the truck empty handed. And so they walked along the back wall until they found a door entitled ‘Employees Only’ which they pushed right open.
The back was much smaller than Keith had been expecting. He’d expected to walk into a vast room with towering shelves and machinery maybe, but instead he found himself in a pretty cramped storage room filled with boxes, making the space even smaller. He held the door open for Lance, frowning when Lance stayed outside, his eyes flitting around the interior uneasily.
“There’s nothing in here,” Keith promised. “I checked.”
“Right,” Lance said, but he still hesitated a moment more before stepping inside with an uneasy breath.
“Let’s get to looking,” Keith suggested, letting go of the door. Lance caught it immediately, eyes wide and expression kind of frantic, and Keith looked at him curiously.
“Uh…” Lance said. “Don’t want this to lock behind us or something, right?”
Keith nodded, eyes widening. He hadn’t even thought of that. He shoved a box in front of the door, then, before turning around to examine the room. The boxes were likely arranged in some sort of order, but given Keith had no idea what that order was, he went at it randomly. He shoved himself right in between the boxes, cardboard pressed against his front and back as he shuffled down a tiny aisle and ripped open a box before him. It was full of screws.
Lance remained at the front of the room, opening boxes much more carefully and methodically than Keith, throwing them out of the tiny room after he checked them. It was probably smart — it let him get to the next closest boxes, anyway, but Keith wasn’t going to bother with that when he was all the way back here.
They continued like that for a while, Keith taking a more random approach and ripping open any box towards the back of the room, while Lance continued to remain orderly, sticking by the door.
“Oh!” Keith said suddenly, spotting another door. It was tucked into the corner of the room, behind a stack of boxes, so it was easy to miss. He had a feeling something good must be in it, though, maybe the more valuable stuff, so he pointed it out eagerly. “Back there!” he said. “Let’s go check it out!”
“Are you sure?” Lance said, before gesturing at all the boxes they’d yet to open. “I mean, they could be in any one of these…” he said. Keith shook his head, though. All he’d been finding was useless crap, and by the looks of it, it was the same with Lance.
“Yeah, I’m sure,” Keith said. “I don’t think there’s anything useful in here.” And so he led the way to the back of the room, squeezing between more boxes still. The door was locked when he reached it, but he’d found a wrench earlier and with a good few smacks the lock broke. He wrenched open the door, having to bodily shove a row of boxes out of the way to do so, but he managed to get it open, only to turn back and see Lance still standing by the door.
“C’mon,” he said, and Lance huffed out a breath before following him. He faltered a moment before shoving himself between the boxes, moving as quickly as he could towards Keith.
Meanwhile, Keith was staring desperately into the dark room before them. The one they were in now, at least, had windows letting in light. The one before him was completely dark.
“Did you bring a flashlight?” Keith asked Lance when Lance bumped into his side. Lance shook his head, his cheeks flushed. It was pretty hot in here, wasn’t it? “Guess we’ll just have to feel our way around,” Keith muttered, and then he was taking a step into the room, squinting as if it would help him see.
Lance let out a little groan behind him, making Keith turn to him with a curious look, but he was just standing in the doorway.
“It seems pretty tight in here,” Keith commented, wishing he could actually see. It felt like there were shelves stocked with things on either side of him though, so it was worth searching at least a little bit. “But I think we can both fit.”
Lance nodded, so Keith plunged further into the room. Feeling around for weapons wasn’t exactly easy, but Keith’s intuition had been right. He’d only been in there for about a minute or so before he found a huge, serrated knife — the serrated portion covered in plastic, thankfully. He slipped it into his backpack before continuing on, adding anything else his hands happened to think was a weapon to his bag.
It’d only been another minute, maybe two, before he realized something was wrong. Lance was working on the shelf behind him, except he was moving much slower than Keith, and now that Keith was paying attention…
“Lance?” he said, because Lance was breathing heavily. Keith spun around, concerned, and he placed a hand on Lance’s shoulder, surprised to find him shaking. “Woah, Lance, what’s wrong?!”
“Nothing,” Lance said, except he gasped it out, and his voice sounded so strained and broken it punctured something inside of Keith. He was instantly filled with more panic, looking around frantically despite not being able to see anything and trying to devise a solution. Lance hadn’t been bit, had he? People always started breathing hard after a bite… But no, Lance wouldn’t keep that information to himself. He wasn’t like that. He was too honorable.
So, “Bullshit,” Keith said. “Seriously, what’s wrong?”
Lance didn’t respond this time, though, just started shaking harder under Keith’s hand, his breathing getting louder. The shelf behind Keith was digging into his back, providing even less room when he was standing behind Lance like this.
“Wait, fuck, are you claustrophobic?”
Again, Lance didn’t answer, but Keith already had all the information he needed. He felt like such an asshole, not having picked up on it earlier, but he wasn’t going to make Lance stay in here a moment longer. He grabbed his shoulders and marched him out of the room, wincing as he was forced to push him between all the boxes again, Lance’s head tipping upwards as the boxes closed in on him. Keith wondered if that was why he was breathing so hard — if he felt like he couldn’t get any air, was suffocating in here.
Moments later, Keith had Lance out of the room and back into the open vastness of the store, though the area they were in was filled with all the boxes Lance had dragged out of the room. Lance immediately collapsed onto one, his head between his knees, his hands on the back of his neck. Keith crouched down beside him, a hand rubbing soothingly on his shoulder as he murmured to him, told him it was okay.
“No it’s not,” Lance muttered after a few minutes, having calmed down greatly. His voice sounded guttural. “There are dead people walking around,” he said, looking up at Keith with a tear-streaked face. “And I’m scared of being in a room a little too small,” he scoffed, rolling his eyes and looking angry.
“Hey,” Keith said, shaking his head already. “You can’t help what you’re scared of, okay? And being in a small space is creepy. You don’t have to beat yourself down for this.”
Lance didn’t look comforted, but he didn’t argue with Keith either, just letting his eyes shift to the side so he could glare into the distance instead.
“Are you gonna be okay?” Keith asked after another moment, and Lance nodded jerkily. “You mind if I go back in there to finish?” Lance shook his head.
And so Keith left him there, hurrying back into the room to finish the job in only a couple minutes. He returned to Lance in record time, Lance looking much more composed after the time he’d spent alone, and then the two of them were on their way again, the silence heavy between them.
“Sorry you had to see that,” Lance said quietly as they left the store behind them.
“Stop apologizing,” Keith said, and he bumped his shoulder into Lance’s, making Lance turn to look at him with an amused smile. Things were easier between them, after that, and about halfway back to Blue they stopped to take inventory of Keith’s bag, the both of them sharing excited grins at all the good weapons they’d managed to find, an assortment of knives, mostly, but still. Unfortunately, there were no arrows in the haul.
By the time they made it back to the others, the two of them the last to return, Lance was back to his normal self, the fact that he’d just had a breakdown in front of Keith not noticeable at all.
“I hope you guys like murdering zombies, ‘cause we’ve got the best stuff,” Lance bragged, coming to a stop before their friends, who all shared excited grins. Keith threw his bag down at their feet, letting them take a look through it themselves.
Everyone was excited, holding up weapons they liked particularly and already discussing which ones they wanted to have for themselves. Keith ended up taking a knife himself, thinking it’d be good to have something a little more short-range for emergencies.
It wasn’t long before they were on the road again, this time with Lance behind the wheel. They weren’t planning on going far, just finding a nice patch of road to park the truck and camp on, the bulk of their drive to Allura’s uncle’s house happening tomorrow. The whole time, though, Keith’s mind was elsewhere.
Throughout the conversation he had with Shiro, his attempted (and failed) avoidance of Kosmo, his assistance with Hunk in handing out everyone’s dinner. During their nightly routines, brushing his teeth and pretending not to notice Lance outside, determinedly fiddling with his walkie talkie for the third night in the row. All throughout it, he couldn’t stop thinking about going to bed, about whether he was going to end up cuddling with Lance again.
He debated trying to claim one of the front seats for himself again, but by the time he made his way back into the truck, Allura and Romelle were in them again, everyone else in their same places as well, as if they’d all just agreed to return to where they’d been the night before.
Unsettled and anxious, Keith laid down in his spot from the night before too, sparing a glance for Shiro beside him. Shiro was sitting up, a book resting in his lap and a flashlight held in his hand.
“I know I shouldn’t be wasting batteries on this, but I can’t fall asleep without reading before bed.”
“You’re fine,” Keith said, amused and kind of comforted that Shiro still did that. “There’s always more batteries.”
“Yawn!” Lance announced, traipsing back into Blue and collapsing heavily onto the mattress, making Pidge groan and kick him. Keith laid as still as possible, avoiding all eye contact. “Ugh, I’m such a sleepy boo.”
“Shut the fuck up, Lance,” Pidge said, kicking him again for good measure.
“Can you believe how mean she is to me?” Lance said conspiratorially, rolling over to face Keith as he said it. Keith glanced at him.
“Yes,” he said.
Lance made a hurt noise, a hand pressed to his chest. “Keith,” he said dramatically. “You wound me.”
“You wound yourself,” Keith said.
“That’s no way to speak to your cuddle buddy,” Lance said, and Keith’s mind went eerily silent.
“What?” he managed. No one else even seemed to be paying attention to their conversation, but Keith felt like it was blasting through his mind, his body hot and cold all over. Lance was smirking.
“It’s not a big deal, Keith,” Lance said, looking ever-entertained. “You want me to be the big spoon tonight?”
“Totally cool if you’re not a little spoon guy, though,” Lance added immediately. “I’m a versatile cuddler.”
Keith’s face was hot. He felt like his tongue had grown three sizes – he couldn’t speak around it. He tried to say something, anything, but his lips were glued shut.
Lance just rolled his eyes, pillowing his head on his hands theatrically. “It’s alright, you don’t have to decide right now,” Lance said. “Our subconscious will figure it out in our sleep.”
“Oh my God,” Keith said, before promptly turning to face Shiro, who spared him a single glance, amused.
“Looks like you’re the little spoon tonight,” Lance piped up from behind him.
“Oh my God,” Keith repeated, curling into a ball solely out of stress. Lance laughed, not actually subjecting Keith to any cuddling just yet, and Keith felt him shift behind him a little but nothing ever came of it.
Keith fell asleep eventually, his body stiff and tense, but somewhere in the back of his mind he knew, deep down, that he wouldn’t really mind if he woke up cuddling Lance again.
god look at this fuckin art, dudes. LOOK AT IT. fuckin,,, zoom in and look at Every Little Detail. once again done by haley, the loml!!!
This time when Lance woke up, Keith was cuddling him unabashedly. None of that stiff as a board thing he’d been doing the night before. His head was pillowed on Lance’s shoulder, an arm and a leg thrown across his body.
It was wonderful.
Until he woke up, anyway, at which point Keith got all red and quiet and prickly. Still, he couldn’t deny that he obviously like cuddling with Lance – enough to actually do it on his own, this time.
Lance was tempted to let the day start without him, to stay in bed and close his eyes a minute more as everyone got up and got moving, but he forced himself to wake up properly too. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d let himself sleep in. He yawned as he, too, got moving, standing and stepping outside where everyone else was relieving themselves or spitting wads of toothpaste onto the ground.
Kosmo was sniffing determinedly at Keith’s (socked) feet while he brushed his teeth, Keith obstinately ignoring him. Lance wondered when Keith was going to admit to himself that he actually liked Kosmo, or whether he was going to pretend he was totally unaffected by the adorable dog that was in love with him forever.
By the time Lance had finished with his morning routine, much shorter than it’d been in the years before the end of the world, Hunk and Pidge had already commandeered the front of the truck, so Lance delegated himself to the back, collapsing onto the mattress with a yawn.
“Do you normally grow your hair so long?”
Lance peeked his eyes open, finding it was Romelle who’d spoken and was staring right at him.
“No,” Lance said, pushing hair out of his eyes reflexively as he spoke. “It’s annoying as hell, but what’re you gonna do,” he sighed.
“I could cut it for you,” Romelle offered, and that’s how Lance ended up standing before Romelle while she sat on a freezer, holding a pair of scissors in her hands. It probably wasn’t the safest idea, planning to cut someone’s hair while in a moving vehicle, but sometimes little risks like these just didn’t seem all that dangerous anymore, what with the world in the state that it was.
“Just grow it out, Lance,” Keith said for the bazillionth time, staring at Lance and Romelle anxiously. Shiro glanced up at Lance, but didn’t offer an opinion of his own, too busy leaning against a wall and reading that book of his. Allura was seated next to Keith on the mattress, also watching them, but she looked intrigued rather than anxious. Her hands were buried in Kosmo’s fur, though all of Kosmo’s attention was solely on Keith, his head stubbornly resting on Keith’s lap.
“Of course you would say that, Mullet Man,” Lance scoffed, straightening his shoulders and standing a little more firmly in between Romelle’s legs. “Romelle, get to cutting! Er… you do know how to cut a guy’s hair, right?”
“It shouldn’t be that hard,” Romelle said easily. “I mean, I cut Allura’s.”
Almost automatically, Allura’s hands came up to touch her hair, which ended just under her chin. It definitely looked nice, which made Lance feel a little more relieved.
But, “That’s different,” Keith piped up. “I mean, for her you just had to cut straight across, right?”
Lance couldn’t see Romelle’s expression, but based on Keith’s worried look, he had a feeling that was exactly how Romelle had cut Allura’s hair.
“Look,” Allura piped up. “Romelle’s good at everything she does. Everything. Just trust her and it’ll turn out great.”
So Lance clenched his jaw and gave a sharp nod, moments before he heard the very first snip. I was followed by many more snips, obviously, but the longer it occurred the less worried he got about it, especially when neither Keith nor Allura started gaping and staring at him in horror.
By the time Romelle was done, running her fingers through his hair and cutting any last offending pieces, there was hair all over the ground and stuck to Lance’s t-shirt. Romelle ended up swiping it off him the best she could, and then Lance used the side of a spare book as a broom, gathering as much hair as he could into a corner before carefully lifting it up and carrying it toward the front of the truck.
“Open your window,” Lance said to Pidge. “I have to throw hair out of it.”
“What do you – eugh!” Pidge said, when she turned and caught sight of the pile of hair Lance was currently holding. Lance leaned over her unceremoniously as Pidge screeched, frantically rolling down the window in time for Lance to throw his handful of hair out of it.
“Gross,” Pidge muttered darkly.
“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Lance said, tossing the book back into the back. “How’s my hair?”
Pidge looked. “Good,” she said. And then she reached up to touch it, and her eyes widened. “Woah! It’s so soft!”
Lance immediately replaced her fingers with his own, the both of them sharing wide-eyed looks of shared sentiment. Lance spared a moment more to lean over Pidge and actually look at himself in the mirror (and wow, did he look more like himself than ever) before he was hurrying into the back again.
“My hair’s soft!” he announced, Romelle grinning happily and Allura immediately getting to her feet, obviously needing to feel it for herself. She made a similar noise to the one Pidge had made, which was how Lance managed to convince Shiro to touch it too, before he lowered his head towards Keith, saying, “C’mon, you know you wanna touch it.”
“I’m not touching your hair,” Keith scoffed.
“You know you wannaaa,” Lance sang obnoxiously, getting even more up in Keith’s face. Finally, Keith reached out as if to push Lance away, which Lance dodged by plopping himself down on his lap, making Keith make an offended noise. “Touch it and I’ll get off!” Lance said preemptively.
Keith made a frustrated noise but reached forward anyway, his fingers soft and gentle in Lance’s hair despite his demeanor. Lance felt his nails scratch lightly against his scalp, his fingers running back and forth over his soft hair, before he finally pulled his hand away. Lance was still sitting in his lap. Keith cleared his throat.
“Oh, right!” Lance said hastily, getting off and ignoring the fact that everyone was looking at him. That had been kind of weird, hadn’t it? Yeah, definitely weird. “Um. I’m gonna make Hunk touch it!” And so he disappeared into the front, indeed making Hunk touch his hair, but then he squeezed himself into Pidge’s seat with her and spent the rest of the morning hiding out in the front, wondering what the hell he was going to do about this obnoxious crush he was developing.
“How much longer?” Lance found himself asking, hours after lunch. Keith was at the wheel, Shiro in the passenger seat again, and Hunk was desperately examining their map, seeing as he’d always been the best one at reading it.
“I think…” he said cautiously, looking between the map and the road, “a little more… than an hour?”
“Yes!” Lance said excitedly, collapsing backwards onto the mattress with a happy sigh. He couldn’t wait until they got there. A mansion. They called it The Castle, Allura said! God, it was going to be great! Lance couldn’t wait to get to actually stretch his legs, to sleep in a bed with a box-spring, for once.
“Excited?” Allura commented, looking amused. Lance nodded vigorously.
“Very,” he said. “How’d your uncle get a mansion, anyway?”
“Well, he’s famous, for one thing,” Allura said flippantly. Lance felt his mouth go dry.
“F-famous?” he managed, staring at Allura with wide eyes.
“Yeah! He’s been in tons of movies. His name’s Coran – maybe you’ve heard of him?”
Lance’s mouth fell open. “Coran Altea?” he spluttered inelegantly, and Allura nodded.
“That’d be the one,” she affirmed.
Neither Hunk nor Pidge seemed affected by the fact that they were about to meet a movie star (or that they’d already met a movie star’s niece) and thankfully Hunk used his immunity to stardom to change the subject.
“So,” he said loudly, looking in between Allura and Romelle. “How did you two meet?”
“Oh, we’ve known each other since we were kids,” Romelle said happily. “We’ve been next-door-neighbors all our lives.”
“And you were with each other when the Great Plague broke out?” Pidge asked, looking interested. She had that research-intensive expression on her face and Lance didn’t even want to know what she was gathering information for now. Probably something to do with the likelihood of zombie apocalypse survival when equipped with friends.
But, “No,” Allura answered, her expression shuttering. Romelle looked similarly downcast, and Lance suddenly found himself wondering what hardships the two of them had faced. No one could make it this long without dealing with a fuck-ton of horribleness, and it was sometimes hard to remember that almost everyone had some pretty heavy baggage these days, especially when they did a good job of hiding it.
“We found each other again only a few months ago,” Romelle went on to explain. “Before that, I was working on getting my masters for a medical degree.”
“A doctor!” Lance exclaimed, overcome with excitement. Now wasn’t that lucky! Romelle’s lip twitched up in a smile, but she continued with her story without further acknowledgement.
“Yes, well, I never did get my degree,” she sighed unhappily. “So… I’m an almost doctor. Anyway, our entire course of learning shifted after the first recorded incident of the Great Plague. Many medical professionals all over the world recognized the disease for being as dangerous as it was, and our university was one that acted accordingly. We learned a whole lot about the Great Plague in the months before the Silence, and students and professors alike had different attempts at vaccinations underway.”
“That’s insane,” Hunk said reverently. Both he and Pidge had managed to scoot closer to Romelle during her explanation, being the big science brainiacs that they were. But even Lance was interested, his attention piqued at the mention of a vaccine. There’d used to be a whole lot of talk about those being in development, but no one had ever perfected one, and then it’d been too late. Lance had thought the hope of a vaccine being created was all but demolished.
“Do you think someone’s created one by now?” Pidge asked eagerly, and Lance’s heart throbbed sympathetically. She was still so young. Technically, they all were, if they weren’t counting the years the apocalypse had aged them.
“It’s possible,” Romelle said, but she didn’t sound all too hopeful. “Had we just had a little more time before the Silence…” She sighed, the air rushing out of her dejectedly.
“Don’t mention that to Keith,” Shiro suddenly piped up, catching all of their attention. He was holding a water bottle, which must’ve been the reason he’d come to the back in the first place.
“What do you mean?” Allura asked, and Shiro smirked.
“This morning he was telling me all about how the government created the zombie virus as an attempt to shrink our population,” Shiro explained, gaining a few snickers and disbelieving grins from everyone. “If he knew the Silence had halted your research too soon…” he trailed off meaningfully.
“I never even thought about that,” Lance said considering. “Do you think he’s right?”
“I think he’s a conspiracy theorist,” Shiro said. He was smiling, and there was something horribly soft and fond in his eyes. “He’s always thought the government was up to more than it is. When he was twelve he used to tell me all about how they were hiding aliens on Earth.”
Lance could feel himself smiling, and without his permission, his eyes drifted up towards the front. He could see the back of Keith’s head from here, and it was bobbing back and forth just the tiniest amount, as if to some song in his head. Why was everything he did so endearing?
“Hey!” Hunk said suddenly, jumping to his feet. “What did that sign say?!”
“Lansdowne exit in 43 miles?” Keith called back, and for a second Lance caught his eyes in the rearview mirror.
“Oh man!” Hunk said, and he shook out his map, straightening it out. “I think we’re the next exit. Keith, get over!”
Keith did as he said, the road thankfully none-too-clogged around here, and then they were going around the bend of an exit, trees whipping past them on either side.
“Does this look familiar to you?” Lance asked Allura. Her lips were pursed, her eyes scanning their surroundings critically. Finally, she let out a heavy sigh, her shoulders slumping.
“I have no clue,” she admitted. “Coran usually had us flown in.”
Pidge did Lance the favor of reaching over and pushing his jaw back up.
“I think we’re on the right track,” Hunk said. “Although I was wrong about it being an hour’s drive. I think we’re only minutes away…”
Lance had no idea why Allura’s crazy-rich and famous uncle was living in Virginia instead of Hollywood, but he wasn’t about to question it. After all, this was just about the luckiest thing that’d happened to them since that first person had gotten back up after dying.
Hunk went up and took Shiro’s vacated seat in order to help Keith navigate. Man, they were lucky someone here was good at reading maps. Lance still hadn’t gotten over the loss of Google Maps.
He found it impossible to sit still, too. Practically every part of him was moving in some way – fingers drumming, feet tapping, legs shaking. Pidge shot him an amused look.
“Need to pee?” she joked.
“Very funny,” Lance said, leering at her. “I just can’t wait to get there. Hey, Allura! Do you think your uncle has running water?”
“I’m sure of it,” Allura said without question. “I mean, he had backup generators of all sorts – I’m sure he had something for water.”
Finally, Pidge seemed to share Lance’s uncontainable excitement. “Showers?!” she exclaimed, her eyes wide behind her dingy glasses. They’d used to be in pristine condition, of course, but now they were covered in scratches and seemed to be permanently coated in dirt.
“Yes,” Allura said happily, clearly as ready to take a shower as the rest of them. It seemed kind of crazy to Lance that Allura had lived this long. He just couldn’t help feeling like it wasn’t something that was very likely, knowing she’d grown up getting flown to places and probably having a boatload of money. Then again, maybe that just made her all the more impressive. She’d come from that and was somehow still alive and thriving.
“There it is!” Allura suddenly exclaimed, jumping to her feet. Everyone immediately followed after her, all of them gathering behind the two seats and leaning this way and that in an attempt to see out the windshield.
It was insane.
The house before them was barely a house. Like, Lance could just go ahead and shove a handful of his own houses right inside that thing. Suddenly, thinking of it as The Castle didn’t seem all that far-fetched anymore.
“Holy shit,” said Pidge.
“Language,” Lance said jokingly, at the same time that Shiro said it seriously. He still shot Lance a look of approval that had him preening, though. Yeah, Lance was totally gonna be a hard-ass about cursing now. There was just something about Shiro that had him wanting approval. Maybe because he kind of seemed like a leader.
Outside, there were several fancy cars lined up along the driveway. Which was a circle, by the way. A driveway that made a circle in front of the house, so you never even had to back up. God, Lance couldn’t believe he was going to live here.
“Where should I park?” Keith said, and Allura let them park right up by the door. (“He won’t be expecting any other company.”)
This time when they all piled out of the car, Lance felt oddly… safe. Like there were no deadheads around at all. Still, he wasn’t an idiot, so he let his eyes do what they wanted to do and scanned the area all around them, though he didn’t bother with his binoculars. They wouldn’t do him much good now, surrounded with as many trees as they were.
He didn’t see anything, though, and neither did anyone else, it seemed. Their footsteps were oddly loud on the path up to the mansion. Lance kept expecting some kind of booby trap or something, but nothing popped out at them. They made it all the way to the front door, where Allura pulled out a key. It made something deep inside Lance throb, his hand automatically coming up to clutch his own key, still hanging from his necklace.
That’s when the dread hit him.
Hadn’t he just been in this very same situation? Strolling up to his front door, key literally in hand, only to find the inside entirely barren?
Lance’s heart clenched, a sudden surety pulsing through him that no one was here. They were about to enter a mansion completely empty of other life. What then? Would Allura want to go out and look for her uncle? Would they leave behind this amazing opportunity at living in a mansion, totally protected?
That was a selfish thought, Lance would admit. He wouldn’t want to hang around his empty house either, and so he shouldn’t expect Allura to. Even worse was going to be her reaction when she realized there was no one home…
“Coran?” Allura yelled into the house, her voice echoing in the massive entrance hall.
Chills traveled down Lance’s spine. It reminded him too much of walking into his own house, of calling out for his mom and siblings.
Except… his house hadn’t actually been empty after all, had it? Keith had been there, camping out in it. And how weird was that? That this was how they’d all come together? If Lance hadn’t gone to his house, hadn’t found Keith, hadn’t agreed to take him to the next city over…
The answering call had everyone jumping, and surprise shot through Lance like a bullet. Suddenly, Coran Altea himself showed up at the top of the staircase. He looked just like he did in the movies, and he was laughing as he sprinted down the stairs, wrapping both Allura and Romelle up in a hug.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded, laughing into the hug, before pulling back slightly, looking them both in the face. “Not that I’m not happy to see you two, of course.”
“We’ve been headed in this direction ever since I picked up Romelle from Harvard.”
Lance blinked. He glanced over at Pidge and Hunk, whose jaws were literally hanging open.
“It’s been a long journey with many bumps in the road,” Allura continued. “But we’re finally here,” she sighed.
“And I couldn’t be gladder,” Coran said softly, this time pulling just Allura in for a hug. When Allura pulled away, everyone pretended not to see her wipe away tears.
“Anyway,” she said, clearing her throat. “Let me introduce you to everybody. This is Shiro – we saved him from a gang called the Galra and have become very good friends in the last few months. That’s his little brother Keith, who I believe has made an even longer journey to get to him than I had to do to get here?” She said this part like a question and Keith’s cheeks flushed. Lance frowned, realizing he’d pretty much just thought that Keith was from around here like the rest of them. How far away did he travel from?
“And this is Lance, Pidge, and Hunk, who own the ice cream truck we’ve been riding in,” Allura said, gesturing at the three of them.
“Technically, Blue’s mine,” Lance piped up. “I had to tame that beauty.”
“Sure, Lance,” Pidge said, rolling her eyes.
“Lance is the resident mood uplifter,” Allura informed Coran. “He can make any dreary situation just a bit brighter with his attitude, I promise.”
Lance felt something warm spark in his chest as a grin spread across his face. It was touching, knowing Allura felt that way about him already.
“And Pidge and Hunk are on the same caliber as Romelle,” Allura said flippantly. “I guess geniuses are more likely to live through zombie apocalypses.”
“Too right you are!” Coran said jubilantly, pushing up imaginary glasses.
“And everyone, you know my uncle Coran,” Allura said, turning to face the rest of them.
“Uh, yeah,” Lance said. “We all know Coran.”
Coran grinned broadly. “I take it you’ve seen some of the films I’m in?” he asked excitedly.
“Seen them?” Lance scoffed. “Legendary Defenders is like, my favorite movie of all time!”
Coran’s face split into a grin and he took a step forward as if to indulge in the conversation further, but Allura quickly cleared her throat and interrupted. “Anyway,” she said hurriedly. “I was thinking we could give everyone a tour? Maybe show them to their rooms? Shore up any defenses that need shoring up?”
The mansion was awesome. No defenses even needed shoring up, and the tour yielded a million cool finds. Like, Coran has satellites as well as backup generators. Which meant electricity. And he still had working showers! Lance was going to shower better than he’d ever showered before the second he got inside that thing.
In the end, they didn’t even get to see the entire house. They ooh’d and ahh’d over the rooftop tennis court and the fenced in backyard and the selection of books and movies, and then they sat down for lunch.
Although Coran had it made in the way of shelter, his food options weren’t all that more extravagant than their own. When you were rich, there was no need to stock up on food — you had people to go out and buy you fresh produce every day. But now those people were dead, and Coran had been scrounging around as much as they had. They ended up heating up a couple of cans of soup for lunch, but it was fun because they ate it out of fancy bowls with fancy spoons.
The bedrooms were crazy too. Coran had enough guest rooms that they could all have their own, although the second Lance closed his bedroom door behind him, he realized he didn’t really want to be alone. He threw his bag down beside the bed anyway, although he had a feeling he might end up sleeping with somebody else tonight. It was just that the feeling of being alone gave him the creeps. Not just because some super stealthy zombie could sneak into the mansion and eat him in his sleep, but because everyone else would be just as defenseless as him. At least when they were together he could hope to wake up and save his friends in time.
As the hours passed, however, he started to wonder just how exactly he was supposed to approach the idea of sleeping with someone else in their bed. They all seemed ecstatic about being alone — especially since none of them had had a chance to be alone in so long.
“God, I’m gonna take up the whole bed,” Pidge was saying excitedly at dinner. Her eyes fell shut as she imagined it. “I didn’t even have a big bed at home, and we all know how shitty the beds at college were,” she said offhandedly, Hunk nodding along in agreement. “I think I’m about to have the best night’s sleep of my life.”
So obviously, Lance couldn’t ask her to sacrifice her best night’s sleep ever. And Hunk shared similar sentiments, going on about how relaxing it would be, how nice it was to know that they were finally sleeping somewhere safe. Lance could hardly believe it. Sure, he felt safe now, but what about when the lights were off? The doors closed? Didn’t everyone start to panic then, sure that they weren’t so safe after all? That couldn’t just be him, could it?
Lance even tried to hint to Keith that he wanted a bedtime buddy, but Keith was either oblivious or really did hate cuddling.
“You want another cuddle session tonight?” Lance had said, gesturing to himself with a totally appropriate body roll. Keith’s face had gone red.
“Think I’m good, thanks,” he’d said, and that had been that. And he’d pretty much been Lance’s last hope at having someone to sleep with tonight, because at least they’d been cuddling the last two nights.
Because it wasn’t like he was about to go ask Shiro to cuddle. He barely knew the guy, and he was pretty intimidated by him, besides. And obviously he couldn’t try and room with Allura and Romelle either, seeing as the two were dating. He didn’t know if they were trying to keep it on the down low or if they just weren’t into PDA, but Lance could tell they were involved. He totally had a sense for that kind of thing.
Basically, Lance wasn’t very surprised when he couldn’t sleep that night. He went into the room that’d been designated to him, still kind of amazed at the fact that he had his own room, bed, and a modicum of protection from the dead, and changed into his pajamas. He only stayed long enough to do his bedtime routine, sitting on the very edge of the bed with his walkie talkie in hand.
It beeped twice after it turned on, and as Lance clicked the dial onto 2, the walkie talkie said, “Two,” out loud. Lance took in a shaky breath, then pressed the button to speak. “Mami,” he said. “Marco, Luis, Veronica. Nadia, Sylvio, Matias.”
He let go of the button, clenching the device tightly as his entire body longed to hear the crackle of static followed by their voices spilling through. But nothing. There was nothing.
“It’s okay,” Lance said to himself, walkie talkie shaking slightly in his hand. “Seven stations left.”
Part of him wondered why he was torturing himself like this, trying to contact his family every night. We prefer evens. But even the slightest possibility of finding his family again outweighed the heartbreak he experienced every night, so it was worth it.
“Four,” said the walkie talkie.
“Mami, Marco, Luis, Veronica,” Lance said, and paused. “Nadia, Sylvio, Matias.” He clenched his jaw, waited and waited…
“Six.” And again.
“Eight.” And again.
By the time the device said, “Sixteen,” he’d already given up. When this station, too, provided no response from his family, he shut off the radio. Sat there a moment.
And then he got up.
He left his room and closed the door firmly behind him. It’d be impossible for him to sleep there anyway; he knew he’d spend only minutes laying there silently in that bed before his thoughts overwhelmed him and he was up on his feet again. So he skipped that step entirely.
The mansion was big enough that he could wander it endlessly without getting bored. There were three separate kitchens — each of which Lance knew Hunk would have the time of his life in — as well as a room that looked like it used to be a well-maintained green house, though now everything in it was varying shades of brown. Pidge would probably find that room interesting, actually, and would no doubt be able to figure out how to fix it up and grow stuff. Despite how much she complained about nature, she had a knack for remembering specific aspects of it and keeping plants alive. That was the complete opposite of Lance, by the way, who couldn’t keep a plant alive in his dorm room for the life of him.
Most excitingly, Lance found a pool. He totally hadn’t been expecting it and couldn’t believe no one had thought to mention it earlier. He’d already taken a shower after dinner — his entire body felt fresh and squeaky clean in a way unlike ever before — and he didn’t care that jumping into the pool would just get him all covered in chlorine. He would drink chlorine, at this point, having literally drank out of puddles in desperation before.
Lance didn’t have any bathing suits on him, but he didn’t really care. He stripped off his shirt and his shorts and strolled up to the diving board in his boxers, an elated giggle slipping out of him and echoing around the huge room. He bounced on the diving board, once, twice, and then he cannonballed in.
The water was freezing. The house wasn’t particularly warm, seeing as Coran wasn’t going to waste his precious electricity on heating the entire mansion, and the water clearly wasn’t regulated either. Still, it didn’t matter. Lance laughed through his clattering teeth and swam a lap, then another one, completely awake despite it being the time that he should be asleep.
He was just in the midst of seeing how many somersaults he could do without breathing (he could do up to seven, so far), when someone said his name and he surfaced, gasping for breath. Lance shoved his wet hair out of his face and blinked water droplets out of his eyelashes as he looked up towards the edge of the pool, where Keith was standing.
“Keith?” he said incredulously, and he paddled towards the edge of the pool.
“What are you doing here?” Keith said.
“I could ask you the same thing,” Lance said, smirking as he rose up and rested his elbows on the ledge of the pool. Keith frowned.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Keith said.
“Looks like someone was missing their cuddle buddy.”
Keith’s face went red, and he opened his mouth indignantly, but Lance was already cutting him off before he could respond or reiterate his question. “Come swim with me.”
“What, in my underwear?”
“Unless you wanna be naked,” Lance said. “Not that I would object.”
Keith kicked out at Lance, which he easily dodged, and then Keith was undressing without any more protest. “How’s the water?” he asked, taking a step closer to the edge. Lance was perfectly warmed up by now, having swam around so much, so he smiled innocently.
“Perfect!” he lied, and Keith took his word for it, jumping right in. Lance was laughing by the time Keith resurfaced, spluttering and shivering violently.
“You dick!” Keith laughed and lunged for Lance, making him shriek and dive out of the way. This kept repeating itself, Keith trying to catch Lance while he evaded him with everything he had, laughing so hard he kept choking on water.
He really hadn’t expected Keith to catch him — he’d thought his never utilized ancient swim team skills would ensure that — so he screamed when Keith caught his ankle and yanked him backwards through the water. Lance still tried to escape but Keith jumped onto his back and clung to him, legs wound around his waist, a single hand buried in his hair. They were both shouting and giggling as Lance rampaged through the water, both trying to knock Keith off and holding onto his legs so he wouldn’t actually fall.
In the end, Lance ended up backing up into a wall, pinning Keith against it with his body before turning around and grinning at his success.
“I win,” he said.
“How’s that?” Keith scoffed.
“I have you pinned against the wall,” Lance pointed out.
“Yeah, and I had you in a headlock two minutes ago,” Keith returned. Lance could see water clinging to his eyelashes, and as he watched, a droplet coalesced, growing heavier and heavier until it was dripping onto his cheek, sliding down its surface before coming to cling at the corner of his lip.
He had nice lips. Plump. Red. They looked a little chapped, like Keith bit them absentmindedly, and Lance felt his finger twitch by his side in a sudden urge to touch them.
“Lance,” Keith said quietly, and Lance watched his lips as they formed his name, tongue flicking in his mouth, lips barely parting in order to utter it. Automatically, Lance’s eyes flicked up to Keith’s, and he was already looking at Lance, his eyes kind of wide.
Land swallowed. “Yeah?” he managed, his voice oddly hoarse. They were so close together. Lance was still pinning him, their bodies pressed up against each other, one of Lance’s hands on one of Keith’s wrists, the other on his hip. When did that get there?
Keith opened his mouth to say something, but no words came out. Lance traced the movement of his eyes, watched as they flicked down to his own lips, and then he couldn’t help himself anymore. He closed to space between them, his hand abandoning Keith’s wrist to instead cup his face, and their lips brushed.
Slowly, at first, and tentatively. But after Lance got a taste he wanted more, and it heated up quickly. Between one moment and the next the soft brushes of their lips were gone; Keith was clinging to Lance, his legs having ended up wound around his waist again, and Lance was pressing him up against the wall, his hands roving all over him as their mouths met with force, hot and wet and good.
They kissed like they were running out of time, like this was their last kiss instead of their first, and Keith gasped as Lance trailed away from his mouth, kissing along his jaw and into the crook of his neck, lavishing in the groan Keith let out because of it. But he didn’t stay there for long, couldn’t, and so he was kissing Keith again, holding him close and desperate and feeling like for once, the world wasn’t just as shitty as it could be.
And then Keith shoved him away.
“Stop, stop,” he panted, unwinding himself from Lance, who stumbled back a step in the water while Keith pushed himself out of the pool.
“Keith, what— where are you going?” Lance asked desperately, moving to follow him. Keith was already walking away from the pool, leaving soaking footprints in his wake.
“We can’t do this,” he said lowly, sounding almost angry as he stopped by the towel wrack and started drying himself off roughly.
“What do you mean?” Lance demanded, except he sounded pleading instead of indignant. “Did you not enjoy that as much as I did?”
Keith paused for a moment, a soft look coming over his face for a split second, but then he was shaking his head. “Lance, we can’t,” he said firmly, and then he was shoving his towel in Lance’s chest and reaching for his clothes, pulling on his pants roughly.
“I don’t understand,” Lance said quietly, all the excitement and euphoria melting out of his body, leaving him feeling hollow and drained.
Keith sighed roughly. “We can’t let ourselves care about each other like that, okay?” he said finally, crossing his arms. It looked a little ridiculous when he wasn’t wearing a shirt, but Lance didn’t make any sort of joke about it. Didn’t think he could joke about it even if he wanted to.
“Why not?” Lance begged, because… Well, because, he kind of cared about Keith like that already. And maybe it was crazy. They hadn’t even known each other for an entire week, and yet his whole mind and body longed for him. Cuddling with him felt better than cuddling with anyone else, and Lance found himself speaking louder whenever Keith wasn’t in the room, hoping he was listening anyway. They’d fought deadheads together. Saved each other’s lives. Keith had witnessed Lance having a stupid panic attack over his stupid phobia and hadn’t even thought he was crazy, having any fear to spare when the world was now full of much realer dangers.
So was it totally insane that he was feeling like this already? These past few days had just stretched and stretched, feeling like ages had passed within them. And maybe feelings were amplified when there were so few people still left living.
Just… why couldn’t he feel this way about Keith? What was so bad about it?
“We’ll get ourselves killed,” Keith answered, sounding final. “We’ll take stupid risks for each other and neither of us can afford that. Not if we want to make it out of this.”
Lance scoffed. The sound surprised himself as much as it surprised Keith, and the words Lance actually said were even more jarring. “You really think we’re making it out of this?” he demanded, his voice cold and hard, now. “Come on,” he said, shaking his head. “None of us are making it out of this. No one.”
Keith’s mouth was hanging open. “You don’t believe that,” he said lowly. And Lance didn’t. Or at least, he tried to pretend he didn’t. Tried to be optimistic, to keep a brave face on. Tried to believe that he would find his family and someone would find a cure and everything could just go back to normal, one day.
Lance just shrugged. He felt hurt. Angry. That he’d come so close to finally having something he wanted after all this time and already it was yanked out of his grasp again. “We’re all going to die out here, Keith,” he said bitterly. And he was smiling, for some reason. “We might as well enjoy ourselves while we still can.”
“Stop talking like that,” Keith said, his voice going harsh now. “You… You need to go to bed. And stop thinking those things.”
And with that, Keith was gone, striding hurriedly out of the pool without even putting his shirt back on. Immediately, Lance felt bad. He didn’t really think all that stuff. They were just thoughts that sometimes passed through his head, that tried to plague him. But he always pushed them away, held onto his faith that things would work out, that they could make it through this. That they would be okay if they just stuck together — first him and Pidge and Hunk, but now everyone.
Lance sighed, plopping down on the edge of the pool and sticking his feet back in. He’d really screwed that up. Big time. If Keith seriously hadn’t wanted to pursue anything with him before, he definitely wouldn’t now. Not now that Lance had gone and said all those horrible things.
He still didn’t take Keith’s advice, though. Was sure he still wouldn’t be able to fall asleep, especially not now that he had even more horrible thoughts that could easily berate him. So he just jumped back into the pool and kept swimming laps, hoping that maybe that way he could keep his thoughts at bay.
Keith couldn’t stop thinking about the kiss.
It’d been days, and still his brain couldn’t seem to leave it alone, couldn’t stop ruminating over it like he could just experience it all again if he only thought about it hard enough. About how Lance’s lips had felt against his, soft and warm, and his hands on Keith’s body, hot against his skin. About the way he’d clung to Lance, wanted him closer, wanted to kiss him harder. He couldn’t stop thinking about how perfect it’d been, and how much he wanted more.
He also couldn’t stop thinking about how Lance’s demeanor had changed after Keith had pushed him away. The cold smile he’d worn, the pessimistic words he’d said, sounding like they should’ve come out of Keith’s mouth instead of his own.
All of it, Keith couldn’t stop thinking about, and that’s why he’d taken Coran’s corvette. Under the guise of gathering supplies, of course. Not that anyone really needed to know about it. It was the middle of the night, but if anyone realized he’d sneaked out he’d just say he was getting supplies, not running from his problems.
The car responded beautifully, despite the months it’d spent sitting abandoned in Coran’s garage. The hum of it under Keith, the engine roaring louder as he pressed down on the accelerator – it was amazing.
The roads here were all surrounded with trees, too, which meant he barely had to worry about the dead showing up. There were less of them out here, and the trees did a pretty good job of muffling the sound of a driving car, too.
Keith drove thoughtlessly until he found a road that looked promising, leading towards a relatively small town. He maneuvered along the less crowded streets and stopped once he started seeing more than one or two zombies dotting his surroundings, parking right in the middle of an intersection for an easy exit.
They weren’t exactly desperate for supplies, but it wasn’t like it hurt to have extra food around. Plus, Keith had needed an excuse to get away, even if it was the middle of the night. Or early morning, technically. It was just that he was having trouble sleeping these days. Maybe that was ridiculous, seeing as up until recently he’d been sleeping on his own for months, but those few nights surrounded by others in the ice cream truck had left him feeling safer than he ever did at night. He’d gotten actual, full nights of rest, unlike the fitful and anxiety-ridden sleep he usually experienced when he was camping it out on his own.
And the fact that Lance was avoiding him probably wasn’t making his sleep situation any easier. Keith had been totally prepared to just muster past the awkward atmosphere following him rejecting Lance, but he hadn’t gotten the chance. He’d scarcely seen hide nor tail of him in almost a week now, and it wasn’t like that was something that was going unnoticed.
“Did you and Lance get into a fight?” Pidge had asked the very day after they’d kissed. Probably because Lance had walked into a room, realized Keith was in it, and walked right back out.
“No,” Keith had said, and that had been that.
It just wasn’t fair. He liked Lance. Sure, he’d turned him down, but that was solely because of the situation they were in. And just because he didn’t want fuel his feelings for Lance didn’t mean he didn’t want to see him at all.
If the circumstances were different and falling in love with Lance wouldn’t just end up putting him in even more danger, Keith would’ve said yes to him in a heartbeat. The thought of experiencing it all, a relationship and love and sex, and with Lance of all people – God, Keith wanted it more than he wanted anything else. He’d never been able to make friends, so the thought of finding someone who’d actually want to date him had always been laughable. But now here Lance was, inexplicably attracted to him, and how funny was it that he was finally getting everything he’d ever wanted, though only after the rest of the entire world had gone to shit?
But he shouldn’t think about that. Shouldn’t think about how great that kiss had been, his first kiss, and how badly he wanted to experience it again. Shouldn’t think about Lance saying, Did you not enjoy that as much as I did?, or the feeling of his hands on Keith’s chest, of his fingers behind his back, pulling him closer. Shouldn’t think about how much he just wanted to be with Lance, because he wouldn’t be with him. Couldn’t. And that’s why he was here. He was going to kill zombies and let the adrenaline rush through him and forget about everything unimportant. Then he’d go back to The Castle and confront Lance for avoiding him. Maybe then all the awkward tension between them would fade away.
It was time to get moving.
Keith shut the car door behind him a little louder than he usually would have, wanting the chance to kill a rotter as soon as possible. His eyes were already well adjusted to the dark, seeing as none of the street-lamps were working anymore. It made the stars so much more prominent than he’d ever seen them before the Great Plague, which was something that always made him wonder. How could good things come out of such a bad thing? Sure, being able to see the stars was a minuscule amount of goodness compared to the Mount Everest of bad that was the zombie apocalypse, but still. It seemed like it should be impossible to enjoy anything, and yet Keith was constantly surprised by the little things he found himself appreciating. The stars. Toothpaste.
“Shut up,” Keith said aloud, shaking his head as if he could physically shake his thoughts away. Besides it being a bad idea to dwell on the thoughts he didn’t want to be dwelling on, he really did need to concentrate right now. The rotters definitely had the advantage at night, and it was in Keith’s best interest to be actually paying attention so he didn’t wind up dead. Then he’d really feel bad about having borrowed Coran’s car.
A zombie had already taken interest in Keith, walking quickly towards him despite its broken ankle. Keith unsheathed his sword, swinging it in a circle and satisfying in the feeling of it coming to a stop in his hand, blade pointed towards the road.
“Come and get it,” Keith said, glaring at the stupid, piece of shit, life-ruining corpse trying its best to pathetically run towards him. Anger fueled him, consumed him, and before the rotter could reach him he was running forward, swinging his sword with all his might. He cut the rotter’s head clean off, its body collapsing on the spot while its head went flying, rolling to a stop several feet away. Keith wiped its blood off his face before straightening his shoulders and walking towards the nearest convenience store.
He did what he’d done when he was raiding that store with Lance, grabbing the nearest heavy object and throwing it to the ground with a loud clatter. Deadheads came running and Keith killed them without mercy, aiming all his frustrations at them with every swing and slice of his sword. There was one close call, an incident where he slipped and nearly fell because of a pool of blood on the ground, but he righted himself and killed the last rotter with a grunt.
The convenience store was pretty barren at first-glance, but given enough patience Keith found a variety of goods to have made the trip worthwhile. Keith found cans of soup and beans under the edge of one shelf and a couple crushed bags of chips underneath an upturned cart. He continued like this throughout the store, picking up any other items that seemed particularly useful as well, like vitamins, a sewing kit, and a rare thing of bandages that happened to be sitting on the shelf.
All in all, it was a pretty good haul. Maybe not good enough to be worth mentioning, though, so he’d probably try to get back before everyone woke up and slip inside unnoticed. He was just doing a final sweep of the store to make sure he’d gotten everything when he heard a low groan from behind a door. Goosebumps rose along his arms as he stopped, staying still and listening harder for what was no-doubt the sound of a rotter behind that door.
The sound came again, so Keith shuffled closer, debating with himself. It wasn’t like he needed to kill whatever zombie was in there. And he didn’t know if there would be extra supplies of any sort behind the door. But his grip tightened automatically around the handle of his sword and he could feel his blood thrumming through his veins, his entire body eager to be in motion again, to let his adrenaline obscure his thoughts.
So Keith gripped the door handle lightly, turning it slowly so as not to make any noise. He only opened the door the barest of cracks, wanting to get a good look inside the room before he barged in.
Immediately, he was glad for his cautious decision. The inside of the room was for some reason filled with zombies, possibly having been corralled in here by some frequent visitors or something. In any case, going inside the room beyond would be idiotic. Rotters shuffled around restlessly, others sitting or leaning against walls, only a few of them bothering to make any noise at all without proper a stimulus.
Keith was just about to shut the door and book it out of there when something caught his eye: a bow.
For a second, his heart lurched, every system in his body running cold as he managed to convince himself that it was Lance with that bow situated on his back. But then his brain rebooted and logic filtered back in. Lance was still at the mansion. Even if he wasn’t, he couldn’t have become a zombie in so few hours. Plus, in a crowd this big, he’d sooner be devoured than turned.
So that just meant there was a zombie ambling around in this storage room with a bow on its back, which should mean nothing to Keith. He should still just close the door and head back to the mansion.
Key word: should.
Keith was already cursing himself as his eyes locked onto the quiver still slung over the same zombie’s shoulder. Somehow, it was almost completely full.
He doesn’t need it, Keith tried to convince himself, but he already knew this was wrong. Lance did need more arrows, possibly more than he needed anything else, bar finding his family. He’d already had so few to begin with, and he’d ended up losing another one the other day, which was Keith’s fault. He wouldn’t have lost it had Keith not needed him to shoot open that window.
Keith was still staring into the room, still watching the almost rhythmic shuffling of the corpses inside, eyes locked onto that quiver. Even if Lance needed the arrows, why should Keith be the one to get them for him?
…other than the fact that he’d costed Lance his arrow.
Was he really going to do this? At the very least, it would probably make Lance forgive him for the whole ‘not letting them be together’ thing. Not that Keith needed forgiveness, or that Lance even had the right to be mad about it in the first place. But he couldn’t deny the fact that this might smooth things over, nor that he desperately missed Lance’s company.
Against all logic, Keith decided to do it. Had probably decided to do it the second he’d seen those arrows. All this arguing with himself had just been him stalling.
The rotter was already relatively close to the door. If it wandered closer Keith could just grab it and yank it out of the room altogether. Then he could slam the door closed and only have to kill one of the damned things.
“Come on,” Keith breathed, urging the zombie closer. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the rotters’ movements, the lot of them bumping into each other without a care in the world. But maybe luck was on Keith’s side, because the rotter he wanted took a sudden turn towards the door, and Keith’s fingers tightened on its handle in preparation.
Sweat was beading along his forehead, and his hand was clammy against the doorknob. The zombie was getting closer and closer, nearly within reach, almost there…
Keith yanked open the door and grabbed for the zombie.
It was a mistake.
The room’s interior was larger than he’d first thought, having not been able to see into that well due to its lack of windows. Now with the door thrown wide open, it was clear to see that along with the room being much bigger than he’d realized, it was much more filled with the also dead.
Keith felt his mouth run dry, his knees giving in to shaking as he suddenly had a whole crowd of rotters turning their attention on him in delight.
“Oh fuck,” Keith managed, just as the zombie he’d landed a hand on turned in his grasp and gnashed its teeth at him. He jumped away from it just in time, his heart racing as he spun away and ran, cursing himself for not having grabbed the arrows. The sounds from behind him were horrifying, eager growls and moans, objects in the store rattling and crashing as they ran into things in their haste to get to him.
Keith stumbled out of sheer surprise when a deafening crash came from behind him, followed by another, and another…
A glance over his shoulder provided the image of the store’s shelves falling like dominoes, sounding like atomic bombs, and Keith turned the corner and sprinted towards the exit desperately. And then he skidded to a stop, nearly tripping over himself in his attempt to turn around, because more were pouring in from the street, no doubt attracted by all the sounds within the store.
Something snagged Keith’s shirt and he yanked himself away with a gasp, falling to the ground on accident. All around him were rotters, coming at him with gaping mouths, rotting fingers reaching for him, and a pathetic noise fell from Keith’s lips as he scrambled backwards along the floor. His back bumped into a shelf and Keith flipped over onto his hands and knees, crawling as fast as he could through the hole left between the domino-ed shelf and the ground. The hoard was still following him, of course, but only so many at a time could fit into the small opening.
When Keith emerged from the other side, it was to find the dead crawling through the nearby aisles as well as over the tops of shelves, getting stuck and losing clothing and limbs as they tumbled towards him. He turned and ran, breath heaving, and ended up back in the room where it’d all began. It was empty of rotters now, all of them having poured out to get to him, but there wasn’t a chance for Keith to close to door behind him — when he tried, it slammed onto an arm sticking itself through the opening and bounced back open.
Keith’s eyes roved around the room once, twice, and then he was tripping over his feet as he raced towards the back wall where some kind of storage chest was kept. He threw open the lid, the inside blissfully empty, and shoved himself in, closing the top after him.
His sweaty fingers held the lid shut as the sounds of the dead surrounded him, fists banging against the wood, which was doing nothing to lessen the sound of their groans and growls.
Keith sucked his lip into his mouth, his fingers already starting to hurt from the effort of keeping the lid down when everything out there wanted it up. He wondered how long he could keep this up. Wondered if the rotters would ever give up, or forget he was in here, maybe.
He just tried not to think about how much it felt like he was lying in a coffin.
Lance couldn’t sleep.
That wasn’t new, obviously. He hadn’t gotten a good night’s rest in far too long, and at this point he almost felt like he was the one that was a zombie when he got up in the mornings. Everyone else seemed perfectly happy about their sleeping situations, more alert and positive than ever, meanwhile Lance was struggling to get even a couple hours a night, plagued by nightmares and relentless paranoia. He guessed he was just lucky Coran apparently kept his guest bathrooms stocked with basic concealers, so Lance hid his under-eye bags and no one could question him about them.
It was times like these when he wished he could take a midnight drive. Whenever he’d been hit with a sleepless night in the past, usually because of stress and a brain that just wouldn’t shut up, he’d get up and go for a drive. There was something about it that’d always put him at ease. His troubles didn’t seem quite so significant like that, when he was driving under the moon, usually engulfed in a sweatshirt and not even wearing any shoes. But now it’d just be a waste of gas, and he couldn’t do that to his friends.
The fact that he was so stressed out about Keith probably wasn’t helping his sleepless situation either. He felt horrible. The kiss had been nice, sure, but it’d been stupid of him to get mad at Keith for not wanting to be with him. It didn’t matter if they were both attracted to each other; if Keith thought being in a relationship with him made it more likely that he’d wind up dead, then that was simply his decision to make.
Knowing that didn’t make Lance any happier about it, but still.
Anyway, he didn’t feel like he could face Keith. Didn’t know what Keith thought about him after he’d said those horrible things. Didn’t know what Keith would say to him, or if he’d even look at him. So Lance had made the executive decision to avoid him until the end of time. So far, it was working out pretty well.
Lance huffed as he turned onto his other side, glaring at the wall beside him in a bid for sleep. Nothing’s coming to get me, he thought to himself, knowing it was true. Nothing had come to get him the last several nights and nothing would come to get him tonight. Coran had been living here alone for months, for God’s sake.
Determined, Lance closed his eyes and refused to open them again until it was morning.
Surprisingly, it worked. Sure, he laid there for what felt like hours, at first, but eventually he was waking up, not even realizing he’d finally fallen asleep. He still felt tired, but suitably less tired than usual, so that was at least a little bit relieving.
He went about his morning routine, once again surprised by how different (read: normal) this now was for him. No spitting toothpaste onto the street, no rubbing his face and neck and hands with a wet wipe in an attempt to feel a little bit cleaner. Instead, he carefully turned on the tap, making sure not to put their precious reserve of water to waste, and actually washed his face.
By the time he got down to breakfast, everyone was at the table besides Keith, who’d presumably already eaten and left. Lance sat himself down in an empty chair, still in his pajamas, and rubbed his hands eagerly.
“What’re we eating?” he asked.
“We found canned peaches in the back of Coran’s pantry,” Hunk answered, and Lance practically drooled as a bowl filled with peaches was pushed towards him. He dug in, listening to the conversation around him.
“…and that’s when I realized the alien was my mom. Oh! And I was also a robot. Except I think I was also Harry Potter,” Pidge was saying to Shiro, who was nodding politely at the rendition of her dream.
“So, how was being a movie star?” Hunk said to Coran, half a peach hanging out of his mouth.
“It was fun! But it was also work,” he said wisely. “Did you have a job before all this?”
“Oh, yeah. I mean, I was in college – me, Lance, and Pidge all were – but I was also working at the auto-repair shop right nearby. I got to fix up some of the coolest cars, sometimes…”
“Is that so?” Coran said, and he sounded curious in a way that was actually curious, not just polite. “I could show you my cars, if you would like.”
“You know what? That would be awesome,” Hunk said, genuinely excited, and when Coran stood up, Hunk scrambled up after him.
Lance slurped a peach into his mouth loudly.
“You have an eye-booger,” Romelle said, sitting beside Lance and pointing at Allura’s face. “No, the other side.”
“Did I get it?”
“Mmm… Yeah,” Romelle decided, before shoving an entire peach slice in her mouth.
Lance jerked, already annoyed at himself that his brain seemed to be constantly tuned in to the Keith station, and turned to look at Shiro, who had spoken. “What?”
“I said, has anyone seen Keith?”
Lance speared another peach. “Did he not eat breakfast already?”
“I haven’t seen him,” Allura pitched in.
“Maybe he’s still sleeping,” said Pidge.
Shiro shook his head. “He’s not really one for sleeping in.”
The garage door burst open, interrupting Pidge. Both Hunk and Coran were standing in the doorway, looking pale and wide-eyed.
“What is it?” Allura said immediately, already standing. She had a knife in her hand, meaning she’d had a knife stashed in her pajamas, and Lance wasn’t sure which one of them was the insane one, considering his weapons were still upstairs.
“Red’s gone,” Coran said.
“Red?” said Shiro.
“The corvette!” Coran clarified, waving his hand quickly through the air. “It’s gone!”
It was Pidge who spoke up next, her eyebrows furrowed. “You don’t think…” she said slowly, and Lance caught on to what she meant, his eyes widening. Shiro looked stricken.
“I… I don’t…” he said.
“No,” Lance said, interrupting Shiro’s quiet attempt at speaking. “First let’s check and make sure Keith’s really not here, all right?”
So everyone split up. Shiro went to Keith’s room, moving at a sprint to see if Keith had taken to sleeping in for once, and everyone else went to wherever their own hunches led them. Lance went down to the pool, disappointed when he found it empty, and joined in with everyone else’s voices echoing around the mansion, calling for Keith.
They were all back in the kitchen within minutes, Keith clearly nowhere to be found. Lance had rushed back into the kitchen expecting cacophony, but everyone was strangely silent. It wasn’t until Hunk spoke that Lance realized what they were all thinking.
“I can’t believe he would leave us,” he said, voice quiet. Thin.
“I can’t believe he would steal Coran’s car,” Allura said, her tone much harsher than Hunk’s. Shiro lips were pursed, looking like he could believe it (was there a story there?), but Lance was already shaking his head. He wouldn’t leave them without notice like that.
“He’s coming back,” Lance said. “All right? Think of how long he’s spent trying to find Shiro. He didn’t go through all that just to abandon him.”
Everyone looked relieved at that, tension easing out of their stances, but Pidge’s eyebrows were furrowed. She had her Thinking Face activated.
“When did he leave, though?” she asked, eyes roving critically over all of them. “I mean, I’ve been up since six and I didn’t hear the garage open. So even if he left at say, five, then he’s been gone for three hours.”
Hunk looked sick. “Oh God,” he said. “He could be in danger.”
“We have to go after him.” Everyone turned to look at Lance, and Lance realized it was him who’d spoken.
“How will we know where to go?” Hunk asked, still looking anxious. “He could’ve gone anywhere!”
“We’ll split up,” Lance said. He expected objections – even looked to Shiro in preparation for it – but everyone looked just as scared and determined as him. They wanted to find Keith, and badly.
It wasn’t long before they were moving out. They were all quick to get dressed and gather their weapons, knowing they didn’t have a moment to waste.
Lance had knives strapped to both sides of his waist, just in case he ended up needing more than his arrows, and everyone else seemed to be decked out in extra weapons as well. They all gathered in the driveway, where Coran was dolling out car keys. Hunk looked nervous, carefully holding a set in his hand, but Pidge looked ecstatic.
“Lance!” Coran greeted. “You can take the one at the end of the driveway,” he said, holding out another pair of keys to Lance, but he shook his head.
“I’ve got Blue,” he said, holding up his own car keys. They jangled cheerfully, the key clinging against the little shooting star charm on it that Hunk had found for him in a gas station once.
“Are you sure?”
“It’d feel wrong without her,” Lance said simply, and then he was looking around at everyone, whose expressions had hardened. “Are we all ready?”
“Yes,” Shiro said. “Lance, Pidge, and Hunk – I want you guys to take a right out of the driveway and go in that direction. You’ll have to decide where to split up from there, so try to think of places Keith would’ve gone to. Allura and Romelle – you’re with me. We’ll go left and do the same. Coran?”
“Got it down pat, my boy,” Coran said, tapping his nose. “I’ll man the house in case Keith returns.”
“Perfect,” Shiro said. He didn’t sound nervous like he had back in the kitchen – just determined. “Let’s go everyone. And… thank you all for doing this.”
“No need to thank us, Shiro,” Lance assured him, already breaking off from the others towards Blue, who was still parked at the top of the driveway. “We’re a team now.” Shiro’s expression softened, just for a moment, and then Lance was slamming the door shut behind him and buckling himself in.
“We’ll find him,” he said to himself. He wiped his hands on his jeans, his palms already having grown clammy, and jammed the key in the ignition. Blue rumbled to life and Lance waited at the end of the driveway for Hunk and Pidge to catch up to him in their own cars. Then, he led the way, driving down the forested roads and keeping his eyes peeled for anything that might’ve caught Keith’s attention.
For a while there were no turn-offs, and the first few that came up just led to more narrow, wooded roads. It wasn’t until Lance ended up on a wider road that things started to look more promising. He figured Keith wouldn’t have just left the mansion and gone for a drive, which meant he had to have had some sort of objective or destination in mind. Lance turned on his blinker for the next turn and waved goodbye to Pidge and Hunk, who would hopefully find good places to look for Keith as well.
After only another few minutes of driving, buildings began to crop up, soon followed by a town center. Zombies were ambling along the streets, wandering aimlessly around the buildings, and Lance began driving carefully down the roads, back and forth, looking for any sign that Keith might be nearby.
He’d nearly given up, beginning to assume Keith had ended up someplace else, when he turned a corner and saw a car in pristine condition sitting right in the middle of an intersection. Seconds after noticing this, Lance wondered just how in the world he’d managed to spot that first, considering the teeming crowd of dead causing a ruckus at the convenience store just behind it.
And then Lance’s stomach dropped.
Because why else would there be a literal crowd of zombies within the convenience store if there wasn’t something in there that they were after? Lance’s heart rate shot right up, anxiety and dread flooding his entire body, but he forced himself to calm down. They wouldn’t still be acting like this if whatever was in there wasn’t still alive, right? So assuming Keith was actually in that building, he was somehow, someway, holding his own. And he no doubt needed help ASAP.
Lance didn’t know what to do. There was no time to go back and get help from everyone else, especially considering Lance had no idea how long Keith had been trapped in there. And it wasn’t like he could thin this crowd out on his own – he only had five arrows, and even with the knives he brought, he stood no chance against a swarm like that. His only option was to somehow get Keith out of there without having to fight off the crowd.
If only Hunk were here. He had weirdly specific knowledge about things like architecture and towns and would probably be able to decide if the city planners had done something nifty with the sewage system beneath the town grid. Hunk wasn’t here, though, and Lance wasn’t about to start wandering around the sewers with the obscure hope that he’d somehow end up inside that convenience store.
How else could he get Keith out of there, though? Or how could he lead the crowd away?
And just like that, a lightbulb went off in his head. There was no time to think about it, no time to debate how well it would even work. One moment, Lance was sitting there, staring at the horrifying crowd of corpses trying to get to his friend, and then he was smacking his hand down on the buttons along with driver’s side window, ice cream music immediately blaring out of Blue.
Just like that, he had their attention. There was a moment of silence from them, their sounds cutting off as they tried to figure out what this new noise was, and then they were turning towards Lance, running at him with newfound hunger.
Lance shifted gears and floored it. Blue shot off like a rocket, Lance whipping her around corners one handed as he led his progression of zombies throughout the town. More joined the crowd, coming out of buildings and alleyways to chase the sound for all they were worth, and Lance led them steadily away, all the while trying to figure out just what he was supposed to do now.
He realized he really only had one option and it sent a pang straight through his heart.
“Come and get it, assholes,” Lance growled to himself, taking a moment to sling his bow and quiver uncomfortably around his neck before he turned one last corner, his eyes settling on his target. It was a store with a mostly glass front, and he drove towards it without slowing down, shifting his right hand from the gearshift to the wheel and his left from the wheel to the door handle.
Lance clenched his eyes shut as he crashed through the glass, its shattering deafening around him, and threw open the door a second later, jumping out of it and stumbling away. Blue continued onward, crashing into shelf after shelf, and the zombie hoard followed after her, only a few taking notice as Lance sprinted across the store. He yanked open a door and disappeared into the stairwell behind it in seconds, managing to close it again before anything could follow him.
That didn’t stop their attempts at getting to him, though, and with nothing better to block the door with, Lance relinquished one of his knives, shoving it in between the door’s handles before sprinting up the stairs, not sure how long it would hold for.
Honestly, he was just lucky this building had a second floor, and he happily kicked the glass out of a window in order to climb onto the roof and escape from there. Down on the road, there were still a ton of rotters swarming in and around the building, but Lance ignored them as he backed up a step and sprinted towards the edge of the roof, making a running leap to the next one.
He did this for a couple buildings until his legs ached and he was pretty sure he wouldn’t survive another one, and then he let himself climb down. There were less zombies here, and Lance didn’t have to kill a single one as he made his way back to the convenience store, now no longer overflowing with the dead.
The inside of the store was a mess. The shelves were all knocked down, stacked up against each other and laying on their sides on the floor. Supplies that hadn’t already been stolen were scattered around everywhere, in even worse disarray because of the number of corpses that’d been ambling around in here.
Lance realized he could still hear the sound of rotters, though it was considerably quieter than the sound that’d come from that huge crowd. He followed the noise, moving quietly within the store until he came to a door which was propped open, the inside filled with enough rotters to surround some sort of box, all of them pounding and clawing at it desperately.
This, Lance could handle. He grabbed his bow off his back, having moved it from where he’d had it slung around his neck at some point in his wild sprinting, and pointed it towards the zombies within the room, none of them having taken notice of him yet. Even when Lance lined up an arrow and shot it, they still didn’t notice.
After the second one went down, though, he gained their attention. Lance took out two more with his arrows before he had to start running away from them, shooting down a third while he did. He reached back automatically for his last arrow before cursing internally, remember that had been his last arrow. So he yanked his knife out of his belt, suddenly feeling horribly inadequate.
There was only one more chasing him, though, so Lance ended up throwing the knife, breathing a sigh of relief when it actually struck its target, the rotter collapsing where it stood. Lance yanked his knife back out of the corpse with a gross squelch, making a note to retrieve his arrows after he’d retrieved his Keith.
“God, you’re still here?” Lance scoffed as he stepped into the room, one last, persistent rotter groaning desperately as it tried to get inside what Lance could now see was a chest. It turned to him, hands reaching out for him, and Lance let it get close enough before stabbing his knife through the side of its head, cringing where he could feel one of its hands clenching his shirt. He shook the dead(er) body off and stepped towards the chest, slowing down automatically.
“Keith?” he called tentatively, coming to a stop before the box. He reached for the lid and pulled it up carefully, not knowing what to expect.
Keith flinched as it opened, his face tear-streaked, and a sob escaped him when he saw it was just Lance. He tried to push himself to his feet, his fingers wet with blood against the edge of the chest, and Lance reached to help, pulling him up into a hug the second he was on his feet.
He was shaking in Lance’s grasp, his face wet against his neck, and Lance just rubbed his back, whispered into his hair. “You’re okay,” he promised him. “You’re okay, Keith, I’m here.” Keith squeezed him harder.
Lance almost didn’t want to know, but the question was burning inside him, and he could taste it on his tongue before he’d even decided to say it. “How long have you been in there?”
Keith shook his head against Lance’s neck. After a moment, he croaked, “I d-don’t know. H-hours.”
He sank even further into Lance’s arms when he lifted a hand and ran his fingers through his hair. Eventually, he managed to pull himself away from Lance, straightening up and wiping his eyes with a deep breath.
“You ready to go?” Lance asked, resisting the urge to reach out and hug Keith even more.
Keith was halfway through a nod before his eyes widened and he said, “Wait.” With that, he walked over to the nearest zombie, examined it, and left the room.
“What the – Keith!” Lance yelled, following after him as Keith scoured the zombies littered around the store, growing more and more frustrated with each one. Lance was just about ready to put an end to this, seeing as Keith had clearly lost some of his mind in those hours spent inside a wooden box, when Keith suddenly let out a triumphant noise.
He ducked down, yanked something off the corpse before him, and stood back up, turning to face Lance.
In his hand was a bundle of arrows.
Lance felt his jaw drop, his eyes bulging as he looked between the arrows in Keith’s bloody hand and the hardened look on his face.
“You didn’t,” Lance said, voice quiet.
“Didn’t get trapped in a chest for hours surrounded by a hoard of zombies for me.”
If it was possible, Keith’s face hardened even more. “Of course not,” he said, voice gruff. “Just take the damn arrows, Lance.”
Lance took them. He wasn’t about to give up the chance for new arrows, even if Keith was idiotic to risk his life for them. And with the brand-new arrows combined with the arrows Lance now went back to collect, he had a whopping amount of 16.
Together, they left the convenience store, heading straight towards Coran’s car. It wasn’t until they got to it, Lance relegating Keith to the passenger seat after the ordeal he’d just gone through, that Keith’s eyebrows furrowed.
“Wait,” he said. “How did you get here?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Lance told him, and he started the car, ignoring how wrong the sound of its engine starting was to him. Of course, it was only a minute or two later that he was driving past the site of his crash. The music had stopped the second he’d plowed through the window, but the dead were still hanging around, much too interested in a now empty and likely totaled vehicle. Keith turned to look as they drove past and Lance kept his gaze steely and on the road, not wanting to see his precious baby Blue nor the look on Keith’s face when he realized the cause for the commotion.
“Oh my God,” he said, and Lance gritted his teeth. “That’s why they left?” he said incredulously, turning to look at Lance.
“I had to get them away somehow,” Lance said.
“Is just a truck,” Lance interrupted, ignoring the fact that he knew that wasn’t all it was. In the past months, it’d become a home. They had random knick-knacks hung up. Post-it note drawings on the walls and stuffed animals lining the dashboard. Their initials were scratched into one of the freezers, and in the past days, Lance had noticed new ones cropping up. There were memories and emotions tied to that truck, that apocalyptic home, and now they were all gone.
“You shouldn’t have had to sacrifice her for me,” Keith said quietly. “I’m sorry.”
Lance scoffed. “And you shouldn’t have risked your life to get me more arrows. We’re even.”
Keith fell silent, and Lance glanced over at him, worried, only to find him sitting there with his mouth hanging open.
“What?” Lance said.
“I… risked my life,” Keith muttered.
“Yeah, and it was pretty dumb. Don’t do it again.”
“No, I… I took a stupid risk. And we’re not – we’re not even…”
At first, Lance frowned in confusion, but then a memory burst into the forefront of his mind with clarity and he was grinning, despite all that had happened.
Why not? he’d begged nearly a week ago, now, having been kiss-drunk and desperate and wanting nothing more than to be with Keith.
We’ll get ourselves killed, Keith had said. We’ll take stupid risks for each other.
Lance’s grin was lecherous. Keith was ignoring him steadfast, staring hard out the windshield. “And we’re not even together,” Lance finished for him, relishing in the blush that rose to Keith’s cheeks almost instantaneously.
Keith glanced at Lance out of the corner of his eye and Lance let his expression smooth out. He reached out a hand, resting it casually on the console between them, his palm upturned.
“If you want to take stupid risks for me, fine,” Lance said, driving with one hand determinedly. That was one benefit about an automatic. “But if you want to at least kiss me first before you do them… Well. I think that’d be fine too.”
Keith said nothing. For a good few moments, he said nothing. But that didn’t prevent him from picking up his hand and placing it in Lance’s own, letting Lance interlock their fingers and curl his around Keith’s palm. Keith continued to say nothing the entire drive home, but each time Lance squeezed his hand, he squeezed right back.
Everyone was relieved when Lance showed up with Keith. He was the last one back, which made sense seeing as he’d been the one to actually find him, and everyone else was gathered together in the driveway, having been debating what they should do next.
Lance had to park the car early due to everyone running towards it, Shiro yanking open Keith’s door before he could do so himself. Keith was out of the car and wrapped up in a hug before he could say a word. Pidge hugged him too, always more emotional than she pretended to be, and Keith looked like he didn’t know what to do with himself.
“Coran,” he ended up saying, speaking over everyone’s questions and demands to know what had happened. “I’m sorry I took your car without asking.”
“No harm, no foul,” he said, clapping Keith heartily on the shoulder. “I’m just glad you’re okay.”
“Where were you, anyway?” Hunk said, glancing between Lance and Keith.
“Surrounded by a zombie hoard — no biggie, I saved him. Anyone else hungry for lunch?”
Keith seemed to appreciate the shift in attention, and though conversation inevitably came back to him several times throughout the meal, Lance did his best to move it right along. Similarly, when questions about Blue arose, Keith took over. And soon, everything shifted back into normalcy. Everyone stopped pestering Keith about his near-death experience and went about their own activities. Pidge disappeared to the greenhouse room, having been attempting to bring Coran’s plants back to life, and Hunk followed right after her, usually easily invested in her projects. Lance had no idea what Coran did in his free time, but he left the kitchen with a salute and a pat to Keith’s head, quickly followed up with a pat to Lance’s. Allura and Romelle decided they were going to try to bake something so the rest of them evacuated, Shiro giving Keith another firm hug before retreating down the hallway. Based on the way he was rubbing the stump of his arm, Lance assumed he was on his way to ice it.
“And then there were two,” Lance said unsubtly, leaning back against the wall to look at Keith, who rolled his eyes.
“And then there was one,” he said, raising his eyebrows at Lance and spinning on his heel to walk down the hall.
“Hey!” Lance said, offended, and immediately followed after him. “Can we... Can we talk?”
Keith’s hand was resting on the handle of his katana. Probably more out of habit than an actual desire to run Lance through with it, but it made him a little nervous nonetheless.
“About what?” he said. It came out softly, though Lance doubted he’d really intended for it to sound like that.
“Us,” Lance said, waving his hand between them and floundering a bit. “Keith, I... I was really scared when we couldn’t find you this morning, you know? And all I could think about was how I’d been avoiding you these past few days, and I just... I really like you. I want to be with you always. I want to shoot every zombie that even looks at you in the face. I know now isn’t the best time to get into a relationship, but so what? I want to kiss you, dude.”
Keith looked stunned. Lance didn’t know why, considering he already knew exactly how Lance felt. And then... “I can’t believe you just called me dude,” he said, “after saying you wanted to kiss me.”
“It was a romantic ‘dude’,” Lance decided hastily, before reaching for Keith’s hand. He was totally about to pull him closer, try to woo him into a kiss, but he suddenly remembered the state of his hands. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s go get you bandaged up.”
So Lance led them to the infirmary — because apparently when you were a crazy rich movie star, you had that kind of thing. It was full of all their medicine and supplies, save for the few they’d kept on themselves, just in case.
Lance had Keith jump up on the table and grabbed all the supplies they needed, claiming he’d do it for him.
“I don’t need you to take care of me,” Keith muttered as Lance grabbed one of his hands. He opened the bottle of hydrogen peroxide and dabbed it onto Keith’s fingers, carefully cleaning them. They were cut up and rubbed raw after holding onto the inside of that chest for so many hours.
“I want to,” Lance said seriously, and it was true. He wanted to kiss Keith when he woke up and punch him when he did something dangerous and put him back together when he got hurt.
Lance put bandaids on each of Keith’s injured fingers, before finally bringing his hands up to his mouth and pressing a kiss against his knuckles. Keith scoffed. “You’re totally some sort of romantic, aren’t you?”
“You secretly love it,” Lance decided, and while Keith rolled his eyes, he didn’t deny it, nor did he tug his hands away. Lance wanted to kiss him, but he didn’t. He was going to make Keith wait for it, because he knew he wanted it too, even if he wasn’t saying it out loud. He was going to make Keith make the first move.
He was going to hold back, going to tease Keith with touches and stares until Keith was desperate to kiss him again. Smiling, Lance patted Keith’s legs and let him hop off the table, knowing this was going to be fun.
When Lance knocked, it was so quiet, so tentative, he half expected Keith not to hear it. And maybe that was his intention. Nonetheless, Keith was a hardened zombie apocalypse survivor, and just because a sound was quiet didn’t mean he was unaware of it. His door was opening moments later, Keith standing shirtless and barefoot before him.
“What’s up?” he said.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Lance answered. “I mean, I know I just went to my room and couldn’t have actually tried to sleep yet, but I know I can’t. I haven’t been able to sleep since we got here.”
Keith was smiling. It was that kind of smile where he was trying not to but it was bleeding through anyway. Finally, he broke completely, his teeth showing for a split second before he asked, “You want me to invite you in?”
“That’d be nice.”
Keith stepped aside, holding the door open.
“Thanks,” Lance said, shuffling inside. He came to a stop in the middle of the room, his hand wrapped around the walkie-talkie in his pocket, suddenly feeling like it’d been a mistake to bring it.
“You can sit on the bed, you know,” Keith said, sounding amused. “It’s not like we haven’t slept in one together before.”
“I know,” Lance said hastily, his thumb now twisting anxiously around the end of the walkie-talkie’s antenna. “It’s just — I sort of have a nighttime routine?” He turned to face Keith, finding him standing there with his eyebrows raised. “It’s not weird, I promise,” he assured him immediately, before digging the walkie-talkie out of his pocket. “It’s just this walkie-talkie thing.”
“Oh, I’ve seen you doing that,” Keith said.
Lance blanched. “You have?” He watched as Keith’s face grew red, his mouth opening and closing a few times as he tried to figure out what to say.
“I mean, uh... in passing?”
Lance just shook his head, more amused than annoyed. He wondered when Keith had been watching him, had seen him do it. “You mind, then?”
“Not at all,” Keith said hastily, appearing glad that Lance wasn’t mad at him. He waved him on. “Go right ahead.”
So Lance sat on the edge of Keith’s bed and turned his radio on, twisting the knob to the second station. “Two,” it said.
Lance cleared his throat and pressed the button. “Mami, Marco, Luis, Veronica.” Paused. Waited. “Nadia, Sylvio, Matias.”
Keith sat down next to him on the bed. “Four,” said the walkie-talkie.
“Mami, Marco, Luis, Veronica…” Keith’s hand found his as he spoke into the walkie-talkie, and Lance gripped it like a lifeline as he continued through the even stations.
Doing this was always hard, but with Keith here… it seemed to be hitting him harder. Lance paused about halfway through, his hands shaking. He was just planning on waiting a moment, taking a breather so he wouldn’t start crying or something, but Keith reached over and gently pried the device from Lance’s hand. He switched the station. “Twelve.”
“Mrs. McClain,” he said, his voice quiet but sure. “Marco, Luis, Veronica. Nadia, Sylvio, Matias.”
Lance’s heart swelled three times its size in his chest. He felt full to the bursting, thankful and emotional and overwhelmed. He curled into Keith, resting his head on his shoulder as Keith continued to the next station and went through their names again.
Talking into the walkie-talkie had become something that was so personal to Lance — enough so that the thought of doing it in front of anyone else, much less having them do it for him, hadn’t even crossed his mind. Somehow, though, this just felt right. Trying and failing to contact his family every night had become such a heavy, if invisible, burden. But Keith had stepped right up and shouldered it alongside him, no questions asked.
Together, the two of them sat through the silence that was always the heaviest, the one that followed the sixteenth station, before Keith broke it.
“Come on,” he said gently, using their still connected hands to tug Lance up. “Let’s go brush our teeth and then we can cuddle.”
Lance snorted, getting to his feet and purposefully bumping their shoulders together. “You’re totally a cuddle-monster, aren’t you?” he accused, feeling horribly fond when Keith rolled his eyes. “Like, you pretend you don’t like it that much when in reality you’re totally in it for the cuddles.”
Keith denied this (vehemently) but he still climbed a little too happily into bed with Lance, who wondered if maybe he hadn’t been having the easiest time sleeping either. All of this was still pretty hard to believe, too. Lance had woken up that morning thinking it’d be another day of expending all his energy on avoiding Keith, guilty and despondent after all he’d said to him, and now they were laying in the same bed, Keith warm and soft and adorable in his arms. His face was tucked into Lance’s chest and his arm was settled so lightly and carefully over his waist, as if he was trying to cuddle him while touching him the least amount possible.
Lance just tugged him closer, wrapping himself fully around Keith, and let his eyes fall closed, feeling safe and sleepy for the first time since they’d arrived at The Castle.
Keith was going insane. It was just that he and Lance had been sleeping in the same bed for longer than a week now and Lance still hadn’t kissed him. At this point, he had no idea what was going on. All he wanted was for Lance to kiss him again, just like he had in the pool. He kept waiting and waiting and waiting for it and it kept not happening.
Maybe there was some kind of relationship protocol he didn’t know about. He’d never been in one before, after all, so he couldn’t be entirely sure, but he figured if there was he would’ve at least heard of it by now somehow. He was this close to asking Shiro what he was doing wrong, but that would mean telling him about Lance, and about liking Lance, and about his feelings, and… ugh. No thank you.
Keith was determined to figure it out on his own. He just wished Lance would help him along a little bit. Give him a hint, maybe. He’d been pretty sure that they were like, together, after that little speech Lance had given in the hallway and all the hand-holding that had followed, but maybe he was wrong. Or maybe Lance just didn’t want to kiss him again, for some reason.
Except that didn’t make any sense, because Keith kept getting the feeling that Lance wanted to kiss him, too. Like the other day, everyone had gone out to set up a booby-trap perimeter around the mansion, figuring it was a good idea to further shore up their defenses. They’d split off into pairs and Keith and Lance had ended up together. It’d been a particularly warm day, for late fall, and the chore had had Keith working up a sweat, so he’d taken off his shirt. He’d been able to feel Lance’s eyes on him, after that, and he’d been so sure that Lance was going to just push him up against a tree and kiss him for all he was worth, but he never did.
And then there was their nights in bed together. Keith had never known that sleeping in someone’s arms could feel so good. Lance had absolutely no shame, practically manhandling Keith at night to arrange them into the comfiest position possible. Keith allowed it because he liked it too, and he always wanted to pull Lance ever closer, wanted to touch him more, to kiss him…
Sometimes, it seemed like they would. They spent a lot of time alone together, a lot of hours spent talking about everything and nothing all at once. Lance seemed to like touching Keith while he talked, playing with his hair or rubbing his hands over his arms. But then, if the conversation got too serious, Lance felt the need to break the tension by tickling Keith, who would then, in turn, feel the need to wrestle Lance in revenge. It wasn’t rare that one of them got pinned by the other, but on the occasions when it was Keith underneath Lance, he was so sure he was going to kiss him.
He’d be laying there, panting, wrists pressed against the bed and Lance’s bodyweight holding him down. They’d be close, their breaths mingling, their lips almost close enough to brush. Keith would see Lance glance at his lips, and every fiber within Keith would beg him to do it. He’d close his eyes and wait, wait, wait…
And then Lance would pull away.
He was driving him insane.
“Wait a minute,” Lance said now, breaking Keith out of his thoughts. They were all gathered around the dining table, though they’d finished their meal long ago. A card game sat abandoned between Allura, Romelle, Shiro, and Pidge, and Lance was staring at Shiro with wide eyes. “You’re gay too?”
Keith blinked. How the hell did the conversation turn here?
“Yes,” Shiro said, sounding amused.
“Oh my God,” Lance said, but he was getting this wicked grin on his face, looking far too excited at the prospect of Shiro being gay when he was, for all intents and purposes, dating Keith. Even if he wouldn’t kiss him.
“What?” Pidge said, but Lance ignored her, turning to Coran.
“Coran,” he said conversationally, “Would you consider yourself straight?”
Coran laughed. “I’d love anyone deserving of it, my boy! Er, how come?”
Lance didn’t hear him though, because now he was grinning wildly and leaning forward over the table in excitement. “Oh my God,” he repeated.
“Are you going to tell us what it is or just keep saying ‘oh my God’?” Pidge demanded. Lance giggled.
“I just figured something out,” he said. Everyone glared at him, tired of his crypticness, and finally he said, “Would anyone here consider themselves cishet?”
Keith felt his face grow hot. He wasn’t ashamed of himself or anything, but he was a pretty private person in general. He didn’t really go around talking about his sexuality all that often. Only Shiro knew. And… well, Lance, now.
He didn’t raise his hand, though, and after a moment passed, he realized nobody was. Lance was giggling again.
“Oh my God,” Pidge said, sounding just as excited as Lance had. Finally, Lance burst into outright laughter.
“C-can you b-believe zombies came to get rid of the cishets?!” Lance said, actually wheezing now. Everyone else was joining in, and even Keith felt amused.
“I never realized Keith was one of the gays,” Pidge said conversationally, leaning forward in her seat to look down at him. Shiro snorted, probably because he’d helped Keith come to terms with himself a long time ago, but Keith ignored him and raised two fingers at Pidge in a wry salute.
“Me neither,” Lance said happily. “Uh, until recently.”
“You’ve always been the best at sniffing us out,” Pidge said happily.
“I know, right?” Lance said. “That’s why I only had gay friends in college. Yay us!”
Hunk snorted. “We had straight friends, Lance.”
Lance scoffed. “Betcha they’re dead now.” It was so morbid, but everything was so morbid, these days, so they all burst into laughter.
“I can’t believe the apocalypse is a gays only event,” Romelle chimed in. Keith could hardly believe it. He was kind of horrible at reading people, so he hadn’t really expected it from anyone. Except Shiro, obviously, and yet everyone here was gay.
He hadn’t even expected it out of Lance, not really. He hadn’t been sure until they were in the pool together, and Lance was pressing him against the wall, and then kissing him…
God. He couldn’t stop thinking about kissing him.
After what Lance was calling “The Gay Revolution” and the subsequent revelation of everyone’s identities (side note: how had Keith not realized Allura and Romelle were dating?), the gathering started to break up. There were usually certain ways this happened. Lance tended to stick with Pidge and Hunk, and Keith usually tagged along with whoever Shiro was hanging out with. Lately, however, Keith and Lance had been splitting off on their own, which led him to wonder how nobody had yet to realize that they were romantically involved.
“What d’you wanna do?” Lance asked as they strolled down the hall, away from the kitchen. His hand caught Keith’s, totally casual and unthinking, but it raised butterflies in Keith’s stomach nonetheless.
“Maybe you could teach me to shoot your bow,” Keith teased, but Lance took it seriously, and ten minutes later they were standing in a giant and typically unused rec room, Lance’s equipment situated on his back. “I don’t think I’m going to be good at this,” Keith warned him.
“Don’t worry, I’ll teach you,” Lance assured him for the hundredth time. He handed Keith his bow and showed him how to hold it, adjusting and readjusting his grip and position and stance a million times. The string dug painfully into Keith’s fingers, and Keith couldn’t help but wonder how Lance managed to do this all the time without even seeming to think. Keith kept having to raise his elbow back up, realign his feet, stop thinking about the blood throbbing in his fingers from holding onto the bowstring. Meanwhile Lance just got this intense look on his face and moved. He’d turn, an arrow in hand, and it’d be flying the second he got the string pulled back, slamming straight into its target a second later.
It seemed impossible.
And maybe, for Keith, it was. Lance had drawn some makeshift targets on the wall mats across the room with chalk, and Keith’s first shot didn’t even go anywhere near them. Same with his second, and third, and fourth.
Lance tried to help him, tried to show him his own stance (hitting a bullseye while he was at it, because he was just That Good), but even that didn’t really help. Maybe it was because Lance looked so good when he was shooting. It was distracting, looking at all the straight lines of his body, his muscles taut, his face serious when it was so often caught up in a smile.
“Here,” Lance said, when Keith tried and again failed to land an arrow anywhere near his target. “Like this.” He came up behind Keith, his hands landing on his waist to readjust his position, hot even through Keith’s shirt. Then Lance’s hand came up to hold Keith’s arm steady, the other latching onto his raised elbow before helping him aim a little better. “Breathe in,” Lance instructed. “And then breathe out. Shoot it then.”
And so, with Lance’s help, he did it. It was no bullseye, of course. It was hardly even on the outer ring, but they were both excited about it anyway. Lance laughed against his hair, congratulating him, and Keith leaned a little heavier against his chest before turning in his arms, holding the bow down by his side as he looked up at him.
Lance’s hand was on his waist, though he wasn’t entirely sure when it had gotten there, and his eyes took on this half-lidded look. They were so close. So, so close, and Keith wanted it. Waited for it.
Lance wasn’t moving, though. He was just standing there, not getting any closer, and Keith broke. “Just do it,” he said aloud, frustrated. Lance was smirking.
“Kiss me,” Keith practically growled. “You keep… not.”
“I was waiting for you to do it,” Lance said, leaning his forehead against Keith’s. “Thought for sure you were going to break soon.”
“I don’t know what to do,” Keith admitted thoughtlessly, and Lance pulled back a little bit, frowning. Keith plowed ahead, figured it couldn’t hurt to continue now. “I wouldn’t have kissed you first.”
“I… when we kissed…” he cleared his throat. “That was my first kiss.”
Keith wasn’t entirely sure if it was an exaggeration to say Lance’s eyes were bulging out of his head.
“What?” he exclaimed. Keith attempted to take a step back, out of Lance’s arms, but he just held on tighter, pulled him closer.
“What?” Keith returned, defensive.
“I just… you’ve never done anything!” Lance exclaimed.
Keith planted his hands on Lance’s chest and shoved, but Lance just pulled Keith with him as he stumbled back a step, and then he pulled Keith’s hands off his chest and down to his waist. “That’s okay,” Lance said now, and he leaned in close again, his nose brushing briefly against Keith’s. “I can teach you anything you want to know.”
Keith would’ve scoffed if he weren’t finding it so hard to breathe. His hands had tightened in Lance’s shirt and he waited with bated breath, knowing for sure that he was going to get a kiss this time.
“That sound good to you?” Lance murmured, his eyes flicking up from Keith’s lips to meet his eyes. Keith managed to nod. “Think it’s time for our first lesson,” Lance said, and it was horribly, grossly cheesy. Keith didn’t have a chance to call him out on it, however, because Lance’s hands cupped his face, and they were warm, and then his lips were on Keith’s, somehow even warmer.
It felt amazing. Lance knew what he was doing, was obviously a million times more experienced than Keith, and was maybe trying to show that off, too. His lips moved slowly, sensually against Keith’s. One of his hands slipped into his hair and Keith’s arms locked behind his waist, pulling him abruptly closer and making Lance chuckle against his mouth, his laughter spilling out against Keith’s lips.
Lance’s dull nails scratched lightly against the back of Keith’s scalp, making him sigh. Lance took advantage of this immediately, introducing tongue and making Keith feel dizzy, so he clung to Lance a little harder.
“This okay?” Lance asked in between one kiss and the next, and Keith nodded, their noses bumping together. His back was pressed against the wall, and he had truly no idea when he’d gotten there, but it didn’t matter because Lance was kissing his jaw, his throat, and Keith’s fingers were digging into his skin.
“Lance,” he gasped as Lance’s tongue flattened against his skin, scorching, and then Lance sucked, his teeth just barely kissing the skin of his neck.
“You want another lesson, Keith?” he said hoarsely, sloppily coming back up to kiss Keith on the mouth again.
“Yes,” Keith managed, and Lance dropped straight to his knees, making Keith’s stomach drop with him. Lance’s hands fumbled against Keith’s jeans as he mouthed at the skin above them and Keith buried a hand in his hair, breathing already difficult. Was this really going to happen? God, was it embarrassing that he was hard already?
“Oh my God.”
Both Keith and Lance jolted. Pidge was standing in the doorway, staring at the two of them in surprise and what was probably horror, and Keith grabbed desperately for Lance’s shirt until he was pulling him to his feet and hiding behind him, every fiber of his being trying to shrivel up and die out of mortification.
“Hey, Pidge,” Lance said casually.
“Don’t ‘hey, Pidge’ me,” Pidge shrieked. “How is it I’m still walking in on you in a mansion instead of our tiny ass apartment?”
“Beats me, dude,” Lance said, still sounding entirely unaffected. Keith’s forehead was pressed against his back, his eyes closed as he prayed for death. “Maybe you secretly want to walk in on me.”
“Your worst theory yet,” Pidge scoffed. And then, “Oh my God, is this how you knew Keith was gay? Keith? Is this how he knew?”
“Make her stop talking to me,” Keith groaned pathetically. He’d managed to get his pants buttoned up again, thankfully.
“This is the first time Keith’s ever been walked in on, you’ll have to excuse him,” Lance said, and then he was grabbing Keith’s hand and leading him out of the room. Keith tried to avoid eye contact with Pidge the entire time, but he couldn’t help glancing over at her at the last second, finding her watching him looking entirely too amused, her eyebrows raised.
“You have to bring me my bow and arrows later!” Lance called over his shoulder, ignoring the particular finger Pidge returned to him. Moments later, they were home free, the horrible nerves within Keith dissipating.
“That was the worst thing that’s ever happened to me,” Keith muttered. He felt like he needed to go and lay down for several hours.
“Really? Not the zombie apocalypse?” Lance joked. Keith elbowed him in the stomach and headed straight for what was now their room, knowing it’d only be a matter of time before news of their relationship spread around to everybody, and then Shiro would be wanting all the details.
Once there, Keith climbed onto the bed, curled into a ball, and attempted to stop existing. Lance just crawled up after him and situated himself as best as he could around Keith, claiming that he, too, could go for a nap.
Keith had gotten used to Lance’s bedtime routine. Channel two. Talk, pause, wait. Channel four. It was as much his routine as Lance’s, now, and they’d fallen into a rhythm with it. Keith took over whenever it seemed like it was draining Lance too much.
Now, they were sat on the bed together. Channel sixteen. The worst one, in Keith’s opinion. The last hope.
“Mami, Marco, Luis, Veroncia.” Pause. Wait. “Nadia, Sylvio, Matias.”
Lance sighed, though Keith wondered if he really expected anything different, at this point. His fingers went to the knob, and just before he could turn it—
For a second, they both froze, wide eyes meeting each other, before Lance was fumbling desperately for the walkie-talkie, gripping it for all he was worth. He held down the button.
“Matias? Is that you? It’s me – Lance! Where are you?”
“Lance,” Matias said again, and Lance let out a sob, his fingers white-knuckled on the walkie-talkie.
“Matty? Are you with everyone? You wanna give the walkie-talkie to your mom for me?”
Matias didn’t answer right away. They both stared down at the device, holding their breaths, before it let out a burst of static and connected again.
“I can’t,” he said. He had that little kid way of speaking where he had to be prompted, so Lance kept prompting him.
“How come, buddy? Are you alright?”
Another pause. And then, “Yes.”
“Is everyone there with you?”
An even longer pause, this time. And then, again, “Yes.” Lance sobbed again, pressing his head against the walkie-talkie and laughing even as he cried.
“But you can’t give the walkie-talkie to them?” Lance asked.
“No,” Matias repeated. And then, sounding urgent, “Lance—” The walkie-talkie cut out, and they both froze, horror creeping through their bones, before it came back on again. “You need to come here,” Matias said.
“Okay,” Lance said. “Okay, I can do that. Do you know where you guys are?”
Another long pause. “Outside Harrisonburg,” Matias finally answered. “By an old water tower that looks like an apple basket.”
Lance was grinning. “We’ll be there in there morning,” he promised. “Tell your mom we’re gonna leave at first light, okay?”
When Matias’ response came, it sounded feeble. Sad. “Okay.”
It was impossible to sleep through the night. Understandably, Lance had a hard time falling asleep, and Keith stayed up with him, talking to him and going over what they were going to do in the morning. They woke up early enough that it was still dark out, though luckily Shiro was awake.
“Hey,” he said, a knowing look in his eye as Keith and Lance walked into the kitchen together. Luckily, there was no time to linger and let Shiro tease him.
“We’re taking a car,” he said preemptively. “Lance’s family contacted him on his walkie-talkie. We’re gonna go get ‘em.”
A serious look came over Shiro’s face. “Be careful,” he said, probably because he knew there was nothing he could do to stop them. “Keep an eye out for traps. Do you want any of us to go with you?”
It was Lance who answered, shaking his head. “We’re already going to have people sitting on laps on the drive back. We’re going to need as many seats as we can get.”
Shiro stood up and hugged Keith before shaking Lance’s hand. He helped them gather some food from the pantry, just in case this trip took longer than expected, and then the two of them were headed out. They’d already packed their bags the night before when they’d been unable to fall asleep.
Once again, Keith settled into the driver’s seat of the red Corvette.
The drive felt both quick and horribly long all at once. It was a two hour drive, which meant they’d definitely need to find fuel for the drive back, but time seemed to fly as Lance told him all about his family, stories from his childhood detailing the lives of his siblings, cousins, nieces, and nephews. But when silence stretched between them, so did time. Lance kept bringing up the question of why Matias hadn’t handed the walkie-talkie off to anyone else. Were they hurt? Was Matias confused?
Keith was anticipating a similar strain of conversation when Lance looked over at him with a contemplative look on his face and said, “Keith.”
“I know you had to travel really far to find Shiro, but what about the rest of your family? Are they still out there somewhere, or…?”
Keith blinked, surprised. He guessed it made sense. They were on the way to see Lance’s family, which could explain why Lance was thinking of Keith’s…
His first instinct was to lie. He was just so used to doing it. Any small talk with acquaintances or coworkers had always resulted in Keith avoiding the truth, saying that his parents lived out of state or something. He just wasn’t up for having the whole discussion of aging out of the foster system and having to deal with some near-stranger’s pity.
But this wasn’t a stranger, and it wasn’t small talk. It was Lance, and he sounded genuinely curious.
“My mom died when I was ten,” he said. And Lance didn’t frown or sigh or try to jump in and comfort him. He just listened. And waited. “She had cancer. My dad died before I was born, so it was just the two of us. I remember thinking it was so cruel, having to die like that. I know better now, obviously.”
He glanced over at Lance, who was nodding as he listened, looking intent. “After she died, I was put into the foster system. My first family hated me — probably ‘cause I hated them. I was stubborn and angry all the time. I’m surprised they kept me as long as they did, honestly. After them, though, I fostered with Shiro’s family for a couple years. They were on track to adopt me, but then Shiro’s dad lost his job, and they couldn’t anymore.
“I fostered with a few more families after that, but I ended up aging out of the system. I got a crappy job and a crappier apartment and I was saving up all I could manage so I could move back across the country and get an apartment with Shiro.”
“And then the zombies happened,” Lance concluded for him.
“And then the zombies happened,” Keith agreed. “But hey, I am living with Shiro now. And… I have all you guys. It’s not so bad.”
Lance reached for his hand, giving it a squeeze and leaving their fingers intertwined. “You’re right,” he agreed. “It’s crazy, the good things that can come out of the bad.”
Keith squeezed his hand back in agreement.
“So when the dead started living, you just started booking it across the country?” Lance asked. Keith wished that’s what he’d done. He probably would’ve gotten here much quicker, especially since it would’ve been easier to find gas.
“No,” he said, and promptly felt his throat attempt to close up. Because this was the part he’d never talked about before. Horrible shit had happened to everyone, so what did this matter? Shiro had gone and had his arm cut off! It wasn’t like Keith was about to go and complain to him about something like this.
“No?” Lance said. “What’d you do?”
Keith was silent for a moment. Again, he felt the urge to lie. The instinct. But maybe… it would feel nice, to get this off his chest. To share it with someone.
“Well… I was scared,” Keith admitted. “People were coming back to life and eating other people. And after the Silence, I didn’t know what to do, so I thought… I thought it’d be a good idea to link up with my last foster parents, you know? It’s not like we ended on bad terms or anything, they just didn’t adopt me.”
Lance’s thumb started rubbing against his hand, an act of comfort that actually helped far more than he probably realized. Keith stared hard at the road.
“I spent the first month or so trying to get back to them, hoping they would be hiding out in their old house. And they were. God, Lance, finding them was — I mean, I was so, so relieved. It was like… at least I didn’t have to live through this alone, you know?”
Lance picked up their intertwined hands and pressed his lips against Keith’s knuckle. “What happened?” Lance asked softly.
“They left me,” Keith said, everything inside him deflating. “They just… packed up and left in the middle of the night, no warning. I woke up and was all alone again. It felt like there was no one in the world who cared whether or not I was alive.”
“God, Keith,” Lance said. He was gripping Keith’s hand just as tightly as Keith was gripping his. “That’s so fucked up. You didn’t deserve that at all.”
“I hate them,” Keith seethed. “I hate them so much.”
“Me too,” Lance said, pressing another kiss to his hand. “I’m sorry anyone would pass up the chance to be with you. You’re great, you know that?”
“Thanks, Lance,” Keith laughed, and Lance kept kissing him, pressing his lips to each of his knuckles.
“And hey, I can share my family with you,” Lance promised. “There’s definitely enough of them to go around. They’re gonna love you.”
“Thanks,” Keith repeated, feeling warm and embarrassingly happy as Lance relinquished his hand and went back to looking at the map, directing Keith for the last stretch of their drive.
When the painted water tower rose in the distance Keith felt his entire body clench in anticipation. Would they actually be there? Would any of them be hurt? Would Lance introduce him as his boyfriend? Did he even want to be introduced as his boyfriend?
“Where are they?” Lance asked, leaning forward in his seat and peering desperately into the distance. He yanked his binoculars up to his eyes and twisted the handles, trying to zoom in and find his family. Keith slowed down automatically as they got closer, everything about the apocalypse having put him on edge.
The closer they got to the water tower, the less it seemed like anyone was there. There was nothing to suggest anybody was hiding out there, and there weren’t any cars that appeared to be in working condition around.
“Maybe they’re around the back,” Lance suggested, and Keith obliged, maneuvering the car around the water tower. Nothing.
“Hold on,” Lance said, and pulled out his walkie-talkie.
“Sixteen,” it said, Lance skipping all the other stations.
“Matias? You around, buddy?” Lance asked.
The walkie-talkie crackled to life immediately, though it took another moment before Matias answered Lance. “Yes,” he said.
“Can you guys see me? I’m right at the water tower. You said the one that looks like fruit basket, right?”
“Right,” Matias said. “We’re on the water tower.”
Lance looked over at Keith, his eyebrows raised, but they got out of the car. They left everything but their weapons, knowing it was better to be safe than sorry these days, and started climbing. The further up they got, the tighter Keith found himself holding onto each rung, refusing to look down the entire time. His knees were shaking by the time they actually got to the top.
He stood up and immediately frowned, unable to see anything at all. Lance pulled himself up next to him, panting a bit, and looked just as confused as Keith felt.
“Matias?” he called carefully, taking a step forward.
A little boy stepped out from the other side of the water tower. He was clutching his walkie-talkie in both hands. It’d been so long since Keith had seen a child, and it surprised him that an eight-year-old had even managed to live this long.
“Matias!” Lance exclaimed, the excitement evident in his voice. He didn’t have a chance to run forward and hug him, though, before Matias was talking.
“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice quiet and his eyes wet with tears.
“What?” said Lance, as a bunch of people stepped out from the other side of the water tower, pointing guns at them.
It was whispered – barely audible, really – but Lance heard it anyway. He looked to his right where Matias was sitting, occupying the space between him and Keith. Tear tracks streaked his cheeks, his little hands wringing together in his lap. Their kidnappers hadn’t tied his wrists together, just Lance and Keith’s.
“Yeah, bud?” Lance responded, just as quietly. Their kidnappers were talking to each other in another language in the front seat, not paying too much attention to them.
“I’m sorry,” Matias said, his voice breaking as a near-silent sob shook his body. Lance was already shaking his head, elbowing him gently in the side in an attempt to comfort him when he was still tied up.
“It’s okay,” Lance promised him. His heart hurt for his nephew, who was with these strangers for whatever reason and blackmailed by them. Lance was desperate to figure out how he’d ended up here and whether the rest of their family was here too, but now wasn’t the best time. They’d have to wait until they were somewhere where they could actually talk, which would hopefully be whenever they got to where these strangers were taking them.
“Everything’s going to be okay,” Lance assured him still, and Matias sniffled wetly and nodded, tentatively reaching out for Lance’s hand. Lance grabbed Matias’ hand with both of his, squeezing it comfortingly. He looked up at Keith, who looked just as angry and determined as he felt. This was all so fucked up. And nothing made Lance angrier than assholes who had to go and make the apocalypse worse than it already was.
Up front, the man in the passenger seat held up Lance’s bow, their weapons long-ago confiscated, and pulled curiously at the string.
“Stop that,” Lance snapped, shaking with anger. He kept his bow in pristine condition. Now that Blue was gone, it felt like the only thing he had left that actually mattered. And if this dickwad went and messed this up for him too...
Matias gasped at Lance’s outburst, however, and yanked his hand back into his own lap. The man up front turned to look at Lance, glaring at him.
“You’re in no position to be making demands,” he said gruffly, looking at Lance like he was stupid.
“And you’re in no position to be kidnapping people who’ve done nothing to you,” Lance retaliated.
“You’re the one who encroached on Galra territory.”
Keith sucked in a breath, and Lance met his eyes. The name ‘Galra’ rang a bell but he couldn’t really remember why...
But, “You lured us here!” Lance snapped, glaring now. “Let us go and we’ll give you whatever you want.”
“We already have what we want,” said the driver, sounding amused. He met Lance’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “Labor.”
Goosebumps raised all along Lance’s body. What, like slaves? He remembered Shiro, suddenly, who’d been forced to work as a slave for that gang that took prisoners. Was this them?
“You’re sick,” Keith spoke up, which Lance was glad for. His mouth felt too dry to speak. He couldn’t imagine poor Matias being forced to do these people’s work. How cruel did you have to be to torment a little kid like that?
The Galra ignored Keith, obviously not caring about the moral consequences of their actions, and kept driving. They didn’t drive for terribly long, and by the time they arrived in front of an old building that looked like a jailhouse, the Galra broke off whatever conversation they were having in their first language to bark at them, “Get out.”
They followed without hesitation. It wasn’t like they had any other options at the moment – neither of them could just snap out of their bonds and steal the car. So Matias reached over Lance and opened the door handle and they all scooted out of the car, never having been buckled in the first place.
One of the Galra said something and the other laughed, the sound grating. Matias looked solemn; resigned. It was a horrible expression to see on an eight-year-old and it made anger burn in Lance’s gut. So much had already been taken from his nephew. The chance at a normal life. A world not riddled with death around every corner. And now he’d lost his freedom, too.
When they entered the building, it was full of people. They walked down a long hallway, and there were cells branching off on either side, their doors open. The people inside called out to the captors – both in English and their native language, which Lance still couldn’t recognize – and their captors answered jeeringly back.
“No way!” one person said, laughing. “Your idea with the kid actually worked?”
“I told you he’d be useful for something,” the bigger, burlier looking captor said, and Lance bristled. If he weren’t tied up, he would’ve lunged forward and punched the guy, despite him being like three times Lance’s size.
“You lot can stay in here,” they were told, having been led much farther along in the complex. It was another cell, unsurprisingly, and none of them even got a chance to say anything before they were being shoved inside, the cell door slammed shut and locked behind them.
“I’m gonna kill that guy,” Keith growled, glaring after their captors as they walked back the way they came. Lance had a very similar sentiment making itself known throughout his body, but his anger was interrupted by the sound of a loud sniffle. He turned immediately, dropping to his knees in front of Matias.
“Hey,” he said quietly. “Everything’s going to be okay, I promise.”
Matias tumbled immediately into his arms, pressing his wet face into Lance’s neck and hugging him tight. Lance hugged him tighter, standing up and carrying his nephew over to the cot, rubbing his back all the while.
“It’s all my fault,” Matias said, his words muffled against Lance’s skin. “Y-you wouldn’t b-be here if it wasn’t for m-me.”
Lance scoffed, feeling the familiarity of interacting with kids thrumming through him for the first time in forever. He’d completely forgotten what it felt like, and how good he’d always been at it. He wondered if he was still good now.
“I’m glad I’m here,” Lance said, peeling himself away from Matias so he could look into his tear-streaked face.
Matias twisted one of his hands in Lance’s shirt. “Really?” he said, his voice small.
“Really really,” Lance assured him. “Otherwise we wouldn’t get to be with you. Right Keith?”
Keith’s jerked, looking surprised to have been addressed, but he was nodding already anyway. “Definitely,” he said. “Uh… Lance has been looking for you for a while.”
“I know,” Matias said quietly. “I listened to you on the walkie-talkie.”
“Really?” Lance said, his eyebrows rising up his forehead. Matias nodded.
“I stole one a while ago,” Matias admitted. “No one thought it was me. And sometimes, I’d hear you come on. I… felt less scared.”
“Why didn’t you answer me sooner, bud?” Lance said, bouncing his knee a bit now. Matias didn’t really seem to notice that he was bouncing with it.
“I didn’t want the Galra to hear me,” he said. “But last night, Sendak caught me with it. He made me answer you. He said he wanted to lure you out here.”
“Well, we won’t be here for long,” Lance said confidently. “We’re gonna get out of here. Do you know where the rest of our family is?”
At the mention of them, Matias’ eyes welled up with tears, and he shook his head. “N-no,” he said, twisting his hands harder into Lance’s shirt. “Abuela pulled over ‘cause there were cars in the road and everyone got out to move them. And then the Galra showed up and there was yelling and fighting, a-and… someone grabbed me.”
Lance hugged him back into his chest; harder, now. God, he wanted to strip all these horrible memories from his nephew’s head. Wanted to steal them away and hide them forever. Instead, Matias was living through them, adapting to a world that he should never have to adapt to.
And Lance didn’t know what to do.
When Lance had promised Matias that they’d get out of there, he’d imagined it happening a lot sooner. As it turned out, not much was up to him. Any chance of escape couldn’t be meticulously planned out — it’d have to be spontaneous, and yet it’d still have to be perfect.
On their first day here, they’d been appraised by the Galra’s leader. He was this guy by the name of Lotor, but everyone else called him “the Prince”. He’d looked delighted at Keith and Lance’s capture, commenting on how they were obviously fighters and could bring in tons of good for the Galra, and the men that’d done the capturing had been practically slobbering at the mouth because of the praise.
Life here sucked. They weren’t let out of their cell at all. Small rations were slipped in to them, made even smaller still because Lance insisted on giving Matias a good chunk of his food, which led to Keith giving Lance some of his.
Matias wasn’t confined to the cell like they were, though.
It was sickening, because it proved he’d been living here long enough for the Galra to know that he would actually cooperate with him. Lance wasn’t entirely sure what they made him do, but sometimes he was just let around the jailhouse with them, and other times they took him on missions, probably because he could fit into spaces they couldn’t. All of it made Lance horrifically anxious, to the point where he paced their cell until his legs hurt, his chest feeling tight and his lungs refusing to take in the proper amount of air for the duration of Matias’ absence.
Each time, Matias had come back unharmed, but that did nothing to ease Lance’s nerves the next time he was taken out on some trip. The Galra were relentless, raiding stores and homes and other survivor’s camps for food, weapons, and human labor, already having far more than they actually needed.
“I’m fine, Tio,” Matias said the next time the cell was opened and he was put back in, immediately wrapped in Lance’s arms as Lance glared at the Galra thugs on the other side of the bars. They paid him no mind, clearly not intimidated by him at all. Lance wished he had his bow. He’d put an arrow through their heads faster than they could blink. “‘M serious,” Matias protested, struggling out of Lance’s grip now, and Lance sighed, letting him go.
“Keith, look what I got!” Matias said, scrambling across the cell to stand in front of Keith, who was sitting on the second cot. He’d taken a huge liking to Keith, desperate for Keith’s attention and approval at all times. Lance was just glad Keith was good with him — he was totally patient and kind, entertaining every whimsical thought that slipped through Matias’ head. Lance was just glad he could still be like that, still like a kid. Especially since he’d witnessed moments where he didn’t act like one at all, his innocent and curious expression shattering into one of a hardened survivalist, adopting the personality that most people were used to sporting these days. It scared Lance, but he guessed it was impossible to be free of it when this was the life they were all living.
“That’s so cool,” Keith said genuinely, reaching forward to pluck the little army soldier out of Matias’ hand. Lance had no idea where he’d gotten it, or even where he’d gone today, but he was glad Matias had found it. He had a teddy bear hidden under his pillow, too, which he only ever took out at night, afraid the Galra would take it from him otherwise.
But the Galra weren’t even the worst part about all of this. The real trouble was the hopelessness of the entire situation. In Lance’s hurry and naivety, he hadn’t stopped to tell Shiro where they were actually going when they’d left, so no one back at the mansion had any idea where they were. They couldn’t expect them to come and find them with no basis to start on, so escaping was entirely on the two of them. And even though Matias was in and out of both the cell and the jailhouse often, there wasn’t really much he could do. He wasn’t good at explaining where he went with the Galra, and he didn’t have the ability to pay much attention to detail, so he never noticed anything that could help them escape.
That meant that he and Keith were constantly putting their heads together, trying to think of a way to get out. It was harder than they’d anticipated, though. They couldn’t try to overpower whoever opened their cell door because the rest of the entire jail was filled with yet more of the Galra. And though Lotor had spoken of having them go on missions with his other minions, they still hadn’t been sent out. They hadn’t even been trusted enough to help with the other slave work, the constant manual labor they saw other people like themselves getting up to.
So Lance didn’t even have an inkling of an idea on how to escape until the third day after they’d been captured. Matias was out on another mission of some sort and Keith was sitting and looking resigned on his cot. Lance, on the other hand, felt like he was jumping out of his skin. In the short amount of time he’d been living in Coran’s mansion, he’d gotten used to the luxuries of it all. Used to being able to wash his face, his body. Used to being able to put on a clean shirt, for God’s sake.
Which was why Lance ended up stripping off his shirt in a fit of frustration, feeling like he was sitting and rotting in his own germs despite the fact that he’d worn shirts for much longer while sweating every day before he’d started living in The Castle.
Keith sent Lance an appraising look, his eyes strolling comfortably down his chest, and Lance felt a smile curl around his mouth, something that was much rarer, these days. He missed Keith so bad. And he knew that statement didn’t really make sense, but it was true. Back home, they’d been able to talk freely, to touch and kiss each other without worry. Now, they were afraid of any consequences their affection might have.
At night, Lance climbed into bed with Matias, and once his nephew fell asleep, snuck over to join Keith. Those were the only hours of the day that he got to be so close to him, the two of them wrapped up in each other’s arms, hands stroking skin in comfort and lips brushing together just barely.
Lance would climb back into his nephew’s bed come morning, not wanting any of the Galra to see him sleeping in the same bed as Keith. After all, he was kind of assuming they were all homophobic. It just made sense — people who were that crappy already might as well be crappy in every other aspect as well.
But Lance felt his opinion swiftly change when Lotor walked by on their third day of imprisonment. He’d been sitting on Matias’ cot, across from Keith, leaning backward a bit and letting his boyfriend get a good look at him. He was definitely being a little teasing, because that was all he could do when they were trapped like this, but he ended up getting more attention than he’d bargained for.
Lotor stopped dead in his tracks as he was walking by, and the cessation in movement drew Lance’s attention. He could see Lotor standing there, looking at him, and Lance felt hope flutter in his chest. Maybe this could be a way out.
“Like what you see, handsome?” Lance purred, stretching out just a little bit more. He saw Keith flinch out of the corner of his eye but ignored him, pushing down his guilt. Outside the cell, Lotor scoffed.
“You wish, prisoner,” he growled, but he didn’t walk away. Not yet.
“I’m just saying,” Lance drawled. “There certainly aren’t many pretty people to look at around here.” And with that, Lance stood up, taking a step closer to the bars. “So if you need something better to look at…”
Lotor let his eyes run over Lance, taking him in. Finally, he met Lance’s gaze, said, “Don’t flatter yourself,” and walked away.
“What was that?” Keith demanded, the exact second Lotor’s footsteps faded into the distance.
“I think he’s into guys,” Lance explained.
“You have a boyfriend.”
Lance laughed, stepping closer to Keith. “Obviously I know that,” he said, reaching towards Keith’s face. Keith leaned away from him, glaring. “It’s the only idea I have right now, okay? Maybe I can get on Lotor’s good side — make him release us.”
“So what, you’re just going to flirt with him?” Keith demanded.
“Can you think of any better ideas?” Lance asked gently. “I mean, I won’t do it if you really have a problem with it. We can try to think of something better…”
Keith maintained his glare for another good second or two before it melted off his face, his body deflating with a sigh. “We won’t think of anything better,” he said glumly.
Lance stepped closer again, nudging himself in between Keith’s knees and reaching out for his hands. He placed Keith’s hands on his hips and hooked his own arms behind his neck, risking the intimacy in an attempt to reassure his boyfriend.
“It won’t mean anything to me,” he promised, resisting the urge to grin when Keith’s fingers dug into his hips a little harder. Who’d have thought he was the jealous type?
“I just don’t want him to do anything to you,” Keith said worriedly. “What if you get hurt?”
“I won’t,” Lance said. “I’ll be careful.”
And he was.
He made sure to never take it too far, because despite what Lotor had said, he was interested. He made a point to walk past their cell far more often, and though it made both Keith and Matias uncomfortable (though for entirely different reasons), Lance reveled in the attention, sure it meant they’d be getting out of here sooner.
“This cell is so grimy,” Lance complained loudly, all too aware that, once again, Lotor was paying attention to him while pretending he wasn’t paying attention to him. Matias had been taken out on yet another raid, which only made Lance more desperate to get him out of here, away from the danger the Galra were constantly putting him in. “Ugh, what I wouldn’t give to clean up a little.”
Keith was glaring at him, because although he agreed this was the plan most probably to work, he still didn’t like it. He didn’t seem to be glaring quite as hard as he had been the day before, though, when Lance had decided to go through a yoga routine, complaining about how he never got any exercise anymore, locked up like he was.
Suddenly, Lotor appeared directly opposite Lance, glowering at him. “If it will make you cease your incessant whining...” he said furiously, digging a key into the cell’s lock.
Lance stepped out of the cell the moment it was open, not sparing a glance for Keith, wary of what his expression would say. Instead, Lance just doubled his act, stretching his arms high above his head in exaggerated relief of being free.
“Come with me,” Lotor barked, before spinning on his heel and walking away. Lance didn’t dare do anything but follow with Galra scattered all over the place, though that was probably why Lotor was so confident Lance would follow him in the first place.
Still, he didn’t quite know Lance’s apt for seeing things. Even without his binoculars, he tended to pick up details other people missed. Certainly all the ones Matias never saw. Like how the Galra tended to clump together, wanting company and therefore leaving obscure areas unobserved. Or how while several supply closets they passed had their doors locked, only one had a door handle free of dust, indicating it’d been used recently. Lance would bet an arrow that all their things were in there.
Still, Lotor took him further, until he came to a big room overflowing with supplies. There were crates of water and boxes of food, stacks and stacks of almost anything you could imagine. There even was a section seemingly entirely dedicated to alcohol, meanwhile Lance hadn’t had a sip of the stuff since shortly after the Silence. Somehow, alcohol had been the first thing to go.
“Here,” Lotor said, ducking down and grabbing a plastic water bottle from one of many. He shoved it into Lance’s hand, followed moments later with a washcloth, grabbed from another stack of supplies.
Lance still wasn’t wearing a shirt as part of his ‘seducing Lotor and facilitating our escape’ regime, so he went ahead and uncapped the water bottle, pouring it directly onto his chest. Lotor’s eyes followed the water streaming down his body intently, and although Lance put on a bit of the show with the washcloth, he really did scrub, feeling desperate to get clean.
“You know,” Lance said conversationally, one hand clutching the back of his neck as the other scrubbed lower and lower down his stomach. “Me and Keith could be a lot of use to you. We’re skilled. Could probably get you twice as much stuff as your cronies usually do.”
Lotor snorted. “And you think I’m idiotic enough to just let you two run free, expecting you’ll come back?”
Lance smirked. “I think you’re smart enough to realize that we’ll want to come back,” he said, gesturing to the room around him. “Here’s much better than anywhere we’ve stayed before.” And then, nodding towards the corner of the room. “Plus, I can’t even remember the last time I had alcohol.”
Lotor was smirking too. “I’m not an idiot,” he said smoothly, and when Lance held out his used washcloth, Lotor took it. “I’ll escort you back to your cell now.”
“Probably a smart choice,” Lance said lightly. “I can get kind of... wild, when I’m drunk,” he said suggestively, before leading the way back to his cell and waiting patiently beside it for Lotor to let him in.
And despite what Lotor had said, the very next day he was sending Keith and Lance out for supplies.
He was right when he said he wasn’t an idiot, though, because while he let them go out, he made Matias stay behind, and Lance couldn’t exactly escape when his nephew was still in their custody.
“That bastard,” Lance growled, once they were on their own. They’d piled into a car with several other Galra, all of whom were now spread out in this store and raiding it clean. It wasn’t that this was all that different from what Lance was used to – he’d raided a good amount of stores in his time, too – but the way they dealt with the dead was unsettling. It was almost like this was all some big game to them. Like they didn’t even fear death.
They took on rotters head on, played games with them and killed them in complicated ways, all for laughs. It unsettled Lance. He killed them too, all the time, but… it felt different. You tried not to think about it these days, so long after the majority of Earth’s population had become undead, but they had once been people. They’d no doubt wanted this fate any more than the rest of them.
“We’ll figure it out,” Keith said, briefly letting his hand slip into Lance’s for a comforting squeeze. They both had their weapons back, surprisingly enough, though Lance guessed that they’d probably be taken from them again the second they got back to the jail.
It felt nice to be out and about, though. To be able to walk more than five feet in one direction. To for once be the one outside and not sitting in their cell, desperately wondering if Matias was still alive.
He didn’t talk about what he was made to do very often, which made Lance feel as if all this had somehow become familiar to him. Lance wanted to ask more questions, wanted to have more answers, but he was afraid he’d end up scaring Matias by doing so. Scared he’d put him on edge or make him realize that what the Galra were forcing him to do was more dangerous than he realized.
So Lance zipped his lips and just thanked his lucky stars whenever Matias returned, giving both him and Keith a quick hug before embarking on whatever tale he decided to tell that day.
Lance had to get him out of there.
“Here,” Keith said, plucking a can of corn off a nearly empty shelf and holding it out towards Lance. Lance turned around, letting Keith unzip his backpack and drop it in there.
He wasn’t all that surprised by the remaining stuff in this store, simply because of the sheer size of it. It was some chain he’d never heard of before though it bared a resemblance to Costco, with high shelves and an industrialized look, metal rafters crisscrossing all over the ceiling.
“Good find,” Lance said, turning back around after Keith had re-zipped his bag. “I think we should go check the—”
Lance cut himself off as Keith hit the floor. For a split second, he thought Keith had fainted, but then his brain checked back into reality and he could see Keith struggling before him, a rotting hand wrapped around his ankle, extending out from beneath the shelf.
“Keith!” Lance exclaimed, his fingers going numb and his mind frantically trying to figure out what to do. For some reason, Keith didn’t seem able to break the rotter’s grip. Lance fumbled for an arrow, lining it up and shooting it through the zombie’s wrist.
The dead didn’t have pain receptors, though, so the arrow just remained sticking out of its wrist as its other hand came out, latching onto Keith’s other ankle.
“Fuck,” Lance said, and then he reached down and grabbed Keith’s hands, yanking him hard in the opposite direction. Luckily, he was stronger than the rotter, so both Keith and the rotter came sliding out from under the shelf, the rotter immediately getting to its knees and crawling closer to Keith, mouth gaping. Lance pulled back another arrow and shot it through its head, kicking its body away the second it went limp.
Keith flipped over onto his back, face pale and panting.
“Are you okay?” Lance asked him, dropping directly onto his lap, hands coming forward to cup his face. Keith nodded.
“Y-yeah,” he said, swallowing, and his eyes ventured up from where they’d been staring blankly at Lance’s chest to meet his eyes. “Thanks.”
“Fuck,” Lance sighed, and he helped Keith sit up, still on his lap, and wrapped his arms around his neck. “That scared me.”
“Me too,” Keith said, and then Lance was kissing him, because it’d been too long, and Keith had almost died, and Lance was overwhelmed in about every sense of the word.
“I miss you,” Lance said, resting his forehead against Keith’s, his hands playing gently through his hair.
“Ggrnghrah,” Keith said, except it wasn’t Keith, it was a zombie directly behind them, and they both jolted, attempting to scramble away. It was so close, and Lance’s bow was out of reach — when had he put it on the ground? — and it was all they could do to scoot away from it, and then—
Lance’s heart was still pounding, and Keith’s expression perfectly described how Lance was feeling: What the fuck?
Blood was pooling out of the zombie’s head, as if it’d been shot. But it’d been completely silent…
Immediately, Lance started looking around. It didn’t seem too far-fetched that the Galra might have silencers for their guns, but it was unbelievable that they’d do anything to save their lives.
There were no Galra around, though, and Lance’s confusion was skyrocketing before Keith suddenly elbowed him hard in the side, saying, “Look.” Lance’s eyes followed where his finger was pointing, right up into the rafters, and then the thoughts in his brain flatlined. Because that was his sister up there, sitting atop the rafters.
Lance’s mouth dropped open, and Veronica held a finger up to her lips, the universal sign for shush.
“I-I don’t,” Lance stuttered, gaping at the ceiling with a distinct lack of understanding towards anything that was going on. How was she here? How had she known they’d be here? How everything?
“Who is that?” Keith muttered, and Lance spoke around the dryness in his mouth.
“My sister!” he said, though it came out quiet, because he realized that whatever was going on, the Galra couldn’t know about it.
Keith was shocked into silence, and as the two of them watched, Veronica pulled something out of her pocket and started hastily writing on it. The next moment, she dropped it, letting it flutter to the ground. Veronica held Lance’s eye contact before pointing urgently down at the note.
Lance immediately got up and scrambled towards the paper.
Matias, it said.
If you know if you’re going out with the Galra tomorrow, give Mommy a thumbs up. We’re going to get you out of here.
Lance blinked. Looked up at Veronica. She rolled her eyes and twisted her finger through the air pointedly. Lance flipped over the note.
LANCE! it said.
I don’t know how you ended up here with the Galra, but I’m assuming you’re their prisoner too. Is there any way you can make sure you and Matias (and the boy you were kissing???) are out of your cell tomorrow by noon?
Lance looked up at his sister. Her eyebrows were raised expectantly, and Lance tapped his fingers together as he thought. Finally, he nodded. He was pretty sure he could manage it. Veronica smiled, looking relieved, and gave him a thumbs up before she stood and disappeared across the rafters.
“Good news,” Lance said, turning to Keith. “It looks like we’re getting out of here.”
Keith couldn’t sleep. His brain was much too awake, thoughts spinning through his head like a whirlwind — the knowledge that they were escaping tomorrow. He could hardly imagine how Lance felt, having seen his sister and finally knowing that his family was okay. It was probably just making him even more eager to get out of here, more desperate for tomorrow to come.
They hadn’t told Matias, not wanting to risk talking about their upcoming escape by jinxing it somehow or being overheard, so they’d kept their excitement to themselves as they’d finished up their raid with the Galra and returned to the prison.
Matias was asleep in his bed, cuddling happily with his teddy bear from the looks of it, and Lance was…
Sitting up behind him. Looking at Keith.
“Are you awake?” Lance whispered, his voice cutting through the silence. Keith felt himself smile, his face half hidden beneath his thin blanket, not that Lance could even see him otherwise.
“Yes,” he said, and without a moment’s hesitation Lance clambered out of his nephew’s bed and joined Keith in his, slipping right in next to him. Keith turned so Lance could spoon him, Lance thankfully taking the hint, and they curled up together like that, Lance’s breaths quiet in his ear.
“You think everything’s going to work out tomorrow?” Keith asked quietly, turning his head a bit to try and look at Lance.
“Yes,” Lance said assuredly.
“Do you have a plan?” Keith asked again.
“Yes,” Lance repeated, squeezing Keith closer. “Everything’s going to work out. I can feel it.”
They’d brought back plenty of supplies the day before, having managed to pull themselves together and actually do the job expected of them after Lance’s sister had shown up. When they’d gotten back, Lotor had seemed impressed, and Keith hadn’t missed the way his eyes had strolled up and down Lance’s body appreciatively. Keith had had to clench his fists and stand there without showing how angry that’d made him as it’d happened.
He hated Lotor. The thought of him made Keith’s blood boil, and if it were feasible, he’d keep him ten thousand feet from Lance at all times. As it was, they needed him — needed to use him, anyway — and so Lance was doing practically everything he could to keep Lotor close.
As the hours of the morning crept by, the both of them grew more and more aware of their time limit, the knowledge that they needed to be out of their cells and ready to escape by noon weighing them both down. Lance had said he had a plan, though, so Keith tried to be patient.
But of course Lance’s plan included flirting with Lotor.
The second they could hear his voice coming down the hall — loud, pompous, and completely recognizable — Lance was standing and leaning against the bars.
Instinctively, Lotor looked towards their cell as he passed, stopping when he spotted Lance. Matias was sitting quietly on his cot, aware that something was going on that he didn’t quite know about.
“Thank God you’re here,” Lance said dramatically, and he reached a hand through the bars and snagged some of Lotor’s hair, twirling it around his fingers. “I think we might just die of boredom in here.”
“Is that so?” Lotor said, sounding amused, and he crossed his arms over his chest, taking a step closer.
“What d’you say we go have some fun?” Lance stage-whispered conspiratorially. The woman with Lotor was immune to Lance’s antics, made obvious by her scoff, but Lotor looked intrigued.
“What kind of fun?” Lotor hummed, taking a step closer to the cell.
Die, die, die, die, die, Keith thought viciously in his direction, his teeth gritted and his arms crossed angrily.
“The kind of fun I haven’t had in a long time,” Lance said suggestively, smiling lasciviously. And then, “How about a drinking game?”
Lotor snorted, his mind obviously having been going down a different route. “What, in the middle of the afternoon?”
“It’s 5 o’clock somewhere!” Lance proclaimed, leaning against the bars even more eagerly. “Come on, maybe we can play strip poker or something! Matias will make sure we don’t cheat.”
Everyone’s eyes drifted towards Matias, who looked more confused than anything, but he nodded anyway.
“Prince Lotor doesn’t need squabble like you to entertain him,” said the woman beside him viciously, glaring at Lance.
“Now, now, Zethrid, I think Lance here has a point. And it’s not like I have anything better to do today.”
Zethrid, apparently, glowered, crossing her arms over her chest and glaring at Lance like she wanted to pop his head off with one of those massive biceps of hers. Thankfully, Lotor seemed to have everything under control, and he brandished the key to the cell, opening it and holding the door open.
Keith and Matias made their ways towards the exit, too, but Lotor hardly even paid them any attention, much more entranced with Lance, who was batting his eyelashes and had hooked his arm through Lotor’s. Keith was glaring so hard it was giving him a headache, and the dent in his brow didn’t let up until he felt a soft, little hand making its way into his. Keith blinked, turning to look at Matias, who was holding his hand.
“What’s strip poker?” he asked innocently, his attention thankfully capturing Keith’s attention away from whatever flirtatious remark Lance was making to Lotor now.
“It’s a game for adults,” Keith said simply. “I’ll find you something else to do while we play, okay?”
Matias nodded obediently, but his nose was still scrunched, his lips pursed in curiosity. Keith squeezed his hand, swinging it between them a little bit. “What games did you used to play?” he asked. “You know, before… everything.” He didn’t know if it was an appropriate thing to ask, if doing so would just manage to remind Matias of everything he was missing and upset him, but thankfully, it didn’t. Matias’ face brightened, and he started going on and on just like Lance could — it was easy to see how they were related.
“— and my mom wouldn’t let me get a Wii, but then Uncle Lance gave me his old DS for Christmas and all his Pokémon games and I beat the Legendary Four and I had three shiny Pokémon and—“
Keith didn’t even know what he was talking about, but he nodded along anyway, asking questions and exclaiming over all the things that he could tell were supposed to be the cool parts.
“— me and Sylvio would battle but he always won, but that’s just ‘cause he cheated.” Matias was silent for a moment, something solemn passing over his face, looking totally out of place on an eight-year-old. “I miss Sylvio,” he admitted quietly, looking up at Keith with a pout.
“Sylvio’s your cousin, right?” Keith asked, wracking his brain for the family tree Lance had practically painted for him. He was the baby of the family, and by baby, Keith meant baby. All of his siblings were a lot older than him, evident by the fact that some had kids of their own, but Lance was no less close with them anyway.
“Yeah, but he’s practically my brother,” Matias said. “I hope he’s okay…”
“Hey,” Keith said, squeezing Matias’ hand again in an attempt to comfort him. “I’m sure he’s okay. I mean, you are, right?”
Matias brightened. “Right!” he said. “If I’m fine, then Sylvio’s totally fine!”
Feeling much better, Matias insisted on a piggy back ride, and it was with Matias on his back that Keith walked into what was evidently the supply room, jam-packed with far more supplies than any one group of people needed. It was insanely greedy and almost sickening to look at, just knowing that so many of the supplies had come from other helpless people like him and Lance.
Speaking of Lance, he was laughing loudly, hanging off Lotor’s arm as Zethrid glared at him. “So… can we?” he said.
“Fine,” Lotor answered, but he sounded more amused than anything, and Lance disentangled himself from the other man in order to cross the room and pick up a bottle of jack, brandishing it to his audience excitedly.
“I think me and Keith’ll figure out something else for Matias to do,” Lance said as he walked back across the room, setting the alcohol down on a table with a few makeshift chairs surrounding it. “Surely there’s something in here to entertain an eight-year-old as we play, huh?”
Lotor seemed fine with that idea, waving them off lazily as he seated himself at the table, placing an array of shot glasses next to the bottle. Meanwhile Keith and Lance crossed the room with Matias, walking between a few rows of boxes in an attempt to find something for him to do.
“Hey,” Lance said quietly as he picked up some sort of action figure. “Why don’t you sit over here and play with this for a while,” Lance said, handing the toy to his nephew. “And we’ll come get you when we’re done.”
“Okay,” Matias huffed, sitting down on the floor and looking dejected. Keith got the feeling he didn’t like being left out of the festivities.
“And Matty,” Lance whispered conspiratorially, bending down and looking around exaggeratedly as he spoke to Matias. “If you see anything cool that you want and can fit in your pockets, take it,” he encouraged. Matias’ eyes widened.
“Really?” he whispered back. “You don’t think I’ll get caught?”
“Yeah,” Lance assured him. “Just make sure it’s small enough to be hidden, okay? You can even wander around a little if you stay out of sight.”
Matias nodded eagerly, looking much more excited, and Lance straightened back up. He and Keith took a couple steps away from Matias before Lance looked at him expectantly.
“I don’t think there’s any way for me to get out of drinking,” he admitted, glancing back over to the table where Lotor had now set up cards and poker chips. “But I think Lotor’s probably only going to try to make me drink, so I want you to try not to drink anything at all, that way at least one of us can be sober for the escape.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Keith said, nodding, and Lance squeezed his hand for a quick second before turning and striding back towards their enemies, a clear saunter in his steps.
“You guys ready to play?” he said eagerly, rubbing his hands together before sitting down on a crate serving as a chair.
“Took you long enough,” Lotor drawled, and then he dealt their cards. Keith picked up his hand, surveying the rest of his opponents before he examined his own cards. Zethrid was stoic faced, though perhaps too much so, and Lotor’s expression was pleasantly bored. Lance, meanwhile, was glaring at his hand, his poker face utter shit. Keith couldn’t tell whether he was playing it up in an effort to contain all of Lotor’s attention to him or whether he was actually that bad.
Finally, Keith looked at his own hand. It wasn’t that good, but he resisted the urge to huff or do much of anything with his face, really. He could get out of this if he just bluffed well enough. Plus, he wouldn’t be betting any shots.
The way they were playing was a bit more entertaining than usual. At the end of the round, the player with the worst hand would lose an item of clothing while the player with the best hand got to choose a victim to take a shot. Additionally, they could bet clothing and shots as well as chips, which meant everything might escalate a whole lot faster than it usually did.
The game started up quickly, cards and chips moving around the table as they folded and made bets. It wasn’t the most intense of games, considering all the tension seemed to solely lie between Lance and Lotor, but Keith played his best anyway. Still, he was hardly surprised when Lotor came out with the best hand, and Lance, subsequently, the worst. He had a feeling the cards hadn’t been fairly shuffled while he and Lance had been away from the table.
“Guess everyone’s gonna get a piece of this eye candy,” Lance said dramatically as he stood up and stripped off his shirt. And he wasn’t wrong — he was eye candy — but Keith hated that Lotor was getting to enjoy it too. Zethrid, at least, appeared entirely unimpressed.
Lotor poured a shot for Lance, because of course he chose Lance, and Lance took it with neither a grimace nor a chaser, which annoyingly made both Keith and Lotor look at him, impressed.
“Round 2?” Lance prompted.
Thankfully, without Keith and Lance absent from the table, the cards were shuffled and dealt much more fairly. Nearly a half hour later, Keith had lost his shirt and both his socks and managed to have absolutely nothing to drink. Lance had been right about Lotor, though, which meant he was now several shots in – sitting on his crate in his underwear and one sock, to boot.
“Alright,” Lance said a little too loudly, shooting a grin across the table at Lotor. “Prepare to get your ass beat.”
“Bring it,” Lotor said, possibly just as drunk as Lance, because Keith had been directing all his winning shots toward him.
Lance slapped his cards down on the table. It was a flush, except not, because he had a nine where the six was supposed to be.
“That’s a nine,” Lotor said, chuckling, and Lance gaped, evidently not having done this one purpose. He leaned far over the table, putting his nose to his cards as he stared down at the hand, wide-eyed.
“Aw man!” he whined, sitting back up with a pout, and Lotor spilled alcohol over his own cards as he poured Lance another shot, passing it over to him. “Bleh,” Lance said before he took it, and “BLEH!” again afterwards. He then stripped off his sock and threw it to the floor with a huff, his head rolling to the side to look at Keith like can you believe this?
Despite the fact that it was certainly unsettling that Lotor had managed to get Lance so drunk before their escape, Keith still couldn’t help finding him endearing. Normally, Keith just found drunk people loud and annoying and obnoxious, but with Lance it was different. Everything he did was oddly endearing, and his jokes were infinitely dumber than usual, unlike how they’d be were he not inebriated like this.
“I really thought I was gonna win that round,” Lance huffed, before jabbing a finger into Lotor’s face and saying, “Another round!”
“Well, if you’re so insistent on losing again…” Lotor said, and Zethrid laughed loudly, having had a few shots herself.
The cards were dealt, and Keith found himself watching Lance as he sat on his crate, dancing back and forth to a song no one else could hear as his tongue poked between his teeth.
“Yeah, you guys are fucked,” he announced, looking up from his cards, and Keith rolled his eyes affectionately. Somehow, Lance caught that when no one else did, and he shot Keith a secretive, drunken grin as he pushed a few chips into the middle. Meanwhile, his foot crept across the floor, his ankle hooking around Keith’s for no real reason.
As Keith played, his ears were peeled for any sign of commotion, knowing that now it was only a matter of time before Lance’s family showed up. Lance was playing more viciously than ever, slamming chips onto the table in some attempt to prove a point, maybe, and he even managed to convince Lotor to take a shot just for fun, having claimed Lotor was only doing so well because he wasn’t as drunk as Lance was.
Unfortunately, he was actually doing better than Lance because Lance got exponentially worse at poker with every shot he had, so while Keith hoped Lance would manage to win this round, he wasn’t surprised when he didn’t. Both Lotor and Zethrid broke out into whoops of laughter as Lance had the worst hand yet again, even though Keith had tried to do bad enough so that Lance wouldn’t have to lose his boxers.
And God, was he really going to have to lose his boxers?! Keith was blushing for him, antsy and anxious as he watched Lance get to his feet, swaying. This definitely wasn’t how he’d imagined seeing Lance naked for the first time.
But then — a miracle happened. Perhaps the first miracle since zombies had come to plague the earth.
There was shouting down the hall, coupled with other sounds of commotion, and Lance turned to the doorway, gaping.
“Oh man!” he cried. “We gotta fight! We gotta — come on guys! We gotta fight intruders now!”
Lotor and Zethrid roared their response, stumbling to their feet as well. Zethrid grabbed the bottle of alcohol, chugged some of it, and smashed it against the table before charging out of the room with her new weapon.
“I’ll go tell everyone what to do,” Lotor informed Lance seriously, nodding importantly, and Lance started nodding back.
“Yeah, you’re really good at that,” Lance agreed, and then Lotor was sprinting out of the room, which left just Keith and Lance and Matias somewhere within the supplies.
“Matias?” Lance called loudly, and Matias stumbled out of the stacks, his pockets so bulging with stolen goods that Keith had to smack a hand over his mouth to stop from bursting into laughter. Lance didn’t even seem to notice, somehow. “C’mon dude, we’re out of here!” he informed Matias, and Keith grabbed both of their hands as he led them out into the hall, his eyes peeled.
“Wait, wait, wait,” Lance slurred, stopping by a random door mere steps down the hall. “We gotta go in here.”
“There’s no time, Lance,” Keith said.
“But there’s no dust on the handle!”
“Wha — what does that even mean?” Keith muttered. “We have to go!”
Lance scoffed, offended, and yanked the door open, stumbling inside. Groaning, Keith followed after him, stumbling to a stop when he almost walked into his own sword, which Lance was holding out to him.
“Thanks, Lance,” Keith said instead of berating him about safety, and Lance nodded importantly as he slung his bow over his back followed by his quiver, which was upside down. His arrows immediately clattered onto the floor, making Lance gasp in terror while Keith stooped down to gather them all back up, helping Lance situate himself as quickly as possible.
“What’s going on?” Matias asked quietly from behind them, his voice thin with fear.
“We’re getting out of here,” Keith said simply, not wanting to have to spill all the details about his family right here in this storage closet.
“Oh my God,” Lance said suddenly, sounding serious, and Keith looked at him instinctively.
“What? What’s wrong?” he demanded.
Lance smacked his hand against his forehead. “I can’t drive!” he insisted. “I’ll get pulled over!”
Keith blinked. “You’re not driving,” he said first. “And there’s no cops left.”
Lance heaved a giant sigh. “Oh yeah,” he said, and giggled.
Shaking his head, Keith peeked back into the hallway before assuring that the cost was clear, and he led the way towards the commotion, figuring it was there where they would find Lance’s family. Then again, that was also where they’d find the most danger, and he should probably keep Matias out of that…
The yelling was getting louder as they got closer and Matias crowded up against Keith in fear. Meanwhile Lance was stumbling along beside him, and he had an arrow in his hand for some reason, though his bow remained secured on his back.
“Lance, why don’t you give me the arrow,” Keith said, suddenly imagining Lance somehow managing to stab himself with it during this escape.
“You already have a sword,” Lance said. “I need this arrow. Hell, Matty needs an arrow!”
“Yeah!” Matias said excitedly.
“You’re not giving Matias an arrow,” Keith said sternly, ignoring Matias’ sigh in response. And then, “c’mon, be quiet,” he encouraged as they lined up along the wall before where the fighting was loudest.
Keith peered into the entryway first. The fight was pretty even, because while there were way more Galra than McClains, most of the gang wasn’t even here, busy doing their raids for the day. Keith could clearly see which people weren’t Galra — two men side by side on the opposite side of the room, kicking opponents away from them and slamming elbows into heads. Veronica was closer to where they were hiding, a knife in one hand and a gun in the other, both of which were doing a good job of keeping her enemies away from her. Slumped against the wall was both Lotor and Zethrid, but Keith couldn’t tell if they’d been knocked out or if the alcohol had just gotten to them.
The fight seemed like it was being handled to Keith, and while he wanted to jump in and help, the thought of leaving Lance and Matias over here to defend for themselves had his entire body tensing up in fear. So instead, he dragged them both over to the nearest closet, wrestling with the lock for a few moments until it finally opened and he could usher the two of them in before him. He stood nearest to the door, ready to defend Lance and Matias should anyone barge in, and he strained his ears for any cries of pain that sounded like it could be from Lance’s family.
“Keith,” Lance said.
“Hold on, Lance, okay?” Keith said, ear pressed against the door. He couldn’t tell if the fighting was growing any less intense.
Was it getting louder? Were there reinforcements, or had the commotion just moved closer to the door? Had the other Galra returned from their raids?
“Keith,” Lance said, and he sounded desperate, afraid. Keith spun around, finding Lance with tears spilling down his cheeks. Matias was clinging to Lance’s hand, looking unsure of how to help him as Lance began to hyperventilate. Suddenly, Keith remembered that Lance was claustrophobic, and that this closet was tiny, all of them touching each other at least a little bit.
“Lance,” Keith said. “It’s going to be okay, I promise.”
Lance was shaking his head, his eyes clenched shut as struggled for breath, his lip quivering.
“I can’t breathe,” he whimpered, and Matias looked to Keith fearfully, his eyes wide.
“Yes you can Lance, just follow me,” he said, grabbing Lance’s hand and pressing it against his chest. “In… and out,” he encouraged.
“Keith,” Lance sobbed.
“Just another minute,” Keith said, straining his ears. Were they still fighting?
“C-can’t— I’m, Keith, I can’t— I can’t breathe.”
Keith grabbed Lance gently, backing up into him so that his back was against Lance’s chest, Lance able to back away if he wanted to.
“Breathe with me,” Keith said, and he pressed both of Lance’s hands to his chest. Lance held him tighter, shuddering breaths heating Keith’s ear as he tried to copy him. “It’s okay,” Keith said again, but this time he was looking at Matias, shooting him a quick smile in an attempt to erase his worried expression.
Not even a minute later Keith was sure the commotion outside had ceased. Lance had managed to control his breathing a bit, though he wasn’t holding onto Keith any looser, not that Keith minded. He nudged the door open, poking his head out and hearing nothing still.
“I think we can go now,” he whispered, and Lance gave a quiet sob of relief into the back of his neck, the three of them rushing out of the closet. Finally, Keith could hear something in the next room.
“…to go find them. They should be out of their cells though, unless Lance couldn’t get them out…”
“MOM!” Matias yelled, picking up on Veronica’s voice first, and there was nothing Keith could do to hold him back, not that he really wanted to. Thankfully, everyone in the next room was well and truly taken out, and Matias barreled into his mother’s arms, Veronica having dropped to the floor to grab him.
Lance’s brothers were grinning at the reunion, and then they looked up and spotted Keith and Lance.
“Lance!” they cried out, crossing the room in very few strides. Keith found himself swept up into the hug with Lance, probably on accident, because Lance was still clinging to him. He was also sobbing, mumbling about how happy he was to see them, and finally, one of them pulled back.
“Lance, are you… drunk?”
Lance sniffled loudly. “So much.”
“Oh my God.”
“S’a genius plan though,” Lance mumbled, leaning heavily into one of his brothers.
“I’m sure it was,” his brother said, patting him on the shoulder and looking fond. “I’m Luis, by the way,” he added, nodding towards Keith.
“Keith,” Keith answered. “And that makes you Marco, right?”
Marco grinned. “So Lance has told ya about us, huh?”
“Yeah,” Keith said, blushing now, because he remembered that Veronica had seen the two of them kissing, and likely everyone knew about that by now. Across the room, Matias and Veronica were still having their tearful reunion, and Lance was groaning into Luis’ shoulder, his arms wrapped around his waist.
“We should get going before any more of them come back,” Marco said, and Keith nodded along eagerly, desperate to get out of this shit hole.
“We’ve got a great place we’re staying at,” Keith said, taking the lead since Lance clearly couldn’t. “It can fit all of us comfortably.”
“Really?” Marco said, grinning. “You’ll have to tell Mom all about it.”
“I miss Mami,” Lance said, his voice muffled against Luis.
“She misses you too, bud,” Luis said comfortingly. Lance sniffled loudly.
“Lance!” Veronica said loudly. “Time for my hug!”
Lance peeled himself out of Luis’ arms and stumbled over to Veronica, collapsing against her instead. “Ronnie,” he said seriously. “I missed you so much. Don’t let my boyfriend see how drunk I am.”
“Alright, I won’t,” Veronica promised, making eye contact with Keith who was bright red. “You’re gonna have to tell me all about him later.”
“He’s so cute,” Lance mumbled, making Keith somehow even redder, and then they were all leaving the jailhouse, circling the building and crossing a field towards the McClain’s van which was hidden out of view.
It was another reunion when they got to the van, Lance sobbing into his mother’s arms and Matias jumping around in excitement with Sylvio and Nadia. Keith was introduced, too, pulled into a tight hug by Mrs. McClain, who thanked him for taking care of her son.
The van wasn’t quite big enough for all of them, but they made it work. Mrs. McClain drove with Marco accompanying her in the front, and Veronica sat in the very back with the kids, Matias on her lap. In the middle was Luis, Keith, and Lance, pressed shoulder to shoulder.
Being back on the road felt amazing, knowing they were truly free again, but Keith soon learned that there wasn’t really such a thing as being “free” when you were traveling with kids.
See, having the world come to its end in the form of a zombie apocalypse had changed pretty much every aspect of human life, but there were some things that even cannibalistic living dead people couldn’t change, such as a little kid’s inconvenient and urgent need to pee.
They’d been on the road for maybe a half hour when Sylvio suddenly announced that he needed to pee in a low whine.
Lance, who’d been lounging against Keith with his face in his neck, looking for all intents and purposes like he was asleep, sat up lightning fast, nodding in agreement. “Yeah, me too,” he said, and so they were pulling over along the side of the road. Keith assumed it would be a quick trip, considering only Lance and Sylvio needed to pee, but he’d obviously never been around little kids all that often before.
Immediately after Lance and Sylvio returned to the car, having wandered only over to the edge of the road, Matias decided that he, too, needed to pee. He wanted his mom to come with him, having gotten separated from his family the last time he’d left her side, and then Nadia was getting out of the car as well, saying that if all the other kids were going to pee then she needed to, too. Luis, her dad, went with her, snagging some toilet paper out of a pocket on the back of the chair, and at that point pretty much everyone decided to get out of the car, figuring they all might as well go to the bathroom since they were stopping for so long anyway.
Keith couldn’t help but think everything was a little unorganized. Adults were wandering around helping kids, Lance was leaning heavily against the side of the truck, and nobody seemed to be paying much attention to anything, all so distracted with themselves and each other. It put Keith on edge, made him feel like he had to watch them all, make sure nothing was going to happen to any of them.
“Are you feeling okay, Lance?” Keith asked, glancing at him out of the corner of his eye before looking back towards everyone else. Nadia was hanging on Luis’ hand, complaining about how she wanted a snack, and Sylvio was holding a giant stick, poking at something in the grass.
“Yes,” Lance said, sounding not very okay at all, not that Keith blamed him. He’d had a lot to drink and on a pretty empty stomach, too, considering the rations they’d been receiving back at the jail.
“Keith!” Matias shouted suddenly, waving him over from where he was standing in the grass and looking distressed. Keith spared one last look for Lance, relatively positive that he was going to be able to remain standing there on his own, and made his way over to Lance’s nephew.
Veronica was a few feet away, talking to her mom, and Matias looked on the brink of tears.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” Keith asked hurriedly, looking around for anything that could’ve hurt him. Matias sniffled, pointing at the ground. At their feet was an old, ratty-looking teddy bear.
“I forgot my bear,” Matias explained, a tear finally slipping down his cheek. “I-I left him with the Galra!”
Keith had to keep himself from letting his mouth hang open, unsure of what to do or say. He couldn’t imagine being upset over something like this, and he was honestly surprised that Matias still had the capacity to be, but it felt even more important to comfort him because of it. To ensure that he could keep being a kid, even in the midst of the Great Plague.
“Hey,” Keith said quietly, dropping to his knees and feeling like he was probably doing this wrong already. “We can find you a new bear,” he tried to reassure him. A small sob slipped out of Matias then, shaking his tiny frame, and he shook his head violently.
“I don’t want another bear,” he said. “I want my bear. He’s probably so scared without me!”
Keith shuffled forward on his knees, holding his arms out, and Matias barreled right into them, sniffling loudly into Keith’s neck.
“You know, I bet your bear’s pretty brave,” Keith said, rubbing Matias’ back. “I think he’s going to be just fine. He made it this far, hasn’t he?”
Matias hugged him tighter. “I guess,” he relented.
“Everything okay over here?” Veronica interrupted, and Keith looked up at her, nodding.
“A bit of a teddy bear emergency, but I think we’ll be all right,” he said, and Veronica’s expression softened, her gaze slipping towards her son.
“My bear’s brave,” he informed his mom. “He’ll be fine.”
“I’m sure he will,” Veronica agreed. Matias relinquished his hold on Keith, then, and Keith got back to his feet — just in time to see something move in the grass. He squinted, not sure if he’d actually seen anything or not, but he stared harder just to make sure, his body tense with unease.
In a burst of movement, a rotter lurched out of the grass, arms extended towards Matias. Keith leapt into action, reaching for his sword before realizing it was still in the car – stupid. He yanked Matias out of the way, preparing himself for having to wrestle with this zombie, when an arrow suddenly sprouted out of the thing’s head. It collapsed at Keith’s feet, and he turned to find Lance still leaning heavily against the car, now with his bow in hand.
Keith didn’t know how to feel. Grateful Lance had killed the rotter, sure, but also terrified that he’d just shot a deadly projectile while drunk. And a little impressed that he’d done it so well.
Everyone was shouting, Keith realized, scrambling to get themselves and their kids out of the grass, now proved to be unsafe. Marco got to Lance first, and he started lecturing him about using weapons while drunk.
“It was gonna hurt my boyfriend!” Lance protested, stumbling forward into Keith’s chest pointedly. Keith wrapped his arms around him, holding him up.
“No more shooting ‘til you’re sober again though, okay?” Keith said.
“’Kay,” Lance agreed, shoving his bow into Keith’s hands.
With everyone with empty bladders and nerves on high alert, they piled into the car to get out of there. Keith once again analyzed the map, directing Lance’s mom along the highway, and Lance leaned heavily against him, nuzzling into his neck.
Conversation in the car was pretty quiet, a couple of them going on at once. Keith suspected the real reunion would happen later on when Lance was fully sober.
Speaking of Lance…
“What are you doing?” Keith asked him. It looked like Lance was trying to get up, though currently he was still just struggling with his seatbelt.
“Wanna sit on your lap,” Lance explained, huffing angrily when he couldn’t unbuckle himself.
“I think you’re good where you are,” Keith said, grabbing Lance’s hand so he couldn’t unbuckle on the off chance that he actually found the coordination to.
“But I wanna be closer to you,” Lance whined, plopping his head heavily onto Keith’s shoulder. Then he seemed to realize they were holding hands, and content with that, he lifted them up to his chest. “Keith,” he said importantly.
“I have to tell you something,” Lance said, whispering now. “Something really, really important.”
“What is it?” Keith humored him.
“I love every little thing about you,” Lance whispered, turning to look at Keith with wide eyes. Keith’s eyes were wide too, his lips pressed together as he tried to suppress his smile.
“Oh yeah?” he said.
Lance nodded. “I love your eyes,” he said, a hand coming up to press against Keith’s cheek as he stared into them. “I’ve never seen anything like them. And they’re so expressive. Even when you’re doing your stoic face, you show all your emotions in your eyes.”
“Is that so?” Keith said, voice gentle.
Lance nodded. “And I love the way you fight with your sword. It’s like it’s part of your body, and all of you moves with it. And I love when you put your hair up. And I love your nose. And your lips.”
Keith was full on grinning now, rubbing Lance’s hand with his thumb, Lance’s other hand still cupping Keith’s face. “Keith,” Lance said. “I love your cute little butt.”
Now Keith did laugh, head falling onto Lance’s shoulder as he snickered, glad that most of the other adults in the car were wrapped up in their own conversations. “Thanks, Lance,” he finally managed. “I love a whole lot of things about you too.”
Lance grinned at him, swaying a bit in his seat. “Well I love you,” he said. “I love every little part of you, so I love you.”
And Keith’s smile slipped off his face in his surprise. He sat there staring at Lance, mouth hanging open and eyebrows slowly inching higher up his face, his heart pounding.
Lance raised a single finger in the air.
“Family,” he said loudly, gathering their attention. “I’m going to throw up.”
Immediately, the car swerved over to the side of the road, and Keith leaned over Lance to throw open the door. Still buckled, Lance leaned out of the car, everyone making sympathetic noises as he coughed and spluttered there.
“Never drink,” Veronica said sternly, looking at all the kids surrounding her in the back seat. “See what happened to Uncle Lance?”
“He only drank because he had to,” Matias said, immediately jumping in to defend him. Lance spat on the ground before sitting up, leaning his head against the headrest and letting out a groan.
“I should just let a zombie eat me,” he said miserably.
“Don’t say that,” his mother said sternly, before handing him a water bottle. Lance cringed, the thought of putting anything else in his body obviously a bad one, and Keith took it instead, holding it for whenever Lance was ready.
“Ughhhh,” Lance said, before curling up against Keith. He wrapped an arm around Lance, rubbing his back as the car took off again and kept moving along the road. Lance fell asleep against him, but maybe that was for the best. It was only a matter of time before they got back to Coran’s mansion, and hopefully Lance could sober up a bit before they got there. After all, it’d been almost a week since they’d left.
oops forgot to warn you guys but there's smut in this chapter!!
The first thing Lance registered was pain.
Not the far more comfortable than usual bed he was sleeping on, not the warmth of a body curled around his, but the persistent throbbing in his head that refused to go unaddressed. His mouth felt as dry as a desert and tasted horrible, and as he peeled his eyes open the pain in his head only intensified.
“Oh God,” he croaked, trying to cope with the onslaught of uncomfortableness assaulting him. At his words, the figure behind him stirred.
“Lance,” Keith’s voice said, scratchy with sleep. “You’re awake. How do you feel?”
“Like death,” Lance groaned pathetically, and Keith’s hand briefly disappeared into Lance’s hair before he was climbing over him. Lance didn’t even register him leaving and coming back until he was helping Lance sit up, a water bottle and Advil in hand.
“Do you remember what happened yesterday?” Keith asked him, settling down on the bed beside him. After taking the medicine and chugging almost all of the water, Lance leaned against Keith’s side with a weak groan.
“Mostly,” Lance said. “Like… we escaped. And my family!”
“What about after we got back?” Keith prompted, sounding amused. Lance squinted in concentration, his whole head a muddled mess of mixed up memories. He remembered feeling fiercely proud of Keith, managing to stay sober for the duration of the poker game. Remembered when the fighting had started, the intense urge to go. He remembered, with some dreamlike quality, crying as he stood in a small closet, though the fear of that felt distant and unreal now.
He remembered being dizzy, his steps feeling a fraction too large and his hands a fraction too slow. He remembered seeing his family, and hugging them, though he couldn’t remember in which particular order for the life of him. He remembered Keith, Keith, Keith, an unbridled love for Keith. And then — nothing.
Lance frowned. “No,” he said. “I don’t remember much of the car ride at all.” He turned to look at Keith, finding him with a pink blush gracing his cheeks. What did he have to be embarrassed about?
“Oh God, did I say something weird?” Lance demanded.
“No!” Keith hastily assured. And then, “Um, but you did shoot a rotter.” Lance got the distinct feeling that that wasn’t what he’d been thinking about, but his attention was quickly snatched away as his brain actually registered what Keith had just said.
“You don’t remember?”
Lance wracked his brains. Maybe vaguely… But no, not really. He couldn’t imagine being able to shoot accurately in that state. “That’s terrifying.”
“I know,” Keith chuckled. “But yeah, you were asleep for most of the car ride. Still drunk when we got back.”
Lance groaned. “What a great entrance.”
Keith snickered. “Do you remember asking Coran if you could be in a movie with him if ‘all this zombie biz’ ever clears up?”
Lance laughed, falling back against the bed with an arm over his eyes. “No.”
And that seemed to be the prevailing answer for all the stories Keith told him. Thankfully, he’d apparently been less of a nuisance and more of a giant drunken toddler than anything else, and he’d passed out at like seven and slept ’til now.
“Did everyone like my family, at least?” Lance asked, peering at Keith tentatively. “Actually, scratch that, did they like you? I was too drunk to do any proper introductions.”
“I think they like me, yeah,” Keith said shyly, his eyes darting to his hands in his lap. “Your mom kissed me on the cheek last night when I said I was gonna take you up to bed.”
“Oh yeah, she totally loves you,” Lance laughed. “She’d probably be trying to figure out whether you intend to marry me if, you know, it weren’t the apocalypse.”
“Oh my God,” Keith said.
“Don’t get freaked out by the M word now,” Lance scoffed. “It doesn’t even exist anymore. Now c’mon! Help me up!”
Keith did help Lance up, letting him complain when his head throbbed as they did so, and then they were making their way down the marble stairs, slow and steady as they headed towards their destination.
Noise from the kitchen could be heard from down the hall, some of the voices belonging to Lance’s family, and he felt himself smiling before they even made it there, excited at the thought of everyone he loved getting along together. When they stepped into the kitchen, no one even noticed them at first, all caught up in the conversations they were having. Matias was the only kid up and Veronica was sitting at his side, likely dragged out of bed by the early riser. Luis and Marco both woke up this early naturally, the poor souls, so they were at the table too, accompanying Shiro who was nursing a cup of black coffee.
“Morning everyone,” Lance said, smiling as everyone turned to greet him. Matias was squinting at him suspiciously.
“Are you normal again?” he finally asked, crossing his arms over his chest. Lance laughed as he crossed the room, ducking down so he could scrub his hand in his nephew’s hair.
“Most definitely,” Lance said, ignoring Matias’ protests and attempts to slap his hands away. He gave him a smacking kiss on the cheek, then, and straightened back up. He could hardly contain his excitement over seeing his family – this time the feeling not dulled by alcohol – so he ended up making his way around the table, pulling each of his siblings into a hug.
“Can’t believe you weren’t even scolded for being so drunk,” Marco said conversationally after Lance had finally sat down, Keith by his side.
“I did it in order to escape!” Lance protested.
“Still,” Marco said, shaking his head. “Mami definitely chased me around the house with a flip-flop for being less drunk than that.”
“Yeah, well, you were probably out partying with friends. I was out being a badass hero.”
“Lance,” Veronica hissed, glaring at him.
“A hero! Just a plain old hero!” Lance hastily corrected, although Matias wasn’t even paying them any attention, too busy drawing something on a piece of printer paper with crayons.
When Lance looked away from Matias, it was to find Luis had leveled him with a stare. “And you came back with a boyfriend,” he said pointedly, making Keith shift uncomfortably by Lance’s side.
“You know, a lot can happen during an apocalypse,” Lance said. “Sometimes finding a kick-ass—”
“—tronaut... boyfriend is one of them.”
“You’re an astronaut?!” Matias exclaimed, proving he was actually listening. Lance smiled at Veronica guiltily.
“Um, yep,” Keith lied. “Never actually got to go to space though.”
“Lame,” Matias muttered, and he turned back to his drawing.
Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. And then, “I guess,” Luis finally huffed. He’d always been the most invested in Lance’s love life, always one to strike up a conversation over Facetime or text to see how college was treating Lance and if he’d found The One yet. “I just thought I’d be around for the whole process of seeing my little brother fall in love.”
Lance felt his face heat up to about a million degrees as he spluttered something incoherent. “I mean— I don’t—uhhh…” he stuttered, laughing nervously.
Veronica was laughing. “We should’ve known he’d be a lovey-dovey drunk,” she said. And then, sounding horribly like she was quoting something Lance must have said, “I love every little thing about you, so I love you.”
Lance’s felt like he was on fire. He laughed, shoving a hand into his hair and desperately avoiding eye contact with Keith. “I guess that’s common knowledge now,” he joked, laughing uncomfortably. Just then, Keith’s hand slipped into his, squeezing, and Lance glanced over at him to find the softest smile gracing his lips. He was blushing too.
Lance breathed a sigh of relief, vowing to tell him again soon, on purpose, wanting to actually remember the expression Keith would make in response. For now, Lance just squeezed his hand, hoping he could get the message across that way instead.
Keith was in his lap.
This was Lance’s favorite place for him to be, and he pulled Keith in a little closer as Keith let out a sigh into his mouth, his hand fastening itself in Lance’s hair.
“Lance,” Keith breathed into his mouth, and Lance swallowed his name, kissing Keith harder. He was pretty sure Keith wasn’t just saying his name for the sake of saying it — he probably wanted to actually tell Lance something — but at the moment he couldn’t help but think that everything else could wait.
By the time Lance had kissed down his jaw and behind his ear, Keith clearly agreed that it could wait too. He hummed as Lance’s lips moved against his skin, Lance’s fingers digging unintentionally into Keith’s hips, wanting to ensure that this time they could actually stay close.
Lance soon abandoned his attempt to hold Keith where he was, much favoring the feeling of pushing his shirt up, his hands exploring the smooth, warm plane of Keith’s stomach. He curled his fingers into his waistband, grinning against Keith’s neck as he sucked in a breath, fingers twitching against Lance’s scalp where he still held his hair—
And then the door burst open.
“Ugh, are you guys ever not on top of each other?”
Lance hadn’t thought that he could get sick of his family after not having seen them for so long, but Veronica was officially trying his patience. Keith practically flung himself off Lance’s lap, bouncing onto the bed next to him and trying to sit somewhat normally, his hair hanging in front of his red face.
“How about you knock?” Lance hissed, flinging the comforter over his lap because, yeah, he was a little bit excited to be making out with his boyfriend. And this was beyond annoying, okay? He and Keith had just been getting to this sort of territory before they’d been kidnapped by the Galra and forced to barely touch each other at all. Now, finally, they were back to safety and surrounded by people Lance loved to boot, and yet they still couldn’t do anything. Practically every other minute someone was needing them somewhere or wanting their attention or barging into their room without knocking.
Veronica scoffed. “Sorry if I didn’t expect to walk in on my little brother getting hot and heavy in the middle of the afternoon.”
“We weren’t!” Keith protested immediately, sounding choked with embarrassment. Lance didn’t blame him. While all of this was kind of horrible and frustrating for Lance, it was overwhelmingly embarrassing for Keith. After all, he’d never experienced any of this stuff before. It wasn’t exactly fair that the first time he got to grind against another dude was interrupted by the arrival of said dude’s sister. As if venturing out there to experience those kinds of firsts wasn’t nerve-wracking enough as it was.
“What do you want?” Lance finally said, attempting to draw the attention away from the fact that he and Keith were indeed getting — if not hot and heavy, at least warm and suitably weighted — in a bed together.
“We’re having a meeting downstairs,” Veronica finally explained. “I’m not really sure what’s going on, but Pidge sounded pretty excited about it.”
Lance couldn’t help grinning. It was just, he’d told his family all about Hunk and Pidge while he was at college, but they’d never actually met them. But now, finally, all the people he loved most in the world were together — even if there wasn’t much of a world left for them to be together in.
“Well that clears up almost nothing,” Lance said with an exaggerated sigh, finally rolling out of the bed. “Pidge can get excited over just about anything.”
“Maybe she finally grew some food in the greenhouse,” Keith suggested hopefully. Lance couldn’t help sharing that sentiment. He couldn’t imagine how nice it’d be to eat something fresh after how long they’d been eating things out of cans and boxes.
“I’d straight up eat an onion right now if I had the option, and I don’t even like onions,” Lance said desperately. Keith was smiling, and by the door, Veronica rolled her eyes.
“Just meet us downstairs, all right? Everyone’s in the kitchen.”
The two of them nodded and Veronica left the room, not bothering to close the door behind her. Lance turned to Keith, who was finally returning to a natural Keith-like color.
“Sorry about that,” Lance sighed. It was their fault for getting too caught up in each other and forgetting to lock the door, but it seemed stuff like this was constantly happening to them. Keith just smiled, shaking his head a bit sheepishly. He was totally fine when they were in the middle of doing something like this together, wanting Lance’s hands and mouth on him, but the second they were interrupted he was totally shy about it.
Keith climbed out of the bed, his hands now shoved in the pocket of the hoodie he was wearing, his shoulders raised defensively towards his ears. Lance caught him by the arm and pulling him in close, pressing his lips to Keith’s cheek as he spoke. “You’re so cute,” he told him, holding him closer when Keith instinctively tried to lean away, blushing again.
“Shut up,” he muttered.
“I’m serious!” Lance insisted. And he knew that things like this hardly mattered these days. It didn’t matter whether you had eyelashes that contrasted beautifully against your cheeks; didn’t matter if your lips were the perfect pink, soft and plush and warm; it didn’t matter if your laugh was so perfect it made a fire burn hot in the heart of those who heard, but that didn’t stop Keith from having all those qualities. And it didn’t stop Lance from appreciating them, from wanting to tell Keith all about them just to make sure he knew, just to prove that he was one of the many beautiful things left over on this Earth.
But Lance didn’t say any of that. Pidge was waiting for them, after all, and Keith already knew that Lance loved him. And you couldn’t love a person without loving all those little parts of them, the way their fingers curled around yours and the way their hair fell in their face and the way their knees subtly shook whenever they sat still, so Lance clamped his mouth shut and saved Keith the embarrassment of having to hear Lance gush over him.
Downstairs, everyone was gathered and chattering excitedly in the kitchen. Despite it having been days since Lance had introduced his found family to his related family, it still struck him with a great deal of happiness to see how well they’d all integrated with each other. Veronica was talking to Allura and Romelle, the three of them laughing in the corner of the room, while Matias and his cousins chased Pidge around, someone who’d always claimed she disliked kids but clearly actually loved them. Hunk was talking to Marco, probably about something nerdy and boring because they were both into that, and Shiro was smiling as Luis pointed to his daughter, grinning as she succeeded in pouncing on Pidge.
“Looks like everyone’s here!” Coran announced, turning away from Lance’s mother in order to survey the room once and for all. “Pidge, you ready to share the exciting news?”
Pidge was ready, but the room was not. It took a good few minutes for everyone to get settled, especially since the kids wanted to continue playing with Pidge, but finally they were all quiet and listening readily. Lance was sitting on the counter, and he tugged Keith in between his legs, resting his chin on his boyfriend’s head as they paid attention.
“All right,” Pidge began, grinning at them. Hunk and Coran seemed in on it already, both shifting excitedly and exchanging glances, and for the first time Lance noticed the object behind Pidge on the table, currently covered with a blanket. “As everyone who’s been here knows, we did a lot of freaking out when you two disappeared,” Pidge said, gesturing at Lance and Keith. “We drove all around looking for clues, but we had no idea how to find you guys. And you know me, whenever I can’t figure things out I start thinking a lot, and then I can’t sleep.”
“College was a nightmare,” Lance commented, earning a few chuckles from his family gathered around. He could feel Keith’s laugh against his chest.
“Yeah, well, I started thinking about how to contact you guys. And I realized — radios. A lot of people still have them, they just aren’t connected to anything ‘cause no one’s been broadcasting. So anyway, I made this shortwave radio with a few tweaks—“
“They’re not tweaks!” Hunk interrupted excitedly, unable to help himself. “She practically reinvented it! On the right station, you could hear this radio from a walkie-talkie!”
“I know, I’m super impressive, Hunk. Anyway — well, just, yeah. Look at it!” With that, to her audience that was mostly gaping mouths and astonished faces, Pidge whipped the blanket off her creation. It looked just like a normal radio — it was one, obviously, just with the insides all rearranged, probably. But Pidge was standing there grinning proudly, and Lance felt his face break into a smile too.
“That’s awesome, Pidgey!” he said, planting his hands on Keith’s shoulders so he could lean further forward. “So anyone with a radio could hear us broadcasting?”
“Yep! And walkie-talkies, like Hunk said. We just need to pick a station to stake our claim in.”
“Sixteen,” Keith blurted, the low timbre of his voice breaking up the more shrill sounds of excitement that’d been coming from Pidge and Lance. He seemed to realize that he had everyone’s attention, then, and he shifted a bit uncomfortably. “Um. I just think that’s the one we should choose.”
“Sounds good to me!” Pidge said without question, and then she started murmuring to herself about how to do it, but Lance was just sitting there with his lip quivering, his eyes threatening to water as he hooked his legs around Keith’s hips and pulled him backwards into a hug.
It wasn’t like it was some kind of crazy, monumental idea, and it wasn’t like it really meant anything to anyone else, but Lance was inexplicably touched. He was reminded of nights sitting alone, on the side of a road or in a room he wasn’t used to or pressed shoulder-to-shoulder with Keith on a bed. He was reminded of trembling fingers flipping through channels, of the deafening silence that followed his own voice and the release of his thumb on a button. Reminded of the dread that came with the climbing numbers, and the horrible pit in his stomach after he reached the last one, sixteen, only to be greeted with yet more silence, more uncertainty.
But then he was also reminded of that last time, of a dial that clicked into place and a silence that was broken with his name, carried on the lips of an eight-year-old boy. Reminded of the weight that had been so thoroughly settled on his shoulders crashing down in that moment as hope had exploded into its place, leaving Lance light and giddy with happiness.
Yeah, sixteen sounded like a good channel. A good place for someone that was hopeless, a good place to hear their voices on Pidge’s radio, filling the silence they so desperately didn’t want to hear.
“Yeah, that should be easy enough to tweak,” Pidge decided happily, now screwing a chunk of the radio back into place. Lance hadn’t even realized she’d been taking it apart, too lost in his own thoughts to pay attention. “And after we do that, if anyone’s listening, we can give them another channel to contact them on. We could find any other people near us, people affected by the Galra just like you guys, and band together with them! Oh! And we could trade supplies and designate jobs and—”
“Hold it, Pidge!” Lance said, and Pidge looked at him, mouth agape. “It almost sounds like you’re trying to reinstall capitalism, just so you’re aware.”
Pidge rolled her eyes, and she made a movement like she was about to give Lance the finger before he widened his eyes deliberately, looking over at the kids sitting together at the kitchen table. Finally, she sighed loudly, realizing her excitement over technology and capitalism, apparently, wasn’t exactly shared with her peers. “Just — do you wanna broadcast or not?”
“Heck yeah!” Lance said, lightly shoving Keith out of the way so he could bounce towards the radio. He grinned at Pidge as she flicked a few switches and twisted a knob, a green light coming on. The radio was plugged into some sort of contraption Pidge had made, something similar to a solar panel, probably, so it was all charged up and ready to go.
“So… People can hear me?” Lance said tentatively.
“If there’s anyone on this channel on their radio, yes,” Pidge said. “Likely no one’s listening right now, but the more often we do it, the better chance we’ll have of finding some people who can listen. Plus with the walkie-talkies I could probably even help some other people make radios of their own. It’d be nice to find other groups of people and be able to communicate with them.”
“This is awesome,” Lance said, grinning, and then he leaned in close to the radio. “Testing, testing, one, two, three,” he said, making his voice deeper than normal. “This is your host, Lance McClain, and you’re listening to Sixteen — the latest and greatest on our zombie apocalypse!”
There were snickers throughout the room, and Lance looked up at his friends and family, grinning. “Here’s one for the history books, folks. The Galra are not as all powerful as they appear! If you’re Galra and listening to this: get effed! I’d say that more explicitly, but there’s kids present. Anyway, if you, too, have been effed over by the Galra, welcome to the club! It’s a hate-filled zone here!”
“Okay, that’s enough,” Pidge said, laughing, and she butted her way in front of Lance and powered the radio down. “We’ll keep testing it out throughout the week,” she promised. “Hopefully we’ll happen to find some more people that way, and then they can spread the word.”
“Lance,” Keith said gruffly, reaching for his blindfold for the third time before Lance batted his hand away, making Keith huff out a breath through his nose. “This is so unnecessary. Can’t you just tell me where we’re going?”
“No can do,” Lance said happily, and he opened the front door and pushed Keith out of it. Keith immediately stiffened, his back straightening and his heels digging into the porch.
“We’re outside?” he said incredulously. “I can’t be blindfolded out here! What if a rotter comes?”
“Then I’ll kill it,” Lance said easily, absently patting his quiver and making his arrows clatter together, alerting Keith to their presence.
“This is stupid,” Keith said finally, likely glaring behind his blindfold as Lance continued to lead him away from the house, the two of them now going down the driveway.
“No, this is romantic,” Lance argued immediately. And then he pulled Keith off the pavement and into the grass, immediately righting him when he tripped over the uneven ground. Keith didn’t even have the energy in him to argue any longer, just letting out a sigh as he was led closer and closer towards the forest.
Lance wasn’t trying to get Keith killed, obviously. In fact, he’d come out here earlier and scoured the area thoroughly just to be extra sure. Plus, the defenses they’d set up a while ago should ensure that nothing out there would be able to get to them. It was when they’d been setting up those defenses in the first place that Lance had noticed it; an abandoned-looking treehouse.
He wasn’t sure whether Coran knew about it or not, but he’d never mentioned it to any of them, so Lance had taken it upon himself to go exploring. He’d found the treehouse in good shape with sturdy floors and walls — the perfect hideout for a couple of guys trying to get away from their overbearing company. Or maybe the perfect place to hide as a last resort as zombies surrounded you.
Either way, Lance had found it, and he’d staked a claim to it, seeing as apparently no one else had yet to do so.
The path was relatively easy, and Lance could navigate it well enough even in the dark. Maybe it’d been a little over the top to take Keith out to a secret treehouse in the middle of the night in an attempt to get some alone time, but Lance was desperate, at this point.
“All right,” he announced, the second they were both standing in front of it. “You have to climb up a ladder now.”
“Yeah, I’m not doing that blindfolded, Lance,” Keith said, and Lance pouted despite Keith not being able to see it. He’d assumed this was going to happen.
“Fine,” Lance said. “But I’m climbing up first!”
He kissed Keith on the lips, surprising him, seeing as he still had the blindfold on, and began climbing the ladder as quickly as he could. He was more than halfway up by the time Keith started following after him, and he hefted himself into the treehouse and set his weapons in the corner before settling as casually as he could on the mound of pillows and blankets he’d lugged up here earlier. Besides that, there were candles (not yet lit, because Lance really hadn’t wanted to risk burning down their one chance at privacy), snacks, and water bottles.
When Keith emerged through the trap door after Lance, he looked around in awe, his eyebrows slowly climbing higher and higher up his forehead.
“You did this?” he finally said, looking at Lance in surprise.
“If you’re asking whether I build the tree house, no,” Lance joked, sitting up to face Keith better. “But everything else…”
“You really are a romantic,” Keith commented, and Lance pulled the lighter out of his pocket, flicking it on.
“You betcha,” Lance said, and he crawled around the room to light all the candles he’d smuggled up there, finally tossing the lighter into the corner and rising to his feet to join Keith, pulling him closer by the belt loops. “You like it?”
“Definitely feeling like we’ll get some alone time up here,” Keith answered, chuckling nervously. His cheeks were pink — more noticeable now, in the dim light the candles added to the room — and Lance leaned forward and kissed him on the nose.
“You know we don’t actually have to do anything, right?” Lance asked, hands now on his hips, thumbs rubbing soothingly against Keith’s skin. Keith’s eyes slanted to the side, the corner of his mouth quirking up in a smile.
“I know, Lance,” he said softly. “You say that, like. Every time.”
“Yeah, but this time I don’t think my nephew’s gonna barge in and ask me to teach him how to shoot a bow,” Lance said conversationally, and Keith snorted, pressing his face into Lance’s shoulder.
“How about you just stop talking and kiss me?” he suggested, and Lance grinned, unable to argue with that.
The thing about kissing Keith was he was so responsive. Lance never would’ve guessed it, seeing as how Keith could be totally stoic and unmoving whenever he wanted. He was like the picture perfect definition of a badass, the cool guy in the movies who would take down his enemies without even breaking a sweat.
But this Keith was totally different. This was the Keith who kicked off his shoes at every chance he got, the Keith that pretended he hated Kosmo while actually loving him, the Keith that had waited an entire week to kiss him, not knowing how to initiate it himself. This Keith melted against Lance the second his hands were on him; he sighed into Lance’s mouth the moment their tongues brushed.
“Lance,” Keith breathed, and then he was pushing Lance backwards, the two of them stumbling towards the mound of pillows and blankets Lance had so meticulously organized and falling onto them. Keith was right back in Lance’s lap, just where he wanted him.
God, Lance couldn’t get enough of Keith. He could hardly believe they’d barely even done this yet. In college, it’d always been the first thing he’d done, and sometimes a bit of a relationship would form afterwards, but usually even that was purely sexual.
But this? This was so different. This was Keith, who he loved, and because of that everything was a hundred times better. It wasn’t just some hot guy with a tongue down his throat or some chick moaning in his lap – it was Keith. Every sound and movement and touch was distinctly him, and everything was heightened because of that. Lance wanted to hear him more, feel him more, touch him more.
“Fuck,” Lance breathed. “Keith, I wanna – can I suck you off?”
Keith’s fingers clenched suddenly in Lance’s hair, his hips stuttering against Lance where they’d been absently grinding against each other. “Shit – I mean, yeah, yes, please.”
Lance huffed out a laugh and then he was grabbing Keith by the waist and flipping the two of them over. Both of them were wearing far too many clothes, so Lance stripped his shirt off. Keith didn’t really get the hint, instead just laying there with his eyes roaming all over Lance’s skin, so Lance leaned over him and shoved his shirt up his chest, baring his skin to the world.
“This is gonna blow your mind,” Lance promised him as he started to unbutton Keith’s pants. Meanwhile Keith was struggling out of his shirt, having finally caught on.
Lance could remember his first blow job. It’d been the girl’s first time, too, and even then it’d been good, so different from anything he was used to.
Keith was not only going to experience that, he was going to experience Lance’s mouth on him, and he was quite a bit better than some girl’s first attempt at a blowjob.
“Fuck,” Keith breathed, and his hips arched as Lance latched his fingers under his jeans and underwear in one, tugging them both down while Keith’s butt was still in the air. Keith kicked them the rest of the way off as Lance skimmed his fingers over his hip bones, delighting in the little goosebumps he could feel popping up on Keith’s skin.
The second Keith stilled, Lance just took a moment to take him in, laying there completely naked in front of him. He was panting a little, more from excitement than actual exertion, and his eyes seemed transfixed on Lance’s hands, which were still dancing across his skin in random patterns.
“You ready?” Lance finally asked him, scooting down to lay in between his legs.
Keith nodded, his hair getting mussed up from all the pillows behind him, and Lance smirked before wrapping his hand around the base of his cock and enveloping the head in his mouth.
Immediately, Keith let out a sigh, his head tilting further back as his hand came up so he could splay his fingers through Lance’s hair. Lance watched the way his chest rose and fell as he swiped his tongue around the head of his cock and sank lower, fixated on how he could see Keith’s heartbeat at the base of his throat.
“Oh,” Keith said as Lance sank as far down as he could manage, the tip of Keith’s cock hitting the back of his throat. He was starting to get a rhythm going now, though it hardly seemed to matter to Keith how well he was doing this, seeing as he was already panting and trying to buck up into Lance’s mouth, kept from doing so solely because of Lance holding his hips down.
His chest was glistening with sweat, his head now craning forward so he could watch Lance, and Lance winked at him as he went down again, taking him as far as he could a second time before he paused and swallowed intentionally.
“Fuck!” Keith moaned, and Lance pulled off him to catch his breath.
“Warn me when you’re about to come, okay?”
“Wait!” Keith said, and he sat up, his face flushed. “I don’t want to come yet.”
“No?” Lance said, amused, and he crawled forward onto his lap. “What do you want to do instead?”
“I don’t know,” Keith said. “But I want to touch you too.”
“Yeah?” Lance laughed, hooking his arms around Keith’s neck. Keith let his hands venture over Lance’s torso, his fingers skimming over skin and coming to settle in his waistband.
“Yeah,” Keith breathed. “Where do you want me?”
Everywhere, obviously, but there was no way they’d be able to get to it all tonight. Keith looked like he could come any minute and Lance honestly wasn’t feeling too confident himself, not after how long all of this had been building up.
“Here,” Lance said, and he sat up onto his knees and shimmied out of his jeans, settling back down on top of Keith and guiding his hand to his arousal. Keith obviously knew what to do there, but he still went at it tentatively, his grip light as he moved over Lance.
“Is that good?” Keith asked, slowing down as his hand reached the top, his thumb swiping across the head. Lance jerked into his hand, planting his own hands on his shoulders as he leaned over him, his eyes slipping shut.
“Yeah, you’re doing great,” Lance said.
“Lance,” Keith said suddenly. “What if we…” He trailed off, and Lance prepared himself to break the news that they didn’t exactly have any lube around, so there were certain things they definitely wouldn’t be doing tonight. But then Keith said, “What if I sucked you off? Like, at the same time that you were…”
“Yes,” Lance said without thinking, his cock twitching in Keith’s hand just at the thought of it. “Fuck, yeah — you wanna be on the top or the bottom?”
“Nevermind, you’re gonna be on the top. C’mere.” Lance laid back on the pillows, wiggling his hands invitingly, and Keith snorted out a laugh. He climbed over Lance slowly, obviously uncertain about just putting his ass in his face, but Lance grabbed him by the hips and pulled him backward even faster.
“Just follow my lead,” Lance told him. “And if you can’t get the hang of it, that’s okay, I’ll finish somehow else.”
“Okay,” Keith said, still sounding unsure, so Lance decided to get him to change his tone. He reached up, grabbed his hips, and pulled Keith’s cock into his mouth.
“Lance!” Keith gasped out, and Lance had to brace himself, holding Keith’s hips up before he could fuck down into his mouth. He could feel Keith panting, his breath so hot and so near to where Lance wanted his mouth to be.
Thankfully, it seemed like Keith had an interest in putting his mouth there too, and Lance slowed down a bit when he felt Keith’s breath much hotter against his cock, followed by the careful touch of his tongue. Keith must’ve plucked up the courage, then, and he popped the entire head into his mouth, sliding his tongue against the underside of Lance’s cock.
Lance hummed encouragingly; of course, that had the added effect of feeling good for Keith, so Lance had to deal with Keith trying to buck into his mouth again. Keith immediately remedied his mistake it by going down further on Lance, and they worked themselves into a rhythm like that, gasping and moaning as they moved against each other, desperately trying to bring the other to orgasm.
It was fun, being able to pleasure someone as inexperienced as Keith. He was so reactive to every little thing, twitching and moaning at each new thing Lance did to him. Lance could tell when he was getting close, the way he became sloppier with his movements, his fingers digging into Lance’s hips.
Finally, he pulled off completely, resting his hand on Lance’s thigh and panting.
“Lance,” he gasped. “I’m — I’m close.”
Lance hummed, and he rubbed his hands over Keith, grabbing onto his ass and squeezing in encouragement. He felt Keith’s fingernails dig into his skin, so Lance pulled Keith down on top of him, taking him as deep as he could and swallowing around him again and again.
Keith made a choked noise against him, shaking as he came, shooting straight down Lance’s throat. Lance kept him there for as long as he could manage, eyes watering and unable to breathe, but finally he pushed him back up, gasping for breath. He was planning to let Keith come down from it more, maybe crawl up next to him and get himself off while just looking at him, but Keith wasn’t having that at all. Satisfied with his own pleasure, he went down on Lance with renewed vigor.
“Fuck, Keith! That’s — yes, fuck, keep doing that,” Lance praised him mindlessly, and he pressed his forehead against Keith’s knee, keeping himself from bucking up into his mouth.
Keith was a quick learner, as fast and efficient at this as he was in everything else. It felt amazing, and distantly, Lance imagined teaching him to go slow, making him learn through experience, of course.
For now, though, this was perfect. Lance was hovering on the edge, gasping against Keith’s skin, and he shouted a warning right when Keith did something incredible with his tongue, something that made Lance see white. And then he was coming, Keith soldiering through it despite it being his first time, and Lance pressed kisses against his skin, panting as everything finally started to calm down.
Moments later, Keith maneuvered off of him, and Lance followed immediately, flopping across his sweaty body. He pressed a tired kiss against Keith’s lips before getting comfortable on him, honestly ready to sleep through the night.
But, “Good?” he managed, not wanting to come across as that asshole kind of guy that just passes out the second things are over with.
“Really good,” Keith assured him quietly, and Lance hummed when his hand came up and settled in his hair.
“Good,” Lance murmured. “I love you so much.”
When Keith pressed a kiss against Lance’s forehead, he could feel the smile on his lips. “I love you too, Lance,” he said softly, and Lance clung to him just a little bit tighter, hardly able to believe how good he had it.
“Is this thing on?”
“It’s been a year, Lance, how can you still not tell?”
“Hey, I’m not the tech expert here! I just wanna know if they can hear me!”
“Yes, they can hear you, Lance.”
“Okay, good! Welcome, welcome everybody! You’re listening to Sixteen — the one and only radio show in this day and age. I’m your host, Lance McClain, and I’m here to update you on everything you’ve missed since last week!
If this is your first time tuning in, you’re probably on channel sixteen of your walkie-talkie and thoroughly freaked out right now. And maybe excited that you’re not so alone. If that’s the case, go ahead and switch to channel eight and ask for Hunk — he’ll fill you in on the details. As for everyone else, welcome back!
Our current human count is 203 — just three more and we’ll have as many living people around here as there are bones in the human body! Please radio in if you know that there’s a change in that number.
As for some general news, we have a trade market coming up in three days in Richmond. Bring any supplies you’re interested in bartering; I know Pidge here has built a couple more radios she’s ready to give away, and I think we have some vegetable seeds as well.
Anyone attempting to steal will be killed mercilessly by this gang going by the Blade of Marmora. Totally scary dudes, literally do not mess with them. So let’s all just act like adults here and help each other out.
Anywho! If you’re planning on traveling down I-95 anytime this week, take care. My brothers were there the other day and there was a massive hoard of rotters traveling on it for some unknown reason. Hunk and Pidge have been studying it, but they’re not really sure what’s going on yet. If you ask me, I think the zombies are going south for the winter.
Speaking of winter, Hunk’s thinkin’ there won’t be any snow for another couple months. It’s probably still safe to travel, but finding a good place to settle down and start stocking up is definitely something you want to start thinking about.
And that’s it for our news segment, folks! Now it’s time for the personal section of the show! A little more than a year ago, me, Pidge, and Hunk were all alone, and I would’ve killed to hear another person’s voice. If you’re feeling that way too, feel free to hang out and listen while we’re still here. If not, tune back in this time next week for more updates! As usual, we’ll pop on throughout the week to try to find any other survivors out there.
Remember, if you ever find yourself in need of help, you can contact us on channel 8 at dusk — we’ll be listening. Stay safe out there!
Now, for everyone that’s still around, I’m gonna tell you about how my boyfriend gave me the best anniversary present in the entire world. It all has to do with this ice cream truck he went out and repaired for me, and it’s kind of a long story, so you might want to grab a snack and settle in…”
thank you so much for reading guys!!! please leave a comment, i'd love to hear what you think!