Lance is wearing earrings.
Not that Keith cares, of course. Because he doesn’t. He doesn’t.
(you do, his mind whispers, and he wants to argue with it, but it’s hard to concentrate when the sun shines so bright today, its rays making the sea glitter and making Lance’s earrings—glow—sharp gold against the brown of his ears—)
Keith scowls. “I don’t care,” he says aloud, to no one in particular.
A couple of the crew give him odd looks as they go about their duties on the ship, but no one says anything. Keith crosses his arms and leans against the wall of the cabin, glaring at Lance. He’s telling a story to Rolo, waving his arms around as he speaks, no doubt to embellish an already exaggerated tale. He’s swapped his usual red and black outfit for white pants and a blue shirt, a blue shirt that—stretches—stretches over broad shoulders, over arms made strong by years at sea—and it suits him, makes his brown skin pop against the blue sky and the blue sea and the sunny day and the—
“Goddamn earrings,” Keith mutters. He looks down at Kosmo, who is half asleep on a coil of rope. “They’re probably stolen. That’s what pirates do, right? Steal jewelry.”
Kosmo thumps their tail and makes a grf sound. Keith takes this as agreement.
“I bet he did this on purpose,” he says next, looking at Lance again. “He’s been saving them this whole time just to—just to taunt me.”
Kosmo grfs again.
“Well it’s not working,” Keith says firmly. “I don’t care.”
“You talk an awful lot for someone who doesn’t care,” Shiro remarks idly, as he passes by carrying a large barrel.
“Shut up,” Keith hisses, but Shiro just laughs, and Kosmo grfs again, and Keith whirls around and marches back into the cabin, and he definitely does not think about those stupid fucking earrings while he reads his book.
Everyone on this goddamn ship is gay.
No—everyone on this goddamn ship is bisexual. Except for Shiro, who isn’t feeling well and is sleeping so deeply that not even the apocalypse could wake him up, and Nyma, who is a lesbian, which isn’t much help in the face of what looks like an entire city’s worth of sirens.
Keith runs to the ship’s wheel, one arm flung out for balance as the ship lists sharply right. As he jumps over a coil of rope, he spots Matt Holt about to tip right over the side of the ship; Keith yanks him back by the back of his shirt and he trips backward, losing his balance. Keith blinks, alarmed, but before Matt can hit his head, Kosmo bounds forward and breaks his fall, letting Matt collapse against them instead. A siren swoops close, but Kosmo growls at her, baring their teeth.
“Good boy!” Keith shouts, heading to the ship’s wheel again. Lance has it in hand, though it’s nothing short of a miracle that the ship hasn’t crashed on any of the rocks; he’s standing still, his grip on the wheel slack as a siren floats a little above him, her arms outstretched as she sings.
(Keith hates the singing. Hates it. Hates it. It’s haunting and eerie and creepy as fuck and siren magic must be really fucking strong if it can enchant someone with such a weird sound, low and echoing and building unease in the pit of Keith’s stomach)
He hates the singing, and it fills his head as he runs forward, but not in the way that it fills everyone else’s. It doesn’t bewitch him, but it—bothers him—mocks him, almost—like it’s saying you are one person, alone, and your team can no longer help you, and you have already lost.
The siren floating by Lance smiles, as if she can read what’s in Keith’s head. She smiles, and he can see the pointed teeth, small and sharp and deadly, and then she—descends—and her hand caresses Lance’s cheek—and she leans closer—and panic bursts through Keith, loud and fierce and insistent—and he stumbles up the steps, pulling his Galra dagger out of his pocket as he does so, and slices—
The siren shrieks, disappearing in a cloud of smoke that melts right in with the mist. Keith wants to be satisfied by this, but any triumph within him changes to renewed panic, because the ship is still listing, and that, paired with his awkward swipe at the siren, has thrown him off balance once more, and he—
—and crashes into Lance—
—and his lips land right at the corner of Lance’s mouth and Lance’s skin is smooth and for half a second Keith considers turning his head just a little to the right and what the fuck even is Keith’s life lately—
He pushes off Lance’s chest and manages to regain his balance. Lance looks dazed, though Keith doesn’t know if it’s because of the siren voices still echoing around the ship or the near brush with death or the—whatever the hell they just did.
(kiss, his mind supplies helpfully)
Kiss, but he ignores it, because right now Keith’s priority is grabbing hold of the ship’s wheel and spinning it in the other direction and getting the fuck out of here.
He’s still wearing the earrings.
Which is unfair. Unfair, because Keith needs to be mad that Lance won’t thank him for saving everyone from the sirens. Unfair, because Keith is pacing the length of the cabin and he wants to be fuming but instead he’s got the glint of those stupid earrings stuck in his head.
(he wonders, briefly, what it would be like to touch them. to run his hand through Lance’s curls, then down, across, graze along the back of his neck, come forward and tug at the small gold hoop)
(wonders if Lance’s breath would catch, if he’d smirk or smile or blush, if he’d make a face or roll his eyes or—)
There’s a knock on the cabin door, breaking his train of thought. He blinks, ignoring the heat creeping up his neck, and opens the door.
Lance is standing there, arms crossed and frowning.
“THANK YOU,” he shouts.
Keith is from a wealthy family. He’s been educated well, raised well. He knows how to respond to compliments, to criticism, to insults. He’s talked to queens and diplomats and generals, to greengrocers and fishermen and overexcited children who want to pet his dog.
But he does not, it seems, know how to talk to annoyingly attractive boys wearing blue shirts that—stretch—and gold earrings that—glint—and a mouth that looks—soft—even when it’s shouting clearly reluctant words of gratitude.
“You are quite welcome,” is what Keith should say.
“YOU’RE WELCOME,” is what Keith shouts, with far too much aggression to be appropriate.
“NO PROBLEM,” Lance shouts next, which doesn’t quite make sense, and Keith wants to point this out, except right then the sun peeks out from the clouds, and it’s shining behind Lance like a flare, and there’s the—stretch—and there’s the—glint—
So instead Keith shouts, rather idiotically, “DON’T WORRY ABOUT IT.”
Lance is squinting at him now, as if he too is confused by what they’re both saying but refuses to give up. “I WON’T.”
(don’t respond, the rational part of Keith’s mind whispers, don’t respond—)
“GOOD,” Keith shouts, and god he should just close the fucking door already—
“GOODBYE,” Lance shouts.
“GOODBYE TO YOU,” Keith shouts back, and then finally—finally—has the sense to pull the door shut.
He stares at the wood for a moment, then turns around, leaning his back against the door. Kosmo was napping on the rug by the bed, but they’re now staring at Keith with round eyes, likely woken by all the noise.
“It’s nice that he said thanks,” Keith says finally.
Kosmo blinks at him.
“He’s still annoying,” Keith adds hastily. “But it’s, um. It’s nice he said thanks. I guess.”
Kosmo’s ears twitch.
“Stop,” Keith says, though he doesn’t know if it’s aimed at Kosmo or the odd feeling in the pit of his stomach—thick, curling, like when the dessert chefs back home would pour out honey in viscous folds. “This will be over soon anyway. We’ll find Ezor, and get the Book back, and I’ll go back to Syracuse, and marry Hunk, and Lance will go back to—to doing Lance things. And I’ll never have to see him again.”
(that should be a good thing. that is a good thing)
(a good thing, so why is his heart sinking, why is the odd feeling in the pit of his stomach fading, twisting, turning into something cold and terrified?)
Keith inhales, sharp. He walks over to crouch by Kosmo, who’s watching him with worried eyes.
“Come on, buddy,” he says, scratching under Kosmo’s chin. He pretends he can’t see the engagement bracelet shifting around his wrist as he does so. “You should go back to sleep. Get some rest before we hit land.”
(the journey goes on, and Keith decides that Lance is insufferable)
(loud, and annoying, and insufferable, and determined to come up with the most ridiculous reasons to compete with Keith)
(but then—the fish island—and maybe they both have more in common than Keith thought, both of them silly and goofy and flinging mud at each other as they chase each other around the trees)
(but then—the roc—and maybe Lance’s bravado is not insufferable, but indispensable, because only someone with that much goddamn flair could rescue Keith from a monstrous bird atop a snowcapped mountain)
(but then—the night before they arrive in Tartarus—and maybe Lance is loud, and annoying, and insufferable, but he is also brave, and kind, and good, and he shrinks in on himself as he whispers I haven’t done anything to make a name for myself yet, Hunk will be king soon and my siblings are all working and married and I’m—just me. No one really sees anything in me.)
(just you? Keith’s mind whispers, as Lance stands there, framed by the starry night sky and the dark blue sea, white shirt flapping in the breeze and gold earrings twinkling in the moonlight and hands stuffed self-consciously in his pockets. how can you be just anything?)
(loud, and annoying, and insufferable; brave, and kind, and good; and Keith wants to tell him, tell him how Lance makes his stomach twist and his heart trip, tell him how Keith’s eyes linger at his freckles and his hands and his smile—but he doesn’t know if he should, doesn’t know if it’s okay, when Lance is a pirate and Keith is a prince and there’s an engagement bracelet wrapped around Keith’s wrist)
(but then—Tartarus—and maybe Keith should have said it anyway, because now they are here, and Tartarus looms dark all around them, and the Goddess of Discord appears out of the gloom, and this might be the last sight Keith ever sees)
The Goddess of Discord is terrifying.
Not in the traditional way. Not like the villains in the stories Keith used to read when he was little, villains whose villainy was so direct and intense and wholeheartedly evil that he could picture the hero punching them in the face, running them through with a sword, attacking them head on in a fair and honest fight.
Ezor, on the other hand—Ezor slinks. Slinks around the stone throne that rises out of the dark desert around them like a gravestone, slinks with her body and her hair and her voice, which gives Keith the same unsettled feeling as the sirens’ song.
“Congratulations,” she says, smiling, and even her smile slinks. “No mortal has ever made it to Tartarus before.” She pauses, then laughs, and even her laugh slinks. “Alive, that is. I wonder how you managed it.”
Lance tenses. Keith wants to reassure him, to remind him that he has his back, but before he can do so, Lance speaks.
“My mami always said I’d be a trailblazer someday,” he says, shrugging. “Some of us are just talented like that.”
Ezor looks startled by his levity. Keith struggles not to smile with pride at Lance’s ability to stun a goddess into silence.
“I want the Book of Peace back,” Lance says next.
“The Book?” Ezor repeats, tilting her head. Her hair slinks again, floats around her head like she’s moving through water. “Why would you want that? Such a boring old thing. I tried reading through it and it nearly made me fall asleep.”
“So Hunk can be king,” Lance replies. “He can’t take the throne unless he has the Book.”
For a moment Ezor stands by the throne, unmoving and unblinking, and then—suddenly—she vanishes.
Lance grips the hilt of his sword, and Keith’s hand flies to his Galra knife, but right then she reappears, slinking slinking slinking around the two of them as she speaks.
“Settle down,” she says, with another laugh. “I won’t harm you. I never have.”
Keith thinks of the sirens, and the half-destroyed ship, and the roc. He snorts.
Ezor makes a tsk noise. “This one has opinions,” she says, looking at Keith reproachfully. “Don’t you believe me? You made it here alive, after all. That must mean I never actually tried to hurt you.”
“We’re alive because Lance is a good captain,” Keith retorts, “not because you never tried to hurt us.”
“We’re alive because we work well together,” Lance corrects, and his smile is warm and bright and solid in the midst of this desert and darkness and slinking. “We’re a good team.”
(a good team, echoes in Keith’s head, and oh—)
“Aww,” Ezor coos. “So cute! You’re a pirate, and a liar, and you’ve stolen your best friend’s fiancé!” She ceases her circling around them and retreats to her throne once more. “What a model citizen.”
Lance flushes. “I’m not a liar.”
“Oh, but you are,” Ezor contradicts, shaking her head. Her hair floats more wildly now, as if she’s preparing for something. Keith redoubles his grasp on his Galra knife. “Tell me, Lance, if I don’t give you the Book, what will you do?”
Lance’s brow crinkles.
“If I don’t give you the Book,” Ezor repeats, “will you go back to Syracuse? Tell everyone that you failed, yet again? That poor Captain Leandro, who’s always been a failure, who’s never made a name for himself, never accomplished anything, never succeeded the way his friends have—poor Captain Leandro has failed again.” She clucks her tongue sympathetically. “His best friend is in line to become king, the man he is in love with is a prince and betrothed to someone else, his siblings are all well educated and settled, and he”—she vanishes, reappears by Lance once more—“has failed”—she drags a finger along Lance’s jaw, one long painted nail scratching his skin—“again.”
Lance looks frozen, and Ezor is smirking, and Keith is boiling, because how dare she, how dare she—
“He’s not a failure!” he shouts.
“My,” Ezor says, with another tsk. She leans away from Lance and waves a hand at Keith. “Didn’t I say this one has opinions?”
“Lance is better than you,” Keith goes on. He sees Lance shake his head at that, hard, as if trying to dispel the doubt Keith knows is running through his head. “He’s brave. And kind. He doesn’t fuck with people with no reason like you do. He didn’t have to come all the way here to help Hunk, but he did, and he made it. He’s not a failure.”
Ezor looks at him. Keith holds her gaze, and then Ezor—blinks—and they’re no longer in the desert, but standing in the middle of inky blackness, on some kind of ancient floating platform, made of stone and carved with runes Keith doesn’t recognize.
Lance stands a few feet in front of him, staring down the platform. At the end of it, surrounded by blue light, is the Book of Peace.
“Tell you what,” Ezor says, slinking around the Book. “Answer my question honestly, and I’ll give you the Book. Answer it untruthfully, and I keep it.”
Lance looks back at Keith, then at Ezor.
“Give your word,” he says.
Ezor crosses a long nail over her heart, leaving a blaze of light behind. “I swear on my status as a goddess.”
Lance nods. “Give me your question.”
“If you leave here without the Book,” Ezor says, “will you return to Syracuse, where you will face the consequences of your failure: a prince who cannot ascend the throne, a city left without a ruler and thrown into delightful chaos, and a fiancé who is not yours to have? Or will you take your love, your ship, your crew, and your failure, and sail off into the sunset where no one can punish you for what you have done?”
Keith holds his breath. He knows Lance now, knows him better than when he thought he was an outrageous flirt and an insufferable rival, knows that his answer will be of course I will return to Syracuse, I would never let my friend down.
(let his friend down, and lose what little he has, lose his ship and his crew and—Keith—)
(don’t think about that, Keith’s mind whispers, ignoring the tug in his stomach. he will answer honestly, and Ezor will give him the Book, and everything will be okay)
Everything will be okay, except everything is absolutely not okay, because Lance says “I will go back,” and Ezor howls, howls LIAR so loud it rings in Keith’s ears, and she slashes her hand through the air, and the platform is crumbling, and he and Lance are falling, and—
—and crash, hard, onto the beach outside the entrance to Tartarus.
“It’s not your fault,” Keith says.
They’re been sitting on the beach in silence for the better part of ten minutes. Lance has his legs pulled up to his chest, his arms around his knees, staring across the dark ocean to where the entrance to Tartarus was a few moments ago.
“I lied,” Lance says finally.
“No you didn’t,” Keith argues. “You would have gone back.”
“But I—” Lance blows out a frustrated breath. “I don’t want to. I don’t want to go back. I want—” He stops and starts over, his voice shaking. “I want to be good at something for once, I don’t want everyone to see me fail—”
“You didn’t fail,” Keith says vehemently. He scoots closer to Lance, as if proximity will force the words into his brain and make him believe it. “You didn’t. You’re not a failure at all, Lance, you’re—you’re a fucking captain! You got us all the way here. You rescued me from the roc. You have your own ship and your own crew, and we—we love you.”
Lance looks at him. He blinks, hard, and Keith sees an odd glimmer in his eyes, and oh—
“If we go back you’ll have to marry Hunk,” he says, and it’s so quiet, the barest whisper, and the engagement bracelet around Keith’s wrist burns, and his heart hurts, and—
(I’ll never have to see him again)
Keith’s eyes sting. He squeezes them shut, opens them, looks at Lance’s face, scared and vulnerable and longing.
“If you don’t want us to go back,” Keith says, “if you want us to—sail off into the sunset, or whatever the fuck Ezor said—then I’ll—I’ll come with you.”
Lance’s lips part with surprise.
“Wherever you go,” Keith says, “I’ll follow.”
For a long moment Lance says nothing. Keith waits, and he’s holding his breath, and then—
—Lance’s expression changes—
—scared and vulnerable and longing and then—resigned—
—and Keith knows, knows what he’s decided, knows because no matter what everyone else might say, Lance is good, and brave, and kind, and will always choose what is right over what he wants.
(Lance is outrageous. outrageous, and flirtatious, and insufferable. a rival, and a pirate, and a captain. good, and brave, and kind)
(Lance is a lot of things, but he is not a liar)
Not a liar, which is why, when Keith watches Lance march up the steps to tell the king that he did not bring the Book back, that Hunk cannot ascend the throne, that Syracuse will no longer have a ruler, he is not at all surprised to see Ezor materialize in the ocean at the edge of the city, large and stormy and slinking.
(well—a little surprised. Keith wouldn’t have taken bets on her showing up, but when she does show up, he feels more smugly satisfied than properly shocked)
Her visit is quick. She seems less cunning here, surrounded by the city and people that Keith is familiar with. She seems tired, annoyed, whiny, like a child who hasn’t gotten her way.
“Here’s your stupid Book,” she says, rolling her eyes as she deposits the book in Lance’s hands. “Ugh. You humans are supposed to be predictable. You can’t just change the rules halfway through the game!” She crosses her arms. “That’s just cheating.”
“It’s not cheating,” Lance tells her, grinning widely. “I’m just very good at games. Comes with being part of a big family.”
Keith hides a smile. Ezor rolls her eyes again and vanishes, taking the storm clouds and darkness with her.
Lance turns to the king, who looks so astonished that Keith worries he might pass out.
“Scratch what I said earlier,” Lance announces. He holds up the Book, letting its glow catch the sun’s rays, creating a supernova of light around him. “My buddy’s gonna get to be king after all.”
Lance doesn’t stick around for the celebration.
“I feel kinda antsy,” he says, and he certainly looks it, fidgeting in place, one arm crossed and his other hand rubbing the back of his neck. “I think I just wanna get back on the sea again, you know? For fun this time, instead of the whole”—he drops his hand from his neck, then waves it around vaguely—“ ‘retrieve the Book of Peace from a goddess so I can prove I’m not worthless and so my best friend can become king.’”
(say something, his mind whispers)
(like what? says another part, and he doesn’t know if it’s furious or heartbroken or—what. don’t go? stay here while I marry another man? take me with you?)
(take me with you)
“I’ve always liked your earrings,” Keith says instead.
Lance blinks. His ears turn a bit red above the earrings in question, which—glint—glint gold in the sunshine, so bright in Syracuse now that the Book has been returned.
“Thanks,” he says. “I, um. I’m glad.”
(a pause, and—)
(his expression is soft, and—)
(his eyes are dark, his eyelashes are dark, and his freckles have grown even more numerous from their time at sea, and Keith wants to commit this to memory, wants to memorize every line and curve—)
“I should go,” Lance says finally.
(I’ll never have to see him again)
“I wish you well,” Keith says.
Lance opens his mouth, closes it.
“Yeah,” he says, “Same to you,” and then he’s backing away, and he’s turning, and he’s heading down the steps, and he’s out of sight, and he’s—
Gone, except Hunk comes up to Keith barely fifteen minutes later, and says, “Listen.”
“What are we even doing here?” Hunk goes on. “I like you as a friend, and you like me as a friend, but we both know that if we weren’t royalty we would never in a million years be engaged.”
“What?” Keith says aloud.
“You like adventure,” Hunk points out. “The open ocean! Stowing away on ships! Polishing your knife in front of diplomats to make them agree with you! I love you like a friend, man, but you’re not my type, and I like someone else anyway.” He smiles, too knowingly for Keith’s comfort, and looks pointedly at the steps. “And I have a feeling I’m not—uh—let’s say, outrageous enough to be your type.”
“We’ve talked about this before,” Keith says, to cover his embarrassment. “Your father won’t let you marry Shay.”
“I’ll be king soon, so I’ll be able to do whatever I want,” Hunk says, with a shrug. “Shay’s willing to wait until then, and there’s no rule I have to get married before I take the throne.”
Keith hesitates. He looks at the steps, back at Hunk.
“We both deserve to be happy,” Hunk says gently. “Go on, man.”
(Lance, loud and insufferable and painfully attractive; Lance, bright and annoyed and reluctantly apologetic; Lance, scared and vulnerable and longing for someone he cannot have)
(wherever you go, I’ll follow)
Keith’s stomach flutters. He pulls the engagement bracelet off and sticks it in Hunk’s pocket. He hugs Hunk, who gives a startled laugh and returns it tightly, then he runs down the steps and towards Lance’s ship.
(as he approaches, he wonders if maybe—possibly—this is too much)
(that he’s misread everything, misunderstood everything, that Lance wants their story to end here)
(but then he bursts onto the ship, and yells LANCE, and waves the arm the bracelet used to be on—)
(—and Lance turns away from talking to Shiro, and sees that Keith’s wrist is bare, and he—)
(—beams so big and so bright that Keith is almost dazzled—)
(—and then he opens his arms, and Keith is running, and he jumps, and Lance catches him in his arms, and they—)
(—tumble to the wooden deck of the ship)
“Whoops,” Lance says, sounding winded. “Sorry. I really thought I’d be able to catch you.”
“It’s okay,” Keith assures him. “You make a good pillow.”
Lance grins. He leans up a bit, touches his forehead to Keith’s.
“You know what else I’m good at?” he murmurs, and Keith leans in, and then Lance is—kissing him—and Keith didn’t know kissing would feel like this, soft and secret and warm, a buzz in his chest and a thrill in the pit of his stomach, the same giddy delight of the open sea, vast and familiar and close and unfamiliar all at the same time.
Somewhere to their left, someone wolf-whistles. Keith pulls away from Lance, flushed, and looks over to see the entire crew goggling at them.
“Um,” Keith says.
Lance’s ears are red and his eyes are sparkling, but he looks otherwise composed as he sits up, gently pushing at Keith’s shoulder to indicate that he do the same. They sit on the deck, Lance’s hands sliding down to entwine with Keith’s.
“You’re coming with me,” he says.
“Yes,” Keith replies.
“We’re going to Varadero next,” Lance goes on, “to visit my family. It’s a long journey and probably dangerous. We have to pass through like seven sea monster colonies.”
“Good,” Keith says. “That was the one creature I didn’t get to see on our last adventure.”
Lance’s hands tighten around his. “You really want to come along?” he checks again. “With me?”
Keith pulls his hands out of Lance’s. He leans forward, ignoring the snickering and whistling from the crew, then puts one hand on Lance’s shoulder, tugs on one of Lance’s earrings with the other hand, and kisses the corner of his mouth.
“With you,” he says, and Lance smiles. “Always.”