Keith jumped from one chair to the other, letting out an ear-splitting battle cry. From the other side of the room, Krolia turned the page in her book, only bothering to glance up at him. There was no use trying to reason with him to be calmer or quieter, he was a force to be reckoned with. And as much as she dreaded the daily task of dealing with the disasters he wound up in, she knew that in ten years time she’d be infinitely grateful for how much of a fearless kid he was.
The world they lived in was a tough one and anything that’d keep her son safe was something she could learn to appreciate. It was her job to protect him, which included teaching him how to fight and protect himself.
Of course, right now that just meant standing by and watching on in horror as her five year old boy ripped her couch to shreds. In his tiny hand he held a toy knife, one that should not have been sharp enough to cut through fabric, yet it was ripping brutally through the upholstery anyway.
Krolia got to her feet, begrudgingly setting her book aside. She hadn’t been able to concentrate enough to process the words she was reading for a good half an hour. Despite herself, she growled in annoyance as she approached her son, ears flattening back against her head.
Keith paused, turning ever so slowly to blink up at her, little fangs jutting into his pouty bottom lip.
“Sweetie, what are you doing?”
“Playing pretend.” Keith answered guiltily, eyes so wide and yellow the pupils seemed to get lost in them.
“You do realize that that’s our real couch you just tore up and not a pretend one, right?”
“It’s still comfy, don’t worry!” Keith explained hurriedly, as if sensing the oncoming lecture. Krolia watched on in exasperated silence as he jumped onto the couch, rolling around in all the stuffing he’d just torn out of it. “See?”
Krolia took a deep breath, and then… let it go. She exhaled heavily, plastered a smile onto her face, and kneeled in front of him. Keith lit up, thoroughly relieved to see she was no longer visibly mad at him. He clambered forward the second she opened her arms, head-butting her jaw as he attempted to tackle hug her back into the floor.
She bit down on her lip to keep from making a pained noise aloud, carding her fingers through the messy mane of hair that framed Keith’s face. She’d long ago given up on trying to style or brush it out, he never sat still long enough for that.
As she sat there with him wrapped up in her arms, Krolia hatched an evil plan on how to get Keith to settle down for the night.
“What if Kosmo eats all that garbage you just messed the floor with? He could get sick.” Krolia suggested seriously, her tone dire. Keith’s head flew up then, turning to stare toward where the wolf puppy was sleeping by the fire. It was his first real test of responsibility, bringing home that puppy and placing it (mostly) in his care. He was doing surprisingly well, considering how far from serious he was about his studies and training.
Not to mention, that Krolia hadn’t really done a ton of research. A guard had stumbled across the poor thing in the wilderness, abandoned and on the brink of death. Krolia didn’t think twice before taking it into the castle and using all the resources at her disposal to bring it back to health. Her impulsive nature may have saved the animal’s life, but it also left her with a pet that grew at an unsettling rate with no signs of slowing down, as well as the ability to teleport.
It wasn’t something that happened often, rare enough that at first Krolia took a while to come to the conclusion that it was teleporting at all. It seemed to drain a lot of energy from the creature, so really it was no surprise it wasn’t teleporting when it was on death’s bed to begin with. Slowly though, it started to become an everyday occurance. At least once, sometimes twice, but never really more than that.
She realized what was going on when she walked into the main hall one morning to find Keith and the wolf both settled up near the ceiling, sitting in the castle chandelier like it was a perfectly sane thing to do. The lecture she’d given then was unreal, but since Keith had been extra careful to make sure his wolf stayed safe.
“Oh.” Keith frowned, looking down to the floor where the stuffing had all gathered. “I’ll clean it up!”
“How about you just go to bed and Mommy will take care of it?” Krolia suggested carefully, watching Keith’s eyes begin to narrow in suspicion. She quickly backtracked, pulling the wolf card for a second time in a row. “Kosmo looks really sleepy, doesn’t he?”
Keith paused, looking back to where Kosmo was sleeping. He hummed and hawed for a moment, before untangling himself from Krolia’s grasp and walking over to the wolf. He sat next to it, raking his fingers clumsily through the wolf’s fur.
“Pom-Pom, do you wanna go to bed?” Keith cooed, leaning down and burying his face into the wolf’s neck rather unceremoniously. When the puppy cracked a curious eye open, Krolia frantically gestured toward Keith’s bedroom. Kosmo got the message, getting to his feet and starting toward the bedroom in obvious confusion.
Keith was, admittedly, very disappointed to learn that his wolf actually wanted to sleep. He let out a long sigh, practically dragging his feet as he left the room. “ Fine .”
“Goodnight!” Krolia called after him, proudly fist-bumping the air in success. It was hardly the most sophisticated way to act, but in the safety of her own home with the tiredness of being a single mother wearing her down… she didn’t care. In fact, she immediately went to the fridge and fished out a bottle of Nunvil to celebrate further.
Much later that night when Krolia was headed to bed herself, she noticed the light streaming out from the crack under Keith’s door. She paused, leaning against the door frame and letting out a tired yawn, wondering dismally how late into the night it really was. On the other side of the door, she could hear Keith animatedly talking gibberish to his wolf, slurring his words in his no-doubt half-asleep state.
Krolia smiled, this time a genuine and full expression. Her heart felt heavy after a night of drinking and reminiscing on days gone by, when her life had been more than diplomatic duties and chasing after her wild child. But now, listening to him ramble on and giggle to himself, she couldn’t think of a single thing she would have done differently.
She missed her mate desperately, and her life wasn’t nearly as exciting as she’d always imagined it’d be, but it was certainly fulfilling.
Krolia cracked the door to Keith’s room, peeking her head around the door. Instantly, the lights inside flickered off and bathed the room in darkness. She watched as Keith yanked the covers over his body, pretending to be asleep. She shook her head fondly, crossing the room in four quick steps.
“Keith?” She called gently, settling on the edge of his bed. Kosmo cracked an eye open from where he was resting at the foot of the mattress, looking bored by whatever stories Keith had been spinning up for him tonight. Krolia settled her hand on Keith’s forehead, pushing his hair back from his face.
He was visibly fighting off a smile, long Galra ears twitching with the effort. “I know you’re awake.”
When Keith still refused to budge, Krolia decided to take desperate measures.
“How?!” Keith screeched, throwing his head back and giggling uncontrollably. Krolia laughed along with him, mercilessly tickling his sides as he thrashed around the mattress. They startled poor Kosmo to the point he jumped down and went to sit by the door.
“Mother’s always know.” Krolia insisted, finally relenting as the poor boy started to wheeze in an effort to catch his breath. Keith sat upright, laughing disjointedly as he curled into his mother’s side. He nuzzled his face into her neck, yawning loudly. “What are you doing up this late, huh?”
“Looking at my map book.” Keith explained, suddenly wide awake again. Krolia reeled in the sigh that threatened to escape, instead sitting back and trying to be supportive. Keith fished the book out from where he’d hid it under his pillow, plopping it down into the sheets between them.
It was a worn thing, after all of these years. Keith’s father had religiously logged his experiences in that book, constantly scribbling down notes and taping pictures into the pages. It was one of a kind, documenting a lifetime worth of adventures.
As big of a role as it played in her life, she’d never really taken the time to look through it all the way. At first because it seemed unimportant, but now that he was gone it seemed too important. It hurt to look at something so innately Texwyn and know that he wasn’t there to share it with her.
Sometimes, when Krolia saw that same longing in Keith’s eyes that’d always been present in her late husband’s… she wondered if it’d been a mistake sharing this part of Tex with Keith.
Keith pointed to another mark on the hand-drawn map, a look of awe on his face despite the tiredness written across his features. “I’m putting stickers on all the places I want to go most so I won’t forget when I’m old enough.”
“You look at this thing every day, I don’t know how you could forget.” Krolia muttered. She watched on in pained silence as Keith’s nose scrunched up, eyes drawing closed as a long yawn bellowed out of his chest. The thought of losing her baby boy the same way she’d lost the love of her life… it was a terror that kept her up at night.
Still, she tried to support Keith and always stand by him, even as she fervently prayed that he would grow out of this phase someday soon. “Your father would be very proud, I’m sure of it. He spent years putting this together and risking his life to explore all five kingdoms.”
“I’m going to fill in the last pages.” Keith told her for the hundredth time, falling back into the pillows and snuggling in to the nest he’d made of them. Krolia pulled the covers up around his tiny body, tucking the edges in to keep him warm in the frigid temperatures. “I’m going to make it to sixth kingdom. Altea.”
“Keith, Altea is a fairy tale. You realize that, don’t you? Your father spent his entire life searching-”
“And gave me all the pieces of the puzzle to put together so I could find it!” Keith exclaimed proudly, thrusting his hand up into the air. A tiny fist bump.
Maybe Krolia was rubbing off on Keith more than was good for him, too.
She leaned over him, pressing a kiss to his forehead. As she started to pull back, Keith darted up and grabbed onto the tail of her hair, yanking her back down to kiss her cheek. Krolia winced at the rough handling, but even then couldn’t be particularly upset.
He was rough of demeanor, but gentle of heart. She’d give anything to make sure he held onto his childish wonder for the rest of his life, maybe even if it meant she’d someday have to let him go.
“Mm?” Keith hummed, barely audible.
“Bring me back a key to the city when you get there, I’d love to meet the Goddess.”
Keith trudged ahead of the others, heavy boots sinking deep into the snow beneath him. There was a storm raging on around them that seemed to be slowing his companions down, but he remained unbothered. They were getting too close now for him to let anything distract him.
Kosmo traveled at the front of the pack with his nose to the ground, following the scent of the beast they’d been tracking for the better half of the day. Keith watched closely as Kosmo paused, lifting his head from the trail to look around, ears twitching curiously.
Keith gripped his blade tighter, narrowing his eyes as he surveyed the treeline around their group.
“Tabok, Rigon, keep your guards up. We’re getting close.” Keith ordered, glancing over his shoulder at the other two men he’d recruited for the day.
“Yes, Sir.” They said, giving him a curt nod of acknowledgement.
This was his first time meeting them, but so far they’d proved as worthy hunters, dispatching a few small animals on their way to the prize trophy of the day.
Still, he missed his usual team.
So maybe he’d underestimated the size of the ferocious creature that the villagers to the East had reported to the castle, begging for the kingdom’s help dispatching it. He’d charged in a little too eagerly without preparing his men for what was ahead and it’d cost them a couple limbs. They weren’t dead or anything, Keith had been quick to come to their rescue and finish the creature off before it caused any more casualties, but they also had no intentions of ever returning to the field again.
This was the first hunting trip he’d been on since, two months had passed and he’d been endlessly restless locked up in the castle. It’d taken him a while to find a replacement team, but even longer still to convince his mother that he should be allowed to go out again. She was just paranoid, thinking he’d be the next to come back limbless, or maybe not even come back at all.
He was the best hunter in the kingdom, after all. And in the very rare instances where he came up short in a battle, his trusted wolf would always have his back.
“Prince, I think I hear something approaching to our right.” Tabok informed him, a hint of a nervous tremor to his voice. Keith turned, listening closely to the incoming pound of footsteps. It was a light noise, muffled by the snow blanketing the ground, but his acute Galran hearing picked it up easily enough.
What confused him, however, was that Kosmo hadn’t picked up on it before them. Even now, he was staring in a completely different direction.
A second passed, the beast growing ever closer at a speed too fast to be unintentional, and Keith’s gaze followed Kosmo’s line of sight. He watched as his wolf raised its hackles, a low growl rumbling past its sharp teeth. Keith swallowed roughly.
“Ready your weapons!” Keith shouted, unsheathing his other sword with his free hand, prepared to duel-wield. “And watch your backs, there’s more than one!”
“They’re not pack animals, why are they traveling together?!” Rigon hissed out, clearly not someone who adjusted well to abrupt changes in the plan. Keith rolled his eyes, lowering his stance.
“To take out a threat.” Keith answered easily, knowing not to underestimate how intelligent the wildlife could be, especially after his last disastrous hunting trip. He had to be prepared for anything, if he let some creature get the jump on him now, Krolia would never allow him to leave the castle grounds again.
They all seemed to reach the clearing at once, large Minots charging toward them from every angle, with their antlers downturned like weapons. Keith ducked and rolled, dodging attacks on all sides and hoping his teammates would be able to keep up. It was all moving too fast, he couldn’t even get a count on how many there were. Even as he took them out one by one, he wondered if more were filtering into the clearing to take their place.
“Damn it, there’s too many of them.” Rigon cursed vehemently, panting with exertion.
“Hold your ground, we’re not going home empty-handed.” Keith growled, swinging his sword and landing a fatal blow to one of the animals.
“We’ll be lucky if we make it home at all!” Rigon cried out, his composure depleting by the second. Keith was quickly deciding he needed to re-open applications and find someone braver to fill Rigon’s shoes. At least Tabok was keeping quiet about his fears. Actually… maybe he was being too quiet.
Keith turned just in time to watch as the man was overwhelmed, antlers cutting too close and slicing a gash in his side. Keith’s eyes widened. Kosmo was there in an instant, fending off the beasts that dared to come too close to Tabok’s downed form.
From behind him, Keith heard Rigon’s shrill screech.
“Ah!” He cried out, over what was seemingly just a scratch, “I’m down!”
Keith sighed, tilting his head to the side and cracking his neck. It was all on him now, he could only hope that Kosmo could cover both of his men.
“If you want it done right, do it yourself.” Keith muttered, whirling around and slashing expertly through the nearest Minots and downing them quickly. He bared his teeth, feeling feral as he took on so many enemies at once. He lost himself to the fight, focused on nothing but making sure he got out of it alive.
One lethal swing of his sword after another, until he was left the only one still standing in the clearing.
He looked around the snow at his feet, stained red. Inevitably, his gaze drifted to his men, safely huddled next to Kosmo and staring at him with a mixture of awe and disgust in their eyes. He huffed, sheathing his swords and turning away. “Tend to your wounds first, then load up the wagon. If we make good time, we’ll be back by nightfall.”
“Where are you going?”
“Mapping out our surroundings.” Keith said, snapping his fingers. In an instant, Kosmo materialized at his side and flanked him as he headed into the trees. “I won’t go far and I’ll take Kosmo with me.”
“Stay safe, your highness.” One of the men called after him. Keith curled his upper lip, hating the weird formality that came with being around unfamiliar people. He would much rather they treat him as an equal and forgo the titles altogether, at least when they were this far from any civilization.
He headed down an icy slope, steadying himself with a hand on Kosmo’s back whenever he would start to lose his footing. He ended up sitting on a downed tree, deciding that was the best place to collect himself after the battle. He slid his pack from his shoulders, setting his swords down on the log next to him.
“Come on, boy.” Keith coaxed, his voice much softer now that he knew the other men wouldn’t overhear him. Kosmo treaded closer, resting his head in Keith’s lap, tail wagging contently behind him. Keith indulged him, scratching his ears and praising him for a battle well fought.
Finally, he allowed himself to acknowledge his own injuries. He had a few nasty cuts along his abdomen, the front of his jacket shredded open in more than one place. He’d also somehow managed to hurt his ankle and though it was only dully throbbing now, putting pressure on it would definitely become a painful task during the trip back home.
He sighed, leaning over and burying his face in Kosmo’s hair to hide a wince.
“Any chance you’d let me ride on your back all the way home?” Keith muttered, a low grumble. Kosmo let out an indignant noise, shuffling away from him and leaving Keith to scramble upright before he ended up face-planting into the snow. “Aw, come on, you don’t have to be such a dick about it!”
He paused, noticing that Kosmo was staring avidly toward the trees. Keith looked up in confusion, unable to notice anything immediately out of place with how the snow was falling down. He spotted it a few seconds later, a flash of white that darted across the tree branches, fluffy tail wiggling behind it.
Keith lit up, scrambling to pull his camera from his bag. He held it up, staring through the lense.
“Ice squillet. Incredibly rare. Only two known sightings in the last year.” Keith relayed the information to himself on memory alone as he snapped a few photos. Kosmo yawned somewhere beside him, settling heavily at Keith’s feet. “It’s a big deal, Kosmo, shut-up. I’m going to be the first to get decent photos of this species. They might even get featured in the newspaper!”
His father had always been an adventurer, exploring far corners of the world and making maps of all the new lands he discovered. Keith had that same passion, but he’d taken it a step further. Along with continuing his father’s map book, he was working on portfolios of his own to catalogue all the plants and animals he came across.
Being limited to his own kingdom had forced him to get creative and find new ways to explore.
Keith crept closer to the animal, still staring at it through the lense of his camera. He’d gotten some amazing shots so far and he couldn’t wait to show them off once he got back. He wouldn’t dream of trying to explain it to his hunting companions, most men didn’t understand the passion. He’d wait until he got back to the castle and show it off to all the elderly workers or children running through the halls, they were the only ones that felt the same excitement he did for nature.
He took another step, attempting to kneel for a better angle, when Kosmo started barking.
The squillet took off in fear, hiding behind a lump of snow. Keith cursed quietly, looking away from his camera to shoot Kosmo a nasty glare. Still, the wolf continued to bark, so loud and steady it was already giving Keith a headache.
“Would you be quiet, you’re gonna scare-” Keith paused, feeling the ground below him shift. He looked down, yelping when he saw the ice cracking under his feet. He scrambled back to where he’d come from, realizing that Kosmo had been attempting to warn him.
He collapsed onto land, scrambling even further away from the ice for good measure. Leave it to him to fight off an entire pack of vicious creatures and then die by falling through ice because he was too easily distracted. He shook his hair out of his face, huffing out a laugh.
Kosmo paced over to him, settling in the snow and curling protectively around Keith’s back. Keith hummed, leaning back against him. “Thanks, Pom-Pom. I wouldn’t have made it past five years old without you around.”
The wolf snorted out what sounded suspiciously like a laugh, as if agreeing with him.
“Whatever. Let’s get home before Mom sends out her troops.”
Keith nearly cried in relief when the castle finally came into sight, standing tall and proud in the midst of the walled capital city. They’d been walking for a good hour or more, lugging behind them two sleds piled high with meat. Normally Keith would be in pretty good spirits right about then, eager to get back home and tell the grand story of the day’s adventure. As it was, he felt tired and irritable, his ankle killing him after forcing himself to walk on through the pain.
He had a hand on Kosmo’s head, trying to make it seem casual even as he leaned the majority of his weight onto the wolf with each step. The other men had grown suspicious more than once, asking him if he was okay and if he needed anything. The last thing he wanted was for one of them to offer to carry him or pile him onto the sleds they were pulling.
The guards met them at the gate, giving them hearty laughs and rough slaps on the back in congratulations for a successful hunt. Keith preened under the attention, smiling wide and puffing his chest out, feeling innately valuable. It was a feeling he chased desperately after, but rarely did he manage to catch it aside from when he came back from a hunt.
He walked through the streets of the city like he was walking on top of the world, head somewhere lost in the clouds and cheeks straining from how hard he was grinning. People celebrated as they saw the amount of food they had brought home, praising and thanking Keith for something more than just existing and being born into royalty. For once, they were looking at him as his own person, instead of just a novelty.
He spent a good hour talking to the villagers they encountered, just casual conversation about their hunt and the things they faced. It was such a bizarre, heady feeling being able to talk to them like he fit in with them, like he was always just the same.
It wasn’t until he was nearly back to the castle that the illusion started to chip away. There was a group of people around his age hanging out in the gardens, loud and obnoxious, the smell of alcohol so heavy in the air that Keith picked it up from ten feet away. And while Rigon and Tabok turned away in annoyance and muttered amongst themselves about the troublesome youths of the community, Keith stared at them with blatant longing in his eyes.
He never really had much of a childhood, being a prince, and with an overprotective mother on top of that. He hardly left the castle until he was a teenager, only rarely getting the chance to interact with kids his age whenever their parents brought them to work with them. All of his classes were taught one on one, specially tailored to what he’d need to know as a King. He’d always been too busy as a kid to think too much about the lack of friends he had, there was always so much going on in the castle.
Then he became a teenager and was given more room to explore, and with that came the realization that he’d somehow missed something . Despite his mother’s assurance that he was getting the best education, the best care, the best everything there was to be had… some fundamental part of him just wasn’t there. Other people had relationships, bonds that came naturally and seemed so easy, and Keith had… hunting partners that were intimidated by him, elderly people in the castle who looked at him as a child, and children in the castle who looked at him like a princely god.
He just wanted a friend , just one. He was tired of having different roles and personalities depending on who he was around, the idea of just being himself was mesmerizing. He could hardly imagine it.
The thing about friends though, was that all the money and royal blood in the world couldn’t force someone to be one. Krolia had tried the first few times he’d expressed this longing, and that’d resulted in people treating him like a child meant to be cared for or a future investment they planned on roping in by marriage. None of it was ever real. And try as he may, he’d yet to find a way to make that real connection.
Now, despite Kosmo desperately trying to herd him along, Keith decided to try once again.
Keith slipped away from the rest of his team, burrowing deeper into the heavy coat he wore and limping his way over to the group of young adults. He smiled as he approached, wincing as he somehow managed to nick his bottom lip with one of his incisor fangs. A couple people had noticed him approaching, eyes widening as they started to whisper among themselves.
“Hey guys!” Keith greeted, perhaps a little too over-enthusiastically. He silently cursed himself, standing awkwardly a few feet away from the rest of the group, not wanting to come on too strong and just sit down with them. They eyed him warily, much like the animals he hunted.
“Hi… your highness?” One of the girls tried, yellow eyes staring back at him, unblinking. Keith shook his head, offering up a clumsy aborted hand gesture.
“Keith.” He said, his voice firm. “I’m Keith.”
A silence fell over the others, staring at him as if wordlessly processing the information as a group. Keith fidgeted nervously, wondering if there was something inherently wrong with introducing himself without a title, something his mother had never thought to inform him of. Normally he knew the moment he went wrong in social situations, but right now he was at a loss.
Finally, one of the other boys gave an amused snort, wrapping his arm tight around a girl.
“Well, thanks for the new information, I guess.” The boy laughed, causing the rest of the group to giggle quietly along with him. Keith gave a strained smile filled with confusion, forcing a few chuckles past his lips in an effort to seem like he understood why that was funny.
Keith floundered a little bit, trying to think of something to say to keep the conversation going, or at least end it on a high note. He looked down at his feet, to where Kosmo was sitting and observing the interaction. Keith lit up, an idea striking him out of nowhere.
“I just got back from a hunting trip.” He announced to the group, knowing how easily this topic carried with all of the older villagers. The kids his age didn’t look particularly intrigued though, and they definitely didn’t look thankful or impressed like the local shop-owners did.
Keith started to panic now, as they all looked expectantly back at him, like he needed to add something more for that to be at all interesting to them. “Um, I brought back a lot of meat.”
A pregnant pause, a couple forced uneasy laughs, and then that same pitying voice Keith had come to know when people realized he was socially useless.
“ Oh, cool .”
“ Good job .”
“ Thanks for the food, then .”
“Yeah.” Keith blurted, his feet already carrying him backward. His fight or flight had kicked in and the only option right now seemed to be flight, as fast and as far as his legs could carry him. “Well, I gotta go, you know how it is. Back to the castle. Prince stuff.”
“Uh-huh.” The same boy from before said, his voice impassive. Keith turned then, gritting his teeth through the pain in his ankle so he could get out of there as quickly as possible. He felt like his heart was lodged somewhere in his throat, mind desperately going over all the places where he’d gone wrong.
When he finally got into the castle, he didn’t even get any joy out of the workers and guards that stopped him to congratulate him on a successful hunt. It all felt a little less important now, after seeing how easily the people his age had shut it down. He shrugged off the compliments with a fixed formal smile, like he used to wear as a kid at all the castle’s social events.
Keith hobbled off to an empty hallway of the castle, easily finding an empty room to slip into with how expansive the building was.
He closed the door behind himself, leaning back against it and sliding down to the floor. He buried his face in his hands, curling over his knees and shuddering at the cringe-worthy interaction. What was he thinking trying to approach them? It’d never worked out with anyone else, he always ended up embarrassing himself in the end. He was probably the laughing stock of all his peers, but only behind closed doors as not to offend the royal family.
Beside him, Kosmo gave a sympathetic whimper and attempted to nose his way into Keith’s arms. Keith tilted his head back, resigned to the fact that he wouldn’t be able to ward off a giant wolf for long. In an instant, Kosmo pounced, licking Keith’s face over and over again. Keith groaned, swatting at him.
“ Cut it out , being covered in slobber is just gonna make people like me even less .” Keith was absolutely certain that Kosmo understood him despite the language barrier, but the damned wolf wouldn’t back off no matter what he tried. “You’re pretty shit at making people feel better, you know that?”
Kosmo refused to listen, as per usual. He continued his disgusting assault until Keith smelled like dog breath more than anything else, his light purple fur slicked up in all directions like a Galra who had just braved a blizzard.
It got to the point that Keith had no choice but to wrap his arms around the stupid thing and tackle it to the floor, hugging it tight. He stayed like that for a long while, listening to the wolf happily panting, like they were playing a game. He didn’t budge from the spot until everything started to feel a little less dire, his heart no longer racing and the lump in his throat no longer present.
All things considered, it was definitely after dark by the time Keith made it back to the top floor of the castle where he and his mother lived. It didn’t help that he was dragging his feet to go back, feeling tired and unprepared for the lecture that undoubtedly awaited him. It wasn’t that his mother was particularly cruel or strict, she was just a little bit… overbearing.
Keith walked through the door, doing his best to hide his injuries as he hung up his coat and kicked his boots off. Kosmo easily strolled into the house with a wag to his tail, headed to where his pillow rested by the fireplace. Keith crept toward his bedroom, hoping to change into a clean shirt that wasn’t slashed to expose his injuries. Sadly, with his stature and heavy feet, he’d never been very stealthy.
Keith made it all of three steps before he heard the long sigh from the room over. He tensed, warily turning to stare toward the doorway. He couldn’t see Krolia yet, but he didn’t have to in order to imagine the displeased expression she’d be wearing. Reluctantly, he headed into the dining room before he got the chance to change.
“You’re late.” Krolia said, glancing up toward the clock like she needed to confirm. Keith was certain she already knew, that the second the sun had set she’d started to pace, to dwell on the seconds ticking by like something terrible had happened to him.
She turned to look at him then, instead of the empty plate on the table in front of her. Her hair was drawn back from her face, yellow eyes narrowed and eyebrows drawn sternly together, her lips curled down in a very prominent frown that Keith had definitely familiarized himself with over the years. She wasn’t totally mad, she was relieved to see he was okay as much as she was upset with him.
And normally that’d be fine, Keith would put the extra effort in and play his cards right by apologizing, and then that’d be it. It was just that he was also stressed to his limits and irritable after such a long day, which was undoubtedly the recipe for disaster in their household. He’d inherited his stubbornness from his mother, so moments like these were moments to be feared. “What’s my one rule?”
“We eat meals together like a family.” Keith relayed boredly, sliding into the seat across from her. She stared blankly at him, no doubt expecting him to start blubbering out an apology. He just didn’t have any patience left in him today, biting his tongue from the impulsive things that threatened to spill was a hell of a lot harder than usual.
Krolia continued to stare at him, and for once Keith met her gaze and stared right back. “Would it kill you to cut me some slack for once? I was a little bit busy bringing home the food for us to eat.”
“We have hundreds of hunters in this city, Keith, don’t give me that spiel. You’re out there because you enjoy it, not because it’s necessary of you.” Krolia rose to the challenge easily, not even flinching as Keith’s rebellious streak made an appearance. She stared evenly at him, even as he began to glare, temper getting the better of him. She was just so frustratingly composed, all of the time.
“Well, what do you want me to say? That I’m sorry for not moving faster than I’m physically capable of traveling? For not forcing Kosmo to use all his energy teleporting back to report to you?”
“Someone’s being difficult tonight.” Krolia pointed out, a knowing look in her eyes. “Long day?”
“I guess.” Keith mumbled, shrugging his shoulders indifferently. He wasn’t about to open up and risk his mother putting out a mandatory order to be his friend or something.
“Get yourself something to eat. We’ll talk about it later.” She said, her tone gentler now. Keith was torn between being relieved and even more annoyed that he was being babied again. Either way, he decided to just let it go and get some food into his empty belly.
He got to his feet, carefully hiding all of his injuries. He was doing a pretty good job, his arm covering the scratches across his torso and his foot accepting his weight a little bit easier after sitting down for a while. Still, he should have known better than to try and slip something past his mother.
He was scooping soup into his bowl when she came up behind him, hand settling in the center of his back. Keith exhaled, knowing from the tentative touch alone that he’d been found out. “You’re hurt?”
“You can be as moody as you want, but don’t lie to me about important things like your well-being. You know better than that.” Krolia snapped, gesturing toward the table. “Sit down and eat your dinner.”
“You don’t need to-”
“Oh, were you planning on cleaning and addressing your wounds? Or just letting them get infected and add to the scars all over your body?” She challenged, suiting him with an unimpressed look. Keith knew when to choose his battles. He walked over and sat down, begrudgingly allowing Krolia to look him over and survey the damage.
She left the room for a moment and he took that time to spoon soup into his mouth, nearly falling asleep and landing with his face in the bowl with how tired he felt. His mother came back not much later, a standard first-aid kit in hand. Keith knew the drill by now.
He pulled his shirt over his head, wincing as she went about disinfecting the scratches in his stomach. If they seemed a little bit more like gashes in the light and Keith realized he may have been playing them down a little bit, he didn’t voice that to his mother. “You need to take better care of yourself.”
“I know you think you’re one with nature, but this environment is unforgiving. It’ll chew you up and spit you out again the second you let your guard down, no matter how much you marvel at it.” Krolia was talking mostly to herself as she worked, expression blank with concentration.
“I know!” Keith groaned, unable to keep himself from getting snappy with her. Her hands paused in the middle of unwrapping a bandage, eyes darting up to find his.
“ Do you ?”
“Trust me, it’s hard not to when the temperature of the air outside hurts your face. This is our thirteenth straight month of winter. The environment is definitely not my friend.” Keith complained loudly, tilting his head back and slumping in his chair. He stared at the ceiling, soup forgotten in favor of daydreaming about a different reality.
He would see new places every day, meet new people that didn’t know a thing about him and treated him like an equal, and he’d never have to make it home before curfew again.
“What’s wrong, Keith?” Krolia asked, gently smoothing the bandage across his abdomen. Keith threw his hands up in exasperation, unsure how to truly express what he was feeling. It felt like everything was wrong, like he was living someone else’s life.
“Don’t you ever get bored of the same thing every day?”
“Says the man who tries to spend his every waking moment out in the wilderness hunting.” Krolia teased, her tone light. Keith didn’t laugh along with her though, instead his throat felt tight and constricted. She went quiet, realizing that this was a serious topic.
“I’m not talking about hobbies. I’m talking about waking up every day and not knowing who you are or what you want, only that it isn’t what you have. I can’t explain it, but I just need something more. I want my life to be exciting and fun, an adventure .” Keith spoke so quietly he could only hope that his mother was listening closely enough to catch it all.
“I’m sorry, I can’t really relate. I have everything I want here, my dream was always to have a home and a family and be a graceful leader. I never had the wanderlust that you seem to.” Krolia sounded earnest, sympathetic despite not directly understanding. It wasn’t quite what Keith needed, but it was something at least. “Your father certainly did, though. I’m sure you got it from him.”
“There are whole worlds out there unlike our own.” Keith said, his voice filled with longing. “They have animals, food, and materials entirely unlike anything we see up here. Why isn’t it commonplace to travel between the islands? It would only make sense.”
“It would be dangerous.” Krolia corrected him kindly, though it was clear her patience for the topic had started to wane the second Keith brought up the idea of leaving their kingdom. It had always been a sore subject between them, it was bound to be with their conflicting opinions.
“It would be beneficial.”
“Assuming the unfamiliar elements didn’t kill you, the people there likely would.” Krolia said, through gritted teeth. “They’re not our allies, Keith, whichever kingdom owns the most land will always be the most powerful. They don’t see it like you, they don’t want to establish trades and mutually benefit. They want to stake a claim on our land.”
“How do you know that? It’s not like you’ve ever left this kingdom.”
“Just, trust me.”
“The only people that have ever attacked another kingdom are the Galra, shouldn’t we be the ones to be feared? We wiped another race from existence .” Keith mused aloud, something he’d been thinking on for a long time. The look of hurt that flashed across his mother’s face was painful and he immediately started to regret speaking up.
“Keith.” Krolia sighed. “Your father’s theories are just that, theories . We have no proof that dates back far enough to know anything for certain. We are not the villains.”
“But what if we are?” Keith argued, knowing he was pushing his limits but unable to stop himself now that he was finally talking about this. “How can you live with the uncertainty, wouldn’t you rather know-”
“Leaving this kingdom is a death wish, Keith.” Krolia said, her tone final. Keith’s mouth snapped shut, the words he’d been planning on saying dying on his tongue. It wasn’t the harshness of his mother’s voice that got to him, if she’d started to yell in anger he would have just yelled back louder. No, it was the lack of fight present behind the words, a heavy sadness settling over them like a dark cloud.
He watched as Krolia paced over to the sink, starting to work on the supper dishes. Quietly, Keith heard her mutter a final comment. “I’ve already lost your father, please don’t make me lose you too.”
He should have just dropped the subject. Damn it, never in his life had he wished to be someone who could bite his tongue more. It just felt so final, like an ending to the topic as a whole rather than the conversation. How was he supposed to bring it up again if they left it on this low note?
“So, what? I can never leave?”
“I never said that.”
“You implied it.” Keith pointed out, more disappointed than anything else. He didn’t want to be angry with his mother, he hated fighting with her. He just wasn’t going to give up on his dreams for anyone, no matter how much he cared for them. “What am I meant to do? Wait around here until something happens to you and I have to become a King? I don’t want to be a leader.”
“You have a long time to figure it out, let’s not worry about it right n-”
“There’s nothing left to figure out.” Keith said, a sense of finality in the words. He crossed his arms over his chest, exhaling loudly. He wanted more than anything to sound firm and sure of himself, but instead he just sounded small and desperate. “I know what I want and this isn’t it. I hate it here.”
Krolia did turn to look at him then, at the first sign of a wobble in his voice. Her gaze was soft and concerned as she walked back over to where he sat, running her hands through his hair.
“Is something wrong?” Keith shook his head, refusing to answer. “Is it the winter season? I know it drags on near the castle, maybe it’d do you some good to go to the southern tip of our kingdom and spend some time with your aunt Acxa. Would you like that?”
“I’m not some kid you can ship off when it gets too much for you to handle.” Keith growled out, feeling patronized as she coddled him through this. The whole problem was the lack of independence, it had nothing to do with the winter! “I’m my own person and I’m allowed to have my own life separate from yours. It’s not being moody, it’s being an individual!”
Krolia drew back, a hint of a smile on her lips like she was amused by his outburst. Ugh, how patronizing.
“Then I guess you were never an individual when you were a child, because you were much easier to get along with then.”
“Yeah, and I bet I would have gotten along better with Dad. I guess we both got the short end of the stick here.” He knew it was cruel even as he said it, knew it was uncalled for and a particularly low blow. He felt frightened and overwhelmed, like he was drowning underwater and knew he’d never breach the surface in time to save himself, so he lashed out. He watched his mother recoil at the mention of her late husband and Keith felt disgusted with himself.
He turned to leave, gathering his dishes from the table. He lingered before leaving though, something about the unfamiliar edge in his mother’s expression unsettling him. “I’m done. May I be excused now?”
A long pause.
Finally, Krolia took a deep breath and turned to him. She was smiling at least, but the expression didn’t come anywhere close to reaching her eyes and was very obviously being faked for his sake.
“You wanna know why I like the uncertainty?” She asked, shaking her head. “What if I were to set out today and find that everything written in that book is a lie? A story your father made up to impress me and the other Galra? What if he never went on any of those adventures?”
“You know that’s not true.” Keith argued immediately, feeling a strong need to defend his father and everything they’d both worked toward with the book. “He brought back tools, he spent years away from home, he knew about so many details he couldn’t have made it all up.”
“So maybe some of it is true, but what parts of it? Portable cameras are a recent invention. We have no proof of anything he said.”
“I know you think I’m being unfairly pessimistic and skeptical, but have you considered that you’re being naive idolizing something so uncertain? I just don’t want you to get hurt by running into something you don’t understand.”
“You don’t really believe that he made it up, do you?”
“I don’t know what I believe,” Krolia sighed. “Decades have passed and no one else has done any of the things your father claimed to. What am I supposed to think?”
Keith swallowed down the dejected feeling in his chest, the growing fear that maybe his mother was onto something and he was only being childish. He couldn’t afford to think like that. The idea of leaving this kingdom and discovering new worlds had always been his saving grace. It was his end goal, his passion, his dream. What would he turn to without it?
“Well, I will.” Keith said, forcing himself brave through the anxious thoughts. “I’ll do everything he did and do it better. I’ll document it, I’ll take photos, I’ll bring back people from my travels. I’ll connect our kingdoms by bridge if I have to, damn it.”
“What if it’s not everything you’re hoping it’ll be?” Krolia asked, her voice tentative. It was clear she wasn’t trying to hurt him by putting these doubts in his mind, only wanted to protect him from a concept she herself didn’t understand. “Do you really wanna risk ruining the only link you have to your father?”
“It’s what he would want for me. Risk or not, it’ll be worth it.” Keith insisted, heading toward the door before the conversation could continue. He knew it would only end badly, that there was no middle ground that would leave them both satisfied. She wanted him to stay, and that was just too much to ask.
As Keith passed through the doorway, he heard his mother whisper under her breath.
“But would it be worth walking away from everything you have here ?”
That night Keith spent the hours after supper roaming the castle gardens. It was an aimless sort of wandering, feet stumbling periodically beneath him as he barely paid attention to the lefts and rights he was taking. He trusted that Kosmo would lead him home in the event that he couldn’t find his own way, the wolf trailing behind him with its head hung low. He could no doubt sense the heavy emotions in the air, the dark cloud resting over his master’s head.
Late into his journey, Keith stumbled across the same group of people from earlier. They were much drunker now, louder and uninhibited, kissing and dancing in a dark corner of the gardens. Keith lingered for only a moment, worrying his bottom lip between his teeth. There was no question in his mind now on whether he should approach the group, he’d learned his lesson.
Still, his chest was filled with longing. In another life, he would be right there with them. He would have a place to call home and feel it too. He would belong .
Keith didn’t really understand why it had to be a choice, why he couldn’t be an adventurer and have a place to call home, too. There was a natural assumption that if he left, he would never come back. It was unclear whether this would be a choice of his own making or something out of his hands, but it was where everyone’s mind went when he talked of leaving.
He didn’t want to run away from what he had here, he just wanted to have more . Hell, more than anything he wanted to discover new things and bring them back to his people. He wanted to earn the respect they all seemed to give him simply for having royal blood.
Maybe it was a childish sense of insecurity that drove him to cling onto this dream so tightly. Perhaps it was time he tried to move on.
When Keith finally did return to his room, he waited until most of the castle was already asleep. The guards let him in without much question and he snuck off to his room, careful not to wake anyone up as he crept through the halls. Of course, when he reached the castle wing that held the royal quarters, he didn’t miss the fact that Krolia’s light was still on. She didn’t ambush him with a lecture or an apology though, so he simply continued on his way.
Climbing into his bed, he risked a glance toward his bedside table before hurriedly rolling over to face the other direction. He tugged the blankets over his head, exhaling loudly. He didn’t want to think anymore tonight, wanted to just pass out and put his problems off until tomorrow.
It would have been a foolproof plan, too, if it weren’t for one annoying factor who quickly picked up on the change in routine.
Kosmo whined quietly at the edge of the bed, his chin resting on the mattress. When Keith didn’t immediately give in and roll back over to face him, the wolf started to nudge him with its nose over and over again. Keith growled, hand fumbling behind himself to try and swat the animal away.
“Kosmo, stop .” He pleaded, pulling a face when Kosmo dragged his slimy tongue over his palm. Keith recoiled, hand darting back under the cover of the blankets. Now, Kosmo jumped up on the bed and walked over him, heavy paws digging into Keith’s side. “I don’t want to look at the stupid book tonight!”
And Kosmo, being the utter mutt that he was, completely ignored what Keith was saying. In fact, he started to jump around the bed more eagerly now, barking loudly to try and garner his master’s attention again. Keith clapped his hands over his ears as they flicked in annoyance.
“Shut it! You’ll wake the entire castle!” Keith shouted finally, unable to keep from raising his voice at this point. Kosmo whimpered, wandering off to the foot of the bed and circling his usual sleeping place, then jumping down to the floor instead. He settled sadly by the door, pawing at it to be let out.
It was very rare that Keith felt like an awful person as much as he did when he managed to hurt his wolf’s feelings.
Keith sighed long and hard, rolling over and grabbing the damned book off the table. He patted the mattress beside him in a truce. “Fine. If you get back up here now, I’ll read to y-”
He hadn’t even finished the sentence before Kosmo was appearing beside him on the bed, so eager that he hadn’t even bothered to walk and had instead teleported the few short steps. Keith rolled his eyes, pulling the covers back so his pet could get comfortable. “I’m only reading the chapter headers, you hear me? You’d better fall asleep before I finish.”
If Kosmo was disappointed by this turn of events, he didn’t show it. In fact, he looked much like the cat who’d stolen the cream. He was curled up against Keith’s side, tail thumping loudly against the mattress in excitement. Keith was faced with the stark realization that he’d just been played by a fucking dog.
He sighed, propping himself up and running his fingers over the familiar hand-carved leather cover of the book. He’d looked at it every night for years now, had even taken the time to carve out a very similar one for his own matching adventure-filled book.
Keith flipped to the start of the first chapter, detailing the first of the five kingdoms in his father’s hand-writing.
“The first kingdom, to the east of my homeland. Steep inclines and sharp drop-offs, unforgiving rocky waters that make navigating a boat close to the land nearly impossible. The water here is bluer than any I’ve ever seen, deep and clear and filled with marine life. I’ve yet to dock and set foot on land, the cliffs are too high to climb without proper materials. Will update when I make progress.”
Keith paused, examining the sketches of the environment that his father had provided. Beautiful rocky cliffs and deep lagoons so dark it was impossible to tell what lurked beneath the water’s surface. There were just too many details for it not to be real, surely. His father couldn’t have been that good at story-telling and drawing for all of this to be an elaborate lie.
Beside him, Kosmo had already started to snore.
Still, Keith continued to flip through the book now that he’d started.
“The second kingdom. Composed of mountains high enough to reach the clouds and riddled with caves deep enough to reach the cores of the planet. Atop the mountains live communities of Mages, powerful and docile people with a magical connection to the elements unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Beneath the ground live the Dwarves, small and fiesty people with an aversion to outsiders that kept me from learning much about their customs.”
As a child, Keith had always laughed at the sketch of the Dwarf. It was a such a peachy and strange little person, mostly because the helmet it wore was three times the size of its head, bulky to the point of being impractical. The Mage looked similar, though darker skinned and much friendlier in the face. It was hard to believe they came from the same land and lived in harmony with one another.
Hard to believe didn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t the truth, though.
“The third kingdom. Once the most prosperous of all kingdoms, now a wasteland of lost potential. The people that once resided here have long since gone extinct, though they were rumored to be called Humans. Long before my lifetime, the Galra people of my homeland and the Humans fell into a terrible war. The Humans lost, but the Galra were hardly victorious as they destroyed all the resources they’d been trying to procure. Now it’s just a dusty desert, occupied by only the roughest and most dangerous of the Galra were banished here when the rest of our people returned home. A lawless land.”
Keith thought back to how his mother had clammed up at the mention of the war, how quick she’d been to reject the idea. It made sense, no one wanted to imagine their own people were capable of such cruel and unjust things, but Keith had met some mean-spirited Galra in his lifetime. It was possible, whether Krolia wanted to admit it or not. Even their royal records had mysteriously disappeared after dating back so far, so how were they to know?
Keith hesitated before flipping to the next chapter, the one that had always been his personal favorite kingdom. He still wasn’t sure if he was in the right mindset to be looking at it right now, almost felt like maybe he should distance himself and stop relying on this book so heavily.
He frowned, flipping to the next page anyway.
“The fourth kingdom. The tallest trees I’ve ever seen, with low-hanging vines and obscure wildlife clinging to every branch. The humidity here has my fur drenched in sweat and I’ve barely strayed from the shore. I kept noticing movements in the trees and wrote it off as the local wildlife, but after the tenth time, a person approached me. Elusive. Distrusting. But, curious and playful. Couldn’t get any definite answers out of them at first, I had to prove myself for them to take me seriously. May be a distant relative of the Galra, with pointed ears not entirely unlike our own, just smaller. Shorter hair, natural colored fur that blends into their environment, and agile tails. They call themselves the “Grimalkin” (unsure of spelling).”
Keith smiled at the drawings sketched throughout this chapter, of trees unlike any he’d ever seen. The foliage here was all short and bristly if it managed to survive the cold, only the very rare flower appearing in the short summer months. The fourth kingdom seemed to flourish with life and color everywhere you looked. It was beautiful.
Knowing that there was only one kingdom left to see, Keith took a deep breath to steel his nerves before continuing. His father had the most information on their own homeland and for that reason, this particular chapter felt a lot more personal than the others.
“The fifth kingdom. The homeland of my people, the Galra. Our kingdom is the largest, snow falling from the skies constantly and keeping the ground blanketed at all times. This makes the land difficult to navigate, so much of our kingdom goes unexplored to this day. The further you travel from the shores of our island, the colder it gets. The Galra are covered in a dense purple fur to protect us from the temperatures.”
Keith flipped immediately to the end of the chapter, uncaring of the drawings provided here. He’d seen it all himself anyway, it wasn’t the part that fascinated him. Instead, it was a scribbled and messy note on the very last page of the chapter.
“ PS : Home to the most beautiful princess the planet has to offer, my beloved Krolia .”
If he was being completely honest, Keith didn’t remember all that much about his father. He had distant memories, foggy after all the years that’d passed, but close to his heart all the same. Simple things like being held, sung to, and flipping through this very book together. He could remember the way the entire city would rejoice when his father returned home after one of his excursions, how happy those days were.
Even clearer than that, he could remember the months when his father failed to return home. How dark and scary the entire castle had seemed all of the sudden. No one wanted to talk to him and answer his questions, no one smiled at him when he walked into the room, no one wanted to look at his father’s book that he’d been entrusted to take care of while he was gone.
Eventually, the kingdom learned to live without a king. They moved on fast, accepted Krolia as the new sole figurehead of the kingdom, and continued with their lives. It wasn’t like they’d lost a part of their family, or even someone they knew. They couldn’t possibly understand how broken things had felt inside the castle in the months that followed.
Of course, given her title, Krolia had to get a handle on things sooner rather than later. She learned how to hide her emotions and swallow them down, for the sake of her people. For Keith’s sake, she seemed to believe. Nevermind that Keith didn’t see it as her being strong, that as a kid all he’d seen was the rest of the world forgetting someone who was so important to him, moving on and leaving Keith behind with that grief on his shoulders alone.
It wasn’t until he was a teenager that he realized how much it still affected his mother, but by then he’d been dealing with his emotions alone for so long that he didn’t know how to reach out. So, as close as they were, there was always a gap between them that they just didn’t bridge. Topics they didn’t talk about, names they didn’t mention, that sort of thing. They smiled together and grieved alone, close and so far apart at the same time.
While Krolia vehemently tried not to think about the past, Keith brought it up at every chance in an effort not to forget.
He turned to the final chapter of the book, only one short paragraph written before the blank pages spanned the rest of the book. Keith drew a short breath.
“The sixth kingdom. I have no proof of this, for I have not seen it with my own eyes, but I believe there to be a sixth kingdom somewhere lost at sea. Every ancient text or drawing I’ve seen has alluded to it, a magical city where the Goddess herself resides. I theorize that all the kingdoms used to live in harmony before the war, at which point the Goddess revoked her support and hid her city from the rest of the world. I will be the one to find the rumored “Altea”. I’ll dedicate my life to it.”
Keith dropped the book into the sheets, reaching up to swipe his hand over his cheek. Kosmo lifted his head, awakened by the sound of Keith’s soft sniffling. He shuffled closer, settling his head in Keith’s lap and staying silent. He knew when to make an idiot of himself and take Keith’s mind off of things, but he also knew when he just had to be there for his master.
“He gave his life for it,” Keith’s voice broke as he said it, staring angrily down at the spread of weathered white paper in front of him, “and the pages are still empty!”
Keith picked up the book as if to throw it across the room, but he stopped himself last second and held it to his chest instead. He hugged it close until his breathing evened out and his eyes stopped stinging. He opened it back up then, flipping to the back cover where another messy inscription awaited him.
“To my dearest son, Keith. Thank-you for always cheering me on when I leave and welcoming me back with open arms when I come home. I can only hope that someday you’ll have adventures of your own to bring back to the castle and tell me about. I love you.”
In that moment, reading the message for what had to be the thousandth time, Keith felt something inside of himself shift. A decision he’d been on the verge of making for decades and suddenly it all seemed so clear, like there’d only really been one option all this time. He thought of high seas and trees taller than he could see, a world begging to be explored, and he knew .
When Keith walked into the kitchen the next morning, it was to find Krolia leaning over the breakfast nook with her face in her hands. A sense of sympathy struck him, realizing that most mornings after their fights he’d simply sneak out before she woke up. They never really talked it out afterward, just ignored it until things eventually had to go back to normal. He’d never seen the direct effect of their fights on his mother.
He took a deep breath and walked past her, loud and obvious, not even trying to be subtle about his presence in the room. She looked up, visibly shocked as he passed by toward the freezer room. Keith swung the door open, leaning down to browse the food they had stored away. He looked back at her, smiling when he caught her awed gaze.
“Good morning.” Keith greeted, bright and bubbly. When she still hadn’t managed to compose herself, he decided to take pity on her and try again. “Do you... want a tea?”
“ Keith .” Krolia sighed in exasperation, getting to her feet and walking over to him. He laughed at the flustered look on her face, even as she engulfed him in a hug so bruisingly tight his feet lifted up from the ground. She buried her face into his shoulder, shaking her head. “Stop it.”
“Playing the tough guy.” Krolia elaborated, leaning back so they could make eye contact. Keith stared unblinkingly back at her, speechless to see that his mother’s eyes were wet. She never cried in front of him, even at their lowest. “You may have everyone else fooled, but I’ve known you a lot longer than any of them have. You’re more than just some tough-skinned warrior hunter to me. You’re my little boy, the biggest nerd I know, and a big old softie at heart.”
“ Mom .” Keith croaked out, low and embarrassed. She smiled harder at him, eyes filled with fondness.
“I’m sorry about last night.” She said hurriedly, like she couldn’t wait another second to get the words out now. Keith nodded his head slowly, uncertain how to tell her that it was alright, that he really wasn’t that bothered by it anymore. Krolia looked down between them, speaking fast and quiet, like she was having difficulty with the unfamiliar task of apologizing in plain terms. “I know how much that part of your life means to you and I don’t want to hold you back… I just get scared.”
“I know.” Keith assured her, squeezing her shoulder. She looked back at him, so apologetic and guilt-ridden that he couldn’t have stayed mad at her even if he had been. He shook his head dismissively, gathering her back into a hug. “Listen to me. No matter how far I go or what I find out there, I’ll always come back. This is my home.”
“How about we start small though? You’ve got a whole kingdom left to explore here.” Krolia suggested meekly, like she was wary of bringing up the topic again, but desperate enough to try and keep him around any way she could. It was bittersweet. Keith felt a surge of guilt of his own now, but it was too late to go back on his decision.
“About that,” Keith drawled, leaning back and studying the suspicious glint in his mother’s eyes. He shrugged his shoulders, backing out of the hug and going about preparing himself some breakfast. As he worked around the kitchen, he explained where his thoughts were at. “I was thinking about what you said about going to visit Acxa. Do you think she’d be okay with that? I haven’t seen her since I was a little kid. I know the south isn’t a whole lot different than any other part of our kingdom, but surely it has to be a little bit warmer.”
“Well, we don’t really have many reasons to go that far, so it’s hard to stay in contact.” Krolia hummed, visibly relieved to see that Keith was talking about a destination within their own kingdom for once. He nodded along, taking a bite out of the sandwich he’d made. “But if I know my sister, she would be happy to have you. I’m sure the people of her village would love a chance to meet the crown prince too.”
“It’s not a publicity stunt, I just want to explore the south shore.” Keith argued immediately, his grip on the counter’s edge turning sharp and painful. The idea of being mobbed by curious strangers and treated like cheap entertainment was bad enough on its own, but it would also completely ruin the point of his journey. Luckily, Krolia noticed the tension in his shoulders and quickly backtracked.
“It was just a suggestion. When were you planning on leaving? I could send her a letter, but that might take a few weeks to get there and back.”
“I think I’ll surprise her.” Keith explained. Krolia hesitated at that, staring blankly down at the empty plate in front of her as the gears in her mind turned. Keith panicked, realizing she was starting to get suspicious of his intentions already.
He coughed loudly into his fist, faking a nervous expression. “You were right, the winter weather might be getting to me a little bit. I feel like the sooner I get out of here, the better.”
Krolia relaxed then, a lazy know-it-all smile stretching across her lips. Keith resisted the urge to roll his eyes, but he couldn’t help but grin at how stubborn she was. There was no doubt in his mind that he’d inherited that particular trait from her.
“I knew it! You always get like this during the winter, so restless and moody. It’s about time we try and find a solution for the problem.” Krolia said, looking distracted as she started to put concrete plans together in her mind. Keith felt the slightest bit insulted that she was so certain he was always moody during the winter, but he went along with it anyway.
“So, I’ll probably set out tonight?”
“Are you bringing guards with you?” Krolia asked sharply, before he could manage to dart out of the room on a high note. His shoulders slumped and he spun around, frowning at her.
“If I show up in town with a bunch of guards they’re gonna know who I am right away. I won’t get a second alone to explore.” Keith sighed heavily, staring at her pleadingly. Krolia narrowed her eyes at him and he pouted even harder, clasping his hands together in an obvious beg. “Come on, I’ll be careful.”
She sighed, in the way that meant she’d been worn down and defeated.
“Kosmo? You look after him, you know how he is.” Krolia instructed, slipping a piece of meat from her plate to the wolf. He chowed down happily, tail slapping against the tiled floor. Krolia turned to Keith, making sure Kosmo followed her critical gaze. “Don’t let him do anything stupid.”
“Pfft, I’ve never done a stupid thing in my life.” Keith joked, flashing his most convincing smile. Krolia stared blankly back at him until he broke out into laughter at his own joke. Apparently that must have been endearing, even as he snorted and giggled like a fool, because something in her wary expression gave way to a much softer look.
“I miss you already.” Krolia whispered, as Keith started to finally calm down. He paused, hands still clutching his stomach and breath still coming in wheezing pants. He looked back to her, really taking the time to memorize the smile on her face and the warmth in her eyes. It’d be a while before he saw it again and the reality of that was only now setting in.
As eager as he’d been to be out on his own all of his life, he’d never really acknowledged how scary it’d be to be without his mother guiding him.
He crossed the room quickly, pulling her into another hug. He knew it wasn’t normal for them to be quite so affectionate, that she surely realized things were a little bit off by now, but he could only hope she wouldn’t put it all together until after he’d left. Either way, he couldn’t leave without a proper goodbye.
“It’s nothing permanent, I’ll be back before you know it.” Keith insisted, patting her back.
“When did you grow up so much anyway? I’m supposed to be the one comforting you .” Krolia huffed out a laugh, though the genuine emotion behind the words was still blatantly obvious. Keith bit his lip, squeezing his eyes tightly shut and focusing all his attention on memorizing this exact moment.
Krolia drew him from his serious thinking with a scratch between his ears. “Hey? You know that I love you, right?”
“Right.” Keith answered, feeling a jumbled mixture of every emotion in the pit of his stomach, but at least he was certain of one . “I love you too.”
The moment he left the room, Kosmo was grumbling beside him and nosing him toward an empty corridor. Keith sighed long and hard, reluctantly allowing himself to be herded away from the public eye, where no one could overhear. The moment Kosmo deemed them far enough away from every other living person, he plopped down at Keith’s feet and glared up at him.
Keith ran a hand through his hair, offering a sheepish grin.
“I wasn’t totally lying, I am going to the south shore and I might even stop at Aunt Acxa’s place... I just don’t plan on staying there.” Kosmo tilted his head to the side, the tip of one of his fangs poking out. He was very obviously aware of the answer to the question he was prompting, but Keith told him what he was expecting to hear anyway. “I’ll get my hands on a boat somehow and keep going south, to the fourth kingdom . It’ll be a real adventure!”
Kosmo didn’t look nearly as excited as Keith about all of this. Perhaps his promise to Krolia that he was going to keep Keith in line was still ringing in his ears.
“It’s the closest and safest option, Kosmo. I’m starting small and I’ll stay safe. My father met one of the Grimalkin and he didn’t say anything about them being hostile.” Keith rattled off his reasoning, shooting Kosmo hopeful looks. The wolf didn’t look keen on the idea yet, in fact he’d turned to look over his shoulder more than once, as if debating whether he should warn Krolia.
Keith sunk down to his knees, eye-to-eye with his pet. “Come on, Pom-Pom, you wouldn’t really turn me in to my mother, would you? Who would I bring on my adventures if I didn’t have you? I need this, you know I do. This is our dream, not just mine.”
The wolf stared back at him, expression utterly unreadable. It got to the point that Keith was preparing to dive forward and try to wrestle the animal into complacency if it tried to go warn Krolia, but luckily he didn’t have to. Kosmo seemed to make up his mind, finally.
He stepped forward, giving one excitable yip and jumping from side-to-side. Keith grinned around the nervous flutter in his gut, reminding him just how close he was to what he’d dreamt of all his life.
The seaside town at the very southern peninsula of their region was unlike any other Keith had been to, the differences so stark that they managed to surprise him more with every visit. First and foremost, Keith noticed when the ground beneath him became solid and even, the thick blanket of snow he was walking on disappearing more with every mile it seemed. By the time he reached the town, he was pleasantly surprised to find there wasn’t any snow at all, only short pale grass and a worn stone path leading into the community.
Before anyone got the chance to catch sight of him, he pulled a mask up over the lower half of his face and hid his fluffy ears beneath the hood of his jacket. He wanted to blend in with the locals, make his trip in and out as easy as possible. Kosmo stayed glued to his side, but Keith could tell the wolf was overwhelmed by all the new sights and smells, his eyes darting around curiously.
The village smelled undoubtedly of the harbor water, a crisp saltiness in the air that Keith couldn’t help but engulf big mouthfuls of. The road he walked was narrow, homes looming tall over him on either side, clotheslines strung between windows. The stone archway that led into the town square was old, possibly from the same era that the castle had been built in, the rest of the quaint little fishing village seeming advanced by comparison.
Keith could hardly contain himself as he walked around the town square, zigzagging back and forth between all of the booths selling supplies that weren’t exactly commonplace where he was from. He bought a grilled fish on a skewer and ate away at it idly as he walked, buying knick knacks and things he’d otherwise have no use for. He stopped at the final booth on the street, his eye catching the necklace made of entirely shells that’d washed up on the beach.
He tucked that impulse purchase away in his bag with a careful hand, hopeful it’d stay in one piece until he got it safely back to his mother.
His money mostly spent and the distraction waning, Keith found himself walking out to the cliffs outside of town. They overlooked the ocean, crashing waves for as far as the eye could see. Keith inched precariously toward the edge, ignoring Kosmo’s warning growl. He stared to where the horizon bled into the water, hues of the orange and red sunset reflecting back in the water’s blue.
“You see that, boy? That’s where we’re headed.” Keith said, pointing straight ahead. Kosmo tilted his head to the side, looking curiously up at Keith. He looked briefly uncertain, a flash of anxiety in his big brown eyes. Then, seeing the look on Keith’s face, his tail began to thud loudly against the ground.
They didn’t stay long to admire the setting sun, ever aware of the time they were losing. Keith was quick to turn and start searching out the home he could vaguely remember visiting as a child, though it’d been seven years or more since he’d last been. It didn’t help that a lot of the townhouses looked the same, confusing him to the point that he got lost and had to rely on Kosmo’s nose to tell him whether he’d been places already or not.
Eventually, he managed to stumble across Acxa’s house by mere chance. It was a little second-story apartment, with a booming bar beneath it that seemed to roar with laughter as Keith walked past it into the alley. Keith climbed the crumbling stone stairwell with Kosmo at his side, rubbing at the wolf’s ears to try and ground himself. He knocked lightly on the door, trying to wait patiently and failing horribly. He rocked nervously back on his heels, unsure what to expect.
Shouting could be heard from inside, followed by heavy thudding footsteps, then the very specific sound of many deadbolt locks being undone. Finally, just when Keith was starting to have second-thoughts, the door swung open to reveal a familiar face.
Although aged considerably since they’d last seen each other, there was no mistaking Acxa for anyone other than his aunt. The resemblance to his mother was striking, the only difference being the slightly more angular cheekbones and the lighter shade of her purple Galran fur. He breathed a sigh of relief, happy to see nothing had changed beyond recognition.
She took a moment longer to recognize him, if the lost look in her eyes was anything to go by. Even when she finally put the pieces of the puzzle together, the confusion was replaced with even more of the same. In all fairness, it wasn’t often that the crown prince made a trip unannounced on his own, all the way to the edge of his kingdom.
Before either of them had a chance to speak up and try to make sense of the situation, one of the voices from before called out in the background.
“Acxa? Who was it?” The woman called, a sense of familiarity in her voice that said she probably knew her well, perhaps even lived there as well. Keith stood on his tippy toes, attempting to see past Acxa into the house. It came as no surprise when Acxa gruffly stepped to the side and blocked his view. “Come on, was anyone even here? Were those kids messing with us again?”
“Uh, no. Someone’s here.” Acxa called back, holding Keith’s curious gaze with a reprimanding one of her own. She stepped to the side, quickly grabbing a jacket and shrugging it over her shoulders. Almost as an afterthought, she paused in the doorway and yelled to the other girl again. “I’m gonna step out for a second, I’ll be back.”
“Alright. Stay safe!” The voice replied from somewhere inside, bright and bubbly, filled with affection. It made him undoubtedly curious. He knew for a fact that Acxa had been keeping this person in her life a secret, given his mother’s constant worrying for her younger sister all alone out in the world. It made him wonder why she wouldn’t open up about that part of her life, when Krolia would only be happy and relieved to know she had someone.
He just barely caught a glimpse of movement inside the house before Acxa was stepping outside and closing the door behind herself, turning to him with an expectant look. When she started down the stairs, Keith and Kosmo followed silently behind. Nevermind that they could now hear singing behind them, a soft hum of a song, so pleasant and soft that the warmth from inside the apartment was almost tangible.
It wasn’t that Keith was even a particularly nosy person, generally he cared about studying different creatures and environments than he did people. It wasn’t any of his business and he realized as much. It just struck him as such a surprise. Acxa’s apartment had been a lot of things whenever he’d visited as a child, but welcoming and warm had never been any of them. She was rebellious, in with the rough crowd, making bets and selling things on the black market, out of the house so often she hardly had time to clean up after herself, let alone turn it into a home.
It was a big change. Keith had always just kinda assumed that Acxa would stay that way forever, bold and brash and fun, and alone . He looked up to her a lot when he was younger, admiring the way she did whatever she wanted and had no one to answer to.
She led them into the bar downstairs, very clearly unworried about who might see them together. Keith brought his hood back up just to be safe, curling in on himself on the rickety old bar stool.
“What are you doing here?” Acxa asked, as she wordlessly signalled her order to the bartender. It was clear she had no intentions of answering any questions he might have, and he wasn’t exactly in any position to make demands, keeping as many secrets as he himself was. He huffed.
“Running errands for mom.” The lie rolled off his tongue surprisingly easy now, after thinking it over and over again during the whole trip so far. Acxa even seemed to believe him, slowly nodding her head in acknowledgement. Deciding to lay it on a little thicker, Keith continued to why he’d sought out his aunt in the first place. “I kind-of underestimated how much food I’d need for the trip though. I was hoping you could spare some.”
Acxa took a sip of her drink as soon as she got it, eyes narrowed over the rim of the glass. Keith paled, realizing he might have rushed into things just a bit too quickly. She leaned closer to him, propping her elbow up on the bar. With the much closer proximity, Keith could suddenly see right through the pokerface Acxa had been wearing. She hadn’t believed him for a second.
“I’m not stupid, Keith.” She chuckled, rolling her eyes at him. “In case you’ve forgotten, I was the rebellious child of my family. I can see a lie like that from a mile away. What are you really doing?”
Keith sighed in defeat, knowing better than to press his luck. He’d already made it so far, he’d hate for her to pull the plug on things now and try to send him back home.
“Just going on a little adventure. Nothing crazy.” Keith offered, not exactly an explanation, but an answer nonetheless. She quirked an eyebrow and he averted his eyes, refusing to tell her the whole truth. She would never let him go through with it. “I’m an adult now, I need some freedom.”
“You do, I understand that.” Acxa nodded, a hint of a knowing smile on her lips. Keith glared back at her, feeling the slightest bit patronized. His ears twitched in annoyance, fangs digging into his bottom lip in an effort not to just lash out and charge ahead with or without food. Acxa was watching him closely. “I just don’t know that I trust your judgment on what’s crazy and what isn’t.”
“Whatever.” Keith grumbled, getting to his feet and turning to leave. He barely made it a step before tripping over Kosmo, who’d been passed out at his feet. Keith stumbled forward, arms flying out in front of himself. A hand darted out to grab the back of his jacket just in time, yanking him back upright.
Keith begrudgingly looked back to his smirking aunt, adjusting his hood. “I can look out for myself.”
“Just promise me it’s nothing dangerous.”
“I promise.” Keith groaned, trying to nudge his sleeping wolf awake so they could get out of there already. It was clear this conversation was only going to be another lecture and that wasn’t at all what he’d came here for. He’d come so far this time, he wasn’t going to let anyone stop him now.
Kosmo was about as cooperative as expected, grumbling and growling each time Keith would poke him with the toe of his boot.
“Then why are you keeping it secret?” Acxa responded, looking expectantly up at him. Keith gave a frustrated growl of his own and fell back into his seat, throwing his hands up in exasperation. If she was going to annoy him, then he would have to do the same right back.
“I don’t know, probably the same reason you’re keeping your girlfriend a secret!” Keith hissed out at her, narrowing his eyes in a threatening glare. She simply stared blankly back at him, processing. Then, she effortlessly dodged the subject despite it being thrown right into her face.
“Oh? So you’re sneaking out to see a girl?”
“No!” Keith immediately rushed to oppose that, snorting out a laugh at the sheer ludicrosity. Acxa was staring at him oddly now though, observing him with a hawk-like particularity. The humor of the situation quickly bled out, replaced by a crippling sort of realization of just why that was so unlikely. It wouldn’t make any sense to anyone else, but Keith knew. He wasn’t the type of person people tried to befriend, or even wanted to be around. “No, um, it’s nothing like that.”
“Alright, sure.” Acxa drawled, slow and suspicious. Keith just shook his head in disappointment, sliding forward and leaning over the bar. He buried his face into his arms, shaking his head. “I’m just curious why you’re getting more defensive over this than when I automatically assumed you were about to do some life-risking idiot thing?”
“I don’t even have non-secret friends, Acxa.” Keith grit out, face still hidden. “No one wants to be friends with the prince unless they have some kind of ulterior motive. They know everything about me and I know nothing about them, it’s never fair or easy.”
“That’s exactly why you could be sneaking out to meet someone, though.” Keith lifted his head, staring skeptically back at her. She held her hands up between them defensively. “No, hear me out. Travel far enough and people won’t know you’re a prince. You’ll just be a stranger.”
“Everyone in the kingdom knows what I look like.”
“But you’re not traveling somewhere inside the kingdom, are you?” Acxa bounced back just as quickly, not a hint of uncertainty on her face. Keith froze, his breath catching in his throat.
“I won’t tell anyone.” Acxa assured him, giving him a pat of solidarity on the back. He hesitantly started to relax, shoulders sinking down from where they’d been raised up near his ears. “And look, even though I’m now completely sure you’re about to go do some life-risking idiot thing, I’ll give you my food.”
“Really?” Keith asked, the sheer disbelief in his tone giving him away. He knew just as much as she did that it was a terrible move on her part. Acxa snorted out a laugh, nodding her head.
“I know there’s nothing I can do to stop you, so I might as well try to help you survive whatever you have planned. That’s my only move here, really.” She explained her reasoning, a sense of understanding behind her words that just wasn’t there with his mother. Keith offered up a thin smile.
“Who knows, maybe you’ll be the one to finally form an alliance and bring the kingdoms together.”
“And maybe you’ll meet an angsty princess just like you!” Acxa joked, slapping him on the shoulder as she got to her feet. Keith rolled his eyes, wondering what it would take to get through his family’s head that settling down just wasn’t for him. He wasn’t the type. He knew he’d never want to stay in any one place for long and that wasn’t fair to any lover. He didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps in that regard and leave behind a heartbroken family if something ever happened to him.
Perhaps it was for the best that he didn’t have any friends in his life to answer to.
That night, Keith left his aunt’s house with a newfound sense of direction (as well as a bag packed to the brim with rations of food). She gave him directions to the local fishery, where boats of all different shapes and sizes were kept. If he could manage to get his hands on something like that instead of having to build his own raft, it would make all the difference in his chances of making it to another island in one piece.
Acxa seemed to realize it as well, if the urgency she steered him toward the docks was anything to go by.
It wasn’t a particularly difficult place to find, but it was a great deal more difficult to find the path down the sharp cliffs to the beach below. The building itself was built up on a pile of rocks, no doubt to keep it from washing away into the water. Keith eventually managed to follow the worn path down the steep decline, though he couldn’t help but freak out a little each time the ground would give out beneath him and send rocks tumbling down to the bottom of the slant.
Halfway down and Keith gave in, simply clinging to Kosmo and getting the wolf to teleport them down to the beach. He had promised Acxa to do his best not to wind up dead, after all. It’d be pretty pathetic if he met his doom before even getting off the island.
Down on the beach, Keith could see the boats docked in the small inlet the sea shanty was built near. He couldn’t help but wonder as he grew closer. The idea that someone lived out here, anyone at all , seemed ridiculous. It looked inconvenient at best, and downright dangerous at worst. With the cliffs crumbling overhead and the waves washing the ground beneath out to sea, that tiny decrepit building hardly stood a chance.
He approached, hesitating at the door. The sun had set now and it was well after dark, it would probably be considered rude to show up on a stranger’s doorstep at such an hour. He stood there uncertainly, biting his lip in thought. Beside him, Kosmo had started to pace curiously. Deciding he’d come back in the morning, Keith walked down the steps and toward the docks to get a closer look at the boats.
Most of them were fair-sized, though equipped with all kinds of fishing equipment that Keith would have no use for. He found himself wondering what was inside the boats, down below where the living quarters would be. Curiously, he attempted to peer over the edge of the boat, or through the windows.
In the end, he gave in and just climbed into it. He landed inside the boat with a thud, head hitting the deck hard enough to bruise. He sat up, rubbing at his injury. Kosmo jumped in after him and immediately started nosing at the hatch to go below deck. Keith led the way down, pleased to find an actual temporary living space, complete with a bunk and some generic supplies.
He was in the midst of testing out the bed, trying to get a feel for whether he’d be able to live like that for weeks at a time, when Kosmo erupted into a loud growl. Keith went tense, turning his head ever so slowly. A shadowed outline of a person was being cast down the stairs.
“H-Hello?” Keith called, sitting upright.
“Get up here. Now.”
“Okay.” Keith’s voice was meek and mumbled, genuine fear racing through his veins. He lifted his hood, obscuring his face from view as much as possible. There was really only one way in or out, he was gonna have to confront this stranger either way. He got to his feet, nervously walking up the stairs. Kosmo trailed behind him, dropped low in a protective stance. If it came down to a fight, Keith would surely win, but that wasn’t what he was looking for.
He reached the top of the steps, turning hesitantly to face the other man. He found himself looking down though, squinting down at the short stature of the person. It might have been the shortest person Keith had ever seen, he dwarfed the poor guy by comparison. He found himself so distracted by the height difference, it was a long drawn-out moment before he noticed the other… differences.
The glint of metal shined back in the moonlight where fur should have been. Both of his arms seemed to be prosthetics, as well as the lower half of his jaw. Any part of him that wasn’t a prosthetic seemed to be covered too, his hood draped over his face to hide it from view just like Keith’s own. Except it wasn’t really a hood at all, it was more of a mask of sorts, like he’d been hiding his appearance for a long time and had had something custom made.
Keith frowned in sympathy. Questions arose in his mind immediately, but he did his best not to press the issue. He already seemed rude enough, the least he could do was respect this man’s privacy. But how did something like this happen to a person? A shark attack?
“Can I help you with something?” The man asked, interrupting Keith’s blatant staring. He was straight to the point. He seemed the type, gruff and blunt, hardly a friendly guy. Though, Keith wasn’t expecting friendliness really, after being caught trespassing like he was. His ears slumped down in shame.
“Um, I was wondering, what would I have to do to get my hands on one of these boats?”
“They’re not for sale.” The answer wasn’t an unexpected one. Keith could have seen that coming from a mile away. Given the situation, he doubted the man would sell anything to him even if they did happen to be for sale. He’d really messed up. He fidgeted nervously, turning to stare longingly out over the rolling waves.
With his lack of response, the man took it upon himself to elaborate. “And if you plan on stealing one, you’re gonna have to over my dead body.”
“I understand.” He insisted, hand coming down to rest on Kosmo’s head. He was spiralling into a proper freak-out now, the confrontation of the situation rubbing him in all the wrong ways. He took an experimental step backward, nearly stumbling back down the stairs behind him. “I didn’t mean for it to come across that way. I was honestly going to pay you for one.”
“Yeah, alright.” The man scoffed, turning and starting off the boat. In a cloud of confusion, Keith trailed quietly and uncertainly after him. A part of him knew that if he exposed his identity and came clean as being the prince of the kingdom, the entire exchange would shift. He didn’t want to play that card though, didn’t want to have to rely on his status to get anywhere in life.
So, he came to his own defense. He grabbed the man’s metal arm and urged him to a stop, exhaling shakily at the way the stranger whirled around, fighting stance at the ready.
“I mean it, I’m not some thief looking for valuables to pawn off.” Keith blurted dumbly, feeling something urgent in his chest. He had to defend himself, couldn’t have this person go on believing that about him. It didn’t matter that they didn’t know who he was. “I just need transportation. I’m traveling and I need a boat, but you don’t have to sell me one. I can make one.”
“Make one?” Shiro repeated, tilting his head curiously to the side.
“Yeah, a little raft.” Keith explained, looking around for anything similar to use as an example. The more he looked the more he seemed to come to the same conclusion the man already had. All of these boats were huge, made with layers of wood to protect them and keep them balanced. Keith might be able to ride a raft down a stream, but that ocean out there looked hellish to navigate with sails and a safe boat that wasn’t at risk of capsizing with every wave.
The air between them seemed to cool off then. It was clear that the man actually believed him by some stroke of luck, perhaps the pure passion in his voice giving away his true intentions. Maybe this guy could relate to that, he looked the type to go on adventures and experience things for himself.
With a nod of understanding, the man led Keith back toward his home. Kosmo followed, tail still swishing suspiciously as he eyed the stranger.
“Where are you traveling to?” The man asked, opening the door and ushering Keith into the warmth inside. It was definitely a welcome change. The daytime weather down here in the south of his kingdom was definitely hot, but the temperature dropped drastically at night just like it did everywhere. Now that Keith wasn’t as used to it, the cold really ate away at him.
He sat down in one of the chairs, watching as the man went about stocking the fireplace. “So, you headed East or West? Boats aren’t much good for heading North, the waters get cold and icy there. Great beasts swim beneath the surface too, nasty things.”
It wasn’t what Keith expected, for the guy to try to bridge the gap between them with some casual conversation. Keith was enjoying having a roof over his head at night for the first time since setting out days ago, though. He didn’t really want to leave. So he went along with it.
“No, not North. That’s where I came from.”
“Thought I recognized the accent.” The man mused, walking over and offering his hand. Keith eyed the metal fingers curiously, wondering where in the kingdom he’d had something like that built. It seemed so advanced, unlike anything he’d ever seen before even as part of the royal family. He hesitantly took the man’s hand, shaking it firmly. “I’m Shiro. I used to work in the castle.”
Keith blinked, taken aback by the admission.
“I’m, uh, Kri… lon?” Keith said the words with about as much certainty as could be expected from someone lying about their identity for the first time in their life. It was obvious he was lying, there wasn’t a shred of debate to be had. He was sure if he could see Shiro’s face, he would see the disbelief written across it, and perhaps the confusion on why he’d bother lying about something so simple to begin with.
Keith cursed himself silently for ruining the relationship he was tentatively trying to build. Trying again, he quickly cleared his throat and switched topics. “So, how long ago did you work there?”
“It’s been a while.” Shiro muttered, closed off the slightest bit. Keith sat patiently though, practically holding his breath as he clung to every word. He’d never had an opportunity as unique as this one, to see the castle from someone else’s eyes with genuine honesty. Shiro must have been able to sense the tension by the fact that Keith made no effort to move the conversation along, so he continued despite his initial hesitation. “I was a close friend of the king.”
“The king?” Keith repeated dumbly, seeing as there was no way in hell he’d be able to process that alone in his mind. In all reality, Keith hadn’t met many people who had actually known his father. He was a king, he was busy a lot of the time, but he was away more often than not. It was always Krolia managing the castle anyway, she’d been the one raised in royalty who had half a mind about what to do. His father was a figurehead, a beloved one for awhile, until word had gotten around about his travels.
The public was split after that, half of them believing in him and his cause, others blindly accusing him of lying or putting the kingdom at risk. Krolia had taken the brunt of the criticism with grace for years, but it never settled with Keith. It still ate away at him whenever someone would speak ill of his father, something innately personal in him becoming viciously defensive.
He hoped this wouldn’t be one of those situations. Shiro seemed like a nice enough person, especially if they’d been friends. Keith was always on guard though, ready to throw fists or storm away from every interaction he had.
So, he drew a deep breath and asked the obvious question. “Why’d you leave?”
“I lost someone important to me.” Shiro said finally, his voice faraway from the moment. The words sounded softened with reminiscence, like he couldn’t even talk about his past without losing himself in it. Keith felt a pang of sympathy, wondering if it’d been worth it to ask. Shiro eventually continued though, composing himself enough to get through the topic. “With the king missing and Krolia spending all of her time with the newborn prince, there just wasn’t any place for me in the castle anymore. I needed something different.”
Keith, unbearably awkward down to his core, had no idea what to do with the information now that he had it. He sat there processing slowly, trying to imagine what the world had been like before he’d been old enough to comprehend anything.
“So now you… fish?” He tried, gesturing vaguely toward the general vicinity of the boats. Shiro nodded.
“My company is responsible for sixty percent of all seafood in the kingdom.” He boasted proudly, a trait that struck Keith as the slightest bit uncharacteristic. He hardly knew the guy, but he seemed to be the furthest thing from confident. It was very clear that this fishing thing was his life, completely and utterly, that he’d dedicated himself to it. Keith supposed if that was what made him happy, he deserved to brag a little about the success.
“Impressive.” Keith observed with a flat tone, nodding his head. Then, because he was a person who had no patience or subtly whatsoever, he immediately veered back to what he really wanted to be discussing in that moment. “Are those the biggest boats you have?”
“You’re not going North and you’re not interested in fishing… forgive me for jumping to conclusions, but are you trying to leave the kingdom?” Shiro asked, standing as if to emphasize his point. Keith figured that was fair enough and stayed sitting, knowing he’d only tower over Shiro again if he were to try joining him. If Shiro wanted to look down on him or judge him, he very well could. It wouldn’t stop Keith from achieving what he’d set out to do.
“What if I am?”
“I’d have no choice but to let you know what a stupid decision that is.” Shiro grunted, sounding cold and detached from the situation. He turned away, staring toward the wall contemplatively. Keith stayed where he was, making no effort to backtrack or explain himself. “It’s too risky. You’d be risking your own life and many more if you started a war between the kingdoms. It’s irresponsible. What business could you possibly have over there worth that?”
“Is that what you told your friend when he left? The king?” Keith snapped, hating the mere idea of that scenario. He expected Shiro to say yes, to reveal that he’d been one of those skeptical and controlling people all along. He didn’t though, only huffed out a brisk laugh that had a million new questions arising.
“No, not exactly.” Shiro admitted, sounding deeply amused now. “I asked him to take me with him.”
“Losing my best friend to sea, I suppose.” Shiro shrugged, the movement so casual that it was almost hard to believe how much of his body was composed of metals. Keith winced at the casual mention of his father’s death, staring dismally down at his lap. “You know, you kinda remind me of him.”
“Really?” Keith perked up, head shooting up in search of more answers. He thought he’d heard every story there was to hear, constantly grilling his mother and the long-time residents of the castle for any information he could get on his late father. It’d been so long since he’d had the chance to learn anything new about him, the thought of it had his whole heart invested.
“He wasn’t quite so serious, though.” He pondered, tapping his fingers against his arms. Keith looked up at him, on the edge of his seat and awaiting more. “I imagine you get that from your mother.”
It took him a moment for his brain to catch up, to realize what exactly it was Shiro was implying with that. When it pieced together, Keith felt his mouth go inexplicably dry. There was no way.
“How’d you…” Keith trailed off, watching in confusion as Shiro headed wordlessly into the kitchen and went about starting to prepare a meal. Keith stayed sitting there with a dumbfounded look. He reached up, lowering his hood, eyebrows still furrowed together and lips pursed. He couldn’t believe he’d been found out so easily.
Keith felt almost spiteful, wondering how long Shiro had known and what about their conversation had been real. He glanced over to the little kitchen area, where Shiro was dicing up a fish with an expertly skilled hand. Keith couldn’t stop himself, he glowered at the older man. “I’m still going to the fourth kingdom, with or without your boats.”
“I might have something for you.” Shiro offered, but that was it. He gave no further explanation and no concrete promises. Keith continued to shoot daggers in his direction, a petulant sort of pout about him that wasn’t going away anytime soon. Here he was thinking he’d made a connection with someone else all on his own for the first time in his life, and the whole time he’d only been talking to Keith because he knew he was the prince. He probably felt he owed it to his old friend to babysit his kid.
Keith sat there sulking the whole time Shiro prepared a meal for them. On the other hand, Kosmo perked up considerably with the smell of food in the air, and quickly grew fond of the complete stranger he’d hated so much before. He followed Shiro around the kitchen, nearly stepping on his heels as he attempted to beg for food.
Later, when they sat down to eat, Keith continued to give Shiro the silent treatment. The man tried a few times to start different topics, but Keith would just shoot him a pointed look and then spoon another mouthful of chowder past his lips. Eventually, Shiro let out a frustrated groan.
“It’s a long trip to make. I know you think you’re prepared, but until you’ve experienced it firsthand, you just can’t be. Even your father couldn’t write notes descriptive enough to keep someone alive in an unknown environment. It’s not safe to go alone. You’re being childish.”
“My father always went alone.” Keith responded snappily, speaking through his fangs. Though he couldn’t see it, he could almost hear Shiro’s blatant eyeroll at his behavior.
“Not always .” He replied, sighing briefly. Keith blinked owlishly, pausing with his spoon only halfway to his mouth and looking up at Shiro. There was no further statement, no indication that he’d even implied something at all. Keith narrowed his gaze suspiciously.
“What? You want me to believe you went with him? He never mentioned you once in the Atlas.” Keith growled out pettily, sitting up straighter. As much as he’d thought he would like this, having a totally different perspective, he was quickly coming to hate it. He hated having a stranger talk to him like he knew his father better than Keith did. Perhaps because there was a very good chance he could be right.
Keith never got to know him, couldn’t even remember meeting him.
“I wasn’t his best mate or anything, but once or twice we traveled together, yes.”
“Well, you’re not traveling with me.” Keith grunted, his hackles raised. Beside him, Kosmo looked worriedly up at him, sensing the growing tension in the room. “I want to do this alone. It’s going to be my journey. I don’t need someone to look after me through it.”
“I wasn’t asking to come with you, Keith.” Shiro explained evenly, surprisingly calm even as Keith postured against him. He was still spooning soup under edge of his cloak. Keith wondered briefly again what he looked like underneath, but quickly chased the thought away. “There are monsters in these waters too, just not as many. There’s no saying you’d even make it there alive.”
“I’ll die trying then.” Keith growled out, stabbing his spoon into the almost empty bowl in front of him and enjoying the ear-shattering grind of metal on ceramic. Not personally, but because he was sure Shiro found it annoying. Shiro who was simply staring at him, stoic and unmoving, and also so far away because Keith couldn’t even see the damn eyes so fixated on him.
“There’s no talking sense to people like you, is there? Real adventurer types.” Shiro relented finally, shaking his head dismissively. He had the very distinct air about him of a person who had just given up entirely. Keith smiled smugly.
He didn’t expect Shiro to speak up again, especially not a mere few seconds later. He sounded less like a lecturing parent now, more like an exhausted friend. “You know, there’s beauty in simplicity too. It’s nice having a place to call home. Spending your whole life looking for something else is practically asking for disappointment. You might never find what you’re looking for, and you’ll never appreciate what’s around you either. Seems like a curse to me.”
For a surreal moment, Keith thought of Shiro giving this same speech to his father. Trying desperately to convince him to stay without saying as much. Knowing with every departure that there was no promise of a return. It gave Keith chills to think about.
“I know.” Keith choked out, his claws digging sharply into his palm.
“Stay here tonight. I’ll get the boat ready for departure tomorrow morning.” Shiro spoke with a sense of finality, the topic officially drawing to a close like a switch had been flicked. All of the resistance Keith had been pushing back against all night, just gone.
Maybe it changed things, knowing that Keith wasn’t just idealizing something he knew nothing about. He was well aware of the fate he was chasing, the one his father had been met with. And he knew it wasn’t necessarily a good one.
Sailing turns out to be more difficult than Keith was originally led to believe. He’s read countless books on the topic, but there’s something very uniquely different about actually trying to man a boat all by himself for the first time. He finds himself veering off course more than once, having to constantly refer back to the compass Shiro had given him. Here he was thinking he wouldn’t even need one, he’d be able to just stay on a straight path downward.
As it was, it was all he could do to keep his meals down. The boat rocked back and forth on the waves, jostling him constantly and making the world around him seem dizzy. More than once, he simply draped himself over the steering wheel and groaned in agony. Kosmo hated that, whining at Keith’s feet and trying to nose him back into a standing position.
“Oh fuck, I’m gonna be sick again.” Keith whimpered pathetically, stumbling toward the edge of the boat again. Ever the diligent one, Kosmo trailed beside him and bit onto his pant leg to make sure he wouldn’t topple over the edge. After Keith finished defiling the deep blue water below him, he fell backward onto his ass and simply sat on the floor for a while, staring up at the sky overhead.
Beside him, Kosmo was staring expectantly. Keith knew without even glancing in his direction where his thoughts were at, he’d been desperately trying to communicate the same thing since the moment they’d left the docks. Keith sighed. “We can’t turn back now, we’re over halfway. It’d just make things harder.”
Kosmo huffed, turning to face pointedly away from him.
Keith took that as the end to the conversation, flopping down to lie on his back. He sprawled his limbs out in every which direction, trying not to slide along the wooden surface each time the boat would shift beneath him. He needed to ground himself as best he could, try to settle his stomach.
He stared up at the blue sky, bluer than he’d ever seen it back home. Days there were dismal and grey more often than not, seeing the sun behind the clouds was a rarity. Here it seemed to beat down on him, making his fur feel drenched in the heat it provided.
There wasn’t anything else to see yet, water so far in every direction that it met the horizon. But that sky… the heat… it almost made it worth it already. It was something new , so beautifully and unfamiliarly new.
Eight days into the voyage and Keith finally noticed a change in scenery. At first, he was fully convinced he’d started hallucinating. The island was just a tiny blip in the distance, barely enough to be seen. For all he knew, it was one monstrous fish creature floating on the surface. Yet, he couldn’t help the way his heart raced, his expectations soaring higher. He willed the boat to move faster somehow, for the wind to pick up in the sails.
It seemed like it took forever, but eventually he found himself close enough to make out the sandy white beach and towering trees of the island. Even Kosmo had perked up, tail thudding excitedly against the floor, front paws propper up on the banister to get a better view. Keith couldn’t fight the smile from his face if he tried.
“Kosmo! Land ahoy!” He laughed, throwing an arm around the wolf’s middle and pulling him into a clumsy hug. Kosmo gave a few happy barks, bouncing around the deck excitedly.
There was a little cove of sorts ahead and Keith did his best to steer into it, figuring it would shelter his boat and keep it from going out to sea again. He was doing a pretty good job, considering how difficult it was to steer a boat without any help.
Just when he thought he was gonna coast right into the beach, the entire boat rocked with vicious force.
Keith yelped, skidding across the floor and colliding with the banister. He scrambled back to his feet, terrified for a moment that the boat was going to capsize. When it didn’t, he tentatively looked over the edge. A dark shadow slithered through the water beneath the boat, nearly the size of the entire ship.
Kosmo had started pacing worriedly, whining nonstop as he tried to urge Keith away from the edge. He went willingly, panic rising in his chest. The beach was still a good couple hundred feet from where he was, and he’d never really had the chance to learn how to swim living in a frozen wasteland. He was screwed.
He ran below deck, groaning pathetically to find water leaking in through the walls. It was only a slow and steady trickle so far, but there was a clear indent in the wood where the monster had hit. He grabbed his most valuable belongings, including his father’s atlas.
He was halfway up the stairs again when the boat was hit a second time. It sent him flying into the wall, his head hitting the wall hard. He winced, vision blurring as he stumbled the rest of the way up the stairs, holding the injury. Kosmo stayed pressed protectively to his side, eyes wide and ears perked up, a fighting stance. Keith almost huffed out a laugh at the idea of it, the wolf trying to fight something easily twenty times its size.
He pulled some rope out of his bag and hurriedly starting tying his belongings to Kosmo’s back, one by one, carefully making sure they were secured. The atlas in particular he took special care with, making sure it was high enough that it’d hopefully stay dry even if Kosmo had to swim.
“Kosmo, you need to teleport to the beach.” Keith instructed him, patting his back. The wolf tilted its head to the side, looking at him in distress. Keith knew as well as anyone what Kosmo was capable of, and after a week of rationing food and feeling sick, he hardly had enough energy to teleport that distance at all. He definitely didn’t have enough to bring Keith with him. “Buddy, we don’t have a choice right now. I’ll swim.”
Kosmo made absolutely no move to follow the command. Keith growled, growing quickly frustrated, knowing the creature was likely still circling them and preparing for another attack. He kneeled in front of Kosmo, cupping his face.
“There is nothing you can do to help me right now. If you swim with me, you’ll only be putting both of our lives at risk. At least this way you’re guaranteed to make it.” Keith told him, keeping his voice as calm as he could manage. Even still, his hands were shaking in Kosmo’s fur, nerves eating away at him. Kosmo didn’t look convinced. “Please. I need you to do this for me.”
With a long reedy whine, Kosmo leaned forward and lapped his tongue across Keith’s whole face, leaving purple fur standing up in every which way. Keith gave a forced laugh, giving the wolf a quick hug. With that, Kosmo looked toward the shore and dematerialized, turning his gaze back to Keith in the last second.
Then he was gone. And Keith was left alone on the sinking ship of doom.
He ran toward the front, catching a glimpse of the shadow moving beneath the water’s surface just in time to predict the next attack. He clumsily jumped over the railing just in time to avoid the recoil of it, flailing through the air until he collided with the water’s surface hard enough to sting.
He was immediately overwhelmed by the feeling, akin to falling but so different. He flailed hopelessly, trying to hold his breath even as he struggled to stay afloat at all. He was panicking now, water sinking into his clothes and weighing him down more. His head ducked below the water’s surface completely and he screamed, air leaving his lungs in bubbles that floated to the surface. He managed to push himself up enough to break the surface again and gulp in a mouthful of air, but then he was down again. He opened his eyes, looking around as best he could in the shadowed water, despite the sting. Distantly, he saw something massive and shiny, likely scaled. He whimpered in the back of his throat, trying and failing to spot a face. Where was it?! Had it seen him yet?!
He pushed himself back up enough to catch another breath, immediately wasting it in another scream when something touched his leg beneath the surface. In hindsight, definitely too small to be the monster from before, but still disgusting.
“Help!” He shouted, eyes wide as he stared into the sunny sky. Above him, high on the cliffs circling the cloud, there was a shadowed figure. He blinked, squinting his eyes to try and make out the person, but then he lost the footing he’d managed to stumble his way into and immediately sunk down into the water again.
This time when he turned, the rainbow scales glinted back at him much closer. He watched the long body move through the water, slithering faster now like it had a goal. Keith shivered, breaking out of the water again for a moment and managing to move a tiny amount forward. He turned toward the cliffs again, frowning deeply to find there was no longer anyone there.
He dipped below the surface again, and this time he couldn’t seem to bring himself back up. He knew the creature had to be close by now, so he flailed his arms and legs even harder. It only seemed to bring him down further though, his body sinking like a rock. He began to choke with his lack of air, fear washing over him with the striking realization that he could die here. Without ever reaching another island. Just like Shiro had warned him.
He blacked out.
Keith came to with a groan, rolling over and coughing up mouthfuls of water. He wheezed, struggling to breathe even now that he was on solid ground. He couldn’t forget the feeling of not being able to draw a breath, slowly feeling the life fade out of him. A shiver wracked his frame and he sat up, determined to make sure he wasn’t anywhere near that damned ocean.
Imagine his disappointment when he found himself on a beach, the very first thing he saw being the cove he just nearly drowned in. He scrambled backward, hairs rising all over his body, a hostile growl leaving his lips before he can help it. Terrifying.
He hardly had time to process the situation any further, a heavy weight colliding with his side. He doubled over, expecting to find a face full of sand waiting for him, but instead he hit something soft and plush. Then Kosmo was jumping all over him, tongue lolling all over his face, weight crushing him and making it difficult to breathe again.
“Kosmo, stop!” He managed weakly, holding up a hand. Obediently, Kosmo fell back, no doubt still worried about Keith after that experience. With his newfound freedom, Keith looked down at what he was lying on. It seemed to be some sort of leaf, large and weirdly fluffy, unlike anything he’s ever seen before. He furrowed his eyebrows together.
Sitting up again, he turned and looked around. It took him a moment, but eventually he spotted his boat, pulled in to the shore. It had certainly seen better days, but it wasn’t at the bottom of the ocean right now and that was… weird. There was no way it would have drifted into shore without at least someone patching the holes from the inside and steering it back, assuming the holes were even at a point where they could be patched.
He got to his feet and Kosmo is immediately there, giving him something to lean on for support. They walked toward the boat at a slow pace, Keith taking a while to fully come back to himself. Not to mention he couldn’t help feeling extremely apprehensive. Something about the situation didn’t feel at all safe yet.
He could swear he felt eyes on him, but each time he’d look toward the tree line he’d find nothing. Sure, the sun was setting and anyone could have been lurking in the shadows, but Keith had good night vision and Kosmo had a good sense of smell. If someone was there they’d know. Still…. Keith felt uneasy.
Sure enough, the gaping holes that should have been on the side of the boat have been covered from the inside with another type of leave, this one shiny and stretchy looking. Like rubber. It hardly looked like a permanent fix, but it was enough to get it to shore.
Keith rubbed his hands across his face.
“What the hell? Is someone else here?” He asked no one in particular, looking down at Kosmo. Kosmo didn’t offer much in form of answer, for some reason looking just as confused as him despite being awake while all of this took place. Things just weren’t adding up.
Keith walked back to the bed he’d woken up in, sitting down. He gestured for Kosmo to do the same and slowly started to untangle the things he’d tied to the wolf’s back. Patting Kosmo’s head as he went, the wolf have sprawled in his lap. He grabbed his swords, a couple packages of baked goods Acxa had given him, his clothes, and then… nothing else.
Where the hell was the atlas?!
“Are you fucking kidding me?!” He shouted, jumping to his feet. Kosmo knew how important that was, he wouldn’t have lost it, he would have protected it with his life! Keith looked around, now determined to find whatever mysterious person had rescued him. Sure, he was thankful and all, but he wasn’t going to pay for it with his most prized possession. He wanted that back!
He trudged toward the tree line with a sword in hand, right toward where he’d been feeling that unsettling presence since waking up. He ignored Kosmo’s concerned nudges against his side, trying to convince him to turn around. He wouldn’t though, not until he’d gotten some answers, or at least his book back.
“Hey! Is someone there?! Show yourself! My name is Keith, I’m the prince of the fifth kingdom.” Keith shouted, cupping his hands around his mouth so it would carry. He heard a lot of movement in response, but it seemed to be wildlife startled by the loud noise he’d made by yelling. He watched with wide eyes as birds flew away from him, bright and bold colors, loud squawks, unlike anything he’d ever seen before. He paused, momentarily forgetting what he was doing so he could admire the birds as they flew away.
He only came back to the moment when Kosmo started to growl, sniffing the air. Keith tensed, wrapping his hand around his sword a little tighter and preparing for a fight. Except, unlike usual, Kosmo didn’t seem to zero in on where the threat was. He looked confused, like he could smell it but couldn’t tell where it was. He paced around in circles, hackles raised and teeth showing in a snarl.
Keith looked around, even tried to listen for any movement. There was nothing.
“Kosmo, are you sure it isn’t an old trail? Maybe the scent’s here from before.” Keith suggested, trying to be helpful. The indignant look Kosmo gave him made it very clear his input was unwanted. He glared right back at him. “Well, I don’t know! Excuse me for trying to help, it’s not like I have any idea what’s going on right now eith-”
He abruptly choked on the words he was trying to say. Tense as could be and eyes wide as saucers, Keith froze as he felt something touch his ears. It wasn’t just any something either, it was very distinctly a hand, fingers curiously threading through the longer, darker hair on top of his head. He couldn’t breathe again. Beside him, Kosmo turned to him, looking confused as to why he’d stopped talking.
Keith tried to stay as still as possible while looking up over and over again, trying to signal to Kosmo to follow his gaze. Kosmo eventually got the memo and did, only to look back to his eyes with that same lost expression. Keith cursed silently.
Finally, when the hand slid down the side of his face to map out his features, Keith reached up and grabbed it in one swift movement. Or, at least, he’d thought the movement had been fast. Instead, he grabbed nothing and managed to hit himself in the nose.
He winced through the pain, looking all around over his head and cursing when he found nothing there.
Just how fast could this person move?! He was sure something had been touching him, where was it now?! And why hadn’t he caught a single glimpse of this damn thing?!
Needless to say, he was quickly losing his temper. He didn’t have much control over it to begin with, but this thing was definitely taunting him now. He didn’t care whether it was dangerous or not, he would fight it and show it not to mess with him. He was the best hunter in his entire kingdom, damn it!
“Don’t be a coward, show yourself and fight me!” Keith roared, ignoring the way Kosmo was staring at him like he’d hit his head too hard and lost his mind. Keith spun around and around, staring up into the tree’s overhead and desperately trying to see his enemy. He held his sword tightly, preparing himself for anything.
He wasn’t expecting to come to a stop and then have someone materialize in front of him.
Hence why he dropped his sword like an idiot.
“Hey.” The stranger giggled, a self-satisfied smirk on his lips. He looked nothing like Keith had been picturing, nothing like Keith had ever even seen. Brown smooth skin without any fur on his face, short spiky brown hair and pointed ears, little fangs poking into his bottom lip, and even a long agile tail swishing behind him. Keith stumbled backward in shock.
“Wh-” He looked up, finding the other boy to be hanging upside down from a tree branch, legs wrapped around it. In his hand was a cloak of sorts, one that shimmered oddly in the light. Keith leaned curiously closer, only to have a clawed hand dart forward and poke him sharply in the nose. “Ow!”
“Ha. Some fighter you are.” The man chirped happily, sticking his tongue out. Keith gasped in genuine offense and reached for his sword. Meanwhile, Kosmo lurched toward the stranger with jaw hanging open, his protective instincts flaring up the moment Keith had been hurt. But… well, Kosmo just wasn’t any competition to the stranger’s sheer speed.
He flipped back up into the tree in an instant and Kosmo soared past where he’d been, landing in a heap in the bushes. Keith gaped up at the tree where the stranger had settled easily, even though the long branches looked shaky and weak, he seemed perfectly balanced. Keith stared in disbelief, having never seen anything quite like this in his life.
The stranger seemed to bask in the attention. “You know, it’s impolite to stare, no matter how beautiful a person may be.”
“Uh…” Keith trailed off, his head spinning. Beside him, Kosmo had only just gotten back to his feet and paced back over, growling up at the stranger. Keith simply kept staring, unable to tear his gaze away. Yes, he’d been preparing for this moment his entire life, but in all of his fantasy and dreams he’d… he’d had time to improve his social skills a little bit. He’d been a cool and suave adventurer on a mission, knowing just what he wanted and what he needed to say.
“You had a lot to say before, what happened to that? Aren’t we gonna fight?” The stranger continued, shimmying down the branch closer to Keith. He looked undoubtedly curious as well, though he at least held on to his composure. There was no denying the way he was subtly looking Keith over though, a critical eye as he examined their differences. As playful and teasing as this person seemed, they were definitely intelligent.
“You’re, uh, what …” Keith stumbled over his words, tangling them all up embarrassingly. The stranger seemed nothing if not amused. He reached out again, ignoring the warning growls Kosmo was giving, and once again brought his hand to Keith’s hair. He poked at it curiously, ruffling it up into a static-filled frizzy mess.
“You’re about as smart as that lochineel that tried to eat you whole, huh?” The stranger mused, almost absentmindedly with how distracted he was. Kosmo moved to leap at him again, and now Keith found the common sense to move, but probably not in the way he should have. His hand darted out, settling on Kosmo’s head and silently telling him to stay exactly where he was.
The stranger took notice of this, eyeing the movement closely. He looked as surprised as Keith that they weren’t dissolving into another attempt at a fight.
“Loch-in-eel?” Keith repeated, slowly, trying to pick the word apart. It seemed to roll off the stranger’s tongue so smoothly, his accent easy and light. Keith put two and two together and lit up in obvious recognition. “Wait, you mean the fish monster?”
“Ooh, fascinating, it can learn .” The stranger cooed sarcastically, twisting around on the branch until he was back to hanging upside down. Keith broke out of his stupor then, annoyance bubbling back to the surface. He reached up, grabbing the stranger’s hand and then swatting it away. He took a harsh step back, putting space between them.
“Do you have my book?” Keith asked, straight to the point. He refused to let himself be distracted again.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The stranger hummed, but Keith didn’t miss the subtle tilt to his lips. A smile. Keith narrowed his eyes, trying to read the expression better. He didn’t get much of a chance before the stranger was hoisting himself back up into the tree, then leaping away to the next without so much as a word.
Keith stared after the man, watching as he jumped to tree after tree. It took him an admittedly embarrassing amount of time to realize the stranger wasn’t going to double back.
“Hey, get back here!” Keith shouted, clumsily trying to run through the underbrush after him. This was the only lead he had on this island, he was completely lost otherwise. He ran as fast as his legs could carry him, but branches whipped at him and the terrain was covered with vines. He tripped repeatedly, scraping his legs and hands in the process. Even Kosmo seemed to struggle.
When he fell for the sixth time or so, he got back to his feet only to find the stranger had definitely jumped back a few trees, noticeably closer now than before. Keith wondered what to make of that, if he’d been worried or something. Keith brushed himself off, taking his time now that the other wasn’t constantly moving further away.
“I’m pretty sure the lochineel was quicker on its feet and it doesn’t even have any.” The stranger said, his voice a taunting lilt. Keith grit his teeth together, annoyance building again. He couldn’t make sense of why this stranger was turning everything into a joke. It wasn’t every day a Galra traveled to their island, he should be more serious. It was revolutionary! Who did he think he was-
Keith blinked. Recalling what he’d read in the atlas so many times in the past about this kingdom.
Elusive. Distrusting. Curious. Playful.
“Wait a minute.” Keith snapped his fingers together, grinning widely as he looked back up at the stranger in the tree. He hadn’t really had any time to piece things together in his overwhelmed state, but now that he’d taken a moment to breathe things were starting to make a lot of sense. He pointed up at the other boy. “I know what you are. You’re a Grimalkin.”
And with that, Keith sat down on the ground and crossed his legs, prepared to wait. He even went so far as to close his eyes, anything to look entirely uninvested and unthreatening. Sure enough, sooner rather than later, light footsteps walked across the leaves near him. He cracked open one eye, glancing over at the approaching figure out of the corner of his vision.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m not playing into your games.” Keith explained, crossing his arms. “I know you’re just gonna keep messing with me until you feel safe. So, I’m not a threat to you. I just want information. You can find me when you want to have an actual conversation.”
“Alright, fine.” The stranger huffed, sounding the slightest bit miffed by the exchange. Keith turned then, seeking out reassurance that he was doing the right thing. He started to have second thoughts when he watched the Grimalkin jump back up into the tree, back turned to him as it left. “You can find me when you want to play into my games, then!”
And, well, in hindsight… maybe Keith should have expected that level of stubbornness.
“Well. I don’t think he’s coming back.” Keith concluded, a good fifteen minutes later. He worried his bottom lip for just a moment more before standing and brushing himself off, resigned to the fact he’d have to follow after the damn stranger and look for forgiveness. So much for making demands and having them met.
He started to leave, only to notice Kosmo wasn’t following. He was still sitting in the same spot, looking not at all impressed. Keith sighed. “Come on, Kosmo, I know you don’t like him but he’s our only lead here. We need him. Plus, I think he rescued me, so that has to count for something right?”
Kosmo grumbled a bit, but as Keith continued to walk away he eventually followed along.
The jungle was a confusing place, everything looked exactly the same. Keith was sure he’d passed the same tree five times now. He wasn’t even sure if he was headed in the same direction anymore. Not to mention, he’d encountered a few strange looking small animals so far, he could only imagine what kind of beasts lurked in the unfamiliar environment. He couldn’t afford to get lost.
In the end, he stumbled out of the tree line with twigs and leaves all through his hair and scrapes all over his face where the fur wasn’t quite so thick. He grumbled, angrily stomping down the beach. He wasn’t even concerned about finding the stranger anymore, just wanted to never go back into that damned dark, damp, humid hell . He hated it.
He continued to stomp through the soft-looking sand until movement caught his eye. He turned, nearly choking on his own saliva when he spotted the hulking beached beast collapsed into the sand. As he moved toward it, he recognized the shimmering rainbow scales, as well as the man settled in front of it and digging a sharp fishing knife into its side.
Keith crept closer, trying to stay undetected.
“Isn’t she a beaut?” The stranger spoke up, his hearing better than Keith could have predicted. It was a little unsettling. He’d always been such a great hunter back home, fast and sneaky. Here he seemed clumsy and oversized, like a bumbling idiot. He frowned.
“Sorry, I can’t agree. Looks pretty ugly to me.” Keith replied drily, eyeing the giant teeth hanging in the beast’s gaping jaw. He nearly missed the quiet little snort of laughter from the stranger, warm and bubbly, clearly amused.
“I don’t mean like that, just the size of it.” He explained, standing up and waving around his knife almost conversationally. Nevermind the little droplets of blood it sent flying. “I’ve never caught one this big before, you must have lured it in from the far oceans.”
“It’s going to feed the whole town, I bet.” The man mused, sighing contently and rubbing at his stomach as if imagining it. For a moment, Keith was hung up on the fact that anyone in the world would want to eat this hulking monster, but then the rest of the words registered in his mind.
“There’s a town?” Keith blurted out stupidly. Nevermind that this obviously wasn’t the only Grimalkin on the planet, there was also no way they’d built enough trust for this stranger to reveal information about his home and family. Especially not when Keith had done nothing but upset him since their meeting.
So, in hopes of mending the sudden tense atmosphere, Keith kneeled next to him and gestured to the giant fish. He might as well try to make conversation with the only common ground they’d managed to find so far. “How did you kill this thing?”
“Oh, right, I forgot you might not be as mentally advanced as us.” The Grimalkin smirked, turning to him with a flourish. He picked up what looked to be a stick that’d been resting beside him, but in the glint of the moonlight Keith now saw the pointed rock on the edge. “This is called a spear . You throw it at things and it pierces their flesh. Makes killy killy dead dead.”
“I’m plenty mentally advanced, asshole.” Keith snapped, baring his teeth. Where he expected the other to shrink back, or at least apologize, it only seemed to strike another curious chord in the stranger. Keith closed his mouth, coughing awkwardly. “I just don’t understand how you got that far out to water fast enough to kill it and save me. And that monster seemed a lot stronger than a single spear wound.”
“I parachuted down from the cliffs and landed on your sinking boat.” He said easily, like it was the simplest thing in the world to achieve. Keith nodded, trying not to let show just how much the concept actually impressed him. The stranger smirked. “And a single spear is enough to kill anything if you hit it in the right place.”
Keith nearly rolled his eyes at the obvious cockiness in the man’s tone, but somehow he felt he’d get called out on that even though the stranger had his back turned to him. So Keith leaned back and silently observed, watching as the monster of a fish was slowly and skillfully carved into.
“So… you saved me? When I was drowning?” Keith spoke up eventually, when the silence started to err on the side of uncomfortable. The man paused, glancing over his shoulder and quirking an eyebrow.
“Yeah, I had to swim with you on my back all the way to shore.” He explained, pausing his work to turn to face Keith properly. He held up an accusatory finger. “My people hate water, I’ll have you know.”
“I guess we have that in common.” Keith muttered, rubbing his hands over his arms as an uncomfortable shiver wracked his frame. He wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to set foot on a boat again after that traumatizing experience. The stranger shook his head at him, huffing out a laugh at Keith’s expense.
“Oh no, I don’t mind it myself .” He elaborated. “That’s why I spend all my time out here at the beach and everyone else stays deep in the jungles. I like the water. I always have. I just want you to know how lucky you are it was me that found you and not anyone else, they would have let you die before they’d touch water.”
Keith considered the new information.
“Well, thanks… for not doing that.” Keith concluded awkwardly, unsure how to express how genuinely thankful he was to be standing there alive. He’d never really had to rely on anyone before, he’d always been the one others relied on. It was a unique feeling having someone other than Kosmo and his mother watching out for him. He didn’t understand how to go about it.
The stranger stood suddenly, moving so quickly that Keith took a stumbling step backward as his defensive instincts kicked in. One second the Grimalkin was kneeling by his feet and the next he was standing in front of Keith, leaning close to his face with wide eyes.
“Now, I answered your questions, will you answer mine?” The stranger asked, looking almost… hopeful. It hadn’t really occurred to Keith that he wasn’t the only one seeing something new for the first time. He was an outsider in this land, no one had ever seen anything like him here. And as hard to get as the stranger had played, he’d stayed well within reach of Keith, which meant he hadn’t really wanted to put their interaction behind him. He was curious too.
“I guess.” Keith said stiffly, unsure what to expect. The stranger beamed a smile, sharp pointed teeth lining his whole mouth. He leaned in even closer, a staggering amount of intrigue flashing in his gaze as he raked them over Keith’s face. Finally, he met Keith’s gaze with a quirked eyebrow.
“Do you mind?” He asked, not bothering to elaborate on what he was asking. He didn’t exactly seem threatening though, so Keith took a shot in the dark and simply shrugged his shoulders. What was the worst he could do?
“I guess not?” No sooner had Keith said the words than did the stranger dive forward, burying his face into Keith’s neck and inhaling deeply. Keith let out an undignified squawk, but by the time he’d moved to shove the other away, the Grimalkin was already well out of reach and hacking in disgust.
“You smell like sea salt. Gross!” He cried in outrage, sniffling wetly. Keith glared at him, though he couldn’t help but tilt his head to the side and attempt to smell his own shoulder. He did have the very unique and gross smell of shaggy wet fur drying, salt clinging through it and making it crusty. He pulled a face of his own. Still, a defensive streak flared up in him and he growled in annoyance.
“What were you expecting me to smell like?! I’m a person, not a-” Keith cut himself off, eyes widening as the stranger composed himself and doubled back. He lifted a hand, cautiously threading his fingers through the longer hair of Keith’s head. This time he didn’t seem disappointed, his eyes lighting up as he grew steadily rougher, fluffing up Keith’s hair and leaving it sticking up in every which direction.
“So fluffy though! Why are you so furry? Doesn’t it get hot?” He shot the questions out rapid-fire, Keith didn’t have a hope in hell of answering a single one. The stranger bounced around him eagerly now, circling him like a predator to prey. Grabby hands poked at Keith’s sides and tugged at his hair, even daringly lifted the back of his shirt and gasped at whatever he saw there. “No tail?! No wonder you have such terrible balance! How sad.”
“Hey! Get your hands off of-” Keith snapped, anger flashing in the words as he hastily yanked his shirt back down to cover himself. He turned, ready to share some very choice words with the stranger and maybe try his luck with finding another less-annoying Grimalkin, but he gave up rather early on. The stranger was standing so close to him now, eyes sparkling with mirth and excitement, smiling so wide it was almost blinding.
He reached up, hands carefully cupping Keith’s large ears and fingers tracing gently over them.
“Your ears are so droopy.” The man mused softly, a sort of reverence about the words like he’d never been more fascinated in his life. He finally dropped his hands then, but the smile remained on his face as he made belated eye-contact with Keith. “I like them. They’re cute.”
“Um, thanks? But those weren’t exactly questions.” Keith tried, feeling his face grow heated at the compliment. This was by far the strangest interaction he’d ever had, but the other man didn’t seem at all bothered by it. He was shamelessly confident, making up for everything Keith lacked in social skills and keeping the conversation somehow flowing.
The stranger shoved a hand out toward him, sharp claws retracting and his fingers wiggling invitingly.
“I’m Lance.” The stranger, Lance, introduced himself. Keith tentatively grabbed his hand and shook it, mentally repeating the name a few times to get used to it. It suited him, oddly enough. It was relieving to have a name to put with the face.
“Keith.” Keith replied, offering an uncertain smile of his own. Lance nodded, dropping his hand suddenly. His attention had wandered again already, wide feline eyes turned to where Kosmo was sitting at Keith’s side, observing their every interaction. Lance approached him and Kosmo’s hackles raised, a warning growl rumbling in his throat. Keith shot an exasperated look toward the wolf.
Lance hesitated, drawing his hand back long before attempting to pet Kosmo. At least he had some sense of self-preservation.
“Keith, my good pal, what is that thing?” Lance asked, pointing toward Kosmo as discreetly as he could, clearly trying not to be rude. Kosmo gave a quiet huff, the slightest bit offended. Keith bit back a chuckle, reaching down to scratch behind Kosmo’s ear in silent reassurance.
“This is Kosmo, he’s my wolf.”
“ Your wolf? You own… another living creature?” Lance looked confused, kneeling down to Kosmo’s height from a few feet away and getting a better look at him. Kosmo watched him with narrowed eyes.
“Your people don’t have pets?” Keith asked, unsure on how to explain it. Lance was looking at him a little skeptical now, like Keith was some kind of heartless monster enslaving animals against their will. Keith struggled to find the right words. “I mean, I don’t own him per se. He could leave if he wanted to, he’s smarter and stronger than me by a long shot. We’ve just bonded. We’re like family.”
“Hm.” Lance nodded slowly, processing the info. Lance attempted to reach his hand out again and Kosmo bared his teeth. Keith sighed, giving Kosmo’s ear the gentlest of tugs in reprimand. “Can you talk to him? Ask him if he wants to eat me. It looks like he does.”
“We can’t talk exactly, but we have a pretty good understanding of each other. He won’t eat you. You can trust him. You saved my life, so we owe a lot to you.” Keith explained, kneeling next to Kosmo and slinging an arm over the wolf’s body. Kosmo leaned into his side, basking in the attention. Lance watched them interact and his confidence seemed to return to him. He shuffled closer on his knees, tentatively reaching out a third time, fingers shaking with anticipation.
And then all hell broke loose.
Kosmo let out a nasty growl, lurching forward and snapping at Lance’s outstretched hand. He didn’t manage to bite it, but only because Lance was fast enough to evade it. With the force of the way the wolf’s jaw snapped shut, it was clear he’d had every intention of chomping down on something.
Keith flung himself at the wolf, trying to tackle him to the ground as Lance took off running and screaming like a banshee. No way was Keith letting Kosmo chase after him and try to do anymore damage. He managed to hold the wolf down, but just barely. “Kosmo! Bad! Bad wolf!”
Eventually, Kosmo slumped into the sand in defeat. And when Keith pulled back to try and understand what the hell was going on, Kosmo simply glared up at him with the most petulant look. He didn’t even look like he regretted his actions whatsoever!
“Kosmo, what was that about?! He saved my life. He’s a good guy.” Keith tried to explain futilely, that stubborn look Kosmo was wearing said he wasn’t hearing any of it. And sure, Keith didn’t really know enough about Lance to just blindly trust him, but he had it under control! He wasn’t going to let his guard down yet or anytime soon. Just because Lance was being a little nice to him didn’t mean his common sense was gonna go out the window. He didn’t need Kosmo to protect him right now.
Keith got to his feet, pointing at Kosmo. “I’m going to find him and apologize. You stay right here and don’t try to come after me. I’m really disappointed in you, Kosmo.”
He saw the visible shift in Kosmo’s eyes from blindly stubborn to something hurt. He hated not being by Keith’s side, being separated for any reason at all drove both of their anxiety up they were so used to being together. But Keith was really angry this time. This was what he’d wanted all his life and now Kosmo was trying to sabotage his first contact with another species?! Nevermind that Lance had been pretty nice to him so far, that they might even have a chance of becoming friends.
He’d never been so embarrassed and ashamed in his life.
He wandered toward the treeline, looking up above his head for any signs of movement. Hopefully Lance hadn’t gone back to wearing that cloak that turned him invisible, Keith would never find him that way.
Eventually, Keith found him in a tree clinging onto the branch for dear life, looking absolutely terrified even now that ten minutes had passed. His tail stood straight up in the air, fluffed up.
“Lance? Will you come down? It’s just me, Kosmo is back on the beach.”
“Never!” Lance hissed out at him, face scrunching up in disgust at the mere idea of it. Keith sighed, eyeing the straight incline of the tree trunk and wondering how Lance had even gotten up there in the first place. His shoulders slumped.
“Please? I’m really sorry.” Keith offered, but Lance didn’t even dignify that with a response. Keith experimentally tried to climb the tree and couldn’t even lift himself off the ground. He landed on his feet with a thud and then tripped over the terrain, falling on his ass with a thud. Above him in the treetops, he didn’t miss Lance’s snicker. “Hey! You know I have terrible balance!”
“Are you sure the wolf isn’t here?” Lance sighed, his resolve audibly weakening. He leaned over the edge of his branch, wide eyes surveying the situation at the base of the tree. Keith grinned up at him from the ground, relief coursing through him.
“I promise, Kosmo isn’t here. It’s just me.”
“Fine.” Lance mumbled, launching off the branch. For a horrifying second, Keith thought he was falling from a good twenty feet in the air. Lance proved him wrong though, claws digging into the bark of the tree effortlessly before he fell too far, then he steadily swung around the trunk the rest of the way until his feet landed on the ground. Keith gaped at him.
“You’re… really good at climbing trees.” Keith blurted. He sounded like an idiot, but Lance seemed to get a kick out of it, lighting up at the praise.
“You really suck at it, but I’ll give you the benefit of a doubt and assume you come from somewhere without any trees.” Lance mused, stepping away from the tree on shaky legs. His eyes were still darting around, like Kosmo might leap out of the bushes at him at any second. Keith frowned, stepping closer and settling a hand on Lance’s shoulder, hoping that was okay.
“Hey, I meant what I said. I’m so sorry that you had to go through that. If I’d have known he would react like that, I never would have let it happen. He still has a mind of his own, I can’t always predict or control him. He’s never done anything like that before, but we’ve also never met someone like you.”
“Someone like me… a Grimalkin?” Lance questioned, eyes glued to where Keith’s purple hand rested against his own ashy brown fur. Keith quickly withdrew his hand, rubbing it awkwardly against the leg of his pants as he struggled to explain himself.
“That, but we’ve also never really met someone so… touchy-feely? I don’t have anyone in my life who acts so casual about that stuff, everyone keeps their distance so Kosmo isn’t sure what to make of you being so quick to bypass that barrier. That’s all. He’s just scared you’ll try to hurt me, I think.”
“Well, tell your wolf that he shouldn’t assume things about a person. I’m innocent .” Lance insisted, holding his chin up. There was a hint of playfulness behind the act that Keith immediately picked up on, given he’d been waiting for any chance of lightening the mood this whole time.
“So, you’ll come back and spend more time with us?” Keith asked, unable to wait a second longer. There’d been a few minutes there where he’d started to wonder if he’d really mucked it up for good and he’d never see Lance again. He wasn’t exactly the best at connecting with people in the first place, he’d rather not have to meet another Grimalkin and do his best to repeat the process with them instead.
Lance was just, so easy to talk to. He’d never met anyone like that before, all lighthearted and carefree. Maybe it was a Galra thing to be so serious and all the Grimalkin he met would prove to be just as fun to be around, but still. Keith already knew Lance, he didn’t want someone else now.
“I can’t.” Lance responded dismally, at least looking apologetic about his answer. Keith was sure his face must have fallen into a frown, but he couldn’t help it. Did Lance not want to be around him anymore? He hoped that wasn’t the case. Lance continued a moment later, explaining himself. “I have a curfew. Plus I need to find some people to help me carry my big catch back to town.”
“I can help.” Keith suggested eagerly. Lance quickly shut him down though, shaking his head hurriedly.
“I think it’d be best if you kept your distance from the village and the others, at least for now.” Lance said, his tone uncharacteristically heavy. The shift in the atmosphere was blatantly noticeable, the way Lance tensed up the second the other Grimalkin were mentioned. Up until now Keith had figured he was wary of the strange Galra that washed ashore, that he was only trying to protect his own. But now, it seemed Lance was more afraid of what the other Grimalkin might do. “They’re not really like me, you know? I don’t think they’d like you being here.”
Keith wasn’t really sure how to interpret that, but he nodded along anyway. He wasn’t about to go against Lance’s wishes, especially when it truly seemed that Lance had Keith’s well-being in mind.
“Will you come back tomorrow then? I’ve never been here before. I want to know everything. I have so much to see and learn, and you know about all of it already. Can you teach me? Show me around?”
“As long as you promise to stay on the beach and not come into the jungle.” Lance compromised, and Keith decided that was fair enough. Sure, there was a part of him that was undeniably tempted to just charge into the jungle and start studying everything straight away, but it probably would be for the best to have a local with him when he does anyway. And he really doesn’t wanna mess things up with Lance again.
“I’ll be back tomorrow.” Lance said decidedly. “Will you be alright without a fire? The smoke would attract the others. I can bring blankets later tonight when we come back for the fish, I could leave them by the treeline for you and-”
“Trust me, I don’t think you have to worry about me getting cold.” Keith laughed, gesturing vaguely to the whole of himself and the thick fur that coated his entire body. He just wasn’t made for this climate and the sweat clinging to his skin made that very clear. “Thanks, though. That’s very kind of you, to put yourself out there for me.”
“Don’t worry about it, it’s just what friends do.” Lance dismissed him quickly with a wave of his hand, clearly starting to feel antsy to get home. He clapped Keith on the shoulder before turning away and leaping back into the tree, disappearing quickly into the night. “Goodnight, Keith!”
Keith was left standing there for an embarrassing amount of time thinking about Lance’s choice of words, picking them apart and trying to find a hidden meaning that just wasn’t there. Lance had referred to them as friends. Already. Keith had spent nearly two decades trying to make a friend and now supposedly he’d accomplished it within an hour of being in another kingdom? What did that mean?
“Night… Lance.” Keith mumbled belatedly into the darkness, a hint of a smile behind the words.
Keith ended up making a shelter at the base of a tree, laying down a few large palm leaves in something that vaguely resembled a nest. Eventually, he invited Kosmo into the campsite with him and started to drift off to sleep, content that the wolf would watch over him. It was a long restless night, his stomach aching with how hungry he’d gotten.
And when he woke the next morning, it was to a heavy weight settling on his chest and knocking the air from his lungs. Keith groaned tiredly, reaching down to shove Kosmo off of him.
“Get off, you big oaf, I can’t breathe-” Keith wheezed, hand colliding with Kosmo’s head. He paused immediately, eyes flying open. That wasn’t Kosmo’s familiar coarse fur, it was silky and smooth, and much shorter. His eyes flew open and he sat up as best he could, staring down at where Lance was peering up at him, Keith’s hand settled between his ears.
“Wh-” Keith tried, voice cracking. “ Lance ?”
“You’re really warm.” Lance stated conversationally, rolling over onto his back and stretching across Keith’s chest, yawning loudly. He curled back up afterward, like he had every intention of falling asleep right there on top of Keith, whether invited or not. “Warmer than lying on a rock on the sun.”
“Answer me this, do your people have any idea what personal space is?” Keith grumbled, flopping back down into the palm leaves in defeat. He hadn’t really had a whole lot of time to wake up, he’d give himself a moment to energize before attempting to pry Lance off of him. Besides, there was a low pleased rumble vibrating from Lance’s chest and Keith was so curious about it, he couldn’t possibly put an end to it before learning more. “What are you doing?”
“Nothing.” Lance answered, sounding perplexed by the question. Keith bit his lip, wondering if it’d be appropriate to point it out. He had no idea what it meant! He swallowed roughly, deciding to just come out and say it.
“What’s with the noise?” Keith blurted, as eloquently as he’d hoped. The noise immediately stopped and Keith didn’t know what to make of that, his heart racing in his chest thinking he’d said the wrong thing. It started back up quickly though, quieter and building to the loud rumble from before. It wasn’t entirely different than a growl really, just much softer.
“Oh, I’m purring.” Lance explained easily, his claws suddenly flexing and digging into Keith’s hip. It seemed to be something out of his control though, so Keith grit his teeth and bared it as Lance’s claws continued to flex. “It means I feel good. Happy. Do your people not do that?”
“I don’t think so.” Keith tried to subtly shift away from Lance’s claws, but only managed to get himself skewered worse. Lance seemed totally oblivious to the damage he was inflicting, his eyes once again shut as he attempted to drift off to sleep right there in the most inconvenient spot possible.
“Maybe you’ve just never felt good enough. You’ve kinda got a stick up your ass.” Lance mumbled finally, tacking it onto the conversation as an afterthought. Keith gasped, abruptly shoving Lance off of him and ignoring the yowl of shock.
“Excuse me? A stick up my ass?” Keith repeated, wondering what would have happened if anyone else in his life had ever talked to him like that. You couldn’t say that stuff to the prince. It just didn’t happen, it wasn’t even a possibility. And here Lance was, shamelessly giggling at the look of bemusement on his face.
“Aw, lighten up, it kinda works for you.” Lance patted him lightly on the shoulder. Keith watched with a glare as Lance got to his feet and walked away, giving Kosmo’s sleeping form a wide berth. He grabbed a nearby bag that must have belonged to him. He paced back over and dropped down next to Keith, digging in to the bag. “I brought you some food. Yours got ruined in the ship leak, right?”
Keith begrudgingly accepted the colorful fruit Lance was holding out to him. He eyed it curiously, starting to lift it to his lips only to pause at the shrill laughter Lance let out.
“You have to crack it open first, you’re gonna break your teeth off!” Lance insisted, trying to snatch it out of Keith’s hands. Then, because Keith was starving hungry and maybe a little bit of a show-off when he had the chance to be, he lifted the fruit up and took a giant bite out of it. His strong jaw and heavy teeth sliced through it effortlessly, a blast of citrus juice filling his mouth.
“Woah.” Lance gasped, watching in awe as Keith chewed it. Nevermind that the outside shell tasted like utter garbage and he would have been better off skipping it anyway, Lance was looking at him like he was actually cool! Now as long as it didn’t backfire and turn out to be poison, he was doing pretty good.
They sat together as Keith ate through the bag of fruits Lance had brought. Keith didn’t have the heart to tell him he was craving something a little heavier, preferably meat like his diet was mostly composed of at home. Lance chattered on amicably as Keith ate, telling him all about the different kinds of fruit on the island and which ones were his personal favorites. Keith tried to pay attention and memorize the info so he could write it down later, but Lance talked way too fast for that.
Eventually, Keith’s thin patience got the better of him and he interrupted Lance mid-sentence.
“Hey, was there ever anyone else here? Someone that looked like me? Arrived in a boat?” Keith asked, urgency slipping into his voice no matter how he tried to hold it back. Lance paused, tilting his head to the side curiously and eyeing Keith.
“Not that I remember?”
“You wouldn’t.” Keith explained, looking down at his lap. “I assume we’re pretty much the same age, so it would have been before you were born maybe. Are there any stories about something like that?”
“No.” Lance answered, looking down at his lap. Keith’s disappointment must have been pretty universal though, because Lance quickly tried to comfort him. “It’s possible it was kept a secret on purpose though, to protect the person. Maybe someone else saw them before the guards did and hid them? Kinda like we’re doing right now.”
“I guess so.” Keith said dismissively, eager to change the subject all of the sudden. “Thanks.”
They lapsed back into silence for all of ten seconds before Lance spoke up like he couldn’t possibly bite his tongue anymore. He even gasped for air, like he’d been holding his breath.
“Is this about the book? The guy that wrote it really came here?” Lance asked hurriedly, eyes wide and excited as he turned them on Keith. Keith took a second to understand what was happening, but then the betrayal washed over him. Just when he was starting to trust Lance.
“So you did take it!” Keith shouted, anger flashing across his face. Kosmo stirred at the other side of the clearing, looking back and forth between the two of them, no doubt picking up on Keith’s anger. Lance, on the other hand, seemed blissfully oblivious.
“I was gonna give it back when I finished reading!” Lance laughed lightly, leaning into Keith’s side as if he wasn’t exuding threatening energy. Keith glared down at the top of his head, but Lance only wistfully continued talking. “It’s really fascinating. We’re not really allowed to talk about the other kingdoms here, the king burned all the information we had. He doesn’t want anyone to be tempted to leave, I guess. But I’ve always wondered about them, you know? It just seems so senseless, to close yourself off from the rest of the world. I wish I could know more.”
And suddenly all of the anger building in Keith just… fizzled out. Disappeared. Vanished.
In truth, he had no idea what it was exactly that did it. He’d always had a temper on him, especially when it came to people betraying him or messing with the Atlas, there was never any calming him down. This shouldn’t have been an exception. There was just something about Lance’s voice, so far away and dreamy, like he’d give anything to know more. Keith understood it, that longing so tangible it felt like a weight in your chest. He’d never dreamed of meeting someone else that felt even close to similar.
For once in his life, Keith didn’t give a damn about the book. He cared more about his own future adventures, about the very new and very real possibility that he could actually have someone to share them with. A friend.
“You can read it, just make sure to give it back.” Keith blurted out, in the most damning show of heart that he’d ever admitted to in his life. Hell, even Kosmo did a double take at that, jerking upright to gape at Keith like he’d just signed over his life and not a worn old book. It was nothing like Keith, Keith who fought tooth and nail to protect that book, Keith whose sole purpose had always revolved around keeping that book safe and seeing his father’s mission through.
He waited for the regret to sink in, for something ugly and defensive to rear up and make him go back on his word as soon as he’d said it. He waited and waited and it didn’t come.
Instead, he was met with a flood of warmth so strong it made him feel lightheaded when Lance turned to him with the most thankful smile he’d ever had directed at him. Lance looked overjoyed, like this meant the world to him and then some, like Keith had just gifted him something irreplaceable. No one else had ever looked at the Atlas that way, with the same appreciation Keith felt.
“Thanks, Keith. I’ll take really good care of it and I promise I’ll give it back.” Lance explained quickly, but Keith just nodded dumbly through it all. Lance could have said he was going to use it as a coaster and Keith probably would have given the same dazed nod in answer. This feeling was so new. And so nice.
No one had ever understood him before, not about this.
Lance jumped up suddenly, as if a thought had just occurred to him. “I’ll be right back, there’s one last fruit that I want you to try!”
Lance disappeared from sight just as quickly as Keith had come to expect, but for once it was a welcome disappearance. Keith needed a chance to think, to compose himself, to wipe the dopey look off of his face. He hugged his knees to his chest and buried his face into them, but even then he found himself smiling.
Would Lance maybe want to go with him? To the other kingdoms?
Keith’s train of thought was derailed when a wet nose insistently pushed into his cheek, with enough force that he nearly toppled over. Keith glanced up at Kosmo, ready to tell him off for being so pushy, but then he hesitated. Kosmo was staring at him with so much… disappointment. Keith glared back at him.
“What’s that look supposed to mean?” He huffed, bristling slightly. Kosmo just kept staring though, as if Keith should know. Maybe Keith did know. Of course he knew, how could he not see how unlike himself all of this was? He’d sworn never to trust that book in anyone else’s hands and now he was practically shoving it into Lance’s. But he didn’t regret it and he didn’t want to take it back.
He stuck his tongue out at Kosmo in a mature display of opinion.
“He saved my life, the least I can do is trust him with my book.”
That first day they didn’t stray very far from Keith’s camp. Mostly, they spent the day studying the very local wildlife and then surveying the damage done to Keith’s boat. Lance didn’t seem knowledgeable on the topic at all, and Keith was hardly any better, so they eventually gave up on trying to do any boat repairs that day and instead ended up hunting around for something to eat. Lance had finally caught on to the fact Keith wasn’t satisfied with just a whole lot of weird tropical fruits, so they hunted down an interesting hooved creature and chowed down.
Lance left that night and Keith was alone with his thoughts again, unable to chase away the hopeful idea that he might not have to be a lonely traveler forever.
The next morning Keith awoke much in the same way he had the last day, Lance’s hands eagerly shaking him awake. Lance was just that type of person that demanded attention, and oddly enough Keith didn’t even mind giving it to him. So, he made a show of grumbling and complaining, but he did inevitably get up and acknowledge Lance, which was more than he would have done for anyone else.
“Hey!” Lance grinned at him, dropping a heavy bag into his lap. Keith winced at the sheer weight of the satchel, staring down at it quizzically. Lance looked expectant, so Keith pried it open and peeked inside, eyes widening at the array of different leather bound books. “I brought you some stuff to read until I give you the Atlas back. They’re mostly about the history of my kingdom, really boring stuff, so I figured you’d probably like them!”
“Oh.” Keith managed weakly, picking up one of the books. He could only imagine how much knowledge was packed away inside, how much he could learn from the research of Lance’s ancestors. It was exactly the kind of thing he’d “like”, this was the stuff he thrived on! And Lance had picked up on that after just one day with him. No one else had ever given him such a thoughtful gift.
“You know, because you’re boring.” Lance repeated his joke, trying to garner his desired response. Keith couldn’t bring himself to even pretend to be annoyed though, he felt far too thankful. So instead he flashed a smile up at Lance, his genuinity clearly startling the other man.
“Thanks. They’re perfect. I can’t wait to read them.”
“Yeah?” Lance chuckled breathlessly, looking surprisingly bashful for once in his life. He scratched at the back of his neck rather awkwardly, quickly bouncing back to his usual confident self. “Well, you’re gonna have to wait because you can’t read them right now. Right now we’re doing something fun .”
“I’m gonna teach you how to swim!” Lance announced boldly, throwing his hands up in the air.
Keith felt his jaw drop, entire body tensing up at the idea. Vivid memories flashed through his mind, his limbs blindly flailing in the water as he gasped for air, desperately trying to stay afloat and out of reach from the monster lurking below. If that was Lance’s idea of fun, then maybe there were more cultural differences between them than he’d initially thought.
“Oh, hell no.” The look Lance shot him was criminal, pouty bottom lip and pleading eyes, Keith felt himself choke on his own tongue. He pried his eyes away though, refusing to fall victim to Lance’s charming persuasion. There was no amount of begging that could convince him to step foot in water willingly, it just wasn’t possible. “Lance, I’m not doing it. No way.”
He got to his feet, bustling about the small camp and getting ready for the day. Kosmo followed him around, tail swishing excitedly when Keith started to cook an egg they’d managed to find the night before. Lance had assured him it was safe to eat, and he was in a constant state of hungry since arriving here, so he was willing to give it a shot.
“Come on, I won’t let anything happen to you.” Lance whined, still carrying on with that topic that Keith would really rather forget about altogether. He ignored the whole conversation, focusing entirely on cooking himself up some breakfast over a campfire (Lance allowed them during the day, knowing his people would just assume it was him).
Then, annoyingly enough, Lance held out a fruit to him. It was his favorite out of all the ones he’d tried so far and before he even reached out to take it, he knew there’d be a catch to the offer. Lance pulled it back from his reach last second, eyebrows raising expectantly. “Come on, Keith, at least consider it. I’ll be right with you the whole time.”
“I’ve considered it. My answer is no.” Their eyes stayed locked together, both fuming with a burning flare of stubborness and a refusal to back down. It wasn’t exactly a good combo. If neither of them were gonna take no for an answer, what other options did they have?
“But it’s important to know if you’re gonna keep sailing, Keith.” Lance continued, his voice taking on an irritating matter-of-fact serious tone. It was nothing like Lance’s usual playful demeanor. It wasn’t like he was wrong, Keith knew that it made sense for him to learn how to swim, he just couldn’t possibly bring himself to try it. He was… scared. Terrified.
“I’ll just stay on the boat next time.”
“You can’t predict what’s gonna happen and you know that. What happens if your boat capsizes and there isn’t someone there to help you? You’ll drown.”
“I’ll take the risk, thank-you very much.” If the tight lines of Lance’s lips and thin eyebrows were anything to go by, he was hardly impressed by Keith’s self-assured approach. “You can spend the day swimming if you want, I’m going to do something important and actually repair the boat.”
“Fine.” Lance glowered at him, jumping to his feet and stomping down the beach to the nearby cove. If Keith was being honest, this wasn’t exactly the ideal outcome either. He was left sitting there staring after Lance, worry and fear engulfing him the closer Lance drew to the sparkling blue water.
He undressed as he went, tearing his shirt and cape over his head, nearly tripping over his own feet in his rush to get to the water. Keith couldn’t possibly understand it. His eyes darted away when Lance dropped his pants, face heated in embarrassment. Lance really didn’t have an ounce of shame in him, did he?
Keith did end up spending his day working on the boat. He wasn’t exactly sure he was doing it right, and it was a pretty big task for just one person, but he was nothing if not determined. He kept at it all day, even when the heat of the day came around and he was left staggering around the deck, swiping his sweaty hair from his face as his vision blurred in the heat. Kosmo paced worriedly beside him.
It didn’t help that all Keith had to do was glance over the side of the boat to see Lance splashing around in the water below. He seemed so at ease, floating around on his back or diving deep into the water below, swimming effortlessly through the deep water as if he was born to be there. It was hard to believe that the other Grimalkin weren’t like this, being in the water seemed to come as a second nature to Lance. He certainly made it look appealing, but Keith knew better.
But just to be sure , Keith found himself staring down at Lance more often than not. Time seemed to pass so quickly when he was watching the way Lance glided effortlessly through the water. It was hard to get any work done at all with such a distraction.
It was after lunch time when Keith found himself drenched in sweat and hardly able to stand when it happened. Keith carried his armful of supplies onto the boat and then promptly dropped it where it wasn’t meant to go, distracted by the soft melody down in the water. He leaned over the railing, a stupidly wide grin on his face as he watched Lance float around on his back, humming a soft unfamiliar song. Keith called out to him before he could stop himself.
“You bet! The water is so nice, I could stay here all day.” Lance answered, giving an exaggerated relaxed sigh to follow it up. Keith rolled his eyes at the dramatics. Lance could try whatever he wanted, no way was Keith getting into that water again. Even if it was the most comfortable thing in the world, it just wouldn’t be worth it to Keith.
“Cool.” The word sounded utterly dismissive and uninvested, exactly how Keith had hoped that it would land. Lance choked in offense, nearly swallowing a mouthful of water in his rush to have the last word.
“Keith, I know you want to! You’ve been staring all day, just swallow your pride and get over here!”
“I do not!”
“So if it’s not the water, have you been staring at me this whole time?!” Lance suggested, lips curling into the most self-satisfied smug smirk Keith had ever laid eyes on. There was something uniquely dangerous about it, the narrowed eyes and perked up ears, intrigued. Keith floundered, as could be expected.
“No!” Keith insisted stubbornly, but his passionate denial only seemed to fuel Lance’s ego even more. He started swimming around on his back in exaggerated circles, long backstrokes and dips and dives through the water. Keith groaned, slapping a hand to his face. “Lance, shut up! I wasn’t staring, I was just-”
“Whatever, we both know where your mind was at.” And at this point it’s pretty clear that Lance is just messing with him, that he doesn’t genuinely believe Keith was admiring him from afar all day. The problem is that Keith has been made self-aware now, made to question exactly why he’d been staring if that wasn’t the reason. There’s only so many reasons.
He turned away from the edge of the boat, confusion no doubt written across his features. Kosmo was settled nearby and he cocked his head to the side at whatever he saw on Keith’s face, concerned. Keith debated for a moment before deciding this might be his best bet.
“Kosmo, have I really been staring at Lance that much ?” It was an innocent enough question, Keith figured. Kosmo spent the whole day with him so surely he would have noticed if Keith had really been that distracted all day.
Kosmo gave him this look. The only way it could possibly be described as is total and utter exasperation with him. And in the next second, Kosmo had gotten to his feet and pounced. As soon as his paws made contact with Keith’s chest they dematerialized and teleported.
Keith knew where they were before they’d even fully materialized again. Kosmo had a hate on for everything Lance and he should have expected a petty move, but it still came as a shock when he felt himself engulfed in water desperately trying to cling onto Kosmo as he swam away.
He broke the surface of the water and gasped in air raggedly, panic setting in heavy in his chest. He looked around, eyes wide and blown out. “Help! Lance! I’m drowning!”
This was the end for him. He was desperately flailing around the water’s surface, trying to stay above it and failing despite all his best efforts. He was going to drown here because his wolf had decided to be a petty brat. Keith choked on a mouthful of water and that was it, it had to be. It was in his lungs now, he’d be drowned within seconds.
And that was when Lance grabbed him from behind, forcibly holding him still and above water as Keith rapidly breathed in the air he now had access to. As he hyperventilated and shook his way through the shock of it all, Lance held him like a giant wet wolf attempting to escape the bath (Keith would know exactly what that was like).
“Shh, it’s okay.” Lance cooed, once Keith had finally quieted down enough to hear him. Keith nodded slowly in acknowledgement, but his hand was still gripping onto Lance’s arm for dear life, blunt nails digging into his skin. Lance attempted to pry himself free and Keith immediately started to hold on tighter, turning around and attempting to climb up to Lance’s shoulders.
Lance laughed and shoved him off, careful to stay within reach in case anything happened again. Keith fell back into the water, but before the horror of that could set in, Lance helped him upright. “Keith, you can literally touch here, just put your feet down.”
Keith experimentally lowered his feet, finding the water only rose to his shoulders. His head stayed well above water. He sighed out in relief.
“Oh, I’m so glad. I thought I was gonna die.”
“So, why’d you jump overboard in the first place if you weren’t ready?” Lance laughed, shaking his head fondly. Keith wasn’t exactly sure how to explain the situation that led to this, and he suddenly had more important things to focus on anyway. Lance was so close to him, standing in his personal space just in case he started to panic again. His hair slicked back and wet, little droplets of water clinging to his eyelashes, his tan skin all on display… Keith found he couldn’t form a single word anyway.
Maybe, in his own way, Kosmo had answered Keith’s question.
Lance quirked an eyebrow at him, poking him playfully in the chest. Keith watched as he sunk back down into the water, until only his face was visible above it. “You changed your mind about joining me?”
“U-Um, yeah.” Keith stuttered out, a helpless sort of defeat setting in. “I’ll try it.”
“Yay!” Lance beamed, throwing his wet arms around Keith’s body in a hug. He dragged Keith deeper into the water but against all odds, that wasn’t even where Keith’s attention went. Instead it was focused on Lance hugging him so tightly, warm and earnest and… affectionate. This was so new. Keith still didn’t know what to make of it. Could Kosmo really blame him for being distracted?
Keith almost missed Lance rattling on excitedly. “You are so gonna love it by the end of today, trust me. I’m a great teacher. And I’ll help you finish up with the boat afterward!”
Keith nodded dumbly, wondering how the hell it’d panned out that he was going to willingly stay in the water that’d nearly killed him once before.
Keith did his best to concentrate, his pencil rapidly moving across the sheet of paper. Frequently, his eyes would flicker back up to his muse, noting new details that he’d have to add. He needed this to be perfect if it was going to be an addition to the Atlas. This was his first chance to really sketch out any of the local wildlife, seeing as this particular animal hadn’t moved since he’d found it.
He was putting some finishing touches on for the tenth time when a pair of weights settled on his shoulders, nearly ruining the whole drawing if it weren’t for Keith’s quick reflexes. Keith knew it would only be a matter of time until Lance awoke from his catnap in the trees above, but he’d lost track of time while working.
“Does the sketch really need to be that detailed? You’ve been staring at this lizard for like two hours.”
“You can go do something else if you want.” Keith suggested, making absolutely no move to entertain any of Lance’s whining. At least Lance seemed to know when to pick his battles. He didn’t try to push Keith any further, just draped himself over Keith’s back as if he had every intention of falling back asleep there. Lance had a very unique ability of passing out anywhere, even the most uncomfortable of places.
“It’s boring doing stuff on my own now that I have you.” Lance mumbled five minutes later, quiet but near enough to Keith’s ear that he didn’t miss it. Keith’s pencil stuttered to a stop on the page and he paused to think, sneaking a glance back at Lance.
“Were you alone a lot before?” Keith asked. Despite them growing closer the past few days, Lance hadn’t really shared anything about his home life yet. He knew the basics of Keith’s, of where he came from and his royal blood, but they’d respectfully not gone there yet. It seemed like too serious of a topic until now.
“All the time.”
“Me too.” Keith exhaled, biting his lip.
“Yeah? Even though you’re a prince?” Lance asked, flashing a smile. Keith nodded. He quickly forgot about his drawing altogether as Lance settled into the dirt, continuing the conversation in a low tone, like he still wasn’t entirely comfortable with it. “I have a big family. I’m the youngest of seven kids.”
“Then why were you alone so much?”
“I guess you could say I’m the outcast?” Lance said it like he hadn’t fully accepted it himself yet. Keith frowned, wondering who would ever cast him aside. Lance was the brightest and boldest person he’d ever met, he couldn’t imagine not appreciating that. “My brothers and sisters are all doing great things, having kids, moving away from home, building new colonies of their own… and I’m just the baby. That’s all. No one takes me seriously. They treat me like I’m stupid because I don’t think like them, so I’d rather just be alone with my thoughts.”
“I’m an only child.” Keith blurted.
“So, you got all the attention?”
“No, not exactly.” Keith chuckled darkly, thinking of all the times he’d been alone in his life. He’d always tried to change it, but there’d never been anyone right for him. They’d all looked at him differently, like being a prince made him inherently untouchable or bad. No one had just treated him like a person until Lance had come along. “The atlas? It was written by my father.”
“Really?” Lance suddenly seemed a lot more invested in the conversation, and Keith couldn’t help but smile at that. People back home had gotten to the point they’d just roll their eyes whenever he brought up the Atlas, like he was some crazy person rambling on about a book that wasn’t true.
“One day he left to explore the world more… and he never came back. He never took the book with him so even if something happened to him it’d live on for me, so I don’t even know where he was headed. I guess I’ll never know now.” Keith explained, looking down at his hands. He didn’t want to see the realization dawn on Lance that his father was probably dead, that he had to feel bad for Keith.
“So you have a big legacy to live up to, huh?”
“Yeah, I sure do.” Keith bit his lip, thankful that Lance wasn’t pitying him. “Anyway, my mother raised me alone while trying to run the kingdom on her own. I got all of her attention she could spare, but I spent a lot of time alone as a kid. And I just… never learned how to stop that as I grew older. No matter how I tried to. I’ve never really had any friends.”
They lapsed into silence, going over the new information they’d learned about each other. Inevitably, Lance was the one to break the silence. At the very least, growing up in a big family had certainly taught him more about communication and making conversations flow easily. Keith could be thankful for that.
“I imagine it’d be hard… making friends as a prince. No one would look at you like an equal.” Lance said, reaching out and settling a comforting hand on Keith’s knee. Keith’s eyes widened. No one had ever really understood that before either. All of the adults in his life had always assumed he’d make friends easily, that everyone would by dying to line up and befriend someone so important. It wasn’t like that at all. They avoided him like the plague.
“Yeah, exactly!” Keith lit up, smiling at Lance. “It’s the worst. They act like they know me before they even meet me. Every single person has an assumption about who I am and they don’t care to learn the truth about me. It sucks.”
“And there’s probably some that want to know you just to use you for their own gain, right?”
“Yes! That’s the only kind of person that ever wanted to know me!” Keith exclaimed, shocked by how well Lance understood it. He’d never had anyone to talk about this sort of thing with other than his mother, and despite her best efforts she couldn’t understand. Everyone respected her for her formal appearance and leadership skills. Keith didn’t have any of that, and a lot of people had looked down on his father the same way they looked down on him. Like they weren’t royal enough .
Lance leaned in closer, settling a comforting hand on Keith’s knee. When Keith looked up, he was wearing a smile, soft and personable. The cloud of stress that’d been hanging low over Keith’s head slowly dissipated. It was nice, having someone to be there for him.
“Well, their loss. I happen to think you make a pretty great friend.” Lance told him, his voice earnest.
“And I definitely don’t think you’re stupid. You’re one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. You know more than me about a lot of things, I’d be a fool not to respect that.” Keith rambled on hurriedly, like he couldn’t express it fast or genuine enough. He really did mean it. Lance was the best thing to ever happen to him, he was sure of that.
And for once in his life, Lance seemed speechless at the compliment. He ducked his head, smiling bashfully down at himself. Keith watched in rapt fascination as a dark blush graced Lance’s cheeks, an adorable sort of flustered air about him.
In the background, Keith caught a glimpse of Kosmo getting to his feet and venturing off into the forest, as if he couldn’t put up with their sappy shit for another second.
This was probably the hottest day since Keith had gotten here. It felt like the air was painful even as they trudged through the jungle, the tall trees blocking out the blaring sunlight that threatened to beat down on them. The humidity in the air didn’t help, it made Keith’s hair damp and heavy feeling. He wanted nothing more than to get back in the water and try to cool off, now that he was starting to get the hang of swimming and wasn’t so afraid of it.
But instead, Lance had woken him up today with promises for an adventure. He’d sworn they’d only have to hike a little ways, but an hour had passed and Keith was on the brink of passing out. He wasn’t sure how much more of this he could take. And he’d been loudly vocalizing that fact, but Lance wasn’t really listening to him on the matter.
“Lance, are you sure this is really worth the hike?” Keith tried again, looking ahead to where Lance was effortlessly pouncing his way through the trees while Keith trudged ahead on foot. Lance paused ahead, spinning around to look back at him with annoyance written across his features. “I’m not like you. I’m not used to terrain like this and I have way too much hair for this heat.”
“Don’t be so whiny! You’re gonna thank me for taking you here, just you wait.” Lance assured him for the tenth time. When Keith didn’t immediately back down and instead looked longingly behind them, back toward camp, Lance climbed down from his tree perch to stand in front of him. “Please? We’re almost there. It’s important to me that you see this and put it in the Atlas. I want everyone to know about it.”
“Fine.” Keith sighed, because maybe he had a soft spot for when Lance got that same passionate look in his eyes that Keith had come to recognize in himself over the years.
Surprisingly, Lance hadn’t been exaggerating that last time. They arrived at their destination not long after that at all. It didn’t look like much of anything to Keith, just a craggy little cave built into a giant rock mountain, but he’d give Lance the benefit of a doubt.
“It’s in here. Will you fit?” Lance asked, ducking into the cave and effortlessly sliding his way inside. Keith figured he’d be able to follow with a little bit of push and shove, seeing as he actually had bones in his body. Lance was a flexible mystery to him.
“I will, but Kosmo might have to teleport in.” Keith observed the cave, turning back to Kosmo. Lance poked his head back out, a frown on his face.
“It’s a pretty small space, I don’t know if that will work.” He said. At that, Kosmo bristled, growling lowly at Lance for trying to disclude him. Lance held his hands up. “Well, he’s welcome to try, but it could be dangerous and I don’t want him to get hurt. That’s all.”
As much as the tension between the two of them had persisted over the past week, Keith believed that Lance would never want any harm to come to the wolf. It wasn’t necessarily hatred between the two of them, just an ongoing wariness and lack of trust on both sides. Keith wasn’t sure how he could force them to get over it, but listening to Kosmo’s constant growling sure was growing tedious.
“You okay with waiting outside, buddy?” Keith asked, reaching down to scratch Kosmo’s chin. The wolf didn’t exactly look happy though, eyes glued to where Lance had disappeared into the cave. He definitely wanted to come with them. It wasn’t a new concept, Kosmo had never liked to let Keith out of his sight and especially not with someone he blatantly distrusted.
“Keith, hurry up!” Lance called back, his voice hushed like he didn’t want to disturb whatever was in the cave. Keith felt a shred of hesitation for the first time, wondering if some kind of wild animal lived in there. Still, he trusted Lance, and he’d trust him even more just to spite Kosmo’s stubbornness if he had to.
“Yeah, one sec!” Keith answered. He kneeled next to Kosmo then, suiting the wolf with a serious stare that said he wasn’t fooling around. “Stop it with this, okay? I don’t care if you don’t like him. I do. You need to put this jealousy thing to rest, I can care about both of you.”
Kosmo responded to being called jealous about as well as could be expected. He gave a petulant bark and whirled around, stomping over to a nearby tree and laying down with his back turned to the cave.
Keith glared at the back of his head, but ultimately decided there was nothing else he could do. He turned and squeezed his way into the cave after Lance, still feeling the slightest bit nervous about what he might find inside.
No amount of wondering about it could have prepared him for what he saw.
The cave was tiny, Lance hadn’t been lying about that. There was hardly enough room for the two of them inside. But the lack of space was the last thing on Keith’s mind as he looked around at the walls of the cave. They were lined with brightly glowing purple orbs, and upon closer inspection Keith decided that they were some kind of mushroom.
“What do you think?”
“Wow.” Keith exhaled softly, looking around the small cavern with awe written across his features. He’d never seen anything like this. It was mesmerizing, the array of colors and the soft glow the mushrooms seemed to emit. He stepped closer, getting a better look at them. A breathless laugh tumbled past his lips and he turned back to Lance with a smile. “This is amazing!”
“Right?!” Lance grinned, stepping closer. Keith attempted to touch one of them and Lance reacted immediately, grabbing his hand and wrenching it away. “They’re very poisonous though, don’t touch them or they’ll release spores.”
“Oh.” Keith vaguely registered the info Lance was giving him and was endlessly thankful he’d been saved from a mushroomy death, but more than that he was looking down at Lance’s hand holding his. There wasn’t exactly any being discreet about this, about the way he’d obviously gotten hung up on such a casual touch, so of course Lance noticed.
“So, you wanna know why I brought you here?” Lance asked. Keith figured Lance was just being kind, trying to change the subject rather than call Keith out on being a touch-deprived weirdo. So Keith went along with it, glancing quickly back at him despite the close proximity.
He froze. Big, helpless eyes watched as Lance lifted his other hand to settle on Keith’s jaw, tilting his head up to face him properly. Keith had never been one for social cues, but right now he was completely lost.
Surely Lance didn’t…
Well, they had been getting along really well, but this just seemed to come out of nowhere…
Was Lance going to kiss him ?
Of course, it wasn’t exactly nowhere. Keith had been caught staring quite a few times. Maybe this was the natural conclusion for Lance to reach, that what they had was romantic. And Keith… well, it honestly wasn’t what he’d had in mind. He’d been far too caught up on the fact he had a friend now, he wasn’t greedy enough to expect a lover too. But now that he was considering it, he wasn’t exactly as opposed to it as he thought he’d be.
He panicked, forgetting he should probably close his eyes and instead just kept staring right back at Lance, paralyzed by nerves.
“They’re the same color as your eyes.” Lance said suddenly, a smile brightening his whole face. Keith blinked. It took him an embarrassing amount of time to remember what Lance had last said. Even then, it took Lance nodding toward the mushrooms and then looking back to Keith for him to realize what they were talking about. “That’s why I wanted to take you here. The moment I met you I thought of this place. I’d never seen that color anywhere else. It’s beautiful.”
“Oh.” Keith choked out, a whirlwind of emotions blowing through him. He couldn’t believe he’d been so foolish as to think that was what was happening between them, but even more shocking than that was that he’d wanted it to! He’d only just met Lance, he couldn’t fall for him already. He was just overly attached because he’d never met anyone that gave him so much attention. It wasn’t love, it was just infatuation with the whole idea of having someone that cared about him.
He tried to think of a response, of a way to thank Lance for such a heartfelt compliment and gesture, but words were evading him. He felt like he was drowning in all of his mixed up emotions and thoughts.
Keith remembered a little too late that Kosmo could sense his emotions, but the reminder came in the form of pleading whines and a thud against the entrance to the cave as Kosmo attempted to shove his way inside. Keith blinked himself out of his thoughts. “Kosmo, stop it! You can’t dig your way in here, you’ll only get stuck! I’m fine, there’s nothing wrong!”
“Wait, I have the coolest tree I wanna show you!” Lance blurted suddenly, keeping his grip on Keith’s hand and hauling him toward the exit. The moment shattered. “Come on!”
It was late at night and Keith found himself on his boat, administering the final touches to their repair job. It was mostly just cosmetic things now, making sure everything looked passable. They’d tested it out by letting the boat drift around the cove, and so far it hadn’t leaked at all. Against all odds, two idiots with no knowledge of boats had fixed one up. It was probably ready to take back to the ocean any time now, there was nothing visibly wrong with it.
And that was why Keith found himself up at the late hour tonight, unable to sleep.
He’d arrived at the island of the fourth kingdom over a week ago now, but time had passed by so quickly it hardly felt like he’d had enough. There was still so much left to learn and experience, and every day Lance would tell him stories of something more that he needed to see. It was everything Keith had ever wanted, he would have been content to stay there for years.
But he couldn’t. Even this was pushing the limits of how long he could be away from the castle without his mother getting antsy. Sure, Acxa would cover for him to the best of her ability, but Krolia was a far stretch from stupid. She’d figure it out, she probably had already. Keith could only imagine the lecture waiting for him on the docks back home the very second he returned.
He could only stretch the truth so far though. As much as he loved the environment and all the new subjects to study, if that was all that was waiting here for him, he could have left. After all, they were just plants and animals, he didn’t really have a connection to them, only a curiosity about them.
Then there was Lance. The kindest, funniest, and most intriguing subject of all. There’d always been an unspoken understanding between the two of them that eventually Keith would have to leave. It didn’t have to be said, there was just no way Keith could stay. This wasn’t his home.
But things had changed, and now leaving wasn’t an option either. At least not without Lance.
What if he left and he never got the chance to come back? What if something happened to one of them and he never got to see Lance again? What if Lance forgot about him? What if Lance grew older and moved on, became close-minded and defensive like his family? What if-
“Keith!” Lance’s voice rang out across the beach. Keith dropped the rag he’d been using to clean with, poking his head up over the railing of the boat. Sure enough, he hadn’t been hearing things in his sleep-deprived state, Lance was running toward him. Keith broke out into a grin, hurriedly turning around to find Kosmo.
Kosmo knew the routine by now though, and he was already there ready to teleport Keith from the boat and to Lance’s side with a resigned sort of understanding in his eyes. He’d been more agreeable since Keith’s lecture by the cave that day, like he’d come to accept that Keith wanted this and he’d just have to respect it.
Keith materialized on the beach just in time for Lance to crash into him, sending them both toppling down into the sand. In a fit of laughter, they managed to pry themselves apart. Lance fell back onto his ass in the sand, facing Keith with a huge grin on his face. Keith smiled back, finding it impossible not to.
“What are you doing here this late?! It’s past your curfew.”
“I snuck out.” Lance explained, like that was the least important thing in the world when up until this point he’d been downright dedicated to the rules. He must have seen the disbelief on Keith’s face, because Lance quickly continued. “I had to see you, it couldn’t wait.”
“Why?” Keith asked gently, not that he minded. He’d spent the whole night thinking about Lance after all, he’d wanted this outcome as much as anyone. If it were up to him Lance would just spend every night here so they’d have even more time together before he left.
“I finished reading the Atlas. All of it.” Lance told him, practically buzzing with excitement. Keith lit up in realization, shuffling closer so he could hear every single word Lance had to say about it.
“Yeah? What do you think?”
“It’s so cool!” Lance shouted, jumping to his feet and pacing around. Keith laughed, watching him freak out over it with fondness written all across his face. “I can’t believe there are places out there that are so different! I had no idea. There’s so much I don’t know about. There are so many people out there. And so many different plants and animals and foods! Keith, think of the food!”
“Right? Doesn’t it make you just wanna travel to every kingdom and see it all for yourself?”
“Yeah!” Lance agreed, turning to where Keith was getting to his feet and helping to haul him up. They stared at each other with matching huge smiles for a long moment before realization dawned across Lance’s face. He blinked, looking at Keith with a curious sort of squint. “Is that what you’re doing?”
“Going to every kingdom? Eventually, yes.” Keith answered. Lance looked awestruck, like up until that very second he hadn’t considered it an actual realistic option. And maybe it wasn’t, but Keith would be damned if he didn’t try. He had to. “I wanna follow in my father’s footsteps and complete the Atlas. I’m gonna be the one to find the sixth kingdom.”
“Really? That sounds like so much fun.” Lance sighed, looking wistful as he turned to stare out at the ocean. Keith could recognize the longing on his face as plain as day. He knew where Lance’s thoughts were at, it was the same place his had always been. He was imagining what it would be like to really see it all, to just up and go after it.
And Keith, as much as he wanted to be able to see it for himself, he found that he wanted Lance to be able to see it all just as much. Not just because he wanted a companion on his adventures, but because Lance deserved to have that dream fulfilled just as much as he did.
“You can, um, come with me.” Keith didn’t take the time to overthink it, just blurted it out just like that without any build-up or hinting at it. Lance turned back to him with eyebrows creeping toward his hairline and Keith wondered if maybe he should have kept his mouth shut. “If you want.”
Lance looked like he was considering at first, deep in thought as he pondered the idea. But Keith could see it in his eyes as things shifted, as doubt bled into his thoughts. It was a stupid thing to suggest anyway, he wasn’t going to leave his whole life here behind just because he wanted to. It wasn’t that easy and Keith knew that better than anyone.
“I don’t know.” Lance sighed, burying his face in his hands. “I’ll have to think about it.”
“That’s fine.” Keith assured him quickly, wrapping an arm around his shoulders. Lance relaxed visibly seeing that Keith wasn’t upset with his lack of an answer. Then, because Keith was a glutton for punishment and he failed to see any other choice, he went the extra mile to comfort him. “And there’s no rush for you to decide, I’m not going anywhere yet.”
“I hope not.” Lance chuckled, looking up at him with a soft smile. “There’s still so much left to show you.”
“Yeah.” Keith breathed, knowing in his heart that there was no way in hell he could leave now. Krolia would just have to be mad, and that was that. “No, I’m staying here until I know everything about the island. I don’t care if it takes weeks.”
Keith knew it had next to nothing to do with learning about the island anymore. He was pretty sure Lance knew too, if that lopsided little grin was anything to go by.
“What if it takes months?” Lance clearly meant it jokingly, he didn’t expect Keith to stay that long. But Keith shrugged it off, because he’d made up his mind now. And as terrible as his stubborn streak was sometimes, right now he was glad it was a part of him.
“Then it takes months!” Keith threw his hands up. Lance rolled his eyes at him, but the smile never faded from his face, so Keith was pretty sure he’d said the right thing. Even though Kosmo was looking at him like he’d lost his damn mind, no doubt more afraid of Krolia than Keith’s dumbass could ever hope to be.
“Hey, do you wanna… do something?” Lance asked suddenly. Keith nodded, always eager to see what Lance would come up with to show him next. He even took the hint when Lance looked down at his hand, reaching out and threading their fingers together. Lance led him toward the cliffs where Keith had first seen him, overlooking the lagoon. “I like to climb to the top of these cliffs to look at the stars. I don’t really get to do it a lot because of my curfew, but that’s what I always do when I sneak out.”
“We never saw a lot of stars up North, it was too cloudy and stormy. Nothing like this.” Keith explained, his eyes darting up to the clear skies overhead. It was beautiful, the dark blue littered with shining stars all over the place. Keith could definitely understand sneaking out to come and see something like this.
“Yeah, it’s pretty magical.”
Lance guided him up a worn path in the cliffs with a little bit of difficulty, but luckily Kosmo traveled behind them to catch Keith each time he’d trip. They settled in the long grass at the top, lying there side-by-side on their backs and staring up at the night sky.
“There’s just so much out there we don’t know about. I can’t understand why the king doesn’t want us to know about the rest of the world.” Lance said suddenly, eyebrows wrenched tightly together like he was troubled by this train of thought even more than he let on. “I wanna know it all.”
“I’ve never really met someone that gets it like you.” Keith said, turning onto his side to face Lance. He found Lance already turned toward him, head resting on his hands. “Everyone else is so content to just stay where they are, they don’t care what’s out there. Not like us.”
“I wonder what Altea’s like.” Lance mused. Keith lit up, deciding that this was the perfect time to share his theories about it. He made himself comfortable and told Lance everything he knew, and everything he suspected. And Lance paid attention through all of it, invested in what he had to say.
Throughout their conversation, Kosmo crept closer until they were using him as a pillow, even Lance nervously settling his head on Kosmo’s stomach. Time passed by until the sky overhead had shifted, morning no doubt getting close. By then the conversation was disjointed and distracted, the both of them half asleep and just blurting out whatever came to mind.
“Lance.” Keith said suddenly, bolting upright after falling asleep. Lance stirred next to him, cracking a single eye open with an unimpressed huff.
“Nothing, just checking you were still awake.” Keith relaxed back against Kosmo with a loud yawn and Lance mirrored it. Once Keith had settled, Lance cuddled into his side to leech off his warmth. He looked like he had every intention of falling asleep now. Keith was quickly becoming used to the casual touch and affection that seemed to hand-in-hand with knowing Lance.
“Just barely.” Lance whispered tiredly. “I could definitely fall asleep right now.”
“We shouldn’t though.”
“Shut-up, Keith.” Lance snorted, weakly reaching up to clasp a hand over Keith’s mouth. Keith snickered into his palm and relented, mostly because he was already starting to fall back asleep himself.
Keith woke up the next morning to the sun glaring down on him. He pulled a face, throwing an arm over his eyes and sitting up. Blindly, he reached out to shake Lance awake too, only to find the space next to him empty. He dropped his arm pretty quickly then, squinting around and finding the entire mountaintop empty, aside from him and Kosmo. That was a little strange, but he decided that maybe Lance snuck home early in the morning to try and cover up where he’d been.
And then came the rest of the day, all of it disturbingly lacking the familiar presence Keith had come to rely on. Lance didn’t come back. The entire day passed him by and Keith spent it alone, pretending to work on the boat or research, but hardly paying attention to any of it in reality. All he could think about was how different the island seemed without Lance’s welcoming and comforting presence.
It was quiet and lonely, unfamiliar in an almost scary way, the wildlife around him seeing him as a threat or a meal. It’d always seemed a little bit more homey with Lance next to him. Now he found himself longing for his own home, thinking about his mother and how worried she’d be.
That night, he fell into a fitful sleep. He couldn’t rest while he was so worried about Lance. More than once he got up to go for a walk along the beach, hoping that maybe Lance would sneak out to see him again. It didn’t happen. Kosmo walked alongside him each time this would happen, staring worriedly up at his master.
The next day was more of the same, Lanceless, and worrisome. The third and fourth days without him proved to be pure torture, Keith caught debating with himself more than once on whether he should go into the jungle after him. And on the fifth day, Keith was a mess.
He spent the whole day sitting in his camp and staring longingly toward the jungle, trying to weight his options and the risks he’d face going in there. He had no idea what threats the other Grimalkin possessed, what they’d do to him if he was caught. He could only assume it wouldn’t be good if Lance had tried to keep him away for so long.
But he had to know that Lance was okay! He couldn’t leave without knowing, and he couldn’t go on staying here without him. He felt homesick both for his own kingdom and for his new friend. It was a unique kind of loneliness unlike any he’d ever experienced.
That day Kosmo finally started to take him seriously too, even cuddled up next to him and licked his hand in a comforting gesture. More than once, he tried to nudge Keith toward the jungle, trying to urge him to do anything other than sit there and mope. It was the inevitable next move, after all. Keith had to know.
They headed out under the cover of darkness. Keith wore a cloak he’d brought with him specifically for hunting purposes. It didn’t blend very well with the colorful landscape here, but it did serve to cover his face and hide that he was a Galra. Kosmo, on the other hand, hung back a few steps in case they ran into anyone that would recognize him as something other than the local wildlife.
Keith wandered into the jungle uncertainly, a short dagger concealed under his belt that he hoped he wouldn’t have to use. It took him a long time to find anything that even resembled broken underbrush or a path, considering the Grimalkin seemed to mostly travel by treetop. He wandered down it, hoping for the best, and after a very long walk… he caught the glimmer of light shining through the trees.
Steeling his nerves, Keith headed toward it.
The small village he found looked like something out of fairy tale. The houses were all little huts built high in the trees, connected by rope bridges and twirling vines. On the ground, there were market stands built at the base of every tree, but with the late hour no one was out selling anything. Keith paced up the worn dirt path, looking around. There had to be a hundred houses at least in just that village alone.
There was no telling if Lance even lived here.
Keith made his way to a nearby tree, one of the few without a house built into it. He attempted to climb his way up, thinking that maybe he could look through the windows in search of Lance. The plan was terrible, but somehow the execution was far worse. He was only a quarter of the ways up a tree when he heard the rush of footsteps toward him. Dread set in immediately.
“Halt!” One of the guards shouted, the gruff voice leaving no room for argument. Keith froze, feeling the sharp poke of a spear between his shoulder blades, just barely enough to feel. This wasn’t good. He had no idea how he was going to get out of this one. “Who goes there?”
“My name is Keith.” Keith said awkwardly, inhaling shakily. He didn’t turn around to look at them, not wanting them to catch a glimpse of his face and figure out who he was. He slowly slid down the tree, hands raised above his head. “I mean no harm. I’m looking for my friend. I got lost.”
“Who’s your friend? We can escort you to their home. It’s past curfew.” The other guard spoke now, their voice gentler, filled with understanding. Keith relaxed slightly, allowing a slither of hope to shine through.
“His name is… Lance.” Keith said, biting his lip. He held his breath, feeling uncertain when his admission was met with a whole lot of nothing. The silence stretched on for a long few seconds before the first guard huffed out an unimpressed laugh. Keith had no idea what he’d done wrong, but he cowered slightly all the same.
“ Prince Lance ?” The guard was cackling now, rough and menacing. “Are you trying to mess with us, kid?”
“Prince Lance?” Keith repeated, the words sounding awkward on his tongue. He furrowed his eyebrows together. There was no way Lance would keep something like that from him, surely? Unless he thought his title would make Keith look at him any differently. It didn’t make sense. Maybe it was a different Lance they were talking about.
That was the inopportune moment that Kosmo decided to try and help him out. He leapt out of the darkness and bit through the guard’s spear, taking off again just as fast and expecting Keith to follow right after him. But Keith was frozen, thinking about the idea that Lance could lie about something like that this whole time. What reason could he possibly have?
“What the…” The first guard muttered, looking down at his spear. Keith turned to glance back at them, and immediately he knew he’d made a mistake. The guard met his gaze and gasped, stumbling backward in fear. The look in his eyes was pure terror, like he was looking at a monster. “Intruder! Intruder in the town! It’s a Galra!”
“Wait, I’m not-” Keith tried to say, but by then the other guard had already tackled him into the tree and held him there. He was stronger, he could have easily thrashed his way out, but he started to squirm just in time to see the other guard aiming a spear toward Kosmo. All of his energy redirected into screaming for him. “Kosmo! Run! Don’t come back here! Go! Teleport!”
And as the spear sailed through the air, Kosmo reluctantly disappeared into thin air. Keith breathed a sigh of relief, seeing the spear dig into the dirt instead. His shoulders slumped, feeling defeated as the guard wrapped chains around his wrists. They stabbed some sort of dart into him and immediately he felt lightheaded, his vision swimming.
“Go after the animal, kill it if you find it.” He heard the first guard say, but it was distant. He could hardly concentrate on anything. “If you find any traces of the Galra, burn them. We don’t need the villagers finding out about this. It’ll only cause them to worry.”
“Yes, Sir.” The second guard disappeared into the jungle in search of Kosmo and Keith weakly whined after them, begging them not to go with words that didn’t sound like much of anything at all. He was turned around with rough hands then, met with the face of a Grimalkin that looked almost nothing like Lance. His skin was lighter, his hair patchy with spots of orange and black.
“Well, aren’t you an ugly mug?” The man accused, landing a weak poke to Keith’s cheek. Keith managed a growl and the man had the gall to laugh at him like he was no threat at all. “Come on, I’m sure the king will want to see you.”
Keith came to an undetermined amount of time later, the world around him dark and his arms and legs bound by much heavier chains. He quickly figured out that there was a bag over his head. He attempted to thrash around, but his head still hurt from whatever they’d drugged him with. He slumped, breathing heavily and instead focusing on listening. He could hear faint footsteps around him, and eventually the creak of a door opening.
“Your majesty.” A voice said, someone very near to Keith. “This is the threat. He’s been apprehended.”
“Remove the cover.” A deeper voice said, the man’s accent undeniably thick and posh. With that, the bag over Keith’s head was tugged roughly off. He blinked his eyes open slowly, allowing them to dart rapidly around the room and take in his surroundings while he had the chance. It was definitely a palace of some sort, but rather than the dark stone architecture of his castle, it was bright and filled with colored glass windows.
Keith’s gaze eventually landed on the man standing a few feet away from him, staring back at him in noticeable disgust. Now he looked similar to Lance, the same skin and fur color, even his eyes shone the same bright blue. He was dressed like a noble man would be, Keith figured. He wore layers of soft fabrics, much nicer and luxurious than the scruffy ripped things Lance had always worn around Keith.
Keith’s eyes caught on a glint of metal though, a thick cuff wrapped around the king’s wrist. Identical to the one that Lance wore. Keith couldn’t help but look to the other guards then, finding that no one else in the room wore one similar. Damn it. Keith didn’t want it to add up like this.
“A Galra, huh?” The king said, tilting his head to the side. “I never thought I’d see the day.”
He stepped closer, a curious look about him. He reached forward to grip Keith’s chin, tilting his head side to side, ignoring the growl rumbling in his throat. Keith didn’t dare try to bite him though, not as predisposed as he was. It would only end badly for him in the long run.
“What shall we do with him, Sir?”
“Kill it, obviously.” The king said simply, giving Keith a final unimpressed once-over. He stepped away then, shaking his head. “It doesn’t seem to speak, or it would be pleading for its life by now. If it has no information to give us, then it’s useless.”
“Sir, when we first found it we had a short conversation-” The nice guard was trying to defend him, but a quick kick to the shin from the meaner one had him shutting up quickly.
“Very well, we’ll take care of it.” The other guard promised. Keith debated speaking up, telling them that he could understand them and he was far from useless. But he also knew the type of information they’d probably want, the kind that would put his homeland in harm’s way. It wasn’t worth it. He’d never do that.
The king turned to leave, only to pause when a shrill woman’s voice rang out from the top of the stairs behind him. She sounded fearful.
“Lance, stay upstairs!” The tone was pleading, but clearly in vain. Not a moment later and someone appeared at the top of the stairs, dressed in sleeping clothes that looked expensive enough to be formal wear. Lance stared down from the top of the large staircase, hesitating for a moment when their eyes met. Keith looked down at the floor, his chest heavy.
Quick, light footsteps followed as Lance hurried down the steps.
“Father, the guards said-”
“It’s nothing to concern yourself with.” The king cut him off, huffing shortly like he was irritated that Lance would even try to intervene. Keith didn’t look up, but he heard the quiet inhale of breath as Lance bit down on his tongue to keep from saying more.
Keith had never seen him hold back like this when they were together, but his role was very clearly different around his own people. He was practised and ingenuine, nothing like his usual self. Even his accent was different, more like the king’s. Keith hated all of the little unfamiliarities. “Go back to your room and stay there. It’s too dangerous.”
“But-” Lance tried weakly, audibly nervous about trying to push it. Keith smiled, a bittersweet little grin meant only for himself. At least Lance still cared, that part hadn’t been a lie or an act.
“Lance!” The king shouted, his temper clearly a short one. “Your room. Now.”
“Yes, Father.” Came Lance’s response, after a long silence as he fought with himself to say anything else. Keith looked up when he heard Lance’s retreating footsteps, watching as the other boy climbed the stairs back toward the bedchambers presumably.
At the stop of the stairs there was a woman waiting for him, worry written across her features. Keith could only assume it must be his mother by the way she gathered Lance into a hug when he was close enough, leading him into a nearby room and whispering comforting words to him.
At least the cell they locked Keith up in was a cool one. It was far enough underground that the heat from the world outside didn’t seem to seep into it, so Keith could at least spend his final days in some form of comfort. If they’d tied him out in the sun he probably would have died from dehydration already, if he was being honest. He didn’t dare imply as much though. The king had seemed like a cruel man, Keith had no doubt he’d proudly go with whatever option caused Keith the most discomfort.
He was halfway through his first day spent in captivity when the guard outside the room started up a conversation, alerting Keith to his presence for the first time.
“Who goes there?”
“Just the princes, thank-you.” A voice replied, snively and snide, very clearly talking down to the guard in a way that was funny to them. Keith lifted his head toward the voices. This was Lance’s brother, then? He definitely seemed to take after their father. “We’re here to see the prisoner.”
“Fair enough. Right this way, your Highnesses.” The door creaked open and in shuffled four men of varying ages. The first was clearly the oldest by far, with graying hair and a scowl, his eyes indifferent as he came to a stop in front of Keith’s cell. The second and third looked to be twins, not a whole lot older than Lance looked really, mischievous little smirks and giggles as they came to stare at him. The fourth prince came in a moment later, Lance’s eyes sad as he looked around the dungeon, long before they came to look anywhere near Keith’s direction.
“Oh, look at it!” One of the twins hissed, pointing a finger into the cell. He turned to his twin brother, nudging him in the side with his elbow. “Father’s right, they are scary looking things.”
“Looks right angry, too. Like it’s gonna launch at the bars!” The other one sniggered, like the hurt written across Keith’s face was amusing to him. “Do you think it can understand us?”
“Probably not. There’s no comprehension in those eyes.” The other one observed Keith carefully, then threw his head back and howled out a laugh. Both of the twins devolved into a cackle fit. “It’s stupid!”
“How are they going to kill it? Do you know?” The eldest prince spoke up suddenly, turning to the guard with impassive eyes. The guard shrugged his shoulders, gesturing vaguely into the cell at Keith.
“Unsure, your Highness.” The guard answered. “Perhaps poison, that would be the cleanest method.”
“I think we should feed it to the Lochineels!” One of the twins interrupted loudly, jumping to his feet and eagerly tugging on his older brother’s sleeve to convince him. “Maybe we’d get a fat one out of it, like the one Lance brought home last time!”
“Yeah!” The other twin grinned, supporting his brother wholeheartedly.
“Alright, let’s get out of here. It’s making me feel sick looking at it.” The oldest brother said suddenly, revealing his true colors as well. He herded the two twins toward the door, like they needed supervising despite being adults. He turned back before leaving after them though, staring inquisitively toward where Lance was still standing in front of the cell. “Lance, you coming?”
“Not yet.” He answered without looking at his brother, eyes still glued to Keith’s face. He cleared his throat, glancing down at his feet. “I wanna study it some more.”
“You’ve always gotta be the weird one, don’t you?” The older brother laughed, patting Lance on the shoulder. Lance forced out a laugh. “Whatever. Just stay safe.”
Keith watched the exchange closely. There was definitely some form of love there, there was no denying that the brothers seemed to care about each other, just not anything else. It didn’t take much in lieu of observation to know where it came from, that their father had influenced them with his selfish and cruel ways. Keith wondered if Lance’s mother was more like Lance, kind and affectionate, open-minded.
Once his older brother had left, Lance turned to the guard. He didn’t speak down to him like the twins had, his voice almost apologetic as he addressed the man.
“Hey, excuse me,” the guard looked up at him, offering up the first smile Keith had seen on his face since they’d met, “could you do me a favor? I’d like some food to taunt the prisoner with, please.”
“Stay back from the bars while I’m gone, it could be dangerous.” The guard said, rising to his feet and leaving without another word. The moment the door had shut Lance leapt for the keys on the wall, quickly shoving them into the door of the cell and attempting to find the right one to open it.
“Okay, let’s get you out of here.” Lance muttered, tongue poking out of the corner of his mouth in deep concentration. Keith sighed, shoulders slumping. He’d been fearing that Lance might try something blindly heroic like this. It made it so much harder.
“Lance, don’t.” Keith said. Lance froze, looking at him in shock. “There’s too many people, they would catch us and I’d be right back here. Then you’d be in trouble too. It’s not worth trying.”
“Well, I’m not gonna just let them kill you!” Lance snapped, like the idea was laughable. But then he found Keith’s gaze and saw the defeat there, and he seemed to falter. “Keith, no.”
“There’s no easy way out of this, okay?!” Keith hissed out, willing himself not to cry. “It’s gonna happen one way or another, spare yourself the punishment. They burned my boat, I can’t get off the island even if I get out of this cell.”
“What about Altea?” Lance asked softly, like if he spoke too loudly someone would overhear. It was a secret just for them. Keith shrugged his shoulders weakly. Anger flashed across Lance’s face, hot and red, and directed at Keith for the first time. “You can’t be serious. You’re just gonna give up? You’ve only gone to one kingdom, damn it!”
“I know!” Keith shouted back at him, lurching forward and tugging on his binds. He slumped at the resounding pain in his wrists. The fight left him in one exhale. “I know , okay?”
“What about your mother? If you never come home, she’ll-”
“Lance, please stop.” Keith spluttered suddenly, but it was too late. The wall he’d been desperately building up since the moment those guards had first placed their spear between his shoulder blades was coming crumbling down. He sagged forward, trying and failing to curl in on himself as a sob wracked his frame. He broke down, tears streaking down his face even as he tried to blink them away.
Lance fell silent in front of him. He didn’t say another word as Keith cried himself out, until there just weren’t any tears left. His throat dry and scratchy, the hair on his face matted down with salt water.
“I’m sorry.” Lance whispered then, reaching his hand through the bars. His fingertips just barely grazed Keith’s knee, a mockery of the comforting touches they’d shared just days before. Keith looked up at him, only hurting more as he saw the wetness in Lance’s eyes.
“Don’t make this any harder on me.” Keith told him curtly. “I don’t think you should come back. It’s too hard. On both of us.”
“O-Okay. I won’t visit you again.” Lance promised. He got up to leave and then hesitated. “I’ll tell the guard to just give you the food. I hope he does.
“It’s okay if he doesn’t, I shouldn’t be here long.”
“Can you turn around?” Lance asked then, promptly changing the subject.
“What?” Keith asked, but Lance didn’t attempt to explain. He just wore this sad smile that Keith couldn’t say no to. So Keith gave in, awkwardly shifting to test his binds. “Yeah, I guess so?”
“Do it?” Lance asked, his voice pleading. Keith nodded, turning around and leaning closer to the bars, wondering what the hell Lance wanted. He half expected Lance to open the door in spite of him and try to pull him into an escape attempt, but instead he felt a soft touch on his wrist. It was mindful of the raw skin, even as it wrapped more cool metal around Keith’s arm.
“What’s this? Another cuff?” Keith snorted, trying to make light of the situation.
“My bracelet, you jerk.” Lance muttered, pinching his arm lightly. “For good luck. And so you don’t forget me wherever your travels take you next.”
“I won’t forget you, Lance.” Keith breathed, determined not to cry again. “Thanks.”
Later that night a different guard came into the room, cracking his knuckles loudly to announce his presence to the room. Keith knew what it meant. He stared defiantly up at the man as he came to a stop in front of his cell, eyes cold and uncaring.
“Alright, time’s up.”
“It’s happening today?” The original guard asked, coming to stand beside the other. He stared in at Keith with a soft frown, just barely noticeable. It had come out of nowhere, Keith figured he’d at least have one more night.
“Yep. Guess we’re going with the lochineel option after some convincing words from the princes. The king never can say no to them.” The new guard mused, turning to the other and clapping him on the back. “Unlock the door and get him ready to go. Don’t bother with the formalities, he probably doesn’t understand them anyway.”
Keith didn’t bother to fight it as the man unlocked the cell and stepped inside, helping Keith to his feet. It didn’t progress any further than that though. The man paused, deft hands tugging at Keith’s wrist and then at the bracelet Lance had given him. Keith squeezed his eyes shut in a wince, hoping he wouldn’t take it off of him. He wanted it to stay with him no matter what. It was what Lance had wanted.
“Uh, Sir?” The guard turned to the other one. “You might wanna see this.”
Keith was shoved forward and manhandled into turning around, exposing his wrists to the meaner of the two guards. He braced himself for something rough and angry, likely an accusation that he’d stolen the bracelet right off the prince’s wrist, but it never came. Instead, he heard a soft gasp as fingers lightly traced over the metal. “Where did you get this?”
Keith bit his tongue, unsure if he should answer. He didn’t want to damn himself. He wouldn’t give up information about his kingdom no matter how they tortured him.
“Speak up.” The original guard urged him, nudged his side. “I know you can. I heard you with the prince.”
“Lance gave it to me.” Keith exhaled shakily, biting his lip. He wasn’t sure whether to explain further or not, but ended up just going quiet. The guard could draw his own opinions from that.
There was a pause, and then a very long annoyed sigh followed it.
“That boy didn’t inherit his father’s brains, did he?” The guard grumbled, roughly tugging Keith toward the door without a care for his well-being. Keith went along with it, even more so when he was handed off to the guard that he liked more. “Change of plans, let’s take him to the king. We’ll have to get this sorted first. What an utter nuisance.”
The guard led him up the stairs, following behind the meaner general.
“What’s going on?” Keith whispered quietly, deciding that it was worth the risk. Worst case scenario he’d earn a punch to the gut and be told to shut up. But the guard just turned to him with a twinkle in his eye, a smile quirking on his lips.
“Lance may have found a way to save you. He’s a lot smarter than everyone gives him credit for, you know, that boy’s a genius.” The guard said. Keith’s eyes widened in shock. He wasn’t sure that he wanted to believe it, at least not yet. He couldn’t get his hopes up yet. He was also shocked to hear the softness in the guard’s voice though, like this was the outcome he’d wanted too.
“You like him? Lance?” Keith asked stupidly, at a loss for words.
“All the servants do. The people of our kingdom, too. Don’t you? He’s pretty hard not to like.”
“Yeah.” Keith agreed breathlessly, as he was led through fancy tall hallways toward the center of the building. The guard ahead of them was still grumbling complaints under his breath, so their quiet conversation continued under their breaths.
“He’s everyone’s first choice for the next king, so all of the other boys in the royal family are spiteful toward him. They try to talk him down and keep him from gaining confidence because they know he’s powerful. But if he isn’t the future heir I don’t know what the people will do.” The guard continued, explaining more about their society than Lance ever had. Keith understood now that it was a pretty complicated situation. No wonder Lance didn’t want to talk about it, he was caught in the middle of a fued of sorts, torn between supporting his family or challenging them to take the throne.
The guards led Keith straight into the royal dining room, where the entire family was settled around a long table and enjoying an elaborate meal. All conversation in the room died immediately, twelve pairs of eyes turning to stare at him. Keith felt more than a little bit overwhelmed. He recognized Lance, his parents, and his six siblings, but there were also a few elderly people he knew nothing about. They all looked similar enough that it was clear they were related, but Keith had never seen such a big family in his life.
“King Pike, sorry to disturb you but there’s been an interruption in our plans.” The guard announced, bowing forward. The other guard followed. Keith was left standing between them, heart racing as the entire family studied him like a science experiment.
“What? No lochineels around today?” One of the twins bursted out finally, giggling uncontrollably. The only other person to laugh was the other twin. Keith watched as the elders and every girl in the family collectively shot glares in their direction. At least they weren’t all idiots, then.
“Hush.” The king ordered them, seeing the mixed reactions of the table. “Why did you bring him here?”
The guard turned around, hauling Keith forward a few steps and turning him around. Keith stared at the opposite wall, listening to the chorus of gasps from behind him. He wiggled his fingers, suddenly unsure how to feel about the bracelet clamped onto his wrist. He could hear giggles now too, harsh whispers among the elders, even an exasperated sigh. What the hell had Lance done this time?
“As you can see, your son took it upon himself to… claim… our prisoner.” The guard coughed awkwardly, scuffing his foot against the floor. Keith’s eyes widened. A claim? As in, a slave? No, Lance wouldn’t do that, it had to be something else. Keith waited for more context.
“No, no son of mine would do something like that.” The king laughed, like the mere idea of it was utterly ludicrous. The table hummed in agreement. And Keith waited again to be accused of being a thief, but this time the save came in the form of Lance’s voice speaking up loudly over the rest.
“Yes they would.” Lance said plainly, so much more confidently than Keith had heard him speak around his family yet. A smile curled up the corners of his lips. “I mean, I would know, considering I did it.”
“Lance!” A woman hissed, his mother probably. Keith gathered his courage and glanced over his shoulder, smirking at the sight. Lance’s mother had grabbed his ear and was tugging on it. Lance winced, but he also made no move to take back his words.
“You’re serious?” The king asked, his tone deathly stern as always. The mother let go of Lance and he sat up straighter immediately, addressing his father with a quick nod. The king stared down at the table, shaking his head slowly. “You wish to take our prisoner as your mate? Our Galra prisoner?”
Keith nearly choked on his own saliva. He’d had his suspicions, but he was certain this whole time he was only jumping to conclusions. He didn’t want to assume. There was no denying it now though, the bracelet had been some sort of commitment, a romantic one. Keith’s face flushed a shade of indigo.
“He’s not just any Galra, though.” Lance argued, getting to his feet to stand taller than everyone else. The king glared up at him, but Lance was unbothered. He walked over to the guards and politely told them to stand down, then slung an arm over Keith’s shoulders. The people around the table looked like they’d been put off from their meal, shock and disgust eating away at them instead.
“Who is he, then?”
“This is Keith, the sole heir to the entire fifth kingdom. Our union would form an alliance, imagine what it could bring to the table for our people. Trading, knowledge, strength. It’s a smart move from a business standpoint, wouldn’t you agree?” Lance presented his case flawlessly, a crooked smile on his face that said he knew he’d already won.
There was no argument against what he was suggesting, other than Lance’s own well-being, but Keith somehow didn’t think that would be on the king’s mind. There was nothing but wealth to gain if they went through with it.
The table fell silent, looking back and forth between the king and Lance in shock. This was definitely unlike anything they’d ever witnessed and even Keith could tell that much. Lance was standing up to their father and he wasn’t going to take no for an answer this time.
“You’d be willing to spend your life with a Galra in the name of our kingdom?” The king asked eventually, tilting his head to the side thoughtfully. Lance nodded, turning to Keith with a small smile. Small, but certain.
“So, assuming I allow this, what would your next move be?”
“We’d go back to Keith’s kingdom and announce our betrothal, probably.” Lance said casually, shrugging his shoulders. Keith wasn’t sure how he could say all of this with a straight face when just hearing it had Keith so flustered he could hardly breathe. “It might take awhile to make concrete ceremony plans. You know, his kingdom is so big and we’d have to spread the word to everyone, but yeah. I’d come back here to invite you guys to the wedding. After that we’d go about building new laws and deals, get the alliance really thriving.”
“Galra Prince, is this all true? You intend to care for our son? Let him rule your kingdom alongside you?”
“Yes.” Keith choked out, offering up a smile. That proved to be the wrong move if the disturbed looks were anything to go by. Was his smile really so scary? He wondered if Lance found it scary at first.
The king tapped his fingers against the table, humming and hawing, clearly at a loss for what to do. He eyed Lance curiously, like he was trying to find any sort of flaw in his plan, any way to call him out for bullshitting. It got to the point that Keith was holding his breath, half-expecting they’d be asked to kiss and prove their feelings were true. But the king wasn’t thinking about emotions, was he?
“Very well.” The king said finally, rising to his feet and addressing the whole table. “It seems we have a new alliance to celebrate! Our kingdom is stronger than ever before! We shall have a feast!”
“And we have an important union to celebrate as well. Congratulations, Lance!” His mother beamed, her mind made up on how to feel about the matter.
The room lightened up at that, all cheering excitedly at the prospect of a party. If the family had been overwhelming quiet, this was downright overloading. Keith stumbled backward and Lance followed with him, grabbing the keys from the guard and leading him out into the hall.
Lance unlocked Keith’s cuffs, gently shushing to calm him down.
“Just play along. Once we’re off the island, we can go back to normal.” Lance told him, gently rubbing the places where the cuffs had worn into his skin. Keith nodded, but he was still shaking. The adrenaline had crested and crashed, now he just felt exhausted. “Hey, calm down, at least you’re not being eaten right now. Is marrying me so bad? It’s only on paper.”
“It’s just been a scary few days.” Keith admitted. Lance leaned back, cupping his face and stroking his cheeks. He opened his arms and Keith stumbled forward, collapsing into Lance despite the height and size difference. He sniffled as Lance huffed him, rubbing soothing circles into his back.
“They burned my stuff. The boat, my clothes, my food, everything.” Keith sobbed, as Lance led him quietly through the halls into a bedroom. He settled Keith down on the bed.
“Not everything.” Lance said then, grabbing something off his nightstand. He held it out to Keith, his smile undoubtedly kind. Keith blinked back the last of his tears, grabbing the familiar Atlas and setting it in his lap. “Guess it’s a good thing I never gave it back to you, huh?”
“But all my research, everything we did on this island… it’s gone.”
“Not gone, you just need to write it down again.” Lance encouraged him, squeezing his hand. “And I’ll be right there with you to remind you of anything you forget or didn’t get the chance to learn. It’ll be okay.”
Between the trauma and the adrenaline of the party the Grimalkin threw to celebrate the prince’s new engagement, Keith found himself utterly worn out over the next week. He was exhausted by the time they finally led him and Lance down to the beach, to the new boat they’d had built for them. It was newer than the last, and luxurious inside. Not that it mattered much to Keith, he could have fallen asleep anywhere at that point.
They’d been offered a crew to come along with them, and Keith debated taking them up on the offer because it was hard to man a ship with only two people, but Lance had been insistent that they wanted to go alone. Keith understood it. He wanted to put space between his past and his future.
The king hadn’t bothered to see them off, claiming he had important business elsewhere. Instead it was Lance’s mother and all of his siblings. Keith hadn’t expected Lance’s brothers to show up, if he was being honest, but they were there and surprisingly invested. They’d even started trying to talk to Keith, as awkward and tense as it was, but that had to mean something at least?
“You stay safe out there, alright?” Lance’s mother sobbed dramatically, hugging the life out of her son as if she’d never get the chance to see him again. Lance groaned, pretending to gasp for air.
“ Yes, Mama .”
“I can’t believe my little baby is leaving the kingdom!” She wheezed, grabbing a handkerchief from her pocket and blowing her nose. Lance sighed, reluctantly pulling her into another hug and comforting her, patting her back. “I knew you would find your purpose someday, but I never expected you to find it so far away from me!”
“I’ll be back before you know it.” Lance assured her, turning to his siblings and flashing a smile just for them. “And once we establish new laws, you can all come and visit as often as you like.”
His mother sighed, pulling away from him like it was physically difficult. She wiped at her eyes, looking over at Keith and then back to Lance. She leaned in, whispering loudly enough that Keith heard her without any trouble at all.
“Are you sure you feel safe with him?”
“Yes, for the thousandth time, I’m very sure.” Lance told her, a sense of finality in his tone that said he didn’t want to be asked again. He turned away then, moving to hug each of his siblings. Keith hung back, observing the interaction in silence. For all their fighting and differences, they still cared about each other so much. It was a sort of bond Keith didn’t really understand.
Lance bounced away from them eventually, grabbing Keith’s hand and holding it up in a wave. “Goodbye everyone!”
“It was nice meeting you.” Keith added quietly, as Lance pulled him down the beach toward the boat. He looked back over his shoulder, to the perplexed faces of all Lance’s family. They still didn’t really understand what the hell Lance was thinking, but that was fine. Things would change now, Keith was sure of it. The kingdoms would all form alliances if he had any say in it.
“You’re so awkward.” Lance said suddenly, turning to Keith. “I can’t believe they’re still scared of you.”
“I can’t believe you came up with that whole plan! And that it worked!” Keith laughed, looking up at the boat looming ahead. It was beautiful, built out of dark jungle wood that contrasted the blue of the ocean. He couldn’t wait to sail it back home and show it off.
“I wasn’t sure if it would at first.” Lance admitted, scratching the back of his neck. “I knew we had that tradition in the royal family. These things have been passed down for generations and though we don’t really do it anymore, it used to be a very big deal to give your royal jewels to someone else. A life commitment.”
“You probably want it back then, right?” Keith asked, glancing down at the silver bracelet standing out against his wrist. It made sense that Lance wouldn’t really want him to keep it if it was something so valuable and irreplaceable. He’d just grown the slightest bit attached to it, especially given the circumstances Lance had given it to him.
“Nah, the tradition doesn’t mean anything to me personally.” Lance dismissed him with a casual shrug, not at all bothered. “You can keep it, I’m pretty sure it’s stuck on your giant wrist for the rest of time anyway.”
“Even if I took it off, it wouldn’t undo what you did, would it?” Keith asked quietly, twisting the bracelet around his wrist. “Your family’s always gonna think we’re together now. It’s a life commitment. You won’t be able to take another mate.”
“Nah, but it’s fine. If I meet anyone I’ll just keep it on the down-low. My family’s kinda over-involved anyway, so it’d be nice to have something to keep to myself.” Lance insisted, trying to keep the conversation light and easy. But Keith knew Lance well enough by now to know that he would want his family to be involved in his life always, even with how different they were. He cared deeply about them, keeping a secret from them for the rest of time would be hard on him.
He was just willing to do it anyway for Keith’s sake.
“Thanks, Lance.” Keith told him, coming to a stop. Lance pulled on their joined hands before coming to a stop too, turning back to Keith. Their eyes met and Keith hesitated for a long moment, unsure how to express just how thankful he felt. “Really. I’m so glad I met you.”
“Don’t get all sappy on me now.” Lance mumbled, avoiding eye contact. For how confident he was, Lance always got bashful when actual emotions came up. Keith snorted out a laugh and Lance playfully shoved him away. “It’s not even a big deal. It helped me just as much as it helped you.”
“What are you talking about?”
“My father never would have let me leave the island. And I couldn’t just sneak away, not knowing how much that’d kill my mother. This was the only way he’d ever give his approval, if he thought I was doing something selfless for the good of the kingdom.” Lance explained. He reached out, taking both of Keith’s hands in his and squeezing them. “Now I can go with you to Altea.”
“You want to?” Keith asked, shock written across his face.
“Yes! Of course I do!” Lance bounced up and down, their hands still gripping tightly. “I’m so excited!”
“Me too!” Keith shouted in agreement, lighting up brighter than he ever had. This was his dream come true and more! He surged forward, wrapping his arms around Lance’s stomach and lifting him up into the air, spinning him around and laughing. He didn’t even care if Lance’s family could see them still.
Lance grinned down at him, reaching down to run his fingers over Keith’s fluffy ears.
“Keith?” Lance whispered, leaning down and resting their foreheads together. Keith quirked an eyebrow, a smile seemingly permanently on his face now. “Tell me, do your people know the meaning of personal space?”
“You’re not funny.” Keith groaned, dropping Lance back to the sand. Lance stuck his tongue out at Keith, running ahead toward the ship, kicking sand up as he went. Keith watched him with a fond look.
“Where’s your wolf?” Lance called back to him, a grin on his face. Keith’s immediately dropped, concern coming back to the forefront of his mind. He hadn’t called for Kosmo yet. In all honesty, he’d been scared to, in case he didn’t come running. The guards never told him what’d happened to the wolf and he was paralyzed with fear whenever he thought about the possibilities.
Lance, oblivious, cupped his hands over his mouth and yelled. “Kosmo! Come here, Pom-Pom!”
“Hey, how do you-” Keith started, shocked to hear the nickname.
“Oh, come on, you think I haven’t heard you call him that when you think I’m not listening?” Lance huffed, looking back at him with his hands on his hips. He turned then, calling for Kosmo a few more times. Keith sighed, knowing he’d gave to give in and try it himself.
“He probably won’t come to you.” Keith admitted, getting ready to yell himself. He hadn’t made a sound when suddenly the air in front of them shifted, a wolf materializing and falling on top of Lance in a pounce. Keith gaped. He watched on in shock as Kosmo licked all over Lance’s face, whining worriedly, like they’d always been the best of friends.
“There he is!” Lance laughed, shoving the wolf’s head to look the other way. “Look, Kosmo! Keith is free. He’s okay. Everything worked out.”
Keith’s eyes widened and his hands came up, but it was too late. Kosmo teleported to him, his weight crashing down on top of Keith and pressing him into the sand. Kosmo absolutely attacked him with affection, licking all over his face, nuzzling into his neck.
“Hurry up, guys.” Lance laughed, standing over them and watching the scene. He pressed the toe of his sandal into Keith’s hip. “I wanna leave before sundown.”
“Go on without us, it’ll be awhile before Kosmo gives this up.” Keith laughed, attempting to shove Kosmo off of him again. Lance sighed fondly, heading off toward where the ship floated near the shore, more than ready to head out.
Keith looked up at Kosmo’s head, held between his hands.
“See? He’s not so bad.” Kosmo glanced away, looking sheepish after how difficult he’d been all along, refusing to get along with Lance. “I know you don’t like him, you’re jealous that he’s taking my attention now, but-”
Kosmo barked, cutting him off. Keith furrowed his eyebrows in confusion.
“No? That’s not all it was?” He prompted, trying to understand where Kosmo’s thoughts had been at this whole time. Kosmo whimpered, looking toward the boat where Lance was, his head hanging low. He pressed his nose into the injuries on Keith’s wrists, steadily healing but still more than noticeable with the way the fur had worn away. It took Keith a long moment to understand. “I’m not going to get hurt. Lance is safe. He’s not like all the other people who made me feel bad. He’s… different. Special.”
A sense of understanding seemed to pass over Kosmo again. He clambered off of Keith, but he stayed close like he was scared to get too far away again. Keith took a deep breath, hoping that would be the end of the ongoing dispute between Kosmo and Lance. He cared about them both, he wanted them to get along.
Keith climbed onto the boat a moment later, unsurprised to find Lance standing behind the wheel and pretending to sail despite the fact they hadn’t even departed yet. He lit up when he saw Keith approaching, a smile wide and bright, at ease. Keith was finally starting to relax after a week of horrors.
“Finally, I thought you guys fell into a sinkhole.” Lance joked, walking over to meet Keith halfway.
“Nope, Kosmo was just being clingy.” Keith teased. Kosmo shot him a glare before walking over and settling on the floor, not even deigning him with a response.
“Where are we headed?” Lance asked, tugging Keith toward the wheel. Keith reached out, fingers wrapping around it. He inhaled deeply, salty air filling his lungs. The wind whipped at his hair and his clothes. It was exactly like the last time he’d set out, that same passion and excitement filling him.
Except it was better, because this time Lance’s hand settled over his and squeezed. He wasn’t alone.
He was ready to set out again.
“Back home.” Keith said with certainty. “I want them to know about you. Everything you said back there, it made sense. Even if our union isn’t real, the alliance between our kingdoms should be.”
“Keith.” Lance breathed, looking at him with an unreadable expression. Keith flashed a smile at him, patting him on the shoulder. He hoped that Lance agreed with him. It wasn’t like they could head straight to Altea anyway, they needed to take care of some business back home first. “Sounds good. I can’t wait.”
Keith grinned at him.
“I’m gonna head below deck and make sure our rations are good one last time.” He announced, heading down the ladder into the living quarters of the ship. He sorted through their food, counting it out and making sure it was plenty to last them back to his kingdom and then some. He wanted to bring back some to offer his people, to sweeten the trade deal by showing them the delicious food the fourth kingdom offered.
Keith was mostly done when Lance slid down the ladder after him, turning to him suddenly.
“Hey.” Lance stepped closer, swallowing harshly. Kosmo hopped down into the living quarters behind him, tail wagging. Keith watched as the wolf nosed Lance in the back, pushing him into Keith’s space with urgency. That was… odd.
Keith looked up at Lance.
“Um.” Lance hesitated, glancing down at Kosmo as if to ask if he really had to do this. Kosmo grunted at him, shoving Lance one more step closer, until their feet were practically touching. Lance sighed, clearly working up the nerve to say something. “Do you… want it to be?”
“Our union. Do you want it to be real?” Lance asked, his jaw snapping shut afterward like he wished he could take the words back already. Keith stared at him with wide eyes. He opened his mouth and closed it a few times, unsure what to say. He hadn’t expected this, even if he’d thought about it more than once. He looked down at his wrist, where Lance’s bracelet was.
“Are you… offering ?” He tried finally.
“I think so.” Lance nodded, surprisingly meek for once in his life. Beside him, Kosmo was looking up at him with a knowing twinkle in his eyes, like he knew exactly how badly Keith had wanted just this all along. Keith scoffed at him, placing a hand over Kosmo’s eyes as he stepped closer to Lance. He leaned in, into Lance’s personal space, and paused just before their lips met.
“Yes.” Keith said with certainty, smiling. “I want that more than anything.”
Unsurprisingly, it was Lance who garnered the courage to make the next move. He reached up and gripped Keith’s jaw, pulling him in for an eager kiss. Their lips met and Keith immediately found himself struggling to keep up, given how utterly inexperienced he was. Lance’s lips were soft and gentle on his own, but the uncertainty behind his actions was cancelled out by his impatience.
Keith quickly forgot that Kosmo was there at all, instead gripping Lance’s hips and pulling him in closer still. Lance giggled against his lips, his hand sliding up Keith’s jaw and into his hair, indulging himself in stroking over Keith’s fluffy ears like he always seemed to want to. Keith grinned into the kiss, playfully nipping at his lip in retaliation.
Who knew that Keith could plan an adventure his entire life and somehow miss the most important part of it. Someone else to share it with.