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'til we meet the dawn

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Keith watched the flame dance between his fingers, marveling at the glowing phantom shape as it morphed and wavered in the palm of his hand.

Although he had learned to control fire almost a year ago, he hadn’t mastered the skill. The ball of fire flickered and sparked slightly, and Keith frowned in concentration. He closed his eyes and cupped his other hand over the small fiery sphere, containing it.

As many times as he had done this before, the sensation never failed to fascinate him. There was something particularly enthralling about fire and its dual nature, how it was both intimidating and calming—an ancient element with the power to destroy, but also to provide warmth and sustain life.

The more deeply he focused on it, the more the heat radiated up his arms and into his chest until his very heart seemed to glow with it. Keith smiled to himself.

I can’t wait to show this to

A loud crash from the other side of the room disturbed him before he could complete the thought. Keith’s focus immediately broke, and he groaned in frustration as the ball of flame dissolved into smoke in his hands.

“What was that?” he muttered, prying one eye open.

Keith stood from where he’d been sitting cross-legged on the floor of the hut and stepped over the cluttered mess—an open spellbook, some scattered scrolls riddled with runes he’d been practicing, a few healing crystals he’d left lying around.

He ducked under the hanging tapestry that divided his makeshift study from the rest of the cottage. As he’d suspected, he found his cat, Amber, sitting on the windowsill. A flowerpot lay shattered on the floor. Onyx, Shiro’s big black cat, was carefully sniffing at the spilled dirt while Amber observed from above with her tail twitching.

Keith sighed, rubbing a hand against his forehead. “Can’t you two give me just a few minutes of peace?” He knelt down to start picking up the scattered pieces, shooing Onyx away.

He had only managed to collect about half of the shards when he heard a humming noise from behind him. When he turned around, a ball of blue light was hovering at the center of the room. Adam’s identification rune flashed at its center.

Keith frowned, rising to his feet and crossing the small distance to the shimmering communication sphere. He waved a hand over it to activate it and then stepped back again.

A familiar figure appeared at the center of the room, hands folded into the sleeves of his robes. If Keith hadn’t known better, he might have thought Adam was standing right in front of him––except that his form was a little hazy around the edges and he was slightly transparent. His eyes blinked a few times behind his round spectacles before he seemed to gain his bearings.

“Oh, it worked. Hello, Keith!”

“Hey, Adam. Practicing the projection spell?”

“Yes, but I also have a message for you,” Adam said, then seemed to get distracted by something behind Keith. He leaned over a bit, looking at the shattered flowerpot on the floor. “Cats getting into trouble?”

“Yes,” Keith sighed, rolling his eyes. “Onyx always acts up when Shiro isn’t around. So, what’s the message? Were we supposed to have a lesson today?”

“Not today, no,” Adam said, and Keith noticed then that he looked a bit nervous, pausing a moment to wring his hands together. “This is something a little more urgent … The queen wants to see you.”

“Oh,” Keith said, stiffening. “About what?”

“I don’t know. She was very secretive about it, but I get the sense it’s something important.” Adam adjusted his spectacles, looking off to one side. “Oh, and one other thing. There’s, um, someone here you might want to see.”

There was a certain teasing lilt to his voice that he only used when referring to a particular person, and it made the blood drain from Keith’s face.

“Who?” he demanded.

“Guess you’ll find out when you get here.”

Keith rolled his eyes. “Ugh.” He grabbed his black cloak from where it hung on a nearby chair and wrapped it around his shoulders. “You’re even worse than Shiro sometimes, you know that? Also, you could’ve just walked down here from the castle. I’m just saying.”

“I know,” Adam said with a taunting grin, not seeming the least bit offended. “But this is much more fun, isn’t it?”

He winked and disappeared in a swirl of blue light.

Despite his minor annoyance, Keith couldn’t help but smirk a little. The amusement quickly evaporated, though, as he fully processed what Adam had told him. Somehow, the fact that Queen Allura wanted an audience with him was even less nerve-wracking than the implication that a certain someone had arrived at the palace several weeks early and Keith was not prepared for that.

Nevertheless, he fastened the silver moon-shaped clasp on his cloak and hastily shoved his feet into his boots. Then he stumbled over to the dusty oval mirror above the wash basin and examined his disheveled appearance with a groan.

Although he knew he should probably start heading for the palace straightaway, he took a minute to splash some water on his face and pull his hair into a low ponytail. Just for good measure, he fished an earring out from the bowl sitting next to the basin and attached the dangling violet jewel to his earlobe. There. At least he looked somewhat presentable now.

Heaving a short sigh, he turned to glare at the cats, who were now wrestling underneath the windowsill. He winced at the sight of the mess on the floor, but he could deal with that later.

“Try not to destroy anything else while I’m gone,” he said, then pulled his hood up and headed out the door.

The crisp autumn air stirred around him, and Keith shuddered and pulled his cloak closer to his body. His fingerless gloves exposed his hands to the cold and he briefly considered summoning a ball of fire just for the warmth––but he decided against it, seeing as the palace was only a few minutes' walk away.

He made his way along the winding dirt path between the other mages' cottages. Smoke billowed from the chimneys, and the laundry hanging on the lines between the houses fluttered in the breeze. The faint sound of wind chimes rang through the air. Keith breathed in deep, taking some comfort in the familiarity of the tiny compound with its thatched-roof huts and crowded herb gardens.

The path led up through the foothills and between rows of trees, thick with colorful foliage. Dead leaves crunched under Keith's feet. It wasn't long until he could see the palace through the branches, its white towers gleaming in the rising light.

At the front gates, Keith held up his hand to expose one of the runes on his wrist––a symbol of two keys crossing each other in an X. Blue light flickered over the gates with a loud humming noise, and then they began to slide open.

A cobblestone path led up to the palace steps, where guards were patrolling in their silver armor. A few of them stepped aside to let Keith pass, and he acknowledged them with a nod.

Once inside, he slid the hood off his head as he walked towards the throne room, squaring his shoulders. His boots echoed against the marble floor, and with each step he could feel his heartbeat grow faster.

The two guards on either side of the entrance silently nodded and opened the doors for him. Keith smiled at them in gratitude before sobering, bracing himself for whatever lay on the other side.

He could hear the faint sound of chatter as soon as he entered the cavernous room, a pair of voices echoing through the open space. Keith could make out the familiar sound of Adam’s voice muttering something, followed by the sound of a laugh he immediately recognized—one that made him feel as if his heart had crawled up into his throat.

Sure enough, at the far end of the throne room stood two figures. One was Adam, in his long purple robes that trailed along the floor. And the other, a tall boy in gleaming silver armor, was—

“Lance?” Keith said, nearly choking on the name.

Although Adam had raised his suspicions that Lance would be there, it was another thing entirely to see him standing in the middle of the room. Golden morning light streamed through the tall windows, illuminating his armor with an ethereal glow. Keith had to blink a few times to convince himself he wasn’t dreaming—especially when Lance turned to look at him in surprise and his face immediately lit up with a huge grin.

“Keith!”

He rushed forward and threw his arms around Keith, who let out a small oof as he was crushed by Lance’s armor––but that was about the last thing on his mind right now. His thoughts were rushing in a maddening circle as he tried to catch up to reality, to comprehend that Lance was here and safe and hugging him.

After a moment he returned the embrace, arms wrapping loosely around Lance’s torso. But then it was over all of a sudden as Lance stepped back again, still smiling. And … oh, no. Keith had not been prepared for this close proximity, or for the sight of Lance’s tousled hair and crooked grin that he’d been thinking about for months. It didn’t help that his armor made him look regal, with the Altean lion crest gleaming on the chest plate. Not to mention how nicely it complemented the breadth of his shoulders …

Keith must have been gaping too long, because he could see Lance’s smile start to falter.

Say something.

“What are you doing here?” he blurted––which was not the first thing he’d wanted to say to Lance after months of separation. He’d tried to rehearse their reunion in his head over and over again, agonizing over all the things he wanted to tell Lance, and he’d already messed it up after about ten seconds.

“Nice to see you, too,” Lance said, laughing softly.

Maybe Keith could still come up with the right thing to say. “I—” Missed you. Worried about you. Thought about you every day. “I thought you weren’t coming back for a few more weeks.”

He mentally cursed himself. He’d had one more chance to say something significant, but his mouth couldn’t catch up with his mind.

Lance’s smile wavered and his hands dropped from Keith’s shoulders. He scratched the back of his neck. “Oh … right. Well, I wasn’t supposed to. But I got a summons from Allura saying I was needed here for something important. She didn’t say what. I guess I could’ve sent a letter to let you know beforehand, but––you know, it probably wouldn’t have gotten here before I did.”

Keith was hyper-aware of each of Lance’s movements: the slight hunch of his shoulders, the way his gaze flitted to one side, how he stumbled over his words. There was a certain nervous energy about him that felt out of place, like he was holding something back.

Behind him, Adam cleared his throat and Keith jumped a little. He looked up to find Adam giving him a sly, knowing smile that made his face go hot with mortification. Hopefully Lance didn’t notice.

“I should probably be going,” Adam said. “But the queen should be arriving shortly. I will be seeing both of you soon, I hope?”

“Oh … uh, yeah,” Keith managed to say.

“Thanks, Adam,” said Lance.

Adam gave them one more smile, patting Keith on the shoulder before he slid past him. Not long after, Keith heard the double doors open and close with an echoing creak and a solid thud.

The ensuing silence rang in Keith’s ears as he and Lance stood facing each other, now with several feet of space between them. Keith could still feel the phantom sensation of Lance’s arms around him and he longed to close that distance again––but something held him back, like a physical wall was standing in his way.

Lance studied him for a few moments, with a scrutiny that did nothing to help the heat that had already risen to Keith’s face. He coughed into his fist. “I assume Allura summoned you for this secret meeting, too?”

“Oh. I … yes,” Keith said, blinking. “But she hasn’t said anything to me directly. I only got the message from Adam just now. Any idea what this is about?”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Lance said with a shrug of one shoulder. He idly patted the scabbard of the sword at his side with one gloved hand, as if he was doing so out of habit––an expectation of an unknown danger. “You think we’re in trouble?”

He made the suggestion with a mischievous smile that broke the tension somewhat. Keith felt some of the stiffness fall from his shoulders as he easily smirked back.

“That does seem to be a habit of ours.”

Lance chuckled––and for a moment, it was easy to forget their months of separation, to forget all the layers of complicated feelings that had gathered over the years.

It was like they were twelve years old again. Like they were meeting for the first time ...

On that day, Keith had walked out of the training arena expecting nothing out of the ordinary, blinking into the bright sunlight. The looming shape of the domed building stood against the afternoon sky, and a large flock of birds flew overhead.

It had been a sword practice day, and Keith’s arm ached from the hours of training Coran had put them through. He rubbed at his shoulder and bitterly wondered why he had to study with all the knights-in-training when he had magic––but Shiro had insisted that learning different types of combat was important, and that it would be a good way for him to make some friends his age.

Thus far, the latter had not been working out so well. Although Keith had become at least somewhat familiar with the faces of the other students––who mostly hailed from the nearby village––he still usually kept his head down and his mouth shut during training. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to interact with anyone, he just didn’t know how. That, and if the years of unpleasant experiences at the orphanage had taught him anything, it was that going unnoticed was the best way to keep yourself from getting hurt.

But unfortunately for Keith, it wasn’t easy to go unnoticed.

“Hey, you!” a voice said sharply from behind him.

Keith didn’t turn around, hoping the shout hadn’t been directed at him. If it was, he knew it was better not to engage.

“I said, hey. I’m talking to you.”

A figure stepped in front of him, blocking his path. Keith lifted his head to find a boy about his height standing in front of him––a boy with slicked-back brown hair and a smug expression that reminded Keith of a rodent. Keith was pretty sure his name was James.

Keith’s pulse picked up and his hands clenched into fists at his sides. He’d been in this type of situation enough times before to sense when a fight was coming like a rapidly approaching storm. But he managed to take a steady breath, recalling the words Shiro had been telling him over and over since he’d first taken Keith under his wing. Patience yields focus.

“Can I help you?” Keith said through gritted teeth. He’d meant to keep his voice calm, but there was a little too much bite to it, like he was issuing a challenge.

“Oh, now you can talk?” James crossed his arms. “How come you never talk to the rest of us during practice? You think you’re too good for the rest of us, just because you’re Shiro’s little project and you have magic powers?”

As he spoke, several other boys gathered on either side of him, barring any chance Keith had of escaping.

“Careful,” one of them said with a teasing smirk. “Wouldn’t want to get him too angry, or he might turn Galra on us.”

Keith’s blood boiled at those words—ones he’d heard far too many times in his years at the orphanage. The other children had always relentlessly teased him for his half-Galra heritage, telling him he would one day grow fangs and claws.

“I can’t turn Galra,” he snarled.

James laughed harshly. “Of course not. You’re always gonna be stuck in between, aren’t you? Like some kind of hybrid freak, with those ugly marks on your face.”

Keith tensed, trying not to instinctively reach up to touch the objects of ridicule—the scar-like, dark purple markings that curved along either side of his jaw. The markings he’d repeatedly tried to scrub off his face as a child in hopes that by some miracle that they would wash away.

“Hey, leave him alone,” someone said behind Keith—a voice he vaguely recognized but couldn’t match to a face or name. Keith didn’t turn around, too preoccupied with facing James down and struggling to come up with a retort.

James didn’t seem to hear the person who had spoken up in Keith’s defense, or he was choosing to ignore them. He narrowed his eyes at Keith. “Still not saying anything?” He scoffed. “Probably ‘cause you know I’m right. No wonder your parents abandoned you. They must’ve taken one look at you and––”

Something snapped in Keith then, making his vision blur with rage. Before he knew what was happening, there was a red-hot burst of pain across his knuckles as they smashed into James’s face.

James reeled back with a grunt of pain as the two boys on either side of him grabbed him by the arms to keep him from falling. When he lifted his head, his eyes were dark with fury and a stream of blood trickled from his nose.

Shouts and jeers rang out from the surrounding crowd. Keith hadn’t realized until then how many people had gathered, and he couldn’t tell how many of them were cheering on the fight and how many were shouting for them to stop. But he didn’t have time to think about it, because right then, James leapt at him.

The wind was knocked out of Keith as he hit the dust, and a moment later there was a blow to the side of his face so harsh that stars burst across his vision. The next minute happened in a blur as he and James wrestled on the ground, surrounded by the roar of shouting onlookers.

He wasn’t sure how long it lasted, since because he was too focused on trying to shield his face while also trying to land a few blows of his own. But just as he was about to throw another punch, Keith felt the weight lifting off him as someone pulled James back.

The sunlight hit his eyes and he grimaced, trying to raise himself up onto his elbows. A shadow fell over him, and for a second Keith thought it was James coming back to attack him again––but as his vision adjusted, he saw it was someone else. A boy he’d seen during training whose name he didn’t know, but Keith recognized his tall and gangly frame, his tousled brown hair and dark eyes.

The boy extended a hand down towards him. “Are you alright?”

Keith blinked a few more times into the radiant light, then managed a stiff nod as he reached up to take the boy’s offered hand. He winced as he stood up, rubbing at his side where James had kicked him in the ribs.

James struggled against the grip of the boys on either side of him. He spat on the ground, blood still streaming from his nose, and hurled several more insults in Keith’s direction. But before Keith could attempt to throw himself back into the fight, the boy who had helped him up tugged on his arm and turned him sharply away.

“Come on, let’s go.” His voice was firm but steady, his hand tightening on Keith’s shoulder as he led him through the crowd. A few onlookers groaned in disappointment that the fight had broken up, but the boy didn’t even seem to hear them as he guided Keith away.

Keith spared a glance over his shoulder, but the crowd was already thinning out and he couldn’t see James anymore. He turned his attention towards the narrow path that he and the other boy were now walking along. He didn’t even know where they were going, but he figured that the boy knew he needed to get away from the crowd, and he was grateful for that.

They kept walking around the large perimeter of the arena, its tall pillars casting stripes of shadow across the ground. They didn’t come to a stop until they were on the opposite side, far from the other kids and shielded from the afternoon sun.

“Thanks,” Keith managed to say, his gaze fixed on the ground.

The boy didn’t seem to notice until then that he was still holding onto Keith’s shoulder, and he hastily let go. “No problem,” he said, and then cleared his throat as he gave Keith a sideways look. “Are you hurt?”

Now that the adrenaline was wearing off, Keith became steadily aware of every ache and pain in his body, but he was pretty sure they were all just bruises at worst. His knuckles stung, and he hissed in his breath as he looked down at them and saw they had split open.

“Oh no,” the boy gasped, noticing the blood at the same time. “That looks bad. Should I go find Coran, or––”

“No,” Keith cut him off, wrapping his other hand around his damaged knuckles. When he saw the unexpected worry on the other boy’s face, he added, “I mean … I’m alright. I can fix it with a healing crystal.”

The boy looked confused for a second before his frown faded. “Oh, that’s right,” he said. “You’re a mage!”

He grinned crookedly, and Keith’s eyes shied away at the sudden attention. As much as he tried to keep quiet about his powers, it hadn’t taken long for word to spread among the young knights-in-training that one of the reasons Shiro had recruited him was because of his magical abilities.

“Not yet. I’m learning to be one,” he said, scratching the back of his head.

“But you can do magic, right? Can you make fire come out of your hands?”

Keith was a little taken aback by the boy’s enthusiasm, but he managed a timid smile back. He rubbed at his arm. “I’m not that advanced yet. Right now Adam is just teaching me healing spells and things like that. Controlling elements is a lot harder.”

He started to worry that he was rambling, but the other boy was still studying him with interest.

“Your name is Keith, right?”

Keith blinked, then managed a nod. “And you are … ?”

The boy gaped at him. “You don’t know what my name is?”

“Should I?” Almost as soon as he’d said it, Keith realized how unintentionally rude the question sounded, but it was too late to take it back now.

“Well, the name’s Lance,” the boy huffed, “which I thought you knew already, since we’re rivals and all.”

Maybe it was the heat getting to Keith, or he’d unknowingly concussed himself in the recent fight, but his brain felt foggy as he stared at Lance and tried to make sense of what he’d said.

“We are?” was all he could manage to say at last.

Yes,” Lance said, crossing his arms. “Isn’t that why you’re always trying to show off during training? And why you always glare at me?”

“I don’t––” Keith started to say, but then hesitated. Maybe he had stared at Lance from afar a few times, but he hadn’t done it intentionally. Or thought that Lance would notice. He looked away, his face suddenly warm. “I’m sorry, I … didn’t realize I was doing that.”

The apology sounded weak to his own ears, but it seemed to have some effect on Lance––his shoulders relaxed and his arms dropped to his sides. “Oh,” he said, a perplexed look crossing his face. “So, we’re not rivals?”

“I … don’t think so.”

Lance seemed to mull that over, then he shrugged. “Well, then. Maybe we should start over. I’m Lance.”

He extended his hand. Keith hesitated, staring at the offered hand and then up at Lance’s face––which bore a sincere and slightly apologetic smile. Something about it struck a chord in Keith. He didn’t normally trust people right away, but maybe he could make an exception.

“Keith,” he introduced himself, even though Lance already knew his name. He grasped Lance’s hand and shook it.

“A pleasure to meet you,” Lance said with mock formality and a slight bow of his head.

Keith couldn’t help but smirk in amusement. But then Lance’s thumb brushed over his bruised knuckles, and he pulled his hand back again with a hiss of pain.

Lance’s eyes widened. “Oh! I’m sorry, I forgot––”

“It’s okay.” Keith wrapped his other hand around the injury. “I’ve had worse.”

Lance seemed impressed by that, raising an eyebrow. “So you’ve been in a lot of fights before?”

“Yeah. Especially back at the orphanage,” Keith said, and then bit his lip in embarrassment. Usually he tried to keep his mouth shut about his upbringing, since it tended to either invite either pity or ridicule.

But to his surprise, Lance’s expression displayed a genuine, pained look like he actually understood what Keith had been through. “I’m sorry,” he said, and it sounded sincere. He tilted his head. “The orphanage … is that where Shiro found you?”

Keith nodded, kicking at a small stone on the ground near his foot. “He was there trying to recruit some soldiers and saw me in a fight, and, well … I kind of used my magic to lift another kid off the ground and throw him.”

“Whoa! You can do that?”

“Yeah, I mean … not very far,” Keith said with a modest shrug of his shoulder. He looked away, at the path that twisted down into the apple orchard in the valley below them. “Anyway … Shiro saw I was a mage, so he took me aside to ask if I wanted to train at the palace with Adam. But he said I had to use my powers for good and not get into any more fights.”

His blood ran cold as he realized what he had just said, and he reached up to clench his fingers in his hair. “Oh, no. He’s gonna be so mad when he finds out I hit James … What if he sends me back or––”

“What? That’s not gonna happen,” Lance cut him off before he could complete the thought. “I mean, I only know Shiro from when he comes to help at trainings and stuff––but he’s, like, the nicest person ever. He wouldn’t send you back to that place.”

Keith stared at him, a little shocked by how passionately Lance had spoken and how he was now watching Keith intently like he was waiting for a response.

“Besides,” Lance went on when Keith still said nothing, “you didn’t use any magic on James, you just punched him. And he was being a real jerk to you, too. I probably would’ve hit him if you hadn’t done it first.” He punched his fist into his other hand to illustrate the point.

Keith huffed out a laugh, taking in the sight of Lance’s skinny frame. From what he’d seen in training, Lance was quick on his feet, nimble with a sword, and had scarily accurate aim when he was shooting a target with a bow and arrow––but it was hard to picture him taking someone down with his bare hands.

Still, he appreciated the sentiment. “Thank you,” he said. “For saying that. And for standing up for me. And for pulling me away from that fight.” He rubbed at his arm awkwardly.

“Hey, it’s no problem,” said Lance. “What else are friends for?”

Something warm bloomed in Keith’s chest at that word. Friends.

“Well … I should probably be heading home before my parents get worried,” Lance said after a moment. He looked Keith up and down one more time. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Oh …. Yeah, I’m fine,” Keith answered, offering a small smile. “I’ll see you tomorrow?”

Lance nodded, returning the smile. “Yeah, see you.”

He waved and started down the nearby path towards the heart of the valley––but then suddenly stopped in his tracks and turned around.

“By the way,” he called across the small distance between them, “I really like your Galra marks.”

Keith stiffened, instinctively raising a hand to one of the marks on his face. He was used to people pointing them out or interrogating him about them, but he was fairly certain no one had ever complimented them before and he didn’t know how to respond.

Before he could even manage a simple thank-you, Lance had turned on his heel and started jogging down the path again. Keith watched his retreating form, sprinting through the apple orchard and towards the village below. Dusk was just beginning to fall, and swirls of smoke rose from the chimneys of the distant houses.

As he turned away, still touching one of his Galra markings, Keith smiled softly to himself.

“Keith, Lance!”

Allura entered the throne room with her usual effortless grace, appearing from behind the curtained entryway. She looked as effortlessly pretty as always––despite the countless diplomatic meetings she was attending nowadays––dressed in a pastel blue gown with her hair pinned neatly back. Her silver earrings glinted in the morning light as she descended the steps.

“Allura!” Lance grinned up at her before sobering again. “I mean … your majesty.”

He bowed, and upon noticing the gesture, Keith started to do the same.

“Oh, please. You know you don’t have to do that,” Allura said, coming to a stop at the bottom of the stairs. “Really, there’s no need to be so formal.”

Keith hesitated but straightened up again, not wanting to make things awkward. Although he had been friends with Allura for years, it was sometimes difficult for him to judge how to act around her now that she was the queen.

He, Lance, and Allura had known each other since they were twelve years old. Allura had often been traveling or busy with her studies when they were younger, but she still joined them during training and practiced her magic with Keith and Adam.

They had all been very close back then––running around the palace grounds, exploring the woods, reading out loud to each other in the library, sneaking off to the lake to go swimming. It had once been easy to forget that Allura was the princess, the way she became fast friends with the other children and had been just as wild and mischievous.

But a gap between them had grown more apparent over the years, as their lives pulled them in different directions. Allura gained more diplomatic duties and had more expectations to adhere to, Lance officially became a knight and started going on quests, and Keith became more deeply involved in his magic studies and with helping Adam heal the sick and injured in nearby villages.

And … well. Certain other events in recent years had complicated things.

The most drastic change, of course, was that Allura was now the queen––after the shocking murder of her parents at the Altean-Galran border, on what was meant to be a peaceful mission. Although the assassin had been caught, questioned, and determined to have been working on his own, there were still furious rumors spreading that the assassination had been arranged by Emperor Zarkon of Daibazaal. Tensions had grown even more intense between the two kingdoms. In addition to her grief, Allura now bore the burden of trying to stop a war that seemed increasingly inevitable. But at least she wasn’t alone in her efforts; she had the guidance of Coran, and the protection of the royal guard and the mages.

A lot had changed––but despite that, she now rushed forward to hug Keith and Lance like no differences had ever come between them. Keith stiffened a little in surprise but then easily settled into the embrace, giving Allura an affectionate pat on the back.

“It’s so good to see both of you again,” Allura said, stepping away again. “And I wish we could catch up with each other some more, but … under the circumstances, I don’t think we have much time.” Her smile fell upon uttering the words, and she looked away.

Lance frowned, shooting Keith a questioning look that Keith could only return. Turning back to the queen, Lance cleared his throat.

“It’s good to see you, too. But … what do you mean? Is something wrong?”

She hesitated before she answered, biting her lip as she gazed out the window. After a lengthy pause, she clasped her hands together.

“I’m afraid I have a bit of an emergency on my hands,” she said. “One that I’m hoping the two of you can assist me with.”

Keith’s impulse was to look towards Lance again. But he stopped himself this time, remembering that Lance was just as uninformed about the purpose of this meeting as Keith was.

“What is it?” he asked instead.

The queen sighed and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "As you are well aware, the Galra have been advancing on our borders, and I fear that a war is on the rise. I have been sending spies out into Galra territory to see if they can gather any information. All of them have returned with their findings, except ..." She closed her eyes and opened them again. "Except one of them. Her name is Romelle."

Her voice had begun to shake, and Keith frowned in concern. "Is she––"

"I don't know." Allura exhaled sharply. "I shouldn't have sent her into such dangerous territory, but she insisted that it was vital to the mission. And despite the dangers, I believed she was the best spy suited for the quest, due to her shapeshifting abilities."

"She's a shapeshifter?" Keith had only heard rumors of such abilities before––it was a rare and highly complex form of magic that very few possessed.

Allura nodded. "She planned to pose as a Galra soldier and infiltrate one of their military forts. However, she was supposed to return several weeks ago, and I––I fear she may have been caught."

One of the queen’s hands clenched into a fist at her side, and Keith thought he saw the glimmer of tears in her eyes.

Seeming to notice the same thing, Lance stepped forward to put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “It’s not your fault, Allura.”

She looked briefly up at him, her face still set in a grim expression, before she turned her attention out the window again. “Thank you,” she said quietly. “I know it isn’t, but I can’t help but to blame myself. I shouldn’t have put her in such grave danger.

“I suppose I shouldn’t assume the worst, but if she hasn’t returned by now, she could be trapped in a Galra prison. Or––or worse.”

Something twisted in Keith's gut and he tried not to wince. He had heard horror stories about how cruel Galran prisons could be; the Galra were infamous for torturing their captives, or making them fight each other to the death for sport. If Allura's spy had been captured and was still alive, it was possible she was suffering a fate too horrible to imagine.

Allura's face had set into a grim, determined frown as she looked between Lance and Keith. "And that's where you two come in."

It took a moment for the words to register, and then Keith felt a little dizzy as he realized the implication of what Allura had said.

"You want us to find her," Lance said, a sudden grim note to his voice.

"Yes." A pained expression crossed Allura’s face. "But you do not have to make the journey if you do not want to. I feel selfish for asking, as I was the one to put Romelle in danger in the first place. But with the recent attacks and the rumors of war, I hesitate to travel too far from Altea. I must be here to protect my people."

“We understand,” Lance said with a nod. “But … if we do take on this quest, how soon would we be leaving?”

“I would advise as soon as possible,” Allura answered, “as I already fear it may be too late.” She paused to release a shaking breath. “So if you are able to leave sooner rather than later, I would be most grateful.”

Lance scratched the back of his neck in hesitation before he answered carefully, “Well, I can only speak for myself, but I could be ready to leave by tomorrow morning. Keith?”

Keith had listened to their exchange in a daze, as the reality of the situation started to hit him with more clarity: So, Allura was sending them on a quest––just him and Lance––into dangerous Galra territory, to save a spy from a heavily-guarded prison. And they were supposed to leave as early as tomorrow.

“Wait,” Keith blurted––and then realizing how unintentionally rude that may have sounded, he cleared his throat and tried again. “I mean … I’m sorry. I don’t mean to sound like I’m questioning your judgment, Allura, but … are you certain you want to send me on this quest? I––I’m not a knight. I don’t know if I––”

“Keith,” Allura stopped him, offering him a faint but reassuring smile. She reached out to grasp his wrist, giving it a light squeeze. “You’re one of my most trusted friends, and one of the most powerful mages I know. Plus, I know you’ve been trained in battle as well as magic.”

She looked between him and Lance. “I believe the combination of your skills is what will make this mission successful. That, and I am trusting the two of you with this quest because it is of personal importance to me. Romelle is … a dear friend. If any harm were to come to her …”

Allura trailed off, her voice choked with emotion, but the implication of her words was clear. Keith could tell that she and Romelle were close. And he knew there was no feeling more devastating than the fear that someone you deeply cared for could be gone forever. He snuck a sideways look at Lance at the thought, a sudden tight feeling in his chest.

Making up his mind, Keith turned his attention back to the queen and gave a serious nod. “I’ll go. Do you know where she’s being held captive?”

“I do not know the exact location,” Allura admitted, “but Romelle is wearing a tracking rune. I can give you a matching rune, Keith, which should lead you to where she is.”

She paused then, rubbing at her arm nervously like she was dreading the information she was about to convey. “What I do know,” she said at last, “is that the prison is on the other side of the Rift.”

Keith couldn’t help but inhale sharply. He had only heard legends of the Rift––a divide in the woods between Altea and Daibazaal where it was rumored that Zarkon’s most powerful druid, Haggar, had once tried to open up a portal to the Otherworld to gain access to its dark magic. Although her plan had failed, it was said that the forest had been tainted by her wicked act of sorcery, haunted by spirits and possessed creatures.

“I cannot withhold how dangerous of a mission this will be,” Allura continued gravely, “and I understand if you refuse it. But I also wouldn’t be asking this of you unless I believed you were capable of completing it.”

Maybe it was the reassurance in her words, but Keith felt a sudden flicker of confidence that maybe she was right. He looked at Lance, only to find that Lance was already regarding him inquisitively.

After another moment of contemplation, Keith nodded, and Lance seemed to understand. A determined look crept onto his face—one Keith had grown very familiar with over the years. It was the look Lance got in his eyes every time he was about to take on a challenge, the look of someone who would never back down without fighting.

He returned Keith’s nod and turned back to the queen.

“We’ll find her, Allura,” he said. “We promise.”

Allura managed a weak smile, although she still looked a little teary-eyed. “Thank you,” she said hoarsely, looking between the two of them. “Truly, I can’t thank you enough.”

“No need to thank us,” Lance assured her, returning the smile. “You’re not just our queen, you know. You’re our friend.”

“I know. But I also realize what a harrowing task it is, and I must express how appreciative I am that you’re taking it on.

“Now, I don’t want to keep you here too long as I realize you need time to prepare for your journey tomorrow. But, Keith, if you are able to stay behind for a moment … I just wanted to give you the tracking rune that you can use to locate Romelle.”

“Oh … of course,” Keith stammered.

Lance looked between the two of them, like he was about to ask a question. But then he gave a short nod instead. “I’m going to head outside, then. Might take a walk around the palace grounds before I go to the village. Hopefully I’ll see both of you soon.”

With that, they said their goodbyes for the time being and Lance turned to leave the throne room. Keith had to physically prevent himself from turning around to watch Lance go; it felt strange to let him just walk away, when he had been longing to see Lance for months. But then again, he knew they would see each other again soon––and would be spending a lot of time together over the next few days, apparently.

As soon as Lance had disappeared beyond the double doors, Allura extended a hand towards Keith. "Now, if you don't mind ..."

He understood what she was asking, and he rolled back the sleeve of his tunic as he reached out his arm towards her. She took hold of his wrist, turning it so that his forearm was facing upwards. There were already several runes etched onto it, but Allura found a blank patch of skin and traced her fingers over it.

"I must apologize in advance. It's a powerful rune, so it might burn a little."

Keith winced in anticipation of the pain, but he managed a nod to signal he was ready. Allura closed her eyes and took a deep breath before she began to mutter an incantation. Keith closed his eyes as well, focusing on the rise and fall of Allura's voice and trying to ignore the prickling sensation underneath the skin on his forearm.

It took a minute or two before Allura's spell came to a stop, and Keith finally let his eyes blink open. The queen was still holding onto his wrist, examining her handiwork. Keith followed her gaze, taking in the sight of the new mark on his arm––a circular shape that looked somewhat like a compass, crisscrossed with intersecting lines. A faint purple glow lingered around it, but it quickly faded until only the dark rune remained.

"It isn't permanent," Allura explained, releasing his wrist. "Once you find Romelle, both of your tracking runes will disappear. Until then, you probably won't feel it much until you're closer to where she is."

Keith absently rubbed a thumb over the rune. It still burned a little as Allura had warned, but he knew the pain would fade within several minutes.

“Are you alright?” Allura asked him when he didn’t say anything.

Keith hadn’t realized until then that he’d been silent this whole time, and he hastily cleared his throat. “I––yes, I’m fine,” he managed to say. “Just a bit nervous about all of this.”

“I understand. But again, I wouldn’t have chosen you for this quest if I didn’t believe you were capable enough.”

“I know, but it’s not just that. It’s …” Keith stared fiercely at the floor. He hated to broach the subject, but sooner or later one of them would have to. “It’s Lance,” he said. “He only has three days left.”

He didn’t need to elaborate for Allura to know exactly what he meant. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her posture stiffen.

“You mean, he hasn’t … ?”

“I don’t know,” Keith cut her off. “He hasn’t told me anything.”

Allura didn’t answer right away, but Keith heard her inhale shakily. “I see. Well … I hope he understands that he doesn’t need to go on this journey if it’s too …” She trailed off like she didn’t know how to complete the sentence, and then shook her head. “I’m sorry, I should’ve asked him––”

“It’s alright, Allura. I’ll talk to him,” Keith reassured her.

Allura held a fist anxiously over her chest, but she nodded. “Yes, I suppose that would be best.”

Before they could dwell on the subject much longer, Keith took a step back. “I should probably go start packing my things and then find Lance.”

“Wait,” Allura blurted. She reached out to grip Keith by the wrist, taking him by surprise. “Keith, before you go, I just wanted to say …” She hesitated before continuing carefully, “If by any chance he hasn’t broken the curse yet … remember what I told you.”

The words made Keith feel like a heavy weight had dropped into the pit of his stomach. He could feel heat rise to his face and prayed it wasn’t visible. Although he knew Allura was only trying to help, he couldn’t help the protests that immediately rose to his mind: You don’t understand. It could kill him. It could kill both of us. But he held his tongue. After all, Allura didn’t know the whole story.

“Thank you,” he said instead, hoping it sounded sincere. “I will.”

It seemed to convince Allura somewhat, and she offered a small smile as her grip around his wrist loosened. “Good luck, Keith.”

“Thanks, Allura.”

They exchanged a brief hug before Keith turned away, pulling up the hood of his cloak again. Fighting off the sudden bitter feeling that had risen in his throat, he walked out of the throne room.

After their first interaction at twelve years old, it didn’t take long for Keith and Lance to become good friends. Even from their first brief exchange, Keith had felt inexplicably drawn to Lance in a way he didn’t fully comprehend. There was something about his crooked smile and friendly demeanor that felt safe and welcoming, like they had known each other for years.

They were opposites in a lot of ways. Lance was very outgoing while Keith was more withdrawn, Keith tended to act on impulse while Lance thought his actions out more rationally, Keith found that he was more skilled at close-range battle while Lance preferred a bow and arrow to a blade. They were at odds sometimes, bickering over trivial things or getting overly competitive. But despite their differences, Keith found it unexpectedly easy to get along with Lance most of the time. It wasn’t long until they were constantly side-by-side during training.

Lance soon introduced Keith to his friends: Hunk, who was also training to be a knight, and Pidge, who was the daughter of one of Alfor’s alchemists and who occasionally ran messages around the palace grounds. The four of them often spent afternoons together after their respective lessons were done for the day, exploring the nearby woods. Allura sometimes joined them, and on those days she would show them around the palace—the labyrinth of rooms, the enormous library, the gardens brimming with flowers and bubbling fountains.

For the first time in his life, Keith had friends. Any relationships he’d had with other children at the orphanage had been fleeting, since everyone seemed to come and go without warning. But he found himself growing attached to his new group of companions in a way he hadn’t allowed himself to do with anyone else before—developing a warm fondness for their company, their jokes and laughter, their honesty and support.

Out of everyone in the group, though, Keith remained the closest with Lance. He couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was—maybe that he’d been friends with Lance before anyone else—but he felt somehow in sync with Lance in a way he wasn’t with the others. He found that whenever the whole group was together, he always sought out Lance’s reactions first—instinctively looking to Lance every time he spoke to gauge what he was feeling. In turn, Lance seemed particularly aware of Keith’s presence, and he was typically the first one in the group to ask Keith what he was thinking if he had been quiet for a while.

And although Keith spent time individually with all of his friends, he found that he valued his conversations with Lance the most. Lance had a tendency to ramble sometimes, but Keith never tired of listening to him––the enthusiastic way he spoke, the way he always emoted and gestured animatedly.

He often talked about his family—several of his older siblings had also been in the royal guard and Lance was eager to follow in their footsteps—or about all the daring adventures he would go on one day, all the places he would see and beautiful princesses he would save. Keith sometimes rolled his eyes a little at Lance’s theatrics, but truthfully he always enjoyed hearing what Lance had to say.

As time went on, they sought out each other’s company more and more often. While they still spent time with their other friends, they still found time to spend alone. It became a habit for them to sneak out at night and meet in the apple orchard halfway between their homes. On those nights, they would climb in the trees or sit on the stone wall under the stars and talk about whatever was on their minds. Sometimes they joked and laughed, and other times they had more serious conversations about their hopes and fears.

As they grew older, the serious conversations became more frequent as the future loomed over them like a shadow. Keith knew that someday their respective duties would keep them apart for months, maybe years. He noticed a subtle change in Lance over time, a more subdued side of him that made its appearance under the stars. Sometimes a sudden faraway look would enter his eyes, or he’d look at Keith like he wanted to say something before quickly looking away again, before the moment passed as if nothing had happened.

Keith thought maybe it was just the fear of what was to come, the dangerous quests and battles that lay ahead of him. But he started to suspect that it was something more than that, something that Lance was hiding.

Finally, when they were fourteen years old, he found out what it was.

“I’m cursed,” Lance said.

The confession came out one night in the orchard, when they were sitting on the stone wall overlooking the valley. Until this moment they had been joking and laughing as usual, eating apples and competing to see who could throw the cores as far as they could over the wall.

The moment of silence had come over them suddenly, before Lance suddenly blurted the words like they had been punched out of him. Now he stared fiercely ahead, gaze fixed on the dark horizon—until he turned towards Keith with a sudden spark in his eyes, an emotion Keith couldn’t read. Expectant, almost, like he wanted Keith to answer an unspoken question.

“You’re … what?” was all Keith could manage to say.

Lance just stared at him for a few more seconds, before he looked sharply away again. His shoulders slouched, and he kicked one of his dangling feet at the air.

“I’ve always meant to tell you,” he said, “but I—I don’t know. It never felt like the right time, and …”

His voice had gone soft—hoarse and scared—in a way that made Keith feel like a sheet of glass had shattered over his head, and he was frantically trying to gather the pieces.

“Lance, wait. Slow down.”

He scooted a little closer along the wall, but stopped himself when there was still a few feet of distance between them. Something about Lance’s stiff posture, the way he had hunched over, made Keith hesitant to break any boundaries.

“What do you mean, ‘cursed’? What kind of curse?”

Lance didn’t answer right away. He drew in a long breath and let it out in a shaking sigh.

“When my mom was pregnant with me, she got really sick. My dad … he thought she and I were both going to die, and he didn’t know what to do.”

The words came out haltingly. Lance paused, biting his lip as if continuing physically pained him.

“Pretty much every doctor and mage in the area had come to see my mom and try to help her, but nothing seemed to be working. Everyone kept telling my dad that it was hopeless. But he refused to give up.”

“So, what did he do?” Keith asked, although he had a creeping sense of dread that he knew the answer.

Lance’s expression darkened, as he glared down at the ground far below them.

“He went to see a witch who lived alone in the woods. A dark witch.”

Although it was the answer Keith had expected, it still felt like a punch to the gut. He had heard of dark mages before. Adam had warned him repeatedly about them—and about the dangers of becoming one. Magic was a gift, Adam had told him repeatedly, and it was one that needed to be used with caution. There was a fine line between reaching your greatest potential as a mage and becoming power-hungry, and dark mages often fell into the latter category: using their powers to summon dark spirits from the Otherworld, to manipulate others, to twist fate in ways it was not meant to be tampered with.

"She agreed to save me and my mom," Lance went on, running a finger over a long crack in the stone wall. "But she told my dad it would come with a price. I would be born cursed. And if I don't break the curse before I turn twenty, I'll––" He stopped abruptly, his hand clenching on the edge of the wall.

"You'll what?" Keith asked hoarsely.

Lance didn't answer at first, but Keith could hear him slowly draw in his breath. Then he finally turned to look at Keith, his eyes like ice. "I'll die."

He spoke those two words with such detached calmness, Keith thought maybe he had misheard. But then they began to sink in, and … No. It couldn't be true. Keith's pulse raced and the world shifted in his vision. He felt as if a dark abyss had opened up underneath him without warning.

“You’ll …” he started to say, but couldn’t continue because he felt like his throat was closing up.

I’ll die. The words rang in his head, cold and piercing. All Keith could do was keep staring at Lance, part of him desperately hoping that this was some kind of terrible joke. But the way Lance was looking back at him––expectant, fearful, vulnerable––made him realize it was true.

As soon as the reality hit him, it felt like the air had been sucked out of Keith’s lungs. Lance couldn’t die. Lance, who loved his friends and family so fiercely, who dreamed of daring quests and faraway places. Lance, telling stories with his enthusiastic gestures and crooked grin.

Thinking of anything happening to him, of a world without Lance in it, made Keith feel suddenly sick and dizzy. He had always known that Lance was going to be a knight eventually, that he would be putting his life at risk. But that had been different, somehow. Although the fear of losing Lance had always lurked behind him like a shadow, now it had a concrete deadline. He could already practically feel the wasted seconds slipping away.

All at once, his horror transformed into a raging defiance. Lance wouldn’t die. Because there was no way Keith would let that happen.

“How do you break it?” he demanded.

It came out a little more vehemently than he meant it to, and Lance’s eyes widened in surprise. “What?”

“You said if you don’t break the curse before you’re twenty then you’ll … you know.” Keith couldn’t even bring himself to say it. “But that means there is a way to break it, right?” He searched Lance’s face desperately, although it was difficult to read his expression in the dimness.

Lance hesitated, holding Keith’s gaze for a few lingering moments before he looked away again. “I …” He scratched the back of his neck. “I have to kiss my true love.”

Keith leaned back a little. Oh. He waited for Lance to say more, for there to be some kind of catch, but apparently there wasn’t one.

“That’s it?” he blurted.

He didn’t realize how insensitive that sounded until Lance whirled around to glare at him.

“I––I mean …” Keith stuttered, his face suddenly warm. “I thought it would be something more impossible like … I don’t know, having to find a crystal at the center of a volcano or fetching some magic plant from the bottom of the ocean or something. All you have to do is kiss someone?”

“Well, first of all, it’s not that simple,” Lance huffed. “I can’t go around kissing just anyone. The way the curse works is that I––I only get one chance. If I kiss the wrong person …” He trailed off, swallowing.

“Then what?” Keith asked nervously, although he suspected he knew the answer.

Lance winced. “It will kill both of us.”

Keith felt the blood drain from his face. “Oh.”

“Yeah.” Lance let out a heavy sigh, his shoulders slouching. “It has to be my true love. And for all I know, they could be anywhere in the whole world. And what if I never find them? Or what if no one ever feels like that about me? What if––”

His tone had quickly shifted from annoyed to panicked, rising a few pitches, and Keith immediately felt a twist of guilt in his stomach that he’d downplayed the severity of Lance’s plight. It suddenly hit him that Lance had hidden this secret for years, since before he and Keith had met each other, probably since he was a little kid. He’d been carrying this burden the whole time and yet always remained so kind and selfless, and the thought made Keith’s chest ache.

“Lance,” he said, putting his hand on Lance’s shoulder. Lance tensed at the touch but stopped rambling, turning to look at Keith questioningly. It took a moment for Keith to find his voice again, but then he managed to continue, “Listen, I––I know it’s scary. But you have six more years, and that gives you a pretty long time to find someone. And you will find someone. ‘Cause you’re like the nicest person I know, and you’re funny and brave and––”

He stopped himself, because he couldn’t even find the words to do justice to all of Lance’s admirable qualities. And he was mystified, honestly, that Lance would think no one would fall in love with him. Because how could anyone not fall in love with Lance?

That last thought resounded in his head as Lance stared back at him. It was too dark to clearly make out the features of his face, but Keith had memorized every detail anyway––the dark grayish-blue of his eyes, the dimple in his left cheek whenever he smiled, the tiny scar on his chin that Hunk had accidentally given him during sword practice a year ago ...

Oh. Keith’s breath caught in his chest as the realization dawned on him, as his gaze unwittingly drifted down to Lance’s mouth. Oh, no.

He snatched his hand away from Lance’s shoulder as if he’d been burned and looked quickly towards the horizon, but it was too late to escape the dizzying realization that had consumed him. Because the thought of Lance kissing someone, falling in love with someone, made Keith feel … strange. Hollow. Wrong. Which was not how he was supposed to feel about the idea of his best friend finding his true love someday … right?

At the same time, he recalled some confusing occurrences that were maybe no longer so confusing: How lately, he’d had a strange fluttering feeling in his chest whenever Lance smiled at him. How his skin prickled when Lance lightly touched his arm to get his attention, or when he leaned in to conspiratorially whisper some wry comment to Keith during training. How during a recent sparring match, Keith had felt something unexpected and electric course through his veins when Lance had pinned him to the ground, breathing raggedly as he smirked in triumph.

And perhaps most notably, just now, he’d allowed himself to imagine what it would feel like to kiss Lance––what would happen if he were to close the distance between them and gently press his lips to Lance’s, whether Lance would kiss him back, whether his mouth would taste sweet from the apple he’d eaten a few minutes ago.

Whether it would break the curse.

He cut off the thought there, because––no, no way. He was just coming to the revelation that yes, he had feelings for Lance. More-than-friend feelings. But the idea of breaking Lance’s curse was met with the simultaneous fear that kissing him would do just the opposite––as Lance had said, if he kissed the wrong person, it would kill him. Kill both of them. And Keith felt a burning hot shame that he’d even considered taking that risk, even for a moment.

Besides, the thought of being Lance’s true love … that felt preposterous. Laughable, even. True love was something reserved for fairytales, for dashing heroes and charming princes. And Keith was just …

“Keith?” Lance said.

Until then, Keith hadn’t realized he’d been silent for so long. Now he became acutely aware of Lance’s gaze on him, how his brow was creased with concern.

“Yeah?” Keith managed to say. He was grateful for the dark, which mercifully hid the redness he was sure was rising to his face.

“Are you okay?” Lance asked hesitantly. “You’re not saying anything.”

Keith couldn’t help but scoff at that. “Am I okay?”

“Well … yeah. I know this is a lot to take in and you––”

“Why didn’t you ever tell me?”

It hadn’t been the first thing he’d intended to say, but it seemed to come out of its own accord just as the hurt started to set in. He’d known Lance for two whole years now, and it stung that Lance had never trusted him with this secret. More than that, he was angry at himself for not sensing that something was wrong.

Lance opened his mouth to answer and then shut it again, turning away to face the dark valley looming ahead of them. There was no sound for a moment except the distant crickets chirping and a breeze rustling through the leaves.

“I don’t know,” Lance said at last, quietly. He drew his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them, curling in on himself. “I guess I was just worried that you’d see me differently. I know that sounds stupid, but … the way my family acts about it, they seem to think it makes me weak or—or fragile or something, like I could die at any second.

“My parents didn’t even want me to become a knight like my siblings. I had to beg them to let me start training, and they finally caved just because they could tell I wanted it really badly, but they still don’t like it.”

Keith contemplated this new information, and it felt like the pieces were all coming together. He now had a clearer understanding of why Lance was always so determined to prove himself, why he got so competitive, why he always had that defiant glint in his eye when he was fighting.

“It’s not fair.” Lance huffed, burying his chin against his crossed arms. “I—I want to help people. I don’t want this stupid curse, but there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Keith chewed his lower lip, unsure of what to say. “It’s alright,” he said at last, as gently as he could manage. “I guess I just … wish I’d known earlier.”

Lance paused, letting out a deep sigh. “I know. I’m sorry I never said anything.” He lifted his head again, turning to peer at Keith anxiously. “Are you mad at me?”

The question caught Keith off-guard, and as soon as he’d processed it all he could do was blink at Lance in incredulity.

“What? No, I’m not mad. I … I’m glad you told me,” he said. “And it doesn’t change how I see you. You’re still my best friend, Lance. That’s all that matters.”

Even in the dim moonlight, Keith could see Lance’s eyes shining.

“Thanks, Keith.”

The soft tone of Lance's voice, the heartfelt sincerity, made something tight squeeze around Keith's heart like a vice. It was clear that Lance had been terrified to tell Keith the truth, and that he was relieved that Keith didn't think any less of him because of it. And Keith knew in that moment that no matter how he felt about Lance, he couldn't let it get in the way of their friendship. He had meant it when he said that Lance was his best friend, and now more than ever, Keith had to be there for him.

He forced a small, reassuring smile. "You're welcome."

They both turned away to face the darkness before them, and Keith tried desperately to ignore the sudden heaviness at the center of his chest.

––

After their meeting with Allura, Keith and Lance separated to prepare for their departure the next day. Keith trudged back down the path to the mages' commune, clutching his cloak close to his body. Both his heart and his mind were racing as he mentally reviewed all the information Allura had given them and everything he needed to do to get ready.

It seemed surreal––impossible, almost––that within less than a day he would be headed on a journey into Galra territory. Across the Rift. With Lance.

Truthfully, he had always fantasized about getting the chance to go on a quest, but this one was so sudden. He'd always imagined that if he ever had an assignment like this one, he would at least have a few weeks' notice. Now that this was really happening, it felt like he was being plunged into ice cold water without warning.

Plus, there were several complications. One, he needed to pack everything before tomorrow. Secondly, Shiro was still away at the southern border and Keith wouldn't have a chance to say goodbye to him––he figured he could write a letter at least and ask Adam to deliver it for him, but it still left a cold feeling in the pit of his stomach.

Thirdly, he was about to go on a journey with Lance. Lance, who he still had very strong feelings for.

Lance, who was about to turn twenty in three days ... and Keith didn't know if his curse was broken yet.

Although they hadn't gotten much time to speak privately since Lance had arrived, Keith found it strange that he hadn't mentioned anything about it. In fact, he’d seemed cheerful during their brief conversation before they’d been given their mission. Which was strange, unless … unless he had broken the curse.

The more he thought about it, the more likely it seemed. After all, they hadn't been exchanging as many letters over the past couple of months, so it was plausible that Keith just hadn’t found out yet. And, well ... Lance probably wouldn't be agreeing to go on this quest if he could potentially die in three days ... would he?

Keith tried to stamp out the complicated mix of feelings that had flared up inside him. So, Lance had probably met his true love. And kissed them. Keith knew he should be happy if that was the case, as painful as it was––because the alternative was much, much worse.

Either way, he knew he would have to confront Lance about it before they left, and the thought made him feel like his stomach was tying into knots.

For now, though, he had to focus on preparing for tomorrow. He tried to set aside his most pressing worries as he walked through the door, already searching around the cottage for what to bring. It was probably best to travel light, so he settled for putting together some spare clothes, a waterskin, his luxite dagger, and a few healing crystals.

Then he sat down to write a letter for Shiro, which took a good deal longer. He fiddled with the quill for a few minutes as he struggled for something to say, and then finally managed to start putting words on the parchment. He explained the nature of the mission and tried to make it sound at least somewhat reassuring, despite that there was a very real chance that this quest could be both his first and his last. But he made sure to let Shiro know that yes, he was bringing healing crystals for any emergencies, and no, he wasn’t going to do anything reckless. And lastly, he promised to be careful and he hoped they would see each other again soon. Love, Keith.

As soon as he’d signed his name, Keith sat back in the chair and released a heavy sigh. He ran a hand through his hair as he looked up and made eye contact with Amber, who was sitting on the windowsill and watching him with a judgmental gaze as she flicked her tail back and forth.

“What are you looking at?” Keith huffed, but he still got up and crossed the room. He scratched the cat under the chin, and she closed her eyes and purred contentedly. Something loosened a little in Keith’s chest. “I’m gonna miss you, Amber. Hopefully it’ll only be a few days. Don’t let me forget to remind Adam to feed you.”

Amber chirruped like she understood, and Keith chuckled. But his smile faded as his gaze fell upon the wooden box underneath the windowsill, sitting on the edge of the desk. His hand seemed to reach out of its own accord, fingers brushing over the carvings on the box’s surface––moons and stars arranged in intricate patterns.

As if in a trance, he pulled off the lid to reveal the box’s contents: a number of neatly-folded letters that he’d kept over the past year or so. He sifted through them, a faint and involuntary smile tugging at the corner of his mouth as he unfolded one and then another.

Lance’s familiar handwriting scrawled across the pages. At times the sentences were short and the words were crowded haphazardly together. Other times the writing was neater and more evenly spaced. Keith felt as if he could read Lance’s moods just from the shape of the words, whether he had been busy or had a lot of spare time, whether he was excited or anxious or tired.

He had a fleeting instinct to run his fingers over the words but worried he would smudge the ink. Not that it mattered, anyway—he practically had each letter memorized, having read each one dozens of times, at once cherishing and analyzing each word.

The fond smile faded as he reached the bottom of the box where one letter lay buried beneath the others. Keith drew in a long breath as he pulled it out, letting it fall open. This time it was his own handwriting that glared back at him—a mess of crossed-out words and scribbled text that he had agonized over countless times.

The letter he had been trying to write for months, but had never sent.

Keith clutched the page in his hands, skimming over the words and trying not to wince. The thin paper somehow felt as heavy as stone. He had a fleeting thought about folding up the letter and tucking it into his cloak, bringing it with him … but he immediately dismissed the idea, hastily shoving the letter back to the bottom of the box where he had found it.

Letting out a short sigh, Keith looked up and made eye contact with Amber again. She was still lounging on the windowsill, her tail dangling lazily. She gave Keith a slow blink.

“Oh, don’t give me that look,” Keith muttered. He ran a hand down his face, trying to pull himself together again.

A strange, inexplicable energy had come over him, like an invisible itch underneath his skin. He knew that there was a lot he had to do to prepare for tomorrow, but right now he could only think about one thing: he had to talk to Lance.

––

It didn’t take Keith long to find him––perhaps by sheer luck, but also because he knew all of Lance’s favorite places around the palace grounds. After wandering for a few minutes, he followed a winding cobblestone path into one of the gardens.

At this time of year, there weren’t many flowers in bloom and the leaves were falling from the trees, but there were still bright green shrubberies around the garden’s perimeter. Marble statues posed alongside the path, which led to a large fountain at its center. A familiar figure paced around the fountain, the late morning sun glinting off his armor.

“Waiting for someone?” Keith asked, strolling towards Lance. He desperately tried to ignore the fluttering sensation behind his sternum when Lance looked up and met his gaze.

Lance stiffened before offering a small smile. “Oh––hey, Keith. No, I was just … exploring, I guess. Haven’t been here in a while, and thought it might be a good chance to …” He trailed off, his smile faltering.

Keith stopped next to his side and looked up at the fountain, observing the familiar carvings of Altean gods etched into the stone. “Brings back a lot of memories, huh?”

“It does,” Lance said quietly. “I’ve missed it a lot. Wish I could stay longer.”

There was something particularly hollow about his tone that instilled a deep worry in Keith’s bones. He looked over at Lance, who was still gazing upwards with a glazed look in his eyes. There was a tight, almost pained look on his face. Like he was afraid that after they left, he would never come back here again.

Keith took a deep breath, his hands clenching into fists at his sides. There was no point in postponing the inevitable question.

“Lance,” he said. “Can I ask you something?”

Lance turned towards him, eyebrows raised. It seemed to take him a second to recover before he answered, “Yeah, of course. What is it?”

“It’s just …” Keith’s heart thudded almost painfully, but he willed himself to keep going. “I know your birthday is in three days. And I’m sorry, but I have to ask … Are you … Is the curse … ?”

He gestured vaguely, unable to find a tactful way to phrase the question.

Lance stiffened in surprise before his expression hardened. He looked sharply away, glaring down at the cobblestones. A long silence ensued, and Keith was fairly certain that the suspense was going to kill him.

“No,” Lance said, voice suddenly devoid of emotion. “I haven’t broken it yet.”

The words took a moment to register, and then all Keith could do was blink in shock. An unfathomable range of emotions paraded through him, but above all else was a dizzying horror as he realized what this meant.

“But that’s … But that means you only have three days to––”

“I know, Keith,” Lance said, with a sudden edge that immediately made Keith fall silent. He let out a short breath and looked up again. Unexpectedly, some of the hardness had faded from his expression––and somehow he managed to smile, although it appeared a bit weak and forced. “But listen, it’s going to be alright. I think I’ve figured it out.”

Keith’s stomach dropped upon hearing those words. “You––You have?” he stammered. “What do you mean?”

Lance took a deep breath, and Keith’s heart felt like it had stopped and started again in the short span of moments before he spoke.

“It’s Romelle.”

The pair of words blindsided Keith, and all he could do was stare at Lance, blinking. As his mind slowly caught up with what he had heard, he felt as if he’d been slapped in the face.

“What?” was all he could manage to say. “You think Romelle is your …” He found himself unable to finish the question, feeling like his throat had closed around the words.

Some small part of him prayed that Lance was joking, but the way Lance was looking back at him was totally earnest––excited, even, his eyes alight as he nodded fervently in response.

“I don’t just think, I know. I just … I have a feeling about it. Romelle. This journey. It’s like everything is falling into place, you know?”

“So, you’re basing this on just a feeling? But how do you know? Have you ever even met Romelle before?”

The words came out with a bit more of an edge than Keith had intended them to, sharp and accusatory. He instantly regretted it as he saw Lance’s smile vanish and his eyes turn to stone.

“Well … no, I haven’t met her,” Lance admitted, then crossed his arms. “But so what? True love is … it’s true love! You just know from the second you see them.”

Keith kept his mouth shut, crossing his own arms to mirror Lance’s posture. His mind wandered involuntarily back to the letter he’d never sent, to the words he’d drafted over and over again to no avail. A tight feeling clenched around his heart.

“I …” he started to say, but he abruptly trailed off. He felt like he was dangling over a precipice, with a wide abyss beneath him. One he couldn’t crawl his way out of if he fell into it.

He was tempted to say so many things, but he knew deep down that most of them would only worsen the situation. He’d known for years now that Lance didn’t reciprocate his feelings. After all, if he’d thought Keith could be the one to break the curse, he’d had plenty of opportunities to kiss him, but never had.

A small voice at the back of Keith’s head kept insisting that he had nothing to lose by confessing, but it was drowned out by the overwhelming evidence that Lance felt nothing romantic for him in return. He had pursued countless other romantic interests––some fleeting, others long-lasting––in hopes that they could break the curse, but he had never once suggested the possibility of it being Keith.

Now that it was down to the last few days before the curse’s deadline, Keith felt the weight of each passing second like a pile of stones pinning him down. As much as he was tempted to argue with Lance, he knew there was no time––and that he couldn’t let his own feelings get in the way of Lance finding his true love. If Lance really had a gut feeling that Romelle was the one, the best Keith could do was help him reach her before it was too late. Otherwise Lance would die, and the thought made Keith feel so dizzy that he could barely stand.

He swallowed, trying to ignore the lump that had risen in his throat. “I just … want to know that you’re completely sure,” he said. “If she’s not the right person then it––it could kill both of you. And this is your last shot, and––and you’re my best friend, Lance. If anything happens to you …”

He was cut off by the sudden weight of a hand on his shoulder, and he looked up to find Lance standing right in front of him; Keith hadn’t even noticed him move forward. There was a slight furrow in his brow as he studied Keith’s face, like he was the one worrying about Keith when it should have only been the other way around.

“Keith,” he said, voice gentle in a way that made Keith forget everything he’d been about to say. “Trust me, I understand. I’m just as scared as you are. And I know it sounds crazy, but I just know that this is going to work out. I …”

He stopped, his hand slipping from Keith’s shoulder as he reached up to scratch the back of his head. “Listen, there’s one other thing I didn’t mention.”

“And what’s that?”

Lance released a short sigh, squeezing his eyes shut and opening them again. “I went to see another fortune teller.”

“You …” Keith started to say, his hands curling into loose fists as he processed the words. “Lance––”

“I know you don’t believe in them. But this one was legitimate, I swear!”

Keith bit his tongue to keep from getting into an argument over this––again. He had tried to explain to Lance countless times that actual clairvoyants were extremely rare; it was a skill that a seldom few mages were born with, and even then it took years to master it. Often those who claimed to be fortune tellers were amateur mages attempting to cheat coins from innocent people.

And, well, Lance was extremely trusting––which could sometimes be a disadvantage. He was also far more superstitious than Keith was, believing that the universe was constantly sending him signs of what was to come. Keith wasn’t like that. He had dealt with enough tragedy in his life that it was hard to believe that everything happened for a reason.

But no matter how many times Keith had cautioned him against it, Lance had continuously sought out one fortune teller after another, desperate to find any information about when he would meet his true love. It was a common enough interest that no fortune teller would question it, of course, having no clue that for Lance it was a bit more urgent––literally a matter of life and death.

"What makes you so sure that this one was telling the truth?"

"It's hard to explain, and I know I probably won't be able to convince you. But ... I don't know. Something felt different about this one. It was like ... when she looked at me, I had this weird feeling that she knew everything about me. Before I even said anything, she asked me if I was seeking my true love."

Keith wanted to point out that many people were seeking their true loves, so it could have been an easy guess, but he kept quiet. There was a hopeful gleam in Lance's eyes that held him back. Whatever this fortune teller had told him, Keith could tell that Lance wholeheartedly believed it.

"And when I told her yes, she told me I was searching for love in all the wrong places––that what I want isn't what I need, whatever that means. Anyway ... a lot of it was pretty vague, I admit, but she ended it by telling me that I would finally find true love on the other side of a 'great divide.' I had no idea what that meant at the time, but now––now it makes sense."

“It … does?” said Keith.

“Yes! The great divide … it’s the Rift,” Lance went on excitedly, grabbing Keith by the shoulders. “It all makes sense now. What else could it be?”

Keith had been rendered speechless by the feeling of Lance’s hands on his shoulders, and it didn’t help that Lance was smiling as bright as the sun, a frantic energy radiating from him that made Keith feel like he’d been hit over the head. He hadn’t seen Lance this hopeful about breaking his curse since …

“Keith?” Lance said.

He hadn’t realized he’d fallen silent until then, and that Lance was staring at him anxiously like he was waiting for Keith’s final verdict.

And … what was there to say? On one hand, he was scared that Lance was wrong and that Romelle wasn’t his true love, and that if he kissed her then the curse would kill both of them. On the other hand, they couldn’t not go when they’d already agreed to the mission––especially when Romelle’s life was at stake … and Lance’s as well.

Letting out a long breath, Keith came to a decision. This whole situation was complicated and terrifying, and it stirred up too many other emotions for him to name. But ultimately, he realized he didn’t have a choice.

“I believe you,” he said.

“You do?”

“Yes. Or at least, I can tell that you believe it, and I trust you.”

“That’s not really the same thing,” said Lance, his hopeful smile fading.

“Listen, I’m just being honest. And the truth is, I’m nervous about this mission, and on top of that we only have three days until you––” Keith stopped himself, unable to say the words without feeling like a physical pain was twisting inside his ribcage. “There’s just so much that could go wrong,” he said at last. “And I’m worried, okay?”

He let a bit more vulnerability slip into those last few words than he’d meant to, although they still had a sharp edge to them. But his change in tone had an immediate effect, and he could feel it like a wall crumbling between them.

Some of the tension fell from Lance’s shoulders, and his arms dropped to his sides again. “Me, too,” he admitted. “And I wish it hadn’t come to this. I’m sorry.”

“Sorry? For what?”

“For involving you in all of this. Making you worry about me. Not breaking the curse sooner. I––I don’t know.”

Lance’s gaze shied away, his shoulders hunching again. There was no sound for a few long moments, except for the rustling of the wind through the branches and the babble of the fountain standing next to them.

“Lance,” Keith said. “You don’t need to apologize for any of that. You know that.”

Now it was his turn to reach out, touching Lance on the arm. Lance looked up at him in surprise and Keith pulled his hand back again, his face burning.

“We’re in this together,” he managed to continue. “We always have been. You know I’ve always got your back, just like you’ve always had mine. And we’re gonna break this curse no matter what it takes.”

“Yeah?” Lance said hoarsely.

The air went still in Keith’s lungs as he looked Lance in the eyes, at the layers of emotion hidden there––each one achingly familiar. He knew then that he would do anything to save Lance in the end. Even if it meant giving up his own deepest hope.

He forced a reassuring smile as he reached out his hand for Lance to grasp. “You know it.”

Lance took one look at Keith’s hand and a sudden, decisive look crossed his face. He grabbed Keith’s hand and tugged him forward—which made Keith’s heart stop for about half a second before Lance pulled him into a bone-crushing hug.

As the momentary surprise wore off, Keith’s pulse slowed down and some of the stiffness eased from his limbs. He closed his eyes and allowed himself to take comfort in the solidity of Lance’s embrace, returning the hug with his free arm.

“Thank you, Keith,” Lance muttered against his shoulder.

It reminded Keith of all those years ago when Lance had said the same thing to him in the orchard under the stars, voice choked with relief.

And just like that night, he silently vowed to himself that he would stay by Lance’s side … no matter what happened.

Considering the circumstances, Keith had asked Lance if he wanted to leave even sooner than they had initially planned. But Lance wanted to wait until the next morning, intent on spending this last night with his family—most of whom still lived in the nearby village.

While Keith didn’t exactly have the same option, similarly he decided to spend the evening with Adam. After dinner, the two of them sat by the fireplace with steaming mugs of tea in their hands. Adam kept magically changing the color of the flames with a flick of his wrist—a simple spell that had always amused Keith when he was younger, and one of the first ones Adam had taught him.

There was a comforting sense of familiarity about it; Keith could tell that it was Adam’s way of trying to break the tension. But it couldn’t keep his worries at bay forever.

After a few quiet minutes of watching the colorful flames flicker, Keith slumped in his chair and heaved a sigh.

Adam looked over at him, the currently-blue fire reflected in his spectacles. “Are you alright?”

Keith’s hands tightened around his mug as he lifted it to his face, inhaling the herbal scent of its contents. “I don’t know,” he answered honestly. He took a long sip of tea, and it felt like fire burning down his throat.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Adam asked after a brief silence.

He had never been quite as natural at comforting Keith as Shiro had always been. In fact, Adam and Keith were similar when it came to addressing their emotions—a bit awkward and not very articulate. But Keith appreciated the sentiment nonetheless, and right now he needed someone to confide in.

“Lance hasn’t broken his curse yet.”

Keith blurted out the words with no prefacing, but … well, there wasn’t much point in dancing around it. He continued to stare into the flames, eyes watering from the heat.

“Oh,” Adam said. His chair creaked faintly as he leaned back. “I see.”

“He only has three more days,” Keith went on, “and we’re going on this quest together, and he thinks that the person we’re rescuing is going to break the curse because of something a fortune teller told him. And I …” He stopped to take a breath.

Adam was patiently quiet, leaning forward to lean his elbows against his knees. “And you still have feelings for him.”

It was more of a statement than a question, and it took Keith by surprise. He glanced over to briefly meet Adam’s calculating gaze, and then looked away again.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said tightly.

Adam leaned over to scratch Onyx behind the ears as she rubbed against his chair leg. “Why do you say that?”

“Because …” Keith inhaled shakily. “It’s not me.”

They’d been over this before, and he wasn’t in the mood to get into an argument––especially not when he was going to leave the next day. He kept stubbornly facing forward, his jaw clenched.

“What makes you so certain?” Adam asked. He kept his tone casual, like he knew he was treading on the edge of something sharp and dangerous, but Keith could feel the weight behind the question.

“Trust me. I’ve been friends with him for almost eight years,” Keith huffed. “He’s had plenty of chances to …” He trailed off, ducking his head a bit to hide the redness he could feel rising to his cheeks.

“But he never has,” said Adam. He took a sip of his tea, raising an eyebrow. “Right?”

Keith could feel his flush deepening, and he ran a hand down his face with a groan. “Adam …”

“I’m just saying.” Adam bent down to scoop Onyx off the floor. The black cat curled up in his lap and began to purr loudly. Chuckling to himself, Adam stroked a hand along her back. “You never know. Shiro and I knew each other for about five years before I found out my feelings for him were mutual. Before he confessed to me, I was completely oblivious.”

Despite the circumstances, Keith couldn’t help but smile faintly at that. The expression only lasted a moment, though, before fading again. “No offense, but this situation is a little more complicated.”

“I realize that, and I won’t pry any further. I just wanted to … you know, point that out.” Adam paused, clearing his throat. “But in all seriousness, I have faith that your mission will be successful, and that Lance will be alright. I know how much you care about him, and that you’ll do whatever you can to help him.”

Keith tried to take comfort in Adam’s words and the certainty in his tone, but it was hard to ignore the persistent knot of dread in his stomach.

“I will,” he said. "I'm just ... I'm worried. I––I already almost lost him once. I can't go through that again."

His hands tightened around his mug as he spoke, as the painful memory of that day flooded through his mind: the blood, the dark symbol on Lance’s chest, the horrific pain that had consumed him when he––

He was drawn sharply back to the present again by the weight of Adam’s hand on his shoulder.

“I understand,” Adam said. “And you have a right to be scared. I'm worried, too––for both of you. But I know you and Lance work well together, that you both have good instincts. I'm not saying I know what will happen, but I have a feeling it will turn out well in the end."

He spoke the words haltingly, but Keith still found some reassurance in them, as small as it was.

"Thanks, Adam," he said, before turning to stare at the flames once more. "I hope you're right."

––

In the years after Keith first learned about Lance's curse, he fought with every fiber of his being to overcome his feelings.

It proved completely futile.

It didn't help that they were already close friends and saw each other nearly every day, that they trained side-by-side, that they continued their midnight escapes to the orchard to share secrets beneath the stars. If anything, Keith only felt his attachment to Lance––as much as he tried to resist it––growing stronger with every passing day.

To make matters worse, adolescence was very kind to Lance. He grew taller than Keith––only by an inch or two, but still. His gangly frame began to fill out, his muscles became more defined, his shoulders broadened. All the while, he maintained the same charm and kindness he’d always had.

No matter how many times Keith tried to build up the walls around his heart, Lance kept breaking them back down. But as Keith’s feelings for him grew relentlessly stronger, so did his certainty that Lance didn’t feel the same way about him. Yes, Lance had always been kind to him, had always provided him with advice or comfort when he needed it, remained close with him at the best and worst of times. But every time Keith dared to think maybe he had a chance, those hopes were immediately dashed.

Especially as they grew older, Lance was constantly on the lookout for the true love that would break his curse—and it seemed that he found a potential candidate in pretty much anyone except Keith. It wasn’t long until Keith had lost track of how many times Lance had come rushing to him excitedly claiming he had finally figured it out, he had found the one, that he meant it this time.

He cycled through almost all the other knights-in-training, strangers who smiled at him as he passed by, people he danced with at festivals. Keith repeatedly watched Lance go through the same stages each time—hope, indecision, sometimes heartbreak. But he still continued to pursue one potential romantic interest after another with impressive resilience.

By the time they were around seventeen, the universe had started to pull the two of them in different directions. Although they still spent a lot of time around the palace and sometimes in the training arena, they both accumulated new responsibilities. Keith began traveling with Adam to nearby villages to aid the sick. Lance, meanwhile, was officially knighted and began going on quests––which ranged from journeying to the Balmeran Valley to collect healing crystals, to traveling to villages throughout the kingdom to settle disputes or drive away bandits and thieves. Most of these quests weren’t too dangerous, but Lance would often be gone for days or weeks at a time.

It was around then, however, that Allura became the queen after her parents’ death. Rumors of war began to circulate the kingdom in frightened whispers. Suddenly everything was very different, and they were constantly on the edge between peace and conflict. In the year that followed, there was not much time for frivolity as everyone throughout Altea prepared for the worst.

This meant that more and more often, knights were training rigorously and being sent out to patrol the Altean borders. As a high-ranking knight, Shiro was hardly ever at home; and while Lance was still relatively new to knighthood, it wasn't long before he was being sent out on patrol missions as well.

Keith had his own studies to attend to, honing his healing magic in case it was needed to attend to the wounded in future warfare. He and Adam still made their trips to local villages when there were outbreaks of any illnesses, but Keith had noticed a distinct change in the atmosphere. People had always stared at the Galra markings on his face––sometimes with curiosity, other times with disdain––but he'd found that with the threat of the war against Daibazaal hanging over them all, villagers were much more likely to glare at him or to pull their children closer to them when he passed them.

Tension had settled over the kingdom like a heavy fog, and Keith could feel its weight growing more unbearable with each day. It was almost enough to distract him from the ongoing struggle with his own feelings. Almost.

Shortly before his eighteenth birthday, Lance was assigned to join the guard at the southern border. While he had been away for long stretches of time before, this was going to be his longest assignment yet. He was going to be gone for months, possibly a year.

Upon hearing that Lance was leaving for so long, Keith felt a confusing range of emotions. He’d been trying his best to keep his feelings for Lance at bay, especially during such trying times, but knowing that Lance would be gone for so long made him … reconsider.

He was hit with a sudden empty feeling at the prospect of being separated from Lance for such an extended period of time—away from his smile, his laugh, the familiar warmth that seemed to radiate from his very being, the ease of the conversations between them. Keith could already feel a gnawing ache in his chest as the days before Lance’s departure dwindled away.

After endless hours of internally debating himself over it, Keith knew he had to make a decision before time ran out. If he didn’t confess now, then he wouldn’t have a chance again for months. Not that it mattered if he wasn’t Lance’s true love, but maybe––in the grand scheme of things––it would be better to just know that now rather than agonizing over it until Lance returned.

So, he made up his mind: he was going to tell Lance how he felt.

Naturally, though, he kept putting off the confession until the day before Lance was set to leave. To be fair, both he and Lance were busy in the preceding days and didn't have much time for private conversation. But they'd agreed to meet at the orchard one more time right before sunset, for old time's sake.

As Keith made his way to the familiar meeting place, his heartbeat thundered in his ears and his mind raced to rehearse the words he wanted to say. Lance, I need to tell you something. No, that would scare him. Listen, we've known each other a long time, and I hope this doesn’t ruin our friendship, but ... No, no. He kept rearranging the sentences in his head, but they only ended up falling into a jumbled heap.

He was so preoccupied with his frenzied thoughts that he hardly noticed when he finally reached the orchard. He only snapped out of it when he looked up and saw Lance waiting for him, seated underneath an apple tree. The sun was just setting, and there was enough golden light that the shadows of the leaves still cast a dappled pattern across the ground.

Upon seeing Keith, Lance leapt to his feet and rushed towards him. Keith noticed right away that there was an excited energy about him––which seemed strange, considering he was about to leave his friends and family behind for months. A giddy grin lit up his face, and his cheeks were somewhat flushed like he had just run all the way here.

“Keith!” he exclaimed once they’d reached each other. He threw his arms around Keith and hugged him so tightly that Keith wheezed a little.

“Hey, Lance,” Keith managed to say, although it came out more weakly than Lance’s greeting. He managed a hesitant smile as he returned Lance’s embrace and then stepped back again. “Did something happen? You look …”

He couldn’t think of what word to say as he looked Lance up and down, but he was starting to get a slow sinking feeling in his stomach as he realized how well he recognized Lance’s expression: the hopeful glimmer in his eyes, the flush in his face, the way he could barely seem to contain his excitement.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” Lance said in a rush, before Keith could even complete his thought. “I wanted to see you before I left, of course, but also … I need to tell you something.”

Those words––combined with Lance’s elated, crooked grin––made Keith’s heart flutter involuntarily. Everything he’d wanted to say vanished from his mind.

“Yes?” he said instead, breathlessly.

Lance bit his lip for a moment like he was struggling to contain the world’s best surprise, and then he grabbed Keith by the shoulders––which, at this point, made Keith feel as if his soul had detached from his body.

“I know who it is,” said Lance.

Keith's ears rang. He knew what Lance meant by this––after all, he'd heard him say those same words many times before. But this time, there was more certainty to it than there'd ever been. Keith couldn't even manage to speak, to ask the question that hovered on the tip of his tongue.

A moment passed where Lance just kept staring at him expectantly, like he was waiting for Keith to make a guess. When Keith said nothing, Lance let out a breathless laugh and squeezed his shoulders.

"It's Allura."

Keith blinked. It took a second as the words sank in, and then they hit him like an avalanche. Oh. The momentary flicker of hope he'd felt immediately smoldered to ashes.

"Allura ... ?" was all he could manage to say at last. He suddenly found it difficult to speak––his throat dry, his tongue as heavy as stone.

"I don't know why I didn't see it before," Lance said, smacking a hand to his forehead. "But it's obvious, isn't it? I mean, I'd considered it, but ... I don't know, I guess I never thought it was a possibility since she was royalty and all, but––trust me, it just feels right this time."

Although Keith could hear Lance speaking, he felt like he was listening from very far away. The words reached him as if from down a long tunnel, faint and distant.

Lance continued enthusiastically, explaining how he and the queen had become a lot closer recently, how he had always admired her, how she was beautiful and brave and kind.

"Obviously we've always been good friends," he concluded, "but ... I've realized it's something more than that."

Keith tried not to wince, instead attempting to school his expression into some positive emotion––excitement, joy, anything. After all, he should've been happy. If Lance had really found his true love, that meant he could break his curse. And yet, an ugly feeling had reared its head deep in Keith's stomach. A gnawing, dark pain that he couldn't seem to shake away.

Still, he managed to conjure up a weak smile, to swallow the lump that had formed in his throat.

"That's ..." His voice came out smaller than he'd intended, and he cleared his throat. "That's great, Lance. Does she ... ?"

He couldn't seem to get the question out, but Lance seemed to understand.

“I haven’t asked her yet.” He smiled sheepishly, scratching the back of his head. “But I think I’m going to talk to her tonight. Before I leave.”

“Tonight?” Keith repeated faintly.

“I know, it seems a little sudden. But I promise I’ve given this a lot of thought, and it just feels like the time is right.” He let out a short breath, running a hand through his hair. “Gosh, I’ve never felt like this before, like … I’m just so certain, you know? I’m finally going to break the curse.”

There was such confidence in the statement, in the brightness of Lance’s smile. Keith's instinct was to caution him against being too optimistic. After all, he had seen Lance go through the same thing before only to end up heartbroken––not to mention, the wrong decision could literally kill him. This time, though, something held Keith back. He could see that Lance truly believed it this time, and the thought of taking that away from him made Keith feel tremendously guilty. Besides, it was probably his own bitterness coloring his perspective.

"I don't even know what I'm going to say," Lance went on, seemingly too lost in his own thoughts to notice that Keith hadn't spoken. "I always thought I'd be able to come up with something naturally when the time was right, but––"

His excited rambling had suddenly developed an edge of anxiety, and Keith tried to gather his scattered wits enough to realize he should probably be providing some semblance of comfort.

"Hey, I'm sure you'll come up with the right thing to say," he said at last, as much as it pained him. “You always do.”

Lance stared at Keith for a moment with a slightly puzzled expression, like he thought he was missing something, but then his face broke out in a grin again. He rushed forward and hugged Keith tightly.

"Thanks, Keith,” he said. “Wish me luck.”

Keith hugged him back, and hoped Lance couldn't hear how choked he sounded as he answered softly, "Good luck."

––

Keith tried to hold it together as he made his way back to the mages' compound. He glared down at the leaves skittering across the dirt path in the wind, his vision blurring.

A whole range of emotions sifted through him, but above it all was a devastating sense of humiliation, because of course––of course Lance didn't feel the same way about him, of course he was in love with someone else ... with the queen of all people, someone who was courageous and beautiful and powerful, and how could Keith have thought he ever had a chance?

He kept thinking about how close he had come to confessing his feelings, and it made him feel like a deep fissure was opening up between his ribs, a wrenching feeling that made him want to cry or scream or ... or ... he didn't know what, just that he didn't know what to do with the overwhelming pain.

He stumbled through the front door of the hut and closed it behind him, falling back heavily against it. It was only then that he let a shuddering breath escape from him as he ran a hand down his face.

"Keith?"

He froze. Oh, no.

He'd been so caught up in his inner turmoil that he hadn't stopped to notice that the room was aglow with flickering light, that there was a figure sitting on a stool by the fireplace. Shiro. He had been whittling away at a piece of wood––carving some small figurine that Keith couldn't distinguish the features of from where he stood––but he set the project aside and got to his feet as he took in the sight of Keith slumped against the door.

"What's wrong?"

"I ..." Keith started to say and then faltered, his vision swimming. His instinct was to insist he was fine, but he was certain that Shiro wasn't going to believe him––not when he looked like an absolute wreck, when he knew it was only a matter of time until he broke down. He swallowed, his heart hammering as he tried to find the words to explain, to tell Shiro the truth he'd been hiding for so long. "Lance ..." was all he could manage to say, weakly.

Shiro had paced the length of the room towards him, but stopped a few feet away like he thought Keith would run away if he came any closer. "Right. He's leaving tomorrow, isn't he?"

Keith nodded, glaring at the wooden floor.

"Is that what's upsetting you?" Shiro asked carefully. There was something in his tone, a certain caution, that made Keith suspect he knew it was something more than that, although he didn't ask it outright.

"No. I mean, yes. It's a part of it, but ..." Keith took a step away from the door, pushing the hood of his cloak back and running a hand through his hair. He paced back and forth a couple of times, still trying to summon the courage to say it.

"Then what––"

"I'm in love with him," Keith said. It came out suddenly, harshly, like he was throwing a punch. He'd never said it out loud before and it was simultaneously like a burden lifting from his shoulders and like a dagger plunging through his chest.

Shiro didn't say anything, and Keith stopped his pacing to whirl around and face him. The ground felt unsteady under his feet and his ears were ringing.

"I'm in love with him, Shiro," he said again, hoarsely this time. "And he ... he's in love with someone else."

He couldn't bring himself to look up, to see Shiro's reaction. All he could do was keep staring at the floorboards, his hands clenching into fists. After a moment, he heard a low creak as Shiro stepped forward, watched his shadow shifting a few cautious inches closer.

"Keith ..." was all Shiro said. He didn't say anything else, but the soft and understanding sympathy in his voice was enough to push Keith over the edge.

His eyes welled up and he felt the warmth of tears spilling down his face. He roughly wiped them away with his sleeve, wishing he could just turn right back around and run away. But something kept him rooted to the spot, not even having the heart to feel humiliated as his breath audibly shuddered out of him.

"God, I feel so ... I'm so stupid."

He buried his face in his hands and tried to breathe deeply, to gain control over himself again, but he knew it was a lost cause. He tried to suppress the sob building up in his chest, but it escaped before he could stop it.

“What? Hey, no you’re not.” He felt Shiro’s hands on his shoulders––his prosthetic right hand weighing slightly more than his left one. “You’re not stupid for having feelings.”

Keith let out a choked noise, his hands falling away from his face. He couldn’t remember the last time he had cried in front of Shiro and it made him feel so small and helpless, like he was a child again. But at this point, he didn’t care. He just surged forward to bury his face against Shiro’s shoulder, no longer bothering to hide the sobs that kept heaving out of him.

Shiro tensed for a moment and then wrapped his arms around Keith, giving him a comforting pat on the back and murmuring that it was alright, and that Keith could let it out as much as he needed to. And Keith complied, for once not caring that he was showing such bare vulnerability. Everything that he’d kept pent up inside for years came spilling out.

In the midst of the quiet, only interrupted by the crackling of the fire and his own muffled sobs, he allowed his heart to break.

Keith still awoke at the crack of dawn to go say goodbye to Lance before his departure. Even though he knew it would be painful, the thought of not seeing him one more time before he left was even worse.

He made it to the crest of the hill where the royal guard had gathered, relief rushing through him when he saw he’d made it on time. Horses stood patiently, swishing their tails and pawing at the dirt. Keith craned his neck as he navigated his way through the shuffling crowd of knights, who were busy readying their horses, their armor gleaming in the early morning light.

Finally, he spotted a familiar figure at the edge of the crowd. Even though his back was turned, Keith recognized him immediately and his heart rate sped up.

“Lance,” he said by way of greeting, still slightly out of breath from running up the hill.

Lance had been busy adjusting the saddle on his horse, Blue, who turned her head to look at Keith with her ears flicking. Tensing at the sound of Keith’s voice, Lance turned around to face him.

“Oh … hey, Keith.”

“Hey,” Keith echoed, then wasn’t sure what to say. He coughed into his fist. “I just wanted to see you before you left. And to ask you …” He glanced around them, lowering his voice. “How did it go?”

Lance stiffened at the words and then visibly deflated, his shoulders sagging. He suddenly avoided Keith’s gaze, reaching up to absentmindedly place a hand against Blue’s neck, rubbing his palm against her dappled hide.

“Right, that,” he said, voice tight like he was struggling not to display any emotion. “Allura … She doesn’t feel the same way. About me.”

The words came out haltingly, and so quiet that Keith strained to hear them. As it dawned on him what Lance had just said, a heavy feeling settled in Keith’s gut. He now noticed the telltale signs of distress written on Lance’s face that he hadn’t noticed right away––the dark circles under his eyes, the small furrow in his brow. He looked like he hadn’t slept all night.

Keith’s hands twitched at his sides as he stood rooted to the spot, conflicted. He wanted to reach out, to put a hand on Lance’s shoulder or hug him or something, yet he felt like an invisible barrier had gone up between them.

“Lance,” he said at last, softly. “I’m …”

“It’s alright,” Lance cut him off, a little too sharply for it to be convincing. He still wouldn’t look Keith in the eye, as his hands worked at the buckles on Blue’s saddle, tightening it securely in place. “It’s my own fault, really. I totally misread the situation and got these ridiculous ideas into my head, and …” He trailed off, huffing out a humorless laugh. “Besides, it’s not like it’s the first time I’ve been rejected.”

Keith bit his lip, unsure of what to say. He could tell that Lance was far more devastated than he was letting on, that he had really gotten his hopes up this time only to have them crushed. There was an uncharacteristic dullness to his eyes that made Keith want to embrace him tightly, to tell him he deserved someone who would walk to the ends of the earth for him.

But no matter how he tried to say something, nothing felt sufficient. At least, nothing that he was brave enough to admit out loud.

At this point, other knights around them were starting to mount their horses. Someone was yelling out commands in the near distance.

“Hey, Lance!” Hunk’s voice called out from nearby. He was already mounted on his own horse, waving in Keith and Lance’s direction from a slight distance away. “Are you about ready to go?”

Lance stiffened in sudden attention. “Yes, be there in a moment!” he called back, before turning to Keith again. “Looks like we’re leaving,” he said with a sigh.

Without further ado, he hoisted a foot into one of Blue’s stirrups and vaulted onto her back. She nickered and shook her head, and Lance gave her a reassuring pat on the neck.

Once he was settled in the saddle, Lance took hold of the reins and looked down at Keith one more time. He managed a wistful smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Write to me, okay?”

The request caught Keith by surprise, but he gave a firm nod in response. “I will.”

Lance kept staring at him as if he was waiting for Keith to say something else––or like he was going to say something himself––but instead he just nodded back before a stony expression crept back onto his face. Without another word, he tugged on Blue’s reins and turned her around.

Keith remained standing at the crest of the hill as the thunder of hooves shook the earth surrounding him, and the horses all began to gallop down the slope. He remained as the small army of knights made their way across the valley, clouds of dust rising from the ground around them, silver armor flashing in the sunlight.

He watched until they disappeared over the horizon, and it wasn’t until then that he realized: neither he nor Lance had even said goodbye.

––

Keith and Lance left for their quest to Daibazaal at the break of dawn––and about an hour after their departure, Keith already felt like he was about to fall asleep on his horse. He hadn’t slept well the night before, spending most of the hours tossing and turning fitfully, eyes wide open to the darkness. Fears and worries had collected and rolled inside his mind like a thunderstorm, fierce and relentless.

It had taken monumental effort to rise out of bed in the morning as soon as he heard the roosters outside crowing. He had hugged Adam goodbye, reminded him to feed the cats and give Shiro his letter, and then he was off to meet Lance at the stables.

Lance seemed just as exhausted as Keith was, and had been uncharacteristically quiet and somber since they left. Keith imagined it must have been painful for him to part with his family, but he didn’t want to pry too much about it.

They were now following a narrow trail through the woods. The sun had barely just risen, winking from between the trees and casting long shadows across the ground. Although the air was gradually growing warmer, it was still cold enough that Keith’s breath misted in front of him. He kept his hood pulled up and ducked his chin down, trying to bury the lower half of his face in his scarf as much as he could. His eyes ached for rest, but Keith knew they had a long day ahead of them, and they couldn’t waste a single moment of time thanks to their imminent deadline.

Luckily, Red’s brisk pace kept Keith alert. Named for her russet coat, the horse had always been Keith’s favorite, even if she had always proven to be a bit more unpredictable than the other horses. There was a certain spark to her personality, a wild yet appealing edge. And she seemed to trust him; while she had been known to throw other riders, she had never done so to Keith. Most importantly, she was very fast, and speed was of the utmost importance for this journey.

The only downfall was that Red had a tendency to race further ahead than Blue, and Keith had to tug on her reins on occasion to get her to slow down so that they wouldn’t leave Lance and Blue behind. But they managed to find a reasonable pace somewhere along the way.

Neither Keith nor Lance had spoken much since they’d left. With the lack of conversation, there was little sound in the morning stillness besides the thud of their horses’ hooves against the earth and the occasional rustling of the leaves.

Whenever Keith spared a look over his shoulder, he saw Lance sitting in quiet contemplation, dark eyes fixed on the horizon. Keith didn’t want to disturb him, but he was also getting a gnawing sense of worry that something was wrong.

The path widened up ahead, and there was finally enough space that the two of them could ride alongside each other. At that point it was difficult for Keith not to keep glancing in Lance’s direction, with each glimpse taking in another detail––the sharp angle of his jaw, the way the golden sunlight reflected off his chest plate, the bow and quiver of arrows slung across his back and the sword hanging at his side.

He looked every bit the part––a hero riding into the depths of danger. Keith felt underprepared and inexperienced in comparison, never having been in a real battle. Although he had been trained for it, and he was comforted by the weight of luxite dagger at his hip, a dark feeling still curled in his stomach as he thought of the perils that lay ahead.

“What is it?” Lance asked, interrupting his train of thought.

Keith blinked. “What?”

“You keep staring at me,” said Lance. Maybe Keith imagined it, but it almost sounded more teasing than accusatory.

“What? I didn’t––wasn’t––” Keith stammered and then turned sharply forward, hoping the shadow of his hood was enough to hide the color he was sure had risen to his face. He searched for something to say, anything to change the subject. “I guess it’s just … you haven’t been saying anything.”

“Neither have you.”

“I know, but I don’t usually––” Keith started to say and then cut himself off.

“Are you implying that I talk all the time?” When Keith didn’t answer, Lance chuckled a little. “Well … fair enough. If you must know, I was thinking.”

“Shocking.”

Lance gasped in mock offense. “Oh, like you’re one to talk. Anyway … I was thinking about what I’m going to say to Romelle when I meet her.”

“Oh.” Keith’s hands tightened on Red’s reins as he continued to stare forward at the trodden path. “Do you have any ideas?”

“Not exactly. I’m hoping that the right words will come naturally in the moment, but I also feel like I should have something prepared.”

“Shouldn’t you be more concerned about … you know, saving her first?”

“Good point,” Lance mused, scratching his chin. “I guess I should make some kind of grand entrance first—barging into her prison cell, felling enemy guards left and right, then sweeping her off her feet.”

Keith huffed. “You’re making it sound like one of those horrible old romance books we all used to read out loud to each other in the library.”

“Oh, please. You secretly loved those, I know it.”

Keith frowned and said nothing—mainly because he had loved those melodramatic romances, but he would sooner die than admit it out loud.

After they continued to ride in silence for another minute, Lance heaved a sigh.

“I don’t know. I’m a little nervous, I guess,” he admitted. He absentmindedly twisted one of Blue’s reins around his fingers in a loop. “I’ve spent my whole life waiting for this moment and … what if I mess it up somehow?”

The genuine worry in his tone caught Keith by surprise, and he looked up to find that Lance had lowered his head.

“Hey,” he said gently. “You won’t mess it up, Lance. All you really need to do is … be yourself.”

He almost cringed at how hollow and forced the words sounded. But, on the other hand, it was true. In his eyes, there really wasn’t anything Lance had to change about himself to make someone fall in love with him. He wished he could fully articulate it, that he could make Lance see all of his admirable qualities—his natural charm, his sense of humor, his genuine kindness and bravery, his fierce protectiveness of others. But he couldn’t say it for fear of exposing his deepest secret.

Lance regarded Keith with an eyebrow raised as if he wasn’t entirely convinced, or like he was waiting for Keith to say something else. When Keith offered no further advice, Lance faced forward again.

“Thanks,” he said. “I suppose all I can do is hope for the best, right?”

There was a forced optimism to the words, but Keith knew Lance well enough to detect even the slightest hint of trepidation in his tone. He drew in a deep breath, searching for words that would provide any comfort at all.

But before he could, Lance’s façade rose back up again, and he shot Keith a wicked grin.

“Hey, I’ll race you to the top of that hill up ahead.”

“What––” Keith started to say.

But Lance had already cracked Blue’s reins and let out a whoop as he sped forward. Fallen leaves scattered in all directions under the horse’s galloping hooves.

“Lance? Lance, wait. Oh, you’ve got to be––”

Keith huffed in slight annoyance, knowing that Lance was trying to avoid the topic at hand, but he didn’t have the energy to pursue it any further for now. Besides, he couldn’t help but feel a familiar spark of competitiveness as he watched Lance and Blue run far ahead of him.

With a slight shake of his head and a faint smirk, he gripped Red’s reins and raced to catch up.

Dear Lance,

I hope this letter finds you well. I’m sorry, maybe that sounds too formal. I don’t know how to write a good letter, honestly. But you said to write to you, and I haven’t heard from you and it’s been a few weeks now, so I thought I would at least try.

How are things at the southern border? It’s been a bit cold here lately. I hope it’s warmer where you are.

I’m sorry for not writing sooner. There’s been a bad fever spreading through some of the nearby villages. Don’t worry, your family is fine. I went to check on them yesterday afternoon. The other mages and I have had a lot of work to do, helping to heal the sick. Fortunately we haven’t had any losses so far.

I did have a strange experience a few days ago where a man refused to let me heal him. I thought he was just delirious at first, but then he kept staring at me with this terrified look and then pointed at my Galra markings and told me to stay away from him. Adam had to step in and help him instead.

It’s not the first time something like that has happened to me, but for some reason I can’t stop thinking about it. I think it was just that he looked so scared and disgusted like he really thought I wanted to hurt him. It’s always been hard, but people have been especially outspoken about their prejudice lately what with all the tensions between Altea and Daibazaal rising.

I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to start rambling. I guess this is the kind of thing I would tell you about in person if you were here. It’s weird not having you around. I know you’ve been away for longer than this before, but … I don’t know. It feels different this time. That probably doesn’t make any sense, does it?

Anyway, Adam thinks I’m finally ready to start learning elemental magic. I’m trying not to get my hopes up too high, because I know it takes a lot of time and practice to master, but I’m still looking forward to learning. Adam told me that mages often find they have an affinity for one element or another—for example, his is earth—so I wonder what mine is going to be, if I’m able to master it at all.

This is getting long so I’ll try to bring this to a close. I just wanted to say I hope you’re alright. I know how upset you were when you left. But trust me, you’ll find the right person to break the curse someday, I know it.

Stay safe.

Keith

 

––

Dear Keith,

First of all, I was so excited to receive your letter! I know I asked you to write but it still came as a pleasant surprise. It’s good to hear from you!

You don’t need to apologize for taking a few weeks to write. It’s not like I’ve written to you yet, either. Things have also been busy here. We’re either training or patrolling the wall pretty much all day long—sometimes in the dead of night, too, depending on which shift I’m assigned to. Whenever I have spare time, I’m usually so exhausted that all I want to do is sleep.

It’s been pretty cold here lately too, and the days are getting shorter and shorter. Kind of gloomy, especially if I’m outside standing guard for hours on end.

I’m so sorry to hear about that man who refused your help. That’s so horrible that I don’t even know what to say. I know you’ve dealt with things like this before, but I also know that doesn’t make it any less painful. If I had been there, I would’ve given him a piece of my mind! It makes me furious that someone would treat you like that.

You’ve helped so many people, Keith. And you’ve been there for me more times than I can count. I’ll always be grateful for your friendship and I hope you know that.

Speaking of which, I’m touched that you checked in on my family. I’ve been exchanging letters with them so I know they’re alright, but I still really appreciate it. Thank you.

That’s so exciting that Adam is going to be teaching you elemental magic! You need to keep me updated about that. I have a feeling I know what your affinity is going to be, but I guess I’ll wait and see.

As for what you said about breaking the curse … thank you. You’re right, I admit I was upset when I departed. Well, that’s putting it mildly, if I’m being honest. I know it sounds dramatic, but I was heartbroken when Allura told me she didn’t return my feelings. You’ve warned me time and time again that I should be careful, that it’s dangerous to get my hopes up too high. I should have listened. But I really thought I had figured it out this time.

Now that I’ve had some time to think about it, I believe I mistook my respect and admiration for her as something more than it was. Allura is beautiful, and brave, and an amazing queen. I’ve always admired her strength and courage.

But I realize now that it was foolish of me to put so much confidence into believing that she would be the one to break the curse. I don't know how I thought I was worthy of her.

Well, if anything, this experience has taught me that I need to be more careful with my feelings. I guess I should have learned that long ago, after having been rejected so many times, but this time was a much more painful blow.

I hope this isn't getting too personal. It's just that sometimes I feel so scared, Keith. Maybe that sounds silly, but it's true. Every day I worry more and more that I won't be able to break the curse in time.

Anyway, I apologize for rambling and I still appreciate what you said. I know you're right that I just need to wait for the right person to come along. I'm trying to keep an open mind and to wait for the universe to send me a sign.

I miss talking to you in person, too. Most of the other knights here are friendly, and I’m lucky that Hunk was assigned to the same post as me and it’s nice to have him here for company … but still, I miss all of you back home. I miss those nights out in the orchard and think about them a lot. It seems like so long ago and yet like it was only yesterday. It's strange how time passes that way, isn't it?

I hope you're doing well and that we see each other again sometime within the coming months. Tell everyone I say hello.

Lance

––

Dear Lance,

I apologize for the delay in responding, but I was glad to receive your letter. It’s good to hear from you, too.

It sounds like you have a lot of work to do at the border, but I hope you still find the time to rest and to spend time talking with the other knights and things like that. I’m sure that standing guard can be boring, but I guess that’s preferable to the border being attacked, right?

Since I last wrote, the fever seems to have died out except a few cases here and there. But the worst is over. I appreciate everything you said regarding that man who refused my help because I was half-Galra. Luckily that was the worst thing that happened, besides receiving some suspicious looks here and there. But anyway, thank you. You’ve always stood up for me and that means a lot. You know I would always do the same for you.

Now that we don’t have to spend as much time helping in the villages, Adam has finally had some time to start teaching me about elemental magic. It feels very different from the healing magic I’m used to, but I think I’m starting to understand it. Well, almost. So far I only seem to be able to summon fire, although there have been a few … incidents. I may have accidentally burned off one of Shiro’s eyebrows––don’t worry, Adam was able to fix it with magic, but he couldn’t stop laughing about it for hours afterward.

Shiro now refuses to be in the same room as me when I’m practicing. Not that I can blame him. I’m really embarrassed about it but I thought you might think it was funny. Hopefully I get some better control once I’ve had more practice.

Don’t worry, you don’t sound dramatic. But you’re wrong, you know. It's not that you weren't worthy of Allura, it's just that she wasn't the right person for you. But you'll find the right person someday, and they'll recognize how smart and brave and selfless you are. I know I tell you this all the time, but I mean it.

And it's not a weakness to be scared. I know you get more and more worried as we get older and you have less time to break the curse. That's definitely understandable.

Anyway, I'm going to tell you something Shiro told me recently: You're not stupid for having feelings. You can be sad and scared and heartbroken and all of those things and it doesn't make you worth any less. I don't know if that makes any sense, but it helped me a little to be told that, so I hope it might help you, too.

I also miss those nights out in the orchard and think about them a lot. Although, I don't know, I think sometimes it's easier for me to write out all my thoughts on paper than to say them out loud. I'm not good at talking the way you are. So, I'm glad we're writing to each other. But I also hope we get to see each other again soon.

I told Shiro and Adam you said hello and they say hello back. Adam says not to come back here if you want to keep your eyebrows. He thinks he's funny.

- Keith

––

Dear Keith,

You don't know how happy I was to hear from you again. Training here has been so grueling and the days have been so long that sometimes I feel like I'm just going to fall asleep standing up. You're right, of course, that it's better than the border being attacked, but I still find myself wishing that something would happen just to break up the monotony.

Yes, I have gotten a lot of time to bond with the other knights at least. Resting? Not so much. But I at least try whenever I have a chance. Thank you for asking, though.

I still miss home quite a lot. I guess I always knew this was what being a knight would be like and that I'd be away for long periods of time. But, I don't know. Now that I'm here, I find the thing I look forward to most is hearing from you and from my family.

I'm glad to hear that the fever has ended and I hope it stays that way. You deserve a break from doing all that healing. Although I guess you must be really busy learning elemental magic. I’m so excited you finally get to learn that! And I knew your affinity would be fire. That’s amazing and I can’t wait to see it in person.

Also, I burst out laughing when I read your story about burning off Shiro’s eyebrow. Thank you for telling me about that, I keep thinking about it to amuse myself during long periods of standing watch. I kind of wish I’d gotten to see it.

On a more serious note, thank you for all your kind words and advice. I was worried I’d said too much in my last letter, so I appreciate you taking the time to write such a thoughtful response. It really meant a lot to me, particularly what you said about feelings not being a weakness. I try to keep reminding myself that.

Anyway, I guess that brings me to my next point, which is that I’ve been meaning to ask you something … Have you ever been in love?

You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to, and I understand it’s a very personal question. But if you ever have, how did you know?

Sometimes I feel like that’s the thing holding me back: that I don’t even know what true love is supposed to feel like. There have been so many times I thought I was in love with someone, only to realize later on that it was just admiration, or an unrequited infatuation. I keep thinking that when I meet the right person I’ll just know right away that it was meant to be. But maybe I’m not doing this right.

Sorry, I didn’t mean to get so personal again. Again, you don’t have to respond to that if you don’t want to.

Anyway, back to training I go. Tell Adam I thought his joke was funny.

And also, I think seeing you again would be worth losing an eyebrow or two.

Lance

The sky was darkening, and a chill seeped into the air. Keith could hear the noises of night wildlife emerging—the steady drone of crickets and the distant hooting of an owl.

His whole body ached from sitting in his saddle all day, and Red was moving at a much slower pace than she had a few hours earlier.

Blue seemed just as lethargic, letting out a tired snort as she fell in step next to Red. Echoing the sentiment of his horse, Lance sighed.

“Me too, girl.” He patted Blue affectionately on the neck. “We really should find somewhere to rest for the night.”

“I think there should be an inn up ahead, if my map is correct. If we don’t see it by nightfall, though, then we should probably stop and make camp.”

Keith yawned and pulled out the map he’d been consulting, squinting at the scrawlings so he could get a better look at it. They’d crossed the bridge over Dolvista River about an hour ago, and had passed Greenbrier Ridge not long after that. If the map was anything to go by, the inn should be just over the crest of the hill up ahead of them.

Rolling the map up again, Keith snuck a wary glance in Lance’s direction. It was difficult to see his expression in the falling light, but he could just make out the grim set of Lance’s mouth and the way his head was slightly bowed.

“Are you sure we should stop for the night?” Keith asked. “Considering our … deadline?”

Lance tensed at the words. He looked over at Keith and away again, twisting his hand in one of Blue’s reins. Then he gave a quick nod.

“We’re making good time, so I think we can manage it. Besides, we should be well-rested before we reach the Rift tomorrow.”

An involuntary shiver went up Keith’s spine. Every time he’d glimpsed at the map and seen the dark patch of the Rift staining the page, his dread had increased tenfold. In addition to their race against time, it didn’t help that they would need to travel through a demon-infested pass to reach their destination.

Although he was anxious to reach Daibazaal and break Lance’s curse, he knew Lance had a point that they should rest before they went through the most dangerous part of their journey.

“You’re right,” he said with a sigh. “Let’s keep going and see if we can find it.”

Sure enough, as soon as they made it over the top of the hill, a warm yellow light was visible amongst the trees. As they drew closer, the inn came into sight––a modest wooden structure with a shingled roof and a lantern out front shining like a beacon.

“There it is!” Lance exclaimed.

Some of the tension eased from Keith’s limbs, and he immediately realized how exhausted he was after the day’s long journey. The thought of sleep was so inviting that his whole body ached for it. But he knew he shouldn’t get his hopes up quite yet.

“We need to check that they actually have rooms open first. Come on.”

As soon as they were close enough, they both dismounted and walked Red and Blue over to a nearby post where several other horses were tethered. Once their own horses were secured, they walked up the cobblestone path to the front of the inn.

Keith squinted in the dimness as they approached the front door. There was a star-shaped pattern etched in the wood, with an illumination crystal embedded at the point of each star. Only one of the five points was glowing.

“Oh, no. There’s only one room left.”

“Hmm.” Lance leaned forward, tapping his chin as he examined the illuminated crystal, as if staring at it would somehow change its meaning. Then, slowly, his gaze slid towards Keith.

Keith knew that look all too well––it was the familiar, mischievous gleam that always crept into Lance’s eyes when he had an idea.

“Give me your hands,” he said.

Keith blinked. “What?”

“Just––ugh.”

Lance reached out and grabbed Keith by the wrists, holding up his hands to the dull lamplight. Numerous silver rings gleamed on his fingers, and Lance made a small noise of triumph as he slid one of them off.

“Lance! What are you––” Keith started to say, but the question died in his throat as he watched Lance slide the silver band onto his own finger.

“Now, take all of yours off,” Lance said, “but keep one on your left ring finger.”

He said it so casually that Keith couldn’t bring himself to believe that Lance was implying what Keith thought he was implying. All he could do was stare at Lance’s expectant face, a faint ringing in his ears as he put the pieces together.

“Wait, what? But then they’ll think we’re …” He could feel a blush rising to his face and prayed it wasn’t too noticeable in the dim light. “You know.”

He could’ve sworn that Lance’s face looked a bit red, too, but it was too hard to tell. “Well, yes. That’s the idea,” he said. He glanced at the closed door again and lowered his voice. “Trust me, Keith. These places tend to be a bit … old-fashioned. They might not let us share a room unless they think we’re … well …”

“Married?” Keith choked out.

He could hardly believe he’d managed to say the word out loud––it seemed to have slipped out of its own accord. Lance seemed equally surprised, his eyebrows raising slightly before he looked away and cleared his throat.

“Y-Yeah. That.”

“Oh,” Keith said flatly. “Right. Makes sense. I guess I’ll just …”

He did as Lance had instructed and pulled the rings off his fingers, trying not to make any eye contact as he did so. He left one on his left ring finger and shoved the rest into the pocket of his cloak.

“There.” He didn’t trust himself to say anything more than that, afraid that the waver of his voice would betray his embarrassment.

“Ready?” Lance asked. When Keith nodded in response, he squared his shoulders and faced the door. “Alright, here we go. Just follow my lead.”

He lifted a hand and rapped his knuckles against the door.

The creaking sound of footsteps was soon audible from within. Several moments later, the door opened and an older woman––presumably the innkeeper––stood there, holding a candle in one hand. She had been smiling when she opened the door, but the expression faded as she took in the sight of the two of them, particularly as she looked in Keith’s direction and saw the Galra markings on his face.

“Yes?” she said in a clipped tone.

Lance cleared his throat, taking a step forward and bowing slightly. “Good evening,” he said, immediately turning on his trademark charm. “May we trouble you for a room for the night, if there is one available?”

The innkeeper pursed her mouth in a tight line, her hand gripping onto the door like she planned to close it in their faces.

“There is only one vacancy.”

“So we noticed.” Lance kept his tone mild, but Keith knew him well enough to detect the hint of sarcasm under the words. Not missing a beat, Lance casually slipped an arm around Keith’s shoulders as if it were the most natural thing in the world. “Surely you could spare it for me and my husband.”

Keith’s mind sputtered out like a candle flame at the word husband. If it weren’t for the security of Lance’s arm around him, he might’ve fallen over.

The innkeeper squinted and lifted her candle, looking between the two of them. Keith realized he probably looked like he was on the verge of passing out, and he quickly schooled his expression into the most polite smile he could muster––although he was sure it looked strained.

Frowning, the innkeeper squinted at Lance’s hand on Keith’s shoulder and caught sight of the ring on his finger. She made a small hmph noise and opened the door all the way.

“Come in.”

As soon as she turned around, Lance shot Keith a victorious grin and winked. “Shall we, my dear?”

Keith had an urge to elbow him in the ribs, but he figured that might ruin their whole act. He settled for rolling his eyes instead, hoping Lance didn’t notice how furiously he was blushing.

“I will prepare the room,” the innkeeper said, starting to walk down the nearby hallway. “There’s some stew over the fire in the back room if you’re hungry.”

“Thank you,” Lance called after her, then patted Keith on the shoulder. “I don’t know about you, but I’m starving.”

Keith’s stomach grumbled at the mention of food and he nodded in agreement. He hadn’t eaten much over the course of the day except some bread he’d packed in Red’s saddlebags.

They made their way past the staircase and down a narrow passage into the back of the inn, the old floorboards creaking underneath them. The doorway opened up into a cozy room with a fireplace at one end and a small table at its center. Bowls and spoons were set out on the table, and a large black pot was bubbling pleasantly over the fire.

Keith and Lance helped themselves, ladling stew into their bowls and sitting down at the table to eat. The food was a bit tasteless––a little watery and comprised mostly of soggy root vegetables of some kind––but Keith was too hungry to care, and he figured they wouldn’t find anything better on the next stretch of their journey.

“You’re being very quiet,” Lance observed, after they’d been eating in silence for a few minutes. “Like, more than usual.”

Keith didn’t realize until then that he hadn’t even so much as looked at Lance since they’d walked through the door. Now it came to his attention that Lance was watching him––had already been watching him for God knows how long––with his chin propped up on one hand, head tilted quizzically.

“Huh? Oh.” Keith hastily finished chewing and swallowing the food in his mouth, and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “Sorry. I was … eating,” he said lamely.

Lance just continued to look at him. “Are you mad at me?”

“What? Why?”

“I don’t know. About this whole––” Lance looked over his shoulder and then leaned in to whisper conspiratorially, “––pretending to be married thing. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”

It was then that Keith noticed the flicker of worry in Lance’s eyes, and something tightened in his chest at the realization. Oh. He might’ve laughed at the irony of it, if it hadn’t been for the circumstances.

“I’m not mad at you, Lance. I’m just … not very good at acting, that’s all. I’m worried I’ll say the wrong thing and get us caught or something.”

Keith fumbled through the words, his heart pounding as he worried that Lance would see right through him. But after a moment, Lance just gave him a comforting smile and reached across the table to squeeze his hand. Keith couldn’t help but notice the way their matching rings glinted in the firelight.

“Hey, don’t worry,” Lance said. “I’ll do most of the acting. All you have to do is stand there and pretend to be in love with me.” He winked again. “Can’t be too hard, right?”

Keith felt like all the blood had drained from his face. You have no idea, he wanted to say. Instead he murmured, “Right.” He pulled his hand away and dug back into his stew, glaring down at the floating vegetables in the bowl.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Lance slowly sink back into his chair. Something unpleasant churned in Keith's gut. Had he unintentionally hurt Lance's feelings somehow? He knew he should probably apologize or say something––anything at all––but he didn't know how to continue this conversation without accidentally exposing himself.

Lance broke the silence with a quiet sigh. He was still leaning his chin on one hand, and with his other hand he absently stirred the remains of the stew in his bowl. "Well ... maybe we should go check and see if our room is ready."

Something about the combination of the words "our room" made Keith's mouth suddenly feel dry. He gulped down the rest of his food, still avoiding making eye contact with Lance. "Uh, yes. Good idea," he mumbled.

They stood from the table and walked back down the corridor, then down the hall to their left where the innkeeper had disappeared not long before. The door at the end of the hall was a crack open, spilling out a flickering light, and the faint sound of a fire crackling could be heard from within.

Lance put a hand against the small of Keith's back, which made an involuntary shudder travel up his spine. "After you," Lance said, gently guiding him forward.

As they approached, the door opened the rest of the way and the innkeeper stepped out, a candle in her hand again.

"The room is prepared," she said, not sounding very enthused about it. "Fire in the hearth. Fresh linens on the beds, as well as some sleep clothes in case you didn't bring any."

"Thank you," Lance said with genuine gratitude and a polite bow of his head. He stretched and yawned, bringing one of his arms down around Keith's shoulders again. "What do you say, dearest? Time for bed?"

"Uh ..." Keith forgot how to speak, as he stared over the innkeeper's shoulder at the room and saw the small bed in one corner. The lone, singular bed. Then he realized Lance and the innkeeper were both waiting for him to say something, and he cleared his throat. "Y-Yes. Good. Bed. I'm very tired."

Oh, no. That had probably been the worst acting in history. The innkeeper narrowed her eyes at him, and Keith resisted the urge to smack his forehead at his own stupidity. He'd really done it now. She probably had seen right through their ruse and was going to kick them out.

Instead, the innkeeper just huffed and shuffled past them. "Good night," she said. "The walls are very thin, just so you know."

"Oh, don't worry. We'll be quiet," Lance said. Then seeming to realize what he had implied he added a hasty, "I––I mean, we're not going to––anyway, um. Good night."

The innkeeper didn’t seem to have heard him––or was choosing to ignore him––and as soon as she had disappeared around the corner, Lance ushered Keith into the room and shut the door behind him.

“Whew,” he breathed out. “Well … that went pretty smoothly.” He shot Keith a grin.

Keith didn’t return the smile. He dragged a hand down his face, which he was pretty sure was a brilliant shade of crimson at this point.

“Are you joking? That was a disaster. I told you I didn’t know how to act.”

Lance just chuckled, taking a step forward to put his hands on Keith’s shoulders and squeeze them reassuringly. “Hey, you did just fine. In any case, she bought it, so we’re in the clear.”

He hesitated for a moment, his crooked smile wavering. Something unreadable flickered in his eyes as he met Keith’s gaze––and Keith was painfully aware of how close they were standing, of the weight of Lance’s hands on his shoulders, of the way the firelight flickered and gleamed on his armor.

Lance’s grip loosened slightly and there was an unexpected expression on his face all of a sudden––something that looked almost … surprised. But it was gone a moment later and Lance quickly let go, clearing his throat and brushing past Keith.

“Anyway, I’m gonna change into these sleep clothes.” He picked up one of the bundles at the foot of the bed, and tossed the other one to Keith.

Keith broke out of his momentary daze just in time to catch it, but he made a face when he felt the scratchy material. “I think I’ll just sleep in my clothes, thanks.” Not only did the fabric feel uncomfortable, but the thought of changing in front of Lance was so mortifying that Keith felt a little dizzy just thinking about it.

He set the folded sleep clothes back at the foot of the bed and unclasped his cloak, hanging it on one of the bed posts. As he sat on the edge of the bed to take off his boots, he watched Lance out of the corner of his eye.

As if unaware of Keith’s presence, Lance peeled off his armor and chainmail piece by piece almost mechanically––a measured practice that he had undoubtedly done countless times. He piled the discarded pieces on a rickety chair by the fireplace, now left in the thin padded jacket he wore underneath his armor. He shrugged that off as well, then started to tug off the tunic underneath that and––

Oh. Keith knew he should look away but allowed his gaze to linger, in the short span of time he had before Lance inevitably looked his way and caught him staring. Keith’s face heated, mind ceasing to function for one suspended moment at the sight of Lance’s bared torso.

The feeling was short-lived, though, as his attention was drawn to the faint scar between Lance’s ribs, right beneath his sternum––a reminder of a terrible memory that punched the breath from Keith’s lungs.

Then his gaze trailed upwards and he felt another surge of ice through his veins. Because there on the left side of Lance’s chest, right over his heart, was his curse mark.

Keith had only seen it once before––once, in a circumstance he wished he could forget. Before that, Lance had always been secretive about it––consistently keeping his shirt on even during the most grueling training, or when they all had gone swimming at the lake during the summer. Keith had never questioned it until he'd seen the mark for himself, and then he understood why Lance had kept it hidden. It was difficult not to notice, after all, when the black mark stood out against his skin like it had been branded there––a six-pointed figure made up of sharp symbols.

He was immediately sucked into the dark memory of the last and only time he'd ever seen it, how he'd foolishly touched it in a moment of desperation. Hoping that maybe, somehow, he could––

"Keith?"

Breaking out of his stupor, Keith looked up to find that Lance was now standing fully dressed next to the fireplace. The sleep clothes hung somewhat loosely on his frame, enough that one black point of his curse mark still peeked out from underneath the collar.

"Yes?" Keith managed to say.

"Nothing, you just ... looked upset."

"Oh." Keith pulled the tie out of his hair to loosen it from its ponytail. He wrapped the band around his wrist and continued to fiddle with it, needing something to do with his hands as he stared down at his lap. "I guess I was just worrying about tomorrow."

Lance regarded him silently for a moment and then nodded, scratching the back of his neck. "I’m worried, too."

He paced around the perimeter of the bed, sitting down on the opposite side from Keith. With a sigh, he swung his legs up and drew his knees up to his chest. Keith turned to look at him, and his chest ached at the sight. Something about Lance’s vulnerable posture made him suddenly look much younger––not a soldier who had stared death in the face, but a scared boy who didn't know if he would live through the next few days.

On instinct, Keith reached out to rest his hand on Lance's shoulder. "I know how you feel," he said, scrambling for some words of comfort. "But we've trained our whole lives for this kind of thing. Besides, you won't be alone."

Lance looked up at him, dark eyes glimmering faintly in the light of the fire. "I know," he said quietly, reaching up to rest his hand over Keith's where it lay on his shoulder.

Despite the ensuing flutter behind his sternum, Keith attempted a reassuring smile. "Besides ... it's fate, right? It's what the fortune teller told you. You'll make it across the Rift, find your true love, make it back home." Although it pained him somewhat to say it, Keith forced out the words and tried to ignore the selfish resistance he felt in the pit of his stomach.

Lance huffed. "You told me that was nonsense."

"Well ..." Keith's smile faltered, his hand dropping from Lance's shoulder. Truthfully, he did still think that fortune telling was nonsense, but he also didn't want to dash Lance's hopes. "I don't know. It could be true."

"Guess there's only one way to find out," Lance mused, and then let out a deep sigh. He touched the left side of his chest as if he wasn't even thinking about it, biting his lip as his fingers traced over the area where the curse mark lay under the fabric of his shirt.

Keith didn't realize he'd been staring until Lance looked up and met his gaze. He looked sharply away. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Lance lower his hand again, felt the way Lance shifted slightly on the thin mattress. There was no sound in the stillness except for the fire crackling.

“You know,” Lance said at last, “I never forgot what you did for me. My curse mark. How you tried to …” He trailed off, but he didn’t need to finish the sentence.

Keith tensed, looking up to meet Lance’s earnest gaze for a moment before he stared fiercely down at his lap again. “I’m sorry.”

“You––what? Sorry? For what?”

“For––I don’t know,” Keith stammered. “It was stupid of me. And reckless. I shouldn’t have––”

“Keith.” Lance reached out to wrap his fingers around Keith's wrist, which made him instantly fall silent. He offered Keith a soft, sincere smile. "I mean, yes, it was both of those things. But it still means so much to me that you tried, anyway. You ..." His smile faded then, a serious expression crossing his features. "You could've gotten yourself killed trying to save me, and I've felt indebted to you ever since then."

Keith swallowed, trying to ignore the sudden stinging in his eyes. "You don't owe me anything, Lance."

Lance looked surprised for a moment before a flicker of a smile returned to his face. "Somehow I knew you would say that." He squeezed Keith's wrist. "You're the best friend I could have ever asked for."

Something in his tone scared Keith a bit––there was a wavering fear to it, almost a sense of finality. It felt a little like he was saying all the things he wanted to say in case he didn't get a chance to later.

It felt like he was saying goodbye.

Keith hugged him. He typically was hesitant to initiate physical contact––and in this case, he was particularly self-conscious considering the situation. But there had been such heartfelt sincerity in Lance's words, and they were going to cross the Rift tomorrow, and even if they survived that it was possible Lance couldn't break his curse, and ... oh, God. Keith was so terrified of losing him and didn't even know how to put it into words.

All he could do was wrap his arms around Lance to try and convey it somehow, burying his forehead against Lance's shoulder. Lance stiffened for a moment and then returned the embrace, patting Keith on the back.

"You're my best friend, too," Keith said, words muffled. And it was true. Even if it could never be more than that. He pulled back again. "There's no one else I'd rather cross the Rift with."

Lance chuckled at that, although there was little humor to it. “Well, I’d rather we didn’t have to cross the Rift at all. But still, out of anyone I could’ve ended up on this journey with … I’m glad it was you.”

Keith managed a weak smile in return, although a cold dread settled into his bones again only moments later. It was starting to dawn on him that this was all really happening, that they were going to reach the Rift tomorrow. That they possibly would never return from it. If there had ever been a chance to say everything he wanted to say, it was now.

But his hesitation lasted a moment too long. Before he could say anything in response, Lance yawned and lay down, pulling the blanket over his body.

"We should probably try to get some sleep."

Keith's heartbeat was still thudding in his ears, and he felt a bit like he'd just been shaken awake from a dream and pulled back into harsh reality.

"You're right," he managed to say before he sank down, lying on his back. "Good night, Lance."

"G'night, Keith," Lance murmured, and then fell silent.

Keith just lay there for several long minutes, half-hoping that Lance would speak again. But when he dared to turn his head enough to see if Lance was still awake, he saw that Lance's eyes were already closed.

With a quiet sigh, Keith stared up at the ceiling, knowing that sleep would be next to impossible. He lazily waved a hand in the direction of the fire, and the flames burned a little lower. Silence had settled over the room, except for the faint cracking of sparks and wind rustling through the trees outside.

The bed was narrow but Keith tried to maintain some space between himself and Lance, even if it was a mere inch or two. Still, they lay close enough together that Keith could feel the heat radiating from Lance’s body and hear his soft breathing in the stillness.

When he was fairly certain Lance was asleep, Keith turned his head just enough to look at him. He knew that all he was doing was indulging his own painful, unrequited feelings. But he still allowed himself a brief window of time to observe Lance’s face in its peaceful state––features highlighted in the warm glow of the fire, dark lashes against his cheeks.

The urge to reach out and touch him was almost painful, but Keith resisted. He turned away, onto his side, a knot of shame twisting in his chest.

He didn’t know what the next two days would bring, but he knew he would need to put his feelings aside. What mattered most was making sure Lance survived, no matter what.

With that thought in mind, he watched the dying embers of the fire until he drifted off to sleep.

––

Have you ever been in love with someone?

Keith had been reading Lance’s letter by the window in the fading afternoon light, poring over every word … and when he came to the unexpected question, it felt like a plunge into cold water.

His hands tightened on the parchment, accidentally wrinkling it a bit in the process. The rest of the words on the page seemed to fade away, leaving only that one sentence. He read it over and over again, as if it would somehow make it disappear, a mounting sense of dread creeping up on him.

Keith took a deep breath, trying to get a hold of himself. He was somewhat grateful that neither Shiro nor Adam was home right now, or they probably would have demanded to know why he looked like he’d seen a ghost.

Heart still thudding furiously, Keith placed the letter down on the table and stood up from his chair, scrubbing his hands over his face.

“Oh, no,” he groaned, pacing back and forth. “No, no no.”

He heard a small chirruping noise then, followed by the distinctive sound of cat feet landing on the table. Still covering his face with his hands, Keith pried his fingers apart just enough to see that Amber was now sitting on the tabletop right next to the letter. She lowered her head in curiosity, sniffing at the parchment and then nibbling at the corner.

Hey.” Keith snatched the letter up again, while Amber just blinked lazily at him and started to lick one of her paws.

With a deep sigh, Keith sat heavily down in the chair again. He skimmed the letter once more and lowered his head into his hands.

“What am I supposed to tell him, Amber?”

The cat, of course, didn’t answer. She only rubbed her head insistently against Keith’s arm until he gave in and scratched behind her ears.

Keith contemplated his dilemma for a while longer, but there seemed to be no good outcome to the situation. He could lie and tell Lance that he'd never been in love with anyone, but it would make him feel dishonest. Or, he could avoid the question entirely. Maybe by the time Lance received Keith's next letter he would've forgotten he even asked it in the first place. Or ... he would remember and would be suspicious that Keith hadn't answered––although, well, he had said it was understandable if it was too personal.

Then again, there was the most terrifying option imaginable: he could confess.

But the thought of that made Keith feel dizzy with panic. Firstly, he wouldn't even know how to put it into words. And secondly, Lance had only very recently gone through heartbreak and Keith didn't want it to seem like he was being insensitive. And especially if Lance didn't reciprocate his feelings, it might only make things worse.

By the time he finally stood up to find a quill and some parchment, darkness was beginning to fall outside and he had to light a candle to see by. He sat back down at the table, looking between Lance's letter and his own blank page. He chewed his lower lip, fiddling with the quill in one hand while he rubbed his thumb and forefinger together repeatedly with his free hand. Then, at last, he came to a decision.

He put the quill to the parchment and began to write.

Keith didn't know how long he sat there writing out his response. At first, every word was agony. He kept crossing out what he had written and starting again, sighing in frustration and muttering to himself. But after several tries, and a lot of silent thinking, the words started to flow more naturally.

He soon found himself lost in it, writing out everything he wanted to say out loud but had never had the courage to. The more he wrote, the more he felt like he freeing all of those thoughts and feelings that he had kept locked away for years. Although there wasn't a perfect way to articulate them, and he wasn't sure how logical or eloquent his explanation was, it was at least better than writing nothing and keeping it all inside.

Finally, he came to a stop and put the quill aside, sitting back in his chair. He didn't know what time it was, but his candle was burning low, the moon was peeking through the window, and Amber and Onyx were both fast asleep by the fireplace.

Keith picked up the letter he'd written and read it over once more with bleary eyes. He winced a little at the sight of it––the frantic scribblings, the crossed out words, the blots of ink. Even though it wasn't much to look at, he had at least gotten himself to write it. He didn't know whether he ever intended to actually send it to Lance or show it to him at all, but he'd done what he had intended to do––to finally get all of his thoughts down on paper.

For now, he put the letter in a box with his previous letters from Lance and closed the lid.

––

In the days that followed, the unsent letter haunted him like a shadow following in his wake. It kept creeping back to the surface of his mind, no matter what he was doing––which made it difficult to concentrate when he was practicing his magic or studying runes in his spare time.

He found himself taking the letter out of its hiding place over and over again, reading it and agonizing over whether to send it or not. A few times, he crossed out certain words or rewrote sentences in the cramped spaces between lines. It just got messier and messier, to the point where it was barely legible.

When nearly a week had passed, he came to a decision: he couldn't send it. But that was alright, he tried to tell himself. It was just a means of making sense of his own thoughts, and no one else ever had to see it.

He finally sat down to draft a brand new letter––one that he actually did intend to send to Lance, one with no embarrassing declarations. Instead, he responded as he normally would: asking Lance how training was going, discussing his own current practices with elemental magic ... and lastly, avoiding the question about love altogether.

He had a mildly sick feeling when he sealed the letter, knowing that what he'd done was probably for the best but still unable to shake the guilt that he couldn't bring himself to tell Lance the truth. And there was always a chance that Lance would notice he hadn't responded to that particular question and suspect something, anyway. But Keith still sent it, hoping Lance would be satisfied enough with his response.

To his relief, when he received another letter just a few weeks later, Lance made no acknowledgement of the fact that Keith had avoided his question. And he didn't ask it again.

But Keith noticed in their following exchanges back and forth that Lance's tone seemed to have changed somewhat. He still told Keith about his daily routines and asked questions with his usual enthusiasm, but the letters felt a bit less ... personal. Although he was still relatively open about what he was thinking and feeling, he didn't open up to Keith again the way he had before. Keith couldn't help but fear that, somehow, he had pushed Lance away.

With each of Lance's letters that he received, Keith considered sending the confession he had written. But every time, he lost his nerve and sent a generic response instead.

It wasn't long until he no longer took out the written confession, and it was soon buried under all the other letters in the box, where no one would ever find it.

––

As weeks became months, the letters became less and less frequent. It was understandable, of course, since Keith was preoccupied with his magic studies and Lance had his duties to attend to at the border. Even so, an empty feeling began to gnaw at Keith as the correspondence between them dwindled.

Lance had at least conveyed to him in a recent letter that he and some of the other knights would soon be returning briefly to the castle to discuss matters with the queen, so there would be a small window of time in which they could see each other in person again––and Keith clung to a glimmer of hope, praying that maybe seeing each other face to face would resolve some of the unspoken tension between them.

But as the chill of winter began to permeate the air, it came along with a strange sense of dread. Keith didn't quite believe in superstition, but with each day he felt as if some bad omen was looming over him like a massive shadow. Maybe it was the increasing conflict between Altea and Daibazaal, or that Lance hadn’t written to him in weeks, but something felt ... wrong.

Then, there came the day when he awoke to a frantic knocking on his door.

He was alone in the cottage that morning, and the sound startled him from a shallow sleep. Frowning, he rose from his bed and walked across the room. He hadn’t been expecting company, and Adam had left several days ago to visit Shiro at the eastern border. So then, who …

When he opened the door, he found Pidge standing there. She clutched her brown cloak to her body and was breathing heavily as if she’d just run a long distance, the tip of her nose pink and her breaths turning to mist in the cold air.

“Pidge?” He opened the door wider to invite her inside, but she stayed rooted to the spot.

“Keith!” She grabbed him by the wrist, looking behind him into the empty hut. “Where’s Adam?”

Keith noticed then that her voice was shaking and that her eyes were wide and teary behind her round spectacles. His pulse picked up with sudden alarm.

“He left for the eastern border a few days ago. Why? Is Shiro … ?” He couldn’t even get the words out, too terrified to ask the question in fear of the answer he might receive.

“What?” Pidge shook her head frantically. “No, no. It’s not Shiro. It––It’s Lance.”

The world shifted in and out of focus and a nail of panic shot up Keith’s spine. He barely felt himself lurch forward, his hands gripping Pidge by the shoulders.

“What do you mean?” he demanded. His own voice sounded like it was coming from miles away, drowned by a dull roar. “Is he alright? What happened?”

Pidge gulped, still gasping for breath before she could stammer out an answer. “He’s been wounded. He and some of the other knights were ambushed on their way back from the southern border. He––He was shot with an arrow.”

The ground felt unsteady under Keith’s feet, but he somehow managed to stay upright. A disbelieving numbness washed over him, laced with a mix of cold terror and stony determination.

“Where is he?”

“The castle. Luckily they were only about half a day’s journey away and managed to make it here in time. Allura is going to try to heal him, but she sent me to find help.”

Keith nodded grimly as he processed Pidge’s words, trying to think past his dizzying panic. He had to get to the castle. Had to get to Lance. Without saying a word, he reached for his cloak where it hung on a hook by the door.

“I don’t know if his family is home, but I’m going to go see if I can find them,” Pidge went on breathlessly. “I just––I just hope––” Her voice suddenly broke as she let out a shuddering sob.

Keith stepped outside, closing the door behind him. He reached out to grasp Pidge by her upper arms, in what he hoped was a reassuring gesture.

“It’s going to be alright,” he said, trying to convince her as well as himself. “We just need to focus on helping him.”

Pidge bit her lip and nodded. “You’re right.” She sniffed loudly. “I’ll see you soon, Keith.”

She gave him a quick, tight hug before maneuvering past him and running towards the village. Keith took off in the opposite direction, sprinting down the dirt path towards the palace.

Keith could hardly feel the ground under his feet as he traveled the winding route to the gates of the castle. It simultaneously seemed to take an eternity and like it was only a moment before he was ushered through the doors.

He stumbled in the direction of the infirmary, and found Hunk pacing the wide corridor. When he looked up, Keith saw that his eyes were red and his face streaked with tears.

“Hunk!” Keith rushed up to him, grabbing him by the arm. “What happened? Is Lance … ?” He couldn’t even get the words out, too out of breath to complete the question.

Keith. Thank goodness you’re here.” Hunk embraced him––so tightly that Keith wheezed a little––before letting go again. “I––oh, God. It was so horrible. It all happened so fast and––and––” His eyes welled up, his words dissolving into frantic stuttering. He sniffed loudly before managing to continue.

“We heard something out in the woods when we woke up this morning, and we thought it was probably nothing .... but we went out to investigate just in case and––I barely saw what happened. One second we were standing there, and the next thing I knew there were arrows flying at us from everywhere, and Lance was pushing me out of the way and––and then all of a sudden he was on the ground …

“I just … there was so much blood, Keith. We had a healing mage traveling with us, but he––he was killed in the crossfire. We tried to help Lance and get him here as fast as we could, but––”

Keith could hear that Hunk was going into a panic and wished he could offer more words of comfort, but he knew he had to get to Lance immediately. He settled for briefly putting his hands on Hunk’s arms in what he hoped was a reassuring gesture.

“Don’t worry,” he managed to say. “Allura and I can heal him.”

He desperately hoped that it was true. Allura’s magic was extremely powerful, so the fact that she had requested additional help wasn’t a good sign.

Hunk nodded. His eyes were still teary, but some of the tension had eased from his shoulders at least. “Thanks, Keith. Good luck.”

Keith gave a solemn nod in return and brushed past Hunk, silently bracing himself before he entered the infirmary.

It was unsettlingly quiet when he entered the room, and the silence rang in Keith’s ears. The light was low, provided only by the crackling flames in the fireplace and some weak sunlight filtering in through the small window.

A row of narrow cots lined one side of the room, which were empty save for the one in the far corner. Keith’s gaze was immediately drawn to the figure lying in the bed, and his heartbeat stuttered at the sight. A part of him had almost hoped that there had been some mistake, but there was no denying what he saw before him.

Lance lay still on the bed, eyes closed. Bandages were wrapped around his midsection but were stained through with blood, and there were patches of crimson on the sheets underneath him.

Allura was standing over him and turned around at the sound of Keith’s entrance. She was dressed in traditional purple Altean healer’s robes, her hair pulled back in a loose bun. Like Hunk, her eyes were rimmed with red from crying––which only worsened Keith’s worrying, since the queen was typically so composed.

“Keith.” She rushed forward, grabbing his wrists as she glanced over his shoulder. “Is Adam with you?”

Keith could barely form words, unable to look away from Lance’s unmoving form in the bed. He felt as if all the air had been sucked out of the room.

“I––no,” he managed to say, voice hoarse. “He left a couple of days ago. If you think we need more help I could go back to the mages’ compound––”

Allura shook her head frantically. “There’s no time. He’s already lost so much blood and––” Her breath shuddered out of her. “We need to save him, Keith.”

He took one look at her pleading expression and again at Lance lying unconscious on the bed, and he nodded grimly.

Every step forward felt like it was miles long, but soon Keith found himself standing by the side of the cot. Allura stood on the opposite side from him, sorting through a collection of healing crystals and flipping the pages of her tattered spell book with nervous urgency.

“Fortunately they were able to remove the arrow and get him patched up somewhat, but it’s the internal damage that’s the most dangerous. We’ll need to work as quickly as we can, but we need to be extremely careful. I’ve already cast a sleeping spell, so he shouldn’t wake up during the process.”

Keith heard the words as if they were coming from the end of a long tunnel. He couldn’t stop staring down at Lance, at the uncharacteristic stillness of his face and alarmingly ashen pallor of his skin. Only the subtle rise and fall of his chest was any indication that he was still alive, and even that was so shallow and uneven that it was barely noticeable.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Keith had also become painfully aware of the dark symbol etched right over Lance’s heart … his curse mark. Keith had never seen it before––and even though it seemed almost trivial in comparison with the immediate situation, he still couldn’t help but inhale sharply at the sight of it.

He could tell that Allura noticed it too, judging by the grim expression on her face as her gaze lingered on it; then she quickly looked away again. She picked up one of the healing crystals and handed it to Keith.

“I know it’s difficult, but we must not get distracted,” she cautioned him, although her voice trembled.

Keith’s grip on the crystal tightened so that its hard edges dug into his palm. “I know,” he said hoarsely.

Adam had warned him in the past that it could be dangerous to heal someone you cared deeply about, because your emotions might cloud your judgement or break your concentration––which in turn could have dire consequences. He also had never healed a wound this serious before, and he felt dizzy at the sight of the blood soaking through the bandages.

But he clenched his jaw and willed himself to focus. All he could think about was that he needed to see Lance open his eyes again, to see his crooked smile and hear the familiar sound of his voice.

“Keith?” Allura’s voice broke through his thoughts. “Are you ready?”

He took a deep breath, cradling the crystal in his palm. “I’m ready.”

Allura lifted her own crystal, which began to glow a pale shade of blue. She gave a firm nod. “Then, let’s begin.”

Keith closed his eyes, holding the crystal in one hand while he reached out his other hand to let it hover it over Lance. Although he couldn’t see Allura, he could sense that she was doing the same, and could hear her beginning to murmur a steady incantation. Through his eyelids, he could see the violet glow from his crystal glowing brighter, and he tried to focus all his attention on the soft light.

He let the energy flow through him as if opening up floodgates in his veins, allowing the familiar warmth of magic to spread all the way to his fingertips. It felt different this time than it normally did, a little rushed and unsteady, but he managed to harness it.

Healing required an almost meditative state, something that had taken Keith years to master. By now he was able to slip into it almost as easily as breathing, although this time it felt like a sudden plunge into the depths of the ocean. Concentrate, he strictly reminded himself. He couldn’t given in to the panicked frenzy of emotions.

He dove deeper, searching for Lance’s essence somewhere in the murky depths, and felt it brush against his consciousness as light as a bird’s wing. He reached for it desperately and clutched at it with invisible fingers.

Keith understood what Adam had meant, now, when he’d said it could be dangerous to heal someone you cared about. Not that he didn’t care about the strangers he had healed, but it had felt different and more impersonal. But when Keith sensed the familiarity of Lance’s aura, it nearly jostled him out of his focused state––especially when he could feel something very dark and wrong at the center of it.

Although he had cured countless illnesses and minor injuries before, he had never dealt with anything of this capacity. He could sense Lance’s life force stretching as thin as a thread, barely hanging on. He could feel Lance’s faint heartbeat as if it were his own, echoing all around him.

Hold on, he pleaded silently, even though he knew it didn’t make any difference. Just … hold on. Please.

With that, he set to work.

It was a long and harrowing task, but Keith put in every mite of power he had to offer. He refused to let his concentration slip, even at points where he could practically feel Lance's life force slipping through his fingers, where Lance's heartbeat grew so weak and slow that he could barely detect it anymore. He could feel the presence of the internal injuries like a dark abyss, and he guided the healing magic towards it, pulling those walls closer together and knitting everything back into place.

He could feel Allura's presence there too, like they were meeting each other halfway across the darkness. Keith sensed the impressive depth of her power as it combined with its own, could feel that she was just as desperate as she was––but they surged onward with their common endeavor to save their friend, their magic weaving into threads that slowly worked away to restore and replenish, to undo the grave damage.

Keith's emotions soon flitted to the back of his mind, and he became so lost in the work that he no longer felt like a physical entity. It was only when he felt a light tug at the edge of his consciousness that he realized Allura was sending him a signal, conveying to him that they were finished.

His eyes blinked open to the familiar firelight glow of the infirmary and his vision swam as he groggily tried to adjust. At the back of his mind, he registered that there was still a trace of light ebbing through the window, which meant the sun hadn’t gone down yet. Either that or it had been more than a day since they started. His sense of time had become so warped, he had no idea which seemed more believable.

He realized then that Allura was saying his name, staring at him worriedly from the other side of the bed.

“Keith,” she said again. “Are you alright?”

He blinked a few times, swaying a little before managing to ground himself. “Yes. I––I’m fine,” he said, although it came out barely more than a rasp. His right arm ached from holding up the healing crystal, which had gone dark in his hand. Allura reached across the bed to take it from him, placing it back on the table.

It was only then that Keith seemed to fully come to his senses, remembering why they were here. Lance.

A momentary panic shot through him as he looked downwards to where Lance was still lying on the bed. His worry ebbed away slightly, though, when he saw that Lance looked better than he had before. A more natural hue had returned to his skin, and his chest rose and fell at a steadier rate.

“The wound is healed,” Allura said. She took hold of one of Lance's limp hands and turned it over, pressing her fingers to his wrist. "And his pulse feels normal again as well. I––I think he's going to be alright."

Although there was a hint of wavering uncertainty to her voice, Keith still felt a wave of relief sweep over him upon hearing those words––so immense that he felt dizzy with it. He didn't know what to do or say at this point; the world still felt hazy around him, like he was slowly waking up from a dream.

Allura chewed her lower lip, examining Lance for a few more moments. Then, still holding onto his hand, she sank down to her knees.

That broke Keith out of his stupor. "Allura?"

He skirted around the end of the bed to her side. The movement made him a little woozy––he hadn't realized until then just how much their healing ritual had drained him––but he managed to blink the spots from his vision as he sat down on the very edge of the mattress. Allura was sitting with her head lowered, and Keith hesitantly reached out a hand to rest it on her shoulder.

She looked up, eyes shining. "I'm fine," she said hoarsely. "It's just that I ... I was frightened, Keith. I worried we couldn't––that we wouldn't be able to––"

Keith squeezed her shoulder reassuringly. "I know," he said quietly. "I was scared, too."

He looked over at Lance, who was still sleeping peacefully. Part of him wished that Lance would wake up; he had an aching desire just to talk to Lance again, to ask if he was alright, to hug him tightly, to tell him all the things he'd been holding back for these past few months ... but he knew it was selfish. Lance needed to rest, and the sleeping spell probably wouldn't wear off for a few more hours.

Allura sighed, rising to her feet again and dusting off her robes. Keith noticed that there was an oddly pinched expression to her face, like she was worried about something and was holding it back.

"Is something wrong?" he asked her.

She took a moment to answer, glancing at Keith and then at the dark mark on Lance's chest.

"I didn’t know that Lance was cursed."

The words dropped heavily, and it took Keith a moment to process them.

"You didn't?" he said before he could stop himself.

Allura looked at him again, wide-eyed. "You knew?" Then she shook her head, rubbing at her temples. "I suppose that makes sense, since the two of you are such close friends. But ... am I the only one who didn't know?"

Keith hesitated to answer, but then he could see how genuinely hurt the expression on Allura’s face was, and he knew he couldn’t lie to her.

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “His family knows, of course. Hunk knows. Shiro and Adam know because I told them about it, although maybe I shouldn’t have. I’m not sure about Pidge. Lance doesn’t … he doesn’t like to talk about it.”

Allura contemplated this for a moment and then nodded. “How long has he been … ?”

Keith stared grimly down at the floorboards. “Since he was born.”

“And you’ve known since …”

“We were fourteen.”

Allura inhaled slowly. “I see.” She spoke calmly, but Keith could detect a wavering note under the surface. “And what exactly is the … nature of this curse?”

At that, Keith fell silent and looked down, his face burning. He had probably already divulged too much.

Allura must have understood, because she let out a defeated sigh. “It’s alright, you don’t need to tell me. I suppose I shouldn’t have asked.” She pulled up a nearby stool and sank down onto it.

Meanwhile, Keith’s gaze had wandered over to Lance again, fixating on the curse mark. The longer he stared at it, the more he could sense the darkness emanating from it––almost as if it were mocking him.

“I don’t want to say too much about it,” he said at last. “Just that … if he doesn’t break it before he turns twenty …”

His stomach gave an unpleasant turn, and he couldn’t bring himself to finish the sentence.

Allura seemed to understand the indication, though, judging by the way she gasped as soon as Keith trailed off. “He’ll … ? Oh, no.”

Maybe it was the exhaustion hitting him, but Keith suddenly felt light-headed. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the six-pointed symbol over Lance’s heart, as an inkling of an idea slithered into the corner of his mind. A very dangerous idea.

“Keith?” Allura said cautiously, when he had been silent for nearly a minute.

He blinked as if waking up from a dream. Although he tried to shake away the impulse that had overcome him, he could feel it spreading like wildfire.

“I was thinking … what is it like, to break a curse? Is it similar to healing?”

Allura immediately sat up straighter. “Keith, I know what you’re thinking. We can’t––”

“Is it?”

He had turned to face her now, staring at her inquisitively––desperately, almost––as he awaited her answer.

She looked like she was about to say something and then stopped, releasing a long breath as she folded her hands in her lap and nervously picked at a seam in her robes.

“I don’t know. I’ve never attempted to undo a curse, but my father always cautioned me against it.” Her expression went stony at the mention of the deceased king, a faraway look creeping into her eyes. “Often the mage who cast it will lay a sort of trap in the curse, to stop anyone who attempts to reverse it outside of the way it was meant to be broken. A sort of snare, if you will. If you step into it …”

She didn’t complete the sentence, but a chill ran through Keith as he understood what she meant. After all, Adam had warned him of the same thing before: any brush with dark magic could have dire consequences. Possibly fatal ones.

On the other hand, Keith couldn’t stand sitting there and seeing that deadly curse mark on Lance’s chest, knowing that with every moment he was closer to reaching a terrible fate. If there was any way to stop it …

He moved to his feet without thinking, drawn to the side of the bed as if possessed.

Allura’s hand shot out as he passed her, gripping around his wrist like a vice. “Keith, don’t.” Now her voice had gone from cautionary to demanding––it no longer sounded like a warning from a friend, but a command from a queen. “I know how much you care about Lance. But neither of us are trained in this type of magic, and we––”

“I have to do something,” Keith insisted. “I know it’s dangerous, but I have to try.” He pried his wrist free from Allura’s grasp. “You can pull me out of it if anything seems to be going wrong.”

Allura rose to her feet, her hands clenched into fists. She looked like she was about to protest, but then her eyes fell on Lance’s unmoving form and a hint of hesitation crossed her features. After another moment, she sighed in relent.

“Very well,” she said, although it sounded like the words took a world of effort to utter. “But if you feel even the slightest resistance from the curse, you must stop immediately. Do you understand?”

A prickling feeling crawled up Keith’s spine, but he nodded.

“I’ll be right here in case anything happens,” Allura promised, putting a hand on his shoulder.

Keith reached up to rest his hand over hers, giving it a grateful squeeze. He wanted to thank her, but he couldn’t seem to find his voice and he hoped that the gesture was enough.

Before he could lose his confidence, he turned towards the bed and let out a shaking sigh. Lance was still fast asleep, breathing slowly and evenly, with not even the slightest hint of movement crossing his features. Keith’s gaze lingered on his face, and he resisted the sudden urge to reach out and brush his fingers along Lance’s jaw, to run a thumb along the small scar on his chin.

The mere thought of it made him feel embarrassed and invasive, and he averted his eyes down to the challenge that confronted him––the curse mark on Lance’s chest. Now that he was standing closer to it, he could see the intricacy of the thin black lines, how they twisted around each other like ensnaring vines. Although he didn’t understand the meaning of all the symbols inside its borders, the sight of it made Keith feel sick and dizzy with dread.

Still, he took a deep breath and slowly reached out.

His fingers shook as they brushed against the curse mark. Keith nearly snatched his hand back, almost expecting it to burn him. But surprisingly, the marked skin felt … normal, smooth and warm to the touch as he laid his palm flat against it. There was a small hitch in Lance’s breathing before it returned to its normal cadence.

Keith hesitated, staring down at the jagged points of the curse mark that peeked out from between his fingers. He could feel Lance’s heartbeat underneath his hand, strong and steady, and somehow that seemed to be what pushed him over the edge––the determination to do anything to keep that heart from stopping, no matter what the cost.

He closed his eyes.

As Keith tentatively reached out with his magic, he could feel right away that he was prodding at something extremely powerful and extremely dark. Although Allura had warned him, the sensation still took him by surprise. It felt like he had plummeted into cold water from a tall height, hitting the surface so hard that it was like falling against cobblestones. The impact felt like a blow to his very core, kicking the air from his lungs.

He struggled to regain his bearings, finding his thread of concentration again. But still, something dark and unpleasant was tugging at it.

Distantly, he remembered Allura's warning: If you feel even the slightest resistance ...

No. He couldn't give up just yet. Maybe he wasn't used to breaking curses, but he could do this.

He pushed further, sensing the cold patch where the curse was entwined with Lance's essence. He wasn't sure how he had expected it to feel, but the sensation of it was even more sickening than he had imagined. It was like an unfathomable darkness, made up of thick vines that had ensnared themselves in complicated knots.

He was used to healing, to finding someone's ailment or injury and repairing it with care and patience. But he could see, now, that breaking this curse would be more of an undoing––the very opposite of the type of magic he was accustomed to. But if he was going to save Lance, he would need to at least make an attempt.

He pressed forward as if reaching out an invisible hand, allowing his magic to brush against the curse––testing the waters. He felt a jolting sensation in response, like the dark spell was physically recoiling away from him. But he chased after it and latched tightly around it.

Keith immediately felt something very wrong as soon as the two waves of magic collided. Now that he’d immersed himself, he could sense the sheer fathom of the curse unlike he had before. It wasn’t just a small blemish, but an intricate network of intersecting pathways––threads that radiated through Lance’s entire essence like a spiderweb.

And Keith was trapped in it.

He felt a flicker of panic, but he didn’t pull away. Focusing again, he tried to formulate a plan for how to destroy the curse from the inside out. But as much as he wanted to lash out at it, to tear away the intersecting threads holding it together, something held him back. He couldn’t go about recklessly destroying it without harming Lance in the process.

Maybe Allura had been right, and he was not properly equipped to undo a spell this complex. Although he hated to admit defeat, he was starting to sense that he had gone too far. If he didn’t stop now, he might never find his way out again.

Keith already felt disoriented as he tried to break free, to unweave himself from the clutches of the curse. It was like he was immersed in deep water, and he didn’t know which way to go to find the surface again.

Just as he thought he’d almost managed to navigate his way out, he was tugged forcefully back down as if a ghostly hand had wrapped around his ankle and was dragging him into the dark depths.

He tried to fight against it. But the more he struggled, the tighter the dark magic grasped onto him. Keith realized then, with a wave of panic, that he had awoken something deep in the curse’s core.

No.

He had to get out of this, to escape … but every moment he was sinking deeper, tangled in the web. He could’ve sworn he heard sinister whispers all around him, that he could feel the dark magic like it was physically wrapping around him and squeezing the air from his lungs.

He had nearly been pulled completely under, when he felt another presence amidst the chaos––like a bright light flaring up in the distance and barreling towards him. A strong energy that felt very familiar.

All of a sudden he was torn between two places at once, trapped between the spiritual realm and the waking world. He became aware of his physical form again, of a tingling in his extremities.

But just as he had nearly settled back into it, a violent pain raced up his arm—starting from his fingertips, which still rested against the curse mark, and spreading all the way up into his chest.

He distantly heard himself cry out, heard Allura yelling his name, but it all sounded as if it were coming from miles away.

The burning agony consumed him, and he was plunged into darkness.

Keith awoke in a painful daze, head pounding and chest aching. The light hurt his eyes when he managed to pry them open. He became aware of a blurry form hovering above him, shifting in and out of focus before he realized it was Allura peering down at him, her eyes wide with alarm.

“Keith!” she exclaimed, her voice choked. “Thank goodness. Are you alright?”

He wasn’t sure how to answer that question. His whole body felt as if it had been burned from the inside out. He coughed as he sat up, holding a hand to his chest.

As he started to regain some lucidity, the memories came rushing back at him with full force and he gasped sharply.

“Lance—”

“He’s fine,” Allura assured him as he looked up towards the bed, where Lance still lay unmoving. She grasped Keith by the upper arms, searching his face frantically. “What about you?”

“I’m okay,” he managed to say, although his whole body was shaking and his very bones ached from the surge of dark magic that had coursed through him. He noticed then just how worried Allura looked, how her eyes were shining with fresh tears. “What happened?”

“I’m not certain.” Allura’s voice shook and she was still watching Keith with a wary expression like she expected something terrible to happen to him at any moment. “It was like you had gone into some kind of trance, and I knew something was wrong. I tried to bring you out of it, but you wouldn’t respond and then … then you cried out like you were in pain and just … collapsed.”

Keith winced as the memories flooded back—the way the curse had been interwoven with Lance’s very being, how it had pulled him under, how that horrific pain had raced through him when he tried to break it.

“Keith?” Allura said cautiously when he still hadn’t spoken. She rested a hand on his shoulder. “What is it?”

“Nothing, I just … I felt the curse, and it was––it was so horrible, Allura. I don’t even know how to describe it.” Keith stared down at the floorboards, his voice coming out in a rasp. Even just remembering what it had felt like made a sick feeling climb up the back of his throat.

“It was everywhere, and I couldn’t escape it or fight it. The only reason I was able to wake up was because I felt you pulling me out of it. And then at the last second it was like––I don’t know, like I’d awakened something. I felt this terrible pain and then … nothing.”

He finally dared to look up then, meeting Allura’s tearful and sympathetic gaze. She bit her lip.

“It’s just as I had feared,” she said. “Whoever laid this curse must have been a very powerful mage, and they included a spell that would harm anyone who tried to lift it with magic. If I hadn’t pulled you away sooner, it––it could’ve killed you.”

Keith swallowed. A lingering pain still pulsed through his body, but it at least seemed to be gradually fading away. “I know,” he said softly. “I’m sorry. I should have listened to––”

Before he could even complete the apology, Allura threw her arms around him in a fierce embrace. The impact nearly knocked him backwards, but he somehow managed to keep himself upright and hesitantly wrap his arms around Allura in return. Once the initial shock wore off, he closed his eyes and settled into it, suddenly realizing how grounding it felt to have something to hold onto after the ordeal he’d just been through.

“Don’t apologize,” Allura said, voice muffled against Keith’s shoulder. “I’m just glad you’re alright. Besides, I know you just wanted to save him. It was very brave.”

Keith wasn’t so sure he agreed with that––he was feeling more ashamed than courageous right now––but he still appreciated the sentiment. “Thank you, Allura,” he managed to say. “I wouldn’t have made it out without your help.”

They hugged for a few moments longer, still recovering from the shock of everything that had happened. Keith still felt a bit woozy when they stood up again, but he managed to help Allura with the various tasks that lay before them: carefully moving Lance to a different cot so they could strip the bloodied sheets from the one he’d been lying on, removing his bandages, and cleaning the blood from his chest—which now bore no evidence of the wound except for a faint scar right beneath his sternum.

“I imagine that his family will be arriving to see him soon, once they’ve heard the news,” Allura said once they had nearly finished tidying everything up. “Although I imagine he probably won’t wake up until tomorrow, unless—Keith, are you alright?”

She had stopped mid-sentence to ask the question, peering at Keith as he hovered near the head of the bed. He hadn’t realized until then that he’d just been staring down at Lance’s sleeping face, but he quickly broke out of his daze at the queen’s sudden attention.

“I—yeah, fine,” he said, although truthfully he felt rather lightheaded. “Why?”

“You just look a bit … pale,” Allura observed with a worried frown. “That brush with dark magic probably drained your quintessence.” She let out a short sigh, running a hand over her silver hair—much of which had escaped from its bun. “I think some juniberry tea would do us both some good. Here, sit down. I will return momentarily.”

She didn’t leave any room for protest, as she hastened towards the back of the room and disappeared through the small door. Keith probably wouldn’t have argued, anyway; he was so exhausted that he could feel it in his very bones. Almost as soon as Allura had exited the room, he sank down onto the edge of the cot across from Lance’s.

In Allura’s brief absence, Keith’s gaze wandered over Lance’s features one more time in search of any sign of distress. But there wasn’t even the slightest movement beneath his eyelids as he slept, breathing slowly and evenly in the stillness.

It was hard to believe that he had been mortally wounded not long ago, and now only the faint scar remained as a reminder. Not only that, but Keith was impressed––and relieved––that Lance seemed entirely unaffected by Keith’s attempt to destroy his curse. Now that he thought about it, he realized he could have risked hurting Lance as well as himself, and the very thought made him feel even more nauseated than he already felt.

But he also couldn’t shake the dark sense of dread that had crept over him like a shadow. Every time he remembered what the curse had felt like, how its sinister energy had felt so fathomless, Keith had a twisting feeling deep in his chest. He didn’t know how he had thought he would be able to fight against something so powerful.

More than that, though, it almost physically pained him to think that Lance had to live with that thing ingrained in his very soul, day after day. Keith had only witnessed it for a short window of time and had felt like he would be crushed beneath its weight.

The door opened again and Allura returned, carrying a cup of steaming tea in each hand. She handed one of them to Keith, and he thanked her as he wrapped his fingers around it.

He inhaled deeply, breathing in the calming, sweet scent that emanated from the teacup. He hadn’t noticed until now that his hands were still shaking.

Allura sat down next to him on the mattress. They were both quiet.

“You don’t have to stay if you don’t want to,” Allura said at last. “I understand if you need to return home and rest.”

Although Keith’s instinct was to insist he was fine, he was fairly certain that Allura would be able to see right through the lie.

“I appreciate it. But … I think I’ll stay a little longer,” he managed to say, gaze flitting towards Lance.

Allura just nodded slowly in response, then stared down at her tea and adjusted her hands around the cup.

“Keith,” she said after a moment of contemplation. “Can I ask you something?”

Oh, no. Keith froze, hoping his sudden panic didn’t show on his face. “Yes?”

“It’s about Lance’s curse.” She bit her lip before continuing. “You don’t have to answer, of course, but I was just wondering … To break it, does he––does it have something to do with finding his true love?”

Keith sat up rigidly. He tried to mask the shock on his face as fast as he could, but he knew it was probably too late by now. Internally panicking, he floundered for a response. Of course, he could just deny that she had guessed correctly, but he had a feeling that she would see right through him––especially now that he had given her such a long, wide-eyed stare in response to her question.

Finally, he turned away again, heat rising to his face. After taking another long sip of tea, he managed a small nod.

Allura’s shoulders sagged. “I thought so.” She looked down into her half-empty teacup, swirling its contents. “It is a fairly common way to break a curse, after all. But also, I had a conversation with Lance before he left that made me suspect …”

She trailed off in hesitation, but Keith felt a heavy weight in the pit of his stomach as he realized what she was talking about.

“I know,” he said before he could stop himself. “What he talked to you about before he left, that is.”

Allura's eyes widened before she looked away, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. "He told you about that?"

Keith nodded and Allura winced a little, like the memory physically pained her.

"I hadn't realized he had feelings for me,” she said at last, “or that they were so strong. He was understanding, of course, but I could tell he was upset. I just didn’t realize at the time that it was because there was so much at stake for him.”

"It's not your fault, Allura," Keith said. "You can't help it that you don't have the same feelings for him." When she didn't answer right away, he felt like his throat was constricting. "Do you?"

Allura shook her head. "I care a great deal for Lance, of course. I love him as a friend. But ... not in that way."

Her gaze slid towards him then, with a sudden calculating look that made Keith feel a little dizzy. "But you …” she said. “You do, don't you?"

Keith nearly spilled tea all over himself, but he somehow managed to hold his cup steady again. It was probably too late for him to hide the shocked expression that had risen to his face, but he quickly looked down with his pulse thudding in his ears.

“I’m sorry,” Allura added hastily, when Keith didn’t answer. “I didn’t mean to be invasive. If you don’t want to––”

“How did you know?” Keith blurted. Because, well, there was no hiding it now.

Allura shifted slightly, crossing one leg over the other. “Well … truthfully, it hadn’t really occurred to me until now. I suppose I saw small signs of it before––but then just now, how you were willing to do anything to break his curse, even risk your own life …”

Keith stared fiercely at the cup of tea clutched between his hands, watching the distorted reflections in its surface. He lifted his gaze just enough to look at Lance, at the peaceful and familiar features of his face.

Even though he knew Lance couldn’t hear them, Keith still felt like he was treading on the edge of something dangerous as he struggled for something to say.

Fortunately, Allura spoke first. “You haven’t told him, I take it?”

Keith hesitated to answer, but ultimately he figured he might as well admit the truth. Allura seemed to have figured most of it out, anyway.

He gave a small shake of his head. "I can't."

"Why not?"

"Because he doesn't feel the same way about me," Keith blurted. A little more of an edge slipped into his tone than he had intended. "And before you ask me how I know, I ... I just know. We've been friends for years now, and he's never ..."

He stopped himself there, his face growing hot with shame. He'd already said too much, and he couldn't believe he was having this conversation now of all times, and he was just so exhausted and wanted to sleep for about a week. With a shuddering sigh, he ran a hand down his face.

A moment later, he felt a light touch against his back as Allura patted him comfortingly.

"Keith ..." she said, hesitating for a moment before she continued. “I’m sorry. It was not my place to ask, especially not at a time like this. I don't know what I was––"

"No, it's alright," Keith cut her off. He tried desperately to tamp down the dark, bitter feeling that had crawled up his throat. "I guess I couldn't have hidden it forever."

Allura rested her hand on his shoulder for another moment before letting it drop into her lap again. She remained quiet for several seconds longer before she spoke.

"You may be right," she said at last, carefully. "I can't speak for Lance, of course, and I don't know whether he returns your feelings or not.

“However, I will say this ... Sometimes, we find love in surprising places. And at times, the most surprising place of all is when it's right in front of us."

Keith looked up at her in surprise, to find that she was staring wistfully towards the fire in the hearth. From her tone and from the distant expression in her eyes, he wondered if she was speaking from experience––but he didn't want to press the matter too much.

Besides, if there was any chance to question her about it, the moment quickly passed. Allura looked over at Keith again with a faint smile.

"Perhaps that's something that Lance will realize in time."

Although Keith wasn’t so certain about that, he still appreciated the sentiment and gratefully returned her smile. “Thanks, Allura,” he said quietly.

––

The rest of the day’s events passed in a blurry haze.

Lance’s family arrived from the village, crowding into the small room. His mother grasped Keith’s hands and then Allura’s, thanking them over and over as tears ran down her face. They did their best to console her, reassuring her that Lance had fully healed and would awaken by the next day.

Keith had originally planned to stay the entire night, but he started to feel invasive as he watched Lance’s parents and siblings gather at his bedside––his mother petting his hair and his father kneeling and holding his hand. Keith hovered on the other side of the room, feeling like he was intruding on something personal.

Allura seemed to understand what he was thinking, and she reached out to touch his wrist.

“You don’t have to stay, you know. If you need to return home and rest, that’s perfectly understandable.”

As much as he wanted to protest, Keith couldn’t ignore the exhaustion deep in his bones. Besides, it wasn’t like there was much else he could do here for the time being.

“You’re right, I––I should probably go.” He met Allura’s gaze. “But if anything happens at all, or if he wakes up, or––”

“He’ll be alright, Keith,” Allura assured him. “If anything happens, I’ll make sure that you know right away. But right now, you must take care of yourself.”

He swallowed and nodded. “Thanks. You should, too.”

“I will. Thank you.”

They hugged tightly one more time before parting ways.

When he stepped outside, Keith was surprised to find that there was still a hint of light in the sky. It felt like an eternity had passed since he’d first set foot in the castle earlier in the day, and he had expected that night would have fallen by now.

The blue glow of twilight illuminated the winding path before him, as he wandered back towards the mages’ compound. With every step, he felt closer and closer to collapsing, like every ounce of strength had been sapped from his body.

The door to the cottage was still a crack open from when he’d stormed out earlier, creaking a bit on its hinges as it flapped open and shut. Luckily the cats hadn’t run outside; both of them greeted him as he entered, weaving around his ankles and purring. Keith crouched down for a moment to scratch behind their ears. He couldn’t help but smile a little at their affection.

Keith knelt on the floor for a moment longer, just taking a deep breath and dwelling in the familiar feel of the room around him––the safety of the surrounding walls, the familiar clutter. It felt like returning to the shore after nearly drowning at sea.

Finally, he made his way over to his bed and didn’t even bother changing out of his clothes before falling onto the narrow mattress.

Although he was tired to the bone, Keith found it nearly impossible to sleep. He managed to drift off every once in a while, but each time he was jolted back awake by the horrors that came to life behind his closed eyelids.

The day’s events repeated themselves in nightmarish sequences: Lance lying ashen and still, blood staining his bandages and the sheets beneath him. How his life had felt so thin and fragile as Keith had struggled to heal him. And then … that terrible black mark on his chest. How Keith had felt its unfathomable darkness and power, like the depths of an endless ocean.

How fighting against it had nearly killed him.

How one day, it might kill Lance.

––

Ultimately, his exhaustion took over and Keith fell into a restless sleep.

When he awoke, the room was illuminated by a faint golden glow. He blinked several times, dazed, before he remembered everything that had happened and he bolted upright. The movement sent a piercing pain through his head and he groaned, rubbing at his temples.

Amber and Onyx were both curled up on the mattress at his feet. Onyx opened an eye and then stretched her paws out in front of her, opening her mouth in a wide yawn.

Keith peered out the window. Now that he was returning to full awareness, it occurred to him that the sun had risen above the rooftops, which meant it was already far into the morning and––oh, no.

Lance. He was probably awake by now, and Keith had to get to the palace …

He jumped out of bed––an action that he immediately regretted, thanks to the way the room felt like it was spinning around him. Keith took a moment to steady himself and then started towards the door.

His heart was already racing as he took a step outside … but it nearly stopped in his chest when he saw a figure moving down the path towards him.

At first, he thought maybe he was dreaming. But sure enough, it was Lance.

Although his gait was a little slower than usual, he appeared surprisingly well for someone who had been on the brink of death less than a day before. In fact, he practically seemed to glow, brown skin and dark hair illuminated with a golden hue. He wasn’t wearing his armor, but a loose button-down white shirt that fluttered slightly in the breeze.

He visibly brightened at the sight of Keith standing in front of the cottage, a relieved smile lighting up his face. “Keith,” he said, voice brimming with warmth.

And it was almost too much for Keith to handle. He felt weak in the knees, barely even able to stand. Somehow, his legs carried him down the dirt path, until he reached Lance and embraced him tightly.

At the back of his mind, he realized that he probably should have been gentler what with the mortal injuries Lance had suffered the day before, even if he was fully healed now. Fortunately Lance didn’t seem at all bothered, letting out a soft sound that might have been a laugh or a sigh. His arms wrapped around Keith in return, and Keith could’ve sworn they felt even more solid than they had before he left.

Keith buried his face against Lance’s shoulder, inhaling shakily. Lance smelled surprisingly … clean, which meant he’d probably bathed since he’d woken up that morning, and it only made Keith conscious of how he hadn’t even changed his clothes since the day before. But that was the least of his worries right now.

“Lance,” he breathed out. “You’re alive.”

Although he felt slightly idiotic for stating the obvious, he found that he had needed to say the words out loud to truly believe them. He needed to cling to every little sign that Lance was still here––every grounding sensation that he was still whole and breathing and real.

Lance chuckled softly, and Keith felt the subtle vibrations of it underneath his hands.

“Yes, thanks to you,” Lance said. His arms untwined from the embrace and he rested his hands on Keith’s shoulders, pushing him gently away to arm’s-length. He was still smiling, although it didn’t quite reach his eyes.

Keith found that he couldn’t smile back, he was too consumed by the painful feeling gnawing at his chest.

“I thought we were too late,” he managed to say, voice hoarse and eyes stinging. “By the time I got there, you were almost …”

The smile vanished from Lance’s face, giving way to a small frown of concern. His grip on Keith’s shoulders loosened a little.

“Keith,” he said quietly, “I’m sorry.”

“You don’t need to apologize. I’m just glad you’re alright.” Keith managed a weak smile, which quickly faded again. “But I was … I was scared.”

He hated to admit such vulnerability, but it was hard to contain when he felt like he was bursting at the seams with it.

Fortunately, Lance didn’t seem to judge him for it. His expression softened as he finally let go of Keith, his hands dropping to his sides. “I know. If it had been you instead of me, I would’ve been scared out of my mind.”

Keith looked up sharply at that, a little taken aback. But Lance already seemed to have moved on, looking off to one side and rubbing the side of his neck.

“Anyway, I probably can’t stay for very long because I need to spend some more time with my family. But … I had to see you. And talk to you.”

There was a change in his tone that immediately made Keith’s heart drop into his stomach, a flurry of emotions erupting in his stomach––Hope? Fear?––but he somehow managed to maintain his composure.

Before he could say anything in response Lance continued, “Maybe we should sit down for a bit?”

Although Lance was in impressive condition compared to the previous day, it was then that Keith noticed the telltale signs of exhaustion written all over him––the subtle dark circles beneath his eyes, the slight bow of his shoulders. He could feel that same tired sentiment reflected in his own aching muscles. It also occurred to him that he hadn’t eaten since yesterday and was starting to feel a bit lightheaded.

“Good idea,” he agreed. “Come inside. We have a lot to talk about.”

––

Inside the cottage, they sat at the small table beside the window. Keith brought out some bread and cheese, which they ate while the fire crackled in the hearth. Amber jumped on Lance’s lap and purred loudly as he petted her.

Keith watched them with a warm feeling blossoming in his chest. For the time being, it was easy to forget the ordeal they had been through and all the darkness that surely lay ahead of them. Right now they seemed to exist in the safety of their own secure sphere, separated from the trials of the outside world.

They avoided the most difficult topics at first, starting by filling each other in on everything they had been doing over the past few months. Although of course they had kept each other informed via the letters they’d exchanged, it was different to convey the same stories in person. Keith hadn’t realized until now just how badly he’d missed the sound of Lance’s voice, the comforting cadence of it, how he always gestured enthusiastically with his hands as he spoke.

They both seemed content to just enjoy each other’s company after being separated for so long. But sooner or later, they inevitably had to address the dark subject at hand.

There was an almost tangible shift in the air during a lapse in their conversation. Lance’s expression suddenly grew stony and distant as he stared out the window, releasing a deep sigh.

“Lance?” Keith said. “Is something wrong?”

Lance hesitated before answering. “It’s just … there’s a lot weighing on my mind, I guess. After yesterday.” He stared down at the table, running a finger over a whorl in the wooden surface.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Keith asked quietly.

Again, Lance took his time to answer. Finally, he leaned back in his chair and ran a hand through his hair.

“I don’t remember much of it,” he said after a moment. “We woke up early in the morning and thought we heard noises outside, and––it all happened so fast. Almost as soon as I had stepped out of the tent, that’s when arrows started flying.

“And then … I can’t even describe what it felt like. On one hand, it was like this horrible pain everywhere, but also like I couldn’t feel anything at all. Like I was in some kind of nightmare, watching it all happen to someone else.”

He winced, absently touching the spot on his chest where he’d been hit like he could still feel the phantom pain. “That probably doesn’t make any sense.”

“It does,” Keith said, feeling a bit dizzy from hearing Lance describe it. He thought of the unimaginable pain that had coursed through him when he’d touched the dark magic, and his hands clenched on his lap. “But ... listen, you don’t have to talk about it if it’s too much.”

“No, no. I want to,” Lance insisted, despite the tremor in his voice. “I wanted to tell you everything, because I don’t know when we’re going to see each other again.”

Keith almost flinched at the words. Somehow they felt like a shock, even though he’d known that Lance would have to leave again soon. But as much as he wanted to protest, he knew it wouldn’t change anything. He gave a solemn nod instead, indicating that Lance should continue.

After taking a deep breath, Lance went on, “Everything after that is kind of a blur. Just … darkness. There were a few times I was awake, and it was hard to think through the pain and everything, but … the one thing I remember thinking about was how scared I was that I’d never get to go back home. That I wouldn’t get another chance to see all the people that matter most to me. My family, my friends. You.”

He looked up as he spoke that last word, meeting Keith’s gaze. Keith felt it like a shock traveling up his spine, stealing the air from his lungs.

“And I remember thinking how I’d never read one of your letters again. How I wouldn’t get to sit down next to the fire and try to read your messy handwriting.”

“Hey,” Keith said, frowning, but there wasn’t much bite to it.

Lance laughed softly––a sound that made something uncontrollable flutter in Keith’s chest. “I didn’t mean that in an insulting way. I love your handwriting. It’s very … you.”

Keith huffed, managing a small smile in return. “Well … thanks, I guess,” he said, not knowing how else to respond. At the same time, he thought about how he’d always thought the same thing about Lance’s handwriting. Not that it was messy––quite the opposite, actually––but that it had a spark of his personality in it, riddled with loops and swirls that seemed to make his words dance off the page.

“Anyway,” Lance continued, sobering again, “I kept thinking about that, for some reason, which seems like a strange thing to think about when you’re on the ground bleeding out. But … I don’t know. I guess it made me realize just how much I cared about them. Your letters.”

He paused like he was considering saying something else, then stopped himself for a moment before he went on.

“I kept every single one of them, you know. In a little pile under my mattress. Sometimes I’d just take them out and read them over and over, especially on days when training was rough or it was really cold out, and … they always made me feel like I was home again.”

Lance conveyed all of this very carefully, like he had been considering the words for a while. All Keith could do was watch him, dumbfounded, with a slight ringing sensation in his ears.

“I kept all of yours, too,” he said at last.

“Really?” Lance said, brightening. “I’m glad to hear that it wasn’t just me. I was worried you’d think it was weird or something.”

Keith blinked at that, a little taken aback. Because how could Lance think that was weird? What was actually weird was the unsent letter Keith had drafted a dozen times, stored away in a box not far from where Lance was sitting. Keith tried not to let his gaze wander towards the box in question, afraid that bringing any degree of attention to it would somehow make Lance aware of its existence.

"Anyway," Lance continued before Keith could say anything in response, "I just wanted you to know that. How hearing from you has made these past few months much more ... bearable." He spoke the word hesitantly, like it wasn't quite the right one, but he didn't know how else to describe it. "So, thank you."

"Oh, I––of course," Keith said, and then cleared his throat. "Your letters have always meant a lot to me, too." It came out sounding more forced than Keith had hoped, but he was afraid to convey just how important Lance's letters were to him––how he'd always hung onto every word, scouring each letter over and over again as if in search for some secret meaning.

Lance was strangely quiet. Although there wasn't much distance between them across the table, it suddenly felt like an ocean of separation. Keith was afraid to reach out and break the invisible barrier that seemed to have formed between them. He could see something harden in Lance's eyes, noticed a slight twitch in his jaw, like he wanted to say something else but was fighting it back.

The silence stretched out until it grew taut, reaching its breaking point.

"Allura told me," Lance said.

The words dropped like a stone into water. Keith felt the shock of them a moment later, making his head spin and his hands go numb with dread. He could feel the weight of Lance's gaze on him, steady and questioning.

He opened his mouth to respond, but no words came out. No. Oh, no. This could not be happening. Lance was not supposed to find out. Not like this ...

But, before he could jump to any conclusions, Keith realized that Lance hadn't actually said what Allura had told him. He took a moment to collect himself, trying to think past the frantic pounding in his chest and the roaring in his ears.

"Told you ... what?"

The look on Lance's face transformed then, shifting through several emotions that Keith couldn't quite read––something that looked pained, almost betrayed. One of his hands clenched into a fist on the table.

"How you saw my curse mark. And how you tried to break the spell."

Keith held his breath, waiting anxiously to see if there was more. But now Lance was just watching him again, and Keith felt a strange calmness overcome him. So, Allura hadn't told him everything.

"Oh," was all he could say at last, his throat going dry. He stared fiercely down at the table. "That."

A heavy silence ensued, before Lance scoffed. "'Oh'? Is that really all you have to say?" When Keith looked up at him in shock, he found that there was a sudden spark in Lance's eyes. "You could've died, Keith. Don't you understand that?"

Keith almost flinched, feeling as if he'd been dealt a physical blow.

"You weren't even going to tell me," Lance said. "Were you?"

His voice was slightly choked, and it was then that Keith realized he wasn't angry. More than anything, he sounded ... hurt. Confused. And now he just kept staring at Keith across the table, waiting for an answer.

Keith's pulse thundered in his ears, and everything around him suddenly felt hazy and distant. His mind searched frantically for words, but he couldn't seem to form a proper explanation––at least, not one that would expose all of his true feelings.

"I'm sorry," he said. It was almost a whisper.

Lance didn't answer. He inhaled slowly, then let it out in a shaky exhale. He got to his feet.

"Wait," Keith blurted, standing at the same time. "Lance ... don't go. Please."

"I'm not, I'm just ..." Lance hovered next to the window, one hand gripping the back of the chair. He wiped the back of his other hand across his eyes. "It just scares me that you risked yourself like that for me, that’s all."

The first thing Keith felt in response was a warmth that spread all the way to his fingertips. But just as quickly, the feeling went sour. He couldn't quite explain the feeling that overcame him, but he found himself saying, "That's not fair." He received a bewildered look in response, and went on, "You risk your life every day, Lance. Do you think that I don't worry every single day that something might happen to you? That every time I read one of your letters, I don't worry that it could be the last one?"

It came out a bit more harshly than he had meant it to, and he hated himself for it––hated how now Lance was looking at him so wide-eyed like he didn't even recognize Keith anymore. But there was no turning back now that he'd gotten this far, now that he was releasing the turmoil of emotions that had been trapped inside him for months.

Keith could feel his eyes stinging. His vision blurred, and he knew it was probably obvious that he was on the verge of tears. But he was too furious and exhausted to care.

“You don't understand,” he said. His voice shook, and he tried to control it as best as he could, but it was futile. “Seeing you like that ... seeing you so badly hurt, seeing you bleed so much, I just––it's what I've had nightmares about for months. Years. And I've always known you'd be risking your life as a knight, but some stupid part of me hoped that somehow you would never get hurt.”

He stopped abruptly, a bit breathless from saying so much at once. Lance regarded him with a concerned furrow in his brow, standing several feet away like he was afraid to come any closer.

“I’m sorry, Keith,” he said quietly. “I didn’t know …”

“You didn’t know?” Keith cut him off—and he hated that he sounded almost angry, because he wasn’t. He was just … genuinely shocked. “You’re my best friend, Lance. How could you not know that I was worried about you?”

A muscle twitched in Lance’s jaw, conflicting emotions racing across his face. “Well, how could you not know that I worry about you?” he shot back. “Especially when you go around doing reckless things like—oh, I don’t know—trying to break a powerful dark spell when you knew that it might kill you?”

Keith’s instinct was to immediately argue, but the flare of indignation sputtered and died when he took a moment to fully interpret Lance’s words, his expression, his stiff posture. He wasn’t angry, Keith realized. He was scared. And Keith hadn’t stopped until then to realize that he had probably scared Lance just as badly as Lance had scared him.

The tension in his muscles loosened, his hands uncurling from the fists that had formed at his sides. “I … I know,” he managed to say at last, defeated. “I shouldn’t have done it. Allura warned me not to, but I did it anyway. I …” He paused, swallowing. “I just couldn’t stand there and do nothing. Not after I had almost seen you die minutes earlier. It couldn’t all be for nothing.”

He was still staring at the floor, but out of the corner of his vision he could see Lance’s shoulders sag. A moment later, Lance stepped forward to gently grip Keith by his upper arms.

“Keith, look at me.” Keith did. “It wasn’t for nothing. Yes, I’m still cursed—but I’m standing here right now, I’m alive, because of you. You and Allura saved me.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen, whether I’m even going to live to be twenty, but …” He faltered, biting his lip before he continued, “But I’m going to do everything I can to stay alive. And the reason I need to do that is for all the people I care about. So, I can’t—I can’t lose that. I can’t lose you.”

Lance’s words came to a rambling stop, as Keith stared at him in shock. His chest felt unbearably tight.

“I’m going to find some way to break this curse,” Lance went on with steady confidence. “I promise. I don’t need you to risk your own life to save me.”

At that, the brief flicker of hope Keith had felt vanished into thin air. Because of course, of course he wasn’t going to be the one to break Lance’s curse. Lance didn’t need to remind him of that.

“Just … promise me you won’t do something like that again,” Lance said, when Keith still remained silent. “Please, Keith.”

There was such a strained desperation in his voice that there was no way Keith could refuse. He would have said anything to banish the anxious look on Lance’s face.

“I promise,” he said.

At that, Lance’s expression melted into a relieved smile. Keith couldn’t help but return it, albeit weakly, before Lance surged forward to hug him tightly. He closed his eyes and allowed his arms to slide around Lance’s middle to return the embrace.

And they just stood there holding each other for a while longer, as if they were frightened to ever let go.

When Keith awoke in the inn, he momentarily forgot where he was. He blinked several times at the sight of the wooden slats of the wall in front of him, distantly realizing that he was not surrounded by the familiar walls of his home.

He then became acutely aware of the slight weight draped across his midsection—and when he absently moved his hand to touch it, he drew it back with a sharp inhale when he felt the soft texture of skin beneath his fingertips.

His eyes slid all the way open then, as more details of his surroundings flooded his consciousness. Not only was someone’s arm wrapped firmly around his waist, but he could feel a warm pressure against his back—the rhythmic thumping of a heartbeat against his spine, the soft flutter of someone’s breath stirring the hair at the back of his neck.

The warmth of humiliation rose to his face and pooled in the pit of his stomach. At the same time, it occurred to him that there was golden sunlight pouring in through the window. Morning had arrived, and they needed to get back on the road as soon as possible.

Still, Keith remained frozen for several minutes longer, closing his eyes and selfishly dwelling in the feeling of Lance wrapped around him, his chest rising and falling against Keith’s back. It almost physically pained him to reach down and wrap his fingers around Lance’s wrist, gently detaching Lance’s arm from around his waist.

He turned over to face Lance and the ache in his chest only worsened at the sight of Lance’s peaceful sleeping face, his dark hair slightly mussed and his eyelids flickering a little as Keith’s movement caused the mattress to shift underneath them.

Keith held his breath as if even the smallest exhale would shatter the stillness. His eyes were drawn to Lance’s hand, which was curled on the pillow next to his head. Something silver glinted on his finger, and it was then that Keith realized that neither of them had removed their rings from the night before.

He stared at their hands resting side-by-side between them, their matching rings glimmering in the sunlight. It was easy to pretend, for just a moment, that it was real and not just a ruse. Keith couldn’t help but allow himself to imagine what it would be like to wake up next to Lance like this every day, to see him smiling drowsily in the golden light of dawn, to lean down and softly kiss him in greeting.

Keith’s face warmed as his imagination roamed a little farther than he had intended, his eyes lingering on Lance’s slightly parted lips and then traveling along the curve of his jaw, down the length of his throat. His eyes fell on the dark edge of the curse mark peeking out from beneath Lance’s collar, and he pictured a future where the mark was no longer there—imagined pressing his lips to the unblemished skin right beneath Lance’s collarbone, reclaiming it as his own …

Humiliated, he chased the image away. Not only was it embarrassing, but he knew he was only causing himself unnecessary pain. If everything went according to plan, they would rescue Romelle by the end of the next day, the curse would be broken, and Lance would be with his true love. Keith couldn’t keep having these thoughts about him.

Finally breaking from his reverie, Keith propped himself up on one elbow. Lance still showed no sign of waking, and Keith reached out to take hold of his shoulder and shake him gently.

“Lance,” he hissed.

Lance murmured something incoherent in response, his face scrunching in irritation before his eyes blinked open. He stared up at Keith for a moment in a bewildered daze, before a sudden clarity overtook his expression.

He sat up, turning to look out the small window in alarm. “The sun is already up,” he commented, as if he thought Keith hadn’t noticed already. He clapped a hand to his forehead. “Oh, no. We should’ve left by now.”

“Good morning to you, too,” said Keith, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. He started to shove his feet back into his boots. “And yes, I know. You should get your armor back on, and we should feed and water Red and Blue before we leave.”

He carefully avoided Lance’s gaze as he continued to lace up his shoes, hoping Lance hadn’t noticed the redness that was probably still coloring his face. If Lance was at all suspicious, though, he didn’t show it—but he was oddly silent for a moment before he sighed and stood from the bed.

“You’re right. We should be getting out of here as soon as we can.”

Neither of them spoke as they readied themselves for their departure. As Keith shrugged his cloak on, he tried to shake away the phantom sensation of Lance’s arm around him, tried to ignore the painful thought that he would probably never be held by Lance that way again.

They stopped briefly to eat some scones the innkeeper had baked, and to pay for the night’s stay. Outside, they gave Red and Blue some food and water, then proceeded to mount their horses and resume their journey along the narrow road.

The sun had just begun to peek above the treetops, shedding a warm glow over the forest and casting dappled patterns across the ground. Everything around them felt so serene and calming, it was difficult for Keith to comprehend that they would reach the Rift by the day’s end.

He pulled out the map and examined it with a frown, a shiver running through him as he traced a finger along the dark belt at the heart of the forest.

Lance guided Blue a bit closer to Red so that he could peer over Keith’s shoulder. “How far are we?”

Keith broke from his momentary stupor to estimate the distance. “Looks like it’s about thirty miles. We should be reaching the Rift before nightfall.”

Although Lance didn’t say anything in return, Keith heard him release a shaking sigh that betrayed his anxiety. He wished he could provide some words of comfort, but there wasn’t anything he could promise that didn’t feel like a lie.

All he could do was remain by Lance’s side, keeping their horses in close proximity as they rode closer and closer to the unknown.

––

The day seemed to pass over the span of a century, and simultaneously like it was gone in the blink of an eye. They stopped once in a while to rest, but otherwise kept up a steady pace through the thick forest.

As they drew nearer to their destination, there were subtle changes to the atmosphere that made the hairs on the back of Keith’s neck stand up. The air had already been somewhat cold, but the temperature seemed to drop steeply the farther they traveled. All sounds of life in the forest gradually died out, the twitter of birdsong and rustles of animals scurrying through the leaves giving way to an unsettling silence.

They’d strayed from the path long ago, as there were no roads leading to where they were headed. It slowed their pace a little, as they had to carefully navigate Red and Blue between the trees.

But as the light started to fade from the sky, it became increasingly clear that they had nearly reached the Rift. Faded wooden signs were nailed to trees or stood on small posts at random intervals, warning travelers of grave danger lying ahead. A crude stone wall wove across the horizon like a row of jagged teeth to block their path. Luckily, there was a part of the wall that had crumbled away, and Red and Blue were able to jump over the rubble.

Once they landed on the other side, Keith felt as if something cold and tight was squeezing around his windpipe. He could feel the sinister energy that permeated the air, could practically taste it as if it were a poison coating his throat.

His sharp intake of breath must have been audible, because Lance turned to frown at him in concern. “Are you alright?”

“Yes, I think so.” Keith held a hand up to the side of his head, wincing as he rubbed at one of his temples. “It’s just … I think we’re getting close.”

They brought their horses to a slower pace as they navigated their way down the slope. There were no leaves on the trees, and the woods around them looked strangely hazy and dark, as if a fog was slowly creeping in. Keith held his breath, his shoulders tensing, expecting something sinister to appear at any moment.

All of a sudden, Blue released a nervous whinny and came to a skidding stop. Lance patted her reassuringly on the neck. “Whoa! What is it, girl?”

Keith squinted through the line of trees, allowing Red to pace forward a few more feet before he tugged on the reins.

“Lance,” he said quietly, as he felt goosebumps rise all over his arms. “Look.”

Through the gaps in the trees, the ground dropped down a long and rocky ridge. At the bottom of the valley below them was a canopy of dark treetops, spanning all the way to the horizon.

The forest was already daunting enough to look at, the branches bare and black as if they had been scorched in a wildfire. But there was also a sense of wrongness emanating from it, as strange shadows and shapes flickered between the trees and the faint rustle of wind sounded more like otherworldly whispers.

Instinctively, Keith reached for the luxite dagger at his side and ran his fingers across the cold metal hilt. Usually the gesture made him feel safer, but right now he wasn’t certain if anything could protect him from the dangers they were about to face.

“That’s …” Lance cleared his throat. “That’s the Rift?”

“Must be.”

Keith turned to look at Lance. His heart stuttered a little when he saw that Lance was staring back at him with a strange intensity, like he was trying to commit every detail of Keith’s face to memory. Keith found himself doing the same, taking in the sight of Lance sitting upright on Blue’s back––hands coiled in the reins, armor glowing in the eerie dim light, eyes dark and serious.

There was a fleeting moment where Keith realized that if there was any time to say something, it was now. But almost as soon as the thought surfaced, he banished it to the far corners of his mind. He couldn’t be thinking like that, like this was some kind of ending.

Besides, it would be foolish to say anything that would risk Lance’s concentration or his own. He could practically hear Shiro’s voice repeating the same advice he’d told Keith over and over again when he was younger: Patience yields focus. He took a moment to consider the consequences of his irrational impulse, and then returned his focus to the dire task at hand.

“Are you ready?” he asked Lance.

The question seemed to hang in the air, pulled tight like a bowstring. Lance hesitated, continuing to examine Keith’s face like he was trying to decipher some hidden meaning. After a brief moment, he swallowed and nodded.

“I’m as ready as I’ll ever be,” he said. “Let’s go.”

––

Their trek down the slope was perilous; they had to move carefully as it was almost too steep for the horses, and loose rocks kept sliding out from underneath their hooves. All the while, the dark trees of the Rift seemed to loom higher and higher, and Keith could have sworn the branches were stretching towards them and beckoning them forward.

As they journeyed into the valley and past the first row of trees, Keith’s spine grew rigid. Although he’d seen how thick the forest was from above, it was another thing to be wandering into its depths.

The limbs of the trees wound together overhead so tightly that they almost entirely blocked out the sky, and their trunks were bent in unnatural formations like a pair of giant hands had twisted them. Gigantic, gnarled roots snaked over the ground. It was more of a labyrinth than a forest, and the further they traveled, the more the dense foliage formed into dark tunnels.

It wasn’t long before they were completely shrouded in shadow. When Keith dared a glance over his shoulder, he could no longer see the daylight––only the mass of trees obscuring the outer world.

He turned forward again with a shudder, squeezing his eyes shut as he summoned his magic. Turning one palm upward, he concentrated until a small orb of fire flickered to life above his hand.

Next to him, Lance gasped. “Whoa.”

Keith looked over at him to find Lance staring in wonder at the ball of flame, the light glinting in his eyes and on his silver armor. It occurred to him then that Lance had never actually seen him use his fire magic before.

“Oh,” he said. “Right, I guess I’ve never shown you.”

Lance huffed out a disbelieving breath. “No, you haven’t. That’s amazing.” His gaze flicked from the fire to Keith’s face and back again. “You seem to have pretty good control over it, now,” he observed.

“Thanks. I, uh … I’ve been practicing.”

“I can tell.” Lance paused. “So, you’re not gonna burn my eyebrows off?”

“Oh, God. I should never have told you about that.”

They both laughed a little, and Keith almost forgot that they were currently traveling through a haunted forest––but he was soon reminded by a terrible, inhuman screech that echoed across the sky.

The two boys fell silent at once, turning their attention upward. Keith held the ball of flame up higher, at the same time Lance started to reach for the bow strapped to his back––but they both relaxed a little when there was no sign of movement overhead.

With his heartbeat still thundering in his ears, Keith turned his attention forward again. "We need to keep going," he said, all traces of humor gone.

"Right." Lance's voice cracked a little, and he cleared his throat. He squared his shoulders and faced forward again.

For a long while after that, they didn't speak. They had conversed here and there on their journey the day before, but this time they were dead quiet as they rode their horses through the dark depths of the Rift. Of course, it was difficult to concentrate on much else when the forest around them seemed to have a life of its own.

Keith could have sworn at times that he heard a scratchy, rhythmic inhale and exhale as if the trees were breathing. Occasional sounds rose from the distance––what sounded like strange, distorted animal cries––but it was always impossible to tell what direction they were coming from. Although they sounded far away, every disruption of the silence made Keith tense with dread.

Not only that, but he could practically feel the forest's dark energy permeating through his skin, making his blood run cold. It wasn't long until Keith felt as if it was affecting him both physically and mentally. While some of the ache in his muscles was undoubtedly from two long days of traveling, he also felt as if some invisible source was slowly draining the energy from his body.

He kept thinking he heard voices whispering amongst the branches, or felt a phantom tug on the hem of his cloak, even though there were no living beings in sight. He still held the ball of flame in his hand––and as its light flickered over their surroundings, and on more than one occasion he was almost certain he saw the outlines of ghoulish faces emerging from the tree trunks.

Not only that, but Keith had a strange sense of paranoia that they were traveling in circles rather than moving forward. It was almost impossible to tell, of course, when the scenery around them seemed never-ending. He just had to keep trusting that they were making their way through the Rift and not getting hopelessly lost in its depths.

He didn't speak any of these fears out loud, but he looked over at Lance once in a while as if in search of reassurance. Lance seemed equally preoccupied with surveying the forest around them, expression serious and posture tense. But he at least spared a glance in Keith’s direction now and then, meeting his gaze and giving him an affirming nod. Although it was a small gesture, it was enough to remind Keith he wasn’t alone.

The mysterious energy of the Rift warped Keith’s sense of time, and eventually he couldn’t be certain if they had been traveling for hours or days. The only thing to assure him that it had been less than two days was the fact that Lance was still alive next to him, which meant that they hadn’t reached the deadline of his curse yet––which was partly reassuring, but also he had no sense of how long they had left. He couldn’t even tell by looking up at the sky, since most of the time the gnarled branches overhead completely blocked out the light.

But after what felt like an eternity, the trees around them grew more sparse. A weak hint of daylight crept from between the thick trunks, although it was muted by the thick fog overhead. Maybe it was wishful thinking, but Keith thought he could feel the sinister magic in the air begin to fade to a dull roar at the back of his mind.

“I think we’re almost there,” he said. He had lost track of how long it had been since he had last spoken, and his voice came out quiet and hoarse. He cleared his throat. “But keep your guard up. There could still be––”

His warning was cut off by an eerie howling noise that echoed over the treetops––something that sounded almost like a wolf, but strangled and warbled. The sound made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end, and both Red and Blue shook their heads and nickered anxiously.

Keith and Lance were both tense and silent, looking around at the forest for any sign of movement. But there was nothing but the unsettling stillness of the trees. The strange noise seemed to have died away.

Still, Keith didn’t want to take any chances. Whatever that creature had been, it had sounded very close. Not daring to draw any further attention to them, he gestured silently with his head towards the small clearing ahead of them. Lance seemed to understand his signal and nodded in response.

They rode forward, spreading a bit further apart now that there was more space between the trees. Keith felt as if a tight pressure was squeezing around his throat, his pulse quickening. He could sense that they were so close to making it out of the Rift, just a little further …

Then there was a flash of movement up ahead––a large shadow that darted between the trees.

Keith pulled on Red’s reins and brought her to a halt. “Lance, wait. Did you––did you see that?”

“See what?”

The words had barely left Lance’s mouth when there was yet another flash of movement between the trees to their right. Just as they both turned to look at it, Keith caught yet another moving shadow out of the corner of his eye. And a second, and a third. He heard a sudden, low growling coming from all around them and––

A dark form leapt out from the underbrush, landing right in front of Keith and Red and snarling menacingly. Keith only had a moment to take in the sight of it, and saw it was a large wolf-like creature––but it had obviously been mutated by the dark magic saturating the forest. The beast was unnaturally large, its eyes glowed yellow, and strange runes flickered across its fur.

On instinct, Keith tried to reel Red backwards. But he had no time to stop Red’s violent reaction as she reared up on her hind legs and let out a high-pitched neigh of terror. The reins slipped from Keith’s grasp as he cried out in alarm and fell backwards. He hit the hard ground, the breath knocked out of his lungs, and he looked up just in time to see that Red was bolting over the crest of the hill.

Keith wheezed, scrambling to his feet. “Red, no!” he shouted, but the horse was already out of sight––and when Keith tried to stumble after her, he found himself surrounded by three more of the demonic wolves.

Keith!”

Right then, he heard the distinct sound of a bowstring pulling taut and then the whoosh of an arrow zipping through the air. A moment later, the arrow embedded itself in the side of one wolf. It let out a yelp of pain and then a furious growl, whirling around to face Lance, who was still seated on Blue’s back with his bow poised. Behind him, Keith could see several more pairs of glowing yellow eyes appearing between the trees.

“Lance, look out!” he yelled.

Lance turned with a sharp gasp as he saw the approaching monsters. Keith would have run to help him, but two more dark shapes blocked his path, prowling towards him. When he stumbled back, he found that there were even more of the creatures jumping out into the clearing––four, five, six … he quickly lost count.

His mind rushed, grasping for any spell that might help him in this situation, but they all seemed futile. He briefly considered casting a sleeping spell, but he hadn’t mastered it enough to cast it over multiple creatures at once. He had his fire power, of course … but although he knew how to summon the flames, he wasn’t an expert in casting them in particular directions.

Instead, he quickly reached for his dagger and muttered a spell. He felt a flash of magic as it coursed down his arm and into the luxite blade. It glowed violet, transforming into its sword form––just as the growling creatures all dove towards him.

Everything happened quickly, a blur of glowing eyes and gleaming sharp teeth. Keith yelled as he lashed out with his blade, slashing the throat of one creature, plunging the sword into the heart of another. He felt a pang of sickening guilt at killing the wolves––hearing their gurgling whines of pain as they died, seeing their black blood spill on the soil. But part of him knew that he was ending their misery, that dark magic had consumed them from the inside out and turned them rabid with madness.

He used his magic to lift one creature from the ground, flinging it across the clearing and against the thick trunk of a tree. The wolf crumpled to the ground––and although Keith knew it was probably only stunned, he took advantage of the spare moment to look over his shoulder at Lance. Luckily, he seemed to be holding his own; Blue kicked one of the monsters in the head and sent it sprawling, while Lance was still letting arrows fly and expertly meeting his targets with each shot.

Keith was momentarily distracted by the sight––Lance on horseback with his armor gleaming, bow and arrow at the ready, eyes fierce with focus and determination. But he knew he couldn’t afford to slow down, and he quickly whirled back around with his sword drawn.

There weren’t many of the creatures left now, and Keith felt a sudden surge of adrenaline at the realization that maybe they would actually survive this. Despite the worsening ache in his limbs, he kept fighting as the remaining wolves surrounded him. It wasn’t long until his sword was dripping with their black blood, and several more bodies lay crumpled on the ground.

Finally, Keith came to a stop, breathing heavily. Stillness had settled over the clearing once again, and the sudden silence rang in his ears. He started to lower his sword, looking cautiously around …

Which is when several things happened at once.

He heard Lance cry out a panicked warning, but he barely registered the words as he saw a dark mass rushing at him from the side. Before Keith could defend himself, a heavy weight crashed into him and knocked him down.

The sword flew from his hand, and the back of his head hit the ground so hard that he saw stars. He could only lie there for a moment, stunned, before he became aware of the enormous weight on his chest, the clawed feet pinning his arms, the glowing yellow eyes glaring down at him. Keith was too terrified to move or think or do anything at all––only to watch in horror as the wolf bared its long fangs and lunged for his throat.

Keith gathered his wits at the last possible second, trying desperately to wrench himself free. He at least managed to twist out of the way so that the wolf missed its mark––but he couldn’t escape completely, and a moment later he felt a blinding, hot pain as the creature’s teeth sunk deep into his shoulder.

The agony was unlike anything he had ever felt, radiating from his shoulder all the way down the length of his arm. Dark spots exploded across his vision and he heard himself crying out, but the sound seemed to come from miles away.

Then came Lance’s voice––which also sounded strangely distant––yelling something … Keith’s name, maybe. Then right above him, he heard a solid thwack and the wolf’s growling choking off with a sickening, wet sound. Its jaws loosened from around Keith’s shoulder and its large weight rolled off to one side. When Keith dared to turn his head, he saw the creature lying still with an arrow protruding from its neck, its glowing eyes open but unseeing.

Keith could only stare at the fallen monster, dimly aware of the sound of his own labored breaths and the deep, throbbing pain still coursing from his shoulder down to his fingers.

Then a loud roar filled his ears and the world went dark.

He came to his senses what must have been only a minute or so later, but it felt like it had been much longer. The sky above him was hazy and gray, criss-crossed with dark lines––branches, he realized. A shadow fell over him.

“Keith?” Lance’s voice cut through the persistent ringing in his head, choked with worry. His face shifted into focus, eyes searching Keith’s face frantically. “Oh … oh, God.” His hands ghosted over Keith’s chest, pushed his cloak aside to reveal the wound underneath, and he hissed sharply and cursed under his breath.

“Lance …” Keith was a little alarmed at how weak his voice sounded, how it hurt to speak, hurt to breathe.

His vision was already starting to go gray around the edges again, but he clung to his last scrap of consciousness as he focused on Lance’s face. Maybe the pain was making him lose his mind, but all he could think about was how much he wanted to reach up and trace his fingers along Lance’s jawline, to press the palm of his hand against Lance’s cheek. But he couldn’t even get his arm to move.

“You need … need to get out of here,” he managed to say, drawing in a shuddering breath between words. “There could be more of them …”

Lance’s eyes widened a fraction. “What?”

“You––You have to … get to Daibazaal,” Keith pushed on, even though every word took immense effort. “Find Romelle … break the curse.”

“Stop it,” Lance said. His voice shook, but there was a sudden fire to it that hadn’t been there before. “Don’t talk like that. We’re gonna get you out of here, and we’re going to Daibazaal together.” He spoke the last word insistently, like emphasizing it would make it true.

Keith wasn’t so sure about that, but he felt too weak to protest. He could feel the warmth of blood soaking through his cloak and numbly wondered how much he had bled already. Probably a lot.

“Just … just hold on,” said Lance. He looked up for a moment, searching around the clearing as if willing some kind of miraculous assistance to appear. Then he turned his attention to Keith again, wincing apologetically. “I’m sorry, this is going to hurt.”

He slid one arm under Keith’s shoulders, the other under his knees, and lifted him from the ground.

As Lance had warned, it did hurt––so much that Keith couldn’t even cry out, couldn’t even breathe.

Once again, his mind tumbled into blackness.

––

When Keith woke again, the ground was moving unpleasantly up and down underneath him. Wait … no, he wasn’t on the ground. As his eyes drifted open, he saw a glimpse of pointed ears and a fluttering gray mane, heard the distinct sound of a horse snorting. He noted the horse’s dappled coat. Blue.

He was slumped back against something, and there was a firm pressure around his abdomen holding him in place. When he glanced down he saw it was an arm wrapped around him, clad in armor. The pieces started to come together as he remembered what had happened, and he realized he and Lance were both on Blue’s back. And where was … ? Right, Red had run away. Hopefully she had made it out alive.

With each thud of Blue’s hooves against the ground, the jostling movement sent a horrific stab of pain through Keith’s shoulder. He squeezed his eyes shut, unable to stop the pathetic whimper that escaped him.

“Keith?” Lance said behind him. He sounded breathless, scared. Keith’s back was pressed against his chest plate and there was something oddly comforting about the subtle vibration of Lance’s voice through the metal. It gave him something to hold onto. “Oh, thank goodness. Can you hear me?”

Keith murmured something incoherent in answer, something that he hoped sounded enough like a confirmation. He felt strange, like his skin was burning but also like he was ice cold. And he was tired, so tired …

“I’m going to try and find Red,” Lance said. “She can’t have gone far. I’m assuming there are healing crystals somewhere in her saddlebags. Just … try to stay awake. I know it’s hard, but please try, okay?”

The words tumbled out of him, desperate. Keith hated to think he had made Lance worry that way, wished he could say something even remotely reassuring, but it was impossible to think through the debilitating pain and exhaustion. Still, he tried not to give in, to remain conscious the way Lance had pleaded him to.

But in the end, it was a lost cause.

He faded in and out of awareness for a while, for what felt like an eternity. The world felt like it was disintegrating at the edges, surreal and gray and distant.

At some point he opened his eyes blearily, saw the clouded sky swinging strangely high above him. He felt the solidity of arms underneath him, carrying him. Saw the blurry outline of Lance’s profile. Lance was breathing harshly, muttering something that sounded like cursing or pleading or praying, or some combination of all three.

Keith felt like his body was made of stone, but also like he was going to float away. Maybe this was what dying felt like. “Lance,” he said, like it was the last thing he would ever say.

He heard Lance’s sharp inhale. “Keith … oh, my God. You’re alive. I––I thought …” He stopped, swallowing, before he continued frantically, “It doesn’t matter. We’re out of the Rift, I found Red, and you––you’re going to be fine.” It sounded like he was trying to reassure himself as much as he was trying to reassure Keith.

A shadow fell over them, and Keith realized they had entered the mouth of a small cave. Lance set him down carefully, so he was seated with his back leaning against a large rock. The change in position made Keith hiss in his breath, and he clamped a hand over the wound in his shoulder. The fabric of his cloak was damp and warm beneath his fingers, and his head reeled at the thought of how much blood he had lost.

As the spots cleared from his vision, he could see Lance crouching in front of him. He had set something down on the ground––Red’s saddlebags, Keith realized––and was rifling through them, until he made a small and relieved noise of triumph as he found what he was looking for.

“Here,” Lance said urgently.

Something cold and solid pressed into Keith’s palm. He tried to grasp onto it but nearly dropped it, his fingers trembling and weak. Lance gripped his wrist firmly, closed his own fingers around Keith’s to hold the object in place.

Keith tried to focus, tried to escape the darkness that had started to creep into the edges of his vision. He was aware of Lance’s hand on his unwounded shoulder, of Lance’s face mere inches from his, dark eyes watery and pleading.

In the dim cave light, Keith could see smears of crimson all over the front of Lance’s chest plate. He stared at it, heart pumping in sudden panic. “Lance, you’re––”

“I’m fine,” Lance cut him off, glancing down and seeing what Keith was looking at. “I’m not hurt at all. This is … it’s all yours.”

Oh. Everything started to go blurry again.

“Keith? Oh, no. No, no, no.” Lance’s hand was against the side of his face now, grounding him. “Listen to me. You have to stay awake. You––You have to heal yourself.”

It occurred to Keith, then, that the item Lance had pressed into his hand was one of his healing crystals. Right. Lance couldn’t heal him. He had to do it himself.

Keith tried to show some sign that he had understood––a word of confirmation, a nod, anything, but even that seemed to require a world of effort. He instead tried to focus his energy on the weight in his hand, the smooth texture under his fingertips. He sifted through the fogginess in his mind, trying to latch onto every healing spell he knew, but the darkness was crowding in again …

He didn’t realize he’d started to slump forward until he felt Lance’s hands on either side of his face. He blinked a few times to see Lance staring back at him intently, like he was doing everything in his power to hold Keith’s gaze.

“Keith.” He spoke firmly this time. “You need to stay with me. Please.”

Those words seemed to cut through the haze like a knife. Keith kept staring at Lance, kept holding on to the spark of determination he’d suddenly felt in his chest. After taking a few more ragged breaths, he managed a weak nod.

Then he closed his eyes and concentrated.

His palm started to grow warm as he activated the crystal, and he could see its faint violet glow beneath his eyelids. Magic flowed up his arm and into his shoulder, settling into the wound. It hurt, and Keith hissed in his breath at the wave of dizziness that passed over him, but he pressed onward.

He had never healed himself this way before, at least not in this capacity. He had occasionally healed his own small scrapes and bruises for practice, but this felt much different––the crystal’s energy seeping underneath his skin, knitting his flesh back together. It was a strange sensation, and there were several times he felt himself getting distracted by the pain and having to center his focus again. But after what felt like an eternity of muttering spells under his breath, he could feel the last edges of the wound smooth over.

As soon as it was done, Keith slumped back against the rock behind him, breathing heavily. The prickling sensation of the magic had started to fade, receding back to his fingertips before it died out entirely. He let his hand drop to the floor and the crystal rolled out of it.

Lance had been quiet throughout the whole process, evidently not wanting to break Keith’s concentration. But now he held Keith by his upper arms, looked from his face to his shoulder and back again.

“Keith?” he said. “Are you alright?”

“Y … yeah,” Keith managed. He noticed now that it didn’t hurt to speak or to breathe, so that was a good sign, although the cave still felt like it was spinning around him when he tried to sit up again.

Wincing, he experimentally rolled his shoulder. It ached a little, but otherwise felt fine. Just to be sure, he felt beneath the collar of his tunic; it was still damp with blood, but at least the skin underneath was intact.

“It … worked.” He let his hand fall back into his lap. A strange and almost euphoric feeling came over him all of a sudden––he’d been almost certain he was about to die not long before, and yet here he was … still unbelievably exhausted and aching all over, but alive.

Lance huffed out a shaking breath, something that almost sounded like a relieved laugh. He pulled Keith towards him and hugged him tightly, fingers digging into the fabric of Keith’s cloak. Closing his eyes, Keith leaned into it and pressed his forehead against Lance’s shoulder, the metal of his armor cool against Keith’s skin.

And they stayed that way for several minutes longer, just holding each other and shaking. Keith felt a shudder go through Lance and wondered if he was crying, but he didn’t ask.

He only continued to cling to the moment, dwelling in the feeling that––for now––they were safe.

––

Lance insisted that they rest for a while after that. Keith tried to argue, but found that even trying to stand up made him so woozy that he nearly fell over. As much as he wanted to keep pushing onward, he couldn’t dispute the fact that the aftereffects of the magic would take a few more hours to wear off.

He begrudgingly agreed to stay in the cave for a while––after all, he was extremely tired. For the time being, he sat with his back leaning against the cave wall and allowed his eyes to drift shut … just for a few minutes, he told himself.

But he must have fallen asleep, because the next time he opened his eyes, he was lying on his side. Not only that, but the cave had grown darker––except for the soft orange glow flickering over the rocks, accompanied by the crackling sound of flames.

He blinked a few times in bewilderment, then turned over and squinted into the light. As his vision adjusted, he saw that a small fire had been built near the mouth of the cave. Outside, Blue and Red were standing side-by-side, heads lowered and ears flicking. The forest behind them was dark.

In the midst of his hazy thoughts, Keith suddenly realized how much time must have passed and he bolted upright. He noticed then that there had been something propped underneath his head––one of Red’s saddlebags––and his cloak had been removed and draped over him like a blanket.

“Oh hey, you’re awake.”

Lance was crouching next to the fire. His armor and chainmail lay in a pile a few feet away from him, leaving him in only the tunic and pants he wore underneath. He was roasting some type of meat on a stick, and he briefly pulled it away from the fire to inspect it.

“Just in time, too. I don’t know about you, but I’m starving.”

Keith’s stomach growled at the mention of food, but at the same time his mind was rushing to comprehend what was happening. “How––How long was I …”

“Few hours,” Lance said with a wince.

“Oh, no.” Keith ran a hand down his face. “I’m so sorry. We should really get out of––”

“Keith,” Lance cut him off. “It’s alright, you don’t need to apologize. You needed the rest.” Although he spoke gently, there was an insistence to it that made any other protests die in Keith’s throat. “Besides, it gave me some time to go clean off my armor by the stream, hunt a little, cook this rabbit …” He gestured towards the meat roasting on the stick.

“But what about––”

“We can leave before the sun comes up,” Lance said, as if he could predict exactly what Keith had been about to say. “I checked your map, and the base where we’re headed should be about half a day’s journey away. We’ll make it in time, I promise. Anyway, we should really eat and get some sleep before morning.”

Keith had to begrudgingly admit to himself that Lance had a point. Now that they’d made it past the Rift, they were officially in Galra territory––and the base was not too far; Keith could tell by the tingling sensation in the tracking rune Allura had drawn onto his forearm before their departure, which indicated that they were nearing Romelle’s location.

He didn’t like delaying their journey, and he still had a guilty feeling that it was his fault. But then again, he was exhausted and starving, and there was no point rushing into a Galra base when he felt like he was on the verge of collapse.

There was still quite a bit of dried blood on Keith’s hands and around the area where the wound had been, so he went outside to wash off by the stream as best as he could. The blood on his cloak and tunic were a bit more difficult, since he didn’t want to get them soaking wet. He recalled a fairly simple cleaning spell Adam had taught him at some point, although he couldn’t remember all of it. But with a bit of muttering, he at least managed to reduce the stains somewhat, and luckily the fabric of his clothing was dark enough to hide it for the most part.

When he was finished, he returned to the cave and sat down next to Lance by the fire. They split up the meat Lance had cooked, plus some bread that Keith had stored in Red’s saddlebags, and ate in silence for several minutes.

“How are you feeling?” Lance asked at last, quietly.

Keith hadn’t been prepared for the question, and he swallowed the food he’d been chewing and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “Fine,” he answered, absently touching the area where the monster had bitten him. The skin right beneath his collar was slightly raised and he winced. “It’ll probably scar, but it doesn’t hurt anymore.”

“Well, that’s good,” Lance said, letting out a relieved breath. His gaze lingered on Keith a few moments longer, and a sudden glassy look seeped into his eyes. He bit his lip. “I was really scared, Keith.”

His voice had grown hoarse upon speaking the words, and it made Keith look up at him in surprise.

Although his memory of it was fractured, he could remember everything in hazy patches—Lance’s arms holding him up, Lance’s voice pulling him from the darkness over and over begging him to stay awake. He couldn’t imagine the worry he’d put Lance through—but then again, he remembered his own desperate fear when Lance had been the one mortally wounded a year ago. He remembered what Lance had told him: If it had been you instead of me, I would’ve been scared out of my mind.

“I know,” he said at last. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. I’m just glad you’re still alive.”

Keith couldn’t help but smile weakly at that. “So am I. Glad we both are.” His smile faded again. “And thank you, by the way. For saving me.”

“Saving you?” Lance blinked. “But you’re the one who saved yourself.”

It took Keith a moment to realize Lance was referring to the healing spell. “Well … yes, partly,” he admitted, “but you shot that wolf demon thing right when it was about to rip my throat out. And you got us out of the Rift, carried me here.”

“I …” Lance started to say, like he was about to protest, then sighed in defeat. “Fine, fair enough.” He paused, the hint of a timid smile turning up the corner of his mouth. “And I suppose I don’t owe you anymore, for the time you saved me.”

“We’ve been over this, Lance. You never owed me anything for—”

“I know, I know. I guess what I meant to say is just … I’m trying to thank you, too. For … for everything.”

There was something that sounded so final about those words, and a sudden dark gleam to Lance’s eyes that set Keith on edge. It sounded like Lance had planned for this—for whatever fate lay ahead of them tomorrow—and it made his blood run cold.

“Lance …”

“Listen, I know you don’t want to hear it, but I’m just—I don’t know if I’ll have a chance to say it again.”

“You really don’t have to—”

“Tomorrow is the last day before my twentieth birthday.”

Lance stated the words plainly, but there was a terrible darkness lying under them. He had picked up the stick he’d used to roast the meat and now tossed it onto the flames, watched it burn with a sudden empty expression.

“I don’t even know if we’ll make it to the Galran base on time, and even if we do …” He stopped, turning towards Keith again. “What if I can’t break the curse, Keith? What if I’m wrong? What if Romelle … what if she doesn’t love me? And you know how the curse works––if she’s the wrong person and I kiss her it will kill both of us, and ...”

Lance's breathing hitched and went shallow. He kept searching Keith's face, desperately waiting for an answer, and Keith scrambled for words. He couldn't even begin to imagine what Lance was feeling, but he could practically feel the panic rolling off of him in waves.

After a moment of hesitation, he reached out to rest a hand on Lance's shoulder. "Hey," he said gently. "It's alright, Lance. Just ... breathe for a second."

The advice sounded lame to his own ears, but apparently it was enough to get through to Lance. Still holding Keith's gaze, he nodded and drew in a deep breath, then let it out in a shuddering sigh.

"Sorry," he murmured, looking away again. "I––I guess I'm just ..." He gestured vaguely.

"Scared? Yeah, me too." Keith let his hand drop from Lance's shoulder. "But, listen. I may not know what's going to happen tomorrow––but I know that we already made it through the Rift. We can make it through a Galra base, too. And as for Romelle ..." He hesitated, glaring down at the ground and chewing his lip as he carefully chose his words. "She's going to love you. I don't see how she couldn't."

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Lance look up at him in surprise. His posture stiffened for a moment before relaxing again.

"You think so?"

It seemed to take a monumental effort, but Keith managed to lift his head and look Lance in the eyes. "I know so."

He wanted to say so much more––about how Lance deserved all the love in the world and more, about how he was selfless and brave and kind. He thought of the first time Lance had told him about the curse, about everything he'd told Lance then and how he still believed all of it now.

But he couldn't bring himself to say it. All he could do was hold Lance's gaze for a moment longer, offering a hesitant smile.

Lance managed a weak smile in return, although it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Thanks, Keith. That … that means a lot.” He paused like he was about to say something else, then seemed to think better of it.

“Anyway, we should probably get some sleep before tomorrow. I know we’re out of the Rift, but since we’re in enemy territory it might be a good idea for us to take turns keeping watch.”

Keith blinked, feeling a bit like he’d been shaken out of a deep sleep. “Oh … good idea. I can take the first watch.”

“Are you sure? You probably need the rest more than I do,” Lance said, glancing at Keith’s shoulder.

Instinctively, Keith clamped a hand over the place where the wound had been. “It’s fine,” he assured Lance. “Just a little sore, but it’s healed. Plus, I just slept for a few hours.”

Lance still looked a bit hesitant, but he nodded. If the dark circles under his eyes were anything to go by, he was just as exhausted as Keith was. “Guess you’re right,” he sighed, his shoulders sagging. “Wake me up in a couple of hours?”

“I will.”

“And if anything happens, or you’re in pain or anything––”

“I’m fine, Lance. Really. Go to sleep.”

“Alright, alright.” Lance rolled his eyes, but threw Keith a small and teasing smile at the same time as he started to lie down. “Good night, Keith.”

“G’night.”

Lance curled up on his side, one arm propped under his head and his back turned away from the fire. Soon, there was no sound in the empty cavern besides Lance’s steady breathing, the crackling of the flames, and the occasional snort from one of the sleeping horses outside.

Keith pulled up the hood of his cloak and drew his knees up to his chest. Sighing, he held his palms out to the fire to soak in its heat. He could sense the current of energy that ran through it like a faint heartbeat, and the same rhythm echoed through his veins.

He closed his eyes for a moment, mentally tugging at the source of energy––and when he opened them again, a thin thread of fire was spiraling lazily towards one of his outstretched hands. He breathed deeply in concentration, allowing a small sphere of flame to collect above his waiting hand before he let go.

Experimentally, he passed the ball of fire from one hand to the other, staring at it until its brightness burned hovering afterimages into his vision.

He looked over to where Lance lay still on the ground, facing away from him. Even though there were only a few feet of distance between them, it felt like miles. And Keith felt a desperate ache to close that distance, remembering what it had felt like to wake up in Lance’s arms that morning, wishing he could feel it over and over again.

But he knew that indulging such fantasies was pointless at best, harmful at worst. He couldn’t let anything distract him from the important mission at hand––to save Romelle, break Lance’s curse, and return home safely.

Still, that didn’t lessen the ache in his chest as he watched over Lance’s sleeping form, feeling the night grow darker and deeper around them.

––

As they'd agreed upon, they took turns keeping watch throughout the night. Either way, Keith didn't get much rest. Obviously he had to stay alert when it was his turn to be awake––but even when he was supposed to be sleeping, he could barely even bring himself to close his eyes. Not only was he plagued by his worried thoughts, but he was incredibly restless, startling at even the smallest noise from outside.

By the time Lance lightly shook him awake in the morning, he was in a hazy state of half-awareness where nothing felt real. The sun hadn't even risen yet, but there was a light blue tint bleeding into the sky, signaling that it was nearly dawn.

In the faint, surreal light, Lance donned his armor and slung his bow and arrows onto his back. In comparison, Keith didn't have much preparation to do besides feed Red and secure her saddlebags. He noticed that his fingers were shaking as he did so, and he didn't know whether it was from the morning chill or his mounting anxiety. Probably both.

Lance stepped outside, walking up to pat Blue affectionately on the neck.

“Are you ready to go?” he asked Keith.

In the pause before he answered, Keith felt an indescribable emotion surge up into his chest. He looked at Lance, looked at his gleaming armor and every familiar angle of his face, looked at his dark eyes and his faint but reassuring smile. He was struck with the dizzying realization that no matter what happened today, things would never be the same.

“Yes,” he still managed to say. “I’m ready.”

They rode out into the forest, just as the first hint of light was beginning to creep over the horizon. By the time they had been traveling for about an hour, the sun’s rays were just beginning to reach out from between the trees.

For the most part, they moved at a fast pace––not too fast so as not to overwork the horses, but enough that they were heading steadily towards their destination. Keith could feel their impending deadline hanging over their heads like a dark cloud, and every thought of it spurred him onward with a spike of determination.

The further they traveled, the more Keith could feel the tracking rune on his arm growing warmer––which was at least some reassurance that they were traveling in the right direction, but also felt like a dire warning of the dangers that lay ahead.

They soon came to a narrow pass between two cliff-sides, and began to navigate their way through. The path grew rockier as they forged onward, which slowed them down a bit as they carefully steered the horses around any obstacles.

A shudder traveled up Keith’s spine as the shadow of the cliff fell over them. He spared a nervous glance upward to where there was a hint of sun peeking out from behind the mountains; it was already past its halfway point in the sky.

“You alright?” Lance asked him.

The question startled Keith from his thoughts, and he turned to find that Lance was watching him with a worried furrow to his brow.

“Yes, fine,” Keith answered, his gaze shying away again. “Why?”

“You just looked … anxious. Or like you were in pain. Does your shoulder hurt?”

“I––no, it’s not that,” Keith stammered, clamping a hand over his shoulder. Truthfully, it did still hurt a little, but not enough that it warranted any serious concern. “I was just realizing it’s getting to be afternoon by now, that’s all.”

Lance looked upwards towards the sun as Keith had done moments earlier. He winced a little. “You’re right.”

“We’re making good time, though,” Keith said, attempting to be reassuring despite his own growing panic. “And my tracking rune keeps getting warmer, so that’s a good sign. We’ll probably reach the fortress in only a few hours.”

Lance didn’t answer for a moment, lowering his head again. “True,” he said quietly. “I just hope we’ll be able to make it there before …”

He trailed off, but he didn’t need to speak the words for Keith to understand what he meant. After all, he was consumed by the same collection of fears––that they wouldn’t be able to find the Galra base, that they wouldn’t be able to save Romelle or that she was already dead, that they only had until midnight to break Lance’s curse and––

No, he couldn’t start to think that way. Giving in to panic was only going to make things worse.

They were both quiet as they completed their trek through the pass and made their way back into the dense forest. Tall pine trees reared up on either side of them like enormous pillars. The hush of the forest fell over them for a few minutes before Lance spoke again.

“Kinda strange to think we’re in enemy territory right now.”

Keith looked over at him, raising an eyebrow. “Why’s that?”

“I don’t know, I guess just because it feels so … peaceful. It doesn’t feel much different from Altea.”

“Well, what did you expect?” Keith asked with a huff. “That as soon as we reached Daibazaal, the sky would turn black and it would start thundering ominously?”

“Kind of,” Lance admitted. He hesitated for a moment. “Hey, Keith? Can I … ask you something?”

The question made Keith’s heart stutter a bit, but he managed to answer, “Yeah, of course. What is it?”

In the moment of silence before Lance replied, Keith was so tense with anticipation that it was almost physically painful––especially because Lance suddenly looked so nervous, chewing a bit on his lower lip before he spoke.

“Sorry if this is too personal, and you don’t have to answer, but … is it weird for you? Being here?”

“Why?” Keith asked, and then quickly realized what Lance meant. Instinctively, he reached up to touch the Galra mark on his jaw. “Oh …”

“I’m sorry,” Lance blurted. “I shouldn’t have––”

“No, no. It’s okay.” Keith looked away, his hand dropping down again to grip at Red’s reins. “It’s not like I haven’t thought about it––coming to Daibazaal someday. It’s where one of my parents must have come from, after all.

“But if I ever lived here, I don’t remember it. I was found on the steps of the orphanage where I grew up, in Altea. So, I don’t know whether my parents met in Altea or in Daibazaal, or whether they abandoned me, or whether they died and someone else found me, or …”

He stopped, realizing he was starting to ramble––but when he looked up he found that Lance was watching him patiently, waiting for the rest.

Keith sighed, feeling like the telltale marks on his face were burning. “For the longest time, I didn’t want anything to do with my Galra heritage at all,” he admitted. “The other kids at the orphanage always mocked me for it, telling me I was some kind of hybrid, a monster.”

The edges of his vision went a little blurry as he spoke. Even though it had been years ago, he could still feel the sting of each scathing remark, could feel both the verbal and physical blows he'd endured in those darkest years of his life, could feel the bruises on his knuckles from the punches he'd thrown in retaliation.

He instinctively flexed his fingers as if preparing for a fight, then took a deep breath to calm himself again. He had told bits and pieces of this to Lance before, but never in much detail, and he wasn't certain why he was being so open about it now––maybe because of his near-death experience the day before, or because of the imminent danger that lay ahead of them, but there didn't seem to be any point in holding it back anymore.

"It took a long time until I could accept that side of myself," he said at last, after a brief contemplation. "And even now, it's difficult––especially with Altea and Daibazaal on the brink of war. But ... I don't know. Even though I'm part Galra, I don't think Daibazaal will ever really be home to me."

He hoped that was enough of an explanation, because he wasn't certain he could articulate the rest of his thoughts on the matter. But the truth was, he'd never quite considered Daibazaal to be his homeland. Although he no longer resented his heritage the way he once had, he had never felt a strong desire to enter Galra territory––maybe only for the purpose of seeking information about his family, but even that wasn't high on his list of priorities. After all, he'd found another family. He'd found another home.

Even though Keith said none of this out loud, Lance seemed to understand. He gave a serious nod.

"I know what you mean," he said. "Or, well, not that I know exactly what you've been through, but that makes sense. And I know it's probably not easy to talk about."

There was such soft sympathy in the words that Keith felt a sudden pang in his chest. He felt nostalgic for all the nights they'd spent talking in the orchard, bonding over their greatest hopes and fears. He wondered if they'd ever have the chance to spend time with each other that way again.

"You're right, it's not," he said at last. "But ... I think it helps to talk about it. So, thanks. For asking." It came out haltingly, but he managed to tack a genuine smile to the end of it to show he meant it.

Lance returned the smile. "Of course. Thanks for telling me."

There was a moment of silence where neither of them said anything, just held each other's gazes like they were both waiting. The only sound was the thudding of the horses' hooves against the densely packed dirt.

Then, very suddenly, Lance's smile faded.

His change of expression sent a jolt of panic through Keith immediately––and he nearly looked over his shoulder to see if there was something behind him. But he quickly realized that something else was happening ... something worse. Because right then, Lance put a hand over his chest and hissed sharply as if in pain.

“Lance?” Keith exclaimed. He steered Red towards Blue, so they were trotting side-by-side. “What happened? Are you alright?”

Lance was still bent forward with a hand over his heart, but as Keith quickly looked him over he couldn’t see any sign of injury. After wincing and taking a few deep breaths, though, Lance sat up straight again––although the look in his eyes was suddenly distant and terrified, as if he’d seen a ghost.

“I––I don’t know. It was my curse mark. It … hurt.”

Keith looked down to where Lance’s hand still lingered against the metal of his chest plate. “What do you mean? Has it ever hurt before?”

Lance frowned, a stony expression overtaking his features. “No,” he said grimly. “At least, not that I can remember. I can’t even really describe it. It was like … like it was burning.”

There was suddenly a panicked ringing in Keith’s ears. He met Lance’s gaze, where he saw his own wild fear reflected. They were running out of time.

“Does it still hurt now?”

Lance hesitated before he answered, pressing his palm over the spot one more time before he let his hand drop down again. “Not anymore. But that’s …” He stopped, swallowed. “That’s probably not a good sign.”

A sick sense of dread had settled into Keith's bones. His fingers felt numb as he gripped more tightly onto Red's reigns. But as terrified as he was, a fiery sense of determination overtook him.

"We need to keep going," he said firmly. "Don't worry. We're going to make it in time."

He could only pray that he was right.

––

They kept riding through the thick forest as if there were a ghost at their heels. There was no longer time for slowing down or making conversation. The lower the sun sank towards the horizon, the more Keith felt a panicked adrenaline rush through his veins. Every pulse of his heart, every beat of the horse's hooves against the ground, was another moment bringing them closer to their fate––closer to reaching the Galra base, closer to Romelle, closer to breaking Lance's curse in time.

Although he kept his gaze focused forward for the most part, Keith spared a few glances in Lance's direction as they traveled. It was difficult to get a good look at his face due to the rapid pace at which they were moving––but from the brief glimpses he caught, Lance was wearing a determined frown. If he was feeling any pain in his curse mark, he made no mention of it.

The tracking rune on Keith's arm, on the other hand, was growing increasingly warm like a brand against his skin. It wasn't painful, exactly, but it certainly kept drawing his attention.

“We’re close,” he warned Lance, as Red pulled up next to Blue. “Keep an eye out. They could have sentries scouting the woods around the fortress.”

Lance gave a grim nod in reply.

They slowed their horses down, both on the lookout for any adversaries. But as far as Keith could see, there was no living being in sight––just the thick trunks of the trees, the pale sky beyond them, and ...

"Wait," Lance said, stopping to stare at something ahead of them. "Do you see that?"

Keith followed his gaze, and his breath caught when he saw what Lance was pointing at. In the near distance, the forest sloped downward and broke off into a valley. As they drew cautiously closer, it became more apparent how deep and wide it was, the drop so steep that it made Keith feel slightly dizzy to look down at it.

And at its heart was the Galra base––a dark stone fortress with towering spires, surrounded on all sides by giant, jagged rocks.

The very sight of it made Keith feel dizzy with dread, but he tried to swallow down his fear. They’d made it this far, and there was no turning back now.

“Well,” Lance said at last, releasing a long breath. “We definitely can’t take the horses down there.”

Keith looked over the rocky landscape beneath them and nodded in grim agreement. “You’re right. We should find somewhere to tether them.”

They found a relatively thick patch of forest nearby, where the horses could remain hidden and where there was enough grass on the ground for them to graze. Keith knew that––if all went well––they would be returning soon, but he still had an ache of dread in his chest as he gave Red an affectionate pat on the neck goodbye. She lowered her head a little, flaring her nostrils and nickering softly.

“I’ll come back for you soon, Red,” Keith said quietly. “I promise.”

After lingering a moment longer, he turned to see that Lance was exchanging an equally heartfelt goodbye with Blue. There was an almost pained expression on his face as he stepped away from his horse, but he composed himself again as he approached Keith. He took a moment to adjust the bow and arrows strapped to his back, then briefly touched the hilt of the sword at his hip.

“Ready?”

Keith felt for the luxite blade at his side just to make sure it was still there, then nodded firmly. “I’m ready.”

Without another word, they headed for the crest of the hill and towards the dark valley below.

––

The descent was difficult, to say the least, since the drop was steep and cluttered with enormous boulders. Keith and Lance scaled their way down, jumping from rock to rock. There were a few times Keith landed on loose stones that slid beneath his boots, but he somehow miraculously managed not to fall.

As soon as their feet hit the ground they headed straight towards the fortress, ducking behind the large rocks along the way to remain hidden from view.

By the time they had finally reached the ridge directly overlooking the base, Keith was already sweating from the exertion. They crouched behind a boulder, both catching their breath.

“We need a plan,” Lance said.

Keith nodded in agreement, raising his head just enough to look over the top of the boulder. Down below was the entrance of the fortress, which was barred by an iron portcullis. Dark figures patrolled outside, armor glinting in the faint light.

“There’s probably about a dozen guards,” Keith informed Lance as he ducked down again.

Lance heaved a sigh, frowning in thought. “What do we do?”

After a moment’s hesitation, Keith pulled out his blade. He could already feel magic coursing down his arm and into the dagger, when he felt Lance’s hand on his shoulder.

“Whoa, what are you doing?” Lance hissed. “We can’t just go rushing in there with our swords drawn––they outnumber us.”

He had a point, but Keith still let out a huff of frustration. “Then what do you think we should do?”

Lance considered the question, scratching the back of his head in thought. “I don’t know. I could try to shoot them down from here. But I have a feeling they’re going to start rushing up here as soon as they see arrows flying.”

“Well, we need to get in there somehow.”

A short silence passed as Lance considered. He looked like he was about to say something else, when there was a deep rumbling noise from the valley below. At the sound, Lance immediately grabbed Keith by the arm and pulled him down further behind the boulder.

They remained that way for several long moments, tense and holding their breath, before Keith raised his head again.

“Keith,” Lance said urgently, his grip firm on Keith’s wrist. “Stay down.”

“Wait.”

Keith peered over the top of the rock, seeking out the source of the noise. As he'd suspected, the portcullis in front of the entrance was slowly rising.

A small thrill went through him at the sight. "They're opening the gate," he told Lance. "The guards are probably trading shifts. This is our chance."

"What?" Lance rose up just high enough to look over the top of the boulder, following Keith's gaze. "But how are we going to––"

"I think I might have an idea."

Keith blurted out the words before he'd had much time to think it over, but there wasn't much time to second-guess himself right now. If they didn't get through that entrance, they might not have another chance for a few more hours––and they couldn't waste a single moment.

He slowly rose to his feet.

"Keith?" Lance said warily. "What are you doing? They're going to see you!"

"Just ... trust me. I need a second."

Apparently there was enough urgency in his tone to keep Lance's questions at bay. Keith drew in a deep breath and closed his eyes, reaching deep into the recesses of his soul for the source of his magic. He felt its familiar pulse and grasped onto it, letting it spread into his fingertips. Then he mentally reached out, extending his energy all the way down into the valley, up to the entrance of the fortress.

As he did so, he could see the line of guards marching inside, as another group came filing out. The new group of guards lined up at the foot of the steps as if controlled by clockwork, each movement precise and calculated. In less than a minute they were standing at attention, spines rigid and spears held at the ready by their sides. Keith's gaze flitted quickly over the row of soldiers, estimating that there were about ten of them.

He didn't have much experience with extending his magic such a far distance, or casting a spell over so many people at once, and he could already feel himself shaking with the effort. But he kept breathing evenly, ignoring the bead of sweat that trickled down the back of his neck. He raised one hand, slow and steady, not daring to break his concentration for even one moment.

Praying that he could remember the spell correctly, he began to mutter under his breath.

In seconds, he found himself in an almost meditative state. Waves of energy pulsed through him, the magic flowing through his veins like fire. He could sense the distant auras of the guards like pinpricks of light in his consciousness. Somehow, he managed to keep his grasp on them even though it was difficult to control so many at once.

Just as he started to fear that his hold on them was slipping, he finished uttering the incantation. There was a brief moment where he thought the spell had failed, and the guards continued to stand there like statues. But then he saw a couple of them sway unsteadily on their feet, before their legs gave out underneath them. It seemed to affect them each one by one; after the first few had crumpled to the ground, the remaining guards looked up in alarm as if searching for the source of the attack––but it wasn't long before they, too, dropped like stones.

Keith let his hand fall to his side again as he took a gasping breath, his vision going hazy for a moment.

"Keith!" He didn't know when Lance had stood up beside him, but now he was grasping Keith's arm and holding him steady. "Are you alright?"

"Yeah, fine," Keith managed to say. He still felt a little shaken and out of breath, but at least the cloudiness had cleared from his sight.

Lance still looked worried, but his attention quickly shifted to where the guards now lay unmoving at the foot of the hill.

"Wh––What did you do to them?" he asked warily. "Are they ... ?"

"They're just sleeping," Keith reassured him, "but I don't know how long it will last. Also, the gate is closing again. We need to get down there."

Sure enough, the portcullis was still continuing its slow descent. It was nearly halfway closed already, and if they didn't get down there fast enough they would have no way inside.

With a serious nod, Lance reached for the handle of his sword and drew it out. Keith did the same, pulling out the luxite blade and transforming it into its sword form as they started to clamber down the hillside.

By the time they reached the stone steps of the fortress, a few of the guards were already stirring slightly and the portcullis was about halfway closed. Normally Keith might have suggested they steal a couple of the unconscious guards’ armor so they could sneak around the fortress without raising any suspicions––but they didn’t have time for that now. They would just need to be stealthy.

“Come on,” Keith said urgently as he raced up the steps.

Lance was close behind him, and they both managed to duck and roll under the gate right before it closed with a solid thunk. For a moment they both remained crouching on the floor, catching their breath as they took in their surroundings.

As Keith’s vision adjusted to the dim lighting, he made out the details of the space around them. Two narrow corridors stretched out on either side of them, and in front of them a wide set of stone steps led upwards and branched in two directions. The only source of light was the flickering torches that lined the corridors, and the faint patches of daylight shining through the gaps in the portcullis behind them. Keith had a sense that the fortress had been built very long ago, judging by the number of crumbling stones in the walls and the sickening smell of mildew and decay that permeated the air.

"Which way do we go?" Lance whispered, just loudly enough for Keith to hear.

They both rose slowly to their feet, looking in each direction. Keith pulled back his sleeve to peer at the tracking rune on his forearm, which was now glowing a faint shade of violet against his pale skin. He closed his eyes and pressed two fingers against it––and right away, he felt a strong pull guiding him upwards, like someone was taking hold of his wrist and leading him to his destination.

"The stairs," he told Lance, nodding forward.

They started up the steps, moving quickly but lightly so as not to make a single sound. Even the slightest footfall or the faintest creak from Lance's armor made the hairs on the back of Keith's neck stand on end, terrified that there were guards chasing after them.

But they managed to make it to the top of the steps unscathed. The tracking rune seemed to be pulling Keith towards the corridor to their left, and he gestured for Lance to follow him.

The hallway was narrow, lined with shallow alcoves. Torches flickered in their sconces along the walls, providing only the barest amount of light to see by. Keith continued to lead the way, holding his breath and gripping tightly to the handle of his sword. Each small movement in the corner of his vision startled him, but every time he turned to look it was only a shadow dancing across the stone wall.

Something about the atmosphere of the fortress made goosebumps rise on his skin. At first he thought it was merely because they were in a tense and dangerous situation––but the farther they traveled through the winding halls, the more he could feel it like an itch at the back of his mind. He realized, with a knot of dread in his stomach, that it reminded him of how he'd felt when they were in the Rift ... like there was some dark source of energy radiating from the walls around them. Lance seemed to sense something too, judging by the way his breathing went shallow in the stillness.

They were navigating their way down one particularly long corridor when Keith heard something from the far end of the tunnel––what sounded like the steady thud of footfalls. Frantically, he turned to meet Lance's eye and gestured towards a nearby alcove. Lance had a dazed look on his face, but he seemed to snap out of it as soon as their gazes met, and he managed a short nod to convey he understood.

They both ducked into the small opening, which was so narrow that they had to stand shoulder to shoulder. Keith could feel the hard press of Lance’s armor all the way down his arm and focused on that to keep him grounded, trying not to give in to the panic that had overcome him.

The footsteps were even more audible now, echoing down the hollow passage. It was difficult to determine, but it sounded like there were multiple pairs of them––three or four, maybe––and they were getting closer. Keith squeezed his eyes shut as if that would somehow keep him hidden. Don’t come this way, don’t come this way, he prayed silently over and over again.

There was a heart-stopping moment where the footfalls paused, as if their owners had caught sight of something … but then they resumed again, retreating back into the hallway in the opposite direction. Fading, fading, and then gone.

Keith slowly let out his breath, tilting forward just enough to scour the corridor and determine that it was indeed empty. “Looks like they’re gone,” he whispered. “Let’s …”

Before he could finish the sentence, he heard a small whimper from Lance. And when he turned, his blood ran cold––because Lance had a hand pressed to his chest again, right over his curse mark, and was grimacing in pain.

Suddenly dizzy with worry, Keith grasped at his arm. “Lance?”

Lance shook him off, gulping in a breath and letting it out again. “I––I’m alright,” he insisted, although the words sounded a bit faint. “It’s just … hurting again.”

Although he was being vague, Keith had a sense that it was causing Lance even worse pain than it had before. The very thought made him go tense with a desperate determination. He looked down at his arm again, pulling back the sleeve of his cloak a little to see that the tracking rune was now glowing steadily.

“We’re almost there, Lance,” he said reassuringly, squeezing Lance’s wrist. “We’re so close to Romelle, I can feel it. Just a little further.”

There was still a glazed look in Lance’s eyes, but he managed a small nod as he took another deep breath and collected himself. “Alright, I’m ready.”

They stepped forward into the corridor again, looking both ways to make sure no other guards were patrolling nearby. When there was no movement in sight, they headed to their left towards the nearest entryway.

Keith felt more on edge than ever now, and he could practically feel the seconds wasting away like a candle slowly melting into a puddle of wax. There were a few other close calls where they heard nearby footsteps, but they always managed to hide in time before they could get caught.

They had soon wandered so deeply into the labyrinth of tunnels that Keith feared they would get hopelessly lost. But just as he felt about ready to give up hope, he felt another surge of energy from the tracking rune pulling him forward. He turned and saw an open doorway leading to a narrow staircase, spiraling upwards.

"Lance," he hissed, gesturing towards the steps.

Lance followed his gaze and his eyes widened, before his face settled back into a determined expression. They both moved through the low entryway and began the twisting ascent.

Keith continued to walk in front, his blade held out in front of him in case of the appearance of any sudden adversaries. His hand shook around the hilt of his weapon and there was a loud rushing noise in his ears, but he tried to push his fear to the back of his mind. He had to concentrate on moving up step by step, trusting that the tracking rune was guiding him in the right direction.

It was soon apparent that the steps were ascending towards a high tower, judging by the way they seemed to spiral on endlessly. Keith could already feel himself running out of breath, his legs aching from the repetitive climbing. But the rune on his arm kept burning insistently, guiding him upward. They were almost there ... they had to be.

But just as he was starting to believe that they might make it to the tower with no interference, he heard a clamor of noise from above.

He came to a stumbling stop so fast that Lance almost ran into him.

"Keith?" he said, panting a bit from the exertion. "What––"

Keith held up a hand to shush him, a cold feeling crawling over his skin as he stared up into the darkness. He prayed for one moment that maybe he had imagined it, or it had just been the scuttle of rats in the walls. But when he heard the sound again, it was clearly not an animalistic one; instead it was the distinct creak of metal on metal, the sound of plates of armor scraping together, accompanied by the steady thud of footfalls. Something about it didn't sound quite right ... it was strangely heavy and sluggish. Nevertheless, it was descending the steps straight towards them.

Gasping, Keith took a step back and Lance did the same––both of them holding their swords at the ready. At the same time, Keith concentrated and reached out with his magic to try and sense how many enemies were approaching.

He had considered trying the same sleeping spell he’d cast on the guards outside, but … something wasn’t right. When he’d sensed the auras of the guards at the entrance, he had been able to feel their life force, hearts beating and lungs expanding. But whatever was coming towards them now had … nothing. No heartbeats, no sign of life at all. Which was …

“Impossible,” Keith murmured to himself, his head reeling. He’d never felt anything like this before, and the only explanation he could think of was something so sickening that it made bile rise up the back of his throat.

Seeming to sense that something was amiss, Lance took a step back. "What's––" he started to say.

Before he could finish asking the question, the sound of clanking footsteps became rapidly more audible, and dark shadows fell across the winding steps. Figures began to crowd around the corner, their armor glinting in the dim torchlight.

At first glance, it appeared that a swarm of Galra soldiers were stumbling down the stairs towards them––which was already frightening enough. But worse than that, Keith could tell immediately that there was something off about them. Their movements were stiff and jerky as if they were controlled by puppet strings, swords swinging haphazardly in every direction. If that wasn't enough of a giveaway, their eyes were glowing an unnatural shade of yellow––and when Keith caught sight of one of their faces, only a skeletal grin stared back at him.

It made sense, suddenly, why he hadn't sensed any sign of life coming from these soldiers: They were dead.

Keith didn't have time to question it further. Adrenaline soared through his veins as he held his sword out, prepared for the oncoming attack.

"Keith!" Lance grabbed him by the shoulder, trying to pull him back. "We have to––"

But if he had been planning to suggest they run, those plans were instantly thwarted by the sound of footsteps thudding up the stairs behind them. Keith spared a brief glance over his shoulder and saw several more pairs of glowing eyes glaring up from the darkness.

"Lance, behind you!"

Lance turned around and gasped at the sight, but then immediately took on a battle stance, holding his sword out at the ready. He looked in Keith’s direction as if in a silent signal, and Keith nodded with grim understanding––he would take on the soldiers coming from above while Lance would take the ones from below.

They turned back-to-back and dove into battle.

Keith let out a cry as he swung his sword in an arc, beheading the first undead soldier that lunged towards him. Although he knew the soldier was nothing but a reanimated corpse, his gut still twisted at the sound of his blade slicing through bone.

The detached skull tumbled from the creature’s shoulders, its helmet clattering against the stone stairs, and its limp body collapsed at Keith’s feet. He kicked it aside and leapt up another step, ducking as another soldier swung its sword over his head, then rose up again to drive his sword through its chest. He narrowly managed to dodge several more attacks, the sharp edge of his sword dismembering one soldier and another. More bones and discarded armor rattled noisily against the stone steps.

Keith stopped for a moment, panting, as another soldier lumbered down the narrow staircase towards him, yellow eyes ablaze and an axe held above its head. Sucking in a sharp breath, Keith threw his hand forward, using his magic to lift the undead solider from the ground. Then with a cry, he turned and threw the skeletal creature overhead and sent it crashing into several of its comrades that had been crawling up the stairs towards Lance.

Lance, meanwhile, was currently locked in battle with another soldier, their swords crossed between them. Lance pushed forward with a cry, sending his opponent stumbling down a step. Then he lashed out with his sword, first cutting off the hand of the soldier and sending his weapon flying, then driving his blade all the way through the creature's chest. As the soldier went limp, Lance lifted one foot to forcefully kick its body off the edge of the blade, and the remaining bones tumbled to a heap.

There appeared to be no more soldiers approaching for the time being, but that could change at any moment.

"Lance!" Keith shouted. "Run!"

Not wasting another moment, they sprinted up the spiral staircase, avoiding the scattered remains of the undead creatures they had felled. And as they rounded the next curve, a set of large wooden doors loomed before them. They both dashed towards them, stumbling through the opening and rushing to slam the doors behind them.

They paused for a moment, leaning back against the doors and breathing heavily from the exertion of both the climb and the battle.

"What," Lance panted out, "were those things?"

Keith’s pulse was still thundering in his ears as he struggled to come up with an answer.

“I––I don’t know,” he said at last, wiping a shaking hand across his brow. “I couldn’t sense any life force in them. It was like they were dead, but they … weren’t.”

“What? How is that possible?”

Keith shook his head. “I’ve heard stories and never really believed them but … Adam has told me about dark mages that can raise the dead.”

“Dark mages?” Lance repeated, tensing with alarm. “Do you mean––”

“Yes,” Keith said grimly. “That means there must be a dark mage somewhere in this fortress. A powerful one.”

Lance cursed and let out a shaking breath. “We need to find Romelle and get out of here.” He looked up at the wide corridor ahead of them. “Is that … ?”

He was pointing at a large set of iron doors at the end of the hall. Where the two doors met, a large and almost insect-like symbol was etched into the metal––the emblem of the Galra.

Almost as soon as he saw it, Keith felt the tracking rune on his arm start to burn. And when he looked down at his arm, the rune was glowing so brightly that he could see it through the fabric of his cloak.

“That’s it,” he said, voice almost a whisper. “She must be in there.”

It seemed to take a moment for the words to settle in, and then Lance inhaled sharply. He stood up straight, sliding his sword into its sheath at his side. His gaze remained on the door, completely transfixed.

“So,” he said, voice rasping a little. “This … this is really it.”

Keith felt the weight of those words like a heavy stone dropping into the pit of his stomach. He couldn’t seem to stop staring at Lance, at the strong line of his jaw, at the dark hair that curled around the shell of his ear, at the way his eyes gleamed with a combination of hope and fear.

Everything had led to this moment, to the pair of them standing outside the door sealing Lance from his fate. Keith knew he should feel elated, that Lance’s curse could potentially be broken within minutes. And yet, he couldn’t stop the flood of conflicting emotions that crashed over him.

But no matter what was about to happen, they had been through it all together––from the first day Lance had reached for Keith’s hand to lift him from the ground, to the nights spent in the orchard sharing their secrets beneath the stars, to the months spent apart threaded together by the letters exchanged between them.

Keith knew right then that he would live it all again if he had to. Every smile, every word, every casual touch … even every argument, every pain and heartbreak. He would do it all again, a thousand times over.

He reached out to rest a hand on Lance’s shoulder. Lance looked up at him in surprise, as if he’d been shaken awake from a dream. Keith offered him a weak smile, hoping it was at least somewhat reassuring.

Lance smiled shakily back. He didn’t say anything, but he didn’t need to. There seemed to be a silent exchange between them, as Keith gave a small nod and turned towards the door again. Sobering, Lance followed his gaze and squared his shoulders. Then, without waiting another moment, he strode forward.

The walk down the hallway felt like an eternity long, and with each step Keith felt as if his body was growing heavier. He held his breath as they drew closer to the door, until they stood directly in front of it.

Lance reached out to put a hand against the metal surface, frowning as he examined it. “How are we supposed to open this thing?”

Almost as soon as he had spoken, Keith noticed something on the wall to their far left. Etched into the stone was a crude outline of a hand, with a Galra symbol at its center––the same symbol that was on the door. Keith walked slowly towards it.

“Keith?” Lance said warily.

“I … I think it’s activated by magic,” Keith explained, now standing right in front of the symbol on the wall. “By a handprint … a Galra handprint.”

He looked down at his own hand as he spoke, turning it over to examine his palm. Before he could second-guess himself, he reached out and touched the symbol on the wall, praying that his instinct was correct.

Immediately, he felt a slight tingling sensation in his fingers. Then the stone began to grow warm, the hand symbol glowing purple. Lance gasped behind him––and when Keith turned to look, he saw that the Galra symbol on the door had started to glow as well.

The light grew stronger as a humming noise filled the air. Then all at once, it stopped … and with a low groan, the doors began to slide open.

Keith let his hand drop to his side again, stepping back and holding his sword out in case of any awaiting traps. Lance did the same, remaining close by Keith’s side with his weapon at the ready.

But as the gap between the doors expanded, there was no sign of any enemies. The widening stripe of light crept across the stone floor of a dark room, until it illuminated a figure slumped against the back wall.

Both inhaling sharply, Keith and Lance dashed forward into the prison cell. Now that they were closer, Keith could see that the captive appeared to be a young woman around their age, her skin pale and her golden hair in two loose braids. Her head tipped forward and her eyes were closed, and she lay completely unmoving.

Lance reached her first, letting out a small choked noise as he fell down on his knees. His sword clattered onto the stones next to him. He seemed to not know what to do, lifting his hands but then just letting them hover near the girl’s arms as he frantically looked her over––the smudges of dirt on her face, her tattered prison uniform, the faintly glowing cuffs around her thin wrists.

Keith stood a few paces behind them, hardly daring to breathe, his throat going tight. He silently pleaded with the universe, praying that they weren’t too late.

But just then, the girl stirred slightly and murmured something incoherent. Keith felt some of the tension ease from his shoulders, the breath leaving his lungs in a relieved sigh. Maybe there was still hope, after all.

The girl blinked a few times and slowly started to lift her head. When she saw Lance kneeling in front of her, her blue eyes widened and she tried to scramble backwards, pressing up against the wall behind her. She gasped in a deep breath as if she intended to scream, but then stopped as Lance rested his hands on her shoulders.

“Hey, hey. It’s alright,” he said soothingly. “We’re here to help you. Are you … Are you Romelle?”

She paused before answering, the hazy look in her eyes fading as she focused on Lance’s face in the dimness. “Yes,” she said at last, with a slight waver in her voice. “Who are you?”

Lance hesitated before answering, glancing briefly in Keith’s direction before he spoke. “I’m Lance,” he said. “Knight of Altea. And my friend is Keith. He’s a mage, like you.”

Romelle looked up at Keith and stiffened, as if she hadn’t noticed him standing there until now. Then her gaze traveled back to Lance, lingering on the lion insignia on the chestplate of his armor.

“Queen Allura sent us,” Lance elaborated, seeming to sense Romelle’s trepidation.

Apparently it was the right thing to say, judging by how she brightened slightly at the mention of the queen––she sat up straight, a glimmer of sudden hope in her eyes. “Allura?” she repeated breathlessly. She glanced over Lance’s shoulder. “Is she … Is she here with you?”

Lance blinked, as if he’d been shaken from a deep sleep. An indiscernible look crossed his face for a moment––as if he was on the verge of realizing something––before the expression disappeared just as quickly.

“No, I’m sorry. She had important matters to attend to back in Altea, but she sent the two of us to rescue you.”

Romelle’s shoulders sagged a little. She still remained pressed against the wall like a cornered animal. “Then how do I know you’re telling the truth? That you’re really who you say you are?”

“I …” Lance started to say, then looked up at Keith helplessly.

Through this whole exchange, Keith had remained off to the side, afraid that he was invading on something personal. But now that Lance and Romelle were both staring at him quizzically, he suddenly snapped to attention. He scrambled for an answer for a moment, before he became aware of the burning sensation on his forearm again.

"The tracking rune," he blurted, and then pulled up his sleeve to show Romelle the glowing mark on his skin. "You have one, too, don't you?"

Romelle's eyes widened. Although her hands were trapped, she managed to maneuver her arms upward enough so that her loose sleeves slipped down to her elbows. And sure enough, there was a matching rune on her arm, which was also now glowing violet. A prickling sensation ran through Keith's mark, and he looked down to see it was starting to flicker and fade––a signal that he had found the person he'd been tracking.

Romelle watched in awe as her own rune dissolved, before she let her cuffed hands drop into her lap again. "So, it's true," she murmured. "Allura really did send you here." Her face immediately crumpled in relief, tears spilling down her cheeks. "Oh, thank you. Please, we need to get out of here ..."

"It's alright, we will," Lance promised her, offering a weak smile of reassurance before sobering again. "Now, we need to get you out of these ..." He gently took hold of her hands, indicating the glowing manacles on her wrists. After examining them for a few moments, he looked up at Keith questioningly.

It seemed to be an invitation, so Keith took a cautious step forward and knelt down next to Lance. He reached out to brush his fingers over the metal cuffs and hissed in a sharp breath when he felt a strange energy radiating from them––like two opposite magnets repelling each other.

Romelle bit her lip. "They're made of trinthite," she explained. "Magic resistant."

" ... So you can't shapeshift out of them," Keith muttered, completing the thought, then cursed under his breath. He could practically feel the seconds ticking away, knowing that at any moment guards could appear at the door. At the same time, he felt a twisting feeling in his gut as he realized that only a very powerful dark mage could craft something like these. "Who ... who did this to you?"

At that, Romelle’s expression darkened. A visible shudder went through her. “The witch,” she answered faintly. “Haggar.”

It took a second for the words to sink in, and then Keith’s whole body went rigid. He instinctively looked at Lance, who was staring back at him with wide eyes.

“Haggar?” Lance repeated, his voice rising a few pitches with panic. “She—She did this? She’s here?”

Romelle nodded frantically. “Yes, and we must get out of here before she returns.” She looked around them as if in search of some miraculous solution, and then her eyes widened as they fell on Keith’s sword. “Wait … your blade. Is it made of luxite?”

Keith stiffened at the sudden attention, then lifted his sword up slightly to look down on it. The distinct, dark gray hue of the metal glinted in the faint light. “Uh, yes. Why?”

Romelle leaned forward slightly to examine it. “I didn’t even know there were any luxite blades left in existence.”

Keith didn’t know how to answer. Truthfully, he didn’t know much about the origin of the blade, as the dagger had been left with him on the steps of the orphanage. But from what Adam had explained to him, luxite blades were extremely rare, and there were legends that they were crafted from the remains of a fallen star. The material was compatible with magic, able to shift its form with the aid of the mage who wielded it, and was so strong that it could cut through practically anything, and … oh. He suddenly had a feeling where this was going.

Just as the realization crossed his mind, Romelle held out her cuffed hands. “Your blade … it can probably cut through these.”

"What?" Keith stared at her for a moment like she'd spoken in another language, looking from her pleading expression down to her outstretched wrists. "I––I don't know. I could hurt you ..."

"Please," Romelle cut him off, and this time her voice was tinged with desperation, her eyes watering. "We don't have much time."

Keith still hesitated, even though he could tell from Romelle's terrified expression that she would risk just about anything to escape from this place. Not that he could blame her. He looked briefly over at Lance as if waiting for his input, and Lance also looked wary of the suggestion––biting his lip as he looked between Keith and Romelle. But after all, Romelle was right. They didn't have much time, and there didn't seem to be any other options.

"Okay," Keith said with a sigh. "I can try. Lance, stand back."

"Keith, I really don't think this is––"

"Do you have any other ideas?"

The question came out a bit more sharply than Keith had intended, but it was a bit challenging to be patient in the current situation. Lance's eyes widened for a moment, but then he shook his head and sighed in defeat. "Alright. Just ... be careful."

With a serious nod, Keith got to his feet. Lance did the same, taking a few steps back and watching anxiously. Meanwhile, Romelle moved to a kneeling position and held her arms out as far as they would go, cringing away slightly in anticipation.

Keith took a deep breath, trying to steady the trembling in his hands as he focused on the small metal link between the two cuffs. He held his sword out straight in front of him, hesitating for only a moment longer before he lifted it and brought it sharply down.

A flash of cold panic rushed through him as he worried he would miss, but it was instantly quelled as the blade sliced evenly through the link. The damage was apparently enough to shatter whatever spell had been cast upon the cuffs; the metal went dark as they unclasped and fell to the stones with a loud clatter.

They all heaved sighs of relief, and Keith let his sword drop to his side again. Finally free of her chains, Romelle rubbed at her wrists as she lurched to her feet. Then she unexpectedly surged forward to throw her arms around Keith, shuddering with a sob. “Thank you, thank you,” she said against his shoulder.

Not knowing what else to do, Keith patted her on the back. “Oh, I … you’re welcome,” he stammered.

Romelle stepped back again, offering a tremulous smile to Keith and Lance in turn. It only lasted for a moment, though, before she sobered again. “Now, let’s leave this terrible place,” she said, looking around once more at the dank prison cell.

“Agreed,” said Keith. “Now, how do we …”

He trailed off then, noticing how stiffly Lance was standing a few feet away from him. He was staring fixedly at Romelle as if in deep concentration, like he was trying to solve a complicated puzzle.

It struck Keith then that something about this whole situation, about the confused expression on Lance’s face, felt … off. He wasn’t sure how he had expected things to unfold, and he’d been trying not to even think what it would be like to witness Lance uniting with his true love, and … well, it wasn’t like the setting around them was particularly romantic.

But, still. There was obviously something bothering Lance that Keith couldn’t pinpoint or understand. As far as he could tell, Romelle was pretty––although Keith knew his opinion on the matter was probably not the most reliable, seeing as he had no romantic interest in women whatsoever––and from their brief interaction, Romelle seemed sweet and kind-hearted.

And yet, Lance seemed to be lacking the usual starry-eyed look that usually appeared on his face when he fell head over heels for someone. Hesitation flickered through his eyes, before he took a cautious step forward, still focusing on Romelle.

“Romelle …” He cleared his throat, then took a deep breath. “Before we go, I wanted to …”

Keith felt a tight, involuntary feeling clamp down on his heart, and he looked sharply away. But Lance faltered, reaching out as if he meant to take Romelle by the hand, then letting his arm drop to his side again.

Romelle blinked at him quizzically. “Yes?”

“I …” Lance started to say, and then stopped short. All of a sudden, a visible shudder went through him and a glazed look crept into his eyes. Then he made a choked noise, doubling over with a hand pressed against his chest.

"Lance?" Keith exclaimed, suddenly alarmed. He rushed forward to put a steadying hand against Lance's back––but Lance didn't seem to hear him, or he was in too much pain to respond, remaining hunched over with his eyes squeezed shut and his breath coming in short gasps. "Lance."

Romelle appeared at Keith's side, a hand over her mouth in worry. "What––What's happening? Is he alright?"

Keith's skin suddenly felt cold with panic, and he felt as if his throat was closing up. He couldn't stop staring at Lance, who was still grimacing as a bead of sweat trickled down the side of his face. He swayed a little and leaned against Keith for support.

"Lance," Keith said again, trying to keep his voice firm despite the terror coursing through him. He took hold of Lance's arm. "Is it your curse mark again?"

He knew it was probably a stupid question, but Lance still obliged him with a tight nod. Drawing in a shuddering breath, he stood up straight again, although his hand still lingered over his heart. “It––It was a lot worse this time,” he managed to say, voice shaky and breathless. “Something’s––”

But before he could finish the sentence, a long shadow fell over them.

“Now, now,” a voice rasped. “What do we have here?”

Keith whirled around on instinct, his sword at the ready. Lance inhaled sharply next to him, and Romelle made a terrified whimpering noise.

As his eyes adjusted in the dim lighting, Keith made out the shape of a robed figure in the doorway, and a pair of yellow eyes glowing from beneath the shadow of a hood. The figure reached up to push their hood back––and as they did so, Keith noticed the dark runes etched into their skin … runes of dark spells that made his stomach turn at the sight.

The hood fell back to reveal a woman with a skeletal face. It was impossible to tell her age, but the unnatural pallor of her skin made her appear ancient. Whatever dark magic she had performed on herself, it had drained away every last trace of humanity.

Although he’d never been told what she looked like, Keith knew immediately who they were facing. “Haggar,” he said faintly, right as the realization struck him.

She didn’t appear fazed, tucking her hands into the sleeves of her robes and drifting slowly forward. As she did so, the temperature in the prison cell seemed to grow even more frigid, and Keith felt dizzy from the aura of dark energy that radiated from the sorceress.

“So, you know who I am,” she said smoothly. “And who, pray tell, are you?” She looked between Keith and Lance, her mouth turning up in an indiscernible expression––whether it was a grin or a snarl, Keith couldn’t tell.

“A mage and a knight. Sent by Queen Allura, I presume?” When she received no response, Haggar shook her head and clicked her tongue. “She couldn’t even bother to do the dirty work herself, I see. Perhaps she’s more of a coward than I thought. What a pity. I would have thought she’d have the courage to come and rescue her own true love.”

She spoke the last two words with dripping mockery, a sinister smirk creeping onto her face. Keith just stared at her, not comprehending.

Next to him, Lance coughed. “True love?” he repeated. “What are you …”

He trailed off abruptly, his eyes widening with realization. It dawned on Keith at the same time, and he inhaled sharply as he looked towards Romelle––who was glaring murderously at Haggar, her hands clenched into fists at her sides.

The truth hit Keith like a tidal wave, all of the pieces crashing together at once. Suddenly, he remembered how desperate Allura had seemed to save Romelle, how her voice had been choked with emotion as she spoke of how important Romelle was to her. He remembered the way she’d wistfully spoken of true love when she and Keith were sitting at Lance’s bedside, as if it were something she had experienced herself.

But if Romelle was Allura’s true love, then …

Keith’s blood froze as his gaze slid towards Lance, who looked as if he’d been slapped in the face. His breath had grown audibly shallow as he suddenly glared down at the floor, eyes searching over the stones as if he were seeking out the answer to an impossible riddle.

Oh … oh, no. This couldn’t be happening.

For a moment, time seemed to come to a halt. Keith wanted nothing more than to reach out to Lance, to put a comforting hand on his shoulder, to say something––anything––that would provide some semblance of reassurance.

But there was no time to dwell on it now, and Keith was pulled harshly back to the present by the sound of Haggar’s low chuckle.

“Oh, now this is interesting.”

She moved forward, long robes trailing over the stones. Her attention had shifted, her glowing eyes fixed on Lance. As she moved closer to him, Lance hissed in his breath and took a staggering step backwards, clamping his hand over his curse mark again.

A searing heat flared through Keith’s veins, and on instinct he took a protective step forward with his sword raised. He wanted to bark out a warning, to tell Haggar not to come any closer––but he suddenly felt like all of the air was being squeezed from his lungs, and he couldn’t even find his voice.

Haggar didn’t appear at all threatened by his brandished weapon. She came to a stop, an unsettling smile tugging up the corner of her mouth.

“Still haven’t broken the curse, have you?” she drawled. When Lance’s eyes widened with shock, her wicked grin only stretched further. “You thought I wouldn’t remember? Why, I always remember the ones I curse.”

The words didn’t sink in at first, and then Keith felt them like a punch to the gut. His gaze traveled slowly from Haggar to Lance, who had his hand pressed over his curse mark and was breathing rapidly.

“You …” Lance choked out. “You’re the one who …”

He couldn’t seem to get the whole question out, but he didn’t need to.

Haggar took another step forward. “You haven’t broken it yet, I take it? Oh, dear. You must be running out of time by now.” She slowly drew her hands out of her sleeves, revealing a crackling violet energy dancing around her fingers. “Although, I suppose I could take you out of your misery before––”

Keith didn’t even give her a chance to finish the sentence before he sprang into action. His vision went red at the edges as he let out a furious cry, leaping forward and swinging his blade in a vicious arc …

… Only for his sword to sweep through empty air.

He blinked in shock, not comprehending, before he noticed that Haggar had reappeared several feet back from where she had been standing half a second ago. Had she … transported herself? That was a power Keith had only heard of in stories, one that required incredible power to master. But seeing as Haggar had been powerful enough to open the Rift, and to apparently raise soldiers from the dead, it wasn’t all that surprising.

Still, it threw Keith off-balance just enough that he stumbled a little––and in that time Haggar was already gathering dark energy around her hands again, turning towards Keith with a snarl. He only had a moment to brace himself before Haggar threw her arms forward and sent a beam of violet energy hurtling towards him.

Keith ducked and rolled out of the way just in time. The bolts of dark magic went flying overhead, and Keith could feel the crackling energy radiating from them––so powerful that it made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. The beam struck the wall of the prison cell with a resounding crack, leaving a dark scorch mark behind.

With his heart racing, Keith leapt to his feet and brandished his sword again. But it was quickly becoming clear that the weapon would be of no use to him. The only way to fight against Haggar's magic would be with his own magic ... but he hadn't been trained much in battle magic. The one tactic he was somewhat familiar with was using magic to lift and throw his opponent––but when he reached out with his hand to attempt it, he sensed something very wrong with Haggar's presence that he couldn't quite grasp. Some kind of energy that pushed back against his own magic, as if she could sense what he was about to do and was resisting it.

In his moment of hesitation, Haggar took advantage and stalked forward again as purple light sprang to life above her palms once more. She wore a vicious sneer and her eyes seemed to glow even more fiercely as she lifted her hands again––

"Keith!"

Lance came rushing towards her from the side again, sword raised. He swung the weapon down with a yell. Just as before, Haggar's form dissipated and appeared again on the opposite side of the prison cell. But although Lance's attack had been ineffective, it had at least distracted Haggar long enough that Keith had a moment to think.

He mentally rushed through all the spells he knew, but they either didn't seem relevant or he couldn't remember them with enough confidence to attempt them. The one thing that occurred to him was that he could use his fire magic somehow––but he'd never used it to fight anyone before, and he still hadn't mastered his control over it.

He realized he didn't have much of a choice, though, as he watched Lance charge towards Haggar several more times as she dodged his attacks. Lance probably knew his sword was useless in this battle, but Keith knew he was smart enough that there was some intention behind it––to buy some time, maybe, but for what Keith didn't know.

... Until he noticed that Romelle was still standing in one corner of the cell, and that she was starting to glow.

It took Keith a moment to realize what was happening, and then he drew in a sharp breath. He had never seen a shapeshifter in action before, but he assumed Romelle was attempting to shift judging by the way she had her eyes squeezed shut in concentration and by the hazy magenta light growing stronger around her with every moment.

Haggar seemed to notice it at the same time, letting out a strangled cry of "No!" She rushed towards Romelle, her hands ablaze with violet energy.

Time seemed to slow for a moment. Keith didn't quite know what overcame him––but one moment he was standing at the corner of the room, and the next he had thrown himself between Haggar and Romelle.

He distantly heard Lance cry out a warning, but that was at the back of Keith’s mind as he felt a burning heat rush through him. He summoned a familiar energy from deep within his essence, trying to multiply it by tenfold. He didn’t have time to question whether it would work––only to raise his hands against Haggar’s attack and pray for a miracle.

There was a split second where he feared the spell had failed, as he watched the jagged bolt of Haggar’s magic rush towards him. But just as he squeezed his eyes shut and braced for the impact, he felt a sudden tingling warm race up his arms and gather at his fingertips. There was a flash of orange light as the flames gathered around his hands, then shot outwards.

The attack was a bit haphazard, the column of fire shooting a little off-center and crackling with sparks. But it was enough to block Haggar's attack and to send her reeling backwards with a screech. The edges of her robes had caught ablaze and she cursed as she attempted to stamp the fire out, before muttering a quick spell that extinguished the flames. She snarled as she stalked forward again, leaving a trail of smoke behind.

She started to raise her hands again, purple sparks crackling around her fingers. Her yellow eyes fixed on Keith. "You––"

Keith froze where he stood, shocked that he had been able to throw that fire attack at all––even if it hadn't worked very well. He didn't have much time to question it, though, as he watched the dark magic spring to life between Haggar's palms. Stumbling back, he tried to summon his magic, but he wasn't sure he could launch another attack––

As it turned out, though, he didn't need to.

Because then there was a blaze of light from behind him, followed by a deep and inhuman growl.

On the other side of the prison cell, Lance was gawking up at something, his eyes almost impossibly wide. Whirling around, Keith followed his gaze to the spot where Romelle had been standing moments ago––but in her place was a massive white wolf, its teeth bared in a menacing growl. ... No, wait, Keith realized in awe. The wolf was Romelle.

Keith almost laughed in disbelief––and in relief that Romelle’s shift had actually worked. But the flash of euphoria was short-lived as Romelle quickly barreled past him in a flash of white. Everything seemed to happen very quickly then, as Romelle snarled and lashed out at Haggar with her large paw. Haggar stumbled back with a cry, the violet magic flickering and dying around her hands. Romelle gave her no chance to recover, diving forward again and snapping her jaws around Haggar's torso. Without wasting another moment, she threw Haggar with great force against the nearest wall, and the witch slumped to the ground.

Keith could only stare for a moment in horror––although he noticed Haggar's hand twitch, so she was probably just stunned and not dead. But if that was the case, they probably didn't have much time to make their escape.

Romelle was clearly thinking the same thing. She looked between Keith and Lance meaningfully––her eyes still a piercing shade of blue, even in wolf form––and then pointed her black nose towards the exit. She crouched down, frantically gesturing towards her back with her head.

Keith exchanged a brief, bewildered look with Lance before they both seemed to understand at the same time. They dashed towards Romelle, leaping onto her back.

She barely waited for them to properly seat themselves before she dashed for the exit. Keith cried out in alarm, nearly flying backwards but managing to grasp at the white fur beneath his hands. Lance also made a strangled noise of surprise as his arms flew around Keith's waist and clung for dear life.

Romelle bounded down the corridor and then started to leap down the narrow, winding staircase. It was barely wide enough to fit a giant white wolf, but Romelle still managed to make her steady way downwards, scattering the discarded armor of the undead soldiers Keith and Lance had defeated earlier.

They reached the bottom of the stairs and Romelle jumped out into the hallway, paws landing heavily against the stone floor. She huffed a few times, head swinging to look both ways down the corridor before she dashed to the left. The sharp turn almost made Keith fall off, but fortunately he managed to right himself again. Lance still clung to him, arms wrapped so tightly around Keith's midsection that it was somewhat painful––but that was the least of his worries right now.

As they veered into another hallway, they were met with the sight of several guards patrolling the passage. They all tensed at the thundering sound of Romelle’s footsteps, then cried out in alarm as they saw the giant white wolf charging towards them.

Romelle easily bowled a few of them over, swinging her head to knock aside another guard her stood in her way. Another one rushed in from the side with his spear raised, but Lance swung his sword out just in time and knocked the weapon from the guard’s hands.

They didn’t slow down, and Romelle carried them through the winding tunnels of the fortress with no sign of hesitation. They had a few more encounters with guards, but none of them were a match for Romelle’s size and strength.

It wasn’t long until they reached the front entrance, where the portcullis was opening and the guards were flooding in from outside. Romelle didn't even slow down, growling as she threw herself forward and knocked several Galra to the ground. She kept running up towards the rocky slope, speeding up her pace as furious yells came from behind them. Still clutching onto Romelle's fur for balance, Keith dared a glimpse over his shoulder. A number of guards were clambering up the rocks after them, although their pace was much slower compared to Romelle's agility.

Meanwhile, Lance had sheathed his sword in favor of his bow and arrow, turning to aim at one soldier that had gotten dangerously close. In the blink of an eye the arrow sailed through the air and pierced the guard through the shoulder. With a cry of pain he fell backward, crashing into a few other Galra climbing up after him and sending them all sprawling.

With a grunt of effort, Romelle took the final leap to the top of the slope. Keith felt a fleeting sense of relief, even though he knew the Galra soldiers––and Haggar––might still be coming after them. Still, they seemed to have escaped for now.

He tugged slightly on Romelle's fur to guide her towards the left. "We left our horses this way," he managed to say, still trying to recover from the ordeal they'd just been through.

Romelle seemed to understand, making a sharp turn and dodging between the trees in the direction Keith had indicated.

He was starting to think he'd misremembered––or worse, that something had happened to the horses––but soon he saw Red and Blue through the trees up ahead, standing patiently where Keith and Lance had left them earlier. He couldn't help the sense of warm familiarity that washed over him at the sight of his horse, and a breathless laugh escaped him.

As soon as they reached Red and Blue, Romelle crouched down and Keith and Lance dismounted. Keith rushed straight towards Red, who looked up at him with her with her warm brown eyes and snorted in slight surprise.

“Don’t worry, Red. Didn’t forget about you,” Keith huffed out as he untied her bridle with shaking fingers. “Now, let’s get out of here.”

As soon as he swung himself up into the saddle, he saw that Lance was already seated on Blue. He appeared to be lost in thought for a moment, gripping the reins and staring downward with a grim set to his mouth.

The sight made Keith’s chest feel hollow. He wanted nothing more than to reach out and rest a hand on Lance's shoulder, to offer some kind of comfort––but what was he supposed to say? What could he possibly say that would fix the situation, that would change the devastating fact that Lance only had a few more hours to break the curse ... possibly only a few more hours to live? The thought was like a blow to the stomach, making Keith feel numb and dizzy.

Unfortunately, they couldn't dwell on it right now when there were possibly still Galra chasing after them. Romelle already seemed to be losing patience, pacing the clearing restlessly and growling low in her throat. Keith managed to tear his gaze away from Lance, giving Romelle a small nod to indicate they were ready to keep going. It was hard to read her expression in her wolf form, but there was something calculating in her blue eyes as she looked between Keith and Lance. Then she returned Keith's gesture with a slight bow of her large head, and turned to dash into the woods.

Keith and Lance followed her on horseback, navigating their way through the dense forest. The sky above them was starting to grow dark as twilight fell, the first stars emerging overhead. Luckily Romelle's white fur was easy to see in the dimness, like a beacon shining before them. Once in a while Keith looked over his shoulder to make sure there wasn't anyone chasing after them, but so far he had seen no sign of any pursuers.

After weaving through the labyrinth of trees for what felt like ages, Romelle came to a stumbling stop. Keith and Lance did the same, tugging on their horses’ reins to bring them to a halt. They had come to a small clearing surrounded by tall dark trees, the black branches creating a canopy overhead.

A soft magenta glow emanated from Romelle’s form once again, her shape blurring and shifting until she was human once more. As the light dimmed around her, she wobbled a bit on her feet like she’d forgotten what it was like to stand on two legs, and then she fell to her knees with a groan.

“Romelle?” Keith dismounted from Red, and heard the sound of Lance’s feet thudding against the ground next to him a moment later.

They both rushed towards where Romelle was kneeling, her hands pressed against the ground as she breathed heavily. Keith crouched down in front of her, looking her over in concern, but he didn’t see any sign of physical injury.

Lance kneeled down next to them. “Are you alright?”

Romelle lifted her head to offer him a weak smile. “Yes, I’m fine. Just that my magic isn’t at its strongest, and shifting took a lot of energy.” Her expression fell again and she shuddered, wrapping her arms around herself.

It occurred to Keith that she was probably freezing in her thin prison clothes, now that the chill of the night was starting to set in. “Here.” He unclasped his cloak and handed it to her.

She took the garment from him, staring at it in bewilderment for a moment as her fingers clutched at the fabric. “Oh, no I couldn’t possibly––”

“Take it,” Keith insisted gently. “You need it more than I do right now.”

Romelle blinked at him in surprise before her eyes welled up with gratitude. “Thank you,” she said, voice barely above a whisper. She looked back and forth between Keith and Lance as she wrapped the cloak around her shoulders. “Both of you. You saved my life.”

“You saved our lives,” Lance said sincerely. “We couldn’t have gotten out of there without you.”

Romelle didn’t deny it, smiling shakily again as she wiped at one of her eyes. Then she surged forward to hug both of them, one arm around Keith and the other around Lance. And although Keith wasn’t normally one to hug people he didn’t know very well, he found it was easy to settle into the embrace. It was slightly awkward––his arm crushed against Lance’s and his chin against Romelle’s shoulder. But despite that, it felt safe and grounding ... a reminder that somehow they’d made it out alive.

But the feeling of comfort was short-lived as Romelle pulled away again and the cold set back in. Keith looked briefly towards Lance, and his stomach knotted at the pained expression on Lance's face. He knew that Lance was trying to hold it together in front of Romelle, but Keith knew Lance well enough to see the strain in his expression, that his composure was on the verge of crumbling. Keith wanted desperately to say something, but Lance broke the silence then by clearing his throat.

"Romelle, you're probably starving. We should get you something to eat, probably build a fire."

There was a slight wavering note to his voice, but if Romelle noticed she didn't comment on it. "Yes, thank you. If there's anything I can do to help––"

"No, it's alright," Lance reassured her. "We'll take care of it. You should rest."

Although she looked like she wanted to protest, Romelle nodded and pulled the cloak more tightly around her shoulders.

None of them spoke for several minutes. Lance found some bread and dried meat from Blue's saddlebags, which he offered to Romelle. Meanwhile, Keith searched the clearing for firewood. Although there wasn't much, he at least managed to find a small dried-out log and some smaller branches for kindling. He piled them on the ground, then used his fire magic to catch them alight.

Romelle watched him in fascination, biting into a hunk of bread. "Amazing," she commented, eyes wide with wonder as she watched the flames dance to life. "I've always wanted to learn elemental magic. I've heard it's very challenging."

Keith's face felt a bit warm at the sudden attention, and he shrugged one shoulder modestly. "Probably less challenging than shapeshifting," he said with a flicker of a smile. "But yes, it did take some practice. I accidentally burned off my friend's eyebrows one of the first times I tried."

Romelle chuckled a little at that, then chewed and swallowed the last bite of her bread. She fell silent again, a shadow seeming to fall over her features as she drew her knees up to her chest and stared into the fire. Keith exchanged a wary look with Lance, and could tell they were thinking the same thing––that neither was sure what to say to Romelle, after the horror she'd been through.

She finally broke the silence herself with a heavy sigh, resting her chin on her knees as she wrapped her arms around them. "I know I keep thanking both of you for coming to rescue me, but ... thank you, again. It truly means so much to me. I never thought I would make it out of that horrible place alive."

Keith could tell just from the glazed look in her eyes that she was reliving every painful moment of what she'd been through. "I'm so sorry, Romelle," he said at last. "I can't even imagine what you've been through. It must’ve been terrible."

He almost winced at his own words. Even though he genuinely meant it, he knew apologizing wasn't enough. It couldn't erase the trauma Romelle had endured.

She was quiet for a moment, observing the flames as if trying to read a hidden message contained in them. "Yes, I––I can't even describe it." She swallowed, a visible shudder running through her. "At first the mission was going well. I had shifted into Galra form to disguise myself, and I managed to fool the others for several weeks. But Haggar ... she must have sensed something was different about me. And one day out of nowhere, several of the other guards turned on me––knocked me out cold. Next thing I knew, I was waking up in a prison cell with those cuffs around my wrists, so I couldn't shapeshift."

She winced and rubbed at her wrists as she spoke, the skin chafed and bruised from where the manacles had been.

"Haggar ... she ... she tortured me." Romelle released a shaking breath. "Made me endure horrible pain, day after day, invaded my thoughts for information. Which is how she found out ..." She stopped, trailing off meaningfully as color rose to her face.

"Found out about what?" Keith prompted with a frown, when Romelle didn't complete the sentence.

Romelle winced. "About me and Allura."

Oh. Right, that. Although Haggar had already said something about it, it was different to hear Romelle confirm it herself. Out of the corner of his eye, Keith saw Lance stiffen a bit at the words.

"I suppose there's no hiding it from the two of you, now that you already know," Romelle went on, although she rubbed her hands over her knees nervously. "We were going to tell people eventually, but ... we were both worried that it might be seen as unprofessional, seeing as I work as a spy for her and all, and she's the queen ..." Romelle stopped her rambling for a moment, gaze shying off to the side. "But ... yes, it's true."

Keith wasn't sure how to respond––on the one hand he was happy for Romelle and Allura, but at the same time he felt a small fissure form in his chest when he heard Lance shakily draw in a breath next to him.

Before he could say anything, Romelle went on, "When Haggar found out, she wanted to use it as some kind of trap for Allura. Or at least, that's why I assume she didn't kill me. After finding out about our relationship, she thought Allura would come to save me."

There was a slightly disappointed note to Romelle's voice, betraying that she had probably thought the same thing.

"And she would have, if she'd had the choice," Keith said, trying to provide some semblance of comfort. "Trust me. It's just that tensions have been so high between Altea and Daibazaal, she didn't want to leave her people without aid."

That seemed to brighten Romelle's spirits a bit, her gaze lifting hopefully. "Yes, that's true," she said after a moment of contemplation. "I know how loyal she is to her people. It's one of the things I admire most about her."

Another blush rose to her face and she ducked her head slightly in embarrassment, like she hadn’t meant to say the words out loud. A brief silence settled over them all, interrupted only by the crackling of the fire and a soft snort from one of the horses.

Then Lance let out a small huffing noise. “It’s true,” he agreed, voice a bit rough. When Keith looked over at him in surprise, he found that Lance was staring deep into the fire. “I don’t blame you. For falling for her. She … she’s really amazing.” Although the words came out haltingly, he sounded like he genuinely meant them.

Romelle looked up, some of the tension easing from her shoulders and her expression softening. “She is,” she agreed softly, her eyes glimmering and a ghost of a smile turning up the corner of her mouth. “Thinking about returning to her … it was one of the only things that kept me alive while I was imprisoned.”

Keith was a little taken aback by the personal confession, but there was something so easy in the way Romelle said it––like it was the most natural thing in the world––that made something warm blossom in his chest.

The feeling only lasted a moment, though, before he was distracted by a movement in the corner of his vision. As he looked up, he saw that Lance was shifting his position, seeming to hesitate a moment before he abruptly got to his feet.

When he saw the other two staring at him he quickly said, “I’m sorry, I … I need to … I’ll be back in a minute.”

With no further explanation, he turned around. Keith opened his mouth to call after him but stopped himself, despite the sudden wrenching feeling in his stomach as he watched Lance walk away into the shadows.

Romelle blinked in bewilderment before turning to Keith. “Did I say something wrong?”

Keith broke out of his momentary stupor. “What? Oh … no, no. It wasn’t you, it’s just––” He gestured vaguely. “Lance is … going through something.” He winced a little, hoping that Romelle wouldn’t pry much further than that.

Although she still looked a bit confused, she nodded slowly. “I see.” She seemed to sense she was treading on the edge of something personal, and she went back to watching the flames in thoughtful silence.

Keith did the same, trying to ignore the insistent tug at the corner of his mind pulling him in the direction Lance had gone. He knew that Lance probably wanted to be alone right now, but he couldn’t ignore the gnawing worry in his stomach as the minutes passed and Lance still hadn’t returned.

He finally gave into his restlessness, lurching to his feet. “I think I’d better go after him.”

“Oh.” Romelle looked like she was about to ask a question, then seemed to think better of it. “Alright. I can stay here and tend to the fire.”

“Thanks. It shouldn’t be long,” Keith said, already backing up a few steps. He felt like he should provide more of an explanation than that––but when Romelle didn’t ask for one, he decided to just let it be.

The sun had disappeared over the horizon, and the sky was darkening to a deep shade of blue overhead. Stars peeked out from between the dark tree branches. There was still just enough light to see by as Keith navigated his way through the forest, maneuvering his way around the rocks and roots in his path as he searched for any sign of Lance.

Finally, he saw a telltale gleam of silver armor in the dimness, and his heart crawled up into his throat.

Lance stood facing away from him. He didn’t move or make a sound as Keith approached him, his face tilted up towards the sky.

“Lance?” Keith said softly when he was a few feet away, coming to a stop.

If Lance heard him, he showed no sign of it at first. He kept staring upwards, taking in a long breath and releasing it in a shaky sigh.

“You were right,” he said at last.

Keith frowned, not understanding. “About what?”

“About … everything.” Lance let out a soft noise that sounded like a humorless laugh. “I really believed what that fortune teller told me, really thought my true love would be someone I’d never even met. Even though you told me it was nonsense.”

He lowered his head with a heavy sigh. Something twisted in Keith’s chest and he stepped forward, lifting a hand. He reached out as if to touch Lance’s shoulder but then stopped, feeling like there was suddenly an invisible barrier between them. His fingers curled into a fist as he let his arm drop to his side again.

“Lance––”

“Don’t,” Lance cut him off before he could say anything, and there was something so jagged and dark in that one word that immediately choked off the words in Keith’s throat. “You know it’s true. All this time, I––I was delusional. I let myself believe in some fantasy that I’d find my true love someday, that when it happened I would just know and everything would be alright. But it was never going to happen, was it?”

Now that the words had come spilling out, it was like the floodgates opening. Lance finally looked up at Keith, but there was an uncharacteristic and stony expression to his eyes––almost like a challenge, daring Keith to fight back against him.

When Keith said nothing, too shocked to speak, Lance shook his head and looked away again.

“Haggar probably knew, when she cursed me,” he said hoarsely. “I was never meant to find my true love. She just intended for me to suffer for nineteen years, with some stupid false hope that somehow I’d break the spell. But I––I should’ve known. I should’ve known no one would ever …”

He trailed off abruptly, voice too choked to continue. All of the fight seemed to leave him at once, his shoulders sagging and body shuddering with a suppressed sob.

The wall between them seemed to crumble then, and Keith moved forward to grasp Lance by his upper arms. He almost expected Lance to flinch away from him, but instead Lance leaned heavily into the touch as if he could barely stand.

Keith searched Lance’s face frantically, his own vision stinging and blurring when he saw that tears had started to stream down Lance’s face. His head reeled as he tried to think of something to say, but words completely failed him.

“This whole time, I think I knew it,” Lance went on at last, voice wavering and barely above a whisper. “I knew Romelle wouldn’t be my true love, but it was the last hope I had left. And then when I saw her, I just …”

He paused for a moment, another shuddering breath escaping him. “Even before I knew she was in love with Allura, I looked at her and just knew she wasn’t the one. And it’s not that she’s not beautiful or not a good person or anything like that, but … it didn’t feel right, and I just couldn’t––couldn’t fall in love with someone I’d just met.”

He brought his rambling to a stop, biting his lip as he lifted his tearful eyes to meet Keith’s gaze––and there was such pain and fear in his expression that it made Keith feel as if a dagger was being driven straight into his heart.

“And now––now it’s too late,” Lance choked out. “I’m going to die tonight, Keith. In just a few hours. I’m going to … oh, God.”

The full weight of it seemed to hit him then and he practically fell forward, arms wrapping around Keith’s torso and face buried against Keith’s shoulder. He held on so tightly that it was almost painful, but Keith was so numb with grief that he could hardly feel it. He could feel Lance’s whole body shaking as he returned the embrace, tears spilling from his eyes.

Keith didn’t know how long they stood like that, both of them holding on like they would never let go. When Lance finally pulled back again, his eyes were bloodshot and face wet with tears.

“I’m sorry,” he managed to say, sniffling. “I don’t––don’t want it to end like this.” He stopped, wiping a gloved hand across his eyes. “Maybe it would be best if I went off on my own, if I just …”

As it dawned on Keith what Lance was saying, he gripped more firmly onto Lance’s arms. “What? Lance, no. I’m not going to leave you.”

He said it a little more fervently than he’d intended, and Lance’s eyes widened a fraction in surprise before his face settled back into its somber expression. He reached up to lay one of his own hands over Keith’s, giving it a light squeeze.

“I appreciate it. But really, Keith, it––it’s alright. I don’t want you to have to see––” Lance cut himself off, closing his eyes for a moment before opening them again and focusing them intently on Keith’s gaze. “Just … promise me you’ll get back to Altea safely, alright? And tell everyone I love them and I’m sorry. Tell my family …”

He couldn’t seem to even finish the sentence, his voice on the verge of breaking again. Keith’s ears were ringing, and he felt as if the ground was about to fall out from under his feet at any moment.

He didn’t know what possessed him, but suddenly his hands were sliding upwards to grip Lance by the shoulders. “No,” he said. “You’re going to see your family again, Lance. You––You’re not going to die.”

Surprise flashed across Lance’s eyes before his expression darkened again. “Keith … don’t make this harder than it needs to be. If this is what’s meant to happen …”

“It’s not,” Keith insisted––and he knew he was being stubborn, trying to defy fate, but he couldn’t just let Lance go. Not like this. “There must be some way to––”

“Well, there isn’t,” Lance cut him off. Although the words came out sharply, Keith could detect the note of pained hopelessness beneath them. “I’ve done everything to try and break this curse.”

Keith’s ears roared. He took a deep breath. “Not everything,” he heard himself say.

His pulse picked up as his grip on Lance’s shoulders loosened a little, and he took an unsteady step forward. All of a sudden, their faces were mere inches apart––so close that even in the dimness, Keith saw how Lance’s pupils dilated as their gazes locked, so close that he heard Lance’s sharp inhale.

"Just ..." Keith's voice shook, his hands shook. His gaze flitted downward towards Lance's mouth and then back up to his teary eyes again. "Just let me ... try something."

Lance didn't protest, although there was a slight furrow in his brow like he was confused by Keith's sudden proximity. And Keith just stood there, frozen, trying to concentrate despite the panicked fluttering in his chest. All he had to do was just lean a little closer ...

But he couldn't shake away the sense of wrongness that suddenly overcame him. He'd imagined kissing Lance countless times before, but now that he was truly confronted with it, he was terrified––terrified that he was wrong, that if he kissed Lance it would kill both of them.

And he had probably hesitated for too long now, because Lance's perplexed frown deepened––although he looked more worried than angry. "Keith?" he said.

Keith frantically searched for words, trying to determine a way to ask Lance if he wanted to make this attempt––because, as much as Keith was willing to risk his own life, the thought of risking Lance’s made him feel ill. And he needed to know Lance was just as willing, that he was absolutely certain, because he only had one chance and––

There was a sudden rustling noise from the woods nearby, and Keith immediately went tense and snatched his hands away from Lance’s shoulders. His heart hammered as he whirled towards the source of the sound, instinctively reaching for the blade at his side … only to find that it was Romelle stumbling out into the clearing.

“Oh,” she said, sounding a bit breathless. “There you are.”

Some of the tension eased from Keith’s limbs as he realized there was no threat, but his head and heart were still racing as he tried to find his voice.

“Romelle?” he managed to say at last. “Are you alright?”

She froze, maintaining a slight distance from the two of them, gaze shifting between Keith and Lance like she sensed she had intruded on something. “Yes, I’m fine,” she said at last. “It’s just … it had been a little while, and I got a bit worried and came looking for you. And … I don’t know, I’d gotten the sense something was wrong. But I can––” She took a step backward, as if in signal that she intended to leave.

“No, no. It’s alright,” Lance said quickly, stopping her. He sniffled a little, staring at the ground. “I’m sorry for just running off like that. It’s just …” He trailed off, his voice choked.

Romelle seemed to notice Keith and Lance’s teary-eyed expressions then, and she took a cautious step forward. “Oh, no. Did something happen?”

Keith and Lance exchanged a hesitant look. Neither of them spoke for a moment.

Then Lance took a deep breath, rubbing the back of his neck. “It’s … it’s a long story,” he said. “But … I have a curse. And I need to break it before midnight tonight. Or I’m going to …”

He couldn’t even complete the sentence, but Romelle’s eyes widened with understanding. “Oh,” she said, holding a hand to her chest. “I’m so sorry.” She bit her lip anxiously as she stared at Lance in sympathy. “Is there anything we can do?”

Lance closed his eyes as if he was in physical pain, and he shook his head. “Thank you, but I don’t think so,” he said shakily. “I’ve tried everything, and I––I don’t think I have any options left.”

A heavy silence settled over the three of them. Keith’s vision blurred with tears again, and he was about to reach out to Lance again––when he suddenly noticed the way Romelle was still staring at him thoughtfully, her eyes widening like something had suddenly occurred to her.

“Wait,” she blurted.

Keith and Lance both looked up at her in surprise.

“I think …” She hesitated, but then continued, “I think I might have an idea. Although ... it could be very dangerous.”

Though she sounded a bit doubtful, a spark of hope ignited in Keith’s chest. He would take just about any advice right now on how they might save Lance, no matter what perils were involved. “You do?” he said. “What is it?”

Romelle wrung her hands together. Her gaze lifted upwards, and she pointed at something in the near distance. “Do you see that mountain there?”

Keith turned in the direction she had indicated, and saw the mountain in question––its peak obscured by clouds floating across the horizon.

“It’s called Mount Oriande,” Romelle explained. “There are legends that a powerful spirit lives there, in a temple built into the east-facing side of the mountain. The White Lion.”

A prickling sensation crawled across Keith’s skin. “The White Lion? I thought that was just a child’s tale.”

“It may be,” Romelle admitted, “but it’s hard to say. From the stories I’ve heard, the spirit tends to keep himself hidden except to those he deems worthy of his aid. Most travelers say they’ve gone up the mountain only to find the temple empty, but others claim to have seen him––that he’s been able to miraculously cure their illnesses. Or ... break their curses.”

She looked meaningfully at Lance as she spoke those last words. Lance stared back at her, blinking in disbelief.

Although Keith wanted to believe that maybe they still had a chance, he couldn't help but feel an inkling of skepticism. There had to be a catch somewhere.

"And what does the White Lion require in return?" he asked.

Romelle didn't answer right away, frowning a little like she was trying to remember something. "As far as I'm aware, only that you are completely vulnerable to him and trust him fully. It is said that he will not help anyone who comes to him armed, that you must go to him with no weapons and no armor.

"Some say that if he senses even the slightest hint that you are a threat––or that you see him as such––he will not even show himself to you. Others say he will destroy you where you stand."

Keith couldn't help but let out a huff. "Are you serious? We're supposed to go face an ancient spirit completely unarmed, knowing he has the power to destroy us on the spot?"

"Keith," Lance said gently, reaching out to touch him on the arm. Keith looked at him in surprise. "I know it sounds dangerous, but ... I think I should go."

Keith could only gawk at him. "What if it's some kind of trap, Lance? What if––"

"Keith," Lance said again, more firmly this time. "I don't have another choice."

There was such certainty to his words that any further protests died in Keith's throat. He could see the raw fear in Lance's eyes, but underneath that a tiny glimmer of hope that just maybe there was still a chance he would survive to see tomorrow. Keith couldn't take that away from him.

"I'm going with you," he said. Before Lance could protest he insisted, "I'm not letting you go alone. We're going to finish this journey together, no matter what happens."

Lance just stared at him in shock, before his expression softened a little––eyes welling up again, the barest hint of a smile turning up one corner of his mouth. He didn't say anything, but he didn't need to. Keith could practically see the gratitude written in his gaze, in the relieved slump of his shoulders. Despite the situation, he found himself smiling back.

Romelle cleared her throat. "I hope it would be alright with both of you if I stay behind. I wish I could accompany you on your journey, but I should probably get some rest."

"Are you sure?" Keith asked. "I hate to leave you here by yourself, but ..."

"I appreciate your concern, but I'll manage," she said with a reassuring smile. "I think I'm quite well-hidden in this part of the woods, and if any enemies appear I can always shapeshift again."

Although Keith still felt a bit guilty at the thought of leaving Romelle here on her own, he didn't want to force her to come with them, or to leave Lance to make the journey up the mountain by himself. Besides, Romelle had made a good point that she was perfectly capable of defending herself if danger arose.

"Then I guess it's settled," Keith said, coming to a final decision. "Should we saddle up the horses?"

Lance gave a serious nod. "We probably shouldn't waste any more time." His gaze turned nervously upward, to where the bright face of the moon was already visible in the sky.

“I wish you luck on your journey,” Romelle said, looking between Keith and Lance earnestly. “And I hope you return safely.”

Lance gave her a genuine smile. “Thank you, Romelle. We’ll certainly try.”

Romelle rushed forward to hug both of them––she certainly seemed to enjoy hugging, Keith had noticed––before they thanked her for her help and said their goodbyes.

As Keith and Lance made their way back to the clearing to fetch Red and Blue, a somber silence settled over them. Keith's head was spinning a bit from the enormity of the task they were about to take on. He wasn't even certain if they could reach the temple in time, and even then there was no saying if the White Lion would even appear before them. But it seemed to be the only chance they had left.

"Keith?" Lance said, disrupting Keith's train of thought.

"Yes?"

Lance was quiet for a moment, pushing aside a low-hanging tree branch in his path. "I was just wondering ... Back there, when you––when you said you had another idea about how to break the curse ... what was it?"

The warmth of humiliation rose to Keith's face, and he stared steadfastly at the darkening woods in front of them. He tried to chase away the lingering feeling of what it had felt like to stand so close to Lance––how he’d nearly surged forward to press their lips together, despite knowing that it could have killed both of them. The very thought made him feel sick with shame.

"It ... it was nothing," he stammered. "It wouldn't have worked."

“Oh,” Lance said, a sudden flat note to his voice. “I see. I was just wondering.”

If he had any more questions on the matter, he didn't press Keith any further about it. They continued on their way in silence.

––

When they reached the clearing, they wasted no time in securing their horses' saddles and taking off in the direction of Mount Oriande. Darkness had fallen completely by now, with the only light being the ethereal silver glow of the moon. They traveled as quickly as they could without pushing Red and Blue too hard, navigating their way between the trees.

Keith gripped tightly to Red's reins, focusing on the dark outline of the mountain looming before them. He felt his heart racing faster with every leap forward, and he wasn’t sure whether to feel hopeful or terrified. He tried to gauge what Lance was thinking by sneaking glimpses at him, but it was almost impossible to see his face in the falling darkness.

When they had almost reached the foot of the mountain, Keith felt his gut turn with sudden dread. He couldn’t shake away the feeling that something didn’t feel right.

“Are you sure about this?” he asked Lance as soon as they’d brought their horses to a halt.

Lance’s face was tipped upward, gazing at the steep climb ahead of them leading up into the clouds. “No,” he admitted, “but it’s the only choice we have left.”

He paused for a moment like he was waiting for Keith to present some other idea. When Keith didn’t respond, Lance let out a heavy sigh.

“Well, there’s no time to waste,” he said, dismounting.

Almost as soon as his feet hit the ground, he unslung the bow and arrows from his back and laid them at his feet. His sword was soon to follow.

“What are you doing?” Keith asked as he jumped down from Red.

“You heard what Romelle said. We can’t take any weapons or armor with us.”

“Do you really believe that?”

Judging by the way Lance was already peeling off pieces of his armor and laying them down beside his weapons, he clearly did believe it. “Listen … I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to take the risk. I don’t want to anger a powerful, ancient spirit.”

“But what if it tries to attack us, or––”

“Keith,” Lance said firmly, shooting a meaningful look towards the sword at Keith’s waist. “Please. We don’t have much time.”

As nervous as he was about this plan, Keith could hear the underlying desperation in Lance's voice and could see the pleading expression in his eyes. A tight pressure squeezed around his heart, and he relented with a sigh. He held out his sword and closed his eyes as he let his magic flow through it, returning it to its dagger form.

Once the transformation was complete, he stored the knife in one of Red's saddlebags. By this point Lance was also done taking off the rest of his armor, and the two of them tethered their horses in a secluded spot at the base of the mountain.

Keith reached up to pat Red affectionately on the neck. She turned slightly to look at him with one of her large brown eyes. "We'll be back soon, Red," Keith said softly.

When he turned around, Lance was stroking Blue's nose with a forlorn expression on his face––like he feared he would never see her again. Something about seeing him in this state, devoid of armor, made him look much more vulnerable. It made Keith think of the days far before Lance had become a knight, back when they had only been children. Back before any of this happened, before they knew the perilous journeys that lay ahead of them.

Keith hung back, allowing Lance a few more parting moments with Blue. Then finally he stepped forward, resting a gentle hand on Lance's shoulder.

"We should probably get going," he said. He wished he was better with words, wished he could provide some kind of reassurance.

But Lance seemed to understand the unspoken sentiment. He looked up at Keith, giving a firm nod.

“You’re right,” he said, as a newly determined gleam entered his eyes. “Let’s go break my curse.”

––

It was easy to lose all sense of time as they ascended the side of the mountain. After a while, Keith could hardly tell if they'd been climbing for minutes or hours, he was so focused on the task of climbing upwards––winding up the narrow pathways, clambering over the rocks and roots blocking their way. It wasn't long before his limbs ached and he was breathing heavily from exertion, but he refused to slow down. It seemed that with every moment, the moon was climbing higher into the sky. Midnight was approaching fast.

They didn't speak much as they navigated the pathway, concentrating on moving forward, but Keith kept looking over at Lance to make sure he was alright. Each time, the expression on his face looked increasingly strained and grim, like he was fighting back pain.

Then, when they were a little more than halfway there, Lance came to a stumbling halt. He doubled over with a short cry, his hand flying to his chest.

"Lance?" Keith exclaimed, immediately rushing to his side. He grabbed Lance by the shoulder, trying to hold him steady. "Are you alright? Can you stand?"

Lance didn't answer right away, grimacing as he kept his hand pressed tightly over his curse mark. Finally, he took a deep breath. "Yes, I ... it hurts," he managed to say. "But we need to ... to keep going."

Keith took in the sight of him, the tension in his frame and the dark expression in his eyes. He could tell that Lance was probably in more pain than he was letting on, and a numb panic rushed through him as he realized how little time they probably had left.

"We're almost there," he said firmly. "Just ... hold on, Lance. We're going to make it, I promise."

He knew the words sounded empty, but he meant it with every fiber of his being. A newfound determination roared to life inside him, and he knew that he would do anything to get Lance to the top of this mountain––even if it meant carrying him there.

Fortunately, Keith's words seemed to have sparked at least some semblance of hope in Lance, judging by the determined gleam that returned to his eyes. He gave a short nod and grasped Keith's arm for support as he stood up straight again.

They continued their climb, at a slightly slower pace than before, although they kept moving forward at the steadiest rate they could manage. At certain intervals Lance needed to stop for a moment, clutching at his curse mark and wincing––and with each time, Keith felt as if an invisible dagger was driving between his ribs. It seemed that Lance was experiencing these fits of agony more and more frequently, and by now the moon was close to reaching its zenith in the sky.

Finally, up ahead, there was a break in the trees. As they drew closer, Keith gasped softly at the sight of what lay beyond––a set of crumbling stone steps, leading in a winding path up to a temple built into the mountainside.

The temple appeared to be hundreds of years old, with cracks running along its marble walls. At its front was a large, dark entrance that looked like an open maw––the doorway surrounded by faded symbols and flanked on either side with tall pillars.

"There it is," Keith said breathlessly, relief flooding through him. "Come on!"

He was already exhausted from their winding journey up the mountainside, but he felt a sudden surge of adrenaline at the realization that they had almost made it. He didn't know if this plan was even going to work, if the White Lion would even appear, but he had to cling to the small hope that they still had a chance.

The two of them started to ascend the stone steps, which led up the slope in a snaking path. At this point, both of them were stumbling and heaving for breath, but they kept pushing forward. Keith kept his eyes fixed on the temple, afraid it might suddenly disappear. Just a little further. They had almost made it ...

But then, about halfway up the steps, Lance fell.

One moment they were both clambering towards the temple––and then the next, Keith saw a sudden movement out of the corner of his eye and heard a strangled cry. When he turned around he saw that Lance had fallen on his hands and knees, grasping at the stone step under his fingers like it would somehow reduce the agony.

"Lance!" Keith stumbled towards him, crouching down to put his hand on Lance's back. His blood ran cold when he saw how Lance's eyes were squeezed shut against the pain, how his whole body was trembling from it, how his breath was coming out in shallow gasps. Keith looked desperately from Lance to the temple and back again as if searching for some hidden answer as to what he could possibly do.

“Listen to me,” he said at last. “I know it's hard. But we have to keep going.”

At first he wasn't even sure if Lance could hear him, but after a few long moments Lance's eyes blinked open again. He didn't answer, only gulped in a breath and started to get up again––only to slump heavily against Keith's side. "I––I'm sorry, Keith," he murmured. "I don't know if I can ..." His voice trailed off, his eyes fluttering shut.

Keith caught him as he slumped forward. "Lance?" All he could feel was a panicked desperation as he tried to keep Lance upright, lifting a hand to the side of his face. "Lance, come on. You––You can't give up. You have to stay awake." He could barely hear his own desperate words through the ringing in his ears.

The next few moments felt like an eternity, but then Lance slowly opened his eyes again––although they still looked glazed, struggling to focus on Keith.

And Keith was at a complete loss for what to say or do. All he could do was keep his hand against the side of Lance's face, willing him to stay conscious. Suddenly he remembered being back in the cave after he'd been wounded, remembered how Lance had begged him to stay awake ... remembered the exact words Lance had said to him.

"You need to stay with me," Keith said to him now, praying they would have the same effect on Lance.

Apparently, they did. There was a dull glimmer in Lance's eyes as he stared back at Keith, and then his brow furrowed with new determination. Although he still didn't say anything, he took a deep breath and started to rise again.

This time, Keith took hold of Lance's arm and slung it around his own shoulders. "That's it," he said, as a flicker of relief ran through him. "Just keep leaning on me. We're almost there."

Getting the rest of the way to the temple seemed to take a painfully long time. With each step, Keith could feel Lance leaning more heavily against him, could hear his breathing growing more labored. He kept urging Lance onward, kept promising they were almost there ... but on the inside, his panic was consuming him like twisting vines. The closer they drew to their destination, the more Keith's heart thrashed inside his chest. Every terrifying possible outcome raced through his mind, and it took all his power not to succumb to the terror.

At last, they came to the top of the steps. At their feet, flat stones were laid out in a spiraling pattern, and they stumbled to its center. The temple loomed above them, its entrance leading into absolute blackness. Keith could feel a strange and ancient energy radiating from it like a cold wind, wrapping around him and making the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.

He could only blink up at the impressive monument in awe at first, but then he snapped out of his daze. "We––We made it," he breathed out, as the realization fully hit him. "But where's the ..."

He looked around the silent courtyard as if expecting to find the White Lion standing right behind them ... but there was nothing. No sign of life at all.

All of a sudden, his body felt numb with dread. He had known there was a chance the White Lion wouldn't even appear for them, but ... No, this couldn't be happening. Not when they'd come all this way.

"There has to be something," he said, dizzy with panic. "There must be a way to summon him, or––or maybe if we go in the temple ..."

He didn't get to complete the thought, because right then Lance slumped against him with a groan.

Luckily Lance's arm was still wrapped around Keith's shoulders, but his knees had given out underneath him. Keith tried to hold him up, wrapping an arm around Lance's waist––but it was to no avail, and Lance's weight dragged them both towards the ground.

Keith just barely managed to catch him before his head could hit the stones, still trying to keep him upright. But Lance only sank back into Keith's arms, going completely limp.

"Lance?" Keith choked out. He maneuvered Lance so he was draped across his lap, slipping an arm under his shoulders to support him. "Lance, can you hear me?"

Lance blinked slowly up at him, like he was staring up into a bright light. Keith hadn't even realized he'd laid a hand against Lance's chest until he felt Lance's fingers wrap weakly around his, felt Lance's heartbeat growing slower beneath his palm. "Keith ..." Lance's voice came out too softly and his breathing sounded too shallow, like it was taking all of his energy just to utter a single syllable. "I ... I'm ... sorry."

"No, don't––don't say that," Keith said. His vision blurred and his throat tightened. "You're going to be fine. Just ... just ..." He couldn't speak anymore, could only frantically search Lance's face like it would somehow will him to stay alive.

But Lance barely even seemed to have heard him. A strangely serene expression had crept over his face––like he had accepted his fate. For a moment, he looked like he was going to say something else ... but whatever it was, he didn't have the chance to say it. Because right then, his eyes slid shut and he went still, his hand slipping from Keith's and falling limply to the ground.

"Lance?" Keith's hand chased after Lance's, tangling their fingers together desperately, but Lance's hand remained motionless. Keith could feel hot tears slipping down his face, could hear his own breathing grow ragged, could hear his own voice as if it were very far away––hoarse and breaking at the edges. "No," he gasped. "You––You have to wake up. Lance."

He shook Lance, one hand clutching at his shirtfront. But it was no use, and he received no answer in response.

Time seemed to stop, and Keith wasn't sure how long he sat there just saying Lance's name over and over again. Then something seemed to break inside him, like his chest had collapsed in on itself, a broken sob escaping from him as he crumpled with grief––

When suddenly, he became aware of a pale glow seeping over the ground towards him.

He was confused at first, thinking distantly to himself that the moon was glowing unusually bright. But as he blinked a few more times in bewilderment, he could see that the light was moving along the ground, emanating from something up ahead. And as he followed its path to the source, he saw a large white figure standing at the entrance of the temple.

Immediately, the sobs stilled in his chest as he gazed upwards in disbelief. His vision was blurry with tears, and it hurt a little to look directly into the light––but as his eyes adjusted, he couldn't help but gasp with wonder.

Although he'd been able to imagine what the White Lion would look like, it was yet another thing to behold the ancient spirit in person. He stood regally in place, head held high as if he were a monarch looking down on his subjects––but more with curiosity than with disdain. His silvery fur glowed like starlight, and his majestic mane floated around his large head as if flowing in an invisible wind.

He regarded Keith and Lance silently for several long moments, as Keith only continued to gape at him, before he began to descend the stone steps of the temple.

Coming to his senses, Keith instinctively drew Lance closer to him––one arm wrapping around his waist, the other cradling Lance's head against his chest. He remembered what Romelle had said about the White Lion having the ability to destroy those he deemed unworthy of his presence––and he couldn't help but feel a surge of terror as the enormous spirit paced towards him.

The White Lion stopped at the edge of the courtyard, remaining at a slight distance from the two humans. He gazed down at them, his eyes a startling shade of light blue.

Keith remained frozen, holding protectively onto Lance as his heart hammered against his ribcage. He tried to speak but no words came out, and he wasn’t sure whether to plead for the lion’s help or to tell the spirit to stay back.

After a long pause, the White Lion spoke. Or perhaps spoke wasn’t quite the right word … because it was like he was transporting the words directly into Keith’s mind, his voice echoing from all around them and yet from nowhere at once.

“What is it that you seek?”

It was impossible to read the spirit’s tone, whether he was angry or merely curious. Keith couldn’t answer him at first, still dumbfounded with awe and terror. But at last, he managed to find his voice.

“Please …” The one word came out hoarse, like his throat had been scraped raw. Keith was distantly aware of how pathetic he sounded, but at this point he was beyond caring. “My friend. He needs help.”

The lion said nothing in return, only continued to regard them with his patient gaze. He tilted his head slightly then started to move forward, his long tail flicking back and forth.

Keith could feel the overwhelming power that radiated from the spirit as he drew closer, so intense that it was almost dizzying. Although he still feared the White Lion might attack them at any moment, he remembered what Romelle had told them about how the spirit would only help those who fully trusted him. Gulping in a breath, he let his tight grip on Lance loosen a little, holding him for the White Lion to see.

The White Lion tread across the courtyard, the stones glowing under his paws with each step forward. He lowered his head to get a better look at Lance, his blue eyes round with interest. After contemplating for several long moments, he lifted his head to lock gazes with Keith.

Keith went rigid at the sudden attention, a tingling feeling racing up his spine. He held his breath, waiting for the White Lion to make some final judgment––but then realized the spirit seemed to be asking him an unspoken question.

"He's cursed," Keith explained, trying to lessen the tremor in his voice. "And if he doesn't break the spell by midnight, he––he's going to die. If there's anything you can do to save him ..." He couldn't get the rest of the words out, his eyes welling with tears again.

Thankfully, the answer seemed to be enough. The White Lion made a faint grumbling noise, sitting back on his haunches. Then he lifted a paw and carefully laid it over Lance’s heart.

Keith looked down, watching anxiously as he prayed for some kind of miracle. The White Lion's paw was so large that it nearly covered Lance's entire chest, and a steady blue light began to radiate from it as a deep humming noise filled the air.

Nothing happened at first. Lance's eyes remained closed, and he showed no sign of life whatsoever as he continued to lie still in Keith's arms ... but then Keith's attention was drawn to the left side of his chest, where a faint violet light was seeping through the white fabric of his tunic. It took Keith a moment to understand, and then he inhaled sharply with the realization that Lance's curse mark was glowing.

He hardly dared to breathe as he watched the light grow steadily brighter, as he looked from the glowing mark to Lance's motionless face as he waited desperately for some sign that this was actually going to work.

But just as he was starting to feel hopeful, the violet light flickered and died abruptly and the White Lion leapt backwards as if he'd been physically attacked. His fur stood slightly on end as he crouched at a slight distance away, snarling and baring his teeth. Keith frantically gathered Lance against him again, staring wide-eyed at the growling lion.

He noticed then that the White Lion's eyes had shifted colors, turning to a dark purple hue. It took a few moments before they returned to the light shade of blue they'd been before, and the threatening snarl died in the lion's throat. He straightened from his crouching position, blinking and shaking his flowing mane as if he'd just been awakened from a dream.

Keith could only sit there, frozen, holding Lance––who remained just as lifeless before.

"Wh––What happened?" Keith stammered at last. "The curse ... is it ... ?"

The White Lion bowed his head, closing his eyes in an almost human expression of regret.

"I am sorry, but there is nothing I can do. The curse is too deeply entwined with his life force, and I cannot destroy it without destroying him as well."

Keith's ears rang harshly. He remembered what it had felt like when he'd attempted to break Lance's curse with his own magic, how he'd felt the same thing the White Lion had felt––that the curse was rooted in Lance's soul like sinister vines, consuming everything.

"No," he rasped. "There has to be some other way." He squeezed his eyes shut, opened them again as he let out a shaking breath. "Is there a way I could take his place? That he could live, and I could ..."

The White Lion didn't appear fazed, although it was difficult to judge what he was thinking from his serene expression.

"That is a noble proposal, young mortal. But I'm afraid that is not something within my power."

Keith felt like the air had been punched from his lungs. "Then ... then how ..."

The lion continued to gaze at him patiently as if waiting for him to come to an obvious conclusion. "I sense that you know the answer … that there is another way to break the curse."

The words took a moment to sink in, and then Keith felt the heat of mortification rise to his face. Did the White Lion know … ? He couldn’t possibly be suggesting ...

"What? I––no. No, I can't," Keith stuttered. "Trust me, it's not going to work. He doesn't ..."

He cut himself off. Was he really discussing this with a powerful spirit who was thousands of years old?

"I cannot promise that it will work," the White Lion continued. "But I will say that I can sense the depth of your devotion to your friend. You journeyed with him all this way, brought him to the top of this mountain, offered to exchange your own life for his.

“... Perhaps the answer you seek is the one you have been carrying inside you all along."

“But I––” Keith started to say, then stopped short as he noticed the White Lion’s form had started to grow hazy around the edges.

The spirit seemed not to hear his protests, closing his eyes as he began to dissipate into glowing particles.

“Wait!” Keith cried. “Don’t––please, don’t go!”

But the White Lion had already vanished, leaving nothing but glowing flecks that scattered in all directions like sparks before disappearing.

Keith could only stare at the spot where the lion had stood only moments before, feeling as if a dark crevice had opened up in his chest. He waited tensely as if expecting the spirit to reappear again, but there was nothing but the empty courtyard and the darkened entrance to the temple.

“No,” Keith breathed out, lowering his head in defeat. He wrapped his arms tightly around Lance, his breath shuddering out of his lungs.

But as he sat there, drowning in despair, the White Lion’s voice crept into his consciousness once more. Perhaps the answer you seek is the one you have been carrying inside you all along.

No … it couldn’t be. He had accepted long ago that it wasn’t a possibility.

Yet, he couldn’t shake away the glimmer of hope that maybe … maybe there was one last thing he could try.

Keith’s eyes drifted open, and he blinked through his tears at Lance’s unmoving face illuminated in the moonlight, at every feature he knew as well as his own. His heart fluttered as he came to a reckless decision, and he allowed one of his shaking hands to cradle Lance’s jaw, thumb brushing across Lance’s cheekbone.

He thought of the night Lance had first told him about the curse, what felt like an eternity ago. How in that moment, he’d realized his feelings like the tide pulling him under. How desperate he’d felt to do anything to keep Lance alive somehow, no matter what the cost. How he’d felt it over and over again with each passing day, each letter they’d exchanged, each smile, each time they’d nearly lost each other.

“Lance,” he said softly, even though he knew Lance couldn’t hear him––just speaking his name like it was a secret between them.

Then he gently tilted Lance’s chin up, leaned down, and kissed him.

It was barely more than a soft brush, so light that Keith could barely feel it––could barely feel anything beyond the frantic pounding of his own heart. He pulled back again, slow and hesitant, holding his breath as he waited for a sign, anything. But Lance’s eyes remained closed.

Keith wasn’t certain what he had expected––for all the stars to align, for a blinding ray of light to shoot down from the heavens––but there was nothing. Nothing at all. Only the lonely wind howling through the trees, the abandoned courtyard, Lance lying limp in his arms.

“No,” he choked out. He knew it probably wouldn’t make a difference but he kissed Lance again––a hard, insistent press of his lips that proved to be just as fruitless as his first attempt. And when Lance’s mouth remained slack and unresponsive beneath his, Keith felt as if the world was falling to pieces around him.

At the back of his mind, he realized he had just doomed them both. He wasn’t Lance’s true love––and as the curse had dictated, they would both die. They would die here, isolated and cold at the top of the mountain.

Keith didn’t know how it would happen or how immediate it would be, but he wasn’t even thinking of his own mortality right now. All he could think was that he couldn’t let things end this way.

He rested his forehead against Lance’s, as tears spilled from his eyes.

“I love you,” he whispered, wishing that he had said it long ago. “Please, come back. Please.”

His words broke off then as he was overcome with grief. Sobs wracked through him, broken and unrestrained, as he buried his face against Lance’s chest.

Time seemed to fall away, swallowed in an absolute darkness. Keith didn't know how long he remained that way, holding Lance and crying. He knew nothing besides the anguish wracking through him, the black world behind his eyelids.

And then ... light.

It was so subtle at first that he barely noticed it, but as it grew stronger Keith became aware of the violet glow. His sobs shuddered to a halt, his eyes blinking open in bewilderment. He couldn't see through his tears at first––only pinpricks of light that slowly merged together. But as his vision adjusted, he gasped sharply.

Because Lance's curse mark was glowing again.

Keith stared at it, torn between a hundred emotions at once. Most of the mark was hidden beneath the collar of Lance's shirt, but he could see one edge of it peeking out from underneath the fabric, blazing bright against Lance’s collarbone as if it were made from an embroidery of stars.

Then, as he watched, the symbol began to disintegrate. The edges burned away, flying into the air in a flurry of purple sparks. Not only that, but Lance suddenly felt strangely light in Keith's arms, as if he were floating, carried by the waves of a powerful spell rapidly unraveling itself.

Entranced, Keith looked up as the last glowing remains of the curse mark danced up into the air, swirling around them in a spiraling pattern before they shot up towards the sky and vanished.

At the same time, Lance fell heavily back into his arms. Keith caught him again just in time, nearly dropping him in surprise. He looked down, holding his breath … which was when he saw that Lance’s eyes were blinking open.

Keith hardly dared to believe it, his head reeling and his heart beating so quickly he thought it might burst. “Lance?”

Lance stared up at him, dazed, frowning slightly like he’d forgotten where he was. “Keith … ?”

“Lance … oh, my God. Lance.”

Keith choked out a noise that he wasn’t sure was a laugh or a sob, but it didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that Lance was still here. All he could do was pull Lance into a tight hug, holding him like he was never going to let go.

When he finally pulled away again, Lance still had a mystified expression on his face like he thought maybe he was dreaming. He sat up partway and swayed a little, and Keith put a steadying hand against his back.

“I’m … not dead,” Lance said with a hint of hesitation, like he was afraid he would be proven wrong.

Keith huffed out a relieved laugh, tears pricking at his eyes again. “No,” he said, “you’re not.”

Lance was silent for a moment, before his eyes started to grow wide and he lifted a hand to his chest. His fingers brushed over his collarbone where the curse mark had once been, and he gasped when he looked down and saw that it was no longer there.

“The curse mark …” It didn’t seem to hit him at first, and then his head snapped up again as he stared at Keith questioningly. “Did the White Lion … ?”

He couldn’t even seem to complete the question. And it was then that the full reality dawned on Keith … that the White Lion hadn’t broken the curse. That Keith had broken it. Which could only mean one thing.

Lance was still waiting desperately for an answer, and Keith could feel a subtle heat rising to his face as he realized what he needed to explain. As he realized that this was really, truly happening.

He cleared his throat. “No, the White Lion … he couldn’t break the curse,” he said haltingly, then bit his lip as he searched for words––any way he could possibly explain.

But perhaps it wasn’t necessary, judging by the slow realization that dawned on Lance’s face. “Then how––” he started to say, and stopped short. The furrow in his brow faded, his eyes going round.

The silence felt like an eternity, before Lance drew in a shaking breath and lifted his fingers to his own lips, as if he could feel the ghost of the kiss lingering there.

“Keith?” he said at last, and there was a rough and awestruck note to his voice that made something wild flutter in Keith’s chest.

“Yes?”

“Did you …” Lance swallowed. “Did you kiss me?”

It was a simple enough question, but Keith couldn’t find the words to answer. Finally, after a moment of thick silence, he managed a small nod.

He anxiously waited for a reaction, his pulse thrumming as he saw the subtle change in Lance’s expression—a momentary stunned look followed by a small quirk at the corner of his mouth. A warm fondness crept into Lance’s eyes as he continued to gaze up at Keith like he was seeing the sun rise for the first time in his life.

He reached up slowly, like he didn’t even realize he was doing it, and rested his hand against the side of Keith’s face. Keith’s breath caught in his chest, a shiver running through him. He held completely still as Lance’s fingers brushed his tears away, then traced along the Galra mark on his jaw in a gesture that felt almost practiced—like it was something he’d imagined doing before.

Lance’s smile faded then, like he’d just realized something earth-shattering.

“You … love me?”

Not long ago, Keith would have run from the question. But now the answer came as easily as breathing. He pressed his face against Lance’s palm and let out a shaking sigh, feeling like the weight of the world had been lifted from his shoulders.

“More than anything,” he said, voice almost breaking on the words.

Part of him still worried, somehow, that the universe had made some colossal misunderstanding. But the fear melted away as he watched a dazed and adoring smile rise to Lance’s face.

“So, it’s really you.” Lance huffed out a soft, disbelieving laugh. “This whole time, it was you.”

Keith didn’t even know how to respond, too stunned by the strange and beautiful reality manifesting in front of him. After all this time, he’d finally told Lance he loved him––and Lance wasn’t running away, wasn’t turning him down. Instead, he was gravitating towards Keith like a star pulled into his orbit.

The small space between them was suddenly fraught with tension, their gazes locking. Keith was suddenly very aware of everywhere they were touching––how he was still cradling Lance against him, one arm looped around his waist and the other wrapped around his shoulders. Lance’s hand still rested against the side of Keith’s face, but now his fingers traveled a cautious path along Keith’s jawline, curving around to the back of his neck and pressing lightly.

Keith leaned into the gentle pull as if entranced, pulse fluttering in his throat. He hung back, breathless, fearing this was all a dream that would shatter at any moment. But when Lance pulled him down and kissed him, he knew he was very much awake.

It felt vastly different from when he had kissed Lance minutes ago, now that Lance’s lips were pressing back against his, warm and moving and alive. There was a wild, swooping sensation in Keith’s chest like he had fallen from a great height—but Lance was there to catch him, had always been there to catch him—before he found his footing again, sighing into the kiss and easily falling into the steady pace Lance had set.

His arm wrapped more tightly around Lance’s waist and held him closer, tilting his head to get a better angle as he pressed down with more certainty this time. Lance surged back up to meet him, his hand sliding up the back of Keith’s neck and clenching in his hair.

When Keith had first learned to control fire, it had felt a bit like this—something he had once thought unattainable until the moment it was actually happening. It was like the first sensation of sparks at his fingertips, the feeling of flickering warmth pulsing between his palms, capable of escaping his grasp and yet steadying under his control. A bit frightening, a bit exhilarating.

They finally parted for air but only just barely, eyes still closed and foreheads pressed together. Keith could feel Lance’s warm, panting breaths against his mouth and felt like his heart might burst just from that sensation alone. He couldn’t help but give in to the ache of longing in his chest—the one he had been fighting back for years—like pressing against a bruise that was only just beginning to heal.

The first kiss had been a bit tinged with desperation, like each of them had been scared the other would disappear. As Keith leaned down to kiss Lance a second time, it was with slow and tender determination—a promise that he wasn’t going anywhere. And Lance seemed willing to let him take the lead, lips parting and body melting into Keith’s arms.

Keith kept going, fueled by the warmth spreading through his chest and by the soft noises Lance was making. He let his lips brush across Lance’s once more before trailing kisses along his cheekbone, his jaw, along the column of his throat.

He paused for a moment as if waiting for Lance to tell him to stop. But when Lance didn’t protest in the least—his hand clenching in the fabric of Keith’s tunic and his breath hitching in anticipation—Keith leaned down again to press a soft kiss to the hint of collarbone peeking out from underneath Lance’s shirt, right where the edge of the curse mark had once been, just the way he’d imagined doing when they’d been lying in bed together at the inn.

Keith seemed to come to his senses then, his face warming as he pulled back again. He peered down at Lance anxiously, a bit afraid that he had done something he shouldn’t have. But his fears were assuaged by the amazed expression on Lance’s face as he blinked back up at Keith, pupils wide and dark.

He raised himself up a little to press a gentle kiss to one of Keith’s Galra marks, then the other. When he drew back he smiled warmly, eyes alight with adoration.

“I love you, too,” he said, voice a bit rough.

And Keith was fairly certain that even if he were to learn the most powerful spell in the world, nothing would ever feel as magical as hearing those words.

The journey back down the mountain was the complete opposite of their journey upwards. They walked with their shoulders brushing, hands often linked, taking their time to navigate the moonlit woods since they were no longer on a deadline. Keith kept turning to look at Lance to find him staring back, and could see the faint outline of his smile in the dimness.

They kept breaking into breathless laughter for no particular reason, and on occasion one of them would squeeze the other’s hand as if in reassurance that they were still there. They went for long periods without speaking, but the silence didn’t feel strange or uncomfortable—instead it felt natural, almost comforting. It seemed to be a sense of understanding between them—knowing that there were years of unspoken feelings between them that would be voiced when the time was right, but for now they could dwell in the intoxicating joy of just being alive and together.

“So, you really had no idea?” Keith asked at one point as they clambered over a fallen tree in their path.

Lance huffed as he vaulted over the fallen trunk, his feet hitting the ground with a solid thud. “Well, it’s not like you had any idea either, apparently,” he shot back, although there was no actual hostility to the words, just a teasing amusement. He offered a hand to Keith to help him climb the rest of the way down, which Keith took with a crooked smile.

“Fair point,” Keith conceded, landing next to Lance. “I guess I’m still just trying to comprehend it. You never …” He stopped, worrying he was starting to sound accusatory rather than genuinely curious. “I mean, I—it’s not like I ever said anything, but …”

They continued down the narrow path. Lance let go of Keith’s hand, falling thoughtfully quiet.

“Why didn’t you?” he asked at last.

Keith drew in a long breath, glaring down at the ground. There were many ways he could answer that question, but it all came down to one simple reason.

“Because I was scared,” he admitted quietly. “I just … I never believed that you would feel the same way about me. And you—you’re my best friend. I wanted to be there to support you, and I didn’t want to lose what we already had.

“But more than that, I couldn’t risk your life like that. If I was the wrong person, and I kissed you, it would’ve killed both of us. And I just couldn’t take that chance.”

He sighed, his hands curling into loose fists at his sides. “I’m sorry, I know that’s not much of an excuse. I could have at least been honest about how I felt, or asked you, or …”

“Keith,” Lance cut him off. He put a hand on Keith’s shoulder to stop him in his tracks, turning him so they were facing each other. “You don’t need to apologize. I can’t exactly blame you for not seeing how I felt, when I was pursuing pretty much everyone besides you.”

He looked away and bit his lip, reaching up to scratch the back of his neck. “Admittedly, I didn’t really understand how I felt, either—or maybe I did, but I kept running from it. It felt much easier to chase after just about anyone, after any stranger, because I … I guess I knew, deep down, it wouldn’t work out.

“Even the few times I thought I was really in love, even after what happened with Allura …” He winced a little. “I think a part of me knew. I knew I was chasing after nothing but infatuation, not true love. And for a long time, I thought maybe I would never find love at all—that I wouldn’t even know what it felt like.”

Keith nodded wordlessly when Lance paused, encouraging him to go on. He felt a small painful twinge in his chest, remembering Lance’s letter from long ago—the one he’d agonized over so many times, asking Keith if he had ever been in love, asking what it felt like.

“Obviously I didn’t know,” Lance continued with a shaky laugh, “seeing as it was staring me in the face this whole time.” He released a heavy sigh and looked down. “But, it’s like you said. The thought of trying to kiss you and then finding out you weren’t my true love––the thought that it would kill you––was too horrible to even think about. You were the one person I cared most about, the one person I loved too much to lose. And maybe … maybe that’s how I should have known.”

He fell silent then, and Keith gaped at him for a moment as Lance continued to stare fiercely at the ground. At last, Keith took Lance’s hands in his and lifted them to lightly kiss his knuckles, which shocked Lance into looking back up at him.

“First of all,” Keith said, “you don’t have to feel guilty about it. But also, I understand exactly what you mean.”

Lance’s expression softened with relief. “You do?”

Keith nodded. “And I know it’s not easy to explain, so we don’t need to talk about it all right now. We have plenty of time.”

He didn’t realize what a relief those words felt like until they had left his mouth, and then they seemed to crash over him like an ocean wave. Because it suddenly hit him that they did have time, that they weren’t racing against a looming deadline for the first time in their lives.

It seemed to have the same effect on Lance, judging by how the tension eased from his shoulders. “You’re right,” he said softly, giving Keith’s hands a gentle squeeze. “We do.”

Keith thought the ground felt a little lighter under his feet as they continued onward. He knew there was still a lot of things they needed to discuss––but for now, they could dwell in their happiness. Safe, happy, and in love.

They soon came to a small ridge cluttered with rocks. Lance leapt down first, and Keith followed after him––stumbling a little, but Lance was there to catch him in a steadying embrace. A soft laugh shook through Lance’s chest. Keith laughed a little too, then gasped as he noticed the sight below them.

“Lance, look.”

They were standing on a small plateau, where there were no trees and the sky stretched endlessly above them. The moon was full and round, casting a silver light over the landscape. From where they stood, they could see all the way to the horizon––the mountainside sloping downwards, the dark treetops swaying in the wind, the white mist rolling across the distance.

“Wow,” Lance breathed, then stepped forward a few steps to look out across the scenery.

Keith joined him moments later, observing Lance’s profile in the pale glow of moonlight––eyes shining as he took it all in. “What are you thinking about?” he asked at last, quietly.

Lance didn’t answer right away, drawing in a deep breath and letting it out again. “I don’t even know how to explain it,” he said. “I guess it’s just … my whole life, I’ve dreaded my twentieth birthday. And now that I’ve made it here, now that the curse is broken … I don’t know. I guess I’m a little scared. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Keith knew what he meant. Even though the curse was broken, there was still a lot of uncertainty that lay ahead. There was still a long journey home, and––beyond that––there was still the possibility of war looming on the horizon. The world felt very big around them, full of endless dangers––but somehow, it felt less frightening than it had before.

After all, the universe had tried to tear them apart countless times by now, and they were still standing here.

With that in mind, Keith reached out to take Lance by the hand––the same way Lance had taken his to lift him from the ground all those years ago when they first met, sealing their fate.

“I don’t know, either,” he admitted. “But no matter what happens, we’re going to face it together.”

Lance turned to look at him––eyes wide with surprise for a moment before he smiled tearfully back. “Together,” he agreed.

In that moment, Keith thought he could feel the vastness of the entire universe around them––the world turning, the stars reeling overhead. He could see a whole lifetime stretching out ahead of them, rife with possibilities.

Maybe he didn’t know what lay beyond the horizon, what dangers they would have to face, what obstacles would be thrown in their way.

But he did know that, as long as Lance was by his side, he was ready to find out.

––

 

 

 

Dear Lance,

I don’t know if I’ll ever send this letter to you. I can’t even count how many times I’ve tried to write it, only to throw it aside and start over again. And again and again.

I’m hoping that someday I’ll have the courage to say all of this to you out loud. But for now, all I want to do is get my thoughts out on paper. As I’ve said before––and as you know very well by now––I’m not always so good with talking, so I’m hoping that writing it down will help me make more sense of it.

So … here it goes.

You asked me in one of your previous letters if I had ever been in love. And I didn’t answer. Partly because I was afraid to––but also because you had asked me to describe what it felt like, and I didn’t know if I could.

I’ve tried over and over, so many times. I’ve gone through an obscene amount of parchment trying to put that feeling into words, and I don’t think I could ever do it justice. But I’m going to try, because I want you to know.

I have been in love.

I am still in love.

You asked me what it feels like, and that’s a good question. One I’ve been trying to answer for months now. One that countless people have tried to capture for centuries––playwrights, poets, even the authors of all those horrible romance stories we all used to read out loud to each other in the castle library. You could put all of those works together––everything that’s ever been written about love––in one massive volume, and I don’t think it would capture the enormity of the feeling.

So I don’t even know why I’d think I could capture it myself, and I also suppose it’s different for everyone. But for me, it was something that happened bit by bit.

I don’t know if I believe in love at first sight. Maybe it happens to some people. Speaking from my own experience, however, it’s something that happens slowly. With every passing day, with every lingering smile and light touch. Love is not something you seek out, but something that finds you.

And it found me when I met you.

Again, I don’t know if I’ll ever feel brave enough to tell you this, but that’s the truth. That’s the reason I know what it feels like to be in love. Because I love you.

I love you and it feels like drowning, but it also feels like being pulled to the surface again. I love you and it feels like when I used magic for the first time, how it felt like it was consuming me from the inside out and I couldn’t control it, but how it also made me feel like I could do anything.

As confusing and frightening as that feeling is, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

So, I hope you get to feel it someday. I hope you fall in love with someone, and it’s every bit as terrifying and every bit as exciting. Because you deserve to feel that way for someone, and for them to feel it for you in return.

Even if that someone isn’t me, I hope you know that you’re still my best friend. You always will be.

And I’m with you, every step of the way, no matter what. Always.

 

Love,
Keith

 

THE END