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King and Reaper

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Keith knows it’s not going to be a good day the minute he walks into the castle’s dining hall for the daily morning briefing they lazily disguise as breakfast to find his team sitting tensely in their chairs, individual expressions of discomfort or outright worry on their faces, while Allura sits primly at the head of the table, jaw set and glaring down at her tea with a kind of regal poise that makes the offending object look like it deserves to be thrown out the airlock for whatever it did.

 

“Oh God.” He says, not even bothering to sit down as he crosses his arms and takes in the room. “What?”

 

Perhaps when they had first been launched into space, Keith might not have held the people skills to recognize the subtle expressions of his teammates, minus Shiro, but if Voltron has given him nothing else, it’s provided him with intimate knowledge of the workings of his teammates, and he can recognize a shit storm about to come down.

 

“Keith, buddy!” Hunk says quickly, voice cracking on the second word with poorly disguised panic. His hands are fluttering against the tabletop where they rest, fingers twisting and tangling with one another over and over in a pattern that Keith has over time come to recognize as one of his nervous habits, a sign Hunk is about five minutes from quite literally vibrating out of his seat and fleeing to the kitchen to stress bake in order to stave off an impending panic attack. “How are you?”

 

“You tell me.” Keith sighs. “What’s wrong?”

 

“Keith.” Allura says with a tone that belies no contradictions or arguments. “Please take a seat, we must discuss plans in relation to our next move against the Empire.”

 

He raises an eyebrow, but complies, dropping into his chair and, on second thought, kicking his feet up onto the table, ignoring the horrified look Shiro gives him for it. He’ll take what kind of petty disobedience he can get away with right now, in the face of what he knows will be an order from Allura he won’t like. “What next move? The castle was pretty dinged up in the last attack, isn’t that why we’ve been hiding out here for the last week and a half?”

 

Allura purses her lips. “Quite.” After a moment of what would Keith would call hesitation on anyone else, but comes off as a kind of dramatic pause for tension with Allura, she sighs. “Our repairs of the castle have turned up a larger problem than we originally anticipated. The Alrexan stones that provide power to the central neural command, which I use to control and fly the castle, have cracked under the strain of the last few skirmishes we’ve been in. We can fly, for now, but they will not hold up under another battle.”

 

“I thought the Balmeran crystal powers the ship?” Keith asks, barely able to keep the disgruntlement out of his voice at the thought of yet another mission to retrieve obscure objects to repair the castle.

 

Across the table, Pidge nods. “It does, but from what I can understand of the castle’s schematics, these stones are a power conduit for the controls that sync with Altean quintessence, which is what allows the ship to be flown by only one person from Allura’s command center on the main deck.” They grin sheepishly. “The stones on Allura’s pedestals are smaller versions of the bigger stones down in the castle’s main system. It’s an inherently different problem from when the crystal gave out. Lose the crystal, we lose all power, all the way down to door controls and life support. Lose the stones, and we’ll still have a working castle in terms of power, but the remote command abilities will cease to exist, which means we’d need a few hundred of us to run the castle manually.”

 

“…Great.” Keith says, already feeling like he’s fighting off a headache. “So what giant sentient creature are we going to fly into this time?”

 

“Actually.” Allura cuts in calmly. “The Alrexan stones are found solely on a small, perfectly normal planet with only docile, unintelligent life forms living on it.”

 

“So what’s the problem, then?”

 

“Keith…” Shiro says quietly, staring down at the table and refusing to make eye contact with him with dedicated avoidance. “According to our maps… Alrexa is the current base camp planet for the Blue Lion Resistance.”

 

Two seats down, Hunk jumps up violently, seemingly unable to hear the words for, assumedly, a second time, given everyone had seemed to have already discussed this before Keith arrived, and darts out of the room, likely headed to the kitchen or his lion’s hangar to have a breakdown in peace. Keith holds his tongue until Hunk is gone, and then turns on Shiro, glaring over at the other with undisguised fury. “No.”

 

At the head of the table, Allura bristles. “This isn’t a debate—“

 

“I said no!” He snarls, bringing a fist down onto the table as he stands and ignoring the way Pidge flinches at the action across from him. “We’ll just have to find another way!”

 

Allura rises, ignoring Shiro’s quiet plea of her name, with flames in her eyes, and Keith tries not to think about how the anger there looks so much like his own reflected back at him. “We do not have a choice, we need this repair! I know you do not wish to confront him, but we cannot pick and choose who we help and where we go based on mixed feelings!”

 

“Don’t be an idiot.” Keith hisses, irritation and borderline rage simmering low in his gut and crawling up into his chest. Mixed feelings, his ass. How dare she simplify things like this, as if he wasn’t a gaping wound they felt constantly, as if it was so easy to forget what they had done, what had been irrevocably destroyed. “He’d be more likely to shoot us all on sight, starting with you! And with fucking good reason, I might add!”

 

“Keith!” Shiro barks as Allura recoils back, looking like she’s been slapped, and Keith sneers, turning and stalking out of the room with the fury of the Red lion humming in his bones, demanding that he stay and fight, remind Shiro and Allura of the unfixable damage they had all allowed to happen to their team, to the pack.

 

He shoves it down, turning on his heel and heading for the training room with the intent to go beat his anger out into one of the training bots until he can’t think anymore.

 

It’s the only way he ever even temporarily escapes the ghost of what was, these days.

 

 

xxx

 

 

It’s Hunk who hunts him out, hours later, cornering Keith on the holodeck where he sits watching the projected star systems above him, because of course it’s Hunk, who else would be willing to track him down and put up with him in his anger but the ever-patient yellow paladin?

 

“Y’know,” He start conversationally, startling Keith out of his reverie as he sits down beside him with a quiet grace that belies his size, “I don’t think I ever once saw you here, before.”

 

He doesn’t need to specify what before means.

 

Keith shrugs. “There was never a need.” He pauses. “…This was his space, anyways. He liked it here.”

 

Hunk sighs. “Yeah, he did. He liked looking at Earth, I think.”

 

They both pointedly ignore the gaping hole in the star map.

 

After a moment, Keith huffs, averting his eyes from Hunk and glaring down at the floor beneath him. “You can’t seriously think this is a good idea.”

 

“No,” Hunk says calmly, “I really, really don’t, and if it was up to me I’d probably choose going Weblum-diving again over this if it was an option, but I also understand what’s going on with the castle a lot better then you do, no offense, and trust me, Allura’s right. If we don’t replace those stones before they shatter, we’ll be dead in the water.”

 

“Then lets hit up the space malls and all that other bullshit until we find some!” Keith snaps, throwing his arms up in an exaggerated gesture he knows he picked up from a certain paladin, and looking to Hunk. “We find obscure shit all the time in the weirdest places, fuck, Pidge and— Pidge found a cow once, there’s no way these stones are only on this planet!”

 

Hunk deflates. “That’s what I said, at first, but turns out these stones only work with Alteans. There’d be no reason for any swap moons to carry them, according to Allura.”

 

Keith snorts. “And you believe her?”

 

“Yes, I do.” Keith sneers at the words, and Hunk looks over at him tiredly. “I need to be able to believe that everyone on this team, including Allura, is honest, alright? I need that trust, because without it, I’d have no idea what I’m doing here anymore.”

 

“It’s naivety.”

 

“Maybe.” Hunk says. “But I’m tired, Keith. I’m so tired. I never signed up for this war, and it ended up taking everything from me. If I don’t at least have faith in the people in this castle, I have nothing. I can’t just run on anger and adrenaline all the time like you do.”

 

He scowls, but doesn’t argue, because, in a way, he knows what Hunk says is the truth, about all of it.

 

If anyone had told Keith, back when they first formed Voltron, that he and Hunk would end up this close, he never would have believed them. Hell, before everything went to shit he’d barely thought much of Hunk at all— Not in a bad way, but just that he literally did not put much time into cultivating a friendship with the other, beyond the casual camaraderie he’d shared with everyone on the team, but… things change, people change, and as it stands now he probably spends more time with Hunk than he does with even Shiro.

 

Hunk, he thinks, at least feels something. Sometimes he looks at Shiro, in his calm collectiveness in the face of what they’ve done, and he feels like throttling him.

 

“I don’t like it.” He says quietly, turning back to the original topic of their conversation, and next to him Hunk sighs out slowly.

 

“Neither do I.”

 

“What if we’re not even allowed onto the planet?”

 

Hunk chews his lip nervously, shrugging. “Allura and Shiro are hoping that… old fondness might allow us to gain entry.”

 

“You mean Allura’s going to land whether she has permission or not by threat of the castle’s firepower and then stick you or Coran in front as a human shield when we get off the ship because he’s less likely to shoot you two.” Hunk winces in response, and Keith snorts. “It’s not about these stones, really, is it? That’s just giving her an excuse. She wants to try and negotiate with him.”

 

Hunk is silent for far too long, staring up at the star map above them with haunted eyes. “We’re not winning anymore, Keith. Maybe we managed to make it work for a while, but… Things are bad. We need Voltron. In a way, we’re lucky the Resistance takes up more of the Empire’s attention. If we were its sole focus, we’d probably all be dead by now.”

 

“…Maybe it’s a good thing we’ve stopped winning. Maybe we don’t deserve to play heroes anymore.”

 

“Do you really think that?” Hunk asks, sadness and disappointment mixing with curiosity, and Keith groans.

 

“No, of course not. We’ve protected hundreds of planets, saved millions of lives. It’s just— We’ve made mistakes too, but instead of learning from them we just ignore them, write them off as inevitable! They’ve spent two years pretending it didn’t happen, and now they want to acknowledge it? Fuck that. Just… fuck it. It’s not right.”

 

“You think I don’t know that?” Hunk mumbles, quiet anger creeping into his words. “I lost my home, Keith, and I lost my best friend, someone who’d been practically family since we were children, and then I had to watch everyone trip over themselves to find someone else to blame. Of course it isn’t right.”

 

Keith winces, ducking his head, and Hunk pales. “Sorry, I—“

 

“No, you’re right.” Keith says lowly. “You lost a lot more than I did, I’m just being self-centered.”

 

“It’s not a contest. We all lost something, we just… had different ways of handling it.”

 

Keith barks a laugh. “Shitty ways of handling it, you mean.” He sighs, running a hand over his face and fighting the urge to just grab his bangs and pull, use the sharp edge of pain to remind himself of his own existence and dull all the swarming thoughts in his mind. “I suppose it doesn’t matter what we think, does it? They’re not going to listen anyways.”

 

Hunk shrugs. “That’s always been the problem, hasn’t it?”

 

Keith stills, fighting to keep himself from looking to the star map at the words, to the gaping hole where a beacon of life once rested, shoves down the bile in his throat and the burn of pain just at the memory of the image and locks it away. Dissociate, compartmentalize, repeat.

 

“…Yeah, it has.”

 

 

xxx

 

 

It began, and it ended, with the destruction of Earth.

 

Or… No, that wasn’t quite right.

 

The death of the Earth was both a beginning and an end, yes, to so much, but the whole mess that led up to it? That began when Lance found the schematics for the death ray.

 

Well… That’s what he’d called it, at least. Keith had never bothered to find out what actual name the Galra had given it, if any at all. It didn’t matter. It did its job, and in the end it was destroyed in turn. That’s all that counted, at the end of the day.

 

…Or perhaps, really, it started long before all that.

 

Things changed after that final fight with Zarkon.

 

Keith doesn’t know what they expected, really. It had been naïve to assume that taking out Zarkon would instantly solve all their problems. Of course he would have a heir, of course there would be a backup plan. Ten thousand years of domination and cruelty couldn’t survive on just one corrupted soul— There was no doubt some, if not most, Galra must have swung to Zarkon’s side during the war, given Allura’s reactions to the species as a whole, and after so long under Zarkon’s rule, many of the Galran elite would of course come to see their place in the Universe as natural.

 

Hell, they hadn’t even killed Zarkon, just… knocked him out of commission.

 

And that had opened the door for Lotor.

 

In a way, Keith wonders sometimes if they might have been better off just continuing to deal with Zarkon. Yes, the dictator was a terrifying monster that even he himself had learned wielded immense, terrifying power that was almost impossible to match, but at least with Zarkon they knew what they were dealing with. With Lotor, there was no interest in merely “capturing” Voltron, or a predictable obsession with the Black lion to bet on. Instead, they now just had a new Galran emperor to deal with who considered them an annoying nuisance that needed to be squashed out at the soonest convenience. Oh, sure, he doesn’t doubt that Lotor would happily claim Voltron as a weapon for himself if given the opportunity, but he doesn’t hold the same obsession with preserving the autonomy of the lions his father did, and if its easier to destroy Voltron than conquer it, that seems to be good enough for Lotor.

 

Lotor was a new-age strategist walking onto a field of old players, and for the princess, who had been partaking in a ten thousand year old chess game of war with Zarkon, his way of playing destroyed both the rules and the expectations.

 

It hadn’t helped, of course, that amongst the midst of all this, they hadn’t even had Shiro with them to be their guide.

 

After he had disappeared following the battle with Zarkon, Shiro had remained missing for two of the longest months of Keith’s life.

 

They hadn’t had the slightest idea what to do— They’d retreated back to a star system where there weren’t any life forms or, more importantly, Galrans, for galaxies, and there they’d remained.

 

Keith had known that Shiro wanted him to lead, to take charge if something ever happened to the other, but at the time all he’d felt was… numb, those first couple weeks caught up in a haze of helpless rage and apathy, spiraling between the two extremes without pause or pattern.

 

He’d been… lost.

 

They all had.

 

In retrospect, Lance had handled it the best out of all of them, excepting perhaps Coran, who already had far too much experience with losing people and knew how to push it aside in favor of more immediate matters. While the rest of them shut down, Lance was there searching for a way out of the mess they’d gotten themselves into. He became a fixture in front of the monitors on the flight deck where Allura normally stood, working through the nights in order not to get caught by the others on the screens Keith hadn’t even noticed him learn to use with such proficiency.

 

Keith had seen him there more than once, on the nights where he couldn’t sleep no matter how hard he tried, grief and terror and anxiety clawing at his throat, and eventually would get up to just pace the halls of the castle until morning.

 

Lance never noticed him hovering outside the entrance to the flight deck, and Keith had never bothered to alert the other to his presence.

 

Perhaps he didn’t want Lance to turn the mothering hand to him that he had been using on the others to coax them into eating and sleeping, or perhaps he just didn’t know what to say.

 

He’s… not sure if he regrets that decision or not.

 

It hadn’t really clicked for him as to just how much the aftermath of Shiro’s disappearance had changed Lance until he caught the other in the training room one night, doing the same stupid thing Keith himself had snuck down there to do.

 

He had been used to catching Shiro working his way through a steady stream of training bots, or Shiro in turn catching him doing the same thing, but he hadn’t been prepared to find Lance perched in one of the holes in the walls of the training room that served as their versions of sniper’s nests, bags under his eyes and hair unkempt yet gaze perfectly steady as he took down training bot after training bot with his bayard, eventually switching to just a handheld blaster that served as the Altean equivalent of handguns, as far as Keith could tell, without even a pause.

 

It had been unnerving, to say the least. He’d never seen Lance so calm in the face of a fight before, the other usually taking even their training as an excuse to fuck around to the best of his considerable ability. Lance… just wasn’t a serious fighter, it was an inevitable part of his personality that lent him to background noise and assisting others, not… the kind of calm certainty Keith was used to seeing from Shiro or Allura in the face of an impending storm.

 

The whole thing had left a sour taste in his mouth, and he’d opted to try and forget about it, writing it off as a fever dream from the stress of the whole period of time.

 

These days, Keith can’t help but wonder sometimes if that is the Lance people see now, when they meet him. If the calm killer he’d seen hiding under the surface for only a moment is the face of an entire movement.

 

Do they even know the real Lance? The idiotic child who had flirted innocently with the princess and challenged Keith to pointless races down the castle’s corridors? The paladin who had hated hurting others and had just wanted to go home?

 

Or… Had the Lance he’d seen methodically work his way through star charts on Allura’s command deck and shoot down training bots without even a flinch or pause been the real Lance after all? Had the Lance they had known been the lie?

 

…Keith has never figured out which train of thought scares him more, though he does know those are the musings that drive him to the training room, beating his feelings into a bot until he can’t feel anything but his own heartbeat.

 

Only once had Keith seen someone else with Lance on those nights where the other flitted around the flight deck, commanding the screens with calm focus as he searched for… something.

 

It had been Hunk, of course, because really, Keith thinks, only Hunk knew perhaps even a piece of this side of Lance.

 

“You can’t keep doing this.” Hunk had said, voice low and entirely unaware of Keith’s presence in the background. “You’re about one second away from collapsing, Lance. You need to rest.”

 

“I can’t.” Lance had answered, with frustrating indifference. “I’m sorry Hunk, but I can’t. We don’t know what’s coming next, and the others are too preoccupied with finding Shiro to pay attention to the movements of the Empire.”

 

Hunk had made a frustrated noise, gesturing to the screens. “This isn’t even about the Empire. I may not be a language nut like you who picks up Altean writing this easily, but even I know enough to tell.”

 

“…We need to find Shiro, even if it’s just his body.” Lance sighed, turning away from Hunk. “And Allura and Keith and Pidge, they’re not in the right mindset to do that right now, let alone deal with considering the option that Shiro might be dead. So if finding proof of what happened to Shiro speeds up the healing process, or at least gets them to a place where they can focus on other things, so be it.” Lance had paused, running a hand through his hair and looking to Hunk tiredly. “I’m serious though, something is coming, I can just feel it. We’ve got a month, maybe two at best, while the Galrans regroup, if we’re lucky. Kolivan says—“

 

“You’ve been talking to Kolivan?”

 

Yes Hunk, I’ve been talking to Kolivan, because the dude is stuck on this ship with us and no one has been bothering to ask his opinion or even check he’s alright given he just lost two of his men! He’s the closest thing we have to an informed source on how the Empire might move now, so I’m damn well going to listen to him.”

 

“…Right.” Hunk had coughed awkwardly.

 

“Look. I know you’re just trying to look out for me, but I can handle myself. Take care of yourself first, and if you want to help, then keep an eye on Pidge so I can focus on making sure Keith or Allura don’t kill anyone during an argument.”

 

“But—“

 

“I’m fine. I’ve got Coran and Slav helping me figure out Shiro, and Kolivan helping me with tracking the Empire. I can handle this.”

 

Hunk had just sighed, and Keith had opted to slip away before either of the occupants of the room caught onto his presence.

 

He hadn’t slept that night, Lance’s words running through his head in an echoing mantra.

 

The frustrating thing, though, was that Lance had been right. They weren’t coping with Shiro’s disappearance, and the idea of focusing on anything else, let alone considering the possibility Shiro might need replacing, was unacceptable. Even after overhearing that conversation, Keith still couldn’t bring himself to suggest to Allura or the others that they might need to think about other options— He had felt like if he let himself say it, then it became a reality, and that… that was too much.

 

So he raged and wasted time in the training room taking his feelings out on the training bots and helped Allura scour their scanners for any sign of Shiro, and he willed himself to forget what he had seen of the calm, analytical Lance he’d caught glimpses of in the dead of night.

 

It took three weeks before Coran quietly interjected and suggested they might need to think about ways to continue to form Voltron in Shiro’s absence.

 

It took four for them to accept it.

 

Keith had told the others of Shiro’s decision that he should lead Voltron if something should happen to the other, doing his best to ignore Lance’s unimpressed stare from the corner of the room, and didn’t know whether to be relieved or frightened when Allura agreed without hesitation.

 

No one had objected once Allura gave her approval, even if Keith could feel the weight of Lance’s disapproval, Hunk’s uncertainty, Kolivan’s lack of impressment, clinging to him.

 

Lance had finally broke when Allura suggested that the easiest pilot replacement might be for her to take the Blue lion and for Lance to move to Red.

 

“Uh, no. Not going to happen.”

 

Keith had seen Allura look at Lance with irritation before, but the sheer depth of it on that occasion had him wincing. “And why not?”

 

“I can’t fly Red, and you certainly can’t fly Blue.”

 

It had been Pidge who spoke next, looking to Lance with annoyance as the lack of sleep she’d been getting got the better of her temper. “No one’s happy about this, Lance. Now’s not the time for your stupid inferiority complex.”

 

“It’s not that!” Lance had snapped, throwing his hands up. “Even I’m not that selfish, jeez! I just mean it won’t work. We’ve all felt the lions’ presences when forming Voltron. Red’s completely the opposite of Blue. I know I come off as impulsive sometimes but believe me it’s not going to be enough to meet Red in the middle. We’re just too different. Never mind the fact that Blue isn’t going to let Allura pilot her, they’re not even remotely compatible.”

 

“Excuse me?” Allura looked the angriest Keith had ever seen her, frustration boiling under her calm, regal visage.

 

“Princess, with all due respect, you don’t have the temperament for Blue. I know you’ve told us she’s the easiest lion to bond with,” Here Lance winced at his own words, and Keith did his best to ignore it, “but Blue is all about fluidity, trust and loyalty and all that bull. You’re too commanding for her. If anything, you’d be better off in Red.”

 

Allura snorted. “We will see about that. It is the lions’ decision, not yours.”

 

In the end, it hadn’t mattered. Lance had been right.

 

Red had reacted violently to the very idea of switching paladins, raising her particle barrier the minute they had entered the hangar, and Blue, despite her claimed easy-going nature, would not open for Allura, just as Lance had said.

 

Keith hadn’t even approached Black, taking one look at them and knowing just from the weight in his chest that the chances of them opening were remote, especially when it would, in this current state, leave Red without a paladin.

 

“I told you.” Lance muttered, and Allura had turned on him eyes blazing.

 

“What would you suggest then, Lance? We need Voltron.”

 

“We could put Kolivan—“

 

Allura snorted, and Lance sighed. “Okay, fine. We rotate Coran in for Blue, I think they’d match well enough for the time being, and…” He shifted. “I could try Black?”

 

Keith had blinked in surprise, staring at Lance in astonishment and wondering when the serious Lance of the night had crept into the day.

 

“Absolutely not.” Allura didn’t even hesitate in her answer. “There is no way Black would answer to you.”

 

He had expected Lance to wince, to shrink away, but instead he straightened up, glaring. “I know I’m not the best choice, I know I offer nothing special to the team, but—“ He huffed. “Coran told me that the old blue paladin was close to Zarkon, that they were able to communicate with the Black lion. Maybe that’ll be enough. We’ve got to try something, and this…” He gestured to the shut-off lions around them, “This isn’t working.”

 

Allura had paled, eyes narrowing. “You are not the former blue paladin, and things are not the same as they were. Do not confuse the past with the present. If the lions will not accept this arrangement, we will just have to work until they do.”

 

“The past seems to be enough for Blue to refuse you.” Lance had grumbled as Allura swept by, and Keith pretended not to notice her hands tighten into fists at his words.

 

There were some things about Voltron’s checkered past that he just… didn’t want to know.

 

(The next night, he caught Lance in the lion hangar, sitting in front of Black with an achingly solemn expression, speaking to the lion in quiet languages Keith didn’t recognize— At first, he had thought it was just Spanish, but eventually he noted the subtle shifts in the word sounds as he filtered through languages and they ran together, eventually settling on what Keith easily recognized as Japanese, perhaps trying to find a language the lion would prefer to listen to. Even now, he’s not sure if Lance was just talking to the Black lion, or with it. Of all the things from the past he tries not to think on, that memory is the one most pushed down, hidden in the depths of his guilt and his considerations on the what ifs.)

 

The thing was, and Keith had accumulated a lot of time to think back on that day, among others, Allura’s… their dismissal of Lance wasn’t routed in hatred or dislike. They just… hadn’t respected him enough, too used to the Lance of the day to allow themselves to see the Lance of the night when he offered himself to them. The stress, the overwhelming fear of their situation making Lance an easy scapegoat to take their frustrations out on, to ignore and push aside in favor of their own opinions.

 

That didn’t excuse their treatment of Lance, or make it right, but it was… context. Really, none of them had treated each other well during that time. Hunk and Coran were just as ignored as Lance, Kolivan and Slav treated as outsiders at best, Pidge picked fights with everyone who so much as looked at her, absorbed by insomnia and her desperation for clues to Shiro’s whereabouts, Allura coped by taking charge of the daily search with steely determination, and Keith… he shut himself away.

 

Ultimately, they never had time to decide on a new way of approaching reforming Voltron. Three days after Blue’s refusal to accept Allura, and Red’s blatant aggression to even considering anyone but Keith, a flurry of distress signals went off all across the board.

 

That was the first indication— Lotor may not have held the sheer power or respect of his generals that his father did, but he was infinitely more intelligent, and had no obsession with the Black lion to blind him.

 

He baited them out of hiding far too easily.

 

That became the month of running and taking cover, of playing guerilla warfare.

 

(Perhaps that was where Lance had learned how to do so, or perhaps he was the one who already knew, who nudged them quietly towards that mode of fighting for survival without their conscious notice.)

 

They responded to distress signals, of course, but without Voltron they simply didn’t have the firepower to go up a Galran fleet that suddenly seemed smarter and faster than ever before. This was a new enemy, and they were so busy trying to figure out how to successfully combat it that they never had the chance to sit down and actually discuss a feasible lion-swapping plan, let alone the extra time it would take to learn to reform Voltron.

 

And so the Black lion went empty.

 

Until just over two months after he’d vanished, Shiro appeared back in the cockpit, like he’d never left at all, shaken to the core and staring at them all like ghosts once they’d gotten the alert from the lion hangar and rushed down to find him.

 

Shiro… He wouldn’t talk about what happened. Not to any of them.

 

And, God, Keith tried, he tried so hard to get Shiro to talk to him, or to Allura, or to anyone. Pleaded with, begged, coddled the man who had been a part of his life for so long he was practically a brother into opening up to him, but he never got anywhere.

 

Maybe Shiro wanted to protect them, maybe he just couldn’t bring himself to talk about it.

 

Maybe it was both.

 

And so they wallowed in that silence, Slav filling up the quiet spaces on the flight deck with long ramblings about alternate realities that only Lance and Coran seemed to pay any attention to while Shiro stared at the star map projections with haunted eyes.

 

It didn’t occur to Keith until much, much later on that perhaps Slav had been trying to tell them all something with his inane chatter. That there was a reason no scanner could find Shiro, why he just seemed to disappear and then reappear right where he had been.

 

Regardless, whatever had happened to Shiro, wherever he had gone… He wouldn’t tell. He locked it away and asked them in his silence to pretend to forget those two months, taking charge of Voltron again without hesitation, as if nothing had happened.

 

They all have their individual coping mechanisms, Keith thinks, and for Shiro, it’s blocking out his trauma with a soldier’s focus on an immediate goal, a visible and logical obstacle to overcome, locking down his past and refusing to let it air unless he has no other option.

 

…Then again, Keith himself is much the same.

 

And just like that, they moved back into doing what they had always done since becoming paladins, just with a slightly different enemy to face.

 

And the Lance of the night, of quick analysis and sharp movements and steady hands, disappeared in the face of their old equilibrium returning.

 

(Or, at least, Keith stopped looking for him.)

 

There were only glimpses of that Lance again, after that, in the rare moments like that first time Lance questioned Shiro’s orders in the face of approaching the Blade of Marmora even before all this started, emerging on the few occasions where Lance steadfastly voiced his disagreement with a plan Shiro or Allura suggested, arguing against then with the same calm logic he had used when refusing the lion changes, and with the same amount of success in getting people to listen to him.

 

Keith wonders, sometimes, if perhaps this could have all been prevented even then, if he had gotten his head out of his ass and stopped taking Shiro’s word as law, had been willing to acknowledge Lance might have more going on under the surface than they initially thought. Perhaps, subconsciously, he’d enjoyed Shiro’s favor, basking in the approval of the one person who had been with him for much of his life, and had been reluctant to potentially lose that.

 

Over time, Lance seemed to give up, and his objections faded, and Keith lost sight of the Lance of the night.

 

Until the breaking point, until Earth.

 

 

xxx

 

 

It had started with an intel-gathering mission.

 

They had broken into a decent-sized transport depot, intent on gathering information on what was being moved where with the hopes that it would clue them into what Lotor’s plans were, both against them and the universe in general. Pidge had set herself up in the main control room of the shipping deck, Shiro standing guard, and himself, Hunk, and Lance had been sent out to find what Pidge aptly described as ‘important-looking computers’ within the greater complex of the depot itself, the three of them under strict warnings to stay on the comms and ‘not do anything stupid’.

 

(Perhaps, Keith thinks often, if they hadn’t opted to split up, things might have turned out different.)

 

They’d split levels of the depot between them, himself and Lance scrapping over who got stuck with the lower level and who got the top one, for some inane reason Keith can no longer remember.

 

Lance won and got the top floor, and it was… It was fine. Had been fine. A normal mission with a bit of lighthearted arguing and competition over the comms as to who could find the computers they were looking for first.

 

Until they were all in the rooms with the tech in question, portable chips that allowed Pidge’s program remote control of the systems, and then Lance’s voice rang out over the comms.

 

“There’s another monitor in here.”

 

“An additional screen setup?” Pidge’s voice had answered, only half paying attention.

 

“No, no. Like… A whole second system, completely removed from the one I plugged you into. Smaller. Galra laptop version.”

 

Keith and Pidge had groaned in time at Lance’s seemingly less-than-helpful terms of description, Keith already half tuning the other out as he focused on getting the chip Pidge had given him plugged into his own computer, Lance’s insistent chatter about ‘Galra laptops’ drowning to white noise.

 

“Lance.” Pidge had finally said, loud enough to cut through Keith’s distinct focus on the not-Lance things going on around him. “If it’s a smaller system, and doesn’t have an input plug like the main computer does, then it’s both useless to me right now and probably contains absolutely zero information. Please for crying out loud go back to the main computer and follow my instructions.”

 

“One sec—“ Over the comms, Lance cursed quietly. “This is a lot harder without Kolivan on call to translate the shit I don’t understand. Galran is hard to read. Why’d we have to drop him back with the Blade?”

 

Lance.” Shiro snapped, breaking his silence.

 

One second, Shiro!” After a moment, Lance’s triumphant whoop signaling that he’d most definitely ignored Pidge’s orders and somehow gotten his way into the smaller computer rung out over the comms, and Keith had rolled his eyes, turning back to his own work monitoring the tiny Pidge-sprite on the monitor on his computer as it went to work.

 

It had taken about three seconds before Pidge swore loudly, earning a scandalized gasp of her name from Shiro. “Abort mission, get out of there and back to the Green lion. It appears Lance in all his genius has triggered a system-wide alert by fucking around with that computer.”

 

Keith gave his confirmation, listening as Hunk did the same, and had unplugged Pidge’s chip and booked it for the control room, barely noticing at the time that Lance hadn’t done the same until Shiro called his name impatiently over the comms.

 

“H-Hold on.” Lance had answered. “If they had a security trigger on this, it must mean it’s important! Shit, I can’t read this.”

 

“Lance.” Keith had growled, losing his patience. “Fucking leave the computer.”

 

There was silence on Lance’s end aside from frantic typing and a couple unsteady, heavy breaths, until a crash followed by a yelp from Lance and the robotic voices of sentries rang through and Keith had turned on his heel, grumbling as he ran back to rescue his teammate.

 

After the mission, Keith hadn’t thought any more on it, just another occasion where Lance got distracted with some inane thing and ended up needing saving. It was hardly like it was a new occurrence, really. That was just what happened with missions sometimes, especially when involving Lance, who for every moment of luck seemed to have an equal number of times where he tripped right into danger.

 

Until the next morning, when debriefing on their mission and what Pidge had found, Lance brought up the computer he had been messing around with again, earning himself a bored look from Pidge as he rambled on nervously.

 

As much as Pidge and Lance had gotten along as easy friends, as far as Keith could tell, she’d never seemed to put much stock in his opinions when it came to anything involving technology— And while, admittedly, Lance had nearly blown up some Altean tech messing with it, and Pidge really didn’t value any of their opinions when it came to what she considered her field, perhaps that, too, had been a mistake.

 

“Lance.” She’d said firmly, pinching the bridge of her nose and dislodging her glasses with the movement. “With all due respect, if you’d just monitored my program properly and not tripped any alarms before I finished downloading the files, I’d have probably found whatever has you so worried.”

 

“But this computer had a security system! That proves there was something important on it!”

 

All the computers have security systems!” Pidge snapped, throwing her hands up. “That’s why we use my program designed to get around them!”

 

“Shiro.” Lance had turned, eyes begging. “I’m telling you, there was something big on that computer— I think they were schematics, something. A weapon.”

 

“A weapon?” That had caught Allura’s attention if nothing else, leaning forward and staring at Lance curiously.

 

“Yeah, like a— Like a death ray?”

 

“…A death ray.” And just as easily, Allura’s interest had been lost.

 

“I’m not lying! It was like… a huge ion cannon. It looked the freaking death star!”

 

“What is a death star?” Allura asked, and Shiro groaned pointedly.

 

“Lance this isn’t Star Wars and giant death rays aren’t real. I know Kolivan was teaching you a little Galran, but you said so yourself that you couldn’t really understand what you were looking at, and I’m more likely to side with Pidge and agree that it’s quite possible you never actually got into the system itself and just saw the security alerts.”

 

“But—“

 

“I promise we’ll keep an eye out in the future for something matching what you described.” Shiro said more patiently. “But I don’t think diverting all our focus on a weapon that may or may not even exist as a schematic is a good use of our time when there’s people that need our help now.”

 

Lance had sighed, nodding, and that, Keith had assumed at the time, had been the end of it.

 

At least, he’d thought as much until three nights later, when in a fit of pacing around the halls of the castle, the insomnia-driven habit never quite shaken even after Shiro had returned to them, he’d wandered across the strange version of Lance he’d thought died off after Shiro’s reappearance, standing in front of the monitors on the flight deck with deadly focus.

 

After that, Keith couldn’t help but wander back each night he felt too restless to sleep, far too fascinated with this enigma of Lance that only seemed to exist away from the team’s eyes not to.

 

(Maybe, just maybe, if he had intervened even then, had offered to help Lance, had approached Shiro, something might have changed.)

 

Just like before, he only caught Hunk there with Lance once.

 

“Don’t do this again.”

 

“I have to be sure I was wrong.” Lance told Hunk quietly.

On their next mission two weeks later to help a planet that sent out a distress signal, Lance gave Pidge a file for her system scanners if they ran into any Galra tech.

 

“I recreated the schematics based of what I remember. Just… see if you can find them.”

 

Pidge had complied, albeit hesitantly, and when her scans of the Galra ship they’d taken down turned up nothing even remotely close to Lance’s model, they moved on.

 

Keith had thought perhaps that would put a rest to it, for Lance, but four days later they got a new transmission from the Blade of Marmora with information from their spies suggesting the transport depot they had crashed had been moving some unidentified supplies on Lotor’s direct orders, and the next night Keith found Lance holed up in the training deck, shooting down bots with steel in his eyes.

 

He had looked beautiful, and he had looked terrifyingly unlike the Lance of the day, and, ultimately, Keith had fled.

 

A month after that initial mission, Allura caught Lance passed out against the base of her podium in the early morning, monitors still flickering idly, and it devolved into a screaming match that ended up dragging everyone into the argument, crossed arms and bared teeth looming over opposite sides of the flight deck.

 

“Lance, please, you quite clearly have not been getting enough sleep, and you should not be playing with the monitors in this state.”

 

“I’m fine!” Lance snapped, pushing Allura’s steadying hands away and glaring. “I don’t need babysitting, I just need you to believe me. I’m onto something here!” He gestured at the screens, and Allura squinted at the mess of words and diagrams across them.

 

“…I cannot read this. Is the program Pidge built not supposed to translate your language?”

 

“It does.” Pidge piped up. “Just not like… French.”

 

Keith had squinted at Lance in confusion. “Since when do you speak French?”

 

“I speak a lot of things! And it’s not—“ Lance looked to the monitor. “…It’s in French… And Spanish. That bottom part is in Spanish.”

 

“If you’re so tired you’re losing track of what language you’re writing in, it’s probably time to quit.” Keith mumbled, ignoring the dirty look Lance shot him.

 

“Lance I understand you are… upset, but this is not advisable.” Allura said smoothly. “Pidge has already checked your claims and we found no evidence of them. To keep pursuing it like this is foolish.”

 

“Lay off, Allura.” Lance growled, turning back to the screens. “I can do what I want.” Allura bristled at Lance’s dismissive tone, and Keith winced, sensing the impending storm.

 

“I will not have you messing around with the castle’s delicate systems without supervision just to feed your paranoia! Exhausting yourself on such a fruitless task, especially around potentially hazardous equipment, is ridiculous and risks placing you and your fellow paladins in danger!”

 

“I’m telling you there’s something here we’re missing!” Lance had shouted back, waving his arms pointedly at the monitor even as he swayed uncertainly on his feet in his obvious fatigue. “It’s not just me! The Blade had evidence Lotor was moving shit around on the down-low! He’s planning something.”

 

“The Blade has been well-proven in their ability to be wrong before.” Allura said coolly, and that had even Keith twitching, because, yes, he’d never really jumped onto the whole ‘galra heritage’ thing with much enthusiasm, but the Blade of Marmora was the only solid potential source of information on his mother that he had, and the fact that they were the good Galra was something he had always clung to.

 

Still clings to, if he’s being honest.

 

“Don’t dump Lance’s Star Wars mania on the Blade.” He had snarled unthinkingly, ignoring Lance’s hurt expression at his words.

 

“I’m not crazy and I’m not making this up!” Lance screeched with a frustration that had surprised them all. “How is what I’m suggesting even that far-fetched?! We know the Galra used something to destroy Altea, and we’ve seen them build pretty fucking big lasers and shit before, it’s not like there’s no evidence that they have the capabilities to build something able to target worlds! Do you really think Altea was so fucking important that Zarkon just one-and-done’d it and gave up on world-destroying power?! It’s not like it was the bloody center of all existence just because you lived there!”

 

The sound of Allura slapping Lance had been startlingly loud against the sudden silence, her expression taught and pained, close to tears, even as Lance had stared at her in open shock.

 

“Don’t you dare suggest I have forgotten what was done to my planet. I dismissed your theories because my father’s AI, which had his memories of the end of Altea, indicated that what Zarkon used was both unsustainable technology and relied on the magic of a race that died out thousands of years ago. It cannot be recreated, so do not speak of things you do not know.”

 

Allura had strode out of the room hurriedly, Shiro chasing after her only a moment later, and Coran, with a concerned glance at Lance, right behind him.

 

“That was harsh, dude.” Pidge’s voice had rung out softly.

 

Lance steadied himself, turning back to the monitors with barely a flinch. “It needed to be said. Allura… Allura was the one who told me once that I shouldn’t confuse the past with the present. Just because whatever exact method Zarkon used then couldn’t be recreated to Alfor’s knowledge doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Technology advances and changes, it’s about the willingness to do it, not the formula.”

 

“Lance…” Pidge sighed. “Look. I looked into your schematics notes and stuff, but I really can’t find anything. I’m not saying what you saw wasn’t there, but maybe you just got… confused. A large ion cannon doesn’t necessarily mean a… death ray.”

 

“What are you even so worried about?” Keith said after a pause. “If an alternative power for destroying worlds was available, don’t you think Zarkon would have used it before now?”

 

“…Lotor isn’t Zarkon.” Lance offered quietly. “He’s smarter, more goal-oriented. We’ve seen it in the way he attacks. I have read Alfor’s old notes on the destruction of Altea— I’m not a complete idiot, ya know. I don’t think there is a sustainable way to continuously use the power you’d need to take down a whole world, at least, not the kind of thing you could use more than once or twice without serious problems. For Zarkon, if regular Galra forces were enough to take down most planets, why bother?”

 

“So?” Hunk prompted gently.

 

“So it’s the kind of thing you’d reserve as an ultimatum, a final ace up your sleeve against your main opponent. A way to completely destroy them and everything they care about.”

 

“…Like Altea.”

 

“Yes, Pidge, like Altea.” Lance turned to them somberly, the Lance of the night, odd and thoughtful, hovering on the edges of his face. “Alfor was Voltron’s handler. He was Zarkon’s greatest enemy during their war. He destroyed Altea and its neighboring planets. If he was willing to do that, what would stop Lotor from doing the same now?”

 

“Earth.” Keith said as Lance’s fears, his nightly musings in front of the monitors, his unfocused yet deadly and silent practices against the bots suddenly clicked into place.

 

“It’s… That’s just not possible.” Pidge was quiet, but firm. “Shiro and my family were picked up on Kerberos, with no indication of where they’d originally come from. The Galra cruiser we saw outside Earth was only there because Shiro was, and all they know is that Shiro landed, found Blue, and left. How would they know Earth is our home planet or that there’s even any intelligent life there, especially if they haven’t approached Earth before now? It just… wouldn’t make sense.”

 

Lance hesitated. “You think?”

 

“I know. Now…” Pidge paused, fidgeting. “We should really go check on Allura.”

 

As Hunk and Pidge had filed out the door and down the hall, Lance had hesitated just before the doorway, and Keith turned, stuck in those eyes that looked like the specter of the other Lance who haunted him— And yet, with this, this anger and fear and seriousness Lance had just expressed, perhaps the two were not as separate as Keith had pretended.

 

“Nothing’s going to happen to Earth.” He had found himself saying. “I promise.”

 

Lance’s expression shattered, and he fell against Keith, forehead pressed to his shoulder and breath hot against his collarbone.

 

Thank you.”

 

And then he was gone, and Keith had been left only with the heat in his cheeks.

 

Weeks and months and years later, he had dwelled on that moment endlessly, on the warmth of Lance, of the unbridled trust he’d placed in him despite their arguments and Lance’s previously proclaimed rivalry, of the faith he held in Keith’s word regardless of all the previous times he’d fought against it.

 

And on how he’d failed that simple promise.

 

It happened a month and some weeks after.

 

 

xxx

 

 

“Left!” Shiro screamed, directing their course as Voltron as they dodged to avoid the blast from Haggar’s apparent latest robo-creation. The whole of Voltron shuddered as one as the beam nicked the edge of the Yellow lion, and a chorus of shouts rung out over the comms as they all jolted in their seats from the movement.

 

“C’mon, we have to take this thing down before it gets near the Earth!” Shiro chastised, his worry and faint panic echoing over the mental bond that held Voltron together. “Focus!”

 

“Shiro—“

 

“Pidge, shield!”

 

Another blast slammed into them against the shield, and they rocketed back, no grounding to stabilize themselves against in the open void of space just above Earth’s atmosphere.

 

At the time, Keith had experienced a moment of hysteria-driven humor at the thought of what the assholes down at the Garrison with their scanning technology and satellite feeds must make of all of this.

 

…There hadn’t been much to laugh at about the moment, after.

 

It had started as a signal on Pidge’s galra-tracking equipment, a clear beacon signifying movement of Lotor’s flagship and its entourage.

 

That had been the first clue that something was up— It had always been a back-and-forth game of the Galra forces finding new ways to evade the castle’s tracking technology, and Pidge in turn finding better ways to locate their ships, but tracking Lotor’s flagship was almost impossible, nor should the signal of their trackers have reached that far regardless.

 

The little purple dot of Lotor’s ship, blinking clearly on the portion of their maps depicting Earth’s solar system, and the steady movement of it towards their home planet, was the first clue that this was an obvious ploy.

 

Lotor was not his father, far more aligned to Haggar’s calculated way of thinking and acting, and he was not found by them unless he wanted to be.

 

He was drawing them out, just as he had before.

 

And yet they went. How could they not? It was Earth; it was their home. To not take Lotor’s bait was to risk the lives of everyone still on Earth, millions upon millions of people who had never even known of this war that held them in such danger, let alone asked for it.

 

They went, nerves jittery and hearts in their throats.

 

“I don’t like this.” Lance had whispered into the silence of the flight deck as Allura opened the wormhole bound for just outside Earth.

 

“None of us like this, Lance.” Keith had mumbled back, too tired and frustrated and goddamn scared for this.

 

“No, I mean I really don’t like this. Something bad is coming.” He was shaky and clammy, fiddling reflexively with his bayard even as he stood tall in his uniform, awaiting orders.

 

Keith ignored him. They all ignored him.

 

They’d arrived to find Lotor’s ships there, hanging in the balance just between the beginnings of Earth’s atmosphere and the cold reach of the stars, not moving, not attacking. Just… waiting.

 

Waiting for them.

 

The minute the castle had come through the wormhole, a creature had appeared from the cargo bay of Lotor’s ship with an unholy screech, the distinct feeling of wrongness surrounding its quintessence signaling it as a creation of Haggar, and without pause for thought they’d rushed to the lions, focus set on taking it down before it attacked the castle or, worse, headed for Earth.

 

The moment they’d engaged the robo-beast, Lotor’s ships had decided that was a fine time to open fire on the castle, and all hell broke loose, Earth’s presence below them more an afterthought, something to protect but not an immediate problem, than anything else.

 

Except… There had been plucks of anxiousness, of paranoia, along the fragile strings of the bond even as they focused on the fight. At the time, Keith had only barely registered them as Lance’s, their presence barely noticeable at first but growing stronger the longer they spent combating the robo-beast. A particularly loud blast from one of Lotor’s ships shooting past them had Lance’s anxiety yanking hurriedly at the bonds, and unthinkingly Keith had snarled back loudly.

 

“Fucking focus, Lance!”

 

“Something’s wrong!” Lance wailed back, even as he moved Voltron in time with the rest of them.

 

“You wanted to protect Earth from Lotor, didn’t you?” Pidge snapped over the comms. “Then let’s take this thing down!”

 

“That’s not it! Isn’t this too easy? Why was Lotor just… waiting?!”

 

“It’s Lotor.” Keith grumbled. “Why does he do anything?”

 

“We don’t have time to ponder Lotor’s intentions right now!” Shiro yelled, the utter stress of the situation coating his words. “Taking this thing down is our priority before it moves on to a different target, namely Earth! We’ll worry about Lotor later!”

 

“Guys…” Hunk’s hesitant voice echoed over the comms. “Guys, maybe—“

 

“On your right, Keith!” Pidge screeched, and Keith gritted his teeth and moved Red accordingly, Voltron’s arm cutting through the blast in front of them with its sword. All this background noise while trying to fight was distracting, giving him a headache. They needed to protect Earth, and to do that they needed to focus on the problem in front of them, not Lance’s—

 

“But the location!” Lance’s voice was frantic. “Lotor baited us here! To Earth!”

 

…Lance’s panicking.

 

“Not now, Lance!”

 

“But Shiro—“

 

“I said not now, Lance!”

 

“Paladins.” Allura’s words were strained over the comms. “We cannot hold up against all this firepower indefinitely, as it is we are on the defensive. Please take that thing out at your earliest convenience so that we may then focus on driving Lotor away from your planet.”

 

“Allura, listen—“

 

“Please Lance, I am a little…” He had more felt than heard the shudder of the castle behind them as it took another hit to the particle barrier. “Busy.”

 

“Shield!” Hunk had screamed, and they fell back into the fight.

 

It had felt like an eternity of dodging and counterstrikes, the robo-beast in question not the most difficult they had faced but deliberately quick, keeping them one step behind and flying blind without a clue as to what it was trying to do. It hadn’t been trying to get to Earth, Keith had realized much, much later. Its purpose had never been about Earth, it had been about distracting them, keeping them preoccupied until Lotor was ready to put on his show.

 

And put on a show he had. Keith had felt it, the change of power in the air, giving him goosebumps along his arms even that far away in his lion, the shift in the energy around them as it was drawn in, a humming noise slowly filling the air and growing louder as… something was brought in to Lotor’s ship.

 

And then the ship had shifted. He’d barely caught a glimpse of it out of the corner of his eye at first, too focused on the robo-beast that had conveniently shot itself into Voltron at that same moment, but he’d heard Lance’s screech over the comms, felt the tug of unbridled, overwhelming terror through the bond, and had slammed his head up to watch as Lotor’s flagship literally seemed to fold in on itself, parting down the middle and reshaping around what had looked like an enormous, misshapen ion cannon, lighting up with the Galra Empire’s signature color as the ship tilted and aimed the cannon directly at the Earth below them.

 

“What the fuck is that?” Pidge had screamed.

 

No one answered her. They all knew.

 

“No!” Lance’s shout had echoed through the comms as his pain rippled across the bonds, snapping the threads of Voltron loose as they broke apart, the Blue lion dodging past the still advancing robo-beast and the shots from the other ships meant to keep the castle in place. “No!

 

“Lance—“ Keith had gone to follow, and the robo-beast had slapped Red like a pesky fly and sent him spinning off his trajectory.

 

“Lance, stop!” It was Shiro who got to him first, shooting past the robo-beast while it was busy pushing back Keith, Pidge, and Hunk, chasing after the Blue lion with desperate focus. “You’ll get caught in the blast!”

 

The Black lion had slammed into Blue and knocked her away from Lotor’s ship and the subsequent blast radius just as the cannon went off, lighting up the void of space around them a sickly purple as a beam shot down to Earth and consumed it in perfect harmony with Lance’s echoing screams.

 

 

xxx

 

 

The aftermath was drenched in shocked horror and barely-formed grief, steeping in silence and almost potent disbelief.

 

Keith remembers having felt numb, motionless in his lion as his eyes lay trained on the Earth as it was consumed from its core outward, burning and crumbling with purple fire. He hadn’t needed a closer look to know, Red informing him of what her scanners showed with uncharacteristic quiet— The rapid destabilization of Earth’s surface, the winking lights of human life going out one by one in rapid formation in only a few minutes.

 

It had been done before it started, the moment the beam touched the Earth. They had not had in their power any way to stop its path, even if that would have done anything.

 

(Lance hadn’t been far off, he thinks. The consumption of the planet by the Galran light had looked far too much like the scenes of the movies he had watched once as a small child with his father a lifetime ago, unimpressed with the cheesy effects as the model planets crumpled in on themselves.)

 

Lotor’s ship had called a wormhole and vanished immediately after along with his fleet, his job there done, and the castle had delivered the final couple blasts to kill the robo-beast while the five of them laid frozen in their lions.

 

It hadn’t been about destroying Earth, Keith had realized as he watched Lotor flee, it had been about making them watch Earth die, to pay witness to the end of their kind as penance for their sins.

 

Those, Keith thinks, had been the longest moments of his life, watching as the Earth slowly, gracefully, was consumed, not in a rush but with an artful collapse, and knowing nothing he could do would stop that trajectory, even as his people actively lost their lives below him where he played observer, safe in his lion.

 

Lance did not stop screaming that whole time, still fighting to get to Earth despite the inevitable even as the Black lion literally grabbed Blue in their jaws to halt her tracks, dragging Lance and his lion forcefully back to the castle while the rest of them had followed shakily behind.

 

The moment they had gotten through the hangars, the castle opened a wormhole, pulling them far, far away from the remnants of Earth as it still continued to burn.

 

Perhaps Allura had wanted to spare them the sight of any more of the destruction of their home; perhaps she had just not wanted to watch it herself.

 

They had stumbled out of their lions after they exited the wormhole into somewhere in the vast dark, far away from any planets, burning or otherwise, stuttering on their feet as they walked shell-shocked across the hangar. Hunk had made it four steps out of Yellow before he fell to the ground retching, Pidge five before she collapsed in a puddle to the floor, wailing.

 

Shiro made it a full eight steady steps towards his teammates before he had fallen to his knees, curling in on himself and letting loose a scream like Keith had never heard from him before even once in the years they had known each other.

 

He had stayed standing, swaying on his feet and feeling so, so empty inside, about a minute away from dry heaving like Hunk, and eventually his eyes had fallen to Lance, who stood at the mouth of his lion, fists clenched and staring down at unseeing eyes.

 

(Keith wishes, sometimes, that he had gone to him in that moment, had grabbed onto Lance and just… held him, until the life came back to his eyes.)

 

It had felt like an eternity before the door from the hangar to the castle hallway had opened, Allura stumbling in with red-rimmed eyes and Coran a step behind her. She had looked at them hopelessly, shoulders shaking with grief and rage and sympathy, choking on air as she looked for words, and Keith had known she was just as lost as they were.

 

“…Paladins.” She had said at last, turning to each of them in turn with sorrow. “I… I am so, so sorry.

 

Keith had ducked his head, knowing she meant well, but not wanting to face her pity, and for a moment there was silence, before Lance’s voice had rung out in a vicious, yet deadly calm growl.

 

“You’re sorry?”

 

“I—“

 

“You’re sorry?!

 

“Lance…” Shiro’s voice warned quietly, weary and exhausted and broken.

 

“Our planet is dead! Everyone we know, have ever known, is gone! What the fuck good does an apology do?!” Lance crumpled in on himself, body shaking, and beyond the numbness, Keith’s heart had ached. “Gone… my friends, my cousins, my mother, my sisters. They’re all… gone.

 

Allura had taken an unsteady step forward, her eyes trained on Lance, expression open and helpless. “I cannot fathom— I am so… I did not foresee—“

 

“I warned you!” Lance screamed, flying up with a kind of fire in his eyes Keith had never known him before to contain, even in his most serious moments in the dead of night. In that moment, he had seen in Lance what he imagined Allura had seen when she asked him to fly Red. “I warned all of you, and you didn’t listen!”

 

Lance.” Shiro had called again, stumbling to his feet in a disjointed way that had brought Keith rushing to his side, catching his arm. “Lance, there was no proof…”

 

“Shut up, Shiro!” Lance’s voice was a screaming sob. “I had my word; I had the schematics! That should have been proof enough!” Lance’s lip had curled then, a snarl across his face. “It was never about quiznacking proof! It was because I said it! If Keith or Pidge had come back with the same lack of proof, you would have at least looked harder! Fuck, if you had found it, it never would have even been a discussion!”

 

“Lance…” Pidge had mumbled shakily. “This… This isn’t the time.”

 

“Lance, please…” Allura stumbled hesitantly towards Lance, reaching out. “I know the grief you feel right now—“

 

She had cut off with a startled yelp as Lance had surged, arm swinging up at her, and her gaze fell trained on the gun that came to rest between her eyes. Lance’s bayard, Keith had realized, had changed, the normally bubbly, round, almost playful sniper rifle replaced with a sleek, smooth handgun-type blaster.

 

“My whole life is gone.” Lance had said, his voice raw and eyes empty even as the tears finally spilled over, chest heaving for breath as he stared imploringly at Allura. “Because of this—“ A hand waved at the hangar around them. “Because of you. So give me one good reason I shouldn’t shoot you right now.”

 

Keith had tensed, going to lunge forward between Lance and Allura, and Shiro had grabbed his arm, shaking his head as his eyes darted desperately between Lance and Allura.

 

“Lance.” It was Coran who went to him, in the end, stepping calmly through the fray and between Lance and Allura, placing a gentle hand on his wrist. “Lance, put the bayard down, my boy. Put the bayard down. I know you are hurting, but this will not… This will not bring them back, lad.” Lance’s eyes had darted to Coran, and the Altean had smiled tiredly at him, a matching grief in his face. “I am sorry, but it won’t.”

 

And Lance, tears falling over his cheeks, had collapsed, the gun falling from his hand and de-transforming as it hit the floor, slumping into Coran’s chest as Allura stumbled back and away, eyes trained wide on the scene in front of her, Lance’s screaming sobs echoing in the air around them.

 

 

xxx

 

 

The days after Earth’s destruction had hung heavy in grieving silence, a shroud falling over the castle as they tried to come to terms with what, all too suddenly, had happened.

 

Keith had found the numbness turned to solely to anger, the hollow grief he’d felt in their last hopeless situation, when Shiro had vanished, disappearing in the face of rage, the Red lion’s despair at having not been able to protect her paladin’s planet crawling under his skin as he demolished training bots with only his hands.

 

Pidge had grieved— Crying and crying and crying until she was short of breath and choking on her own tears, avoiding sleep for as long as possible with shaky hands and bloodshot eyes until she passed out on random chairs and sofas and woke up from nightmares screaming for her mother.

 

Shiro had spent his time with Allura, curled up on the couches of the large room Lance had once, a long time ago, cheerfully dubbed the ‘rec room’, speaking with her in quiet voices with haunted eyes and unkempt hair, at a loss on how to properly grieve for a planet that was both his home and a stranger to him, so far removed from him after his time with the Galra.

 

Hunk had wandered, a constant exhaustion dragging at his frame, and more than once Keith had found him in the kitchen in the middle of the night, sitting quietly in a chair at the table with a mug of the Altean equivalent of tea clutched between his hands.

 

“I can’t sleep.” He’d told Keith quietly the first time he found him there. “Whenever I close my eyes, I hear my family’s screams.” Hunk had shuddered, eyes closing somberly. “Sometimes… I think I can smell my home burning, heh…” He’d choked, his desperate, tiny laugh turning to a sob, and Keith had leaned against his side, offering his silent support in the warmth of one human body resting next to another.

 

After that, whenever Keith had found Hunk sitting alone in the kitchens at night, he’d found room to push aside his grieving anger, Red’s rage, to sit with Hunk in quiet companionship, reveling in the reminder that this other human was still here, at least.

 

Lance… Lance became a specter, appearing only to take food during meals and then leave, and the single reassurance he was in his room and alive when not visually present being the furious screaming and crashes of thrown furniture echoing from under the door.

 

Looking back, perhaps Keith should have seen that as a clue to what was really happening, but after Lance’s explosion at Allura, at them, in the immediate aftermath of losing Earth, they thought in his obvious grief he deserved his space, if that was what he desired.

 

…God, how Keith wishes they hadn’t. Maybe they could have saved what there was left of their Lance.

 

Two weeks after the Earth died, Keith woke up in the early morning with a wrench of pain low in his gut, the feeling of something missing echoing throughout his core.

 

It had taken a few moments of half-asleep mental scrambling before he found it, the echoing ache throughout his soul, catching on the severed threads of the lion bond between himself and Red and the others and their own lions where something had been cut loose with a jagged edge, sloppy and fast and raw.

 

Something important.

 

He had jumped shakily out of bed, tripping into the hallway and meeting Pidge and Hunk’s eyes as they stumbled out of their rooms, the same phantom pain written across their expressions. Down the hall, loud footsteps came, Shiro sprinting around the corner with Allura and Coran trailing half-asleep behind him, and he breathed a sigh of relief when he saw them.

 

“Thank god. I don’t know why, but I thought—“

 

“Shiro, something’s wrong.” Pidge had interjected quietly, clutching at her stomach.

 

Shiro frowned, eyes flickering to her and then to Keith and Hunk, before widening.

 

“…Where’s Lance?”

 

They had found Lance’s room empty, after flocking around his door while Coran carefully overrode the automatic lock, crowding into the barren space devoid of both Lance and any sign of his existence there, down to the missing face creams on the bathroom counter. The whole place was dim, scrupulously clean as if no one had ever lived there, despite Keith knowing Lance had been in the room just the night before.

 

“He’s… gone?” Pidge had asked in shaky confusion, while Allura had taken a steadying breath and strode out the room to the flight deck, the rest of them trailing behind her nervously as she pulled up her monitors and tapped a few symbols.

 

“…So is the Blue lion. It is not in its hangar.”

 

“Maybe he just went out for a bit?” Hunk’s voice had been pleadingly nervous.

 

“Hunk his room is empty.” Shiro had looked to Coran, wide-eyed. “He can’t survive out there just on his own, right? He’d have to come back.”

 

Coran had frowned, considering, turning to the monitors and fiddling with them checking inventory scans of the castle. “…Perhaps he can.”

 

“What does that mean?” Keith had growled out, desperate and aching and still frantically clinging to the fragile broken pieces of the lion bond, searching for what was missing, praying that they were all wrong.

 

“It appears a small but not inconsequential portion of the castle’s nourishment supply has been removed to a portable container, enough to last one person a few weeks, at the very least, and the scanners show some basic repair tools missing from the maintenance hangars.” Coran’s eyes had widened, ears twitching downwards. “Oh quiznak.”

 

What?

 

“Lance had been asking me a little while ago about how to modify Altean weapons, before… Er, before Lotor’s attack on your planet, so I hadn’t thought anything of it, but he did have a couple more questions about them the other day…”

 

“Weapons?” Shiro’s face shuttered, arms crossing. “The bayards don’t need modifications, they’re custom-shaped to us.”

 

“The bayards would, yes, but…” Allura sighed out, turning. “Come with me.”

 

She had led them to the floor above their regular accommodations, the air there stale and dry, the whole thing smelling faintly dusty, and, hesitantly, she had gone to a door, hand hovering over the scanner as if she expected to be burned by it.

 

“Allura, what is this?” Hunk had asked, nervously fiddling with his hands.

 

“…The former paladins’ living hall. I fear if Lance had gone looking for weaponry, the Blue lion might have indicated to him where to seek it.”

 

She pressed a hand to the door, and they had all filed in carefully behind her, eyes wide as they took in the cheerful room painted blue with soft, plushy furniture dotted around. Allura ignored it all, heading straight to a wall panel and sliding it open, an alcove behind it barren aside from a few empty wall mounts. Unlike the dusty hall, there were clear signs of life here, fingerprints along the door to the alcove and around the wall mounts. Allura turned back to them, face grim.

 

“The former Blue paladin was… a very practical warrior who did not like to rely only on her bayard. She kept an assortment of weapons, mainly Altean and Galran standard blasters, here in her room.”

 

“…Great.” Pidge’s voice was flat. “So Lance’s room is empty, his lion is gone, and he apparently raided his predecessor’s backup gun supply. I just want to know where the hell he is.”

 

“Not coming back.” Hunk intoned monotonously, gesturing to the bed in the room with an achingly tired expression. Following his hand, Keith’s gaze landed on the blue paladin armor resting in a neat pile on the bed, and he had felt his heart curl in on itself.

 

“…He knew we’d come here?” He’d murmured unthinkingly, lost and still reeling from the realization of just what those broken strings of the bond meant.

 

“Lance is smarter than he comes off as.” Hunk sighed lowly. “He works around contingencies, plans based on what he observes about others. He knew Allura would put two and two together.”

 

Shiro had taken a hesitant step forward, snagging a thin piece of paper resting on top of the chest piece and staring down at it for a moment before handing it shakily to Hunk.

 

“It’s addressed to you.”

 

Hunk had opened it with trembling hands, staring down at the sparse words as his expression slowly shattered, dropping the note and backing away. “I can’t… I’m sorry, I can’t…” He’d fled out the room, and Keith had watched him go with wide eyes.

 

It was only much later that Keith had realized Hunk had already known what had happened, from the moment he woke up to the shattered bond and Lance’s empty room, not needing any time to piece it together like the rest of them, the only one privileged enough to the glances of the angry, haunting, serious Lance of the night to know he was capable of this.

 

Keith had picked up the fluttering note as it touched the ground, unable to stop himself from opening it and reading the words scrawled across it in Lance’s small, disjointed handwriting.

 

Hunk,

 

Please forgive me for leaving you alone, buddy.

 

…I just… I can’t just sit idly by and watch another planet die because of Voltron.

 

I’m afraid of what I might do if I stay here too long.

 

Blue’s agreed to come with me, she doesn’t want to lose another paladin to this war.

 

I’m not sorry.

 

…Take care of yourself, alright?

 

Keith had closed his eyes, fighting down the sick feeling in his stomach at Lance’s words, and carefully handed the note to Shiro, swaying in place and listening idly to the shuffling as Lance’s parting words to his best friend were passed around like an open diary.

 

“…How can he be so selfish?” Allura had whispered out into the stale air of the former blue paladin’s space.

 

For the first time since finding Lance’s empty room Keith’s anger had surged, and he’d finally found a place to direct it, turning to Allura with bared teeth.

 

“He is not selfish, we drove him to this!”

 

“Keith—“

 

“Shut it, Shiro!” He’d snapped. “This whole mess was preventable— Lance, Earth, all of it. We let it happen.”

 

Striding from the room, he’d made it to the end of the hall before Red’s anger overtook him and he punched the wall in an impromptu fit of fury, her pain at losing her sister easily overriding the aching in his hand from the impact.

 

Lance and Blue hadn’t just left, they had severed their bond with Voltron, the place where Lance’s joy, his anxiety, his hopes normally sat coiled in the threads of the lion bond cut loose in a jagged hole that left something aching and empty in Keith’s chest.

 

They had made sure they could not be found, no matter how much the rest of them may have desired to.

 

…Three months later, they heard their first whispers on wayward planets they stopped at of the Godlike warrior accompanied by a living ship much like their own that slaughtered all Galra in his path, silently championing a rebellion against the Galra rule from the ground up.

 

 

xxx

 

 

The day after Allura announces their plans to wormhole over to Alrexa in search of these elusive stones, Keith finds himself sitting in his designated spot on the flight deck, slumped in his chair and glaring a hole into the back of Allura’s head as she goes about opening a wormhole to the planet in question.

 

“This is still a bad idea!” He calls, just to be an asshole, and savors Allura’s frustrated twitch in front of him.

 

He knows he’s being petty, but he’s too goddamn tired to care. He doesn’t want to do this, at all. Lance had left, and though it had hurt Keith more than he would ever admit to, that was still Lance’s choice— He hadn’t wanted to be found by them, he’d made that very clear.

 

Plus… Well. He’s not sure if he can face Lance, can stand the idea of seeing someone who was once his friend, who he once, albeit grudgingly, cared deeply about… still cares about, look at him with hate in his eyes.

 

When he’d come to the flight deck in the morning to find Allura and Shiro preparing for departure, Coran watching wearily with clear hesitance about their decision in his eyes, Keith had raged, yelling and waving his arms as they ignored him, until he’d given up and eventually plodded over to his seat, followed not long after by Pidge and Hunk.

 

He glances over at Hunk once it becomes clear Allura is not going to dignify his newesy commentary with a response either, and raises an eyebrow, earning a shrug from the other. After a moment, chewing his lip in contemplation, he gets up and walks over to Hunk’s station, leaning over the back of his chair and resting his chin on the top of the other’s head wearily, closing his eyes.

 

“Are you alright?” He asks quietly, cracking open his good eye just slightly to meet Shiro’s gaze as he stares at them impassively.

 

“I don’t know.” Hunk murmurs back. “It’s… I want to see him, but…”

 

“It’s been two years.” Keith finishes, ignoring the aching in his chest where the hole in the lion bond still sparks painfully. Two whole years without Lance, only clues and second-hand information to go off of to even know if he’s alive. Two years without Voltron, without a complete lion bond or Lance’s laughter reverberating in the halls or his warmth when he graced them with his presence.

 

Losing Earth had been hard, Keith thinks, but for him, losing Lance had been harder. He’d had nothing to love, back on Earth, beyond its existence as a concept. No family to return to, no real home waiting for him. This, Voltron, had been the best part of his entire life, and Lance had been a significant piece of that.

 

For a long time right after, it hadn’t seemed real, all of them hanging in the balance of waiting, as if expecting Lance to return.

 

Keith doesn’t know what they thought Lance would do, maybe kick a few Galran asses to get his vengeance quest out of his system and then come back. Maybe.

 

But… Definitely not… this.

 

None of them could have predicted what Lance would become.

 

Now, it was hard not to go too long without hearing news of the Blue Lion Resistance, Lance’s fame easily rivaling that of Shiro’s title as the Champion, but for a long time they’d had little to go off of, barely a clue of what he was up to.

 

They’d gotten most of their information on Lance from the Blade, which apparently had held no qualms about trading information and holding a conciliatory alliance with him, despite their long-term secretive approach to fighting the Empire before their interactions with Voltron.

 

It was likely because of the position Lance held, Allura had told them only once, voice quiet and eyes distant. The original blue paladin had been Galran, the Blade of Marmora formed in her honor, as her legacy for fighting against Zarkon, and that alone would have been enough for them to respect Lance, the successor to the first Galran who had sought to end Zarkon’s reign of terror.

 

While Kolivan had been willing to confirm Lance’s survival to them, he had never offered them his location, and over time, when they came to worlds and found the residents there look at them with disdain upon recognition of the castle, heard the whispers of Princess Allura of Altea, world killer and Takashi Shirogane, Champion of destruction, they had finally come to grips with just how little Lance wanted to be found by them.

 

“Two years, seven months, and six days.” Hunk replies shortly, startling Keith out of his musings. He frowns, poking the side of Hunk’s head, and the other shrugs, the moment jolting Keith where he lies slumped over the top of him. “I didn’t mean to count, at first. It just… happened.” Hunk shifts awkwardly. “…His birthday was last month.”

 

Keith sighs out, a long, low breath, trying to picture a twenty-two year old Lance against his memories of Lance at nineteen and a few months, coming up blank. He wants to believe he’ll look the same, but… Well… He opens his eyes properly, taking in the room and its inhabitants. They’ve all changed. Two and a half years when fighting the Galra was a fucking long time, especially when they’d already been doing it for nearly another two years before Lance had left— They weren’t the same people they were, and they weren’t the ones who’d possibly semi-accidentally started the largest mass resistance against the Galra regime in modern intergalactic history.

 

“Paladins.” Allura calls to them, reference neutral but clearly directed at him. “Please take your seats and prepare for the wormhole jump, we will be emerging above Alrexa shortly.”

 

Groaning, Keith takes a deep breath and pushes himself off his resting place, sharing one last half concerned, half bitter look with Hunk before trudging back to his station, throwing himself lazily on his chair and waiting for the inevitable.

 

Idly, he wonders if Lance will just shoot them out of the air the minute he sees the castle.

 

…He wonders if they would deserve that.

 

 

xxx

 

 

 

Barely moments after exiting the wormhole, Keith only just managing to scrape a quick glance on their monitors of the rocky, desolate looking planet below them, the transmissions feed lights up on Allura’s screens, signaling a feed coming from the planet below them. He watches as Allura and Shiro exchange hesitant glances, before Allura presses a couple symbols and a feminine, military-like voice rings out through the flight deck.

 

“This is Alrexan ground control hailing the unidentified non-Empire craft in Alrexan airspace. Please state your identity and means of business or depart.”

 

Allura frowns, looking to Shiro, who stands up and lifts a finger to his lips, breathing in and then speaking in the overly-calm tone he uses when trying to establish control of a situation. “This is the Castle of Lions, requesting permission to land.”

 

There is a pause. “Please hold.” The voice says hesitantly, before the line goes dead.

 

“…Oh God.” Hunk groans out, slumping over in his chair and covering his face, barely hiding the edges of his relieved grin that peak out. “He taught them human sales call lingo.”

 

“What is—“ Allura goes to ask, before the line reconnects and the voice speaks again.

 

“Castle of Lions, you are not cleared for landing. Please depart immediately or face enhanced removal techniques.”

 

Hunk gulps audibly, face pale, and Allura’s face closes off, eyes narrowing. “I am sorry, but we are in need of Alrexan power stones. We must land.” She shuts off the communication feed without hesitation, raising the particle barrier and beginning the descent of the castle, and Hunk lets out a piercing whine.

 

“We’re gonna die. I’m going to be blown up by alien missiles stockpiled by my former childhood best friend and we’re going to die.”

 

“Lance won’t actually blow us up, Hunk.” Pidge murmurs from their seat, their words at odds with the way they cling to the armrests with a white-knuckled grasp. “Stop panicking.”

 

Panicking, though, is inevitable, Keith thinks, stilling as the castle lowers itself through the atmosphere and pierces the Alrexan sky, the ground below becoming more and more visible as they creep closer. What if Lance didn’t just blow them out of the air? What if he let them land and then shot them all on sight?

 

Through the anxiety, a single shot of excitement shoots through him.

 

Lance. They’re going to see Lance.

 

Red rumbles in the back of his mind, hesitant about the situation but delighted at the thought of seeing her sister again, Blue’s connection with the other lions forcibly cut off all this time, leaving her as much in the dark on Blue’s condition as they had been on Lance’s.

 

After several tense moments, there’s the jolting shudder of the ship signaling they’ve landed, and Allura relaxes from where she stood rigidly at her podium, sighing out in relief and turning to the rest of them. “Well then. Shall we?”

 

They follow her out to the main ‘ground level’ entrance of the castle, hesitant steps trailing her own steady, seemingly-confident movements as anxiety prickles in the air, present in the military set of Shiro’s shoulders, Hunk’s nervously twisting hands, Pidge’s shuddery steps, the coils of fearhopesorrow dancing along the lion bond.

 

Keith finds himself checking his own weapons once, twice, materializing and dematerializing his bayard in a repetitive pattern before reaching behind him and checking his dagger is still strapped to the back of his belt. He’d modified the suit to hold the dagger after Shiro had gone missing, all that time ago, finding it a comfort to have on his person even during battles, one he hadn’t grown out of even after Shiro had come back to them.

 

He wonders if they shouldn’t have worn the armor, if wearing their regular clothes would have made them seem like less of a threat.

 

…Then again, on the off-chance Lance might just try to shoot them he’ll take his chances with the armor.

 

The castle doors part, and his eyes widen as he takes in the scene in front of them, the rocky Alrexan landscape marred by the presence of a ring of what can best be described as alien forms of trucks, looking like something out of those Mad Max movies his father had liked, surrounding the castle entrance, a hoard of various aliens gathered around or on them with blasters pointed straight at them.

 

He takes one look at the setup, shares a glance with Hunk and Pidge, and raises his hands in the air, ignoring the dirty look Allura gives him even as Shiro, hesitantly, does the same.

 

“We are not here to fight.” Allura calls out firmly, standing her ground, and from the ring of rebels a wave of murmuring stirs, before settling as a lithe figure hops out of the bed of the largest truck, the aliens parting for them as they walk to the forefront, meeting Allura’s gaze head-on with fierce, arresting blue eyes.

 

“You landed your ship on a planet you did not have permission to enter, against express warnings not to. Try again.”

 

Keith’s heart lurches, the broken tangles of the bond aching, and his breath catches in his throat, stolen by the presence of the painfully familiar, yet oh-so-foreign person in front of him.

 

Lance.

 

Lance blinks, eyes flickering to Keith at his call, and then looks away, face impassive.

 

He’s so… Keith drinks in the sight of him, lost and confused and desperately searching for the pieces of the person he once reluctantly called friend in this stranger.

 

He’s taller, Keith thinks, by at least a couple inches, yet just as long-limbed and willowy as he had always been, all sharp angles and lean lines. A form-fitting black bodysuit fitted with thin, almost unnoticeable pieces of black armor hugs his body, reminding Keith most of the combat suit he had worn when he faced the trials of Marmora, minus the purple lights and symbols, this one more streamlined and indistinguishable in its plain black coloring, lacking markings or accessories, and overtop he wears a black-grey trench coat, unbuttoned and hanging loose around his silhouette, the wide collar framing his long neck and slanted face.

 

The funny haircut with its short bangs and long sides around the ears that Keith remembers is gone, Lance’s hair falling in a long brown wave around his shoulders, curling over the collar and flying loose in the thin wind of the Alrexan air, the ever so slight natural curl of it tangling the strands in thin twists. It hangs in an elegant curve over the left side of his face, obscuring it entirely from view and hugging the edge of his nose, a few stray strands drifting across it onto his right cheek.

 

Lance has scars, he realizes with a painful lurch in his gut at the thought of how he must have gotten them— A thin one curving up his right cheek to just under his eye and a second, larger one, running up the left side of his face in a larger, more distinct mark, before disappearing under the fall of hair.

 

The single eye he can see is the same though, the familiar dark blue that speaks of oceans and rivers and currents, deep and fathomless and fascinating… and looking to Keith and the others as if they are a particularly disgusting piece of gum under his shoe.

 

Lance is scowling at them, looking to Allura for answers, and as she stumbles over herself, tripping on her words, his annoyed expression only widens, until he sighs and grabs a gun off the holster on his hip, lazily pointing it at Allura in a strangely fitting mirror of when the Earth first died. “I’ll ask again. Why are you really here? And speak carefully, my people are a little trigger-happy.”

 

“Wait!” Hunk yelps from next to Keith, darting in front of Allura and holding out his hands. “Just wait. Please.”

 

Lance tenses, withdrawing his gun the moment Hunk steps into aim, and barks an order to the aliens around them, their guns lowering automatically, eyes trained on him.

 

“…Thank you.” Hunk sighs out, looking about two seconds from collapsing even as he turns imploringly to Lance. “We— Look, we know we aren’t welcome here, but the stones that control the ship’s command system cracked, and we can only replace them with others from this planet. We didn’t have a choice.”

 

Lance frowns, tilting his head, and Keith watches, mouth dry, as the wave of hair in front of his face shifts with him, catching his eyes and demanding their attention for inexplicable reasons. He thinks maybe the long hair is just too weird compared to his memories of Lance’s visage to really compute.

 

“…Is this true?” Lance asks after a moment, looking to Coran and studiously ignoring the rest of them, apparently willing to take the older Altean’s word as truth over the rest of theirs.

 

“Yes.” Coran says cautiously, nodding to Lance. “It is.”

 

Lance’s face scrunches, clearly considering, and Keith watches him thumb the trigger on his pistol where it hangs loosely in his hand by his side. After a long moment, he turns, waving a dismissive hand and heading back towards the circle of rebels, his voice ringing out in a commanding tone that is entirely new to Keith.

 

“I want a constant armed perimeter around the castle! If any weapon systems come online or any crafts attempt to leave it, you are instructed to fire on it immediately! The paladins of Voltron and their handlers are to be treated as prisoners of war, I want guns on them at all times, and any weaponry on them removed!”

 

“Sir!” A chorus of voices rings out, and in an instant a number of the rebels surge forward, crowding them and pointing blasters at their heads while others step forward calmly and begin patting them down, seeking out any hidden weapons. Keith hisses, jumping back as one reaches for his bayard, and looks to Lance’s retreating figure helplessly.

 

“Wait—“ Allura yelps, dodging the alien attempting to check her for weapons and reaching for Lance. “Wait, Lance!”

 

He pauses, looking over his shoulder to Allura with disdain. “Lance McClain died with the Earth. You speak here to the General of the Blue Lion Resistance, nothing more.”

 

 

xxx

 

 

 

The ride back to the Resistance base camp is a jolting, unpleasant affair, the six of them all crowded into the back of one truck together with cuffs strapped tightly onto their wrists, the composition of the cuffs seemingly even built to contain Alteans as Allura wiggles her hands and glares down at them. The guard on them is Galran, a fact that clearly leaves Allura antsy, with the brand on his face marking him as a former slave of the gladiator ring, punishment for a traitor to the Empire.

 

“What’s your name?” Keith finds himself asking, unable to help himself, and winces at the unimpressed look the guard gives him.

 

“What’s it to you?”

 

“I’m half-Galra.” Keith mumbles, shrugging helplessly. “Meeting other Galra who fight against Lotor is kind of a pleasant rarity.”

 

Honestly, while he’d been intellectually aware of their existence, this is the first Galran rebel he’s seen who is not a part of the Blade of Marmora, and that enough is fascinating to him.

 

The rebel raises an eyebrow, and then looks away, staring out at the Alrexan landscape as it flies by. “My name is Zenex. The General rescued me and my fellow prisoners from a transport ship eighteen of your Earthen months ago, and since then I have served as a sergeant in the Blue Lion Resistance.”

 

“What is La— Your general like?” Pidge asks quietly.

 

Zenex blinks, glancing down at Pidge in surprise. “The General… The General believes he can save everyone, and he might just be crazy enough to do it. He is hope for many who believed the universe had abandoned them.” The truck lurches to a stop, and Keith peers curiously over the side, catching glimpses of an array of tents and ships scattered around them. Shouldering his gun, Zenex hops off the back of the truck onto the rock below and gestures out, a grim smile on his face. “Welcome to the Alrexan base camp, home of the Resistance.”

 

They are paraded through the camp like trophies, rebels stopping in their tracks to stare openly, whispers echoing through the space around them. It leaves Keith with an anxious feeling low in his stomach, watching all the faces surrounding them. There are easily hundreds of aliens here, in a disparity of species, and this is just the immediate base camp, not accounting for those on a mission or elsewhere— He knew Lance’s operation was no small feat, but goddamn, there’s more races here than in the Voltron alliance.

 

More Galra too, he notes with interest, eyes falling over familiar spots of purple fur and catlike ears in the crowd. Given Allura’s hesitations, they’d never really sought out Galran rebels beyond the Blade of Marmora, and Keith is honestly surprised to see so many here in Lance’s Resistance. Surely, after Earth, he would have held the same hatred for the Galra as a whole as Allura had?

 

…Then again, they had known that Lance had been working on-and-off with the Blade after leaving Voltron.

 

“Holy shit, they weren’t kidding.” He hears a familiar voice mutter, and wheels around to see a recognizable pair of aliens sitting on the rim of a small ship, staring down at them.

 

“…Rolo?” Keith says, unbelieving. “Nyma?!

 

“Heya.” Rolo answers cheerfully.

 

“…What are you doing here?” Hunk asks from beside Keith, gaping up at the two aliens.

 

“Oh, well, y’know.” Rolo shrugs. “Had nothing better to do.”

 

“Never thought I’d be taking orders from the kid I strapped to a tree.” Nyma adds on, looking amused. “But stranger things have happened.”

 

“The last time we saw you, you tried to sell Lance’s lion to the Galra.” Shiro bites out, breaking his silence to glare at them fiercely.

 

“And now we sell shit for the Resistance.” Rolo shrugs. “Guess we saw the light.”

 

“I— But—“ Keith falls over his own words, too startled by the presences of two people so familiar to him to think. It had been so easy to think of the Resistance as just a faceless mass of random people, and yet here they were, two actual aliens who had interacted with Voltron, and chosen to side with Lance’s rebels instead.

 

“That’s enough, come on.” Zenex interrupts, nudging them forward. “The General has instructed me to take you to central command.”

 

Zenex ushers them forward, and they follow, still staring at the forms of Rolo and Nyma as they all too casually wave them goodbye.

 

“This is too weird…” Pidge murmurs, and Keith finds himself silently agreeing.

 

He doesn’t know what he expected, but not… this. It’s like something out of a movie, a gathered force of rebels against an oppressive Empire with no great champions or magical princesses to lead them, fighting with what they have only and being willing to give up their own lives to do it.

 

…Well, that’s not quite right. They have Blue; they have Lance. Somehow.

 

Somehow Lance commands all this, without question or hesitation.

 

While objectively he had known it was possible, the Lance of the nights of analysis and planning in front of the monitors and the Lance that had spoken mournfully to the Black lion years ago clinging to his mind whenever he thought of the Blue Lion Resistance, it’s still a shock.

 

It’s easy to acknowledge the Resistance as a powerful weapon against Lotor that has been keeping his attention off of them, off of Voltron. It’s harder to reconcile that with the fact that Lance, the boy who had demanded Keith call him rival and had flirted with every pretty face he saw, is leading it.

 

The central command turns out to be a large, military-looking tent, and when they are led inside it is to dusty tables full of maps and wide boards with coordinates scrawled across them, Lance’s own handwriting predominant among them.

 

Lance is standing in the middle of it, speaking lowly with a young alien girl with light orange skin and pointe ears who looks at him imploringly, clearly requesting something. Her eyes catch on them when they enter, and her nose scrunches, grimacing. “You were serious.” She turns back to Lance, hands curling into fists. “You cannot negotiate with them! They are monsters!”

 

“I don’t negotiate with anyone, Ruya, you know me better than that.” Lance admonishes. “But we do not turn our backs on anyone, even those who are not our allies.”

 

“And you also say our enemies shall meet no mercy but our guns!” The girl… Ruya, says, lifting her chin defiantly, and Lance sighs.

 

“I need to speak with our… guests.” He pauses. “Alone.” The girl huffs, turning and storming out of the tent, and Lance watches her go with unreadable eyes. After a moment, he looks to them, gesturing to the chairs spread out in front of his own. “Sit. You can stay, Zenex. I appreciate your judgment in these matters.”

 

“Sir.” Zenex says, saluting and crossing the room to stand behind Lance’s shoulder, watching Keith and the others carefully as they take their seats awkwardly, the pull of the cuffs tugging on their wrists in a way that is not painful, but certainly annoying.

 

“Apologies for Ruya.” Lance offers, settling in the chair across from them. “She’s… idealistic. Her parents were killed in a Galra attack last year.”

 

Allura’s face falls, and she nods, looking down.

 

“…It’s good to see you.” Shiro offers hesitantly, and Keith can’t help but stare, because really? That was the best opening Shiro could come up with?

 

Lance’s lip curls. “I’m not here to play happy families. Explain to me the problems with the castle or get the quiznak off my base camp.”

 

It’s an odd statement to suddenly fill Keith with subtle joy, but he can’t help it. Until now, this grown-up version of Lance has seemed so foreign, formal and untouchable. Hearing him use casual language and swear grumpily when he doesn’t get his way is like a glimpse into the Lance he remembers, a reassurance that he’s not completely gone. He finds himself staring at Lance, trying to memorize this new image, as Pidge hurriedly breaks into chatter, rambling at length about the problems with the castle. It’s technical jargon Keith doesn’t care to put too much effort into understanding, but Lance seems to follow along well enough, eyes set on Pidge as she waves her hands and describes what they’re looking for.

 

“Why should I help you?” He finally says at length, once Pidge has fallen silent. “You are not our allies, the Resistance has never stood with Voltron. Our only tie is that we have a common enemy.”

 

“Are you serious?!” Pidge explodes. “You selfish son of a bitch! You turned your back on us and even when we come crawling to you, you’re willing to turn us away?! You weren’t the only one who lost something, you fucking asshole!” She’s crying, Keith realizes, great, shuddery breaths echoing from her small frame as she glares at Lance, bitterness and betrayal rolling off her tongue.

 

He had wondered how long it would take before Pidge imploded like this, and he’s honestly surprised she lasted this long. Losing Lance had been hard on her, especially right after losing her mother, the one family member she’d still known was safe and alive, and she’d seen his leaving as his abandoning them, feeling as if the person she had come to consider something like a sibling had betrayed her.

 

Lance merely raises an eyebrow, looking down at Pidge impassively, though Keith doesn’t miss the ever-so-slight twitch of his hand, a sign he’s not quite as composed and emotionless as he may portray. “I—“

 

“Lance.” Hunk cuts in, looking to the man who was once his best friend imploringly. “You owe me, Lance, for leaving me alone. You owe me.”

 

There’s a pause, and then Lance closes his eyes, sighing out. “Alright, for you, Hunk. But—“ Lance’s eyes are blazing when he turns to Allura, fiery anger boiling within. “Do not take this as an alliance or a peace treaty. I may be willing to help you with this on Hunk’s request, and we may not be enemies, but that does not make us friends.”

 

Allura purses her lips, clearly unhappy, but nods.

 

Lance smiles bitterly in response, clicks his tongue, and accepts a small tablet Zenex offers him, tapping a couple commands on it. With a hiss, their cuffs disconnect, breaking into two thick metal bracelets still secured around their wrists, but allowing them independent movement of their arms, and Keith gratefully takes the opportunity to rub some life back into his hands.

 

“Your cuffs are remotely controlled, and have tracking monitors installed within them. They were built off plans we nicked from Lotor, and were designed with Altean magic in mind, so no you won’t be able to break out of them or shape shift them off. Any attempts to mess with or remove them will be considered termination of our agreement, understand?”

 

“Yes, sir.” Keith mutters sarcastically.

 

Lance stands up and walks over to a table nearby, sorting through and picking up a map, bringing it back to them and, after a moment of hesitation, offering it to Coran. “Alrexan stones of the size you’re looking for are practically nonexistent now. We only have ever found shards when we first set up camp here, and we sold them off in exchange for information pretty quickly. To get your hands on what you want, it’s going to take days of digging. Luckily for you, the mines are pretty close to where you decided to up and park the castle.”

 

Coran accepts the map slowly, and next to him Shiro sighs out in relief. “…Thank you.”

 

“Don’t thank me. I’m not doing this for you.” Lance says bluntly, resuming his place in front of them. “I won’t stop you from doing what you need to search out the stones, but the lions must remain in the castle. No flying, no defenses tests, no anything. This is supposed to be a safe place for refugees. We’ve kept Alrexa off the Galra Empire’s maps so far, and I’m not putting them in danger with your bullshit.”

 

“Seriously—“ Pidge starts, and Shiro slaps a hand over her mouth, smiling with fake enthusiasm up at Lance and nudging Allura’s side until she does the same.

 

“Of course. We’re very grateful for your hospitality.”

 

Lance wrinkles his nose, looking decidedly uncomfortable. “Don’t suck up to me, it’s weird.” He looks to Zenex, who nods. “Zenex will arrange your transportation back to the castle. If you want to return to base camp, you’ll be required to have a guard with you. I’ll be in constant communication with those on the castle’s perimeter,” He taps an earring Keith hadn’t noticed until now, bright blue and the design reminiscent of Allura’s own communicator earrings, “So try to behave.”

 

They take that as a dismissal, turning to leave, and as the others exit out the tent, Zenex a step behind them, Keith hesitates. Turning back, he meets Lance’s gaze as he walks up to him, staring at Keith questioningly. They’re the same height, Keith realizes with a lurch in his chest, Lance’s extra inches combated by the sudden growth spurt Keith had experienced when more of his recessive Galra traits had seemed to ‘come online’ with greater exposure to quintessence over the years.

 

“What is it Keith?” Lance asks, eyes studying him.

 

“How are you so… calm about this?” He finds himself asking, curiosity and fascination at this unfamiliar version of Lance overriding his caution. “I thought you’d be furious with us.”

 

Lance’s mouth curls into a sharp grin, and he lifts a hand into view, Keith’s gaze catching on the trembling fingers. “See that? That’s anger, the kind that makes it tempting to punch someone in the face or kick the crap out of ‘em. Don’t mistake my calm for acceptance, Kogane.”

 

“So…”

 

“I’m not you, Keith.” Lance says lightly, tucking his hand back away into the pocket of his coat. “Anger is a drive for you, a power to push you forward. It’s why you make a good pilot for Red, but there’s a reason I am Blue’s.” He closes his eyes, breathing out slowly. “Allowing myself to be controlled by my anger helps no one in this situation. What I said is true— We’re not allies, but we’re not enemies either. I wouldn’t choose to deliberately physically hurt any of you, no matter what you may think of me. Don’t get me wrong, I wish to hell you hadn’t come here, but I won’t send you back out there to die now that you’re already here.”

 

Keith blinks. “So what was all that, a test?”

 

“Let’s call it a one-sided negotiation.” Lance says, opening his eyes, dark blue staring at Keith. “I’ve gotten good at getting my way. Shiro and Allura don’t control me anymore. They don’t get demands; they get my permission. Now…” He opens the tent flap, gesturing out. “Go get on the damn truck so I can get back to work.”

 

 

xxx

 

 

Dinner at the castle that evening is a tense, silent affair, all of them pointedly avoiding eye contact as they stare down at their food awkwardly, the same subject on everyone’s minds, yet no one being willing to be the one to address it.

 

Pidge breaks first, face scrunching up as she glares down fiercely at the table, hand clenched in a fist around her spoon. “I hate this.”

 

“It’s not ideal, but—“ Shiro begins, and Keith grits his teeth, tamping down on his anger. Once upon a time, Shiro’s calm in the face of panic was something he aspired to and relied on. Now, when it comes to matters of Lance, it just leaves a bad taste in his mouth— Façade or not, seeing Shiro so easily turn off his emotions involving this is frustrating beyond belief. At least with Lance, he acknowledged his calm as a shield over his true thoughts, a ploy in his favor. Keith know that, even if he cornered Shiro alone and asked him what he was really thinking, he wouldn’t get a straight response.

 

It’s more about Shiro protecting himself, he thinks, than about protecting Keith.

 

“He’s not Lance!” Pidge yells, throwing her hands up, a spare blob of food goo tumbling off the end of her spoon with the motion. “That is not Lance. He’s too… different.”

 

Hunk frowns where he sits next to Keith, pushing his food goo around on his plate. “Losing Earth changed all of us.”

 

“Not like that! He’s… He’s not even the same person!”

 

“I admit the change was… startling.” Allura mumbles from her seat at the head of the table. “However, this is not a social visit, we will just have to make do the best we can.”

 

Keith snorts, and Allura raises a disapproving eyebrow at him. “Do you have something you wish to say, Keith?”

 

“Yeah, don’t lie? We could have figured out another option, you chose this despite knowing half of us didn’t agree to it. What’d you expect was going to happen? That we’d show up and he’d come running back into our arms and it’d all be fine? It’s been nearly three years. Lance has long since proved he doesn’t need us. We’re damn lucky he’s giving us this much leeway, if I had been in his position I sure as hell wouldn’t have.”

 

“He’s still Lance.” Hunk says tiredly, glancing over wearily at Keith and then to the others. “The fact that he liked to lighten the atmosphere doesn’t negate his ability to be serious. Lance is one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, even if it’s not mechanical or technology centered intelligence. He’s social, analytical, and people-smart. Heck, the Garrison had him on scholarship to go into their data analysis and diplomacy programs, he was the one that decided to try and be a pilot on top of that. Given all of that, him running something like this isn’t that impossible to believe.”

 

Shiro blinks. “Lance was on scholarship?”

 

“Yes?” Hunk gapes. “Shiro, dude, he and I were both on scholarship. No way we could have afforded it otherwise.”

 

“I never knew.” Shiro mumbles, looking abashed.

 

“Of course you didn’t!” Hunk cries, looking about two seconds from leaning across the table and shaking Shiro, frustration evident in his posture. “Because you never asked! You can’t judge Lance based on who he is now when you never even took the time to get to know him before!”

 

“He doesn’t even want us to use his name, Hunk.” Pidge says, suddenly looking far too small and young in her chair, like the practical child she had been when they first left Earth. “How can he hate us that much?”

 

Hunk’s face falls, and Keith cuts in firmly. “He doesn’t hate us. He doesn’t like us, but if he hated us that badly we wouldn’t be here.”

 

“I…” Hunk’s voice is low, pitched in sorrow. “I don’t think he’s abandoned his name because he hates us. I think…” He glances over, looking helplessly at Keith, who knows with creeping certainty just from the other’s expression as to where he’s going with this. “I think he hates himself.”

 

 

xxx

 

 

They end up splitting up who does what surrounding the castle’s repairs. Since the only ones who really understand what they’re doing in regarding to find the stones are Hunk, Pidge, and Coran, they readily agree to the task, and Shiro and Allura opt to stay on board the castle to work on other minor repairs and discuss their next move against the Galra.

 

Technically, Keith is also on repairs and strategy duty, but even after all these years he still doesn’t understand much of how the castle works, that being much more Pidge and Hunk’s area, and the idea of sitting on the flight deck for hours on end with only Allura and Shiro for company sounds like a painfully grueling experience. He’d never really taken to the ‘leader’ thing after Shiro had disappeared, and his relationship with Allura, while infinitely better than it was when his heritage first came to light, has always been a little strained, especially after Lance left. Strategy as a whole is just… not his thing. He’s much more prone to the ‘go with your gut’ way of fighting, and while it’s worked out for him for the most part, he’s grown up enough now to admit he should not be the one calling the shots, just the one to take them.

 

He lasts one day just restricting himself to training, working alternately with his bayard and his Marmora sword through different levels of training bots, before boredom and the itching need to go outside wins out. The idea of spending what could be a whole week and then some cooped up in the castle without even being able to fly is daunting, and with his severe lack of interest in helping with the Alrexan stone hunting, knowing how generally unhelpful with the task he’d be, combined with the fact he knows Lance is just outside the castle, within touching distance for the first time in two and a half years, it’s a quickly losing battle in trying to convince himself to stay inside and ‘behave’ like a good little paladin.

 

The morning of day three of being on Alrexa, Keith slips past Allura and Shiro and storms out the main doors of the castle to the perimeter Lance had ordered his people maintain around the castle, demanding someone drive him to the fucking base camp. A quick radio call later, and Keith is stuck on the back of a truck with an androgynous-looking alien that studiously ignores his questions. Zenex had been downright sociable on the ride yesterday in comparison.

 

Ironically, it’s Zenex of all people who meets him at the edge of the base camp, as Keith is apparently for all intents and purposes an item to be passed between guards, and he stares unimpressed at the Galran as he shares a few polite words with the guard, who suddenly seems much less averse to talking.

 

“Is this gonna be like a recurring thing if I keep coming back here?” He asks idly, noting that there seem to be less rebels around today as he is led through the camp. “Did Lance make you our in-house babysitter or something?”

 

“Actually I volunteered to come get you.” Zenex answers, sounding vaguely amused as he glances down at Keith, who blinks up at him in surprise.

 

“Wait, really?”

 

Zenex tilts his head in acknowledgement, ears twitching lazily. “You are not the only one who takes curiosity with your own species. I have never met a half-Galra before. You are very different from what I would expect.”

 

Keith wrinkles his nose, considering. Admittedly, he doesn’t hold a plethora of Galran traits, but he’s certainly less human looking than when he left Earth, for a multitude of reasons. “I’m… surprised Lance, er… the General has so many Galra as a part of his force, given it was the Empire who destroyed our planet. Princess Allura took a long time to even come to terms with my heritage and potentially working with Galra after what happened to Altea.”

 

Zenex nods, tilting his head back and observing the Alrexan sky above them as they walk through the base camp. “I thought that myself for a long time before being rescued by the Resistance. Even when they first brought me here, I thought perhaps I would be executed for my crime of being Galra, but instead the General offered me a purpose.” He looks to Keith, the first genuine smile any of the rebels have offered him stretching across his face. “It was… surprising. The General told me his mother’s family came from a country of Earth that knew oppression in its history, that he has heard of what it means to grow up in fear.” Zenex’s face turns sober. “It is not easy to turn against those that have ruled you your whole life, especially when they are your own kind. The General holds nothing but respect for those of us who have chosen to do so, and nothing but hope for those that cannot fight back. The Galra as a whole are ruled by fear and ignorance as much as many parts of the universe, and while the General would see the Empire toppled, citizens and foot soldiers just doing their day’s work will meet open arms, should they be willing to accept an equal place in society amongst their fellow beings of the universe.”

 

“…Huh.” Keith says, trying his best to absorb all that. It’s such a… simple, forgiving approach to taking down the Empire. He could never imagine Allura saying the same things, even in paraphrase from someone else. To her, the compliance of the Galra race as a whole was as much a crime as the actions of Zarkon’s high commanders.

 

“We are here.” Zenex says gently, coming to a stop, and Keith blinks, stumbling to a halt and looking to him.

 

“Here where?”

 

“I assumed you would want to see the General.” Zenex offers, raising a brow. “He is sparring with some new recruits to the Resistance.” He gestures in front of them, and Keith turns, finally spotting the clearly set-apart area of level ground where a few tables of weapons and empty benches litter the edges. Lance is in the middle, a small group of aliens circling around him, and Keith finds his throat runs dry at the sight.

 

Lance has shed the trench coat he was wearing yesterday, the thing tossed haphazardly on a bench nearby, and without its presence the black bodysuit from yesterday obscures nothing of the lines of his body, fabric and thin armor hugging lean hips and long legs and thin wrists. He hasn’t pulled his hair up, because he’s clearly an idiot who hasn’t realized that’s a hazard while fighting, and it falls in a wave in front of him, still swooping over his face, as he dodges around the strikes of the other fighters.

 

He moves like a monster, fighting with a speed and grace Keith has never seen from him before. Hand-to-hand had never been Lance’s strong suit, his skills much more suited to holing up somewhere on high ground and taking enemies out one by one with his bayard, but clearly in the last few years, that has changed. One of the fighters swings a blunted wooden training sword at him, and Lance ducks under it without hesitation, grabbing onto the rebel’s arm and using his momentum from the swing to throw him over his shoulder, then turning and grabbing a pistol on his belt to fire two rounds directly at the chests of the two remaining fighters. Keith tenses at the sound, and Zenex chuckles from next to him as the two fighters simply stop and hunch over to catch their breath as soon as the bullets bounce off their armor harmlessly.

 

“High-density foam bullets. The General based them off something he called Nerf guns. They’re heavy enough to shoot correctly, but harmless. Worst they’ll do is leave a bruise if you’re not wearing armor.” Zenex grins as Lance helps the third fighter to his feet, speaking quietly to him in a low voice Keith can’t discern the words to. “They’re lucky he goes easy on them during practice.”

 

Keith gapes. “That was going easy?”

 

Zenex snorts. “You should see him fight in a real battle.”

 

I have. Keith wants to say, but bites his tongue. This Lance who fights artfully and up close and personal is a Lance he has not learned yet. What shape does his bayard take now, he wonders— They’d never found it on the ship or with Lance’s abandoned armor, so they know he took that with him at least.

 

Lance sends the fighters off with easy smiles and pats on the back that are so familiar it hurts to watch, and when Zenex calls he looks up cheerfully until his eyes fall on Keith and his expression centers out, the smile dropping to something more neutral, unreadable.

 

He’s missed Lance’s smiles, he realizes. There’s nothing quite like them in their blinding honesty and joy when Lance is truly happy, and even if he cannot have them directed at him, at least seeing them again is better than nothing.

 

“Zenex.” Lance says as he joins them, thumbs hooked into the holsters at his hips. “…Keith.”

 

“…Hi.”

 

“What are you doing here?” Lance asks, tone businesslike and blunt. “Do you need something?”

 

“No, um…” He flushes, suddenly feeling entirely too embarrassed under Lance’s indiscernible gaze. “I was just… bored.”

 

“…Bored.”

 

“I— yeah.”

 

Lance raises an eyebrow, and Keith scowls, cursing the other for his apparent new skill for keeping a straight face. “Can I train with you?” He finally blurts out in a rush, wincing as Lance frowns, a small line forming in the crease of his brow.

 

“This is practice for my people only.”

 

“What’s wrong?” He goads unthinkingly, falling back into the old habit of push and pull with Lance that is as old as it is instinctual. “Afraid to get your ass kicked?”

 

Lance’s eyes gleam at the clear challenge, and out of the corner of his eye Keith catches Zenex pinching his brow, clearly having already sensed the inevitable outcome of this interaction.

 

But hey, if this is the only way Keith will get to experience this version of Lance’s fighting, then its good enough for him.

 

“…Get in the fucking ring, mullet.”

 

“I don’t even have a mullet anymore.” He points out, deliberately reaching a hand up to brush along the short hairs at the back of his neck.

 

“Just get in the ring!”

 

Lance tosses him a practice sword as soon as he’s in the fighting circle, catching it with one hand easily and watching as Lance scoops up a staff from the ground, swinging it around in his hands before pointing it at Keith. “I’ll go easy on you.” Keith scoffs, going to remind Lance that he was the one who always had to go easy on Lance when it came to hand-to-hand in the past, and then promptly shuts his mouth and dives as Lance’s staff makes an arc right where his head had previously been.

 

Well then.

 

“So…” He starts up casually, dodging Lance’s swings and parrying accordingly. It’s not overly difficult to keep up without requiring his full attention, and Keith isn’t sure if that speaks to how much Lance may or may not be ‘going easy’ on him, but he can’t find it in himself to complain… yet. “Are you sure you’re not overly furious with all of us?”

 

“Seriously?” Lance pants out, aiming a jab to Keith’s chest that is easily dulled by his paladin armor, but does send him stumbling back a couple feet. “Now you want to talk about it?”

 

“Hey, I’m just saying!” He continues, swiping down Lance’s next swing with his sword. “If I was you and we’d shown up on your doorstep after two and a half years completely uninvited, I’d be pretty tempted to punch someone too!”

 

“Shut up, Keith.” Lance grumbles, dropping low and aiming his staff at Keith’s shins with a wide swipe, forcing him to focus on jumping over it.

 

“Like… Hell sometimes I want to punch Shiro these days and I’m not even the one who left Voltron.” He goes on the offensive, getting in Lance’s space and pressing his advantage as he pushes Lance’s staff back closer to his body with the practice sword. “And it’s not like you don’t have it in you. I was there when you threatened to shoot Allura, after Earth. You looked like you were about two seconds from doing it, too.”

 

“I said shut up, Keith!” Lance screeches, swinging his staff in a much more vicious swipe than before, slamming it into Keith’s shoulder, and he silently congratulates himself for all of about point two seconds before Lance’s foot comes out of nowhere and connects firmly with his face, hearing something crunch and the warm feel of blood on his skin before he hits the ground.

 

He regains consciousness to find Lance peering down worriedly at him, and his first thought is that Lance looks really nice like this, all concerned and caring instead of glaring at him like he’s the scum of the earth or a particularly annoying nuisance. “Found it.” He croaks unthinkingly, brain still set on the tangent it was before he took a boot to the face, and Lance’s fussing expression turns into a glare.

 

“You idiot, were you trying to get me to hurt you?”

 

“Call it curiosity.” He says, shrugging as best he can with his back flat against the semi-smooth rock beneath them. “I wanted to see what you fight like when you’re mad.”

 

Lance sighs, bringing a hand to his forehead and smoothing the hair back gently, leaving Keith’s scalp tingling from the cool touch of his fingers, before Lance pulls his hand back quickly as if Keith might burn him. “You’re so stupid.”

 

“Mmm…” He hums in agreement, drinking in Lance’s face, eyes tracing over the unfamiliar scars, cataloguing the minor scratches that he hadn’t been able to notice the other day from further away. “…’M dizzy.”

 

“You probably have a concussion.” Lance murmurs, squinting as he peers into Keith’s eyes, no doubt checking for dilated pupils. “Your nose is definitely broken, at least. You’re going to need a couple hours in the healing pods.” He looks up, and Keith mourns the loss of Lance’s sole attention. “Zenex, can you take him back to the Castle? Explain to Coran, the older Altean, what happened.”

 

Keith hears Zenex offer an affirmative, and then suddenly there are arms sweeping him up off the ground, lifting him bridal style until his head is level with Lance’s. Fuck, Zenex is tall, why the hell didn’t he get more of that Galran height?

 

“Can I come back tomorrow?” He murmurs unthinkingly, eyes still glued to Lance’s face, tracing the edges of the scar hidden by his hair with fascination.

 

Lance’s mouth quirks upward, and his expression softens ever so slightly. “I’m on a mission tomorrow.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“But—“ Lance takes a deep breath, seemingly steeling himself against… something. “But I should be back by tomorrow evening, if you want to come by then.”

 

Keith grins, and suddenly the aching of his nose and the ringing in his ears is absolutely, unequivocally worth it. “Deal.”

 

 

xxx

 

 

The next morning, Keith peers out the castle entrance as he watches a small gathering of ships vanish into the Alrexan sky, the Blue lion noticeably missing from the group. It’s not entirely surprising— What little intel they’d managed to pick up on the Resistance over the years had indicated that Lance didn’t fly Blue exclusively, preferring only to take her out on larger missions in order to minimize chances of being spotted, given the distinctiveness of a giant mechanical space cat, or of her being captured by Galran forces if a mission ever went wrong.

 

Would Blue come back to them if, God forbid, something were to happen to Lance? Or would she find a successor in the Resistance?

 

He knows what Allura would prefer, at least. She’d been furious at him when he’d first emerged from the cryopods after a brief stint to patch up his nose and heal the concussion, but she’d quickly changed her tune when he’d admitted to Lance inviting him back tomorrow.

 

Keith had known she wanted Blue back, wanted a chance to secure the reformation of Voltron, but it still hadn’t been pleasant to have her pull him aside and lecture him on the importance of trying to convince Lance to relinquish Blue back to them, if he would not return to fly with Voltron himself, as if Lance’s willingness to apparently withstand Keith’s company for a few hours was just another bargaining chip.

 

While he knows Allura is only doing what she is because she believes that it is right, that Voltron is needed as a whole, singular form to fight the Empire, no matter what individual sacrifices that may entail, the idea of turning that on Lance after the other has allowed him this much makes him feel sick. It may only be permission to come back and see him again, but to Keith it feels like the beginnings of a second chance with Lance, to repair the bond they’d once had, and he doesn’t know if he himself is selfless enough to give that up in the name of trying to reform Voltron.

 

He wants when it comes to Lance, wants in a way he can’t explain or quantify, but just knows it’s there. That want had been there long before, back on the first strains of camaraderie and, later, the intriguing glimpses of the side of Lance that haunted the nights after Shiro’s disappearance, and after all this time not even knowing for absolute certain if Lance was alive and well, that want has only grown stronger.

 

It’s terrifying, to want something like this, when Keith is used to being the kind of person who is so used to what little he has that he wants for nothing more, but yet he is drawn to Lance, like a moth to the flame, just as the first time he saw Lance in front of the monitors while the castle slept and could not stop himself from wandering back.

 

And the fact this Lance is so new and different, yet achingly the same, only adds fuel to the fire that relentlessly commands his attention.

 

When evening falls, and Keith spots the faint lights of the returning ships, he races out of the castle, ignoring Shiro’s reprimanding gaze on his back, hopping into the idling truck on the perimeter and smirking at the same silent guard from yesterday.

 

“Am I growing on you?”

 

They roll their eyes, but knock on the wall, signaling the driver, and Keith cannot fight the grin from his face as they drive along the winding road of smoothed-down rock back to the base camp.

 

He’s faintly surprised when they arrive and there’s no Zenex waiting to collect him, or any guard for that matter, but it quickly becomes clear as to why not as he notices the camp busy securing the ships that have landed and helping off a few injured aliens, and he feels his stomach plummet. Injuries aren’t good, no matter how minor; injuries mean something went wrong.

 

“Lance.” He whispers, pushing through the crowd even as the guard yelps and yells his name as he pulls away from them, too intent on looking for the increasingly recognizable jumble of long hair. “Lance!”

 

It’s Zenex who he spots first, the Galran’s eyes widening as he shoves his way over to him. “Keith.”

 

“Zenex.” He pants, half tripping over a rock and catching himself on the other’s offered arm gratefully. “Where’s Lance?”

 

Zenex frowns, going to answer, and is cut off as a final ship touches down and the entry runway slams down, Nyma staggering out with a limp figure, their arm slung over her shoulders to keep them propped up and a mess of brown hair hanging in front of their face. There’s blood on Nyma, Keith realizes, and it’s not her own. “Need some medical attention over here!” She yells, and Keith’s breath stutters as things click into place.

 

Lance. Lance is hurt.

 

It’s Zenex who moves first, swooping in and picking Lance up gently from Nyma’s shaky support, turning and pushing his way through the crowd, which parts quickly as the rebels recognize who is being carried, with Nyma an anxious step behind him. Keith blinks once, gaze caught on the splatter of blood on the ship’s runway, and then turns and runs after them, heart beating rapidly.

 

The medical tent is a mass of noise and movement, rebels dressed in various alien approximates of doctor’s scrubs bustling to and fro with bandages and other supplies in their arms. There’s only a single healing pod, he notes, even in his panic, set up in the corner with someone else already inside. He stumbles, desperately searching for Lance, and feels a swoop of relief s Nyma calls his name from a bedside.

 

Lance is awake, Keith notes as he tries to semi-calmly make his way over as not to slam into any moving doctors, but he seems out of it, eyes half-lidded and woozy as Nyma and Zenex wrestle the top of his bodysuit down, exposing a long, thin gash up Lance’s side that is slowly oozing blood. It’s less the cut, though, that leaves Keith’s heart hurting, the edges of the lion bond alight with hollow pain along the gap where Lance once was, but the litany of healed scars that line Lance’s body, a testament to dozens of other injuries he experienced that Keith wasn’t there to protect him from.

 

He barely notices when Nyma takes pity on him and guides him into a seat, still stuck on Lance’s markings, his blood.

 

“You’re an idiot.” Nyma says, taking the seat next to Keith and glaring at Lance. “You could have been killed.”

 

Lance grins lazily. “Ah, don’t weep for me, gorgeous. I’m not dead yet.”

 

“Gross.” Nyma murmurs, smirking at Lance’s yelp of pain as the doctor who has appeared by the bedside wipes down the gash on his side with what looks like disinfectant, and Keith winces in sympathy.

 

“Going to need stitches.” Zenex murmurs, peering carefully at the wound.

 

“Oh, fuck no.” Lance says, the pain of the disinfectant seemingly having woken him up from his dazed state. “You lot always fuss around then and keep me from working, always yelling about me tearing my stitches.”

 

“Because the last two times you have torn them, oh great General of ours.” Nyma says, looking far too amused.

 

Lance groans, and hesitantly Keith speaks, looking to Zenex because he knows Lance won’t be on board with this. “We have cryopods in the castle…”

 

Zenex looks considering, but it’s Lance who speaks first, sitting up and hissing in pain to glare at Keith. “Nope! Not happening!”

 

“But—“

 

“I’m not setting foot in the castle and I’m definitely not accepting any favors from Allura, end of story. It’s a minor scratch, a few stitches and some bandages and I’ll be fine.”

 

There’s a scuffle and then the young girl from the other day, Ruya, bursts into view from between the other doctors and rebels, eyes flickering around until they land on Lance and widen with undisguised horror.

 

“Ruya!” Lance leans forward and groans when Nyma slaps his arm, forcing him to hold still as the doctor prepares the stitches. “You’re not supposed to be in here!”

 

“I heard you were hurt…” She whispers, still staring at Lance’s gash as the light orange of her skin rapidly pales.

 

“Get her out of here.” Lance whispers, flinching as the needle touches his skin, eyes landing on Keith, imploring. “Please, get her out of here.”

 

Keith nods shakily, pushing himself to his feet and wrapping his arms around Ruya when she fights his guiding touch on her shoulder, bodily lifting her up as she kicks and yells and lugging her out of the tent, catching Lance’s relieved expression as the entrance flap slips closed. He sets down Ruya gently, and coughs, doubling over, when she promptly punches him in the stomach. She’s not big, probably only the size of a ten or eleven year old human, but she’s a lot stronger than that.

 

“Let me back in.” She growls, and Keith shakes his head. “I said let me in!”

 

“Lance said no.” He says firmly, crossing his arms and glaring down at her.

 

“I have to know he’s alright!”

 

He softens, sighing. “He’s going to be fine. Us humans are harder to kill than we might seem.”

 

She scowls, but when Keith stands his ground, she huffs, turning and stalking off, small hands curled into fists as she disappears into one of the smaller tents in the camp.

 

Once he’s sure she’s gone, he falls back against the pole holding up the edge of the tent flap, closing his eyes and releasing a shuddery breath. He’s seen a lot of blood and injury in his time with Voltron, and not just on his enemies. He’s helped his teammates into pods countless times, he knows what seeing his friends hurt looks like, but seeing Lance like that is still… unpleasant, especially when he knows there’s perfectly viable healing pods sitting empty in the castle that could be helping Lance right now.

 

It’s not that he doesn’t understand Lance’s reasoning— If he were Lance, he wouldn’t want to set foot in the castle after all this time either, and given Lance probably knows what Allura’s up to, keeping her in his debt and out of hers is the smartest option, but goddamn if he still doesn’t want to go back in there and fucking insist Lance get his ass in a pod.

 

He doesn’t realize how long he’s been out there until he hears a startled cough behind him, and turns to see Lance, bandages around his side and bodysuit top tied loosely around his waist, peering at him from the pushed-back edge of the entrance flap. “Keith. You’re still here.”

 

He shifts nervously, flushing. “I was… worried.”

 

Lance grins, and Keith feels his heart stutter for an entirely different reason than before. “Well in that case, you can walk me back.” He turns, yelling into the tent. “Zenex! Nyma! Keith’s gonna go with me to Blue, so your paranoid asses don’t have to worry about me collapsing on the middle of the road or something!”

 

A grumbling affirmative is called back, and Lance smirks, looking pleased at having escaped his caretakers as he stretches out with a sigh, arms reaching above his head in a way that shows off smooth brown skin and leaves Keith breathless.

 

“C’mon then, I wanna see my favorite girl.”

 

 

xxx

 

 

Blue’s resting place is on the edge of the base camp closest to the central command tent, her large frame curled up in a smooth patch around a few outcroppings of rock, head turned towards the camp as if to keep an eye on the Resistance members at all times. Her eyes light up when Lance and Keith appear around the edges of the last tents on the path towards her, and she lifts her head just slightly, peering down at Lance with what Keith can only interpret as delight, despite her mechanical build precluding her from facial expressions.

 

Even just taking one glance at Blue’s joy at seeing her paladin, at Lance’s large, honest grin as he calls out to her and hops the last few steps towards the edges of her massive paws, Keith has no idea how Allura hopes to break this apart. No matter what the princess may say on the lion’s nature, Blue clearly loves her paladin more than anything else in existence, and the idea of her suddenly abandoning Lance to accept another in her cockpit seems laughable.

 

She growls lightly when Keith comes to stop at her feet next to Lance, and the other smacks her gently on the edge of her nose, tone admonishing as he speaks to her. “Don’t be grumpy! I invited him here.”

 

Blue settles instantly, seemingly satisfied with that answer, and Lance snorts, turning to Keith hesitantly. He wonders if Lance is about to send him away, demand that he return to the castle now that he’s done his job, but instead Lance smiles, the edge of his mouth quirking up unsurely. “Do you want to stay? I need to get changed real quickly but if you want to hang out on top of Blue I’ll see if I can find something to drink or… something.”

 

“Alright.” Keith says quickly, not even stopping to consider another answer, and Lance’s smile slips into something slightly more real.

 

Blue purrs quietly when Keith scrambles up the side of her head to the top of it, apparently content with his presence now that Lance has given his okay, and Keith can’t stop himself from giving her ear a few idle pats, leaning against it lazily. There’s the faint presence of her quintessence humming under her metal shell that Keith has come to recognize in all the lions, somewhat muted in this case by the cut-off pieces of the lion bond where she once resided, but he finds he’s still able to distinguish it well enough. Red stirs in the back of his mind, delighted at the faint echoes of her sister she can feel through Keith, though frustrated that she cannot connect to the other directly, Blue’s consciousness as cut off from Red as Lance’s is to his, the place where they tore themselves loose from the bond still a barely-healed wound.

 

“I never knew it was possible for lions to choose their pilots over Voltron.” He says quietly, and feels Blue stir beneath him, the tendrils of her mind hesitantly reaching out, grasping through the tentative connection that once alerted him to her presence on Earth, offering him images of Lance as he was when they first became paladins, and of a Galran girl in matching armor, feelings of doubt and grief and discontent lingering beneath them, an undercurrent of resolve tied up between them all.

 

“I know.” He offers, closing his eyes. “I know you couldn’t lose another one.”

 

Red has never offered him much information on her former paladin, her original paladin, but he does know that she misses him terribly. He’s seen how powerful the bond between a lion and its paladin is, how even Black fell to it under Zarkon’s presence for a long while before they created a stronger bond with Shiro. He imagines for a lion like Blue, whose entire being thrives on love and loyalty, the idea of seeing a second paladin die for Voltron pains her immensely.

 

He doubts any of the former paladins had pleasant deaths, but he’s always gotten the sense that whatever happened to Lance’s predecessor, it was particularly bad.

 

There’s a rustling behind him, and Keith turns to watch Lance clamber out of Blue behind him. “Where the fuck did you come from?”

 

Lance grins. “There’s a hatch on the back of Blue’s neck, pretty sure all the lions have them.” Keith shrugs, and Lance snorts, clambering over the top of Blue’s head to join Keith sitting between her ears, plopping down with a sigh.

 

He’s still shirtless, Keith notices, and promptly forces himself not to think anymore on that topic. Then again, it’s not hard with the very noticeable presence of the bandages wrapped up along Lance’s side— Probably why he’d forgone a shirt, honestly, in order not to have extra layers pulling at the wrappings. The bodysuit with its numerous weapon holsters has been discarded in favor of a pair of sweatpants that hang low on Lance’s hips, and Keith is suddenly very grateful of the bottled drink Lance offers him, taking a long gulp before promptly choking and coughing at the burning in his throat.

 

There’s snickering coming from Lance’s direction, and Keith blindly shoves at him while still doubled over coughing, finally straightening back up once his lungs stop trying to kill him. “What the fuck was that?”

 

Lance grins, taking a sip of his own drink with seemingly no problems. “Unilu namka. Basically their equivalent of whiskey.”

 

Keith gapes. “You keep alcohol on Blue.”

 

“Dude I live on Blue, I keep much worse things here.” Lance raises an eyebrow. “And I’m twenty-two and you’re twenty-three, so I don’t see what’s so scandalous about it.”

 

He scowls, glaring down at the bottle of namka and forcing himself to take another sip. “Shiro isn’t big on having alcohol on the ship. Says if we’re inebriated we risk not being prepared for surprise Galra attacks.”

 

“Stupid.” Lance says bluntly, and Keith snorts.

 

“Aren’t you supposed to be a high and mighty commander too?”

 

Lance frowns, putting down his bottle and pointing at Keith accusingly. “I’m not Shiro, and I’m not Allura. I’m not going to ask these people to risk their lives to fight in this war and then tell them what they can or cannot do on their own time. Fighting the Galra shouldn’t preclude them from having lives. We drink, we celebrate, and we have friends and families, like we should.”

 

“…And what about you?”

 

“Me?” Lance makes a face, turning away to stare out at the base camp. “I lead.”

 

Keith sighs. “You literally just said this shouldn’t stop people from having lives, Lance.”

 

Lance scowls, taking a swig of his bottle. “My life died on Earth, Keith. I’ve made my choices. Better alone here and doing what I can than with Voltron and living in silence as people die from our mistakes.”

 

He winces, ducking his head. “…Right.” After a pause, he looks back to Lance, considering. “…You’re not alone though, not really.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Well… like.” Keith gestures out to the camp vaguely. “These people, they look up to you, they care about you. You’re more than just a figurehead to them— Zenex and Nyma they… they both really seem to worry over you.”

 

Lance smiles lightly, closing his eyes and humming in agreement. “They’re good people. Zenex is as reliable a soldier as you could ask for, and Nyma has been… a friend.” His smile fades slightly, and he opens his eyes, looking back to Keith. “She said once that she couldn’t believe I was the same person as the kid who tried to climb a tree to impress her and got swindled out of his lion.”

 

Keith grimaces. “You’re still you, Lance.”

 

“Am I?” Lance says quietly. “I don’t know if I want to be.” He pauses, taking another gulp of his drink and raising an eyebrow at Keith. “And what about you? Are you still the same, Keith?”

 

“We all changed after Earth, Lance.” He offers hesitantly, shrugging. “It was inevitable.”

 

“Mm… I suppose.”

 

“And what about the kid, Ruya?” He says, a slight twinge echoing along his stomach where the girl had punched him earlier. “What’s her story?”

 

Lance snorts. “Let me guess, she punched you?” At Keith’s answering wince, he snickers. “Ruya… Ruya is… impulsive, prone to anger. Her parents were refugees who came to the Resistance last year, and died a few months ago in a raid. She wants revenge for her family, to fight, but really she’s just a child, only mentally about thirteen or fourteen by our standards, so I keep an eye on her.” He grins suddenly. “She reminds me of you, actually.”

 

Me?

 

“Yeah, well, y’know. A hothead.”

 

“Oh my God you’re still on about that?” He gapes, and Lance laughs loudly, prompting Keith to shove him lightly. “It’s been four years, asshole!”

 

Lance falls still, smile softening. “Yeah…. it has, hasn’t it?” He sighs, suddenly looking immensely tired, and Keith’s heart sinks. Idly, his eyes fall to the scars on Lance’s torso, chasing up and down his chest and along his arms— They’re messy, jagged. The cryopods in the castle minimize marks, any leftover scarring thin and neat, and the few distinct scars Keith has on his body come from occasions when he couldn’t get to a healing pod. Looking at Lance, it’s quite obvious he’s not been spending much time in healing pods when injured at all in the last few years. Lance turns slightly, leaning his shoulder against Blue’s ear, and Keith’s eyes catch on slight markings along Lance’s back, eyes widening.

 

“Are those tattoos?”

 

“Oh…” Lance stills, glancing at him, and then turning and pushing his hair up to expose the ink traced along his back in thin lines. “Yeah, turns out we’re not the only species that’s into it— Though Markordian inking is a lot less painful based off what I’d heard about Earth tattoos, lemme tell you.”

 

“Are these…?” He half-asks hesitantly, unable to stop himself from reaching out and running a thumb under a neatly inked line of small letters, the skin cool under his hand against what he has over time come to know is his unusually high body temperature thanks to his Galran blood.

 

Lance shivers at his touch, nodding. “The names of the people I lost.” He reaches around with his free hand, blindly yet expertly tapping to different lines of dark blue ink. “My friends, my aunts and uncle, my grandparents, my cousins, my niece and nephew, my mother, my sisters.”

 

Keith’s gaze runs down to the final line, just above the curve of Lance’s hips, and blinks. “Lance, your name is on here.”

 

Lance shifts quickly, ducking out from Keith’s touch and turning to face Keith, back hidden from view as his arms come to wrap around himself defensively. “Yeah, I know.”

 

“…Why?”

 

“Because,” Lance scowls, “I died that day too, Keith, along with my family. That was my hope; that was what I looked to return to— To my mother, my sisters. I meant what I told Allura, Lance McClain doesn’t exist anymore, only this.” He gestures out to the base camp in front of them, the lights around the tents low as night settles. “Only the Resistance, only the General.”

 

“Then…” He pauses, looking to Lance, who meets his eyes defensively, exhaustion and anger and so much grief coiled up in dark blue. “Then how come I still see Lance McClain, the same idiotic, brilliant Lance McClain who demanded he be the one to save Shiro back then, when I look at you?”

 

“Really?” Lance snorts, gesturing at himself. “You look at this wreck and you see that Lance?”

 

He shrugs. “You’re the same, and you’re not. The past and the present aren’t mutually exclusive.”

 

“I mean technically they are.”

 

“Shut up, you know what I mean.” He mumbles, flushing. “None of us are the same as we were, idiot— Not physically, not mentally. You’re not suddenly a monster for having a few scars.”

 

“Mm…” Lance hums, eyeing his drink and downing the last of it before looking to the empty bottle regretfully. Raising an eyebrow, he turns to Keith, the alcohol seemingly having emboldened him as he reaches out and runs his fingertips over the side of Keith’s face, catching on the edges of the marks he knows lie there and trailing up to just underneath his bad eye. “And you? How’d that happen?”

 

“Fight with Haggar about nine months ago.” He says softly, bringing his hand up to brush Lance’s own as he idly rubs over the ever-so-slightly differently textured skin. “Got splashed with a face full of concentrated liquid quintessence, burned like a motherfucker at first. It’s kind of like getting acid on your skin, but luckily those good ol’ Galra genes kicked in and kept me from losing my eye, and half my damn face for that matter.”

 

Keith doubts it’s a pretty sight, he’s seen it in the mirror enough times— A mess of splotches of purple skin along the left side of his face, covering his eyelid and forehead and descending down his cheek to the corner of his mouth. There’s no fur, thank God, but it’s definitely Galra skin, down to the purple color and texture. The most noticeable part, he thinks, is probably his eye, the once human appearance taken over by the blank yellow of all Galran eyes.

 

He doesn’t regret the changes to his face his Galra genetics have wreaked, knows they probably damn well saved his life and his sight that time, but he doubts it’s much to look at for many people, especially those who have an aversion to Galra in general. The princess hadn’t been able to look at him for weeks, afterward. Even accepting his heritage, he imagines seeing a half-Galran face on one of her paladins couldn’t have been easy.

 

…Ha, half-Galran.

 

He expects Lance to pull away, or maybe make some comment about his bad luck, but instead he just hums, squinting at Keith’s face. “Can you still see?”

 

Keith blinks, surprised. “More or less? Galrans don’t see color exactly the same way or have the same depth perception, so it’s a little wonky, but the night vision’s a plus if nothing else.” Lance hums, nodding and sitting back, seemingly satisfied with the answer, and Keith mourns the loss of the feel of cool fingers on his face.

 

“Y’know, I always hoped if you suddenly sprouted Galra traits it’d be the ears, I had so many catboy jokes saved up for that day.”

 

Keith gapes, and Lance giggles, breaking down into laughter as Keith gives him a pointed shove. “What the fuck?!”

 

“What?! It would have been funny as hell!”

 

He snorts, shaking his head, and falls silent as the last of Lance’s snickers peter out. “It doesn’t… bother you?”

 

“Nah.” Lance says easily. “Of course not. I suppose it means we match, if anything.”

 

Keith frowns, furrowing his brow in confusion and turning to Lance as the other smiles, a nervous half-formed thing at the corner of his mouth, and pushes the hair back off the front of his face, tucking it behind his ear.

 

“…Jesus Christ, Lance.”

 

Lance snorts, reaching a hand up to trace the smaller scar on his right cheek. “This one was from Haggar, and this—“ His hand moves to the one on his left, thumb running up from the edge of his jaw along his cheek to where the scar curves over his eyelid and reaches his forehead, the eye framed by it light and discolored, unseeing. “This was from Lotor. He said he couldn’t fight such a pretty face, so he had to do a little damage first.” Lance’s words are calm, but his voice is watery, and Keith finds himself reaching out to trace along the scar, catching the first droplets of tears as they spill unheeded from the blinded eye.

 

“It’s not bad, really.” Lance continues, shaky. “He didn’t get the one I use for sniping, and I got used to it fast enough, so in the end it wasn’t a huge loss. It was a nuisance to clean up though, was before the Resistance really formed, so it was just me in Blue’s cockpit trying to patch myself up. For a little while I was afraid I might have to remove the eye myself if it got infected.” He smirks bitterly. “It worked, though. Lotor didn’t seem to have many problems fighting me after that, creepy fascinations aside, so I guess he got me ugly enough. It’s appropriate, I suppose— Most monsters don’t stay pretty.”

 

“You’re gorgeous.” Keith blurts unthinkingly, and Lance’s eyes widen, red scrawling across his face. Realizing what he’s said, Keith pulls his hand back, pointedly avoiding Lance’s gaze as he stares down at Blue’s surface and prays for the mortified flush in his cheeks to fade.

 

“So…” He coughs awkwardly, desperately looking for a distraction. “…Why the hair? You always wore it short before. Was it just to hide the scarring? Because that’s bull, Lance. There’s nothing wrong with it.”

 

Lance raises his hands defensively. “No, jeez, calm down. I just fancied it. I kept it longer when I was little and…” He shrugs, looking back out to the camp. “With Earth gone, there weren’t any human gender binary expectations to return to, y’know? It didn’t really matter anymore.”

 

Silence crawls between them, overwhelming and deafening, and Keith watches Lance’s somber face carefully, the last lights of the camp catching on his skin and illuminating tan skin and dark hair.

 

“…You know it’s not your fault, right? What happened to Earth.”

 

Lance scowls, leaning forward and wrapping his hands around his knees, glaring out into the night. “Sure.”

 

“It wasn’t!” He turns hurriedly, staring at Lance with wide eyes. “We should have listened to you!”

 

“And I should have found another way.” Lance murmurs, closing his eyes. “I knew Allura and Shiro wouldn’t believe me, and the rest of you would accept their word, I could have found another way to prevent it myself.”

 

“You can’t fight the world alone, Lance.”

 

“Says you.” Lance mutters tiredly. “I seem to recall you fighting your way through half the Blade of Marmora on what basically amounted to a dare from Kolivan.”

 

“Okay, yeah, but I’m not like that now.” Keith says, waving his arms. “I learned to rely on other people! Trust in your teammates and all that crap Shiro used to spout!”

 

“Oh, really? Who?”

 

“Well…” He shrugs, slumping forward and dropping his chin into his hands, eyes falling to Lance’s sullen form next to him. “Hunk, for one?”

 

The corner of Lance’s mouth twitches up, and he opens his good eye to peer curiously at Keith. “Seriously?” He nods, and Lance’s smile grows a little wider. “Good. He’s… a good friend.”

 

“Yeah.” Keith sighs. “He is.” He hesitates, exhaustion quietly clawing at him, and slowly slumps into Lance’s side, shivering when Lance’s answering hum echoes against him. Closing his eyes, he tilts his head, resting it on Lance’s shoulder, and breathes out a shaky sigh of relief when he feels Lance’s head nudge back against his. “I don’t blame you, for leaving. But… I did miss you. I still miss you.”

 

Lance stiffens, ever so slightly, and Keith prepares himself to be pushed away, but instead cool fingers find his own, intertwining and palms pressed flat together.

 

“…I missed you too. Always did.”

 

 

xxx

 

 

Keith wakes up to Shiro’s voice calling his name at an hour that feels far too early to be getting up, and barely cracking one eye open assures him that, yes, he’s just a little bit hungover.

 

Groaning, he sticks a hand out and up, flipping Shiros’s currently rather annoying voice off, and hears a sighs of relief coming from somewhere below him. “Yeah, he’s there.”

 

Scrunching his nose up, Keith ponders why Shiro would even be looking for him, before the events of the night before come back to him, and he snaps his eyes open, staring down in vague horror at Lance’s slumped form curled up against his chest, a mess of brown hair tucked under his chin as Lance’s shoulders rise and fall softly with his breath.

 

Jesus Christ almighty he spent the night sleeping on top of Blue and cuddling with Lance.

 

Idly, he wills the heat in his cheeks to fade, and wonders if there’s a way he can extract himself from this situation without waking Lance, before Allura’s voice shouts up with none of the patience or mellowness of Shiro’s.

 

Keith!

 

Lance startles, sitting bolt upright and looking around wildly, hand reaching automatically to his hip as if to grab a gun or his bayard and then pauses when he meets air, blinking and actually taking in his surroundings for the first time. He looks to Keith and makes a surprised, vaguely distressed sound, scrambling off until he falls against Blue’s other ear, wincing as his shoulder connects with it.

 

Sighing, Keith peers over the edge, glaring down at Shiro and Allura where they stand at the base of Blue’s paws, a disgruntled-looking Zenex standing a few feet behind them, arms crossed and glowering at the back of Allura’s head. “What’s up?”

 

Allura scowls, going to reply, and Shiro beats her to it. “You just didn’t come back to the castle last night, we were worried.”

 

He raises an eyebrow. “I’m fine.”

 

“Is the General there?” Zenex asks impatiently, and across from Keith, Lance lifts his arm over the edge of Blue’s head and offers a vague thumbs-up.

 

“I’m here, Zenex.”

 

“Apologies, sir.” Zenex shifts nervously. “They demanded entry to the camp and you weren’t answering your comms…”

 

“It’s fine…” Lance calls out, yawning. “Gimme a sec to get dressed, yeah?” He turns, sliding down the back of Blue’s head and into a hatch that opens at the very base of her head, right where her neck connects, and Keith blinks in surprise.

 

Ok, so the neck hatch thing was real.

 

He gives it all of about two seconds to consider how he himself is going to get down, before Blue tips her nose forward and he slides off with a yelp, landing in Shiro’s patiently waiting arms.

 

“Good morning.” Shiro smirks down at him, and he scowls, pushing the other man away as he clambers free and finally manages to get himself standing on his own on the ground, sending both Allura and Shiro severely unimpressed looks.

 

“You know, forcing your way into the camp is not going to do you any favors with Lance.”

 

Allura snorts, crossing her arms. “I do not care for his favor. If you are free to come and go as you please, so are we. Besides, you were missing.”

 

“I’m twenty-three, Allura. I can look after myself.” He says, pinching the bridge of his nose and breathing out slowly. “Lance got hurt last night, I just wanted to make sure he was okay.”

 

Shiro frowns. “Lance was hurt?”

 

“It was only a minor scratch and it is none of your business, regardless.” Lance’s voice rings out from behind him, and Keith turns to watch as he strides out of Blue, patting the side of her snout as she shuts her mouth and goes back to resting her head on her paws. He’s back in the bodysuit, Keith notes, or at least a carbon copy of it, as well as the trench coat, hair brushed back over his eye and weapon holsters in place. Idly, his gaze falls to the blue bayard, strapped to Lance’s thigh. So that’s where it was, he’d been wondering.

 

Like this, Lance looks the perfect picture of a regal and powerful commanding officer leading a full-fledged rebellion. It’s an odd contrast compared to the open, vulnerable, scarred Lance of last night, and the idea that he was willing to expose that to Keith but not to Shiro and Allura is…

 

Well. Keith doesn’t know exactly what he feels about it, but whatever it is, it leaves a strange warmth in his chest, spreading along the old fractures of the lion bond.

 

Lance strides past Allura and Shiro without a second look, turning his attention to Zenex and leaving Keith and the others to race after them as they walk back to the camp.

 

“Any news?” He hears Lance ask, and Zenex shakes his head.

 

“The radios have been silent all night. Elos has been working on the plans you picked up during the mission, but they haven’t yet figured out what they are for. Lotor has by now realized regular Galran will not be enough to keep secrets, so he has been religiously switching up codes in his messages to his commanders.”

 

“Of course he has.” Lance mumbles. “I’ll stop by and take a look at them later, see if I can help.”

 

“Lance.” Allura calls, and Keith winces when Lance pointedly ignores her. “Lance! I need to talk to—“

 

“I know what you’re going to say Allura, and the answer is no.” Lance says, turning and looking back at them with a sigh. “I am not coming back to Voltron, and you are not having Blue.”

 

Allura bristles. “You would be so selfish as to insist on continuing to keep her?”

 

Lance’s eyes widen, and he gives a disbelieving laughs. “You just don’t get it, do you? I don’t own Blue, and neither do you. The bond between a lion and a paladin isn’t about control, or about force. Shiro couldn’t make Black relinquish their bond with Zarkon, they had to choose to, and I didn’t make Blue come with me. I told her what my intentions were, and she asked that I take her with me over a different ship. If you can’t understand that, then it’s not really surprising Blue rejected you.”

 

“Lance.” Shiro says from next to Keith, voice disapproving, and Lance scowls, twisting back around and pointedly putting his back to them.

 

“You’re not my commanding officer, Shiro. Do not try to moderate my words.”

 

Shiro winces, and Keith can’t help but shrug. “He’s right.”

 

“How is your search for the Alrexan stones going?” Lance asks, still not facing them, and hesitantly Shiro glances at Allura, who still looks like she’s like to smack the back of Lance’s head, and answers carefully.

 

“…Good. Coran, Pidge, and Hunk have located stones that should be of an acceptable size for the castle’s needed level of power and are working on removing them. We should be set to leave in a day or two.”

 

Keith feels his heart sink at the words, and does his best to ignore it. This is good. The sooner the castle is fixed, the sooner they can get back out there to helping people, and the sooner Lance can get them all out of his hair. This is the way things should be— The Blue Lion Resistance and Voltron, two separate, completely untied forces operating against the Galran Empire.

 

…So then, why does the thought hurt so much?

 

 

xxx

 

 

When they get back to the castle, Keith is one part cranky and tired and one part still slightly hungover, and that alone is enough to coax him into a nap. He’s not usually a napping person, but occasionally even he can be tempted, and the exhaustion he feels from the lack of sleep he got last night after staying up so late talking with Lance coupled with the general emotional tiredness he feels at the thought of knowing they’ll be leaving Alrexa in a couple days is enough to coax him into just falling asleep for a few hours as a way to turn his brain off for a few hours.

 

It feels like a great idea at the time, but when a fucking explosion of all things jars him awake just as the evening sets in, he’s sorely regretting his most recent life choices.

 

He stumbles out into the hall only half-awake and collides with Hunk’s chest, who apparently must have returned to the castle from the mines while he was asleep, steadying himself before pushing up and meeting the other’s frantic eyes. “What’s going on?”

 

“I don’t know!” Hunk says, panicky. “I was in my room when suddenly everything started shaking!”

 

There’s a whistling sound from above, and all of a sudden another shake rocks the ship, clearly not a hit to the castle itself but on the ground close enough to feel the impact tremors. He has all of about five seconds to frantically question why the fuck something is apparently chucking projectiles from above them at the area just west of the castle before it clicks, and his eyes widen.

 

Fuck, Hunk, the base camp!”

 

Hunk pales, and then they’re running, sprinting past Pidge’s door as it opens and she calls out to them, hesitating for a few seconds before chasing after as well. They nearly collide with Allura, Shiro, and Coran as they reach the castle entrance, screeching to a halt just before Hunk and Keith would have slammed into Shiro. Allura’s eyes are wild and confused, and Coran’s mustache is literally sparking, as if the impact tremors sent him face-first into something electrical. Then again, if the others had just come back to the ship and Coran had been starting on repairs, he supposes that’s a possibility.

 

“Paladins,” Allura says, gaze darting between them, “What is—“

 

“It’s the Galra.” Keith growls. “They’re shooting at the base camp— They’re shooting at the base camp and chances are we damn well led them here!”

 

“We don’t know that.” Shiro says quietly, and Keith snarls.

 

“They’ve been here nearly a year without incident, and within four days of us showing up the Galra suddenly know where to look?! Yeah, right!”

 

“We have to help them, regardless.” Allura says pointedly, cutting through the argument. “Get to your lions.”

 

Red’s anger, her willingness to fight, coils in Keith’s stomach, and he shoves it down. “Are you crazy?! Lance will kill us!”

 

“He will not be able to do much if he is dead.” Allura counters primly. “He needs our assistance.”

 

“Allura, Lance gave orders to fire on the castle if the lions ever left their hangars.” Hunk points out, nervously fiddling with his hands and shooting glances at the distant form of the base camp, smoke rising from where the explosives have hit. “Chances are he hasn’t had time to belay that order, and if the rebels see a bunch of lions that have been labeled as potentially dangerous to them suddenly flying overhead, it may panic people and just make things worse.”

 

A scowl writes itself across Allura face, and Keith feels himself rapidly losing patience. “Fuck this! They need help now. Open the quiznacking hangar doors and if Lance gives the alright then we’ll call the lions to us, but I’m not having a fucking debate over it while people are in danger!” He takes off through the doors, heading for the last of the trucks that were holding the perimeter around the castle, the majority already gone and headed to the base camp, he assumes, and hears footsteps behind his that he recognizes as Hunk. Moments later, there’s a bunch of calls, and then several following sets of footsteps as everyone else gives chase.

 

He skids to a stop next to the truck he took into the base camp yesterday, Hunk a step behind him, and meets the eyes of the guard from yesterday, sitting in the drivers seat. Whoever was driving the truck yesterday while they watched Keith is clearly gone, likely on one of the other trucks back to the camp.

 

“Please.” He chokes out, doing his best to pull air into his lungs after so much stop and start sprinting. “Please, I need to help him.”

 

The guard hesitates, and then nods, gesturing to the back of the truck and speaking their first words to him.

 

“Get in.”

 

Keith scrambles into the back, the others climbing in a few seconds after as the truck roars to life, and then they’re shooting down the path, any of the speed regulation from the last couple trips gone in the favor of getting there as quickly as possible. He only allows himself one quick look at his teammates, taking in Hunk’s nervous face, Pidge’s wide and fearful eyes, Shiro’s guilty expression, and then turns back to watching the smoking outline of the base camp as it draws near, praying to entities he long since gave up on that Lance is alright.

 

They emerge into chaos, stumbling out of the truck into a sea of rebels rushing around them and Keith’s eyes catch on Lance barking orders in the center of the swarm, Zenex hovering over his shoulder.

 

“Lance!” He screams, shoving his way over, and Lance turns at the call, eyes widening.

 

“Keith? What are you doing here?” He notices the others behind Keith, and his expression closes off, eyes going dark. “What are they doing here?”

 

“We are here to help.” Allura says, and Lance scowls.

 

“No.” He turns, calling out more orders as the people around them don flight gear and board ships, and Keith reaches out, grabbing his hand desperately.

 

“Please, let us help you! We have the lions, we can fight!”

 

Lance turns, wrenching his hand out of Keith’s, and his eyes are fire. “For all we know, your presence is what brought them here! This is not your fight, so just— Just stay out of it!”

 

“If we brought them here then we have to help!” Keith screeches, and along the threads of the lion bond Red stirs, her anger at the Galra and fear for the people of the base camp, fear for Lance, mixing with his own. “Please, I can’t just sit here while you go and fight without even knowing what will happen to you!”

 

“Lance, please.” Hunk murmurs from behind Keith, and something in Lance’s expression softens, his eyes darting once to the people of his base camp as they run to fight or to cover.

 

“The Empire’s ships have fired only on the base camp, not the castle. They may not know you are here. If this attack was not timed to your arrival, seeing more lions may tempt the commander to fight harder rather than retreat. There is significantly more glory in having captured Voltron than in having done some damage to a bunch of scraggly rebels hiding out on a no-name planet.”

 

“Or seeing the full force of Voltron may scare them off!” Keith presses.

 

Lance hesitates, then closes his eyes and shakes his head. “Strategy before impulsivity. I have doubted myself once before in the face of Voltron’s opinion, and it cost too much.” When he opens his eyes, it is the General of the Blue Lion Resistance who looks back at Keith.

 

“If you really want to help, then assist in getting those who are non-combatants or injured underground. Leave my soldiers to me.”

 

The others hesitate, and then disperse, and Keith turns to go as well, before Lance’s hand reaches out and grabs his own, spinning him around before a second hand grabs the back of his neck and pulls him down slightly, Lance leaning forward and pressing his forehead against Keith’s, dark eyes staring into his own.

 

“If I need you, I will call for you.” Lance breathes, and then releases Keith, turning and sprinting his way to the Blue lion, catching a pitch black helmet with a reflective blue visor that Nyma throws him as she boards her ship and slipping it over his head as Blue stretches up and roars from the edge of the base camp, awaiting her pilot.

 

 

xxx

 

 

Waiting on the inside of what is essentially a bomb shelter with only a listen-in radio connected to the Resistance fighter’s comms to give any indication of what’s going on outside, while Keith knows Lance is out there potentially risking his life, is hell.

 

He can tell Red agrees, her presence pacing anxiously in the forefront of his mind, and he knows she is likely moving restlessly around her hangar, fighting the urge to just take off and fly only because Keith has begged her to hold steady, and after this long together their trust is at a level where his words may occasionally override her own protective instincts.

 

It’s just as jarring for her as it is for him, he knows, if not more so. At least he can hear Lance’s voice over the radio as he yells out commands to his fighters, calling out attacks and occasionally swearing, usually in Spanish or another language. Red can’t feel anything, the destroyed place in the bond where Blue once resided keeping her from seeking out her sister’s quintessence, and the best Keith can do is offer her confirmations that Lance, and assumedly his lion as well, are still breathing.

 

…He just hopes, prays, that Lance’s shouted curses are out of anger and frustration with the Galra fleet they’re dealing with and not because of near misses on shots to Blue.

 

Keith startles when Hunk sits down next to him where he’s crouched against the edge of the underground shelter, the other’s presence startling him out of his musings, and when Hunk raises a curious eyebrow at him, he simply groans, giving in and slumping against the larger paladin.

 

“…I can’t stand just… waiting here.” He mutters, and Hunk hums his agreement.

 

“I just—“ He continues, frustration tugging at his being. “We have the lions! We should be out there watching his back, protecting him!”

 

“I don’t really think Lance needs much protection anymore.” Hunk offers mildly, and Keith snorts.

 

“I know, but… God, there’s extra help just sitting there and he’s too stubborn to accept it!”

 

“Do you think that’s what it is?”

 

“Huh?” He blinks, turning his head slightly from where it’s slumped against Hunk’s arm to peer up at the other.

 

“Stubbornness. Do you think that’s why Lance refused our help?”

 

“I… Guess?” He answers hesitantly, and Hunk sighs.

 

“Do you remember what I told you when Lance first left Voltron?”

 

“Uh…”

 

“I told you that Lance plans around contingencies. He’s a strategist as much as he is a people pleaser or inevitably plain old insecure— It’s just a part of who he is, he’s been like that since he was a child. His backup plans have backup plans, and nine out of ten times he’s not going to need them because he considered all the options before even making his initial decision.” Hunk grins lopsidedly at Keith, shrugging lightly. “Lance is brilliant, he always has been, it’s just not in an area people pay much attention to. If Lance truly believed the best option was to have us flying with him, no matter how much he may dislike working with Voltron, he wouldn’t have hesitated, not at the risk of the lives of people under his command.”

 

“…So?” Keith asks hesitantly.

 

“So have a little faith in his thinking process. He wasn’t bullshitting just to get us to sit down and behave. There’s a good chance that this attack was random, or based off something else than the Empire tracking our presence. In a way, that’d make less sense for Lotor’s style. Hit two birds with one stone, yeah, but it’d take immense firepower to take out both of us. We’d be seeing a lot more damage than we are right now, not to mention attacks on the castle. If they’re shooting from high enough up that they can’t see the castle, then it’s a pre-coordinated attack going off the specific coordinates of the camp.” Hunk chuckles. “If he’s betting on his forces being enough to send ‘em scattering without alerting the Empire to our presence, then that’s good enough for me to do the same… What about you?”

 

“I—“ Keith hesitates, closing his eyes and shivering when he hears an explosion echo over the radio. “…Yeah. Yeah, it is.”

 

In the recesses of his mind, Red’s presence slows her frantic pacing, considering, and then purrs back, a reassurance she will also take Hunk’s words as truth and place her trust in her sister and said sister’s pilot to know what they are doing.

 

“…Thank you.” He murmurs, and Hunk smiles.

 

“Of course.” Overhead another explosion hits, and Hunk winces. “…Now we just have to wait it out.”

 

“Yeah… Now we wait.”

 

It feels like an eternity buried in the shelter, listening to the echoes of the guns and the shouts reverberating over the radio, but eventually the explosions from above that shake the ground around and above them peter to a stop, the sounds of the battle on the comms fade, and, finally, Lance’s voice rings out through the shelter.

 

“Sound the all clear. Bastards are turning tail, we got ‘em.”

 

There’s a sigh of relief from the young alien wearing the headset plugged into the comms on the radio, and a faint cheer whoops in the back, quickly being picked up the others in the bunker, and Hunk grins, looking delighted and nudging Keith lightly in the side, who can’t help but smile back.

 

Thank God.

 

He watches with relief as Allura climbs up and opens the hatch leading to above ground, and steps aside to let the stream of aliens clamber out. Lance’s camp really is about more than fighting, he thinks— There are at least sixty or seventy noncombatants here, if not more once you include those who are injured. Children and elderly and young parents who are true refugees, welcomed to the Resistance with open arms for what they offer just by continuing to survive in the face of the overwhelming reach of the Empire.

 

It’s so different from the long, empty halls of the Castle of Lions, where there are whole floors that lie untouched even after nearing five years in space, and the only permanent residents are the six of them… himself, Hunk, Pidge, and Shiro, and Coran and the princess. Any prisoners they rescued were always promptly healed and given healing pods to be sent home, but perhaps, he thinks, looking out over the sea of different species as they make their way out of the shelter, remembering the brand on Zenex’s face marking him a traitor to his kind and of Rolo and Nyma’s seemingly endless planet hopping, it’s not that simple. He’d always assumed that was the way things worked, before. You rescue people, and they get to go back to their lives as they once were, but…

 

They have no home to return to, anymore, just a crumble of rock where Earth once flourished. And, perhaps, these people do not have one either.

 

Keith savors the first breath of fresh air he takes in once he’s out of the bunker, second to last behind Shiro, who hovers over his and Hunk’s shoulders until he’s sure everyone is out. Closing his eyes, he breathes in, and then out, a grin creeping onto his face as he hears the nearing jets of Blue, and then he’s running, hopping over the spots of debris from the projectiles that hit the camp and heading for the place where Blue is circling to land.

 

Lance descends from the runway in Blue’s mouth just as Keith makes it to the clearing, and his heart leaps as he watches Lance yank his helmet off his head, tucking it under an arm and half-heartedly running a hand through his hair to work out the worst of the knots from having it bunched up under his helmet while flying. Without thinking, he grabs Lance the minute he’s in reaching distance, pulling him into a tight hug up and off his feet and spinning him around in a wobbly circle, ignoring the clattering of Lance’s helmet as it hits the ground and savoring the faint reassurance of Lance’s beating heart from underneath his suit against his own.

 

“Uh… Keith?” Lance says questioningly after a moment, and Keith instantly releases him, coughing nervously, and studiously looking anywhere but Lance’s face.

 

“Sorry.”

 

The corner of Lance’s mouth quirks up in a small smile, and Keith finds his eyes stuck on it despite his seconds ago conviction not to look at Lance, savoring the slant of his lips, the genuine, if somewhat confused, happiness on his face at seeing Keith.

 

“I’m… glad you’re alright.” He offers hesitantly, and Lance’s smile widens just a little.

 

“I told you I would be.” Lance says, the slightest tinges of amusement creeping in at the edges of his voice, and then he turns, whistling as he looks out over the camp. “Damn, they really did a number on this place.”

 

Keith winces, taking his own proper glimpse of the damage for the first time. “Will you be able to fix it?”

 

Lance shakes his head slightly. “It doesn’t matter. What can come with us will be packed away, and everything else will be burned. We can’t stay here now that the Empire knows our location.”

 

“…Oh.” Keith swallows past the lump in his throat at Lance’s words. He’s right, it would be stupid to continue to keep base in a location the enemy knows you’re in. “Of course.”

 

Lance frowns slightly, a hesitant question on his lips as he turns to look at Keith, and then a shout rings out from an approaching voice.

 

“General!”

 

It’s Nyma, skidding across the last of the way to the Blue lion and then hunching over, wheezing for breath. “G-General…”

 

“What is it, Nyma?”

 

“You have to… come quick.” She gasps, straightening up and staring at Lance with a terrified expression as she points back to the camp. “It’s Ruya.”

 

Lance’s eyes widen, and he breaks into a sprint, stumbling into the center of the still half-deserted camp as Keith and Nyma work to catch up and looking around wildly until someone signals him.

 

“She’s— Fuck. Boss, over here!” It’s Rolo who calls them over from a spot near the edge of the tents where they run into an area of mostly fighter ships, waving desperately from a spot where he’s hunched over… something with Zenex and a couple other aliens, and Keith feels his stomach lurch unpleasantly at the mere thought of what they might find there.

 

Please don’t let her be dead, he prays, for Lance’s sake, if nothing else.

 

When they reach the others, Keith bites his lip, taking in the scene. She’s definitely alive, the shallow rise and fall of her chest a testament to that, but there’s… there’s a lot of blood. Green blood, because, as Keith has discovered, alien blood runs in a variety of colors, but… blood. It’s all over her chest and side, making it impossible to distinguish where the wound is.

 

“Ruya…” Lance whispers, dropping to his knees beside the girl.

 

“I don’t think there’s spinal injuries.” Zenex says quickly, looking to Lance. “But I wasn’t sure…”

 

“If we don’t move her, she’s going to die regardless.” Lance murmurs, looking over Ruya’s unconscious form with obvious panic.

 

“The… The healing pod?” Nyma offers, and Zenex shakes his head.

 

“The first blast targeted the medical tent, the pod was smashed.”

 

Fuck.” Lance breathes out, ducking his head before reaching out to run a careful hand along Ruya’s cheek. “C’mon, baby girl stay with me. You’re going to be alright.”

 

There’s a kind of visceral horror in it, Keith realizes. Ruya, a child, a child Lance cares about, is dying, and there’s nothing they can do about it, without a cryopod.

 

…Fuck, a pod.

 

“The castle!” He yelps, and Lance looks to him, eyes wide. “Lance, the castle!”

 

Understanding shivers across Lance’s face, and Keith watches as hope crawls back in.

 

Lance turns to Rolo, barking an order. “Go get a truck started, we’re going to the Castle of Lions.” Gently, he places an arm under Ruya’s neck and under her thighs, scooping her up, and glances at Keith, nodding. “Go get Allura and Coran, and tell them to get their asses back to the castle pronto.”

 

 

xxx

 

 

Ruya’s already small form looks incredibly tiny floating in the space beneath the glass of the healing pod. Then again, Keith supposes, looking over her frame, that’s not hard. Pretty much anyone but Shiro or Hunk looked small in the healing pods honestly, and given Ruya was really only the size of a human child, that only emphasized that fact.

 

Lance is somber as he stands in front of the pod, watching the readings on the monitor next to her with careful eyes, taking in the data of heart rate, blood replenishment, skin repair, all of it, as if he hopes to heal her faster just by observing the numbers at work.

 

The whole sight makes Keith ache, and he can feel Red’s anxiety crawling along the bond, discontent over the injury of someone who her sister’s pilot cares for.

 

For a long time, Keith had believed Red thought for no one but her pilot, but in time he’d come to realize she cared intensely about the wellbeing of those who mattered to those she cared about, in a long chain of protective feelings. Red cared about Blue, and about Keith, both of whom cared about Lance, who cared about Ruya, and that, it seems, was enough for her to be disgruntled over Ruya’s condition, if only because it put Lance, and therefore Keith, in distress.

 

“She should be alright.” He hears Coran say from where he’s positioned at another monitor near Lance’s, hitting a few symbols as he sets the timer for the pod. “One night in there, and she’ll be right as rain. Lucky girl though, I don’t know if she would have made it without the pod.”

 

Lance’s frame shudders ever so slightly, hands curling into fists for a moment before his shoulders slump, and he nods.

 

“I don’t understand…” Allura says softly from where she stands in the corner with Shiro, observing the scene with tired eyes. “I was sure we got everyone underground.”

 

There’s a quiet sigh, and then Lance turns around, casting a quick glance to Keith, and to Zenex where he stands a few feet from him, and then looks to the princess. “Ruya has… a lot of anger in her heart. She’s been begging me to allow her to fight since she lost her parents in order to avenge their deaths.” His eyes slip to Keith’s again, the edge of his mouth quirking, and Keith remembers what Lance had said to him the night before, murmured into the silent spaces of the night in-between sips of fiery alcohol.

 

She reminds me of you.

 

“We have a strict rule in the Resistance that you must be of at least sixteen years, or of your species mental equivalent to that of a human sixteen year old to fight, but Ruya has been trying to sneak aboard ships bound for missions in spite of that for months. She likely took the confusion during the attack to try and get into a fighter ship, and got hit in the process.” He slumps forward, turning back to Ruya again with a tired expression. “I knew she needed extra supervision until she learned to command her hate for the Empire instead of letting it control her, I should have kept a better eye on her.”

 

Lance breathes out slowly, leaning forward and resting his head against the cryopod, eyes falling shut, and then he spins around, walking towards the princess and bowing ever so slightly to her. “Ruya would not have survived if it weren’t for the castle, and therefore you, and that is a debt I cannot repay. However…” Lance’s hands clench at his sides, and Keith realizes what he is going to do seconds before he says it, making frantic eye contact with Hunk across the room, who is clearly figuring out the same thing, panic in his expression.

 

Lance, Keith thinks as it finally clicks into place, doesn’t like owing anyone anything, let alone owing Allura. That is a part of who he is too— And somehow, that desire to be equal, to be fair, overrides his pride, hell, his sense of self preservation, without question.

 

…Because Lance McClain, no matter how old or analytical or respected or downright bitter he may get, is still an idiot who tries so hard to be good even when he imagines himself a monster, and at the end of the day that might just be what destroys him.

 

“However, I can offer you what you most desire from me.” Lance keeps his head bowed, and Keith knows he is likely fighting himself every step along the way with these words. “I will ask the Blue lion to relinquish our bond and return to your care.” He hesitates, studiously avoiding Allura’s gaze as he turns and nods respectfully to Coran. “I will leave Ruya in your care for now. Come, Zenex, we’re leaving.”

 

Keith watches Lance leave, dark hair and stupid coat rustling with measured steps, and fights the urge to just throw himself at Lance and beg him to be selfish for once in his life.

 

The minute Lance is gone, he turns to Allura, words on the tip of his tongue, but it is Hunk who beats him to it.

 

“Don’ you do it, Allura.” Hunk’s expression is thunderous, a kind of anger Keith has seen on the other on very few times in the years they’ve been teammates, and later friends. “Don’t you dare take Lance’s stupid, self-sacrificing quid-pro-quo streak and use it to get what you want.”

 

Allura hesitates. “Hunk, I—“

 

“Save it.” He snaps, turning and storming out of the room, and when Allura looks to Keith with nervous eyes, he crosses his arms and looks away, avoiding her gaze. There’s nothing he can’t offer that Hunk hasn’t already said.

 

...It’s not like she ever listens to them, anyways.

 

 

xxx

 

 

The next day, a tearful and apologetic Ruya is collected from the castle by Nyma and Rolo, and Coran and Pidge announce that, with a few hours of work, the new stones should be fully in place and the castle set to depart by the evening. Hunk and Allura had both disappeared in the early morning off to the camp, the former in all likelihood to talk to Lance and the latter to, assumedly, collect the Blue lion.

 

When Coran asks for someone to go down to the camp and tell them the news, Keith doesn’t know why he volunteers, but for some reason it falls out of his mouth without his prior consideration. He blames Red, despite knowing she can’t control his words or actions that much, simply because of the annoying, pleased purring resonating through his chest.

 

Which is how he finds himself perched on a rock on the edge of the clearing where Blue rests, knees to his chest and his arms around them, watching Allura’s form as she sits peacefully in front of the Blue lion’s paws, unmoving.

 

“You’re not seriously going to do it, are you?” He asks, and she startles, whipping around and staring at him before relaxing minutely.

 

“Oh, Keith. I…” She hesitates, shrugging. “I do not know. I am not sure if Blue would consent to coming with us, regardless, even if Lance asks her too.”

 

He sighs and, on a whim, unwinds himself and hops off his perch, walking over and sitting down on the ground next to her, crossing his legs and peering up at Blue curiously, poking out with the tentative grasp he has, has always had, on her presence, and feeling her brush back, conveying a storm of thousands of years old emotions he cannot begin to comprehend, let alone sort out and understand.

 

More than anything, though, what he gets, is exhaustion, pure and simple.

 

The lions are old, he realizes, not for the first time, but gaining a new appreciation for what that means each time he considers it. However they came about into the forms they are now, they existed before that, and unlike Coran and Allura, they did not sleep those ten thousand years between paladins. They had near an eternity to reflect on their choices, their mistakes.

 

The paladin bond is something stronger than a lucky choice out of limited options— It’s a destiny, of sorts, an inevitable connection that spans the odds of chance or luck. Blue had come to Earth for a reason, had reached for Keith, who had found Shiro, who in turn had been found by Lance, who had found Hunk and Pidge, and in the end that brought all the lions what they needed. Keith doesn’t know what that whole mess of fate versus the odds of rational logic says in terms of what their relation may be to the former paladins, but he guesses the connection is more complicated than just that of ‘convenient replacements’.

 

Blue had ten thousand years to mourn what she lost, and she had found that again, in Lance, and she would give up anything for that, even Voltron, especially if she believed this lent the universe better chances of survival.

 

“I have always felt I had quite a complicated relationship with the Blue lion.” Allura says quietly, drawing Keith out of his reverie. “The former Blue paladin was… someone very important to me, and for a long time I felt quite resentful over her bond with her lion, and with the other paladins, as it was something I could never match or even relate to.” She closes her eyes, sighing. “Perhaps it is selfish, but for a while, when we lost Shiro, the idea to experience that, to understand what she had known, was… intoxicating. In hindsight, it may have led me to pretend my motivations were more selfless than they were, but… Well, it can be very hard to relinquish pieces of your home when they are offered to you.”

 

Keith hums, and then, looking at Blue, he cannot stop himself from asking. “What happened?”

 

Allura bows her head. “Lance’s predecessor was Galran, and when the war began I lost… perspective. Zarkon had been like an uncle to me as a child, and to see him betray my family like that, it led me to have doubts about the Galra as a whole. After all, if he could turn his back on people he claimed to love so easily, surely they all would?” She chuckles bitterly. “I let myself doubt her, even when she renounced Zarkon to fight for Altea against him, even in the face of her kindness and compassion. I convinced myself her impressive loyalty would surely swing back to her own kind eventually, and in the end my hate and my ignorance caused her death. And… Well, the Blue lion has never forgiven me for it, not that I really blame her for that.” She trails off, tilting her head and turning to Keith, eyes solemn. “I am sure there are many of us who see an angry child that lets their need for revenge get the better of them and think of someone we know, but for me, seeing that girl in the pod… I saw myself.”

 

“Funny…” Keith says quietly, pulling his gaze away from Blue and meeting Allura’s eyes, quirking the edge of his mouth up into a half-hearted smile. “I saw myself, too.”

 

Allura sighs, looking down. “I… I do not know if it is right, to demand the Blue lion back as if she is an object to be bartered, but I do genuinely fear for what the future may hold if we continue on like this. The universe will need Voltron again.”

 

“Allura…” Keith says, stretching out and hesitantly gesturing to Blue. “Voltron… Isn’t a giant mecha-human super weapon, and it isn’t a status symbol to prove our lawful high ground. Voltron is… Hope, and whether that comes from a unified giant robot that kicks ass or from five separate lions or…” He turns ever so slightly, nodding his head to the base camp, “Or just one lion serving as a flagship to a ragtag Resistance made up of rebels and refugees turns soldiers, that hope is still the same. Voltron stands for a better tomorrow, no matter how it goes about getting there, and sometimes someone has to be willing to get down in the dirty and do the messy work.” He pauses. “Your Voltron is regal power and this… straight and narrow moral compass, and that’s not bad, because one day, when this is all over, we’re going to need that, but the Galra… One thing I’ve learned about them more than anything is that they’re pretty human, at the end of the day, and to beat a human you have to fight like a human. Lance is… We made mistakes when we tried to be a perfect Voltron, and they ended up destroying things we will never be able to bring back. So maybe, what the universe needs right now is a hope they can know, a hope willing to give up certain parts of their perfection in order to do what is needed.”

 

“…And you think that’s Lance?”

 

“Yes.” He says firmly. “I do. And if you take Blue away from him, if you limit the amount of good he can do as himself in the name of a perfect Voltron, we’ll just end up making the same mistakes we did the first time. The Earth is gone, and we can’t bring that back, but to learn from it we have to accept what it means, and right now it means that Lance’s place, Blue’s place, is here. I’m not saying your Voltron won’t ever fly again, it’s just… not yet.”

 

“Hm…” Allura smiles, eyes distant. “When did you get so profound, huh?”

 

Keith snorts. “I wouldn’t call myself profound, just… older, maybe a little more well-rounded. Five years running around sharing a mystical bond with a space lion and a bunch of other people will do that to you.”

 

Allura hums, nodding, and for a moment there is silence, before the stir of approaching voices reaches them, and they both turn to see Hunk and Lance coming up the path, heads tucked together as they talk quietly, the gentle sounds of Spanish filtering through. He looks at them, in their easy peace and brushing shoulders, and he knows, without even needing to understand their words, that the two of them have worked it out, as they always have.

 

Lance glances up and jolts, surprised, as they near Blue. “Keith!” His eyes fall slightly to the left, and he gulps. “…Allura. You’re here for Blue, I assume?”

 

“Actually,” Allura says breezily, standing up and dusting herself off, “I rather think I’ll be leaving her. I find her to be severely temperamental and moody and generally not at all suited to me. If you fancy dealing with her so much, you can keep her, I think.” She sighs airily, drifting past a gaping Hunk and Lance without a second look, a small smile tugging at her lips. “I’ll be seeing you, General.”

 

And just like that, Allura’s gone, disappearing between the tents, and Keith fights the urge to laugh at Lance and Hunk’s dumbfounded expressions.

 

“…Dude.” Hunk says, bringing a hand up to rub at his eyes disbelievingly. “Did Allura just… give up on taking Blue?

 

“…I think she just did.” Lance murmurs, turning to look at Keith with a raised eyebrow. “What the hell did you say to her to pull that off?”

 

Keith shrugs, standing up and stretching idly. “Not much, really, I just…” He glances up at Blue, and he swears to God the feeling she sends him is best described as a wink, “…listened.”

 

“No way…” Hunk says, and then yelps, turning and chasing after Allura. “Hey! Allura, wait up! I wanna know what you guys talked about!”

 

Keith grins, watching him go, and then stumbles as arms are thrown around his neck, brown hair flying in his face as Lance buries his head in his shoulder. He flushes, and, carefully, wraps his arms around Lance’s waist in return, pressing his face to the side of Lance’s head, long hair tickling his nose, and breaths in the scent of blaster residue and smoke. On anything else, it wouldn’t be a particularly appealing smell, but… He likes it, on Lance. It seems right.

 

“…Thank you.” Lance whispers.

 

“Of course.” He sighs, closing his eyes.

 

After a long moment, Lance hesitantly disentangles himself, straightening up and coughing awkwardly, and Keith snickers, throwing an arm over his shoulders as they meander lazily back towards the camp.

 

“Yknow,” He says casually, “I never asked. I know you kind of mentioned not using Lance anymore once you started the Resistance, but how’d you end up being called General of all things?

 

“Oh my God…” Lance groans. “Okay so, I’ll tell you but you can’t laugh.” Keith nods, and Lance sighs, closing his eyes with a pained expression on his face. “I have learned many things in my time in space, Keith, but this lesson stays prevalent.” His eyes snap open, looking to Keith with deadly seriousness. “Never show a bunch of aliens the episodes of Fullmetal Alchemist you have saved on your phone, they will pick up way too much new language, among other things.”

 

…In his defense, Keith does try really hard not to laugh, but when Lance punches his shoulder after he doubles over wheezing and then breaks into a bunch of snorting little giggles of his own, the slight tinge in his shoulder is absolutely worth the sounds of Lance’s laughter.

 

 

xxx

 

 

The gathering to see them off is surprisingly formal, while also being the most relaxed Keith has seen the Resistance members around them yet. Half the camp seems to turn up, crowded around the ship not in the careful military perimeter of before but more of a cluster of regular people. There’s dozens of faces Keith doesn’t recognize or know in the slightest in the crowd, but he can pick out Rolo and Nyma’s lounging forms, Ruya tucked between them and scowling half-heartedly down at the ground, and Zenex near the center of the half-circle closest to the castle’s entrance, the Galra offering him a small smile and a nod when Keith catches his eye.

 

Lance stands at the forefront, a few feet from them where they hover at the entryway of the castle, his posture stiff and arms behind his back. The trench coat’s back once again over the bodysuit and its multiple holstered weapons, and Keith still isn’t sure if it annoys him or if he likes it, but he can’t deny it adds… something to Lance’s already lean and cutting figure.

 

“For the record,” Lance tells them all softly, dipping his head just slightly, “I owe you an apology for my comment yesterday. It turns out my second assessment of the situation was right— The Empire found us based on information a spy who had been passing as a refugee for the last couple months leaked to them, not because of any tracking of your presence, they didn’t even know you were here. Believe me, they’ll pay for the danger they put my people in.” The edge of his mouth quirks, and Lance looks up, smirking lightly. “However, don’t take that as an offer of alliance. If you show up on my doorstep again without at least prior warning, I will sorely consider finally shooting one of you, or at least punching someone firmly in the face.” He makes eye contact with Keith, and winks. “No promises on who that’ll be, though.”

 

“…Are you sure you won’t come back, Lance?” Pidge asks quietly.

 

Lance hesitates. “…My place is here, Pidge. I’m not sorry for the choices I’ve made. I never was, and I never will be. This is where I need to be. My voice is heard amongst these people, I can help them. I can protect them.”

 

Pidge sniffles, but nods, and Lance smiles softly, hesitantly taking a couple steps back so that he is clear of the castle’s doors, lifting a hand tentatively. “Bye?” He offers unsurely, and next to Keith, Shiro sighs.

 

“Goodbye, Lance.”

 

Keith hears the others shuffle around, heading back into the castle, and he turns too, casting one last lingering look at Lance as he goes, making it about five steps, before there’s a shout.

 

“Keith!”

 

He groans, twisting in place to ask Lance what it is he wants to say now, but instead hands grab his jacket and yank him forward, and suddenly a pair of soft lips is pressed to his own.

 

Lance is kissing him, he realizes, and his brain promptly short-circuits after that.

 

He does note one thing, though. While the rest of Lance seems to naturally run cold, his lips are warm, like the soft fire of Red’s consciousness wrapped up along his own.

 

There’s barely fleeting pressure for a few seconds, then the slightest of movements, before Lance nips quickly at his lower lip and then shoves him back, sending him stumbling over the boundary of the castle’s edge and back inside just as the doors begin to slip closed.

 

“Stay alive out there!” Lance calls, the wind turning his hair into a messy halo as he grins brightly at Keith. “I’ll be damn upset if you die on me, Kogane!”

 

“Just don’t go and get yourself in trouble first then, you reckless idiot.” He croaks, and Lance laughs, the sound bright and delighted, before turning back to the Resistance, his ridiculous trench coat catching on the breeze as he strides back towards them.

 

“Alright, you gossipy fucks! You’ve had your oogling time, now back to work! We’ve got a camp to break down!” Lance barks loudly, Zenex slipping to his side, ever the faithful soldier, as the castle doors slip closed, the engines lighting up as they prepare for takeoff.

 

Somewhere in the recesses of Keith’s chest, there’s a spark, a small fluttering of joyhopeanxiety that feels like cool ice and running water and warm lips in a place where the hole in the lion bond rests, and Keith smiles giddily, Red purring happily in the back of his mind.

 

That promise to stay alive until he at least next sees Lance is one he’ll have to keep this time, he thinks.

 

Though, if he’s being honest, that doesn’t sound too bad at all.