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Never Knew the Summer Woods

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******

 

Once, Keith had a small necklace.

 

His dad had given it to him when he was five years old — a gold chain with a pendant shaped like a leaf. It had belonged to Keith's mother. She was a vague memory that he rarely dwelled on. Five-year-old Keith hadn't liked the necklace, but he’d worn it anyway … And he’d grown to love it over the years, especially the reassuring weight of the chain against his neck.

 

Then he’d lost it.

 

A stupid fight in the playground, a kid who yanked on his shirt, on the chain. Keith didn’t notice its absence until he was home … His father had told him that ultimately it was only a thing, and what really mattered were people and the memories of them that you carried.

 

And then Keith lost his father.

 

Memories weren’t enough.

 

He became wary, scared of loving and holding that love too closely — inevitably, it would hurt. But he couldn’t control it, not completely.

 

Shiro had noticed his talents, his ability to fly anything and everything, to fight people twice his size and come out on top. Shiro hadn’t been scared away by his scowling, unfriendly demeanour, meant to keep people at a distance. He treated Keith like family, with unconditional love and a need to see Keith do better.

 

Keith gave in. A fragile, warm weight began growing over his heart — the belief that maybe he wasn’t destined to lose everything that mattered to him.

 

And then Shiro disappeared.

 

Keith followed a pull into the desert. He buried himself in a project that had nothing to do with love and loss.

 

It didn’t matter that Shiro came back — that they were whisked away on an adventure, on a mission that took them all so far from anything they’d ever known.

 

None of it mattered because now Keith couldn’t stop himself from recoiling each time he felt a surge of affection for his team … For this new family that was forming around him without his permission. He laughed with them, he fought with them and for them, he shared meals with them, but he kept the care from sinking in too deeply, from weighing him down.

 

To love was to lose.

 

Yet, somehow, Keith’s chest hurt, and Lance was staring down at the bed, his wrecked voice demanding, “Just … what even is this?”

 

The bedspread was covered with red and white petals, and Keith’s heart clenched. He had no idea what the hell was going on, only that it was ridiculous, it didn’t make any sense …

 

And even though he’d worked so hard to keep the love away, he might lose everything regardless.

 

 

It started like this:

 

“Holy crap, look at all the flowers.” Lance breathed in deeply with his eyes closed, a wide grin spreading across his face. “Man, this is … Hunk, buddy, you gotta come see!”

 

“I’m here, I’m here,” Hunk said, joining Lance at the bottom of the Castle’s ramp, his own smile huge.

 

Keith stood just inside, staring towards a meadow of brilliant rainbow flowers; the riot of colour so loud that Keith narrowed his gaze to Hunk and Lance, even as they rushed out into the flora. Lance bent over to smell them, and Hunk sat in the middle of a bunch, brushing his hands over the petals.

 

“C’mon, guys, this is too pretty!” The Yellow Paladin waved excitedly. “You gotta see them up close!”

 

Pidge darted out past Keith, one of her modified computers clutched tightly in her hands. “The diversity is truly remarkable … Lance, Lance is that pink one actually moving? Hunk, the purple iris-like thing, my readout says it has a skeletal system with wings, look—”

 

“Not interested in investigating yourself?” Shiro asked, gazing with both amusement and fondness at the other Paladins rolling around on the ground.

 

Keith raised his eyebrows. “They’re just flowers. We saw a bunch of aliens with furry tentacles last week. This isn’t really all that …”

 

Lance sat up, laughing as Hunk — how, when, why? — put a flower crown on his head, all shades of blue, and a couple of white rose-looking flowers. The Blue Paladin glanced back over at the Castle, winking at Keith and Shiro.

 

Keith lost his way to the end of his sentence.

 

“You were saying?” Shiro sounded smug.

 

Keith wanted to push him down the ramp. He glared at Shiro, and then stared resolutely at the ground. Flowers were not worth getting that excited over.

 

“Goodness, this is beautiful!” Allura exclaimed. “The Hytherans are such a humble people — they didn’t even come close to describing the wonders of their world.”

 

Speaking of the Hytherans, a hovership was swiftly approaching them.

 

Keith finally jogged down the ramp, standing next to Hunk and Pidge as the ship came to a stop in front of them, floating above the tallest blooms.

 

Lance walked up behind Keith, throwing an arm around his shoulder. “Dude, we gotta get you a flower crown. That mullet is made to be covered in flowers. Hunk, make one for Keith. Duh, use red, but maybe throw in some dark blue and purple to match his soul.”

 

Keith elbowed Lance, but it was light, and Lance just laughed it off, bowing (while still wearing the crown) to the Hytherans as they disembarked to greet Team Voltron.

 

The eldest woman, a birdlike alien with soft feathers covering her entire body, except for her hands and her eyes, greeted them with a wide smile from her beakish mouth.

 

“Welcome to Hythera, and to the Fields of Alio’Kinos. We are so glad you’ve come. I am Kinyaos.” She caught sight of the crown on Lance’s head, and her smile widened. “That is wonderful. Do you also practise dalshinkar?

 

“Um, glad you like it, but what is … dalshinkar?” Lance asked, more or less nailing the pronunciation. “And does it involve eating live spiders? Because that’s a thing that happened to us once, and I really would like to not repeat it.”

 

Hunk shuddered behind them. “Please, never bring that up again. Also, here ya go, Keith.”

 

And there was a flower crown Keith couldn’t see being placed on his head. The Hytherans surrounding Kinyaos were laughing, a trilling sound that seemed to vibrate through their skin.

 

“Greetings, Kinyaos!” Allura swept in past them, shaking hands with the woman. “I am glad that we are welcome here. And it is so lovely! I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so beautiful!”

 

Pleased whistling sounds came from the group, and Kinyaos bowed deeply, one hand still in Allura’s. “You honour us, Princess, for we have records from our ancestors — Altea was one of the singular beauties in this universe.”

 

Allura’s smile didn’t falter, though a familiar sadness came to her eyes. “Yes, it was, and we will fight to keep the same from happening here. Please, lead the way to your capital.”

 

The hovership was large enough to accommodate all of them. Coran had elected to stay behind in the Castle for the first few outdoor activities. He’d begun sneezing almost as soon as they’d opened the Castle doors, blaming an allergy to “pollen from any turquoise flora or fauna. Yes, Pidge, there are indeed animals that produce pollen. I shall provide you with all the information assuming you don't bring any samples on board.”

 

“And to answer your question, Blue Paladin,” said one of the Hytherans, a male, Keith guessed. “Dalshinkar is an old tradition of courtship, wherein the couple gift one another with crowns of each other’s favourite blooms. Not many follow this custom any longer.”

 

Keith whipped around to face Lance, who was sitting at the back of the ship, sprawled out and taking up way more space than he should. He expected to see Lance making a shocked and/or disgusted face, but the Blue Paladin just winked at him. The flower crown had slipped a little further down his head on one side, resting at a jaunty angle.

 

“Pfft, Keith, you should be so lucky,” Lance said with a snort. “But also, Hunk made these crowns, so does that mean that Hunk’s courting both of us?”

 

“Uh, no way,” Hunk denied immediately, waving his hands for emphasis. “Nope, you two are bad enough on your own, let alone together. Way too much work for me, thanks.”

 

“Excuse you, pal, I am a joy to be around. Bestie, how can you do me like this?”

 

Lance held a hand to his heart, appearing wounded. His blue eyes flicked over to Keith, who hadn’t decided yet how he should be reacting beyond his initial surprise.

 

The thing was, he had never hated Lance, but he had definitely found him one of the most irritating people ever, and occasionally that caused feelings similar to loathing. It didn’t matter anymore, as that animosity had long since faded; they were pretty fantastic when they were fighting together, for one thing, and for another, Keith actually found some of Lance’s jokes to be funny (though he smothered his laughter and hid his smiles). Sometimes the Blue Paladin got on his nerves, but now, instead of arguing, he found it easier to counter Lance’s quips with his own — and it was especially gratifying to render Lance speechless or reduce him to tears of laughter.

 

In other words, someone suggesting that he and Lance might be together? Not all that offensive.

 

Once he’d settled his thoughts, Keith shrugged at Lance and then adjusted his flower crown, trying to appear indifferent. He had no idea why he had to try — he was totally okay with this — but for whatever reason, Lance’s expression had Keith wanting to duck behind Hunk to break eye contact.

 

Lance scrutinized him intensely for what felt like several minutes before unleashing one of his charming smiles. He turned to talk to a Hytheran at his side. This one Keith wasn’t sure if they were male or female, and he doubted if Lance could tell either — that didn’t stop the Blue Paladin from applying his usual round of over-the-top flirtations.

 

Keith rolled his eyes, feeling like the world was as it should be once again, and paid closer attention to the conversation between Shiro, Allura, and Kinyaos. Watching Lance flirt was only fun if he was about to get shut down hard, and considering the sweet smile of the Hytheran, that wasn’t the case today.

 

“… And after the ceremony, we shall visit a local hospital. There are many eager to see the Paladins of Voltron. It is a great legend amongst my people, and if you wouldn’t mind sparing some time—”

 

“Of course, we would be more than happy to do so!” Allura smiled brightly, her hands clasped together beneath her chin.

 

“Please let us know if there’s anything we can do to help,” Shiro added.

 

“Kids? We gonna visit some kids?” Lance asked hopefully.

 

Lance’s question was answered hours later, after several lengthy outdoor meetings, an impromptu duel, and a welcoming ceremony that nearly put Keith in a coma. (The only thing that kept him awake was Lance constantly trying to engage in a “Thumb War” with him. Keith won six out of seven matches. The Blue Paladin appeared oddly amused by this, even though one of those defeats nearly involved a dislocated thumb.)

 

The hospital was a beautiful structure — coloured glass, carved stonework, ivy crawling along the walls, and even more flowers.

 

They stood in the middle of a massive park, the backyard of the building, and Lance had at least twenty kids hanging onto his every word. Some of the Hytheran children were literally hanging off him, clinging to his limbs, a small girl attached to his back, her skinny arms wrapped around his neck. Hytheran younglings were tiny, their arms resembling wings (something they grew out of, Kinyaos informed them).

 

Keith had a small boy on his hip, a shy, dark-grey feathered child who had very simple interests: he liked the colour red, and he was fascinated by Keith’s hair.

 

“It’s soft like feathers, but it’s not?” he whispered. “How come?”

 

Keith tried to find a satisfactory answer. “Because it’s hair, and hair is … um, well, it’s like a kind of fur? You’ve seen aliens with fur, right?”

 

The boy nodded, his green eyes flicking to Lance, now being bowled over by several children, the others forming a circle and cheering. Keith could hear Lance giving loud, dramatic cries for help — and Hunk came over, his own little posse fluttering around him.

 

“It’s different, though. Why is yours only on your head?”

 

Keith desperately searched for Pidge — surely she could answer his questions.

 

Pidge arrived with several doctors in tow, talking a mile a minute as she held up her computer. A few more patients trailed them, sitting in hoverchairs, their feathers molted. The children had various ailments, all treatable, and he knew some of them had more permanent conditions, but Hytheran medicine was so advanced that Keith hadn’t seen anyone terminally sick. Until now.

 

These patients were … They looked pretty bad. A few kids broke off to greet them, and he noticed they stopped to pick a few flowers, offering them very solemnly to the new arrivals.

 

Keith tilted his head in question. “I’ll find an answer for you, Jusli, but … can I ask you something now?”

 

The little boy nodded, but before Keith could ask, Jusli was hiding his face in Keith’s armour — Lance had started shrieking, Hunk having lifted the Blue Paladin up and tossing him over his shoulder. The children were making even higher-pitched sounds, crying out joyfully, laughing in that trilling way. Shiro, Allura, and Kinyaos were standing with some of the older kids, and they were all grinning.

 

“Lance is harmless, I promise,” Keith told Jusli, not bothering to hide his own smile. “He’s just loud.”

 

Jusli pulled his head back, eying Lance suspiciously, but then seemed to remember that Keith wanted something. “Sorry. What’s your question?”

 

Keith faced the wilting patients, speaking quietly, “Do you know what’s wrong with them?”

 

“Oh, they have the Petal’Ing.”

 

Keith waited for a further explanation. When none came, Jusli staring at Lance and Hunk, looking more curious than afraid, Keith asked, “Um, what’s Petaling?”

 

Petal—Ing,” the child corrected him, only half paying attention. “Everybody knows.”

 

Keith walked towards Lance, mindful to not step on any running, screaming kids who darted about. “Sorry, Jusli, I’m not from here, remember?”

 

“Right!” Jusli didn’t seem nervous anymore, and he turned back to Keith, smiling. “You’re a Paladin! You’re from far away! And they don’t have it where you’re from?” Keith shook his head. “Oh, that’s good. It’s really sad.”

 

“What’s sad?”

 

Lance popped up in front of them, a little female Hytheran giggling as she tried to climb onto his shoulders. She was tiny enough that she could perch on one of Lance’s broad shoulders, her legs kicking blithely at his chest while her arms wrapped around his head. She buried her face in his hair, laughing.

 

Lance tickled her sides a bit as he spoke to Jusli, the Blue Paladin's smile smaller and gentler. “Hey kiddo, notice you latching onto boring ol’ Keith here. You doing okay?”

 

“He’s not boring!” Jusli defended. “He’s the Red Paladin! He’s got a sword!”

 

“Well, I have a rifle!” Lance countered.

 

“But swords are better! And he has a shield and he defeated Guard Captain Oleha in a duel!”

 

“Wow, you guys already heard about that? That was like, two hours ago, on the other side of town!” Lance seemed miffed, and Keith let himself smirk at the Blue Paladin.

 

“We saw it on the viewscreens — everyone watched!” Jusli tugged on Keith’s hair. “Can I sit on your shoulder?”

 

“Sure.” Keith lifted him up and settled Jusli so that those spindly legs bracketed his neck. He could feel Jusli investigating his hair further.

 

Lance looked a little flushed from chasing the kids around (and being chased himself), but his eyes were alight with energy.

 

“You’ve got yourself a loyal fan, dude. And he’s not wrong, that duel was pretty epic.” Lance poked at the girl again. “What do you think, Taneu?”

 

“I think you’re funny, and that’s best!” she said, giddy and clearly as fascinated with hair as Jusli. “And sharpshooters beat swordfighters.”

 

“Did you teach her that?” Keith asked wryly.

 

“Nope, Taneu is a big fan of sharpshooters in general. It’s a whole big sport thing here,” Lance replied, a hint of smugness in his voice.

 

“Ah, that explains why so many of the soldiers were fawning all over you at the barracks.” Keith felt an edge of relief he couldn’t explain.

 

“Hey, sorry to turn the subject away from my amazingness, but I gotta ask something,” Lance said abruptly, and Keith jerked a bit, surprised by the serious tone, by the fact that Lance didn’t take full advantage to start grandstanding about his skills. “Those Hytherans there … I wanna talk to them, but they look … I don’t want to offend anyone — learned my lesson after nearly being sacrificed to a volcano god a couple of planets back.”

 

“Yeah, I was just asking Jusli about them.” Keith saw that Allura, Shiro, Kinyaos, Coran (who was sneezing into a pink handkerchief), and Pidge were all talking with these patients; Allura embraced a few of them, offering flowers of her own.

 

While Lance and Keith watched, one patient had a horrible coughing fit, her hands shakily rising up to cover her mouth … And a burst of bright purple petals emerged from between her long fingers, like a puff of floral mist.

 

“What the—” Lance reeled back a little.

 

“The Petal’Ing is sad,” Taneu said seriously. “But we give them flowers and hope they get better.”

 

“It happens sometimes,” Jusli murmured. “But not always.”

 

Pidge was staring at the petals, picking up a few that had fluttered to the ground. They weren’t wet with saliva or mucous; they appeared as though they had fallen from a fresh bloom.

 

“Dude, that’s bizarre,” Lance breathed out. “How the … What even …”

 

“It only happens to a small segment of the population,” Kinyaos said, and Keith jumped, causing Jusli to squeal. He hadn’t heard or seen the older woman move.

 

Lance carefully took Taneu down from his right shoulder, holding her close to his chest as he faced Kinyaos. “What is it? Why can’t you treat it?”

 

“It’s a disease that has always been. Less than two percent are affected, and it only becomes fatal in those who are without a mate, though they know who their mate is.”

 

Keith processed this and said, slowly, “They … are dying of heartbreak?”

 

Oddly enough, he didn’t have much trouble believing this — the universe was filled with both wonders and tragedies. Losing someone could feel like dying, Keith knew full well. This planet having a disease that translated those emotions into a literal loss of life? Not surprising to him.

 

“Heartbreak? Is that what you call it on your world?” Kinyaos quirked her head to one side, a very birdlike mannerism. “Our scientists have discovered that the pollen of our flowers possibly carries the … blueprints of this illness. We all carry the potential for it to manifest.”

 

“Why the petals? How are the flowers responsible?” Lance seemed fascinated … and somber, his eyes focused on Kinyaos intently.

 

“Oh, that’s due to many generations of evolution. The pollen has long since permanently affected our species, and we are symbiotic, in a sense, with the flora. But the petals themselves — well, the virus responds to the flower that has similar genetic coding to their mate.”

 

“You share maybe a quarter of your genome with certain plants, Lance, it isn’t that hard to get,” Pidge called from nearby. She waved at them and grinned when Lance stuck his tongue out at her. “Maybe more than a quarter. Possibly half.”

 

“Hunk!” Lance shouted. “Pidge is being mean again!”

 

“Pidge, Lance doesn’t deserve it this time. Save it for when he does, please,” Hunk said from where he was weaving yet more flower crowns for the kids.

 

When I deserve it?” Lance squawked.

 

Taneu and Jusli were laughing, and Keith noticed Taneu sticking out her tongue at Jusli, who mimicked her in turn. Once again, the Blue Paladin had corrupted yet another alien race.

 

Keith appreciated the distraction from the ill Hytherans — there was nothing he could do for them, and he hated feeling helpless in the face of suffering.

 

“I know how we can know who is best!” Taneu said out of nowhere, pulling Keith further away from his dark ruminations. “Red and Blue Paladins! They need to race!”

 

“No, they need to duel!” Jusli cheered. “Duel!”

 

The rest of the children (now wearing flower crowns) started chanting Duel! Duel! Duel!

 

Lance put Taneu down. Keith did the same with Jusli.

 

“Rules of engagement?” Lance asked, stretching his arms, flexing his biceps towards a few Hytheran nurses and doctors. Which was pointless in the armour, but it got him a few winks and laughs.

 

Keith poked him in the stomach to get his attention. “No hair pulling, and no fake yielding, and do not start with that damn song—”

 

“Everybody was kung-fu fighting!” Lance yelled out like a battle cry as he launched himself at Keith.

 

It was possible that Keith was laughing while he flipped Lance, who managed to get out a, “Those kids were fast as lightning,” before he swiped at Keith’s legs with his own.

 

Somehow, they both forgot about the patients, the ones with the sad eyes and hunched in shoulders, and instead they concentrated on wrestling, grappling, crowing over each other and then getting their feet knocked out from under them.

 

Keith had something warm and powerful blossoming inside him, but that sensation he’d grown used to, present for almost as long as he’d been part of Voltron. He had become an expert in pushing it down, banishing it from his thoughts.

 

Right in that moment, all he wanted to do was erase the smirk from Lance’s face, and laugh as he pinned the Blue Paladin beneath him, somehow feeling even more triumphant when Lance’s smug expression transformed into an inexplicably content smile.

 

 

It ended like this:

 

They were at dinner with the head of the Hytheran Global Government. Lead Minister Resthoy was a kind, elderly woman with bright green feathers, a few grey and white ones lining her head and arms.

 

Shiro explained the exact role Voltron played in keeping the Galra at bay, while Pidge was showing Coran all the new technological blueprints she’d received from the engineers and doctors; Keith could hear them discussing an upgrade to the healing wing of the Castle. Hunk and Lance attempted to sneak food off and onto each other’s plates in a weird, complicated game.

 

In the midst of all this, Keith asked Kinyaos if it was possible to have Lance perform some kind of shooting match with their top competitors, since one of two things would happen: Lance would be defeated, and Keith could hold it over his head for weeks, or Lance would win and then be insufferably arrogant for months.

 

Either outcome was acceptable to Keith, to be honest — they both had opportunities for entertainment. Keith had a more than reasonable belief that the Blue Paladin could hold his own … And the confidence boost would be better for them as a team because Lance, for all his boasting, sometimes didn’t know that he contributed in very real ways to Voltron.

 

That had become important to Keith — making sure his team members were justifiably proud of themselves. He couldn’t lift people up with jokes and easy compliments the way Lance or Hunk could, couldn’t motivate and reassure them like Shiro, but arranging small things like this … That he could do, to keep them in fighting shape.

 

With everything happening at once, with everybody so relaxed after a relatively uneventful day, no one really noticed at first when Lance went bizarrely silent.

 

Hunk and Keith were the first to pick up on the way he kept clearing his throat, swallowing constantly while no longer touching his food. Hunk said something quietly to Lance that Keith couldn’t hear from across the table, and Lance opened his mouth to reply …

 

But instead, he started coughing.

 

Huge, wracking coughs, shaking his entire frame; tears were pouring down his face.

 

Keith was on his feet, rushing around the table. Shiro beat him to Lance’s side, one hand on his back, the other trying to offer Lance some water. The Blue Paladin couldn’t speak, and then …

 

And then he coughed particularly brutally — a puff of crimson petals.

 

Keith stared, his eyes transmitting a sight to his brain that did not compute.

 

Lance sagged back in his seat, his arms limp, his breath wheezing.

 

Hunk reached with trembling fingers to pick up a perfectly shaped petal, a red that faded to a small burst of white on the lower tip.

 

“That … that shouldn’t be possible,” Pidge said in a shaky voice, sounding both the bright scientist and the scared fifteen-year-old.

 

“No, no, it should not,” said Kinyaos, and Keith saw her typing frantically on her communicator. “This disease is tied to our species, no other aliens have ever—”

 

“There’s never been any humans here,” Hunk said, his hands on Lance, on his neck, on his arm, squeezing gently. The Yellow Paladin’s eyes were wide with fright. “We … we should have realized. We’ve been lucky—”

 

“No, we’ve been protected by the Castle and the immunizations Coran gave us … But you’re right, with the array of aliens we’ve encountered …” Pidge trailed off, getting between Keith and Lance, pressing a small hand to Lance’s chest. “How … how are … Lance, can you—”

 

“The doctors are here, we must get him to the hospital.” Kinyaos signalled a pair of blue-robbed Hytherans, pointing towards Lance. “Please, we can—”

 

“No.” It was a dry whisper, but clear. “Don’t … don’t let them … I don’t want to be taken away in, in an ambulance or …”

 

Shiro interrupted Lance by smoothly moving Hunk aside, kneeling down next to the Blue Paladin. “Okay, okay, kiddo. Tell you what, I’m gonna pick you up and take you to the doctors. I won’t leave your side the whole way there.”

 

Lance swallowed, and it sounded painful. Keith couldn’t believe … In the space of a few minutes, Lance went from bright and irrepressible to this grey-faced, raspy-voiced …

 

“Hunk?” Lance croaked. “Buddy, can you …”

 

“Yeah!” Hunk said without letting Lance finish. “Yeah, man, me and Shiro, we got you, we got this.”

 

“Try … not to make … me look like too much of a damsel …” Lance’s lips quirked up slightly.

 

Shiro smiled as he slid an arm under Lance’s knees and another behind his back. “Okay, one, two,” and he lifted the Blue Paladin up, adjusting his grip on him when Lance slid down a bit. “Right, is there a ship that can take us to the hospital?”

 

“This way, this way,” chattered one of the Hytherans.

 

Kinyaos rapidly followed Shiro, Hunk, and Lance out towards the transport.

 

Pidge grabbed Keith’s wrist. “Let’s go!”

 

Keith let her yank him, his limbs feeling numb, his mind incapable of completing a thought.

 

They ended up hitching another ride to the hospital, arriving maybe fifteen or twenty minutes behind Lance and the others. Coran, Pidge, and Allura all rushed to Kinyaos, who was standing in a large, well-lit hallway, waiting for them with a distinctly frightened expression.

 

“Princess, if we had any idea that this disease could be transmittable …”

 

“Please, we do not blame you — how is Lance?”

 

“He is … he is in the final stages of the Petal’Ing. It came on so quickly … but this is the point where many of our people … they have several solar cycles left. At most.”

 

Keith had never actually experienced fainting outside of extreme blood loss or dehydration. So, that unpleasant, floating feeling, while familiar, caught him off-guard — he tipped over into a wall, not entirely sure what was happening at first.

 

Pidge grabbed him, preventing him from smashing too hard into the surface, from sliding to the floor. She braced him up, her arm wrapped around his waist, her other hand grabbing one of his arms to pull over her neck.

 

“Okay, okay, Keith, you need to breathe.”

 

“I’m fine,” Keith said, but his voice was small. “I’m …”

 

At that moment, Shiro filled his field of vision, coming in to relieve Pidge of her burden. “Hold on, okay, let’s get you to a seat—”

 

“Shiro, forget it … Just tell me how Lance is doing.” Keith managed to gather his legs more steadily beneath him, standing straight and out of the support of Shiro and Pidge’s arms.

 

“He’s, he’s coughing up petals every few minutes. It’s not pretty, and Hunk is trying to calm him down. They’re going to give him something so he can rest for a bit. Apparently, patients that are asleep don’t form … the petals in their lungs as fast while they’re unconscious. So there’s that. It’ll buy us some more time until we can figure out how to solve this.”

 

Shiro seemed absolutely confident. But Keith could see worry behind the fearless leader façade.

 

Pidge looked up at Shiro with eyes that were gleaming. “They said there’s likely no cure.”

 

“There is one, it’s just a matter of finding out who … who Lance is in love with.”

 

“Assuming the disease even works that way in humans!” Pidge shouted, a tear escaping down her face. “Maybe he just caught the virus based on the pollen, maybe we all have it and—”

 

“There is merit to your young scientist’s words,” Kinyaos broke in softly. “We need all of you to submit to tests. If you please, the doctors are waiting over in this examination room …”

 

Keith cast his gaze back towards the hallway that Shiro had come from, and then followed Kinyaos to another brightly lit room. It had floor to ceiling windows, a fragrant breeze coming in from the gardens below. The gardens where they had played with the children just that afternoon.

 

Hunk came in while Coran was being tested, the Yellow Paladin ready to submit to his own examination.

 

Keith went to ask him more about Lance — Hunk would give him a better answer than Shiro, he knew — but Hunk only levelled him with a cold stare.

 

In a voice Keith had never heard from the other boy before, he said, “When I’m done here, you and me? We’re going to talk.

 

That had Keith confused, jerking him out of the daze he’d been in since the first few red petals had fluttered out of Lance.

 

“What’s going on?” he asked roughly twenty minutes later, after their examinations.

 

Hunk had gestured at Keith to follow him out into those same gardens, cast in interesting colours now that the night had fallen. Apparently, a few of these flowers were luminescent in the light of the moon.

 

“You need to save Lance, right now.” Hunk’s eyes were boring into Keith’s. “It was funny, y’know? Watching the two of you dance around each other—”

 

“Wha—what?”

 

“But that’s going to end now, because Lance is dying, and you need to get your head out of your ass, and save him.

 

Keith’s mouth was open, no words coming out because his brain had nothing. There was no sense in what Hunk was saying. Keith did not understand what the hell Hunk meant. 

 

“You’ve … you’ve gotta give me more than that. You know I would stop this if I could—”

 

“And you can, you moron. Both of you, holy crap — Lance was begging me not to say anything, even while he was choking, even while …” Hunk trailed off, wiping at his eyes, pressing his fingers over his closed lids for a long moment. “This level of stubbornness isn’t funny anymore. Keith, Lance is in love with you.

 

Silence.

 

Keith stood there, swaying on unsteady ground. Could the world stop spinning for three seconds so he could figure this out?

 

He couldn’t seem to gather his thoughts in peace for even a moment since dinner. Hunk was glaring at him with an anger that fell just short of murderous, and of fucking course Keith wanted to save Lance’s life — he had thrown himself in front of blades, fallen on grenades, taken laser blasts for the Blue Paladin. And Lance had done the same for him.

 

Keith would take the bullet if he could, but there was no bullet. There was no sword or fleet of Galra ships.

 

Because Lance was in love with him.

 

But Keith didn’t … Keith couldn’t … Keith wasn’t in love with Lance.

 

And that would actually kill him.

 

“Oh …” Keith fell back against a low garden wall, the stone cool beneath his hands. He slid down onto it abruptly, his skin tingling as his blood withdrew, leaving him pale and shaky. “Oh … oh fuck. Oh god, Hunk … I can’t do this. I can’t—”

 

Are you serious right now?” Hunk demanded, his voice rising. “How can you and Lance both be this ridiculous! What the hell does pride, does embarrassment matter when death is on the line!”

 

“We need to see if this is something they can treat.”

 

Keith had to believe there was a cure for Lance. Human biology was different, and they had the healing pods back on the Castle — they could fix practically anything. That time Pidge had almost lost an arm? No problem. Hunk getting skewered by a huge piece of jagged shipwreck? Totally okay. This was just another one of those times. It would be fine.

 

“Except that the only known cure is right in front of us. So why the hell wouldn’t we try that first?”

 

“Because …” The words got stuck in his throat. He had to swallow several times, his hands coming up to cover his eyes, feeling dampness against his fingers as he spoke in a hoarse voice, “Because I don’t love him.”

 

He didn’t love anyone. He made perfectly damn sure he couldn’t, wouldn’t love …

 

Hunk went quiet. Keith managed to hold back the tears. He felt so damn tired, even as the adrenaline kept rushing through his veins. This day had been full of diplomatic discussions and visitations, that duel, and then the kids, and the sparring match with Lance, and now … What little remained of his energy had been sapped completely, even if his body kept itself upright and functioning.

 

“You … you mean that, don’t you?”

 

Keith’s hands dropped into his lap, and his eyes, still a little blurry, looked up to Hunk.

 

The Yellow Paladin was crying.

 

“You’re … you’re not in love with him?” Hunk stepped forward, his steps dragging, stumbling. “Keith, not even a little? He’s my best friend, my family — I wish I loved him like that, so I could save him, but he’s my brother.

 

Keith couldn’t think, couldn’t organize his thoughts enough to sort out his feelings; he so rarely acknowledged any feelings, out of fear. But now, with a clear and present danger, with a life hanging in the balance … He had no choice but to try.

 

He only knew that as much as he liked Lance, as much as he felt that fond, familiar kind of affection, the sort that came out of so much team bonding and battle camaraderie, he couldn’t find love anywhere in there. But he’d never felt that kind of love for anybody. Would he recognize it? His mind recoiled, instinctual, almost out of his control — he just couldn’t scrutinize his own emotions too closely … Everything in him revolted against it, like trying to push two opposing sides of a magnet together.

 

“I don’t know?” He liked that answer because it meant that there was a possibility, there was hope.

 

“Guys?” Shiro appeared in the entrance to the gardens, looking at them both with a weary concern. “Everything all right? I mean, insofar as it can be?”

 

Hunk swiped at his eyes again. “You know, right? You know that Lance is in love with Keith.”

 

Shiro paused in his walk towards them. “Yeah. I did. But I only found out today. Allura told me a few minutes ago.”

 

Keith exhaled loudly, trying to disguise the trembling of his hands by crossing his arms. “I need to figure out if I’m in love with him, but I don’t … Shiro, help me, I can’t figure this out.” It galled him to admit as much, and it filled him with panic to have to try …

 

But this was to save Lance’s life, so Keith beat the terror back ferociously.

 

Hunk seemed to calm with Shiro nearby, a plaintive look on his face. “How do you even go about proving love?”

 

“Let’s break it down into stages.” Shiro’s brisk, no-nonsense tone kicked into full effect.

 

This relaxed Keith a little, enough to allow him to focus. “Okay, like what?”

 

“Well, some romantic love can start off as basic attraction?” Shiro tilted his head with a faint, knowing smile. “Have you ever been attracted to Lance?”

 

That got a glare out of Keith, though it was probably totally ineffective, given how he could feel his face heating up. This would be when telling his idol and older brother figure everything came back to bite him

 

You know I have, jerk. You could have just said it, instead of—”

 

“Really? When?” Hunk asked, a small bit of good humour restored to him. “Man, Lance is gonna gloat so hard when we tell him.”

 

“Look, he’s a really good sharpshooter,” Keith tried to explain, reddening further. “And we were on that planet, the one that was all humid and sticky and gross. Lance was up in a tree, and he was shirtless, and he had this bandana wrapped around his forehead to keep the sweat away, and it just … It worked for me, okay? Damn it, Shiro …”

 

“That was probably one of my favourite late night conversations,” Shiro said fondly, completely without shame. “You looked so distressed. It was great. And I know it’s happened more often since then — you are really bad at disguising your ogling face.”

 

“See, this is what I mean.” Hunk huffed out a brief laugh, pointing at Keith. “That’s why I’m so sure he’s in love with Lance.”

 

“Keith is in love with Lance?” Pidge said with relief. “Okay, so everything’s good, right? We can fix this?”

 

They all turned to see her and Allura coming towards them, Allura with a hand on Pidge’s back.

 

“It’s not that easy.” Shiro welcomed them with another small smile. “Keith doesn’t know what he feels, exactly, for Lance, and we’re trying to suss it out. So far, we know that he's physically attracted to him, but that’s not going to be enough.”

 

“Keith, you’ve been staring longingly at Lance for months.” Pidge raised both hands, dragging them down her face, wringing and waving them about. “I thought you at least had a crush on him. What’s so hard to understand?”

 

“I’ve never had a serious crush on anyone!” Keith felt worse again, and maybe Pidge could see it — she winced, looking contrite. “Feelings aren’t my strong suit, okay?”

 

Pidge sighed. “Right. Sorry. I’m just … Lemme tell you this much — the attraction is all well and good, but I’ve definitely seen you do that stare, the cheesy one that Shiro gets sometimes when Allura is kicking ass or being a science wizard or—”

 

“Yes, thank you, Pidge, we get it,” Shiro cut her off, even as Allura grinned happily and Hunk hid a snort in his shoulder. “But yeah, I’ve seen that one, too. Usually when Lance is cracking a really terrible joke.”

 

“Or when you’re watching him spar,” Hunk contributed.

 

“Or when Lance is off flying on his own,” Pidge added. “And before you ask, I know because you've been using my new satellite camera network. You touch my stuff? I know instantly.”

 

“You two have a very specific sort of banter,” Allura chimed in. “A set of exchanges unique to the pair of you.”

 

“One might even call it flirting.” Shiro nudged Keith gently in the shoulder.

 

“Okay, so I’ve been flirting!” Keith said, trying to end the humiliation and get to the important parts — though his brain reeled from the revelation that he’d been actively doing the one thing he’d worked so damn hard to avoid doing. “We’ve been flirting, but … listen, I … I don’t know if this is …”

 

“If you don’t know for certain, then I’m afraid there may be no saving your friend in this manner,” Kinyaos said from the garden entrance. She smiled when they all turned to her. “But there might be another method worth attempting.”

 

“What method?” Hunk demanded straightaway.

 

“I have just confirmed with our doctors that he is healthy enough to attempt it, otherwise I would not have brought it up at all. It is very rarely used — a surgery that endeavours to remove all the gestating flower seeds. The percentages for survival are quite low. Most elect to simply let the disease take its course, as … it also has other side effects.”

 

“Which are?” Shiro asked, one hand on Pidge’s shoulder, the other seeking out Allura’s and finding it. Keith watched as the princess squeezed his hand tightly.

 

“If the patient is fortunate enough to survive, their breathing can be compromised for the rest of their life. Sometimes a lung needs to be removed entirely. Also … they lose their mate.”

 

Hunk gasped. “As in the other person dies?”

 

Before Keith could react, Kinyaos shook her head.

 

“No, no, not at all — they simply are no longer attached.” Kinyaos glanced towards Keith. “He would no longer want you as his life partner.”

 

The other risks aside, this was exactly what both Lance and Keith needed. He stood up. “Do it. I don’t care if he’s in love with me or not, only that he survives.”

 

“Coran is trying to convince him of this, but he is … being reluctant.”

 

Keith groaned — of course. Lance would whine about his skin care regimen, wail about a paper cut, but an actual life-threatening injury or illness? Not a hint of self-preservation whatsoever. Keith knew he himself could be stubborn about his injuries, but he and Lance were actually tied for Most Time Spent In Cryopods.

 

“Right, then we’re heading over there now,” Hunk said briskly, grabbing Keith’s arm. “Lance needs to be beat over the head sometimes, for his own good.”

 

“You don’t need to tell me twice,” Keith muttered. He didn’t pull out of Hunk’s grip, letting him lead the charge to Lance’s room.

 

Coran was just leaving as they entered the hallway. He caught sight of them and shook his head.

 

Keith’s hands clenched into fists once again.

 

When they reached the door, Hunk held it open, waited for Keith to enter first, and then announced, “Lance, Keith knows it’s him, so Keith is here to tell you something very important. You both understand this is a life-or-death situation? Great, now fix it.”

 

The door slammed shut behind Keith, leaving him alone. With Lance.

 

Lance looked horrified, his blood-shot eyes wide, the vibrant ocean blue dimmed. Unnaturally pale skin, cracked lips … The stark difference between him now and him just that morning …

 

Keith’s stomach rolled, and his fear blanked his mind for a few terrifying seconds. He fell into the seat next to the bed, unsure of what words would be best to start with …

 

“I … I’ve had unreciprocated crushes,” Lance said weakly, a bit of colour returning to his face as he blushed. “But this is ridiculous.”

 

“It’s not a crush,” Keith refuted — if there was one thing he could do, without even thinking, it was argue with Lance, and that was a relief. “It isn’t just a crush.”

 

“I know!” Lance snapped, but a strange little smile played at the corner of his mouth. “Man, do I know it. If I didn’t realize before, well …”

 

As if to make his point, he coughed suddenly, a handful of petals floating gradually down onto the covers.

 

Keith’s chest hurt, and Lance was staring down at the bed, his wrecked voice demanding, “Just … what even is this?”

 

“Lance … have the surgery. Please.” Keith had no problem with begging, not if it would save Lance’s life. “What is—”

 

“Hold on.” Lance held up one hand, taking time to clear his throat. “You may think it’s some stupid romantic gesture, but look, did you hear the odds? It’s more than likely to kill me anyways! And even if it doesn’t, I could lose a lung, I could need, like, walking life-support for my whole life …”

 

“But you’re dead without it!” Keith erupted, slamming a fist onto the bed, near Lance’s waist. “It’s certain death on one hand, and maybe surviving on the other — what is your problem?”

 

“Maybe that I don’t know if I could live with seeing you guys off to battle every damn day, and not help?” Lance fought back, panting between words. “Or maybe that I get it, okay? You’ve hammered it into my head enough times that I’m a kickass sharpshooter, that I’m funny, and you all love and appreciate me as the god amongst men that I am … But if I become … if I’m just a weight you need to carry around …”

 

“Right, so you didn’t actually absorb anything of what we’ve told you, then,” Keith interrupted harshly. “We don’t care about you conditionally. You are our family, and that’s whether you’re piloting Blue or not. If you’re sniping Galra from a thousand metres away or not. Damn it, Lance, I would take having your asthmatic ass annoying the hell out of me via comms over … Silence.”

 

He had to swallow hard after that.

 

“I feel like there’s an insult to asthmatics in there, how insensitive of you.” Lance’s scolding made Keith smile, if only for a moment.

 

“You’d have some kind of breathing problem, but do you see the technology available to us? Do you want to make it back to Earth to see your family or not? Please. Just …” Keith took a chance, his fingers reaching for Lance’s, entangling their hands. “Don’t be stupid, stupid.”

 

Lance laughed, coughing out a few petals. “Ah, such logic!” He squeezed his fingers. “Right, so maybe a small, idiotic part of me doesn’t want to lose this … feeling I get around you. It’s the nicest pain I’ve ever felt.”

 

“You’re right, that does sound idiotic.” Keith held his hand tightly, smiling again, this time more sincerely. “It’s … good to know that. But I don’t want you to die for it.”

 

“Okay. Okay, you’ve convinced me.” A tear escaped down Lance’s face even as he smiled back. “Let’s … do this.”

 

Keith stood up swiftly, squeezing Lance’s hand one last time before letting go and rushing to fling open the door.

 

There was a whirlwind of movement and noise after Keith ran out of the room yelling that Lance had given in.

 

By the time everything settled, Lance sat on a floating gurney, ready to be led to surgery.

 

Everyone crowded around his bed, hugging him, crying on him, interrogating the doctors and demanding constant by-the-minute updates. Coran managed to do all of the above, while both Shiro and Allura seemed especially concentrated on getting nitty-gritty details from all the medical professionals. Pidge, Keith suspected, was hacking hospital cameras and comms just in case.

 

Keith felt everyone take a few steps back as he pressed in close to Lance’s side. Those blue eyes seemed brighter already, somehow, and Keith didn’t hesitate.

 

He leaned in, brushing his lips against Lance’s mouth, feeling the sharp inhalation of breath, followed by a tender return pressure.

 

The warmth of it was … nice, but Keith was too afraid to dwell on it. Like always.

 

He pulled back just a little, shrugging with a small grin. “We hadn’t tried that cliché yet … Just wanted to cover all our bases.”

 

Lance stared at him with wide eyes … and then coughed in his face, satin petals hitting Keith’s cheek and mouth. Lance actually laughed. “Sorry, buddy … but maybe a second time will do the trick?”

 

He waggled his eyebrows, and Keith felt cool relief slide down his spine. Lance was going to be just fine. He might not love him anymore, but he’d be alive. That was all that mattered.

 

“We must proceed to the surgery room,” one of the doctors intruded on their moment, sounding reluctant. “We will keep you apprised as the surgery progresses.”

 

Kinyaos came forward to put a hand on Keith’s shoulder, a kind reminder to stay behind as Lance finally floated off to the procedure wing.

 

Hunk grabbed Keith’s arm once Lance was out of sight. “He’s going to be fine. Yeah. Just fine.” His voice cracked on that last word, a hitching sob escaping.

 

Keith grabbed Hunk by both shoulders, forcing him to look Keith in the eye. “Hunk — trust me. Lance is going to survive, I just know it in my gut. You know how good my instincts are.”

 

“Yes. Right,” Hunk breathed out slowly. “I believe you. Lance isn’t going to get knocked out of the ring by this — he’s gonna stomp some flower butt. Gotcha.”

 

Holding back a smile, Keith nodded solemnly.

 

He ended up sandwiched between Shiro and Hunk. Allura kept wandering away to speak with the nurse who gave them updates almost every twenty minutes. The third or fourth of those conversations lasted a long, long while — long enough that Shiro got up to see what was happening. Keith was about to head over there as well, but Coran took Shiro’s place, keeping Keith away with a firm shake of his head and a too-strong grip on Keith’s shoulder.

 

Kinyaos joined them shortly afterwards, also taking a turn to speak with Shiro and Allura. By the time that conversation wrapped up, they all looked strangely expressionless, and Keith was about to try and fight his way out of Coran’s hold …

 

But then Allura broke out into a broad smile as she walked over to them, clasping her hands together.

 

“Lance is out of surgery and he’s … he’s alive and doing just fine. No lung removal was necessary.”

 

Hunk let out an incoherent, joyful yell, and Pidge reappeared from wherever she’d disappeared to, jumping into the Yellow Paladin’s arms, and then Coran’s, and then Keith’s. She darted over to Shiro, who picked her up and swung her around, laughing when Pidge protested and kicked out at him.

 

Once Shiro let Pidge have her way, dropping her to her feet, he went over to Keith.

 

For whatever reason, he hadn’t been able to stand up to express his own happy relief.

 

“Lance isn’t in love with you anymore,” Shiro said slowly. “That okay with you?”

 

Keith nodded, his eyes blinking rapidly. “Why wouldn’t it be?” He couldn’t quite vocalize how damn glad he was that the Blue Paladin hadn’t died — they had come so close …

 

“Because he’s not able to love you? Genuinely reciprocate the flirting?” Shiro put a hand on Keith’s knee. “Listen, you have to tell us right now if this is going to … Are you …”

 

Keith leapt to his feet, a surge of energy that sent him flying past Shiro, past all of them.

 

“It’s fine, why are you suddenly worried about me? It’s not — I didn’t love Lance, we established this, it’s why he had to get the surgery!”

 

He was angry, though he couldn’t say why.

 

Now Hunk and Pidge were staring at him, too. Allura reached out a hand, and he batted it away.

 

She stuck close to him, obstinately refusing to give him space. “Keith, it’s all right to have feelings about this, even if you didn’t love Lance the same way. It’s a loss for you as well.”

 

“No, it … Why …” This was stupid. Why was everyone so concerned all of a sudden? Why was he annoyed with their concern? Lance had nearly died; they should be focused on him. “It’s fine …”

 

He made himself say it out loud, just to prove a point.

 

“It’s fine that Lance doesn’t love me.”

 

Maybe the point would have been better proven if he hadn’t collapsed onto the ground just then.

 

 

It begins anew like this:

 

Several things happened at once.

 

Keith hit the floor, the world spinning in a colourful array all around him.

 

The sound of Shiro yelling, of Allura calling for a doctor, of Pidge and Hunk rushing to his side, (Coran was at his back in an instant) — all of it kicked off simultaneously. Keith’s insides clenched and rolled, as his mind tried to process everything in one fell swoop.

 

Then all his brain could concentrate on was the sight, the only clear sight, of Lance, sliding in-between everyone, looking wrecked, wearing hospital scrubs stained with blood, his eyes huge in his face, still bloodshot, his lips cracked and bleeding.

 

His hand shook as he reached for Keith, shouting at the others with a hoarse voice, “I said not to do this, why would you …

 

Keith wheezed and coughed a dark blue petal onto the floor in front of him.

 

Everything finally stopped. Everyone stared …

 

… at the single petal, iridescent and a rich midnight colour.

 

“Keith …” Lance's hand was braced on the floor, his fingers inching over to the petal, just brushing by. “Keith … are you …”

 

Keith looked up into perfect blue eyes — and he knew. He had known for all of three minutes, but he let himself feel the full measure of everything, so he had no doubt whatsoever as he breathed out the words.

 

“I love you.

 

His heart broke, had broken three minutes ago, when he understood with certainty that Lance no longer loved him.

 

He’d lost before he’d even had anything to lose. 

 

He almost laughed at his own ridiculousness. He had to force himself not to run, so instinctual was it to disappear when something good like this welled up inside him. But the good was gone, and the hurt was here, and there was nowhere he could go to hide. He would carry that pain with him until he died, which would now be sooner rather than later.

 

Tears streamed down Lance’s cheeks as he smiled brightly, a hand coming up to cup Keith’s jaw.

 

“Yeah?” he whispered. “Well, I loved you first.”

 

And then he kissed him.

 

Keith closed his eyes, accepted the empty gesture for what it was — a reciprocation of what Keith had given Lance right before his surgery. He lifted his hands to grip Lance’s shoulders, then slid them around to Lance’s back, tugging him in closer despite the awkwardness of their positions on the cold, hard floor.

 

Lance separated just enough to be able to look Keith in the eyes again, his own sparkling. “And I love you still. Stupid.

 

Keith stared unblinkingly … Then he reached for Lance’s scrubs, yanking at the ties holding them closed — they parted to reveal a fresh line, already scarring. Which meant that he had … 

 

Lance sat down, cross legged, taking Keith’s hands tenderly between his own.

 

“So, they get a good look inside my lungs to see that the seeds are mostly gone? Not entirely … but enough to make them think I’m in the process of getting cured the natural way. I wake up and they’re telling me there’s a chance you might be un poquito in love with me.” Lance tilted his head, frowning. “One of the doctors suggested a plan that she’d always wanted to try, but I said no, because telling you I’d died was way, way too cruel …”

 

“We modified the plan,” Kinyaos interjected delicately. “Because Lance was right—”

 

“I was still not okay with the modification,” Lance said fiercely. “I would never want you to feel the way I felt — or start coughing up petals because that sucks hardcore.”

 

“We knew Keith would take his own temporary discomfort if it meant sparing you from losing a lung, or your life, Lance.” Allura offered up an apologetic smile. “Though that we did so without your knowledge was cruel. Your ignorance was necessary to test out this theory, but we do regret the pain it caused you.”

 

“You were right.” Keith squeezed Lance’s hands. “I would’ve let you do anything to me to save Lance. I would’ve given up one of my lungs if you told me that would help.”

 

“Geez, Keith.” Lance laughed. “Okay, you love me, Red, I get it.”

 

“And so do I, now.” Keith felt a smile growing on his face. “I get it.”

 

A swooping, flying feeling, terrifying but so damn freeing, just like piloting his Lion was.

 

“I’d just like to say that I totally called it, right from the start,” Hunk announced proudly. “And Lance?” Hunk came close enough to drop to his knees and wrap Lance up in a brutally tight embrace. “If I could’ve given you a lung, I would’ve. Love you, buddy.”

 

Lance let go of Keith’s hands just long enough to throw his arms around Hunk’s neck, his eyes falling shut as he hugged back. “Back ‘atcha, bro.”

 

“We would’ve offered up any number of body parts to ensure your survival,” Coran chipped in, a hand coming down to ruffle Lance’s hair. “So while you and Keith have a love story for the ages, please don’t discount how much the rest of us adore you.”

 

Lance coughed, pulling back swiftly to examine the space between himself and Hunk, grinning when no petals were present. “Okay, okay, please, no more, or else they’re going to have to admit me for some kind of sugar overdose.”

 

“I feel like there’s a path towards retribution here, for all the times you’ve embarrassed us with your shameless flirtations?” Allura paired her cheerful tone with an evil smile.

 

“Oh, yes,” Pidge concurred with a similar, yet far more terrifying expression. “And don’t leave Keith out, since it was their combined stupidity that caused us a whole bunch of grief today.”

 

“Everybody, stop,” Shiro said sternly, stepping in. “I get that we’re all on a happy high right now, but Lance did just almost die, and Keith’s had himself a rough time of it, too … So let’s give them some space for a few days. Kinyaos, would you be willing to have your doctors keep a close eye on them for however long they deem necessary?”

 

“Most certainly!” She clapped her hands excitedly. “The recovery suites are most comfortable. We assure you that they will lack for nothing.”

 

“This is sounding a bit like a romantic getaway, if not for the doctors.” Lance shot a cheeky little grin towards Keith. “But I’m cool with it, if you are?”

 

Keith nodded, reclaiming one of Lance’s hands, paying close attention to the scars and callouses, committing them to memory. He had plans to do that with every inch of Lance. Maybe he blushed a bit when his mind provided imagery of what that might mean, but mostly it was just … It was just because he couldn’t stand the idea of not knowing, especially now that he comprehended what it was to nearly lose.

 

Almost losing was different from loss — Keith understood how to recover after someone was gone. But very nearly having them disappear, only to have them return in an instant …

 

With Shiro, he’d suspected almost immediately that he was alive, somewhere, but even so, he’d had a year to mourn, to move on until pieces of evidence emerged that all was not as it seemed. But with Lance … this had been certain death, and now it wasn’t. The whiplash had him dizzy.

 

Once he knew that Lance was everything he wanted, his first instinct had been to bolt. Even now, the urge was there to get away before the pain ever had a chance to sink its claws into him again … Yet he held Lance’s hand in an immovable grip.

 

No. Any pain was worth getting a shot at keeping this, for however long he could.

 

There were discussions happening as the doctors elaborated on Lance’s condition, on needing to examine Keith, and the other Paladins were asking questions and demanding test results …

 

But Lance ignored them all as he pulled Keith in, resting his head on Keith’s shoulder. Keith rearranged his legs so that they were as close as they could possibly be, and it proved tough to keep his fight or flight urges down, to adjust to this kind of affection … He wanted to get used to it.

 

Lance laughed into Keith’s neck out of nowhere — maybe simply out of sheer joy.

 

Keith found himself grinning into Lance’s hair, feeling hope and happiness tentatively take root deep inside his chest.

 

 

And it continues on like this:

 

“How can you stand flowers after—”

 

“Because they brought us together, dude, do you not see the romanticism?” Lance pointed at Keith with the bouquet of red and blue blooms. “Yeah, maybe I got a little itch in my throat just looking at them, but I’m not gonna be afraid of flowers for the rest of my life. Consider this my exposure therapy, okay?”

 

Keith glared at the petals, unable to keep a shiver from shooting down his spine. That was not something he was going to get over any time soon, but he agreed with Lance that he couldn’t let himself be crippled by the sight of petals.

 

“Right. Fine. Where did you get those, anyway?” Keith watched from a sprawled position in bed as Lance dropped the bouquet into a vase he’d brought with him.

 

“The ambassador of Yerf’dithin.

 

Lance put the vase down on his dresser. (Keith’s gear lived entirely in one half of the closet of their new room, whereas Lance somehow managed to claim the other half, the dresser, and Keith suspected more clothes were hiding beneath the bed.)

 

“She was very impressed with my sniping abilities. Apparently that’s something they share in common with the Hytherans, being sister planets and all …” Lance went off on a lengthy ramble.

 

Keith flicked his gaze down to his computer, scrolling through intelligence reports. Shiro had forwarded them to keep him occupied while Lance was off playing diplomat. Keith lay on his stomach, his feet kicking in the air, reading about a fleet of Galra ships near the Ednos sector …

 

A billowy shirt landed on his head.

 

He yanked it off and glared at Lance, who was now wearing a loose tank top and glaring back, posed with his hands on his hips.

 

“Dude, I’m trying to tell you about my awesomeness — like, I shot three different moving targets, from four hundred metres away. C’mon, where’s my ‘oooh’s and ‘aaaaah’s?”

 

“Oooh. Ahhh,” Keith deadpanned. He ducked out of the way as Lance threw his shoes next; Keith brushed them off the bed while speaking nonchalantly, “Also, that last target was nearly five hundred metres away, don’t undersell that. They camouflaged the second one, which I thought was kind of a dirty move, but—”

 

Lance’s glare had shifted to a confused look and then a knowing, giddy smile. “You were watching!”

 

“They broadcasted to us here, and I had just come back from patrol …” Keith grinned back. “You were okay.

 

“I was amazing.

 

Lance leapt onto Keith, who saw it coming and rolled over onto his back, catching him and preventing Lance from accidentally elbowing him in the stomach. His long limbed boyfriend scrambled into a more comfortable position, their legs tangled together, his forearms braced on either side of Keith’s head.

 

“And you know that I was amazing.”

 

“I guess, I migh—”

 

Lance didn’t let him finish, dipping his head down and pressing his mouth to Keith’s.

 

This sort of casual affection had taken Keith a while to get used to … But he had quickly caught on. His hands sought the warm skin beneath Lance’s tank top, lightly massaging the muscles of his back.

 

Lance let more of his weight fall onto Keith, breaking the kiss to bury his face into Keith’s neck. A quiet few moments passed by before Lance pulled just far enough away to say, “Next time, come with me.”

 

“Lance, not the best idea.” Keith shifted onto his side, Lance moving with him so that they could see each other clearly. “I’m not good at waiting on the side-lines, especially if I think there’s a chance one of you guys might be in trouble.”

 

“I know, but you need practise at that, right? Gotta break that punch-first-ask-questions-after-person-is-unconscious habit.” Lance kissed the tip of Keith’s nose.

 

Keith scrunched up his face and sighed. “I mean, I don’t think it’s that bad a habit …”

 

Lance laughed and gave him another quick peck, this one landing on Keith’s forehead. “Sure thing, cariño. Hey, have I told you that I love you yet today?”

 

“Yes.” Keith blushed, and was annoyed at himself for it. “You don’t have to say—”

 

“Ah, but it’s so very rewarding.” Lance lifted a hand to brush a few strands of hair away from Keith’s eyes. “Te quiero tanto, mi vida. And I’m not gonna leave unless you ask me to.”

 

Or something beyond both our control takes you away. Keith was getting better at ignoring those thoughts — and Lance had become very, very good at noticing when his brain wandered down that thorny path of anxiety.

 

Right then, Lance’s blue eyes focused on him so intently, Keith had to close his own eyes … Which led to Lance gaining the upper hand, sneaking straight for his armpits.

 

Oh, screw you!” Keith gasped, involuntary laughter making his voice high-pitched and breathy.

 

He kicked out, but Lance just swung himself back on top of Keith; he kept relentlessly tickling until there were tears on Keith’s face, and the Red Paladin had to throw Lance off him. The Blue Paladin crashed to the floor, swearing viciously while Keith hiccupped, giggling and gasping for air.

 

Lance popped up over the edge of the bed, opening his mouth to no doubt give a solid scolding.

 

Keith leaned over swiftly, kissing those parted lips and whispering, “I love you, too.”

 

An irritated huff met his declaration. “You suck. Such an obvious ploy.”

 

“But it works,” Keith said smugly. Before Lance could work up to another rant, Keith stripped off his own shirt, throwing it in Lance’s face. “Hey, remember how you’ve been gone a whole week?”

 

The shirt was tossed over Lance’s shoulder, and there was officially zero annoyance on Lance’s face now. Just pink cheeks and a resigned smile. “I am suddenly aware of this fact, yes.”

 

Keith pushed himself back, leaning against the headboard. “Maybe you wanna do something to celebrate your return?”

 

Lance was on him in seconds, and then they were both laughing.

 

After they’d celebrated, twice, Keith wrapped his arms tightly around his boyfriend. Lance’s nose whistled a bit in his sleep, and those breaths washed over Keith’s skin as Lance cuddled into his bare chest. Keith ran his fingers through soft dark brown hair. His other hand traced down Lance’s arm and up to his neck, pressing ever so slightly against his pulse point.

 

To love was to experience loss. But Keith knew that the pain would happen regardless — and the only remedy was a lifetime of good memories to combat the inevitable.

 

He sank into his bed, and relished the warm body tangled in his. Today, he had a whole new host of memories added to his arsenal. Tomorrow there would be even more. And the next day. And the next … Lance let loose a low kitten-like purr in his sleep, and Keith bit his lip to hold in his laughter.

 

This was worth it, in the end.

 

Keith wasn’t the type who could surrender easily — except to this makeshift family he’d found. This ridiculous boy in his arms. This was one battle where he’d gladly lay down his weapons and admit defeat.

 

For the first time in his life, Keith smiled as he lost.

 

******