Keith is staring at nothing when the knock comes at the door. For a minute he stays right where he is: arms strewn idly at his sides, boots discarded at the foot of the bed, day clothes only half-exchanged for nightwear before he gave up and laid down a couple hundred tics ago. A couple more pass.
The knocker knocks again, no more or less insistently.
On the other side of the door, Lance is frowning. None of them are doing very well without Shiro. It's been a full Terran month now since his disappearance, and the ship is slowly falling prey to the most dreaded of all fates: a return to normalcy. No one wants normalcy. They want their leader back. Their friend. Without his leadership each new partially drawn-up plan feels hollow and pointless. Without Shiro, Voltron is nothing more than a chicken running around with its head cut off. Ha, ha. Good one, Lance... Fighting the endless crushing void of depression with dark humor is a dubious coping mechanism, but hey, it's all he's got. It's better than just waltzing straight into the void, y'know?
Speaking of which.
Lance gathers his resolve and knocks on the door in front of him for a third time. The alien metal is ice on his bare knuckles. None of them are doing well, but if you were to ask Lance, Keith is doing the worst.
He's about to knock a fourth time when the door abruptly slides open. "H-hey buddy," Lance says dumbly. He knows his grin must look like it's scribbled on in crayon, but he can't help grinning anyway. It's all he knows. A childhood of lying through his teeth to younger siblings about the darker aspects of life, the universe, and everything (and a subsequent year in space lying through his helmet about the odds of survival to civilians midrescue) has trained him too thoroughly. Happy Face Mode is automatic.
"What?" Keith knows that everyone is probably concerned about his refusal to participate in anything beyond training and war meetings but he doesn't really care. Most everyone has gathered that Keith wants to be alone. Most. Lance, however. Suffice it to say that Lance appearing in the middle of the night to try and goad Keith into god knows what is no new thing. The familiar cadence of this visit doesn't make it any less annoying, though. "Alright," he deadpans when a few more tics have passed without Lance moving or saying anything at all, "good talk," and moves to close his door.
"Wait!" Lance blurts, shoves his arm through the door into Keith's room, keeping him from touching the closing mechanism. "You weren't sleeping, were you? No? Okay cool. I have something I wanna show you."
"I was trying to sleep," Keith mutters, but Lance saunters in anyway and pretends not to hear him.
Once inside, Lance takes a moment to look around. Out of all the Paladin's living quarters, Keith's looks the most like home. Like Earth. Which is beyond weird, considering that he is pretty sure Keith misses Earth the least out of the four of thㅡ five. Out of the five of them.
Hunk's room is a mess of scattered recipes, books, letters, and other junk he's collected on their various adventures around the galaxy, and one woven tapestry he was given by one of the Balmerans on a return visit, which depicts Voltron saving the Balmera in an abstract style and stretches all the way from one end of the small room to the other. At lights out, the woven crystals glows in the dark. Pidge's room is probably the messiest of all; it's impossible to walk in without stepping on (and breaking) some half-built/half-deconstructed contraption or another, and the other Paladins have learned to just keep out. For everyone's sanity. Lance's room is the emptiest. The only things he bothers to collect from the planets they rescue are books (and has the ship's computer translate them, when possible) but even those he's slowly lost interest in. They're just not the same as Earth books. Shiro's room isㅡ Leeet's not think about Shiro's room, shall we? God damn.
Keith's room is the coziest, which, again, is just weird considering it's, y'know, Keith. Pidge likes to call him a hoarder every time he picks something up and tucks it in his pocket but Keith never says a word in defense of the habit, or makes any effort to quit, which Lance is sort of grateful for because now he gets to feel just the tiniest twinge of nostalgia when he steps into Keith's room and sees the cluttered mess. It reminds him of his family's house. Small trinkets covering the shelves, the photos taped to the walls, and the simply executed renderings of people they've saved, places they've been, and places they've left behind. Lance's favorite is the one of the Sonoran desert, drawn from the doorstep of that broken down shack. Drawn on Earth. It's a little singed around the edges, and two permanent creases cross the middle perpendicularly, but it's still Lance's favorite because it's Earth. Happened to have that one in my pocket the day we left home, Keith explained matter of factly the first time Lance smooth-talked his way into the room and laid his eyes on it.
"Can you not touch that please."
Lance withdraws his hand from the familiar desert at lightspeed. "Ah, sorry."
"What did you want to show me?"
To Keith's confusion, Lance seems to grow flustered, and fumbles in the pocket of his jacket for a moment before gingerly pulling something out. A little square and a tangle of white cords… "Um." Keith points at the thing, which Lance is holding as carefully as though it's made of priceless porcelain. "Is that what I think it is?"
"Yeah. An iPod."
Keith stares. "Like… a Terran iPod?"
A smug grin is slowly replacing the anxious one on Lance's face. "Yyyep. With Terran music and everything. The whole shebang."
"Wh- where did youㅡ?"
"It was in my jacket pocket the day we left," he explains.
"What about the battery? Did you find a way to charge it?" Despite himself, the idea of hearing actual familiar Earth music has consumed Keith between one moment at the next. One tic you think 'yeah, I'll probably never hear a human song again, and that's okay' and the next you're looking at an iPod from Earth and all your favorite songs are clamoring for attention in your head and you want them with a passion that temporarily devours everything else.
Lance sees the shift; the blankness that's clouded Keith for weeks suddenly flares with life. "Woah, woah, don't get too excited," he says, and pulls the precious iPod out of Keith's curious reach. "Listen, it was only at half-battery when Hunk and Pidge and I left to go after Shiro that day. I tried to make a power converter that could somehow charge it with Altean technology, but all I succeeded in doing was accidentally deleting a bunch of songs. I thought about asking Pidge, but I knew it was a lost cause all along. The Altean power sources are just too much for something as primitive as this. So yeah, I sorta quit trying after that. Didn't wanna lose what little I had."
The reality of what Lance is saying washes over Keith. He's quiet for a moment. "How much battery is left?"
Lance raises the device between them. Its screen is dark. "About a third," he says.
That elicits some genuine surprise from Keith. "A third?" That can't possibly be correct. "But it's been a year since we left earth. How can it only have gone down sixteen percent?"
"I use it sparingly," Lance admits. "I think I've only listened to what, maybe fifteen, twenty songs since we've been away?" Always on the worst days; always after the worst battles. "What?" He doesn't like the way Keith's looking at him. He looks all… judgy. Ugh.
"Nothing," Keith says, a little too quickly. I just didn't realize you had a cell in your brain that understood moderation. "I get it. You want it to last as long as humanly possible." Which also explains why this has apparently been a closely guarded secret of Lance's. It's kind of annoying, knowing that Lance has had something like this all along and could have shared it with the rest of them at any time he liked. But Keith will admit that he'd have done the same. If everyone knew about it, the battery would have died months ago, taking the last shred of Terran music with itㅡpossibly forever. So Keith can't find it in himself to hold a grudge. In fact, he actually feels somewhat honored. As far as he knows, he is officially the first person Lance has shown this to. Wait. Wait. Shock courses through him as he finally, finally realizes why Lance showed up here tonight. His jaw drops. "Are you going to let me listen to a song?"
An uncharacteristically unguarded expression comes over Lance. "Yeah. If you want to."
Keith can't believe it, even as Lance pulls a stack of papers from his jacket and hands them over. He just can't. Why him? Why not Hunk or Pidge orㅡ
"This is the list of songs," Lance explains, rapping his index finger on the top page as Keith stares at it in abject confusion. "Takes battery power to scroll through the list, so I just wrote them all down to save a bit."
"That's… smart," Keith says, but his mouth kind of moved on its own. He's busy flipping through the pages, eyeing the different columns marked song, artist, album, genre, and a final unmarked column on the far right where occasionally there lies a poorly drawn star. Lance's favorites? "How many are there?"
"Eleven hundred and seventy-two," Lance rattles off. "But just one for now, okay?" he adds hastily as Keith drowns in the list. "Gottaㅡ"
"Save the battery. I get it." Honestly, he's floored that Lance is giving him even one. If the tables had been flipped, would Keith have shared something this sacred? This irreplaceable? "I don't know if I can choose, Lance, there's so many songs here."
He glances up from the list as Lance crosses the room and flops himself down on Keith's bed. "Take your time," Lance says. "Seriously, don't rush. I know it's a big decision. I'll just hang out over here till you figure out what you want."
Twenty dobashes later, Keith is sitting on the floor surrounded by papers and Lance is laying flat on his back on the bed, throwing one of the carved figurines up and catching it again. For the first time since their last major battle a month ago, Keith is completely overwhelmed. There are songs here ranging from death metal and rap all the way to jazz and pop, and the occasional song attributed only to someone named 'Marco.' It's too much.
"I don't even know three quarters of these songs," Keith says weakly. The pleasant idea of listening to one of his favorite songs has slowly ebbed as he wades through the list, as he realizes just how eclectic Lance's musical interests are. The chances of finding his favorites on this list are slim to none. But that doesn't make him want the offer any less. "I can't pick." The choice is too big. "Just pick for me, please."
"Whaㅡ?" Lance fumbles his latest throw and the statuette smacks him right on the nose. He props himself up on one elbow, then, rubbing the bridge of his nose as he sets the carving aside. "Are you sure? I don't even know what kind of music you like."
Keith gathers the scattered papers back into an orderly pile and rises to his feet in order to hand them back to Lance. How is it that they've gotten so close and yet somehow still aren't? "I like acoustic stuff," Keith offers. "Something soft would be nice."
Lance blinks. Soft, huh? "That's funny. I always pegged you for, like, a Lincoln Park kind of guy. Fallout Boy or something. Metallica. System of a Down?"
Keith flushes. "They're okay."
But not today though, Lance reads on his face. "Gotcha, gotcha. Say no more. Something soft, coming right up." Lance shifts over to the far side of the bed toward the wall to make room for Keith, and plugs in the earbuds before handing them over. Keith watches in anticipation as the screen lights up in Lance's hands. The earbuds tremble in Keith's hands. Or is it his hands that are trembling?
Lance stops scrolling and looks up. "Are you sure you don't wanna approve the song choice? You only get one, you know. Gotta make sure it counts."
"I'm sure," he says numbly. "I trust you." He moves to press the earbuds into his ears, but then thinks better of it. He offers the left one back.
"What? No, no. It's all you, man," Lance splutters at the offer.
"I'm already using some of your battery," Keith says. "The least I can do is share."
Lance swallows. "Yeah. Yeah, okay."
Sharing earbuds necessitates an extremely close position. Keith looks away and tries not to think about the fact that their knees are touching, and then suddenly, the soft strum of a ukulele is coming in through his right ear and nothing in the universe matters.
Something soft, he requested. This is soft. The gentle twang of the recorded strings are the softest thing Keith has experienced in, well, in a year. Maybe more. He doesn't realize his eyes have slipped closed until he opens them again to see Lance watching him in earnest. As if to say, is this one okay?
It's okay, he nods, his eyes slipping shut again of their own accord, and slowly lays down as the musician's breezy voice comes in over the ukulele with the words. Somewhere over the rainbow… blue birds fly.
Lance is helpless to do anything but follow, lest the earbud get ripped from his own ear. It's been two months since he last listened to one of these songs, and the experience is as powerful as ever. He follows Keith's cue and closes his eyes too, the more to visualize the ukulele as something real. Something tangible. The more to hear the waves of Varadero crashing on the rocks, and feel the heat of the Atlantic sun beating down on his neck, burning him, reflecting off the water in sparkles so bright that he can't look directly at them too long. Rainbows exist in every planet that carries gaseous elements, but none of them hold a candle to the ones of Cuba. None of them speak of home the way this song does.
It's been so long since Keith has taken a moment to really picture Earth. Already it's become like a story, to him. A blip in the past. An abstract memory. A drawing on the wall. But now, hearing something so painfully familiar, even if it was never a song he sought out or listened to on purpose, he's there again. Standing at the foot of a red plateau in the shade of a sequoia as the first monsoon of the year looms on the horizon, ball lightning flashing deep in the indigo clouds somewhere far beyond the rust-colored mountains. In the wide Sonoran desert, rainbows never wait for the storm to end. They show up when they please.
In his left ear, the one without an earbud, he hears the ghost of rain splashing on a hot tin roof. Thrumming on the window. Warm, and wet, and heavy, and home. Life-giving rain that comes for one or two months and feeds that arid desert for the entire year to follow. A few good rains and the wildlife there can stand against even the hottest, driest summers. One good rain can mean the difference between life, and death.
The song has been over for some time before Lance pulls his earbud out. He glances over, andㅡ "H-hey, don't cry!"
Keith startles to life and rips the earbud out. "Whaㅡ You're crying!" And it's true; there are tears brimming in Lance's eyes and one slips out even as Keith accuses him of it. But Keith is a little more gone. Despite his willpower, the song has undone him completely. He can't stop. The tears spill, all the ones he's shoved down since the loss of Earth, since the loss of Shiro, the glue that was holding this whole hopeless mission together.
He hates the look of sympathy that Lance is giving him, so he presses his hands to his wet face and vents a noise of pure rage and frustration. He's not expecting it when Lance's arm tentatively crosses into his personal space, but he's too far gone to care, or even react. He can't react even when Lance's other arm reaches under him to pull him closer. He just vents, and vents, and vents, and at one point (god only knows how long it's been) he realizes that Lance is shuddering. He's sobbing, Keith realizes, though for some reason he's trying to do it silently. For some reason this is what breaks through and calms Keith down. He pushes away from Lance's chest and tries to dry his face with the back of his hand as he hastily sits up. Lance immediately covers his face and rolls onto his back.
"S-sorry," Lance chokes, and takes a moment to calm his breathing before going on. "I was trying to cheer you up and I ended up blubbering all over you. Ugh."
"Don't apologize, idiot. There's nothing wrong with crying." Hell, I cried a lot more than you did.
"Well, yeah. But I…"
"But what?" Keith glares. "You don't have to pretend you're okay all the time, you know. None of us are."
Lance doesn't have anything to to rebut that with. He tries anyway. "Someone has to keep our spirits up."
"Oh, is that why you never shut up or stop grinning like a moron?"
"Look, our spirits will be fine," Keith goes on. "We'll get through this like we always do. You don't have to volunteer as team jester just to keep our morale up, Lance, it's not healthy."
"Like isolating yourself is any healthier," Lance grumbles.
"I'm grieving," he barks, then immediately regrets it when Lance's face falls. "Iㅡ I know there's always a chance we'll find him. But it feels slimmer every day."
"Oh." Sulking, sure. Depressed, yeah. Annoying lone-wolf twat, duh. Mourning? Lance would not have expected to hear that from Keith. Not yet, anyway. The news that Keith has given up hope on finding Shiro is way more disheartening than when Allura and Coran more or less admitted to the same a couple days ago. "I didn't… I haven't lost hope yet, I guess. I still think we're going to find him."
"Then why the hell were you crying?" Keith says, and only realizes afterward how rude of a question that was.
"It was the song," Lance answers anyway, just to spite him, since the question was clearly meant to be rhetorical. "Dick. I grew up on an island, remember?"
"Oh, right." Stupid question… Of course that's why he was crying. He's just homesick. For some reason it softens Keith's annoyance, that despite the fact that they've lost everything, despite the fact that the outlook is as bleak as it's ever been, the only thing that moves Lance to tears is the memory of home.
"Do you want to listen to another one?"
And Keith's jaw drops for the second time that night. "Are you serious? What about your battery? I thought you listened to like, one a month?"
"Yeah," Lance says airily. "Usually. Special occasions call for special circumstances though. Your pick this time, Red."
"Um, okay." It seems crazy but how can Keith possibly turn down that offer? He reaches for the song list but then pauses before actually grabbing it, a nagging question rearing up in the back of his head. "Who's Marco?"
A twinkle of mischief flashes behind Lance's eyes. "Is that jealousy I detect?"
"Jeez, I'm kidding, don't get your shorts in a bunch. Marco is my oldest brother. He and his girlfriend liked to play music together and they recorded a bunch of 'em for shits and giggles. They used to send them to me during my time in the Garrison. They're actually pretty good. He went to school for music for a while before he switched over to computer science."
That explains why all the 'Marco' songs have been starred. "Huh. Can I hear one?"
A genuine grin twitches at the corner of Lance's mouth. "You're really going to use your song choice on one of my brother's songs?"
"Yeah, so what?" Keith grumbles. "I don't even know most of the songs on that list anyway." He flops back down on the bed next to Lance and takes the right earbud again, pushing it into place. "Just do it."
"Okay, okay. Here, this one is a cover they sent me on my birthday last year. Hope you like Jefferson Airplane because that is what you're getting."
I like them, Keith tries to say, but his train of thought is interrupted as the song begins and he is transported again to the distant reaches of the known universe, to the end of one arm on a small spiral galaxy, to a solar system he knows as well as the reflection in the mirror, to a cloudy blue-green planet that cradles just one more pocket of precious life in this vast, endless plane of existence.
'When logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead…'
The guitar is as crisp and fresh as the day Lance first heard the recording, back in his barracks at the Garrison where Hunk and Pidge both fawned over his brother's ability to turn six coiled strings into ambrosia.
'...And the White Knight is talking backwards, and the Red Queen's off with her head.'
Marco's voice lingers on the bottom end of the harmonies, while Jessica's takes the high. Two human voices from a trillion light years away, reaching out across the infinite void, across time and space to reach them.
'Remember what the doormouse said.'
Lance doesn't realize he's gripping the bedsheets tight until Keith is prying his hand off.
'Feed your head.'
Their fingers intertwine.
'Feed your head,' Jessica and Marco sing again.
"This song doesn't make any sense," Keith says to the dark ceiling.
'Feed your head,' sing Jessica and Marco for the final time.
"Neither does anything else," Lance replies, and the guitar finishes fading to nothing, leaving them alone in the dark room again, alone in an uncharted nebula twelve million sectors away from Earth.
Keith makes no move to withdraw his hand.
"Yeah," he says. "Guess you're right."