Lance had tried to run away. Keith didn’t know why, not for sure, but Red had purred and prodded at his mind, making him speak out. He could feel the bond open up. He could feel the small trickle of Lance’s thoughts mix with Red’s and his own. Then he had been shut out.
To be fair, the moment he felt Lance’s thoughts he had begun to draw away from the bond. This was private. When Red had all but shut down their bond, only the tiniest bit coming through so that he could keep flying forward, he understood. Red knew why Lance was in pain, and if Red could talk Lance into coming back with them, then he was willing to take the back seat.
Contrary to popular belief, Keith didn’t always feel the need to be doing something. He was instinctual, and acted upon those instincts. There were times where his instincts pushed him into action, and times where they smoothed him into calmness. This time his instincts told him that if he let Red do their thing, everything would eventually turn out fine.
Also contrary to popular belief, Keith reflected often.
In the silence he couldn’t help but think back to before they had learned Kuron was a clone, back before they knew the lions had manifestations, back before the switch had fully taken place...
He remembered going to Red, curling up in their chair and crying. He remembered how his body shook and how he had just wanted Shiro back home with him. He was the only pseudo-family he had left, the only person that really knew him. He had the others now, but even then they didn’t truly know him.
And now he was being forced away from Red, and taking a job he had never and still didn’t want to take.
A purr echoed through his mind, growing in volume and frequency, until it was almost a voice. It was a voice.
Fiery cub, be still, do not mourn a loss that needs no mourning.
Keith clenched his fist, whipping his head up to look around the cockpit. A rage boiled inside him at the thought of Shiro’s loss not needing to be mourned. The same rage that had risen when his team had tried to console him, only snuffed out by Allura’s words.
Silly cub, the voice, Red’s voice, huffed, not the loss of your friend. He deserves your tears, cry for him, let out your feelings, but do not mourn for me.
Oh. Keith looked down at his knees tucked against his chest. That made more sense. He knew he was going to miss Red though. Red had chased after him from across the stars in a way no one else had, or could. They had been there for him, and now he was losing them-
You are not losing me. Their voice interrupted, stern in a way that demanded he listen, I will always be here for you, but Black needs you in the absence of their paladin, your team needs you. Their voice softened in his mind, and a warm feeling enveloped him, Just because you are moving away does not mean you will never come back, it does not mean you are losing me. It is necessary but not permanent.
A soothing purr rumbled through Keith’s core and he felt himself smile. He relaxed into the chair, taking steady breaths for the first time since he had arrived.
I will always be here for you. Even when our bond is quieted due to your bond with Black, it does not mean I am gone forever. You will return to me, my fiery cub, and we will light the skies with our blaze once more.
“Thank you,” Keith whispered into the darkness, as Red let their lights dim. The inner turmoil that rumbled inside him had begun to quell. He had not fully accepted the situation, he didn’t think he ever could, but Red was here.
Now though, as Red talked to Lance, Keith was reminded of another talk he had with Red.
It had been after the lion switch, when they had slowly begun to do better and better as a team. Lance had fallen into his new role, as had Allura. He thought they were finally doing better, finally mending some of the cracks Shiro had left behind.
Then he had felt the surge of rage drive through his muted bond with Red. It had bowled over him. He hadn’t felt them so strongly in ages, and suddenly he was drowning in their bond.
He narrowly avoided a hit, mind still reeling from the angry assault from Red. He set Black into a roll, expertly moving out of the way, before he diverted his attention to Lance’s screen.
Lance was focused, eyes drawn as he flew. His body was sprung tight though, tense in a way that he never saw Lance. Not even in their most dangerous battles would he look so distraught. He was always trying to crack some joke, to try just a little bit harder, to keep everything together as best as he could.
Keith’s eyes widened. It looked like there was something behind Lance, a shimmer of light that blinked out of existence the moment he focused on it. He wanted to ponder on it, to make sure that Lance was alright, but then another Galra battleship had arrived, and he didn’t have time.
He felt Black shiver around him as the rage continued to bite at his mind. Whatever the reason of Red’s wrath, Black was ashamed, remorseful. He couldn’t understand why.
It was after Keith had rushed Lance to the pods that he finally went to get his answer. Red pulled gently at their bond, newly ripped open from earlier. Keith could feel the tension leave his body the closer he got, the more Red enveloped him.
He stood inside Red’s cockpit, taking a moment to revel in the familiarity. He walked over to the chair, curling up in it, and opening up his mind.
Immediately Red purred an apology. They didn’t need words for him to understand that they had not meant for Keith to get swept up in whatever had happened out there. Their remorse was clear in their mind.
“What happened out there, though?” Keith asked, looking up at the blank screens. “What set you off? Was it Lance?”
The purr grew, and encompassed him once more, letting the words spill forth. It was not my courageous cub’s fault. He was not the source of my anger, but those who had harmed him.
Keith recalled the blast that had hit Red head on, “You mean the Galra?” Lance’s screams had echoed through the coms.
No, although their harm is a constant source of anger for me, my fiery cub. This anger came from two of our own. The venom in Red’s words were clear, and Keith could feel his own hackles begin to rise.
Who had hurt Lance? Red rumbled around him, pleased with his thought, pleased that he was concerned as they were.
My siblings in arms are wonderful, and I love them dearly, but they have wronged my courageous cub. They did not explain, they did not talk as we had, they left him to fall deeper and deeper into despair.
Keith nodded. The idea of Red not reassuring him during the lion switch sounded crushing, and with Lance… Well, Lance adored Blue, he was protective of them and passionate about their bond.
“So, Blue didn’t explain to Lance?” Keith could understand being angry about that, the idea of it already set him on edge, but… “That’s not all is it?”
Perceptive cub, I may have to change your name. Pride washed over Keith, his own and Red’s. There is more, much more, but those are things that I am not at liberty to say. It is not my story to tell, but his. Just know: Blue has hurt him, as has Black. He is hurting, physically and mentally.
“Okay.” He wanted to know, he really did, but he didn’t dare ask. Red was right, it wasn’t their place.
My fiery cub, know that I will protect you both with all my fire and might. If harm befalls either of you, I will be there. You are my cubs, and I will protect you. Now go, you must eat and rest. The statement was final, leaving no room for argument.
Keith rose, leaving Red. He turned back one last time, promptly doing a double take. He could’ve sworn that, for just a moment, he saw someone standing there, watching him. As soon as it was there, it was gone.
Thinking back to that moment, to the explanation Red had given Keith, he could understand. Blue had never talked to Lance, never explained. Keith could see that from the way Lance avoided Blue’s hanger, avoided talking about Blue at all. Even after Red’s rage, Blue hadn’t talked.
Despite that, or in spite of that, Lance had stepped up. He had kept everyone going, had kept Keith from going too far. In hindsight, it made him angry that he hadn’t been able to help Lance as much as he had eventually helped him. He had tried, but he wasn’t good at words, unused to being there for anyone but himself.
It made Keith all the more determined to be there for Lance now. Once they had gotten back Lance had locked himself in his room, unwilling to answer any questions. Shiro had stayed with Black, returning with a barely concealed anger. Allura, Hunk, and Pidge all seemed just as lost as before.
Only he and Shiro knew something, and Keith didn’t even know how much Shiro actually knew.
With that in mind, Keith did one of the few things he knew how to do: spar.
“Ready, Lance?” Keith took up his position, looking at Lance for his response.
“The real questions is are you ready,” Lance grinned, but it didn’t reach his eyes. It hurt more than it should’ve.
He was still distant. Lance had taken to spending time with only Coran and Kuron one on one, never another paladin. It had taken awhile for Keith to corner Lance, to finally get some conversation started between them. At a certain point fairly early on, when Keith was at a loss for words, he had asked Lance if he had wanted to spar.
Lance always was the first to throw a punch when they had sparred in the past. Some need to be the first to move, the first to overpower, to prove himself, or something.
Keith expertly dodged to the side. He retaliated, throwing a punch. He aimed for lance’s stomach, but in a flash Lance spun out of the way.
They continued in this pattern for awhile. A continuous back and forth, that left Keith pushing forward more and more. He had always been better at hand to hand, so it didn’t surprise him. What did surprise him was when Lance dodged a hit, and then stopped.
His arms fell down, head hanging. Keith was about to ask what was wrong when he heard the first sniffle. Oh no. He felt his heartbeat spike as the words began to fall from Lance’s lips.
“I’m sorry, I can’t- I just can’t, not,” Lance kept breaking himself off, avoiding looking in Keith’s direction.
“Lance-” Keith started, but he didn’t know what to say. He never did it seemed. A soft, restrained sob wracked through Lance’s body, and he let his instinct take over.
In a few long strides he was in front of Lance. In one quick movement he was pulling Lance into his arms. There was a small pause before they slowly slid to the ground with a dull thud.
“Hey, it’s okay. It’s okay to cry, Lance,” Keith murmured into his hair, holding him closer on instinct. Lance began to cry in earnest, his tears and snot soaking through his shirt. Red rumbled in the back of his mind, pleased with what Keith is doing.
Lance began to mumble, speaking in half thoughts, cutting himself off with another thought, a sob, or a hiccup. Combine that with his face being buried in Keith’s shoulder, he wasn’t entirely sure what Lance was saying.
He heard Allura’s name mentioned, and it began to make more sense, this breakdown now instead of some other time. Allura hadn’t let the issue fall right away, and even now there was obvious leftover tension. She was confused, as was everyone, but also more pushy than the rest, ever intent on their mission.
“Lance was Blue’s chosen pilot, it should be he that flies them,” she had said. It had caused quite a few arguments, ending with Lance threatening to leave, or leaving the room. Whenever the latter happened, it was a race to find him, to make sure he wasn’t going to leave the castle all together.
Even though the topic hadn’t come up in awhile, it was obvious Allura was avoiding him. Trying to put distance between themselves so that they wouldn’t argue. He tightened his grip around Lance, rubbing his back soothingly. It was the same tactic she had used when they had found out Keith was Galra, but at least they still shared a few words here and there.
Lance continued to let out small sorries in between every other phrase, as well as other tidbits that Keith didn’t have the context to understand. He didn’t ask Lance to clarify. That’s not what he needed right now. Keith may be bad at interacting in comfort situations, but he could sort of read them. Sort of.
Lance eventually calmed down. Sobs turned into hiccups, turned into even breaths. They stayed like that a moment longer, before Lance pulled back. He wiped at his eyes, but one look was all Keith needed to know that no amount of wiping was going to clean off his face.
“You suck at this,” Lance sniffled, “but thanks.” He cracked a small smile.
“Hey!” Keith let out an indignant squawk, “I’m trying okay! You took me by surprise there, too!”
Keith took Lance’s smile as a win anyways.
Red let out another rumble in his mind, easily prompting him into his next course of action. “Red misses you,” Keith said as he stood up, starting off confidently, “They’re better at the whole comfort thing, so if you, uh, want to see them, they wouldn’t mind…” He let himself trail off, awkwardly crossing his arms.
It was silent for a moment, and Keith turned back to Lance. He looked torn, and that divide showed in his words. “But… Red’s your lion.”
Keith rolled his eyes despite himself. Honestly, Lance could be quite dense sometimes if he didn’t realize Red adored him. He caught himself, eyes widening as he realized. Of course Lance wouldn’t believe Red valued him, after all, Blue had left him without a word.
If Red’s encouraging purr was anything to go by: Keith was right.
He offered his hand to Lance, “Yeah, well, Red won’t stop calling you their cub, so we’re both stuck with them it seems.”
Lance stared at his hand, looking back and forth between it and his face. His mouth was open in a small ‘o’ that reminded Keith of a fish. Probably not the best to say that now though.
After several moments of Lance just staring, he reached out his hand and grabbed it. Keith pulled him up easily, giving him a soft smile.
Keith could very easily recall the meeting where Allura said that she and Lance could see the lions materialized forms. He could remember because the look on Lance’s face had been so pained. He could remember because all of a sudden Red was attacking the hanger. He could remember because when they turned back, Lance was gone.
He had wondered if he would see Black’s or Red’s form after that. Had wondered what they’d look like. He had quickly forgotten though, focusing on more important duties as the new black paladin.
Which is why nothing could prepare him for being tackled to the ground by some person the second Red had let their nose down.
He was prepared to fight back, to attack the person who had both Lance and him pinned, but then he heard Lance giggling. Then a tongue, almost like sandpaper, started at the bottom of his chin, licking upwards to his forehead.
“My silly cubs!” the person exclaimed happily, Lance let out another loud laugh, and Keith assumed he was being licked again.
The person leaned back, grinning down at them a moment longer before they frowned. “Lance, what were you thinking! Keith is the reckless cub, you’re supposed to be the smart one!”
Everything clicked into place. No wonder Lance wasn’t struggling to get away. This was Red’s materialized form, and he was finally getting to see it for the first time. Lance started laughing again, and Red’s words finally sunk in.
“Hey!” He pouted, and Red grinned down at him.
“No use denying it, fiery cub, it is true, and we all know it,” Red punctuated the statement with a firm nod.
“Yeah, Keith,” Lance snorted, “no use denying it.”
He wanted to be mad, to make a jab back at either Red or Lance, but he couldn’t. Red looked ecstatic, and Lance looked like he was having more fun than he had in days. It wasn’t often that anyone saw him laughing with people besides Kuron, and occasionally Coran.
He felt warmth flood his system as Red opened up their bond more. He could feel Lance’s happiness easily now, but also the darkness that lay underneath it. Keith frowned. He didn’t know what to do about it.
Red leaned down once more, licking a long stripe up Lance’s face, repeating the action with Keith as well.
Maybe this was a good start.