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Antidote

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The back of Keith’s head was an easy target for Lance to glare at as they walked in a line. They were all a little high strung at the moment, sure - being on a tight schedule did that to people, even without the current addition of slogging through hot, humid, hazardous alien jungle - but Keith didn’t have to be a dick about it.

“Don’t touch me,” Keith had growled when Lance had put a hand on his back earlier. Lance had intended the gesture to be supportive, since it was Keith’s first time leading the team out on a ground mission like this, and he could tell that the new Black Paladin was a little anxious. But despite all of their recent personal progress, despite Lance thinking they could finally be friends, despite Lance realizing that just maybe the person he admired so much didn’t resent him outright, Keith was still prickly.

Lance wasn’t unfair. He knew people had boundaries, and he expected Keith wasn’t a very touchy-feely guy to begin with. He just didn’t have to snap at him.

Even if Lance had been more than usually friendly lately.

Even if Lance had been making something of an effort to play around with Keith, which might have come across awkwardly.

The last few days, Lance had been excited. Keith had been talking to him like a teammate, like a friend. He’d actually smiled directly at Lance’s face once or twice. Lance hadn’t known how to react. He didn’t know how to transition from their friendly rivalry to a supportive, calm, mature friendship, let alone when he felt the way he did about Keith. The rivalry had helped balance him out. It had given him something childish and playful to hide behind whenever the urge to hold Keith’s hand struck him too hard.

Without it, Lance didn’t know how to behave. He didn’t know what Keith expected of him, which was doubly frustrating when Lance reminded himself that Keith would never like him the same way. But some dark corner of him had still hoped, and so he tried, just a little, to test the waters and see if Keith could like him back.

That had resulted in several pick-up lines wasted on Keith’s lack of imagination (he didn’t even notice that Lance was flirting with him), several instances of Lance nudging Keith’s side or slinging a friendly arm around his shoulders (Keith shrunk away unsurely every time), and one extremely clumsy, extremely embarrassing morning in the training room. Keith had seemed happy at first when Lance offered to spar with him, and Lance was happy to get his ass kicked for the first ten minutes as long as Keith was actually having a good time with him. But then Lance had managed to get the jump on him. He’d managed to turn Keith’s arm aside, shift their weight, and pin him down, sitting across his hips with his hands around Keith’s forearms.

That moment had lasted several seconds too long. They had stared at each other, both of them surprised and panting to catch their breath, and like a complete fucking idiot, Lance had started to say Keith’s name like it meant something to him. As if that had been the time and place to tell Keith what he had been desperately trying to show him the whole time.

The very tips of Keith’s ears had caught fire, and he had twisted his body and shoved Lance off of him before storming out of the training room.

That had been that morning, only hours before this mission. So maybe Lance had his answer as to why Keith wasn’t exactly feeling cuddly.

Lance hadn’t even gotten the words out, hadn’t even been able to explain to Keith how he felt, but that was rejection enough. While he had never really expected anything else, it still hurt. He could respect Keith’s lack of interest in him and still feel miserable about it.

Don’t touch me. The words had such a bite to them that it still stung half an hour after they were delivered. Lance turned his scowl down at the jungle floor. He couldn’t be angry with Keith for how he felt, but he could be mad at himself. He might have ruined one of the best potential friendships of his life because he couldn’t stop seeing Keith with hearts next to his face.

“How close are we to the site now?” Keith asked Pidge, who was walking ahead of him with a handheld scanner.

“Pretty close.” Pidge blew a small raspberry between her lips and tapped the screen of the device. “Only a couple doboshes in this same direction. The Olkari should be able to access it remotely once we activate it.”

The site in question was the equivalent of a security tower. The civilization that had built it was long gone, but there were so many of these towers scattered over different planets that the Olkari had encountered them before and learned to tap into them. Most of them had fallen dormant after thousands of years of disuse. If the Paladins could activate enough of them, they could collaborate with the Olkari to build a working map of the universe, and hopefully much of the Galra activity therein.

“Good,” Hunk sighed from behind Lance. “The sooner we’re back on the ship, the better. This no-taking-your-helmets-off rule is kind of making it hard to stay hydrated.”

“Dude, take a drink,” Lance snorted, glancing over his shoulder. “It’s not like the air itself is toxic.”

Hunk shook his head. “After Coran’s warning about this planet’s ‘heinously toxic flora and fauna,’ I think I can wait. Just to, you know, minimize risk of exposure.”

“The flora are unlikely to disturb you,” Allura said, walking just behind Pidge in the front, “but the animals on this planet tend to be aggressive. If you take off your helmet, they’ll be able to smell you.”

“You’re both right,” Keith was quick to agree. “We’ll be back on the ship in half a varga. Everyone’s helmets stay on.”

Lance shrugged and kept walking. “Alrighty, team leader.” Keith didn’t respond to that.

When they did arrive at the beacon, it was nearly unnoticeable. Underneath a tangle of old roots and silt, a small slice of dull metal was visible in the side of a short cliff. Pidge was the one who had memorized the activation protocols, so she was the one to frown and crawl forward over the roots to get to the exposed panel. The other four stood guard in a small sloping space where the trees weren’t so thick, almost a clearing with high grass and more sunlight past the canopy.

Lance watched idly as Pidge worked the panel open. She muttered to it softly, and he couldn’t hear what she was saying, but it sounded more frustrated than technical. As the minutes ticked on, his attention wandered away from the panel and out to the thick of the jungle.

The leaves were green, which looked familiar enough, but so were the tree trunks. In every direction was a stifling, vibrant green, soaking in sunlight and seeming to pour it back out in flowers, fruits, and protrusions of every other color. One flower in particular caught Lance’s eye, twisting around one tree in a strong vine. The petals were the deepest royal purple, and they curled outward, blending the shape of a hibiscus and a lily. The flowers were nearly the size of his head, and he couldn’t help himself when he stepped forward to get a better look.

“Don’t touch it,” Allura reminded him from somewhere behind him. “We’re to disturb as little as possible while we’re here.”

“I know. I’m just looking,” Lance chuckled harmlessly. He tilted his head and stepped closer to see the flower from another angle. It looked very much like a lily from the side.

He heard the crack of motion against the ground in the same instant Keith’s voice shouted his name.

Something hit him hard in the side, and Lance stumbled and fell to his left, landing on his hip. He looked up quickly enough to see Keith standing where he had just been, and a long, muscled tail whipped out from the trees to slam into Keith’s upper chest. Keith fell on his back several yards away with a harsh grunt, and Lance saw his helmet slip off of his head and roll away in the grass.

Lance scrambled to his feet with his bayard in hand, and he put himself between Keith and whatever was in the trees. He saw the movement, yellow- and tan-striped coils, hissing and crawling forward. Snakes shouldn’t be that huge. Snakes shouldn’t have spidery claws like that. Snakes shouldn’t be that close to him, crawling and dragging itself into the clearing. Its neck and tail were thick as a desk, and its mouth opened to reveal the hellish, layered maw of a basking shark, framed by teeth just long enough to grab onto prey. Six blank eyes seemed to focus on Lance, and the creature growled and darted forward.

They wanted to disturb as little as possible. This was just another life form that lived on this planet, and Lance respected that. It was probably just trying to defend its territory.

But it had hit Keith, and it was going to kill them. That was where Lance’s sympathy ran out.

“Keith, you okay?” he shouted even as he started to shoot. He couldn’t not shout, with that thing coming towards him. He aimed for its eyes, and soon six became four, two eyes gone on one side of its head.

“I’m fine,” Keith growled out, and Lance heard the shuffle of him getting off the ground.

“Get your helmet,” Lance snapped at him, but Keith was already running past him to charge the monster with his blade.

Allura and Hunk had their weapons out by then too, and they adjusted well, flanking the giant snake while it tried to chase Lance back into a corner. Hunk raised his voice enough to shout, “Pidge, hurry up!”

“I’m trying!” she grit out, and Lance barely heard her. His heel caught in a root hiding in the grass, and he started to stumble back into a wide tree trunk. He was staring at this monster and its four flat eyes.

Three eyes, after Lance shot another one of them out. The snake snarled and reared back, and Lance was aiming for the inside of its mouth as it opened its jaw.

Instead of shooting, he stopped, frozen. Keith had leapt up onto the creature’s neck from its blind side, and he gripped it by the crest on the back of its head. Of all the stupid, impulsive, hotheaded things he had seen from Keith, Lance had never quite seen the kind of energy Keith committed to in that moment, snarling and screaming and driving his sword into the back of the snake’s neck again and again.

The snake bucked just enough to dislodge Keith’s grip, but he kept hold of the blade, dragging it down and tearing a gash in the side of the creature’s neck as he slipped down to the ground.

Allura’s whip wrapped itself around the snake’s neck, just behind its head. The whip couldn’t be strong enough to really pull the beast anywhere - or so Lance had assumed, before Allura let out a shout and pulled with all her strength, hauling the snake’s head toward her instead. The sheer weight of it was terrifying, and the clumsy crash of the beast on the ground beside her was enough to disorient it.

Hunk took that opportunity to unload his bayard into the creature’s lower jaw. Finally, it went still.

Keith was still holding his bayard in one hand when he marched up to Lance and grabbed him by the front of his suit. His eyes were wide and furious, and Lance could only stand there, stunned and ready for a scolding.

“Are you okay?” Keith demanded.

Lance stared at him before managing a shaky nod. “Yeah, yeah, man, I think so.” Keith’s face was flushed with exertion, dripping with sweat mostly from the long walk. His hair clung to his forehead, cheeks, and the sides of his neck, naked to the world around him. His dark eyes seemed harsher than usual, and his breath was steeped in adrenaline as he caught it.

He was completely beautiful. Raw and intense and heroic.

This was one of those awful moments where Lance wanted to take off his own helmet and kiss him.

“You look like shit,” Lance said instead. “Let’s find your helmet.” He patted Keith’s hand on his chest, and Keith took a second before letting go. He nodded, turning to look in the grass, and that was when Lance saw the bright red spot on the back of Keith’s neck.

Lance let out a short, horrified cry, and he grabbed Keith’s wrist. “Dude-- Don’t move.”

“What?” Keith froze in place, but his eyes darted up to Lance’s face. “Why?”

The bright red spot was a bug, just smaller than Lance’s thumb with thin legs to support it. Lance couldn’t say whether it resembled a beetle or a wasp more, but it didn’t matter. In all likelihood, it was heinously toxic.

Lance raised a hand to get it off of Keith, but just as he started to say, “Bug,” by way of explanation, Keith flinched and cried out. He jerked and swatted at the bug on his neck by himself.

It had stung him. Lance’s body stiffened, and he grabbed Keith’s hand to make sure the bug was dead. Keith’s hand was shaking. His dark eyes were wide, startled, and he reached back with his free hand to feel at the site of the sting.

“Where’s his helmet?” Lance barked out over Keith’s shoulder. Hunk came running back with it, having only just found it, and Lance shoved it back over Keith’s head. “Something bit him. We have to get back to the ship. Pidge?”

“Almost…” Pidge grit her teeth, tapped a few more sliding pieces on the panel, and shut it. The ground hummed and then growled beneath them, and something appeared above the cliffside, stretching skyward. It could have been mistaken for a tree minutes ago, tall and slender, but once the beacon activated, the tower pushed itself toward the clouds and showed itself as the ancient mechanical structure that it was. Lance barely glanced at the marvel before them, and he watched Keith’s face.

“Mission successful,” he told him, trying to reassure him. “The lions are coming back, okay? How do you feel?”

Keith’s fingers trembled and gripped Lance’s harder. His face was grey. “I’m fine.”

“Liar.” Lance frowned, and Hunk came to support Keith with him. Allura called for the castle, and Pidge scrambled back over the roots to join them. “Come on. If it’s bad, we’ll just stick you in a healing pod. This is why you shouldn’t play the hero,” he teased him gently.

Keith clenched his jaw and glanced upward, into Lance’s eyes. “It could’ve been you otherwise.”

Lance’s breath stuck in his chest. He didn’t have any room for that kind of sentiment, that it might have possibly been better for Keith to get hurt than himself. It was never the better option for Keith to get hurt.

“That’s what I’m here for,” Lance chuckled, and he looked up as Red and Green dropped down close by.

 

 

Pidge flew back with Allura and Keith, and Lance took himself and Hunk back in Red. By the time the two of them caught up with the other three in one of the central hallways, Keith was leaning heavily into a very startled Shiro, buckling into himself and screaming. Coran was on Keith’s other side, trying to help guide him to the medbay.

“What stung him?” Coran demanded as soon as he saw Lance down the hall, loud enough for his voice to carry. Lance was running toward them by then.

“Red bug, about this big.” Lance held his fingers up to show the distance. “It was just solid red. Really shiny wings, and a stinger, but it looked kind of flat. Do we have an antidote?”

There were tears on Keith’s face. He couldn’t seem to keep himself quiet, whimpering even when he choked down the screams, and his nails were digging into his arms. His knees were unsteady and useless, and Shiro and Coran were the only things keeping him standing.

“Hurts,” Keith rasped. “Hurts so much, make it stop, make it stop.”

Keith was dying. He was in agony, and he was dying, and it was all his fault, and that was the only thing Lance could think.

Impulsively, Lance dropped both of his gloves on the floor, and he cupped Keith’s face in his hands. He couldn’t even be sure what he was murmuring to him, but he hoped it was comforting or distracting. He couldn’t leave Keith alone when he was hurting like this.

“Hey, buddy, you’re okay. Look at me. You’re okay,” Lance heard himself whisper.

Keith sighed thickly and sagged in Shiro’s arms, but not in weakness. Lance jerked his hand back, widening his eyes, and he watched Keith look up at him, suddenly relaxed. A moment later, the pain returned to his eyes, and Keith’s gaze fell to Lance’s hand.

Coran understood before anyone else. He pulled Keith up out of Shiro’s worried arms, and he guided him closer to Lance. “Hold him,” he instructed, and Lance caught on after a second of stunned delay. He slipped his arms around Keith to hold him up.

At first, Keith was tense, one single nerve of pain. Gradually, he eased up, and then he curled his arms experimentally around Lance in return.

“Does it still hurt, Keith?” Coran asked.

Keith trembled once. Lance felt that acutely, intimately, against his chest. He stared wide-eyed over Keith’s shoulder and simply held him, unable to move while Keith pressed his face into Lance’s neck, both of them still sweaty.

“No,” Keith breathed, surprised. “What’s happening?”

The whole crew was as silent as death. Hunk and Pidge stared at Keith with worry. Allura’s eyes darted to Coran with sudden anxious understanding. Shiro’s jaw was tense, concerned and frustrated that he didn’t know how to help. Lance stood there with Keith in his arms, stock still, ashen-faced while Keith clung to him.

Coran sucked in a breath and rubbed his cheekbones before starting in on the details.

“Keith’s been stung by a red ignis, also known in some more irreverent circles as a love bug. Contrary to the name, it’s not all fun and games, though it is the least lethal thing you could’ve been bitten by on that planet.”

“A love bug?” Lance realized that Keith had spat out the name at the same time he had, and both of them started to recoil from each other. As soon as they weren’t touching, a muscle in Keith’s jaw jumped, and he reached for Lance’s hand. For the moment, he seemed content to stand on his own as long as he had some kind of contact with Lance.

“The effects will last between one to two movements,” Coran explained gravely. “When stung by the ignis, the victim becomes very attached to the person closest to them at the time. Every moment without some kind of physical contact is painful, and that pain only seems to get worse the further the victim is from the other person, or the longer they haven’t touched them. As we’ve seen, it’s... quite excruciating.”

Lance and Keith processed that side by side.

Keith had to be in nearly constant physical contact with Lance for a week or two.

Lance had nearly confessed his feelings, and then Keith had told him not to touch him. This was exactly the wrong day for this. Suddenly, Lance’s guilt for being a touchy, cuddly idiot for the past week weighed down on him twice as much.

“Can’t we just put him in a healing pod?” Lance croaked out. In the corner of his eye, he noticed Keith glancing up at him.

“Unless you want to be stuck in there with him, no,” Coran sighed. “Technically, he’s not injured. Even the pod won’t be able to process the venom more than his own body can, and it won’t keep him completely sedated when the pain gets worse. He’s fully functional and healthy. It’s just that any prolonged distance from you will pain him. Touching you will actually help him work through the venom faster. While he works it out of his system, Lance, you’re the only antidote he has.”

“So…” A frown started to darken Keith’s face, and he watched Coran cautiously. “What, we’re supposed to just be joined at the hip for the next couple weeks? Can’t I take something to dull the edge and just, I don’t know, deal with it?”

Ouch. Lance kept his face blank, but as guilty as he felt for making Keith feel weird before, it couldn’t be that bad to be close to him for a while.

Coran sucked in a breath through his teeth, unsure. “You could certainly try, but... I doubt it would work for long. Remember that this kind of pain is stressful on your body. That could make you sick for even longer, long after the venom wears off. It’ll be much easier for you two to stick together.”

“Is that why they call it a love bug?” Keith asked dryly. “Because we’re basically forced to snuggle for a week?”

Keith sounded so baleful that Lance’s hand was starting to sweat.

“Yes and no,” Coran answered, only more uneasy. “As long as you do remain in contact, you should start to feel more positive than negative. Mostly, the reports are feelings of contentment. So when a victim of a sting and their ‘antidote’ relax, it can actually be quite nice.”

Keith scoffed and took his hand out of Lance’s. Whatever discomfort that put him through, he worked through it.

“This is stupid,” Keith growled. “We have work to do. I can’t just hold someone’s hand while I’m fighting and showering and sleeping and eating.”

So this was how badly Keith didn’t want to be close to Lance. He had tears drying on his cheeks, and he refused to just hold Lance’s hand to keep it from getting worse again.

That’s fair, Lance thought, even though it stung. He wouldn’t want Keith to touch him unless he really wanted to, anyway.

Keith stalked off down the hallway, and Lance stared at his hand for a long, dumbstruck second.

Pidge whispered an astonished curse under her breath. Hunk looked to Lance, worried, and Allura fidgeted with her hands. Shiro sighed heavily. No one was in the mood to make light of this.

Coran put a hand on Lance’s shoulder, making him start.

“Lance, you might want to be close by to him,” Coran suggested gently. “In case he changes his mind.”

“He clearly doesn’t want me close by,” Lance mumbled.

“It's not like that. He needs you right now.”

Lance glared weakly at the floor, and as the situation soaked in, he couldn't keep back the small, humiliated warmth touching his cheeks. He had hoped to hold Keith's hand under less drastic circumstances. More willing circumstances.

‘Don't touch me' kept ringing through his head.

Chapter Text

Keith got as far as the showers. Whenever he hurt or ached, a hot shower usually helped take off the worst of it, and he couldn't scrub the smell of that planet off of himself fast enough. He peeled off his flight suit and left it on the floor, and his hands only shook a little bit when he started the water.

It did help. A little. At first.

The steady water felt nice, but it couldn't help him when the ache was so far under his skin. It felt too deep, like the morning after the hardest training of his life, where he could imagine his frayed muscles dragging against his worn, splintered bones. It hurt to move. It hurt to stand. After a few minutes of forcing himself through it to soap up and scrub off, it hurt to simply exist. He slowly crumpled to the floor of the shower, sitting under the water, and grit his teeth as the pain started to burn hotter. White-hot threads of it reached through his muscles until every single cell in his body knew the same searing pain. The simple act of breathing brought tears to his eyes.

This was the worst time for this to happen. Lance had been friendly the past several days - actually friendly, instead of just dickish. Keith had never been a very affectionate person, and while he was excited about their newly strengthened friendship, he didn't have the slightest clue how to respond to Lance’s more physical antics. When Lance had suddenly started reaching out to him more, touching his arm, throwing an arm around his shoulders, offhandedly rubbing Keith’s back with one hand, Keith was at a loss. He didn't know how to reciprocate that kind of contact. He didn't even know how to accept it. His mind was still reeling at finally, finally being on the receiving end of Lance’s affection, and it made him so nervous that he usually froze up.

The training room had been something else.

And now he didn't even have the chance to work through that normally. If he wanted to function (and god, he didn't even need to function, he just needed the pain to stop), he would have to cling to Lance’s arm like some desperate child. Like some idiot Lance had flirted with.

Having Keith around would really cramp Lance’s style. It would be such a pity if he couldn't flirt with every other fucking thing with legs they met. Keith scowled at his hands, one clenched on his knee and one on the floor. It would be just as bad if he had to be constantly touching Lance, instead of being able to choose when and where and how. Not that it would matter to Lance, even if Keith did figure out social interaction someday. Lance would never want what Keith wanted.

His train of thought derailed from there. In minutes, he found himself crumpling into the hard, wet floor, gasping harshly and trying not to whine with each breath. His body was trying to tear itself apart, and he couldn't even focus enough to stand up on his own. He tried, sure. He tried to move, pull himself up, even to just unfold from himself and sit upright, but his nerves screamed and rebelled, leaving his vision black and spotty and his ears and mouth cottony and dull. Was he fainting? Was he seriously that weak?

He fought his way through it by curling into a ball again. It didn't make it any more bearable, but at least he was conscious.

Maybe knocking himself out would be better.

A knock came from the door, and Keith let out a grunt.

“Keith?” Lance’s voice came from past the door. Awesome, he thought miserably. “Dude, you've been in there half an hour. You okay?”

“No,” Keith grit out. He couldn't find the point in lying. He couldn't fucking move, so as humiliating as it was, he could at least have Lance help him hobble out of the shower.

Lance hesitated. “Can I come in?”

“I'm naked,” Keith warned him. This wasn't how he wanted Lance to see him naked for the first time, either.

“I mean, I’d hope so,” Lance snorted. “If you showered in your swimsuit, I'd never let you live it down.” Keith groaned and rolled his eyes, but Lance continued. “Seriously, man, it's okay. Sometimes people are naked.”

Keith sucked in a breath. The pain was still crippling, but it didn't have quite the bite it had earlier, now that Lance was closer. He could taste relief on the tip of his tongue. He just had to be able to stand up again.

“Come in.”

He heard the door slide open behind him, and he heard Lance step forward and shuffle with something. The water turned off over him, and a towel fell over his lower back, saving him some modesty.

And then Lance knelt down and put a warm, gentle hand on his shoulder.

The pain fluttered out of him, and it made Keith shudder. It happened over the course of a couple seconds, and then his body was flooded with the simple absence of discomfort. It wasn't that it even felt particularly pleasurable. It was just better.

He couldn't help it. He moaned lowly against his forearm and arched up against Lance’s hand.

He felt Lance’s fingers stiffen, but he didn't withdraw from him. Good. That hand should stay there forever, bare skin on bare skin.

“Oh,” Lance laughed, but the sound was quiet and choked. “Alright. Um. Better?”

Lance sounded uncomfortable, but Keith needed a few more moments. He just needed a little more time of not being ready to faint. The ride in Pidge’s lion had been the worst. He'd been so far away from Lance that he felt like he was dying.

“Don't stop,” Keith managed to whisper. Goosebumps were rising across his arms. “Not yet.”

Beside him, Lance whispered a long string of Spanish under his breath. Sure, Lance had to be annoyed with him when he was this needy. Keith felt a little guilty, so he sat up straighter and fixed the towel around his waist.

When he looked up at Lance, he saw how ridiculous his expression was. Lance’s cheeks were dark pink, and his eyes and jaw looked tight, like he was struggling to be stoic. Keith would have smirked, but he sort of felt how Lance looked: embarrassed and tense.

“Thanks,” he mumbled.

“No problem.” Lance’s voice cracked slightly. His hand was still on Keith’s shoulder. Lance cleared his throat and looked aside at the shower panel. “Man, I'm serious. I don't mind, um, being your antidote or whatever. It's better than you passing out in the shower. I know this morning was kind of... weird, but we’ve got to deal with this now, and I really just don't want you to be hurting.”

The words left Lance’s chest in a rush, and Keith fidgeted against them.

Lance was taking pity on him. He hated when Lance touched him like it didn't mean anything, but he also found himself looking forward to the attention, and now Lance was saying he was okay with walking him through this mess, literally hand in hand.

“I don’t…” Keith started unsurely and trailed off. He couldn't look Lance in the eyes.

“Hey, I get it,” Lance assured him. His voice was unusually soft and sober. “You're not a touchy guy. And I'm really sorry about this morning. It was an accident, and I promise it won't happen again. I know you don't want me to touch you, but I can't just let you suffer, either. So…” Lance moved his hand down Keith’s arm, never breaking contact with him, and curled their hands into each other. “You can touch me, and I won't mind. I won't do anything weird, or anything you don't like.”

Keith stared at him, and he had to check and make sure their hands were still clasped when he felt an ache in his chest. Lance was a goofball and a flirt, but whenever he was this earnest and thoughtful, Keith had to fight down the physical need to kiss him. Actually, that was a problem when he was a flirty goofball, too.

He sighed heavily and looked down to the towel over his lap.

“If you need a break,” Keith said firmly, “you tell me. If you don't like something, you tell me. And I want to know your boundaries.”

Lance’s shoulders relaxed, and Keith hadn’t realized he had been tense.

“What boundaries?” Lance laughed. “Showers and stuff? I don't really care.”

Showers with Lance. Keith resented the heat on his face.

“What about you?” Lance asked after a moment. “Um, boundaries?”

Keith thought for a moment, determined to give a clear, honest answer.

“I'm not used to…” He glanced down at their hands. “...touching to begin with. We’re already past my boundaries.” Lance’s hand loosened around his like he might pull away, so Keith gripped his fingers tighter. It felt strange, touching another person’s skin. His gloves were off, too, and his hand felt strangely sensitive, hyper aware of Lance’s body heat and the slight twitches of his fingers.

“But while this is going on,” Keith sighed, “if we could just… I’m okay with anything within reason, as long as we’re not apart for more than... five minutes or so. But if you need a longer break, I can deal with that, too.”

“I don't need breaks,” Lance answered, and he sounded so sure of himself that Keith’s stomach flipped. “But hey. I haven't had a shower yet, and you still have shampoo in your hair. You need to condition, buddy.” He must have seen the flush of warmth on Keith’s cheeks, because he paused and asked, “Would you rather we wear swim trunks or something? It's dorky, but doable.”

“No,” Keith mumbled, hot-faced and stubbornly staring at the floor. He could do this. He could be naked in the shower with the moron he was completely smitten with, like a mature person. “People are naked sometimes.”

Lance chuckled and stood, helping Keith up with him. “Atta boy. I can close my eyes or something, though.”

“You’ll slip and die,” Keith scoffed. “Just don't... look.”

Lance tilted his head back and studied the ceiling. “Got it. No looking.”

Keith felt his face twist into a pout, and he fought against it. Lance didn’t need to be so cute and charming all the time. Tentatively, he let go of Lance’s hand and turned to look away.

“Just do what you’ve got to do,” he grumbled, and he heard Lance laughing quietly while he undressed behind him.

“You too, alright?” Lance offered, and when he hung up a towel nearby, Keith slowly unwrapped the one around his waist to set it aside, too. “Whenever it gets bad, just take a minute and hold my hand or something. Whatever you need to do.”

The pain was already setting in again, but in a low thrum. Keith could deal with it. He bit the inside of his cheek and took a steadying breath, and he turned the water back on. He didn’t look at Lance directly, but he saw the general shape of him in his peripheral, a lean, tanned body. He would just have to deal with that, too.

Lance sighed happily and stood under the warm water, which fell from directly above them in a large square. He ruffled it into his hair, stretched his arms up, and just seemed so generally happy to be getting clean that Keith couldn’t help but glance. Just one little glance up at his face.

Lance’s eyes were closed, and his hands rubbed the water into his cheeks. His lips were stretched into a wide smile. His throat and shoulders were smooth and defined, and his hands looked long, with strong knuckles and clean nail beds. His arms and chest were gaining some muscle lately, and that thought left Keith’s mouth dry.

Lance cracked an eye open and smirked at Keith.

Keith turned his face back to the wall, face burning, and he rinsed the shampoo out of his hair.

This progressed tolerably for a couple of minutes. Keith scrubbed himself to satisfaction, and Lance was still working through his face wash when the pain settled deep in his spine. Keith inhaled sharply, darted his eyes toward Lance and back again, and took one shuffling step closer to him.

He couldn’t just reach out and touch him while he was naked. Besides, Lance’s hands were busy scrubbing his face.

If he kept acting weird about this, there was no way it would get easier. They had up to two weeks of this to look forward to.

Keith sighed, reached out with one unsteady hand, and touched Lance’s shoulder lightly.

The relief set in like the heat of a bath. He still ached, but Lance was soothing it away.

Lance held still for a moment, and he wiped the soap from his eyes to glance down at Keith. They made eye contact for a second, and something about that rinsed out the rest of the ache. He watched Lance’s adam’s apple bob.

“Wanna borrow my conditioner?” Lance asked suddenly. His face looked so serious that Keith had to laugh softly, and he decided to humor him.

“Sure.”

Lance grinned and turned to the shelf on the wall, and Keith noticed that Lance was leaning his shoulder into his hand. His other arm stretched out longer than he usually would to reach the bottle, just to avoid pulling away from Keith’s fingers.

Lance really was thoughtful. He had been outwardly supportive of Keith for a while now, and seeing more proof of that made Keith feel strangely guilty.

Lance was being kind to him, and Keith was thinking about him in a way that would probably repulse him. Just because Lance was being nice to him didn't mean he liked him.

Lance popped the cap on the bottle, and he held it out for Keith’s free hand. Keith looked down at the small white blob in his palm, and then raised his hand to rub the conditioner into his hair. It was awkward with just one hand, so he took his other one back to use both.

“Nice, right?” Lance asked absently, and he finished rinsing his own face.

“It smells like coconut,” Keith answered.

“That it does, my friend.” Lance smiled a little and shampooed his hair quickly. “Is that a good thing?”

Keith nodded and didn't look right at him. His fingers combed through his hair, massaging it in. “I like coconut.”

Lance smiled wider, and he continued with his routine. When Keith started to move stiffly again, Lance placed a hand gingerly on his shoulder, and the discomfort receded before the pain could start in earnest. It left Keith too anxious to thank him out loud, but he didn't pull away.

“Is that okay?” Lance asked seriously. “I mean, does it help?”

“Yes, and yes.”

Lance seemed satisfied with that. When they were rinsed off and done, Lance turned the water off and wrapped his towel around his waist, and Keith did the same. Some of the weight in the air dissipated by then, but not much. Lance held his hand on the way to the counter, and Keith found that it was okay to leave his hand on Lance’s shoulder while he finished the rest of his personal maintenance.

Lance brushed his teeth, and Keith would feel weird if he didn't do the same, so he did as well. Lance rubbed a nice-smelling serum into his damp hair and offered some to Keith, so he did as well. Lance rinsed the serum off his hands, unselfconsciously checked his face in the mirror, and dabbed a cream of some kind into certain spots that must have been flaws, but Keith wouldn't have been able to tell. Lastly, Lance smoothed a thin layer of moisturizer into his face, and again offered some to Keith.

Keith didn't really know why he needed moisturizer. His face had just gotten wet in the shower. It was plenty moist. Still, he rubbed the cream into his cheeks, but stopped when he heard Lance snort. He looked up at him and glared.

“What?”

Lance was biting his cheek to keep from laughing. “You're just smearing it around. Upward strokes, dude.”

Keith gave him his driest, most withering look, and he ran his fingertips up his cheeks to rub in the moisturizer properly. As if it made a difference.

“There you go,” Lance praised him with a wide grin. “Now you won't get wrinkles by the time you're twenty.”

“I'm twenty in like, three months,” Keith said flatly.

“Exactly.” Lance had the audacity to whip out the finger guns.

Keith snorted and pushed Lance’s arm, less than a playful punch and more than a nudge, and Lance laughed.

“Alright, alright. You hungry?”

Keith nodded, so Lance stepped away for just a moment to open the door. When he looked back at Keith, he held out his arm to offer it.

Three things pained Keith in that moment.

One: Lance was a giant dork, holding out his arm like a ballroom escort.

Two: He hadn't touched Lance enough in the past few minutes, and the discomfort and anxiety that accompanied it were building up.

And three: Keith was fighting the urge to latch onto Lance less and less, and he knew it.

As long as it was okay with both of them, it didn't have to be bad. It wasn't cuddling as long as it was medically motivated.

Keith stepped forward and wove his arm into Lance’s.

That was much more surface area of bare skin touching than just holding hands. Their forearms were locked together, and Keith’s elbow brushed comfortably against Lance’s side.

It would be so easy to slip a little closer. All he would have to do was lean into Lance’s side, lay his cheek on his shoulder, press flush against him. He wouldn’t be just avoiding pain then. He would be seeking something good. Lance probably wouldn’t mind.

Keith looked firmly ahead of them, and he loosened his grip on Lance’s arm. He refused to take advantage of this situation. Lance was too good and too kind for this, and Keith wasn’t going to push himself on him any more than necessary. Something in Lance’s posture seemed to sink, but he didn’t say anything else before walking out into the hall with him, arm in arm.

It was an incredibly short walk from the bathroom to Keith’s room, but they still managed to pass Pidge on their way there. She looked both of them in the eyes for a second, popped her mouth in a very “well, that’s something” sort of sound, and just kept walking. Keith hid his face in his free hand and groaned quietly, mortified, and Lance just snorted.

“Don’t even think about them,” Lance muttered. “Everyone else can deal with it. We’re taking care of you right now.”

“I don’t want to have to be taken care of,” Keith bit out. “This is horrible. I feel like a baby who can’t be left alone.”

“You’re not a baby. You’re the badass who took a hit for me and then jumped on a fucking dragon for me.”

Keith looked up to Lance again, but Lance was staring across the hall, away from him.

“I don’t feel very badass right now,” Keith laughed quietly, even though his face felt warm. He didn’t deserve a description that noble from Lance.

“Well, you are.” Lance shrugged, and Keith felt the motion of it against his side. “It’s my fault your helmet fell off, in any case. You saved my dumb ass, so I have to pay you back.”

Right. This was just Lance paying him back. Keith sucked in a stiff breath. “It’s not your fault. That thing was already on top of us. It had probably been following us for miles and just waited until we stopped to attack us.”

Lance frowned and didn’t answer. When they stepped into Keith’s room, he went with Keith to his dresser, setting one hand on his shoulder so Keith could pick out his clothes.

“Besides.” Keith worked his tongue in his mouth and rifled through his drawer. He pulled on a clean shirt first, then stepped into some boxers under his towel. “Your ‘dumb ass’ gave it a perfect blind spot, so I could actually attack it without it killing me. You don’t have to pay me back or anything. That was just us being a team.”

Lance made a sound between a cough and a laugh, and Keith felt his hand recede for a moment, hanging nearby and available. Keith dropped his towel and stepped into a clean pair of shorts, and the room was quiet for a second.

“I thought you were dying,” Lance admitted. There was a laugh somewhere in his voice, more self-deprecating than anything else Keith had heard from him. “They said everything on the planet was lethal, and then you were screaming, and... I dunno.” He let out a heavy sigh, and Keith looked up at him in time to watch Lance rub the back of his neck. “If that was the other option, I’m really glad we get to hang out for a couple weeks instead.”

That stunned Keith to silence for a good moment. Lance had thought Keith was dying, and he’d thought it was his fault somehow. No wonder he was so eager to help.

The sentiment of ‘I’m glad you’re not fucking dead’ was nice, too. Nice enough to put butterflies in Keith’s stomach. It didn’t mean Lance was in love with him or anything, but it was still nice.

Keith reached back out and took Lance’s hand again. He had no idea what to say, so he just squeezed his fingers and walked Lance back to his room to let him change.

Chapter Text

Keith hadn’t said it out loud, but Lance noticed when he had picked shorts and a tank. Lance had noticed the frustrated, longing glance Keith sent toward his gloves, too, before leaving them on top of his dresser. He was leaving skin exposed.

When the two of them went back to Lance’s room to let him get dressed, he elected to work with him on that, choosing a t-shirt and basketball shorts - at least, Lance thought of them that way. He wasn’t sure what any of the space-faring community would call the clothing items the paladins had picked up at the small outlet they had found, just so they would each have more to wear than a flight suit, a pair of pajamas, and the clothes they had left Earth in, but these were almost exactly basketball shorts.

Another thing that Lance noticed was that Keith was avoiding eye contact more than usual, and that he would pull away from Lance every minute or so. Then he would wait another minute until his jaw started to clench, and he would grudgingly reach for Lance’s hand or shoulder again. At some point, Keith started to hold onto Lance’s arm instead, just inside the crook of his forearm. It was less personal than his hand and further from his center than his shoulder.

That aside, Lance still felt that he shouldn’t initiate any of the contact. He wanted to leave that up to Keith, so it could be as much on Keith’s terms as this situation could be. In the end, he wondered if this was just making both of them more tense and unsure.

This ‘constantly touching’ thing was far from becoming second nature.

Lance wanted to tell him that he didn’t have to fight it so hard, but he knew how self-serving that would be.

Keith, buddy, you can hold my hand all you want. You can hold both of my hands.

Oh, Lance, I was such a fool. I was just intimidated by how cool and attractive you are, so I restrained myself from falling into your perfectly toned arms.

It’s okay, baby. I understand. All you needed to recognize our one-sided but cloying romantic and sexual tension was the bug bite from Hell. What a golden opportunity your suffering is.

Lance, you’re so sensitive and mature! You’re not a selfish, loathsome, opportunistic creep at all. I may swoon right out of my form-fitting pants.

Hush. No more words. Let our spooning do the talking for us.

Lance did his best to roll his eyes at himself only internally. As they walked down the hall toward the kitchen, he kept pace with Keith so his reluctant hand wouldn’t slip out from Lance’s arm. Neither of them had said a word since they had stepped out of Keith’s room, and the tone of the air between them was still soft and grim, the way only “I thought you were dying” could make it.

I’m glad you’re not dead. I’m happy you’re alive. I’m terrified of anything happening to you. I’m scared of losing you, especially before I can make things right between us. There were so many different ways to phrase what he’d said, and Lance could only hope that Keith understood that every side and facet of it was the truth.

In the context of Keith possibly dying, or in the context of the pain Keith was experiencing, Lance’s little schoolboy crush didn’t mean anything. At the core of the matter, Keith was important to him, and he just wanted him to make it through this as painlessly as possible.

When they walked into the kitchen, Lance was relieved to see Hunk cooking. It looked like Hunk had already grabbed a shower in one of the other bathrooms and then decided to show his support for his team in his favorite medium: nourishment. He looked up and smiled at both of them, and Lance caught the flicker of sympathy there. Lance’s answering smile was crooked and pained.

Hunk was the only one Lance had told about his stupid Keith-related feelings, and even that conversation had been painfully recent. Lance had gone to Keith, as the team leader of course, with some of his concerns. Keith had done his awkward best to reassure him, and then told him to let a certain genius paladin figure out the technicalities. Lance had needed to hit his head against a wall after that, so he had gone straight to Hunk and spilled his guts, frustrated and overanalyzing the entire conversation.

Hunk had charitably called him “head over heels,” but the exact phrase Lance had used was “quiznak’t.”

And for two movements, he wouldn’t even have a moment alone with Hunk to scream about this predicament. He couldn’t very well take Keith with him to his next ‘I heart Keith’ rambling session. If Lance had to bottle this many of his feelings up, he should at least be able to sell them.

“Hey, guys,” Hunk started off cheerfully. “I couldn’t decide what to make, so we’ve got mac and cheese with bacon: Space Remix, roasted veggies and potatoes that are actually this weird tuber from Kharakaziil, and I’m almost done with the fried taste-like-bananas.”

Comfort food. Hunk was throwing comfort food at them. Lance loved this man.

“I love you so much,” Lance told him out loud, his voice more than a little thick with emotion, and Hunk laughed.

“I know it, babe. There’s sweet tea in the fridge.”

Keith let go of Lance’s arm and made a beeline for the Altean equivalent of a refrigerator.

Hunk was kind enough not to mention the fact that Lance and Keith both looked fresh and clean - oh, never mind, there he was turning to Lance with his eyebrows raised and his mouth moving around the word ‘shower?’

Lance now knew what Keith’s ass looked like. He had said that he wouldn’t look, and he tried to be a man of his word, but it was nearly impossible not to see him when they had been standing naked next to each other. He knew what Keith’s perfect, adorable, toned backside looked like, and how he pushed his hair back from his face when it was wet, and what he sounded like when he moaned.

“Don’t stop,” he had said so softly.

Lance was now sure of the existence of a higher power, because the entire experience had been some kind of divine punishment. And it would have to happen every quintant until the ignis bite wore off. He was already enough of a disaster, trying to plan how to survive the rest of the day.

While Keith’s face was in the fridge, Lance widened his eyes at Hunk and pulled his hair with both hands to pantomime his frustration. Hunk shook his head and put a hand over his heart to show his sorrow. As soon as Keith turned back around with the large pitcher of tea, the two of them resumed normal human postures. Keith poured himself a glass and then picked up a plate to load it down with food, and Lance leaned over the counter towards Hunk.

“Banana me,” Lance told him.

“One: never say that again,” Hunk admonished him, “and two: no. They’re too hot and not crispy yet.”

Lance opened his mouth and waited. He always ate them off the pan when his mom cooked them at home. Too hot, yeah, right. He appreciated fried plantains at every stage in the cooking process.

Hunk snorted, picked one slice off the pan with a fork, and held it out for Lance to bite it off. Lance hummed and smiled when he ate it. Almost as sweet as his mom’s.

His eyes opened again when he felt Keith’s warm, calloused hand on his arm, and he gave him the most casual smile he could. Keith wasn’t even looking at him to see it, but frowning at the counter and holding his glass of tea in his other hand.

“Do you want tea?” Keith asked him, almost mumbling it.

Lance swallowed his half-fried not-banana. “Um. Yeah, sure.”

Keith’s hand twitched on his arm, but didn’t tighten or loosen. He put down the glass on the counter in front of Lance and then walked back across the kitchen to pour another glass. Lance and Hunk glanced at each other, both confused, and Lance shrugged.

When the not-bananas were done, Hunk dished them out onto the plates. By then, Pidge had wandered in, following the smell of food, and grabbed a plate of her own. Everyone brought their plates to the table, and Lance and Keith stopped for a moment, considering how to sit. The chairs swiveled, but they were fixed to the floor and couldn’t be scooted together for easier contact.

“Are you right- or left-handed?” Lance asked Keith, who looked at him guardedly.

“Either.”

“Cool.” As if Lance hadn’t noticed that Keith was ambidextrous. He just wanted to check if there was a hand Keith preferred. He sat down and then patted the spot on his left, where Keith took a seat. Once they were settled, Lance set his left hand on the table halfway between them to leave an invitation open. He saw Keith bite the corner of his lip, but then he reached out and rested his hand in Lance’s.

At first, Lance had to fight his smile with his whole being. But then he remembered that Keith didn’t really want to be holding his hand right then, and he suddenly had to perk up a little more to keep from looking too glum. At least no one else at the table commented on the forced PDA.

“So, Keith, how are you feeling?” Hunk asked first. Lance was pushing food into his face as fast as he could manage, maybe because he was nervous, but he did send Keith a subtle glance.

“Fine.” Keith didn’t take his eyes off his forkful of macaroni. It wasn’t really macaroni, but twists of something like pasta that Hunk had made from scratch. Honestly, it was delicious.

“Okay,” Hunk encouraged, as patient as a mother. “So, better? We were all pretty worried.”

Keith continued to avoid everyone’s eyes. “Yeah, better. It’s nothing to worry about.” He cleared his throat, and his fingers fidgeted over Lance’s. “We have another run to do tomorrow. Let’s focus on that.”

Was this Keith trying to act leaderly? Lance watched him for an extra moment and then put on a smile.

“Yeah. Planet uh, Eezmie?” Lance offered.

“Yzramil,” Pidge corrected him.

“That’s it!” Lance put another forkful of food into his mouth and kept talking. “It’ll be smooth sailing. All we have to do is ask for access to the beacon and walk in.”

“Talking with your mouth full,” Hunk chided him.

“It’s your fault for making the food so good,” Lance answered around roasted veggies.

“So eat and don’t talk?” Hunk snorted.

“Impossible. I must talk, but I also must eat.” Still, Lance swallowed his mouthful of food. “Anyway, it’ll be chill. If we can handle a giant angry snake monster, we can handle a literal walk through a park. Did everyone see Keith straight up jump on it?”

Pidge barked a laugh. “That was crazy and scared the shit out of me.”

“It was pretty awesome.” Hunk cast Lance a strange smile. “I mean, he was basically protecting you the whole fight.”

Lance’s mouth popped open, but he didn’t have anything to fire back with. It was entirely true. Every motion and decision Keith had made during that encounter had directly resulted in Lance being safer.

Keith fidgeted again, and then his hand went strangely still and stiff in Lance’s, like it was simply trying to hover where it was and be unfelt by Lance’s fingers.

“That snake thing had it out for me,” Lance finally said.

“It never touched you. Keith attacked you more than it did.” Pidge smiled crookedly and spun her fork around her finger. “I saw that part, too.”

Lance was trying to praise Keith, and these two were teasing him. He glowered at Pidge, but then felt Keith’s hand slip away from his own. When he looked back at Keith, he had tucked away the rest of his food and was standing up to take care of his plate.

“Man, you can sit down,” Lance reminded him. His voice sounded a little too pleading to his ears, so he tried to dial up the casual. “I’m almost done, and then we can do whatever.”

“I’m, um.” Keith frowned at his plate as he scrubbed it in the sink. He ended up shrugging, and Lance wasn’t sure what that meant, so he shrugged too and looked back towards Hunk and Pidge.

“So…” Pidge was still twirling her fork, but she’d loaded it with every slice of banana she had into a kebab. “The bite, it’s not bothering you right now?” she asked Keith.

Keith glanced up sharply, but his expression looked stressed and confused.

“It… It’s okay,” he decided.

If Keith wanted distance, Lance couldn’t deny him that. All he could do was watch him all the way across the room and try to gauge his threshold, wondering how bad it felt and how much pain Keith was hiding.

Pidge gave a brief, thoughtful hum and looked at Lance. “Does it hurt you at all?” Lance shook his head. “Just wondering. It would be weird if the pain transferred or anything. I wonder if he just had to touch, like, something with your cells on it. Like if he wore your shirt for the day, if he’d be fine, or if he really needs to touch you.”

“I mean, we could try that,” Lance conceded. As long as something made it easier on Keith. “What do you think?”

Keith shrugged again, leaning against the counter with his palms on the surface.

Pidge chewed the skin of her lip and studied Keith for another moment. “I mean. You kind of freaked us out on the ride back in Green. And then nothing helped until Lance got to you, so I just figured you wouldn’t spend much time more than a couple feet apart.”

“It’s fine,” Keith said, but his voice was stiff and quiet.

“It doesn’t look fine,” Hunk said just as quietly. “Dude, you’re pale.”

“I’m always pale.”

Lance shook his head and waved his hand back and forth to shoo the issue away. “Just give him a minute. I’m a great snuggle buddy, but I know, I can be overwhelming. He just needs a minute to remember I’m just a man and not some kind of hand-holding god.”

“Lance, this isn’t a joke,” Hunk started to say at the same time Pidge groaned in irritation.

“Give him a minute,” Lance repeated, insisting. “Let him have some space.” He looked up to Keith past the counter, brows creased. “Are you okay?”

Keith was silent for several heartbeats. His face crumbled, and then he shook his head, folding his arms on the counter and leaning into them.

Lance got up fast enough that he almost unbolted his chair from the floor. In the same second, he was behind Keith, fitting himself close to touch their skin together. His forearms folded around Keith’s, and he leaned over him enough to touch their shoulders together. Even their calves touched where he stood behind him. He was effectively draped over him against the counter.

Keith stopped holding his breath. He shivered and gasped, sounding more miserable than relieved, and he had to take several more shallow and then deep breaths to steady himself. His body felt overheated and tense, on the verge of sweating, and then he slowly went slack against the counter. Lance’s instincts kicked in, needing to comfort him, and he hugged him a little closer.

“You’re okay, man,” he murmured close to the back of Keith’s neck. “You’re okay.”

Keith went from slack to truly relaxed. In seconds, he became tense and shaking again.

“Too much,” he heard Keith whisper.

Lance backed off immediately, but he left one hand on the counter next to Keith, always available. Keith glanced at it with a guilty, sorry pain in his eyes, and he took the hand in his own without looking at Lance.

That shade of red was really cute on Keith’s face. Lance could have kicked himself for thinking it in that moment, but it was the truth.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Lance told him softly. This was a conversation between just them, not their friends at the table, so he pitched his voice accordingly low. “Stop torturing yourself. Please. I want to give you the space you need, but they’re right. Pulling away is hurting you.”

Keith looked exhausted when his eyes finally turned up toward Lance’s. For a moment, Lance thought Keith might just pitch sideways and fall asleep, or cry, or die.

Instead, Keith leaned forward. He was still stiff, unsure what he was doing, but he set his chin on Lance’s shoulder and let himself soak up some of his body heat.

Lance laughed softly, and he fought the instinct to rub Keith’s back. That would probably scare him away. So he tried something subtler but hopefully still encouraging, and he squeezed Keith’s hand.

Keith was leaning into him. That was half of a hug, right? Keith was half-hugging him. And it had nothing to do with Keith liking him, which took away a considerable amount of the moment’s shine.

Hunk stood up suddenly at the table. “Pidge, remember that thing we have to do that’s not here?”

“I absolutely do, Hunk.” Pidge shoveled the rest of her food into her face and left her plate on the table. “We’ll see you guys later?”

Lance gave them a grateful smile over Keith’s shoulder. “Bye, guys. Thanks for food, Hunk.”

“Anytime, baby,” Hunk gave Lance a salute on his way out. The door shut behind the two of them, and Lance was left, alone, with Keith’s cheek against his jaw.

“There you go,” Lance mumbled, smiling even though his heart was throwing a fit in his ribcage. “Not so bad.”

Keith’s voice was raspy in his ear. “It’s getting worse.”

Lance swallowed dryly. “How do you mean?”

“I mean, it’s…” Keith’s breathing was unsteady enough for Lance to feel it against his own chest. “Less time before it hurts again. And it hurts more, and you…”

Lance was sure he heard a pin drop somewhere down the hall.

“And I…?”

Keith pulled back, and Lance saw the grimace on his face. He was still avoiding his eyes, and he had raised his other hand to hold onto Lance’s arm. He needed both hands on him now.

“I need um, more,” Keith mumbled, devastatingly awkward. “I need to touch you more to even feel normal, but that’s not normal, either, and I just don’t feel right. It’s like the venom’s setting in.”

Alright. Lance could handle this. Part of him wanted to find a cave somewhere on some moon that he could hide in for the rest of his life, but Keith needed him right now. So Lance would handle this. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, still holding Keith’s hand.

“Okay. That’s okay. We’ll handle it,” he reassured him gently. “I’m glad you’re talking to me about it. Communication is key.”

“Don’t talk to me like a social worker,” Keith grumbled, and a part of Lance withered up and died.

“Okay, man, I’m sorry,” Lance tried again just as softly. “But I swear, it’ll be fine. Let’s just find a way to get you comfortable. What do you need? Just name it.”

Keith’s hand tightened around Lance’s fingers, frustrated instead of needy, and he let his head fall forward again to hide in Lance’s shoulder.

“I don’t know. Everything feels bad. I can’t even think.”

Lance swallowed thinly, and he turned halfway to lean his hips against the counter. He held Keith there, supporting him while they talked.

“What feels bad right now?” Lance prompted him.

“Just the--” Keith tensed in little shudders, and he tried to let go of Lance’s hand, but couldn't seem to pry his shaking fingers loose. “This. I don’t know how to touch people. It’s so much, and I’m not ready, but I have to or it’ll hurt worse, and it’s too much.”

“Okay. Okay.” Lance kept his voice soft and sussurant. He had never heard this kind of anxious outburst from Keith before. He opened his hand, and he let their palms touch more simply. No one was holding onto anyone. They were just touching. Lance wondered if that would help.

He had to be overstimulated. Keith saw himself as the loner. He had internalized that long before they had become paladins, not to mention that he had spent a year living alone in the desert with possibly no human contact at all. Lance had grown up with a huge, affectionate family, surrounded by constant hugs and high-fives and elbow jabs and pats on the back. Physical contact was just how he communicated. But for Keith, this was overwhelming.

And Lance had spent the past week overwhelming him.

God, Lance was such a fucking idiot.

“Is it easier if I touch you, or if you touch me?” Lance asked him softly.

Keith was still shaking, but he was taking control of his breaths, slowing them down purposefully.

“Um.” His brow pinched, and his dark eyes looked damp. “It’s... easier when I do it,” he barely mumbled.

“Okay.” Slowly, Lance pulled his hands back and set them on the countertop unthreateningly. “Do you want to hold onto me?”

Keith raised his hands and curled them around Lance’s biceps. It didn’t seem to be enough for the pain, but he didn’t seem willing to step closer, either. He blinked quickly, dark lashes over dark, wet eyes.

“Do you want to go to your room?” Lance asked, hoping a private, familiar space would help. Keith nodded, so Lance stepped with him, letting Keith hold onto his arm while he led him back down the residential hall.

When Keith’s door closed behind them, Lance toed off his shoes and sat on the bed with him. He kept his hands to himself, and Keith seemed to be struggling with keeping a loose enough grip on Lance’s arm.

The tears were falling down Keith’s cheeks by then, and it took every ounce of self control Lance had not to wipe them away.

“Here,” he murmured. “We can just lie down for a while. Sound good?”

Keith hesitated, but nodded. Lance shifted back on the blankets, lay down on his back with his head on the pillow, and then patted his fingers against his chest.

“You can put your head here, if you want.”

Keith stared at him, his face rigid even with tears dripping off his chin, but he finally crawled forward and settled down against Lance’s side. Lance left his arms open and let Keith arrange himself however he wanted, and when Keith finally lay still and seemed comfortable, his cheek was right over Lance’s heart. His own arm lay loosely across Lance’s ribs, and slowly, Lance felt Keith’s breathing ease out.

This was an aspect of physical contact that Lance hadn’t been braced for. Instead of something sexual or even romantic, or anything comfortable and familial, Lance had to stare the moment in the face when this one precious, vulnerable, mortal body trusted him enough to tuck itself close to his heart.

Keith was never fragile. Lance knew that Keith wasn’t fragile or weak or anything less than incredible. But in that moment, Keith was a small life form in space, and Lance wasn’t sure how to process the bittersweet protectiveness swelling in his throat.

He didn’t move. He just let Keith breathe and listen to his heartbeat.

“I had nightmares when I was little.” Lance found the words forming in his mouth, and they sounded stupid and dry and shaky when he exposed them to the air. He stared at the ceiling over the bed and felt Keith shift so slightly against him. “Or, night terrors. The screaming kind. And every time, my mom would come in and hold me and I’d just listen to her heartbeat, and I’d fall back to sleep.”

Keith’s hand curled lightly into Lance’s shirt.

“I’m a touchy guy,” he just kept rambling. His voice was almost quiet and calm enough to fool himself into thinking he knew what he was talking about. “When I’m scared, I like being held. When I’m lonely, I like being held. I hug people when I’m happy. Even when I’m mad, I just wanna hold someone. So I touch people to show them I care, or that I’m comfortable with them, or something. But it’s not like that for everyone. I had this friend in school who just couldn’t be touched. She’d scream just on reflex. Hugs were out. So I started waving at her, and she was really happy.”

Lance sucked in a deep breath, and Keith tilted his head up, setting his chin on Lance’s chest to look at him. He couldn’t believe Keith was listening to him.

“So I was... I don’t know. Trying to show you I’m glad we’re friends,” Lance muttered. “With all the touching. But some people don’t do hugs. Some people wave. So when this is over, if you want me to wave, I can do that.”

After several silent minutes, Lance heard Keith sniffle and then whisper, “You can put your arms around me.”

Lance had to pause and take a couple of extra seconds, processing those words and translating them back and forth to make sure what they meant. And then, gingerly, he raised his arms and tucked them around Keith’s back, one hand flat on his shoulder blade. He felt the warmth of Keith’s sigh more than he heard it.

“I’m not touch-repulsed or anything,” Keith murmured. “I’m just... not used to it. So every time it happens, it just surprises me and I’m really aware of it. But I want to work on it. I want to be able to hug my friends and stuff.”

Lance responded with a soft, ungraceful, “Oh.”

“Yeah.” Keith cleared his throat quietly. “It’s just a lot all at once right now, when it hurts and then doesn’t hurt but someone’s touching me. Like I don’t have any choice and I’ll just have to feel everything all the time.” He went quiet for another moment, and Lance felt the weight of his cheek a little deeper against his chest. “But this, um, isn’t bad. Coran said the sting would give me feelings of contentment or something.”

“Yeah.” That must be it. God, Lance, don’t rub his back. Don’t hug him tighter. Don’t fuck this up. “Glad it’s getting a little better.”

Keith let out a tiny laugh. “I’m so tired. To be honest, I might fall asleep like this.” Lance’s heart swelled to capacity. “Would that be okay?”

“Totally okay.” Lance swallowed and he barely shifted, adjusting to get more comfortable. Keith didn’t seem to mind. “Wake me up if you need anything, okay? It’s no big deal.”

Keith dozed off after a few minutes, but Lance didn’t fall asleep for a long time. He felt ridiculous, finally holding the boy of his dreams and unable to say anything about it.

He was afraid to move and wake Keith, so he only moved once. Keith had managed to squirm his way up an inch or so against Lance in his sleep, and his absurd, fluffy hair was tickling Lance’s jaw. When he reached down to stroke it back into place, his fingers stayed there a little longer than intended. He combed Keith’s hair back with a few more gentle passes. It smelled like coconut.

Chapter Text

Keith was typically a light sleeper.

The lights were dimmed in his room, dark enough so that he could sleep, but with barely enough glow that he would be able to see the floor when he got up. All that was needed was a simple request for the lights to turn on or off. Compared to bruising his shins against the clutter in his shack, it was a blessing.

He couldn’t remember turning the lights out the night before.

Actually, he couldn’t remember much of anything.

In the half-second he used to process that, his senses also informed him that his room smelled different, and that his bed was a lot fuller than it was supposed to be. Lying on his side, Keith instinctively stiffened, and his brain stumbled towards awareness of the waking world. He felt something shift behind him.

Keith’s elbow snapped back on reflex and made contact. He heard a startled cry, and he scrambled back on the bed, sitting up and pressing his back into the wall on one side of the mattress.

“Lights on,” he barked, and then he was blinking past the brightness to see Lance in his bed, groggy and holding one hand to his cheekbone.

“Jesus, Keith, it’s too early for karate,” Lance laughed weakly.

Keith’s stomach plummeted. He started to move forward, kneeling on the sheets, and he reached halfway toward Lance before retracting his hand again.

“I’m sorry,” he stammered. “Fuck, I’m sorry, are you okay?”

“Relax, man. I’m fine.” Lance had one eye closed where his hand was halfway over his cheek, and he showed Keith a tired, lopsided smile. Of course this would happen. Of course Keith got to wake up next to the most charming, kind, beautiful being in the universe and then he elbowed him in the face. “Let’s try not to do that tomorrow though, okay?”

Lance was too patient. Somehow, that made it worse. Keith swallowed hard and patted his hands anxiously on the bed.

“I’m really sorry,” he mumbled again. “I didn’t… I didn’t mean to. Let me get you some ice.”

“It’s okay, really,” Lance assured him, but Keith saw the slight flinch in his eye when he tapped his fingertip to his cheekbone. It was already red, and it would definitely bruise. The face Lance took such good care of was going to bruise.

Keith shook his head, slipped past Lance on the bed, and stepped onto the floor. The pain was already welling up in his chest, bypassing the minor discomfort and going straight to the burning ache, but he did his best to ignore it. He didn’t deserve to seek comfort from Lance right then.

It started to dissipate when Lance reached out and placed his hand on Keith’s arm.

“Hey.” Lance’s voice was so gentle that it put the ache right back where it was. “Let’s just brush our teeth first, and then we’ll get ice and breakfast.”

Keith could only stare down at the floor. Guilt and humiliation made for a bad combination, he realized. Lance stood up with him, slipped his hand into Keith’s, and stretched up on his toes, arching and popping his back.

“What time is it, anyway?” Lance yawned and pulled his small orange datapad out of his pocket, and he tapped through it with his thumb as they made their way to the bathroom. “Varga 0500. Not too bad. Did you sleep okay?” With twenty vargas on each of the ship’s artificial quintant cycles, Keith felt another pang of guilt for not letting Lance sleep in longer. It was like waking up at six.

“Yeah.” He glanced down at their clasped hands, head bowed. Lance’s fingers were longer than his, and the shade of his skin was so much softer and warmer where it contrasted against Keith’s. He felt like his own hand was stiff and awkward, while Lance’s was relaxed and still warm from the bed. When he tried to relax his hand and mimic Lance, Keith realized that the conscious effort wasn’t helping. His fingers only twitched. “Sorry I woke you up. And hit you in the face. We can go back to bed, if you want.”

It was Lance’s hand that twitched that time, and Keith looked up at his face quickly enough to get a glimpse of... something. Some kind of strange emotion that he wasn’t used to seeing on Lance. His eyes were a degree wider and pretending not to be, his lips were pale where he bit them together, and he was looking anywhere but at Keith.

“What?” Keith had to ask.

“I just…” Lance chuckled and scratched his jaw. His cheek looked redder than before, and Keith hoped to high heaven that he hadn’t done more damage to Lance’s face than he’d realized. “Nothing. Just not used to sleeping in other people’s rooms, I guess.” He led them into the bathroom, and Keith linked their arms at the elbow so they could use both hands for toothpaste and toothbrushes.

“Right,” Keith agreed quietly. He hadn’t really asked if Lance would prefer sleeping in his own room. Should they find another room instead, one to share until they could each go back to their own spaces? Maybe that would feel less awkward and personal. Or maybe awkward and personal was what they needed. “Do you want us to sleep in your bed instead?” he offered. “I wouldn’t mind.”

Lance took a deep breath, staring into the mirror, and held that breath. “Oh, god help me,” he finally mumbled around his toothbrush, and Keith struggled to find out what he had said wrong. “That could work, too. Whichever is fine. And I’m sorry, man, but you’re gonna have to see my weird faces while I floss.”

Keith did feel pretty clean when they walked back out to the hall. Maybe joining Lance for his entire morning skincare routine would have a good long-term impact on him. Lance had insisted on changing before breakfast - he couldn’t stand wearing the clothes he’d slept in for too long or something - and was currently in a scandalously loose tank top and calf-length workout pants. He smelled nice, and Keith could see almost his whole ribcage through that shirt, and it was almost too much to hold his hand for this long.

In the name of science, Lance passed Keith his old shirt and let go of his hand. They had to answer Pidge’s question from yesterday, if Keith could just hold onto something with Lance’s cells on it to counter the sting. As he awkwardly clutched Lance’s still-warm shirt in his hands, he decided that, no, it didn’t help nearly enough. In under twenty seconds, he dropped the shirt into the hamper and took Lance’s hand again.

It was still early, and nobody else was awake when the two of them came to the kitchen. Keith’s first priority was to get Lance something for the bruise on his face, so he took them straight to the cabinet with the human-friendly medicines, and he reached up on his toes to get to the painkillers and anti-inflammatories. Beside him, Lance smirked and reached up more quickly and more fluidly, and Keith had to shoot him a glare when Lance got to the bottle first. He knew Lance was going to brag about being taller, so Keith cut in, “By two inches.”

“What are you talking about?” Lance’s smirk only widened, and he hooked their arms together again so he could open the bottle with both hands. “You’re a tiny, tiny bacterium of a person. Single-celled organism.” He held the open bottle out to Keith, offering him a pill. Keith’s face flushed with indignation, and he stepped away to go to the freezer.

“I was getting it for you, you fucking giraffe.” He worked through the separation pain with sheer spite, and he ignored Lance’s startled laughter while he picked up a bag of some kind of frozen vegetable. He marched back over to Lance and held the bag out for him, and he tried his hardest to keep his hand from visibly shaking.

Lance had swallowed a couple of the pills and put the bottle back, and he grinned at Keith. The pain drained out of him as soon as Lance wrapped his hand around his wrist, and Lance didn’t pull him forward. He just maintained contact.

“What, you want frozen veggies for breakfast?”

“It’s for your face,” Keith grit out, exasperated. “Just let me do something to help.”

“What, like call me a giraffe? That hurt my feelings.” Lance was grinning too wide for that to be sincere. His eyes were bright and playful and he still hadn’t fixed his hair, and Keith hated himself for that one flaw on his face, the swell of red on his cheek.

“I’m. So. Sorry,” Keith seethed. He was trying to be genuine and apologize to him, and Lance was deflecting his efforts by being an adorable jerk. “You’re not a giraffe. What can I do to make up for injuring you, you tall, stretchy freak of nature?”

“You’re supposed to kiss it better,” Lance informed him, like this should have been obvious already. Still, his face fell still right after saying it, and his next words had a measured air about them. Like he was torturing Keith on purpose. “Or make coffee. Either is acceptable.”

Alright, then. Fuck Lance for teasing him. Keith looked him dead in the eye, leaned up and put his lips so close to Lance’s cheek, and whispered in his ear, “Coffee sounds good.”

He shoved the bag of frozen food into Lance’s hand. His face was already burning, so he turned and escaped toward the coffee maker.

The pain set in hard and fast, making his hands unsteady and his vision blurry, but Keith concentrated on the alien technology that would give them some form of caffeine. That, and the conspicuous sound of a frozen bag of vegetables hitting the floor. Maybe he hadn’t put it in Lance’s hand securely enough. Whatever. He couldn’t turn around and look at him now.

“Um.” Lance’s voice croaked behind him. Keith had freaked him out. Of course. He'd done something stupid and embarrassing and ruined their healthy banter. “Alright, cool. What do you want for breakfast?”

Keith had one hand gripping the counter, and the other stabbed at the buttons on the small machine. His insides were boiling. His bones felt ready to break. He felt sweat beading on his forehead, but he finished starting the coffee machine and setting out two mugs.

“Keith.” Lance’s tone was gentle and firm behind him. “You look sick. Can I hold you?”

Keith could have dismissed him, or he could have gone for the simple hand-holding. But the truth was that the venom was getting worse, like its effects were peaking, and nothing felt better than letting Lance hold him.

It was terrifying. Letting Lance touch his skin was like letting him read him as a person. His body was 37 degrees Celsius. His skin was soft in some places, calloused or scarred in others, and had the occasional blemish. At the moment, he smelled like Lance’s face wash, and he knew it. Lance would be able to tell all of these things about him if he was too close. And it was the same for Lance. Whenever Lance touched him, Keith felt like his skin was buzzing with the knowledge that on the other side of his hand, a whole other body, a person, was functioning and thinking and living. There were too many details in touches.

But last night, all Keith had heard was the steady beat of Lance’s heart. His arms around him had made Keith’s pulse skyrocket, but they had been strong, warm, and welcome. He had fallen asleep feeling safe.

Keith turned around and stepped into Lance’s arms. As soon as his cheek touched Lance’s shoulder, he felt those arms wrap around him. Carefully, Keith lifted his arms and curled them around Lance’s waist.

He smelled so good. Lance’s body was lean and firm and breathing between Keith’s arms. His collarbone was so close to Keith’s mouth.

The pain vanished, leaving only that profound sense of wellbeing.

Whenever they held hands, the pain faded out, but Keith was still aware of it as it waited to come back.

Like this, everything felt better. It was almost overwhelmingly peaceful.

“Better?” Lance asked softly, and Keith realized that he had been pressing himself closer into Lance’s chest.

“It's like when you put your blanket over the heater,” Keith mumbled, and he felt Lance’s laughter in his chest.

“People always told me I give good hugs, but you're really feeding my ego. Warm blanket is the best.” Lance’s cheek tilted against the top of Keith’s head. “Speaking of feeding me, breakfast is a thing.”

Keith was becoming aware that Lance’s skin was a physical craving for him. The more of him he touched - cheek to shoulder, temple to cheek, hand to back, arm to side, even their shins - the more blissful he felt, and the more he wanted to stay there. Lance was exactly like a warm blanket. Pulling away from him was as hard as peeling himself out of bed and stepping into the cold air.

“Breakfast sounds good,” he agreed anyway, and he fought himself to step back. All he had to do was avoid pain. He didn't have to crowd Lance just because he was getting greedy. In the end, though, he only stepped back a few inches, and he still had his arm curled around Lance’s.

Lance raised an eyebrow at him, and Keith started to pull back further, embarrassed. With his newly freed arm, Lance curled a hand around Keith’s waist, watching his expression.

“This okay?” Lance checked.

Keith wasn't sure. Half of him froze like a startled deer, scared that if Lance touched him, he would know. Keith wasn't sure what, but by golly, Lance would know. The other half, which stayed buried, was screaming and jumping up and down because Lance was holding him so well that it was almost like he wanted to.

“Yeah,” he muttered after a tense second of staring. He ducked his eyes away and tucked himself closer to Lance’s side, head on his shoulder again. “Sorry I'm being so clingy.”

Lance let out a sudden laugh, and he walked them over to the fridge to look through their options. “I can’t get through the day without at least five hugs. You’re the least clingy person I’ve ever met.”

Right. Lance was actually adjusted to and thrived on affection. Keith had just assumed that Lance would be as anxious as he was by all of the touching, but maybe that wasn’t so. He bit his tongue for a moment before asking, “Do you like this? The uh, hugging?”

That gave Lance a good deal of pause, and his next chuckle was tight and nervous. “That... doesn’t matter. Just think about what you need.”

“You hate it,” Keith realized out loud, dread washing over him, and his fingers loosened on Lance’s arm.

“No,” Lance cut in softly. Keith felt his hand hold his waist just a little closer. “No, I really don’t.”

The ensuing silence could have smothered them.

Keith pulled away and left one hand curled loosely around Lance’s forearm, staring toward the opposite end of the room, and Lance cleared his throat while he poked through the food.

“Anyway. What do you want?”

Keith pointed out a fruit preserve he liked in the fridge. Lance picked that up so they could have it with toast, and then he pulled out a carton of eggs. Lucky for them, egg-laying creatures and therefore scrambled eggs were common things throughout the universe.

“I make good eggs,” Keith informed Lance. “How do you like yours?”

“Mmm, scrambled. Duh.” Lance smiled without meeting Keith’s eye, so Keith watched the profile of Lance’s face while he put bread in the toaster and took out a pan. “It’s good with chilis in it, or salsa, but I guess I’ll have to do without.”

Once they got to the stove, Keith took over, fiddling the alien cooktop to life and letting the pan heat up. They switched arms so Keith could have both hands available. Lance put his hand on Keith’s shoulder, but Keith braced himself and leaned a little further into the contact. Lance took the small cue, and he let his arm settle around both of Keith’s shoulders, standing beside him and watching him cook, holding the frozen bag of veggies to his cheek with his free hand. Keith kept his overheating face down while he seasoned and stirred the eggs.

“How did you sleep?” Keith remembered to ask. It only seemed polite, after dragging him into such an early morning.

“Pretty well. Even when you rolled over me. You were on my left, and-” Lance spun his hand once and made a whooshing sound. “-then you were on my right.”

“I’m a restless sleeper,” Keith mumbled by way of apology.

“It’s okay,” Lance laughed, and his breath was so close to Keith’s ear. “You only kicked me twice. And stole all the blankets.”

“I’ve never shared a bed before,” Keith grumbled, more defensive this time, and he felt Lance go still.

“What, ever?”

“No, not ever.”

“Well.” Lance gave him a look that was almost thoughtful. “Rule one: share the blankets.”

“I’ll work on it,” Keith answered flatly, and he pushed half of the eggs onto either of two plates.

Keith knew that he shouldn’t humor his interest in Lance. Lance tended to make it clear what his type was, and that Keith was the farthest thing from it. Someone playful and friendly and easily approachable. Someone sweet that Keith could never be.

But that was fine. Keith wasn’t that interested to begin with. He didn’t have any feelings to humor. Lance was just being nice, and in a couple of weeks, they would both move on from this like nothing had happened. Lance would eventually find someone who suited him better, and Keith wouldn’t bat an eye.

Still, he found himself smiling when Lance praised his cooking. They sat beside each other at the table, hands resting together between them, and Lance kept asking how Keith had gotten the eggs so fluffy.

“I just added water. You watched me make them.” Keith couldn’t keep a tremble of laughter out of his words.

“Yeah, but mine never turn out this good.” Lance took his last bite of eggs and twirled his fork, humming. “Where’d you learn how to cook?”

Keith shrugged and bit into his toast. “I put eggs in instant ramen. Then I ran out of ramen and just had eggs.”

“Okay, but dude, how long were you living off of scrambled eggs?”

Keith wasn’t sure he wanted to answer that, so he just shrugged.

Lance snorted and shook his head. “How are you even alive?” he asked with such quiet astonishment. “If my mom knew about this, she’d sit you down and feed you until you puked.”

Keith didn’t mean to make eye contact. He didn’t mean to want to meet Lance’s mother so badly. He didn't know how to answer and took another bite of toast.

Lance sighed and leaned an elbow on the table. “Anyway. We’re getting to Yzramil at what, Varga sixteen?” His tone implied that they had time to kill, but Keith sat upright.

“The lions,” he started, earning a confused look from Lance. Keith glanced stiffly at their hands. “We can't both fly at once.”

The furrow in Lance’s brow smoothed out. “Oh,” he said slowly. “Well… We don't both need to fly. Not for this run, at least. Which lion do you want us to take?”

“But what if both of us do need to fly?” Keith bypassed Lance’s question. If they needed to form Voltron, they wouldn’t be able to react in time. They wouldn't be able to defend themselves because of Keith. “We can’t fly Black and Red at the same time. If anything happens, we’re screwed.”

“Today’s not the day to worry about it,” Lance insisted. “We won’t need Voltron today. We’ll be fine.”

“That’s exactly what someone would say right before we need Voltron.”

Lance took a breath and rubbed his bruised cheekbone. “Okay,” he sighed. “We’ve got some time before we get there, so I guess all we can do is go check out the lions and see if we can figure something out.”

It caught up to Keith that Lance was trying to reassure him. All Keith was doing was chewing on the problems, and Lance was the one to stay calm. Mollified and somewhat ashamed, he nodded and squeezed Lance’s hand in silent gratitude.

 

 

They didn’t suit up before heading to Red’s hangar together. They both had experience with Red, and Lance wanted to see if she could give them any hints about what to do. Keith had wanted to rush ahead and see if he could just fly Black alone, but Lance steered him towards the more cautious option.

Climbing into Red was familiar and comfortable, but Keith had never walked into Red with Lance at his side before. That was the strange part. Looking around inside the cockpit, it finally sank in that this was no longer his lion, and Lance was the one who was attuned to her.

Still, Keith could feel that slight hum in his mind. His bond with Red must not have been entirely gone, but dormant.

“I can feel her,” Keith mentioned quietly. He and Lance had stopped in the middle of the cockpit several feet behind the pilot’s seat.

“I know.” Lance sounded surprised, and Keith looked up at him. “I can feel it, too. She’s happy to see you.”

Red wasn’t the type to admit that outright. Keith could feel it in his chest that Red was trying to ignore him, pretending not to recognize him. And then he could sense the moment when she realized something was off.

What hurt you?

The wave of concern nearly bit into him. Lance’s eyes widened in the same moment, looking towards the ceiling of the cockpit while he listened to her. And then he let go of Keith’s hand, stepping away from him.

Keith stood still, staring at his hands, and he braced for the pain before he realized that it didn’t hurt.

“She told me to--” Lance held his hands out, offering them in case Keith still needed him. “She said you’d be okay,” he explained quickly. “What’s happening?”

“It doesn’t hurt,” Keith answered dumbly, pinching his fingers one at a time. He didn’t hurt. He could stand by himself. He was fine. A smile started growing on his face. “Did she fix it?”

Only here, she insisted.

Lance watched Keith carefully, and he rocked back on his heels with a small smile. “I think she’s telling me she can only help when we’re connected. We can both connect to Red, and she’s sort of... acting as a bridge between us, or something. How are you feeling?”

“Good,” Keith replied, laughing. The relief was beautiful. He rubbed his arms and felt goosebumps rise up, enjoying the sense of normalcy. “Really good. Like I can breathe.”

Red was talking to them again, and all Keith could picture in his mind was the Black Lion, like the two lions were communicating.

Then he felt Black. She wasn’t anxious like Red had been at first, but firm and steady.

This is a problem, but it’s not going to stop you.

Keith’s smile slowly mellowed out. He had to stay focused. The only reason he needed to find a way to fix this was so he could function during a mission.

“Keith?”

He looked back up to Lance’s face. His usually bright smile was tense, and he was holding his own hands, pretending not to be wringing them.

“You okay?”

“Yeah.” Keith raised his eyebrows and exhaled. He’d actually picked up on the fact that Lance had something on his mind, but it seemed like a weird moment for Lance to be worried about him when Keith was feeling better. “I think I’m going to be okay with Black. She doesn’t seem worried.”

“Right.” Lance cleared his throat and stopped gripping his hands, and he leaned back against a panel on the wall. He was quiet for several seconds, and in that time, Keith wasn’t sure where else he was supposed to look or what else he was supposed to say.

“Are we okay?” Lance asked.

“Yes?” Keith extended the answer carefully, not sure what Lance was expecting to hear. “Why wouldn’t we be? Other than me hitting you in the face, which I’m still sorry for.”

Lance chuckled at that, and he scratched his cheek. “No-- yeah, we are. We’re okay.” He spoke quietly enough to make Keith doubt him.

 

 

The visit with Red had reassured Keith a little, but by the time they reached Yzramil, he was still expecting the sky to fall on his head. The empire could still attack from anywhere at any time. Their network of beacons was thin so far, and they only had coverage over a small part of liberated, Voltron-friendly space.

He knew that he was only worried because he felt vulnerable. Yzramil was the epitome of tranquility. It was bountiful enough that its inhabitants could live comfortably, but didn’t produce in abundance any of the precious metals or chemicals that the Galra Empire might go out of their way for. Therysia, the city they landed in, was clean with a tall silhouette, dotted with even taller trees and a plethora of gardens. A remarkably pristine system of regular waterfalls and streams made its way along the streets, the waterways cut crisply out of pale stone.

“Why can’t more planets be like this?” Lance asked when they landed. As the leader, Keith was trying to show some measure of strength and integrity, but he could barely even breathe unless he was clinging to Lance. He still couldn’t even stand to wear his gloves. Any barrier between his own skin and Lance’s was subject to Keith’s ire.

It wasn't enough. Holding Lance’s hand took off the edge, but Keith had to constantly convince himself not to crawl into Lance’s jacket with him. Maybe it would stop hurting if he just pressed their cheeks together? If they held both hands or just touched each other’s faces?

While he was absorbed in this line of thought, he was vaguely aware that Allura was handling the diplomacy. The native population were strange and waif-like, with delicate crests on their heads and large dark eyes. Strange and beautiful, just Lance’s type. Usually, Lance would be all eyes for any new alien they met, and Keith tried not to glance up at him too jealously to check where his attentions were.

Lance was oddly composed. He had one arm around Keith’s shoulder so he could hold onto both of Keith’s hands at once, and his eyes were on Allura and the Yzrish representative who had come to greet them, his attention only breaking when he noticed Keith looking up at him. He glanced back down at him and smiled.

“What’s up?” Lance spoke quietly enough to keep their conversation private and nondisruptive. Keith felt his breath on his cheek.

“Still sorry about your face,” Keith mumbled back, and he looked forward again. When their teammates had seen the bruise on Lance’s cheek, Hunk had looked ready to sweep him right away from Keith.

Lance snickered and shrugged. “I swear, it’s fine. I look all hot and rugged. But if it happens again, I’m tying you up before we go to sleep.”

“Sounds a little tame for you, but okay,” Keith said dryly, and Lance barked a laugh before covering his mouth with their joined hands.

When Allura glared back at them, their faces were red and Lance was still shaking with repressed laughter.

“I’m so sorry about them,” she told the Yzrish diplomat with a remorseful smile. “They’re both recovering from an unfortunate incident from just yesterday, but they’re both excited to be here to help Yzramil.”

The diplomat was elegant in a simple way. Their face was unadorned but clean, and their clothes were draped around them in layers of white and grey. Their head tilted to look behind Allura at Lance and Keith, and they showed a small smile.

“Did planet Halkeryn happen to house a beacon?” they asked.

“Yes, my friend,” Allura replied. “That was where we were yesterday.”

The diplomat hummed. “My sympathies. Halkeryn is uninhabitable by civilized peoples. The days are too long and the nights dangerous. The wildlife is destructive, the fruit is poisonous to all but indigenous life, and the red ignis is a planet-wide scourge.” They gave Allura and then the two boys a prolonged look. “That was the 'unfortunate incident,' wasn’t it?”

“I’m afraid so.” Allura grimaced.

The Yzrian shook their head. “A hateful little pest,” they told Keith and Lance. “It affects every nervous system uniquely. A cure is impossible, even with current medical technology. But if the Paladins wish to rest somewhere more comfortable during these talks, we offer our hospitality, as well as what treatment we can give.”

Keith started to frown, ready to reject the offer to show that he was fine and capable where he was, but Allura turned her head halfway and widened her eyes at the two of them. Keith read that signal the best he could.

“We,” he started, shifting his eyes from Allura to the diplomat, “would... be honored. Thank you, um...”

“Call me Kerisz,” the diplomat replied with a smile, and Allura relaxed.

The five of them were led up a stone pathway and into the open ground level of one of the central buildings. It was almost an oversized pavilion. It had archways and pillars in place of walls, and each pillar was wound with climbing flowers. The sitting room they walked into was especially beautiful. It opened out into a small garden with a path and fountain, and the furniture was arranged around a low table with some form of tea already set out. The sunlight wove its way through the trees and into the garden, making everything seem even more golden and precious than it was.

“You have a beautiful city,” Allura told Kerisz with quiet sincerity, lowering herself into a seat. “It’s absolutely stunning. I’ve wanted to come and visit again for such a long time.”

“It’s like a fairy castle,” Keith heard Lance whisper to himself.

Kerisz smiled indulgently and passed the cups of tea to each paladin. “We thank you, Princess. Therysia gives us a great deal of pride.” Formal as they were, Keith liked their dignified frankness. He took a seat next to Lance, and Lance didn’t relax until Keith was halfway in his lap. The tea tasted like flowers and honey, and Hunk gave a quiet, appreciative hum. Keith imagined him making a list of ingredients to buy here.

“As for the beacon,” Kerisz continued. “It has been the center of the city garden as long as Therysia has existed. Our city was built around it, and our people view it with no small amount of reverence. Activating it, as you say, to communicate with other beacons across the galaxy would doubtlessly upset some of our people.”

“I understand this is a great deal to ask,” Allura said patiently. “Our intention is not to disturb a sacred site.”

“That is exactly what you would be doing,” Kerisz replied, waving a hand dismissively, “but that isn’t our main concern. I can prioritize. I understand that this is to use against the Galra Empire. If the galra invade us, Therysia won’t have any sacred sites left to protect. Our main concern is that activating this beacon would draw the attention of the galra. Unless you can guarantee that Yzramil will not fall victim to Galra imperialization because of this beacon, we must refuse your request to enter the city garden.”

Allura paused politely and took a breath. “I noticed that you don’t ask for a guarantee that the galra won’t attack.”

“Oh, we’re all expecting a fight,” Kerisz assured her, taking a sip of tea. “Yzramil is not helpless. We will fight with Voltron. But in return, we expect that Voltron will defend our city with us if we are attacked in force.”

“Of course.” Allura’s voice was ready and strong, unwavering, and Keith tried to understand how the hell he had ended up as the Black Lion’s paladin instead of her. “That is the promise we make to everyone willing to join us.”

“Of course.” Kerisz responded with their small smile. “But we want to know more about this beacon. It must send out signals. That is what beacons do. Do you know if the Galra can intercept these signals or not?”

Allura looked to Pidge, who shifted in her seat and frowned.

“The only ones able to receive all of the signals and put them together into a cohesive map are the Olkari, Hunk, and myself,” Pidge answered. “So the galra would be unable to use the scanning information against us. But we’re not sure if they can receive individual signals or not.”

“Meaning that they could track down a beacon’s location even if they can’t decode the information,” Kerisz concluded.

“Yeah.”

Kerisz clicked their jaws together much like a human would click their tongue. “Very well. The council will need a day to consider your request. In the meantime, we would be honored to host you here.”

“That is very generous.” Allura smiled, bright and gracious. “Thank you.”

Kerisz’s dark eyes turned toward Keith and Lance then. “We are happy to offer you special accommodations, considering your ‘unfortunate incident.’ Halkeryn was one of the first planets that my people explored, and ignis stings proved themselves as dangerous as the rest of that hellscape.”

Keith wasn’t sure what ‘special accommodations’ meant, but he wasn’t going to turn it down. He got the feeling that he wasn’t supposed to turn down anything that they offered him.

“Thank you,” he said simply, and nudged Lance. Neither of them had realized how close they had shifted together, with Keith leaning into Lance’s shoulder and their hands clasped together lightly over Keith’s chest.

“Thank you,” Lance agreed, catching up. He kept glancing toward one of the pillars, though, and Keith had to look back at it with him. The pillars on the most external side of the room were overgrown with purple blooms the size of his palm and with broad, furling petals. Kerisz noticed their fascination and smiled.

“Do you like them? The frelisiel?”

“The purple flowers over here?” Lance didn’t look away from the blossoms. “Yeah. I swear I’ve seen them before.”

Kerisz voiced a metallic chirrup, maybe a laugh. “You may have. Our frelisiel are derived from those on Halkeryn, which are the ignis’ food source. It’s said that very sensitive, empathetic people tend to be drawn to them.” Keith watched a shade of red touch Lance’s face while he fumbled for a response. “It’s a compliment,” Kerisz clarified.

“I… Thank you.” Lance was still clearly flustered, and something about it made Keith grin.

“The ones on Halkeryn are hardy, and the roots have medicinal properties,” Kerisz continued. “The vine structures are astounding. The only good thing to come from that nightmare world. They link together, even through different plants, and send and receive signals like a nervous system. If two people touch the vines at once, they can feel each other’s thoughts.”

Lance had been reaching toward the flowers, but jerked his hand back when he heard that. Kerisz chirped louder that time.

“It’s a very intimate experience, truly,” they laughed. “On Yzramil, to give someone a living frelisiel is tantamount to a marriage proposal.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Lance mumbled, red as a strawberry.

A device on Pidge’s hip beeped, and she stood up so quickly that she almost spilled her tea. Scrambling, she set the teacup down and grabbed the datapad out of her pocket.

“Pidge?” Allura asked, tense.

“It’s the proximity alert.” Pidge’s jaw set, and she looked up to Kerisz. “The galra are passing by the beacon on Halkeryn. They’re on their way here, and they're moving fast.”

Kerisz’s eyes narrowed. “How soon will they be here?”

“Vargas.”

“Could they have followed you here?”

“It’s possible, but unlikely. The Olkari are activating beacons at the same time we do, so it’s not like the galra could deduce where Voltron was based on signal activity that they can’t even translate.” Pidge took a deep breath before suggesting something else. “The galra have been pushing towards this side of the galaxy for a long time.”

Kerisz nodded slowly. “Very well.” Their eyes turned toward Allura. “Keep your promise. Protect us from the galra, and I guarantee you access to our city’s beacon.”

Allura stood, her posture formal and strong. “It’ll be our privilege.” She turned her head and looked directly at Keith.

He was the leader of Voltron, according to the lions, but she was the warrior princess, the leader of the coalition. And she was asking him with that look if he was capable of fulfilling his duties.

When he stood, he heard Lance whisper his name and felt him squeeze his hand. Keith braced himself, and he took his hand back for himself, folding his arms over his chest. The lack of contact spread like lightning through him, but he clenched his jaw and held steady.

“Paladins,” he ordered, “back to the ship. We’re stopping the galra before they ever reach Yzramil.”

Chapter Text

Lance was at Keith’s side the whole way back to the ship, and he kept a steady eye on him. He knew that Keith was trying to present himself as some tough guy who could fight through the pain, and maybe he could, but Lance honestly wouldn’t mind holding his hand while they walked together. That could at least make it easier on him, right?

“Keith.” Allura caught up to Keith on his other side. “Are you certain you can fight right now?”

“Is there another option?” Keith was pallid and shaking at the edges, and Lance heard just how thin his voice was. Still, Keith kept up a quick, determined march towards the Castle of Lions. “If we need Voltron, I have to fly Black. Are they still watching?”

Lance looked discreetly over his shoulder and determined that Kerisz was out of view. “Nope, you’re good.” He opened his hand at his side, and Keith gripped it tightly. Still walking, Keith swallowed hard and let out a tiny, nauseated groan.

“Pidge, find out exactly where the enemy’s coming from, how many there are, and if there are any more coming from another direction. You and Allura will coordinate with the Yzrish forces with that information. Hunk, talk to Coran before you suit up. See if there’s anything the Castle can do to help strengthen the city’s defense.”

As soon as the door shut behind them, the others ran down the halls to their appointed stations. Lance stayed with Keith, gripping his hand.

“Just because we have to fight doesn’t mean we’ll need to form Voltron,” Lance pointed out. “I can stay with you in Black, or you can come with me in Red.”

“We were fine in Red earlier,” Keith mumbled, and Lance followed him down the hall towards Black’s hangar. “And Black was trying to tell me something, like it’ll be okay. I can fly like this.”

He wasn’t listening again. Keith operated on impulse and gut feelings, and as much as Lance wanted to trust him, a sick knot welled up in his throat. He stopped where he was, making Keith stop with him.

“If it’s not okay,” Lance told him, “if you can’t fly, don’t put yourself out there. Just stay in the hangar until I get back, or I’ll come back to get you. We can figure out what to do with four lions.”

Keith’s face twisted into an open scowl, and that anxious knot fell into Lance’s stomach.

“Do you think my participation is optional?” Keith let go of Lance for a second, and his hand closed around his arm instead. “If we do need Voltron and I’m not there, we might die.”

“And what if you can’t fly?” Lance could feel the anger tightening in his chest, but he couldn’t shut it up. He gripped Keith’s wrist in retaliation, and he stepped closer to him as if that would make his words reach him. “You’re sick right now, Keith. If you can’t fly, even if you’re just a little slower than usual, you’ll be vulnerable out there.”

“And what? I could get hurt?” There wasn’t a trace of mirth in Keith’s laugh. “We all signed up for that. Don’t start babysitting me now.”

“I’m telling you,” Lance spat through his teeth, “that if it hurts too much, you’ll be a liability.” He watched Keith’s face go grey and dangerous, but he bore forward. “If Black has you covered and you’re okay, good. But if not, don’t lie and say you’re at a hundred percent. If I see you slipping, I will do something stupid.”

Keith’s face lost some of its wrath, and Lance was surprised to see him so solemn instead. Keith moved his hand back to Lance’s, slipping between his fingers to hold them.

“You know better than that,” Keith mumbled, and he turned back around to continue down the hall. He suddenly sounded so tired. “Just take me to Black, then get to Red. We don’t have time for this.”

Time for what? For Lance to be terrified for Keith’s safety? Lance tried not to grind his teeth the rest of the way to the Black Lion. When they reached its hangar, Lance stayed long enough to help Keith pull his suit on, all in bitter silence. Keith turned to sit down in the pilot seat, and Lance reached out unthinkingly to grip his shoulder.

“Be careful,” he said, and wanted to kick himself.

Keith’s eyes met his for a solid second. “You too.” Lance watched Keith sit down, and then he was trotting out of Black and back into the hall.

The longer he took to get back to Red, the longer it would be until he heard over his helmet’s comm if Keith was alright by himself or not. With that in mind, Lance sprinted to his lion.

Red was a white-hot ball of energy when Lance reached her, as restless as he was, and his helmet was the first thing he put on while he shucked the rest of his clothes to pull on his flight suit. As soon as he clicked on his comm, he heard Pidge and Hunk talking.

“--closer to Yzramil’s moon than the actual planet. It’ll be an open space fight,” Pidge was saying.

“Less property damage that way,” Hunk added, ever the optimist.

“Guys, where’s Keith?” Lance cut in.

“He checked in a minute ago,” Pidge answered, “but then he went quiet.”

The comm hissed with a sudden new connection, and Lance was stunned to realize that he recognized the way Keith’s pained breath sounded.

“Lance, I’m here, say something again.” Keith’s voice came in an urgent rush.

“Dude,” Lance started cautiously, “did you have yourself muted?”

“I’m okay now,” Keith insisted. “It, um. It’s okay as long as you’re talking. Please keep talking, Lance.”

If that was all it took for Red and Black to connect Keith and Lance, this would be easy. Lance smiled and dropped himself into Red’s pilot seat, starting her up.

“You know me. Alrighty, guys, what’s the plan?”

Pidge gave them the coordinates to where they would intercept the galra forces, and she informed them that Allura was on another comm line, feeding all of this information to the Yzrish navy and advising them while they organized. Lance threw in comments partially for fun and partially for Keith’s benefit, and Keith sounded steady enough whenever he asked questions or suggested something in the plans. He sounded good, like the leader Lance knew he was.

The Yzrish fighter ships were sleek, small, and coal black, and Allura reported that they were excellent at swarming larger enemies and dodging smaller ones. They were an ideal support against an invasion from a galra warship. Still, the galra fighters could potentially overwhelm them, so Keith came up with a plan.

“Pidge, how do you feel about slipping ahead with Green?”

“Pretty great, actually.” Lance could hear the smirk in her voice.

“Before the warship gets close enough to see us, sneak ahead and see if you can jam at least a few of their hangar doors. Lance, Allura, you hang back and keep an eye on her. If Pidge needs backup, you have the fastest lions to get to her.”

Allura and Lance both gave their affirmatives.

“Hunk,” Keith continued, barely sounding winded, “we’re going to take this thing out as quick as we can. As soon as Pidge and the others are clear, unleash hell. Weak spots. Doors, engines, and windows.”

“Roger. I’ve got plenty of hell.”

Keith gave a small chuckle, and Lance heard his breath stiffen. “How’re you doing, Lance?” Oh, that’s him. Realizing that Keith was just asking him to talk for talking’s sake, Lance cleared his throat.

“I like the sound of making this quick. I wanna get back to that sweet fairy castle hotel.”

“What,” Pidge crowed, “and your ‘special accommodations’?”

Lance rolled his eyes. “Hey, it sounds fancy. On your mark, team leader.”

The lions left the castle together, and Allura advised the Yzrish fighters to wait for their signal. If possible, they preferred to keep the Yzrians out of the battle altogether to avoid casualties. Even as they waited far above the planet’s atmosphere, Lance chatted to himself about what he hoped was waiting for them back in Therysia.

“I bet we’ll get more of that tea, and dinner’s definitely going to be amazing. And they’ll all want to shake our hands and have our autographs, and babes will swoon, and--”

“No babes.” Keith sounded firm about that. “Be professional.”

“Okay,” Lance relented. “No babes. Don’t worry, I’m all yours.”

Keith spluttered, and Pidge laughed the loudest of the others. Hunk whispered, “Special accommodations,” and all five of them burst into laughter.

“Okay, seriously, focus.” Keith tried to sound commanding, but Lance could just imagine the grin that went with that tone of voice. “Pidge, how far out are they?”

Pidge hummed, and after a moment replied, “Close. They’re passing the moon.”

Everyone took their own silent deep breath.

“Okay,” Keith decided. “Let’s get started.”

Pidge flew out first, and Lance and Allura followed from a distance. While they didn’t want to blow her cover, they wanted to be ready to jump in. Lance noticed immediately that the further Red was from Black, the less Keith tried to talk and the tighter his breathing sounded.

“I'm right here, buddy,” Lance said. “Holding up okay?”

“Yeah.” Keith almost sighed the word. “Just keep talking.”

“Alright, man.” Lance cleared his throat and looked for a topic to keep his mouth running. “Um, things look good so far. No visual on the galra ship yet. Moon’s still pretty far out. Looks nice, though. I think it’s a crescent tonight.”

“Are you gonna look at the moon tonight?” Hunk asked in an entirely harmless voice.

“Hell yeah. Seeing different planets’ skies? Why do you think I became a pilot?” Lance chuckled, and he heard a quiet sigh from Keith. Right. Keith would have to go with him for whatever he wanted to do. “I mean, if you wanna go, too, Keith.”

“That-- yeah.” There was still a small strain in Keith’s voice. “Yeah, that sounds okay.”

“Moonlit walk.” Pidge hummed, considering something. “Nice.”

Lance stammered for a response, and he heard Keith fumbling on his end, too. In that context, it did sound a little…

“It doesn’t-- We don’t have to--”

“Don’t tease them, you two,” Allura sighed. “I think it’s sweet.”

“What’s sweet?” There was a wheeze in Keith’s voice.

“Oh! Just… You two,” Allura explained haltingly. “Bonding. Getting along.”

“Those are some words, alright,” Pidge snickered. “And no visual, but I’ve got radar. I’m cloaking and going in, so you two hang back. I’ll call if I need you.”

Allura and Lance wished her luck, and they adjusted their own positions to hang back just far enough. Behind them, Hunk and Keith advanced slowly, but maintained a more defensive angle.

“Keep us updated, Pidge,” Keith instructed. “First sign of funny business, get out and call backup.”

“You got it, chief.” Pidge’s tone dropped to a focused mumble, and Lance knew she was making some kind of calculations. “I’ve got visual. This ship is huge. They’ve got sixteen hangar doors on this one, and they usually have twenty fighters per hangar. I’ll do what damage I can. From here, I can work with the remote docking functions and stop the doors’ manual opening instructions, but I have to go by them a couple at a time, and it’ll only stall them for a while.”

“That’s perfect,” Keith encouraged her. “All we need is to stall them. Just do as many as you can in the next ten minutes, then pull back.”

Pidge muttered some kind of acknowledgement, and they all went quiet. Lance was straining to listen for any sudden noises, any yelps of surprise from his friend, any unexpected clicks or explosions.

“Lance?” Keith asked quietly, and Lance jumped in his seat.

“Talk dirty to me,” Pidge muttered under her breath, and Lance heard two startled, muffled laughs. Pidge was much more relaxed about her situation than he was.

Lance grinned despite himself. If the team wanted to have fun teasing them about his... intimacy with Keith, so be it. He was supposed to think it was funny, too. He could play the part for morale, even if it had his stomach flipping. So he said in his lowest, sexiest voice, “Alright, but everyone better mute me but Keith.”

Pidge hooted, and Hunk whistled. “Lance McClain, you watch yourself.”

He barely heard Allura whisper, “What is ‘talking dirty?’”

“Nothing, it’s gross,” Hunk said at the same time Pidge answered, “Not a team activity.”

“Keith, you okay?” Lance chuckled.

There was a second of silence, and then Keith replied, “Mm-hm.”

“You sure, sweetie?” Lance purred. “How does it feel?”

“Um.” Keith cleared his throat. “Doesn’t hurt.”

“Dang, guys,” Hunk laughed. “Do you want us to mute you? We totally can.”

“No.” Keith cleared his throat again, louder that time. “No, just... focus. Pidge?”

Pidge had a shadow of a laugh in her tone. “No worries. It’s going well. Two doors down, fourteen left to go. No signs that they’ve noticed me. I’m actually going to mute Lance, though.”

“Sweet,” Lance crowed.

“What is ‘talking dirty?’” Allura asked again, and this time, Lance and Keith answered at once.

“Fun stuff people say when they’re in love.”

“Inappropriate for a mission.”

“Um, both,” Lance conceded, laughing. Somehow, explaining anything humanly sexual to a space princess felt illegal. “It’s bedroom talk. We’re just messing around with him.”

“Yeah, you’d like to,” Pidge mumbled, and Lance jammed his finger on the button to mute his mic on her feed.

“Anyway. I’m not actually... doing that.”

“Ah.” Allura sounded like she understood, albeit cautious.

“But I could probably just say whatever I want, and it would still help, right?" Lance asked. "Like, I could just go off in Spanish?"

“Sure, yeah,” Keith answered quietly.

“Lance, do not just talk dirty in Spanish,” Hunk pleaded. “I can’t be here for that.”

“Then mute me,” Lance dared him. “Jesucristo, ni siquiera puedo hablar conmigo mismo aquí.

“Please don’t sass me in Spanish, either. That tone is universal.”

Lance sighed and smiled. “Right. Sorry, Hunk. Well, if me talking all the time is going to be distracting...” He muted his mic towards Hunk as well, and then towards Allura, too.

“Wait, did Lance actually mute himself for me?” Pidge finally realized, and Hunk laughed.

“Yeah, he just did for me, too.”

“Well,” Allura sighed, “if they need some privacy…”

“I’m still here, guys,” Keith reminded them. “Nothing’s, um, going on.”

“Can you still hear me, Keith?” Lance asked, just to make sure.

“Yeah, I can hear you.” Keith’s answer made the rest of the team laugh, since they hadn’t heard the question.

“Okay, cool,” Lance laughed. “You don’t have to answer. I’m just gonna talk to you so they can’t tease you too much.” He cleared his throat. “So, um. You’re doing a great job so far, with this leading thing. So just focus on the mission, and I’ll just be background noise, okay? We’ll all do our parts, and part of mine is staying in contact with you with whatever Red and Black are doing.”

“Okay,” Keith mumbled. “Okay. Pidge? That’s five minutes.”

“Four doors locked,” Pidge answered, “but I’m getting faster at them. I think I can get all of them.”

“Be careful.” Keith didn’t sound any less nervous, but he was definitely focused.

“See?” Lance continued, only for Keith’s ears. “You’re doing great. And it’s pretty cool that you moved to Black, because Red loves me the most.”

Keith scoffed.

“Okay, okay, she still has feelings for you, I’ll admit it. That hurts a little, if I’m being totally honest. My girl has eyes for another man.” Something he and Red shared in common. Lance swallowed that thought and tapped his fingers on the edge of his control panel. “Anyway. You’re the lucky listener of my rambling tonight, so select your station. One: predictions for the near future. Two: Spanish flight-of-ideas. Or three: my awful singing, mostly trashy pop.”

Keith took a deep breath, let it out, and simply said, “Four.”

“Four what?” Hunk asked.

“Four minutes left on Pidge,” Keith replied, which Lance thought was smooth as fuck.

The problem was that he had no idea what option four was. Did Keith want all or none of the above, or just something else specific? Maybe Keith didn’t care, and was letting Lance pick. So Lance smirked wide, picked a topic, and ran with it.

“Oh, clever boy, you picked the secret station.” He softened his voice, as if he was speaking into Keith’s ear. “You just want to hear me talk nasty, don’t you?” He heard Keith take a sharp breath, and he knew this wasn’t what he had been expecting.

“That’s okay, cariño. You know what I’m gonna do when we get back ashore?” Lance crooned, low and soft. “The dirtiest things. I might work in the garden for a little while. Roll around in potting soil. Talk to some worms. Or I might drop food on the floor and then eat it.”

Keith’s poorly stifled laughter warmed Lance’s heart.

“Yeah, you like that?” Lance whispered. “Then you’ll love what else I have in mind. I could leave my socks on the floor. Then I could work out for a while, get all nice and sweaty, and wipe my face on the curtains. Oh, and if we’re gonna get really crazy? We could mix some drinks, but with a ton of olives, shake it up, make them so dirty. Like, six olives to a glass, and maybe some actual dirt. It’d probably taste the same.”

Keith laughed out loud. It was so unfiltered and sudden, with the same slight rasping texture Lance always loved about his voice. His heart twisted sideways in his chest.

“What? Did Lance say something?” Allura asked.

“He’s just being funny,” Keith replied, still laughing. Keith thought he was funny. Lance felt his own face glowing. “Update, Pidge.”

“It’s fine.” Pidge sounded tense. “Nine down. Give me a minute to focus.”

“I’m keeping an eye on her,” Lance told Keith, and he steered Red barely closer. “Nothing weird going on.” Except a split second of glimmer off to the warship’s right. “Wait.”

A large fighter had detached directly from the warship.

Lance unmuted himself, and Red jolted forward. “Pidge, move!”

“Shit,” Pidge hissed, and Lance glimpsed the slight shimmer of the cloaked Green Lion swerve down and to the side, just outside of a beam of cannon fire. The galra fighter ducked closer, but Pidge raced back toward the other lions. Lance reached her in seconds, and he saw Allura in Blue right with them.

“Come on, Hunk,” Keith ordered. “We’re on our way.”

Hunk’s voice rose anxiously. “What’s going on? Is Pidge okay?”

“I’m fine. I could only get the nine,” Pidge grit out. “Should slow them down, though. Half their little fighters are just sitting ducks. But they’ve got this big guy, too.”

“It’s an elite fighter,” Allura explained. “It attaches directly to the warship like a shuttle so it can respond quickly, unlike the rest of the fighters who have to wait in the hangars. There might be more of them.”

“Will you guys have any trouble with it?” Keith pressed, and Lance scoffed.

“Who do you think you’re talking to?” Lance clenched his teeth around a smile, and he passed Pidge’s lion to grab the advanced fighter’s attention. It worked like a charm, and the Red Lion dodged the first shots that the fighter fired at it. Lance saw Blue curve around the fighter’s other side to flank it, but he kept his attention on the enemy ship trying to chase him down. He returned fire, a series of insistent, harrying shots to make sure the galra ship knew who to target.

He heard a small laugh from Keith. “Right. Kick ass, cargo pilot.”

There was nothing taunting in those words. That almost distracted Lance too much.

The warship itself fired toward them, and the three lions and the fighter kept out of the way. Their flank around the fighter was broken, though, and it swerved closer to Green, its attention on the lion who had been the most trouble to the ship so far.

Lance saw an opportunity, and he took it. The fighter came just close enough to him, and he aimed directly for the fuel tanks.

The ship exploded. Past the silent burst of light, brilliant colors in the soundless vacuum of space, Pidge praised him with a loud cheer, and he heard Allura say, “Good work.” Lance grinned and dodged another cannon ray from the warship.

“See? We got this,” Lance crowed, and then another large fighter curved around the corner of the warship. “And there’s more.”

“Lance, the other hangars will open soon,” Pidge called over the comm. “See if you can seal the doors shut with Red. The ones I didn’t finish locking are on the right side.”

“Got it. Cover me.” Lance bolted past the second fighter, and even with Allura and Pidge hot on its heels, it tailed Lance around the side of the warship. “How many of these big shuttle fighters do you think they have?”

“Um…” Pidge’s voice hitched upward, and Lance didn’t take that as a good sign. And then he saw another two of them come at him overhead, from the other side of the main ship.

Pidge harassed the second fighter, and Allura engaged the third and fourth. Lance saw one of the hangar doors begin to crack open, and the smaller fighters inside were ready to pour out and try to outnumber them. Lance felt a little bad, aiming directly into the hangar as the door opened just to unload a beam of energy into rows of drones and small fighters, but he didn’t linger on it.  

The door hadn’t even opened to halfway, and the metal of it crumbled and melted where Red’s beam of attack landed. Lance kept the beam going and simply turned Red’s head, and the scarlet energy swiped sideways, welding another two doors shut. It was a much quicker process once stealth wasn’t a priority.

“Three more doors down,” he informed his team, and then turned to help his teammates against the larger fighters.

Allura was holding her own surprisingly well. She kept her two attackers weaving around each other to get to her, agile and clever. Pidge was wearing her opponent down in a series of quick movements and smaller attacks, making it less functional every second. When she did shoot, she aimed for the fighter’s underbelly, and Green’s attack split the enemy ship open.

Lance darted up to assist Allura. He fired his cannon into one of her pursuers, and it crumpled uselessly where it lost a wing. She flew behind the destroyed ship for a second of cover, and once she could get the angle she wanted, she shifted and fired at the fourth. They were cleaning up pretty nicely.

Red alerted Lance to an incoming attack, and in that moment, all he could do was dart out of the way. When he looked back to see his attacker, he only saw the fighter for a split second before it was impaled by a ray of violet.

“Hey,” Lance laughed. “Nice of you to join us.”

“Couldn’t let you have too much fun,” Keith replied, and Black kicked off of the fighter it had destroyed for a momentum shift in the other direction.

“We didn’t know the fight would start all the way out here.” Hunk sounded a little defensive, but Lance knew it was because he hated ever leaving his friends alone. “I’m going for that cannon. These things always have an ion cannon.”

“I think they upgraded their model, Hunk,” Pidge warned him. “This one has three.”

That had to be the moment that Lance saw one of those three cannons, one set atop the main hub of the warship and the others set on either side of the structure’s long arms, beginning to glow and charge itself. He followed its line of sight and found Keith.

He called to him to look out, and of course Keith did, moving aside quickly to avoid the blast. And then Lance saw a second cannon, still aimed at the Black Lion where the first shot had chased him into just the right angle.

Black was too slow to change course again. But Red was fast.

Lance did something stupid.

He pushed Red up, darting up with all of her speed and power, and slammed into Black to knock her out of the way.

His senses shattered. In a second, the insides of his eyes were glowing white, and the hideous, metallic roar of the energy slamming into his lion almost deafened him.

His whole lion rattled, and Lance could feel her rage, her indignant terror. Only her fierce love for Black, the head and heart to Red’s right hand, overshadowed the fear of what if this breaks me?

The cannon fire held for entire seconds. Lance thought it would cook him.

When it abated, everything was dark.

His mouth was dry. His hands shook badly. When he pushed Red to the side, she responded with a stunned delay.

“Is everyone okay?” Lance croaked.

A flash of yellow caught his eye. He kept moving to avoid being targeted again - Red insisted that they shouldn’t take another hit like that - and saw Hunk’s lion tearing into the base of the cannon that had shot him. Seconds later, Yellow ripped the ion cannon from the warship like it was uprooting a weed.

“Damn, Hunk,” he laughed. “I’m alright, dude. Is everyone else okay?” While he waited for their responses, Lance turned his head to see each of the other lions. Allura was holding off a new wave of fighters, some large and some small but all working together, and Pidge was busy with a swarm of smaller fighters that had come from one of the undamaged hangars.

He couldn’t hear anything but his own voice and Red’s restless, humming machinery.

“Guys?” Lance tried again. He ducked out of the thickening crossfire, and he got to work. He grabbed one of the large fighters in Red’s jaws, ripped out one of its engines, and hurled the craft at the fighters crowding Pidge. Green fought her way out of the rest of them, and Lance doubled back to help Allura and check on Hunk and Keith.

He didn’t have the others muted. He didn’t have a second to dig through his comm settings, but he tapped the screen with one hand while Red helped him find and fire at enemy targets. No one was muted, but he couldn’t even hear the soft hum from the other lions through his helmet.

“Red, what’s going on?”

Impatience. The frustration that came with being unable to speak.

Searching. Connections, at least partial ones. Worry and silence.

“Are you serious?” Lance whipped Red around, searching for Keith. “Baby, come on. We need the comms working right now. How do I fix it?”

Distracted, Lance took another hit, this time from a normal fighter. He turned back around in time to see Black grab the smaller ship, crush the hull in her jaws, and throw the debris of it into another swarm of the small ships, forcing them to change course.

“Can Keith hear me, even if I can’t hear him?” Lance pressed, hoping Red had an answer for him. He pushed her forward, and he kept an eye on Keith while the two of them circled up to the top of the warship. Hunk was tearing apart the second ion cannon, and that was attracting a lot of attention from the galra fighters. By that point, Hunk was being tailed by upwards of thirty of the ships.

Red answered with a negative. No audio signals in or out.

Not the answer he wanted. Lance growled through his teeth, but he kept up with the fight, protecting both Hunk and Keith. Black had an uncanny drag to her motions, and though Keith was taking down a fighter a second, guarding Hunk relentlessly, he was slowing down. Lance could tell that much.

What kind of pain was he fighting through right then? How long could he keep it up?

Hunk dislodged the second cannon from its fixture, and with a heavy turn, Yellow threw the bulk of it into a large fighter chasing Allura. Yellow then turned to follow Black.

It took Lance a second to catch on. He watched Black take off from the top of the warship, and he saw the same pattern of movement he was used to from the other paladins, the same unified focus. In silence, he followed them, and then he joined them.

 

 

As the right arm of Voltron, he didn’t need the comms to understand his teammates. They were connected. They were all focused on the same goal. They had to fight. They had to defend. They had to win, to destroy a fleet of almost four hundred ships and who knew how many galra crew members, in order to save an entire peaceful civilization.

He couldn’t hear them, and they couldn’t hear him. But he could feel them.

He felt the impulses. The tactical decisions. The fierce, animalistic need to protect each other. The unity. He felt Pidge’s stubborn rage, and how she turned that into something calculating and dangerous. He felt Allura’s steady pride, a grim and resolute jaw set against the threats around them. He felt Hunk’s protective love, strong and embracing, the only thing that could have led him to violence.

He felt Keith’s pain. He didn’t experience it, but he felt the edges of it. That was more than enough to make his stomach churn and his knuckles turn white.

He felt Keith’s pure, terrifying focus, his aggression. Get the job done. Keep them safe. Destroy everything else.

Don’t break. You’re not allowed to break right now. Fight through it.

 

The lions each took damage, but Voltron held fast. The Yzrians were able to stay entirely out of the battle, but only because the paladins stubbornly refused to let their new allies endanger themselves.

It was much easier to target all of the small fighters with the shoulder cannon. The advanced fighters were cut apart by the sword. The third ion cannon was ripped out of place and then thrust like a spear into the warship’s bridge.

 

 

The five of them returned to the Castle as Voltron, and then the lions split to return to their hangars. Lance couldn’t be sure if it helped Keith to have Red and Black connected this way, but he stayed connected with him until the other four decided to disband. He still couldn’t hear any of his teammates’ voices over his helmet. As soon as he landed in the hangar with Red, he tore his helmet off and bolted down the hall towards the Black Lion.

When the hangar doors opened, Keith was already outside of Black. He couldn’t have taken a dozen steps before he’d crumpled to the floor, shaking and close to dry-heaving. His helmet was lying a couple of feet away, right beside his gloves and the plates of his armor.

“Lance.” His fingers curled tight over the ground, weak and desperate. When he looked up at Lance, his eyes were dark with anguish and bright with tears, and the contrast stung him to see it. “Lance, please,” he croaked.

Lance was too out of breath to answer right away. He stumbled the last few feet to Keith, falling to his knees in the motion simply to get to him as quickly as possible. He dropped his gloves, and his hands slipped around Keith’s sickly pale face, holding his cheeks. Keith shut his eyes and whimpered with a thin, starved relief. Just as quickly, Keith struggled to sit up and crawl onto Lance’s lap, tucking his head into his shoulder.

“Never do that again.” Keith’s words lacked the strength of a command, and his shoulders and chest shook with unsteady sobs. “Never take a hit for me again. You okay?”

“You know me.” Lance was still catching his breath, and he grinned around his exhausted panting. “I’m always okay.” Keith’s hands moved over Lance’s shoulders and back, stiff and stuttering in their movements, like he had to check and make sure that Lance was whole.

“Never again,” he repeated. “Scared us so bad. Fuck, Lance.” Keith’s voice tapered off into something broken and helpless, and it was so unlike the Keith he was used to that Lance’s stomach flipped. A shudder rattled Keith’s body.

“Fuck, please, need more, I’m sorry,” Keith hissed.

“What do you need?” Lance furrowed his brow and wrapped his arms tighter around Keith to try and give him more contact. “Don’t be sorry. It’s not your fault. I’m so sorry about the comms, Keith.”

Keith brushed off that apology with a shake of his head. His eyes were ringed with red, and tears and sweat dripped off his jaw. His mouth was bitten and badly chapped, and his hands came back up to fumble and tug at the collar of his own flight suit. He unzipped it down to his waist, past his belly button, and slipped his shoulders out of it.

“Don’t worry about it. Just touch me.”

The frown on Lance’s face smoothed over and was replaced by wide-eyed shock.

“Please,” Keith choked, halfway undressing himself in Lance’s lap. “Lance, I can’t do it. I need it, just touch me.” Lance’s hands shook, but he ran them up the warm, sweat-damp plane of Keith’s back.

He could feel the restraint in Keith’s voice. He was struggling not to be so loud, not to make any sound at all, but he tucked a stressed little moan into Lance’s neck.

“Not enough,” Keith whispered.

Lance wondered if Keith could actually take away years of his life by talking like this.

“I’m sorry,” Keith continued brokenly. “I’m so sorry, Lance, please, I need--” The words cut off with another wave of something horrible, and Keith curled forward, trying to compress some of the pain. “Please.”

Lance couldn’t sit there and let Keith weep like this. Through his startled haze, he understood what Keith needed. He pressed his cheek to Keith’s and whispered to him, and he only pulled away as long as he needed to take off his armor plating and unzip the front of his suit.

“It’s okay. I got you. We’re right here. Listen to me, Keith, I’ve got you.”

Keith choked on another sound, but he seemed slightly more grounded. His hands grasped for the shoulders of Lance’s suit, and together, they pushed it off down to his waist, leaving them in the same state of undress. Lance pulled Keith closer to him, and his bare arms fit tightly around his middle.

As soon as their bodies pressed together, Keith groaned against Lance’s temple, full and loud. His arms wound around Lance’s shoulders, touching as much of him as he could, and his thighs tightened around Lance’s waist.

“Thank you,” Keith breathed. “Thank you, Lance, thank you, I’m so fucking sorry.”

Minutes passed like that. Lance could smell Keith’s sweat, feel his particular body heat against his own, sense each shifting muscle. They held onto each other, clutching tight, and Keith apologized while Lance murmured soothingly to him. Keith seemed able to quiet himself down, but he was still gasping whenever Lance rubbed his back in a certain way.

“I shouldn’t do this to you,” Keith mumbled hoarsely. His forehead was buried into Lance’s shoulder, and every few moments, his body would shiver and he would hold himself closer to Lance before starting to relax again. “You’ve been so good to me. I shouldn’t do this to you. I’m so sorry, Lance.”

What was he even talking about? Lance stared at a panel on the wall, and he rubbed Keith’s back as much for Keith’s benefit as for his own. His hands were restless and nervous, and moving them helped him focus.

“You’re not doing anything wrong,” Lance murmured back to him. This couldn’t be real. He would never be able to touch Keith like this, context aside. “You were amazing today,” he praised him softly. “You fought so hard. You pulled everyone together. You knew exactly what to do, Keith. I just don’t want you to get hurt doing it.”

His fingertips rubbed the back of Keith’s neck, and several things happened at once: Keith arched forward with only the quietest whimper in his throat. Keith’s fingers curled into Lance’s hair and tugged. Keith’s chest and stomach rubbed against Lance’s, one nice, upward stroke accompanied by a slight spread of Keith’s thighs.

It was an involuntary reaction. He couldn’t control that first impulse of his hands, fingers curling over the line of Keith’s shoulder and back, or the heat gathering low in his hips, demanding attention.

Lance’s breath hitched, and he froze. Carefully, he put his hands on Keith’s hips and pushed them a little further back on his lap, giving them some distance there.

“Easy, cowboy.” His laugh was raw with anxiety. “Buy me dinner first.”

Keith’s nails scraped so lightly against the back of Lance’s head. “I’m sorry,” he rasped, and Lance felt him tremor with the effort it took to control himself.

His body gave him two options. The first was to pull Keith’s hips close to his own and press upward, so he chose the second. He buried his face into Keith’s shoulder and let out the smallest sound of frustration he could, just a mumble.

This was too much more than his fantasies. It was too vivid, too similar, and still too out of sync with his imagination. Keith smelled like warm body and Lance’s shower gel, his chest and back were dotted with sweat, and the muscles under his skin were hot and dense, curving and shifting perfectly right against Lance’s own body. He should have been kissing Keith by then. He should have been able to kiss him, to cup his face in his hands and trust that Keith would kiss him back. He shouldn’t have to bite back the words, sweet and filthy alike, that he’d craved to say to him. They shouldn’t be wearing anything at all. They should be pressing closer and touching more.

That would be such a good way to make Keith feel better. Lance would take such good care of him. He wouldn’t let anything hurt Keith unless he wanted it to.

No. That was exactly the wrong train of thought for him to follow. Lance struggled to tell his body that.

Keith was still catching his breath. Lance was busy bracing himself against his own impulses, his own desires that cut so deeply into him that it shamed him, and it proved to be impossible to convince his body against its arousal when Keith was panting softly so close to his ear.

“Lance,” Keith whispered. Lance flinched, nearly jumping out of his skin. “You’re shaking.”

No shit. It was taking all of Lance’s effort just to not to bite him. The slope of his nose rested against Keith’s shoulder, close to his throat, and all he would have to do was tilt his head up a couple inches and nip him so gently, but…

Don’t touch me.

I don’t know how to touch people.

I’m not ready.

Lance took in all the breath that would fit in his chest, and he let it out in a slow, calming shudder. When he sat upright again, his eyes felt tired and pained, and Keith had recovered enough from their prolonged separation to pull back and look at him worriedly.

His hair was a wreck, and his neck and shoulders were flushed. His arms were still around Lance’s neck, and he was looking into his eyes so earnestly that it made him ache.

Lance let Keith settle his hips a little further back on his lap, and then he brought one hand up to run through his short hair. He knew it was a disaster, too, and the sweat would make it stick up oddly. He let out a low, exhausted laugh and couldn’t look Keith in the face.

“This is really embarrassing, but, uh.” He cleared his throat.

“Oh,” Keith whispered, and Lance almost died right there on the floor when Keith glanced downward, then jerked his head around to look at the wall. “Oh. Oh my god, uh.”

“Yeah.” Lance swallowed dryly and tried to scrape his will to live up out of the floor vents. His suit was still covering everything relevant, but that suit was dangerously tight.

“Do you need to…” Keith gave him a quick, slightly frantic glance, and it was impossible to miss the deep shade of red on his face. Lance spluttered with laughter.

“Uh, no, I wouldn’t uh, disrespect Black like that. But if you’re up for getting dressed and talking about, I don’t know, tax codes or gutting fish or something, that might help.”

“Okay. Oh my god.” Keith was whispering almost to himself, looking anywhere but at Lance, and finally pulled entirely back and found his feet. His suit barely slipped lower around his waist. Lance was gifted with such a nice view of the slope of Keith’s hipbone, and Jesus Christ, now was not the time to tell Keith that he had never been more turned on in his life.

“It’s just a natural thing,” Lance tried to convince both of them. He stared at the floor while Keith fumbled through a compartment in the wall where he had stored his clothes. “We don’t have to let it make things weird, or anything. Just kinda... happened.”

Right. These things happened when the person you adore is suddenly half-naked and rubbing up against you, whispering touch me, of all things.

“Yeah.” He heard Keith’s voice crack. “It’s… It’s cool.” Lance heard him rustle with his clothes, and after a moment, “Um, can I…?”

Lance looked up over his shoulder. Keith was only wearing his jeans and a small frown, hands still buttoning the former.

“Can you what?”

Keith still couldn’t look directly at him. Lance got the feeling that wasn’t going to change soon. After taking a deep breath, Keith mumbled, “Can I sit with you? Back to back or something?”

Okay, he could do this. He could calm down while in physical contact with Keith. Lance nodded and looked away, and Keith sat down carefully and leaned their backs and shoulders together. The hangar was silent for a horrible stretch of time.

“I’m really sorry,” Keith finally whispered. “I don’t want to use you like that. Like this. You have feelings, too.”

Lance had way too many of those. He shut his eyes and hummed. “Well, two extremes. At one end, you’re in unspeakable, nightmarish pain. At the other, sometimes I might get a boner, which is just a side effect of me being me anyway. Not really a contest which is preferable.”

“I’m serious, Lance.”

“So am I.”

Keith huffed. “No, I… It’s not fair. You didn’t do anything wrong, and now you suddenly have to be accessible to someone else twenty-four-seven. Your personal space, your privacy-- it’s not fair.”

Lance felt that taking Keith’s hand right then might be a bit weird, so he just leaned his head against the back of Keith’s when he laughed.

“Keith. It’s okay. I know you’re not taking me for granted.”

“It’s worse than that!” Keith’s voice rose so suddenly that Lance jumped. With a sideways glance, he saw Keith’s hand curl into a fist against the floor. “You shouldn’t be embarrassed, because it was my fault. I’ve been demanding all of this from you, and you haven’t complained once, even when I go that far and ask that much of you. You shouldn't have to give up your comfort for mine.”

Lance took a deep breath and settled his hand over Keith’s. It was definitely weird, but he worked through it.

“I'm a little too comfortable. That's the problem.”

“Lance, I swear,” Keith growled, and Lance snickered at his own horrible sense of humor.

“Besides, I don't mind giving up a few things just to make sure you're okay.” Lance cleared his throat and stared at the softly glowing panels across the room. “That's what people do for each other.”

Keith was quiet for a moment, and Lance took the time to steady his breathing and think about anything besides his hips. He hoped his body would only take a few minutes to calm down.

“I’m sorry I snapped at you earlier,” Keith finally mumbled. “You were just worried.”

“Yeah, I was.” Lance’s laugh sounded more like a cough. “But I get it. You were right. We need you out there.”

Keith’s fingers slipped between Lance’s, and even though they were back to back, Lance imagined that he knew the exact, tired look on his face.

“I’m glad you’re okay,” Keith said quietly.

The ache in Lance’s body turned soft and bitter, and it wrapped around his chest.

“You, too.”

Chapter Text

He had watched the blast from the ion cannon swallow Red, and for one hideous moment, he hadn’t known if there would be anything left. None of them had taken a hit like that before.

Even when Red had still been there, Lance hadn’t answered.

Keith’s panicked voice had scared everyone else, and then everyone had called for Lance. Hunk had started to cry. When Red moved, showing delayed, confused, but present signs of life, everyone had been able to breathe again.

It didn’t matter if Red’s comm was broken. As long as they still had all of their paladins, Keith couldn’t be happier. He would clench his teeth and push himself through anything else. He would watch Lance’s piloting style through Red’s movements, and he would finish the mission.

Keith liked to believe that he could tolerate any level of pain, but he had been separated from Lance for too long. His reactions had begun to slow. He had taken hits and somehow gave them back, but his body had started to break down. He had curled over the dashboard, trying not to scream, but forced his head to stay up and his hands to push the controls.

At some point, he hadn’t been able to fly anywhere that wasn’t toward Lance, and he had known that they needed to connect.

They hadn’t needed the comm when they were in Voltron. Feeling his bond to Lance hadn’t given Keith all of the relief he needed, but it had dulled the pain to the point where he could keep fighting. He had felt sweet, brave, selfless Lance, and it had comforted him. Lance was still there, safe inside Red.

He would do anything to never have to fear for Lance’s life again.

 

 

The abject terror for Lance’s safety compounded the pain in his body. By the time they had all come home, Keith couldn’t walk. He crawled out of Black. He refused to sit around and wait to hear if his teammate was okay or not, no matter what he had to drag himself through.

His vision faded around the corners. Darkness swarmed the inside of his head, and his forehead felt too cool and feverish at once. He was barely aware of his stomach heaving under the burning, tearing, spasming agony in his chest. Throwing up might help him feel better. Bleeding himself dry might help him feel better, as if he could bleed out all of the pain. Vivisection couldn’t be worse than this.

His consciousness was hovering somewhere outside of his body when Lance came in to find him. Keith couldn’t be sure of everything he was saying, but he was vaguely aware of crawling into Lance’s lap. He was aware that the air was cool on his skin, and that Lance felt warm in the right ways.

 

 

The stress was affecting his body. Even when the pain wasn’t crippling anymore, Keith’s stomach was uneasy and unhungry. He was still shaking. His vision still narrowed and darkened, lightheaded and threatening to make him faint, when he stood up with Lance’s support.

They couldn’t look at each other.

Keith had dressed himself behind Lance’s back, but Lance was still in his flight suit. They had both taken a few minutes to recover, Keith from the effects of the ignis sting and Lance from... well.

He had heard Lance groan. He had seen the distracted furrow in his brow, the way his pupils had swollen in the blue of his eyes. The dusting of red on his cheeks. The soft parting of his lips. The way his fingers curled and how his heart pounded.

He knew what Lance looked like when he was turned on. It was such a change of pace from Keith’s earlier concerns that he could have tripped on it. One moment, he was just happy that Lance was alive. The next, he was in his lap, looking at the result of their closeness.

Keith had crossed a boundary.

If he had been more considerate of Lance’s personal space, he wouldn’t have embarrassed both of them so badly. He shouldn’t have demanded so much so fast. He should have just let Lance hold him with all of their clothes on. The pain was temporary, but Keith was running the risk of damaging their relationship permanently.

They walked together back to Red’s hangar, hand in hand. Keith still hurt enough for his body to move slowly, and Lance was likewise taking stiff, awkward steps and watching his feet. He had calmed down and zipped his suit back up, but the closeness of his movements showed that he wasn’t entirely recovered.

It was no great surprise that Lance had been affected by that kind of physical contact. Keith considered this with no small amount of shame. If he hadn't been so occupied with his nervous system burning itself alive, he might have had the same sort of response.

Especially considering their position.

And the way Lance had murmured to him, quiet and comforting.

And the way he had touched Keith’s naked back and neck, sending shivers through him with his warm, smooth hands.

The last of the pain was fading while they held hands, but Keith started to struggle to focus on it. It was inappropriate for him to think about Lance that way, so he would use any distraction he could get.

When they returned to Red, Lance dressed himself without meeting Keith’s eyes or saying more than a couple of words. Keith couldn’t tell whether Lance’s problem was entirely gone or not, and he didn’t look closely enough to find out. He watched out of the corner of his eye while Lance buttoned his jeans, raised his arms to pull his shirt on over his head, and toed on his shoes, and then Lance slipped his hand into Keith’s to lead the two of them out.

By then, the rest of the team was in the hangar to greet them.

Keith stopped at the top of the ramp, and so did Lance, but Hunk didn’t wait for them to come to him. In under a second, Hunk had run up the ramp and picked Lance up into a hug. He had reached for Keith, too, but Keith quietly stepped back and let them have their moment. It hurt, but he could wait. Hunk needed this right now.

“You insane, heroic maniac.” Hunk was close to crying, and all Lance could do was hug him back and pat his shoulders.

“I know, I know,” Lance sighed. “I’m sorry I scared you, dude. I’m completely okay.”

“Well, good. If you weren’t, I’d have to kick your ass.” Hunk set Lance back down on his feet, and he let him go enough that Lance could reach his hand out to Keith. He accepted it, and Hunk glanced at the gesture for just a fraction of a second. When he gave Keith a small smile, he seemed unsure how to really approach him, and opted not to crowd him. “You okay, Keith? You sounded pretty rough toward the end.”

“I’m alright,” Keith answered quietly, avoiding Lance’s sharp, concerned look. “It’s okay now. Let’s just get back to the city.”

 

 

The Yzrians had watched the battle from their command station, and as soon as the doors to the castle opened, there was already a crowd of Therysian soldiers and citizens lined up outside for them. These people were beautiful, smiling and bright-eyed, some of them wrapped in gauzy scarves and others displaying the crests on their heads. The day was falling, the air was turning orange and then a dark, honeyed pink, and the streets were lit with strings of clean white lanterns. The sterile air of the castle gave way to the smells of flowers and dusk. Surrounded by beauty and happy strangers, Keith wasn’t sure he’d ever had a dream this surreal.

The cheering rose to a peak when all of the paladins were in view. Keith didn’t mean to tighten his hand around Lance’s, but he did. It was just noise.

Lance squeezed his hand in return and then leaned closer to murmur, “You okay?” Keith nodded, so Lance smiled and then lifted their hands together, clasped above their heads in a display of triumph. The applause escalated. Instead of flinching away, Keith darted his eyes towards Lance. He was looking at him with a steady smile that said, you did good. You deserve this. Keith had to smile back. It wasn’t just noise anymore.

Kerisz stepped up from the crowd to address them, and Allura stepped forward to Keith’s other side. The two diplomats shook hands, and then Kerisz turned to face their people.

“Therysia,” they called. The crowd quieted in one cohesive, eerie instant to listen. “The paladins of Voltron have kept their promise to us. They have defended us from the Galra Empire, and vowed never to let Yzramil fall victim as a conquest to the galra. They knew of the Empire’s plan only because of a beacon on our neighboring planet, Halkeryn. They have asked us for access to the beacon of Yzramil as well. With it, they will be able to protect us and the whole system even more effectively, strengthening all who would fight against the Empire. Shall we give it to them?”

The people of Therysia replied with a high, positive cry. Kerisz turned to Allura with a wide smile and a low bow.

“Then it’s yours. With my authority as a Therysian Councilor, I grant you full access to our city garden, as revered guests. Use the beacon.”

“Thank you, Councilor Kerisz.” Allura smiled graciously, radiant with sincerity. “It’s our privilege to serve you.”

Kerisz chirped a laugh. “Let that be the other way around.” They stood straight and looked back out to the crowd, projecting their voice again. “Tonight, the paladins will rest in all the comfort Yzramil can provide them. Tomorrow, let us thank them with a feast in the dancing garden.” The people of Therysia loved this idea, and they made it known with one final shout of excitement.

 

 

Kerisz accompanied the paladins back to the building they had seen earlier, which they simply called the “guest hall.” On Earth, Keith wondered if it would be a VIP hotel, and he still preferred the guest hall. It was open and natural, and the rooms seemed like they were meant specifically for the guests they waited for, rather than having been changed out with bleached sheets an hour before their arrival.

The Yzrian who attended them was named Xerysi. They were taller than Shiro and almost as muscular, and just as lovely as Kerisz. Allura had explained to the team that the Yzrian sexual dimorphism was less noticeable than that of humans, Alteans, or many other similar species. While male and female Yzrians looked more similar than human men and women, the gender distinction simply didn’t matter to their society. It didn’t matter what sex Kerisz or Xerysi were; their culture and language had no gendered articles. Keith thought about this while Xerysi led him and Lance up the stairs, wondering if there was less sexism on Yzramil than on Earth, how gender expression for the Yzrians worked - if it existed at all - and if the whole concept might make it harder or easier for Lance to flirt with the locals.

Kerisz had already arranged for rooms for each crewmember of the Castle of Lions. Coran was ecstatic to be invited as well, eager to see how one of his favorite planets had changed over the past ten thousand years. Hunk and Pidge were enamored with the guest hall’s lighting system, of all things, which reacted to reflected light off of a person in order to increase the light around them and dim it as they left an area, or responded to gestures to light farther sections of hallway. Allura looked like the weight of the world had left her shoulders when she sat down to another cup of tea in the garden. Shiro had been reluctant to leave the castle, but Allura and Coran insisted that the security measures were set and that it would be fine. Keith had last seen him in the guest hall’s library as they passed by the doors.

His and Lance’s “special accommodations” were on the third floor, removed from the other bedrooms. When Xerysi opened the door and gestured them inside, Keith felt his face flush and took his hand from Lance’s to pick at his nails. Of course this was the sort of room offered to ignis sting victims.

The floor was covered in elegant rugs woven from a soft, strange material, plush and lacy. The wooden furniture was dyed in a warm, rosy finish, and here and there were clusters of recently lit candles, dried flowers, and small, decorative baubles. As Keith lifted his eyes to the bed, he realized how huge the mattress was, dressed in soft white blankets and covered by a sloped canopy and thin white curtains. The windows were tall, floor to ceiling, and took up almost the entirety of the two corner walls. They let in the last of the day’s light through the curtains, and the glass doors to the balcony stood open. The railing of the balcony, the pillars beside it, and the nearby headboard of the bed were all framed by living frelisiel vines. The purple flowers bloomed just over the overabundance of pillows, and their fragrance filled the room.

“What is this?” Keith found his own quiet, tense voice asking. He realized he must have sounded ungrateful, because Lance cut in with a small laugh.

“It looks like a bridal suite,” Lance joked.

Xerysi smiled crookedly. “It is,” they admitted. “But we’ve found that ignis sting victims tend to recover better in places like this. The frelisiel can offer some relief, if you both touch them. The room will give you some privacy, so you can relax and recover. And we put clothes for you both in the wardrobe, ones that might make you more comfortable.”

The universe had a cruel sense of humor. Keith couldn’t even think about what this room was supposed to be used for if he was sharing it with Lance. The pain started to seep into his muscles alongside his anxiety until Lance grabbed his hand again.

“It’s really nice.” Lance smiled at Xerysi and pressed his thumb into Keith’s knuckle until he got the message.

“Thank you,” Keith mumbled, looking down at the rugs.

Xerysi seemed pleased. They bowed and slipped back to the doorway. “The adjoining bathroom is right through there. Dinner will be downstairs for you in a varga. Please let us know if we can provide you with anything else. We understand how uncomfortable recovering from a sting can be, so don’t hesitate to ask for anything.”

“We will. Thanks.” Lance kept up his gracious smile, and held it for full seconds after the door shut and they were left alone.

And then he broke the short-lived silence, covering his face with his free hand to muffle a fit of giggles.

Keith jerked his hand away from Lance and scowled at him. “Lance, this isn’t funny.” Of course Lance thought it was funny. Of course Lance didn’t feel completely agonized by this, having a situation that should have been so wonderful dangled in front of his face on a string. It had never been more difficult to ignore his feelings for Lance than when he stood in a honeymoon suite with him and realized, bitterly, that this would never be his. This moment would never belong to him.

He and Lance weren’t sharing this room. They were just bunking together. That was as good as it would ever get.

“It’s hilarious,” Lance countered, wheezing. “This is the nicest room I’ve ever seen. And we’re staying in it. We get the bridal suite.”

“This is so embarrassing.”

“This is luxury,” Lance crowed, finally calming down. He offered his hand to Keith again, and his grin was so warm and charming that Keith had to take it. “It’ll be fine,” he assured him. “I mean, this isn’t the most embarrassing thing to happen to us today. Let’s just make the most of it. Wanna get cleaned up before dinner?”

Lance had no idea how he looked. He had no idea that the light from the open doors was making his face glow, or how goofy his smile looked when he had just finished laughing, or how endearing it was when he talked in that optimistic way. He had no idea that looking at him was making Keith’s whole chest ache.

“Sure.” Keith attempted to smile back at him and felt his mouth twitch.

The bathroom was nicer than Keith deserved. The tiles were a pale mosaic that barely gave the impression of a changing sky. Unopened bottles and jars of sweet-smelling gels and pastes lined the counter, along with a vase of fresh white flowers and a tray of unlit handmade candles. There was no shower, but the entire end of the room was a bathtub, set into the floor and already full of steaming water.

“Well, they forgot the champagne,” Lance mumbled, looking around appreciatively. “God, I haven’t had an actual bath in forever. Showers are fine, but sometimes you wanna soak, you know?”

Keith took a few seconds to comprehend what that meant. They were going to take a bath together.

It couldn’t be any worse than a shower, right? He had already survived a shower with Lance. He could handle this.

Silently, he pulled his hand out of Lance’s, and he turned his back to him when he started to undress.

The silence behind him went on for too long. Keith had rolled up his shirt and jacket together to leave on the counter and stepped out of his shoes. When he started to unbuckle his belt, he glanced furtively over his shoulder. Lance was still there, and Keith caught a glimpse of him turning his head away from him and down to the datapad in his hand. Keith avoided looking at him again, but soon, the ache in his chest had bloomed out and reached his bones. He grabbed a couple of towels out of the cabinet and then stepped up to Lance again, tucking his hand into the crook of his elbow. Lance leaned his shoulder into Keith’s, and he tapped the screen of his datapad with his thumb while Keith basked in the contact.

The relief was getting better. It was subtle, but where it had been a simple lack of pain before, touching Lance was beginning to have a new flavor. Keith stood there in only his jeans, holding a couple of towels on his arm, and fought the urge to lean his cheek into Lance’s shoulder. It didn’t feel unduly pleasurable. It was just nice. The contentment was deepening into a full sense of wellbeing.

“What’re you doing?” he asked, peeking at Lance’s screen. Messing around on his phone seemed like a completely normal pre-bath ritual, but Lance was especially focused on it.

“I can’t read this stuff.” Lance gestured at the bottles. “Pidge taught me how to use the translator. I wanna make sure I know what I’m putting on me.” He arrived at a certain screen, then walked them closer to the tub so he could sort through the bottles. One by one, he held up the labels to his screen, and when it analyzed and translated the words for him, Lance sorted the bottles.

“Moisturizer. Soap. Some kind of scale serum.” He picked up another small jar, and when he saw the English word, he nearly dropped it. He held the jar away from himself suddenly, and he turned his datapad face-down onto the counter while he put the jar up on a shelf. Keith looked up to his face and saw the dark shade of red there.

“What?” Keith laughed. “What is it?”

“We don’t need it,” Lance blurt out much too loudly.

“What is it?”

Nothing.”

Keith reached for the datapad before Lance could stop him, and he read the rough translation: intimacy lubricant.

It was Keith’s turn to dissolve into laughter. Lance snatched the datapad out of his hand, red to his ears, but then he was laughing, too. The situation was too ridiculous and awkward not to laugh at it.

“Man, I’m trying to make you not feel embarrassed,” Lance groaned.

“You’re a little too late for that,” Keith snickered.

“Shut up and get in the tub.”

Keith’s spirits were brighter when he stepped out of his remaining clothes and lowered himself into the water. It was warm enough to turn his skin pink, and it was scented with something herbal, like sage or lavender. It would have been perfect, if his body wasn’t already craving contact with Lance again. He hummed softly and reached up toward Lance to urge him in. For just a moment, that gesture felt natural, like he was actually allowed to beckon Lance closer to him.

He hadn’t even noticed how quickly Lance undressed himself, and then he was sliding into the water beside him. The tub was built like a small pool, with a sitting ledge on one side and slopes on two others, and he and Lance sat on the ledge together with the water up to the middle of his sternum. Keith almost didn’t think about it when he reached for Lance’s hand between them, but he hesitated before touching him.

“I meant it earlier,” he mumbled, picking his way through the words, and Lance turned his head to look at him. “If any of this is too much, or crosses a line for you, tell me.”

Lance’s brow was tight with caution, and he struggled with a smile. “What, afraid of getting me excited again?”

“I’m afraid of making you uncomfortable.” Keith was surprised that he knew how to say that out loud.

Lance watched his eyes carefully for a moment. “You won’t. Don’t worry.”

“Stop lying. Today was too much for you.”

“Keith.” Lance gave a feeble, surprised laugh. “You're never too much.”

Lance let go of his hand, and he slipped his arm around Keith’s shoulders instead.

This was still wrong. Keith leaned into Lance’s shoulder instinctively, revelling in the sense of good that Lance gave him, but he still knew it was wrong. Lance was sacrificing his own comfort and privacy to help him. At the very least, this was putting Lance into situations that should have been saved for someone he liked much more than he liked Keith.

Lance had always resented him. He would never be this close to Keith unless he was forced to.

Keith made himself pull away from Lance after a couple of minutes of soaking, and he kept his dull eyes on the surface of the water. Silently, he started to soap up and wash himself, and Lance followed suit. Every minute or so, Lance would offer a hand to Keith, and they would maintain a few more moments of contact.

 

 

The clean clothes in the wardrobe were a trick to figure out. They draped so much that they felt less like robes and more like wearing curtains, but they left their entire shoulders and arms bare and exposed a good deal of collar bone. Lance selected one that was dyed a deep navy blue, and Keith went for a simple grey one. It was alien, but comfortable, and it left plenty of space for them to touch. Once they found belts to cinch the robes at the waist and loose pants to go under them, Keith felt less like he was wearing a sail.

Beside him, Lance finished adjusting his clothes and hair in the mirror. Anything that showed off his arms like that was a godsend, and he looked so pleased with himself for fitting so well into alien fashion. Words like ‘adorable’ and ‘handsome’ swam around in Keith’s head.

“That’ll do,” is what he said out loud, and Lance snorted before taking his arm.

“Whatever. We look good.”

The entire way down the steps, Keith fought against the idea that Lance thought he looked good.

They were the last ones to the table. Dinner was served for them in a private hall with the same high windows as their room, and the space was set toward the back of the building to give the paladins some privacy and a chance to relax. It was quiet, dignified, and lit with soft, warm light. Everyone else seemed to have figured out the new wardrobes as well, and each person’s clothes suited them nicely. They looked like they belonged there. Their teammates had already started eating, and Hunk waved to the two of them when they sat down.

“Hey, how is it?” Lance asked, scooting his chair closer to Keith’s to let their arms touch.

“Everything is delicious.” Allura was practically glowing with contentment, and she reached for more of something that looked like a fruit salad. Coran smiled next to her.

“The princess always liked Yzrian produce the best. I'd say they've even improved it since the last time we were here.”

Allura gave a hum of agreement. There was plenty of food on the table, and she was happy to take more. “Therysia has always been known for its hospitality. It gives them great pride to provide for their guests. Be gracious while we’re here and enjoy it.”

“Can do.” Lance grinned and served himself spoonfuls of food, all of it colorful and fragrant, and made sure that anything Keith wanted made it to his plate. The silverware by his plate consisted of simple spoons and two-pronged forks, which Keith didn’t have any trouble figuring out.

The food was incredible. There was everything from what he thought of as a squash casserole to spicy roasted veggies to a sweet soup, and then dessert with fruit and a plant-based custard. Keith didn’t usually have a sweet tooth, but the flavors were so complex and interesting that he couldn’t help indulging in it. Water and wine were served with dinner, and more of the tea came with dessert. Everyone at least took seconds.

“You think they have a cookbook I could take home?” Lance closed his eyes and savored another bite of food.

“I’m definitely asking about that,” Hunk said, making a note of each particular spice and texture. “I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s crème brûlée 7.0.”

“I mean, if it makes them happy to spoil us, I’m not complaining.” Lance grinned and finished his tea.

“I’m with you on that,” Pidge laughed. “My room’s right next to this hovering fountain. The water actually twists around in the air. It shouldn’t be possible, and they’re letting me study it. They said they’d let me take it apart if I wanted to.”

“They’re letting me stay in the garden.” Allura was beaming. “The walls are essentially just pillars and a bay window, surrounded by flowers. It’s incredible.”

“What about your ‘special accommodations?’” Hunk had to ask, making the others laugh lightly.

Keith locked his eyes onto the table, and he felt Lance’s hand twitch in his own.

“It’s nice,” Lance answered.

“Oh, come on,” Pidge laughed. “You’re both red. We’ve been wondering about it all day.”

Keith just wanted them to lay off. “It’s the honeymoon suite,” he bit out.

A few sounds of surprise. Some amusement. No vicious teasing, but it was still too much.

“It sounds lovely,” Allura offered, smiling. “I’m sure you’ll be comfortable there.”

“Thanks,” Keith muttered. He suddenly wasn’t hungry for the last of his dessert, and he poked at something between a kiwi and a strawberry.

“It’s pretty great.” Lance gave Keith a slight nudge, maybe trying to cheer him up. “It’s got all those flowers everywhere, and a balcony - I’ve always wanted a balcony - and the bathtub is basically a pool.”

He was talking too much while he tried to pick up the mood, and Keith caught a couple of people raising their eyebrows. The mention of a bathtub just reminded everyone that the two of them had to bathe together.

“Lance,” Keith mumbled, and Lance shut up. He sighed and sat back in his chair, waiting for Lance to finish his food.

Lance deflated a bit, but tried for another smile and aimed his spoon at Keith’s half-eaten custard. “You gonna finish that?”

Keith shrugged and nudged the plate closer to him, and Lance happily dug in. A beat of silence hovered over the table.

“Did you see the moon?” Hunk asked Lance suddenly. “It’s not crescent. It’s almost full tonight.”

Lance looked up and grinned. “Seriously? I didn’t get a look at it yet.”

Right. He and Lance had a moonlit walk to be teased about. Keith let his eyes sink back to the table. He didn’t have the energy to play along with this pseudo-romantic farce when he wasn’t allowed to mean any of it. When Lance tugged on his hand gently, Keith realized he had been trying to get his attention and looked back up.

“Do you still want to go look at it?” Lance asked him. “Just for a minute? I know you’re pretty tired.”

Lance’s face was so earnest. The poor boy just wanted to look at the moon. Keith couldn’t say no.

Before they could both get up and leave, Kerisz stepped into the threshold of the room, followed by several attendants. Keith settled back down in his seat, glancing between them and Allura curiously.

“Paladins and crewmembers,” they addressed them with a bow. “I hope I’m not interrupting.”

“Not at all.” Allura smiled, the picture of elegance at the head of the table. “Dinner was exquisite. Thank you.”

Kerisz smiled, and they gestured a couple of the attendants forward to refill glasses and clear empty plates. “I’m glad to hear it. While the whole of Therysia will show you their gratitude tomorrow, I wanted to take this evening to show you mine.”

Another attendant came forward. Shiro sat up straight in his chair, watching them carefully as they stepped towards Allura, but there was no threat there. The Yzrian was holding a simple glass vase with a single flower.

Allura’s eyes fixed themselves on the three deep pink petals of the flower, and her face turned grey.

“That can’t be a…?” she scarcely whispered.

“Yzramil keeps greenhouses of plants sampled from other worlds,” Kerisz explained. “When Altea was lost, every effort was made to preserve our samples of its flora, the juniberry flowers in particular.”

Allura stood, slow and cautious. Keith could see her shaking from across the table, clinging to her resolute, formal framework, and then it was too much. She held a hand over her mouth and couldn’t suppress the tears in her eyes. Coran stood with her to touch her arm and offer support if she needed it.

“Thank you.” Her voice was tiny, tremulous, and richer than Keith had ever heard it. She accepted the vase with both hands and brought the flower to her face to smell it. “Thank you. Thank you.”

Kerisz bowed their head slightly. “We will be overjoyed to share our samples with you. Anything you would like from the juniberries - preserved flowers, perfumes, a garden in your ship, anything, we would love to give back to you.”

Allura’s shoulders shuddered silently. She passed the vase to Coran, dabbed her eyes with the back of her hand while she collected herself, and gave Kerisz a wide, beautiful smile.

“You don’t know what this means to me. I feel my thanks are insufficient.”

Beside him, Keith noticed Lance wiping his eyes. Sensitive and empathetic, indeed. He smiled faintly and gave Lance’s hand a comforting squeeze.

“No, Princess. You saved our planet,” Kerisz replied. “It’s insufficient that we can only give you a piece of yours.” They started to bow, and Allura pulled them into a hug instead. Kerisz was only startled for a second, and then laughed their soft, strange laugh and returned the gesture.

Other gifts followed. Coran was given a collection of data chips, vast encyclopedias on the entire universe’s political history. They contained charts of royal lines, the records of battles and shifts of power, and everything from correspondence records to diagrams of heraldry, reaching all the way back to Altea’s founding. Coran joked that he had ten thousand years of history to catch up on, but it was clear that he was as moved as Allura.

Hunk was given a new tool, a folding workbench with a virtual reality display that allowed him to zoom in on mechanical schematics, and made notes for him based on different chemicals and materials. It advised him on the physics of a design, and understood the purposes for inventions as he created them. Pidge was given what looked only like a palm-sized metal sphere, but then it lit up in excited spots and started chatting to her in something only she could translate. It rolled across her palm and onto the table when she let it. Her eyes practically fell out of her head when she realized it was her own pet AI, which could safely explore and analyze whatever code she created in other machines, record memories with her, and have full conversations with her.

Shiro’s gift was a bit of a surprise, and he looked surprised that he received a gift at all. He bashfully started to say that he didn’t need anything, but then one of the attendants stepped forward holding a box the size of a milk crate. Keith and Lance both leaned to see what was inside, but had to wait for Shiro to pull his gift out of the box.

Silent and unsure, he gently lifted out what looked like a striped grey kitten. Its tail flared like a lion’s at the end, and its fur peaked in a ridge along its spine. Its blinking eyes were bright orange, and as soon as Shiro picked it up, it started to squirm and make a soft trilling sound like a purr. He stared at it, and its tail started to flick back and forth.

“You’re confused,” Kerisz noted, grinning.

“Thank you,” Shiro remembered to say, “but... yeah, I’m a little confused.”

“My people have a sense for others’ needs. We felt that this was what would help you right now.” Kerisz took on an apologetic note. “If the gift is not to your liking, we will gladly find another.”

“No,” Shiro said quickly, and he held the cat closer until it rest against his chest. It curled up between his neck and shoulder and started to purr louder, and Shiro started to smile. “No, I like this one.”

Shiro hadn’t told Keith about everything he had been through, but he knew that he was still working through more trauma than he could understand. He had just gotten home again, and he had been behaving... strangely. Sometimes he didn’t sound like himself, and that scared Keith. Remembering that many veterans and PTSD patients would get therapy animals, the kitten made more sense than anything else. Watching Shiro relax and pet the cat’s ears, Keith couldn’t help smiling, too.

“The two of you have a shared gift,” Kerisz told Lance and Keith, and then set a small box on the table in front of them. Lance reached up with his free hand to open the box. Two silver rings rested inside.

“Wait, wait, wait,” Lance stammered, jumping to entirely the wrong conclusions.

“No, this has nothing to do with the Earth tradition,” Kerisz assured him. “These rings sometimes help to soothe the ignis’ effects. When two people wear them, it connects them - on a much smaller scale than the frelisiel. It’s an alternative for sting victims who have to move around a lot, or who prefer to keep their thoughts private.”

Tentatively, both of them picked up a ring and found which finger it fit best on. For Keith, it fit on his middle finger, and for Lance, his third.

The ring thrummed on Keith’s hand. It pulsed once, seemed to realize itself and wake up, and then settled down into a quiet, steady beat. He stared at the ring, and Lance seemed to have the same thought.

“Is that your heartbeat?” Lance’s eyes darted between his own ring and Keith’s face.

“I... think so?”

“It is,” Kerisz confirmed. “It should ease the symptoms while you recover. It will also allow you to find each other if you’re separated.”

Keith stared at the silver band on his hand, and then the one on Lance’s. Something about it looked wrong on himself, but Lance’s hand was built for a ring.

A shared gift seemed odd. If anything, the rings were a gift for Keith. He was the one who had been stung. It felt wrong that Lance shouldn’t have a personalized gift, but Lance didn’t seem to notice. He just smiled up at Kerisz.

“These are awesome. Thanks.”

Keith thanked them as well, and the Yzrians looked happy. Kerisz stayed to talk with Allura and Coran, and the attendants finished clearing the table. Pidge and Hunk both ran off with their new toys, and Shiro stayed seated, playing with the cat on his shoulder. Given the opportunity, Keith took Lance’s arm and led him out to the front of the building.

 

 

They didn’t have anything to say. Lance had sounded so excited to see another planet’s moon, so Keith was going to give him that much. They walked down the lantern-lit streets with their hands clasped between them, and the conspicuous beat of Lance’s heart kept Keith aware of the gently pulsing ring on his hand. The rings were helping, he thought. All they had to do was hold hands, and he felt almost completely pain-free. They made their way in the unfamiliar city, just walking in the cool air, until they found a small public park with a softly lit pond. They took a seat on one of the benches, and Lance tilted his head back to stare up at the sky.

The moon was waxing, nearly a perfect circle with only one faded edge to show its depth. Unlike Earth’s cratered white disc of a moon, the moon Neriss was smooth and blue. The colors faded to violet in some places, cerulean in others, and then occasionally showed some lilac, with highlights of white here and there.

“It’s like a soap bubble,” Lance whispered, and that was how Neriss became Keith’s favorite moon. Lance took a picture of it with his datapad, and then he flipped the camera to show the two of them sitting on the park bench. Lance was smiling, blithe and beautiful, and Keith’s face was full of confusion and dark circles. “Smile,” Lance told him, and took the picture.

The image had captured Lance looking like a face model, and Keith was frozen between two different expressions of surprise.

“Delete it,” Keith demanded, and Lance cackled, keeping his datapad away from him.

“No. This is my most prized possession now.”

“Lance,” he growled, and he reached towards Lance’s opposite hand until he realized how close that put them. He stopped, looked down at his knees, and withdrew to his side of the bench again.

“Keith,” Lance replied with the same inflection, but his tone was teasing and soft. They were quiet for a moment, and Lance tucked away the datapad into one of his pockets. Faintly, Keith felt his ring starting to pulse faster. “So…” Keith dared to glance up at his face again, only to see Lance with a small, anxious smile.

“So…?” Keith frowned and chewed at the inside of his lip. Lance took a deep breath, and the pulse in Keith’s ring stammered.

“So, I wanted to tell you something.” Lance started to avoid his eyes, and Keith thought he looked a bit sick. “I know the past couple days have been crazy. And that thing in the training room probably made it all weirder. So I wanted to see if we could start over.”

“Start over with what?” Keith’s frown deepened, and for a second, he could actually feel Lance’s stomach drop. “We’re doing fine, aren’t we?”

“I mean…” Lance’s eyes darted toward him and away again. “Yeah, I think so? Look, I just wanted to apologize for the training room and, I don’t know, explain myself.”

“Lance,” Keith sighed. “There’s nothing to apologize for. It was an accident. I’m the one who freaked out and stormed off.”

“No. Keith.” Lance groaned under his breath and rubbed his forehead. “I just-- I don’t know if I’m just going to end up making this more awkward.”

“This whole situation is awkward.” Keith’s own voice sounded tired to him. “There’s not much we can do about that. I know you won’t get the wrong idea about it, but it’s still a mess.”

Lance lifted his head from his hand, and he looked at Keith out of the side of his eye.

“The wrong idea?” He sounded nauseated.

Fuck. Why was that the wrong thing to say? Keith was just trying to save him the embarrassment of talking about all of this in depth. Lance was headed straight for the, ‘I’ve never thought of you that way and never will’ speech, and Keith didn’t think he could handle hearing it spelled out for him. He already knew.

“I mean…” Keith waved his free hand, as if that would help him talk. “It’s obviously pretty intimate, how we’ve been lately. But we wouldn’t be touching unless we had to, right? And if I touch someone, I want it to be because we want to, not because we have to. So there’s... nothing to misunderstand, right?”

Lance’s face was stuck in an odd, expressionless pose. The bruise on his cheek seemed to stand out more than before.

“Right,” Lance answered after a long pause.

“Okay.” Keith wondered if he was allowed to feel relieved yet when Lance was still making that face. “Okay, good. So, no worries.” They wouldn’t have to address this. Lance could move on from having to cuddle someone who, perhaps until recently, repulsed him. It could be that simple.

“No worries,” Lance repeated.

“Okay. Cool.” Keith felt that Lance’s hand had gone cold and clammy under his own, but he didn’t pull away from it. “We can just get through this and go on like normal. No need to make it weird.” That was what Lance wanted, so Keith hoped that would reassure him.

“Great.”

They stayed on the bench for another fifteen minutes, looking at the sky in silence. Keith made up constellations in his head. Lance stared at the moon. When they made their way back to the guest hall, both of them were moving a little slower with fatigue.

The moon wasn’t facing their windows, but the stars were out and the fresh air from the open balcony was nice. Lance was staring at his hands a lot, and he was still doing that when he pulled away from Keith to undress for bed.

“Lance, what’s the matter?” Keith sighed. He pulled off his belt and left his shoes by the door, and he wasn’t sure if he could share a bed with Lance when he didn’t know what he was moping about.

Lance jerked his head up and grinned. “Nothing. All good.” He cleared his throat and left his clothes on the sofa, and then he was only wearing a soft pair of pants. “Just uh, wondering how you wanted to do this. Like last night? Or if the ring’s working enough for you, I can sleep on the couch or something.”

“You don’t have to sleep on the couch.” Keith could detect the plea in his own voice, and he hated it. Lance was probably asking for an out, for some distance, and Keith didn't know how to give it to him.

“Alright.” Lance blew a sigh out of his lips, and he stepped over to the bed while Keith undressed. The rings worked to some extent, dulling the pain, but he knew it would still be impossible to sleep without Lance next to him. On top of that, he felt a faint churning of unease in his chest, one that he knew wasn’t his own.

Lance was nervous, and Keith could feel it through the rings.

Keith slipped into bed beside Lance, and their eyes met for a tense moment. He got the feeling that Lance was just as conscious of avoiding the flowers on the headboard as he was.

“I’m, um.” Keith had already apologized for relying on Lance. Maybe he should try something else. “Thank you for doing this for me.”

Some of the anxiety faded. Lance was already lying on his back, looking up at Keith with his arms folded back behind his head. That only accentuated his body, covered at the waist with the blankets, and when he smiled, he looked so handsome and unreachable that Keith felt like his whole body might turn to sand.

“It’s no problem, remember?” Lance chuckled, and he untucked one arm from its place behind his head to leave his posture open. “Hit me with that platonic cuddling. Just two dudes hanging out in a bridal suite.”

Keith laughed, soft and pained, and shifted himself closer to Lance until he was pressed up against his side. It was different from the night before. He had felt vulnerable then, and Lance had opened up to him, talking earnestly to comfort him. There was none of that vulnerability in the present moment.

A few minutes passed, and Lance cleared his throat, sounding more tired than before. “Hey, you wanna be the big spoon?” he mumbled. “I can turn over.”

Keith mumbled agreement, and he sat up to let Lance turn onto his side. As soon as Lance was settled, Keith moved himself back down, and found himself faced with the smooth plane of Lance’s back. The dip of his spine. The arc of his shoulder blades. The back of his neck, which looked so delicate from this angle.

He wasn’t allowed to touch him the way he wanted to. He wasn’t allowed to press his lips to the back of Lance’s head, or rub his shoulder slowly and soothingly, or wrap his arms around him and hold him too tightly.

It was supposed to be easier when he was the one doing the touching. Though he was growing accustomed to Lance, it usually startled Keith when someone touched him without warning, when another person was suddenly in contact with him. When it was Keith making the decision, he didn’t have to catch up from the surprise. It was just him, reaching out and knowing he hadn’t lost control.

So Keith moved cautiously. He slipped his arm around Lance’s waist, and he only tensed for a second when Lance’s fingers intertwined with his. He let his chest press close to Lance’s back, and he tucked his forehead to the back of Lance’s neck.

Lance liked being held, right? He had said so. He had said that he didn’t hate touching Keith. Maybe this wasn’t the wrong thing to do, then.

“This okay?” he whispered against Lance’s shoulder. The ring on his finger thrummed faster. Hard, heavy beats. He heard Lance swallow.

“Yeah.” There was the slightest rasp in that word. “Yeah, it’s nice.”

Keith let himself nestle just a little closer, and he hoped that some of the contentment the contact gave him would reach Lance, too. When he felt Lance sigh and start to relax, Keith just tried not to get the wrong idea.

Chapter Text

Lance cried himself to sleep sometimes.

Usually it was because he was homesick. Sometimes it was after returning from a mission, after fearing for his life or his friends’ lives. He didn’t cry so much about Keith anymore, but last night had been special.

Wrong idea. Right. He had never been shut down that hard in his life. Lance wouldn’t have been more wounded if Keith had chained him to a tree and left him for dead. Again, he couldn’t even get the words out of his mouth without Keith literally or figuratively sprinting away from the conversation.

Learning that Keith made a world class big spoon didn’t console him much. The contact didn’t count for anything when Keith had flat-out admitted that he didn’t want to touch Lance, but had to.

He just couldn’t believe that he’d had to turn over and face away from Keith because he couldn’t stop himself from crying.

He had kept himself quiet, but couldn’t sleep for hours. He kept dozing and blinking himself awake again, and then he would feel Keith sigh behind him in his sleep, or mouth something senseless against his shoulder, or curl his fingers against the front of his chest. Keith growled and kicked him once, but he settled back down as Lance rubbed his wrist.

At some point in the night, Lance cried again. It was soft and silent and hiccupping, and he did his best to hold still and not wake Keith up.

Keith didn’t necessarily wake up, but he hummed something and held Lance tighter. Lance froze and whispered, “Sorry, didn’t mean to wake you.”

“Hey,” Keith mumbled. He sounded so airy and detached from the world that Lance knew he had one foot in a dream. “Hey, it’s okay.”

They had stopped holding hands at some point, and this extremely sleepy Keith didn’t seem to like that. His uncoordinated hand fumbled over Lance’s chest until he found his fingers close by, and he laced them back together.

Lance started to cry harder. Keith squeezed his fingers with his minimal, half-awake hand strength, and he leaned up higher against Lance’s back to mumble into his hair.

“Shhh. You’re okay. It’s okay.”

Eventually, Lance settled down. Keith had already slipped back to sleep, and Lance pooled his focus around the ring on his hand, the slow, steady beat of Keith’s resting heart.

He took a selfish moment for himself. He brought their intertwined hands up to his face, and he pressed his lips to the side of Keith’s palm.

 

 

The two of them slept in. At least, Lance had slept in, and he could only assume that Keith hadn’t been out of bed for very long without him. The room was bright with sunlight, and the balcony doors were finally closed. Lance’s arm was folded above his head, and his hand was dangerously close to touching the vines twisted around the lattice headboard. He pulled his hand back to himself as soon as he realized the danger, but Keith wasn’t close enough to the vines for it to matter anyway.

Keith was doing push-ups on the floor.

What a sight to wake up to. Lance hummed and propped himself up on his side, cheek on his palm.

“Hey. Do the rings work that well?” he asked.

Keith stopped mid push-up, and he rolled onto his hip to sit up. When he looked up at Lance, his eyes were dark with stress and his face was damp with sweat.

“No,” was Keith’s answer.

Lance scoffed and reached his hand out toward him. “Then c’mere, dumbass. Quit torturing yourself.”

He was a little surprised by how quickly Keith accepted his hand. In the next moment, Keith had rolled onto bed again and pressed his face into Lance’s shoulder. Lance berated him softly while he wrapped his arms around him.

“If you keep running off, I’ll start to think you like being in pain. Who does push-ups at this time of morning, anyway?”

“It’s almost noon,” Keith told him.

“Lunchtime, then. Who does push-ups at lunchtime?” Lance let out an unstifled yawn.

“I just felt like working out,” Keith grumbled into Lance’s arm. “It’s not like I can go train like this.”

Of course. When Keith was stressed, he usually stalked off to go punch a robot. Lance hummed in thought and ran a hand through his hair.

“We could go train together. But we’ve got a party tonight, from what I hear. We shouldn’t wear ourselves out yet.”

Keith groaned and buried his face into the pillow next to Lance’s arm. “Right, the banquet thing.”

“It’s a feast in something called the ‘dancing garden,’” Lance corrected him, “and I, for one, am looking forward to it.”

“You’re better with that stuff than I am,” Keith mumbled. Lance opened his mouth, stunned that Keith would say he was better than him at anything, when a knock came at the door. Keith sighed and sat upright. “Come in.”

Xerysi pushed the door open and stepped inside, holding a tray of breakfast. “Good morning,” they offered the two of them, not looking twice at their proximity or state of undress, and they set the tray down on the nightstand. “We thought you might like breakfast in your room.”

Lance did indeed want breakfast in his room. He smiled lazily and sat up, propped up on his elbows.

“Breakfast in bed is always good,” he declared. “Where’s everyone else today?”

“Your crewmates are still here in the hall,” Xerysi replied, pouring tea and passing both of them a cup. “Princess Allura is eager to help with the feast tonight, and everyone else is resting and enjoying their gifts. Oh-- we have clothes for you tonight, as well. The princess told us that you would need something.”

Lance felt a moment of shame, remembering he didn’t have anything nice to dress up in. The closest thing he had to formalwear was his armor.

“That sounds perfect. Thanks.” He gave Xerysi a smile and earned one back, and they continued to put breakfast onto little serving plates.

“Is there anything else I can get for you today?”

Lance’s eyes slid toward Keith, and he smirked.

“Actually, do you have a pool?”

 

 

The pool was in the middle of the garden behind the guest hall. Lance had asked because swimming seemed like a good way for them to exercise and for Keith to blow off some steam while still giving them plenty of opportunity for contact. Besides, Lance couldn’t ever turn up an opportunity to swim. The walls of the pool were smooth stone, and the water reflected the plants climbing high around it. Some of the soft blue petals from flowers in the bushes fell onto the water’s surface, and the majority of the pool was shaded by ornamental trees. Past those, the soft colors of the garden stretched out in all directions. It was perfect.

Lance was still allowed to hold Keith’s hand for another week or two, so he did. They had brought out towels and had changed into swim shorts, and they stopped at the edge of the water for a second just to look at it. It didn’t look like something anyone was permitted to swim in.

Standing at the edge of the water with Keith, Lance did the only thing he could have possibly done. He let go of Keith’s hand to trace up his arm and to his back, and he smiled down at Keith when he looked up at him curiously. And then Lance shoved him into the water.

Keith gave half a startled shout, and the sound was cut off by the splash and Lance’s laughter. Not even a second later, Lance jumped into the water with him. It was deeper than he had expected, which was exactly what he liked in a pool. With both of them submerged, Lance wrapped his arms around Keith’s waist, kicked off the bottom of the pool, and pulled him back to the surface, treading water while supporting both of them.

Keith coughed and wiped the water from his eyes, and he glared at Lance. Still, Lance couldn’t keep himself from laughing.

“You looked like a starfish,” he choked. “Your arms.”

“Uh-huh?” Keith narrowed his eyes, and he looked a little too smug for someone who had just been thrown into a pool. He turned in Lance’s hold, wrapped his arms around his shoulders, and brought them close.

In retrospect, Lance should have seen it coming. Keith pushed all of his weight down onto Lance’s shoulders and dunked him underwater.

The next fifteen minutes were exactly like that. Whenever they were above water, they were laughing. Keith was a good swimmer, but Lance was better, and they tagged each other along the bottom of the pool before resurfacing and trying to drown each other again. They were almost constantly touching, with Keith sometimes gripping Lance’s ankle or Lance tracing a hand over Keith’s arm as he swam by. The two of them were wrestling so much that Lance didn’t think Keith could need any more contact.

On any other day, after any other night, it would have been the best time of Lance’s life.

One side of the pool was shallow enough that Lance could stand with his head above the water. The waterline reached above Keith’s chin to the bottom of his lip, and Lance took the opportunity to tease him when they went to the shallow side for a break.

“You’re so short, you need a life preserver.” Lance flicked water at Keith’s face, and Keith splashed him back in retribution.

“I’ve already got one.” Keith grinned dangerously, slipped closer, and grabbed Lance’s arm to haul himself up onto his back. “See? It’s right here.” Lance shouted and laughed, and while he kept them both above water, Keith held himself above Lance’s shoulders.

“You fiend.” Lance struggled with Keith’s weight and then twisted, making Keith fall into the water again with a shout. Lance scooped him back up under his arms, and he held Keith up, but with their positions reversed. Like this, Lance had Keith’s back to his chest, lifting him up with his arms tight around him.

“Lance!” Keith was shrieking with laughter, holding onto Lance’s arms in front of him and trying to kick in the water. “Lance, that’s cheating!”

“All’s fair in love and war,” Lance growled back. By then, he was just fighting to keep Keith balanced in his arms while he tried to squirm free.

Keith snorted, laughing harder than Lance had ever heard. He might have held him a little closer. “Okay, fine, Lance, put me down.”

“Admit that I won,” Lance demanded.

“Never.”

“Sucks for you, then.”

This was the most they had ever touched. This was the most of Keith’s skin he had ever felt at once. Keith was compact and heavy, his body was wonderfully smooth, and Lance couldn’t let himself get caught up in it.

Keith’s voice faded to a chuckle. “Put me down.” His fingers tightened around Lance’s wrists.

“You’ll drown without me,” Lance warned him, still teasing. He readjusted his arms to hold him more securely, but then he heard Keith’s breath catch.

Lance.”

That wasn’t a normal command. That was a moan. A soft, perfect little moan.

Keith’s body arched. His head fell back on Lance’s shoulder, and Lance caught sight of him biting his bottom lip. He slipped lower in Lance’s grip, and the pad of Lance’s thumb accidentally grazed the peak of his nipple. An agonized little sigh fought its way out of Keith’s mouth.

It all happened in a second, but it took that long for Lance to notice the ring on his hand. Keith’s reflected heartbeat was throbbing and quickening.

“Lance,” Keith insisted, still using that delicious tone of voice. “Lance, put me down.”

Lance dropped Keith back into the water.

Keith shuddered and folded his arms over his chest, and he waded his way to the edge of the pool to pull himself out. Lance stood where he was and stared at the ripples Keith’s motion left in the water.

That couldn’t have been Lance’s fault. Keith had never reacted that way before. He was just holding him. Even if he was holding him, it couldn’t have caused that.

“Keith?” Lance tasted his own caution when he spoke, but he turned to follow Keith out. Embarrassed or not, Keith would start to hurt again if he didn’t stay close. “You okay?”

“It’s nothing,” Keith snapped. He had already heaved himself out of the water, and he was sitting on the walking stones along the edge of the pool, curled up over his knees and hiding his face in his arms. “Nothing happened. Just give me a second.”

Lance sat down just over a foot away from Keith, giving him some space but making himself accessible. He looked so humiliated and small, and that made Lance want to hold him. At the same time, he would have given his right leg just to hear Keith moan his name again.

“It’s probably normal,” he found himself saying. “We were touching a lot in the pool. Maybe you just got more than you needed.”

“Yeah.” Keith nodded without lifting his head from his circled arms. “Yeah, feels like something like that.”

All things considered, Lance had no idea how Keith felt. Whatever mixture of pain, overstimulation, and anything else Keith was feeling, Lance couldn’t honestly begin to decipher it. He watched him for a careful second and then asked, “Does it hurt?”

Keith groaned, but it sounded more self-directed. He lifted his hands just to push them through his dark hair in frustration.

“It’s starting to.” He cleared his throat and met Lance’s eyes guiltily, and he lowered one hand down to the ground between them. That was all Lance needed before he took his hand. Keith was avoiding his eyes again, and Lance laughed.

“Hey. Whatever that was, we’ve seen worse.”

Whatever that was? A selfish section of Lance’s brain insisted that he knew exactly what that reaction had been. At some point, both of them had gotten excited from touching each other. Keith had liked touching him. So they should touch each other all they wanted.

Except, he reminded himself, that Keith’s body wasn’t wired the way it usually was. Even without the sting’s influence, Keith couldn’t have controlled how he reacted physically. And if Keith was rejecting it, there wasn’t anything else for Lance to interpret. There was nothing to misunderstand.

Deep breath, Lance. Get over it. His friend was in pain and probably mortified. That was all.

Keith’s eyes were nervous, but he nodded. “Let’s just go back.”

They dried off by the pool. The water smelled clean and pleasantly floral, and Lance’s hair felt softer after the swim. Keith stayed close, but he kept his back to Lance, hunching his shoulders and shying away from too much contact or scrutiny. Lance sighed into his towel while he wiped his face and hair dry.

“Don’t be embarrassed.” Lance kept his eyes on the stones set into the walkway. “It happens.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Keith mumbled, and Lance almost didn’t hear him.

“It happened to me yesterday,” Lance reminded him with a small, self-deprecating laugh, but Keith shook his head.

“It’s not the same. Just… Just leave it alone.”

It took a couple of minutes for Keith to touch him again, and even then, he only curled his hand inside Lance’s elbow.

 

 

The team was scheduled to go out to the beacon in the city gardens the following day. Allura and Coran agreed that it was best to be gracious and accept the Yzrians’ hospitality before barging into one of their most historically cherished, sacred sites. Lance didn’t really understand all of the politics, but he got the sense that Allura wanted to make sure that some sort of formalities were observed before rushing to business, namely the event for that night in the dancing gardens.

And seeing as they had the day to relax, he wasn’t going to complain.

He and Keith hung out with Hunk and Pidge for the better part of the afternoon. The two of them were enamored with their own gifts as well as each other’s, and while they collaborated on some new project that went right over Lance’s head, he was happy to lounge on the sofa with his legs in Keith’s lap, playing music from his datapad and sipping on a smoothie. Keith sat with his own smoothie in one hand and his other hand curled awkwardly over Lance’s calf. While Lance chatted with Hunk and Pidge, Keith looked like he was struggling to understand what the two engineers were doing. All Lance could do was try to help him with his efforts to join the conversation.

When the light from the windows started to soften into orange, Allura came by to tell them to go to their rooms and get ready for the party. Pidge groaned and begged for ten more minutes to work on her end of the project, and Hunk seemed just as eager to see another test on their progress. Lance, though, was up in a heartbeat. He took Keith’s hand to lead him out, and even if Keith was nervous about the feast, he came with Lance back to their room with no complaints.

Their clothes for that night were waiting in neatly folded stacks on their bed. The owner of either set was indicated by a small token placed on top, painted and glazed with the colors of their lions. Lance recognized the red pin, accented blue around the edges, as his own. Keith’s was black with streaks of red.

“It’s crazy they got our measurements and made something this fast,” Lance commented while they undressed to change. “I bet it’s hot alien fashion, too. We’ll be the stars of the show.”

Keith just snorted quietly, and they both set to the task of figuring out how to fit into the new clothes.

Lance didn’t look at Keith while he figured his outfit out, partly because he didn’t want to make Keith uncomfortable and partly because he wanted to figure out his own clothes first, like it was a race. As it turned out, Lance did finish dressing himself first. His clothes were fairly straightforward, though. It was almost like a suit, but with much lighter material that clung to his body, and barely-tasteful windows cut out of the sleeves and sides of his top to expose more skin.

“Isn’t this kind of revealing?” Lance mumbled, straightening the top along his waist. It was cut around the collar in a way that made it seem formal, and he turned in the mirror to see how the open parts complemented his ribs and shoulders. It was tight around his flat stomach and praised what muscle his chest had. He knew that the point of these clothes was to let Keith have room to touch him, but this shirt was particularly brazen about it. Damn, he looked good, though. He smiled at himself in the mirror and turned back around to look for the blue and red pin.

“Lance?”

Keith’s voice sounded so small and shy, and that was unlike him enough to make Lance’s head turn toward him. “Yeah?”

Keith was standing a few feet away with his arms tucked around himself tightly. He was biting his lip and frowning towards the corner of the bed anxiously, and he looked like he had just realized that his clothes weren’t going to cover up any more than they were already. While Lance’s clothes were blue and copper, colorful in a subtle, noble way, Keith’s were entirely black. They looked even softer and tighter than Lance’s, and instead of the few large sections patterned out of them, Keith’s sleeves had so many diamonds cut out of them that they might as well have been lace. The pants were too fucking good. Even from this angle, Lance could see how snug they were across Keith’s thighs, and on each side, three slits were cut out to show a slim slice of skin along the outside and then the inside of his leg. As if Lance would be running his hands down Keith’s thighs. The best part, though, was how the shirt stopped halfway down Keith’s chest, asymmetrical and draping down one side while the other showed off his stomach and the cut of his hip. It called way too much attention to that area. He looked like a dancer in uniform.

Lance walked straight into the bedpost and nearly broke his nose.

Keith barked a laugh and stepped forward, and he touched Lance’s exposed shoulder to show some form of support. Lance held his nose and groaned, pinching his eyes shut.

“No more bruises,” Keith suggested gently. Lance nodded.

“Sure. Good plan.” He cleared his throat and couldn’t look at Keith, and he hoped that the blazing warmth on his face would be ignored. He was just embarrassed for being clumsy, obviously. He didn’t want to get on both knees for Keith in that outfit at all. Christ, he looked so good in black. His skin looked like cream in the contrast.

Lance pulled himself together and found the pin, and he fixed it to the front of his shirt. Keith remembered to do the same with his own, and then picked up one remaining small band of cloth from his wardrobe for the night.

“What’s this for?”

“Probably for your hair,” Lance offered, and immediately wanted to kick himself. He was digging his own grave, suggesting that. He was only a mortal man, and he wasn’t meant to see Keith with his hair up.

With no further deliberation, Keith put the band on his wrist and started to pull his hair back into a tail. Lance swore that his vision started to vibrate.

“Like that?” Keith asked once he had fixed his hair into place, glancing up at Lance for confirmation.

Lance’s mouth was dry. His body was prickled with goosebumps, and he was going to start sweating if this went on much longer. They probably had time before they had to go downstairs, right? Enough time for him to tell Keith how attracted he was to him. There wouldn’t be anything left for them to get the wrong idea about if Lance asked him to please, please do him the honor of fucking his face.

“Yeah, looks fine.”

Keith smiled, and Lance watched him lift his hand and turn the silver ring on his finger in thought. Lance’s heart was tumbling down a rocky cliffside, and Keith’s was strong and steady. “You okay?”

“Fantastic. You ready to go? I’m ready to go.” Lance remembered that he was still barefoot and fumbled for the soft new shoes set aside for him.

“Almost.” Keith laughed and took another second before withdrawing his hand from Lance. He disappeared into the bathroom and came back moments later with a small jar. He absolutely had Lance’s attention.

When Lance’s eyes fixed on the jar and then flickered back up to Keith’s face, Keith snorted. “No, it’s not-- It’s a salve. Supposed to help with bruises.”

Lance cleared his throat and took a seat on the end of the bed. “I knew that. I read the labels, too.”

Keith rolled his eyes and opened the jar, and he stepped forward to stand in front of Lance. He dipped one finger into the salve, and once he saw that Lance would hold still and accept the action, he smoothed a thin layer of it over each bruise on Lance’s face. His cheekbone still ached, but the bridge of his nose was worse. Then, after a second’s hesitation, Keith swiped the remaining salve along the corner of Lance’s lip, where he must have also made contact with the bedpost.

With Keith’s fingers so close to his mouth, Lance almost broke.

Keith looked over his work and screwed the jar shut again. “There,” he said, sounding pleased with himself.

“All better,” Lance agreed, keeping his eyes above the collar of Keith’s shirt. He put on a smile and finished stepping into his shoes. “Let’s go see what this party’s about.”

 

 

Downstairs, the guest hall was already lit brightly and busy with their hosts bringing tables, plates of food, and decorations in different directions. The flow of the work looked to be aiming outside and down the street. There was a healthy buzz of conversation and liveliness, and somewhere, Lance could already hear music. They were the last ones downstairs, and their crewmates were already dressed and waiting for them.

No one else on the team had clothes as revealing as Lance and Keith’s, which didn’t come as much of a surprise. Allura was so beautiful that Lance almost cried, though. She was dressed in pink and gold with juniberries in her hair, and for the first time in months, she looked truly happy. Coran wore the same kinds of gold, a complement to her. Shiro was in steely greys and whites and a sharp, snug vest. Pidge was so adorable in a unisex combination of pants and a long draping shirt that Lance had to pick her up, spin her, and tell her so. She threatened him with another bruise. And Hunk was so irredeemably handsome in his dress shirt and suit, a shade of gold all for himself, that Lance let out a shout and hugged him.

“Dude, you look like a prince. They even got you a new headband.” Instead of Hunk’s usual headband, he was wearing a golden circlet under his hair. The golden pin on his shirt collar looked like it could glow.

Hunk gave Lance a big, bashful grin. “I kind of like it,” he admitted. He switched to a frown as he studied Lance’s face, and then his hands came up to push Lance’s hair back. Lance laughed, but he let Hunk fix his hair for him until it was tousled back in the right direction. That done, Hunk patted Lance’s back and whispered, “Go get him,” just under the ambient noise in the hall.

Lance snorted and shoved himself away from Hunk playfully, and he went back to Keith. Taking Keith’s hand had become a safe bet; it didn’t cross any boundaries, and Keith even seemed reassured by it at times, so Lance wasn’t thinking twice about it anymore. But then Keith slipped his hand higher and locked their arms, holding onto Lance with his brow furrowed and his eyes downcast. These clothes really did let them touch more. He could feel bare skin and body heat almost everywhere Keith was in contact with him.

There were those goosebumps again. A ridiculous grin found its way across Lance’s face. He knew how the two of them looked - everyone knew how they looked - so he had to make light of it just to break the ice.

“I guess I’m your date tonight, huh?" he chuckled. Keith’s head snapped up, and Lance watched him fumble for an answer with wide eyes and a tense jaw.

“I mean…” Keith cleared his throat and frowned away from him again. “Yeah, I guess you are.”

Shit, Keith was serious. It was Lance’s turn to fumble.

“Well!” Allura clapped her hands together and tried to save the two of them any more embarrassment. “We’re due at the gardens. Let’s get going, shall we?”

“Right then!” Coran agreed, and he helped to herd their party to the front door and out to the street. Lance and Keith were at the tail of the group with their arms still locked. Keith wouldn’t look up from his feet.

Lance patted Keith’s hand on his arm. He’d gotten himself into this by making bad jokes, and he would get himself out the same way. Maybe that would help Keith relax. “Don't go getting ideas, but I’m gonna make this the best date of your life,” he mumbled to him.

He felt the jolt in Keith’s body, and then Keith looked up at him with a pained smile. “I mean…”

It took a few seconds for Lance to understand what that look meant. They were stepping out into the street, walking under the strings of lights, when it hit him.

"No, Lance breathed in disbelief. “You’ve never been on a date before?"

“You’ve met me, haven’t you?” Keith was on the defensive again, scowling.

“Yeah, I think I have. That’s the point.” Lance shrugged and looked up at the moon. It was finally full. “It’s just surprising. You know how many people at the Garrison had crushes on you?”

Keith’s expression withered even further. “How many? Did you count?”

“No. I can’t count that high.”

That grey look on his face finally broke, and Keith laughed behind his hand. “You’re shitting me.”

“I’m dead serious. You’re a heartthrob. If they could see you now…”

Lance’s ring hiccupped. Keith took a deep breath, and the rhythm steadied out again. “What?”

Lance bit the inside of his cheek, got a grip, and smiled down at him. Keith deserved to hear this on his first date, and Lance could say it without ruining everything. “I just mean, you look nice.”

In that moment, Keith’s demeanor changed. His cheeks turned pink, he bit at his lip, and his fingers fidgeted against Lance’s bicep. He swallowed and looked down at the ground again.

“Thanks,” he said so quietly. The two of them fell quiet for a minute, and Lance listened to their teammates ahead of them chat and laugh as they walked. Finally, Keith asked, “So, um. Before. You’ve been on…?”

“Dates?” Lance had a reasonable amount of experience, for an attractive and flirtatious young man who had gone to public school. Realizing that Keith didn’t have any of those same experiences - hand-holding and ice cream dates in the park, making out in the back of an arcade, breaking up over something stupid and shallow - put things into perspective. “Yeah, but rule one of any first date is: Don’t talk about other people.”

Keith coughed, and Lance didn’t realize his slip-up until Keith repeated, “First date?”

Lance could have started sweating bullets. Wrong idea. Abort. “I mean, it’s your first date, isn’t it?”

“Is it?” Keith countered. Were they even going on an actual date? Would that make this worse for Keith?

Lance swallowed his own opinions on the matter.

“Well… I don’t know if it counts as a date if neither party asked the other out. So I think you’re safe.” Somewhere ahead of him, Hunk groaned.

“Well, that was sort of implied earlier.” Keith sucked his bottom lip in thought and looked straight ahead. “When you asked if you were my date. So I guess you got away with it for tonight.”

Lance barely managed not to trip on his own feet. What the fuck? Was Keith teasing him? Did Keith even know how to tease people? He cleared his throat and evened out his steps again.

“I guess so,” he laughed. “Alright. In that case, get ready for Date Lance.”

 

 

The dancing gardens were beyond anything Lance would have guessed.

The area was huge, and faintly colored lanterns hung from the same kinds of strings as in the street, crossing overhead between rows and rows of arbors and trellises. Flowers grew up the framework, some of them glowing by themselves, and even more light came from the nighttime bugs blinking overhead, lazy and unaffected by the activity below them. In the dark, it looked like a city of its own, and it looked like all of Therysia was there to celebrate. Sections were set aside for sitting areas, candlelit dining areas, and huge lines of buffet tables. Some people were already eating, standing up and enjoying their food casually between laughing and telling each other stories.

The vast expanse of the garden, however, was carpeted only in thick grass. Scores of Yzrians, dressed in everything from flowing robes to slender-cut suits and wraps, were already running and dancing across the grass. The music came from above; one of the covered trellises served as a platform for the musicians, playing instruments Lance couldn’t begin to recognize, and the sweet, excited sounds were amplified across the whole garden.

Lance had seen stuffy parties before, like at his dad’s work or at the Garrison’s welcome ceremony. He knew how uptight and nervous everyone was supposed to be. He knew that he couldn’t eat the food with his fingers. He couldn’t laugh too loudly. He couldn’t run off and tackle his friends in the middle of the floor. Everyone pretended it was a good time when it wasn’t, and by the end of the night, everyone went home and rubbed their feet and complained.

This was the farthest thing from that. The whole community of Therysia had found the art of being considerate to each other and letting everyone have fun at the same time. It was like everyone loved each other.

“Wow,” Keith whispered next to him, and Lance looked to the side to see him, and the way all of the lights caught in his eyes.

Funny. Lance usually thought Keith’s eyes were black, or grey, but like this, they looked almost violet. Those eyes turned up to look at him then, and Lance realized he’d been caught staring. Keith gave him a tentative smile, looking like an angel in the soft light.

“Wanna get food?” Lance blurt out.

The corners of Keith’s eyes crinkled when he laughed. Lance wondered if he could die from this. “Yeah, food sounds good.”

They were swept away by Coran and Allura before they could get to the buffet table, unfortunately.

“You can’t stuff your faces until you’ve thanked our hosts,” Allura scolded them, but even her scolding voice was sweeter and happier than usual. She also smelled like juniberries, and Lance would have bet his life that those two facts were connected. She led them and the rest of the group to where Kerisz stood by one of the dining tables, drinking from a tall glass of something brilliantly purple. Xerysi stood right beside them with their arm around Kerisz’ waist. Allura bowed, and the rest of the group followed her example.

“Councilor, thank you so much. This is absolutely stunning.”

Kerisz smiled and made a point to bow lower, showing respect to the princess, but reminded her, “Please, this isn’t a time for formality. We have meetings, and we have parties.” When everyone straightened up again, Kerisz looked over each of them, and their smile reached their eyes. “You all look astonishing. Are you comfortable?”

It took everyone a moment to realize the question was directed at Keith. He nodded, but Lance could feel him trying not to squirm. Kerisz’ eyes flickered over him.

“We’ve prepared a private alcove for you that way,” they said, gesturing along a line of low flowering bushes, “if crowds make you uncomfortable. It’s for your particular use, so don’t worry about interruptions.”

Lance wanted to ask what they meant by interruptions, but Xerysi grinned and spoke up. “Keri didn’t like crowds either when they were stung. It’s pretty common.” Kerisz made a low, irritated clicking sound and tapped Xerysi on the chest with the back of their hand, but the latter just crooned something smug and soothing.

“You were…?” Keith’s eyes widened, and he took a step forward to talk with the Yzrians. Lance went with him, but watched over his shoulder as Hunk and Pidge snuck away towards the food.

“I was,” Kerisz sighed, rolling their eyes toward their companion. “A ridiculous accident. One of the bugs made it all the way back on a shuttle. Xerysi still likes to remind me.”

“You married me.”

“Fool that I was,” Kerisz growled back, but they leaned into Xerysi’s laughing chest. One of Kerisz’ hands was still holding their drink, and the other came up to rest on Xerysi’s on their waist. Lance finally noticed the silver rings on their hands.

“You two?” Lance’s face split into a grin. They were adorable, in their own freakishly weird way. “Is that how you knew all this stuff that would help him?”

“In part,” Kerisz admitted. “Our people see a couple of stings a year, on average. Expeditions go wrong. Decontamination misses something. We’ve learned to treat them.”

“And... this helps?” Keith glanced down and tugged at his clothes, like he could hide more of his skin that way.

“It does. Especially after the first couple of days.” Kerisz grimaced. “It’s going to get much worse, I’m sorry to say. Exposing skin to your antidote is really the only way to help.”

“That’s less of a problem for some sting victims than others,” Xerysi commented, and Kerisz choked on their drink. Lance smothered his laughter while Kerisz turned and menaced their spouse away from the conversation with a mostly-empty wine glass.

“Please excuse my darling,” Kerisz bade the two of them, finally showing a bashful laugh. “And please enjoy yourselves. If you need anything else, or any advice on the situation, don’t be afraid to ask me.”

“Thank you.” Keith was laughing just as hard as Lance was, and their host even seemed happy about that before they followed Xerysi into the crowd.

“Well.” Lance grinned and let his arm slip around Keith’s shoulders. Their naked sides pressed together at that angle, and for that moment, Keith leaned into the contact. “That was cute. Maybe Xerysi will tell us the story later.”

“You would ask,” Keith snorted, and they walked together to the buffet tables.

As soon as Lance saw Hunk, he made a beeline for him. He slipped away from Keith far enough to just hold his hand again, and Keith was happy to pick food off the table and eat with his free hand while Lance leaned up to talk in Hunk’s ear.

“Holy shit,” Lance whispered. “Holy shit. Kerisz and the guest hall owner are married, and they were Kerisz’ antidote.”

“What?” Hunk laughed. In one hand, he had a neatly-organized plate of food to sample, and the other was holding what looked like bruschetta. “Good news for you, I guess.”

“Shhhhh,” Lance hissed, keeping his voice just low enough not to let Keith hear him. The music and chatter were loud enough to cover for him, but he still whispered just a little quieter. “Shush. I need you to be strong for me. I’m not strong enough for this. Do you see how fucking hot Keith is right now? Es un mango. I wanna take a bite out of him. I’m dying. This is how I die.”

Hunk pushed the bruschetta into Lance’s mouth. It tasted like fucking mango.

“Hey, Date Lance,” Hunk snickered. “How about you give me a break and whisper sweet nothings into your date’s ear instead?”

Lance complained around the food, but chewed and ate it. “‘Date Lance’ was a private conversation.”

“Uh-huh.” Hunk grinned, and when he leaned over to look past Lance’s shoulder at Keith, Lance wondered if his best friend was actually the devil. “Hey, Keith. How’s it going?”

Keith froze with about five items of food in either his hands or face. His eyes moved between Lance and Hunk, and he swallowed his mouthful of food. “Um. Good?”

“Good, good.” Hunk nodded. “So, I just wanted to let you know, Date Lance is really just Regular Lance, but sweatier and with worse pick up lines. So you’ve got nothing to worry about. You can handle him.”

“Oh. Oh, no.” Lance’s eyebrows shot upward. “No, no, no, Date Lance is a suave piece of ass. Don’t you dare poison his thoughts with these lies.”

“Then step it up, Date Lance.” Hunk grinned and leaned against a pillar, holding his plate of food.

Humph.” Lance actually pronounced that word. “Come on, Keith. Don’t listen to him. We’re done here.”

Keith only allowed Lance to lead him to the next table over, and Lance leaned against it while they enjoyed the food and watched the dancers. This table had more desserts on it, which Lance was happy about. He wasn’t a lousy date - he just doubted that Keith would want to dance. Or actually cuddle with him, or flirt with him. Or date him.

He watched the Therysians flutter around. None of them seemed to be following any particular dance, but they were all just having fun and making it look graceful. It was sweet. At different points, Lance spotted Allura and Coran dancing, stately and informal, like a father and daughter. Coran commented on something above their heads, and Allura giggled so hard that she misstepped. Minutes later, he saw Hunk and Pidge making complete, wonderful fools of themselves. Pidge made a horrific attempt at dancing like a robot, and when Hunk picked her up to spin her, they were both laughing so hard that they almost fell over. He even spotted Shiro standing around the sidelines, arms crossed like he was keeping watch on a perimeter, until one of the Yzrians approached him and he bashfully followed them into the dance.

“I, um.” Keith cleared his throat, and Lance looked down at him. Keith was glaring at a small fruit, picking at it gingerly. He had turned around and leaned against the table with him, and their arms touched enough when they pressed side-by-side to give him enough contact.

“I know I’m not really who you want to be here with,” Keith mumbled, but Lance could hear him just fine during the quieter song, “and I don’t know how to dance, but...” Keith swallowed and finally looked up at him. “Do you want to dance? Just for like, one song or something? I don’t want you to be bored.”

Shut up, shut up, shut up. Stop undermining it. Let him have this. Lance worked to get his heart beating again, and he grinned.

“Keith. Buddy. It only takes three words.” By God, Date Lance was going to be redeemed. He slipped his hand into Keith’s, and Keith finally set aside the little piece of uneaten fruit. He looked him in the eyes, and he showed him a small, crooked smile. “Dance with me.”

He watched Keith’s face redden and twist into a cringe, and then Keith pulled his hands back to hide his face in them.

“I changed my mind.”

Lance burst out laughing. “What? What did I do?”

“You’re so embarrassing.”

“Like, in a good way?” Lance sang, slipping closer. He didn’t feel physically allowed to touch Keith’s hips, so he set his hands on Keith’s shoulders to give him contact through the sleeves.

“In a horrible way. Oh my god.”

“Keith.” Lance couldn’t stop laughing, and then he realized that Keith couldn’t, either. “Seriously. Do you want to dance?”

“I really don’t know how,” Keith warned him.

“That’s why you’re here with me. I’ll teach you.” Lance braced himself and added, “Please.”

Keith looked up at him past his hands. It took him a moment, but he finally laughed and said, “Okay. Teach me, Date Lance.”

As Lance led Keith out to the open grass, he could feel both of their hearts pounding. He wondered if Keith was half as excited as he was, or if he was just nervous to dance.

The song was an easy one to start to. Lance was suddenly thanking his years of theatre and the dance classes involved, but the most important part was that he knew how to loosen up and have fun. That was all Keith had to get right then. So he started with the basics.

“Hand on my shoulder,” Lance advised him quietly, and he took that huge step of bravery, setting his hand on Keith’s naked hip. The muscle twitched under his thumb, but if anything, Keith leaned forward and settled into the touch rather than pull away. Keith set his hand on Lance’s shoulder, and his fingertips brushed the back of his neck for a moment. Lance swallowed thickly, and he held their hands together out to the side.

“Is this gonna be the slow dance where we just sway around?” Keith asked doubtfully.

“What do you take me for?” Lance scoffed and looked down to their feet, making Keith look, too. “Okay. When I step forward, you step back with the foot in front of it. Like…” He started to step forward, and Keith caught on quickly enough to mirror the movement and step back. “Good. Now there’s a side step here. I’ll lead you, so just move with me.”

By the time Keith was really settling into the pattern, the song changed to one with more energy. Lance eased him into the quicker tempo, and Keith picked up on it just fine. Suddenly, Lance let go of Keith’s hip and turned his arm to spin him, guiding him through the motion.

Keith reacted, following the motion, and then spun back in only a little awkwardly. His face split into a grin, like he was proud of himself.

He might have never had this experience with him. If Keith hadn’t jumped in to save his life and gotten stung by some goddamn bug, Lance might have never been able to dance with him and see him smile like that. Lance didn’t know what to call this bittersweet swell of affection in his chest, but whatever reality this was, it felt like a pretty good one.

“You know, by your ‘this is a date’ logic…” Lance couldn’t help the smirk his mouth stretched into. The next time he spun Keith, he reacted faster and more smoothly, turning close to Lance’s chest to look right into his eyes. “...I asked you out, and you said yes. Technically speaking.”

Keith made a couple of wrong steps, and Lance saw his throat bob with a swallow. “That’s crazy.”

“I know, right?” Lance’s voice felt too tender in his throat for the moment, so he had to swallow it and try again. “Anyway. I just wanted to apologize for the training room thing. I slipped, and I was just surprised that I won, so I froze up.”

“You didn’t win if you froze up,” Keith mumbled back.

“I mean, I did win.”

“Yeah?” Keith huffed, smiling, and looked up at him. “I guess next time, we’ll see if you freeze up again.”

Something in those words taunted him. Here he was, still freezing up. He was on a date with Keith in the second most beautiful place in the universe, and he couldn’t get the words out of his mouth, not that Keith would even deign to hear them. Not that Lance even knew what words he wanted to say. They kept evolving.

Lance had been quiet for too long, and he knew this because Keith started to work against the silence.

“Thank you, though,” Keith muttered, watching their hands. “I know it’s been... weird.”

“There have been some weird moments,” Lance allowed. “Which one are we talking about?”

“All of them.” Keith shrugged mid-dance. “And I know it’s not easy on you. But you’re working with me anyway, just to take care of me, and that means a lot. So thank you.”

“Yeah, well.” Lance spun Keith again and took the moment to scrape up his thoughts. “I couldn’t leave you alone.”

Keith’s answering smile looked strange and pained, and it was the kind of look that Lance wished he could kiss away.

“I know I’m not always easy to be around,” Keith started to say, and Lance saw his dark eyes shift over to his cheekbone. He was going to continue, but Lance cut him off.

“I like being around you.”

Keith’s knees locked up and nearly made both of them trip. Lance caught them, already laughing at himself.

“Sorry, I guess I don’t really show it--”

“I like being around you, too,” Keith said.

The two of them stopped dancing altogether. Lance stared at him with his heart confused and racing.

“You make people happy just by being around,” Keith added, like that explained and excused everything, and he looked aside at a pillar covered with small white flowers.

Love. That’s what that sick feeling in his chest was.

I think I’m in love with you. Those were the words eating at his throat and stinging his eyes.

They were so much closer than Lance had thought they were, and Keith was right here in his hands, and he still wasn’t what Keith wanted. That had been made painfully clear to him.

“Hey.” Keith set both hands on Lance’s shoulders. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m great.” Lance belatedly realized that he was shaking. He sighed and righted himself the best he could, and he put on a big smile.

Keith doubted him. He slipped their hands together again, and he started walking back around the dancers to find the banquet tables. From there, he followed a row of flowers until they came to a small walkway, and soon after, they found a remote room formed by trellises and climbing flowers. There was a bench in the middle, facing the next row of flowers in the larger garden outside, and the moon was visible through the top of the trellis. The little room was meant for Keith, and it didn't go over Lance's head that Keith was using it for his benefit.

The two of them sat down in silence for a long time. They listened to the music outside, and heard stray shouts of laughter or greetings, and Lance stared at the moon. It did look like a soap bubble, like it might pop against the tops of the trees.

“You make us happy, too,” Lance finally said. Keith glanced toward him, and Lance tried not to watch when Keith scooted closer on the bench and lay his head on his shoulder.

“Not a bad first date,” Keith mumbled, and Lance almost smiled.

“Don’t worry. I won’t get the wrong idea.”

 

 

The party was winding down by the time they came back to it, but there was still plenty of food for them to eat their fill. They even grabbed their teammates for a few group dances, which had them all laughing. And then they were back in the guest hall, and Lance’s feet hurt.

He didn’t peek while Keith took off that glorious outfit and got ready for bed. He just peeled his own clothes off and found a clean pair of boxers. When he washed his face, he saw that the salve Keith put on his bruises must have started working already, since he didn’t look nearly as rough as earlier. Keith even mentioned something along those lines when Lance came back to bed.

He got to watch Keith take the band out of his hair and comb his fingers through it. He got to feel Keith curl up against his side and nestle into him when Lance set his arm around him. He got to feel Keith’s breathing shudder, slow, and steady out with sleep.

He just tried not to cry two nights in a row.

Chapter Text

The training deck was the perfect space for Keith. It was a place to blow off steam, to feel like he was accomplishing something instead of letting his problems muster in the background. And most of the time, he was the only one to use it.

Since the Black Lion had accepted him, Keith had more steam to blow off. He had more aggression and anxiety. He had a thousand more problems in front of him that maybe, if he beat the next training level, he might be able to figure out.

Shiro wasn’t a part of their team anymore. Maybe he talked like he was, but after Shiro had surrendered his place on Voltron to Keith, he had taken on a strangely passive role unless he was criticizing Keith’s leadership. Shiro was the only person Keith really knew how to talk to, and even that bond felt… He didn’t want to say damaged. He didn’t want to think that he couldn’t talk to Shiro anymore.

In truth, Keith couldn’t talk to anyone. Allura was more accepting than when she had first learned about his galra heritage, but even after she apologized, it was hard for Keith to approach her. Pidge sought solitude almost as much as Keith did, which made it difficult to interact with her, either. Hunk was easier, but Keith was even struggling to open up to him.

Lance had come to Keith.

Sometimes, Keith wished that the training simulation would stick around just a little longer before dissolving. He didn’t feel like he had destroyed it enough. While the last of its projection filtered away and the simulation ended, Keith caught his breath and wiped the sweat off of his face.

He envied Lance sometimes. As he saw it, Lance knew how to be vulnerable. Lance knew how to relate to people and love and trust them. And Lance had come to Keith, of all people, to open up and talk about his insecurities. Keith had mulled over that conversation for days afterward, and he got the sense that he had fucked up somewhere, but Lance still seemed to trust him. Strangely, he and Lance were friends.

At least, Lance was acting more friendly. He had been touching Keith’s arms and shoulders a lot lately, which sent startled jolts through him. Sometimes it seemed like Lance went out of his way to spend time with Keith, which he had never done before. It made sense when Keith remembered how he had depended on Lance after Black chose him. Lance was supporting Keith to keep the team stable under their new leader. As fun as their fighting had been, and as much as Keith didn’t know how to react to the closeness, the camaraderie was a welcome change from Lance hating him.

Lance had maintained that weird animosity towards him for months - maybe years, if he counted the Garrison - and he finally didn’t hate Keith outright. And he had never seemed to notice that Keith had never hated him back.

That, and Lance had this magical ability to love everyone around him - except Keith.

Another round of training sounded good. Maybe he would break his record today.

Keith straightened up and pushed his hair out of his face, and he began the command to the simulator. “Start training level -- oh.”

Lance was in the doorway, watching Keith with his arms folded, so Keith cancelled the command and raised his eyebrows at him questioningly.

“Hey, man, just wanted to let you know.” Lance tilted his head until it rested against the doorframe. He looked casual to the point of boredom. “We’ll be at Halkeryn soon. Don’t wear yourself out.”

Four words that Lance had never directed at Keith before.

Keith shrugged and shifted his bayard between his hands. The black bayard still felt too big for his fingers. He missed the red one, the one he had grown into.

“We’ll take Red and Green,” Keith told him. “There’s not a lot of landing or maneuvering space in the jungle, so it’s better if we take the smaller, agile lions.”

“Fair enough.” Lance shrugged with one shoulder and didn’t move away from his spot in the doorframe. It was like he was waiting for Keith to say something.

“Do you... want to go get suited up?” Keith suggested on the off-chance that Lance was waiting for an order.

Lance hummed and shrugged with both shoulders that time, and he held them suspended by his jaw for a moment with exaggerated carelessness. “I mean, we’re not that close to landing. We’ve still got a couple hours to chill.”

So Lance was chilling in the doorway of the training deck? Keith frowned and spun the inactive bayard in his hands restlessly. “So, what, are you just gonna watch?”

Lance barked a short laugh and stood up a little straighter. “Uh, no. Are you seriously gonna keep training? We could get something to eat, or... something.”

“Well…” Keith bit the inside of his cheek. “Yeah, I was just gonna keep training.”

Lance huffed a soft laugh through his nose, and for a second, Keith thought that was the end of it.

“Do you want a partner?” Lance offered then.

That was new. “A what?”

“A partner,” Lance explained graciously. “Someone you do things with. In this case, sparring.”

“I know what the word ‘partner’ means, Lance.” Keith tried his best to scowl, but his facial expressions never took orders from him anyway. The best he got was a furrowed brow and a smirk. “But sure, if you’re up for it.”

“Oh, good. I could use some close quarters.” Lance’s mouth turned up at the corner, and he stepped forward into the room and let the door slide shut behind him, like it was just that easy to saunter in and hijack Keith’s venting time. Keith didn’t mind too much.

“What, in case you get disarmed?” Keith rubbed his neck while Lance shrugged his jacket off, and he set aside his bayard. Hand-to-hand fighting sounded kind of fun. Like middle school.

“Yeah, I guess.” Lance stretched his arms behind his head, and he gave Keith a steady smile. “You’re not gonna go easy on me, right?”

“Of course I will. I want there to be something left of you.”

That seemed to ruffle Lance, but Keith was serious. He was still full of adrenaline from rounds of training, and his body wanted to kill something. Lance wouldn’t vanish and regenerate like the simulation. He was made of fragile bones and soft meat that Keith could damage. He didn’t want to so much as bruise him.

Lance’s nose and mouth curled into a playful sneer. “Someday, I’m going to grind that cocky face of yours into the floor.”

“You have to beat me first,” Keith purred back to him.

As their match started, it occurred to Keith that they had never actually fought each other before. All of their efforts had been cooperative, focused on keeping the harmony of Voltron. So he realized that Lance was actually pretty good. Not nearly good enough to beat him, but he might have been able to get a few hits in, if he would have just stopped pulling punches.

Keith was mostly deflecting. He would normally go on such an offensive that Lance would have been backed into a corner, but he didn’t want to finish this too quickly. So he ducked and pushed aside Lance’s punches, and he checked him a couple of times with his footwork. Keith was giving him enough of a handicap that he didn’t annihilate him outright. Lance would have beaten him in a long-ranged competition, but Keith owned close combat.

It was only when Keith grazed Lance along the jaw, just enough to startle him, that Lance stepped back with a growl.

“It’s like you don’t really want to hurt me,” Keith taunted him. “Try hitting me.”

“You’re holding back, too,” Lance snapped. He still gave enough of a laugh to show that he was having fun, but the bite in his voice was good. He was focused and invested. Keith loved that competitive streak.

“Lance, if I actually bruised your pretty boy face, you’d complain for a week.”

Lance’s eyes sparked with attention. He took a step forward.

“Call me pretty boy again.” It wasn’t a threat.

“Beat me and we’ll see,” Keith replied flippantly.

Lance attacked. This time, he was a lot smarter. He used his elbows for quick, hard jabs and his forearms for defense, and he finally realized what he was doing wrong with his steps. He almost managed to trip Keith.

Keith snarled and moved to the side. He stepped just behind Lance’s foot, grabbed him by the shoulder, and flipped him over.

Lance landed on his back. He lay there and sulked on the floor, panting. Keith looked back down at him and gave him a moment to recover.

“Two for two,” Keith reminded him, not rubbing it in at all.

“That’s one,” Lance argued, and when he started up, Keith gave him a hand to pull him to his feet.

“So the first one didn’t count? You backed off.” Keith couldn’t stop himself from smirking, and he watched that competitive glare come back to Lance’s face.

“Fine, it counted. I’m still gonna win.”

Lance wasn’t going to win. He was getting into it, and while that fueled Keith’s excitement, he still wasn’t ready for Keith to drop the handicap. Keith didn’t tell him that, though. Not when they were both laughing between shit-talking and hitting each other. Keith would cut in his hand to sweep against Lance’s temple and ruffle his hair tauntingly, which would piss Lance off. Lance managed to land a hit on Keith’s ribs, which only bruised Keith’s pride. At one point, Keith merely tapped Lance on the nose, which incited him so much that he chased Keith back and forth across the training deck, both of them choking on laughter and good-natured threats. They weren’t sparring. They were playing.

Keith must have let his guard down, because Lance finally made use of his greatest advantage over Keith: his long limbs. He still had better range. Keith made a jab towards Lance’s shoulder, but Lance caught him by the elbow, turned his arm aside, and easily reached to step behind Keith’s foot to trip him, much like Keith had done to him earlier.

Keith’s instincts told him to hang on, to bring his opponent down with him and try to turn the fall around on them, but Lance struggled against him to try to keep his footing. Neither of them got what they wanted.

Keith landed on his back, and Lance landed on Keith’s hips. Keith’s arms lay above his head, and Lance’s hands were locked around his wrists.

Neither of them were moving. Keith’s body was rigid with shock, and Lance’s must have been, too. While Keith tried to catch his breath, Lance did the same, and he felt that he had the same stupid, slack-jawed, wide-eyed look on his face that Lance did.

Lance was holding him down and not immediately pulling away. Keith didn’t have time to wonder why that was happening before Lance seemed to recover.

Keith watched Lance close his mouth. He watched a swallow make its way down Lance’s adam’s apple. He watched Lance’s brow crease with a damning amount of lucid purpose.

Keith had no idea what to say. Any words had dried up in his mouth, because Lance was staring into his eyes and looking like it pained him.

“Keith.”

He had never heard anyone say his name like that. Lance’s voice was so soft and still managed to fracture at the end.

Another swallow. Lance’s fingers curled an increment tighter around Keith’s wrists. Lance’s tongue wet his lips like he was bracing to speak again.

No. No, no, no, this was a nightmare.

No one would ever look at him like that. That wasn’t for him. He would never earn that, no matter how badly he wanted it. He was barely even an asset to the team, a weapon that wasn't sharp enough. No one could want him if they didn't need him.

Keith already knew that Lance would never feel the same way about him. Lance was a flirt. Keith had fallen for a flirt who would never look twice at him, and now this moment was taunting him with that look that couldn’t be for him. He couldn’t trust it.

He already knew that out of every living being in the universe, he would be Lance’s last choice. Lance would never choose the shitty leader that he’d had to save the team from.

Lance would never choose the hot-headed jerk with the mullet.

He knew that already. God, he knew that already. He couldn’t take being reminded again. He couldn’t stand this horrible, fake moment after he had fallen completely in--

Oh, no.

Keith wasn’t breathing right. His heartbeat was making him dizzy. He could already feel his eyes filling.

He was not going to cry in front of Lance, let alone when all he did was look at him the wrong way. Keith did the only thing he could do. He gathered enough of himself to twist his body up, shifting his weight and shoving Lance off of him, and scrambled to his feet.

Keith didn’t look at Lance, but headed for the door with his hand under his eyes. Neither of them said anything.

Good, he reminded himself. That had been close, but there was nothing to reject. He didn’t have any feelings to be rejected anyway. He had his walls up, and he was fine.

But Lance should definitely not touch him again.

 


 

Keith had more trouble sleeping that night. He should have been tired after the party, but hearing his own words repeated back to him kept his mind disoriented and wired.

Lance wouldn’t get the wrong idea.

Good. Alright. Good. That’s what Keith had wanted. He had already known that Lance wouldn’t, but it was good to hear that there was no confusion. He had no hopes to get up.

At some point after midnight, Keith would have taken his brain out of his head just to stop his mind from replaying the party. Key points: Lance had told him he looked nice. And called him a heartthrob. Lance had suggested that he had asked Keith out, sort of? He had also pulled out Date Lance for the event, whatever that persona was. And the highlight: Lance had said that he liked being around him.

There were few thoughts so poisonous as maybe he likes me back.

Keith’s body fought the idea like a virus, or it would eat him alive.

At some point in the night, they had switched positions. Keith learned that Lance made a very affectionate big spoon. Lance’s bottom arm was out of the way, folded under his pillow, and his other arm was curled around Keith in a way that, even in his sleep, conveyed trust and contentment. When Keith nestled back a little closer, pressing his back against Lance’s chest, Lance’s arm squeezed him tighter and he sighed in his sleep with his cheek against the back of Keith’s head.

For a moment, Keith thought he would be able to fall asleep like that.

Lance was breathing softly against his hair.

He could feel Lance’s heartbeat against his back and by the ring on his hand.

Lance was warm and soft and smelled so nice, and Keith knew that he had been sleeping without a shirt on specifically for his benefit. Lance was so thoughtful. Once he focused on the contact between them, the immediate presence of Lance’s body against his own, Keith’s muscles relaxed and his eyelids sank.

The only thing that would make him more comfortable was if Lance would like him back.

If this closeness wasn’t just temporary - if the touches would mean as much to Lance as they meant to Keith - then Keith would be able to enjoy it.

If Lance would hold him this close of his own free will.

If Lance would wake up quietly and kiss the back of his neck. If he would mumble against the lobe of his ear, leaving a warm spot on Keith’s skin from his breath. If Lance’s hand would slide a little further down, from Keith’s chest to his stomach, and then down between his thighs.

Fuck, not again.

Keith brought his hand to his mouth and muffled his deepened breathing. At least Lance wasn’t awake to see him react this time, like at the pool that day. It was Lance’s skin, feeling so much of it at once. It was his soft breath and smooth hands and the shape of his hips right against Keith’s.

The same hips that pressed gently against Keith’s backside.

Keith’s eyes widened in the dark. He held perfectly still, and he hated himself for paying such close attention when Lance’s sleep-clumsy hand brushed lower over his stomach. Lance sighed unconsciously against his hair, and his hips made another press forward. Keith could feel the thick, warm shape of him through their clothes.

He wanted it.

He rarely thought about this sort of thing until he was very, very close with the person in question. He was curious, sure, but he almost never wanted someone. Lance had been an inspiration for him before, but Keith had never... acted on it. Not even alone. Not when he would have to look Lance in the eye after.

Lance’s hips swayed forward again, sliding the shape of him against Keith’s cheek, and Keith’s eyes shut tight when he shivered. He wondered what Lance was dreaming about. He wondered if he would be able to tell, if they both touched the vines above their heads. He wondered if he could just stay here while this happened.

No, he couldn’t. Of course he couldn’t. He couldn’t do that to Lance. He couldn’t wake Lance up and make him face this, either.

His limbs were shaking and his body felt overheated and weak, but Keith extracted himself from Lance’s arm and gently slipped away. He tucked the blankets around Lance again, remembering that he didn’t like to be “robbed of the covers” as he slept, and then moved onto his next problem. Out of options, he slipped into the bathroom and locked the door behind him. His separation from Lance was already making his body ache and protest, but Keith clenched his jaw and sank down against the wall.

He sat there on the tile for a moment, working to slow down his breathing and making no progress at all. As soon as he closed his eyes, he pictured himself back in bed with Lance.

Lance’s breath against his hair.

Lance’s hand on his belly.

Lance’s cock against the curve of his ass.

That wasn’t a fantasy. That had just physically happened to him, and his hypersensitive skin was still buzzing with it.

Keith ground his teeth to hold back a whine, and in that horrible moment, he realized that the ignis venom wasn’t causing most of the pain he felt.

He wished he could blame more of it on the same kind of overdose he had felt earlier. He knew that what had happened in the pool wasn’t his fault, and this couldn't be, either. Feeling like this wasn't something he had to own up to.

But he would have given anything to hear his name in Lance’s sleepy, husky voice.

A tiny breath passed his lips, and he kept his eyes shut.

He had to torture himself with that thought. If Lance liked him back. It wasn't even a hope, but a hypothetical saved for an entirely imaginary situation, kept safely away from his expectations.

If Lance liked him back, he might hold Keith that close after this was all over. They might still share a bed, just because they had grown accustomed to each other.

He might wake Keith up with kisses on his jaw and neck.

He might whisper about what he wanted.

Keith didn’t know what his imaginary Lance would want. He swallowed hard and pushed his head back against the wall to fight the biting heat in his muscles. As uncomfortable as it was, the separation pain didn’t seem to do anything to combat the more pleasant, pressing warmth below his stomach.

Everything hurt. He wanted Lance so badly, and it hurt.

Keith gave into it one inch at a time. His hands were shaking when he brought them up to his neck, comparatively cool against the flushed skin, and he slowly moved them down his chest. When his fingers reached the waistband of his shorts, he hesitated.

He had trouble remembering the last time he had touched himself. Usually, it was just a nice bit of stress relief. He didn’t imagine anything in particular. It just felt nice.

But this time, he couldn’t get Lance out of his head.

Would real Lance mind if he used his image in his head like this?

Real Lance would forgive him. Better yet, real Lance would never know. Keith made a silent apology to him, and he slipped his hand under his waistband. He wrapped his fingers around himself and bit his bottom lip.

What would his imaginary Lance want?

Kisses, Keith’s fantasy told him. That was oddly tame, but Lance seemed like the type to want a lot of kisses. Keith would turn over in bed to face him, climb on top of him, kiss his neck so slow and hot that it would have Lance squirming.

It was wonderfully vague. Lance would whisper something impatient, so Keith would tease him even more, tongue and fingers on his skin. Lance would pant and his spine would bow upward.

Keith, baby, please.

He was entirely hard in his own grip. Keith held his breath when he gave himself a slow stroke, but he couldn't keep himself from shuddering. His other hand gripped the inside of his thigh unsurely, just tense and holding on.

Fantasy Lance would want more kisses. Keith would take them lower, down his stomach and slender hips. He would feel Lance part his legs, and he would settle in between them.

He wanted his mouth on him. He wanted to give something good to Lance, like the way Lance had taken care of him in the past few days. He wanted to make him shake and cry out and know who was doing this to him. While Keith sucked him and played with him, Lance would whine and tug at his hair.

Baby, you're so good at this, holy fuck.

His voice would break. His breath would catch. Keith would take good care of him. If Lance behaved, Keith would even swallow around him. Then Lance would look up at him, red-faced and trembling, out of breath and close to euphoric tears. He would look so tired and comfortable and safe.

Fuck me.

Keith wasn't sure who would say that. It felt like both of them. The details became hazy and skipped ahead, and he let himself relax and enjoy whatever pieces he wanted.

He would have Lance face-down on the floor, and that cute, perky ass would be in the air just for him. He would have one fist in Lance’s hair and the other hand would be cinched around Lance’s dick. His body would ache from exertion, pain ringing through him with each hard swing of his hips, but Lance would moan and cry out and beg and make it all worth it.

Keith’s hand slipped, and he hissed when his rhythm stuttered. The pain was reaching into his chest and making him dizzy, and he hadn't been paying attention to how tight and fast his hand was pumping himself. He had to keep going. He needed this. Everything had felt horrible for too long, and he needed this. He shoved his waistband down and entirely out of the way, and he put his hand back to work harder than before.

Maybe Lance would lay Keith down on the couch instead. Maybe Keith would wrap his legs around him, and maybe Lance would moan when he’d thrust inside. His body was falling apart, and the pain almost pulled him out of the daydream, but he convinced himself that Lance would be trying to comfort him, talking so sweetly in his ear.

He would lock his legs around Lance’s waist. He would pass one hand through his hair. Lance would churn his hips forward, pushing deep into him, and then he would pull back just enough to look into his eyes.

Lance would be sitting on his hips, hands around Keith’s forearms. His eyes would look sad and pained.

Keith.

Keith couldn't even open his eyes. They pinched shut, and he grit his teeth together when his hips jerked up into his hand.

Fuck, he didn't want to come right then. Anything else. Think about anything else. Something rough or gross.

That was the second he realized that his ring was on the hand thrusting over his cock. Lance’s slow, steady heartbeat was there.

Keith covered his mouth with his right hand, but his left wouldn't stop. His eyes opened in that split second of horror, but then they were rolling back in his head and fluttering.

It was too hot where he spilled over his hand and stomach. He let out a short groan from his chest. His heels pressed into the tile.

So much of the tension and pain left him. For just a short window of time, he felt better. He leaned his head back against the wall and started to catch his breath. He swallowed and simply steadied himself.

None of it was real. Keith was just as alone as before, and quite a bit sadder. He would continue to share Lance’s bed for another week or so, and it wouldn't mean a damned thing. Someone else would take his spot and mean more to Lance than he ever had.

The pain pooled and slammed back into him like it had something to avenge.

Keith curled into himself and hissed. He couldn't call Lance in to help him. He would absolutely rather die.

Getting to his feet was hell, but Keith dragged himself to the sink and cleaned himself up. He cleaned his ring with a special amount of care and remorse. He changed his underwear for good measure, and by then, his body was jittering to get back to Lance. The venom itself seemed panicked, scrambling to find its antidote and upset that Keith could have had a moment’s reprieve without it.

When he stepped out of the bathroom, he saw Lance across the room, sitting up in the bed and looking very confused.

“Keith?” that adorable, sleep-rough voice asked.

“Hey. Did I wake you up?” Keith padded back over to the bed and crawled into the blankets beside him, and Lance readily pulled Keith into his arms. It looked and felt like a reflex.

Lance tilted his head away from Keith when he yawned. “Mm, just felt like you were hurting.” He started to settle them back down, but when it looked like he was going for the same chest-to-back position, Keith stopped him and turned around to face him. They couldn't fit together quite as closely like that, but it still felt more intimate. Their chests weren't even touching, but their arms lay over the other’s waist.

“Like this,” Keith mumbled. “Other way’s too much.”

Lance hummed and frowned with his eyes closed. “Sorry.”

“For what?”

“For the too much.” Lance yawned again, and it was funny to watch him try to keep his mouth closed.

It wasn't too much. Lance was never too much. He was just more than Keith deserved.

 

 

Someone was in their room.

Keith woke all at once. He had rolled onto his back during the night, and Lance had curled forward to press his face into his ribcage and hug him around the middle. It was as uncoordinated as it sounded. When he saw motion by Lance’s side of the bed, Keith pivoted on his hip, dumping Lance off of his chest. He put himself over him as a protective cage, one hand on the mattress by Lance’s head, and the other hand braced around the knife he kept under his pillow.

Shiro blinked back at him from several feet away, unarmed and frowning.

Hijo de puta, Keith, give me a heads-up before you bring a knife to bed,” Lance screeched from under Keith’s chest, and fell quiet immediately after. “Oh, um. Morning, Shiro.”

Shiro raised his eyebrows. The sun was barely starting to rise, and he was already dressed. Keith gave him an apologetic grimace and put the knife down. “Sorry.”

“Good to see you’re still responsive,” Shiro said dryly, and a lump rose in Keith’s throat.

“He’s just jumpy in the morning,” Lance cut in. He put his hands on Keith’s waist, and Keith felt the simple contact steady him. “You okay, man?”

“I’m fine.” Keith bit at the inside of his cheek, and he sat upright on his own side of the bed.

“Good,” Shiro said. “Both of you need to get up and meet the team downstairs.”

“What’s going on?” Keith didn’t raise his eyes to Shiro when he spoke to him, and he fumbled through the blankets to look for his shirt.

“The Therysian police found a crashed galra pod outside the city. It was empty, and we’re not sure how many might have been on board, but it looks like some of them survived the battle.”

“So we’ve gotta go find them. Got it.” Lance yawned and stretched his arms until Keith heard his shoulder pop. Shiro stopped on his way out of the door to correct him.

“No. You’re going to go straight to the beacon. The sooner we have the system’s defenses up, the better. Leave any galra to the city police.”

“Alright,” Keith mumbled, and Shiro shut the door and left. Even when he and Lance were alone again, Keith couldn’t relax. He fumbled for his pants, and he couldn’t even fasten his belt before he started shaking. The venom wasn’t letting him catch a fucking break.

“Hey,” Lance murmured. He had slipped out of bed to reach Keith, so Keith turned around to face him. Lance held out his arms at his sides in the universe’s most recognizable open, friendly body language, and even when Keith shrunk back in the first instant, Lance waited until Keith stepped into him. Lance folded his arms around Keith’s back, and Keith let his face fall into Lance’s naked shoulder. “Really, you okay?”

This wasn’t just love bug contact. Lance was hugging him. Lance was comforting him. Keith fought the lump in his throat and set his hands on Lance’s upper arms, forcing a bit of distance.

“I’m fine,” he repeated.

“You sure? It didn’t seem like you slept well.”

Right, right, because he’d jerked off in the bathroom and spent the rest of the night aching to know how it felt to kiss him. Lance couldn’t feel that through the fucking ring, now, could he? Keith sighed more deeply than he had expected, and his fingers curled tighter on Lance’s arms. He made himself step back then, and Lance just had to catch his eyes.

“Yeah. Sorry if I kept you up.”

“You didn’t.” Lance’s smile was lopsided. “Didn’t hog the blankets or anything. I’m so proud. But you know you can, uh, talk to me. About stuff.”

That was the most awkward offer to help he’d ever heard. Keith laughed so suddenly that he coughed. “About stuff?”

“Yeah, stuff. Like, if you can’t sleep, or whatever that was with Shiro just now.” Lance shrugged.

As quickly as Lance had managed to lift Keith’s mood, it crashed again.

Keith pulled away from him and finished buckling his belt. “Nothing happened with Shiro.”

“Dude.” Lance scoffed behind him, but Keith ignored him and finished getting dressed.

“Lance, I’m fine. I’m tired of saying it. Let’s just go.”

They met the rest of the group on the landing of the second floor for a briefing, which was just a reiteration of what Shiro had told them minutes ago. When it was Keith’s turn to speak, nobody wanted to suit up for a walk through the garden. It was like Keith was the only one worried about the enemy soldiers that were still unaccounted for.

“Keith, if we walk into Therysia’s most revered garden fully armed,” Allura said with all the gentle patience of someone who knew they knew better than him, “it won’t exactly strengthen relations. We’re not here to be a hostile force.”

“We’ll be defending it. The hostile force is the galra soldiers, who could be anywhere,” Keith reminded the whole group sharply.

“I’ve already said to let the local police worry about that,” Shiro said. “I’ll be working with them to sweep the area while you’re working on the beacon.”

As usual, Lance had their hands clasped between them. When Shiro spoke, though, Keith didn’t miss the twitch in Lance’s fingers. Lance let go of his hand, and he moved behind Keith to get on his other side, putting himself between him and Shiro.

“Actually, I’m with the team leader on this one,” Lance said, looking directly at Shiro and putting his arm around Keith’s shoulders. “If we’re worried about appearances, we shouldn’t just walk into a sacred garden in our civvies. Better to go in uniform. Show respect and all that. And our bayards aren’t intimidating at all until they’re activated, which obviously won’t happen unless we end up needing them.”

Keith held his breath. The ring on his hand felt hot and harsh as gnashing teeth.

“Lance,” he mumbled when it was quiet for a second too long.

Lance looked back at him and smiled. “Everyone good? Let’s get suited up.”

No one said anything else. The paladins left the briefing and returned to their rooms long enough to get changed.

 

 

Lance stayed close to Keith on the way through the city. Even with the rings under their gloves, Keith decided that he hated having this much of his skin guarded against Lance’s. Holding his gloved hand helped, but the pain was already telling him to strip them both down. All he wanted was to crawl back into bed with him.

“Dare I ask again,” Lance mumbled close to Keith’s ear. The two of them were walking ahead of the rest of the group, following the straightforward path to the city gardens. “You okay?”

In their armor, only their faces were exposed. If Keith just tilted his head a few inches, he could nuzzle Lance’s cheek and feel more of--

“Let’s just get this done,” Keith grumbled back. Painful as it was, wearing their armor was the right choice.

“Not okay. Got it.” Lance clicked his tongue once, irritating Keith further, and held his hand a little tighter. “You know, I can feel it when you’re hurting. Not like, feel it, but I think the rings are letting me know.”

“Maybe it’s just you.” Keith kept his voice and eyes low and distant. “You know, being sensitive and empathetic or whatever.” Something about that made Lance laugh.

“Maybe.”

As they entered the city gardens, Keith kept an eye out, wondering if it was well protected. Aside from the two Yzrians at the gates, however, he didn’t see any other guards. No one else patrolled the loosely maintained maze of flowers and shrubs. While Keith’s eyes darted back and forth, the pain making him paranoid, Lance squeezed his hand and pointed out different trees and flowers that reminded him of Earth.

The city’s central garden nearly qualified as a forest. The paths were just manicured enough for walkways and sitting areas, and the plants were nurtured so that none of them were choked for space, but most of the flora was allowed to grow wherever it wanted. Keith thought of the aristocratic French gardens he had seen in history books, perfectly symmetrical hedges pruned within an inch of their lives to reflect man’s triumph over nature, and thought the Yzrian gardens were the complete opposite. It was peaceful and wild. The breeze made the branches sway, relaxed and lazy.

An animal darted through the underbrush and crossed their path, and Keith tensed again.

“Man, relax,” Lance snorted. “We’re okay.”

The beacon was a nondescript monolith in the center of the wilderness. All it had were six grey sides and a broad platform at its base, which had the same small panel as all the others. Keith was actually relieved to see four armored Yzrians standing at the foot of the beacon, standing at attention. At least this place had some security.

“Paladins,” one guard greeted them, their weapon tucked neutrally into their arm and pointed skyward. “Welcome. You may approach the beacon.”

Pidge trotted forward and knelt until she was eye-level with the panel. The guard closest to her glanced down at her briefly, but looked back out at the trees. It must have been odd for them, knowing that the central piece of their city had been dormant for thousands of years.

“It’s gonna extend when it activates,” Pidge warned them while she worked. “So there’ll be some rumbling for a minute. Nothing to worry about, though.”

“Understood,” the same guard replied. They seemed like the one in charge, since they were the only one speaking. Keith stepped closer to them.

“You’ve heard about the galra pod outside the city, right?” he asked.

The guard nodded. “We’ve been advised on the situation, yes.”

“Do we need to be worried here?” Keith gestured at the beacon. “The galra might try to investigate and find out what the coalition’s doing with these.”

“That’s a possibility,” the guard agreed. “But Therysia already has a squad working with your team member, Shiro. We’ve just gotten news that they’re following a lead south, away from the city.”

Lance had slipped his arm around Keith’s back again, and he squeezed his shoulder. He must have been able to feel how badly Keith’s body needed the contact, because he was sticking closer and closer to him.

“See?” Lance grinned at him. “It’s fine. Shiro’s got this.”

Keith answered with a frown and an anxious sound in his throat.

“Dude, relax. You look like a cat at the vet. We’re gonna get this done, go back, and then we’ll be back in the castle before you know it,” Lance laughed, talking softly in his ear. Like it was his job to reassure him. “We’ll have another system secure, and we can take a break and do whatever broody shit you want.”

Keith was genuinely surprised by that. “I don’t brood.”

“You’re doing it right now,” Lance snorted.

Keith turned his head to look up at him. Lance was smiling, helmet off, bayard at his hip, and a few yards away from them, one of the guards had touched the earpiece along the side of their head, murmuring into it.

“Be advised,” the guard said aloud. “Aerial scans show--”

The underbrush to their left crackled with motion. Something was aimed at Lance.

“Get down!” He didn’t wait for Lance to follow that order. He shoved Lance hard to the side with his full weight.

The blast caught him in the right shoulder before he could bring up his shield. It seared and cut deep into him just beside the edge of his chestplate, inches below the end of his collarbone. His right arm went cold, and everything else was swallowed up in such a vibrant, baleful pain that Keith’s vision narrowed into a tunnel.

He heard Lance shout his name, and then he heard the telltale clicks of his bayard.

The battle was right here. He didn’t have to worry and wait for it anymore. All he had to do was fight.

He was good at that.

A glance told him that Lance was giving him cover. Allura was on his other side. Pidge had abandoned her work on the beacon and grabbed her bayard, and Hunk was guarding Pidge.

“Everyone circle up,” Keith barked, and he reached for his own bayard. His right arm would barely even twitch, so he snarled and grabbed it with his left. “Shields up. Use the beacon for cover.”

The galra must have slipped past Shiro and the police, or this might have been a separate group of them. Whatever the case, Keith was grateful to have the four Therysian guards there. As soon as Keith was hit, two of them darted forward and each activated a tall, wide shield on one arm, guarding him while he and Lance pulled back toward the beacon. The other two brandished large, sleek rifles, firing back at the galra in the brush.

Lance pressed his shoulder to Keith’s left side, still gripping his rifle and staring out at the trees for his next shot. Keith didn’t lean into him, but he allowed himself to know he was there. Holding his sword with his left hand, he worked to get his shield activated on his right.

It wouldn’t work. He couldn’t move his arm. His suit was soaked through with blood.

The top of his head felt light. He couldn’t quite focus on the pain anymore.

Lance whispered something. He sounded astonished and angry, but Keith couldn’t decide what language he was speaking. He watched Lance shift his rifle and hold it with only one arm, which he knew wasn’t the right way to hold it, and Lance’s right arm wrapped tightly around Keith to put pressure on the wound. Lance’s shield came up on that side, guarding Keith more than himself.

“Lance.” His lips felt numb around that word. “Use your shield.”

“I am, dumbass.” Lance braced the butt of the gun into his left shoulder and took another series of shots. Keith couldn’t even see what he was aiming at.

“No, for you.”

“Fuck that,” Lance spat. He ducked his head, and a tiny line of red appeared on the crest of his cheek. He didn’t even flinch, glaring ahead.

No one thought they needed their helmets. An inch to the wrong side. A failure to duck. Anything could happen. Keith's stomach quailed.

The galra were pressing closer. On one side, four of them came out of the brush to try and press the paladins and the guards away from the beacon. They would have been fine, but in a split second of quiet, they heard the tiny beep of a falling grenade. Hunk called it. Keith knew to get his legs working and run with Lance so he wouldn’t slow him down. He felt the heat on his back, felt the impact and the shock but, thank god, they still had all their limbs. When they fell forward, Lance pushed himself on top of him and held his shield above their heads.

The other galra shooting from the bushes suddenly broke and ran, and a burst of light to the side of them told Keith why. Hunk was shooting back with his bayard, pushing them out of cover. Lance had time to drag himself and Keith back to their feet. He couldn’t even look back to see where the rest of the fight was.

“Keith, fuck, you’re bleeding so much,” Lance started to say, but then shifted and put his shield between them and another volley of blasts. They were much closer to the source of the fire now, only yards from the treeline.

Another galra soldier rushed from the trees. He and Lance must have looked vulnerable, injured and out in the open, but as soon as the soldier thought they could finish the two of them off at close range, it became Keith’s kind of fight.

He pulled himself from Lance’s side and swung his bayard in an arc, using all the strength in his left arm. The soldier was wearing a full helmet, but Keith heard him scream.

Others followed from the trees, working to overwhelm them. Keith counted five. Blasts from the Yzrian guards pushed three of them back, and Lance took out another. When the fifth managed a shot past Lance’s shield, Keith saw another line of red appear along Lance’s side past his torn black armor.

Keith threw his bayard at the fifth soldier. His arm was just weak enough for the galra to deflect such a brazen, head-on attack, but the soldier wasn’t ready for Keith to barrel into him, shoulder to chest, and knock him to the ground.

Keith tore the soldier’s helmet off his head and slammed it across his face. He did this until the galra wasn’t moving anymore.

Keith’s fingers fell loose around the bloodied helmet, and he let it roll into the grass. He couldn’t focus his eyes on the mess below him.

Everything was strangely quiet. Maybe the battle was over, or maybe the cotton in his ears had left him deaf.

Lance’s voice sounded underwater. Keith vaguely registered the coppery uniforms of the Therysian guards running past him. Reinforcements. That was good.

Lance’s arm put itself around him. His shield and bayard were put away, so the fight must have been over. Keith turned his head to look up at Lance, and when he saw his face, intact and worried, he knew he was okay.

“Keith,” Lance kept saying. “Do you understand?”

Keith fit the word “okay” through his mouth.

He watched in slow-motion as Lance’s lips said, “fuck.” His hair stuck to his forehead, and Keith was distracted by just how fuzzy the sunlight looked around Lance’s head. Lance turned his shining head to the side, looking up and speaking to someone. Keith felt pressure on his shoulder. His right arm couldn’t feel anything but pins and needles. Was Lance holding him?

His hearing faded back in for a moment, and he tried to make sense of the conversation. “Artery” was an interesting word. Keith knew what those were.

Hands reached down to pull Keith up. He felt the ground being lifted away. Lance’s arms tightened around him.

“I’m going with him,” Lance demanded.

 

 

He wouldn’t call himself conscious. All he got were snapshots.

The treetops and the sky passed over him. Lance was holding his head in his lap, but their journey through the forest was swift and frictionless. It reminded him of his hoverbike. He was lying on a hard surface. His feet were propped up on something, and his shoulder felt tight.

 

 

His armor was being pulled off of him. He started to twitch and murmur.

“I’ll do it.” Keith recognized Lance’s voice. “Don’t touch him. I’ll do it.”

Soothing hands. Smooth, warm hands. Keith lifted the weight of his eyelids and saw Lance’s face and a white ceiling behind him. Lance’s eyes were ringed with red, but he smiled down at him.

“Hey, Keith. You’re okay, buddy. You’re okay.”

Fresh clothes were pulled onto him, soft and cold in the way clean things were.

 

 

Keith woke in a tremendous amount of pain.

He could feel his arm, and that was just the problem. He could feel all of his arm and exactly how pissed off it was at him.

“Stitched the nerve” and “blood volume” were passed around above his head, as was “healing pod.”

Lance was upset about something.

“That’s not advised,” someone said.

“I’m staying with him.” Lance sounded like he had said it so many times that he had given up on finding new ways to say it. Keith felt the comforting pressure of Lance’s hand on his aching fingers. “Whatever he needs.”

 

 

There was suspension, and there was no memory in that. Before life and after death, there wasn’t anything.

 

 

Keith imagined that he was made of jelly.

He didn’t feel real. He wasn’t touching anything. He didn’t hear or see or smell anything at all. He must have been in a jar with no senses at all, just like jelly.

Something moved behind him. The pressure against his back sent a wave of realness through his body. With sluggish motions, two arms wrapped around his middle, and the jellylike feeling drained away. He had ribs and two legs and two arms.

A door hissed open in front of his face, and the rest of reality came back in a rush of light and cold, sterile air. His legs were cold and weak, but the arms around him kept him from falling.

“Hey.” He recognized Lance’s voice against the back of his ear. “Hey, champ, how are you feeling?”

“My arm’s on,” Keith answered dumbly. His mouth tasted like jelly.

“Good,” Lance laughed softly. “That’s good. Come on, buddy.” Keith had no idea what was going on, so he held onto Lance’s arms and let him shuffle the two of them out the door. They stepped out at a slight dip, and then Keith saw about six other sets of hands ready to catch him. Lance gripped him tighter.

“Nope. I got this.” Lance’s voice was firm, a contrast to how soft and gentle it had been seconds ago. “No one touch him. I’ve got him.” He only felt the slight shake in Lance’s knee when they stepped down, and then they were walking. Keith was having a lot of trouble with that part about walking, so at some point, Lance stopped and adjusted. Keith felt him kneel down, and then his own weight was lifted from himself. Lance carried him through the room, and Keith couldn’t keep his cheek from tipping into Lance’s chest.

He talked with someone about “back to the suite” and “tea, four times a day.” Someone said that Keith was supposed to rest some more, so he drearily answered, “I’m not tired.”

Lance laughed at him. “Sure, man. Let’s get you back to bed.”

Keith’s lips moved, and he tried to find out what sounds they were supposed to make. “Where did we go?” he finally asked.

“The hospital,” Lance replied. “You missed most of it, you lucky devil.”

“Going to bed?” Keith asked.

“That’s right.”

“You too?”

Lance’s chest moved with a sigh. “Yeah, me too.”

 

 

Keith stayed awake this time, and he built on that. He watched Lance’s face while he changed them out of their hospital clothes and back into their own, which someone must have brought over for them. He named objects in his head as they passed them in the halls and out the doors, and on the chauffeured drive back across the city, he mumbled questions to Lance. He was pretty sure that he repeated some of them, but Lance never seemed to mind giving the same answers over again.

They were back in the guest hall. Keith made brief, dizzy eye contact with their teammates when they rushed to see him. Hunk was already crying. Pidge hung back, observing and concerned but offering some space. Allura had her hands clasped and rubbing together, and Coran stepped forward to offer help in getting Keith upstairs, which Lance politely declined. When Shiro stepped closer, Keith felt Lance hold him tighter.

“Keith,” Shiro started. His brow was tight with worry and something like confusion. “We’re so glad you’re okay. We came straight back to the city when we heard.” He was quiet for an awkward second, and Keith could practically feel the rage boiling out of Lance’s skin. “The mission was a success,” Shiro continued, sounding hopeful. “Pidge activated the beacon--”

“It was a good thing we were armed, huh?” Lance bit out.

Shiro flinched. His gaze dropped to the floor. Hunk mumbled Lance’s name to admonish him, but Lance didn’t stay to listen to it. He went straight for the stairs, and Keith held onto his shoulders, unsure if there was anything to say at all.

Lance headed directly for their suite, and instead of going to bed, he brought Keith into the bathroom. He set him down on a soft vanity chair, never making him stand, and Keith watched as Lance brushed his teeth with an anger he hadn’t known was possible.

“Don’t pick anymore fights with Shiro,” Keith said once he found the words. He reached up for his own toothbrush, needing to wash the weird jellylike aftertaste of the healing pod from his mouth. He left their shins touching while he fumbled for the toothpaste.

Lance spat into the sink, rinsed his mouth, and picked up the floss. “His decisions would have gotten you killed.”

“Shiro would never put us in danger,” Keith snapped, finding more of his strength with his conviction. “You should trust him more.”

“He should trust you more,” Lance countered. When he saw the trouble Keith’s weak right hand was having with the toothpaste cap, he threw away his floss after barely using it, grabbed the toothpaste tube, and opened it for him.

You should trust me,” Keith mumbled, and then he talked around his toothbrush. “Don’t fight with him anymore.”

Lance didn’t answer him. While Keith brushed his teeth, Lance stared into the mirror and washed his face, like his compulsive skin care routine would help him calm down. Keith was too tired to fight the quiet, so he just let it take over. His hand was too weak around the handle of his toothbrush, so he had to switch back to his left.

“My hand’s weak,” he mumbled, denting the quiet.

“Your median nerve was severed,” Lance answered flatly while he rinsed his face. “And your brachial artery. They’re like, right up against each other. They fixed most of it, but your nerves are still recovering.”

“How long will that take?” Keith wobbled to his feet to spit into the sink and immediately sat back down.

“I don’t know, but you should have a full recovery, if you go in for healing pod sessions and drink this tea.”

“What tea?” Keith frowned, but when Lance bent down to pick him up again, he didn’t fight him. Lance was still on his side, even if he was being a dick. Lance lifted him up easily and carried him back into the bedroom.

“It’s from the frelisiel roots. Helps like crazy with nerve regeneration. That’s what they were saying.” As Lance set Keith down in the bed, he glanced up at the purple flowers adorning the headboard. He had almost forgotten how comforting they smelled.

Keith turned his eyes back to Lance. His eyes were shadowed with exhaustion and anger. He couldn’t ever remember seeing him truly angry before. “Are you okay?”

Lance was in the middle of pulling the blankets up to Keith’s chest, and he stopped. His shoulders stiffened. Keith watched Lance’s eyes go bright and hard, and then Lance pressed his hands into Keith’s, weaving their fingers together.

“You made sure of that, yeah,” Lance mumbled hoarsely.

Lance wasn’t okay. Keith knew that much. He squeezed his hands as tightly as he could and whispered his name, pushing him. That must have been too much, because in the next second, Lance was blinking tears onto his cheeks and letting out a quiet, rough laugh. His eyes were fixed on the hollow of Keith’s throat, like looking him in the eyes wasn’t possible.

“You’ve got a really bad habit,” Lance whispered, “of jumping in front of this shit for me.” He shut his eyes tight and bit his lips closed, and he sat on the bed with Keith. He cried silently, shoulders shaking and tears dripping off his face.

Keith struggled and managed to sit up. He took one hand from Lance’s to wipe the tears off his cheeks.

“I’m sorry,” he tried, stunted and awkward. He had no idea what Lance needed to hear. He just didn’t want him to cry. Seeing that many tears on his beautiful face was an affront to nature, and it terrified him. “I’m sorry, Lance.”

“No, you’re not, you hypocrite,” Lance sobbed. His body seemed to buckle, and he hung his head, crying in earnest now that he couldn’t keep himself quiet. “How dare you. How dare you tell me not to take a hit for you, then go off and do the same thing. You’re the worst.”

“Lance.” A tense, helpless laugh burst from Keith’s mouth. His hand wasn’t doing anything to dry Lance’s face, so he set it on his shoulder instead, gripping him tight. “You’re right. I’m not sorry at all. I couldn’t not do it.”

“Christ, I hate you. I hate you so much for doing this to me.” Lance curled so closely into himself that he hid his face in his sleeve. He was shaking so badly that Keith thought his body would crack and fall apart. “I thought you were dying again, Keith. You’re killing me.”

Keith had never seen someone fall apart like this before. He had never been a source of anguish for someone he cared about like this. Before he even knew it was coming, he was crying, too. He braced himself against it bitterly.

“I’m right here,” he whispered. “Lance, we’re okay.”

“No, it’s not okay,” Lance moaned, and he wiped his face on his sleeve before looking up at Keith. When he looked him in the eyes, he felt the impact of it in his chest. “Never do that again. Those were your words. Never take a hit for me again.”

Keith swallowed hard and shook his head. “I can’t not. You know how it feels. You did the same thing. I can’t just stand by.”

“I know how it feels?” Lance breathed, and his eyes widened. For a second, he looked so manic that it scared Keith.

Lance leaned forward. He reached behind Keith and grabbed the headboard. When he pulled back to sit properly again, he was holding a large purple blossom, still connected to the network of vines over the bed frame, growing with its roots three floors down from the balcony.

Lance had stopped crying. He was strangely still, staring into Keith, holding the flower between them like half of a handshake.

“Do you really want to know how I feel?”

Keith’s shoulders deflated, and he stared back at him.

He was willing to die for this boy. He wasn’t good enough for him, so all he could do was protect him, and he couldn’t even manage that all of the time.

If he touched that flower, Lance would know everything. Lance would be mortified. Repulsed. He would never touch him again.

Keith looked down at Lance’s hand, and he felt a slow grimace come across his face.

His fingers curled inward, reluctant. He steeled himself, reached out, and took hold of the vine, his hand right below Lance’s.

The rush of it took his breath away.

His chest ached from sobbing. His eyes stung, and the ring on his hand was stammering.

Lance was in agony. Keith was about to hate him. Keith was about to be mortified. Repulsed. He would never touch him again. But at least he would finally understand. If Keith understood that he meant so fucking much to someone, maybe he wouldn’t throw himself into danger so carelessly. If he understood, Lance prayed, Keith would go easy on him next time and just let Lance take a hit instead of getting himself hurt in his place.

Outside of his body, Keith heard both of them breathing hard and stunned.

He heard Lance whisper, “Oh my god.” They clutched the vine tighter between them, and Lance’s other hand came up to hold Keith’s cheek. Dumb with shock, Keith set his own hand over Lance’s to hold it there.

He was never going to let anything happen to Lance. He couldn’t. He’d have to fight himself, since he’d hurt Lance so badly without knowing it.

The feelings didn’t overlap perfectly. No two people felt exactly the same way. But in this strange connection, even that felt right. Where Lance’s emotions were so bold that he struggled to keep them from spilling out - he had even tried to tell Keith so many times - Keith’s were buried so deeply that even he had never taken them out and looked at them for what they were. But both of them had been scared. Both of them had wanted to nurture their weird, clumsy new friendship. And both of them had been so certain of rejection.

The other night, all Keith had wanted was one dance. He had been terrified to ask, and then Lance had looked so handsome when he took his hand.

Lance couldn’t get over the way Keith had laughed in the pool. All he wanted was to be someone Keith could cut loose and relax with.

Keith adored the way Lance laughed. He adored the way Lance mumbled in Spanish. He adored him for his strength and maturity and then his completely goofy sense of humor. He adored him for being brave enough to be vulnerable with him.

Lance loved the way Keith handled knives and made scrambled eggs. He loved the way Keith kicked in his sleep. He loved the aggressive, breathtakingly beautiful way he flew. He loved Keith for selflessly stepping up to whatever had to be done, even if Lance hated the consequences sometimes.

Keith had never wanted to be this close to someone.

Lance wanted to take Keith to Cuba.

Keith started to cry again.

“Hey,” Lance whispered, tearful and laughing. His thumb stroked Keith’s cheekbone. “Hey, it’s okay. I won’t say it unless you want me to.”

Keith shook his head. He couldn’t make Lance say it alone. He took his hand off of Lance’s, leaving the one on the long stem of the flower, and twined his fingers into Lance’s hair.

He wanted to say it. The words were too much for his chest to keep in. He didn’t want to cry while he said it, but he did, and he hated how small his voice sounded.

“I love you, Lance.”

Lance’s face broke into a grin, and he kept a tight hold on the flower between them. He made sure that Keith was right there and present for how incandescently happy those words made him.

“Holy shit,” Lance laughed, and then his mouth was on Keith’s.

Keith had no idea how kissing was supposed to happen, but by god, did he try. Lance’s mouth was soft skin with a pleasantly firm shape and so much eager energy, and he did his best to take cues from him. He knew through the frelisiel that Lance knew he was inexperienced, but that only tickled Lance and made him grin into the kiss.

“I love you so much, Keith,” Lance whispered on his mouth, and it was the most intimate, terrifying, liberating thing he had ever felt. Hearing it out loud was an entirely new experience, and Keith had to pull away for a moment, trying to hide another wave of tears. Lance kissed his face and wiped his eyes, patient and gentle and so much more loving than Keith deserved. “I love you so much it’s driving me crazy. Now just relax and enjoy your first kiss, you martyr.”

Keith could handle that. He wrapped his arms around Lance’s shoulders, leaving the flower between them, and Lance bowed forward until he lay Keith down on the pillows. When Keith worried too much about doing a good job, wanting to impress Lance right off the bat, Lance held him by the jaw and took the lead.

Lance was already impressed with him. He just wanted Keith to enjoy it. Feeling those thoughts right from the source, Keith had no choice but to believe him. Even when Keith smiled too wide to kiss properly, Lance laughed with him and kept making love to his mouth. Mostly, it was just gentle pressure from his lips, and then small, wonderful slides of his tongue.

“You’re a really good kisser,” Keith whispered, and he reveled in the massive ego boost he felt on Lance’s side. Lance gave him another adoring, nearly smug kiss, and then pulled back to look at him.

“It’s even better without the crying,” Lance promised. “Holy shit. Holy shit, you like me back. You love me back.”

Keith grinned up at him. “Yeah, I guess.”

“Well, you made it a pain in the ass to find out.”

“I’m sorry.” Keith was too happy to be sorry about anything. There was something about kissing Lance that made him feel like he was floating miles above his worries, or like he didn’t have any worries to begin with. He leaned his head up to kiss him again, and Lance crooned into it. Softly, but just firmly enough, Lance’s teeth pressed into the swell of Keith’s bottom lip. That dirty trick made Keith shiver and gasp, and he was sure the ignis venom just loved it.

“Don’t try to distract me,” Lance scolded him, quiet and teasing. “Is this that ‘wrong idea’ you were talking about? Because I’m gonna hold that line over you for the rest of our lives.”

“The rest of our lives?” Keith smirked up at him. He didn’t need the rings or the frelisiel to read Lance right then. His blue eyes widened, and his face was already flushed a gorgeous pink. Keith had to tease him. “Lance, this is all moving so fast. I’m speechless.”

“Watch it. I'm still mad at you.” Those words had as much edge as a cotton ball. Keith laughed and kissed Lance’s overheated cheek.

“Mm, I can handle it.”

When they settled in to sleep, Lance reached up and tucked the frelisiel flower back where it was supposed to be, barely worse for wear. He rolled onto his back, and Keith tucked himself close. He fell asleep with his head on Lance’s chest, feeling Lance’s fingers trace through his hair.

Chapter Text

The battle was over, and Lance didn't even look over his shoulder to see if the beacon was safe. The whole atmosphere of the gardens had changed, and where the animals in the trees had gone silent, the noise was replaced by the clatter of equipment, boots disturbing the ground, and urgent voices. Keith was collapsing in the grass.

Lance nearly tripped in his rush to get to him. He dropped to his knees and pulled Keith off of the last galra soldier he had killed. Not drones. Real soldiers. A fundamental corner of his panicking mind found that very important, and it was only overshadowed by the hazy shock on Keith’s face.

Lance had never seen this much blood before. It was hot under his unsteady hands, but he held Keith’s shoulder like his shaking fingers could keep any more of it from slipping out of him.

The police had finally arrived, along with Shiro, and Lance couldn't even be bothered to look while the rest of the galra were subdued. He was too busy trying to support Keith’s head. It kept lolling back or slumping forward. When he finally steadied Keith’s head against the crook of his arm, his eyes couldn't settle on Lance’s face.

He was fading fast. Lance heard the Yzrians behind him talking about emergency medical transportation. One of them was already kneeling down on Keith’s other side in front of Lance and opening a small steel kit.

“Keith, my man, look at me.” Lance didn't sound firm or calm enough to his own ears. Usually, Lance was happy to simply remind himself that nothing could hurt Keith. Nothing could stop him. He was skilled and fierce and invulnerable. But this time, Keith was limp in his arms. Keith had a hole in his shoulder. Keith was dying. “We’re gonna get you to the hospital and you're gonna be fine. I swear to god, if you look away from me one more time-- Keith.”

Keith turned his eyes up toward him, bleary and confused. His face was so pale that it had taken on a greyish tint. Lance had to work past the salt in his throat to keep talking.

“Keith. I need you to focus on me. We’re getting you help. Keith, do you understand?”

“Okay,” Keith breathed back, staring somewhere over Lance’s shoulder.

There was no way he understood what was happening. Lance breathed a curse, and he looked up over his shoulder. One of the Yzrians was talking quickly on a headset, and the one in front of him started wrapping Keith’s shoulder to hold pressure over it.

“A transport’s almost here,” the Yzrian with the headset told Lance. “Keep his feet elevated.”

“He’s going into shock,” the other said, finishing the tight wrap around the wound. “It looks like they hit an artery.”

“Is he going to die?” Lance heard himself ask. Keith’s fingers were cold under his own, and his breathing was thready. A hand settled on his shoulder, and Lance looked up to see Hunk. The others on their team followed quickly.

Hunk usually cried when he was stressed. He wore his emotions on his sleeve, and Lance loved that about him, so he didn’t know what to make of the grim, solid look on his best friend’s face. Lance must have been falling apart pretty badly if Hunk was keeping it together for him. Pidge was right beside him, staring at the blood soaking into Keith’s armor, and she didn’t look able to speak.

Allura was a little way behind them, talking quickly to Shiro. She had a graze across her forehead, and she kept wiping the blood away from her face. Shiro was bruised across one cheek, and a gash across his thigh was making him limp, but not much. Each time Shiro glanced toward Keith, his shoulders seemed an increment more tense, and it looked like it took more effort to pull his eyes away again.

The transport arrived with a low hum and a breeze across the grass. It was much like a regular army wagon, open-bedded with benches in the back, but included a row of storage towards the front, painted with a sigil that Lance guessed belonged to the hospital. It hovered above the ground, and the driver didn’t even let it set down when it stopped beside the small crowd. Lance didn’t need anyone to tell him to do so before he stood up, scooping Keith up against his chest. A couple of Therysian med techs hopped off of the transport to help him bring Keith aboard, but Lance couldn’t bear to have anyone take him away from him.

If he let anyone take Keith out of his arms, it might be the last time he touched him. Even a moment of separation might cause Keith more pain, and that was unacceptable.

Hunk and Pidge were allowed to come with them. While the techs tended to Keith, measuring his vitals and already hooking up a bag of some sort of fluid to his wrist, Keith was lying on the bench with his head in Lance’s lap and his legs propped up on Hunk’s lap to keep the blood in his head. His eyes were closed and he wasn’t moving, but Lance could still feel his heartbeat. It was fluttering, but it was there.

It might have been five minutes since they had driven away from the beacon, and Lance guessed that he hadn’t stopped petting Keith’s hair back from his face the entire time. He thanked the smooth ride for not jostling Keith any more than necessary, and he did his best to understand what the Yzrians were talking about while they fussed over their patient. It didn't sound good. His blood pressure had plummeted, and his heart rate was dropping. His skin had gone white and clammy. His breathing was shallow. People like this only had minutes left.

“Lance.” Hunk was too gentle with his name. Lance didn’t look up, not when Keith needed his constant attention. At any moment, Keith might slip away. Lance couldn’t let him be alone when that happened, so his eyes stayed on his grey face and he continued stroking his dark hair. It was soft from his conditioner. “Lance, are you okay?”

Hunk was too smart to ask questions like that. Lance almost didn’t answer.

“No. He’s dying in my arms.”

“He’s not dying,” Hunk said gently.

“Hunk.” Lance grit his teeth around his words to keep them in check. He blinked, and spots of moisture appeared on the thick blanket draped over Keith, right above his neck. “Please don’t. Not right now.”

“He’s not dying. He's Keith. This isn’t going to stop him." Hunk tucked the blanket closer around Keith's sides. All he could do was help keep him warm, so he did. "And when he pulls through, you have to tell him."

Lance didn’t have the energy to lash out at his best friend. He didn’t have the energy to fight him, because all he could hear was the soft beeping of the monitor attached to Keith’s arm. A sharp, miserable ache tore through his chest, and he bent halfway over Keith when he started to cry harder. Pidge had been staring at the monitor, but when she looked up at Lance, she let out a small exhale and put a hand on Lance’s arm.

“Shit, Lance," she mumbled.

“It doesn’t matter.” Lance was sobbing in a painful, constricted way, muted and trying not to disturb Keith. “It doesn’t matter. I just want him to be okay.”

 

 

When they arrived at the hospital, there was already a gurney by the doors, ready to wheel Keith inside the tall, modern-looking building in the middle of the garden city. Lance carried him, despite protests from the medical staff, and set him down on the bed gently. He could hear the techs behind him apologizing to Hunk and Pidge, explaining that this was as far as they were allowed to go with Keith. The doctor who tried to give Lance the same message received a livid glare.

“I’m staying with him,” Lance bit out. “He’s dealing with a sting. I’m his antidote. He needs me.”

The doctor sighed and gave some kind of frustrated permission, and Lance held onto Keith’s hand when the team wheeled the bed into the doors and down a hallway.

“Fine,” the doctor said, “but you have to stay out of the way and let us treat him. If you want to help him, don’t slow us down.”

“Got it.”

An assistant followed the gurney with a datapad, and they asked Lance all of the salient questions in Keith’s place. His thumb traced over the ring on Keith’s finger as he answered.

“Can you give me the patient’s name?” the assistant asked.

“Keith Kogane,” Lance stated. He couldn’t believe the first time he had read that name had been on a bulletin board at the Garrison. He had been amazed at Keith Kogane’s simulator score.

“Date of birth?”

“October twenty-third, twenty--” Lance shut up and remembered to translate that into a universally accepted date. Like he hadn’t memorized Keith’s birthday just so he could casually tell him ‘happy birthday’ and slip him a present when the time came.

“Species?”

“Um, human and galra. At least half human.” That had been quite the little fun fact when Keith and Shiro had returned from the Marmora base. Keith had come back with a huge knife, a fragment of his identity, and about fifty million bruises. Well, Lance had always had a thing for aliens.

“Medical history?” That was a big one. When Lance looked up at the assistant, they assured him, “Just as much as you know.”

Lance scraped his brain for anything he knew about Keith. He didn’t like being cold. He ate like a horse. He never slept well. He exercised obsessively. He was a lot more anxious than he let on.

“He’s lactose intolerant,” Lance croaked. “I don’t know about surgeries or anything.”

The doctors quickly established that Keith was in hemorrhagic shock, and as they rolled his bed into a brightly-lit room, Lance followed at Keith’s side, holding his hand tightly. His fingers were cold. His face looked the same way, pale at the lips and dotted with sweat. Keith wasn’t moving anymore, not even twitching. He looked dead. Lance would have thought he was dead, if it wasn’t for the faint thrumming of his heartbeat in Lance’s ring. His stomach churned, and he listened to them talk about what fluids to use to replace a human’s lost blood.

“I’m O-negative,” Lance told the doctors. When one of them gave him a quick, frowning glance, he remembered that human blood classification probably meant nothing to them. “I’m a universal donor for human blood,” Lance clarified. “Please.”

The doctor nodded to the assistant. “Run a compatibility,” they said, and all the assistant had to do was take a speck of blood from Lance and Keith’s fingers and go to a table at the corner of the room for a test. Lance could only stand, watch, and hold Keith’s hand while the Yzrians moved through the room and pulled down equipment, preparing the room to treat him.

When the doctors started to pull Keith’s armor off, Lance saw Keith’s forehead twitch and furrow. The chestplate was removed carefully, unclasped to avoid moving Keith’s shoulder too much. They were gentle and professional, but as Keith’s armor came off, his lips moved and his eyes tried to open.

Keith was alive. He might have even been awake for a moment, and to Lance, that could only mean that Keith would be terrified. Keith, with the boundaries and touch sensitivity and personal space, was being undressed by strangers.

“I’ll do it,” Lance interrupted before the doctors could do any more. He finished taking off Keith’s gloves and then went for his belt. “Don’t touch him. I’ll do it.”

It was a silly thing to tell a doctor. Don’t touch this patient. But Lance couldn’t let a stranger do this part for Keith. Even though the doctors murmured disapproval and impatience, they allowed Lance room to take Keith’s armor off and set it aside. The pieces of armor were the same as his own, and he was so familiar with taking them off and putting them back together that the whole process only took seconds. When Lance got to the black undersuit, reaching up to Keith’s collar to unzip it, Keith opened his eyes and looked up at him.

Lance knew immediately that Keith wouldn’t be able to speak. He looked insubstantial, like his very presence in the world was some fluid, transient thing, and Lance doubted that Keith even understood what was happening to him.

He was small and confused. He was vulnerable. He was hurt because of Lance.

Lance had been laughing and chatting when the galra had found them. Keith had been the only one keeping an eye out. If Lance had been more alert, if he had taken Keith’s concerns more seriously, they might not have even been ambushed.

Keith was making that pained, scared face because of Lance.

Lance put together his best smile and sent it down to Keith. He had to spend the rest of his life making this up to him.

“Hey, Keith,” he murmured so softly. “You’re okay, buddy. You’re okay.”

Keith barely looked more relaxed, but it was enough. Lance couldn’t hold the doctors up any longer. He eased the undersuit off of Keith’s arms and shoulders and replaced it with a clean sheet passed to him by one of the techs, and the doctors were already in place by his shoulder to stop the bleeding.

Lance watched the organized chaos of saving Keith’s life. A transparent mask was put over his mouth and nose, meant to keep him from waking up during the more invasive part of the procedure, and Lance was moved by the doctors to stand at Keith’s head. He rested his hands on either side of Keith’s neck, and he could only hope that he was helping stave off any more stress to Keith’s body. As soon as the compatibility test on their blood came back okay, another technician made Lance sit in a chair by the gurney. They cleaned the inside of his arm, and he kept his eyes focused on Keith’s unconscious face when the needle was pushed into the crook of his elbow. After a moment, he was able to glance over and watch his own blood leave his body through a tube, and it gathered in a plastic pocket on a stand. With his available hand, he found himself petting Keith’s hair back from his forehead again.

It was harder for Lance to look at the thin metal instruments the doctors worked into Keith’s shoulder. They didn’t cut the injury open any wider, but Lance heard them talk about clamping an artery and sewing a nerve. A tiny hovering droid assisted with the procedure, informing the doctors more about the biology of the alien species they were working with. Once Lance’s bag of blood was attached to Keith’s arm and his blood pressure slowly started to crawl back up, one of the doctors was nice enough to talk to him.

“He’s lost a lot of blood,” they told Lance gently, their large eyes still focused on the bloody shoulder below them, “so he’ll need to stay here for a while, and he’ll need to rest over the next few days.”

“Yeah,” Lance agreed, startled by how dry and sick his own voice sounded. “Lots of fluids and vitamins and stuff. I got it.”

The nice doctor nodded and continued working. The more terse one was focused on repairing the nerve they were talking about. “Right. His - in Alteans and humans, it’s the brachial artery - and his median nerve were severed by the gunshot. It looks like there’s a little bit of damage to his scapula from the exit wound. No residue from the blast.”

Sharply, Lance remembered Keith struggling to reach for his shield. How his right arm had gone limp.

“Wait. Wait, what about the nerve?” he pressed.

“We know how to repair it,” the doctor assured him smoothly. “But he may have some trouble moving his arm or gripping things for a while. You’ll have to be patient with him, and help him be patient.”

Lance understood what the doctor was doing. They were helping him look ahead to Keith’s recovery instead of at the pale, fragile body breathing shallowly in front of him.

“I can try,” Lance laughed, even though it felt like a choke. “He’ll try and punch something as soon as he wakes up, but I’ll try.”

 

 

They wouldn’t let Lance donate any more blood, even when he insisted that they could take as much as Keith needed. So what if he couldn’t stand up? He didn’t need to be standing. He could sit right where he was, next to Keith in the recovery room. They could put a line directly between their veins, for all Lance cared.

He hadn’t known that healing pods weren’t a magical cure-all. The ones in the Therysian hospital were even more advanced than the ones on the Altean castle, given the ten thousand years of technological progress to separate them, but they still couldn’t just pop Keith in there and wait for him to get all better. The healing pods provided a sterile, safe environment and nutrients, and they magnified a person’s own healing processes. The body repaired itself, but it took time and energy. Even if the pod served as a second immune system and even stimulated a person’s tissues into healing when they needed the help, it couldn’t wipe away all the damage by itself. And when there were complications, such as badly broken bones or severed nerves, they could only heal right when guided or reattached by a doctor first. A pod would just repair the tissue wherever it was damaged, placement be damned.

So Keith needed to stabilize in the recovery room before he was cleared to stay in a pod. Once he was stable, they would know that everything was holding together where it should. And then Keith would be able to recover in a more long-term sense. It was all downhill from there.

Lance reminded himself of that repeatedly. Keith was going to get better from that point on. He listened to the soft beeping of the monitor beside the gurney, and he matched one of the measurements to the pulse coming from his ring, slow and thin but just a little stronger than before.

The silence dragged on. They were supposed to wait a couple of hours while Lance’s blood and a bag of some clear fluid restored Keith’s blood pressure, and Lance was the only one awake throughout it. His eyes ached, feeling swollen and dry from crying, and he blinked and decided to ignore it. His thumb ran over the knuckles of Keith’s right hand, and he felt his fingers twitch in response. A sign of sensation and reaction.

Lance’s head hung forward, and he bit his lip to convince himself that this wasn’t something to cry over. This was a good thing. Keith would be able to use his hand again.

The adrenaline wasn’t keeping him safe anymore. He didn’t have a ‘next task’ to focus on besides waiting at Keith’s bedside. The moment was too quiet.

He could still feel Keith’s shoulder slamming into him, pushing him out of the way of the blast. As if Keith’s first instinct was to protect his teammate rather than, specifically, find his shield.

He could still feel Keith gripping his suit, crazed with pain and pressing close to him. He could still hear his tattered voice begging him never to put himself in danger on his account.

He could still see it, Keith shoving him to the ground in a hostile jungle to get him out of a monster’s way, then taking a hit for him. And then Keith demanding to know if Lance was okay.

Lance groaned and leaned forward until his head rest on the bedrail.

Keith’s breathing mask had been taken off, and his lips were barely getting some color back into them. His eyelashes lay long against his cheeks, and aside from the slight rise and fall of his chest, he was as still as a painting.

He looked weird in a hospital gown.

Lance wasn't used to seeing Keith in clothes so soft and thin, and the collar of the gown was loose and crinkled around his shoulders. Keith didn't look like a soldier at all. He just looked like a boy. With a stiff sigh, Lance reached up and tugged gently on Keith's collar to smooth it out.

He almost jumped out of his seat when Keith turned his head toward his hand. Keith didn't open his eyes, but he took in the smallest, shivering breath and let it back out in a breathed word. It was impossibly quiet, and horrifically, unmistakably, it was Lance's name.

Lance's heart stuck itself somewhere behind his tongue. He turned his hand and cupped Keith's cheek. He was still pale and cold, and if anything, he leaned his cheek further into Lance's palm.

"Hey," Lance whispered as much as laughed, and he found himself leaning forward. "Hey, man, how are you feeling?"

Keith's brow furrowed. His mouth moved silently. He looked like he was having a bad dream.

Lance swallowed his hope and eased himself back into his chair. His thumb stroked Keith's cheek, and slowly, Keith's face relaxed. Lance's other hand took hold of Keith's again, and they rest on top of the sheets together.

"I love you," Lance mumbled.

Keith kept breathing, slow and peaceful. Lance shook his head at himself, but continued anyway.

"I know you're not into me. But I love you. I mean, I'm in love with you, but it's..." Lance let his head fall against the railing again, and he let it thud there twice. "It's more. It's the big, slow kind I'm never going to get over." His first response when he felt hot tears on his cheeks was to smile. Grin and bear it. So there he was, sitting next to an unconscious Keith, crying and grinning painfully.

"Fuck, Keith, just come back to me and I'll be your best friend." Lance broke into a small, aching laugh. "We were finally getting somewhere."

Keith kept breathing. Lance's ring reported the steady beat of his heart.

Lance must have looked like a charm when the doctors came into the room minutes later. He was still cradling Keith's cheek and hand, and his eyes felt puffy. He looked up at them and gave them a bright smile.

"He looks good," Lance was quick to report. His voice was still rough and salty, but he ignored it and hoped that the doctors would do the same. "His hands are a little warmer, and the beeping thing - that one's his blood pressure, right?"

The nice doctor from earlier looked at the monitor and nodded. "He's not quite as stable as I'd like, but at this point, it's better to get him to a pod than keep waiting." The terse doctor agreed quietly and tapped the screen of a broad datapad. "Since we've stitched the nerve and artery, and his blood volume is recovered enough, the healing pod will do the rest."

Lance's shoulders felt heavy with relief. "Oh, good."

"Would you like to go back to the guest hall? It may be a few days," the doctor said, and that was all it took for Lance to bristle.

"I'm going in the pod with him." Even to his own ears, Lance sounded blunt, like this was something the doctors should have already realized. The nice doctor frowned sympathetically, and the terse one gave him an unimpressed glance.

"Sharing a pod can lead to complications," the nice one warned him. "There may be immune reactions, or the more injured body may drain nutrients from the healthier one."

"Keith's already compatible with me, right? He'll be fine," Lance pressed.

"He is compatible with you," the doctor clarified, "but you may still have an adverse reaction to him. We have no idea how a human body would react to sharing a pod with one who is partially galra."

Lance honestly didn't see the problem. He stared back at the doctor. When he felt Keith's fingers add the tiniest bit of pressure over his own, he knew there was no possible way he was leaving him.

"So, if his antidote isn't in the pod with him," Lance said slowly, "what happens? He wakes up after a few days without any contact. Do you know what half an hour away from me does to him?"

"I'm aware of the ignis sting's effects, yes."

"Then you know you can't make me leave him."

"Lance," the doctor sighed, sounding strained. "I can't endanger a perfectly healthy person."

So this wasn’t about helping Keith at all. They would rather cover their asses, cut their losses, and let him suffer.

"That's not the point," Lance bit out. "He's your patient. That's all that matters. I don't care if he needs to leech off of me or whatever. I'm staying with him."

"That's not advised," the terse doctor finally mumbled, still looking at their screen.

"I'm staying with him," Lance repeated. "Whatever he needs."

The nice doctor shook their head and let out a long sigh, and Lance knew he had won. "I'll get you a release to sign," they conceded, and Lance remembered to smile.

"Thank you."

It only took a few more minutes to get Lance into a gown and to bring them both to the healing chamber. It was a surreal room, lined with pods until it seemed more like an incubator than part of a hospital wing. A pair of technicians took the needles and cords from Keith's arms, and then he was gently lifted off of the bed. Lance put himself behind Keith to wrap his arms around his chest, and he carried him into the pod with him.

Lance had no great love for healing pods. He especially hated watching the doors close in front of him, and with Keith sharing the space with him, there wasn't a lot of room left to move. He caught a glimpse of the doctors outside the glass, one of them impassive and the other quietly concerned, and then turned his attention back down to the boy in his arms.

Keith's weight was against his chest. As the pod filled with a clean, sweet smell and Lance's eyelids sank, he felt Keith's heartbeat as his own.

 


 

Waking up in the healing pod had been a cold, uncomfortable ordeal. Waking up in the warm sheets and pale morning light of the honeymoon suite was infinitely better, especially with Keith pressed close against Lance’s side. It came as a surprise that Keith was already awake, since it was unusual for him to cuddle up to him when he was conscious. But there he was, and Lance woke to the wonderful view of Keith’s head on his shoulder and his fingers tracing absently over his chest.

“Hey,” Lance mumbled to him, and the sleepiness in his voice was tactile. Keith raised his head to look at him.

“Hey,” Keith whispered back, smiling with a mouth that Lance had kissed. The memory of that, the enormity of that simple truth, had his face glowing.

“Holy shit,” Lance said. Keith’s laugh was quiet and creaking, but warm.

“You said that already. A lot, actually.”

“Did I?” Lance smiled back at him. He reached up to tuck Keith’s hair behind his ear, and the resulting look on Keith’s face was so bashfully happy that it stunned him. He had never imagined that such tiny gestures, let alone from him, could leave Keith in a puddle like this. Keith dropped his head to hide his face back into Lance’s shoulder, so Lance chuckled and kissed his hair. “What else did I say?”

“A bunch of crazy stuff,” Keith mumbled into Lance's shirt. Lance laughed harder and happily curled his arms around him.

“Like what?” he crooned. Keith wasn't immediately forthcoming with that information, so Lance continued to prompt him. “Like how gorgeous you are? Or how cool it is that you’re completely smitten with me?”

Lance felt the spike of anxiety in Keith’s body. He didn’t move, but Lance felt it in his ring and his sudden stillness.

“Yeah, stuff like that,” Keith agreed.

“Keith.” Lance laughed and adjusted to look him in the face. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing?"

“You sure?” Lance kept a weak smile in place, and he resumed stroking Keith’s hair. “You didn’t change your mind about me overnight?”

“What? No,” Keith scoffed, but his eyes turned nervous and guarded. “Did you?"

He was serious. That baffled Lance. How could Keith think that Lance could just pour his heart out, fall asleep, and wake up feeling differently? He shook his head and gave Keith a more reassuring smile.

“Impossible.” Lance reached up to the headboard and took a loose strand of the vines in hand, and he held it by his shoulder within Keith’s reach. “Need a reminder?”

Lance couldn’t have been more grateful for the frelisiel. Talking was hard enough as it was, but if Keith thought that Lance didn't adore him for some unfathomable reason, the flowers gave him a surefire way to convince him otherwise. He watched as Keith reached out and cautiously accepted the stem of the plant.

The plunge into shared thought was similar to the night before, but this time was quieter, warm and tender without being so scaldingly passionate. The feelings had begun to cool down and settle, but still carried the ache of growing pains.

Lance was optimistic. Against all odds, Keith liked him back, and he was determined not to blow it. Between his excitement for the moment, curiosity for the future, and delighted vindication for every second he had longed for what he had now, he couldn't have been happier. All he had to worry about now was being good enough to keep him.

And then there were Keith’s feelings, contained and screaming all at once. Lance was surprised to feel them as exact words.

What about when he leaves me?

Keith loved like a rescued stray, fiercely and with everything he had. This boy had so much affection and loyalty to give, and no one to lose. He finally had Lance, and that was going to make it so much harder when he left. Everyone left. Mom left, and then Dad, fosters, friends, teachers, now he was losing Shiro again --

“Oh god, Keith.”

Keith dropped his end of the vine and withdrew, and the last thing Lance felt from the connection was terror, like Lance had seen something ugly that he wasn’t supposed to. Lance sat up as Keith did, refusing to let him pull away.

“Keith. I’m not going to leave,” he tried to explain to him.

Keith was rigid in his arms, refusing to cry or admit anything else. He only mumbled, “Please don’t make promises.”

“No. Look at me.” Lance slipped his hands down to Keith’s cheeks, cradling his jaw and making him look up. “I’m promising you. There’s a family waiting for you on Earth, and they’re the McClains. No matter what happens, they will love you.”

Keith stared back at him. His mouth twisted into a grimace and his eyes were wide, stunned and guarded and spilling over, but Lance had his attention.

“You have to trust me,” he continued to soothe him, dropping his voice even quieter. “I’m not leaving. You don’t have to be alone anymore.”

Keith ducked his head. He trembled in Lance’s lap, and he lifted a hand to wipe at his face, silent and out of sight.

“How do you do that?” Keith mumbled.

“Do what?”

“Make me feel better.”

Lance laughed and played with Keith’s hair until he looked up at him, red-rimmed eyes and all. “Must be a gift. Besides, it's too early in the morning for crying. Have to wait at least an hour after breakfast. That's a law somewhere.”

Keith sniffed, pretending that tears weren't still running down his cheeks. “That's fake.”

“Is not,” Lance scoffed. “It's in one of those intergalactic law books. Pre-breakfast crying is a grave offense in at least three thousand sectors.”

“Well then.” Keith tilted his head, and even in the middle of crying, with his brow creased with stress but the corners of his eyes crinkling with a small smile, he looked radiant. “It's a good thing you won't tell anyone, huh?”

“Don't worry. I'll hide the evidence.” Lance kissed Keith's forehead, just one more beautiful thing he never could have done before last night, and offered him the vine again.

It took patience. Even when Keith held the stem with him, it took time for their emotions to reach a comfortable equilibrium, if not their perspectives. Lance could feel and hear him trying, too. Past the shock of ‘you like me in the first place’ and the fear of 'you won't mean to leave, but you will anyway,’ Keith began to accept Lance's willingness to stay.

“It’s okay, baby.” Lance’s lips moved against Keith’s hair, and he felt Keith breathing against his collar. He felt Keith’s fingers curling lightly over his chest. This wasn’t someone he could ever leave behind. “I’ve got you. It’s okay.”

Piece by piece, Keith relaxed and let Lance rub the back of his neck. It was strange to feel his own emotions in someone else, tinged by Keith’s own perspective, but only at first. Then, it was simply an understanding. There was hope. Lance would have sworn that they were breathing at the same tempo.

“I don't know about you,” Lance murmured, “but I've wanted to call you my boyfriend for a long time.” Keith tensed in his arms, and Lance swallowed the lump in his throat. “Would that be okay? We don't have to--”

“Yes.” The answer was soft and emphatic, and Lance grinned widely.

“Alright then, babe.” Keith groaned at the term of endearment, and Lance laughed when he felt him dig his fingers into his shirt. “Sorry. I won't tease you.”

“No, it's just… I've never done this before.”

Lance had felt that much through their connection the night before. He had shared Keith’s first kiss, and going further, he suspected that Keith had never admitted feelings to someone before Lance had offered up his own. Keith had never been in a romantic relationship. He had never been in love. He had never been called ‘babe.’ Lance weighed his answers on his tongue.

“So, you do want me to tease you?” he asked mildly. Keith huffed and pulled back, but he was smiling.

“Only dish it out if you can take it, sharpshooter.”

Lance balked. “Keith Kogane, are you flirting with me?”

“Maybe. Is it working?”

“It might be,” Lance allowed, rubbing Keith’s back. When his hand made it to Keith’s shoulder, his fingers eased up. There was no need for a bandage after their time in the healing pod, but Lance was still gentle. “How’s your shoulder doing?”

Keith tried to shrug it and largely succeeded. “Little sore,” he admitted, unable to lie in the middle of their connection. “But it’s fine.”

There was still pain in the core of Keith’s chest. Lance couldn’t leave it untended. He moved his hand from Keith's shoulder to rest over his heart, and he watched Keith's eyes for any sign of discomfort while his heartbeat communicated with his palm. Keith only stared back at him curiously.

“What about the sting?” Lance intoned. “It’s getting worse, isn't it?”

Keith didn't answer for a second. His heartbeat jumped with something like guilt, and he nodded. Lance could almost feel the sense memory of the sting’s worst effects, but Keith simply held onto the vine and made himself content with the otherwise minimal contact between them.

Lance sighed, nearly shaking his head at him, and wrapped both arms around Keith entirely.

“Do you need more?” he prompted gently.

Keith’s lips parted without any words behind them. He pulled in a breath, considered it, and sighed.

“It’s fine.”

Lance clicked his tongue. Keith wasn’t lying; he was alright, all things considered. He wasn’t dying. But he wasn’t as comfortable as he could be, either, which was Lance’s concern.

“Do you want more?” Lance rephrased.

That bought him a new response. Keith’s eyes opened a little wider, and his throat worked over a swallow. Lance was letting his full meaning be understood through the frelisiel, making it clear what ‘more’ meant. More would mean skin. They could just lie there together, if Keith wanted, or Lance could show Keith the kinds of things he had thought about. It was just a harmless suggestion through the vine, and it left Keith’s face red.

Keith’s answering thoughts on the matter left Lance’s composure scattered on the floor.

It was just an image. Just a brief, recent memory. Keith’s own breathing, as quiet as he could keep it. The back of his head pressing against the bathroom door. An idea of Lance guiding his hand, pumping faster, heartbeats out of sync, and the small silver ring giving him a weak substitute for intimacy through the agony of separation.

“You--?” Lance started to choke out a question, but the words got lost in his dry throat. Keith turned his burning face away, and Lance stared at him, astonished and starting to grin.

“Um,” was the only answer Keith made for a moment. He hadn't meant to show Lance that much, but at the same time, it felt like he wanted Lance to see it. He sucked his lip stubbornly and then mumbled, “The other night, after the party.”

Keith wanted him. Considering every moment Lance had thought about Keith the same way, it couldn’t be a problem. He watched the bashfulness on Keith’s face worsen, and he felt Keith’s heart beat faster as he shared some similar memories.

Keith undressing in Lance’s lap, whispering touch me. The desire for him that Lance had thought would burn him out like a fever.

Keith in that gorgeous formal outfit, hair pulled back to show the nape of his slender neck.

Only weeks before, when Lance had been alone in the shower, thinking about Keith training and wiping sweat off his face--

Keith covered his mouth to muffle a low whine.

“Keith,” Lance ushered him again, pleading for his answer. “Do you want more? You have to say it, honey.”

Slowly, Lance felt the realization settle into Keith's mind that wanting more wasn't imposing. It wasn't one-sided.

Keith wanted to give Lance more. He couldn’t even wrap his mind around however Lance found him attractive, but he wanted to give him everything. He wanted to show Lance how beautiful he was. He wanted to repay his generosity and affection. He wanted to please him however he could, with such a violent desperation that his heart was already racing.

Lance thought the universe was a beautiful place. Beautiful things happened here, like sunsets and supernovas, the birth of stars and civilizations, and the evolution of a species of plant that allowed him to feel nearly firsthand how badly Keith wanted to hear Lance moan his name.

“I want you,” Keith finally answered with no voice at all. His eyes were wide and his body was tense, like he was still fearing rejection.

And Lance only hummed and smiled back at him. He took Keith’s hands, sliding his thumbs over the back of his palms, and he leaned in and kissed him softly. Keith’s breath caught, his eyes closed, and he moved into the kiss. He almost seemed ready to relax, but broke the contact with a faint groan.

“Wait, Lance,” he mumbled, so Lance stopped and blinked at him. “I-- I need to hear you say it, too.”

Keith believed him. Lance felt that he did, and it warmed his chest. It was so easy when he tilted his head, touched his lips to Keith’s ear, and whispered, “I want you so fucking bad.” He felt the full-bodied shiver that ran through Keith. He felt Keith press closer to him in his lap, press a soft kiss to Lance’s neck, clutch his fingers tighter. He sighed out and continued, his breath warm on Keith’s jawline.

“It’s okay if you need me, Keith. I need you, too. I wanna take care of you like this because I want this.”

The sound in Keith’s throat bordered on a moan, soft and breathy, and Lance was gratified to know that his words were exactly what Keith needed to hear. His teeth grazed over the lobe of Keith’s ear and barely tugged.

“I want it, too,” Keith gasped. “Lance, you don’t know how bad I want it.”

“Yes, I do, sweetheart.” Lance grinned wide and curled the frelisiel vine around one finger, the rest of his hand still locked with Keith’s. He could feel the surge of Keith’s desperation, the want, the hungry warmth under his skin. It only compounded his own. As those feelings twisted together, Keith voiced a low, strained moan into Lance’s shoulder, one that left his skin prickled with goosebumps. He needed to hear a lot more of that.

If they were doing this, Keith deserved the very best. As eager as Lance was, he needed to pamper Keith, which meant giving him more than just a lazy morning fuck while they both still smelled like the inside of a healing pod. He took one hand back to stroke Keith’s hair, and he slowly felt his trembling ease down.

“Come on, querido,” Lance whispered. “Do you want to take a bath with me? Wouldn’t that be nice?” Keith nodded, smothering his unsteadiness as he sat up straight.

They slipped out of bed together, and Lance tucked the frelisiel back into place before taking Keith’s hand and leading him into the bathroom. Their room was barely brightening with morning, and the soft lighting from the windows made everything feel cold and clean. Lance started the warm water in the bathtub to counteract the chill, and they took a quiet moment to brush their teeth and freshen up while the floor-level tub filled and steamed. It was easy, just a couple minutes of domesticity. Keith was still rubbing sleep out of his eyes, and just when Lance had thought he couldn’t love Keith more, he decided he wouldn’t want to start his mornings without moments like this.

While Lance found a bottle of something sweet-smelling to go in the bath, Keith wrapped his arms around him from behind. Lance hummed and set his hand over Keith’s on his stomach, and he poured a quarter of the bottle of rosy liquid into the water. It didn’t foam up and bubble like he had hoped, but it sent a violet shimmer through the water, and it smelled wonderful.

“You're a romantic,” Keith mumbled. Lance assumed that Keith meant to tease him, but there was too much affection in his voice.

“You love it,” Lance crowed, running his thumb across Keith’s knuckles. Keith only sighed and pressed his forehead between Lance’s shoulder blades. “It’s getting bad again, isn't it?” Keith answered with a small, grey hum, so Lance turned around in his arms to face him. He leaned himself back against the wall by the bath, and he slipped his hands under the hem of Keith’s shirt.

Having Lance’s palms on his stomach was enough to make Keith shiver with relief. Lance traced his thumbs over Keith’s hip bones and felt them jolt. He smiled and tilted his head to kiss Keith’s cheek.

“You're so sensitive,” Lance whispered. “Don't worry. I'll take care of you.” Those words drew another shiver out of Keith, and when he leaned up to kiss him, Lance didn't stop him.

Keith was still new to kissing, but as far as Lance saw, the only thing he needed to work on was being too careful. Keith kissed slowly and gently, like he was so afraid to do something wrong that he couldn't relax and enjoy it properly. Lance crooned low in his throat, took one hand from Keith’s stomach to weave into his hair, and barely broke the kiss to mumble to him, “Your mouth is so perfect.”

That gorgeous bow-shaped mouth smiled for him, and then Keith was leading. He tugged lightly at Lance’s hair, and he started out a little harder than before. Lance made suggestions with his mouth, but he was already feeling flushed and happy to let Keith take this wherever he wanted. It was something good, something they could sink into and get lost in, something that left the tips of Lance’s fingers numb, and that was all that mattered. The way Keith held him in the kiss was so raw and earnest, and the way his tongue slid behind Lance’s teeth was so innately erotic that it made him shiver. It took him a second to open his eyes when Keith pulled back, and then another to process the dark, pleased look on his face.

“That’s a nice look on you,” Keith murmured. He said this while his face was dusted pink, his lips were kissed red, and his eyes were hazy and black. His hair was a disaster, he had been trembling in Lance’s lap only minutes ago, and he had the audacity to say something that cocky.

“Speak for yourself.” Lance swallowed and worked on steadying his breath, but he knew that both of their rings were beating too fast. “Come on, Keith, let me take care of you.”

Keith’s eyes darted down with understanding, and he stepped back just enough to lift his shirt off. The moment he moved closer to help Lance with his, a swell of excitement pulled at his chest. This was finally happening. Lance didn't pay any attention to where his shirt fell on the floor, but he devoted all of his focus to where Keith’s mouth moved over his throat. He was only touching his lips to Lance’s neck rather than kissing it. He couldn't know how soft and sweet that felt, or that it gave Lance tunnel vision. Carefully, Lance’s hands moved down to Keith’s waistband, and he felt Keith catch his breath.

“Keith,” he had to ask again, “you're sure you want to? It's okay if--”

“Lance,” Keith cut him off. “If you want to stop, tell me. I’ll return the favor. So stop asking and touch me.”

The world slotted into the right place. Those words made the stars align. Lance grinned, pulled Keith’s hips flush against his own, and let him soak in the contact between their chests.

“What, here?” he whispered, and his hands slid down Keith's back, under the edge of his pants, and down over the curve of his ass. Keith was already clinging to Lance’s chest, but when Lance’s fingers curled and squeezed, he let out a low whine.

“That's a start,” Keith mumbled, and Lance laughed in his ear. Keith tilted his head to kiss him again, this time moving his hands down to Lance’s hips. His thumbs hooked into the band of his pants, but he hesitated, like he was still waiting for some cue that it was okay. Lance sighed and smiled, and he rolled his hips forward into Keith’s hands.

“After all that impatient talk,” Lance teased him, “you're still being so sweet and careful. You're adorable.”

Keith took the bait. He narrowed his eyes at Lance, and inch by deliberate inch, he pushed Lance’s waistband down his hips and thighs to leave him in his boxer briefs.

Lance couldn't ignore his own racing pulse. Keith was already sliding his fingers over the outside of his thighs, and it sent tiny shocks through his skin. Lance adjusted his hold on Keith, and he pushed his pants and briefs down together. Keith followed Lance’s lead until they were both stepping out of the last of their clothes.

“Can I look at you this time?” Lance asked him, quiet and teasing. He was expecting another playful glare from Keith, but not the look of delicate, nervous concentration on his face.

Keith took both of Lance’s hands in his own, and he stepped back into Lance’s field of view. His eyes moved over Lance’s shoulders and chest, too anxious to look him in the eye and too shy to look lower, and he guided Lance down with him to sit on the floor at the edge of the bathtub. For a moment, the two of them just sat with their legs in the water and took each other in.

“You're really beautiful.” The words left Lance’s mouth without any conscious effort. Keith was an athlete, graceful without the harsh leanness he’d found in the desert. It was a strange moment to think about Keith eating little besides ramen noodles for months and then to feel grateful to Hunk for feeding him and repairing the damage, but there Lance was, admiring the softer lines along the muscles of Keith's stomach and thighs. He looked strong and healthy, and Lance couldn't get enough of it.

Keith laughed under his breath, and his face was flushed and pleased. "Is that the word?"

"Handsome?" Lance offered. "Drop-dead gorgeous?" Keith hummed, bemused, and raised his hand to hold Lance's chin and jaw.

"I just think 'beautiful' suits you more." Keith was looking Lance directly in the eyes when he said that. Lance felt his heart stop. He must have taken too long to answer, because Keith graced him with a half-smile and ran his thumb across his bottom lip. "What's wrong, pretty boy?"

"Holy fuck," Lance breathed, and he pulled Keith closer to kiss him again. This one was fast and demanding, and Keith only needed a moment to adjust and keep up. Then, Keith was slipping into the water and pulling Lance with him onto the sitting ledge. Where their positions would have been awkward and compromising in a regular bath, this was very nearly a hot tub, and the ledge gave them enough room and stability to sit comfortably.

"What?" Keith asked, talking and smiling between kisses. His soft breath tasted like mint.

"You're just..." Lance couldn't get over how smooth Keith's hair felt between his fingers. Keith's mouth was plush and sweet. Keith's hand was on Lance's collar then, getting a little braver at a time. "...so attractive." That praise was genuine enough for Keith to believe him, because Keith was laughing while Lance kissed his way to his jaw and down the side of his throat.

"I think you just like being called ‘pretty boy.’"

"You're damn right." Lance's lips found the base of Keith's neck, and when he sucked gently against the spot, Keith let out a groan.

"Well, you are pretty," Keith whispered. "Nice skin and those blue eyes." Under the water, Keith's hand slid down to Lance's sternum. He let both hands trace over Lance's ribs, and they stopped at his waist.

"Keep going," Lance pleaded. He wasn't sure whether he was asking for Keith's hands or his voice, but Keith gave him both, all but purring.

"You don't need me to tell you you're gorgeous. You must've known that already." Slowly, his palms moved back up Lance's stomach, feeling his chest as he went, and stopped again below his shoulders. They hesitated, but they curled with a curious energy. “It's like you knew how bad I wanted to touch you.”

“You can touch me however you want.” Lance was ready to beg. Slowly, Keith relaxed his fingers and let them brush over Lance’s nipple. Lance’s lips parted in a sigh, and then when Keith pinched it gently and rubbed it between his thumb and forefinger, Lance arched into it.

“Just like that, cariño.” Lance even sounded breathless to himself, but god, Keith deserved the praise. He could tell that Keith was fumbling a little, trying to figure out what he was supposed to do in this situation, but he honestly didn't need guidance.

Lance placed one hand on Keith's thigh. When he felt his knee jump, he laughed softly and didn't move further until Keith leaned his thigh up into his palm, signaling him to keep going. Keith had pressed closer and taken Lance’s place, kissing pink marks into his neck, and he kept his face hidden by Lance’s shoulder as he touched him. Lance trailed his fingers up Keith’s leg to his hip, then over his waist and stomach, and every step of the way, Keith twitched and jerked against him.

“Baby, you're shaking,” Lance whispered, and he settled his palm over the base of Keith’s ribs. His fingers fit perfectly along them. “Are you scared?”

Keith raised his head to put his lips at Lance’s ear. “I’m not scared,” he mumbled.

“Of course not,” Lance laughed under his breath. “Is it still easier when you touch me?”

Keith nodded, but the movement was small. “I like it,” he insisted. “I want you to touch me. It's just a lot.”

“Hey.” Lance caught his attention, looked him in the eyes, and smiled. He gave him another quick kiss and murmured, “Let’s try this.” Finding Keith’s hand on his chest, Lance guided it over his own so that Keith could lead Lance’s touches over his stomach. “Now you know where it's going. Is that better?”

Keith shivered again, and his face looked too distracted to form words, but he nodded. Tentatively, he moved Lance’s hand a few inches to the side. When Lance offered his other hand, Keith guided that one to his waist, using less pressure with his right hand.

“Good, Keith. Where do you want me?”

Keith bowed his head, another tremor running through him, and Lance felt him pressing a little harder on his hands. The firmer touches seemed easier on him than the light, brushing ones, so Lance added some weight to them.

“Everywhere,” Keith choked. “I want you everywhere.”

Lance sighed in approval, and he let Keith take his hand up to his shoulder and neck. Once there, Lance gave Keith’s throat a slow stroke with his thumb, and he watched Keith’s eyes flutter closed and his lips part.

“You're sensitive everywhere,” Lance crooned, “especially your neck, huh?” Keith nodded shortly and seemed to be holding his breath, so Lance leaned forward and kissed his jaw. “It's okay, baby. You're okay.”

Keith started to relax and even out his breathing, and it was heavy and hot on Lance’s shoulder. After a moment, he took their hands back down his chest. Lance sat back and enjoyed the ride as Keith’s skin slid under his palms, shoulder to stomach. He kissed the edge of Keith's ear, and he felt his muscles tense and shift restlessly under his hands.

“You’re so gorgeous, Keith. Your body’s insane.” Lance continued to murmur and coo to him, and Keith gradually leaned into his palms. Keith stopped their hands at his hips, right where Lance could feel the curve of muscle meeting his thigh, and paused like he wasn't sure how to proceed. “Come here, baby. Want me to take care of you?”

Lance pulled Keith into his lap so that they faced each other on the ledge, and Keith set his knees on either side of him to straddle him. They pulled their hips closer at the same time, and when they slid against each other much more intimately, Keith gasped and bowed his head into Lance’s shoulder.

“Let me touch you,” Keith whispered, and Lance laughed.

“I'm letting you, sweetheart.” Lance slotted his thumbs against Keith’s hip bones to grip him tighter. He was already tempted to rock up against him, and it was too much to hold himself still. He could feel Keith’s cock against his stomach, side to side with his own, and when he straightened his posture and kissed Keith’s earlobe, they rubbed alongside each other. Listening to Keith whimper was worth the universe. “You sound so good, querido,” Lance groaned. “Such a pretty voice.”

“You do, too,” Keith answered breathlessly, and when he touched Lance’s chest again, he was bolder. He made it to his stomach, then past his belly button, and then traced his fingertips over the line of hair leading down between his hips. Keith pulled back by a couple of inches to look Lance in the eyes, and he seemed amazed that it was even possible to touch him like this. Lance’s senses were fixed on Keith’s hand, and when he finally felt his fingers wrap around him and stroke downward, he arched up and sighed.

“Oh,” he heard Keith whisper, and he laughed.

“Oh?” Lance grinned at him. “Oh, what?” Keith swallowed, watched Lance’s face intently, and stroked him again. His hand moved over the full length of Lance’s cock and then back down, and he was so warm and attentive that Lance couldn’t hold back another, thicker sigh. Watching Keith fight, he never would have guessed that he could be this gentle with someone. But gentle was exactly what Keith was. He was careful and loving and so disarmingly sweet, and Lance couldn’t handle that while his blood was in his hips and every touch sent shocks down to his toes. When Lance pressed his hips upward, Keith gave him a light squeeze and another pump.

“That,” Keith breathed. “You look so good like that.”

Lance felt a whimper in his throat. He bit it back, and he leaned his head back against the edge of the tile, gripping Keith’s hips and rocking up into his hand. While Lance was just trying to control himself, Keith took it as a sign that he should stroke Lance faster and kiss his neck.

Keith was getting too brave, and Lance wasn’t ready for it. He felt the moan in Keith’s chest against his own, and then Keith licked a warm stripe up the side of his throat.

No one had told Keith not to lick instead of kiss. Lance hadn’t even realized he would like it as much as he did, but it was so direct and primal and Keith, and it was punctuated perfectly by a light bite under his jaw.

“Fuck.” Lance grit his teeth. His hips jumped, trying to fuck into Keith’s hand, and Keith purred.

“Does that feel good, pretty boy?” Keith mouthed the words under Lance’s ear, right before another nip along his throat.

The sound Lance made was embarrassing and ragged. His short nails pressed into Keith’s waist, and it only seemed to encourage him.

Fuck, Keith, you’re getting way too cocky.”

Keith stopped. When he started to withdraw, Lance lifted his head to look up at him, bleary and confused.

“Too much?” Keith asked, worried.

“No,” Lance huffed. “Fuck, Keith, I love it when you’re cocky.” Keith’s eyes darkened again, and his crooked smile sent Lance’s heart spinning. “Keep going. Please.”

Lance didn’t know where Keith got off on looking at him so tenderly, or how his smug face could soften so quickly, but he loved it. Keith stroked him again, slower and tighter than before, and slipped his right hand around the back of Lance’s head. He leaned closer to him, and while Lance was trying not to make a sound, Keith tilted his head and touched their lips together.

“How does it feel?” Keith whispered. He changed his grip and traced the pad of his thumb over the very tip of Lance’s cock, and Lance’s voice hitched into a moan. He must have been looking for praise. Lance knew that Keith probably wanted some feedback, but he was having trouble formulating any aside from his physical responses.

“Like this,” Lance breathed instead, and he dropped his hand between Keith’s thighs. He brushed the back of his fingers against Keith’s cock before he took him in hand.

Keith absolutely quaked. He abandoned the half-kiss between them and hid his face in the crook of Lance’s neck. Both of his hands curled tight, his left stroking Lance in encouragement, and his right tugging at Lance’s hair with whatever strength it had. Lance turned his head to kiss Keith’s temple, and he moved his hand in a slow, deep stroke. A strained sound worked through Keith’s teeth.

“Feels different when it’s someone else’s hand, right?” Lance whispered.

Keith nodded shortly and gave an unsteady, moaned, “uh-huh.” He rocked forward, and Lance stroked him at the same pace Keith’s hand moved over him. The water bucked around their chests as their arms moved, but Lance held Keith close and didn’t mind.

“You feel so good in my hand,” Lance crooned to him. “You’ve got such a nice cock, baby.” Keith visibly flinched and reddened, but Lance could feel him pulse and twitch under his fingers. “What’s wrong, beautiful? Don’t be embarrassed.”

“I can’t help it,” Keith choked out. His hand switched its pace, fully thrusting over Lance, and Lance barely managed to keep his voice down to a tense groan and panting breaths. Lance matched the pace with quick, sharp flicks of his wrist and forearm, and the effect it had on Keith was nothing short of astounding. His posture stiffened, back straight and thighs rigid, but his head listed to one side. His eyes closed, his brows drew down, and his pink lips parted around a gorgeous moan of, “Oh, fuck.”

“Just like that.” Lance couldn’t help praising him. Keith deserved to be worshiped, looking and sounding like that. “You’re so perfect, baby. So fucking perfect. Is that how hard you want it when I fuck you?”

Harder,” Keith groaned out. His rasping, desperate voice floored Lance.

“Holy shit, yes. C’mere, honey.” Lance arched their hips together until they were flush, and he let go of Keith’s dick only long enough to take Keith’s hand, guiding him to grasp both of them together. He curled his hand over Keith’s, and he led the way in that first shared slide.

Keith’s breath caught. His body stiffened, and then he was rolling his hips forward, thrusting against Lance and into their hands. He breathed Lance’s name like that explained everything on his mind.

“Yeah?” Lance whispered, already straining between their hands. He let Keith set the rhythm, and he should have guessed that would catch up to him quickly. “Talk to me, baby. What do you want?”

Keith was close to falling apart in his hands, but he still managed to tug Lance into the kiss he needed. It was so demanding that their teeth clicked together, but Keith still tried so hard to keep it from being sloppy. Lance showed him some mercy and took over, and when he gripped Keith by the jaw and sucked his tongue, he was allowed to taste one of those sweet, desperate moans. Overwhelmed, Keith pulled back and took his mouth to Lance’s throat.

“Don’t stop,” Keith gasped. “Want you to fuck me. But don’t stop.”

Lance’s heart was sprinting, tapping against his chest in a fervent staccato. The coiling in his hips felt like it would rise into his stomach. Each hard stroke of their hands had Keith rocking into him, breathless and senseless, and each second only left Keith clinging closer to him.

“You want me to fuck you?” Lance managed to sigh out. His lips were on Keith’s ear. Keith gasped and bucked. His fingers squeezed tighter, pumping both of them, racing ahead, and Lance couldn’t breathe.

“Yeah, Lance, want you.” His voice strained on a whimper, and Lance felt Keith’s whole body draw tight, shoulders bowing in. “Fuck, fuck, holdmeplease.”

Lance held him. One arm wrapped around Keith’s side and back, and the other kept stroking them, aching with the unbroken pace. Keith held so tightly to him that he could have crushed them together, and Lance was still whispering to him while he listened to his desperate voice and felt him shake.

“I’ve got you, baby. Let me see you come. I’ll fuck you, sweetie, don’t worry.”

Keith came with a short, fragile cry. It rattled his body, and his hips snapped forward instinctively. His lips opened against Lance’s neck, and then his teeth bit down hard.

That would bruise, Lance thought on some detached level, even as his mind plunged into white and warmth. He arched and tipped his head back, and for one hazy second, he thought he could hear their rings humming.

He was pretty sure he moaned, and Keith’s name was heavy in his mouth. All he was certain of was that Keith kept stroking him through it, all the way to the end.

Lance was panting. Keith was kissing his neck, lips soft over the spot he had bitten. For a moment, everything was slow and warm. His eyes wouldn’t open more than halfway, and Keith was slumped into his chest, breathing slow and deep by his shoulder. Lance smiled and hummed, and he kissed the side of Keith’s head.

When Keith looked up at him, it was with a loose and lazy smile. It was quite possibly the cutest thing Lance had ever seen, and he had to kiss it. Keith crooned into his mouth, and he wrapped his arms around Lance’s shoulders.

He was just musing about how sweet and affectionate Keith was when the boy in his lap whispered, “Sorry I bit you.”

A helpless, dazed laugh welled up from Lance's chest. “Did it seem like I minded?”

He got a flash of Keith’s eyes crinkling into a smile, heard his small laugh, and then felt him tuck close for another kiss. This time, Lance let his fingers slip through Keith’s hair, and Keith seemed entirely happy to press his whole body against him.

The contact wasn’t mandatory. That occurred to Lance in that quiet, gentle moment following their first time. Keith didn’t have to touch him this much, but sought it out anyway.

“Hey,” Keith whispered, pulling back to smile at him, and he had Lance’s full attention. “Do you still want to...?”

Lance pursed his lips and blew out a long sigh. He would just have to accept that he lived a blessed life.

“I definitely still want to,” he breathed back, setting his hands on top of Keith’s thighs. “Not in the bath. You deserve the bed.”

“I deserve a lot today, don’t I?” Keith asked him dryly, but his eyes were dark and amused.

They kissed and teased and touched each other the entire time they washed up. Lance followed him out of the water, and Keith was still reluctant to spend any time at all out of contact with him. Towelling dry while still pressed close together was an interesting challenge, but they accomplished it between quick kisses and anxious, excited touches. Before they left the bathroom, Lance picked up the glass jar with the translation they thought was so funny, and Keith snorted.

“Have you done this before?” Keith asked. He sat on the bed, one hand on Lance’s hip, while Lance stood beside him and set the opened jar on the nightstand.

“This part?” Lance stole a glance at him and caught the anxious fascination on his face. “Only to myself.”

Keith bit his lip, and Lance didn’t miss the skipped beat in his ring.

“Does it hurt?”

Lance smiled and stroked Keith’s hair back from his forehead. “Not if we go slow. But if it doesn’t feel good, tell me.” Keith nodded and swallowed. “Do you want to do me instead? I don’t mind. Like, I really wouldn’t mind.”

A small laugh burst from Keith and broke some of the tension. “Let’s do that next time. I know you won’t hurt me.”

Grinning, Lance crawled onto the bed with him and lay him down. When he put a hand on Keith’s chest, Keith only squirmed a little bit, more receptive than before.

“Are you afraid you’d hurt me?” Lance asked.

“A little,” Keith admitted, putting his arms around Lance’s shoulders and carefully spreading his knees. He cast that dark, easy smile up at him, and that was all it took for the heat in Lance’s hips to wake back up. “So why don’t you show me the right way first?”

Lance let out a disbelieving huff of a laugh, and he bowed lower to kiss him. “Look at you, talking all smooth,” he whispered between their lips. He felt Keith grinning as he kissed him back. He moved over to put himself between Keith’s thighs, and he crawled lower, kissing a path down Keith’s neck. The tip of his nose brushed along the hollow of Keith’s throat, and he sucked a tiny pink mark there, listening to Keith’s breath deepen. “I wanna do this the right way. We’ve got a lot of time to make up for.”

Keith tried and failed to swallow a moan. One hand pushed through Lance’s hair, and the other went up to drape over his own eyes. Lance couldn’t help smirking.

“You’re so cute,” he whispered. “You look like I’m blowing you already.” To drive his point home, he nipped the side of Keith’s neck with barely any pressure behind his teeth, and he could practically taste Keith’s voice hitching.

“You should show me that, too,” Keith mumbled, and Lance laughed until he continued with, “How much time do we have to make up for?”

In that moment, kissing his way down Keith’s collar and chest was easier than answering. Lance took his time, sucking tiny marks that disappeared quickly against Keith’s skin, and he slipped his hand down to rub the inside of Keith’s thigh.

“Well…” His lips were at Keith’s sternum. He could feel his ribs moving over each unsteady breath, each warm thud of his heart. His mouth brushed over the thin hair of Keith’s chest, and he listened to Keith gasp when his tongue dragged over his nipple. “You had a lot of people crushing on you at the Garrison.”

“Lance,” Keith hissed, and Lance took the fingers clenching in his hair as a mark of praise. “That long? Seriously? You could’ve shown it a little-- ah.”

Keith’s nipples were very sensitive. All it took to break him down into a panting, whining, arching mess was for Lance to wrap his lips around him and add the lightest bit of teeth. Noted. He closed his eyes and hummed, low and pleased, and it made Keith twitch and keen.

“Lance,” Keith tried again, a note away from begging. Lance broke away and switched to the other side, kissing a tiny birthmark on his chest.

“Tell me how it feels, guapo,” Lance crooned. He brought his hand to Keith’s cock, and his fingers fit around him in a perfect sheath. “Fuck my hand and tell me how it feels.”

Keith had so much trouble controlling his voice, and Lance loved it. He put a hand over his mouth to try and muffle himself, but he was still gasping and admitting short, hypersensitive moans. His hips jerked upward, thrusting into Lance’s fingers, and Lance felt Keith’s right hand tugging weakly at his hair while he sucked his nipple red.

“Feels good,” Keith told him, voice rasping. “Feels so good, Lance, slow down, I can’t.”

“Yes, you can,” Lance encouraged him sweetly. Keith’s legs were already trying to hook around Lance’s waist, so he sat up enough to push them apart again. His fingers tightened around the base of Keith’s cock, holding him down to keep him from thrusting, and he licked Keith’s stomach on his way down between his thighs. “You can, baby. Look at me.”

With his head on a pillow, Keith opened his eyes and looked down his chest toward Lance. Lance smiled back up at him and gave the side of his cock a warm, wet kiss. Keith groaned and shut his eyes again.

“Come on, Keith. I want you to watch me.” Lance smirked, and he made a show of taking his lips and tongue up to Keith’s tip, making sure to get his attention. His hand slid upward as well, holding him steady while his tongue dipped in between the head of Keith’s cock and the foreskin.

Keith ground a curse out between his teeth. His fingers were trembling in Lance’s hair, and his thighs shook against Lance’s shoulders, pressing inward. Lance hummed contentedly and bowed his head down to take the first inch of him into his mouth, and then he pulled back again with a loud pop. He could already feel Keith pulsing in his hand, so he didn’t want to tease him too much. But he had to tease him a little.

“Tell me what you’re thinking,” Lance prompted him gently. He moved his grip up and down Keith’s cock and ran his tongue against his slit, but he was listening.

Keith sucked in a couple of breaths before he could answer. His face was flushed and his eyes were glassy, and his hair was halfway strewn over his face. Lance could savor how each breath tightened Keith’s stomach in a rhythm. He was too beautiful to be real.

“I don’t wanna come like this,” Keith whispered. “Not this time.”

“Are you close?” Lance asked patiently, and his hand let up some of the pressure.

“I will be, if you keep that up.”

“Well, then.” Lance smiled and let go of Keith’s cock entirely, and he put his hand under Keith’s thigh to guide his legs wide open. “Pass me that jar. And one of the vines. Let’s make this fun.”

Keith bit his lip, reached above his head, and fumbled with one of the flowers until he had unlaced a long stretch of vine from the headboard. His right arm trembled when it stretched down to pass the vine to him, but Lance reached up and steadied his hand, and he wrapped the stem around his own wrist with plenty of slack for Keith to hold onto.

Keith’s internal dialogue was a delicious, jumbled mess.

First off, Keith loved that Lance was so experienced that he could dare put his mouth on him with that much confidence, but the thought of Lance doing it to anyone else made Keith actually want to break something, and then he was ashamed of his own pettiness. He couldn’t pry apart the gratitude and the seething jealousy, all stewed in the general amazement of how attractive Lance was to begin with.

And above that, Keith couldn’t believe this was happening. He loved how Lance looked between his legs. He loved how Lance talked to him. He couldn’t believe Lance could be so dirty, using his tongue like that.

Lance thought of another use for his tongue, and Keith had to hide his face.

“Do you want me to?” Lance chuckled, and Keith shook his head, humiliated. Maybe someday, Keith allowed through the vine, but not this time. He was nervous enough already. “Okay, babe. That’s okay. I won’t.” Lance kissed the inside of Keith’s thigh, which helped distract and soothe him. “Do you want me to keep going?”

“Yeah,” Keith whispered. Shakily, he took the jar of clear jelly and passed it down to Lance on the covers, and when he gathered himself enough to look down at him, Lance gave him a reassuring smile.

Part of him wondered if Keith was too anxious to continue, and he was tempted to slow down. As soon as that crossed his mind, though, Keith’s eagerness swelled to bursting. He wanted it. He wanted more. He wanted to know how it felt to have Lance inside of him, and he wanted to feel through the vines how good he could make Lance feel.

Lance dipped two fingers into the jar. It didn’t feel like much of anything, but it was perfectly slick. Sitting up and giving the inside of Keith’s knee another kiss, Lance traced his fingers down between Keith’s legs. Keith bucked his hips and choked on a sound, and Lance set his other hand on the inside of Keith’s thigh to hold him down. At the same time, the frelisiel vine around Lance’s wrist allowed him to feel every surge of Keith’s sensitivity, every jump of his nerves, every response to a previously unknown sensation. Lance didn’t feel it as his own, but recognized it in Keith when it happened.

“You’re twitchy, babe. Breathe and relax, okay?” Lance’s voice fell into a comfortable sort of hum, and Keith took in a shaky breath. “Good. Nice deep breaths. Talk to me.” He tried again, sliding his fingers against Keith’s hole. Keith held his hips still this time, but the middle of his back arched, like some part of him had to fidget. The need in his body felt like pressure.

“Lance,” Keith whispered. He was trying to talk like Lance had instructed, and that helped him breathe. “Just do it. I can take it.”

Lance sighed fondly. “Can you, sweetheart?” He turned his hand to line his middle finger up with him, and he pushed it inside to the first knuckle. It wasn’t a difficult stretch, but the first intrusion was usually uncomfortable and foreign.

Keith held his breath again. His body was rigid. And then he spread his legs wider, voluntarily bringing his hips down toward Lance’s hand. He reached down to hold Lance’s free hand, lacing their fingers together, and he sighed out.

“Keep talking, Keith,” Lance murmured, and he slowly pulled his finger back and arched in again. “How does it feel?”

“Not bad.” That was a strange understatement, especially with that thoughtful, blissful look on Keith’s face. Slowly, Keith gathered up the confidence to look at what Lance was doing. The picture of Lance between his knees, his hand hidden behind his hips, brought a look of contentment to Keith’s face. His hazy black eyes flickered up to Lance’s, and Keith showed him a small smile.

“See?” Lance purred. Keith was comfortable. He felt comfortable, like that was Lance’s fault somehow, and he took the ego boost and ran with it. “You see how beautiful you look, baby? You feel so nice and warm.” The praise unraveled something in Keith’s chest, and Lance watched as he started to breathe steadily deeper. “Ready for more? I know you can take it.” Keith nodded eagerly, so Lance pulled back, lined up another finger, and pushed both into him. Keith’s brow furrowed and he let out a little gasp, but Lance whispered to him and squeezed his fingers, letting their joined hands rest against Keith’s hip.

“You’re doing so good, baby. I’m so proud of you. Keep breathing, right? Deep breaths.” His fingers tucked close together, and he just let Keith get used to the width sliding in and out of him. He adjusted to that quickly, and once he was biting back little moans at the sensation, Lance parted his fingers to increase the stretch an increment at a time. Keith gasped and tipped his head back, and Lance smirked.

With the gradual, gentle stretch, Keith took three fingers like a champion. He was letting out soft, humming sighs with his eyes closed, and the sense of depth and fullness seemed to relax him. That was when Lance tilted his hand, curved his fingers, and pressed toward the front of Keith’s body with each stroke.

That was what made Keith loud for him. His body arched up, his shoulders drew in, and then his jaw clenched, trying to resist the shocks of pleasure that even Lance could feel through him. Even when he bit his lips together, Keith couldn’t keep himself entirely quiet, and each of his breaths began with a moan.

Lance.” It hadn’t been half a minute of that shallow teasing, and Keith was close to tears. His knees were shaking. The pink flush reached down his neck to his chest, and his toes were curling in the air. “Lance, that’s-- that’s enough. I want you.”

Lance couldn’t leave that alone. He let go of Keith’s hand and crawled over him, still rocking his fingers inside of him.

“Say that again for me,” Lance urged him. His hand arched, and his fingertips rubbed slow and hard against Keith’s prostate without ever pulling away from it.

He hadn’t expected Keith to cry out like that. There were tears in his lashes, and his moans hooked on a sob. Keith reached up to Lance’s chest, and his nails dragged unsteady red lines into his skin.

Oh my fucking god.”

“What did you say, baby?” Lance cooed. “I need to hear it.”

“I want you,” Keith keened. “Lance, fuck me, please.”

Lance pulled his fingers out, and he bowed his head low to kiss him. Keith held onto his shoulders and whimpered into his mouth, nipping plaintively at his lip more than giving a sensible kiss.

“You’re so sweet,” Lance whispered to him, fitting his waist between Keith’s thighs. “So sweet for me.” Keith panted, trying to catch his breath, and hooked his legs around Lance’s back. Lance worked with one hand while the other steadied himself on the mattress, and after he slicked himself with a little more from the jar, he pressed the head of his cock between Keith’s thighs. “Stop holding your breath, baby. Breathe for me.”

Right as he heard Keith suck in a breath, Lance lowered his head and bit down on the base of Keith’s neck.

Keith cried out and clenched his fists in Lance’s hair, and Lance rocked forward, pushing the first inch into him. He kissed the curve of his neck and shoulder, and then buried his face in it as his hips continued forward smoothly. Keith was a wire pulled taut, trembling with the tension, but as Lance pulled back and pressed in a little further at a time, he felt Keith relax in pleasant waves. After that, Keith was rolling his body gently, meeting Lance’s slow thrusts and encouraging him deeper.

Keith’s knees were pulled nearly to his shoulders, leaving him entirely open. When Lance’s hips made full contact with Keith’s, buried completely inside him, Keith’s heels rested against the middle of Lance’s back.

Lance had to wonder if galra body temperature was higher than humans’. Keith was impossibly warm, stretched soft and wonderfully slick from their preparation, and it was enough to make his arms shake under him. He only hoped Keith could appreciate how he was making Lance feel.

“I love this,” he whispered in Keith’s ear. “You feel so fucking good.” Keith’s arms wrapped tight around Lance’s shoulders, and he felt Keith touching kisses to his temple and forehead.

“You do, too,” Keith breathed. “Fuck, can you feel how deep you are?” All Keith seemed able to focus on was that feeling, and Lance’s breath caught when the vine transmitted it to him.

When he gave him another slow thrust, Keith felt it all the way in his stomach. It pulled a low, harsh, delighted moan out of him. Lance propped himself up higher, and when he had a good view of Keith’s face, their eyes met.

The vision under him was too much.

Keith was startlingly beautiful.

Dark hair fanned out on the pillow under his head. Dark brows were drawn in concentration. Dark eyes were half-open, staring back at him such a warm, easy focus. His lips were such a deep, supple pink that Lance found himself immediately obsessed with the color. His naked chest and shoulders drew Lance’s attention down, toward every inch of them that he could feel pressed together. Every site of contact was sacred.

Only days ago, Lance had carefully lulled Keith to sleep on his chest. Keith had cried silently, confessed that he wanted to hug his friends, and fallen asleep with Lance’s shirt pressing thin marks into his cheek. He had been precious to him then, and as he felt Keith’s hands sliding through his hair and their matching rings beating hard and steady, Lance felt the same swell of affection, tender as a wound.

At the same time, he could nearly see himself from Keith’s perspective. It was surreal to experience someone adoring him, thinking of him as perfect. That was the word in Keith’s mind. Perfect. Just as Lance started to balk, he realized that Keith’s eyes had widened and brightened. His lips pursed, startled, and there was a lump in his throat.

Keith hadn’t known someone could love him like this. While he had cherished Lance’s heartbeat under his cheek that night, he hadn’t known Lance had felt the same way.

“Baby, don’t cry.” Lance leaned in to kiss him again, and Keith couldn’t gather the focus to return the gesture, lip quivering. “Please don’t cry. That’s not supposed to happen here,” he joked gently.

“I’m not crying,” Keith argued weakly, and he reached back to wipe his eyes.

“Keith.” Lance laughed, and he found himself savoring it when the tips of their noses brushed. “Am I that bad?”

“No.” Behind the surge of emotion, Keith sounded halfway between annoyance and amusement. “No, Lance, I just… I love you.”

There it was again. Lance sighed, smiled, and tucked a kiss under Keith’s ear.

“I love you, too, mullet.”

Keith turned his head to intercept the next kiss. This time, he was smiling with him. “Then why are you stopping?”

Lance could only smirk. He stroked Keith’s thigh with his thumb, leaned into a deeper kiss, and snapped his hips forward.

Keith moaned into his mouth, loud and sweet. His fingers clenched into Lance's hair, his legs spread open wider, and his body arched up, bending into Lance’s motions.

Lance had worried at first, afraid that he wouldn't be able to make Keith feel good. Any insecurities tied to that died away when he felt the surge of warm, hungry pleasure from the body beneath him. His skin tasted like salt. His breath was rough and hot. His nerves were alive and singing.

His hair smelled like coconut.

It was just like flying. Keith had an instinct for it. He let his impulses take him, seeking Lance out in the contact, never quite falling passive or submissive. All Lance could feel was wet and warm and tight, and the tense little moans of “oh” that Keith buried in his neck when he increased his pace.

“You okay?” Lance had to ask breathlessly. He never would have guessed Keith would be so vocal, and he had to make sure it was for the right reasons. Keith nodded into his shoulder, and when Lance sat up to get a better angle, Keith propped himself up halfway on his elbow to follow him.

“Feels so-- fucking good,” he gasped, face flushed and brows furrowed, staring at the way their bodies connected.

Wasn’t that a sight, Lance thought, and even his internal dialogue felt winded. Keith was feeling good, and Lance could feel it. His mouth pulled into a smirk, and then he wasn’t slowing down anymore.

They had found their pace. They had found the exact slide that fit Lance’s entire length into Keith’s body, the angle that had Keith shaking and letting out strangled cries. Lance reached down and palmed Keith’s cock against his stomach, spreading his generous pool of precome over his skin, and he felt Keith clenching around him.

In a moment of delirium, they felt each other’s gratitude that this was happening in a honeymoon suite.

“Lance,” Keith choked, “fuck-- fuck me as hard as you need, just-- come with me, please. I’m so--”

Holy shit, Keith didn’t have to wait long. Lance couldn’t bring himself to feel embarrassed when Keith begging him to come put him right on the edge. His body arched down over him, and he growled through his teeth, slamming into him at a bruising rhythm. Keith’s voice took a sharp turn upward, his head fell backward, and his nails scraped at Lance’s shoulders.

Lance, holy fuck yes--

“Keith.” Lance’s breath was trying to catch in his chest and pool with the rest of the pressure in his body. He just needed one more push. He just needed a little more, and then he would feel them coming together. “Keith, baby, you’re so beautiful. Say my name again.”

Keith didn’t have to look up at him like that. He didn’t have to pant around his name so deeply that his chest heaved. And he absolutely didn’t need to reach up and grip the back of Lance’s neck, simultaneously adoring and possessive.

“Lance,” he breathed. “You’re so perfect, Lance.” Another hard thrust put a delicious tension in his words. Their rings were pulsing hard, Lance stroked Keith tighter and quicker, and he kept the vine pinned between his other hand and Keith’s thigh. “You feel perfect, you’re so good to me, Lance, I love you.”

He couldn’t keep his hips from snapping forward. He felt Keith’s fingers weave up into his hair, and his back bowed deeply with his thrusts. Keith was still whimpering Lance’s name, louder, more urgently, and then Keith’s legs locked around his waist.

Their connection swelled. All Lance could do was keep touching him, keep slamming into him and giving Keith exactly what was making him talk like that, and pay fascinated, worshipful attention to the way Keith’s body twisted and coiled tight. His heels pressing into Lance’s back. The look on his face. The way his mouth fell open and his eyes clenched shut.

“Lance,” Keith sobbed one more time, and the tension burst.

It broke both of them together. Keith’s legs held Lance’s body close, so Lance pressed his hips further, burying himself inside of him. With the impact of feeling his own release as well as Keith’s, he scarcely even noticed the way Keith had pulled him close to hide his face in his neck.

Keith poured himself over his chest and Lance’s hand, his stomach tensing in waves. As Lance finished inside of him as deeply as he would fit, Keith’s overwrought moans melted into something purely blissful.

Slowly, their heartbeats settled to a dull, tired thud. The heat between them cooled. Both of them were still shaking, loose muscles and skittering nerves.

Keith was reluctant to pull away from him, so Lance had to be the one to lay him back on the bed to let him relax. He started to sit up again, but Keith kept his arms around his shoulders and whispered, “No, stay. Just... stay.” Lance laughed under his breath and obeyed, settling his weight on top of him. Keith seemed to like the pressure and closeness, and his fingers found Lance’s hair again to comb through it.

“Was that okay?” Lance had to ask, resting his chin on Keith’s chest.

Keith’s shoulders shook, and it took Lance a second to realize he was laughing. He tilted his head up against the pillow to grin at Lance, cheeks pink and eyes creased at the corners.

“Lance, I’ve never felt that good in my life.”

“Oh,” Lance breathed, and a slow, proud smile stretched over his face.

“I’ve never felt this way before,” Keith said more quietly, sobering. “What about you? Was it…?”

“Keith.” Lance stopped him, pulled himself just a little further up against him, and caught Keith’s lips in a kiss. Keith smiled into it.

 

 

They decided on another quick bath. By then the morning was getting late, but Lance still thought it was appropriate to change the sheets on the bed and climb back in. It was a special occasion, he declared, and Keith still needed to relax and recover.

“I’m not tired,” Keith said, but his voice was light and his heart wasn’t in the protest. When Lance wrapped an arm around him, Keith readily tucked himself into Lance’s chest.

“Come on. If I make sweet, breathtaking love to you, I wanna cuddle afterwards,” Lance laughed. Keith didn't have any counter to that, and instead, Lance felt the tug of Keith's cheek against his shoulder when he smiled. They left the frelisiel twined around the headboard this time, and even without that particular link between them, there were no boundaries. All they had to do was exist, comfortably breathing beside each other.

They were in danger of falling asleep again when a knock came from the door. Lance lifted his head with an affronted grumble, and Keith only glanced toward his own shoulder in half curiosity.

Lance’s mind leapt to the suspicion that Shiro was on the other side. Since when had Shiro started to seem like a threat? That itched at his mind, but he sat up and found a pair of boxers to pull on. Keith followed suit reluctantly, but added a shirt.

“Who is it?” Lance called.

“It's Xerysi,” their rich voice called back. “I brought breakfast. Are you decent?”

“Sure.” Lance looked to Keith, silently checking if he was okay with visitors, and Keith only stared at the blankets with a red face.

Right. It was frightfully obvious what they had been up to. Keith’s hair alone was catastrophic, and both of their necks had conspicuous bite marks. Lance was sure that his mouth was bruised from kisses, and Keith still had an extra-relaxed look to his eyes. And there was a jar of lube on the nightstand. Lance wasn’t ashamed of what they had done, and he didn’t assume Keith was either, but it was still a strange thing to recall that anyone else could be aware of it, too. Lance reached over and put his hand over Keith’s on the sheets, and both of them braced themselves for the moment the outside world discovered them.

It wasn’t as dramatic as Lance had imagined. Xerysi only stepped inside the room, shut the door behind themself, and set a tray of breakfast on the other nightstand, pleasant and polite without even looking at them.

“I’m sorry to intrude,” Xerysi said. “We wanted to let you sleep in as long as you liked, but there is medicine that the hospital ordered for Keith. It’s important that he take it frequently.”

They poured two different kinds of tea from two different small pots, passing one cup to Lance and the other to Keith. Lance’s was the same subtly sweet, floral tea that they had been enjoying in the past few days. He didn’t know what Keith’s tasted like, but it was less of a honey color, and it looked greyer. Keith didn’t make any particular face when he took a sip of it, but he mumbled, “Thank you.”

“It’s not as enjoyable as the local blend,” Xerysi apologized, “but you have to drink the whole cup. It’s bitter, but it does help.” While Xerysi put small pastries onto plates like the last leisurely morning they had had in this room, Lance leaned closer to sniff at the tea in Keith’s hand. It smelled too earthy, like Keith might as well have been chewing on tree bark. Lance was astonished that he had no complaints for it. Then again, Keith never complained about anything.

“This is the frelisiel tea, right?” Lance asked. “The doctors said something about the roots doing nerve stuff.”

Xerysi showed their wry smile and passed Keith a plate of breakfast to help the medicine down. “The whole plant does nerve stuff,” they agreed, and Lance decided he liked their more informal speech. “Chewing or brewing the roots works wonders with nerve damage. And they help a great deal with ignis sting victims.” They gestured with their eyes to the slightly abused vines and flowers on the headboard, some of them rumpled and disturbed with handling. Lance realized belatedly that there were a couple of loose petals on the sheets.

Keith hid his burning face in one hand, and Lance had to laugh.

“Yeah,” Lance agreed. “We should’ve taken your advice about that sooner.”

Xerysi smiled. “Yes. You should have. Poor Kerisz has been rooting for you since day one.”

Lance barked another laugh, and he reached over to Keith’s knee to squeeze it. “Were we that obvious?”

“Painfully so. But we realized you didn’t know what it meant to be someone’s antidote, and then we had to wait for you to figure it out yourselves.”

Lance stopped. He didn’t like realizing that he still had no idea what was going on.

“Wait, what?” he started to ask.

“What do you mean?” Keith pressed. “Lance has been great about this, ever since he got stuck as my antidote.”

“He didn’t get stuck, though.” Xerysi watched Keith as if insisting for him to understand. They were going to be waiting a while, though, and a look at Lance clearly told them that he didn’t get it, either. They sighed deeply.

“When a Yzrian is stung,” they explained, “finding their antidote is a very telling moment about them. When Keri was stung, they called me from across the city. They knew it was me, and they knew I would be right there to help them, and I was.”

“Okay,” Lance stopped them. “I’m officially lost. Across the city? Coran said your antidote is just the nearest person when you’re bit.”

Keith’s breath stiffened, and Lance looked over to see his eyes widen.

“The person closest to you,” Keith recited quietly.

That sank in for both of them, and Xerysi only waited patiently. Lance finally uttered, “Oh.”

“Coran and Allura knew the whole time,” Keith whispered, on the verge between amusement and horror.

“I guess they wanted us to figure it out ourselves, too.” Lance couldn’t help grinning at Keith. “I’m the person closest to you? I’m surprised it wasn’t Shiro.”

Keith didn’t flinch, but the weary pain in his eyes put a stab of guilt in Lance’s chest. Xerysi stepped in to give an explanation for him.

“Antidotes can be platonic,” they clarified. “Frequently, though, they’re more romantic in nature.” Their tone hung in the air, an incomplete sentence that they never started. Lance looked up at them, but they never spoke.

“Don’t worry about Shiro,” Keith mumbled, so Lance specifically worried about Shiro.

“You’re his antidote,” Xerysi added, smiling. “That speaks for itself.” That actually did help. Lance smiled back, and he ate half a pastry in one bite. “Whenever you’re ready, your team wanted to talk to you.”

They didn’t linger too much longer after that. Keith finished the rest of his medicine, and Xerysi left them to let the two of them finish breakfast and get dressed. Keith wasn’t moving too gingerly, but he was slower, fatigued but satisfied. When he put his hands around Lance’s arm, he knew they were ready to go.

“Back to work?” Lance asked.

Keith looked up at him, his soft violet eyes meeting Lance’s directly, and gave him a smile that pulled up the apples of his cheeks. He watched him for a couple of seconds longer than usual, like he wanted to capture the image of however Lance’s face looked right then. Keith had never looked at him that way before.

“Back to work,” Keith agreed while Lance’s heart restarted. He leaned up and placed one more brave kiss on Lance’s lip, and Lance caught him and held him there before he could cut it too short. Their hands were linked when they walked out of their room together.

 

 

Hunk and Pidge found them first. Keith was walking decently by himself, but he was still slow, and Lance could feel his lightheadedness in his subtle lack of balance. They were in a sitting room on the second floor, tapping through their own datapads in companionable silence, and as soon as they looked up and saw Keith, Hunk nearly threw his tablet across the room.

“Keith! How are you, man?” Hunk darted to his feet and hurried to meet them. He reached out toward Keith and hesitated just enough, but Keith smiled back at him, raised the arm that wasn’t attaching him to Lance, and clasped Hunk’s forearm.

“Good,” Keith answered. “Really good. Everyone else okay?”

“Yeah, we’re good.” Hunk grinned back at him, and Lance saw him squeeze Keith’s arm in return. And then his eyes landed on Keith’s neck, where there was still some obvious bruising. He looked to Lance and found a matching set, and his eyebrows arched up. “Oh-- I uh, guess you are good.”

While Keith’s face turned red, Lance knew he was grinning too wide.

“Yeah. Hunk, Pidge, have you met my boyfriend, Keith?”

Keith took his hand back from Hunk to hide half his face, but Lance caught the smile in the corner of his eyes and the flutter in his ring.

Hunk’s face broke into a huge smile. “Seriously? That’s awesome!”

“‘Bout time,” Pidge mumbled, looking back down at her datapad. Lance snorted loudly, and he actually heard a quiet laugh from Keith. It was sort of tragic that he had never seen Keith this happy before. He decided to take it as progress.

“Did we miss anything?” Lance asked, and he only made himself more comfortable when Keith leaned into his shoulder where they stood.

“Um… Sort of.” Hunk scratched the side of his jaw, and his smile faded into a frown. “You probably wanna talk to Allura and Shiro about it, though. The police captured a few of the galra from the attack. They’re going down with Kerisz to the station to question them today, but they think you two should go, too, if you’re up to it.”

Keith nodded. It was frightening that his face could go sober that quickly, and Lance had barely noticed his posture straightening.

“Where’s Shiro?” Keith asked.

“He’s over in the library, last I saw.” Hunk’s eyes darted toward the door. “He hasn’t talked a lot since the battle.” Lance understood that as the ‘go easy on him’ that it was, and he nodded alongside Keith.

“Right. Thanks, buddy.”

“Sure. And hey, come hang out later. I’ll make you two something special to celebrate, you know, recovering and young love.”

“Looking forward to it.” Lance grinned and turned them around to walk back into the hall. He leaned in and sang softly in Keith’s ear, “Young love,” and made him laugh into his palm.

In the library, Shiro was sitting on a loveseat in the corner. He had a couple of books set aside on the seat next to him, but all of his attention was devoted to the grey kitten in his lap, kneading on his stomach and trilling its soft, strange purr. When the two of them stepped into the room, he looked up at them, pursed his lips, and managed to look conciliatory.

“Hey.” Lance showed him a small smile. He had been the angriest yesterday, and he knew he had to be the first one to speak. “I’m sorry about snapping at you before.” Lance had been right, but he shouldn’t have been so cold to him. Shiro was doing the best he could with what he had. Shiro returned the smile tentatively.

“No, Lance. You were right. You made the right call.” Takashi Shirogane thought he made the right call. Lance only shut his slackened jaw when Keith squeezed his hand. “If you hadn’t… I’m glad you’re both alright.”

“You, too.” Keith’s entire expression softened. “And hey, I want to introduce you to someone.”

Shiro regarded him, surprised. “Who?”

Keith sucked in a deep breath, pressed his shoulder to Lance’s, and said, “This is Lance, my boyfriend.” Immediately, he glanced between Shiro and Lance, checking to see if he had done it right.

“Jesus Christ, you’re so cute,” Lance laughed, and Keith accepted his kiss on the cheek with a grin.

“Wow.” Shiro blinked at the two of them, and then he smiled. “Finally. Congratulations.”

“Thank you.” Keith said it genuinely, happily, and tugged Lance closer to Shiro with him. “And who’s this?” he asked, looking to the cat. Shiro scooped it up under its chest, and it made a perturbed grumble when it was separated from Shiro’s warm lap.

“This is Watney,” Shiro informed them with no small amount of pride. The kitten’s tail flicked, and it bit idly at the joint of Shiro’s metal wrist. “He’s a botanist and everything. He keeps dragging me into the herb garden.”

“I love him,” Lance declared, and Watney looked up at him and meowed loudly. Shiro loosened his hold on him, and the kitten climbed up his arm to perch on his shoulder, nuzzling the short hair at his temple. “And I think he loves you.”

Shiro smiled sideways at the cat, and he reached up to pet him. “I think I love him, too. He really likes Coran, too, so he’ll probably stay up with him while we’re gone.” The smile began to fade when he looked up at Lance and Keith again. “Did they tell you yet?”

“About the captive galra? Yeah.” Lance shifted his feet. He had just gotten to see Shiro relaxed and acting nice again, and he wasn’t quite ready to lose that to Shiro the soldier.

“Are you up to it?” Shiro asked Keith. “Allura and I can handle it, but she and Kerisz said you should come.”

“I’m ready,” Keith stated, and Lance’s heart sank another fraction. He wasn’t ready to lose their good morning to Keith the soldier, either. “I should be there. Have there been any other signs of galra activity?”

“Not yet.” Shiro set Watney down on the loveseat, and the cat darted off the couch to run out of the room, tail held high. “But we don’t know how much they told command before we took them out. Anything could happen.” Lance was surprised when Shiro’s gaze landed on him, and a wry smile hinted at his mouth. “What do you think? Should we suit up?”

Their soft, warm morning was over. Lance smiled back tensely.

“Anything could happen, right?”

Chapter Text

For the first time, Keith was grateful for the sting. No one would question him being attached to Lance’s arm, and he didn’t even have to ask for Lance to stay close to him. He wouldn’t even begin to describe himself as a touchy person, but after the morning they’d had, he wasn’t quite ready to be separated from him, venom or no. On the drive to the police station, they sat across from Allura, Shiro, and Kerisz on the parallel seats in the back of the vehicle, and they were pressed side to side with Keith’s cheek on Lance’s shoulder and their hands laced over his knee.

Allura exchanged a couple of bemused looks with Lance. Kerisz didn’t look at them at all, but they seemed more at peace than usual. Shiro only looked at them in terse glances. The three of them had plenty of room on one seat, and Keith and Lance managed to make their half of the space look crowded, not that either of them minded.

“When we arrive at the station,” Kerisz briefed them all, “you’ll be working with Captain Vyrisid. I’d also like for you to understand how we manage prisoners and conduct interrogations.”

“And how is that?” Shiro asked, and Kerisz fixed him with a strange stare.

“Torture degrades everyone involved and seldom produces accurate information. It is forbidden in Therysia. Our prisoners are treated with dignity. You will not harm them or threaten them under any circumstances. Successful interrogations are conversations where a rapport is built.”

“Of course.” Allura looked surprised that this even needed clarification.

“How many are there?” Shiro asked.

“We recovered three officers,” Kerisz replied. “We’re holding them in separate cells to keep them from collaborating or injuring each other. It’s the galra way to never be taken alive, so we have to be careful with them.”

That left a chill in Keith’s stomach. He didn't regularly feel a kinship with the galra, but it was a horrible thing to remember he was related to a race of people that killed themselves and their own teammates rather than be captured. He felt Lance slide his thumb over the back of his palm, and he let it ground him.

The Therysian police station was one of several dome-shaped buildings tucked against an even larger one. It gave Keith the impression of a city hall, backed by a cliffside in the forest that housed the entire metropolis. The hovering car stopped by a stone walkway, and when the passengers stepped out, the air smelled like the spice of tree bark. Keith could hear animals in the trees, but he couldn’t decide if the long, chirping sounds were more akin to birds or crickets. Lance commented that they sounded like frogs.

The interior of the building was a clean-cut contrast. The moment the doors shut behind them, Keith couldn’t hear the trees or the wildlife anymore. There was only the dull hum of whatever machinery ran the building and three long, grey hallways branching out in front of the main doors. Like the hospital, this building wasn’t beautiful. It was strictly functional.

Keith’s right shoulder ached. A muscle in his arm spasmed painfully, and nausea rose up his spine and spun at the back of his throat. All he did was grimace and shut his eyes, but it had Lance slipping his arm around him entirely and pressing his lips to his hair.

“Fine,” Keith mumbled before Lance could even ask.

“You sure?” Lance studied his face, so openly tender and concerned that it hurt.

“Yeah.” Keith pulled on a smile that didn't convince either of them. They couldn't worry about him right then. They had too much to do. He took Lance's hand off his shoulder and held it between them again, a more acceptable form of contact when they were out in public. It wasn't nearly enough - even the rings didn't feel like they stifled enough of the venom anymore - but Keith could work through it. He would have to. “Don't worry. Let's just get this done.”

“Okay.” Lance was clearly still worrying, but Keith led him down the hallway after the others before anyone could realize they had slowed down.

Kerisz took them down the central hallway. They passed rows of smaller halls and doorways, nondescript to the point of indistinguishability, and then walked through a larger office. Several Yzrians sat at desks and looked up at them when they came in, but no one spoke out loud. At the end of that room was another set of doors with multiple locks and security plates installed along the sides.

There was a Yzrian standing outside of the doors with their arms crossed. Keith knew they had to be Vyrisid before they ever spoke. They carried the air of an officer, even though the only part of the uniform they wore was the badge over what seemed to be a more casual set of clothes. Their large yet unexpressive eyes found Kerisz and then moved to the rest of them.

“Councilor,” they greeted flatly. “Paladins. I've been working on our captives the past couple of days. I haven't talked to any of them since yesterday, but they're really bad at talking so far.”

“Has any one of them been more responsive than the others?” Kerisz asked.

“Hardly. You know how galra are. You'd think Zarkon himself is gonna step out of the next room and shoot them if they even look at me too long.” Vyrisid rolled their large yellow eyes.

“Captain.” Kerisz bit the word out, and Vyrisid clicked their tongue once and bowed their eyes in a shadow of apology. “What do they need?”

“Aside from my head on a stick?” A sharper glare from the councilor had Vyrisid sighing. “We won't be getting anywhere with any of them unless they're sure they can either get back to their fleet safe, or if they believe they’ll be safe from the Empire here. We’ll have to arrange asylum for any of them that may cooperate. The tall one, Korasat, has a breathing condition. He keeps coughing and getting angry when I ask about it. We’ve installed a new ventilator in his cell, but he would be more comfortable with medicine. I've already ordered a specialist for him. Vanok is the silent, moody one with the dark pattern. He keeps hugging himself and touching his neck, and he sleeps with the blanket bundled up next to him, so we have a galra missing his mate. Not much we can do about that, but we’ve made his cell warmer to ease some of his anxiety. And Orzil is the little one with the big, fidgety ears. He doesn't feel safe enough, so I've brought in more blankets for him. He's pretty young and he probably hasn't even grown out of his burrowing instinct.”

A decent half of this failed to stick in Keith's understanding. He was still processing the simple fact that galra soldiers could get bronchitis when Vyrisid looked to the paladins.

“I recommend talking to Vanok first. He’s always cranky anyway. Try not to get too close to the cell, or he’ll get nervous.” Vyrisid turned to face the doors, and they set their hand on a panel before the doors unlocked and parted. Allura, Shiro, and Kerisz followed Vyrisid through the doors, and Keith and Lance came after them.

The cell was contained in its own room, and in front of the cell’s containment field was a long bench. Vyrisid sat down once they entered, facing the wall of nothing more than a slightly glowing energy. Allura sat beside them, ankles crossed lightly and her head held high, while Shiro took the far end of the room. Keith and Lance leaned as one unit to get a better look at the galra soldier sitting in the cell.

It was supposed to be a tidy little space. It had a bed, a compact bathroom, and a minimal desk in the corner with a screen that Keith had to assume was for the prisoner’s personal use, potentially for writing or recording journals. The Therysians had given the galra a few sets of clothes, which should have been tucked into the drawers of the nightstand. It looked like Vanok had suffered a restless night, though. The drawers had been ripped out and cast across the floor, the desk chair was on its side with the back of it touching the containment field, and the mattress had been pulled off of its frame to lie in the middle of the cell. Only a large, rumpled blanket seemed to have survived the chaos. A figure larger than Shiro sat cross-legged in the middle of the disorder, his own clothes ragged on his shoulders. His ears lay flat and irritated, and his claws scratched slowly at the mattress, pulling chunks of stuffing from it. Dark, repeating striations dragged across his grey-violet face and neck, and the thin markings made Keith think of a tiger. His head was held low, refusing eye contact with anyone.

Keith had to wonder how the Yzrian police had expected to keep Vanok from hurting himself, and his only guess was that it had to do with the thin metallic collar around his neck.

“How are we feeling today, Vanok?” Vyrisid asked, wholly unaffected.

Vanok’s ears twitched. He didn't look up. He pulled out another shred of stuffing, tore it apart, and scattered it on the floor. Something about this inspired Lance to stand even closer to Keith. He wrapped one strong arm around his shoulders, and when Keith glanced up at him, Lance was staring at the imprisoned galra with a quiet, steady frown.

“Looks like you don't like your bed,” Vyrisid continued calmly. “If you're having trouble sleeping--”

“I don't want medicine.”

Vanok’s voice was stiff and rasping from disuse, and the sound of it sent the hair on the back of Keith's neck prickling. Getting so many words out of him at once seemed to startle the Yzrians, as well. Without looking up, Vanok elaborated.

“I don't want anything.”

“You want to see your mate again,” Allura cut in. Every head in the room snapped up to look at her, even the prisoner’s. “The galra do not allow bonded couples to serve on the same vessel. Wherever they are, they were not on the ship with you, nor in the attack with you the other day.”

Vanok's livid stare did its best to gouge into her. His silence wasn't much to go on, but it was enough. His eyes moved across each person facing him, their focus highlighted by the brightest point of luminescent yellow. They gave Lance a turn and then Keith, flickered over the Yzrians, and then stopped on Shiro.

The galra’s scowling mouth pursed. The skin around his eyes flinched. His clawed fingers clenched in the shredded cloth and tore holes deeper into the mattress. And then he dropped his gaze again, staring at the mutilated stuffing.

Nobody looked at Shiro like that. Keith narrowed his eyes at the captive, and he took an impulsive step closer to the transparent wall. Lance followed him, startled but faithful.

“Do you recognize him?” Keith growled. A sick, angry knot formed in his chest at the thought of this soldier having witnessed Shiro’s captivity. How many galra had only watched while Shiro had been thrown into an arena, or dragged beaten through some dark hallway to be stitched back together?

“Everyone knows about the Champion.” Again, Vanok failed to meet anyone's eyes. It only took a glance at Shiro to see the sick shock working through him as well.

Keith was ashamed of it, but an ugly splinter of fury took hold of his throat. It was the corner of him that was terrified that Shiro might really be beyond his help, and that the galra had made him that way. Every flinch across Shiro’s face at a loud noise, every time he froze in fear, every panic attack Keith had seen his friend try to cover up and function through, it was because of the galra. Every impatient, unkind, un-Shiro-like word from his mouth was the galra’s fault.

And scrutinizing Vanok in that small room, the way he closed in on himself as soon as he saw Shiro, Keith found someone to blame.

“Look at him,” Keith snarled. He made for another step forward, but Lance’s arm held him back across the chest. He heard Lance whisper his name, patient and afraid, and it only made him feel sicker. “His name is Shiro. Look at him.”

“No,” Vanok bit out, refusing to look up. “I don’t want the Champion in here. Get him out.”

Keith started to lurch forward again, but Lance held him tight and hissed in his ear.

“Keith, stop.” Keith finally registered his own furious quaking, and then he recognized Lance’s warm breath against his cheek. “Stop. Shiro’s right here.”

Shiro wasn't missing anymore.

Shiro wasn't leaving him.

Keith wanted to tear the barrier apart and smash Vanok’s face into the floor, but he found his seams and pulled himself together.

This was one galra in the entire Empire. This prisoner wasn’t blameless, but Keith couldn’t accuse him of hurting Shiro directly.

He deflated without dropping his baleful stare. Vanok watched him in return, as tense and hateful as a cornered animal.

The only balm Keith had was Lance. As angry as he still was, as he would always be about what had happened to Shiro, Lance felt… not calm, but peaceful. Gentle in the face of cruelty. Lance looked at someone who had referred to Shiro with an arena title, and he was able to smile.

“Sorry,” Lance offered to Vanok, “about my uh, mate. Keith’s fighty, but only because he cares. We’re all pretty protective of Shiro.”

Vanok fixed his eyes on Lance in utter bafflement, and Keith tried not to let his knees go weak with affection. There was really nothing in this boy but love.

“Please don’t try to pull the nice cop thing,” Vanok begged. “I may vomit.”

Lance just shrugged, holding his shoulders up to his ears for an extra second. “I was never gonna make a very good cop. And if I’m being honest, I wanted to kill you when I walked in here. Someone on your team shot Keith. Maybe it was you.”

No one spoke for a moment, largely because no one had any idea where Lance was going with this. But god, it was fascinating to listen to him.

“But I’m trying to wrap my head around the fact that you have someone, too. And I know I’d do anything I could to get back to Keith, if I were in your shoes. Doesn’t make me like you, but I think I get it. When’s the last time you even saw them?”

Vanok’s face was grey with tension. Some corner of him must have been unable to not answer.

“Twelve decaphoebs.” His voice croaked around the words. It sounded like the first time he had said it out loud, like that secret had been gathering dust and soreness.

Keith felt a thrum in their rings and in Lance’s ribcage. With a sideways glance, he saw the flinch of real, gut-wrenching sympathy on his face. He wondered if he could have withstood twelve years apart from Lance, as they were now.

“I’m sorry,” Lance said. “I can't imagine that kind of loss.”

“I didn't lose him,” Vanok snapped, making Lance jump unexpectedly. The room waited for him to elaborate, but Vanok fell back into a stubborn, aggressive silence.

“But you were separated?” Lance guessed. “I mean, I know you don't wanna hear this right now, but only the Empire pulls loved ones apart like that. You didn't think that was a sign you're on the wrong side?”

Vanok’s eyes narrowed, and the soft yellow glow of them flickered toward Shiro again. It was brief, but every time the galra looked at Shiro, Keith’s knuckles itched. Vanok stared at his hands in his lap, avoiding further eye contact.

“Do you know if he’s okay?” Lance prompted gently.

“He's not dead,” Vanok answered, clipped and hostile. So this mate was serving on another galra ship. An odd personal detail, and one that Keith wasn't sure why it mattered.

“How do you know?” Keith asked anyway. It just seemed like a logical question; how could Vanok be sure this person was alive if he hadn't seen him in twelve years?

Vanok clenched his teeth and fixed Keith with such a hateful stare that, for a split second, Keith fully expected himself to be struck by lightning. He wasn't going to answer, but Allura did.

“Galra mate for life.”

Confusion hit Lance and Keith equally, and he felt it compounded through the two of them. Those words didn't fit together. Galra mated for life.

Galra, the conquerors and slavers and murderers of the universe. It was hard to fit love into that description.

“What does that mean?” Lance failed to ask casually. His hand felt hot on Keith’s, and he sent him a quick glance before looking back to Allura.

Keith caught on slowly. His eyes widened, and his stomach flipped.

Allura stared at the two of them for a beat too long, but graciously kept focused. “In Vanok’s case,” she replied, an unspoken ‘I’ll explain later’ lying in there somewhere, “it means he would have felt it if his mate had died. Their quintessence is… linked.” That seemed to be the best word for it, though it made her frown.

“Why are you so obsessed with my mate?” Vanok snarled, grabbing everyone’s attention again. His shoulders were tense, braced to fight with nowhere else in the cell to go, ready to defend the idea of someone he hadn’t seen in years. It was almost pathetic, if Keith didn’t relate so much. “It’s pointless. He’s obviously not here.”

“Exactly.” Allura gazed back at him evenly. “We could remedy that for you.”

One corner of Vanok’s glare faltered.

“You love him more than you love the Empire, but do you fear the Empire more than you love him?”

Vanok swallowed, unsteady, but his mouth set into a grim, resolute line. “You have no idea what they’ll do to him if I talk.”

“Which is why we’ll help you. If you help us, and if you can tell us which vessel he’s on, we’ll extract him and give both of you safe harbor in the coalition, together. I swear it on my title as Princess.”

A chink. Vanok’s stare didn’t break for ten uncomfortable seconds, and then it turned to Shiro once again.

“Get him out of here,” he demanded. “I’m done talking as long as he’s here.”

It was probably for the best for Shiro to have a break. Keith wouldn’t be hard pressed to admit that he wanted Shiro to have as little exposure to the galra as possible, going forward. At least Vanok didn’t call him Champion again. But when every eye in the room returned to Shiro, the sick horror and growing anger on his face gave everyone pause.

“Shiro,” Allura said gently. “We’ll discuss it with you later. If you would return to the hall--”

Shiro hadn’t spoken for the entire conversation, and Keith didn’t recognize his voice when he did. He expected it to crack the walls.

“What’s wrong with me?!”

Shiro moved toward the barrier of the cell. His body wasn’t made for real, threatening intent; his legs should never carry him forward with that much hostility. His back and shoulders should never bend with that kind of aggression.

Shiro wasn’t aggressive. Shiro was kind and gentle and patient.

Keith had been angry, but Shiro transcended that.

His question wasn’t rhetorical.

Keith reacted first when Shiro’s right hand flickered with energy, a poisonous violet that Keith couldn’t imagine the barrier stopping. He broke away from Lance’s hold, meriting a fearful cry of his name and a bolt of pain through his body, and he found himself with both hands on Shiro’s left shoulder.

“Shiro, stop, look at me.”

Shiro didn’t. His teeth were bared at the prisoner.

“You know something! What’s wrong with me?”

Everyone was on their feet. Lance’s hands braced themselves on Keith’s biceps from behind him. Keith’s heart was in his ears, and his mind felt crowded with the images his eyes tried to gather in. The glint of light on Shiro’s teeth. The wildness of Shiro’s eyes. The crease of anger beside his nose.

“Shiro,” Keith begged. “Look at me. It’s okay. Let’s get you out of here.”

“Keith, shut up.”

A rough shove to his chest made him stumble back crookedly. Lance’s arms caught him, but Keith couldn’t pull a breath into his chest. Shiro was finally looking at him, and Keith wished on his life that he wasn’t. Shiro’s eyes were supposed to be warm.

“For once in your life, don't get in my way.”

The pain built upon itself. From the roots of his teeth to the core of his stomach to the joints of his ankles, the burn of something frozen too cold held Keith rigid and still. It doused his senses in a fog that fell short of comforting. Distantly, Allura’s voice cut through the blur.

“Shiro.”

Keith was belatedly sure he heard the hum of her bayard and the high-pitched whir of a gun at the ready. There was the hiss of a door somewhere behind him, and then a few more pairs of weighted footsteps and voices.

His eyes fixed on a muscle in Shiro’s jaw, the way it tightened, the way the corner of his mouth bent down, but there were no sudden movements.

“Please drive him back to the guest hall. Tell Coran of his outburst. We won’t take much longer.”

Keith noticed the light fade from Shiro’s hand, and it returned to its neutral setting. Cool grey. Harmless. When Shiro moved away from Keith’s field of vision, it was silently, with a calm, stoic dignity, but he was cooperating. He heard the doors hiss shut again.

He was drawn fully into Lance’s arms, pulled back against his chest, and the moment of quiet was broken by an odd, short wheeze from his own throat. He lifted his hand to curl around Lance’s, resting over his shoulder, and he made an effort to turn and look back.

Shiro wasn’t anywhere in the room. That made sense, one part of his brain decided, but he didn’t like it. How long would it be until he would see Shiro again? Would Shiro avoid him? How was he supposed to fix this?

Lance whispered, “Keith,” beside his ear and slowly inhaled and exhaled through pursed lips. He made an audible pattern that Keith could follow, and he felt his chest begin to loosen up. He hadn’t realized his breath had been hitching until it relaxed. When the fog began to lift, he looked to the people still occupying the room.

Allura’s eyes met his, held them for a few seconds sorrowfully, and looked back toward the cell. Vyrisid was staring at Vanok, their face expressionless enough to suggest anger, and tucking something into place at the holster of their belt. Kerisz was no longer present.

Vanok was standing with his back against the far wall of his cell. His eyes were shut tight, and his claws were making a feeble effort to dig into the metal behind them. He didn’t have anyone to breathe with him. His lips were twitching over a few tiny, panicked words, and Keith could barely hear him.

“What if they saw, what if they saw, what if they saw.”

“Vanok?” Allura tried, gentle but firm.

Vanok swallowed, held tense to stop shaking, and opened his eyes with the same flat, closed-off stare as when they had walked in.

“I can’t help but feel that you know something,” Allura said. Keith wasn’t used to her making understatements.

Vanok’s attention flickered back to the door at the end of the room, then the vents above it, then the camera at the far corner, all beyond the cell barrier. His eyes shut again, and he shook his head.

Vyrisid made a sound closer to a hiss than a sigh, and they pulled out a small tablet. They tapped the screen as they stepped forward, and then they turned the tablet to face the cell. Slowly, Vanok crept forward to see what Vyrisid meant to show him.

“This is a live security feed,” Vyrisid explained flatly. “Shiro is leaving the building, right there. You and anything you say to us are safe.”

Vanok stared at the evidence, looked cautiously down to Vyrisid, and took a step back until he was sitting and curled up on the mattress again.

“Before I tell you anything,” Vanok said, measured and slow, “I want to make sure you’re committed to your promise. And if you’ve ever made a good decision in your life, don’t repeat a single word of this to the Champion.”

“Of course.” Vyrisid narrowed their eyes, and Keith stared at the odd exchange while Lance rubbed his arms. He felt Lance go still behind him when Vanok turned his eyes on them.

“You.” Vanok was looking directly at Lance, right over Keith’s shoulder. “You’d do anything for yours, right?” His eyes made a short gesture toward Keith.

Keith felt Lance nod.

“This is my only chance to see mine again. If you lie to me, or if any harm comes to him, I’ll kill you.”

Keith didn’t like that at all. His frayed nerves and his raw heart didn’t like that. His lips peeled back from his teeth, and he found himself trying to stand taller in front of Lance to guard him. While this drew an interested glance from Vanok, it only earned him a dry half-smile from Vyrisid.

“Calm down,” they snorted. “That’s the galra way of saying ‘I’m trusting you.’” Vanok didn’t disagree with this, but a scowl cut more lines into his face; he didn’t appreciate being exposed.

“I want to hear you say it,” Vanok insisted to Lance. “You’ll make sure he gets to me safe. One mate to another.”

Lance nodded again. His arms held Keith not tighter, but warmer.

“I swear,” Lance said, and Keith knew him far too well to doubt it.

Vanok kept his hard stare in place for one too many heartbeats. He finally looked back to Vyrisid.

“His name is Latova. He’s a research officer on cruiser H68-14295KR under Admiral Torus. I want evidence that you’ve located him and are putting an extraction mission in place. I’ll willingly assist with details to ensure his safety and cooperation. Galra deserters don’t last long on their own, so I’ll want to hear your plan to keep both of us safe, too. After that, I’ll tell you everything I know.”

“This is a lot to ask,” Vyrisid commented with their same dry gaze.

“But you’ll do it.” Vanok showed his first grin. It was a crooked, toothy thing with a dangerous light in his eyes. “If you want to know about… about Shiro, you’ll do it.”

Something was wrong with Shiro, and this galra soldier knew it.

Keith didn’t realize himself. It seemed that he had lurched forward and made some distressed noise, because Lance was gathering him back into his arms and hushing him softly. Vyrisid spared the two of them a glance before giving Vanok one more look over.

“Don’t destroy your next room,” they advised, plain as ever. “We’ll find Latova.”

Vanok nodded almost stiffly, but the wry smile stayed in place. “Sounds like a deal, captain.”

Vyrisid smiled back mirthlessly before turning to the door. Wordlessly, Allura followed, and Lance guided Keith after them. Keith couldn’t help himself from looking back, and Vanok stared at him until the door slid shut between them.

 

 

The captain stopped by the desks of quiet, stone-faced Therysians once they exited the wing of holding cells, and Keith heard them murmur about a new room and immobile furniture. That done, Vyrisid walked the paladins back through the hall and to the front of the building.

“Don’t bring Shiro back here. We can’t afford that kind of interruption again. We couldn't afford it this time.”

Allura nodded, grave and peaceable. “I’m very sorry for his unexpected disruption. Shiro has never behaved like this before. He’s professional and kind. I'll speak with him, and I hope you will not let this color your opinion of him too much.”

“At the very least,” Lance said carefully, moving his hand over Keith's side to try and find a more secure, comforting hold, “we know Vanok knows something about Shiro now.”

“And he can hold that over us,” Vyrisid answered a little too sharply. Keith's very core railed against anyone dismissing Lance or Shiro, let alone both at once.

“And now we can figure out how to help him,” Keith snapped. “If something's happened to Shiro, we need to know.”

Shiro never told anyone to shut up. Shiro had never looked at him that way before.

But it wasn’t the worst thing he could have said. He hadn’t cursed at him. He hadn’t hit him - the shove hadn’t even hurt. He hadn’t technically yelled at him. So Shiro hadn’t hurt him. Nothing Shiro could do was unforgivable, and this was fixable.

Vyrisid could only answer him with a cold stare and a nod. “Of course. As long as he doesn’t ruin our chance of a cooperative galra prisoner. Those are rare enough already.” They looked at each of them, settling in the weight of their next words. “Let’s be cautious from now on. Not a word of this to Shiro. And you two?”

Both Keith and Lance straightened up.

“Vanok liked you,” they told Lance. “I want you to keep working with him. But you,” they specified, looking to Keith. “Since you have to stay with Lance, you’ll have to control your temper on your next visit.”

Keith bit his tongue to keep from grinding his teeth. “Right.”

Lastly, Vyrisid bowed to Allura. It was the first respectful thing Keith had seen them do.

“Thank you for your assistance, Princess. I invite you to come back when you’re ready, if you would question the other two galra.”

“Of course. Thank you, captain.” Allura smiled, and when the car pulled up along the stone road to take them back to the hall, Vyrisid went back inside the station. Before they could step into the car, Allura reached out and touched Lance’s arm with a warmer smile.

“I’m grateful that you understood the direction I was taking. Galra soldiers’ only weak spot are their bonds, if they have them, and I knew you’d be able to relate to him. Good work, Lance.”

Lance liked Allura. He had always liked Allura. Feeling a prickle of heat in his stomach and throat, Keith watched Lance out of the corner of his eye.

There was no undue redness to Lance’s cheek. He smiled back at her, and his thumb traced the arc of Keith’s hipbone where he held his waist.

“Aww, thanks, Princess.”

And that was it. Allura slid into the car first, and when the splintering pain in Keith’s chest deepened and burned hotter, he whispered an apology to Lance before pressing closer to him. Lance kept him wrapped up in his arms the entire drive back.

 

 

The guest hall was a place of open balconies, living features, and sunlight, but even before they stepped into the foyer, Keith felt that it was colder along the seams. The light was greyer, and it was quiet. His first thought and first fear was to find Shiro, but the footsteps that greeted them belonged to Coran. His face was drawn and sober, and Keith hadn’t realized how much he relied on his bright attitude and endless supply of anecdotes until their absence set him on edge.

“Welcome back, Princess. Councilor Kerisz just left.” It was weird to see Coran fold his arms so seriously, too. “They explained what happened. I wouldn’t have believed it if Shiro didn’t storm past us.” Keith held perfectly still when Coran settled his eyes on him. “Are you doing alright, number four?”

“I’m fine.” There was no lump in his throat. It was just the air. The extra second of silence said that no one believed him. “Is Shiro okay?”

“He’s in the garden, last I saw.” Coran only took his eyes off of Keith when a small grey kitten stole his attention. Watney trotted over to him, butted his head against Coran’s shin, and trilled his weird little purr. “Oh, hello, number six.”

That earned him a loud meow. Watney’s tail curled against Coran’s leg, and then the kitten continued straight forward to sit right in front of Keith’s foot.

“Hey, buddy,” Lance offered the cat in place of Keith’s confused silence. Watney meowed again, more of an impatient mumble, and flicked his tail from side to side. When Lance knelt down to reach out toward him, never letting go of Keith’s hand, Watney turned and padded over to the archway at the end of the room. He stopped, looked back, and stared at the two of them with his tail still twitching.

“Wow, rude,” Lance huffed.

Allura sighed, and she brought their attention back to the matters at hand. “I should speak with Kerisz. I’m afraid that today’s incident may have damaged their confidence in us.”

“It was nothing of your doing, Princess,” Coran assured her, but Allura’s tired frown didn’t relax. “The councilor has gone back to their office. They didn’t seem upset, necessarily.”

Allura nodded, but she studied the pattern of the silver tiles for another moment.

“Keep an eye on Shiro.” The words were reluctant to come from her, but she gave Coran the warning all the same. “The galra we spoke to alluded to some… suspicious things about him. We can’t be sure of anything yet.”

The not-a-lump in Keith’s throat twisted. “Stop talking about him like that.”

He didn’t appreciate everyone looking at him like that. He didn’t deserve that kind of suspicion. Neither did Shiro.

“I’m sorry, Keith,” Allura said more gently. “We know Shiro. We know we trust him. But for now, it’s best if we don’t tell him about anything Vanok says, just to err on the side of caution.”

When did Shiro ever have to be handled with caution? Keith felt his hackles rising, shoulders tightening, and even Lance’s patient strokes along his arm did nothing to placate him. At least he stopped his mood from getting any worse.

“It’s just for a little while,” Lance murmured. “Just until we know what’s going on for sure.”

A deep breath in, a deep breath out. Lance was on his side, and always had been. Keith had to remember that. He glared at his shoes, and he let the fact that he didn’t argue anymore speak for itself.

“And Keith?” Coran’s voice was soft, too. Like a social worker. “The hospital staff brought over a healing pod for you. They’re loaning it to us so you can take your sessions without having to go all the way back. I can help you and Lance with your treatments.”

Right. Keith’s bum arm. At least he still had a right arm to heal.

“Thanks,” he mumbled.

“We’ve been supplied with plenty of the frelisiel tea, too,” Coran continued, only to be interrupted by a yowl from Watney. The kitten had flattened his ears back, and his tail was thrashing back and forth in irritation. “Oh, no, none of that. Shiro’s already fed you, young man.”

Shiro’s name only seemed to agitate Watney further. He paced back and forth along the archway and emitted an uneasy grumble.

Keith frowned, and he squeezed Lance’s hand to alert him to a new decision. Deliberately, he walked toward the kitten, watching for his response.

Watney’s ears and tail perked upright, and he trotted further away from the two of them down the hall.

“We’ll see you guys later,” Lance called back to Coran and Allura, and he stayed even with Keith as they followed the cat.

The first floor of the guest hall wasn’t difficult to navigate. Or, Keith had thought so, before Watney reminded him just how large it was. There were more walls and pillars than he had bothered to notice, and trotting and then running after the kitten got him acquainted with each of them. Sometimes Watney would pause and look back at them, tail swinging back and forth, until they had almost caught up to him. He held onto Lance’s hand the whole way, and even though the contact was too small to seemingly sate any of the venom, Keith was too impatient to slow down and remedy that. And then they turned a corner, and the three of them abruptly spilled into the garden.

This particular branch of the garden was on the east side of the building. The flowers grew low, and climbing plants grew higher along pillars. More abundant than flowers were stretching, leafy plants that carried their own unique scents, ranging from minty and sweet to something bitter.

Just outside of the covered section of the garden, where the plants seemed to prefer shade, was an old, wide tree. The trunk was clothed in a familiar vine with familiar purple flowers, and next to it stood a familiar man. Shiro hadn’t seen or heard them yet, and his attention was on one of the large blooms. They weren’t vibrant, but their color was deep and soft, and the back of Shiro’s fingers traced over the petals and skimmed down the stem.

Even across the garden, Keith could see Shiro’s sunken eyes and the resigned pose of his mouth in profile. The black of his cybernetic fingers was stark against the delicate vine of the frelisiel, and their motions were slow and careful, like he was wondering if his false hand could feel any signals from the plant anyway. Like there was anyone on the other end to answer him at all. The whole image of him was too hopelessly lonely for Keith to hold at a safe distance.

Watney was the brave soul to step forward. He ran with his tail held high and friendly, and he rubbed his entire little frame against Shiro’s ankle. When Shiro looked down and dropped his hand from the vine, his shoulders slackened and a small, tired smile touched his face. He had only started to bend down to pet him when he noticed Lance and Keith. He jolted, straightened up, and took an uncoordinated step away from the tree.

“Hey.” His voice was choked. His eyes were afraid, and he looked like he was resisting the impulse to retreat.

“Shiro,” Keith tried gently, and Shiro held himself even stiller. “It’s-- Um, the cat. Sorry.” Shiro doubtlessly needed some space. That was what the sick feeling in Keith’s stomach told him, so he turned around and tried to pull himself inside the building again. Lance’s hand tightened around his, but he seemed ready to go with him. Shiro’s uncharacteristically fragile voice stopped them.

“Keith.”

Keith turned halfway. He hated that the fearful sadness on Shiro’s face reflected his own.

“I’m sorry,” Shiro said. “Lately, I’ve… There’s no excuse. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Keith answered, but Lance put his arm around him.

“No, Keith, it’s not okay,” Lance mumbled. Lance had been quiet since the… Keith hated thinking of it as the incident. It hadn’t even been that bad. It was ridiculous for everyone to be so upset about it. Still, Lance looked to Shiro with flint in his eyes. “I know this is confusing and scary, especially for you. But never talk to Keith like that again. Never raise a hand to him again.”

Keith couldn’t say he felt grateful for Lance being so sharp with Shiro. Lance wasn’t standing up for him, because Shiro wasn’t someone to stand up against, but it felt very close to that. Lance had his back, and Keith loved him for it.

Shiro only nodded.

“We’re going to get this figured out. Just hang on and trust us.”

Shiro nodded again. In the middle of the green garden, in the shade of that tall, strange tree, he was the only grey thing in sight. Neither of them were ready to talk, and Keith didn’t have any good words or stability to offer him, but he wanted to go to him. Lance squeezed his shoulder gently to draw his attention.

“You need a session, baby. Let’s get you some tea and see about that pod, okay?”

Lance knew. As badly as Keith wanted this conflict resolved, they needed a break. Keith was fine, but Shiro needed some time after whatever that outburst had been. He agreed faintly and let Lance lead him back inside, but he didn’t miss the image of Shiro sitting down against the tree trunk and letting the kitten curl up in his lap.

 

 

There were no qualms against Lance staying in the pod with him. Coran gave him a cup of the same tea as that morning, and Keith drank it quickly so he wouldn’t have to savor the taste of actual dirt. Before they stepped into the pod, Lance laced his fingers into Keith’s right hand and squeezed it gently.

Lance did the same thing when they stepped out again. The lighting in the room had only shifted a little bit, and a glance at the panel on the side of the pod told Keith that only an hour had passed. The time spent pressed close to Lance had helped assuage most of the pain, but moving away from him even slightly made it spike in his ribcage and down his limbs. He shivered and selfishly tucked himself against Lance’s side, and he rubbed Lance's back to offer him some warmth after the chill of the pod. Lance responded accordingly, and feeling him hug him tightly had Keith sighing with contentment.

Coran was still seated beside the pod with another panel in front of him, and his brows were furrowed with focus as he turned back and forth between a couple of screens.

“That seemed to go well,” Coran said with just enough hesitation for Keith not to believe him. “How’s the shoulder feeling?”

Keith rotated his right shoulder in a small circuit, and he didn't flinch at the twinge of resistance. He flexed his fingers and found weakness. Not good enough to fight or pilot at his full ability.

“It's alright,” he decided. “What's that look for?”

Coran blew out a small sigh that ruffled his mustache. “Well… It looks like you're reaching the next stage of the ignis venom. There's been some undue stress on your body, what with the injury and… this morning, and stress is known to exacerbate the symptoms. It's going to become much more acute in the next couple of days.”

That had an immediate effect on Lance. Keith stared dumbly over Lance's shoulder when Lance buried his face into his neck, cuddling with him shamelessly to give him more contact.

“Is it getting worse?” he asked Keith quietly, and all Keith could do was give a short, reluctant nod. Feeling Lance this close was nice, though. Nice enough to melt the pain like ice cream in the sun.

“Well, as long as you two have it handled,” Coran continued dryly. “In addition… Lance, you're not feeling any of the ignis’ effects by any chance, are you?”

Lance cocked his head against Keith's shoulder. “Um… No? I don't think so. Why?”

“I know they told you this at the hospital, but sharing a pod can have some strange effects,” Coran warned them. “It's not allowed very often, but when it does happen, the pod will try to bring the two bodies to equilibrium.” Lance only shrugged in response.

Keith jerked backward, and Lance gave him a helpless, confused look when Keith pushed him to arms’ length. It made the pain come rushing back through his body, but he had to glare at him for just a second.

“Lance,” he growled. “You knew about this?”

“Hey-- It's fine,” Lance insisted. “They said you're compatible with me, and the blood test went fine, and--”

“What blood test?” Keith demanded.

Lance chewed the corner of his lip, and if he shrugged again, Keith was going to-- oh, Jesus Christ, he shrugged again.

“They had to uh, run a compatibility.”

Lance.

“You needed blood, okay?” Lance caved with a fragmented desperation. “You were dying, Keith, your heart was barely beating, and back home they'd always give me those calls to get me in to donate because I'm a good donor, and even the mean doctor said it was fine, and--”

Lance had given blood for him. A very unwanted, very overwhelming image of Lance sitting next to Keith’s hospital bed with a needle in his arm and their hands clasped invited itself into Keith's mind, and something in his chest clenched. He lifted one hand from Lance's shoulder to cup his cheek and jaw, and Lance fell quiet.

“Lance,” he said more gently this time. “I'm fine, but what about you?”

Keith couldn't believe the bashfulness on Lance's face, like he hadn't realized that was what had Keith worried the whole time.

“I mean, what else was I supposed to do?” Lance mumbled.

“Wait outside the pod and hope for the best?” Keith suggested.

“Nope. That's stupid. Shouldn’t my blood make you smarter or something?”

“The point is,” Coran spoke up, calling both of them back to the present, “Lance, if you start feeling strange, we may need to consider an alternative to you sharing a pod.”

“Strange how?” Keith asked.

“Well, any weakness or illness from an incompatibility on his end, or any effects of the ignis sting, or if he starts experiencing… some not quite human traits.”

Keith did and didn't appreciate Coran stepping around the whole ‘your galra genes, Keith, you know, the inhuman ones’ thing. It was considerate of him and too delicate and shameful at once, and it left it up to Keith to say it out loud.

“Lance could start feeling like a galra?”

Coran sighed and tipped his head to one side. “It's possible, but it's pretty up in the air.”

“What kind of galra traits?” Lance asked, eyes wide, and he pulled Keith close to his chest again. “Like cool glowing eyes, or super strength, or will I get taller? Though it looks like that gene skipped Keith.” The small growl from Keith's throat only made him grin.

“Not so overt,” Coran corrected him. “My best guess is that you wouldn't have any permanent biological changes, but some of Keith's enzymes and hormones may affect you.”

It made Keith want to squirm to hear someone talk about his hormones. That was weird. Ah yes, these are Keith's Pokemon briefs from sixth grade, and here's the letter he wrote to his parents in therapy when he was fourteen. Here's his teenage psych eval from before he met Shiro (which he wasn't supposed to read but stole from the office anyway; it was his psych eval), full of interesting terms like 'depression,’ ‘avoidant,’ and 'lack of trust.’ If he never heard the words 'Keith’s enzymes’ together again, it would be too soon.

“What are Keith's enzymes and hormones gonna do,” Lance snorted, and Keith winced. “Give me a mullet?”

“Hair growth is a possibility,” Coran said with a nod, to both of their surprise. “An increase in appetite. Some more… aggressive impulses.”

Keith was officially uncomfortable. He cleared his throat and stared down at the white cryopod shoes on his feet.

“So we watch out for Lance acting like me.”

“Precisely,” Coran replied cheerfully.

“Speaking of all that,” he mentioned with all the nonchalance he had remaining. This was as good a time as any other. “I had some questions about… galra stuff.”

“Galra stuff?” Coran arched one eyebrow.

“Yeah.”

“Allura mentioned something about how they mate for life,” Lance’s good intentions piped up.

Oh.”

Fuck all, Keith was almost twenty and he hadn't had The Talk for half of his biology yet. His face was burning, and he mumbled, “Yeah,” again.

“I sent your pad an entire book about galra stuff movements ago,” Coran answered, taken aback.

“Oh. I skimmed it,” Keith lied.

“But if you’d rather hear about the intricacies of galran bonds from me--”

“No, uh, that's fine,” Keith interrupted quickly, and he could feel Lance shaking with laughter behind him. “Must've just missed that chapter.”

Coran shook his head, mumbled to himself, and dismissed them. “If you have any questions, I’m always happy to answer. Now, your next session is tomorrow, same time and place.”

“Right. Thanks, Coran.” Cheeks livid, Keith held onto Lance’s arm when they walked out of the second-floor study that served as 'Keith’s pod room.’

 

 

“It's bad, isn't it?” Lance asked once their suite door was shut. He was gentle and warm and trustworthy, and best of all, willing to help when he pulled his shirt off.

Keith nodded and let his posture admit how glum he felt. The couple of seconds it took for him to undress equally were glacial, but then Lance's hands came to rest on his sides, and Keith tossed his shirt aside and went slack against Lance's chest. A long, low hum rumbled out of him as the discomfort and ache and sickness finally dissolved into nothing. It had become such a constant thing in the past hours that existing without it made him shiver with pleasure. Lance was becoming his god, especially when he rubbed Keith's back like that.

“Thank you,” Keith mumbled into Lance's collar.

“My pleasure.” Lance drew him closer to the bed, and Keith climbed in with him to lie alongside him.

It seemed like all Keith could do was curl up in bed and rely on Lance to tote him around. He could only hope there wasn't another next stage to the venom. He wouldn't call himself stressed, but his body was exhausted, and it was barely past noon. At this rate, he would be utterly useless by tomorrow.

“Hey.” Lance spoke quietly, like he was trying not to wake someone. “Do you need the flowers?”

Keith shook his head. He wasn't stressed. He had been through much worse before. But that didn't mean he wanted Lance to feel how tired he was, either. Lance was quiet for another moment.

“Can I kiss you?” he tried again, even quieter.

Keith couldn't deny or resist that. He smiled and lifted his head, and before Lance could reach up for him, Keith was already curling a hand around the back of his head and kissing him, slow and light. He felt Lance crooning as much as he heard it, and they kept the kiss just as soft, enjoying it peacefully and unspoiled. Even Keith's anxiety sank away, if not the fatigue.

“Let's take a nap,” Lance whispered, and to Keith that sounded good enough to be dirty talk. “Nothing else today.”

One clumsy interrogation was the whole schedule for the day? Either way, Keith didn't have it in him to argue anymore. He simply hummed agreement and fell asleep.

 

 

It was almost dark when he woke, and Lance was still sleeping under him. Keith rubbed his eyes and knew he wouldn't be able to join him again anytime soon.

Something about nighttime had him wired. It had been the only time cool enough for long excursions in the Arizona desert, and as he had grown up, he had realized that he felt better at night. More alert and productive. He stretched up to give Lance's cheek a feather-light kiss, and when he turned around to reach for his datapad on the nightstand, Lance followed him and nestled against his back, arms locked around his waist. He gave a single soft snore, and it gave Keith something to smile about when he opened the pad and put the brightness to the lowest possible setting.

Keith never checked the 'personal’ division of his messages. He just assumed that nothing would show up there, and he kept his focus on the tactical side of things, mission briefings and communication logs. But he didn't know where else Coran would have sent him a book, so it was finally worth checking.

The little personal folder wasn't vacant. It had nine messages. Not zero. Nine.

The first was from Coran, close to the day the paladins had arrived on Arus. The message was pages upon pages of vivid history about the castle to welcome them aboard.

The second was from Shiro.

 

Hey Keith,

I know I told you this in person already, but I wanted to repeat that I’m proud of you. That wasn't an easy situation, with Pidge wanting to leave the group and two of us injured, but you handled it admirably. I wasn't sure how much you had changed when you found me, but I couldn’t be happier with the man you've become. You make one amazing paladin.

That said, can you please help me figure out the food goo machine? It keeps locking up and I'm so hungry Keith I'm dying

 

Keith wasn't sure how he could muffle a laugh and, at the same time, feel a knife twist in his stomach. He moved onto the next message before the ache could settle in too deeply.

The third was from Hunk.

 

Hey man! I'm making some modifications to the kitchen so we can cook ACTUAL FOOD and I wanted to know if there's anything you were craving. It's not going to be done for a while since I'm basically reinventing the oven, but I can get the equipment and supplies prepped if I know what we’re going to make.

 

A fourth from Pidge.

 

Please let me modify Red I think we can make her go faster

 

The fifth was from Lance, and it got Keith to grin.

 

Guess who beat your ranged score in the simulator :3c by 5097 points to be exact :3ccc throw down mullet, training deck anytime

 

The sixth was another from Shiro, shortly after the date of their meeting with the Blade.

 

Hey Keith,

Whenever you want to talk, I’m here.

I saw what happened. The suit they gave you showed you visions, and what you saw wasn't me. I need you to remember that I will never do that to you. I will never walk away from you.

The trials were more than either of us expected. I knew you were a fighter, but I was scared for you, Keith. You didn't want to show anyone you were hurt before, but please get in a healing pod, for my sanity if nothing else.

And about what Kolivan told us about you: we always knew you were extraordinary. You're still the same man who keeps saving my ass. I know you're going to try to shut down about this, but remember that I’m always available.

 

Keith reread that one five times, and then he stopped reading for a while.

When he picked his datapad up again after half an hour, he saw that the seventh message was titled A good read for any space-farer and people with galra heritage and included a huge file, the one Keith had been looking for. Attached was a brief note.

 

I’m so sorry about Shiro, my boy. Each one of us is here for you.

 

Keith's stomach wrenched. He knew the timeline, as much as he wanted to put it behind him. The eighth was from Allura, surprisingly.

 

Keith,

I don't feel as though I articulated myself properly before, but I am sorry. Since our contact with the Blade of Marmora and our discovery of your heritage, I treated you coldly and made you feel distanced from the team. There is no excuse for this. That is not how a princess should behave.

You are family to me. You are such a vital member of this team, and the team is all I have left. An apology isn't good enough, and I wish to make amends for acting so selfishly during what must already be a stressful and confusing time for you. I have asked Coran to provide you with the most up-to-date resource we could find on the galran species, and if you have any questions for me or if you simply want to talk, please know that I’m available. I know I’m not Shiro, but I want to be here for you as he would. I grew up knowing the Galra to be a strong, noble, and profoundly loyal people, and I want you to remember that you are, and always were, someone that I am proud to have aboard.

Princess Allura

 

Lance nuzzled Keith between his shoulder blades and stroked his chest once, still trying to comfort him in his sleep. Keith fought off the tightness in his throat and continued reading.

The ninth was from Lance.

 

I guess you don't ever read these cause I've never seen you use it but I just wanted to say thanks for helping me with that math problem. And I know you were going to let me keep Red whether you got Black or not, so you're pretty bad at math too. But thanks. I'm glad we’re talking more now. I feel like Red likes Black a lot, so I guess it's like lion, like paladin

What an absolute, complete and utter dork. After running the gauntlet of his teammates’ feelings, the fact that each one of them had cared enough to reach out to him the whole time, all Keith could muster up was a weak smile. He set his hand over Lance's on his chest and barely traced his knuckles with his thumb, affectionate without waking him. With his free hand, he scrolled back and found the text Coran had sent to him. When he opened the file and read the title of the book, his brow furrowed.

A Comprehensive Study of Galra - Their Evolution, Biology, and Traditional Customs as Compared to the Modern Empire, by Woznai Imporiska, Elleth Makar’Usha, and the University of Intergalactic Culture and Xenobiology, Branch of Mandarasha, Kyxarid.

What a mouthful.

Keith didn't have the patience to read the introduction. He understood enough context to get started, so he skipped through the pages to find something interesting.

 

A key developmental stage occurs directly after infancy. Young galra present an instinct to burrow, an evolutionary tactic to hide from predators in the desert biomes of planet Daibazaal. In the absence of caves or burrows, children may hide under blankets or in upturned boxes. Galra children typically feel safest and sleep better in groups, especially sharing an enclosed sleeping space with parents or siblings. This serves to nurture their social identity, as well as to keep warm during cold desert nights. It is paramount that galra children are given plenty of contact and attention at this stage, or they may develop emotional problems later in life, such as being socially withdrawn, mistrustful, or clingy to those who do show them affection. This has become a widespread mental health issue throughout the modern Galra Empire, as children are raised in military academies and taught dependency only to their leaders.

 

Well. If that didn’t explain some shit. Keith let out a deep sigh and skipped a couple of chapters.

 

Galra are among the toughest known space-faring species. With bones stronger than nulmarite, muscle recruitment on par with the average quelderian, and average intelligence to rival that of the long-lost Alteans, as well as a dramatically higher than usual sensitivity to quintessence, they make formidable fighters, strategists, and researchers. They are infamous for aggression and violence, an instinct commonly brushed off as a lack of empathy for others. The modus operandi of the Galra Empire and its history of imperialism makes this perspective difficult to disagree with. However, without excusing the Empire’s cruelty, it is important to recall that the aggression of individual galra is born of a desire to protect, defend, and provide for large, extended families. The traditional galra family structure--

 

Done with that. Keith’s fingertip flicked across the screen and threw the words several more pages along.

 

--rarely made ill from consuming uncooked--

 

--new teeth will replace the lost ones--

 

--from studies performed once every fifty decaphoebs, under the guidance of the Council of--

 

--certain sensitivity to compounds not unlike those found in traditional nunvil--

 

--leading to complaints of headaches, nausea, and in rare cases, paranoia--

 

--largely nocturnal habits, though many galra throughout history have adjusted to the cultural demands of allied--

 

--sensitivity of the neck, a vital and vulnerable site, and exposure is a deeply trusting and loving--

 

--starved for attention from their mates may exhibit restlessness, reverting to burrowing habits for comfort, and a longing for--

 

Keith stopped on that page and ignored the jolt in his stomach, and he checked the title of the chapter.

The Forming of Bonds: Mating, Attunement, and Galra Partnerships, Homogeneous and Interspecies.

He and Lance had already fucked. Keith didn’t know why the title made him squirm with embarrassment. He glanced over his shoulder, double-checking to make sure Lance was still asleep, and he read on.

 

Perhaps the most singular galran feature is their forming of bonds through their inborn sensitivity to quintessence. While thousands of other known species exhibit similar instincts of fidelity, protectiveness, and lasting love in their partnerships, since the extinction of the Alteans, the galra are alone in their peculiar but incredibly romantic ability to form quintessence links. Unique even from the mystical Alteans, the bonds of galra are described by many as 'all-consuming’ and are known to last a lifetime.

It is difficult to explain or even hypothesize what the origin of this quintessence bond may be. The universe’s academic study of quintessence is limited, and its structure, function, physical state, and in some studies its theorized sentience are little more than guesswork, leading many scientists to throw their hands up and call it 'magic.’ One common thread found is that while all living things are known to have quintessence in some form, Alteans and galra are the only recorded sentient species known to interact with it directly. The reason for this is resoundingly, dishearteningly unknown. More spiritual interpretations suggest that quintessence is the 'soul,’ and the two species are linked by fate--

 

Christ, tell him something useful. Keith’s eyes flickered back and forth across the page, willing something relevant to catch his attention. Reading all of it in order sounded impossible.

 

Contrary to popular belief, a bond is not necessarily sexual or even romantic. What it does represent is an extreme attachment that the included parties believe will and want to define their lives. What is truly required to form a link are extended physical touch, an intense experience of shared, reciprocated emotion, and a desire between the parties to remain together, all during a profound act of love. When this occurs, the galra’s quintessence ‘attunes’ to the other parties’, forming a link that will remain just as acute over any distance, and no amount of time passed will lessen it. Even death does not break a bond, and many widowed galra report that they can still “feel” their mate with them at times, like an echo of their quintessence. Many bonds are formed through mating in the traditional sense, but tragically, almost as many are formed on battlefields in moments of desperation. Most galra communities and cultures of the past had their own traditions revolving bonding, such as wedding rites, blood rituals, or extended meditation, but bonds are now discouraged and punished systematically by the Empire.

The observed effects of a bond are sometimes varied, but common factors include a deep sense of loyalty and affection, which is not unnatural or uncharacteristic of the bonded party, but simply maintained; an uncanny awareness of a mate’s well being, such as if they are injured or healthy, even across great distances; a heightened sense of empathy and shared emotion between mates; and a profound sense of loss and physical agony when one's mate passes away, even if they are separated and the living mate would not have otherwise known. It has been described by many mated galra as “a promise to love [one’s mate] forever” and “choosing [one’s] own soulmate.”

A bond cannot be broken once it is made, and it cannot be formed against one’s will. Some couples decide to never bond at all, and a lack of a bond should not be interpreted as an absence of love. Even under the influence of any sort of substance or by coercion, a bond cannot form unless it is a true reflection of all parties’ quintessence. In addition, even a pre-existing bond may be extended to include another member as long as all living parties are present at the time of--

 

This was a long list of check marks, and it had Keith's body freezing. The physical touch, the emotions as shared as the frelisiel could make them, the goddamn honeymoon suite and the fact that it had felt right and still did-- Lance was going to hate him. It was Keith's own fault for not knowing this sooner, and he had roped Lance into a lifelong bond with him. What about when Lance found someone better? What about when Lance got tired of him, or too frustrated with him to stay? What if Lance wouldn’t have wanted to stay, but now would be forced to? His panic didn't last long.

 

Prolonged separation from a mate is intensely stressful and detrimental to the bonded ones’ health, yet it is still the norm in the modern Galra Empire, both to keep mates from putting the safety of their partners above the success of a mission and as a crude hostage system to ensure obedience. Most deserters from the Empire are bonded partners who have escaped to be together. The symptoms of forced separation are dramatic and confirmed to lessen the effectiveness of soldiers, but this does not deter the Empire from pulling bondmates apart and assigning them to stations galaxies apart.

Galra who are starved for attention from their mates may exhibit restlessness, reverting to burrowing habits for comfort, and a longing for physical affection. They always show signs of anxiety and depression, and they may become hostile or overly protective of their mates even when they are far away. A single unkind word about their bondmates is known to send an isolated galra into a fit of rage. Even worse than a separated bond is an unreciprocated one.

While galra and many mixed-species galra are capable of forming bonds, it is incredibly rare for someone with no galra heritage to be affected in the same way, even if the galra in question is bonded to them. To the agony of many galra in interspecies bonds, especially in the tumultuous days of the Empire, their partners frequently leave them or fall out of love with them. Without any exaggeration, it is unspeakably painful for a galra to be linked to someone who does not love them, as they are incapable of not loving the non-galra party as a soulmate, and their one-sided link reminds them constantly that their outpouring of affection and loyalty is not returned. This frequently leads to loss of self esteem, a sense of social starvation to the extremely pack-like, family-oriented galra, and then a profound, often crippling depression, especially as the galra tends to blame themself instead of their partner. Only very emotionally scarred, callous galra have been known to withstand this kind of bond, and they are often used by their partner as a bodyguard or servant as long as they are allowed to remain by their side.

 

Oh, thank God.

Keith shut his eyes under the wave of relief that hit him. He hadn't ruined Lance's life. Lance was free to choose, and free to leave anytime he wanted. When that happened, Keith would handle it as long as Lance was happy.

Lance mumbled behind him. He shifted slightly, tilting his head at an awkward angle so his chin pressed against Keith's spine. That alone was enough to make Keith's heart clench with endearment, and then Lance said in his sleepiest voice, “Baby, you up?”

“Just reading,” Keith answered softly, tracing his fingers over the back of Lance's hand. “Is the light bugging you?”

“Hm-mm,” was the negative Lance gave, followed by a long yawn. “Oh, shit, it's dark. So much for a short nap.” When he sat up behind Keith and stretched his back and arms, one at a time to always keep a hand on Keith's shoulder, Keith dropped the pad and rolled over to face him. He could still see him well enough in the dark, especially the soft curve of his cheek down to his slender jawline. “What’re you reading?”

Keith grunted noncommittally. “The galra stuff Coran sent me.”

“Yeah?” Lance’s tone was easy going, but his eyes did move to Keith's face in pointed interest. “Anything juicy?”

Keith parted his lips and intended to answer, but he didn't know how to explain the situation in a way that wouldn't bother Lance. Still, he had a right to know.

Keith was silent for too long, because Lance settled down beside him again, propped up on his elbow and softening his voice.

“Keith, what is it?”

“Nothing bad,” Keith tried to assure him.

“Well, is it good?”

“I think so.” Keith didn't like the smallness of his own voice. “I skimmed the chapter on bonding. Um, mating.”

He had expected that Lance would be worried. He had seemed surprised enough when Allura had dropped the 'mate for life’ bomb that morning, and Keith had read it as apprehension and regret. What he hadn't been expecting was the little smile on Lance's face, drawing up the corner of his lip crookedly, and to find Lance’s hand resting over his own on the sheets.

“And?”

Keith wasn't sure who the flutter in his chest belonged to. He cleared his throat.

“In all likelihood, I'm already bonded to you.”

Lance blinked, and he suffered about eight seconds of silence.

“And?” he asked again, and he frowned when Keith shrugged. “Keith, come on. You said you’re bonded to me. Not we’re bonded.”

And here it started. He was freaking Lance out. This was the wedge that would cause a rift. The turn in his stomach was definitely his own.

“You're not galra. So you're not gonna form a bond,” Keith explained. “But it's okay. I'll just be yours until--”

He'd said the wrong thing. Lance was frowning at him now, not the general situation.

“Don't you finish that. There's no 'until.’ Even if neither of us are bonded, I’m--” Lance stopped himself in a huff. “Can I read it?”

There was no point in saying no. No excuse. If Keith denied him, Lance would just have Coran send the file to him anyway. Cowed, Keith passed Lance the datapad and set the text to the beginning of the relevant chapter.

For someone who didn't pride himself on booksmarts, Lance read with a determined intensity. He didn't skip past paragraphs like Keith had, probably motivated by frustration and an unwillingness to sacrifice any details. Lance propped himself up on the pillows and extended one arm, and Keith took the silent offer to curl up against his side and rest his head on his shoulder. Even with the two most important people in his life beginning to resent him, Lance’s touch still offered some relief. Lying together in silence, Keith read along with Lance, reviewing each chilling disappointment about his own biology. Keith picked up facts and elaborations that he had missed before, and Lance would occasionally point something out under his breath or make a quiet, uneasy comment. When they reached the end of the chapter, Lance skimmed through it again, and then he set the datapad face down.

“Would you want this?” Lance finally asked.

He didn't sound angry, but the farthest thing from it, soft and insecure. Keith looked up at him, trying not to be too obviously tense.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean…” Lance sighed and ran an hand through his hair. “If we’d known before. Would you still have slept with me?”

What kind of a question was that? How could either of them have any doubt about that? Keith nodded and whispered, “I wouldn't change a thing.”

“Even if-- I hate this book,” Lance growled, glaring suddenly at the datapad. “Even if it says I can't be bonded to you?”

“I mean, it's how I already felt,” Keith answered with a weaker shrug than before. “The bond doesn't change anything for me. I don't feel any different.”

“It's how I feel, too. You know that.” Lance was pleading without asking for anything. “Whether you're bonded to me or not, I'm not just gonna leave.”

“How can you know that?”

Keith didn't mean to sharpen his voice. He didn't mean to pull away, either, but the stab of pain, digging in and twisting just from being an inch apart from Lance, wasn't going to stop him.

“How can you know that, Lance? We’ve been together for a day. You can't commit to me for life. You shouldn't be locked down to me just because I'm a freak with all these different--”

“Keith, stop it.”

Keith knew he was bristling. He didn't know how Lance managed to stay so gentle with him, but he did. Feeling his arms wrap around him again, hearing the anxious, hurt patience in Lance’s voice, had guilt rising in his skin like a fever. He realized that he was shaking, but he wasn't going to have a meltdown. He refused to be any weaker. He had to be strong for Lance, whether he deserved him or not.

“Baby, stop,” Lance begged him, barely using his voice at all. “You've got to stop treating us like I'm gonna leave. Stop trying to drive me away just because you think it'll happen anyway.”

Nail on the head. Keith's chest caught on something painful, something that made him twitch and shudder silently, but he held his breath against any sounds.

“I'm sorry,” Keith finally mumbled. He put his arm around Lance in return, cautious and light and careful of the weight he inflicted on him. Right then, it was harder to touch than be touched. He said it again, choked down to a whisper and keeping his eyes dry. “I'm sorry.”

“It's okay, baby. I promise.” Lance rubbed his back and coaxed Keith into beginning to relax. “It's okay. It's a lot to take in all at once, but we’ll figure it out. I mean, if you think some ultra-sweet alien biology was gonna scare me off, you’ve got a lot to learn.”

Keith snorted despite himself.

“And besides, nothing's for sure yet.” Lance picked up the datapad again and flipped through the pages. “See? It says a bond can't be formed against your will. So if you really didn't want to be… bonded to me, I guess that's not what happened.” Keith lifted his head to look up at him, uncomfortable with Lance’s weakened tone of voice. “And it says many mixed-species galra, not all. So you might not even form bonds. Or if you can, there's still a slim chance I might be able to. There are too many variables for us to let ourselves worry about it right now.”

Keith watched him a moment longer. He slipped his hand over Lance’s, and it felt like a dismal shadow of the comfort and support Lance deserved.

“Would you want this?”

Lance’s mouth opened, but it took him another second and a frown to find his words. “I-- It’s romantic,” he mumbled. “Don’t get me wrong. It’s a lot. It’s serious. But I thought…” He sighed. “Not if you don’t want it.”

There was nothing else for Keith to do but sit up straighter, take Lance’s cheek in hand, and touch a kiss to the corner of his mouth.

“We’ll figure it out,” he promised. That was enough to make Lance smile again, however tentatively. He kissed Keith in return, and Keith clung to the flicker of hope that passed between them. They were going to be okay.

“We will.” Lance kept one hand on Keith at all times and let their legs press against each other, but he reached across the bed for his shirt. “But first things first. There’s someone we’ve got to talk to.”

“This late?” Keith frowned, but he followed Lance’s lead in getting dressed.

“Why not? Are you gonna be able to go back to sleep?” Lance raised one eyebrow at Keith, and he blessed him with that lopsided smile. “Besides, we won’t be waking anyone up. Red’s always there for us.”

Chapter Text

Lance made Keith laugh as often as he could. While they found their clothes, Lance stayed close to him and made a game of, while still pretending to focus on the task at hand, kissing Keith wherever he could reach him.

“Hey, Keith, can you hand me my shoe? Yeah, that one.” And when Keith would lean over to grab it for him, Lance would plant a kiss on the back of his neck with the loudest, most comically exaggerated pop that he could. At first, Keith just smiled and kept getting dressed. By the fifth or six one, Keith was breaking down into giggles.

Lance enjoyed the success with some surprise. He would have thought that he was being insufferably annoying, but maybe Keith liked that about him, too.

“You sound like a duck,” Keith snickered, and he swatted Lance lightly with his own shirt.

What?” Lance barked a laugh and snatched his shirt out of Keith’s hand. “A duck? Have you ever heard what a duck sounds like?”

Keith buckled and laughed harder. “Of course I have!”

“You sure? Have you ever seen a duck?”

“Not in person,” Keith admitted. He shoved gently at Lance’s hip and waited while Lance slipped his shirt on. When Lance pulled him close again for the contact, Keith gazed up at him with the relaxed, contented smile Lance had wanted to put on his face the whole time.

“We’re gonna feed some ducks,” Lance decided. “Whenever we go back.”

“What kind of bread do you feed ducks?” Keith asked.

“Oh, no, honey. No bread. You gotta feed them corn and lettuce n’ shit.”

“That actually makes more sense.” Keith’s eyes crinkled when Lance dipped him back in his arms, and he looped his own around Lance’s shoulders to kiss him.

This was much better. No worries about bonds or suspicious teammates or intergalactic wars. Just the two of them, talking about ducks.

Just Keith and the small, happy sigh behind his throat.

Lance wanted to stay there. Even when he straightened his back again and they held onto each other in the kiss, he wanted to stay there.

“We should check on Red,” Keith whispered, but the lines of his face were easier and his eyes were warm. Lance counted it as a victory. He hummed in assent, and he held his hand on the way out of their room and through the guest hall.

Therysia was never a dark place. Even when the sunlight quieted down into nothing, the night was softened by the street lanterns and the wandering luminescent bugs everywhere between them. A few windows were still lit, and as the two of them walked out, a burst of laughter and some mechanical chatter from a window above them showed that Pidge and Hunk were still awake.

The castle wasn’t docked far from the guest hall, and it was hardly a five minute walk to its landing pad. It was strange to walk into it and realize that they were the only two souls on board, though; they had never been utterly alone in the castle before. It gave Lance a feeling of mischief and secrecy, even though he knew it was ridiculous. They were welcome in their own home. Any conversation between the two of them was small, as shallow but comforting as the brush of a hand, and then they were in Red’s hangar.

She had repaired herself; Lance could feel it. After the battle he had known that she would only need some time recharging in the castle to get fully up and running again. Still, he rubbed one hand inside the doorway of the cockpit to greet her in quiet apology. He would take better care of her next time. She answered him with the same effect as the mumble of a cat when it wakes up from a nap.

“Hey, girl,” he mumbled back, smiling. He felt her stretch and drape around both of them, and a soft, fluttering sigh left Keith. Their eyes met, and then they let their hands relax and fall away from each other. “How's that?”

Keith bit his lip and took a deep breath. The same glazed, relieved look as the first time Red had done this for them took over his face, and he hugged himself and rubbed his arms.

“Good,” Keith sighed. “Way good.”

Lance wondered how much of his contentment was Keith’s and how much was his own. He smiled and stepped back, and he let Keith have a moment just to feel normal in his own skin. He deserved some peace after the week he was having.

“We can sleep in here if you want,” Lance suggested.

“You wouldn't mind?” Keith looked up at him.

“Not at all. It's just good to see you feeling better.”

Keith's eyes gentled, and he dropped his arms from his sides. He stepped closer to Lance, smiling up at him with the confidence that suited him, and lifted his hands to rest them on Lance's chest.

Not an unwelcome development. Lance quirked an eyebrow and the corner of his lip, appraising his mate.

He had to stop thinking about that word.

“What's on your mind, handsome?” Lance asked. Keith barely curled his fingers against Lance's chest.

“Can I kiss you?”

Lance laughed under his breath and tilted his head closer to him. He couldn't get over the flicker of hope in Keith's eyes every time he simply accepted him. He would have done anything to keep them lit up like that.

“You don't have to ask,” Lance murmured.

“Neither do you.” Keith wound his hands behind Lance's neck, pulled him closer, and kissed him.

Lance had been prepared for it to be soft. He cradled his jaw when Keith stretched his body up against him, and he held Keith steady when they parted, quiet between their shaky breaths.

“I like this,” Keith whispered. “I just feel you.”

The cockpit had never felt so safe. It wasn't a war machine right then, but a haven familiar to both of them. Lance smiled and kissed him again, and he savored the way Keith's chest rose against his own when he breathed in. His hair was silky between his fingers. His mouth was gentle, sweet and afraid to ask too much.

Less than an hour ago, Keith’s voice had broken. He thought he was a freak. He thought that Lance shouldn’t stay with him, or shouldn’t want to.

Lance held him closer. He kissed him not harder, but better. If there was a way to push his love into Keith like an imprint in his skin, Lance would find it. He drew a happy trill out of Keith’s throat, but it wasn’t enough.

“I love you.” Lance whispered that reminder on Keith’s mouth, and he repeated it, fitting the words between kisses. “I love you, Keith.”

Keith mouthed Lance’s name back to him, breathless, and pushed forward to make Lance step backward. Lance complied, malleable and willing in any suggestion Keith gave him, and he settled in easily when his hips leaned back against the control panel. Keith followed him, only more eager and affectionate.

Palms slid downward from jawlines to hip bones. Breathing caught. Clothing pulled. After pulling away from a soft bite to Lance’s lip, Keith took one step back just to look at Lance over the space between them. Lance stared back at him, chest heaving and lips hot and everything hanging on some precipice that he would beg Keith to fall from with him. He was almost ready to find words again, and then Keith smiled, slipped out of his shirt, and closed in. Lance wrapped his arms around Keith’s shoulders and let himself be laid back on the panel surface. He was just grateful that the controls weren’t activating without their intent.

Lance touched Keith’s skin as much as he liked, and Keith enjoyed him not as his antidote, but simply as Lance. His sighs were deeper and richer. He didn’t cling to Lance, but instead took his time and worshipped him in return. When Lance opened his knees, Keith bowed over him between them and stroked the full line of his body. His eyes were dark and burning, and his hands were gentler than his smile when he made Lance shake.

It was quiet in their little haven. Lance was happy with the cool air, the soft sounds of their motions and uneven breaths. His legs wrapped tighter around Keith’s hips, and he didn’t worry himself with taking the lead this time. Keith had everything taken care of; he had both of them in hand and plenty of loving, whispered words for Lance’s ear. When Lance whimpered and let his head fall back, Keith all but purred, kissing and nipping him under his jaw.

They fell asleep in the pilot’s chair, wrapped up in each other and a few layers of blankets. They whispered and smiled drowsily, and Keith tipped his head back, happy to leave his neck open for Lance to kiss.

 

 

They had reclined the pilot’s seat during the night, but it was still at an angle. Lance’s right leg was cramping where Keith’s hip was digging into it. His foot was entirely numb, his shoulder was getting cold where the blankets had fallen off, and his hand was sweaty where Keith was still clinging to it in his sleep.

Lance adjusted half an inch at a time to try and restore some blood flow to his leg, and Keith grumbled something ugly into his shoulder.

Lance labeled this as one of the best mornings of his life.

“Baby,” he murmured, “you’re killing me. You gotta let me move.”

Keith grumbled again, but he arched his back and stretched until he shivered. His shoulder was smashed against Lance’s, and his hair tickled his face. Finally, he sighed high in his throat and rolled to the side to give Lance some freedom. Lance stretched his legs and groaned loudly, and he took a moment to roll his back and pop at least half of his vertebrae.

“Chair’s maybe a bad idea,” Lance conceded, laughing. “There’s a bed in the hull, right? We might take that next time.”

Keith only hummed. When Lance looked at him, Keith was just gazing back at him, leaning beside him in the chair. Contentment made his eyes warm and beautiful, even when awkward lines from the blankets were creased into his cheeks.

“Morning,” Lance told him quietly.

“Morning.” Keith’s smile reached his eyes and made them even prettier. “Sorry we fell asleep in the chair.”

“Oh, it wasn’t that bad,” Lance dismissed, grinning. He accepted the kiss Keith gave him wholeheartedly. “How’re you feeling?”

“Good. Stiff, but good. Feels nice to just be away from the venom.” Keith was still talking in his low, sleepy mumbles, but he was happy enough to move his mouth down Lance’s jaw to his neck. The kisses were so light and fleeting that Lance’s brain felt like cotton.

“What, no teeth this morning?” he teased him, and Keith snorted.

“Don’t tempt me,” Keith whispered back, but the kisses stayed just as subdued. He seemed determined to map out every inch of Lance’s throat and keep it warm. Lance was happy to let him, eyes closed and a hum behind his lips.

“First time we did this,” Lance mumbled, “walked into Red to help with the sting, was sorta worried.”

A kiss over his pulse point. A curious sound. “Why?” Keith’s breath asked. It spread goosebumps over Lance’s skin, but he swallowed and replied.

“Thought you'd never wanna touch me again,” he admitted. “Selfish, but… I dunno. Just nice to know you’ll still wanna touch me when you don’t need me.”

Keith crooned again, sat upright, and placed himself in Lance's lap. The blanket slipped lower around his shoulders, and Lance was suddenly at eye-level with the base of Keith’s throat. His breathing pulled deeper under the dark, quiet smile Keith was giving him.

“What makes you think I don’t need you?”

“Fuck, Keith.” Lance knew his face was on fire. Under the blanket, his hands followed the curve of Keith’s thighs.

The dashboard flickered to life with a video display.

“There you are-- Oh shit I’m sorry.” Hunk’s voice cut through Lance’s good morning, and he shrieked and clutched the blanket.

“It’s fine,” Lance said, overly loud, and made sure that Keith and himself were covered up to their necks. “We weren’t-- I mean, we were, but--” Keith groaned in horror and tried to bury himself in Lance's shoulder.

“No, man, it’s cool, take your time,” Hunk stammered. “Or, not really. We kind of need you back at the hall as soon as you can get here. I know it’s kind of early, but Captain Vyrisid came back with some stuff you should see, okay, bye.” The video cut out, and Lance was left with sweat on his forehead.

A beat later, he had a hand clasped over his mouth to muffle his laughter. Keith sat up straight to stare at him, and it looked like he was really making an effort to be annoyed.

It didn't work. They were both snorting with laughter and hiding their faces in the blanket.

 

 

They stepped out of Red with another fond pat on the doorway. Lance was aware of keeping his arm around Keith and holding his other hand, but even with that support, Keith’s knees buckled the second their feet touched the castle floor.

Keith’s ragged gasp hit Lance like bad news. He dropped down beside him, gathered Keith up against his chest, and only accommodated the motions Keith made to press closer to him.

“Baby, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Keith said through clenched teeth. “Let’s go.” He made an effort to stand up again, and Lance felt him tremble before he collapsed back into him.

The slightest loss of contact with Lance was debilitating. This was what worse and next stage meant.

Lance didn’t usually fault bugs for being what they were, but anything that could cause Keith this much pain was pure, classic, homegrown evil. What kind of bastard called something like that a love bug?

“Here,” he murmured. He kept his skin against Keith’s as much as he could while he moved. He slotted their lips together, and Keith must have found some solace in the kiss, because he sighed and leaned up on his knees to deepen it. At the same time, Lance took his hands off Keith to pull his own shirt up to his neck. “Touch me,” he instructed between their mouths.

Keith’s hands found Lance’s body, and he held onto him while Lance pulled his shirt entirely off.

“Lance, we’re going outside,” Keith started to protest.

“I know. C’mere, you too.”

Lance got Keith out of his shirt as well, left both garments looped over his arm, and then scooped Keith up, holding him chest-to-chest. Keith wrapped his arms around Lance’s shoulders and his legs around his waist, and Lance finally felt Keith relax and breathe regularly once he was holding him like a koala.

“This is humiliating.” Keith buried those miserable little words under Lance’s jaw, but he didn’t even try to pull back anymore.

“It’s what works,” Lance replied. He hoped that was reassuring to Keith’s logic. “Everyone else will just have to deal with looking at a couple of fine young men without their shirts on.”

“How will they survive?” Keith grumbled.

“No idea.” Lance held Keith under his hips and hitched him up higher against his own body, and he set off back through the castle to return to the guest hall. “We’ll figure it out, baby. One step at a time. We’ll just adapt with what we’ve got, okay?”

“Okay.” Keith whimpered and clenched his jaw, and his right arm slipped off of Lance’s shoulder to hold him around his side instead.

“Arm hurts?” Lance asked.

“Raising it. Pulling it hurts. Shoulder’s still fucked up.” Keith wrapped his left arm closer around Lance to compensate. His weight was awkwardly distributed, but Lance would carry him either way.

“You’ve gotta stop getting hurt,” Lance laughed gently. His mate was just one big bundle of pain. “You’re making me worry.”

“Trying not to.” Keith’s voice was defensive and small, and Lance believed him. He kissed the side of Keith’s neck and took them back to their temporary home.

 

 

No one exactly expected them to return like that, but as confused as the team’s eyes were, no one scolded them. After the ignis bite, the near death experience, and the absolutely fucked up way Shiro had spoken to him the day before, the implicit rule was ‘let Keith have whatever he wants.’ And if that meant clinging to Lance without their shirts on, Lance wasn’t going to hear anything against it. Hunk was entirely red and refusing to look directly at them, but none of the Yzrians batted a reptilian eye. He noted that Shiro was absent altogether.

Vyrisid walked straight to them, stopped a few feet away, and barely frowned.

“Keith, you don't appear well enough to visit our guests today.”

No shit. Lance was preparing to excuse the two of them to their room as soon as this little briefing was over.

“I'm fine,” Keith answered, and Lance may have been in love with him, but he wanted to strangle him.

“No,” Vyrisid had the grace to insist. “You are not. But there's something we need before we speak to Vanok again. We've searched for the cruiser he specified, and though we can approximate its location and course, we don't know anything else about it. Does Voltron have any allies that can get us more current information on it?”

Keith turned his head on Lance's shoulder. He shifted his weight, and Lance reluctantly let him down. Keith stood with his back pressed against Lance's chest, and Lance kept his arms around him, but at least Keith had the dignity of standing up by himself.

“I'll contact Kolivan,” Keith said. “The Blades may have operatives in the cruiser's range.” The next silent seconds were so unbearably awkward that Lance wanted to shut his eyes. They hadn't exactly snuggled half-naked with an audience before, let alone when everyone was talking so seriously. There were too many elephants in the room, and Keith just had to bring up the other one. “Where's Shiro?”

Everyone had their own grimace. Hunk avoided eye contact with even more determination. Pidge just looked sad. Allura was the one to gather herself and answer.

“We don't believe he's feeling well,” she answered too gently. “He's refusing to speak to anyone, and he won't come out of his room. I went to check on him earlier, and he covered his eyes rather than look at me. It may be best to give him space until Vanok tells us something more definitive.”

That wasn't Shiro. That was verging on paranoid. Shiro was patient and reliable, and he didn't snap at people and hide in his room. Lance couldn't even feel disillusioned with his hero; he couldn't feel ashamed of him when Shiro sounded nothing short of sick.

Whatever Lance might have felt about it was washed away under Keith's agony. It was practically dripping out of his skin, and every point of contact was another source where Lance ached with him. Lance held him tighter.

“Can I see him?” Keith's voice wavered. “If he's hurting-- Maybe I can talk to him.”

“The best thing you can do for him,” Coran cut in, “is talk to Kolivan and see our Galra informant. We'll find a way to help him, Keith.”

“We don't even know what's wrong. Vanok's going to take too long. I want to see him.” Keith squirmed, needing to move while unable to pull away from him. “Lance, please, I have to see him.”

The last time Shiro had spoken freely to Keith, it had left him hyperventilating. It had turned Keith back into a scared child facing abandonment and social workers.

Lance didn't hate Shiro. He was trying not to hate him.

Keith had turned halfway in Lance's arms. Whatever he saw on Lance's face had him staring back at him with wide eyes and bitterly pursed lips.

“Okay,” Lance said.

He kept his voice gentle. Whatever argument Keith seemed to have braced himself for melted away entirely.

“But let's call Kolivan first,” Lance suggested. Maybe that would give Keith time to cool down. Maybe that would give him some reassuring sense of progress. “Let's talk to him and see what we can find out. We might have something to bring to Shiro then.”

Keith's impatience was burning into Lance, but he nodded. Once Keith appeared cooperative, Vyrisid passed a tiny data chip to him.

“I spoke to Vanok again before collecting all the data we could,” they said. “He said that this cruiser holds not only his mate, but everything we need to know.”

 

 

They went to their room and got ready for the day the best that they could. They still couldn't dress enough to appear modest, but they found what they could in their provided wardrobe. Above their pants, Keith draped little more than an oversized grey shawl around his shoulders, and Lance found something like a short robe that he left open. It made him look like a lazy billionaire, but it left him accessible to Keith, so he would just have to cope.

Keith sat between Lance's knees in a small office where they made the call. His naked back was pressed to Lance's chest, and they tried to appear as dressed as possible when they finally got through to Kolivan. When his face appeared on the screen, he only raised one eyebrow.

Lance didn't need their odd connection to know that Keith was anxious. He aligned his shoulders too firmly and spoke too clearly to possibly be feeling confident.

“Kolivan.” Wow, right to business. “Have the Blades picked up Galra activity in the Peralian system lately?”

Kolivan's eyes narrowed immediately. “Are you looking for a specific vessel?”

“We are, actually. A cruiser commanded by an Admiral Torus.”

Lance had never truly seen Kolivan's annoyed face before that moment.

“That ship has been a headache for the Blades for a long time.” His tone was just short of a growl. “We've been tracking it for a while now.”

“Is it possible for you to get an operative on board?” Keith asked.

“Ulaz was the last agent we managed. It took him twenty-six decaphoebs undercover to get the clearance to transfer onto it.”

Keith and Lance went still at the name.

“This was the ship where Shiro was imprisoned,” Keith murmured. It was a question too afraid to ask for confirmation, but Kolivan nodded. Lance rubbed his thumb along Keith's wrist and asked the next question.

“How much info did Ulaz get to you guys? We need to know as much as we can.”

“As much as he could.” Kolivan's frown deepened even further. “The cruiser's security had him under constant surveillance. The ship interrupted any independent outgoing signals, and the communications were so limited that we could only contact him in code through other agents on high-security Galra vessels. Most of the time, it was too great a risk. After he fled the cruiser, he was able to pass on the rest of the information he had gathered. However, he had prioritized Shiro over collecting much usable data.”

Keith found his voice again. “What did he tell you?”

Kolivan looked at Keith with more than his usual grain of caution. “Shiro was only on the cruiser for a few phoebs. He was transferred there from the Empire's own capital ship. The cruiser's main operation is technological and biological research.”

That was the most gently Lance had heard Kolivan phrase anything. 'Biological research’ was one hell of a euphemism, and Lance didn't want to bring it into any more light than necessary, but Keith wouldn't suffer ignoring it.

"Call it what it is," Keith bit out. "They tortured and experimented on him."

Kolivan nodded again. Keith took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“We have three captive Galra soldiers in Therysia, Yzramil,” Keith said, but he still sounded nauseated. “We have agreed to locate the mate of one of them - a research officer on this cruiser - and return him to him. It's imperative that we give this soldier his mate and secure his cooperation. And especially after what you told us, we have reason to believe this cruiser has information about one of our paladins and possibly even the Empire's future plans. The city's police have given us what information they've gathered on it, so I'll send that to you. Can you help us track it in any way, or help us arrange an extraction?”

Kolivan's face didn't change. He stayed as stony as ever, but Lance could practically smell the tension through the video feed.

“The Blades have attempted targeted strikes on this cruiser before,” Kolivan answered slowly. “We have known for a very long time the importance of its functions. But even in our most aggressive attacks, it has proven impenetrable past the first layers of security. An extraction mission is completely inadvisable, even for the sake of a galran mate.”

Even for a mate? Kolivan almost sounded sentimental. Lance piped up.

“There must be some way to arrange an escape for him. If Voltron came to lead an attack on it, it could give the Blades a chance to sneak on board during the confusion. As soon as you get our man and the data we all need and get off, we could blow it up.”

“It would not be that simple,” Kolivan allowed, “but that may be an option.”

Keith nodded, and Lance felt him squeeze his hand under the blankets. He didn't smile during this discussion, but he did feel a swell of pride. Keith thought he was a good second-in-command.

“Voltron will assist with the extraction as soon as you can get agents in position,” Keith said. “And we should be done here and ready to pass on the beacons’ information to the Blades within the next couple of movements. And we will need to find somewhere safe for our informant and his mate.”

“Of course,” Kolivan replied.

There was a lull in their little conference. Lance wanted to break the quiet, but then Keith posed another question.

“Kolivan,” Keith began slowly, “We did have one more question.”

Kolivan's eyes narrowed, expectant.

“How common is it for half-galra to form bonds?” Keith asked.

Kolivan fell silent for the space of a breath. He answered very quietly, “Quite common.”

Keith shifted his weight in Lance's lap and cleared his throat. “How would one know whether they're mated or not?”

Kolivan's stern eyes moved from Keith to Lance and back.

“You believe you're bonded to Lance?” he asked bluntly.

“It's a distinct possibility, yes.” Keith sounded weird when he was that meek and embarrassed, but Lance couldn't say he'd do any better. He hugged Keith tighter around his waist, and he wanted to shrink back too when Kolivan frowned at them and spoke in such a flat voice.

“You'd know. You wouldn't need to ask anyone outside of your bond.”

The corner of Lance's lip tugged. “That's not really specific.”

“Please,” Keith tried again. “You're the only galra I can ask about this.”

Kolivan looked like he was trying not to scowl outright. It made Lance's skin itch. Eventually he sighed and eased up, if only slightly.

“You said you're on Yzramil,” Kolivan said. “You visited Halkeryn, didn't you?”

“How could you tell?” Lance asked dryly, not even gesturing to his and Keith's position or state of dress. He actually got Kolivan to snort - almost a laugh.

“Neither of you are bonded,” Kolivan stated.

“What? How do you know, just from looking at us?” Lance failed not to glare. He wasn't ready when that broke Kolivan's patience.

“A bond is not a source of anxiety,” Kolivan snapped, “but of reassurance. It's not a plaything you just stumble into unwittingly. If both of you weren't ready, and clearly neither of you are, there would be no bond. That kind of connection--”

Kolivan cut himself off, shut his eyes, and braced his shoulders like he was gripping a table in front of him. Lance and Keith only watched, stunned silent.

“Apologies,” Kolivan mumbled, and he repeated, “Neither of you are bonded. The Blades will review your data on the cruiser and contact you when a strike can be put into place. Is there anything else?”

“No.” Keith was stiff against Lance's chest. “Thank you, Kolivan.”

The call ended. The two of them sat still, and Lance counted several heartbeats in his ring.

“Antok,” Lance finally whispered.

After their final fight with Zarkon, the paladins had been devastated by Shiro's disappearance. They had been unable to focus on much else at all, but Lance did remember seeing a team of Blades come onto the castle to retrieve Kolivan from the med bay. Lance had only caught a glimpse of the stoic, harsh, utilitarian leader of the Blades curled up in a fetal position, with his fellow operatives helping him to his feet, but the image had lodged itself in his brain without any explanation for it.

“Oh, god.” Keith turned in Lance's arms to press his face into his shoulder and hug him. “Oh my god. That was our mission. How can he even work with us now?”

“It was everyone's mission,” Lance answered softly. He rubbed Keith's back, but it didn't help him relax this time. “Kolivan planned most of it, and we took out Zarkon. I don't think we're the ones he blames.”

“That just makes it worse.” Keith's fingers clenched in the thin fabric of Lance's top. “I didn't know… God.” He raised his head again, and his big violet eyes made Lance ache to look at them. “Lance, if we're not bonded… Are you okay?”

Fear. A suspended, choking dread. Why was Keith afraid? When Lance held Keith's cheek in his hand, Keith pressed closer to the touch.

“I’m fine,” Lance promised. Did he love the idea of a bond with Keith? Of course. But even if he felt a small pang of disappointment when they weren't bonded, did he want to push Keith into one? Absolutely not. It was something they would need to talk about more. Lance wanted them to be ready, whatever that entailed.

“It doesn't mean we'll never bond if we haven't yet,” he continued. “And if we never do, it doesn't matter. I love you. It doesn't take some magic bond to keep me with you.”

Keith smiled bitterly, but he mirrored Lance's touch and held his jaw. “I don't want it to make you need me,” he murmured.

That was ridiculous. Lance gave him a wry smile, and he kissed Keith's palm.

“What makes you think I don't need you?”

Keith shook his head and made a little scoffing sound, but Lance watched that sweet, crooked smile take shape on his perfect bow mouth before he kissed him.

 

 

He had promised that they would see Shiro, so they headed back to the second level of the guest hall. Keith seemed a little less tense without the uncertainty of their relationship status hanging over their heads, but not by far. He hugged Lance at his side while they walked. Even though Lance had offered to carry him again, Keith declined. Lance didn't know which Keith wanted more between maintaining his autonomy and avoiding feeling like a burden, but he didn't press the issue. When they stopped outside Shiro's door, Keith leaned up and kissed Lance's cheek.

“Thank you for this,” Keith whispered, and Lance smiled back and held him around the waist. Keith took a deep breath, looked to the door, and knocked.

No answer came, so Keith knocked again.

“Shiro?” he called. “It’s Keith and Lance. Are you alright?”

There was still no answer. Keith’s teeth abused his lip, and he opened the door.

Shiro’s guest room wasn’t a honeymoon suite, but it was gorgeous. The middle of one wall had a water feature installed on it and bookshelves on either side. The opposite wall was one huge window, but a dark screen had been drawn over it. The wide, dark bed was made, and there were various glasses and bottles on the nightstand.  The only light in the room came from the open door and a small lamp situated on the floor next to Shiro, who was sitting against the footboard of the bed. A book lay open by his socks, and he was curled up around himself, face in his knees and fists in his hair.

Lance’s heart dropped. He and Keith stepped forward together. “Shiro?”

“You need to go.” Shiro’s hard voice cut through the room without him moving at all. The two of them stopped, but Lance didn’t need to look at Keith to know that neither of them were going to leave Shiro like this.

“I’m sorry, Shiro. We can’t do that,” Keith said. It was almost odd to hear his normal voice in this situation. He was quiet, but he wasn’t using any gentle, coddling tone. “Allura said she stopped by earlier.”

Shiro shook his head in the cage of his arms.

“Don’t let her come in again,” he growled.

“I’ll advise her not to.” Keith started on a step forward, and he glanced up at Lance to see if that was alright. Lance moved with him, and they came three feet into the room and sat down, leaving the same distance between themselves and Shiro.

“Are you in pain?” Keith prompted him, and Shiro made a low noise of distress.

“I don’t know.”

That was a hard one to figure out. Lance swallowed the lump in his throat. “Shiro, do you have an idea what Vanok was talking about yesterday?”

“I don’t-- I don’t know.” Shiro sucked in a deep breath and let it out in another growl. “I don’t feel right.”

Keith’s body trembled against Lance’s side, and then he steeled himself. Lance rubbed his arm and tried to comfort him how he could.

“We talked to Vanok,” Keith said softly. “We’re going to--”

No,” Shiro snapped, and he buried his face deeper into his knees and arms, squeezing his elbows around his ears. “No. Don’t tell me anything. I can’t-- No. It’s not safe.”

They waited until Shiro’s breathing evened out again. He sighed and ran his left hand through his hair.

“Why isn’t it safe?” Lance asked.

“I don’t know. I don’t know anything. Why are you still…?” Shiro’s voice went weak and fragmented, and his shoulders shook. Lance hadn’t known his hero was even capable of this kind of meltdown, and his eyes stung. “Yesterday, he-- He didn’t want me to know anything. He wouldn’t tell me. And we know something’s wrong with me.”

“How do you feel wrong?” Keith led him, sober and patient.

“It’s my fault you got hurt.”

The last word was a whisper, cut off and stifled. Shiro was shaking hard enough to rattle his body, and he wouldn’t make a sound. Keith and Lance sat in silent, confused horror until Shiro gasped in another breath.

“It’s my fault. I always took precautions. I always made sure everyone wore helmets and gear on any mission. I don’t take risks on you. I’d never-- And then I just thought, we don’t need to take precautions. We’ll be fine without armor the morning after we found a crashed Galra pod, what the fuck was I thinking. You all would have died if you two hadn’t stood up to me.”

“Shiro, that’s hardly…” Lance stammered and fell speechless. Making one bad call was hardly a reason to blame himself for everything. And then Shiro kept going.

“I was searching with the police that morning. We found the crash site and spread out. We had aerial scans going, and I saw-- it was just a blip headed your way, just for a second, but I should have followed it. I would have followed it, and instead I took everyone the other way. I thought I saw something else. I thought the Galra were leaving the city, going south. I took everyone south, and you were north, and then I heard you scream over the police comms. I thought you might die because of me, and then yesterday I... I never talk that way. I'd never say that to you. I'm so sorry, Keith."

“Shiro…” Keith leaned forward, clung to Lance with one hand, and touched Shiro’s arm with the other. Shiro flinched, but he didn’t push him away.

“We almost didn’t get there in time. It’s like I was trying to get you killed.”

“You’d never hurt me,” Keith said, strange and quiet. “I’m okay now. We’re all okay. And whatever is happening to you, we’re going to help you.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Shiro muttered. “You need to keep each other safe.”

“Shiro,” Keith whispered, “will you look at me?”

Shiro shook his head again.

They all sat in the dark. Lance stared at the shadows of Shiro’s hands, the white of his hair, and just how small his broad chest looked in a big enough sweater.

A sweater, pajama pants, warm socks. A thick book resting open only a couple of chapters in. A teacup on the table, bottles of what looked like medicine. A dark screen to keep the light out and himself inside. Anything to comfort himself in solitude, all because he thought he couldn’t be trusted anymore.

“What are you reading?” Lance asked.

Shiro tensed and tried to shrug. “Just… something I found.”

Lance picked up the book, and the soft shuffle of page against page didn’t draw any particular reaction from Shiro. He held the open place with his thumb and flipped to the beginning to read the introduction, and he watched the alien text shift on the unlit pages and filter into the Roman alphabet. The book wanted to be in Spanish at first, but when Lance coaxed it toward English with a thought, he found that it could translate itself either way.

“A collection of memoirs?” Lance asked. “Escaped Galra captives and defected soldiers?”

“It’s not an easy book,” Shiro admitted. Keith sighed his name, gently exasperated. It was an important topic, but perhaps not the best choice for Shiro while he was trying to center himself.

Lance stood up, pulling Keith with him, and he put the book back into the empty slot on the shelf. He hummed, perused the selection, and found another. They brought it back to Shiro, and this time, they sat down against the bedframe with him. Lance sat between them, one hand on Shiro’s back, and Keith helped him hold the book open on his knee while he stayed nestled against him.

“This one’s fiction,” Lance said. “It looks like it’s about pirates and artists.” He felt Shiro cough, close enough to a laugh, and he flipped to the first page. “Can we read it to you?” Shiro nodded, so Lance started in.

It was an entertaining book from the start. Lance stumbled over a few words as he read, but he kept it lively. He switched off with Keith after a chapter to give his voice a rest. Keith had a steady, stately pace of reading that was pleasant to listen to. He also had a bad habit of pausing and making commentary in the middle of a passage, which had Lance and then Shiro answering or teasing him and all three of them laughing under their breath.

Shiro almost relaxed over the course of a few chapters, with Lance and Keith passing the book back and forth. Lance only got Shiro to look up from his knees once to show him an illustration, but he hid his eyes again immediately after. He refused to look at the two of them, and they silently decided not to press that odd boundary for the moment. All that mattered was getting Shiro to breathe a little easier. After a couple of hours he was starting to talk like himself again, and they only stopped when Xerysi came by the door to get them for lunch.

“I think I should stay here,” Shiro said carefully, and Lance and Keith didn’t push him. If he couldn’t even look at them, he wasn’t ready to face the rest of the team. The two of them squeezed his shoulder and arm when they stood up to go.

“We’ll bring something up for you,” Lance promised, and Keith asked Shiro to get some rest.

“Would you like something to help you sleep tonight?” Xerysi asked from the doorway. Shiro raised his head politely, but he kept his eyes covered with his hand.

“Yes, please. Do you have anything stronger?”

Xerysi gave him a careful look and replied, “I’ll see what I can do.” Not a second later, a little grey blur came tearing around their ankles to dive onto Shiro’s socks. Lance caught a smile on Shiro’s face, and his warm left hand dropped down to rub the kitten’s neck.

Shiro thanked them, and the three of them left. They let the door slide shut behind them, and Xerysi didn’t need any explanation when they saw Keith attached to Lance as close as he could get.

“I may have something for you, too,” they sighed. “It’s best not to muffle the venom with painkillers - they can make you dull or dependent, and they’re nothing next to your antidote - but if it’s this bad…”

Keith’s eyes widened. “Please.”

Xerysi clicked their jaw once, reluctant, and left the two of them to walk into the dining hall.

 

 

Lunch was weird. The food was good, but Lance could hardly focus on that with everyone staring at him and Keith. They were sharing a chair, because what else were they supposed to do, and the two of them probably looked like shit, stressed and underdressed. This was all on top of the fact that it was actually a lunch conference.

The team was deep in conversation with Kerisz, Vyrisid, and a few other officers and figures. While Keith and Lance had spoken to Kolivan, Allura had gone back to the station to interview the other Galra captives, Korasat and Orzil. Korasat’s breathing condition was improving, and as it turned out, the names of a couple of his superiors could get him hissing and spitting. He had a few choice words about Lieutenant Vanok, as well. As much as Korasat hated them, though, he was too afraid to talk. Orzil was reportedly more cooperative, but the problem was that he didn’t know much to begin with. Vanok remained their best source of information, as sour and cryptic as he was.

“The Blades are willing to assist in an extraction,” Keith said when it was their turn to report. “And we’ve already located the ship in the Peralian system.”

“Shouldn’t that be enough for Vanok for now?” Lance asked, turning his fork in his food. “Time is sort of, you know, of the essence here. We need him to spill.”

“It may.” Vyrisid frowned at the table and tapped at the corner of it. “If there are any other details about Latova we can use, it could reassure Vanok that we’re doing the work to get to him.”

“Well, he works on the ship where Shiro was tortured,” Keith mentioned. He stabbed at another piece of food on his own plate, crowded beside Lance’s, and didn’t seem to care when everyone else fell quiet and tense. “Bring that up in your next talk with the lieutenant. He seemed really sympathetic last time.”

Lance couldn’t even chastise Keith for his anger. He found that he shared it.

“Shiro was on that cruiser?” Vyrisid pressed. Lance didn’t like the emotionless interest in their eyes, but they were on their side.

“For a few phoebs, according to Kolivan. And he wanted to let Shiro rot, too.” Keith put his fork down and stopped trying to eat. He clenched his jaw, and Lance rubbed his arm to calm him. “Remember Ulaz?” he asked the team. “This is the cruiser where he was undercover. The one he saved Shiro from.”

Hunk made a small, “Oh,” from across the table. Pidge pursed her mouth shut. Allura was just staring at them strangely, taking in this new information.

“Whatever’s wrong with Shiro--” The words sounded like they stung Keith to say. “--it happened to him on that ship. And Latova knows, which is why Vanok knows. So ask our guest whether his mate held the knife or just watched.”

“I will,” Kerisz answered. Keith’s head jerked towards them in surprise. “Not in your words, perhaps, but I’m sure this will be interesting to Vanok. I understand your anger, but rest assured, this is how to help Shiro.”

Lance couldn’t see Keith’s face, but he felt his grimace through his sigh.

 

 

After lunch, they brought up another plate for Shiro. He thanked them quietly, but still wouldn’t look up at them. Then it was time for Keith’s treatment, which Keith was enjoying less and less.

“You don’t have to do this with me,” Keith kept saying. “What if it’s not safe for you?”

“I live for danger,” Lance replied, unfolding the cryosuits. He managed to get Keith into the pod with him anyway, and he considered it a mid-day nap.

The cold of the pod left Keith freezing and grouchy, so once they were out, he wrapped both of them in his shawl and nuzzled Lance to keep them warm. Coran and Xerysi were talking by the door, and both of them looked back at them.

“Tea,” Xerysi said simply. They gestured to a bench and table at one wall - every room in this building seemed to be a sitting room of some kind - and urged Keith and Lance to have a seat and drink the tea set out for them. Keith swallowed down his gross medicinal stuff, and Lance refilled their cups with the nicer tea from the pot.

Xerysi set a bottle of water and a small vial on the tray in front of Keith. The label taped around it was written in English, which made things easier, but they explained it anyway.

“This was made for human consumption and pain management. It will make you tired. While you’re working through the worst of the venom, take one pill every five vargas. Don’t try to run around or do anything too strenuous, and don’t try to pilot or drive anything. Keep in mind that your antidote is your best treatment, so stay close to him.” Keith had his cheek on Lance’s shoulder and didn’t seem to need the reminder, but he thanked Xerysi and picked up the vial.

As soon as they took it upstairs to their room, Keith unscrewed the top, took a pill, and swallowed it with the water. He set the vial and bottle on the nightstand, and the two of them stripped out of the cryosuits and crawled into bed. Even as Lance was wrapping Keith up against him and smothering them in blankets, Keith watched him, searching.

“What?”

“Do you need anything?” Keith asked. “The past week has just been about me, and… That’s not right. I wanna make sure you’re taken care of, too.”

Lance smiled and settled into the pillow. Maybe things should just be about Keith for once. If he wasn’t used to having someone take care of him, Lance wanted to fix that.

“I’m fine, baby. Let’s just worry about you. We’ll get you feeling better, then everything else will follow.”

Keith frowned and shook his head. “Can’t just wait for me to get better.”

“We have some time. Kolivan will let us know when the Blades are ready to move, and we’ll see if Vanok says anything before then.”

“Still.” Keith sighed and tucked his head under Lance’s chin. “It’s like we’re on vacation here while everything else is falling apart.”

 

 

It came and went in waves. When it abated and Keith took another dose of medicine to help it, they didn't have to walk each other to the bathroom. When it worsened every few hours, Keith could only stand to cling to Lance, naked under the sheets.

He begged for more than the safe dosage of the painkillers. Lance felt like a monster for denying him, but he wasn't going to risk making Keith any sicker than he was. They did find that kisses helped, though, so even though neither of them had the mood or energy for anything else, Lance was happy to hold Keith on his chest and kiss him, mouth to forehead. They eventually traded positions, and Lance found that kissing Keith's neck soothed him even more.

“What if I’m not better in time?” Keith whispered. It was dark outside and the pain and medicine were wearing him down, but he was still running his hand back and forth across Lance’s shoulder. He must have figured out that Lance liked it.

“We’ll figure it out,” Lance replied. “We always find ways to adapt. I know it feels like you’ve got your hands tied behind your back right now, but I’ve seen you fight like that, too.”

Keith hummed, and Lance felt it against his cheek. He kissed his throat again, and he could have sworn Keith was still humming quietly under his lips.

“How’s the pain?” Lance asked. “Do you wanna go back to Red?”

“No,” Keith breathed. He shifted, curled his arm further around Lance, and ran his fingers through his hair. “No, you’d just have to carry me again. I’m okay right now.”

“I don’t mind carrying you.”

“But we’re warm right now.”

Lance laughed through his nose. Their quiet back-and-forth was a small comfort, and Lance clung to its skirts. They kept talking for most of the night, and neither of them mentioned the flowers above their heads. Lance couldn’t think of much besides Shiro on a bloodied table, or Shiro snapping at Keith, or Shiro breaking down in front of both of them, and he knew his mate wouldn't need those thoughts echoing his own.

Chapter Text

Keith refused to make Lance waste away on bed rest with him, so he muffled the pain with the medicine and worked through the process of getting dressed. His bones were trying to split apart, and something sharp and burning was nesting in his spinal column, but they had too many things to do. He had too many people to be strong for. The two of them had cultivated some sleep over the course of the night, and as rested as Lance seemed, Keith didn't need to ask to know how haggard his own appearance was.

“Let me know if it's too much,” Lance said for perhaps the third time that morning, and Keith couldn't reassure him in any other way than holding his hand.

“I will. But I can tell you're as sick of staying in bed as I am.”

Lance didn't have a rebuttal for that. He simply made sure that Keith took the right dose of his medicine, finished his tea, and stayed huddled against him as they made their way out of the bedroom.

It was humiliating, but Keith needed to be present. Even if he was less than optimal, his team had to know that the Black Paladin wasn't just taking it easy in the middle of a crisis.

“You'll work yourself to death,” Lance warned him when they reached the bottom of the stairs. Keith was starting to shake again, and he ignored the sweat on his forehead.

“By walking downstairs?” he grumbled. Lance snorted softly.

A sitting parlor stood just off the base of the stairs, and this one Allura had selected as her favorite. She raised her head, a juniberry flower laced into her hair, and smiled at them over the cup of tea in her hands. As soon as she said, “Good morning,” Keith thought it would be awkward not to have breakfast with her. Besides, they needed to talk.

Lance accommodated him when they moved into the sitting room. It was open-faced into the garden, and the morning dew smelled sweet. The white flowers looked golden. When Lance reached forward to take a couple of the teacups set out on the table, he kept Keith cradled against him.

“How have you been holding up?” Lance asked the princess, and her smile looked an increment thinner.

“Well enough,” she replied. “I am worried about Shiro.” Keith hadn’t thought he had looked obviously tense, but she was quick to reassure him. “We’ll find out what’s happening with him, Keith. If you’re well enough to come with us to the station today--”

“I’m going.” That was that. His voice was sand and the stone under it.

Allura nodded, and Lance rubbed Keith’s arm and passed him a cup of tea. Keith sighed quietly and nestled as closely as he could into Lance’s chest, and he took a small sip from the cup.

“I believe we’ll be able to connect with Vanok more today,” Allura offered, and she dished out little plates of cakes and fruit and something savory that Keith couldn’t decipher. She passed them across the table so that neither Lance nor Keith had to lean away from each other to reach them. “I’d like for you to tell him what you’ve learned from Kolivan.”

“I can do that.” Keith held off on eating any of his food; his stomach hurt. “How did the other two seem?”

“Confused and unhelpful,” she huffed. “Perhaps you two can get more out of them. But Keith, if you need to cut the visit short--”

He cut her off. “I’m not bailing. We all have jobs to do.”

“Baby,” Lance murmured in his sweet, patient way. There was no way Keith deserved him. “You’re doing your job. It’s alright.” Keith started to work up an argument, and Lance said, “I can feel it when you’re pushing yourself.”

It had to be the rings. Keith couldn’t fathom a permanent bond connecting them like that. He couldn't have Lance forever.

Neither of them were certain. He owed it to Lance to ask.

“Aside from that, Allura,” Keith started as carefully as he knew how. “You brought it up first the other day. You knew that galra, um. Bond.”

He felt Lance take a deep breath and heard his huff of laughter. “Right off the bat, huh?”

“I want to know,” Keith said with a defensive edge. He had never been good at tiptoeing into topics when he could just ask, and Allura didn’t begrudge him that.

“I’m sorry that I didn’t explain it to you earlier. I hadn’t known that you would need to know so soon.” She stirred a tiny spoonful of something like honey into her tea. “Or that you hadn’t read the resource Coran sent you.”

So he hadn’t done all of his homework. He hadn’t even known there was homework to do. He worked on not letting the muscle aches throughout his body make him cranky, and he closed his eyes and buried his face in Lance’s neck, propriety be damned. Lance hugged him while he drank his tea, and the surface area of contact assuaged some of the pain at a time.

“I asked Kolivan about it,” Keith told her. “He doesn’t think Lance and I are bonded, but how does he know?”

“You would know if you were,” Allura said simply.

“That’s what Kolivan said, too. How are we supposed to know?”

“You wouldn’t have to ask.” Allura made it sound so frustrating and cryptic and easy.

“What does that even mean?” Keith bit his cheek to keep from sounding too frustrated.

“The book said Alteans form bonds, too,” Lance piped up, and Keith’s heart jumped into his ears. He opened his eyes, and he looked back to Allura to check her reaction. Was that too personal a topic to bring up with her? The concept was embarrassing enough when directed at himself, but at a princess? “Different from galra bonds, but it didn’t say anything else about it.”

Instead of embarrassment, Allura answered with a smile.

“They are different,” she said. “Altean bonds can wane or break over time. They need to be maintained in a healthy relationship. Galran bonding is a bit more extreme. It leaves them prone to… a lack of equity if a bond isn’t returned.” An odd way to phrase abuse. Allura lowered her eyes and frowned down into her tea. “Galra-Altean bonds were typically very healthy. Sometimes idolized, even. In some cases, however…” She cleared her throat, and the pause strained Keith’s nerves. He didn’t like how heavily he hung on her words, but he had to understand this side of himself.

And then she said, “Keith, I pray that you never have to face the pain of an unreciprocated bond.”

The ice in his stomach made him forget all about the venom.

“What do you mean?” he asked, throat tight. “Have you seen a galra deal with that before?”

“Zarkon and Honerva were bonded.”

Her throat worked over a swallow. She blinked, and her eyes looked dry.

“He was so in love with her. When I was very small, I saw how happy they were together. He doted on her, and he was always at her side. He never so much as questioned her. His loyalty to her was his greatest weakness. And when her side of the bond faltered, it broke his heart. She loved him, certainly, but she lost sight of that. She was obsessed with her work, and he was obsessed with her. He would have done anything to…” Allura paused to tuck some of her hair behind her ear. A strand caught over one of the flower’s petals, but she didn’t notice.

“My father watched Honerva succumb to quintessence poisoning, and he watched his friend waste away with her. And in the end, Zarkon died with her. I doubt their bond survived what the corruption did to his quintessence, but if it did, that pitiful monster has been living with that loss for millenia. He would have felt the pain when she died.”

A profound sense of loss and physical agony.

Keith thought of Kolivan only the day before and the gutted, stubborn pain in his eyes. He hadn’t known Antok for very long, but he had seen that Kolivan trusted him and nothing else. He hadn’t seen affection between the two of them, but they moved as a unit. Two wholes that made up a larger, better whole.

Keith thought of his father and the way his face had crumbled when a five-year-old Keith had asked, Mom hated me, didn’t she?

Keith, don’t ever think your mother doesn’t love you.

She loves you more than anything. I can still feel how much she loves you.

At ten years old, Keith had been sitting on the porch steps. Keith had been strumming on his dad’s guitar, practicing chords. Dad had been stargazing from his rocking chair.

Do you know where Mom is? Keith had asked.

Sometimes.

Keith had thought that was a weird answer. Dad had just kept smiling up at the sky, like this life of sitting on the porch and listening to his son fumble his F major was enough for him.

I can still feel her. Right here. And Dad had put a hand over his heart, causing creases in his worn cotton shirt, and had kept his palm there for a long time.

Keith wondered if his parents had been bonded.

He wondered if she had felt it when he died.

“Keith?” Lance sounded alarmed. Keith looked down at himself. His arm and side were soaked through with tea. The cup was on the floor by his foot, unbroken.

The mess didn’t matter. He just had to disappear for a moment. He wanted to float away, so he tried. He slid to his feet and walked out of the room to look for nothing.

“Keith!”

A couple of voices. Interesting. Muted. The tile in the next hall over looked like marble. Woven watercolors of silver on silver-white. The wall was white plaster, and it was cool when he found his cheek against it. The silver floor slipped closer. His hands felt hot, and his cheeks felt cold. His knees bruised against the silver tiles. The room clawed its way back into him when he choked on his own breath.

The pain caught up and hit him in full force. He gasped again, and even when Lance’s arms wrapped tightly around him, he had a hard time fighting off the scorching, hateful venom in his blood. It was trying to cook him. It was trying to peel his individual tissues apart. It must hate him. His mother didn’t hate him, but the venom did. It was trapped in his body and it wanted to get out.

“Baby, I got you, it’s okay,” Lance’s breath said to his ear. Keith turned his head loosely to try and find him, and Lance stared back at him, naked blue eyes and a soft, scared mouth. He was scaring Lance. He was too much work and not enough payoff, and he was scaring Lance.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, and Lance shook his head. Allura was hovering somewhere over Lance’s shoulder.

“Keith, don’t. It’s okay. Just don’t walk away from me like that.”

 

 

Lance carried him back to the couch. Keith ate slowly, and Allura made soft apologies of which he didn't catch the words. She went so far as to refill his tea and stroke his hair once. He wanted too badly to accept the contact and lean in, so instead he muttered, “I'm alright.”

Lance offered him a dose of the painkillers, like he was trying to placate Keith out of this funk and into another one, and Keith shook his head and nudged the bottle away. He needed it, of course. He needed something, but he had Lance and their rings, and that would be enough. It had to be enough. It was already more than he deserved. And for now, he would rather hurt than think.

“It'll slow me down,” he muttered when he dismissed the bottle.

“It'll help,” Lance insisted. “The pain'll slow you down. You might as well be slow and not in pain.”

“I can work through it. Please, Lance.” Keith was getting tired of arguing, and it showed in his weary voice. “I don't want any.”

Lance put the medicine down. He rubbed Keith's arm and whispered, “Okay,” and that was that. Keith took another moment to just breathe. He turned the ring around on his finger, feeling its steady pulse and letting it stabilize him. Keith had just convinced himself that he was ready for the day when Hunk and Pidge stepped into the doorway.

“Oh, hey, there you are,” Hunk said, face relaxing into a smile. “Do you have a minute? I mean, even if you don’t, you probably wanna see this.”

Before Lance could tell them that Keith was resting, Keith sat up straight. “Sure. What’s up?”

Pidge stepped forward with a couple of metal items in her hands. She frowned at them, but she held one out to Lance and one to Keith.

“They’re just prototypes right now,” she said. “They might not work very well. Or at all. But you know, yesterday, you looked like you needed something besides the rings, and if we’re gonna be going on missions again soon…”

Keith turned over the device she had passed to him. It was a short metal sleeve, and he found that it fit around his wrist. He heard it click, felt it adjust, and stared at it when it settled snugly in place. Lance gasped when his own did the same.

There was no pulse, but there didn’t have to be. The bracer was warm and that was comfort enough.

“What is this?” Lance had the presence to ask.

“Is it working?” Hunk pressed instead. Slowly, Keith felt it.

It set in at its own pace. He felt a cascade through his arms and legs, then up his spine. First there were pinpricks, then tingles, and then nothing but a fading sense of surprise.

His head was clear. The ache was pacified. The venom was contained, like a snarling animal finally caged. Keith was just grateful to be on the other side of the door.

“What…?”

“It’s working!” Pidge brightened and leaned forward, and Keith could only accept her sudden closeness while he blinked the spots from his eyes. “One of the Yzrian engineers gave us a pair of the rings like the ones you’re wearing. Even I don’t know how they work; Allura said something about quintessence, and the rest of it doesn’t make any sense. But the beacons, those take existing signals and amplify them over a distance. So as long as the condensed beacon tech can pick up the signals from the rings, the two of you have another link. Obviously we haven’t tested them yet, but they’re probably very short range. But with a little more tweaking, we might be able to get them ready for you to take on a mission. Go ahead, try them out.”

“Pidge, slow down.” Lance’s mellow voice was strange and out of place. “Keith’s pretty worn out. Give him some space.”

“I’m alright,” Keith muttered. He put a hand on Lance’s arm in a bid to reassure him, and then he stood. He let go of Lance entirely.

The pain didn’t return. It flickered just out of reach, grinding its teeth with nothing to bite into, but the new device held it back.

Without the bracers to support him, and without the rings to keep the edge off, Keith didn’t want to know how badly it would have hurt.

Lance stayed seated. He kept his eyes on Keith, ready to jump in, but waited. Keith took a cautious step backward to test the distance.

It started to hurt. He stepped closer again, and Lance took his hands.

“It’s a lot better than it was,” Keith reported, and he looked to Hunk and Pidge to see the rapt attention they paid him. “Thank you.”

It didn’t quite hurt, but his stomach turned. The constant fluctuations hurt. The new treatments, the medicines, the contact Lance offered him and the absence of it-- it was all changing too much. How many days did he have left of this? A movement was ten quintants, right?

“No problem. Looks like the all-nighters were worth it.” Hunk shared a high-five with Pidge when she trotted back to him, and he looked satisfied and worried at once. “Let us know how well they work, or if there are any changes we can make. I mean, we’ve seen how debilitating it gets, so we wanna help. But the short of it is that the devices work on the signals from the rings, and they won’t work without them. So keep the rings on.”

“You guys are amazing.” Lance grinned at the two of them and stood, and he pulled Keith against his side. Keith didn’t deny the support, and he didn’t tell them how lightheaded he was beginning to feel.

This wasn’t his limit. Keith couldn’t afford to have limits.

“I’m ready,” he decided. Lance looked down at him and raised an eyebrow. “We should get to the station. I’m ready to talk to Vanok.”

Lance’s smile became easy and gentle. “Wanna check on Shiro first?”

This boy knew him so well.

 

 

With the rings and the bracers working together to keep him standing, Keith wondered why they didn't just add on an IV drip and a respirator along with them. Would he just collect jewelry and medical treatments until he was back at one hundred percent? He wasn't ungrateful for the help. He just wanted this to be over.

But with the devices’ help he was able to put on some actual clothes again, so he and Lance dressed in their armor. Keith wasn't sure he wanted to go anywhere without it anymore.

Seconds after Keith knocked on the door, Shiro ripped it open. He was fully dressed, and though he wasn’t covering his eyes that day, he kept them locked on the lower corner of the room.

“What?” he snapped.

Keith didn't recoil, as much as his body wanted to.

“Whoah,” Lance said behind Keith's shoulder. “Just checking in. What's the matter?”

Shiro paused, grimaced, and shook his head. “Nothing. Sorry.”

“Okay?” Lance didn't sound reassured, and the angle of his arm around Keith felt like a shield. Keith spoke up.

“We're about to go back to the station with Allura.” He had hoped to see some relief, some sense of trust in Shiro's face, but it didn't come. “We’ll see what news we can bring back for you. We're making progress.”

“Is Vanok talking?” Shiro's direct question caught Keith off guard, especially since he hadn't wanted to know anything about the prisoners the day before.

“Not yet. But we’ve got some bargaining power with him now.” Vanok would either be relieved or terrified that they knew the significance of Latova’s cruiser. Maybe Vanok didn’t know it himself, but Keith thought it unlikely. The lieutenant had recognized Shiro too acutely not to know what had happened to him. As for Latova, Keith would have questions for him once they would meet.

“Bargaining power, like his mate?” Shiro’s voice had gone as flat as a knife. Keith almost gave him the full answer, but Lance gripped his hand tighter and answered first.

“Not quite,” Lance said, and listening to him lie put a knot in Keith’s stomach. “We’re looking into another avenue.”

“What about the other two?” Shiro pressed.

“We haven’t gotten anything out of them,” Keith answered. There couldn’t be any harm in telling him that. “The little one doesn’t know anything, but we’re still working on the big one.”

Shiro nodded distractedly. His hand was at his belt, and his artificial thumb kept clicking over the edge it. Shiro only had so many nervous habits, but that was a new one.

Lance spoke up softly. “It’s going to be okay. We should get going, but we’ll be back in a couple hours.”

“Yeah.” Shiro’s eyes flickered upward and landed on Keith’s, utterly absent of warmth. Keith’s heart dropped into his stomach. He didn’t know whose eyes those were. “I’ll see you later, then.”

 

 

Vanok was doing better that day. It wasn't a hard standard to raise compared to their first visit, but his cell was without any shredded bedding or broken furniture, and his unfriendly affect wasn't one of outright hostility. With Kerisz and Allura checking in with the youngest prisoner Orzil, Lance and Keith were left to talk with the lieutenant.

They found him during mealtime. Vanok picked through the food with a harmless dull spoon. It was only when Lance mentioned the Peralian system that Vanok looked up at them.

“You found the cruiser?” Vanok asked with his signature caution.

“The heavily guarded research vessel, right?” Keith was careful to keep his voice flat instead of antagonistic. “I’m wondering if Shiro would recognize Latova’s face.”

The guardedness in Vanok’s eyes waned and strengthened, and the thin shadows of hope made it more complicated.

“So you found it,” Vanok said.

“We found it. And it looks like you picked the most impossible vessel in the Empire for us to target for an extraction mission,” Lance was happy to mention.

“Do you think it’s impossible?” Vanok asked evenly. Keith thought he was awfully calm for someone talking about the fate of his soulmate, but then again, there was likely no other way for the poor creature to process it. Vanok didn’t have any other options but to remain steady and help them plan this operation.

“Not impossible,” Keith replied. “Just a pain in the ass.” Something about that had Vanok setting down his spoon and coming dangerously close to smiling, so Keith continued. “We have a few allies in the system organizing for infiltration, and Voltron is preparing to lead the strike. We need to know more about Latova so we can grab him without getting him hurt in the attack. What he looks like, where he would most likely be, what he would respond to. Things like that.” The furrow in Vanok’s brow returned as he prepared an answer, but Keith cut him off.

“And--” There was no more room for bargaining, so Keith didn’t leave any in his voice. “--we need to know what this has to do with Shiro.”

Vanok shut his mouth. For a split second his eyes ducked away from them, and Keith thought he could see some actual guilt in that bitter face.

“It’s past time I told you,” Vanok agreed quietly.

Keith’s back straightened. Lance went still beside him.

“Told us what?” Keith found himself growling. Vanok found the audacity to look either of them in the eyes again, and the sober line of his mouth underlined sympathy rather than distrust. Keith liked this new side of the lieutenant even less.

“I’m still not sure you’ll believe me,” Vanok said. “You won’t want to believe me.”

“It’s bad. We get it,” Keith said through clenched teeth. “We’ve held up our end of the deal so far. Now it’s your turn.”

“We both have loved ones depending on this,” Lance added quietly.

Vanok let out a sigh and nodded.

“You must keep in mind,” he said, “Latova is not the one to blame for any of this.”

“So someone on that ship is?” Keith thought the muscle of his jaw might snap. “That’s fine. We’ll blow up the cruiser once we have your mate.”

“You won’t want to do that,” Vanok said, still strangely quiet.

Keith scoffed. “Why not?”

“Because Shiro is on the cruiser.”

The words hung out of place in the air. They didn’t make sense in any order Keith could parse them. He stared at Vanok, waiting for a punchline, but the galra wasn’t smiling.

Allura's voice cut through the comm of Keith's helmet before he could ask anything.

“Keith, Lance, you need to get Vanok out now.”

Keith's eyes dropped to the helmet at his side. He pulled it on over his head, and Lance did the same with his own.

“Allura, what's going on?” Keith started.

The impact roared through his bones before the sound caught up to him. A blast rattled the structure of the police station, and Vanok's room at the end of the hall caught the echoes of it. Keith's ears whined and rang, and when he lifted his head from a defensive crouch, he found that Lance already had him shielded under his arm and shoulder. They looked to the door.

The doorway was still intact. Noise rose from down the hall. Shouting. Crashing. His bayard found his hand, and he saw Lance’s do the same. The city had to have emergency plans in place for attacks, and the police station of all places would have security measures, but the paladins hadn’t been briefed on such things. They would just have to improvise alongside the local law enforcement.

“Allura?” Lance called. “Are you alright? Where are you?”

“I’m with the councilor and Orzil. Get Vanok out,” her voice commanded again, and Keith recognized Vyrisid spitting orders over the comms.

“He’s here,” they said. “Vanok is too valuable. You need to escort him out through the back. I’m opening the doors now, but you have to go.”

The barrier wall of Vanok’s cell vanished. The prisoner stood frozen in the corner of his cell, and his wide yellow eyes met Keith and then Lance.

He showed them his hands. Lance waved him closer, and Vanok followed. He wasn’t stupid, and Keith liked that much about him.

“Stay between us,” Keith ordered Vanok, and Lance looked back at him with an argument in his eyes. “Lance, I’m fine. Let’s go. Allura, what the hell is happening?”

“He’s in the building,” Allura said. “A bomb just detonated at the front of the station.”

“He must have sabotaged the automated security,” Vyrisid added. “Barriers went down around the facility. Surveillance cut out less than a dobosh ago.”

“What is he doing?” The question broke Lance’s voice. “Why would he--?”

They were saying a name, but it was incompatible with the words framing it. Keith couldn’t latch onto it. That confusion left him small and shaken, but he brought up the rear when Lance led Vanok out of the door and into the dark, red-lit hallway. The orderly shouting and clatter of equipment continued from the other end of the hall, but there was no firing. No screams. No combat. It left a hollow space in the chaos.

“Who?” he asked.

Nobody answered. Instead, Vyrisid growled over the comms, and Keith listened to them bark directions to their own officers. Two groups to cover the front of the building. Another group to guard the hall to the holding cells, another to escort the princess and councilor to safety with Orzil, and another to grab Korasat. A remote group to address the technical breach.

“Revin, Dalisz, take your teams and look for heat signatures until cameras are back. Find out where he went.”

“We don’t know where he is?” Lance cried.

“Lance, focus.” Allura’s voice was hard, and then they turned the corner in the dark hall and met her face to grim face. She was flanked by four Therysian officers, and she had herself positioned in front of Kerisz and the youngest prisoner. The councilor had a pistol in hand. Orzil was frightfully small for a galra, barely Keith’s size, with tense shoulders and wide, angry eyes to cover up fear. Their groups converged, and two of the officers took the lead through the holding wing.

“Sir,” Orzil said as soon as he saw Vanok. A young recruit clinging to his training, looking to his leader for guidance.

“Orzil,” Vanok replied dryly. “Behave while these nice people keep us alive, got it?”

He hesitated, but he mumbled, “Yes, sir.” The two of them followed their escort without a fuss.

“Lieutenant,” Allura growled to Vanok, “I know you know what’s happening. You need to tell us.”

“He’s here for us,” Vanok answered lowly. He wouldn’t stop turning his head, searching every corner for danger. He walked as closely to Orzil as their guides allowed. “They must have realized his time was up--he’s unstable, and he’s going to get ratted out--so they’re cutting their losses and making him clean up the loose ends. You took prisoners. That’s a liability to the Empire. He'll come for you next.”

“What are you saying?” Lance sounded sick. “The Galra are controlling Shiro?”

“This isn’t Shiro,” Vanok snapped.

The situation was finally slipping through Keith’s shock and falling into place.

It was Shiro. Shiro was attacking the station. The Galra had done something to him, and it wasn’t his fault.

“He’s on the cruiser?” Keith demanded. They needed the rest of the pieces to this puzzle now.

“Shiro is,” Vanok answered. “But the copy is here.”

A copy of Shiro.

A copy who needed medication to sleep.

A copy who had named his cat for his favorite book.

A copy who had tried to lock himself away to keep from hurting them.

The rest of the details would have to come later. They were already arranging a rescue mission on the cruiser. For now, there was a Shiro in this building, and he needed help.

Keith broke formation. He turned around and moved back up the hallway, upstream through the pain. Lance gave a small cry and caught up behind him.

“Take Vanok,” Keith ordered the group behind him, and he looked up to Lance when he stopped at his side. “Lance, go with them. I’ll find Shiro.”

Lance’s eyes didn’t look blue in the grave red light. His stare was hard. It held for a second, and then he looked back to Allura, the Therysians, and the Galra prisoners.

“Go,” Lance told them, and he took Keith’s hand.

“He’ll kill you,” Vanok warned them, and he almost sounded compassionate. “You don’t know him now.”

“Shiro would never hurt me,” Keith replied. And whatever version of Shiro this was, Keith would never let him hurt Lance.

Vanok shook his head. Allura watched the two of them for the last second that she could spare.

“Once I get them to safety, I’m getting Hunk and Pidge and coming back in,” she said.

Keith nodded, and that was it. He and Lance split off from the group, and he didn’t wait to watch them disappear down the hall. Lance kept pace with him easily, and they turned the corner back toward the center of the building.

“The last prisoner,” Lance said suddenly.

A door ahead of them rattled with an impact from the other side. Shouts. Gunfire.

Keith and Lance darted forward together, and when the door wouldn’t respond, Keith shoved the blade of his knife into the seam. With a hard twist he wrenched it ajar, and Lance caught it at the side and shoved it the rest of the way open.

A police officer lay motionless by their feet, tucked into the corner of the wall, probably after having been thrown into the door. Another lay bleeding and clutching at their stomach several feet away. The cell barrier was gone, leaving the visiting room and the cell itself open as one room. A large wounded galra, Korasat, was curled up in the corner opposite the door. Vyrisid stood, with their rifle raised and half of their face covered in blood, as the only thing between him and the attacker.

“Don’t shoot!” were the first words out of Keith’s mouth. He wasn’t surprised by the hideously offended glance that Vyrisid sent him.

Shiro turned his head. His right hand was active and glowing, and when his eyes landed on Keith, they were too violet, the only real points of light in the room.

This didn’t look like Shiro. Everyone would say it wasn’t Shiro. And yesterday, he had told Keith and Lance to keep each other safe.

“Shiro,” he tried, as patient and gentle as Shiro had always been with him. “It’s gonna be okay. We’re going to figure this out.”

Three seconds of tension stretched through the room. The light of Shiro’s hand stayed steady, and when he turned to face Keith and Lance fully, he smiled thinly.

“Captain, see to your officers,” Lance said under his breath, and blessedly, Vyrisid didn’t shoot at Shiro’s back. They kept their eyes fixed on him, and they kept their gun at the ready when they slipped over to their closest wounded.

“Shiro,” Keith said again. “Come with us. You’re hurt.” That was an awful thing to notice. Shiro wasn’t in the paladin armor that he deserved, and the utility armor he wore hadn’t done its job quite well enough. Dark blood welled up at a spot close to his hip. Bruises and lacerations patterned his cheek, shoulders, and left arm. These were the injuries he had earned while their allies had worked to defend themselves from him.

His right arm seemed to glow up to the elbow. He took a step toward Keith and Lance at the doorway.

“So drop your weapon, Keith,” Shiro suggested.

Keith didn’t like that tone. Shiro sounded like he was teasing him. He hesitated too long, and Shiro had taken several more steps.

“Drop your weapon, Keith,” Shiro repeated mockingly.

Keith did. He tucked his knife into place at his belt. His bayard dematerialized. Lance hissed his name, and Keith put an arm over Lance’s chest to guide him back. When he stepped back into the hall, he kept himself in front of Lance.

Their first objective was to draw Shiro away from that room, away from those he had already wounded. It worked well, but then Shiro was following after them too quickly.

“Lance, run,” Keith barked. He knew Lance wouldn’t have listened. He had to shove him further back from the door, further back from Shiro and himself, and he heard him yelp when he stumbled.

Keith caught a flash of violet, an arc aimed for his head, and he stopped Shiro’s hand against his shield. On the other side of the barrier, Shiro gave a curt laugh.

“What, you don’t trust me?”

Every syllable sounded like poison. This was a heretical use of Shiro’s voice. If the Galra had done this to him, then they had twisted Shiro against himself, and Keith couldn’t imagine how that felt.

“Shiro, listen to me,” he begged. “You need to stand down so we can help you. We’re going to get you out of here. Whatever’s going on, we’re going to fix it.”

Shiro snorted. He lunged forward and shoved Keith back against his shield. The force was enough to knock Keith off his feet, and he rolled back on his hip to stand again.

Lance was beside him, rifle poised.

“Lance, don’t,” Keith choked. “You will run and leave me before you hurt him.”

Lance’s face contorted into a scowl. “As if.”

Shiro moved forward again. Keith couldn’t tell whether he was more afraid of Shiro’s arm or Lance’s rifle, and he brought his shield up between them again.

Lance’s shield was crossed over his. They caught the blow together.

Keith couldn’t kiss Lance right then, but he hoped the thankful smile he flashed toward him made up for it. Together, they pushed back against Shiro, putting some distance between them and bracing themselves again.

Keith didn’t have a plan. This wasn’t a fight to the death. Unless Shiro surrendered, there would be no victory.

Shiro scoffed. He shook out his right hand as if to wave off an ache, and he looked back and forth between the two of them.

“Wow. Looks like you fell pretty hard. Nice to see someone finally loves you, Keith.”

Keith would have rather Shiro slapped him. His jaw ached, and he swallowed. “He does,” he answered, soft and sure. Lance loved him.

Shiro grinned. “So, if you had to pick only one of us to walk out of here alive?” He shifted his weight from one leg to the other, and he started forward again. Keith and Lance walked backward down the hall, and Keith angled himself in front.

“You’re not going to hurt him,” Keith promised.

“Oh, I’m going to let you watch,” Shiro laughed. Then he broke into a run.

Shiro’s fist slammed into Keith’s shield, and it didn’t stop him. He turned his momentum on the other shoulder, and his forearm and elbow cut across the shield to knock Keith to the side. Keith followed just enough of the motion to keep his shoulder from dislocating, and it left him open for a fraction of a moment.

Lance’s shield took up the space. Shiro’s attention snapped toward him, and he took a bold step forward to kick Lance’s ankle out from under him. Lance growled and grabbed onto Shiro’s left arm as he fell, and the two of them rolled until Lance had Shiro on his back. Shiro’s right hand hit the floor and began to burn a hole into it, and Lance had it pinned under his shield.

“Shiro,” Lance panted, “you’re the reason I joined the Garrison.”

Confusion overtook Shiro’s face. He lay there, breathing hard, and stared up at Lance as he spoke again.

“I’d see you on TV and think, ‘He can do anything.’ You were brave and kind and inspiring, and I wanted to be like that. The youngest pilot to lead a deep space mission. I wanted to beat your record. And then I got to meet you.”

Keith had started to step forward. He couldn’t leave this situation to Lance. If he could find something to help Shiro calm down, or something to help hold him down, this fight could be over for good.

Shiro’s eyes flickered up toward him, and then he was moving. He shoved Lance off of himself and turned, and Keith grabbed Lance by the arm to pull him out of the way. The next time Shiro lunged, Keith blocked it. Shiro sneered at Lance past the shield.

“Disappointed?” he bit out.

Lance had his own shield up again. The smile on his face hurt to see.

“Never.”

Shiro’s vicious smile vanished. He snarled, pushed Keith back against the wall, and turned on Lance again.

His right arm flared brighter. The light jutted outward, and a blade of energy extended from the back of his wrist, following the line of his forearm. When it struck Lance’s shield again, the barrier flickered and broke. Shiro pulled his arm back only to bring the blade down.

Keith didn’t have time to think. He just moved. Put himself between Lance and Shiro.

He caught the sword over the flat of his bayard.

It felt like a betrayal to even bare a sword to Shiro.

Shiro was getting impatient. Hatred didn’t suit his eyes, but it stained them, staring at Keith past their crossed blades. His left hand cut under Keith’s guard and caught him in the stomach, and Lance had to recover his shield and keep Shiro’s sword at bay above them when Keith’s guard broke.

When Keith finally made to strike Shiro, it was with his unarmed hand. He could never hit him with a weapon, but maybe if he could wear him down--

Shiro caught Keith’s wrist and grabbed on. The wild grin came back to his face. He turned aside, took a step back, and swung Keith around into the opposite wall. The glove of his armor pulled off of Keith’s hand, and the wall hit his back and knocked the breath from him.

He couldn’t draw that breath back in.

His legs gave out from under him.

The dark red hallway faded at the edges, and Keith slumped down against the wall.

His hand was bare. He couldn’t feel Lance’s heartbeat. He could only feel the world exploding around him.

His ring. His ring wasn’t on. His ring wasn’t there, and his blood was rioting. His body would dissolve itself.

He had no other option but to curl up in the corner of the wall. He could only look up and attempt to focus his eyes when he heard Lance cry out his name. Keith watched Lance block another strike of the violet-glowing sword only to take a hard kick to the chest, and then Shiro’s attention turned back towards Keith.

His bayard lay inactive on the floor, far out of reach. Keith could scarcely even move. When Shiro stepped closer and stopped in front of him, instead of reaching for his mother’s blade at his belt, it somehow felt like a better investment of Keith’s energy to reach for Shiro’s knee. His naked hand was unsteady, but he found Shiro’s shin and held on.

There was no reprieve from the venom. It wanted Lance.

Lance was across the wide hall. Lance was on the floor, and Lance was rolling up to his knees, and Lance was aiming his rifle at Shiro.

“Don’t.”

It could have torn Keith’s throat apart to speak, but he had to. He did it again, even when Lance tightened his jaw and when Shiro huffed a small, almost fond laugh above him. Keith’s nails dug into the armor over Shiro’s leg.

“Lance, please don’t.” It was a battle to lift his head, but Keith had to look Shiro in the eyes. The overflow of tears made it hard to see him, and the frenetic tightening in his ribcage made it hard to talk, but he had to. “Shiro, it’s gonna be okay. I’ll never walk away from you.”

Shiro’s face, which had relaxed with the knowledge that he had won, stiffened. His mouth tugged downward bitterly, and his eyes hardened. He raised his arm, and Keith’s eyes focused on the glowing blade.

“Bye, Keith.”

The sound of the gunshot stopped Keith’s heart. He stared up at the shock in Shiro’s eyes, and he dreaded that he would fall. Keith would have caught him.

The blade of his arm flickered, and then Keith saw the hole in Shiro’s artificial arm.

Lance never missed.

The sickly violet dimmed to nothing, and Shiro pulled his arm back down to stare at his hand. He watched it flicker again, trying to reactivate, and the horror on Shiro’s face told Keith that it wasn’t intentional.

Across the floor, the Black Bayard vanished, and Keith watched awestruck when it came to Shiro’s left hand, exactly where it should be. He watched the flash of light it gave as it took shape, and he watched Shiro’s grip tighten on the hilt of a long, noble sword - a claymore, the perfect sword for a knight. And he watched as Shiro turned away from him, reached forward with the right arm that was beginning to flutter and spark, and threw the bayard into a swing through his own bicep.

Keith listened to Shiro scream. The bayard fell from his hand, and it hit the floor and deactivated at the same time as the discarded arm. Shiro slumped against the wall beside him and clutched at his shoulder, clenching his teeth over the sounds of pain. Keith was still staring at him when he heard Lance’s footsteps drum across the floor.

Lance’s soft hands found his face. All of the pain in the world fell away. Keith’s vision went black with relief, and his shaking hand pressed Lance’s closer against his skin. He listened to Lance’s shaky, adrenaline-wrought whispers of assurance, and he followed Lance’s arms when he pulled him into his chest.

“You okay?” Keith breathed. His senses were beginning to stabilize again, and he heard more footsteps. The hallways rattled with the number of them.

“Yeah, baby, I’m fine.” Lance pushed Keith’s helmet off to kiss the top of his forehead. Keith gripped Lance’s hand tighter.

“Shiro. What about Shiro?”

Lance lifted his head to look at Shiro, and Keith looked back with him. Shiro was sitting with his back to the wall, face in his knees, and his remaining arm folded around the top of his head to keep it there. He was shaking.

The chorus of footsteps caught up to them, and Keith picked out Allura’s voice from the noise.

“Wait,” she commanded those behind her, and she rushed toward them. “Oh, heavens, Shiro.” At the sound of his name, he trembled harder and didn’t unfold himself.

The responders around them moved back and forth through the hall. Keith heard Vyrisid talking quickly with medics and then snapping more orders over the comms. Hunk and Pidge came forward, and while Pidge gathered the broken prosthetic arm into a thick bag, Hunk knelt down in front of Shiro. He spoke so softly that Keith couldn’t hear the words, and he didn’t see or hear Shiro give an answer.

“My ring,” he finally whispered to Lance.

“Got it.” Lance kept his hold on Keith, and he reached back for Pidge to pass him Keith’s glove. He reached in and fished the ring out of it, and he took Keith’s hand to slip it back onto his finger.

Keith had worn it on his middle finger before, but Lance placed it on his fourth. He found that it fit well and didn’t say anything about it. The rest of the pain sank away like shadows under sunlight. He accepted the small, anxious kiss that followed, and he took a second to simply hold Lance in return.

“Thank you,” he whispered into his ear. Lance had never let him down for a moment.

Lance nodded against his shoulder, and when they pulled apart, he was still watching Keith with painful, earnest worry. Keith smiled back at him with all of the confidence that he had, and then he looked to Shiro.

Keith raised his hand and laid it on Shiro’s left shoulder, and he flinched.

“I’m sorry,” Shiro whispered over the footsteps and low chatter around them.

“Shiro?” Keith asked gently.

Shiro raised his face from his knees. His hand covered his eyes, but it was nothing like before. Instead of keeping himself from seeing, he was desperate not to be seen.

“Please don’t call me that,” he whispered. Though Keith couldn’t see his eyes, his cheeks were wet with tears. “I’m not him, am I?”

Keith didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know what to call this man. He didn’t know who he was, aside from the reference point of Shiro himself.

Lance reached out and set a hand on the man’s knee. Keith felt that they were both afraid to let go of him now that they had gotten through to him.

“We found you,” Lance said. “And we’ll find him, too.”

A sob broke from the clone’s lips. He muffled the rest against his knees except to whisper again and again, “I’m sorry.”

Chapter Text

Keith wasn’t pacing, but the tension compressed in his shoulders and crossed arms made Lance wish that he would. They had resigned themselves to waiting on the bench outside of the containment room. The waiting was the worst part, and all Lance could do was hold onto Keith’s hand through their gloves. Being able to wear armor again made it feel like a necessity.

“It’ll be okay,” he murmured. If he spoke any louder, the castleship’s walls might catch his words and make them echo. It was almost a comfort to be back in the castle, but the grim reason for relocating their activities outweighed it by far: there was nowhere else to keep Shiro’s clone.

The police station’s repairs were well underway after yesterday’s attack. Even damaged, it was again functional. Orzil was back in containment, and Korasat was still in the hospital, as were several members of the force. One officer had lost a hand, and another had been carried away with their insides held in by a patch of gauze. Korasat had a cauterized gash across his chest, and Lance's only glimpse of him after the fight had been of the medics trying to calm him down enough to get him to stop coughing blood. They had been unable to save Vyrisid’s eye, but though the injuries had been substantial, there had been no fatalities. The man in Shiro’s body hadn’t murdered anyone. Lance wondered if that was a testament to the Shiro in him. Still, this was little comfort to the Council, and Lance didn’t blame them for revoking their offer of hospitality to him. While the rest of the team was still welcome in Therysia, Shiro’s double had betrayed guest right and was therefore confined to the castle.

At least they recognized that exacting justice became a little iffy when mind control was involved. A heartfelt “sorry, it won’t happen again” wouldn’t quite cut it, but neither could they take the man to court. He hadn’t been in control of himself, and he didn’t even have a unique identity for them to put on trial. He was in punitive limbo.

For the time being, he had become another captive. Vanok had been promoted to a heavily supervised but ambulatory prisoner, but this Shiro had been confined to a cell as soon as his own hospital visit was done. Lance and Keith hadn’t been allowed to visit him yet, and they wouldn’t be until his interrogation was done.

“It’s not okay.” The knot in Keith’s throat was audible. He was still staring at the crease under the door across from them. “Shiro’s on that ship. He’s back on that ship. We stopped looking for him months ago. They’ve had him for months.”

It wasn’t okay. While they had thought everything was fine, Shiro was suffering another lifetime of torture. He probably thought the paladins had given up and moved on without him.

Lance couldn’t make that okay. He could only put his arm around Keith and hold him closer. A tremor ran through him and he rested his face in Lance’s shoulder.

“And this Shiro,” Keith whispered. “He’s terrified. What can we even do for him?”

“I don’t know, baby.” Lance’s eyes drifted across the door in a predictive motion of it opening. It didn’t, so he tried again. “For now, we just have to make sure he knows we’re not leaving him.”

Keith nodded. Lance counted twenty-six pulses in his ring before Keith raised his head again, and he gave him the attention that those anxious dark eyes deserved.

“Thank you,” Keith said quietly.

Lance smiled in place of a laugh. “I didn’t do anything. How’s your shoulder?”

Keith’s eyes dropped from Lance’s, and he shrugged on his right side. The motion was choked and tentative, as much as Keith tried to hide it.

“It’s alright. Pulled it a little, then hit the wall with it.”

A little. Lance stared him down. “Keith, how bad does it hurt?”

Keith shook his head.

“Keith,” Lance pressed.

“It’s fine,” Keith sighed. “Recovering.”

Keith always shrugged these things off. Lance was still learning to speak Keith’s language, but he knew that ‘fine’ translated to ‘just short of unbearable.’

“Hey,” Lance whispered, and his bid to catch Keith’s eyes paid off. He stroked his arm, and he was still pulling together his words when the door in front of them opened.

He and Keith stood together. Maybe Lance was getting too used to having Keith and himself being extensions of each other’s bodies, but it felt natural. Allura, Kerisz, and Vyrisid stepped out, the latter with a patch over their left eye. Vanok followed them, walking between two more guards, but his hands weren’t bound. The door shut behind them before Lance could try and look into the room.

“Did you learn anything?” Keith asked. Even a beat of quiet was too much for his impatience.

“It seems that Vanok is telling the truth,” Vyrisid answered. They looked back at the galra, and Vanok gave them a careful stare before taking the silent invitation to speak.

“Biologically,” Vanok explained, “this is Shiro. The same genetic makeup. The same scars. Even the same memories and personality. But he is a clone created by the Galra. The Empire was using him, without his knowledge, as a spy. I think they were waiting for the right moment to have him attack you, but they ran out of time. They must have realized I knew something and that I was going to tell you. The original Shiro is on the very cruiser I’ve already directed you towards.”

“The one with Latova,” Keith said curtly, earning a sharp look from Vanok. “How do you know he’s on board? Did your mate tell you?”

Vanok’s frown was strange and defensive. “Latova and I haven’t been able to send messages to each other in decaphoebs. But our bond sporadically allows to share thoughts. Memories. Sometimes dreams.”

“So you’re telling us, you’ve seen Shiro in your dreams?” Lance tried to phrase that the least flippantly that he could.

“I’m telling you, I keep seeing him,” Vanok insisted. “Latova couldn’t have told me anything directly--the Empire would have us both killed if they knew we were mated, or if we had even contacted each other--but I know about the projects they’ve had him working on. I know what’s happening on that cruiser, and I know that they’re keeping Shiro alive.”

“For what?” Keith demanded, already sounding sick. “What else could they use him for, now that we have this Shiro figured out?”

“Bait.”

A pang of fear and nausea hit both of them. The Galra couldn’t have picked a better hostage. Worse, Vanok wasn’t done yet.

“And more than that, they like Shiro. He would make a useful soldier, if they could get him to cooperate.”

“What, have they--” Lance didn’t want to ask this question. He didn’t want it answered in front of Keith. But Keith was too smart not to ask it eventually, either. “--Have they made more of him?”

“I don’t know,” Vanok admitted. “I think they’re trying. All I’ve seen is what Latova has seen.”

“And what have you seen?” Keith asked. The unease on Vanok’s face was too much to wait through, so Keith repeated the question through his teeth. “What have you seen, Lieutenant?”

It was hard to tell where Vanok’s yellow eyes were pointed, but it wasn’t at Keith.

“Latova is helping keep him alive,” Vanok finally said.

A chill dropped through Lance’s stomach. He would have to face what that meant, and he didn’t know how. The hallway was silent long enough for Lance to adjust his view of the universe. It was less right, less just, because it was doing this to Shiro again.

Keith broke the quiet by informing them, “We’re going to talk to him.”

“He’s exhausted,” Allura told Lance and Keith gently. “He may want to rest for a while.”

“We’re going in,” Lance and Keith said together. Keith found his hand between them and held it tightly.

“We’re not leaving him in isolation,” Keith went on sharply.

“We can’t leave him alone with his thoughts right now,” Lance elaborated. Allura’s eyes drew in pained sympathy, Vyrisid stared back at them with exasperation, and Kerisz didn’t seem to be surprised at all. Vanok just frowned.

“We’ll go and update the others,” Allura said, more a declaration to the small group following her. “Come back to the bridge when you’re ready.”

 

 

The man was bound in a chair. The restraints crossed over his chest and shoulders, and his remaining wrist was locked to the chair’s arm. They weren’t necessary. His head was bowed, and Lance tried to prepare himself to look him in the eyes.

Neither of them would call him Shiro. It was painful and confusing, but this familiar face didn’t have a name to go with it. All they could do was approach him and take the couple of seats in front of him.

“Hey,” Keith said, voice raw and careful.

Shiro’s clone inhaled deeply and let it out in a sigh meant to brace him. He tilted his face upward and lifted his eyes, and Lance could see each tear track that he hadn’t been allowed to dry.

“I told them everything I know,” he whispered. “Everything I know I know, at least, which isn't anything. They already checked me over, made sure I'm not under Galra surveillance anymore. I’m sorry.”

“You have nothing to apologize for,” Lance told him gravely. “None of this was your fault.”

“But I knew something was wrong. I should have tried harder to…” The man shut his eyes tightly and dropped his face again. He let out another shuddering sigh and continued.

“Pidge and Hunk took the arm.” Not his arm. The arm. “She said she might be able to pry out a little more information. They might be able to tell what the Galra intended by… creating me. Or what's happening to the--the real Shiro.”

Lance couldn’t stand it anymore. He shifted forward to the edge of his seat, and Keith was already following the motion and reaching out. He pulled the glove off of his hand, and he cupped the man’s cheek in his palm, wiping the tears away with his thumb. The man jerked back, and he turned his whole face to stare at the wall to his left.

“You don’t have to do that,” the man said, voice hard and flat to prevent it from crumbling. “I’m not your Shiro. I'll do anything I can to help get him back. And once you get him back, I’ll step aside.”

“Do you think we’re going to throw you away?” Lance asked without even weighing the question first. Keith turned to stare at him with round eyes, and the man tied to the chair did the same. Lance bore forward.

“Do you think you mean nothing to us? We read you a book. You have a cat. On the castle, I made you coffee and we all had breakfast together. We love you.”

It was Lance’s voice that broke apart. He swallowed hard.

“Whatever ‘stepping aside’ means, I’m not letting you do it,” Lance swore. “We’re getting Shiro back, and he’ll love you, too.”

The man was silent. Lance hadn’t meant to make him cry again--Shiro’s face wasn’t one that should ever have to cry--but the man was hit with a new surge of tears. His only option was to bring his feet up to the edge of his chair and hide his face in his knees.

Keith had had enough. He let go of Lance’s hand, and Lance adjusted all but unconsciously to keep a hand on his waist. Keith took a step forward and found the clasp on the restraints, and he unbuckled them to unwind them from the man’s chest.

“Keith,” the man started, but he drew his knees back down and watched him in belated surprise. “You shouldn’t.”

“You’re not a prisoner,” Keith bit out. He finished stripping off the cords and locks entirely and dropped them on the floor like he hoped it would hurt them. “You’re home. If anyone says anything about it, I’m the Black Paladin and I’m not having you locked up.”

It wasn’t an entirely appropriate moment for Lance to be so enamored with Keith pulling rank. He focused instead on the wry, withered smile on the clone’s lips.

“I meant it,” the man added quietly. “I’ll do anything you need me to do. If he’s on that cruiser…”

“We already have a rescue mission in place,” Keith said. “But if Shiro’s on board, this makes things more delicate. They’ll know we want to save him, and they’ll use him as leverage.”

The man brought his freed hand up to his collar. He couldn’t rub at his wrist with another hand, so he chose to use his neck instead. He made a renewed attempt at drying his eyes and frowned at his tear-stained knees in thought.

“We don’t have anything we can trade for him,” the man considered.

“Nothing we can afford to lose,” Keith agreed. “But we have what they want.”

 

 

The team was waiting for them on the bridge when they arrived. Just as usual, Keith and Lance had their hands linked between them. The only change was that the man who looked like Shiro was following along beside them. He held his head down, and Lance didn’t like the disparity between this subdued, defeated behavior and Shiro’s usual reassuring confidence. His left arm was wrapped around his ribs like he was trying to balance the weight of his missing limb. The stump of his right arm was tucked away in the folded sleeve of his shirt.

The Yzrians and Vanok straightened and tensed as soon as they saw the man, but Allura, Hunk, and Pidge all took steps forward.

“No one is tying him up again,” Keith commanded the room. “He belongs here. I understand it was a precaution before, but the interrogations are over.”

“I can live with that,” Hunk was quick to agree, and Lance was pretty sure he could see Hunk’s heart break when he looked at the man with them. “You’ve been through-- You’re home now, okay? I’ll make you something to eat later. You like the tiramisu, right?”

Lance looked up at the man beside him in time to see him swallow. He blinked the dust from his eyes and nodded.

“Thanks, Hunk,” the man said too quietly.

On their way to meet the rest of the group at the head of the bridge, Keith and Lance stopped by the seat reserved for the Black Paladin. Both of them looked back at the man, and at first, his eyes widened and he shook his head.

“I couldn’t,” the man said. “I can’t.”

“Sit,” Keith ordered, and the man turned his eyes down and gingerly took a seat. Lance squeezed his shoulder gently, and then the two of them continued to the control panel. “We have some calls to make.”

Vyrisid nodded and looked to their prisoner. “Vanok, do you have anything else to add before the extraction begins?”

Vanok’s eyes darted between the captain, Keith, Lance, and then everyone else present. “You’re going to leave me out of the planning after this,” he noted. Keith’s eyes passed to Vyrisid and back to Vanok.

“I’m afraid so,” Keith answered. “Helpful as you’ve been, things are going to be delicate from here on out, and we don’t know you.”

Vanok already looked strange and alone enough on the bridge of the castle. He stood head and shoulders over his guards, and with his ears flattened back and his striped brow furrowing, he only seemed more peculiar. He was already friendless enough, and Keith was kicking him out of the conversation. Lance understood why, but it didn’t make him pity him less.

“I don’t have any reason to betray you. I can help you.” Vanok spoke like he was walking over ice, listening to it crack under his feet. “I’m at your mercy. The Empire wouldn’t show me any.”

“I understand,” Keith said. “You still have our protection, but this mission can’t afford any more unknown factors.”

Vanok made to step forward and argue. The Yzrish guards moved with him, both touching something at their holsters, and Lance spoke up to stop them.

“We’ll find Latova,” he promised. It came with a frightening responsibility, seeing Vanok lock eyes with him and to know that Lance might be the one he trusted most in the room. “I promise, we’ll find him. That was the deal. Trust us.”

He almost had him convinced. There was pain in Vanok’s face, and Lance watched it deepen when it became clear that he didn’t have a choice.

“If there is anything I can do,” Vanok insisted, “use me. I want to help.”

“We’ll update you when we can,” Allura said, clearly just to comfort him. “Return to your room and get some rest.” It sounded like an invitation, but the guards escorted Vanok out. Lance looked back to see Vanok do the same, and then the door shut him out of the bridge.

“I think we can trust him,” Hunk said, and that alone made Lance trust Vanok. Hunk had a sense for these things. “I mean, he really doesn’t have anything to gain from turning on us. And this is a chance for him to do some good.”

“So…” Pidge didn’t seem excited to stomp on Hunk’s optimism, but she sent him a dubious look. “If we bring him with us, and he decides to turn on us on the chance that the Empire will pardon him, he doesn’t have anything to gain?”

“The Empire doesn’t offer pardons to traitors,” Allura added gravely. “Hunk is right. Vanok knows more than any of us that he has no other option but us.”

“That may be true,” Keith said. “But the more we involve him, the greater the chance that Latova will know what we’re planning. Latova’s probably in the same boat Vanok’s in, but he’s still on the cruiser. If his higher-ups pick up on anything through him, we’re in trouble. It’s safer for everyone to keep him in the dark. That, and there’s no way the Blades will work with him.”

Sometimes Lance forgot just how sharp Keith was. Maybe his caution came more from distrust than self-control, but it served him well in moments like these.

But Keith felt tense. The air around him felt tighter. Lance was certain that Keith had a headache, especially with the shadows under his eyes.

He looked awful, but this was the turning point. They wouldn’t have a break until this was over.

Keith caught Lance staring. He looked up at him and squeezed his hand, past the point of reassuring smiles. They were paladins and soldiers.

“We need to update Kolivan,” Keith decided. “He’ll have more to tell us about this cruiser.”

 

 

Before they patched the call through, Hunk and Pidge closed the panels of Lance’s and Keith’s bracers. Hunk had only said it was maintenance, and Lance only saw Keith flinch once while they tuned the devices. When the process was done, Keith sighed and tested their distance. He took a few strides away from Lance, smiled, and came back to him to hold his hand. By the time Kolivan appeared on screen, Keith wasn’t so ashen in the face.

“Kolivan,” Keith greeted him, as cut-and-dry as ever. “How soon can you meet us for the extraction? This mission just got more urgent.”

Kolivan frowned. “How urgent? This can’t be rushed, Keith. If we fail to get into the cruiser this time, we may never—”

“They have Shiro.”

The room fell to silence around Lance’s voice. He swallowed, and he didn’t look away from Kolivan.

“They have Shiro, and they probably know that we know they have him.”

Kolivan shut his eyes for a moment. It looked like the equivalent of a long, deep sigh, but Lance wasn’t sure Kolivan ever relaxed enough for one of those.

“Understood,” Kolivan said. “If they know we’re coming, it would be absurd to meet them in the Peralian system. We need every advantage we can get.”

“Have them come here,” Kerisz said.

Every face in the room turned toward them, and they didn’t even blink. They looked to Keith and Allura and repeated themself.

“Let the cruiser come here, to Yzramil’s star system. Have the Blades and our navy support you. This cruiser is undoubtedly better equipped than the one you fought before, and this mission is more delicate. If you are planning a hostage exchange, you might not be able to get back to your lions in time to fight them off yourself.”

“The Councilor is right,” Vyrisid added. “You’ll die if you try to make this assault on your own. The navy can respond if the cruiser makes an attack on the castle, and you and the Blades can focus your efforts on getting the prisoners to pods. If this cruiser is the research facility that you say it is, they will have more than one person in captivity.”

“If we’re aboard the ship and evacuating prisoners…” Allura frowned and considered it. “It’s true. We’ll need your support.”

“We can’t expect to save everyone,” Kolivan warned them. “Galra cruisers don’t even have enough escape pods for the crew, let alone prisoners. We have to prioritize destroying the weapons the cruiser has created.”

“Therysia will provide pods,” Kerisz said. “This is our condition. The Therysian navy refuses to be a part of an operation that disregards the lives of prisoners. I would be surprised if there are no Marmoran agents in captivity, as well.”

Kolivan fell into a scowl. Lance found himself bracing for some callous comment along the lines of they knew the risks, but it didn’t come.

“Eight,” Kolivan said instead. “Eight agents in the last fifty decaphoebs have vanished on undercover operations in relation to this vessel. There is very little chance that any of them are still alive.”

But.

But the Blades held out hope. But the Blades kept coming back to investigate, to try and get their brothers and sisters out of the Empire’s grasp. Lance wasn’t sure how long the typical galra lifespan was, but fifty decaphoebs didn’t seem like it would be as long to a galra as to a human. A few of those eight might still be on the cruiser.

“We will save who we can,” Kolivan rephrased. “I do not take this lightly. But the facility on this vessel is too dangerous. The research data on it is secure--if lost, the Empire will lose its only copy of it. This is the Empire’s laboratory. It’s imperative that we use this one chance to destroy it.”

“So, I’m hearing that this is pretty much the plan we had before, right?” Lance asked, glancing between Kolivan and Keith. “Get on board, grab the prisoners, get off, and blow it up?”

“That about sums it up,” Keith replied.

“A bomb would help,” Pidge said, crossing her arms as she considered it. “A remote detonation would be the best bet. Even if we have our lions, it’ll make the battle end that much faster. Less pressure on the navy.”

“Coming back to that,” Allura said, looking to Kerisz. “We can’t ask you to put Therysia at risk.” Kerisz shook their head again.

“If the Galra are too much for you in the Peralian system,” the councilor reminded her, “they will likely come for us next. The best chance for all of us is to fight them together. We will be proud to support you.”

“So all that’s left is to invite the Galra here,” Keith said. He made it sound so simple, but his brow was still creased, and now wasn’t the time for Lance to smooth it out. Keith took a deep breath and looked up to Kolivan. “How soon can your agents meet us on Yzramil?”

“They’re already on their way. You’ll have them in one varga.”

 

 

They had one more call to make. This time only the paladins were on the bridge, with the man who looked like Shiro, while their Yzrish hosts had gone to greet the Blades at the station and to prepare the fleet. They had the cruiser’s ID and location, and hailing it was no task at all. The challenge was waiting for the cruiser to acknowledge them. It only took twenty seconds for Keith to get twitchy.

“Is no one watching the phones?” Lance mumbled, but it didn’t make anyone laugh.

“Shh,” was Allura’s answer.

They waited. Even with the signal delay, the cruiser should have answered by then. Lance worried the skin of his lip, and he resisted the urge to reach for Keith and try to baby him. Keith had been right when he had decided to leave a couple of feet between them. It wouldn’t do to have the Black Paladin hanging on the arm of his second-in-command during this talk. He looked like he was withstanding the distance alright, but Lance felt like his hands were empty.

“What if they won’t talk to us?” Keith muttered while they waited. “What if we look desperate?”

“That’s what they want you to worry about,” Allura hissed back. “Focus. We have what they want.”

Keith rocked back on his heels and forward again. He crossed his arms and growled something under his breath, eyes leveled on the blank screen.

The Galra must have been curious enough as to why the Paladins were hailing them, because they finally responded.

The call opened and afforded them a wide view of the bridge of a Galra vessel, just as dark and imposing as any other Lance had seen. The principal officer on the bridge stood several feet off to the right, as if he wasn’t concerned enough with making appearances to them to worry about centering himself. All of the crew behind him kept their dutiful eyes on their control panels. He looked like the Empire’s ideal galra, Lance thought--plated skin, broad chest, and cold eyes.

This had to be the admiral. Lance wondered what kind of person Torus had to be for the Empire to give him control of its largest, most insidious research vessel.

“Paladins of Voltron,” Torus said in a voice like gravel and grave dirt. “I’m astonished. You don't treat with Empire vessels often, do you?”

“You don't make it easy,” Keith replied just as flatly. “I’ll cut to the chase. We have the clone you sent us.”

“So I see. So much for Project Kuron.” Torus took a glance toward the man seated several paces behind them. “I hope you’ll find some better use for him than we did.”

None of them would suffer unpacking that insult. Keith continued forward with his single directive.

“We want the original Shiro back,” Keith said.

“Why?” Torus asked. “You’ve got a perfectly good one right there.”

“Quit fucking around. Where’s Shiro?”

Torus regarded Keith for a moment longer than necessary. Lance thought it might be the way someone would size up a peer, and it was nice to imagine that Keith wasn’t being underestimated. That, or Torus was being patronizing.

“What makes you think we have Shiro?” Torus asked.

“Does the Empire train you to play dumb?” Keith spat. “You have him. Don’t waste my time.”

Torus’s yellow eyes narrowed. They scanned each of the paladins in turn.

“If I did have your Champion, why would I give him up to you?”

Without missing a beat, Keith said, “I'll give you the Black Lion.”

Their group had gone over the planned terms before making this call, and sure, the Black Lion was some solid bait to draw the Galra in on, but Keith didn’t have to sound so honest.

The whole team would have given up the Black Lion for Shiro. Hell, the Galra could take all five lions and the castle too, as long as Shiro got back to them safely. But they didn’t have to lose any of their ships, because they had a plan to stick to. Lance just thought Keith was selling it really well.

Admiral Torus raised both eyebrows. His mouth threatened to smile.

“That’s very generous of you. I would also want the traitor you’re harboring. Vanok needs to be returned to us.”

“You can have him,” Keith answered, so dismissive that Lance’s stomach iced over. “Take him off our hands.”

“Wonderful,” Torus said. It was almost funny, seeing this esteemed Galra officer trying not to look bewildered. Keith was making this so easy, and the paladins were worried about just the same thing. “This should be a simple enough exchange. We’ll allow the Black Lion and one unarmed pod to dock. Two paladins, total.”

“Three,” Allura countered, drawing glances from both Keith and Lance.

Torus loured. “Why three, Princess?”

“We will need one of us to pilot the pod,” Allura explained, “one to manage the prisoner transfer, and one for security. This is the bare minimum we can afford.”

Torus huffed. “Fine. Three of you may come aboard when you arrive.”

“We will not go all the way to the Peralian system to deliver the Black Lion to you,” Allura countered acidly. “You cannot imagine that we will hand over a Voltron Lion to you in your own territory. You may come to us.”

“You’re hailing my vessel from Yzramil,” Torus noted. “And your hosts are extending a friendly invitation to us as well? I don’t think so. Yzramil has a neighbor, Halkeryn. We can meet in orbit there.”

That was good. It was still Torus coming to them.

“If that’s the best you can do,” Allura said, sounding reluctant. “Neutral territory is a fair compromise.”

“I’m not done,” Torus added. “If I bring my vessel to your system, I’ll require that the other four lions are grounded on Yzramil before the trade.”

They had expected this, but it still made Lance itch. He scowled at the admiral and spoke up, pressing against one more disadvantage levied against them.

“And what if you decide to cross us?” Lance pointed out. “That’s like telling us to go in with both hands behind our back.”

“At least you’ll have hands,” Torus replied. “Your Shiro still has one left, I believe.”

The threat made Lance catch his breath. He felt Keith go rigid beside him.

Torus wasn’t going to budge anymore. He had them by the throat as long as he had Shiro; they had been lucky to get away with the terms they had. That was probably what he wanted them to think.

“Alright,” Keith said. His voice was calm and measured, but Lance could see the lack of color on his face. “The other four lions will stay grounded. Our castleship will meet you in Halkeryn’s orbit, out of firing range but close enough to send a pod. That’s more than reasonable.”

Torus gave a short, bemused hum. “Reasonable. Yes. The Black Lion of Voltron for a one-armed man.”

“I want to see Shiro,” Keith said coldly.

“You will,” Torus said, and Lance had to wonder if he was just being difficult on purpose.

“Now,” Keith growled. “Show me what the Black Lion is worth.”

Torus smiled. Lance wished he wouldn’t.

“Bring him,” Torus said to someone out of view. He looked down at his wrist, tapped it with one pointed finger, waiting and enjoying it while the paladins couldn’t breathe. Lance wasn’t even trying to hold his breath; he felt his blood stop in his veins, like his heart was waiting for permission to beat again.

Then the door behind Torus opened.

A soldier and two techs dragged in a man who was still kicking and screaming. He almost looked like Shiro, and that was what made Lance believe it was truly him. The galra would have shown them something better than this if they were trying to deceive them.

His silhouette was missing something.

His arm was gone.

His empty right bicep left him off-balance. He was clothed in bloodied rags, slices here and there showing skin and poorly-healing wounds. His voice sounded less like Shiro and more like a cornered animal, and he thrashed against the hands pulling him across the floor. When the soldier threw him down onto the floor in front of the screen, Lance saw that his hair was entirely white--dirty but colorless. He raised his head, and his eyes cast around until they finally landed on the other end of the call.

“No, no, no, no,” he whispered. These were the first words they had heard from Shiro himself in months.

Keith's despair slammed into Lance's chest on top of his own. He felt himself choke. Shiro’s haunted eyes moved over the two of them, to the other paladins, and to the shadow of himself seated in the chair just behind them.

They mirrored each other, two Shiros, both missing an arm and stained with bruises and tears. They stared at each other, only looking sicker.

“Are you certain he’s worth the trade?” Torus asked, feigning sympathy towards their bad deal. “We could dispose of him for you. Save you the trouble.”

The sound Keith made was sickening. It rose right from his chest, agony and bone-splitting rage, and it made him jerk forward. Lance had to reach out and catch him by the arm.

His mate was shaking. Lance was surprised his armor didn’t rattle.

These responses were fascinating to Torus. Lance could see him trying to solve the puzzle, weighing their traumatized, beloved friend against a few tons of metal.

“Shiro?” Keith called. Allura had warned all of them not to get emotional during this talk, but it wasn’t possible.

Shiro stared back at them. He blinked, shook his head, then stared a little longer.

“You don’t have to show me this,” Shiro’s tattered voice said. “I know it’s not real.”

Somewhere beside him, Lance heard Hunk whimper.

“Shiro,” Lance tried. He spoke softly and blinked the watery blur from his eyes. “It’s real. It’s us. We found you.”

Shiro shook his head again. There seemed to be a disconnect between him and the situation, but that buffer waned as tears slipped down to his chin.

“Where did you find him?” Keith demanded.

“After his last battle,” Torus replied. This information didn’t matter to him, or maybe he wanted to torture them with it. “Your attack on the Empire’s capital flagship. He appeared back in my cruiser, right in his old cell. We’re assuming it has something to do with the Black Lion.”

It was hard to understand what Shiro was saying. His voice was so raw, and it wasn’t useful for anything louder than a mumble:

“Don’t. You need to leave me. Hang up. Leave me.”

“Latova,” Torus ordered, “shut him up or take him back to his cell.”

One of the techs stepped forward. He wore a mask on his lower face, but his ears were characteristic, perked straight up. They would be able to recognize him. With one hand he gripped Shiro by the back of his neck, and with the other he took a small, capped syringe from a pack at his hip.

“What is that?” Lance asked, voice rising sharply. They couldn’t afford to seem so terrified whenever any moves were made against Shiro, but they couldn’t help it.

“Calm down. It's medicine,” Torus answered carelessly. “It helps him sleep. Keeps him from wearing himself out.”

“Your move, Shiro,” Latova said, so quietly that the call almost didn’t pick it up. “Do you want to behave and see them, or do you want to go to sleep?”

Shiro shut his eyes, took a deep breath, and nodded. “I’ll stay,” he whispered back. Latova’s hand dropped from his neck and gave his hair a light ruffle.

“Good choice.”

Latova seemed reasonable now, but Lance couldn’t stop staring at the cuts and scars everywhere that Shiro had skin visible. How many of those had Latova given him? Or had Latova been the one patching him up this whole time? When Shiro opened his eyes again, he took another turn to look at each of the faces on the castle bridge.

“Shiro.” Lance had to speak up. This was their Shiro, the same one who had patted Lance on the shoulder on his very first day at the Garrison. The same one who had snorted coffee out of his nose at one of the assemblies. When Shiro looked to him and kept his eyes there, seeming to believe that it was really Lance, relief hit him like broken glass.

“We’re coming for you,” Lance said. “I promise. We’re taking you home.”

Shiro shook his head, slowly at first. Then the motion picked up.

“No,” he rasped. “Don’t come for me. You have to-- You have to watch out for me.”

“Shiro,” Keith pressed gently. “It’s going to be okay. We’ll see you soon.”

“No.” Shiro sat up straight and tried to raise his voice. Torus sighed and waved to the other techs, but Latova gripped Shiro by the wrist and shoulder to lift him to his feet, leaving help unnecessary. “No. What’s the trade? Keith, what are you trading for me?”

“It’s going to be okay,” Keith insisted, but the sound of his voice was fragile. “We’ll take care of it. Trust me.”

Shiro started to argue again. Latova dragged him back, and Lance couldn’t catch any of Shiro’s attempts at shouting. He just saw the admiral’s dry smile.

“See you at Halkeryn,” Torus said, and the call cut out.

The six of them stared at the empty window of the bridge.

Keith pulled his arm from Lance’s grip. He swayed when they turned around to look at the others.

Pidge’s fingers were digging into her folded arms. She held her jaw tight, but her shoulders were shaking.

Without the Galra watching, Hunk let his face fall into his hands.

Keith wasn’t crying. He just stared at the floor, looking ready to collapse.

Lance’s eyes landed on the clone, who was stuck looking at the window.

Allura’s weary voice broke the silence.

“We know what we have to do,” she said. “But… Keith, involving Vanok, too…”

“It doesn’t matter,” Keith murmured through his teeth. “We’re not giving them anything.”

 

 

The six of them gravitated together, centered around the Black Paladin's seat. They would only have a short time before the city and the Blades would report in, and they spent it going over and over the plan. Everyone looked up when the door opened, and a couple of them tried to dry their eyes. Coran stepped onto the bridge, just as dark around the eyes as everyone else, even while he was holding a small grey kitten to his chest.

“I heard it all through Allura's comm,” he said, quiet and toneless to avoid making the room feel any worse. “The city defenses are ready, and then I just had to swing by the hall to pick up a few things.”

“Thank you, Coran,” Allura sighed. She brushed her hair back from her forehead, but Lance caught her drying her cheekbone with her thumb. “It sounds like we’re almost ready.”

The moment the kitten saw the man in the chair, he started squirming and meowing. Coran walked a little faster to bring the cat to him, but the man held still, wearing those wide, fearful eyes. But the moment the kitten started purring--Lance could hear it from ten feet away--the man took in a sharp breath and reached for him. He tucked him close against his shoulder, and the kitten kneaded on his shirt and wouldn’t stop talking. He purred and mewed so much that Lance could imagine him asking the man where he had been the past two days.

“Hi, Watney,” he whispered back, making an apology out of petting the kitten as much as he took solace in it. “Hi, baby.”

His cat had a name, but he didn’t.

“Before we go…” Lance swallowed and tried again. It felt like a bad time to ask, but this might be the only time. “I don’t wanna leave not knowing what to call you.”

“He said 'Project Kuron,’” the man noted under his breath. “Kuron sounds familiar.”

Only a few feet away, Pidge’s brows knitted. “In the arm… I dug as deep as I could into the logs, and that name showed up once. I couldn’t figure out what it meant.”

“What does it mean?” Lance asked, hoping the man knew.

“I guess it’s my name,” the man said, never raising his voice above the volume of Watney’s purring. “It's me. I'm Project Kuron. The clone.”

“That's not…” Lance didn't know what it wasn’t.

“I'm not calling you what they called you,” Keith snapped.

“I don’t know how I feel about it,” the man admitted quietly, never looking away from the kitten nuzzling at him. “I don’t think I feel anything about it. It’s as good a name as any, for now.”

“It’s…” Keith wanted to argue. Lance could feel the heat of his words through his armor, because Keith probably thought it was the worst name possible, but he couldn’t direct the fight in his chest at this one moment of relative calm. Lance reached for his hand, and Keith took it with a firm stubbornness. “Fine,” he mumbled. “It’s fine. Whenever you decide on a permanent one, though...”

“I’ll let you know,” Kuron promised.

“Okay. Good.” Keith fell into an abrupt silence and a stiff nod. Something in him, in his air, was collapsing, and Lance realized with a pit in his stomach that he was the only one who could see it.

He tugged Keith’s hand, and he got his attention in time to watch Keith’s eyes spill over. When Lance made for the door and pulled Keith along with him, he only gave the others a, “We’ll be right back.” No one questioned it.

The hallway outside the bridge didn’t feel very private, but it didn’t have anyone else in it. Lance guided Keith away from the doors when they shut, and he moved his hands up to Keith’s shoulders to support him. All of them had cried, but if Lance could give Keith just a minute to breathe, he would carve that out for him.

And Keith took it. He clung to Lance and buried his face in his shoulder. His voice was so quiet that Lance was barely able to parse it.

“I don't know what I'd do without you.”

Lance cupped the back of Keith's head and swallowed the lump in his throat.

“We're gonna get him back,” Lance vowed. “Baby, look at me. We'll make it okay. Then we can go somewhere. We can take a little break. Recover. We'll all need it. Do you wanna go somewhere with me?”

Keith nodded. He made the effort to look up, but it hurt to meet his eyes when they were so glossy with tears and bruised with stress. He was biting his lips together to keep his weeping stifled.

“Oh, sweetheart,” Lance whispered. He cradled Keith's head and kissed his hairline. “Let's go somewhere. Anywhere you want.”

“Home,” Keith's wrecked voice murmured. “I want to go home.”

Lance nodded. His fingers stroked Keith’s hair, and he found a couple of tangles and coaxed them out.

“That sounds good. We can go home. I can show you my house,” he offered, hoping that thought was as comforting to Keith as it was to him. “Have you ever been to the beach?” Keith shook his head. “Well, I’ll take you. I’ll pack breakfast and we can watch the sunrise.”

“That sounds so good.” Keith sniffed. Cleared his throat. Gave a tiny nod, one that maybe grounded him.

“Okay,” Keith whispered, perhaps a signal that he had gathered himself. “Okay.”

He tilted his head up. His eyes were serious and tear-stricken, but he had control of himself again, because he didn't have any other option. His hands held Lance by the nape of his neck and the back of his head.

“I love you,” Keith whispered. His fingers coiled in Lance’s hair, pressing with a gentle urgency against his scalp, and Lance let himself be drawn in to kiss him. Keith held him generously, as close as he could. Lance only hoped to comfort him in return. He parted his lips for him, welcomed him and treasured him through the contact, but it was just as fleeting and soft as it was desperate. When they parted, it wasn't by far. Keith stared up into Lance's eyes, and his hands found their way to cradle his jaw.

“Don’t do anything stupid,” Keith ordered him. “Don’t make me lose you.”

All things considered in the past several days, they were both pretty stupid. Lance smiled and didn't say as much.

“You, too,” he murmured back. Keith let loose a small gusting laugh, and he reached both arms up to wrap around Lance's shoulders and pull him close again. “It's going to be okay, baby.”

Keith didn't believe him, but it was nice of him not to say it. They just hugged each other tightly in the hallway, and Lance memorized how it felt, mapping it out so he could compare it with the next time he would hold Keith. When they would return to the castle after a mission well done, they would hold each other more happily than this. They would smile, relax, and breathe, and this would just be a scar.

The doors opened too soon. Both of them looked back at Allura, but they were still slow to part from one another.

“We need to get going,” she updated them in her gentle way. “The cruiser has just arrived outside Halkeryn.”

Lance let out a sigh and put on a smile when he stepped back from Keith. He reached for his hand, and he looked Keith in the eyes when he held his fingers tightly.

“Let's go get our boy.”

Chapter Text

They filed into Black's hangar, and Pidge placed a tiny device in Keith’s hand, hardly large enough to fill his palm. It was a metal square with harmless, inward-folded spikes on each corner, but beyond that, he couldn’t figure what it was supposed to do.

“This is your bomb,” Pidge informed him.

“Oh,” Keith said. Always fun to know he had just been passed a bomb.

“Pidge, how long did it take you to make this?” Lance asked, aghast.

“Oh, I didn’t make it,” Pidge said. “Coran gave it to me. Galra cruisers run on the quintessence in crystals, like the castle. This device is supposed to deactivate crystals in case of malfunctions, but it’s been modified to destabilize the crystal energy and then explode on it. So all you have to do is get down to the energy chamber, plant this on the crystal, and get out before you press this.” Pidge set the other item in Lance’s hand: a stick of metal the size of his thumb, with a cap. He opened the cap to see a black button underneath. Pidge reached over and shut the cap again. “That’s the trigger. The bomb is harmless until it’s attached to a crystal, but after that, you do not want to press this until everyone is clear of the cruiser. Got it?”

“Yeah. Easy.” Lance slipped the trigger into a pocket at his belt.

"Paladins,” one of the Marmorans said behind them, and Keith looked back to make eye contact with their ally’s mask. His name was Rovaat, Keith thought, and nearly as brawny as Antok had been. "It's time. Torus is in place, and the navy is prepared."

Kolivan had sent several of their best; all of them had someone precious aboard the cruiser. Though Kolivan normally wouldn't have given the task to people with such emotional investment to the mission, it was clear that these agents wouldn't be left out of it. The way Keith saw it, these agents’ attachments could only make them more determined to see the mission succeed.

Lance, Allura, and Keith boarded Black, and Pidge, Hunk, and the Marmorans waited behind in Green. Torus would want to confirm that the four smaller lions were landbound before the deal took place. This left them without Red, much to his and Lance's distress, and would leave them without Voltron for the whole fight. But as long as he had Shiro, Torus had them in check. Before the deal was happening, before they were aboard, they couldn't risk pissing him off.

It upset Kuron (why that name?) to stay behind, but Keith wouldn’t hear of risking him. He was made to wait with Coran, and Keith saw them both from Black’s windscreen, Kuron holding himself with his arm. His brow and lips were pinched tight with the bitterest worry Keith had seen on that face. He wished that he could do more to comfort him than a simple, “We’ll be back soon,” over the comms.

 

 

Keith’s hands were steady on Black’s controls as they departed from Yzramil, even when Lance held on too tightly to his shoulder. Allura stood at his other side.

“All we have to do is stall," Lance reminded him gently. "We just have to wait for Hunk and Pidge's signal when they bust everyone out. Once Shiro and the prisoners are secure and the armada’s in position, we take Torus out and blow shit up."

He was just as anxious as Keith was, and he was still reaching out and comforting him. Keith turned his head and kissed Lance's glove. He could almost sense the ring below it, corresponding to his own steady heartbeat.

The cruiser was a hideous thing to approach, and it was only made worse by the knowledge of its history. Shiro had spent months, a total of nearly two years, of his life there. Shiro had suffered that long because Keith wasn’t clever or powerful enough to stop it.

Docking was the easy part. Keith had never boarded an Empire vessel simply by using the door before, and he found that he didn’t take well to being a guest of these monsters in any capacity, even for a hostage exchange. The docking bay closed around the Black Lion, and once the room was repressurized and their hosts stepped out to greet them, the three of them descended from the cockpit and off of the ramp.

He could walk by himself with the bracers to keep the venom at bay. It was uncomfortable, but Keith could manage it, as long as he stayed close to Lance. He walked so closely to him that their hands brushed.

“On our way,” Pidge murmured to them through their earpieces, speaking from miles away in Green. “Going as fast as we can. Just keep him talking.”

Torus welcomed them at the docking bay with a squad of Galra soldiers behind him. Among them, Keith spotted Latova’s tall form, lean face, and upward pointed ears. When only the three of them stepped out of the Black Lion, Torus frowned and tilted his chin up.

“Where is Vanok?” the admiral demanded.

Keith kept in mind to act natural. Act as relaxed as he could. They had to control this conversation.

“Where is Shiro?” he replied. He couldn't bring himself to sound surprised. The team hadn't suspected for a moment that Torus would actually follow through on the deal.

“Prisoners should be exchanged at the same time, shouldn’t they?” Torus pressed, and Lance spoke up and played his stalling role admirably.

“So you thought we’d bring Vanok, but you didn’t bring Shiro?”

“Shiro is on the ship,” Torus said flatly. “I have already shown him to you. You have not shown me Vanok. If you don’t have him, I’m afraid this trade isn’t to the terms we had agreed upon.”

“Vanok is in a pod, safe with our allies," Allura said crisply. "When you give us Shiro, we will send him to you."

Torus wasn't delighted with this stipulation. His scowl deepened.

"Give me visual of Vanok," he demanded.

They had expected this, too. Keith opened a holographic display from his gauntlet to show Torus the inside of Vanok's pod. 

There had been no point in torturing Vanok by making him act as the hostage. Instead, they left him in the pod, restrained to the seat, sedated, and unconscious. Vanok had led them back to Shiro, and Keith wouldn’t allow him to be hurt. At the same time, Keith didn't quite trust him enough to put him in a pod when he might end up stealing it. It came down to the fact that they needed the act to be believable, and it was perfectly plausible that they would have knocked Vanok out for this supposed prisoner transfer.

Torus surveyed the display dispassionately. “He has a mate,” he recalled. “Kuron showed us that much. I want his name.”

Keith itched to look at Latova, but he kept his eyes on Torus’ face.

“He didn’t tell us,” Lance said sharply. “Are you just gonna twirl your bad guy mustache at us, or are we going to get Shiro?”

Pidge updated them again, as covertly and sparingly as she could: “We’re aboard. Galra haven’t seen us yet. Marmora’s showing us where to go.”

“We brought you Black,” Allura reminded Torus, “and you’ll have Vanok. We are being generous, Admiral.”

Torus snorted quietly. “And the bayard?”

Keith raised both eyebrows. Playing dumb was surprisingly gratifying, as long as he got to piss off a Galra admiral.

“I’m afraid that wasn’t included in our terms,” Keith replied.

“The bayard is part of the lion,” Torus insisted.

“Well, it’s part of a set with the lion,” Lance explained. “But it doesn’t explicitly come with it.”

“This is absurd,” Torus snapped. “What good is the lion without the bayard?”

“Shiro flew the Black Lion for a year without its bayard,” Keith said sharply. “It’s not necessary in order to be its paladin. You’ll never find anyone better for that than Shiro, though.”

Torus didn’t respond to that past a brief, uncomfortable smile.

“Keep him busy,” Hunk said in their earpieces. “We’ve found some of the agents. They know where Shiro is.” So Keith pressed the admiral.

“As a point of curiosity,” Keith said, “do you even intend to pilot it?”

“That’s a bold question,” Torus replied. His entourage glanced at each other.

“You could keep it locked up,” Keith suggested. “But you’ll never pilot it. The bayard won’t help you.”

“Are you trying to make me change my mind?” Torus asked coldly. “You’re making a very bad sale right now, paladin.”

“How?” Keith grimaced more than smiled, showing teeth. “As you said, you’re getting the Black Lion of Voltron for a one-armed man.”

The mic of Torus’ gauntlet cracked under the sudden, frantic weight of a voice.

“Sir,” a soldier shouted. “Sir, he’s out. Shiro is missing. The prison wing is under attack.”

Torus growled, and even before he pulled his gun, Allura, Lance, and Keith had drawn their bayards and shields. Keith was only surprised that their stalling had lasted this long.

The first shots were fired by Torus. One hit from the massive, whirring gun cracked Keith’s shield apart, and he dove out of the way to avoid the next. The blast against the wall behind him echoed in his ribcage. A weapon that heavy was going to be a problem.

“Get the enforcer,” Torus shouted. "Destroy the castle."

His men opened fire on either side of him, and Keith had his hands abruptly full of dodging and searching for cover while his shield recharged. Allura and Lance ducked behind one of Black’s legs, and Keith took the other side.

Torus’ soldiers split into formation. A third stayed with him by the doors, another group went left, and another went right, moving to surround Black and the paladins. They were cornered and getting flanked. Keith couldn’t take them out at close range with Torus’ artillery to worry about; he had to stay in cover behind his shield. 

“Latova,” Lance shouted. “Vanok is safe. We’ll take you to him.”

Keith peeked through his shield, to the group on their left, to see Latova freeze. The soldiers on either side of him did too, halting in realization.

They weren’t fast enough. Latova made his choice and shot the man beside him.

Keith didn’t bother with being squeamish. Without pausing, he took his knife and launched it at the first sentry to turn on Latova. The next, Lance took out from behind his cover. Just as Torus began to recognize what was happening, Keith waved Latova towards himself.

Latova broke for them; sprinting for cover was his only option. Keith watched him take a shot across the thigh and not slow, not even flinch. He heard the whir of Torus’ weapon, and he knew Latova wasn’t close enough to them yet.

Keith bolted out of cover to meet him. He braced his shield, and his teeth clenched when the blast shattered the barrier of his shield a second time. The shock pulsed through his shoulder.

His arm hurt. That was better than having it go numb.

“Come on,” Latova snapped at him, and he was kind enough to grab Keith by the collar and pull him back behind Black’s leg. Keith planted his back against Black’s frame and didn’t give himself time to catch his breath.

“We’ve got him,” Hunk yelled suddenly. “We’ve got Shiro, three Marmorans, and ten other prisoners. That’s-- that’s everyone.”

Fourteen souls was everyone. The Blades had lost more than half of their people, and the Galra hadn’t bothered to spare what must have been the vast majority of their captives.

“Shiro?” Keith asked immediately, a reflex. His heart lifted hopefully, and he heard the answer, a quiet, scraping voice.

“Hey.” It was almost a laugh, the exhausted, well-worn kind. “It’s good to talk to you again.”

Another year. Keith had let him down for nearly another year. Shiro had gone that long without a friendly voice.

“You too.” Keith swallowed the break in his voice and kept himself focused. 

Their left flank was clear, but they still had to worry about the Galra ahead of them and to their right. Keith was moving again, darting across the space between Black’s front paws, and he joined Lance and Allura just as the right group crossed into their line of sight.

He couldn’t wait in cover forever. Keith ran to them, away from the comfort of Lance’s arm’s reach.

He threw himself under the arm of one of the Galra who took aim at him. He turned and pushed that soldier into another, and Lance dispatched them both. The hum of Torus’ gun filled the room again, and Keith ducked behind two of the Galra to let them take the hit instead.

Keith was feeling pretty good about the battle until he took a rifle butt to the face. Pain burst across his cheek and the bridge of his nose, and it stunned him just long enough for the sentry to aim for his head.

It never got to take the shot. A flash of light--Allura’s bayard--wrapped around the rifle that threatened him, and the sentry’s weapon was tugged from its grip. Keith didn’t have time to thank her, but punched his bayard through the machine’s chest.

“Guys,” Hunk shouted. “We’ve got everyone, but our way out is blocked. We’re taking heavy fire. We need support.”

Their surroundings were clear. It was just Torus and his remaining entourage blocking the door. They were firing on Keith again, and his shield buzzed and protested with each hit it took. He had already asked too much of it.

Then every ounce of pain diminished, and some of the burden lifted off of his shield. Keith looked up to Lance at his side, using his shield to guard both of them.

“Hey, handsome,” Lance greeted him breezily, and Keith grinned back at him for the moment he could spare.

“The cruiser is moving,” Pidge grit out then. “We need the navy.”

“They’re almost in position,” Coran responded, “and bringing the other three lions.”

Good. This was good. Their plan was going well, if not perfectly. They just had to carry out their part of the job. Keith braced himself, looked ahead, and felt it when Lance understood him. They moved together as a unit, as two wholes of a better whole.

Keith broke from the cover of their shields first. He met the soldier to Admiral Torus’ immediate right with his bayard, and he was punished for it by a hard strike across his side with the side of someone else’s weapon. Lance covered him from a distance, and that was what kept Keith alive when he poured himself into the middle of the frenzy. There weren’t too many of them—maybe six— but it was a hard fight.

They felled three of the Galra before Torus managed to make contact with Keith. He struck him across the shoulder, Keith’s bad one, and knocked him entirely to the ground. Keith screamed, but he couldn’t take the time to clutch at the shooting pain down his arm. He raised his shield with his good arm, even when he heard that awful whine of Torus’ favored gun.

Then a flash of light cut Torus across the hand. He dropped the damaged gun and didn’t even cry out, despite the blood on his hand. Keith glanced back and saw Latova and Lance firing together; one of them had shot Torus, and the other was holding off the other two soldiers. Keith forced himself to roll back up to his feet.

“Allura, get to the others,” Keith shouted through the effort of simply moving. If he strayed too far from Lance, out of necessity or not, his body would begin to buckle from pain. The two of them found a rhythm, though, something that wasn’t quite a dance as Lance closed in. “Latova, go with her.”

Allura and Latova followed that order. When they broke for the door and wound around Torus and the two remaining soldiers, Keith and Lance covered them, harassing the Galra to monopolize their attention. Still, one of the soldiers tried to follow after the princess and the turncoat. He didn’t last long. The doorway framed the motion when the soldier fell backwards to the floor and stayed down, taken care of by those he had tried to pursue. Then Allura and Latova were gone.

There was only one guard left at Torus’ side. Keith took him down easily, even with only one arm pulling its weight.

The cruiser rattled suddenly, but Keith kept his feet. Black’s presence in his mind swelled: worry. Worry for the castle. Worry for the paladins.

“Admiral,” a voice from Torus’ radio said, “the Yzrish armada is here. We’re taking fire.”

While Torus barked his own orders, holding off Lance and Keith together, Kuron’s voice ran through their comms.

“They’ve opened fire on the castle,” Kuron informed them. He sounded grave and strong, the way Shiro did in the middle of a battle. Keith recognized that voice. “Coran and I are focusing the castle’s attacks on the ion cannons while you’re on board. The Yzrish fighters are swarming the Galra elites, and the Yzrians have cruisers that can take out the smaller fighters, but we need Yellow’s cannon to clear them all out. Hunk?”

“Got it,” Hunk answered. “I don’t know how soon we can get out. We’re cut off from Green.”

The flurry of chatter and motion was a familiar chaos to Keith, as it was to Torus. He and Lance were doing a good job of holding his attention, but Torus wasn’t giving them any ground. At this close range, Keith was able to keep the huge Galra from lining up a proper strike with his own blade, and Lance took shots that cut a little further into Torus’ armor each time. But he was still holding his own. He was still backing them up toward the wall, cornering them, chasing Lance into the angle he wanted by the angle he threatened Keith.

Then it seemed that Torus stopped holding back. That, or he got a lucky hit. A hard strike with his elbow made it past Keith’s guard, and he slammed into Keith’s hand, knocking his bayard from his grip. It clattered on the ground, and it was all Keith could do to duck and roll under the next attack meant for his face. He scrambled for his sword, and just as he was clambering back to his feet, Torus closed in on Lance and took him by the arm.

The admiral’s arm was raised to strike. Lance thrashed and spat at him, even as Torus shoved him back against the wall.

Keith did what he had to do. He landed on Torus with the full weight of his sword. It pushed through his armor and back with a wet, sickening crunch. The admiral’s body was too broad for the sword to sink all the way through him, but it was more than far enough.

Keith’s hands shook. Torus stopped moving, tried to wheeze and draw in a breath instead, and then he began to slump down. Keith deactivated his bayard to pull it out of him, and he dodged the Galra’s body when he collapsed.

Lance was standing frozen against the wall, uninjured. That was what mattered. Not the blood pooling on the floor, not from any one of the bodies in the hangar. Lance was okay. Keith stood, shaking and breathing hard, and looked Lance’s beautiful figure over and over to reassert the fact: he wasn’t hurt, and they had protected each other. That made this okay. Processing this aspect of their duty would have to come later, though; Lance reached out and took Keith’s hand.

“Go,” Lance panted. “We need to go.”

Keith tucked away his bayard and knife, and the two of them pelted out of the docking bay, deeper into the ship. Pidge relayed the crystal chamber’s location from Latova to Keith and Lance. It took them nearly ten minutes of hard running to reach it, all while the cruiser rattled and the battle outside was narrated to them.

The crystal chamber of a Galra cruiser was a far cry from the one in the Castle of Lions. Whereas the former was clean and contained, the cruiser’s was dark, sterile, and agoraphobic. Its walls flared out wide enough to stifle Keith’s breath, and there was only darkness and a dim violet light from the crystal to fill the space. Keith was coming to understand the crystal’s dark shade as a corruption, an unclean energy stripped from its sources by unsavory means.

The fight with the guards of the core of the cruiser wasn’t a long one. Keith’s shoulder was beginning to go slack, and his fingers tingled at the ends, but he didn’t need to trouble Lance with something like that. All he had to ask of Lance was to cover Keith’s back and watch the door while he ran forward, opened the pronged device that Pidge had entrusted to him, and held it up to the crystal.

Facing this dark crystal was as if staring down a great white shark. It seemed half as large as one of the lions, and Keith felt it staring back at him so intensely that he fully expected it to lash out and bite. Its weight was suspended, but the suggestion of it hanging over Keith made his stomach turn. But he stared back at it, reached up with the bomb, and let it do its work.

The device’s prongs sprung open and extended, and it latched onto the crystal to hug a small section of its surface. It didn’t explode, like Keith had instinctively feared it would, but held fast.

“Time to go,” he called back to Lance. Reinforcements would be coming back to the chamber soon. They had to get out and detonate the bomb before that happened.

"Guys," Hunk interrupted gravely, "we're definitely cut off from Green. They're closing down sections of the ship. We can't get through. Looks like the only way out is the way Allura came."

"Then get to Black," Keith ordered. "We'll meet you there. We can come around and pick up Green from the other side of the ship."

They sprinted back through the halls. They all looked the same to Keith, but Lance was a miracle navigator, and he kept them on track.

They hadn't quite made it back to the docking bay from before when they ran into a solid wall. A gate had shut where there was once open hallway. The Galra had to be cutting them off from the rest of the team. Keith hissed and looked back and forth for a way to open the wall. There was no panel visible, and he guessed that security would be a little tighter than his usual hand-on-button trick would allow anyway.

"We're cut off," Lance reported. "We'll see if we can find a way around." They began to do just that, checking the routes for detours or a control room. 

“Keith,” a hard voice said.

It had come from a break in the hallway behind them.

It was Shiro’s voice.

The two of them stopped and turned. Keith found himself reaching for Lance’s hand, a gesture to steady both of them, and looked back.

That was Shiro.

And that wasn’t Shiro.

His eyes were too light, too yellow in the irises. He lacked the bruises and the full head of white hair that he knew Shiro had now.

“Shiro?” Keith hazarded. He looked like Shiro, at least. How many clones had the Galra made of him? They loved Kuron, just as Keith knew they would love every Shiro presented to them. Keith was still reeling over the fact that his dearest friend had been cloned at all. But this iteration of Shiro was…

“Not quite,” not-Shiro said. He stepped toward them, not too quickly, like he was trying to look leisurely enough not to scare them off. His eyes were locked on them.

"Guys?" Lance asked shakily. "Can you ask Latova how many Shiros there are on this boat?"

A second of silence. Latova's unfamiliar voice murmured, "Oh, no."

Then they got an answer from Shiro himself. 

"No, no, no," Shiro breathed. His voice rose to hysteria. "Run. Keith, Lance, run."

Chapter Text

“Shiro,” Lance began unsurely, and not-Shiro smiled. It wasn’t the same mocking grin that Kuron had given them in the burning emergency lights of the police station; this Shiro looked truly happy, almost at ease, and it was somehow worse. “We need to go. We need to get off the ship. Will you come with us?”

“No!” their Shiro was still shouting over the comms. “You need to get out now!” 

“No, Lance,” not-Shiro said. His yellow irises were pinpoints of light, a warning signal fixed on the two of them. He took another step toward them, then another. “We’re staying here. I have a good thing going here, but shit, it’s boring without you guys.”

“Lance, Keith,” the real Shiro pleaded. “Listen to me. You can’t reason with Kuro. You have to kill him or get out.”

Kuro. That name didn’t fit right. It made Lance want to shudder it off.

"You're working with the Galra?" Keith asked, as uncomprehending as Lance felt. Lance took Keith's hand and a step back, more ready by the moment to heed Shiro's warning. 

“Sure.” Kuro’s eyes didn’t stray from them. He picked up the pace as he stalked forward, gaining on their stunned, half-hearted retreat. “We want a lot of the same things.”

“Kuro?” Lance tried. He glanced to either side of himself and Keith, searching for an exit without turning his head. He caught Keith doing the same thing. “Listen. We need to get off the ship. We can help you.”

“Why?” Kuro smiled. “I’m doing just fine here.”

“The Galra are losing this battle,” Keith promised, though Lance couldn’t be sure. Even with the tremors and thunder throughout the cruiser as it took damage, the chaos on their comm units told them that the Galra were rallying in the fight outside. “They won’t be able to help you anymore. Come with us.”

“So I can be your captive?” Kuro snorted. His arm flared to a bright, hateful violet, and he lunged.

It was just like last time. The two of them brought up their shields and braced themselves. They caught the strike between them, distributing the force of it.

It was happening again. Lance was having to fight someone with Shiro’s face and voice, down to his elegant, ruthless style of fighting. Shiro’s example had shaped him as a person, and if it was this hard for him to fight him, how must Keith feel?

Lance didn’t have to wonder. Keith’s heartbreak was a bolt through their rings, and feeling the borders of it made Lance’s eyes sting. How was Keith not breaking down?

“Please,” Keith said then, with tears in his voice.

Fuck this.

Lance let out a shout of effort, and he slammed his weight forward against his shield. He threw Kuro back, if only for a moment, but it was enough to let him take out his bayard.

Keith didn’t fight him on it; he activated his weapon, too. Lance angled himself in front of Keith, his eyes on the false Shiro.

Kuro gave them a thin smile.

“Come on, guys,” he laughed. “We don't have to do it this way.”

“Then let us go,” Lance demanded.

"Can't do that, Lance. If you wanna take Shiro from me, someone's got to take his place. You wouldn't leave me alone, would you?"

Over the comms, Shiro made a wounded noise. Hunk whispered a quick, "Shiro, breathe. It's okay. They'll be okay. Look at me. Deep breaths."

"No." Shiro sounded in tears. Lance wasn't prepared for how badly that tore into him. "I'll stay. Please, you have to put me back."

"No," Keith snarled suddenly. Ah, there was his fighting spirit. "Hunk, Pidge, Allura, get him to Black. Shiro, it's gonna be okay." He stepped up beside Lance, hands tight on his bayard.

Kuro looked… bored? He stared at Keith with exasperation and disappointment, and he let his violet arm swing at his side, loose and dangerous.

"You're all so selfless," he sighed. “Whatever. I’ll have the full set of you soon enough.”

Kuro threw himself forward again, and this time, he didn’t give them a break. He slashed at their shields until they cracked, and Lance had to dive out of the way to avoid a strike toward his shoulder. He lashed out and kicked at Kuro to keep his attention, and when Kuro followed and turned his back on Keith, Keith made him pay for it.

Keith recovered his shield in time to slam it into Kuro’s back and shoulder. He unbalanced Kuro just long enough to take Lance’s hand and run.

“Guys, take Black and go,” Keith ordered over the comms. “We’ll find another way off.”

“How do you even know we’ll be able to pilot the Black Lion?” Latova demanded. “Aren’t you its paladin?”

“You have Shiro,” Keith said, and Lance felt his surety and complete faith echo his own. Shiro’s answering voice was unfamiliarly weak.

“Keith, I don’t know if…”

“Shiro,” Lance stopped him. “You can do this. Get Black out of here. We’ll see you soon.”

He had to find their way out. Escape pods, maybe. Right then, Lance would take an airlock just to get them away from Kuro. As they sprinted, he trusted Keith to lead him while he searched the routes displayed on his visor for the shortest way to an outer wall of the cruiser. He made suggestions--turn here, take this door--but Keith led the charge.

Kuro growled somewhere down the hall behind them. His footsteps pounded louder and louder.

“Down,” Keith shouted, so Lance ducked down.

An electric hum swept just over Lance's head. Kuro shifted his weight and turned to make another attack.

Lance redirected as Keith did, and he barely dodged the next strike. His visor alerted him to the last turn in their route, and he passed this on to Keith with a sharp, “Go right.”

Keith covered Lance with his shield again, and he pushed Lance into the doorway to their right. Lance stumbled into the cavernous room.

A hangar. There were no fighters, but at the far wall was a line of doors connected to escape pods. Most of the doors showed hollow space beyond the windows. There was only one pod left, and when the cruiser took another hit and rattled with a deep rumble, it was no wonder why so many of the Galra were jumping ship.

It didn’t matter. One pod was all that they needed.

Keith fell through the doorway next to him, knocked back by a hard strike to his dissipating shield. Lance fell into the fight and took the next hit against his forearm, and luckily, it was only Kuro’s left hand that made contact.

It still hurt. He hit like a train. Lance cried out and belatedly summoned his shield.

They still weren’t using lethal force. They had killed the admiral and his soldiers only minutes ago, but against anyone made from Shiro, Lance couldn’t bring himself to draw blood.

That face wasn’t Shiro’s. The look in his eyes was demonic and unfamiliar, but Kuron had been through something similar. Kuron was good. Maybe there was a way they could help Kuro, too.

“We’ve made it to the Black Lion,” Allura reported breathlessly. “Lance, Keith, status.”

It took them a moment to answer. Keith had to haul himself back to his feet, and Lance was busy distracting Kuro, taking what hits he couldn’t dodge against his shield. He could only catch the breath to speak when Keith gave him the opportunity. Keith ran and leapt at Kuro, put all of his force into his arm, and slammed his shield into him.

“We found a pod,” Lance told the team. “We’ll be off soon. Go.”

“We’re already off the cruiser,” Allura said. “Shiro’s doing well, and we've made it to the Green Lion. The navy needs us in the battle now. As soon as you’re out of range, finish the plan.”

Maybe Kuro would listen if he knew he was in danger. Should they tell him that they’d planted a bomb?

Why, so he could report it to the Galra and have it dismantled? Fighting Kuro back towards the doorway, Keith seemed to have come to the same conclusion. They couldn't tell him anything.

“You got it,” Lance said, bracing his rifle against his shoulder. “We’ll see you back at the castle.”

Kuro saw him taking aim. He snarled, found a grip on Keith’s shoulder, and tugged him back against his chest to use him as a shield. Lance knew he could take the shot, but the fact that it was Keith gave him a moment of pause too long.

Kuro’s metal hand came up to the edge of Keith’s helmet. It only took one swift movement to tear it off.

Lance’s heart stopped for a second, and Keith looked just as terrified, but relatively uninjured as his helmet clattered somewhere behind them. Then Lance realized what Kuro’s intention had been.

He was separating Keith from his comm unit. He was cutting them off from the team.

Keith regained enough equilibrium to straighten up and slam his head backward, smashing the back of his skull into Kuro’s nose. Kuro cried out, but it took more than that to make him let go of Keith. Lance took the shot and hit Kuro in the shoulder, and Keith thrashed and elbowed him in the stomach. Once he was free, Keith darted back to Lance's side.

But Kuro just couldn't let them go. He couldn’t let them gain any ground toward the last pod.

What were they supposed to do? Lance knew they couldn’t blow up the cruiser with Kuro still on it. And they couldn’t take him with them while he could still fight.

They would have to knock him out or restrain him. That was easier said than done, and it would have been risky in any scenario. With Kuro cutting around to their side to chase them away from the pod doors, it sounded impossible.

Keith intercepted him at close range. Lance took a breath and waited for an opening with his rifle. Where was he supposed to hit? His legs? His arm? Would that trick work again?

“Kuro,” Keith bit out between strikes. “You need to come with us, or you’ll die. I don’t know what you’ve done to Shiro, but…”

“You should thank me,” Kuro laughed, catching Keith's swing. “I kept him alive. Torus and the druids wanted to get rid of him, but I asked for him as a favor. I convinced them. I saved him.”

“What did you do to him?” Keith demanded. He struck at Kuro again and again, chasing him back by several steps, and his voice built up from a snarl to a shout. "What did you do to Shiro?

“You’ll see.” Kuro’s eyes lit up. His jagged grin showed his teeth, and he was too composed to be manic. He knew exactly what he was doing, how sharp and heavy his malice was, and how to wield it as a weapon. He was riling Keith up. “It’ll be your turn next. Let's take an arm off you. Or should Lance go first?"

Keith's rage spilled out of him as a scream. His next shield strike met Kuro hard across the shoulder and chest, and his sword found his arm. It glanced off the angle of the metal, and Kuro started to move away from it, but Keith caught him across the side on the backstroke. Kuro cried out, jerked back, and touched his left hand to the deep gash.

"Now we're getting somewhere," Kuro hissed. “Come on, Keith.”

What was he doing? Lance’s brow was furrowed deeply enough to ache, and he made for a better angle while Keith kept Kuro busy--or while Kuro kept them busy.

Of course. Lance’s eyes darted back to the hallway door. It was still shut, but only for the moment. They should have been expecting reinforcements.

“Keith, he’s screwing with us,” Lance barked. “We have to go.”

Keith snarled, broke from the fight, and ducked past Kuro with his shield raised. He made for the pod doors, but Kuro broke through Keith’s shield and struck him in the right shoulder. Keith cried out, and his bayard dematerialized entirely.

Kuro grabbed him by the wrist. He crushed the edge of Keith’s bracer and threw the rest away. Lance’s bracer went cold.

It knocked the breath out of Keith.

Lance took the shot, straight through Kuro’s right bicep. His hand flickered and he let go of Keith for just an instant, but Lance didn’t earn himself anything more than a sharp glare.

Kuro wasn’t under the Galra’s control. This was him.

Keith was barely on his feet, but he was only steps away from the open pod doors. Lance didn’t have any other choice. He charged Kuro, slammed the butt of his rifle into his shoulder, and shoved Keith into the pod.

Keith fell in, hit the opposite wall, and the pain caught up with him.

Keith's screams pierced Lance to the bone. He knew as a factoid that the venom was hurting him, but Keith's broken, agonized voice was shocking--something unholy done to something that was immutably beautiful and good. Keith was in anguish, and Lance was too far away to comfort him. As if that wasn't enough, Kuro grabbed onto Lance's wrist and slammed it against the wall to crush his bracer as well. It broke, and so did Lance's wrist. His scream joined Keith's.

The doors at the ends of the hangar opened. Lance stole a look back to see Galra soldiers and sentries marching in, dozens of them.

Keith was collapsed at the end of the open shuttle, and Lance was imprisoned in Kuro's hold.

"Come out of the pod, Keith," Kuro growled, "or I'll kill him."

If Keith stepped out of that pod, the Galra would take both of them.

Keith would endure what Shiro had endured, if he was even allowed to live.

Keith was already climbing to his feet, ready to face it.

Lance turned his head down and bit Kuro's hand. As soon as Kuro shouted and recoiled, Lance thrashed and struggled, fighting to get out of his hold, but he couldn't quite make it. Before he could slip loose and dart into the pod as planned, Kuro had him locked back again, just short of the doors.

The Galra were coming. Kuro's forearm was digging into the underside of Lance's jaw, and his metal hand was locked around Lance’s good wrist. Keith's eyes were wide with terror, watching Lance from inside the shuttle, and he wasn't screaming anymore. He seemed afraid to make a move, afraid to risk Kuro's retribution for taking the wrong action.

The Galra soldiers formed a semicircle around the pod, leaving space around Kuro and Lance at the doorway. Their heavy, uniform footfalls surrounded them and crowded Lance’s eardrums.

They were out of time.

His eyes darted from Keith’s to the door panel. Keith realized it just as Lance began to move.

"Lance," was all Keith had time to cry out.

Lance turned his arm in Kuro’s grip, caught his hand, and slammed it onto the door panel.

The doors shut hard in front of Lance’s face. Beyond them, the muffled suction and burst of sound declared the pod’s launch away from the cruiser.

Behind him, Kuro went frigid and still. His grip around Lance’s neck was miserably tight. While the Galra around them closed formation and reported to whomever they had left in charge, Lance stood there in the enemy’s grip and shut his eyelids.

Keith was safe. He would be in agony without his antidote, but he was safe. He would have a comm unit in the pod that he could use to hail the castle, and he would make it home. 

“Lance,” Kuro whispered, breathless with rage.

Lance still had the trigger. He had this left to him; he could still complete the mission. Hopefully, he would be able to find his own way off the cruiser.

“The Black Paladin has taken a pod and left the ship,” one officer reported behind them. “The enforcer has captured the Red Paladin.” He paused to listen to his orders, and he passed them on to Kuro. “Search him.”

Kuro loosened his grasp on Lance’s wrist, confident in his control of him, and patted him down. His hand stopped at the pocket at Lance’s hip, and he snatched the trigger out from it. He kept the cap shut tightly over the device and shot a look down at Lance.

“What do you have there, Lance?” he asked coldly. Ice slithered down his spine.

“Um," was all Lance said.

“Hand it over,” a soldier ordered Kuro, but he curled his hand tighter around it.

“No. I want it.”

The Galra glanced at each other, and none of them seemed ready to fight him on it. The soldier from before decided, “You’ll be permitted to present it to Commander Quen yourself.”

“Thanks,” Kuro said dryly, and he pocketed the trigger.

“As well as the Red Paladin,” the soldier said. “The commander wants him immediately.”

“Of course he does.” Kuro scowled at the soldiers around them, and he held onto Lance by the arm. He looked down at him with narrowed, pale eyes. “You’re not gonna try to run, right?”

What was the point? He was surrounded. Until the opportunity presented itself, Lance would just get himself killed if he tried to run. He shook his head.

“Smart boy,” Kuro said, and he walked him to the door.

The soldier continued to talk behind them, working out the next steps of the battle over the comms.

“Yes, sir,” the soldier said. “Yes, sir, the Black Paladin was launched out in a pod. I recommend that we destroy it on sight. We already have a paladin here.”

“No!” Lance wrenched in Kuro’s hold without thinking. He didn’t bother with the painful strain in his wrist, and he struggled against Kuro’s tightening arms to look back at the impassive soldier. “No, please, don’t. He’s more important than me. He--”

Lance,” Kuro snapped, pulling him back in front of him and forcing him to walk. He was silent as they crossed the threshold.

Then Kuro mumbled through his teeth, “Fuck.”

Kuro let go of Lance, turned around, and punched his hand through the door to grip it and slam it shut. Lance heard the cries of surprise on the other side, but Kuro was already at the panel, typing something into the keypad. It turned red, and then Kuro jabbed his glowing hand through that, too. The hangar was locked, and the two of them were alone in the hall.

"What--?" Lance reached for his bayard with his good hand, but the motion was cut short when Kuro grabbed him by the elbow.

"You have to get to Keith," Kuro ordered, tugging him along through the hall. "You're his antidote, right? He needs you.”

Lance kept pace with him, holding his injured wrist to his chest, and stared at the profile of his face.

“Why?” Lance had to ask.

“Why, what?”

“Why are you helping us?”

“You’re not the Galra’s,” Kuro answered curtly. “You’re not theirs to hurt. And I’m not letting Keith die to them. Come on.”

Their next turn put them face to face with five sentries. Lance took his good arm back from Kuro, and by the time he had summoned his bayard, Kuro had already carved through four of them.

The last sentry landed a shot on Kuro’s shoulder, and the next grazed his cheek. Lance shot the sentry in the head and let it fall. Kuro turned and grabbed Lance’s wrist again to continue pulling him along, as if he couldn’t walk by himself.

Kuro knew the ship far better than Lance did, and while he didn’t trust him, he trusted him to know where to go. He stole another look at Kuro as they ran, and he counted his injuries. He was peppered with gunshots, and his side was bleeding freely where Keith had sliced him, but he hadn’t slowed in the least.

They reached another hangar. There were only a few Galra in the room, but they must have gotten the memo that Kuro had turned on the cruiser. They opened fire.

Lance caught the blasts against his shield, and they kept running. There were a few fighter ships left in the bay, ready for launch at their stations, and Kuro dragged Lance up to one of them. Someone opened fire behind them, and to Lance’s astonishment, Kuro shielded him and took the hits on his metal arm. Lance took clumsy aim with his rifle and shot under Kuro’s arm to give him some cover.

Lance must have been insane for asking. "Come with me."

"Fuck that. I'm not gonna be locked up like Shiro was." Kuro hurried Lance into the fighter and stopped with his hands braced on the door frame. He looked back to the hangar’s entrance, and Lance heard the rush of footsteps. “Go.”

“Kuro,” Lance started. At the same time he never wanted to see this man again, he couldn’t leave him.

“Go,” Kuro snapped. He pushed Lance further into the fighter, slapped the control on the door, and withdrew before it could shut him in.

The fighter lurched, and Lance stumbled and balanced himself against the small cockpit’s wall to climb to his feet. Did Galra fighters have an automatic launch function? That was how it felt.

Lance scrambled up to the window and, dazedly, he yelped Kuro’s strange name. He could only see the cruiser falling farther and farther away from him as he plummeted through the void. He did see one speck of light leave the cruiser--a fighter careened away from it. Maybe that was Kuro. Maybe he had made it out.

And then he watched the cruiser shatter. None of the sound made it to him; it was just a brilliant burst of light and metal. Layers of violet and gold light coalesced with the ugly, murky waste of the ship, and the mass of it, still too large in the fighter’s back window to see the ends of it, split apart.

The explosion caught up with him. The light caught up with him, and then the debris.

Something struck the side of the fighter. Lance felt the impact in his teeth, and he was thrown across the small space. His head hit the console.

Chapter Text

“Lance,” was the first nonsensical word out of Keith’s bloodied mouth. He may have bitten his tongue, or cut his cheek against his teeth in the impact. Maybe both. His head was ringing and throbbing too hard to discern where the injury was.

His body was convinced that it was injured everywhere. His awareness came back to him with a pain that flooded through him. The venom was enough to cripple him by itself, but it had joined forces with a concussion and bruises along half of his body. He wasn’t sure which bones were broken. It felt like all of them, even those he could move properly.

He couldn’t carve out a moment to curl up and scream; he had to cry out on the move while he extracted himself from the wreckage of the pod. He had landed on a hard surface, at least--a planet--which gave him somewhere else to go. He whimpered and cried, fighting to sideline his agony in favor of everything he needed to do.

Halkeryn, the bright flora told him. He was back on Halkeryn. The canopy of the jungle had caught his pod and collapsed under its weight, and Keith had to scramble out of the wreck with shaking limbs. He tripped over a splintered branch, and he yelped and tumbled the rest of the way out into the thick fern-like foliage that carpeted the landscape.

He had seen the explosion. He had watched the cruiser catch fire and blow apart.

Lance.

Keith lay limp on the jungle floor. He wished he would sink into it faster. He wanted it to cover him up and make everything stop hurting.

Lance had been on the cruiser. Lance had gotten Keith to safety, and he had stayed behind.

He wept. The pain ravaged him, and he wept.

He curled his hand tightly. He still had the ring. He had this small token left with him. It felt cold, and he couldn’t feel the heartbeat on the other end.

And then he could.

Keith held his breath. His eyes opened wide. He kept his hand still and listened with every nerve he had left to himself.

A pulse. Thin and flighty.

A direction. A pull.

Keith whimpered and crawled forward. He found a tree trunk and pulled himself up, and he stumbled to the next tree that he could catch himself against.

He allowed the ring to pull him and guide him to its counterpart. He hadn't expected to need this feature of their set of rings, but he hoped that he would get the chance to thank Kerisz later for it. He staggered through the jungle, catching his feet on roots and tangled undergrowth, and tasted the humid air as he breathed hard with exhaustion.

This corner of Halkeryn was faced with its last hours of the day. If Keith didn't find Lance soon, before the yellow sun slipped away entirely behind the frilled treetops and distant mountains, the nocturnal predators would find them both. He groaned and lifted his heavy legs into another surge of steps, fighting the wildfire of the venom and the bruises he knew were blossoming all along his body.

He focused on the ring. He tuned out the pain and only thought of Lance’s heartbeat.

He could feel Lance.

Lance was alive.

Lance was hardly aware of it, but he was alive. He was in pain. He was suffering.

Keith tripped again and yelped. He was certain of a fractured rib, but he had to keep moving.

The jungle clung to the heat of the day as the sun set. Keith dragged himself over a stream and straight through a veritable wall of vines, which he weakly hacked through with his knife. He stumbled through what appeared to be an abandoned nest, one large enough to fit three shuttle pods. As the sun set, a flicker through the trees became more apparent.

Keith feared that it was fire, but as he came closer to it, the light evened out into regulated blinks. Stumbling closer revealed it to be the flashing emergency lights of a downed Galra fighter. Only a few fragments of the pod were still intact enough to carry out this simple function.

The damage was strewn throughout the crater formed by the crash; a wing here, a turbine there. An uprooted, upturned pilot’s seat.

A body beside it.

Lance was sprawled on the ground. There was blood on his lip, and Keith prayed that its source was a bitten cheek and not something deeper. He didn’t seem like he had stirred much from where he had initially fallen, with the crooked angle of his body and how he lay on his back.

One leg was obviously broken. His knee was bent the wrong way.

Lance was alive. In pieces, but alive.

Keith exhaled his name again, hardly to be heard and more for the act of saying it. He trudged the final steps to Lance’s side and slumped to the jungle floor.

His ring was still pulsing. Keith forcibly reminded himself of this, and even that was scarcely enough to convince him. He laid a hand on Lance’s bloodied cheek.

“Keith?” Lance scraped out, opening his eyes and squinting in the dark. Hopeful tension leapt to Keith’s throat.

“Lance, I’m so sorry,” Keith choked. “Don’t move. It’s okay. I’m here.” It wasn’t remotely okay, but Keith was there. His hands shook, but he held onto him gingerly. He scarcely noticed the alleviation of the venom. “Lance, I need you to focus. Can you breathe?”

Lance trembled but attempted to take a steady breath. It ended in a frail sob, and he stammered his words. “Keith, everything hurts. My legs hurt. God, I--I don’t think I can move them.”

“You don’t have to move. I’ll take care of you. Can you breathe?”

Lance tried again. His breathing hardly steadied out, and he shut his eyes tight.

“A little,” he assessed, falling back on his training as far as he could while his voice shook. “Ribs are broken. Wrist is broken. I feel sick.”

“Don’t move,” Keith reminded him needlessly. “You might have spinal damage. Just breathe, okay? I’ll be right back.”

“Keith,” Lance whispered, stealing his attention. He looked up at him with wet, agonized eyes. “Don’t leave. Please.”

Keith bent down, stroked Lance’s cheek, and touched a quick, gentle kiss to his lips. When he pulled back again, Lance only looked more upset and desperate.

“I have to find the first aid kit. Something. I’ll be right back,” Keith promised. He stumbled up to his feet, away from Lance’s soothing presence, and bit back his own wounded voice. The venom and the pain it caused him were old news, and he was sick of it. He had no room for it at all when Lance was in this state.

He scrounged through the debris. He found a first aid kit, some drinking water, and even a blanket in the emergency supplies. Most importantly, he found Lance’s helmet. He collapsed beside Lance again, opened the first aid kit, and cracked the chemical ice pack. It grew cold in his hands, and he set it over the worst of Lance’s broken leg, hoping to bring down the swelling. He found a splint for Lance’s broken wrist, and while he set it, he wore Lance’s helmet and begged the comms to work.

“This is Keith,” he stated, “on Lance’s comm line, hailing from Halkeryn. Does anyone read me?”

Nothing. Keith tried again, again, and a dozen more times without altering his phrasing.

“We might be here a while, huh?” Lance uttered. Keith tightened his jaw and focused on his work. Once the splint was in place, he lay Lance’s arm back down.

“Don’t worry about that. Just hang in there, okay? I’m gonna take care of you.” He gave Lance’s forehead a kiss and then got up again. He checked his gauntlet for the coordinates of their location, and he noted with some astonishment that they were only a few dozen miles off from the beacon.

“What are the fucking odds,” he mumbled. It was a miracle than he and Lance had even landed on the same continent, let alone within walking distance. He couldn’t see the beacon over the treetops, but he did see that there were frelisiel vines growing up the trees on one side of the clearing.

The blooms of the frelisiel on Halkeryn were larger than those cultivated on Yzramil, and the serrated petals were a deeper purple with fewer hints of pink. The stem was thicker and slightly more difficult to move, and uprooting the damn thing was a chore when every second away from Lance made his limbs shake and his stomach turn. Keith pulled straight up from the base of the vine, and he had to wiggle it back and forth before he felt the roots detach from the earth. He unwound it carefully from the tree it grasped to, chipping off pieces of bark on the way, and then carried the tangle of green and violet plant matter back to Lance.

“What are you doing?” Lance asked without turning his head.

“First aid,” Keith replied. He took his knife and cut out a chunk from the roots, and he rinsed it with a little of their water and wiped it down with a corner of the blanket to clear the dirt off. He held it out to Lance’s lips. “It’s supposed to help with nerve regeneration, right? Your turn.”

“Oh, come on,” Lance groaned. “Spare me.”

“Chew the damn plant, Lance.”

Lance opened his mouth with a grimace, and Keith dropped the section of root onto his tongue. Lance shut his lips and begrudgingly began to chew.

“It tastes like hell,” Lance reported. “If I’m not already dying, this might kill me.”

“Don’t say that,” Keith said quietly. He stroked Lance’s hair off his forehead, and he didn’t intend to leave his side again. Lance was pale in the last traces of sunlight.

“Keith?”

“Yeah?”

“Can you hold me?” Lance’s eyes found him again, and his voice fell small. “If I am-- Please?”

Lance wasn’t dying. But until the team found them, there was nothing else they could do. Keith nodded, whispered, “Yeah,” and lowered himself down onto the ground to lay his arm over Lance’s middle. He didn’t move him, but encased his side with himself. He left Lance’s helmet a foot away from their heads and pressed his lips to his sweaty temple.

Keith felt the fear and pain come back to Lance when he began to cry again. Keith rubbed his thumb over his arm and hushed him softly.

“I love you,” Lance said weakly, as if he didn’t want to miss out on saying it. Keith hushed him again.

“Shh. I love you, too. You’ll be okay, Lance.”

Lance sniffed and shook his head as far as he dared, and his eyes turned to the frelisiel vine that Keith had left beside him. There was longing there, and hesitation.

Keith didn’t hesitate. Sharing Lance’s pain might not alleviate it, but he would comfort him if he could. He took the vine of the uprooted flower, pressed it into Lance’s undamaged hand, and held it with him.

The misery washed over him like the tide. Keith didn’t feel the venom at all, but he experienced the acute pains of Lance’s broken body as if it were an extension of his own. He gasped and clenched his jaw. Lance whimpered his name and tried to pull his hand back, but Keith held on.

His legs were broken. He guessed at fractures in his hip and spine. He couldn’t be sure of internal bleeding. The pain wasn’t nebulous like the venom; it was all too present, indicative of real damage. Recovery would be long and hard, but Keith would be there to help him through it.

Recovery, Lance thought? That’s optimistic.

Keith was nothing but a realist. Lance was going to be fine. Keith couldn’t handle anything else, so Lance had to be fine.

Lance wasn’t so sure, but the thought was touching.

Keith hushed him again. He told him to just breathe. Even breaths.

Think rationally. Don’t think about Lance’s shattered body. Don’t think about how much Keith’s mate was suffering.

“Lance.” Keith’s voice broke, and he cried with him, his cheek on Lance’s hair. “I’m so sorry.”

It was Lance’s turn to hush him gently. Lance wasn’t supposed to be the one comforting Keith right then, so Keith shut himself up and took a deep, shivering breath.

Deep, even breaths.

Keith felt Lance’s pain and couldn’t soothe it. The ice pack and splint were little consolation. Lance was in agony, but afraid to try to move for fear of worsening his back.

Deep breaths.

They fell deeper.

The pain didn’t diminish, but they connected over it. It helped, a little, and it was different from their connection on Yzramil. It was broader, clearer, down to the bone and deeper.

This time, Keith knew how to leave himself open to it.

To know the details and perspective of another person’s life as well as his own.

Recalling his own life in a cluttered montage, developmental stages and the people who defined them. Flattening it into a reel and laying it out alongside the one he loved. Finding the points where they met, parted, and met again to weave together.

The space of one deep, shared breath did this for Lance and Keith.

They exhaled in the same moment. Keith hugged Lance as closely and gently as he could, and he let himself feel everything, let Lance feel everything.

Lance's fear that to love him was settling.

Keith's fear that loving him was hard.

How absurd those fears were.

The dark parts of their minds, the scared little corners, carryovers of childhood loneliness, and the exact context for the ways they felt about each other.

Lance hadn’t loved Keith the whole time since their Garrison days; he really had been just a petty little boy taking out his anxieties on someone he had a crush on but didn’t know. And Keith hadn’t remembered him at first, but they had grown together.

Lance had gone from resenting and envying Keith, wanting to bait him and tease him, and then genuinely admiring him and still envying him, and then becoming friends with him and being scared of what that meant. Keith watched that transformation from Lance’s perspective, and he couldn’t help but laugh about it, seeing what a change it had been for Lance when he had fallen for Keith that fast and hard.

And as for Lance, Keith had never resented him. From the time they had become Team Voltron, Keith had wanted to reach out to him and be friends with him. He was happy when Lance would tease him, because he still felt like Lance was trying to involve him when Keith didn’t know how to respond. Lance was always so friendly and good to his team, and Keith had recognized that and liked that about him. There had never been a doubt in his mind that Lance was irreplaceable. From there, it was just the little details and moments that Keith had fallen completely in love with, that Lance liked shitty movies and knew how to waltz. This was his Lance, who liked chilis in his scrambled eggs and had had nightmares when he was little.

They really were a mess. Keith found himself laughing wetly, getting tears in Lance’s hair while Lance cried close to his shoulder.

If Lance would have him, this was who Keith wanted to tie his life to.

Lance would, so he did.

“You know,” Lance dared to say, voice crackling when he spoke up, “isn’t bringing me one of these flowers supposed to be a marriage proposal?”

Keith laughed brokenly. “You’d better live, then.”

Lance fell quiet. The surge of joy and fear was too loud. When it mellowed into something happy and bittersweet, he murmured, “I knew it. You’re the love of my life.”

“You’re mine,” Keith replied softly. He rest his cheek against Lance’s hair and kept his breathing steady. “It feels like… the big, slow kind I’ll never get over.”

“Oh, god, Keith.” Lance stopped talking again. His good hand came up to cling to Keith’s arm.

Keith couldn’t believe he had almost missed out on Lance entirely.

A breeze picked its way through the clearing. Keith left his eyes open, watching for wildlife, because there was nothing else he could do to protect him. He couldn’t move Lance, and he had no means of giving him proper medical treatment. They didn’t even have a working spacecraft.

The wind picked up. With it came a rush of light and familiarity. Keith looked up with wide eyes, and Lance gasped.

“It’s Red,” both of them said.

The Red Lion swept down over the clearing. She crushed more trees out of the way, careless towards the landscape, and lowered her head toward them. She opened the ramp of her mouth, and Keith scrambled up to meet her, letting go of Lance. Maybe there was something in her supplies he could use as a stretcher. It was far from ideal, but if he had to move Lance alone, he would.

“Keith,” Lance started, so Keith said hurriedly, “I’m alright.”

And he was. He was fine.

He couldn’t feel the venom.

It was gone, as if Keith was permanently wrapped up in the comfort of Lance’s arms. In the venom’s place, Lance’s confusion and concern was a loud thrum, more intense than their rings should have allowed. It wasn’t Red’s doing, either. Keith would have felt more of her.

“Keith?” Lance asked strangely. Keith looked back at the man he was bonded to, finding Lance’s surprised eyes in the near-dark. “Oh my god.”

Keith came back down to his knees. He touched Lance’s hand and felt no different, except for the comfort of holding his hand.

He wasn’t flinching anymore. There was no disorienting wave of relief and pain.

Static came in over the comms of Lance’s helmet.

“--ance?”

Keith grabbed the helmet and put it on, and he listened through the white noise.

“Lance, are you out there? Come on, buddy.” Hunk sounded rough, like he had already done his crying and felt more on its way.

“Hunk?” Keith sat up straight. “Hunk, it’s Keith. I have Lance with me.”

“Oh my god, Keith.” Hunk started to cry. He heard Pidge and Allura make similar sounds of amazement and distressed relief.

“Keith,” Shiro said brokenly. “Black found your helmet. We thought-- Are you and Lance okay?”

“Lance is hurt,” Keith impressed on them. “Badly. We crashed on Halkeryn, about fifty miles from the beacon. I need help to move him, and he needs to get to a hospital now.”

“We’re on our way,” Allura said.

 

 

Allura and Latova helped Keith load Lance into Blue, and he couldn’t be separated from him for the entire flight back to Therysia. The frelisiel sample sat in the corner with its roots wrapped in a bag of dirt.

The battle had ended as soon as the cruiser had erupted, along with an untold collection of the Galra Empire’s weapon research. Very few Galra were captured in the end, but so was a rogue fighter that had tried to escape the system entirely. Kuro had needed to be sedated before being taken to the hospital.

Blue landed in the middle of the city, as close to the hospital as possible. Keith guided the levitating stretcher in front of him, and at the entry to the hospital, a small crowd was already waiting. Keith counted Pidge, Hunk, and Kerisz among them.

Latova broke from the group and ran ahead. He didn’t have to go far; his target met him more than halfway and enveloped him in his arms. One of them was crying, and Latova and Vanok simply collapsed and sat together on the ground.

“Hello, mine.” It hadn’t been obvious before, but Vanok’s face was made for the tender smile on it. Latova laughed tearfully and ran his fingers through Vanok’s mane.

“Hello, mine.”

In their own little world, Keith knew that theirs was the only love story.

Lance was the same for him. He was made of bad jokes, bravery, and surprising moments of candor. He was colorful and warm and he filled a room, and their love was wrapped in patience and tenacity. Lance was his love story, and he was on a stretcher.

“We’ll take him from here,” a local doctor said to him at the door, and orderlies took Lance’s stretcher by the other end.

“I want to go with him,” Keith protested, but Allura put a hand on his arm.

“Keith, you need to be tended to as well,” she reminded him. Lance was too exhausted to talk anymore, but when Keith looked to him, Lance flashed him a weak thumbs-up. Keith scoffed, but begrudgingly let go of the stretcher and allowed himself to be led into a different room.

Keith pestered his doctor for the whereabouts of everyone he knew, even as he lay undressed under a sheet.

“Will Lance be okay?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” the doctor replied, floating a scanner over Keith’s body. “That’s interesting. You still have traces of ignis venom in your system, but—”

“Can’t feel it,” Keith dismissed. The doctor gave him a look of amazement.

“I’ve only heard of a couple of cases,” they said, “but mated galra are unaffected by stings. In theory, it’s because they’re always connected to their antidote.”

Always connected to his mate. Keith had known the moment it happened. He thumbed at the ring on his finger and savored its slow, steady pulse. Across the hospital, Lance was probably under anaesthetic.

“What about Shiro?” Keith asked next.

“He’s still being examined,” the doctor answered patiently. “He’s been in captivity for a long time. He fought in the battle, but at a glance, his injuries didn’t look recent.”

Keith’s heartrate spiked balefully on the monitor beside him.

“And Kuro? How did he even make it off the ship?”

“I don’t know, Paladin,” the doctor sighed. They turned and picked a bottle off of the shelf. “I heard that he’s restrained and under high security. I don’t know what we’ll do with him when he’s recovered.”

“We'll take him,” Keith said. “When can I see Lance?”

“Once I’m done with you, and once he’s out of surgery. Now quit squirming and let me look at that shoulder.”

 

 

Keith talked his doctor out of painkillers. He was sick of anything influencing his pain levels.

Hunk had been kind enough to bring him a change of clothes, so Keith didn’t have to sit around in a hospital gown. Once he was changed, it took him another half hour of pacing and needling to be allowed to see Lance. As soon as the door was pointed out to him, he hurried into the recovery room.

Over a dozen healing pods lay in a row. At one end of the room, the Blade agents who had accompanied them on the mission were speaking with Kolivan, talking over pods filled by their injured or rescued members. Vanok and Latova were there as well, and at some point in the conversation, Kolivan offered Vanok a handshake.

At the other end of the room, Kuron was seated between two pods, and his arm was attached to a stand by a cord and a needle in the crook of his elbow. Keith hurried toward him to look at the occupants of the pods.

“Did you know Lance is O-negative?” Kuron asked without looking up from him. Shiro was in the pod lying next to Lance’s, and there was another bag of donated blood attached to his arm.

“Kuron,” Keith started. The name still felt bitter and jagged in his mouth, and he hoped it would soften with use. “How much blood have you…?”

"It's fine,” Kuron said quietly. “It's better than saline. And I’m thinking Ryou.”

“Ryou?” Keith tested. “For your name?”

“Shiro suggested it.” Ryou looked from Lance’s pod to his twin’s, and he smiled when his eyes turned to Keith. “How are you holding up? Allura said the venom’s not bothering you anymore.”

Keith shook his head to confirm it. He stepped closer and took a seat facing Ryou between the two pods.

“I’m fine,” he said, studying the patients. Lance looked frail and weary in his hospital gown, and Shiro looked even worse. He seemed to have lost weight during his captivity, and his gown revealed scars that hadn’t been there before.

It took another hour, but Shiro woke first. The glassy sheet of energy over the pod disappeared, and he groaned and turned his head. Keith was on his feet in a heartbeat.

“Shiro?”

Shiro’s eyes opened wide. He startled, gave a small cry, and kicked at the pod to try and sit up. His eyes darted fearfully to the needle in his arm, and his breathing hitched and quickened.

“Shiro,” Keith said again, and this time, he stepped forward and cupped Shiro’s face in his hands. Shiro stared at him, stricken.

“Keith?” he rasped. Keith nodded, and he watched sudden tears spill over the corners of Shiro’s eyes. When Shiro struggled to sit again, Keith pulled him up into a hug.

Shiro buried his face in Keith’s shoulder. He trembled horribly, and Keith’s shoulder was wet with hot tears, but Shiro hardly made a sound. Keith rubbed his back, held the back of his head, and pressed his lips to his white hair.

Talking was easier after that. Shiro had a lot of questions about what he had missed, and Keith found himself smiling again, though neither he, Shiro, nor Ryou could stop looking at Lance, hoping he would wake soon, too. Keith must have been distracted by that hope, because he had to ask Shiro to repeat his next question.

“I said, did I miss a wedding?” Shiro asked, completely earnest. He glanced down meaningfully, and Keith followed his eyes to the ring on his hand.

“Oh,” Keith laughed and felt his face flush. “This is— I haven’t asked him yet.”

“Yet? But you’re already wearing a ring?” Shiro was lost, and Ryou started to laugh.

“It’s not that kind of ring,” Keith stammered. “I mean…”

He struggled for a succinct explanation, but none came. Shiro looked to Lance’s hand, smiled, and met his eyes again.

“It’s so good to see you happy, Keith.”

Keith was suddenly too bashful and happy to do anything but grin. He looked down at his ring and turned it on his finger.

 

 

The team convinced Ryou and Shiro to come with them and get something to eat. They extended the invitation to Keith as well, but they seemed to know before he said so that he wanted to stay with Lance. Once they were alone, one of the doctors approached Keith to explain Lance’s condition.

He sat alone with him for another hour while Lance rested. When the cover of his pod evaporated, Keith sat up straight and listened to its occupant sigh.

Lance opened his eyes slowly, and they settled on Keith right away. He blinked and smiled.

“Hey, beautiful.”

“Hi.” Keith smiled back at him and reached into the pod to take his hand. His wrist was already looking much better; the swelling was almost gone. “How do you feel?”

“Awful." Lance's smile faded, and he looked down to his legs. “I guess they don’t want me walking around for a while, huh?” Keith pressed his lips together and shook his head. Lance’s face sobered. “Baby, how bad is it?”

How had the doctor phrased it?

“You need to stay off your feet for a while,” Keith said gently. “It’s… It’s gonna be a hard recovery.”

Lance swallowed and didn’t speak for a moment.

“What if I can’t walk again?” he asked.

“You’ll be able to walk again,” Keith insisted.

“What if I can’t?”

“Then I’ll carry you. But Lance, you’ll recover. You’re here. You’re okay. That’s what matters.”

Lance shut his eyes and shook his head. He squeezed Keith’s hand and sought out the ring on his finger, just to hold it and touch the rings together. When he opened his eyes again, he looked to the table beside the pod. Allura had brought the frelisiel sample in for them. Keith had asked for it for medicinal reasons, of course, so instead of a get well bouquet, Lance had a wild plant at his bedside. He studied it in confusion.

“The locals think I’m quite the romantic,” Keith said.

“How ever did they get that idea?” Lance asked softly.

“Not a clue.” Keith smiled and leaned down, and his mate welcomed him with a kiss. He wrapped his arms around Lance, and Lance was well enough to return the gesture and hold him tight.

He held him with no barriers, exceptions, or reservations.

Chapter Text

Lance is frustrated and blessed when he wakes up. He knows Keith will have to take care of him again, but it won’t be as bad as it was a month ago. He knows that if he had been born a hundred years earlier, he wouldn’t have survived. Even if he had, he would never have been able to walk again. It’s the frelisiel tea and sessions in the pod that help the most, and at least he can dress himself now and make slow, careful steps. He can get himself into the hoverchair that Hunk and Pidge made for him. Keith’s shoulder has made a full recovery, but Lance is going to take a while.

The other five paladins can pilot the lions, and at first, he questions his place on the team. When the five of them go on missions, Ryou stays with Lance and assists from the relative stability of the castle. Nobody doubts him but himself, though, and he feels more connected to Red and Blue than ever, as if either one of the lions is waiting for him once he’s healed. Blue has loved him from the start, and Red has grown spectacularly fond of him. When he’s well enough for training runs, he comes with his mate in Red, and the lion supplies another seat for him. With Keith piloting, Lance aiming Red’s weapon systems, and the two of them perfectly in tune, they’re unstoppable.

And peculiarly, the team has found that they can’t form Voltron without Lance in a lion. They agree without hesitation that Lance is their glue, which is flattering.

He trusts Keith: things will work themselves out.

Keith wakes up early and comes back with frelisiel tea for Lance. He has to drink that bitter shit every morning. Keith helps him stretch, and they have a nice day. The castle has juniberry and frelisiel gardens where they take a slow walk. Keith and Lance race Pidge and Hunk down the hallways on hoverchairs. They sit for a while when Lance is tired, and he plays with Watney while he, Keith, and Ryou read a book together.

Shiro and Ryou have adjusted well to each other, and to the new arms that Hunk, Pidge, and Coran have crafted for them. They're not rivals for a single identity, but brothers. They both have a long way to go in their own recoveries, but as it turns out, Coran was a licensed therapist on Altea along with his countless other qualifications. Both of them are on medication, and they’ve started to laugh again.

Shiro still flinches at certain sounds. He still gets angry and cold whenever Kuro is mentioned. He still savors hugs with the team as if they might be the last he’ll get, so Lance reaches out to him often. Shiro’s hugs are gentle and protective, like a promise that he’ll never let Lance get hurt again. But he’s himself again. His dry sense of humor and his warm smiles are back.

Ryou still blames himself for everything. Lance can tell, though he doesn’t say it. Ryou tiptoes around his sadness with a strong smile. He offers to push Lance around in his chair whenever Keith is occupied, and Lance accepts the help and enjoys talking with him. He’s like Shiro, but more mellow. More cautious, like he’s always afraid of exerting too much pressure and breaking whatever he touches. Ryou is gentle like Shiro, but quieter and less confident. 

Kuro… They haven't decided what to do yet with Kuro. He has a cell in the heart of the castle--his own small suite, but a cell--and Keith and Lance are determined to visit him frequently. He behaves when they speak to him. He makes promises of cooperation, tries to strike a deal for them to let him out, but they never do. Shiro refuses to see him, and Ryou follows his example. Kuro hasn't yet consented to medication or treatment for his sadistic and sociopathic behavior, so they are at an impasse on how to handle him, but they take care of him.

They have a meeting on the bridge where Lance is heavily involved in strategy. Lance is involved in the group training exercises, too, with all seven of them working on trust and coordination. Shiro has devised an adjusted training regimen for Lance, and he and Ryou can’t stop checking on him and praising him. Lance doesn’t even mind the hovering; it’s too good to have Shiro back. When Keith stays after to fight bots, Lance stays on an elevated platform to work on his shooting.

After a shower, they come back to their room, and Lance is a little surprised when Keith gets dressed in his dance clothes from Therysia. Keith doesn’t answer his questions, but just smiles back at Lance and then helps him into his clothes as well. He picks up Lance’s datapad, chooses a slow song to play, and then pulls Lance up from the bed to help him stand. Lance is standing alright, and moving his leg doesn’t hurt so much anymore.

“Teach me to dance,” Keith asks, smiling.

Lance laughs, not sure that he can make the steps gracefully, but he sets his hand on Keith’s waist. He has to humor him. There’s an odd lightness in Keith’s heart, tangible in their bond, and Lance knows his mate is planning something.

“This song sounds familiar,” Lance notes. Keith holds onto that small, gentle, hard-to-read smile.

“Xerysi sent it to me.”

“The waltz from the party?”

“Yeah." Keith guides Lance into the first circuit of steps.

“You've been practicing,” Lance realizes a few steps in. Keith is smoother in his motions, attentive and confident, and Lance smirks at him. “Who've you been practicing with?”

Keith is still watching their feet, but he smiles.

“Did you know that Shiro can dance?”

Lance laughs. It's so fitting, and it’s adorable to think of Keith going to Shiro for help just so he can impress Lance. As if Keith needs to impress him at all. “Really? Maybe I should dance with him, too.”

“I think he'd like that," Keith agrees. It does sound fun, and Lance looks forward to it.

“You’re doing great,” Lance notes softly. “You might not be made entirely of left feet.”

“I’d hope not.” Keith grins wider and does a full spin, satisfied that Lance can stand by himself, and then comes back to support him anyway. “I have to learn to dance in time for our wedding.”

Lance nearly falls down. He stares. “What?”

Keith licks his lips, thinking, and looks down at their feet to make sure he gets the next turn right. When he looks back up at Lance, he takes a deep breath.

“I talked to Allura. In two months, we’re going to Earth.” When Lance only continues to stare, eyes wide and filling, Keith goes on more gently. “You can’t get married unless your family’s there to see it, right? And you promised they’ll love me. So… Maybe we can get married at Varadero?”

Lance can’t breathe. When he remembers how, it gushes out of him in a laughing sob. He takes his hand back from Keith’s to wipe at his eyes.

“I think you skipped something in all that,” Lance manages, and Keith smiles, leaning up to kiss his wet cheek.

“Oh, you’re right.” Keith slips something into Lance’s palm. He can feel the pulse in the familiar metal, quick and staccato despite Keith’s soft, steady tone. “Lance, will you marry me?”

Yes.” Lance is already fumbling with the ring. Keith helps him slip it onto his finger, and then they’re holding onto each other, laughing so hard that at first they forget to kiss. When they do, they’re both grinning into it, and Lance weaves his hand into Keith’s to pull him back into the dance. Keith takes the lead this time, guiding Lance just long enough to take him back to bed.