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Tether

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The familiar sound of the intercom signal is followed by the equally familiar sound of Keith’s Marmora knife, still sheathed, clattering off the speaker, and Lance huffs a sleepy laugh into his pillow. Keith mumbles something he can’t make out as he buries himself further into Lance’s back, pressing his forehead in between his shoulder blades and tugging him closer with the arm he has wrapped around Lance’s waist.

 

As Allura’s voice comes over the intercom, Lance cracks an eye open. “Paladins, we are approaching a Galra communications base Pidge has identified as a possible information source. We need to infiltrate the facility. Meet on the bridge in one hour.”

 

Lance groans. “It’s morning. It’s too early for work.”

 

Keith burrows into him a little more and says nothing.

 

Poking the arm wrapped around him, Lance twists to catch sight of his boyfriend, grinning at the mess of shaggy black hair peeking out of the covers. He keeps trying to get Keith to tie his hair back before he goes to sleep, but he refuses. And, okay, maybe Lance doesn’t fight that hard. He’d miss the bedhead. “Hey. You alive back there?”

 

Keith squeezes him a little tighter. “S’early.”

 

“We’re in space, Keith. Time has no meaning.”

 

Keith finally pulls back far enough he can glare at Lance between stray locks of mullet. “Why do you have to be a morning person?”

 

“There he is!” Lance crows, turning in Keith’s arms so they’re facing each other. “Good morning, darling. How did you sleep?”

 

“You snore.”

 

“So pretty well, then.”

 

Keith just grunts in reply, leaning in to kiss Lance. It’s a long moment before they separate enough for him to whisper, “Morning,” against Lance’s lips.

 

Even though they’ve been dating for almost a year now, even though Lance has woken up with Keith more times than he can count, the words send a shiver down his spine. He presses forward and Keith goes easily, rolling onto his back and tugging Lance down on top of him. Winding his fingers into Keith’s hair, Lance lets his thoughts trail off into quiet static, just letting the moment, the boy he loves, consume him.

 

After a couple minutes, Keith breaks away, sighing as Lance trails a line of kisses down his throat. “Lance. We don’t have time for this.”

 

Lance hums against his collarbone. “Allura said an hour.”

 

“Yeah, and that was five minutes ago.” Despite his words, Keith’s breath hitches as Lance rolls his hips, slow and deliberate.

 

Lance laughs against his jaw, pulling another shiver out of him. “Keith, cariño, chill. We got time.”

 

“We don’t--” Keith starts, but Lance is brushing his fingers down the thick, faded scar on his shoulder, voice soft as he interrupts.

 

“Keith. We have time.”

 

With one last sigh, Keith gives up, turning his head to capture Lance’s lips in another kiss. “Why do I let you talk me into these things?”

 

“Because you love me?” Lance suggests, smiling against his mouth.

 

Keith regards him for a second before a smile spreads across his own face, dropping a sweet kiss on Lance’s cheek. “Yeah, I guess I do.”

 

A year of this, of them, and Lance’s breath still catches when Keith says things like that. Something bright fluttering against his ribs, Lance presses back in to kiss Keith just as breathless, laughing as Keith meets him halfway.

 

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Twenty minutes later, Lance looks at the clock and winces. “Shit.”

 

Keith raises an eyebrow at him, collapsing onto his pillow. “I told you.”

 

“‘I told you,’ really? That’s immature, babe.”

 

“You’re immature,” Keith mutters, rolling out of bed and walking to the dresser. In a flash, Lance is scrambling across the covers and sprinting for the bathroom.

 

“Lance!”

 

Lance pauses in the doorway, bracing an arm on either side to block Keith, and leaning forward to peck him on the nose. “Sorry, Mullet. You snooze, you lose.”

 

Keith narrows his eyes at him. “You suck.”

 

Lance puts a thoughtful hand to his chin. “I don’t remember you complaining.”

 

He cackles as Keith groans. “Would you just hurry up and shower already?”

 

“Well, hey, if you want it to go faster, we could always share.”

 

Keith puts a hand over Lance’s face, covering his half-lidded expression. “That would only slow us down, and you know it.”

 

“Can’t blame me for trying,” Lance says as he whirls, stepping into the shower.

 

“Yes, I can.”

 

Lance just laughs again, turning the water on and reaching for his shampoo and body wash. Really, it makes sense for him to shower first, since he always takes the longest-- as Keith loves to point out-- but he’ll take whatever chance he can get to tease him. As the war with the Galra drags on, it feels like they have less and less time to be together like this, in these quiet, bright moments. Lance fully plans to take every second of good the universe gives him.

 

Which is why he can’t really be bothered he didn’t have time to finish his full skincare routine, humming under his breath as he walks beside Keith through the halls of the Castle. Keith is still securing the last pieces of his armor as the door to the bridge slides open, wet hair up in a ponytail, and Lance winks at the other paladins as they walk in. They’re the last to arrive, but really, they’re only a couple minutes late. Allura gives them a resigned look and a single sigh before she launches into her briefing on the Galra base. The two suns of the solar system they’re drifting through shine through the windows behind her, turning her silver hair into a halo.

 

She pulls an image of the binary stars up on the holoprojector in front of her. “We’re currently travelling through the Aquilae B-20 system. Thanks to some very clever signal tracing from Pidge--”

 

“Hunk helped,” Pidge interrupts.

 

Hunk holds his hands up in a self-deprecating gesture. “I mean, yeah, I helped you build the multispectrum ion scanner, but you were the one who realized the binary system was causing a lensing of the radio signals and recalibrated the autosequencers--”

 

“You know, it’s amazing,” Lance remarks. “Three years in space, and I still have no idea what you two are talking about. Way to go, team! Let’s hear it for maintaining the status quo.” He reaches up for a high five.

 

Keith, ignoring his sarcasm, grabs his hand and tugs it back down to his side, shooting Lance a look. “Go on, Princess,” he says, but he winds their fingers together instead of pulling away. Lance takes the opportunity to squeeze his hand gently, biting back a smile as Keith’s grip tightens.

 

“Thanks to some clever signal tracing from Pidge and Hunk,” Allura reiterates, a strained note in her voice, “we found a Galra communications base has been using the energy fluctuations from the binary stars in the Aquilae B-20 system to avoid detection. Moreover, from what Pidge could interpret, their messages are being sent to--”

 

“-- Parts of the universe that should be uninhabited,” Pidge breaks in again. “Or empty. Which means--”

 

“-- Which means there could be a whole string of Galra bases we have no way of detecting,” Allura finishes quickly, adding, “Ha,” as Pidge scowls.

 

Shiro’s been listening with a thoughtful frown, watching the projection of the system. “So where is the base?”

 

Allura reaches out and twists her fingers through the hologram, zooming in on a small planet orbiting one of the suns. “We believe the Galra have used the unusually small size and high-density of this planet to further mask their presence.”

 

“You believe?” Shiro echoes, frown deepening.

 

Pidge shoves her glasses up her nose. “It’s a guess. I was only able to pick the signal up at all because we just happened to be in the right spot at the right moment. Like, literally, we’re talking a window of opportunity that’s five seconds long. This was so far past one in a million odds, guys.” She takes a moment and a deep breath. “Anyways, the point is, we got unbelievably lucky and I was able to trace the signal to this system. There are only three planets, and the other two are gas giants, which means there’s no way the Galra could have hidden a base inside it.”

 

Keith pulls away from Lance, stepping up the projection and studying it. “So it’s gotta be on this one.”

 

Pidge shrugs. “That’s the theory, anyways. I can take Green and do a pass. The planet is really small-- about the size of Mercury. Shouldn’t take long.”

 

Lance raises his hand. “Small planet that’s actually a secret evil base? I vote we call this thing the Death Star.”

 

“Seconded,” Hunk says immediately, followed by Pidge’s “Thirded.”

 

Keith shoots Lance a look. “Really?”

 

“What, come on, I wasn’t supposed to go for that?”

 

Shiro just shakes his head as Allura watches them all with a puzzled frown, muttering, “But it’s not a star,” under her breath.

 

“Anyways,” Lance continues, “we got three ayes. That means the motions passes. Pidge, how long will it take you to scout the Death Star?”

 

She shrugs. “Depends. We’ll have to get closer to figure out what kind of defenses they have up. This place is so hidden, though, I bet they’re gonna be pretty locked down.”

 

“Which is why Pidge will do a-- what is it you call it? Ret-conn mission?”

 

“Reconnaissance,” Shiro corrects Allura.

 

“Yes, of course. Reconnaissance mission first, before we form a plan of entry.”

 

“Entry?” Keith asks, frowning. “Can’t Pidge just hack it remotely, or whatever?”

 

A frustrated crease forms in Pidge’s brow. “No, I can’t. I might be able to intercept another of their signals, but with the levels of encoding they have on that shit, I won’t be able to tell where it’s going or what it says with any reliability. The only way I can find out where they’re broadcasting to or receiving from is by directly accessing one of the servers. Directly,” she repeats, slowly. “Which means I have to be physically in the base at a terminal.”

 

Keith shoots her a look. “I got it.”

 

“There’s a lot at stake here,” Shiro says with a shake of his head. “We have no idea how well-guarded this base is, no blueprints, nothing. We’ll be going in essentially blind.”

 

Allura clasps her hands together, studying them all with a solemn eyes. “It’s a risk, it’s true. But at this point, I’m afraid it’s one we’re going to have to make. Over the last few phoebs, the Galra have been one step ahead of us too many times. It’s time for us to strike back, and infiltrating this base just might be our first step in figuring out how they keep evading us.”

 

The paladins are all quiet for a long moment, exchanging looks. “Well, hey, if it means sticking it to the Galra, I’m in,” Lance volunteers, finally.

 

“Me, too,” Pidge says, flashing him a sharp smile. “They’ve got it coming.”

 

Keith nods. “Count me in, too.”

 

“I mean, this sounds dangerous, but we can’t keep letting the Galra destroy the universe,” Hunk says, fiddling with his helmet. “I’m not, y’know, great at stealth, but I’ll do whatever I can.”

 

Everyone’s eyes turn to Shiro, standing silently with his arms still crossed. There’s a tense second before he sighs. “You’re right, Princess. This is too important to not at least try.”

 

She smiles at them, wide and relieved. “Thank you. We’ll take all the precautions we can. Starting with Pidge scouting out the base.”

 

“On it,” Pidge replies, pulling her helmet on as she strides towards the lift down to the Green Lion bay. Stepping inside, she tips them all a salute, grinning. “Back in two ticks.”

 

Lance fights down the little flicker of anxiety as the doors slide shut. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Keith’s fists clench a second before he announces, “I’ll be in the training deck.”

 

Lance is already shaking his head before he even finishes talking. “No, you will not. You’re coming with me to eat breakfast.”

 

“I’m not hungry.”

 

“Don’t care.” Catching him by the wrist, Lance drags him towards the door, pausing to look back at the others. “Call us if you need us.”

 

Allura nods back, and Lance takes a moment to be quietly grateful for his teammates, their bond, the way they always have each other’s backs. Sitting and watching as someone he loves like family heads straight into danger is always hard-- it is on all of them. So they take turns, stepping up when someone else needs a break.

 

And, okay, Lance would be fine with staying and monitoring Pidge’s progress across the solar system, but there’s no way he’s letting Keith beat himself senseless against the damn training robots again just because he has some kind of insane martyr complex. Lance is trying to teach him patience. It’s not working that well, but hope springs eternal, right?

 

He holds onto that thought as he determinedly drags Keith into the kitchen, pouring them both bowls of the almost-cereal Hunk came up with a recipe for last year. If he ever gets back to Earth, he’s telling everyone that Hunk is a wizard. He can literally make something out of nothing.

 

Tugging Keith into the seat next to him, Lance shoves one of the bowls in front of him. “Here. Made you breakfast.”

 

“Wow,” Keith deadpans, even as he picks up a spoon. “I’m so lucky.”

 

Lance places a kiss on his cheek before digging into his own food. “Yeah, you are.”

 

Keith’s nose wrinkles. “Can you please swallow before you talk?”

 

“Nope,” Lance says, mouth full.

 

“Should’ve expected that.”

 

Lance ignores the mumble. “Listen, buddy, I know you’d rather be punching something than sitting on your hands waiting, but you gotta at least eat something first.”

 

Dark eyes skate away from his at the serious note in his voice. They’ve had this conversation too many times, even though they both know the agreement-- everything they can do to keep themselves safe, they do it, and no one takes the bullet for anyone else.

 

Lance knows it’s bullshit. When the inevitable day comes he has to make that choice, there’s no doubt in his mind what it’ll be. The universe would be too cold a place without Keith.

 

He also knows it’s a mutual lie.

 

Still, for now, he keeps himself centered in the moment, takes the victory as Keith chews a bite of cereal with a slight frown. There are too many what ifs in their life to get hung up on them for long.

 

He watches the stars out the window as they chew in silence for a while, studying the new constellations. At some point, Keith’s free hand slips into his, and Lance bites down on his smile as he twines their fingers together. It’s a hard balance some days between Lance being too bossy and Keith pushing him away too much, but they’re getting better all the time.

 

The door slides open and Hunk walks in, frowning at the screen in his hand. “Yeah, yeah, I see what you’re saying. Can’t risk the sonic scan because we don’t know.” He glances up at them, a quick smile crinkling the corners of his eyes.

 

Lance tilts his head. “Pidge?” At Hunk’s nod, he grins. “Hi Pidge! Long time no see.”

 

“Lance says hi,” Hunk reports into his earpiece, pausing for a second as she replies. “No, I’m in the kitchen. You can’t blame me for that! It’s still breakfast time, Pidge, come on. You know I get hungry when I’m stressed.”

 

Lance props his chin in his hand and watches as Hunk bustles around the kitchen, fixing a bowl of cereal for himself before heading back to the control room, arguing with Pidge over the merits of post-breakfast snacks the whole time. “‘What about second breakfast?’” he quips at Keith.

 

Keith just gives him a blank look, and Lance sighs. “‘Lord of the Rings’ just moved up the list of things we’re watching if we get back to Earth.”

 

Keith’s hand tightens around him. “When we get back,” he corrects.

 

“Right, right.” Lance swallows and nods at Keith’s empty bowl. “Finished?”

 

Keith eyes him, but lets it go. “Yeah. Training deck?”

 

Standing, Lance collects their bowls and dumps them in the crazy fancy Altean dishwasher. “Sure. I could go for some target practice. Not that I really need it,” he adds, winking at Keith as he flexes his arm dramatically.

 

Keith rolls his eyes. “It’s your bayard that turns into a gun, Lance, it’s not you.”

 

“Rude,” Lance gasps, but he reaches out to take Keith’s hand again as they walk down the hall, smiling as Keith laughs, collecting bright moments like constellations in a dark sky.

 

  •     *  ✫      

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It’s a couple hours and more than a few training routines later that Hunk sticks his head into the room, waiting for Keith to shut down the Gladiators before saying, “Pidge is headed back and Allura wants us all on the bridge.”

 

Lance waves a hand at him in acknowledgement, holstering his bayard before pulling his helmet off and running a hand over his brow. Despite his best efforts, Keith had pushed the Gladiator training a lot farther than they should have. And maybe Lance had gotten a little carried away with their dumb competition over who could take the most down. And yes, looking back on it now, maybe that had been a super obvious plot by Keith to distract Lance from his wise plan of “taking it easy.”

 

He points an accusing finger at Keith. “You planned that, you devious bastard.”

 

Keith looks completely unaffected, like he hasn’t spent the last hour and a half filleting androids with a sword, and that’s just not fair. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

 

Lance groans, running a hand through his hair and scowling as they follow Hunk down the hall. There’s no time for a shower now, which means he’ll have to just live with being sweaty until they finish this mission, which could take hours, which is disgusting. “Why do I let you get away with this stuff?” he asks, more to the universe in general than his actual boyfriend at his side, but Keith nudges him as he replies anyways.

 

“Because you love me.”

 

The words are pitched low so Hunk, walking in front of them and poking at something on his screen, can’t hear, but there’s a light of sincerity in Keith’s indigo eyes that burns like a supernova and Lance can’t help the wide, soft smile that stretches across his face. “Yeah,” he says, equally soft, “I guess I do.”

 

Keith tugs him to a stop for just a second so he can lean in and kiss him.

 

For a few seconds, Lance lets the moment stretch, before he presses his lips to Keith’s temple and whispers, “For the record, I totally won.”

 

Keith pulls away to shoot him an outraged look. “I was trying to be nice, jerk. And also, you did not.”

 

Lance shrugs cheerfully, wrapping an arm around his shoulders and tugging him along. “Agree to disagree.”

 

“I agree to nothing, Lance, you were at least three points behind me and you know it.”

 

When they finally make it to the control room, just a few ticks behind Hunk, Pidge is already there, pulling her helmet off and tucking it under her arm as she sweeps her hair into a short ponytail. Lance throws his arms out wide, grinning at the sight of her. It’s not like he expected anything to go wrong on her scouting mission-- Pidge is fast and fucking genius, and they’ve done this enough times over the year she could probably fly her Lion in her sleep-- but seeing her standing there safe sends a wave of relief sweeping through him. “The One returns!”

 

She rolls her eyes, but accepts his hug with a smile of her own. “Dude, how many times do I have to tell you? I can’t put you in the Matrix.”

 

“You’ll crack one day, Neo.”

 

With another roll of her eyes, she turns back to Allura, picking up their fragmented conversation about the base again. Allura’s frowning at the holoscans Pidge must have gotten on her scouting run, highlighting areas as Pidge mentions them, listing possible security systems in place, points of entry, the usual rundown of infiltration schematics.

 

As the seconds tick by, Lance pulls a face at Keith. He shakes his head, not quite able to hide his fond grin, before his eyes catch on something to Lance’s right. “Shiro, you okay?”

 

Shiro’s frowning at the diagrams Allura and Pidge are still detailing, a faraway look in his eyes, but he blinks when Keith speaks. “Yeah, yeah, I’m good. Just wondering why this base is so different from the others.”

 

“Probably to keep our attention off it,” Hunk points out. “If all the Galra stuff was hidden this well, we’d have figured out how to track it ages ago, right? It’s like everything else was just decoys.”

 

And man, is that a terrifying thought. “If every other part of the Galra empire we’ve taken down was sacrificed just to keep this safe,” Lance says slowly, “then what the hell are they hiding here?”

 

He doesn’t realize Pidge and Allura have stopped talking until silence rings through the room. “That’s what we’re going to find out,” Allura declares finally, and everyone’s eyes turn to her as she gestures, the hologram of the base growing to her own height. As she talks, she indicates the places she and Pidge have highlighted. “As we suspected, this base is hidden on the planet closest to the stars of this system. The majority of the base is subterranean, which creates a bit of a problem as far as scouting and entry go. As it is, there are three access points to the base: here, here, and here. Only one of them is large enough to be a hangar.” The hologram zooms in on it, and a frown touches Allura’s delicate features. “This will likely be the most well-guarded point of the base. The other two are smaller entrances near landing pads on the surface of the planet.”

 

Keith leans forward to study the diagram, reflections sparking and dying in his dark eyes. “What about a ventilation system?”

 

Allura shakes her head. “The only one Pidge could find is located right next to the hangar.”

 

“And it’s pretty small,” Pidge adds. “Which means the base is either seriously tiny, which I doubt, or it’s manned mostly by drones.”

 

Lance frowns at that. “That’s weird. Pretty much every Galra outfit is run by, you know, actual Galra, right?”

 

“Yeah, I thought that was weird too, so I ran some scans. I didn’t want to do anything sonic since they picked up on Blue when she did that a few months ago, but I tried out this new one Hunk and Matt helped me build for Green, that scans for quintessence.” Pidge’s amber eyes brighten as she talks. “It’s actually pretty cool; we got it to a place where it’s sensitive enough to pick up on the quintessence of living things, which was not easy, let me tell you. Especially because the Lions have so much of it themselves they mess up the calibration of--”

 

“Pidge,” Shiro cuts her off gently. “What did you find?”

 

“There are things in the base with pretty concentrated levels of quintessence in them.”

 

“Things? Like, living things?” Hunk asks. “That would mean Galra, right? Because the way you said ‘things’ does not make me think ‘Galra,’ necessarily, but it’s a very scary term, and I would really like it to mean ‘Galra’ and not ‘terrifying superpowered monsters we’ve never seen before.’”

 

“Sorry to break it to you, buddy, but I don’t think they are Galra. The way they were moving… it was weird.” Pidge shakes her head. “Everything about this place is weird.”

 

There’s silence for a couple seconds before Lance claps his hands together. “Well hey, weird is our specialty, right? Remember that planet where everything screamed? That was weird.”

 

“And annoying,” Keith puts in with a scowl.

 

“Exactly! This place is downright boring compared to that.” Lance shoots them all a grin before cocking his head at Allura. “So what’s the play, Princess?”

 

Allura only hesitates a beat before laying it out. “Pidge, Shiro and Lance will take the Green Lion to infiltrate the base. Pidge has already determined the best entry point. Keith and Hunk will stay in their Lions nearby for extraction if they need it. Coran and I will remain here in the Castle-- we have to maintain some distance, but we’ll still only be a short flight from the planet, and we should be in contact with the Red and Yellow Lions at all times.”

 

Keith frowns at that. “What about the others?”

 

“Since the base is subterranean, communications may be disrupted,” Coran points out. “There’s a chance they’ll still work, but we can’t count on it.”

 

Pidge taps her helmet. “We’ll have our emergency trackers, if nothing else.”

 

“Besides,” Lance adds, “we won’t need all that. We’re the best stealth team in the universe.”

 

Shiro shakes his head at Lance, but there’s a smile on his face. “That’s a big claim, Lance, but I do think we’ll be okay.”

 

Lance cheers, sticking his hand in. “All right, the gang’s back together! What’s it been, three months since we did a good sneaky mission?”

 

“Probably,” Pidge says, covering his hand with hers. “Some people would say that means we’re out of practice.”

 

“Practice is for chumps who aren’t born with our pure natural talent.” Lance grins at Shiro, who’s still fighting that smile. “Right?”

 

“Whatever you say.” Despite Shiro’s neutral words, he places his hand on top of the stack.

 

Lance breaks their little huddle with a call of “Go, team!”

 

Hunk pulls him and Pidge in for a hug. “We’ll be watching you guys, don’t worry. We’ve got your back.”

 

“You don’t get to worry either, buddy,” Lance tells him, patting him on the back. “We’ve done this a hundred times.”

 

“And I’ve worried for all of them.”

 

Pulling her helmet back on, Pidge gives Hunk one last gentle knock on the shoulder. “Come on, man, have some confidence in us. I’m gonna go down and run some last checks with Green,” she says over her shoulder to Lance and Shiro.

 

Shiro only gets two steps after her before Allura is drawing him into some last-minute strategy breakdown. Hunk squeezes Lance’s shoulder again before heading to the elevator to Yellow’s hangar, and then it’s just Keith and Lance in their own little fragile bubble of space and time.

 

Keith’s still scowling at the hologram of the planet, and Lance takes his wrists gently to get his attention. “Hey, you know we’re going to be okay, right?”

 

It takes a second for Keith to nod. “Yeah, it’s just-- I don’t like this. I can’t put my finger on it, but something about all this feels… off.”

 

“It is kind of a weird one,” Lance agrees, a frown touching his own face. He tightens his grip on Keith’s hands as he searches his eyes. “But we can handle it. We’ll just take it slow. You be careful too, okay?”

 

Keith stares right back, as fierce and sharp as the first day Lance ever saw him, flying simulators at the Garrison. “Okay.”

 

There’s just enough time for Lance to sneak in one quick kiss before the bubble pops and Shiro is nudging him towards the lift down to Green’s hangar, asking, “You ready?”

 

“Born ready,” Lance replies, shooting him a wink. Just before the doors close behind him he turns to see Keith standing in the center of the bridge, staring after him. There’s no time to do anything, say anything-- all Lance gets is one split-second where their gaze locks before Keith’s gone, and he’s left strangely shaken by the intensity in his dark eyes.

 

⋆   +    ˚  

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*     .        ˚

˚     ⋆  *        * .

 

The Aquilae B-20 system is large and empty; according to Pidge, the massive solar winds from the binary stars blew everything but the planets and a few stray asteroids out of the heliosphere. It’s a perfect place to hide a base-- it’s so empty, Lance would never have looked at it twice.

 

It also makes the trip to the tiny terrestrial planet acutely nerve-wracking. There’s no place to hide if the Galra happen to turn their eyes upward, and they all know it. Shiro’s silent, his flesh-and-blood hand tight on the back of Pidge’s seat. Lance can’t quite contain his own nervous energy, pacing back and forth behind them as Pidge guides Green towards the base.

 

Another drawback of the barren system is that Keith and Hunk have no place to hide while they’re in the base, which means their backup will be delayed if they need it. Keith hasn’t said anything about it, but Lance knows he’s frustrated, can hear it in his clipped replies to Hunk and Allura as they move into position.

 

If this was just a normal mission, everything would be different. They could go in together, as a team, kicking ass and taking names like usual. But the closer they get to the planet, the more the feeling grows that they’re flying straight into the heart of something dark and unknown and deadly.

 

Pidge quietly counts down the timing of the patrol drones, and Green slips by undetected. Lance joins Shiro behind her chair to watch as they touch down on the surface of the planet, enough distance from one of the landing pads Green’s cloaking will hide them.

 

“Good luck, Paladins,” Allura says from the Lion’s screen, and they disembark.

 

The planet is as barren as the rest of the system; the solar winds stripped most of its atmosphere, too, leaving a craggy mess of gray-blue rock and dust behind. Lance scoops up a pebble as they walk along-- it’s actually a pretty color, white-veined and sparkling. He tosses it gently, watching it sail farther than it should-- the gravity on this planet is only about a third of Earth’s.

 

Pidge shoots him a glare as it clatters to the ground. Wilting under her and Shiro’s stern looks, Lance follows them towards the base without touching anything else. It’s not like there’s anything out here, but he knows their nerves are stretched just as tight as his.

 

They take cover behind a rock formation a couple hundred feet from the landing pad, and Pidge starts a scan of the area.

 

Allura’s voice crackles through the comms on their helmets. “Paladins, what’s your position?”

 

“We’re just outside the base,” Shiro tells her, keeping his voice low even though the landing pad is completely devoid of any movement. Lance uses the scope on his rifle to look closer, but the there’s no droids hiding anywhere, nothing waiting to ambush them. Like everything about this whole system, it’s completely, eerily empty.

 

“I’m detecting some of those moving balls of quintessence, but they’re beneath us, in the lower levels of the base,” Pidge reports. “We should be clear to move in.”

 

“I don’t like this,” Keith says finally, the first thing he’s offered since they left the Castle. “Something feels wrong.”

 

“Everything feels wrong,” Lance mutters.

 

Pidge looks up at him with a frown. “Logically, this all makes sense-- the Galra would want a secret base as undetectable as possible. That means no big security systems, no traffic in or out, no guards, nothing that could be traced back to here. Still…” Her brown eyes search the desolate landscape for a minute before she shakes her head. “We’ll just make this fast. In and out.”

 

Shiro crouches, narrowing his eyes at the door into the base. “I’ll take point. Lance, you cover us.”

 

Lance shifts his bayard from a sniper to his standard laser rifle. “Gotcha.”

 

“Be careful,” Allura says, a thread of anxiety in her voice. Keith growls, almost inaudibly, and Lance wants to say something to him, reassure him, but Shiro’s raising a hand and counting down on his fingers and they’re off.

 

The sprint to the door takes a heart-pounding thirty seconds, their footsteps echoing off the hard surface of the landing pad, but they reach it without any alarms they can hear or guns firing. Pidge spends a few seconds muttering to herself and tapping away at the computer on her wrist before the lock disengages, Shiro shoves it open, and they slip inside.

 

They take a second to breathe as they study the hallway around them. As weird as the place seems from the outside, the inside looks like standard Galra base material-- metal halls lined with purple lights, a little narrower than usual, like it’s not used much. Lance exchanges a shrug with Pidge.

 

“Paladins?” Allura’s voice is tight even through the thin layer of static.

 

“We made it. No trouble so far,” Shiro says, frowning down the hall. “We’re moving up. We’ll let you know if we find something.” With a quick flick of his wrist at Lance and Pidge, he’s off down the hall. They trail him cautiously, bayards at the ready, Pidge checking her computer every so often to track the bright spots of quintessence.

 

They’ve almost made it to the end of the hall when Pidge sucks in a breath and grabs Lance’s arm, yanking him up against the wall and tucking them both just out of sight behind a support beam. Shiro flattens himself next to them and they all hold their breath as a set of footsteps echoes down the hall to them, growing closer with every tick. Lance flicks his eyes down to where Pidge’s computer is still active, tracking the a glowing dot that’s nearly on top of them. He grits his teeth as her grip tightens on his arm.

 

And then the footsteps are fading, the glowing dot passing by without so much as a pause, and Lance’s head spins as he sucks in a shaky breath.

 

“That was too close,” Pidge whispers.

 

Shiro leans around the beam, peering at the intersection with a frown. “Which way?”

 

Pidge shrugs helplessly. “I don’t know. Presumably, the control room would be in the center of the base at the lowest point since that’s the most well-defended, but this whole place is backwards.”

 

“Right,” Shiro says, narrowing his eyes at the darkness down the hall. “I’ll take the middle route, then, and you and Lance each take a side.”

 

“Uh, is splitting up really the best plan?” Hunk asks nervously.

 

Pidge blows out a breath. “Maybe not, but I don’t want to spend any longer in this place than we have to.”

 

“If that’s the case, shouldn’t Pidge take the middle route?” Lance whispers. “It looks like the way that leads, you know, down.”

 

“If it really is the way to the control room, it would also make it the most dangerous,” Shiro argues, but Pidge is shaking her head.

 

“Lance is right. If it really is the right way, it’ll be fastest if I go. Besides, I’m sneakier than either of you.”

 

“You can back her up if you’re worried,” Lance points out.

 

Shiro grits his teeth for a second before sighing. “No, you’re right. Whatever’s gonna get this done the fastest, we need to do it. Let’s try and avoid any fights if we can, though. And Pidge?” She cocks her head at him. “Be careful.”

 

A smile tugs at the corner of her mouth as she nods. “You got it, boss. You guys, too.” She squeezes Lance one last time before she’s letting go and sliding down the hall, peeking around the corners before darting across the junction and down the hall on the other side.

 

Lance raises an eyebrow at Shiro. “Which way you want?”

 

Shiro narrows his eyes for a second, staring into middle distance before he blinks. “Right.”

 

That’s the way the footsteps went, but Lance doesn’t press it. “I’ll take left, then.” Lance props his rifle against his shoulder as he saunters down his hall. “Catch you later.”

 

Shiro gives him a tight nod before heading down the right-hand passage. A bubble of anxiety rises in Lance’s throat as he turns the corner and vanishes from sight. He swallows it down as best he can, gripping his bayard and creeping down the hall. The scans from Pidge’s computer are displayed on his own, and there aren’t any dots close to him, but he keeps his eyes on Pidge’s marker as she heads down into the base.

 

It takes him a few minutes to find a set of stairs in his own hallway. As he walks down them, wincing at every clang of his boots against the metal, he checks the tracker again, blinking as he sees Shiro’s dot another level below him, moving fast through the base. “Shiro?”

 

There’s no response, but Pidge’s dot pauses.

 

“He might be hiding from something,” she says after a second.

 

“There’s nothing close to him on the tracker.”

 

“I know that.”

 

Lance sucks in a breath. “You think there’s, like, stealthbots now too?”

 

“I don’t know,” she bites out, and her dot starts moving again. “Shiro, update us when you can. The faster we get out of this creepy place, the better.”

 

“That’s for sure,” Lance mutters, peering down yet another deserted hall on his way down the steps.

 

Halfway down that flight, though, the projection from the tracker flickers. Lance pauses midstep, tapping his computer, but the image stays fuzzy, blinking and jumping. “Pidge?”

 

There’s a burst of static and a weird humming noise that raises the hairs on the back of Lance’s neck. Well, Coran had said communications would be sketchy once they got underground. Lance keeps going, heading further down into the base, trying to ignore how much louder his footsteps seem in the silence.

 

He gets one more flight down before his comm crackles again and Pidge’s voice comes through. “--know if you guys can hear me, but I found the control room. I’m gonna--” Another burst of static, perforated by the eerie hum, interrupts her. “--back on the surface when I’m done--”

 

The comm pops one more time and she’s gone again. Lance hesitates at the top of the next flight of stairs; he can head back up now and regroup with the others on the surface, or he can try and make his way to Pidge. He’s not exactly sure where she is, but the stairwell she was using seemed to head straight down, into the center of the base. Getting lost down here would be fucking miserable, sure, but… Lance can’t shake the bad feeling. It’s been hanging over this whole mission like a stormcloud.

 

With one last cautious glance around, he takes the hall to his right. It should lead him back towards the center of the base. Towards Pidge.

 

He barely makes it twenty feet before he hears the clockwork thud of android feet. Cursing under his breath, he throws himself behind another support beam; the halls in this place are too bare to offer anything better as cover, probably by design.

 

As the footsteps draw closer, Lance readies his bayard, forcing his breathing to stay even despite his racing heart. Metal clanks on metal as the droid gets closer, and he’s flat up against the wall, taught as a tripwire, waiting for the first sign of movement.

 

It comes in a flash of black and purple as the droid steps up next to him, and the long hours of training with Keith must have done some good because Lance is already lining up the shot and firing at where the droid’s head will be without a thought, reflex honed to instinct, and he knows even as he squeezes the trigger it’ll hit.

 

Which is why it comes as a surprise when the droid dodges.

 

Lance barely has time to register the laser shot bursting into sparks on the opposite wall before the droid is swinging at him. Yelping, he throws his arm up in a wild block. It hurts, rattling his bones as the droid’s fist collides with his forearm, but he can’t afford to waste a second. Lance ignores the screaming in his arm as he grabs the droid’s wrist and fires his rifle one-handed.

 

Somehow, it twists away from the shot, and now he knows something is wrong. Droids are mindless, drones carrying out whatever prime directive was coded into them; they aren’t capable of reacting like that.

 

He barely manages to duck the next punch, and his thoughts connect as the metal hand sparks off the wall above his head. The concentrations of quintessence Pidge picked up earlier must be these things, some sort of artificial intelligence powered by the stuff.

 

He rolls out beneath its feet and fires off another few shots. It dodges them easily, but Lance is ready as it spins away from the last one, sweeping a foot out and catching it in the knee. Living or not, it stumbles when he hits the joint, and all it takes is that split-second of pause for Lance to shoot it, once in the head and three times in the chest as it staggers.

 

It collapses to the ground, shuddering and sparking, and he scrambles away from it til his back is pressed up against the wall. Its ruined head almost seems to twitch towards him, a hand jerking out in his direction, and the breath catches in Lance’s throat as he brings his bayard up and fires into the thing’s head until it’s still.

 

His own harsh breaths echo in the hall for a long moment as he sits there, clutching his injured arm and staring at the droid. Another crackle from his earpiece makes him jump.

 

“--here? Did--” Pidge sounds surprised in the two words she gets out before the humming static takes over the line again. Lance flinches, raising a hand to his head involuntarily and knocking into his helmet.

 

And then the line clears for just a heartbeat, just a second, and he hears Pidge cry out.

 

The blood in his veins freezes him solid for another burst of static, but as the line falls silent, he’s up and sprinting down the hall, heart pounding. Pidge had sounded like she was in pain, which means she’s hurt, trapped and injured somewhere in this nightmare base in this desolate system, and they never should have come here.

 

Something flickers to life on his visor, and his heart seizes for a second as he registers it.

 

An emergency signal. Pidge’s emergency signal.

 

He flies down the halls as fast as he can, arm throbbing in time with his pulse, and he distantly registers that he should be worried about making noise, that the creepy, quintessence-infused droids will come after him, but he can’t bring himself to care. There’s still ice in his bones and blood and breath as he finds the stairwell, taking the steps two at a time, scrambling to stay upright as he makes his way down as fast as he can.

 

And then the signal vanishes.

 

And like everything else about this fucking cursed mission, that’s weird. That’s too weird. The signals only switch off manually.

 

Which means Pidge isn’t alone.

 

Lance slips his way down one more flight of stairs before they bottom out, dumping him in a hallway ribbed with open blast doors. He sprints past all of them. His breathing is so ragged at this point it hurts but he pushes himself on, turning a corner and stumbling into a closed door. It takes a second for him to blink the sweat and lights out of his eyes, searching for the panel. There-- just to the right.

 

As he slams his hand down, he has just enough time to pray it’ll open for non-Galra before it hisses and slides open.

 

He charges through the gap and--

 

And.

 

The ice is back, freezing him in place even as his brain goes into overdrive, categorizing every detail of the brightly lit room and catching on three like a saw on metal.

 

First: there’s blood splattered across the floor, shockingly red against the white tiles.

 

Second: Pidge is sprawled out like a broken doll, her cracked helmet inches away from her outstretched fingers, like she’d been reaching for it.

 

Third: Shiro stands with his back to Lance at a control panel, typing at something, and as Lance’s eyes slide down to his hands he sees the Galra one is covered in blood.

 

Pidge’s blood.

 

“What-- what the hell?” Lance stammers, fighting through the static as his brain tries to rationalize what he’s seeing, the conclusion he’s drawing, with how he thought the universe worked. “Shiro, what are you doing?”

 

Shiro turns to look at him in a move so casual Lance feels sick, because his hand is covered in blood and his eyes are glowing Galra-purple. “Ah, Lance,” he sighs, like he found him flirting with an alien on some diplomatic mission or goofing off with Hunk instead of training, while Pidge bleeds out beside him. “You’re always in the wrong place at the wrong time, you know that?”

 

It’s so close to Shiro but so viscerally wrong. His rifle is up and levelled at him before Lance can even register making the decision, but when he does he tightens his grip, ignoring the pain in his arm and the way his hands shake as he says, “Who are you?”

 

“Ten more ticks and I could have played this off as just a mission gone wrong,” not-Shiro sighs, shaking his head. “Why couldn’t you have been slower?”

 

“I said, who are you?”

 

A nauseating smile twists Shiro’s face as he spreads his arms wide. “Come on, Lance, don’t you recognize me? We’ve only been teammates for three years.”

 

His words knock the breath right back out of Lance’s chest, turns him numb for the one critical tick it takes Shiro to charge at him.

 

For the second time that day, Lance stumbles back just in time to avoid a fist to the face. Shiro’s glowing hand carves a groove into the metal of the wall right next to his ear, and Lance lashes out blindly, catching him in the shoulder more by luck than anything. It earns him a precious second, and he launches himself forwards, vaulting over a console to put some space between them.

 

He slips when he lands, and his stomach lurches when he glances down. There’s a smear of red beneath his feet.

 

Spinning, he looses a few shots at Shiro, forcing him to stop attacking and dodge for a second. He doesn’t know what’s going on, but there’s no way he’s letting whatever this thing is anywhere near Pidge again.

 

One of his shots catches Shiro a glancing blow to the thigh and he stumbles. Lance doesn’t hesitate for a second before he shoots out his opposite kneecap, and Shiro goes down hard. Levelling his gun at him, Lance approaches slowly, blinking back sweat. “Don’t move.” His own voice sounds weird, distant and alien.

 

Shiro looks up at him with narrow purple eyes. “Or what, you’ll shoot me?” He drops his tone into something soft and cajoling. “It’s me, Lance, come on.”

 

“No, you’re not,” Lance tries to say, but all that comes out is a whisper.

 

Shiro’s face hardens and he lunges for him, but Lance is expecting it and he jumps to the side, swinging his foot in a solid kick to the side of Shiro’s helmet.

 

The purple glow finally dies as Shiro’s eyes roll back in his head.

 

Lance stares down at him for another second, mind slaloming between rational thoughts and a growing, bottomless horror, before a tiny sound from across the room breaks through.

 

A gasping breath.

 

He drops the rifle from his shoulder as he races over to Pidge’s side. Her eyes are still closed, but they’re rolling beneath her eyelids, and she makes another pained noise as Lance gingerly moves her onto her side.

 

“Sorry, Pidge, I’m sorry,” he whispers, trying to keep his voice steady. “Can you hear me?”

 

She groans again, but he can’t tell if it’s a response or just involuntary. His eyes tracks helplessly down the blood smeared across her white armor before he’s cursing and scrambling to press the little button of the emergency tracker hidden on the inside edge of his own helmet. After a moment, the signal flickers to life on his screen.

 

Taking a shaky breath, he speaks into the comm link. “Guys, I don’t know if you can hear me but--” His voice breaks as he looks down at Pidge, her face gaunt and white under her freckles. “We need help. Emergency extraction,” he corrects himself. “We-- we need an emergency extraction. And medical care…” He trails off again as the air rattles in Pidge’s lungs.

 

The comms crackle with static, deafening in this silent room, and Lance squeezes his eyes shut. Faraway, lost in the noise, he almost thinks he hears a shout.

 

“Please hurry,” he whispers. “Please, Keith.”

 

The red emergency light keeps pulsing on his visor, the static buzzes in his ears, and somewhere above him, out in space, he knows the team is coming.

 

But as he kneels there, holding Pidge’s hand as she bleeds, staring at what he thought was his friend lying unconscious across the room, he wonders if they’re already too late.

Chapter Text

Keith has managed to retain three pieces of information.

 

One, Pidge is in a healing pod. Two, Shiro is also in a healing pod and he is the only one standing in front of Shiro’s instead of Pidge’s. And three, Lance has only spoken to him once since Keith and Hunk rescued him from the Galra base.

 

Somewhere in the middle of that, a lot more information was detailed to him, but Keith has already forgotten all of it. Right now, in fact, he’s desperate to get Lance back in his arms to double check that he isn’t hurt. Lance did say he wasn’t, but Keith doesn’t believe him. He keeps absentmindedly cradling one of his arms and glancing down at it when he thinks no one is looking. But Lance isn’t even shooting glances his way. And Keith suspects it has something to do with the fact that he hasn’t yet left Shiro’s side.

 

There was something about Shiro. In all of the hubbub, all of the noise, there was something about Shiro.

 

Closing his eyes, Keith sits and leans back against Shiro’s healing pod, tilting his head back. It’s cold to the touch.

 

A few minutes pass and, suddenly, Lance is there. Keith knows he is. How, exactly, he’s unsure, but it’s been like that for awhile now. Maybe it’s how Lance smells. Or the weight of his steps. Or knowing, intimately, the way the air changes when his body parts through the molecules, even though that isn’t a thing he can possibly know . There isn’t anything there to know.

 

Not even opening his eyes, he says, “You’re hurt.”

 

“I’m alright.”

 

“Okay.”

 

He hears Lance kneel. Sighing, Keith cracks open an eye and when Lance smiles at him, albeit weakly, Keith can’t help but smile back. Poking Keith softly in the chest, Lance says, “You’re clamming up on me.”

 

“And you’re lying.”

 

“Could be worse,” Lance whispers. Keith flicks his eyes to Pidge, still and unreachable. It seems as though she’s merely sleeping, but Keith had seen the blood, both on her and on Lance. He knows better.

 

“She’ll be okay.”

 

“She might not be.”

 

Sitting up, Keith says, “Oh.” They stare at each other for a long beat and then Lance falls forward, not even attempting to oppose the force of gravity. Keith catches him without pause. Seconds lengthen, testing the limits of reality, as Keith clutches him close, so incredibly grateful, in a way that makes him severely uncomfortable, that it was Pidge and not Lance. That Lance is here, with him, and not in a healing pod, his status a solemn, ‘maybe’. That he is breathing and beautiful and tangible.

 

That never changes. All the missions, all the close calls, and that never changes. The sheer, unwavering relief and gratitude he feels when Lance crawls into bed beside him after and breathes in his ear, not always slow, not always soft, but always there.

 

Lance’s breaths now are ragged. “Shit, Keith, I was so scared.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“I am scared.”

 

“It’s going to be fine.”

 

Somehow, Lance laughs, choked and slightly unhinged. “I hate that that works.”

 

“What?” Keith asks, absently stroking the nape of Lance’s neck.

 

“Remember when I asked you what we would do after all this--” he gestures to the Castle around them-- “was over and you just said, ‘we’ll figure it out’? Or the first time you kissed me and you had no idea what you were doing but you did it anyway and I was all flustered because I didn’t really know either, but you just kept kissing me until I stopped talking? Or the time…”

 

“You’re talking a lot.”

 

“The point is, I always believe it. You just-- you always make things alright. I even know you don’t believe it and I still believe it,” Lance says.

 

“You shouldn’t.”

 

“Well, that was depressing.” Then there’s a long silence and Lance says, “Appropriately depressing,” no trace of humor left in his voice.

 

This time, when silence falls, it’s heavy. It’s a presence, one that can’t be ignored or dismissed. Keith certainly isn’t going to break it. In all honesty, he doesn’t even want to be here. He’s only here because Lance is, because Lance is clutching him like there’s nothing else stopping him from floating away, and Keith has learned the hard way that that isn’t a time to leave.

 

It’s hard for him to be a stable presence for someone else. He’s not stable, after all. He’s action and impetuousness and privacy, three words that have little in common with dependability and support.

 

“Hey, uh, can I be a part of that hug?” Hunk says in a small voice from across the room.

 

“Yeah, buddy,” Lance says, slipping away from Keith and offering space. Something tugs at Keith’s stomach as he watches Lance and Keith knows it’s telling him that there’s something wrong, that they have survived an earthquake, but not a single aftershock has hit them yet. But there’s nothing he can do about it. Aftershocks, after all, can’t be predicted or avoided, only weathered.

 

The remainder of the team gathers around them, spurred by Hunk’s request. They have clearly been wishing for the same thing, folding to the floor easily and wrapping their arms as tightly around each other as they can. Allura is breathing into his ear and Keith closes his eyes, telling himself that the hug will be over soon, that it can’t last forever. It feels nice, but it’s not patching up Red or going one level too high with the training robots or flying around space, discovering what he can. He’s desperate to do something. Lance will be okay now that the team is prepared to be there for him.

 

Skin crawling, Keith wriggles away from Lance, from everyone, taking a deep breath of air when he’s free, grateful they let him go as easily as they did. The circle closes up around the hole he’s left and Keith thinks he’ll be able to get away that easily, especially in a situation like this, where no one is thinking quite straight.

 

But he’s wrong. Because even in shock and grief, Lance won’t let him self-destruct. And Keith can’t explain to him, to anyone, that sometimes he needs to self-destruct, to burn away everything and start fresh, because he sounds insane, even to himself.

 

Quietly, Lance says, “Stay, Keith.”

 

“Yes,” Allura pipes up, “do. We need to discuss what we should do next and I know you will want to be here for that.”

 

“Allura…”

 

“When would the best time to have this conversation be, Lance? It’s not going to get easier. I know that better than anyone. I held onto my father for too long and it put us all in danger. And I understand we all need time, but this is urgent. Shiro’s injuries were not severe. He will need to come out of the healing pod soon.”

 

Immediately, Keith knows he’s missing something. Whatever he didn’t hear, whatever information he chose to ignore, it’s important now. “Why do you make that sound like a bad thing?” he asks, stepping back and crossing his arms over his chest.

 

Allura’s eyes widen. Hunk removes himself from the hug and curls his knees up to his chest, hugging them close. He won’t look at Keith. Neither will Coran for that matter. Only Lance is looking at him and Keith knows that expression. He wishes he didn’t, wishes he’d avoided it up until now, but he’s made mistakes and Lance’s heart is clearly breaking. This time it’s not because of him, but for him, and Keith hates it. The aftershock is coming. He can sense it. But he still can’t stop it.

 

You could run, a voice in the back of his head says. Run, you runaway boy. Does the world fall to pieces if you aren’t there to see it?

 

Searching Lance’s eyes frantically, Keith holds onto what he sees there because it’s not the pity present in the other’s eyes. There’s still sadness, but there’s also love and understanding and Keith reminds himself, for what feels like the millionth time in his life, that Lance is not someone to run away from, but to run to.

 

Lance stands and moves forward a couple of steps before he starts talking. “Babe, Shiro… he… he was the one who attacked Pidge. I had to… he’s injured because I had to shoot him before he got me too. It was awful. His eyes were purple and…” Lance shudders and Hunk goes to him, throwing an arm around his shoulders and pressing his forehead to Lance’s temple.

 

The world disappears as Keith withdraws, unable to believe what he has heard. Of course he didn’t retain this the first time he heard it. He can hardly process it now.

 

Shiro wouldn’t hurt the team. Not purposefully. There’s nothing in the universe that could convince him to do that.

 

Shiro’s their guiding star, the person meant to lead Voltron, the one person in his life he’s looked up to and who has stayed to be looked up to, and this isn’t right. This isn’t a world Keith knows. It’s like gravity ceasing to work on Earth. It’s just wrong .

 

A wrong world Keith has to come to terms with, because Lance wouldn’t lie about something like this.

 

Something needs to be done. After all, it doesn’t have to stay wrong. Keith can fix it.

 

As he comes back to awareness, it’s clear he’s missed a large chunk of conversation. They’re all arguing with each other and when Keith says, “So we have to figure out what happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” interrupting, they all stop and face him.

 

Hunk shakes his head. “I get you, buddy, but I don’t want anyone else to get hurt while we figure it out.”

 

“We can’t kill him,” Coran says.

 

“That’s not what I said! We all know I can’t kill him. I’m not going to suggest something I can’t even do.”

 

“Is that on the table?” Keith says flatly.

 

“No. Of course not,” Allura replies.

 

The air stills and Keith senses that many aren’t quite as sure as Allura, including Lance. It’s a sharp and senseless sting of betrayal. Staring straight at Lance before remembering himself and shifting his gaze, he says, “It’s Shiro,” as though that explains everything and it honestly should. Surely, he’s earned more loyalty than this.

 

“Is it?” Lance asks.

 

“What?”

 

“I don’t know. He’s not who I thought he was. I don’t know if it’s something they did to him when he disappeared or if it’s just not Shiro, but he…his hands were covered in Pidge’s blood, Keith.” Shaking his head, Lance says, “I know you weren’t there, but you need to trust me on this. It was messed up. Like, it wasn’t just the eyes, it was the things he said too.” At that point, he leans into Hunk, eyes far away, back at the base, and Keith feels a wave of self-loathing. Coupled with his irritation, he can barely keep his shit together.

 

“Are you saying I don’t know Shiro? That I wouldn’t recognize an impostor?”

 

“No,” Lance argues. “All I’m saying is that Shiro was not Shiro and that I don’t know which one is going to come out of that pod. I’m not sure I want to know.”

 

“And I’m saying that it is Shiro and that if something went that wrong, someone somehow made him and it’s up to us to fix it. He’s our leader. He’s a member of this team. We have to save him.”

 

“At what cost?”

 

“Does it matter?”

 

There’s a long, tense silence and Keith knows it was the wrong thing to say. Lance is staring him dead in the eye, willing him to continue that thought, and Keith realizes he’s taken the completely wrong tactic. For him, there isn’t a price he wouldn’t pay. It’s Shiro. It’s the right thing to do.

 

Except for Lance. But that’s not fair.

 

So, instead, Keith whispers, “Please,” to Lance, unable to say it to anyone else.

 

“We won’t hurt him,” Allura says decisively and there’s not a word of protest. “But measures need to be taken to keep the team safe. I understand what you’re saying, Keith, and of course, we will do everything we can to remedy this, but we don’t even know what caused this alternate Shiro to appear and until we do, until it’s something we can avoid at every turn, we need to restrain him.”

 

“No.”

 

Allura exhales softly. “Keith, I know how much he means to you. But you have to remember we care about him, too. There’s simply no other way, not if we want to…”

 

“It’s Shiro,” Keith says again. It’s not really an argument and he feels kind of like a doll with only a few preset dialogue options, but there’s nothing else to say. They can’t just lock him up. The very idea of doing so makes Keith’s skin crawl. He would be unable to live with himself if he was complicit in something like that.

 

“Then what do you suggest?” Allura asks.

 

“Can’t we just… can’t we wait? Can’t we wait and see who comes out of the healing pod?”

 

“It won’t make a difference.”

 

“It will to me,” Keith snaps. With that, he turns on his heel and leaves. He knows his word will be respected and he knows he’ll be informed when Shiro is better. Even if he wasn’t sure, he probably still would’ve left. When he’s like this, a barely contained storm, it’s better for everyone if he’s alone.

 

His first instinct is to go to the training deck. His feet are already carrying him there, but he forces them to redirect. Lance will follow him. And soon. It’s inevitable. He knows better than to let Keith sit on things and dwell. Of course, Keith isn’t interested in being found.

 

Running through other favorite haunts, Keith avoids them all, instead finding himself in his old bedroom. It looks exactly the same as it had a few months ago when he moved out. The only difference is if he were to open a drawer, it would be empty.

 

Sitting gingerly on the edge of the bed, Keith bounces lightly, staring at the plain walls across from him. His mind falls blank and he lets it, drifting away from everything he’s feeling. How long he sits there, he doesn’t know, but he’s wrenched back much too quickly, when the door to the room slides open and Lance enters.

 

Keith doesn’t ask how Lance found him. He’s not genuinely surprised. Lance knows him so well that it occasionally terrifies Keith, even now. No one, after all, was supposed to situate themselves behind all of Keith’s walls as easily as Lance has.

 

“I don’t want to talk,” Keith says, scooting backwards until his back is leaning against a wall. Then, he shifts his knees up to his chest and hugs them close, resting his chin in the crook between where they touch.

 

“Yeah, I don’t either.”

 

“What do you want, then?”

 

Shrugging, Lance gets onto the bed and crawls over to Keith, until their shoulders bump together. It’s the most they touch and Keith can’t decide if he wants more or less. “We’re waiting on Shiro, right?”

 

Keith nods shortly.

 

“Then I can argue with you later.”

 

“Great. I’m sure that’s healthy.”

 

“Keith, just--” Lance cuts himself off with a sigh. “I kind of need you right now. And I thought you might need me too.”

 

And just like that, Keith remembers how Lance found his way through those walls. He asked for the portcullises to be raised and waited--not always patiently--for Keith to raise them. Slowly uncurling, Keith says, “I don’t know what to say to you. I don’t know what’ll make it better.”

 

Lance smiles half-heartedly. “We weren’t gonna talk.”

 

“Oh. Right.”

 

Recognizing the work Lance has done up to this point, Keith takes the initiative and reaches down, taking Lance’s hand in his. Bringing it up to his lips, he kisses the back and then rests his forehead there. Focusing on breathing, he tries to come up with what he’s going to do. He’s aware that, beside him, Lance is doing the same.

 

It doesn’t take long for Keith to realize that neither of them is going to change their mind. That, in some ways, this is an irrevocable difference. Reflexively, he clutches Lance’s hand tighter. Lance squeezes back.

 

A few minutes later, Lance says, “Hey, can I ask you something?”

 

“Anything.”

 

“If Shiro had hurt me, would it…”

 

“I really don’t want to think about that,” Keith murmurs.

 

“It would’ve been different, wouldn’t’ve it?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“Because if it would’ve, that’s not really…”

 

“I know it’s not fair,” Keith says, voice too loud. “I’ve spent the last hour thanking all sorts of gods I don’t believe in that it was Pidge and not you. It’s not at all fair. Losing Pidge would be fucking awful. But losing you would be genuinely unbearable and that’s just how it is. I’m not going to pretend it’s different.” When Lance simply stares at him, Keith continues. “I’m not like you, okay? I don’t have it in me to care as much about Pidge as I care about you.

 

“Why are we even talking about this, anyway? It doesn’t matter. What happened, happened.”

 

“I’m just trying to explain where I’m coming from. He attacked Pidge. Right in front of me. And if we can’t figure out why, it could happen again. It could be any of us. You know that, right? Shit, Keith, he almost got me already.”

 

“I’m not going to let him.”

 

How ?”

 

Keith sighs. That is the crux of the issue and it’s the part he hasn’t figured out yet. Buying himself time, he says, with a hint of laughter, something to lighten the mood, “We didn’t even try not to talk, did we?”

 

Biting his lip, Lance narrows his eyes. When he smiles, Keith knows he’s purposely allowing the argument to drop off for now. “Yeah, I’m not very good at the not talking thing.”

 

“Tell me about it.”

 

Bumping their shoulders together, Lance chuckles and kisses his temple. “I know you love it.”

 

“I’d have to.”

 

“Hey.”

 

“What?”

 

“We’re okay?”

 

It seems a desperate question, a search for reassurance where none can be found, but Keith is not going to deny that to Lance for a second. Or himself, for that matter. He doesn’t want to think about what could happen either. “Yeah,” Keith says. “Course.” It doesn’t even taste like a lie. And Keith knows it’s because he will fight for this until his dying breath, even when they aren’t okay.

 

When Lance doesn’t say anything, Keith does. “Can we just...lie here? For awhile?”

 

“Tired?”

 

“No.”

 

“You can just say you want to cuddle, you know.”

 

“I really can’t,” Keith says, moving away from the wall and lying down on his old bed in his old room. It’s a little small and a little musty, but he doesn’t want to move and Lance doesn’t say a word about it, simply tucking his face into Keith’s neck and throwing an arm over his waist. Pressing his nose into Lance’s hair, Keith begins to breathe easier. Like this, it’s effortless to imagine it’s one of their rare lazy days.

 

For as long as he can, Keith lets himself get lost in that universe.

 

*           *      
* ˚      .     
 ✵   ·  
    *  .     *   *  ·
 *          ·    ˚  
*  · ·         ✹

 

Hunk is the one who finds them. All he says is, “Shiro’s out.” Then he lingers by the door and waits for them to join him, so they can walk back through the ship together. Nobody talks and Hunks sidelong glances are enough to tell Keith all he needs to know. The Shiro that came out is his Shiro. Squaring his shoulders, Keith prepares himself for a fight. Beside him, Lance tenses.

 

The scene in the room when they enter is enough to make Keith’s heart race in anticipation. Coran and Allura are over ten feet away from Shiro. Not looking at anyone, Keith goes directly to Shiro, puts a hand on his shoulder, and says, “What happened?”

 

“I don’t know. It’s… hazy,” Shiro says, a wrinkle appearing his forehead. Then he looks past Keith. “I’m sorry, Lance. I don’t know why I… are you alright?”

 

“Fine.”

 

“He doesn’t know why he attacked,” Allura says, pointedly directed at Keith. “We’ve already asked everything there is to ask and it is unfortunate, but, Keith--”

 

“We are not locking him up!”

 

“Keith,” Shiro says, voice soft, “It’s not an entirely--”

 

“You are not an… animal and we can’t save this goddamn universe without you. Storing you away, treating you like a problem, and hoping we find a solution while you rot is not… it is not happening.”

 

“Have you looked at Pidge?” Lance says. In his voice, Keith can hear that he’s on the verge of yelling. Closing his eyes, Keith lets his hand fall from Shiro’s shoulder and takes a deep breath. Turning, he walks to the pod Pidge is in and feels his heart crack. Because, in theory, he understands. He knows why they’re all afraid. But when he looks at Shiro, all he can see is his friend, his mentor, his brother.

 

Everyone else sees something different.

 

Meeting Lance’s gaze, Keith knows that Lance is afraid; that more than anyone, Lance will not be able to see Shiro the way he does.

 

It knocks the breath from him, the realization that everything’s fucked. When he can finally breathe again, it’s like there’s something stuck in his throat. There’s a slight twinge of pain every time he inhales.

 

There’s nothing he can do. He’s helpless.

 

Lance isn’t on his side.

 

Clenching his fist, Keith drops his shoulders. That’s enough to take all the fight out of him. This time, when he leaves the room, he does so slowly and with his head down. Instead of retreating to his old room, he goes to the one he shares with Lance, needing somewhere safe, and burrows down under the covers of his bed, tugging them up over his neck. Facing away from the door, he silently fumes. He hates that he’s helpless, he hates what’s happening to Shiro, and he hates most of all that he doesn’t even hate Lance for it.

 

He loves Lance so much.

 

But it’s not enough.

 

The very thought puts Keith on the edge of losing his mind.

 

It’s simply not in him to abide something like this, however. Shiro needs help and Keith will make sure he gets it. And he’ll do it alone. That’s fine. He’s used to it. It may have been awhile since he’s needed to, but it’s like a pair of old shoes, easy to slip back on.

 

Finally, he knows what to do.

 

✫  ·  
     .     *   · 
          ✫        
     ✵      *    . 
         ·  
*      ·   ˚  .     
 ✺

 

It’s late when Lance finally finds his way into their room. He keeps quiet, obviously not sure if Keith is awake or not. Keith, uninterested in talking, not wanting to question his decision, keeps still, focusing on breathing deep and slow.

 

Lance gets into bed and for a tick, Keith thinks that’s that. But then an arm slips over his waist, careful and loose and Lance whispers, “I know you’re awake. You’re breathing way too loudly.”

 

“I guess you would know.”

 

“Listen, cariño, I know that this is--”

 

“I don’t want to talk.”

 

Sighing, Lance falls onto his back, the warmth of his arm disappearing. “Okay,” he says. A few more ticks pass. “Can I just say one more thing?”

 

“Go for it.”

 

“We’ll make it alright, okay? I promise.”

 

“Okay.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Yeah,” Keith says, as the crack in his heart rends in two.

 

✷    ✫    
          . ✷   ✵  
   ✵     .  ˚
               ✹
  ✫  ·         ·
              ·  . ·
·     *

 

It takes a long time for Lance to sleep, but when he does, Keith gets out of bed, disturbing as little as possible and grabs the bags he’s already packed out from underneath it. Though he begs himself not to, he can’t help gazing down at Lance’s face, an unusually tense expression on his face. Reaching down, Keith brushes the tips of his fingers along Lance’s cheek. “You know,” he whispers, “I don’t think I’ve loved anything quite so much as I love you.” Leaning down, Keith kisses him on the forehead. “I’ll be back. Try not to worry about me.”

 

Setting off, Keith searches the quiet and empty castle for any sign of Shiro. It doesn’t take long. The rest of the team was clearly too tired to properly deal with the situation today and Shiro must’ve been amiable, because Keith finds him in his room, sitting up in bed, his hands and feet bound.

 

Using his Marmora knife, Keith springs Shiro free. For a moment, Shiro doesn’t move and the both of them just stare. Eventually, Keith says, “Come on. We’re gonna figure out what’s going on with you.”

 

“This might not be the way to go about it.”

 

“I don’t trust them with you and I don’t want you to hurt them on accident.”

 

“What about you?”

 

Shrugging, Keith takes Shiro by the hand and helps him up. “I can protect myself.”

 

“You’d be fighting me, Keith,” Shiro says softly. It is not an underestimation of Keith’s skills, simply a reminder that he would hesitate to kill a friend, even to protect himself.

“I’m doing this. Please come with me. It’ll be safer for everyone.”

 

“What about Lance?”

 

A wave of nausea hits Keith. “He’ll be fine,” Keith says, knowing that he’s never told a lie more unconvincing.

 

Finally, with reluctance, Shiro nods, following Keith out of the room.

 

⋆   ·            
   .   .
✵    * 
      *     ✵          *  
      ·  ✵         ✺ ·  ˚   
   ✵     **       .

 

Keith didn’t really know what he was doing. He just knew he had to do something.

 

The day had been an absolute disaster. Sometimes, the Galra decided to come after them and sometimes, they decided to go after them. Usually, the latter days were better, because there was a plan and they had the element of surprise and they were one force against a much larger one; one that sometimes had trouble coordinating.

 

But today, today, the Galra had anticipated their every move and they’d all nearly died, only managing to escape and accomplishing absolutely nothing productive. Not only did that not sit well with Keith, but he had to figure out how exactly they had known. The rest of the team had chalked it up to coincidence--they had, after all, gotten that lucky themselves on occasion--but Keith was struggling to accept that conclusion.

 

If they were somehow being surveilled, there was a Galra base somewhere in the universe that held that information.

 

It was a dumb plan. There were hundreds of bases and searching every single one was probably impossible, but Keith didn’t know what else to do. It was late at night, the team was sleeping. He wouldn’t be missed. As long as he was back before their next mission, it would be okay.

 

“Hey, buddy, fancy seeing you here.”

 

Keith felt his stomach drop. Glancing over, he saw Lance walking towards him, making a pitstop along the way to say hello to Blue. He was in his bathrobe and slippers and his hair was slightly mussed on one side.

 

It was kind of adorable and Keith had to stop himself from smiling.

 

And from immediately jumping into Red and taking off into space.

 

Because now that Lance was facing him, it became painfully clear why Keith had been unable to sleep.

 

Lance had saved his life twice today when they’d been battling Galra forces and when they’d gotten back to the castle and were free from their lions, Lance had run over to him and hugged him so tightly, Keith could hear his heartbeat in his ears. Then, in a voice filled with what Keith could only assume was tenderness, he’d said, “Stop almost dying, would you?”

 

Keith still wasn’t over it.

 

Probably because he’d melted into the hug. Probably because he could still feel Lance’s breath against his ear. Probably because he’d realized, while rolling around in bed, trying to get comfortable, he was maybe entirely in love with Lance. It would explain a lot.

 

“Why are you up?” Keith asked.

 

“Could ask you the same thing.”

 

“I’m going on a late night… pleasure flight.”

 

“Cool. Can I come with you?”

 

“No,” Keith said. “It’s… an alone thing.”

 

“Right, sure, of course. Wouldn’t have anything to do with your ‘oh my god, the Galra are watching us brush our teeth’ thing, would it?”

 

Sighing, Keith said, “Whatever. Maybe. What do you care?”

 

“What are you even going to do?”

 

“I don’t know. Something.”

 

“A really good plan. Genius. Kind of hate I didn’t come up with it myself.”

 

“Ha ha,” Keith mumbled, crossing his arms over his chest and looking down at his feet. There was something distinctly intimate about the conversation they were having and it was making him uncomfortable. Maybe it was the late hour or the fact that Lance was wearing pajamas or the fact that Lance had clearly come down here just to find him. Whatever it was, it had Keith on edge.

 

“Dude, just… come to the kitchen with me or something.”

 

“No.”

 

Rolling his eyes, Lance stepped forward, until they were only standing a foot or so apart. “It’s a stupid idea and you definitely shouldn’t go alone. If it really matters to you, I’ll go do ‘something’ with you. Just not right now. We could both use some sleep before we decide to do stupid things.”

 

“You really want to come with me?”

 

Lance shrugged. “You might be right about the Galra. And even if you’re not, I’d really prefer you didn’t die. Like, it gives me a heart attack every time, man. It’s gotta be unhealthy. You need to give it a rest every once in awhile. I can only take so much.”

 

“But…”

 

Snorting, Lance slung an arm over Keith’s shoulders and started leading him from the hangar. “Can’t sleep, right? Come on, I’ll show you a good time. It’ll be better than dying at the hands of the Galra, I swear.”

 

“You’re being weird.”

 

“It’s called being nice, Mullet. You should try it sometime.”

 

Eyeing Lance, Keith let himself be lead away from his lion. Only when they were halfway to the kitchen did Keith realize Lance’s arm was still around his shoulders. Awkwardly, he escaped the embrace and said, in an attempt to distract Lance, “Were you looking for me?”

 

“Couldn’t sleep.”

 

“That doesn’t answer my question.”

 

Lance sighed. “Yeah, man. I was looking for you. I thought maybe you’d be having the same problem. Besides, I wanted to hang out with you.”

 

Their eyes met and Keith wondered if that hug had meant something to Lance, too. Judging by the lightness in his step and the brightness in his eyes, anything was possible.

 

.  .    
   · *    .    
    ·  
          ✵  
✦  ✧   .
      *   *     ·  
.     ˚     .

 

We could both use some sleep before we decide to do stupid things.

 

Passing Red, Keith sees a ghost version of himself and Lance heading in the opposite direction, destined for a night of hangman and tic-tac-toe games, laughing themselves silly when Lance managed to lose ten games in a row.

 

Part of him hopes Lance will come now.

 

I’m doing stupid things , he thinks.

 

But Lance isn’t there by the time they make it to the end of the hangar, a small, stealth mission ship, used much more before Pidge had developed cloaking. And he isn’t going to show up.

 

It’s a tight squeeze, but they manage to fit and then they’re flying off into space, leaving their family behind, with no plan and no timeline. Keith knows it could be a very long time before he sees the castle again, before he sees Lance again.

 

“So what exactly is the plan?” Shiro asks.

 

“I don’t know,” Keith replies. “But I’ll figure it out. I always do.”


Distantly, Keith is aware that Shiro says, “We’ll figure it out,” but he isn’t really listening. He’s too busy swearing on the stars that he’ll come home, that he’ll survive this, and that he’ll earn Lance’s forgiveness.

Chapter Text

His dreams are dark and twisting, filled with nauseating strobes of red and purple, blooming and dying in the shadows like wild things. Someone’s yelling in the distance, someone’s whispering in his ear, and Lance runs or flies or falls through the dark until he crashes into it and everything shatters.

 

He’s already sitting up and gasping before he even realizes he’s awake, blinking blue spots out of his vision until he can see again.

 

The familiar walls of the bedroom finally swim into focus, and he shuts his eyes again, focusing on drawing in steady breaths. It’s probably not that surprising that he had a nightmare, given what happened yesterday.

 

The memories he’d shut out the night before come back in a flood, and he squeezes his eyes shut even tighter, grinding his palms into them until sparks burst in his vision. Speaking of freaking nightmares.

 

What really gets him, though, what’s twisting him up inside and leaving a sick feeling in his stomach, is the look in Keith’s eyes when Shiro woke up, when he sided with Allura over him. He looked betrayed, and fuck, Lance can’t even be sure that isn’t what he did, but his head was rattling with Pidge’s weak breaths and Shiro’s glowing eyes and so much fucking static he felt himself getting lost in the noise.

 

Sighing, he looks over at Keith’s empty side of the bed, stomach rolling again. They fight and bicker all the time, sure, even after months of dating, but it’s never like this. This is cold and ugly and awful.

 

Lance has no idea how to fix it.

 

He stares blankly at the wrinkled blankets for a long minute before letting out a frustrated noise and scrubbing his hands across his face. What a fucking mess.

 

The clock next to the bed tells him it’s still pretty early in the morning, Castle Standard Time, but he doesn’t want to go back to sleep. A flash of his nightmare resurfaces and he shudders; he’s not sure he actually can fall asleep again. Throwing back the covers, he rolls out of bed, grimacing. He hadn’t changed into actual pajamas before crawling into bed last night, too exhausted and anxious. He gets, finally, why Keith used to always wear his clothes to bed.

 

His arm starts throbbing again as he changes into fresh clothes, and he swears under his breath. If it keeps up, he’ll have to get it looked at, but he can’t stand the idea of being in a healing pod right now. For the moment, he frowns down at the purple bruising and tugs on a long-sleeved shirt.

 

Stepping into the hall, he hesitates for a moment; Keith is probably in the training room, fighting out his frustration, or maybe down with Red, but Lance isn’t sure he’ll want to see him. Reluctantly, he turns in the direction of the kitchen. He’ll grab some food and then go back to the medical bay and check on Pidge.

 

He’s putting off checking on Shiro and he knows it. Last night, when he came out of the pod, he’d been talking and behaving like normal, like Lance is used to, like the Shiro he’s spent the last three years with, but he still can’t reconcile that with the Shiro who’d grinned at him with purple eyes and bloody hands. What, don’t you recognize me? he’d asked, and the worst part was that Lance did. How many times has he seen that smile, heard that voice say his name? He’d recognized the Shiro that stepped out of the pod, sure, but how can he say for certain that wasn’t the same Shiro who only hours earlier left Pidge to bleed out on the floor of a Galra base on an alien planet?

 

It’s me, Lance.

 

Lance stops and takes a shaky breath, staring out a window at the stars. The words are part of him, now, seared into his very soul, a weight he’ll never be free of. One day, and the whole universe is suddenly shifted.

 

He wonders if it will ever feel the same again.

 

He’s pulled from his thoughts by the sound of footsteps running towards him, and he has barely a second to look around before Allura comes careening around the corner and nearly crashes into him. Yelping out a curse, he catches her with his hands on her shoulders. There’s a wild look in her sapphire eyes, a few stray locks of hair escaping her bun, and her hands, when they come up to grab his arms in return, clench tight enough to hurt.

 

With a sinking feeling in his stomach, he asks, “What’s going on?”

 

As she catches her breath, their eyes lock, and Lance goes cold at the fear he sees there. “Lance,” she says urgently, “where’s Keith?”

 

“I don’t…” He trails off. “Allura, what is going on?”

 

She swallows hard before replying. “Shiro is missing and one of the ships has been taken. If you don’t know where Keith is, then he might be--”

 

“Gone.” The word is hollow. “He’s gone.”

 

Her hands squeeze even tighter, and Lance can barely feel the pain from his injured arm through the numbness washing over him. “We don’t know that yet. He might be somewhere in the Castle still.”

 

Lance pulls away from her without replying, barely even hearing her words as he moves off down the hall towards the Lion bays. Behind him, Allura shouts something, but he can’t hear it over the pounding of the blood in his ears, his feet on the metal floor. He’s running, he realizes distantly, sprinting towards where he can already feel Blue reaching for him, but every step leaves him colder and takes him farther away from himself, away from here, away from a bitter and terrible truth he can feel settling in his bones.

 

No matter how fast he runs, Keith is already gone.

 

.  ˚   ✦     

    ✵  ·          ˚

✫       ˚    ✧✵  

              

.     ✫   *   

  • *               

  *

 

It takes hours spent searching, blind and desperate, in an ever-widening radius around the Castle before Allura quietly says, “Lance, I’m sorry.”

 

He can’t bring himself to reply. None of this feels real, yet; it’s like he never quite woke up from his nightmare. After a second, Hunk says, “We don’t have to give up yet. The Uzara System is nearby; they’ve got a rebel base on a planet there that sees a fair amount of traffic--”

 

“He won’t be there,” Lance finally speaks up, and from the way the others fall silent, he knows they know it too. “We’re not gonna find him unless he wants to be found.”

 

After a minute, Hunk comes over the comms again, determined. “I’m going to look anyway.”

 

Lance doesn’t bother arguing. In the distance, he sees light flare as Yellow’s thrusters fire.

 

“I can try tracking the ship again, but I’m afraid Pidge is better at this than I am.” Allura’s image, projected on Blue’s screen, rubs at her temple briefly.

 

“I’m pretty sure the trackers on the stealth ships were removed so the Galra couldn’t hack them,” Hunk says after a second, equal parts tired and resigned. “Pidge didn’t figure we would need them since we were the only ones with the codes, and they were too much of a liability, especially after the Galra started getting the jump on us.”

 

Lance fixes his gaze on a distant star. “So there’s no way to track him.”

 

“Pidge might have a way, when she wakes up,” Hunk offers, but the hope in his voice is fading.

 

“On that note,” Coran breaks in gently, “I do have some good news. Pidge is recovering even faster than I thought. I expect she’ll be out of the pod in a couple of vargas.”

 

Hunk and Allura breath simultaneous and relieved sighs, and somewhere through the numbness he can’t shake, Lance can feel a tight bit of his heart unwind. “That’s excellent. Thank you, Coran,” Allura says warmly.

 

“That means she’ll be awake when Matt gets here tomorrow,” Hunk realizes. “Thank god. He gets kinda… scary when she’s hurt.”

 

“He is her family,” Allura reasons. “And we still have to explain the situation with Shiro to him. I didn’t want to say anything over the comms, in case…”

 

She trails off and Lance wonders what she was going to say. In case the Galra are listening? In case Shiro installed some surveillance device they haven’t found yet? They need Pidge back to really be sure the Castle systems are clear. She’d become so familiar with the ship’s systems in the last three years, even the Alteans went to her sometimes for guidance.

 

“I’ll just do a quick scan of the Uzura base, then,” Hunk is saying when Lance tunes back in. “I can send them a picture, or something, see if anyone’s spotted something--”

 

“No,” Allura says sharply.

 

Lance frowns. “Why not?”

 

She sighs, brushing a strand of loose hair out of her eyes. “If-- if the Galra are involved, and Shiro is really… corrupted, for lack of a better term, it’s best we don’t let anyone outside of the team know about it. We could lose the support of our allies if they find out we’re having… internal struggles.” There’s a note of sadness in her voice as she adds, “And we could put Shiro and Keith in danger if we expose them.”

 

A sudden, intense flare of anger leaves Lance gripping Blue’s controls until his knuckles turn white. “So what, we’re just supposed to sit on our fucking hands?” he snaps. “Hope that maybe someday we’ll run across them again in the whole wide galaxy?”

 

“Buddy--” Hunk starts, but Lance cuts him off.

 

“I’m not doing that,” he tells them, flat and final. “I’m not gonna just let him go.”

 

The silence is heavy for a second before Allura speaks again. “I’m not asking you to, Lance. All I’m saying is that we should wait before we do something that might make this situation worse.” There’s no reprimand in her words, just a gentle and boundless sympathy that smothers the flames inside him and leaves him hollow again.

 

“Sorry.”

 

“You don’t have to apologize, dude.” Hunk is soft, too, and Lance swallows hard. “We get it.”

 

“I know, I know, just…” Lance rubs his eyes and sucks in a deep breath. “Thanks, guys.”

 

“Of course.”

 

“We’re here for you, dude. Always.”

 

Slowly, slowly, he exhales. “I know. I’m just-- I’m gonna head back to the Castle. Allura, do you mind if I switch off my comms?”

 

Still terribly gentle in a way that chafes Lance’s raw nerves, she replies, “Not at all. I’ll contact you if there’s any news.”

 

“Yeah. Hunk, be careful.”

 

“Will do, buddy. See you in a couple vargas.”

 

Lance flicks a switch on the dash and the comm links flicker out, leaving him with just the quiet hum of Blue’s systems to combat the dead silence of space. She brushes against his mind, trying to comfort him, but there’s a sadness to her that echoes the ache in his own chest.

 

Clearing his throat, he pats the console. “Thanks, girl. I just…” He trails off as he tries to find an end to that sentence. He’s worried? Needs some time? Wants to find him? Wants to ask why he left?

 

The problem is, he knows why Keith left. He didn’t think he could trust them. Shiro’s always been the most important person to Keith, Lance knows that, but he thought Keith trusted him, too. He thought they knew each other in the same way, knew what matters to the other, and would do anything to protect that. It hurts to realize that might not be as true as he thought. It feels like a betrayal, and at this point, Lance isn’t sure where it’s coming from. He knew Keith would be upset if they kept Shiro locked up, but what else was Lance supposed to do? He couldn’t put anyone in danger, and he couldn’t be sure Shiro wouldn’t hurt anyone.

 

And now Keith is out there, alone with him.

 

Lance’s hands tighten reflexively on the arms of the pilot seat, his injured arm throbbing dully, as he stares blankly at the infinite blackness between the stars. He’s been trying to hold it together all day, holding onto the numbness to keep him grounded as he ran on autopilot, but now he can feel himself slipping, spinning into darkness in a shower of sparks like a Catherine wheel.

 

He appreciates his friends’ efforts, he really does, but the fact remains that Keith chose to take Shiro and leave them behind.

 

Blue hums in the back of his mind, low and soothing, and Lance sucks in a deep breath and lets it out through a tight throat, pulling himself together again. He can’t afford to fall apart now. Brushing a hand across his eyes to banish the prickling feeling, he reaches for the controls. “Come on, Blue,” he says hoarsely, and she comes to life underneath him, turning them back towards the Castle. “There’s nothing out here.”

 

˚ .            + ·  

.  ˚    ·  ✧

    ⊹  ✧ ˚

            ✹        ⋆  ✵

 .     ⋆       

✵  ✧ ·        .  ✷

 

It takes a while to get back to the Castle-- they’d gone farther than he thought. And, honestly, he isn’t in any hurry. It’s peaceful out here, flying through the stars with Blue; no matter what kind of a wreck his life is crumbling into, the infinite universe doesn’t care. It’s strangely comforting.

 

As soon as he’s back in the Castle and stepping out of Blue, Coran is there, ushering him off to the kitchen with admonishments to “keep his strength up.” Lance doesn’t even bother protesting as Coran sits him down at the table and sets a bowl of food goo in front of him. He’s not wrong, for one thing, and this kind of overt fussing reminds him of his mom a little bit. He takes the comfort, obediently eating the goo without tasting it at all. At least that’s one good thing coming out of this day.

 

Hunk walks in just as he’s finishing. His dejected face falls even farther when he sees Lance sitting there, and suddenly the food goo in his stomach feels heavy like concrete. “No luck,” Lance says flatly.

 

It’s not a question, but Hunk shakes his head anyways. “But we’ll keep looking, buddy, I promise.”

 

Lance sighs, dropping his spoon back in his bowl. “I know.”

 

“I’m sorry, man. I should have thought about setting some alarms or something. Pidge probably would have.” Hunk looks down at his feet, mouth twisting in an unhappy frown, and that’s just wrong. Lance stands and walks over, grabbing him by the shoulders.

 

“Dude, this is not your fault, okay? Any of us could have thought of that and no one did. The only person who’s responsible for this is--” Lance breaks off before he can say it. It’s Keith’s fault for leaving, sure, but he’s the one who gave him the reason to go.

 

Hunk hugs him, gently, pulling Lance out of his thoughts. “We’ll find them.”

 

Swallowing hard, Lance says, “Sure,” as evenly as he can. It’s not very convincing, probably, but Hunk doesn’t mention it.

 

Coran clears his throat behind them. “Pidge’s pod should be opening in a few doboshes, if you boys would like to join me in the med bay.”

 

Hunk brightens. “Uh, yeah, of course. You coming?” he asks Lance.

 

Lance blinks away the memory of the last time he saw Pidge, white and still in his hands. “Yeah, yeah. After you.” He gestures to the door, falling into step beside Hunk and Coran as they walk. Hunk asks Coran a question about Pidge’s condition and the med pods, something about massive blood loss and how the Altean technology repairs that, but Lance tunes out the reply, absently shoving his hands into his pockets. Blue tugs at him gently, a calming tide lapping at the edges of his mind and rolling over the dark thoughts lurking there. It helps, a little, and Lance sends her a pulse of gratitude. She hums in response.

 

The little moment of peace dissolves, though, when they step into the med bay and Lance sees Pidge, frozen in place behind the glass. The readout of her vitals on the panel beside the pod is the only real indication she’s even alive. Swallowing against a wave of nausea, Lance steps closer. Coran comes up beside him, fiddling with the panel. Lance watches for a second, but the text is all in Altean and despite Allura’s efforts he’s better at speaking the language than reading it. Instead, he studies Pidge’s face. She was put straight into the pod without even having her own blood cleaned off, and there’s a red smear across the thick band of freckles on her right cheek.

 

Unconsciously, he brings a hand up to wipe it away, jerking back when his fingers brush the freezing glass. He steps away, stuffing his hands in his pockets again as he asks Coran, “How long until she’s out?”

 

“About eighty ticks,” Coran replies cheerfully, swiping through a couple more screens. “She’ll be rather tired and dizzy for a couple days, I expect-- you humans are very sensitive to blood loss, aren’t you?-- but she’ll be fit as a cavorting Tulanorn before you know it.”

 

“Oh good,” Hunk says, leaning around Lance to peer at Pidge’s face. “Remember that time she twisted her ankle on that planet with the rock people and had to go around on crutches for a week? I thought she was gonna kill everyone who tried to talk to her by the end of it.”

 

Lance nods absently. “Yeah. At least until Keith started giving her piggy back rides everywhere.”

 

There’s silence for a second as the empty spaces in the room get that much heavier. It’s broken as the door slides open and Allura walks in, smiling as she sees the three of them standing there. “Oh, wonderful. I was hoping I hadn’t missed Pidge’s awakening yet.” She joins them by the pod, tucking a strand of silver hair behind her ear as she leans in to peer at the panel.

 

“You just made it, Princess, it should be in three, two, one…”

 

On Coran’s cue, the pod cracks open, icy air hissing out. A newly-thawed Pidge slumps forward, but Hunk catches her before she can fall on her face. There’s a tense second before she’s groaning, bringing her hands up to clutch weakly at Hunk’s arm as her eyes flutter open. “What happened?”

 

“Pidge!” Carefully, Hunk wraps his other arm around her in a hug. “Oh my god, dude, don’t scare me like that again.”

 

Pidge squints up at him, and she’s still pale and there’s still blood on her face but she’s smiling, and it’s like a layer of ice around Lance’s heart cracks and sloughs off. The breath is punched right out of his chest by the wave of relief that hits him, and he sways a little, but Allura cups his elbow and keeps him upright. “Pidge,” he breathes.

 

The smile drops off her face as she looks at him. She pulls away from Hunk to reach for him. “Lance? You okay?”

 

Lance grabs her and pulls her into a hug that’s probably too tight for someone who was nearly dead twenty-four hours ago, but she was nearly dead twenty-four hours ago. He’s been keeping the horror of holding her in his arms as she was dying, literally dying, at bay, but now she’s here and okay it slams down on him so hard he can’t even breathe. He just squeezes his eyes shut and buries his face in her bloody hair, forcing himself to take a shuddering breath as she brings her arms up to hug him back.

 

Her words are muffled into his shirt when she speaks. “Geez, I must’ve been pretty bad, huh?”

 

Lance chokes out a laugh. “You have no idea.”

 

The moment doesn’t last; Pidge goes stiff as the haze from the pod wears off and her memories come back. She pulls away from Lance, eyes wide as she looks up at him and whispers, “Shiro.”

 

He opens his mouth, but there’s no words. They just stare at each other, a boundless horror trapped and mirrored between them, before Allura’s gently tugging Pidge away and into an embrace of her own. “I’m sorry, Pidge,” she says quietly.

 

Pidge is white and shaking. “Where-- where is he? Where’s Keith?” The question hits Lance like a blow to the stomach.

 

Allura and Hunk exchange looks over her head. “We’re not sure,” Allura admits after a second.

 

“We have to find them.” Pidge pulls away from her, heading towards the door with a determined scowl on her face, but Hunk stops her with a hand on her shoulder.

 

“Hey, hey, slow down. We’ve been trying, it’s just-- a lot has happened,” he finishes with a quick look at Lance.

 

“We’ll tell you about it,” Allura says, “but you should really eat and shower, Pidge.”

 

“Not to mention get some rest,” Coran warns, tugging at his moustache. “You’ll be a bit weak for a few days.”

 

Pidge studies them each in turn, sharp amber eyes falling on Lance last. He looks away, unable to deal with the fear and anger and confusion there. He’s shattering again, he can feel it, pulling apart at the seams; how is he supposed to offer Pidge any comfort or explanations when he’s got none himself?

 

Through the buzz in his ears, he hears Coran ask, “Were you able to get any information from the Galra base?” Tactfully, he doesn’t mention why her mission was interrupted.

 

After a second, Pidge replies, “I can’t remember much. It’s all-- hazy.”

 

“Probably best,” Coran reflects.

 

There’s another pause, and Lance looks around to see Pidge’s face darken. “He snuck up on me. Something was wrong with him-- his eyes, they were all…” She wiggles her fingers. “Galra-y.”

 

“We’ll get him back,” Allura promises. Lance turns away again, swallowing hard. Allura sounded perfectly sincere, but he can’t bring himself to believe her.

 

“I think,” Pidge says slowly, “I had only just managed to crack the encryptions on the transmissions before…” She trails off and Hunk’s hand tightens on her shoulder. “I can only remember one word-- I think it might be a name or something. Kuron.”

 

Coran frowns thoughtfully. “Can’t say I’ve heard of that before.”

 

Pidge sags. “So it’s just a dead end. We’ve got nothing.”

 

“Hey, we’re gonna figure it out,” Hunk reassures her. “In the meantime, you and I are gonna go to the kitchen and I’m making you the best space pancakes ever seen by human eyes. Or tasted by human mouths.”

 

It takes a second, but Pidge smiles a little. “Or touched by human hands?”

 

“You keep your hands out of my pancakes, you monster.”

 

“Before you do that, Pidge really should shower,” Allura says, tugging a strand of clumped hair meaningfully.

 

Pidge runs her fingers through the tacky strands, pulling a face. “This is worse than that time Matt put gum in my hair.”

 

Wrapping an arm around her shoulders, Allura ushers her into the hall. Hunk pauses in the doorway, looking back at Lance. “You coming, buddy?”

 

Lance summons the best smile he can. It feels strained even to him. “No, you guys go ahead. I’m just-- I’m really tired.”

 

Hunk’s face softens. “Get some rest, dude. I’ll bring you some food later.”

 

Not trusting himself to speak, Lance just nods, watching as Hunk follows Allura and Pidge out of the med bay. As the door shuts behind them, he sags, blowing out a long breath and pinching the bridge of his nose.

 

A hand squeezes his shoulder. “You alright, lad?” Coran asks gently.

 

“Yeah. Like I said, just tired.” It falls flat, and Lance knows it, but Coran doesn’t push it, just pats him and heads off to fuss with the pod Pidge had recently inhabited. Lance watches him for a second before shaking himself and heading for the door.

 

He has no real idea where he’s going, he just doesn’t want to be around the others right now. And he definitely doesn’t want to hear the recap of their last two days; even now, the memories of what happened, what’s missing, eats at him like acid. He shoves them away as best he can, trying to meditate, like in their bonding exercises, clearing his mind of everything, letting it all flow away from him.

 

He doesn’t know where he’s going, but his feet fall into patterns of long habit and lead him down stairs and hallways until he’s standing in front of the door to his room. Automatically, Lance reaches out to open it, and for just an instant between his hand pressing the button and the door sliding open, a wave of yearning hits him so hard he feels dizzy. There’s nothing in the whole universe he wouldn’t give for that door to slide open and reveal Keith, sitting there on their bed, reading or sleeping or cleaning his knife, looking up with a smile as Lance walks in, warm and beautiful and there. He’s become such a part of Lance’s life in the last year, the last three, hell, ever since the first time Lance laid eyes on him at the Garrison. He needs him, plain and simple; he’s vital to Lance in a way he can’t quite understand or articulate. So he holds his breath as the door slides open, a desperate, wild hope racing through him.

 

The room is as empty and cold as when he’d left it that morning. It hurts, hollows him out and leaves him standing there frozen half through the doorway, staring at the clothes tossed haphazardly on the floor, the rumpled blankets, his random collection of souvenirs and Keith’s books arranged carefully on their shared desk, and it’s all at once so familiar and so, so wrong.

 

*          ✧       ✵       

   *          ✵     ✦

  .    

     ✧         ·

 ✷               

         · ✫                    ✵    *     .

 

Lance groaned as he carried the last box through the door. “Jesus, babe, I can’t believe how much stuff you have.”

 

Levelling him with an unimpressed look, Keith pointed out, “You have twice as much junk as I do.”

 

“Exactly! Twice. I expected to have, like, four or five times as much.”

 

“Why? I collect things.”

 

Setting the box down beside the desk, Lance leaned over to poke him in the side. Keith caught him around the wrist without looking, but he wasn’t going to be deterred. “Because, you wear the same jacket every single day.”

 

“You do too!”

 

Lance grinned, catching Keith’s other hand and reeling him in. “Ah, but it’s a signature thing with me.”

 

“How do you know that’s not what my jacket is, too?” Keith tilted his head, a fond and challenging light in his eyes, and Lance loved him so fucking much.

 

Leaning in to give him a kiss, Lance whispered against his lips, “Mullet, there’s no way you have that much of a sense of style.”

 

Keith indulged him for a grand total of three seconds before leaning away. “Seriously, are you ever going to stop insulting my hair?”

 

Lance reached up and tugged a strand of his bangs, beaming. “Nope.”

 

Keith shook his head, but Lance could see the smile he was fighting to hide. “You’re ridiculous. Now let me go, we need to start organizing this stuff.” With that, he gently shoved Lance away, opening up a box and pulling out a stack of books.

 

“But I’m tired,” Lance whined, flopping down onto the bed.

 

“I am not doing this all myself, Lance. Get over here.”

 

“Nap first, then unpacking.”

 

“No.”

 

“Keeeith.”

 

“What.”

 

Lance held a hand out. “C’mere for a sec.”

 

Keith eyed him for a second before relenting with a sigh, coming over to sit down on the bed next to him. Lance pushed himself upright, wrapping an arm around his waist and tugging him in to lean against his side. Together, they surveyed the room. It looked pretty similar to their old ones, although the bed and closet are definitely built for two people rather than one. It’ll be way more comfortable than trying to fit both of them in their single beds on the increasingly often nights one of them stays in the other’s room. Still, Lance couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sadness, thinking about all the Altean couples and families the Castle was built to house. He couldn’t imagine losing what Allura and Coran lost.

 

He must have unconsciously squeezed Keith a little tighter, because Keith gently knocked their knees together, studying him. “You okay?”

 

Lance blinked and smiled at him. “Yeah, I’m good. Are you okay?”

 

“Yeah, course.”

 

“No, seriously, Keith, is this okay?” Lance searched his face. “This is-- we’re moving in together, man. It’s a big deal. I don’t want you to feel pressured, or--”

 

“Lance,” Keith interrupted, turning to face him better, and his dark eyes were blazing like stars, so beautiful and bright Lance could have sworn he was melting. “I wouldn’t have done this if I didn’t want to. I do want this.” He took a deep breath, reaching up to cup Lance’s face. “I love you,” he said firmly, “and I want to live together.”

 

Lance felt a smile, slow and wide, spread across his face.

 

“Besides, you’re way too lanky to sleep with in those little beds,” Keith added.

 

With a gasp of mock-indignation, Lance tightened his hold on Keith’s waist, pulling him closer. “You wound me, Mullet.”

 

“This again, really?”

 

Humming, Lance leaned in to kiss him again. “You’d miss it, don’t lie.”

 

Keith laughed against his lips. “Maybe.”

 

⋆       ✵  

 .

  .          

  *       ✺   * 

      ⊹              *           

       *   ✷

 

The room is swimming around Lance as he staggers forward to collapse on the bed. The tears he’s been holding back are coming now, the numbness in his bones is shattering into glass that’s tearing him up, ripping at his chest and lungs, and he doubles over, panting for air.

 

Keith is out there, alone with something corrupted and vile and dangerous, and Lance has no way of knowing if he’s even still alive. Shiro’s glowing eyes flash behind his eyes like dying stars, bright and deadly, and all Lance can think about through the growing panic is the blood on his Galra arm, on the floor, on Lance’s own hands, cradling the body of not Pidge this time but Keith, pale and still and silent with blood on his face and breaths coming rasping and ragged.

 

It takes a minute for Lance to realize that’s his breathing, that’s the sound of his own throat choking on the air he can’t seem to suck in, and he raises a shaking hand to press against his chest, right over his racing heart, curling up tighter and tighter until his head is almost on his knees. He’s shaking all over and his hands are tingling and he can’t breathe, and Keith could be dying somewhere right now as he sits here and falls apart, and all he can think is an endless chorus of oh god please god no no no as the blood thunders in his ears and his vision narrows to the patch of white floor between his feet.

 

It feels like hours that he’s stuck there, choking for breath and trembling all over, before everything finally starts to quiet down. He squeezes his eyes shut and remembers the breathing exercises Coran taught them for meditation, forcing his lungs to cooperate, move in and out, slow and measured. The spinning in his head and his pounding heart begin to slow as he finally gets some air, and everything drains and fades away until he’s left empty and exhausted and alone in his room.

 

With a shuddering sigh, he lays back on the bed, staring up at the ceiling for a moment before squeezing his eyes shut. A tear runs down his left temple, and he absently wipes it away with a trembling hand.

 

He feels sick, right down to his soul. There’s nothing he can do except sit here and wait for something to happen, someone to track them, maybe for Keith to come back-- but for right now, he’s useless.

 

Lance drifts in an uneasy haze, stuck between bad memories and worse thoughts for another age before someone’s knocking on the door. “Yeah?” he tries to say, but it comes out as a croak.

 

The door slides open and Pidge is standing there, staring at him, still a little pale but changed into her baggy green pajamas, no trace of blood anywhere on her freckled face, and Lance smiles. It’s weak, he knows it, but he’s so fucking relieved to see her standing there. “Hey.”

 

“Hey.” She lingers in the doorway for a second, eyes downcast.

 

Lance sits up to see her better. “What’s up?” Christ, he sounds like he swallowed rusty nails. As surreptitiously as possible, he clears his throat.

 

“Couldn’t sleep.” After a beat, she adds, quieter, “Allura and Hunk filled me in.”

 

His stomach sinks. “Ah.” He studies her again. “You okay?”

 

“Am I okay?”

 

The disbelief in her tone has him frowning. “Yeah, Pidge, are you okay. Our friend-- our leader-- just attacked you.”

 

“He attacked you too.”

 

“Yeah, well I didn’t almost die, so.”

 

There’s another pause. “Was it really that bad?”

 

Lance swallows hard. “It was pretty bad.”

 

Pidge just nods, chewing her lip, and for a long moment there’s just the quiet hum of the Castle to fill the silence between them before Lance sighs and pats the bed next to him. “Get over here.”

 

A crooked little smile tugs at her mouth before she’s padding across the room and crawling onto the bed next to him. They both scoot back to they can lean against the wall, legs straight out in front of them, and Pidge tucks herself under Lance’s arm. He rests his head on top of hers and listens to her quiet breathing. It works better to calm him down than any of the meditation he’s been trying throughout the day.

 

A few minutes pass before Pidge breaks the silence. “I’m sorry about Keith.”

 

“‘S not your fault.”

 

She doesn’t say anything.

 

Lance lifts his head to frown down at her. “Pidge. It’s not your fault.”

 

“I mean, it kind of is.”

 

“It isn’t.”

 

“Lance,” she starts, and she’s got that tone in her voice, sharp and firm, like she’s already got the whole thing worked out, “if I hadn’t been in that control room, or if I’d been able to figure out some way to stop him or escape, none of--”

 

“It would have happened anyways,” Lance interrupts her. “Even if you weren’t hurt, we wouldn’t have let him just-- walk around. Even if it wasn’t that day, Pidge, if it wasn’t you, who knows when it might’ve happened? Just--” He breaks himself off with a sigh. “This is not your fault.”

 

“It’s not your fault, either,” she says after a second.

 

“What?”

 

The look she shoots him is unimpressed. “Come on, Lance. I know you’re blaming yourself for this too. You did what you thought was right, okay? Keith is the one who chose to leave and you’re not responsible for that.”

 

He doesn’t reply; he’s not sure he can, the way his throat is closing up again. Pidge pats the arm he has wrapped around her gently, and they sit there in silence for a few ticks before there’s another knock at the still-open door.

 

Hunk peers in at them. “Hey, guys.”

 

“Hey,” Pidge says. Lance just shoots him a tired, crooked smile.

 

Stepping into the room, Hunk offers the plate he brought. “Saved you some pancakes, dude.”

 

Huffing a laugh, Lance says, “You’re the best, man, thank you.”

 

“Well, you know, we all need to keep eating. Keep our strength up. Here.” Hunk hands him the plate and crawls onto the bed on his other side.

 

The pancakes are a somewhat disturbing shade of pink, but Lance eats one anyways. Even without any kind of syrup, they’re delicious, and he leans against his best friend gratefully. “These are awesome.”

 

“Aren’t they?” Pidge steals a pancake, grinning at Lance’s squawk of outrage, and for a second it feels normal.

 

Reality comes crashing back in like a tidal wave, though, and Lance swallows hard as his bite of pancake turns to concrete in his throat. It’s better, with his friends here, but he’s dreading them leaving, dreading being left in the dark room all by himself. “Hey, guys?” he starts, a little hesitant.

 

They look at him. “What’s up?” Hunk asks as Pidge takes another bite of pancake.

 

Lance squeezes his eyes shut. “Would-- would you guys mind staying with me tonight? I just…” He trails off.

 

Hunk slips an arm around him. “Of course, dude.”

 

“Although no one’s going to be sleeping much, with Hunk’s snoring,” Pidge adds.

 

“You snore worse than me!”

 

Lance smiles a little as he listens to them bicker. There’s still a hollow feeling trapped between his ribs, he still feels shaky and brittle, and he knows it won’t go away for a long, long time, but for tonight, this is enough.

Chapter Text

Turning the book over in his hands, Keith strolled through the castle, heading for Lance’s room. He hadn’t done something like this before and he wasn’t sure if it would go as well as he’d imagined when he’d seen the book nestled between hundreds in languages he had no hope of understanding.

 

They’d also been fighting the past couple of days. Actually fighting, because, according to Lance, he couldn’t do all of the emotional work in their relationship. It was completely fair, but Keith didn’t know what to tell him. He’d tried, but the words simply couldn’t be forced out of his mouth. They got stuck on the way, a wall built of bricks made of anxiety and fear blocking them. Sometimes, he was worried he felt too much, that Lance didn’t care for him nearly as much as Keith did Lance, and other times, he was scared that saying what he wanted to say, needed to say, would break him. It was a nonsensical, but too real fear. Truth was sharp and words couldn’t be retracted, not once they’d been heard.

 

Lance’s disappointed sighs at the end of spats, however, were enough to spawn a much greater fear.

 

Keith could not even comprehend losing Lance, even just three months into this thing they were trying. It was too far outside his imagination. That, or it was so painful, his brain was sparing him.

 

And considering the kind of pain it did not spare him, that was saying something.

 

The point was, Keith didn’t know how this was going to go and it was setting him on edge. If it ended in a fight, Keith would have no idea what to do next. Communication did not come easily to him and if this book hadn’t figuratively landed directly in his lap, this stalemate between them would’ve lasted forever.

 

When he reached the door to Lance’s bedroom, Keith knocked, biting the inside of his cheek as he waited. Within a few ticks, Lance was opening the door and leaning against the doorjamb, his arms crossed. “How long is this going to take? I was just about to go whoop Hunk’s ass at Backborne .”

 

“Really? We’re still fighting?”

 

“Fights don’t just disappear after you sleep, Keith! Sleep is not a giant reset button.”

 

“I know that,” Keith mumbled. When Keith finally looked up at Lance, Lance was waiting expectantly, rightfully thinking that Keith had come here for a reason. Taking a deep breath, Keith said, “I’m sure, uh, Barkborne…”

 

Backborne .”

 

“Right. I’m sure that’s fun and beating Hunk is important, but I was kind of hoping I could talk to you. And not fight. Not fighting would be really good, actually.”

 

Eyeing him, Lance said, “Alright, I’ll let you through the door if you can give me one reason I matter to you. A good reason. Because, ‘you’re super hot,’ is not going to cut it. Like, true, but not exactly what I’m looking for here.”

 

“Well, dammit,” Keith replied flatly.

 

“Come on, babe, it’s not that hard. You’ve told me all kinds of stuff. And let’s not forget that night where you cried after--”

 

“We were never going to talk about that again.”

 

“I totally didn’t agree to that.”

 

“It was implied.”

 

“I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works.”

 

Aware that the conversation had deviated wildly from the course, Keith rolled his eyes and considered Lance’s request. It wasn’t that he had nothing to say. There was an endless amount of things. Every time Keith blinked, there was a new reason floating through his brain. All he had to do was snatch one of them and voice it.

 

As the silence grew, Lance became visibly more tired and hurt. Eventually, he nonchalantly--too so--shrugged away from the door and said, “You think about that and get back to me. In the meantime, I have plans.”

 

“No, wait, I… you make me laugh.”

 

“Weak, mullet.”

 

“I know you have my back. You have an uncanny ability at knowing when I can’t sleep and need something to eat. You make me still. There are days, recently, where I don’t go to the training room. You see right through my bullshit and call me out on it. You have a joy for life that I envy. You…”

 

“Woah, alright, don’t go telling me all at once. Gotta save some of them. I’m the sort of man who savors.”

 

Blinking, Keith snapped his mouth shut and felt a flush climb up his neck and into his cheeks. Glancing down at the ground, he said, “Whatever. That’s what I came to… you should know that stuff. I guess. I want you to know, I do, I just don’t know how to tell you. Like, I literally don’t know how.”

 

“You must, because you just did,” Lance said, smiling. Then he stepped away from the door and ushered Keith inside.

 

They both ended up on Lance’s bed. Before Lance could say anything, Keith handed over the book he’d been hiding behind his back. The Count of Monte Cristo .

 

“I know it’s not anything exciting, but I saw it when we were on Spoderus, in that weird library they had, you know, with the strange sentient bubble creature things that fetched what you wanted, and I know you miss home and I thought you might like it,” Keith finished lamely.

 

“They were called Uups.”

 

“How do you even remember that? We meet so many aliens.”

 

“I’ve got a knack for remembering names, I guess,” Lance said, turning the book over in his hands. Keith watched his eyes flick back and forth as he read.

 

For a long time, Lance didn’t say a word. Then he set the book down and crushed Keith into a hug. Returning it gingerly, Keith murmured, “Does that mean you like it?”

 

“Duh.”

 

“Oh. Good.”

 

“Dude, how long did you search that library?”

 

Shrugging in Lance’s arms, Keith said, “I don’t know. A couple vargas probably.”

 

“What was I doing?”

 

“Schmoozing.”

 

“Sounds like me,” Lance said.

 

Laughing, Keith nodded and then buried his face into Lance’s neck. “Someone’s gotta do it,” he said, his lips brushing against Lance’s skin.

 

“I still think we should make you try sometime.”

 

“I still think that’s a horrible idea.”

 

“Oh, it would be, but just think of the entertainment value, babe.”

 

Shoving away from Lance, Keith pretended to look offended, before softening and biting at the inside of his cheek again. Sensing the shift in energy--another thing Lance was particularly good at--Lance didn’t talk, though it was likely a struggle. His eyes were bright and Keith just knew there were millions of things he wanted to say.

 

“I do care about you. A lot. You know that right?”

 

Lance grinned and held his book up, jiggling it gently. “Yeah, I think I do. Someone spent vargas looking for a book from home in an alien library.”

 

Keith often felt like this around Lance, that he was understood, known, but never had it mattered quite so much as it did in this moment. It wasn’t the first time that Keith had thought, god, I love him , but it was the first time he’d thought those words and realized they were real enough to someday voice. No longer were they hidden in idle late night fantasies.

 

“Did I say vargas? I definitely exaggerated.”

 

“Sure you did.”

 

“Are we done fighting?”

 

Snorting, Lance ran his fingers through Keith’s bangs with his free hand. “Yeah, dumbass. As done as we’re ever gonna be.”

 

✵           *   *  ˚
     +  .  ✵    ✫
    ·  ⋆ ·    ✺  ˚
   .       .     
      ˚     .  ·
 ⊹        *  

 

“Keith.”

 

As he slips back to himself, Keith feels the warmth of the memory get consumed by the empty and ruthless despair that only worsens with the distance that grows between him and the team.

 

He doesn’t know why he’s been thinking of that day in particular. It’s one of many quiet moments they’ve shared, but it’s one Keith can’t quite seem to move past right now.

 

Maybe it’s because it featured the resolution of a fight. Right now, Keith is desperate for a resolution. He may have gotten himself here, but he wants to fast forward to the moment it’s over. This particular life event is not one he feels the need to be present for. There is not a lesson he wants to learn or a value to whatever journey he is about to embark on.

 

He’s not even sure it was the right decision.

 

He is, in fact, damn sure that it isn’t something he thought about long enough. Separating himself from Lance should not have been an impulse decision.


It’s too bad, really, that Keith can’t make a hard decision like that any other way.

 

Lance deserves better.

 

“Keith.” This time a hand comes down on his shoulder and Keith flinches. It’s enough to shake him out of his daze and he glances over to see Shiro beside him, hurt flickering across his face. Keith can’t even find it in himself to apologize. He’s too frayed, worn, raw to the core. It’s impressive, really, that he hasn’t crashed their ship into an asteroid yet.

 

“You’re scared of me,” Shiro says.

 

Sighing, Keith runs a hand over his face and stares out into the endless stars surrounding them. Once, he’d found it freeing, but now, it feels like a crushing weight. Somewhere out there is an explanation to what is happening with Shiro, somewhere out there is Lance and his friends and the Castle, the only home he remembers having, and Keith doesn’t know where any of it is, just knows that this running reel of black and stars is what separates them.

 

And with him is Shiro, a man who he loves, but who did just attack Pidge. Keith hasn’t forced himself to deal with that and he doesn’t intend to, but it’s hovering in the back of his mind, throbbing gently like a small cut in the pad of a thumb.

 

“No,” Keith says, his voice raspy, like it doesn’t quite remember how to be a voice. “I’m just… I don’t know what I am. Never mind.”

 

“I would understand if you were. From what we know, anything could set me off and I could…”

 

“Yeah, so, I need you to stop talking.”

 

“We can always turn back,” Shiro says softly. “They’ll be looking for us.”

 

“No.”

 

“Well, we need to do something eventually. We can’t just fly through space forever.”

 

“Really? Are you sure? Sounds exactly like something I would leave Lance for.”

 

“I’m sure he’s…”

 

“Fine?” Keith asks, laughing derisively. “Yeah, I’m sure I didn’t just make one of the worst days of his life even worse.”

 

When Shiro starts to speak again, his voice is in the same reasonable tone he’s been using for the entire conversation. It grates on Keith’s nerves. Before he can hear another shrewd comment, Keith shouts, “Stop. Just stop.”

 

“We need a plan, Keith.”

 

“Well, I don’t fucking have one and right now, I have zero interest in coming up with one,” Keith snaps. “I did this, I ran away from home, stole you away with me, and I stand by that decision, but I can’t…” Breath catching in his throat, Keith swears, bending over the controls. He’s made it this long without crying. Why the hell couldn’t Shiro have left in him in his dissociative state? Keith needs it back, but can’t seem to force his way there. His chest aches. Shakily, he whispers, “I don’t know when I’m going to see him again, okay? I don’t even know if I can sleep without him and it could be weeks or months and he… he keeps me fucking sane, Shiro. I can’t just figure out how we’re going to fix you right now. I need a goddamn minute.”

 

Shiro stands, bent over in the small space, and gingerly lifts Keith from the pilot’s seat and moves him into the seat he’d just been occupying. Keith allows him but only because he’s tired of talking and he wants Shiro to stop touching him as quickly as possible. Pulling his knees up to his chest, Keith hides his eyes, telling himself when to breathe in and out. It’s likely obvious he’s crying, but as long as there’s no gasping or sobbing, Keith can pretend later that it didn’t happen.

 

The silence is long and heavy before Shiro breaks it. “Thank you.”

 

Keith snorts into his thigh. “For what?”

 

“Believing in me. Risking this much for me.”

 

“Yeah, well, you’re you.”

 

Laughing softly, Shiro says, “One day, you’re not going to think about me like that.”

 

“Whatever.”

 

“Maybe you should sleep.”

 

“Yeah, I’ll do that,” Keith says sarcastically, lifting his head from between his knees and staring at Shiro, uncomfortably aware of how wet his eyelashes are. “How long do you think they’ll look for us?”

 

“I don’t know. Does it matter?”

 

Keith shrugs. It does to him, but it feels too selfish to say out loud. Too nonsensical, as well. Of course it doesn’t really matter, Keith isn’t turning back, but it’s nice to imagine Lance is only a couple steps behind him.

 

“They’ve got a universe to save.”

 

Keith nods.

 

“And you’re good at disappearing. They know that.”

 

“Yeah,” Keith whispers. Slipping further down in his seat, he runs a hand through his hair. “Fuck.”

 

“What?”

 

“I just wish I could talk to him.” And he does. Desperately. But he’s also glad that’s not an option, because it’s not one he deserves.

 

“What would you tell him?”

 

At that, Keith laughs and it comes from a place of light and warmth, not one of doubt. For a beat, he feels almost normal. “Absolutely nothing,” he says fondly. “I wouldn’t get a word in edgewise and I wouldn’t want to. Listening to him is enough.”

 

Shiro smiles, glancing at Keith knowingly. Scoffing, Keith crosses his arms over his chest and glares. “I can’t believe you’re giving me that look right now.”

 

“It’s still really adorable how much you love him.”

 

“I hate you.”

 

Somehow, Shiro doesn’t have anything to say to that and the silence falls back into place, strangling the both of them. On the verge of tears again, Keith closes his eyes and whispers, “Maybe I will try to sleep. You never know, right? Unconsciousness sounds pretty good.”

 

“Where do you want me to go?”

 

“Find somewhere uninhabited and small. Without any life at all is fine. I don’t care.”

 

“You got it.”

 

Keith doesn’t fall into a deep sleep, but lingers on the edges, fading in and out. There’s flashes of color and Shiro, eyes dark and far away, and Lance, millions of versions of Lance.

 

    ·        ✵  *
         
        +  ✵    ✹  
·  ✫  ˚  ˚    ·   
   . ·  ·    ✧  
  ✵  ·     .  ˚     
✦    · · *    .

 

“Hey, cariño, wake up.”

 

Groaning, Keith rolled over and buried his head deeper into his pillow. He knew it was a waste of time, but it felt early, and giving Lance the satisfaction of waking up right at his beck and call was not something he could do.

 

As expected--they’d done this before--Lance started poking him everywhere he could reach. “Wake up,” Lance whined. “I’ve been awake for vargas .”

 

Keith smiled into his pillow. Otherwise, he didn’t make a sound or move a muscle.

 

“I see that smile.”

 

Only smiling wider, Keith tried to hold back his laughter and Lance leaned closer and whispered, “You’re shit at acting.”

 

Shifting, Keith hummed questioningly, voice just the right amount of sleepy from disuse.

 

“Oh my god, if you don’t pay attention to me, I’ll go find Hunk. He will.”

 

“That’s nice,” Keith mumbled.

 

“Do we have to do this every morning?”

 

Giving up, Keith moved onto his back and stared up at Lance. “We wouldn’t if someone didn’t insist on waking me up instead of getting out of bed and going about their day like a normal person. And you’re definitely exaggerating.”

 

“But I like to start my days out right and it’s not right until I’ve seen you smile.”

 

“That’s disgusting. You’re disgusting,” Keith said.

 

“You’re still smiling, mullet.”

 

“Yeah. Good morning, weirdo.”

 

“Good morning.” Lance’s return smile was blinding, eyes crinkling in the corners. As Keith leaned up to kiss him, he wondered if he’d be around when those crinkles were permanent and if he’d love them just as much as he did now.

 

*   ˚ ·  .    
  ·          
    ·     ✵     ⋆
·  .  ˚   ˚          
   ·

 

Five training robots ran straight for them and their movements were seamless as they bent their knees, preparing for the onslaught, adjusting minutely, Keith letting the rest of the world fall away, hyper focused on the clang of the robots steps and the bend of their joints, anticipating, trusting his experience and reflexes to react in time.

 

Something brushed his arm, tugging him out. Glancing over at Lance, sparing a tick he probably needed, Keith saw Lance flash him a grin.

 

Keith couldn’t remember the last time he’d lost focus so spectacularly. Suddenly, there were no clangs, only pinging thoughts, wondering why Lance was here training with him, wondering why he’d flicked Keith’s ponytail at breakfast, wondering if he was being flirted with and how the hell he was supposed to flirt back, because god did he want to, wondering why he was thinking of any of this at all when just before he’d come here, he’d been desperate to be alone.

 

“Keith! Little help here.”

 

Snapping back into awareness, Keith took stock of the situation quickly. One of the robots was down, likely shot by Lance and the last were only feet away, growing ever closer. Everything slowed and Keith slotted himself in front of Lance. Not long ago, he would’ve had to shout at Lance to turn and cover his back, but this wasn’t the first time Lance had shown up while Keith was training without explanation. Now, Lance did exactly as Keith would’ve asked him, and though they weren’t quite touching, Keith knew exactly where he was.

 

As expected, the four robots circled them, taking advantage of their numbers. Since Lance’s weapon wasn’t ideal for close range battle, Keith attacked. If he’d been alone, he would’ve slid on the ground, in between the two robots facing him, and taken them out from the back, escaping, but he wouldn’t abandon Lance. Instead, he assumed a position of defense, blocking attacks and waiting for an opening. It wasn’t his style, but he was getting better at it.

 

The robot lunged and Keith side-stepped, predicting the direction of the swing. Raising his sword, he blocked the staff before it reached Lance and parried. The level was high enough that the robot was prepared for that, but not the leg that Keith swung out, tripping it up. The move spun him around just in time to block the strike of another robot.

 

Then there was a crash and Keith knew Lance was on the ground. Without thinking, he fell to one knee and sliced at as many legs as he could reach. The robots stepped back, giving Keith enough time to stand and Lance to sit up. “Okay?” Keith shouted, landing a critical hit on one of the robots whose balance hadn’t recovered after Keith’s swipe.

 

“Please. I could do this all day.”

 

“You totally would’ve been dead without me,” Keith said, blocking, putting enough force behind one to earn him a little space.

 

Snorting, Lance said, “Not as dead as you would’ve been if I hadn’t yelled at you earlier.”

 

As was typical with Lance, talking was enough to distract him, face turned towards Keith and not turned toward the enemy and Keith had to parry a spear heading straight for Lance, sacrificing his left side.

 

But Lance was there. It was a surprise. He must’ve counted on Keith covering him and understood what Keith was leaving open.

 

A swell of pride burst through him, something so completely foreign to how he usually felt about Lance. Smiling, Keith thought, He’s getting better .

 

Another robot fell to Keith’s sword and it was down to two on two. The back of his neck went cold as Lance left him. Grinning cockily, Keith stepped back and opened his arms wide, inviting an attack.

 

They took the bait, but it was too late.

 

Twenty feet behind Keith, there was the sound of a gun popping off twice. Neither shot missed. The robots burst into blue light and the level was cleared. The program asked if they’d like to continue on to the next, but Keith shut it down. He was sweating. That was good enough. Besides, he was more distracted than he would like. Many more levels and it would be challenging enough that he would need to be at his best.

 

“Nice shooting,” Keith said, turning to Lance and smiling.

 

Smirking, Lance shrugged nonchalantly. “Eh, wasn’t my best.”

 

Keith rolled his eyes and walked to the edge of the room, picking up a bottle of water and drinking half. When he lowered his head, his eyes fell right back to Lance, who was watching with an odd intensity. “Why’d you come?” Keith asked.

 

“Here, you mean?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“You were brooding.”

 

“I don’t brood.”

 

For a tick, Lance just stared at him. “Did you really just say that to my face?”

 

“Whatever. What do you care, anyway?”

 

Instead of responding, Lance picked up his own water bottle, unscrewed the cap, and flung some of the water at Keith. It splattered all over his chest and for a moment, Keith simply stared. Then he said, “Oh, like hell,” and chased Lance around the room, wasting the rest of his water, most landing on the floor.

 

When they came to a stop and a mutual truce, Lance said, “That’s why.”

 

“Huh?”

 

“Smiling’s a lot better than brooding, isn’t it?”

 

⊹   

   ˚ .  ✵    .     *

 ⋆  ·  ˚      *

✫      ✧         *  

     ✫      

     ✫ ·    +   

 ✫



There was a little window in a quiet part of the castle, one that was perfect for looking at stars, and Keith was on his way there.

 

Lance hadn’t shown at dinner.

 

Keith didn’t really know what he was allowed or if he was welcome to intrude--everything about them was very tentative right now--but they’d kissed three days ago and they hadn’t since and Keith was kind of desperate for more and he also couldn’t stop thinking about Lance and most importantly, he was genuinely worried. Lance loved dinner. He, in fact, loved anything that involved the team sitting down and just hanging.

 

At least Keith knew where he would be. That felt like something.

 

When he reached the window, he saw Lance there, lying on the floor right in front of it, his head turned towards the window. If his nose wasn’t pressed to the glass, it was close to doing so. It was hard to tell from here.

 

At the sound of Keith’s footsteps, Lance turned his head. “Hey,” he said quietly, voice echoing. It was disquieting. “What’s up?”

 

“You weren’t at dinner.”

 

“Nah. Wasn’t hungry.”

 

Letting out a breath, Keith moved forward, unsure what else to do. Sitting on the floor a couple feet from Lance, he stared out the window. He didn’t see the stars, though. He was too busy panicking. This was not what he was good at. This, in fact, was a surefire way to get him and Lance to fight.

 

Keith didn’t want to fight. He wanted something distinctly different from fighting. It would be wrong to ask for something like that right now, however. “You good?” he finally managed.

 

“Sometimes missing just kind of hits you of nowhere, you know?” Lance said. “And it’s kind of like a punch to the gut. Really knocks the wind out of you.”

 

“Oh. Uh…yeah.”

 

“I look at all these stars and I remember Earth’s out there. That helps.”

 

“Makes sense.”

 

Lance nodded absentmindedly and Keith sighed internally. Trying to be there for someone wasn’t making him better at it.

 

Then, it occurred to him.

 

“Hey, come with me.”

 

“Man, I don’t really…”

 

“Trust me.”

 

That caught Lance’s interest. Biting his lip, Keith waited in earnest. Lance and his relationship had always been complicated and since they’d discovered they both liked each other, it hadn’t gotten less so. But Lance nodded and stood, gesturing for Keith to lead the way.

 

Keith took him to Red. They got in and took off into space. It hadn’t meant much to Keith when he’d discovered it a couple of days ago while on one of his late night flights, but that wouldn’t be true for Lance.

 

When they touched down on the ground of the planet Keith had discovered, the sun was rising. And there was only one. Even more perfect.

 

It was kind of barren, but there was water. And life. It wasn’t green and it wasn’t distinctly earth-like, but the clouds hanging above them were. Perfect for imagining shapes.

 

It wasn’t often they found a planet like this.

 

Lance didn’t speak, but he took Keith’s hand and squeezed it tightly.

 

“I should’ve brought you here sooner,” Keith mumbled. “I didn’t think.”

 

Lance shrugged. “You brought me now.”

 

“I know it’s not perfect. We’ve seen better, but…”

 

“Shut up, Mullet. It is perfect.”

 

˚  ✧.   ·  

.     ·     ✧          

*        ·  · 

     . ✫      .  +  ✫

.  *    ✧     ·  

    *         ˚  

  ˚   ✵

 

“Hey, tell me a secret.”

 

“Sleeping, Lance.”

 

“You can’t sleep at a slumber party. Everyone knows this.”

 

“I didn’t go to slumber parties. How would I know?”

 

“You’ve led a sad life.”

 

“Thanks for reminding me.”

 

“I’ll poke you until you tell me.”

 

“Fine. I dreamed I murdered you last night and it was really satisfying.”

 

Sure you did.”

 

“I totally could’ve.”

 

“Nope. You love me. Couldn’t have. Your brain wouldn’t allow it.”

 

“… I’m worried I’m not going to do it right.”

 

“What?”

 

“Love you.”

 

“Babe, you can’t do it wrong.”

 

“I can do anything wrong, Lance. Trust me.”

 

“Nope. Not this. Plus, we can’t worry about the same thing. That’d be stupid.”

 

“Fucking hell, Lance, you definitely can’t do it wrong. You’re, like, built for shit like this.”

 

Anxiety .”

 

“This is a stupid conversation.”

 

“You’re a stupid conversation.”

 

“I’m sleeping now.”

 

“Boring.”

 

“I’m cool with that.”

 

“Hey, Keith?”

 

“What?”

 

“You’re doing great.”

 

“So are you, dumbass.”

 

“Night.”

 

“Night.”

 

*  ✵   ·        

.    *     ✵ .

   ✦   ˚  .   *  

⊹  +  ⋆   ˚  ·  *   

 .      *   ✵

.    * ✵    *

 

It isn’t so much waking as remembering how to be conscious. They’re not moving. The ship is quiet, so quiet Keith can’t imagine making noise and disrupting it.

 

There’s a crick in his neck and he feels worse than he did before he slept. But his mind is clearer. It does make missing Lance more painful, but it also makes him aware of what he did and what needs to be done. There’s no turning back. All he can do is move forward. If he does that, he’ll see Lance again.

 

And as far as Keith’s concerned, that’s happening as soon as possible. Fixing Shiro is imperative, but not as imperative as getting back to Lance. Keith knows he’s in pain, that he’s worried and scared and unsure, and Keith refuses to allow that.

 

If he focuses on that, on getting to a place where he can reassure Lance that he’s okay, that they’re going to be okay, he might not fall apart.

 

Might being the operative word.

 

Shiro is the one to take the plunge and break the silence. “You’re awake.”

 

“I’m getting back to him.”

 

“Does that mean we’re…”

 

“No. We’re not turning around, but I’m getting the fuck back to him,” Keith says. “Which means sitting here is useless. Find me the nearest Galra base. We’re breaking in and we’re finding out what we can.”

 

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”

 

“Thanks for your input. Consider it noted. Let’s go.”

 

“Keith…”

 

“Shiro, you’re important to me. You are. And I don’t regret what I did. But I love him and if I’m not doing something to get back to him, I will actually lose my mind. Get me to a goddamn Galra base.”

 

“Alright,” Shiro says. “Fine. You didn’t have to do this, so we’ll do it your way.”

 

“Yes. We will.”

Chapter Text

They don’t find Keith.

 

It takes them a couple days to get organized, to get Pidge back on her feet and wrap their heads around what really happened in that Galra base, but when they do Allura sends the remaining three paladins out to search the nearby planets and bases. She, Coran and Matt stay in the Castle, monitoring transmissions from allies and Galra alike, looking for any sign of Keith and Shiro. As the days slide by, they scour an ever-widening swath of the galaxy.

 

And there’s nothing.

 

Lance isn’t surprised, honestly; in the more bitter moments, he thinks about how good Keith always was at disappearing. Still, he doesn’t give up, because Keith is out there with someone he’s now sure, one hundred percent, without a doubt, isn’t who they thought. He and Blue push themselves to the limit, pacing the search margins Allura mapped out for them, until Pidge and Hunk have to drag them back to the Castle so Lance can get some food and sleep and they can start again in the morning.

 

It’s a great system. They can all feel like they’re doing something without having to admit to themselves how pointless it all is, and Lance can lose himself in flying, not having to look anyone else in the eyes and see the pity there, not having to wander the halls of the Castle searching for something that isn’t there anymore.

 

At night, laying in his too-big and too-cold bed, staring at the ceiling, he wonders. Where Keith is, if he’s safe, if it’s Lance’s fault he left, if there was anything else he could have done, how long he’ll look, whether he’ll ever find him, if Lance is losing his mind. There’s never any answers, there’s just the dark and the quiet, pressing in on him until he finally falls into uneasy sleep threaded with nightmares.

 

He starts going to the training deck every night instead, pushing himself on target practice and taking down Gladiators until he’s so tired he’s swaying on his feet. It helps, a little. At least he can fall asleep without the endless hours of his mind chasing itself in circles. No wonder Keith used to be down there so much.

 

He avoids the others. Every time he walks into a room, there’s this heavy, awkward silence, like no one’s quite sure what to say, and when they do try to talk to him it’s with this cloying kind of pity that just makes him feel like a little kid. So he stays away from the common areas, or when he does, he acts like nothing’s different. Like they’re searching for some thing, instead of their friends. Like the problem is with everyone else. It’s a bad coping method, he knows, he knows, but it’s too much to try and face it. It’s easier to just pretend.

 

The others are definitely not buying it, but they seem reluctant to bring it up with him. Hunk gives him searching looks before uncertain smiles, Allura pauses before she replies to his slightly-flat jokes. Pidge is actually the only one who doesn’t really react to his weird behavior. She’s thrown herself into searching with a single-minded determination, and she actually seems to believe that it’ll work. It’s throwing Lance off a little, honestly, so he avoids her too.

 

They go on with this stilted little play for close to three weeks before Allura finally calls them all in for a meeting on the bridge. She’s twisting her fingers together, and she won’t look Lance in the eye. He already knows what she’s going to say just from that, but his heart still drops as she says, softly, “I think it’s time we stopped searching.”

 

There’s a beat where everyone just stands there, the words sinking into them, before someone says, “No.”

 

Lance looks over to where Pidge is frowning back at Allura. There are shadows under her brown eyes, and she straightens to cross her arms over her rumpled clothes. “We’re not stopping.”

 

“I didn’t mean we stop entirely,” Allura clarifies. “It’s just-- the universe needs Voltron. They need to see we’re still here, protecting them. Without Voltron, the Galra may be able--”

 

Lance gets it, finally. It’s not just about stopping their frantic search. “You want to find new paladins.”

 

Allura flinches at his flat tone before her face hardens. Her blue eyes, when they meet his, hold all the fire of the leader of the greatest resistance force the universe has ever seen. “Yes. We need all the Lions. We must show the Empire we’re still able to fight.”

 

“And the rest of the universe, for that matter,” Matt adds. He’s leaning against a console, right next to Pidge, wearing a thoughtful frown. “Some of the rebels aren’t exactly happy with how long the war’s been dragging on after Voltron appeared. The guys in the Raxomaj sector, for instance. Or the Irikir system.”

 

Allura sighs, and she’s so tired Lance feels a little bad. “I know. We have a duty to these people-- to the universe.” She meets Lance’s eyes again, pleading this time.

 

“I know,” he says, barely audible. “I know, Allura, I’m sorry.”

 

“You don’t have to--”

 

He’s tired of the sympathy. “I do. I’m sorry.”

 

She hesitates, but accepts his apology with a nod of her head.

 

“We’re not going to stop looking,” Pidge says, breaking the silence. Her eyes are hard with the force that’s been driving their search for the last few weeks.

 

“Of course not. Keith and Shiro are a priority,” Allura promises. “We just need to be prepared to face other threats.”

 

Hunk’s been quiet so far, but he finally speaks up. “We’ve gotta start thinking proactively, you mean.”

 

Allura nods wordlessly again.

 

Proactive. In other words, moving on.

 

Lance clears his throat as quietly as he can before saying, “So we find a new paladins.”

 

“How? The Lions chose us, remember? That whole fate thing?” Pidge points out.

 

“We can start by seeing if the Black Lion will accept one of us.” Allura’s shoulders straighten a little as she says it, and Lance can’t quite hold back the wave of resentment. Of course Allura is open to reclaiming her spot as a paladin-- it’s her family legacy, the heritage of her entire race. Still, he has to bite back the bitter words on the tip of his tongue.

 

“Like… now?” Hunk asks. He’s looking at Allura with an unhappy expression he’s struggling to hide.

 

She softens. “I was thinking we should all get a day of rest first. We can try tomorrow morning.”

 

“Do you need anything else, or can we go now?” Lance asks tonelessly. They’re all looking at him with those worried eyes again, he knows it, but he can’t bring himself to care right now.

 

At Allura’s nod, he turns and walks out the door. There’s no conscious thought to where he’s going, but he ends up at the training room anyways. The irony almost makes him laugh.

 

  • +   ✵      .   ˚ ·    

 ˚    ·   * ·  ·

  •     ✧ +  .   
  •  .         *  ˚

       +  *    ✺

 

He doesn’t notice when Pidge walks in, but somewhere between his fifth and fifteenth target set, she’s there, sitting against the wall and tapping away at the screen in her lap. It takes him another minute to finish shooting down the last of the circling drones before he’s calling for the training sequence to end, wiping sweat out of his eyes as he walks over to her. The vaguely-magical holster in his armor zaps his bayard out of existence before he sits down next to her.

 

“Hey.”

 

She barely glances up from her screen. “Hey.”

 

“What are you doing?”

 

“Looking at that signal-tracking program Hunk and I used to find the Aquilae B-20 base.”

 

His blood runs cold. “Oh.” There’s a long moment of silence as he blinks back those memories. Her fingers don’t pause on the screen even once. “How’s it going?”

 

Now she does stop, just for a moment, to rub at her face with a frustrated noise. “Not great,” she admits, pushing her bangs back.

 

“That’s right,” he remembers. “You said whatever ping you got was, like, super rare, right?”

 

“Yeah. Unfortunately, I can’t figure out a way to make it better.”

 

Her frustrated face, chin propped in her hand as she levels a glare at the lines of code, is familiar enough to pull a smile out of him. Lance leans over to ruffle her hair. “Hey, you’ll get it. Smartest brain in the galaxy, right here.”

 

She smiles reluctantly. “We’ll see.”

 

“Think positive, Pidgey.”

 

“Yeah, yeah. Hunk and Matt are looking at the probes to see if there’s something they can do on the mechanical side to amp up the range, so they might find something, too.”

 

“A whole team of geniuses. Those secret-message whatever waves don’t stand a chance.”

 

“Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

 

“Anytime.”

 

The silence settles back over them as Pidge returns to scanning her lines of code. Lance leans his head back against the wall, staring at the white-paneled ceiling. He should be used to this by now, really, used to the way every little spark and flare of happiness, of normalcy, drains out of him through that unfillable hole in his chest.

 

Pidge doesn’t let him think about it long, though, because a second later she’s powering her screen down and setting it on the floor beside her. She mirrors his pose, staring up at the ceiling as the loops her arms around her drawn-up knees. “So. How you doing?”

 

He thinks for a second before shrugging listlessly. There’s not really an answer he can give her.

 

She seems to understand anyways, nodding at his silence. “Yeah, that’s about it.”

 

He swallows before saying, in a voice barely above a whisper, “I just… I don’t know what to do.”

 

“We keep looking.” There’s a fire in the words that has him looking over at her. She glances back, eyes bright and fierce for a second before she softens again. “Listen, Lance, I know how you feel. After Kerberos, when my dad and Matt vanished…” She pauses, and for a second Lance wonders if she choked on the words, but when she continues she’s as steady and self-assured as ever. “It’s tough, not knowing. Not saying goodbye. But you can’t let it get to you.”

 

He huffs at that. “Easier said than done.”

 

“I know.”

 

Cocking an eyebrow, he glances back down at her. “You do?”

 

“Of course,” she shrugs. “What, you thought the day after the Kerberos accident I was hacking into the Garrison?”

 

In all honesty, he’s never really thought of it. Pidge had been so focused when they met, so sure in her mission. There had never been a doubt in her mind that she would find her family; even now, three years later, she carries with her all the easy confidence of knowing she’ll succeed. Maybe that was what inspired the same faith in him-- he knows she’ll find her father some day. There’s no question. Pidge can bend the universe to her will.

 

What he’s never thought about is the days between, after the news broke, before she realized the Garrison was lying; the days she must have spent mourning for her family, gone in a heartbeat, lost after months of already being gone. The idea of Pidge, all her tenacity and sharp intelligence, left hollow and aching like this is sickening.

 

It’s with a choking kind of realization he says, “Pidge, I’m sorry.”

 

She shrugs again. “Don’t be. That’s stupid.”

 

Lance laughs a little at that. His throat is still too tight, but it feels good anyways. He hasn’t been doing it much recently.

 

“Listen, Lance, I don’t want pity, okay? Don’t you feel bad for me. And I know you don’t either; that’s not what I’m here for. I just wanted to say… you know, I get it. I get how you’re feeling. And it won’t be forever, because we’re gonna figure something out. We’re going to find them. I promise.”

 

She’s looking at him again, a fierce sort of faith blazing in her eyes, and Lance looks back for a long minute before holding his hand out with his pinky raised. A crooked smile spreads across her face as she carefully loops their little fingers together. “I believe you,” he says.

 

“Good.”

 

It’s quiet for a second before she adds, “I’m also here to tell you you can’t spend all your time beating the shit out of the robots.”

 

He groans. “Leave me in peace. I’m all heartbroken and junk.”

 

“No. Allura says she’ll lock you out of the training deck if you don’t put a cap on it.”

 

“That’s abuse of power.”

 

“And Hunk says he’ll carry you out of here if he has to.”

 

“Ugh.”

 

“Sorry, Lance,” Pidge says, standing and kicking him gently on the ankle. “You’re just gonna have to deal with us looking out for you.”

 

He wrinkles his nose at her, even as he smiles. “I hate this family.”

 

“Sure you do,” she says, rolling her eyes as she reaches down and pulls him to his feet.

 

.     

          .  *      

✷           ·

  •        ✷   ˚

. ·     ✦

   .       ✧   ✧

✧ ✵       ·   ⋆

 

Lunch goes surprisingly well. The heavy silence that’s plagued them for weeks is held off by Matt and Pidge ribbing each other for their wildly messy work spaces, Coran telling a story about the time he and Alfor ate some bad space vegetables and swelled up like balloons, Allura getting into a furious interpretive dance competition with the mice. She claims they’re practicing their skills for putting on shows across the universe.

 

Lance lets the good mood settle over and sink into him. The Holt siblings sit on either side of him and snicker as he commentates Hunk’s attempt to navigate the new ingredients they picked up on their last supply run, imitating the golf channels his dad used to watch when he was little.

 

It feels good, in a way he’d almost forgotten. It’s like a breath of fresh air after being locked in a tiny room. He fills his lungs with it, savors it. Everyone else must, too, because what started as lunch turns into a vargas-long impromptu group hang-out.

 

Maybe giving up on their intense search was the right call. The empty seats at the table are still too conspicuous to call the mood anything like normal, but it kind of feels like someday, it could be. The thought makes him sad still, but in more of a pensive, nostalgic way. It’s like they’ve turned a corner and stepped into something he can only describe as “life after.”

 

It’s tenuous and fragile, sure, but it’s that thought that sends him back to his room to change before heading through the white halls of the Castle to a place he hasn’t been in well over a month.

 

Lance breathes in the smell of the pool as he steps into the room. It’s not chlorine, and it’s not salt-- to be honest, he has no idea what the Alteans use to keep their water sanitized-- but it’s familiar. He quirks a smile as he watches the reflections ripple across the ceiling. It took him and Keith almost a year in space to finally ask Allura how to use the pool. When they’d complained about it being upside-down, she’d given them a scandalized look and said, “Of course it was. You went in through the wrong door.”

 

Keith had such a consternated look on his face Lance was a little afraid he was going to pull something. He decided it was better to not ask and leave it in the realm of “Altean weirdness.”

 

The water is cool as he dives into the deep end. In the back of his mind, Blue hums contentedly, and he grins as he surfaces and flips onto his back. Whatever the Altean chemicals are, they make the water approximately as dense as seawater on Earth, and he floats easily on the surface and watches the light play across the ceiling.

 

It’s not the same as the ocean he swam in when he was little. It had been a ten-minute walk from his front door to the sandy beach, and Lance and his siblings gone down there practically every day. His dad used to joke that he could swim before he could walk; and hell, maybe that’s true. The pool is a far cry from the ocean off Varadero, that’s for sure, but the way the water slides across his skin feels enough like it he can close his eyes and pretend.

 

He comes down here when his brain is working too hard, spitting too many sharp, sticky thoughts at him. When he’s in the water, everything slows down. He can sink under the surface and all that bad just-- dissolves, flows away, and he can just be Lance again. It’s become ritual, almost.

 

He blows out a long breath, letting the water lap up over his face, and he sinks.

 

⋆     ✦     ·     ·

  ✷     ˚                .   ·      *

 ✵           

    .   ˚   ·    ✹   

 .               *       ˚     *

 

Lance watched the water ripple overhead, laying on the floor of the pool until his lungs were begging for air before he kicked off the bottom. He broke the surface with a huge gasp, closing his eyes against the sting of the air as he pushed his wet hair back from his face.

 

He didn’t know how he knew he wasn’t alone-- maybe it was a rustle or a quiet breath or just some innate sixth sense-- but he knew who would be sitting there when he opened his eyes.

 

Sure enough, Keith was looking back at him. His face might have been carefully blank to an outside viewer, but Lance knew him well enough now, after two years of being teammates, to see the frustration that tugged at the corner of his mouth, the worry in his stormcloud eyes. “Hey.”

 

Lance blew a few stray water droplets off his lips. “Hey.” Keith’s gaze dropped to his mouth at the movement, and Lance tried to ignore how that one tiny glance made his stomach flip. This was getting stupid. Clearing his throat and biting back a smile as Keith’s eyes flicked back up and a flush spread across his cheeks, Lance asked, “Can I help you with something?”

 

“I just…” Keith scratched the back of his head and looked away. “Wanted to make sure you were okay.”

 

Lance blinked, stopped treading water for a second; his chin dipped under the water again and he had to kick back up and spit out a mouthful of bitter-tasting Altean pool water before he could voice his articulate reply of “uhh.”

 

Keith glanced back at him, eyes suddenly hot, and Lance hurried to say, “I mean, yeah. Yes. I’m good. All good in this hood, baby.”

 

“... Right.”

 

“Thanks for checking, though,” Lance added. Honestly, he was a little touched. He had been sure none of his teammates had noticed the way he was too quiet after the day’s mission, too tense, too many black and tangled thoughts kicking around inside him to let him get many words out. He’d gotten better at hiding those moments over the years, stepping behind his carefully crafted mask until he could get away and drown the bad bits of his mind under ten feet of Altean pool water. Now, though, as he watched Keith watch him, he wondered if his mask had some cracks.

 

Or maybe, a quiet corner of his brain whispered, Keith was able to read him like he could read Keith.

 

At one time, that might have been scary; now, his stomach felt like he’d just pulled off a long series of loop-the-loops in Blue.

 

He sank back into the water a few inches, letting it lap at the coy smile curling across his face as he slowly kicked closer to where Keith sat at the edge of the pool. Keith watched him approach, a touch of apprehension in those pretty dark eyes. “I’m honored you’d worry about me, Samurai,” he teased, letting his voice drop an octave and hiding a grin as Keith swallowed.

 

They’d been dancing around each other for-- fuck, months now, probably. What Lance hadn’t been able to believe for so long had settled into something like regularity, so constant he was almost sure it was real.

 

Keith liked him, the same way Lance liked him.

 

Or maybe not quite the same; whatever Lance felt, like seemed too tame. It was like calling the universe pretty big or saying a blue star was warm-- technically true, but tragically understated.

 

There was one step left to take, but Lance had been hesitating for weeks. It was a leap of faith he wanted so badly to take, but still shied away from. Maybe was slowly melting into someday in his mind, but for right then, he nurtured the little flame of hope in his heart and fed it every look Keith tossed his way that lingered a second too long, every time that thin mouth twitched at one of his jokes, every moment his eyes softened into something like wonder as he looked at Lance.

 

So he drank in the way Keith’s eyes roamed over him as he hooked his fingers over the side of the pool, inches from where Keith sat, cross-legged. “Hey, Keith?” he murmured.

 

Keith leaned forward a little and Lance bit back another smile. Perfect. “Yeah?”

 

Quick as a flash, Lance reached out and grabbed the front of his shirt, hauling him forwards as he pushed against the wall and flung himself backwards.

 

Keith had just enough time for one outraged yell of his name before he hit the water face-first. Lance was laughing before he even surfaced, sputtering, black hair streaming down his face as he howled, “You ass.”

 

Lance winked at him. “You were in the splash zone, Mullet.”

 

The moment teetered on a knife’s edge before a slow, wide, fucking beautiful grin spread across Keith’s face. “Oh, I’ll show you the splash zone.”

 

Lance yelped a curse and gracelessly splashed backwards a few strokes as Keith made a dive for him. His fingers barely missed Lance’s shoulders, and Lance took the opportunity to plant his foot on Keith’s chest and shove them in opposite directions. “Missed!”

 

Keith was a talented combatant, it’s true; Lance had long since admitted to himself that Keith could probably beat his ass in training any day of the week. But he wasn’t the water-aligned paladin for nothing; Keith spent ten minutes chasing him across the pool before he flipped onto his back, gasping for air.

 

Lance swam around him in a circle, grinning. “Come on, Mullet, giving up?”

 

“You,” Keith panted, “are a fish.”

 

Lance laughed at that. “What, and you’re calling it quits before you even catch one? Pathetic,” he teased.

 

Keith looked at him out of the corner of his eye, a smile tugging at his mouth again before he sank back into an upright position to lazily tread water. He locked eyes with Lance as he reached down under the water.

 

Lance’s mouth went dry as Keith pulled his soaked t-shirt off. He wasn’t even sure how he managed it while treading water, but sweet jesus, he made it look easy.

 

Keith tossed the shirt towards the edge of the pool without even looking, still keeping that dark, amused gaze on Lance. “Guess I better try harder.”

 

Lance gulped. “Um, truce?”

 

Keith considered it for a minute. “Okay.” With that, he flipped onto his back again, closing his eyes.

 

Lance’s chest ached, sharp and unexpected. God, he was beautiful. The wavering light of the pool danced across his angular face, and his long black hair curled through the water in a soft cloud. Lance had been to hundreds of alien planets, seen a thousand incredible things, and this one rough-edged boy from Earth still took away his breath like nothing else.

 

He took a breath and dove, twisting through the water until his pounding heart settled before he surfaced, swimming back towards Keith and flipping into a float beside him.

 

They drifted there for a minute in silence. The rippling light, the water lapping against his skin, lulled Lance into almost a doze before Keith was speaking.

 

“Lance.”

 

“Hm?”

 

“Are you really okay?”

 

The question came from left field. Where they were this moment, floating in the pool and the quiet, felt like a lifetime from the gnawing thoughts chewing away at his brain only a varga ago. There was a quiet sort of sincerity in Keith’s words, though, and it had Lance twisting in the water to meet his eyes and give him a soft smile. “Yeah, I am,” he said, and it was totally and completely sincere.

 

  ✹        .               ˚  
·      
    *  
    +        ✹          ·
 ˚         
      *                                 ⋆     

  .     ˚      .

 

Lance kicks off the bottom of the pool, breaking the surface with a shuddering gasp. Hot tears mingle with the pool water running down his face, and he kicks blindly over to the side of the pool, clutching it as he takes another shaky breath. He thought he was done with crying. Apparently not.

 

This feels different from the painful, sticky tears that trickle down his face at night when he can’t sleep, though. He doesn’t feel like he’s choking on the sobs that echo around him. His chest aches, but not in that way where he feels sick and broken.

 

He misses Keith so, so much. He misses going to sleep next to him, waking up to his morning grouchiness and terrible bedhead; he misses feeling his warm back pressed up against his as they fight training bots and Galra soldiers alike; he misses his bone-dry humor and the sound of his laugh, the way his thundercloud eyes sparkle when he grins. Mostly, he just misses the feeling of having someone stand beside him who knows him, down to every stray thought and every molecule in his body.

 

He wants Keith back more than anything in the universe.

 

He thinks of Pidge, then, how her unwavering determination was born out of unspeakable grief. It’s true, what he thought before-- the love she has for her family could bend the universe, as long as she keeps going.

 

So Lance cries out his sadness, lets his tears and the cool water scour him clean, and takes faith.

 

He’s going to find Keith. He might have to rip the universe apart to do it, but he can. He will.

 

Chapter Text

It’s been three weeks since he left.

 

Keith only knows that because he scratches a mark into the side of the ship each time he wakes. It’s probably not perfect, definitely not something Pidge would find reliable, but he’s in space. How much does time really matter?

 

Really, the time that has dwindled away is more present in his and Shiro’s interactions, the stops they’ve made for supplies and fuel—brief and quiet and often ending in theft (something he and Shiro haven’t talked about and likely never will)—the way missing Lance has slipped into something quiet but fierce. It’s like the force of a predator’s stare. Or a creak on a floorboard at night. Or the whoosh of a sword as it cuts through the air. Barely there, but heavy and getting heavier with every moment he’s inexorably drawn away.

 

Attempting to bore a hole into the front window of their ship with his eyes, Keith says, “Please tell me we’re getting close.”

 

Shiro shrugs.

 

“Fucking fantastic. Why don’t you let me pilot?”

 

“The Galra base is not going to get here any faster if you pilot.”

 

“Says you.”

 

This is not the first time they’ve had this conversation. It is, in fact, not the tenth or twentieth. Keith needs something to do. He needs a way to self-destruct. He needs to be off this ship and away from Shiro. Shiro’s collected and calm and always watching, caring enough about Keith to prevent any self-destructive tendencies before they even start. Not to mention, they’ve been in relatively tight quarters for a long time and Shiro’s more irritating than Keith thought possible.

 

“Keith,” Shiro murmurs, “We’ll find one. It’s only a matter of time.”

 

“I need one now.”

 

“I know that…”

 

“God, don’t you miss the team? Don’t you want to get this over with as soon as fucking possible? Aren’t you tired of being stuck with me? I’d be tired. Hell, I am tired.”

 

“Of course I miss the team,” Shiro says. “But I lost my place in it when I attacked Pidge.”

 

“Don’t say that.”

 

“It’s true.”

 

“Then what are we doing?”

 

“We’re getting my place back.”

 

Sighing, satisfied with that answer, Keith bounces his leg up and down and flicks his eyes between the monitor and the window. He does that until Shiro side-eyes him and kicks him gently in the calf. Growling, Keith says, “Let me fly. Please?”

 

“You’ll do something stupid.”

 

“Pretty please?”

 

Smiling, Shiro says, “Maybe if you throw a cherry on top.”

 

“God, I’m going to kill you.”

 

Shiro laughs, but it’s half-hearted. It takes a tick for Keith to understand why that, of all things he’s said, hits a nerve, but when it does come to him, he hears his heart beating and feels an instinctual urge to get as far away from Shiro as possible. It’s a feeling that leaves him reeling, that drives him into a place of profound guilt. Because he shouldn’t be worried that Shiro is going to hurt him. He shouldn’t be worried that Shiro’s worried. After all, if Shiro doesn’t have faith in himself, Keith will do it for him.

 

They’re brothers.

 

They’re brothers and Shiro won’t hurt him. And though Keith wasn’t there to see the flip, to see what Shiro became, he can’t look at Shiro now and imagine that all of what makes him Shiro disappears, that there isn’t something left that can be appealed to.

 

It’s as though Shiro reads his mind when he says, “You’re allowed to be scared.”

 

“I’m not,” Keith replies, heart rate slowing. “I’m not. Now, give me the controls, old man. There’s an asteroid belt on our horizon and I want to do something stupid.”

 

“Calling me an old man isn’t really going to help your case.”

 

“Where’s your sense of adventure, old man ?”

 

Laughing, Shiro puts the ship into auto-pilot and slips out of the pilot’s seat. Gesturing for Keith to take over, Shiro says, “I know better than to think I’m going to win this one.”

 

Choosing not to respond, Keith shifts to the pilot’s chair and smiles, the anticipation and adrenaline racing through his system enough to chase away all of his thoughts. Not long from now, it would be him and this chair and those asteroids and nothing else. He can see them in the distance. Taking a deep breath, he rolls his shoulders and let’s his body take over. If he blinks, if he pauses, if he thinks, they could end up in trouble, trouble that could’ve been easily avoided if he’d just sat and waited like Shiro had insisted.

 

Trouble’s nothing, though. Trouble’s a ship passing in the night. Keith can take trouble.

 

They’ve reached them. All Keith does is let out a breath, loud, but calm, and then he lets his entire body take over. It moves with the ship as they tilt, rise, dip, spin, almost grazing a number of asteroids, but they never make contact. Keith isn’t aware of a single thing. Everything in him is focused on the asteroids, on increasing their speed incrementally, in taking riskier and riskier paths through the maze. It’s a sort of game and for the first time since he left, he’s having fun.

 

As they exit the belt, Keith lets out a whoop, grinning from ear to ear. Childishly, ridiculously, he wants to turn around, do it again, fly in and out over and over, like he’s stuck in a time loop. What stops him is the fact that it would be exactly like a time loop. Feeling nothing, riding on adrenaline alone, is great, but it doesn’t get him Lance back.

 

Almost immediately, he crashes, the adrenaline lasting less time than a sugar high. Holding the controls much tighter in his grip than he had been before, Keith grits his teeth and tries not to cry. He doesn’t even know why he wants to. But the unmistakable sting in the corners of his eyes is there.

 

Why is he like this? When will his brain stop?

 

Keith almost laughs to himself, because he already knows the answer to that question. When he sees Lance again. It always comes back to Lance. Every goddamn time. By now, it’s getting a little frustrating. It was like that when he was pining for Lance and when they first started dating, as well. No matter how hard he tried, he hadn’t been capable of getting Lance out of his mind, of wanting something other than his skin against Lance’s, of dreaming about long nights curled up, head in Lance’s lap, talking until there was nothing left to talk about. He was about out of his mind then.

 

As they grew used to each other, to how they felt, it eased, the constant goddamn thinking .

 

But it’s back now and Keith wonders if he can tear his brain from his head and still live.

 

“You okay?” Shiro asks. “You got quiet.”

 

“Just assume I’m not.”

 

“What if we…”

 

“You don’t need to fix it, Shiro,” Keith whispers. “It’s not something you can fix. Just… sleep or something. Do it for the both of us. I’m not bothering until I find a base.”

 

“I think I’ll stay awake with you.”

 

“Whatever.” But, somehow, that does help. Just a little. Not that Keith is ever going to admit it.

 

✫    .       

*    .  ✺    .

   *  *  ✵   

   . ⋆      

  •              ·

   +  ✫      *    

 .  ⊹        ✦    .



There was a knock on Keith’s door and he ignored it.

 

Another knock. And another and another and another. By this point, Keith knew exactly who it was. There was only one person who would knock that many times and not get the hint. Or, rather, get the hint, and not care.

 

He was probably supposed to let Lance in. They were dating now. That was what you did, right? Keith didn’t pretend to know. All he knew is that he wanted to be alone and he definitely didn’t want to talk. In fact, waiting for Lance to fall asleep against the wall by his door—some dumb ass shit he would do—and sneaking to the hangar sounded like the best idea. If he ran, he wouldn’t have to deal with this, with feeling things.

 

“Dude, come on,” Lance called to him. “Please. ‘Shutting people out’ is supposed to be a metaphor, you know. Also, I can knock for a really long time.”

 

Oh, Keith was aware.

 

“Okay, okay, bad joke. Keith, buddy, just-- talk to me. I don’t even know what’s going on. I’ve been trying to give you space or whatever, but it’s been all day, man. You didn’t even look at me at dinner.”

 

“I did, too,” Keith said, not loud enough to be heard through the door, but loud enough that Lance knew he’d spoken.

 

“What?” When Keith didn’t respond, Lance knocked again. “Babe, this is so dumb. The dumbest. Dumber than that time you stayed up all night training because we’d fought about strawberries and you thought I didn’t like you anymore. Well, okay, maybe it isn’t, but I wouldn’t know, because I don’t know what this is about .”

 

This was the problem with Lance. He made Keith talk. Grudgingly, Keith was willing to recognize it was probably also the reason they worked.

 

Sighing, he rose and opened the door, stepping aside to let Lance in. Lance, however, didn’t move, except to scratch the back of his neck. “Hey. Sure I can come in?”

 

“Want to knock a couple more times just to make sure?”

 

Laughing weakly, Lance said, “Sorry. I can go, if you really want. I just... missed you today.”

 

Finding it in him to smile, Keith tugged Lance inside, not letting go of his hand even when he no longer needed to hold it. Lance squeezed the tips of his fingers and Keith glanced up at him, re-familiarizing himself with a face he had spent far too much of the day avoiding.

 

Because, the truth was, once it was just him and Lance, it was easy to feel. It was easy to stop thinking. It was easy to forget that he was so fucking scared of feeling more about one person than he felt about most things combined.

 

Lance was gorgeous. He was funny and good and he made Keith feel calm, like listening to white noise. Right now, running was the furthest thing from Keith’s mind.

 

And this was what was driving him insane. The constant reversals, the sheer number of mood swings he had in a quintant, sometimes in a varga.

 

Releasing Lance’s hand, Keith retreated to his bed and flopped down on his stomach, hiding his face in the mattress. Not long later, the mattress sunk down next to him and Lance’s hand trailed through his hair. “You missed a quality training run today. Pidge tripped and ate shit. It was hilarious.”

 

“Helps to have been there, I bet.”

 

“Well, yeah. But I’m sure you can imagine. Her arms wheeled and everything.” Lance mimed it for him, flailing his arms through the air.

 

Keith smiled, only grinning harder when Lance poked him in the cheek and said, “I can see that, you know.”

 

Rolling over onto his back, Keith blinked, Lance much closer than he’d thought. The way he was looking at Keith, as though nothing else mattered and nothing else ever would, sent shivers down Keith’s spine, made his stomach squirm. Softly, he touched the backs of his fingers to Lance’s cheek.

 

“Wanna talk about it?” Lance asked.

 

“No.”

 

Nodding, Lance leaned in and kissed Keith softly. When he pulled away, all he did stare, his eyes tracing the planes of Keith’s face. Heat rising in his cheeks, Keith glared at him. “I know what you’re doing and it’s not going to work.”

 

“Hmm?”

 

“Don’t play dumb.”

 

“What, I’m not allowed to stare at my pretty boyfriend?”

 

“God.”

 

“Really, really pretty,” Lance said, sighing more dramatically than he probably needed to.

 

Mumbling under his breath, Keith said, “Yeah, you’re pretty too, asshole.”

 

Asshole?

 

“You’re trying to get me to talk.”

 

“I’m definitely not. Pretty sure I let it go and then kissed you, actually.”

 

“Never mind,” Keith said, closing his eyes and shutting out the world. It was imperfect, because he could feel Lance there and it was practically impossible to shut out a world where Lance existed. The urge to touch, to make him laugh, to share space and time was too large.

 

“Hey,” Lance whispered.

 

“What?”

 

“You gotta tell me something, man. Hate to break it to you. Today wasn’t great and I’m not angry or anything, but, you know…I don’t know, it just got me thinking.”

 

“Great.”

 

“Like, if you’re never gonna let me into that head of yours, what are we doing?”

 

“You want in?” Keith asked, clipped shorter than he meant for it to sound. But Lance’s question rankled him. It wasn’t like he wasn’t trying , he just sucked at everything that came along with a relationship. Still, the implication that he didn’t want this, didn’t want it more than he wanted anything, was infuriating. It was all he could think about, for fuck’s sake.

 

“Yep.”

 

“You asked for it,” Keith mumbled. “I want you to remember that.” Then he rolled into Lance, hiding his face in Lance’s chest. Here, it was dark and warm. Safe. Home. So he started to babble—the word ‘filter’ forgotten, long written out of Keith’s dictionary—in a way only people who were as goddamn impulsive as he was could manage. “Honestly, I’m scared as shit. You’re inescapable and I want to escape, but I also don’t, and that’s a really good way to explain the entire stupid situation, because I’m a disaster wrapped in a person. I don’t stop thinking about you and it’s awful and I try to tell myself it’s just a matter of finding something else to think about, but it’s not. And you, you just seem so chill about the whole thing. Like, fuck, don’t you ever lie awake at night and ask yourself why you care this much? How it’s possible? Because I do. That was my night last night. Then again, maybe you just don’t care that much.”

 

“Whoa, wait, stop.”

 

Clamping his mouth shut, Keith berated himself silently for saying anything.

 

“You can keep going in a sec, but I need you to know that I care about you a whole lot.”

 

“Okay.”

 

“That wasn’t very convincing, babe.”

 

“I’m saying…”  Letting out a low growl, at a complete loss for words, hating that they failed him every time, Keith removed himself from Lance’s chest, his presence, and sat against the wall at the far end of his bed, leaning his head back against the wall.

 

“I want to run,” Keith whispered. “I want you to stop being everything. You weren’t supposed to be everything. No one was. No one is .”

 

There was a long silence and Keith was positive he’d managed to screw it all up. Staring at the ceiling—slightly detached from himself—he idly wondered what the end of the world would look like and if it would be half as terrible as the silence he was currently living through. When that topic was worn through and Lance still hadn’t said anything, Keith moved on to wondering why he had to feel so much, especially when feelings were absolutely not help to him whatsoever.

 

Lance exhaled sharply and it was like an explosion in the room. Unable to ignore it, Keith glanced at Lance, preparing for the worst.

 

But all Lance said was, “It’d be cool if you didn’t. Run, I mean. Not to undersell it, here, but that would suck a whole lot.”

 

“I’m trying.”

 

Lance smiled. “I know. I’m proud of you.”

 

Keith rolled his eyes.

 

“I am! Scout’s honor.”

 

“Whatever.”

 

“Uh huh.”

 

“Are you scared?” Keith whispered.

 

This time, Lance was the one to roll his eyes. Crawling across the bed, he laid down, his head falling into Keith’s lap. “Am I scared?”

 

Keith nodded.

 

Lance’s brow wrinkled for a second as he thought. “It’s like… Okay, it’s like I’m the clumsiest man alive, right, holding the most fragile glass ball in the world, and I’m walking down a street covered in potholes and I’ve been charged with keeping that ball in one piece. So, yeah, you could say I’m scared.”

 

“There’s a but, there.”

 

“But,” Lance grinned, “I’m holding the most fragile glass ball in the world. And you wanna know something?”

 

“Sure.”

 

“It’s the most beautiful goddamn thing, a whole universe swirling around in there, and I’ve got it in my hands, I’ve been trusted with that, and I’d rather have it there and risk breaking it than have it sitting uselessly on a shelf, gathering dust.”

 

“How is there a whole universe in a glass ball?”

 

“You’re focusing on the wrong parts of my metaphor, man.”

 

Laughing, Keith bent and kissed Lance’s forehead. Despite how uncomfortable the position was, he stayed, pressing his forehead to the spot he’d just kissed. “Okay.”

 

“Okay what?”

 

“I’ll avoid the potholes.”

 

“Are you extending my metaphor?”

 

“Shut up.”

 

“Nope.”

 

Groaning, Keith kissed him, despite the awkward angle, despite the slight shaking in his hands, and it was still good, still exactly what he needed. Maybe there was something to what Lance was saying.

 

     ⋆        .

 *     *

              ✫

✧     . ·✷      

.  ·  .       . .



There’s something on their radar. Keith doesn’t know what it is, he can’t actually see it yet, but it’s stationary and he feels a flicker of hope. More than a flicker. Suddenly, he has purpose and it’s like he hasn’t spent the last two vargas blinking slowly, keeping his eyes open out of sheer will.

 

If it isn’t a Galra base, he’s pretty sure he’ll fly them straight into a star.

 

“Keith,” Shiro says and instantly, Keith knows.

 

They’ve found one. Finally. Keith couldn’t technically regret not taking a lion—he wasn’t going to take Voltron away from the universe—but they would’ve reached this point so much sooner.

 

“What’s the plan?” Shiro asks.

 

“Plan?”

 

“Keith, please, please , tell me you’re joking.”

 

Instead of responding, Keith scans what he can see of the Galra base. It’s smaller, relatively, purple lights glowing faintly. However, Keith’s hope doesn’t wane. From where he is, hovering in the distance, one ship has already docked and another has left. Traffic promises either supplies or importance. Keith’s hoping for the latter. He’s hoping this base is their answer, that their journey will be over after this one stop. It would not follow the pattern of his life, but change is the one thing that can be counted on. Maybe change is on the horizon. Maybe the universe will let him have this one goddamn thing.

 

“We sneak in behind one of those ships,” Keith says, watching as another left.

 

“You’re not that good of a pilot, Keith.”

 

“You don’t know that.”

 

“I know you like being contrary, but…”

 

“Besides,” Keith says, “didn’t Pidge install cloaking on all of our stealth ships?”

 

“I… that’s a good point, actually.”

 

“Is it, like, a button?”

 

“You haven’t used it before?”

 

“I fly Red!” Keith says, searching the controls of the ship for any kind of sign. If only they could radio. Normally, this sort of situation wouldn’t be a problem, just a slight and brief hindrance. “And you guys don’t let me go on stealth missions anymore because I take unnecessary risks or something.”

 

“You do.”

 

“Then it’s your fault I have no idea.”

 

Shiro’s voice was stripped down, alarmingly so, when he said, “Well, let’s hope it does and that you find it fast, because the inevitable is happening.”

 

“What?”

 

“A Galra ship is heading right for us.”

 

“Fuck,” Keith mumbles. Looking up, he sees the very ship, one that could probably outgun them, but not outfly them, and he wonders if he can shoot it out of the air and not be noticed by the base or any of the other ships. It’s a risk, but it might buy him enough time to find the cloaking.

 

But then they might raise the guard on the base and if that happens, this goes from foolhardy to suicidal. Keith doesn’t technically have an issue with suicidal, he doesn’t think, but he likes it better when the odds are in his favor.

 

There is not a giant button that says ‘cloaking’ in bold letters, though.

 

A decision needs to be made and fast.

 

Luckily, Keith has endless amounts of practice at not thinking. Slamming down on a button with his fist—a button that he does not know the function of—Keith hopes it doesn’t eject them into space.

 

It doesn’t. Thankfully, it does exactly what Keith wanted.

 

Dryly, Shiro says, “How are you still alive?”

 

“Skill, obviously.”

 

“Obviously,” Shiro replies, sighing heavily and falling back into his seat. He’s still tense, mouth drawn in a thin line, but the Galra ship flies right past, not paying them any attention. Keith, on the other hand, feels electric, heart beating as fast as it does when Lance kisses a purposeful line down his stomach. He doesn’t want it to stop. Without pausing, without asking for Shiro’s thoughts, Keith beelines for the base, a ship leaving. This wasn’t a part of his original, patchwork plan, but he doesn’t care. In the distance, he can hear Shiro shouting something at him, but it’s like he’s at the bottom of a pool and Shiro is standing at the edge, a wavy, blurry image. He can’t hear a word he’s saying.

 

The hatch the ship exited is closing, slow, but fast enough that Keith isn’t sure he’s going to make it. Probably is all he’s thinking to himself. Probably, probably, probably.

 

Putting on a burst of speed, he shoots through the sliver of space left, making it inside. There’s a stretch of space, giving him time to slow down, but not much, and he jerks them both forward as he brings the ship to a halt. Once they’re stopped, Keith moves, unbuckling and opening the door. To the left, it unfolds, a small hatch opening, stairs leading the way down to solid ground. Grabbing a dark jacket he packed, one Lance had a fondness for stealing, Keith tugs it on and flips the hood up, big enough to hang down almost over his eyes. As he prepares to slip down the steps, Shiro grabs a hold of his arm, wrenching him back.

 

“Keith, stop.”

 

“Why?”

 

“We can’t just…”

 

“Shiro,” Keith says, eyes flicking out the window to see if they’d been spotted yet, “we don’t have time for this. We’re here and soon enough, they’re going to know we’re here. If we stop to talk, we’ll be fucked. Just follow my lead.”

 

“I attacked Pidge on a mission similar to this. What if I attack you?”

 

“You won’t,” Keith replies, loosing his arm from Shiro’s grasp and leaving their ship behind. It feels wrong to leave it somewhere so open like this, but it’s hard to hide a ship, even a small one, and if they need a different exit plan, Keith can create one. Counting on something, factoring it into your plan as though it’s a guarantee, is what ruins you.

 

He’s been on enough Galra ships and bases to know patterns, to know what the halls and rooms will look like, how the technology will work, how the doors will open. If it’s like other bases, if the information he wants is here, it will be towards the back of the base. After all, the further it is from entrances, the harder it is to get to.

 

Sneaking around the edges of the room, moving steadily, rolling his feet to keep quiet, Keith takes them to the door of the hangar, opens it and slips through, keeping his eyes peeled. If someone sees them, he can’t hesitate. Getting out of here without an alarm raised would be fantastic.

 

To his credit, Shiro stays completely silent and keeps up with Keith easily.

 

There’s no one in the hall. The entire base is eerily silent, in fact. A door is directly across from them, closed tight, but there are no guards watching it. Side-eyeing Shiro, Keith runs into the open and to the door, his curiosity taking over. Any information about how the base works could be helpful. They don’t have Pidge or Hunk, after all, or their technology.

 

The door slides open, the sound loud to his ears, and he steps into a room that is filled with droids, unmoving, cold, and black. None of the signature Galra purple is lighting up their bodies and Keith relaxes slightly, relatively confident they’re not activated. Reaching out to one, Keith touches a shoulder. “Weird,” he murmurs. “I guess they have to make these guys somewhere, though.”

 

“I guess,” Shiro says, voice a little distant. “Come on, I don’t like it here. The sooner we get off this base, the better.”

 

Keith couldn’t shake the lack of guards, though. “It should not have been this easy to get into a room like this.”

 

“Keith.”

 

“Alright, I’m coming.”

 

Turning his back, Keith heads towards Shiro and the hall. Then, the hairs on the back of his neck shoot up and he swivels back around. “Oh, shit,” he mumbles.

 

“Keith!” Shiro shouts, “The door’s closing. You need to run.”

 

Keith does, barely managing to tear his eyes away from the halo of purple, the droids bright, like a string of Christmas lights.

 

Judging the door, Keith puts on a burst of speed, a shiver like lightning running down his back when he hears the clanking of metal, loud and thunderous, behind him. Shiro gets to the other side, simply ducking, and Keith prepares himself to slide. He manages to sneak under, the door snicking shut only seconds later, the droids trapped on the other side.

 

“Maybe they can’t get through, either,” Keith says.

 

“Let’s not stay to find out.”

 

Nodding, Keith jogs away, heading to the left.

 

There’s still no one after four turns. It’s putting Keith on edge and it’s making Shiro talk, trying to convince Keith that they need to leave, that they can try another Galra base, any other Galra base. Part of Keith acknowledges that as sound advice, but he doesn’t know if he can take another three weeks of nothing, another search in the vastness of space, not without a clue or a next step. He’s not sure he can abandon this high.

 

They’re rounding a corner when they hear voices and Shiro immediately shuts up. Halting, Keith peers around the corner, briefly, before flattening himself to the wall. Quietly, he whispers, “Two Galra.”

 

“… Says you’ve been provided ten.”

 

“Voltron is in our sector right now.”

 

That stops all of Keith’s thoughts cold, so much so that he almost misses the next part of the dialogue. Out of all bases, this Galra woman came here for droids. Whatever base or outpost she’s in charge of has to be nearby or else, why come here. Which means Voltron is nearby. Relatively.

 

“I can only give you what you’ve been allotted.”

 

There’s a low whine, and then the woman says, “But all I’ve got is the old droids. These are so much better.”

 

That lost her all of the man’s sympathy. In a flat voice, he says, “Ten.”

 

“Fine.”

 

There’s a stretch of silence and then Keith hears the thunder again, except this time it’s softer, calmer, likely the result of ten droids, instead of dozens. Thankfully, they head the opposite direction. Keith takes note of that, thinking it likely they’re heading back to the hangar, off to whatever base they’re in charge of.

 

Then there are footsteps and a squeakier voice. “Sir, the droids in Area 43 are loose. They’re patrolling the halls. There are invaders somewhere.”

 

“The droids will find them,” the man says with little concern.

 

That’s when Keith understands. It’s likely every room in this base is filled with those droids, ready to be distributed. There are no guards because they are the guards. Whatever intruders are looking for, they’re likely to open at least one room and wake up something. They shouldn’t have come here.

 

Shiro reaches this conclusion at the same time he does. “We need to leave. Don’t argue with me.”

 

Biting his lip, Keith considers his options. There are a few Galra here, which means there’s at least one room that is meant for them and not the droids. But it would mean opening lots of wrong doors, lots of wrong rooms with droids that were somehow better than the droids Keith was used to. He’s busy wondering what exactly stops the droids from attacking the Galra occupying the base, what the distinction is, how intelligent they are, when Shiro grips his hand and pulls him back, leading him back the way they came.

 

“No,” Keith says, digging his feet in. “This wasn’t for nothing. This can’t be for nothing. Go back to the ship if you want, but I’m going ahead.”

 

There’s something calculating in Shiro’s eyes, brain working fast and hard, and then his mouth turns down, eyes turning soft and sympathetic. Keith thinks it means he has permission, but then Shiro says, “I’m sorry,” his metal arm raises, and then everything is black.

 

.  ⊹        ✵

   ✦  ⋆    .

     ✹       

              .

 .       ✵  

* .      ·   · *

 

When the world comes back in pieces, the first thing he’s aware of is how much his head hurts. Rubbing it absentmindedly, he sits up and slowly realizes he’s back in the ship and they’re in the depths of space, Shiro somehow getting them back aboard and out of the base.

 

The anger, when it comes, is deep and smoldering. “What the fuck?” Keith asks steadily, past the point of posturing or raging uselessly.

 

Shiro winces. “I’m sorry,” he whispers.

 

“Do you want to figure out what’s wrong with you?”

 

“Of course I do.”

 

Taking a deep breath, Keith stares out the window, feeling something crack inside him. It’s strange, because he wasn’t sure there was anything left to crack. “Then why are we back on this ship?”

 

“I want to understand why I attacked Pidge, Keith, I really do, but it’s not something you’re going to die for. It’s not something either of us is going to die for and we were going to die on that base. We almost did.”

 

“Bet we would’ve been fine if you hadn’t knocked me out.”

 

“But you weren’t going to come with me any other way.”

 

Crossing his arms over his chest, Keith says, “That wasn’t your choice to make.”

 

“I know and you can be mad at me. At least you’re not dead.”

 

“I would’ve…”

 

“Those droids,” Shiro says, voice becoming incredibly serious, “they’re dangerous and intelligent. They can predict and counter, go on offensive and defensive, and they’re powered by quintessence.”

 

“How do you know that?”

 

“I don’t entirely know,” Shiro whispers.

 

“Where are we going?”

 

“I’m finding you another base.”

 

Sinking further into his seat, Keith whispers, “Whatever.”

 

Shiro doesn’t respond and Keith shifts his eyes to his hands, picking at the nails, digging dirt out from underneath them. There’s no leaving Shiro, there’s no end to this until he can convince the team that Shiro won’t attack anyone else, but Keith knows now in a way he hadn’t before that what he’s set out to do is practically impossible. He and Shiro can fight and think, but they’re not good at much else. It’s entirely possible this will be the rest of his probably short life. On the run, with Shiro, failing and failing and failing. And nowhere in that picture is Lance.

 

It should hurt, but it doesn’t. There’s just numbness.

 

This is what, actively, he’s been trying to avoid. He’s been here before and it’s hard to dig out of, but there’s nothing to be done about it now. Closing his eyes, Keith says, “Wake me up when you want to switch.”

 

“That’s it?”

 

“That’s it.”

Chapter Text

Lance keeps his eyes on his bracer as he restraps it for the third time in the last two doboshes. It’s better than looking up at the Black Lion, darkened eyes shrouded in the shadows of the hangar far over their heads. She looks too dead like this, sealed up in a metal mausoleum and left to rust. Lance hates it. He hates himself more for wishing Allura would hurry up and get here so they could just get this over with already. Besides, this is the easy one-- Allura deserves to pilot Black, really. She was born to be a leader. The thought of having to find some stranger to take Keith’s place in Red makes Lance’s stomach turn.

 

His nausea and unease are only made worse by the guilt chewing away at the back of his brain, too. Last night was the first time since this whole shitstorm started that he’d actually slept well without having to work himself into a coma first. He’d fallen asleep with eyes still swollen and stinging from crying in the pool, and hadn’t had a single dream the whole night.

 

He’d actually felt good for a few bare seconds after he woke, before he opened his eyes and saw the cold, empty spot in the bed beside him.

 

Lance slides a finger under the strap around his wrist, loosening it a little again. All their advanced technology, and the Alteans still can’t make armor that isn’t uncomfortable as all hell. Gently, distantly, Blue runs a soothing and oddly melancholy thought over the back of his mind. His bad mood must be bleeding over to her.

 

Hunk leans over. “Hey, dude, is something wrong with your bracer?”

 

Lance flexes his arm, frowning as the armor shifts against the black undersuit. He tightens the strap again. “Nope.”

 

“Really? Because you’ve redone that bracer seven times since we’ve been standing here.”

 

“Have I?” he says noncommittally.

 

Hunk eyes him and sighs. Their long friendship never feels like such a simultaneous blessing and curse as times like these, because whatever mask Lance tries to put up, Hunk sees right through them. “I’d say we don’t have to do this today, but. We really do. Sorry, man.”

 

Lance shrugs a shoulder, yanking the strap on his bracer loose again with a vicious tug. “It’s fine, Hunk. Allura’s going to be a great Black Paladin. We should have done this weeks ago.”

 

Pidge has been silent, standing at Lance’s other side and gazing up at Black with a thoughtful frown on her face, but now she speaks. “I wouldn’t be so sure.”

 

Lance glances down at her. “How cryptic. Thanks for that little bit of pessimism, sunshine.”

 

“Don’t be a bitch, Lance.”

 

“Could you two not fight when we’re waiting here to replace our maybe-a-traitor runaway friend and also team leader, please?”

 

“We’re not replacing Shiro, Hunk,” Allura reprimands him from behind them, and they turn to see her and Coran standing there. Matt lingers a respectful pace back. “This is just… a temporary measure, until we get them back.” She glances at Lance as she says it, blue eyes full of concern and sympathy.

 

He can’t stand it. “Well,” he announces, sliding his finger out from his bracer strap and clapping his hands together, “Let’s get this show on the road.”

 

Allura hesitates, looking at the three of them. “Which one of us…?”

 

“Allura, come on,” Lance says, forcing a grin, “we all know who our leader is, already. Get up there.”

 

In his periphery, he sees Pidge and Matt exchange a look, but he keeps his gaze locked on Allura. This whole things sucks, and he can’t deny the fact that it hurts, replacing Shiro and Keith like this, but they have to do it. Lance knows that. And it’s okay, really.

 

From the long look Allura gives him, he’s pretty sure she gets it. With a dip of her head, she walks towards Black.

 

“I can’t believe we’re here again,” Pidge says, almost to herself.

 

Hunk hums in agreement. “We’ve gotta stop losing Shiro.”

 

Lance snorts at that, but they all fall silent as Allura stops in front of Black and stretches a hand up, towards the Lion’s head. A strange pressure builds in the room, silent but tangible, tingling on the back of Lance’s neck like electricity for a moment before Black lowers her head and opens her mouth. Allura says something that sounds a lot like “thank you” before stepping onto the ramp and vanishing into the mouth of the Black Lion.

 

Lance swallows hard as he watches her go. It’s true what he said before, Allura’s going to be great as the Black Paladin. He just wishes it was under different circumstances. Holding his breath, he waits for the Black Lion’s eyes to reanimate.

 

Nothing happens.

 

After a few long ticks, Pidge says, “Nothing’s happening.”

 

“Thanks, Captain Obvious,” Hunk mutters.

 

“I don’t get it,” Lance says, ignoring Hunk’s wheeze of pain as Pidge elbows him in the stomach. “Why isn’t Black waking up for her?”

 

“Obviously,” Pidge says, shoving her glasses up her nose with a finger, “Allura isn’t the Black Paladin.”

 

Lance throws his hands in the air, fighting down the mounting panic. “Well, fantastic! Not only did our last Black Paladin go missing, now we don’t even have a replacement.”

 

“I didn’t say that, I just said it wasn’t Allura.”

 

Lance frowns down at her. “What, you wanna give it a go, shortstack? Will your feet even reach the pedals?”

 

The glare she sends him could freeze a sun. “I can make your life hell, Lance. Don’t test me.”

 

Over her head, Hunk mouths, Worth it.

 

“And anyways,” Pidge continues, looking back at Black with sharp brown eyes, “I wasn’t talking about me.”

 

Lance follows her gaze to Allura, stepping out of Black’s mouth. She gives them a tight smile as she rejoins them in front of the Lion. “I believe the Black Lion has other plans in mind than allowing me to pilot her.”

 

“But who else…” Lance trails off, frowning up at the Lion. “Hunk?” he tries, tentatively. Hunk’s never expressed any interest in the Black Paladin position, not seriously, but they could do a lot worse than the steady, dependable paladin.

 

Hunk’s already shaking his head, though. “I mean, I can go up there, but there’s no point.” At everyone’s looks, he says, “I can just tell, you know? It’s not supposed to be me.”

 

“What, now we have to scour the universe for a new Black Paladin, too?” Lance asks in utter disbelief. He turns to look up at Black. “Hey, we’ve got enough on our plates, thanks!”

 

Pidge hits him hard in the back, sending him stumbling forward a couple paces. “It’s not over yet, dummy. Get up there.”

 

Taking a deep breath, Lance schools his voice into something reasonable, something like Shiro. “Pidge, I really don’t think I’m Black Paladin material right now, okay?”

 

Allura and Hunk give him matching sympathetic looks, but Pidge just shrugs. “Prove it, then.”

 

Lance gapes at her for a second before straightening. “Fine. You know what? Fine.” Jamming his helmet on, he stalks towards Black’s mouth.

 

Pidge is being especially ornery today, even for her. Lance gets it, he does, because this whole thing sucks, but he thought she’d be at least a little more sympathetic. She knows he never backs down from a challenge. And now here he is, pausing in front of the Black Lion’s gaping maw for a second so he can look up at her still-dead eyes, and he doesn’t want to set foot inside her but there’s no way he’s going back.

 

His boots ring on the metal ramp as he steps past her teeth. It’s dark in here, with just the dim ambient lights lining her throat. The door to the cockpit slides open automatically as he approaches, and he steps through with only a second of hesitation. It looks the same as the last time he was in here, all the screens dark and empty. The Lions always feel so much bigger without that animating life force.

 

Lance slides his fingers over the back of the empty chair with a murmured, “Where’d you go, girl?”

 

Black doesn’t respond. It’s sad, to think that the Lions are just as lost without their paladins. He hasn’t gone to visit Red yet in all the weeks Keith’s been gone. It’s just another drop in the well of guilt his gut is turning into, but he can’t stand the idea of seeing her like this. Red is all fire and action, just like Keith. They’re so in tune with each other. Seeing her silent and darkened like this… it would be too much.

 

Sighing, Lance looks out one of Black’s blank eyes. Beyond the thick, tempered glass, he can see the walls and ceiling of the hangar. The rest of the team, standing on the floor, are still out of view, but they’re no doubt getting impatient.

 

He crooks a wry smile at the pilot seat. “Let’s get this over with, right?”

 

For just a second, it feels like something brushes against his mind-- just a tiny whisper of pressure before it’s gone. Lance waits, his heart kicking up a few notches, but there’s nothing. “Was that you?”

 

Black stays silent.

 

He blows out a sharp breath and grits out, “Fine,” before spinning and planting himself in the pilot seat, reaching out to wrap his hands around her controls.

 

For a long second, nothing happens.

 

And then the purple lights of the Black Lion build into a glow around him, and the seat beneath him vibrates as the engines hum to life in Black’s massive body, and Lance has just enough time to gasp out, “No, nonono--” before something slams into his consciousness like a freight train and he falls into blackness.

 

✫         ⋆       ✹

             

  ✦  ˚ ✺

.    ˚

       . .  

  .  

     ˚ .

 

Everything comes back slowly, stars fading in point by bright point against the blackness, in some darker version of dusk. They’re beautiful, pulsing and distant, so much more alive than the stars he remembers from Earth, the stars they fly through in the Castle. Lance lays there and watches them for a moment, everything so hazy and far away.

 

It takes a while for him to remember why he’s here-- or at least, he thinks it does. Maybe it only takes a second. How long has he been laying here on his back, head tipped to the side, staring at the lights littering the horizon?

 

Too long. And this isn’t right-- he was in Black, not here, wherever here is. Panicking now, Lance shoves himself upright.

 

He’s sitting in a dark-- somewhere. He’s been a lot of places, maybe more than any other human, but he’s never been anywhere like this. A reflective plane stretches away from him as far as he can see, mirroring the purple clouds above him, the bright lights-- not quite stars, now that he can see them better-- so far away, in every direction around him. There’s no one here; the team is gone, leaving just him, staring into the reflection of his own wide, scared eyes. His gaze catches on his hand, curled into a fist by his knees. It looks wrong, too, glowing like the clouds overhead. He lifts it, staring at his fingers.

 

“What the fuck is this?” he breathes. It comes out echoed, too loud for this vast space.

 

It is a questioning, little paladin.

 

Like the stars, like him, it’s not quite a voice. Lance whips around, scrabbling to his feet to face whatever made it. The breath leaves him in a rush.

 

The Black Lion stands over him. She’s smaller than she should be, but more lifelike, caught somewhere between the warship Lance is so used to seeing and the real beast for who she’s named. She dips her head at him, glowing yellow eyes glinting. Hello, Lance.

 

Lance fights to get some kind of response out of his gaping mouth. “Uh. Hi.”

 

Black tilts her head, flicking an ear. Lance swears he can see amusement on her face. You are safe here, don’t worry. The other paladins, your companions, they are safe as well.

 

“Right,” he says, looking around as he wipes his palms absently on the soft bits of flightsuit exposed at the tops of his thighs. “Good. So, where are we?”

 

Black’s hum sets the air quivering. There are many names for this place. I believe you refer to it as the astral plane.

 

Lance stares at her for a second before laughing. It’s high-pitched and hysterical, but he can’t help it. “The astral plane,” he repeats, “right. Of course. Naturally.”

 

Take your time, little paladin. All my paladins have reacted with fear when I’ve first reached out to them here.

 

Lance’s laughter dies in his throat. “Shiro’s been here,” he remembers.

 

Yes.

 

“And Zarkon.”

 

She doesn’t even hesitate before replying. Yes.

 

He looks up at her. “Did you know? What he’d do to the universe?”

 

Black’s head tilts up, as if she’s gazing at the lights in the distance. I always knew who he was. Focused, driven, ambitious… Zarkon would never stop at anything to achieve his goals.

 

Lance nods, swallowing. “Too bad for the universe.”

 

He winces as Black suddenly lowers her head, fixing him in the beam of her bright eyes. Do you think, little paladin? These are qualities I recognize in all those who I allow to pilot me. It’s what is necessary. The good and bad are minutiae-- I don’t presume to recognize them. I will not decide what is right for the universe.

 

Even though her voice has no real sound, it hits Lance like a blow. He stumbles back a couple paces. “Sorry, I… I didn’t know.”

 

You do now.

 

“Yeah. Yeah, I do.” He taps his fingers against his armored leg for a second, frowning. “You said-- you look for those traits in all your paladins?”

 

I did. And I do.

 

What she’d said about Zarkon… that fits Shiro to a tee. But more than that, it’s Keith, too. Lance has always known that Keith will burn the whole world down to get what he wants, always been a little bit in awe of it. “You said all your paladins have been here. Has Keith?”

 

He has.

 

“He never told me,” Lance says, more to himself than Black.

 

She says nothing to that, just watches him.

 

Lance looks back up at her. “You said… this is a questioning?”

 

I did.

 

“What, uh…” He spreads his arms. “What’s your question?”

 

She stands, swift and sure, and Lance backs up another few paces. The normal Lions are intimidating enough, but looking at her like this, seeing the living form within the metal frame, she’s wild and terrifying in a way he isn’t used to. The question, little paladin, is not mine. It belongs to you.

 

He frowns, turning to watch as she paces around him. “You want me to ask you a question?”

 

No. She stops, towering over him, and Lance has never felt so tiny in his whole life. The question is yours because it is within you.

 

Lance blinks up at her glowing eyes. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he says after a second.

 

She huffs impatiently. Your question, paladin. Your core question.

 

“I don’t…” Lance casts around for a second, helplessness curdling to frustration in his chest. As calmly as possible, he says, “I told you, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

 

She says nothing, just lifts her head a little, watching him still.

 

“You know what?” He lifts a finger and jabs it at her. “This is so unfair. This whole fucking mess is unfair! I’m just trying to do my best! I came in here to watch Allura become the Black Paladin, and suddenly I’m spirited off to the fucking astral plane, like some junky sci-fi movie. I’m the one who has to shoot my own friend to keep him from killing Pidge, and suddenly I’m the bad guy because I want to lock him up to protect everyone else. Fuck, man, I was just a dumb kid at space school. I never asked for this! I never wanted to end up here!”

 

He’s shouting by the end of it, yelling up into her impassive metal face. There’s a beat of silence when he finishes where they just stare at each other as Lance sucks in a few short breaths.

 

And what is your best, Lance?

 

His brow creases. “What? Look, I’m tired of the mumbo jumbo bullshit, okay--”

 

What is it you’re trying to do?

 

He gestures vaguely. “I don’t know. Protect people. Keep everyone safe.”

 

Is that really the truth?

 

“Of course it is,” he snaps, temper flaring again. “Listen, I get that you apparently don’t give a shit whether the universe lives or dies, but some of us have a duty to actually help--”

 

Her silent roar shakes the ground under his feet. Don’t you question me, cub. Don’t you speak to me of duty. I have walked the path the universe laid for me.

 

Lance swallows hard, trying to ignore the tremor in his knees. “Sorry.”

 

She leans back after a second. You have done your best, it is true, she says, much softer now, but it is not for the reasons you say.

 

“I-- I don’t--”

 

Perhaps I should put it another way. Why do you want to be my pilot, Lance?

 

His voice fails him.

 

This is it. This is the desperate, insane little thought he’s been trying to ignore for weeks. He’s been trying to avoid it, wouldn’t even admit it to himself, and Black just looked at him and knew.

 

She crouches down, putting her face right up to him. Is it to help people? Is it to protect the universe?

 

“No,” he whispers.

 

Then why?

 

Her yellow eyes hold his gaze. Lance is trapped, stripped raw by the anger and fear that washed through him like tides, worn down by the long weeks of fruitless searching, and he’s so tired he doesn’t even try to fight the words that slip out of him. “I want to find Keith.”

 

She blinks slowly. That, little paladin, is exactly your truth. You love as big and fierce as the universe.

 

He drops his head, staring at his miserable expression reflected between his feet. “I’m sorry.”

 

What for?

 

“I’m too…” He shrugs a shoulder. “Selfish, I guess. I can’t be your pilot.”

 

Is that how you see it?

 

“It’s just how I am,” he whispers.

 

Focused, she says after a second.

 

He lifts his head. “What?”

 

Driven. Ambitious. Willing to do anything to achieve his goals.

 

“The qualities you look for in a paladin, right?” He huffs a sardonic laugh, spreading his arms. “Sorry. This is all I’ve got.”

 

She huffs right back, warm and amused. Little paladin, I never told you what purpose it is that drives my paladins.

 

He frowns for a second, thinking. “I guess you didn’t. What is it?”

 

There is no one answer. It is different for them all. The only necessity is that it must be a spark that can light the whole universe.

 

“... What are you saying?”

 

I am saying, Lance-- she rises to her feet, still keeping her head lowered toward him, and he tilts his own back to keep their gazes locked-- that it would be an honor to accept you as my paladin.

 

He stops breathing for a second. “You can’t mean that.”

 

I do.

 

It takes another long minute of staring before Lance is squaring his shoulders. “We’re getting Keith back. Whatever it takes.”

 

There’s an echo inside his head, like her words are creeping in and coiling up in the back of his mind, as she says, Whatever it takes.

 

Lance reaches up as she dips down, and as his fingers brush her nose, an intense light flares around them. His last thought is how warm and soft she feels, like she’s really alive.

 

And then he’s blinking his eyes open, sitting in the pilot seat with his hands wrapped around her controls as the Black Lion roars underneath him. On the screen in front of him, there’s a projected image of Hunk and Pidge jumping up and down and yelling, as Allura and Coran beam up at him. Even Matt has his hands in the air.

 

Lance can’t help his laughter. In the back of his mind, Black laughs right back. “All right, girl,” he says, tightening his hands on the controls with a grin on his face, “let’s go get him.”

 

✧   *        

  ✷      ˚      ✵  

.       · ✺

. ✷      · *    ✵     

      .    .  · *  

.    .

 

There’s water, lapping gently at the piers beneath his feet. Lance curls his toes around the edge of the deck, gazing out at the gunmetal gray water, the pale, colorless sky. The ocean isn’t glass-still, but there are no big, curling breakers, just the small ripples plashing rhythmically against the wooden pillars and the dark, stony beach.

 

It’s peaceful, here-- not in a content, happy way, but hollow and drained of everything, good and bad. Lance breathes in the cool air. It tastes metallic on the back on his tongue. He fixes his gaze on the dark line of the horizon, letting the barrenness of the sea sink into him until he’s numb.

 

Somewhere between the gentle beat of the waves and the ubiquitous light beating down on him, an anomaly grows. At first, Lance can’t quite pick out what it is that’s wrong; he just knows there’s something out of step with the world, and it’s getting closer. He squints out at the waves.

 

Eventually, he pinpoints it: a noise, a beat counterpoint to the slap of the waves, rolling across the sea around him. It gets louder and louder and closer and closer as he stares out at the dead gray ocean, until it’s echoing around him so loud he can barely hear the water anymore, pounding like a heartbeat in his ears, and Lance realizes he’s looking the in the wrong direction. He spins to face the source of the noise as it comes up right behind him.

 

Keith stares back at him, only a scant few inches away, face pale and iodine eyes wide and scared behind a curtain of wind-ruffled hair. Lance’s breath stops in his chest as that mouth he knows so well opens and Keith whispers, “Lance.”

 

Lance shoots up in bed, gasping for breath. “Keith!”

 

No one answers. The room is as silent and empty as it has been for the better part of the last month.

 

Lance blinks the sweat out of his eyes, forcing his breathing to slow as he looks around the room again, like maybe Keith is just hiding in a corner somewhere. He’s not, of course-- it was just a nightmare. Lance drops his head into his hands with a sigh, rubbing his face slowly.

 

It’s been three days since he bonded with Black, but it hasn’t fixed his nightmares. Everyone keeps saying it’s a step in the right direction, and it is, Lance knows it; they need Voltron to protect the universe. He needs Voltron to find Keith. It’s still frustrating beyond belief to be stuck running basic training drills to give him and Black time to adjust when all he wants to do is blast off to the nearest planetary system and start searching them all, one by one, to find Keith.

 

He drops his hands with a sigh, gaze falling to the empty space beside him in the bed. He hadn’t wanted to change rooms at first, but now he wonders if it’s just making his nightmares worse, being here when Keith’s not.

 

The clock tells him it’s painfully early in the morning. Everyone else will still be asleep, but Lance doesn’t feel like laying back down here, in the dark. Instead, he throws the covers back and crawls out of bed, tugging his jacket on. He’s tired of nightmares.

 

The lights of the Castle are still dim as he pads through the quiet halls. He gives no real thought to where he’s going, but he’s not surprised when he steps through the door into the control room. When they first joined Voltron, he used to come up here at night and watch the hologram of Earth, spinning silently against the stars.

 

His eyes fall on the chair in front of the communications array, and he slowly walks over and sits. There are a few text communications from various members of the Voltron coalition, but he ignores them. None are urgent, and that’s not why he’s here.

 

He brushes his fingers across the controls and looks up at the blank screen.

 

*  ·    

 ✺ ✧   *       * ✷  

 *    .     

.   ✺  * .    .   

       . ˚    .

   . ⊹       *   .

    .

 

“... And another team took down a Galra base in the Malcron system. They found some evidence the Galra were planning to move a new fleet of battleships there, maybe to strike at the rebels in the neighboring system…”

 

Lance walked his fingers across the desk, only half-listening to the report Keith was reading out onscreen. It didn’t really matter, anyways; they were halfway across the galaxy from the nearest Blades. Allura and Kolivan insisted on the exchange of information, though, so every few quintants, one of the paladins would be sitting here listening to a long list of Blade movements.

 

It wasn’t always Lance in the chair, and it wasn’t always Keith on the screen; they both hated the job, finding it equally boring and pointless, but Pidge had refused to cover for Lance again and the Blades didn’t seem particularly eager to help Keith out, either.

 

Besides, Lance couldn’t deny it was good to see him. Well, okay, that was underselling it a little bit; he could actually feel his heart flip when Keith’s face flickered up on the screen. Keith, for his part, seemed surprised to see him, blinking as he said, “Oh, hey,” before clearing his throat and launching into the report.

 

Lance tried to listen, he really did, but it didn’t take more than a few minutes before his focus started slipping. Why was the Blade so big? Like, yeah, okay, they were operating across the whole known universe, whatever, but there were so many missions, and most of them were in places Lance had never heard of. He really didn’t know why they kept up these transmissions when the Blade just had to send them a text version of the report anyways.

 

He lifted his gaze from his fingers, running it across the image of Keith’s face as he talked. He looked tired, dark shadows under his eyes, and he kept blinking hard like he was about to nod off. Lance crooked a smile as Keith reached up and rubbed an eye, confirming his suspicions.

 

He interrupted him as Keith paused to take a breath between mission reports. “You okay, dude?”

 

Keith looked a little startled, like he’d forgotten he was talking to an actual person. “What? Yeah, I’m fine.”

 

“Really? Because you kind of look like shit.”

 

“Gee, thanks,” Keith deadpanned, cracking a smile as Lance laughed. It made him look a little livelier, more like the Keith Lance remembered.

 

Still smiling, he leaned back in his chair. “You’re avoiding the question, Mullet.”

 

Keith sighed. “Still with the nickname, huh? I’m fine, Lance. Just tired.”

 

“You know you love it.”

 

Keith made a noncommittal noise, but Lance was pretty sure he could see a smile playing at the corners of his mouth.

 

Cocking an eyebrow, Lance said, “Tired, huh? Did you just get back from a mission?”

 

“Yeah, few vargas ago.”

 

“How’d it go?”

 

Keith shrugged, expression closing. “We got what we needed, but one of the Blades got hurt.”

 

Lance’s brow creased. “Shit, man, I’m sorry. Are they gonna be okay?”

 

“Yeah. Just…” Keith let his words trail off, blowing out a breath that ruffled his long bangs.

 

Lance studied him for a second. One of the Blades, he’d said. Keith never really identified himself as one of them, always setting himself apart. Lance wondered if that was by intention or just unconscious, if Keith really felt like part of the covert group, or if he was standing apart, like always.

 

Lance was torn between which one he hoped it was. On the one hand, he hated how Keith had held them at arm’s length. He was just finally starting to feel like they were bonding before Keith left to join the Blades, and he couldn’t deny it hurt to think that Keith hadn’t felt the same. On the other, a selfish part of him hoped Keith didn’t feel at home with the Blades, that he’d come back. Lance missed him. He missed having Keith’s quick reflexes and uncanny instincts in their battles, missed having someone to train with, missed having someone to bicker with and prod with stupid jokes. Keith was so easy to rile up, and when Lance actually got him to laugh it was dumb and loud and infectious.

 

So yeah, Lance missed him. More than he wanted to admit. But Keith looked so exhausted in that moment, eyes heavy and distant, that Lance found himself saying, “Hey, you should come visit soon.”

 

If he thought Keith looked surprised before, it was nothing compared to how he looked at him then. “What?”

 

Lance scrambled to cover the moment of vulnerability. “Pidge! Pidge misses you, you know? And Hunk’s been making these space pancakes, dude, I swear, they’re better than anything on Earth. Out of this world, you could say,” he added, waggling his eyebrows, and Keith snorted. He debated for a second before adding, softer, “And I could really use a buddy for sword-training practice, you know?”

 

Keith’s throat worked for a second before he cleared it and said, “Don’t you have Allura?”

 

Lance pouted. “Well, yeah, but she’s terrible at explaining things. At least you make sense. And you don’t knock me down as much.”

 

“I could start knocking you down more, if that would help,” Keith offered, a wicked smile curling his mouth.

 

“No! Nope, no thank you, I am familiar enough with the training room floor.”

 

Keith laughed at that, loud and unrestrained, and Lance couldn’t help the wide grin on his face. He should really stop ducking transmission duty.

 

  
˚     · *
  ✹ .
*   ·   ✦      
           * 
. *           ˚    *



Lance sighs, dropping his eyes from the blank screen. In the weeks after that conversation, transmission duty between Voltron and the Blade of Marmora had become his and Keith’s thing. It always left him feeling better, to see Keith up on the screen, laughing and teasing and scowling like normal. After Keith came back to the team, he’d begun to suspect Allura’s weird insistence on the video calls with the Blade had been for the express purpose of keeping Keith in touch with them. When he asked her, all he’d gotten was a poorly-hidden smile and a shrug.

 

It’s dumb and naive, but he pulls up a new voice transmission on a whim, setting it to broadcast to the Castle frequency. Everyone else is asleep, and the Lions are on standby when they aren’t in them, so the only channel open to receive would be the shuttle Keith and Shiro stole. If they’re even still in it. Lance kind of doubts it, since it’s been so long, but he’s not hoping this will actually work. Allura tried this weeks ago and got no response. If Keith wanted to come back, and still had the means, he would have contacted them.

 

Clearing his throat, Lance presses the button to activate the microphone. His mouth hangs open for a second-- how is he even supposed to start this? He casts around for a second before landing on, “Hey, Keith.”

 

Well, good enough. It’s just like their old days of swapping reports between the teams. Clinging to that thought, Lance presses on. “I know you probably can’t hear me, but I wanted to…” His voice fails him again. Check if he’s safe? Beg him to come back? All of the above? “... Let you know we’re okay, I guess.” He pauses for a second and shakes his head. “Fuck, this was stupid. I know you don’t want to come back, Keith, I get it, but you don’t get to run, okay? Not this time. I’m-- we’re gonna find you. You’re not doing this alone.” He bites his lip, trying to think of what else to say. “Listen--”

 

The emergency alarm blares, suddenly, and Lance whips around to see a handful of red dots on the main screen closing in on the little icon of the Castle. Swearing, he yanks his finger off the microphone button, ending the transmission. It was a shot in the dark, anyways.

 

He passes Allura as he sprints down the hall towards his room. “What’s happening?” she shouts after him.

 

“Galra!” He doesn’t waste time explaining past that. He needs to get into his armor, stat-- no wonder Shiro used to wear it around the Castle so often.

 

As he’s securing the last straps on his chest plate, Allura comes over the comms. “We’re heading to our Lions.”

 

“Copy. I’ll meet you out there.”

 

He grabs the Black bayard from his desk as he runs out the door and down the hall. From here, it’s faster to just hoof it to the Black Lion’s hangar manually, rather than go all the way back up to the control room. Black growls impatiently in the back of his head, urging him onwards, through the sterile Castle halls.

 

Halfway there, the comms in his helmet crackle to life. Allura sounds tight and worried as she says, “Lance, something is wrong with the Green Lion.”

 

“What? What kind of something?”

 

“I don’t know. Pidge sounded distressed.”

 

He swears again. “Allura, you and Hunk draw them off for a minute. Evasive maneuvers, don’t engage yet, and don’t get hit. I’m gonna see what’s going on with Pidge.”

 

Matt breaks into the feed. “I’m coming too.” His tone leaves no room for argument.

 

“Copy that,” Allura says, and in a crackle of static she’s gone.

 

“Matt, take the elevator. I’ll see you down there.”

 

“On my way.”

 

Black rumbles as Lance makes a hairpin turn at the next corner, heading away from where she waits in her hangar. “Hang on, hang on,” he mutters under his heaving breaths.

 

He can hear Pidge’s voice echoing up to him before he even reaches Green’s hangar. She’s yelling something, but he can’t make out what.

 

As he careens through the door, though, he gets it in a rush that punches his short breath right out of his chest. Pidge is standing in the middle of the floor, shouting up at the Green Lion, who sits impassive and dark behind her particle barrier.

 

“We’re supposed to be a team!” Pidge is yelling. “Come on, let’s go!” Her voice breaks on a sob, and Lance feels his heart crack at the raw anguish in her voice. “Why are you doing this?”

 

“Pidge,” he says, between gasps for air, and she turns her tearstained face towards him. She’s furious like he’s never seen her before, savage in every line of her small body as she jabs a finger up at Green.

 

“She’s not letting me in.”

 

Lance raises his gaze, searching the Lion for a sign of something gone wrong, but she’s motionless, like she’s ignoring them. It’s an echo almost three years old, back to when Shiro went missing the first time, and Lance’s stomach drops as he understands.

 

Pidge turns back to Green, slamming her fists against the barrier. “Let me in!”

 

“Pidge, hey--” Lance reaches for her, lays a hand on her shoulder, but Pidge whirls on him.

 

“I don’t understand why this is happening.”

 

Lance keeps his hand outstretched between them but doesn’t touch her again. “She’s not letting you in because you’re not her paladin anymore,” he explains quietly.

 

The way her face crumples has his heart breaking in his chest. “Why? Did I-- did I do something?”

 

“No, Pidge, no, of course not--”

 

“Then I don’t understand.” She’s yelling again, stepping out of Lance’s reach to slam her hand against the barrier again. “I don’t understand! I’m a paladin, I’m supposed to be chosen-- I gave up everything for this. I have to be a paladin! I have to fight the Galra, I have to find Keith and Shiro-- They are not taking any more brothers from me.” Her voice breaks again on the words, and tears prick at Lance’s own eyes. “So let me in! I have to--”

 

“Pidge,” Matt interrupts from behind them, and Lance has no idea when he got there, but from the look on his face he caught most of that.

 

Pidge sags as she sees him. “Matt,” she says, sounding incredibly small, and Matt pulls her into a hug. She hides her face in his chest.

 

Lance just stands there, feeling absolutely useless. Matt meets his eyes over Pidge’s head, the sorrow and worry Lance is drowning in mirrored in his gaze.

 

After a second, Pidge pulls away, looking back up at Green. “Why?” She isn’t shouting anymore, but it’s so hurt and ragged Lance winces anyways. “I have to find them, I’m going to find them, so why--”

 

She’s interrupted by a distant roar.

 

“What was that?” Matt asks. Pidge is frowning towards the door, confused, but everything clicks into place for Lance.

 

“Red,” he breathes.

 

“What?” Pidge says. Lance turns to her, grabbing her by the shoulders.

 

“Pidge, listen. This is the same thing that happened to me when Shiro went missing, you remember? It’s Red. She’s calling for you. You’re the new Red Paladin.”

 

Pidge’s eyes go wide as she talks. “But-- how?”

 

Lance shakes his head a little. “I don’t know. Maybe she knows I need you to be my right hand.”

 

There’s a long second where they just stare at each other before Pidge’s familiar and fierce determination is back in her bright eyes. She grips his hand. “I won’t let you down.”

 

He flashes a grin down at her, squeezing back. “I know you won’t. Now, come on. We have some Galra ass to kick.”

 

With a sharp smile of her own, she’s heading towards the door. Lance is hot on her heels when he hears a rumble behind him.

 

He and Pidge pause at the door, turning back in time to see Green’s particle barrier dropping. Pidge sucks in a sharp breath as the Lion lowers her massive head to Matt, standing frozen in front of her.

 

Beside Lance, Pidge laughs, short and sharp. “Of course. I should have known.”

 

Lance glances down at her. She’s watching Matt with an expression caught halfway between pride and yearning. After a second, she looks up to meet his eyes and gives him that determined smile. “Come on. There’s some Galra ass waiting to be kicked.”

 

With that, she ducks under his arm and vanishes down the hallway.

 

Lance calls across the hangar to Matt. “Hey, Green Paladin!” He grins as Matt turns to face him, looking shell-shocked. “Let’s go.”

 

Matt nods, brow creasing in a decisive face.

 

As Lance runs down the hall, to where Black waits for him, he hears Matt yell, “How do I get in this thing?”

 

He’s still laughing as Black launches them into space, twisting towards the Galra cruisers in front of them.

Chapter Text

The light of two suns is warm on Keith’s neck. A creek is bubbling. There are giant mushroom-like plants bobbing in the wind, making soft, splooshy noises. Shiro isn’t anywhere near him. It’s peaceful and removed and it reminds him of Lance, of home, and not in a painful or invasive way.

 

Not that anything is particularly painful or invasive as of late.

 

In the past week or so, he and Shiro hit a few bases with no success and now they’re here, on a completely deserted planet, staying as far from each other as possible. Well, Keith’s pretty sure Shiro is looking for him, just as he has been every other day—stretched very long on this particular planet—but Keith’s avoiding him.

 

After all, they were meant to be off this planet by now. Days ago.

 

But it’s hard to care about that when nothing matters, when it’s all pointless, anyway, when all that follows him his failure after failure. At least out here, in the middle of nowhere, light years away from any place he is even remotely familiar with, it’s hard to screw something up. It’s hard to fail.

 

It’s hard to hate himself for what he’s done.

 

There’s just enormous, obscenely colorful flora, weird flying creatures that look sort of like miniature manatees with wings, that, when he’s half asleep, sound a bit like bees, and a hazy purple sky.

 

This is something he would’ve done with Lance if they were still together and there was time after a mission, before flying back into space. Vargas of Lance pointing out things similar and different from home, holding hands, and talking about the smaller bits of their day, parts they missed out on.

 

It’s easy to imagine he’s here and that everything’s okay. More than easy, in fact, just a next step in the delusion he’s willingly stepped into to keep himself sane, to keep him from a sort of existential dread and exhaustion that he’s done putting up with.

 

Grabbing a fistful of dirt and slowly sprinkling it across his shirt—he could wash it in the stream later if he so desired—Keith says, “I jumped off the top of a waterfall earlier. The pool was shallower than I anticipated, but I only got a couple scrapes. Could be worse. Definitely better than the scratches I got on the bottom of my feet when I hiked back up to the top barefoot. Stop thinking what you’re thinking. I don’t care. What else? Oh, I’m king of hide and seek. Shiro can’t ever find me. I know, I know, you probably could find me. Just let me have this, though, okay? I’ve got literally nothing else.”

 

Sighing, Keith rolls his head to the side and watches the stream, fist clenched. Definitely not you , he thinks.

 

Finger by finger, Keith uncurls his hand.

 

This isn’t so bad, really. There are more planets like this and some drastically different and Keith had always been the exploratory sort, the wandering sort, and if he can’t figure out what’s wrong with Shiro, he can at least keep Shiro away from people he can hurt. A life spent with Shiro isn’t a bad one. More than he thought he would get, once, living alone in the desert.

 

It could be worse.

 

So he’d gotten to know a better life, one he’d never expected to know. Lucky him. This is just the universe righting itself, restoring balance. He isn’t meant for happiness. And that’s okay.

 

He doesn’t quite manage to convince himself, however. There’s something nagging in the back of his mind, reminding him that it’s not like his stint in the desert after being kicked out of the Garrison. Then, his loneliness was born of being alone, of having no one, of having lost the one person who did know and understand him. This, however, is loneliness while knowing there were people somewhere, just out of reach, who love him. It’s much, much worse, because it’s loneliness he’s brought upon himself.

 

Goddammit, Keith , he thinks to himself. Stop letting your mind wander off. Never leads to good places.

 

Focusing on the warmth of the suns, Keith feels the clamoring mob of his thoughts ebb. Letting out a sigh, he almost smiles. Living in the desert, often deprived of things to do when his search for Blue foundered, he found a way to enjoy and find entertainment in simpler things.

 

It was a skill he didn’t think he would get to use again, not with the war, where there was never enough time.

 

Sleep whispers at the edge of Keith’s mind and maybe it isn’t his best idea, but he listens, only idly hoping he doesn’t get eaten by something.

 

.  ✦  
✺     .· ✵  .  
˚       ˚  ✷   ✹
*           .  
       *

 

When he wakes, he knows it’s because something or someone is nearby. Keeping his eyes closed, Keith breathes slow, listening. While he listens, he inches his hand towards his dagger, tucked away in a sheath around his thigh.

 

There are footsteps to his left, drawing closer. If it’s to the left, they’re coming up a hill, which means he’ll have the advantage of height.

 

They’re drawing close. Just a few steps closer and…

 

“Relax, Keith, it’s me.”

 

Sitting bolt upright, Keith opens his eyes to see Shiro and groans. “Seriously? I could’ve killed you.”

 

“Could’ve tried.”

 

Laughing sarcastically, Keith runs a hand down his face, waiting for his heart to slow. “You could’ve said something.”

 

“I was going to let you sleep. You need it.”

 

“How’d you even find me?”

 

“Search long enough and eventually you get lucky.”

 

“Right.”

 

“Keith…”

 

“What?” Keith snaps, before he can stop himself. It occurs to him that he should feel bad--Shiro hasn’t technically done anything wrong, but feeling bad about something could open all sorts of doors, mainly all the other ones that are unlocked by the same gut-wrenching guilt.

 

“I’m really worried about you.”

 

“Don’t be. I’m fine.”

 

“It’s one thing to lie about that while you’re still trying to get back to Lance, but it’s another when you’re lying in the sun on an alien planet you promised me would we leave ages ago.”

 

“The sun’s pretty nice,” Keith says. “Maybe you just haven’t laid in it long enough.”

 

Shiro gives him a stern look. When Keith doesn’t respond, Shiro sits down beside him, knocking their shoulders together. In a soft voice, he says, “I wasn’t going to look for you today, you know. I don’t know, I thought maybe… maybe space would help. Which is stupid. I should know that leaving you alone is the worst idea.”

 

Silently, Keith agrees. The small voice in his head that never quite disappears, murmurs, maybe he really isn’t Shiro.

 

When there’s a low sigh, Keith knows Shiro saw the thought. Neither of them say anything. Keith wishes he could defend himself, but there isn’t anything he can think to say. It’s a stupid thought, he regrets it, and they both know it. They wouldn’t be here, without the team, if it really meant anything.

 

“Anyway,” Shiro says, breaking the silence. “There’s something you should see. Back at the ship.”

 

“What?”

 

Smiling weakly, Shiro says, “You’re just going to have to trust me.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because if I tell you what it is, you aren’t going to come.”

 

“Great,” Keith mumbles. He thinks about standing, but he isn’t quite ready to move. Whatever is at the ship clearly isn’t going anywhere or Shiro would be much more persistent. Leaning back on his hands, Keith stares into the creek, watching the water flow by.

 

“Where do you think it goes?” he asks.

 

“To a larger body of water.”

 

Keith snorts. “No shit.”

 

“Home.”

 

“Sounds nice.”

 

“It does, doesn’t it?”

 

Keith glances over at Shiro and thinks about asking what he misses, thinks about asking what it’s like to have family turn on you, but at the last second, he simply says, “It’s just water. It can’t have a home.”

 

Shiro shrugs. “Maybe not. But I wasn’t talking about the water.”

 

“Ugh. You’re such a dad. Can’t we have a conversation where you don’t try to school me on something?”

 

“Nope.”

 

“Maybe think about it, because I don’t even get this lesson.”

 

Gesturing with a finger, Shiro points to a part of the creek that is clogged up with rock and vegetation, moving sluggishly compared to the rest. “It’s all going to the same place and it doesn’t stop, even when it meets an obstacle. It gets home.”

 

“Remember dams? On Earth?”

 

“Well, I tried.”

 

Laughing, genuinely laughing, Keith doesn’t stop until there are tears forming in his eyes. It feels so good, he forgets he’s trying not to feel. Thankfully, he’s prepared for the crash, so when the weighty silence falls, he just picks himself up and says, “Let’s get back to the ship, then.”

 

Shiro nods and leads the way.

 

✷     ✦      . ✫   
✫  .   .   ✦    
 ✫ ·   
·       ˚ .  .
      .  · +   * .   
.   · *  + ✦

 

They have their ship tucked away, hidden from view, just in case the planet is less abandoned than they think it is. Shiro always led on diplomatic missions, but Keith was often relegated to the back of the group, encouraging him not to talk and the aliens to ignore him. But, here, with just the two of them, a plan like that will not work and Keith doesn’t want to put his diplomacy skills to the test. He’s pretty sure they’re nonexistent.

 

Besides, saying you’re members of Voltron is a lot more convincing when you have the lions and the rest of the team.

 

When they finally manage to wrangle their way through the foliage surrounding their ship, Shiro stops at the entrance. Slowly, he turns and looks at Keith, something in the way he’s frowning hinting at nervousness.

 

“What?” Keith asks.

 

“I know I said I wasn’t going to tell you what this was about, but I’ve got you this far and… well, you should probably get a choice.”

 

“Would you hurry up and just get to the point?”

 

Speaking fast, Shiro says, “I didn’t listen to all of it, I swear, only a couple of seconds, but I listen to all of the messages from the Castle, because…”

 

“Because you like to feel guilty for something that isn’t your fault, yeah, I get it.”

 

Shiro glares at him. “Anyway, it wasn’t Allura this time.”

 

And before Shiro even starts saying his next words, Keith knows what they’ll be.

 

“It was Lance,” Shiro finishes quietly.

 

For a long moment, it’s as though absolutely nothing, including himself, exists. Those words unspool the whole universe and Keith is frozen, lost, so far away he’s not sure every piece of him will be able to find its way back. When he finally manages to speak, it’s choked and hoarse. “What?”

 

Shiro puts a hand on Keith’s shoulder and tells him again, more firmly and though Keith heard him the first time, hearing it again makes it more real, more of an immediate problem. Ignoring it is not an answer, like it was with the other messages from the team. Because it’s Lance . If he doesn’t listen to the message, it’ll be because he chose not to.

 

Making a decision is the last thing he wants to do, however.

 

Doing something he only does in moments like this, when most of his walls are broken, Keith looks to Shiro. “What do I do?” he whispers. “I’m not sure I can...” And then, somehow, he’s crying, the painful, exhausting kind. Without hesitation, Shiro wraps him in a hug and Keith clings to him.

 

Gulping down air, he says, “I miss him so much and…”

 

“I know.”

 

“It hurts .”

 

“I bet.”

 

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Keith manages to say.

 

“It makes a lot of sense.”

 

Sniffing, Keith focuses on breathing. It takes awhile for him to calm down, but once he does, he untangles himself from Shiro and wipes his eyes, hiding them from Shiro’s gaze. A wave of shame soaks through him. He hates crying in front of people.

 

Staring at the ship, Keith says, “It’s him. His voice.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

Keith thinks back to the days before they moved in together back on the Castle, when Lance would sometimes sleep in his bed and sometimes Keith would sleep in his. But there were nights, usually because of sheer exhaustion, where they slept in their own and the pillow beside his would smell exactly like Lance and he would struggle most of the night to not do something as incredibly pathetic as cuddle the pillow and breathe it in all night.

 

He lost almost every time.

 

And this is exactly like that. Keith has no idea what hearing Lance’s voice will do to him. He doesn’t know if it will help or if it’s even a good idea, but he doesn’t care. Impulse control is the opposite of his strong suit and after weeks and weeks, he can hear his boyfriend’s voice.

 

As always, Lance comes barreling in and Keith doesn’t have a single defense to stop him. For most people, those defenses are solid brick, but for him, they’re styrofoam.

 

Hundreds and thousands of light years from anywhere he knows, he can feel home, even if just for a heartbeat.

 

And as someone without a home for most his life, that first taste hooked him.

 

Shiro can see the decision in his face. Gesturing backwards, he says, “I’m going to go find us something to eat. Take your time.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

“Anything you need, Keith.”

 

Turning away from Shiro, Keith takes a deep breath and heads into the ship.

 

✫  * ✦    
 ⋆ ·        ⋆ . ✦     
   *     * ✵ ·      
 ✵   ˚  * ✧     
       ⋆     *

 

Stumbling out of Red, Keith tore off his helmet and swiped the back of his hand across his forehead. The mission had gone fine, but to say it hadn’t been stressful would’ve been an understatement. There were multiple occasions when he’d taken risks he probably shouldn’t have.

 

The whole team was going to give him so much shit.

 

Groaning, Keith glanced up at Red. “Think I can hide down here with you?”

 

He could feel her amusement and her encouragement. Sighing, Keith decided to head for the kitchen. He was hungry and he was pretty sure the team wouldn’t be waiting to pounce on him there. The longer he could delay the inevitable, the better.

 

The lights were off. Letting out a thankful breath, Keith flipped them on and practically shrieked, stopping himself just in time. Sitting on one of the counters was Lance, eating food goo casually from a jar that Keith had never seen before. He really hoped Lance hadn’t picked that up from just anywhere.

 

“Hey, mullet,” Lance said.

 

“Hi,” Keith responds slowly, edging around the kitchen, wondering if he should just run.

 

“Just so you know, the team’s decided no more stealth missions for you.”

 

Keith frowned. “That’s…”

 

Lance raised his eyebrows.

 

“Whatever,” Keith grumbled, shoving away from a wall and crossing the room, deciding to stay. This would be better than facing the whole team. Clearly, Lance had been sent to deal with him. That was probably Shiro’s fault. See if Keith ever tells him anything personal again.

 

Leaning up against the counter beside Lance, crossing his arms, Keith said, “You gonna share that?”

 

Shrugging, Lance scooped out more food goo and handed the spoon to Keith. Taking it, panicking a little when their fingers brushed despite how hard he tried to make it not happen, Keith slipped the spoon into his mouth. “So,” he said, after he swallowed, “where’s the lecture?”

 

“Lecture?”

 

“Uh huh.”

 

“Well, you are an idiot.”

 

“That’s it?” Keith asked, genuinely surprised. Lance could go for hours. And if he could manage to rile Keith up, an easy thing to do, they could go for days. They had before, in some of their more petty arguments. Wake up, go to sleep, wake up, and spend all the time in between bickering.

 

“What do you want from me, man?”

 

Eyeing him suspiciously, Keith said, “Nothing, I guess. What are you doing here then?”

 

“Eating.”

 

“You’re being weird.”

 

“Want more?” Lance asked, holding out his spoon.

 

“No. I’m gonna…”

 

“Wait,” Lance interrupted. Keith paused and Lance struggled for words. When he found them, he grinned brightly. “You were gonna eat. One mouthful of this stuff isn’t enough.”

 

Keith’s suspicion grew. “Where’s everyone else?”

 

“Hanging out.”

 

“You’re stalling for them, aren’t you?” Keith didn’t even wait for a response. “God, of course you are. It’s brilliant. ‘Keep Keith busy, Lance, while we figure out what the fuck to tell him about almost dying all the time. Don’t want him running away.’ Well, fuck that. I’m running.”

 

“How’d you figure that out?”

 

“You’re being weird!”

 

“To be fair, you didn’t give us a whole lot of warning. Staging an intervention takes time.”

 

“I don’t want an intervention.”

 

“Yep, I think that’s most people who need one,” Lance said sagely, taking another bite of the food goo. Then, he started trying to stick the spoon to his nose. It didn’t take him long, probably because he did it all the time, but he still grinned at Keith when he succeeded and Keith couldn’t describe how fond he suddenly was of the boy across from him.

 

Smiling despite himself, Keith crossed his arms and fell back into a chair. “I just have to sit and pretend to listen, right?”

 

“Yep.”

 

“Fine.”

 

Lance slid from the counter and took the chair beside him. One of his legs was bouncing up and down and he kept shooting sidelong glances at Keith when he wasn’t eating.

 

“What?” Keith asked.

 

“Why do you do it?”

 

“Do what?”

 

“Risk your life all the time.”

 

“I just do it,” Keith said. “This is a war, Lance. Survival isn’t guaranteed. I’m just doing my job.”

 

“Yeah, okay, but none of us do the crazy shit you do. Well, most of the time. Definitely not on one-mean stealth missions where no one can cover our asses.”

 

Keith shrugged. “There are some things that are worth my life. This is one of them.”

 

Lance was quiet for a long time. Keith almost dozed off until there was a burst of motion, startling him back into full consciousness. Lance was standing, the jar was nowhere to be seen, and he was holding out his hand to Keith.

 

“Are we going to the intervention?” Keith asked dryly.

 

“Nope. We’re getting you out of that.”

 

“What?”

 

“Come on, mullet. I know you want to.”

 

“You’re being weird again.”

 

Lance smiled. “I don’t think it’s gonna work, anyway. So I’m getting you out of it. The only catch is that you have to spend time with me instead.”

 

“I don’t…”

 

“Only getting older here.”

 

Rolling his eyes, Keith took Lance’s hand, not incredibly tired anymore. Lance pulled him up and Keith waited for Lance to drop his hand, but he didn’t. Instead, he tugged Keith along. Keith was so sure they were going to end up at the swimming pool or Lance’s favorite place to gaze at the stars, but they just ended up in Lance’s room. Crashing onto his bed, Lance patted the spot next to him.

 

Unsure where this was headed, Keith simply did as he was asked.

 

To his surprise, it didn’t go anywhere else. They laid there all night, just chatting. Keith had always known they were capable of this, but they hadn’t done it before. Quickly, they sunk into a comfortable exchange and Keith shared things he’d only shared with Shiro, some details that he even hadn’t and Lance told him all kinds of things Keith would’ve thought he wouldn’t, interested in evading possible firepower in bickering matches.

 

It was towards the end of the night, when they were both getting sleepy, some words drawled and eyes closed more than they were open, that Lance said, “If you were dead right now, we wouldn’t be doing this.”

 

“Well, that’s…”

 

“I’m just saying, man. I get where you’re coming from, but there are ways to, like, minimize the risk of dying, even in war.”

 

“Who says this was better than dying?”

 

Lance laughed loudly and elbowed Keith in the side. “Shiro didn’t ask anyone else to keep you busy.”

 

Keith’s heart was beating hard. “So?”

 

“Means I’m better than dying.”

 

Keith didn’t argue, afraid he’d reveal too much. This already felt way too close to a conversation he wasn’t ready for.

 

Of course, instead of saying anything, he just met Lance’s gaze and got caught up in the blue and probably fucked himself over anyway. When he realized, he averted his eyes immediately and cursed himself. “I think I’m gonna go to bed,” he said.

 

Yawning, Lance slipped out of bed and into his lion slippers and padded over to his bathroom. At the threshold, he stopped and turned. “You look beat and it’s a long walk back. You can stay if you want. Just don’t steal the blankets or I will kick you onto the floor.”

 

Keith blinked at him.

 

“Up to you,” Lance shrugged.

 

Looking around him, absolutely lost, having literally no clue what he was supposed to do in this situation, Keith hadn’t moved by the time Lance returned, in pajamas, face very obviously freshly washed, shining in the soft light. “You staying, then?”

 

Before Keith could stop himself, he nodded.

 

“Cool. Scoot over, then.”

 

Keith did. Then he rolled on his back and stared at the ceiling, clutching the sheets to his chest. There was movement beside him and then laughter, followed by a kick to the leg. “Dude, stop freaking out.”

 

“I’m not freaking out.”

 

Sure you’re not.”

 

“Shut up.”

 

Laughing some more, Lance rolled over and flicked out the lights. “You’re strangely adorable. Like my tía abuela ’s neurotic cat,” he said, before nighttime silence crept into the room, discouraging conversation.

 

Closing his eyes, figuring that was the first step, Keith wondered if this was what a heart attack felt like. It was probably more painful, but god, this was ridiculous. Why did he stay? He’d never slept with another person in his life. There was no way he was going to get a single tick of sleep.

 

Sleepily, Lance said, “If you need to leave at any point, feel free. I’ll probably sleep through it.”

 

“I’m fine.”

 

“Just an option, mullet. Don’t want you hyperventilating over there.”

 

“I’m just not used to this.”

 

“I know,” Lance said, voice quieter, as though he found that fact depressing. “But, hey, guess what?”

 

“What?”

 

“You’re doing it now.”

 

“Is this where you tell me I never would’ve experienced this if I was dead?”

 

“Yep.”

 

Keith scoffed, but got more comfortable in the bed, feeling slightly more at ease. It didn’t take long for him to relax completely and as he did, he realized a couple of things that he only could’ve realized half asleep. Everything smelled like Lance, he could stick out a hand and a person, Lance , would wake up and listen to him--Keith had little doubt of that--and he was more content than he had been in recent memory. It was more than content, though. It was something else, something Keith couldn’t describe. It was the confidence that he could come back time and time again, just like this, and feel just as content as he felt now.

 

Whatever it was, Keith wanted to earn the right to have it.

 

That was the most convincing reason he’d heard all night for being less stupid and he’d come up with it all by himself.

 

       ✦      
   *  
 ✵      
·  · ✫     ✹ .     
✷   .  ˚   · * ˚ 
     *    * .

 

Before he can psych himself out of doing it, Keith plays the message.

 

He hears, “Hey, Keith,” and he almost stops the recording. The rest of what Lance says--there isn’t much, not nearly enough--washes over Keith and he knows he’ll have to play it again, but he can’t focus on the words. He’s too busy memorizing the cadence of Lance’s voice, desperate to know it for a couple of vargas before he loses it again.

 

Distantly, he’s aware he’s crying, but what steals most of his attention is the sting in his cheeks from how hard he’s smiling. It’s a strange sensation. It’s all strange. But it hardly matters, because it’s almost as if Lance is there beside him. If he closes his eyes and pretends hard enough, anyway.

 

Finally, on what is the fourth playthrough, his ears catch on the last part, Lance promising to come find him, and something happens that Keith didn’t expect.

 

Whatever fire he’d lost roars back, fierce and forceful.

 

If Lance isn’t giving up, he sure as hell isn’t. That’s what Lance deserves. Because, somehow, this thing between them is enough to push past anger and frustration and betrayal, things Keith knows Lance is feeling.

 

Keith knew what he felt was that strong, but hearing that it’s the same for Lance--even though he already knew, in theory--was reassuring. Distance did unimaginably cruel things.

 

Even though it’s the last thing he deserves, Lance is coming for him. Lance is only a few steps behind. When he stops running, Lance will be there.

 

He’s so goddamn ready to stop running.

 

He’s so goddamn ready to stop tearing Lance to pieces, to hear something less exhausted and pain-tinged in his voice.

 

He’s ready to be home.

 

“I’m getting the fuck off this planet,” he murmurs to himself. Then he turns to the console, as if it’s Lance, and says, “I don’t know what I did right, but I’m so glad it’s you.”

 

Then he clambers out of this ship, not bothering to look around, just cupping his hands around his mouth and yelling Shiro’s name. If there are aliens somewhere, they probably heard that, but Keith is beyond caring. They’re about gone, anyway.

 

“My god, Keith,” Shiro says from below him, sitting and leaning his back against the ship. “Didn’t need to yell.”

 

“I thought you were looking for food.”

 

“Ready to leave?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Figured you might be,” Shiro said with a smile.

 

Keith rolled his eyes. “Let’s go, old man. My boyfriend’s trying to catch me and damned if I let him before I’m good and ready.”

Chapter Text

Lance clears his throat and leans a little closer to Black’s console. “All right, passengers, the weather in space is mostly clear today, with a chance of light meteor showers later. Our cruising altitude is going to be about ten light years from the nearest inhabited planet. Please buckle your seat belts and remember your pilot seat can be used as a flotation device--”

 

“Lance, would you please shut up and get on with it?” Red echoes Pidge’s annoyance with a flick of her tail, missing Black’s flank by a hair.

 

“Okay, okay.” Lance takes a deep breath and tightens his grip on the thrusters. Black seems to breathe with him, metal skeleton creaking around him as she brushes across his mind. He lets his thoughts get tangled up with hers, fading away to white noise as he says, “Form Voltron.”

 

As the others fall into place beside him, there’s a familiar tingling in the back of his mind; the distant current of thoughts and sensations they share in the bond between them builds into a roar, stronger than Lance ever felt it in Red or Blue.

 

And then, through the rising tide of static thoughts, something wavers. A thread of uncertainty catches and pulls, and the link wavers for a second before snapping. Lance gasps as the shattered remnants slam through him, blinking white-hot sparks out of his eyes.

 

Hunk groans. “Man, not again.”

 

“Hey, it didn’t work the first twenty times,” Pidge says. “Why would it now?”

 

Lance chews on his lip for a second before opening his mouth to apologize, but Allura beats him to it. “We can’t give up now. The universe needs us.”

 

Coran’s face pops up onscreen. “You can’t give up, but it may be time for a break. Allura, there’s a planet in the Arabys 15 system hailing us. Something about the Voltron coalition, a civil war… The message was very long.”

 

“I’ll be right there, Coran.”

 

“We all will,” Lance interjects. “Let’s head on back, guys. Coran’s right, we could use a break.”

 

There’s a general murmuring of assent as everyone turns their Lions towards the Castle. Lance flies Black at the rear of the group, trying to get used to the scale difference between her and Blue. Everything feels so much more distant, and every move he makes takes so much longer. Even after a few weeks of running drills, he’s still not quite adjusted.

 

No one else seems to be, either. Allura’s settled back into Blue okay, but Pidge keeps accidentally overshooting her marks, and they all forget that Matt doesn’t know what they mean by, “do that thing we did that one time with the ion cannon on Loquokan,” in variation.

 

Basically, things have been going less than smoothly. And the fact that they still can’t form Voltron stings. Even when Keith had to take over when Shiro briefly went missing, several years ago now, they’d at least been able to do that.

 

As soon as Black’s paws hit the hangar floor and her lights dim, Lance pulls his helmet off and groans, scrubbing his hands through his hair. “Whyyy am I such a disaster?” he says to the air.

 

There’s no one there to reply.

 

Lance blows out a long sigh before getting up and traipsing out of Black, tucking his helmet under his arm. Maybe he can sneak in a quick shower before heading up to the control deck to see whatever that message Allura got is about. Being a leader is fucking busy; no wonder he rarely saw Shiro.

 

He’s embarrassingly deep in a daydream about a long, hot, uninterrupted shower when someone beside him says, “Hey.”

 

Blinking, he looks down. Pidge is walking at his elbow, her own helmet pulled off and a scowl on her face. He quirks a smile down at her as he ruffles her messy hair. “Hey. What’s up?”

 

Her brow furrows a little further, staring into the distance like she’s trying to figure out the best way to bring down a Galra battlecrusier single-handedly-- and Lance knows because he’s seen her do it. After a long moment, she says, “I think it’s my fault.”

 

“What is?”

 

She waves a hand. “You know. Forming Voltron. Or not, I guess.”

 

He catches her shoulder, forcing her to halt. She’s not looking him in the eyes. “Pidge. How is that your fault?”

 

She shrugs free of his hand. “How is it not, Lance? I’m supposed to be your right hand now-- like, literally-- and I have no idea how to do that! Every time I try I just think about how I’m not Keith, or you, and then…” She mimes an explosion with her hands. “So, yeah. Pretty sure it’s my fault.”

 

Lance stares at her for a second before throwing his arms out. “Well, I think that might be impossible, because I’m pretty sure it’s my fault.”

 

She snorts. “Yeah, right.”

 

Lance jabs a finger at her. “That’s what I’m saying! Pidge, come on. You’re doing great. Why are you comparing yourself to Keith?”

 

His tongue catches on the name for a second, and from the cloud that passes over Pidge’s face, he knows she heard it. “Because I’m not him,” she says, “and we both know it.”

 

He stares into her hard eyes for a long moment before sighing, sagging against the nearest wall and pinching the bridge of his nose. “Okay, listen,” he begins, “I’m not going to pretend like I don’t wish he was here, because I do, and we both know it. So I won’t lie to you about that. But I promise you, there is no one else in the universe I would rather have as my second Red Paladin than you, okay?”

 

She studies him for a second before silently holding out her hand, pinky raised. Lance swallows hard before looping it with his. “Okay,” she says.

 

He loops an arm around her shoulders and starts walking them back up the hall. “Come on, deputy. We still have time to shower before the princess calls us to attend to our duties.”

 

“Some of us definitely need it,” she remarks primly.

 

“All right, you know what? I’ve changed my mind. You’re fired.”

 

Cackling, she leads the way into the elevator.

 

  • .  * *

✷       ·     

  •       

  * *   . ⋆   

*             ..  ·

   *  .   ✵   *

  ✦

 

Lance is still trying to ruffle the water out of his hair when he walks onto the control deck half a varga later. Allura and Coran turn as he enters. “Hey, guys,” he greets them, frowning as he catches sight of Allura tugging on a piece of her long silver hair-- one of her nervous ticks. “What’s going on? What was that message about?”

 

Coran answers him. “There’s a planet nearby asking for our aid in ending a civil war, and to join the coalition for protection against the Galra.”

 

Lance leans against a nearby console, studying the holographic image of the planet Coran pulls up. “Sounds simple enough.”

 

“There’s a problem,” Allura says, and Lance sighs.

 

“Isn’t there always?”

 

She smiles ruefully, coming up beside Coran to zoom the image out farther with a gesture. “The planet is part of a binary system, and the nation living on the other planet contacted us twenty doboshes after the first one, asking for exactly the same thing.”

 

“Cool,” Lance says, drawing the word out. “So why are they fighting? And what are we supposed to do about it?”

 

“The first planet has a high density, with lots of deposits of metals and minerals.” As Coran speaks, he pulls up lists of elements and materials, complete with descriptions in Altean. “The people who live there, the Glosid, have an economy based on the manufacturing of goods based on mined materials-- primarily, weapons and farming equipment. The second planet--” the image shifts again-- “has an atmosphere rich in oxygen and nitrogen, with a temperate climate and plenty of water. Its inhabitants, the Nekeer, are an agrarian society. The planets have survived for thousands of years by trading with each other.”

 

Allura takes over. “For the last several decaphoebs, it seems the planets have engaged in a type of civil war. The Nekeer say that the Glosid have become violent and threatened them with enslavement or genocide, while the Glosid claim the Nekeer began withholding food shipments to barter for more weapons.”

 

Lance raises an eyebrow. “Galra?”

 

“No attacks so far,” Coran says, “but rebels forces in the quadrant have seen scouting parties moving into the area.”

 

“So it’s only a matter of time,” Lance summarizes.

 

“Well, we can always hope, but it is the Galra we’re talking about here.”

 

“Great. So what’s the plan?”

 

“Peace talks,” Allura says, raising her voice over Lance’s groan as she continues. “I know they’re not your favorite, and I’m sorry, Lance, but the Glosid could be a valuable ally to the coalition.”

 

“But they’re so boring. Can’t you just do it, Allura? You’re good at all that political junk.”

 

“Unfortunately, the Glosid and Nekeer have both demanded the presence of the full Voltron team before they’ll even consider entering into talks.”

 

“Because the universe hates me,” Lance mutters.

 

Allura lets that one slide, tugging at her hair again. “There’s something else.”

 

Lance snorts. “Of course there is.”

 

With a quick glance at Coran, Allura laces her fingers in front of her and says, “As yet, we’ve managed to avoid letting it slip that two of our paladins… left us, as it were. I know it’s been difficult to have to limit our search for Keith and Shiro, but with the way things have been with the Galra lately, keeping our weaknesses secret is critical to hold our ground against them and keep our allies’ faith in us strong. Coran and I have been talking and we think that to maintain our cover, and continue protecting Shiro and Keith, we should consider our appearances.”

 

Frowning, Lance looks between them. “Sorry, Princess, I’m not following.”

 

“We need to match your armor colors with your Lions,” Coran says helpfully.

 

Lance fights through a sudden tightness in his chest to ask, “How exactly is that going to help?”

 

“Well, for one thing, we have no guarantee that anyone actually knows what we look like, beyond what Lions we fly and what color our armor is,” Allura points out. “Besides, even if they do, it makes the rearrangement of our paladins look more… intentional.”

 

“Considering our appearances,” Lance echoes dully.

 

Allura’s face crumples, and she reaches out to lay a hand on his shoulder. “Lance, I am so sorry. I’m not trying to erase Keith and Shiro, I promise. It’s just…”

 

“We have a duty to the universe,” he finishes for her. “I know, Allura. It’s okay.” He looks her in the eyes as he says it, shifts his gaze to Coran to include him too. “You guys are right. Right now, looking like we’re operating like normal is the most important thing we can do to keep everyone safe.” He hesitates for a second before adding, “Could you guys tell the others?”

 

Coran nods. “I’ll handle it,” he says gently. “We should have another few quintants before we can get the peace talks started.”

 

“Thanks. Keep me posted.” Lance pushes himself up off the console and walks out of the control deck.

 

He’s back in his room before he’s thought about it. They stopped training early, so there’s still a couple hours left before dinner. He could probably go find one of the others-- Hunk and Pidge have some new toy project they’ve been working on, and Matt’s been hitting the training deck hard to practice with his bayard-- but honestly, he doesn’t really want to see anyone else.

 

Dimming the lights, he falls onto his bed and sighs through his teeth. A nap would probably do him some good, since he’s still not sleeping too well, but he feels too restless. Unsettled, his mom said once. It’s not an unfamiliar feeling, but he’s not used to dealing with it alone anymore. Lance squeezes his eyes shut.

 

✷             .

       *          .       ˚         

      ˚    ✦     .     ˚   

     .   ˚          * .    

     *   ·

    .         ˚         .    

     ✺     

 

The harsh light of the two suns was blinding even through his squint, and Lance put a hand up to shield his eyes. “Man, it’s too quiznacking hot out. What was Coran thinking, sending us down here?”

 

“And how come Allura and Shiro get to stay on the Castle?” Hunk whined beside him, mopping the sweat off his brow.

 

“And why couldn’t Coran give us a better description of what we’re looking for?” Pidge grumbled, her face hidden under the wide-brimmed sun hat Allura had dug out for her.

 

Keith looked back at them all, trailing after him, with a raised brow. Lance swallowed hard at the sight of him. His dark hair was pulled up off the back of his neck in a short ponytail, and the bright light lit his eyes to a breathtaking shade of cobalt. Even though his bangs hung damp with sweat, he looked perfectly comfortable in the sweltering heat, way prettier than anyone had any right to be. Lance ignored the fluttering of his heart and forced his gaze back to scanning the stalls they were passing as Keith asked, “How come I got stuck with the three of you whiners?”

 

Scowling, Lance tugged at his shirt, trying to air out his sweaty torso. “Don’t tease us, Keith, we’re melting.”

 

Keith rolled his eyes, but he led them through the crush of people into a narrow alleyway. Lance breathed a sigh of relief as they stepped into the shade and leaned back against the cool stones behind him. Hunk slid down to stick his feet out in front of him with a grateful groan, and Pidge sat down next to him, pulling her hat off and using it to fan herself. Standing above them with his hands on his hips, Keith just shook his head. “It’s not that bad.”

 

“It’s terrible,” Lance corrected. “We haven’t even found... whatever that thing is Coran needs yet, it’s hotter than Red’s ass after she’s been swimming in lava, and we’ve covered approximately one-fiftieth of this freakin’ place.” He threw an arm out to indicate the giant, open-air market they’ve spent the last two vargas scouring.

 

“A tellurium isotope bearing,” Hunk told him.

 

“Great. That’s, like, half of one of the three problems I just mentioned.”

 

Keith rolled his eyes again, but there was a definite smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Okay, fine. How about we split up? Lance and I will go check the stalls up on the plateau while Pidge and Hunk head down towards the river.”

 

Lance’s stomach knotted up at the idea of alone with Keith.

 

Hunk perked up. “River? Like water? Like we can go jump in water?”

 

Pidge squinted up at Keith. “I’m pretty sure this is just an excuse to get Lance alone so you guys can be gross, but one, I appreciate you at least trying to spare us, and two, your offering of water is accepted.”

 

Lance hadn’t thought it was possible for his face to get even hotter. “Wh-- Shut up, Pidge!”

 

Keith, the bastard, looked completely unapologetic as he shrugged and said, “Whatever. I just want to find that tellurium thing and get back to the Castle.”

 

“Suuure,” Pidge said, leveling him with a look. Keith stared her down. After a long moment, she stood, brushing her shorts off and shoving her hat back on her head. “Like you said, whatever. Come on, Hunk, I bet we can find that bearing, go for a swim and get back to the Castle before Lance and Keith have even finished making out in this dirty alley.”

 

“Gross,” Hunk commented as he rose. “But you’re probably right.”

 

“We’re classier than that!” Lance yelled after them as they stepped back into the bright sunlight and vanished into the crowd. Scoffing, he looked over at Keith. “Can you believe them?”

 

Keith cocked his head. “Does that mean you’re opposed to making out in this dirty alley?” He let Lance splutter for a few seconds before grabbing his hand and pulling him off in the opposite direction. “Come on, we have a tellurium thing to find.”

 

Lance swallowed hard before saying, “You know, it was probably a bad idea to let the two people who actually know what the part we’re looking for is called go off together.”

 

“Maybe.” Keith didn’t look back at him or drop his hand, he just kept tugging Lance through a warren of dark passages.

 

Lance watched his ponytail bounce for a minute, a little mesmerized. “We could probably catch up to them if we turned around,” he tried.

 

Keith didn’t say anything. A cloud of nervous butterflies started fluttering in Lance’s stomach again as they made their way down a long, dark tunnel. When they emerged, climbing up a short flight of stairs, Lance was temporarily blinded and deafened by the sunlight and marketplace noise; for a long second, the only sensation he could clearly make out was the feeling of Keith’s fingers wrapped around his.

 

As he blinked the spots out of his eyes and adjusted to the roar of the crowd, Keith finally let go. Lance looked over at him, but Keith appeared completely nonchalant, saying, “Let’s try this way,” before diving into the streams of people. With a muttered curse, Lance squeezed through after him.

 

It was hotter up here on the plateau, but the farther they got from the center of the market, the more the crowds thinned out. Keith and Lance spent over a varga wandering through rows upon rows of stalls, selling all kinds of wares from every corner of the galaxy. As the minutes passed, Lance forgot his nerves and started pointing out cool things to Keith, chatting with the owners of the various stalls, even picking up a couple trinkets here and there.

 

He caught Keith’s quizzical look after he purchased a glowing replica of a space whale. “What? I like to collect stuff from the places we go.”

 

Keith shrugged. “Nothing. It’s cute.”

 

“Uh,” Lance said, mind blanking. “Thanks.”

 

A frown touched the corners of Keith’s mouth, but he didn’t say anything, moving off again through the aisles. Lance rushed after him.

 

A few minutes later, though, Keith stopped walking and threw his hands in the air. “This is ridiculous.”

 

Lance hummed in agreement. “At this pace, we’ll find it approximately next decaphoeb.” Scoffing, Keith crossed his arms, scowling into the distance. Lance waited, but he didn’t say anything. After a minute, he asked, “Hey, you wanna take a break?”

 

Keith studied him for a second before nodding.

 

Lance pointed over his shoulder. “There was that booth selling that purple juice a few rows back. I’ll go get us some.”

 

The tense line of Keith’s shoulders relaxed a fraction. “Okay. Thanks.”

 

“Sure, man. Here, hold my stuff.” Lance pushed his purchases into Keith’s hands before jogging off, making a face as beads of sweat rolled down his temples.

 

A short wait later and he was walking back to Keith, holding two massive cups of ice-cold purple liquid that a quick analysis in his wrist computer assured him was probably not poisonous. Keith was waiting where he’d left him, carefully clutching Lance’s glowing whale. “Thanks, buddy,” Lance said, trading him for one of the cups.

 

Keith nodded down one of the side rows. “I think the cliffs are over there. Come on.”

 

“What, you get so hot you’re ready to jump?” Lance asked, but he followed him down the quiet passage. Keith was right; the booths stopped after a couple dozen yards, giving way to a large, rocky open area. They picked their way through it, and as they approached the edge, Lance’s jaw dropped. “Wow.”

 

The view was spectacular. The rest of the market was spread out to their right, crawling along the edge of the massive cliffs as the city soared into the sky behind it. A couple miles away, a massive waterfall spilled out into empty space, fed by the river Pidge and Hunk were probably swimming in. They were so high the water dissipated into a heavy mist before it ever reached the ground, refracting the most intense rainbow Lance had ever seen, but the constant moisture had given rise to a thick, lush forest that filled the valley below.

 

Entranced, Lance sat down on one of the big rocks near the edge, watching a flock of birds flying through the treetops hundreds of feet below them. It was cooler up here, with a constant breeze blowing up the face of the cliff, and he breathed in air that smelled like forests in the summer and closed his eyes.

 

He felt Keith sit down next to him, close without actually touching; he wanted so badly to reach out and lace their fingers together, lean into him, something, but the knot of anxiety in his stomach twisted hard. He took a long drink instead. It was good, kind of fruity and a little flowery, with something cool on the aftertaste, like mint.

 

They sat there quietly for a few minutes, taking it all in. With the heat from the two suns in the sky tempered by the breeze, Lance actually started to feel a little sleepy. He and his siblings called it “sun lazy” when he was younger, back on Earth.

 

Eventually, though, Keith shifted in the particular way that meant he was about to say something, and Lance cracked open eyes that had fallen shut without his permission to look over at him.

 

Keith frowned out at the beautiful landscape as he asked, “Is something wrong with this?”

 

Lance’s nerves came back online with the speed of a rocket booster. “Uh. No?” he tried.

 

Keith sent him a look. “Sure.” He chewed on his lip for a second before saying, “Listen, Lance, if you don’t want to do this, we don’t have to.”

 

“Look for this dumb part for Coran?”

 

“Date, Lance. We can just… be friends. Or whatever.”

 

Even the two suns couldn’t stop the ice cold chill that went up Lance’s spine as Keith said it. “What? No, of course I do! I want to, I mean. Date.”

 

Keith turned to fix him with his dark eyes. “Then why are you acting so weird?”

 

“I’m not...” Lance trailed off. “I don’t know. It’s dumb. I don’t know if you’d get it.”

 

“Well, I definitely don’t get it right now.”

 

“Okay, okay.” Lance took a deep breath. “I just… I don’t know. Sometimes I can’t shake the feeling I’m going to mess up, I guess. Like I’m never gonna be who you want me to be and eventually you’ll get tired and leave. Or I’ll do something dumb and you’ll get hurt, or realize you’re wasting your time. I guess I’m just... scared. It’s stupid,” he mumbled.

 

“Lance,” Keith said after a second. “Look at me?”

 

It was a request that Lance obeyed reluctantly, dragging his gaze up to meet Keith’s.

 

“I like you because you are you, Lance. You don’t have to be someone else. I don’t want anyone else.” He paused for a second, brow furrowing. “People make mistakes,” he says finally. “I don’t expect you to be perfect, whatever the hell that even means. Everyone knows I’m not even close. But that’s the point of this, right? We’re in it together. It doesn’t all rest on you.”

 

Those last words unknotted Lance’s stomach a little, brought a smile to his face. He reached out and laced their fingers together. “Yeah, okay.”

 

Keith studied him for another second before smiling back, apparently satisfied. “Good.” Leaning forward, he kissed Lance breathless.

 

“Hey, Keith?” Lance murmured after a minute.

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Pidge was right. I totally would have made out with you in a dirty alley.”

 

Grinning, he captured Keith’s laughing mouth in another kiss.

 

✧ .    *      ·       

      

+         .         .       

*    ·        .·    ✵ .

   *    *          

   .    *    ✫              ·     

      *    ✵

 

Someone knocks on Lance’s door and he jerks out of the doze he’d fallen into. “What’s up?” he calls, muffling a yawn with the back of his hand.

 

“Dinnertime,” Hunk says through the door. “I came to get you because Pidge and I were worried you were gonna sulk in your room all night about the armor thing.”

 

Lance rolls his eyes as he stands, tugging his jacket on. “Gee, thanks, buddy. That’s really sweet of you.”

 

“No problem, man.” Hunk beams as he opens the door. Lance shakes his head but can’t help his answering smile. “Seriously, though,” Hunk asks, sobering, “are you okay?”

 

Lance takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. “Yeah, I think I am. Just trying to get used to…” He flaps a hand. “You know. Everything.”

 

Hunk nods. “Yeah, I get you. You know, we’re here if you need us.”

 

“I know,” Lance answers, avoiding his eyes. “Thanks, dude. Now, how about some dinner, huh?”

 

Sweeping an arm out to gesture down the hallway, Hunk says, “After you, sir.”

 

With a dramatic flourish, Lance steps out of his room. “Why, thank you, sir.”

 

As Hunk laughs and slings an arm around his shoulders, Lance puts on a smile that only feels half-forced and banishes the sun-soaked memories from his mind. This is how things are now. He’ll get used to it eventually.

 

✦  * ⊹    

     ✵   .

⊹      

     ⊹       ✺    ✷   ✵

    ⊹      

   ⊹ ·        ·



Lance’s brain hates him. He wakes up ridiculously early, panting and a little sweaty, and yeah it was another dream about Keith, but it was very very different from the nightmares he’s been plagued with recently.

 

“Are you serious?” Lance grumbles, flopping onto his back and glaring at the ceiling.

 

Whatever higher power is in charge of the universe and his life in particular doesn’t deign to reply.

 

With a frustrated groan, Lance scrubs the sweat and sleepiness from his face. “This is not happening,” he says to his dick. “I am not doing this with you right now. I just want one decent night of sleep, is that too much to ask?”

 

Its stubborn silence is answer enough.

 

Twenty minutes later, Lance gives up. About ten minutes after that, he’s pulling on his gear and stomping down to the training deck, now fully awake thanks to certain inconsiderate bodily functions, and ready to beat his frustrations out in a few rounds of Gladiator training. Phrasing, god.

 

He takes a minute to run through some simple exercises with the Black Bayard before starting the training sequence. He’s used three of them now-- Blue, Red, and Black-- and there’s a difference in the way they all feel. Maybe it’s reflective of the Lions and the paladins, having different energies and whatever. Allura would probably know.

 

Whatever the case, he shifts the Black Bayard through a few different forms-- standard rifle, sniper, sword-- trying to get used to the feeling of it in his hands. Eventually, he settles on a form he’s rarely used in the past, but feels more comfortable now: a high-powered pistol that leaves his left hand free to use his shield.

 

He tests the heft of it in his hand as he walks over to the control panel. “I guess the universe has a plan in mind for me, huh?” he says to it. Quiznack, he really needs to stop talking to things that can’t answer back. Taking a deep breath to steady himself, he starts the sequence, and a Gladiator drops to the floor.

 

It doesn’t take him too long to fall into a rhythm. Aiming is harder than he’s used to since he only has one hand to steady his bayard, but having a shield means he’s able to get into closer range.

 

He’s just changed the difficulty and started a new sequence when the door slides open and Matt walks in. A bubble of panic rises in Lance’s throat; it’s still too early for anyone else to just be up. “End sequence,” he calls, pulling his helmet off and jogging over to Matt. “What’s going on?”

 

Matt holds his hands up. “Whoa, easy. Everything’s fine.”

 

“Really?” Lance asks, still trying to catch his breath. “Then why are you up so early?”

 

“I couldn’t sleep. Why are you up so early?”

 

“... Couldn’t sleep.”

 

There’s a knowing and sympathetic light in Matt’s eyes as he smiles at him, and for a second Lance is reminded of Shiro so strongly it hurts. “Bad dreams?”

 

“Something like that,” Lance hedges, busying himself with holstering his bayard.

 

Thankfully, Matt doesn’t pick up on it. “Yeah, I get them too. I actually come down here a lot in the mornings. Well, if you could call this morning.” He moves around Lance to the middle of the room, beginning a series of stretches. “It’s a lot quieter here than with the rebels. Either you’re out on a mission and you have no time for training, or you’re in between missions and there are people everywhere at every hour of the day.” He laughs quietly. “I used to think Shiro’s habit of three A.M. showers at the Garrison was weird. Eating lunch in the same mess hall where people are having a midnight snack is way more surreal.”

 

Lance’s stomach sinks at the wistful look on his face. “Matt,” he starts, looking at his feet, “I am so sorry, man. I know Shiro’s your best friend, and we…” He swallows. “We messed up. We should have seen it. I should have seen it.”

 

A hand lands on his shoulder, and he looks at Matt’s serious face. “Lance, none of this is your fault. I could have seen it too; any one of us could have. The fact is, we didn’t. And pointing fingers isn’t going to get us anywhere. You might not have been able to save Shiro back in that base, but you did save my sister.” Matt smiles. “I owe you for that. But please, don’t blame yourself for this, especially when you’re working harder than anyone to find him and Keith.”

 

Lance can’t get any words past the tightness in his throat, so he just nods instead. With one last clap to his shoulder, Matt steps back and resumes his stretching. “So, do you want to talk about your nightmares?” he asks.

 

Lance screws his face up. “Not really.”

 

“I know this sounds cliche, but it really does help.”

 

“Did it help you?” Lance asks, curious, as he walks across the room to grab a pack of what Hunk and Pidge dubbed “enriched water.”

 

Matt nods as he pulls his bayard out and it shifts into a long staff, crackling with electricity at the ends. “Absolutely. I used to wake up screaming from nightmares every night. Sometimes more. Now, I only get really bad ones every once in a while.”

 

“That sounds awful.”

 

Shrugging ruefully, Matt starts warming up with his bayard. “I’m glad they’re better, that’s for sure.”

 

“What were they about?” Lance asks it without thinking, rushing to cover himself when he realizes. “I mean, you don’t have to tell me. Sorry.”

 

Matt waves a hand, pausing to lean on his staff. “It’s fine, don’t apologize. Like I said, talking about them helps.” He thinks for a second, brow creasing in an expression Lance has seen on Pidge’s face a thousand times. “They didn’t really get bad until I joined the rebels. I think I wasn’t able to really process everything that was happening while I was still a prisoner of the Galra. Once I was free, it was like it all came crashing down on me. I had the worst, most realistic dreams I’ve ever had-- being stuck in the Galra work camps, my dad being dragged away, watching Shiro fight in the arena…” He lets that one hang for a moment before continuing. “Sometimes, I’d dream we were back on Kerberos, and I knew something horrible was about to happen, but I could never stop it. The world always crumbled around us before I could do anything.

 

“The dreams kept getting worse, until I started waking up whole ships screaming. One of my buddies tried to wake me up once and I punched him,” he remembers. “I started forcing myself to stay awake as long as possible after that, but it didn’t help. I was just out of it all the time. Eventually, I passed out during flight training. That was when my C.O. at the time made me go talk to a psychiatrist.”

 

“That sounds horrible,” Lance says after a minute.

 

Matt laughs. “It wasn’t fun, that’s for sure. But the point is, I’m better now. I still have nightmares sometimes, but they’re not out of control like they were before. I don’t get lost in them anymore. I’m still me. And it’s why it’s important for you to talk to someone if you’re suffering.”

 

Lance hesitates, then shakes his head. “I appreciate it, man, really, but my nightmares aren’t that bad. Besides, yours came from these horrible things that happened to you. Mine are just nightmares.”

 

Shrugging, Matt straightens and twirls his staff. “Trauma isn’t always that black-and-white. I’m not trying to push you into anything,” he adds. “I just want you to know that if you need help, it’s there for you.”

 

Lance swallows hard again. “Yeah. Thanks, Matt.”

 

“Anytime.” Matt levels his staff at him. “Now, you up for kicking a few Gladiator butts before breakfast?”

 

Grinning, Lance shoves his helmet on and pulls out his bayard. “I could be talked into it.”

 

*                 ✦

 .   *

  •    ✦      +      

     .    +    

 .    .    ✹  

   . * .  ˚ ·

  •          .

 

For all their advanced design and technological capabilities, the Alteans really lacked any kind of decorating sense. Lance stares at the blank wall of the formal dining hall with unfocused eyes, wondering absently if Allura and Coran will kill him if he starts buying posters at the galactic markets they pass through sometimes and sticking them up everywhere. Do other planets have crappy boyband posters like his sisters used to wallpaper their bedrooms in? God, he hopes so.

 

This conference, peace talk, negotiation, whatever, has already been dragging on for over five vargas, and as far as he can tell, there’s been no progress at all. The leaders of the Glosid and Nekeer nations, named Ruvator Daeli and Namurn, respectively, are both uncompromising in their opinions that any treaties between them will just lead to vulnerabilities in the future. Lance isn’t quite sure how that’s better than starving or being slaughtered, but hey, he’s never been one for politics. And because neither one fully trusts the other, they’ve each brought a contingent of bodyguards. Allura and Coran confiscated all their weapons before allowing them onto the Castle, but there’s still a whole lot of people crammed into the dining hall.

 

Even though they’re from different nations, the Glosid and Nekeer look largely the same. Each person has a large, curved carapace with four arms ending in three-fingered hands, and they vary in color from dark grey to a light tan. In fact, the only way Lance can really tell them apart is by the intricate designs the Nekeer have painted onto their bodies. It makes sense, actually; up until a few decaphoebs ago, these people lived together in a close alliance, with free travel between their planets. They’re the same, really. Too bad they don’t seem to get that.

 

He jumps as Pidge’s elbow digs into his side, tuning back into the present to see every face at the table turned towards him. Allura’s diplomatic smile has strained into a grimace over the vargas, and now her eyes are promising murder as Lance says, “Uhh… sorry, what?”

 

Namurn inclines her head in a gesture Lance is beginning to suspect is similar to humans rolling their eyes. “The princess wished to hear your opinion on the threat that the Galra poses us.”

 

“Oh. Uh, well, they’re definitely bad news.”

 

Beside him, Pidge thunks her forehead down onto the table.

 

“I mean…” Lance tries to channel his inner Shiro. “The Galra Empire threatens all the nations in the universe. Zarkon has spent the last ten thousand years conquering planets and imprisoning or enslaving their people.”

 

“Yes, we know this,” Ruvator Daeli says impatiently. “Your princess told us that in the first three doboshes of this pointless meeting. The fact is, the Galra have left us alone so far, and if they even try to set foot in our system, the Glosid will show them what real warriors look like.”

 

Every Glosid lined up along the wall stomps their foot and shouts in unison. Lance does his best to not be visibly intimidated. “Oh,” he squeaks again.

 

Allura closes her eyes briefly before speaking. “I understand your opinion, Ruvator Daeli, but the fact of the matter is we’ve had more experience dealing with the Galra. Eventually, Zarkon will turn his attention onto your planets. This civil war between you only weakens your defenses.”

 

“Which is why we should be granted full access to the Nekeer’s resources,” Ruvator Daeli argues. “We can build the strongest army in the quadrant, and stop the Galra infection from spreading further.”

 

Namurn slams her hand down on the table as her people bristle behind her. “You would turn our people into your slaves, Ruvator. We shall never allow this, as long as there is breath left in our bodies.”

 

“Then perhaps I should snuff it out,” Ruvator Daeli hisses.

 

“Enough!” Allura’s voice rings through the room, and the seething aliens subside a little. “We came here to help you reach an agreement and offer our aid in protecting your people, not listen to your circular arguments. That offer still stands, but we refuse to involve ourselves in your civil wars.” She pauses, taking a deep breath. “We’ll adjourn for the quintant. Tomorrow, we will continue our discussions, and we will find a compromise.” Her blue eyes are hard as diamonds as she fixes each leader with a stern look. “I would suggest that you return to your people tonight, and consider what is really important: their lives, or your egos.” With that, she rises and sweeps out of the room.

 

Coran steps in smoothly. “All right, everyone, I’ll escort you back to your pods.”

 

“I’ll come with,” Matt volunteers, standing.

 

It takes forever for the aliens to filter out of the room, since the Glosid and Nekeer insist on keeping at least six feet of empty space between their enemies at all times, and the door really isn’t large enough for that. Lance, Pidge and Hunk watch them go, standing by the door Allura vanished through at the other end of the room.

 

“Think we should go after Allura?” Lance asks, watching the last Nekeer march out.

 

“I think she might skin you with a spoon if you do,” Pidge answers. “What the shit was that, dude?”

 

Lance throws his hands in the air. “I don’t know! I’m not qualified for this!”

 

“Yeah, clearly.” Pidge shakes her head with a huff. “I need to go break something. If anyone needs me, I’ll be in the workshop.”

 

“Don’t break the electromag sensor array I’ve been working on, please,” Hunk calls after her as she stomps down the hall.

 

She waves a hand. “Yeah, yeah.”

 

Lance watches her go; her coppery hair looks brighter against the red of her new armor, shining like embers under the cold lights of the Castle. He’s still not used to his own black armor; it makes him seem older, somehow. Or maybe it’s just his brain projecting how tired he feels. “She’s right,” he says to Hunk, “that was terrible.”

 

Hunk claps him on the shoulder. “No, man, you did great.”

 

Lance shoots a look at him.

 

“Okay, so it could have gone better,” Hunk amends. “But I know what’ll make you feel better.”

 

“What?”

 

“Space cookies! Come on, I just got some ingredients the other day and I’ve been dying to try a new recipe out. You can help me.”

 

“I do like the sound of cookies,” Lance admits, letting Hunk sling his arm around his shoulders and guide him down the hall.

 

“See? Food makes everything better.”

 

Lance snorts. “Hunk, I could be the best baker in the galaxy and it still wouldn’t make me any better at this leader junk. Actually, maybe we should test that theory. Do you want to be the Black Paladin?”

 

Placing his free hand over his chest, Hunk says, “Bro, do you really think I’m the best baker in the galaxy?”

 

“You’re the best baker in all galaxies, buddy. No thinking required.”

 

Hunk pretends to wipe away a tear. “To answer your question, though, no, I do not want to be the Black Paladin.”

 

“Neither do I,” Lance grumbles as they walk into the kitchen.

 

Hunk lets him go and starts pulling things out of cupboards. Lance perches on a counter, watching him line up a series of containers holding dubious-looking powders. “Yeah, but Black picked you,” he points out.

 

“And I wish she didn’t.”

 

Hunk pauses for a second to look at him. “Okay, serious moment, here, dude? I know. This has been a really sucky… what, two pheobs? Something like that? Anyways, ever since we went to that creepy base in that weird system, everything has gone sideways. Especially for you. And I’m really sorry, man. I know it’s been a lot, and you’re trying to pretend like it’s all okay, but the thing is? It’s not.”

 

Lance’s eyes sting, suddenly, and he has to look away.

 

“But even with all that,” Hunk continues, turning back to the cupboards, “I know Black made the right choice. We all know that, Lance.”

 

“But we still can’t form Voltron,” Lance points out, clearing the rasp out of his throat, “and we aren’t any closer to finding Keith and Shiro, and I can’t even make it through one diplomatic meeting without looking like an idiot.”

 

“So? It takes time to adjust.”

 

“Shiro and Keith did great when they were the Black Paladins.”

 

Hunk snorts. “Uh, really? We were on the same team Voltron? Because as I recall, we couldn’t form Voltron for a while when we first teamed up either. And you’re definitely forgetting how Keith almost got us killed, like, three times when he was Black Paladin. Not to mention his idea of diplomacy was storming out of the room after yelling at everyone.”

 

“Okay, maybe,” Lance admits after a second, “but Shiro was still way better than I am when he first started.”

 

“Yeah, dude, because Shiro had practice. He used to be a bigshot pilot at the Garrison, remember? He led all kinds of crazy missions. This is the first team you’ve ever led.” As he speaks, Hunk begins measuring ingredients into a bowl. “And if you want my honest opinion-- and I’m not even saying this as your best bro-- you’re probably the best person in the whole universe after Shiro to be Black Paladin.”

 

Lance frowns, picking at the edge of his new bracer. “What about Keith? And Allura?”

 

“Listen, I love Keith, but he was never great as Black Paladin. He got better, but it was never where he was supposed to be. And Allura is fantastic, don’t get me wrong, but she gets too caught up in stuff sometimes. You’ve always been better than anyone at seeing the whole picture, you know? You’ve always got our backs because you know what we’re going to do and where we’re vulnerable. That’s probably the most valuable trait you can look for in a leader, honestly.”

 

Hunk pours some liquid into his mix and starts beating. Lance sits there for a while, trying to find the words. Eventually he just croaks, “Thanks, Hunk.”

 

With a shrug, Hunk says, “Just speaking the truth, dude. Allura and Pidge are frustrated, but they believe in you too. It’ll take a little time, but you’ll get there.”

 

Lance sighs. “And in the meantime, I’m going to embarrass myself in front of alien peace delegations. Great.”

 

“Yeah, you do need to work on that.”

 

“Wow, all that support gone in an instant. Thanks, buddy.”

 

Hunk shrugs again, cheerfully. “Like I said, speaking the truth.” He ducks the spoon Lance chucks at him. “Seriously, though, what were you even aiming for in there?”

 

“I was trying to act like Shiro,” Lance grumbles.

 

Hunk levels him with a look. “See, dude, this is what I’m saying. You’re not Shiro, so stop trying to be. You’ve done great with other meetings we’ve had, especially with convincing people the Blade aren’t like the Galra Empire. You’re good with people. Just be yourself.”

 

“Can’t I be someone else?” Lance whines, laying back on the counter. “This shit is hard.”

 

Hunk lifts a batter-covered spoon. “If you’re someone else, you won’t get to taste my cookie dough.”

 

Huffing a laugh, Lance says, “Okay, okay, fine. I’ll stop trying so hard. Now cookies, please.” He makes grabby hands at Hunk.

 

“I haven’t even put the space chocolate chips in, Lance, hold up.”

 

“Feed your glorious leader, Hunk, or I’ll give you demerits.”

 

“Universe help me, I’ve created a monster.”

 

⋆ *   · ✷  

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  . ✵       ˚    

* ✷   ✵

 

Lance doesn’t know if Hunk is psychic or secretly controls the universe, but things do seem a little better the next day. Allura’s calmer, Coran manages to convince the leaders that they don’t need quite so many bodyguards, and Namurn, at least, seems a lot more willing to actually make a deal. Ruvator Daeli, on the other hand, is digging his heels in.

 

“There is no compromise you can offer me, Princess, that I will find acceptable,” the Glosid says for the third time in that last varga and a half, raising his voice to drown out Allura. Beside Lance, Pidge mutters a nasty Altean curse. “My people will not be beholden to this planet of farmers.”

 

Namurn surges to her feet. “Without us, you would all starve, you stubborn old chentans.” Lance doesn’t know the word, but she spits it with enough acid that its meaning is clear.

 

Allura holds her hands up. “Please, settle down. Ruvator Daeli, I understand that relying on others can be difficult, but building alliances can create--”

 

Ruvator Daeli slams a massive, three-fingered hand down on the table. “Trust and alliances! How far did that get your father, Princess?”

 

There’s a beat of dead silence before Lance is up on his feet, Hunk, Pidge and Matt following suit a fraction of a tick later. Allura’s gone ashen, her lips pressed into a thin line. “Don’t you dare bring what happened with the Alteans into this,” Lance says, pulse thundering in his ears. “Alliances are the only way to defeat the Galra Empire and bring peace to the universe. King Alfor always believed that, and now Allura’s working towards it, so don’t you dare.”

 

There’s a flash as Pidge summons her bayard. A couple of the Glosid move forward, but Lance has already put a hand on her shoulder. “No, Pidge.”

 

She opens her mouth to protest, but before she can get a word out, an alarm wails overhead. Coran whips out his tablet, scrolling through video feeds. “Galra,” he says grimly.

 

Pidge curses again, louder this time. “How many?” Lance asks, over the murmuring of the Glosid and Nakeer.

 

“Three battleships. They’re heading this way. Maybe two doboshes out.”

 

“Everyone, get to your Lions,” Lance tells the team.

 

“What about us?” Ruvator Daeli demands as he heads for the door.

 

Lance stops. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he says coldly, “did you want the chance to show everyone the might of the Glosid? You want to take the Galra down single-handed?” There’s silence again as he pauses for a tick. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.” Turning his back on the Glosid leader, he follows his team out the door, sprinting for the hangar.

 

Pidge cheers in his ear as he shoves his helmet on and the comms activate. “Let’s hear it for badass Lance, people!”

 

“Uh, yeah, let’s hear it for almost starting fights at a peace talk.”

 

“Hunk is right. I appreciate it, everyone, but there’s no need to defend me.”

 

“Fuck that. Sorry, Allura, but it’s not about defending you, it’s about that asshole paying our friend the respect she deserves.”

 

“If Mom could hear you, you would be so grounded.”

 

“That’s why we’re in space, Matt.”

 

“I wasn’t going to attack him,” Lance interrupts. “But Pidge is right. What a douchebag.”

 

“Well, you better hope he doesn’t, like, challenge you to a duel after this or something,” Hunk says. “Do people do that in space? Are there space duels?”

 

“Guess we’ll find out.”

 

“Can we stop talking about my imminent death at the hands of a space lobster, please?” Lance asks as he jogs up the ramp into Black’s cockpit. Purple lights flicker to life around him as he drops into the pilot seat. “We have some Galra ass to kick right now.”

 

Coran’s face pops up on the HUD as Black powers up, rising to her full height. “That you do. Thirty ticks out and closing.”

 

Lance blows out a long breath as he guides Black out of the hangar, dropping into the star-studded void of space. In the distance, he can see the purple glow of Galra ships. “Gotcha. Everyone, we’re going to meet them. Keep their attention as far from the planets as possible.”

 

“Roger that.”

 

There’s a flash of red as Pidge blasts by him. “I’ll draw their attention.”

 

“Be careful.”

 

“Will do.”

 

“I’ll help her,” Allura volunteers. “We can open up a hole for you three to join us and get behind them.”

 

“Fine. Hunk, Matt, you guys focus on dismantling their cannons.” As he speaks, the first ship fires at Red. She twists, avoiding the beam with ease; Blue barely ducks the shot from the second ship. Hunk smashes Yellow through the barrier of the third ship before it can fire, and Green swoops in past them, taking down the ion cannon at the front of the ship.

 

The first ships fires again, this time at Black, and Lance can’t shift her fast enough to avoid a glancing blow. Their shared pain rebounds across the link, and he snarls in unison with her.

 

“Lance!”

 

“I’m fine. We gotta get on the other side of them. That could have hit one of the planets.” As he speaks, he shoves hard on Black’s throttles, guiding her under the middle ship to avoid taking more fire.

 

“Fighter jets,” Matt warns, and Lance pulls Black around to see dozens of the small red ships pouring out of the sides of the battleships.

 

“Matt, Hunk, stay on those cannons. Pidge and Allura, we’re going to take out the drones.”

 

Allura is firing Blue’s ice ray before Lance is even finished speaking, catching two jets in the beam. Red smashes through them a second later, firing her laser cannon at another. Lance summons Black’s jawblade and weaves through a line of the drones, narrowing his eyes as a series of smaller shots pepper her side. Black snarls again in his mind; she’s a lot tougher than Blue or Red, and the shots don’t do much more than annoy her, but Lance knows she’ll get tired eventually.

 

Still, they can’t risk letting the fighter jets get close enough to start firing on the Glosid and Nekeer planets. For now, the ticks drag into doboshes as he, Pidge and Allura chase down the ships straying too close to the system.

 

Hunk shouts suddenly. “Matt, look out!”

 

There’s a flash as an ion cannon fires again, and Matt yells as it hits Green dead on. Her yellow eyes flicker and die as she spins away into space.

 

“Matt!” Pidge yells.

 

Lance curses, throwing Black into full speed again and powering towards the battleship. Her jawblade pierces its hull and rips a long gash up the side of the ship, pulling free just in time to slam her claws into the cannon. It crackles with electricity, bent hopelessly out of shape.

 

Pidge blasts towards the prone shape of Green, still calling for her brother. Out of the corner of his eye, Lance sees movement as the other ion cannon on the ship swivels around. “Pidge, no!”

 

He’s too late. The blast catches her full-on, and her pained cry breaks up into static, then silence.

 

With a snarl, Lance blasts the cannon to pieces. “Hunk, protect them,” he orders, pulling Black around to face the last fully-functioning battleship.

 

“On it.”

 

Allura joins him as they blast towards the ship, dodging and weaving the drones who try and slow them down. She’s faster than him, just enough to get one cannon frozen before Black slams into the front of the ship, about where he estimates the bridge to be.

 

Her claws dig into the metal hull easily, peeling it open like a tin can. Lance catches a glimpse of the Galra crew inside, fleeing, as she sticks her mouth into the breach and he fires her laser at full power.

 

The ship rends apart in a series of massive explosions. Lance guides Black free of the blast, a vicious satisfaction pounding in his veins as the fragments of the ship spin off into space.

 

Pidge’s face pops up onscreen. She’s breathing hard, and looks a little dazed, but at least she’s conscious. “Might’ve overdone it there.”

 

Lance huffs a laugh, spinning Black around. One of the battleships, the one Matt and Hunk disabled the cannons on and that Lance didn’t tear up with Black, is turning tail and trying to run. He fires after it, summoning her jawblade again and ripping the ship open down the side. The lights inside flicker and die as their engines fail.

 

Allura and Hunk make short work of the remaining drones. Pidge guards Green until her eyes blink back on. Matt’s video feed is up a fraction of a second later. His visor is cracked and he’s bleeding from a wound on his head, but he responds to Pidge’s frantic questions with a calm, “I’m okay, Pidge,” so he’s probably not about to die.

 

Lance blows out a relieved sigh, slumping down in his seat. Black rumbles underneath him, and he pats her console, smiling ruefully. “Guess we didn’t do too bad, huh, girl?”

 

Pidge and Matt limp on back to the Castle; Hunk, Allura and Lance follow them a couple doboshes later, after they’re sure the Galra have been handled.

 

“Well, we know now the Galra are interested in the Glosid and Nekeer planets,” Hunk points out as they make the short flight back.

 

“We’ll just have to see if this changes things for them,” Allura says grimly.

 

Lance snorts and shakes his head. “If it doesn’t, I say we leave ‘em to the Galra.”

 

Allura doesn’t respond, but Hunk makes a tiny hum of agreement.

 

The Holts are standing in the hangar when they land, Matt obligingly bent over so Pidge can fuss over the cut on his forehead, although Lance can hear him saying, “It’s not that bad, Pidge, I promise,” as he walks towards them.

 

“You guys okay?” Lance asks anyways as he comes to a halt beside them, raking his eyes over them. Matt seems fine other than the head wound. Pidge’s new armor has some scuffs on the left arm, but otherwise she’s undamaged. She looks pissed as all hell, though.

 

“Lance, you better go tell those crustacean-looking motherfuckers that they can make up and join the coalition or I’ll personally deliver them to the Galra myself.”

 

Lance raises an eyebrow. “Think I should word it like that?”

 

“Please,” Allura says as she walks up, “do not.” Behind her, Hunk makes a considering face and then wiggles his hand at Lance in a maybe gesture.

 

Lance gives him a subtle nod before dropping a hand onto Pidge’s shoulder. “How about you and Hunk take Matt up to the infirmary and make sure he’s okay? Allura and I can go deal with our guests.”

 

“Yes, please,” Pidge says. “If I never have to see Ruvator Daeli’s face again, I’ll die happy.”

 

Hunk nods in agreement. “Yeah, those guys aren’t very friendly. Hey, I think there might be some of those novelty band aids we picked up on Vosar left.”

 

Matt blinks. “Um. Should I be worried?”

 

Pidge’s grin is wide and wicked as she takes his hand and pulls him out of the hangar. With a quick wave to Allura and Lance, Hunk trails after them.

 

Lance takes a second to pull his helmet off, making a face as he drags his fingers through sweat-dampened hair. Allura follows suit, shaking out her masses of silver hair before twisting it up into a knot on top of her head. “Are you sure you’re prepared for this?” she asks him as she secures her bun with a few pins.

 

Lance nods, tucking his helmet under his arm. “I’m the Black Paladin, right? Diplomacy comes with the job.”

 

Allura smiles faintly. “I suppose it does.”

 

He offers her his arm with a theatrical bow. “Please, Princess, allow me.”

 

The smile she gives him is warm and genuine this time as she she inclines her head and takes his arm, and they stroll through the halls of the Castle together.

 

Back in the formal dining hall, the Glosid and Nekeer are engaged in a shouting match across the table. Ruvator Daeli is spitting, he’s screeching so loudly. Namun is sitting with her arms crossed and beady eyes closed, scowling, as some of her people pound the table next to her, swearing at the Glosid.

 

The chaos dies down a little as Lance and Allura enter. One of Allura’s eyebrows arches imperiously, and she says in a voice as cold as Blue’s ice beam, “I know that you would not be so foolish as to threaten each other while you’re in the hospitality of my Castle.”

 

No one responds, but the Glosid and Nekeer bodyguards do subside, retreating to their stations along the wall. Namurn does that exasperated movement with her head again. “Princess Allura,” she says, “the Nekeer are ready to agree to the terms of the compromise you’ve laid out for us. I see now that the Galra pose a threat we cannot hope to face alone.”

 

All eyes in the room turn to Ruvator Daeli. His lip curls in a sneer, and Lance grits his teeth as he says, “The Glosid will never agree to such a pitiful insult of a treaty. My people have the strength to stand against the Galra--”

 

“Are you serious?” It bursts out of Lance before he can stop it, and now everyone’s looking at him, but he can’t think straight enough to care. He drops Allura’s arm, marching up to the table to slam his hand down on it, staring Ruvator Daeli down. “You keep talking about your people, but from what I can see, you don’t care about them at all. You got them involved in a civil war where they’re being starved, but have you ever gone hungry for a single day in the last five decaphoebs?” Ruvator Daeli tries to say something, but Lance raises his voice and keeps going. “You talk about protecting your people, but you’re so stubborn you can’t even see the danger they’re facing from the Galra Empire. That’s not strength. That’s stupidity. If you can’t put the needs of your people before your own ego, there’s no way you’re fit to lead them. And you can’t even stop there!”

 

Lance leans forward so he’s eye-to-eye with the Glosid. “The Nekeer are willing to sign a treaty because they understand that their lives are at stake. Me and my team were just out there protecting you-- we could have died-- and you’re still so stuck up your own ass you can’t see it. But I can promise you this, Ruvator Daeli: the Galra are going to come for you someday, and when they do, I’m not going to be in a hurry to save you again.”

 

There’s a few ticks of silence when Lance finishes. He’s breathing hard; the anger he thought he’d gotten under control is buzzing in his ears again, adrenaline sparking down his spine. Allura is stock-still beside him. The Glosid behind Ruvator are stealing glances at one another, though none of them speak. To his right, Lance hears Namurn make a small hum of approval.

 

Finally, Ruvator Daeli finds his voice. “How dare you,” he hisses. “You writhing little chentans. I am the high general of the Glosid. Who are you to talk to me like that?”

 

Lance straightens up. “I’m the Black Paladin of Voltron,” he tells him, acid dripping from every word, “and I don’t give a single shit how you threaten me. You have one way out of what’s coming for you. Take it or leave it.”

 

Spinning on his heel, Lance storms out of the room. Whatever Ruvator Daeli has left to say, he’s not interested in hearing it. As far as he’s concerned, he’s spent enough time on that space worm.

 

He heads back to his room for a quick shower before making his way to the lounge the paladins usually spend their free time hanging around in. As soon as the door slides open, Pidge greets him with a whistle and a round of applause.

 

“We saw it all on the Castle surveillance,” she tells him, a huge grin plastered across her freckled face. “Have I mentioned that badass Lance is the coolest?”

 

He groans, sliding down into the free seat in the pit beside her. “Don’t. I probably wrecked our chances to actually get these people to make a treaty with us.”

 

“Actually, you didn’t,” Matt tells him from across the table with a smile matching his sister’s. He’s got a large pink bandage patterned with fluffy blue creatures stuck to his forehead. “Ruvator Daeli agreed to the terms of the treaty about three doboshes after you walked out. Allura’s finalizing everything with him and Namurn now.”

 

Lance blinks at him. “Seriously?”

 

“Yeah, seriously! Good job, buddy,” Hunk says, handing him a violently orange smoothie. Lance takes it and sips numbly. It tastes like something between citrus and pineapple. “As my mom always says, sometimes the best path to peace is to just yell it out.”

 

“Huh,” Lance says, still reeling a little.

 

“I’d say too bad Keith wasn’t here to see that,” Pidge says, still grinning like a tiny demon, “except I’m pretty sure no one would want to be around for his reaction.”

 

Lance splutters, Matt laughs, and Hunk wrinkles his nose. “Oh, gross.”

 

“Don’t worry, though!” Pidge holds her tablet up. “I made a recording so he can see it when he gets back.”

 

Hunk does a poor imitation of Lance’s voice. “‘I’m the Black Paladin of Voltron.’”

 

Lance pulls his hood down over his eyes as Pidge cracks up. “I hate you guys.”

 

They hug him from either side. “We love you too, buddy,” Hunk says.

 

Lance shakes his head, but he’s smiling as his friends laugh beside him. Maybe Hunk was right; he managed to get through this bit of leadership junk without messing it up too badly.

 

And then the door slides open and Coran is standing there, looking troubled. “Paladins, we may have a problem.”

Chapter Text

Keith is still struggling to understand why it’s taken him so long to know what he has to do. Suddenly all their time spent discreetly scouting and sneaking into what Galra bases they could the past weeks seems like a waste. Not only of time, but of resources, though the time does sting infinitely more.

He realizes the pressure is internalized, that it’s simply going to take however long it will take, no matter what he does, but the more time slips by, the harder it is to be kind to himself, to dispel the voice in his head, persistent and insidious, persuading him that Lance is getting further and further away, despite the closing distance.

He’s such a colossal idiot. Everything might’ve been different if he’d just realized.

“Stop.”

“Hmm?” Keith says, snapping to attention. Discreetly, he corrects his course, the course he technically should’ve been on this entire time and would’ve been if he’d been paying any attention.

“You’re doing it again.”

“What?”

“Putting yourself down.”

Keith rolls his eyes. “Big talker.”

When he glances over at Shiro, he almost laughs. His mouth is hanging open, but no words are forthcoming. A few ticks later, Shiro sighs. “We’re hopeless, aren’t we?”

This time, Keith can’t help but laugh. “You, maybe. I’m comfortable with my self-loathing.”

“Just what I want to hear.”

“That’s it?”

“My speeches are wasted on you.”

“They’re usually sanctimonious bullshit, no offense,” Keith says.

“I know what you think.”

“Not always, though.”

“I love you, too, Keith,” Shiro says with a smirk. Leaning back into his seat, his eyes travel over the stars around them. For a moment, it seems as though he’s going to say something, the air charged with possibility, and despite what he just said, Keith is ready to hang on every word, but then Shiro simply closes his eyes. When he does eventually speak, all he says is, “Are you sure we’re heading in the right direction? I can’t imagine the Blade stays in one place for long.”

“No. But this is the best bet I’ve got.”

“What if they don’t know anything?”

“That’s a stupid question.”

Shiro nods. “Yeah, I suppose it is. You’re prepared for that, though, right?”

Keith nods, not entirely sure he is. But that’s a problem for later. If he thinks about all of the possible setbacks for too long, he falls back into the sense of complacency and hopelessness he’d rather not return to. He’s going to get this done before Lance finds him, so that when home does find him, he’s going to be ready, nothing held back. He’s going to allow himself to settle. Finally.

He has to. The way he’s been living isn’t sustainable for long. And in the past couple of years, he’s realized two things: that he doesn’t have to burn like a flame through a match, that doing so is a choice, and that he might not want to. A life as embers is only a little less bright, but much, much longer.

This is what it felt like to burn too fast and he’d forgotten. It’s not nearly as pleasant, as romantic, as he used to imagine it.

In a quiet voice, Shiro says, “I hope they know something.”

“I know.”

“I’m tired.”

“Who isn’t?”

*      ✹  ˚ ✵
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        *  *  
   · ✧      *   ·.


It’s almost a week later when he knows he’s found their base. Though it moves constantly, always staying ahead of the Galra and whatever information they receive about the Blade’s whereabouts, they leave clues to their location so that operatives out on missions have a way back. Keith knows the clues. There was a chance they would’ve changed after he left, but he’s lucky. Luck feels like a privilege at this point and he’s not sure he trusts it, but he’s not one to question opportunities.

When Shiro sees the base, he lets out a low whistle. Though it’s small, it is foreboding. The Galra tech and the Galra purple have too many associations to be comfortable. Keith understands that whistle. That feeling didn’t change, not the entire time he was with them. It had never been a homecoming.

In fact, seeing it now, Keith abruptly and desperately wishes they weren’t here, with a ferocity that takes him by surprise. Happy memories were few and far between here, but it wasn’t like he’d been miserable. There was always something to do, always a way to fight back, and Keith hadn’t ever felt more productive, more useful, than he had here.

Radioing the base, having no interest in being obliterated, Keith says, “Permission to dock?”

A crackled response comes in. “For what purpose?”

Keith pauses, unsure how to proceed. Part of him wants to say, “Hey, it’s Keith? What’s up? Long time, no see,” but he knows the Blade will not find that amusing. Most members hadn’t even known his name. Kolivan will be contacted, they’ll be allowed to dock, but there’s a right way to start this interaction and Keith wants nothing more than for this to be as smooth as possible.

“It’s Keith Kogane and I’m calling in my favor.”

A few dobashes later, the voice says, “Cleared. Follow all directives once you land.” That’s almost immediately followed with: “Kolivan asks that I translate for you. Don’t do anything stupid.”

The communication clicks out and Shiro says, “Favor?”

Keith shrugs. “Got one when I left. For my service.”

Shiro eyes him.

“I know.”

“This is such a bad idea.”

“Probably.”

“‘Don’t do anything stupid?’”

“They’re only a little paranoid.”

Shiro mumbles something to himself and Keith tries to remain positive. He knows these people, he knows this place, and though they’re largely unforgiving and intense, he knows how to navigate their customs. If he plays it right, nothing will go wrong.

Still, he wishes there’s sentiment to fall back on. But these are not a sentimental people. As far as they’re concerned, Keith’s a risk. In the past year, he could’ve easily become compromised. They never underestimated the Galra and their influence. It was one of their greatest strengths.

As he flies into the base, Keith reminds himself what this is for, reminds himself that he is possibly the most prepared person for this encounter outside of the Blades themselves. They’re the best resource for information about the Galra that he knows. This is going to be okay.

They’re about to dock when Shiro says, “What happens if this blows up in our face?”

“We get out.”

“Okay.”

Keith looks over at him, surprised, fully understanding that wasn’t even half a plan, and Shiro almost smiles. “I trust you,” he says.

“Probably shouldn’t.”

“I’m not the only one who does.”

Keith returns the half-smile, thinking of the team.

Then he docks.

 

.   ✵  *      *
    *           
      ˚   *  
✷     · ✫        +  .
     ✷     ·
  ⊹  ·✷       ·  ˚
   ✷   *

 

It’s not really a surprise when an escort greets them or that they squeeze in close enough that Keith is itching to pull out his dagger, just to create space.

 

It’s not a surprise, but it still hurts. Keith devoted so much of his time and energy to these people. The least they could do is help him when he needs help, greet him like a teammate, like a man who had saved each of their lives more than once.

 

But they were weird about that.

 

Beside him, Shiro is tense, eyes in constant motion. They’re close enough together, their arms constantly brushing, that Shiro doesn’t have reservations about leaning in and whispering, “Please tell me it wasn’t like this when you were a member.”

 

“I usually didn’t have an escort.”

 

“Usually?”

 

Keith smiles tightly. To say they’d always been pleased with him and his service would’ve been a gross over-exaggeration. This was where Keith had discovered he was more in touch with his feelings than he thought. Though the bar was low, he’d leapt over it with ease.

 

Emotions had been ignored and occasionally treated with contempt here and the number of times Keith had acted on feeling, on impulse, and broken some unspoken Blade rule had been countless. Those times had earned him escorts and a talking to.

 

Still, it’s all so familiar and Keith feels a gentle tug in his chest. This had been his entire life once and it’s hard to forget that.

 

Well, almost his entire life. Certainly, that had been the idea. But Lance and the team had existed and no matter what the Blades had tried to train out of him, they hadn’t been able to make Keith forget what that had felt like.

 

.    . · ·  ✺
· *    ·  
    .      
   ˚  .    ˚   ·     
✷          ⊹    . .
    .    *  ✹ ˚

 

It wasn’t going to be a simple mission. They rarely were when it involved intelligence. If there was a planet or a people at risk, it was black and white. Kill the Galra and save the innocents. Those were the guidelines. But when the goal was information, there were factors and risks that had to be weighed, because different kinds of information were worth more than others.

 

And then when Voltron got involved, it was worse. Worse for Keith, anyway. The rest of the Blade didn’t have the same struggle, the division of loyalty, the constant nagging fear that it would one day come down to the mission and to a member of his old team and that he would either pick the wrong side or decide far too late.

 

There wasn’t a knock on his door, only the swooshing sound of it sliding open and the light steps of a Blade member strolling in. Not turning to face him, pretending to be busy with his bracers, Keith listened.

 

“We leave in five doboshes.”

 

“Fine.”

 

“Knowledge or death.”

 

Keith didn’t respond. A few ticks later, the door snicked shut.

 

Sliding his helmet onto his head, Keith repeated his mission like a mantra in his head. He found it helped when he was actually out there if the mission was a part of him. It was hard to say, after all, how many more mistakes the Blade would allow and it was better to be here than entirely useless with Voltron. If he had neither, Keith had no idea where he would go. There was nothing for him anywhere else. The whole vastness of space and this was it.

 

Capture the general. Capture the general. Capture the general.

 

And kill as many Galra bastards as he could at the same time. That was what Voltron had called them in for. All they wanted was another planet for their coalition and were smart enough to know when they were outgunned.

 

But that was secondary. Treating Voltron’s mission as equal or more important was a mistake he’d already made and he wasn’t in the habit of making the same mistake twice.

 

Capture the general .

 

With his helmet firmly secured, he exited his room and headed for Bay 3.

 

✵   ⊹
  ˚         ✧ · .
      ✵ ·       
 ·    . ⊹ ˚  
      *        
 .       .
          ✦ * *

 

The fighting was already thick when Keith hit the ground, eyes immediately searching the barren, harvested planet for someone in charge. He had enough experience now to know that person by sight. It was the way their troops surrounded them, even if they were fighting, even if they weren’t directly in the center of the battle, even if they were bloody and broken.

 

The other members of the Blade were fanning out, their eyes doing the same. A few engaged in battle, but most kept to the outskirts, where the ships and small huts were thickest, the parts that both sides would prefer didn’t get blown up.

 

A laser of fire shot down from the sky, taking out a string of Galra and Keith paused, positive he had the time. Whenever Voltron arrived, a battle would take a breath before resuming, those who had seen Voltron before wondering if they should retreat and those who hadn’t gaping in awe.

 

Keith, however, did neither of those things. When he looked up, the first thing he saw was Red, the light of the suns shining off her body, and he grinned. Just the sight of her was almost enough to unwind the tight knot of pressure in his chest.

 

She brushed across his mind in greeting. At the same time, his comm crackled to life, Lance’s voice, breathy and excited, spilling into his ear. “You see that shot, Kogane? Bet you can’t do better.”

 

Starting to run, not wanting to be accused of standing around, doing nothing, Keith felt his grin only grow. It was unwise to engage with Lance the way he wanted to for all kinds of reasons, but Keith couldn’t help himself. It’d been so long since they’d been occupying the same space and Keith was practically giddy. Though it was unlikely they’d get to meet up, Keith always held the hope close that they would, that the whole team would.

 

Tapping the side of his helmet, making sure his response went to the team and the team alone, Keith said, “Helps to have a Lion. I bet it’s all Red, anyway.”

 

“Hello to you, too,” Lance said.

 

“Oh, yeah, because I was the one that started the conversation with a dick measuring contest.”

 

“How am I supposed to pick a joke here, Keith?”

 

“Not my problem.”

 

“Hey, Samurai, you’re about to get chopped to death.”

 

“Yeah, I’m…”

 

“No, you actually are,” Pidge interjected.

 

Heart racing, Keith ducked a sword aimed straight for the side of his neck and threw up his own sword to block the next attack, girding himself just in case it was strong enough to knock him even more off balance. But it wasn’t. Battles like this, brutal and personal, were not his favorite because they relied heavily on luck. This time, luck had been with him, but it was hard to tell if it would stay.

 

Relieved, Keith was about to go in for the kill, when a ray of fire shot down. The Galra soldier started to scream, running towards the edge of the battle, as though something there could save him. It was probably hard to think logically when you were on fire, though. Keith couldn’t really fault him. Instead, he said, “Watch where you’re aiming that thing.”

 

“Didn’t hit you, did I?”

 

“I was fine.”

 

“I was just making sure.”

 

“I was literally two seconds from tearing his guts out,” Keith said.

 

“That’s disgusting. Why’d you have to say it like that?”

 

“Why’d you have to take my kill?”

 

“Why the hell do you care? Murdering shouldn’t ever be fun, Keith. I’m gonna have to have a talk with the Blade.”

 

“I’m sure they’ll…”

 

“Don’t you have a mission, Keith?” Pidge asked.

 

“Yes.”

 

“Then stop flirting and get it done. We’ve got your back.”

 

“We’re not flirting,” both he and Lance said at the same time.

 

“You guys, we’re gonna die,” Hunk said.

 

Shaking his head, Keith tried to focus. Keeping his eyes peeled, he dove straight into the thick of it, relying entirely on instinct, the process of thinking much too slow for all the whirling blades and missiles from the sky. The earth beneath his feet was slick with blood. He tuned out screams and grunts and explosions, knowing from experience the sounds alone could overwhelm all the other senses.

 

It was hard to tell how the battle was faring. Keith knew it wasn’t his concern, wasn’t his mission, but he felt for the plight of those resisting.

 

Staying neutral while directly involved was difficult. Keith didn’t legitimately understand how the rest of the Blade did it. He just pretended. But he was worried that, one day, he’ll have pretended too long.

 

Shoving aside a Galra soldier to watch him get dismembered a foot away by one of the Brathaki, a cat-like people who inhabited the planet and were looking to join the coalition, Keith sliced open the throat of another, spinning immediately to avoid a blade whooshing towards his back. Keith did register the look of surprise on the that particular Galra’s face as Keith sliced open his stomach, but another three kills later, it was gone, exhaustion already weighing down his limbs. This either needed to end fast or he needed to get out of the center. He always forgot in the heat of the moment how taxing this kind of fight was. Since none of the Blade had given any indication that they’d yet captured the general, Keith reached out to the team.

 

“Hey, you think one of you could shoot me a way out?”

 

We’d have to know where you are, man ,” Hunk said.

 

Little busy, anyway ,” Pidge said.

 

There were multiple ideas streaming through his head as he kept another three Galra at bay, but every single one was a massive risk to innocent life. Swearing quietly, he said, “Fine.  How about a lift?”

 

“Same problem,” Hunk said.

 

“I see him,” Lance replied. “I’ve got this. Watch my back, guys.”

 

“We don’t know where you’re going!” Allura chimed in.

 

“I’m red and fucking enormous, Allura!”

 

“Are you sure it’s him?”

 

“I’d never miss that stupid fanny pack. It’s a fashion travesty.”

 

“Utility belt,” Keith said.

“Fanny pack.”

 

“Fuck you.”

 

“Still want a lift?”

 

Choosing not to answer that, Keith spun and slashed until there was a brief circle of space around him. There. Not two hundred feet away.

 

“See that giant ass rock?”

 

“Yeah,” Lance replied.

 

“I’ll be there in ten ticks.”

 

“Got it.”

 

Now he just had to do what he said he was going to do. Taking a deep breath, Keith ran forward, abandoning his sword for simply shoving people out of the way as hard as he could. Something caught his cheek and something else his side, but he ignored the twinges of pain and kept going.


Leaping up the side of the rock, relying on his years of training to keep his feet moving to the right places, Keith didn’t hesitate when he reached the top, using his momentum to jump off, trusting Lance to be there for him.

 

Red roared over his head and Keith grinned, stretching his arms out, spotting white, and latching out onto the claw of Red. Lance kept low, somehow knowing exactly what he wanted, and only ticks later, Keith let go, dropping back down to the ground.

 

Then he was off, chest tight, breaths coming fast and hard. The general definitely hadn’t been where he’d been, which meant he was somewhere else and Keith was going to find him.

 

Then Kolivan’s voice came over his comm. “Target acquired. Return to base.”

 

Keith stopped running and looked back. In five doboshes, his ride would be gone. In six doboshes, he would be in massive trouble.

 

But this fight was far from over. Brathaki were dying and this planet was small enough, inconsequential enough, that there wasn’t much for giant robot lions to fight. Voltron was doing what they could, but most maneuvers would cause too much damage to civilian life. Green’s tail, in particular, was snapping back and forth in frustration.

 

Swearing under his breath, he high-tailed it back towards his ship. He was with the Blade. This was his life now. This was the decision he’d made and he wasn’t going to go back on it now.

 

It felt wrong, but then again, it always did.

 

Shiro’s voice came over the comm. “Thank the Blade for us, Keith.”

 

They knew he was leaving, then. And that was all they had to say?

 

“Bullshit,” Lance said. “Get them to stay. We’re gonna have to get out of our lions and then we’re gonna be fucked.”

 

“Lance…”

 

“I can’t,” Keith whispered.

 

“Fine. Whatever. We don’t need them. But we need you.”

 

“Keith’s done what he could,” Shiro replied.

 

“He’s got a choice!”

“Lance, man, it’s not his fault,” Hunk said.

 

“Guys,” Pidge said. “I can’t do this anymore. I’m landing.”

 

“Coming,” Hunk replied.

 

“Stay,” Lance said and it was very obviously directed at Keith and Keith alone.

 

Keith closed his eyes. The truth was, he wasn’t ready to stop pretending. He wasn’t ready to face the fact that no one in the universe wanted him.

 

He’d always thought being with the Blade was the right thing, was the hard way out, but maybe it had always been the easy way. Maybe he’d just been hiding, running from what he’d always run from: communication, compromise, and connection.

 

Maybe it was time to see which one it was.

 

“Be right there,” he said, fervently hoping this mistake would not be his last mistake with the Blade of Marmora.

 

✧·   . *      
       ˚       · ⊹
·   ✺ .     ·    
   . ✵    ✧   ·
      . +     + *

 

All of the Galra were dead or captured and Keith was so tired his bones ached. Resting on the very rock he’d leapt from earlier, he felt the sun warm his face. Somewhere in the chaos--well on it’s way to being organized chaos--the rest of the team was helping move bodies and rebuild what shelters they could and provide medical aid and supplies.

 

Part of Keith felt bad for not joining in, but that had never been his favorite part of being with Voltron. Helping was best when it involved swords and very little talking. Besides, he wasn’t even meant to be here. Melding with this rock wasn’t a bad option. Maybe then he wouldn’t have to face Kolivan.

 

“Allura said you might need a ride.”

 

Rolling his head to the side, Keith saw Lance. He was sweaty and just as exhausted, but everything in Keith stilled, took a moment to take him in. It had been ages since they’d seen each other in real life and he was so much better like this.

 

But Lance didn’t need to know that, couldn’t know that.

 

“I kind of do, yeah.”

 

“Thought you might want to take it in Red.”

 

“Sure.”

 

For a beat, they stared at each other. Then Lance stuck his hand out. Taking it, Keith let himself be hauled from the rock and directly into Lance’s space. Hastily, Keith took a step back, wiping his hands on the thighs of his suit.

 

Lance didn’t speak, but lead the way to Red. As they passed the team, he told them he’d be right back. Keith smiled at all of them, desperate to do more, but fully aware they were busy and couldn’t devote the time to him. He’d given up his place on the team, after all.

 

But when Pidge got that smile, she slapped her stack of blankets into Hunk’s arms, who barely wrestled them all into something resembling a pile before they all fell, and marched over. Slapping Keith on the arm, she said, “That’s all I get?”

 

“I just…”

 

Rolling her eyes, she hugged him tight. “You’re stupid. And I miss you.”

 

Meeting Lance’s eyes, Keith tentatively hugged her back. The corner of Lance’s mouth quirked up.

 

When she stepped away, she removed her glasses and wiped her eyes.

“Are you… crying?”

 

“Shut up.”

 

“Right. Uh, sorry?”

 

“Stay safe, ‘kay?”

 

“I will,” Keith promised.

 

She nodded and returned to Hunk. Meeting up with Lance, Keith only had to make eye contact for him to burst into laughter.

 

“‘Uh, sorry?”’

 

“I hate you.”

 

“Whatever you say, Kogane. Let’s get you home.”

 

“Yeah. Home.”

 

That earned him a look, but Keith ignored it, instead climbing into Red and greeting her. Lance left them to it, settling into the pilot’s seat and getting them off the ground. When Keith had finished reassuring Red he was alright, a longer process than he’d imagined, Keith joined Lance, sitting against Red’s side to the left of him. Hugging his knees to his chest, he stared at Lance, drinking in every feature, knowing by tomorrow, this feeling wouldn’t even be a graspable memory.

 

Already, he was lonely, nostalgic for something that wasn’t yet over.

 

“You look shittier every time I see you,” Lance said.

 

“Thanks.”

 

“Sure you can’t come back yet?”

 

“You ask every time.”

 

“And you always say something that doesn’t answer the question at all.”

 

Sighing, Keith shrugged, happy to do exactly what Lance was accusing him of.

 

“I hate that place, man. I don’t think it’s good for you.”

 

“Just pilot.”

 

“Aye, aye.”

 

But, in typical Lance fashion, he couldn’t stay silent for long. “Thanks for staying.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Why did you?”

 

Keith shrugged.

 

Lance laughed exasperatedly, glancing over at him. “I’m gonna just keep pestering you until you tell me, you know.”


“Felt like the right thing to do.”

 

“Huh.”

 

“What?”

 

“Well, I’m pretty sure it’s been the right thing before and those times, you just abandoned us.”

 

“You didn’t ask me to stay,” Keith whispered.

 

“Didn’t think I had to.”

 

“It’s not like I’m part of the team.”

 

“Course you are,” Lance said, like it was that simple. “Doesn’t matter where you are or what you’re doing, you’re always one of us.”

 

“Whatever.”

 

Slamming down on the autopilot, Lance hopped out of his seat and sat down on the ground in front of Keith. With his foot, he prodded Keith’s leg. “Why so grumpy?”

 

“I’m gonna be in trouble.” That seemed like the simplest explanation.

 

“Why?”

 

“Mission over everything. We did what we had to do. Knowledge or death.”

 

“You’re not making me love this place more, dude.”

 

“It’s not that bad,” Keith said. “I’m helping fight the Galra.”

 

“You were doing that with us.”

 

“Yeah, well there wasn’t room for all of us.”

 

“I know you’ve said you won’t feel useful, but you can totally have Red back. And I can find…”

 

“No.”

 

Lance sighed. “Well, I tried.”

 

That was going to be it, Keith was going to drop it, but then he thought of Kolivan again. He thought of more battles, with results just like this one, where he’d be challenged with the exact same choice and he’d have to make it over and over again. He thought about how he felt now, safe and loved, versus how he felt among the Blade.

 

He wondered what it would be like if he could go home to somewhere that actually felt like it.

 

But, no. He couldn’t take away Lance’s spot, anyone’s spot, and he couldn’t sit around and watch either.

 

“I can’t,” Keith said, the only words he could muster in explanation.

 

“Yeah, you’ve said. I still don’t get why, though.”

 

“It’s all I’ve got left.”

 

There was a long silence and Keith hid his face in his knees. He hadn’t meant to say that. They’d been on the tip of his tongue since the end of the battle, just like the words, “I hate it there,” but they weren’t supposed to leave his mouth. He was supposed to have more control than that.

 

Lance always drug those words out, though.

 

“That’s crap.”

 

“I have to do something, Lance, and I can’t do anything for Voltron. If the Blade kicks me out, I can’t do anything for them either and then I’ll just be wandering around the universe looking for something to fucking do, because I’ve also got nothing back on Earth except a dirty ass shack in the desert.”

 

“You’ll find something and we’ll help you,” Lance said.

 

“Thankfully, I’ve got something.”

 

“Yeah, and it’s killing you.”

 

“Whatever.”

 

Shaking his head, the air was charged for a moment, as though Lance were about to punch him, violence imminent. But then the feeling disappeared and Lance returned to the pilot’s seat. As he flew, eyes focused forward, he said, “If it’s worth anything, everyone misses you.”

 

The words grated against Keith. “Why does it matter to you what I’m doing? I’m fine.”

 

“I care about you, man.”

 

“Okay.”

 

“Please come home.”

 

Keith looks down at his hands, tracing the lines in his palm with his eyes, clearer because of the dirt and grit nestled inside them.

 

He knew now, what was easy and what was hard.

 

But it didn’t matter. Because he was a coward.

 

“I can’t.”

 

“Fine,” Lance said. “We’re not going anywhere.”

 

As Keith gazed at Lance, eyes hard, determined, slender hands confidently directing Red, Keith realized that Lance knew more about family and home than he ever would.

 

.  .            
   +    .     .
    *       
        ˚
    ✫
    .  
⊹   ·  ⊹

 

Kolivan’s arms are crossed and he’s staring Keith down, exactly as he used to and as though no one else is there. Straightening his back, Keith returns the gaze, just as he used to. This is familiar between the two of them and Keith almost smiles.

 

“What is it you would ask of us?” Kolivan asks.

 

“I need information,” Keith replies. “There’s something wrong with Shiro.”

 

“Wrong how?”

 

“He…”

 

Shiro interrupts him. “Ever since I fought Zarkon in the astral plane, I’ve had trouble recalling memories and large swathes of time. We’re trying to…”

 

Kolivan raises a hand and Shiro stops talking. All he does is eye Shiro for a tick and then turns back to Keith. “Continue.”

 

“On a mission, something happened, and he attacked a member of Voltron.”

 

“Define something.”

 

“I don’t know. I wasn’t there.”

 

Kolivan frowns and Keith waits, hoping that answer isn’t enough to dissuade Kolivan from sharing what he can. Keith knows he’s not a fan of a lack of information and Keith has so little coming into this conversation that it’s slightly concerning. It occurs to him while he waits that he’s in another situation that he was far from prepared for.

 

“Allura called it a stealth mission of significant importance,” Kolivan finally says and it takes Keith a beat to realize this must be how the team is explaining their extended disappearance.

 

“Yes,” Keith replies, unsure where this line of conversation is going or how to respond to it.

 

“That was months ago.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“And you only come here now?”

 

Irritation flares in Keith. He wants answers not more questions. “I’ve made a lot of stupid decisions, recently, okay? I didn’t know where to start and you guys aren’t the most welcoming group in the universe, so forgive me for not thinking of you first.”

 

Shiro bumps into his shoulder.

 

Taking a deep breath, Keith says, “I mean, yes.”

 

“What have you been doing up until now?”

 

“Sneaking into Galra bases and learning absolutely nothing, mostly.”

 

“And why is the rest of Voltron not with you? This seems like it should concern each and every one of you.”

 

“We had an argument,” Keith mumbles.

 

“About?”

 

“What does it matter? I’m calling in my favor. Please just help us.”

 

Kolivan’s eyes fall to the members of the Blade flanking Keith and Shiro. Keith knows that look. There’s something wrong and for a wild moment, Keith thinks someone’s attacking the base, that someone has found it, but then he realizes that he’s the problem. How that’s possible, given that conversation, Keith doesn’t know, but suddenly, this has become about extracting him and Shiro, with our without the information. This is the last place Keith wants to be stuck.

 

If only he was better at diplomacy. If only Kolivan would let Shiro speak.

 

When Kolivan returns his gaze to Keith, it gives nothing away. “Tell me everything you know, everything Voltron knows.”

 

“I already did. It was like a switch was flipped and Shiro became someone else. He doesn’t even remember it happening, for fuck’s sake. It’s not like it’s his fault. Besides, it’s clearly the work of the Galra and if we can figure out what’s going on, who knows what other information might be unearthed. It’s in both our interests. Please. I just want to fix it.”

 

Kolivan nods at the other Blade members. Then, he says, “Leave.”

 

He’s happy to, but he wants to press just a tiny bit further, make sure there isn’t a way to get what he wants. “No. Not until you give me what I came for.”

 

“Leave or I will make you.”

 

Narrowing his eyes, Keith nods once. A hand clasps each of his biceps and they begin to direct him out of the room. He turns his head to look at Kolivan one last time and notices that Shiro is in a similar grip, but is being led the other direction. Wrenching himself away, knowing exactly how to break the Blades grips, having trained with them for countless vargas, he says, “I’m not leaving without him.”

 

“He’s a liability. You’re not leaving with him.”

 

“He’s with me.”

 

“You could be lying. We have no way to know what has happened to you, besides your word that nothing did. You could’ve lost him. There’s no possible way you could’ve kept an eye on him at every turn. He could’ve convinced you to help him. Or you could be choosing to overlook the warning signs, because you care for him. I did warn you what that could do, didn’t I?”

 

“I’m not an idiot,” Keith says.

 

Kolivan stares at him unblinkingly.

 

“It’s not stupid to give a shit! You know what’s stupid? Pretending like the rest of the world doesn’t matter, that the consequences of your actions don’t matter, that you’re only a small part of a larger war that you would be a bigger help to if you just gave a shit about the lives that are being lost. How do you sleep at night? How do you lie down, knowing that so many people would still be alive if you’d just provided help when necessary, no matter the status of your own fucking mission? I know I couldn’t when I was here.”

 

Calmly, Kolivan says, “Lives are lost in war. The faster we move, the faster the universe is at peace.”

 

“At peace? Seriously? There’s always dicks and there’s always gonna be. Besides, what kind of fucking peace will it be if there’s no one there to see it?”

 

“Nothing you say will change my mind.”

 

“I know,” Keith growls. “I guess I’m sorry about this.”

 

Then he draws a dagger from his boot and without hesitation, throws it at one of the members with a hold on Shiro. It connects, the Blade letting out a low grunt, and Shiro takes the opportunity to throw him off, punching him in the face. Trusting Shiro to take care of the rest of it himself, Keith turns his attention to Kolivan. If it was anyone else, he might pause, assess the situation, judge if they were really going to do this after everything they’d been through together, but it’s Kolivan. Black and white is all he sees.

 

They know each other’s fighting styles fairly well, so when Keith comes streaking in, Kolivan expects it, sidestepping him and swiping out, a move Keith also expects. Extending his Galra dagger to a sword, he blocks the blow and manages to nick Kolivan in the process.

 

Keith knows this won’t be easy, perhaps impossible, but he can hold out until Shiro is finished with the others. That plan will require Shiro to win, however, and for no other Blade members to join the fight.

 

That means this has to be quick and quiet.

 

“Shit,” Keith mumbles.

 

There’s nothing for it. He’s going to have take risks, go for moves that might result in injury.

 

Unless he could somehow keep Kolivan at bay and help Shiro at the same time.

 

Maneuvering Kolivan with the direction of his swings, spinning them around so he could see Shiro, Keith notices that one of the Blade members is out cold on the ground, but the other is putting up a fight and Shiro is entirely weaponless, Keith’s dagger still in the body of the grounded Galra. He’s having to be extremely careful and defensive.

 

He’s about to move, disengage, when a blade comes straight for the side of his neck. He barely catches the edge with his own and completely loses all semblance of balance, stumbling back. Kolivan jumps on the opportunity and suddenly all Keith can do is block and attempt to keep himself away from walls.

 

As Kolivan spins, his braid whips out, practically hitting Keith and inspiration hits. Waiting and watching, keeping himself in the fight, Keith sees Kolivan’s muscles bunch, his waist twist in preparation for a spin, and he reaches out, ready.

 

He catches the braid in his hand and yanks. It brings Kolivan closer, his blade catching Keith’s side, but only shallowly, and Keith pays it no attention, yanking harder, until Kolivan grunts. Then he kicks him in the groin and shoves him to the ground. It’s not enough to down Kolivan for long, so Keith doesn’t wait, running at Shiro’s attacker and body slamming him into a wall. It only works because he doesn’t see Keith coming until it’s too late.

 

“Follow me,” Keith says.

 

“What about…”

 

“Forget about it. The Blade don’t have a sense of mercy. If we stay, we’re fucked.”

 

Shiro nods and Keith sprints from the room, Shiro right on his heels. He’s grateful this is a place he knows, unlike all the other Galra bases they’ve been on. He doesn’t need to guess or pause and think about where he’s going. It’s likely what saves them. The alarms start blaring when they’re three quarters of the way back to their ship, but it’s too late. Down here, it’s much less populated. The only Blades around are the ones who were going to be here, anyway.

 

They’ve got all the momentum and the advantage of surprise, so the three Blades that are in their way fall easily. Keith tries not to kill them, feeling more sentiment for them than they do for him.

 

When they’re on board, Keith doesn’t bother buckling in or waiting for Shiro to be seated. He takes off into space immediately, keeping an eye out for incoming projectiles. They do come, as he expected, but they’re easy to outmaneuver. Piloting, after all, is what he was born to do. It’s the one thing in his life that’s genuinely as simple as breathing.

 

Beside him, Shiro’s breathing hard. When he’s caught his breath, he says, “You’d think it would’ve taken them longer to attack us than that.”

 

“Trust me, no.”

 

But Keith thinks about it and he realizes that, in his own way, Kolivan showed him a sort of consideration he wouldn’t have with anyone else. He’d tried to explain why he’d been taking Shiro away. It isn’t much, but it’s more than Keith had seen offered before.

 

“How did you spend so long there?”

 

“I don’t know,” Keith sighs. “I hated it.”

 

“It’s like they didn’t even know you.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

Keith picks a random destination and sets the ship on autopilot, leaning back in his chair and stretching. Wincing, he remembers the cut in his side and wrestles his way to the back of the small vessel, digging around for their first aid kit. As he searches, he can feel Shiro’s eyes on his back.

 

“What?” he asks, still searching.

 

“I don’t know if it’s anything, but the two Blades holding me were whispering to each other, probably confident that I was going to be locked up somewhere, never to see the light of day again.”

 

Whipping around, Keith says, “What did they say?”

 

Shiro sighs. “Most of it was a debate on the wisdom of killing us, but the rest—none of it made any sense, Keith. There was no context.”

 

“But?”

 

“But one of them said something about an Operation Kuron.”

 

“I’ve never heard of it.”

 

“Neither have I. And judging from the tone of their voices, the Blade didn’t know much more.”

 

Keith doesn’t say anything as he pulls his shirt up and uses water and a rag to wipe away what blood he can. It might be nothing, but it might also be something. Whichever it is, it’s still something to go on and that’s what Keith has been desperately searching for this entire time. Finally, there’s a goal, something he can latch onto and move towards.

 

Shiro clambers back to join him and silently holds out his hand. Gratefully, Keith hands him some anesthetic and holds his breath as Shiro gently applies it. In a voice pitched to suit the space, Shiro says, “I’m proud of you, you know.”

 

Keith snorts. “Why?”

 

Laughing, Shiro shakes his head. “It’s hard to explain. But you’ve grown. A lot. And into someone you should be proud of.”

 

“Yeah. Sure.”

 

“Someday you’ll see it.”

 

“Seems like you and Lance have the ‘Proud of Keith’ club covered. Course, he’s probably not interested in being a member right now.”

 

“He is,” Shiro says with confidence. “He always has been, but if he’d seen what I’ve seen, that definitely wouldn’t change.”

 

Carefully, Shiro lays a bandage over the cut and Keith pulls his shirt back down, sighing and closing his eyes. “So I guess we find out what this Operation Kuron thing is then.”

 

“I guess we do.”

 

Cracking open an eye, Keith smiles at Shiro. “I am happy, you know.”

 

“About what?”

 

“Well, not happy, but… I don’t regret doing this. Not even a little. And I feel like I don’t tell you that enough.”

 

“You don’t need to.”

 

“I think maybe I do.”


Shiro smiles and then turns his back, making his way up front. Sitting, he stares at the screens, likely discerning where Keith is flying them. He doesn’t speak and Keith lets his eyes fall shut once more. The closer he gets to unconsciousness, the heavier and stranger the silence feels, until Kolivan’s voice is echoing in his mind. There’s no possible way you could’ve kept an eye on him at every turn.

Chapter Text

The silence in the control deck is heavy and thick, broken only by the distant hum of the Castle’s engines. Lance taps his fingers against the arm of his chair, the movement turned silent by the gloves of the black paladin suit he’s wearing.

 

They’d departed the system of their new allies, the Glosid and Nekeer, in a hurry several vargas ago, after Coran rounded them all up to deliver some seriously bad news.

 

The Blade hasn’t been in contact with Voltron or any coalition members for two movements.

 

“I just don’t know how I missed it,” Coran says again, for the twelfth time in the last varga.

 

“It’s not your fault, Coran,” Allura insists. “We all should have been monitoring our communications.”

 

“Besides, it’s hard to tell if something’s wrong with the Blade or if they’re just being particularly Blade-y,” Matt points out from across the room.

 

Coran sounds grim as he says, “It’s the something wrong I’m worried about.”

 

No one has a response to that.

 

Silence falls again, stars sliding by outside the windows. They’d wormholed to the last known location of the Blade base-- over two movements ago-- in a vain attempt to track them down, but there’s nothing here. Pidge and Hunk went down below to their shared workshop, trying to rig up some kind of tracking device. “We’ll find them,” Pidge had promised as they left, starlight glinting off her glasses. Allura, meanwhile, echoed Coran’s previous attempt to contact the Blade with a request that they respond as soon as possible. Lance had stood in the bridge for a while before ducking down to his room to change into his armor. Matt had followed suit mere doboshes later.

 

That was almost two vargas ago, now.

 

Lance has never been great at the whole patience gig-- that was more Shiro’s thing. In fact, pretty much everything about this job was Shiro’s thing. But seriously, Lance never appreciated just how much waiting comes along with the Black Paladin role. His nerves are stretched like a rubber band.

 

His gaze falls from the blank screens to his still-tapping fingers. He’s worried about the Blade, of course, but there’s another knot of anxiety wedged somewhere between his ribs that he’s a lot more familiar with.

 

✷   ✵ *        

 ⊹   ✧

.          ✫   

     ✹ + .      ·

 . ˚     *.      ✹   .

     ✧          

* . .          ⊹     .



A hand covered Lance’s, tapping at the side of the bed. “What’s got you so worked up?” Keith asked in his ear.

 

Lance tipped his head back to drink in the sight of him, all bare chest and wet hair from the shower. “You, hopefully,” he said, waggling his eyebrows.

 

Keith snorted, snagging the pillow from his side of the bed and whacking him with it. “Shut up.”

 

Lance grinned at him as he dropped onto the bed next to him, stretching out with a happy sigh. “What, can’t a guy be romantic?”

 

With a flat look, Keith said, “Yesterday you burped in my face when I was trying to kiss you at lunch.”

 

“That’s not my fault! How was I supposed to know what you were doing?”

 

Keith rolled his eyes, turning over so he was facing Lance, laying out on his side. “Gee, Lance, I dunno, because we’ve been dating for eight months and I kiss you literally all the time?”

 

Wrinkling his nose in a mimicry of thought, Lance said, “Hmm, I dunno, that doesn’t sound right.”

 

“I’m sure.”

 

“Maybe you should remind me,” Lance suggested, a lazy smile curling over his face as he leaned in towards Keith. It only took a second before he relented with a quiet sigh, meeting Lance’s lips in a few long, lingering kisses.

 

Lance hummed as he pulled away. “See, now you’re riling me up.”

 

Keith huffed. “Put that on pause, Casanova.”

 

“Aw, what?”

 

“You never told me what’s bothering you,” Keith said, poking him in the side.

 

Lance waved it away. “It’s stupid. Don’t worry about it.” He threaded his fingers through Keith’s long hair, leaning down to kiss him again, but a finger on his lips stopped him in his tracks. He pouted against Keith’s fingertip. “Come on.”

 

“Talking first, kissing later,” Keith said firmly.

 

Lance arched an eyebrow. “That sounds surprisingly unlike you, Kogane. Have you been talking to Shiro again?”

 

There was a beat. “No,” Keith lied, badly.

 

“Mm hm.”

 

“Fuck you.”

 

“Babe, that’s what I’m saying.”

 

“Oh my god,” Keith said, laughing as he rolled out from under Lance and sat up. His beautiful stormcloud eyes were crinkled at the corners as he shook his head down at him, and Lance grinned back, reaching up to brush his knuckles across Keith’s cheek.

 

Keith leaned into the touch briefly before pulling away and shoving at Lance’s shoulder. “Seriously. What’s up?”

 

“It’s really nothing,” Lance sighed, rolling to stare up at the ceiling.

 

“Lance,” Keith said quietly after a second. Reluctantly, Lance rolled his head to the side to meet his eyes. “Please?”

 

There was an edge of sadness and anxiety in the request, and Lance’s gut twisted as he reached out to lace his fingers through Keith’s. “Sorry, cariño. I’m not trying to shut you out. It’s just…” He hesitated for a second before saying, “I’m not thrilled about this mission tomorrow, that’s all.”

 

Keith’s thumb traced slow circles onto the back of Lance’s hand. “Why not?”

 

“Because it’s the Blade,” Lance said reluctantly. Keith stilled next to him, and Lance threw his hands in the air. “See, I knew you didn’t want to hear it.”

 

“Yeah, because that was in the past, Lance. I’ve been back for almost a year--”

 

“And I’m supposed to just forget about what that place did to you? Keith, babe, I know they were important to you-- are important to you-- but you can’t seriously expect me to just write that shit off like it was nothing.”

 

Keith turned away from him, dropping his legs to the floor to sit on the edge of the bed. He pinched the bridge of his nose between his eyes as Lance sat up and crawled over to sit next to him.

 

“Listen,” Lance said, making an effort to keep his voice controlled, “I know what you were doing with the Blade meant a lot, okay? I get it. But Keith, when you were gone…”

 

Keith had turned to look at him, but Lance wasn’t sure he could meet his eyes. They had barely skimmed over this stuff before, after Keith got back and they started dating. It had felt too much like an open wound, and now they were picking at the scar tissue. Still, Lance pushed on.

 

“I was so worried about you,” he said finally. “We barely heard anything, and when we did, you were going on these crazy missions and doing these crazy things. I was scared you were going to die without me ever even saying-- well, you know. And then when you came back, it was exactly what we were all afraid it was going to be. Like, I’m not even sure you know what you were like. You seemed so… haunted. You never slept, you barely ate, you didn’t talk to anyone-- not even Shiro, and man was he freaking out about it-- and no one knew what to do. You came back from that place dragging all this shit we couldn’t even begin to understand with you, and…”

 

“What?” Keith prompted as Lance trailed off.

 

Lance took a deep breath and weaved their fingers together again, swallowing hard as Keith immediately squeezed his hand. “It felt like… I don’t know, man, like some part of you had gone away somewhere. Like there was some part of you that was just… lost, and none of us could find it. I don’t want that to happen again,” he said after a second, finally meeting Keith’s gaze. “I don’t want to lose you like that again.”

 

“You won’t,” Keith promised, conviction burning like a supernova in his eyes. He reached a hand up to the back of Lance’s head, tilting their foreheads together. Lance let his eyes slip shut, just feeling the pressure of Keith’s fingers against his, his breath fanning across Lance’s collarbones as he said, “I’m with you. I’m always with you. You’re not going to lose me.”

 

“Okay,” Lance whispered past the tight fist in his throat.

 

They sat there for a long minute before Lance cleared his throat and added, “I still don’t like the Blade, though.”

 

He felt more than heard Keith’s quiet laugh. “I didn’t expect you to.”

 

✵ *       ✷     ✹

✷   .     

      ⊹    ✷   . ✦

  .       ˚         ✹

 ⋆           .  .

 

Lance stares without seeing down at his hand, clenched into a fist on the arm of his chair. How quickly things can change, he reflects bitterly. That mission with the Blade had been a complete success, routing a troop of Galra forces and uncovering some valuable intel on supply routes in the quadrant while they also freed an enslaved planet. Keith had stood there in the torrential rain that day, grinning as Lance whooped and pulled him in for a celebratory kiss.

 

Now, Lance is alone, leading a makeshift team into a situation they know nothing about, with their strongest ally possibly compromised or wiped out. Maybe there’s some unspoken law of the universe, like you can only have X amount of good days before your life turns into a planet-sized garbage heap.

 

“No response from the Blade yet?” he asks, still staring blankly as his fingers.

 

Allura’s voice is tight as she says, “No.”

 

Lance rubs his forehead for a second before throwing himself out of his chair, stalking across the control deck to stand at one of the huge windows. He fixes his eyes on a faraway red star, ignoring the dance of the rest of the galaxy as they fly.

 

It takes him a tick to notice Matt standing at his side. “What’s up?”

 

“You okay?” Matt asks in response.

 

A laugh bursts out of Lance before he can stop it. “You mean like right now, or in general?”

 

“Both.”

 

Lance sighs. “I dunno. I’m worried, obviously, but also I’m so fucking…” He waves his hands in the air, searching for the right word. “Tired,” he settles on finally. It’s not right, doesn’t even begin to do justice to the bone-deep exhaustion dragging at him like an ebbing tide, but Matt nods like he gets it. He doesn’t try to say anything in response, which Lance appreciates, and they stand there and watch the stars as the doboshes slide by.

 

It’s soothing, it’s familiar, but it makes him ache for the late nights he spent with his siblings on the beach in Varadero, watching the stars tread their way across the sky as they laughed and built fires and played games of chicken in the cold night sea. It’s halfway across the universe and a lifetime away, but Lance swears sometimes he can still feel the sand grains between his toes and the chill of the ocean spray.

 

The beeping of a comms link pulls him out of his reveries, and he’s moving toward the screen to stand next to Allura before he’s fully made it back to the present. Kolivan’s grim face filling the screen banishes whatever part of him was still lingering back home.

 

“Kolivan, what’s happened?” Allura asks, urgency almost tipping to fear in her voice.

 

“Allura,” Kolivan responds-- and then pauses, and that’s never a good sign. Kolivan is always strictly business, complete dedication to the mission, and while Lance hates what that did to Keith he always respected the man for it.

 

Now, though, he’s surveying them with the same calculating look Lance has seen him wear on battlefields, right before he finds the weak spot and smashes the enemy’s defense.

 

“Has something happened?” Allura repeats, and Lance realizes he had unconsciously tightened his hands into fists. He forces them to relax as Kolican surveys them all again and, finally, speaks.

 

“Princess Allura, when were you going to tell the Alliance that Voltron had a traitor in their midst?”

 

There’s a moment where they’re all frozen. Some distant, crazy part of Lance wants to break into laughter, because of course. Of course it’s Keith and Shiro. The Alteans are always going on about how fate drew the paladins together; why would any of them be able to escape that, right? Why would they think they could leave whatever path the universe has laid out for them? But no matter how absurdly funny the cosmic joke of his life is, Lance can’t move beyond forcing a breath into his lungs.

 

Allura draws herself up and says, with all the imperiousness that a ten thousand year old princess can possibly summon, “I would never hide information from our allies that would affect our common goal of stopping Zarkon. I assure you, Kolivan, if I knew we had been betrayed, you would be the first to know.”

 

“But you suspected,” Kolivan points out, “and still you said nothing.”

 

There’s another tense moment. Lance wants to badly to break it, to ask the desperate Did you see them? that’s consuming his entire brain function, but he bites his tongue and waits.

 

Allura looks down for a moment, squeezing her eyes shut. “Voltron’s goal has only ever been to end the reign of the Galra Empire,” she says, low and earnest. “That desire has always been at the center of the coalition. It’s what allowed us to unite our forces, Kolivan. I swear to you, I would never do anything to endanger it.”

 

“But your sentimentality seems to be getting the better of you, Princess.”

 

“Never.”

 

Kolivan studies her for a moment, like he’s weighing the conviction in her eyes. “Voltron and its alliance has done more for the people suffering under the Empire in the last three decophoebs than we’ve been able to do alone in a thousand,” he says eventually. “Out of respect for this, Princess, I’d like to hear what you have to say in person.” His gaze shifts to Lance, suddenly. “You and your new Black Paladin will fly alone to our position for a full briefing on what has happened to the Voltron paladins in the last three phoebs. If we feel you have been compromised in any way, we will act accordingly.”

 

“I’m coming too,” Pidge says from behind them, and Lance turns to see her and Hunk standing there. He didn’t even hear them come in. Matt makes an almost inaudible noise of protest beside him, but when Lance shoots him a look he’s clenching his jaw and watching the screen.

 

Kolivan tilts his head. “I said the Princess and the Black Paladin only.”

 

“Pidge--” Allura starts, but Pidge cuts her off.

 

“I’m coming too.”

 

There’s a few ticks as she and Kolivan stare each other down before he says, “As you insist. We will send you our coordinates.” The screen goes blank.

 

A moment later, there’s a beep of an incoming message. Coran brings up the coordinates on the nav screen. “They’re in the Sbaxi quasar,” he announces after a moment.

 

“Of course,” Pidge groans, thumping her hand against her temple. “The overwhelming radiation and electromagnetic forces in a quasar would skew our sensors. I should have thought of that.”

 

“It’s a quasar though,” Hunk points out. “How are they not getting fried?”

 

“Theoretically, if you had the right equipment and sensors, you could probably find pockets of the quasar that are less violent than other places,” Matt says, peering at the screen. He stabs his finger at the coordinates. “I’d say based on the energy signatures in this sector they’ve got some sort of containment field to protect themselves. It wouldn’t work forever, of course, since the conditions of the quasar would change over time, but for a short-term hiding place--”

 

“It’s pretty damn good,” Lance surmises.

 

Matt nods. “I see why he wanted you to go, though, Lance-- the Black Lion is probably the only one who can withstand that level of radiation for the time it’ll take you to get in there.”

 

“Deja vu,” Pidge mutters, and Lance huffs a laugh.

 

“All right, then. To the dangerous Blade base in a dangerous place we go.”

 

“We won’t be able to cover you in there,” Coran warns. “Kolivan must have been using a relay point to talk to us. The electromagnetic forces will disrupt our communications.”

 

“So we’re on our own?” Lance asks.

 

Coran’s mouth sets in a grim line. “The Blade have always been our most reliable allies,” Allura says. “I trust them.”

 

Lance looks at Pidge, who shrugs. “What’s our other option?”

 

“You always have the annoyingly best points,” Lance sighs. He looks at Pidge and Allura. “You two ready?”

 

They nod at him, pulling their helmets on. The black helmet in his hands still looks so alien as he follows suit.

 

“Then let’s do this.”

 

.   .

      ✺ ·    ✵     

          ⊹    .

  • ✵   .      .      .  

 *  ·   . ✦

✹      ·      .       

 . · ✵

 

Violent didn’t even begin to describe the Sbaxi quasar. The light is so intense Lance is forced to dim Black’s screens, until all he can see are the dim shapes of asteroids being whipped by them, lost to the same massive gravitational force Black is struggling against.

 

Pidge and Allura are silent, hanging onto the back of his chair as he barely dodges a comet, swearing under his breath.

 

Black roars in protest as a smaller rock smashes against her side, sending her dangerously close to spinning off into space. “Sorry girl, sorry,” Lance says, helping her right herself and setting them back on the path towards the Blade’s base. He grits his teeth as a rain of meteorites patters off the screens.

 

He’s so focused on dodging the space debris he can still only barely see that doesn’t notice the tugging sensation at first, until Black prods at his consciousness impatiently. He flinches. “Ow! What?”

 

She tugs again, harder this time; Lance vision doubles and blurs for a second, and he blinks rapidly. “What are you doing?”

 

The tug this time feels like a ripcurrent sweeping his feet out from under him. He struggles to hold on against it. “Black, what are you doing, I can’t see--”

 

“She’s trying to help you,” Allura says, gripping his shoulder. “You’ll be able to see better with her, Lance. Trust her.”

 

“I do,” he spits. Black rumbles at the back of his mind, and he forces himself to pause, take a deep breath, and lets his eyes slip close. “I do,” he says again, barely above a whisper.

 

This time when Black pulls at him, he doesn’t try to fight it. He lets himself get swept up in the torrent of Black’s consciousness, lets her twine around him like vines on a tree, welcomes it, reaches for it.

 

There’s a rush, and they open their eyes. There are more asteroids coming towards them, but they can see them this time, through the burning light of the quasar, and they effortlessly twist out of the way. With their path marked out before them, they pick their way through the debris, through the massive solar storms washing against their flanks, like a child hopping from rock to rock along a seashore.

 

It’s almost a disappointment when they see the gray loom of a base before them and know their journey is at an end. Far away, there’s a pressure on someone’s shoulder, and they split and fray and unwind back into their separate forms of Lance and Black.

 

Lance blinks rapidly-- everything in the cockpit looks so small, and his limbs feels heavy and awkward and foreign. Pidge squeezes him again, and everything settles back into place.

 

“Whoa,” he manages after a second.

 

“Well done, Lance,” Allura says, smiling down at him. “Only a true Paladin can reach that level of synchronicity with their Lion.”

 

Pidge whistles, widening her eyes comically. “Guess the rest of us can retire early, then.”

 

“Don’t you dare,” Lance manages, shaking his head to get rid of the last phantom echoes of fusing with his Lion. “I need someone to pawn the paperwork off on.” She sticks her tongue out at him.

 

There’s a beep of an incoming communication. Lance flips a switch to accept the call. “Kolivan has given you permission to dock in Bay Nine,” the Galra instructs, and then ends the link. Lance exchanges a glance with Pidge, but follows the instructions without a word.

 

He can tell how on edge the Blade are, though, from how many of them are waiting in the docking bay. Allura starts to speak as they step out of Black, but one of the Galra raises their voice over her. “Kolivan has been waiting for you for the last varga.”

 

“Well, you guys didn’t exactly pick the best vacation spot,” Lance points out, but the Blade ignores him.

 

“We will escort you to him.”

 

Allura inclines her head. “Of course.”

 

Beneath her visor, Pidge’s mouth twitches into a frown, but she follows Allura and the Galra without a word. Lance brings up the rear, shooting one last look back at Black as the bay doors slide soundlessly closed behind them.

 

The Marmora base is as quiet as Lance remembers as they’re marched through the hallways. The lone Blades that pass them barely even give them a second glance. It’s why he never liked it here, no matter how good the Blades are at their jobs: everything about their organization just feels soulless and drained, completely impersonal. The whole effect makes the individual Blades, with their matching uniforms and masked faces, seem expendable-- and they sure don’t get treated any differently, he thinks bitterly. He’s pretty sure Keith never stopped acting on their knowledge or death ideology.

 

He pushes those thoughts aside as they step into a control room. Lance knows better than to think it’s the only one on the Blade of Marmora’s massive base, but still, he’s a little surprised to see Kolivan standing there, surveying the screens. Maybe he’s less suspicious of them than they’d thought.

 

Kolivan turns as they walk in, and there’s a tick before he gives them a nod of greeting. “Kolivan,” Allura says in response.

 

“Princess.” Kolivan flicks his fingers at their guards in a clear dismissal. Most of them leave the room immediately, but the Galra who’d spoken to them in the bay hesitates.

 

“Sir, are you sure?”

 

Kolivan is as perfectly impassable as ever as he answers. “I have nothing to fear from Voltron, Drazol.”

 

The Blade lingers for another second before dipping their head and walking out, leaving them in the room with just Kolivan and a single Blade technician, tapping away at the screens and ignoring them completely.

 

“Kolivan,” Allura begins, “I understand that you’re suspicious of us, given we’ve been a bit reserved--”

 

“You’re wrong, Princess,” Kolivan interrupts. “I am suspicious of everyone, because that is what is necessary. It is how the Blade has survived the Empire for ten thousand years. I broke with our policy of isolation because I believed there was no other way to win this war.” There’s a moment where he surveys them with his yellow eyes, and the tension in the room is like a physical weight. “I still believe that,” he says at length, and Lance swears he sees Allura’s shoulders relax a fraction. “However, with the Empire’s threat and our risk of discovery constantly growing, I cannot overlook the fact that our allies have been hiding information from us based on their own feelings of sentimentality.”

 

Allura is perfectly calm as she replies. “Perhaps you should start by telling us what happened, Kolivan. Did one of your agents discover some piece of information about Voltron?”

 

Lance’s breath catches; really, he should have thought of this, but he was so focused on what they had to do he barely had time to think about how the Blade found out. What if the Empire had captured Keith and Shiro? What if they’d been injured and stranded on some distant planet? What if Shiro had turned out to be-- wrong, some Galra sleeper cell, and had attacked Keith?

 

His rapidly spinning train of thought is brought to an abrupt halt as Kolivan says, “Your paladins came to me for help.”

 

Lance’s mouth moves without his permission. “They were here?”

 

Pidge mutters something beside him, but Lance doesn’t catch it. Every fiber of his being is focused on Kolivan as he speaks.

 

“Two movements ago, the former Red and Black Paladins came to us for assistance. Keith explained to us that something had happened to Shiro on a mission, and he acted under a will that was not his own.” There’s a pause. “He also said that this happened phoebs ago.”

 

Allura is silent for a long minute. “I think you of all people understand the importance of secrecy, especially when you don’t have all the information,” she says eventually. “We believed it would be safest for everyone if--”

 

“For everyone? Or just for your Paladins?” Kolivan crosses his arms and tilts his head. “You were hoping to protect Shiro and Keith from persecution by the rest of the Alliance, and ignoring the possibility that Shiro is truly compromised. With the knowledge he possesses, every planet in the coalition is at risk. We have no idea how long he could have been feeding the Empire information, either-- did you fail to consider that it is likely he is the reason why we have stalled in our progress of dismantling the Empire this last decaphoeb?”

 

Lance wants to smack himself. Of course. Neither Allura or Pidge look surprised, though, only grim, and Lance hates the suspicion they’ve had to put on someone who’s supposed to be their friend.

 

He pushes that aside, though, for the question that’s been eating at him while Kolivan and Allura spoke. “Where are they now?”

 

“We attempted to take Shiro into custody. Keith disagreed with our decision,” Kolivan says at length. “He attacked us, and together, they fought their way out of our base.”

 

“Were they injured? Do you know where they went?”

 

“We have so far been unable to track them. As for their injuries…” Kolivan gives a tiny shrug. “They’ve both sustained far worse.”

 

“What is that supposed to mean, dude?” Lance hisses, stepping up to him. “Did you hurt them or not?”

 

Kolivan looks down at him, then turns to the Blade technician sitting by the wall of screens. “Zaquok, pull up the footage for the Black Paladin.”

 

Lance hurries over to the screens as Zaquok taps a few buttons. Pidge crowds in beside him, leaning in close to the screen with a look of concentration on her freckled face.

 

Lance stops breathing as the video plays. It’s some kind of security footage, so the angle is weird, and there’s no audio, but Keith is unmistakable on the screen, wearing his old Marmora armor and shaking off the Blades gripping his arms to shout something at Kolivan. Lance knows exactly what’s going to happen before it does, and it’s as exhilarating as it is terrifying to watch Keith throw a knife at one of the Galra holding Shiro in a tight grip before lunging for Kolivan. Pidge huffs an almost inaudible laugh as Keith grabs Kolivan’s braid, but Lance is still stuck on the heart-stopping moment where Kolivan’s blade almost connected with Keith’s neck.

 

“You almost killed him,” he says, voice shaky from the sheer volume of rage coursing through his veins, and far in the distance he feels Black shift and grumble in the hangar.

 

“He knew the risks,” Kolivan responds, perfectly level.

 

Lance is about to say something else when Pidge sucks in a breath, and he looks back to the screen. The camera’s changed, and Keith and Shiro are sprinting across a bay to their ship. The same shuttle they took so many weeks ago from the Castle.

 

As Keith’s figure vanishes into the ship, Lance feels all the anger drain right out of him, taking everything he has left with it. His ears are buzzing as the Altean shuttle lifts up and takes off, vanishing into the depths of space. If they still have that ship, they must have received the message Lance sent, begging Keith to come back-- and it still didn’t matter.

 

Far away, he hears Pidge say, “Lance?”

 

“I’m okay,” he manages, but his eyes are glued to the screen where the footage has looped, where Keith is pulling free of the Galra again, and the footage is too small and pixelated to see much detail but Lance’s brain is filling in with the familiar fire in Keith’s eyes, the drag in his voice when he shouts, and he can’t take it but there’s no way in quiznack he’s breaking down in front of Kolivan.

 

It takes willpower he doesn’t even know he has in reserve to draw himself up and say to Pidge, “I need some air,” but he manages it, manages to not let his wobbly legs and labored breathing show as he strides across the room and out into the featureless hallway. Kolivan watches him go, but says nothing, listening to whatever Allura’s saying to him. Lance can’t make the words out through the static in his ears.

 

He waits until the door shuts behind him to lean against a wall. It only takes a moment before his knees give out and he slides down, tilting his head back until his helmet thuds against the metal. Shutting his eyes, he carefully counts out his breathing; it takes a couple doboshes, but his tight chest finally eases and his hands stop shaking so much.

 

The others probably think he’s having a panic attack or crying, but Lance honestly isn’t sure he has enough left in him to do either of those. Maybe he should be happy right now-- this is the first solid lead they’ve had since Keith and Shiro left, three months ago now. Mostly, though, Lance is so, so tired.

 

The worst part is, he should be used to this. Fuck, this is just the story of him and Keith, right? Lance has never been more than a shadow chasing after him. It started when they were thirteen at the Garrison, and Keith was just a kid in a uniform that Lance was ridiculously jealous of. Why is he so naive to think it would stop now? Because he got less than one year of being happy? Of thinking he finally caught up?

 

Ridiculous is right. Lance has never stopped being ridiculous about Keith. It’s the fucking cosmic joke again. Fate or whatever already laid out their path with Voltron and being paladins; stands to reason it would control this, too. Maybe Lance is doomed to be stuck following Keith forever, trapped in a planetary orbit and never reaching the surface.

 

He lets out a long, slow breath, opening his eyes to stare dully at the studded metal ceiling. The worst part is, it doesn’t even matter; he already knows he’ll do whatever it takes, that he’d chase Keith to the end of the universe.

 

It doesn’t make it hurt any less, though.

 

The door slides open with a hiss and Pidge walks into the hall. She slides down to sit next to him and knocks their shoulders together gently. “You okay?”

 

Lance shrugs listlessly. “Yeah. I guess I am.”

 

They sit there in silence for a bit before he notices Pidge is tapping her fingers against the armor plate on her thigh. He cocks an eyebrow at her. “Are you okay?”

 

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Just… ready to get out of here.”

 

He hums in agreement, resting his head against the wall again. Another few ticks of silence pass before he peeks at her. She’s tapping again.

 

“Pidge?” he asks slowly, but then the door opens again and Allura steps into the hall, lips set in a thin line, and Pidge is scrambling to her feet.

 

“Ready to go?” she says to Allura as Lance rises, too.

 

Allura’s mouth twists. “Quite.”

 

Kolivan follows her into the hall. “I’ll escort you back to your ship.” It sounds like a warning when he says it.

 

Allura doesn’t reply, just sets off down the hall at a pace that has Pidge half-jogging to keep up with her short legs.

 

It’s a tense, awkward walk back to the docking bay, and it’s a relief when they finally step through the door to be greeted by the sigh of the Black Lion, towering above them. Lance is all set to load up and get the hell out of there, quasar flying be damned, but Allura pauses and turns back to Kolivan.

 

“Kolivan,” she begins, “the Blade has been our greatest ally in this fight. I would hate for this incident to put that at risk. I understand your fears about Voltron’s recent… lack of transparency.” She squares her shoulders and meets his eyes. “You have my word, it won’t happen again.”

 

Kolivan inclines his head, just a fraction. “I appreciate that, Princess.”

 

He doesn’t offer anything else, and after a moment, Allura nods and turns away. Pidge follows her towards Black, but Lance hesitates and looks back to Kolivan.

 

“How was he, really?” he asks, keeping his voice low so the others don’t hear.

 

Kolivan raises an eyebrow, but replies, “Worried. Tired.”

 

Lance nods, chewing his lip. “I haven’t forgiven you for trying to kill him, by the way.”

 

“We’re at war,” Kolivan says, blank as ever. “He’s standing on the wrong side.”

 

“What’s that, any side that isn’t yours?”

 

Kolivan ignores his sarcasm with stoicism bordering on creepy. “Yes.”

 

Lance turns away, shaking his head.

 

“For your sake, Black Paladin, I hope you find him soon,” Kolivan says to his back. “Your former leader could prove to be his defeat.”

 

“I know,” Lance says under his breath.

 

˚         

 *  +    

   .   ✺  ˚       .

  ✦   ·      ✺ ˚

*         

           

✦            .

 

The flight back through the Sbaxi quasar is just as tough as the first time. Lance blows out a heavy breath as Black’s consciousness pulls away from his, leaving him washed out and slumped in his pilot chair.

 

It only takes a second for the Castle to hail them. Hunk’s face is the first thing Lance sees, pressed tight against the screen. “Oh my god, you guys are alive! Matt, Coran, they’re okay!”

 

As tired as he is, Lance still manages a grin. “Yeah, buddy, we’re fine.”

 

“What happened?” Matt asks, appearing in the frame as Hunk backs up a little. “Did the Blade say anything about Shiro?”

 

Lance’s smile fades as Allura steps in and recounts their meeting with Kolivan.

 

“Well, at least our alliance still holds,” Coran points out once she’s finished.

 

“For now,” Allura says grimly.

 

Matt cocks his head. “What have you got, Pidge?”

 

On the other side of Lance, Pidge is practically vibrating. “While Allura was doing her whole diplomacy thing, I thought I’d try a more reliable tactic,” she says with a sharp grin.

 

Hunk’s eyes widen. “Please tell me you didn’t hack them.”

 

“I totally hacked them.”

 

“You what?” Lance yelps. “Pidge, Kolivan barely trusts us anymore anyways--”

 

“He doesn’t trust us at all, actually,” she says, suddenly serious. “There’s a lot of information the Blade is keeping from us. I didn’t have time to look through it all, obviously, but I grabbed everything they had on Keith and Shiro.”

 

“And?” Matt prompts.

 

“I found the same thing that we found on that weird base-- you know, in the Aquilae B-20 system? Where Shiro…” She trails off, and everyone’s silent for a tick before she clears her throat and moves on. “Anyways, the only piece of information I got from there was a name, right?”

 

“Kuron,” Lance remembers.

 

She stabs a finger at her wrist computer. “Exactly. And the Blade has information on the same exact thing.”

 

“What is it?” Allura asks sharply.

 

Pidge shrugs. “Even the Blade isn’t sure. But it definitely has something to do with mind control.”

 

“So Shiro is being controlled by the Galra,” Lance says, a wave of dread crashing over him.

 

“Probably.”

 

There’s another beat before she picks back up, tapping at her wrist computer as she speaks. “But they also had a series of characters they didn’t know what to do with in the same file. They knew it was associated, but they didn’t have a clue what it actually was.”

 

“And it is…?” Lance prompts.

 

“It’s heavily-- like, heavily-- encoded, but I’m pretty sure it’s a frequency.”

 

Hunk’s eyes widen as he scans whatever Pidge just sent him. “Pidge-- the multispectrum ion scanner!”

 

“Exactly,” she says, beaming.

 

“Wait, wait, wait.” Lance holds his hand up. “My brain was just turned into mashed potatoes by the giant cat robot I had riding shotgun. What does that mean?”

 

“If this Project Kuron or whatever has something to do with what’s happening to Shiro, then that’s where Keith and Shiro are headed,” Pidge explains.

 

“And you can find it?”

 

“Yeah, I can.”

 

Lance takes a second to absorb that; then he wraps his hands around Black’s throttle and guns her for the Castle. “Coran, we’re five doboshes out.”

 

“I’ll prepare the ship for wormhole.”

 

Lance can’t tell if he’s smiling or grimacing, but Black growls her approval in the back of his mind as they tear through the stars.

Chapter Text

There’s fire blazing through his veins instead of blood. Keith never forgets what this feels like, not really, but it so rarely happens when he’s stationary, in no risk of dying or being seriously injured. It’s adrenaline the way Keith suspects most people experience it.

 

It’s a version he’s almost entirely unfamiliar with. Lance is the only reason he has any idea at all.

 

But there’s a frequency. After movements of hard work, tracking down each and every mention of Kuron that they could find--including, notably, a planet they believed the locals called Kuron, only to discover that it could’ve been Kuron, but it also could’ve been Kubon, a discrepancy he and Shiro had argued about since--they finally had a real lead.

 

Because now there’s a frequency, recovered from a Galra base they’d actually snuck in and out of without incident, a first on this truly hellish quest.

 

Even now, Keith can’t quite believe their luck. If it hadn’t been for Shiro’s arm, they wouldn’t have been able to find or track the frequency. Without Shiro overhearing Kuron, Keith would still be mindlessly tearing himself apart for being unable to find the needle.

 

There’s a small, instinctive part of Keith that’s screaming. There’s nothing at all, not even a haystack, without Shiro, an undeniably compromised Shiro, and that usually means something’s wrong, a trap sort of wrong, but this new kind of adrenaline, one fueled by nothing but unbridled hope and the sheer closeness of their ages long goal, is like a sound-proof glass. Nothing’s getting through.

 

“How close are we?” Keith asks, sitting up in his chair, rubbing his eyes and yawning a beat too late. Shiro rolls his eyes.

 

“I know you weren’t sleeping.”

 

“I’m a pretty good faker.”

 

“Maybe. But not when you’re this excited. If you die wherever this is, there’s no one to blame but yourself, you know.”

 

Keith snorts. “When was the last time you slept?”

 

“More recently than you.”

 

Crossing his arms over his chest, he mumbles, “Whatever,” and finds the radar, their ship and the blip they’re chasing both easily recognizable. They’re so close. A quintant, maybe two.

 

“Operation Kuron could just be another stepping stone. It might not be everything.”

 

“But it’s gotta be a big one.”

 

Shiro nods, allowing that. Then he grins sidelong at Keith. “I’ll stop trying to kill your buzz.”

 

“Don’t stop on account of me.”

 

This time, Shiro laughs and Keith smiles, happy to see...no, just happy. He thinks he’s happy. It’s hard to say, because he’s never been good at happy--that had always been the strangest part of his life with Lance--but the smiles are easy, some of the weight is gone from his chest. Maybe, just maybe, in a few quintants, he’ll have Shiro back to his Shiro, someone the team can’t lock away from him.

 

And hopefully, he’ll have Lance.

 

Quietly, Keith says, “Do you think Lance can follow us here?”

 

“I don’t see why not.”

 

Keith hums.

 

In a thoughtful voice, Shiro continues. “I think Lance can do whatever he sets his mind to. It just takes him a little longer, sometimes. But, yes, I bet he can. When it comes to you, I never bet against him.”

 

“What’s that mean?”

 

“I was worried, when the two of you started dating.” When Keith shoots him a look, Shiro holds up his hand. “Not because you were teammates. The two of you already caused problems, in a relationship or no.

 

“Or, I suppose, it was because we were all teammates that I was worried. We couldn’t afford to lose either of you and when you stopped dancing around each other, I was so sure we were movements--hell, quintants--away from losing you, something I didn’t worry about when you were just bickering.”

 

“Because I run,” Keith mumbles.

 

Shiro nods, smiling kindly. “But you stayed.”

 

Keith shrugs. Part of him wants to say, “Of course I did,” but he knows he can’t. When they’d started dating, it hadn’t been like that. Not even close. It’s not something he likes to think about now, when he can’t imagine what his life, his world, his universe, would look like without Lance. Bland and tasteless and dark, probably.

 

“Somehow, he got you to stay and I’ll never bet against anyone who can do that.”

 

Looking out at the stars, Keith whispers, “Did he?”

 

“Where’s your heart?”

 

“Jesus.”

 

“Well?”

 

“I’m not going to answer that.”

 

Shiro says, “Well, I know it’s not here.”

 

Rolling his eyes, Keith replies, “Of course it is, dumbass. Why the hell else would I be doing this?”

 

“Obligation.”

 

“That’s…”

 

“It’s alright,” Shiro interrupts. “And I still appreciate it. But that’s all it is, because if it came down to love and love alone, you would be with Lance, absolutely no question. I know you and I know you haven’t ever loved anything like you love him.”

 

Keith sighs, not wanting to argue, because he sees what Shiro is saying, however much his argument erases the love Keith has for him. It’s the kind of difficult hypothetical he does not like to think about. “What’s your point?”

 

“You aren’t running, Keith, and you haven’t been.”

 

“Okay.”

 

“Want to know why?”

 

“No.”

 

“Because you have every intention of going back.”

 

It takes Keith a moment to process that and when he does, he simply smiles, standing and punching Shiro in the shoulder. Getting the message, Shiro moves from the pilot’s seat and settles into the seat Keith just abandoned, shutting his eyes. “Now, I’m actually going to get some sleep. Watch and learn.”

 

“Yeah, yeah.”

 

“Don’t do anything stupid.”

 

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”

 

Shiro cracks open an eye. “Weird. I think I actually believe you.”

 

“Ha ha,” Keith says, but he’s smiling. Maybe his decision not to burn through life like he’s a flame and it’s lighter fluid is going to stick. Because he’s not insane. He’s not the only one who sees the possibility in himself. And if Shiro sees it too, Keith knows it can become a reality. It wouldn’t be the first time.

 

✺    .    ⋆ *
     .  ·
·  *       · · .
   · · .  *     *
   .            
.  ⊹   ✵ *      
      ⋆ ·

 

The base is only vargas away now and Keith is jiggling his leg up and down, wishing for the Castle’s training room. Having space and the opportunity to slice up some robot dummies sounds perfect right about now. Something to take his mind off what’s to come.

 

Shiro’s right, of course, like always. This might not be the crux of everything, but Keith wants it to be so badly that it feels like he could will the desired outcome into existence. He’s just so tired. He wants this to be over so badly. At this point, it’s not even entirely about Lance. Having a bed back would be fantastic, for one. Hell, he’ll even take the food goo.

 

“What do you think we’re gonna find?” Keith asks.

 

“We’d have to not die first,” Shiro replies.

 

“We’re not going to die. You’ve got me.”

 

“Fills me with confidence.”

 

“I haven’t died before,” Keith says.

 

There’s a complicated expression on Shiro’s face, muscles unsure which emotion to exhibit. Instead of deciding, he just bows his head and covers his eyes with a hand. The soft blue light from the display deepens shadows and, for the first time, Shiro looks as tired as he must feel. Keith begins to wonder how hard he’s been acting this entire time, worrying more about Keith’s mental stability than his own. It would be like Shiro. When he speaks, his words don’t come out joking like they were meant to. “Did I finally break you?”

 

“That’s not nearly enough to break me,” Shiro replies with a laugh.

 

Keith doesn’t respond, well aware that Shiro knows exactly what will break him. But they’ve never really talked about his time with the Galra and they’re not about to start now.

 

When their eyes meet, his choice to stay silent transforms into an obligation. Quickly, Keith averts his gaze to the radar.

 

˚          ✧ 
    ·      *  .  .
  . ✵   ✵
   ⋆  .   ·     
˚  ✵       ˚  ˚       
 ✵       ˚

 

It’s another Galra base, one that looks exactly like all the others they’ve been to. Entirely average. It’s slightly underwhelming, seeing it. Keith wants, needs , this place to change everything and it appears to only be more of the same.

 

He switches to stealth mode and flies closer, keeping his eyes peeled for defense systems and a way in.

 

There’s not a clear sign of either and Keith begins to understand how stupid the trip to the Blade had been. Moves like that were enough to make waves and the ripples could reach all the way to the edge of the observable universe. He knew that from experience. And, by the right people, those ripples could be deciphered.

 

Shiro is clearly thinking the same thing as him, mouth drawn in a straight line.

 

“We have to,” Keith says.

 

“I know.”

 

“At least we’re expecting a trap?”

 

Shiro turns in his seat so he’s facing Keith. Taken aback, Keith opens his mouth to say something, a poor attempt at reassurance, but Shiro speaks before he gets his chance. “Thank you.”

 

“Huh?”

 

“Thank you,” Shiro says again, resting a hand on Keith’s shoulder. “For everything.”

 

The earnestness in his eyes is too much for Keith to handle, not feeling at all deserving, and all he manages is, “Don’t thank me.”

 

“Too late. Already did.”

 

WIth a half-smile, Keith says, “Think we should just dock?”

 

“Got another idea?”

 

“Not a single one.”

 

“Just another day for us, huh?”

 

“Gotta love saving the universe.”

 

Extending his fist, he waits. There’s barely a pause and then Shiro’s fist bumps against his, leaving a slight sting in Keith’s knuckles. Maybe this isn’t all or nothing, but it feels like it is and, for once, finally, Keith feels at home even though he isn’t, is far from it. Because this feeling has defined his life. He breathes all or nothing. The whole team does. That’s what it is to be part of Voltron and, undeniably, that is what both he and Shiro are. And by the end of this, they could be back.

 

*            ✧   ·
.         *   ✹
✧ ✺       ✧   
           ˚ ✦ *   
         +       
.    ⊹ *    
      ·

 

There were a million things Keith was supposed to be doing right now. Sprucing Red up, training, eating--an order from Lance--fetching Hunk and Pidge and Coran whatever they needed to fix up the Castle, getting scolded by Shiro for whatever latest dumbass move he’d made--he still wasn’t sure what it was he’d done this time--and instead, he was lounging in the common room, tossing a small, metal sphere he’d stolen off Pidge up above his head and thinking about Lance. Idly, lazily, but without interruption by other thoughts. His brain wasn’t great at most things, but when it came to fixating on Lance, it could’ve won awards.

 

Seven phoebs now and that hadn’t changed.

 

Recently, it’d been excessive wanting, one that manifested in lengthy daydreams. Ever since they’d moved into the same room, Keith had been largely uninterested in leaving it, too preoccupied with the warmth of the sheets, the weight of Lance’s limbs, and his gentle snores--that he still denied existed--into Keith’s ear.

 

It was stillness and peace and Keith didn’t know what to do with it or the ferocity with which he wanted to live within it all the time. As far as he knew, he’d never been meant for stillness or peace. It certainly hadn’t been part of his life before.

 

Just moments in a room with Lance weren’t supposed to settle the loose thoughts in his brain, unwind the tightness in his chest, undo the tension in his shoulders, calm the crawling need to distract himself, and yet it did.

 

Sometimes, Keith wondered if he was being duped. Other times, he wondered if he cared. Most of the time, he knew it didn’t matter what the answers to either of those questions were.

 

“Keith.”

 

Dropping the ball, wincing when it struck him in the chest, Keith scrambled up into a sitting position and saw Shiro. Nodding, he turned his attention back to the ball, tossing it between his hands, not interested in listening to a lecture. Couldn’t Shiro tell he was busy?

 

Shiro came and sat down beside him. Nudging Keith with his shoulder, he said, “You okay?”

 

“Fine.”

 

Shiro eyed him. “You’re thinking.”


“So?”


“That usually means you’re the opposite of fine.”

 

“Just not feeling a lecture.”

 

“I didn’t come here to lecture you,” Shiro said. “We were all just wondering where you were. And Lance seems to think you’re self-isolating.”

 

“Is that what you’re calling being dramatic now? Because he definitely just told you I was being dramatic.”

 

Shiro laughed, getting comfortable, throwing one arm on the couch behind Keith. Frowning, Keith crossed his arms. He didn’t want Shiro getting comfortable. This was his much needed alone time. It was hard to get on this goddamn Castle. “So what got you thinking?”

 

“I’m not doing this.”

 

“Come on,” Shiro said, turning his body so he was facing Keith. “A few feelings won’t hurt you.”

 

“Says you.”

 

“Wanna go take on some training bots?”

 

“Nope.”

 

Shiro smiled teasingly. “I’m sensing you want to be alone.”

 

“Oh, he has a brain. I wasn’t sure,” Keith mumbled.

 

“We weren’t upset, Keith,” Shiro said. “At all. You saved our asses out there today. Sure, it was stupid to take on all of those ships by yourself, but we would’ve been much worse off without you doing that. So come do something with us. Lance mentioned something about a movie.”

 

“One of the five movies we have?”

 

“It reminds us all of home.”

 

“Don’t really have an intense desire to be reminded, thank you.”

 

“It’s been a long day. You know he’s just trying to keep us all sane,” Shiro replied.

 

“I know.” And he did. What Lance did for this team was more important than anything anyone else did. If they didn’t have Lance, everything would fall apart in an instant. Forget having something of a family, let alone forming Voltron.

 

“He’ll be happy to see you there.”

 

“I know,” Keith repeated, smiling to himself. “I’ll come find you in a bit. Promise. I need some time, though.”

 

“Okay.”

 

Shiro stood and was halfway across the room, when Keith silently cursed himself, unable to stop the question that had formed in his head from leaving his lips. “Shiro?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Did you… why were you scared?”

 

“What?”

 

Frowning, Keith tried to understand the mishmash of thoughts in his own head. “You always told me you left because you were scared. Left Adam, I mean. You just never said what you were scared of.”

 

Shiro leaned against the wall, arms crossed over his chest. With the careful precision of a man trying to avoid the triggering of certain memories, Shiro said, “I wasn’t… he was the one, if you will. But I… I was going to die. I didn’t have long left and I wanted to leave on my own terms, I guess. I was scared that I was going to be a scar, there for the rest of his life. And I was scared to be there for it, to watch his face while I…

 

“It wasn’t fair to him. I know that. But it was easier to run and I had a perfect opportunity. I think you know something about that.”

 

Keith nodded.

 

“Why do you ask?”

 

Shrugging, Keith picked at the lining of the couch. “I think Lance is--”


Shiro smirked. “‘The one, if you will’?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“And?”

 

“And, today, I got out of Red onto the hangar and he had that line in his forehead, the one that means he’s terrified out of his mind. He always has it after a mission. Every single time, like, somehow, even if I’m not directly involved in a fight, someone got to me and I’m moments away from death. Usually, it makes me so fucking scared, because what if, one day, it’s exactly like that and I have to…”

 

“Watch his face.”

 

“Right. But today I wasn’t.”

 

“Scared?”

 

Keith nodded. “And I’m scared that I wasn’t scared. I’m scared that I’m in a war and I’ve found the one thing that I can’t and won’t let go of, because wars seem to have a radar for something that important, as if they shake the real universe as much as Lance has shook mine, and war tears it away. I’m scared I’ve gone and done it now. Gone and shaken the universe and now it knows and it won’t hesitate. I’m scared there’s an earthquake coming and I won’t have absolutely any of knowing when it hits until it does.”

 

“That’s a lot to think about.”

 

Keith sighed loudly, letting what built up as he talked, unwind. He’d done his talking. That was all Shiro was going to get. To be fair, it was a lot more than he’d intended. “Yeah, well, I had it handled until you came and disturbed me.”

 

Shiro laughed. “Fair enough. I’ll see you soon?”

“Yeah. I’ll be there in a few ticks.”

 

Nodding, Shiro left. Keith could’ve left with him, having an intense and sudden desire to not just think about Lance, but be with him, but he was petty, so he waited until it seemed a reasonable length of time. Then he went to Pidge’s room, where they tended to have movie nights.

 

When he opened her door, everyone looked at him. They all said hi, then turned their attention back to the movie. Everyone except Lance, who was grinning at him brightly. Smiling back, Keith wound his way over to him and sat right beside him, their sides pressed together. Without a beat, he found Lance’s hand and slipped his fingers in between Lance’s.

 

“Done being dramatic?” Lance teased in a whisper, his breath tickling Keith’s ear.

 

Scoffing, Keith leaned in and kissed him because he wanted to. “Yeah.

 

Lance eyed him suspiciously. “You’re looking at me weird.”

 

For a moment, Keith didn’t say a word, instead tracing the line of Lance’s thumb with his own. Then, apropos of nothing, he said, “I love you.”

 

“Now you’re acting weird.”

 

Keith couldn’t explain to Lance. That was entirely why he’d sought alone time. There weren’t words, wasn’t a way to describe quite how much Lance meant to him, certainly not to Lance himself. They hadn’t been dating nearly long enough in Keith’s opinion to come on that strong, to talk about shaken universes and the stupid and largely unsatisfactory concept of ‘the one’. And he didn’t want to worry Lance with ideas of wars and earthquakes.

 

So he shrugged. Lance rolled his eyes in response, but kissed Keith on the cheek and said, “Love you, too, idiot.”

 

It was good Shiro had been the one to find him. Because the universe couldn’t strip this night away, no matter how goddamn hard it tried.

 

*  
·  *            .  
 ✧ ✫    
  ✷   . ✵  ⊹
    ✷     ✺
         ✺    ✵ ✹
.          ✹

 

The instant they enter the Galra base, Keith notices the same droids that occupied the first base they had infiltrated. And like that time, they aren’t lit up. In fact, it’s so similar to then that Keith is immediately on edge. That had not ended well and it didn’t bode well for this encounter. If the two were even slightly similar, this was going to get ugly quick.

 

Shiro is just as tense. “Can’t for once,” he whispers to Keith, “something be normal?”

 

“Rather fight through a horde of Galra?”

 

“Kind of.”

 

Silently, Keith agrees, but he’s not going to voice that. He’s going to remain as positive as possible. Who cares if the voice that’s been screaming ‘trap’ this entire time is now loud enough to do the drowning? This could be the end and Keith will do whatever it takes to reach that end. What comes, comes. There’s nothing he can do. He’s come too far to back down.

 

They pick their way through the maze of halls, encountering numerous droids who are silent and still. What they have not encountered is a single Galra.

 

“Keith,” Shiro says, “there should be someone here. Whatever else, the information about Operation Kuron is here and if the Blade care about it, it’s important. Important enough that the Galra care more than this.”

 

“I know.”

 

“Someone has to at least maintain the place.”

 

“I know, okay? But what else are we going to do?”

 

“We could stop, take this information, and plan. There’s a way to do this safely. Or, at least, more safely.”

Keith continues forward, step by step. “I don’t think there is and I don’t think you do, either.”

 

When Shiro doesn’t respond, Keith knows he’s right.

 

  • ✫     ⊹ ✺
    .     ✷  
    ·    ✫  
      ·      ✺  
     · ·  ·      
         . ·   ·    .

 

It takes them almost a varga of searching before they find a room with a monitor. They’d traveled slow and careful, searching each room they came across. The search had only increased their fears. Because this place is fully functional. There’s enough room for nearly a hundred Galra here, but there still seems to be zero present.

 

It’s likely, sickeningly, that they knew Keith and Shiro were coming. Someone had deciphered the waves and accurately, too.

 

It’s the worst possible scenario, but he has to keep going anyway. He has to.

 

“Guard the door,” Keith says, when he sees the monitor. He’s hoping it’s something he can access alone, with his Galra heritage. He’s not sure what exactly might set Shiro off, but he figures the less Shiro touches, the less he interacts with, the better.

 

With the touch of his hand, all information is available to him. He doesn’t know much about the operating system of the Galra or how to navigate it, not nearly as much as Pidge or Hunk, but he gets the sense it shouldn’t be this easy. It’s as though there’s big red arrows pointing at what he needs to access to get to information about Operation Kuron, certain files too pointedly labeled. With dread, he finds what he needs and opens it, feeling like a fly stuck in a spider’s web. He doesn’t know where the spider is, but it’s coming. It’s so inevitable and he’s so fucked and he can’t stop. If this fixes Shiro, it’ll be worth it. If this fixes Shiro, it’ll be okay.

 

Information spools out in front of him, diagrams and notes and pictures all accessible. There’s so much and Keith can’t immediately make anything out of it, can’t put the pieces together and reach the big picture, but the dread in him grows, as though a subconscious part of him has managed to do what he can’t.

 

He’s mumbling words to himself, trying to understand, and when he turns to find Shiro, to see what he thinks, he doesn’t see him anywhere near the door where Keith had asked him to stay.

 

When a fist connects with his side, it’s hardly a surprise, just the next step in what has been unfolding. It hurts, terribly, and Keith backs away quickly, trying to create as much distance as possible, because that’s the only thing he knows to do. Whatever else he would come up with is hidden from him, lost in the pieces of a brain that’s slowly cracking in two.

 

Swallowing, he forces himself to look up and he sees Shiro’s broad back. He’s standing in front of the monitor and he’s typing something in.

 

It’s absolutely crazy, absolutely insane, and part of Keith knows, but he can’t help but think that maybe he’d imagined the fist connecting with his body, maybe Shiro’s connecting the pieces he can’t, maybe he’s working to fix himself, but then Shiro turns to face him and all Keith can see is purple.

 

His first thought is that hope is too powerful of an emotion and if he’d had less, he could’ve prepared for this.

 

His second thought is even worse.

 

When Shiro comes at him, there’s nothing he can do. He’s still processing, the nausea growing exponentially with each step Shiro takes towards him.

 

It’s when another fist connects with the same side, seeking to do as much hurt as possible, that it all clicks, everything he’s seen, everything he’s read, everything that’s he experienced. It’s when the second thought fully forms and does, if possible, even more damage.

 

He’s been wrong this entire time.

 

Because, now, looking into those eyes, the purple bright and glowing, absolutely nothing left of his Shiro to see, that Keith knows what Lance saw all those phoebs ago.

 

“Shiro,” he whispers, in one last appeal.

 

It’s not like the movies Lance had forced him to watch hundreds of times, where there was a split second of hesitation, where there was something, some humanity, to reach, where everything might be okay, before the betrayal.

 

No, it’s final, it’s convincing, and it unravels everything.

 

He knows now, like the stab of a knife, that this has all been for nothing, that he’s probably fucked the best thing about his life and has nothing to show for it, and that Shiro--this Not-Shiro who looks exactly like his Shiro, so much so it’s making everything impossible and mind-bendingly wrong--is two ticks away from doing his best to kill Keith.

 

There’s no one here, because the Galra knew who Keith was coming with and what switch would flip if they got too close to sensitive information.

 

Shiro’s the spider and Keith’s been trapped in the web much longer than he thought.

 

Another punch connects and Keith goes sprawling, head cracking against the ground as he lands, blurring his vision for a few ticks.

 

Shiro’s footsteps pound in his ears, in his heartbeat, and Keith knows he needs to move, but he can’t seem to. He’s having a hard time seeing the point, has a hard time seeing what there is to come back from. There’s no collecting these pieces and pasting them back together. There’s no going back to Lance and trying to explain his actions, not when, if he’d just believed Lance, everything would be so drastically different.

 

A foot connects with his stomach and Keith knows it’s this Shiro’s, but a part of his brain still absolutely refuses to associate the two.

 

Another kick and Keith wonders how long he can last, wonders what exactly it will be like to get beaten to death. He’s been close to knowing, but there’s a stark difference between close and the real thing. There’s a dark curiosity blooming in the wreckage.

 

The curiosity, strangely, is what wakes him up. He’s familiar with death, familiar enough that the vague interest in succumbing to it shouldn’t pull him this far back from the brink. The realization that he didn’t want to burn out, that he wanted to live, to see Lance again and somehow get across that he’s never wanted anything else and he understands exactly what that means now, must’ve stuck better than he imagined, because he’s suddenly not okay with how this situation is proceeding.

 

Rolling away, he manages to pick himself up.

 

He’s going to make it back to Lance. He made a promise.

 

The fact that Keith is standing doesn’t seem to distract Shiro at all. There’s no hesitation as he makes another attack, swinging a leg for Keith’s side. With effort, Keith dodges and blocks the swing of Shiro’s arm towards his head. And with that, there’s an opening. One that could buy him some time, one that could maybe even make this an actual fight, but he pauses and a hit lands on his cheekbone.

 

Keith assesses and realizes that was more than a hesitation on his end.

 

Even though this isn’t Shiro, even though he knows for sure that it isn’t, knows for sure there is nothing in there but a vault of transferred memories, Keith can’t separate any of it, because, somehow, he hadn’t even noticed when his Shiro had been replaced. He can’t separate his Shiro from this one, this clone of some sort, who has been a part of his life for long enough to create its own memories from the old ones, memories Keith cherishes. In a series of flashes, he sees this Shiro and him bumping fists only a varga ago. He sees Shiro patching up his injury. He sees them fighting for each other. He sees them on the couch, talking about Lance. He sees dinners and training sessions and a hand on his shoulder and quiet moments in corners and hugs and murmured words of faith. He sees Shiro, ages ago, sticking by him and standing up for him, a kid from a home who’d stolen his car, changing Keith’s entire life.

 

The purple eyes aren’t enough to erase everything else--the gray streak, the scar, the shoulders that have held the weight of Keith’s idolatry. They aren’t enough to erase a man that has been Keith’s salvation in so many ways.

 

There’s only one option left, only one option he can truly and honestly take.

 

Keith runs, calling on every ounce of practice he has.

 

He listens for the pounding of footsteps behind him, but there aren’t any. Shiro isn’t chasing him. Not at a run, at least. That’s something.

 

Or, rather, he thinks it’s something until he exits the room and realizes that the droids are awake. So that’s what Shiro was doing at the monitor. Guaranteeing Keith’s death.

 

No wonder Shiro isn’t running. A slow walk will likely suffice.

 

Cursing, Keith lets his feet take the lead, trusting his instinct. He had explored almost the entire base before finding the monitor. There’s got to be a place to hide, a place to gather himself and come up with a plan, because, in all honesty, no matter how determined he might be, he doesn’t see a way out of this right now.

 

A droid approaches him, apparently guarding this particular hall, but when it notices him, it springs into action. Keith knows he can’t afford to fight it, not while injured and in a hurry. So he dodges the attack and just keeps running, hoping the thing isn’t fast enough to immediately catch up to him.

 

He needs a room and he needs one soon.

 

His feet carry him to a set of sleeping quarters and he doesn’t stop to think about it, just bolts inside and closes the door behind him. Without hesitation, he grabs the edge of one of the beds and pushes it up against the door, buying him enough time to find a panel in the wall that opens up, fingers furiously pressing and digging. With a swipe of his knife, he cuts through a series of wires, hoping one of them is connected to the mechanism that opens the door.

 

Then he waits, breathing hard, not letting his guard down for a second.

 

There’s some noise, but nothing definitive and doboshes pass. The door doesn’t open. There’s not even a struggle or attempt to get it to.

 

Keith’s knife clatters to the floor, ticks before he sinks down to join it. Curling up in a ball, he settles his head between his knees and tries to think. But every time he tries, it’s like his mind reboots, going blank and starting again.

 

Clutching himself tighter, trying to stop the shaking, he presses his mouth into his knee to stop himself from screaming. He’s about to, anyway, when there’s a noise, loud and aggressive.

 

Snapping his head up, Keith knows it’s the door. There’s someone there and they’re trying to get it open.

 

It’s likely Shiro’s found him and this time, there’s nowhere to go.

 

Keith doesn’t even bother to reach for his knife.

Chapter Text

Lance rolled over to his other side in the narrow bed, squeezing his eyes shut tighter as he counted space sheep jumping over the Milky Way. One, two, three, four…

 

The rhythmic count soothed him a little, and he got all the way up to seventy-four before his mind wandered, and the chanting became the sound of heavy laser fire, punctuated occasionally by the familiar explosion of a Galra battleship. It was nauseatingly familiar, like a fucked-up lullaby that would echo in his head for the rest of his life.

 

With a frustrated sigh, Lance flipped over onto his back and pushed his face mask up to glare at the ceiling. He was tired-- it had been a long-ass day of fighting the Galra, and all he wanted to do was pass out and not think about it until a reasonable time tomorrow morning. As always, though, his brain had other plans for him.

 

It wasn’t the fighting that was the problem, per se. He’d come face-to-face with more horrible realities than he could have ever imagined in this long war, but sometimes he thought the worst one was that he’d gotten used to it. Used to the violence and death that tore at him almost daily, used to turning it back on their enemies. They were doing the right thing, of course, of course; Lance wasn’t going to pretend that holding hands and singing kumbayah was going to stop the Galra, but all too often the right thing looked like the wrong thing in a poor disguise.

 

So he’d gotten used to it, as much as he could. It wasn’t the fighting that was keeping him up. It was that twice today, twice, Keith had almost taken shots that could have been serious. Like, deadly serious. As in he’d almost died. Twice. Today.

 

Death was a reality that he’d gotten used to, but seeing it come so close to his friends… It shook something inside him, left him raw and desperate and-- scared. He was scared. He’d been terrified today that he wasn’t going to make it in time, that he would be just a heartbeat too slow to knock the Red Lion out of the way, that Keith was going to die without knowing a thing about the fluttery, loose feelings Lance refused to put a name to lodged between his ribs.

 

Sitting up, Lance rubbed at his face, breathing another frustrated sigh through his nose. He was never going to get to sleep like this.

 

Maybe… maybe if he just went and checked on Keith, just to prove to himself that it was fine and he was still here, that would put the last dredges of his panic to rest so he could finally get some himself.

 

It was a weak excuse, but he was only human, dammit. He rolled out of bed, shoving his feet into his Blue Lion slippers and rooting around in the closet for his robe before slipping out into the hall.

 

Keith’s bedroom wasn’t far from his-- all the paladins slept in the same hall, actually, so Lance made sure to keep his steps light and voice quiet as he knocked on Keith’s door. “Keith? Buddy?”

 

There was no answer. He waited a second before trying again, but only silence greeted him.

 

The panic was stirring a little now, but Lance beat it back, forcing it down with logic. Keith never slept like a normal person; he was probably down in the training room, or in the kitchen getting a snack, or maybe even sitting in the lounge. It was fine.

 

He kept telling himself this as he walked through the darkened halls of the Castle in night mode. His slippers made a soft rasping noise every time he took a step, and it sounded like a gasp or the slither of a blade. He started tiptoeing to try and quiet it as he methodically checked every possible place Keith might be.

 

He wasn’t in the kitchen, or the lounge, or the control room, or the observation deck; by the time he got down to the training deck, he was half-running. The door slid open to reveal an empty, dark room, and whatever mess of convicted hope he’d been nursing came crashing down.

 

There was only one place left to check; Lance took off, not letting himself run, not letting the panic get the best of him, because he was going to be there, he was going to be there, he wasn’t gone.

 

The utter and overwhelming relief that crashed over him as he stopped in the doorway to the Red Lion’s hangar and saw Keith standing there, gazing up at her, nearly brought him to his knees. He’d made it. Somehow, Keith must not have heard him-- maybe his slippers were muffling his footsteps. Whatever the case, he took the opportunity to catch his breath, hanging onto the doorframe, and gathered his composure before he spoke, like he’d been on an evening stroll to visit Blue and just happened across Keith.

 

“Hey, buddy, fancy seeing you here.”

 

Keith’s head whipped around, dark eyes wide, as Lance walked across the hangar towards him. He looked just like he had earlier that day, when Lance grabbed him in a hug that was probably too tight and told him to “Stop almost dying, would you?”

 

It had been obvious-- way too obvious-- but Lance couldn’t help himself. It was the whole proving it thing again, maybe: just seeing Keith wasn’t enough to know he was alive. He’d had to hold him, press his nose into his sweaty hair and squeeze him hard enough to feel his own heartbeat thudding through his veins.

 

“Why are you here?” Keith asked as Lance came up to him.

 

Lance quirked an eyebrow at him. “Could ask you the same thing.”

 

“I’m going on a late night… pleasure flight.”

 

Lance’s stomach bottomed out. He’d made it, but just barely, and the anxiety that had been clawing at him all night rose again. What was going to happen the next time? What would he do if he walked into a hangar with no Red, no Keith, and no way to save him?

 

He shoved it down. “Cool. Can I come with you?”

 

“No. It’s… an alone thing.”

 

“Right, sure, of course,” Lance said, trying to keep the bite out of his voice. “Wouldn’t have anything to do with your ‘oh my god, the Galra are watching us brush our teeth’ thing, would it?”

 

Keith let out a frustrated breath. “Whatever. Maybe. What do you care?”

 

A lot more than you think, asshole! Lance wanted to shout. Biting his tongue, he asked, “What are you even going to do?”

 

If Keith noticed he avoided the question, he didn’t mention it. “I don’t know. Something.”

 

“A really good plan. Genius. Kind of hate I didn’t come up with it myself.”

 

“Ha ha.” Keith crossed his arms over his chest and looked down at his feet, a little wrinkle between his brows that Lance desperately wanted to smooth out. He looked weirdly small. Like, logically, Lance knew Keith was smaller than him, but it wasn’t by as much as he liked to pretend, and anyways, Keith had so much fire and drive Lance was occasionally surprised he wasn’t as big as Red.  Seeing him like this, folded in on himself under some invisible weight, Lance’s resentment melted away.

 

“Dude, just… come to the kitchen with me or something,” he tried.

 

“No.”

 

Lance raised his eyes to the ceiling. Why did the universe have to make this one cute, impulsive and stubborn? “It’s a stupid idea and you definitely shouldn’t go alone. If it really matters to you, I’ll go do ‘something’ with you. Just not right now. We could both use some sleep before we decide to do stupid things.”

 

Keith glanced up at him, eyes sharp. “You really want to come with me?”

 

Lance shrugged like it was no big deal. “You might be right about the Galra. And even if you’re not, I’d really prefer you didn’t die.” Keith’s face softened a fraction, and Lance pressed it. “Like, it gives me a heart attack every time, man. It’s gotta be unhealthy. You need to give it a rest every once in awhile. I can only take so much.”

 

“But…”

 

Lance indulged himself just a little, hooking his arm around Keith’s shoulders as he snorted theatrically. Keith didn’t even try to resist as he steered them towards the door. “Can’t sleep, right? Come on, I’ll show you a good time. It’ll be better than dying at the hands of the Galra, I swear.”

 

“You’re being weird.”

 

Cover blown. Lance scrambled for an excuse. “It’s called being nice , Mullet. You should try it sometime.”

 

Keith didn’t question it, thankfully. As they left the hangar, Lance thought about taking his arm back, but… There was something deeply comforting in the way Keith’s shoulder felt pressed into his ribs, in their hips bumping as their steps synced and broke and resynced. He chewed on the inside of his lip and resisted the urge to squeeze Keith tighter.

 

They were halfway to the kitchen before Keith slipped out from under him. Lance only had a second to process the loss, trying to keep his face neutral, before Keith broke the silence. “Were you looking for me?”

 

“Couldn’t sleep,” Lance said. It wasn’t a lie, but...

 

“That doesn’t answer my question.”

 

Giving up, Lance blew out a long sigh before he replied. “Yeah, man. I was looking for you. I thought maybe you’d be having the same problem.” He hesitated for just a tick before adding, “Besides, I wanted to hang out with you.”

 

Maybe it was too far. Maybe he was wearing his heart on his sleeve just a little too clearly. But as he looked over and met Keith’s eyes, he thought he could see understanding, and warmth, and maybe just a hint of relief, and for right then, it was enough.

 

✹   ✧   ˚  +       ✫   

         ⋆ ✵      

.     .  ✫ .

    ˚ *    .    ·

  .           +

        *

 

Lance rolls over in bed and sighs. As soon as they got back to the Castle from their trip to the Blades, Pidge and Allura insisted he go rest while Pidge and Hunk tracked the frequency.

 

“You look dead on your feet,” Allura told him, fingers tapping ominously on the bicep of her crossed arms. “If you don’t go, I shall carry you down there myself and have Pidge lock you in.”

 

Behind her, Pidge had shoved her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “With pleasure.”

 

Surrendering, Lance made them promise to tell him as soon as something happened before he let himself be shooed out of the control deck and made his way downstairs, stripping off his armor and falling into bed. He is exhausted, actually, but no matter how hard he tries he just can’t fall asleep for long. He’s been down here for vargas, dozing fitfully, trying to ignore the little voice in his brain that keeps reminding him of all the times he and Keith sat through sleepless nights together.

 

He rolls over again, starfishing across the bed as he stares at the ceiling. This frequency, Kuron-- it’s the first solid lead they’ve had, but he doesn’t want to let himself hope. He’s tired of hurting. Still, it’s building within him anyways, like pressure in a volcano, and he can’t contain the flurry of questions and fears hissing out around the edges.

 

His mouth twists on a scowl as he flips himself over and shoves his face into a pillow, pulling the spare one over his head. Maybe he can smother himself into unconsciousness.

 

“Lance!”

 

He jerks upright with enough force he tips straight out of bed backwards. Cursing, he nurses the bump on the back of his head as he scrambles over to the intercom. “A little warning next time, Pidge, thanks.”

 

“Stop whining, Sleeping Beauty, and get up here. I found something.”

 

His heart skips before launching into double-time. “Be right there.”

 

He’s thankful he left the black, skintight flightsuit they all wear under their armor on. He makes it up to the control deck in record time, jamming his last bracer on as he jogs in. “Whatcha got, Pidge?” he asks, a little breathless.

 

Her hair is pulled back in a messy ponytail, amber eyes bright as she stabs a finger at a screen. “The frequency is coming from this system.”

 

“Hang on, everyone,” Allura says, and Lance has just a tick to glance up at her standing on the teludav platform before a wormhole yawns open in front of the ship and everything lurches as they pass through it.

 

There’s a star in front of them, now, small and hot. Matt stands silhouetted against it as he says, “Here’s the scan,” and a 3D model of the system pops up onto the holoprojector.

 

Everyone gathers around as Pidge says, “Here it is,” and zooms in on a base that looks tiny in comparison to the barren planets and moons in the rest of the system.

 

“I don’t get it, it just looks like a normal Galra base,” Hunk says after a moment. “The other one was, like, crazy hidden on that freaky planet.”

 

“No better place to hide than in plain sight,” Pidge points out in a wry tone.

 

“Man, I don’t like that at all.”

 

“We have no choice,” Lance says, and it comes out a little too harsh but god fucking dammit, they’re so close to something after so long. “We have to get in there.”

 

No one argues the point, but everyone looks tense and uneasy. “Maybe we should do some recon,” Hunk suggests.

 

“The longer we wait here, the more we lose the element of surprise,” Lance argues.

 

Pidge’s brow creases as she studies the hologram. “I’m with Lance. If there was something big to see, the scanners would pick it up.”

 

“Going in blind could get you killed.”

 

“We spent vargas surveying the base last time, and I still almost died. Whatever happens, we’ll deal with it.”

 

“Then we all go,” Allura says, but Lance shakes his head.

 

“No, someone should stay in the Lions in case we need backup.”

 

“Lance is right,” Matt breaks in. “The Lions are the strongest weapons we have.”

 

Allura’s jaw clenches. “Then what do you suggest we do?”

 

She looks at Lance as she says it, and the rest follow suit. Lance takes a moment to breathe, reminded again of the weight he carries as their leader, the responsibility that comes with having the final say. It sucks. No wonder Shiro always looked so tired. “Matt, Pidge and I are going in,” he says finally. “The Green Lion’s cloaking should let us get close without being detected. First, though, Pidge and I will drop off Red and Black here.” He points to a large asteroid, a short flight from the base. “Hunk and Allura, you guys wait here. That way if we need support, you won’t be far, and we can get back to our Lions quickly if we have to.”

 

He looks back up at them, scanning their faces. Matt and Pidge nod, twin expressions of determination on their freckled faces as they study the holomap. Allura searches his face for a second before she nods, too. Hunk’s jaw is tight, though, and he won’t meet Lance’s eyes. After a long tick, he says, “Fine,” but it’s shorter than Lance is used to.

 

He hesitates before saying. “We leave in three doboshes. Get your armor on.”

 

As everyone hurries from the room, he grabs Hunk’s shoulder, pulling him back. Coran tactfully steps away to fuss with a sensor array across the room. “What’s wrong, buddy?”

 

“Nothing.”

 

Lance takes his other shoulder and gives him a gentle shake. “Yeah, right. You won’t even look at me. Come on, man, what’s going on?”

 

Hunk finally meets his eyes, and the worry and sadness and frustration there pull at Lance’s heart. “It’s just-- this is the second time now that I have to stay out here while you guys go into these messed-up bases. The last time Keith and I pulled you guys out of there, Shiro was unconscious and Pidge was almost dead.” His voice breaks as he says it, and he takes a second to swallow and take a deep breath. “I hate sitting around while you guys are literally walking into danger. I feel so useless.”

 

“Buddy, I’m not leaving you in the Lions because I think you’re useless.” Lance dips his head to catch Hunk’s gaze again, smiling a little. “It’s because there’s no one I trust more to have my back. I need you and Allura out there to keep the Galra from sneaking up on us.”

 

“Okay. I know. I just-- I’m just scared.”

 

Lance pulls him into a tight hug. “I know, Hunk. I am too,” he confesses in a whisper. They stay like that for a moment before Lance claps him on the back and pulls away with a confident smile he barely feels. “But I promise, we’re gonna be fine.”

 

Hunk studies him for a moment before giving him the ghost of a smile in return. “You better, or Yellow and I are going to tear that place apart.”

 

“Duly noted.”

 

With one last crooked smile, Hunk leaves the control deck to go grab his armor. Lance watches the door slide closed after him, then turns his gaze to the holograph of the base and hopes he didn’t just lie to his best friend.

 

˚   ✺ · .  

       .    ✦   

       *  +

     .        ✹

             ✵      

✫       .   *

          ✧·

 

It’s weird how small the Lions look from Green’s cockpit as Matt flies them towards the base. Black and Red are securely tucked into a little rocky overhang on the asteroid, and Blue and Yellow crouch beside them, all waiting-- either for their return, or to spring into action. Lance dreads the latter.

 

“Have you enabled cloaking yet?” Pidge asks into the silence.

 

“Just a few ticks ago,” Matt replies, hands steady on the controls as he makes his way through a small dust cloud.

 

“Don’t forget to turn on the quintessence scanner when we get close.”

 

“I know, Pidge.”

 

“And cut Green’s engines once we find a good entry point.”

 

“I know.”

 

“And make sure her mag-locks are activated, because sometimes--”

 

“Katie,” Matt interrupts, lifting his eyes to the ceiling, “I know. I know you’re just worried, I appreciate it, but please. Stop.”

 

Lance hooks an arm around her shoulders. “Stop backseat piloting, Pidgey.”

 

She grumbles and shrugs his arm off, but stays quiet. They watch in silence as they draw nearer to the base.

 

It looks the same up close as it did on the hologram-- just a normal Galra base. The only difference is there’s no activity at this one-- no ships coming and going, no patrols flying nearby. Matt presses a couple buttons, and a scan of the base shows up onscreen. He frowns as he examines it. “Nothing on the quintessence scanner-- wait.” He leans in closer and zooms the image in. “There’s a small trace of quintessence near the center of the base. Could be two, maybe three Galra.”

 

“The last one had all those freaky drones, and this has nothing?” Pidge mutters. “That’s too weird.”

 

“We can’t be sure they’re not there still and just, like, shielded or something,” Lance points out in a whisper. “Let’s find somewhere to get in.”

 

They look at him. “You don’t have to whisper,” Pidge says, amused. “The Galra can’t hear you.”

 

“I know that. Shut up. It’s a reflex.”

 

Matt and Pidge snicker. “There is one main dock on the scan,” Matt says finally.

 

Lance’s mouth twists. “That feels like a trap.”

 

“Deja vu, but this whole place feels like a trap,” Pidge says.

 

Lance blows out a breath, studying the scans. “What if we go in from the side?” he asks after a second.

 

“That would have to set off some sort of alarm,” Matt says.

 

Pidge shrugs. “Still an option.”

 

Lance thinks of the single droid he barely managed to defeat the last time they went to one of these bases and winces. “We’re avoiding that unless it’s absolutely necessary.”

 

Matt flicks through the scans again and pauses. “Well, there might be another way here.”

 

Lance and Pidge lean in to peer at his screen. “That’s a garbage chute,” Pidge says flatly.

 

“Yes it is.”

 

Lance shudders. “At least there’s only a couple Galra living on this place. Let’s do it.”

 

“Alrighty.” Matt steers Green around the side of the base, away from the main dock. “Support team, we’re going in.”

 

“Roger that.”

 

“Be careful,” Hunk adds.

 

“We will, Hunk,” Pidge says. “Don’t worry.”

 

✺    ˚ .  

      ✷ *  ✷   ·

        

      *        . ✧ ˚

  •          

      ✦             

            .           .

 

The trip up the garbage chute is long, dark, and disgusting. Lance has never been so grateful for their full-body armor. His hand lands in something disgustingly squishy no less than four times as they jetpack their way from ledge to ledge up the tunnel.

 

When they reach the top, Pidge motions for them to stop as she takes some scans of the hallways outside the small hatch. Lance and Matt end up wedged in awkwardly behind her, crammed together as they try to keep their grip on the slimy walls.

 

“Would you hurry up,” Lance hisses.

 

The glare she sends him could melt the goo right out of the chute. “I can’t make the scanner go any faster, dingus. Unless you’d like to stick your head out there and tell me how many droids there are?”

 

He makes an annoyed noise, but doesn’t say anything.

 

“That’s what I thought.”

 

A few ticks later, schematics of the halls pop up on her wrist computer. She examines them for a second, frowning. “Looks like we’re clear,” she says finally.

 

“I got the hatch.” Matt pulls out his bayard and concentrates for a second. It morphs into a glowing green dagger that he jams between the spiralling metal plates, bracing himself against the walls as he pries them open.

 

Pidge slips through first. Lance follows, wiggling a little to force his shoulders through, before turning to hold the hatch open for Matt. As soon as he’s in and Lance releases it, the door slams closed again. The sound echoes through the metal halls of the base.

 

They wait there for a breathless second, but no one comes to investigate the activity. It’s weird; the base looks like any one of a thousand Galra bases they’ve been on in the last three years, but it’s eerily silent, like the whole place is abandoned.

 

Pidge shrugs at them. “I guess we just… start looking for a control room?”

 

“It was at the center last time, right? Think we’ll get that lucky again?”

 

“It’s us, so no, but we may as well try.”

 

On that positive note, she starts down the hall. Matt looks at Lance and shrugs at him, too, before setting off after his sister. With a sigh, Lance follows, readying his bayard.

 

They haven’t gone far when Pidge rounds a corner and freezes. Lance almost slams right into her. He’s got a sharp “what?” halfway to his tongue when he sees it.

 

Twenty feet down the hall, standing motionless with its back to the wall, is a droid.

 

Lance has his bayard raised to his shoulder and is about to fire when Pidge grabs his arm. “Wait.”

 

“Why?” he hisses, shooting her a panicked glare, but she’s not looking at him. Her gaze is fixed on the robot.

 

“I don’t think it’s active,” she says after a tick.

 

They stand there for a long moment, but the droid shows no signs of moving. On the other side of Pidge, Matt lowers his staff. “It doesn’t look damaged.”

 

Cautiously, Lance starts down the hall towards it, the Holts right on his heels. He hesitates before stepping up to peer at the thing’s darkened visor.”This is weird.”

 

“What’s it doing here?” Pidge wonders aloud. “Why isn’t it walking around?”

 

“It’s like it’s… waiting for something.”

 

A shiver goes down Lance’s spine at Matt’s words. “I’d rather not find out what for. Come on.”

 

Around the next corner, they find two more droids. A few halls down from that, there’s another. At one junction, Lance looks down the hall to their left and sees it’s lined with the things. Every single one is dark and lifeless. It has the hair on the back of Lance’s neck standing on end; from the grim expressions on their faces, Matt and Pidge share his sentiments. The base is downright creepy. What’s worse is that they’re not finding anything promising, either.

 

They’ve been walking around for about twenty doboshes and Lance is about to suggest they try some new tactic when there’s a burst of static over their comms. The three of them flinch in unison, and Lance’s free hand flies up to the side of his helmet.

 

“Allura? Hunk?” Pidge tries.

 

There’s no response, but the static shifts and jumps, and a low, humming note grows in the background.

 

Lance’s blood runs cold. “Do you hear that?”

 

“The static?”

 

“The hum. I heard that on the other base-- the first one. You know.”

 

“In Aquilae B-20.”

 

“Exactly!”

 

He’s tense, shifting his bayard into a pistol and activating his shield as he stares down the halls stretching away from them. Pidge watches him with glittering amber eyes, clutching her own bayard. “But what does it mean?”

 

He shakes his head, staring into the gloom. “I don’t know.”

 

They get their answer a few ticks later as the closest droid turns its head towards them, red and purple lights fading to life.

 

“Shit,” Lance says.

 

He brings his gun up, barely taking the time to aim before he fires, but the droid is already moving. He forgot how fast these things were. It’s firing its own blaster at him almost before he can lift his shield. It takes the opportunity to charge, and Lance has no chance to defend as it aims a kick at his legs.

 

At the last second, Matt drives his staff into its chest and forces the droid away. Pidge is right there, firing electric charges out of her bayard at it, but the droid dodges them and charges in again. This time, it catches Matt’s staff and heaves, sending Matt flying across the hall. Lance takes the moment as its spinning back to face them to shoot at its knee joints, and it stumbles. Pidge’s shots stitch a line up its chest to his head, and it collapses under the crackle of electricity.

 

Matt rolls to his feet, wincing, and scoops up his bayard.

 

“You okay?” Lance asks him.

 

“Yeah, just bruised.”

 

Pidge is tapping away at her wrist computer, eyes wide behind her visor. “Guys, we have a problem.”

 

The scans of the base are swarming with bright points of light now. Lance stares at them. “Are those…”

 

“Areas of concentrated quintessence. They’re all bots.”

 

“We must have triggered something,” Matt says, gloves creaking as he grips his bayard.

 

“There’s no way we can fight all these. We have to get back to Green now.”

 

Pidge grabs Lance’s arm as he makes to head back down the hall they just came from. “Wait! There’s a bunch of them coming from that direction.”

 

Lance follows her finger to where she points on the screen. Sure enough, a cloud of dots are headed their way. He curses again.

 

“We might be able to get around them,” Pidge says, poking at the buttons as she leads them down the hall.

 

“Allura and Hunk could give us an extraction,” Matt points out, but Lance shakes his head.

 

“We’ve already sprung one trap. I don’t want the Lions to get captured.”

 

“Let’s hope Green is still okay,” Pidge says grimly.

 

As they approach the next intersection, Pidge suddenly hisses, “Hide!” and shoves them into a small side room. Lance holds his breath as the rolling drumbeat of droid footsteps passes by, tracking their progress through the crossing hall on Pidge’s screen. There’s half a dozen of them-- they wouldn’t have a chance against that.

 

When they’re gone, Pidge motions them to move on.

 

They’ve made it down a couple more halls to another intersection, creeping along as quietly as possible, when there’s another burst of static over their comms, and Pidge’s screen flickers and goes dim. She swears violently in Altean as she slams her computer with the heel of her palm.

 

“What happened?” Matt hisses, peering over her shoulder.

 

“I don’t know, it just went blank!”

 

“Give it a second, maybe it’ll come back.”

 

“Gee, Matt, why didn’t I think of that?”

 

“Stop hitting it, you’re only gonna--”

 

Lance hears the footsteps behind them just in time to turn his head and see the droid, a handful of steps away, coming at them full tilt. There’s not enough time to fire, but he brings his shield up as best as he can and shoves Pidge away, bracing for impact.

 

The droid hits him like a freight train, sending him flying to sprawl on the floor a full ten feet away. He cracks the back of his helmet as he lands and stars burst in his eyes for a second. Blinking hard, he drags himself to his knees. As his vision clears, he sees Matt beating the droid away from Pidge as she fires at it. Lance landed in the hall opposite to them, over a dozen feet away.

 

He can also see another three droids sprinting up the hall behind the first one. His stomach drops.

 

“Run!” he shouts at Pidge and Matt as the droid catches itself and stands between them. “Get to the surface and call Red. I’ll meet you back at the Castle.”

 

“Lance!” Pidge yells, but the droid is lunging towards him and Lance throws himself away from it, stumbling for a few steps before he gains his footing and sprints away.

 

He can’t bring his computer up to check the scans as he races down the hallways, so he relies on luck and his sketchy memories of the base’s layout to guide him back towards the outer halls. Once he’s there, Black should be able to tear through the metal hull and pull him out. Hopefully.

 

Thankfully, luck seems to actually be with him today. He doesn’t run headfirst into any new droids, and the one that was chasing him got left behind somewhere in the warren of metal-plated passages. He slows to a jog, gasping for breath, then a fast walk. If he can just find another corridor that leads to the right…

 

He passes a door on the left-hand wall that’s closed. It takes a few steps before his brain catches up, but when it does, he pauses. Turning, he stares at it. Every other door in the whole base has been open-- which would be weird, if this was a normal base, but it isn’t, and now this one door is closed.

 

He hesitates for another beat before groaning and stomping over to examine it. It’s just a door-- a sliding metal slab etched with a purple design. Experimentally, Lance presses the panel to open it.

 

Nothing happens.

 

Frowning, he slams his fist against it a couple times. Still nothing.

 

And yes, he should really be high-tailing it out of there right now-- he’s trapped in a base, alone, with dozens of death-bots after him and a flimsy-at-best escape plan. But he just can’t shake the feeling there’s something important behind this door. The one locked door in a baseful of open ones.

 

He takes a few steps back and shifts his bayard back into the high-powered rifle he’s so used to, and takes careful aim. One shot takes out the panel. The rest land, exactly where he wanted them, in two perfect lines on either side of the door, blasting the seams out.

 

The door teeters as he lowers his rifle, and he watches with satisfaction as it falls backwards into the room. Carefully, slowly, holding his gun at the ready, he steps up to the smoking doorway and peers inside.

 

A man sits in the corner, crumpled in a ball-- with a knife laying beside him, and messy black hair.

 

The whole universe freezes around him as a tick stretches to eternity. Planet, stars, whole galaxies, suspended in an infinite void; it all grinds to a halt as Lance stares at the figure on the floor.

 

He lifts his head, and familiar thundercloud eyes widen. “Lance?”

 

Lance breathes. “Keith.”

Chapter Text

It’s a dream.

 

Or he’s dead. It’s entirely possible that he didn’t register Shiro entering the room and killing him. Keith would say his dissociation hadn’t reached that point, but it’s hard to say now, because Lance is standing in the doorway and the only way that could be possible is if this isn’t reality.

 

Or he’s been dreaming this entire time. Maybe he’s in one of those stories.

 

“Lance?” he says, voice cracking.

 

Has his voice always been that high-pitched?

 

A point for the alternate reality theory, then.

 

“Keith,” Lance replies, like he’d seen this coming, like this is the only place Keith could have ever been. Silently, Keith adds another point to the alternate reality, because he doesn’t get found. Not when he doesn’t want to be and he didn’t want this yet. This isn’t meant to be his homecoming. He’s on the floor of a Galra base and there’s nothing left.

 

Except for Lance.

 

But it’s all wrong, because there shouldn’t be anything to salvage. This isn’t a day that ends with anything besides death. It’s apocalypse, annihilation. And maybe life blooms after, but not as the fires are still raging.

 

So Keith doesn’t move. Maybe Lance is here to kill him, maybe Lance is here to save him, maybe Lance isn’t here at all and whatever tallies are falling where, it doesn’t change the fact that Keith doesn’t know what’s happening and doesn’t want to.

 

There had been a moment, when he’d been waiting for Shiro to find him, where the world had held such an unmarred, irrevocable serenity. The storm had passed and there hadn’t been one to follow. It was just him and the waiting. Waiting with the promise of finality.

 

Lance has shaken him from that, but he wants it back desperately, with all he has, because losing it means facing what he’s seeing and reconciling himself with what it means.

 

He’s so close, so so close, but something keeps pulling him back.

 

Because Lance’s expression is right. The thrum in the air between them is right. The sorts of things Keith can’t ever capture, even in his wildest fantasies, are right. It’s true that the best lies are based in truth, but not truth this specific, this indescribable.

 

Looking down to his lap, the corner of his eye catching his knife, Keith whispers, “Is this real?” because if Lance tells him it is, he’ll believe it.

 

“Yeah,” Lance says, a wrinkle in his forehead.

 

That’s too bad, Keith thinks. Lance shouldn’t have to die with him, but Keith doesn’t see a whole lot of other options. Now the door to the room is open and there’s still nowhere to go. Fighting out is definitely still impossible. Well, probably. Keith isn’t sure how long it’s been since everything fell apart.

 

There are so many things he wants to say, so many things he wants to do, so many things he should say and do, but he continues to just sit, blockaded by numbness. Lance walks over to him and kneels down. Reaching for Keith’s knife, he picks it up and takes one of Keith’s hands, gently folding his fingers, one by one, over the handle. “We have to go,” Lance says. “Now.”

 

That’s enough to bring most of the past couple vargas back in an immediate way. It, however, doesn’t have the desired effect. Keith still sits, staring down at his knife. Then Lance’s hand, which is resting on top of his wrist. When the world starts to blur, Keith leans forward until his forehead is against Lance’s shoulder. “I was wrong,” he whispers. Then the tears fall, eroding the fractures into cracks into holes, until he’s broken in a way there isn’t an immediate recovery from.

 

“Keith…”

 

In Lance’s shoulder, Keith can feel the urgency, the need to flee, but with each sob he loses more of what little fight there was left. This has been a long time coming and he doesn’t know how to stop because he’s been a levee against a hurricane. Bound to break.

 

Lance’s hand squeezes his wrist hard. “Please, Keith. Please. We need to go.”

 

“Where?”

 

“I have a plan.”

 

Keith nods. There’s an itch underneath his skin, demanding he think about the situation himself, demanding he alert Lance about the threat of Shiro, demanding he take action of some kind, but it’s like a match against a deluge. There’s no contest, just a puff of smoke.

 

Lance helps him up. Lance crouches, motioning for Keith to do the same and leads the way to the door. Lance checks that they’re clear and starts creeping along the wall. Lance does everything and Keith follows, not saying a word.

 

It’s strange enough that Keith notices. It isn’t that their roles are reversed, per say, but it’s never like this. Something’s different. Lance is different.

 

Maybe they both are.

 

Keith wouldn’t know.

 

Lance’s hand reaches back, urging Keith to stop. Keith does and fingers brush his shoulder. There’s no glance, no break in focus, but Keith knows, without a doubt, that Lance is checking he’s still there. Keith gently leans into the touch, not sure where else he’s supposed to be. He hadn’t even heard the clacking of droid feet until now. If he loses Lance, he’s dead.

 

Nodding towards a hall a hundred of so feet in front of them, bearing right, Lance whispers, “That hall should lead to the edge of the base and Black should be able to break through and get us out. Try not to get spotted. We’re not in good enough shape to fight those things.”

 

A retort is ready, something reflex, but Keith swallows it. Maybe it would help stabilize him and the situation if he allowed himself to fall into what’s familiar and easy, but it’s a place he isn’t sure Lance can meet him and, like most things currently, Keith doesn’t want to know the truth, the reality.

 

In front of him, Lance edges forward and to the right, head angled towards the footsteps, listening intently. Keith waits until there’s space for him to move, then follows, trying to step right where Lance has been. It keeps his mind from wandering.

 

Of course, it doesn’t just distract his mind and he misses something Lance says and it’s only when Lance’s hand slips into his that he pays attention. “Come on , Keith!”

 

They’re running. Fast. Keith’s entire body aches. He’s keeping up because Lance isn’t letting him fall behind, but the last vestiges of energy in Keith’s legs and the strength of Lance’s will can’t last forever.

 

Throwing a glance over his shoulder, Keith sees what they’re running from. Droids. Three of them. They’re a streak of white, constantly shifting positions. It’s almost beautiful, the way they move and coordinate.

 

It occurs to Keith, belatedly, that they shouldn’t be moving like that. There’s no purpose to changing formations. It only slows a team down.

 

Which means there is a purpose and Keith looks back again, curious more than anything else, to see exactly what that purpose is.

 

There’s a dart whipping through the air towards them. One of the droids is lowering a sort of gun and Keith hardly thinks. All he knows is that dart is not heading for him and whatever it’s meant to do--stun, kill--it is not hitting Lance. Not now. Not after all this time. Fuck that.

 

Ripping his hand from Lance’s with what strength he has left, Keith turns and moves into the trajectory of the dart, taking it in his left shoulder. There’s a twinge of pain, a flash of a silhouette in the distance, a strange moment where his brain obsesses over the specialization of the droids and how many have what kinds of weapons, and then there’s nothing.

 

.  ✷  * ✫ ·   .   
      .   ·      +
  .    ✦      . ˚   
    ✧  ⋆   
.   .    ✦   ✧ ⋆
✧     ✫  
·      ✹     . . *

 

First, it’s just noise. A click and then a hissing noise. Heavy silence and then quiet mutterings, similar to rain pattering on a roof or music being played in another room. For a moment, Keith is sure that’s what it is and he thinks he frowns. Music isn’t right. Music is Earth. Music is the Castle. Music is Lance.

 

And he’s nowhere near any of that, surely. It’s the last thing he deserves.

 

But then the noise focuses and he realizes it’s voices. People are talking and they’re right there.

 

Maybe he got captured.


But that doesn’t make sense.

What’s the last thing he remembers?

 

Attempting to force his brain to wake back up, Keith trudges through memories, shoving away the unnecessary ones.

 

There’s a flicker of a figure, stark against purple. It’s only a frame, barely anything to go off of, but Keith knows, like he knows the pulse of a fight, that it’s Shiro. That’s when it all floods back, when he realizes that the voices he can hear are the team’s, that he is on the Castle, and that he’s probably waking from a cryosleep.

 

At first, all he feels is panic, the sudden shift in consciousness not helping. He’s not ready. He can’t face the team. He can’t admit he was wrong, that he’d been stupid and blinded, unprepared for a tactic like that. He can’t face the fact he’s the weak link.

 

A memory flies past and Keith catches the corner, dragging it back.

 

Lance is pacing in Keith’s room, back and forth, back and forth. There’s worry in the corner of his eyes and when he finally faces Keith, he says, “I’m the weak link, right? It’s not a big deal if I step down. The team’ll be fine without me. They definitely need you more and I want you home and if there’s not enough room to....”

 

Keith has no idea where he’s positioned in the room, but he knows he interrupts with, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”

 

“Well, it sure as hell isn’t you.”

 

Every word drips with belief and confidence and faith and Keith doesn’t disagree. There isn’t a need to.

 

And what he said after, Keith has no idea, but he’s very sure it was an attempt to avoid further conversation on the topic. It wasn’t good enough, that’s for sure. Nothing he does is ever good enough. Not for Lance, who deserves better than Keith can ever give him.

 

But, maybe, maybe , it’s just enough to try his damndest to be close. And keeping his eyes closed right now is not trying. It’s doing what he’s always done. Run.

 

So he wrestles back to consciousness, feels his body slump forward, feels hands grip him tight and help him gently to the floor, and then he opens his eyes.

 

The entire team is there and that alone is enough to surprise Keith. Without question, Lance is not the only person he hurt or angered and he understands why Lance would be here, but he’s not sure about the others. Sure, they’re friends--family--but Keith’s never been good at either. He’s always assumed a friendship with him would be an easy thing to break with even the slightest bit of pressure.

 

They’re all staring at him, not even a half smile between them.

 

His first instinct is to throw something out with bite, rile up anger that he deserves, but he catches Lance’s eye--Lance who is staring at him like he knows exactly what Keith is about to do and disapproves--and Keith swallows. Instead, he waves lamely and says, “Hi.”

 

Lance, who’d clearly caught him, steps back, closer to the others.

 

For a tick, it seems he won’t get a response, but then Pidge says, “Hi? Hi? ” As she stomps over to him, she continues. “That’s the best you’ve got? You disappear in the middle of the night for phoebs and that’s all you can say?”

 

Quietly, Hunk says, “He did just wake up from a cryosleep, to be fair.”

 

Pidge either doesn’t hear him or chooses to ignore it. She keeps getting closer and Keith starts to back away, more than a little concerned. She’s definitely angry and an angry Pidge is a force to be reckoned with. But when she does catch up, she doesn’t hit him or point a finger in his face and berate him, she just throws her arms around his waist and hugs him tight, tight enough for twinges of pain.

 

It doesn’t last long enough for Keith to decide how he’s going to handle the situation. Within ticks, she’s done hugging him. Then comes the slap, hard on his arm. And even though he sees it coming, he doesn’t duck or try to deflect. “I’m sorry,” he mumbles.

 

“We were worried you were dead!”

 

“I’m not?”

 

Pidge rolls her eyes violently. When she turns to look back at everyone else, Keith latches his gaze onto Lance, whose arms are crossed low over his stomach. He doesn’t look upset—he almost looks stoic, in fact—but Keith knows he is. There’s too much tension in his body.

 

Pidge is talking again and it takes a few ticks for Keith to drag his attention back. By the time he does, she’s swiveled and is heading out of the room. The others are watching her go and Hunk and Matt follow suit, Hunk shooting Keith a look somewhere between sympathy and disappointment. Allura strolls up to him and lays a hand on his shoulder.

 

“You look like you could use some rest. We’re going to go eat something and if you’d like to join us, you may. But, either way, I think we’ll use the rest of today to relax. Tomorrow, we will figure all of this out.”

 

Keith nods. Allura smiles weakly and follows everyone out. Lance is the only one left and he’s still too many feet away and Keith doesn’t know what to say. Swallowing, he looks down at his feet. Maybe Lance will fill the silence, as he so often tends to do.

 

But he doesn’t and the silence gets rougher, almost impossible to bear, and Keith says the first thing he can think of. “Thank you.”

 

“For what?”

 

That’s a good question. There were so many things, but none that would make sense in the context of this conversation. None that he is comfortable saying right now. So what’s left is what he should say. “Getting me out of there.”

 

“Well, I wasn’t going to leave you,” Lance says. Looking up, hoping to see something that will selfishly console him, Keith is only met with the same stoicism.

 

That’s when Keith understands that Lance is as clueless as he is. How to feel, what to do, what to say, it’s all a mystery.

 

“Right,” he ends up replying. It’s the best he can do. He’s fighting off the urge to say, “Probably should’ve left me.” One, because he’s trying to shove all the other shit he’s supposed to be dealing with very far down, hopefully never to see the light of day again, and two, because it would piss off Lance.

 

When there still isn’t a conversation to be had, Keith takes a few steps forward, eyes on Lance the entire time. He doesn’t bolt, but he starts to frown. “Can I…hug you?”

 

Wordlessly, Lance tugs him in and without thought, Keith sinks in, breathing slow, reacquainting himself with Lance’s smell and the way he feels. Briefly, Keith lets himself imagine that the past few phoebs hadn’t happened and that this is a normal day and a normal hug with his boyfriend and that everything is okay. They’re okay. But Lance is still tense and it drags Keith from his daydream. Hiding his face in Lance’s neck, he says, “I’ve missed you so fucking much.”

 

“Me too.”

 

Because it’s easier here--not that it isn’t hard, but with Lance, hard is doable--Keith says, “When do you want to… talk?”

 

Lance pulls away, eyes falling to the side. “It wouldn’t be a great idea right now.”

 

“Okay. Can I ask…”

 

“I don’t know when, okay? Hopefully when I’m not pissed at you for pulling your latest suicide stunt. So maybe don’t pull any more of those for a couple vargas.”

 

“Okay,” Keith says. “Sorry.”

 

“Yeah,” Lance says, backing away. “Get some sleep. I’ll bring you some food later.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

Lance nods and then he turns and he doesn’t look back. Keith stares at the area of space he’d occupied before he’d walked away and feels his entire body curl inwards uncomfortably. He considers going back to his room, but he doesn’t know if Lance wants him there, so he just sinks to the floor of the cryochamber, curls his knees into his chest, and tries to recreate how he felt on the Galra ship. He knows it’s unhealthy, that it’s the sort of coping mechanism that’s destructive, but there’d been a stretch of time when he’d been sure this version of reality wasn’t the one he’d spent his life in and that had been safe.

 

Because dreams, however scary, however sad, however unbearable, always ended. He always woke back up and the bad things fell away, softly, like ashes from the sky.

Chapter Text

It isn’t until the door slides shut behind him that Lance dares to let out the shaky breath he’s been holding. He forces himself to keep walking, putting a few more corners between him and Keith before he pauses, bracing himself against the wall.

 

It’s not like he’s not glad that Keith’s back, because he is-- in fact, there’s no words Lance can put to the amount of relief he feels. Part of him wants to crumple to the floor and stay there for a few vargas or quintants, finally allowing himself to process the raw, blatant fear he’s been holding the last three phoebes; but it’s caught up in the rest of him, a veritable storm of guilt and anger and sadness and joy and hurt. If he thought Keith going missing was overwhelming, it’s far worse now he’s lost some of his focus.

 

He takes a minute, standing there, to absorb the quiet and process. His mind runs through the events of the day, over and over again, looping until everything blurs and only a few things stand out, like the deep shadows under Keith’s eyes, the broken way he whispered “is this real?,” how small he looked standing there in the infirmary.

 

Sighing, Lance scrubs his face with his gloved hands. He hasn’t gotten a chance to change out of his armor yet, too preoccupied with hovering around Keith’s pod until the tick it hissed open. For a moment, he entertains the thought of going down to their room, stripping off his gear, and climbing into bed beside Keith. He wants it, wants to hold him and press his nose into Keith’s soft black hair so badly that it physically aches; but there’s an even bigger hurt that reminds him what it’s like, now, to look at Keith and see all the distance and time between them, and it’s like they’re standing on opposite sides of an ocean. He can’t face that again, not yet.

 

His mom’s voice cuts through the inner turmoil with the no-nonsense tone he remembers so well from his childhood. Eat first, talk later. It was always her mantra when he and his siblings or parents started snapping at each other, and Lance wishes he had the chance to tell her how true it is. Everything is better on a full stomach.

 

He takes one more deep breath and pushes himself upright, off the wall. The rest of the paladins were going to go eat some dinner, he remembers Allura saying quietly to Keith. He’ll eat with them, let Keith rest a little, and then go check on him later.

 

*       *    

.      .   .  . ✵

  ✫     

 .    ✦   ✵    · ✧

  •    ✵  

   .*     ✦  ✫

     ✺  ⊹

 

Dinner is quiet. Everyone seems to be feeling the same kind of numb relief, tempered with the loss of Shiro. Matt is especially distant, staring off into space, and he excuses himself shortly after finishing his food goo. Pidge picks at hers for a while, jaw working, before she shoves her chair back and stands.

 

“Pidge, you’ve barely eaten,” Allura chides. Out of the corner of his eye, Lance can see Hunk’s wince, simultaneous with his own, and he holds his breath as Pidge’s face darkens.

 

To her credit, though, Pidge doesn’t shout. “I’m not hungry. Besides, I have all that encrypted data Matt and I recovered from the base. I have to get to work.”

 

“Wait, wait, wait,” Lance says, frowning. “You recovered data?”

 

“Yeah, dude. Weren’t you listening when I told you earlier?” She takes a look at his blank expression and sighs. “Clearly not. Yeah, Matt and I were able to find a console on the base and I grabbed some of the data before Red came to get us. It’s got encryptions on it that I’ve never even seen anything like before, though, so I should really get started on it.”

 

“Well, all right, but make sure you get some rest,” Allura says dubiously as Pidge trudges towards the door. She acknowledges the words with a wave.

 

Hunk looks at Lance as the door slides shut behind her. “How long should I give it before I go talk to her?”

 

“A phoeb?”

 

Hunk snorts and stands, taking his empty bowl to the dishwasher. “Yeah, I’m sure that would work out well. I’ll go by the lab after I check on Yellow. And then I am going straight to bed, dude. It’s been, like, the longest day.”

 

Lance shoots him a crooked smile. “Yeah, I know what you mean. Hunk,” he adds, stopping him before he can leave the room and catching his eye, “thank you again for today. If you hadn’t pulled me and Keith out of that base, we would have been in deep trouble.”

 

Hunk smiles. “Hey, don’t look at me. Yellow did all the hard work.”

 

“Thank you both, then.”

 

The sincerity in Hunk’s voice matches Lance’s own as he says, “Of course, dude. I’m just happy we got him back.”

 

“Me too,” Lance says softly.

 

He sits there silently for a while after Hunk leaves, poking at the remains of his goo. Allura and Coran spend a few doboshes exchanging reports from members of the Alliance. Lance only half-listens, entertaining fantasies of laying down next to Keith in their bed and sleeping for the next twenty years. He still can’t believe that he can just do that now-- that Keith is here, just down a hall and behind a door, like everything is back to normal.

 

As if. It’s the cosmic joke again, the massive, ugly punchline that’s his life. Things just don’t work out for them.

 

A hand lands on Lance’s shoulder, startling him out of his thoughts. He looks up to see Coran looking down at him, a sympathetic light in his eye. “You were thinking so loud, I thought there was an Entirian Gorgonite in the room.”

 

“Sorry,” Lance says, not bothering to tell him he has no idea what that is or what it sounds like.

 

“Quite alright, my boy. You should get some rest, though. That kind of thinking wears you out, and we need our Black Paladin at his best.”

 

Lance nods, standing and scooping his empty bowl off the table. “I know. Thanks, Coran.”

 

Bidding him and Allura goodnight, Lance walks out of the kitchen. He hesitates for a second at the short hall that leads down to the bedrooms before turning the other way. He takes the long way through the Castle, trying to soothe his rising nerves in the long, blank hallways and distant hum of the engines. Eventually, though, he circles back around, walking up a flight of stairs that leads to the sleeping quarters with heavy feet.

 

He sighs as he stops outside their door, fingers hovering over the button. They need to talk, sure, but he’s not sure he can right now. For tonight, at the very least, he’s just going to let Keith sleep.

 

He’s three steps into the room before he notices something is wrong. The bed is exactly how he left it, cold and empty like it has been for the last three months, and Lance’s blood runs ice cold. He spins and runs back out the door, retracing his path down the halls, heading for the ships bays as his feet pound in time to the chant of no no no in his head. It can’t be happening again.

 

He’s so dizzy with panic that when he actually gets to the bay it takes him a minute to register that all the pods are still there, but once he does, he’s off again, hurrying down to the Lion bay. Black brushes against his mind as he comes in, registering his fear in a fraction of a second before sending him images of the other Lions, all secured in their own bays. Lance leans over, bracing his hands on his knees and sucking in deep breaths of air for a few seconds before checking each Lion himself, anyways. Black hadn’t been lying; they’re all still there.

 

So maybe Keith is still on the ship, then. Lance heads back the way he came, a little slower this time, but the training deck is dark when he reaches it.

 

He walks in anyways, just to see, but the room is empty. He turns in a circle, slowly, a heavy weight of dread lodged in his stomach still.

 

He’s halfway to the kitchen again, to see if Keith’s in there scavenging some food or something, when a thought occurs to him and he diverts back to the med bay.

 

As the door slides open and his eyes fall on the figure, crumpled on the floor against the very pod he stepped out of only vargas before, a wave of simultaneous relief and fear crashes over Lance so hard he sways, frozen in place for a moment before rushing to Keith’s side. He catches the rise and fall of Keith’s chest as he kneels down beside him, the flicker of his closed eyelids, and drops his head to suck in a shaky breath before reaching out to grasp Keith’s shoulder, gently.

 

Keith comes awake with a start, arms flying up to knock him away, and Lance lets go, leaning back and holding his hands up in a soothing gesture as he says, “Hey, hey, it’s me. It’s just me.”

 

For a long moment, Keith’s face registers nothing but confusion as he looks from Lance to the room around them, before reality trickles back in. Lance can practically see him withdraw, shutters closing behind stormcloud eyes as he clears his throat and shifts to sit up straight. “Sorry.”

 

“It’s okay.” Lance watches him subtly roll his neck, wincing slightly. “Why were you sleeping in here?”

 

Keith’s expression tightens further. “I was tired.”

 

“Well, you almost gave me a goddamn heart attack.” It’s snappier than Lance meant it to be, but at least it gets Keith to look up at him.

 

“What?”

 

“Never mind. Sorry.”

 

There’s silence for a tick before they both open their mouths.

 

“I--”

 

“You--”

 

Keith waves a hand, looking somewhere over Lance’s shoulder. “You go first.”

 

“You should probably eat something.”

 

Shrugging, Keith mumbles, “I’m not hungry. Just tired.”

 

“Fine. Then will you please sleep in a bed like a normal person?”

 

“I didn’t know if you wanted me there.” It’s quiet, and he still won’t meet Lance’s eyes, but he feels something snap in his chest as Keith says it.

 

The words almost hurt coming out. “I’ve wanted you there every night for the last three phoebs.” Keith’s gaze finally snaps to his, eyes widening a little, but he looks away against a moment later, jaw working silently. Lance lifts his eyes to the ceiling and swallows before standing, holding out a hand to help Keith up. “Come on,” he says, hating how rough his voice sounds. “Let’s just go get some sleep, okay?”

 

Slowly, Keith reaches up and takes his hand. Lance helps him up, steadying him with a hand on his shoulder until Keith gets his footing, then lets him go. Silently, they walk through the halls of the Castle, until they reach their bedroom. Keith stops at the door, Lance half a pace behind him, and Lance is about to ask him what his problem is when he looks at his face. Keith has that utterly lost expression on his face again, staring at the door with a numb sort of horror, and Lance hates it, hates how helpless and selfish and cowardly he is. Reaching around Keith, he presses the button and the door slides open.

 

“Come on,” he says again, softer this time, and Keith steps into the bedroom. He’s stiff, mechanical, but the haunted look in his eyes means Lance doesn’t say a fucking word about it as he guides him over to the bed and gently pushes him down to sit.

 

Keith blinks up at him, snapping back to the present for a moment. “What?”

 

Lance gestures at the beige medbay suit Coran had zipped him into before he got sealed into the pod. “You wanna change?”

 

Looking down, Keith picks at the thin, shiny material like he’s noticing it for the first time, nose wrinkling. It’s a familiar gesture, one of the thousands of visual clues in the language of Keith Lance learned over the years, and it aches to see it now. Lance can’t decide if he wants to laugh or scream or cry.

 

He clenches his fists instead and does nothing, fighting for the calm, blank mask he’s been perfecting for months, as Keith rises, a little unsteady on his feet, and walks over to his dresser. Lance busies himself with-- finally-- shucking off his paladin armor, laying it out on their unused desk instead of dropping it into a pile like he used to. Being Black Paladin means more time in armor, and less time to change.

 

It means he has something to pretend he’s distracted with when he hears the bathroom door slide quietly shut behind Keith. He’s managed to strip down to his soft, black flightsuit by the time Keith emerges, in an old t-shirt and older sweats, running a hand through his hair as he stares around the bedroom. His expression darkens as he takes in Lance’s discarded armor. “Black Paladin, huh?”

 

“Hey, it’s not like I asked for the job.” Lance scoops his own sweatpants of the floor, yanking his dresser open to grab a clean shirt and boxers.

 

Keith doesn’t reply, and Lance leaves him standing there in the middle of the room as he stomps into the bathroom to change and brush his teeth.

 

By the time he comes back out, Keith has crawled into bed. Lance pauses in the doorway, tracing his eyes over the shape of him, laying on his side of the bed with his face to the wall. It’s not like they haven’t fought before, haven’t gone to bed furious with each other, but it’s never been like this.

 

He sighs, scrubbing a hand through his hair, and tosses his dirty flightsuit in the direction of the laundry chute. Morning, he tells himself firmly. This can wait until morning. Determined to leave it at that, he hits the lights and slides under the covers, turning away from Keith’s back.

 

He’s pretty sure Keith is already asleep, so it comes as a surprise when he shifts and clears his throat. “Lance?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

There’s a long moment of silence before Keith whispers, “Goodnight.”

 

Lance grips his pillow and takes a slow breath. “Goodnight, Keith.”

 

✧          ·         ⊹

  •   * ·

⋆     *  

  ˚  .

     

  ✷    ·

*

 

The bed feels too cramped.

 

Carefully, Lance rolls over onto his back, blowing out a sigh as he stares at the ceiling. How many nights in the last three phoebs has he been here, utterly exhausted and unable to sleep? And for all of those, the bed had felt too empty, too cold, too still. Now Lance is all too aware of the warm body mere inches away, Keith’s slow, deep breaths echoing around their small room.

 

It’s too much. Lance can’t take it.

 

Slowly, he slides out from the covers, sinking down to sit on the floor with his back up against the edge of the bed. This is better; he can’t see Keith’s hair, spilling across the pillows like ink, or feel the warmth from the other side of the bed. He can still hear his slow breaths, though, and Lance pulls his knees to his chest, propping his forehead on them as he tries to match their breathing.

 

It helps, a little. He doesn’t feel like he’s about to scream anymore, at least. Sleep is still too far away, but he lets himself fall into a kind of trance, curled up there in the dark.

 

He doesn’t know how much time passes, but the stillness is broken as Keith’s breath hitches, coming faster and harder. Lance can feel him twitch a couple times, too, the whole bed shaking with it, and he’s about to call his name when Keith sits up with a gasp.

 

“It’s okay, it was just a nightmare.” Lance sounds tired to his own ears. “You’re in the Castle. You’re safe.” You’re home, he wants to say.

 

Keith’s quiet for a minute as he catches his breath. The bed creaks as he shifts. “Why are you on the floor?”

 

It’s not what Lance expected him to say, and he stumbles over the words. “I-- couldn’t sleep.”

 

There’s another long period of silence, and Lance is starting to think that Keith might have fallen back asleep when he moves again. He looks over as Keith drops onto the floor next to him, mimicking his pose with his back to the bed. There’s a few inches of space left between them, and Lance wonders which one of them it’s for.

 

Neither of them speak for a while, sitting there and staring into the darkness. Lance hates himself for the thought, but it’s strangely comforting, having someone there as miserable as he is.

 

“I fucked up,” Keith says finally.

 

Lance’s stomach twists as he parses his meaning. “Hey, don’t beat yourself up over it. I couldn’t stop Shiro either.”

 

“It’s not just that. I shouldn’t have left.”

 

His breath freezes in his chest, and a thousand responses flood Lance’s mind, everything from yeah, you shouldn’t have to but you did. “If you had to do it again,” he asks instead, mouth running without his permission, “would you?”

 

Keith’s barely audible when he says, “I don’t know.”

 

Lance can’t make himself reply to that, and silence falls again for a bit.

 

“Why can’t you sleep?”

 

Shrugging a shoulder, Lance clears his throat. “It happens.”

 

“A lot?”

 

“I guess.”

 

“I’m sorry.” It’s quiet, and a little broken, and Lance’s eyes prickle.

 

“I know. I’m sorry too.”

 

There’s a rustle as Keith turns to look at him. “What for?”

 

Lance refuses to look at him, raising his eyes to the ceiling to fight the idiotic impulse to cry. “You should never have had to leave. I knew what Shiro was, but I knew what he means to you, too, and-- I dunno. I fucked up,” he echoes Keith. “You should have been able to trust me. You shouldn’t have felt like you had to leave.”

 

“You didn’t make me leave, Lance.”

 

He shrugs, swallowing. “Maybe not. But I wasn’t enough to make you stay, either.”

 

Keith doesn’t say anything for a long moment, but when he does, it’s hoarse. “Lance…”

 

Lance turns his head where it’s leaned back against the bed, meeting Keith’s eyes, and he can see his own hurt and helplessness mirrored there, and what is there left to say?

 

Keith searches his gaze, saying nothing; but a tick later, he looks down, bangs hiding his face, and Lance feels warm fingers wrap around his own, splayed out on the cold floor. Releasing a breath that’s shakier than he wants it to be, Lance closes his eyes, and holds on tight.

Chapter Text

“Keith. Keith!”

 

Blinking, Keith drags his eyes up from his breakfast. As is becoming a frequent occurrence—or so it feels to him—everyone is staring at him. Careful not to read into any of the expressions, Keith acknowledges his name with a grumbled, “what”, wincing as the food on his fork finally gives way to gravity and splashes into his lap. That’s going to stain.

 

Sighing, Allura says, “You do realize you’re going to have to be able to conduct a conversation someday, correct?”

 

“Was I able to before?” he mumbles, rubbing his eyes. They haven’t stopped stinging since he left the darkness of their room. His and Lance’s. Theirs.

 

It’s pathetic how many times he reminded himself of that last night.

 

Beside him, Lance snorts and Keith almost smiles, their eyes catching. What was amusement quickly transforms into something much more complicated and not entirely decipherable, the rest of whatever else Lance is feeling about Keith catching up.

 

Frowning, Allura points her fork at him. “Don’t evade. You’ve been gone long enough.”

 

Keith nods, unable to argue. He has been gone too long, but he can’t seem to stop. It feels like he’s trying to pull himself back along a frayed rope that gets thinner and thinner the closer he gets, tight and ready to snap.

 

“So, what do you think?”

 

Plunging his fork back into his food, Keith pushes it around the plate. If only he knew what he thought. If only he’d been paying attention. Everyone’s upset with him enough as it is and one of the most surefire ways to find his footing again is to listen and engage, possibly cater to their every whim, but all Keith sees is the rope, hears the crinkling of more threads cracking. And with every crack comes a thought, vicious and relentless.

 

Climb faster. Try harder. Stop giving up before you’ve tried, you runaway boy. If it breaks, it breaks. It’s not any less than you deserve. This is your grave, you made it, and you’re goddamn lucky enough to have the chance to claw your way out. But you won’t, will you?

Run, run, run, runaway boy.

 

Dig the other way.

 

Stabbing his food through to the plate, sending a clang through the silence, Keith closes his eyes, barely having the energy to tell that voice to shut up. He’s so tired, so lost, so alone.

 

So broken.

 

And what can a broken thing do?

 

“Oh for…Lance. Do something.”

 

Refusing to let Lance cover for his ass again , Keith manages to collect enough pieces to pretend. “Sorry. About what?”

 

“The Lions. Voltron. We had to do some rearranging when you left and I’m not sure if any of the Lions will accept you back, but if you’d like to try, I think you should be able to.”

 

“Hardly seems fair,” Pidge grumbles.

 

“Maybe not, but I think it would be unwise to overlook the fact that Keith is exceptionally good in the field, as it were, in a way some of us are not. And he is a member of this team. I believe that earns him a chance.”

 

A part of Keith awakens at the idea of speeding through the galaxy in a lion, fighting Galra, reinstating his position on the team, and while that burst of adrenaline doesn’t dissipate, something new enters the equation. A whisper of logic. A burst of alarms, warning him. This is where instinct has led him. Right here, sitting at a table with his friends, most of whom are still struggling to look at him, and right next to his boyfriend, who he’s managed to keep awake all night simply by existing.

 

“I’m okay,” he says.

 

“Excuse me?” Allura replied.

 

“I’m okay,” Keith repeats. “Pretty sure I’d make it impossible to form Voltron, anyway.”

 

“That is entirely possible, but…”

 

Getting to his feet, Keith lets the scraping of his chair interrupt Allura. “I wouldn’t count on me right now,” he says, voice stronger than he expected. “I don’t… I’m not prepared to be a part of Voltron right now and I think you all know that.”

 

And though he leaves, desperate to fall apart without eyes on him, it doesn’t feel like running away.

 

It feels like he did something right. Somehow.

 

˚

     *       . ✵

   .   ✹

✦  * ˚   .    *      

˚   · ✦      

*    ✦  *  ⋆ ✫ ·   

.  .  ✦

 

Ending the training program, Keith starfishes on the ground, right where robots had been swarming him only moments before. Gasping for air, he clenches his fast around his dagger, then lets go, allowing all his other muscles to follow. They’re all throbbing, not so subtly telling him that he went much too hard.

 

But for those forty ticks, his mind had been quiet.

 

Keith wishes his body could take another forty. Another forever.

 

There’s a click over his head and then Allura’s voice comes through the intercom, asking the team to meet her in the bridge urgently.

 

Though Keith’s muscles tense back up, he doesn’t move. He meant what he said. Besides, he doesn’t know how to offer himself for a supporting role. For him, it’s flying Lions or it’s nothing. Watching from the sidelines is just painful. If he stays here, he doesn’t have to watch.

 

Another thirty ticks of this and he can probably take on the robots again.

 

.  ·    

  •        .

   *   *

     .    ·   ✦ .

      *    ✷     

    + .   .

 

There’s a clattering somewhere to his left and Keith startles awake, sitting up and feeling for his dagger, heart spiking when he can’t find it. Searching frantically, Keith’s subconscious seeps into his conscious until he realizes he’s still in the training room.

 

“Shit,” he groans, bringing a hand to the back of his neck and massaging gently. There isn’t a part of his body that doesn’t hurt.

 

“You okay, buddy?”

 

Remembering that something had woken him, Keith looks to his left and sees Hunk, who waves weakly, setting a plate of the food on the ground next to Keith and gradually scooching it closer. “Specially made,” Hunk continues. “I thought if it tasted better than usual, you might actually eat it. Maybe.”

 

“What?”

 

“Food, dude. You know, stuff that keeps you alive. And I get that you might not be about that right now, but I’m gonna be about that for you.”

 

“Oh. Well, thanks,” Keith says, taking the plate and setting it on his lap.

 

“The mission went okay, if you were wondering,” Hunk says, not saying a word about how Keith isn’t eating. In fact, he sits down next to Keith and makes himself comfortable, leaning back on his hands. “Just some Galra where they shouldn’t be.”

 

“Is…”

 

“Yeah, Lance is fine.”

 

Keith swallows and nods. “Good.”

 

Hunk looks at him, smiling sadly. Then he yawns and falls back onto the floor, closing his eyes. It’s immediately apparent that he has no intention of moving, even though he’s still fully decked out in his armor. Gazing at his food, Keith realizes that Hunk must’ve gone straight from fighting Galra, to making this for Keith, to coming here.

 

Picking up the fork, Keith takes a small bite, chews deliberately, then swallows. “Tastes good,” he says.

 

Opening one eye, Hunk grins. “Some of my best work, I’d say.”

 

Keith takes another bite and another and before he knows it, the plate is clean, and though his chest still feels hollow, his stomach is full. Swiveling so that he’s facing Hunk, Keith stares at him, trying to understand what he’s doing here of all places.

 

A few moments later, Hunk opens his eyes, likely feeling Keith’s gaze. Answering the unspoken question there, Hunk says, “We’re worried, man.”

 

“If you say so.”

 

“Dude.”

 

“What?” Keith says, curling his legs up to his chest. Whatever conversation is coming, he know he’s not ready for it. Hunk is the most understanding and forgiving person he knows and he still can’t imagine a way this doesn’t end badly. Because he hurt and he’s still hurting and he sees the cycle, knows each step, knows where it’s weakest, where he could break out, but for the life of him, he… can’t.

 

When it’s all stripped away, when he’s left with the barest form of himself, this is always the result. There’s nobody to trust, including himself, and the best way to survive, to avoid inclement damage, is to lock himself away tight and far away and hope he keeps still enough, quiet enough, unfeeling enough, to avoid setting himself off.

 

But, just in case, he’s still far away. Nobody deserves to go down with him. Not his friends and especially not Lance.

 

Hunk’s eyes don’t stray from his face and then he sighs, getting to his feet. “We’re having a movie night. Well, Lance and I are. And maybe Allura. Pidge is too far into her decryption to come back out. Only way is through, apparently.” Nervously tapping his fingers together, Hunk says, “Point is, man, you should come. Don’t have to talk, but it’d… it’d help.”

 

“I’m not sure…”

 

“It would,” Hunk said firmly. “Don’t underestimate the power of normalcy.”

 

Taking a deep breath, Keith said, “I don’t,” and then he stopped, voice cracking. The tears were coming and he didn’t want to let Hunk know.

 

Breathe.

 

“I don’t know how to be normal anymore,” Keith finally manages. And it sounds melodramatic to him, but he doesn’t know how else to say that he’s lost the ability to be a person, much less the ability to be himself. That’s several levels above where he’s at.

 

Amazingly, Hunk seems to understand, eyes turning dark. Kneeling back on the floor, he wraps his arms tightly around Keith’s shoulders and squeezes hard and Keith feels the crawling of his skin, feels the tension start to wind up, but it doesn’t burst. Instead, it deflates, because a hug from Hunk is never bad. “I’m sorry,” Hunk mumbles into his ear.

 

“For what?” Keith asks, voice shaking.

 

“Shiro. Fake or real, it was still Shiro. We were all fooled for a long time, too.”

 

“Not as long as me.”

 

“I don’t know,” Hunk says. “I think about it, sometimes, what I would’ve done if you hadn’t made the decision for all of us and I don’t know. I mean, I probably just would’ve gone with the group. Don’t need to create waves, you know? But… it always helps me when I remember that nobody actually wanted to lock him away.”

 

“It was necessity,” Keith mumbles.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“I’m glad someone believed Lance.”

 

“You were too close, Keith. It happens,” Hunk says.

 

This is forgiveness that Keith doesn’t know what to do with and isn’t sure he deserves. “You don’t have to be nice, Hunk. I fucked up. It’s fine. I’ll be fine.”

 

There’s a long pause and then Hunk pulls out of the hug, leaving his hands on Keith’s shoulders and gripping them tight. “Don’t get me wrong, man, I’m angry. My best friend is miserable all the time and he’s doing this Black Paladin thing and I’m proud of him but I’m also not sure it’s good for him and it’s pretty much entirely your fault. But you’re my friend, too, and I kind of feel like you’ve paid enough. Don’t you?”

 

“No.”

 

Hunk nods, letting go and standing. “I can see you shutting down, so I’ll just say one more thing. I know you want to fix what’s going on with Lance. I have no idea how you’re gonna, but I know you want to.” Scratching the back of his neck, Hunk says, “I know nothing about relationships and stuff. Certainly not something like you and Lance have, but I think a good start might be to stop beating yourself up. It’s only making everyone feel like shit.”

 

Keith laughs hollowly. “Kay, I’ll work on that.”

 

“You gonna come?”

 

Not knowing what to say, Keith simply meets Hunk’s eyes. A sort of understanding flows between them and Hunk smiles again, just as sad as last time, before he leaves.

 

It’s impossible not to think about what Hunk said now that he’s alone and exhausted. And he gets it, he does. It makes sense. It’s logical.

 

Of course he wants to hang out and watch movies with his friends. Of course he wants his relationship with Lance back, not to the way it was, because that’s impossible, but back in whatever form it needs to be in. His problem is that he doesn’t truly want to stop feeling like this or to give himself that kind of relief. To him, this is what he deserves.

 

Distantly, he’s aware that this has always been his problem, that he’s too hard on himself and makes everything more complicated than it needs to be because of it, but it’s a skill, loving yourself, and he never learned, never practiced. He doesn’t even know where to start. Look in the mirror every morning and tell himself he’s awesome? That’s fucking stupid.

 

He ruined everything and if his life is ruined in that process, that’s warranted.

 

Right?

 

Lifting himself off the floor, he wipes his forehead with the back of his hand, debates a shower, and then stumbles his way to his old room. He tells himself it’s because Lance would hate if he slept in their bed all sweaty. Whether that’s true or not is something he avoids as he waits for sleep to take him away.

 

*   ·
. *      .        
  ✺   ✦  ˚  .   
*     .    ✺    
     *  *      
·    *      ✵   
    *

 

When he wakes, mouth dry and body tight, he immediately wonders if the team is still watching movies or if that’s passed him by.

 

He also misses Lance. Terribly. It’s unbearable, having him so close, yet so far away. For phoebs, he dreamed of seeing Lance’s face, quintant after quintant after quintant, like he used to. Now he’s got it back and he’s here and Lance is somewhere else and it’s horrible.

 

Rubbing his temple, a splitting headache on its way to forming, Keith wonders if he’s going to explode from all the wants and desires tugging and pulling against each other.

 

As he sits up, he groans, feeling even more pathetic than he had earlier.

 

He wants Lance. So badly.

 

He wants to forget that he hates himself.

 

He wants to be home.

 

Feeling the cold ground against his socked feet, Keith wriggles his toes, considering, wondering if this is something he’s going to regret.

 

But then his feet are moving, before he’s finished, and he lets them. If the movie night is over, he’ll let it go, he’ll find a way to deal with himself alone, but if it’s not… well, maybe he’ll stay. Let himself drink in Lance’s face and laugh and smile, store enough so that he can last a few more days before he gives into this again.

 

They almost always watch movies in Pidge’s room and he wonders if they would be there even though she’s somewhere else. It seems likely. Those three have never been uncomfortable or distant with each other. They are a unit in a way Keith can’t understand.

 

Wandering the halls, feeling more like a ghost than he has since the day he first set foot on the Castle, unsure how he was going to survive being cooped up with strangers in space, Keith attempts to readapt in a way he hasn’t let himself yet. He listens to the clicks and hums of the ship, feels the walls with his fingertips, feels when they switch to glass, the windows wide, the views stunning. The blue glows against his skin and he breathes, letting his shoulders drop. It’s so much better than the tiny ship he’d been in. It doesn’t feel quite as safe as it used to, but he thinks it could be again. If he let it.

 

Maybe a lot could be again if he let it.

 

Shaking his head, Keith walks until he hears voices and then he pauses. They’re as good as murmurs from this distance, but when Lance speaks, Keith can pick out his voice with ease, some of the tension in his chest already unwinding.

 

He sounds happy. Keith hopes that doesn’t change when he appears.

 

He’s about to take a step forward, but the thought that the conversation will die, that Lance will mellow, stops him.

 

But then Lance laughs and it’s loud enough, it carries, it’s more than a murmur, it’s a sunburst, warming Keith, drawing him in.

 

Time to play at Icarus again.

 

Crossing the rest of the distance, he finds himself on the threshold of Pidge’s room, the door sliding open. Hunk and Lance, the only two present, both turn and look at him. Hunk grins, tosses Keith a ‘hey’, then goes back to whatever he’s snacking on. Lance stares far too long, but then he sort of smiles and says, “Grab a seat, man.”

 

Keith nods and notices his least favorite of their Altean movie collection--if it could be called that--is playing. He finds it doesn’t matter, though. He’s too uncomfortable to care what’s on the screen. Curling up, he rests his chin on his knees and keeps his eyes fixed there.

 

“You training till now?” Hunk asks.

 

“No, I, uh, slept.”

 

Lance glances at him, worry in the crinkles around his eyes. “You weren’t--”

 

“Yeah, I know,” Keith mumbles. “I was sweaty and… never mind.” Whatever excuse he’d come up with to make himself feel better isn’t going to work on Lance. They know each other too well for that and Lance had said last night that he wanted Keith there. It’s not Lance’s fault that Keith can’t quite believe him.

 

Hunk, bless him, pays them no mind, instead prodding Lance with his elbow and whispering, “Here it comes, here it comes.”

 

Rolling his eyes, Keith watches Lance, vastly preferring the way his eyes light up to the strange dance number that’s about to grace the screen. He’s actively seen it once and within thirty ticks, decided that was thirty ticks too much. But Lance and Pidge--and Hunk, to an extent--love it. Love making fun of it, to be precise.

 

The music swells and heartbeats later, Lance and Hunk are laughing hysterically, leaning into each other. Lance shouts, “Wait, the flip, the flip,” and they manage to pay rapt enough attention to carry themselves back into uproarious laughter.

 

Halfway through the number, Lance glances over at Keith, likely to share in the mirth, and whether it’s subconscious or not, Keith doesn’t care, because it’s perfect and Lance is so beautiful and this is a moment that could freeze and he could stay and he wouldn’t mind that time had decided to take a restful vacation.

 

The mirth fades, but Lance stays and Keith doesn’t look away, couldn’t possibly, and it starts to feel something like hope, when Lance averts his eyes back to the screen. It’s just this side of wrong and Keith wants to reach out like he did last night, but he doesn’t know how like this, when there’s nothing objectively wrong and the atmosphere is relaxed and casual, because it wouldn’t be an emotional tether, it would just be because. Because they love each other, because it’s nice and warm and right. Because things are good.

 

Unsure what else to do, Keith watches the end of the dance, unable to stomach when it falls right back into fluid, strangely fast dialogue, as though not a single character had been clapping their hands, jumping up and down with locked legs, and prancing in circles.

 

“I forgot how much I hate this,” he mumbles.

 

Hunk says, “It’s part of the magic, man, you just gotta roll with it.”

 

“The dancing provides absolutely nothing to the pathetic plot that I already don’t understand because Altean is a mystery, just like their acting.”

 

“Keith, the dancing is all that matters,” Lance says seriously.

 

“You can’t just dance and then move on like you didn’t dance! Dialogue doesn’t just happen after that!”

 

“Well how do you suggest they incorporate the dance, then?”

 

“They don’t!”

 

Lance grins and ruffles his hair. “For all you know, they could’ve been talking about it afterwards. You know, breaking down each other’s moves, talking shit, offering constructive criticism.”

 

“Oh, yes, because that would make a fantastic movie.”

 

“Guys,” Hunk says, “it’s like musicals. Sometimes there’s singing and you don’t know why they had to share that particular emotion through song, but you’re down with it, and then everyone moves on and you got a nice little song along the way.”

 

“I hate musicals,” Keith says.

 

“Well,” Hunk replies, “I tried.”

 

“Just… why?”

 

“‘Cause it’s fun, dude.”

 

“Oh. That,” Keith says. Hunk and Lance chuckle, but it’s more strained than usual, and just when Keith felt almost normal, it’s back to being different. Because that conversation has happened before, just like they’ve watched this movie before, and their gentle teasing of Keith’s general grumpiness was always light, not heavy, the weight of their lives incapable of dragging down every word down, like they were oh so capable of doing now.

 

That’s enough to dissuade Keith from trying conversation again and as the movie winds down, so do Lance and Hunk, until Hunk’s head is in Lance’s lap and Lance’s head droops down onto Keith’s shoulder, breaths already long and slow and deep. Closing his eyes, Keith breathes with Lance and smiles, gently looping an arm around Lance’s waist to hold him up.

 

Parts of his body are already going numb, but there’s nothing that could force him to move. Carefully, he turns his nose into Lance’s hair and kisses the top of his head. And once he does, a flood breaks, and though it doesn’t change the way Keith acts, he knows in a way he hasn’t known since he returned that he will do anything at all to keep this. A future with no possibility of nights like this is not a future he wants any part of.

 

Running his fingers through the hair by Lance’s ears, Keith doesn’t stop until the movie is over and the room is dark and there’s no reason, however convoluted, that he can come up with to leave Hunk and Lance here when they could be sleeping in their beds. Gently, he squeezes Lance’s arm and Lance jolts up and away, eyes taking stock of the room and the situation. When he sees Keith, he whispers his name.

 

“Hey, sorry. You guys fell asleep. I’m gonna wake Hunk and make sure he gets to his room.”

 

Lance nods, wide awake.

 

“I’ll meet you back in our room?” Keith asks, wanting desperately to fade back into the deep shadows in the corners of the room as his voice cracks.

 

“Yeah,” Lance replies, shaking Hunk roughly.

Keith smiles weakly. From Lance’s lap, Hunk rises with a yawn, stretching his arms high above his head. Blinking slowly, he mumbles something about cake and then falls against Keith’s shoulder, Lance already leaving the room. He does look back before he goes and shakes his head, snorting softly. “Sure you got him?” he whispers.

 

“Yeah. We’ll be fine.”

 

“Okay.”

 

Focusing on Hunk, Keith gets him to stand and to wrap his arm around Keith’s shoulders. Knowing he can’t carry all this weight by himself, he keeps up a running conversation with Hunk as he walks to his room. Mostly, it’s about Hunk’s family, a topic that saves Keith from actually having to talk much.

 

When they reach his room, Hunk yawns once more and then untangles himself from Keith, swaying slightly, only to find a wall with his hand. “Thanks, man,” he says. “Been awhile since you’ve done that. Missed it.”

 

“Didn’t learn how to wake yourself up while I was gone, huh?”

 

“Nah,” Hunk says. “Knew you’d come back.”

 

Going still, Keith breathes in sharply through his nose. “You did?”

 

“Come on, man. You? Leaving Lance and not coming back?”

 

Scuffing the floor with his foot, Keith crosses his arms over his chest. There’s something he wants to say, but he doesn’t know how to say it, so he just waits for Hunk to speak or send him away or fall asleep against his door.

 

Nodding solemnly, Hunk says, “Dude, I know.”

 

“What?”

 

“You love us, too. I get it.”

 

Surprised to find himself laughing, Keith nods to Hunk’s door. “Go to sleep, Hunk. I’ll see you later. And thanks.”

 

“Anytime.”

 

Hunk’s words are like a balm. It’s far from enough to erase the day he’s had or the days he’s going to have, but it’s enough to get him to his and Lance’s room without pausing or doubling back or willing himself to crave food so he has an excuse to head to the kitchen.

 

When he enters, Lance is already in bed, the lights are off, but he’s distinctly awake, sitting up, silhouette stark. Biting his lip, Keith heads to the dresser and pulls out pajama bottoms. They smell more like dust than him.

 

He strips his shirt off as he heads to the bathroom and pauses on the threshold, looking back at Lance. “Light okay?”

 

“Yeah,” Lance says and his voice sounds a little strange. Keith can’t tell for sure if he’s been crying or not, but he makes sure to turn his back as he flicks the light on, just in case.

 

After he changes and brushes his teeth, he sits beside Lance, keeping himself above the covers. “You okay?” Keith asks.

 

Lance looks at him, blue eyes distant. “Honestly? I don’t know. It comes and goes.”

 

Swallowing, Keith nods. “I know the feeling.”

 

Lance examines him for another second before his gaze softens. Bringing his hand up to cup Keith’s cheek, he gently brushes his thumb across his cheekbone, just barely touching what must be spectacular shadows under Keith’s eyes. “You look tired.”

 

Leaning into the touch, Keith sighs and nods. “Might be because I’m exhausted. Too much--”

 

“Noise,” Lance finishes.

 

“Yeah. I… I didn’t expect you to be awake.”

 

“I haven’t seen you all day.”

 

“Sorry,” Keith whispers, turning his head and kissing Lance’s palm. “So sorry. I keep doing that.”

 

Lance doesn’t reply and Keith bows his head, falling into Lance’s shoulder. Anticipating the move, Lance’s hand moves from his cheek, arm circling his waist. Blinking, trying not to cry, Keith realizes that he can hate himself, but he can’t hate himself away from Lance. His life is his to ruin, but Lance’s isn’t. Reaching for the spark of warmth Hunk provided him, Keith says, “I’ll do better.”

 

“Okay.”

 

“How was your day?”

 

Lance shrugs. “Mission went well and I hung out with Hunk for the rest of the day. Irritated Pidge a bit. So, good.”

 

“Try drawing on her face again?”

 

Grinning, Lance shakes his head. “I forgot we tried that.”

 

“Tried? It worked, if I remember right. Or did she chase you around the Castle with an uncapped marker, shouting for someone to tackle you, for a different reason?”

 

“She just gets so focused, you know? Am I just supposed to let the opportunity slide?”

 

Snorting, Keith closes his eyes. “Should’ve tackled you.”

 

“She would’ve ruined my face.”

 

Humming, Keith yawns. Sleep is encroaching, suddenly, and even though he wants to stay awake, he knows it’s a losing battle. And he’s tired of fighting for one day.

 

Nudging Keith up, Lance says, “Come on, under the covers, you.”

 

Doing as he’s told, Keith lays on his back and stares at the ceiling, hoping they’re not in for a repeat of last night. They both need the rest. Rolling his head to the side, he sees Lance’s back. It’s not a particularly welcoming sight and Keith knows he’s wrong to do so, but he wants to reach and Lance needs to know that. So he presses himself to Lance’s back and holds him tight.

 

Lance doesn’t push him away.

 

Breathing shakily into the back of Lance’s neck, Keith gets more comfortable and shuts his eyes. He’s about to say goodnight, when there’s a knock on their door.

 

Both he and Lance groan. Taking the initiative, Keith carefully crawls over Lance and goes to the door. When he opens it, he sees Allura, hair gently mussed. Though it’s obvious she just woke, there are few hints of it. She’s humming with energy and when she meets Keith’s eyes, he knows it’s important, whatever got her out of bed.

 

He’s not sure he can handle important.

 

“We are all meeting in the bridge. Pidge discovered something. Once I’ve woken Hunk, I will meet you all there.”

 

“What’s this about?”

 

Allura tilts her head and then sighs. “I think it’s best she tells you.”

 

Nodding, Keith glances back at Lance and jerks his head. Hopping out of bed, Lance pulls a shirt on and meets Keith, eyes intense. It takes Keith’s breath away. This is the first time he’s seen the Black Paladin in Lance and it’s real and without a doubt, Keith knows he’s meant for it.

 

“What’s going on?” Lance asks.


Keith shrugs. “Let’s go find out.”

 

.  ✧    ✫     
*    ⊹
✫  *       .   
      ·    ˚    
       ✵   . *
      ˚   *   
     * ˚      ·

 

When they arrive, Pidge and Coran are chatting quietly, a map of a galaxy projected in front of them, gesturing at red dots connected by red lines. Their conversation ends when they hear footsteps and Pidge looks at Keith first, something unreadable in her eyes.

 

“What?” just slips from his mouth, before he can even consider if he wants to know.

 

Pidge doesn’t speak and Coran places a hand on her shoulder. “I think it’s best we wait for everyone.”

 

But then Lance says, “Tell me what’s going on,” and the resistance falls.

 

Pidge doesn’t take her eyes from Keith as she speaks. “It’s Shiro. Our Shiro. He’s alive.”